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Capitulation

So, this happened:

Yes, I bought a new Mac Pro. For certain values of “new”. Hear me out, though, after the jump.

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Girly Stuff

So, I see from Janie Clayton-Hasz’s blog that That Conference managed to deliver a ham-handed and offensive keynote, detailed in blow-by-blow fashion by her tweets (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), the most egregious of which is the seeming equating of Gray’s Anatomy with “girly stuff”, and the unstated but strongly implied premise that “girly stuff is bad”.

FFS, why do we still put up with this?

Actually, it kind of reminds me of a Twitter or App.net exchange that Janie and I had some months back, in which I argued that we really ought to stop using “dude in a dress” as a comedy trope, not just out of fairness to LGBTQs, but out of fairness to women. The premise that men in drag is funny is based on feminine things being weak or inferior, and male things being strong and superior. So a man choosing female traits — whether clothing or Grey’s Anatomy — is therefore ridiculous.

IMO, women who laugh at men in drag are putting themselves down.

Since Janie mentions my love of anime in her blog, I’ll mention here that this is perfectly captured in an anime called Wandering Son, a fairly realistic series about young teenage transgenders, a boy who wants to be a girl and his close friend, a girl who wants to be a boy. The anime series is quite short at 11 episodes, and assumes you know the characters from the manga, as it hops right into a pivotal plotline involving a female upperclassman who gets praised for showing up to school in a boy’s uniform, but when Nitorin wears a girls’ uniform in public, he’s ridiculed so mercilessly he can no longer attend class and has to spend every day in hiding in the school infirmary.

Wandering Son, ep 9 - Nitori attends school in girls uniform

This is because, of course, masculine stuff is good, and feminine stuff is bad. As if the ideas and experiences of half the human race are inherently inferior.

FFS, when do we get to be over this crap?

Just last week, we were at CocoaConf Columbus, where keynoter Mark Dalrymple encouraged attendees to pursue and make the most of their passions and pursuits. This led Janie to an interesting blog about her cross-stitching and a wry metaphor in her Open GL / GPUImage / Metal session that she’s been a human vertex shader for the last 25 years, and that cross-stitching actually makes for a pretty nice, concrete explanation of how to do computer graphics.

One that we wouldn’t have gotten if CocoaConf attendees had a problem with “girly stuff”.

Game of Clowns

CocoaConf Columbus was last week, and as has been the tradition for the last year or so, I participated in The CocoaConf Game Show, a take off on the BBC Radio panel show Just a Minute, in which panelists have to speak extemporaneously on an arbitrary topic, without pauses, going off-topic, or even repeating words not in the topic itself.

I’m not nearly quick-witted enough for this, certainly not as much so as regular panelists James Dempsey or Josh Smith, but I try to hang in there. Or maybe I’m just always tired at the end of the conference (this time from staying up late the night before with Janie Clayton-Hasz and Laura Hart watching Adolescence of Utena, because anime).

Anyways, point here is that I have to come up with something funny (and not pause or repeat any words) on an arbitrary topic. Turns out it’s better to just do something silly with it, but when you get a topic that really matters to you, that’s another story…

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13½th Mac

Before I’m even done updating all the copies of my bio to say I’ve owned 12½ Macs over the years, now I’m up to 13½.

I have a Mac Mini that’s on 24/7 to perform various server duties — most importantly, it’s an in-house Subversion server, but it has also been a Time Capsule remote backup and a public web server (when I feel like messing with port mapping on the DSL modem and wifi router). Since it’s on all the time, I don’t mind the kids playing their stuff on it, and they complained a few times over the past month that it got hung up on login. I figured it was the usual disk issues that come with time, but when I found that it took four tries to boot from DVD, I started to suspect that the logic board or memory was about to go, and I needed to move.

So, here’s the new Mini getting set up:

Migrating from old Mini to new

Note that the old Mini started life in 2006 as a Core Solo, and is the one that I levelled up with a Core 2 Duo in 2007. So my crappy thermal paste job held up for five years… not bad.

The new one seems really slow for a brand-new i5, but that may be my being spoiled by SSDs on my Mac Pro and new MacBook Air. Also, this is the bottom-of-the-line machine with integrated graphics that uses system RAM for graphics memory, so it’s a no-brainer to head over to Crucial or NewEgg to get 8GB tout suite.

