Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Comparative Computer Culture

All right, then, delivering on a long-overdue promise (threat?), I hereby subject you to my translated essay on Japanese computer culture. I've changed as little as possible, but all parenthetical notes are not part of the original text. Like everything I write, this is backed by little or no scholarship, and all opinions are mine, as are all typos and awkward phrasings. Enjoy!

A comparison of PC culture: differences between Japan and the US in using and thinking about computers

Among present-day households in developed nations, not having a computer is as unusual as not having a telephone. School reports and authors' manuscripts alike are not handwritten but word-processed. With the assistance of the Internet, the Information Age is spreading. And at its forefront are the birthplace of computers, the United States, and the world's electronics manufacturer, Japan. But while computers are essential to daily life in both the US and Japan, their significance and use differ in some respects. I'd like to think a bit about how computers are used and thought about differently in the US and Japan, and about how this difference came about.

From the invention of the digital calculator in the 1940's, computers have become progressively more useful. Year by year the size of new computers decreases, while their computing power continues to grow. The first successful computer for personal use was perhaps the Apple II, released in the 1970's, and from then "PC" (in Japanese, "pasocon") has become a household word. Currently (as of May 2008) the US-based HP is the world's largest computer manufacturer, and Japan's Toshiba is estimated to be the fifth-largest. According to national census data, the fraction of the total population that uses computers is about 74% in both the US and Japan. In 1995, this number was 54% in the US, and 16% in Japan. In summary, PCs spread extremely rapidly, and over the past few decades have become an essential part of daily life.

That computers have become essential to modern life is certain, but what are they generally used to do? Word processing, games, finding information and socializing on the Internet, and various other uses have become commonplace. At work as well, computers are more likely to be used than not. These uses have spread to the US and Japan alike, but there are differences in their use, in particular due to cell phones. Japanese people may read their email, surf the web, and play games on their cells rather than owning PCs. On the other hand, American cell phones can generally not be used as anything other than phones. (Wow, yeah, this is a bit dated. I think the point still holds, though.) Thus, in Japan, some of the functions of PCs are taken over by cell phones.

We can also see differences in the impressions of personal computers in pop culture. The computers that appear in American movies are, to put it simply, "inhuman". The most well-known example of this tendency is perhaps 2001's HAL. Though at first he plays nice and asks to be considered as merely a tool, HAL ultimately betrays his human companions and is destroyed by them. We are left with the impression that were computers to be able to think for themselves, they would not be able to coexist with humanity. In Japanese pop culture, on the other hand, computers are generally depicted not as competing with humanity, but rather as being used by or helping humans. For instance, in the popular Serial Experiments Lain (yeah, you knew that was going to come up, didn't you), whenever the protagonist turns on her computer, she addresses it, saying "hello navi"* and interacting with it as with a friend. As for why this should be the case, one might say that in Japan, a computer's capabilities are considered less important than its effect on one's lifestyle.

It is difficult to summarize the various attitudes towards personal computers, but I believe that, speaking generally, in the US the focus is on the specs and uses of a computer, while in Japan the interface and influence on one's lifestyle are considered more important. To Japanese people, whether computers are simply tools or beings on the level of humans, the heart of the matter is how they can be incorporated into daily life. They seem to spend more time thinking about the circumstances surrounding computers and their relationships with people. Over the course of thirty years, personal computers were invented and have become ubiquitous. If computer technology continues its rapid advance, then perhaps Japan, where so much attention is paid to the interfaces of computers and their effects on everyday life, will be able to adapt more easily to that new technology.

Whew! Finished. A plea for clemency: this was originally written in a language not my first, and has been translated, imperfectly, by me. This is no excuse for the fact that my evidence does not actually justify my conclusion. Nonetheless, let me know what you think!

*Footnote: while it may be obvious in Japanese (where "navi" is now a common term for a GPS), it's not in English, so I'll point out that "navi" here is the name of the computer. And yes, that's where Link's fairy got her name too.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

News from the front, part the last

So, one other thing I've learned about forum RPGs: they go a lot slower during the school year. I can't really blame them for this, since obviously people have things to do, though that's rarely stopped me (not something I'm particularly proud of). My own project seems to have died off for the moment (though that's mostly my fault), and even sites that had quite a few enthusiastic players posting several times a day over the summer are now lucky to get one or two a week. I suppose the lack of a regularly scheduled meeting time might also have something to do with this. Chalk it up as another disadvantage. So, my analysis for those interested: it's a fun way to kill time, meet internet people, practice writing, and get your RPG fix while school's out, but having a local group is hard to beat. Forum's still better than Skype, though. *glares at Skype*

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

One step closer to Rei Toei

A few years ago, the world (or at least the internet) received its first real virtual idol in the form of Hatsune Miku. For those who don't know (it's been hard to miss if you read the internets), Miku is essentially two things -- an anime-style character, and a synthetic voice, both courtesy of Yamaha's Vocaloid software. Neither of these is particularly groundbreaking, but the combination somehow took off, and she's become an internet phenomenon. By dint of the Eliza effect, she's gained a projected personality and an enormous following; if you're curious, search for Hatsune Miku on youtube, and then don't blame me for the amount of time you spend watching. Now Yamaha's taken the next step by making a humanoid robot to go along with the Vocaloid software (surprisingly, it does not have green pigtails). World domination can't be far off.

