Fifty Shades of Controversy

NSFW. Trigger warnings: abuse, rape.

It was intriguing to watch the various reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey play out online as the movie’s release date approached. I’ve seen many discussions breaking down how the story is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of BDSM. People are worried that 1) this will reflect poorly on people who engage in BDSM safely and with proper consent; and 2) people will hurt themselves and others. In my opinion, these are very valid concerns. On the other hand, I’ve also seen it pointed out that fantasy is just that: fantasy. Just because someone reads or watches a story about something doesn’t mean they want to try that something in real life. If that was the case, we would have a lot more serial killers. I think this viewpoint has merit as well.

Portrayals of BDSM in popular culture have been strange. I obviously have not consumed all media, and I often feel that my pop culture knowledge is inadequate, so keep that in mind…but Fifty Shades is the only high-profile example I can think of where the main characters engage in what is supposed to be BDSM. I can’t remember there being a mass-market motion picture advertised all over the place like this. And usually when I see BDSM in a TV show—often a police procedural or medical drama—it is engaged in by a suspect, victim, or patient. The main characters may raise their eyebrows, or even discuss how it’s perfectly fine, but they never seem to go so far as to dabble themselves.

While looking for examples of portrayals of BDSM in media, I read through this Wikipedia page, and it gives me the impression that two different things are being treated as if they are the same, when they obviously aren’t. The first thing is abuse: domination and punishment of someone who has not consented. The second thing is play in which all parties have agreed to certain rules and situations and which will stop at any time if any of the participants wishes it to.

I recently read a series of stories in which the characters engaged in BDSM. One of the characters wrote storylines that they all then acted out. In one ongoing storyline, the submissive characters were literal sex slaves of the dominant character. There was no consent involved whatsoever. But the characters who were acting out the storylines were all equals, and any of them could stop the play at any time. In other words, one of the characters pretended to own sex slaves, and two of the characters pretended to be sex slaves, but they were never actually those things. The stories spent a lot of time on after-care, as the dominant (or dominants, depending on the story) pampered the submissive(s) afterwards.

This meta-portrayal of BDSM really drove home to me the idea of fantasy. A person might, for example, have a rape fantasy. They might simply imagine it. They might read stories or watch pornography about it. They might go so far as to ask a partner to act out a situation with them. But they don’t actually want to rape someone, or to be raped.

In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, there is no meta level. The person having the fantasy is the person reading or watching. The fantasy is the book or movie.

I imagine there will be varying levels of response to Fifty Shades of Grey. Some people will keep the fantasy in their heads for their own private amusement. Others might decide they want to try acting it out. In the latter case, I think it’s good that so much has been discussed about the book and film—people who are interested in BDSM have plenty of resources to draw upon.

Ultimately, I think it’s important to give people as much information as possible, and then let them make their own decisions. It’s dangerous to look at any work of art as a guideline for how to live. Art is an expression of emotion and thought and possibility. It’s a way to explore ideas. It asks questions; it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) provide answers. Answers are up to the person experiencing the art.

I’m more interested in making sure people have the tools they need to critically evaluate the world around them than I am in trying to “protect” people by banning certain stories or types of story.

I do hope people take advantage of all the information that’s out there. I hope all the discussion of Christian Grey as an abuser will help people recognize abusive relationships and avoid being abused. And I hope that as the film raises the profile of BDSM, people research it instead of making snap judgments. I really hope people stay smart and take care of themselves.

Beyond the realm of fantasy vs. reality, there is the fact that individual works don’t exist in a vacuum. The stories we surround ourselves with do have an impact on our perceptions. Men have been told through culture, pop and otherwise, that they are entitled to women’s bodies; women have been told that they are worthless without a man’s approval. These are issues that go well beyond one work, but Fifty Shades certainly does nothing to change the situation.

I’m nervous about the movie, honestly; this author says that while the book is easily understood as fantasy, the movie plays out just a little too real. I don’t want to see that. I’m actually pretty sensitive about abuse. I won’t be seeing the movie.

I don’t plan on ever reading Fifty Shades of Grey, either. Beyond my ambivalence about the story’s potential impacts, there’s the simple fact that I’m kind of picky about writing. I tend to get tripped up by wildly improper punctuation, poor word choice, bad sentence structure, and a lack of smooth narrative flow. The story has to be really good for me to get past that sort of thing. I enjoy rule-breaking when it is intentional, but not when it obviously isn’t. Based on the excerpts I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t force my way through the book. (I can’t read Dan Brown novels for the same reason. Hell, I had trouble with the last few Harry Potter books because of all the ellipses.)

Links:

The new Sailor Moon premieres in July!

Sailor Moon CrystalMy friend Charles linked me to this post with news about the Sailor Moon reboot, about which I have been anxiously awaiting information. The show was originally supposed to premiere last summer; it was pushed to December, and now the final date for the first episode is July 5, 2014. In that time there have been very few details about the show beyond the fact that it will be more faithful to the manga. Now we know what the character designs look like and who the voice actresses are for the inner senshi.

Fear not; that hypersexualized fanart at the top of the article is not how the characters are going to look. Scroll down for the real designs. The images come from the Sailor Moon Crystal official website.

The designs feel familiar; I don’t think they are radically different from those of the original anime. They do look to me more like the Sailor Stars designs than the original series designs; all the characters seem far older than they’re supposed to as middle school students. Their legs and faces are slimmer and their cheeks no longer have “cute” marks on them. The characters’ eyes look more like the manga eyes, with the thicker upper lid. All the senshi now wear heels, and Venus has her chain belt from the manga.

