Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I've been going mad on Amazon, blowing all sorts of dosh on books. Some of it is just that the anime scene has gone sort of stale in the last six months or so; some is that I'm taking more recommendations from various blogs. I've got the first volume of the Army of the Potomac on order from a rec. from Dimitri Rotov over at Civil War Bookshelf, who's finally inspired me to look into his political-military revisionist viewpoint. We'll see if all these books join the pile of half-read "virtue purchases" sitting in my otherwise-empty kitchen, along with that Spanish Inquisition book and the deathly dull survey of Illyrian history and the horribly-written book on the Grand Armee.

A private airplane crashed in the field next to the new county jail on Saturday, killing everyone on board. I didn't notice this until Tuesday, even though I was probably three hundred yards from it when it happened. The perils of not reading your local paper, I suppose. It was a family flying in to watch their son's sports match at the university, and they iced up and crashed on approach to University Park Airport. Imagine what kind of hell that poor kid is going through?
Came across these TWoP-style recaps of American history while on a livejournal crawl:

ENGLAND: You know, that's a really big ocean, the Atlantic. And it's a really long way around Africa. And, you know, we've got this whole savage island right next door.
IRELAND: Hey! All right! Let's go get those fuckers -- oh. You meant us, didn't you?
ENGLAND: Yeah. Yeah, we meant you, you crazy Irish.
IRELAND: Goddamnit, England.


PHILIP II: That'll show that bitch Elizabeth. Like she could take me, anyway. I mean, who's ever heard of the BRITISH navy?
FUTURE GENERATIONS: ... dude, are you serious?
PHILIP II: STFU! Hindsight is always fucking twenty-twenty!
ELIZABETH: Hey, when you're done with those people from the future, I just thought I'd tell you that's a real nice city you got there at Cadiz!
PHILIP II: Sure is, isn't it?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, the guys I sent to raid it said it was great!
ELIZABETH: OH NOES! *continues to taunt Philip II*

Link via Anna S., aka "elide".

Update: yet more, here.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Damn. Check out these two livejournal posts about the layout flow of Fruits Basket, and how the strong layouts function as teaching guides for the beginning reader, unaccustomed to reading comics, especially those not used to the manga-style right-to-left style. We're talking some serious Scott McCloud style kung fu, here.

Via a link from PreCur.
I read Sokora Refugees last night. It was... not bad, not great, middling average. Artwork was solid Japanese-influenced American; ziptone was kind of brutal and a little flailing, which tempered my enthusiasm. Plot was OK, if a bit shapeless. Not an embarrassment by any means, but not rave material, either.

You want raves? Go read Sparkling Generation Valkyrie Yuuki. If it wasn't for Kittyhawk's budget-busting color-work brilliance, I'd be yelling about why she wasn't getting published instead. But color pages really are something of a high-ticket publishing show-stopper, so she's missing out on that payday... not that the American artists who sign with TokyoPop are seeing much of anything, if the rumors of rotten contracts are true.
Precocious Curmudgeon had a comparison of the manga Cheeky Angel and Fruits Basket, asking why the latter consistently tops the sales charts, while the former bumbles along, never really attracting much of a following. I started this as a comment on his blog, but decided that it was getting too long for a comment, so I'm just linking it over here.

One theory forwarded on the question of the sales advantage in question postulated that the successful Fruits Basket anime gave it a leg up. Cheeky Angel did have an anime, a full-year-length 50-ish episode extravaganza, in fact. It's extrodinarily faithful to the manga, and I couldn't understand why it was never picked up in the states.

Part of it has to be the art. The art in Cheeky Angel, anime and manga both, is wacky-shounen ugly. It's a school-punk action comedy, at least in presentation, and that dictates a certain harshness and ugliness which tends to come out in the goofy facial designs. Once you get used to the design aesthetic, it's funny as hell, but it is something to *get past*. Especially if you're familiar and trained in the standard shoujo aesthetic.

