Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Facial Expressions and the Closed Eye Syndrome
I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, and one of the chapters focuses on the psychology of facial expressions. Put simply, we wear our emotions on our face, and some enterprising psychologists took to mapping the distinct muscular movements that the human face can make. It's an interesting process, and it turns out that people who learn these facial expressions (of which there are many) are eerily good at recognizing what people are really thinking, even if they aren't trying to show it. It's almost like mind reading, and we all do it to some extent or another (mostly, we do it unconsciously). Body language and facial expressions are packed with information, and we'd all be pretty much lost without that kind of feedback (perhaps why misunderstandings are more common on the phone or in email). Most of the time, our expressions are voluntary, but sometimes they're not. Even if we're trying to suppress our expressions, a fleeting look may cross our faces. Often, these "micro-expressions" last only a few milliseconds and are imperceptible, but when trained psychologists watch video of, say, Harold "Kim" Philby (a notorious soviet spy) giving a press conference, they're able to read him like a book (slow motion helps).
I found this example interesting, and it highlights some of the subtle differences that can exist between expressions (in this case, between a voluntary and involuntary expression):
If I were to ask you to smile, you would flex your zygomatic major. By contrast, if you were to smile spontaneously, in the presence of genuine emotion, you would not only flex your zygomatic but also tighten the orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis, which is the muscle that encircles the eye. It is almost impossible to tighten the orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis on demand, and it is equally difficult to stop it from tightening when we smile at something genuinely pleasurable.I found that interesting in light of the Closed Eye Syndrome I noticed in Anime. I wonder how that affects the way we perceive Anime. If a smiling mouth by itself means a fake expression of happiness while a smiling mouth and closed eyes means genuine emotion, does that make the animation more authentic? Animation obviously doesn't have the fidelity of video or film, but we can obviously read expressions from animated faces, so I would expect that closed eye syndrome exists more because of accuracy than anything else. In my original post on the subject, Roy noted that the reason I noticed closed eyes in anime could have something to do with the way Japan and the US read emotion. He pointed to an article that claimed Americans focus more on the mouth while the Japanese focus more on the eyes when trying to read emotions from facial expressions. One example from the article was emoticons. For happiness, Americans use a smily face :) while the Japanese tend to use ^_^ (which seems to be a face with eyes closed). That might still be part of it, but ever since I made the observation, I've noticed similar expressions in American animation (I just recently noticed it a lot in a Venture Bros. episode). Still, occurrences in American animation seem less frequent (or perhaps less obvious), so perhaps the observation still holds.
Gladwell's book is interesting, as expected, though I'm not sure yet if he has a point other than to observe that we do a lot of subconscious analysis and make lots of split decisions, and sometimes this is good (other times it's not). Still, he's good at finding examples and drilling down into the issue, and even if I'm not sure about his conclusions, it's always fun to read. There's lots more on this subject in the book (for instance, he goes over how facial expressions and our emotions are a two way phenomenon - meaning that if you intentionally contort your face in an specific way, you can induce certain emotions. The psychologists I mentioned earlier who were mapping expressions noticed that after a full day of trying to manipulate their facial muscles to show anger (even though they weren't angry) they felt horrible. Some tests have been done to confirm that, indeed, our facial expressions are linked directly to our brain) and it's probably worth a read if that's your bag.
Posted by Mark on November 28, 2007 at 08:19 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
Requiem for a Meme
In July of this year, I attempted to start a Movie Screenshot Meme. The idea was simple and (I thought) neat. I would post a screenshot, and visitors would guess what movie it was from. The person who guessed correctly would continue the game by either posting the next round on their blog, or if they didn't have a blog, they could send me a screenshot or just ask me to post another round. Things went reasonably well at first, and the game experienced some modest success. However, the game eventually morphed into the Mark, Alex, and Roy show, as the rounds kept cycling through each of our blogs. The last round was posted in September and despite a winning entry, the game has not continued.
The challenge of starting this meme was apparent from the start, but there were some other things that hindered the game a bit. Here are some assorted thoughts about the game, what held it back, and what could be done to improve the chances of adoption.
(click image for a larger version) I'd say this is difficult except that it's blatantly obvious who that is in the screenshot. It shouldn't be that hard to pick out the movie even if you haven't seen it. What the heck, the winner of this round can pick 5 blogs they'd like to see post a screenshot and post a screenshot on their blog if they desire. As I mentioned above, I'm hesitant to annoy people with this sort of thing, but hey, why not? Let's give this meme some legs.
