October 28, 2010

Showa nostalgia

Musing about my musings about how the more things change, the more some things stay the same, Kate asks what makes a "classic" era classic.

Nostalgia is always about 40-50 years in the past: 40-50 years ago, life was perfect! Which is nonsense, of course, but it has made me wonder if, in another 20 years, people will be waxing nostalgic about the 1980s and 1990s.

I think half a century is how long it takes to take the long view and distill from an era what's worth preserving. Or to put it another way, fifty years is how long it takes to sort out those cultural artifacts that carbon date the time (like fashion and pop music) from those that transcend it.

Everything else then ends up in a landfill or disappears down the memory hole. As Steve Sailer points out:

The truth is that there is always an absolutely colossal amount of popular culture, the vast majority of which is almost quickly forgotten, except for a tiny fraction that stays in a few influential people's minds and comes to form our heritage of high culture.

So it's not surprising that the things we end up conserving tend to be, well, conservative. Comparing what we've preserved from the past (the less appetizing elements having dimmed with time) with the messy present can't help but foster a sentimentality for the presumably smarter, better, more stable era that produced it.

In Japan, this is epitomized by Edo Period romanticism, conveniently forgetting that the Tokugawa regime ran a heavily-policed feudal state, though one that managed to skirt out-and-out incompetence (until the mid-19th century) and that was quite stable for most of the 17th and 18th centuries.

And more recently, "Showa nostalgia."

The Showa Era (the reign of Emperor Hirohito) lasted from 1926 to 1989. Everybody politely ignores the first two decades. Showa nostalgia instead refers to the twenty years of economic recovery following the war, when everybody pitched in and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.

This was the time when courageous government officials did courageous government official stuff and weren't all on the take or off starting land wars in Asia. As with the much-heralded era of "lifetime employment," it barely lasted a single generation, and yet continues on and on in the collective memory.

As exemplified in an entertaining example of Showa nostalgia like Always: Sunset on Third Street, the 1950s in Japan was not so different from the 1950s in the United States, except poorer. But starting from such a low point, those years of free, peaceful, year-on-year growth were like a breath of fresh air.

Perhaps even deserving of such rich, sepia-steeped sentimentality.

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October 25, 2010

The last picture tube show

I visit Walmart about once a month. It's off my beaten path, but carries a few items that are so inexpensive it's worth stopping by to stock up. The "site-to-store" free-shipping is hard to resist too. The SKUs and the shelf layout hardly change, which makes the shopping quick and easy. That also makes the changes stand out.

The last time I went a few days ago, one thing stood out: no tube televisions.

Over the past several years, the shelf-space for tube televisions had shrunk to a single side wall. Then half of that. Prices plummeted. At the end, Walmart was obviously shedding inventory. And where Walmart plants its giant retail feet, there for good or ill can be found the smack dab median of American consumer supply and demand.

The television tube is dead. Long live the television set!

Fanatics still buy turntables and tube amplifiers. But the television cathode ray tube is a bulky kludge that has little to recommend over its technological replacements. Like the internal combustion engine, the real miracle of this Rube Goldberg contraption is not that it can be made so inexpensively, but that it works at all.

The CRT is the last true vacuum tube—a filament, cathode, grid and anode sealed inside of glass and depleted of air—found in consumer electronics. For decades after the introduction of the transistor, a television set had two vacuum tubes: the CRT and the high-voltage rectifier that charges the anode. The latter was long ago replaced by silicon devices.

While the typical "radio tube" has a few hundred volts at the anode, the CRT requires tens of thousands. It's a cliche that the computing power of a Cray supercomputer can be packed into a cell phone. Less appreciated is that for half a century, a large proportion of the world's population had a small linear accelerator sitting in a corner of their living rooms.

It's also become a cliche to remark about how complex the technological world is becoming. But as materials science and manufacturing improves, and Moore's and Shannon's laws reach their limits (plus the very non-theoretical problem of heat dissipation), the macro can only grow to the extent that the micro gets simpler.

The junction transistor (1947) is a simpler device than a vacuum tube (though the underlying physics is a bear). The field-effect transistor—most common today—is simpler than the junction transistor (and more analogous to a vacuum tube). It was theoretically described in 1925, but the necessary silicon purities weren't possible until 1952.

