August 25, 2016

What's in a name?

In Japan, you can't name your kid anything. The Ministry of Justice has the final say (as in France, the cops must have a linguistics division). Currently, only the 843 "name kanji" (kanji rarely used for anything but names) and 2,136 "common-use kanji" are permitted in first names.

But thanks to on'yomi, kun'yomi, na'nori, and ateji, parents can get very creative about how a kanji is pronounced. And the bias of late, grouch the old-timers, has been toward the unpronounceable.

In Chinese, there is exactly one phoneme per character. Kanji was imported to Japan from China and adopted into a language that has nothing phonemically or grammatically in common with Chinese.

As a result, the original Chinese pronunciations had to be heavily modified to fit the Japanese language, resulting in on'yomi ("Chinese" reading). Because there's such a poor overlap between the two phonemic systems, there are often multiple on'yomi for each kanji.

At the same time, kanji were retrofitted to represent existing Japanese words (kun'yomi). As a result, a single kanji can have several different readings, including na'nori, readings that evolved specifically for use in names.

In Chinese, foreign (untranslated) words are written using ateji. That means the foreign word is "spelled" phonetically using the pronunciation associated with the kanji. The inverse form of ateji is assigning (often foreign) pronunciations to a kanji based on the meaning.

There are a number of websites that sound out Western names using Chinese characters. You can do this in Japanese too, but Japanese has a purely phonetic "alphabet" (a syllabary) made specifically for foreign words and names called katakana.

Nevertheless, as I illustrate here, (reverse) ateji is too much linguistic fun for writers to ignore.

Let's say you wanted to name your kid "Star Child." Sounds very hipster in English, but in Japanese it produces pretty ordinary pronunciations (with one exception). The suffix 子 ("child") is common in Japanese names for girls (sort of like all the girl names that end with /ly/).

Girl names

星子 Shouko
星子 Seiko
星子 Tiara
星子 Hoshiko

/Shou/ and /Sei/ are on'yomi. /Hoshi/ is kun'yomi. "Tiara" is, of course, (reverse) ateji.

Boy names

星郎 Hoshirou
星男 Hoshio

/Rou/ is on'yomi and /o/ is kun'yomi. The suffix 郎 (used similarly to 子 for girls) means "son" and 男 means "man."

Because the most common "spelling" of Seiko is 聖子 ("holy child"), the name of the hugely famous singer Seiko Matsuda, you would have to explain to somebody you just met that your name is spelled with the kanji for "star."

And, yes, sans a business card, Japanese provide these sorts of explanations all the time when introducing themselves, and/or write the kanji in the air or on the palm of the hand.

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August 18, 2016

Canon MG2520

I rarely need a printer or scanner these days, but when I do, I really do. And it's hard to fret about a 28 dollar investment in a Canon MG2520 when I'd just spent almost that much at the FedEx copy center printing out a bunch of stuff that I suddenly needed yesterday.

I ordered it from Walmart online and picked it up a week later. The out-of-box instructions were actually readable (or lookable, as they contained little text) and fairly useful.

The telescoping paper tray slides neatly out of the way. But I wouldn't trust it with more than a dozen sheets. My old HP could hold at least a quarter of a ream. Then again, I don't play on printing more than a few dozen sheets a year.

The power brick is cleverly built into the chassis. It looks like it's snapped in during the assembly process. The power cord feeds out flush with the back of the case rather than jutting straight out. That means no extraneous dongles and dangling cables to deal with.

This is an ingenious design that I wish more electronics manufacturers would adopt. It makes it possible to source the power supply from an OEM without turning it into the annoying encumbrance that is the power brick (the bane of consumer gadget market).

Otherwise, my only gripe is that, instead of mounted flush like the power cord, the USB cable pokes straight out the back at the widest point. It's impossible to push the printer against the wall without unplugging it.

The USB port (upper right) should be oriented 90 degrees down.

The verdict: the printer prints and the scanner scans. Good enough.

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August 11, 2016

Out with the old

The Car Talk guys argued that, in most cases, repairing an old car is cheaper than buying a new one. The reasons for buying a new(er) car come down to improved safety features and reliability, along with the utilitarian demands placed on the vehicle (how many child seats will fit in it).

Otherwise, comparing the amortized cost (or monthly payments) of old against new makes clear which way the economic scales are tipping.

When it comes to modern consumer electronics, there's rarely anything that can be repaired. Then the question is whether to buy an extended warranty. The answer is usually no. If the gadget doesn't break within the manufacturer's warranty, odds are it won't break within the extended warranty.

My HP 895cxi inkjet printer had been a workhorse for almost twenty years. Until it simply decided to not work, flashing an "ink cartridge" error I'd never seen before, even when an ink cartridge ran out. The usual cleaning remedies (plus a few more) didn't help.

It's possible that the almost new (OEM) cartridge dried out from long lack of use and a new one would work. Except it'd cost more to replace the cartridge than to buy a new printer.

Granted, in computer years we're talking about an antique, but HP 51645A cartridges are still being made and sold. HP lists the black cartridge at almost fifty bucks. A remanufactured cartridge goes for a more reasonable $13. But the last remanufactured cartridge I tried was broken out of the box.

Add in the color cartridge and the total comes to $30. I don't even know that the cartridge is the problem. The problem is, these days, a printer, scanner, and a CD-ROM drive are the kind of peripherals I can do without—until I absolutely need them.

Meanwhile, a brand new all-in-one Canon MG2520 sells for $28 at Walmart. Cartridges included. It'd replace my equally ancient (and excruciatingly slow) CanoScan scanner at the same time.

As we all know, inkjet printers operate on the razor blade economics model: "Give 'em the razor, sell 'em the blades." The tiny Canon cartridges make that strategy clear. But I don't plan on printing out any novels (I did literally print out a couple of novels on that HP).