The most interesting thing to me about the voice actress list is Usagi: she will be voiced by her original actress, Mitsuishi Kotono, while the rest of the senshi have new actresses. I imagine it would be pretty hard to recast such an iconic character, but they did it for the live action, so it’s interesting that they chose not to here. Maybe they looked and just couldn’t find anyone who captured the character better!

Ami will be voiced by Kanemoto Hisako. The only thing I know her from is Squid Girl, a show that I just couldn’t get into. Rei’s voice actress is Satou Rina; the article mentions she is Mikoto in something called Railgun, but I know her from my beloved Natsume Yuujinchou, in which she played Taki.

Makoto will be voiced by Koshimizu Ami, who I know as police detective Uehara Yui from Detective Conan. This is amusing to me due to the fact that Uehara has a thing for her superior officer. Meanwhile, Minako’s voice actress, Itou Shizuka, was Alice in Pumpkin Scissors, a ridiculous and lovely show I quite enjoyed.

Those are all the cast members announced so far. I wonder who will play Tuxedo Kamen, Luna, and Artemis?

Sailor Moon Crystal will stream on niconico (basically Japan’s YouTube) every other Saturday at 7pm Japan time (6am Eastern Daylight Time), starting July 5. There will be English subtitles.

How I Met Your Mother, Redux

HIMYM is over now. Last time I wrote about it, I was upset that Marshall’s career was steamrolling Lily’s yet again; since that time, of course, Marshall has been somewhat redeemed. He didn’t come to the conclusion that he should give Lily her turn logically; he just emotionally decided that he wanted to pay her back somehow for bearing his children. Not the greatest resolution (why does she have to be pregnant to deserve a full life?) but I guess I’ll take it.

The thing everyone’s talking about now, though, is the ending–and for the most part, what people have to say is how much they hated it. I have a slightly different perspective.

Spoilers follow.

About halfway through the final episode, I said, “I get the feeling they’re going to kill off the Mother and have Ted get with Robin. If that happens, I’m going to be pissed.” Oddly, though, as it actually unfolded, I did not find myself angry at all.

I never thought Barney and Robin were a good match. I have always believed they enabled each other’s immaturity, and to me it was perfectly natural that they would divorce after three years. If you think about it, the entire final season being about their wedding sort of underscores the characters’ own attempts to justify the relationship, to make it seem somehow meant to be. Cleverly, the writers slipped in just enough Robin and Ted stuff to cast doubt.

I’ve watched HIMYM all the way through at least three times, and each time I thought to myself, “They are going to have to find someone outstanding to play the Mother, because Ted and Robin’s chemistry is amazing.” They had something that I didn’t see with Ted’s other girlfriends, except on occasion Victoria and Stella. (If he’d married Zoey, it would have been another “divorced after three years” situation.) I never actually expected Ted to end up with Robin, but I wondered how on earth the show could top their relationship.

And I kept wondering about that when the Mother, Tracy, was finally introduced. In the beginning, her brief scenes with Ted did not have what I wanted to see. I felt like she had better chemistry with the other characters than she did with Ted. I think this may have been done on purpose, not to make us dislike her as his love interest but to start subtly chipping away at the notion of “the One” (that there is only one person for everyone). Toward the end, of course, that chemistry was there, and I loved Tracy and was glad to think that she and Ted would live happily ever after. But we got a little foreshadowing in the episode with Robin’s mom, just enough to prepare us for the possibility that things might not go perfectly after all.

When we finally got to the part where the kids reveal that their mother has been dead for years, I was surprised to find that not only was I prepared, but it made perfect sense. Of course Ted loved Robin–as his kids point out, the whole story has basically been about her. Unlike his stories of the Mother, in which Ted omits or glosses over any conflicts, Ted’s been completely honest about Robin, leaving out no detail that might make her look bad. Subconsciously, he’s trying to talk himself out of loving her. His kids see right through that and call him on it.

(I do wish that scene had been done a bit differently. The cuts were pretty awkward. I wouldn’t have shown Josh Radnor; I would have used Bob Saget’s voice.)

We know from the story that relationships aren’t easy, that there’s no perfect person. We don’t know that Ted and Robin will live happily ever after. But we do know they have a fighting chance, and plenty of history to build on.

Life is messy, and things don’t always go as we plan. I appreciate that HIMYM was willing to show the best and worst sides of its characters. Honestly, the reason I could get so passionate about the story was because on some level I felt like the characters were my friends, and it’s always painful to see friends hurting or making bad decisions.

I’ve seen Tracy described as a convenient, disposable wife, there just to make Robin finally realize she loves Ted and then getting out of the way so they could be together, but I don’t see it that way. Bad things happen. I think Ted and Tracy had a good relationship, but the story of HIMYM wasn’t actually about that relationship. I think ultimately that’s why I’m not mad. If Ted had talked about the Mother in each and every episode, if she’d featured prominently as a character throughout the series, it would have been much harder to swallow the kids’ argument that their dad was actually telling the story of his relationship with Robin.

I’m not even really bothered about the fact that Robin remained single (and she may have dated here and there; we don’t know). I can easily see her going back to her career-first mentality after Barney–she was already practically there anyway. With her job taking her around the world, she wouldn’t have much time for a serious relationship.

And so I may be in the minority, but I’m satisfied with how HIMYM ended. The pieces were all there, and they fit together. The resulting picture may not be perfect, but it is representative of life–something that we can’t control, something that’s not always fair. All we can do is our best, and that’s what these characters did.