The concept of a virtual idol has been around for quite a while now; I've traced it back as far as 1994, which I believe was the release year for both William Gibson's novel Idoru and the anime Macross Plus. Both stories center around AI singers who become international pop stars. This seems to have been pegged as a uniquely Japanese phenomenon; Gibson's Rei Toei is Japanese (idoru is roughly the Japanese word for idol) and of course Macross was written and produced in Japan. This could be partially a function of the era in which they were created -- in 1994, Japan was the leader in pretty much every area of technology -- but I think there's something more to it than that, as evinced by the fact that the first real virtual idol turned out to be Japanese after all. In my opinion, it might have something to do with the Japanese media's mastery of the art of characterization, about which more below. Japanese technology also has an unparalleled focus on the human element -- the focus is often less on the capabilities of a device (speech synthesis has been around for ages) than the interface and the way it's presented to the user. (I wrote a speech on this for class a couple years ago; if I can find it, maybe I'll post it and/or a translation.)

It's interesting to note that both Rei Toei and Sharon Apple 1) had AI-generated personalities, and 2) interacted with the "physical" world via hologram, whereas neither of these are true of Miku. These traits reflect the state of the art at the time -- in 1994, the internet had yet to really take off as a medium for media distribution, and Turing-test AI seemed not too far off. These days, AI as a field has basically collapsed (see earlier rants), and holograms are a dreadfully inefficient way to make a digital entity visible. Those two traits are both infeasible and, as Miku demonstrated, unnecessary. In particular, thanks to the effect first publicized by the infamous "ELIZA" psychologist program, there's no need for AI to create a personality for a character. Any program that displays even remotely humanoid traits will be assigned a personality by the people who interact with it. Her appearance and her voice are easily sufficient for people to decide that Miku is naive, energetic, a little clumsy, and so on, and countless other traits are ascribed to her by her legions of fans. This isn't all the Eliza effect, though; I think some thanks is also due to the incredible power of characterization that the anime style possesses, by which the smallest details of appearance encode a character's personality. (Look at me, tying all my previous posts together!)

I'm most decidedly not a futurist, so I'm not going to speculate about what comes next, though I will be absolutely amazed if a Miku robot doesn't follow close on the heels of this one. Are virtual idols the future of pop music? Well, someone still has to write the songs, but that's true for human idols as well. In fact, Miku has an advantage on that count, because her compositions are crowd-sourced: anyone with the software can write songs for her (and thousands have). The voices still need work, but Miku and her comrades are incredibly popular despite (because of?) the fact that they're obviously synthetic. Humanoid robots have largely fallen by the wayside everywhere except Japan, probably because they're not really useful for anything, but we may yet be surprised by how much difference it makes to have a physical object that looks like us. At any rate, it may be about time for me to sign up for the waiting list for tickets to the next Hatsune Miku or Rei Toei concert (I think I'll give Sharon Apple's a miss). I'll see you there!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Scientists Worry

Okay, how could I resist? The New York Times runs an article with the headline "Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man". When I first saw it, I couldn't stop laughing. But it only gets better from there.

"A robot that can open doors and find electrical outlets to recharge itself. Computer viruses that no one can stop. Predator drones, which, though still controlled remotely by humans, come close to a machine that can kill autonomously."

What in this has anything to do with intelligence? Opening doors, maybe. It at least requires a bit of coordination; cats can do it, but most fish can't (though there may be other reasons for that). Being hard to wipe out? Later in the article, viruses are described as having reached a "cockroach" stage because they can't be easily gotten rid of. Yeah, sort of like cockroaches, or, I don't know, viruses? The least intelligent (arguably) living organisms in existence? And killing autonomously -- viruses can do that too, as can every predatory creature in existence, no matter how dumb.

But what really takes the cake is the caption on the photo of a robot that can plug itself in when its batteries run low. I quote: "This personal robot plugs itself in when it needs a charge. Servant now, master later?"

