October 20, 2016
Thank you for not smoking (so much)
If you're a consumer of manga and anime, you will have noticed that Japanese smoke a lot, even in series aimed at kids (a big no-no in the U.S.) Why all the smokers? Because it accurately reflects real life in Japan. (There are cinematic reasons too.)
The highest per-capita smoking rates in the world are in Eastern Europe. The most enthusiastic smokers outside Eastern Europe are South Koreans, Kazakhs, and Japanese (with the U.S. in the middle of the pack). Japanese men, that is.
Everybody in Japan knows that smoking is bad for you. But it's practically a cultural institution. The situation has improved significantly since I first lived in Japan 35 years ago, when every public space was a scene straight out of a Hollywood classic.
|Back when smoking was cool.|
People actually pay attention to "No Smoking" signs now. Still, several factors have for a long time slowed the eradication of smoking as acceptable public behavior.
|No longer just a "suggestion."|
Until 1985 the tobacco industry in Japan was a government-run monopoly, putting the government in the self-defeating position of profiting from smoking at the same time it was supposed to be discouraging it (see also: state lotteries).
Strangely enough, for an equally long time the Japanese government has had less reason to worry about the public health implications: it's called the "Japanese smoking/lung cancer paradox."
Smokers in the U.S. have an increased lung cancer "odds ratio" of 40:1 (a long-term mortality rate of 30.4/100,000). In Japan it's only 6:1 (a long-term mortality rate of 17.4/100,000). That makes "smoking kills" a less compelling argument.
Many reasons have been hypothesized. As always, it comes down to environment (including diet) and genetics. The stomach cancer mortality rate in Japan is 13/100,000. In the U.S. it is 2/100,000. Different things kill different people differently.
Then again, within the firm social constraints of Japanese society thrives a broad streak of leave-me-alone libertarianism. The moral crusades that so stir our Victorian sensibilities rarely excite the same passions in Japan.
Certainly not to the extent of pretending in popular entertainment that people don't smoke as much as they really do.
But like I said, the situation is steadily improving. As in every post-industrial society, a graying population teaches the grave lesson that nobody lives forever. And so the mass media has become hugely focused on personal health issues.
Darwin wins in the end. This bad behavior will inevitably change the one sure way it always does: the smokers will all die out.
October 13, 2016
Ghostbusting in Japan (2)
Following up on my previous post about ghostbusting Japan, here is an abbreviated list of some more recent anime releases that epitomize the genre. I'm limiting myself to titles that fit primarily into a Buddhist or Shinto framework.
There is considerable overlap in the magical girl genre. The "Divine Tree" in Yuki Yuna is a Hero has a Shinto vibe to it, though as with Madoka Magica and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, the causes behind the effects are "scientific" (alien science up to no good) rather than theological.
An eclectic crossover is Ghost Hunt, written by Twelve Kingdoms author Fuyumi Ono. The ghostbusting team includes a Buddhist monk, a shrine maiden, a Catholic priest, a spirit medium, a paranormal researcher, and, of course, a couple of high school students. They've got all the bases covered.
Noragami does an excellent job with all of the core elements: the purification of fallen souls, a teenager with second sight, the (Shinto) God of Calamity, getting into a literal shootout (firearms are involved) with Bishamon, the (Buddhist) God of War, and the divine working for a living.
Noragami was one of last year's big hits, a nicely balanced mix of action, comedy, theology, and some pretty intense dramatic scenes stressing the wages of sin and the trials of atonement (as I pointed out before, by no means does monotheism have a monopoly on hellfire and damnation).
Kamichu! takes a purely Shinto approach. One day, Yurie, an ordinary schoolgirl, becomes a Shinto god and gets put in charge of the gods and youkai in her neck of the woods. The aesthetics of the Shinto cosmology in Kamichu! is similar to that in Spirited Away.
Makoto in Gingitsune is a shrine maiden (not a kami) but she can communicate with the shrine's kami. The final episodes nicely depict a community purification ceremony. There is a whole shrine maiden genre, perhaps the most popular series being Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha.
Beyond the Boundary features freelancers that cooperate—and sometimes compete—with the powerful clan that runs the local cartel on youma hunting.
