July 28, 2016

When quality came to Japan

Sarasohn (top) and Deming.
Edwards Deming is revered as the father of Japan's quality revolution. The revolution began in August 1950 when Deming, then working on the Japanese census, delivered a speech on "Statistical Product Quality Administration."

While Deming would long be a prophet without honor in his own land, the Japanese took his advice to heart, applying it to their assembly lines and rewarding those who met its exacting standards with the "Deming Prize."

Less well known is that Deming was building on the substantial work already done by Homer Sarasohn, who'd been recruited by General MacArthur to rebuild Japan's electronics industry following the war.

When his stay in Japan came to a close, Sarasohn, in turn, recruited Deming.

Robert Cringely endeavors to correct the record in a compelling essay from his PBS column back in 2000: "How Homer Sarasohn Brought Industrial Quality to Japan and Why It Took Japan So Long to Learn."

(And note Sarasohn's quip about Donald Trump sixteen years ago).

Sarasohn's recollections of what he discovered upon inspecting the state of Japanese manufacturing in 1946 certainly come across as wildly incongruous now.

With the exception of the Zero fighter and some aircraft engines, their designs were bad and their manufactured goods were shoddy. Having come from the Rad Lab, I was particularly appalled to see the primitive nature of Japanese naval radar. Their vacuum tubes were bad and the radios were even worse, since each was hand-wired by untrained, often unsupervised, workers. They produced goods in mass quantities, ignoring quality.

Despite the Zero's reputation, Japan's war machine produced nothing like the deadly and reliable F6F Hellcat. Grumman designed the fighter to be simple to build and maintain, and manufactured 12,200 Hellcats in two years, continually improving the frame and powerplant.

As a result, the Hellcat racked up a 13:1 kill ratio over the most widely produced Model 52 Zero. The Model 64 Zero might have begun to match the much improved flight characteristics of the Hellcat, but never made it past the prototype stage.

And by then, the successor to the Hellcat, the Bearcat (which also didn't see action in WWII), had leapt far past the Hellcat and the Model 64, setting performance records that would be eclipsed only by jet fighters.

Essentially, Mitsubishi made Zeros the same way an artisan makes a fine watch. As Hayao Miyazaki observes, "Structurally, the Zero was not designed for mass production." Each Zero was a one-off. It was amazing that Mitsubishi managed to build 10,000 of them.

Meanwhile, the U.S. would deploy four air-superiority fighters into the Pacific Theater: the F6F Hellcat, the P-38 Lightning, the F4U Corsair, and by the end of the war, the P-51 Mustang.

Mass production in Japan before the war emphasized the "mass" part of production, betting on the numerical odds to produce a usable number of quality components. The result was vacuum tube yields of 10 percent. Sylvania, by comparison, had pushed yields to 85 percent.

Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully point out in Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway that Zero pilots had so little faith in their radios that they often removed them to save weight.

The aircraft radios carried on the Zero fighter were of inferior quality and of limited range and power and were difficult to use. As a result, while all carrier Zeros had radios, pilots rarely relied on them.

One of Homer Sarasohn's students was Akio Morita, cofounder of Sony Corporation, whose breakthrough product was the transistor radio.

At first, discrete transistors were treated the same as vacuum tubes. The real breakthrough in quality came with the planar process developed by Fairchild Semiconductor, that employed photolitholography to "print" solid state devices onto silicon wafers.

Unlike a discrete transistor, that could be tossed if a single unit didn't meet the right specs, a flaw in a silicon wafer ruined the whole batch. Producing literally perfect wafers became an economic necessity. And that, Sarasohn argues, is what lit the fire.

The problem is, there's nothing proprietary about quality. It took a while, but Detroit caught on, and the Koreans did too, taking over the DRAM business by 1991. And two decades later had grabbed the bulk of the consumer electronics business from Sony and Panasonic.

The job Japan has ahead of it is not only to iterate and improve but to truly create, to somehow (frankly, it might be impossible at this late date) rekindle the white-hot passion for innovation that propelled Japan, Inc. to greatness in those golden postwar years.

