March 31, 2011

The pulps


Dean Smith points out the most pertinent fact in the ebook pricing debate, and the ongoing woes of "traditional" publishing.

Paperback book prices went from 25 to 35 cents in the early 1960s to the $8.99 range today. If publishing had just adjusted prices for inflation, a paperback book priced at 35 cents in 1960 would sell for $2.60 today.

In that light, Amazon's $2.99 ebook "sweet spot" (the price at which the 70 percent royalty kicks in) makes a lot of sense. Nate Anderson aptly describes the publishing business as having a "global pricing problem."

It's equally revealing (literally) to remember what publishers used to publish when their goal was to get and hold readers. If stories like these were on the curriculum, I bet schools wouldn't find it so hard getting boys to read.

Periodicals. Those science fiction magazines created the modern genre and shaped how we think about the modern age.


Paperbacks. Some surprisingly NSFW covers and a few still-famous authors.

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March 28, 2011

Zarahemla eBooks


I handle the ebook catalog for Zarahmela Books. I hand code the Kindle versions and publish them region-free and DRM-free. The ePub versions for Apple, Sony, Kobo and others are distributed via Smashwords, which has lengthy previews in most ebook formats.

Besides the Kindle itself, there's a free Kindle app for just about every computing platform. Mobipocket reads MOBI Kindle files. B&N offers an equally wide variety of Nook (ePub) apps. Other ePub readers include Adobe Digital Editions and EPUBReader for Firefox.

All of the books sell for $5.99 or less. I've posted a comprehensive list here.

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March 25, 2011

The p-wave network


Japan is blanked by p-wave detectors. During an earthquake, the primary (pressure) waves propagate faster than the destructive secondary (shearing) s-waves. Depending on the distance from the fault, the lead time can be up to a minute. This early warning system stops Shinkansen trains and scrams nuclear reactors.

All of the reactors at Fukushima scrammed during the Sendai earthquake. It was the latent heat that caused all the problems when the backup generators powering the cooling system were wiped out by the tsunami. A nuclear reactor is basically a big stove, and it stays hot for a long time after the power is turned off.

Japan's earthquake detector network functions like Watches/Warnings alerts from the National Weather Service. When the triggering threshold is reached, a graphic pops up on your television screen, identifying the location of the quake. A few minutes later, a graphic or text scroll lists the magnitude and the affected areas.


There's a cell phone app for that too. And Yahoo Japan (and other sites, I'm sure) pops up a banner with similar information. The television graphic is accompanied by this sound. The first couple of days after the Sendai earthquake, it happened so often I started to feel like one of Pavlov's dogs.

Related posts

Sendai earthquake (1)
Sendai earthquake (2)
Sendai earthquake (3)

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March 23, 2011

Renho


Speaking of jackets, here's Japanese cabinet member and former fashion model Renho (married name: Murata, but she goes just by "Renho," the Japanese pronunciation of her Chinese name; her father is Taiwanese) sporting a turtleneck combo.


Renho started her modeling career while in law school. Japan is famous for having far fewer lawyers per person than the U.S., the result not just of culture, but of an incredibly demanding law school admissions process and one of the world's toughest bar exams. In other words, she's a lot more than just another pretty face.

Renho currently has two ministries in her portfolio: "Consumer Affairs and Food Safety" and "Government Revitalization." Before the quake, she was known mostly for the latter.

She had been conducting hearings similar to the U.S. Debt Commission, and is a lot tougher than her American counterparts. In a famous exchange about Japan's supercomputer project with a bureaucrat who insisted that Japan had to "number one" in the world, she pointedly asked, "What's wrong with being number two?"

Her dead-pan delivery was even better, between the lines saying, "And the taxpayers should fund this little pissing contest of yours, why?"

When it comes to supercomputers, being "number one" is a title as ephemeral as a mayfly. Not to mention that, in GDP terms, Japan has twice as much structural debt as the U.S., and going to have tons more. Wherever Japan is headed fiscally after this, the U.S. won't be far behind. We should watch and learn.

Related posts

Disaster fashion
Sendai earthquake (1)
Sendai earthquake (2)
Sendai earthquake (3)

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March 21, 2011

Disaster fashion


Watching NHK's earthquake coverage, I noticed that everybody in any kind of official capacity had shed the conventional suit coat and was wearing a jacket that identified his department or corporation or political party.

