November 26, 2006

Piracy as promotion

A succinct analysis of how turning the other cheek when it comes to copyright infringement turned Japanese anime into a billion dollar business for the copyright holders. During the 1970s and 1980s, as interest in Japanese anime grew through samizdat distribution of pirated tapes, the Japanese media companies stood by and did nothing. Then beginning in the early 1990s,

large-scale anime conventions brought artists and distributors from Japan, who were astonished to see a thriving culture surrounding content they had never succeeded in marketing in the United States.

A similar path was followed with manga, as freely-distributed "scanlations" (translations of digitally scanned manga posted on websites) created a demand for graphic novels in the U.S. that has come to be dominated by Japanese titles.

The Japanese media companies' tolerance of these efforts is consistent with their treatment of fan communities at home. The underground sale of fan-made comics (known as dojinshi), often highly derivative of the commercial product, occurs on a massive scale in Japan, with some comics markets attracting 150,000 visitors per day. Rarely taking legal action, the commercial producers sponsor such events, using them to publicize their releases, recruit new talent, and monitor shifts in audience tastes.

This concept gains greater traction from an unexpected quarter: the fashion industry. Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman points out in "The Piracy Paradox" that

Firms take steps to protect the value of trademarks, but appear to accept appropriation of designs as a fact of life. This diffidence about copying stands in striking contrast to the heated condemnation of piracy and associated legislative and litigation campaigns in other creative industries.

And further argue that "the fashion industry counter-intuitively operates within a low-IP equilibrium in which copying does not deter innovation and may actually promote it." John Perry Barlow, co-Founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, offers the example of the Grateful Dead (for whom he was a lyricist), drawing a direct correlation between the group's financial success and its condoning of bootlegging by its fans.

(Jump to 2:13 for Barlow's address in this RealAudio transcript.)

I believe there are lessons to be learned here in pushing niche products into mainstream markets. I'm not exactly sure what they are, though the counter-intuitive "strategy" of giving away the store for free may prove the crafty and capitalistic--not the goofily communistic--approach.


Mark Cuban on turning Google Adwords into a local sales force. William Bulkeley on how traditional publishing "relied on forcing customers to buy things they didn't want," and why the Internet is changing all that. The Barenaked Ladies explain why they released their latest album in thumb drive (memory stick) format with no copy protection.

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November 23, 2006

Why only one channel?

In the process of subscribing to TV Japan, I couldn't avoid a few moments of envy. In stark contrast to TV Japan's lowly single offering, Dish Network offers 17 Chinese channels, 16 Arabic channels, even 6 Korean channels. Spanish-language programming is, of course, a category all to itself, with as many packages and channels as the domestic English-language services.

This is somewhat ironic, considering Japan's growing influence in the U.S. on popular culture. Yet Japanese remains a "Less Commonly Taught Language," accounting for only 3.7% of higher education foreign language enrollments.

And if this story in the San Francisco Chronicle is any indication, current trends suggest that this is not likely to change drastically in the near future.

Piedmont High School staff had considered adding Japanese classes, but Chinese won out after community surveys, said Principal Pam Bradford. Now, Piedmont offers Mandarin starting in middle school, and its high school classes have a solid enrollment.

I doubt enrollment numbers, however, correlate strongly with satellite television subscriber numbers. TV Japan, for one, is primarily directed toward native speakers or students with near-native comprehension, something you won't achieve by taking a few college language classes.

So the reason ultimately comes down to the Japan's limited diaspora. A quick look at the U.S. demographic data lays out the facts pretty plainly. The Census Bureau tabulation of "languages spoken at home" reveals the following:

English only 

Immediately obvious is the classic 80/20 power law distribution (80 percent English, 20 percent everything else, with distribution falling off logarithmically). Chinese, Korean and Arabic have more satellite offerings simply because they have larger domestic audiences.

China's emergence as a world power has increased the supply of satellite feeds, and increased interest in the demand. I also suspect that like Spanish, the Arabic audience is more dominantly first generation, and for obvious geopolitical reasons is drawn to the cultural and informational content of the broadcasts.

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November 21, 2006

TV Japan

Acting on solid empirical data, I finally signed up for TV Japan on Dish Network. I had observed in my own longitudinal study of myself (the empirical data part) that a steady diet of Japanese anime (the only means of consuming Japanese in significant amounts on DVD), combined with a somewhat obsessive study of vocabulary, really did improve my aural comprehension significantly over a span of several years.

However, even on the Netflix four-out plan (averaging four DVDs a week), I was imbibing maybe six hours of Japanese a week. Not exactly immersion numbers.

