Archives for : content

Weaponizing TV Everywhere

One of my grad school professors, the late Dr. Thomas Muth, told us that he was far less interested in analysis, whereby you grind ideas down to a smaller form, than synthesis, in which you combine parts of different ideas together to build something new. I’m bringing this up because the whole Comcast / Time Warner Cable merger has me thinking about the antitrust law I learned from another grad school prof, Dr. Barry Litman, and I’m smashing a few of those ideas together.

Actually, this starts with my previous blog post, where I mentioned in passing that Microsoft used to be very active in video codec development, getting WMV9 adopted as part of the Blu-Ray spec. You know what else Microsoft used to be? A convicted monopolist. It’s almost forgotten today, but the initial ruling in United States v. Microsoft was that the company had illegally used its market power and should be broken up. This was later partially overturned on appeal, and the DOJ effectively walked away from the case under the Bush administration.

Still, it’s remarkable to think that in barely over a decade, we’ve gone from contemplating the break-up of Microsoft, to the widely-held perception that the Comcast / Time Warner Cable merger will easily win approval. Regulatory capture, FTL.

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I Am A Spy In The House Of Love

So I tried something different this year. I took a pass on the angst and nerd drama of the WWDC ticket lottery and saved my pennies for a completely different conference, Streaming Media West. As much as I like working on media applications, I’ve long believed that I’ll be far more useful as a consultant the more I understand the content side and the problems that clients are likely to bring my way. I really like the magazine and its website, and figured I could pick up some useful knowledge both for my development work and my aspirations to do more livestreaming of my own.

tl;dr, was it worth $2,500 of my own money for ticket, hotel, and airfare? No. Not in any obvious way. But the fact that it didn’t pan out may itself provide valuable insights.

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A brief Anime Central 2013 media travelogue

Anime Central was last weekend in Chicago. I don’t have as much to say this year as last, but a few media related things were worth blogging:

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Author and speaker Daniel Steinberg always keeps his talks fresh, revising them and making changes every time he gives them. CocoaConf DC 2013 was at least the third time I’d heard his keynote “A Pocketful of Patterns” (whose framing device is based, in part, on my own skepticism about design patterns), but he caught my attention with this little pattern, showing a problem and a good solution:

What do you hate about most Cocoa Podcasts? They tend to be way too long, rambly, unfocused, self-indulgent. Therefore, if I were to produce a podcast it would be focused on the audience.

OSEG, so true. So I tweeted it right then and there:

Tweet from invalidname: "Yay. @dimsumthinking finally told the truth about most developer podcasts: they're too long, unfocused, and unedited. #cocoaconf"

Take a look at the tweet details and you’ll see a long trail of reactions, including those from Cocoa podcasters Saul Mora of NSBrief and Wolf Rentzsch and Andrew Pontious of Edge Cases.

So what’s the beef that Daniel and I have? Actually, it starts back at CocoaConf Chicago, and a flippant question I asked as the moderator of “Reverse Q&A”, where we take a panel of speakers and have them ask questions of the audience instead of the usual way around. Shifting topics with a segue, I asked “what’s the deal with all these developer podcasts anyways? why do we have so many?”

And the answer I got back was: “it’s easier than blogging.”

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What Anime Central Taught Me About Mac/iOS Media

I spent the weekend in Chicago at Anime Central 2012, the first anime convention I’ve been to since Anime Weekend Atlanta 2007. Many of us geeks have our escapes: mine is the mythical realm of “Japan”, where children are taught the value of empathy, and people default to a position of kindness and respect in their dealings with others. ぼく の ゆめ きれい です。

invalidname's ACen Badge

Along with loading up on collectibles (Angel Beats! Anohana!) and finding new shows to watch (Toradora!), I had a few encounters that, surprisingly, led to some insights about where digital media is and is going on the platforms I work with.

That iPad UStream Guy

In the Sentai Filmworks panel, I noticed a guy in the front row shooting video with his iPad. Not a bad idea — the battery life is enormous, so you might only be limited by using up the flash storage. But what I discovered later was that he was the animecon-industry channel on UStream, and was streaming all these panels live on the internet. From the iPad.

Multiply this by a bunch more iPads and a bunch more interesting pursuits and I start to wonder why I’m not already combing UStream for cool stuff streaming now.

BTW, I asked three questions in the Sentai Panel. Watch the recorded version and you can hear me asking about whether iTunes download-to-own makes still sense for them, why they went back and licensed the older ef: A Tale of _____ shows, and what led to the reissue of Clannad After Story with an English dub.

Making Music with Miku

Hatsune Miku Vocaloid 2 softwareAnother panel I went to was a how-to showing how Yamaha’s “Vocaloid” software can be used to create synthetic singers, such as the very popular (and much-cosplayed) Hatsune Miku. What I didn’t expect to find out is that the Yamaha guy who created the Vocaloid software is a big Mac fan, and despite the fact that the Vocaloid products are Windows-only, was shown in a video from last year’s Anime Expo toting a MacBook Air to a panel (it may be this one, but if not, it still shows Ito-san clearly using an Air).

Duly inspired by this, the panelists at ACen showed a MacBook-based workflow that used Vocaloid 3, despite the fact the program is Windows-only, and was only partially localized for English. They played a synth into Logic Pro to lay down a base music track, then played a second track as the vocal line. They exported that track as a .mid (MIDI sequence) in a directory shared with VMWare, where it could then be imported into Vocaloid and sung by Miku. After tweaking the Japanese phonetic lyrics, they exported a .wav back to Logic to complete the song.

Of course, wouldn’t it be nicer to cut Windows out entirely? Knowing that there are Mac fans at Yamaha and Crypton, maybe Apple should make some calls. Having Hatsune Miku as an instrument in GarageBand or Logic would be a hell of a lot of fun, and would surely lead to getting her as the vocalist of even more songs on iTunes (she already had more than 1,500 last time I checked).

I’ve also mentioned on several occasions that the AUSampler audio unit in Lion and iOS 5 is doing a pitch shift more or less equivalent to what Vocaloid does, with the key difference that AUSampler can be played live, while Vocaloid uses a render step and could look ahead to upcoming notes to produce more realistic output. I’ve meant to try hacking up a “Hatsune Mac-ku” with AUSampler one of these days… it’s on the list of experimental projects that could turn into an article/blog/session if I find the time to get it working.

