June 29, 2015

Courtly conclusions

The first line of Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (gay marriage) sums up my thoughts about both "momentous" Supreme Court decisions last week: "The substance of today's decree is not of immense personal importance to me."

My libertarian instincts lead me likewise to shrug. As far as the state is concerned, marriage is a legal contract; what religions wish to make of it is up to them. In any case, almost all of the damage done to "marriage as an institution" comes from the misbehavior of the heterosexual majority.

On the other hand, Obamacare is about as far from a libertarian solution as can be imagined. But as George Will points out, conservatives are reaping what they sowed: "Their decades of populist praise of judicial deference to the political branches has borne this sour fruit."

And so Pournelle's "Iron Law of Bureaucracy" kicks in with a vengeance.

In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Second, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization.

As a sign of things to come, a third Supreme Court decision is eerily germane. In Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the Court struck down the insane actions of the National Raisin Reserve (a real government agency), that props up commodity prices by "seizing" (stealing) crops grown by farmers.

The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate "marketing orders" to help maintain stable markets for particular agricultural products. The marketing order for raisins requires growers in certain years to give a percentage of their crop to the Government, free of charge.

Farmers aren't exactly innocent lambs here. Thanks to equally stupid laws dating back to the same New Deal era, rent-seeking by all parties is rife within the agricultural economy.

Decade after decade, farm bills are debated and "reformed," an Orwellian term that means paying off the relevant constituencies (like Arizona cotton growers) and endlessly toying at the fringes, until things get so out of whack that the courts finally weigh in on the side of common sense (maybe).

It only takes three-quarters of a century. Or longer. Equally dreadful aspects of New Deal agricultural policy are merrily humming along (like paying farmers to grow cotton in the desert).

In other words, Obamacare isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Luckily for Obamacare opponents, health care isn't so arcane nobody cares about it, and the current implementation is hardly everybody's cup of tea. "Repeal and replace" is a dead letter, but there is currently an opening for commensense tweaking.

An obvious one is getting rid of employer-sponsored plans. Your employer doesn't dictate the terms of your auto or home insurance. Like FICA payments, a company's only responsibility should be depositing withholdings in the right bucket. That alone would eliminate religious objections to mandated coverage.

The one legislative error underlying all others is trying to do too much at once (fearing the chance won't come around again), and ending up writing laws so complex and opaque that they have to "pass it to find out how it works." Did Nancy Pelosi know she was paraphrasing a political cartoon from 1947?

Opponents to Obamacare and gay marriage shouldn't make the same mistake. Mark Shields is exactly right that the Supreme Court has done the Republicans candidates "an enormous political favor." Democrats now fully own Obamacare, while establishment Republicans have been shooting blanks on alternatives.

And when it comes to gay marriage, Republicans are demonstrating themselves to be empty of actual political principles. They're the ones who federalized marriage in the first place. Remember DOMA? That was back when everybody was gung-ho in favor of "traditional marriage."

At this point, Republican candidates risk self-destructing in order to garner a few primary wins. The best thing they could do for the cause is shut up about it until after November 2016.

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June 25, 2015

The teen manga artist

Despite the manga market in Japan cooling off largely due to the inevitable demographic shifts, publishers are still actively recruiting new talent. This has produced a YA genre unique to Japan that centers around the teenage manga artist.

The genre falls into two general categories: 1) the amateur/self-published (dojinshi) manga artist, often a member of a high school or college manga club; 2) a teenager earning a living as a manga artist.

In the former category are Comic Party and Genshiken. In both cases, the goal is getting a booth at the Comiket comic fair (or its equivalent), the world's biggest dojinshi convention.

A few of the more talented club members may parlay this into a career in the future, but that's not the point of the story. As Kate points out, the setting has the important function of giving the characters something to do.

The problem of providing genre romantic characters with a difference can often be solved by simply giving the main characters jobs, and then remembering what those jobs are.

This is literally the case for the teenagers in the latter category. They often even live alone (second item). This isn't unusual in Japan, where a high school student can enroll in an "escalator school" away from home, or whose parents are working abroad.

In anime and manga about making manga, "the teenager as working artist" breaks down into several sub-categories:

  • As in Ef–A Tale of Memories, being a manga artist is simply one aspect of a person's character and a source of conflict as such.
  • Though more commonly, the main character being a manga artist comprises the whole plot device.
  • As an added twist, a guy is writing a romance manga or a teen girl is writing for a sexually explicit imprint (like Cheese).

