Tuesday, January 2, 2018

First Sunrise 2018

This is the fourth in my series of posts on the first sunrise of the year, or Hatsuhi no De in Japanese (初日の出).  I've been making a habit of writing these things, and today seemed a worthy day to attempt to see the first rays of the sun and follow the tradition of a people not my own.

Before bed, I set an alarm close to sunrise, but left a window open.  The twilight won the alarm contest, awaking me three minutes before the iPhone.  With calm winds and warm-for-sunrise-in-winter temperatures, I dressed relatively lightly -- just a wool shirt and jeans.  This proved to be quite enough for today.  Like, I wasn't cold the entire time, which is a pleasant change.

I kind of cheated this year, letting the twilight wake me. That was late enough to miss the early action; by the time I got outside, all of the birds were already awake, if still organizing their rounds with various chirps, cries, and caws.

The layers of high clouds spanning the sky had an pinkish hue when I woke up, making this a pretty late start -- but for once I had spent the night out partying, so it's not like I was going to push it today.

I climbed atop the dew-soaked rooftop, it still bearing with a year of dust, and then sprinkled with a light layer of ash.

Last year I mentioned that Ventura's landmark Two Trees were dying.  We had enough rain to save the west one for a while.  But the east tree, ever the weaker of the two, was reduced to bare branches.  Back in April, to preserve the landmark, some locals planted another small Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus to replace the ailing tree into the future.  And then, in October, the east tree broke in half at the top of the trunk.  And then, on December fourth, the fires came.

It swept from Thomas Aquinas college in Santa Paula down to Ventura in hours, and obliterated the homes of a few of my friends in less than an hour.  Looking at the blackened hillside, I can still recall the same hills wreathed with flames a month ago, a vivid orange line lighting a city that was otherwise low on electricity.  The smoke blocking all but the sky's lights save a ruddy full moon and the piercing blue of Sirius.

Fed by a month of repeated Santa Ana wind events, the Thomas Fire still rages on today.  They say the fire is 93% contained now, which means it's still smoldering up in the hills.  I'm not sure if that's the source of the lingering smoke at night, or if it's just the smell of the layer of ash still coating the ground.

The new Two Trees are alive for now, although the former east tree, the last survivor of the 1890s, is charred to a crisp.  And we've had a rainless season so far, a December of dry winds.  With no rain in sight, how will the other trees ever recover?

In the old days, the Japanese name for the month of October is Kannazuki (神無月), literally the Godless Month.  The legend is that all of the gods of Japan would leave to attend court at a particular shrine, leaving the rest of the country without its gods.  And as I look into my own yard, a Japanese maple has just finished turning green leaves to red, as it should have done in October.  So why not call it the Godless month, where the powers that used to protect us seemed to have abandoned us?

And that's how 2017 went, one insult after another, until finally the fire came to consume everything.  It's hard to forget about when your view is of one of a blackened hillside, and the smoke still penetrates my nose, with a scent somewhere between manure and that of a cigar.

As the light to the east grows lighter, the most of the wispy clouds begin to fade from view.  My attention has been stuck on the hills for so long, I've forgotten to look around.  The west is lightening up, and the south, well, it was too hazy to see the ocean.

The goldfinches wer twittering up a storm in the abutalon flowers, and the hummingbirds were already feeding from the flowers.  The red-throated hummer tolerates finches amongst the leaves of their favorite flower, but another hummingbird stealing their nectar is not cool.  But he's safe for now.

Meanwhile, a crow took a perch atop a telephone pole behind me.  He gave me the lookover.  The look like, "I am totally not looking at you, don't mind me, but what exactly are you standing up there for anyway?"

Because of the damp and ashy roof, and because the air is calm, I'd remained standing the whole time.  My feet are still a little sore from last night.  I was invited to a rather fancy party last night, and I went in full tuxedo with tails, top hat, and all.  Bowties are cool.  My date had done her best to wear a dress from the era of Hollywood glamour, and we had a great time.

Me, not with my date
But those shoes did hurt after a while, the price of fashion.  I bought them at a costume shop called Victorian Vogue, along with the most of the outfit.  Don't bother looking them up, because they had finally closed the store the day before, after thirty years, due to slowing business.  Yet another loss.

But a costume sale did get me into the party, so I could pass for someone of high enough class to get in.  It was great to actually be at a party, because so many Christmas parties were cancelled as a result the fires.  We do need to celebrate and have good cheer in the face of all of this, after all.

And yet, at the party, there was still a sense of loss through the revelers.  "Were you evacuated?"  "How close did the flames get?"  "Is everyone OK?"  Those were the questions of the night.  Even in our merriment, tragedy forces its way into our lives in those moments we leave the dance floor.

After a time, I heard the crow behind me call out, and a second crow just dropped out of the sky to join him.  Were they my old friends Phobos and Deimos?  Or another pair, intrigued by an oddly-behaving human, up here alone on a winter's day?

And what does it mean that only here, in solitude, do I really celebrate the new year?  I can't really share this with most Americans.  Most of them wouldn't understand or be willing to wake up now, having stayed out late partying -- or more likely late watching other people partying on TV.

There are no lines to enter the shrines and churches in the U.S., though I know that New Year's was once a church holiday, one of the four main festivals of the short Christmas season.  It's hard to explain why, but the rituals are important.  They give me a chance to step back, escape from my cell phone, and live life in the moment.

Which reminded me that I should really snap some pictures, so I pulled out my cell phone.  More and more clouds are once again revealed as the yellow glow increases to the East, and the sun begins to rise over the Santa Monica Mountains.

The glow suffused the star pine in the distance, which looked a good deal like Moses's burning bush.  A halo of the purest yellow light surrounded the eastern sky, and then, just suddenly, a ray of true sunlight peeked through.

The corona of light around the sun all seemed to blend together into a golden glow.  With so many clouds, it was hard to see the shape of the sun, but when I closed my eye, I could see the half-disc of the sun perfectly well as an after-image.

All of the other clouds were back, in brilliant white.  Woven cirrostratus to the north east. Rows upon rows of straight line cirrus to the southwest, looking as thin as fishbones.  And was that a dragonfly-shaped cloud I spied?  Well, close enough, I guess.

I guess for every fire that destroys, there's another that reveals beauty.  Even if I have to look a little harder for the beauty.  Maybe that's all I'm going to get out of this year's sunrise.  Maybe I'm just here to grieve, for the fires, for all of the illnesses amongst all of the family, for the death of my dog Abby (her son Shasta stayed asleep this morning), the death of an aunt, and for just a string of rotten luck.  No one I know thought 2017 treated them kindly, and most have their own tragedies to bear.

It worries me that the one portentous thing I said in last year's edition was the thing to come true: That destruction has come to visit us, without the balancing warmth of creation.  And that is why I pray for this year:  I pray for a fire that brings beauty and renewal, one that warms our hearts, and creates more than it destroys.  And, most of all, I pray for rain.  Please.

Monday, January 2, 2017

First Sunrise 2017

This is the third in my series of posts on the first sunrise of the year, or Hatsuhi no De in Japanese (初日の出).  Once again, I set off on a very easy quest to see the very first sunlight of the new year.

Just like my last post on this topic, I was awoken just by dulcet tones of the "Marimba" tone on my iPhone, in the morning twilight.  The same phone as last time, I was recently informed that it is now the oldest cell phone on my company's plan.  It's been quite a while since my last hatsuhi outing.  But it still feels very mottainai to replace a phone that does everything I need, so I'm carrying it into the new year.