What using a Centronics printer cable was like.

Tossing the old HP was a blast from the past. Ah, the good old Centronics parallel printer interface. Bulky, heavy, unwieldy—makes me think of a 19th century transatlantic telegraph cable. Surprisingly, they're still available at reasonable prices. The Windows XP of the cable world, I suppose.

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August 04, 2016

The rebirth of Japan's mass media

Mitsuki Takahata (bottom right) plays
Shizuko Ohashi in the NHK series.
As I noted last week, Homer Sarasohn was the first quality control guru to visit Japan, invited by General Douglas MacArthur to rebuild Japan's electronics industry. Why was that a priority for the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers?

Because MacArthur believed in the power of the mass media to spread the good word of freedom and democracy. His good word. It wasn't simply a political pose. MacArthur was Ronald Reagan with ten times the ego and a papal sense of infallibility.

In other words, the perfect personality for a Japanese shogun (with access to a radio studio).

In fact, the first few years of the Occupation saw a spate of surprisingly liberal reforms (that drove Shigeru Yoshida up a wall). Leftists, labor organizers, and even communists were let out of jail and the press was unleashed.

In Embracing Defeat, John Dower documents how enthusiastically the Japanese embraced these freedoms. Soon SCAP was censoring as many articles and broadcasts as it was approving. A free press, you see, wasn't free to criticize SCAP.

But the fire had been lit. It's telling that the moral backlash that "brought about the collapse of the comic book industry in the 1950s" was shrugged off almost as soon as it arrived in Japan (though, to be sure, it never entirely went away).

The current NHK Asadora, Toto Nee-chan, is a fictionalized biography of Shizuko Ohashi (1920–2013), who in 1948 co-founded 「暮しの手帖」 ("Notebook for Living"), a women's magazine still in print.

This retrospective at the magazine's website is in Japanese, but the illustrations largely speak for themselves.

This was an era when movie makers as well were yanking themselves up by their bootstraps. Akira Kurosawa turned the devastated landscape of Tokyo into a set in his second post-war film, One Wonderful Sunday, released in 1947.

Related links

When quality came to Japan
How Homer Sarasohn Brought Industrial Quality to Japan

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July 28, 2016

When quality came to Japan

Sarasohn (top) and Deming.
Edwards Deming is revered as the father of Japan's quality revolution. The revolution began in August 1950 when Deming, then working on the Japanese census, delivered a speech on "Statistical Product Quality Administration."

While Deming would long be a prophet without honor in his own land, the Japanese took his advice to heart, applying it to their assembly lines and rewarding those who met its exacting standards with the "Deming Prize."

Less well known is that Deming was building on the substantial work already done by Homer Sarasohn, who'd been recruited by General MacArthur to rebuild Japan's electronics industry following the war.

When his stay in Japan came to a close, Sarasohn, in turn, recruited Deming.

Robert Cringely endeavors to correct the record in this compelling essay from his PBS column back in 2000: "How Homer Sarasohn Brought Industrial Quality to Japan and Why It Took Japan So Long to Learn."

(And note Sarasohn's quip about Donald Trump sixteen years ago).

Sarasohn's recollections of what he discovered upon inspecting the state of Japanese manufacturing in 1946 certainly come across as wildly incongruous now.

With the exception of the Zero fighter and some aircraft engines, their designs were bad and their manufactured goods were shoddy. Having come from the Rad Lab, I was particularly appalled to see the primitive nature of Japanese naval radar. Their vacuum tubes were bad and the radios were even worse, since each was hand-wired by untrained, often unsupervised, workers. They produced goods in mass quantities, ignoring quality.

Despite the Zero's reputation, Japan's war machine produced nothing like the deadly and reliable F6F Hellcat. Grumman designed the fighter to be simple to build and maintain, and manufactured 12,200 Hellcats in two years, continually improving the frame and powerplant.

As a result, the Hellcat racked up a 13:1 kill ratio over the most widely produced Model 52 Zero. The Model 64 Zero might have begun to match the much improved flight characteristics of the Hellcat, but never made it past the prototype stage.

And by then, the successor to the Hellcat, the Bearcat (which also didn't see action in WWII), had leapt far past the Hellcat and the Model 64, setting performance records that would be eclipsed only by jet fighters.

Essentially, Mitsubishi made Zeros the same way an artisan makes a fine watch. As Hayao Miyazaki observes, "Structurally, the Zero was not designed for mass production." Each Zero was a one-off. It was amazing that Mitsubishi managed to build 10,000 of them.

Meanwhile, the U.S. would deploy four air-superiority fighters into the Pacific Theater: the F6F Hellcat, the P-38 Lightning, the F4U Corsair, and by the end of the war, the P-51 Mustang.

Mass production in Japan before the war emphasized the "mass" part of production, betting on the numerical odds to produce a usable number of quality components. The result was vacuum tube yields of 10 percent. Sylvania, by comparison, had pushed yields to 85 percent.

Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully point out in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway that Zero pilots had so little faith in their radios that they often removed them to save weight.

The aircraft radios carried on the Zero fighter were of inferior quality and of limited range and power and were difficult to use. As a result, while all carrier Zeros had radios, pilots rarely relied on them.

One of Homer Sarasohn's students was Akio Morita, cofounder of Sony Corporation, whose breakthrough product was the transistor radio.

At first, discrete transistors were treated the same as vacuum tubes. The real breakthrough in quality came with the planar process developed by Fairchild Semiconductor, that employed photolitholography to "print" solid state devices onto silicon wafers.

Unlike a discrete transistor, that could be tossed if a single unit didn't meet the right specs, a flaw in a silicon wafer ruined the whole batch. Producing literally perfect wafers became an economic necessity. And that, Sarasohn argues, is what lit the fire.

