Saturday, June 30 2007

Anime Review: Shingu

Before I get started with my review, let me declare the first rule on anime:  The odds of any two people agreeing in their opinion on what anime series are good is almost zero.  If you want recommendations as to what's good to watch, I can give you my opinion, but take it with a grain of salt because we will more likely disagree than agree.  Even if we agree on most series, there are bound to be one or two series I love but you can't stand and vice versa.

I first heard about Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars from a posting on Chizumatic.  Stephen Den Beste's review was positively glowing.  Then, one by one, other anime bloggers picked up the series and all turned in highly positive reviews of a series I'd never heard of.  Intrigued by both the reviews and the description of it as a conspiracy-filled sci-fi comedy, I picked it up and promptly got hooked myself.

The series, while not destined to become a classic, is one of the most fun series I've watched in a long time.  I'm pleased to say that the reviews were correct.  The plot varies smoothly between light-hearted and dramatic, the characters are likable and both drive and are changed by the plot.  The animation quality is pretty good but not great, and the retro-style works very well with the series concept.  Although a full-length series, this is likely to go into my stable of rainy-day anime.

Note:  the following contains deliberately vague spoilers for series Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars.

Overall Rating:  B+
Story: B+  The story has some minor issues that can be overlooked.  I was pleasantly surprised that my plot sense was thrown off by some of the deliberate red herrings thrown in, but some of the events were cliche.
Main Characters: A  The main characters are all likable once you get to know them, and they develop as the story progresses, and none of them turn out to fit well into any of the annoying cliche stereotypes.
Supporting Cast:  A  The supporting cast is very well done, with developed personalities.  My biggest complaint is that a lot of the supporting cast doesn't get enough screen time.
Villain:  C  Given the amount of red herrings in the plot, getting to the final showdown takes a while with a couple of detours along the way, so its understandable that the showdown is a bit rushed, and occurs with little buildup.
Humor:  A  The series is enjoyably funny, and the humor by and large dervies from character interaction, rather than slapstick or sight gags (although there are occasional instances of both).
Action:  C  The series is a comedy, but it is a sci-fi comedy with a plot supposedly centered around fighting giant monsters from space, and the relatively quick and underwhelming action was a bit of a disappointment.  A couple of the action scenes are quite good, though brief.
Drama:  B- The series makes use of the conspiracy-filled plot to set up a fair amount of character drama between many of the characters.  Some of the relationships seem forced at first, but by the end of the series the character interaction works very well.
OP and ED:  D-  The opening sequence is flat, and the ending is so plain as to be outright dull.
Fun Factor:  A  Between the likable characters, the outright twists in the plot, and the humor, this was an outright fun series to watch.

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Sunday, June 17 2007


My neighborhood is old enough that they included a lot of surplus green space, including a widespread network of walking paths and several well-kept drainage ponds.

Several of the ponds are home to a large number of shy turtles.  They seem to be particularly fond of the overflow grates in the drainage ponds,
but will bask on any flat surface they can find.

Good pictures are hard to come by, as they are shy around people, and will go underwater at any sudden movement.  I happened to catch this rather large and impressive one just as he noticed me and made a break for the safety of deeper water.

I'm as bad a photographer as I am a writer, but I'm learning.

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Monday, June 11 2007

English Class, Great Books, and American Culture

I was struck by this particular passage in a post by Dan Collins at Protein Wisdom:

“The traditional subject areas have been hijacked to promote fashionable causes such as gender awareness, the environment and anti-racism, while teachers are expected to help to achieve the Government’s social goals instead of imparting a body of academic knowledge to their students,” it says.

It brings to mind a recent mini-furor that erupted when the Fairfax County public library system announced it was reducing the number of books it has shelved and that many of those removed were under classics.  A lot of conservative pundits objected that removing classics from the library was a step on the road of the destruction of American culture, even though it turns out that they're reducing the number books on hand of some of the titles instead of removing particular books entirely, and that they had used an automated formula to pick out books which hadn't been checked out in years.

