July 30, 2012

Moore's law illustrated (I)

The 256 MB USB flash drive cost as much as the 1 GB flash drive. The 8 GB flash drive cost a third of the 1 GB flash drive. I got the 8 GB flash drive because I needed to spend seven more bucks to get free shipping on an Amazon order. Seven bucks!

That's less than a dollar a gigabyte. I can remember paying a dollar a megabyte for hard drives. Hard drives now sell for ten cents a gigabyte. Not to mention that the actual chip on a USB flash drive is no bigger than your thumbnail.

Speaking of thumbs, the rule of thumb devised by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore held that microprocessor performance (usually counted in term of transistor density) would double every two years. It's held true now for three decades.

Moore's law will eventually run into quantum tunneling and heat dissipation problems, and the limits of photolithography. Manufacturers are already adjusting by moving motherboard components onto the CPU and increasing the number of cores.

When chip makers can't go smaller, they go sideways.

Supercomputers are not the hulking, super-specialized mainframes science fiction once imagined, but are massively parallel servers built using off-the-shelf components. And waiting in the wings are optical and quantum computers.

My first computer had 64 kilobytes of memory and two 191 kilobyte floppy disk drives.

Related posts

Moore's law illustrated (II)
The accidental standard
MS-DOS at 30

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July 26, 2012

The samurai sword

The "ordinary" swords used by Ryô and Koreya would have been, at the end of the 14th century, some of the best-made weapons in the world.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Weapons technology in medieval Japan was like the cheetah, the product of a genetic bottleneck during the last ice age that left it really good at doing one thing: running fast. But at the same time, frozen in its genetic mold, unable to change until it may be too late.

For a thousand years Japan was home to the world's best swordsmiths. The Nova documentary "Secrets of the Samurai Sword" describes the advanced steel making techniques used by these medieval blacksmiths. But the technology only evolved within that "species."

When the Portuguese traders arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century, the chaos of the Warring States period had shattered the social status quo. This "punctuated equilibrium" allowed iconoclasts like Oda Nobunaga to deploy the cannon and musket to great effect.

For fifty years, Japan's gunsmiths then produced the world's best firearms. Though as soon as the Tokugawa regime was established, firearms were effectively banned. Japan's swordsmiths returned to what was by then essentially a state-sponsored antique business.

As a result, by the 19th century, Japan's military hardware was three centuries out of date. However, this dedication to the sword as an status symbol did have the advantage of making sure those reservoirs of technical talent had not languished in the meantime.

Just as during the Warring States period, the tumult of the Meiji Restoration again woke up Japanese manufacturers and entrepreneurs to the promise and possibilities of foreign technology. They made up all that lost ground almost overnight.

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July 23, 2012

Tsurube's Salute to Families

NHK's Somewhere Street is a travel show that doesn't have a host and never breaks the fourth wall. All you see is what the camera sees. It's the "first-person shooter" of travel shows.

Tsurube's Salute to Families is the exact opposite. Shofukutei Tsurube doesn't break the fourth wall, he stomps through it. The camera crew hustles to keep up, not stopping filming while changing the filters or bothering to do retakes when the boom mike dips into the frame.

(Though not Steadicam cameras, they do a good job avoiding the annoying "shaky-cam" effect.)

Tsurube shoots each episode with a celebrity co-host, who picks some small corner of Japan to visit. They wander around the place, taking in the local attractions, sampling the local dishes, and visiting the town's school. The end result is two forty-five minute episodes.

Tsurube and his co-host do the first episode together, then split up for the second. I suspect a production crew picks out the most promising locations, though Tsurube makes it look completely spontaneous. There is a good deal of editing for time, which consists of simple jump cuts.

As the name of the show implies, Tsurube makes a point of looking for people who have been living in the area for ages, and then meeting as many of their extended family as possible. He's been doing the show for fifteen years so people can trust him not to make them look bad.

He's a frumpy, affable, garrulous man, who's typical outfit is a T-shirt and jeans. If you're old enough to remember, he has the homespun presence of Charles Kuralt in his "On the Road" segments.

Tsurube has a long acting career in movies and television. He is by training a rakugo artist, a monologist that specializes in traditional Japanese storytelling. Rakugo artists are popular choices for television shows that depend on improvisational patter to keep the pace going.

In particular, Tsurube posses that extraordinary talent to become anybody's best friend about five minutes after meeting them. He brings to mind John Althouse Cohen's observation that

Most ordinary citizens who tried to run for president would probably come off as wooden and unhip. The candidate who can "connect" with most people is actually unlike most people.

In a country of 128 million introverts, Tsurube is the extrovert everybody imagines they would like to be or be with. He's your favorite, slightly eccentric uncle, that you love having around, though for no more than forty-five minute a week.

