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3WA 2017 #3: Read or Die

It’s three episodes long, it’s our third installment, it has three words in the title. Oh, and it’s a gem of an anime production, delightfully bonkers. Let’s dive right in.

What is it?

Read or Die, the OVA, is a 90 minute action adventure tale which takes place in a contemporary, somewhat fantastical alternate-history world. The story originated in a series of light novels and manga but each medium’s version is its own independent thing, much like the versions of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Make of this comparison what you will.

What kind of story is it?

Someone is making superpowered clones of random figures from history and using them towards nefarious ends. To stop them, the British Library (go ahead and make your The Librarians jokes, I’ll wait) is sending several of its most capable agents to investigate. Drake (the muscle) and Nancy Makuhari (the Black-Widow-esque superspy) seem normal enough at first, but then there’s Yomiko Readman. “The Paper.”

Those were bullets. Fired at very close range.

The Paper’s ability seems to be “make sheets of paper do whatever the plot requires her to be able to do.” Don’t think about it too much, your brain will start hurting. Point being, this story is an hour and a half of wildly inventive magic-powers action with a strong thread of comedy and the occasional emotional gut-punch.

Why do you like it?

One of my favorite types of adventure storytelling starts with the question, “if people had [whatever superpower], how would they use it most effectively?” We’ll get to one of my all-time favorite expressions of this concept later on in the year, but for now let’s focus on Yomiko’s “bibliomancy” and Nancy’s phase-shift ability.

Currently shown in fully corporeal mode.

Nancy falls through floors and walks through walls, sure. But she also uses her ability to sort of… stick… to surfaces in order to get a better fighting position. It’s clever action storyboarding, at the very least. And Yomiko does a lot of things you or I might do with paper, such as making a paper airplane or getting a papercut, only… on grander scales.

The action in ROD is wonderfully inventive, yet rarely feels like it’s too unreal. Which seems odd, considering we’re talking about sheets of paper being used to stop bullets and shield bodies from explosions, but the point is that the powers are used in common-sense ways. You feel, as you watch this, like these characters’ powers are being used in ways that flow naturally from their training and personalities. I love this sort of thing.

It helps that we get a good mixed bag of personalities as well. Nancy and Yomiko are almost polar opposites yet end up working well together at several points. Theirs is the key relationship in this tale. The British Library staff and the villains of the piece stand out very well, too.

What might one not like about it?

It’s weird, it’s short, and it spends part of its runtime indulging in the sort of rambling philosophy rants that anime is often prone to. The plot is a bit opaque and somewhat weird due partly to the condensed run time, a problem that might have been alleviated had this been made into a short anime TV series instead of being crammed into 90 minutes of OVA. Also, it’s not a 100% heroes-win baddies-lose kind of ending. The world is saved from disaster but at a cost.

Other thoughts about it?

For pity’s sake do not seek out the 26-episode anime TV series of the same name. It has a great first episode, a long boring middle section, and a very strange way of looping its plot back into this installment’s plot toward the end. Not recommended.

It’s no secret that I love a good heroine, but how often do you get to see a capable action-story lead whose main identifying trait is, “loves books more than anything”?

Hanging by mere threads high above the ground, Yomiko is still mainly concerned with Not Dropping The Book.

Where can I watch it?

You’ll probably have to borrow or buy the DVD, if you can find a reputable seller. It’s worth the effort!

(Annoyingly enough, the TV series is on CrunchyRoll. You still probably shouldn’t watch it. Sorry.)

3WA 2017 #2: Ouran High School Host Club

Continuing our march through the calendar year, week by week, showcasing animated stuff that has brought me joy, we touch upon something that should actually not have worked for me at all: A romantic comedy.

Yeah! I know!

What is it?

Ouran High School Host Club is a 26-episode anime series spawned from a manga. It features a cast of rich weirdos (as any Rocky Horror midnight showing attendee can tell you, those are the best weirdos) and one regular person who is only a bit of a weirdo. Episode by episode, the Host Club entertains its clientele and gets into wacky shenanigans. Along the way an odd sort of romantic story arc emerges. (Very odd.)

What kind of story is it?

Take a bunch of pampered rich boys of wildly divergent personality types. Place them in the orbit of a stupendously odd, mostly self-absorbed leader who has decreed that they shall form a club for the purpose of entertaining young ladies, and introduce a wild-card commoner to kick off the show’s hi-jinks. Extract comedy from this scenario by any means necessary: Sight gags, running gags, verbal puns, visual puns, sleight-of-hand, subverted expectations.

