2013
12.16

This is the last of a two-part series where i consider 6 animé that were adapted from novels. The first can be found here.

Hyōka

(Ice Cream)

HyoukaCoverThink, for a moment, about those little mysteries that pass you by every now and then. Little things that bother you for a few seconds, which you then ignore so that you can continue on with your otherwise uneventful (or eventful) life.

Oreki Houtarou is very good at this. He lives by the principle of energy conservation. He recognises that it is possible to lead an exciting and eventful life, and does not begrudge others for doing so. He will have no part of it himself though, and will therefore not do anything unless he really has to. And if he has to, he will get it over with as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for Houtarou, he meets Chitanda Eru, who is wholly incapable of ignoring even the smallest, most insignificant mysteries. Impressed by his skills of deduction, she will happily pester him into helping her solve every small and big mystery she encounters.

ImCuriousAdditionally, Houtarou is persuaded by his older sister to join the High School’s Classic Literature Club to prevent its abolishment. The club room serves conveniently as a quiet room for Houtarou, and a head quarter of sorts for their mystery solving antics. Houtarou and Eru are joined in the club by Satoshi and Mayaka, another slightly odd pair.

Eru falls unfortunately somewhat into the manic pixie dream girl trope: Houtarou leads a fairly uneventful live, Until Eru suddenly and quite forcefully intrudes into his life and forces him into gear against his will. Some amount of romance ensues, etc., etc.

HolmesAnd if it wasn’t because everything else is done so brilliantly, I might have actually been more annoyed by that. As it is though, there is very little I can fault. For all of Erus frequent manic pixie dream girl-ness, every character (including Eru) act almost surprisingly human. It’s a mystery series, but there are no murders. Some of the mysteries are inconsequential, and have quite mundane explanations. Somehow, it’s still really interesting just to see the threads unravel. Some of the mysteries are also gateways into both larger and smaller social conflicts on the school. The feelings of the characters sometimes lie just under the surface of their social interactions, hidden from plain view. Sometimes, they surface, and maybe you will be surprised at first, but then you will look back and go “oh, yeah, that actually makes sense”.

CouldNotIt’s eerily like trying to interpret what’s going on with people around you in real life. You may think you’re good at it, but many people are also good at hiding their feelings, and you may not be as good as you think at sorting out what’s going on under the surface.

Kokoro Connect

(Hearts Connect)

KokoroConnectCoverWhere Hyouka is somewhat subdued and down-to-earth in its presentation, Kokoro Connect goes all out to trip up the cast at every turn.

Balloon Vine, a supernatural entity of sorts, has taken an interest in Taichi, Iori, Himeko, Yoshifumi and Yui, five friends making up the cultural club at their school. Balloon Vine wants to be entertained, so he starts in the first story arc by having them switch bodies every now and then.

PersonSwapBalloon Vine is a very blatant plot device, make no mistake. He exists in the story simply to give the main characters ordeals to overcome, and thus to accelerate the development of their relationships. But it works, and quite wonderfully. There is never a boring moment in Kokoro Connect. It’s a mix of comedy and deeply emotional interaction. Pretty much every one of the characters Chophave some deeply rooted anxieties to deal with. Over the course of the series, they become much more open about this to each other. They find, quite simply, that the best way to counteract Balloon Vine’s hijinks is to be more honest and build greater trust between each other, which is refreshing when the default mode of action so often is to attempt to keep things awkwardly hidden from each other, out of a fear of what even your best friends might think of you. You find yourself thinking that many relationships would be well served by the levels of honesty and openness often exhibited by the characters here.

ConfessingOf course, their solutions to Balloon Vine’s assholery does not discourage him in any way, and by the end of the first arc, asshole that he is, he tests their friendship in one of the most imaginatively horrific ways possible. I do not often shed tears over a fiction, but this was one such time. Not because of the dilemma itself, but because of the way it was resolved. It just felt right. I can’t say much more without spoiling it.

Oh, by the way, did I mention? Balloon Vine really is a complete and utter asshole.

Shin Sekai Yori

(From the New World)

ShinsekaiCoverShinsekai Yori happens in a future where humans have developed the potential for psychokinetic powers, and have built a society, essentially, to cope with this. That’s the short and mostly spoilerfree version of the premise. I will attempt not to spoil anything important.

Throughout the series, we follow a group of kids (with Watanabe Saki acting as the main character), as they grow up in this society. While the story has its bright points, I would classify this as a horror series. It wont always seem like that, but there is always something that will bug you, even as most of the characters act perfectly normal.

This is about a bunch of kids who grow up in a society and slowly recognise the horrors of how that society works, and the helplessness as some of them attempt to find the truth behind the practices of the society, and maybe some way to fight the reality of it… In terms of pure adrenalin-inducing scares, there really isn’t much. RanAwayIt’s more like a dark cloud hanging over most of the story, rearing its ugly head every now and then. Many of the most horrific events happen offscreen. We are often just treated to secondhand accounts, leading to an eerie kind of disconnect from the true horrors, and a sense that if you just close your eyes and don’t think too much on it, maybe it will pass, and everything will be okay.

SquealerAlongside humans live another intelligent species, the queerats. And while they are pretty much completely absent from the beginning of the series, they start playing an increasingly significant role as the series goes on. Just as you think that you are at least getting a grip on the world these kids are made to live in, the queerats start showing you a whole new chapter of horrors.

And when the dust has settled, and it’s all over, try and see if you can figure out who to blame for it all. And if you think you have an answer, then please, I would love to hear it.

As a last comment, I will note one of the few positive aspects of the society presented in the series: Everyone is actually bisexual. There is in fact a reason for this that I wont spoil. Suffice it to say that even though it seems a positive thing, the actual reason behind it is horrific in all its cynicism. But perhaps partly because of this aspect of their society, sexism appears thankfully to be a thing of the past. But with everything else that’s going on, these are small comforts.

2013
11.18

XCOM-Enemy-WithinI don’t usually write game reviews, but I’m going to make an exception for XCOM (Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within), because it strikes a weird (and brilliant) combination of chords with me that are usually not struck at the same time.