Bakuman is the best series about growing up to become a manga artist. The story follows two ninth grade boys who are striving to break into the business, with Moritaka Mashiro as the artist and Akito Takagi as the writer.

Media Blasters had picked up the anime but subsequently abandoned the license. The manga series is published by VIZ Media.

Otherwise, the best of the rest is Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun. Nozaki Umetaro is a hunky high school student who, unbeknownst to most of his classmates, draws a popular romance manga for a girl's magazine.

Producing two chapters a month leaves him desperate for new material. And help. Established manga artists employ a small staff to help meet the always pressing deadlines. Nozaki resorts to roping his classmates into those chores, including Chiyo.

Because of an understandable misunderstanding, the first time he broaches the subject, she thinks he's asking her on a date. Instead she finds herself learning how to do beta (that means filling in designated areas with solid black).

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun confirms that "giving your characters something to do is always more interesting than letting them sit and around and get angsty." Nozaki has something to do, a place to be, and Chiyo a non-awkward reason for being there.

The monomaniacal Nozaki is the perfect straight man, navigating a sea of absurdity without straining belief. The series is good-natured, not too sit-com stupid (a trap Comic Party falls into at times), and honestly very funny.

The genre doesn't stop with high school. Yasuko and Kenji (a live-action comedy not available in the U.S.) has the leader of a biker gang abandoning his old life and becoming a manga artist to support his kid sister when their parents die.

Mangirl (an unfortunate-sounding portmanteau of "manga" and "girl") is about just that, a very silly and very short (less than five minutes per episode) but surprisingly smart show about four OLs launching a manga magazine.

The people making these anime are following the adage of writing what they know best, so the added bonus is that you will learn a good deal about the manga industry in the process (including dealing with odd editors and eccentric artists).

Incidentally, the best series about the anime industry right now (said by industry insiders to border on documentary accuracy) is Shirobako. It's also about working adults, though they started out in a high school anime club.

Related posts

Manga economics
Manga circulation in Japan
The manga development cycle

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June 22, 2015

The future of TV

In "7 Deadly Sins: Where Hollywood is Wrong about the Future of TV," Liam Boluk tackles the past, present, and future of commercial television in the context of rising competition from over-the-top (OTT) services. By the time the networks are "ready" to fully embrace OTT, he argues, they'll have already been supplanted.

In terms of minutes viewed, at its current pace, Netflix "will become the most popular video provider in the US by the end of 2015," making it "bigger than two of the four major US broadcasters and twice as large as the largest cable network." Hulu and Amazon are larger than half of traditional cable offerings and growing.

Boluk nails down exactly where the impetus for "cord cutting" comes from; i.e., abandoning cable TV for OTT:

Since 2005 alone, the average pay TV household has more than doubled the number of channels it receives (to around 200), while the number of channels they actually watch has increased by only one (from 16.5 to 17.5).

It'd be interesting to analyze how much overlap there is in those 17.5 channels.

ESPN recently freaked out when Verizon announced the creation of à la carte TV packages that didn't include ESPN by default. ESPN had leveraged its popularity into requiring that its channels be part of the basic cable TV package, raking in seven bucks from every cable TV subscriber (this doesn't even sound legal to me).

Its reaction suggests ESPN fears that, given the choice, far more viewers can live without its content than in the good old days, when people got cable just to get ESPN (or rather, ESPN had the only original programming on cable).

Cable TV has definitely developed a featuritis problem: it's selling the sparkle of 200 channels, 90 percent of which is ultimately ignored. The gamble--that paid off up till now--was that by the time the consumer realized this, the cable bill was just another utility. Shrug and pay it.

But no longer. And another reason is a disruptor that nobody saw coming.

Sports was the original reality television. For a time it seemed that, like game shows in the 1950s, cheaply produced "scripted reality" shows were going to solve the networks' money flow problems. And before that, 24 hour news was going to dominate everything.

Really, that's what the "experts" said.

Now, Al Jazeera's half-billion dollar cable buy has crashed and burned. CNN runs a distant second to Fox News, neck-in-neck with MSNBC, which is pulling the lowest ratings in a decade. In Marge Simpson's words, "The story was first reported on CNN. Then the real news started reporting it all over the world."

"Reality TV" has certainly kept production costs low. But then came the "AMC Effect." AMC was a "stable, if unambitious Tier 2 cable network" that suddenly raced to the head of the pack with a series of audacious, one-hour original dramas, debuting Mad Men in 2007 and Breaking Bad in 2008.

AMC now has the most-watched scripted series across broadcast, basic cable and premium cable, The Walking Dead. As one might expect, this success has prompted all networks to view originals as essential to driving awareness, building a brand, retaining users and generating profits.

