Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Enjoying cartoons as an adult is looked upon as somewhat strange in mainstream American society. If you think I care much what mainstream society thinks though, you probably have not read my other posts very closely.

Unlike most American kids, I was not exposed to animation through Disney. Some American cartoons made it to Taiwan in my youth (Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles and Captain Planet being the most memorable examples). After I came to the States, I got into shows like Batman and Gargoyles, and as an adult I shameless adore My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Nevertheless, I first came to love the medium through Japanese animation, and I still love it best. Here follows a partial list of my favorite animes and brief explanations of why I loved them (I omitted 'awesome music' after I realized every single one of these shows had awesome music):

  • Serial Experiments Lain
This absolutely gorgeous show dealt with both the alienating and unifying power of the Internet through the eyes of a shy adolescent girl who discovers that she may not be what she seems. I can say with confidence that this is the best animated series I have ever seen.

Themes: transhumanism, questioning reality, madness, the power of friendship, and a few other things I cannot touch on without giving away the entire plot.

  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Think 'cyberpunk Mission: Impossible'. This show takes place in a future on the cusp of what a technological singularity. The main character is a badass (and ambiguously lesbian) cyborg who leads a government taskforce specializing in high-tech crime. She and her team find themselves involved in all manner of excitement and intrigue that, among other things, address the struggle between individual freedom and government control.

Themes: transhumanism, cyberpunk, robots (adorable robots that will steal your heart), lots of guns, liberty, memetics, the power of friendship.

  • Zegapain
This show had a rocky start; fortunately, I can dispel the frustration by spoiling the pilot for you: this show takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has survived by uploading people's minds into computers that simulate the halcyon days just before the end. Think The Matrix, except nobody has a body anymore. A small group of resistance fighters have found a way to fight back against humanity's mysterious enemies using...giant robots. Oh yeah.

Themes: transhumanism, giant robots, Buddhism, questioning reality, coming of age, the power of friendship.

  • Cowboy Bebop
It is hard not to like a crunchy sci-fi drama/comedy/tragedy with great writing, animation, and voice acting. This show deals mostly with the misadventures of wandering bounty hunters, but also has a darker subplot about a shadowy past the main character just cannot escape. I own a Pembroke Welsh Corgi because of this show.

Themes: transhumanism, space, journey, redemption, martial arts, frakking adorable dogs.

  • RahXephon
An archetypical super robot anime: reluctant young man is chosen (for mysterious reasons) to pilot a godlike mecha and fight against insanely powerful aliens. I really do not know what else I can say without giving most of the show away. Suffice to say it is a bit of a mind trip (okay, a lot), but keeps a sense of humor about itself. Also, it features the most bizarre mashup of quantum pseudo-science and Mayan mythology I have ever seen.

Themes: giant robots, questioning reality, music changes the world, coming of age, messing with time.

  • Gankutsuou
Steampunk Count of Monte Cristo with really unusual animation techniques and tasteful homosexual undertones. This show is probably a bit weaker on writing than most of the others here, but if you like animation it is worth checking out just for the interesting use of textures and surreal CG. An absolute visual feast, if nothing else.

Themes: vengeance, redemption, space, coming of age, loyalty, the power of friendship.

  • Macross Frontier
Ah, Macross. This storied real robot franchise has existed since before my birth, and has the most awesome mecha design, period. Set in a spacefaring colony beset by hive-minded insectoid aliens, this show holds its massive plot of conspiracy, love, and action together quite admirably. Like its predecessors, this show deals heavily with the concept of music as a weapon--not metaphorically, but literally.

Themes: transhumanism, space, journey, giant robots, music changes the world, love triangle, coming of age, the power of friendship.

  • Hellsing
This show deals with a modern-day secret agency called Hellsing, headed by the grand-daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (of Dracula fame), who did not (or could not) kill Dracula, but bound him with magic. Now 'Alucard' does his mistress's bidding and fights other vampires, whom he regard as pathetic, unworthy creatures. This show is aimed at young men, and makes no attempt to disguise it, what with its huge guns, over-the-top combat sequences, and cute girl with huge breasts.

Themes: vampires, magic, lots of guns, extremely graphic violence, eyes in places eyes ought not to grow.

  • Full Metal Panic!
Mil-sci-fi meets high school drama, plus a healthy helping of humor. This show follows a young mercenary in an organization with access to mysterious super-advanced technology (read: giant robots). He gets assigned to protect a Japanese high school student, who does not appreciate his hilarious efforts to defend her from various non-threats. Every few episodes, awesome giant robot action ensues. Trust me, it works.