Speaking of the Air, funny story there… remember, this is a 2011 Air that I bought the week before WWDC in order to teach a class, because I believe in buying what you need when you need it, and not trying to game retailer’s return policy when a new machine comes out. Thing is, the Air had some sort of severe problem where it would just black out — not shut down, not kernel panic, just entirely turn off — and come back up from a cold boot with the clock set to 1/1/12 00:00:00 GMT. That’s either a bad SMC, bad battery, or something else seriously wrong.

I took it to the Genius Bar in Grand Rapids, perhaps fortunate that it had blacked out with the lid closed on the way home from last week’s class in Detroit. I knew that from the system log, where there was one last entry from around 10:30 PM Monday (which would have been while I was driving home), and the next one was a boot at 1/1/12 00:00:00 GMT. Problems that come and go are a bitch to demonstrate to a seller, but this one could be documented, and once the geniuses hooked up the diagnostics, the battery test failed. In the end, they decided it was more trouble than it was worth to fix, and called me the next day to send me home with a new Air. I’d have been happy with a refurb 2011 Air — all I need is something that works and is equivalent to what I bought — but it turns out I came home with the 2012, with all its USB 3 goodness. I’ve heard of stories like this, maybe a little concerned that Apple has set customer expectations of special treatment, so I set my own expectations lower.

After all, optimists can never be pleasantly surprised.

Naming scheme update on the Mini: the old one was Dagger, with external partitions Eiko and Freya. Rather than using the next name in the well-established series — Yuna is already in use, and I’d like to save Ashe for a new Mac Pro someday — I switched to Dagger’s other name, Garnet. For anyone who doesn’t understand (and actually wants to), here ya go.

Notes on “A Moral Code Cast in Steel”

The Prags started a forum for readers to discuss their thoughts about Steve Jobs, following his death yesterday, and asked some of their writers to prime the pump with some initial posts.

Mine, A Moral Code Cast in Steel, takes its inspiration from a quote from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, about the expression of human genius and creativity in the form of physical things, the things we create.

It’s a dicey book to be quoting because there are a lot of people who hate, absolutely hate, Ayn Rand, and to co-opt a dead person and attach them to the selling of a product or belief system is potentially tasteless and offensive (yes, irony, thanks for noticing). And some of the objectivists doing so are being pretty ham-handed about it. The only reason I thought it was OK to proceed with is because we have that interview of Steve Wozniak saying that Jobs was inspired by Atlas Shrugged in his youth. That’s a sterling source, and easily verifiable, and that made the Jobs-Atlas analogy a viable and fair angle to take.

Plus, I think the central points really hold: that the will and ingenuity of the creator can be perceived in his or her works (indeed, it is what separates them from being raw materials), and that Jobs was particularly fascinating in finding inspiration and truth from many different sources: East and West, spiritual and physical, technology and liberal arts.

Of course, one can’t help but bring one’s own beliefs to the table. Here’s the scene immediately to my left while I work (click for full-size):

Standing desk flanked by bookcases with Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Tezuka's Buddha

Anyways, Bill got on board back in the NeXT days, and he’s got a great post too, so be sure to check that out.

Three Audio Game Proposals

So, I was reading Scott Steinberg’s Music Games Rock (free PDF and $3 for Kindle or iBooks… how can you not), and it rekindled a bunch of memories not only of great games of my youth and adulthood, but it also kicked loose a few ideas from the dusty cobwebs of memory that had been set aside to think about.

Some of these might be viable, some not, but I’m never going to get around to doing them myself, so why not let them out. Ideas are cheap, execution is everything. Besides, there are one or two novelties in here that I would be pissed to see someone patent — the premise of patenting loose ideas being sickening enough already — so I seldom pass up the opportunity to post some “prior art” when I can.

The common thread here: using the microphone for new gaming experiences. The mic is criminally underutilized, and can do more than just convey insults and slander to fellow gamers across the ether. So here goes…


Jeopardy!

No, not my idea obviously. The game show dates back to the 60’s, and to the early 80’s in the Alex Trebek incarnation. And since the late 80’s, there have been electronic game versions for computers and game systems. And in all that time, none of them have gotten the one defining trait of the game right: they don’t allow for free spoken-word response.

