Roccaturi Te Salutant

Yes, I know, the literal translation would be Pro Roccaturiis Te Salutamus—but AC/DC are not known as Latinists.

I have not mentioned it in this space before, but I am decidedly fond of rock, specifically those forms of '80s hard rock called Hair Band—at least if it is defined sufficiently loosely to include AC/DC, Ozzy, and Alice Cooper. It's not really very hard to explain why; for all my bitterness I am fundamentally a romantic, and hair band is vastly more romantic than just about any other genre of rock—let alone other styles of pop music. Its reputation is all the other way, but consider: for every "I Just Wanna" or "Seventeen" in hair band, there's about six of "Best I Can" or "Here I Go Again". That's about the reverse of hip hop or post-hip hop pop. Also, I'm pretty sure the society that brought you Lady Gaga gets to shut up about hair band. And everything else. Ever.

Here's a few random thoughts on hair band.
  • Whitesnake is a vastly underrated band; they're probably the perfection of '80s rock. The romanticism, the guitar, the oft-neglected drums: all perfect. If "Slide It In" is not at the top of your "Guilty Pleasures" list (it's a gorgeous song, just one that's embarrassing to listen to with other people around), there's something very wrong with you: listen to the percussion! "Judgment Day" is the most intimidating love song ever and, what's more, it's basically the Love Theme From Terminator 3. Think about it.

  • Has anyone noticed that the melody in "Sakura Kiss", the opening to the Ouran High Host Club anime, is the same as in "Kiss Me Deadly" by Lita Ford? They both mention kissing without really being about it; it's like Deadly is Sakura's yanki older sister. It's kinda typical for J-pop and J-rock to use melodies from Western rock, though.

  • So conservative commentator Diana West wrote a book called The Death of the Grownup. It has a number of valuable points about our society's perpetual adolescence, but when she talks about rock, she plainly speaks from ignorance. She asserts that, unlike singers like Sinatra(!), rock is always purely about brief, meaningless flings, and never about longtime commitment. Aside from Sinatra not really being the guy to base your case on, how about, oh, I dunno, "Spend My Life"? Or "You Are The One"? Or the aforementioned "Judgment Day"? Hell, even KISS has at least one ("Made For Lovin' You"), and consider what their usual output is like. Pretty much refutable simply by two words, actually: Bon Jovi.

  • How cool is hair band? Only so cool, it even has Christian rock that doesn't suck. I know, I'm terrified too. Heard Stryper? They're actually good.

  • Alice Cooper has, I believe, pointed this out himself, but what's with rockers and wives whose names start with "cher"? His wife is Cheryl, Rob Zombie's is Sherri, and Ozzy's is Sharon. What the Hell?

  • Mention of Alice reminds me that he's not really hair band; nor is Ozzy or AC/DC. They just get grandfathered in on the lineups of hair stations (like Hair Nation, on Sirius) because their audiences overlap (that audience being defined as "people whose ears aren't fake"). I'm not complaining. On a side-note, odd gentleman, Alice Cooper—more songs about necrophilia than the average Evangelical, I imagine. Still think the Republicans should run him in 2012 (he is one)—their slogan can be, "You've tried the Messiah, now try the Prince of Darkness."

Traduttore, Traditore

That means 'translator, traitor' in Italian. Today I thought I'd talk about linguistics: specifially, translation conventions for Japanese, as they apply to manga and anime.

First, it's one thing to leave the honorifics—"-san" and "-kun" convey information about a relationship that you need paragraphs of English to get across. But it is not necessary to leave "okâsan" untranslated—that's "mom", folks.

Now, there is something of an exception for people who talk weird, people like Kenshin or Armstrong. Basically, there's so much happening in Japanese that you pretty much need to use multiple dialects of English to cover it.

