December 23, 2023

The atonement of Pacifica Casull

In contrast to the ending of Scrapped Princess, I found the atonement scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to be a weak representation of the material being analogized. Furthermore, it makes no sense disconnected from its Christian eschatological framework. And requires a huge suspension of disbelief to make sense of it even when it's not.

C.S. Lewis's hand-wave in this regard is "deep magic," which I think is his way of saying, "Stop asking why." I don't blame him. The Doctrine of the Atonement in the Catholic Encyclopedia covers all the arguments and analogies the dedicated church-goer of any faith has ever heard of and dismisses them one by one as "close but not quite." Ultimately, it can't do much better than the tautology it begins with:

Atonement is the Satisfaction of Christ, whereby God and the world are reconciled or made to be at one.

That sounds awfully Deepak Chopra. The saying, "Fish discover water last," resonates here. Lewis tremendously advanced the cause of Christianity by reframing it in the context of medieval legend and mythology, his areas of expertise. But I think it's necessary to look further afield, to audiences not culturally conditioned to make snap connections between the analogy and the thing being analogized.

Taking Scrapped Princess as a case in point, I can't say whether author Ichiro Sakaki and director Soichi Masui intended the metaphor to be extended this far, but Scrapped Princess frames this bedrock principle of Christian theology with a clarity and logic I've never seen before.

The Earth of Scrapped Princess (which could be viewed as a sequel to The Day the Earth Stood Still) was long ago on the losing side of a literal war in the heavens. After the surrender, the planet was stripped of its advanced technology and sealed inside a kind of global "Biosphere Two." Now called "Providence," it is ruled by a computer system that makes its will known through the "Church of Mauser."

The system maintains Providence in a permanent Middle Ages. The primary means of control is the church (an obvious nod to Rome). But there are several other subroutines running as checks and balances to this goal. Aside from the human Inquisitioners, angel-like beings known as "Peacemakers" (self-aware but cruelly stoic robots) that can trigger Armageddon and reboot the Middle Ages all over again.

Human nature being what it is, sooner or later people start getting too big for their britches, begin discovering the "old technology" (a nod to the Renaissance), and generally causing problems. And so the slate has to be wiped clean.

The other, seemingly contradictory routine is the "Providence Breaker." This independently-running program is designed to terminate the entire system when certain conditions are met, and return to the human race their free agency. It tests for these conditions by raising up a "savior" who is prophesied to destroy the world. If she dies before her sixteenth birthday, then nothing happens and the subroutine restarts.

The anime series doesn't explore all the alternative options, but the following exegesis does fit the material: a Napoleonic figure who rises precipitously to prominence and plows through church and state wouldn't trigger the Providence Breaker either. Because that would inevitably result in a repeat of the same situation, the reason for the world being in this state in the first place.

Rather, the savior has to die to save the world, literally have her blood shed to trigger the Providence Breaker. In the end, Pacifica is betrayed by her own kin, just as Mauser, the original designer of the system, originally betrayed human freedom for "the greater good." (Compare to King Hezekiah trading away future liberty for a present peace in 2 Kings 20:16-19.)

Up to that point, Pacifica has been protected by her mecha "Dragoons" (Knights Templar), and by her followers. If they are not strong and resourceful enough, she will die before her sixteenth birthday. If they are too strong, then their power will corrupt absolutely and nullify the effort. It is only on the razor's edge between these two extremes that her atonement becomes efficacious.

In the end, telling Pacifica that "you were born to destroy me," Mauser's virtual ghost leaves the final choice between peaceful tyranny and chaotic freedom up to her. When Pacifica chooses the latter, like a good deist, Mauser instructs the human race that it is now time for them to take responsibility for their own actions and their own future. And shuts itself down.

This interpretation comes to a logical conclusion and makes a clear, comprehensible point. Not that it's necessarily doctrinally correct (depending on what doctrine you adhere to), but as my old violin teacher used to say, if you're going to play the wrong note, at least play it well. That shouldn't be too much to ask of religious theologies that claim to have the power to damn or save us for all eternity.

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December 09, 2023

What's in a name

NHK Cosmomedia has done a good job establishing NHK World Japan as its free overseas streaming and VOD service. It uses the TV Japan brand for its cable and satellite channel in North American and NHK World Premium outside North America.

Were I the marketing consultant for NHK Cosmomedia, I'd go with TV Japan as the brand for all linear TV programming. NHK World Japan would continue as the free service and the subscription streaming services would inherit the NHK World Premium brand.

Or it could follow the herd and call it Plus. And, in fact, NHK's domestic streaming service (geoblocked outside of Japan) is called NHKプラス (NHK+).

Along with the recent removal of geo-blocking from NHK's flagship news programs (branded as NHK World Premium content), the noticeably improved video quality also hints at a possible integration between NHK World Japan and NHK World Premium.

NHK World Japan had always compressed the heck out of its video feeds. So while relatively still images delivered the full HD quality, any motion (such as during a sumo tournament) resulted in on-screen pixelation and artifacting.

But watching the November 2023 sumo tournament, I couldn't help noticing how much the video quality had improved. We're talking leaps and bounds. Almost no image distortion at all. Crystal clear HD even with full motion.

Raising the bar like this may be a first step to a tiered unification of NHK's online services. Another clue is that two of NHK's domestic satellite channels, BS1 and BS Premium, merged into NHK BS on December 1, 2023.

Going forward, content consolidation will become the name of the game as NHK faces an aging and literally shrinking audience, with the population of Japan predicted to drop another 10 million by the end of the decade.

Once upon a time, I subscribed to TV Japan. Were money no object, I still would, but it is only available on cable and DirecTV and is insanely expensive to boot.

The actual TV Japan subscription by itself still costs the same $25/month it has for decades. That price is dear enough, and doesn't include the ever growing mountain of taxes and fees Xfinity piles on top of even its "Limited Basic" tier.

South Korea's closest counterpart to TV Japan is the streaming service Kocowa, a joint venture between the top three Korean broadcast networks. A basic (ad-free) subscription to Kocowa runs $70/year.

That's about how much TV Japan costs a month on Xfinity. Cost alone is a big reason why live Japanese content has little chance of achieving the same market success outside Japan as anime or Kdrama.

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December 02, 2023

The last picture tube show

When I was a kid, a television was a hulking appliance that ran on a forest of vacuum tubes and produced as much heat as a wood stove. Even after the transition to transistors, the cathode ray tube (CRT) lingered behind as a living dinosaur. Like the internal combustion engine, the miracle of this Rube Goldberg contraption is that it works at all.

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

We now live in a solid state world. HD flat panel displays are par for the course and Moore's law rules the roost. But while there will always be a need for speed at the high end, Intel's budget N100 is fast enough at the low end. We've reached a performance plateau where the only thing holding back a Windows upgrade is the UEFI requirement.

Going forward, the ability to squeeze the guts of not just computers but most ordinary electronic devices onto inexpensive SoCs will have transformative effects on the costs and capabilities of consumer electronics.

The way a twenty dollar Roku runs off a 64 bit ARM CPU and you can get an AM/FM/clock radio on a five dollar SoC (a lot less if purchased in quantity). Even more amazing (to me, at least) is that all of the key electronics in an old school CRT television can be handled by a single chip. Yes, somewhere in China, dinosaurs still roam the Earth.

The vacuum tube is dead! Long live the CRT!

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