I get that this hasn’t been practical before, and so the UI had to cope. The first Jeopardy! I played was on the Sega Genesis, where you had to punitively spell out your response one letter at a time with the D-pad and action buttons, trying to remember which button accepted a letter and which entered the whole response. In the early 90’s, the CD-i (of all things!) developed a superior UI where you’d begin to compose a response from a grid of letters on the left side of the screen, and get a list of completions (some irrelevant, and some clearly meant as red herrings) on the right. It’s a good UI scheme: the search function on my DirecTV DVR and Apple TV works exactly this way. And so it’s strange that some subsequent versions of Jeopardy! have back-slid from this sensible approach.

But that was 1995. The CD-i was a 16 MHz machine with 1 MB of RAM. Our phones and consoles are hundreds of times more powerful today. So why in the name of Moore’s Law can nobody release this game in a format that allows the player who rings in to simply speak their answer into a microphone? If the current versions can match partial D-pad answers to plausible completions, and if dictation products can transcribe speech with a high level of accuracy, why can’t these things be combined to take the transcribed speech and match it against the answer set? Sure, it’s harder than that, but we have lots of smart people and lots of CPU cycles.

The Wii version of Jeopardy apparently does use the optional Wii microphone, but reviews point out that in this mode, the answers are multiple choice, which completely changes the nature of the game by taking away the risk and wonder of free response, which is the whole point of the game.

Maybe the smart people who write Kinect games will figure this out, since they seem to be among the most able and willing to advance gaming right now. If they do, I hope they learn one other lesson from the CD-i version: write out the used questions to permanent storage and don’t use those questions again. A single game of Jeopardy uses up 60 questions, so if you start with a database of 2,000 questions, getting repeats after a few games is highly likely unless you’re smart enough to code defensively.

Anyways, getting back to audio…


Code Geass

Lelouch, a young outcast prince of Brittania, possesses two great powers. One of them is “geass”, the absolute ability to compel any person to do whatever he commands…

So begins the prologue to episode 9 of Code Geass, an entirely over-the-top action anime show whose best and worst moments are often one and the same.

The anti-hero is given this ability, “geass”, by which he’s able to use a sort of magical instant hypnosis to force anyone to do his bidding. For example, when he’s running around his school carrying the mask of his alter ego, Zero, and is encountered by students who recognize what they’ve seen, he can say “forget what you’ve just seen” and they do. The limit on this ability is that it can only ever be used once on a given individual.

Now imagine you had an RPG or sneak-em-up action style video game that gave you this ability, via your microphone, to give orders. Cornered by a guard, you could hit the “geass” button and say aloud “return to your post” or even “kill yourself” and have the NPC do exactly that. Now imagine designers getting clever with this ability: you solve a puzzle by telling an enemy who has a key you need “give me the key”. But maybe that leaves you on the wrong side of the level, or sets off an alarm, so instead you need to tell him “unlock this door from the other side”. But maybe you need to have him do two things for you, and you can only use the ability once on him, so, hmmm…

Again, surely a big technical challenge, and not unlike the old Infocom games in needing to parse natural language in a way that won’t seem utterly dense, but now with the added challenge of needing to pick the command out of an audio stream. But big challenges are what make this industry interesting.


Interactive Musicals

True story, and a long one. Back in college, my friend Mike Stemmle wrote his own adventure games, rich in comic book references and Stanford Band in-jokes, using a Mac and an application called World Builder. This ended up leading to him getting a job at LucasArts, back when they were cool and didn’t just whore out Star Wars all day. As part of that process, they called me for a reference on him, and that led to my interviewing there too. I obviously didn’t end up working there, but in interviewing there on two occasions, I distinctly remember two interesting conversations.