For instance, people who talk like Armstrong, or for that matter Teika in Kyouran Kazoku Nikki: there's not really any need, nor is there really a way, to properly render their "wagahai" and "de aru"; Armstrong, especially, chews enough scenery to adequately convey his (endearing) pomposity. But Teika's "haha-ue-dono" does need to be rendered, I feel, because most people don't call their mother "Lady Honored Mother". Fortunately, in subtitles that don't have to match lip-flap, the English (who've historically been just as oligarchical as the Edo period) have given us the answer. Plainly, Teika is calling Kyouka "mater"—tell me he isn't a Public School man through and through (whelps of the lion and all that rot...). In general, their style of speech can be adequately conveyed by having them talk like Edwardian toffs whose parents dropped them off at Eton when they were 13 and picked them up at Oxford when they were 21—though both are cool enough that you might want to throw in a dash of mid-Victorian gunnery sergeant, to keep them dignified. On the other hand, you might try having them talk like Virginia gentry, à la Robert E. Lee—there's a similar vibe there.

One thing that makes me apoplectic is Osaka dialect. For some bizarre reason, translated manga often renders it by (what they take for) Brooklyn (it's usually closer to Jersey, but whatever), while dubbed anime renders it by various Southern things, or grotesque approximations thereof. It's not always bad; the dub of Mahô Shôtengai Abenobashi turned out pretty good. But then there's the various "southern" accents in Kenshin, made all the more inexcusable by the fact Funimation is based in Texas.

Personally, I'd render Kansai accents by British. Kyoto can be Estuary shading into Received Pronunciation, depending on the class of the speaker (tell me those ancient clans who run everything in manga don't speak perfect RP), while Kobe (with all its yakuza) can be a scary sort of Cockney (think Snatch). As for Osaka? Normal Cockney. See, Osaka is more Cockney than Southern, because though both have an "unsophisticated" image, Osaka is still urban—and Osakans aren't laid back enough for a southern drawl (the Osaka is, but she's a deliberate subversion of the stereotype). Also, unlike the New York accent, Cockney has a very strong association with comedy—like Osaka. Is it too weird to render comedians' godawful fake Osaka accents as music-hall Cockney?

Another thing that'd be better conveyed by British dialects is humble speech. Kenshin, for instance, talks like a samurai. Rather than clumsily ending every sentence with "that it is", or, worse, not translating the "de gozaru", plainly, make him talk like Jeeves.

And it almost maps one-to-one. When he talks like a samurai, it'd be this (imagine Stephen Fry):
There are times, I fear, that despite one's best efforts one fails to convey one's meaning to one's young charges.
And then, when he switches to talking like a (Kansai-accented) thug, when he goes back to battôsai mode (imagine Jason Statham):
If any of you are lookin' to die, 'ere I am.

It occurs to me that Tokyo accents (which are often rendered by New York accents, if Kansai is southern) could be Midwestern. Don't look at me like that; think about it. The standard Japanese that's basically simplified Tokyo dialect, is Broadcaster American, which is a similarly sanitized Midwestern variety. But that more colloquial, rolls-its-Rs accent? Working class Chicago.


Only When Spoken To

So I've been forced to contend with idiocy, once again. I usually oppose forced sterilization, but these people shouldn't just be rendered infertile, they should be Pasteurized.

I didn't want to use the list function, but this flows better if I do. There's only two.
  • A conservative writer over at Breitbart's joint, lamenting the fact the Millennial Generation is so largely determined by pop culture, said that Roman popular entertainment was "to distract people", while Greek entertainment affirmed and reinforced the community's values.

    Well, it's nice to see the unthinking Hellenism of the Renaissance is alive and kicking—Greece is good and Rome is bad, axiomatically, and actually knowing anything about either is superfluous. Leaving to one side the really ugly things about Greek culture (this idiot seemed to think Romans treated their slaves worse than Greeks, which is not generally the case—and Romans treated their wives vastly better), Greek literature is full, from end to end, of writers lamenting that the people are so easily manipulated by the drama, especially comedy. Y' know, sorta like how 30% of Americans get their news from Jon Stewart?

  • A certain kind of hard SF fan will often say, "FTL travel inherently involves time travel." Well, literal, instantaneous-velocity-exceeding-c FTL would, actually—as you approach c, one of the numbers in the relativity equations approaches zero, that's why time slows down; it is zero at c itself, and if you could exceed c, for which you'd need negative rest mass, the number becomes negative, and time would go backwards. Fortunately that's probably impossible—especially since the Feynman-Stückelberg interpretation of quantum physics says particles going backward in time are antiparticles.