To be sure, football remains the perennial ratings winner, but it's a finite resource. The networks have to anchor their schedules with a franchise like NCIS, that still tops the broadcast television ratings after 12 seasons.

The curious paradox about "premium" content providers is how little original content they actually provide, compared to the hours that over-the-air (OTA) networks have to fill. In part, this is because every cable channel feeds at the same subscription fee trough as ESPN. All that matters is getting into the subscription package.

So how many hit shows do you need to maximize ROI? As it turns out, two highly-rated shows that draw the same audience may be less valuable than two lesser-rated shows that draw completely different audiences.

Many of today's original series are being cancelled not because they aren't good enough or because there's too much out there, but because the industry's business models and metrics haven't been updated to the on-demand, non-linear era. Until that changes, cancellation rates will only get worse.

Golf has been proving this point for decades. Professional golf fills the weekend afternoon airwaves during the summer, earning lousy rating in absolute terms (aside from a handful of marquee events). But golf is popular among a particular demographic that certain advertisers want very badly to reach.

This points to another downstream effect: the long-term impact on the whole ratings system.

The old approach was to poll households to find out who was watching what. But streaming providers know exactly who is watching what. The same way Amazon generates internal sales data superior to any New York Times bestseller list, OTT will ultimately disintermediate the whole Nielsen rating system.

Alas, without a big build-out of "last mile" infrastructure, OTT will have a hard time beating cable in terms of signal quality. And that might not matter. It's just as Clay Christensen predicted: "A low-end product doesn't need to be as good as a high-end one to drive it out of a market."

Here, though, the pressure comes from both the high and low end. Free over-the-air delivers the best HDTV signal. Content providers that are also ISPs can't improve bandwidth without making OTT all the more attractive, and they can't not improve ISP service with Google waiting in the wings.

Except that Google isn't exactly galloping into the ISP business (I wish they would at least trot a few miles north from Provo). For the time being, Comcast has a nice deal going, maximizing income from content and Internet services. Nothing drastic is likely to happen as long as the money keeps gushing in.

Even in the face of cord-cutting fears, regulatory uncertainty and increasing resistance to its unpopular merger proposal with Time Warner Cable Inc. [since abandoned], Comcast has delivered one blockbuster quarter after another, often blowing past analysts’ estimates.

Cable Internet services have incredible profit margins (meaning they incredibly overcharge). Robert Cringely speculates that cable ISPs might even welcome being "forced" to shed the heavy costs of providing content in favor of providing only bits, which would eventually turn every local ISP into a de facto CDN.

My prediction is that, in the near future, the last quarter century of cable programming will prove to have been a slowly growing bubble. Squeezed by OTA and OTT, cable will have to go à la carte. The number of channels viewers are willing to outright pay for will collapse.

Unless content providers can keep subscription costs low enough that customers don't worry about the bill. The easiest way to do that is to slash the number of offerings and leave the long tail to OTT. To paraphrase Hemingway, when the paradigm does shift, it's likely to be gradually at first and then all at once.

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June 15, 2015

Utopia wasn't built in a day

At the heart of every Edenic green dream is an obliviousness to the necessity of time and the demands of scale. A similar flaw shows up in near-future science fiction. Any razzle-dazzle infrastructure predicted to be ubiquitous a quarter-century from now has to be in the permitting process now.

When referencing the Space Race, remember that the chief architect of the Saturn V booster was Wernher von Braun, who'd launched 5200 V-2 liquid-fuel rockets during the 1940s. His designs were in large part based on Robert Goddard's groundbreaking research in the 1920s.

Japan Railways and its predecessors had started buying up rights-of-way for the Shinkansen thirty years before it debuted in 1964 (the war having put the original plans on hold). The route itself followed the centuries-old Tokaido Road.

These things take time. Unlike Jean-Luc Picard, no modern, democratic government can "Make it so" by merely ordering it. Even authoritarian regimes are finding it tough these days to rule by decree.

California is still a democracy. A messy one. The LA Times recently reported: "Finding a route into the Los Angeles Basin for the California bullet train is proving far more difficult than it seemed a year ago, as opposition is surging in wealthy and working-class communities alike."

Phase 1 of California High-Speed Rail project is supposed to be completed by 2029. Chances of Phase 1 getting done on time: zero. Chances of it never being finished: high. Discussing the various obstacles to the routes currently under debate, Steve Sailer concludes:

Theoretically, High Speed Rail could follow the existing tracks west through Simi Valley to Santa Barbara--I've taken the slow train to Santa Barbara. But nobody can conceive of the zillionaires of Santa Barbara allowing High Speed Rail to roar through Montecito, so that idea never comes up.

