On realizing one is a pedantic shit

I was rooting around in my computer when I spied a text file from 2005 that I apparently wrote for an online debate about prehistoric agriculture in New Guinea. Googling an entire paragraph verbatim reveals that it was for a message board discussion of Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The mini-essay was fairly well-reasoned, made reference to some current scientific knowledge, and synthesized information gleaned from several academic sources not easily accessible to the layperson. It was mostly ignored except by one person who clearly based his objections on self-taught stuff gleaned mostly from the Internet. The “debate” quickly petered out after I made my contribution and the message board thread sank out of sight into the archives.

Jesus, why did I even bother? Looking at the date, it appears that I wrote the mini-essay in my first semester of graduate school. I suspect that I was trying to distract myself from the fact that at the time I was living in a tiny, crappy apartment where I could hear the slapping sounds of my neighbour having sex with his girlfriend. That and I was probably trying to fill the loneliness of moving to a new city. Yes, I hung out with my grad school cohort but we all had our own shit to shovel, our own rows to hoe, so to speak, and the alienation of the modern city can get pretty acute when you’re living by yourself and you don’t know anyone living nearby well enough to call friend.

I’m reminded of this New York Times article about what Internet trolls are like offline. Who could have known – from the content I’d written on the message board – of the specific personal circumstances that fueled my frustration at dealing with the ignorant and the misinformed who’d dared misconstrue the knowledge of my chosen field of study. I was especially annoyed because the message board is the adjunct to a newspaper trivia column that specifically bills itself as “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973”, when in my experience the board was and is a bastion of white privilege and anti-feminist “common sense”. I finally had to quite the message board when I saw how often the same topics came up over and over. I’m kind of back now, but I decided not to read any topics that involved race, gender or American politics in an attempt to prevent my demise from apoplexy.

Anyway, I’m embarrassed at having spent so much time and effort on what was in the end an inconsequential matter, though I suppose helping to correct popular misconceptions is a decent hobby for an aspiring anthropologist (god knows a lot of anthropological knowledge directly contradicts mainstream ideas about human nature). Still, there are only so many hours in a day and only so much energy in one person. Better to do things that one actually likes.

Law and the Multiverse

I’ve just discovered Law and the Multiverse, a blog devoted to exploring the legal ramifications of life in a superhero universe. For example, one post discusses human rights in the context of non-human intelligences (i.e., aliens), while another covers Superman’s immigration status and whether he counts as an American. Like its subject matter, the blog deals mostly with the American context, but sometimes it deals with issues with a greater scope, such as whether supervillain lairs in outer space are protected by the Outer Space Treaty forbidding the militarization of space. It’s fascinating, though the American focus means I end up reading only half of the posts (what do I care about US traffic laws?).


Over in the Alternate History Discussion Board, a message board where people go to discuss historical what-if scenarios, someone asked the question of whether a communist or fascist America was more likely to happen in the past. Obviously it would have to happen before the Second World War and quite possibly earlier – home-grown communism in particular would have needed to arrive before 1918, otherwise the panic over Bolshevism would have tainted communism with the whiff of essential foreignness. The general consensus was that fascism was more likely, given that the pre-existing capitalist state was and is already closer in form to fascism anyway (I paraphrase, of course). However, other posters have pointed out that a communist America was not quite a wild-eyed hallucination, and that there were already certain strains of American socialism that could have eased the transition into communism. Like many discussions of American politics about communism, many participants confused socialism and communism, but it was still enlightening to read about an America that could have been.

Say what?

From linguaphiles:

Usage examples you wouldn’t expect to find in a dictionary
"They threw the newly born baby into the river." (for "river".)
"Suffocate the child so he will die." (for "suffocate").

I love the additional examples that the commenters provided.