Your mileage may vary, but the comic relief works for me (the entirety of episode six is a standalone comedy), and as a teen romance it is certainly unique. Mirai Kuriyama kills Akihito Kanbara the first time they meet, and then a dozen times after that. Otherwise, they get along fine.
But Akihito is an immortal half-youma so getting killed isn't a big inconvenience (at first). Despite the occasionally goofy material, it is an intense and compelling drama with several great character arcs (be sure to watch the credits in the very last episode all the way to the end).
Ghostbusting is a school club activity in the parallel universe of Myriad Colors Phantom World. It's an episodic series with a conventional harem setup. Thankfully isn't a harem show. The artwork is nice and it succeeds at being fun and informative.
Episodes are introduced with little tutorials about theology and applied psychology that take the subjects seriously as they relates to the ghostbusting business. Episode four, for example, revolves around omagatoki, which also figures into Serpent of Time.
Kekkaishi is the lower-budget version of Myriad Colors. The -shi in Kekkaishi and Mushi-shi means "master of." A "Kekkaishi" is a master of a spiritual barrier, a common tool in the genre. They're also used in Beyond the Boundary.
Being a Kekkaishi is the "family business," and two families in town compete with each other, generally to comedic ends. There are some shared similaries with Noragami about how youma go bad.
The live-action film of Mushi-shi was released in the U.S. as Bugmaster, which makes it sound like a 1950s B-movie. Mushi-shi is infinitely more subtle than that. It's about a roving demon-fighter who deals with problems caused by insect youkai.
Think Twilight Zone or a solo Supernatural with a period setting.
These last three titles are closer to the conventional horror category, with creepier characters (both antagonists and protagonists) and plenty of blood & guts action and gore.
Ghost Talker's Daydream is basically Ghost Whisperer, except that the heroine works in an BDSM club (because ghosts don't hang out in BDSM clubs) and dead people mightily annoy her. She really doesn't care what happens to the dearly departed as long as they leave.
In Corpse Princess, Makina is the shinigami ("god of death") of a murdered girl. She now works for a Buddhist order as a ruthless assassin of malevolent shinigami.
Tokyo Majin leans more more toward the wuxia genre. The teen demon fighters are martial artists and possess Buddhist superpowers. One of the MacGuffins is something called the "Bodhisattva Eye." But they spent most of their time battling fairly conventional zombies.
Ghostbusting in Japan (1)
Beyond the Boundary (Yahoo CR)
Corpse Princess (Yahoo)
Ghost Talker's Daydream (Amazon). Only a few anime episodes were made and I'd recommend avoiding them. The manga is better (explicit material).
Gingitsune (Yahoo CR). Gingitsune and Kamichu! can also be classified as "family-friendly" slice-of-life series.
Myriad Colors Phantom World (CR)
Mushi-shi (Yahoo CR Netflix)
Re-Kan (CR) About as cute and benign as "horror" can get.
October 06, 2016
Ghostbusting in Japan (1)
samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.
Enlightenment can only be achieved by breaking the chains of these cravings.
The Japanese being enthusiastic syncretists, home-grown Shinto evolved similar doctrines with a difference. The Buddhist concept of the "hungry ghost"—corrupt souls possessed by earthly failings such as greed, anger and ignorance—merged with the Shinto concept of impurities accumulated through sin or pollution.
Japan's outcast social class (burakumin) is said to have arisen from Buddhism strictures attached to death-related occupations such as executioners, undertakers, butchers and tanners. Such trades have long since been religiously accommodated, though the hereditary burakumin class persists.
Similarly, people who die harboring unresolved grudges and possessive attachments can turn into evil kami and ghosts and haunt the world they departed from until they are exorcised.
The epitome of this downward spiral is perhaps best illustrated in Madoka Magica, in which the very process of fighting evil inevitably corrupts the good magical girls. It's gone on for so long that now all the magical girls do is battle other magical girls who've gone bad.
In Noragami and Kekkaishi, participating in the brutal battles of the medieval Warring States period tainted even the souls of the gods. And at times turned ordinary animals into evil kami.
Kami loosely translates as "god," though more in the Greco-Roman sense than the Judaeo-Christian. "Kami" can span the behavioral spectrum, from the benign and even playful youkai (which includes the the various species of shikigami) to expressly evil youma and shinigami ("god of death").