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July 19, 2012

Mt. Kôya up close

In chapter 36 of Serpent of Time, Ryô sneaks back inside the Konpon Dai pagoda.

PC Magazine columnist John Dvorak recently sang the praises of Google Street View. The enthusiasm is well deserved. Since I started writing Serpent of Time, the Google Street View car has gotten around to covering all of the same routes that Ryô does.

And now that includes Mt. Kôya. There must be a Google Street View person--carrying something like a Steadicam--because you can walk around and inside the Konpon Dai-tô. Dvorak's right. This is one of the coolest things the Internet has pulled off.

View Larger Map

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July 16, 2012


The premise of Sano Motoharu's NHK interview series, The Songwriters, is that lyricists are the true bards of the modern age. Orson Scott Card recently echoed this sentiment:

[It's] a shame that we do not give our schoolchildren any understanding of the craft of poetry outside a narrow range that misses most of what makes the art so powerful. Fortunately, popular music has stepped in to fill the gap left by the literature professors and the brainwashed schoolteachers who got A's in their classes. Most songwriters, you see, still learn a bit about rhyme, and a few of them aim for and reach the sublime.

Card is describing what's known as "physics envy," a desire among professors of the humanities to make themselves the high priests of an esoteric religion that can only be accessed by the privileged few (who, thanks to this intellectual rent-seeking, can get tenure and demand high prices for their services).

The lyricist, by contrast, can certainly be clever, he can be deep, but he has to get to the point and make sense in about three minutes. This is harder to do than it sounds, the same way that writing "simple" prose is more difficult than being long-winded, especially if you don't have to strain to hear what the singer is saying.

Country music, for example. A while back, while channel surfing over to the Country Network (on a local digital side channel), I caught Thompson Square's "Glass," written by Ross Copperman and Jon Nite (Card cites Mary Chapin Carpenter). Here's the refrain:

We may shine, we may shatter
We may be picking up the pieces here on after
We are fragile, we are human
We are shaped by the light we let through us
But we break fast
Because we are glass

There's nothing complicated about this metaphor, the antecedents or the references. Nothing is draped in self-important gauze. Yes, sometimes the words really don't matter and that's fine too. Art can be abstract, realistic, profound, sublime, and just plain pretty without "meaning" anything. The cigar is a cigar.

But if the words are supposed to matter, then the meaning has to be transparent. Like glass, "shaped by the light passing through us."

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July 12, 2012

Spic and span

Ryô pretending to be the cleaning boy is not all that anachronistic, even way back then.

One thing the campy Shogun gets right (it actually gets more things right than the horribly revisionist The Last Samurai) is that the medieval Japanese were considerably cleaner than their European counterparts.

And probably still are. In Ume-chan Sensei, despite living in bombed-out Kamata in the immediate aftermath of WWII, the family scrapes together the resources to build a crude o-furo. Priorities are priorities.

In This Old House type shows on Japanese television, the bathroom is always completely modernized, with western-style tubs (rectangular rather than square) and computerized toilets.

When it comes to keeping yourself clean, there's no sentimentality for the old-fashioned ways at home. That's what hot springs are for, and hot springs travel shows are ubiquitous on Japanese television.

But the medieval still holds sway over inanimate objects, from the ritual dusting of shrines and temples to school kids wiping down the classroom floors on their hands and knees. It builds character, you see.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

More kids having tons of janitorial fun here.

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July 09, 2012

High school fictions

As Kate recently pointed out, a fictional narrative must have structural integrity in order for the reader to buy into the twists and turns wrought by the author's manipulating hand. This structural integrity matters more than real-world facts. A good example is the "cozy" mystery genre:

Despite their illusory nature, Agatha Christie's carefully planned murders work as stories. The murder plan is the structure upon which each narrative is organized. That structure keeps it from running off into digressive pointlessness and gives the narrative a sense of "reality" even when it isn't much.

Likewise, the high school setting lays down "specific restrictions and expectations"--about what everybody is doing there; why they have to be there--that don't have to be explained. As long the reader accepts those assumptions, the verisimilitude of the setting is practically assured.

This structure becomes problematic when those assumptions strain the suspension of disbelief--as in ageless vampires perpetually hanging out in small town high schools (sounds like purgatory)--or don't quite span the cultural divide.

Imagine a Japanese audience trying to deconstruct the American legal system by watching American cop shows (and then watching Japanese cop shows that try to copy the "look and feel" of Hollywood cop shows). That pretty much sums up the problem of figuring out what's "real" about Japanese secondary education from anime and manga.

As with shows like Without a Trace, Criminal Minds, NCIS and the CSI franchise, Japanese television takes often a barely plausible bundle of facts and situations and expands them into whole genres. What bundles of facts and situations can be quite revealing about the social tensions behind them.