Even if we could nationalize all the beautiful back yards and ocean front vistas keeping such projects at bay, there's still the problem of actually building the thing. Or as Elon Musk would prefer, a whole bunch of things, explains Will Boisvert in "The Grid Will Not Be Disrupted."

Does all the messianic talk of battery-powered "disruption" and solar triumphalism stack up? Hardly. For all their ballyhooed price reductions, Tesla batteries are still too unreliable and expensive to come even within hyping distance of neither a reliable power supply, nor an off-grid revolution.

To get down to brass tacks:

(Click to enlarge.)

For that much money, Boisvert points out, you could build enough AP1000 nuclear power plants to completely decarbonize Germany's electrical supply. Germany presently gets 75 percent of its electrical power from fossil fuel sources. That's measurably higher than the U.S. (67 percent).

France gets eight (8!) percent of its electrical power from fossil fuels. Nuclear accounts for 77 percent.

Before Fukushima, Japan generated 30 percent of its electrical power from nuclear; it's now close to zero, the difference being made up by oil, gas, and coal. Unlike Germany, Japan intends to restart its nuclear plants. Like Germany, in the meantime, it's increasingly relying on coal.

We've been building steam-turbine generators since 1884. They generate terawatts of reliable power and run 24/7 for years. But "the falling price of wind and solar generators has distracted us from the external costs of trying to shape [wind and solar] into an energy source we can count on."

As I said: these things take time. Oh, I can well imagine renewables becoming "affordable" in the near future because of bounteous subsidies (not that India and China care; heck, if I were them, I'd sign any treaty put in front of me and keep burning coal).

Except subsidies don't change the laws of physics. All those wind and photovoltaic farms will require an equally large number of base load power plants (if not nuclear, then burning fossil fuels well into the next century) to mitigate the storage problems. Which we'll merrily pretend don't exist.

The carbon equation won't change one iota, but at the very least we can all feel better about ourselves.

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June 11, 2015

The sunk cost advantage

Thanks to the digital revolution, the business models of anime and manga distribution are converging.

Manga magazines in Japan function as loss leaders. Publishers use cheaply-printed magazines to "audition" series and artists. If successful, a manga series will be compiled into higher-quality paperback editions. From there, the cream of the crop become source material for anime, live-action television, and movies.

This explains why manga dominates the ebook market in Japan. Since publishers already have to electronically typeset any manga that makes it into the magazines, they can epublish everything in their backlists rather than try and winnow out the winners.

Unlike text-based ebooks, which originate with XHTML files (that are tricky to convert from typesetting files; it's easier to go back to the Word files), visual novels originate with PDF or image files, making ebook creation a far simpler process.

Anime series require more money, more people, and more time, but they eventually have to run a similar gauntlet.

Anime series (and movies) are produced with the backing of "production committees" (that often include the studio's "competitors"). Most are shopped to the networks using "brokered programming" (or "time buy") syndication agreements: they buy the air time and sell the advertising spots themselves.

The goal is to generate publicity among the fan base and then make an actual profit on DVD/Blu-ray sales and merchandising.

Anime series that get the DVD go-ahead get "cleaned up" in post-post production (TV series being cranked out at a pell-mell pace). The "cleaning up" includes what Steven Den Beste calls "Buy the Blu-ray!" scenes, gratuitous nudity obscured for broadcast television (fans know it when they see it).

With the exception of breakout hits and network-owned series, the studio (and the its financial backers) will be looking for any revenue stream to add to the bottom line. This makes the up-front licensing fees for simulcasting (over 40 titles on Crunchyroll) another plus.

Of course, simulcasting means that subtitling has to be done in-house before the broadcast date, rather than farmed out to the U.S. distributor at some future date. Which means that, like manga, almost all of the streaming costs will have been sunk by the broadcast date.

Thus the appeal of a distribution channel that can't rebound to hurt home-market sales, namely streaming video (and government export assistance programs don't hurt). The appeal is so great that Justin Sevakis fears we're seeing a repeat of the DVD anime boom and bust in the mid-2000s.

There is so much anime being released right now that Hulu has stopped taking everything they're being offered--old shows are being purged if nobody is watching them, and some new shows are being rejected if Hulu's anime team deems them unlikely to find an audience. They just can't handle that much content. We have too much anime, and there's simply no way for anybody to keep up.

