Archive for December, 2019

Happy New Year

December 31, 2019

…to one and all.  Here’s hoping we do better this year than last.

It’s 8pm here, which means midnight in New Brunswick, Canada, which isn’t that far off from Brunswick, Georgia, where my sister-in-law lives, so that’s close enough.

We each had a small cup of instant amazake, wished each other a Happy New Year, and will be in bed before the fireworks start in St. Louis.

The most entertaining anime of the decade

December 31, 2019

Picture this. It’s the end of a hard week and you have just popped up a batch of popcorn, opened a bottle of vin exceedingly ordinaire, and chased the dogs off the sofa. What’s your next step?

Hey, honey, there’s a fifteen-hour Hamlet marathon on Netflix, starting with the 1911 August Blom version. Wanna watch?

OR

Hey, honey, what anime do you want to watch tonight?

Yeah. I thought so.

The list that follows is my take on the most entertaining anime of each year this decade. Not the highest quality. Not the most artistic. Just the one you’d like to watch when you want to be entertained and not have to think, similar to how Miyazaki intended Porko Rosso for tired Japanese businessmen. One anime per year.

2010 Highschool Of The Dead: Yes, it’s a fanservice train wreck. Yes, both the anime and the manga leave us hanging. But ya know, it’s darn fine storytelling.

Popcorn! More popcorn!

2011 Chihayafuru: Just because it’s the best anime of the year doesn’t mean it can’t be great entertainment. Besides, it was a pretty thin year.

Burning Goddess of Autumn

2012 Girls und Panzer: What’s not to like? A going-to-Koshien story about cute girls…and tanks…on aircraft carriers? Plus, it has the maus.

Did Rommel really get his start this way?

2013 Log Horizon: As I’ve said earlier, 2013 was a magical year for anime. But Kyousougiga and Kill La Kill make you think too much, and Non Non Biyori will put you pleasantly to sleep…

…but Log Horizon is computer world isekai done right

2014 Witch Craft Works: Another magical year, and WCW just barely edged out Shirobako. But Shiro is serious and WCW is just mind candy.

Saving her princess

2015 Blood Blockade Battlefront. New York, as it lives in the minds of New Yorkers.

After this, it gets weird

2016 Flying Witch: One of the better slice-of-life series. Even the fact that it had an Anime Original Ending couldn’t give it a dramatic arc, and that’s OK.

Where else would she get one?

2017 Dragon Maid: In another great year, DM beat out five other shows, but only just.

2018 Bunny Girl Senpai: Five short stories in one anime. Lots of references to other anime.

Haruhi ears, Lucky Star hair clip, Monogatari warning, Dewey decimal.

2019 Kotobuki: Magnificent flying. I get a bad case of the leans every time I watch it.

Another kill for Kotobuki

Retirement 360

December 30, 2019

I could have said Retirement 365, but that sounds too much like a Microsoft product, and since this is more of a tour dhorizon than a detailed diary, I think that 360 is better.

It’s been one year since I retired from almost twenty years of teaching at Eastern Washington University. Combine that with my retirement from the USAF after over twenty years of service, and it looks like I am really retired, not just mostly retired. So what have I been doing this year just past?

Gaining weight. I ended my teaching career at 220lbs. Last month I brushed 250lbs, so I’ve gained right around two and a half pounds a month. This, obviously, can’t continue. For one thing, my talking scale has started to say things like One of you will have to get off.

Maintaining health. So, there’s the whole myeloma thing, which seems to be in abeyance right now (next check is in January). My blood pressure is under control, except that the meds I’m taking have resulted in a certain amount of edema, and the ever-popular nocturia, so were playing with dosages and things. What I’ve found over the years is that meds that are effective have adverse side effects, while meds with no side effects are not very effective.

Watching anime. At last, something fun. I’ve watched more anime titles this year (86, at the time of this writing) than in any two previous. Of course, watching that many anime means that I’m diving deeper into the barrel, and you can see this because my average score for 2019 was 66, as opposed to my career average of 70. Interestingly, the number of hours that I watched was 241, or enough for only 48 full programs (assuming 300min/season). Obviously, the difference between the number watched (85 programs, or 25500 minutes ) and time spent (13980 minutes, or 46 programs) was due to the fact that I tried a lot more anime this year, and dropped most of them after only one or two episodes. In fact, I only watched 19 shows to completion this year.

Working in my garden. Given that Spokane has a growing season of 152 days, at best, I spend a lot of time planning. However, I managed to grow 67kg of produce, including almost 550 tomatoes of various kinds this year, which is an all time record. Pretty good, considering that it didn’t include any monster field pumpkins.