In Shinto, every imaginable aspect of the natural world has a parallel spiritual dimension, with new kami evolving all the time. Toss in all the Buddhist crossovers and this raises the ghostly population an order of magnitude. Justin Sevakis details a small slice of Japan's transcendental taxonomy:
Onryo are vengeful ghosts, ubume are the spirits of mothers who died either in childbirth or with young children who return to look after their kids. Goryo are vengeful aristocratic ghosts, funayurei are ghosts who died at sea, zashiki-warashi are playful child ghosts, and ibakurei are ghosts that haunt a certain location.
The first pop-culture spirit world warrior was the real-life Heian court diviner Abe no Seimei. He literally became a legend in his own lifetime (played here in the 2001 film Onmyoji by Mansai Nomura).
Spirit world warriors can be recruited from the Shinto pantheon, which includes deities imported from Buddhism and Taoism.
More commonly they are human (or teamed up with humans), maybe with some supernatural powers (but not super-duper). Their job is to corral out-of-control youma and youkai and put them through the purification rites. Or send them onto the next world. Or blast them to kingdom come.
The job will always be there. Anybody can go bad: gods, people, and things go bad all the time, without moral dualism necessarily being at play.
Because "badness" can be disassociated from "evil," the same way polluted water can be filtered and distilled, there's no way to separate the sides by simply counting the black and white hats.
Almost nobody and almost nothing is condemned to a particular place in heaven or hell for eternity. But don't count on deathbed repentance scooting you to the head of the line in a post-mortal Disney World. The severity of the Buddhist hell would give Dante pause.
Considering the stakes, Pascal's Wager is one worth making. Despite most Japanese not being devout or theists in the common Christian sense, most Japanese make it.
So when visiting a Shinto shrine, if there is one, be sure to step through the purification ring. The one at Omi Jingu is depicted in Chihayafuru; the ritual is explained at length in Ginkitsune. And while there, perform the temizu hand-washing ritual.
Harae (cleansing) ceremonies springing from Shinto that have been a practical part of everyday hygienic practices in Japan for centuries.
Sumo wrestlers cast salt before a bout. They don't flick a pinch over their shoulders, but throw it high into the air; if you've got a ringside seat, it'll be raining salt.
|Courtesy Princeton Wong.|
In police procedurals, cops do the Buddhist equivalent of crossing themselves when they encounter a dead body. Omamori charms can be bought at any Shinto shrine. And somebody dying in an apartment is considered a curse that will drive down the rent.
Even if your house isn't cursed, a priest will stop by on Setsubun and drive out the bad spirits, just to be sure. What with all this supply and demand going on between the material and spiritual realms, there are plenty of business opportunities.
In Beyond the Boundary, exorcized youma can be turned in for bounties. In Noragami, the god Yato hires himself out as handyman to save up for his own shrine. And in In Ghost Talker's Daydream, Saiki is a professional exorcist who cleans up apartments where suicides and gristly crimes took place.
In a slightly different genre, the devil in The Devil is a Part-Timer has to get a job at McDonald's to make ends meet.
Thus in keeping with the original Ghostbusters, ghostbusting in Japan is often a business, or at least an avocation, both in real life and in fiction. Well, that's the modern world for you. Even the gods have to work for a living. Eastern spiritualism meets Adam Smith.
September 29, 2016
Tales of the Quest
Ah, the Quest! The sight of noble knights setting forth on heroic tasks to win the hand of the fair princess stirs any heart. Here are the medieval heroes who once donned clanking suits of armor to fence, joust, and battle fire-breathing dragons for honor and acclaim.
That is, until the tasks got too messy, too inconvenient, too strange. And the armor way too heavy. To be sure, talent and determination still count. But the Quest just as often becomes a tool of trade and diplomacy, with fortunes and royal reputations weighing in the balance.
Immerse yourself in chronicles of desperate princes, strong-willed princesses, and romantic beasts. This fourth installment in the Roesia series pulls together new and previously published stories of questing daring-do updated for the modern age.
Amidst all the politics and game playing, can true love still triumph? Therein lies quite the tale.
