March 21, 2019

Japanese media update (updated)

So after a dozen years, I bid Dish a fond farewell. I must point out that the agent I spoke with was affable, courteous, and professional. If that's the norm at Dish in customer retention, my hat's off to them. Well done. I wouldn't have left if TV Japan hadn't left first.

TV Japan is why I subscribed to Dish in the first place. As I have documented in previous posts, in early 2018, TV Japan (née NHK Cosmomedia) abandoned Dish and made DirecTV its exclusive satellite provider. No explanation for only making their satellite service exclusive.

Family Gekijyo filled the empty programming slot. In Japan, Family Gekijyo resembles ION TV, its schedule consisting of a few original shows and a whole bunch of reruns. The problem is, Family Gekijyo in Japan in no way resembles the Family Gekijyo that Dish ended up with.

Perhaps Family Gekjyo is using the channel assignment as a placeholder for something else. Though it's more likely it underestimated the cost and difficulty of negotiating overseas rights for the content it broadcasts in Japan. Its Dish offerings are old, threadbare, and repetitious.

NHK, by contrast, has an annual operating budget of around $7 billion and an equivalent amount of political pull.

Which is too bad. Dish charged almost thirty dollars less than DirecTV and Xfinity for a similar "limited basic" package plus a premium international channel. (If you're an Internet or cable subscriber, the Xfinity rate card can be downloaded here.)

A dozen years with Dish established my pain point at $40/month total for a single à la carte programming package. TV Japan isn't available on Xfinity Instant TV. The lowest-cost "cable box" package pushes the out-of-pocket to $60/month, and that's not including all the additional taxes and fees.

Over $70/month to access a single channel? No way, no how. Frankly, even $40/month is too rich for my blood these days, especially compared to what streaming has to offer.

Crunchyroll is the biggest anime kid on the block and has the best website. Lots of reviews. Funimation has a smaller library but is the biggest licensee of physical media in North America. It's hard to pass over since the partnership with Crunchyroll ended and Funimation left with its exclusive content.

The thing is, these services are so affordable that subscribing to a couple will hardly break the bank.

Tubi is an ad-supported free streaming service with a surprising number of Japanese movies and anime. The ads can get samey but they are parceled out parsimoniously, they're not loud, and the ad engine is well-integrated. The overall viewing experience is superior to commercial TV.

For the time being, here's my list of go-to Roku channels:

 • Crunchyroll ($7.99/month or $79.99/year)
 • Funimation ($5.99/month or $59.99/year)
 • NHK World (free)
 • Tubi (free)

dLibrary Japan ($9.99/month) is how NHK Cosmomedia reuses content originally licensed for TV Japan. When it first launched, it charged too much for too little. But it's been steadily adding content to its catalog. Once it gets a Roku app, I'll kick the tires and drive it around the block.

Even with dLibrary Japan, I'd be nowhere near that $40/month threshold. I'll probably toss HIDIVE ($4.99/month) into the mix when it gets a Roku app. HIDIVE hosts a number of highly watchable Sentai Filmworks exclusives.

Related sites

dLibrary Japan
NHK World
Tubi TV
TV Japan

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March 14, 2019

Silver Spoon

Peaks Island Press proudly announces the second volume in the Donna Howard Mystery Series.

Since her adventures in Coin, Donna Howard has become an established investigator of relics and antiques, with the help of deceased historical people only she can see. This time around, her investigation takes her to Salem, Massachusetts, where she delves into the town's haunted history and the modern world of antique hunting.

Her research into the provenance of a silver spoon leads Donna to a stash of unexpectedly valuable junk in an old man's basement, an old man whose death Donna begins to suspect was less than "accidental." Along with opportunistic antiquers, she must also contend with a possible murder, a possible possession, and a possible boyfriend.

Because nothing can make the dead past and the living present more precarious than the unpredictable complexities of human relationships.

Google Play

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March 07, 2019


Girls und Panzer is a textbook example of how to launch a story in medias res without any title cards or opening crawls or expository dialogue to establish and explain the crazy backstory. You either suspend disbelief from the get-go or you don't.

Director Tsutomu Mizushima and veteran screenwriter and manga artist Reiko Yoshida throw so much insanity onto the screen in the first episode, while treating it all as "normal," that you find yourself scratching your head and nodding and saying to yourself, "Hmm, you know, I guess it kinda sorta makes sense."


The premise here is that high schools engage in war games as an extramural sport, with national championships and everything. Not in a virtual world (that'd be somewhat plausible), but with fully operational platoons of vintage WWII tanks, adding up to more rolling armor than most of the world's modern militaries.

All the caveats about "safety measures" notwithstanding, even if the shells were blanks (they're not), accidents alone would rack up a serious body count. The "sport" is not without some risks—Miho had previously quit after one such accident—but supposedly "risky" the same way that American football is "risky."

Yeah, no. I mean, there's suspending disbelief and then there's disbelieving the most rudimentary laws of physics.

Nor did I get a satisfactory explanation—aside from a single line of dialogue when a character poses the same question—of why entire towns are built atop gigantic aircraft carriers. Because, that's why.

Yet I couldn't stop watching. It absolutely shouldn't, but the whole thing simply works at every level.