How I Met Your Mother

It took me awhile to get into How I Met Your Mother–the first episode is so dumb that for a long time I resisted watching the show–but eventually it became my new Friends. I love all the in-jokes and watching the characters grow and change. I’m enjoying the final season; I feel like things are getting wrapped up well.

There are a few things that bother me, though. For one, I’m not a huge Robin and Barney fan. I liked Robin and Don. I liked how much they had in common (even to the point that when faced with huge life-changing career decisions, neither of them thought of the obvious: talk to the other!) and I liked how they made each other better people (when they weren’t avoiding actually talking to each other). I really feel like if they had just communicated a little more, they would have been fine. Robin and Barney, on the other hand, just seem to enable each other’s immaturity.

I also liked Barney and Nora. Nora inspired Barney to grow. The episode in which Barney decided to run away instead of rising to the challenge devastated me. He was so close!

I’ve noticed that in season nine the writers have been retconning in a bunch of backstory to make Robin and Barney work better, and I definitely think that helps…but I still don’t feel like their relationship has much substance. It seems to be based more on grand gestures and “how I feel right now” than actual commitment and mutual respect.

My biggest problem with season nine, though, is the apparent resolution of Marshall and Lily’s Italy issue. Based on the episode in which Marshall has a discussion with versions of Lily in his head, it looks like they will be staying in New York City so that Marshall can be a judge. Imaginary Lily even says “Of course we’re not going to Italy. We have a baby.”

This is total BS, and it quite frankly pisses me off. Having a baby does not make you incapable of living in another country; just ask all the military families and military contractor families living abroad right now. That’s a cop-out reason to stay in the States. What’s really happening here is this: Lily, once again, is being asked to sacrifice her career for Marshall’s.

Lily became a kindergarten teacher after graduating so she could put Marshall through law school. That was time she could have been using building up experience in her own field, but she put her career on hold. This is what you sometimes have to do in a relationship, and it’s a decision she made, and that’s fine.

When Marshall finally became a lawyer and they started making money, it might have been a good time for Lily to focus on a career in art. Unfortunately, she had racked up a ton of credit card debt. This irresponsibility shouldn’t be ignored; that’s clearly her own fault. I do wonder if that behavior wasn’t her way of subconsciously rebelling against not working in her chosen field.

By the time Lily got around to trying to change her career, she had no direction, no idea where to go. She tried a bunch of ridiculous jobs before ultimately going back to the safe choice of teaching kindergarten. At the time it felt like she had developed a passion for it, and maybe she had. But notice that she didn’t try to do anything fine art-related during that time.

She does start a side project selling her artwork online, and this seems to make her happy, although it’s disappointing that her work appeals to animals rather than people. It makes her degree sort of seem like a joke.

But then she is discovered as an excellent appraiser of art. Suddenly her expertise is valued and she has a real opportunity to do fulfilling, meaningful work in her chosen field. Where Marshall always had the luxury of an obvious path in front of him, Lily had to stumble through the dark to find her way to something that spoke to her and could also support her family. She finally found it at the end of season eight.

And then what happens? Marshall gets offered a judgeship, and so once again Lily’s needs must go right out the window.

There’s a reason Lily fled to San Francisco years and years ago. She’s grown responsible in the interim, and I can’t imagine she’ll run away to Italy without Marshall. But he needs to start reading the signs. One person can’t always be the one making the sacrifices in a relationship. In the conversation with Lily in his head, he learned that he needs to stop thinking of relationship discussions as something to either win or lose. While that realization has merit, he also needs to think about what it means that he has been able to pursue his dreams for the entire length of their relationship, while Lily hasn’t had much of an opportunity to do anything about hers. No, you can’t make a relationship totally fair, but this situation is egregiously unfair. There’s got to be a better balance.

Ultimately, I would like to see Marshall get his head out of his ass and realize that Lily’s dreams are just as important as his. And I’d like to see them move to Italy.

The death of Joss Carter

I haven’t watched Person of Interest since the writers’ decision to kill Joss Carter. Here I’ll explain why that decision continues to upset me.

Joss’s role as one of the three main characters was to bring the show back down to earth, to add believability. The idea of a guy with genius programming abilities and virtually limitless funds joining forces with a guy with action hero powers to fight crime might almost be silly if not tempered by real-world considerations. And as an audience, we can’t truly identify with the superhero. Like Bones needs Booth, like Holmes needs Watson, like Superman needs Clark Kent’s relationships with regular people, the John-and-Howard superteam needs Joss. And so Joss was there from the beginning, balancing John and Howard out.

At first, Joss was something of an antagonist, then she became a protector, and then she struck out on her own. After Fusco’s story arc, Joss’ may have been the richest of all the characters’. We see it as it happens, whereas John and Howard’s character development has largely been flashback.

Beyond being a necessary counterpoint to John and Howard, Joss was the only relatable female character in the show. Root is fascinating, and Shaw is a lot of fun, but neither of them is a person the audience can really identify with. Root and Shaw are also lithe; Joss’ full figure was a welcome change from the Hollywood stereotype. Joss was also the only person of color in the main cast.

In one fell swoop, the writers have transformed Person of Interest into a show about a bunch of larger-than-life white people. Yawn.

The decision to kill Joss was bad enough, but then they had to do it so badly. Don’t get me wrong, the suspense and twist at the end were well done. But there was a completely unnecessary element: Joss and John’s supposed love story.