Philo Farnsworth's scanning electron beam television was the best version possible with 1920's technology. The plasma television is a lot simpler. It was conceptualized in 1936, but the electronics and manufacturing techniques would take 30 years to catch up. And another 30 years to make economical as a CRT replacement.

An all-electric car is mechanically much more simple than the internal combustion engine. But as is often the case, we're better at improving old technology than making new technology affordable. The laws of thermodynamics—the enormous amount of energy stored in a gallon of gasoline—is the higher hurdle here.

With consumer electronics, when all that has to be moved are electrons and photons (and a finger to operate the remote), Moore's law rules the roost. Smaller, cheaper, faster keeps getting smaller, cheaper and faster. The CD wiped out a century of technology in a decade. The DVD took out VHS even faster. I now have a tiny Nokia and no landline.

And yet we still dial phone numbers. Will we still watch the tube after the tube is gone? I will for the time being. My boxy old JVC is good enough. Though if I ever move, it won't come with. When I was at Walmart, I easily lifted a flat screen the same size. The last time I moved that JVC around, I nearly put my middle-aged back out.

Besides, winter's coming. It's the closest thing I've got to a fireplace: big, warm, and impersonally friendly.

Related posts

Complex simplicity
The old brand new
HDTV on the cheap
The drama of the PCB

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October 21, 2010

Timeless fashion

One fascinating fact about female fashion in Japan is that the yukata and kimono have remained almost unchanged for 400 years. Young women still wear kimono on Seijin no Hi (Coming of Age Day) and yukata to the summer matsuri.

Yukata remain de rigueur for men and woman at any hot springs resort or traditional Japanese inn.

One odd exception is the adoption of the English morning coat as formal male dress, especially favored by politicians. And western-style wedding gowns (along with faux Christian wedding ceremonies) have become very popular.

But sumo refs and judges wear kimono and hakama. Sumo wrestlers must travel to competitions wearing kimono.

What has changed--for women and men--are hair styles. Nothing pins down the time period of a Japanese melodrama faster than the chonmage (丁髷). And again, sumo wrestlers sport a version (that doesn't involve shaving the pate).

Get past the awful bell-bottom stage (and the entire 70s) and this holds for the last fifty years in the U.S. The hair styles of the students in Caltech's Mechanical Universe series, more than the antiquated PCs, pinpoint its 1985 origins.

The lecturer in the series, Professor David Goodstein, looks as conservatively and consistently unhip as a geek from last week. Just as the uncool military haircuts in 2001 (made in 1968) are truly timeless. Ditto if you're Audrey Hepburn.

Related posts

The ears have it
Japan's got talent
Three good reasons to watch NHK

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October 18, 2010

Three good reasons to watch NHK

Sometimes the picture really is worth a thousand words of entertainment value. And the stories are good too! But the additional pleasures of watching an attractive woman act them out is undeniable.

Yeah, I know, it's not terribly "realistic." When it comes to art, "reality" need not be "real." Just as the most "natural" food isn't at all "natural." It's painstakingly created by experts in ways that nature never intended, with a singular, sensory objective.

Now and then I do have to wonder why--other than a million years of evolution and social conditioning--my brain gets off on something so abstract. Not just attractive women, but attractive women in evolutionarily novel contexts, and the less "made-up" the better.

Satoshi Kanazawa argues that the more intelligent you are, the more you are drawn to "evolutionarily novel" things.

Following Kanazawa's thesis (which could rationalize just about anything), evolutionarily "familiar" fashion is simply a way of accentuating primitive mating cues. So appreciating an "un-dolled-up" look requires more brains. Hey, I can be an evolutionary psychologist too!

Or in Aya Ueto's case, she sports a "young urban professional" look (evolutionarily unique) that's actually "professional." Her character in the flash-forwards is more Cosmo. But we're supposed to assume she's become more dissolute. Ah, stereotypes make for such good shorthand.

Google these three young women and you'll find oodles of cheesecake. But nothing that looks half as good as the "plainer" versions. The best contemporary photo of Yoko Maki I could find is the one below taken for a magazine interview. A little goes a long way in my book.

