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Japanese TV in the UK: JSTV-i

March 29th, 2014

jstv

In the past I've written about using iOS apps to help study Japanese, and I even ended up writing my own Kanji flashcard app. But lately I've been trying something a bit different to help absorb vocabulary and the patterns of informal speech: watching a load of Japanese TV. And, as there's not much information online about how to do this when you're in the UK, I thought I'd jot down a review of sorts.

If you want to watch Japanese TV in the UK – legally* – you have three options that I've found:

1) JSTV (satellite, cable) or JSTV-i (streaming)

2) Crunchyroll (anime / drama only)

3) Animax (anime only)

Only JSTV covers the whole range of TV programming, from news to sports to the occasional film. It's run from London, but backers include the NHK public broadcasting organisation. You can receive it in the UK and Europe for a fee of £30 / €50  per month – either via satellite (you'll need a special setup, not the same as Sky/Freesat), TalkTalk TV or the internet service JSTV-i, which I tried.

What You Get

JSTV-i allows you to view a livestream of the two JSTV channels: JSTV1 (24/7) and JSTV2 (from around 6-10am, and around 3-11pm). It's viewable via a website on PC/Mac – pictured above, this uses a Flash player to stream from an Adobe streaming server – or on iOS devices, where a MP4 stream is offered. Quality via the website is fine, but I found an iPad was the best way to watch.

The key advantage of JSTV-i for someone learning Japanese as a second language is the breadth of its programming. Although related to NHK, JSTV also runs shows from other networks (notably TV Tokyo and Fuji TV), and the overall service is broadly similar to a mainstream BBC channel: morning programming, kids' shows both before and after school, news broadcasts, documentaries (mainly NHK) and drama – including NHK's flagship asadora, if you have a couple of dozen hours to sink into one. There's some sport, too – including huge, multi-hour chunks of Sumo – although rights issues mean that sport clips are often missing from evening news broadcasts. You also get a few bits of wide-audience anime (Mainichi Kaasan, etc).

You can view the schedules online here (or English here) – and, much to my surprise, a printed schedule booklet is sent to your home every month as part of the service. As you might expect from a service catering mostly to Japanese citizens in the EU, the guide's all in Japanese and rather kanji-heavy – but then wrangling with that's good practice, too.

What You Don't Get

The key omission from JSTV-i's service is any way to record or catch up on programmes. Working at least five days a week, I found that I could often watch a bit of the morning programming, and then maybe some news at night – but nothing in between, when many shows that include less formal language (dramas, etc) are broadcast. It is technically possible to record a livestream of this type, but it's not simple and may well be in breach of the service terms anyhow.

If you invested the time and cash setting up a satellite receiver for JSTV, then using a PVR would solve this problem. But I found myself wishing there were something akin to the BBC iPlayer – even if it included only the previous 24 hours' programming, I'd have been able to watch far more.

And So..

Ultimately, as much as I enjoyed the JSTV-i service, I've decided to cancel it for now – £30 is a lot to pay when you're only managing to catch a few news broadcasts each week. I'll be keeping an eye on the service, though, and if it ever did get upgraded to something with on-demand options I'd probably sign up again. And if you're around during the day, £30 per month might be good value for the quantity and breadth of the programming that you'd get to watch – most of which isn't available to view anywhere else on this side of the planet.

Other Services

Briefly, as I mentioned, there are two other services that offer legal streaming of Japanese TV to the UK: Animax and Crunchyroll.

Animax UK focuses on anime only, and to be honest I've never been tempted to try it – I'm too old, and too grumpy, to watch the programmes on offer. It costs £6 per month, here.

Crunchyroll is also focused on anime, but with a wider selection ranging from "I'd rather stick pins in my eyes" to "OK, this is watchable" (more of the former than the latter, but again maybe I'm too old and grumpy). It also runs some drama series – mostly Korean, but a few Japanese. It's all subtitled (and you can turn those off, if you watch on a computer) and the video streams are high quality if you're a paying member. It costs between £5 and £10 per month, here - but note that the UK selection of shows is far, far poorer than if you were in the US, so check before buying.

* There are all sorts of other ways, of course.

