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Sumo leads me to the dark side

In 2000, I spent a lot of time downloading music from Napster. I was working on Geekcorps and we had an office at MassMoCA, which had excellent connectivity. Working very long hours to get a new non-profit off the ground, I was listening to a lot of music in the office, and the ability to discover a new artist via Napster, listen to a few tracks, then buy albums via Amazon was one of those experiences that left me thinking, “Man, the internet just makes the world better.”

Obviously, not everyone felt that way, and when Metallica sued Napster in 2000, I was one of the 317,377 users banned from the system. I was also one of the 316,784 (that’s an estimate) users to run de-ban, rebuilding my registry so I could rejoin the network.

I didn’t stay long after the ban. Napster shut down shortly after, and the services that stepped in to replace it were, from the perspective of a music fan, not very good. I rekindled my love affair with independent record stores, bought a lot of used CDs and vinyl, and have generally missed the whole move to BitTorrent and peer to peer filesharing. Chalk one up for the RIAA, I suppose, but with the instant gratification of downloadable, legal music from iTunes and Amazon, I just haven’t been that tempted.

Up until about a week ago. Two things happened to lead me back to the dark side. One is that I was introduced to Dr. Johan Pouwelse, a fascinating guy who’s doing research on the power and potential of peer to peer networks. He’s in the odd position of having extensive funding from the European Union to build extremely powerful peer to peer systems, and he’s (understandably) interested in finding non-infringing uses for peer to peer technology. Pouwelse wondered what I thought about P2P as a method for distributing activist video – I though it was a cool idea, but probably premature, as centralized systems like WITNESS’s Video Hub, as well as more conventional solutions like YouTube, are working reasonably well for video authors. The main problems with activist video aren’t around content blocking but around the difficulty of authoring compelling media and in discovering this media – P2P doesn’t directly help with either problem.

In the course of talking with Pouwelse, I decided to try out his software, Tribler, which combines a peer to peer client, video playback software and some interesting ideas on search. What’s most interesting about the software is the idea that users can use bandwidth as currency, allowing the system to better address the free rider problem and reward users to sharing as well as downloading.

Purely for research purposes :-) I decided to try Pouwelse’s software… which meant finding something I was interested in to search for. Since we’re in the midst of the fourth sumo tournament of the year, the Nagoya Basho, I started looking for match footage. Bingo. Some kind souls have been recording and digitizing NHK’s English-language broadcast of the tourament, and posting it, day by day, in gigabyte-sized files on torrent servers.

It wasn’t even a question. I’m hooked. I’ve been sucking down the files during the workday and spending my evenings watching bouts on the laptop. I picked the right tournament to re-enter the world of filesharing. Asashoryu, the brilliant and controversial Yokozuna, dropped out of the tournament today after a poor call cost him a second loss early in the tournament. Kotooshu, the impressive Bulgarian Ozeki who won the previous tournament, picked up two losses early, but is still very much in the hunt, two wins behind Yokozuna Hakuho, who remains undefeated. And my very favorite, Sekiwake Ama, a scrappy, tiny (by sumo standards) Mongolian technician, started 5-0, before blowing the sixth match to his archnemesis Kotoshogiku. Can’t you feel the excitement?

My main man, Ama, sporting the Nike logo on his kesho-mawashi. Didn’t know Nike was making sumo gear these days.

There’s a few ways to watch sumo from the US, though none of them appear to be sanctioned by NHK, which broadcasts the matches in Japan. The excellent Chiri mo tsumoreba blog features good commentary (neither as comprehensive or as snarky as at Sumotalk) as well as links to match highlights posted on YouTube. Some are commented in English, others in Japanese. While useful, they’re tough if you don’t speak Japanese, as you’ve got to listen very closely for who’s fighting – in watching a full tournament, you can rely on the match card, which I usually find at Goo Sumo. With a match card and a bit torrent client, you can enjoy the entire foot-stamping, salt-throwing, big-men-staring ceremony of the event. Google “torrent nagoya day x” where “x” is the appropriate day of the tournament, and you’ll find a torrent link in no time.

Here’s the thing – I’d vastly prefer to pay for this content. Not out of any sort of sense of legality – for purely practical reasons. NHK has threatened, in the past, to stop broadcasting with English-language commentary. This commentary’s pretty essential for non-Japanese speaking fans. This sport is fast, complicated and extremely subtle, something that benefits greatly from a knowledgeable commentator. If paying NHK for a download – on iTunes, for instance – means they’ll keep producing English commentary, I’ll do my part.

I buy Chris Anderson’s argument in The Long Tail that the Internet makes saleable content that has small audiences. What surprises me is how few media producers seem to understand this argument. NHK will sell you the right to broadcast the bashos, but doesn’t seem interested in taking money from individual consumers, even though they offer premium satellite packages for Japanese speakers living outside the nation.

Here’s the thing, NHK – if there’s a sufficient audience for your content, it’s going to end up on peer to peer networks. Why not give those of us who’d pay for it the chance to do so?

As a bonus, watch Ama beat up Ozeki Chiyotaikai in this video from day 5 from the tournament, created the old fashioned way – with a video camera focused on the television. Can you say “analog hole“, boys and girls? I knew you could.

Added bonus: an Ars Technica piece on Dr. Pouwelse’s research.

3 thoughts on “Sumo leads me to the dark side”

  1. Ethan,

    A couple promising developments lately at NHK on the topic of English-language content distribution. This article explains that NHK is teaming up with Internet TV Service Joost to broadcast English-language programming for free. Only looking at news for the moment, but at least the possibility is there.

    Actually watching NHK the last year I have the feeling that they are thinking a lot about this. Have a look at this story about a program they broadcast back in March (“The New Era of Video” – 新動画時代・メディアが変わる). At least one blogger is guessing that they’ve got something in the works, but they just need the public support to do it (he claims).

    Interesting quote (translated) from a book called “Why does television hate the Internet?” (テレビはインターネットがなぜ嫌いなのか) by Jiroo Yoshino (吉野 次郎):

    When NHK tried to connect a radio relay to sumo wrestling, the Japan Sumo Association opposed it, saying that: “People to come to the Sumo hall and pay the entrance fee, that’s the business model.” However if you look deeper, you see that Sumo took off thanks to the relay, and the number of people coming to the Sumo hall increased.

  2. Hey Ethan,

    Thanks for stopping by my blog for the sumo coverage. I was very surprised to see my blog being called excellent. That made me feel great! Thank you very much for that. I just started this little thing up this month, so its been a pleasure to connect with so many people interested in sumo. Its been great!

    I feel the same as you in regards to the JSA’s lack of options for fans overseas. In Canada you can subscribe to TV Japan which carries NHK, but I don’t think there are many similar options elsewhere. I really wish they would consider some sort of online subscription service that featured a better live feed, some commentary and perhaps archives of each basho. That is probably a lot to ask of them, so until then I will try to blog each day and find any video I can. If the JSA would, as you smartly suggest, arrange a pay-for-download plan, they would definitely have many interested parties, myself included.

    Fortunately, I’ve been lucky to find an individual who has been uploading this videos from inside Japan. Its been nice to actually see these bouts in a most crystal clear format. I have no control over the language the videos are recorded in so I apologize for that and hope that viewers would take the time to acquaint themselves with the Chinese characters for their favorite wrestlers. As you probably already know, I provide wikipedia links for each rikishi so that people can get information in English about them.

    Thanks once again for stopping by and checking the blog out and of course for the “excellent” praise!


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