Monday, March 02, 2015

Review: Macross

Years ago, I wrote a review of the Macross TV series. I wanted to hyperlink to it recently while writing another review, but realized that it came from an old website which I never updated and has now been lost in time. So I'm reposting this review. Macross was one of the best shows out and still holds up well today, and it turns out that my AnimEigo set is now a collector's item. Who knew?

I first saw Macross when I was a kid of about 15 in Singapore, rushing home from school every Thursday evening to try to catch the latest episode, which had been dubbed into Mandarin by the Taiwanese. My brother recently got a DVD player, borrowed the entire TV series (36 episodes) from his friend Jason, and we watched it all over again, this time in the original Japanese with Chinese subtitles. What a difference 13 years make!

Macross is a girl’s story
For some reason, when you’re a kid, you don’t notice that Macross is really a girl’s story. Sure, it’s got giant transforming robots. It’s also got space batttles, lots of neat gadgets, and a cool science fiction plot that stands up even to adult scrutiny (well, the corny parts of the science fiction plot are motivated by the romantic bent of the whole series). But the heart and soul of Macross is the romance between the main characters. Nobody’s motivated by anything else!

The plot revolves around 3 main characters. Hikaru Ichijou, a boy pilot who grows up eventually to be a squadron leader, Linn Minmei (also spelled Lynn MinMay), a school girl of about 16 who wins a beauty contest and goes on to become a pop singer, and Misa Hayase (a good translation might be Lisa Hayes, which the American "Robotech" uses), a flight controller/battle coordinator for the ship, Macross. Of course, there’s a love triangle between them, and how the interaction between the characters play out and whom Hikaru eventually decides in favor of presents the series with its romantic climax. To give you an idea of how unimportant the military climax was, it occurs fully 8 episodes before the end of the series, to give the creators more time to focus on what was obviously dear to their hearts. The science fiction elements of the plot are discussed elsewhere (see below for a collection of links to various home pages), so I won’t go into them in detail.

So, ok, Macross is a trashy romance/soap opera. But if all soap operas were like this I’d watch them. None of the characters are stilted or artificial. Hikaru seems like a dork at times, but he does wake up to his situations and corrects himself. Lynn Minmei seems like your stereotypical cute airhead at first, but even she has to suffer the consequences of her decisions and becomes a stronger person. Misa Hayase seems like a rigid, strictly military person, but she suffers from her own bouts of insecurities and when she eventually gives in to her feelings becomes such a sympathetic character that you find yourself rooting for her. Nobody’s a bad guy (or a bad girl), and character development is handled consistently and with great care. Everybody has to suffer a little in order to grow up, and the primary characters in Macross are not immune to suffering. A common theme seems to be that the characters have to let go of their desires in order to deserve what they desire. But unlike the morality plays you see in Saturday morning cartoons, these themes are handled very subtly (so subtly that they were lost on me, of course, when I was a kid).

How has Macross aged over the last 15 years for me personally? What I’ve found is that the situations I found myself in over the last 10 years or so were in some ways paralleled in Macross. There are lots of little touches, like in the ambiguous way Minmei treats Hikaru throughout most of the series was something I’ve encountered in the Asian dating scene. It is entirely possible that if you're not familiar with how Asian-Asian dating works a very few of the cultural cues might not work for you. There are some poignant moments, like the time when Misa Hayase waits a whole day at a road side cafĂ© for Hikaru, who shows up in the evening after being much delayed. While Misa is waiting, a little friendly dog comes up to her and she looks at him and says, "Hey, you’re alone too." She picks him up and starts feeding him but in the middle of it the dog’s owner (a little girl that we can’t quite see) shouts the dog’s name from across the street and the dog leaps out of Misa’s arms and bounds towards the little girl. Hikaru shows up right after that and the parallels that the preceding scene has with Misa's relationship with Hikaru and Minmei just about broke my heart. These quiet scenes become by far the most powerful ones. They have a haunting quality that sticks with you even after you’re done watching the series.