Today, my dog Shasta decided to join me in heading out into the morning twilight.  The weather was calm and the mid-40s -- not so hot, but not so cold as last year where the near-freezing winds kept me swaddled in my bed.

Being a meteorologist and a very amateur astronomer, naturally the first thing I did as I got outside was to look up.  I was a met with a blank sheet of grayish blues, blending off into a greenish hue in the far east.

The only thing in the sky was Jupiter, high to the south, its great light piercing the twilight.  It's the kind of sight that most people will easily miss, but if you know to look along the ecliptic plane, it's obvious.  And Jupiter was quite the welcome sight, as I hadn't seen the shepherd planet for months now.

Lately, the dominance of Venus as the evening star has been unnerving me just a little, playing along with the half moon that graced our skies on Election Day.  A moon cut in twain, one-half light and one-half dark.  I tell myself that these lights in the sky don't have real meaning, but they still have the meaning our subconscious gives them anyway.

But my attention was drawn earthward by the sharp click of a green-breasted hummingbird perched on our abutilon.  He's half asleep still, but he keeps tweeting me his warning: "Hey, this is my nectar tree buddy, so watch your step."

Shasta has since finished the first round of the yard, and came back to ask me what we're going to do today.  Perhaps I was inspired by the Thin Man movie I watched last night, or just the fact that a wire fox terrier is game for anything.  "C'mere Shasta, let's go up on the roof."

I hoisted Shasta up onto the roof, shingles still damp from yesterday's rain, and then hoisted myself.  Shasta took a quick appraisal of everything that was around, smelling every object he could find from the fireplace to the satellite dish.

Is this a sewer vent?  Oh wow, this is super interesting.

Well, sometimes a wire fox terrier can be a little too game.  Or gamey.  So I called him up to the top, and held him on my lap as we waited for the sunrise on the roof's apex.

The sky brightened enough to hide Jupiter, but we since had picked up a few travelers: loud and annoying seagulls, announcing the day's business as they flew inland on their routes.  And a jet high above us cast just a glimmer of a reflection of the sun's rays, but with nary a wisp of cloud behind it.

A look across the treetops to the south revealed a lovely green land, even more verdant than looking at it from below.  Maybe too green for this particular land, but we built it, we earned it, and with any luck the rain will keep coming to sustain us.

On reflection of what we had made of our land here, something just switched inside me.  A moment of deep grief for all of the things we've lost last year.  For the wounds we've taken.  A worry that this, all of this, could fall to ruin.  Not a sense of mono no aware, but something deeper and crueler.  In order to create, one must destroy, but destruction without creation is another thing entirely.

Off to the north, Ventura's iconic Two Trees are fast becoming One Trees as the eastern eucalyptus of the pair slowly succumbs to damage from the long drought.  Below it and much nearer to me sits a giant parking structure, nearly equal in size to the new hospital I mentioned before.  The problem with Southern California architecture, as they've said in the LA Times, is that the car always wins.  It loomed over that horizon, mostly featureless, mostly concrete, a gray reminder of the view of the hills we've mostly given up.

I gave Shasta a hug, and told him that everything is going to be OK, and that we were here to see a sunrise.  But he's a dog, and I think we know who I was really trying to convince.

By this time, the sky had grown to a light blue, with pinkish high clouds in the far distance.  The wind was calm at first, but it steadily grew in force in the ten minutes before sunrise.  A final gust of wind heralded the arrival of the sun, as the very first rays broke across the hills.

About two minutes later, my own first ray of sunlight flashes into my eyes, filtered through the wide branches of a distant star pine.  I point it out to Shasta, but he's still not really getting why he's up here on the roof sitting on his human's lap.  But hey, it's different and something to do.

The sun's disc quickly resolved into its proper shape, and we stood up, taking in the new year.  I felt a sense of relief, that I had really and finally escaped the last year.

But then I really looked around.  The world I had seen filled with soft shades and hazy colors was no more.  It had suddenly sharpened into a world filled with strong lines of light and shadow.  So much more light, but so many more shadows crisply defined by the hilltops, palm trees, and walls.  Daybreak is the moment when everything just changes.

I like to think of our lives here on Earth as something like a sunset.  That is to say, we live such a short time, surrounded by incredible beauty and rapid change, before we head into the unknown night.

But sunrise too has power.  And maybe it describes us just as well.  Perhaps we humans are still at the beginning of all things.  And at a time like now, we can see the shadow and the light clearly for the first time in a long time.

Everything looks a little different now than it did last year.  The light and shadow are so clearly defined.  But there are so many colors now too, and those colors will shine.  Now that we can see all the shadows, we can awaken into the light.

Well, eventually.  I was still pretty sleepy, so it was time for me and Shasta to head back to bed for a bit.  The day was ready for us, but we were still not quite ready for the day.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Postmodern Constellation Apocalypse: Classical Mythological Themes of Utena

There are, to be sure, a lot of sources of themes in Revolutionary Girl Utena. This article addresses just one possible source: that the principal characters of Shoujo Kakumei Utena (SKU) are each represented in the winter night sky.

Director Ikuhara's previous series focused on characters who represented planets, the pretty soldiers of Sailor Moon. It's almost trivial to draw parallels between the student council's hair color and the corresponding Sailor Senshi's outfit color. A logical next step for someone who worked on a shoujo about the planets is to work on a shoujo anime about the stars. The mythology of the constellations serve as the fairy tales of the classical Greeks, which works quite well for SKU's tale.

This article assumes the reader has a passable knowledge of Greek mythology. In particular, you should be familiar with the story of Perseus -- a super-short version of his story is available on the Wikipedia page about his mother, Danae, because ancient gender roles persist to this day.


Fig 1. The Winter Sky
Character Constellation Aspect
Utena Tenjou Orion Huntress
Wakaba Shinohara Canis Major Faithful companion
Miki Kaoru Gemini (Pollux) Twin, demigod
Kozue Kaoru Gemini (Castor) Twin, tree-climber
Juri Arisugawa Andromeda Chained maiden
Shiori Takatsuki Aquarius Ganymede
Ruka Tsuchiya Pegasus Divine aid
Touga Kiryuu Perseus Prince
Nanami Kiryuu Cassiopeia Haughty queen
Mitsuru Tsuwabuki Cepheus Queen's consort
Aiko Pleiades Sister maiden
Yuuko Pleiades Sister maiden
Keiko Sonoda Pleiades Merope
Kyouichi Saionji Taurus Sacred bull
Mikage Souji Ophiuchus Asclepius
Kanae Ohtori Cygnus Leda
Dios Hercules Hero
Akio Ohtori Venus Lover, fallen star
Anthy Himemiya Virgo Persephone
The plot Eridanus Journey, monomyth
Akio car Auriga Chariot
Castle Draco, Ursa Emperor's palace
The shell Genbu Black turtle

In the interest of getting on with it, I propose that these characters are related to these constellations herein. Some of these aren't actual constellations: the Pleiades are an asterism and Venus is a planet. The Aspect column relates the particular way in which the constellation exemplifies the character, or a specific mythical identity for the constellation for those associated with several figures.

The roots of this theory come from none other than Akio himself. Akio provides a lot of context for what is going on, as and Anthy are only characters who has any inkling of the greater plot. But, we must be careful, as Akio is a liar.

Akio associates a lot of constellations with Utena directly, but this really is just a demonstration of which other character she is reflecting at the time; typically this is the episode's focus character. He also mentions the fall and winter constellations directly, which gives us a good idea of where to search.