At the story level, this shouldn't be all that surprising. The sports genre has been a reliable mainstay of manga and anime for half a century, and Girls und Panzer constitutes a solid entry in the canon. As such, the almost entirely plot-driven narrative makes it easier to look past the inherent craziness.

It's also a classic underdog story, as Miho has to figure out how to defeat larger and better equipped teams with her oddball tanks and crews. (Like "oddball," the series is peppered with references to Kelly's Heroes.)

You see, when Oarai Girls High School previously shut down the program for lack of interest and funds and sold off the equipment, the only tanks left were the ones nobody else wanted.

Although the focus of the series is on the tanks and the competitions, human drama is not absent. An interesting dynamic plays out between Miho, Maho (her older sister), and their mother. Naturally, the national championship will come down to a battle between the two tanks personally commanded by Miho and Maho.

I think we have a winner in the sibling rivalry metaphor department.

In fact, it is so easy to get caught up in the competitions and Miho's ingenious solutions to one impossible predicament after the next that you can easily overlook the the most unusual and compelling thing about Girls und Panzer. The girls.

These are all-girl teams in an all-girl competition in (as far as I can tell) an all-girl "sport."

They're teenagers, of course, so the subject of boys comes up. But not one speck of drama or plot development revolves around a teenage boy. I don't think a teenage boy even appears on screen. Men pop up here and there in peripheral supporting roles. But from beginning to end, every major character is female.

And yet we don't hear one speck of political or social commentary about this obvious fact either.

Miho's recruiting campaign (Oarai High is desperately short of tank crews) argues that tankery as a martial art is a great way to improve a girl's feminine attributes.

Historically, this argument is not that big of a reach. It was common practice in medieval Japan for the daughters of noblemen and samurai to study the naginata (halberd). Today, high school girls regularly participate in the traditional martial arts of judo, kendo (fencing), and kyudo (archery).

Hana Isuzu, Miho's gunner, comes from a family famous for its skill at kado (ikebana or flower arrangement). Hana's mother is initially opposed to her daughter's participation in tankery, but will later concede that it has improved Hana's artistic skill and expressiveness at flower arrangement.

Nobody at any point questions the ability of girls (as a sex) to operate tanks and command tank platoons. There's an important lesson here. The complete absence of "messaging" about the female composition of this heavily armored Themyscira or "Her-tank-land" makes the inherent message that much more appealing to boys.

The manga and light novels were serialized in seinen magazines (aimed at young adult males). And yet, aside from the standard short skirts and an obligatory hot springs scene, there's barely any fan service. Again, this is first and foremost a sports anime. It's all about winning the tank battles.

Tank battles fought by girls. In their Panzers.

Related videos

Girls und Panzer (CR) (HIDIVE)
Girls und Panzer OVA
Girls und Panzer der Film

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February 28, 2019

Cute girls doing interesting things

Being less constrained by the budgetary boundaries of Hollywood productions, and often based on material originally created by a production team of one or two, anime ends up throwing a lot more ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

As depicted in Bakuman, manga artists constantly compete to come up with a unique cast on the same-old same-old. The survival of the fictional fittest yields new tropes and formulas that are refined, exploited, and exhausted. Then the whole process starts all over again.

This Darwinistic struggle can also yield bursts of surprising creativity. Genres from opposite ends of the story spectrum intersect in ways that can only be described using multidimensional Venn diagrams.

A recent break-out genre is commonly referred to as "Cute girls doing cute things." It arose out of the primordial soup of moe, which can be defined as "the ideal of youthful and innocent femininity." In narrative terms, it means using cuteness both as a theme and a character trait.

Writers quickly realized that "more is better" and were soon populating their stories with casts of cute girls-next-door. This yielded slice-of-life comedies about cute girls hanging out, attending school, and having fun together, less concerned with plot than the warm fuzzies.

Representative series include Non-Non Biyori, Azumanga Daioh, and Strawberry Marshmallow.

Also drawing on the valuable insight that a sure way to create an interesting character is to give her a job or hobby, the focus was further refined to highlight cute girls engaged in specific activities. The better description now is "Cute girls doing interesting things in a cute way."

The genre-making hit in this regard was probably the K-On! franchise, about five high school girls who form a rock band. But to illustrate how heterodox such a simple concept can become, an earlier hallmark series was Aria, about cute girls working as gondoliers on Mars.

And then there is Girls und Panzer, in which a group of cute girls operate a platoon of vintage tanks in unrealistically realistic high school war games. On a less exotic note, cute girls form a mountain hiking club in Encouragement of Climb and a camping club in Laid-Back Camp.

Sakura Quest tackles the intractable problems of rural depopulation. Five cute girls (they're mostly adults this time around) are recruited by the tourist board to help revitalize a small town. The comic premise notwithstanding, they come up with real-world, practical solutions.

Seriously, you could use Sakura Quest as the text in a college course on the subject.

The stereotypical Japanese obsession with technical precision is on full display. Actual equipment and techniques are depicted in Encouragement of Climb and Laid-Back Camp. The tanks in Girls und Panzer are shown in exacting detail and are operated according to historical specs.

As with the ever-popular cooking shows, the goal is to geek out on a subject while keeping it interesting. And one sure way to make it interesting is to keep it cute!

Related videos

Azumanga Daioh
Encouragement of Climb
Girls und Panzer
Laid-Back Camp
Non-Non Biyori
Sakura Quest
Strawberry Marshmallow

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February 21, 2019

The ILAB is on the case!