"you will stick one end of it up your arse"
"it is better if I kill you and hide you[r body] where no-one will see it"
"do you want me to take my clothes off?" (for "clothes")
"This is the place where I always hide the bodies." (an example of an adverbial relative clause)

Some of the examples have to be deliberate attempts at surrealism, they’re too bizarre to be produced by a normal person writing in a formal context. But good lord, check out the novella written as an example of the phrase “a woman” for a Russian-English dictionary:

She became a woman at fifteen, when she fell in love with a good-for-nothing who used her feelings and deprived her of her innocence without thinking about the psychological consequences of this event for a girl who had grown up in a Puritanical family.

Let me guess, the writer of the entry is a failed novelist making ends meet by writing dictionary entries. I’m actually reminded of my French class in high school, where I fulfilled my dialogue-writing assignments by putting the speakers in bizarre situations (my favourite was a conversation between a junky and the dealer he is trying to score crack from).

Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

Discovering an exceptional but lesser-known work of fiction for oneself is one of life’s smaller pleasures, one made no less enjoyable for being such an ordinary experience. The story of Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit) itself feels rather small and ordinary; instead of covering an epic struggle between good and evil, at its heart it’s about the depths of maternal love and how far a person can go to protect a loved one. The melancholy nature of the song in the video captures well the feeling of the show, much better than the opening song, in fact, which I found rather insipid in an inoffensive pop song way.

Seirei no Moribito is based on the first book of a Japanese fantasy series and it covers the story of Balsa, a female bodyguard, who is tasked with protecting a prince from his father’s own assassins. There are many things to like about the series, not least of which are the lush backgrounds as can be seen in the video. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more realistic than other anime that deals with swords and the supernatural. You won’t find arcs of blood stylishly spraying into the air or fighters shouting out the names of their attacks; rather, all of the fighting is firmly rooted in real-world martial arts.

Unusually for the genre, the anime does not deal with the samurai-and-ninjas feudal era which first springs to mind when one mentions “Japan” and “swords”. Instead, the series is set in a fantasy world based on Heian-era Japan, which is to say, Japan before the samurai. Japan was governed more like Imperial China, with the Japanese emperors wielding direct political power as the sons of Heaven. This is the opposite situation of the later feudal era, where the emperor was largely a figurehead.

It’s interesting to note that the hydraulic theory of state formation posits that states formed in early China because a centralized power was needed to organize the necessary resources that allowed complex irrigation systems to nourish rice paddies. Ancient Japan, of course, consciously modeled itself on China, and the fact that both countries relied on rice as the central staple food in their diets certainly helped keep their systems of government in sync for a while. Certainly a bunch of squabbling feudal lords couldn’t have organized things half so well.

Of course, one must then ask why feudalism arose in Japan if central organization was so necessary to keep a country of rice eaters alive. There are of course the political and historically-contingent reasons for why the strong Japanese state broke down (short story: a combination of screw-ups and bad luck for several Japanese emperors). Improvements in military technology and the resulting change in recruitment practices also gave greater power to regional leaders, and I suspect developments in agriculture also helped. A separate military class rose to challenge the power of the imperial government, a civil war happened, and slowly but surely the samurai were the new rulers of Japan.

Admittedly, all this is going rather far afield from the original topic of the anime series. What can I say, I have a certain fascination for states and state formation. Anyway, to return to Seirei no Moribito: I liked it. If you like serious anime, please try it out. Not that I hate the funny (Ranma 1/2 remains one of my favourite shows, period), but Moribito definitely deserves a larger audience, which I hope this blog post might in some small way help to provide.

New from Sarapen

New in the sense that it’s new to this blog – by which I mean that I’ve just imported the posts and comments from the first iteration of Sarapen (go to 2006 in the Archives to see the imports or to Sarapen I on the toolbar above to see the original). I still have to fix some of the pictures, though I’m honestly too lazy to bother with the categories and the tags. I think I might have to manually import the stuff from Sarapen II, seeing as how it only exists on the Internet Archive now. I’m definitely not looking forward to that. Ah well, there’s nothing for it but to do it.