Writing in the blog. I managed 144 posts this year (of which roughly 40 were about anime), which is pretty close to previous years, but not near 2017’s 160. I’ve had just over 4,000 visitors, which is half what I had in 2015. Maybe I need to write more posts about oatmeal, or High School of the Dead.

Worrying about things I haven’t accomplished. Like getting back my admittedly rudimentary Japanese skills — I’ve been in the Japanese in 90 Days program for ten years now. Like getting back my programming skills — not one line of Python the whole year. Like digitizing my 35mm slides, home VHS, and cassette tapes. Like doing the home maintenance chores MJ wants me to do (but ya know, if a man says he’ll do something, he’ll do it, and it don’t do no good you go reminding him every six months).

Summary. I am pretty much content with my lot. I do miss the teaching and interacting with students — MJ has already heard all my jokes — but not so much that I’d come back. Yes, I’m willing to help out in an emergency, but nothing full time, or in the winter, or at night in downtown Spokane.

Don’t try to engage my enthusiasm, because I haven’t got one.

I don’t feel empty of purpose, the way many retirees reportedly do, because I am my own purpose, and I am pretty much self-motivated (and -centered and -ish).

Forecast. See: things I haven’t accomplished. Full court press on Japanese and Python. Maybe another cruise — we like cruises. I’d like to do another trip to Japan, but 2020 is an Olympics year, and Akira spoiled it for the tourists. So, maybe a trip down memory lane, to see if Brexit has knocked the UK back to their charming post WWII poverty.

Anime worth watching, 2019

December 28, 2019

I’m not going to do a top ten or anything like that. This is simply a list of what I consider to be the single best anime of each season of the year past. If nothing in a season rises to the level of really good, then I’ll leave it blank.

Winter 2019

The Magnificent Kotobuki. The great flying, great characters, and interesting story makes up for the less than great CG character design. 90/100.

Spring 2019

Nothing that made the cut. At 70/100, Bokuben was the best of a bad lot, and no, I didn’t like Demon Slayer.

Summer 2019

Oh, Maidens in your Savage Season. The best coming-of-age anime I have seen. Probably the best anime of the year. 100/100. I note that of 450 anime from the last twenty years, I have given only 8 of them a 100/100.

Fall 2019

Ascendance of a Bookworm. 85/100. Isekai done right. See the essay I stayed up late on Christmas night to write. Sorry, Chihaya, you started late and didn’t end in 2019.

 

Ascendance of a Bookworm: The anime and the novels

December 25, 2019

Ascendance of a Bookworm is one of my favorite anime/light novels this season — and probably number 3 for the year. Yes, it’s an isekai, with all the baggage that term brings with it, but it manages to stand out from the crowd, and it does so without the self-conscious, 4th-wall-breaking, hur hur hur did you see what I did antics that its pack-mates have resorted to. Despite that, the early episodes didn’t garner a lot of love from the reviewers, (also here and here and here) and I’m here to remedy that problem. Let me start by listing how it differs from others of the isekai genre.

First, it’s straightforward reincarnation. Myne, our protagonna, isn’t summoned to this new world via magic. She isn’t killed by accidental act of God, thus gaining an apology and a new life as an overpowered hero. She dies in an earthquake — after almost getting hit by a truck due to reading while walking — and reawakens in her new body. Very Buddhistic. Note: the LN calls her Myne, while the anime says Main, pronounced as if German. The Japanese is マイン, which transliterates as Ma.i.n and is pronounced Mine. I’m using the LN spelling and the German pronunciation.

Second, she is, as you might have already guessed, female. Not a hikikomori highschool boy, nor yet a middle-aged businessman, she’s a girl who is about to graduate from college with a job in a library. This is fairly unusual. Less than 25% of the current run of 78 light novels on J-Novel (dating almost totally from the current decade) feature female protagonists in a fantasy world isekai, and as far as anime is concerned, AniList shows only 20 isekai with female leads in the 40 years since 1990.

Third, she’s not an overpowered hero. As with the males in these stories, the few women in high fantasy isekai tend to have some sort of cheat going for them, usually some God-granted superpower. Not here. Myne occupies the body of a sickly six-year old girl, and brings with her only the knowledge that a widely-read college student with a crafts-otaku mother might have.

Fourth, she’s not part of the aristocracy. Other fantasy isekai heroes tend to be summoned by kings, reincarnated as daughters of nobles, or manage to meet with high-ranking nobles before the end of Episode 2. Myne is, as the title of the first volume says, the daughter of a soldier. Actually, I think a better description would be ‘member of the city guard’, not a soldier. She never meets a noble throughout the first three books.

THE STORY (with spoilers, and incorporating elements of both the anime and the light novel).

