April 28, 2014

Reliving the past

The ongoing chaos in the Ukraine, with Putin stirring the pot from afar, reminds me of the tactics of Saigo Takamori, commander of the Satsuma and Choshu forces battling the Tokugawa regime in the middle of the 19th century.

From early in the campaign, Saigo directed a network of agents provacateur operating behind the lines in Edo (Tokyo). They initiated a series of brazen arsons,

starting with the burning of the outerworks of Edo Castle, the main Tokugawa residence. This was blamed on Satsuma ronin, who on that day attacked a government office. The next day shogunate forces responded by attacking the Edo residence of the [governor] of Satsuma, where many opponents of the shogunate, under Takamori's direction, had been hiding and creating trouble.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
These incidents provoked the shogunate into acting prematurely and convinced the populace that the government couldn't even control the capital in which it was ensconced.

By the time the rebel army, now bearing the standard of the emperor, swept up the Tokaido and reached Edo, resistance had mostly melted away. After a brief skirmish at Ueno (where a statue of Saigo now stands), he secured the unconditional surrender of the city.

And speaking of the past merging with current events, the last known letter written by Sakamoto Ryoma was recently discovered on a Japanese version of Antiques Roadshow.

Call him Japan's Alexander Hamilton. Sakamoto Ryoma was a political philosopher who founded Japan's first independent corporation (and dared sue the government when one of its ships damaged one of his). Like Hamilton, he died before his time, assassinated in 1867.

Ryoma negotiated the secret alliance between Choshu and Satsuma that eventually spelled the end of Tokugawa rule. He used his shipping company to smuggle British arms from Satsuma to Choshu, while in public Satsuma pretended to still be backing the regime.

He then helped engineer a silent coup d'etat, convincing the Tokugawa government to yield sovereign authority to the emperor ("like the European powers"). As soon as Satsuma made known its true intentions, the emperor issued an edict abolishing the shogunate.

At that point, the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, threw up his hands and quit (and as a result outlived most of his contemporaries).

Like Lincoln, Sakamoto Ryoma is one of the great "what-ifs" in Japanese history. What if he had lived? Could he have restrained Saigo Takamori's destructive demands for territorial expansion? Could he have established a more republican form of government?

In the newly-discovered letter, Ryoma discusses what structure the new government should take, and how it should replace the existing feudal order (which wasn't truly eradicated until the American Occupation eighty years later).

In any case, I have to believe that Ryoma-the-businessman would be highly amused that a letter worth pennies in materials at the time, purchased for ten bucks at an antique store thirty years ago, has an estimated worth of $150,000. Now that's a profit margin.

Courtesy Asashi Shimbun

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April 24, 2014

Poseidon of the East (16)

The Hosokawa and Yamana were powerful samurai clans during the Muromachi period (1336-1467). In 1467, a dispute between Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sozen spun out of control. The Onin War that followed destroyed Kyoto and weakened the Ashikaga shogunate, triggering the Warring States period.

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April 17, 2014

Poseidon of the East (15)

Provinces in Japan once enjoyed a fair amount of autonomy in governing their internal affairs. This "federalism" was one reason for the longevity of Tokugawa rule. But it also led to its downfall when the domains of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa united and overthrew the shogunate in 1868.

During the early Meiji period, in order to expeditiously eradicate the old feudal order and get everybody on the "same page" policy-wise, the central government took back much of that independence. The over-concentration of political power in Tokyo plagues Japanese politics to this day.

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April 14, 2014

MS-DOS at 30

On the 30th anniversary of MS-DOS, PC Magazine republished the interview with Bill Gates that ran in its February/March 1982 inaugural issue. As I've said before, there's not much about the past I get nostalgic about. One exception is the dawn of the personal computing era.

Gates proves to have been quite insightful about where the technology was headed, such as the need for a microprocessor that could access more memory. Even so, probably even he couldn't have anticipated how inexpensive memory would become.

Now in the 8088 (the Intel 16-bit microcomputer used by IBM), that limit, the logical address space limit, is for all practical purposes gone away. The chip is designed to address up to a megabyte (1 million characters). IBM's announced support for up to a quarter megabyte, that is 256K, and is very much in the relevant range. In other words, that factor will make all the difference in terms of quality end user interface integrated software.

In all fairness, flipping through the first issue (February/March 1982) of PC Magazine (in which the interview appeared), you will see ads for 256 KB RAM expansion cards priced at a gobsmacking $675. And more. That's not factoring in inflation.

While replacing the keyboard on my ThinkPad, I upped the RAM from 1.5 GB to 2 GB. The keyboard and a 1 GB SODIMM (replacing the OEM 512 MB) cost about 50 bucks. Doubling the hard drive capacity wouldn't cost much more but I'm giving that a pass for now.