I’m a very story-driven player. I tend to continue playing a game mainly because:

  • I want to see what happens next.
  • I want to feel like I’m part of the process in getting there.

In a sense, I see games as interactive stories, and so I often prefer games that follow an interesting and elaborate story. A few of the better examples of games I absolutely adore for this include the Ace Attorney games and Ghost Trick. They have strictly linear, but brilliant stories, and your interaction with them is essentially through a series of puzzles deeply integrated into those stories. The downside to such games is of course that they’re not very replayable. When you’ve been through the story once, that’s it. If you go through it again, the story, the puzzles and the solutions will be exactly the same. Maybe you can replay it after a few years, but the second playthrough is still not nearly as interesting, at least not for me.

Ace Attorney and Ghost Trick can be said to occupy one extreme of a storytelling spectrum, at the other end of which you will find sandbox games, like for example Minecraft. If you haven’t played it before, go check it out! Just don’t blame me when you check your calendar and discover that you just lost a week of your life to it.

In a sense, Minecraft expects you to make up your own story: You build awesome stuff, kill monsters, share your creations with friends, etc. That floating Escher style sky-castle you’ve always wanted to make? Totally possible! Just don’t do like me and accidentally burn your wooden roof to cinders because you wanted to use running lava for lighting.

In the end though, what good did your sky-castle accomplish, apart from looking awesome? Did it save the world from alien invasion? Did it find the culprit in a murder mystery? To what end was it made? Is there even an end?

This is probably fine for many people. A sandbox game just provides a world for you, it’s not supposed to give you and end to work toward, and Minecraft is as excellent as they come. That’s just where I personally tend to lose the thread. And so I stopped playing Minecraft long ago, even though it really is very enjoyable.

I like there to be an endgame in the stories I play through. A satisfying conclusion of some sort.

But back to XCOM! XCOM actually has a story, it just isn’t the most important part of the game. And yet it is! And yet it isn’t! The interesting thing to note with XCOM is that its story feels more like a framework for the story that is acted out when you play the game. There are a number of key events that happen on each playthrough, but XCOM has so many randomised elements, and so many things you could potentially choose to do at any one time that it feels like you’re building your own story in-between the key events.

This is especially true when you play in Ironman mode. On Ironman, you have one savegame which is updated continuously, so you don’t get to go back and make different choices. If someone dies, that’s it. They’re dead. You can’t reload.

But I wouldn’t recommend playing on Ironman on the first playthrough. On your first playthrough, use savegames. Get a feel for the framework of the story, and get a feel for the various things you can research and build, which tactics work on the battlefield, how the various types of alien behave, etc. Then, on subsequent playthroughs, enable Ironman mode. You know how everything works, you know how the story is generally going to play out, but now, suddenly, your choices are important, and from the very beginning, you have quite limited resources to work with, and many choices for how to spend them all.

Maybe you chose to research some new weapons and armor for your soldiers, and neglected to upgrade the ones on your interceptors, causing one of them to get shot down, and a UFO to escape. That UFO reports back on the location of one of your satellites, and then, a bit later, a bigger one comes along to shoot it down. If you engage this one you will probably just lose another interceptor, so you lose the satellite, and the funding from whatever country that satellite covered.

If you neglect your soldiers, on the other hand, they will start dying when the aliens step up their game. It takes a while to train up new ones, and you had kind of grown attached to the ones you had.

If you neglect the process of covering more countries with satellites, you wont have enough funding to step up your game later, to match the alien escalation. But this is expensive too, and will drain resources in the short term.

Inbetween all this, you take your soldiers on missions, and hope that they’re well enough equipped to deal with whatever you encounter. And these missions rarely play out the same, even on the same map in a second playthrough. At the very least, you will probably have some close scrapes. The difficulty levels are not so much about difficulty in winning the game, as it’s about how the story will generally play out for you:

  • Easy – A few close scrapes, but everything turns out all right in the end.
  • Normal – A number of close scrapes, a few dead soldiers along the way, perhaps even a lost council member.
  • Classic – You will probably win the game, but you will probably also lose a team or two on missions, along with an interceptor and a few council members.
  • Impossible – It is actually possible to win, but you will probably lose the game. The question is mostly how long you will last before the last council member quits XCOM, defunds you completely and leaves the Earth in the hands of our new alien overlords.

Running an Impossible game on Ironman mode is a somewhat depressing, but legitimate way of playing the game if you like the kind of story where everything inevitably goes to shit and everyone dies.

Now, some reviewers have complained that toward the end, the game becomes easier because you have probably researched and built enough equipment, and trained enough soldiers to be on par with even the best the aliens have to offer. But they may be missing the point. The point I think is this: You have now built your sky-castle and it’s time to save the world and get some payback! What you have built and trained, you now get to use to defeat the alien invaders.

XCOM has nowhere near the freedom of expression that a game like Minecraft offers, but it manages to pack a decent part of the sandboxy feel into the framework of a story that has a beginning and an end (the old XCOM games actually had greater emphasis on the sandboxy feel, and offer more freedom of choice. So if you like that, they may be worth trying). The framework of the story is there, how exactly it acts out is up to you (and the many randomised bits in the game).

And this is why I keep coming back to it, even after having completed it several times already.

2013
03.17

(This will hopefully just be the first in a series of posts under the theme “when reason and tradition conflicts”. If I turn out to have enough material, I may end up moving it to a dedicated blog.)

Dressing up

I hate suits. For the longest while, I could not actually explain why. Then I had my attention called to this silly little piece of writing: Jakkesættets 10 bud

Translated, the title says “The 10 commandments of the suit”. And as stupid as it is, it did help me realise why I do not like suits. The 5th sealed it for me: “Don’t run amok”. It basically says that if you want to stand out, you should only do so with one or two things (colour or pattern of the shirt, tie, etc.). Anything more will apparently make you look silly.

Right.

Now, please go and open up Google image search. Try writing “suit” in the search field. Then try writing “dress”.

ASuitTake a moment to glance through the results. Notice the difference? Apparently, we have taken “the 5th commandment of the suit” to heart: The suits are basically all the same, while the dresses are under no such constraints (they contain a rainbow of variation on both their shape, colour and pattern.)

