Thursday, May 08 2008

Aria: Once in a Blue Moon

I was debating which bad music pun to use for this episode's title.

"Filler!  Filler night!  You're fighting for you life inside of filler, filler tonight!"
"I will call you Aika, and Aika, when you call me, will you call me Al?"

After a long hiatus, the 10th episode of Aria the Origination, "That Moon-Gazing Night's Excitement" was released as a fansub.  Of course, two days later RightStuf announces that it has licensed the entire series for American release, starting with Aria: the Animation this September.  Thankfully, Wonderduck has indicated that the last three fansubs are available elsewhere.

I am immensely grateful to RightStuf for both licensing this excellent series and for licensing a number of other favorite series of mine.  One of the first series I truly enjoyed, one that remains one of my Greatest Anime after all these years, is Irresponsible Captain Tylor, one of their early releases.  I eagerly wait the first season box set release on September 30.  Preorder now!  I may end up doing an episode by episode recap once I get the DVDs.  I'm still going to finish the Origination, hopefully in the next week or so, and recap that now...

When we last left Akari and friends, Alice had been unexpectedly promoted to full Prima undine, and the pressure is getting to her at the beginning of this episode.  She's now the number one rising star Undine in all of Neo-Venezia, and that's pretty tough to live up to.

After getting caught spying on Alice with Aika, Akari invites Alice to a moon viewing party that evening to relax and eat Odongo dumplings.  This is a good excuse for the series creators to put the characters in casual clothes.
After some time has passed, and Aika and Alice have conflicted over the dumplings, Aika wonders where Al is.  Al is a Gnome, one of the other unique professions on Aqua.  The Gnomes are in charge of adjusting the planet's gravity to something approximating Earth normal.  Unfortunately, Al's appearance tends to herald the arrival of the series only use of hokey pseudo-science.  Aika has something of a crush on Al which is never properly explained.  Al, though he's small and looks young, is older than Alicia and Akira.  Aika sets off to find Al.  And then Alice notices that Maa has vanished as well.

Aika finds Al, and is giddy as a schoolgirl as she happily leads him back towards Akari and Alice.  She stops to pose on top of a well...
... but the wooden cover is rotted through, sending her falling inside.  Ever the gentleman, Al attempts to pull her out...
...but falls in himself.  Fortunately, somehow, with a city covered in canals and water, the well is somehow dry.  Where is the water table, people?

Fortunately, help soon arrives...
... but Lassie, she isn't.  Maa is referred to several times as 'she' in the translation, something I hadn't seen before.

Aika attempts to get Lassi... sorry, Maa, to get help.  So what does Maa do?

... Maa, predictably, jumps down the well.  Oddly enough, she doesn't land on all fours...
... she sticks the landing!  Perfect tens from all the judges, save the Romanian judge.

Aika, tells Maa that she is a smart Aqua cat (confirming my theories), and repeatedly attempts to send Maa back out for help, but Maa keeps jumping back in, until she finally gets the idea and heads off for help.  Or heads off somewhere...

We are then treated to the drama of two people trying not to admit their feelings for each other stuck in an embarrassing situation in tight quarters.  It's a good excuse to give us some up close character shots, well as having Aika running through the complete cartoony exaggerated emotional faces book.

Eventually, Maa brings help, which, by anime cliche law, must arrive at the most embarrassing possible moment.

With that, everyone is safe and all is well.

Some interesting things to note this episode:

President Aria finally manages to get some kind of positive reaction from President Hime.  Way to go, President Aria!  Suck in that flabby belly!

Right after Aika starts fretting about Al being late, Alice starts mischievously prodding Aika about her relationship with Al.  President Hime, who is Aika's cat for all practical purposes, can be seen mimicking Alice's expression.

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Thursday, May 01 2008

Lies, Damn Lies, and More Damn Lies

As Wonderduck has pointed out, Aria episode 10 has been released and downloaded, and I almost can't wait to start watching.  But first, some serious business.

My mother and I do not see eye to eye on just about anything political.  She's staunchly anti-war, and unabashedly so, and we occasionally end up verbally sparring over the news.  There's no bitterness about it when it happens, except perhaps from my father, who holds his political opinions generally very close to his chest.

Today, she had some questions for me as a representative of the other side of the debate.  At the weekly historical society meeting, a member had been passing around copies of an e-mail purporting to list military deaths by year since 1980, including a helpful total of 14,000 for the Clinton administration, and my mother thought that that number looked fishy.   She's a history major, and tends to approach her chosen interest with the same degree of obsession I show towards my interests, and is good at spotting unusual bits that don't fit together.

The number looked fishy to me, as well, as I remember some pro-military bloggers citing a number somewhere in the 7,000 range for the same statistic.  I suggested that she check the information on line, as there was a handy web page listed.  She was worried that if the web page was a far-right site that she couldn't trust the information from.  So I went and looked for her.

The domain for the address given in the e-mail,, looked familiar, and when I went there I remembered why.  It's the page for the Federation of American Scientists, and I'd used it to do research on Warsaw Pact military equipment for a wargame.  They seemed largely non-partisan and trustworthy, and were a good reference source for research on international politics and military affairs.  I then checked out the specific document listed in the e-mail, the CRS (Congressional Research Service) report on American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics, published in mid 2007.

And, presto, my mother's question was answered on the first page, with a warning about an e-mail containing bogus statistics purported to be from the report.  The real statistics themselves follow, with 7500 US military fatalities between 1993 and 2000, which is roughly Clinton's time in office, so the ballpark figure I remember of somewhere in the 7000s fits.  I showed my mother the actual statistics and explained why I trusted FAS based on my experience with them.

My mother's now going to take the e-mail back to the group at the historical society next meeting and (knowing her) loudly announce the false information in the handout, and while I disagree with the opinions she holds, she will be in the right, because the statistics given were wrong.  Whether the statistics are true or false doesn't change the situation on the ground, but it does affect the credibility of the people providing the statistics.

If you see a statistic and it's too good to be true, check it out.  Check the primary source, if listed, and check statistics you know are trustworthy to compare.  If it checks out, you've got more ammunition in your arsenal of facts.  If it doesn't check out, you've just avoided shooting yourself in the foot.  Know that facts and statistics presented my be inaccurate or distorted.

If you're the sort of idiot on any side that makes up statistics to bolster your side, stop.  You're not helping anyone, you're only making everyone distrust anyone that believes differently and any facts that do happen to be true.  If you're doing it for that reason, you deserve to have a saguaro cactus shoved... [my ideal fate of those that deliberately screw with statistics is best not fully described]

Now, back to watching animated gondolas...

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Monday, April 07 2008

Engineering Logic and Politics

My error in the last post really bothers me.  I often receive complaints at work for being overly complex when answering questions because I think a simple answer doesn't answer the question.  I want things to be precise because it avoids (or ideally should avoid) confusion.

My degree in Computer Science comes from the engineering college of the school I attended, and I had to take a number of introductory engineering classes in other fields, so I think I think like an engineer.  An engineer wants to solve a given problem with a simple, practical solution.  The first part of this is knowing what the problem is, and this requires precise terminology.