The problem is, there's nothing proprietary about quality. It took a while, but Detroit caught on, and the Koreans did too, taking over the DRAM business by 1991. And two decades later had grabbed the bulk of the consumer electronics business from Sony and Panasonic.

The job Japan has ahead of it is not only to iterate and improve but to truly create, to somehow (frankly, it might be impossible at this late date) rekindle the white-hot passion for innovation that propelled Japan, Inc. to greatness in those golden postwar years.

Related links

How Homer Sarasohn Brought Industrial Quality to Japan
Twilight of the Zero
The rebirth of Japan's mass media

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July 21, 2016

Dramatic conservation

A common charge leveled by the cultural right against popular mass media is that its essentially dissolute nature is corrupting the moral fiber of the nation. There is certainly no lack of kindling to toss onto that fire, but it is hardly true across the board.

Police procedurals like Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck as a Rudy Giuliani-style police commissioner and devout Catholic) and Bones (David Boreanaz as a by-the-book FBI agent who's a reasonably observant Catholic) and Murdoch Mysteries (Yannick Bisson as yet another practicing Catholic) cast conservative characters in a favorable light.

When in doubt, make your cop Catholic.

And, of course, then there's the not-entirely lapsed Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on The X-Files. Her conservatism is more of an empirical nature, but in that domain, compared to Mulder, she's definitely conservative.

Ironically, the very nature of these shows means they must necessarily exaggerate the extent and prevalence of criminality, especially in middle-class society. This was just as true of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

Such generalizations hardly stop at the water's edge. Thanks to Hollywood, the average Japanese assumes the average American to be both more religious and more libertine, and the U.S. more crime-ridden, than in reality. The media messages traveling east across the Pacific presents an even narrower slice of the media pie and an even more distorted view of the cultures that produce it.

Japanese police procedures represent real crime rates about as well as British police procedures. More cinematic mayhem per week in Tokyo (or London) than in the entire country. (Though Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia refreshingly features hardly any murders in the entire series.)

Making things worse, perception-wise, most of the contemporary live-action Japanese movies that dominate the Hulu and Netflix catalogs reflect what U.S. distributors can license inexpensively in niche genres that have a build-in audience. Nothing close to a representational sample.

On this score, Studio Ghibli is perhaps the best well-known (to the non-otaku public) indicator about the tastes of the Japanese public in general (especially titles like Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart). Aside from anime feature films, very few "family-friendly" live-action Japanese movies ever make it to the U.S.

As a result, Peter Payne notes the common conclusion that "Judging from all those hentai anime and games the Japanese love, they must be the most perverted people on the planet, leading sex lives that would amaze us all, right?"

Long answer short: nope. Not even close.

Japan is a more conservative country than the U.S. Unlike in the west, the common culture has subsumed most of the historically "religious" practices and values, to the extent that there is no clear bifurcation between the two. It's not the "religious right" influencing modern culture as much as the past influencing the present. And nobody's rebelling much.

One of Faulkner's best-known lines is even more true about Japan: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Further complicating things is the gap between honne and tatemae, or between true (inner) intent and the outer display of behavior. This isn't considered less hypocrisy than a reflexive social necessity.

What is easily interpreted as a reflection of pervasive moral laxity in popular media is only tenuously—and often not at all—tied to individual, personal behavior. It's entertainment. Even there, storytelling conventions in manga and anime often "normalize" more conservative behavior than what exists in Japanese society (like the whole "first kiss" business).

Americanizing a hugely popular series like Kimi ni Todoke would only work if set in the 1950s or perhaps Utah County. Though I also think that built-in reticence (without the attendant religious moralizing) is a big part of the appeal among the American audience.

As I've argue before, a thread of conservatism (or rather, conservationism) makes for better stories. And I mean this more in the naturalistic sense: conserving stuff that's existed for a long time for a reason. The Japanese in particular are huge believers in Chesterton's fence: don't go changing things unless you've got a really good reason.

And probably not even then.

Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate [is blocking] a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

When it comes to narrative fiction, an old gate that can be swung open without a second thought (or a brand new gate that's padlocked just because) makes for poor dramatic conflict. Some resistance, a little rust in the hinges, makes the task a lot more interesting.

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July 14, 2016

Aogashima Island

Mining the ocean floor is one of those perennial futuristic things that is perennially ten years in the future.

But this time high concentrations of gold and silver ore were found in the vicinity of Aogashima Island. Gold in them there underwater hills may provide the kind of motivation to get a gold rush going. Reports the Japan Times:

A team of researchers at the University of Tokyo have discovered high-grade gold ore on a seabed off a remote island south of Tokyo. The ore, collected from a hydrothermal deposit at an underwater volcanic crater off Aogashima, contained as much as 275 grams of gold per ton, a figure that is higher than usual for such deposits on land or sea in Japan.

If you think this sounds like the premise for a James Bond flick, well, check out Aogashima Island. It even looks like the lair of a James Bond villain! (Click to embiggen.)

Those blue spots aren't water. They appear to be roofs, Quonset huts and greenhouses, perhaps. Aogashima Island, 222 miles south of Tokyo, is the the southernmost inhabited island of the Izu archipelago.

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July 07, 2016

The Force Awakens

Star Wars isn't "science fiction." It's medieval fantasy with suits of armor made from extruded ballistic plastic (painted white to make them easier targets, I suppose). Light sabers instead of swords and lasers instead of longbows. (Except the laser bolts move slower than actual arrows.)

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Repurposing old genres makes the topsoil of popular entertainment all the richer. And like McDonald's french fries, when it comes to genre entertainment, the decent low-brow stuff beats the tony high-brow stuff nine times out of ten.

The first Star Wars movie (1977) defined this revised genre. With Irvin Kershner at the helm, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) extended it (it even included a dragon in a cave). Then things went downhill and never recovered. Not even after George Lucas bowed out and laughed all the way to the bank

Granted, at that stage there was no place to go but up. But so determined was Disney to rekindle some of that now "classic" fairy tale goodness (its specialty, after all), that they made the same movie all over again, only with better CGI and a worse script.