I have never picked up on a romantic relationship between Joss and John. Retconning it in at the last minute cheapens her death. It seems to say that the reason her life meant something is because she was John’s love interest. That she had no worth beyond that. That John wouldn’t have found her death as tragic if not for that element. (And they’ve already done a star-crossed lovers story for John. No need to do another one!)

Downgrading Joss from main character status to love interest status also reinforces the fallacious notion that men and women can’t have relationships without romantic love eventually coming up. If this were true in the real world, we’d never get anything done.

Joss and John were comrades. Buddies. Friends. Yes, of course they cared about each other, but I would argue that it was in the same way John and Howard care about each other. I highly doubt the writers would shoehorn a love story into an episode about Howard’s death.

I also highly doubt the writers will kill Howard, or John. I don’t feel that Joss’ death has suddenly made the show more “dangerous”, in which “anything can happen”, as the producers seem to be claiming. The writers were able to kill Joss because she was a she and a person of color, therefore traditionally expendable. Her death relegates her to “token black character”. It doesn’t matter that removing her character from the show changes the concept. Audiences have plenty of precedent for minority characters being offed regardless of their importance. We understand it, and unfortunately we accept it.

I have no doubt in my mind that the writers consider killing off John or Howard much more difficult–that such a thing would break the show. Yes, it would change the concept. Joss’ death also changes the concept. But unlike Joss, John and Howard are two white guys, and therefore their stories are “essential”. The producers joke about killing John, but if they do, I imagine it won’t be until the last episode of the series.

Want to know another way in which the show isn’t “dangerous”? They very carefully made it clear that the kids would be okay. First they retconned in Joss’ ex and showed that he had changed, so we know her son will be taken care of. And then they saved Fusco’s son. If this show’s concept was actually changing into a Game of Thrones-style story (ugh), no one would be safe, not even children. No, this show isn’t “dangerous”. Killing the solitary minority character is not a groundbreaking move that changes the paradigm. It is simply a weak decision that follows decades, perhaps centuries, of lazy storytelling tradition.

Feel free to prove me wrong, writers. I never wanted any of the characters to die. I love them all. But now that you’ve killed the “expendable” minority, how about you put your money where your mouth is and make a truly dangerous decision about who to off next?

More on Man of Steel

I am a huge fan of Man of Steel in that it is a flawlessly executed movie. However, there are some thematic elements that I found problematic, and I wanted to go into those.

Put bluntly, the film is fundamentalist. It’s anti-science, anti-progress, and deeply suspicious.

Where in other incarnations of the Superman myth, Krypton fell due to the ills of its society despite its technological achievements, in Man of Steel these technological achievements are implied to be the reason for the societal ills.

Kryptonians developed the technology to reproduce without requiring a woman to endure carrying and birthing a child. Then they went beyond this level to the point of specifically designing each person.

Jor and Lara don’t like chance being taken out of the genetic equation, so they decide to have a child naturally, including 1) not manipulating genes in any way and 2) having Lara undergo pregnancy and labor. Why they didn’t just do 1 and spare Lara 2 isn’t addressed. The issue is treated as black and white: either you choose genetic manipulation/science, or you choose the natural way/tradition.

When you compare and contrast Kal and Zod in this context, the implication is that a large reason why Kal is “good” and Zod is “evil” is because Kal was born naturally. You even see this in Kal’s upbringing as Clark. He seems to be innately good; he doesn’t appear to have learned his goodness from the Kents. The question is never “Should I be good?” but “How should I express my goodness?” Meanwhile, Zod even comes out and says that he is acting as he was designed to act, that he can’t fight his own nature. Zod can’t be redeemed; he must be killed to be stopped.

This, of course, makes the more general, dangerous implication that some people are born “good” and others are born “bad” and that it’s impossible for a person to change.

Man of Steel does some unfortunate things: it treats complex issues as black and white; it rejects progress in favor of tradition; and it paints anyone who diverges from what’s “natural” as irredeemably “bad”. In this way, I’m sure the film is appealing to people who’d prefer a homogenous society. To someone like me who favors diversity, change, and the benefit of the doubt, though, it’s pretty troubling.

The Ballad of Narayama

The Ballad of NarayamaLast night I watched the 1958 Criterion Collection film The Ballad of Narayama on Hulu. This film deals with the possibly mythical tradition of ubasute, literally “discarding the elderly”. While Hulu’s plot summary made it seem as though the film is about a man struggling with having to leave his mother in the mountains to die, much of the story comes from his mother’s perspective. I would characterize this film more as the contrasting reactions of a very close mother and son to a tradition that forces them apart. (Criterion’s plot summary is much better.)

Where mother Orin is profoundly interested in tradition and saving face, son Tatsuhei is more strongly affected by the now, by the people and things he personally cares about. This contrast is plainly evident from the very beginning of the film; Orin is excited to have found a new wife for Tatsuhei, someone who can take care of her son once she’s gone to Mt. Narayama to die. Meanwhile, Tatsuhei is still mourning the loss of his first wife, and the thought of a new one simply causes him to worry about food supplies and remind him that he will lose his mother soon.

Tatsuhei’s son Kesakichi, a worthless layabout who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant, is often a catalyst for dissent in the family. He objects to getting a “new mother”, wanting to maximize available supplies for his girlfriend. He incites the local children to sing songs about demons with 33 teeth, which shames Orin, who at 69 still has 28 teeth. She is so unhappy that people and gods might think she is prideful or that she won’t accept her death at 70 with grace that she smashes her mouth into a cooking pot to break and knock out her own teeth. Tatsuhei is horrified; sobbing, he insists that Orin eat the special treat of white rice she has made for the festival, frustrated at the idea that she might no longer be able to enjoy food.

