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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December 20, 2018

The true believer (6/7)

In Silicon Valley, an "evangelist" shares many characteristics with his religious counterpart, preaching the good word of the new technological doctrine while demonstrating an unflagging faith in the utopia sure to come if only all within earshot would only convert to the cause.

PC Magazine columnist William Zachmann was one such evangelist, zealously devoted to the gospel of OS/2 as the one true software sect in the church of the x86 PC.

During the 1980s he was hardly a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Microsoft and IBM were working hard to make OS/2 the 32-bit multitasking operating system that would replace MS-DOS. In the 15 March 1988 issue of PC Magazine, Gus Venditto reported that while Microsoft CEO Bill Gates did not expect DOS

to give way to OS/2 for many years more, he outlined a timeline in which 15 percent of new PCs were running OS/2 in 1989, growing to 50 percent by 1991.

One can hardly fault Zachmann for agreeing with Bill Gates.

A month later, launching a new column dedicated to programming for OS/2, Charles Petzold predicted that "everybody currently using DOS on an 80286 or 80386-based machine will eventually consider upgrading to OS/2" for the simple reason that "Microsoft expects OS/2 to establish the foundations of PC operating systems for the next decade."

But a year later, convictions began to waver. In the 28 March 1989 issue, Gus Venditto counted up "2 million copies of Windows sold to date." In his 11 April 1989 column, Jim Seymour concluded that, a year after the introduction of the PS/2 and OS/2,

DOS is livelier than ever. And the original PC bus and especially the PC AT bus are robust and dominant in the market. [As for OS/2], it is mired in high costs and little value for the PC user—a fatal pairing.

But William Zachmann stuck to his guns, claiming in his 28 November 1989 column that the upcoming release of Windows 3.0 would "make the transition from Windows to OS/2 easier. The future lies with OS/2. And it is just around the bend." Then in the 16 January 1990 issue he predicted that

OS/2 will take off. By the end of 1990, many more users will be running OS/2 than most pundits predict. The speed of its acceptance is just as surely underestimated today as it was overestimated in 1987. Windows is strictly a transition product. Whatever Windows does, OS/2 will do better.

Released in May 1990, Windows 3.0 immediately raced to the top of the bestseller charts. In his August 1990 preview of the OS, Gus Venditto concluded that "A funny thing happened on the road to OS/2. Microsoft Windows has turned into the dazzling multitasking operating system that OS/2 is still struggling to become."

Countered Zachmann in his 25 September 1990 column, "Windows 3.0 will light the way to OS/2, not eclipse it. And that's really what Microsoft always wanted."

What Microsoft wanted at that point was to dump the whole OS/2 mess back in IBM's lap. The pair of September 1990 press releases hinting at but not directly announcing the breakup between the two companies had turned into a Rorschach test.

In the last issue of the year, Zachmann had to admit that the "smashing success of Windows 3.0 rolled mercilessly over my prediction [that OS/2 would take off in 1990]." And yet he remained convinced that "The renewed cooperation between IBM and Microsoft announced in September should help pave the way for OS/2."

In the same 15 January 1991 issue in which Ray Duncan methodically explained why IBM and Microsoft were not getting back together, Zachmann again miraculously managed to find the silver lining.

A significant number of desktops running Windows 3.0 will switch to OS/2 once 2.0 is first released. Windows and OS/2 will be made truly complementary to one another by both Microsoft and IBM. Windows will not compete with OS/2 but become an option on top of OS/2.

Even John Dvorak spent the first several months of the year dismissing Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft would indeed drop OS/2 development.

But by May, Zachmann was also reporting on Microsoft's System Strategy Seminar and its undeniable message: "Forget about OS/2 2.0 and stick with Windows." In June, Dvorak concluded that the feud between IBM and Microsoft was real. And finally, in his 29 October 1991 column, William Zachmann conceded the now obvious.

Microsoft and IBM aren't merely "divorced"—they are at war. What started as a difference of opinion escalated through growing levels of mutual mistrust and suspicion into what amounted, by the middle of the year, to overt hostilities. Microsoft has all but completely disavowed OS/2.

Somehow this was all the more evidence, as far as Zachmann was concerned, that IBM was destined to triumph. He warned in his 12 November 1991 column that

Microsoft made a big mistake going to war with IBM over Windows and OS/2. Microsoft could lose this war—and lose big. If OS/2 2.0 delivers as promised, Microsoft will be in tough shape trying to use the mere promise of Windows NT to hold the line with Windows 3.0. Momentum will shift dramatically away from Windows and toward OS/2.

In the meantime, the editorial board of PC Magazine was making its biases clear. The Letters editor in particular seemed to enjoy poking Zachmann in the ribs, and for the past four years had run letters every few months like the following from computer consultant Jim Barrett:

I would be on welfare if I were making my living on PM. While OS/2 and Presentation Manager articles abound in the industry journals, I wonder if anybody actually reads them! Never have I see so much written about so little for so few.

The editorial content of the magazine approached the issue with more tact but came to similar conclusions.

In their 30 June 1992 analysis, Bill Bettini, Joe Salemi, and Don Willmott concluded that "OS/2 isn't a better Windows than Windows, but it could be called a potentially safer Windows than Windows." And OS/2 was a "better DOS than DOS" only because of the caching software, an advantage that disappeared when using updated Windows 3.1 drivers.

Later that year, in a head-to-head face-off between OS/2 and Windows 3.1 published in the 10 November 1992 issue, PC Magazine gave its Editor's Choice to Microsoft Windows 3.1 "for its ease of use, solid performance, and rich selection of high-quality applications in every software category."

But William Zachmann was not about to abandon his 30 June 1992 prediction that OS/2 was on its way to being the software hit of 1992. "OS/2 2.0 is even better than I'd expected. Windows 3.1 is much worse. The result will be a more rapid "paradigm shift" from Windows toward OS/2 than I'd dared to expect."

Five months later, he was only more confident that the "shift from Windows to OS/2 that has already begun on a small scale will gather momentum." And in his 22 December 1992 column, his last for PC Magazine, Zachmann predicted "Growing success for OS/2 and the Macintosh and competitive losses for Microsoft and Windows over the next two years."