It'd be one thing if they'd made exactly the same move. But everybody was so familiar with the archetypes that they forgot to fill in the rest. In between each predictable turn of plot, there's supposed to be, you know, a story. And the accompanying material that fashions ongoing character development.

As a result, The Force Awakens ends up a compilation of deus ex machina moments, the characters and their reasons for being there springing into existence out of empty space like subatomic particles.

The original Star Wars has a few of these problems too, though they're not nearly as glaring. For example, Luke demonstrating the skills of an experienced ball turret gunner straight off the literal farm.

In fact, everybody in the Star Wars universe is surprisingly adept at both operating (and sabotaging) complex military hardware they've never seen before. Galaxies long ago and far away must have had the same high school curriculum as Girls und Panzer (in which armored combat is an extracurricular activity).

And the last act of Star Wars is plain silly, suggesting that a couple hundred hours flying VFR in a Piper Cub qualifies a pilot to jump into an F-22 and fly circles around an MIG-29. (See also: Independent Day, but at least the Randy Quaid and Bill Pullman characters had flown military jets before.)

Otherwise, Luke is realistically shown to be the novice that he is, whose best option in a tight situation (again, until the heroic last act) is to run away or hire some muscle. Even after extensive one-on-one training, he is incapable of besting Darth Vader with a light saber in The Empire Strikes Back.

By contrast, the learning curve for any activity, any acquired skill, any knowledge-dependent process in The Force Awakens—from "I've never seen this thing before" to "I can use it as well as a professional"—is about sixty seconds long.

All the more exasperating is that most of these glaring plot holes could have been easily fixed.

1. Finn goes AWOL after ten minutes of doing whatever he was programmed/trained to do since forever.

Well, they certainly don't make stormtroopers like they used to. For such a key character, a bit more substance behind the decision would go a long way to informing us about his character and personality.

Easy fix: Make Finn part of Kylo Ren's detail. Finn is sick and tired of babysitting this whiny kid with anger management issues, has been nicked one too many times during his temper tantrums. Then witnessing Ren's depravity in person punches his ticket to get out of there before he ends up as cannon fodder.

This would also explain why a narcissistic sociopath like Ren would notice who Finn was in the first place, let alone bother to call him a "traitor." Because he knew Finn personally.

2. I read the manual and now I can fly a starship better than an experienced pilot.

"Howling Mad" Murdock on the A-Team could fly anything because he learned how to fly everything. But since the original Star Wars, "The Force" somehow became shorthand for "Hard work, study, and practice is for suckers."

Easy fix: Make Ridley a mechanic when we first meet her. She works for the pawnshop proprietor who owns the ticket on the Millennium Falcon. She's trying to fix it because Han disabled it before hawking it and it won't go FTL, making it worthless. In the meantime, Ridley uses it to cart junk around.

One day she spots Finn and BB-8 out in the desert and gives them a ride. When they get back, Han Solo and Chewbacca have shown up to claim their craft. In the middle of arguing about who owns what and who owes whom, the stormtroopers charge in and all hell breaks loose.

3. I didn't even read the manual but just holding a light saber means I can beat a guy with way more experience than me.

It's easy to establish that both Finn and Ridley can handle themselves in a fight. But that's not enough. Not after the first three Star Wars movies established the deadly difficulty of light saber fighting.

Easy fix: This was sorta hinted at, but it should be pointed out (by Finn, say) that, sans the Force, Ren can't fight his way out of a brown paper bag. Lazy jerk that he is, he never had to. But now he has to. The question is whether actually applying himself will make him a better man too. Ah, a character arc!

On the other hand, some things are not fixable.

The Death Star was a cool enough concept that, first time out, I could quell the eye rolling. But this predilection to "Do the exactly same thing only bigger" movie after movie is just inane.

And here I thought that Space 1999 boasted the stupidest SF premise of all time. Supposing that the Queen in Through the Looking-Glass really could believe six impossible things before breakfast, she couldn't believe this:

Moonbase Alpha is a scientific research colony and watchdog over silos of atomic waste from Earth stored on the Moon's far side. On September 13, 1999, magnetic energy builds to cause an explosive chain-reaction of the waste, blasting the Moon out of Earth orbit and off the plane of the ecliptic, out of the Solar System.

The first Death Star (so sad there's more than one) was the spherical version of the Doomsday Machine from Star Trek. And the Doomsday Machine was huge but not-unreasonable sized. But a whole freaking planet on the run? I'd need a space elevator for my suspension of disbelief to go that high.

Also, these super-advanced societies can travel faster than light but can't make a decent circuit breaker. Or make a non-combustible space ship. (Also see Independence Day, but I do give Independence Day credit for setting off a nuke inside the mothership, which would do pretty much as depicted.)

This single-point-of-failure problem extends to the Republic, which hasn't figured out distributed networking either. They need to take lessons from Monty Python on "Not Being Seen."

Speaking of Monty Python, watching Star Wars gets me into a "What have the Romans ever done for us?" frame of mind. The entire argument against the regime du jour is that they're mean. And not very bright, taking a sledgehammer approach (repeatedly) to solving small problems.

These are the kind of people who, lacking a flyswatter, grab a hammer. Now all the windows are broken and the walls are full of holes. With Disney committed to pumping out rebooted Star Wars sequels on a regular basis, turning every conflict into an galactic existential threat will get old fast.

It's already old.

Firefly employed a not-dissimilar premise—big bad bureaucracy against the little guy—with an important difference: our motley crew has a job to do, and overthrowing the Alliance tomorrow isn't anywhere near the top of the list.