Late last year, Amazon-owned AbeBooks caused a kerfuffle with its international partners when it abruptly switched credit card processors, leaving many of them with no way to accept payment for their products.

AbeBooks had told bookshops in countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic, South Korea and Russia that it would no longer support them from 30 November, citing migration to a new payment service provider as the reason for the withdrawal. The move prompted almost 600 booksellers in 27 countries to pull more than 3.5 million titles from AbeBooks, putting them on "vacation" as they cited the motto of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, "Amor librorum nos unit" (love of books unites us).

Amazon quickly said "Oops!" and pushed back the deadline while it figured out a more workable solution.

But I have to say that "International League of Antiquarian Booksellers" would make a great cover name for a secret society of cosmopolitan crime fighters. And that brings to mind Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files by En Mikami, one of the coziest of all cozy mysteries series.

Shioriko Shinokawa is the pretty and preternaturally perspicacious proprietress of Biblia Antiquarian Bookshop. When not dealing in used and rare books, she and her Watson, Daisuke Goura, solve crimes of a literary nature. The live-action series (subtitled) is available on Crunchyroll.

Each episode takes its theme from a work in the Japanese or Western canon. For example, a case that turns on editorial changes made to the ending of A Clockwork Orange in the American edition that weren't amended until 1986. If nothing else, you'll learn a lot about publishing.

This is truly educational television.

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February 14, 2019

Harlock: Space Pirate

There is a category of movie (and television series) that is watchable and recommendable for pretty much everything but its qualities as a compelling work of cinematic storytelling.

Harlock: Space Pirate is a case in point.

To start with, made for an estimated $30 million, here is convincing evidence that the state of the art in motion capture 3DCG animation can be achieved for a fraction of the cost of the typical Hollywood blockbuster. Frozen (released the same year) had a budget of $150 million.

Frankly, it's mind-boggling how far the technology has come since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). The first "photorealistic" computer-animated feature film, it cost a staggering $137 million (staggering for a major motion picture based on original Japanese content) and bankrupted Square Pictures.

Director Shinji Aramaki brought in his first Appleseed film for a more reasonable $10 million.

Aramaki mastered the technical aspects of motion capture 3DCG animation at the helm of the Appleseed films, beginning with Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed: Ex Machina (2007). He followed Harlock: Space Pirate with Appleseed Alpha (2014). In that decade, a technology affordable by a few became truly economical.

But all the computers in the world still can't digitally render a decent script out of raw data. Once again we see on display Aramaki's penchant for overly complex plots that require a flow chart to follow.

Not to mention the overused trope that "profound" means "underlit and moody." Matsumoto's original Captain Harlock is an idealistic Robin Hood in an Art Deco world. But according to the backstory of Harlock: Space Pirate, he inflicted so much damage in pursuit of that idealism that he must now atone for it. Gloomily.

The problem this presents is that watching the protagonist mope around for two hours is no fun. So the until the big climax, our titular character has only a minor supporting role and most of the events take place around him.

Long story short, Captain Harlock must destroy the Earth (again) to save it (or something). Meanwhile, the "Gaia Coalition" is determined to stop him from throwing a big wrench into the gears of their fake Earth-worshipping religion (I liked that part). But I quickly stopped caring about the whys and wherefores.

Because all the movie needs is a MacGuffin to keep the story chugging along while we wallow in Leiji Matsumoto's steam punk space opera universe.

Leiji Matsumoto is one of the grand old dons of Japanese manga and animation. In 1974, he co-created the Space Battleship Yamato series, in which the WWII battleship is salvaged and launched into space to save the Earth from malevolent aliens.

Reasoning that it doesn't matter what a ship looks like in space, in 1978, he turned a 17th century Spanish galleon into a starship (Captain Harlock) and did the same with a 19th century steam locomotive (Galaxy Express 999). The latter was inspired by Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad (1927).

Alas, aside from the ship's wheel on the bridge, the Arcadia in Harlock: Space Pirate retains little of the original's retro features.

Except this Arcadia is powered by "dark matter," and dark matter, don't you know, is all black and sooty. This abject silliness does result in the delightfully iconoclastic image of Captain Harlock's hulking starship belching thick clouds of smoke like one of Commodore Matthew Perry's coal-fired "Black Ships."

"Pirates in Outer Space" has since become a genre of its own. Most notably, Firefly and Cowboy Bebop and all the Han Solo segments in the Star Wars films.

The former two series share a similar premise with Harlock: Space Pirate, positing that Earth has become unlivable and a bureaucratic hegemony rules over the scattered remnants of its inhabitants. They also heavily mine the traditional Hollywood western for iconic inspiration.

For Star Wars, George Lucas looked east. The "knights" in Star Wars are armed with "lightsabers" that are really electrified katana. Darth Vader's outfit (especially the helmet) closely resembles the battle gear of the medieval samurai.

Matsumoto's Captain Harlock, on the other hand, flies the Jolly Roger and wields an épée (that doubles as a rifle). Hey, "exotic" is relative.

Harlock: Space Pirate can be streamed for free at Tubi.