A true believer to the end.

In fact, OS/2 never gained more than a fraction of the market share of even the Macintosh. And Apple's share of the market declined over the next four years. Its financials were not reversed until Steven Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, accompanied by a $150 million investment by Microsoft in non-voting Apple stock and a pledge to support Office on the Macintosh.

But as a parting gift, in that same December issue, PC Magazine gave OS/2 2.0 its Award for Excellence. And perhaps for a short period of time at the end of 1992 OS/2 was the better operating system.

But OS/2 had few software solutions for the average consumer that didn't run better and cheaper under DOS and Windows. And with DOS and Windows pre-installed on practically every PC sold, the average consumer had no practical reason to buy OS/2. And so practically none of them did.

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 accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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December 13, 2018

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (it's official!)

Japanese publisher Shinchosha announced yesterday that author Fuyumi Ono has submitted her latest Twelve Kingdoms novel. As hoped for, the story takes place in the Kingdom of Tai. The draft manuscript is over 2500 pages long. ​The book will be published in 2019.

Here is the press release. (I didn't add any of the exclamation points but agree with them.)

The highly anticipated new work is finally here!!!

Today, on the 12th of December ("Twelve Kingdoms Day"), we have delightful news to share. A brand new manuscript has arrived!

The long-awaited novel has turned into a massive 2500 page epic. The setting for the story is the Kingdom of Tai. We are grateful to Ono Sensei for penning such a masterpiece in this 30th year of her career. We thank all her readers for waiting so patiently.

Now commences the business of making a book, such as copyediting and the illustrations. Though a publication date hasn't yet been determined, it is certain to debut in 2019.

As promised, we are posting important updates on this website. It was still an unexpected surprise that this news arrived on "Twelve Kingdoms Day." Going forward, we will do our best to point you to accurate information in a prompt and orderly manner.

To that end, we humbly ask for your continuing support.

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December 06, 2018

Sink or stream

TV Japan is a great service. It's the "Reader's Digest" of Japanese television, the only (legal) way to stay current with the best of scripted television (often rebroadcast within days), live and long-format news, and infotainment from NHK and the major commercial broadcasters in Japan.


But $24.99/month is a ridiculous price for a single channel. By comparison, HBO Now charges $14.99/month. And if you're going à la carte, you've got to fork out at least $25.00/month more for a "basic" package and additional fees. Even Xfinity Stream hardly saves you any money at all.

Fifty bucks for the one channel I want. And a couple dozen other channels I don't. Except they have me over a barrel so I just may cave. But I'll be grumbling about it the whole time (and get off my lawn!).

The thing is, we've been down this road before, paying through the nose for stuff we don't want in order to get the stuff we do want.

Let's stop and remember how the music business came up with the "cunning plan" of making its customers pay twenty bucks for the CD of an LP they already owned to get the two tracks they wanted. How did that work out? In the short term, like gangbusters. In the long term, it was a disaster.

According to the RIAA, American record industry revenues declined by two-thirds between 1999 and 2014, from an inflation-adjusted $20.6 billion to under $7 billion. Marc Hogan calculates that, in 2015 dollars, average per-unit album retail prices today are half of what they were in 1977.

It has not taken long for history to repeat itself.

The "bundle" is a plodding dinosaur designed to keep the cash-hungry cable model from going extinct. It's not working. As Luke Bouma reports on Cord Cutters News, in the third quarter of 2018 alone, DISH lost 367,000 subscribers, DirecTV lost 346,000, and Comcast lost 106,000.

While in its third quarter earnings report, Roku announced a 43 percent year-over-year increase in active accounts.

Granted, unless you are willing to rely solely on OTA content (which is a perfectly rational option), you'll need a broadband connection. Though these days, that's like saying you need electricity. Even calculating overpriced internet service into the equation, the savings are hard to ignore.

Compared to TV Japan ($24.99/month), Crunchyroll is $6.95/month ($59.95/year). Funimation is $5.99/month ($59.99/year) and HIDIVE is only $4.99/month ($47.88/year). On an annual basis, you can get all three—a gargantuan amount of Japanese-language content—for $14.99/month.

Toss in dLibrary Japan, TV Japan's archive service ($9.99/month), and you'll pay exactly what you would for TV Japan on DirecTV or Xfinity, minus all the fees. So about half. For four on-demand channels adding up to tens of thousands of hours of programming.

If you want to broaden your focus while keeping plenty of Japanese options on the table, Hulu's already substantial anime library (nearly 400 titles) just got bigger thanks to its tie-up with Funimation. Hulu's economy package costs $7.99/month ($11.99/month for a mostly ad-free version).

Not to mention that ad-supported streaming services like Tubi and Pluto are free. And for Roku owners, so is the Roku Channel. And NHK World is free as a public service. I mean, if you've got to watch ads on a cable or satellite channel, shouldn't it be free too? Like OTA always has been?

In any case, there is no way the average cable subscriber can consume even a fraction of the content in the typical cable package. If "all or nothing" is the only option, maybe "nothing" is the choice we ought to be making. It's a choice more and more "cord cutters" are actively embracing.

Which is no doubt one reason why, going forward, AT&T (which owns DirecTV, HBO Now, and Crunchyroll) plans to favor streaming for content distribution, with CEO John Donovan declaring, "We've launched our last satellite."

Donovan and other AT&T executives said the rampant growth of Internet-delivered video services that bypass satellite and cable networks is so significant that it is now the company's future.

A streaming version of DirecTV will reportedly be less expensive as "there is no need for crews to come to your house and install a dish." Hey, unless those cost-savings simply accrue to DirecTV's bottom line, how about knocking twenty bucks off the price of TV Japan? That'd get my attention.

On the other hand, perhaps this really is a "cunning plan." The argument here is that cable companies make better margins selling Internet service and would rather not be joined at the hip with the content providers. Though if 5G lives up to a fraction of the hype, that's no guarantee either.

Incidentally, Cord Cutters News and Cord Cutter Confidential are two good ways to stay up to date about the state of streaming services.