Ahahahahaha! Sorry. I thought I was in a 60's B-movie for a second. I usually put a good deal of trust in the NYTimes to come up with stories about things that are important, or at least coherent. This time, they've really let their readers down. Which is a pity, because the second quarter of the article is actually somewhat meaningful. When they talk about what actual scientists are actually afraid of, it becomes clear that it's not about intelligence at all.

In fact, they're thinking about two main problems: first, the rather pedestrian worry that computers will take human jobs (it's happened before, it'll happen again, and we seem to have survived somehow); and second, the far more important concern that people will have difficulty adapting to advances in technology. This is really something worth writing an article about -- the idea that our current social structures won't stand up to rapidly advancing technology, AI or otherwise. It's the same problem the music industry has been struggling with for years now, without anything even remotely resembling intelligence involved (on either end, heh). They take the time to publish a few interesting questions the scientists came up with: "What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?" Unfortunately, they seem more interested in sounding alarms than actually answering these questions.

After this, the rest of the article is devoted to the usual singularity nonsense, which makes for great sensationalist reading (once) but doesn't really forward the dialogue here. I'm not really the person to pick up the ball the NYTimes dropped, but I'll at least say a little about the issues they should have been talking about.

Computer intelligence isn't really a concern here; in fact, as time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the label "AI" exists only to impress and frighten the laypeople (for those who don't know, these days it's mostly statistics). Intelligence isn't the operative variable in determining whether or not a particular technological breakthrough causes societal problems. What matters is how it can be used in people's daily lives, to do things that are already possible differently and more efficiently. It doesn't matter how huge Google's database of personal information is if they don't have efficient algorithms to make sense out of all the numbers. A criminal can already simulate another person's voice with a vocoder or just a talent for imitation, so I'm not so worried about intelligent speech systems. Similarly, I'm not (yet) worried about Ray Kurzweil's singularity, because it's about a completely different mode of existence; it wouldn't so much clash with our society as rewrite it. Someone needs to think about these things, but they're blue-sky next to the real and present concerns (I won't say dangers) caused by any technological innovation that affects our way of life.

All right, enough of this rant. I hope the Times does a bit better next time they decide to cover a computer science conference. Really, very few of us take over the world for a living. I suppose I ought to thank them, though, for demonstrating that the infamous Frankenstein complex is alive and well in the modern age. Here's to more enlightened times; the singularity can't get here soon enough.

(Oh, by the way. This post came pretty quickly after the last one, but make sure to read that one too! It has important news and such.)

And the gates open

It turns out that making a forum site isn't as time-consuming as I thought. Acorn Rack really makes things easier. At any rate, after a brief flurry of industry, Steampunk Academy is now accepting applications! The actual story probably won't start moving for another day or two -- I'd like to get a sense of the sort of characters people are making and the sort of stories they'd like to tell -- but you can certainly make a character and socialize (IC or OOC). I'm pretty excited about this now; it looks like this project's actually going through! If you'd like any help with character creation or the like, just ask me (Glenn/Astell/Eleven/...). Hope to see you there!

Friday, July 24, 2009

The foundations are planted

Far more quickly than I expected, Steampunk Academy has a website. Please feel free to log on and look around; you can use the username guest and blank password. There's not much there yet at all, but I'm getting there, piece by piece. We're not quite to the point of accepting applications yet, so please don't submit one unless you'd like to help build the site; hopefully sometime during the weekend I'll have something a little more presentable. In the meantime, any advice or feedback on the site design is appreciated.

Meanwhile, I've been thinking about some different approaches to character ownership. In a GM-less game (which this will be, by the way), the usual idea of NPCs doesn't really make sense -- if everyone's a player, every character is a player character. In other words, someone has to fill even the bit parts, so why not share the love? In the forum environment, it's particularly easy for one person to play multiple characters, since almost nothing is in realtime. So, this seems like a great opportunity to try giving everyone (or at least everyone who wants them) multiple roles.

I've been thinking of a sort of character auction system; when a new character comes up (someone's advisor, a rival club, the villain's flunky, a hall monitor), either the person who introduced the character can claim it, or it can be put up for grabs. Of course, we'd need some guidelines to prevent overloading and obvious conflicts of interest (you have first dibs on your family members, but not your mortal enemies), but in general I think it could be a lot of fun. Anyway, we'll see how it plays out; the odds that I'll have forgotten about this by next week are rapidly dropping. Stay tuned, and I hope to see you on campus soon!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A plan

So, I've been thinking (never a good sign) about the possibility of starting up a forum RPG of my own. It would probably be easier than running a game in person or over Skype (at least from a logistics perspective), and would be considerably easier than writing a rules-heavy game from scratch. Of course, this has perils of its own; among other things, it would be my first time running a forum of any sort, though I have a few veterans I might be able to ask for help. If I forget about it by next week, it won't be the first time, but I'm slightly more optimistic about this than most of my "projects".