Tales of the Quest is book four in the Roesia series (though it mostly takes place outside the borders of the Kingdom of Roesia).
Tales of the Quest
Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation
September 22, 2016
The Japanese may be the most pragmatic people on the planet. Going all-in on half-of-the-world domination and then losing everything knocked the stuffing out of that sort of zealotry. And unlike the Germans, they decided not to dwell on it.
Well, except when silly westerners try to ratchet up their own virtue signaling by apologizing for beating them.
And unlike the Germans, the ultra-nationalists and their rhetoric aren't banned. Some even get elected to high office. Then there's that whole Yasukuni Shrine business, which prime ministers pretend to be "sensitive" about.
Until the cameras are turned off, that is.
All the paeans to pacifism are pragmatic as well. In a neighborhood full of angry bulls, it's a good idea not run around waving a red flag. But at home, disturb the social order and the kid gloves come off. Japan has the death penalty and uses it.
And they don't pay much real attention to foreigners who complain about such things. Frankly, I think the Japanese government sticks to that whole whale hunting thing (it's for "research," don't you know) because foreigners complain about it.
It's a passive-aggressive way of asserting Japan's sovereignty and national prerogatives.
Japan's eating habits are doing a lot worse to the unagi, but when's the last time you heard anybody campaigning to "Save the eels!"
|As Homer Simpson would put it: "Mmmm . . . eels."|
Which brings us to the subject of another bunch of virtue-signaling westerners that amuse the Japanese when they're not bemusing them: vegetarians. Long story short: the best way to be a vegetarian in Japan is to not ask about the ingredients.
Eryk points out in his This Japanese Life blog that the
long life expectancy of Japanese people isn't from a vegetarian diet, because none of them are vegetarians. Okinawans are usually singled out—longest life expectancy in the world—but Okinawans actually eat taco rice and chicken.
The same goes for cancer rates. Japan's cancer rates aren't low because they avoid meat. Japan's diet is heavy on meat and soy—tofu, in particular—and soy can lower the risk of certain cancers. But tofu in Japan is usually served alongside meat, not in place of it.
Far from utopian, Japan is one of the least vegetarian-friendly places on Earth.
Vegan visitors in particular are warned that it is almost impossible to strictly adhere to a vegan diet in Japan. Even in vegetable dishes, the dashi (broth) that is a ubiquitous component of Japanese cuisine almost certainly contains pork or fish.
Laments Anne Lauenroth at GaijinPot, dashi is commonly made from bonito (related to tuna), and it is everywhere,
from sauces, salad dressings and miso soup to udon and soba noodles being boiled in it. Better restaurants pride themselves on making their own dashi, and they will be inclined to cook even their vegetables in this special broth instead of lovely, ordinary water.
But as far as Japanese cooks are concerned, dashi doesn't count as "meat," regardless of what it's made from. If you can't see the meat, there isn't any meat. Warns a site called the Vegetarian Resource Group,
It may be difficult to explain to Japanese people what you cannot have, because the concept of vegetarianism is not widely understood. For example, if you say you are vegetarian, they may offer you beef or chicken soup without meat itself.
Agrees Peter Payne,
One special challenge is being a vegetarian in Japan, since the country generally doesn't understand the lifestyle. One restaurant even advertised "vegetarian" bacon-wrapped asparagus, as if the presence of a vegetable was enough to make it vegetarian.
He advises sticking to shoujin ryori, the food traditionally eaten by Buddhist priests. Which could be tough for the typical tourist to arrange alone. So the Inside Japan Tours website "will advise all your accommodation of your dietary needs in advance."
Why? Because it is
decidedly more difficult to be a full vegetarian or vegan due to the ubiquity of fish in the Japanese diet. In fact, it is so rare in Japan that you will find many restaurants that do not offer any vegetarian dishes at all.
Protecting tourists from vegetarian dishes that aren't really is a great example of what Tyler Cowen calls "Markets in Everything."
Granted, I find actual "travel" utterly unappealing as a hobby, let alone a necessity. (Fun to watch on television, though.) But this strikes me as an odd tourism mentality. It's a kind of reverse cultural appropriation: "Don't do as the Roman do."
Then why go to Rome in the first place?