Related posts

Japanese media update
Streaming Japanese
Family Gekijyo

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November 29, 2018

Japanese media update

Two years ago, Funimation and Crunchyroll partnered up to cross-license anime streaming rights. A lot has happened since. Crunchyroll was acquired by AT&T (via Warner Media). Sony Pictures purchased Funimation. The joint agreement "ended amicably" in October. Annoyed anime fans will have to purchase two subscriptions for the same content.

At least anime streaming services are reasonably priced. Satellite and cable, not so much. But several new options have emerged. TV Japan is no longer exclusive to one provider.

Back in April, TV Japan moved from Dish to DirecTV. Dish handed the slot to Family Gekijyo. Family Gekijyo is Japan's version of channels like MeTV that rerun "classic TV." It's only as good as the shows in rotation. A mixed bag compared even to Family Gekijyo's home network in Japan, the content on Dish is a pale shadow of TV Japan.

If it keeps improving, it could become an attractive addition to (not a substitute for) TV Japan. For now, that's looking like a reach.

Though priced the same as TV Japan on DirecTV and Xfinity ($24.99), as an à la carte channel, Family Gekijyo on Dish is the better deal. "International Basic" on Dish is $15.00/month. "Limited Basic" on Xfinity is $20.00/month and "Basic Choice" on DirecTV is $20.99/month. That's before they sneak in a bunch of unwanted fees like "local channels."

TV Japan on Xfinity Stream costs the same as the cable package. Xfinity Stream does save you on the equipment rental. But, again, you will get stung for the mandatory "local channels" and fees. Dish lets you opt out of local channels. Because some of us have what's known as an "antenna" (cutting edge technology in 1902).

TV Japan has its own archive service called "dLibrary Japan" that reruns select programming from its cable/satellite channel. If you already have TV Japan, you will have seen most of the content already. And dLibrary Japan doesn't stream live or almost-live content like sumo tournaments and news.

But at $9.95/month, it's a great deal if you're not going to subscribe to TV Japan (I'm still waiting for a Roku app). NHK World carries (English language) news, NHK documentaries, and sumo tournaments (no dramas or non-NHK content) and can be streamed for free.

Speaking of NHK World, the Utah Educational Network now broadcasts NHK World in full on UEN 9.4. KUED 7.2 (PBS) and UEN 9.1 also carry half-hour segments from NHK World in their international news lineups.

Ideally, Family Gekijyo would join TV Japan and NHK World (already free as a public service) in a single Japanese-language package. That's not going to happen anytime soon. So I'll give Family Gekijyo another month or two to improve, stream Crunchyroll, and watch NHK World the old-fashioned way (except when the reception is bad).

Related posts

Streaming Japanese
Family Gekijyo
Crunchy Fun and the Yahoos
Sink or stream

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November 22, 2018

The Ancient Magus Bride

My preferred approach to analyzing anime is to examine the narratives in terms of interlocking genres. Generally speaking, commercially successful art conforms to established structures and favors certain types and tropes. Storytelling no more needs reinventing than the wheel.

Structure presents no barriers to creativity. Rather, a foundation of the "same old" presents new opportunities to surpass the expectations of the audience in unexpected ways. A prime example is Madoka Magica, which discovered eschatological horror within the magical girl genre.

And invented a whole new way of telling an old story that soon took on a life of its own.

Take an archetypal tale like Beauty and the Beast, mix in western magic, eastern theology, Jungian psychology, and a bit of The X-Files (especially in the balance between the light and heavy dramatic elements), set it in England, and the result is The Ancient Magus Bride.

In his ongoing manga series and twenty-seven episode anime, Kore Yamazaki's unique approach is to mix and match the beastly elements. Aside from his height (six-foot seven or so) and the horned wolf skull that hides his demonic visage, Elias Ainsworth is every inch a proper English gentleman.

Although from all appearances an ordinary Japanese teenager, Chise Hatori is a psychological basketcase. Her mind is as much a beast as is Elias's appearance.

Driven half-mad by her mother's suicide and the second sight that allows her to see the yokai and ayakashi (monsters and magical beings) that populate the mortal realm, Chise resolves to kill herself as well. At the last minute, she is persuaded to sell herself to a trafficker in the black arts.

Elias Ainsworth brings the auction to a halt with an outrageous offer of five million pounds.

He takes Chise to his cottage in the English countryside, where he bluntly admits to acting with ulterior motives. He has identified Chise as a rare "Sleigh Beggy." This Manx term refers to a kind of fairy that once inhabited the Isle of Man. Chise turns out to possess extraordinarily magical powers.


But she has little idea how to use them and every attempt inexorably saps her strength. If nothing is done, she will die in a few short years.

Chise becomes Elias's apprentice and a member of his eccentric family. When not traveling about the British Isles solving paranormal problems like Mulder and Scully, Elias dotes on her and vows to save her life.

His "purchase" of Chise included a marriage contract. Elias treats the marriage as a done deal but doesn't act on it. He is, in fact, bewildered by his growing fondness for her. Like Data in Star Trek, his affection for Chise only heightens the differences between him and the humans among whom he dwells.

And when she leaves, he sits in the living room and sulks. At times like this, Elias is basically every overly-introspective introvert ever. But, of course, the Beauty returns to the Beast, in a stunning and exhilarating scene that casts even the Disney version into shadow.

Except there will be no neat resolution to their strange relationship. Elias has a beastly side considerably more untamed and dangerous than the fairy tale. And yet Chise will later formally propose to him, a scene made all the more poignant precisely because Elias is not a frog about to turn back into a handsome prince.

The second cour picks up when the first left off (the OVA exploring Chise's backstory takes place between the two cours) with little morality plays featuring characters that will play important parts later. And then The Ancient Magus Bride dives into the horror genre in a highly effective concluding arc.

The story of an immortal longing for death is a darker version of the 2017-2018 season of Lucifer. The immortal in Lucifer is Cain (of Cain and Able). In The Ancient Magus Bride, the immortal is Cartaphilus, the "Wandering Jew" of medieval folklore.

An Armenian archbishop, then visiting England, was asked by the monks of Saint Albans Abbey about the celebrated Joseph of Arimathea, who had spoken to Jesus, and was reported to be still alive. The archbishop answered that he had himself seen such a man in Armenia, and that his name was Cartaphilus, a Jewish shoemaker, who, when Jesus stopped for a second to rest while carrying his cross, hit him and told him, "Go on quicker, Jesus! Go on quicker! Why dost Thou loiter?" to which Jesus is said to have replied, "I shall stand and rest, but thou shalt go on till the last day."