    But with "effective" FTL systems (theoretically not-rule-out-able, at best, at this point), where an object moves a distance faster than light could, but by rearranging the distance (the fabric of space) rather than moving itself, there's no time travel. You'll still, nevertheless, hear people say that a ship using a warp-type drive would "arrive before it left".

    You Fail Relativity Forever.

    See, either relativity is wrong about non-simultaneity, in which case there would merely be a net elapsed time, like in Newtonian physics, or it's right, and no comparison is possible between the reference frame you arrive in and the one you left.
Also (that first one reminded me), RE: "Greatest Generation", I'm pretty sure defeating Hitler and spawning the Baby Boomers kinda cancel each other out.


A Correction

So, it seems I was wrong about something. The Unobtainium in Avatar is not, as I had thought, a substance that grants anti-gravity; the floating rocks and several reviews misled me. Turns out the floating rocks are being magnetically levitated, not gravitationally—the unobtainium is actually a natural superconductor (indeed, apparently, a hot one), which makes it useful in producing the magnetic fields necessary for directing the thrust of most advanced spacecraft engines.

This is slightly encouraging—it's a boatload harder than I'd thought it was, though, as I said, they could've gone with the anti-gravity idea by the simple expedient of saying the rocks have magnetic monopoles in them. It does, however, carry with it its own difficulties; naturally occurring hot superconductors are...unlikely, to put it mildly, since they're usually compounds whose structures look like this and often have things like Yttrium in them. Also, large veins of a natural superconductor would probably make Pandora's electric field merry hell to have to deal with.

Still, "superconductors for the rocket thrust" is something I'd like to hear more often in SF movies, so I salute the writers for it.

Now if the biology, sociology, politics, economics, and don't let's forget writing of the movie didn't suck out loud, we'd be in business.

Corroded by a Base Hurts Just As Much As Burned by an Acid

Before I kick this off, I just thought I'd point out that Avatar is basically a knockoff of The Word for World Is Forest, by Ursula K. LeGuin. Except TWFWIF doesn't have the "natives still need a honky to lead them" trope, and Avatar is harder SF. It's hard to say whether Cameron or LeGuin should be more ashamed. Also, is the fact their word for "world" also means "forest" supposed to be some Sapir-Whorf thing? Or is it just a coded message to intelligent people that LeGuin isn't their kind of writer? Then again English's word for "world" also means "dirt" (earth), so it's not far-fetched—it's just irrelevant.

Anyway. Much is made of Mary Sues, but, like so many terms, what does it really mean? The term gets bandied about quite a bit—"litmus tests" for their presence give this post its name—but people seem to be using it rather ambiguously.

Let's be all Maimonidean for a moment (except for the part about becoming pantheists without noticing it), and say what a Mary Sue isn't. She isn't any character with many advantages and few flaws. The mere fact a character is extremely attractive, strong, and/or witty doesn't mean they're a Mary Sue—it doesn't even mean they're bad. It just means they're in a romance rather than a novel. A novel's characters need to be flawed, because the story is about exploring their flaws. A romance's characters don't need to be, because the story is about them doing things.

Basically, characters only need flaws that serve the artistry of the piece; there's no real rule, because artistry is a matter of proportions, rather than observing taboos. This is why it's so common for people to call any character that lacks major flaws a Sue: because tabooing categories of traits is simpler than learning how to observe right proportion. It's the same idiocy as defining female beauty by thinness or large breasts—excessive thinness is not only unhealthy, it's ridiculous, while large breasts with narrow hips is nearly always hideous (wide hips are, in and of themselves, nearly always attractive, but there are attractive narrow hips, as well). Beauty is a function of proportion, and art is the creation of beauty.