Our story opens with Motosu Urano, a graduating college student who loves books, killed by the collapse of her bookshelves during a minor earthquake. She finds herself in the body of a sickly six year old — who she hears dying from a fever, even as Urano is resurrected in her body. The world she finds herself in is covered in grime (those sheets started out white), colorless, and devoid of books.

She goes briefly mad, trashing the house  in her search for books, or newspapers, or calendars — anything with words in a row. I should pause for a moment, and talk about Myne and books, or rather, Urano and books. All she wants to do is read. She has her own room with floor to ceiling books (which are what kill her). She’s like me. If there’s no book nearby at breakfast I’ll read the back of the cereal box. Heck, I’ll read the side of a cereal box. I’d be perfectly happy to be a brain in a jar, as long as I had one eyeball, and a finger to turn the pages. That’s what Myne is like. I bring this up because it’s the driving force of the story. The LN dedicates the entire Prologue to building up Myne’s bookish character. The anime starts off with a bit of a spoiler, showing the High Priest doing some sort of mind meld to find out why she likes books so much. In any event, at the end of the first episode she has decided to make her own books.

The early arcs deal with her learning to live with her new world. It’s so unlike modern Japan that she doesn’t even recognize her sister’s favorite toy as a hand-made doll. Her family is not poor, but is definitely lower class despite her father having a government job. They are living essentially a hand-to-mouth existence — her sister has to forage in the forest for firewood and edibles. There’s no food storage, so most of the meat is fresh-killed — right in front of you.

They live on the 5th floor of what the LN calls a 7-floor townhouse, but which is more like a Roman insula, an apartment complex where the apartments are cheaper the higher up you live (partly because your chances of dying in a fire are higher). Sanitation is non-existent — as in pee in a pot and pour it out the window.

In fact, Myne’s Japanese sense of cleanliness is what drives her first impact on her family and society. She spends part of each day cleaning the family bedroom. She can’t take an ofuro style bath, but she can have her sister wipe her down. She can’t really wash her hair, so she creates a vegetable oil shampoo based on memories of what she remembers from her crafts-otaku mother. Ultimately, that shampoo will be her first commercial product.

Myne is busy in other ways. She teams up with Lutz, a local boy her own age, who wants to be a traveling merchant, and begins trying different ways to make paper so that she can write books. She introduces the art of crocheting, and makes her sister a hair ornament for her baptism.

She also spends time at the town gate (where her father is guard-commander), in the care of Otto, a soldier who keeps the books for the guard unit. When he finds out that she can do math (in spite of not being able to read the local writing), he has her help him with the bookkeeping. She asks Otto to give Lutz some advice on being a merchant, and Otto introduces both of them to the merchant, Benno.

This marks the beginning of a close and profitable relationship. By the time we get to the end of Season 1, Benno has contracted to make the shampoo, two different kinds of paper, and has stuck a deal to subcontract to Lutz and Myne and her family for the production of baskets and the crocheted hairpins.

Not all is well, however. In addition to being a sickly child who often is confined to her bed with a fever, Myne has a much deadlier disease, called The Devouring. It’s a disease of those who’s bodies produce too much manna, the driving force in magic. It manifests as a burning furnace inside that’s hard to damp down. Sooner or later it will overflow and kill the patient. The only way to survive it is to dump the excess manna into a magical item, but commoners normally don’t have access to such. The only way to gain access is to do what her rich merchant friend Frieda did, sign a contract to become the mistress of a noble (at age 7). Myne decides she’d rather die with her family.

Myne has several minor attacks of The Devouring, but as she gets older, they get worse. Finally, she has a major, life threatening, attack that gets staved off only because Frieda is willing to sell her a broken magic item that will absorb some of her manna and damp down the fires. That’s good for about a year.

At the end of the anime, Myne turns seven and is baptised, and finds out that not only does the church have lots of books, it also has lots of magical items and is in need of people with manna to keep them charged. The High Bishop tries to kidnap Myne right in front of her parents (they are, after all, mere commoners), but Myne shows what she can do when she gets her manna up and foils that plan. They end up with an agreement that Myne will become a shrine maiden, with unprecedented permission to live outside the cathedral and continue with her commercial activities. All ends well, at least until Season 2.