The Huntress

I associate Utena with Orion, the hunter. For one, she's more than a little bit based on Usagi from Sailor Moon, so naturally Lepus the rabbit sits as her base. Orion's profile looks more than a little bit like Utena, with that thin waist, broad shoulders, sword in a belt, and battle frills. The other reason is that Orion so loaded with bright stars that it stands out among an already interesting portion of the sky. Also ɣ Orionis is named Bellatrix -- female warrior -- so there is that.

There are a few legends about Orion's death. The most common is the scorpion story, where Earth sent a scorpion to prevent Orion from hunting every beast in the world. Hyginus writes down a more relevant tale: that Apollo objected to his sister Artemis's love for Orion, and tricked Artemis into killing Orion. This tale is so relevant, I don't even need to explain why. Greek gods were assholes, even to each other.

Shinohara Wakaba may not think of herself as special, but she is. Notwithstanding her interactions with Saionji being the instigating event of Utena's involvement in the duels, she makes a big impression on the viewer. Like Canis Major, she is as faithful as a dog chasing after Utena (Orion) and also towards Saionji (Taurus). Also like Canis Major, she's not one of the important constellations, just a lesser being following in their wake, hoping for reflected glory. But on a hazy winter night when no other star can be seen, Sirius (α CMa) shines through the clouds like a beacon. Wakaba's inner world is troubled and dark, but the true happiness in her heart, when it shows, is a light that guides her companions through the night.

On the other side of Orion lies Taurus the bull, which represents Utena's first opponent, Kyouichi Saionji. Saionji has the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, but he also has the more desirable traits of bovines. He is the strongest physically of all the duelists, and his desire for the sacred is suitable for a sacred cow. Zeus took the form of a white bull to abduct Europa, and abduction is essentially what Saionji has done to Anthy. Europa may be another name for Demeter which, while not quite the same as Anthy's Persephone, is certainly in the right neighborhood.

The Twins

Gemini, constellation of twins, is associated with many, many people in this story, due to the extent of which everyone is covering up their true nature -- presenting two faces to the world. Not to mention the rampant bisexuality.

But there are two obvious twins in this story, Kozue and Miki of the Kaoru family. Together, they do a remarkable impression of the mythological twins and half-siblings born to Leda, Castor and Pollux. Castor is born as a normal child, son of King Tyndareus of Sparta, while Pollux is an immortal child of Zeus due to that one Swan Incident. And there lies the source of conflict: Kozue knows that Miki is special in a way that she is not. And despite everything, she will always be compared to him, as his twin, and come out losing. Miki himself knows of the shining thing (kirameki), the divine spark that Kozue never had, but he too fears he has lost it.

The mythological Dioskouri never displayed this level of fraternal enmity. SKU characters are broken versions of themselves, who don't live up to their own expectations or archetypes. Much as we all do. Castor himself causes his doom after climbing a tree, much as Kozue does, and must be rescued by his brother.

The sunlit garden, however, is another piece of mythology entirely. In this aspect, I believe that Miki and Kozue represent an aspect of Adam and Eve -- a man and woman crafted out of one flesh. The Garden of Eden is the dream time in the childhood of humanity, and most of Miki's efforts come in just getting a glimpse of that past glory. And yet it was ruined by the woman; both are no longer children, having tasted of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. For Miki this becomes knowledge of how to stay pure in spirit. In contrast, Kozue gains carnal knowledge, embracing the role of temptress.

In either case, Miki's relationship with his father is distant, and with Kozue it's even more strained. He may own a zaibatsu, or be some other form of divinity, but they are lost children, now wild animals living east of Eden.

Clash of the Titans

Touga Kiryuu certainly plays the role of the hero well, which identifies him with the constellation Perseus. Perseus is more or less at the center of the action in the winter sky, which is where Touga often finds himself. In mythology, he's the hero who slayed the sea monster (Cetus) and saved Andromeda. But there's a heart of darkness in Perseus, the demon star Algol (β Per, an eclipsing binary) which represents the head of the Gorgon. Medusa's head is the proudly on display, the latest female conquest of this ladykiller.

Perseus, like Touga, was adopted by a powerful family. He was put up for adoption by his father Acrisius casting him into a box in the ocean (not unlike a certain cat). Acrisius hoped to spare himself from a prophecy where the son killed the father, but Perseus' discus veered off course and accidentally struck the father in the end of the story. And that's the problem with Touga -- his heroism always falls short.

Nanami seems to be best represented by Cassiopeia, the Queen. A haughty woman, Cassiopeia of Ætheopia was once so boastful that she claimed that she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than all of the Nereids. This did not turn out well for her. In the end, Cassiopeia's punishment was to be places in the heavens, bound to a chair. And as the constellation lies far to the north, every night, Cassiopeia hangs upside-down for a time.

That really is Nanami's story, at least at the outset. A haughty woman, whose world is continually turned upside-down. She is also, of the student council, the most removed from the action, of the characters represented by more southerly constellations.

Nanami also spends time impersonating other constellations -- playing Andromeda the maiden in need of rescue, Perseus the traveling hero on the curry quest, Taurus the magnificent bovine, and Gemini as an all too close sibling. She never manages to live up to the rest of the Student Council.

Nanami's circle of girlfriends is associated with the classical circle of maidens, the Pleiades, by no less than Akio himself. This open star cluster is known as the Seven Sisters in both New and Old World mythologies; but budget cuts and light pollution have unfortunately forced us down to three in SKU. Just like the stars, they're more noticeable as a group than individually. Nanami carefully keeps them from ever coming in contact with Touga, their prince, and so we get one episode to remind us that a circle of maidens without a prince is a coven of witches.

The Consulting Analyst blog notes that Keiko might be identified with the Pleiad Merope; because she was attracted to the wrong man, Nanami would "disappear" her just like the seventh star "disappeared" from view. Celaeno is another Pleiad, and I would like to mention that the scene where Keiko gets sent to the student council records office in the night would do a passable imitation of the Great Library of Celaeno from the Chthuhu mythos.

Tsuwabuki Mitsuru is a character that I associate with Cepheus, primarily because he serves as the companion to Nanami. Cepheus was King of Ætheopia and husband of Cassiopeia, but isn't really known for much else. He was willing to sacrifice his daughter, Andromeda, to appease the gods, and I can see a bit of Tsuwabuki's self-sacrificing nature in that. But this is probably one of the weaker connections, much as Cepheus is one of the less brilliant constellations.

The Andromeda Strand

While this region of the sky is still associated with the Perseus mythology, the western portion of it is connected with Juri's story.

Juri is very clearly associated with Andromeda, the chained maiden. Daughter of Cassiopeia, Andromeda too was punished for the incident mentioned above. Andromeda lay chained as a sacrifice to the sea monster Cetus, until the hero Perseus came to save her. Juri's chain is made of the same stuff as Sailor Venus, a "Love-Me Chain", if you will. Her heart remains captured until freed by Utena's sword. Also, Juri's character design is reminiscent of the tall, slender form of the Andromeda constellation.

Aquarius is associated with Ganymede, who was such a good looking guy that the gods kept him around to be their water bearer. And such is Shiori, the object of homosexual attraction. Even a fake, cross-dressing Ganymede can be at the center of a love triangle in Shakespeare's As You Like It, and that's exactly what Shiori is in SKU.

And so, the constellation between Andromeda and Aquarius must be the person between Shiori and Juri. That person is Ruka, represented by the constellation Pegasus. Pegasus makes a near square in the sky, and I guess Ruka has some pretty square shoulders. OK, you can tell that this one is a bit weak. However, the winged-horse pegasus does represent a form of divine assistance to Perseus. Ruka too tries to bear Juri to hero status, by getting her to return to the Tournament.