When it comes joining the culinary globetrotting set, I think Phil Rosenthal has the right idea in I'll Have What Phil's Having. He travels the world and eats whatever he is served with great elan and with barely a care about where it came from.
After all, all those other people are eating it and they didn't fall down dead. Yet.
Eat, drink, and be merry
Hungry for entertainment
September 15, 2016
The cover of a magazine for baby boomer geeks and nerds can change the world—when the right person sees it.
The personal computer, posits Robert Cringely, was the product of "people who find creativity so effortless that invention becomes like breathing or who have something to prove to the world."
They are the people who are left unchallenged by the simple routine of making a living and surviving in the world and are capable, instead, of first imagining and then making a living from whole new worlds they've created in the computer.
Even when the computer in question exists only on the cover of a magazine. Because of deadlines, the actual Altair computer gracing the cover of that famous issue of Popular Electronics was a mockup, not a working model. When the photograph was taken, a working production model wasn't available to demo.
That didn't matter. For Bill Gates, "enlightenment came in a flash."
Walking across Harvard Yard while Paul Allen waved in his face the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics announcing the Altair 8800 microcomputer from MITS, they both saw instantly that there would really be a personal computer industry and that the industry would need programming languages. Although there were no microcomputer software companies yet, 19-year-old Bill's first concern was that they were already too late. "We realized that the revolution might happen without us," Gates said. "After we saw that article, there was no question of where our life would focus."
The difference this single-minded focus made on the future is apparent in the interviews with Bill Gates and Gary Kildall in the first (Feb/Mar) and third (Jun/Jul) issues of PC Magazine. (The first three issues are bound together into a single volume; you can find Kildall's by searching on his name.)
Gates comes across as hyper-aware of the emerging digital zeitgeist, the needs of his client (IBM) and the geek culture that spawned the then-nascent PC industry. But he is also thinking past all of them to all the ordinary consumers out there who just wanted a tool, an appliance. They were the future.
"A computer," Gates boldly promised in Microsoft's mission statement, "on every desk and in every home all running Microsoft software."
Kildall, by contrast, is very much the tenured professor he was before founding Digital Research. He's not quite sure what the rush is all about (a big reason the hard-pressed Boca Raton IBM team quickly turned to Microsoft to supply an operating system for the IBM PC).
Kildall gets animated about the then-arcane subject (a decade premature) of "concurrency" (multitasking) and proudly points to the assembly language compiler and debugger that ships with CP/M and CP/M-86. "So you can just pick up CP/M-86 and start developing your own high-performance applications."
Well, um, no. The vast majority of us can't, and neither could most of the geeks and nerds excited about the new, affordable "personal computer."
Okay, I used Kildall's debugger to hack the screen display and printer buffer in the CP/M version of WordStar so it'd run correctly on my Kaypro II. That was pretty much the beginning and the end of the life as a developer of "high-performance applications" using machine code.
In his interview, Gates instead enthuses about BASIC. BASIC is literally about as basic as a programming language gets. BASIC compilers were even a thing for a while, because ordinary computer enthusiasts (like me) could understand BASIC well enough to write working code.
Microsoft BASIC was initially the only reason to buy an Altair or an IBM PC. Microsoft Corporation was created to sell BASIC for the Altair, and the IBM PC shipped with Microsoft BASIC in ROM. The importance of BASIC (and a smattering of assembly language) is reflected in the early issues of PC Magazine.
"The Microsoft Touch" in the September 1983 issue of PC Magazine nicely ties BASIC to the beginnings of Microsoft.
But even in the premier issue, the emphasis was on the up and coming commercial apps—in particular, the spreadsheet and word processor—not programming languages. The VisiCalc spreadsheet made the Apple II the first "office PC," and Lotus 1-2-3 would do the same for the IBM PC.
Though Kildall was right for a time. Because of the enormous cost of memory and the constraints on bus and CPU speeds, DOS programs like WordPerfect (up to version 5) were written in assembly language. But it took thousands of employees to develop and market WordPerfect 5.
So Gates was being amazingly prophetic when he predicted in 1982 that in the future,
We'll be able to write big fat programs. We can let them run somewhat inefficiently because there will be so much horsepower that just sits there. The real focus won't be who can cram it down it, or who can do it in the machine language. It will be who can define the right end-user interface and properly integrate the main packages.