Posted by Mark on November 25, 2007 at 03:04 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
A few months ago, I wrote about a list of movies that I wanted to see even though I know they'll suck. The first movie listed there, and the one that inspired the list was a little film called Hitman. Movies based on video games don't exactly have a good track record though, and sure enough, it's scored a whopping 11% on the Tomatometer.
Somehow, this makes me want to see it more. As such, I'll be heading out momentarily to witness the alleged trainwreck that is the Hitman movie. More to come.
Update: Metacritic has it pegged at 34 out of 100. Upgrade!
Again Update: Look, it's not a great movie. There's nothing particularly innovative or new about it, and it certainly doesn't pass the refrigerator test, but for crying out loud, it's a Hitman movie! What the hell were you expecting? Looking at that 11% and knowing it was based on a video game, I was expecting a disjointed, incoherent mess. What I got was a decent spy thriller and an enjoyable experience. I'm with Ebert on this one. Best line from his review "I think he may be a virgin trained to make war, not love." Come to think of it, maybe there is something new and different about this film... In any case, this just goes to show you the power of expectations (Ebert apparently felt the same way).
Posted by Mark on November 21, 2007 at 06:48 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
The Paradise of Choice?
A while ago, I wrote a post about the Paradox of Choice based on a talk by Barry Schwartz, the author of a book by the same name. The basic argument Schwartz makes is that choice is a double-edged sword. Choice is a good thing, but too much choice can have negative consequences, usually in the form of some kind of paralysis (where there are so many choices that you simply avoid the decision) and consumer remorse (elevated expectations, anticipated regret, etc...). The observations made by Schwartz struck me as being quite astute, and I've been keenly aware of situations where I find myself confronted with a paradox of choice ever since. Indeed, just knowing and recognizing these situations seems to help deal with the negative aspects of having too many choices available.
This past summer, I read Chris Anderson's book, The Long Tail, and I was a little pleasantly surprised to see a chapter in his book titled "The Paradise of Choice." In that chapter, Anderson explicitely addresses Schwartz's book. However, while I liked Anderson's book and generally agreed with his basic points, I think his dismissal of the Paradox of Choice is off target. Part of the problem, I think, is that Anderson is much more concerned with the choices rather than the consequences of those choices (which is what Schwartz focuses on). It's a little difficult to tell though, as Anderson only dedicates 7 pages or so to the topic. As such, his arguments don't really eviscerate Schwartz's work. There are some good points though, so let's take a closer look.
Anderson starts with a summary of Schwartz's main concepts, and points to some of Schwartz's conclusions (from page 171 in my edition):
As the number of choices keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begin to appear. As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.Now, the way Anderson presents this is a bit out of context, but we'll get to that in a moment. Anderson continues and then responds to some of these points (again, page 171):
As an antidote to this poison of our modern age, Schwartz recommends that consumers "satisfice," in the jargon of social science, not "maximize". In other words, they'd be happier if they just settled for what was in front of them rather than obsessing over whether something else might be even better. ...Anderson has completely missed the point here. Later in the chapter, he spends a lot of time establishing that people do, in fact, like choice. And he's right. My problem is twofold: First, Schwartz never denies that choice is a good thing, and second, he never advocates removing choice in the first place. Yes, people love choice, the more the better. However, Schwartz found that even though people preferred more options, they weren't necessarily happier because of it. That's why it's called the paradox of choice - people obviously prefer something that ends up having negative consequences. Schwartz's book isn't some sort of crusade against choice. Indeed, it's more of a guide for how to cope with being given too many choices. Take "satisficing." As Tom Slee notes in a critique of this chapter, Anderson misstates Schwartz's definition of the term. He makes it seem like satisficing is settling for something you might not want, but Schwartz's definition is much different:
To satisfice is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better. A satisficer has criteria and standards. She searches until she finds an item that meets those standards, and at that point, she stops.Settling for something that is good enough to meet your needs is quite different than just settling for what's in front of you. Again, I'm not sure Anderson is really arguing against Schwartz. Indeed, Anderson even acknowledges part of the problem, though he again misstate's Schwartz's arguments:
Vast choice is not always an unalloyed good, of course. It too often forces us to ask, "Well, what do I want?" and introspection doesn't come naturally to all. But the solution is not to limit choice, but to order it so it isn't oppressive.Personally, I don't think the problem is that introspection doesn't come naturally to some people (though that could be part of it), it's more that some people just don't give a crap about certain things and don't want to spend time figuring it out. In Schwartz's talk, he gave an example about going to the Gap to buy a pair of jeans. Of course, the Gap offers a wide variety of jeans (as of right now: Standard Fit, Loose Fit, Boot Fit, Easy Fit, Morrison Slim Fit, Low Rise Fit, Toland Fit, Hayes Fit, Relaxed Fit, Baggy Fit, Carpenter Fit). The clerk asked him what he wanted, and he said "I just want a pair of jeans!"