Related videos

Harlock: Space Pirate
Captain Harlock (CR) (Tubi)
Space Battleship Yamato (2012 remake)
Galaxy Express 999 (CR) (Tubi)
The Galaxy Railways
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Cowboy Bebop (Fun) (Tubi)

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February 11, 2019

"Angel Falling Softly" and "Twilight"

Doug Gibson recently reposted his critique of Angel Falling Softly and Twilight, originally written for the Ogden Standard Examiner.

In Angel Falling Softly, Rakosi, Milada's late creator, created vampires to satisfy his thirst, greed and loneliness. Twilight's patriarch Carlisle creates vampires to save a dying individual. Angel Falling Softly probes human society, with Milada's curiosity directed at her human, LDS neighbors.

Although Angel Falling Softly is written by a male, it is most interested in females. Other vampires are limited in character, and in the background. In contrast, Twilight's Bella is interested in her vampire friends, and later shapeshifters. Twilight's female writer is mostly interested in male "monsters."

And the humans in Twilight, including Bella's parents, stay in the background for most of the series.

Read the rest here.

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February 07, 2019

Seeing the supernatural

The ghost has been a stock character in spooky stories from around the world since forever. For the sake of this argument, I'm more interested in people who can see ghosts, and not because the ghost—Marley, for example—makes himself visible to a particular person with a particular purpose in mind.

I mean people who can see specters and spirits whether they want to or not. And given the choice, would often rather not.

The Sixth Sense set the contemporary Hollywood standard for seeing dead people. Its popularity spawned series like Ghost Whisperer and Saving Hope, which established the trope of dead people with "issues," who can't "move on" or "into the light" until they resolve whatever mortal problem is plaguing them.

This is "second sight" that requires a degree in psychiatry. (I'd love to see Niles and Frasier Crane tackle the job.) Now, in Kate's paranormal detective series, Donna can see the dead, but the dead have little interest in the living unless the living express an interest in them.

Yet despite being a trope so ubiquitous that it can be dropped into a story with little more than a hand-wave of an explanation, the Hollywood implementation is remarkably constrained in its scope and reach, both in terms of what sort of beings the unseen are and what they can do.

Even series like Buffy and Lucifer stick closely to Judeo-Christian folk theology and established mythological prototypes. This in marked contrast to Japan, where the genre is one of the most popular and expansive in Japanese fantasy, producing many identifiable genres and genres within genres.

My straightforward explanation is that, in Japan, there is so much more for those with "second sight" to see. That is thanks to a two-millennia long collision between Shinto and Buddhism, resulting in the theological school of shinbutsu shugo (神仏習合), the syncretism of Buddhist and Shinto belief.

This syncretism spawned several competing schools of thought. To grossly simplify, honji suijaku (本地垂迹) argues that the Shinto kami are manifestations of Buddhist deities. The contrary "inverted" honji suijaku (反本地垂迹) holds that the primal natural forces of Shinto gave rise to Buddhism and Confucianism.

And then there is a kind of compromise that recognizes the autonomy of the Shinto kami and logically asserts that they are thus in need of Buddhist salvation too.

The latter doctrine is favored in the Spirit World Warrior genre, according to which corrupt souls and delinquent kami require a swift kick in the keister to move them on down the road to reincarnation. Forget about talk therapy. Take off the gloves and blast them into another dimension. For their own good, of course.

To be sure, there are those like Inari in Inari Kon Kon and Yurie in Kamichu who take a kinder, gentler approach. But these exegeses aside, the wide-ranging taxonomy of the kami is what gives the trope so much creative depth. As manifestations of the "interconnecting energy of the universe," the kami

can be elements of the landscape, forces of nature, as well as beings and the qualities that these beings express; they can also be the spirits of venerated dead persons. Kami are not separate from nature, but are of nature, possessing positive and negative, and good and evil characteristics.

In platonistic terms, those with second sight can see what is casting the images on the cave wall. Every metaphysical thing has a physical manifestation, as in Princess Mononoke, in which corruption and pollution reveal themselves as slimy creatures and mad boars and infectious diseases.

One rule I would stipulate is that the magical world and the "normal" world must overlap. Narnia and Harry Potter mostly belong to the isekai ("different world") genre, as do anime like Kakuriyo. Even though Aoi has second sight in this world, the story takes place almost entirely in the "Hidden Realm."

By contrast, Lewis's That Hideous Strength takes place in this world. The Ancient Magus Bride is also set in the contemporary English countryside, where the old magic still thrives and Chise can see the sprites and spirits all around her.

Related posts

Pop culture Shinto
Pop culture Buddhism
Ghostbusting in Japan
The Passion of the Magical Girl

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January 31, 2019

Apps are where it's at (7/7)

After repeated failed attempts, an industry giant debuted a completely revamped operating system. The tech press was impressed across the board. With true multitasking, higher screen resolutions, expanded storage, and an innovative graphical user interface, this new OS, wrote Brad Molen, was "precisely what we wanted to see in the first place."

The new OS had only one—fatal—weakness: a lack of native apps. Concluded Molen,

It is going to take a fair amount of time for developers to push out enough earth-shaking apps to persuade the typical user that has already heavily invested in their ecosystem of choice. An OS is only as strong as its ecosystem, it's been an ongoing struggle to sell the platform to developers and attract popular titles.

A succinct summary of the challenges IBM faced trying to sell OS/2 in a world dominated by DOS and Microsoft Windows. Except the above excerpts are from a 2012 article in Engadget. Brad Molen is writing about the debut of Windows Phone 8. The struggle wasn't IBM's but Microsoft's. Microsoft came late the market with a technologically competitive product but failed.