The first is when I was talking with Kelly Flock, who headed up the group then (and later got prominent enough at Sony to merit thrashing from Penny Arcade, so that’s saying something…), and he had an interview question about plans they had at that point for doing an Indiana Jones adventure that involved a quest for the philosopher’s stone. My response was that I thought quest stories were usually boring as hell because the object of the quest was usually abstract, unsatisfying, and sometimes an utter macguffin anyways, which meant that the success or failure of the story depended on what happened along the way, what happened in spite of the putative purpose of the quest. Given the premise of getting the philosopher’s stone, I said that the player should actually be able to get it halfway through the game, literally adding it to their inventory, and to use it to solve some puzzle (e.g., to use its power of transmutation to create an item needed to get out of a locked room or something), and perhaps then to lose it again. Not that this was particularly creative of me: using the quest object directly is exactly what happens in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy uses the grail to cure his father’s gunshot wounds. But hell, if there was ever a time to steal-don’t-borrow from the greats, this was it.

The other thing that came up in this interview was a concept I had for something called an “interactive musical”. Mike and I had both been writers for Stanford’s Big Game Gaieties student musical, and we always had theatre on the brain. Somehow, it seemed like there was a way to capture the opportunities and the importance of the theatre, and make a player directly experience that. But we didn’t know how to do it then, and over the years we’d occasionally come back to it and say “was this ever something that could work?”

And then today, reading that book on music games, I think I finally figured it out. It’s a simple equation:

Visual Novel + Karaoke Revolution = Interactive Musical

In other words, an interactive musical is a VN where you sing the branch points.

Visualize Karaoke Revolution, or SingStar, or Rock Band for a moment. The pitch and words you’re supposed to sing are on the screen. Well, what if sometimes there was more than one set of words on the screen that fit the music? And you could pick whichever one suited the way you wanted to play the character, just the way you can pick the key lines of dialogue in a VN? And whatever you picked changed the direction of the story? You could woo the girl or tell her off. Your “I Want” song could be heartfelt yearning or bitter disillusionment. You couldn’t have infinitely many options, just enough to make for some different paths through the story, as in VNs.

There are details to work out, like how you know the tune in advance without spoiling the novelty of picking your branch in the moment (I have some ideas about this). And obviously the whole story needs to be something interesting enough to want to play into, since singing demands a real mental and emotional commitment from the player. High school drama nerds notwithstanding, it’s tough to get people to let loose and break into song. This is why karaoke bars sell beer, after all.

This wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea… the rest of you are welcome to keep playing Call Of Duty MCMXVII. But if you’re like us theatre geeks, the idea of becoming your character is ever so irresistible. It’s peculiar, but I think in the right hands, the experience could be extraordinary.



So there you have it, three new uses for the microphone: game show free-responses, magical hypnosis of NPCs, and singing for your story. Even if these never pan out, let’s hope more game makers start doing creative things with audio capture. It’s not just there for in-game chat.

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
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB9q7Zm-cvI]

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),
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1QK7F0H1Ac]

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)
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hFe3Gr9U30]

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
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHzyjBfEyj8]

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.)
[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-CruqCu2f0]

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…

Well, that’s one way to make WWDC cheaper

What do the following stores have in common?

  • Stacy’s Bookstore
  • Virgin Megastore (Market St.)
  • Disney Store (Union Square)
  • Border’s (Union Square)
  • Border’s (San Francisco Center)
  • Things From Another World
  • Bandai Store / Action Theater
  • PlayStation: The Store
  • Sony Style (San Francisco)
  • Microsoft SF
  • Games Workshop (Metreon)
  • Airtight Garage / TILT
  • Metreon Food Court

Give up? A few answers are correct, all of them related:

  1. All are located between Union Square and Moscone West, meaning they are at most a five-minute walk from WWDC.
  2. Some or all of them would be of interest to many WWDC attendees.
  3. All of them have gone out of business, mostly over the last five years or so (Microsoft SF closed in 2001, all the others are 2008 or later)

There are lots of ways to spin this — Bush recession this, business-hating San Francisco that — but the practical upshot is that you really don’t need to keep Friday afternoon free to do a little shopping. There’s nothing left in the Moscone / Market St. / Union Square area that I can’t find at my local shopping mall (Apple Store included), with the possible exception of a ten-minute stop at Ghiradelli to pick up sweets for my wife.

Personal upshot is that this just leaves me more funds to spend in Japantown, where I can load up on manga and Japanese music at Kinokuniya and other stores in the three-block J-town mall (and maybe see if there’s something unique playing at the Viz Cinema). As I mentioned in my earlier WWDC Tips blog entry, I usually stay in a B&B over near J-town, which means a longer ride to and from the show, but a nice escape from the crowd, and a chance to indulge my anime, manga, and J-rock fetishes.