Related links

Twilight of the Zero
The rebirth of Japan's mass media

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July 21, 2016

Dramatic conservation

A common charge leveled by the cultural right against popular mass media is that its essentially dissolute nature is corrupting the moral fiber of the nation. There is certainly no lack of kindling to toss onto that fire, but it is hardly true across the board.

Police procedurals like Blue Bloods (Tom Selleck as a Rudy Giuliani-style police commissioner and devout Catholic) and Bones (David Boreanaz as a by-the-book FBI agent who's a reasonably observant Catholic) and Murdoch Mysteries (Yannick Bisson as yet another practicing Catholic) cast conservative characters in a favorable light.

When in doubt, make your cop Catholic.

And, of course, then there's the not-entirely lapsed Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) on The X-Files. Her conservatism is more of an empirical nature, but in that domain, compared to Mulder, she's definitely conservative.

Ironically, the very nature of these shows means they must necessarily exaggerate the extent and prevalence of criminality, especially in middle-class society. This was just as true of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

Such generalizations hardly stop at the water's edge. Thanks to Hollywood, the average Japanese assumes the average American to be both more religious and more libertine, and the U.S. more crime-ridden, than in reality. The media messages traveling east across the Pacific presents an even narrower slice of the media pie and an even more distorted view of the cultures that produce it.

Japanese police procedures represent real crime rates about as well as British police procedures. More cinematic mayhem per week in Tokyo (or London) than in the entire country. (Though Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia refreshingly features hardly any murders in the entire series.)

Making things worse, perception-wise, most of the contemporary live-action Japanese movies that dominate the Hulu and Netflix catalogs reflect what U.S. distributors can license inexpensively in niche genres that have a build-in audience. Nothing close to a representational sample.

On this score, Studio Ghibli is perhaps the best well-known (to the non-otaku public) indicator about the tastes of the Japanese public in general (especially titles like Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart). Aside from anime feature films, very few "family-friendly" live-action Japanese movies ever make it to the U.S.

As a result, Peter Payne notes the common conclusion that "Judging from all those hentai anime and games the Japanese love, they must be the most perverted people on the planet, leading sex lives that would amaze us all, right?"

Long answer short: nope. Not even close.

Japan is a more conservative country than the U.S. Unlike in the west, the common culture has subsumed most of the historically "religious" practices and values, to the extent that there is no clear bifurcation between the two. It's not the "religious right" influencing modern culture as much as the past influencing the present. And nobody's rebelling much.

One of Faulkner's best-known lines is even more true about Japan: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Further complicating things is the gap between honne and tatemae, or between true (inner) intent and the outer display of behavior. This isn't considered less hypocrisy than a reflexive social necessity.

What is easily interpreted as a reflection of pervasive moral laxity in popular media is only tenuously—and often not at all—tied to individual, personal behavior. It's entertainment. Even there, storytelling conventions in manga and anime often "normalize" more conservative behavior than what exists in Japanese society (like the whole "first kiss" business).

Americanizing a hugely popular series like Kimi ni Todoke would only work if set in the 1950s or perhaps Utah County. Though I also think that built-in reticence (without the attendant religious moralizing) is a big part of the appeal among the American audience.

As I've argue before, a thread of conservatism (or rather, conservationism) makes for better stories. And I mean this more in the naturalistic sense: conserving stuff that's existed for a long time for a reason. The Japanese in particular are huge believers in Chesterton's fence: don't go changing things unless you've got a really good reason.

And probably not even then.

Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate [is blocking] a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

When it comes to narrative fiction, an old gate that can be swung open without a second thought (or a brand new gate that's padlocked just because) makes for poor dramatic conflict. Some resistance, a little rust in the hinges, makes the task a lot more interesting.

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July 14, 2016

Aogashima Island

Mining the ocean floor is one of those perennial futuristic things that is perennially ten years in the future.

