30 December 2009

Twentieth Century Boys

Based on high recommendations from my friend Gilles, I just rented and watched 20th Century Boys (Pt. 1) last night.

The basic idea of the story is that a group of school friends make a secret clubhouse out of grass one summer to have a place to look at manga, listen to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and so forth on the radio, and share what passes for porn in junior high school. As part of passing the time, they make up a symbol for their group (an up-pointing finger over an eyeball) and create a group sketchbook that shows a series of attacks on the world that the friends come together to defeat. 25 years later, world events seem to be eerily echoing the sketchbook from their childhood, and they're forced to come together again to deal with this fact.

It's an interesting take on storytelling, since the story spans the time from the early 70s through 2015. It pops back and forth in time a lot, although they're pretty consistent about using a supertitled date to tell you where you are. That was absolutely essential towards the end of the movie, when they started jumping around by a few days instead of 20 years. The basic idea is interesting, and in the story the characters try to access 25-year-old memories to attempt to reconstruct the details of that long-ago summer, so cutting back to those scenes lets the audience learn the memories as the characters relive them. Also, the casting is awesome; they did a fantastic job of getting child actors who all plausibly look like the child versions of the adult actors.

They picked well for the central character to tell the story through: Kenji was a close to a leader as the group had back in the day, with personal style that eventually led him into a career as a rock'n'roller -- which in turn caused him to drink his way down out of society. Now he's a convenience store clerk (the initial scenes of the manager exhorting him to practice the chain's greeting more sincerely is just one of the many little societal commentaries in the film) who's raising his niece as a single parent.

Unfortunately, I think the weakest point of the story is the one widely shared among Manga adaptations, whether animated or live action -- the storytelling is frequently elided. That is to say, there are just scenes you need to have that aren't there. Towards the end, the enemy (ironically named "Friend", he heads up a cult/political party called "Friend Party" / 友民党) has sent a giant robot into Tokyo and our group gets together and heads out to stop him. Cut to, shot of one of the group tackling Friend from behind on the top of a building. How did they get there? How did he know where Friend was? etc. is never explained. Another member of the group, for equally unknowable reasons, happens to be watching from the next rooftop.

This shortcut storytelling is so widespread among Manga adaptations it must be a fairly conscious choice (if you watch standard Japanese TV dramas or live action movies, they don't suffer from this problem, so it's not like storytelling is unknown here). I've always assumed that it comes from the fact that the main audience in Japan for a Manga adaptation is people who are already fans of the Manga -- thus, the filmmakers assume the audience already basically knows the story, and wants to get to the "good parts", i.e., the scenes where the characters' emotions are clearly on display and/or the action scenes, rather than actually clearly retell a story the audience already knows. In terms of the domestic market for a film like this, that makes perfect sense; unfortunately, and to the great detriment of the industry here, it severely limits the market for the film outside the Manga's pre-existing fanbase. Most worldwide audiences do prefer their stories clearly told rather than needing to guess at the missing pieces.

12 December 2009

Please get wasted at home

From Tokyo

There's a public service campaign going on right now about not putting on your makeup, drinking soda, etc. while riding the train -- the tagline is always, "Please do it at home." The latest poster addresses a different behavior to be practiced in the home, though.

Note for those not living in Japan: this is not a joke, these posters are really up all over Tokyo right now.

25 November 2009

How to Attend the Electronic Theater at SIGGRAPH Asia 2009

(English follows the Japanese)


19日の土曜日の上映も二つ予定されます。午後の 16:15 も夕方の 19:00 もあります。
ソニーマーケティング日本に上がって頂いた4K のディジタルシネマプロジェクターを使います。
フルHD の変種の作業はイマジカでやっています。
CAF ET Program

ET Tickets

SIGGRAPH Asia Registration




Hi all,

I'm the chair for this year's SIGGRAPH Asia Computer Animation Festival in Yokohama, and the main event of the festival is the Electronic Theater.

The schedule for screenings for the Electronic Theater includes a premiere show on the evening of Thursday, December 17th as well as a show on the evening of Friday the 18th, but there are also shows scheduled on Saturday the 19th, at both 4:15pm and 7pm. The Electronic Theater lasts about two hours. For the contents of the Electronic Theater, check the web page below and click "Electronic Theater". The Electronic Theater will be presented via a 4K Digital Cinema projector donated by Sony Marketing (Japan) in the Main Theater at Pacifico Yokohama. The full-resolution HD edit is being carried out at Imagica.
CAF ET Program

For people who don't want to participate in other SIGGRAPH events but just want to go to the Electronic Theater, please go to the link below, and you can purchase any number of tickets via credit card.
CAF ET Tickets

If you want to go to other SIGGRAPH Asia events besides the Electronic Theater, you can of course visit the main SIGGRAPH Asia site:
SIGGRAPH Asia Registration

Please feel free to forward this message to any other interested people, and if you have any questions, or if anything is unclear, please get in touch.



17 October 2009

Disappointing Books #1, "Castles, Battles, and Bombs"

I've read two disappointing books recently, so in the interest of helping others avoid the mistake, I'll share.

"Castles, Battles, and Bombs" by Jurgen Brauer and Hubert van Tuyll has a very clear concept: the authors attempt to study military history through the tools of standard (aka neoclassical) economics. They choose six periods of history, pair them with six principles of economics (opportunity cost, substitution effects, marginal cost vs. marginal beenfit, etc.) and attempt to use the economics principle to understand the period of history.

It's a neat idea; too bad it doesn't add much to the understanding of history. Now, I'm not saying the authors are wrong in their observations. Yes, clearly, building castles in the High Middle Ages reduced the funds kings had available to devote to maintaining field armies. But what was true in pretty much every one of the six chapter of this book is that the economic principle, while at least somewhat applicable, is not key to understanding the period in question.

For instance, they study Renaissance Italy via the economic question known as the principal-agent problem, which is to say, when you hire something to do something, how do you know they (your agent) are doing what you (the principal) want? Since Italy was constantly at war through most of this period, and that war was primarily conducted via hired mercenaries, the condottori (literally meaning contractors), it's easy to see why they matched the two.

While the book goes through the considerable lengths the Italian city-states went to in order to mitigate the principal-agent problem, all of which make sense (essentially, an auditing corps of city employees were used to keep track of the activities of the condottieri, as well as a tendancy for longer-term relationships), it's not believable that the principal-agent problem was a cause for the commencement or ending of this era. The principal-agent problem has to be managed any time you engage in a contract, yes; but since the problem existed throughout the era in study, and roughly equally for all participants, I felt like I learned nothing new about the era by studying these. The real reasons why the mercenary system existed during that era, why the city-states chose it, and why they eventually chose otherwise, all lie outside the area of study.

Every chapter suffers from this failing, in that while the principle does apply, it doesn't offer key insights. In the fifth chapter of the book, they go over the well-trodden data showing that (non-nuclear) strategic bombing is not economically justifiable. That is to say, the total economic costs to an aggressor country of building and operating a combined-arms air force capable of conducting a strategic bombing campaign is greater than the economic damage done to the enemy by said campaign (factories, surprisingly, turn out to be pretty easy to repair). They use the extensive data on WWII's air campaign against Germany to show this. Unfortunately, as they acknowledge, even the post-war analysis within the US military reached the same conclusion about cost-benfits 60 years ago. They claim this is a lesson in marginal cost vs. marginal benefit, but in fact what the data show is that it's simply a bad military investment in the first place, you don't have to think about marginal cost vs. marginal benefit. Allocating those resources to tactical air support of operations instead of conducting strategic bombing at all is the conclusion supported by the data.

The worst case of this is the chapter on castle-building vs. field army maintenance in the High Middle Ages. They attempt to pitch the preference for castle-building as causing a lost opportunity, in that the monarchs couldn't also maintain a field army. But what their data shows is that the cost of castle-building, even for aggressive castle builders like Edward I in England, pales beside the costs of war. Their own data shows Edward spent £90,000 on Welsh castles, but £1,400,000 on fielding armies for his wars against Wales, Scotland, and France. Castles are so cheap relative to armies that it's distorting the data to say they represented a lost opportunity.

In the end, this book does explore its thesis. Unfortunately, I think the book shows that the thesis isn't worth taking much farther. Is it helpful for a historian to understand the basic principles of economics? Yes. But will they be a primary guide to understanding past actions? Based on these examples, no.

31 August 2009

The Death and Rebirth of a Laptop

Chronology of An Ordeal

Over the last 2 1/2 weeks, I've dealt with dropping my MacBook Pro and the various fallout from that. I'm writing down the full experience, for that cathartic "getting over it" benefit -- that way, this can be my last post on the topic!