This was supplemented by Internet broadcasts of NHK news, but the Internet version is spare in its subject matter and is repetitive. The best part, Furusato News--or "News from the countryside" (meaning everywhere but Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka)--is apparently recorded only a few times a week and then repeated over and over every hour. And is only 20 minutes long at best.

So I decided to kick things up a notch, cut back on my Netflix diet, and get TV Japan. (I realize that getting satellite TV is hardly news these days, but despite my fascination with science and technology, I tend to be a late adopter.)

Plus, geek that I am, the whole process intrigued me. I find it fascinating that such incredible high tech can be utilized for such prosaic purposes. But let's hear it for the nexus of science and modern capitalism! TV Japan, unfortunately, is not at the top of Dish Network's sales list, so it took some effort to figure how to subscribe to the service in the first place.

Radio Shack is a Dish Network retailer, but after chatting with a clerk for five minutes, it was clear he didn't know anything and was saying things I knew were wrong (yes, you can subscribe to TV Japan alone; no, you don't need two dishes). So I went online. All the website provided me with was the price: $25/month + $6/month as an a la carte service (I waste enough time watching my local terrestrial stations, so I don't need any more domestic programming).

I went to the help section and tried the online chat, and was told at once I had to call the 1-888 number. Well, high tech goes back to the future. Even the guy who answered my call had to put me on hold for five minutes. He eventually figured everything out. The kicker of the deal was that when you subscribe to an international package only, you have to buy the equipment. (Ah, that explains those orphaned satellite dishes I see about.)

Dish Network gives you back the investment with a $5/month rebate over 30 months (though you may have to hold out for that particular offer). A decent-enough deal in any case, and now I own a satellite dish and receiver, for what that's worth.

The Dish guys came out in their van the next day. Oddly enough, the lead tech guy was Australian. He mounted the dish on the roof, set the elevation, attached a voltmeter-sized device that made a beep-beep-beep sound, and then turned it until a solid tone emerged. He quipped that this was usually the hard part--tuning into the right satellite (I guess it's getting crowded up there in geosynchronous orbit).

It wasn't difficult in my case because the satellite NHK uses for North America west of Colorado is at 148 degree west longitude, about halfway to Hawaii. (My dish is the only one pointing out towards Area 51 somewhere). Domestic Dish programming in these parts comes from the 110 and 119 degree west longitude satellites, which are almost due south from Salt Lake City (111 degrees).

Regular domestic receiver dishes are designed with two slightly offset transponders to pick up the 110 and 119 degree satellites simultaneously (there's an interesting trig problem for you).

After that, it was simply a matter of stringing cable down from the roof and drilling a hole and feeding the cable into my apartment. If the aging four-plex I live in lasts another quarter century, there'll be so much orphaned coax wrapped around it you won't be able to see the brick. (The downlink from the dish uses heftier RG-6, biased to power the transponder electronics, rather than the more generic RG-59 used by the cable company.)

To active the receiver, the tech pulled a set of numbers off the box the receiver came in: the "smart card" ID, which I took to be the equivalent of the a network MAC address. Then using my phone (using caller ID to identify the customer), he entered the numbers, and a minute later, my television sprang to life.

So a burst of data went from the phone bank, to the mainframe, to the satellite uplink (23,000 miles or so), down from the satellite to my transponder (another 23,000 miles or so), and then my receiver snatched out the few bytes identified by its MAC address, flashed the ROM with the relevant data, and configured itself to the service I had subscribed to.

Like I said, very cool that it all works right out of the box. (Joe says the Dish Network DVRs can be flaky at times, but I didn't opt for one.) Maybe someday when we all have gigabit fiber to the home, all of our electronic devices will work the same way.

The first thing you notice is that there is ZERO static in the signal coming out of the receiver. Pure digital. No noise. (And when I switch back to the terrestrial signal, noise all over the place.) The image is softer than a good terrestrial signal, but I figure that's due to the MPEG decoding and smoothing. If there's a lot of action on screen (say, watching Sumo), you can spot the MPEG artifacting, so the signal is probably fairly substantially compressed.

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November 19, 2006

"Star Trek" in the dock

My sister Kate argues, contra my previous missive, that in Star Trek, "the science-fiction simply exists so that a story may be told in that setting" and that the draw of the series is its presentation of "old, old stories with classic structures (problem, climax, resolution) being translated into SF (or quasi sci-fi) terms," rather than any attempt to accurately forecast the future, or create a cohesive alternate universe over the entire arc of the series.

I don't disagree, especially these days where every television series has a showrunner as a producer, with episode structure starting with the old-fashioned cliffhanger serial drama at one extreme (Prison Break, 24), and never abandoning the progressive story arc at the other. I like the cohesiveness that a story arc lends to a season, but prefer its more subtle implementations. I simply can't watch cliffhanger serials anymore except on DVD.