Note that red arrow. It may not look like one, but it’s a joke setup indicator. A very effective one.

Make sure, however, to show that deep down these are good (if misguided and occasionally clueless) people who are trying (in their bizarre fashion) to make the world better… or at least more fabulous.

Why do you like it?

For starters, it’s genuinely hilarious. I usually lack the temperament to sit through two dozen episodes of sitcom silliness but OHSHC just keeps delivering the laughs. It helps that the comedy is inventively absurd and rarely mean-spirited, except occasionally when the Hitachiin twins are involved…

Do not buy a used car from these two. Do not buy ANYTHING from these two.

Comedy alone might not have kept me coming back for more, so it helps that there’s a wonderful slow-burn friendship-building arc that runs through the show. Haruhi, the poor unfortunate soul who is stuck working at the Host Club to pay off a debt, ends up building a real rapport with the other members. And while there is a romance (of sorts), it’s getting to know the inner lives and interesting backgrounds for each of the characters that really clinches the emotional attachment to the show.

Did I mention it’s ridiculously funny, though? There’s a scene with a singing Haruhi and an equipment mishap that left me gasping for breath I was laughing so hard. Also, light bulbs used as a running gag and a plot point indicator.

What might one not like about it?

There’s a good chance that, even if you’re on board with a full-length rom-com scenario, one or more of the characters might put you off the show completely. Like… well, probably this idiot:

I could have used any number of noble and dashing pictures, but this is the true Tamaki, right here.

And since he’s the leader of the club and possibly the most delusional character in the series, well, you’re going to see a lot of him. He does redeem himself from time to time, which is what made the experience bearable for me where he’s concerned.

Also, if cross-dressing as a recurring theme is going to bother you… probably best to avoid this show altogether, I’m afraid.

Other thoughts about it?

Note that I’m playing a bit coy with the setup of the show in this post. You may already know more about OHSHC than I’ve stated here, but if you’re going in cold, you’ll get to enjoy the full effect of the first episode. Yes, even though I’ve kind of given away one part of it with the “red arrow” pic above. If you get the chance, watch the first episode as unspoiled as you can be, even if you don’t continue the series afterward. Pure comedy gold.

I won’t claim that every episode is superlative. My reasons for loving the show are subjective, and my reason for choosing this show this early in the 3WA 2017 project is to highlight that this entire writing project is about stuff that makes me happy, not about objective excellence in the realm of animated art. With that said… if you could use a good laugh, you could do worse than to sit down with nearly any given episode of OHSHC.

Also, once you’ve watched this show you’ll grok so many more anime memes on the Internet than you could previously. What’s not to love about that?

I saw this on a Tumblr post with a comment reading, “Kiss kiss fall and drown” and I burst out laughing…

Where can I watch it?

Currently it’s available in subtitled or dubbed form on Funimation’s streaming site. It also pops up on Netflix from time to time.

3WA 2017 #1: Voices of a Distant Star

Friends, strangers, search-engine bots: Welcome to the inaugural post in my Weekly Word Working Assignment project for 2017. Remember: The point of this exercise is to spread positive vibes in the form of celebrating cool stuff that I really liked in the hopes that you, the reader, will find a new thing to really like as well.

We’re going to start off with a short, easy one…

What is it?

Voices of a Distant Star is a short animated film (about 25 minutes long) created by one Makoto Shinkai on his home computer in Japan, mostly on his own. It’s not Shinkai’s first self-produced effort but it’s the work that really made his name in the industry. Part of his (and the work’s) notoriety has to do with Voices‘ unusual “one man animation studio” origin. Novelty value alone does not account for its popularity and critical reception, however.

What kind of story is it?

On one level, Voices is about a girl who goes off to fight aliens during an interplanetary war. That’s really just the framing device as well as an excuse to show space combat action sequences. The meat of the film centers on the strain this war places on the relationship between the girl who keeps being taken farther and further away from Earth, and the boy who stayed behind. The only communication they can share is email messages sent between their phones.

Even in a shot of phone, keys, watch, and calendar, Shinkai works in a picture of pretty clouds. An animator after my own heart.