Fruits Basket's aesthetic is the very model of shoujo mannerism. The ziptone, the lines, the chara, the backgrounds - all high shoujo mannerism. It's the real deal. If there are funny faces, they're cute funny faces. If there's violence, it's beautiful, immaculate violence between pretty boys. There are no ugly characters. None. Even the assholes are merely average-looking. No punks, no sexually threatening older man, or gangsters, or real danger, aside from bishounen-in-the-shadows Akito. Even the gangs are girl-gangs. The driving spirit of Fruits Basket is kindness. The protagonist, Tohru, is just this side of an incarnation of Kanon.

Meg of Cheeky Angel, on the other hand, is a punk-shounen parody of shoujo girliness. She's got the proportions and lines of a shoujo female crush-interest, until you get to her face. There the lines are twisted, distorted - like a work of aristocratic art re-drawn from the view-point of a lumpen Mitteleuropan potato-farmer. Meg's ideal isn't kindness, it's justice. She's the feminine-shaped paragon of a comedic ideal of manliness - protector of the weak, prosecutor of the persecuting, brash, loyal, just, violent.

The two manga aren't similar. They are, in fact, soft opposites. Cheeky Angel is a broad shounen fighting-comedy. Fruits Basket is a pretty, light shoujo romance.

Personally, I prioritize Cheeky Angel over Fruits Basket when it comes to buying manga. There's a lot of shoujo light romance on the market right now, and Fruits Basket is merely a high-average example of the genre. There just isn't that many decent shounen fighting-comedies getting published right now, not that I'm willing to buy on a regular basis. At this point, it's basically Cheeky Angel and Bleach. Maybe I'm missing something else, something extraordinary, but if I am, I'm, well, missing it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Well, damn, that was pretty good. Possibly better than Old Man's War, although it could do with a good proofreading. What the carthaginian hell is wrong with the publishing industry, that it couldn't get published except as a vanity press edition? I'm thinking strongly of buying in on the subscription on general principles. It's worth a re-read.
John Scalzi apparently wrote his first novel as an online shareware experiment: Agent to the Stars. I haven't read it yet, but hey - free ice cream!
The war in Iraq is still going, and in fact sounds like it's starting to heat up something fierce. I've been seeing reports of significant company-size engagments (here and here) on Rantburg all week. This is interesting and significant, because it represents a distinct degeneration of insurgent tactics. Attacking in multiple platoons, leaving cover to attack well-armed columns in what the media have been charitably calling "ambushes", standing and fighting - this is novel.

All the reports I've been poo-pooing about this Zarqawi associate or that minion or subordinate being captured - I think I may have been underestimating the importance of that string of captures, mostly because it never produced Zarqawi himself. But if they've rolled up the middle-management and the smart guys in the command structure, this sudden vogue for suicidal open-field attacks might reflect what happens when inept buffoons are left in charge of an insurgency. That training-camp raid - in a location which makes geographical sense, being half-way to the Syrian border, square on the smuggling routes - suggests that they're starting to work their way back up the infiltration lines, from Ramadi/Fallujah towards Qaim and the border.

Of course, the alternate theory, which I've seen aired on Rantburg, is that the insurgency is running short of IED materials, forcing them to fight with what they've got. As others have pointed out, whoever runs Iraq in the future will be finding lost and unknown Saddam-era stockpiles of munitions for the next thirty years - theorizing that an Iraqi insurgency is running out of explosives is like postulating that Pennsylvania might run out of coal. It's theoretically possible, but in no sense is it likely.

The Coalition casualty lists are shortening, which is heartening, but to a certain extent this just reflects the replacement of US and allied front-line troops with Iraqi police, special police commandos, and soldiers. The war's still very much hot, but it's starting to look like a winning fight.

“We have a problem.”
“You killed the heroines again.”
“Besides that. We need a way out of this.”

Best Kiddy Grade review ever.

Via Chizumatic aside, although I'm sure I've read it somewhere before...

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Dave mentioned that some friends were coming in from out of town on Friday and Saturday, with the possibility of getting together for some poker. I had to remind him that Good Friday is this weekend, and that the fairly religious guy who hosts poker nights at his place might not be amused at the notion of gambling like a pack of Roman legionaries on the evening of the day of crucifixion. Although it does appeal to a certain residual sense of blasphemy I seem to have retained from my upbringing...

