Thursday, December 08, 2005

90's Zelda rap / dance video


I was looking at digg yesterday and read about the Japanese Legend of Zelda commercial that came out in the early 90's. It's a fun video, to be sure, but I haven't seen anyone identify who provided the music for the commericial.

Oddly enough, I recognize who it is (I think).

It sounds a lot like Scha Dara Parr, a Japanese rap group from the late 80's and early 90's. My sister Karen, who has always influenced my taste in music, gave me a tape of them back when I was still an undergrad.

If you haven't seen it yet, here is the video:



The digg article, which includes links to other download locations: http://digg.com/gaming/80_s_Japanese_Zelda_Commerical

Scha Dara Parr info:

http://nippop.com/artist/artist_id-176/artist_name-scha_dara_parr/ (info, English)

http://www.beastiemania.com/whois/scha_dara_parr/ (info, English)

http://www.schadaraparr.net/ (Official site, Japanese)

The first link actually mentions the Zelda commercial and says that the song "Game Boys" was used for it. I haven't heard the song in awhile, but I don't think it's "Game Boys". Given the lyrics to the song here, it seems pretty clear that the song was specifically made for the commercial.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Call for input: "an omnipresence in wired" remix


A few months ago, lain illustrations by yoshitoshi ABe was released in Japan. Essentially, it's a repackaging of "an omnipresence in wired" with a few new images.

You can order the book from Akadot retail. (Other online sellers might have the book for less. You might want to shop around).

lain book


American fans of ABe and lain will be interested to know that Digital Manga Publishing plans to release an English version of the book in 2006. DMP wants to include exclusive content that will only exist in that version, and they are looking for feedback from American fans. Here is the announcement:

We are currently in development of adding an exclusive section to the english adaption of Yoshitoshi ABe lain illustrations: "ab# rebuild an omnipresence in wired"!

The thing is, we wanted to try something new and exciting by getting some additional input from the anime and manga fan community!

"Serial Experiments - Lain" has been a cult classic amongst Japanese and American fans alike. This remixed and reissued edition of Yoshitoshi ABe's illustration book is a another example that "good anime never goes bad".

"I was talking this idea over with ABe-san and his Japanese publishers..." says DMP Director of Operations Isaac S. Lew. " and I really wanted to hit a core connection with not the just the fans, but the industry as well... Before FLCL or Boogie Pop Phantom, there was the creepy excitement of Lain. I want people to remember how significant "Serial Experiments - Lain" series was to the North American anime growth. "

This will be DMP first attempt at releasing a full color art book in 2006. Support from the fans is a must! Just go to DMP's forum page and join the "Yoshitoshi ABe & Lain's Wired" section for more details. There is also the possibility of getting mention in the published book.
Here is the forum that was mentioned: Yoshitoshi ABe & Lain's Wired

Aka-san says that DMP has 8 pages to "do whatever we want".

So, any ideas?



My own thoughts

I had a chance to look through the forums and see what people had come up with. The DMP staff came up with the idea of having illustrations of Lain in different outfits/costumes. I think that would be fun, but would these be ABe illustrations or fan-created illustrations? I think that having new Lain art by ABe himself would be the number one thing to add to the American version of the book, but fanart might be a good second option. As some of you may remember, Ray DiPasquale and I (in conjunction with TechTV) ran a lain fanart contest a few years back where we asked people to present their own visions of Lain. If DMP is looking for good fan artists, I can get in touch with the people who submitted to our contest.

Some of the fan suggestions (on the DMP forums) were pretty good. In particular, I like the suggestions brought up by BachFan1977 (more information and insights directly from ABe, lain-related comments and/or illustrations from other anime artists, etc.)

I think the most important thing is that the content needs to be truly new. For six years now, my own site, thought experiments lain, has been offering interpretations of the anime, explaining references (Apple computer references, for example), looking into all kinds of miscellaneous stuff (such as lain merchandise), and (most importantly, perhaps) providing links to third party resources so people can learn more on their own. Plus, there are plenty of other lain sites and discussion venues out there that a lot of us have visited/participated in. As such, I'm not sure if more of the same is really necessary in the new ABe book.

In the announcement, Isaac Lew brought up lain's impact on both American anime fandom and the American anime industry. I think that's a really good starting point. An essay about the anime's historical significance, featuring interviews with anime fans and members of the industry, would be pretty interesting (to me, at least). It's something I'd happily contribute to.

Anyhow, I'm curious what you think. Feel free to comment here if you want or on the relevant DMP forums.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A short story I read, and revisiting cyberpunk


Late last month, I read an article on Slashdot about Google turning 7 years old. In the user comments of that article, someone posted a short story that I really enjoyed. Here's a link to the story where it originally appeared:

The Nine Billion Names Of God

Here's an excerpt:
"You know what Google is?"

"Yes," I said. I was running low on patience.

"No, I mean, do you really know? More than just the site?"

Reluctantly, I shook my head.

"You ever meet anyone who worked for them?"

"Don't think so."

"You haven't. Nobody works for them anymore."

I shrugged, and took the man's empty pint. I didn't offer to refill it.

"They're self-contained. It's all automated, in there. It's underground."
The story is a nice bit of sci-fi, and arguably cyberpunk in its presentation. (Amongst other things, it made me think of Darren Aronofsky's Pi)

As a teenager, I used to be impressed by certain authors' romantic portrayals of worn-but-wily heroes struggling to make it in dark and oppressive cyberpunk futures. I don't know if I'm heroic at all, or clever enough to be considered wily, but these days, I really do feel like we live in a world that's pretty close to those dystopian visions. [See the following link for a really nice explanation of cyberpunk: Exploring Dystopia: Cyberpunk]

Even though the word has lost some of its edge in recent years, "cyberpunk" fiction is still something that I am very interested in because it's all about technology and society (and the ways that they co-construct each other), issues of power, and the ways that marginalized outsiders and reluctant insiders alike seek to challenge the status quo (even if it's just a little bit).

Here are some movies I have enjoyed that I consider cyberpunk even though fan-made lists of cyberpunk films don't always include them:

Battle Royale (based on the novel by Koushun Takami)
New Rose Hotel (based on the short story by William Gibson)
Mr. and Mrs. Smith (yes, the one with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie)

While these films don't feature characters sporting cybernetic implants or prosthetics, and the worlds they portray are not as visually dramatic as the one portrayed in Blade Runner, they share certain thematic and stylistic elements that immediately strike me as being cyberpunk in flavor, even though some would disagree with me. Have we become so used to cyberpunk themes in fiction, or has society become so cyberpunk itself, that the label has become superfluous? Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Morrissey meets Anime


It's not often that a person can mention Morrissey and anime in the same sentence, and given that I'm a fan of both, I couldn't resist this opportunity.

No, there isn't a Morrissey anime coming out. I'm talking about a brief reference in Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, an anime TV series about a rock band. The closing credits sequence of that show features a montage of illustrations (of various rock artists), and at least one illustration is a Morrissey/Smiths reference.

screenshot
cover

Obviously, it's supposed to be the cover of Hatful of Hollow, and "Mo" at the bottom left looks a bit like Moz.

screenshot

This is another image from the sequence that might be Morrissey. If it's based on a real photograph, I can't figure out which one it's supposed to be, but maybe fans who are more die-hard than I am will figure it out.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Murakami and Nissan introduce Pivo


Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami has created a new character for Nissan. Here is the press release:

TOKYO (Sept. 30, 2005) - Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., today unveiled Pivo, its imaginative electric car concept, in partnership with renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami at the company's Nissan Ginza Gallery in downtown Tokyo.

PivoPivo, which will be on display at this year's Tokyo Motor Show, features an innovative cabin that revolves 360 degrees, eliminating the need to reverse. Thanks to its compact body, the car is also exceptionally easy to maneuver.

The three-seater car comes with a number of user-friendly technologies, including Nissan's Around View Monitor which reduces blind spots by displaying the outside surroundings on screens mounted on the inside of the car's A-pillars located on either side of the windshield. A dash-mounted infrared (IR) commander allows the driver to operate the navigation and stereo systems with simple finger movements without letting go of the steering wheel.