In the words of the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, "The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history."

As Jim Seymour explained in his 8 December 1992 PC Magazine column, "No one buys a PC to run an operating system. Good applications sell PC hardware; good applications sell operating systems. Every single dazzling PC program I can think of right now is a Windows app."

The "accidental" origins of the personal computer caused much of the confusion about the primacy of the hardware or the operating system or the software that runs on it. The hardware specs of the first IBM PC were pedestrian even by the standards of the time. In his 15 March and 26 April PC Magazine columns, John Dvorak recalled that

to move from a red-hot CP/M machine to an early IBM PC was a step backward. None of the purveyors of 8-bit microcomputers saw the utility in the IBM PC. Theirs was a robust and mature industry and the 16-bit upstarts had nothing to offer. The IBM, though, had more potential. None of the potential was apparent to the CPM-ers.

That was true of my father's Epson QX-10 CP/M machine. Dvorak correctly pinpoints the potential of the 16-bit PC and the standard-setting status of IBM as conntibuting to its success. But he drew the wrong lesson for the future, that "all we need is a platform that the core influencers all agree on and we're off to the races."

William Zachmann conceded in the 10 September 1991 issue of PC Magazine that "nobody is going to buy new hardware system or new operating systems is there is no software for them." But then he jumped to the same wrong conclusion.

It's the fundamental capabilities of a new platform—not applications—that determine its success or failure. If the platform has "the right stuff" it will succeed even if applications vendors are intially slow to develop for it.

The widely cited proof of this thesis is the Macintosh. Dvorak argued in his 29 May 1990 column that just as the IBM PC "had virtually no software when it arrived on the scene, the Macintosh also arrived with nothing but a word processor, an operating system, and a paint program." He thus concluded that "initial massive software support" was not important.

In fact, the Macintosh proved the opposite. It debuted with no development tools native to the platform. After a year on the market, it had a quarter of the applications that the primitive IBM PC had a year after its release. Apple only survived because the other Steve—Wozniak—returned to reboot the Apple II line that was keeping the company in the black.

Rather, the lesson is that if you are going to establish a new standard in a world not looking for one, you need a lot of patience and a positive cash flow. For his NeXT project, Steve Jobs had more of the former and less of the latter. The NeXT line of computers failed to garner any market share. The future of the NeXT OS was to be acquired by Apple.

Without an extensive library of software, NeXT never extended its market beyond a handful of vertical applications. Steve Jobs learned his lesson. Soon after returning to Apple, he buried the hatchet with Bill Gates. Along with a $150 million investment, Gates promised ongoing development of the hugely popular Microsoft Office suite for the Mac.

In his 29 October 1991 PC Magazine column, Michael Miller provided a better rule of thumb:

In order to be successful, a new operating system has to be both necessary and sufficient: necessary in the sense that it must give computer users a compelling reason to switch; and sufficient in that it must have enough functionality to do all of the things that a computer user would want to do.

In other words, the 8-bit computers of the late 1970s were better than nothing, only viewed favorably in terms of the the very low expectations of personal computer users at the time. But by the late 1980s, 16-bit DOS applications like Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect had feature sets more complete than the typical consumer even today will ever use.

Keeping the market alive meant selling consumers software solutions they could only imagine they needed, and often, as in the case of the graphical user interface, were sure they didn't.

To coax that customer to make that leap, Bill Gates resolved to maintain backwards compatibility at the cost of sleekness and simplicity. That ruled out the elegant "clean break" that Steve Jobs championed, also making it a more technologically challenging task. As Charles Petzold explained in the 12 September 1989 issue of PC Magazine,

A GUI that can potentially support every graphics video display and every graphics printer ever made for the PC is going to more complex than one needs to support only one video display and two printers, as was the case with the original Mac. I guarantee you, if Apple had put complete Apple II compatibility into the Mac, it would have lost a lot of its simplicity.

Microsoft's clunkier but open architecture solution pushed Windows forward on all fronts while generating the necessary cash flow from its legacy operating systems and applications. IBM tried to duplicate this model by building DOS and Windows support into OS/2. But if DOS and Windows were already good enough, why spend more to switch?

In his 31 October 1989 column about the downsides of RISC architecture (which also was supposedly going to conquer the PC world), OS/2 stalwart William Zachmann inadvertently explained why OS/2 wouldn't succeed either.

For users, the costs of moving from the Intel x86 family to an incompatible RISC-based microprocessor architecture, which would require new versions of every bit of software, are very steep. Users aren't going to make the move without a compelling reason, which RISC alone doesn't provide.

Bingo. OS/2 didn't provide a compelling reason to make the move. The default position for anyone not seeking an IBM-branded solution was to keep using DOS and Windows while waiting for the Microsoft to slowly evolve its product line. Which is exactly what the rest of the computing world did.

Jim Seymour observed in his 11 June 1991 column (and the same could be said about WordPerfect's OS/2 efforts), "Lotus spent a fortune developing 1-2-3/G for OS/2. It was released—and almost disappeared. No one was using OS/2 so no one cared about apps for it. You've gotta have DOS and Windows versions of your programs."

