Akemi's Anime World

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Seeing It On The Big Screen

I recently had the opportunity to (re-)watch AKIRA on the big screen at my local theater-bar.  It’s a big, old-school theater revived into a venue that shows cult movies and live acts with table seating and booze in the back. While I don’t think that their source material was of particularly high quality (I didn’t ask if it was a 35mm print or just a DVD, and the sound definitely had nothing on my home rig playing the blu-ray release), it is certainly a different experience to watch a movie intended for the big screen the way it was originally intended.

Even big-budget theatrical movies like Ponyo often don’t seem to really expect the big-screen treatment; sure, they look better larger-than-life, but the framing and scale are such that you lose little if anything when scaled down to a decent-sized home theater screen. The same is true of a lot of Hollywood fare, as well.

Project A-ko is a particularly good example; I’ve never seen it on the big screen, but I doubt anything other than a few of the shots of the alien ship and battles in the city do much with a large canvas. One of the indicators of this is that they actually painted the cels in old-fashioned-TV 4:3 ratio; if you compare USM’s newer DVD release (which is based off the Japanese home-video release) to their older DVD (which comes from theatrical masters), you’ll see that the TV-format version isn’t cropped from the widescreen one, it’s the other way around. (As for which is the “better” one, looking at the storyboard book I have, it appears that Nishijima did the rough framing intending widescreen, and the initial visual joke with Mari works much better in the wider format since you can’t see her head because she’s so tall.)

AKIRA, on the other hand, has lots of expansive city shots that take advantage of the action being blown up to a scale where you can really see what’s going on in the fully-animated crowds, and you get more of a sense of being in the action than watching it from a distance. I suppose you could get a similar effect by sitting really close to a smaller screen, but it’s just not quite the same thing as craning your neck from the front rows of a theater.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is another one that takes advantage of a theatrical screen for some of the crowd shots and landscapes. But the only anime film I can think of that really owns the big screen is Metropolis. I saw that one in both the theater and on home video, and the experience is completely different in a way few things since the old Cinemascope era have been.

There is, for example, a shot where the characters are walking on a crowded city street with skyscrapers looming above in which the people only take up a small fraction of the screen at the very bottom, and the rest is all buildings. On a TV, even a big one, this does a nice job of making the people look very small in comparison to the scale of the city itself. But from the front row of a theater, the people onscreen are roughly actual size, and are down near your eye level, while the buildings loom far over your head. It isn’t just more dramatic, it changes the shot from being clever to forcefully immersing you in the scene, and that was clearly no accident.

Elsewhere there’s a wide-angle shot with a couple of the characters picking their way through the rubble in the underbelly of the city that for all practical purposes will look like a static shot of the background on all but the largest TVs—the characters are so small they’re barely visible. On the big screen, however, the added size and resolution (blu-ray might remedy that second issue at home, but it’s DVD-only thus far) mean that you can really see the characters and what they’re doing against the expansive landscape around them. Again, the shot feels completely different, and was clearly intended explicitly with the theater experience in mind.

And that’s the thing about going to movie theaters. I, personally, almost never do. It’s expensive, inconvenient, most Hollywood fare is garbage, the MPAA enrages me, the sound is usually too loud and rarely sounds much better than my home system playing a blu-ray disc, and I could care less about 3D. Yet in a way it’s nice to see an artist who isn’t designing for the lowest common denominator, but instead decides to go big, even if most people aren’t going to truly appreciate it.

Which is why, whenever I have the chance, I go to see anime on the big screen—it’s not always a different experience, but the new perspective on things I’ve already seen is sometimes well worth it. And, at worst, I vote with my money to let the theater operator know that it’s worth bringing anime to town.

In other news, I just got back from a business trip to the exotic, but surprisingly less exotic than you’d think, land of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where I got to see the tallest building in the world and the experimental uber-tech city of Masdar, which included a system of electric, self-driving robo-taxis. Why, hello, Cyberpunk 2020, I didn’t realize you lived so close to 2011 already.

I also saw, at the Dubai Mall, one of those cinema replica places that included, alongside Marvel heroes and Star Wars favorites, a human-sized statue of none other than Grandizer (who Wikipedia tells me is quite popular in the Middle East):

An image of a cinema replica store at the Dubai Mall

Yep, that's good old Grandizer there behind Iron Man. (The sign says no photographs, but they can't really complain if you're standing on the other side of the hall.)