As Mikako, the combat mecha pilot, goes from Mars to Jupiter to trans-Plutonian orbit and beyond, the textual messages to Noboru (and his replies) take longer and longer to deliver. From her perspective everything’s happening at once due to the vagaries of physical faster-than-light travel versus good old light-speed transmission speeds for email. From his point-of-view, his girlfriend’s messages become too few and far between to bear. How do people stay connected and maintain hope across the vast reaches of space and time?

Why do you like it?

Let’s get one of the reasons I really likeĀ Voices out of the way right now:

This kind of sky image composition is a Makoto Shinkai signature motif.

I mean. Just look at that. Now imagine it animated. This dude knows how to make gorgeous cloudscapes. Don’t believe me? Take another look:

Crepuscular rays, aw yeah. Admittedly this scene is MUCH better looking animated than as a still image.

What I’m saying is, this little film is a bit less than half an hour of pretty, pretty moving pictures. The fact that it’s also a poignant Sci-Fi tale is icing on this beautiful cake.

I dig that poignant Sci-Fi tale, too. We’re shown each of them in moments of wistfulness and as they deal with the day-to-day of their increasingly-different lives. Moments of hesitation, proud moments, weak moments. I find myself rooting for them individually and together.

Also we get a few cleverly done giant robot space combat sequences. I’m not immune to the appeal of that sort of thing, having grown up on Voltron and Robotech and such. So that’s nice.

What might one not like about it?

If you’re not into giant robot space combat then you may find yourself unwilling to sit through Voices. While those sequences aren’t really the point of the film, they still make up a sizeable percentage of it.

While much of what you see is gorgeous, one of the weak points for me is the character design & animation.

I like them as characters, mind you. And the sketchy modeling & animating aren’t deal-breakers for me. Oh hey: Pretty clouds!

Toward the end it gets weirdly metaphysical and a bit vague. I’ve been watching anime long enough that I’m used to this sort of thing. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

You may need to turn off your “but wait” thought processes for the duration. Like, “How are either of their phones still functional? Why FTL travel but not FTL communication?” Just… don’t. Let it go, Elsa. The point of the film isn’t realistic science, as evidenced by the giant robot space combat stuff. The point is taking that Sci-Fi framing device and digging into how the characters deal with these circumstances. If that’s a deal-breaker, you should probably skip Voices. Sadly.

Other thoughts about it?

The introduction of computer technology to anime production resulted in some interesting visual ideas being realized quite effectively in Sci-Fi combat stories. I mean, look at this control pod interface:

I’m not sure that the semi-transparent information display elements would actually be practical, but it makes for a great look in the film and you can see how something like that setup might be made to work out.

Those of you familiar with Shinkai’s later and higher-resolution efforts may wonder why I picked Voices over pieces like The Place Promised In Our Early Days or 5cm Per Second. Honestly, this entry was a toss-up between Voices and Place. I mean, Place has many many more scenes of clouds, in much greater detail! There’s an actual multi-threaded plot! Sci-Fi shenanigans abound! What’s not to love?

Thing is… while I admire those other two films, I don’t quite love them the way I do Voices. If you happen to watch this one and want to seek out more of Shinkai’s stuff, I highly recommend doing so. (Note that 5cm is, as its title kind of suggests, a slow-moving piece. Great work of art! Not as much fun.)

Where can I watch it?

As of this writing, CrunchyRoll has Voices of a Distant Star available for streaming. You can also buy it on DVD via Amazon and various other venues.

Passwording In The Twenty Teens

(Disclaimer: I’m going to try to write this for a generally non-techie audience, but some techie stuff is inevitable. It’s an important topic anyway. Your mileage may vary. Etc.)

Identity theft. Banking fraud. Social media hacking. These are just a few of the worries we deal with nowadays. There’s no such thing as a perfectly secure system, and odds are good that any system or site that you use will experience some kind of security breach in its lifespan. Your best defense hinges on two actions: Controlling your level of risk exposure, and making it as difficult as reasonably possible for the bad guys to make your life miserable.

You don’t have many options for the first action. If you’re going to use Dropbox because that’s what your collaborators all use, you’re kind of stuck with the level of risk involved with being on Dropbox at all. Whatever service you use, be aware of how much of your stuff you’re sharing with that service. If you’re on social media, be aware of what you’re sharing and with whom. Consider what happens if the bad guys get access to that stuff. Doesn’t matter if they hack your password or the whole service, it’s still Your Stuff in Their Hands now.