I did stick with the strong arc of the third season of Enterprise, simply because I consider it by far the best of the Star Trek family. But it would have been interesting if Star Trek could have returned to the standalone format of the original, telling stories that "just happen to use the same setting and the same characters as that episode you saw last week," and again making it a showcase for freelance SF&F talent.

But my essential argument still stands: the episodicity of Star Trek notwithstanding, it was unnecessarily crippled by the lack of a tenable backstory, let alone marginally good science. Not just the standout stories that Kate cites, but the oeuvre in totality would have been greatly improved by greater attention to both human and technical realities. The backstory need never have been mentioned. But it must be there.

A good example of this came in the third season of Enterprise, when the starship is badly damaged in its battles with the Xindi. Watching these episodes I said to myself, "Aha! This is how Voyager should have begun!" Not just because when things get wrecked by powerful forces, they really get wrecked, and are hard to recover from. But because the people get wrecked too.

Drama is about human train wrecks, but on Voyager, a few episodes after supposedly going through a similarly cataclysmic confrontation, it's like somebody's rich uncle showed up with a platoon of lawyers, handed out wads of cash, hauled the vehicles off to the body shop, and made the accident "go away." Presto chango. The next day you'd hardly known it happened. A good day's work for the insurance company, but bad day for storytelling.

Another issue, addressed too late in the TNG series to any good, was the sheer irrationality of Riker serving forever as Picard's second. Finally an episode was constructed to give Riker a few skeletons in the closet that Starfleet might want to keep buried. But if only, I could not help but wistfully imagine, somebody had bothered to think the matter through earlier. Like in the first season.

But that was obviously too big of a snake to let loose in Roddenberry's floating utopia. Add Stewart's performance in First Contact, and you realize how much was lost. Lost in giving Stewart better material to work with, lost in the dramatic possibilities it would have created, lost in creating a character who had a bit of the Ahab in him. The original series worked--when it did--because Kirk and Spock and Bones were too idiosyncratic to fit in the utopian box in the first place.

Worse, the cast of TNG suffered from playing it straight. And, as my brother Joe points out, suffered from trying to make everybody so obsessively likable. (How I wish Deep Space Nine had been about Odo, Quark, Garak and Gul Dukat, back before the insufferably prim Federation took over. Such wonderfully flawed yet understandable and even lovable--but not necessarily likable--characters.)

To be honest, the original series was so bad it was good. And after ironing out the human wrinkles with a vengeance, TNG episodes did often work for the reasons Kate describes: as one-off dramatic productions. But other than alienating the affections of the fan base, it's hard to see how replacing both the characters and the actors (other than Brent Spiner's Data and perhaps Stewart), or everything else down to the setting and costumes would have significantly affected the quality of those individual episodes.

But can you imagine House without Hugh Laurie? No, you can't. It's the excruciating humanness of his character, and how those around him react to him in turn, that anchors the series. We buy into the human equation. Not the medical technobabble (though we trust that it's accurate).

It should be pointed out, as does Kelley Ross in the aforementioned article, that Firefly has its own problems with hard science. (The very similar Cowboy Bebop comes up with a much better reason why the Earth is uninhabitable.) But it's the moments that make you say, "Yes, this is how people really would behave," even when confronted with bug-eyed monsters, that ring true in the most fantastic of contexts.

So it's not the future that becomes any more plausible, but the people inhabiting it. The X-Files is utterly implausible scientifically and politically, but it is successfully consistent in the application and execution of its own axioms. It follows its own rules, and that foundation (being by definition static) provides the constant against which the human variables can be accurately judged both according to the standards of an individual episode, and over the long arc of the series.

According to this criteria, the Star Trek universe has to be static, because it essentially turned into a traveling theatrical troupe. The whole fashioned by the sum of its parts always had to exist outside the individual performances on any one stage in any one town. Because, ironically, a big reason for Star Trek's longevity was that it could always pack up and move on. Until it simply ran out of gas.

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November 11, 2006

The brave old world of "Star Trek"

In preface these remarks, I note that I still hold in my mind the thrill I got from watching a handful of the original broadcasts of Star Trek as a young child (yes, I'm that old). When I was in high school (this was during the long, dry years between the original series and TNG), my mom graciously took me to see Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner when they were on college speaking tours. My interest in the franchise started to wane in the latter seasons of Deep Space Nine, dried up completely during Voyager (except for a smattering of Seven of Nine episodes), but was resurrected for the brief run of Enterprise.