The second part of Anderson's statement is interesting though. Aside from again misstating Schwartz's argument (he does not advocate limiting choice!), the observation that the way a choice is presented is important is interesting. Yes, the Gap has a wide variety of jean styles, but look at their website again. At the top of the page is a little guide to what each of the styles means. For the most part, it's helpful, and I think that's what Anderson is getting at. Too much choice can be oppressive, but if you have the right guide, you can get the best of both worlds. The only problem is that finding the right guide is not as easy as it sounds. The jean style guide at Gap is neat and helpful, but you do have to click through a bunch of stuff and read it. This is easier than going to a store and trying all the varieties on, but it's still a pain for someone who just wants a pair of jeans dammit.
Anderson spends some time fleshing out these guides to making choices, noting the differences between offline and online retailers:
In a bricks-and-mortar store, products sit on the shelf where they have been placed. If a consumer doesn't know what he or she wants, the only guide is whatever marketing material may be printed on the package, and the rough assumption that the product offered in the greatest volume is probably the most popular.I think it's a very good point he's making, though I think he's a bit too optimistic about how effective these guides to buying really are. For one thing, there are times when a choice isn't clear, even if you do have a guide. Also, while I think retailers that offer Recommendations based on what other customer purchases are important and helpful, who among us hasn't seen absurd recommendations? From my personal experience, a lot of people don't like the connotations of recommendations either (how do they know so much about me? etc...). Personally, I really like recommendations, but I'm a geek and I like to figure out why they're offering me what they are (Amazon actually tells you why something is recommended, which is really neat). In any case, from my own personal anecdotal observations, no one puts much faith in probablistic systems like recommendations or ratings (for a number of reasons, such as cheating or distrust). There's nothing wrong with that, and that's part of why such systems are effective. Ironically, acknowledging their imperfections allow users to better utilize the systems. Anderson knows this, but I think he's still a bit too optimistic about our tools for traversing the long tail. Personally, I think they need a lot of work.
When I was younger, one of the big problems in computing was storage. Computers are the perfect data gatering tool, but you need somewhere to store all that data. In the 1980s and early 1990s, computers and networks were significantly limited by hardware, particularly storage. By the late 1990s, Moore's law had eroded this deficiency significantly, and today, the problem of storage is largely solved. You can buy a terrabyte of storage for just a couple hundred dollars. However, as I'm fond of saying, we don't so much solve problems as trade one set of problems for another. Now that we have the ability to store all this information, how do we get at it in a meaninful way? When hardware was limited, analysis was easy enough. Now, though, you have so much data available that the simple analyses of the past don't cut it anymore. We're capturing all this new information, but are we really using it to its full potential?
I recently caught up with Malcolm Gladwell's article on the Enron collapse. The really crazy thing about Enron was that they didn't really hide what they were doing. They fully acknowledged and disclosed what they were doing... there was just so much complexity to their operations that no one really recognized the issues. They were "caught" because someone had the persistence to dig through all the public documentation that Enron had provided. Gladwell goes into a lot of detail, but here are a few excerpts:
Enron's downfall has been documented so extensively that it is easy to overlook how peculiar it was. Compare Enron, for instance, with Watergate, the prototypical scandal of the nineteen-seventies. To expose the White House coverup, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used a source-Deep Throat-who had access to many secrets, and whose identity had to be concealed. He warned Woodward and Bernstein that their phones might be tapped. When Woodward wanted to meet with Deep Throat, he would move a flower pot with a red flag in it to the back of his apartment balcony. That evening, he would leave by the back stairs, take multiple taxis to make sure he wasn't being followed, and meet his source in an underground parking garage at 2 A.M. ...Again, there's a lot more detail in Gladwell's article. Just how complicated was the public documentation that Enron had released? Gladwell gives some examples, including this one:
Enron's S.P.E.s were, by any measure, evidence of extraordinary recklessness and incompetence. But you can't blame Enron for covering up the existence of its side deals. It didn't; it disclosed them. The argument against the company, then, is more accurately that it didn't tell its investors enough about its S.P.E.s. But what is enough? Enron had some three thousand S.P.E.s, and the paperwork for each one probably ran in excess of a thousand pages. It scarcely would have helped investors if Enron had made all three million pages public. What about an edited version of each deal? Steven Schwarcz, a professor at Duke Law School, recently examined a random sample of twenty S.P.E. disclosure statements from various corporations-that is, summaries of the deals put together for interested parties-and found that on average they ran to forty single-spaced pages. So a summary of Enron's S.P.E.s would have come to a hundred and twenty thousand single-spaced pages. What about a summary of all those summaries? That's what the bankruptcy examiner in the Enron case put together, and it took up a thousand pages. Well, then, what about a summary of the summary of the summaries? That's