There’s An App For That Anime

Kids on the Slope page on Crunchyroll iPad appOne of the first things I did on the show floor was to finally sign up as a paying subscriber for Crunchyroll, the streaming service that offers many anime shows within hours of their Japanese airdate. Considering I’m currently using it to keep up with Kids on the Slope, Bodacious Space Pirates, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, I’ve come to feel like quite the freeloader.

Part of the reason I’m watching so much Crunchyroll is that it’s easy to do so on the iPad while waiting in the hallway for my kids to fall asleep. Like a lot of Flash-based websites, Crunchyroll has had the sense to build an iPad app. And one of the upsides of having a real app is that the video can be sent over to an Apple TV for proper wide-screen viewing.

Watching Bodacious Space Pirates on Apple TV with AirPlay
When I look at the “Anime” folder on my iPad — consisting of Crunchyroll, Anime Network, Funimation Free, and Adult Swim — and then look at the icons on the Apple TV screen, I can’t help but wish that these streaming apps could be on the Apple TV itself. With the latest Apple TV update presenting us with a grid of app-like icons for the various services and providers, it sure feels like this is what we’re heading towards. And when you can just subscribe to your favorite sports league as an app and not deal with cable/satellite/local-broadcast hassles and blackouts, it starts to show the promise the cord-cutters have been talking about all this time.

The New York Times had an interesting article on this the other day. After presenting the channel-as-app metaphor, they point out that this could bring about the “a la carte” model that so many viewers have wanted for so long: the ability to just buy the content that you want, and not have to buy a bunch of programming you don’t want. But they also identify the catch that I’ve worried about for years: many of the content providers are vertically integrated with distributors. All the NBC/Universal networks are owned by Kabletown Comcast, which means that they may not want to sell content directly to end-users when that cuts into the parent’s core business of selling cable subscriptions.

And would a la carte make sense for consumers? We might get sticker shock. Think about my anime apps: I’m in for $7/month with Crunchyroll. But they don’t have everything. If I want Lupin the 3rd commercial-free on Funimation streaming, that’s $8/mo, and ef on Anime Network is going to set me back another $7/mo. So just for anime, I’m in for 22 bucks a month! Do I have anything left for sports or news? Suddenly, the DirecTV bundle isn’t looking so bad anymore. [Indeed, Anime Network is also on DirecTV VOD, which is why I’d be highly unlikely to pay for it again as a streaming subscription. Last year, instead of cord-cutting, we doubled-down on DirecTV and upgraded to their “whole home” service. We’ll probably eventually want to get the nomad too. YMMV.]

Anime folder on my iPad
In fact, when I saw the much linked Oatmeal cartoon about I Tried to Watch “Game of Thrones” and This Is What Happened, I had a specific thought when I got to the frame where the protagonist is flashing his credit card in front of the computer, saying he was ready to buy if only they would sell it to him. Here’s my thinking: HBO knows full well that there are people who subscribe to the channel entirely for the sake of one show. That is their business model: you buy it for Game of Thrones or The Sopranos, and as a bonus, you get to see Splash and Independence Day 400 times a month. Which is total crap of course, since we only care about Game of Thrones. So if you’re paying just for that show, what’s the cost? Say it’s $30/month times however long a season runs, plus time to unsubscribe, leaving a little room for customers who don’t bother unsubscribing religiously. Shall we say four months? Then that means a season of Game of Thrones is arguably worth $120 per subscriber.

Now imagine if HBO put out a Blu-Ray set, day and date with the series, at that price point. Everyone would scream bloody murder. But, Mr. Oatmeal, you were flashing your credit card! Did you think that a new production should cost the same as a back-catalog show from 20 years ago that has already paid its bills several times over?

But I’m kind of digressing into old arguments. The point to make about networks-as-apps is that Apple’s treating Apple TV as a “hobby”, the lack of an SDK for Apple TV, the company’s slow movement towards backing it up with content other than the not-terribly-popular iTunes download-to-own and partners like Netflix… it could be that they’re not going to take on the entire cable/satellite industry until they’re confident there’s a real opportunity, if not an absolute certainty, that they’ll win. What I see is a long game, where they roll out technologies like HTTP Live Streaming and AirPlay, see if they take, and let the pieces quietly get into place. Not a fiendish master plan… just preparing relevant technologies and partnerships so they can enter this war at a time and place of their choosing.

Dreaming of Streaming

Speaking of HTTP Live Streaming, one last point is to acknowledge what a tremendous success story this has been? Non-existent 5 years ago, it is now the technology that delivers all streaming video on the hundreds of millions of iOS devices, in a way that satisfies the security demands of the major media companies, sports leagues, etc. As I mentioned before, my iPad is full of video streaming apps, not just the various networks and content providers, but stuff like UStream that captures and streams live video.

The thing to start watching now is what happens with MPEG DASH, which resembles HTTP Live Streaming and similar technologies from Adobe (Adaptive Streaming) and Microsoft (Smooth Streaming), all of which use HTTP (rather than custom socket connections on frequently-blocked ports) to deliver small segments of video and adjust to changing network conditions. Streaming Media reports increasing support for the proposed DASH standard from many companies, but notably not Apple. Which makes sense in a cynical view — why let the competition catch up when content providers already have to go HLS to reach the massive iOS user base? A more practical concern is that DASH seems to want to make everybody happy by just wrapping some existing standards for codecs and manifest delivery, which may end up meaning that it just becomes the “15th standard”:

And speaking of HTTP Live Streaming, I’m preparing an all-new session on HLS for CocoaConf outside DC in late June. The early-bird deadline has been extended until this Friday (May 4), so if you want to see how cool this stuff is, you’ve still got time to save a few bucks.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put this Crunchyroll subscription to work and catch up on the subscriber-only new episodes, now that I just finished Angel Beats! from iTunes last night.

Holiday weekend anime binge

Please indulge me a personal entry for the holiday weekend… this one isn’t going to have any technical content, so if that’s what you read my blog for, please move on to the next entry in your feed.

I’ve mentioned in a couple of my WWDC entries that a big part of any of my trips to San Francisco is shopping time in Japantown, where I can get music, manga, and merch to sate my interest in anime and manga.