Aug 11 afternoon
While seeing "Up" at the Kabuki Theater in SF, my MacBook falls out of my backpack from a height of about 3 feet. The person behind me squealed as it was happenning, so I turned around in time to see it happen. It was very depressing. In order to avoid thinking about it during the movie, I didn't test it at all at that point.
Aug 11 evening
Got back to hotel, verified something was Very Very Wrong. The machine was still awake and I could activate various apps, but they all went into wait cursor state.
Aug 11 evening 2
In order to connect to the rest of the world while the Mac was on hiatus, I went to Best Buy in San Francisco and bought a netbook (Eee PC in particular). For $300. Incredibly cheap. Since planned dinner didn't happen, I spent much of the evening installing Firefox/Pidgin/etc. The trackpad's buttons are *incredibly* irritating -- the left mouse button sticks unless you imemdiately push a little on the other side.
Aug. 13
On the plane back to Tokyo, I realize that since I bought this MacBook Pro at SIGGRAPH 2006 at Boston, it is exactly two weeks out of extended warranty. Hah hah hah, isn't that funny.
Aug. 14
evening Make appointment with Apple Store for Sunday morning.
Aug. 16
Off to Labi in Shibuya, bought a Bluetooth adapter for the Netbook. This thing is hilarious, it's literally the size of your thumbnail. It worked flawlessly: XP recognized it immediately, and I could then pair the EeePC with the wireless keyboard and mouse I used with my laptop. Using the mouse meant I didn't need to use the incredibly annoying trackpad button on the EeePC, eliminating the biggest reason to hate the thing.
Aug. 16
The Geniuses at the Apple Store confirm that indeed my hard drive is dead. They have two pieces of good news: the first-level diagnostic at least say everything else is fine; and, hard drive replacement is only Y35170 (about U$350). There's also a kind of ironic piece of news: my hard drive was 80GB, and Apple Service doesn't stock hard drives that small anymore. Would it be OK if I got a 200GB hard drive instead? Yes, that would be just fine. They took my number and said they'll call when it's done, which should be about a week.
Aug. 16-28th
An intense two weeks of catching up from SIGGRAPH and working frantically on the SIGGRAPH Animation Festival, all while holding down my regular job as well. After two weeks with the EeePC, I have pretty much all the software I would use on a Windows machine installed: Firefox w/ various plugins; OpenOffice; FileZilla; Pidgin; QuickTime/iTunes; Putty; etc. I actually tried to install XAMPP but it didn't work. Some extra things I learned about the EeePC in this time:

  • OpenOffice feels sluggish on it, although that's kind of true on any computer
  • Firefox 3.5 runs just absolutely fine. You can't tell the speed difference at all.
  • Not all videos I want to see play OK. YouTube at standard resolution does, but even downloaded videos don't play if they're bigger than half-size.
  • The small screen is OK, but does feel a little crowded in Google Docs Spreadsheet or Gmail. The fact that web apps don't use screen real estate quite as efficiently as local apps matters in those cases.
  • Speaking of Gmail, of course during this time I switched entirely to Gmail since I didn't want to store mail locally on the EeePC. I doubt I'll ever switch back, this having-all-your-email-online thing is pretty handy.

Really, I'm impressed with the EeePC. It cost me less -- even with the Bluetooth adapter -- than the repair on my MacBook, and it's a perfectly convenient way to connect to the internet. It's also really light & small. After this experience, I suspect that when I'm traveling, it'll usually be the Netbook and not the MacBook that's in the backpack, although for things like my class lectures, video editing, or 3D Apps the laptop still has a place in my computing life.
Aug. 28
Afternoon finally get a chance to call and ask what's happening with my laptop since they haven't called me. This leads to the single highly frustrating experience I had with Apple in this process: Call Center from Hell. I call the Apple Shibuya store, try to navigate the Japanese-language call system. It clearly says repair is 3, then Mac is 2, then repair is 3 again. 10 minutes' waiting on the phone (at least they gave an estimate; unfortunately the estimate isn't updated after the initial one). The guy finally gets on the phone and asks for my name.

Now, in Japan, being asked for my name on the phone is a problem. My name isn't an easy one even in English, and it's Japanese it's almost impossible to spell for someone over the phone. Japanese aren't that good at recognizing English letters on the phone to start with, and worse yet, my name has the dreaded letter 'v' in it. Japanese, even today, are not used to the letter 'v' (it's a complicated history based on how they usually imported English words into Japanese; under that system, all 'v's got changed, usually to 'b's). So, trying to get someone to recognize the letter 'v' in a spelled English word is just an exercise in futility. We tried three different times, and he was never able to find me in the database (undoubtedly because he was hearing one or two letters wrong).

After ten minutes of this, he thankfully suggested we switch to serial number instead. It's mixed letters and number, but no 'v', so it went much better. He then confirmed various different things with me, then announced he didn't have the information there, but would try to call and get it; would I please stay on the line? Another wait wait wait.

He came back with the piece de resistance. He couldn't find out what the status of my laptop was. To find out, I would have to, according to him, call the Apple Store in Shibuya.

I was so dumbfounded at this bit of call center idiocy that I had a hard time coming up with the appropriate Japanese for "I did, that's how I was lucky enough to be transferred to you." Oh, he said, he doesn't work at the Apple Shibuya Store. I had figured that out already, but telling me to start the process over again to get back to him wasn't going to help any, especially if it took another half an hour. I was pretty unhappy with all call center operators at this point even if they speak perfect keigo (Japanese polite speech).

Finally he put me on hold again (I wondered if he was going to transfer me to the manager for upset gaijin). When he came back, he told me to call the Apple Shibuya Store, and instead of choosing 3 for repairs, choose 5 for Other. Oh, that's obvious -- to call and ask about a repair, instead of picking the option for Repair, I should choose Other (admittedley, "keep hitting 0 until you're speaking to a person" is a good first order rule for call center interactions).

OK, I reluctantly hung up, called the exact same phone number again, and hit 5. About forty times. The nice person from the store came on, asked for my service ticket number (thankfully not my name) and confirmed in 5 minutes that my laptop was ready.
Aug. 28 evening
I go into the Apple Store to pick up my laptop (you don't need an appointment for pickups). It appears to be working fine, and I ask how to do the restore from my TimeCapsule backup. The guys shows me how one of the default screens in the install lets me migrate data from a backup. Sweet! (I think at the time) I have to work late that night on Animation Festival stuff, so no change to start the restore.
Aug. 29
I spend much of the day trying to get the restore to work. The process, which I ultimately repeated about five times, is:
  • Boot Mac
  • Wait for annoying marketing "welcome to Mac" movie to finish (you can't skip to end if you want the menu)
  • Click through choosing language, keyboard, etc.
  • Aha! Finally! Choose "transfer information from a backup"
  • At this point, you plug in/connect the TimeCapsule to the MacBook.
  • A list of one item appears; you click on the entry for your TimeCapsule
  • A wait of about one hour ensues while the screen is hung on "Checking contents of TimeCapsule"
  • During this wait, you have to keep coming by and poking the keyboard to prevent the Mac from going to sleep. If it goes to sleep, it concludes it can't use the backup, and you have to force power-off and repeat from Step 1.
  • Finally, the check is done and you can choose "Transfer". A dialog appears that has four item (they're something like "Users", "Files and Folders", something like that). It prints the size of the first two, then display "Calculating Size" next to the third and fourth.

I got to that point, I think, four times. I waited about 90 minutes the first time, and the bar still said 0%. I kept trying minor variations -- nothing changed. Finally, since I had a party to go to Saturday night, I set it off again about 8pm and left. Even when I got home, I just let it run.
Aug. 30 Morning
After 17 hours, it still said "0%". I concluded this just wasn't going to work. I didn't really want to go back to the Apple Store with my MacBook and my TimeCapsule, so I tried another tack.
  • Boot system
  • Insert OS install CD
  • Hold down option to force CD boot
  • Wait for screen to come up (about a minute)
  • Choose language, keyboard again
  • Ooh, look, among the options in the utilities menu is "restore disk from backup". Let's try that.
  • This utility has a quite different menu for picking a backup. It correctly displays that there are two backup images on the TimeCapsule. A little poking around lets me verify which one has the most recent (July 30) backup.
  • Pick that. It says, "Calculating size of backup". Uh-oh, I think here we go again.
  • But no, after about ten minutes it displays the size and offers a "Restore" button!
  • I press that. A progress bar appears. It's slow, but only expectedly so -- it claims the restore will take about 4 1/2 hours.
  • The restore actually takes only about 3 hr 45 min.
  • Exciting! Reboot, and we're done, right?

August 30 Afternoon
OK, I hit reboot. The good news is, it reboots! And, when it comes up, it even recognizably is my desktop, with my files on it! Hallelujah!