The conflict here focuses on means and ends. Cartaphilus is fascinated by Chise, a magical being doomed to die while he is doomed to live. A supernatural Dr. Frankenstein, he schemes to graft her body into his and absorb its nature. He does not care how many innocents are sacrificed along the way.

Elias, likewise, will do anything to protect Chise, except Chise cannot allow him to do anything, to become a mirror image of Cartaphilus. Ruth (Chise's canine familiar) wryly observes that the relationship has shifted from Elias teaching Chise how to be a mage to Chise teaching Elias how to be an human being.

This is very intense stuff. Thankfully, the high drama is leavened by the use of comical double-takes in the chibi (super-deformed) style. Another constant delight is voice actor Ryota Takeuchi, who plays the part of Elias like a double bass. Visually, The Ancient Magus Bride is a treat from beginning to end.

It can seem at times that the entire budget for the anime went into creating the breathtaking background art, that often brings to mind verdant Turner landscapes. This is Merlin's Albion, the England of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis fused with the Shinto cosmology of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

As depicted in anime such as Mary and the Witch's Flower, Witch Hunter Robin, Black Butler, and even Hellsing, Japanese fantasy writers are fascinated with the world that lies beyond the English wardrobe, and delight in fusing together two cultures a literal world apart.

For example, although she began her enchanted life as a banshee, Silky has become a species of brownie known as a silkie, a female spirit "associated with the house rather than the family who lives there. But like a brownie, she is said to perform chores for the family."

The silkie closely resembles the Japanese zashiki warashi, a house spirit that blesses the homes of those who treat it well. Silky is no singing candelabra but she does create a warm and inviting place where this strange menagerie endeavors to become better at being whatever species of the supernatural they happen to be.

The anime follows the manga through volume 9 (March 2018). Kore Yamazaki is still writing the manga. One of his clever touches is titling each episode with a well-known English proverb. (I did the same thing in Angel Falling Softly.)

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November 15, 2018

A parting of the ways (5/7)

In a 12 April 1988 PC Magazine article, "OS/2: A New Beginning for PC Applications," Charles Petzold restated what had become by then the party line amongst the personal computer prognosticators: "Microsoft expects OS/2 to establish the foundations of PC operating systems for the next decade."


Robert Hummel begged to differ. Only a few pages later in his PC Tutor column, he made one of the most spot-on predictions to grace the magazine.

Years from now, when programmers sit around and wax nostalgic, someone is sure to ask, "Remember OS/2?" Everyone will chuckle. Despite the hype and fanfare, I believe OS/2 is going to be short-lived. Rather than getting an improved DOS, we've gotten a new, completely incompatible operating system.

Or as reader Patrick Anderson stated in the 11 October 1988 Letters section,

All the gushing over OS/2 is amazing. It shows how far out of touch the gurus in Redmond and the magazine editors in New York are with real PC users.

But along with Robert Hummel, Ray Duncan was keeping in touch. He'd previously predicted that it'd take ten years for "OS/2's successors to eclipse MS-DOS." But in two October 1990 issues, and then in the 15 January 1991 issue, he drastically collapsed that time frame. Writing in his 16 October 1990 Power Programming column, Duncan observed that

Somewhere along the tortuous path from the original implementation of OS/2, thing went badly awry. A system designed to provide users and programmers with a painless migration path from DOS was transformed into a system designed to sell hardware and compete with Unix.

Two weeks later, Duncan counted up an installed based of 45 million DOS users, and short of an outright catastrophe, predicted 100 million DOS users by 1995. Microsoft, he advised,

should reconcile itself to the marketplace's resistance to the size and complexity of OS/2, and commit itself wholeheartedly to making DOS everything that it can be—regardless of the impact this might have on Microsoft's Joint Development Agreement with IBM or on OS/2 sales.

In fact, he was handing out advice that had already been taken. Microsoft had indeed fully committed itself to "integrating Windows into DOS," and would soon abandon OS/2 in favor of the massive installed base of DOS and Windows applications.

The momentous event—the dissolution of the Joint Development Agreement between IBM and Microsoft—happened that year. As with the hiring of David Cutler in 1988 to design Windows NT, it took a while for the news to leak out, and then everyone was so committed to the established storyline that it took even more time for the news to sink in.


In the meantime, DOS powerhouses like WordPerfect and Lotus invested heavily in OS/2. They were caught flatfooted when Windows took off like a rocket and never recovered. IBM acquired Lotus and it slowly faded away. In the worst deal of the decade, Novell bought WordPerfect and then sold it a few years later to Corel for pennies on the dollar.

Rumors of the "great divorce" between IBM and Microsoft had circulated the previously year, finally prompting coordinated press releases from the two companies in September 1990. The statements "reaffirmed their relationship" and extended the licensing arrangements for DOS, Windows, and OS/2.

"Semantic content: zero" was how Ray Duncan summed up the substance of these press releases. Authoring two separate articles in the 15 January 1991 issue, he again cut to the heart of the matter:

Although IBM and Microsoft agreed to cross-license everything, they committed themselves to nothing in the way of marketing the cross-licensed products. I suspect that Microsoft took a hard look at the startling success of Windows 3.0, compared it with the dismal penetration of the desktop market by OS/2 after three years (less than 2 percent by the most optimistic estimates), and decided to cut its losses.

Two weeks later, John Dvorak observed that "there has been much chitchat about a falling-out between IBM and Microsoft with denials all around, and more and more evidence indicates that the two are going in opposite directions." But then in the 30 April 1991 issue, Dvorak hedged his bets once again to pooh-pooh a report from January of that year.

The biggest fiasco in the industry was the obituary written in Wall Street Journal recently when OS/2 was pronounced dead. Microsoft was supposedly going to drop the product and concentrate on Windows. After all the facts were straightened out it seemed that nothing changed except there was even more talk of a portable OS/2.