Scattered Stars

Anthy is almost certainly represented by Virgo, the maiden -- in particular as an aspect of Persephone. The captured and raptured maiden meme so common to Greek myth shows its face again here, though in this one it's often straight out referred to as "The Rape of Persephone". The springtime goddess is brought to the underworld to become the wife of Hades -- who can probably do a passable impression of the somewhat dead Akio. Due to trickery, she cannot escape the underworld and must return there for half the year, which is why we have a winter.

Spica (α Vir)[1] usually represents a bouquet of flowers held by Virgo. Since Anthy is the one who hands out all of the flowers and is loved by all the animals, it's not terribly hard to associate her with a springtime goddess. It's not even that much of a stretch to associate a harvest goddess with Anthy's other feminine representation of a witch -- neopagans do it all the time.

Notably, Virgo is a spring constellation, and can only be seen very late at night during the winter. And, as all of the other constellations fall off the end of the world, she is the only one left. At the end of the story, she must chase after Utena alone.

Akio more or less tells us to associate him with Venus, the morning star which is in turn a name associated with Lucifer, the betrayer. Venus is of course not a constellation at all, but a planet. And quite often the third brightest object in the sky. But unlike all of the other characters, his light comes not from within, but from the reflected light of Dios. He pretty much lampshades this too, just like everything else in this paragraph. Even if you're not on board with this theory of SKU characters being constellations, Akio is.

To me, Kanae Ohtori feels a little bit like Cygnus, the swan. Leda was a beautiful princess that Zeus saw from the heavens. In a distressingly familiar plot twist, Big Z transforms her into a swan so that they could ballet dance have hot, nonconsensual swan sex. The twins Castor and Pollux soon hatched from her eggs, finally answering the question of whether human girls can lay eggs.

The connection between Leda and Kanae is not too strong, but I think she shares the same aspect of being captured by a higher power, as well as being elegant and slender as a swan. Cygnus is a summer constellation, though it is relatively close to Aquarius.

Souji Mikage's story is out of phase with the rest of the story, so it isn't a surprise that his constellation is also a true summer constellation. Ophiuchus, literally meaning serpent-bearer, is surrounded on both sides by the constellation Serpens. In Roman myth, he represents the physician Asclepius, the son of Apollo who learned the art of medicine from Chiron the centaur.

And then one day a serpent slithered up to Asclepius and whispered secret knowledge in his ear, from which he learned how to cheat death and revive the dead. It is this gnostic power that Mikage seeks in his first campaign at Ohtori, to save the life of Mamiya Chida. The power that was whispered in his ear by a certain serpent -- perhaps the same one in that Sunlit Garden. Asclepius was thunderbolted to death by Zeus for abusing his power to raise the dead. Some accounts say that Zeus agreed to bring him back to life, so long as he only raised souls on Zeus' orders. Which begs the question: in the Black Rose Arc, just how many souls of the past were raised as shadows?

Non-character constellations

Right next to Perseus in the sky looms Auriga, the charioteer. And while you could make an argument that Saionji is Auriga with the aspect of Bellerophon, I prefer a cooler theory. That rather than represent the charioteer, it represents the chariot -- the Akio car. The legendary '57 Chevy convertible would have enough room to carry the charioteer and the three goats as a four-seater. Yes, goats; this constellation's mythology is really mixed up. Just assume that it's a chariot with a lot of horsepower.

For a different kind of there is the celestial river Eridanus, that starts right at the feet of the Orion. And if Orion represents a hero, then Eridanus looks like the path for a hero's journey. There's no real support for this idea, so we'll move on from here. I'm just kind of a fan of the monomyth. Woo Campbell!

Chinese Astronomy

While Utena seems like it's mostly working from a Western mythos, there's a little bit of Chinese culture in there too. After all, SKU is postmodern. Chinese astronomy is by and large pretty boring -- even superbright stars like Caph and Fomaulhaut (α Cas and α PsA) aren't in constellations, because they don't fit in the conception of the celestial order or something. But there are a few points of interest.

The castle in the sky is a common theme in Chinese astronomy, which represents the polar stars as the center of the sky and palace of the heavenly emperor. Thus it's not really surprising that castle above the dueling arena rotates. Though it's not from Western astronomy, the meaning is fairly clear -- it is the eternal castle where the prince of heaven dwells, and around which everything rotates. Sure it looks like a fairytale castle, but it's the Purple Forbidden Enclosure and the seat of heavenly power.

So far I've talked about the primarily winter constellations, but the Chinese system associates one animal with each quarter of the sky[2]. The animal associated with winter and the north is Genbu, the black tortoise. So finally, as a representative of the whole cast, we get a creature with a shell. The world's shell is not a giant leap at this point.

To extend the metaphor of the chick breaking the shell even further, we can apply an classical astronomical meaning as well. If one takes the ancient Ptolemeic or Aristotelian systems of the heavens, Earth and all that we know is surrounded by a system of crystal spheres. The fixed stars and all the constellations are affixed to the penultimate sphere. The final shell, which encloses the world, is the primum mobile which set everything into motion. And by breaking the final shell of the world, the hero can reach the Empryean region beyond, whereupon God is in His heaven, and all is right with the world.

Ultimately then, this connects to the other meanings of breaking the shell of the world. If the shell is the coffin of death, it means that the power of heaven lies beyond the firmament. If the shell is adolescence, it is us as humans finally understanding our place in the world. And if the shell is our planet, it means finally being able to leave our tiny home to see the big universe beyond. We are all in our coffins, whatever it may be. One day, you must break open that shell, or you will die.

So, I urge to all of you to help break the world's shell -- call your representatives and ask for increased funding for NASA, JAXA, ESA, Roscosmos, or equivalent. Do it for the revolution of the world.

Is this legit?

It's difficult to tell how well the night sky really applies to SKU. The stories of the constellations are those of classical archetypes, both heroic and tragic. The kinds of archetypes that keep recurring in legend, fairy tales, and Revolutionary Girl Utena. So perhaps it's just terribly easy to find an archetype and shoehorn it in.

Still, this kind of shoehorning is exactly the sort of thing a postmodern work should do.  Combine the best parts of the works of the past, while rejecting the part that sucks.

Certainly there is something to this theory, as Akio does a good job of specifically pointing out a few bits of astronomical symbolism. As such, the bits about Gemini and Aquarius are almost certainly valid. If you're going to do symbolism, you might as well make it super-obvious like roses everywhere or a bright green light across the bay.

The symbolism of the constellations are appropriate for Utena's world. In some sense, the rampant levels of bisexuality and incestual plots in Utena are almost toned down from the Greco-Roman legends that they represent. And the stories enshrined in the constellations -- and Greek mythology in general -- almost universally deal with man's folly in rivalling the gods. Poor Icarus, he was just one of many. The larger-than-life, archetypal characters are defeated by their own frailties and desires. And if that doesn't describe the cast of Utena, I don't know what on Earth does.

Ad Astra

The constellations only serve as the starting point of the Utena cast; their characters are further deconstructed from there. In fact, Much of the discussion of SKU centers on the deconstructive nature of the work. But the construction, upon which said deconstruction was wrought, was nearly as impressive. It was built from shoujo tropes, fairy tale motifs, character archetypes, and the wisdom of classic and modern civilizations. The deconstruction of that much is truly impressive.

The deconstruction is so successful, there's really nothing left at the end of the plot. And yet, once the shell has been broken, the last episode invites you to speculate: now what? And at that point, the only possible answer is reconstruction.[3]  It's what we post-modernists do, after all.  The end of Utena is the story we tell ourselves.