The traditional form of the suit has become so constricted that all those same-shaped jackets are mostly either black, dark blue or grey, the shirts are mostly white, while the ties contain the only marginally interesting variations, and then only in pattern and colours.

shark_shirt_frontNow, I am usually pretty apathetic about my choice of clothing. Most of the time, I run around in a variety of t-shirts and blue jeans. The greatest variation I employ here is in my choice of t-shirt. Because few people really balk at strange colours and designs on a t-shirt. Even so, most of my t-shirts are simply associated with a variety of geeky events that I have attended, and are not really bought as much of a conscious choice.

Many guys I know have a similarly apathetic approach to clothing. It has even become somewhat of a meme: Girls and women are the ones who shop for clothes while boys and men simply do not care. And to a great extent, this actually seems to be true.

Do we ever stop to wonder why this is?

Many seem to be under the impression that this is some sort of fundamental, genetic difference of mentality between the genders. But if we are to believe the current body of research on psychology and neurology, this is an outright falsehood: Going by averages, the genetic mental differences between men and women are actually quite miniscule.

Try to think of it this way instead: You want to give your child some toy vehicles. You even go so far as to tell him that he can have as many as he wants. But then you also point out to him that since every other boy only have toy trucks of certain few shapes and colours, those are really the only acceptable toy vehicles you can get him. He would look silly playing with any other kinds of vehicles.

For how long do you now think he is going to stay interested in toy vehicles?

Is it any wonder that I have grown so supremely uninterested in my choice of clothing?

Casual clothing for men is perhaps a bit more varied than the more formal varieties, but it still has nothing on the variety of shapes and colours usually afforded women. It has even become somewhat acceptable for women to wear what in the past may have been considered an exclusively male style of clothing. The opposite, not so much.

And the blandness and sameness of the suits feel to me like the epitome of everything that is wrong with male clothing today. A suit will say nothing about who I am. It will do nothing but suppress the uniqueness of my character: I become basically a minor variant of every other guy who wears a suit.

PalleFolkCostumeSmallEven the male folk costumes I have seen, for all their adherence to gendered templates, do far better on variety than most suits today. At least they tend to be a bit more colourful, and even include at times different types of clothing, like the apron I am wearing in the photo to the right. In fact, seeing the variation in folk costumes is part of what has sparked my newly-found interest in this topic.

Breaking the templates

Take a fews steps back and forget what you “know” about how both male and female clothes are supposed to look. What are the primary purposes of clothes? I would argue for something like the following.

  • Covering up the bits of your body that you do not want the general public to see
  • Keeping you warm (in cold weather)
  • Keeping you cool (in warm weather)
  • Keeping you comfortable (in general)
  • Expressing yourself

None of these have anything to do even with your physical gender (if we ignore underwear). If I were to prioritise this list for comfort in accordance with summer weather, I might very probably end up with some kind of dress-type clothing.

Note that I have excluded “looking good” from the list. This is because it is such an difficult measure. It is a line of thinking that maybe we should step a bit away from, because it depends on the subjective opinions of all the people around you. I feel like if I step just a bit outside the traditional templates, I will be drawing comments to the effect of “you’re not doing it right”. In truth, I think there is very little beyond clashing colours that you would necessarily be able to agree with most on. And you will probably never be able to satisfy everyone anyway.

I will admit though, that this is the part I am having trouble with myself. As much as I advocate that people think for themselves and go against the flow of culture (especially when they feel it is pushing against them, and the norms do not hold up to scrutiny), I am myself a bit of a pushover. So I am not likely to just go out and blatantly fight cultural norms on this.

What I may choose to do though, is experiment a little with designing, or putting together a set of clothes that would fall squarely outside the usual norms for male clothing, but still not seem too offensively irregular to most people. Maybe the solution is to break both the templates for male and female clothing in the process?

I wonder if this is even possible. At best, it seems a tricky thing to do. But I think I will at least make the attempt. To invigorate my interest in clothing, I will have to somehow rectify the dearth of culturally acceptable choices usually afforded me.

2013
03.02

It should be no secret that I watch a fair amount of animé series, that is, japanese cartoon series. The production quality is usually higher than socalled “western” cartoon series, and the themes and stories are often more mature. Still, as with any other medium, there is still an amazing amount of crap going around, and it’s not always easy to sort out the good from the bad.

But I have noticed a common trait of six of the best series I have seen so far: They are all adaptations of novels.

What usually happens around here when a popular novel, or novel series is adapted for the screen, is that the movie industry takes it up and attempts to adapt it into one or more movies. This tends to happen with somewhat mixed results: It is impossible to fit everything of significance into two hours, so either you spend the effort making very long or multiple movies, or you cut out a lot of material.

What seems to happen with screen adaptations of novels in Japan is that they get adapted to an animé series instead, typically of 24-26 27-minute episodes. That’s about 11-12 hours of material. About the same as the Extended Editions of the three Lord of the Rings movies (a treatment that is really pretty rare in movie format).

Novels have space to be more unconstrained and nuanced in the subject matters they treat. And even though a season or two of episodes may still not be enough to adapt everything, it leaves considerably more running time for a proper adaptation of such depth than you could fit into a movie.

Anyway, enough with the explanations. I said six series, but I will do this in two parts. The three series I will briefly treat here are: Legend of Galactic Heroes, Spice & Wolf and Bodacious Space Pirates. All six of the series are very interesting in their own way. One common trait however, is in how the characters, the social and romantic relationships, and the settings are all presented in unusually realistic and down-to-earth ways for a cartoon setting (even in the LoGH and Space Pirates series, where the Earth plays a peripheral role at best).

Legend of Galactic Heroes

LoGH_vol1_first_edition_tokuma_novelsBackground: The imperialistic Galactic Empire and the democratic Free Planets Alliance are at war, and two brilliant, though very, very different commanders rise through the ranks on either side. A very ambitious Reinhard von Lohengramm (tempered by his friend, Siegfried Kircheis) on the side of the empire, and a somewhat reluctant Yang Wen-li on the side of the alliance (Yang is actually a historian who entered the military as a way of earning his tuition fees).