A Supercomputer In Your Pocket

A supercomputing expert recently made some comments about the computing power of an iPad 2 relative to a Cray-2. It was a funny coincidence, because I had just, completely at random, been goofing around with some similar calculations myself.

So, for the heck of it, here are my very rough and mostly unscientific comparisons of classic supercomputers to one pocketable device and one luggable one: A current iPod and my new laptop, a MacBook Pro quad-core 2.2GHz Sandy Bridge i7.

These two devices are arbitrary; I picked an iPod because it’s cheap, popular, and lacks unnecessary (for this comparison) cellular hardware, and the laptop because it’s portable, pretty beefy, and I just bought one.  The numbers will be about the same for an iPhone 4 or any similarly high-end smartphone (or much higher, in those that use an iPad 2 class dual-core CPU), or any relatively high end laptop.

Caveats

One thing I’m ignoring in my attempt to compare stuff you can buy in 2011 to decades-old supercomputers is GPUs. Modern GPUs are incredibly powerful, even in high-end handhelds, but they are also very specialized, so while you can find GFLOPS ratings for many GPUs, and some general-purpose computing tasks can be run on them, you can’t run the Linpack benchmark on most, and it’s hard to make a one-to-one comparison of the computing power of a GPU versus a general-purpose number-cruncher, be it modern CPU or classic supercomputer.

The other caveat is the standard one about synthetic benchmarks across very different systems; you can only really compare some specific task. The Linpack benchmark suite has been used since the early ’90s to benchmark massive supercomputers, and it’s easy enough to download and run yourself, plus it’s the standard used by the Top500 fastest supercomputer list. Since it also produces results in FLOPS (floating point operations per second), which have been used for a very long time to measure computing power, I’m using it as the measure of power. It’s actually a fairly specialized (and not necessarily very useful) set of math routines, but it’s as universal a benchmark as any.

Vector calculations also complicate things; being more specialized, classic vector computers often had disproportionately high performance at the cost of less versatility. Of course, many CPUs (including all modern ones) also have a vector processing unit (Apple based a whole advertising campaign on the power of the AltiVec vector unit in their G4 CPUs). These usually produce much higher FLOPS ratings for a subset of appropriate tasks, making comparisons somewhat harder.

All that said, off we go.

A 35-year-old Cray In Your Pocket

Bottom line first: a 4th Gen iPod Touch (or an iPhone 4) is significantly more powerful than a Cray-1 from the late ’70s.

iPod Touch equals Cray1

The Cray-1 was sort of the start of the classic supercomputers; it was a big, cool-looking, appliance-sized thing that sold well and debuted in 1976, a couple years before I was born (and just before Apple started selling the Apple I).

Benchmarks

Assuming Wikipedia is correct, the Cray-1 generally performed at about 136 MFLOPS, but could max out at 250 MFLOPS with carefully-tuned code that made use of its vector capabilities.

However, Linpack, which presumably uses more complicated routines, isn’t so kind to the Cray-1′s capabilities.  The Linpack FAQ actually has some figures for the machine (verified in the huge list of Linpack results linked from this page, down at the bottom); with the software available at the time of its release, it could apparently manage about 3.4 MFLOPS. A few years later, with better compilers, it turned in a much more respectable 12 MFLOPS.

As for the iPod Touch, there is, conveniently, a Linpack app in Apple’s App Store; the current (4th Gen) iPod tests at a little over 38 MFLOPS with it (my 3rd-gen Touch manages about 30 MFLOPS). Its ARM CPU (like the Cray) isn’t the strongest in that particular sort of calculation; in more optimized sorts of calculations using the right compiler and routines, it can apparently manage around 260 MFLOPS, which would be similar to what the Cray-1 could do under ideal circumstances.

Cray-1 Hardware Specs

The Cray-1 had a single, hand-wired, 64-bit, 80MHz CPU with vector capabilities, 1M 64-bit words of RAM (8MB in modern terms), one or more external 300MB hard drive units (which could be combined up to 4.8 GB, if I understand the manual correctly), and cost in the range of $5-8 million. It was freon-cooled and used (again, according to the manual) 115kW of electricity before you factored in storage and auxiliary hardware. Upgrades over the next few years offered versions with up to 32MB of RAM and 256MB of solid state storage.