...but not quite. The system is "unresponsive" as in, clicking the Apple menu produces a 15 second wait before the menu actually appears. Every action is infinitely slow. It's so painful I can't even get to Activity Monitor.app to see what's going on, but after ten teeth-pulling minutes I get to a Terminal window and type top. A minute or so later a display appears. From the intermittant updates on the display, it looks like the machine is 60% idle, but something called 'mdserver' is taking up a fair amount of the time getting used.

Back to the "trusty Netbook" as I was now calling it. Google for mdserver, and find a hilarious site called "the great crusade against mdserver." It turns out it's the server process that indexes your disk "in the background" (that's funny) to enable Spotlight searches. One user described almost the same phenomenon I was seeing, and a snarky know-it-all replied, "Well, if you've changed a lot of files lately, this is expected." Hello, Apple? Locking up my machine after a restore... is not expected.

I was glad I looked things up before just killing the process, not because killing the process would hurt anything, but because the mdserver processes, like zombies, just keep coming back even if you kill them. That information saved me some extra frustration. OK, looks like the machine belongs to effing Spotlight for the next while... time to go to the gym.
August 30 Evening
When I got back from the gym a couple hours later, then played a few soothing rounds of Flower on the PS3 and taken a shower, in fact, Spotlight had decided it had consumed enough of my computer time and quiesced. But then GDClent-something was active. Oh right, once upon a time (when Spotlight really didn't work well at all) I installed Google Desktop Search. Off to hunt through System Preferences.app for the place to turn that off completely (only two places needed in the end), and finally my machine is responsive.

The network is still kind of slow, but that's not Apple's problem -- it happens whenever it's rainy here in Tokyo (we have a typhoon right now).

The Bottom Line

In the end, I got off pretty lightly. The fact my backpack was unzipped that day cost me:
  • $300 for a netbook
  • $15 for a netbook Bluetooth adapter
  • $350 for the disk drive replacement (but it's bigger now)

My backup as of July 30 ultimately worked, despite the above trevails.

The Good Things

  • Actually, the MacBook Pro is pretty tough. None of the electronics were bothered by the drop.
  • Time Machine is a really really good thing. All Mac users should be using it.
  • Apple Repair Service is effective, and not that terribly expensive. I've partially dissembled my MacBook before, and like most laptops I didn't want to go any farther. But call them, don't wait for them to call you.
  • The Netbook is really pretty effective. I doubt I'll take the laptop on the road much anymore.
  • I have learned to live by Gmail, and love it. The days of Mail.app are pretty much over for me.

The Bad Things

  • Apple's Voice Mail menus suck, just like every other large corporation's customer support.
  • The restore option in the default installer.... not so good. Anything that takes 4-8 hours per trial -> Boooooo.

Some people never learn

And now, off to install Snow Leopard!

30 August 2009

Cool tricks with the Django admin interface

At work we've been doing lots with the Django toolkit. One of the things we've been looking at lately is whether we can (without overriding lots of code) have a different admin interface for inserting an object versus updating an object. The answer: yes, trivially.

I don't have space for a full Django tutorial here, so I'll assume you know all the Django lingo. This example assumes you have a project set up, and within that you have an application called AssetVersions, and within that you have a class called Asset (all of which, I have, in fact). What if you wanted the insert interface to have the field 'name' and 'project', but wanted the update interface to have all fields except 'project'? (this makes 'project' an insert-time-only property).

  • In your admin.py for AssetVersions, create a separate AdminModel class for Asset, and add it to a separate instance of the AdminSite class. We'll stick that instance on admin.create_site for convenience:

    import models
    from django.contrib import admin
    from django import forms

    class AssetAdmin(admin.ModelAdmin):
    exclude = ( 'project', )

    admin.create_site = admin.AdminSite()

    class AssetAdmin(admin.ModelAdmin):
    fields = ( 'name', 'project', )

  • Then, in the urls.py for your project, override the url for the specific application and Model class to access the alternate AdminSite:

    from django.conf.urls.defaults import *
    from django.contrib import admin

    urlpatterns = patterns('',
    (r'^', include('AssetVersions.urls')),
    url(r'^admin/(AssetVersions/asset/add/)', admin.create_site.root),
    url(r'^admin/(.*)', admin.site.root),

Voila, the create and edit interfaces are now decoupled, and yet each AdminSite is pretty much largely ignorant of the other.

28 August 2009

"If I want to see the future of gaming, I go to South Korea. If I want to see the past, I go to Japan"

Very interesting interview with Rich Hilleman. Although his current title is Chief Creative Officer, he's in fact a die-hard programmer who used to run the training program for programmers at EA. He has been developing games for a long time, and is a hardcore gamer himself.


I thought he nails a lot of the things that are changing in the business right now.

14 August 2009

Saw "Up"

Before I left the US last week, I saw Up in 3D at the Sundance Kabuki. It was awesome. That said, I now understand this post much better (warning: language and lots of it).

07 August 2009

Awesome interface at SIGGRAPH 2009

I just tried this about an hour ago, and it's totally awesome (and a little bit freaky):

01 August 2009

I know it's popular in America but still...

...the sign in Dallas airport that said, "Y'all roll on in for some Fresh Sushi!" still surprised me.

...fresh sushi in Dallas comes from where exactly?

28 July 2009

Best Web UI Feature ever

Yelp totally takes the cake for my favorite little bit of Web UI. In their site, they have a map widget in the right-hand column which autoscrolls to stay on the screen. I always find these autoscrolling web widgets annoying -- they slow down the page, and make the UI jumpy. Apparently I'm not alone, because Yelp's widget has a special checkbox on it:

Now that is appropriate UI text!

14 July 2009

Discussion about 3D tool development and mainstream development

In the course of a discussion on a SIGGRAPH alias about something else (Plone), someone asked the question below, and my response got kind of long. While I'm sure most people's eyes will simply glaze over (a perfectly justifiable response), it reminded me of many a Sunday morning conversation on a ridgetop above Marin, so I'm forwarding here.


Gustavo's question:

This is Gustavo, I am working on the migration to Plone 3. Quick question, reading your post I found this line quite intriguing:

"develop web apps in Django all day at this point -- computer animation pipeline programming is converging with mainstream development frighteningly quickly"

I am quite intrigued about that, what sort of applications are you talking about? Do you have any pointers or links to pages that talk about it? I am really interested on it



My answer:

Hi Gustavo,

Sure, here's what I was referring to. None of it is exactly public, so I can't point you to web pages or anything, but it's not exactly secret either.

The previous generation of CG pipeline tools was largely implemented inside of the DCC (Digital Content Creation) tools (Maya, Max, XSi, Modo, etc.). Those tools all have pretty robust scripting environments nowadays, so you can implement tools in some high-level scripting language with some UI toolkit available to you. And I mean, really pretty robust environments -- we use Django as a object-relational mapper for our code that runs in Python inside of Maya.

That's all good, but when you think about it, that's fundamentally implementing tools in the client/server approach that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s. Those tools (including what Polygon was using up until this year, and the tools I implemented at EA before that):
  • connect to the data source via a LAN connection
  • use a storage-level protocol (usually SQL supplemented by file system access via CIFS/NFS)
  • require that the code be propagated out to the client machine

For sure there are huge advantages to the DCC integration, and it's still what I recommend for artist-facing tools. However, it has some problems that are becoming especially apparent as the computer animation production world becomes more outsourced and more collaboration-oriented:
  • the storage-level protocols are inappropriate to extend outside the company (you don't expose your MySQL or Samba/NFS server to the public net these days)
  • for a lot of the legitimate stakeholders in your project (notably project managers) the Maya interface is not a preferred means of use
  • updates to the code require that the updated code be pushed to the clients
  • those tools are not well-connected to the rest of the computing environment -- notably Excel. Getting data in or out required custom development in every case
  • the tools are very dependent on the client OS/environment

So, increasingly, we're putting a lot (not all) of our tools into a web-facing mode. While the files themselves are still saved via the standard Maya interface, we're moving our status-tracking apps (that keep track of the status of every model, animation, and rendered shot) to be web-facing. This means:
  • extending the app to be accessible from other companies is straightforward -- the security model for web-facing applications is very well-understood
  • you get to use modern development tools. There's nothing running inside any DCC that compares to the productivity of developing with Django/Ruby on Rails/ASP.NET inside Kodomo/Eclipse/Visual Studio
  • users have a lot more ad hoc means of data integration (when we haven't had time to code a custom query report for you, just copy-and-paste out of the HTML table into Excel)
  • apart from that, it's easy to integrate with community software (wiki/forum/etc) to pick up the benefits thereof
  • printing, etc. is free (I've never seen an in-Maya application that supported printing)
  • we're out of the software installation business, notably including not caring whether you run Windows or Mac OS X or Linux (different studios have different answers), which version of those OSes you're running, and largely not caring even which version of Maya you run

In a CG production environment, web-facing apps still have some drawbacks, notably:
  • you cannot send the actual 3D data over http -- it's just too heavy (a few hundred megabytes for a set is not unusual). So the metadata travels over http but the actual data can't
  • UI development on the web is harder than locally (IMHO)
  • in return for getting out of the software installation business, we have to deal with the browser wars. If it wasn't for toolkits like jQuery or YUI, it almost wouldn't be viable to do this

What made me comment on the convergence of application development is that most of the above comments (maybe absent the data volume) apply to almost any kind of custom tool development. I'm very firmly convinced that except for very data-heavy applications (video, 3D scenes) web-facing application development is a huge win.