Here are a few examples from Japanese dramas with high school settings.

1. Class

A popular subgenre of teen romantic comedies has a poor student winning a scholarship to an exclusive high school populated by rich snobs (as in Scent of a Woman), and wins the heart of BMOC. The Story of Tarô Yamada cleverly turns this formula upside down: the poor girl falls for the young prince, who turns out to be even poorer than she is.

These rich kids invariably live in gigantic mansions (with butlers and maids) that don't exist anywhere in Japan. Okay, I'm sure there are mansions in Japan, and perhaps some of them have butlers and maids. But I'd expect most mansions, like the most exclusive, private schools, to be managed extremely conservatively.

The flip side of this genre has a rich kid (or teacher) ending up at a reform school at the bottom end of the scale, no more realistically depicted (i.e., in apocalyptic terms) than the exclusive schools at the top of the scale.

The anime version of Gokusen, for example, is about as "realistic" as the genre and plot will allow (it's one of my favorites). But the television version was broadcast from never-never land, West Side Story meets The Road Warrior. It was hugely popular in Japan; I found it too excruciatingly awful to watch.

2. Freedom

I suspect many of these fantasies are shaped by Hollywood's version of the American high school, which, as Peter Payne observes, strikes the average Japanese teenagers as a libertarian wonderland. School rules (kôsoku) govern every aspect of a student's life, in and out of school. Compared to Japan, America truly is the "land of the free."

Most Japanese kids growing up today won't get a driver's license until their late twenties, if then.

There are trade-offs, to be sure. Drug use isn't widespread. The teenage pregnancy rate is close to zero. But bullying (ijime) is a chronic problem. Teachers just putting in the time aren't unheard of either. Which is why a good student who wants to get into a good university will spend hours every day at a cram school, no matter how smart he is.

3. English & Exams

Like Korea and China, in Japan entrance exams are the sole means of determining matriculation at the high school and college levels. Thanks to the mantra that English is a necessity in today's global economy, English shows up big time on those examinations. The problem is that "natural, living English has no place on a Japanese-style test."

The test-based "escalator" system and exams that have little to do with the real world make true study abroad impossible. Spending that much time outside the "system" without falling off the escalator is a sure sign of privilege, extraordinary intelligence, or indifference.

On Japanese television dramas, you know a character is super-smart (well-traveled and effortlessly bilingual) when someone says, "He attended Harvard."

There's a funny twist on this in Strawberry Marshmallow, in which a blonde, blue-eyed girl from England who's grown up in Japan can't speak English any better than her classmates and desperately tries to hide that fact.

4. Switching schools

One plot device that is plausible in Japan but not in the U.S. has the father getting transferred, the mother going with him, and the student staying behind to house-sit and attend school. Parents who have gotten their child into a decent school dare not risk pulling him out. High schools often take borders for this reason, another well-used trope.

This makes the "transfer student," meaning a student who has switched schools mid-term, very exotic and laden with all kinds of mysterious subtext.

Although the vast majority of teenagers attend school, mandatory education ends with junior high. Students can drop out or parents can pull their children out of school without legal consequences. We get a two-for in Cat Street. Keito is both a child star and a hikikomori, who at seventeen is socially maladjusted and barely literate.

It's a cautionary tale and a not implausible one. On the brighter side, off the top of my head, Strawberry Marshmallow (elementary school) and the first half of Clannad accurately depict student life and school government, as does Kanon, despite the fantasy elements. And the anime version of Gokusen isn't entirely divorced from reality.

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July 05, 2012

Names and numbers

Gorô's name means "number five (五) son (郎)." When it comes to names for Japanese boys, this formula can be used with just about any number. Here is a small sample:

01  一郎  Ichirô
02  二郎  Jirô
03  三郎  Saburô
04  四郎  Shirô
05  五郎  Gorô
06  六郎  Rokurô
07  七郎  Shichirô
08  八郎  Hachirô
09  九郎  Kurô

Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Company has a fascinating year-by-year, top-10 breakdown of all the given names registered in their databases since 1912 (Japanese only). It reveals considerable shifts in naming choices over the last century.

Between 1912 and 1923, Ichirô and Saburô consistently show up in the top ten, but not Jirô. Maybe parents got more creative with son number two. After 1923, the "number + " combination fell out of the top ten and never made it back in.

Ichirô, though, remains a popular name. The most famous Ichirô is Ichirô Suzuki (鈴木一朗), right fielder for the Mariners. The second character in his given name, however, is written with a slightly difference kanji that means "cheerful," not "son."

Out of the single digits, a literal reading of "number + " combination becomes nonsensical. It's unlikely that "Sanjûrô" is supposed to mean "number thirty son."