Pivo is powered by Nissan's compact, high-performance lithium-ion battery and its unique Super Motor, resulting in zero emissions.

The gallery space for the Pivo event, which was designed by Murakami, features a futuristic vegetable garden installation, as well as large balloons and illustrations of "Pivo-chan," a character he designed based on the concept car's inspiring image.
Pivo-chan


Previously, Murakami has collaborated with Louis Vuitton and Roppongi Hills. I am always fascinated to see the way he and his cohorts play around with the boundaries between pop culture, high art, and consumer desire. Also, there's the interesting phenomenon of cute characters being used to market products that are not intended for children. Furthermore, this is another example of the otaku-related trend of technology being anthropomorphized.

Here is a related link: 2005 Nissan Pivo Concept

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

What happened to anime "shrines" on the web?


The topic of changes in fandom, as related to changes in technology used
by fandom, is something that I am trying to address in my dissertation
research. The question of how the anime community online has changed is
one that I asked on a web forum and the AMRC-L a few months ago, and I got some interesting responses. Specifically, I asked:

Are series-specific anime fansites a thing of the past?

I've been using the internet as an anime fan for over 10 years now, and
I've noticed a trend that maybe some of you can comment upon. It seems to
me that fan-produced websites focusing on a single series are less common
than before. Sure, some of the older sites are still around (like mine),
but new sites about single shows seem to be less popular. On the other
hand, forums/communities, review sites, news sites, image boards, blogs,
and other more generalized websites seem to be bigger than ever.

Then again, maybe it's just me. Has anyone else noticed this trend? If so,
why do you think it happened? If not, what are some of the more
well-known/high-quality series-specific sites out there?

(Your comments here or by email are appreciated.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Unlikely Idols: The social construction of celebrity


Celebrities are made, not born. Popular celebrities are made popular by the attention granted to them by the mass media companies who offer selective television, movie, radio, and internet exposure. Extremely popular celebrities remain popular well after their time in the spotlight has passed; they become cultural icons (see VH1's list if you don't know what I mean).

Most celebrities, however, fade into obscurity as their TV shows eventually get cancelled, their albums fall of the charts, their movie roles dry up, and they are replaced by newer faces.

Hayley MillsThe internet (surprise, surprise) has changed some of this though. Now, even if there are no longer huge legions of, say, Hayley Mills fans, all it takes is one dedicated fan to start a website about Hayley Mills that will attract enough people to form a fan club, and even if she only has 50 die-hard fans in the world, that's more than enough to sustain a vibrant community. (I bring up Hayley Mills, not because she has no fans, but because I am indeed a fan of hers. I grew up watching a lot of the old Disney live action movies.)

Even more interesting is the way that the internet is used to create celebrities. Some people who aren't in the public eye except through the internet become famous (such as well-known bloggers and website maintainers), but I'm actually talking about people who are on TV or in movies who become famous even though they were meant to be forgotten--the unmarketed and anonymous bit players who take on cult followings.

Some of you probably already know about The Blonde Girl from the Old Navy Commercials and That Pepsi Girl.

Old Navy GirlPepsi Girl

Those two blogs are examples of fans creating new objects of desire by appropriating mainstream media messages/images for their own use. Furthermore, their extreme engagement with the media has empowered them in interesting ways.

The bloggers themselves have become minor celebrities by virtue of their being extreme fans--experts in fields that they singlehandedly created. Whether or not their intent was to became famous, having a lot of fans visiting their blogs allows them to do a better job of compiling information about the two women, which further contributes to the bloggers' fame and expertise.

Even as Pepsi and Old Navy are benefiting from their activities, the bloggers are able to use Pepsi and Old Navy (without being affiliated with those companies) for their own gain, empowering themselves in a way that is quite different from the traditional means that most citizens use to distinguish themselves (university degrees, high paying jobs, expensive luxury items, etc). Some people would say that it's a waste of time, but I think it's kind of cool.


Unlikely celebrities on my radar

Anyhow, that's enough theorizing from me. If you really want to hear more of my ramblings on this subject, look around my website for other things I've written, or wait until next year which is when my dissertation on fan cultures will be completed. For now, here are some unlikely celebrities you might not have heard of before. In both cases below, the women were already well known on their respective TV shows, but fandom on the internet and elsewhere elevated them into cult figures.



Christel Takigawa

Christel TakigawaChristel is an announcer on "News Japan", a news show on Fuji TV. She appears to have quite a large fan following (in Japan, especially). She is originally from France and speaks French fluently in addition to Japanese, so I assume that she is partly French.


Here are some links of interest:

http://funapon.info/chri/ (A website devoted entirely to screencaptures of Christel's daily newscasts)

News Japan Program Info

Google Image search of Christel's name in Japanese

A movie file of Christel Takigawa on TV



Samantha Brown

Samantha BrownSamantha is the host of "Great Hotels" (and some other shows) on the Travel Channel. Described as "perky" and a "Travel Goddess", her upbeat personality and charm quickly won over viewers and made her the highlight of the show for many people (even though the show is about hotels).


Some links:

Travel Channel :: Samatha Brown

First Un-Official Samantha Brown Site



Bacardi Silver GirlFinally, I have my own favorite unlikely celebrity, but she's not quite a celebrity yet: The Bacardi Silver Girl

See the ad here: http://www.visit4info.com/details.cfm?adid=14983&type=coolad&startrow=1


I think she looks like an anime character, almost. What's her name, and why hasn't anyone made a webpage/blog about her? Or if someone has, please let me know (I don't have the time to make one myself). =) By the way, I don't like Bacardi; in fact, I don't drink (alcoholic beverages).

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Aiming for Second

Considering Opera's Place in the World of Web Browsers

Shortly after the announcement that Opera is now free to the public and no longer contains an integrated ad banner, Jon S. von Tetzchner (the CEO of Opera) said that Opera's goal for the desktop browser is to take over the number 2 spot (in terms of overall marketshare).

(See: Opera Shoots For No. 2 and Opera CEO: Goal to Become 2nd Most Used Browser)

"We just want to have more users than Firefox," said Tetzchner.

What does that mean? Are we to assume that Opera lacks the guts and will to topple Microsoft's Internet Explorer? Not necessarily. From a business strategy point of view, Tetzchner's statement makes sense. Given the popularity of Windows and the fact that IE is an integral part of that OS, there's no reason to believe that Internet Explorer will be losing its top spot anytime soon. Even the impressive growth of Firefox has been slowing, and there have been increasing concerns over the alternative browser's security risks. Whether these risks are real or imagined, people are certainly feeling more wary, making the job of Firefox advocates a bit more difficult.

Furthermore, reaching the #2 spot would entail a significant increase in Opera's marketshare, and Tetzchner believes that the increased usage of Opera (combined with search and service partnerships) will eventually make up for and surpass the revenue that used to come from integrated ads and paid-for user licenses.

Would Opera like to be the #1 browser (in terms of marketshare)? Of course, which is why Tetzchner said "for now" when discussing the goal of making Opera the #2 browser behind Internet Explorer. The thing to note here, however, is that Opera Software is not obsessed with beating IE and becoming the dominant desktop browser, which is worth discussing further.

There's room at the top

Opera and Firefox (like Coke and Pepsi) are similar in many ways, but have enough differences that people will have strong preferences towards one or the other. In terms of overall marketshare, how this will play out depends on the relative strengths of each product, but also successful marketing, the momentum of trends, and how well each product responds to the evolving demands placed on internet users. Tetzchner believes that Opera can win over more users than Firefox in the long run; Opera going ad and license free certainly provides a new challenge to Firefox. Only time will tell who will come out on top.

What's worth noting, however, is the statement that Tetzchner made about being #2. Regarding Firefox, he said, "I hope they have a significant market share as well." Such a statement reveals something about Opera's view of how it fits into the world of web browsers. Opera Software seems to understand that it does not need to be #1 in order to succeed, and it certainly does not need to dominate the usage statistics the way that Internet Explorer currently does. As long as Opera has a decent marketshare, web site operators will be compelled to make their webpages more standards compliant or suffer the consequences of alienating a significant part of their audience. That is one reason why Tetzchner has always said that Firefox's success has been good for Opera. Sites designed to work well with Firefox (which is more standards compliant than IE) tend to also work well with Opera. I suspect that if Opera Software had a choice, they'd prefer Firefox to be #1 instead of IE being #1.

