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Anime for everyman and Yegge’s Minefield

I'm a programmer, so I read a lot about programming. One of the writers I always end up coming back to is Steve Yegge. He works for Google, and I hear they only hire geniuses, so I must have good taste in bloggers.

In a somewhat recent post, Steve talked about how he and his wife discoved Anime, or Japanese animation. This might not be shock to most people, since programmer == nerd == likes cartoons with robots, but it was interesting to me for two reasons: first, because he tried to clue everyone in to Sturgeon's Revelation, and second, because he asked for recommendations and got a flood of comments.

I want to give some recommendations (Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain) and talk a little about the odd position Anime has in American culture. First, though, is Theodore Sturgeon's* famous Revelation: 90 percent of everything is crud.

This is true for virtually anything, but it doesn't stop people from really getting into genres. Liking a particular genre isn't necessarily a bad thing—after all, you can count on the familiarity of guilty pleasures like mystery novels, old Star Trek episodes, and Atari games to decompress after a long day. Sometimes, though, people get into a genre to the exclusion of all else – that's when the 90 percent rule starts to hurt. If you're only interested in Anime, and you are interested in all Anime, then it follows that most of what you watch every day is crap.

That said, Anime really is interesting. There are myriads of sub-genres, since animation in Japan is a lot like “Hollywood movies� in the U.S. - so mainstream that it must contain lots of different styles and storylines. Many of the conventions and tropes seem foreign and illogical to American viewers. And I bet you can't name another cultural artifact that is equally likely to be found on shirts worn by middle age programmers, 8-year-old girls, and hiphop DJs.

Anime seems always poised on the brink of more mainstream American acceptance – just look at the reviews and box office receipts for Spirited Away, the ever-growing shelf space at Best Buy, or what kids watch on Saturday morning. If you are interested, here are two very subjective recommendations to help you avoid what might be called Yegge's Minefield – if 90 percent of everything is crap, there's a good chance the first thing you see will be crap, giving the impression that the figure is really 100 percent.

Neon Genesis Evangelion – I'll start with a controversial choice. Although Evangelion ends up on a lot of people's top ten lists, many people think it's overrated or utter crap. I recommend it though, because it's a great story about deeply flawed characters in startling situations and an examination of what isolates people from each other as individuals. The art and direction is amazing, and the religious and technological symbolism is pretty interesting, with a lot of visual metaphor.

Common criticisms of Evangelion include that it's just more giant robots fighting each other, that the characters are annoying and neurotic, that it doesn't make any sense, and that it falls apart at the end. There's some truth to each of those but I think they can be strengths as well as weaknesses.

Serial Experiments Lain – The series opens with the death of one of Lain's schoolmates and mysterious emails that seem to have come from her account. As Lain turns on her personal computer for the first time and starts to learn more about the net, she only seems to uncover more questions and confusion. Like Evangelion, the art and direction really drew me in—why don't we have user interfaces like Lain's Navi? Some people might not like the slow pace of the series, but I think it contributes a lot to the mood.

For other perspectives, take a look at A Parent's Guide to Anime and the The Librarian's Guide to Anime and Manga. If you have any other recommendations (or disagree with mine), feel free to post a comment below.

*An aside: for the longest time I confused Sturgeon with Kilgore Trout, another great, but little known pulp science fiction author.

The three things Google can do to make YouTube worth billions

As you've probably heard, Google has bought Youtube.

There has been a lot of talk about this on the web over the past few days. Now that the deal is done, some people are just glad it's over. Om Malik still thinks it's not a good idea in the long run. others think that only Google has the advertising muscle to make Youtube profitable.

But I don't think it's just a matter of plastering YouTube with Adsense ads, at least I hope not for Google's sake.

Think about it this way: why didn't advertising on the Internet work before Google? Well, the banner ads were repetitive, uninteresting, and eventually became an animated, distracting annoyance. The popup ads were worse, and worse still were those disgusting Flash travesties that covered up what you were trying to read. I talk about these ads in the past tense as if they are gone, but they still lurk all over some sites.

The point is that Google took something that was a ubiquitous annoyance and turned it into something that created value for both users, site owners, and advertisers. They made ads that were:

  1. Not hideous—basically they don't detract from the browsing experience.
  2. Actually relevant to what a user is looking for. This is an important point, because it means that adding these ads to your site might actually provide value to your users. If they got to your page by searching for “how to get a good divorce lawyer,� they are in the market for a divorce lawyer and might find one through the ad.
  3. Measurably effective for advertisers, without all sorts of “mindshare� vagueness.

Now, lets look at television advertising—is this a similar situation? If the number of TiVos and DVRs sold is any indication, people are sick of commercials. People are willing to pay money for a device that lets them skip ads. Part of the reason DVD box sets of entire seasons of television shows are so popular is that they have no ads.

Why do people hate commercials so much? They are repetitive—if you watch two hours of prime time TV you're bound to see the exact same thing 6 or 7 times. They are annoying, employing tactics to try to grab your attention, or played at a higher volume than the shows. And despite marketers best efforts, most commercials do not directly interest you.

So here's what Google can do:

Make deals with networks, studios and content producers. Google is already doing this, and it must be done to make the fun steps below possible without thousands of lawsuits.

Now, imagine you want to watch the Colbert Report. You go to YouTube, find today's episode, and watch it. At the end, there are a few commercials. They are:

  1. Polite. The ads don't pop up over the video you want to see, they don't interrupt at inopportune moments of the plot, they don't jam up the volume, and they probably don't play before the video at all – most likely after, with a break or two in the middle of longer shows.

  2. Relevant. It's not just a matter of targeting video ads toward keywords – like text ads, Google weighs better ads that get more responses more than crappy ads by deeper pocketed advertisers. Google might use their knowledge of your search patterns, but I doubt they will, just because they won't need to. They'll be able to mine enough from user discussions to make very good guesses about what you might be interested in seeing next or buying.

  3. Measurable. Not only does YouTube have much better data on viewership than the Neilsen ratings could ever dream of, but the actual user response to the ads is trackable by clickthroughs and conversions.

If Google understands this, then they will make their 1.65 billion back and then some. If they don't understand this, I'd be more than happy to come explain it in person, just drop me a line.