While technology mostly stays in the background, the characters in Macross are facile with it, and use it naturally as part of day-to-day life. In one episode, for instance, as Hikaru escorts Misa's shuttle towards Earth, he sends a farewell message to her by signalling (in Morse code) with the wing-tip lights on his fighter.

There are quite a number of corny scenes however. Given the series' preoccupation with romance, it shouldn't surprise you that characters find themselves working through their issues while bombs are literally falling around them. But then again, I've already told you that Macross is a trashy romance, haven't I?

One of the things I missed watching the series in Singapore was the end title credits. The end credit sequence shows a helmet, and a photo album. A hand moves in and turns the photo album’s pages, revealing photographs of Minmei, and Minmei and Hikaru. The helmet is a standin for Hikaru’s pilot’s helmet, but what you don’t realize is that the hand moving the photo album isn’t Hikaru’s (the helmet doesn't belong to Hikaru, either)! The scene shows up 28 episodes into the series. The final episode ends with a freeze-frame, and a hand turns the page over to the end of the photo album while the caption comes up "2012: So long!", giving one a sense of closure about the story as a whole. The end theme is also sung by a different performer for the last episode. It is little touches like that that distinguish the long running Japanese/Asian TV series from the American series. It is quite obvious that Macross was a story planned with a beginning, middle, climax, and end right from the start, while American series (except for the mini-series, which don't typically run as long as the Asian series) do not usually have the coherency of a single vision guiding their work.

All TV animation series have to be relatively low budget. Watching all 36 episodes in order in relatively short time gives you a very good sense as to which episodes were important to the producers. There are entire episodes that seem stitched togther from flashbacks in order to either let the audience catch up from the previous episode or in order to meet a deadline. Then there are episodes like the military climax, or the last 4 episodes of the series, where the producers pull out all stops---the machines and ships look almost real, and the women and men look gorgeous. It almost looks as if Misa Hayase underwent a facelift in the last 8 episodes of the series! Even in the best-drawn episodes, however, budget seems a primary consideration: you can definitely recognize battle scenes that have been cut and spliced from previous episodes. However, don’t let this deter you—even the badly drawn episodes have the virtue that the story line is consistently high quality. There’s an episode devoted to Hikaru’s dream sequence that is hilarious, for instance. It is not at all unusual to find humor thrown into the mix to good effect, and even the serious episodes can have a bit of farce thrown in.

Minmei's singing
A frequent source of derision whenever the Macross comes up among anime fans is Minmei's pop songs. If you like Japanese pop, there's nothing wrong with her performance. Iijima Mari is a pop/idol singer who did voice-acting as Lynn Minmei when she was nineteen (Minmei is 16 at the start of the TV series), so not only was she a good fit for Minmei's voice, she could sing as well. If your exposure to Minmei was through the American dubbed series, you will definitely find Iijima Mari to be at least someone who can hit the notes when she wants to. That said, however, even Iijima Mari is embarrassed about the most overused song in Macross, Watashi no Kare wa Pairotto (My boyfriend is a pilot). Apparently, things that weren't embarrassing to sing when you were nineteen have a way of catching up to you when you're 35. Well, you can always fast-forward through the singing without missing anything.

The background music in Macross is reasonably well-done. In fact, if you watch any kind of Asian television, you will run into some low-budget Taiwanese shows that have "borrowed" background music from Macross. (Presumably, they just cut their background music from the myriad CDs that have sprung up) If you're going to buy a soundtrack album, the movie soundtrack has the best orchestrations.