Throughout this, Myne can come across as a not-very likeable character. Her obsession with books can be somewhat off-putting, but it’s what drives the story (of course, my reaction to her obsession is ‘well…yeah’). She spends much of her time bad-mouthing her new world, but the fact is, medieval Europe was a terrible era to live in, particularly if you were poor. Her reactions are much more realistic than those of more popular isekai, where the hero looks around and says “Oh, yeah. Medieval Europe. Cool.” Finally, to some, Myne comes across as somewhat smug. I think it’s more the internal thought processes of a 20-year-old dealing with people who think she’s six. Where it counts, she’s considerate. She helps out her older sister. She advises Lutz on his career choices. After he challenges her on her identity, she offers to “go away”, despite the fact that her dying probably won’t bring the old Myne back. Later, she says she prefers to die in the arms of her family than whore herself out as a mistress to the nobles she despises. In the end, she’s a lot deeper than she first appears.

The only real problem I have with Bookworm is one that is endemic to any isekai. Assuming that the purpose of the story is to show how the protagonist prospers using their Earth-originated talents, it’s hard to make that happen without cheating. So you have isekai with smart phones, with overpowered protagonists, with knowledge of the future. Bookworm eschews all of that for simple crafts, but of course, the question then is, if they are so simple, why didn’t the contemps think of them already? Like using the vegetable water as broth (really?), or using the parue fruit dregs as human food. Of course, there are examples from our world, like spaghetti — while Marco Polo didn’t import it from China, it was still fifteen hundred years after the foundation of the Roman Republic that something resembling pasta appears in Italy. It all boils down to the reader’s willingness to suspend their disbelief. At least it wasn’t mayonnaise.

Meanwhile, Bookworm is an important addition to the genre because of how it deals with the poverty and the major class divisions built into the system, something rarely talked about in any fantasy isekai, or indeed, any Medieval-Europe-inspired fantasy.

Admittedly, Bookworm doesn’t talk about the dirt-poor, the beggars, the homeless. But it does show us the life of the working poor. Families working two jobs, not knowing if they will have enough food for the winter. Families who huddle around a table in front of the fire until it’s time for them to all sleep in what might as well be one bed in their one bedroom. (Side note, I’m surprised Myne hasn’t introduced the kotatsu). Families with zero access to healthcare, even for their children. Children who forage in the forest for firewood and food for their families until their baptism at age 7, when they enter the workforce, and for whom schools are unheard of. Without harping on the poverty, Bookworm provides a very good picture of what daily life is like at the bottom.

The other thing that Bookworm makes clear is the extreme difference in the social classes. The three main ones are the nobility, the church, and the commoners. The anime doesn’t go into great detail, but every now and then Myne complains about noble privileges, e.g. their books and magic items. As shown more by the LN than the anime, the nobility and the church overlap somewhat, with the typical tradition that third sons will go into the church. The commoners don’t overlap with either of the others — their speech, clothing, and concerns are totally different. Commoners rarely enter the church other than on the day they are baptised, and a commoner is powerless in the face of a noble or a high church officer. The church has its own commoners — the orphans who have been left in their care and who are essentially slaves. In the LN, in volumes beyond Season 1, we find that the orphans have never been outside the cathedral, or been exposed to the concept of money or of being paid for their work.

Finally, we see in later volumes of the LN that Myne’s work is on the verge of having an impact far beyond her own little circle. Her first book, printed on her own paper, using stencil technology that she learned in crafts, is one of simplified stories from the local Bible. The High Priest is surprised that she can create 30 copies of the book so easily. He is troubled because he sees a book as a work of art, where Myne views it as a store of information. He is also confused both by the fact that she put a flower on the cover, and that she could put a flower on the cover. Her second book is one of secular stories for children (written for her soon-to-be-born sibling, conceived, presumably, in the bed next to Myne), starting with Cinderella. The High Priest says that the tale is totally unbelievable, even as a fantasy, and by the time he is done editing it, the story is unrecognizable. Neither one sees (although Myne should, having read about the impact of the Gutenberg printing press) that once this technology moves beyond a single city, making cheap books available for all and encouraging commoners to learn to read (and therefore to think), there will be a social revolution that will sweep away both the nobility and the church.

 

 

Anime Postview: Fall 2019

December 23, 2019

This is not a real review of the anime season just ending. Instead, it’s a look at how well I did in my Fall 2019 Preview, which you might want to look at first.

Ones I said I WILL WATCH:

These three were a mixed bag, not because of quality (well, that, too), but because of timing and availability.

Chihayafuru 3: I am a big fan of Chihaya, so I am working my way through the first two seasons again, plus, it started late in the season, which means I have not yet watched any of it. That’s OK. Trust me on this one. It’s good.

Rifle is Beautiful: Dropped after two episodes. Cute girls not really doing anything with things that aren’t really guns.

Ascendance of a Bookworm (AKA Honzuki…): I think it’s great. Others are not so sure, primarily because of the slow start. Just found out there will be a second season, which is good, because there’s no way they could wrap up the plot threads after a mere 14 episodes.