Monday, March 21, 2005

A completely serious and totally non-satirical interview on why women cannot lead prayer in mosques:

AF: Interesting. How were you able to isolate the right testicle as the point of origin?
An-Nutfah: This was arrived at through a matter of scientific deduction. Men and women are quite similar in their basic physiology with the exception of the sexual organs in which and men differ. Contrary to popular belief the brain is not the primary organ for thought. In terms of basic knowledge and reasoning, yes. But the brain is ill-suited for total religious thought. This is where the testicles come in.

AF: Why the right testicle and not the left one?
An-Nutfah: Well that’s the sinister testicle isn’t it?

AF: I was not aware of that. Moving on. If a woman were to hold a right testicle in her hand, could she then lead a prayer?
An-Nutfah: Only very briefly, because the testicle has to be warm. But then again where could she get the testicle? As a precaution, I have been wearing a specially designed testicle protector ever since the discovery was made.

AF: Is this testicle finding the scientific reason why men and women cannot pray side by side?
An-Nutfah: Precisely. Can you imaging the bloodbath if women were able to get so close to so much Quranic knowledge? The streets would flow red for days.

Link via Norm Geras.
Yikes. The writer for TokyoPop's new American "manga" Sokora Refugees is the graphic-novel buyer for Borders. I can't even begin to express how big of a conflict of interest that is. On the other hand, it seems like a decent title, to judge from the first couple chapters, and I had been planning on buying it when it comes out next month. Well, decent by American "manga" standards, anyways.

I will note that in my experience, Borders' manga shelves are considerably better stocked than Barnes & Nobles' are. The buyer/writer in question may have a massive conflict of interest, but he's apparently a pretty damned good buyer, as such things go.

News via Irresponsible Pictures.
John Salzi's Old Man's War earned all of it's online praise, it would seem. I started reading it Sunday morning, and was finished by Sunday afternoon - your classic page-turner. The back-cover blurbs already cover the obligatory comparisons with Starship Troopers and the Forever War, so's I don't have to; more importantly, Old Man's War is an example of the social-didactic space-infantry genre which doesn't collapse under its own ennui and existential dispair. It is, in fact, funny in fits and starts, although it isn't a comic novel by design.

The basic plot of the story is that Americans (and presumably, other First-Worlders, although it isn't stated outright) can't emigrate to the outworld colonies without first doing a hitch in the Colonial Defense Forces, the CDF. Furthermore, the CDF has some sort of monopoly on life-extension technologies, which they will only extend to their recruits, who can join up starting on their seventy-fifth birthday. The back cover promises "Starship Troopers without the lectures", but in a fit of irony, I only noticed this after reading a lecture by an ex-politician private in favor of diplomacy over simply killing everything that moves. Oh, well, it's no great spoiler to report that he's quickly put down before we're exposed to more comically inept lecturing. I entertained myself by trying to guess which ex-Secretary of State he was supposed to be - my guess was Cyril Vance.

The novel is quick to the point of glibness, and too sharp to get a good grip on; in short, it goes by a little too fast. It's the author's first book, and he might have wanted to take a little more time getting where he was going, in my opinion. But it's still a pretty damned fine book on its own merits. This little experiment in taking blog recommendations on novels such as Weapons of Choice and Old Man's War seems to be a success; I will probably go on to look into the books from that Atrocity Archives fellow that Reynolds and Bainbridge have been going on about.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Weapons of Choice, by John Birmingham, has been going 'round the blogsphere due to Glenn Reynolds' enthusiasm for the book. It's the first part of a trilogy, SF, sort of a post-9/11 Final Countdown scenario.

I'm of two minds on the book. On the one side, the writing is tight, well-structured, and the narrative holds together well. The theme - a consideration of the similarities and radical differences of the World War II generation and the Terror War generation - actually works well. Birmingham isn't nearly as inept as Harry Turtledove, and his purposes and ideas are different enough from the Baen collective and Steve Stirling to make what is in essence a "Nantucket in King Arthur's Court", unique and distinctive. It's well worth the time spent to read it, which is good.