If your story is about people doing things, it merely matters that them doing those things be interesting, and that should be the criterion for both their abilities and their flaws. If the source of drama and conflict is the character overcoming their own flaws, then they obviously need flaws to overcome. Personally, though, I consider novels about people whose only problems are of their own making to stem from the arrogance of a decadent civilization, the worldview that believes itself so invincible that all its problems must come from its own flaws, rather than outside. You can also see it in politics.

Obviously, then, we may say that a Mary Sue is "a character whose flaws and abilities are inartistically proportioned"—but that is simply tantamount to "badly written character." What sets the Sue apart is why her flaws are ill-proportioned to her abilities.

A Sue's abilities are not chosen because they improve the story; they are chosen in a vacuum, without reference to the story. If a character has color-changing eyes (a classic Sue trait) in order to set up a scene where someone notices her eyes change color, then it's fine. If they change color for no plot reason, or for a plot reason that's just as tacked on as the eyes themselves, they're Sueish. Incidentally, color-changing eyes aren't actually that far-fetched; my little sister's eyes are green, gray, or blue, depending on the light.

It should be pointed out that a Sue's flaws are also chosen like this—at best. And yes, Sueishness is just as much a function of flaws as of abilities; disproportion can be defect, as well as excess. Actually, as the matter currently stands, a Sue is even more her flaws than her abilities. The reason I said Sue flaws were chosen in a vacuum at best is that often, they're chosen for worse reasons. Frequently Mary Sue flaws are chosen in some strange attempt to "balance" the abilities—newsflash, it's not an RPG, you don't have to take Flaws to buy more skill points. But that too is innocent.

All too often, Sue flaws are chosen for the sake of cheap, angsty melodrama (a past involving sexual abuse is nearly always this), or in an attempt to be grown-up (concern with which, as Lewis has noted, is always a sign of childishness), or, worst, an attempt at "deconstruction" or "social consciousness".

The problem with the melodramatic and "mature" facet of Sue flaws is, they fail to grasp the purpose of fiction. Fiction is art, and art is Beauty, before it is Truth—and it is only the Good to the extent it is also Beauty. As Samuel Johnson put it, "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it." I don't know about you, but I do not find the real world to be lacking in misery; I see no reason to make up more of it, unless it is as something that will be savagely avenged by the end of the book. Is that unrealistic? Mercifully not as much as you think, and to the extent that it is, so much the worse for reality.

As for the deconstruction and social consciousness: you're only allowed to deconstruct something you understand, and most writers understand nothing. Aside from the fact deconstruction is tainted at its source, a disingenuous Marxist procedure designed to ruin art, to do it at all requires more knowledge than is possessed by most people who attempt it. Most "deconstruction" is flat-out demolition, a task for sledgehammers and C4, not surgical implements.

Gandalf really has my final word on deconstruction:
He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
As for social consciousness, most writers aren't really conscious of anything about their society. Most of what they know of its history is a mythology that would make the Whigs blush, and their conception of its wrongs and rights is tainted by their ignorance of what is meant by "wrong" and "right". In terms of consciousness of society, writers, as Buddha said of the gods, are in the same condition as us (if so high), and therefore cannot help us.


Exobiology For Dummies

So I was reading about how Cameron decided to give breasts to the Na'vi females. His rationale is, "Because the audience is human." Translated, that actually means, "What part of 'lowest common denominator, i.e. hot chicks and shit blowing up' was confusing for you?"

Why not, "Because being able to feed your young from your own metabolism is a winning strategy that occurs in various ways among the Mammalia, Hymenoptera, and many Aves, because the chest is a good spot for bipeds to keep their food delivery system, and because females are more likely to be concerned with the care of the young"?

See, as long as you don't posit something completely impossible—like, say, hive-dwelling, man-sized creatures that use pressurized hydrofluoric acid as a respiratory pigment and can use alien lifeforms as food-sources and incubators for their parasitoid larvae—you can usually come up with a rationale for anything you want about your aliens. Want the animals to be quadripeds? Well, four legs is good for stability, but also simple to control. Want the intelligent life to be bipeds? About half of a whole class of vertebrates became bipeds so they could use their hands to grab prey—we call them dinosaurs. Or maybe your aliens were some sort of arboreal organism, that eventually shifted its adaptations for climbing into adaptations for tool use (you know, like, well, you).