Well, the Wall Street Journal got it exactly right. Microsoft handed OS/2 development back to IBM and concentrated its efforts on Windows and the Win32 API. This guaranteed that compliant programs written for DOS-based Windows would also run on NT, thus staving off the drought of applications that had plagued OS/2 from the start.


With that (mostly) "painless migration path from DOS" now in place, the fate of OS/2 was sealed. Five years later, in the PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds, Steve Ballmer recalled the moment when everything went sideways.

We were in a major negotiation in early 1990, right before the Windows launch. We wanted to have IBM on stage with us to launch Windows 3.0 but they wouldn't do the kind of deal that would allow us to profit. It would allow them essentially to take over Windows from us, and we walked away from the deal.

After a decade of tumultuous growth, the weirdest marriage in American corporate history was over. And yet the true believers still couldn't believe that digital Mom and Dad were really getting divorced.

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 (6/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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November 08, 2018

Bakuman (the future)

Another way to watch Bakuman is as a historical document. It is decidedly old school. Pen and ink. Fax machines and copiers. Fat reams of paper stuffed into manila envelopes. It is also the end of an era.

The editors in Bakuman do pay a lot of attention to their spreadsheets. Akito writes on a laptop. But then everything gets printed out on paper. And faxed. Final proofs are hand-delivered.


In one of the more poignant scenes in the series, Moritaka is walking home from a school reunion where everybody was talking up their holiday plans. He glances at his calloused, ink-stained hands and realizes that, aside from gall bladder surgery, he's never taken a day off.

"No regrets," he tells Akito, and Akito agrees. When they got married, he and Kaya barely managed to squeeze in a honeymoon.

That could be changing. There is plenty of talk about the aging of Japan's population. Over the past quarter century, circulation at the major manga magazines dropped by two-thirds as the baby boom echo aged out of the target demographic and into middle age.

But at the same time, manga and anime have gone international and gone online, with Crunchyroll and Netflix leading the way. Justin Sevakis points out that "there has never been more money flowing from international fans to anime productions in the history of the art form."

Even light novels are getting in on the act in a big way, something I would not have predicted just a decade ago.

At Yen Press, a joint venture between Kadokawa and the New York-based Hachette Book Group, Kurt Hassler launched light novel imprint Yen On in 2014, introducing Reki Kawahara's Sword Art Online with the modest goal of publishing 12 books annually. That figure doubled the following year, and now Hassler says that Yen On will release 110 light novels through the rest of this year, representing growth of nearly 1000 percent in four years.

How popular culture is being created is also changing. As depicted in Shirobako, out of sheer necessity, technology has transformed the animation industry. 3DCG animation is only a small part of the revolution.

Even if an artist works initially on paper, everything gets scanned and imported into the animation software where the cleanup, coloring, and actual animation takes place. "Dailies" are generated and tweaked on the fly.

This process allows animation studios (in Japan and Hollywood) to subcontract with companies in South Korea, China, and Vietnam. Work product can be uploaded to and downloaded from the cloud in real time.

When it comes to creating backgrounds, directors like Makoto Shinkai have become masters of Photoshop (Garden of Words may be his most staggeringly gorgeous). This approach is disparaged by purists of the hand-drawn school. I don't care as long as it works.

The first time I saw the opening credit roll for Inari Kon Kon in HD, I was gobsmacked. Sure, it's a Photoshop, but it's breathtakingly beautiful.


When it comes to manga, the silly Eromanga Sensei offers a serious look at the future. Masamune naturally writes on a laptop. Sagiri (the artist) works entirely in the digital domain, using a Cintiq 13HD Wacom tablet (according to people who pay close attention to such things).

When she's finished with an illustration, she simply shoots an email off to her editor with a multi-layer PDF attached.

To be sure, a computer won't be drawing Moritaka's manga for him anytime soon. But the cost and time savings could prove considerable.

To start with, the ink is gone, along with the most physically onerous and time-consuming chores, such as whiting out mistakes (using, yes, Wite-Out) and often redrawing whole pages, manually layering in background textures, and sizing screentone overlays with an Exacto knife.

I grew up in at the end of the typewriter era, when "high-tech" was an IBM Selectric. But after using a primitive word processor on my brother's Apple IIe, there was no going back.

There are productivity gains to be made on both the production and publishing sides. The iconoclastic Shuho Sato adopted the increasingly popular "hybrid" model, his "traditional" publisher dealing with the paper product while he maintains a platform for distributing manga electronically.

We are quickly approaching the day when all commercial art is digital from start to finish. Using platforms like Amazon KDP, you can publish digitally and on paper (print-on-demand) for "free." And then with a push of a button, your book will appear in every Amazon store in the world.


"Free," however, doesn't factor in the costs in time and resources incurred by the writer, which can range from very little to a whole lot. Formatting a professional-looking ebook is a much more straightforward process than formatting a professional-looking print-ready manuscript.

And the eternal challenge still remains of reaching the reader. So perhaps the future of publishers will not be to physically publish but to publicize.

Related posts

Bakuman (the context)
Bakuman (the review)
Bakuman (the anime)
Manga economics
The teen manga artist
The manga development cycle

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November 01, 2018

Bakuman (the review)

Bakuman was created by two best-selling mangaka, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. So it is only natural that the protagonists of their manga about writing manga should also be a writer/illustrator team.


We first meet Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi in the ninth grade. Observing Moritaka's talents as an artist, Akito approaches him and proposes they team up to create manga.

Akito doesn't pluck this idea out of thin air. Nobuhiro Mashiro, Moritaka's uncle, was a mangaka with one published series and an anime adaptation to his credit. Then he literally worked himself to death trying to write another. "I'm not a mangaka," he often said with a wry grin. "I'm a gambler."

Moritaka's parents aren't eager for him to follow in his uncle's footsteps. Akito is also taking a leap. He is the school's top academic performer. Top academic performers aspire to attend Tokyo University, not become mangaka (this class conflict later gets its own story arc).

Helping Moritaka make up his mind is Miho Azuki, the girl he longs for from afar (or from across the classroom or from the adjacent desk).

With a helpful push from Akito, she reveals to Moritaka that she wants to become a voice actor. Moritaka promises to write a manga that will get made into an anime and Miho will star in it. Goofy, yes, but hardly out of sync with the mindset of a couple of ninth graders.