As Orin continues to put her affairs in order, Kesakichi continues to be obnoxious, bringing his girlfriend to live with the family and giving her most of the food, asking Orin when she’ll be going to Narayama. His girlfriend becomes bold too, joining in on these torments, but Orin accepts it all calmly, repeating that she’ll be going to Narayama at the New Year, the year she turns 70. Tatsuhei can say nothing to dissuade her and hides his face under a towel to cry.

Orin and Tatsuhei’s new wife Tama bond immediately, and their relationship is one of the best parts of the movie. Tama loves Orin as a mother and mourns almost as openly as Tatsuhei at the thought of her impending sacrifice. Unlike Tatsuhei, however, aside from one comment at their first meeting, Tama says nothing to Orin about her choice. She makes no attempts, subtle or otherwise, to change Orin’s mind. Perhaps she respects Orin’s independence over her own selfish desires. Or perhaps she recognizes the futility of fighting tradition and simply doesn’t want to make the event even harder on the family.

Neighbor Mata is already 70 and has resisted going to Narayama. He is starved at home and comes to Orin for food. Mata serves as an example of the cost of fighting tradition. In the end he is bound, dragged into the mountains, and flung off a cliff by his son.

And in the end, Orin’s wish to follow tradition is honored by her son, who carries her into the mountains on his back. Following established ritual, they are not allowed to speak once they enter the Narayama area, and so Tatsuhei stumbles unwillingly, silently through forest and rock and then piles and piles of skeletons as crows look on.

The sets in the film are fascinating; obviously the backgrounds are paintings, and transitions are done by cutting the lights and moving large props to reveal new scenes such that it feels like watching a play. But the sets are sprawling and elaborate, larger than any theater could contain. The camera pans along them, following actors as they move down paths and into detailed structures. The Narayama skeleton set is eerie; I honestly didn’t expect it, and I stared speechless at the clusters of bones surrounding Orin and Tatsuhei.

boneyard entrance

Tatsuhei and Orin in the boneyard

The final scene, showing a train pulling out of a station called Obasute, looked too real by comparison to all the other sets; it was jarring. I’m not sure what the point of that scene was, other than perhaps to make the point of the movie obvious. In my opinion it already was, so the scene is unnecessary.

I’m unclear on whether or not ubasute ever actually occurred. From the movie, I can understand why it might have–food supplies being low could inspire communities to dispose of their least productive members. Indeed, the film includes a different example of such a thing happening; an entire family is killed after it’s discovered they have been stealing. In this sense, I find the contrast between Orin and Kesakichi fascinating; of the two of them, Orin is far more useful to the family. (Orin knows how to catch trout, and shares her secret only with Tama; she admonishes the other woman not to tell anyone, perhaps highlighting the need for someone in this community to be of use. If only Tama knows the secret, her value goes up.)

What value does Kesakichi bring? He adds a mouth, eventually two mouths, to feed and doesn’t do his share of the work. If there was a “just” system for rooting out those who didn’t contribute, Kesakichi would be the first one kicked to the curb. But of course, getting rid of the young isn’t the tradition.

And despite the way he treats her, Orin loves Kesakichi and takes care of him and his girlfriend just as well as she takes care of the rest of the family. She is willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of tradition, but I wonder how she’d feel about others? After all, while she chides Mata for not going to Narayama, she still feeds him. Somehow, I can’t see her doing to Kesakichi what Kesakichi did to her.

Then again, even if she did, Kesakichi wouldn’t care. He’s not interested in tradition or saving face; he’s just interested in himself.

I’m sure this contrast between Orin and Kesakichi was intentional, meant to underline the importance of valuing our elders instead of tossing them aside. And I have to say it was effective, because I love Orin and I hate Kesakichi.

I found myself relating to and sympathizing with Orin. Her need to be accepted, to fit the mold others had created for her, was tragic, and cost her her life while she was still perfectly healthy. But she took it all with a smile, with no complaints. This made the message of the film far stronger than had she rebelled against her fate. We saw the lengths she was willing to go to stay in people’s favor; we understood the sheer ridiculousness of it; yet we knew she really had no choice, and that made her devotion to her reputation come off as brave rather than pathetic.

Orin in the snow

Orin waits in the snow to die. The Ballad of Narayama, 1958

Music used in Person of Interest

Sean and I love Person of Interest, a show whose heroes are like a combination of Batman and James Bond. Former CIA operative John Reese has the spy skills and general badassery; partner Howard Finch brings the technological expertise. Unfortunately the show isn’t available to watch online, so we don’t see it as it airs; instead, we wait for the season to end and buy the Blu-Rays. Season one is available here.

Aside from its excellent score, written by Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, the show is augmented by some iconic tracks, listed on the Person of Interest Wiki. Here’s a guide to buying the tracks from season one on Amazon MP3, mostly for my reference but also for yours if you’re interested. The songs are sorted by artist.

We have the technology

I often feel that there are so many things we could be doing. So many things we are capable of. So many things we just aren’t achieving that we should be readily able to.

Sometimes I discover that we are at least partially doing those things, but we’re not doing them in a way that people know about or can find or share easily.