Perhaps nothing drove the point home more decisively than an article by Christopher Barr in the 12 May 1992 PC Magazine. Titled "Waiting for Godot," he summarized a report from the Software Publishing Association, according to which "OS/2 applications accounted for .03 percent of the market" in 1991. Not 3 percent. That's 3/100 of 1 percent.

The release of OS/2 2.1 (with Windows 3.1 compatibility) in the summer of 1993 finally propelled it onto the bestseller chart, debuting at number five in the 14 September 1993 issue. IBM had additionally come to its marketing senses and sold OS/2 at retail and via mail order in the same price range as Windows.

With IBM claiming to be moving 300,000 copies per month, Bill Machrone noted that "if OS/2 were anything other than an operating system, it would be a runaway bestseller." By contrast, in 1993 alone, MS-DOS 6 shipped a combined 5 million upgrades and 10 million OEM installs.

Two weeks later, OS/2 2.1 rose to number four, except those were upgrades from older versions. At number one was Windows 3.1, and those were new installations (everybody with Windows 3.0 had already upgraded). The 12 October 1993 chart showed Windows 3.1 slipping a notch to second place. OS/2 2.1 fell completely off the chart.

In one of those signs of the times, in the July 1993 issue, Charles Petzold switched the focus of his Environments column from OS/2 to Windows NT, calling Microsoft's new preemtively multitasking 32-bit operating system "what OS/2 should been in the first place."

Over the next five years, new releases of OS/2—such as OS/2 for Windows (ironically) and OS/2 Warp—propelled it onto the bestseller chart for several weeks at a time until it vanished once again, while DOS and Windows upgrades and Microsoft office applications dominated it issue after issue.

To see where things were headed, consider the bestseller chart following the release of Windows 95 in August of 1995.

Microsoft released Windows NT shortly after OS/2 2.1, though not as a consumer product. NT was a high-end workstation and server OS with far more functionality than OS/2. Both NT and Windows 3.1 could natively run apps that were Win32 compliant. OS/2 2.x ran Windows code licensed from Microsoft, a license that expired at the end of 1993.

As a result, OS/2 for Windows ran a separate copy of Windows in a virtual DOS machine, a cumbersome solution. In the run-up to Windows 95, IBM at first promoted OS/2 Warp, but ended up licensing Windows 95 on the same terms as Compaq. "IBM officials conceded that OS/2 would not have been a viable operating system to keep them in the PC business."

And so Michael Miller had correctly concluded in his 28 September 1993 column that

the desktop operating system standard for the next 12 to 18 months will be DOS and Windows 3.1. That's because I've become convinced that we've all understated the importance of compatibility. It's been clear for a long time that for an environment to work, we need great applications that work under it.

With so many applications available on the Windows platform, Microsoft eventually became a victim of its own success. Old luddites like me could put off upgrading their computers because what they already had was "good enough."

With an 85 percent market share, Microsoft still owns the desktop. But to gain a foothold in the portable environment dominated by iOS and Android, Microsoft has to make Windows software platform-agnostic. Instead of "Windows Everywhere," Microsoft is moving its software to the cloud and providing "Microsoft Services Everywhere."

And once again, against the odds, Microsoft appears to be succeeding. Abandoning Internet Explorer and adopting a Chromium-based browser is one more step along that path. Because no matter how they are delivered to whatever screen the user is using, the apps are where it's at.

Related posts

The future that wasn't (introduction)
The future that wasn't (1/7)
The future that wasn't (2/7)
The future that wasn't (3/7)
The future that wasn't (4/7)
The future that wasn't (5/7)
The future that wasn't (6/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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January 24, 2019


The anime Hinamatsuri is based on the manga by Masao Otake, serialized since 2010 in Comic Beam, an "alternative" manga magazine published by Kadokawa.

Comic Beam has a monthly circulation of thirty thousand (Young Jump has a weekly circulation of two million). Manga writers and publishers hardly ever turn a profit on first serialization rights. The manga has been collected in fifteen tankoubon compilation volumes to date.

Sort of like an art house film that hits it big in DVD/Blu-ray distribution.

The title is a play on "Hinamatsuri" (雛祭り). The traditional Doll Festival held on March 3, it's the second of Japan's five seasonal festivals. In the manga and anime, Hinamatsuri means "a festival for Hina," around whom the world must revolve because she'll destroy it if it doesn't.

Except the first episode begins with Mao, not Hina. Then we flash back three years and don't learn anything more about Mao until episode nine. Get used to it. I'd have to read the manga to see if this lack of continuity results from an attempt to condense a whole lot of plot into a dozen episodes.

Not every anime based on a manga has the budget or audience to step through each chapter in order. The plot compression can be handled well, as from the Chihayafuru manga to the anime to the live-action movies. Or it can be a disaster, as with the Ghost Talker's Daydream anime.

Despite taking in medias res to a bewildering extreme, Hina­matsuri works surprisingly well as a string of interconnected stories that could be titled "Down and Out in Tokyo's Red Light District." Though Hina is the de facto main character, she's more a catalyst.

Hinamatsuri is about the people whose lives and outlooks change after they come into contact with Hina, quite often for the better.

The first is Yoshifumi Nitta, a mid-ranked yakuza. In addition to the illegal activities they are infamous for, most yakuza organizations in Japan are legal corporations that own above-board companies. Nitta is in charge of several (real estate, in particular) and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle.