But this time high concentrations of gold and silver ore were found in the vicinity of Aogashima Island. Gold in them there underwater hills may provide the kind of motivation to get a gold rush going. Reports the Japan Times:

A team of researchers at the University of Tokyo have discovered high-grade gold ore on a seabed off a remote island south of Tokyo. The ore, collected from a hydrothermal deposit at an underwater volcanic crater off Aogashima, contained as much as 275 grams of gold per ton, a figure that is higher than usual for such deposits on land or sea in Japan.

If you think this sounds like the premise for a James Bond flick, well, check out Aogashima Island. It even looks like the lair of a James Bond villain! (Click to embiggen.)

Those blue spots aren't water. They appear to be roofs, Quonset huts and greenhouses, perhaps. Aogashima Island, 222 miles south of Tokyo, is the the southernmost inhabited island of the Izu archipelago.

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July 07, 2016

The Force Awakens

Star Wars isn't "science fiction." It's medieval fantasy with suits of armor made from extruded ballistic plastic (painted white to make them easier targets, I suppose). Light sabers instead of swords and lasers instead of longbows. (Except the laser bolts move slower than actual arrows.)

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Repurposing old genres makes the topsoil of popular entertainment all the richer. And like McDonald's french fries, when it comes to genre entertainment, the decent low-brow stuff beats the tony high-brow stuff nine times out of ten.

The first Star Wars movie (1977) defined this revised genre. With Irvin Kershner at the helm, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) extended it (it even included a dragon in a cave). Then things went downhill and never recovered. Not even after George Lucas bowed out and laughed all the way to the bank

Granted, at that stage there was no place to go but up. But so determined was Disney to rekindle some of that now "classic" fairy tale goodness (its specialty, after all), that they made the same movie all over again, only with better CGI and a worse script.

It'd be one thing if they'd made exactly the same move. But everybody was so familiar with the archetypes that they forgot to fill in the rest. In between each predictable turn of plot, there's supposed to be, you know, a story. And the accompanying material that fashions ongoing character development.

As a result, The Force Awakens ends up a compilation of deus ex machina moments, the characters and their reasons for being there springing into existence out of empty space like subatomic particles.

The original Star Wars has a few of these problems too, though they're not nearly as glaring. For example, Luke demonstrating the skills of an experienced ball turret gunner straight off the literal farm.

In fact, everybody in the Star Wars universe is surprisingly adept at both operating (and sabotaging) complex military hardware they've never seen before. Galaxies long ago and far away must have had the same high school curriculum as Girls und Panzer (in which armored combat is an extracurricular activity).

And the last act of Star Wars is plain silly, suggesting that a couple hundred hours flying VFR in a Piper Cub qualifies a pilot to jump into an F-22 and fly circles around an MIG-29. (See also: Independent Day, but at least the Randy Quaid and Bill Pullman characters had flown military jets before.)

Otherwise, Luke is realistically shown to be the novice that he is, whose best option in a tight situation (again, until the heroic last act) is to run away or hire some muscle. Even after extensive one-on-one training, he is incapable of besting Darth Vader with a light saber in The Empire Strikes Back.

By contrast, the time to learn any activity, any skill, any knowledge-dependent process in The Force Awakens—from "I've never seen this thing before" to "I can use it as well as a professional"—is about sixty seconds.

All the more exasperating is that most of these glaring plot holes could have been easily fixed.

1. Finn goes AWOL after ten minutes of doing whatever he was programmed/trained to do since forever.

Well, they certainly don't make stormtroopers like they used to. For such a key character, a bit more substance behind the decision would go a long way to informing us about his character and personality.

Easy fix: Make Finn part of Kylo Ren's detail. Finn is sick and tired of babysitting this whiny kid with anger management issues, has been nicked one too many times during his temper tantrums. Then witnessing Ren's depravity in person punches his ticket to get out of there before he ends up as cannon fodder.

This would also explain why a narcissistic sociopath like Ren would notice who Finn was in the first place, let alone bother to call him a "traitor." Because he knew Finn personally.

2. I read the manual and now I can fly a starship better than an experienced pilot.

"Howling Mad" Murdock on the A-Team could fly anything because he learned how to fly everything. But since the original Star Wars, "The Force" somehow became shorthand for "Hard work, study, and practice is for suckers."