1. Aya Ueto (上戸彩)

As Rika Onozawa, an earnest young editorial assistant, in the romantic dramedy, I'll Still Love You in Ten Years. Co-star Seiyou Uchino plays the geeky physicist who loves her, loses her, and then uses a time machine to make things right.

2. Yui Ichikawa (市川由衣)

As Dr. Katsura in the period melodrama, Chizuru Katsura's Casebook, about an Edo Period woman doctor. Her chopsocky's good enough to not make you furiously roll your eyes (though, seriously, any man could hoist her by the scruff of her neck).

3. Yoko Maki (真木よう子)

As Ryo Narasaki, the gun-toting wife of Ryoma Sakamoto, hero of the Meiji Restoration, in the historical drama, Ryomaden. Sakamoto wore western-style boots and carried a Smith & Wesson. There's no evidence his wife did, but it's a fun thought.

Related posts

The ears have it
Japan's got talent
Timeless fashion

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October 14, 2010

Amazon innovates

To be sure, Amazon incentivises like crazy. Like "free shipping." I'd swear they've got a clever little algorithm that reduces the sales price just enough so that your order is a penny short of free shipping. So you'll add One More Thing to the shopping cart.

In the ebook realm, Amazon has blatantly been doing everything it can to push down the price of ebooks to a $10 ceiling with a $.99 floor. Amazon surely sells the Kindle at cost or even at a loss. It'll give away the razors and make money on the razor blades.

But Amazon also innovates. I'm not so much thinking of the Kindle itself, but the way Amazon has made generating and selling Kindle content so easy. Now Amazon has created a category for the novella (or long article) called "Kindle Singles":

Less than 10,000 words or more than 50,000: that is the choice writers have generally faced for more than a century--works either had to be short enough for a magazine article or long enough to deliver the "heft" required for book marketing and distribution.

This is exactly what I predicted here:

All the power to the glossies and their nifty iPad apps. But for the people who really do read them "for the articles," the Kindle delivery model strikes me as ideal, especially at the low-circulation, literary end.

Tokyo South at 46,000 words and A Man of Few Words at 27,000 words both qualify, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this marketplace develops.

Amazon has created a Kindle app for every portable device. If it adopted the Microsoft strategy and licensed its MOBI platform, it could take over the ebook world. The Kindle could easily be upgraded to read ePub to allow for library access.

Or Amazon could create its own library loan system and give it away.

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October 11, 2010

Blockbuster goes bankrupt

And it's about time. Blockbuster always reminded me of HBO (I speak in the past tense because I haven't been inside a Blockbuster in years). Whenever there's a free HBO weekend preview, I wander over to take a look. I invariably come away thinking: Who pays extra for this?

I got the first DVD of The Sopranos from Netflix. I usually operate under the sunken cost fallacy that compels me to watch DVDs I've paid for, but couldn't force myself to watch the whole thing. Who cares about screwed-up thugs leading amoral and utterly boring lives? I don't get it.

Ditto Sex in the City. All I wanted to do was scream at Mr. Big: "Run! Run for your life!"

The local Blockbuster is located in prime retail space and yet always had a grundy, worn-down, seedy feel about it. A whiff of desperation seemed to permeate the premises even back before Netflix was founded in 1997. (The same vibe I get watching Sex in the City.)

But what really puzzled me about Blockbuster, back in its heyday, was how it was always "incentivising" but never innovating. Why didn't it have the equivalent of interlibrary loan? Why wasn't there an electronic card catalog? Small public libraries have had them for decades.

Why didn't Blockbuster beat Netflix to the punch? Because it was wedded to the same-old, same-old.

The same goes for Barnes & Noble. A bookstore is just a library where you can rent to own. For years, whenever I visited a B&N I thought: Where's the card catalog? Why make it so hard to find books? Why make it so hard to order them? Now I frequent B&N as often as I do Blockbuster.

The "traditional" publishers are headed down the same anti-innovation path as fast as they can run. Unfortunately, all we learn from the past is that nobody learns from the past. Or as Clay Shirky puts it: "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

If nothing else, dying U.S. businesses have time and again proved themselves preternaturally loyal to the problems killing them.