Ones I said I MIGHT WATCH:

Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average: Watched it. It’s great. One of the better fantasy world isekai I’ve seen.

Stand My Heroes: As I thought. Boring. Bunch’a cute guys. If I wanted to watch cute guys do cute stuff in cute outfits, I’d go to more basketball games.

Afterschool Dice Club: Dropped it one episode in, I didn’t like any of the characters. Not-so-cute girls doing not-so-cute things with games.

Ones I said I WON’T WATCH:

I didn’t.

Summary: Nine shows. Six I said I’d watch. Three were good (I’m counting Chihayafuru), which gives me a 50% success rate. Meanwhile, Oresuki and Bokuben were not on my radar (well, I liked S1 of Bokuben) but I ended up watching them anyway, and they were pretty good (except for Oresuki‘s buy-the-DVD non-ending). So overall, it was a good season, with five watchable shows. To which I added Garden of Sinners, a collection of one hour arcs based on the light novel Empty Boundaries, and a rewatch of Devil is a Part Timer, which mostly was a demonstration of how much Funimation sucks as a streaming platform (of which, more later).

Curried Potato Pumpkin Soup….oatmeal

December 19, 2019

We are getting down to the end of our home-grown winter squash. Last night, MJ took our two pie-pumpkins, added some potatoes and curry and made soup. Of course I then took the soup and some broth and made breakfast. The broth was what we call a second pressing — MJ likes to make chicken soup the long, slow, simmer on the stove way. I then take the dregs and nuke them in the pressure cooker for 45min. The resulting broth is a little thin, but good enough.

Setup: 1/3 cup of stone ground rolled oats, one cup chicken broth, one fat dinner tablespoon of pumpkin etc. soup. two dinner teaspoons of potato flakes, salt. Cook for 10 minutes or so, depending on the exact style of oats. Add soup at the beginning and the potatoes at the end.

Results: Very good. Needs something more to help it level up — salt, ground pepper, gin…something.

Rating: ***

Isekai of the Future

December 17, 2019

An interesting sub-genre in light novels is one where the protagonna gains knowledge of the future and strives to create an alternative history timeline by correcting her earlier, or forthcoming, mistakes.  So far, the two ways this can happen are by tapping the memories of RPG game playing in a former life (on Earth), or by straightforward reincarnation into an earlier self.

J-Novel is currently running three light novels like this, while a fourth LN I have only found in manga form:

 

 

I Refuse to be Your Enemy

14-year old girl in a fantasy world, living a life that is only a couple of steps better than an early phase Cinderella, has dreams that she’s watching someone play a computer RPG, one that turns out to parallel her real life. Realizing that the in-game character that is her is on the route to the bad ending, she runs away from her boarding school, and the threat of an arranged marriage, vowing to change history if she can.

This is still on Volume 1, but she appears to be making the right kind of friends.

 

 

 

 

 

My Next Life as a Villainess

Bratty 8-year old girl in a fantasy world wakes up after an injury, with all the memories of her “previous life” as a 17-year old Japanese girl who played a computer RPG, one that turns out to parallel her real life. Her problem is that she is not the heroine of the game, and each of the main characters has a reason to dislike her, either because of how she interacts with them, or how she treats the heroine. This is why all of the paths in the game provide a Happy Ending for the heroine, and a Bad Ending for her. This is the only one of the three LN’s on J-Novel that has run to completion of the first arc, so I can say without spoiling too much that she finds an unexpected ending, which keeps them all alive. I haven’t read beyond that, but the succeeding volumes cover how she deals with running off her RPG map.

 

 

 

It Seems Like I Got Reincarnated Into the World of a Yandere Otome Game

This 2014 LN (I can’t find the LN, so I’m reading the 2018 manga) is similar to Villainess — 10-year old protagonna goes through life with a sense of disquiet and deja vu, due to memories of a prior life leaking through. Upon seeing a betrothal painting of her arranged-marriage fiance, she suffers a memory cascade, revealing more details that life. It turns out that, as in Villainess, her world parallels the RPG she “remembers” playing, and that she’s the doomed rival of the RPG’s main heroine.

For a LN with a premise that’s almost identical to that of Villainess, it’s fascinating to see how fast the two plotlines diverge. It’s also a little creepy to see everyone exposing their yandere side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tearmoon Empire

20-year old Marie Antoinette-like princess is beheaded during a revolution, and awakens to find herself back in her 12 year old body again, with all of her memories intact, along with the blood-soaked diary she kept during the intervening 8 years. She vows to avoid the mistakes that caused the revolution. Unfortunately, the diary (which changes as her actions change the future) only concerns her own doings, and not things like lottery numbers or race results.

