Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Non-End of the World, New Age Edition; or, Happy 14th B'ak'tun!

Once again, the world was supposed to end at a precise date and time. There were even disaster movies about it, including one big one. That time was the moment of the summer solstice (3:11 a.m. PST) on December 21, 2012. 12/21/12.

Sure enough, the world didn't end. Yet again.

That moment is when the 13th b'ak'tun of the Mayan calendar came to a close and the 14th began. A b'ak'tun is something of a Mayan counterpart to a millennium on the modern Roman calendar. If you remember, the world was also supposed to end at midnight on January 1, 2000. The only thing that happened that day was that some computers went haywire because it didn't occur to their mid- (and even late-)20th-century programmers that the 20th century would end, so the dates they used were two digits rather than four. This was the famous "Y2K bug" that people hoped would bring down civilization so Jesus could return. The difference between the turn of the Mayan b'ak'tun and the turn of the Roman millennium is that there never was a "14th b'ak'tun bug".

The Mayas, of course, are happy to collect the dollars from doomsday-minded tourists. They still exist, you see, and they even still speak their old languages in addition to their conquerors' language, Spanish (and sometimes English for the tourists). Mel Gibson even filmed his movie Apocalypto in the Maya language Yucatec.

So how did this all get started? I suspect it began with one José Argüelles, author of a book called The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology and organizer of the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 (disclosure: growing up in a New Age family, I took part in it). He took the Mayan calendar, added the I Ching and other esoteric influences, and you can guess the rest. Interestingly enough, he didn't live long enough to see the world not end (he died in 2011) — but then, he never said it would. (Trivia note: he was neither Mexican nor Guatemalan, but a Midwestern American: he came from Rochester, Minnesota, not far from where I spent much of my childhood in Mankato.)

Sure enough, memetic mutation took over. Somehow, even before the Harmonic Convergence, the date 12/21/2012 got mixed up in Theosophical expectations of the return of The Christ (i.e. the Theosophical version of the Gnostic Jesus) in the form of Maitreya, the next Buddha. Eventually, cults both New Age and Evangelical formed around the Eschaton they expected on that date. This is the kind of thing my favorite major New Age figure, Dick Sutphen calls "cosmic foo-foo".

And so here we are yet again, stuck in a world that never ended, just like we were last year, twice (no thanks to one Harold Camping, Evangelical end-time prognosticator). Once again, the world has been proclaimed Twitter dead. But Twitter death never stopped the celebrities; why would it stop the world? After all, the world has been about to end since Jesus' time; it never did, and it never will — unless, of course, our leaders manage to blow it up...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

On Mass Shootings, True Heroes, and Doing the Right Thing

The article: The Heroes of Sandy Hook (BuzzFeed)

During the massacre that snuffed out the lives of twenty children and six teachers, the women profiled in the link above willingly risked death to save as many children as they could. Three of them — the principal, the school psychologist, and a first-grade teacher — died, yet succeeded in saving their children.

The story of the first-grade teacher, 27-year-old Victoria Soto, especially struck me. She hid her students in a closet just in time. When the gunman came and demanded where the students were, she told him they were in the gymnasium; she lied to protect them. Then he shot her dead and left. All her students survived.

Victoria Soto willingly gave up her life to save the children in her class. This, in my book, is the very definition of true heroism. She should be an inspiration and an example to all.

Now would I, vindictive old me, willingly risk my life to save innocents from a rampaging madman who once could have been me? Yes, back when I was the school outcast in four schools, middle and high, I had the potential to become one of these monsters. Fortunately, the mental health system was stronger, or at least my mother had enough connections to it that I got the therapy I needed. And I'm especially grateful to the child psychologist who worked with me then, Debbie Carlson, a truly compassionate person and the best therapist I would ever work with; she was there at exactly the right time.

Now, to answer my question: Normally, I'd want to either take out the bastard or run as far away as I could to make sure I didn't get killed. But I've been in one of my occasional spurts of growing up, and these heroic teachers have showed me a different way. So if I were in Victoria Soto's situation, faced with certain death yet a chance to save a classroom full of innocent and terrified children, I now know I'd do what she did: I'd face certain death calmly and misdirect the killer away from the kids. In some extreme situations, willingly giving up one's life to save others is exactly the right thing to do.