The Buzzfeedification of Bullshit

March 2nd, 2014

Hey, heard the one about the Ugandan President's daughter? She's trending on Twitter, and for the best possible reason – right after her father backed some really hideous homophobic laws, she came out as gay. Except, you know, she didn't.

Ten seconds on Google tells you that Diana Kamuntu is, or at least was, married to a guy. She could have divorced him and then come out, of course, but when the sole original source is called "Abril Uno" (um) and even carries a disclaimer ("Abril Uno is a satire, parody and spoof web publication"), you can be pretty sure the story's nonsense.

But what shareable nonsense, right?

This seems to be a new twist on a phenomenon I wrote about last year. Last time it was made-up scare stories and exaggerated disasters, but this time the sites in question have found something even more tweet-worthy: a good tale of ironic comeuppance, in this case for President Museveni. This isn't the first case – in fact, it's not even the first attempt of "child of homophobic dictator comes out" – recently it was (or wasn't) Robert Mugabe's son. Both even "came out" on conveniently not-recorded talk radio.

So that's the trick – make a share-worthy headline, even if it isn't true, let it loose on the internet then sit back and wait for the Google Ad impressions. You can even stick a disclaimer on there, noting that the story's nonsense, and people will still share it – after all, few are reading beyond the  headline, let alone the lede. And the sites that rip you off (and there are several already) won't copy the disclaimer, anyhow.

It's interesting to see the people behind this kind of trick learn from the success of the legitimate sites that have turned share-optimisation into an artform. Whatever you think of Buzzfeed (It's going to save journalism! It's going to destroy journalism! It's going to tell me that I'm Sonic Youth after I fill in an online quiz, and hey, I would have preferred Sleater Kinney, but whatever and shit wasn't I working on something?), it's certainly successful at crafting headlines (and stories) that tickle our need to pass on the link to everyone we know. But it is, fundamentally, constrained by the desire to publish pieces that are, you know, not completely made-up.

Abril Uno, and its ilk, don't have this limitation. Now watch them go.

In App Purchases

February 2nd, 2014

Lots of people are angry about the way that In App Purchases (IAPs) are being used in iOS games. They make three key points:

1) Many iOS games are shitty and designed primarily to require the player to buy many IAPs

2) Apple promotes many of these shitty games on its App Store storefront

3) The above damage the potential of iOS as a platform for games.

I agree with all three. But some people have gone further, suggesting that IAPs should be removed entirely.

At this point I should declare an interest. I personally make apps that use IAPs – like this one. The company I work for makes digital magazines, many of which use IAPs – like this one. If IAPs were to disappear tomorrow, my own personal bank account would be affected. I'm not unbiased here. But while attempting to keep as objective a head as is possible, I'd suggest that IAPs are very useful things. They allow a couple of key behaviours on the App Store:

1) Apps that allow people to try out the content* or function before committing to pay, and

2) Apps that serve multiple units of content over time

The alternatives in case 1 are two apps (two sets of updates, two items clogging up the store, bleh) or Google's "try for a limited time" idea, which is comprehensively crappy, as the amount of time reasonably required varies immensely. The alternative in case 2 is to release app after app after app after app, all for the same product – no fun for the maker or user.

And I'd like to suggest a third option. When you add an IAP to the Store, you're offered several types:

  • Consumable
  • Non-Consumable
  • Subscription (various types here)

It's the first type – Consumable – that gets abused by lousy games. It's the one where you pay 99c for ten coins, three gems, an extra magical bunny**, or whatever. It's of no use whatsoever in either of the cases above, as it cannot be retrieved later ('restored') should the user reinstall the app – it's a one off charge. Banning these from the Game category would immediately curtail a huge amount of lousy behaviour.

Non-Consumables and Subscriptions, I'd argue, mostly work  fine – they enable a way to unlock function or content (case 1, above) and a way to sell multiple items into a single app (case 2). Non-Consumables are particularly suited for adding extra levels etc to an existing game. A subscription could possibly be abused by a game (subscribe on a weekly basis to get some kind of extra power X that multiplies your ability to collect coins / gems / magical bunnies), so perhaps there's a case for removing these from the Games category too, but I'm not sure people are as ready with their tap-to-buy finger when it comes to an ongoing payment.

