Thursday, December 21, 2006

World's Oldest Computer to Keep on Calculatin'

The FACOM 128B, first placed in service in 1959, has a new lease on life. Fujitsu plans to keep it running until 2019, when it will be 60 years old.

Relay-based, it does an 8-decimal-digit add or subtract in about 0.15 seconds, and a multiply in about 0.3 sec. I don't see anything mentioning storage capacity (primary or secondary) or even technology, but the article does say the machine covers 65 square meters, which is probably larger than the average Japanese apartment. The machine apparently has some fault-tolerance mechanisms including automatic reexecution of some faulty instructions. One of the articles says the machine is not a stored-program machine, but doesn't mention how you actually did program the thing -- plugs? switches?

The people who know how to maintain the thing are all retired, but have agreed to teach some youngsters how to do it. They also plan to digitize the circuit diagrams for it.

The article speaks somewhat in the future tense, "to be restored", but it also says the computer is actually still in use.

Numazu is south of Mount Fuji; it takes a little over an hour to get there from Tokyo Station via shinkansen and local train. Seeing this thing would be a fun field trip.

See the Daily Yomiuri article and IPSJ's online computer museum.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Winny Developer Convicted

Isamu Kaneko, the guy who wrote Winny, one of the most popular peer-to-peer file sharing programs here in Japan, has been convicted of enabling users to violate the Copyright Law act. The Kyoto District Court fined him 1.5 million yen (about $13K). He plans to appeal.

Winny was released in May 2002, while Kaneko was a research assistant at Todai (University of Tokyo), and Kaneko was arrested and indicted in May 2004. Two men who used his software to distribute copyrighted movies have already been convicted and given suspended jail sentences of a year.

Apparently the case hinged on some comments Kaneko made indicating that he knew his software was being used for illegal purposes.

One estimate is that Winny users still violate copyright at a rate that represents 10 billion yen (almost $100M) every six hours. There are also malware programs out there that leak information from PCs onto Winny, which has been the source of some of the serious data privacy breaches in the last few years.

One thing that seems remarkable about this case to me is that Japan has often seemed to have a rather laissez faire attitude toward copyright violation. American music afficianados know that imported Japanese CDs often sell for $30, and assume that someone is making a killing doing the importing, but in fact, that's the common sale price here. In response, sales are actually low; CD rental shops are more common than sales. Sales of blank minidiscs are correspondingly high -- guess what happens when that rented CD goes to someone's home? Copy-protected CDs are becoming more common here as a result.

Trademarks, especially of foreign companies, likewise are erratically protected. Fake goods are common, and near-imitations of trademarks that probably wouldn't past muster in the U.S. abound. Recently a very popular series of "one coin" 500 yen DVDs has appeared, containing bad transfers of bad prints of old movies (I admit, I watch them). The movies are all 50 years old or older, which is the copyright limit here, so they're technically not illegal, but I suspect in the U.S. the original studio would still attempt to make the DVD producers' lives difficult.

Until they pull them down, the Daily Yomiuri's articles on this are here, here, and here. (the editorial is titled, "Winny ruling spotlights engineers' moral duties").

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Robots Galore

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Tuesday that there is a new robotics association here, with Kyoji Takenaka to be its first chairman. It includes about 210 manufacturers, universities and local governments (no idea if Keio is involved).

According to the Japan Robot Association (JARA, which is an older organization), 690 billion yen worth of robots (about six billion dollars) were sold in Japan in 2005, up almost twenty percent from the year before.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

DoCoMo Subscribers Drop

DoCoMo reported a couple of days ago its first-ever drop in subscribers to its mobile phone service. In the month of November,17,500 more people canceled their service than signed up for it. KDDI and Softbank both had increases, of 324,900 and 68,700, respectively.

This is probably due to the start of number portability. It's now possible to change providers and keep your phone number, though of course not your keitai's email address.

A Change in Attitude Toward Corruption?

It often comes as a surprise to people who think of Japan as an orderly society, but there's a lot of corruption here. One of the biggest forms is contracting out government construction projects. In the last month and a half, three of Japan's 47 governors have been arrested on bid-rigging charges. The government decides on a project, decides on a maximum budget, then puts it out to bid. In theory, the government's pre-decided ceiling is secret. But in Miyazaki-ken, for example, the winning bid was an average of 95.8% of the government's ceiling. The governor was arrested yesterday. The governors of Fukushima and Wakayama have been arrested, too.

That's just an example; there are many others. The government and press have been on an anti-corruption campaign the last couple of years, attacking interests including those that led to poor oversight of large apartment complexes, which are now believed to not be earthquake-safe. But this seems to happen every few years; the governors of Ibaraki and Miyagi were arrested in 1993, during my first tour of duty in Japan. So I figured this one would blow over, too, but now I'm starting to think they're serious about cleaning things up.

This problem extends even to research; professors of Todai (U. Tokyo), Keio, and Waseda have all gotten caught with their hand in the cookie jar in the last three years or so. This has resulted in intense scrutiny of all research-related expenses. Every expense report I file gets gone over with a very fine-toothed comb. At the macro level, the funding of grants has slowed down due to the addition of more checks.

Part of the problem comes from a "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" cooperativeness. Especially in government construction contracting, many of the government officials expect to Descend From Heaven (amakudari) to a cushy advisory role for the construction companies they nominally supervise. Not exactly conducive to strict oversight.