Online manga

Akira (Aoi Hana)
Akira (Aoi Hana)

If like me you are vaguely aware of online manga scanlations (that’s fan translations of Japanese comic magazines, to the un-initiated) you might be surprised to find how much this has mushroomed in the past few years.  I have been following the manga versions of  a couple of anime that I liked, so was aware that there was online manga, but not how much.

In fact, the quantity of scanlated manga is comparable with the higher-profile and more contentious quantity of  digital fansub anime.

At this point I could give a lengthy guide with links to the databases, the scanlator’s websites, the subgenres and so forth, but since this would involve re-hashing much material from other sites I’ll save myself the bother and let the interested reader search it out for her/himself.

Freed from the the commercial constraints of animation, the range of material and subject matter in manga is wider than in anime, and so is the quality.  If you are fortunate enough to find a series whose art, story and characters you really like, downloading and reading successive chapters can become highly addictive.

Enjoy.

Memories of Matsuko (movie)

Memories of Matsuko (2006) dir Tetsuya Nakashima.  A young man is asked by his father to clear the flat of an aunt he didn’t know existed, who has just died. Aunt Matsuko was a young teacher whose life was ruined after she unwisely defended a boy accused of stealing.  Forced to resign, and rejected by her family, she descends into a seedy underworld of massage parlours and violent boyfriends, living out her later years in eccentric isolation.

A hard-hitting movie and one of the best live-action Japanese movies I’ve seen.

PHP 5.2.11 installation problems

Managed to install PHP version 5.2.11 on a development computer after several evenings of struggle. I previously used PHP 3 and PHP 4 and I don’t recollect any trouble in installing them.  PHP 5 suffers from too many options: CGI, ATAPI, FastCGI,  thread-safe, non-thread-safe… Having selected one of these, you have to select a manual install or an automatic .msi scripted install.  Then you have to select various options during the install.

Then you find it doesn’t work.

PHP forgot to tell you that the installer script doesn’t really complete the installation, and there are further cryptic options you have to find and set. You only find this out by trawling the Web for solutions. Thousands of frustrated people have been there before you.

Then you find it still doesn’t work.

I found several bugs in mine, as follows:

1) php.ini file left over from previous attempt to install in another folder -not helpful!

2) File not found error – caused by IIS pointing to wrong .php location.

3) IIS doesn’t like spaces in path – so enclose path in “” quotes (e.g. “c:/program files/php/php-cgi.exe”) if php directory is in Program Files.

4) Silent time-out when accessing .php file: If you downloaded the cgi option (intentionally or otherwise) it works better if you point IIS at php-cgi.exe not php.exe.

As you’ll have gathered, I’m not at all impressed by this.  Obviously this software  desperately needs a proper installer that will install a default version and configure it so that it WORKS, as well as offering experts the option to twiddle.  Open source at its worst. The developers clearly feel no pressure to make their product user-friendly.  They need a kick up the backside.   Microsoft php. anyone?

Crunchyroll streamed anime

I’ve been checking out the “Crunchyroll” anime streaming site (www.crunchyroll.com/anime).

Crunchyroll has been getting some stick on the newsgroup rec.arts.anime.misc recently. Some people aren’t happy that a group previously (allegedly) associated with piracy is now offering licensed anime streams. Seems they think that Crunchyroll, having (according to them) helped kill off much of the anime industry, is now scavenging the corpse.

On the other hand, if you check the Crunchyroll site, you’ll find that you can stream at least three new shows licensed from the latest Japanese summer season, and a selection of other shows, at least some of which might be to your liking.  So that’s several shows you could watch with a clear conscience instead of  getting digisubs via bittorrent.  Some of the shows in the index are marked as being available to the UK, some are not.

One can’t help noticing that while sundry of the Crunchyroll offerings are not indexed on animesuki.com, some people are still offering them as downloadable digisubs, offering excuses such as their version is a different sub, or they don’t like the adverts.