Regarding the data-heavy stuff, we did something I think is pretty interesting this year. When you have multiple companies participating in CG production, you have to share the model assets, and as I said, those are fundamentally heavy, so you won't be uploading them over http. The traditional solution to this is production managers doing a lot of FTP or running around carrying hard drives between locations; the high-end solutions (which we couldn't afford) are the companies that sell you high-bandwidth shared workspaces that you can use online.

I implemented an interesting solution this year for version control of these massive data assets -- it's like a hybrid between CVS and git. There's a shared server holding the assets (accessible via SFTP) and a web-facing status-tracking application. It's like CVS in the sense that checkout is a global operation -- to be able to edit an asset, you need to check it out on the global web-facing database, either via the web interface or via a web services call from the in-DCC tool. However, it's like git in that the actual asset is assumed to take considerable time to propagate from the committing party to all parties. The artist uses an in-Maya tool to actually check in; that tool both copies the asset to the local file server, and updates the checked-out status on the global web-facing database. Then, it kicks off an asynchronous transfer of the asset data from the local file server to the shared SFTP server. Thus, while the metadata about checkin is instantly propagated via the central server, the actual asset transfer happens later. In the current implementation, downloading from the central server to the local file server is a periodic task kicked off once a day at each company. Of course, the checkout tool enforces the constraint that you can't check out an asset unless your local file server currently holds the version known to be the latest version, and no one else has that asset checked out on the central web-facing server.

Implementation-wise, by making some assumptions about the directory structure, we created a protocol that is atomic for both upload and download even when using nothing but standard FTP operations.

Again, putting this on the public internet is very straightforward: you're only dealing with http and SFTP security (we didn't even bother to use https although it wouldn't affect the architecture at all obviously). For the same reason, you can deploy this on any generic web server, it doesn't take a fussy installation or full virtual server -- just Apache and SFTP. For users, all of their file reads/writes are happening to the local file server, so they get a very high level of service. It uses a lot of disk storage -- but that's the cheapest element of the equation these days.

Sorry, that's probably way more answer than you wanted!

Take care Gustavo,


06 July 2009

From some poking around I did for work: Animation Feature Market 2009

All data from public sources as cited.

Digital Animation Feature Film U.S. Box Office Revenue (and Market Share) by Year

Note that 2009 is incomplete.
  • 2005 $553M
  • 2006 $1,082M
  • 2007 $1,179M
  • 2008 $1,032M
  • 2009 $463M

If I try to make an estimate for 2009 overall, it looks like it's going to be about the same as last year:
  • Monster vs. Aliens $195M (actual)
  • Coraline $75M (actual)
  • Up $300M (actual $263M to date)
  • Bolt (released in 2008) $4M (actual)
  • The Battle for Terra $1M (actual)
  • The Tale of Despereaux $7M (actual)
  • Ice Age 3 $170M (actual $68M in first weekend)
  • Ponyo $10M
  • Sita Sings the Blues $2M
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs $100M
  • 9 $20M
  • Fantastic Mr. Fox $30M
  • Astro Boy $60M
  • Planet 51 $35M
  • The Princess and the Frog $100M
  • Total $1109M

Traditional animation is excluded from the above but is trivially small. Admittedley, Coraline's category is open to interpretation.

There's really nothing there that would allow one to analyze the effect of 3D screens across the whole market, but for individual films it appears to generate the majority of their revenue. Here are some quotes from www.boxofficemojo.com about some particular films and weekends:

Coraline conjured $18.9 million over the four-day weekend... Coraline's 3D gross was down only seven percent, accounting for an estimated $14 million of the four-day weekend at 1,060 sites. The tally stands at $39.1 million in eleven days, around 72 percent of which coming from 3D presentations. [February 17]
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs gathered $67.5 million in five days (55 percent of which from 1,606 3D venues). [July 5]
... with the release of Up. The adventure comedy swooped in with a $68.1 million start... the [3D] format accounted for $35.4 million of Up's gross. [June 1]

Animated Features Released to Theatres in the United States

by Jerry Beck (well-known animation historian)
  • 2005 11 films
  • 2006 21 films
  • 2007 13 films
  • 2008 20 films
  • 2009 13 films known at this point (includes anticipated releases for remainder of year)

from http://www.cartoonresearch.com/movies2005.html.

26 June 2009

  • 12:20 Today is the last day for SIGGRAPH Asia 2009 Computer Animation Festival submissions... watching the counts, answering emails... #
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24 June 2009

Great Product Ideas on YouTube

If you've ever had to deal with British standard plugs, you will apprecitate this a lot!


11 June 2009

Awesome - Become a Socialist Hero

Have your face painted into a Chinese propaganda poster

Not sure what I think about commissioning all these Chinese art school grads to paint the posters. But the idea is awesome!
Many people wonder what it's like in the Japanese animation industry. While in the 3D part of the industry, where I work, things are slightly better, in general it's quite different from the impression westerners have of working conditions at Pixar or DreamWorks.

A recent Harvard Business School report focused on innovation in Japanese companies looks at three case studies: packaged software, mobile phones, and animation. Their comments about the animation industry are devastating, and accurate. Here are a few select pull quotes, but it's well worth downloading the original from their website to read for yourself.

The Japanese anime market was worth ¥234 billion (approximately $2.3 billiion) in 2005 in revenues.

That is to say, the entire anime market in 2005 was smaller than the revenues of Uniqlo, a single Japanese clothing retailer. Anime revenues have been slowly shrinking, so in 2009 the comparison wouldn't even be close.

Toei Animation, the largest animation production company in Japan, had revenue of only ¥21 billion ($175 million). Whereas Disney and Pixar spend in excess of ¥10 billion to produce one anime movie; Japanese anime production companies’ average budget is ¥0.2-0.3 billion (Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli is an exception: it invests ¥1-3 billion in one production). And while Japanese animes are omnipresent in global markets, Japanese anime production companies have virtually no international business presence.

08 June 2009

Death of Newspapers, cont'd

More good (if somewhat rant-y) words on the newspaper industry's accelerating their own decline:

The Newspaper Suicide Pact

06 June 2009

The Great Japan Beer Festival

I think Japanese beers taste just fine (especially with Japanese food), but they all taste virtually identical -- light lagers. Since I came to Japan, I've been on the lookout for more interesting beers comparable to American craft or microbrews.

It helped a lot when I found Ushi Tora in Shomikitazawa, which always has 17 microbrews on tap, many of them Japanese product. It turns out that although craft brewing started late in Japan, it has given rise to quite a number of local breweries. Those breweries came to show off their product at The Great Japan Beer Festival.

The festival format is that you pay a fixed fee to get in, receive a small memorial glass, and are then free to sample as much beer as you like. The event lasts four hours, so if you get there early your stomach (or alcohol tolerance) will probably run out before the time does.

The Tokyo version was held in the Ebisu Garden Hall (ironically next to the Tokyo headquarters of one of the big three generic breweries) and it was packed -- in fact, the single worst thing about the event was that getting around the hall was brutally difficult. There was a place to buy food from Dean & Deluca up front, but other than that area the lines waiting for sample crossed all the way across the room. I ran into some people from Otaru and some people from Ushi-tora there, and generally had a pleasant couple hours before wandering back down the hill to home (fortunately the event is held ten minutes' walk from my house!).

I had quite a few tiny glasses of beer, but the best beers I tasted today were:
  • いわて蔵ビール / Iwate Zou Beer's IPA
  • From Gotenba Kogen Beer (御殿場高原ビール), both the IPA and the Aijiwai Ale
  • and the big winner,
  • 箕面ビール / Minoh Beer's W-IPA: this was a "real ale", a phrase used in Japan for hand-pumped beers. It was delish!

