December 01, 2016

Earthquakes and the JMA

The Japan Meteorological Agency classifies earthquakes in absolute (Richter scale) and relative terms. This provides the public with practical information, especially when the epicenter often isn't directly below the locations most affected (click image for full size).

So the 7.4 magnitude (later revised .1 upward) earthquake the Monday before last rated at worst a "5-" in actual effect ("seismic intensity") on land.

The earthquake struck at 5:59 AM (Japan time). That meant the 6:00 AM news (2:00 PM MST) was immediately interrupted by "earthquake coverage," which follows a pretty standard format.

No talking heads (at first), no reporters babbling into the camera with no idea  what is going on. The screen switched to a live feed from Onohama harbor in Iwaki, Fukushima, closest to the epicenter. Pertinent information is relayed via on-screen text or audio.

At 6:02 came a tsunami warning, worst-case at three meters. Not disastrous, but enough to be concerned about.

The audio at this point turned, well, excitable. I imagine the poor guy had just gotten to work and hastily swallowed a liter of coffee. Pretty much: "Flee for your lives!" The red-highlighted text on the screen said the same thing. With explanation points.

Recalling that 16,000 people died from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, this concern is understandable. (The 7.4 magnitude mainshock this time has since been categorized as an aftershock to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.)

The fishermen certainly weren't taking any chances. As I said, the live feed was from Onohama harbor. It was fascinating to watch all the fishing boats rev up and head out to sea. In twenty minutes, the harbor was empty. Very impressive.

I do wonder about the "crying wolf" problem.

As it turned out, the deepest tsunami was five feet in one location and was more of a tidal surge. Most everywhere else along the coast, it was a foot to eighteen inches. One small boat capsized and nets drying on the docks got washed into the harbor.

But nobody is questioning the "better safe than sorry" policy, and certainly not in Tohoku.

Along with its early warning system, the JMA provides public data on earthquakes. Whenever NHK flashes a warning, I go to the JMA Earthquake Information site (Japanese/English). As you will see, earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan. (Click on a date in the left-hand column for details.)

As illustrated above, the colored round dots indicate the relative magnitude. Clicking on the map (such as here) lets you zoom in.

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November 24, 2016

"Ghost in the Shell" trailer

Yes, another movie I won't be seeing for a while.

Okay, I'll get to the trailer. But first this silly whining about Scarlett Johansson not being "Japanese." Silly because she's playing an android whose only "human" component is her brain, and has swapped "shells" more than once. Besides, phenotypic racial characteristics in manga and anime are highly malleable, to say the least.

It's true that casting Japanese as Japanese in Hollywood is a perennial problem. But in Hollywood, everything's ultimately about the box office, which also points to a perennial supply and demand problem.

As an Asian-American ethnic group, Japanese (1.3 million) lag behind Korean (1.7 million), Vietnamese (1.73 million), Indian (3.18 million), Filipino (3.41 million), and Chinese (3.79 million).

Except for the cream of the crop (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese actor with any kind of talent can get more and better work in Japan (and won't have to speak English). The reverse is true too, which is why (with rare exceptions) "Americans" in Japanese productions are so often played by Europeans who "look" the part.

So while Star Trek creates roles for Japanese actors, aside from George Takei, it has a hard time finding Japanese actors to play them. Thus we have Rosalind Chao in Next Generation (who doesn't look Japanese) and Linda Park in Enterprise (who more or less does) and John Cho in Star Trek (close enough).

I always wondered why they just didn't make Linda Park's character Korean. It's not like there was any continuity to preserve.

In any case, the setting of Ghost in the Shell is postmodern and post-mini-apocalyptic, taking place in a Japan that, like Los Angeles in Blade Runner, has become a polyglot tossed-salad of Asian cultures. So it's hard to hung up about the specifics of national identity.

Anyway, who's to say Johansson isn't Japanese? How many people know that Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) is a quarter-Japanese? (I didn't until I looked it up.) Risa Stegmayer (American father, Japanese mother), co-host of NHK's Cool Japan, doesn't look especially Japanese, especially seated next to the very Japanese Shoji Kokami.

Meanwhile, the very Japanese Hiroshi Abe plays a Roman architect in the Thermae Romae movies.