Saying much more about the story than this is difficult, because there is so much. The series spans over a hundred episodes, and is far more epic than Star Wars ever had any hope of being (hey, the LoGH universe contains not just one, but _two_ Death Star-like fortresses: Iserlohn and Geiersburg. And those are only small playing pieces in the larger scheme: There are intricate games of politics going on within both the empire and the alliance. Every planet and governing entity involved have their own motives, and every person involved on either side of the conflict have their own goals, passions and attachments.

legend_of_galactic_heroes_cover-otherAdditionally, while the empire appears to be the main aggressor, there is not always a clear-cut distinction between who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. There are plenty of both evil and sympathetic people on both sides of the conflict, some of who at least try their best to minimise the damage and casualties (which are often counted in the millions), and some of who exacerbate the whole thing. The weapons are powerful and there is no effective shield technology in this series (apart from the liquid metal surfaces of Iserlohn and Geiersburg). When one ship hits another, that other ship will usually die, taking most of its crew with it.

I cannot possibly do all of it justice in just a few paragraphs. But if you like the space opera genre, it is absolutely worth taking a look at LoGH. The age of the series shows in the animation, but with a story like this, that does not really matter.

Spice & Wolf

OokamiCoverBackground: Kraft Lawrence is a travelling merchant with a horse and cart, travelling from town to town, trying to make a profit trading goods. Holo is a wolf-spirit who, after having looked over a village for a long while as their local harvest-deity, decides to travel a bit and maybe find Yoitsu, her homeland. To the villagers, she has gradually become a myth and a legend mostly played out in their local traditions. They have also introduced new farming methods, basically making her obsolete as a deity improving their harvest. So she exploits a loophole in the deal she made with the village long ago, and in secret hitches a ride on Lawrence’s cart.
After some wrangling, she convinces him that she is not actually a demon, and Lawrence accepts her as a passenger on his travels, if in return she can help him make better trades. These novels are being adapted to graphic novel format as well, one page of which I show here.

SpiceAndWolfCroppedOne of the most interesting aspects of this series is its setting. If we ignore the occasional supernatural spirit like Holo, this is perhaps one of the most realistic representations of the middle ages that I have seen on screen. It is not historical in the sense that it happens in a real historical context, but it does very heavily emulate what the High Middle Ages may have been like in some of the more pagan regions of Europe at the time, complete with a crusading, witch-hunting church that commands knights and is quite unfriendly to the pagans: From the point of view of the church, to the extent that pagan spirits exist, they can only be demons.
The specific theology of the church is never actually fleshed out, and instead of a cross, the dominating symbol is a line with a half-circle on the middle. It is monotheistic though, and very clearly modelled on the christian church of our own history.
The regions Lawrence usually travels are a mix of church-dominated cities and more remote pagan villages. Thus, Lawrence’s own tack on religion is that he believes that spirits exist, but his thinking has also been influenced somewhat by the church, which is part of what makes him somewhat confused and dubious when he first finds Holo and learns of her nature.

SilverContentAs they travel, they grow more attached to each other, and are caught up in not only purely economic trades, but also schemes of both political and religious nature. The attention to detail is impressive when they discuss specific trades, the finer practicalities of trading in a specific region, or the risks and benefits of dealing with the church and certain trading companies.

DiscordPart of my love for this series also comes from the near constant banter between the two main characters whenever they are not caught up in anything important, and their open acknowledgment of the quasi-romance that is going on between them. They meet many interesting characters on their travels. My favorites are those who come into direct conflict with the culture around them: A female shepherd in the employ of the church, in danger of being suspected a witch because she is too good at her job. A female trader who has to pretend to be a guy to be taken seriously as a trader. A female priest (deaconess) of a small church in a pagan village who not only has to wrangle with a neighbouring branch of the organisation to be allowed to take over management of the church from the recently deceased priest, but who also has to deal with a crisis of faith in the face of what appears to be a mountain of evidence that the pagans are actually right. There is certainly a feminist bent to some of these story arcs, though they manage to come across in a more subtle way than you might expect from my descriptions.

Bodacious Space Pirates

And this brings us in a way thematically to Bodacious Space Pirates. As much as I enjoy Legend of Galactic Heroes for its epic story, it is in many ways archaic, and presents a largely patriarchal culture where women are usually presented as the wives or sisters of the more significant male characters. Spice & Wolf is more interesting in this regard, as the author takes its historical setting and uses many of the story arcs to consciously, though subtly, play around with issues of the cultural oppression of women.

MouretsuGroupShotBodacious Space Pirates takes it a step further. Maybe even a little too far. It takes place primarily in the context of a space yacht club and a pirate ship (the Bentenmaru). The yacht club is affiliated with an all-girls school, which is what I meant by taking it a little too far: This kind of segregation is not really conducive to an egalitarian society, and tends to be a part of the problem. I give it a pass on this though, as it feels mostly like a thinly veiled excuse to deliberately flip the usual skewed gender distribution of such series. The result is a series that would actually have trouble passing the reverse Bechdel test, which is a refreshing thing in a media space so inundated with male casts and lead characters. The girls are not there for the gratification of the male viewers either (as will otherwise too often be the case). They are people. They feel like people. Passionate, fun-loving, smart and quirky people with their own personalities and their own desires (I know, what a novelty, right?).

Background: Marika lives on Sea of the Morningstar, the third planet in the Tau Ceti system. She inherits the position of captain of the Bentenmaru from her recently deceased father. Bentenmaru is a pirate ship with a letter of marque, a bureaucratic leftover from a war of independence 100 years ago, where letters of marque were granted to pirates as a way of complementing the undersized independence fleet.

BoardingAs it turns out, pirates in this day and age spend most of their time putting on shows for cruise ships: They get paid for performing mock plunders of cruise ships for the excitement of the passengers. Their ships are, however, equipped to the teeth with real, live weaponry, and barring any trouble with their insurance company, they will occasionally take on real mercenary jobs.

MouretsuSailsThe yacht club resides over a solar sail ship, the Odette II. Though most of the members are unaware of this, the Odette II is itself a retired pirate ship, retaining a few system optimisations from those days. The yacht club spends most of its time maintaining the ship, and taking it on in-system cruises. There are frequent interactions between the crew of the Bentenmaru and the yacht club. At one point, the yacht club even gets to crew the Bentenmaru for a while (which initially turns out to be a bit of a challenge, with the age of and the number of poorly documented modifications performed on that ship).