Posit instead that the Empire or First Order or whatever rules with a heavy hand but is basically competent. The Republic doesn't want to (and can't) overthrow the whole shebang. It's the Republic of Texas: it'd rather not be part of Mexico anymore (it helped that Santa Anna was not a nice guy or a smart general).

Even if the center could not hold, the result would likely resemble the Warring States period in Japan, which is still producing great story material four centuries later.

The sovereign power wielded by the warlords during the era compares to that of the Italian city-states, with conflicts taking place mostly at the peripheries of their domains, leaving commerce and agriculture largely undisturbed. This, in turn, led to significant economic, cultural and technological growth.

But the lack of central control also produced a veritable queue of claimants to the throne, and great business opportunities for the pirates and mercenaries in (or out of) their employ. The kind of universe in which Han Solo and crew would feel right at home.

Related posts

Attack of the Clones
The Phantom Menace
McKee meets the "Menace"

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June 30, 2016

The streaming scythe

What at first appeared to be a full-scale purge of anime at Hulu turned out to be a far less-drastic but systematic cull of low-rated titles. Live-action Japanese television series are pretty much gone altogether (as always, Korean dramas are alive and well).

So what threatened to be a ruthless application of the 80-20 rule ("Twenty percent of inventory accounts for eighty percent of sales") was more the lopping off of the bottom 10 percent. The way CEO Jack Welch once boasted of running General Electric.

I suspect Hulu will be repeating this "Rank-and-Yank" process on a regular basis. In other words, truncate the long tail and concentrate on hits. Or at least the midlisters and up. And let's be clear: including the midlisters and up, Hulu still has a ton of anime.

Incidentally, this is why Cosco has three times the earnings-per-employee as Walmart and thus can pay a higher base wage. Cosco carries about 4000 SKUs while Walmart warehouses a staggering 140,000. It costs big bucks to maintain that physical inventory.

When it comes to anime, Hulu wants to be more like Cosco. So does Netflix.

Or rather, more like HBO: produce a few shows that capture the cultural zeitgeist and backfill the rest with reruns of standard Hollywood fare. It's  about "narrow-casting" to the broadest possible audience. In other words, the subscription model since forever.

Rather than broadcasting a signal to the whole wide world and hoping a few percentage of available households tune in, send it instead only to the viewers who already have a vested interest in watching.

As the cable industry has long proved, if you can get subscribers hooked on one or two channels (or even one or two shows) and fiddle with the packages to hide the sunk costs, they'll stick around out of sheer momentum.

In his 2004 treatise on the subject (and 2006 book), Chris Anderson cited Netflix as an example of the long tail in action. Streaming would seem to bolster his argument. Except what Netflix really wants is a heavily curated long tail. That's not too long.

Justin Fox at Bloomberg confirms that

Today's Netflix and its "brand halo" seem to have a lot more in common with existing TV channels, most obviously HBO, than the back-catalog specialist that it was back in 2006.

I don't think Chris Anderson was wrong about the long tail, simply wrong about it aggregating under one roof, the exception being virtual department store retailers like Amazon and Walmart. But even those behemoths can't stock everything.

The long tale very much exists, except it's been it's been stretched and scattered across all creation. So it takes a bit of dowsing to find the viable concentrations of your particular ore.

One thing remains very true about Anderson's original thesis: going completely digital cuts inventory costs drastically. The marginal costs for adding each additional title or user are close to zero.

Which is why Amazon could build out its existing infrastructure and turn AWS into such a profitable enterprise. And why every new software play must somehow leverage the "cloud." The challenge is what to do with it, how to collect and collate all the content to fill it.

Sure, information wants to be free, but the licensors are still going to charge whatever the market will bear.

And there's no better way to get control over content licensing fees than to produce it in-house. Though as HBO has discovered, getting irrationally exuberant with that approach can lose you your shirt.

Netflix has already been the principal producer on several anime series, and adapted Matayoshi Naoki's award-winning novel Hibana for a series that will be shown in all Netflix markets. Here the advantage goes to streaming over the traditional cable model.

But for those of us not so much interested in the smorgasbord?

The past is prologue and streaming economics hearkens back thirty years when the average middle-class household had a dozen magazine subscriptions (not counting the catalogs). "Big tent" at one extreme, (extremely) specialized at the other.

Such as a newsletter just for the QX-10. My dad subscribed to one of those. Today it'd be a website.

Going forward, the streaming market in the U.S. will probably be left with Crunchyroll, Funimation and maybe Hulu as the major online anime distributors, with Amazon and Netflix providing a generous but more curated catalog.

At the end of the day, though, when everything shakes out, we'll still have orders of magnitude more choices than the bad old days of praying for a single new anime release to show up at Blockbuster.

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June 23, 2016

A slice of Japanese life

The "slice-of-life" genre (manga and anime) intersects, but should not be confused with, "slice-of-realistic-life." Bunny Drop gives us a slice of life, but it's not quite "slice-of-life." Rather, it's better described as a family melodrama (quite a good one, in fact).

To put it in Studio Ghibli terms, Only Yesterday is slice-of-realistic-life (another good one). Whisper of the Heart is slice-of-life.

Of course, genre categories always get blurry at the edges. Hanasaku Iroha qualifies as a standard melodrama, replete with character development, a plot, and an ending. But its setting and emphasis on day-to-day life at a rural inn also tips it toward slice-of-life.

More importantly, a slice-of-life story doesn't weigh down the audience with heavy attitudes or a ponderous plot (at least not for long) and goes easy on the "meaning of it all." The tone is upbeat, the characters optimistic. If there are issues, people get over them.

In short, "stuff happens, mostly pleasant." A healthy serving of moe makes it easy on the eyes too. A touch of magical realism and nostalgia calms the nerves, even in the future. Aria and Yokohama Shopping Trip are two classic slice-of-life science fiction series.