I’m not the only developer-by-day who’s into this stuff obviously. Google’s Steve Yegge had an epic blog a few years ago with anime that he and his wife had discovered over the last few years. I’ve been thinking about my own favorites list for a while, and having finally codified a top 5, I don’t really have a great place to put it, short of posting here and directing Twitter and Facebook friends back to it.

So, really, if you’re not interested in a really long entry about Japanese cartoons, stop now. Because I’m just getting started, and I want to get this out of the way before my turn on iDevBlogADay comes around again.

Motivations, Moods, and Models

So why do I like anime? It’s a mixture of things: the storytelling styles, the moods (do Americans ever do bittersweet? Do we have any mood that resembles mono no aware?), the set of cultural values that I’d sometimes like to trade up to, and other times am relieved I don’t share. But still, I’ve been watching the stuff since I was 6 years old, glued to Kimba the White Lion on channel 50 on a Summer’s day in 1974.

Many people cite the unique cultural influences in anime, but it’s also very much a product of economics and technology. What first drew me to anime was the heavy use of continuity: a 35-episode show like Macross had a definite beginning, middle, and end, while American shows, even putatively “adult” dramas, hit the “reset button” every episode so nothing ever changed. It’s not that the Japanese were better storytellers, it’s that the Americans made their money in second-run syndication (reruns on local stations), which worked against continuity. Until the satellite revolution launched by Entertainment Tonight in 1981 (not kidding… look it up), syndicated programs were ferried between stations by courier, a practice commonly called “bicycling”. A week’s worth of tapes or film reels would make its way around a region from week to week: maybe Detroit, then Lansing, then Grand Rapids, then Traverse City. But you couldn’t count on the couriers making their appointed rounds, nor could you count on local stations to run episodes in the right order. And a show with a distinct ending might not be worth watching again to the average viewer. So… reset button, every week.

In Japan, reruns weren’t a major economic consideration, as programs were largely broadcast by national or regional broadcasters. Moreover, a big part of the economic model of anime was selling tie-in merch, like Gundam model kits. All this works in favor of continuity: if Heero’s Wing Gundam gets destroyed halfway through the series, only to be replaced by Wing Zero a few episodes later, then every kid in Japan is going to want to buy the new toy. Crass? Sure. But it made for better stories, so I’ll take it.

As with anything, 90% of anime is crap. But the other 10% does something for me that I rarely, if ever, get from Western TV and movies. So, considering TV, OVAs, and movies together, here’s my personal top 5.

5. Cowboy Bebop

TV Series (26 episodes) • 1998 • Available on DVD from Bandai • Not available for streaming

Bull: That is not an ordinary star, my son. That star is the tear of a warrior.
Child: What warrior is it?
Bull: A lost soul who has finished his battle somewhere on this planet. A pitiful soul who could not find his way to the lofty realm where the great spirit awaits us all.

So, after a big long rant about continuity, here’s a show that’s largely episodic, and is all the better for it. The 30-minute drama is a rare creature, not seen much on these shores since The Twilight Zone. It’s a pity, because it’s a format that’s well-suited to tight, fast, engaging stories, without the fluff of a B- or C-plot that exists largely so every member of the cast can earn their paycheck for the week (paging Ice-T…). The 30-minute drama introduces a problem and quickly gets about complicating and eventually resolving it.

The things I liked in Rod Serling’s taut morality plays are often on display in Cowboy Bebop, a sci-fi mashup that borrows from Westerns, film noir, samurai movies, and yakuza stories. The tales of four mismatched down-on-their luck bounty hunters in a multicultural Solar System diaspora, the “job of the week” format rarely turns out as expected: often the “bounty head” is a pawn in a larger game, one which our protagonists lose as often as not.

And through it all, a sneaky continuity is built up despite itself. The three main characters all have a backstory, one that inevitably catches up with them, particularly in the bittersweet (there’s that word again) “Speak Like a Child”, and the series finale “The Real Folk Blues”, the last act of which is probably my favorite TV ending of all time.

Funny comedy, satisfying action, and one of the most distinctive and effective musical scores a TV show has ever enjoyed… no wonder the writers at the AV Club are doing a rewatch of Cowboy Bebop over the Summer.

4. Rumbling Hearts

TV Series (14 episodes) • 2003-4 • Available on DVD from Funimation • Available on iTunes • Available streaming YouTube (13 eps.), Hulu (2 eps), ANN (2 eps),

Akane: Everyone is determined to keep the truth from you! Everyone is lying to you! Even I’m lying! This uniform is a lie! I’m not in middle school anymore, and Takayuki isn’t in high school! He isn’t studying for the exam… he didn’t even take the exam!

You want to know something else that’s rare in American pop culture? Any kind of a romance genre targeted at men. Romance is a trait found in other genres, but as a genre unto itself, it’s completely and (arguably) exclusively aimed at women here. This is something I’ve written about before, in that visual novels fill this gap.

Rumbling Hearts is the TV adaptation of one of the most popular of these VNs/games. It is also emotionally devastating. It starts off with the sweet if not saccharine romance of Takayuki and Haruka, prodded on by Mitsuki, their mutual friend. Mitsuki then feels left out, and delays Takayuki on his way to a date with Haruka. When he finally arrives, he finds an accident scene: while waiting for him, Haruka was hit by a car, and has been rushed to the hospital.

The story jumps ahead three years: former star student Takayuki is now a mere waiter at a chain restaurant, former champion swimmer Mitsuki plugs away as an office lady, the two of them are in a semi-functional relationship, and Haruka is still in a coma. And then Haruka starts to wake up. With Haruka completely oblivious to the passage of time, and too mentally fragile to handle it yet, her doctor asks family and friends to act as if no time has passed. Which means that, as far as Haruka knows, Takayuki is still her classmate boyfriend (and not a reclusive washout), and Mitsuki is still her best friend (and not her cuckolder).

This. Can. Not. End. Well.

It’s a premise that screams “soap opera”, but the ruse is only really in play for about a third of Rumbling Hearts’ runtime (episodes 5-10, with 6 being mostly a flashback), just enough to be a great hook, while barely managing to not stretch credibility too far.