The problem is that precise terminology doesn't necessarily apply to problems of politics, or at least isn't necessarily applied to politics, as those that benefit from politics have an incentive to weasel the terms used to suit their own ends.  Often, the goal of a politician is to implement a specific solution, rather than find the best solution to a problem.  I am thoroughly convinced that this is indeed crazy, and that most problems could be solved, or at least reduced, by application of engineering logic.

Take the fun debate over the recent release of Fitna, the anti-Islamic documentary from Dutch politician Geert Wilders.  As usual, Islamic groups are demanding that laws be passed to ban hate speech, and a lot of reflexively multicultural political groups are at least making noises about agreeing that hate speech is bad.  The engineering solution?  Get written out a precise, objective definition of what exactly constitutes hate speech / defamation of religion / blasphemy.  How would this address the issue (at least in my ideal, logical world)?  It would point out that a lot of the articles in the middle eastern press probably meet the definition of hate speech, and we could probably get a lot of the screeds addressed at the religious right on the same grounds.  Hopefully, the consensus among at least those in the West would be that an objective rule against religious defamation would give the hard edge of the religious right the ability to sue a lot of people into oblivion, and as such the idea is poorly thought out.  Admittedly, there is the chance that the law would be enacted and not enforced objectively, as is the case with the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, but that's an implementation problem.

A lot of the more politically motivated law proposals fail the objective and precise test, not because they can't be written objectively but because so much of what is obviously discourse worth protecting (that is, discourse that you agree with) falls into the category when you apply an objective and precise definition, and as such the law is unworkable and dangerous.  The Fairness Doctrine fails this test, as do any laws which treat journalists as a protected class.

Update on 4/8/2008 below the fold

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Saturday, March 29 2008

Casualties in Miniature

There's a fascinating discussion at Twenty Sided about micromanagement in Real Time Strategy gaming, always a pet peeve of mine.  But Shamus, in his posts, brings up something more interesting.

I think the strategy parts are unfulfilling because I never feel like I’m doing well. No matter how carefully I guide my units, I always leave the battlefield with the impression that I oversaw the wasting of potential. I spent so much effort carefully crafting this army of badasses, and half of them perish because they are too stupid to fight in a sensible manner and I’m too busy to tell them how to do it right.

This is, to some degree, the problem that keeps nagging at the back of my brain when playing any game involving combat.  I can't help but feel that I took way too many casualties.  I don't like throwing troops away, especially to no end, but the games tend to require successful players to sustain casualties, often massive amounts of casualties to sustain victory.

Let's take Flames of War as a more realistic example.  The game attempts to enhance realism by placing on the table enough miniatures to accurately represent the real number of combat troops in a real-world unit.  A World War II US Army rifle squad is 12 troops, so I should have 12 miniature figures on the table, and I do.  For game purposes, two to five figures are mounted together and treated as a single entity for game play, but I can see 12 little helmets in my squad.  A rifle platoon has 41 troops, compared to a real world list strength of 46.  The reinforced US Rifle company I fielded on Friday night has 226 troops and five armored vehicles, roughly comparable to the 198 troops in the real world US Army rifle company, circa 1942.  My company has some battalion and higher level support elements, and the force on the table in the game doesn't have its full compliment of rear area support troops, but the general idea still holds.

The game on Friday was relatively light, as games go.  My troops spent most of the battle sheltered in foxholes, and my tanks faced almost no serious threat from the early-model German and Italian tanks.   I lost two 57mm AT guns and their four man crews (eight soldiers), the platoon command for my weapons platoon and the crew for a 60mm mortar (six soldiers), half a platoon of infantry that faced the brunt of the German assault (six bases with four soldiers each for 24 soldiers), and one M4 Sherman tank lost to a flank hit from an Italian tank (crew of five).  I sustained a total of 43 pretend casualties.  The game doesn't differentiate between the actual results that take units out of combat, so those casualties could be dead, wounded, or otherwise out of action;  the difference is unimportant in game terms.  Still, that's one sixth of my force out of action.

And that's a relatively easy battle.  It's not unusual for my all three of rifle platoons to be more than half casualties by the end of the game.  In my March 10th entry, I described having lost more than three quarters of my tanks in a series of games.  On the one hand, it's just a game.  On the other hand, I can't help but feel I'm a lousy commander for losing so much of my forces.

In part, that's because the meeting of equal forces is a relatively rare thing in war.  The whole idea behind being a great strategist is that you meet the enemy with a stronger force to begin with, while the mechanics of the game require that both sides be comparable.  Fairness is what you want in a game, not in a real battle.

The other problem may be that I'm looking at it across the gulf of decades of the changing nature of warfare.  The real battles, especially the ones where the enemy picked the field of battle and had the stronger force (Kasserine Pass, the Ardennes, etc.) seem unbelievably bloody to someone in a world where 4,000 killed [UPDATED Was originally "casualties" - my unfortunate mistake, see comments] in five years in a force of 100,000 is viewed as unsustainable.  The idea that the Soviet Union lost an average of more than 10,000 people per day spread across the entire second world war is completely incomprehensible to me.

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Tuesday, March 25 2008

Aria: The Kid Gloves Come Off

Aria: the Origination, Episode 9, "Enveloped in that Orange Wind..." should be studied as a textbook example of anime storytelling done right.  It both builds off the history of the series and adds enough new material to build something incredibly special.

I've always liked Akira's character because we've seen enough of her past in flashbacks during the series that we can see how she's grown.  It's been subtle, but Alice has grown as well, and this series brings it all together to see at once.  Akira's changes are obvious due to the presentation of her history as flashbacks, so we can immediately compare Akira as she was with Akira as she is.  Alice's changes have been subtle, stretched across almost 45 episodes in three incarnations of the series, such that you don't notice them until you look back.

When we first are introduced to Alice Carroll, in Episode 3 of Aria: the Animation, we see Alice's schoolmates idolize her because of her stardom as a rookie Undine recruit by Orange Planet.  Alice doesn't react well to the sudden interest, and awkwardly drives away a few that try to ask for an autograph.  This episode, then, opens with Alice's graduation from school, and we see Alice reacting rather graciously to the attention of her fellow students.

We then see Alice's journey home from school.  Alice has a habit of adopting silly challenges on her route home from school, such as trying only to step on shadows, or (in this case) doing the route backwards.  In previous episodes, she learned to accept Athena's kindness and help, and we see in this episode that she now is willing to treat Athena as a special friend.

But that's incidental to the meat of the story.  Once in her room, by the orange light of the setting sun, Athena asks Alice if she'd like to go for a picnic the next day, and Alice accepts.

The journey starts in earnest the next morning.  Athena asks if Alice wouldn't mind pretending that she was Alice's customer for the trip.  We catch Athena complementing Alice on her smile, for which Alice credits Akari's tutelage.  After all, that's why Alice sought out Akari in the first place, to learn how the perennially good-natured Akari could smile so naturally.  Alice is also complimented on her skills as a guide, to which she credits a strict senior that can only be Aika.  The journey itself is long and beautiful.  Towards the end, ascending one of the canal locks, Athena drops out of customer mode and gets Alice to admit that the one thing she is still unsure of is her singing ability, to which Athena applies some sage wisdom.  Finally, free of the lock, the pair round the canal bend to find a party waiting for them under the setting orange sunlight.