As Wikipedia describes Yokohama Shopping Trip,

Whole chapters are devoted to brewing coffee, taking photographs, or repairing a model aircraft engine, sometimes with only a few lines of dialogue. [This emphasis on] the small wonders of everyday life makes the reader aware of their passing. In evoking a nostalgia for this loss, [the author] is following the Japanese aesthetic tradition of mono no aware.

In fact, the stories can be so plotless and meandering as to create a slight remove from reality. But not too far removed from reality, even when fantasy elements dominate the narrative.

Tamako Market is narrated by a talking bird. Kamichu! starts with Yurie getting turned into a Shinto goddess. Gingitsune is about a shrine maiden who can talk to her shrine's fox god. Flying Witch features, well, a flying witch (who, as it turns out, doesn't fly very much).

Geography can also achieve that "slight remove." Flying Witch, Non Non Biyori, and Hanasaku Iroha are based in rural or exurbia Japan, while Kamichu! takes place in a fishing village near Kure on the outskirts of Hiroshima, and Barakamon on a small island off the coast of Kyushu.

To the ninety-plus percent of Japan's urban population, these are magical settings that, as with NHK's perennial historical dramas, conjure up feelings of nostalgia for a bygone age that isn't quite yet gone for good in modern Japan.

(Here and here are side-by-side comparisons of the settings in Flying Witch and their real-life counterparts. Somebody at the studio did a lot of location scouting, probably also using the enormously useful Google Street View.)

Though there's nothing wrong with the cities and the suburbs. Consider the ever-popular K-On and Tamako Market (both recognizably made by the same production crew) and Strawberry Marshmallow.

The slice-of-life comedy typically has one live wire to play the boke (funny man) to the rest of the tsukkomi (straight man) and lead our little gang into one (minor) crisis after another. Our boke needn't be a comedienne or ha-ha funny. Quirky will do. It usually does.

Such as Yui, who joins a band when she can't play an instrument (K-On). Or Miu, a bundle of unconstrained kid id (Strawberry Marshmallow). Dera Mochimazzi, the talking bird in Tamako Market, is basically Bob Hope in the "Road" pictures he did with Bing Crosby.

But in all these cases, "real life" (or a close approximation thereof) eventually asserts itself, though with a focus on finding delight in the run-of-the-mill and beauty in the commonplace.

Related links

Aria (Netflix)
Barakamon (Hulu)
Flying Witch (CR)
Gingitsune (Hulu CR)
Hanasaku Iroha (CR)
Kamichu! (Netflix)
K-On (Hulu)
Non Non Biyori (CR)
Strawberry Marshmallow (Amazon)
Tamako Market (Hulu)

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June 16, 2016

The Cast Away Martian

"Hard" science fiction—science fiction that attempts to adhere to actual science—is hard. When making up stuff, the closer to reality, the higher the demands of verisimilitude. Almost nothing in a space opera like Star Wars is even scientifically plausible. Nobody cares because we accept from the start that it's closer in genre to a Disney fairy tale.

Hollywood's been on a hard science fiction binge of late, to varying degrees of success. The physics in Interstellar is more wishful thinking than science. Gravity turns the laws of orbital mechanics upside down. But The Martian, which maroons Matt Damon on Mars, is basically Apollo 13 and Cast Away (minus most of the angst) set a few years in the future.

In The Martian, man fights nature largely within the limits of current technology and without any bad guys out to purposely harm him. Oh, for a few minutes, they try to make Jeff Daniels into a villain to gin up some conflict. But two scenes later he goes back to playing a perfectly plausible NASA administrator.

The simple yet daunting goal of Damon's Astronaut Mark Watney is to survive until a rescue mission can return to rescue him. The problem is that with current technology, getting from the Earth to Mars takes six months at best. So he's got a lot of problem solving to do. A major motion picture that is about nothing but problem solving is a breath of fresh air.

Granted, in the space of two hours, the screenplay is going to have to gloss over a few aspects of the real world to keep the story moving. This is big budget motion picture, not a NOVA documentary.

Like, I'm willing to give the radiation thing a pass, because no manned mission is going to Mars in the first place without solving that vexing problem. They don't solve it in the movie either, they simply ignore it, the same way they mostly ignore the .38 Gs of gravity on Mars.

And unlike Tom Hanks shedding a real fifty pounds for Cast Away, Matt Damon didn't starve himself for the role; a scene toward the end showing us his gaunt frame (face hidden) is almost certainly a body double. He's wearing a space suit most of the time anyway.

Tacking down the Pathfinder lander, plugging it in and powering it on (interplanetary cable standardization at last!) a quarter century after it landed is an eye-roller. Still, I could roll with it just because it's such a cute idea.

And I loved the bit about digging up the RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) and using it as a plutonium-powered handwarmer (accompanied by Damon's wry "Don't try this at home!" narration).

No, what first suspended my suspension of disbelief was the implication (again, in order to create more obstacles to cleverly overcome) that the astronauts had only a single point of direct communication with Earth. In fact, the Mars landers use satellite uplinks to talk to the orbiters, which relay the signals to Earth ground stations.

Likewise, it is beyond belief that an ATV the size of a small truck would be limited to line-of-sight communication. All of the later Apollo missions left working equipment and experiments on the Moon. The vehicle and the habitat would be studded with transponders and satellite dishes humming along long after the humans left.

Equally improbable is that the inner hatch door of a habitat in a near-airless environment wouldn't be sealable and built into the superstructure. To quote NASA, the purpose of such a hatch is to "isolate the airlock from the crew cabin." I bet Astronaut Mark Watney sure wishes he had one of those. They were standard equipment on the Space Shuttle, after all.

The first failure of the NASA resupply rocket was awfully predicable (more conflict creation). While I did appreciate bringing in the Chinese (China should be part of the ISS), the movie ignores that Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency have comparable launch capabilities, not to mention ULA, Orbital ATK, and SpaceX.