Volume 1 is still incomplete. Her experiences have changed her personality, shocking those around her, and she is working to create a situation that will help her avoid the axe. What makes this LN particularly fun is the way everyone makes totally wrong assumptions about her motives. At one point, just for e.g., she gives her maid some walking-around money, because she deserves some time off [Use this as you see fit], which her maid assumes is some fiduciary trust [Mistress wants me to spend these funds in the most effective way possible, I’ll buy gifts for the workers].

Some people might say that these are not true isekai, because they involve her home world (not Earth). While it’s true that these books involve an inhabitant of the world under discussion gaining knowledge of the future, while remaining their own persona, they are using that knowledge to create an alternate timeline, a different world.

So far, only Villainess has been chosen to be an anime, scheduled for Spring, 2020.

Medieval Anime

December 15, 2019

The Medievalist just published an article discussing five anime that are based on inspired by Medieval Europe. The five are a bit of a grab bag: Saint Seiya, Record of Lodoss War, The Heroic Legend of Arslan, Berserk, and Fate/Zero.

One can tell right away that the links to both Medieval and Europe can be pretty thin. Saint Seiya is based on Greek mythology. Berserk and Record of Lodoss War both draw on Norse mythology. The Heroic Legend of Arslan, which comes closest to meeting the definitions, is set in pre-Islamic Persia. And Fate/Zero’s most tenuous link of all is based on the presence of Artoria Pendragon, AKA Sabre.

Unfortunately, the author misses at least two recent programs with demonstrably stronger ties to Medieval + Europe. Ulysses: Jeanne d’Arc and the Alchemist Knight, a poorly regarded show from last year, actually involved a European setting in a Late Medieval time frame. At the other end of the scale, this year’s highly rated Vinland Saga is, despite the name, about the Viking conquest of England in the Early Medieval period.

Still, it’s good that the outside world is getting a look at what anime can be. I’m all in favor of this sort of thing, even if I don’t totally agree with the choices.

Are there any shows that I missed? Any other anime set in Europe and environs, between say 500 and 1500?

 

Why should Trump get special treatment?

December 12, 2019

The Horowitz Report absolved the FBI of running a politically motivated investigation of the Trump campaign, based on the flimsiest of evidence. It did, however, take them to task for various errors and lies-by-omission in reporting that evidence to the FISA court for permission.

There are those who look on this as evidence of a political motivation, echoing their reading of a similar report by IG Horowitz 18 months ago.

There are others who say this is just the latest of a long history of failure by the FBI and other agencies. Not failure, as in: we did our best but just didn’t make it, but failure as in: we knew we were supposed to do it this way but couldn’t be bother with all this complying with the law foolishness.

The FBI and NSA and CIA and others who do collections against American citizens have always used the flimsiest evidence and trumped up excuses to convince the FISA court to let them do what they want to do, and the rubber-stamp FISA court generally goes along with them. Read Snowden’s book on what gets collected and held by NSA. Read the reports on the FBI’s history of just-this-side of entrapment of easily-led Moslem youth.

My question is, if they are doing that to normal Americans on a day to day basis, why should they treat Trump and his cronies any differently? Or, as TechDirt’s tagline said, this news is from the and-if-the-FBI-does-this-to-the-big-people,-imagine-what-it-does-to-the-little-people department.

 

Afghanistan and the American Military

December 11, 2019

The Washington Post has just published what is being touted as the Afghan War’s Pentagon Papers. Like the Papers, this report was originally a summary of what had gone before, and like the Papers, it constitutes a damning indictment of American political and military leadership. Here is a somewhat shorter summary.

The actual facts are not particularly new. Much of this has been buried in plain sight in official reporting for years now. Some of this echos what Middle East expert Pat Lang said last September (quoting things he has said and repeated, for years).

What is new is that it’s our first clear admission in official documents of our failures in nation-building. It’s also our first clear statement of how our government lied to the public. They lied, and they exposed a pathological predilection for governmental lying that extends well beyond Afghanistan. War on drugs? Poisoned water? Airline safety? We’ve been lied to about all of them. The list could go on, but let’s get back to the topic at hand. We’re talking about Afghanistan, and our failures there.

Essentially, we went into that country without a clear goal, without any idea of how we would know when we’d won. And since we didn’t have a goal, we couldn’t have a path, either to a goal or to a way out. This wasn’t Land in Normandy and march all the way to Berlin. This was more like, yes, Vietnam, and our failures in Afghanistan, just like our failures in Vietnam, tell us much about the culture of our military and political leadership.

Just over a year ago there was a flurry of essays published by the Modern War Institute at West Point, arguing over what was needed in a general officer. One said optimism. One said cynicism. Another said realism. The examples they quote were, for the most part, situations where we had a clear goal, and ultimately won. They all miss the point.