Aika, Akari, President Aria, the lock operator (actually a repeating character in the series), two gentlemen from the gondola association and the head of Orange Planet wait on the canal bank under the windmills.

This is one last joke on Alice, as Athena asks her for a final song.  But, miraculously, after crediting her tutelage from the legendary Undine known as the Siren (Athena herself), Alice sings.

There's a reaction that the animators use in Episode 11 of the original series during a flashback when Akira and Alicia first hear Athena sing.  Time slows down.  The surroundings, the people in them, everything just stops and listens to the song of the Undine eventually to be known as the Siren.  That reaction is repeated here, but instead of Akira and Alicia with the startled reactions, it's Akari and Aika.  And me.  And one more reaction...
With that expression, Alice wins.  The student has surpassed (or at least surprised) the master.

In the series so far, only Athena has actually sung on camera.  Singing (Canzone) is supposed to be a skill all Undines are trained in, but we've never actually see anyone but Athena actually sing until now.  I don't know if this is the actual voice actress or a stunt voice, but it's an excellent job.  The cuts between Alice, the reactions of the onlookers, and some brief flashbacks to important moments for Alice in the series, all serve to draw the whole thing together.

At this point, Athena congratulates Alice on behalf of the company, says that they've been waiting until she had finished school, and then gives us what we have been waiting for...
...She removes Alice's glove.   And then, on behalf of the Gondola Association...
...removes Alice's other glove.

Alice is now officially a Prima, and is the first Undine to be promoted to Prima directly from Pair.  Her honorific title is Orange Princess, after the orange glow traditionally associated with the Martian sky, and hence the source of the name Orange Planet. (I thought Mars was the red planet?  Shhh... you're ruining the mood!)

Congratulations to Alice Carroll, the Orange Princess!

Of course, not to be outdone, Maa takes this opportunity to strike at his hated foe...

Random thoughts after the break.

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Monday, March 17 2008

Aria: The Undine Suspects

Now that the convention is finished, I've finished my post on Aria: Episode 8 "Within that precious person's memories...".  I've also managed to hold off watching Episode 9 until after I get this finished.

Episode 8 is Alice vs. Athena, as opposed to Episode 6, which was Alice vs. Alicia.  As Alicia won the last round of mind games, Alice is stuck in a battle of wits with the notoriously dopey Athena...

The episode opens with Alice discussing going on a picnic with Athena.  This gets Akari and Aika excited, as the 'picnic' excuse is normally used a cover for the promotion test to Single, which for Alice is long overdue.  The excitement of the pair fades when Alice mentions that she's the one who came up with the picnic idea.  (I'm still curious as to what code of Omerta the Undines have that the whole 'picnic on Hope Hill / single promotion test' hasn't been exposed yet.)

Alice returns to the apartment she shares with Athena at the lavish Orange Planet citadel, where she makes elaborate trip plans and prepares lunch, during which it is revealed that President Maa likes to eat bananas (see previous post).  It's a pleasure to see her genuinely happy for once, and the fun of the character is that we've seen her ability to express emotions has developed as the series has progressed.  She returns from taking the least fan-servicey bath in anime history (unless you're an ankle fetishist) to find Athena asleep.  Alice leaves a copy of her itinerary for Athena.

Alice wakes up to find Athena gone on what was supposed to be her day off.  She broods angrily in her room until Athena returns unexpectedly and out of breath.

Athena apologizes for the sudden call to duty, and Alice makes a half-hearted attempt to accept the apology before stalking off angrily.  Athena attempts to follow, but fate... or President Maa... intervenes.

President Maa... in the Bedroom... with the Banana Peel.

A frantic call to Aria company ensues, and Akari and Alicia arrive to find a distraught Alice and a seemingly normal Athena, and not a normal-for-Athena Athena, but a coordinated, quick-witted, alert Athena.  The downside of the new Athena is that she's also lost her memory.

Athena's memory slowly returns as Alice spends the day trying to prod Athena's memory back into shape.  Athena eventually remembers everything but Alice, which saddens Alice to no end.

Athena asks Alice what kind of a mentor she had been, and a sobbing Alice is forced to admit that she likes Athena.  Then Alicia intervenes, forcing Athena to give up her trick;  she'd been faking the amnesia to get Alice to open up.

Poor Alice.  This is the second time she's been completely outwitted in the past three episodes.

The fake Amnesia plot is pretty standard fare, but Athena's ability to turn off the clumsiness and dull-wittedness she normally displays is rather impressive.  She claims that it takes most of her attention to act normal, of course, but it's tempting to compare the usual Athena to Verbal Kint, Keven Spacey's character from The Usual Suspects.

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Thursday, March 13 2008

Aria: Maa

I'm still working on the Episode 8 post for Aria.  Preparing for the second convention in as many weekends has taken a lot out of me.

While Episode 8 largely covers Athena and Alice, we do get to see a fair bit of Maa.  I'm even more convinced that Maa isn't an ordinary Earth cat.  I'm not saying he's absolutely a Mars cat, but whatever he is he has monkey and piranha genes in him.  How else can he eat five whole bananas that are larger than he is?  And whatever he is, he's smart enough to peel them first.  Perhaps President Aria is right to be scared of Maa's attempts to eat him;  one of these days Maa may very well succeed.

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Monday, March 10 2008

Historical Accuracy in Games: an Example

I just got back from the HMGS East Cold Wars convention in Lancaster, PA, and I am preparing for my Alma Mater's "CollegeCon" alumni weekend and boardgaming event next weekend.  I'll have a longer post up after both conventions are finished.  I hope to have a post on Aria episode 8 up this week as well, unless episode 9 is translated in which case all bets are off.

Quick example of historical accuracy in wargaming:  I played three rounds of Flames of War in the 1500 point mid-war (1942-43) tournament with my American Rifle Company and finished a solid 2-1 with 13 points.   Each round, I deployed a three tank platoon of standard US Army M4 Sherman tanks, for a total of nine tanks fielded.  Seven of my nine tanks were destroyed.  I lost one to a combination of point blank artillery fire followed by an infantry assault.  I lost two to 75mm fire from Panzer IV tanks, which is a suitably historical face-off for the Sherman (there's a little historical glitch in that particular scenario, but that's for later).  I lost four to self propelled 15cm assault guns, three to Sturmpanzer IV Brummbars and one to a STuIG33 (kind of a beta-release Brummbar).  The Germans built almost 1500 early model Panzer IV ausf G tanks with long 75mm guns.  The Germans built around 300 Brummbars, and only 24 STuIG33s, almost all of both of which were used for city fighting on the Eastern front until late in the war and therefore the US army of 1942-43 really didn't need weapons designed for fighting them.  I also probably wasn't alone in cursing the Brummbars, as it seemed almost every German army had a pair of the damnable things.  Why?  Because the rules and the tournament itself make the Brummbar worth more in game terms than it was worth historically.