This anecdote by Peter Payne (who lives in Japan, where he runs an online store for otaku) is a good antidote to this plague of third-party offense-taking:

Once I was watching an episode of Alias with my [Japanese] wife, and there was a horrid scene in which some female spy went to "Japan" (which appeared to be shot in a sushi restaurant about ten minutes from West Hollywood), painted her face white like a "geisha" and proceeded to extract information from her target despite not knowing his language. I was livid that in the 21st century TV producers couldn't even come close to getting basic imagery right, but my wife was enthralled with it, laughing at each new hilarious plot twist.

It's always a good idea to make sure that those on whose behalf you are getting offended would actually get offended by what you think would offend them. Because they might not have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

As far as that goes, the great Takeshi Kitano plays Aramaki in the movie, which I do consider inspired casting.

But enough with that, back to the trailer.

Based on this small sample, it looks like the movie is using material from Masamune Shirow's manga (the girl-on-girl stuff), Mamoru Oshii's animated film (the opening sequences are an exact match), and the second season of Stand Alone Complex (directed by Kenji Kamiyama), in which the Major gets some hefty "shell" repair.

The live-action version also draws its existential moodiness from Oshii. Like Blade Runner, Oshii's versions are more psychological thrillers, far "heavier" than the manga. The same shift in tone can be seen comparing the Patlabor anime series to Oshii's Patlabor feature films.

Stand Alone Complex is a straightforward cybernetic police procedural.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Major Kusanagi has adapted to the needs of the director, the story, and the medium. Shirow's Kusanagi is a futuristic take on a Connery-era "Jane Bond." Oshii's is closer to Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty from Blade Runner, while Kamiyama's approximates Mark Harmon's Gibbs in NCIS.

Explaining why he broke with Oshii's interpretation, Stand Alone Complex director Kenji Kamiyama quipped, "The first episode would be the final one!" People would get bored of watching a character search for her identity for half a year."

So far, I rank Stand Alone Complex and Solid State Society as the best of the bunch (the Tachikoma robots being no small reason why). Like The X-Files, the Stand Alone Complex seasons are tied together by season-long arcs, interspersed with science fiction stories that work well on their own.

But we'll have to wait a while to see where Hollywood's live-action version ranks in the franchise.

Ghost in the Shell (manga) 1989–1990
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 1995
Innocence (theatrical release) 2004
Stand Alone Complex (TV anime series) 2002–2006
Solid State Society (movie in the SAC arc) 2006
Arise (OVA series) 2013
New Movie (movie in the Arise arc) 2013
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 2017

And while we're on the subject, the Ghost in the Shell "Special Edition" DVD is for sale at Amazon for ten bucks.

Related posts

The Shirow franchises (1)
The Shirow franchises (2)
Back to the social welfare future
Haafu and half

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November 17, 2016

"Your Name" (not a review)

Yes, it's time to discuss movies I haven't seen yet! (And anime series I have.) But the subject fascinates me, so I can't resist talking about the film, though without speaking to its artistic merits. (Since it is a Makoto Shinkai film, I can promise you that it will look gorgeous.)

Until this year, Makoto Shinkai's oeuvre could be described as the "anime art house masterpiece." In my opinion, his only successful long-form film was Children Who Chase Lost Voices (also titled "Journey to Agartha"), based on the Izanagi and Izanami (Orpheus and Eurydice) myth.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters per Second certainly took us somewhere, but I'm not certain where, and I'm not convinced he knew either (though it was awfully pretty getting there).

His extraordinary skills as a cinematographer have never been in doubt. But Shinkai's talents as an auteur (wearing the producer, writer, and director hats) truly leap off the screen in his short work: She and Her Cat, Voices of a Distant Star, and The Garden of Words.

Rather, I still believe that it is Mamoru Hosoda's talent for accessible storytelling and his firm grasp of the structured cinematic narrative that places him more in the tradition of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

Until this year, that is. The caveat is necessary because over the summer (2016), Makoto Shinkai's latest animated film rocketed into the stratosphere, earning over $190 million in its home market (which is about a third the size of the U.S. market).

Your Name is currently the seventh highest-grossing film ever in Japan. The only animated films to earn more are Frozen and Studio Ghibli productions. The box office is strong enough that it is certain to reach second place at the $200 million mark.

(Among all movies ever released in Japan, Spirited Away occupies the top spot with almost $300 million, followed by Titanic, Frozen, and the first Harry Potter film. Then comes Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke.)

Of course, the big question is why.

As with Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai seems to do his best in the big-budget category when he's got another producer looking over his shoulder. In Your Name, he does everything but produce. It might be a good idea for him to keep on not producing his films.