My question is this:  Why do we study English in school?  Specifically, what is the primary rationale behind the course curricula of high school English?  I know there are a number of reasons English is studied, and that all of them to some degree contribute to the course of study in English classes:
  1. To teach proper grammar and build vocabulary.
  2. To teach students to understand the written word, both factual,  fictional and poetic, and to write and interpret writing for both style and content.
  3. To give students an overview of the history of the written word and history as told through the written word, and to provide them with a basic understanding of classic literature which serves as a common cultural root.
  4. To teach social responsibility and cultural diversity through the written word by exposing students to a diverse body of literature.
  5. To attempt to teach students to enjoy reading for its own sake, and to foster a love of reading.
Number one is primarily accomplished in elementary school, although many high school students could use a refresher.  (Heck, I could use a refresher on proper plurals and possessives.)  Number two is technical in nature, and can be addressed by just about any choice of reading material.

Number three, the use of literature to establish a common cultural root, is the "body of academic knowledge" referred to by the quote at top.  Although the speaker was referring to all academic disciplines, English allows much more leeway for social engineering than, say, math or science.  Likewise, number four is the "government's social goals" alluded to in the quote.  Most high school English classes seem to choose works based on some combination of numbers three and four.

Books chosen to satisfy the demands of social multiculturalism (number four) were always my biggest problem in class.  They were often incredibly boring, often because they were chosen by a panel of adult English teachers, most female, to satisfy the goals and interests of adult English teachers.  For a male high school student, even one that loves reading, they satisfy nothing.  Slowing them down to attempt to both address the need to technically understand the written word by learning about the writer's use of stylistic elements (reason number two) and to keep all the class at the same point made them more unbearable.

Books chosen for historical context were sometimes marginally better.  We studied Shakespeare because a lot of later works make reference to his works, and it helps to properly understand the context of the original.  References to Hamlet, MacBeth, and Romeo and Juliet pop up everywhere.  But a lot of the old classics have lost their cultural relativity as time has passed.  A lot of modern culture relies on books not covered in high school English.  Most high school students that care about reading or would benefit from knowledge of the classics would learn more from Lord of the Rings than The Great Gatsby or The Old Man and the Sea.

The question is:  what literature is still culturally relevant today?  If you had to do a short list of what English students need to read to get American culture, what would be on it?

My list is as follows: The Illiad, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, MacBeth, Dracula, Frankenstein, 1984, Animal Farm, the Time Machine.  Ideally, the list should include at least one of Bradbury's or Asimov's works, plus a Sherlock Holmes story (Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps?).  There are a couple of real classics that would remain second string, such as A Tale of Two Cities, which while I found them to be boring, do serve a useful purpose.  About the only poetry on the list is Edgar Allen Poe's the Raven.

You'll notice no further mention of Goal Number Five.  That's because, paradoxically, the more effort you put into forcing people to read, the less likely they will be to read for fun.

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Thursday, June 07 2007

Midway, Tigers, and the Romance of History

Wonderduck has a fascinating post up about the popular myths surrounding the battle of midway, the anniversary of which I forget about in the run-up to the anniversary of D-Day.  As I said in my last post, I was fascinated by the military history of the second world war back when I was a kid (and still am to some degree today) and most of what was in his post was new to me.

One thing I did want to comment on was the way we distort history even when directly addressing it. The second world war has long been the war that has figured largest in popular culture for a number of reasons:  it was a good war fought against the baddest bad guys of history.  It was fought with courage, cunning, and gee-whiz technology.  It provides cinematic moments of all types all over the world.

And yet, with all that, in fact because of all that, it gets distorted in the lens of culture.  It even gets distorted in the eyes of history buffs.  There is so much to be fascinated on in the small scale that one loses track of the big picture.

I play a World War 2 historical miniature wargame that involves pushing small models of troops and tanks and guns across a table.  The guys who do this sort of thing are all history buffs, many to a degree much greater than I am.  If you have an interest in history and a lot of patience, it can be quite fun.  But it's both educational and a distortion of history at the same time.  Take German armored fighting vehicles for example.  The names are often quite familiar to history buffs: Panther, Tiger, Konigstiger, Ferdinand, Elefant, Jagdpanther, Hummel.  And those are just the big monsters.  You've got a half dozen configurations of the common Panzer III, Panzer IV, and StuG.  If you're putting together a German armored force, you've got tons of types of tanks to choose from, all used at one point or another, and all laid out in a hand set of values and formulas for use in the game.  What the books don't necessarily say is that some of these models were only produced in limited numbers and saw combat only a handful of times before falling out of the picture entirely.  Sure, they're neat vehicles and all, but in fact they're historical curiosities.  [American players have it easy.  You have a M4 with a 75mm gun or a M4 with a 76mm gun to choose from for most of the war.]