what the Powers Committee put together. The committee looked only at the "substance of the most significant transactions," and its accounting still ran to two hundred numbingly complicated pages and, as Schwarcz points out, that was "with the benefit of hindsight and with the assistance of some of the finest legal talent in the nation."Again, Gladwell's article has a lot of other details and is a fascinating read. What interested me the most, though, was the problem created by so much data. That much information is useless if you can't sift through it quickly or effectively enough. Bringing this back to the paradise of choice, the current systems we have for making such decisions are better than ever, but still require a lot of improvement. Anderson is mostly talking about simple consumer products, so none are really as complicated as the Enron case, but even then, there are still a lot of problems. If we're really going to overcome the paradox of choice, we need better information analysis tools to help guide us. That said, Anderson's general point still holds:
More choice really is better. But now we know that variety alone is not enough; we also need information about that variety and what other consumers before us have done with the same choices. ... The paradox of choice turned out to be more about the poverty of help in making that choice than a rejection of plenty. Order it wrong and choice is oppressive; order it right and it's liberating.Personally, while the help in making choices has improved, there's still a long way to go before we can really tackle the paradox of choice (though, again, just knowing about the paradox of choice seems to do wonders in coping with it).
As a side note, I wonder if the video game playing generations are better at dealing with too much choice - video games are all about decisions, so I wonder if folks who grew up working on their decision making apparatus are more comfortable with being deluged by choice.
Posted by Mark on November 18, 2007 at 09:47 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Video Games & Decisions
I've written a couple of times about Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You. He intentionally takes a controversial point of view, that pop culture (which is usually referred to as an example of the downfall of culture or something) is actually making us smarter. While I don't agree with everything he has to say, I think he makes a lot of good points. His chapter on video games is particularly interesting, because it's such a new medium, and because it's rare that someone acknowledges anything good about video games, aside from the occasional reference to improving hand-eye coordination. Johnson mentions several things (like probing and telescoping), but the really interesting thing about video games are the decisions we make while playing.
When you think about it, that's what video games are all about. They are constantly forcing you to make decisions, to choose one thing over another, to prioritize. Johnson writes:
All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultureform directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus in the same way. From the outside, the primary activity of a gamer looks like a fury of clicking and shooting, which is why so much of the conventional wisdom about games focuses on hand-eye coordination. But if you peer inside the gamer's mind, the primary activity turns out to be another creature altogether: making decisions, some of them snap judgements, some long-term strategies.Shamus wrote a perfect example of this last week. He wrote about his typical strategy when playing deathmatch-style games like Unreal Tournament. His strategy involves lots of decisions and the fast-paced action of the games requires him to make these decisions within mere seconds. He wrote out the process of his decision as a humorous exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Watson:
"You see Watson, the lift on the far side of the room is moving back down to its default position, yet the door at the top is closed. Note also the spread of burn marks on the floor: All in a straight line, evenly spaced. Finally, one cannot miss that there are two medkits in the corner."Obviously, he doesn't make decisions explicitely like this - most of this happens without really thinking about it. It has to, because you don't have time to think much in these types of games. I haven't played one of these types of games since Return to Castle Wolfenstein - the mp_beach level was great fun, and I think a lot of people had a sorta sixth sense about the typical strategies used to complete the level. Sure, there were lots of people who were just good at button-pressing and aiming, but there was a lot of strategy involved too. I actually haven't played Unreal Tournament since the UT99 game (as I'd heard that 2003 and 2004 editions weren't that great), but it sounds like UT 3 is going to be pretty good. I may have to check it out.
Posted by Mark on November 14, 2007 at 08:08 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Cowboy Bebop: Miscellaneous Thoughts
Additional assorted thoughts on Cowboy Bebop (see also: Initial Thoughts and The Ending). I'll have some more thoughts on the ending, but for the most part my opinion of the end hasn't changed much. As you might expect, spoilers below (I'm putting most of the spoilers in the extended entry though). First, the non-spoilers:
Beer and cereal, breakfast of champions.
Closed-eyes syndrome continues unabated. In that post, Roy noted an article which said that the Japanese tend to depict emotions with the eyes, rather than the mouth (as we do in the states). This is far from scientific, but there are several indications of this, and one is that happy emoticons in the US are :) or :D (which basically depicts a smile), while in Japan, the typical happy emoticon is ^_^ (which looks like closed eyes to me). But I've also noticed watching anime that a lot of emotion tends to be put in the eyes, and it's not just the closed eyes. For instance, then Faye has her epiphany in the shower and runs into Spike, her eyes are quivering.