Joe Konrath believes that artistic success has a lot to do with creating a deep backlist, working hard, and then counting on plain old luck. Makoto Shinkai put in the hours and built a fan base and an impressive catalog of work.

And then everything clicked: right place, right time, right subject matter.

Certainly the story he tells has a lot to do with it. The BBC does a pretty good job explaining "Why the story of body-swapping teenagers has gripped Japan."

The body-swapping plot device is hardly a unique one. The modern genre goes back to Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers, a 1882 comic novel by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, and brought up to date with Freaky Friday in 1972. Disney has made and remade movies based on the book three times.

A better comparison is the anime Kokoro Connect, in which the seemingly random body-swapping (which turns out to be under the control of a "higher" power), also "touches on universal themes such as coming of age, adolescence, and the struggle to assert your identity in a confusing world."

Shinkai himself credits a poem by Ono no Komachi, one of the two Komachi poems that also inspired my novel, The Path of Dreams (the translation here is by Jane Hirshfield from The Ink Dark Moon):

Did he appear
       because I fell asleep
       thinking of him?
If only I'd known I was dreaming
I never would have wakened

In the Freaky Friday films and its descendants, the body-swapping plot device is played for laughs. There are humorous moment in Kokoro Connect, but as with Your Name, it is not primarily a comedy. For Shinkai, not primarily a comedy means there are still comedic elements.

To be sure, Shinkai doesn't make depressing films. But "upbeat" is not usually the word used to describe them. "Contemplative" and "introspective" might be more accurate adjectives, with an emphasis on interior melodrama.

Mamoru Hosoda has always been able to leaven the pathos with humor, while Shinkai can be fairly criticized for an often unrelentingly earnest approach. His lighter touch in Your Name undoubtedly accounts for its appeal, even while addressing a solemn subject.

The story's real-world antecedent, which he candidly admits to, is the Tohoku tsunami, that in March 2011 killed almost 16,000 people. In Your Name, Shinkai provides the necessary psychological distance by making the disaster a more exotic and less disastrous meteor strike.

But it is still a disaster whose worst aspect could have been avoided with the proper information. Hence the "time slip" denouement (knowing how a story ends ahead of time doesn't bother me).

Which prompts me to hypothesize that the focus of attention on the "body-swapping" business perhaps misses the point. This is far more about transmigration of the soul. In Kokoro Connect, these transmigrations are simply happening in real time without death getting in the way.

That makes it more of a reincarnation story, which brings to mind the quite similar ending in Angel Beats. Theologically, what we find here is a salvific view of reincarnation, that portrays rebirth as integral to the moral evolution of the individual, a second chance to get things right.

"To die with a peaceful mind will stimulate a virtuous seed and a fortunate rebirth." This is the theme of Angel Beats.

The consciousness in the newly born being is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream. Transmigration is influenced by a being's past karma.

By placing this "fortunate rebirth" in the context of the survival of an entire community, as opposed to the tribulations of a bunch of angsty teenagers, Shinkai has greatly expanded the scope and reach of the genre, and formed it into a national touchstone.

Your Name is slated for an Oscar-qualifying run in the U.S. this fall. In any case, it is unlikely to gross even a tenth of its Japanese box office. Spirited Away pulled in $10 million, and, sadly, that's actually a respectable amount for a Japanese film.

Spirited Away presented an otherworldly cosmology to audiences used to fairy tales filtered through the Disney lens. Critical opinion aside, it will be interesting to see how well the transcendental message of Your Name communicates across cultures.

Related links

Makoto Shinkai
Mamoru Hosoda
Voices of a Distant Star
Angel Beats! (Yahoo CR)
Kokoro Connect (CR)

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November 10, 2016

Crunchy Fun and the Yahoos

As Dave Barry would say, it'd make a great name for a band.

A few months after applying Jack Welch's "Rank-and-Yank" model to its anime offerings, Hulu still has a ton of anime in its catalog. But like Netflix and Amazon, Hulu wants to turn itself into HBO, and so has dumped its "free" advertising-sponsored model.

That's not quite the right metaphor. Netflix wants to be HBO. Hulu wants to be Comcast. And with its recent deals with Disney and Fox, it's getting there.

I rather like the Hulu model (aside from it succumbing to the inexplicable compulsion to mess with a perfectly fine interface until it's useless), and I believe that streaming services are the future. I just don't want to pay for all of them. It's the new old periodical paradox.