As for the Crunchyroll service itself, given a suitable PC and fast Internet connection, it works quite well. There’s an A-Z index of anime (with the Japanese titles only), as well as thumbnails of “popular anime”, and once you select a series there is a row of episode thumbnails with a synopsis. On selecting an episode, you get an un-avoidable advert, usually for some Japanese video game, and then the episode, with a choice of  definitions (I’ve only tried the SD default, which is good enough). The episode can be re-sized to full screen (but I could not re-size the adverts, which I did not consider to be a problem).  Subtitles are selectable on/off. With a cable link to a TV and audio amplifier, the experience is little different from watching a subtitled DVD.

The service is supported by advertising, but the very latest episodes are restricted to “members only” so if you want to watch those without waiting a week, you have to pay.

This looks like a site that deserves one’s qualified support, and I intend to watch Aoi Hana, Time of Eve, Kanamemo, etc on Crunchyroll in preference to trying to download them.

Kuniyoshi exhibition

Kuniyoshi exhibition of 19th century Japanese prints, Royal Academy, London.

http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/kuniyoshi/

It’s a truism that Japanese prints were a precursor of modern manga.  In fact these prints do not look much like modern manga at all.  Modern manga designs are drawn at high speed and are meant to be assimilated in a few seconds as the reader stands on a crowded train or suchlike. The most striking thing about the Kuniyoshi prints, particularly those of warriors, is the riot of finely drawn detail they contain. So much so that one can stand  before a print for a minute or more just trying to take in what one is looking at. Are there three figures there? No, four..five!

It is surprising to learn that the prints were made under conditions of severe censorship imposed by the Shogunate.  At various times pictures of warriors later than 1570 were banned (politically sensitive), as were pictures of ladies of the evening (immoral), and kabuki actors (morally unsound).  Much ingenuity was expended in getting around these regulations. The prints of bijin (beautiful women) are easier to comprehend, as are the scenes of pleasure-boats and suchlike.  Faces are stylised, but in a different way to that commonly seen in modern manga, where the faces, and particularly the eyes, reflect the influence of 20th-century American cartoons.

However there are features in common that one can point to to that link the prints with modern manga (and anime).  The prints have writing on them – sometimes quite a lot of text.  Subjects and treatments appear that are repeated in modern manga. There’s a print in the exhibition of some comic octopi – see the opening credits  of “Natsu no Arashi”  or the print of a horrible spider attacking from above (reminiscent of many a horror anime) and the print of a fight on a rooftop – reminiscent of more than one anime (including Urusai Yatsura, IIRC).

I found the exhibition very worthwhile, and having spent all that money to travel there and get in, I also bought the catalogue, which has all the prints and a lot of explanatory text.

Idiot’s Guide to Video Capture

Many people want to convert their old videotapes to DVD or other digital format, but straightforward advice of the form “Buy this, do that and you get this result” are either lacking or so hard to find that many just give up in confusion.

I won’t pretend that this is the definitive guide, but it should point you in the right direction to get started.

Copy to DVDR using set-top DVD recorder I’ve done this and so could you.  A hard disc/DVD recorder makes the work easier. Typically you can copy one or two tapes onto each DVDR, depending what recording quality you select. Commercial tapes are often copy-protected, though!  If you chapter the recording and make a menu, this adds a lot of labour time to the project. Nothing to stop you copying the MPEG-2 recording from a DVD-RW into a computer and processing it further, but expect significant machine time and labour time.

Capture into computer and process into required final format: I’ve trialled this using a capture device.  You can use a TV tuner card, external PC-TV tuner, a DV camcorder, or a dedicated capture device. Once you have the capture device installed, you do have some flexibility and choice in what software you use to control it.  I suggest you use Windows Movie Maker for Windows XP (NOT the Vista version) to begin with.  The obvious target is to burn the video to DVD-Video format. So you need to capture the video without noticeable quality loss, and then reconvert the file into  the final DVD-Video format for burning. I trialled this using WMM to capture a file at 640×480, bit rate 2079KBPS (15 mb/min), and then using NeroVision Express (came bundled with my DVD-burner) to reconvert it and burn it to a DVD, with menu. It worked, and the result isn’t notably worse than the original tape. It was a 2-minute clip and the process and burn time (on a slow 1.7 Ghz Celeron PC) was far in excess of 2 mins.