In game terms, the Brummbar's front armor is impenetrable to Sherman fire, and for that matter to gunfire from just about any mid-war medium tank (despite the claims of the occasional evil German players, the Panther is not a medium tank, I don't care what the history books say.)  It takes a lucky shot from an American tank destroyer like an M10 to kill the damned thing.  The side armor is penetrable, but is rated the same in game terms as the front armor of an early Panzer IV G.  The main gun packs a wallop.  A hit on a Sherman kills it instantly, and it is rated as having better armor penetration than the aforementioned M10 tank destroyer against heavy tanks (it is packing a 15cm howitzer designed to reduce a fortified building to rubble).  The Brummbar's cost when putting together an army list is 85% of the cost of an early Panzer IV G, less than half the cost of a Panther, and less than a third the cost of a Tiger 1E.  The Brummbar's weaknesses are simple:  the gun is fixed forward rather than turreted, it's slow and prone to getting stuck,  the size of the gun reduces its rate of fire, and it's got a very limited range.  The fixed forward gun is rarely a hindrance in Flames of War rules, as mobility is such that tanks can generally turn on a dime.  The rate of fire is more of an issue under Flames of War rules as the ROF for the Brummbar is so low it imposes accuracy penalties for movement.  (The StuIG33 has less armor than the Brummbar, so it is, barely, killable with a front shot from a Sherman.)  General game ranges for the main gun of most medium tanks are 32", which is significant with a 4 foot by 6 foot table.  The Brummbar's range is a pitiful 16", meaning that if you do have a tank destroyer you can sit well out of its range and pound away with impunity until you get lucky.  Given the severe range limitation on the Brummbar, it's a little cheesy but not enough to justify the numbers deployed in the tournament.

That's where the tournament administration guys came in to the picture.  I have the privilege of gaming against them on a weekly basis and they're great players and really fun opponents.  Part of the fun is setting up memorable games, and the one thing memorable that the tournament administration guys have control over is the detail of the battlefield.  And they go all out, from the shores of Tunisia to the snow-covered Russian steppes, from Sicilian airfields (the infamous yet beautiful 'Dulles Airport' board) to Stalingrad in miniature.  Each and every board is packed with detail.  The problem is that that detail tends to be between your troops and the enemy.  You can be admiring the scenery one minute and cursing it the next when you realize that it's blocking you from taking your shot.  And that is why weapon range is not as important as the game designers intended.  Most battlefields are such that experienced players can keep their Brummbars from taking more than one or two shots before they're close enough to fire, and that's rarely enough shots to get a lucky penetration.  Simply put, the tournament battlefields are such that points spent on long range direct fire are not as valuable as the game designers intended.

One of the good things about computer games is that game designers often can rebalance unit cost / performance repeatedly with each new patch to deal with unbalanced abilities that players uncover over time.  The game environment is such that the battlefields are designed by the same designers that balance the forces, meaning the possible field balance is known ahead of time.

My army gave as good as it got.  We destroyed three Brummbars, one with a flank Sherman shot, three Panzer IV Gs, and two StuIG33s.  We American players also can't complain about broken units, as we've got another unit worth significantly more in game terms than in history, my beloved M5 Stuart. 

And I earlier mentioned that there was some ahistorical irony in the Panzer IVs I destroyed?  They were crewed by Romanian crews in an army based on the Romanian units which accompanied the Germans into Russia.  What they were doing fighting the US army is anyone's guess.

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Aria: Bonus Artwork III

Everyone's favorite Undines.

Wonderduck has a long post up which ponders the inner workings of the world of Aria.

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Wednesday, March 05 2008

Aria: Bonus Artwork II

For your viewing pleasure, another bonus Aria artwork.  This is just about the complete cast of reoccurring characters in the series at around the end of Aria: the Natural except Ai.

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Tuesday, March 04 2008

Aria: Bonus Artwork

Today's bonus Aria artwork. This is obviously an Origination promo piece, as Atora, Anzu, and Ayumi are visible off to the left. It also has Akino, the glassblower apprentice from Aria: the Natural (season 2), Ai, Akatsuki, Woody, the postman and the cafe manager. Maa-kun has acquired a small Orange Planet tie.

Look closely at the hands of the foreground Undines. Notice anything interesting?

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Halting State

I've taken a break from anime and painting to catch up on my reading, getting through several books that had accumulated in my 'to read' list.  I had difficulty putting down Halting State by Charles Stross, and not because I'd gotten glue on my hands building miniatures.

I've read Stross's more traditional sci-fi novels Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, and found them to be entertaining and worth a read, but not great.  I also enjoyed The Atrocity Archives despite my aversion to the whole horror genre.  Halting State was an impulse buy;  I recognized Stross's name but couldn't place any actual books he had written until I went home and checked the bookshelf.  It was the plot summary in the book jacket that drew me in: in the near future, a police officer must investigate a bank robbery conducted in a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game).

The summary, while not lying, doesn't actually convey the book's plot.  I was expecting something like a modernized version of Larry Niven's Dream Park, where the game is the focus of the plot.  It doesn't quite work out that way, probably for the best.  While a bit of the plot does take place in a virtual world, most of the story takes place firmly in the real world, and the game is only a small component of the overall plot.  The book is actually more a look at a possibility of what a future where society, culture, economics, and business are all networked together.  It's not about the technology, which is not at all far-fetched, but at the effects of linking all the information networks that exist today together and integrating them more thoroughly into people's daily lives.

It's interesting to see this book as representing another facet of 'cyberpunk' (for lack of a better word) science fiction.  William Gibson and Shirow Masamune separately look at the technology layer of information technology;  how changes in hardware, from computers to cybernetics, will change the world.  Neil Stephenson looks at the power of ideas and memes at what might be the wetware layer of information technology;  how individual ideas will change the world.  In this book, Stross looks at the power of networks to control and route information, in a sense bridging the gap between hardware and wetware.  (In a sense, this is a simplification.  Stephenson does cover hardware, especially nanotech in the excellent Snow Crash, while Shirow and Gibson do get into the level of ideas and minds.)

Another thing I love about this book is that Stross effectively combines a number of different interests of mine into the story.  At the detail level, there are references to both electronic gaming and tabletop roleplaying games, spy fiction, technology at the programming and business levels, geek culture, and even anime.  Stross also sounds like he at least partially understands most of what he's referencing;  the jokes seem natural, not forced.  The overall plot combines a healthy technothriller intrigue story with a mystery and a science-fiction look at the possibilities of technology.  Furthermore, the plot isn't preachy or too obviously cliche, and the technology fits into the story well and doesn't require tedious explanation of how it works.  The intrigue is well done, with a story formed from multiple plots working at cross-purposes leading to a couple of surprises.  (Stross combined genres even better in The Atrocity Archive, mixing black IT humor, spy fiction, and Lovecraftian horror into an incredible tapestry.  If only I didn't loathe the horror genre...)

Overall, this is one of the best books I've read in quite some time.  It did take me some time afterwards to get the title, however, so I'm slowing down a bit...

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Thursday, February 28 2008

Aria: Ice Cream and History

I had intended to do a separate post for each additional Aria episode, but family emergencies and computer accidents have conspired to force me to summarize episodes 6 and 7 of Aria: the Origination in a single post.

Episode Six, "In that Wonderful Extracurricular Lesson...", follows the pattern of episodes four and five in spotlighting particular characters, in this case the unlikely pairing of Alicia and Alice.