Of course this doesn't mean that doing the right thing necessarily involves giving up one's life or even risking it. It means following your conscience whenever you can, even if the whole system's against you.

Naturally, at first I was angry when I heard the horrible news, and posted a scorching rant on my opinion blog. Then I reflected more rationally (if still with some anger) in the follow-up post. But I ended up learning two lessons from the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy:
  1. the urgent need to repair America's ailing mental health system, rebuilding it from scratch if necessary; and
  2. that in tragic and horrific situations like this, people who willingly risk death to save lives are a shining example of humanity who are an inspiration to all.
And so I honor Dawn Hochsprung (the principal), Mary Sherlach (the school psychologist), and Victoria Soto, who out of love of and compassion for children willingly gave up their lives to save the children of their school from a rampaging madman. They, and the two teachers who saved their students and survived, are true heroes who should be remembered long after the murderer has been forgotten except as "yet another school shooter". They are my heroes.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Reading: Destroy and Revolution, by Kouji Mori (issues 1-10)

I've posted about this manga before on the project blog, after reading just the first issue. Now I'm up to #10 and have a better idea of the story.

The high concept: superhero terrorist bromance. Makoto has amazing superpowers he doesn't want anyone to know about. Yuuki is rich, handsome, and charismatic, but hates society and the entire system, which he identifies with his hated Corporate father. Together they set out to destroy society and replace it with a new order — of which, in classic terrorist fashion, they never get any kind of clear idea. (These are not religious terrorists, who do have a clear idea of what kind of order they want to impose: a totalitarian world Ordenstaat run by themselves.)

#10 is a significant issue because it brings us up to where the story began in #1 and thus serves as a natural end point for Book 1: they destroy a subsidized apartment building intended for Diet (Japanese parliament) members, who tend to be quite rich. On the way to this gambit against the Japanese state, we find out a few things. Apparently Yuuki hates Western values and the common people, both of which he seems to think are embodied in the state. He also wears his hair long to annoy his father, a straitlaced Corporate. And he jealously chases away the girl who likes Makoto. #6 made me shake my head: an old man who exists only in that issue appears to give Makoto a mystical experience of the oneness of all things, which Makoto passes on to Yuuki in #7. For Western secular radicals, this New Age (or, in the specific Japanese context, New Religion) thing is an unwanted intrusion into revolutionary theory. So is the Japanese nationalism, since there's no independence to be won like in, say, Iraq (successful) or Afghanistan (ongoing). And the contempt for the common people that is all too common among revolutionary elites will doom his revolution to mere personal tyranny, since classical revolutionary theory states that the common people are the ground of all revolution. Rebellion against the people invariable reduces to a lust for tyranny. How different, then, is Yuuki from his father, really, when his father is already a tyrant, the all-powerful CEO of a giant corporation? Here in America, class warfare against the people is the war cry of the Corporates. Yuuki isn't waging a social revolution, the only kind that can succeed in Japan or any other country with a mature economy. The French and Russian Revolutions succeeded only to the extent that they remained social, and failed when the revolutionaries turned against the people.

In America, with its tradition of superheroes and adventure strips, Destroy and Revolution would have been a rip-roaring action comic with shocking revelations in the tradition of cinematic political thrillers and expository scenes for the revolutionary theory. In fact, that's the way I originally planned my own Chaos Angel Spanner before I turned it from a webmanga concept into a novelized TV serial. In Japan, action stories tend to be age-limited to shounen (boys') manga. The Destroy and Revolution that author Mori created is less action-oriented and more thoughtful, thus more typical of seinen (young men's) manga.

In any case, the first book concerns itself mainly with the issue of "how we got here" to the act of destruction that kicks off the manga from the meeting of two high school malcontents in scene two. It's just setting up the confrontation between the terrorist heroes and the Japanese government. Japanese tradition actually has a higher opinion of terrorists than the moralistic West, since terrorists have purity of heart the ruling class lack. Purity of heart, or samurai spirit, serves the role that flaming Latin machismo has traditionally played among Latin American guerrillas. Western radicals would rather make the case that the side they're attacking is morally wrong — which leads to the paradox that purity of heart and ideology causes more evil than it solves and is thus one of the traditional banes of Western civilization since the medieval revolts of the antinomian Free Spirit sectarians. Al-Qaeda are very much in the Western tradition of moralistic evil. The showrunner of Serial Experiments Lain wanted to provoke different reactions between Eastern and Western viewers, but failed because he never guessed how Eastern the West has become since the British Empire conquered India in the 18th century. Because its heroes are terrorists, a class of vigilante universally demonized in the West, Destroy and Revolution would serve that intention far more effectively.