Note: Some capture devices default to 720×576 which IIRC is intended for files destined for DVD-video.

Capture and convert to final compressed format in real-time: This is what I’m trying to develop, and this is what you should look at if you have hundreds of tapes to convert.  Otherwise, by the time you capture them , reprocess them beautifully, burn them to DVD, watch them through, and file them in jewel cases with individually printed labels, you’ll probably have died of old age first.

I’ve used WMM and two different USB 2.0 capture devices to convert 75-min videotapes to a single file intended to be stored on computer media.   Using Windows Movie Maker, File format: .wmv file, Video Proc Amp brightness 119, Audio = Dazzle DVC90 Audio Device, Video Input Source = Composite, Audio Input Source = Microphone (sic.), Audio Input level slider at 50%, “High Quality Video Large” 640×480 pixels, Variable Bit rate. Actual usage about 10MB/min with animated cartoon.   The result is not notably worse than the original, even with the original tape and the digital recording played side by side in sync. Update 31 May 2009 – have transferred some 140 VHS tapes using this method.

I’ve just bought a “Easycap USB 2.0 Video adapter” – a Chinese-made device available from various places for a mere £12 ($20?) or so. It has had positive reviews – except from people who clearly couldn’t figure how to make it work!
The price was too low to resist, so I got one just to check it out and compare with a Dazzle DVC90 which I borrowed.
You have to follow the installation instructions exactly, i.e. install the driver from the CD before plugging in the device, and then plug in the device to complete the software installation. It then appears in the System hardware panel like a sensible device should.
You don’t have to use the Ulead Video Studio supplied – in fact you can control the Easycap with any capture or movie-making software you like.  I tried Amcap,  VirtualDub and  Windows Movie Maker.
I’d recommend using Windows Movie Maker  if you’re a non-expert as it  offers a range  of settings in a format that the average idiot can  understand. 🙂 The Easycap spec says that it supports NTSC 720×480 @30fps and PAL 720×576 @ 25fps.
I got it to record,  in:
uncompressed, over 1GB of storage per minute (with Amcap)
640×480 PAL, 2079kbps, 15 mb/min storage (.wmv file)
640×480 PAL, 1.5mbps, 10 mb/min storage
320×240 PAL, 3.7mb/min storage
Tha last 3 with Windows Movie Maker (.wmv), with sound from the USB.
All of these gave a viewable result – I’d suggest trying them all and using the setting that suits your requirement.
I  tried a 75minute run. It didn’t crash and the sound stayed in sync. (Usually there’s no sound on preview. If you don’t get sound on playback of your digitized recording,  you need to fiddle with some settings).
I’m not sure what the hardware encoding is doing. It’s supposed to work with low-power PCs (Pentium III 800 and above), but I used a Pentium IV 2.8GHz, 500MB ram 40 GB hard-disk, and it was going flat-out in some of the tests. I don’t know what  process was soaking up all that power.

Verdict: quality is quite adequate for a basic device, with performance comparable to the Pinnacle. Most noticeable difference is that the Easycap clips the right hand side of the sceeen, whereas the Dazzle clips the left side, but to a lesser extent. Usability is good. Unbeatable value for money?

MS Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005

Thought it would be a neat idea to install the Media Center Edition OEM on the PC I put together myself for multimedia purposes. So I bought the OEM and had a go at installing it. Turned out not to be such a great idea, so be warned.

OEM means for original equipment manufacturers, so it’s assumed that you know what to do with the software, which includes the following:

How to install it, which isn’t as simple as you might think (now that I’ve warned you, you can Google for details). Get it wrong, and you’ll find that the Media Center interface doesn’t install, and Internet Explorer and Media Player are hidden.

It comes on two CDs, or on one DVD – the DVD may throw up a request during installation for the 2nd CD if you haven’t followed the instructions!

It’s rather fussy about hardware; for instance if you thought it would work with a ATI Radeon 7000 video card you’ll soon find out your mistake. The drivers can still be installed but WMC will have nothing to do with the “Catalyst” utility. (though I did find a free download that went in the toolbar and did a much better job of controlling the TV-out.)