This morning I heard a tornado siren. It’s only the second time I’ve heard it since I’ve lived here. The first time, nothing happened, so this time, I didn’t think much of it. An hour or so later I saw a tweet remarking on Atlanta’s “tornado-y” weather, so I thought I’d see what the deal was.

I went to my go-to weather site, The Weather Channel’s weather.com, and clicked on my local forecast, which is saved in a tile at the top of the page. Then I clicked on the Alerts, and in the drop-down I saw Tornado Watch until 4pm. That was all I needed to know, so I left the page.

Some time later, I saw this tweet:

If you follow that image link, you get…a cell phone picture of a TV screen.

A cell phone picture. Of a TV screen.

I understand wanting to share important information quickly. Actually, I think the ability to do that is rather important. But it astonished me that the most efficient way to rapidly share vital information online was apparently to post a picture of it.

We have the data. We have the technology. We can do better.

I went poking around weather.com to find the source of that image–better yet, something that would stay up-to-date no matter when someone got the link. First I went to the Atlanta forecast page. I clicked on things, but never saw a map like the TV picture. I did find a list of affected counties, which is useful, especially for people who can’t see pictures. But I wanted to duplicate the experience a viewer of the picture would have–duplicate and enhance it.

Finally I clicked on the Map link in the sidebar, and that took me to the interactive Weather Map. This was the same thing I’d seen on the forecast page and ignored because it didn’t have the tornado warning areas highlighted. But I gave it a chance; I clicked on Map Options. Scrolling all the way to the very bottom, I finally found the Weather Alert Overlays, and I clicked the radio button next to Severe Alerts.

And there, at last, it was.

Weather Map screencap 01/30/2013I quickly sent a link and instructions in response to the tweet. Then it occurred to me to check the link on my phone. I opened Tweetbot and tapped the link and sure enough…the interactive map doesn’t work in iOS, because it uses Flash.

Sigh.

Here’s what I want. I want a map that works regardless of the device I’m using. I want the ability to share a direct link to the view I am using–in this case, Severe Alerts–not just a generic link to the default map (which is what you currently get from those sidebar social media buttons). I want a forecast page that calls up versions of the map that are relevant to any weather alerts currently in effect.

As I said, we are capable of so many things. So many useful things. So many things that would be a genuine help to society.

The thing is, if we try to do those things, we can’t just throw something together and say we’re done. We have to make it easy.

Otherwise, people will skip right past it and keep taking pictures of their TVs.

A breath of fresh air

I spent this past week in Kentucky with my family, and while there I didn’t check ADN, Twitter, or Google Plus at all. I got on Facebook about three times total, to check private messages and make sure no one had posted anything important to my timeline. The day after the election I tried Facebook again, but a quick scan through the news feed made me wonder why I ever used Facebook to begin with.

I realize a lot of this is just election exhaustion, and that will pass. But I truly enjoyed spending a week not checking social media obsessively. I left my phone in my purse most of the time and didn’t use it for anything but one phone call and maybe three text messages. (I may have also played a turn in chess, but I don’t remember.) I also didn’t unpack my computer right away, and when I did I mostly used it to review Japanese on WaniKani and to watch lectures and do assignments for my Coursera Python class. I also added to my Goals document, which I started working on in October. It’s a simple list of ideas I’ve had that I want to see to fruition.

The rest of my time was spent with family members, talking or playing games or enjoying meals. I got to celebrate Halloween, Connor’s 13th birthday, an early Thanksgiving, and Daphne’s second birthday. I didn’t really go anywhere beyond my parents’ house and my brothers’ houses, but it was relaxing, and I didn’t get too stir-crazy. (When I started feeling antsy, AJ took me to a cool walking trail so I could enjoy the fall leaves. It totally rejuvenated me.)

While I was staying with my parents, I also wrote a few entries in a journal, by hand. It takes a lot longer for me to write by hand than it does for me to type. I found that I was doing more crafting so I wouldn’t write anything poorly. I also found that I had no desire to share the brief brags, complaints, and jokes that I normally would post to social media without hesitation.

I used to despair that all my thoughts were lost to the ether. When social media came around, I thought it was my salvation. Finally there was a way to chronicle everything that went through my head. This was important to me, for some reason. I’ve always wanted other people to understand me, but I’ve rarely felt like anyone does. I suppose I thought the more I shared, the more others would learn about me, and maybe eventually they would come to understand me. (This might be a large reason why I have such a problem with lying or with being misrepresented.)

I’ve gone overboard with sharing here on the blog, and I think my social media participation is probably even worse. It’s so much easier. Just taking a week off from it, I feel very different…like I have so much more time.

I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do. As a professional in the web world, I probably need to maintain a social media presence of some sort. And it would help to stay on the cutting edge with things like ADN. But of all the social media I abstained from this week, the only one I really worry about quitting completely is Facebook, due as I’ve said before to the possibility of losing touch with far-flung friends and family. Maybe I will find a way to limit my participation, perhaps by scheduling a time each week or so to “catch up”. Or maybe I’ll do something else. For right now, I’m putting that decision off, as I don’t really have any desire to get back on social media.

Digital publishing idea from 2008

I was going through my old project ideas folder and came across this gem from November of 2008:

A means to publish works for reading on screens and handhelds–different resolutions that are all legible without zooming and possibly without scrolling.  Each “page” is now a “screen”.

No need for a separate device for reading.

Should be able to create with existing tools.  Perhaps pdfs that are then imported into a locked system of some sort.  Or something even more interactive.

Will work for newspapers and magazines.  No need for print versions!