These are my impressions as of Book 1. Book 2 has also been fan translated, so there will be a follow-up.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Watching: Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Puella Magi Madoka Magica was the biggest anime sensation and Japanese TV hit of 2011. Even the March 2011 earthquake that delayed the final episode couldn't ruin its popularity. However, this not-so-rich anime fan had to wait a year and a half to see it, even as the third movie, which continues the story from the end of the series (reanimated for the first two movies), is in production. Well, I finally saw it. In one five-hour session. And now I know why it got such rave reviews, and why it was Japan's hottest show of last year.

I'd heard this was the darkest take on the magical girl anime genre ever attempted, courtesy of head writer Gen Urobuchi, who's known for some really dark stuff and has even publicly admitted he's temperamentally unsuited for upbeat stories such as, naturally enough, the usual magical girl stuff. But unlike Neon Genesis Evangelion, Madoka Magica turns out not to be an allegory of the showrunner's mental breakdown disguised as a genre deconstruction. In fact, episode 12 contains the happiest ending of any Urobuchi story ever. But then I discovered exactly why it's supposed to be so awesome.

Madoka Magica isn't merely dark. In fact, it's utterly epic.

The deconstruction and grim darkness come from a strategy of taking certain magical girl tropes to such an extreme that they cancel out. The magical girls' motivation for destroying the monsters of the week (here called "witches"), for example, cancels out the standard "power of friendship" theme. In Episode 2, Mami explains to Madoka and Sayaka that magical girls' power comes from "soul gems", which grow darker as they use their power. They can only be replenished by killing witches for their "grief seeds", which are like soul gems only black and dangerous. But there's a limited supply of these grief seeds, forcing the magical girls to compete for them. Episode 5 shows they're perfectly willing to kill each other over them.

And then there's the "Faustian bargain" theme involving that sinister variation on the standard cute mascot, Kyubey — short for "Incubator". Certain witches' names (written in an alphabet of runes specially designed for the show) are references to Goethe's Faust.

The witches appear only in pocket dimensions which manifest only when they need to feed on humans or do battle with magical girls. Both the monstrous inhuman witches and their realms are depicted in flat, jerky, surreal animation right out of the 20th-century avant-garde. This was only the second thing that impressed me. The first was the conventional animation, surprisingly good for a TV show; parts of it are quite beautiful.

Madoka Magica is well known for its Wham Episodes that rival anything from J. Michael Straczynski himself (random Babylon 5 example: sorry, Commander Ivanova, but that presidential candidate you voted for? She's evil!). I won't reveal exactly what happens — that would blunt the shock — but I'll give a few clues:
  • Episode 3: Something horrible happens that establishes the true dark tone of the story. This is followed by the first appearance of the true end credits, one of the darkest and most abstract manifestations of the Urobuchi style, to a J-metal soundtrack.
  • Episode 6: we find out exactly what a magical girl is. It ain't pretty.
  • Episode 8: we find out the exact connection between magical girls and the witches they battle. Uh-oh.
  • Episode 10: the flashback episode was the one that struck me with the true brilliance of the show. We find out who the real hero of this story is (clue: her name isn't Madoka), the nature of her power, and just what kind of hell she had to go through to get to this point. And then it ends with the opening credits, to signal that the story begins where this episode ends.
  • Episode 12: Madoka makes her wish. What she wishes for shocks even Kyubey. And then the show goes cosmic. Did I mention how epic it is?
Right now I can only wonder what the production team have in store for the third movie, the one that extends the story beyond episode 12 (and the second movie). Will it be as jam-packed with plot twists as anything I've written? If anything is certain, I will be sure to find out one way or another...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Project 365 Day 1: A Big Start with Lots of Pictures