Well, you'll probably still have local floppies in a lot of cases, but most of the storage size-wise will be in shared file servers—and although optical disk may have had an impact, even at present prices and capacities large (magnetic) disks would suffice. There are 300-megabyte disks down in the $10,000 to $15,000 range now. If you can spread it across 20 users—that is, with a good networking scheme—you could justify it. So, while there ought to be some improvement there, I don't think that we've got any bottleneck even today. Networking is probably one of the big challenges.

I took an introductory PASCAL programming class in the early 1980s and the computer lab had Apple II computers networked just as Gates describes. These days, a 2 TB (terabyte) NAS (Network-attached storage) unit goes for less than $200.

Gates was also spot-on about putting a computer on everybody's desk "for an incredibly low cost." He nailed the importance of the user interface and the commodification of hardware. Unfortunately, he was also right that "we'll be able to write big fat programs."

We can let them run somewhat inefficiently because there will be so much horsepower that just sits there. The real focus won't be who can cram it down it, or who can do it in the machine language. It will be who can define the right end-user interface and properly integrate the main packages.

Gates spends a lot of time talking about BASIC, now a macro language embedded in Office. I wonder if he could have guessed that 30 years later, the bulk of interpreted code would be on the server side, as in 60 million WordPress installations running on top of PHP.

A fair number of which are devoted to pictures of cute cats. Hey, what's a high-tech revolution for?

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April 10, 2014

Poseidon of the East (14)

Twice in this chapter, Itan addresses Shouryuu as kisama (貴様). Is it technically a pronoun that means "you." Except that in Japanese, a few taboo body parts aside (the "c" word in particular), personal pronouns are the most socially volatile.

An expletive like kuso (糞) can mean "crap" or "shit," depending on the context, so you hear it freely uttered by both children and adults. Baka (馬鹿) or "fool" can also mean not much or a lot worse depending on how it's said.

Even in modern Japan, social superiors (including family members) are always addressed by title. Referring to somebody—especially a superior—as kisama is cruising for a bruising. Basically, it's the equivalent of saying, "Hey, you son-of-a-bitch!"

Which only emphasizes how laid-back a leader Shouryuu is.

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April 07, 2014

Antique repair

I wore out the "S" and "D" keys on my laptop.

JWPce is the guilty party. It's a rudimentary Japanese text editor (small and fast) with the WWWJDIC dictionary built in. The lack of an auto-save (and a few lingering bugs) ingrained the CTRL-S habit. I mapped CTRL-D to the pop-up dictionary.

A couple of million words later, those keys were the first to go.

I replaced the actual keys ("S" was worn clear through) but there was no way to save the switches. Getting the expected response when hitting a key turned into a 50/50 proposition, even when pounding on it like an old manual typewriter.

I toyed with the idea of buying a cheapie desktop keyboard, but I'd have to move the laptop out of the way to make room for it and/or get a standalone monitor. At that point I might as well get a new computer.

Replacement keyboards aren't expensive. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that the Thinkpad T42 came in 14-inch and 15-inch (screen) models. None of the resellers on Amazon mentioned the 15-inch model. So I ended up with the wrong one.

The keyboard for the 14-inch screen has four mounting posts. The 15-inch has three, and they're not in the same places. Given the sunk costs--shipping and restocking fees and whatnot--I started considering the cheap compact keyboard option again.

But having nothing to lose, I twisted off the mounting posts with a pair of pliers. Voilà! The keyboard for the 14-inch model fits fine and snaps into place without the screws. Good as new (as long as I'm not treating it like a portable computer).

Granted, this is a classic case of pouring new wine into an old bottle. Despite Microsoft's best efforts, I'm one more of the half-billion reasons XP clings to almost 30 percent of the desktop OS market. (Linux and OS X combined barely reach 10 percent.)

Legacy support for the zombie OS officially expires tomorrow. And this time, Microsoft says, we really, really, really mean it!

I might have upgraded to Windows 7 if I knew the drivers would work. But I'd need new versions of Office and Paint Shop Pro and I've only got a few gigs left on the hard drive. Better a new computer with a Core i5 chipset and room to spare.

So I'll make do with this antique until then. Well, my previous home PC overhaul was from Windows 95 to XP, skipping past 98, 98SE and ME/2000. XP to Windows 8.1 or 9 is about the right time span.

Next time, though, it'll be a compact desktop with more easily replaceable parts. If I want something portable, a Surface will do.

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April 03, 2014

Poseidon of the East (13)

In U.S. political terms, the Shajin (射人) is the director of the Secret Service. The Daiboku serves under the Shajin. At the state level, the governor's protection detail is handled by the state police.

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