Or another alternative to banning or removing anything: why not amend the App Store Guidelines, and enforce that amendment? Apple doesn't shy away from prohibiting other types of content and behaviour in apps that it sells – would it be unreasonable to use the same method to prohibit crappy consumable-type behaviour in games?

I'd suggest that either presents a more reasonable option than banning all IAPs once and for all. In the meantime, might I recommend the brilliant cartridge-shaped lump of mobile-gaming-wonderful that is A Link Between Worlds? It's a one-off purchase, no IAPs required.

* Apologies for using the c-word here, but I'm trying to be as general as possible

** Is there a game that involves magical bunnies? I'd play that game.

Las Vegas to Palm Springs

February 1st, 2014

"Paris"

A couple of years ago I found myself with three days to kill in Southern California, so I rented a car and circled around – passing through the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs along the way. It seemed like a nice little town, but I didn't really have time to stick around – instead I hit the (beautiful) road back to San Diego the next morning.

This year, however, three of us found ourselves in Las Vegas (CES 2014, work), and with the time and money to rent a car – so we headed back to Coachella with a vague plan to rent some bikes (we all cycle) and explore. For anyone planning a similar trip, here's what worked, and what didn't.

Getting There

Leaving Nevada

I picked up a rental car from the LV strip: pre-booked, this fairly massive vehicle (Nissan Maxima) cost about £40 a day. The obvious way to and from Palm Springs from Las Vegas is down the Interstate 15, but we decided to make a circular route and instead drive South down route 95, cutting off slightly to visit Lake Havasu City (and check out London Bridge) along the way, before taking the Interstate 10 west.

Two things about this plan. For one, it's a pleasant – if slightly long – way to drive, with some beautiful scenery along the way. I'm glad we did it. As well as the desert and rocks we passed old mining towns, beautiful lakes and – to our surprise – a museum dedicated to General Patton. The drive will take you most of a day; we pulled into Palm Springs in the dark.

Suddenly, tanks!

The other thing to note is that it's probably not worth detouring via Lake Havasu City. On the plus side it does indeed hold London Bridge, which is worthy of a raised eyebrow, and an In-n-Out Burger. On the other hand, it adds quite a few miles to the route – I'd carry straight on South next time.

Staying There

Last time in Palm Springs I stopped at the Alpine Gardens Motel. It's now under new management, and being renamed Cody's Inn - and for three people it would have been pretty expensive, so we decided to save money to spend on food, beer and bikes, and stay at a Motel 6 instead. This turned out to be a great decision – the Palm Springs Downtown site is stupidly cheap, perfectly good and within a five minute walk of the town centre. Boutique it ain't, but I'd recommend it.

Eating There

Two places to recommend here. First, Bill's Pizza – really great American-style pizza, and an even better range of proper beers on tap (currently Stone IPA, Anchor Steam, and a whole load of other good stuff). Great beer, pizza, friendly staff, and some kind of insane system for getting to the toilets that involves a giant spoon (really). Go there. Then go again.

Secondly, Sherman's Deli. In the morning, a great place to get breakfast or just some ludicrously huge pastries to take away with you. In the evening, proper deli food – think brisket, latkes, vegetables, chicken soup. And they even had some decent beer.

Oh, and if you need your fix of proper Euro-strength coffee: Espresso Cielo, on the main street.

Biking and Hiking

If you want to buy a bike in Palm Springs, you're in luck: the Palm Springs Cyclery (right opposite our motel) is fantastic, with really helpful staff  - so helpful, in fact, that they even let three trade-show-deranged British guys take a $6,000 Specialized Turbo for a spin*.

If you want to rent a bike, things aren't quite so great. The guys in the shop recommended a company who hired out mountain bikes, but sadly they turned out to be based out of town, pretty expensive and not able to drop the bikes off at a trailhead (so we would have had to cram three in the rented Maxima).

With that in mind, we decided to stick to car and foot. First, to Joshua Tree National Park.