Is it worth 18 hours?
So how do I feel about spending 18 hours watching this series over a period of a few weeks? I’d do it again. I wouldn’t do it unless I could watch all of it, since you will not be satisfied without getting to know the climax and the ending, and there’s no easy way to skip episodes without missing some character or plot development. There is one catch-up episode around episode 12 that you can skip because it’s used to catch laggards up with the series, and that’s about it. If I had only 2 hours to spend, I’d definitely just watch the last 4 episodes or perhaps the last 8 episodes if I had more time. (These are the "reconstruction of Earth" episodes—other science fiction shows have the heroes saving the world, this one has the heroes failing to save the Earth) These episodes focus almost solely on the romance, but the caveat is that you’ll miss a lot without getting the setup that the first twenty-something episodes give you. For instance, Roy Fokker plays a major part early on in the series, and episode 33 doesn’t make much sense if you don’t know who he is. If you can, watch the series in the original Japanese. Not only is the voice acting much better, but you’ll get a stronger sense of what gets lost in the translation. (I’ll never forgive whoever translated "Merry Christmas" into a long awkward Chinese sentence!) There’s a surprising amount of English in the TV series, too, so you might not find yourself as lost as you might imagine.

The movie
A final word before going into the hyperlinks. The movie isn’t the same story as the TV series. If you’ve seen the movie, it will still be worth your while to watch the TV series, just as it’s worth your while to read a novel of a movie that was made from a novel. There are many plot differences between the movie and the TV series. Outright contradictions are common: in the TV series, Minmei is never kidnapped by the Zentraedi, while in the movie, she was captured and persuades the aliens to return her with her songs! Your feelings about the characters will be much stronger if you watch the TV series. If you had to choose one or the other (and given that the movie’s only 90 minutes but the TV series is 18 hours, they’re not quite comparable), the TV series is definitely better. The movie, as might be expected, has gorgeous animation, and if you want to see the characters drawn at their best, that’s a good place to see them!
Just a note. I've tried to keep spoilers away from this review of Macross in the hopes that you'll go ahead and try to watch it. Some of the hyperlinks below contain spoilers that you might not want to see. (In particular, the compendium site can be very dangerous)
  • The Official Macross Website. Hosted in Japan, this is a very poor site with relatively few stills from the movie or the TV series. However, the description of the characters in "Japlish" is hilarious! If you want to see pictures of the characters I've mentioned, this site contains no spoilers.
  • The Macross Compendium. This is the mother of all fan-sites, and has a chronology as well as explanations of all the varying Macross TV series.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: Arrow Season 1

Green Arrow is definitely one of the second tier heroes in the DC universe. This is both a good thing and a bad thing when you build a TV show like Arrow after him. There's not a ton of baggage associated with the character, so the writers and directors have free reign over what to make of him. I don't even remember his origin story from the comics.

I watched the TV show on Blu Ray on a HDTV system setup at optimal viewing distance. The transfer and quality of the picture is amazing. You can see every pore on the faces of the characters on closeup. This is a show where the production values are definitely way up there.

The plot revolves around Oliver Queen (Green Arrow, though he's never referred to as such in the show), a billionaire by inheritance who was rescued off an island he was stuck on for 5 years. The story then flips back and forth between his time on the island, where he went from being a playboy to becoming a badass, and his time in Starling City, where he uses his badass MMA skills (with several trick arrows) to beat up bad guys and in some cases kill them.

The story is dark: as dark as the Batman movies, but not as deep as say, Buffy. It's decent watching, but I wouldn't put it up there with my favorite TV series (either Buffy or Macross). Nevertheless, the set pieces are jaw-droppingly beautiful, and tastes vary so you might as well take a look.

Mildly recommended.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Console Wars

Console Wars is Blake Harris' account of the rise and fall of Sega of America during the 1990s. Despite the title, it focuses almost exclusively on Sega, devotes relatively little time to Nintendo, and Sony's efforts only makes cameo appearances, even though it was the Sony that would ultimately dominate the generation.

Written like a novel, the protagonist of the account is Tom Kalinske, the CEO Sega recruited from Mattel to run Sega of America. Deficient in the account are any technical details, such as the actual creation of any of the consoles or games that feature during the actual wars.

This is as it should be. Sega of America was chiefly a marketing operation. While they had minor inputs as far as the character of Sonic the Hedgehog went, they couldn't dictate either hardware or software strategy, though they did bankroll a few games, such as Ecco the Dolphin.