Diversity is good

Opera Software understands that a healthy World Wide Web is one which is based on open (non-proprietary) standards that allow for different approaches and designs to meet diverse needs. In other words, in an open standards-based web, there's room for more than one browser, and room for more than one rendering engine. The web is expanding beyond the constraints of the traditional desktop, and we need more than one approach to create the best solutions for different venues. Gecko, the rendering engine of Firefox, is a really good engine, but that doesn't mean it can (or should) do everything. Presto, Opera's rendering engine, can do things that Gecko cannot, and vice versa (no disrespect to KHTML, I just don't know much about it, though I think Safari RSS looks like a nice product). Presto's small size and speed makes it excellent for browsing on mobile devices. Opera's voice command technology is useful for home media applications. ERA (extensible rendering architecture) is an amazing technology, as well. Perhaps techies with their really large monitors find that feature a bit extraneous, but when you consider the people all over the world who own smaller/low-resolution monitors, ERA is a godsend. ERA's value will be proven even further when browsing on mobile devices becomes more popular in the US and elsewhere.

On the other hand, Firefox, with its extensibility, allows users with very specific needs to build extra functions into their browser, which makes Firefox a really good development platform for specialized niche users. (e.g. bioinformaticists, to name just one example). Whether the extension concept is really the best one for the general internet-using public, however, is one that is constantly debated. There's an ongoing debate regarding which philosophy is better--having users download extensions to meet their needs (Firefox), or having features built-in and somewhat hidden, to be discovered gradually as the user becomes more familiar with the software (Opera).

I'm not going to get into that here, because the point I'm trying to make is that internet users have a choice, and choice is a good thing. I think it is vitally important that Opera does not try to become too much like the competition just for the sake of being popular. That would result in a software monoculture, and everyone would lose out because of it. Opera is a leader in web browser innovation, and if continuing to innovate while adhering to standards means less popularity and not being #1 on the desktop, that's a trade-off I'm willing to accept, and that seems to be Opera Software's stance as well. (Of course, the company is working hard to remain the leader in mobile browsing technology, where most it makes of its revenue.)

The darker side of grassroots advocacy

It's important to note that the Mozilla Foundation also cares very much about open standards and encouraging software diversity. However, one might argue that they have a harder time convincing some of its users of that philosophy. I say this because of the many websites I have visited in recent months that have buttons or warnings saying things like "best viewed with Firefox".

Firefox bannerFirefox banner

This harkens back to the days of Netscape versus Internet Explorer, where both companies promoted their own browser specific HTML that made the web anything but "open" as many websites were designed to work with only one of the two browsers. The higher ups at Mozilla understand the perils of this type of behavior and have made it publically known that they support standards-adherence and feel that websites should be written to work with any standards-compliant browser.
Also, please remember that Mozilla disapproves of and does not provide "Best Viewed With" buttons, when used in connection with the Firefox Internet browser; Mozilla believe the web is best viewed with any standards-compliant browser.

Source: http://www.mozilla.org/foundation/trademarks/policy.html
Even with such a clear policy statement, the idea of promoting websites that are "best viewed with Firefox" or "optimized for Firefox" pops up on spreadfirefox.com quite regularly. Here are some examples. To the credit of the Firefox community, people are quick to explain why such campaigns are bad for the web, but it comes up over and over again.

It's not really the fault of the Mozilla Foundation. They don't want a browser monoculture (i.e. 100% marketshare for Firefox) any more than Opera does. However, some Firefox fans get overzealous in their desire to "take back the web", which is essentially their way of winning the current browser war, as if everyone using Firefox would actually be a victory worth celebrating.

I don't want to claim that Opera does not have its overzealous fans, because they surely exist, but the following Google searches are revealing:



For each pair of searches, compare the content and number of links:

"optimized for firefox"

"optimized for opera"


"best viewed with firefox"

"best viewed with opera"



Clearly, there are more people creating Firefox-only sites than there are people creating Opera-only sites. That might just be a function of the total number of users of each browser, but I think that's only part of the answer. Something about the culture of Firefox encourages (unintentionally, I would argue) an attitude of winning at the expense of others.

Even Ben Goodger, the lead Firefox engineer, used to have a controversial browser-detection script on his site which blocked or gave a warning to non-Firefox users. See the archived version of his blog and the resulting discussion on the mozillazine forums

My theory is that this adversarial attitude has something to do with the Open Source community's distaste for Microsoft and its business practices. As much as it's important to be fair, feelings of antagonism against Microsoft cause some Firefox fans to use some of Microsoft's tactics against Microsoft and its supporters, which is emotionally satisfying (even if it's hypocritical).

Anyhow, as the number of Opera users increases, I hope that we won't see a dramatic increase in sites that are "optimized for Opera" or "best viewed in Opera".

Viewable with Any Browser

Before people accuse me of being hypocritical myself by pointing to the "optimized for Lynx" button on my homepage, I should explain what I meant by that. When I say "optimized for Lynx", by no means am I saying that readers of my site ought to view my site in Lynx or even download Lynx for their own use. Goodness knows, I haven't used Lynx as my primary browser since 1994 or so. What I meant is that I care about my site being backwards compatible, that it "degrades gracefully" as they say, so that it looks good even in the simplest browser I could think of, which is Lynx, and therefore works with any standards-compliant browser. It also means that I care about presenting text content more than anything else, which is related to the fact that I don't have any real graphic design skills. The intent of that button coincides with the spirit of the Viewable with Any Browser campaign, but that slogan is not quite as amusing as "optimized for Lynx". I like to mention Lynx because most people don't even realize that text-only browsers exist, and that's something people ought to know.

People access the web in many different ways, and whether those ways are 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or even 100th in terms of marketshare, they all deserve our consideration. Having been an underdog for so long, Opera Software (and many of its fans) understands that well, and that's why I continue to support them.



If you are a member of the Opera Community, you can post comments on my Opera blog: http://my.opera.com/Lawmune/. Others can post comments here on lainspotting, but one consequence of hosting my blog on my own website is that comments don't appear until I republish my blog, which I don't do on a regular schedule. If you don't mind that, feel free to comment here if you want.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A new day for Opera


free OperaOpera's press release says it best:

Opera Software today permanently removed the ad banner and licensing fee from its award-winning Web browser. The ad-free, full-featured Opera browser is now available for download - completely free of charge - at http://www.opera.com.

Why would you want to switch to Opera? There are a lot of different reasons, depending on your needs and how you use your browser. Here's a brief feature list: http://www.opera.com/products/desktop/. Chances are, you won't use every feature, but you'll find a few new ones that you'll fall in love with. If you want to learn more about Opera's capabilities, check out 30 Days to becoming an Opera8 Lover. If you're a real power user, you'll eventually find nontroppo's amazing Opera wiki, which uncovers even more things you can do with Opera.

For Opera users who are upgrading from the previous version, here is the changelog for Opera 8.50: http://www.opera.com/docs/changelogs/windows/850/



Does this change in business model mean that Opera no longer cares about its desktop product? Absolutely not!

Here is a comment from Haavard, a well-known Opera employee, about that: http://my.opera.com/haavard/blog/show.dml/22892

Also, Opera Watch just posted a new interview with Jon S. von Tetzchner, the CEO of Opera: http://operawatch.blogspot.com/2005/09/opera-ceo-goal-to-become-2nd-most-used.html

This isn't the end of Opera's desktop browser. It's a new beginning. The developers at Opera Software are still working hard to push the product forward.

Here are some blog posts by Opera developers talking about what they're working on for the next big release:

http://weblog.timaltman.com/node/794
http://my.opera.com/olli/blog/show.dml/22674



Speaking of blogs, some of you might be interested to know that Opera's new community site was recently unveiled. It's more than just forums devoted to Opera discussion. If you sign up (which is totally free-of-charge), you can use the free blogging and photo album services, amongst other things. It's actually very cool and easy to use. To use those services, you don't even have to use Opera (though I'd recommend it). Since readers of this blog don't necessarily want to hear me talk about Opera all the time, I'm moving most of my Opera commentary (except for big news like today's) to my new Opera blog called Opera Otaku.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Otakon 2005


Otakon 2005 is coming up this weekend. I'll be there with my CJAS friends, but I'll also be spending a lot of time wandering around, taking in the sights, and talking to random people. This con, after all, is part of my dissertation research.