Like Anthy, we need to go out and see the greater world ourselves. The real story, not the fake stars in our planetarium. The story is all around us. Go outside and look up.

[0]: The title of the post is inspired by this comic.
[1]: As a side note to Lyrical Nanoha fans, Spica figures into the ED theme (Hoshizora no SUPIKA) because in the Japanese language, it was known as the Pearl Star (真珠星).  And Raising Heart looks a lot like a pearl.  Source.
[2]: As Fushigi Yuugi viewers already know.
[3]: I think this is the main reason that I like the fanfic Symphony of the Sword so much as Utena fanfiction; it is a relentlessly constructive and syncretic universe. Moreover, space opera is a natural fit for characters with stellar archetypes. The Symphony describes Utena leaving the Aristotelian universe and coming into her own in the stars beyond. I can't think of a more fitting fate.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Three Tales of Second System Syndrome

In the last decade, three major scripting languages embarked on project to produce a major revision to each language: Perl 6, Python 3, and PHP 6. Despite surface similarities, such as the problem of Unicode support, each language ended up on a radically different track.

With the Perl 6.0.0 release officially coming this year, it's a good time to reflect on how we got to this point, and to start thinking about what comes after the release.


So -- and I can't believe I'm writing this -- let's see if we can learn something from PHP. Andi Gutmans, who is now the CEO of Zend Technologies, gave an interview back in February 2008. In it, he said,
So we are anticipating a long rollout cycle for PHP 6, and we did not want to take the same route that the Perl project did, with project contributors still working on Perl 6 I think six years later. People make fun of Microsoft, but take a look at Perl 6. . . .

To which Andy Lester of PerlBuzz replied:
Sure, PHP 6 may have a shorter release cycle than Perl 6 has, but at the end of it all, we'll have Perl 6, and you'll still have PHP.

Just sayin'.
So how did those predictions work out? Well, after a little over six years of development, we discovered that we were never going to see a PHP 6 at all. Having seen how long Perl 6 had taken, and how long PHP 6 was taking, the number 6 is associated with failure. So they cancelled PHP 6 and voted to change the name to PHP 7. Problem solved! No, really, this is some of the actual reasoning given by people on the 6 to 7 RFC. (Someone should tell the ES6 folks before the curse strikes our browsers!)

But the main intent of the renumbering was to justify a much reduced scope of new features for the next major version of PHP. PHP 7 is slated to add:
  • "Huge Performance Improvements" to the Zend engine (HHVM already pretty speedy)
  • JIT to the Zend engine (but already available in HHVM)
  • Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) generation
  • Asynchronous IO and functions
  • Standalone Multi-threading Web Server (HHVM)
    • Which is cool if you want a language to provide its own server, I guess
EDIT: People both here and on Hacker News have pointed out that this is the above feature list was from a bad source, and that much of PHP 6 was incorporated into 5.3.  See the better summary of PHP 7 features, including generator improvements, and new operators like ??.  However, much of the same analysis still applies -- the end result was very few backwards incompatible changes, not the major revision promised with major Unicode improvements.

Perl 6

Meanwhile Perl 6, which has taken 15 years to get to the 6.0.0 release slated for this Christmas.  I'm sure that there were some embarrassing quotes about when it's going to be done, but that was so long ago, I'll just link to this post forecasting that Perl 6 will be ready for production in 2027.

As it now stands, Perl 6 comes with this set of new features:
  • A real type system (not just type hints as in PHP) everywhere
    • The ability to continue ignoring types most short scripting code
    • The ability to use static type checks to catch errors
    • Native types (C strings, unsigned ints, etc.) unlock new performance potential
    • Meta-object programming is available
  • A sane native function calling interface
  • Rakudo Perl 6 runs on multiple virtual machines (JVM, MoarVM), with more backends planned (Javascript)
    • Can compile P6 to bytecode or an AST
    • Takes advantage of VM's JIT
  • Complete syntax refactoring
    • Fully backwards compatible with the use of Inline::Perl5
    • Consistent syntax throughout
  • Native Unicode handling, with NFG (grapheme) strings by default
  • Hygienic macros
    • As I said above, AST
  • Regexes have evolved to Grammars, a first class language
    • PCRE are no longer Perl-compatible (except in Perl 5 mode), but are instead much easier to read
  • Easy to use concurrency
    • Some operators will autothread
    • Junction types for set operations
  • Module versioning to ensure that even if a module completely changes its API, your code will not break. If you declare a version, of course.
Honestly, there are a whole lot more of these features. This even excludes things that have already made back into the Perl 5 core, like subroutine signatures and smartmatching. And these are all things that are working today.

The eerie thing is that Andy's flippant prediction came true. At the end of it, we have Perl 6, and they still have the same old PHP. Let me repeat that: we have Perl 6. It works, it will get a major release this year, and it is going to come with many more features than originally promised.

Still, Perl 6 has had its share of doubters. Some people proposed, actually seriously, that Perl 5 should leapfrog ahead to Perl 7 with the next version, and Perl 6 can go on calling itself that if it wants. Right. While this idea was rejected by the general Perl community, PHP actually skipped a version a year later. I guess it's another example of PHP stealing the worst ideas from Perl.

Python 3

The Python group, on the other hand, has tried to stay mostly on the side of sanity. Python 3 introduced a much smaller set of breaking changes, in order to keep updates rolling out. It was introduced, well, six years ago in early 2009.

New features of Python 3 included:
  • Sane Unicode handling
    • A breaking change that allowed all of the other breaking changes to happen
  • Various name changes for style consistency
  • Automatically loading C modules when available.
  • Refactor of exceptions
  • Support for ancient OSes dropped
  • Old functions removed, along with generally bad APIs
  • Statement form print removed in favor of function print(), ostensibly to make a consistent API but really just to mess with people.
So how's that working out? The latest version of python preinstalled on my fully updated MacBook is 2.7.6. At least Ubuntu gives me 3.4.0 — Apple is well known to be crap at updating OSS. But you'd think someone at Apple would have cared in six years would have cared enough to throw python3 in the XCode monster download; after all, Python does not have the kiss of death known as the GPLv3 license.

The flip side of availability is developer adoption; this story isn't much better. If you look at statistics from a last year and this month, Python 3 adoption rates are abysmal. Hell, even 23% of people inside the Python community still think Python 3 was a mistake. Despite obvious improvements, it's still considered a tough sell.

Second Deployment Syndrome

So the takeaway from all of this is that Second System Syndrome is a real problem, but not the only problem. Successfully executing major revisions to a language is difficult, but getting widespread adoption is just as difficult with breaking changes. Second Deployment Syndrome can be just as hard to face as making the new system in the first place.

So we have three software communities that took radically different approaches to building a second system. PHP is a complete zoo of awful design, begging to be tamed. Yet the PHP community effectively voted to give up, and only offer incremental change that doesn't address PHP 6's number one issue of Unicode support. The Python folks, bless their hearts, made a smaller set of achievable changes, implemented it in 3 years, and shipped the damn thing. And despite the truly useful improvements, only a few people came.

Perl decided to stick to its vision of "break all the things once", and it's taken 15 long years. That's almost as long as the HTML 5 spec. Over this time, the design has continued to evolve, incorporating more modern needs like easily multithreaded code that would have otherwise been missed. Although the complaint of "no final spec" is common, it has been learned the hard way that the spec is the very last thing that should be finalized.