I was going to start this year's Project 365 on the 1st. Turns out it took until July 4th for me to break the inner block that kept me from starting. So I've started. Here's some of the many, many pictures I took today.
From Plants and Abstracts (July 4, 2012)
From Plants and Abstracts (July 4, 2012)
From Plants and Abstracts (July 4, 2012)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Listening: Massive Attack - Mezzanine (1998)

In 2000, Massive Attack's Mezzanine and Tricky's Maxinquaye were the CDs I used to break in my Winamp visualizations and 3D audio processors. Now I'm using Mezzanine and the Prodigy's The Fat of the Land to break in my new Blu-Ray player. Turns out that hearing it on the home theatre system in Dolby Surround is different from what I remember... I noticed how deliciously sinister every track except the two named "Exchange" (based on a pretty riff from an Isaac Hayes song their record company licensed from his) are. But undistracted by the visual pyrotechnics of G-Force, Geiss, and MilkDrop, I couldn't help notice how languid the whole thing is, except for the end of penultimate track "Group Four", which sneaks up on you. "Group Four" is also the one that shows the surround sound function of my Blu-Ray player and home theatre receiver to their best advantage. It turns out to have been one of the first albums to be available in MP3 format and one of the last of the sample era before the record companies cracked down mercilessly. As such, it's a relic of a lost age (without sounding dated) and yet a forerunner of our current digital music era.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Believe It Or Not, Summer's Actually Come To Seattle

A year or two ago, we were stuck with cold weather in Seattle. We called it "Juneuary". Well, it's the official first day of summer, and guess what? It's hot here. Even the rainy days will get up to the upper 60s for the rest of the month. That's a big improvement over "Juneuary". Even so, at least we on the West Coast don't have to deal with the 100°+ heat wave that's hitting the East Coast...

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Watching: Prometheus

When I saw a couple of the trailers on YouTube a couple weeks ago, I knew this would be the movie my brother would be most likely to take me and Mom to see. And so it was. And so this is "the Space Jockey movie" (using the big guys' nickname from Alien; here they're called "Engineers"). I was warned (by online reviews, not my brother) that some people didn't like it. But I did, and I can see why it has a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. My brother thought it was brilliant. I have different standards; I thought it was at least good enough, though not as brilliant as, say, Alien and Aliens. And even though I'd already read all the spoilers on the TV Tropes page, I still managed to find myself surprised by that last Space Jockey. There were a few predictable things. The guys who panic and flee being the first to die? Check. There were also some weak points, mostly involving characters carrying the "idiot ball" (there's a whole list on the TV Tropes Prometheus page under "Idiot Ball" At least Fifield and Milburn have an excuse (their panic robbed them of their reason). Weyland is similar in that he's a corporate "king" (the word is actually used, though not in any official sense) whose desire to defeat death overrides his reason. But Janek (the pilot) has no excuse but picks up the idiot ball anyway and runs with it. The unpredictable part involved Vickers, Shaw, and a certain director, but I won't spoil that one. There were some very clever reveals involving Vickers, Weyland, David (the android, whose nature this time is revealed almost immediately), the surviving Space Jockey, the nature of his Engineer faction's mission, and — the stinger at the end, right before the credits. I did notice they used the Alien Astronaut theory (as in Erich von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchin) as the movie's starting premise. Back to my opinion. I did enjoy it, enough that I plan to get the Blu-Ray to play on that 50+ inch TV I intend to get.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Drawing Again: Preparation

Yesterday I posted on my project blog that I've started drawing again. The long bout of writer's block I've suffered for the past 6 years has finally ended. There's a problem that comes with that, though. I'm drawing figures. I know little enough about drawing figures that I'm feeling really frustrated. Drawing heads and pretty faces is much, much easier for me, simply because I've practiced drawing them for so long (seven years, in fact, from 1999 to 2006). So back to the bookcase I go. I picked two books to learn from: Jack Hamm's Drawing the Head and Figure, and Burne Hogarth's Dynamic Figure Drawing. The first will help me with the "contrapposto" poses I'm trying to draw right now. The second will help me with action poses from all angles. Actually, I'm fairly good at what little I can draw. I think yesterday's two rough sketches of my character Shira's midsection and beautiful behind are quite good. It's what I don't know that's driving me back to the instruction books. And so the learning resumes. Meanwhile, I ought to start practicing drawing heads again to bring back all the skills I've learned over the years back to memory...