The obvious downside is that irrational exuberance will again drive supply up and demand down and licensing fees over the edge. Expectations will collide with cold hard reality as they do in any marketing bubble.

This time around, though, there are no physical returns for publishers to worry about. Licensing fees can be adjusted on the fly. A title can be eliminated from inventory with the press of a button. As Sevakis puts it, "There simply aren't as many ways [as before] for the anime publishers to eat dirt."

And this time around, Japanese businesses may finally get that whole "Cool Japan" thing right.

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June 06, 2015

Makoto Shinkai

Along with Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai comes closest to capturing the cinematic "look and feel" of Studio Ghibli (Shinkai cites Castle in the Sky as his favorite anime). However, I think Hosoda hews much closer to Miyazaki's (and John Lasseter's) emphasis on story driven by plot and character.

Shinkai waxes moodier than I usually care for, emphasizing affect over effect. But, boy, can he capture moods! His visual palette is stunning, exquisite, and deeply evocative. Voices of a Distant Star is less a film than a narrative poem. (It's also the best version of Ender's Game that isn't Ender's Game.)

(Click on images to enlarge.)

The excruciatingly gorgeous 5 Centimeters per Second vividly captures (especially in the last scene) a very real moment of self-realization. You want honest emotions? Like, man, I'm grokking it totally. But I'm not sure I'd call it "entertaining." Not beyond the dazzling cinematography.

In other words, 5 Centimeters per Second may be the most beautiful work of literary fiction ever created.

One exception in the collection is Children Who Chase Lost Voices. This retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice (Izanagi and Izanami) visually merges the worlds of Totoro and Princess Mononoke in a young adult adventure through the underworld. Death and loss is still the subject, but less meditatively.

Mono no a'wa're is Shinkai's specialty, referring to the classical Japanese aesthetic concept of the beauty that can be found in loss and in the transitory nature of things, "a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life."

A'wa're isn't about being nihilistic or deliberately depressing. It's the simple recognition that nothing lasts forever, and if you know where to look there's beauty in that too, so it doesn't have to completely bum you out.

Shinkai's oeuvre truly comes together in Garden of Words, a story told in images that suffuse the senses like a Monet exhibition. No cinematic rain has ever felt wetter. Though here Shinkai does drive toward a specific resolution that pays off in the final frames (stick all the way through the credits).

Senri Oe's 1988 hit single, "Rain," inspired the screenplay. In the movie it's performed by Motohiro Hata.

In Garden of Words, Shinkai has given a well-established romance subgenre (in Japan) a poignant twist. Once you realize that, the film is worth watching again to see how he advances the plot without showing his hand, and how many subtle touches come alive with the additional context.

Netflix still carries The Place Promised in Our Early Days in its dwindling DVD catalog. All of the titles are available at Amazon in one form or another. She and Her Cat is included as an extra on the Voices of a Distant Star DVD.

 • She and Her Cat (short; cats)
 • Voices of a Distant Star (short; science fiction)
 • The Place Promised in Our Early Days (science fiction)
 • 5 Centimeters per Second (contemporary)
 • Children Who Chase Lost Voices (fantasy)
 • The Garden of Words (short; contemporary)

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June 01, 2015

In the long run . . .

. . . we're all dead, as John Maynard Keynes famously observed. And by "we," I mean "everybody." When the Sun enters its red giant phase, this planet and everything on it will be vaporized.

Don't panic: that won't happen for 7.5 billion years. The problem is, the Sun is a fusion furnace and it's slowly but certainly running out of its primary fuel, hydrogen. As it does, the core shrinks a little and heats up a little.

In turn, the Earth's orbit widens a little. It all balances out--until it doesn't. Solar luminosity has been growing about 10 percent every billion years. But once helium fusion commences, the Sun will get way too hot way too fast.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Life will get uncomfortably warm long before that, in only a few hundred million years. Ironically, what will probably kill us first is the lack of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

That's right. Too little carbon dioxide. As plate tectonics slows down and the Sun heats up, continental erosion and ocean evaporation will accelerate carbonate formation, locking away more and more carbon dioxide.

So as the Sun slowly brightens, carbon dioxide is sequestered into limestone. Some 600 to 800 million years from now, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations should fall below 10 parts per million, a threshold where plants can no longer photosynthesize. This process might wipe out plants and the animals that depend on them.

Including us. Not to mention that no more green plants means no more oxygen. So forget about breathing. But hey, we've got a half-billion years to go! For once, we can definitely call it somebody's else's problem.

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