I watched episode 24 again, with particular emphasis on Ed's story. Steven Den Beste and I disagreed about the character, and I wanted to check it out. While I do think Steven is right to note the indifference of Ed's character during the mushroom episode, I don't think it's really an indication of serious sociopathy (sociopathy is much more apparent in Spike, who has mostly closed himself off from the crew and hasn't really built any enduring relationships beyond the ones of his past, which haunt him). Ed's just a kid, after all, and if she was a sociopath, I don't think she'd have the relationship she did with Faye (who's sorta like a big sister) and Jet (who's a sorta father figure). Faye, in particular, seems to have influence over Ed. In the screenshot above, Faye is leaving the Bebop to go back to her family's home. She makes a big deal about "belonging" there and tells Ed that she belongs somewhere too, and that she should go there. That's when Ed leaves (note, Ed doesn't go chasing after her dad when he runs away - she just says "Father person is gone" and then hops back on the Bebop). And before Ed leaves, she gives Spike a little gift (a little wind Toy, which Spike later attaches to the front of Bebop - perhaps he's not a sociopath after all) and paints a farewell on the deck of the Bebop:
Also, and I'm keenly aware that this is my naive optimism that noticed this, when Ed is talking to Ein during her departure, she says that she's going "far away" and that she "might not come back." So that means she "might" come back and she might not. Given that Faye came back, I think it's possible that Ed would too. Of course, the series doesn't really give any indication that Faye stays and even less that Ed would be back, but hey, a guy can dream, can't he? I wonder if a sequel could ever happen?
One thing I've noticed in a lot of Japanese movies and anime is that English appears often, though in many cases, it doesn't make much sense. For instance, I noticed several random books in the Read or Die OVA that had titles like Mr Bad Guy or I Can Hear Music, which don't make much sense from my perspective (or at least, they're silly), but may add a bit of flavor to a Japanese viewer. So I thought it was funny when Jet and Spike sat down for a drink at the "Loser Bar." However, the English in Cowboy Bebop was pretty good, so I'm guessing this is just a none-too-subtle commentary on Jet and Spike's state of mind.
I mentioned in my initial thoughts post that some of the action was framed like a John Woo film, and indeed, a lot of the action in the series seems to be influenced by the Hong Kong action scene. Apparently I'm not alone, as a commenter at Pixy's site named CPT. Charles notes: "Perhaps I'm imagining things, but I plenty of themes/storylines/hero-villian interactions in Bebop that I have seen before...in HK films. If John Wu would do anime, it would resemble Bebop." (sic).
Now this isn't a HK action trope (at least, not to my knowledge), but the final confrontation between Spike and Vicious has Spike armed with a semi-auto handgun and Vicious armed with a sword. Spike has been shot and otherwise beaten up, so his aim is a little off, and they actually manage to make the fight seem well matched (even though a gun is obviously preferable - right Indy?)
In the comments to the last entry, there was some speculation that maybe Spike isn't really dead. After all, Spike had endured previous beatings that were just as bad if not worse, multiple times throughout the series (and he gets shot in the head and thrown off a moving train hundreds of feet off the ground in the movie without dying). What's more is that the series creator apparently doesn't know whether Spike is dead or alive. However, I find that hard to believe, as the visual aspects of the ending clearly point to Spike being dead. Most people will point to the fading star at the end of the credits, but even the screenshot I posted above implies death. Well, not death, but the saturated, washed out brightness of the shot usually symbolizes transcendence or resolution, and in this case, that means that Spike is dead. To me, at least.
My overall feeling of Cowboy Bebop is that it's a really good series, maybe even great. There are some things I don't like about the ending, but other than that, it's a fantastic series and I enjoyed it more than I did most of my recent Anime viewing. Even though I didn't love some aspects of the ending (at the very least, depending on interpretations, it's anticlimatic), I don't think that really impacts my feelings on the series as a whole (i.e. it didn't ruin the whole series for me). After all, the series is mostly episodic, and though they feature the same characters and some continuity between episodes, they are isolated enough that the ending doesn't really affect my enjoyment of the first 23 episodes (and the movie).
Next up: Banner of the Stars (uh oh, the first disc is marked as "Very Long Wait" on Netflix)
Posted by Mark on November 11, 2007 at 08:44 PM .: link :.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Cowboy Bebop: The Ending
The final disc of Cowboy Bebop came in the mail today, and I just finished watching it. I liked it, but didn't love it. There are a couple of things that bothered me and hold it back from true greatness, though I have to say that I didn't especially feel sucker-punched. Perhaps a big part of that is that I was expecting bad things to happen, so when they finally did, I wasn't particularly phased by them. It's not a sucker-punch if you've braced for the blow, I guess.