There is just so much ground to cover that if you look at the little picture you often miss how it figures into the big picture.  If you look at the big picture, you miss all the little pictures.

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Wednesday, June 06 2007

June 6th, 1944

I don't normally post on Wednesdays, as it's one of my evenings off playing normally silly games.  One of those games is Flames of War, a World War 2 historical miniatures game.  I've got two units constructed, one US and one DAK to provide some opposition.  Painting up the miniatures and figuring out tactics required getting back into reading the history of World War 2, a favored topic of mine when I was younger.

To make a long story short, 63 years ago today, nine divisions, 5 American, 3 British and one Canadian (plus smaller units including troops from other nations) landed on the beaches or parachuted into the fields of Normandy, France.  Even with some study of history, it is impossible for me to think of what it must have been like to cross those kill zones into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Every day, as I travel down route 29 in northern Virginia on my way to work, I pass a sign designating the highway as the "29th Infantry Division Highway".  Until recently, I didn't connect that name with the inexperienced American troops that landed on Omaha beach that morning 63 years ago.  I wonder how many other drivers even notice the sign?

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Monday, June 04 2007

Amateurs and Experts

I usually need to wait for a post from a real blog before I write a post, so I can have someone important to refer to, and to give some insight as to how what I say relates to real issue.  I can't pretend I'm a good writer.  Part of the reason I started writing is to learn to write.

My last post refers to the benefits of the reduced barriers to entry in allowing more people to work at producing content.  Today, I read Glenn Reynolds and he links to Lawrence Lessig's critique of Andrew Keen's book, "The Cult of the Amateur".  Keen is sharply critical of what I praised in the last post, so we'll have to agree to disagree.

One thing I want to bring up is Keen's disparagement of amateurs as opposed to experts, citing (for example) Wikipedia and the internet in general as examples of amateurs lowering the level of the discourse by publishing unverifiable or even false facts and clouding the debate, and that he prefers the established media with experts for finding the truth.

My complaint is that the media by and large isn't composed in experts in anything except journalism.  Certain journalists have enough experience in other specific areas (Middle Eastern politics, sports, etc.) to claim some degree of expertise, but so do those of us in the public at large.

Any time I read a story in the paper about something I have taken an interest in, I can count on finding simplifications, distortions, omissions and outright false information.  Journalists are human, just like the rest of us, and its a challenge packaging information for the unique product that is the modern American media.  This means that they are not infallible conveyors of information, and pretending that they are only serves to increase the disconnect with consumers of news.

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Sunday, June 03 2007

Movies, Porn, and the Army of Davids

Yesterday afternoon, I attended a movie premier.  Not a major movie premier, of course.  A neighbor graduated from college with a degree in film.  As a project for his degree, he directed 45 minute movie.  To celebrate his graduation, his parents rented a theater to screen the project.  Although the style wasn't to my taste, the film was quite well done.

Yesterday evening, I read a post by Ann Althouse on the amateurization of porn, and immediately thought of the movie.  The movie wasn't porn, in any respect at all, but it does reflect the same trend.  Right now, a lot of creative content production is being done by amateurs, and to a degree that most people don't realize because we all see a very small section of the whole cultural product that is available to us.

YouTube has enabled producers of video to make their works available to the entire world.  Sites like DeviantArt allow artists to make their works available to a wide audience.  The initial audience for anime outside of Japan has always been dedicated teams of amateur fans who subtitle works themselves, now aided by the power of the internet.  Many PC games have found new life with fan-created content.  Many historical wargames started out as home rules created by gamers.

The internet has, of course, been a big enabler of this phenomenon.  It allows us to find groups of like-minded people all over the world, and increasingly allows larger and larger groups to work together on bigger and bigger projects.  Yet I suspect that it would be happening even without the internet.  I remember the days when fan-subbed anime was carried on by nth-generation copied videotapes, not p2p bittorrent filesharing.

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