Similarly, I will be talking to various people I have interviewed over the last year, meeting many of them in person for the first time. I still have plenty of people who I've promised to interview. If you're one of those people, and you'll be at Otakon, please let me know.

Of course, if you're a reader of lainspotting, thought experiments lain, or any of the webpages on Lawmune's Netspace, or if you know me from one of the forums I post on, let me know, because I'd enjoy meeting you.

If you want to find me but don't know what I look like, my picture is here. One place you're sure to find me is the Otakon Game Show on Saturday night. I generally sit up near the front, cheering on my friends (hopefully, they'll qualify again this year).

I'll also be attending the Evangelion panel. Other than that, I am usually scouring the dealer's room for rare stuff.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Opera Mini's Other Name and More Opera Photos


Yesterday's post about my visit to Opera has been well-received, but the big news about Opera was the announcement of the very exciting Opera Mini, which will allow the browser to run on low- and mid-tier cell phones. I hope this service comes to the US quickly. Could it usher in a whole new cell phone culture in the US? When camera phones became affordable and part of everyday life, that was huge for the cell phone industry. Will affordable full-powered mobile browsing be the next big thing?

true mobile browsing + camera phones + millions of users = endless possibilities

Anyhow, that's not the main point of this journal entry. With all the buzz surrounding the announcement, people haven't noticed that Opera Mini also has another name (which you'll notice if you look at the download links). That name is "Operette". It might only be an internal or development code name; I really don't know. Perhaps Opera will drop that name altogether, but personally, I hope they keep it. It's a really cute name, don't you think? (Imagine a younger Opera-tan or her little sister)

More Opera Photos

I don't have more of my own photos to share, but last night I remembered that there are actually more Opera photos online, even though a lot of people might not realize it. As it turns out, several of Opera's annual reports (brochures, essentially) from previous years have actually used photos of real Opera employees in the Opera offices. PDF files of these brochures can be found on Opera's Investor Relations page, but you can also click on the images below for direct links:

report
2000: I don't remember their names, but I recognize some of Opera's engineers.

report
2001: I recognize Jakob on page 3 and Live Leer, desktop product line manager, on page 6.

report
2002: The cover features Fredrik, Opera's Webmaster. That's Live again on page 3.

report
2003: I'm not positive about this report, but I think it uses photos of Opera employees. The cover, anyhow, looks like Jon S. von Tetzchner, Opera's CEO.


As far as I know, the 2004 report doesn't use Opera employee photos. Maybe we'll see some in the 2005 report.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

My Visit to Opera

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed below belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Opera Software ASA or its employees.]

Introduction

In late June, I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting the headquarters of Opera Software in Oslo, Norway. That was about a month and half ago. I've been planning to do this writeup ever since I got back home (to upstate NY), but I've been distracted by things such as my apartment flooding, lectures to present, website work for my advisor, a summer computer camp to coordinate, visiting brother-in-laws, my own dissertation research, and all the trials, tribulations, and joys of being a new father (baby Rowan is just over 3 months old now). In fact, I would have stayed longer in Norway, but Carol and I decided that being away from her and the baby for more than a week would make things unnecessarily difficult.

So what was I doing visiting Opera, anyway? First off, you should know that I use Opera, I'm a fan of the product, and I'm a fan of the company. Back in January, I wrote an article about Opera's brand image, and how it needs to improve if Opera wants to remain competitive in the desktop browser market, especially since Firefox (Opera's number one competitor as far as "alternative browsers" go) had taken off so spectacularly. As far as I'm concerned, there is no reason why Opera's market share cannot dramatically improve, provided that Opera pays careful attention to how it presents itself to potential users. Anyhow, here's a link to the article, if you're interested and haven't read it yet.

Opera-tanNot too long after I published the article on my website, it started to garner some attention. First off, some Japanese Opera fans who are also artists began to create the Opera-tan character that I had mentioned as not having been done yet. That in itself was very cool, but I also received email from Rolf Assev, Opera's Executive Vice President of Product Marketing and Strategic Alliances, which was even more exciting. Apparently, with the imminent release of Opera 8, the folks at Opera Software had already been working to address many of the issues that I brought up in my article. Rolf asked me if I wanted to contribute to their ongoing discussion. As an Opera fan, I couldn't resist, so over the next several weeks, I was involved in email discussions talking about things such as whether or not users would like certain features and various ways to get people excited about the launch of Opera 8 (which happened earlier this year).

An invitation to Norway

Eventually, Rolf invited me to come and visit Opera Software in Oslo for a week in mid-June. I jumped at the opportunity, and I'm very glad that I did so. I spent the week working with the Desktop Group and Communications and PR department. I was able to meet various Opera employees working on different projects, and I had conversations with them about a variety of topics, including (but not limited to) how to improve peoples' perception of Opera, and how to build the Opera community. I should note straight away that I'm not a highly technical person. I am interested in technology and its role in society, I use computers and other devices heavily, and I even read Slashdot on a daily (hourly?) basis, but I'm not a computer programmer, or any other form of engineer. I earned my Masters degree in biology in 2000, but these days I'm doing my dissertation in the field of Science and Technology Studies. I'm focusing on otaku culture, or extreme fan cultures, and I'm interested in their use of technology and the way that their subculture is similar to scientific culture.

Opera is a program used all over the world, but Opera Software is nestled away in Oslo, Norway. For that reason, it has been a challenge for the company to gauge the way that internet users in different countries perceive Opera, and to promote Opera in a way that speaks effectively to all of them. The folks at Opera Software were very welcoming and interested in my perspective--coming from the United States, being an Opera fan, and knowing a thing or two about fan cultures and their relationships with technology. I don't know if my feedback was incredibly useful, but at the very least, I learned a lot of interesting stuff about Opera Software during my trip, and I hope I can share some of that here.

Getting to Oslo and Opera

I flew into Oslo on a Monday morning. The only other time I had been to Europe was for my honeymoon in England, three years ago, so this was definitely an adventure for me. I took the airport train to the Oslo Central Station and got in a cab. Most people in Norway know how to speak English, it seems, so it was very easy to communicate and not too difficult to get around. Things are very expensive in Norway, and the taxi ride was my first taste of that, but that didn't concern me much. I was too busy taking in the city, which was quite beautiful, with excellent summer weather.

sceneryscenery

I eventually arrived at the address I was given, and I stepped out of the cab in front of a non-descript grey building. I made my way up to the fifth floor where I saw the familiar Opera logo and a red door. Upon entering the Opera offices, I was greeted by the receptionist who helped me with my accommodations and introduced me to the people I would be working with.

Opera from the outsidelogo

I don't have any experience working in corporate offices, so it was all new to me, but I was excited to be there. After all, this was where Opera was made. I really do love the program--I download and use the beta versions and previews, I read the Opera forums and blogs daily, I even watch the quarterly reports. Needless to say, I felt privileged just to be standing in the reception area.

The Opera Offices

When I got to Opera Software, I was a little surprised at how hidden away it was. Unless you knew about the offices ahead of time, you would never know they were there. Even when you're inside, the reception area is small, but deceptively so, as the offices are spread out quite impressively on multiple floors.

receptionwaiting area

Everything radiates outward from the central hub that is the reception area. There are various doors, corridors, and stairways all leading to different parts of the building where different offices are located. As Opera Software has been growing and hiring more employees, the offices have steadily been growing outwards in a seemingly organic fashion. Luckily, I had people showing me around, so I didn't get lost in the mazelike corridors. The workspaces and conference rooms were quite nice, with lots of glass windows so people didn't feel too separated from each other, and plenty of communal areas. Everywhere I turned, people were working hard, but the atmosphere was friendly and casual. I'm not even sure if there was a dress code. Plenty of people were wearing jeans and t-shirts.