Hence the attraction of a one-stop shop like Hulu as a DVR-in-the-cloud. It would certainly be cheaper than adding a DVR option to my DISH subscription. And a whole lot cheaper than the typical cable package. I plan on cutting the cord before getting the cord.

I could similarly rationalize signing up for Amazon Prime mostly for the free shipping option.

I've maintained my DVD Netflix subscription for the occasional new movie and old television series I missed. It's DVR-by-mail. (Never underestimate the bandwidth of the regular mail.) I have DISH to get TV Japan, an a la carte subscription.

Speaking of a la carte, Crunchyroll is an all-anime provider (with some Korean offerings). And no ads with a reasonably-priced subscription. The only hitch here is that while there's a lot of overlap, Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and Anime Network still have their own exclusives.

Thankfully, that list of exclusives just became smaller.

Funimation (the biggest anime distributor in the U.S. market) and Crunchyroll realized there was nothing to gain by fragmenting the market further and partnered up. Especially when Amazon and Netflix can dig some change out of the couch cushions and outbid them any day of the week.

In 2015, Netflix spent almost $5 billion on programming, Amazon a little more than half that. CBS spent $5.7 billion on television programming, while the Disney (ABC) and NBC media groups spent $12 and $10 billion respectively. A big chunk of that still goes to scripted shows.

(To give credit where it's due, Netflix is streaming the live-action series Midnight Diner. A live-action series! Hulu abandoned its live-action Japanese series.)

Crunchyroll has 20 million users registered though its "free" portal, and has also done a licensing deal with manga publishing powerhouse Kadokawa, which itself bought a controlling interest in Yen Press and partnered with Hachette.

Crunchyroll is capitalized at less than half a billion (by the Chernin Group and AT&T) and has one percent of Netflix's paid subscriber numbers. It's had to rely on strategic alliances rather than deep pockets, and pours its resources into a single market segment with a die-hard user base.

Funimation will still distribute to the rest. With Crunchroll, Funimation is essentially creating a "factory outlet" with a focus on the die-hard fans. Funimation will concentrate on dubs, Crunchyroll on subs and real-time streaming.

The only remaining problem is walled-garden exclusivity. The bite for me was that Netflix runs out of Hikaru no Go DVDs at episode 45, right in the middle of the big competition. And only Hulu had the whole series.

But all is not lost! Hulu handed its whole "free" ad-driven service to Yahoo. The service is called View. I'd swear they didn't even move it off the Hulu servers, just slapped on the Yahoo logo and updated the DNS addresses.

The Yahoo interface is rudimentary at best. If they've got a queue, I can't find it. But I will say this for Hulu: unlike Crunchyroll, its ad engine was pretty darn good and that's what Yahoo is using (again, Crunchyroll is worth a subscription to get rid of the annoying ads).

If Yahoo is serious about making View work, it could turn itself into the syndicated subchannel of streaming. Not a bad direction for the directionless Yahoo to go. In other words, a streaming channel that consolidates all of your favorite reruns on a single ad-supported site.

The goal, after all, is to wring every last licensing penny out of every last piece of IP. Streaming is probably the best way to do that. All Yahoo has to do now is make its service actually user-friendly. Which I fear may prove to be a bridge too far for Yahoo.

But at least I can watch Hulu exclusives like Matoi on Yahoo View, so we may have the makings of a working solution here for us penny-pinchers.

Related links

Yahoo View
The streaming scythe
Anime's streaming solution

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November 03, 2016

The accidental standard (2)

When Gary Kildall was interviewed for the third issue of PC Magazine (Jun/Jul 1982), the future of the PC operating system was very much up in the air. The tech press was hedging its bets. CP/M was still the most popular microcomputer OS. (In the mid-1980s, I was using a Kaypro II running CP/M.) Apple, as always, lived in its own proprietary world.

It only took a year for that uncertainty to fall away and things to gel. IBM made the microcomputer respectable and Microsoft made developing applications for other operating systems unnecessary. But they still had to be individually tweaked to account for each manufacturer's BIOS chip and hardware specs.

In November 1982, Compaq debuted a personal computer with a reverse-engineered BIOS, making it truly "IBM-compatible." Eighteen months later, Phoenix Technologies produced its own 100-percent IBM-compatible BIOS chips and sold them to anyone willing to pay the licensing fee (that additionally indemnified its customers from getting sued by IBM for IP infringement).