Taking place at arm's length, though, their romance is not terribly consequential in story terms. Rather like Gilbert in Anne of the Island, Miho remains mostly off-screen as Moritaka's muse.

A more emotionally compelling narrative follows the blossoming friendship between Akito and Kaya Miyoshi, Miho's classmate. They squabble like Anne and Gilbert from the first two Green Gables books. The blue-collar Kaya doesn't aspire to a whole lot, other than being with Akito.

But Kaya's down-to-earth nature keeps Akito and Moritaka and the studio on an even keel. Her relationship with Akito matures in a positive direction. It gives the series much of its heart and warmth. The series could have used more Kaya. And Miho needn't have been quite so absent.

The story does start with a few cheats. Moritaka's grandfather lends Moritaka the use of Nobuhiro's studio. Hisashi Sasaki, the managing editor at Shonen Jack, worked with Nobuhiro. So he knows Moritaka, though doesn't do him any favors, other than giving him a fair shot.

A fair shot at Shonen Jack, née Shonen Jump. From the start, Moritaka and Akito aim for the top.

Shonen Jump is the best-selling manga magazine in Japan. At its height during the mid-1980s, it sold a staggering 6.5 million copies a week. Though demographic changes have cut deeply into those numbers, Shonen Jump still boasts a weekly circulation of two million.

In the anime adaptation, the magazine is called Shonen Jack and the publisher is called Yueisha instead of Shueisha. The posters of One Piece and Naruto decorating the lobby walls make it clear what publication they're referring to.

Shonen Jump has a sister publication called Next, where up and coming manga artists can test out their talent. So does Shonen Jack.

One of Moritaka and Akito's submissions ends up on the desk of Akira Hattori. The junior editors at the magazine sort through the submissions to find mangaka with promise. The careers of the editors depend on how well they can develop a mangaka's career and sustain a successful series.


After asking for revisions, Hattori enters the manuscript in an upcoming contest at Next. These contests are another way of recruiting and judging new talent. Moritaka and Akito do well and are invited to submit a one-shot to the prestigious Tezuka Award at the main magazine.

They don't make the final cut but Hattori is sufficiently impressed to ask for more submissions.

In a highly iterative process that any old-school freelance writer is familiar with, they revise and resubmit, revise and resubmit until they get an acceptance. This process takes months, even years. So the the series often makes big jumps in the timeline from episode to episode.

Once they have established their bona fides as artist and writer, they are invited to submit a one-shot that could be serialized. Essentially a pilot episode.

Everything published in Shonen Jack gets rated. A steady stream of reader surveys are compiled twice weekly into spreadsheets. If a one-shot with serialization prospects delivers good ratings, the editor petitions his senior editor to present it at a serialization meeting.

But every new series means an existing one must be canceled. As the managing editor likes to say, "If you write a good manga, you will get published. But not necessarily by us."

While working on their projects and waiting for the thumbs up or thumbs down, mangaka often free-lance as assistants. The pressures of turning out two-dozen finished pages every week is such that, once serialized, a mangaka depends on assistants to do the inking and background work.


Eiji Niizuma is a boy genius, the same age as Moritaka and Akito. The managing editor personally recruited him to write for Shonen Jack. When we first meet Niizuma, he is a bundle of ticks and idiosyncrasies, a sort of artistic Sheldon Cooper after a dozen shots of espresso.

But he proves to be a great asset, both as a rival and a friend, with a keen eye for what works and what doesn't (though he's not very good at explaining why). During his short stint as Niizuma's assistant, Moritaka meets several of the other key players in the series (his competition).

First is Shinta Fukuda. Cocky and brash, a rebel in search of a cause, he appoints himself the leader of the new recruits. He aspires to write gritty urban dramas.

In his mid-thirties, Takuro Nakai is the oldest in their circle. He is the most technically proficient artist but hasn't ever been serialized. As each year passes, the odds grow longer and he grows more desperate, a desperation that has produced several self-destructive behavioral quirks.

He eventually teams up with Ko Aoki, who comes to Shonen Jack from the shojo manga side. (The real Shueisha publishes over a dozen manga magazines in all genres.) They get the green light for a series. The question is whether Nakai can hold his personal life together in the meantime.

Although working in utterly unlike genres, Fukuda and Aoki exemplify an important point that Bakuman makes about popular art. In dramas about "artists," the market-driven demands of the audience and the imposition of editorial constraints are typically cast as the bad guys.

In Bakuman they are the unavoidable—and not necessarily unwelcome—reality.

The immense popularity of Shonen Jump pulls in readers of all ages. But the shonen (少年) in Shonen Jump means "boy," the target audience being between ten and fifteen years old. "Fan service" is fine but no nudity. Action is emphasized but the violence can't get gory.

Fukuda could easily write for a seinen magazine, aimed at older teens and college students.

Takao Saito, for example, has been writing Golgo 13 for fifty years. A gritty series about a professional hitman, Golgo 13 runs in Big Comic, a seinen manga magazine. A circulation of 300,000 is nothing to sneeze at. But it is one-sixth that of Young Jump.

Aoki could easily write for one of Yueisha's shojo (少女) magazines. But the most popular shojo manga also have circulations in the mid-six figures. Getting published in Shonen Jump means reaching the biggest audience possible. It also means hewing to the magazine's editorial guidelines.

So her fantasy series must have more vivid action sequences and her romance series must have more fan service. In one of the funnier arcs, Fukuda takes it upon himself to tutor Aoki about how to appeal to the prurient interests of twelve-year-old boys (without outraging their parents).

These compromises are a constant. Action-oriented "battle manga" are the most popular. A mid-list "gag manga" has the most reliable staying power. But Akito turns out to excel at a Rod Serling approach, writing stories with a surreal or paranormal edge that are layered with social commentary.

At first, Hattori suggests that being "the best of the rest" isn't a bad place to end up. Except Moritaka and Akito want to compete at the top with Eiji Niizuma (everything's a competition in a shonen series). In the process, they give every genre a shot, frequently fail, and start over.