Themes: giant robots, culture clash, loyalty, lots of guns, coming of age.

  • Samurai Champloo
Kind of Journey to the West-esque, this show follows a spirited teenaged girl, a stoic ronin, and a wild criminal outcast as they travel across Tokugawa Japan to find...um, some guy that the girl insisted they find. Along the way, they forge an unlikely friendship despite their differences, and get into all kinds of trouble. Fun, lighthearted historical fiction with cool fight scenes and some obligatory surreal moments.

Themes: history, journey, the power of friendship.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hodge and Podge

As explained in Nothing Unreal Exists, I lack a certain confidence in the realness of reality. I do not know the reasons for this, but a few experiences in my childhood definitely reinforced that doubt. This is one of the more bizarre ones.

Six years old, I woke with my face pressed against the straw mat upon which I had taken my afternoon nap. I saw something translucent and huge, taking up most of my visual field (though I could see through it). Its complexity and dynamism led the eye constantly, so that I could not focus on any part of it.

The Hodge-Podge.
It was not any thing that I could (or can) identify, but it looked like chaos and decay. My six-year-old mind compared it to the rotting corpse of a sparrow I had recently found while digging in my grandmother's flower trough. The vision grew more and more intense and menacing. Then, it changed.

A similarly translucent, equally indescribable vision of order and stasis replaced it. Its smooth perfection proved felt as monstrous as what came before. My eyes could find no purchase on its featureless...featurelessness. As a child, I compared it to an ornament belonging to my mother--a wooden bird meticulously covered with pure white feathers, lifeless and unyielding.

Just when the vision of order grew unbearably intense, it changed back into chaos, then to order, and so on. It kept flip-flopping faster and faster, which produced an odd sensation of involuntary movement, like free-falling without direction. Then, it just stopped.

I do not remember what I thought at the time, once the terror left me. When it recurred a few months later, however, I grew anxious. I decided that there was something wrong with me--probably a malignant brain tumor. When my grandmother and parents dismissed my concerns and other symptoms failed to manifest, I gradually forgot about the incident.

Every few years, it would happen again. Sometimes it comes while I lie in bed trying to sleep or wake, but I also experience it while meditating or just sitting quietly. I can discern no warning signs, but always recognize it when it starts--sometimes with one vision, sometimes with the other. Though objectively I know it never lasts more than five minutes, the hallucination suspends my perception of time and feels unsettlingly eternal.

I have tried to explain it away or attribute meaning to it, but nothing seems to stick. If a hypnogogic or hynopompic hallucination, why does it happen while I am wide awake? Did I accidentally ingest some mind-altering substance? Just as the vision defies description, so it defies my other attempts to make it fit into my worldview of the moment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

By the Book

I love books; I love reading them, writing them, and having them.

In the Taiwanese school system, we had to memorize Chinese classics of history, philosophy, and poetry. When children inevitably complained, teachers and parents would admonish us to remember the purges of the Qin dynasty (秦, ca. 200 BCE, not to be confused with the 清 dynasty, romanized 'Qing'; I will leave the angry Pin-Yin rant for another day).

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty, accomplished many great deeds--'great' as in 'large', not as in 'good'. He unified China, standardized the Chinese script, and connected fortifications built by various warlords into what we know as the Great Wall. Like many 'great' rulers, he was also a mass-murdering, megalomaniacal tyrant.

Aside from killing pretty much anyone suspected of disagreeing with him, Qin Shi Huang also ordered books that might be used to question his regime burned, and those who studied them buried alive. Scholars risked their lives protecting the proscribed texts--carrying them into exile, hiding them, or committing them to memory.

Thus, our elders argued, we should cherish the freedom of our time, but always remember that tyrants exist in every age.  If we studied hard, we could, make it impossible for the next tyrant to destroy the knowledge of our ancestors. As a child, I took their words at face value and dutifully memorized the classics. The idea of becoming a sort of living library appealed to my young imagination.

As soon as I had any disposable income, I became a hoarder of books. From the very start, I knew this would cause problems. I never seemed to have enough shelf space or money to feed my hunger for books. I made concerted efforts to avoid book stores, to little avail.

Discovering the intersection of ebooks and the public domain saved both my wallet and the sanity of my housemates. I got the original Amazon Kindle, and used it constantly despite all of its flaws. Since the Kindle went the way of all hardware, I do a great deal of reading on my Android phone, and avoid paper books unless I have no digital recourse.