It's easy to naively say that 15 years is a ridiculous amount of development time, but it's obvious from looking at second systems for the other scripting languages, Perl 6 was never going to complete such a major transition in less than a decade. What's still unclear is whether this transition is going to work out for Perl.

Nearly everyone who tries Perl 6 from a Perl 5 background likes it immensely, which is usually followed up by a "can this not be so slow?" Optimization is still getting there, just not prematurely. In general, reception has been a net positive. And unlike the breaking changes introduced in the other languages, Inline::Perl5 allows multiple versions of Perl to coexist in the same program.

Will this be enough? It's too early to tell. Perl 5 is going to last another 5 years at the minimum, if not forever, munging text output by a shell script written by a programmer from generations ago. Perl 6 will have an uphill battle with Perl 5 for ubiquity, legacy code, and language familiarity.

Adoption rate is the next big challenge facing Perl 6. There is a very real possibility that six years from now, Perl 5 will still be the dominant form of an ever shrinking faction of Perl users. After all, Python might be in the same boat right now. Perl needs to reverse an already existing downward trend, at least partially brought on by how frakking long Perl 6 took in the first place.

The best advice I can see for ensuring Perl 6's success is for Perl developers to start writing code in Perl 6. I mean now; it's definitely stable enough. Every module available within a year of release is going to be a major argument for people to try the new version. Getting Shit Done can win a lot of arguments.

After that, it's going to be a tough slog. Is it deployed enough places to distribute code in? Is there enough code written in it to deploy to more places? Package managers like apt and Homebrew are going to help with bootstrapping the user base, but to win Perl 6 going to have to get that killer app.

So for now, it's a giant gamble. In poker terms, Python 3 called, PHP 6 folded, and Perl 6 went all-in. It just might be possible that Perl 6's crazy long development process can produce the best-adopted second system around, if people decide that the overwhelming improvements are worth the hassle of upgrading.

I'll let you know how that went in six years.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Troping Considered Harmful

My wiki sucks.  Actually, it isn't just All The Tropes; TV Tropes sucks too.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'm open to criticism about TV Tropes, given that I founded my own fork of that wiki.  Well, not *mine* per se, but never mind that now.  But given that I'd bother to fork the wiki, I must be a hardcore troper, right?

Well, not really.  Mainly I just wanted to have a website to talk about fiction without worrying about crazy censorship.

What is it about?

But there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the nature of both All The Tropes, and its parent wiki, TV Tropes.  For some reason, my eyes were drawn to the Encyclopedia Dramatica page on TV Tropes.  And it's kind of depressing.  You should read it, though it's highly NSFW -- mostly thanks to some Trope-tan Rule 34.

In particular, I was looking at the sections titled "Article Style" and "Why it sucks".   Here's this gem:
This in a site supposed to scrutinize fiction's impact on culture. Or is it? What is TV tropes about? What is it about? What is IS IT about? WHAT IS IT ABOUT? WHAT IS IT ABOOOOUUUUUUT?  Tv tropes isn't governed by any single vision. Instead, it is about thousands of competing plans all trying to spread their own brand of faggotry over the whole site.

Okay, that's maybe not the best organized argument, but there is a major point there.  The TVT front page says this:
What is this about? This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction.
Okay, that's an idea.  But do trope pages really talk about writing fiction?  Or how to use a trope in writing?  Or any pages about the writing process at all?  I guess if we take it as a literal "catalog", it makes some sense -- like ordering from Amazon.  One-click™ checkout for a FourStarBadass and a BrattyHalfPint.

But what about all of the random forum crap and CMoA pages?  The TVT home page goes on for three paragraphs about what the website is not, which is entirely unuseful.  They are not a stuffy encyclopedia or a wiki for bashing things.  They are also not a rhyme for "orange" or the goddamn Batman, either.

All of this criticism applies to my own wiki too, since it comes from the same source.  And as part of restarting the wiki, I have to rewrite all of the policy pages, ranging from "we have very few rules" to huge documents of rules to inline comments stating that if you add an specific example to a page, you will be permabanned.  It makes sense if you know the history of the site, but the movie Eraserhead also made the same kind of sense to me.  That disjointed, "ramblings of a madman" sort of sense.

So task number one was to restore sanity to the rules, and that's still in process (because my wiki sucks, natch).  But it also comes down to figuring out what the we want to do with the new wiki.  Anyway, Topozan started this really great thread on the forums: What can ATT do to distinguish itself from TVT?

In that thread, we throw around ideas like more analysis, more recaps, awards and userboxes (for free!).  I mean, wow, all we have to do is take the TV Tropes website, and then set it Up to Eleven!  I think I'm one of the worst offenders on that count. But then, Topozan offers this:
One of the complaints I hear about tvtropes is that it's too focused on listing things rather than analysis. I'm not really sure how easy it would be to change that, though.
So um, what is this site about?  What is it about?  Really.  In my mind, All The Tropes is a P3 wiki (which is entirely different from the P5 wiki that TVT has become).  The very first wiki, The Portland Pattern Repository, is about programming.  More specifically, it is about 3 P's: the People, Projects, and Patterns of programming.  In tropespeak, this is the same as Creators, Works, and Tropes -- which is incidentally what the vast majority of pages are about.

Looking at the PPR wiki is useful, because they solved a lot of the common issues of wikis over a decade ago.  And if troping wikis are the same sort as Ward's Wiki, then things are really off-balance.  The PPR is, in it's own terms, a Content Creation Wiki ("analysis").  TVT and ATT are, in their current state, Content Classification Wikis ("listing").  The policy of suppression on Natter at TVT proves the rule, as Thread Mode is at the heart of collaborative content creation.  I'll address each of these points in turn.

Twenty Thousand Tropes

For being a site about story telling, why the heck do people want to put so much effort into breaking stories down into a collection of tiny bits?  Heck, this image that makes the case that TVT users think stories can be put together like a collection of LEGO blocks.  And helpfully it notes that Tropes come in 20,000 shapes.  Wow, twenty kilotropes.

Now I sure as hell can't remember Twenty Thousand Tropes under the Sun, or under any other object for that matter.  This is both good and bad, because it leads to the addictive nature that allows our readers and tropers to lose hours of their life a time just reading one more page.

So is that the vision, the "catalog of tropes"? Are the tropes wikis a listing of the dissected remains of creative works, mercilessly hunted down in the name of harvesting tropes?  I'm not far enough down the spectrum to enjoy that kind of deconstruction.

Not to mention that a good portion of these "tropes" aren't even patterns at all, but simple indices, or variants of other tropes.  Everything must be broken down into its smallest element.  And like the scientists at the LHC are doing, the drive to subdivide every atom ever smaller is going to create a black hole and swallow the entire wiki.

TV Tropes thinks it is doing serious analysis of works, but the Analysis namespace is virtually empty.  And by empty I mean, "every subpage fits on one page", which is amazing considering how trope pages get so large they routinely break the wiki.  But what TVT and ATT look like to me is a bunch of lists.

Some people like lists.  Lists are useful.  But lists are awful at getting to the soul of a creative process.  Tropes that are useful for analyzing a work's depth and meaning, like Central Theme, have less than 100 wicks.  It turns out that people rarely think the single most important point of a work is worth troping.  Instead, we have tropers noting the subtle difference between Ojou Curls and Royal Ringlets.

No Talking in the Theater!

TV Tropes likes to discribe themselves as a "buttload more informal" than Wikipedia, which they enforce by threatening to emit a buttload of bans.  Page comments routinely note tropers will be for adding specific examples in the page comments.  Or they can be banned for any form of negativity on a page.  Or questioning an administrator, that's a favorite.