They miss the point, because they are trapped by the modern American military culture that says, as in football, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. An officer doesn’t get promoted for failing. An officer gets promoted by achieving the goal, no matter how limited the resources they are given. As one recent article said, a Navy Captain who refuses to take his ship to sea because the crew isn’t ready will be quickly replaced someone who will take her out. This is how you get promoted. Also collisions and groundings. A general who says that we can’t do the job without three times the troop strength, will be replaced by someone willing to charge in and make it work, even if it won’t

In 1990, in the run-up to the first Gulf War, Colin Powell, Vietnam veteran and CJCS, set forth the conditions under which the US would conduct military operations. Essentially he, and the rest of the senior military leadership (also Vietnam veterans) were laying out what it would take to get military leadership backing for a war. Essentially, they said that they would not support a war that did not have clear, limited goals.

Unfortunately, most of our modern wars, sorry, conflicts, have been goal-free.

You would have thought that we would have learned our lesson from Vietnam — a war that burned up a generation of American youth, that crippled the Great Society, and absolutely destroyed the US space program. Oh yeah, and pretty much trashed the US military, as well. You would have thought that we would have learned from the Russian experience in Afghanistan, which broke the Soviet Army, and ultimately the Soviet Union.

Optimism, cynicism, and realism aside, what we need are generals with moral courage. Ones who will not only say “We need three times the number of troops you are talking about,” but who will follow that up with “and if you are not prepared to provide them, then here’s my resignation.” We don’t have those kind of generals, because we actively suppress those who would do that. There’s the story about an Army Captain who was arguing with his general about something and who finally said “Sir, did you make General by being a yes-man?” The general thought a minute and said “Captain, no I didn’t, but that’s how I made Major.” And the fact is, that if he was a yes-man in all the years prior to making Major, there’s no way he’d be any different the rest of the way to General.

So, the lessons learned from Afghanistan are:

  1. You can’t win a war if you don’t know why you’re fighting
  2. You can’t trust either the US government or the military leadership when it comes to reporting lack of success, and
  3. The current military mindset will not help us win any wars in the immediate future.

 

Pensacola

December 9, 2019

Just a quick comment on the shootings at NAS Pensacola. These are more general thoughts than an organized essay, and since this is a still-breaking story, I wouldn’t be surprised if I turn out to be wrong. You have been warned.

Basic facts are that a RSAF 2d Lt in the flight training program there walked into the classroom building at about 6:45AM and opened fire. He was in a three year program and was scheduled to go home in August.

One of the things that people seem surprised about, and the press keeps harping on (and the DoD Public Affairs folk keep having to explain) is the fact that there are Saudi military personnel on US bases. There are hundreds of them, plus hundreds more from other countries.

We’ve been doing this for a very long time, for very many countries. Forty years ago, when I went through Squadron Officers School at Maxwell AFB, our class had Saudis, Jordanians, Germans, Canadians, British, and Cambodians. NOTE: While we were there, Cambodia fell to Pol Pot, and the poor Cambodian AF Captain no longer had an air force or a country. He went back to help his family, and was undoubtedly shot as soon as he stepped off the plane.

The various programs are expensive, so why do we do this, particularly for countries of dubious friendship? One reason is that we use it to strengthen ties. The Luftwaffe pilots I met in Europe had done basic training a Williams AFB in Arizona, and all they wanted to talk about was fun times at Willy, and how they missed Mexican food. As for other countries, possibly less friendly countries, well, the idea is that the more we people can familiarize with the US, the more likely we will have friends in high places in some distant future. Remember, unlike the US, in many countries the military is a stepping stone to high political office. If some future Minister of the Interior has been exposed to American standards of government, that can only help.

Back to Pensacola. The issue with the Saudis is that they are the most fanatically religious of all the countries we seek to maintain good relations with. Not all Saudis, but many, and the ones associated with the Royal Family in particular. See this writeup by Middle East expert Pat Lang.

We can assume that, since the shooter was an officer in the RSAF, selected for training overseas, that he had high level connections and was fully vetted by their security services. Like all Saudis, he would be intensely proud and deeply religious. At 20 or so, he probably wasn’t emotionally ready to be thrown into the US fighter pilot culture (see Top Gun). At one point, an instructor called him “Porn ‘stash”, because his thick mustache looked like something you’d see on a porn star. This is not unusual military locker-room humor. He couldn’t take it, and filed a formal complaint.