Then one day Hina drops into his condo through an inter-dimensional portal (also never explained). Nitta's first reaction is, "I'll pretend I didn't see that." But Hina is impossible to ignore.

Hina has about as much emotional affect as Robert Patrick in Terminator 2 and is no less destructive. Some sort of bio-engineered child assassin with telekinetic powers, she doesn't know what what she's doing there either, and assumes she's on a mission and Nitta is her handler.

As will become apparent, the technologically advanced society that produced Hina and her sisters has serious quality control problems.

This mistaken assumption quickly comes in handy when Nitta has Hina literally defenestrate an entire rival gang in one fell swoop. As best I can tell, Hinamatsuri follows the George of the Jungle rule: "In this film nobody dies, but they will get big boo-boos."

Except by that point, Nitta is stuck with her. After she demolishes his condo several times over (including his collection of porcelain vases), they come to a truce about when and how she can use her superpowers. He further buys her acquiescence with salmon caviar. She really loves caviar.

Hinamatsuri thus turns into a very odd addition to the "single dad raising a kid" genre. At first, Nitta tells people that Hina is his long-lost daughter. By the time he begins to grasp the repercussions of this handy explanation, the two of them have assumed their respective roles.

As a brand new dad, Nitta finds himself with the responsibility of turning his tiny T-1000 into a "normal" girl.

But Anzu has already been dispatched to "deal with" Hina. There's a whole squadron of these telekinetic pre-teens ensconced somewhere. Fearing a full-on fight could destroy several city blocks, Nitta convinces them to settle their differences with a powered-up version of rock-paper-scissors.

Which Hina handily wins. And then, while doing the laundry, Nitta accidentally tosses Anzu's inter-dimensional portal switch into the washing machine. (It does kind of look like one of those Tide pods.) Stuck here, written off as "missing in action," Anzu is taken in by a homeless camp.

Meanwhile, Hina starts attending school, but only because that's what she observes other kids her age doing. She sleeps through class. Otherwise she tags along with Nitta, plays video games, and eats caviar. Well-intentioned attempts at housekeeping only result in her wrecking the house.

Hitomi, one of Hina's classmates, takes it upon herself to make friends with Hina (to whatever extent Hina can grasp the concept). The problem is, getting together with Hina after school usually means meeting her at the Little Song Bar, where Nitto likes to hang out and hit on Utako, the proprietress.

One thing leads to another and Hitomi turns out to be really good at bartending. Really good at business, period. Unfortunately, the anime ends before we can watch her hit her stride as a young Warren Buffett.

So it's Anzu who ends up with the most compelling character arc. She starts out with nothing, at the very bottom of society, and slowly but steadily climbs Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to become an authentically good person with a strong sense of moral responsibility.

"Moral growth" for Hina means "no longer a cute sociopath." When her actual handler finally tracks her down, she is surprised that Hina hasn't demolished the city and is even more amazed to discover that Hina is a functioning member of society. Hardly self-actualized, but functioning.

Mao's story has the most complete plot, except she only gets a couple of minutes in the first episode, an episode in the middle (that's a dang good remake of Cast Away), and half of the last episode. Mao deserves a series of her own. Equally true of Anzu and Hitomi too.

The anime ran in Japan from April through June of this year. So it's possible we'll see another cour or two. One Peace Books released the first English-language volume (of fifteen to date) in September.

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January 17, 2019

The old brand new

AT&T CEO John Donovan recently announced that, going forward, DirecTV would be transitioning from satellite transmission to streaming technology for content distribution. In other words, depending less on outer space and more on wires hanging from telephone poles.

To be sure, in large swaths of the United States and the world, there are still no viable alternatives to satellite content delivery. But like a medieval circle of fate, technology is always circling around to where it began. The old becomes brand new again.

In terms of the large-scale infrastructure, the communications satellite was a simpler solution than the microwave relay stations that once dotted the land. In turn, those relay stations were a vast improvement over the copper wire telephone circuits they replaced.

Fiber optic cable wiped out the microwave towers and may soon do in the communications satellites.

Like the transistor, vacuum tube electronics, and the internal combustion engine, the amazing thing about television satellite service is that it works at all, let alone that it can be mass-produced as a consumer good.

A communications satellite orbits 22,236 miles above the equator, a tenth of the way to the Moon. And yet it beams a signal down to the Earth's surface that can be scooped up with an eighteen-inch dish on your roof and decompressed into 500 channels.

When I first got Dish, I was impressed at how "clean" the picture was. Completely static free. These days, it's ho-hum compared to free over-the-air HDTV.

OTA HDTV breathed new life into the old UHF broadcast spectrum. 5G networks promise to steal that precious "last mile" connection to the home away from fiber and cable.

Google's foray into the home Internet business ran into the buzz saw of regulatory capture, which lets cable cartels box out the competition. So Microsoft is going wireless instead, much as the smartphone leapfrogged the landline in the developing world.

The Microsoft Airband Initiative launched in July 2017 with the goal of working with partners to make broadband available to 2 million Americans in rural communities who lack access today and to help catalyze an ecosystem to connect millions more.

Radio really is all the rage these days. Smartphones are just smart radios operating at UHF frequencies. That microwave relay technology that got passed over by the telecommunications satellite and then buried by fiber optics? It didn't go away. It mutated.