The plot of this episode is rather forgettable and seems very contrived.  It opens with Alice and Athena running in to Akari and Aika in the market, with Alice herding Athena to offset Athena's natural clumsiness and absent-mindedness.  Afterwards, Alice buys Athena ice cream, which Athena proceeds to drop on the ground.  To cheer up her mentor, Alice then buys Athena a slice of pizza.  The story then cuts to Alice, Akari and Aika practicing.  Alice, curious to know about what kind of a mentor Alicia is, asks Akari how much Alicia scolds her when she makes a mistake.  Akari replies that Alicia never does scold her.  So Alice is determined to watch Akari and see if Alicia ever scolds Akari, and we are treated to a couple scenes of Alice getting caught spying on the two Aria Company Undines.  Alice, a bit put out at being unable to catch Alicia getting angry, is then seen pondering how to proceed, even to the point of considering sabotaging Akari in the hopes of having Alicia react.  To this end, Alice stops at a cafe and purchases a sundae.  But when she looks up...
...Alicia is there, and joins Alice at her table.  (I don't know what's up with President Aria's outfits this episode.  I'm not sure I want to know...)

After an awkward (for Alice) series of greetings, Alicia gets to the point.  She's noticed that Alice is spying on her, and wants to know what the young Undine wants.  Alice confesses, and Alicia explains that she prefers to use positive reinforcement as a motivational tool, and uses President Aria (struck dumb by his headgear) to demonstrate.  After a long and somewhat awkward conversation, Alice has some understanding as to the way Alicia thinks its best to motivate people (and cats).

The problem is that the whole sequence seems out of place.  Alicia trains all three trainee Undines, and so Alice has first hand experience with her teaching style.  Alice should know that Alicia has no reason to be a strict instructor when she has the Demon Instructor, Akira, to play "Bad Prima" to her "Good Prima".

The episode does, however, shed some new light on Alicia and Alice, which was the whole point, but the conclusion leaves me wondering whether that light is entirely good.  Alicia's positive training method puts her "Sweetness and Light" quotient to the point where it's giving me cavities.  However, her showing up out of the blue to question Alice and the sheer mental anguish she puts Alice through before she asks about the recent spying indicates not only that she has some intelligence under the "My, my..." facade but suggests some degree of cunning.  She doesn't need to scold Alice;  her mere presence does it for her.

While Alice learns the value of kindness and positive reinforcement, her more glaring character flaw is highlighted and left unresolved this episode.  It seems natural to Alice that Alicia should scold Akari when she makes a mistake, after all, Akira scolds Aika and she (Alice) scolds Athena.  Of course, Alicia and Akira are Prima Undines, and as such are supposed to be the trainers (whatever method of training they use) but Athena is also a Prima, and Alice is supposed to be the trainee.  Alice, technically, isn't even a Single, she's still in the lowest level, that of the Pair.  And there's the crux of the problem;  Alice is a naturally gifted gondoleer.  She's significantly better than Akari or Aika, and we've seen in episode four that other Singles on the verge of becoming Prima regard Akari as highly skilled.  Her low status is probably a combination of her age, status as a school student, and the fact that her mentor is absent minded.  (And Athena is still incredibly absent minded;  if Alicia is probably a direct descendant of Belldandy, Athena is probably a direct descendant of Ayumu Kasuga.  Athena needs someone with some skill at day to day living to keep her on track.)  Alice's personality has warmed up some over the course of the series, but she still needs to learn a little humility.

Episode six is pretty high quality, graphics-wise.  The crowd scenes in the beginning in the marketplace have more depth of motion than most of the previous episodes, and the buildings all throughout this episode look pretty good.  Due to the lack of action, however, there are few good screenshots.

Episode seven, "During that Slow Moving Time..." has probably been the best episode of the series so far, and is a special treat for fans of the series.  The colors are often lush and vibrant, and the world is full of little details to discover.

We open with Akari and Alicia going to visit a retired Aria Undine that was once a mentor to Alicia.  She fell in love with a fisherman she met as a tour guide and married him, moved away from Neo-Venezia and had a son.

Anna, shown here with her son Ahito, spends some time reminiscing about her time as an Undine (her husband's name is Albert, in keeping with the theme).  Anna isn't the only Undine we are introduced to this episode.  After a surprise encounter, we are introduced via a flashback to Akino.

Akino was a popular but overworked Himeya Undine who learned a lesson about patience and the need for a new look at life from a stray cat.

This encounter caused her to step back a bit and make a decision which has ended up forming the basis for the world we see in the series.

As one can probably guess, we've seen Akino before.  Here's how she looks in the present of the series:

She's referred to in the series as Grandmother, the legendary Undine that founded Aria company.  The Undines in episode four compliment Akari by saying "I guess we can't expect anything less from an employee of the Aria Company that Grandmother founded."
The scenes showing the founding of Aria company are a treat, but leave a few questions unanswered.  Akino encounters the young President Aria sitting along an empty stretch of wharf, staring out at the empty sea, day after day.  The big question is, what exactly was he staring out after?
The Undines of Aria company: Anna, Akino, Alicia and Akari.

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Thursday, February 21 2008

Aria: Memories, Cats and Inconsistancies

I'm lately burned out on politics, so an episodic play by play of Aria: the Origination is the best I can do at the moment.  But it's a worthy task to assume.

Episode 5, "That keepsake clover...", is primarily a character expose for Aika and Akira, but it does that job well.  Akira is definitely the most well defined of the three mentors, and this look into her inner insecurities and the similar insecurities that haunt Aika, is well done.

The episode opens with our three students out on a routine training.  In any other series, that opener would be good for some catastrophe, but in this case it's just another demonstration by Athena and Alicia as to just how good they are.  Athena gets to put her voice to use this time, and basically shuts down the market momentarily as everyone stops and listens to her.  It's a trick we've seen before, but it's always a pleasure.  Alicia, meanwhile, repeats her precise boat maneuvering to gracefully catch a wind blown hat, to the applause of the crowd.

It's amazing the degree to which the animators have made the Undines seem like a combination of figure skaters and martial artists when they're handling an oar in other than a routine manner.  It was visible in episode 4 when it briefly looked as if Akari and Anzu were going to break out into a demonstration of staff fighting to impress the onlookers as they readied the oars.

The three students comment that Alicia and Athena have natural talents, which causes Aika to immediately wonder at what talents Akira, her mentor, has.  Although Aika idolizes Alicia and is overtly antagonistic with Akira, we've seen in the first season that Aika deeply respects Akira as well, to the point of taking it personally when other Himeya Undines badmouth Akira.  Matters aren't helped much when Alice and Akari show off their own talents in afternoon practice.  Alice is almost as good at her technique with the boat as Alicia, demonstrating both masterful parallel parking skills and high speed back alley rowing.  (I wonder where they came up with the idea that Alicia's talent is her oar technique;  I thought her special talent was just that she's completely amazing, so much so that she probably has Haruka Minami as an ancestor).  Akari, meanwhile, has adapted to Neo-Venezia with much the same unique talent that Carrot Ironfounderson shows towards Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels.  She knows everyone, everyone knows her, and she's friends with everyone.  And of course this depresses Aika even more.
Aika returns to the Himeya offices / apartments to run into Akira in full cleaning mode, and is drafted to assist her mentor.  Her slight depression deepens considerably when one of Akira's photo albums is investigated to reveal a photo taken immediately after Athena was promoted to Prima.  It shows Alicia as Prima, Athena as Prima, and Akira still with the single glove of the Single (apprentice) level.