Easy fix: Make Ridley a mechanic when we first meet her. She works for the pawnshop proprietor who owns the ticket on the Millennium Falcon. She's trying to fix it because Han disabled it before hawking it and it won't go FTL, making it worthless. In the meantime, Ridley uses it to cart junk around.

One day she spots Finn and BB-8 out in the desert and gives them a ride. When they get back, Han Solo and Chewbacca have shown up to claim their craft. In the middle of arguing about who owns what and who owes whom, the stormtroopers charge in and all hell breaks loose.

3. I didn't even read the manual but just holding a light saber means I can beat a guy with way more experience than me.

It's easy to establish that both Finn and Ridley can handle themselves in a fight. But that's not enough. Not after the first three Star Wars movies established the deadly difficulty of light saber fighting.

Easy fix: This was sorta hinted at, but it should be pointed out (by Finn, say) that, sans the Force, Ren can't fight his way out of a brown paper bag. Lazy jerk that he is, he never had to. But now he has to. The question is whether actually applying himself will make him a better man too. Ah, a character arc!

On the other hand, some things are not fixable.

The Death Star was a cool enough concept that, first time out, I could quell the eye rolling. But this predilection to "Do the exactly same thing only bigger" movie after movie is just inane.

And here I thought that Space 1999 boasted the stupidest SF premise of all time. Supposing that the Queen in Through the Looking-Glass really could believe six impossible things before breakfast, she couldn't believe this:

Moonbase Alpha is a scientific research colony and watchdog over silos of atomic waste from Earth stored on the Moon's far side. On September 13, 1999, magnetic energy builds to cause an explosive chain-reaction of the waste, blasting the Moon out of Earth orbit and off the plane of the ecliptic, out of the Solar System.

The first Death Star (so sad there's more than one) was the spherical version of the Doomsday Machine from Star Trek. And the Doomsday Machine was huge but not-unreasonable sized. But a whole freaking planet on the run? I'd need a space elevator for my suspension of disbelief to go that high.

Also, these super-advanced societies can travel faster than light but can't make a decent circuit breaker. Or make a non-combustible space ship. (Also see Independence Day, but I do give Independence Day credit for setting off a nuke inside the mothership, which would do pretty much as depicted.)

This single-point-of-failure problem extends to the Republic, which hasn't figured out distributed networking either. They need to take lessons from Monty Python on "Not Being Seen."

Speaking of Monty Python, watching Star Wars gets me into a "What have the Romans ever done for us?" frame of mind. The entire argument against the regime du jour is that they're mean. And not very bright, taking a sledgehammer approach (repeatedly) to solving small problems.

These are the kind of people who, lacking a flyswatter, grab a hammer. Now all the windows are broken and the walls are full of holes. With Disney committed to pumping out rebooted Star Wars sequels on a regular basis, turning every conflict into an galactic existential threat will get old fast.

It's already old.

Firefly employed a not-dissimilar premise—big bad bureaucracy against the little guy—with an important difference: our motley crew has a job to do, and overthrowing the Alliance tomorrow isn't anywhere near the top of the list.

Posit instead that the Empire or First Order or whatever rules with a heavy hand but is basically competent. The Republic doesn't want to (and can't) overthrow the whole shebang. It's the Republic of Texas: it'd rather not be part of Mexico anymore (it helped that Santa Anna was not a nice guy or a smart general).

Even if the center could not hold, the result would likely resemble the Warring States period in Japan, which is still producing great story material four centuries later.

The sovereign power wielded by the warlords during the era compares to that of the Italian city-states, with conflicts taking place mostly at the peripheries of their domains, leaving commerce and agriculture largely undisturbed. This, in turn, led to significant economic, cultural and technological growth.

But the lack of central control also produced a veritable queue of claimants to the throne, and great business opportunities for the pirates and mercenaries in (or out of) their employ. The kind of universe in which Han Solo and crew would feel right at home.

Related posts

Attack of the Clones
The Phantom Menace
McKee meets the "Menace"

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