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.

It’s like “Glee” with coding instead of singing

Like a lot of old programmers — “when I was your age, we used teletypes, and line numbers, and couldn’t rely on the backspace key” and so on — I sometimes wonder how different it is growing up as a young computer programmer today. Back in the 80’s we had BBSs, but no public internet… a smattering of computer books, but no O’Reilly… and computer science as an academic discipline, but further removed from what you’d actually do with what you’d learned.

Developers my age grew up on some kind of included programming environment. Prior to the Mac, every computer came with some kind of BASIC, none of which had much to do with each other beyond PRINT, GOTO, and maybe GOSUB. After about the mid-80’s, programming became more specialized, and “real” developers would get software development kits to write “real” applications, usually in some variant of C or another curly-brace language (C++, C#, Java, etc.).

But it’s not like most people start with the formal tools and the hard stuff, right? In the 80’s and 90’s, there were clearly a lot of young people who picked up programming by way of HyperCard and other scripting environments. But those have largely disappeared too.

So what do young people use? When I was editing for O’Reilly’s ONJava website, our annual poll of readers revealed that our under-18 readership was effectively zero, which meant that young people either weren’t reading our site, or weren’t programming in Java. There has to be some Java programming going on at that age — it is the language for the Advanced Placement curriculum in American high schools, after all — but there’s not a lot of other evidence of widespread Java coding by the pre-collegiate set.

I’ve long assumed that where young people really get their start today is in the most interesting and most complete programming environment provided on every desktop computer: the web browser. I don’t want to come off like a JavaScript fanboy — my feelings about it are deeply mixed — but the fact remains that it is freely and widely available, and delivers interesting results quickly. Whereas 80’s kids would write little graphics programs in Applesoft BASIC or the obligatory 10 PRINT "CHRIS IS GREAT" 20 GOTO 10, these same kinds of early programming experiences are probably now being performed with the <canvas> tag and Document.write(), respectively. In fact, the formal division of DOM, CSS, and JavaScript may lead the young programmer to a model-view-controller mindset a lot sooner than was practical in your local flavor of BASIC.

The other difference today is that developers are much better connected, thanks to the internet. We didn’t used to have that, so the programmers you knew were generally the ones you went to school with. I was lucky in this respect in that the guys in the class above me were a) super smart, and b) very willing to share. So, 25 years later, this will have to do as a belated thank you to Jeff Dauber, Dean Drako, Drew Shell, Ed Anderson, Jeff Sorenson, and the rest of the team.

Did I say “team”? Yeah, this is the other thing we used to do. We had a formal computer club as an activity, and we participated in two forms of programming contests. The first is the American Computer Science League — which I’m releived to see still exists — which coordinated a nation-wide high school computer science discovery and competition program, based on written exams and proctored programming contests. The cirriculum has surely changed, but at least in the 80’s, it was heavily math-based, and required us to learn non-obvious topics like LISP programming and hexadecimal arithmetic, both of which served me well later on.

Our school also participated in a monthly series of programming contests with other schools in the suburban Detroit area. Basically it worked like this: each team would bring one Apple II and four team members and be assigned to a classroom. At the start of the competition, each team would be given 2-4 programming assignments, with some sample data and correct output. We’d then be on the clock to figure out the problems and write up programs, which would then be submitted on floppy to the teachers running the contest. Each finished program scored 100 points, minus 10 points for every submission that failed with the secret test data, and minus 1 point for every 10 minutes that elapsed.

I have no idea if young people still do this kind of thing, but it was awesome. It was social, it was practical, it was competitive… and it ended with pizza from Hungry Howie’s, so that’s always a win.

Maybe we don’t need these kinds of experiences for young programmers today. Maybe a contrived contest is irrelevant when a young person can compete with the rest of the world by writing an app and putting it on the App Store, or by putting up a web page with all manner of JavaScript trickery and bling. Still, it’s a danger to get too tied to the concretes of today, the specifics of CSS animations and App Store code-signing misery. Early academic exercises like earning to count in hex, even if it’s to score points on a quiz, will likely pay off later.