The book details are amusing, if difficult to make out, as in one shot an angry Akira is clearly depicted with the cartoony face the series uses for exaggerated emotions.

With the picture, Aika immediately questions Athena about how she felt about being overshadowed by two peers with natural talents.  This triggers the expected moral-laden "when I was in your shoes" story from Akira in the form of an extended flashback.

It's interesting to see yet another side of Akira's past, as she slips into depression at being normal.  And yet a surprise encounter by a bed of clovers teaches her a lesson that she's then able to pass on to Aika.  And who is the surprise teacher?

The surprise teacher that gives Akira a lesson in self-confidence and self-worth is none other than a much younger Aika.  Story told, all becomes right in Neo-Venezia and everything is back to normal.

A few other observations on the episode below the fold:

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Tuesday, February 12 2008

The A's Have It

Right now, there is only one anime series for which I'm waiting impatiently for each fansub release: Aria the Origination.  It's rather odd, in that Aria is the most relaxed series I've ever seen, and it seems almost criminal to be impatient with it.  The four episodes currently released have all been very good, and two have been nearly perfect.

The first episode, "Upon the Spring Wind That'll Soon be Here" is the textbook example of a recap episode.  It gives all the major characters some screen time, getting us used to their obvious quirks and reminding us that the author has a thing for names that start with A.  It also sets up what seems like the dominant theme of this series, the eventual promotion of our three trainee Undines to Prima, but does so in the guise of reintroducing us to their mentors through an example of their extraordinary skills.  Alicia's stunt is not visually dramatic but is emotionally dramatic, giving her a "Sweeteness and Light" quotient almost at the level of Belldandy from Ah My Goddess.  Akira proves that she's got some well-concealed thorns, and I'm not talking about those heels, and she manages to let the best of tomboy that was shine through with the lady that is.

Finally, Athena manages to demonstrate that Wisdom and Intelligence are not necessarily the same thing, in her creative handling of a small problem.
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The third series looks visually more impressive than the previous two series.  The backgrounds are richer, and the city of neo-Venezia seems more alive.  On watching it for the second time, I noticed that tt is something of a Potemkin visage, as the backdrops that seem alive are largely set pieces.  The bystanders are largely stationary, with occasionally one being animated in a simple action.  It's only in the process of looking for screen captures that I actually noticed the deception, however.  On first watching it I was enthralled with the pretty world.

Episode two, "That smiling customer...", reintroduces us to Neo-Venezia again, as Akari takes a special client on a tour of the city, giving the animators a chance to draw some of the more visually impressive bits of the city.  The resolution to the episode is a bit of a downer of my opinion, but offset by the spectacularly illustrated gardens.

Another detail I notices as I was rewatching the series is the use of computer animation for the water effects.  While the backgrounds are still, the water, visible in nearly every shot, is almost constantly moving, which helps to give the illusion of life to the world.

The third episode, "Those feelings you put in..." is the weakest of the four currently out.  It centers on Akari's permanent set of rose colored glasses and the architecture of Neo-Venezia and of Venice.  I'm curious to try to match up some of the buildings in the anime with their real-world counterparts and see how they match up.  I was surprised that I could spot the details visible in San Marko's Piazza in Aria the OVA:  Arietta (and again in this episode) in looking at Venice's San Marko's Piazza in Google Earth.

Another detail noticeable in several places throughout all the series is the use of reasonable looking Italian (in that it looks like Italian to someone like me that's not similar with the language) for most of the flavor text.  It's first visible in the first series in the episode where Alice is introduced, but it crops up several places in the new series, most noticeably where President Aria is reading his morning newspaper.

The fourth episode, "Those who aim for that tomorrow...", is a spectacular bit of character development.  Akari spends the day working with three new characters, all other apprentice undines, named Atora, Anzu and Ayumi, all of whom have been pondering and worrying about their future as Undines.  It gives another hint about the series theme of the promotion test for the title of Prima Undine.  Despite being introduced this episode, all three characters are fully fleshed out, with defined personalities and quirks.  The episode uses their interactions with Akari to give us some insight into their world and their lives, and the final character drama in the episode is surprising and emotional, gives us a new look at characters only introduced this episode, and lets Akari's eternal optimism shine through to advance the overall plot.  Part of getting to know the characters is watching them work, and it's to the series overall credit that Akari is not always the center of attention throughout their day.

One other thing to note in this episode.  We've been introduced to three Undine companies, Aria Company (Akari and Alicia, with blue trim), Himeya Company (Aika and Akira, with red trim) and Orange Planet (Alice and Athena, with yellow trim).  Almost exclusively, whenever you see a random Undine in a shot of Neo-Venezia, they're in Himeya red or Orange Planet yellow (as Aria company only has two employees, both named, there are no random Aria undines).  My recollection is that at one point in the second series, we see a random Undine in green trim in one of the opening credits, but I've never been able to find it again.  I experienced a momentary pleasure at looking at the crowd of apprentice Undines in this episode to see both green and purple uniformed Undines, only to be disappointed when our team consisted of Akari, two Orange Planet Undines, and a Himeya Undine.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

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Tuesday, January 08 2008

Mission: Impractical

From Instapundit (bold highlight mine):

HERE IN NEVADA, I've heard some Ron Paul ads. They make him sound like a regular Republican -- strong on defense (against base closings, in favor of "stealth warriors" to "hunt down terrorists" around the world) and against illegal immigration. The war isn't mentioned, nor is the "L' word -- libertarian. If you hadn't been paying attention, you could think they were Duncan Hunter commercials . . . .

I've seen the James Bond national security strategy advocated by lots of people from varying political philosophies, and it's something that I was originally tempted to advocate for myself.  It's one of those things that sounds like a great idea until you think about it and realize that it works perfectly only in fiction.

Advocacy of using covert operations is rather surprising coming from self-described libertarians, unless they are libertarian purely on budgetary grounds, and even then only on the total amount of money spent rather than the issue of oversight.  Covert operations by their very nature lack accountability.  It's important to know what your government is doing on your behalf.  It's different if the covert operations are one component of a larger military effort, where the overall effort is public knowledge and open for political debate.  One can reasonably expect not to have as public knowledge where all the US forces currently deployed in active operations are and precisely what they are doing, but we should be able to find out or reasonably guess what countries they are operating in and against.

Part of my confusion on this advocacy is that the same people that are proposing this strategy are the same people that are complaining about the backlash from previous covert efforts to promote American national security in the middle east and elsewhere.  The CIA wasn't perfectly successful in Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, or any place else where it acted behind the scenes.  Now we are supposed to rely on the same sort of covert realpolitik to secure our nation?

Another part of my confusion is that the same people that are advocating this sort of strategy are often advocating for a major pullback of US forces deployed in friendly and peaceful places around the world (the pullback of US forces in unfriendly and not peaceful places being immaterial to this discussion).  Are these covert activities in places around the globe supposed to be carried out completely from the US?  No support from bases in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia?