Back in 2016, Ars Technica reported that some of those old microwave towers are being repurposed to augment fiber optic networks. Because it's cheaper than laying brand new fiber and because radio signals move through the air faster than light through fiber.

And let's not too hastily write off satellites either. Elon Musk plans to tackle the latency problem of satellite-based Internet service with a swarm of satellites in low Earth orbit (such that at end-of-life they'll simply burn up in the atmosphere).

Every time you turn around, another moribund technology is "not dead yet." The solid-state disc drive should have sent old-fashioned "spinning rust" into retirement. Except every time it's knocked to the canvas, the hard disk drive staggers back to its feet like Rocky Balboa.

For example, Seagate has successfully prototyped a 16TB HDD using HAMR (Heat Assisted Magnetic Recording). The heat comes from a laser diode attached to the read/write head. Western Digital answered that challenge with a 16TB MAMR HDD (Microwave Assisted Magnetic Recording).

In the steampunk space opera future I like to imagine, the only way to build a faster-than-light starship engine will be with old-fashioned vacuum tubes and analog circuitry. And thus technology from the 1930s will end up being the most modern thing ever.

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January 10, 2019

The last year of Heisei

Shinchosha's final press release of 2018 on the Twelve Kingdoms website included a nod to a fairly monumental political, social, religious, and cultural event commencing on 30 April 2019.

According to the Japanese Constitution, the reign of the new emperor begins with the death of his predecessor. The formal enthronement ceremony, including elaborate Shinto rites, takes place later at a designated date.

The Showa Emperor (Hirohito) died in 1989 and was succeeded by his son, Akihito. Thus 1989 was the last year of Showa and the first year of Heisei. Confusing, indeed, especially if you make calendars for a living.

This time around, Akihito will abdicate. After open heart surgery in 2012 and now in his eighties, he "worried that it may become difficult for me to carry out my duties as the symbol of the state with my whole being as I have done until now."

He means that business about "my whole being." Not only is he still the most active and engaged monarch in the world, the man is a solid mensch.

When he visits the site of a natural disaster (which Japan has plenty of), he doesn't settle for waving to the crowds from behind the tinted glass of an armored sedan. He sits down on the floor in the evacuation center and talks to people.

So 2019 will be the last year of Heisei and year one of—well, we don't know yet. The era name (nengou) is chosen by a convocation of scholars and is announced with great fanfare at the time of succession.

At the end of Shadow of the Moon, Youko chooses Sekiraku as her nengou ("red" + "Rakushun"). But back here on the other side of the Sea of Nothingness, we'll have to wait until April to find out.

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January 03, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (Happy New Year!)

Shinchosha posted its 2018 Year-End Greetings on December 28. A little news, a little marketing, and a nod to a big historical change the new year will bring.

We are coming to you for the last time in 2018. This year, with an enormous sense of relief, we were able to make the long hoped-for announcement that a new installment in the Twelve Kingdoms series is heading to publication. That announcement was met with a deluge of delighted voices through SNS. We thank you again for your warm messages.

The new novel is a sequel to Tasogare no Kishi, Akatsuki no Sora ("The Shore in Twilight, the Sky at Daybreak") and takes place in the Kingdom of Tai. How about reacquainting yourselves with the series during the upcoming holidays? For those of you new to the series, please take this opportunity to dive into the world of the Twelve Kingdoms and enjoy it to the fullest.

Shincho Paperbacks has now published new editions of all of the Twelve Kingdoms novels, including The Demon Child and Hisho's Birds. Available at a bookseller near you! You can find the eleven volumes on Amazon too.

Whilst coping with her long spell of ill health, Ono Sensei's unfolding Twelve Kingdoms drama turned into a massive epic! More than anything else, as we work towards the day when the book will go on sale, we pray for her continuing convalescence. Fresh information will be posted here in "Kirin News."

This is our last Year-End Greetings of the Heisei era. The New Year will also bring with it the first year of a new era, full of newborn promise. And so with that same sense of hope we shall continue to ask for and thank you for your continuing support.

Please have yourselves a Happy New Year!

I'll explain a bit more about the historic end of the Heisei next week.

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December 27, 2018

Squared (lined) paper

The Shinchosha press release announcing the new Twelve Kingdoms novel describes it as a "massive 2500 page epic." To be precise, the page count refers to the draft manuscript submitted by the author.

The actual text reads 「400字で約2500枚」 or "around 2500 pages of 400 characters each."

Kana and kanji fonts are generally not proportional. Characters of the same font size take up the same amount of space. This means that typeset Japanese naturally right-justifies. Or rather, bottom-justifies.

The equivalent of "lined" or "college ruled" paper in Japan is called genkouyoushi (原稿用紙).

The standard paper size is 400字 Japanese-B4 (14.3 x 10.1 inches). Each sheet is 10 by 20 vertically-aligned squares in two halves (designed to be folded down the middle), or 20 by 20 characters (字) total.

A typesetter's primary concern is avoiding widowing or orphaning punctuation marks, which usually get their own box. Word processing software handles this algorithmically. Wikipedia provides the following style guide.

The rules for handling punctuation marks in vertical text are called kinsoku shori (禁則処理).

Even in this computerized age, genkouyoushi remains synonymous with writing. The characters in Bungo Stray Dogs are named after famous authors. So naturally genkouyoushi is used in the title cards.

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