Once you figure out the jackets, it makes for a convenient visual shorthand, for example, to tell NISA (Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency) and Tokyo Electric apart when they're holding competing press conferences.

On the left: NISA. On the right: Tokyo Electric.


Here's Yukio Edano, chief cabinet secretary (on the left). Everybody in the cabinet, including the PM, wears this jacket. Except for the defense minister, who wears the more martial civilian military leadership jacket.


Related posts

Sendai earthquake (1)
Sendai earthquake (2)
Sendai earthquake (3)
Renho

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March 18, 2011

Sendai earthquake (3)


With the aftershocks receding and Fukushima stuck in a FUBAR remake of Groundhog Day, NHK ran out of new news and has been running time-filling weather graphics and soothing background music all day (all night in Japan), with semi-regular programming scheduled to resume at three this afternoon with Good Morning, Japan (6:00 AM in Japan).

So, let's discuss the semi-artistic angle.

The typical anime natural disaster serves to realign the social order in more "interesting"--libertarian--ways, such as creating a society where everybody's armed like in the Wild West. It's rarely framed in the more Christian "end-times" sense, and people adapt to the new order while seeking out new business opportunities, like battling evil robots and exorcising demons.

It's eerie but purely coincidental that I'm translating a fantasy series right now that begins with the destruction of Shinjuku by the "Devil Quake."

Japan went through a huge social upheaval in the mid-19th century, and a physical and existential cataclysm in the mid-20th century, so it's nothing new. As in those times, these events may lead to a welcome political realignment, providing an incentive, for example, to couple Japan's structural debt problem and reconstruction efforts with overdue austerity measures.

And perhaps the stark realities of actual suffering will put a deserved end to a recent, rather loathsome, flirtation with the angsty, sociopathic anti-hero. As Hiroki Azuma writes in the New York Times,

While many will revert [after the crisis passes] to their indecisive selves, the experience of discovering our own public-minded, patriotic selves that had been paralyzed within a pernicious cynicism is not likely to fade away.

I wouldn't be surprised to see a slew of dramas in coming years about the heroic nuclear plant worker struggling against all odds. The relatively minor 2008 Iwate-Miyagi earthquake has already produced a feel-good film about a bunch of brave puppies, valiant JSDF rescuers, and resourceful kids.

I think the most compelling future developments--the biggest opportunity for out-of-the-box thinking--will be tsunami hardening, how Japan prepares for the next "big one." The Patlabor series, for example, is premised on the building of a massive sea wall to protect Tokyo from rising oceans. This "can-do" fiction may yet turn into fact.

Related posts

Sendai earthquake (1)
Sendai earthquake (2)
The world ends (and I feel fine)

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March 16, 2011

Sendai earthquake (2)


I've been watching NHK's live, wall-to-wall coverage since the earthquake. The images are truly overwhelming, with magnitude five and six aftershocks occurring across central Japan almost every hour. It's like a large china cabinet being slowly being dragged across a rutted road.

Human beings are ultimately powerless before the forces of nature, but human ingenuity can help to mitigate their effects and recover from them. Keeping your wits about you in the meantime certainly helps.

NHK's coverage is calm, cool and collected. The reporters, you know, report. In one of those "what the foreign press are saying" segments, they broadcast a lead-in clip from ABC News with Diane Sawyer. It sounded in comparison like a movie trailer for a Michael Bay blockbuster.

NPR's Morning Edition (my clock radio alarm) has managed to keep things fairly sober and balanced. My only complaint is the way they time shift makes references to "today" (meaning: yesterday in Japan) very confusing, when I'd watched what was happening "today" last night.

Amidst all the destruction, one amazing realization that comes from watching "Showa nostalgia" movies like Always: Sunset on Third Street is how quickly Japan recovered, not from the obliteration of one mid-sized city, but of every major population center in the country (except Kyoto).

The Marshall Plan in this case may be the $800 billion in U.S. Treasury securities that Japan currently holds. Despite running up huge structural deficits, they've wisely kept some money in the bank.

Nassim Taleb correctly argues that the best strategy for survival is to create systems robust enough to withstand the inevitability of the best predictions and forecasts, the most exacting theories and models, and the smartest experts being proved completely wrong.