While it may be easy to point out at least minor flaws in the space travel and electronic warfare aspects of the series, it actually does a remarkably good job of presenting a believable universe and maintaining an air of hard sci-fi. And while the Bentenmaru can fly pretty freely under its letter of marque, and break the rules to a certain extent, the Odette II is subject to all the civilian flight regulations, and has to file flight plans with the authorities and such.

EWThe electronic warfare aspect of the series is also fascinatingly detailed, and includes talk of transponders, passive and active scanning, and the hacking of enemy ship systems. The hacking aspect is perhaps the more implausible part of this. I have some fundamental gripes with it. But it is again kept sufficiently detailed and internally consistent enough that I can give it a pass, even as a computer science geek: And they do sometimes play around with some interesting and very real concepts, such as the honeytrap, an isolated and monitored faux system, used to deceive and divert potential attackers. At one point, the Odette II keeps up the charade for a while of having been electronically taken over, by catching them in an electronic honeytrap. (Just don’t think too much about the obviously fundamental flaws in system design that allows ships to make takeover bids on each other’s computers like this in the first place!)

I wont talk much about the story-arcs of the show, except to say that this is a show that likes its anti-climaxes. It also bends a few tropes in the process.

Going back to the feminist aspects of the show, this is one of unfortunately still very few series where we actually get to see a non-sexualised and remarkably ordinary representation of a lesbian couple. You wont find out who they are until relatively late in the series, where their relationship suddenly matters briefly for the plot. Knowing this, you may be able to figure it out beforehand. In any case, their identities will certainly come as no surprise when you’ve seen them interacting early on.

And that’s it for the first part of this little trek through animé adaptations of novels. I will write and upload a second part with three more at… some point in the future.

2013
01.03

sex-god-how-religion-distorts-sexuality

Who might want to read this book?

Though I think most people could probably benefit in some way from reading this book, the exact reason may vary from group to group. And for some, it is going to be a hard sell. Not because it might not be useful or educational, but because it can be quite a provocative read depending on who you are.

First, if you are religious and consider such activities as sex and marriage holy and sacred in some way, then your best reason for reading Sex & God may simply be the challenge and provocation it contains. To you, it may give you one of many different answers to the reversal of Pascal’s Wager: “What if there is no god? What then, is the harm of believing?”. This book relates with eloquence and detail what may be one of the greater harms: The distortion and exploitation of human sexuality. For the same reason, this may be a good read for any non-religious person labouring under the misapprehension that religion is mostly harmless.
But as said, I recognise that this can be a hard sell.
Second, if you are an apostate, someone who like me has reasoned yourself out of religion, then your best reason for reading Sex & God may simply be the information it contains. A very religious upbringing may have left you with a somewhat limited amount of real sex education. This book will give you a better grasp of the nature of human sexuality and show you ways of how to deal more sensibly with some of the implications of this knowledge.
Third, if you have never been religious and maybe consider religious people somewhat stupid, this should at least give you a more nuanced view of what is really going on. Darrel Ray’s approach to religion from the viewpoint of psychology is to consider it a kind of “mind virus”, with adverse effects and propagation mechanisms, the hosts for the most part being victims themselves. In truth, intelligence has little to do with someone’s religiosity. Additionally, being non-religious is no guarantee that you are actually aware of many of the more sex-educational aspects of the book.

General commentary

Sex & God itself can be described as a popular science book with a focus on psychology. According to Ray, while the topic has been dealt with before, for example in feminist literature, it has never been given much of an actual scientific treatment. Sex & God is ostensibly an attempt to rectify this. Having not read any other books on this specific topic, I cannot comment much on that claim. But I will say that Ray does quite well in relating the relevant scientific views on the question and providing interesting references. He speculates at times, and I can point my finger at a couple of speculative inferences that seem unfounded to me, or at least grossly simplified. But to my mind they occur in quite specific and minor peripheral comments, and have little to no impact on the main points of the text.

While the topic is treated with the seriousness it deserves, the book is laced with bits of humour in appropriate places, sometimes apparent in subchapter titles such as “Super Duck’s Inflatable Penis” and “Ms. Wonder Duck Fights Back”. Mostly though, the humour happens at the expense of the religious contradictions and absurdities presented.

Content discussion

I will now discuss some of the main points of the book from my own outlook. Insofar as it is possible to spoil parts of a non-fiction book, that is what I will be doing here. So if you want to read Sex & God without any advance knowledge of the contents, this is where you should stop reading this review. I inevitably end up relating it to parts of my own life, so if you would rather not hear about that either, you may also consider stopping here. I do not personally or intellectually hold those parts of my life as actual secrets, they just never really come up in any discussions. But my outlook is a little unusual I suspect, and therefore perhaps interesting.

Content discussion (show the rest)

An unusual outlook

The guilt cycle that results from this training creates a form of self-censorship. Because so many sex acts and ideas are liable to lead to eternal damnation, people have a strong incentive to avoid expressing or discussing secretly held ideas and interests. Fear leads to hidden thoughts and activities and prevents normal, appropriately channeled sexual expression.

I happen to be a virgin. That is, apart from masturbation, I have never had sex.
I have been led to understand that this is actually somewhat unusual, even in religious circles. In fact, one of the notable points of the book is that sexual activity differ very little between the religious and the non-religious. This is in spite of the heavy restrictions (both overtly and covertly) that most notable religions put on sex: Premarital sex, non-vaginal sex, masturbation, polyamory, homosexuality, lustful thoughts. You name it, it is sinful according to some doctrine. But the sex drive is not something that can be effectively suppressed by mere commandments from an almighty being. So behavioural restriction is not really the point. No, when the inevitable happens, as it turns out it will for most people, the point is the ensuing guilt. Because the guilt is what keeps someone coming back to the religion for forgiveness. With an unverifiable reward/punishment system in place (heaven and hell? karma?), the incentives to stay (and thus “remain in grace”) are strong. The more guilt, the stronger the reason to believe and stay faithful. So what better source for the guilt than the one activity that most humans on the face of the planet will find intensely pleasurable and are likely to engage in at some point: Sex. Consequently, in a meme-evolutionary twist, this has become an activity targeted in some way by pretty much every major religion. It is made all the worse by the common equation of many harmless, consensual sexual activities to lying, stealing and murder.