Credibility is a key factor in this series, because its detractors dismiss the characters’ behavior out of hand. While there are moments of exquisite sublety, there are also big moments where characters actions are beyond the pale, most infamously when Takayuki hits his lowest point of guilt and self-loathing and tries to spirit the comatose Haruka out of the hospital to attend a literary event she would surely want to see. For a rational person, it’s completely implausible and hard to swallow… but at this point, Takayuki isn’t a rational person: he’s a recluse whose entire life has collapsed around him. If you’ve known people this damaged (alcoholics, addicts, PTSDs), or suffered through tragedy yourself, then I think you’ll empathize with Takayuki, Mitsuki, and Haruka. If you find it completely ridiculous and implausible, then I suggest you consider the meaning of the old saying “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

3. Baccano!

TV Series (16 episodes) • 2007 • Available on DVD from Funimation, on Blu Ray from Aniplex • Available streaming from Netflix (all), YouTube (2 eps), Hulu (2 eps), ANN (2 eps)

Luck: It’s time for you to accept responsibility for what you’ve done. We found you a nice new home. You’ll all be staying at the bottom of the Hudson River.
Berga: Since I can’t just break your necks and be done with it, there’s really no other good way of finishing you scumbags off.

Cowboy Bebop‘s run on Adult Swim won over a fair number of non-anime fans who could enjoy the fast action and sly comedy. “Why don’t they make more anime like that,” they ask. Well, sometimes they do… but instead of picking it up, Adult Swim figured you’d rather watch another 50 episodes of Aqua Teen Hunger Force instead. You’re welcome.

What you missed is Baccano!, a show built of an utterly delightful insanity. Key to this is its warped structure: Baccano! has three marginally-related timelines, running in 1930, 1931, and 1932, which it tells simultaneously, meaning that characters share chronologically-established relationships that only fully make sense when you catch up to their how they’re established later. I mean earlier. See what I’m talking about? Oh, and it gets crazier: each of the three timelines starts with its ending, intercut, and then jumps back to the beginning. Oh, and some of the characters seem to be immortal, healing instantly from any injury, while others are trying to recreate an immortality elixir (cue the flashback to 1711), an activity that’s all too easily mistaken for bootlegging in 1930’s New York.

The show also has no readily identifiable main character. Instead, the opening credits identify 17 prominent characters, and that doesn’t even cover all the bases, due to some characters identities needing to stay secret for the first part of the show.

Baccano! is so twisted, the first episode largely exists to teach you how to watch the show, speechifying about how chronological order is the wrong way to follow the story.

So how is this fun? It’s because there’s so much going on, you have to just latch on to something you enjoy and roll with it, whether that’s the psychotic assassins, the young mafia prodigy, the goofy costumed thieves, the mysterious mute woman, or any of the rest of the unique characters. The action is fast, with a genuine sense of danger and menace, and quite a bit of gore. It would be repulsive if the show weren’t always offering the occasional saving grace, dangling tension while somehow assuring you that the right people would get theirs in the end (after all, if you want to spoil it for yourself, just mentally account for who’s still in one piece when you see the endings in episodes 1 and 2, and who from 1930 and 1931 is obvious by their absence in 1932).

2. The Castle of Cagliostro

Movie • 1979 • Available on DVD from Manga • Available on iTunes • Available streaming from YouTube, Hulu

Jigen: Who’re we chasing?
Lupin: The girl!
Jigen: That figures.

For sheer fun, I find it hard to top this movie, which marked the feature film debut of director Hayao Miyazaki and the second theatrical appearance of Lupin the 3rd, the “gentleman thief” hero of a long-running manga series (previously adapted into several TV series, which also featured some of Miyazaki’s early directorial work). It’s an eminently approachable film, picked by AV Club as a Gateway to Geekery, as it scratches the same sort of “popcorn fun” itch as Indiana Jones (the first three, anyways), or James Bond, a comparison made obvious in this reworked trailer AMV.

The psuedo-Bond trailer reminds me of how much action is in this movie, because to modern eyes, what’s striking about TCoC is how slow it’s willing to be. Lupin’s visit to the burned-out royal mansion, his intelligence-gathering dinner with Jigen, even his rooftop hijinks are willing to take it slow; the audience doesn’t need to be pounded with something exploding every four minutes. Instead, it lets us get interested in the plight of imprisoned Princess Clarice, the mysteries of the Cagliostro family and how they’ve cast a shadow over the world for centuries, the story of Lupin’s first visit to the tiny duchy… all these interesting bits are doled out and leave us eager to learn more of this charming place and its dark secrets. Indeed, it’s hard to think of movies with a better sense of “place”… there’s a sense of rightness to the layout of the Castle and its inner workings (the obvious aqueducts and hidden catacombs), the surrounding grounds, and the village, all of which lends a surprising authenticity.

Yeah, and beyond that, there’s some inventive sneaking around, stealing, snooping, chasing, breaking, falling, shooting, and yes, a fair number of explosions.

And here’s something surprising: the whole movie is on YouTube, for free, right now. Watch the first ten minutes, through the iconic car chase, and I bet you’ll be hooked.

1. Fullmetal Alchemist

TV Series (51 episodes) • 2003-4 • Available on DVD from Funimation • Available on iTunes • Available streaming from Netflix (all), YouTube (all [subtitled only]), Hulu (4 eps.)

Alphonse: We had no idea what the future would hold, but we knew there was no turning back. So, on the day we left, we burned down the family home, and all the familiar things inside, because some memories aren’t meant to leave traces.

If you remember that I used to do a podcast about this show, yeah, it’s a pretty obvious pick for my #1. It still holds up marvelously well, even in light of a reboot, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, which was more true to the original manga than the 2003 series, particularly because the first series only had about six volumes of manga to work from, getting them to about episode 27, before they had to find their own way to a conclusion to the quest of Edward and Alphonse — the former with a mechanical leg and arm, the latter a disembodied soul inhabiting a suit of armor — for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone that will make them whole again.