But I don't think Gates could have imagined then just how much of the technological world 30 years hence would run on high-level interpreted code, or that hardly anybody would notice or complain because the hardware had gotten so fast and so inexpensive. (Well, I notice on my old Windows XP laptop.)
In 2015, Apple produced a watch with orders of magnitude more memory and a CPU a hundred times faster that cost a tenth as much as the original IBM PC. Though, frankly, a creaky old IBM XT running Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect 4.2 would be a lot more useful.
Productivity. That's why the PC changed everything.
September 08, 2016
The grandfathers of DOS
|Courtesy PC Magazine, June/July 1982.|
One of the tech pioneers who navigated the rocky transitional period was Gary Kildall (1942–1994). Kildall's CP/M operating system played a key role in shifting the software paradigm from the mainframe and minicomputer to the personal computer.
Kildall came a generation after Ken Olsen, half a generation before Gates, Wozniak, and Jobs. Olsen served in WWII. Kildall was a graduate student at the University of Washington when he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He would spend his enlistment teaching computer science at the Naval Postgraduate School.
He later became a tenured professor at NPS while consulting in Silicon Valley. In the early 1970s, he started work on CP/M, an 8-bit operating system designed to power the new microcomputers that ordinary people could afford.
Like the Altair, the 8080-based PC kit that Ed Roberts was building in Albuquerque, world-of-mouth ignited a tidal wave of interest and curiosity in the burgeoning "home brew" computer community. Kildall retired from teaching and together with his wife started Digital Research to develop and market CP/M.
By 1978, the company (headquartered in their house in Pacific Grove, California) had achieved sales of $100,000 a month.
Along with CP/M, two more Kildall innovations made the PC possible. On the technical side, the BIOS chip created a hardware "abstraction" layer that allowed an operating system to work "out of the box" with various hardware configurations without being hand-tuned for the particularities of each one.
On the business side, with the BIOS chip in hand, Digital Research could divorce the OS from dependency on a single hardware platform or manufacturer and sell CP/M to all comers, a marketing model that Microsoft would follow with great success.
The Apple I had debuted in 1976, built on "that horrible MOS Technology 6502 processor," as Kildall described it. But CP/M remained the dominate general-purpose microcomputer OS, running on the 8-bit Intel 8080 and Zilog Z-80. For a time, Microsoft sold the Z-80 SoftCard, enabling CP/M to run on an Apple II.
The SoftCard was Microsoft's number one revenue source in 1980, making Microsoft a major CP/M vendor. And was probably the reason IBM thought Microsoft was also an OS developer.
During the late 1970s, Kildall got distracted customizing the PL/I compiler for Intel CPUs. Development of CP/M languished for almost two years.
Apple released the Apple III in 1980. It was plagued by reliability problems, a lack of software, and like the later Lisa, carried a "sky-high" price. On sabbatical at the time, Steve Wozniak returned to Apple in order to supervise production of the highly successful Apple IIe. Apple regained its footing in 1983.
But in 1981, the microcomputer industry was without a technological leader. In August of that year, IBM changed everything with its 16-bit Intel 8088-based PC.
In Triumph of the Nerds, Jack Sams recounts how his IBM team, in desperate need of an operating system for the IBM PC, approached Digital Research (on the recommendation of Bill Gates) but couldn't get anybody to sign the strict non-disclosure agreement or agree to their tight production schedule (accounts differ).
The second time IBM raised the issue with Microsoft, Bill Gates signed in a heartbeat. Gates didn't care about the licensing terms as long as it was non-exclusive and Microsoft could sell MS-DOS to other hardware manufacturers. IBM agreed and Microsoft changed the world.
Except Microsoft didn't have an OS in development. So it licensed 86-DOS from Seattle Computer Products for a song and hired the guy who designed it, Tim Paterson.
Kildall later protested that Tim Paterson hadn't reversed-engineered CP/M but had copied his source code. He never pursued this claim. (When Compaq later reversed-engineered the IBM BIOS, it documented every step with legal precision and was never sued by the litigious IBM.)
Paterson, employee number 80 at Microsoft, remembers his historic role with something of a philosophical shrug.