Sociosexual Orientation

But let us return to the point made in the beginning of the paragraph: Basic sexual activity does not differ significantly between religious and non-religious people, even though the cultural pressure tends to be far greater on the latter.
As with many points of the book, it defeated an old assumption of mine, but also failed to really surprise me. In my case, it means that being a virgin has little to do with religious thought. It is probably mostly related to a very introverted personality, some very sub-par conversation and social skills and a somewhat restricted sexuality.

If your genetic predisposition is toward sexual restriction, this may skew your view of others, especially those who are not like you. Just because you do not need variety, sexual adventure or stimulation does not say anything about others. Those “others” could be your children, parents, friends or coworkers – even your spouse. Judging others because they are not like you leads to broken relationships and a tendency to self-righteous behaviour. A restricted parent may fail to understand and properly coach a child who is unrestricted. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach or coach someone if she feels you condemn her for her natural tendencies.
In the general population, 10-20% are naturally restricted. They can easily follow the rules and strictures of their particular religion because that is their natural predisposition. The naturally restricted person may feel little need to masturbate and may find porn uninteresting.

This is one of the more generally educational aspects of the book. Naturally restricted and unrestricted sexualities (or Sociosexual Orientation) are one of those seemingly minor, obvious, yet important concepts that is often lost to many with the tabooisation of sex in a culture. It is rarely ever talked about. Possibly, the only real (though peripheral) datapoint I had on this was a conversation a long time ago with an acquaintance (foe actually, but let’s not go there) of mine. He told me that he masturbated three times a day, and I told him that I went at it maybe once or twice every week. I think at the time we were both equally surprised at the difference. I am not sure which of us are closest to the average, but: I know masturbation is healthy and I enjoy it, so I actually try to do it with a little more frequency than I might otherwise, but I will quite often be distracted by something more interesting and completely forget about such intentions. In a relationship, it does seem like the kind of thing that can cause friction, especially when you are unaware that these differences can exist, that they cover a wide scale, and are quite common.

Biology and culture

Homosexuality is found in over 1,500 species. Homophobia is found in only one. Which seems more unnatural?
- Effox comment on HuffPosts

This brings me to another point that Ray makes beautifully: We need to know who we are and where we came from to best make decisions about our future. Section 2 of the book, “Follow the Biology”, is about the evolutionary biology of sex. Section 3, “Follow the Culture”, is about how different human cultures have perceived sex, both in the present and the past. The information we learn does not always jibe with cultural preconceptions of how human relationships should work. We learn for instance from both our evolutionary history, our cultural history, and our current behaviour that from the perspective of nature we are a multimate species. It is quite natural for us to attach ourselves to someone for a number of years, and then lose interest. If we dispense with certain religious and romantic notions of how love should work, it makes sense. As Ray points out, this is not necessarily a slight against living, or wanting to live together in a monogamous relationship or something similar to it. There are many benefits to it, and humans are in fact comparatively flexible when it comes to relationships and sexual habits. But some are better at monogamy than others, and if one wants to actually live with the same person for the rest of one’s life, it pays to be aware that this is not quite how we evolved. There are sensible ways around it or through it (some discussed in the book), but they all start with both knowledge, acceptance of, and openness about this aspect of our biology. A happy, lasting monogamous relationship will often need more than a simple vow of “till death do you part” to subvert or trick that part of our nature effectively. In many cases, the best solution may be to simply part ways, and then such sweeping vows and promises become part of the problem, creating tension, guilt and anger where none need exist.

I would say that this is actually part of what has kept me scared of relationships and future commitments. This impression of an all or nothing approach to relationships, that attempting to go from being lovers to being friends again (or from married to unmarried) should create so much friction. Because to a great extent, I care more about having friends.
And it is not that I think I would necessarily be bad at a long term relationship (in fact, I tend to prefer some measure of stability in my life). It is more that it feels like the culture ropes me into expecting it of my hypothetical partner. And that is what drives me nuts about this. Over time, I have become extremely skeptical of pressures and expectations that induce me to be angry, disappointed or disgusted at someone for what appears to be no good reason. To wit: Nobody is ever obligated to love me. Nobody who loves me is ever obligated to keep loving me. Love is not generally subject to will, and thus not subject to any promises or vows.

So pardon the expression, but: Fuck that noise. Loving someone also means wanting the best for them, which does not necessarily include being stuck with me for the rest of their life.

Glad to have that sorted out. It is with glee that I am hammering more nails into the coffin of those fears.

Gender differences

This general tendency for women to be sensitive to the emotional environment means they imbibe emotional messages and cultural ideas more rapidly and easily than men. Religion takes advantage of this tendency by creating guilt messages that are uniquely targeted at women.

I just want to mention one other thing that is touched on in parts of the book: In many habits and preferences, gender differences exist when you look at the general difference between averages. Usually though, the variance of behaviour within the same gender is far greater, so making assumptions about anyone based on gender tends to be an exercise in futility. General gender differences do however seem to play a somewhat subtle and insidious role in the mechanics of religious propagation, and seem to go some way toward explaining why women are so often the greater victims of religious dogma (and usually seen as second class citizens in religious societies). There are a number of interesting points on this, but I am not going to delve into it here, so read the book if you want to know more. I might be interested in hearing other people’s opinion on this though, so if you do read the book, feel free to drop me a mail or something.

Questions? Comments?

I welcome comments and opinions on the rest as well. Both on what I have written here, and on other points that Ray discusses in the book (though most of what I have discussed here is derived from conclusions of the book. So if you want to make actual arguments against them, please read the book first for a more complete picture of the arguments behind!). I realise that these are not topics many people would discuss openly, in full view of the public (this is somewhat unusual for me as well). Thus, you can e-mail me at sag(at)raabjerg.mm.st. If you want to stay anonymous, use an anonymous e-mailer (http://anonymouse.org/anonemail.html). In that case though, if you are actually seeking some kind of response, then you are still going to have to include some way for me to write you back.