Microsoft was already selling MS-DOS to all takers and IBM "lookalikes" were flooding the market. But now the era of the 100 percent compatible IBM "clone" had arrived. The market solidified. In the August 1983 issues of PC Magazine, Todd Katz asked, "Is CP/M Dead?"

Naturally, Digital Research product manager Kevin Wandryk didn't think so.

Even if we do lose this marketplace and it goes totally to Microsoft, this is only Round Two. There is the 68000, the Intel 8286 and 8386 [80286 and 80386], the National Semiconductor 16032, and we have a leading edge at the present time in the operating system development in each of those areas. We certainly won't be blindsided again.

They wouldn't be blindsided because the 1970s and its tossed salad of 8-bit CPUs was over. Apple would go with the 68000. Microsoft and IBM and Intel would stick with MS-DOS and the x86 platform. Nobody was pining for alternatives. Katz saw the writing on the wall. His answer: "CP/M-86 is worse than dead, it is irrelevant."

In the October 1983 issue of PC Magazine, Compaq chairman Benjamin Rosen prophetically predicted that three players would remain in the market: "Those adhering to [the IBM PC] standard and those named Apple" and everybody else.

What came to be known as the "Wintel" standard (Windows + Intel) mattered so much that even the "IBM" part faded to insignificance. Compaq upped the game in 1987 with the Deskpro 386, the first PC to run on the 32-bit Intel 80386 chip. An IBM-compatible that was more "compatible" than an IBM PC forced IBM to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

IBM decided to lead, attempting to reassert sovereignty over the PC world with OS/2. OS/2 and the proprietary Micro Channel bus would lock users into the IBM ecosystem. In its struggle for market share, OS/2 was touted as "a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows," and that was the whole problem. Everybody was happy using DOS and Windows.

The same way nobody had wanted or needed CP/M-86 once MS-DOS had established itself among vendors and users, nobody wanted or needed yet another x86 OS standard. And Microsoft, who had developed OS/2 with IBM, quickly decided that it didn't either.

IBM and Microsoft broke up in 1990. Microsoft said it was sorry with a billion dollar alimony payment. Back in 1988, Microsoft had hired VMS architect Dave Cutler (another connection between DEC and Microsoft) to create NT, its multitasking "protected mode" OS. By the release of Windows XP in 2001, NT had turned into "a better Windows than Windows" that was still Windows.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
In 1995, IBM was spending almost a billion dollars a year on OS/2 with "no possible profit or widespread adoption." Warp 4, released in 1996, was the last version of OS/2 distributed by IBM. Now managed by Serenity Systems, it lingers on in embedded environments like automated teller machines. In 2005, IBM sold its entire personal computer division to Lenovo.

Microsoft has never forgotten that lesson, only abandoning native 16-bit MS-DOS (DOS!!!) compatibility with the shift to 64-bit processing. I still use an old WordPerfect DOS dictionary app on my Windows XP machine, and all my 32-bit Windows 95 apps run just fine.

Well, Microsoft did forget it temporarily with Windows 8, when it pretended to be Apple. Apple, remember, had pulled the rug out from under its user and developer base at least three times: switching from MOS Technology 6502 to Motorola 68000 to PowerPC to Intel x86 CPUs.

Microsoft only messed with the interface of Windows and was forced to beat a hasty retreat. Though let's not forget that Windows still owns 90 percent of the (albeit shrinking) desktop/laptop market.

Microsoft getting ahead of itself with Windows 8 was a consequence of
it getting behind the curve with the Windows Phone. And that takes us way back to the beginning and Digital Research's late arrival to the PC party with CP/M-86.

CP/M (like DOS 1.0) wasn't a "standard," but Digital Research was open to customizing the operating system for every 8-bit CPU that came down the pike in the 1970s. The resulting fragmentation and version control problems meant that computers in the same product line often weren't compatible with each other, to say nothing of competing platforms.

Along with Palm and Blackberry, Microsoft was an early player in the mobile OS market, developing Windows CE since 1996. Like Digital Research, it had gotten good at customizing Windows CE for each vendor in a heterogeneous hardware market.

As Digital Research was by IBM and MS-DOS, Microsoft was blindsided by the iPhone, build on a single hardware platform with a new interface. Then Google made Android the DOS of the smartphone, licensing it to all comers. Google could have cribbed from Microsoft's famous mission statement: "A smartphone in every pocket all running Android software."