Given the chance to save the day, Elon Musk would be all over this.

And yet I give it a solid A for effort. The Martian isn't one of those movies where the plot holes let all the air out of the suspense. It is a rousing Rubik's Cube of an adventure movie with a bunch of cheating aces tucked up its sleeve. Like the old Star Trek, it's often more interesting for its obvious flaws than for its dramatic successes.

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June 09, 2016


Chihayafuru is based on the award-winning manga by Yuki Suetsugu. It begins with Chihaya Ayase (her name is coincidentally the same as the first line of an Ogura Hyakunin Isshu poem) hanging recruiting posters for the high school karuta club. (See my previous post on the subject.)

Since there isn't a high school karuta club, she needs five members to form an official one (an official club gets an advisor, a budget, and a room).

Her first recruit is Taichi Mashima, one of the kids she learned karuta with in elementary school. The story then flashes back to their childhoods. Arata Wataya, the new kid in their elementary school homeroom class, is a karuta wizard, having been taught by his grandfather, a grand champion.

Chihaya, Taichi and Arata venture to the community center to join the local karuta club. The club president, Dr. Harada, is overjoyed to find three new members on his doorstep. Taichi is better than Chihaya. Arata is in a league of his own. But Chihaya is undaunted in her quest to be the best.

After elementary school, the three of them go their separate ways. In Japan, kids in the same neighborhood will usually attend the same elementary school; starting with junior high, the school they attend depends more on their academic goals and abilities.

Taichi is accepted into a prestigious junior high. Arata returns with his family to far-flung Fukui when his grandfather falls ill and grows out of touch. When we next meet him as an older teen, he speaks with a strong Hokuriku accent.

Arata has also grown out of touch with karuta. The most poignant dramatic arc in the first season involves Chihaya's efforts to re-inspire the person who first inspired her.

Now in high school, Chihaya has reached A-level, the highest rank in competitive karuta. But she's far from the top. Taichi hasn't played since elementary school but gets dragged along by Chihaya's enthusiasm. With another classmate they once competed with and two rookies, the club is on.

Chihayafuru follows the basic structure of the high school anime sports series. A big difference is that karuta isn't exactly a spectator sport. At first, there's no way to replay an entire karuta game in real time and hold our interest.

As the players get better and we become more familiar with the game, the competitions get longer, and begin to approximate real time. Similar to The Big Windup, commentary comes in the form of inner monologues that reveal the strategies, strengths, and weaknesses of each player and team.

Character profiles of the players and their opponents—examining what drew them to such an obscure and difficult sport in the first place—are depicted in often surprisingly intense melodramatic vignettes (accompanied by lush orchestration).

Now, stories about melodramatic teens usually appeal to me as much as fingernails scraping across a blackboard. A big problem with otherwise compelling teen romances like Kimi ni Todoke is that, as Kate puts it, the characters have too much time to "sit and around and get angsty."

A job, a sport, a serious hobby helps to mitigate that. The nascent love triangle (usually another annoying dramatic device) in Chihayafuru stays mostly nascent, largely because Arata is on the other side of Japan. And Chihaya's monomaniacal focus on karuta precludes such distractions.

Neither is it resolved (I'll have to start reading the manga). But there is a pay-off in the penultimate episode of season two when Oe (the club medievalist) realizes the implications of a poem Chihaya wrote for a homework assignment and lectures Taichi to pick up his game (a cute scene).

So there's a lot more involved than the protagonist going from success to success. Common to anime sports series,the struggle, the hard work and effort, the growth and the team effort are what matter the most.

Oe insists they wear traditional hakama and learn what the poems mean (think of how well the average educated person understands Chaucer). The club nerd calculates "batting averages" based on card placement. Taichi and Nikuman-kun rise quickly to match Chihaya's abilities.

For Chihaya, being the biggest fish in her own small pond doesn't mean there is nothing more for her to learn right where she is. She's still got a long way to go to become the "queen" of karuta. But her unrelenting passion for a game based on medieval poetry will surely take her there.

Crunchyroll has both seasons of the anime (scroll down for season one). The two live-action movies aren't available in the U.S. There are two Japanese/English bilingual volumes of the manga (more in French, for some reason) and thirty-one so far in Japanese (over ten million copies in print).

The videos below are from the 2016 Queen (women) and Meijin (men) matches. (I mentioned hakama above, which the competitors are wearing.)

Granted, at first it'll make about as much sense as, well, Cricket (though it should be obvious when a "dead" card is read). But once you've watched a season of Chihayafuru, you'll know exactly what is going on, even if you don't understand a word of Japanese.

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June 02, 2016

Poetry in motion

As discussed previously, there's a manga or anime for practically every sport, an entire subgenre for baseball alone. Competition makes for conflict and great story material, and that includes a fascinating series about a literary card game that quickly became one of my all-time favorites.

The game is kyougi (competitive) karuta, the latter word borrowed from the Portuguese carta during the Edo period and applied to Japanese playing cards in general. Here it refers specifically to the game of "singing karuta" or uta-garuta.

To be sure, even in Japan, more people know about karuta than can play with it with any competence. The Tokyo high school baseball regionals involve hundreds of teams. Only a dozen or so can muster enough members to compete in the Tokyo karuta regionals.

They'd all fit in a single gymnasium with room to spare.

The centuries-old game is based on a Heian period poetry collection known as the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu ("One hundred poems by one hundred poets"), compiled by the court noble Fujiwara no Teika in the 13th century. Not the kind of game that makes the average teenager sit up and take note.

In competitive karuta, given the first three lines of a waka, players pick the card with the last two lines. Skilled players can identify cards by the first one or two syllables of the poem. The game involves lots of memorization, short-term spatial memory, sharp hearing, and good reflexes.

The reader card is on the right. The player card on the left is
written in kana, a purely phonetic syllabary. (Courtesy Tofugu.)