For my money, the first anime is a better story than its source material. While manga-ka Hiromu Arakawa looked for ways to broaden the scope of FMA to have a nice long run in the pages of Shonen Gangan, the anime faced the opposite problem: wrapping it all up in the last 20 episodes or so. So while the manga piles on more characters and locations, getting further and further away from Ed and Al, the anime draws more connections between the characters it already has, creating bonds that were never supposed to be there. And its better for it, because everything comes back to the lead characters, Ed and Al. For a show where family is one of the major themes, it’s more satisfying to have nearly half of the villains (Envy, Sloth, and Dante) have a familial relationship with the brothers, twisted though it is through the alchemic taboo of human transmutation. New lines drawn by the anime also connect rival villains Lust and Scar, and get great mileage out of once-throwaway characters like Rosé and Shou Tucker. Remember, when Anime News Network’s Zac Bertschy said of FMA, “once you hit the second season it’s all gravy”, he was talking about the material that is unique to the TV series. Talk about adaptation distillation!

But whatever version we’re talking about, FMA enjoys an ideal mix of fantasy, action, humor, and heart. There’s a deft balancing of the charming and the tragic, the sweet and the horrifying… so that the charm sets you up that much more for the loss, and then redeems with cathartic release later on. It’s also built on two major themes: family, as mentioned above, and “equivalent exchange”. While this exists in the story as a pseudo-scientific explanation for the seeming magic of alchemy, it also represents the show’s metaphysics. The brothers’ coming of age is an equivalent exchange, trading innocence for experience, naiveté for knowledge. And it’s the least annoying quest story I’ve ever seen: while achieving or failing to achieve the goal in this format is usually a huge letdown, FMA actually delivers the Philosopher’s Stone about two-thirds of the way through the series, in a most unexpected way, and in a radical change of the show’s premise, which puts it on the path to its eventual conclusion.

One more thing…

Enjoying these stories is one thing, participating in them is another. I’m amused and flattered and delighted to have been selected as one of the extras for the voice cast of JesuOtaku’s Fruits Basket audio drama, which is adapting the popular shoujo manga as a weekly audio series. As an extra, I don’t have a defined role, but will instead be popping up every now and then as a “Drunk Businessman 2”, “Office Guy”, or wherever else JO finds use for a 44-year old male voice. There are 15 male and 15 female extras, so I personally won’t have that much to do (I didn’t even read for any parts in episodes 2 or 3), but I look forward to finding a voice for a new supernumerary every now and then.

It should be a fun project. Check out her trailer. She’s got some great voices cast in the leads (particularly the female lead, Tohru, which couldn’t have been easy to cast). Given that the anime of this popular series is widely considered something of a disappointment, the show could fill a very significant gap for fans of the manga.

Oh yeah, I have to read that now too. ^.^

Also, Steve Yegge’s blog had a bunch of these Amazon Associate links, and while I’ve never done that before, I thought now would be a reasonable time to try them out. Hope they’re not too obnoxious…

An Encoder Is Not A State Machine

I’m pleasantly surprised that Google’s removal of H.264 from Chrome in favor of WebM has been greeted with widespread skepticism. You’d think that removing popular and important functionality from a shipping product would be met with scorn, but when Google wraps itself with the “open” buzzword, they often seem to get a pass.

Ars Technica’s Google’s dropping H.264 from Chrome a step backward for openness has been much cited as a strong argument against the move. It makes the important point that video codecs extend far beyond the web, and that H.264’s deep adoption in satellite, cable, physical media, and small devices make it clearly inextricable, no matter how popular WebM might get on the web (which, thusfar, is not much). It concludes that this move makes Flash more valuable and viable as a fallback position.

And while I agree with all of this, I still find that most of the discussion has been written from the software developer’s point of view. And that’s a huge mistake, because it overlooks the people who are actually using video codecs: content producers and distributors.

And have they been clamoring for a new codec? One that is more “open”? No, no they have not. As Streaming Media columnist Jan Ozer laments in Welcome to the Two-Codec World,

I also know that whatever leverage Google uses, they still haven’t created any positive reason to distribute video in WebM format. They haven’t created any new revenue opportunities, opened any new markets or increased the size of the pie. They’ve just made it more expensive to get your share, all in the highly ethereal pursuit of “open codec technologies.” So, if you do check your wallet, sometime soon, you’ll start to see less money in it, courtesy of Google.

I’m grateful that Ozer has called out the vapidity of WebM proponents gushing about the “openness” of the VP8 codec. It reminds me of John Gruber’s jab (regarding Android) that Google was “drunk on its own keyword”. What’s most atrocious to me about VP8 is that open-source has trumped clarity, implementability, and standardization. VP8 apparently only exists as a code-base, not as a technical standard that could, at least in theory, be re-implemented by a third party. As the much-cited first in-depth technical analysis of VP8 said:

The spec consists largely of C code copy-pasted from the VP8 source code — up to and including TODOs, “optimizations”, and even C-specific hacks, such as workarounds for the undefined behavior of signed right shift on negative numbers. In many places it is simply outright opaque. Copy-pasted C code is not a spec. I may have complained about the H.264 spec being overly verbose, but at least it’s precise. The VP8 spec, by comparison, is imprecise, unclear, and overly short, leaving many portions of the format very vaguely explained. Some parts even explicitly refuse to fully explain a particular feature, pointing to highly-optimized, nigh-impossible-to-understand reference code for an explanation. There’s no way in hell anyone could write a decoder solely with this spec alone.

Remember that even Microsoft’s VC-1 was presented and ratified as an actual SMPTE standard. One can also contrast the slop of code that is VP8 with the strategic designs of MPEG with all their codecs, standardizing decoding while permitting any encoder that produces a compliant stream that plays on the reference decoder.

This matters because of something that developers have a hard time grasping: an encoder is not a state machine. Meaning that there need not, and probably should not be, a single base encoder. An obvious example of this is the various use cases for video. A DVD or Blu-Ray disc is encoded once and played thousands or millions of times. In this scenario, it is perfectly acceptable for the encode process to require expensive hardware, a long encode time, a professional encoder, and so on, since those costs are easily recouped and are only needed once. By contrast, video used in a video-conferencing style application requires fairly modest hardware, real-time encoding, and can make few if any demands of the user. Under the MPEG-LA game-plan, the market optimizes for both of these use cases. But when there is no standard other than the code, it is highly unlikely that any implementations will vary much from that code.

Developers also don’t understand that professional encoding is something of an art, that codecs and different encoding software and hardware have distinct behaviors that can be mastered and exploited. In fact, early Blu-Ray discs were often authored with MPEG-2 rather than the more advanced H.264 and VC-1 because the encoders — both the devices and the people operating them — had deeper support for and a better understanding of MPEG-2. Assuming that VP8 is equivalent to H.264 on any technical basis overlooks these human factors, the idea that people now know how to get the most out of H.264, and have little reason to achieve a similar mastery of VP8.