All those people who say humanoid aliens are unrealistic? Idiots. Know why? We got a sample-size of exactly one planet; you can't calculate a realistic set of expectations based on that. We don't actually know which of the conditions of life on this planet are necessary to life. That means we can't assume alien life will be like earth life—but it also means we can't assume it won't.

Roughly humanoid aliens can be defended. There's a reason both insects and vertebrates have heads, with the sensory organs near the nerve centers; there's a reason theropods and humans developed bipedalism. There's a reason opossums, primates, and some dinosaurs developed thumbs. If those reasons, or anything similar, exist on an alien planet, then something similar can evolve there.

However, the fact that it's allowed to be similar, doesn't mean you can be lazy. Try and find analogs that will give the same result. Nobody's expecting you to come up with an entirely new complete ecosystem, but at least mix and match—use plant systems in animals, and vice-versa, or reptile in "mammal." And try and find research papers about whatever you're designing. Did you know Carnivora, ungulates, birds, and fish use completely different structures to create their tapetum lucidum (the shiny thing at the back of the eye)?

The felinoids in my book don't use melanin to block UV, for instance; they use cyanidin (the stuff that makes cranberries and blueberries the color they are). The proteins they're made of are the other chirality from ours (which makes us and them eating each other impossible), and the keratins in their claws and hair are arranged in sheets, like those of birds or reptiles, not helices like mammals'.

It helps to have a rationale for certain things—the felinoids, for instance, are big guys, for whom 7'1" is our 6', the tall end of the average range. They're much, much stronger than humans, too: even their smaller women can kill unarmored humans by slapping. So why did they ever need tool use, or society? Because their planet's crawling with animals scaled for the Pleistocene or even the Mesozoic, not the Holocene—their prey's even bigger and scarier than they are.

Another important issue is, once you figure out your aliens' ecology, remember: they're not determined by it. Your religion, politics, culture, brand preferences, are all infinitely more influential on how you act than the fact you're a plains-dwelling omnivorous primate. Especially since you might be a Colorado vegan. Now there's obviously going to be an influence—the felinoids take to stealth like humans take to throwing things. But rationality is always going to be a bigger influence—they have very strong taboos on deception, because they still need their society to function.

And if you have a planet where the majority of terrestrial animals are quasi-fishlike hexapods, but you make the intelligent race four-limbed humanoids with inexplicable breasts...surely you could be playing with a nice ball, or something, instead?


I'm Such a Nerd, Two Flavors of Me Come in a Small Box

Thought I'd make some remarks involving intensely nerdy things.
  • Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn involves the statement, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'. It might seem false, but it's actually an application of the transitivity of equality. See, Beauty and Truth are both the Good, as apprehensible by the senses and the intellect respectively. B=G and T=G, therefore B=T. Maybe Nietzsche should've paid more attention in math class.

  • Why do people think Wittgenstein was such a great philosopher? Oh, assuredly, he was smart, and he certainly had more common sense than Bertrand Russell, but his assertions about language's relation to philosophy are, in the absolute most generous interpretation, a poorly done bootleg of Mitigated Realism—at worst, they're unintelligent Nominalism, combined with a souped-up Maimonidean Via Negativa. As I said in my last post, judge a philosopher by the number of things he puts beyond reason: Wittgenstein is a nigh-unmitigated failure as a metaphysician and epistemologist.

  • So TV Tropes has two tropes, Authority Equals Asskicking, for how in many works Generals and Kings are the most powerful guys in their armies, and Asskicking Equals Authority, for systems where rank is gained on the basis of martial prowess. But what's interesting is, in any system where the second holds true, the first holds true, too, ipso facto. It's an usual thing for there to be commutativity of trope names.

  • Nietzsche's morality is, in essence, aesthetics—beyond the Slave Morality of Good and Evil is the Master Morality of Good and Bad, but if you actually look at the kinds of things he talks about, the Master Morality really boils down to Cool and Lame.