Users would purchase the browsing software and then purchase each “issue” they wanted to read, or subscribe.  Their accounts would always be available to them online, with every issue they had access to.  They can also download each issue to any device on which they’ve registered the software.

Using technology to make in-house style guides more efficient

Companies that put out lots of content, have lots of employees, and want consistency in voice across their messaging will often have a style guide, which is good. If technology is leveraged, this can be even better.

Let’s say a company wants certain text in uppercase and certain text in title case. Often the copywriters are expected to type in the content in the required style. To me, this is the same as hard-coding boldness or color. Like other text transformations, case can be controlled by CSS. Companies could therefore simplify by having copywriters write all headlines and titles in title case. The content management system would label each item (via class or id) with a category, such as headline, subhead, etc., and the case of each could then be controlled via CSS. Not only would this simplify things for copywriters, cutting down on user error, but it would also make it simple to shift copy to a new format if there was ever a change to the style guide.

There are caveats. CSS is not natively able to transform text properly from uppercase to title case or sentence case, nor is it able to transform text from uppercase or sentence case to title case. Title case has strange rules–certain words are capitalized, others aren’t–that would have to be scripted. And transforming to sentence case presents another problem: there would be no way to preserve or create capitalization of proper nouns. If an organization knew all the proper nouns that were to be used in copy, this could be scripted as well, but it’s extremely likely that something would be missed, making this an imperfect solution.

I would handle all these situations by simply having copywriters write everything in sentence case. Transformations to title case could be achieved through scripting, as there are finite rules as to what gets capitalized. The capitalization of proper nouns would also be preserved. Meanwhile, changing to uppercase would be a simple CSS transformation.

This discussion has been web-focused, but I imagine something similar could be done for print.

Speaking of print, it amazes me that some organizations keep their print and online content storage separate. I would put them all together in a robust, customized CMS. Yes, the two have different needs, and those would have to be dealt with. But there is also a lot of crossover. Having everything in the same place would ensure consistency across the organization’s media.

Sherlock deductions

Sean and I finally watched series two of Sherlock, finishing up last night, and I’m so excited about my Reichenbach deductions that I wanted to write them out. If you haven’t seen series two, stop reading now and go watch it on Netflix. Then come back.

Here are the things we know:

Sherlock chose the final meeting place with Moriarty.

Sherlock doesn’t fulfill Moriarty’s demand until John arrives. He tells John exactly where to stand and watch, and he also tells him some very specific things, saying it’s important.

When Sherlock jumps, he doesn’t go head-first. As smart as he is, he’d know that would be the best way to die. Instead, he jumps in such a way that he’d seemingly land on his hands and knees.

After the fall, the first thing that happens is John is clipped by someone on a bike. He’s disoriented. By the time he’s back on his feet, a crowd has clustered around the “body”. John runs over, but time has passed. And the crowd, while letting him get a look, ultimately doesn’t let him examine Sherlock.

We don’t see the funeral. We therefore don’t see if it was open casket.

We don’t see what happened to Moriarty. No one but Sherlock knew he’d “shot himself”.

More generally:

Sherlock Holmes, like James Moriarty, is an actor. He can pretend anything. He can even be friendly if he wants to; he just rarely wants to.

Sherlock and Moriarty have similar intellects and drive. They are both willing to go beyond what would normally be considered, well, sane. We know this from the end of series one, not just from the conversation and suicide one-upsmanship at the end of series two.

The information Moriarty has on Sherlock comes primarily from their interactions in series one and from Mycroft. This means he is estranged from new information, especially after Sherlock finds the hidden camera.

As Sherlock has never indicated any interest in Molly beyond using her as a tool, Moriarty has no reason to think she is important to him. Indeed, Sherlock confirms this when he asks, “Watson? Mrs. Hudson? Lestrade?” (Technically Molly may never have caught Sherlock’s notice if she hadn’t observed his mental state, but that’s tangential. The point is, up until then Sherlock never would have considered Molly a part of his “team”, and so Moriarty doesn’t either.)

I believe that at the point Sherlock told Molly he thought he was going to die, he had already deduced 1) how Moriarty had managed his break-ins; 2) how Moriarty planned for his taking-down of Sherlock to end–suicide in disgrace. He may have even deduced 3) how far Moriarty was willing to go to ensure Sherlock killed himself. And as he knew Moriarty would have plans in place to deal with Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade, this knowledge didn’t help him come up with a way to outfox Moriarty, because if he enlisted their aid, Moriarty would know…hence Sherlock’s desperation, and his sudden epiphany that he could rely on Molly.

(I imagine the writers are making a point about the importance of human relationships here, a theme I think the Holmes-inspired House could have used a bit more of…but perhaps I’m reading in a bit too much ;)

And so Sherlock’s plan to save his friends and best Moriarty depended on two things: Moriarty not knowing he was relying on Molly, and Moriarty continuing to underestimate him. Sherlock had to act out his deductions as if he were having them for the first time on the rooftop, too late to do anything about them. But in reality, he’d already set a plan in motion through Molly that would allow him to jump from the rooftop, appear dead, but emerge unscathed. This plan had the crowd below, the guy on the bike, and even the medical team that picked up his body in on it–just as Moriarty had people at every level in on his break-in scheme.

Further, I don’t think Moriarty is really dead; he goes on and on about how hard it is to keep on living when everyone is so dull, but the sense of self-preservation isn’t that easy to kick if you’re not actually depressed…and Moriarty isn’t depressed. He’s bored. “Killing” himself probably seemed like a fun idea. Sherlock probably knew Moriarty wasn’t dead, as well, but he’d tried the verbal jousting route and the safest way to protect his friends was to go through with the fake suicide plan.