Nevertheless, I have come to be most interested in the Star Trek phenomenon as an example of artistic failure: it is more compelling because of what it does consistently wrong than for its brilliant successes. Science, to start with. Star Trek isn't so much science fiction as space opera. There's nothing wrong with that, but what makes opera opera is that it's operatic. This was certainly true of the first series.

But by the time The Next Generation rolled around, they'd convinced themselves that they were doing Madame Butterfly when what they were really doing every week was a high school drama club production of The Mikado. Playing farce with a straight face can prove awfully painful entertainment at times (for everybody but the parents, who don't want to hear your critiques of their kids).

But even with space opera, it helps to keep science on your side. The need to play fast and loose with scientific facts is understood--the speed of light and all--but you can't go messing with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Star Trek was first sold as "Wagon Train to the stars," and horses have to eat sometime. The original series respected this fact with their incessant quest for dilithium crystals. And though what was actually done with the energy catalyzed by these crystals remains unclear--what the warp engines actually warp--it did establish that Captain Kirk was not piloting a perpetual motion machine.

By The Next Generation, though, the futures market for dilithium has bottomed out. Now there's so much dilithium about that you get crystals with your Cracker Jack. Which is sad, because scarcity is a main ingredient in drama. How interesting would The Road Warrior be with a fully functioning gas station every ten or twenty miles or so across the Australian Outback? But it gets worse. In the future, it seems, everybody's got everything they want. Clearly established in one painfully Marxist episode was the fact that there isn't a market, period. In money or ideas (except politically correct ones) or the future.

It enough to set both Newton and Adam Smith to spinning in their graves. But it gets worse. In "The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek: Militarism, Collectivism, & Atheism," Kelley Ross argues that

Star Trek has a Utopia to picture, or at least a world free of many of the ills perceived in the present, but it doesn't have to deal with anything so inconvenient as the experience of history. Star Trek is free to disparage business and profit without the need to explain what would replace them. Star Trek is free to disparage religious belief and ignore traditional religions without the need to address the existential mysteries and tragedies of real life in ways that have actually meant something to the vast majority of human beings. And it is particularly interesting that Star Trek is free to do all this with the convenience of assimilating everything to the forms of military life, where collective purpose and authority are taken for granted.

The credit for the above link is courtesy of Ed Morrissey, who adds:

Politically and economically, [Star Trek] operates outside of the realm of science fiction and into fantasy. Nothing in its universe explains how human society manages to build the massive ships that comprise Star Fleet, nor the brilliant technology that enables them. Who builds these things--and how and why? It's all well and good to say that money no longer exists, but people have to be compensated in some manner--otherwise, the Star Trek society is based on benevolent slavery.

Joss Whedon's brilliantly conceived and executed Firefly, in contrast, "doesn't try for the slightest bit of Utopianism. It does not assume that a single galactic government would be best, as it does not assume that present religion and capitalist economics are undesirable." And contra Star Wars as well, observes Ross, the Alliance of Firefly and Serenity is not so much evil as "something perhaps too big for its own good, or the good of its citizens . . . . This in itself is all a rebuke to the statist complacency of Star Trek."

Political philosophy aside, utopianism, like bad science, makes for bad fiction, which is why the Star Trek arc, up to Deep Space Nine, increasingly flirted with annihilation as a dramatic engine, as the only option left to a utopia is its collapse. The last series, Enterprise, which I consider the overall best of them all, neatly sidestepped the problem (though couldn't avoid its own apocalyptic plots) by creating a Star Trek universe just prior to the utopian rot setting in for good. Illustrating this reformed attitude well was the episode in which T'Pol's ancestor visits 1950s Middle America and actually has some nice things to say about the good old days.

That pretty much encapsulates the fundamental problem with Star Trek: its reliably retroactive nostalgia. Whenever they time travel back to the good old days (i.e., the bad old now), the good old days end up looking much better--despite their protestations (and they do protest too much), or at least more interesting, than the brave new world of the future.

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November 03, 2006

Stephen King on audiobooks

Audio is merciless. It exposes every bad sentence, half-baked metaphor, and lousy word choice. (Listen to a Tom Clancy novel on CD, and you will never, ever read another. You'll never be able to look at another one without gibbering.) I can't remember ever reading a piece of work and wondering how it would look up on the silver screen, but I always wonder how it will sound. Because, all apologies to [the always tiresome Harold Bloom], the spoken word is the acid test. They don't call it storytelling for nothing.

I'll add this observation as well: my avocation as an anime junkie has taught me that how an actor sounds--that fundamental discipline of voice--says more about his acting chops than what you see on screen. The name actors with the impressive resumes really do dub animation better than the also-rans.

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