The cantina was especially nice, providing tasty meals daily, along with coffee and fruit juices. (There's a soda machine, too). On nice days, you can step outside of the cantina and eat lunch on the terrace. I've eaten quite a bit of cafeteria food in my day, and I was duly impressed by the quality of food at Opera.
terrace

The People of Opera

More important than the offices, however, are the people of Opera. They come from all over the world, so the company is very international in flavor, which is something I'm used to since I'm a graduate of Seoul International School. I felt very welcome and comfortable the entire time. Even though I voiced some candid criticisms, everyone I talked to was willing to listen. I also listened intently, learning about the company from the people who built it. Overall, I found it to be a smart, open, and warm environment. I didn't spend a lot of time with the software engineers, but the ones I met were also very open and happy to talk about their work. I even got to meet the very famous QA and customer support staff, including Haavard who is very well known on the my.opera.com forums. Haavard is an Opera celebrity of sorts, but having met other Opera employees, I think more of them should make themselves known to the public.

Here are some photos of Opera employees that I met and befriended. Some of them post messages on the my.opera.com forums, so some of these names might be familiar.

Janne
Janne wanted me to mention that the bright shirt was specifically for the Hawaiian-themed party later that afternoon (see below). Janne is one of Opera's web developers.

Berit, Tor, and Eskil
Berit, Tor, and Eskil. Tor is the communications director, Berit is a public relations specialist, and Eskil is a public relations manager. Eskil was the guy who paddled alongside Jon von Tetzchner during his failed transatlantic swim. On his website, Eskil has a hilarious video of himself on Leno.

Eivind
Eivind is a web developer. A Renaissance man if I ever met one, Eivind is a super nice guy who showed me around Oslo after work. I also owe him dinner if he ever visits New York.

Nuno, Monika, and Jakob
Nuno, Monika, and Jakob of the Desktop Group. Jakob, Opera employee number 33 and the Director of Desktop Sales and Distribution, reminded me of George Clooney.

Fred
Fred (short for Fredrik) is one of the masterminds behind the Opera website. He's also working on the new community site (see below). Apparently, he's so knowledgeable and useful that people kept coming to him with questions and he couldn't get any work done, so management put him in his own cave of an office. (Every once in awhile, he comes out to eat.) Seriously though, Fred is super friendly, crazy-talented, and really excited about the community he's helping to build. He also has great stories about all the email he gets from people who think that opera.com is Oprah Winfey's website. Yes, a polite form letter is used to respond to those emails.


Unfortunately, during my visit, there was a big multi-day board meeting going on, so I didn't have a chance to meet Jon S. von Tetzchner, the CEO of Opera. He briefly interrupted a meeting I was in, so at least I saw him even if I didn't talk to him. Maybe next time...

Opera Software is not a large company (around 250 employees), but it has been growing quickly. Even though new faces are showing up all the time, people at Opera seem to genuinely like each other. Every Friday afternoon, employees get together in the cantina for drinks, but every once in awhile, a full-fledged party is held. I was lucky to be around for the Hawaiian-themed party, complete with surfboard, inflatable palm trees, karaoke on PS2 (using the European game "Singstar"), and plenty of food and drink. A fun time was had by all.

party
Party in the cantina. Nuno really knows how to have a good time.

Jakob and Carsten
Jakob and Carsten, the Desktop Group managers, chilling on the terrace. Carsten is the VP of Desktop Products. Before coming to Norway, he worked for SuSE Linux in Germany.


Opera projects

Since I signed a non-disclosure agreement, I can't really talk about most of the projects that I learned about during my visit, but one good thing about my writing this a month-and-a-half later is that some of the things I had to keep quiet about are now out in the open, so I can finally talk about them. For example, one thing I discussed with the people at Opera was whether or not Bittorrent should be included in the next version of the browser. Preview versions of Opera 8.10 now include Bittorrent, which is exciting, and the inclusion of Bittorrent seems to have been well-received. Also, I got an advance look at the boxed version of Opera now being sold at retail stores in the US (as of a few days ago).

When something new comes out at Opera, it's really exciting. I got to witness the launch of the Japanese version of Opera 8, and also Opera 8 for Mac. The crazy thing is that so many new things are always in the works. At the very first meeting I attended, new Opera features and services that I couldn't even have imagined were being planned and discussed. Opera is already known as an innovative company, but to see all the various projects in the works was amazing. If you think Opera has done a lot already, wait till you see what comes next. One thing they are working on that has been mentioned lately is a major update of the rendering engine, which is a big deal since the engine is ultimately what makes Opera so powerful, especially across multiple platforms. Also, a new Opera community site is being built, which will eventually replace the clunky vBulletin system currently in place. Fred showed me the community site in progress, and I have to say that it looks incredible, so much better than the existing community site. Fred is planning things for the community that I've never seen before, and I've been part of a lot of internet communities. Big things appear to be in store for Opera in the coming months, so keep your eyes open.

New insights

Even before my trip, I had some idea of what the company was about, but I learned so much more just from my weeklong visit. For example, even though the desktop browser is the one we tend to hear about the most, Opera Software is highly committed to making Opera work well on other devices too, which includes mobile phones (of course), but also home media devices. I already knew Opera Software developed its browser to be cross-platform, but I didn't realize just how important that is for the company and how it plays into their browser development in general.

For example, it's possible to use voice commands in the desktop version of Opera, but I'm not sure if most desktop users find that to be such a killer feature. On the other hand, when you consider Opera on mobile phones or on DVR-type devices, voice control makes a lot of sense, so now it's easier to understand why Opera is spending time on that.

Opera for mobileMany users, myself included, complain that Opera doesn't work on some websites, such as certain banking websites. This is a big deal, but one that can be solved in more than one way. If Opera Software wanted to, it could (without too much difficuly) code workarounds to better display non-standards compliant webpages, but that's a messy and inelegant solution. Why does that matter? Opera's small size is an important selling point for its mobile browser, and coding workarounds for specific sites could compromise that. Instead, Opera Software is trying to convince web designers to follow web standards more closely. If mobile browsing is ever going to come of age, web standards compliance will have to become a huge priority, not just for Opera's sake, but for anyone else who is developing web browsers for mobile devices. Opera works closely with the W3C and also the WHAT working group which consists of various web browser manufacturers all working together to develop new, standards-compliant, web technologies.

I also learned that Opera employees really appreciate Opera fans. Sometimes, in the housekeeping that has to be done on the forums (keeping threads from going overboard, for example), that's not always evident, but it's true. Also, the employees are so busy, it's not always easy for them to find time to interact with Opera fans. Nonetheless, they definitely keep track of the fan sites, forum posts, and other forms of fan creativity. Opera-tan, for example, definitely has fans within the company. Hopefully, when the new community site debuts, Opera employees will have more direct interaction with Opera users.

Speaking of Opera-tan, I met and had a very stimulating conversation with Tatsuki, the business development manager for Opera in Japan. He told me about the hardcore Opera fans in that country, and how dedicated they are to Opera (not just the software, but the company, too). Once, Jon von Tetzchner made a visit to Japan to meet with Opera fans there, and to his surprise, a lot of them wanted his autograph, so they started an impromptu session (signing t-shirts and whatnot). I guess that the high concentration of Opera fans in Japan makes it easier for those kinds of events to happen, but it'd be great to see similar events here in the U.S.

Something about Opera makes it especially appealing to internet users in Japan. Opera is doing pretty well there, and Firefox hasn't taken off in Japan like it has in other countries. Perhaps it has something to do with Japan's mobile phone culture and Opera's success on that front paving the way for success on the desktop.

Final thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Opera Software. The people are great and they really love the product they're working on. They also have a unique sense of humor, which can be seen in the way they promote Opera, such as the silly superman guy (who is not an official mascot; he's a temporary character, part of the Opera 8 launch), Jon von Tetzchner's swim, and recently, leaked screenshots from the new community site. Even though they make a really cool product, they don't take themselves overly seriously. Behind all the levity, however, they are really smart people who care deeply about making the internet experience better for everyone.