This is particularly true for anything involving your money. Online banking. PayPal. Patreon. If you choose to use these services, make sure you become familiar with their security measures and get signed up for any alerts. (Unless you have unlimited money, of course, and love to share it with random people. In which case… hi! Be my friend?)

The second action is what brings me here today. Most normal, regular, decent people are terrible at dealing with passwords. Let’s be clear: I’m not saying people are somehow “stupid” on account of this fact. Passwords are a gigantic pain in the posterior! What a terrible way to have to interact with everything on the Internet that we need a login for! I do not blame anyone for being bad at passwording.

It gets worse when you try to learn how to be better. Over the course of the Internet’s lifespan password policies went from “policy? what policy?” through a series of increasingly arcane rules, some of which should be obsolete but folks hang onto them because dogma is everywhere. What do you do? Here are my guidelines:

The days of “letter replacement” passwords should be over and done. A password like “p@$$w0rd” is basically useless now. (Especially that example. Please, never use that.) Special characters are fine, but just using one or more does not a good password make all on its own.

I admit I’m speaking more to my fellow IT techs with that one than to regular folks. It’s still good to keep in mind!

Longer is better. (Yes, I’ll wait while you get the jokes out of the way. Done now? Good.) Look at the requirements for the service. When you create or change your password, does it give you a list of requirements? (If not… consider signing up for a different service.) Note the length requirement. It’s probably something like “8 to 15 characters.” You don’t need to use all 15, but get within a few characters of it. Why? Because if the bad guys try to get in to your account through the front door (as it were) the more characters you used the longer (much, much longer) it’ll take them to go through every combination of letters and numbers and such. Odds are they’ll get bored before they get in.

Let’s put it this way: If a password 8 characters long takes them a day to crack by trying every possible 8 character string, a 12 character password will take them months using the same computing power. (I’m simplifying this a whole lot. The principle is what’s important, not the actual math.) Past a certain point they will give up and move on to the next potential victim. You’ve become Not Worth Their Time, and that’s the best you can hope for.

To be frank, of course, if they’ve decided they really want your stuff? They’ll probably get your stuff, if they have the resources and time and a bit of luck. But still, make them work for it. The rat bastards don’t deserve your having made it easier for them.

The bad guys start with a list. Don’t be on that list. They use the list first, then they go through the “every combination of letters and numbers” I just mentioned. The list? It has stuff like “password” and “1234” and “4321” and “drowssap” and “rover” and “fluffy” and you get the idea. They’ve collaborated and built this list over the course of years of successfully getting into stuff belonging to people like you. The bad guys are smart, organized, and know that most people will pick the simplest password they can when given the choice (and no incentive/training otherwise).

Your password should never be just a string of numbers, should never be a variant on the word “password,” and should never be just a name. Especially not your own name.

“Okay,” I hear you ask, which should probably concern you about my mental state, “What should my password look like?” One of two options, here.

  1. Something utterly garbled and un-guessable, such as that created by a password manager (see below).
  2. Something long enough and just complicated enough to meet the requirements. Remember, length is more important than complexity as long as you don’t use easily guessed information. So, something like “Careful!4Focus” is valid because it’s 14 characters, has no identifying words that are specific to you as a person, and it meets the “you must use letters, numbers, and a special character” thing that the website probably insists upon. Play with this idea a bit! To a password system, an upper and lower case letter are completely different things. “careFul!4focuS” is technically speaking nothing at all like the previous example.

Passwords should be unique. Note the “should be” in there. If the bad guys get your Spotify password, that should absolutely not allow them to log into your online banking account. No account hack should let the bad guys into any other account with money attached! You can fudge this guideline a bit for truly unimportant stuff, but it’s up to you to decide what’s important and what isn’t. Be aware of the potential consequences.

As a side note: Consider carefully whether you want to have websites “remember” your debit/credit card info. It makes purchases easier for you, absolutely true. It also makes purchases easier for them if they get into your Amazon or Domino’s Pizza or other online shopping account.

So, now you have to maintain a bunch of passwords. Now what?

Consider a password manager. I’m a fan of KeePass but that’s not the only option available. What you’re looking for is a program which will keep your growing mess of passwords organized and available at your fingertips, but will keep them hidden from casual prying eyes. KeePass, like most of its competitors, will let you set a master password (you do have to remember that one) which unlocks access to all the other passwords. Then it will let you generate new super-complicated passwords or just let you hand-enter and store the ones you created yourself. Either way you prefer. A lot of password managers will even auto-type your username & password into websites for you.