Fantastic Photography Exhibit

From now through July 5, 2009 there's an exhibit called "Press Photographer's Story" at the Tokyo Museum of Photography in Ebisu. It's a great show featuring 5 photgraphers who were all associated with the Asahi Shimbun during their professional careers. Most of the photographers worked during the Speed Reflex era, when press cameras were giant boxlike objects that openly stated the profession of the holder, and that's spirit of the exhibition.

Kouyou Kageyama / 影山 光洋 is the first photographer featured. He worked starting in the militaristic era of the 1930s, but he photographed his family constantly -- he was clearly paving the way for Craig Gilbert and An American Family a few decades later. However, his story is especially poignant as his third son lived only five years, and he collected the photographs taken over this time into a photo album called "Life with Yo-chan", excerpts from which were some of the most powerful photographs in the show.

Gen Ootsuka / 大束 元 is a contemporary of Kouyou's and the second featured photographer. He was heavily influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson and would eventually organize the first shows of Bresson's work in Japan, as well as taking several famous shots in which Bresson appears. Despite the emphasis on the moment of the photo you would expect, his photographs are amazingly well-composed; balance, perspective and focus all coinciding with the perfect moment.

The postwar political photography of Senzou Yoshioka / 吉岡 専造, the 'photographs from high places' of Katsu Funayama / 船山 克, and the striking Vietnam War photography of Keiichi Akimoto 秋本 啓一 comprise the rest of the featured work. As a final section, the Asahi Shimbun archives yielded up a trove of photographs from the Japanese War in China in the 1930s, as well as the paper's coverage of the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

The exhibit is only 500 yen and takes an hour or two depending on your interest level. It's well worth it and recommended for all.

01 June 2009

These are the Good Old Days

In discussions of movies, I frequently take the usually-unpopular point of view that the era since I've been in the business (roughly since 1995) have been a relatively good era for movie in general. I was reminded about this today because I noticed that in the current weekend's Top 10 Box Office there are 3 movies rated higher than 90% on Rotten Tomatoes:
  • Up, 98%

  • Star Trek, 95%

  • Drag Me to Hell, at "only" 94%

I can't remember the last time that happened.

Usually, people respond with some variation of, "Oh, they made so many more great movies back in the 30s/40s/50s" (perhaps so, although I'd still dispute whether the number of great films per year was really higher: now we're operating from the benefit of picking things over) or more commonly, "But most films are such crap!" That is true, but in fact most films were always crap: Hollywood made a lot of movies back in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1937 Hollywood released 778 movies, a number that's never been equaled.

In particular, for animation I don't believe there has ever been a 20-year period to correspond to the time from 1989 to now. Not only does that include everything in the Disney revival (Little Mermaid, Aladdin, etc.) and the entire Pixar oeuvre, we get Henry Selick/Tim Burton, Wallace and Gromit, and occasional winners like Kung Fu Panda thrown in as well. Seriously, enjoy the bounty!

P.S. Very interesting statistics page on Wayne Schmidt's Box Office Page.

24 May 2009

Flat Out the Coolest Flash Site I Have Ever Seen


It doesn't just enable interactive play, it demands that you play with it. Anyone with an interest in music+interactivity should go experience it now (you may have seen it, looks like its been around since November).

As much as I love the site above, the site of the company that made it, HerraizSoto & Co., shows exactly why I hate Flash. Non-standard UI for no reason, inscrutable navigation, overly clever. But maybe if they keep producing things like the above once in a while...

16 May 2009

Design Festa Link Roll

Here's a few links/images for artists I saw at Design Festa today. I'll say that at least all these folks had something interesting enough to make me stop and chat a minute!

Unfortunately, the absolute coolest thing I saw at Design Festa I couldn't get a meishi from (there was no one at the booth and I didn't want to take their one and only remaining meishi). It was a piece with two aquariums that had various pumps in them creating currents in the water. Then, they put these "sea creatures" (I think they were made of strips of rubber folded and attached to themselves to look like fantastical jellyfish) in the aquarium, and as they got pushed around by the water it completely looked like they were living creatures.
From DesignFesta2008

From DesignFesta2008

From DesignFesta2008

From DesignFesta2008

O ½

Debo Factory

闇月創房 / Yamitsuki Soubou (cool handcrafted metal jewelry)

From DesignFesta2008

Hell's Kitchen (I really appreciated this woman because gave me a cool little fan which amused numerous other exhibitors throughout the day. Unfortunately, the website doesn't seem to be working)

Moscow Kogei handmade Very cool highly articulated little wooden animals. The limbs are mostly attached with elastic bands so you can pose them up!

From DesignFesta2008

村上 萌 / Moe Murakami (very ironic that her name is Moe)alternate site

川室 鷹嶺 / Kawamuro Takane



ミつの森のサーカス / Mitsu no Mori no Saakasu (lit. Three Forests Circus) event at Shimokitazawa's Space Sprout 17-22Sep

The ever-trusty B-Side Label from Osaka, my main source of stickers. Their stickers come with a two-year guarantee (to do what, stick?).

ミカジキ / Mikajiki Girlspunk Illustrator



illustrator INAZUMA

Tyabo "One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests"

Roomscape Order-made furniture

Mitchy Castle

yuuki kikuchi (jojo)

O Project / Ruins Anthem Like the Land's End magazine I found last year, this is a project that goes around taking pictures of ruined and abandoned place in Japan. Totally fascinating, I got their special issue on 軍艦島 / Gunkannjima

がんばれコーポレーション (lit. Going All Out, Inc.) These guys were actually giving away DVDs of their latest video project, which even given the non-profit nature of most things at Design Festa was pretty impressive.

OXOXO "The inifinite creativity in oxoxo toybox"

VIRUS presents Gray Zone A group of seven friends who produce experiential art, alternate link

坂本 道夫 / Michio Sakamoto Totally, totally cool insects made by cutting and folding a single sheet of paper with no tape/tabs/etc

From DesignFesta2008

From DesignFesta2008

mofuwa She cut every one of her business cards out by hand (they have a series of scallops in one corner)!

Coffe Brown Design Stars The only way to explain it is that, it's coffee art.


Cavity vol. 03 Event in Aoyama 21Jun with various live art etc.

10 May 2009

Interest Rates, Koushin, and Japanese Place Names

While the bursting of the real estate bubble is helping Americans rethink attitudes to real estate, I've wanted to write for awhile about the weird approach to real estate in Japan, how it's enabled by interest rates, and how it influences place names here (honest).

The image of many famous cities is associated with their traditional housing stock. Whether the sturdy brick buildings of Dublin, the mansard roofs of Paris, or the Victorians of San Francisco, traditional housing has a big influence on the ambience of a city.

Except here in Tokyo. When you first come to Tokyo you're impressed with the skyscrapers, subways, and the occasional truly idiosyncratic building, but if you actually go out looking for apartments here, like I did two years ago, you'll find the strangest thing: there is no such thing as housing more than about 25 years old. This is really not an exaggeration: my building was built in 1988 and is thus considered "old".

This isn't limited to housing: hotels, office buildings, factories, and so on are all torn down and rebuilt about every 20-25 years. The word they use for this is koushin 更新, which means 'renewal'. Interestingly, that same word is also used for updating software or for replacing the display in a department store.

Of course, I find this kind of sad: I like classic old housing, that's why I own a San Francisco Victorian. But after looking around awhile, I realized that sort of thing just isn't an option in Tokyo: either you get recent high-rise precast-concrete construction, or recent poorly insulated, noisy low-rise wooden construction. As much as I had visions of a wonderful Japanese-style apartment, I opted for the high-rise.

But apart from my emotional reaction, it seemed frighteningly inefficient to me: why in the world would you tear down a perfectly good 25-year-old building, and replace it with essentially the same thing? Right now the former Motorola office building down the street from our office is in the midst of being koushin-ed. They tore down the old 7-story office building, cleared the site, and are now building a new 7-story office building. This is quite normal for koushin: whereas in America we might think of tearing something down and building a bigger, taller building on the site, it's quite normal in Japan to tear down a building and build a new building of about the same size. It's just newer.

The builders will say this is because Japanese prefer new construction. Of course, most people in most countries prefer new construction: the question to me was, why is it pervasive here? The key answer lay in interest rates, combined with demographics.

Japan, as everyone has heard, is a very savings-intensive nation. Because of that, interest rates here have been lower than America for many decades, but it became even more true after the bursting of the Japanese bubble economy in around 1990. Since then, the BOJ interest rates (the equivalent of Federal Reserve rates) have been around 0%. Even at the retail level, a normal home mortgage goes for 2-2.5%. In other words, if you can manage to qualify for a mortgage loan here, you won't pay much on it.