Also, MPEG rightly boasts that ongoing encoder improvements over time allow for users to enjoy the same quality at progressively lower bitrates. It is not likely that VP8 can do the same, so while it may be competitive (at best) with H.264, it won’t necessarily stay that way.

Furthermore, is the MPEG-LA way really so bad? Here’s a line from a review in the Discrete Cosine blog of VP8 back when On2 was still trying to sell it as a commercial product:

On2 is advertising VP8 as an alternative to the mucky patent world of the MPEG licensing association, but that process isn’t nearly as difficult to traverse as they imply, and I doubt the costs to get a license for H.264 are significantly different than the costs to license VP8.

The great benefit of ISO standards like VC-1 and H.264 is that anyone can go get a reference encoder or reference decoder, with the full source code, and hack on their own product. When it times come to ship, they just send the MPEG-LA a dollar (or whatever) for each copy and everyone is happy.

It’s hard to understand what benefits the “openness” of VP8 will ever really provide. Even if it does end up being cheaper than licensing H.264 from MPEG-LA — and even if the licensing body would have demanded royalty payments had H.264 not been challenged by VP8 — proponents overlook the fact that the production and distribution of video is always an enormously expensive endeavor. 15 years ago, I was taught that “good video starts at a thousand dollars a minute”, and we’d expect the number is at least twice that today, just for a minimal level of technical competence. Given that, the costs of H.264 are a drop in the bucket, too small to seriously affect anyone’s behavior. And if not cost, then what else does “openness” deliver? Is there value in forking VP8, to create another even less compatible codec?

In the end, maybe what bugs me is the presumption that software developers like the brain trust at Google know what’s best for everyone else. But assuming that “open source” will be valuable to video professionals is like saying that the assembly line should be great for software development because it worked for Henry Ford.

Apparently, you *are* entitled to your own facts now

Everything you read in newspapers is absolutely true, except for that rare story of which you happen to have first-hand knowledge. ~Erwin Knoll

I ended up spending a fair amount of time disproving an obviously wrong newspaper story last night. It didn’t work.

In college, I was a member of the Stanford Band, a group I keep up with via Facebook and alumni e-mails. They were featured in a Miami Herald front page story this weekend, about their antics and their upcoming performance at the Orange Bowl pregame.

Imagine my surprise when the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Band was banned from performing at halftime. Surprised, because the story is totally wrong.

The Chron story sources an MSNBC story, which itself cites no sources, and whose URL suggests it is a local affil item submitted to MSNBC. The MSNBC story’s facts are all from the Miami Herald write, and is likely its only source, and uncredited at that. Here’s the last two grafs of the Herald write:

South Florida is not exactly Arkansas, but cautious Orange Bowl organizers have reduced the opportunity for indignity by keeping both college bands off the field at halftime; they’ll be restricted to brief, six-minute pregame shows.

Stanford Band bosses are keeping mum about their plans, saying only that the show is titled Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami. Look out, LeBron.

This omits a crucial fact — Orange Bowl halftimes are always gala affairs that do not involve the marching bands — but this is written around in an amusing tone that’s consistent with the rest of the article.

The MSNBC affil didn’t pick up that fact, or on the light tone, and took those last grafs for their lead:

Fearing an en masse pants drop, or just wanting to protect their newest celeb athlete, LeBron James, from OJ Simpson-style mockery, the Orange Bowl administrators have decided to keep the bawdy Stanford Band from performing at halftime.

MSNBC picked a few highlights of the Band’s antics for the body of their article, then returned to the “banning” in their last grafs:

Denying the Stanford Band a stage also denies Virginia Tech one. The Orange Bowl will only allow the teams’ bands to perform in six-minute bursts before kickoff.

The Band’s show is entitled “Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami.”

Whose talents could possibly be targeted, er, featured?

Using the MSNBC write as its only source – and with apparently no vetting of the facts via a local call to Stanford’s athletics department – the Chronicle turns the lightweight kicker from the Herald into a hard lead:

Orange Bowl administrators, determined to make tonight’s matchup between No. 5 Stanford and No. 12 Virginia Tech less entertaining, have decided to bar Stanford’s irreverent band from performing at halftime.

The move comes after the band announced its show was entitled: “Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami.”

This is where I got involved. Hopping into the article’s comments section, I posted a series of followups, determined to prove the article false. The last comment I posted linked to four sources that could completely dispel the story:

I also e-mailed the writer of the article. I would have thought this would be enough to get the article – demonstrably and totally wrong – retracted.

Instead, it’s still on SFGate’s front page the next morning:

Obviously, this has hit a nerve with me. I can’t help it: I used to be an editor. When ESPN ScoreCenter sent me a push notification of the game’s final score, including the text “A. Luck(STAN) 4TD, 0INT”, my first thought was “Bullshit, he threw a pick in the second quarter.” Loyalties be damned, A is still A.

To see a major newspaper so sloppy and so obviously wrong is shameful. When I was writing and editing at CNN, if I had ever used a single source, which cited none of its own sources, with no vetting and no common sense fact-checking, I’d have been busted back to separating carbons in the printer room within a week.

Frankly, I’m going to get a good chuckle the next time one of the Chron’s 27 liberal columnists complains about obvious falsehoods on Fox News. It should also rankle that Wikipedia gets this more right than the Chron does. From a overnight edit to the Stanford Band article:

Despite Twitter rumors to the contrary, the band was not banned from performing during the 2011 Orange Bowl halftime. The Orange Bowl traditionally has major-label recording artists perform the halftime show, not school marching bands (The Goo Goo Dolls performed the 2011 show). They did, however perform during pregame, which was briefly shown on the game’s national broadcast. The theme of that show was “Recent Events in the Pro Sports World in Miami.”