Related posts

Sendai earthquake (1)
Sendai earthquake (3)

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March 14, 2011

Sendai earthquake (1)


The magnitude of 9.0 (revised) made it the biggest known earthquake to hit Japan in its recorded history.

The earthquake on Friday was preceded earlier in the week by dozens of five to seven magnitude deep-sea earthquakes in the same area, off the coast of Sendai. None of the tsunami forecasts at the time exceeded eighteen inches, and none of them reached even that height.

In this case, though, the boy cried wolf and the wolf came.

Read more »

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March 10, 2011

Thank the new for the old


Maps like this one are ubiquitous in Japan. The site I copied it from specializes in making them (go here for more examples). Like the plastic food that adorns restaurant windows, necessity combined with Japanese ingenuity turned the map into a showcase for utilitarian yet eye-catching industrial design.


Though the main roads in and between Japan's cities have street names, the traditional addressing system is block-based, not street-based. Think of a city as a big block divided into smaller blocks. At the street level of granularity, the buildings are numbered sequentially around the block.

This is quite logical and works fine--in theory--until the block is (inevitably) physically altered, at which point the numbering system goes haywire. And since only out in the sticks in Japan do you find towns that haven't been profoundly altered in the past fifty years, the whole system is haywire from top to bottom.

Hence the proliferation of WYSIWYG feature-based maps. Why don't they "fix" it? I suppose for the same reason we Americans talk a lot about it but never get around to normalizing English spelling or adopting the metric system.

Anyway, who cares about the addressing system when you've got GPS and Google Maps (and ubiquitous police boxes staffed by beat cops)? One irony of modern technology is not that it eradicates the old, but that it preserves it so well.

Chinese orthography was radically simplified under Mao (and not for the first time). In Japan, some hesitant steps were taken in that direction, but first the fax machine and then the IME (input method engine) made it so easy to convert phonetic characters to kanji that it's become a non-issue.

In fact, characters that were once abandoned in favor of kana are appearing again in wide circulation. A semi-literate gaijin like me can type the kanji for "rose" (薔薇) as easily as any native-born and educated Japanese. Cutting-edge technology keeps these antiquated systems chugging along.

Related posts

Off the map
Hero

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March 07, 2011

Summer Wars


The typical "Oscar bait" flick does its best to reinforce every grim "truth" the critics believe about the world, while patting them on the back for having such refined tastes. After all, no mere dilettante would willingly spend two hours watching such depressing, self-important dreck and then crow about it afterward.

Though if the production studio behind it has any aspirations of breaking even on the project, they'll have read their McKee and smuggled in the necessary quota of crowd-pleasing plot payoffs and made sure the word-of-mouth spreads it around.

With Summer Wars (English language version: WB/Funimation) director Mamoru Hosoda has done the exact opposite. On the surface, he panders shamelessly to the tween video game demographic with a by-the-numbers plot, while sneaking a gem of a human comedy in through the back door.

Read more »

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March 03, 2011

Off the map


The problem with maps is that they don't tell you what's not on the map.

In Demon City Shinjuku, after escaping from Chuo Park (where they were going last time), Kyoya and Sayaka head to Kabukicho. I've never been there. So again, I turned to Google Maps to align Kikuchi's descriptions with the real thing. But then I ran into a thornier problem. He describes a "Center Street" (中央通り) that is only a block long. It wasn't on any of the maps. Or rather, there are "Center Streets" all over the place.

But none where this one was supposed to be. Finally, I turned to Google Images and after a bit of searching dug up this.


There it is, as Kikuchi described it. The "Center Street" block dead-ends at the Koma Theater. It must be a local designation that didn't make it onto the official maps.

Another interesting aspect of Kikuchi's Kabukicho is that here in the real world, the Koma Theater has closed. A problem with writing stories about the near future is that the near future has a tendency not to turn out the way you foresaw it.

This doesn't actually disturb the timeline of Demon City Shinjuku and the sequels. The "Devil Quake" that separates Shinjuku metaphysically from the rest of the world occurs in the first decade of the 21st century. Since then, the alternate history of Demon City Shinjuku would have split off on another vector.

And for now, the Koma Theater marquee is still there. Using Google Street View, you can virtually look up and read: "Thank you for 52 years of patronage."

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