Secondly, the population of Japan is actually shrinking. Although the Japanese are very long-lived, the birthrate here is very low (second-lowest after Italy). The birthrate has finally caught up to the longevity, and each year there are fewer Japanese than the year before. Combine this with the fact that Japan does not permit large-scale permanent immigration, and you realize that the aggregate demand for real estate is also falling. This weak demand is most pronounced in rural areas, where real estate is becoming almost valueless, but it's true everywhere.

As you would expect given declining demand for something, that means long-term prices are weakening. Even in Greater Tokyo, the long-term expectation for the growth in value of a piece of real estate is zero. That is, if you've done well, 20 years from now your house or apartment will be worth the same as what you paid for it. If you're unlucky, it'll go down -- my boss lost 30% of his equity on the first apartment he ever owned.

What does this combination of low interest rates and long-term declining real estate prices mean? Well, first of all, it means you have no incentive to view real estate as in investment. You buy real estate to lower your rent (if an individual) or for the sake of the rental cash flow (if an investor). Either way, you look at real estate purely from a cash-flow point of view.

Secondly, Tokyo is famous for real estate being expensive. But mostly what's expensive here is land. The underlying land parcel for a building is expensive, but the building on it isn't considered to be worth much. Why? Well, it's a depreciating asset since everyone wants new construction.

So here's how that all connects to the koushin phenomenon. Let's say you're the owner of a 25-year-old apartment building. It's considered kind of drab, so you're not getting the highest rents in the neighborhood. Let's say the land is assessed at about $10M US, and the building at U$5M. If you've done a good job of marketing, our building is covered its expenses, meaning your getting about U$1M per year in total rent. Here's what the breakdown looks like for koushin vs. not koushin:

Don't rebuild: Your rents continue to slowly decline. You have no new capital expenditure to put in, though.

Rebuild: You have to borrow U$5M to build a new building, but at 2%, that only costs you U$100,000 per year. However, because your building will then be brand new, you can charge among the highest rents in the neighborhood.

So in other words, if spending U$5M to renew the building means you can increase your rents by 10%, it's a good economic deal for you. Given the prediliction of Japanese for new construction, I think 10% is way conservative: new construction easily commands a 20-30% premium here, I think.

But isn't there a third alternative? In America, the owner often choose to remodel: give the building a new lobby, replace all the elevators, repaint the walls. Why isn't that a good option? Well, let's say we could remodel for $1M. That would only then increase interest costs by U$20,000 per year, meaning you only need to justify a 2% rent increase. That's also economically compelling, but the question is, why do that when you could just rebuild? They're both a lot of trouble, and the rebuilding option can get you much higher rents.

For single-family houses, the only thing different from the above analysis is the timing. Most people don't tear down and rebuild their house while they're living in it. However, when the original family moves out, the same tradeoffs apply: a builder can buy the old house, raze it, build a new one, and get a higher price than simply reselling the existing house. Because most of the cost of buying a piece of property is tied up in the value of the land, not the structure, so rebuilding the house just isn't that big a deal economically.

So the unholy combination of declining real estate prices, low interest rates, and a market that prefers new construction (combined with the utter lack of historical preservation or zoning laws -- neither of which exist here) results in the total teardown and rebuilding of everything on the surface of Tokyo every 20-30 years. It's really shocking given how admirably efficient the rest of the society generally is.

And finally, how does this relate to Japanese place names? I noticed when I got here that a huge preponderance of the place names are temples and shrines (and a second major category are the names of elementary, junior high, and high schools). Eventually I realized why: those are the only buildings that aren't torn down regularly. Thus, it makes perfect sense to name a bridge, subway station, or intersection after a shrine, template or occasionally a school: those are the only things you can be sure will still be here in 30 years.

25 April 2009

"Bad Videogame Movies" considered redundant phrase

We had been talking this week at work about the difficulty of making good movies from videogames. Apropos to that, Time magazine has a feature on the Ten Worst Videogame Movies, which as they observe, "is like shooting fish in a barrel with a plasma canon."

My observation is that there is actually a specific reason videogame movies are hard to do, which has to do with a fundamental limitation of game characters. In linear narrative, any screenwriting book or teacher will tell you to demonstrate the personality of the characters to the audience by the choices they make. A well-written screenplay continually forces the character to make choices, and from those choices we learn more about who they are. At the beginning of the movie, those choices are small: what do they do after work? Does he remember to buy flowers for his girlfriend? In a well-written screenplay, the choices both become harder to make and larger in consequence as the movie goes on. But the point is, the character is defined by the choices they made.

In a videogame, particularly for the main character, the choices that occur during the game are typically made by the player. Thus, nothing about the character can be defined by those choices. Typically in a videogame, the key choices that have made the character who they are, were all made prior to the beginning of the game. For a game to be fun, the choices made during the game need to be up to the player, meaning they can't define the character since every player plays differently; or, there have to be no meaningful character-defining choices made at all, and the player simply focuses on skills. The second one is actually more common, as it's much easier to develop. Either way, the actions taken by the character in the game cannot define who that character is, as far as the overall property is concerned.

Thus, almost all videogame characters fail the "of course he would" test. With a well-drawn movie character, you should know (by the end of the movie) how they would respond to a whole range of moral dilemnas, whether you saw them face that particular situation or not. Would Luke Skywalker lie on his resume to keep his job, at the expense of a co-worker? Of course not. Would Han Solo? If the money was good!

But can you project that on to most videogame characters? Almost all videogame characters are known to us from the following: their boss/organization/syndicate gives them a job to do. It's hard and there are complications. If we play the game long enough, we finish it. We don't get a chance to learn much about their moral dilemnas because either we're busy shooting aliens or because we rather than they make the choices. Would Lara Croft flirt with a friend's boyfriend? Well, how we would know, it doesn't come up much when killing bears with a pair of pistols.

Anyway, none of this proves that it's impossible to make a good movie from a videogame, it's just that even very well-known videogame characters don't give screenwriters much to go on if they want to craft a story. Personally, my guess is that the good videogame-based scripts (surely there will be some someday) will start by taking the world of the videogame and finding a side story in it; the main characters, the Marios, Laras, and Sonics of the world, are of necessity too shallow to work well.

18 April 2009

...but they do have taste

The Economist's obituary this week was for Helen Levitt, a great photographer in the Henri Cartier-Bresson mold. I was lucky enough to encounter some of her photographs when I was in grad school in Boston, but most people have never heard of her. Featuring her or others worthy but not especially known shows the good side of erudition.

The Economist quote #1

From the April 4th issue's leader on "The Rich Under Attack". This is probably more delicious if you know just how pro-business the Economist usually is.

Yet, even a newspaper as inherently pro-business as this one has to admit that there was something rotten in finance: the basic capitalist bargain, under which genuine risktakers are allowed to garner huge rewards, seems a poor one if taxpayers are landed with a huge bill for it all. Hence the anger.

"Gang", "King".... whichever.

I just finished reading "Gang Leader for a Day," by Sudhir Venkatesh. If you read "Freakonomics" you'll remember the chapter called "Why do Drug Dealers Live with Their Mothers?" in which they looked at the economics of the drug trade. Most of the data they analyzed there came from a Indian-American grad student who had spent time in the Chicago housing projects hanging out with a drug gang. Sudhir Venkatesh is that grad student, and this book is his autobiographical account of the five years or so of his life that he spent around the Chicago housing projects, primarily in the company of "J.T." and his branch of the Black Kings drug gang.

This isn't really the kind of book you read to get a grand conclusion, all tied up and made clear; but it's a gripping journal of his life inside a world I really don't know much about. There are a ton of fascinating and harrowing moments along the way (such as when he witnesses, and the Black Kings are on the receiving end of, a drive-by shooting), and there is a sense of closure to the book, since updated housing policies catch up with the Robert Taylor projects by the end of the book (as they have, thankfully, to most high-rise projects in San Francisco).

However, Sudhir spends a lot of the time in the book trying to understand what the tenants think of the gang, and ultimately that provoked an interesting realization for me. J.T. sees the gang as beneficial, keeping order and establishing the boundaries in the projects, since for all practical purposes the police in that era did not come to the projects. At one point he declares, "there is no difference between the gang and this building." Of course, Sudhir wonders, given the gang's predilection for violence and drug abuse, whether the tenants really see it that way.

He attempts to branch out at one point and interview other residents about the economic tricks they use to survive in order to get some of that perspective. The mechanics who fix cars on the street, the woman who runs a candy store out of her apartment: he chronicles many of their adventures in ghetto-scale entrepreneurism. He's surprised by how much both J.T. and the building's tenant association president, Ms. Bailey, are interesting in hearing him retell these fascinating stories.