My guess is that what triggered the final actions is that he was not doing well in class. We don’t flunk our foreign military students unless they really screw up (remember, the main objective is to build linkages, not train pilots), but if they don’t do well in the class, they will not do well at home (“professor, if you flunk me they will cut off my head back in the village”).

So, he’s young, he’s emotional, he’s in a country that’s the total antithesis to his religious learning, and he’s stressed.

Now, this worked out over some period of time. He got a hunting license, which let him buy a weapon — a distinctly non-hunting pistol. He reportedly watched terrorist vids with friends. Middle East expert Ron Cole wonders if this doesn’t point to a terrorist cell of young officers in the Saudi military. Given that terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology, it might be better to say reactionary cell, or maybe reactionary elements. That would be consistent with our picture of him.

Finally, and coming back to the general public reaction, a lot of politicians, including many who should know better, are saying that we should close these foreign training programs, that they pose too high a threat to Americans, that we should not allow foreigners on US military bases. These are the cheapest of cheap shots, by people who know that what they propose will never happen, or who won’t be adversely impacted if it does.  Using that same logic, and considering the shootings on Pearl Harbor Navy Yard two days prior to the Pensacola incident, perhaps we should ban all sailors from navy bases.

Pearl Harbor Day 2019

December 7, 2019

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that the attack on Pearl Harbor is a particular interest of mine. Partly that’s because my father was there, and partly because it is a classic Indications & Warning problem, the bedrock of half of my professional military career. As per an old family tradition, we were watching the movie Tora, Tora, Tora this afternoon — that’s how one knows that it’s the start of Christmas season in our household — and some thoughts occurred to me about the technology available in those days, and its impact on military operations.

Pre-war military technology was primitive by our standards, or by immediate post-war standards for that matter. Communications were by telephone (if local, and you had to go through the operator first), or by hand-keyed Morse code over HF radio for long range communications, radio that was susceptible to degradation by fluctuations in the ionosphere. A submarine cable linked Hawaii with the Mainland as early as 1902, but it was low-bandwidth telegraphy only — there were no telephone cables until after the war. In the movie, when the military couldn’t get a signal through to Pearl because of “atmospherics”, they gave their war-warning message to AT&T Western Union for cable transmission as a telegram.

Telegram to the Governor of Washington State. Presumably post-attack.

Similarly with radar. The Opana radar site had only been established ten days before the attack. The equipment used, the SCR-270, had been operational elsewhere on the island for about six months, but few people were trained in how to use it, and the chain of command was clueless on how to best employ it. In addition, the equipment did not operate the way radar does today. The user interface was crude, producing an oscilloscope display rather than the PPI scope of later systems.

See? Those are enemy planes. Or maybe echoes from the mountains in our backlobe

There were a lot of issues with the limitations of the technology of the day. The interesting thing is that as primitive as the tech was, it was still new to the military, and they were still figuring out how to use it. One key shortfall was lack of a proper organization to handle the new capabilities. I will talk about that, and the lack of a proper war-fighting mentality when I write about Pearl Harbor again, next year.

 

Memories of Anime, 2013

December 3, 2019

2013 was a magical year in anime. I watched more hours of anime that year than in any other year this Century. And most of it was good, with a personal score on AniList of 73.3, a full two standard deviations above my overall score of 70.7.

Just look at 2013!

So, what made 2013 such a good year? Well, of the 36 titles I started, 14 had an AniList score of 75% or higher, and only 6 were bad enough that I dropped them partway through.

Kyousougiga
A girl and her hammer

The good ones included new-that-year blockbusters like Kill la Kill and Silver Spoon, Kyoto-centric Kyousougiga and Eccentric Family, and follow-on seasons for Monogatari and Chihayafuru. Not quite in the top tier were Log Horizon and Devil is a Part-Timer, excellent isekai and reverse-isekai shows.

Eccentric Family
A boy and his mother

Long form movies were Miyazaki’s retirement masterpiece The Wind Rises, and newcomer showcase Little Witch Academia. At the other end of the length spectrum was the feel-good short Encouragement of Climb and AIURA (which gave Yuyushiki a run for its money, despite being only one eighth as long).

In addition, there were a number of shows that I rated highly, but which others didn’t appreciate as much as I did, including Beyond the Boundary, Arpeggio of Blue Steel, and Maoyu: Demon King and Hero.

Meanwhile, every year has its duds. Some, we all can agree on: Galilei Donna (but the goldfish airships are nice), Dog & Scissors (too weird), and Vividred (too many shots of middle school crotches), for example. Others, it was just me: Yozakura Quartet (too shonen), Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (fell apart at the end), and Golden Time (fell apart at the beginning).

So that was 2013, over five hours a week, every week, all year. I don’t know why I had so much free time that year, but I’m glad I did.