I'd like to offer my heartiest thanks to Rolf and Opera Software for inviting me to visit and flying me out to Norway, which is a beautiful country that I'd love to visit again. Thanks to everyone who made me feel at home, and to the guys in the Opera apartment who let me stay with them. Till we meet again...

Opera stuff
Being the collector that I am, I couldn't resist getting some Opera promo goods while I was in Norway. This is what I brought home: A set of Opera brochures and annual reports from 2000-2004, Opera's Prospectus, a mousepad with instructions on how to use common mouse gestures, brochures for Opera for Mobile and Home Media, a Japanese book about the Kyocera AirH" Phone AH-K3001V (which features Opera), Opera stickers, and an Opera pen.


(The Opera-tan image is by temp_h, and is licensed under a Creative Commons License)

Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Fans Who Would Be Kings

A review of:

The Notenki Memoirs: Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion

Notenki MemoirsWhen I heard that this book was being released in English by ADV Manga, I immediately knew I had to get it. I consider myself a fan of Gainax, and I've always been interested in its history, especially the company's pre-Evangelion days, which is what the book focuses on (less than one full page is spent talking about post-Eva Gainax works). As it turns out, The Notenki Memoirs by Yasuhiro Takeda (originally published in Japan in 2002) was exactly the book I was looking for.

In case you were wondering, "Notenki" refers to Takeda himself. Back in the early 80's, some of the fans who would eventually form Gainax made amateur films. One such film, Kaiketsu Notenki, featured Takeda as Notenki, the hero of the story. Because of that, many people still humorously refer to Takeda as Notenki.

Yasuhiro TakedaYasuhiro Takeda (pictured right, with a Daicon III cosplayer) is currently the General Manager of Gainax. That title is a bit elusive, however, as is Takeda's actual role in the company. In a company as freewheeling as Gainax, job titles have traditionally not meant very much. People just did whatever was necessary to keep the company going and to finish whatever projects were going on. (Oftentimes, poor management led to projects not being completed, but you can read about that in the book.) In a nutshell, Takeda is one of the top administators of Gainax, and more importantly, he has been involved with the company from the very beginning, even in the days before Gainax was officially incorporated in December of 1984.

Gainax has always been known as an otaku-centric company--by fans for fans. It's part of their public persona, such as portrayed through Otaku no Video, the anime whose plot is loosely based on the origins of Gainax itself. Takeda's book delves into the fannish origins of the now legendary company. In great detail, Takeda explains the climate of science fiction and anime fandom in late 70's Osaka and how it became the most important thing is his life. From his descriptions of finding the sci-fi club at college, skipping classes to read novels and debate them with his friends, attending his first sci-fi conventions, to eventually creating (with his friends) conventions of his own, Takeda's story is one that's all about the passion and creativity of the original Otaku Generation. For Takeda, that meant organizing clubs, projects, networks of friends, and events--all for fun, of course. One thing was made clear by Takeda's book: his genius and creativity manifest themselves in his networking abilities, his charisma, and his earnestness. As such, Takeda has always been involved in the business side of things at Gainax--day-to-day affairs, long-term strategy, partnerships, public relations, and whatnot.

Daicon IIIThere were two groups of important people in the very early days of Gainax: the organizers and the creators. On the creator side of things, we have some very familiar names: Hiroyuki Yamaga, Hideaki Anno, and Takami Akai. On the organizer side of things, we have: Toshio Okada, Takeshi Sawamura, and Yasuhiro Takeda. Gainax would not exist without both of these groups coming together to put on Daicon III and to create its now legendary opening animation. Toshio Okada, who was also with the company at the very beginning, has been the most publically visible of the organizers group, and he has talked about the history of Gainax before in lectures, interviews, etc. Okada, however, left the company in 1992 for reasons that are apparently somewhat in dispute. Takeshi Sawamura, who was around at the beginning but didn't join Gainax right away, was the individual held responsible for Gainax's tax evasion woes, and he left the company in 2000. That leaves Takeda, the only original Gainax board member still with the company.

Having attended numerous anime conventions over the course of years, I've had the opportunity to see in person (and in some cases speak to) various members of Gainax, including Hideaki Anno, Hiroyuki Yamaga, Takami Akai, Yasuhiro Takeda, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Hiroki Sato, and Toshio Okada. Of these, I found Yasuhiro Takeda to be the most friendly, open, and earnest of the bunch. Even though there are some conflicting accounts regarding some of the early Gainax and pre-Gainax happenings, I tend to trust Takeda at least a little bit more than the others. He doesn't seem to be the type who would lie, embellish, or exaggerate, and that makes him the perfect Gainax historian. In a company of anime creators who radiate rockstar auras, Yasuhiro Takeda seemed positively down-to-earth. I felt comfortable enough in his presence to ask him about his Wings of Honneamise necktie at FanimeCon 2003. (My friend James brazenly asked how much Gainax has to pay in taxes. Takeda answered candidly and with a sense of humor. Feigning (?) despair, he started writing a long string of zeroes on a napkin to illustrate the horribly large amount of money Gainax had to pay. James and I smiled, expressed our sympathies, and moved onto happier subjects.)

The strength of The Notenki Memoirs is Takeda's straight-shooting account of pre-Gainax and Gainax activities--an accounting of who was who, who did what, when, where, and why. The book includes an extensive set of notes to explain things further, and even a glossary of names to help keep track of who everyone is. What is lacking, however, is an in-depth account of the other side of the company, the wildly creative side. The book barely discusses artistic decisions at all. Descriptions of anime planning and production are very sparse indeed. In fact, if you haven't seen the entire body of Gainax's work pre-Evangelion, most of Takeda's discussion of anime will go right over your head since he doesn't describe the anime in much detail. That said, this book is meant for hardcore Gainax fans, people who love Otaku no Video as much as (or more than) Neon Genesis Evangelion. By the way, The Notenki Memoirs are an excellent accompaniment to Otaku no Video; they're kind of like extended liner notes.

The interview at the end with Takami Akai, Hideaki Anno, and Hiroyuki Yamaga was a nice addition, but it was solely for the purpose of their talking about Takeda, not about their own artistic motivations and the things that inspired them. Even though the book's cover features an Evangelion image, and the subtitle is "Studio Gainax and the Men Who Created Evangelion", The Notenki Memoirs is really not about Evangelion. Readers hoping for juicy details about where Anno got his ideas for the religious imagery in the series, or exactly what he was thinking when he made the final episodes and the movies, will be disappointed. What they will get instead is a sense of history and context. Who are these Gainax guys and where did they come from? What motivated them to become interested in anime and science fiction, and to get together to create amazing amateur works? How and why did they go professional? If you're interested in these questions, Takeda's book is for you.

Up until now, the history of Gainax in English has only been available through a handful of interviews and articles, most of them saying exactly the same few things, or in some cases contradicting each other. The Notenki Memoirs is now the most detailed and most authoritative recounting of Gainax's history in the English language. Being a Gainax fan, it was an absolute pleasure to read.

That said, it's not only Gainax otaku who will enjoy the book. Hardcore fans of anime in general will appreciate Takeda's story if only to read about people like themselves, and to be inspired by their success story. Takeda is an important figure in the Japanese science fiction convention scene, so anyone who is interested in fan convention culture, or who has ever had a good experience staffing a fan convention, will also like Takeda's book since a lot of time is spent detailing various events he has been involved with.

Coming in at 172 pages with relatively large text, The Notenki Memoirs is a very quick read. Information junkies, however, will enjoy the additional notes which are quite dense, and that doesn't even include the extra interview at the end of the book, a full timeline of events, and the bonus account of Takeda's hosting of the 2001 Japan Science Fiction Convention. My main complaint is that the book was lacking in illustrations; it only included a few small black and white photographs. (See the trivia and history sections of my Daicon website for more photos.) Nonetheless, with a retail price of $9.99, I thought the book was totally worth it. I highly recommended it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Otaku-mania!

No, I'm not talking about the maniacal way in which many otaku pursue their interests. I'm talking about the serious attention being paid to otaku culture these past couple of months on both sides of the pond (Japan and the United States). Readers of this blog already know about the Murakami-curated exhibit at Japan Society in New York City that just ended a few days ago. But that's just one thing on the radar. Here are some other otaku-related news items you might be interested in.