Of course, that interest is because they (in various combination) extract money from all such activities. Sudhir's information allows them to tighten up quite a few places where they weren't extorting as much money as they could. As one of the mechanics says angrily to Sudhir afterwards, "Man, J.T. is all over these n-----s."

On the one hand, this incident does point out that the combination of the gang and the tenant association are effectively the government of the housing project: they levy 'taxes', the gang is responsible for physical security, and the tenants' association for what passes for social services in that brutal environment. But they have the characteristics of corrupt government as well: the gang members who abuse their women get no punishment because of their position in the gang; the money is skimmed off for the organization.

The realization I had was that this is the form of government not just of brutal Chicago housing projects, but that in practice it was the form of government practiced in much of medieval Europe. As much as afterwards, all kings, dukes, earls, and lords cloaked their actions in the language of divine right, that level of government came from physical domination: the strongest, meanest guys got together, won some battles with other strong, mean guys, and as a result established the local government. If you read about the Welsh Marcher Lords or the events of English interregnums as fictionalized so well in Ken Follet's "The Pillars of the Earth," you can find that that pattern was operating even in relatively civilized England at various points: the people best-organized at wielding the violence and keeping the discipline amongst their thugs take over.

Sadly, seeing those parallel made me wonder whether, at a certain point between subsistence and prosperity, this kind of organization is a spontaneous feature of human societies. Happily, we can rise (and most current societies have risen) above this, but seeing the similarities between 12th century thugs and southside Chicago ones makes both of them seem like slightly more than just anomalies of their respective historical periods.

05 April 2009

Sakura, sakura

Another fantastic year of cherry blossoms along the Megurogawa (where I live)!

From Sakura 2009

03 April 2009

Quaint 50s-style marketing alive and well in Japan

On the side of a poster stand near Meguro station:

From Tokyo

Fun Words You Might Find on a Japanese W-2

It's April, and apart from Cherry Blossoms that means I have to pay my American taxes! In my mood of helping those who live in Japan, here's another vocabulary post, this time "Words you might find on your Japanese pay stub":

勤務状況=きんむじょうきょう=work situation
出勤日数=しゅっきんひすう=days worked
給与所得=きゅうよしょとく=earned income

基本給=きほんきゅう=base pay
通勤手当=つうきんてあて=commuting allowance
通常外支払給=つうじょうがいしはらいきゅう=extraordinary payment
支給合計=しきゅうごうけい=total payments

健康保険=けんこうほけん=health insurance
介護保険=かいごほけん=nursing insurance
厚生年金保険=こうせいねんきんほけん=welfare annuity insurance
雇用保険=こようほけん=unemployment insurance
所得税=しょとくぜい=income tax
地方税=ちほうぜい=local taxes
差引不足税額=さしひきふそくぜいがく=deducted amount of insufficient taxes
控除合計=こうじょごうけい=total deductions

計算資料=けいさんしりょう=calculation data
会社保険料計=かいしゃほけんりょうけい=company insurance amount
非課税支給額=ひかぜいしきゅうがく=tax-exempt allowance
課税対象額=かぜいたいしょうがく=amount subject to taxation
振込支給額=ふりこみしきゅうがく=bank transfer amount
現金支給額=げんきんしきゅうがく=cash payment amount
差引支給額=さしひきしきゅうがく=deducted payment amount

16 March 2009

Hangin' at the Love Sculpture

There's a reproduction of the famous Philadelphia LOVE sculpture near Shinjuku. It's a popular meeting place, not least because of the unusual circular traffic light fixture in front of the sculpture. This couple ambles past on a chilly night.

From MyokoSuginohara-Mar2009

The Japanese Face of Abandonment

It took me quite a while to tune into it, but there are a lot of abandoned building in Tokyo.

The Japanese abandoned building movement was pioneered by the irregularly-published magazine Land's End, which I was lucky enough to meet the publishers of at Design Festa. But, once I started watching closely, there are abandoned buildings all over Tokyo. There's a huge former corporate reasearch center sitting empty right near Hiro-o station, and closer to home, there's an abandoned junior high school just down the street from my house:

It's very Japanese and all: the place isn't overflowing with garbage or anything. In fact, that's what makes abandoned buildings relatively hard to spot in Tokyo: they look a lot like any other building, except no one goes in or out.

The sign says, basically, "Keep Out."

It's not hard to figure out what's going on with this particular building: the Japanese birthrate is incredibly low (only Italy is lower among developed countries), and so there's just no need for a lot of former schools. And this is in suburban Tokyo, which is doing relatively well in terms of number of children: smaller and more rural areas are really lacking in kids. So, at some point, they just decided to lock the place up and hope more kids show up someday. It'll probably be this way for 20+ years.

15 March 2009

You deserve a hot dog today... and it's what's for breakfast!

McDonald's Japan has a new ad campaign here. They really don't impact on my life much (I'm not a big fast food eater), so the last campaign (the introduction of the Quarter Pounder to Japan) didn't really catch my eye. But this one is too good to ignore: they're introduced the McDonald's hot dog:

McDonald's hot dog

Better yet, it's (wait for it)... a breakfast food! That's right, the hot dog isn't on the normal menu, it's on the breakfast menu, available only until 10:30am. So the next time you wake up in the morning, run on over to MickeyD's for a hot dog! Who needs cereal anyway.

13 March 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers"

This started as reactions to my Facebook status, but my response got a little long, so I moved it here. In an attempt to, as Dan said, categorize my discontent, here are my ripostes to several sections of the book.

The Hockey Example

In the initial hockey-player chapter, Gladwell points out a huge statistical anomaly associated with top-end sport figures in many sports and countries: their birthdays are not randomly scattered throughout the year, but rather concentrated in a 3-4 month period. His theory is that when elite teams are first formed (for the sports and countries in question, around the age of 10), the fact that the kids born just after the eligibility cutoff date are older and therefore bigger gives them an advantage. This initial advantage is maintained all the way through the school experience (since it's judged by cutoff date) and is strongly reinforced by the extra training, coaching, and practice received by the athletes chosen for those initial elite teams.

This all seems pretty reasonable, and he argues his case well; as he says, kids born in the second half of the eligibility period have a much lower chance of getting into elite teams in sports and countries where those teams form early, such as Canada's hockey leagues.

But... so? At one point Gladwell states, "If we took coutermeasures such as running hockey leagues twice a year, Canada would have twice as many top-level hockey players." That statement is a stunning example of what he later calls lack of practical intelligence!

No, we wouldn't have twice as many top-level hockey players; the number of such players is by definition constant. It's limited by the number of elite junior hockey teams, the number of elite junior hockey coaches, etc. There are only be one champion, no matter how many compete. So, running a second set of hockey leagues (which would lead to playing hockey all summer, by the way) wouldn't affect Canada's supply of hockey stars at all - it would, logically, raise the level of skill of those stars slightly.

But how much would it even do that? As Gladwell points out, the initial difference among players is very slight; most of the reason hockey stars are better than lower-level players is the additional coaching, support, and practice time. Since those effects wouldn't change, the huge overhead of adding a second season would only address inequity within that small initial difference. In practice, the overhead of running the alternate leagues would probably dilute the effectiveness of coaches and training, and the net result might well be a lowering of the level of play at the end of the program.

Gladwell states that hockey is not a meritocracy because of its prejudice towards people born in the first part of the year. Actually, all meritocracies have rules, and people are advanced on the basis of those rules. For example, the Chinese mandarinate favored those whose minds were well-suited to rote memorization, and systematically discriminated against those who practiced innovative thinking. That may have been bad for the country in the long run, but it was still a widely recognized meritocracy.

Gladwell is correct that the rules for Canadian hockey contains clauses that favor those born in the first few months of the year. That doesn't make it invalid, or not a meritocracy.

The Self-made Man Story

Gladwell has a strong aversion to the story of an individual succeeding on their own merits. In the first chapter, Gladwell baldly declares that "In 'Outliers', I want to convince you that these kinds of personal explanations of success don't work." Instead, he shows how personal computer entrepreneurs of the late 1970s, American industrialists of the 1830s, his own grandmother, and New York Jewish lawyers of the 1930s were all born at the right time and place to have the best chance of success in their chosen field. He writes, "What truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities."

I read through his examples and stories and come away with the utterly opposite conclusion. To me, what distinguishes all of the people he examines, very notably his maternal grandmother, is their individual actions and drive, and the way they took advantage of their opportunities. The individuals he studies were demographically advantaged for various reasons; there were accidents of timing and history that gave them opportunities not available to their peers just a few years in either direction. In fact, virtually every person he studies is quite aware they were lucky for their opportunities and says so.