Hidden Valley

Joshua Tree is huge. It's a decent drive out from Palm Springs, and once you get in you'll do plenty more driving down the impeccably-surfaced roads that run between various locations for hiking, camping and so on. We took a stroll around Hidden Valley (above), and clambered on the Jumbo Rocks before driving up to get a view over the entire valley.

Taken in this way, by car, you can happily bumble around Joshua Tree for a day – or in our case, half that. If you have any more time you'd want to come prepared for hiking, bouldering or climbing. If I did it again I'd be tempted to camp overnight – the organised campgrounds are busy, but with some great views.

We wanted to hike, but were less keen on the desert sun (especially after a week locked in a convention centre), so instead decided to set out for a walk at the San Jacinto State Park – right up at the top of the Palm Springs cablecar, and in the forest.

Aerial Tramway

Last time I visited, I'd had little time to spend at the top and was entirely underdressed for hiking. This time we arrived early, packing food, water and clothes, and visited the ranger station to get a map and permit. The trails are really well marked, making progress easy, and the weather was great, with just a bit of snow left on the ground as we hiked up.

Back in the wilderness

After a couple of hours, we came up onto an amazing overlook – photos don't really do it justice:

West, over Idyllwild

.. after which we circled around, following a different route back to the ranger station and the cable car down. If you're able to walk at a decent pace uphill, it's a great short hike that'll take the middle part of a day, getting you back well before sunset. Even if you haven't got time to hike, the view down from the cable car station's pretty impressive.

Palm Springs

And that was about it for us. One long drive back down the I15, one tedious flight and back home. But if you find yourself near Palm Springs, do go – eat the pizza, drink the beer, walk in the mountains, feel better. It's the antidote to Vegas.

I took loads more photos, especially in San Jacinto and Joshua Tree. They're all here.

* It's crazy. I want one. Good thing they don't sell them here.

"Butts' Historical Guide to Lewisham, Ladywell, Lee, Blackheath and Eltham"

December 16th, 2013

umbrellas

The British Library today released over one million images into the Flickr Commons. Among them, the cover of this book, from 1878. It's a kind of general guide to the Lewisham-Lee-Blackheath-Eltham area, taking in the shops, streets, churches and notable past residents, and if you live in the area it's quite fascinating to read of a time when a stroll from Lee to Blackheath would take in gaslit roads lined with "numerous villa residences of both gentry and merchants connected withLondon".

It also mentions that the tomb of Sir Edmund Halley (d. 1742, he of the comet) can be found in the graveyard of St Margaret's, Lee – something I never knew, despite passing by hundreds of times – and claims that the Brockley Jack pub (in Crofton Park) used to have Dick Turpin's name carved in it until the section in question was "pulled down" in 1876.

Who knows if that's true, but it's a fascinating read – you can download it as a PDF, here. Also quite remarkable is the ending:

"Have we not the largest fleet in the world? Are not our ships the swiftest and the strongest? Have they not visited every shore ? Have they not re- turned with the produce of every clime? Have not the last 60 years been unrivalled in the history of the world for improvements and discoveries? Has our country not been foremost in the march of intellect? Sixty years ago there was scarcely one town lighted with gas; one river ploughed with steam; one country girded by the iron road; one benevolent institution for the thousand that now exist. Now, almost every village is well-lighted; steamers are now on every sea, every river, and even the Sacred Nile is almost bridged by steam.

GOD BLESS OUR BELOVED WIDOWED QUEEN,

GOD BLESS THE PRINCE OF WALES, and

GOD BLESS DEAR OLD ENGLAND.

Long may Britain be the astonishment and envy of the world. Long may Britain keep the foremost place in inventive ingenuity and manufacturing skill, and amidst tottering dynasties and falling crowns of Europe, may England's throne stand firm—firm in the centre of the constitution, and no less firm in the hearts of the people.

Shine, mighty God, on Britain shine,

With beams of heavenly grace;

Reveal Thy power through all our Coasts,

And show Thy smiling face.

Amidst our Isle, exalted high,

Do Thou our glory stand,

And like a wall of guardian fire,

Surround this favoured land."

And then, right after that, come the adverts for umbrellas and boots.