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October 07, 2010

The preliminary results are in

The free spree has ended. The Amazon Kindle store restored the original list price for A Man of Few Words and The Path of Dreams yesterday. Here's the download tally as of Wednesday morning:

A Man of Few Words (ASIN: B003X27P78) 1714   
Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #150 Paid in Kindle Store

The Path of Dreams (ASIN: B001CGI1NY) 2059   
Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #105 Paid in Kindle Store

Curiously enough, The Path of Dreams lagged the first four days and then pulled ahead. Perhaps because of the unique subject matter, when the list price was restored, sales fell off faster than for A Man of Few Words.

As Brian Lawrenson explains here, the discounting may have been in response to the B&N list price, which it pulled from Smashwords. I won't know if Amazon will pay on the list or sale price until I get the October sales report.

My raw website traffic for the first week of October almost matched that of an entire month, so people were clicking on the embedded links. Both of our books got Amazon reviews for the first time, and nice ones at that.

As indicated above, both are sliding back down the long tail, though holding onto higher positions than when they started. It'd be nice if Amazon could provide a way for indies to opt-in to occasional freebie offerings.

Reading the tea leaves in next month's sales report is sure going to be interesting.

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October 04, 2010

Everybody loves a loss leader

I'd just gotten over being impressed (and a tad startled) that A Man of Few Words sold 100 Kindle books in a month. Then Amazon threw a knuckle ball right across the plate. I checked the DTP (Digital Text Platform) stats Friday morning to see how the trend was holding up and there was one sale.

All things considered, a good start to the month. I checked again Friday afternoon before shutting down for the night. Over 300. And right under it was The Path of Dreams, well north of 250. I could not believe my eyes. I blinked several times and said, "Huh?" (expurgated version).

Saturday morning they were both over 800. Sunday evening, over 1200. Monday morning, closing on 1500. Not a typo. Not a glitch. The reason: Amazon had listed both for free. In a download world, people just can't get enough of free.

Down in the DTP fine print, Amazon reserves the right to discount the MSRP to whatever it darn well pleases. This caused a major tiff with big New York publishers like Macmillan, who whined that Amazon was "devaluing" their books by sticking to a maximum $9.99 list price for Kindle ebooks.

To be sure, Amazon could have perhaps reacted with a bit more subtlety (sensitive writerly egos, you know), but it's not wrong about ebook prices. Publishers like Macmillan are seizing defeat from the jaws of victory. The "agency model" is worse for them than anything Amazon did.

(So, yes, not everybody loves a loss leader, but these days, the New York publishing conglomerates are the last people I'd take business advice from.)

Amazon also reserves the right to match the lowest competitor's price. If Smashwords is a "competitor," then for these two books, that makes the lowest price zero. At this point, I don't know if Amazon is discounting or price-matching. But it does make for an interesting experiment.

(Actually, the "competitor" in this case is more likely Barnes & Noble, for which a Smashwords account can be set up to serve as a content provider, as is the case here and here.)

A Man of Few Words has been downloaded 900 times at Smashwords in the past year and two months. Amazon equaled that by Saturday noon. Some sales channels are wider than others, and some free is a lot freer. Though in this respect, The Path of Dreams makes for a better example.

The Path of Dreams had 25 sales (at $.99) for the entire year to date. And then 850 downloads in twenty-four hours. Free can mean not only going from some interest to more interest, but going from effectively zero interest to tons. And I can't complain about "cannibalized" sales here.

Of course, this kind of "interest" is often worth what you paid for it. When free previews show up on my satellite provider, I'll usually pop over and take a gander. But I've never been tempted to subscribe. My usual reaction is: "Thanks for reminding me why I don't want to pay for this."

At the same time, were I no longer a starving artist, I'd consider upgrading my DVR and local programming options. By selling me one ala carte service (TV Japan), Dish improves its odds of getting business from me in the future.

As Both Mark Coker and Joe Konrath stress, in the ebook business, the only way to "make it up in volume" is with a backlist. Sales of my other titles will tell the more important tale. My website traffic shot up over the weekend. But again, how that "converts" is a story for a later date.

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