The bad? The book shows strong signs of poor editorial decision-making at the outline level. The protagonists - the varied members of a Multinational naval task force from 2021 Indonesian waters - are flung by an accident on board a DARPA experimental vessel, into 1942. This is fine as it goes, but the narrative flings them *arbitrarily* into the middle of the American fleet bound for the battle of Midway, killing thousands in the world's largest blue-on-blue friendly fire incident. The time-travelers were nowhere near Midway at the time of transit, having been, as I said, in Indonesian waters. Why Midway? Why off Timor? It feels as if the author had originally outlined his catastrophe to disrupt the Battle of the Java Sea, or the Coral Sea, and that some well-meaning editor or beta reader told him "Nobody's ever heard of those battles! Pick something everybody will have heard of!" But the resulting plot is obnoxiously arbitrary. It happens because it's dramatically striking - not because it makes any internal sense.

The second source of irritation? The technology of our hypothetical coalition fleet of 2021 is preposterously advanced. For one, most of the fleet are operating with fusion plants. It took more than twelve years between the first controlled fission reaction and the maiden voyage of the first fission-powered military vessel, and nineteen years until the first capital ship. There are no current prospects for a successful controlled fusion reaction that I know of - controlled fusion is, as it has been through out my lifetime, at least twenty years away.

The ships operate with dubiously advanced AI - sufficient for autonomous battle operation, which seems unlikely given the current and projected state of AI research. The personnel are borged out the wazoo, with every member of the fleet apparently sporting spinal inserts. They use micronuclear weapons in tactical situations - something which we've been moving away from since at least the late Seventies. Worse, every member of the coalition other than the Indonesians have the same level of technology - Americans, Japanese, British, Australians and auxiliaries. This isn't the modern coalition force, in which the Americans are ten to fifteen years ahead of the rest of force. Somehow, in this future multinational military, our backward allies have been bootstrapped to the same insane level of military sophistication as the main force.

It's all rather improbable. They seem like they're from thirty years in the future, rather than fifteen. On the other hand, it's amusing to see UAVs, nanotube armor sheathing, electromagnetic railguns, F-22s and F-35s, solid-state small arms, combat lasers, and Metal Storm defensive batteries appearing contemporaneously with the improbable sci-fi elements. Those are all plausible elements of a military force of 2021, but they're equally scientifictional from the view point of the 1980s, let alone the 1940s.

I can't help but like the book, and I look forward to the next installment. But take it as a sign that I find myself feeling defensive about that liking. It's a book that requires more than a little suspension of disbelief.

Friday, March 18, 2005

I woke up this morning thinking about the ideology of games. Since my thoughts on the subject are ill-formed and tenuous, I wanted to put together a set of links to brilliant thought on the subject. However, Google has failed me today, and all I can find is dim-witted Theory blovation and thoughtless leftist twaddle.

What I was thinking about was a friend of mine, who's playing a multiplayer beta called Pardus. It's a sort of war/economic blend of a game, where you can concentrate on war-fighting, or play the economic end of things. People can play at war, but if the economics aren't addressed, they'll be fighting with rocks and sticks, metaphorically speaking.

His alliance had gotten into bad relations with the big bad military machine of the neighborhood, and they couldn't face them militarily. Since the game is still a sort of beta, the designers are still changing the rules here and there, and my friend seized on a nasty new twist which opened up the big bad military machine to an economic vulnerability. He carefully set up a chain of conspiracy to financially eviscerate the big bad military machine through deniable cut-outs, and essentially starved off their economic base. Whoopie! Much celebration.

He was justly proud of his intellectual feat, and was clearly looking to repeat his brilliance again. I offered the example of Edward Thorp, who left Vegas after inventing card-counting, and went off to Wall Street to work on hedge strategy. Zero-sum gaming strategies are ego-boosting, but essentially dangerous. Thorp knew that he'd eventually get the hell beaten out of him, or find himself buried in some nameless pit in the deep desert somewhere. My friend's alliance was tearing itself up with paranoia about spies and the threat of retribution as of the last time I looked in on his gameplay. I told him to find a non-zero-sum strategy as brilliant as his act of economic sabotage. Better to be beloved than hated.