Turning the tables on non-religious culture

To close off: There is, by the way, a flipside to my lookout. It is nowhere near as egregious as the kind of pressure, guilt and shame that tend to come out of religious society, but I have noticed a few nasty streaks running through parts of non-religious culture as well. One of which is the actual denigration of single life and particularly virginity. I sometimes get the impression that the fact that I have never had a partner must mean that I am somehow a sad and lonely individual.

I am annoyed by this stereotype.

I am an introvert. My current level of interaction with people is probably somewhat lower than most. It is, however, a level that I am comfortable with (in fact, too much and I grow uncomfortable). Which means that I feel neither sad nor lonely. I dare say that I am actually quite happy with my life. I do not have a partner, I have never had one, and there may never be one. As annoying as that thought can obviously be at times, it is one that I am generally fine with. In line with my comments in the Biology and culture section: The world does not owe me a partner. Accordingly, I do not like it when a culture pushes me on my self-esteem because of this. It does not help, and I will continue to ignore such cultural memes.

I will end off with a quote from one of the later chapters of the book.

The realm of “normal” in human sexuality is vast. If you want to masturbate several times a day – that is normal. If you want to have sex with your partner several times a day – that is normal. If you want to be spanked before you have sex – that is normal. If you want to have oral sex frequently – that is normal. If you want to have a threesome – that is normal. If you like to dress up in the clothes of the opposite sex – that is normal. If you get off by watching naked men popping balloons – that is normal. If you want a husband and a lover on the side – that is normal.
There is nothing wrong with you if you have normal ideas, urges and drives. If your sexual behaviour is consensual among adults and hurts no one else, it is fine. In the BDSM world it’s called “safe, sane and consensual,” a good way to sum it up. No church has the right to get into your bedroom and tell you what is normal.
What is abnormal are priests, nuns and popes, an uptight Baptist minister’s wife, a fire-breathing misogynistic imam. These are all far from the mainstream of human sexuality. They have a perfect right to be and believe what they like; unfortunately, they have political and social power to make life miserable for millions of people with their guilt and shame-based sexualities.

2012
10.25

The Universe runs in parallel. As hydrogen fuses into helium in the heart of the Sun, the same process happens in about 300 billion other stars in the Milky Way, multiplied by 125 billion galaxies in the universe, each star generating light visible from other star systems. As the Earth hurtles around the Sun it acts in parallel with 7 other planets, all affecting each other through the force of gravity. On Earth, weather patterns move about in parallel, bumping into each other, creating new weather patterns, lightning storms, tornadoes, hurricanes and heat waves. On the ground, 7 billion humans walk around, in parallel, communicating and thus affecting each other. And human communication is no longer restricted entirely by geography and location. Conversations move by electrons in copper cables, by light in optical cables, by radio waves through the air. We have even developed computers that can automate and organise much of this communication for us. Weather stations all over the world read weather patterns which are used as variables in predictive simulations performed by parallel computations on distributed super-computers. The results of those simulations are then made available as weather reports to millions of people around the world, through the use of messaging protocols on a massively parallel communication network. And as you read this text, the data of which has likely passed through that network as a bundle of messages more than once, images from your retinae are interpreted by parts of your brain in parallel with sound, smell, touch and taste.

But this is where it stops. Because while your brain collects and interprets that data in parallel, it compiles it into a hierarchy of patterns which at the top becomes a single pattern of the world, and these patterns are then understood in time-dependent sequences. As many neurologists will tell you, the ability to multitask as a human is an illusion at best. The brain is geared for prediction, and it does this by remembering the world through sequences and recalling stored sequences through pattern recognition. So in this way we are pretty good at understanding causality: Events tend to happen as causes of other events, and we use this to constantly predict what happens next around us. But because we tend to conflate parallel events into sequences we often derive causality where there is none. If we see two events happen after each other we sometimes assume a causality that does not exist: We perform a dance, and it starts to rain. Suddenly we call that dance a “rain dance” and expect rain to come, or at least be more probable when we perform the dance.

So at a very basic level, our intuitive understanding of the world around us is a heavily optimised sequential approximation of a parallel reality. It assumes some connections where there are none, and misses some connections where they do exist. And while it is an approximation that has served us well for most of human history, the progress of science and technology increasingly presents us with questions and problems that require us to understand much better the intricacies and consequences of parallel interaction.

One of the defining characteristics of humans is that we build and use tools to make up for our shortcomings, both physically and intellectually. We cannot chop down trees with our bare hands, and so we invent the axe. We cannot move very fast, and so we invent the bicycle. We cannot see very well, and so we invent glasses and telescopes.

We cannot intuitively understand the universe, and so we invent mathematics. The distances that the brain really understands can be measured in metres. But the distances we can express and perform calculations with in mathematics are literally boundless. Even if we may never completely grasp just how far “10 billion light-years” is, we can still work with such numbers on paper and in simulations. It seems perhaps trite, but it is the difference between believing in dots of light attached to a firmament, and knowing about other stars existing at literally unfathomable distances.

And finally, getting to the point of this introduction: We cannot intuitively understand parallel interactions, and so we invent process calculi.

- Extending Psi-calculi and their Formal Proofs

2012
03.17

Urban dictionary: “Bleamer”

I recently came back from Open Source Days 2012 where I had a lightning talk about a current project of mine.
In short: LaTeX Beamer is a great presentation framework. The only real shortcoming of Beamer is that custom animation is not really something LaTeX was built for as a publication tool. But custom animation is something I often wish I could do when I need to explain something that’s a bit convoluted.

Applications like PowerPoint and Keynote are both out for me, for reasons of platform dependence and closedness. I also have a nagging suspicion that neither really offers the kind of animation freedom I sometimes want.

But as an amateur Blender user, I know that Blender has a very powerful animation system. So I set to work writing scripts that would let Blender take over where Beamer starts tripping over its own feet.

Thus Bleamer.