My major complaint about this style of warfare is that it legitimatizes similar strategies from other countries where what limited accountability and oversight we can expect from the US government is completely nonexistent.  From the perspective of international law, I can't see the difference between deniable covert operations and outright state-sponsored terrorism.  In each case, a force operating outside the public control of its government is able to commit what would otherwise be acts of war with impunity.

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Sunday, December 30 2007

The Cardinal Rule of Gaming

As far as I'm concerned, every game has an unstated rule:
If everyone isn't having fun, you're doing it wrong.

There are three general types that people fall into when playing games:

Type one are those who follow the rule.  I try as much as possible to stay clearly in this way of thinking when playing a game.  This sort of player tends to be sportsmanlike if not chivalrous, and they find that losing a fair and closely fought game is better than winning in a blowout or due to some obscure rule quirk.

Type two are those that need to win to have fun.  This sort of player will use any twist or loophole in the rules to his advantage, and tend to be completely ruthless in crushing their opponent.  Mercy is not a word in their vocabulary.

Type two behavior is not always wrong;  thinking like a type two player while the game is in session is a necessity for tournament play in one on one games, but people who are type two when a game is over or especially on a consistent basis are real pains in any group.  Further, type two players tend to cause opponents to think the same way, in that defeating the guy that is pissing you off and knocking him down a peg tends to take over as the reason for playing.  With the inability to communicate directly with your opponent, type two behavior prevails on online gaming.

Type three behavior is more interesting, and only really shows up in games with more than two players.  These are the players that don't care about winning, only having fun, but only care about their fun.  These are the players that exist to play strategies that have no chance of winning but only serve to piss of one or more of their opponents.  I've seen it happen in strategic games when it becomes obvious that one player has no shot at winning due to the actions of another player.  The offended player will then devote his time and attention to attacking the player believed responsible for being out of contention.  This sort of player makes any sort of strategic planning next to useless because you can't assume they will make rational decisions, and may deliberately throw the game to another player.

What's odd is that a similar sort of thinking can be attributed to poitical campaigns.  Type one campaigns are those that think that the system is more important than the election outcome;  type two are those that view the results as more important than the system.  Type three are those that don't care about winning, only making a statement regardless of the effect on the system itself.

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Monday, December 17 2007

All Politics is Personal

There's an interesting discussion on John Scalzi's blog on the foundation of the Organization for Transformative Works, which "is a nonprofit organization established by fans to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad f

The most heated discussion on Scalzi's blog, prompted by the emphasis of the original post, is about the legality of fanworks such as fan fiction.  I have a confession to make:  I read fan fiction.  In college, I even wrote fan fiction.  More embarrassingly, I wrote a substantial piece of unauthorized fan fiction derived from another piece of fan fiction.  Fortunately, the document only ever existed in one of my older computers and in a single print out, which was read by one friend.  As far as I know, neither copy exists.

Most fan fiction, and a lot of other fan produced works, lies in a massive legal gray area.  One of the declared goals of the OTW is to start a legal framework to defend the existence of fan works.  While I believe this is a noble goal, I also believe from a practical standpoint that the idea of forming an official group to work towards legal protection is counterproductive.  The discussion has given me some insight into American politics and culture as well as further given me evidence to theories I've held about American culture today.

The first observation is that, to an outsider, fandom always seems irrational.  The same goes for any deeply held interest, from sports to religion to politics. If you are not interested in something, people who are deeply interested  always appear odd.  I don't understand what makes people enjoy watching sports.  One commenter in the OTW discussion who took an interest in the political discussion stated upfront that he didn't understand fans and why fans insist on centering their creativity on works based around a commercial property like a series of books.

To generalize this, it's because hobbies and interests are not universally rational.  If you don't find football fun to watch, then it makes no logical sense on a personal level why people would devote time and money to watching football.  If you enjoy watching football, it's a perfectly logical use of your time and money to watch football.  Why some people find football enjoyable and others do not is a completely different discussion.

Compounding the situation is that for most people, hobbies and interests are more fun if you can get together and combine your interest with other people
who share the same interest.  While it's fun for me to ponder which anime characters would take which other characters in a fight, it's more fun to throw my ideas against others in a debate in someone's comment section.  Likewise, it's more fun to sit around a TV with friends rather than watch TV alone, whether it's anime on TV or a football game.  This isn't universally true for any combination of people, but it holds out fairly well.

With the specific interest of fan fiction, it's that you have an audience of fans that shares a common interest that binds the people together to make the work of writing a short fan story enjoyable.  You have an audience of people that share your interest ready to read what you have wrote.  Part of the idea of fan created works is that they don't just consume but they produce back for the community of fans.

The second observation is that it is increasingly hard to maintain control of a creative work in the hands of fans, as technology makes it easier to take creative works and use them in unexpected ways.  The wargame I play, Flames of War, officially has rules for the major countries in European theater of operations for 1942 - 1945.  This hasn't stopped players, fans, for releasing rules for minor countries, for 1939-1941, for the Pacific theater, for World War 1 and for modern warfare. Why?  Because they enjoy what they do and want to expand on it and contribute back to their hobby.  In some cases, the minor country rules have even been officially recognized.  Anime fans produce fan videos, fan art, and fan fiction.  Even sports fans turn statistics into fantasy leagues.  As long as you have fans, they will take what they can get and produce more things to share with other fans.

The problem is that increasingly the people who make decisions regarding creative property are not fans and, hence, do not understand what it is that the fans are doing.  Their reaction, while sometimes legally and morally justifiable, will often to seem clueless and arbitrary to fans that see and understand much of the breadth of what their fellow fans do.  Partially it's a business decision to maximize short-term quantifiable revenue.  You can assign a dollar value to the right to use a creative work commercially; you can't assign a dollar value to long-term fan loyalty.  One of the commentators in the OTW discussion commented that fan fiction was morally unjustifiable because it corrupts the creators visions of their works.  It's ironic that my previous trip to Scalzi's discussion forum was prompted by a discussion of the legacy of Robert Heinlein, including the abomination that was the Starship Troopers movie, which was a licensed and therefore morally justifiable corruption of Heinlein's legacy.

Despite my opinion that owners of creative rights need to give fans leeway to be fans and that this relationship is in the long run beneficial for both fans and owners, I believe the OTW initiative is the wrong idea.  Attempting to craft explicit legal protection for fan works will prove detrimental to fans.  Right now there exists a legal gray area between things that are explicitly legal and things that owners will enforce.  By starting a grab for the gray area in order to increase what is explicitly legal, it creates a strong incentive for owners to grab as much of the gray area and explicitly establishing their rights both by increasing enforcement of existing laws and by pushing for expansion of copyright protections which can only serve to further limit fair use.  The concentrated legal and lobbying power available to owners will always be greater than the OTW and similar organizations.  Owners can and should defend their rights when fans cross the line, but overzealous enforcement only serves to destroy the fan base in the long run.

Both sides need to use common sense.  Part of that common sense is understanding that the other side doesn't see things as you do, and that they might have a different opinion on certain actions.  It's not possible to draw a sharp legal line between what is morally right and wrong, and any sharp line is prone to abuse.  The best bet for all concerned is to take cases in the gray area on a case by case basis.