The best players become experts in assimilation and coarticulation,  the phonological processes by which the articulation of one phoneme influences the pronunciation of the next. That way, two poems that begin with identical syllables can be differentiated before the second syllable is spoken.

Fifty cards of the one hundred are randomly selected, each player receiving twenty-five, which they arrange in front of them. They have fifteen minutes to memorize the cards before the game begins. So players line up their cards to maximize ease of location and speed of identification.

A reader proceeds through a full, randomized deck (there are CDs to practice with: set the player to shuffle play), meaning that fifty cards will not be in play. Mistakenly choosing a "dead" card will cost one of your own.

A live card can be—is often—selected from the group with a sweep of the arm. With well-matched players, quick reactions matter, so this sweeping motion may be executed with considerable force, sending the cards flying. Multiple cards can be selected if the target card is included.

Towards the end of a match, a player can group his remaining cards together and hit them all at the same time; though if none of those cards are the right card, a penalty is exacted.

A player can also reach over and grab a card from his opponent's side (which requires being able to read the cards upside down), and then give his opponent one of his own (again, a strategic move). The first person to empty out his side wins.

The result is a formal poetry reading combined with a fast-moving athletic performance that gives competitive karuta a "chess boxing" vibe. It really is "poetry in motion." The NHK World video below explains the rules of the game, and how phonology, statistics, and speed figure into winning strategies.

Oh, and that anime series? As referenced in the video, it's Chihayafuru. More about it next time.

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May 26, 2016

Prove it!

My previous review of Houdini & Doyle segues nicely into a discussion of apologetics vs. empiricism, or religious belief vs. the scientific method. In Houdini & Doyle, Doyle is the apologist (as is Mulder in The X-Files), while Houdini (Scully) is the questioning empiricist.

The apologist begins with a desired conclusion unalterably in mind. Religious apologists are honestly unapologetic about their faith not being open to question. They "want to believe" and seek out proof for their beliefs, rationalizing any convincing evidence to the contrary.

Most of us fancy ourselves cool, objective empiricists. The truth is, we're all—including scientists—unrepentant apologists.

In a 1953 address at General Electric (my father was in attendance), Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize, Chemistry) recounted several examples of scientists going astray (details here) and observed,

These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions.

Everyone wants to believe his own version of the truth, and digs in his heels the more it is challenged. For the scientist and explorer, that conviction is absolutely necessary in order to soldier on in the face of almost certain failure. And in the face of being flat wrong.

Columbus had to fervently believe in his version of world geography to sail off into the unknown.

The Portuguese dismissed Columbus's grant proposal because they knew his calculations for the circumference of the planet were wrong. Luckily (luck being a big part of the equation), Columbus ran into the Americas. He'd never have made it to India with the ships and supplies he had on hand.

It took another thirty years for Magellan to accomplish what Columbus set out to do (and Magellan didn't make it home alive).

After predicting the existence of radium, it took four years of arduous, dangerous work for Pierre and Marie Curie to isolate one-tenth of a gram of radium from a ton of pitchblende. Marie later died from radiation poisoning and her lab notes from the period are sealed inside lead boxes.

Nobody climbs a Mt. Everest like that doubting she will reach the top. The problem is becoming so converted to a particular outcome that we grow incapable of critical self-examination. It is a very human trait.

Turning to another historical mystery series, the pilot episode of Murdoch Mysteries accurately fictionalizes the efforts of Harold Brown to discredit the alternating current power transmission system developed by George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla.

With the backing of Thomas Edison (who was marketing a competing direct current system), Brown electrocuted dogs in public to demonstrate the dangers of AC. Brown later took these demonstration a gruesome step further, constructing an electric chair to execute a condemned criminal.

The execution went so badly that Westinghouse commented, "They would have done better using an axe." But science be damned, this was a high-stakes economic battle that turned into a religious war, the infamous "War of Currents."

In the end, all the PR stunts in the world couldn't change the fact that Edison's direct current system simply didn't scale. Edison eventually tired of the conflict, quit the electricity generating and transmission business, and left the company that became General Electric.

(Ironically, thanks to modern technology, direct current has since become the preferred long-distance transmission standard, though at the very high voltages Edison railed against.)

Edison had vested interests and investments, and didn't understand polyphase alternating current. He wasn't alone. Tesla was one of the few who did. How might have science advanced in the late 19th century had Edison been willing to form a partnership with Tesla, who was once in his employ?

Edison discovered the vacuum tube in 1880 without realizing what he'd invented. It took another quarter century for British physicist John Ambrose Fleming to figure out what was going on and create the first vacuum tube rectifier.

The late-19th century marked the end of an era when innovative tinkerers like Edison and the great British experimentalist Michael Faraday could produce breakthrough inventions with a scant understanding of higher math or physics.

Faraday had intuitively deduced the existence of electromagnetic fields, what he called "lines of force." But he lacked a way to systematically explain his intuition. Unlike Edison, Faraday wasn't above turning to another genius, mathematician James Clerk Maxwell.
Kepler's Platonic solar system.
The result was "Maxwell's equations," the mathematical foundation of the modern world of electricity and electronics.

Empirical science cannot fall back on gut feelings or a reigning consensus. If science were up to a democratic vote, the Sun would still revolve around the Earth. Even as he proved it wrong, Kepler could not bring himself to reject the consensus Platonic model of the universe.

The consensus was not happy with his findings either, despite how much he qualified them. Kepler's conclusions—that orbiting objects move in ellipses, not in neat Platonic circles—did not find widespread acceptance until after his death.

Science is called a "discipline" because it takes a great deal of discipline to question our most deeply-held convictions. The apologist begins every investigation with no doubt that he is right, the true scientist with the sure knowledge that he is very likely wrong.

Related posts

Houdini & Doyle
"Pathological" and real science
The God complex

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