I have forgotten much of what I memorized in primary school, but not the lessons on censorship I learned from Qin Shi Huang. Moreover, I know now that digitization and open distribution of books has far greater potential for protecting knowledge than storing information 'in the meat'.

Over the next few months, I intend to clean up some novels and short stories I have written and put them in the public domain. I could wax philosophical about intellectual property and all that, but in the end this was largely an emotional decision.

I love books; I love reading them, writing them, and sharing them.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nothing Unreal Exists

I seem to lack an intuitive confidence in reality that most people exhibit.

The first piece of philosophy that made any sense to me was Zhuang-zi's 'butterfly dream'. For those unfamiliar with the story: Zhuang-zi has a vivid dream of being a butterfly, then wakes up and wonders whether he is a man who dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming of being a man.

In other words, we have no means of independently confirming our perceptions of reality.

That idea later drew me to the practice of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. For the same reason, the only part of Western Classical philosophy that immediately interested me was Skepticism. Perhaps ironically, my uncertainty about perception also led me to place a high value on the scientific process and empiricism.

Even verifying an observation with instruments or other observers relies on information gathered by our senses and interpreted by our brains, which (as illustrated by the butterfly dream and cognitive experiments) are notoriously inconsistent. However, given that all other methods are also prey to the fallibility of human cognition, science provides the most reliable known framework for interpreting the world around us.

I accept consensus reality as a plausible theory, and usually behave in a manner consistent with it. Even if suffering is an illusion, it still feels unpleasant, so I do my best to avoid it. All the same, I consider it good practice to entertain other hypotheses, hence my fascination with fiction in general, and speculative fiction in particular.

Recently, my partner coined a phrase ('conspiracy chic') that gave me insight on a pet peeve of mine: I revile fiction that puts too much emphasis on its (supposed or actual) basis in reality. I do not mean historical fiction or hard sci-fi, but rather conspiracy thrillers, true crime stories, and the like. Well-known examples include The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and The Blair Witch Project.

Realism in fiction (or lack thereof) does not bother me, but I reject the notion that I ought to find a story more compelling just because it is 'real'. Dan Brown begins The Da Vinci Code with a list of 'facts'; the (very poor) pedigree of those 'facts' aside, that gimmick relies on the conceit that fiction is inferior to non-fiction.

I understand that people want to believe stories, but I do not grok how a story's alleged reality makes it more believable. As I see it, a 'true' story has a higher burden of proof than a fictitious one. This does not mean I cannot enjoy true stories, but somehow I always feel a need to independently verify them, which damages my ability to suspend disbelief. Fiction frees me from that uncertainty.

Beyond my own peculiar preferences, fiction communicates many things as well as--if not better than--non-fiction. Consider the fables and parables that litter various philosophies and philosophies, or thought experiments in theoretical physics, not to mention the entire linguistic concept of metaphors. Literal existence is not a requirement for relevance.

Just as we can question reality without losing touch with it, we can value fiction without conflating it with reality. Besides, all ideas and all fiction (and all fake non-fiction, too) have some measure of reality--if not in their effects on our agency, then at least in the chemical, electrical, and metabolic activities our bodies go through when we think about them. That opens another can of butterflies in terms of theories on how reality works.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Five strange questions asked by complete (and seemingly sober) strangers, plus ensuing conversations:

5. A lady at the light rail stop just walked up to me and asked...
Her: Are you gay?
Me: (Blink, blink) Kind of?
Her: (Nodding sagely) I thought you looked like it.
Me: ...Thanks?

4. An elderly customer at the candle shop, while paying for his purchase.
Him: Do you know how to cut the balls off a pig? A boy pig?
Me: No?
Him: You have to cut 'em off, or else you don't get your meat.
Me: Oh...I see.
(He spends next twenty minutes educating me on how to castrate and slaughter pigs.)

3. A well-dressed middle-aged woman on the street.
Her: Where can I find the nearest telegraph office?
Me: Sorry, Ma'am, I have no idea.
Her: Oh, shucks. (Hurries off.)

2. A young male customer at the candle shop.
Him: Do you sell sperm?
Me: No. (Awkward silence.) Do you mean human sperm?
Him: (Frowning) What else would I mean?
Me: Perhaps you could supply your own?
Him: What?!