This is by no means a bad thing. As a technical person, I've always been mystified by marketing and the efforts that go behind it. My preference, of course, has always been to work on product that would sell themselves, ranging from Purify, to of course, Google search. Harris does a good job de-mystifying that process, and explaining (through illustration) how important market positioning, branding and courting the press matters.

In the end, of course, we all know the end of the story. Marketing can only go so far: it makes the difference when your product is actually technically competitive, but no amount of marketing could save the Sega Saturn from the technical onslaught of the Playstation. It's a pity that Harris didn't go into that second half of the story, but again, as a story largely about marketing, Console Wars ended at exactly the right place.

Ultimately, the book illustrates a key principle in technology companies: you cannot control your fate without control over the technical development of future products. No matter how brilliant an executive Kalinske was, when he could not persuade his masters at Sega Japan to work on machines that would match the competition, he was doomed to failure.

The book also clearly illustrates the problems and politics associated with a multi-national corporate organization. Kalinske's American team clearly found the Japanese team inscrutable, and were frequently frustrated by Sega Japan's inability to pay attention to them despite their success. This is a great lesson for any one who struggles to get their remote office recognized from halfway across the world.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

First Impression: Co-Motion Periscope Quad Convertible (Triplet configuration)

Bowen turned 3 last year, but despite our coaxing, he still hasn't shown much interest in his Strider bike. But more than that, even if he could ride, it would be a while before we could trust him out riding in the streets, touring, or even visiting his friends that way. I'd seriously considered a triplet before, but with another son on the way, we thought hard and went with a custom Co-Motion Convertible Periscope Quad. Since I already had heavy duty tandem wheels from our previous touring tandem, I opted for a custom frame built to take 700c wheels, dual pivot long reach caliper brakes and drum brakes, in case I ever got so crazy as to take a quad up a mountain.

The build job took months, and the fitting to Bowen took weeks. The periscope feature enables kids as short as 4' 2" to ride, but Bowen was still far from that. Co-Motion asked us to work with their local dealer, the Bicycle Outfitter, and they kindly agreed to take on fitting Bowen as a pilot project. Basically, they took an existing crank, got a local machinist to machine off the crank arms, and then attached a second bottom bracket and stoker assembly to the bike, added a backrest with restraining seat belt, and then customized the handlebar assembly for the Bowen. This was serious work. We tried to find SPD shoes that would fit him, but none of them were small enough, so we made do we rat trap pedals.

The tandem handles surprisingly well. I felt a wobble early on, but the shop discovered that it was a loose headset. We took it up and down some twisty roads, and the bike did not display any disconcerting behavior compared to our previous stiff-framed aluminum tandem. What does happen, however, is that the S&S couplers come loose on the bike because of the sheer amount of torsion placed on the joints, so we actually have to check and tighten down the couplers every ride. My previous Co-Motion S&S coupled tandem never exhibited this, so it must be unique to these super long bikes.

The reason we opted for a convertible is that we expect the bike to stay in triplet configuration for a few years until the youngest one gets old enough to move into Bowen's seat, at which point Bowen would have graduated into a seat without a back rest/seat restraint. Then we'll ride it in quad configuration until Bowen graduates onto his own bike. And yes, when the kids are all graduated we can stick the front and back halves of the bike together and ride it as a tandem.

The minute Bowen saw the bike he immediately knew which seat was his. After 2 rides, he'd figured out how to get into the seat and his feet into the pedals without assistance. He takes great pleasure in wearing his own cycling gloves, and his helmet, though he still has a hard time getting through 2 days without destroying his sunglasses. He was terrified of descents at first, but now demands that I work harder so the bike goes faster. And in case you're wondering, yes, my wife and I ride the bike together without him, and the bike feels quite a bit lighter, so even though he's maintaining 90rpm with us, his contribution to powering the bike at the moment is negligible.

Yes, the bike is slow. 3% grades feel hard, and 6% grades require we get down to the granny gears (a 24x36, in case you're wondering). The bike is well north of 50 pounds in the triplet configuration. We've not tried for any speed records yet, but it will take descents at speed with no problems. One  bug we had trouble with on the bike was the horizontal water bottle cages: any less than a grippy bottle cage would eject the bottles on a bump, and even with a stainless steel high grip bottle cage, if the bottle wasn't inserted deep into the cage, a bumpy road would still take it out.