Otaku Unite! to be distributed by Central Park Media

Otaku Unite MascotThe anime fandom documentary Otaku Unite! will be released on DVD by Central Park Media (no release date announced as of yet). Here is the full story: http://www.toymania.com/news/messages/6880.shtml

I was really excited to hear about this because I helped out a little on the project. When I found out that Eric Bresler, the director, was working on the documentary, I immediately contacted him to find out how I could help. I didn't meet Eric in person until Anime Weekend Atlanta 2003, where I had the privilege of presenting a copy of the movie to Toshio Okada, who was a guest at that con. With Eric's help, I was able to interview Toshio Okada at AWA, which Eric videotaped. That interview is still unpublished, but with the new interest in Otaku Unite!, maybe that will change soon. Anyhow, I heartily recommend Otaku Unite! to anyone who is interested in anime fandom and the history of anime in the United States.

Otaku article in SF Gate

SFGate.com, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, recently ran an article by columnist Jeff Yang called "ASIAN POP Generation O / Meet the otaku". In this article, he talks about Anime Expo, Otaku Unite!, anime fandom in the United States, changing perceptions of otaku in Japan, and the cross-cultural implications of otaku culture. Of course, these are all topics close to my own heart. As it turns out, Jeff Yang introduced himself to me at one of my recent Japan Society talks, and he interviewed me over the telephone for this article. I seem to think we talked for at least an hour even though I'm only quoted once, but I won't complain. The article was well-researched and informative--something that we need more of when it comes to public discourse about otaku culture. It was also fun to read, which is always a plus.

Seven Days in Japan wins "Best Documentary" award at San Diego Comic Con

Pop Japan Travel logoJoe Doughrity, an anime fan and writer from Los Angeles, attended a Pop Japan Travel tour to Japan in 2004 and made a documentary about it called Seven Days in Japan which recently won the "Best Documentary" award at San Diego Comic-Con. You can find a trailer on the movie's website, as well as ordering information. Having attended a PJT tour myself in February, I'm really curious and excited to see Joe Doughrity's work. I already placed an order, and will be watching it as soon as it arrives.

The Comics Journal special issue on shoujo manga

The Comics JournalThis isn't directly otaku-related, but those of you who have an academic interest in anime and manga might like to examine the latest issue of The Comics Journal. The July issue (#269), featuring beautiful cover art by Moto Hagio, focuses heavily on shoujo manga. It features reviews of shoujo manga, essays about shoujo manga, and an in-depth interview with Moto Hagio. For those of you who aren't so interested in shoujo, there's an interesting article about scanlations, and an article about manga and comic book shops.

A full table of contents, as well as a few of the articles and some excerpts, can be found here: http://tcj.com/269/index.html. One of the essays, "Filling the Void", briefly quotes me. (The author, Kai-Ming Cha, interviewed me over email a few months back.) I found my copy at Borders, so it shouldn't be too hard to find.

Student exhibit at Japan Society

On July 6th, I gave yet another lecture on otaku culture at Japan Society. This time, I was addressing the participants of a program called Experience Otaku! Create an Exhibition: An interactive Exploration of Contemporary Art & Culture for High School Students.

The students explored the Murakami exhibit at Japan Society, and learned about contemporary art and gallery exhibitions in general. Their final project was to create their own exhibit highlighting the issues behind something important in their own lives. Since all the participants were fans of anime and manga, they decided to make their exhibit about that--the complexitities of being teenage anime and manga fans in America.
student exhibitstudent exhibit

In addition to delivering my lecture, I went to the one-day exhibit (entitled "Pop Bunmei Kaika") on July 15th and was very impressed by the student work. It's a shame the exhibit couldn't have been more permament (all the displayed materials belonged to the kids, making any long-term exhibit impossible). From interacting with the teens who participated in the two Japan Society education programs I was involved with, it became very clear to me that this latest generation of American otaku is a force to be reckoned with. The mainstreaming of anime in the United States means that there will be more newbies at any given time, but it also means that more and more anime fans are becoming experienced and savvy younger than ever.

"Trainman" otaku makes waves in Japan

Densha OtokoAwareness of otaku culture is very high right now in Japan due to a story called Densha Otoko which translates to "trainman". Supposedly a true story, Densha Otoko is about an otaku who saves a beautiful woman from a drunk on a train. She sends him a thank-you gift, and our poor otaku protagonist is interested in pursuing a relationship with the woman but is clueless on how to proceed. As such, he explains his plight on 2ch (ni-chaneru), an online bulletin board, and gets advice from his fellow otaku. The story was published as a best-selling book, and was recently made into a movie which hit #1 at the Japanese box office. There's even a manga. A few weeks ago, the Densha Otoko TV drama premiered, which I am currently in the process of watching. Some otaku will recognize the opening animation sequence of the TV show as being an homage to the Daicon IV Opening Animation, which you can read about here: http://www.cjas.org/~leng/daitrivia.htm#densha

Densha Otoko has made big enough of an impact to draw the attention of some outspoken critics. Here are two articles responding to the Densha Otoko phenomenon that question the worth of otaku culture to Japanese society. While I don't agree with many of their conclusions, it's part of my research to keep track of how people are perceiving otaku, positively or negatively, and as far as criticisms go, these two are fairly interesting. At the very least, they indicate that otaku culture is currently very strong in the public consciousness of Japan.

Getting to the next stage in life and love

New horizons beckon as Train Man heads nowhere fast

Pointing out how otaku seem worthless is a much easier task for most people than explaining otaku culture's value to society. The easy way isn't always the best way, of course, which is why I think it's worthwhile to find and analyze the positive aspects of otaku-ism.

Denpa Otoko as a critique of Densha Otoko

It is interesting to note that some within Japan's otaku communities do not approve of the Densha Otoko story. This attitude is highlighted in the book by Toru Honda called Denpa Otoko, which translates to "radio wave man". You can read about it here: A world of his own: Create, erase, redraw

As far as Honda is concerned, the protagonist of Densha Otoko sold out, becoming less of an otaku for the sake of a woman. He feels that otaku culture is superior to mainstream culture, and that fantasy relationships with fictional females are better than real relationships with real women. This, of course, is a somewhat extreme position coming from a particular subset of otaku culture that is not representative of all (or even most) otaku, but that doesn't mean he should be ignored. From reading the article, and thinking about the otaku that I've met, I don't think that Honda's experience (as a child, especially) is typical, but it does highlight some of the negative pressures put on youth (in both Japan and the US) that cause them to seek belonging in one or more subcultures.

Otaku test draws attention in Japan

Here's an article that came out a few weeks ago describing an otaku test that will be administered by the publishing company Biblos in the August 5th issue of Elfics magazine. The top 100 scorers will receive a special certificate and bragging rights. One of the purported goals of the exam is to boost the status of otaku culture in Japan.

I like the sentiment, I really do, but it seems like the exam is mostly trivia-based (historical details about Comiket and video game consoles, for example). I am not against otaku trivia contests by any means (representatives of my anime club have done very well in the Otakon game show almost every year since 1996; I was a participant myself in 1997--see image below), but knowledge of trivia is, to me, one of the least interesting ways to identify who is or isn't an otaku, or who is more otaku than anyone else. If it's true that one can be an otaku of anything, how can you come up with a set of trivia questions that is fair to all the different kinds of otaku? At best, you can create a test specifically for anime otaku, or game otaku, or Comiket otaku, etc., but even those categories are be too broad.

Personally, I prefer otaku tests that focus on types of behaviors instead of specific behaviors and specific knowledge. One example that approaches that is the following:

The Anime Otaku-ness Test

Even that test (co-written by a friend of mine from college, as it turns out) is more about specific achievements and specific behaviors than attitude and generalized behaviors. To me, being an otaku means having an approach to life that is characterized by a particular set of strategies of engaging media (and other technologies) and a specific philosophy about (and longing for) information. These strategies and philosophical ideas cannot be distilled into specific behaviors and specific knowledge. Creating a written test to quantify otaku-ism meaningfully, therefore, is difficult at best.