But does that means what distinguishes them is their luck? I have been around elite schools for a fair portion of my life, I've come to realize that a lot of people have pretty amazing, lucky opportunities. Few of us take advantage of those to achieve stunning levels of success (and many fail to even achieve moderate levels of happiness). While those of us who have worked around Steve Jobs or Bill Joy may have either liked or disliked the experience, few will assert that these are ordinary individuals, even if ranked among those with the opportunity to attend elite schools.

In the end, it probably comes down to the question, "distinguishes them from who?" If you want to ask what distinguishes Robert Oppenheimer from a peasant tenant farmer in Laxmangarh village in India, you would have say it was that Oppenheimer was born into a middle-class family, and that he was smart. If you want to ask what distinguishes Robert Oppenheimer from the tens of thousands of other smart, middle- or upper-class men who graduated from college the same year he did, Gladwell's explanation no longer suffices.

The Practical Intelligence behind the Self-Made Man Story

An even bigger thing I think Gladwell misses is the question of why we are fascinated by the "Horatio Alger" stories that surround many of these people (or to use his phrasing, why we focus on what these people are like, rather than focusing on the time, socioeconomic class, and place of their birth). The reason that we humans focus on those aspects of the stories is simple: we can't change our birth year, birth country or native culture. We can only change our future behavior.

Knowing that to be a billionaire Silicon Valley success story I need to have been born five years earlier than I was is of no use to me in affecting my marginal future success. Knowing that had I been born in China I would likely have learned to count earlier in my childhood is of no use to me in affecting my marginal future success. Etc., etc. I believe the reason we're more interested in stories about successful people's personal habits, business strategies, and so forth is fundamentally because those elements have potential applicability to our own lives; knowing that their junior high school had access to free timesharing terminals, or that they were born in a certain year, has no applicability to our future choices.

On the other hand, knowing that in his senior year of high school, when Bill Gates got an opportunity to go onsite for three months to write commercial software at Bonneville Power Station, that he grabbed it and managed to talk his high school administration into classifying this as "independent study," is valuable. It provides a lesson in taking advantage of opportunities even if they seem impossible.

The Unasked Question about the 10,000-hour Rule

One of the sections of the book I liked somewhat better is the section about the 10,000-hour rule: the idea that true mastery of a skill requires 10,000 hours spent honing that skill. I haven't specifically run into this number before, but it certainly resonates with me.

However, this chapter, especially the section about music students at Berlin's Academy of Music, leaves the most important question unanswered. For review, the basic finding was that the teacher's evaluation of the student's talent level correlated nearly perfectly with the total number of hours the students had spent practicing their instrument: students evaluated the highest had spent 10,000 hours; students in the next stratum 8,000 hours; and the lower-ranked students 4,000 hours.

Gladwell then makes the classic statistics mistake of equating correlation with causality: he assumes that the reason the top-ranked students are top-ranked is because of their playing time. In fact, he never asks why those students got the most playing time.

In fact, as anyone who's played an instrument and especially anyone who's been forced to take music lessons they didn't enjoy can attest, a very plausible reason is that when you're good at something, it is usually more intrinsically enjoyable. It was true from the time I began to program that I was better at programming than virtually everyone around me. Thus, my intrinsic rewards for programming were higher than virtually anyone else in my peer group, and thus I spent more time programming.

Music is an incredibly clear example of this: while probably anyone can learn a certain level of achievement in music, unless you intrinsically enjoy it, you will plateau quickly. The realization that actually, the intrinsic quality of the person drives how much time they put into their endeavor seriously undercuts Gladwell's argument that the individual qualities of the person are unimportant.

The Good Parts of the Book

The parts of Outliers that I liked the best, and the places where I think it's recommendations have the most weight, is when it veers closest to public policy. It's hard to look at the results in part 3 of the "Marita's Bargain" chapter and not conclude that more school is an unequivocally good thing for children from low-income backgrounds. I find it very hard to argue with the cultural background theory described in the "Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes."

Though I don't personally like the fact that the "concerned cultivation" parenting style discussed in part 3 of "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2" is so much better-suited to our modern world than the older parenting style, this isn't the first book I've read explaining it's advantages.

In Conclusion

In the end, I think the biggest reason the book doesn't sit well with me was its avowed ambition to prove that the personal explanations of success don't work. I found that on the contrary it showed just how important personal drive and ambition are in making use of cultural and demographic advantages. I don't have an issue with the idea that personal explanations of success are insufficient, that we also have to look at cultural backgrounds and demographics as well as the individual to achieve a balanced understanding, but Gladwell aims for more than that.

I think nothing expresses the limits of Gladwell's thesis more than the story of his own grandmother and mother. Gladwell describes the various steps by which his maternal family climbed up the social ladder in Jamaica, with his grandmother taking many steps which eventually propelled his mother and aunt to college overseas. In particular, he notes that the establishment of the all-island scholarships which enabled his mother to attend an elite high school came in 1941, and that were she just a few years older the scholarships wouldn't have been available.

And yet, everything about this story suggests that the key actor in it is not the parliament's establishment of the scholarship, but the grandmother's will to give her daughters every possible measure of advantage. His maternal grandmother is described as a force of nature, and while I have no doubt that the all-island scholarships were a boon for his mother, I also am left certain that the grandmother would have found some other way to get her daughters a high school education had the scholarships arrived too late. To me, this seems to fly in the face of his central argument in the book.

04 March 2009

Convergence is Over

As a Media Lab alum, I have to follow this stuff at least a little bit, so I appreciated Paul Graham's post:

Why TV Lost

17 February 2009

Sleeping in Japan

My friend Karen asked this question, and I thought the answer might be interesting to others, so I'm reposting the answer here.

On Feb 17, 2009, at 1:53 PM, Karen wrote:

Is this true? People sleeping in public like this in Japan? Seems so weird when the idea behind about leaving your shoes at the front door of a house is to keep from tracking in the dirt from the ground outside.

Leo replied:

Well, here in Tokyo the only people sleeping on sidewalks most of the time are the homeless. That said, yes, seeing people asleep is much more normal here than in the west.

The biggest category is sleeping on the train. To understand that, you have to remember that in Tokyo train commutes that take 1.5 to 2 hours each way are considered quite normal. Given that the Japanese also work reasonably long hours (this sure isn't France), where do they get the time? Answer: they sleep less at home. And, when you're only sleeping 4-5 hours a night at home, it's important to use your train time for extra sleep. Everyone here has had the experience of the person sitting next to you on the train falling asleep on your shoulder (certainly, everyone with broad shoulders has had this experience). So, seeing somebody asleep on the train isn't considered noteworthy.

The next biggest category I've seen is sleeping at the office. Of course, some of this is because of the reason above. However, another reason for sleeping at your desk has to do with the Japanese concept of work: a typical Japanese feels compelled to be at work for about the same amount of time everyone else at work is at work. My friend Beth came up with the perfect phrase for this: in a Japanese company, it's not about how much you get done; it's about how much you are seen to be working.

Because of that, there will be times when a Japanese person feels compelled to stay at work, even though they're so tired they realize they're not going to get anything done. And thus, sleeping at their desk is a rational response. It's very widespread here: the first time I ever visited an Anime studio, I came into a room of about 20 desks, and three people were full hard asleep with their heads plopped down on their drawing table. "Oh wow," I said, "you must have just had a big deadline."

"No," my host replied, "it's actually a pretty light week, why do you ask?"

In terms of the pictures on that blog page above, the traffic monitor asleep on his scooter, or the couple asleep on the bench in the park are just extensions of sleeping at one's desk. Of course, the other big difference in Japan is that there's basically no crime, so you can fall asleep in public without worrying your wallet will be gone when you wake up. The people asleep on benches are probably catching a few lunchtime ZZZs.

Last but not least, and most relevant to the people asleep on the ground, Japan has an incredible tolerance for public drunkenness. The first time I ever visited Japan, I got to my hotel about 11pm and decided to take a walk. Unbeknownst to me, the street I was walking down led towards one of the major train stations where people need to catch the last train of the day (for their two-hour commute home). The street was filled with drunken Japanese businessmen staggering towards the station. There was a group of three where the middle guy was being literally carried by his buddies on either side. I saw several people casually taking a leak at the side of the road, and evidence of numerous people getting sick as well. And it was a weekday night!

If people are in that condition and not in the company of friends, they may well find themselves asleep on a piece of sidewalk somewhere (the guy asleep with his briefcase at the bottom of the stairs is a classic). While that blog would make you think it's extremely common, I find that while it's not unusual to see drunk people asleep on the sidewalk, it's not an every-night kind of thing (unlike sleeping on the train, which is very normal). Perhaps in southern Japan where the climate is milder things are different?

Anyway, yes, in general I see people out in the world asleep here more often than I did in America! Probably a longer answer than Karen wanted...