As brilliant as his tactic was, it was, in essence, the act of a griefer. Lots of folks, especially kids, get off on griefer tactics - destroying the hard game-work of others. But I have to wonder about the ideological and moral soundness of such behavior. As I said, the alliance which pulled off my friend's economic coup was tearing itself up. Bad acts breed bad feeling, bad karma.

My friend's literally a genius, and I hope he takes my suggestion to heart. I'm kind of interested by the clever work-arounds they used to get around the absence of true banking in the game-system. They've essentially replicated a crude pre-Renaissance-era financial network by manipulating the price of staples in long transaction-chains and de facto letters of credit. It would be very interesting if they can generate a true banking system from what is essentially a resource-exchange simulation.

Oh, btw - I've decided to ban the word "kerfluffle" from this blog. Kindly remind me of this if I ever use it again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Interesting DoE site on worldwide energy reserves and usages on a nation-by-nation basis. Among other things, I learned that recent news reports have exaggerated the importance of the natural gas reserves of Bolivia, and that the US relies much more heavily on nuclear power plants than I had thought had been the case. 20%? Damn, considering that they haven't started a new-planned plant in twenty years, that's a lot more than I had thought...
Hey! It's March 15th, International Eat an Animal for PETA Day! I'm going to be calling in a reservation at Outbacks for dinner. So far I've only got three people here at work for the party, but I remain optimistic. Today's the day for the biggest, most hedonistically oversized steak dinner you can swing on your daily dime. Eat up! Those critters aren't gonna devour themselves!

Monday, March 14, 2005

There's a bit of a kerfluffle over an obscure black novelist of the 1890s, who turns out to not have been black after all. Emma Durham Kelley-Hawkins was *not* an extraordinarily New Englandish African-American writer, but rather, was a very Caucasian, very undistinguished product of provincial Rhode Island.

The fuss made me wonder what the point of her initial inclusion into the black canon was, really? From all descriptions, her two novels were starchy, bleached affairs of propriety and decorum. I can't help but suspect that this was a sort of petty-aristocratic appropriation...

Much of the tenor of comment has been along the lines of "the only thing that made her interesting as an author was her biography", and complaints about the historicist imposition upon pure aesthetics. I suppose I'm somewhat sympathetic to this sort of outrage, but the counter-example of two authors weigh my hand and temper my enthusiasm.

Georgette Heyer was the most English of romance writers, a fabricator of a Regency England so detailed and expansive that it easily obscures and overshadows the brief historical period upon which it was nominally based upon. The irony of Heyer's reconstruction and appropriation of this lost England is that Heyer was actually the grand-daughter of converted Ukrainian Jews, that her own family spent the period in question in some nameless steppe shetl, before emigrating to the sceptered isle a generation later. You can enjoy Heyer's marvelous novels without ever knowing this fact; the knowledge does not, as far as I can perceive, seriously affect said enjoyment one way or the other. Her ethnicity is irrelevant to her feat of invention.

Joseph Conrad, on the other hand, was a Polish immigrant of the generation previous to Heyer, fleeing Russian oppression. He became an English subject, and spent his active life and career becoming as much of an Englishman as is possible for anyone not born to the land to be. His many novels are as much a part of the English literary tradition and the culture of the British Empire as any native-born Englishman or Scot. But Conrad's biography is inseparable from his literary product. How can you reasonably discuss his Heart of Darkness without reference to his operation of a riverboat on the Congo, or the Secret Sharer and Lord Jim without talking of his time as a tramp ship captain? Nostromo and the Secret Agent are comprehensively influenced and illuminated by Conrad's characteristic viewpoint as the imperial outsider.

If it were revealed that Conrad had not been the Polish immigrant that we thought him, but rather a well-traveled Welshman, then what would we make of his body of work? It would *utterly change them*. The author himself is assumed to occupy a particular viewpoint, a vantage. To change Conrad from a Pole to our hypothetical Welshman, or a lowland Scot, would be roughly akin to discovering that el Greco had perfect vision, and his distortions and elongations were artifacts of artistic intent entire.