  • While I was writing my last post, I couldn't recall the name of vitalism, and had to look it up. Wikipedia claims that Hindu, Greek, and Chinese thought are vitalist, because of their concepts of qí/prana/pneuma. But they're not. Indeed, all three of those philosophies have as a fundamental doctrine that all things are composed of the same four or five elements, and "life" is the presence of a certain energetic relationship between them. Possibly the article's writer was misinterpreting those cultures' essentially pantheistic worldview—they really do treat the Cosmos as if it was alive—as a belief in there being something special about life. Actually in Aristotle it was the opposite: life emphatically wasn't special, because the universe itself was an organism.


Thoughts From the Hive Ward of Sigil

...Because there's never a wrong time to use a Planescape reference. That means "random", for those of you who've never played a Xaositect. Just be thankful I didn't write something in scramblespeak, nobody that because wants, am right I?
  • So, been reading up on Analytic and Continental philosophy, for my book—behold how I suffer for my art!—and thought I'd point out, they've elevated false advertising to a capital crime. See, they're not philosophers. They're the other faction Socrates dealt with.

  • Speaking of crappy philosophy, has anyone noticed how every movement after Descartes puts whole swaths of ideas beyond the reach of reason? Medieval Scholastics thought you could reason about absolutely everything that you could meaningfully think about—and even things you couldn't, albeit only by analogy. But Descartes and Kant and their ilk say you can only reason about math and science...so how come they're the ones we call Rationalists? Personally I consider that a good way to judge the value of a system of thought: how many things does it forbid you to think about?

  • I realized another Halo-Niven connection: the destruction of Forerunner civilization is like the Thrintun telepathically killing all their slaves (except the whitefoods/Bandersnatchi, since they're immune) after the tnuctipun rebelled. Yes I'm a nerd!

  • On a more critical note regarding Niven, how come the Kzinti use the names of herbivores as insults? I can see using "sthondat" that way (they've got an addictive secretion that grants Kzinti telepathy, but makes them into junkies), but no hunter-culture has contempt for its prey like that.

  • Watched part of the second series of Lodoss War (can't find the first one), and noticed: fantasy anime are always actually set in Edo-period Japan. Medieval Europe didn't have regularly-levied taxes (taxation was usually done the way we do bond-issues, on an as-needed basis). Unless either the writer or the translator was confusing rents—owed by tenants to a lord—with taxes. Rent didn't work the same in Europe as in Japan, either, though, since (among other things) it was very hard for a European lord to raise the rates—serfs had rent-control.

  • A quick explanation for how Europe changed between the Fall of Rome and the Middle Ages can be found in that word, serf. In Medieval Latin serf is "servus", and a lord is "dominus". But in Classical Latin "servus" means "slave", and "dominus" means "owner".

  • So, Tegami Bachi is, as I've said, awesome. But it occurs to me, it's really just the manga version of Costner's The Postman. Except, again, awesome.

  • It is perhaps not a surprise to you, O Reader, that I consider Avatar to be ill-thought-out science fiction and ham-fisted, simplistic political preaching. But I realized, actually, everything Cameron's done is that way (except Titanic's not SF). Dark Angel seems to be based on the idea that the entirety of the sciences of economics, anthropology, and sociology can be summed up in the phrase "Fat Cats Bad"; what could've been a fairly intelligent exploration of a post-apocalyptic world is just Socialist Realism without the artistry (or the understanding of economics). The Alien series...yeah, let's not even talk about the problems with Xenomorph biology, or the economics (space-prisons? Uh, no?). And then there's Terminator: aside from how AI is impossible (Lucas-Penrose Argument), needing "living tissue" to send back in the time machine is just straight up vitalism. And then there's the question, "What idiot would put a machine like that in charge of the nukes? What idiot would give the machine in charge of the nukes any autonomy when it comes to using them?"

  • Come to think of it, there's a lot of vitalism in Cameron's work; Avatar is basically one big paean to vitalism from end to end. Then again, vitalism, in the form of the Gaia Hypothesis, is pretty damned popular with a lot of environmentalists.

  • Speaking of the Gaia Hypothesis, am I the only one who noticed that The Happening is just Blue Gender, only even less plausible?