As such, my studies of otaku are mostly qualitative. After all, with the right mix of attitudes and behaviors, a newbie who has only been watching anime for 3 months can be more of an otaku than someone who has been watching anime for 20 years. Quantitative otaku tests, even though they are fun, don't address that very well.


Otakon '97 game show
me, Jerry Hsu, and Greg Marques (CJASers, all) at the Otakon '97 game show

Friday, June 17, 2005

NYC, Oslo, and beyond

I've been on a whirlwind tour...

Last week, I spoke about otaku culture (the topic of my PhD dissertation research) on three separate occasions. On Wednesday, I gave a two hour presentation/Q&A session with the Nichibei Exchange, a group of New York City professionals who are all interested in Japanese culture and Japan/US relations. This month, they wanted to hear more about otaku culture, so they called me up and I gave my talk. This group was highly educated and very knowledgeable about Japan, so the discussion went very well.

art from the JS exhibitOn Thursday night, I spoke on a panel presentation called "Fanatics, Cuties & Geeks: The Otaku Phenomenon & its Impact Abroad" at Japan Society, also in New York City. This time, I spoke very briefly (and quickly), summarizing my thoughts on otaku culture. Other panelists presented as well, and we had a lively Q&A session with the audience members.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, I moderated a panel discussion at Japan Society entitled "Why is Anime So Cool? Otaku in America". About 40 teenagers attended, and after some opening presentations by the panelists, we opened it up to the teens to talk about their experiences and feelings about anime and being anime fans. I was very impressed not only by the passion the kids had for anime, but by their depth of knowledge and their committment to learn more about the medium they love.

Just in case you think I haven't been traveling enough...

All this week, I've been in Oslo, Norway visiting the browser company Opera Software. I've been having a great time meeting various Opera employees and getting a better sense of what the company is all about. I liked the company (and their browser product) before, but after this week, I like them even more. Oslo is really pretty, as well. Other than a weeklong honeymoon in England, I've never been to Europe, so Oslo feels very different to me (in a good way).



A Short Movie on Otaku and Hikikomori


A few weeks ago, I came across a documentary short called "Hikikomori" that came out this year and played at a couple of film festivals. The creators of "Hikikomori" put the full movie online with translations in multiple languages. For those of you unfamiliar with the hikikomori phenomemon as it has been observed in Japan, it is a form of acute social withdrawal where people pull themselves out of society and severely limit their social interaction. Many hikikomori fill their time with manga, anime, and video games. Although I consider hikikomori and otaku as being very different from each other, they do share some similarities (such as the types of media that tend to interest them). As such, some people conflate otaku and hikikomori.

The documentary consists mostly of interview footage with hikikomori and otaku in Japan, and people talking about them. It's not an exhaustive study by any means. Instead, it's an interesting and quick look at one sector of Japan's subcultural landscape.

For more on hikikomori, you can read a short article I wrote in 2001 and Michael Dziesinski's excellent blog, Japan's Lost Generation.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Exploring my desktop (a.k.a. "Opera everywhere you turn")

desktop

When people see my computer/monitor setup, they often ask me "Why do you need so many monitors? What do you use them for?" It's a legitimate question, and one that I'll try to answer here.

Ultimately, I like to have a lot of different things open at once, and to accomodate that, I need a lot of screen real estate. One way to do that would be to buy a huge monitor running at a high resolution. Since I don't have thousands of dollars just waiting to be spent, a cheaper solution was to set up multiple monitors attached to a couple of computers running simultaneously.

My setup

That's right, not all of those monitors are associated with one computer. My primary computer is my IBM Thinkpad laptop, and I have a 19 inch LCD monitor attached to it on the left side as the secondary monitor. My other computer (which is hidden away below) is a Dell desktop I bought back in 1999 or so. Back then, it was top of the line. These days, it serves as a nice secondary unit. The CRT above my laptop serves as the primary monitor for the Dell, and I have another 19 inch LCD to the right of my laptop which serves as the Dell's secondary monitor.

Running 4 displays with the following resolutions gives me a ton of pixels to work with:

Thinkpad display: 1400 x 1048
HP LCD: 1280 x 1024
HP LCD: 1280 x 1024
Envision CRT: 1024 x 768

All added up, that's 4,875,072 pixels, and everything is nicely sized (text is not too big, and not too small). I used to have a third monitor attached to my Dell (for a total of 5 displays), but I decided that 4 total displays is enough for my needs (for now).

How I use it all

With my Thinkpad, I access my primary email and I chat with my college friends via a shell account that is constantly open on my primary monitor. I also use IM on the Thinkpad to do research-related IM. On my secondary monitor, I have Opera open pretty much constantly, which I use to do all my web browsing/research, and believe me when I say that I do a lot of it (thank god for tabbed browsing). Most of my content creation happens on the Thinkpad, as well. When I want to update my website, I just hit ctrl-F3 in Opera to view the source in my text editor of choice, and I start making changes. Image editing for the web, scanning with my CanoScan N1240U, getting images from my Nikon digital camera, uploading music onto my Creative Muvo N200 MP3 player, writing documents, updating this blog, etc. is all done on my Thinkpad. Since my Thinkpad is the more powerful computer, I also use it to watch anime.

I use my Dell for stuff that happens in the background. For example, I use it to play my music: MP3s using Winamp, and CDs using the serial experiments lain CD player (see http://www.geneon-ent.co.jp/rondorobe/game/frame_lain.html). I also use it to IM my friends. This all happens on the primary monitor--the CRT above the Thinkpad. On my larger LCD screen, I once again have a copy of Opera constantly open. On this copy of Opera, I generally have at least 4 tabs open at any given time:

1. My university webmail account
2. My incoming mail from my Gmail account. For this, I use Gmail's POP functionality and M2--Opera's internal mail reader (which is truly excellent, by the way)
3. My website stats tracker
4. Miscellaneous IRC, whether it's for research or to chat with other Opera users about brower customization, etc.

I also keep my Opera mail panel open because I also use M2 to read my various newsfeeds (I have 13 at the moment). Whenever a feed gets updated, Opera shows which articles I haven't read yet. Opera's RSS reader also displays full articles, which is a really nice feature. For example, I can read slashdot without ever actually going to the slashdot website (unless I want to view comments, of course).

Finally, I use my Dell to watch DVDs (on the CRT).

Other accessories to make my life easier

You'll notice my Altec Lansing ADA880's to the left and right of my Thinkpad. I got these surround speakers when I got the Dell, and although they're old, they still do the job. They were one of the first computer speakers to include a built-in Dolby Digital decoder. They play sound from both my Thinkpad (analog signal) and the Dell (digital signal), and they sound really amazing when playing DVDs that have Dolby Digital encoding. The analog signal from my Dell gets piped to my Pioneer HDJ-1000 headphones, which I use late at night so as not wake up my wife. Audio-in from my old Walkman lets me play cassette tapes and listen to the radio.

For the Thinkpad, I routinely use the Trackpoint button on the keyboard, but I also use a Logitech MX700 wireless optical mouse on a 3M Precise Mousing Surface, which actually does seem to make a difference.

For my Dell, I use a Logitech MX1000 wireless laser mouse on an anime-related mousepad.

The glowing blue knob at the right is my Griffin Powermate. Yes, it's a glorified volume controller, but it's really nice (I like nice metal things).

On top of my CRT, I have a USB-powered Antec external light tube. I can choose between half a dozen colors. I'm not into case-modding or installing glowing lights everywhere, but I often use my computers with the lights off, and having a little extra ambient light can be soothing (especially when it's glowing green or blue to offset the brightness coming from my monitors).

I use a port replicator with my Thinkpad. That allows me to quickly dock and undock the laptop without having to mess around with the cables in the back.

My keyboard mod

As I was writing this, my slashdot feed updated, and I ran across an article about a new blank keyboard that is now being sold. It reminded me to take a picture of my Thinkpad's keyboard. After heavy usage, the letters on many of my keys started to come off, so I decided to go for broke and get rid of all the letters. My solution was simple; I just used sandpaper. The overall visual and tactile effect is nice, and I am a better typist now, as well. Here's the photo:

keyboard



By the way, if you came to this page looking for info on how to get your Thinkpad trackpoint button working with Opera, visit this Opera forum link for more information.