Cray-1 CPU, at EPFL, Switzerland, photographed by Rama

A Cray-1 on display at EPFL in Switzerland (photographed by Rama)

Also, in addition to the main CPU unit (the tower-shaped thing above), which was about 9 feet (2.5m) wide and 6.5 feet (2m) high and weighed 5 and a quarter tons (4700kg) fully equipped, the Cray-1 also required two coolant condensing units, a power cabinet, two 150kW generators, and a smaller computer (closer to a modern desktop in size) that served as the user interface. The disk units were separate and rather large, as well.

iPod Touch Hardware Specs

A maxed-out iPod Touch (4th gen) uses a 32-bit, 800MHz A4 CPU (ARM Cortex-A8 class) with floating point and vector units, has 256MB of RAM, 64GB of solid state storage, and costs $400.  The iPhone 4, if you prefer, has the same CPU, 512MB RAM, up to 32GB storage, and costs $700 unsubsidized. The iPod weighs 3.6 oz (101g). The iPhone gets 2.75 hours out of its 5.2 Watt-hour battery running full-bore, meaning it uses a little under 2W (some significant portion of which is the screen backlight, GPU, and wireless hardware); the iPod Touch should be about the same.

Meaning…

Which is to say, in ballpark terms, you can walk out and buy a $400 iPod that has somewhat better performance than a Cray-1 from 35 years ago that would have cost you $8 million.  At 1/20,000th the cost it has 8x more RAM, 13x more storage, weighs 50,000x less not counting all the accessories, and uses at least 60,000x less electricity.

Nice.

A 20-year-old Supercomputer On Your Lap

The Cray-1 was a hand-built bundle of circuit boards and wads of wires, and I’m comparing it to a pocketable media player/gaming doodad (or phone); I’m a lot more interested in a comparison between more modern, refined supercomputers from, say, when I was in high school, and a modern supercomputer-on-your lap, the high-end laptop I’m typing this on.

The early ’90s were an interesting time for supercomputers, so I like using 20 years ago as the comparison; there was a boom in the construction of computers that used hundreds of off-the-shelf CPUs in parallel instead of fancier custom hardware, and there was a corresponding rapid increase in the speed of such systems. It was, effectively, the start of the “modern,” massively-parallel supercomputer era.

So, my 2011 MacBook Pro 17″ versus 1991, give or take a couple of years.

The bottom line is that the CM-5—a top-tier supercomputer from 1993—is very similar in specs to my laptop, and if you go back an even 20 years to 1991, this thing I use everyday would probably have been the fastest computer on earth by a modest margin.

A MacBook Pro equals a Thinking Machines CM5 Supercomputer

Calculations

To start with, I downloaded a copy of Linpack from Intel and ran it myself; I got about 38 GFLOPS. (In benchmarks that make more use of vector math, for reference, I’ve seen as much as 59 GFLOPS. The GPU is theoretically capable of a ridiculous 500-700 GFLOPS, if you believe AMD, but that’s even more specialized sorts of calculations with little to do with everyday, non-3D-graphics computing.)

For comparison, we’ll use the Top500 List’s Rmax values, which are measured real Linpack throughput. In 1990, pre-list, the fastest supercomputer in the world was apparently the NEC SX3/44R, which clocked at 23.2 GFLOPS. It has the same 4 cores, interestingly, as my laptop, although they were 400MHz vector processors, so not quite comparable.

In mid-1993, when the Top500 list debuted, the top public computer was a Thinking Machines CM-5/1024, clocked at 59.7 GFLOPS (the NSA had a somewhat faster CM-5 called Frostburg with 512 better processors and a lot more RAM, but it was classified at the time); the #2 that year, a 544-core version of the same CM-5, managed 30.4GFLOPS, and 512-core versions took the 3 and 4 spots.

I like the CM-5 as a comparison; it wasn’t necessarily the best supercomputer in absolute terms, and the company was horribly mismanaged, but it was promoted heavily at the time (here’s a promo video) and was more or less the first of the “mass market” (if such a term applies to less than a dozen sales) supercomputers. Plus, it was the first system to sit atop the Top500 list.

The CM-5 also looks rather sexy, even earning a cameo in Jurassic Park; it’s the big black series of towers with a bunch of scary-looking flashing red lights running the park (the lights were mostly for show, but did actually show the status of the processors).