But this is a melodrama and not a documentary. They do finally find the success they are looking for. And their editors are there every step of the way. I can't think of another drama series about the arts that gives the lowly editors so big a role and makes them the good guys to boot.

And gives them so many smart things to say about what makes a story successful.

The original Bakuman was published in 176 chapters over four years. The anime ran for 75 episodes in three seasons on NHK Educational television. The art and animation can't match that of a dozen-episode cour from Kyoto Animation. But this is a series where the ideas matter more.

With so much material to generate, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata often fall back on a problem-of-the-week approach to creating drama. While predictable, this is actually a great advantage of the series.

As a result, we get a crash course in every kind of manga, every issue, conflict, and editorial decision that arises in the manga publishing business. The constant search for new ideas, the stress of weekly ratings, the business decisions that go into making a manga into an anime.

And, yes, all those dysfunctional mangaka.

For example, Kazuya Hiramaru, who abruptly quits his job as a salaryman to write a surreal Dilbert-like gag manga about an otter in a business suit. Only to discover, to his horror, that he's abandoned one rat race to join another where the rats have to run even faster.

"At least when I was a salaryman I had weekends off!" he complains to his editor. But poor Hiramaru is cursed to be a talented and popular—if lazy and unmotivated—mangaka. So his Svengalian editor will stop at nothing to trick, coerce, and manipulate him into making his deadlines.

Hiramaru isn't exaggerating too much. As Shuho Sato documents in Manga Poverty, simply breaking even can take a mangaka years. Those assistants get paid out of the mangaka's page-rates. So turning a profit depends on how fast the mangaka can run his production line.

Sure, there will always be writers who produce best-sellers right out of the box and rake in millions. And I certainly enjoy following the adventures of the Richard Castles and Temperance Brennans, who somehow find the time to solve murder mysteries in between writing yet another best-seller.

But back in the real world, commercially successful art requires more work, discipline, single-minded determination, and, yes, creativity than most of us are capable of. Along with a large dose of luck. Which makes me all the more appreciative of those who can pull it off.

Related posts

Bakuman (the context)
Bakuman (the future)
Bakuman (the anime)
Manga economics
The teen manga artist
Manga circulation in Japan
The manga development cycle

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October 25, 2018

Bakuman (the context)

You write what you know.

So writers write books about writing. And about writers. So Stephen King wrote Misery and The Shining and Bag of Bones. And On Writing. And so Hollywood makes movies about making Hollywood movies. And so we get Singing in the Rain and La La Land.

Television dramas love writers. And so we have Richard Castle and Robin Masters (whom we never see) and Temperance Brennan, and, of course, John Watson. Along with all the frustrated writers who show up alive and dead on the the Law & Order franchise.

These tropes hold in Japan too, though with a few necessary tweaks. Publishing contracts are so standardized that the job of the literary agent only exists in a very narrow niche. A writer deals with the publisher through an editor, so that is where the conflicts will arise.

Such as the combative relationship between Shigure Sohma and his editor in Fruits Basket.

And unlike the North American market, manga, anime, and (especially of late) light novels are far more dominant players in the popular culture. So we can expect that there will be manga about writing manga and anime about making anime. Along with light novels about writers writing light novels.

The light novel, to clarify, is essentially a young adult novella that

incorporates elements from anime, manga, video games, fan art and fan fiction. It is character and dialogue-driven, replete with provocative illustrations and heavily reliant upon the viral energy of the Internet, where many of the stories get their start.

In the writing-about-writing category, the light novel recently got a moment in the sun with Eromanga Sensei. It is not a serious series, sort of as if Fast Times at Ridgemont High had been written by nerdy writers about nerdy writers who write bestsellers in high school.

High school student Masamune Izumi writes light novels of an—ahem—provocative nature. His kid sister, who goes by the nom de plume of "Eromanga Sensei," is the illustrator. Masamune is brainstorming a new series when the reigning teenage queen of the light novel moves in next door.

Realism is hardly the intent. Still, it makes several pertinent points about the mechanics of the trade. We see the cubicles used by editors to conference with their writers (no agents, remember) and observe how contests are run to recruit new talent and test established talent against the competition.

The light novel as a cultural trend-setter is a fairly recent phenomenon so we should see more stories like this in the future.

Anime has been ascendant for longer and so has been talking about itself for longer. The parody anime that parodies other anime is a thriving genre. Anime about making anime include Animation Runner Kuromi (about the frenetic life of a producer) and Girlish Number (about voice actors).

And then there's Shirobako, which sets the bar so high it exists in a category of its own. Over two cours, Shirobako closely documents the production of two anime series, while throwing in so many inside jokes about the major players in the business that you'll need a reference manual.

Manga reaches even further back. Rather like minor league baseball, an entire industry has built up around the amateur manga artist. Comic Party and Genshiken, for example, focus on the doujinshi market and the goal of selling at Comiket, the largest fan convention in the world.

Manga about manga professionals tend to emphasize the chaotic and financially unstable process of running a manga publication, as in Mangirl, or the comically weird juxtaposition of the mangaka's personality and the genre he specializes in.

The best illustration of the latter may be Yasuko and Kenji. After their parents are killed in an accident, Kenji, the hard-core leader of a biker gang, quits to take care of his kid sister Yasuko. To make ends meet, he and a couple of his associates draw a fluffy girl's romance manga.


American manga and anime fans are probably more familiar with Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun. From all outward appearances, Umetaro Nozaki is a straight-laced high school student. Unbeknownst to all but a select few of his classmates, he writes a romance manga under a girl's pen name.

As the story begins, Umetaro Nozaki is already an established mangaka with an popular series. The focus is on the ongoing production of the manga and his developing relationship with Chiyo, who approached him at school hoping for a date but ended up getting drafted as one of his assistants.


Highly recommended. But if you want to learn about the manga writing and publishing business from the ground up, from start to finish, the one series that rises to the level of Shirobako in its attention to detail is Bakuman. More about this groundbreaking series next week.

Related links

Bakuman (the review)
Bakuman (the future)
Bakuman (the anime)
Eromanga Sensei
Genshiken
Girlish Number
Mangirl
Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun
Shirobako

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October 18, 2018

The problem child (4/7)

It there was a single piece of technology that marked where things started to go wrong between IBM and Microsoft, the final straw that convinced Bill Gates, "It's not you, it's—no, it is you," it was DOS 4.0. DOS 4.0 was released by IBM in 1988. Microsoft walked away from the relationship two years later.