However, TV Tropes started from an entirely different place.  It began as a place for a few fans to discuss Buffy and all of the cool things that Joss was doing.  Eventually, more people showed up, and the site was a chaotic place of kudzu growth.  Many got confused, and discord arrived for the first time with the cutting of the Fetish Fuel; and lo did the renaming of Nakama come to pass.  And then with the Second Google Incident, in which works were considered too uncool for Google Ads, the bureaucracy of the 5P Censorship Panel arrived.  For those of you who are Discordians, I don't need to tell you what the stage after bureaucracy is.

A lot of the distrust of TV Tropes started back in 2010, where we got the all the "TV Tropes is dead to me" type of discussions.  Infinitezenith recounts the tales of the One-Week War on his blog, right below a pic of Nagisa and Azu-nyan.  There are a many themes woven into his history, but the main point is that the repeated cutting of the most creative content has driven away the best users, and left behind only those who are convinced they are the doing things the right way with herp-derp posts.

Most of those problems stem from two policies: the "no negativity" rule, and the purging of creative content.   But enough about how TVT sucks.  I want to talk about how All The Tropes sucks.  We obviously inherited this crappy wiki content, because starting from scratch sounds entirely non-awesome.  With the current content base, we just don't have enough content that encourages creative growth of the wiki.

TVT has an active policy of suppressing Thread Mode, to the extent of adding a Natter-fy button on every page history page.  You too can send a friendly note to another user as to why their edit sucked with a form letter.  So instead of engaging in community building, the stock of tropers was reduced to the people who hold the party-line, Happiness is Mandatory opinions.  And we're left with a bunch of non-users who think that troping is just parroting the same memes over and over again.

Critics Missing the Point

Naturally, there are a ton of post out there saying that troping wikis suck.  While that is 100% correct, they then go on to state wrong reasons for the suckage.

The worst offender here are the Something Awful forums, who like to point out every pedo troper out there.  I'd like to note that in some cultures... no fuck that.  Look, the Internet is full of sick fucks, and every website has their share.  A wiki is a commons, like a public park.  Have you ever passed a dude off his meds in the park?  I have. Every major wiki has those guys too, but at the very least we don't have to deal with it in person.

Sarah published a trilogy of blog posts: The first argues that incompetent leadership led to cutting parts without sufficient community buy-in, the second post notes that censorship applies on TV Tropes mainly applies to pages that the core group doesn't like.  The third is a blistering critique of simply bizarre moral relativism from the TVT staff, and ends with:
There’s no fix­ing TV Tropes, so just let it die or shrivel into irrelevancy.
That's cool and all, but it's not helping.  Faith without works is dead.

Moving on to the Encyclopedia Dramatica analysis, mentioned above, I'll note it has few flaws of its own.  First of all, everyone pushing for their own point of view -- that's how a bazaar is supposed to work.  Wikis aren't cathedrals.  But that doesn't mean that there should be no plan, either.  Linus has no problem telling you how Linux should be.  Even though Linus, Eddie, and Fighteer share the same values of management by perkele, the TVT model of leadership is almost entirely reactive.  At least I never saw any proactive planning.

Me and My Nakama

The other half of the criticism from ED is even more bullshit, though.  More complaining about names of tropes.  Yes, I do get that it's a charlie-foxtrot of jargon, but it's not like these things have established names from "real" literary critics.  Instead we got complaints, which in turn lead to renames like "Inspector Zenigata" to "Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist" -- the first one is animu fanthink, and the second is a blandtastic word amalgamation that only a committee could come up with.

Yeah, jargon sucks, but after years in college learning about geostrophic wind, Rossby waves, the PDO, dBZ, the Second Indirect Effect, and hook echoes, I think everyone can stand to deal with the jargon of whatever field they're interested in.

The time that this issue came to a head was with the Nakama page, which was evenutally renamed True Companions.  The discussion happened twice, and was full of stupidity on every side.  Tropers suggested exchanging "nakama" (a Japanese loanword that doesn't mean the same thing to native speakers) to "coterie" (a French loanword that doesn't mean the same thing to native speakers).  Nakama supporters talked about how important their word was in the anime community.

And then, when it was all said and done, virtually every link was changed to the new name.  Because language, obviously, is a winner-take-all game. *facepalm*  So here we have the "writer's toolbox" website, where we are limited to using only one way of expressing a concept.  I don't think that there is any question that this is harmful to would-be writers.

Harm, Foul

This essay is titled "Troping Considered Harmful", after the computer science trope pattern, $thing Considered Harmful.  But I really think that a lot of things tropers do are in fact harmful, both for themselves and for readers.

The emphasis on listing and content classification creates the impression that simply by stringing a bunch of tropes together, you get a valid story.  There are quite a few bad fanfics that are based on this problem.  Encouraging bad storytelling is causing harm.

The long-term suppression of Natter has suppressed creative views and alternate opinions.  And because of this, many creative writers have left troping for greener pastures.  This in turn leaves behind a subset of tropers, who are growing more and more homogenous as creative works grow more diverse.  And we all know what happens to populations without enough diversity in changing environments

Finally, dissent has been enthusiastically quashed, leading to troping being a game played by a small club of folks with similar views.  Tropes are forced into the One Name to Rule Them All.  Examples with multiple opinions are removed -- here NPOV stands for "No Point of View".  This is not healthy for the people who are tropers, nor for the writers who use this as a toolbox.  They are left in a culture that thinks troping is serious and important, but is ultimately creates shallow and vacuous analysis.  This is the user base that All The Tropes is forced to recruit from.

That's not even mentioning the probably-illegal copyright stuff going on at TV Tropes, which is a major harm to the commons.  Or the fact that the TVT staff claims ownership of its users work, both morally and legally -- this is not a good way to build a healthy creative community.

But fixing this -- that's going to be the hard part.

What is IS IT about?

The thing is, most critiques don't realize that the problems of the troping wikis aren't about specific issues, but lie at their very core.  There is no clear purpose, just a sprawling mass of pages that periodically got hit by delete sprees in order to maximally piss off users.  I'm fairly sure that this is the underlying cause of most of the problems I've mentioned here.

If we had a clear purpose, we wouldn't go through the periodic ungoodthink purges.  We could offer more help to creative writers.  We could have a place to screw around and have fun; why not?

But coming up with a purpose is actually a hard task.  It took three horrible years before Abraham Lincoln finally spelled out the purpose of the American Civil War in the Gettysburg Address.  I took six months to write a purpose statement for my university student government (obviously a task of equal import).

Fast Eddie is a leader without vision, which is about the worst thing I can say about a leader.  (Except maybe, "He killed 6 million Jews.") But I don't know what the vision should be for All the Tropes, either.  I wish I did.  Maybe I'm as bad as Eddie.

For now, all I can say is what I want All The Tropes to be.  I want it to be a writing resource.  I want it to be a place where fen can collect information on their respective fandoms.  I want to offer real lit crit, not just a bunch of fucking lists.  But I want there to be lists too.  And I want it to be fun to read and write.  I want it to be defined based on things we are, not things we're not.

And most of all, I want it to spur more creative work.  Good storytelling is more than the sum of its parts.  Right now, ATT and TVT are less than the sum of their parts.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

First Sunrise 2014

This is the second entry in my series on watching the first sunrise of the year, which is known as Hatsuhi no De (初日の出, "first day's rising"), or simply hatsuhiLast year, I tried out the ritual just as kind of a curiosity, but I thought it might be interesting to repeat this year as well.  And I think I just may have learned something new.