1. A well-dressed guest at a friend's wedding, after I told her I wrote sci-fi and fantasy.
Her: What is sci-fi?
Me: Science fiction.
Her: Oh! (Pause) What's that?
Me: (Blink, blink) Um...you know, like Isaac Asimov, Star Trek...?
Her: I'm not familiar with that.
Me: ...Star Wars?
Her: Oh, I have heard of that. I did not know it was a thing...

In conclusion: Hail Eris and pass the hotdog buns!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Beards, Beer, and Bacon

I went to MAGFest this past weekend with my partner. We were both sick (apologies to anyone who contracted MAGflu from us), but had a blast nevertheless. MAGFest was distinct from most other conventions I have attended in recent memory in several ways: it was one of the smallest, most focused (in subject matter, i.e. gaming), and most heavily male-dominated (probably due to above-mentioned subject matter).

Me and River, in kilts.
You can observe all kinds of interesting phenomena at a con with a higher sex ratio than the People's Republic of China. Among other things, I found the sheer amount of facial hair startling.

I do not have much of an opinion about beards in and of themselves. Even if I did, I would stay clean-shaven, as my facial hair looks pretty tragic when allowed to grow out.

However, the popularity of beards seems to coincide with a new cult of masculinity, a reaction against the 'metrosexuality' of the 1990s. Perhaps every generation finds its own arbitrary standards of manliness, but really, how did we wind up with beards, beer, and bacon?

These standards of masculinity (short hair, preferring the color blue, interest in sports) or femininity (shaved legs, preferring the color pink, interest in...whatever adult women are 'supposed' to like--cooking?) are typically enforced by peers in a process sometimes called 'gender policing'.

As an effeminate guy, I have come to regard with vague distrust any fashion that gets too closely tied to societal expectations about gender. In fairness, I have not yet heard anyone level a charge of sissiness at a man for lack of facial hair. This frankly surprises me, given that a beard (as a male secondary sex characteristic) seems more intuitively masculine than, say, pants. Maybe it has something to do with the company I keep.

At the last Dragon*Con, someone heckled me for wearing a UtiliKilt, referring to it as a skirt in a jeering manner. Before I could give the repartee I learned from Eddie Izzard, the rest of the room shouted him down with a roar of "It's a kilt!"

On the one hand, I felt very encouraged by the intent of my defenders--they found that man's gender policing unacceptable and told him as much. However, the way in which they chose to respond suggested that A) they did not consider a kilt a type of skirt (in what way is it not a skirt?), and B) they did consider a charge of skirt-wearing for a man to be an insult.

I prefer to question the underlying assumptions: what is wrong with a man wearing a skirt? Why do you consider bacon a manlier food than tempeh? How does my interest in this particular band have anything to do with my sexual orientation? It tends to bring the gender police up short, because they expect either anger or submission, not discourse. Better yet, it might make someone think.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


As a child, my exposure to English came exclusively from my father. At the age of five, I went to live with my Chinese grandmother and only saw my parents on the weekends. If I did all of my homework on time, however, I was allowed to call my father for bedtime stories.

Major Farrington was a fine storyteller, and gave me to understand that it was an Irish gift I would surely inherit. He told me twisted fairy tales, his own takes on classical literature, Loony Tunes-inspired dinosaur hijinks, and probably more than anyone should tell a small child about the Korean and Vietnam Wars. I could not get enough, and from an early age started reading everything in sight and weaving clumsy imitations in my mind.

I loved playing make-believe, casting myself and my friends into the roles of favorite anime characters. When I discovered Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager, I ended up playing Dungeon Master a lot (for those not familiar with tabletop roleplaying, the 'Dungeon Master' or 'Game Master' narrates the adventure for the other players).

I wrote my first sci-fi story at age ten (trust me, it was awful) and my first fantasy novel eight years later (also awful). My primary consideration when seeking employment is how it will impact my writing and gaming. Those two activities now consume the vast majority of my spare time.

When you think about it, the whole idea of a story is really quite remarkable. A storyteller creates entire worlds with his mind and then transmits it through language to other people. In collaborative storytelling endeavors (such as make-believe or roleplaying games), each participant modifies the constructed reality, bringing to it his own knowledge and imagination.

Whether the work of a lone soul or a massive group, though, stories unite people. They link minds together across vast gulfs of space and time. They create common experience in their own dimensions, where we can explore strange, dangerous, or improbable ideas in relative safety.

The human experience contains plenty of other fascinating endeavors. I find many of them interesting, but I could take them or leave them if it suited me. Whether or not it has anything to do my Irish blood, I have a need to tell stories. So, I tell stories.