Via the Instapundit, because I'm lazy that way.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I don't know what to think of the pro-Syrian demonstration yesterday. I can read the Lebanese and Beirut blogs and reassure myself that it's just the old tyrannical mob-mobilization tactics at work, but it's pretty damn easy to coddle yourself with those who are telling you what you want to hear, isn't it? (Omar from Iraq the Model pitches in to describe the festivities as echoing the usual Baath tactics, but once again, what I want to hear...)

The fact remains that Hezbollah and the Syrians between themselves put at least 200K men in the heart of Beirut. That's a lot of bodies, and a lot of young military-age bodies at that. Even if they were coerced, ordered, shangaied, and shipped in, that still represents a capacity for crowd control and logistics which suggests that the weakness of the tyrants is exaggerated, suggests that the totalitarians can still totalize their masses against the will of the individuals of the whole.

Not good, not good at all.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Yesterday's WWI color photos link went bye-bye, so I spent the lunch hour putting together a photo page on my old freeservers site to preserve the interesting bits. Any takers on how long it lasts before freeservers shuts my bandwidth-hogging ass down? Yeah, yeah - I know it sucks. My photo-handling skills can be contained in a thimble, with room left over for you and me.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

These French color photographs from World War I are weirdly nostalgic. Maybe it's the rural-forested-crumbled ruin aspect of it all, but I keep getting these feelings of deja vu from them. My mind isn't trained to expect pictures of World War I wreckage and ruin to be in *color* - and so very clear color at that! - so it keeps slotting in other experiences to fill in the emotional gaps. The ruins look like abandoned industrial ruins I've seen all over Pennsylvania - quarries, abandoned factories, etc. The gatherings of soldiers under tents and lush pine-forest canopies bring back memories of Boy Scout camp-outs. It all looks so - immediate. And strangely peaceful.

Via Bill at INDC Journal.
Oh, for the love of God... the US is in the process of destroying its last mustard gas stockpiles. Why the hell would we be using that noxious shit in Fallujah? Look around for pictures of Marines, troopers, and soldiers from second Fallujah. I challenge y'all to find me one of somebody in a gas mask, let alone a MOPP suit.

This report is coming from an Iraqi official from the Health Ministry. What the hell is wrong with the Iraqi Health Ministry? It seems to be the go-to place in that country for misinformation, enemy propaganda, and gross ignorance.

Ahh... maybe I'm overreacting. It's entirely possible that there are large swathes of Fallujah's citizenry with a history of exposure to Iraqi chemical weapons usage. Veterans of the Iran-Iraq War, the Anfal campaign, or just peacetime usage and exposure. Not to mention farmers and people living in contact with well-sprayed agricultural areas...

Via the Iraq Coalition Casualties Count page. Yes, I do check it on a daily basis, hoping that there's nothing new...

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Austin Bay writes that, though triumphalists have become quick to see in 2005 another 1989 in the offing, that this is no year for end-games. He's right - 1989 was a year of paradigmic shifts, a vast and sudden collapse. But the Cold War lasted for forty turmoilent years of ups and downs, and to look for parallels in every new year the ending-year come again is to build oneself a machine for disappointment. There were years of movement and apparent success whose offings devoured the optimistic and revolutionary.

Consider 1956, the year that Khrushchev's liberalizing moderation met the people's will, and recoiled in a great sudden withdrawing, like the waves from a Sri Lankan beach on a late December morn. The light dawning from under the foul and dark cloud over Tyrant Stalin's mouldering corpse, and Eastern Europe stirring from its ill dream.

Happy Hungary, her chains put by the side, stands from her crouch, back aching from long years of subjugation and toil. Democratic forces on the march. Then the counter-march.

Her border groaning under the tank's tread, and the gentle wave returns with tidal recruits, to sweep silly dreams of sudden liberation away in a crush of shattered masonry, molotov-fire and petrol-station flame-thrower desperation.

Not all years are miracles, and the tyrant has his own ballot, large-bored and heavy-calibred, unanswerable and uncontestable when backed by mushroom-cloud MADness. And 1989 itself ended in a massacre of silly hopes under grinding tank-tread roars and machine-gun fire before a paper-mache statue of Liberty.