DOS 4.0 was at first greeted with great acclaim. Paul Somerson stated in the 27 September 1988 PC Magazine, "DOS 4.0 answers just about every major complaint about prior versions." But the glow faded fast. DOS 4.0 was soon causing more problems than it solved.

Asked John Dvorak in his 15 November 1988 Inside Track column,

Can't IBM do anything right? [DOS 4] is their baby, and it has so many bugs that we're told that we can expect to see 4.1 sooner than expected. I'd wait for 4.3 the way they are going.

In the 17 January 1989 issue, Ray Duncan rose to the defense of the OS, arguing that it was a victim of inflated expectations.

When IBM's DOS 4 first appeared, analysts and pundits hailed it as a major evolutionary step. A few weeks later, the same analysts and pundits came to their senses and there was a severe backlash. DOS 4 was subjected to a torrent of abuse for a handful of bugs no worse than those that accompanied the release of DOS 2 or 3.

But a little over a year later, Duncan took another opportunity to analyze the role of DOS 4.0 in what he saw now as the systematic undoing of IBM. In his 16 October 1990 Power Programming column, he succinctly summarized the beginning of the IBM's declining influence in the personal computer arena.

DOS 4 will probably merit a footnote in the history books as one of personal computing's major operating-system fiascos. The changes that appeared in PC-DOS 4 were entirely implemented by IBM, leaving Microsoft in the uncomfortable position of having to reverse-engineer the system in order to come up with a "generic" MS-DOS 4 that could be licensed to other OEMs. Users stayed away from DOS 4 in droves. As I am writing this, DOS 3.3 is still outselling DOS 4 by a significant margin.

As a result, Duncan reported later in the same issue,

By 1990, Microsoft had awakened from its preoccupation with OS/2, realized that DOS was still a cash cow, wrested control of DOS's development back from Boca Raton, and deployed famous software guru Gordon Letwin to recoup the damage done to DOS's reputation by DOS 4.

Microsoft and IBM parted ways that year. Once there was no longer any need to pretend they liked each other in public, the gloves came off. PC Magazine editor-in-chief Bill Machrone reported in the 28 May 1991 issue that Microsoft's message at the System Strategy Seminar earlier that year was hard to miss:

Forget DOS. Forget OS/2. Forget LAN Manager. Forget NetWare. Forget Unix. But don't forget Windows. That's what Microsoft will ask you to do in the coming months and years.

The pieces puzzled over by the prognosticators for years now fell into place.

The next OS/2 from Microsoft will bear little resemblance to the versions we've seen to date. OS/2 3.0 will feature a "New Technology" (NT) kernel, full Windows support, portability, distributed processing, and POSIX support. The development team is headed by Dave Cutler, the guy formerly responsible for VMS at DEC.

OS/2 optimist William Zachmann heard the same message—"Forget about OS/2 2.0 and stick with Windows"—and fretted that "this Windows-centric outlook has led many to assert—incorrectly—that OS/2 is dead."

Well, those "many" were asserting correctly. As far as the PC consumer was concerned, OS/2 was dead. The death certificate was delivered a year later (though the undead OS/2 would wander the Earth for another decade).

A month later, John Dvorak observed in his 11 June 1991 Inside Track column that the feud between IBM and Microsoft "over the direction of the industry, over Microsoft's emphasis of Windows, and over DOS 4"

finally erupted in a Forbes article where the two companies clearly stated that they were in disagreement about direction. Gates said that he and Microsoft were largely responsible for the success of the IBM PC and today's hot computer market. He made it clear that IBM's contribution to the leadership was a mirage.

In his 15 October 1991 column, Dvorak pointed to the "infamous Bill Gates memo" first leaked by the San Jose Mercury News. "The memo criticizes IBM for providing Microsoft with lousy code and intimates that Microsoft is better off without IBM."

IBM had hamstrung the DOS operating system long before DOS 4. In an truly ironic juxtaposition, the same 28 April 1992 issue that previewed Windows 3.1 in a cover story (and mentioned OS/2 2.0 in a much smaller font) also ran a letter from one Tim Paterson of Redmond, Washington.

Titled "IBM was the problem, not MS-DOS," Paterson objected to the "common misconception" that the designers of MS-DOS had "divided the first megabyte of memory into 640K RAM for the operating system and application and 384K reserved for hardware," creating the long-derided "barrier" that restricted memory access in MS-DOS to 640K RAM.

And who was this Tim Paterson to make such a claim?

As the sole designer of MS-DOS, Version 1.0, I did no such thing. The first computer that ran DOS could have a full megabyte of memory of DOS and applications. The system ROM occupied only the last 2K of the address space, but even that could be switched out after boot-up.

When Microsoft purchased DOS from Seattle Computer Products, Tim Paterson came along as part of the deal.

Those of us who lived with the 64K address space of the 8080/Z80 had learned our lesson. IBM, unfortunately, did not. They alone decided to build memory-mapped hardware right into the middle of our precious address space. I am mystified why anyone would consider this poor hardware design to be an aspect of DOS. DOS uses as much contiguous memory as can be made available.

Four years later, in the documentary Triumph of the Nerds, Steve Ballmer ruefully admitted that

Windows today is probably four years behind, three years behind where it would have been had we not danced with IBM for so long. Because the amount of split energy, split works, split IQ in the company cost our end customer real innovation in our product line.

Microsoft's successor to DOS 4.0 was a case in point. First reviewed in the July 1991 issue, PC Magazine would give DOS 5.0 a Product of the Year award.

Between 1990 and 1995, Windows 3.0 was followed by DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1, DOS 6.0, Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows NT, and Windows 95. Microsoft was on a roll. IBM became an afterthought as a supplier of PC operating systems.

Though IBM did engineer some of the best laptops ever, before selling its entire PC division to Lenovo.

Paul Allen (1953-2018)
Co-founder of Microsoft
Requiescat in pace

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 (5/7)
The future that wasn't (6/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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