Back in 1983 and 1984, industry prognosticators were predicting that, any day now, MS-DOS would be superseded by Digital Research's CP/M-86, or Xenix (Microsoft's version of UNIX), or PC/IX (IBM's version of UNIX). A few years later, OS/2 and Micro Channel were going to dominate for sure.

But the IBM PC had set the standard and the PC world didn't need or want another one. Not even IBM could alter the ultimate direction of its own creation. This explains Microsoft's draconian efforts to get old fuddy-duddy hold-outs (like me) onto Windows 10: fragmentation and loss of version control is death.

The evolution of the PC made clear that the consumer market has room for two operating system (Windows and Mac), with the third (Linux) ending up a couple of sigma out on the long tail. The same thing happened with Android and iOS in remarkably similar proportions, this time with Windows Phone ending up with single digits of market share.

Unlike Digital Research, Microsoft has the resources to stay in the race. It plans to focus its Windows Phone efforts on enterprise customers while "betting on a technology leap in a few years with a paradigm shift." Which I take to mean: when Continuum and a Surface phone become practical realities (and Apple loses interest in the desktop OS).

Considering how much the computer industry has changed in the past 35 years, I won't be surprised at all if and when a new "accidental standard" takes over in a flash.

Related posts

The accidental standard (1)
The grandfathers of DOS
MS-DOS at 30
The cover

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October 27, 2016

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (not yet)

Software rarely ships on time. Or it ships on time instead of being delayed six months to fix all the bugs. The same thing applies to the bits and bytes that make up a novel. Everything is software these days.

In other words, the next installment of the Twelve Kingdoms series was supposed to debut this summer. It didn't, and that's understandable.

Fuyumi Ono isn't quite in George R.R. Martin territory. This year has seen re-releases of her light novel Seventeen Springs and the Shiki manga series, plus a new volume in the Ghost Hunt manga series.

And the publisher is still indicating that a new Twelve Kingdoms novel is on the publishing schedule. Shinchosha's Twelve Kingdoms home page includes what clearly appears to be a place-keeper for a new entry.

Right-to-left, the list starts with The Demon Child and ends with "Epic new novel." Specifically, kaki-oroshi (書下ろし) means "a newly written, previously unpublished work."

Albeit with no delivery date. Ah, it takes a lot of patience to be patient.

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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.

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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, Myriad Colors Phantom World, and Kekkaishi stick to the teen supernatural superhero formula and hue closely to Shinto eschatology.

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.

Related links

Ghostbusting in Japan (1)
Japanese genre horror

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.
Kamichu! (Netflix)
Kekkaishi (Netflix)
Myriad Colors Phantom World (CR)
Mushi-shi (Yahoo CR Netflix)
Noragami (Yahoo)
Re-Kan (CR) About as cute and benign as "horror" can get.

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October 06, 2016

Ghostbusting in Japan (1)

According to Buddhism, suffering arises from attachments to transient emotional states and the impermanent material nature of this corruptible, world. In other words, believing you can take it with you. Undisciplined, our insatiable desires doom us to 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.

Out of this theological amalgam developed a popular fantasy genre about the spirit world warriors charged with combating the evil fruit of both human and divine depravity.

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.

Related posts

Ghostbusting in Japan (2)
Pop culture Buddhism
Pop culture Shinto
Pop culture Catholicism
Angel Beats!
The Passion of the Magical Girl

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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).

Google Play

The Roesia Series

Tales of the Quest
Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

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September 22, 2016

Carnivorous vegetarians

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.

Courtesy Nami.

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.

Related posts

Eat, drink, and be merry
Hungry for entertainment
Kitchen Car

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September 15, 2016

The cover

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.

Related posts

The accidental standard
MS-DOS at 30
The grandfathers of DOS

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September 08, 2016

The grandfathers of DOS

Courtesy PC Magazine, June/July 1982.
Ken Olsen and Digital Equipment Corporation disrupted the IBM mainframe cartel with the minicomputer, that became the micro, that became the personal computer. Except DEC failed to make the critical transition itself and was acquired by a PC maker that also challenged IBM at the height of its powers: Compaq.

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.

Tim Paterson.
Paterson's Microsoft stock options did allow him to retire at age 42. And when Seattle Computer Products found out who Microsoft's client really was and went to court about it, that "song" became a million dollars.

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.

Related posts

Computer Connections
The accidental standard
MS-DOS at 30
Digital Man/Digital World
The cover

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September 01, 2016

Digital Man/Digital World

I'm a big fan of documentaries about the early years of the personal computer industry. 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.

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