It's been pooh-poohed as Seattle Computer being suckers or something for taking the deal because it made Microsoft so much money. I don't know how many people would have said the guy who provides the operating system to IBM is going to make it rich. I have the impression Bill Gates and Paul Allen felt it was a gamble, not that they were sitting on a gold mine and knew it.
In any case, Kildall's 16-bit version of CP/M for the PC didn't come out until April 1982, and then initially at six times the price of MS-DOS. Alas, it wouldn't be competitive at any price. The computing world finally had a software and a hardware standard and was sticking with it.
These latter details don't make it into Kildall's memoir, which concludes at the end of the 1970s. Or at least the version we have. Kildall never published the manuscript. The first half was recently made available by his estate as a free PDF download.
Titled Computer Connections: People, Places, and Events in the Evolution of the Personal Computer Industry, Kildall writes with a readable style, not overburdened with technical jargon (although there is plenty of that). It's a compelling personal account about the roots of the PC operating system.
The theme of his recollections might be: "You kids don't know how tough we old-timers had it!" He says this with a wink and a nod, but he's absolutely right. Compared to the hoops programmers once had to jump through, the floppy disk drive and the command line were absolutely amazing steps forward in usefulness.
Kildall's account ends at the end of the 1970s, before the stormy advent of the IBM PC (read the rest of the story here). But he does mention two other times he and Bill Gates crossed paths. The first sounds like a script straight out of Hollywood.
When Kildall was at the University of Washington, two high school students hacked into C-Cubed, a time-sharing computer company run by the director of the UW Computer Center. The kids were none other than Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the future founders of Microsoft. And what happened to them? C-Cubed hired them.
A decade later, a fledgling Microsoft was based in Albuquerque, creating software tools for the Altair. In 1977, Gates came to Pacific Grove to discuss the future of the business with Kildall, who was then running the world's most successful microcomputer software company.
Kildall remembers them getting along like oil and water, "his manner too abrasive and deterministic, although he mostly carried a smile through a discussion of any sort." Kildall had no desire to "compete with his customers," and turn Digital Research into a one-stop that sold both tools and applications.
Exactly what Gates was planning to do. Recalled Kildall,
We talked of merging our companies in the Pacific Grove area. Our conversations were friendly, but for some reason, I have always felt uneasy around Bill. I always kept one hand on my wallet, and the other on my program listings. It was no different that day.
So Microsoft ended up back in Seattle, where Gates and Allen grew up.
Kildall didn't think highly of Gates as a computer scientist. But in all fairness, I'll point to this landmark interview by Dave Bunnell in the debut issue of PC Magazine. As early as 1982, a young Bill Gates demonstrated a remarkably insightful grasp of where the personal computer industry was headed.
Gary Kildall may not have liked the man he ended up passing the baton to, but there's no denying that Bill Gates grabbed it and ran like a bat out of hell.
September 01, 2016
Digital Man/Digital World
Digital Man/Digital World provides a much-needed look at the often overlooked DEC (it can be watched online at the above link).
Before Intel, before Microsoft, before Apple, before the IBM PC and Compaq Computer (the company that later acquired it), there was Digital Equipment Corporation. The new reality that a computer could be "small enough to be stolen" (based on an actual incident) began not in Silicon Valley but in Maynard, Massachusetts.
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was founded by Ken Olsen in 1957.
Ken Olsen had served in the Navy during WWII as a radar technician. After the war, he earned a degree in electrical engineering at MIT, where he worked on the Whirlwind project. The Whirlwind computers powered the prototypes of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line during the early years of the Cold War.
Olsen had acted as a liaison with IBM during the Whirlwind project (IBM build the computers that MIT designed), and recalled that IBM was "like going to a communist state." He brought that attitude with him when he founded DEC.
Although a conservative Christian who wore a tie, banned alcohol from company parties, and always ate dinner with his family (before going back to work), Olsen was one of the first "hippie" CEOs. He championed the flat corporate hierarchy, the employee-friendly workplace, and the customer-oriented business.
He drove a sedan and vacationed in the Canadian wilderness. Abandoning the organizational chart, he managed by walking around, and was on a first-name basis with his employees. He actively recruited women and minorities (this was in the 1960s and 1970s) and didn't lay off a single person until 1988.