More spoiler-ridden thoughts below the fold. The thing that bothers me most about the ending of the series is Ed's departure. It doesn't make much sense, and had she stayed, I think the series would have been more impactful to me. As it is now, I keep straining to think of ways for Jet and Faye to run into Ed and Ein again and get back together.
Let me rewind a bit. In the first 23 episodes, what we essentially get is an introduction of characters, a little backstory on each, and some relationship-building between them all. In the last few episodes, we see a lot of conflicts come to a head. A lot of unpleasant things happen, but it's not a total loss. There's some hope in the end, which is all I really ask. Actually, there's a lot of room for interpretation, but if you give me that sort of opening, I'm going to insert hope.
Steven Den Beste has a long, spoiler-laden analysis of the series in which he looks at it from two angles. One, the tragic point of view, sees almost no room for hope or happiness. The other, which posits that Cowboy Bebop is really a Ronin story, presents a very interesting perspective. I think I come down somewhere inbetween. There is tragedy in the story, but also hope and honor.
Of the main characters, Jet's story is the most straighforward. He changes and grows as the story moves along, but his growth is along the same trajectory as it always was. Den Beste's ronin theory describes Jet remarkably well:
Jet served a dishonorable master, the ISSP. Once he found out that the organization was corrupt, he faced that dilemma: if he remained part of it, he too might become corrupt, forfeiting his honor, or have the ISSP prevent him from carrying out what he saw as his duty. But leaving was itself dishonorable. Still, he found the best answer he could: he left, but became a bounty hunter, because it let him continue to pursue lawbreakers and to bring them to justice, which he had accepted as his duty in life. He decided that he had to stay true to his own honor rather than to stay true to a corrupt and dishonorable master. ...And it goes on. I don't know nearly as much as Den Beste about Japanese history and culture, but this fits Jet well. Spike, I'm not so sure about. Steven says:
Jet and Spike were both ronin, but in every other way they were opposites. Jet became a ronin to save his honor. Spike was a ronin because he had lost his.The only problem is that Spike was a gangster. Jet was basically a cop, and it doesn't take much to draw parallels between a cop and a Samurai (in the idealized sense, at least). Jet's crisis came about because he was always trying to do the right thing. Spike had no such luxury of pretending that he was doing something good. Can one be a ronin without ever being a Samurai? He was a gangster who found love and tried to run... but was not followed by the one he loved (the whole event only postpones the inevitable though). There is some sort of honor in Spike's world, but it's not the honor of the Samurai. It's the faux-honor of the gangster. Spike's story seems to jive well with my limited experience of Yakuza flicks, which are filled with talk of honor but acts of deception and betrayal. Gangsters with honor are gangsters who are crushed by weasely boss' or betrayed by friends and that's what happens to Spike. Steven is right that Spike had no honor, but I'm not sure ever had honor until the end. He gets revenge on Vicious, but dies in the process. I think the one saving grace of this, for Spike, is that he also gets to join Julia, even if it's only in death. I think Spike's death could have meant more to the story, but this isn't really explored for reasons I'll belabor in a moment.
The biggest surprise for me was Faye's arc of the last few episodes. She confronts her past and gets her memory back only to find that it gave her no comfort. She had sought this past for as long as she could remember, and it gave her nothing... nothing except the realization that she already had what she really sought. This is a variant of a common story. A protagonist seeks some unattainable goal only to realize it's been sitting right before their eyes the whole time (this story seems to happen most often with a male character seeking to win the affections of the pretty, popular girl, only to realize that he's really in love with his "normal" female friend that he's known forever). Faye finally understands that she does belong somewhere, and when she finds out that Spike is leaving to face certain death, she can't handle it. She asks him why he's leaving and pleads with him to stay. Steven attributes this to selfishness, which I guess I can see, but I'd give her more credit. I think she's giving Spike a chance (or at least, she thinks she is). She sees that Spike's life still has worth and she tries to make Spike see that she wants to depend on him, but Spike is empty. For most of the story, Spike is aloof. He doesn't seem too connected to anything, in part because he's been traumatized in the past. Knowing what I do of Spike's story, I can't say that I blame him for leaving, but from Faye's perspective, she just doesn't have any idea why he needs to do it. I think she's offering a chance at redemption to Spike, even if she doesn't realize that Spike can't be redeemed in that way. I don't see that as a fault either. Faye is far from perfect, but it's clear she's turned the corner. I think this is why I liked her story's end so much. She's the one character that doesn't really have a straightforward trajectory. As such, I can't imagine a scenario where Faye and Jet don't stay together, and I could even see Spike's death really galvanizing Faye and Jet's relationship.