The Frostburg CM-5 Supercomputer

The NSA's CM-5 "Frostburg," looking suitably imposing (photo by Austin Mills)

CM-5 Specs

The CM-5 used a variable number (up to 1024 in practice) of Sun SPARC processors; 512 was the most common (not that very many were sold) configuration.

I found plenty of info about the NCSA’s CM-5/512 (ranked #3 in June 1993, retired in 1997), so I’ll use that as the sample system.

It had 512 SuperSPARC I 32 MHz CPUs, 16GB of RAM (cheaper configurations had 8GB), and 140GB of disk storage.

The storage array was composed of 1.2GB 3.5″ SCSI disks with throughput of 2MB/s each, which were effectively in a sort of RAID-0 array; a paper I found (PDF) said that each 56-disk-set had a theoretical throughput of about 110MB/s, but in practice only managed 32MB/s reading and a much better 90MB/s writing, so presumably that 140GB array managed about 75MB/s write, 200MB/s read.

The CPUs alone would have drawn 7kW of power; I can’t find a number anywhere for the whole system, but probably at least 20kW, if not much, much higher; pricing was a weird, scandalous subsidy thing with DARPA, but somewhere over a million bucks. The individual cabinets were about 8 feet (2.5m) tall (this page has some photos with people for scale), and took up more or less a whole room; I couldn’t find any weight figures, but presumably several tons.

2011 MacBook Pro Specs

In comparison, my MacBook Pro has a four-core 2.2GHz CPU, 8GB of RAM (supports up to 16GB, if you’re rich), and a 120GB SSD (which I added; OWC 6G, SandForce 2200-based; about twice the performance of the stock SSD Apple offers) that can transfer data at around 500MB/s in both directions, plus a slower, old-fashioned spinning drive of 750GB that can manage around 90MB/s. The Sandy Bridge i7 CPU draws 45W at 2.2GHz, while the whole computer uses under 85W including screen, GPU, and battery charging. It cost me around $3000 including the high-end SSD; a more stock configuration with a smaller screen (but otherwise identical specs) would cost closer to $2500.

Meaning…

Which, when you put it together, means that my high-end but not-particularly-unusual laptop from 2011 is about 18% faster than a 1993 CM-5/512, has the same amount of RAM as the lower-end configuration, a similar amount of storage that can transfer data at about twice the speed (or, if you go with stock hardware, 5 times as much at half the speed), and uses at worst 1/200th the power, if not much less than that, for maybe 1/500th the cost.

A very close match to one of the best room-sized computers a few million dollars would buy you in 1993, and you can carry it in a briefcase and run it off of an internal battery for several hours.

Or, alternately, it would have been the fastest (publicly-known) computer on earth 20 years ago. If we compare it to our Cray-1 era of 35 years ago, it might well be faster than every general-purpose computer on the planet combined.

Toradora and Persona Premium Editions

NIS America, the game publisher that finally brought the Sakura Wars franchise to North America (among various other console games) is getting into anime. They were nice enough to send us copies of their first two releases, “premium editions” of Persona: Trinity Soul and Toradora, to check out.

I took some photos, so you can get an idea what these look like past the marketing shots you can find elsewhere.

The Toradora Premium Edition Box

Now that is a nice box. Having the image vertical is an additional stylish touch.

What’s most interesting about these two releases is that they’re explicitly accepting that both series are widely available fansubbed, so they’re trying to give people buying legit physical copies something extra. I like this in concept; it’s smarter than playing an impossible game of whack-a-mole with streaming/torrent sites, and it rewards people paying with something other than a slightly higher quality copy on disc (or, if you’re torrenting HD fansubs, lower quality). The pricing is reasonable—competitive with more expensive TV releases without the extras and not too much more than, say, Sentai Filmworks’ recent budget-priced season-in-a-set releases.  The only oversight, in my view, is not having an ad-supported streaming version of their own available to pick up some business from the cheapskates (Funimation seems to be the only company that really gets this one), but it’s only a first release.

So, the price is reasonable, but do you get your money’s worth?

The spine of the Persona Premium Edition

Check out how heavy-duty that box is--sturdier than the shipping box the thing was mailed in. The DVDs are on top, the artbook below.

Yes, with a design caveat. The box sets are very slick productions. Each set ships in an uncommonly sturdy artbox/slipcover with attractive matte finish cover art all the way around—nice enough looking you could prop it up like a small poster. These contain a hardcover, glossy, full-color guidebook with character and episode notes and a bunch of nice illustrations, plus two DVDs in thinpack-style cases. The artbooks are nice, the boxes are some of the nicest I’ve seen, and the DVDs, having watched a couple episodes on each, are well above average (I’ll come back to that later).