10  十郎  Jûrô
30  三十郎  Sanjûrô
50  五十郎  Isorô

Names with numbers in them remain common for reasons that have more to do with the way the numbers are pronounced. The Japanese started assigned phonemes to numbers long before the telephone. The Japan Times provides a recent example:

The height of Tokyo Skytree--634 meters--has symbolic meaning for the area known long ago as Musashi, covering Tokyo and parts of Saitama and Kanagawa, because the figure's syllables can stand for 6 ("mu"), 3 ("sa") and 4 ("shi").

Yakuza is the pronunciation of "8-9-3," a losing hand in a Edo period card game resembling blackjack.

The "number + daughter" convention isn't used with girls, but numbers show up in names such as Sen (1000), and the Ma (as in "Mari") prefix (10,000). In the latter case, the character is the same as the first character in Banzai (万才), meaning "long life."

The popular girl's name Nana can also be read "seven," prompting Microsoft to name its Windows 7 mascot "Nanami Madobe" (madobe means "by the window").

One given name on this side of the Pacific derived directly from a number (aside from "Seven of Nine" and "Thirteen") does spring to mind: Trinity.

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July 02, 2012

Libertarian leech

That's what I am, a libertarian leech. A fiscally conservative federalist (I'm with Hamilton about a strong central government, but Jefferson was right about imperial overreaching) who's fine with gay marriage (better than a patchwork of fifty "marriage-lite" compromises), and legalizing all recreational drugs less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

I loath the abuses of the Commerce Clause in the name of unrestrained Washington do-gooding. The Commerce Clause was intended to prevent the states from behaving like separate countries at their economic borders, which makes the reasoning of Chief Justice Roberts rejecting Commerce Clause reasoning as significant as the rest of the ruling:

Construing the Commerce Clause to permit Congress to regulate individuals precisely because they are doing nothing would open a new and potentially vast domain to congressional authority.

As James Madison himself explained:

[The Commerce Clause was] intended as a negative and preventive provision against injustice among the States themselves, rather than as a power to be used for the positive purposes of the General Government.

Roberts allowed the individual mandate as a tax, but nobody likes taxes, especially President Obama, who in a 2009 insisted that the mandate was "absolutely not a tax increase."

Regardless of what anybody calls it, the ACA makes the penalty for not buying insurance so slight ($695 or 2.5 percent of income, automatically qualifying for Medicaid at 133 percent of the federal poverty level) that a starving artist would be a fool to not pay the penalty until necessary. Ditto companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, states can pull the same stunt. Chief Justice Roberts says nobody should feel guilty about that at all. From his majority opinion:

Indeed, it is estimated that four million people each year will choose to pay the IRS rather than buy insurance. That Congress apparently regards such extensive failure to comply with the mandate as tolerable suggests that Congress did not think it was creating four million outlaws. It suggests instead that the shared responsibility payment merely imposes a tax citizens may lawfully choose to pay in lieu of buying health insurance.

Except when all those starving artists have to fork over those fines (oops, "taxes"), there's going to be a whole lot of hollering going on. "Dude! What happened to my tax refund!" Whereupon compassionate liberals will hurry to expand Medicaid all the more, bankrupting the system all the faster.

Chuck Saletta of The Motley Fool points out:

As long as your income falls below the level of 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines, your out-of-pocket premiums for "silver" level coverage are capped on a sliding scale that gets to be no higher than 9.5 percent of your income. The rest of the costs of insuring you are covered by taxpayers.

Thanks, everybody! There is, perhaps, no better example of legislative sausage making in history. It should have been done in a piecemeal manner, where each morsel was tasted first and and chewed on a bit, instead of being wolfed down whole, giving the country a bad case of continental-wide indigestion.

Either way, I'm not a rebel, nor am I one for causes. I vote every two years. That's it. So in a few years I'll shrug and start lapping up Social Security (yes, it's a Ponzi scheme; if Madoff could tax his clients when funds ran short, he'd still be in business too) and Medicare. The Affordable Care Act now gives me a ten-year head start.

Mickey Kaus does make a compelling capitalistic argument for universal healthcare. The problem is that the ACA just happens to be the very worst way to go about achieving it.

Better the reforms had started with HSAs and high-deductible plans available across state lines (like every other form of insurance). Divorce insurance from employment so the tax benefits accrue equally to small and big businesses and the self-employed. Require health care providers to normalize and publish pricing information.

For the time being, my gutless stand is that I have little to lose and a lot to gain. We've put the pedal to the metal on the road to a Greece-style fiscal meltdown, but I'm counting on Big Brother grandfathering in leeches like me. We late baby boomers aren't going gently into that good night. We're bringing down the whole system with us.

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