Which brings me to Radical Edward and Ein. I think Faye's return and Spike's departure would have been more meaningful if Ed and Ein were still members of the crew. Instead, we get a tacked-on backstory for Ed and her inexplicable departure. In episode 24, Ed finds her father... but her father is clearly not interested in Ed. I agree with Steven's take on Ed's story as well, and find Ed's departure baffling. It doesn't make any sense to me. Indeed, this is the only real story (other than when we first meet Ed) that really goes into Ed's past, and it's in an episode that also has significant happenings for Faye. As such, we spend about 10 minutes total (if that, and that's in the course of 26 episodes) on Ed's past, which is kinda lame. For most of the series, Ed plays a sort of comic-relief foil to the rest of the crew. A cheery, naive child in the presense of bitter, world-weary adults. It worked really well. I loved the character of Radical Edward, even if there wasn't really much meat there. So this backstory of a father that abandoned her felt arbitrary and pointless. Ein followed Ed, and they make a good team, so there's at least that. The only other trace of hope I can see here is that Ed left right after Faye left, and Faye told Ed that it's good to be where you "belong." Faye found that she didn't belong where she thought, so it stands to reason that Ed could come to the same conclusion. But that's just my naive optimism coming out, I guess. I like the idea of Spike being a tragic figure whose death brings together those that were around him. They might not live happily ever after (they are bounty hunters, after all), but at least they'd be growing.
It's funny, because I wonder how much the show's creators thought about such things. A part of me wants to think that the story is really just an excuse to creat a compelling audio/visual experience, which is something they do in spades. This is probably the most visually and stylistically impressive anime series I've seen. There's a real cinematic feel to every episode, which is an achievement these days when a lot of movies don't feel cinematic. They hit a good balance between humor and drama, and nail the tone of the whole series. I think the reason this series is so popular is that it's such a visceral experience. Plus, the series is more episodic than serial, so it's easy to isolate parts you like from parts you don't. For all their faults, I think people can at least identify and empathize with the characters, and the creators do a good job of setting everything up in the series.
Having just finished the series, I'm not sure how it will sit with me in the long run. I may be tempted to write some more about the series once I've had more time to think it over (episode 23, in particular, warrants more thought on my part - shades of Ghost in the Shell's existential themes), but these were my initial thoughts. All in all, it's a good series, and it is one I'd recommend as a gateway drug. It's very accessible and, as previously mentioned, it's a visceral experience. The ending isn't perfect, but it's not the black stain for me that it seems to be for Steven (or, at least, not yet, we'll see how I feel later or if I ever rewatch it). I don't think the ending ruined all that came before it and I can see a silver lining in the dark clouds of the story. Of course, part of that is probably wishful thinking on my part. The creators didn't show a lot of things I'm taking for granted about the ending, but they did leave it open to interpretation.
Posted by Mark on November 07, 2007 at 10:06 PM .: link :.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Cowboy Bebop: Initial Thoughts
Despite recent posting, I didn't spend the entire month watching horror movies. Indeed, at this point, I'm almost finished watching Cowboy Bebop (I'm up to episode 22 out of 26, 1 disc left). So far, I'm loving it. It's action packed, fun, and extremely well done. Assorted thoughts, comments, questions, and of course screenshots below.
Update: I've finished watching the series, and have some preliminary thoughts on the ending.
Spike is ready to hunt
This is Spike. If pressed to find a main character, Spike would probably be it. His past is by far the most mysterious, and it also seems to haunt him to this day. I would imagine that his past would be part of the catalyst for the aformentioned sucker-punch. Or not. We'll see, I guess. Spike has a knack for getting into or causing trouble, and more than once in the series, he gets beaten to within an inch of his life. In the movie Brick, the main character is said to be based on a Dashiell Hammett character whose primary strength wasn’t that he was smart or overly powerful - it was that he could take a beating. Spike kinda reminds me of that, except that he's a badass as well. So maybe not. Anyway, Spike and Jet are the first characters we're introduced to, and as the series goes on, they gradually start to pick up other members. First among them is Einstein:
Ein is hungry
Ein joins the cast in just the second episode, and a big deal is made of his being a "data dog," yet this hasn't been mentioned since then. I think perhaps this is something that will need to come up in the next couple episodes. After Ein joins the crew, Spike and Jet run into what is probably the other main character of the series, Faye Valentine:
Her past is also mysterious, and she seems to constantly try to distance herself from the crew, yet always finds herself returning. I think perhaps she likes being part of the little disfunctional family of the Bebop, and as the series progresses, you see her begin to fit in a little more with Spike and Jet (who, in turn, seem to fit more with her as well). As a viewer, I want her to stay with the crew, but my expectation of an upcoming sucker-punch makes me think that perhaps that she'll have a nasty fight with Spike and Jet. We'll see I guess. Finally, there's one of my favorite characters from the series, radical Edward.