Taking and putting the bike back together is also more work than you might expect. Basically, you'd have to remove all the timing chains, which require loosening the eccentrics, derailing the chains and storing them before you could unscrew the couplers. When I stowed it into the Scion xB this weekend for a 3 day trip to Monterey Bay, we could get the bike into the car by removing the captain's seat post, uncoupling the bike, and stowing the 3 pieces vertically with one of the rear seats folded down. It's quite clear that with 2 kids, we're going to have to buy a custom rack for one of our cars.

Time to disassemble: 30 minutes. Time to reassemble: 45 minutes. Aligning the couplers on the big heavy bike is enough work that you have to take extra time to do it right, as well as using the special grease that S&S machine recommends.

All in all, the bike does what it's supposed to. People I know (including some cycling enthusiasts in the bike club) have occasionally complained that their children don't like to spend time outside, or don't want to ride bicycles with them. My impression so far is that if you give your child a chance to spend time with you outdoors, he'd happily take that over almost any other kind of stimulation. However, sour that by trying to make a kid keep up with you, or making yourself bored by having to stay at his pace or constantly worrying about traffic, and it's going to be frustrating for everyone involved.  Tandems, triplets, and quads  are ridiculously expensive and practically impossible to resell, but resolve these problems easily and maximize the chance that your child's association with cycling will be a pleasant one.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth is Ken Follett's historical novel about the building of a Cathedral in Kingsbridge, England in the 1100s. It's certainly not the kind of the book I usually read, and I expected to stop reading after a couple of chapters, but it rapidly become compelling reading and I found myself reading it continually. It's bee a while since a book captivated me, and it was an unexpected pleasure.

What makes the book interesting is the description of political maneuvering throughout the country at the time, with the church, the earls and kings all maneuvering to rule the land. There are a few interesting romances in the book, and they lend human interest to the entire affair, but are really secondary to the overall plot.

I found the characters interesting, and the depiction of the treatment of women in the era is probably accurate, with a few anachronisms that I never would have known about without referring to Wikipedia.

What's fun about the book is that the author plays a very long game. Insignificant events right at the end of the book get used later on, which then leads to interesting plot points. The villains are suitably villainous, and the protagonists, while not without their fault, are plausible. For instance, Prior Philips grows from being politically naive to becoming able to take advantage of setbacks and turn them into strengths, even to the point of humbling a king.

The book is written in clear transparent style, and is very accessible as a result. The language is clearly not that which would have been spoken during that era, but on the other hand, I'd much rather not have to struggle through Old English or Latin in order to understand what's happening.

I can recommend this book, even if you're not normally a fan of historical fiction, and have no real interest in religious affairs.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My Color Rant

Like 8% of men, I'm color blind. In normal day to day life, this isn't much of a disability. For instance, traffic lights are designed by men, so the red in the light is tinted with yellow, and the green in the light is tinted with blue, so the difference in the colors are very very distinctive. The same goes for lights for entering and leaving ports.

In recent years, the most annoying color-sensitive objects are those designed for the general consumers by UI designers who don't know any better. In particular, those devices that are not designed for use by men tend are the greatest offenders.

Take, for instance, Canon's digital cameras. The S90 was clearly designed by a person sensitive to color blindness. The charger had 2 LEDs: one for charging, one for charged. Even if you were color blind, you could use the position of the lit light to tell when a battery had been charged. My Makita power tools and the Canon 5DMk2 (and other professional series cameras) are also designed correctly. Rather than depend on color, the chargers blink while charging and become steady when charged. Note that making devices that the color blind can use in no way makes the experience worse for those who are not color blind!