Oh, and before people start taking out the torches and pitchforks, I should point out that when I want to do animation, I’m talking about custom animations intended to explain stuff or make a point. I concur that Obnoxious off-the-shelf transition animations and pointless sliding text are just evil distractions.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to implement standardised transition animations if I feel a bit bored, or have nothing better to do.

Be afraid.

Having said that, here’s the OSD slide presentation which features a copious amount of evil, pointless animations to make the point of total animation freedom. Runs in Chrome or Firefox (and theoretically any other browser supporting WebM). Press space or page down to advance. On a few slides you may have to wait a second or two for the animation to show itself. Also, advancing in the middle of an animation is slightly buggy, so try to let the animations finish before you advance:

Bleamer: Freedom in Presentation

What follows below is an explanation of what I am actually demonstrating. The first code release of Bleamer will happen when I have fixed outstanding issues in the current code and added a Blender GUI code for interaction with the scripts.

Crap! the Blender logo came off.

Title slide: Projection. One of the interesting features is the ability to project any element of your slide onto an object (usually a plane) in Blender, thus making it possible to capture anything on your Beamer slide and move it around.
The slide also demonstrates that should you really need it, you have a physics engine at your disposal (in fact, Blender offers several physics engines).

Wow... Moving right along.

Slide 2: Simple movement.
Adding and moving stuff around is probably the easiest thing you can do. This particular slide took very little time to create.

No! Wait! I just wanted to change this one thing...

Slide 3: 3D objects.
Blender is a 3D modelling suite, which means you have access to 3D modelling… Should you find a need for it.
But remember that the addition of 3D objects to your slide also means you should start taking into account effects such as lighting and shadows. You must also consider the use of orthographic vs. perspective camera view. I may add features to make this more manageable in the context of a slide presentation, but this is not a very high priority.

Wheeeeee!

Slide 4: Projection again.
Again, projecting stuff onto objects and moving them around is one of the easier things you can do. In this case, the task was complicated somewhat by the fact that I am using the physics engine for moving the bullet points around.

F-klubben rules!

Slide 5: 3D without lighting.
3D effects can be useful even without lighting, as is demonstrated here.

Bleamer!

Slide 6: Animated transparency and adding text in Blender.
Sometimes you will want to add text to a slide within Blender, which is also quite easy. It affords more direct control of the text while working with it in Blender. I may make an effort to dig up the most common Beamer fonts and explicitly include them with Bleamer.
Another thing you may notice here is the use of fading effects. This is simply achieved by animating the transparency of the text.

Quote from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I hope they serve good food.

Slide 7: Objects following paths.
Another potentially useful feature, is the use of modifiers to let objects (text and other stuff) follow and deform along a path.

Must follow the arrows... Must...

Slide 8: More objects (now arrows) following paths.
Which gave me the idea for this slide. There are a number of interesting applications for this kind of animation. So again, I may try to simplify the use of this in the context of Bleamer.

Pythagoras transformed.

Slide 8: Mathtex
Mathtex integration. This is one of the biggies. I have craved the ability to animate mathtex formulae. One of the Bleamer scripts allow the compilation of mathtex formulae directly into Blender, with transparent backgrounds and everything. It’s still not perfect, as every moveable element of a formula still has to be compiled separately. I have an idea of how to fix this, though. And that would truly make the animation of mathtex formulae a breeze.

Run for your life!

Slide 9: Garishly overblown usage of the rigid body physics engine.
Need I say more?

2011
11.21

This is what my table currently looks like.
Half the table
Half the table

You may notice a prominent accordion… Or, “accordion”.
Half the table

Yeah, if you look closely, you may notice this is not an “accordion” in the sense that you may be used to. But it is awesome.
Half the table

Thus, it also comes with interesting output options.
Half the table

The point of the other stuff on that table is to eventually hook these kinds of chips up to the MIDI output through a synthesiser (blueprints courtesy of the MIDIbox project).
Half the table

Some of the geeks among you may recognise these as two revisions of the famous (and awesome) sound chip from the Commodore 64 personal computer.

As my theory goes, the eventual action of hooking up the SID chips to the accordion may cause an awesomeness singularity, destroying the universe (which may then be replaced with something even more bizarrely inexplicable).

So it’s lucky that I’m still missing the MIDI cable, isn’t it?

It’s also lucky that I still don’t have a working fume extractor for the soldering iron. And that the tips I ordered for the iron was for the wrong model.

But it will all come together, just you wait. I will succeed eventually. And then the entire universe will be my hostage.

*MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA*

2011
07.16

First contestant arrives.

Go!

Note how neatly I follow the railroad gates as they go down. But I need to keep the head start I get from the slow acceleration of the train up until the forest.
Update: Forgot to comment on this, but yes, I run a red light in this video. Don’t do this at home, kids! Though in this case, the greatest danger is probably a fine. The railway gates are down, and I highly doubt any car is going to come crashing through.

Where the video ends is approximately where i started having problems with the camera shaking off.

2011
07.15

Racing path

Route

I just scouted the terrain two days ago.

Unfortunately, I can only go as far as Skölsta. There seems to be a path that go further, but it is a very bumpy forest path not really made for bikes. This means I will have to stop at Skölsta. But this still gives me a good 6-7 km stretch. And if I have to keep an average speed of about 30km/h through that terrain, it would probably be good with a break when I reach Skölsta anyway.

Legends of map:
Train: Black
Me: Blue

The most annoying part is marked with red on the map. The red part of the path consists of some kind of clay substance which is very annoying to bike on when it has rained (me and the bike were very dirty after the trip two days ago). And unfortunately it looks like rain on saturday.

So hopefully, I can gain a fair lead on the starting stretch. We shall see.

Otherwise, it looks fair. I have confirmed that I can keep a somewhat consistent speed over 30km/h, at least on plain, straight roads. Which should hopefully put me on par with the steam train. Unfortunately, I will likely be up against Thor. And Thor has airbrakes, which means it may go faster than 30km/h. It would have been nice with Långshyttan (the other locomotive of the same type that I think they use as substitute for Thor), as Långshyttan lack airbrakes, and is therefore restricted to 30km/h.

But I look forward to Saturday. If I can keep up at least some of the way, that will be great. Following the train from the outside seems much more fun than just sitting in one of the carriages.