Yesterday was a really rough day for me in terms of getting things straight. I also, perhaps foolishly, hopped into discussions of a Detroit Free Press article discussing the possibility that Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh could be the one to turn around the University of Michigan’s slumping football program. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for that here in Michigan, and I’ve been trying to throw cold water on it. Sure, I’m motivated by the implicit slight to Stanford. But moreover, it’s not a given that Harbaugh would want to give up a top-5 program that he’s built in order to start over with a reclamation project, one that he pointedly insulted a few years ago. It would, you’d think, at least take a dump truck of money. Moreover, a number of NFL teams are openly courting Harbaugh. I posted comments with links to articles indicating the 49ers, Broncos, and Panthers were openly pursuing him, along with a nice New York Times profile that covered Harbaugh’s options.

The result? A lot of people calling me various names, and one poster in particular who insisted repeatedly that it didn’t matter because Michigan had already hired Harbaugh a month ago. Now how does this even pass Occam’s Razor? Why would the NFL teams waste time and money, and a chance to land coaches who are actually available, if U-M had already secured Harbaugh’s services, or even thought they had? Why would anyone even be talking about it if it were a done deal? It can’t be, not yet anyways, and yet this guy stuck to his guns.

And yet, how is that any different from the Chron? There’s no penalty to being obviously wrong. When the facts aren’t on your side, just yell louder. The Big Lie works, in part because people believe what they want to believe. The Chron’s totally wrong article has been shared to Facebook nearly 1,700 times as of this writing.

We all know the internet is a breeding ground for ignorance, that you can find seemingly reputable sources for whatever stupid nonsense you care to believe (Obama’s not really American, 9/11 was an inside job, the CIA created AIDS to kill black people, etc.), but it’s still ghastly to see it in action.

My local paper recently declared it’s getting tough with trolls in its forums, and while I wish them the best, I wonder if it isn’t better in the long run to just ditch user comments altogether. I find I enjoy the consistent voice of an author – Daring Fireball is the obvious example of this in the Mac/iOS world – whereas I rarely find anything of value in feedback forums, just a mudslinging scrum among various partisans.

Comments should allow for readers to communicate back to publishers, and could provide a valuable means correcting bad information. And as professionals, publishers should want to be right: it’s the only thing that distinguishes them from any random Joe with a website.

But that’s where we started. I tried correcting them. It didn’t work. And the Chron is still happily collecting hits on an article that’s demonstrably and totally wrong.

Choose These Adventures

I’m planning to spend part of the holidays doing some serious reading on the iPad, but not with iBooks, Kindle, Stanza or the like. Let me explain.

Visual Novels are a electronic narrative format from Japan that, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit, are appearing in greater frequency on iOS devices. Visual novels are a first-person narrative with the reader experiencing the story first-hand, and which the text of a story atop digital artwork showing the settings and active characters (who may or may not also have their spoken lines delivered as digital audio). In some cases, the reader makes a limited number of choices, branching the story in a style similar to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. In the Japanese taxonomy, introduction of any interactive elements makes a story an “adventure game”, but in the West, the term “visual novel” is preferred for these cases with a small number of interactions, to contrast with the tradition Western adventure games that require constant interaction, puzzles, inventory, etc.

The form has never really caught on in the West, initially for lack of access. Unlike game genres like racing and fighting that can be fairly well enjoyed by importers who can’t read the small amount of Japanese text in the menus, visual novels are all about the text, and therefore aren’t import-friendly and instead present a massive localization challenge. Since every possible branch through the story will have different text, the complete text of a visual novel is potentially much longer than a typical book: this thread shows some typical visual novels with a word count exceeding that of The Lord of the Rings, with longer works being several times that. Of course, this means that paying by the word for localization becomes enormously expensive, prohibitively so for a niche genre that few in the West even know about.

Still, a few companies have tried to make a go of it in Western markets. A company called Hirameki International localized several visual novels that were released as standard DVDs, playable/readable on any DVD player. It didn’t pan out and the company ceased releases in 2008. A few other companies translate adults-only erotic titles (“eroge”, a contraction of “erotic game”) for PC; these include Peach Princess and JAST-USA. They at least seem to be doing well enough to continue to put out new titles each year and buy advertising in anime magazines and on websites.

However, the emergence of iOS may open up of new doors for visual novels in the West, as it represents the convergence of several factors vital to the genre’s success. First and foremost is access to an audience: tens of millions of Americans, Europeans, and Australasians own iOS devices, and can easily find new titles through the App Store, more easily than they could through small companies with limited retail distribution (Hirameki) or effectively no retail at all (the eroge companies).

I went looking for visual novels in the App Store and realized I could much more easily find them by searching iTunes’ web pages, rather than using the search field in iTunes or the App Store on my iPad. Use your favorite search engine with a term like “visual novel” and you seem to be able to perform deeper and more sophisticated searches, and get more interesting “related” links, than is possible with just the search bar in Apple’s apps.

(As an aside, related links in a search for visual novels is what led me to Electro Master, a loving (if not deeply replayable) tribute by a Japanese indie developer to the era of 8-bit gaming, complete with a mimicry of the Namco startup sequence.)

Visual novels are also helped by the nature of iOS devices themselves. In my mind, sitting down at a desk and spinning up the computer is something of a turnoff as a prerequisite for reading a story. The iPad, of course, is exceptionally well-suited to casual reading around the house, while the iPhone and iPod are always-available devices, tucked away in a pocket or purse and easily pulled out for a brief diversion. Japan’s developers embraced mobile devices long ago and readily adapt their work for mobile, and often design it for mobile devices in the first place. Add to this the popularity of iOS in Japan, and you’ve got a fertile environment for this format to grow.

But having discussed the format and the business around visual novels at length, it’s well worth asking whether any of these stories are actually any good, and any different from other kinds of fiction and gaming. Like any genre, there’s plenty of junk mixed in with the good stuff, but the good stuff is truly remarkable. A recent Kotaku article, How Erotic Games Learned To Cry discusses nakige, a sub-genre that developed from eroge and uses the player’s romantic and sexual interaction with the characters to intensify feelings of sadness and melancholy (the term is a clever portmanteau, turning nukige, “games to masturbate to”, into nakige, “games to cry to”).

What’s remarkable about this is that so many of these games are male-oriented stories that involve matters of the heart… a combination that is almost non-existent in the US. The American genre of “romance” is almost exclusively targeted to women, and there simply isn’t a male equivalent. In a Twitter exchange with a Japanese visual novel author, I mentioned this phenomenon, and from what he knew about American media, the closest thing he could think of to male-oriented romantic stories in American media is the “American Pie” movies. And it’s remarkable because he’s kind of right!