By contrast, the Canon S100 was not designed by the same people. Instead of 2 LEDs, it was designed to have only 1 LED. That flipped from red to green when charged. And of course, there was no way for me to tell when the battery is charged, which drives me bonkers. Countless cell phones have the same issue (though to my relief, the Sony Xperia Z1's charged indicator flips between red and blue instead of red and green, which is at least usable by me, though not by a mono-chromat). And of course, web-sites that use red and green are also similarly annoying.

Do industrial design schools or UI design classes in schools not have disabilities/color-blindness studies as part of their curriculum? Or do those designers just not care? How can even one company like Canon have such completely disparate policies for products in the same product line?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Returning to the Xperia Z1

I broke my Xperia Z1 in mid December, and shipped it back to Sony for a warranty repair. Not knowing if I was going to ever get it back (Sony once hung on to one of my RMAs for over a year!), I bought a Lumia 635. Then last week, Sony finally sent me back a new (complete with box) Xperia Z1 6906, which wasn't the same as the 6903 which I had purchased. The difference is that the 6906 will handle LTE in the US, while the 6903 model has a few bands that are more frequently used outside the US. Since you're going to be restricted to 2G outside the US if you're mostly on T-mobile anyway, this was actually an improvement for me.

A few things that I miss between the Z1 vs the Lumia 635:

  • The Lumia 635 has phenomenal battery life. It's a weaker phone with a smaller screen, so I wasn't tempted to use it as much, but with the Xperia Z1, I turned on all the stamina mode features of the Z1 this time around, and have to get into the habit of keeping the phone charged the whole time. The day I didn't do that, battery life was abysmal.
  • The smaller Lumia 635 and the fact that it's cheaper meant that the fitness tracking feature was actually useful. I could stick it in any pocket, and didn't really care if I was going to sit on it. There's a lot to be said for having a phone so cheap that I could buy 6 of it for the price of the Z1. The compactness can be solved by buying a compact Z series phone, but you can't solve for cheapness any other way than by spending less.
But there are also many reasons to be relieved to get the Z1 back:
  • That nice big screen is really sweet. When using it to shop on Amazon, or use Feedly, I never felt cramped or constrained.
  • Apps. It's funny how Outlook is much better on Android than on Windows Phone. This is because Microsoft bought Accompli, but it's still nice. Similarly, I had to pay for Phonly (a view into Feedly) but Feedly on Android was free. People frequently say that having a forked Android store in the form of the Amazon App store hurts the Android ecosystem, but I disagree. Having 2 stores to shop from creates competition, which means that overall prices are lower for apps, and Amazon frequently gives me discounts or free coins to buy apps with. What this means is that apps I might have had to pay for on Windows such as Plex are essentially free on Android. Even  better, because the Amazon appstore is not tied to a Google account the way the Google Play app store is, my wife gets those apps for free too!
  • That camera on the Z1 is just amazing for a smart phone camera. Enough said. As a matter of fact, together with the IP58 waterproofing rating that's the reason to get a Z series smartphone.
  • Waterproofing: lots of people claim that they don't see this as a key feature. The first time you rinse off the phone casually to get rid of fingerprints, etc., everyone else in the room goes, woah, you can do that?
  • Power. Smartphone processors simply haven't been improving as rapidly over the last few years, so the Z1 is still within striking distance of current flagship phone performance. This is no big deal for typical reading e-mail, checking RSS feed, etc., as the 635 shows, but for photo editing and processing videos, it's nice to be able to do this without having to resort to a desktop or a laptop.
All in all, after several months of using the Z1 and comparing it against the 635, I will admit that the improvements over the cheaper phone is probably justified, but requires surprising numbers of tweaks (e.g., to power management) to get there.

The current model Xperia Z3 Compact and Z3 phones reportedly do not suffer from the power management tweaking required to get decent battery life. They do, however, come at a much higher price ($476 and $575 are the current prices), which mean that they're not as immediately a no-brainer compared to the Nexus 5 as the Z1/Z1 compact are. However, since the Nexus 5 is no longer easily available, and the nearest comparable is the Moto X ($399.99), compared to those phones, the Xperia Z3 series would be a no-brainer.