What I’m interested in seeing is where things go from here. I don’t quite remember from the stories, but I believe there was one in which Sherlock was said to have survived Reichenbach Falls after all. Maybe in the interminable time before series three I’ll go back and reread.

Social media quandary

Some time ago, I reached a point of crisis with Facebook. I was (and am) terribly unhappy with the company’s lack of respect for its users. Facebook users are not the customer; they’re the product. Mark Zuckerberg has little respect for privacy and seems only interested in pleasing advertisers. While I realize Facebook needs to make money, I don’t think that should happen at the cost of people’s feeling of personal security.

However, despite that huge issue, I continue to use Facebook, because that’s where everyone is. Or, more specifically, that’s where a majority of my far-flung real life friends are. Facebook makes it simple for me to keep up with people I otherwise wouldn’t hear from for months, years, or at all. I have always been terrible with keeping up with people myself, so this has been a godsend. And through Facebook I have developed deeper friendships with people who were once simple acquaintances. I’ve planned travel. I’ve shared and received affirmations and support. Facebook is where I go for community. It’s not a paradigm that can be replicated.

Twitter, I’ve come to discover over the past few days of trying very hard not to use it, is also an non-replicable paradigm.

I never thought I would have to try and find an experience to replace what I have on Twitter. Unlike Facebook, where I reveal information only behind tiered walls of (questionable) privacy, my tweets have always been public. Anyone is welcome to them. I have very few real followers, but I have over the years since I joined in February of 2007 curated a following list of interesting, funny people and accounts, one that enriches my life with daily musings, links to important news articles, beautiful photos, and more. I’ve also enjoyed sharing my own thoughts and occasionally receiving feedback.

As Twitter works toward profitability, things keep changing. I had always believed Twitter was more interested in its users than Facebook was, that Twitter would ultimately have its users’ backs. But one thing always bothered me: Why, if Twitter still has all my tweets as it claims, won’t it let me have them?

Unhappy that my tweets were seemingly going into a void from which they could never be recovered, I recently set up a rule with If This Then That that saves any tweet I post into a text file on Dropbox. Doing that, I was confident that at least going forward I would have access to my own content.

But then Twitter changed its API terms for developers, directly affecting my solution. IFTTT sent me an email about it, directing me to the Developer Rules of the Road and specifically this paragraph under “Twitter Content”:

You may export or extract non-programmatic, GUI-driven Twitter Content as a PDF or spreadsheet by using “save as” or similar functionality. Exporting Twitter Content to a datastore as a service or other cloud based service, however, is not permitted.

This rather creepily makes it sound like my content, the stuff I write, belongs to Twitter, not me. And as the content belongs to Twitter, I apparently have no right to use a process to save it. I would have to manually copy and paste from the GUI, if I’m reading this correctly. They know no one’s going to actually do that.

I realize this section exists to stop people from cross-posting their tweets to other services (which also seems draconian, no matter how annoying I find cross-posted content), but it effectively locks me out of my own writing, again. Let’s say I instead decide to post on some other service that allows me full access to my content, and then cross-post to Twitter. I could save the original posts I write that way, but not replies. I also wouldn’t be able to save retweets, which, while secondary, provide context to what I’m writing and insight into what I was thinking about while writing.

When I read the email from IFTTT on Thursday, I tweeted a little about it with shock and dismay, and then stopped tweeting altogether. It’s been about three days…but it feels more like a month.

In the meantime, I did what I could to get the content I enjoy on Twitter elsewhere. I went over to Google+ and added everyone I could find. I even pulled in news organizations I’m interested in and removed them from Facebook–but it looks like most of them post more to Facebook than Google+. Similarly, most of the people I followed on Google+ don’t post there much. The bulk of content is back on Twitter.

I’ve also been using App.net Alpha and the iOS app Spoonbill to participate in the new App.net-powered community that I’ll just refer to as ADN for simplicity’s sake. (App.net has the capability to support multiple communities, though I’m not sure that’s been done yet.) While that community is interesting, it’s sort of weird. (One conversation I witnessed, Person A: “Don’t you have a personal lawyer?” Person B: “Of course; I have several.”) There are a few people who, like me, talk about their lives, but for the most part I see people talking about tech trends, social media theory, marketing, and occasionally politics. It’s good content, but it’s not everything I want. Not by a long shot. There’s no @Lileks there. Little to nothing about journalism, photography, design, language, culture, or travel. @Horse_ebooks is there, but I hate @Horse_ebooks. The people I actually know who have signed up haven’t posted much of anything. It feels like a large number of the active people on ADN live in the Bay Area, adding to the sort of tech elitist ambiance. I have had very few conversations there.

So no, ADN can’t replace Twitter for me, at least not now. There isn’t enough adoption, I suppose. I even sort of feel weird posting there, like I’m spamming up a special place with my worthless thoughts. Rather the opposite of how I assumed I would feel about using a paid service that puts the users first.

ADN can’t do it, Google+ can’t do it, and I refuse to change the way I use Facebook (especially since that would give Facebook more data about me). So it would appear that I have no choice but to use Twitter, at least in terms of reading.

I’ve heard rumors that Twitter will start allowing users to download their tweets by the end of the year. But rumors like that have existed for awhile. I’ll believe it when I see it.

For now, I’ll probably keep reading Twitter. But I’m not sure I’ll be actually posting much there.