Being a habitual night owl, I woke up this morning to the sound of the alarm on my new iPhone.  Last year, I used an old, original model iPhone, but my new job bought me a shiny new gold smartphone as part of the hiring package.  This might seem like bragging, but it's actually an important part of the story.

I pulled on some warm clothes, I had set aside last night, went outside, and scrambled once again up the ladder unto the roof.  Unlike last year, this New Year's was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky and nothing but the faintest wisps of cirriform clouds draped over the horizon.  The weak Santa Ana winds of the past week had done their job, making me feel quite comfortable, even on the cold black roof.

I looked to the south first, and paused to recognize that the giant ficus tree I mentioned last year is truly gone.  A bowl of green tilted towards the afternoon sun, it had stood nearly six stories tall.  The Friday before Christmas, a crew came and trimmed the tree down to a mere Mohawk-cut of leaves; they returned the following Monday to finish the job, working into the evening to remove even the stump.  All that effort from sixty years of growth, gone in mere days, shredded into tiny chunks.

And in the place of the giant tree, there was a void.  It revealed small houses, small cars, and the tiniest bit more ocean view -- but mostly, empty sky.  The crows that had been my companions the first time remained distant, their home destroyed by the saw.  My closest companion this year was a lone pigeon, but he seemed interested in neither me nor the sunrise, and soon flapped away.

The world, however, was still coming alive.  I could hear plenty of crows' calls and finches' tweets all around.  And the first few people started walking past, into the calm morning dawn.  However, it was still quiet at my neighbor's, where the remains of last night's party littered the concrete-capped courtyard.

Another neighbor had a mural painted on his backyard fence, and from this angle I could see the edge of the blue sky and verdant hills in the image.  This couldn't be a bigger contrast to the actual hills to the north, which remain a stubborn, unseasonable brown, the result of three years of drought.

Part of the hills were masked by brand-new, six-story structure of steel beams, with white work lights glowing dimly on four of the floors.  The uppermost beam bears an American flag and a rather beaten-up Christmas tree, while another beam proudly proclaims in spray-painted letters, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY BABY OWEN".

The building is still new enough that I can see through to the brown hillside behind, but I know that this can't last.  Last year, the space was nothing but empty air; this year it is a bustling construction zone.  Next year, it will be a new wing of a hospital.  And every day will bring new stories to the building, of illnesses treated, lives saved, and lives lost.  What was empty space will become a place where people get a new start on life, or will have to grieve for their loved ones.

It is not that place yet.  But as I took my first look around in the morning twilight, I couldn't help but be struck by how different things looked.  Here I was, standing on the same roof in the same place, exactly one year ago, but the world around had changed.  And in my own pocket was an iPhone, a token showing how much I had changed too.  Brent the NEET had been transformed into Brent the Salaryman.  And just like that hospital, I would continue to change.

Even nature itself never stops changing -- the hills behind the hospital began to pick up patches of light and shadow.  The sun was coming up, for real this time.

Out of the northwest, a jet passed directly over my head (though I didn't notice the extra weight on my head).  And in its wake, it left a lone contrail, a single straight line clear across the entire sky.  And as the plane flew into the southwest, the Sun just began to peek over the mountains, with the first direct rays filtering through a star pine.

And as the Sun rose to assume its full sphere, I let out a little cry of joy.  I had seen the first sunrise this time!  I had made it to this point in time and space once again, and there's something beautiful about that.

I lingered a little longer, looking at the world bisected by the contrail.  The lost giant tree and long shadows lingered to the southwest; the new hospital, drought-parched hills, and the rising sun lied in the northeast hemisphere.  And here I was in the middle of it, my world divided in twain at the new year.

It was clear I had only one way to go.  And that was back towards the "past", because I sure as hell wasn't going to get off the roof without a ladder.

Just as before, I crawled back into bed, and began to ponder what I had seen.  Now, I finally get the point of staying up this early to see the first morning sun. I saw a reflection of Japanese concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ), the awareness of the impermanence of things.  Sometimes, it's important to reflect on past and how things are always changing, and this ritual is but one way.

Some changes are good, some are bad, but we must go on.  The tree is lost, but the crows of last year, Phobos and Deimos, have hopefully found a new home.  I've lost much of my free time, but found an excellent job.  And somewhere out there, eventually, Baby Owen is going to have the time of his life.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

First Sunrise 2013

Last year, I managed to wake myself up early enough to see the first sunrise of the year , because I managed to convince myself that it was "research" for writing my fanfic.  This is a Japanese custom known as Hatsuhi (初日 - literally "first day"), where people will go outside, often together, to catch the first rays of light of the new year.  I didn't have a blog last year to share this on, but I did write an account in an email to a friend.

If you did watch the Rose Parade [in 2013], you may have noticed that it was not particularly sunny, but the weather wasn't bad -- just a broken altostratus deck.  So there was a good chance that I would see new sun as it shed the first light on the new year.

I woke up at around 6:50, and threw on a flannel shirt over my flannel pajamas. When I first woke up, the sky was still dark enough that I could see a couple of planets, but dark clouds obscured most everything but the bright gibbous moon.  I got out a ladder and set it up against the house -- the lightest part of the sky was behind the orange tree, so I had to climb up to get a better view.

The black shingle of the roof was cold to the touch, but the wind was calm, and I still warm from bed.  I ambled up the the apex of the garage, so as not to wake anyone up, and turned towards the eastern sky.  There were still a lot of trees -- more than I had thought there were in my neighborhood -- but it was obvious from the clouds that I wasn't going to see sunrise directly.  The appointed time, 7:03, came and went, with only a slight brightening of the eastern sky.  Of course, I thought -- the sun's gotta rise above the Santa Monica Mountains.  I did a quick calculation: 3° above the horizon is about 10 minutes -- and settled down to wait.

A pair of crows joined me on a nearby power line, staring eastward too.  The sky started to brighten as the sunlight filtered to the bottom of the clouds, and suddenly the gloomy sky was replaced with a warm glow.  Everything started to come alive, and the finches started singing their calls, telling all of the other birds, "Hark, awaken, for a new day has come, everyone be excited.  I'm going to tweet to everyone I know, Happy New Year!  Hey everyone, wake up!"  And then of course, they stopped, because everyone knows only 140 characters can fit into a tweet.

The crows, whom by this point I had nicknamed Phobos and Deimos, awaited the sunrise.  And then, finally, the bottom of the clouds at the horizon was lined with a golden glow.  And, that was it.  Phobos cawed to Deimos, "Huh, is that it?"  They looked on for a moment more, before the reply came from Deimos, "Yeah, I guess that's all it's gonna be."  Some crows in the large ficus behind us called out, and my crow friends departed to join their friends for the day.

But, I had gotten up especially for this, so I was undeterred.  It looked like a break in the clouds was up a little bit further, and I was definitely going to catch the first rays of sun.  A man passed by, walking a dog, disturbing the canine living next door.  I took the chance to look at the hills, and the sky, and the strip of ocean to the south.  Things really do look different from up high, so I took in the view of the house's roofs as a pair of house finches zoomed by me.

And then, ten minutes later, the sun finally broke through the clouds -- well -- partially.  It was still obscured by the clouds, so I couldn't see the golden disk.  But I saw a bright enough glow to etch the afterimage into my eyes.  I blinked, and the image of the sun's light through the clouds formed a shape that looked exactly like this: ^_^   The sun had smiled upon my weeaboo endeavor, and blessed me with an Asian smiley for the new year.  And with that, I accepted the blessing and headed back down to a warm bed.