This is a big complicated step! I’m fully aware of this. You don’t need to go this route…. but you need to do something. If you’re going to write them down, fine, but now you need to secure that piece of paper somehow, and in a way that lets you get at it when you need it. It’s up to you. Maybe you’ve got a system! Systems aren’t inherently bad, just be aware that the bad guys will be trying to figure out your system as well, so make it as non-obvious as you can.

(And there’s the even more complicated issue of having access to all these passwords across multiple devices & locations. Personally I use a secured KeePass file on a Dropbox share, though I’m considering ways to add more layers of security to the arrangement. The challenges never end, folks.)

Consider Two-Factor Authentication. Also known as “2FA” or “MFA”, the long-and-short of it is that instead of just an account name & password, now you have the account name & password & also some code, probably delivered via an app on your smartphone. The “factors” refer to the idea that your account is now protected by something you know (password, factor 1) and something you have (smartphone, factor 2). Sure, if the bad guys manage to get at your password and your smartphone, you’re out of luck… but that’s sure a lot of work, isn’t it? “2FA” is a bit of a hassle for you, yes. It’s a phenomenal hassle for the bad guys, though, so it’s generally a good idea for stuff you really need to have secured. Like, for instance, your bank account.

Last, and absolutely not least:

Ask your friendly neighborhood tech wiz. I guaran-damn-tee you, any techie worth anything at all will be delighted to hear something like, “Hey, I’ve been bad at passwords and I want to learn to do better, can you help?” The biggest hurdle we face in this battle is getting people to even care. Showing that the concern is real for you is going to go a long way toward making them happy to assist you.

In conclusion: Use the Internet carefully and wisely, and use the best password scheme you feel capable of handling. The identity and money you save may be your own.

3WA 2017

Most of us can agree that The Year Of Somebody’s Lord Two Thousand And Sixteen was, by most agreed-upon units of measure, an unrelenting march through waist-deep sludge. (I see you, Cubs fans. We’re cool. No worries.) I can’t make that better. I can’t save the world, or even more than a teeny tiny portion of it. What I can do, however, is try to shine a light on some things that brought me joy so that (perhaps) someone else might discover a source of happiness of which they were previously unaware. To make this work I must enforce diligence upon myself. I must strive for consistency. I must… set a deadline and stick to it. Oooh, scary…

Hey! It’s worked before! I perform well to deadlines, as four years of always-on-time webcomic production can attest. So starting in 2017 I shall commence the Weekly Word Working Assignment, or 3WA.

Yes, I’m deliberately referencing that 3WA. Because 2017’s 52 weeks’ worth of 3WA shall be spent telling you about a bunch of the animated stuff I like best and why you might (possibly) like it, too. The bulk of it will be Japanese animation, but not exclusively. I won’t be trying to convince anyone to watch something terrible under the guise of “it’ll make you a more well-rounded animation snob.” In fact, animation snobs are probably going to give me what-for about some of my choices as well as some of my pointed omissions. I don’t care. This is about sharing joy, not about highlighting critical darlings. Your mileage is expected to vary.

Please look forward to it, starting on Friday, January 6th, 2017. Thank you.

So many broken links. SO MANY.

This site started nearly 15 years ago on the Monaural Jerk (“Journal maker” anagrammed) platform and was migrated to WordPress some time later. I ran the first rendition of what was then just called Gallery, then the Gallery 2, and didn’t quite make it to Gallery 3 before they pulled the plug on the entire project so in came Piwigo. Also, over 15 years I have linked to a great many odd sites.

The term you’re now looking for is “link rot.” As part of the revitalization project I installed a link checker plugin and boy oh boy did it find some broken links. And by “some” I mean “over 700.” I have spent the last couple days’ worth of free time wrangling that quantity down to “merely 521.” At this point I’m probably going to focus on the couple hundred gallery-related fixes and write off all of the old links to sites that probably don’t exist anymore. If the link is 404‘d after all these years, there’s not much value in chasing down whether or not it’s supposed to go anywhere valid today, right? Right.

Don’t worry: I’ll tell you about the Thing I’m Doing, soon. All in due time.

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