It is incompatible with the BBC’s iplayer download (the 2008 regular version). Heck knows why; the similar 4OD works just fine.

My advice is, unless you have some good reason for using WMC and know how to make up a complete hardware/software package that will work, give it a miss and use Windows XP Pro instead.  You should be able to get XP Pro to do what you want.  If a certain Ebay retailer is to believed, you can even get a freeware Media Center-like interface.

FYI one of the MS Vista editions incorporates Media Center functions, or so I’m told.

Orange Livebox

Just had the disagreeable experience of setting up an Orange “Livebox” wireless modem/firewall/router.

The box does work, but the experience is much more trying than it might be if some extra information was provided.

Prompts for firewall to be turned off: Turn off firewall, and also uninstall Adobe Flash 9, Flash 10, and anything else you think might be causing it.

Network Settings for computer connected with wired cable: in case of setup troubles, set them to the final setting of “Obtain IP address automatically” & “Obtain DNS server address automatically”

You should be able to get to the setup via a new Orange icon on the desktop. In case of bother, note that the Livebox setup address is 192.168.1.1

In case you are wondering, the setup username and password are admin/admin. You could I presume change them to something less obvious.

If you have a network switch, you could plug it into the Yellow network port (or the Red, if you have removed the setup cable) on the Livebox. Any computers connected to the switch can then use the Livebox broadband connection.  They can also browse shared files on the computer used for the set-up. Whether all the other computers can see each other seems to be another story.  🙁

Addendum: I’ve been using the Livebox as a wired router/firewall for several days and find it works well. It seems that one is expected to leave it on all the time & connected to the Internet while the computers are in use. As soon as the computers are turned on and allowed to boot up, they have a live Internet connection. (just like the computers at work). It works with Linux clients too.

Viewing downloaded anime files with Linux.

I have been trialling a Linux distribution called “Mint” (Linux Mint 6 “Felicia”). The plus point about this distribution is that, unlike most Linux distributions, it plays all the filetypes of interest to downloaders of anime, straight out of the box.  For instance it plays .mkv   and .mp4 files.
One can play these files with other Linux distributions, but only after a severe encounter with Linux jargon in the course of finding the required codecs (libxine1) and figuring out how to install them.

As for how well Mint works:  it can be used as a “live CD” or properly  installed to the hard disc.  The live CD operation is extremely slow. Once installed, I found it was still a bit slow and grindy, (however I installed it on a very old and small hard drive so it was not a definitive test.) It did play all the filetypes I tried. However I found an annoying bug in that the network browsing didn’t work. It seems I’m not the only one to find this, and following advice found online, I installed  “fusesmb” and  “smb4k”.   Before  I fired either of these up, however, I found that the network browsing had sprung into life, which left me wondering  if the real issue is that  one has to  double-click on the network  icon to open it, rather than the  single-click which works elsewhere in Linux file browsers.  Another annoying thing about Mint is that there are no helpfiles worth mentioning either in the installation or online! (But it is based on Ubuntu, which has reams of help).

I tried benchmarking just how well my hardware handled anime video files. The details won’t be of great interest to you, unless you are using older PCs, however:
Turns out that SuSE Linux 10.0 uses slightly less processor power for this task than Windows XP, on identical hardware. (a measure of codec efficiency). Mint (on which even the system monitor program consumed a noticeable amount of power) was less efficient than SuSE in my test.
Also these PCs didn’t like larger (i.e. HD) .mkv files, which caused the processor demand to ramp up towards 100% even on the better machine of the two.  Demand on SD .mkv files was a quarter that on HD.

Addendum: The SuSE Linux 10.0 hopefully can be upgraded online and then configured to use the BBC’s beta version iplayer downloader for Linux. Hopefully this will allow programs to be downloaded for later viewing. The Mint Linux, meanwhile, refuses to load either from the hard-disk or the live CD.

Anime Central off-air

The Anime Central UK channel (Sky channel 199) seems to have bveen axed – it’s not on-air and it’s not in the Sky EPG.

Checking on their website and forum at http://www.animecentral.com confirmed that something had happened but I couldn’t find any official announcement or definitive news.

So instead of two daily UK channels of anime (last year) we now have none.