Boring egocentric stuff continues below.

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Saturday, December 15 2007

Tis the Season!

I have been working off and on on a longer post on fans, fandom, the law, and outside observers, based on a lot of the news on the domestic entertainment industry and the recent developments in regard to anime and fansubs, and catalyzed by a post on John Scalzi's blog on the Organization for Transformative Works.  The problem is that it's the holiday season, and I have enough holiday related tasks on my list that it's going nowhere very slowly.

I just finished putting the lights on the Christmas tree.  It's a relatively unspectacular tree, as these things go, but its my tree, and that's whats important.  There's absolutely nothing geeky about it, and I'm worried that there should be.  I'm ashamed that my thought process went something like this:

1.  "The tree isn't geeky enough.  How could we make it geeky?"
2.  "You know what would be cool?  A Belldandy angel at the top of the tree."
3.  "I bet if I searched the internet, someone has already done that."
4.  "At least that'd look suitably angelic;  it could be worse..."
5.  "...It could be an Evangelion angel on top of the tree."
6.  "I'd bet if I searched the internet, someone has already done that."
7.  "Knowing Gainax, I'm surprised there isn't already an official one on the market."
8.  "I wonder what the Asuka version looks like?"
9.  "At least there's no Christmas themed military history or miniatures wargaming..."
(From Worth1000)

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Thursday, November 15 2007

The Dork / Dark Side

Steven den Beste recently posted about his feeling of finally succumbing to the dark side, by which I read that he's finally realizing that he's an Otaku.  I can't speak for someone as articulate as he is, but it sounds like he's experiencing the same realization that comes to mind every couple of weeks.  I'm not normal.  I've got a weird hobby.  And at some level I honestly don't care what people think.

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November is a busy month for me.  I'm preparing to attend my second convention in as many weeks.  Last weekend was Fall-In, the Historical Minatures Gaming Society convention in Gettysburg, PA.  This weekend is AnimeUSA in Arlington Virginia.  This is my first time at Fall-In, and it was definitely fun.  I've been to Anime USA for several years in a row.

The absolutely scary realization is that these two conventions are populated by similar people and yet that realization would probably never occur to most people at either con.  The differences are obvious.  The people at Fall-In are older, almost all white, almost completely male.  A lot seem to be veterans of the armed forces.  They tend to be patient and completely relaxed when not engaged in "battle".  All are history buffs.  Anime con-goers are almost all young, and generally represent a thorough cross section of American youth.  Most are hyper energetic and impatient, and a fair number seem to be smart but bored and therefore detached from the educational system.

Many anime con-goers definitely have an exhibitionist streak, and I seem to be the only person at Otakon without a novelty t-shirt with an anime or gaming related logo on it.  Yet a fair number of the gamers at Fall-in have novelty t-shirts, only instead of the scantily-clad anime babe on the front they tend to have old Soviet propaganda posters or artist renditions of their favorite multi-ton war machines, and the reduction is due in part to the much colder weather in November.  Both cons have people who specialize in looking for the rarest of finds in the massive deal rooms, and dealers with home-made merchandise that can be a real treasure to find.  Both conventions tend to have people talking in their own specialized hobby jargons, and impromptu groups of strangers going late into the night talking about their mutual interests.

Back to Steven's observation about crossing over onto the dark side, it's there lurking beneath the surface at Fall-In just as much as it is in the fledgling Otaku.  And it's lurking beneath the surface only because it's too big to make out.  A demotivational poster sums it best:
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"Call it what you want.  They're still toy soldiers, and you're still playing with them."

Is that what we're doing?  On the one hand, no, it's not.  No one consciously thinks of the army on the table before them as a set of toys.  Yet I occasionally find myself making shooting noises as the game goes on because I'm having fun.

Ironically enough, I got in to Flames of War because of an anime-styled model I picked up at an anime con.  I have a German army because I gave the wrong model number to the merchant in the dealer room; if I'd given the right number, I'd probably have a British army instead.  I always was a history buff;  I started enjoying reading in elementary school when I found heroic tales of the Second World War.  I played with little green plastic army men.  Then in high school, I gravitated towards sci-fi, which got me in to anime in college.   I also got in to board gaming in college, as well as any other sort of gaming which challenged my mind.  However, being cash strapped, I was stuck with one expensive gaming hobby, and that was CCGs.  (I'd briefly been burned on Games Workshop miniatures games in middle and high school.)

A few years back, a friend who was in to historical wargaming put forth a simple proposition to our group.  He wanted to play AK-47 Republic, a simple game simulating a civil war in a hypothetical African state during the cold war.  The armies were small, and the equipment was interesting enough, so I went in with the game and produced an army, and found it was kind of fun to do.  Two years later, I have two big Flames of War armies in addition to the AK-47 Republic army.

Here are three StuG III G assault guns for my Germans:
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The camouflage for these three is a bit odd.  German tanks late in the war are generally green and brown over a dark yellow ("dunkelgelb") base.  These three have a beige base, similar to the camouflage colors of the German infantry smocks.  It's not a big deal;  the paint scheme works.  But where did it come from?  An anime con a few years previous.  I ended up walking home from the con with her:
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I find good anime and anime-inspired character designs to be fascinating uses of color and shape.  I had seen a few pictures of World War 2 aircraft based figures (known as Mecha Musume), and when I saw tanks I had to pick one up.  I had asked the staff in the dealer room for the model next to her, a British Valentine tank, but I had walked off with my purchase before I realized I had a German tank instead.  At that point, my knowledge of the vast array of German armored vehicles was slim, but I could make out the Schurzen armor skirts alongside the tracks, and was pretty sure I was looking at a long 75mm gun, so I guessed she was a Panzer IV H.  I was already doing 15mm models for AK-47 Republic, and decided I wanted a model of the actual tank to compare to the figure, and the Flames of War series was available and had Panzer IV H's, so I picked one up and put it together, and found it was easy.  Since Flames of War seemed to be attracting a bigger base of gamers than our little game, I decided that setting up an army for it would give me more chances to game.  After checking the books, I put together an American rifle company and away I went.  When I was starting a second army, I realized I had one Panzer already, and decided to do some Germans as well (which was a good thing;  German armor is easier to use than British).

There was one problem with the whole thing.  The wargame model didn't match the Mecha Musume.  Specifically, the Schurzen and the base of the gun looked wrong.  Here's an artists sketch of the Mecha Musume:
The two road wheels on her "rear deck" give it away.  Every picture and model of a StuG III G that I've seen has those two rear road wheels mounted on the rear deck, and one of these days I'm going to research why.  The StuG III G often has Schurzen, shaped slightly different than those on the Panzer IV, and the 75mm gun has that block just above the barrel where it protrudes from the hull.  When I eventually made some assault guns for my Germans, I paid tribute to the model that started it all.  I've also got a Sherman Mecha Musume as mascot for my Americans.

To sum up my point, you're only as young as you feel.  The point of having a hobby is to enjoy yourself and relieve stress.  It might not be laugh out loud fun, but if you're not having a good time, you're doing it wrong.  Be it wargames or legos or anime figures or *shudder* watching sports, it should be something you enjoy, dark side or no.


Posted by: Civilis at 09: 30 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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