In committee meetings, managers were expected to own their ideas, defend them, and fight things out: "You could get in somebody's face as long as you didn't stab them in the back."
DEC was the first high-tech company funded by venture capital (American Research and Development Corporation) and produced a crop of multi-millionaires when it went public in 1966. After Ken Olsen retired (involuntarily), he gave away most of his accumulated wealth.
DEC's truly disruptive innovation was the minicomputer. Instead of IBM's room-sized mainframes, the PDP-1 was a filing-cabinet sized time-sharing computer that cost less than $120,000, a bargain back in the early 1960s. The later PDP-8, introduced in 1965, shaved more than $100,000 off that price.
The 16-bit PDP-11 was the first computer to tie internal communications together on a shared bus, a feature later adopted by the Altair, the Apple II and the IBM PC. The 32-bit, network-ready VAX debuted in 1977 and became its most popular minicomputer, a mainstay of university engineering labs.
|The PDP-11 control console (top) looks like a "computer."|
Built for computer geeks, the Altair front panel resembled
the PDP-11 console.
By the early 1980s, Digital had become the second-largest computer company in the world. In one of the great ironies that typify the last half-century of the tech industry, while disrupting the staid mainframe business and making computers truly affordable, DEC sowed the seeds of its own downfall.
This trend in affordability accelerated in the 1970s with the advent of a slew of inexpensive 8-bit CPUs that powered the Altair, the Apple II, and the Commodore, with the Intel and Zilog varieties running the soon ubiquitous CP/M operating system.
IBM responded to the PC threat with the 16-bit IBM PC, engineered in its freewheeling Boca Raton division using low-cost OEM components and a second-hand operating system from an upstart software company called Microsoft. It produced a smash hit product that eventually sowed the seeds of its own downfall too.
|By comparison, the IBM PC looks like an appliance.|
DEC went in the opposite direction, sinking resources into the VAX 9000 supercomputer, high-end multiprocessor microcomputers, and the Alpha 64-bit RISC processor. This was a full decade before 64-bit computing would arrive in an affordable PC package. Everybody loved the Alpha but nobody knew what to do with it.
Powered by Intel's inexpensive x86 chips, the PC was growing so fast that "good enough" quickly became more than enough to do the job. Before long, personal computers were easily matching the power of DEC's previous minicomputers. The PC had turned into a minicomputer.
In a complete turnaround (just as Clayton Christensen would have predicted), DEC found itself defending the high end of the market and getting disrupted from below.
DEC's premium hardware failed to find a market, resulting in a $2.8 billion loss in 1992. That year, Olsen was ousted as CEO. Compaq acquired Digital in June 1998, only to merge with HP four years later. DEC all but disappeared amidst the corporate reorganization rubble.
Though largely forgotten, its influence lives on.
When Paul Allen and Bill Gates developed a BASIC interpreter for the brand-new Altair in 1975, they didn't have an Altair computer. Instead, they used an Intel 8008 emulator Allen had written for the DEC PDP-10 in Harvard's Aiken Lab. Amazingly, the program ran the first time it was installed on an actual Altair.
BASIC was Microsoft's founding product, its first best-selling product, and would later be adopted by both IBM and Apple. And it was born on a DEC minicomputer.
Then in 1988, Microsoft hired Dave Cutler, architect of the VMS operating system for the DEC VAX, to design a preemptive multitasking OS. Since the release of Windows XP, all desktop and server versions of the Microsoft OS (plus Windows Phone since version 8) have been built on Dave Cutler's NT kernel.
Our modern, technological world was in no small part created by Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation.
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/).
/Shou/ and /Sei/ are on'yomi. /Hoshi/ is kun'yomi. "Tiara" is, of course, (reverse) ateji.
/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"), which also just happens to be the name of the hugely famous singer Seiko Matsuda, you would have to explain to a person you just met that your name is instead 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.
August 18, 2016
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.
August 11, 2016
Out with the old
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.
August 04, 2016
The rebirth of Japan's mass media
|Mitsuki Takahata (bottom right) plays |
Shizuko Ohashi in the NHK series.
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.
July 28, 2016
When quality came to Japan
|Sarasohn (top) and Deming.|
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.
July 21, 2016
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.