The ways in which Japanese visual novels and adventure games involve the reader/player are strikingly different than their Western equivalents. Consider the adventure game: with the Western version, in the tradition of, say, LucasArts and Telltale games, the appeal and the interaction is almost entirely intellectual. You solve puzzles to move the game along, and the left brain is often further tickled with smart humor, a crackling wit best exemplified by games like Sam & Max or Monkey Island. In the Japanese games, much of the interaction is emotional: instead of puzzling over how to open a door, you’re tasked with choosing the right girl, not breaking someone’s heart, enduring a personal tragedy, and so on. Personally, this is why I’ve long gravitated towards the Japanese styles of storytelling in anime, manga, and games: the mixture of charm, bittersweetness, and melancholy is moving in ways that Western games and genre works (sci-fi, fantasy) rarely even attempt (the relaunched Doctor Who being a much-appreciated exception). Put simply, if you’re not in tears when the end credits song of Final Fantasy X rolls, you’re doing it wrong.

I think visual novels are also helped by the fact that they can be created by fairly small teams. Once you start putting a lot of people and money into something creative, it gets harder and harder to have a point or say anything controversial: the process naturally erases the distinctive voice of any of its creators. Visual novels require fairly straightforward programming skills (and there are toolkits that reduce it to very simple scripting), along with writing and drawing. A multi-talented individual could create a visual novel, though it’s more common to have small teams with assigned roles: writer, artist, etc. Still, for the development cost of a single blockbuster title, you could have many visual novels, each with its own unique voice and point of view. The low development costs are also likely to be a asset in the App Store era of ever collapsing prices, where $1.99 is too dear for some shoppers.

So where to begin with iOS visual novels? The trick right now is finding competent localizations. A few games have apparently been localized into English with machine translation, and the results are predictably hideous. Gift was a fairly successful visual novel in its Japanese release, but it won’t pick up many Western fans when its characters talk like this:

(Update: I can’t find “Gift(EN)Lite” in the App Store anymore… perhaps it was pulled?)

Much better are the titles where creators have cared enough to work on a genuine English translation. My favorite iOS visual novel so far is Kisaragi (Eng) Lite, a free sample from the paid game Kisaragi no Hogyoku. The story involves a high school with some strange traditions — such as the compulsory pairings of senior and junior classmates as couples — which relate to a mysterious artifact (the “kisaragi” of the title). It’s hard to tell from the first chapter if the story is headed towards fantasy, horror, romance, some combination thereof, or something else entirely. I’m mostly in at this point just because of the competent translation. It’s surprisingly nuanced, such as introducing a foreign character who stands out by her slightly-too-direct speaking style (what, she’s using dictionary form instead of -masu?)

In an interesting note, a crowd-sourced translation project of Kisaragi is underway, with the developers’ blessings. I’m hopeful this will eventually result in a release of the full game to the App Store.

I’m also reading the lite (free) version Kira☆Kira(eng), which has yet to win me over, but is well-reviewed and has a far more competent translation that its App Store description would suggest. Note, by the way, this is completely unrelated to Kira*Kira, which uses an asterisk in its name rather than the Unicode white star character.

Ripples is also worth mentioning. This short (10 minute) story is probably too insubstantial to deserve its change-of-heart ending — usually in visual novels you typically have to earn your love against the backdrop of a critical illness/injury or a centuries-old curse — but it’s noteworthy as it seems to be a Western creation in the style of the Japanese novels, using the same development tools as the big ones. It’s certainly a good start.

I’ll wrap up with a couple links to other visual novels I’ve found for iOS, and a few sites with more news and information about the format.

It’s a start. As the iOS platform grows, we’ve got a good chance of seeing the top-tier visual novels: Key’s Air, Clannad, and Kanon, âge’s Kimi ga Nozomu Eien (aka, Rumbling Hearts), and Type-Moon’s Fate/Stay Night. Researching this blog, I discovered that the best-seller HIGURASHI When They Cry has been ported to iOS with an English translation, so it’s not unreasonable to hope that other top-tier visual novels may make it all the way to Western iPhones, iPods, and iPads.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do.

Droidies’ Home Journal

Outrage du jour is the tale of a Danish app maker whose Android magazine app was rejected by Apple.

App rejection stories are fun because they get everyone’s hair up in a dander. There’s something for everyone to hate in Apple’s App Approval Guidelines, and the restrictions on content are especially pernicious and ridiculous. One that bugs me, for example: you can buy the heartbreaking anime series Rumbling Hearts on iTunes, complete with its handful of sex scenes, but the original visual novel it was based on would not be permitted on the App Store, because of those same scenes.

The thing is, though, we’ve sort of already had this argument about the App Store policies, and we got to do so in detail when Apple put up an official set of policies a few months ago. One that got a lot of abuse was guideline 3.1, which says that apps that mention other mobile platforms in their metadata will get rejected. That’s petty, childish, and of dubious self-interest to Apple (are they really that threatened that, say, a game description might mention that it’s also available on WebOS and Android?).

But you know what? When the rule is that clear, and you violate it that obviously, what do you think is going to happen?

Sure, one could appeal to a sense of fairness and ask for Apple to bend the rules on this one… a single app isn’t going to make that big of a difference, right? But of course, this leads to the snowball argument: if these guys get a pass, then the next app to brazenly break the rules is going to expect a waiver too.

It’s a stupid rule, and these guys broke it in a very presumptuous and obvious way. They can be disappointed, but they can’t be surprised.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what the point of all this really is? Are there really a lot of iPad owners who want to read about Android development? Oh, I can only imagine the kinds of articles that would go in an Android magazine.

  • Stealing Angry Birds IP For Fun And Profit
  • Our 10 Favorite Screen Dimensions
  • How Railing Against Apple Proves You Are An Independent Thinker And In No Way A Corporate Tool (a special advertising section provided by Google)
  • Five Games You Can Write Without Resorting To Native Code (Six If You Count Hangman)
  • Healthy Snacks You Can Make While Your App Starts Up
  • How To Write Your First Unremovable Carrier Crapware App
  • Eye Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Ads That Involve Getting Metal In Your Eye

Totally looking forward to the inevitable Flash version of this. Totally.