The Toradora Premium Edition Artbook

You can see the quality here--heavy hardcover with a pleasing matte finish.

The Persona bonus book contains character profiles, an episode guide with plenty of illustrations, and a couple of four-panel comic strips poking a little fun at each episode (interestingly, these could actually be cannon—the only thing they break is the mood). Additionally, when you flip it over, you get the illustrated children’s story A Whale’s Feather, which makes an appearance in the series itself. That last one is a particularly cool little tie-in (although the story is weird).

The inside of the Persona Premium Edition artbook

Illustrated character profiles and some nice, large pictures are some of the things you'll find inside the Persona book.

As for Toradora, its book is a little thinner and quite a bit different; it features an episode guide as well, but with a lot of fancy diagrams illustrating the various character relationships, plus sidebars on some of the key (or completely random, but amusing) things you’ll see in the show. To fill it out there are also a selection of interviews with the creative staff.

Toradora Premium Edition artbook, inside example

There aren't that many characters, but there are plenty of lines connecting them.

Only two complaints, one of which is a nitpick, and the other a lifestyle thing.

The nitpick is that both sets are labeled “Volume 1,” which is really a misnomer, as they contain a full season (as in a dozen episodes) of a two-season TV show on two discs. Given that “Volume 1″ usually means “4-5 episodes of a 3-8 disc season,” I incorrectly assumed that you were getting a lot less actual anime for your money. It’d have made much more sense, both logically and from a marketing perspective, to call it either “Season 1″ or, if they thought that was too confusing, “Box Set 1″ or something like that.

As for my complaint, it might seem a little odd: Where the heck am I supposed to shelve these things?

See, the boxes, being a little taller than a DVD and quite long, certainly aren’t going to fit on a DVD shelf. They also won’t fit comfortably on a bookshelf among normal taller-than-they-are-wide artbooks, unless you put it upright, which is unsatisfying to the OCD Monk fan in me. Further, if I put it on my bookshelf, then the DVDs are in the wrong area of the house. I could put the DVDs on my DVD shelf and the book and box on the bookshelf, but then the box has an unsatisfying gap where the DVDs belong. And the box is far too nice to consider it just packaging to toss, then separate the book and DVDs in their respective media homes.

The contents of the Persona Premium Edition

See the problem here? No way that's going to fit with the rest of my DVDs.

What would have made much more sense, from a shelving perspective, would be what Honneamise did with their Freedom Project and Jin-Roh blu-ray releases: Make the book roughly DVD case dimensions so that the box set fits nicely on a media shelf, book alongside the DVDs. It admittedly wouldn’t have looked quite so snazzy (and certainly a lot less memorable), but at least I’d know where to put them.

As for the DVDs themselves, they’re great, and not for the usual reason. They’re sub-only, the subtitles are reasonably accurate (with some fan-Japanese left in—”aniki” goes untranslated, for example), and they look nice on my TV (although there is apparently some sort of mastering issue—they’ve already announced a replacement program for early buyers—I didn’t actually see anything so far; still, kudos for stepping up so proactively). All that’s fine but unremarkable.

What’s remarkable is that you stick the disc in and after a single 12-second chunk of skippable copyright and company logos, the disc starts playing. At first, I was annoyed—I don’t care if there are no language options, give me my menu! And then I realized there was no unskippable FBI warning. After being forced to sit through countless unskippable legal warning screens (the only one of which I’ve ever bothered to pay attention to was the brilliant Ilpalazzo Is Watching screen on Excel Saga), trailers I have no interest in seeing (which half the time I’m also not allowed to skip—thanks, Disney), company logos, and more, all of which are on separate titles with the associated title-switch delay, this was a breath of fresh air. Having a single 12-second track with three and a half seconds each of copyright info, NIS America logo, and Aniplex logo, which I’m actually allowed to skip, saved a minimum 30 seconds of fiercely annoying wasted time usually lurking when I stick a DVD in.

With discs like that, you’d think that NIS America actually likes its customers or something. (You listening, Sony? People like it when you don’t treat them like criminals or a captive marketing audience.) Good job, guys—I’m looking forward to seeing future releases from this company.