Ed and Ein
She's kinda hyperactive (and yes, Edward is actually a she), and is constantly fidgeting around and saying silly things. I'm sure lots of people are annoyed by her (and when I watched the movie, I remember being a bit confused by why the character was acting so weird), but I think she fits in well, and I really like the Mushroom Samba episode (where she hunts down a mushroom toating bounty).
Spike is a badass, and you can tell because the director frames him the same way John Woo frames Chow Yun Fat. Or something.
One of the recurring villains is a guy from Spike's past named Vicious (how's that for subtlety). Visually, the scene pictured above reminded me of the famous standoff scene between Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs, except one of them has a sword.
This is one of the aformentioned bounties, and I wanted to call it out because this visually looked like something out of Akira (which is one of the most visually impressive anime movies I've ever seen).
The future that the creators came up with is pretty interesting, and the way they've laid out the technology that drives everything is interesting as well. For instance, colonies on the various planets of the solar system aren't really in domes, but neither did humans terraform the entire planet. Instead, you've got these craters that seem to have an atmosphere of their own, but you can see it sorta leaking into the atmosphere of the planet. I have no idea if there's any scientific basis for this at all, but visually, it's pretty neat looking.
In one episode, Spike and Jet are trying to figure out how to play a video cassete (Beta, no less), so they go to this guy who specializes in it, and he's watching "20th century TV" and it seems to be a bit of a spoof on Beverly Hills 90210 (note the names, which are cut off, but it's still obvious who they are).
Pippu, choice of people 4 generations from now
It's nice to see that the cola war is still in full swing. Pepsi seems to have rebranded as Pippu, but Coke is still itself. And look here, it seems that later in the series, Pippu takes a page out of the Coke design book and redesigns it's logo with the Coke swoosh:
Both Coke and Pippu in one frame there. On that note, I think I'll call it quits. I took something like 250 screenshots while watching the first 20 episodes, so I'll post some more in the next post.
Posted by Mark on November 04, 2007 at 08:55 PM .: link :.
Friday, November 02, 2007
Friday is List Day: Book List Meme
Looks like there's a book meme making the rounds:
Read it? Bold it.
Start it, but didn't finish it? Italicize it.
As you can see, there are few books that I've started and not finished (and the ones I have were only started due to some sort of school assignment that didn't require a complete reading). I also don't hate many of the books, but perhaps that's just because I think hate is a pretty strong word. (I have no idea where this list of books came from - it's a mildly ecclectic mix of old and new. I guess Sara just made it up? Strange.)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Crime and Punishment
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Life of Pi: A Novel
The Name of the Rose
Pride and Prejudice
A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies
War and Peace
The Time Traveller's Wife
The Blind Assassin
The Kite Runner
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Memoirs of a Geisha
Wicked : The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
The Canterbury Tales
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Love in the Time of Cholera
Brave New World
The Count of Monte Cristo
A Clockwork Orange
The Once and Future King
The Grapes of Wrath
The Poisonwood Bible
The Satanic Verses
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
To the Lighthouse
Tess of the Dubervilles
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Sound and the Fury
A People's History of the United States : 1492-Present
The God of Small Things
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
The Mists of Avalon
Oryx and Crake: A Novel
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed
The Catcher in the Rye
On the Road
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
In Cold Blood
The Three Musketeers
And Roy's additions:
For Whom the Bell Tolls
War of the Worlds
The Invisible Man
Old Man and the Sea
Alice in Wonderland
Wizard of Oz
Return to Oz
The Chronicles of Narnia
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Lord of the Flies
The Confessions of Nat Turner
As I Lay Dying
The Sound and the Fury
The Great Gatsby
The Giving Tree
Good Night Moon
A Wrinkle in Time
I suppose I could add some books, but there's no real limit here and there doesn't seem to be any sort of theme, so I'll just leave it be.
Posted by Mark on November 02, 2007 at 08:56 PM .: link :.
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in November 2007.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
12 Days of Christmas
2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
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6 Weeks of Halloween
Arts & Letters
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Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival 2008
Philadelphia Film Festival 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival 2010
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Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Book of the Week
Weird Movie of the Week
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