Of course, it has to be steampunk. Recently I've been fixated on the idea of a steampunk academy, drawing inspiration from various institutions of higher learning both real and fictional. After all, the whole point of steampunk is research and invention, and what better place for that than a university? And it never hurts to write what you know.

I've given it the tentative title of PRAISE, for Polytechnic Research Academy and Institute of Science and Engineering (yes, it's long and redundant, but I like acronyms). It's huge, and full of everything an academy ought to have -- eccentric professors, cutting-edge lab equipment, political scheming, clubs for anything and everything, and so on. Combined with the loose timescale and concurrency of the forum approach, this seems like it'd open up potential for plenty of fun side stories and world building. Of course, I'd need a story too, or at least plot hooks. Give it time.

Anyway, this is obviously in the very early stages. I'll put things up here as I go (if I go), and I'll certainly link to it if the site itself ever comes into existence. Naturally, all my readers will be invited to join; I'd be glad to have you, whether you've roleplayed before or not. Feedback of any sort is always welcome, too. Low odds of completion aside, I'm pretty enthused about this right now. We'll see how it turns out.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

News from the front, part 2

I've been here for a few weeks now, and I'm pleased to report that it's as fun as I expected. There are some really good writers out there on these internets, and that they happen to be nice people too is almost too much of a coincidence. (Although some of the nicest people I know I've met through roleplaying, so maybe it's not a coincidence after all.)

I've also had some time to reconsider the question of timing, and there are a couple of advantages after all, things I'm surprised I overlooked before. First of all, it means that the game's pace is a bit more flexible; I hate it when a session's plot gets rushed along because we only have n hours to get through it. It also means that side plots and character building can go on concurrently with the main story, instead of slowing everyone else down. And, of course, you avoid the perennial problem of having to talk over people to be heard, or missing your chance to act, which is a boon for the less experienced and/or less assertive roleplayer. Overall, a forum game is different enough from a tabletop game that I'm inclined to stop comparing them, and start trying to judge it on its own merits. At any rate, it's certainly not the second-rate substitute that I envisioned before I got started.

As far as dealing with more than two people, the group I'm in seems to have adopted the convention of posting round robin. This is a bit frustrating, since the timing doesn't always work out -- sometimes I feel like I'm cutting into somebody else's conversation, and at other times I don't really have anything to say, but have to post so I don't hold everyone else up. It does mean that everyone gets a chance to say something at regular intervals, though, which is a nice thing to have in a large group. If I were running one myself, I might go for something a little more free-form, but then again I don't have nearly enough experience with forums (roleplay or otherwise) to be confident in my opinions on these things.

In other news, the newest installation in the Shin Megami Tensei metaseries was recently released. SMT wasn't particularly known for anything until the release of Persona 3, which captured the hearts of gamers with its unique aesthetic (high school kids shooting themselves in the head to summon monsters). Since then, it's apparently become fairly popular; Devil Survivor was sold out in the first few stores I tried, though this might be because Atlus likes doing limited releases.

The game itself is notable for its original combination of (unoriginal) elements -- it's a strategy RPG which becomes a normal turn-based RPG for a bit when you attack -- and for possibly having more endings than anything since Chrono Trigger. It also takes the obvious but uncommon step of making the various small choices you make throughout the story actually have an effect. In fact, it's one of the few JRPGs that actually allows and encourages roleplaying. This and the number of endings combine to add a lot to the feel of the game; it's entirely possible to reach a point where you have three major options, all of them terrible. It's been a while since a JRPG has had me sitting there agonizing about which is the lesser of two evils. Or maybe that's just me. Either way, it's a lot of fun, and only increases my desire to track down some of the rare old SMT games (particularly Nocturne).

Well, that's it for now. No sweeping thesis on reality here. Move along.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hyper Text

Through a combination of work stuff and forum roleplay, I've been reminded of the existence of this strange thing the web is made of. Not quite a programming language, not quite just formatted text, it seems to have fallen by the wayside recently. Of course, web pages are still made of HTML and retrieved by HTTP, but the word "hypertext" is as dead as the prefix "cyber-", and these days professional websites are more Flash and scripting than anything. Meanwhile, the W3C has been quietly moving on (I found out the other day that the FONT tag is deprecated in favor of CSS -- what's with that?), and I have a feeling we're rapidly nearing an age where people have forgotten that you can do this on the web (though maybe that's better off forgotten).

I've never been particularly proficient in HTML, but I wanted to take a moment to think about what "hypertext" really meant. Back in the day, it was, as the name suggested, a new, innovative approach to text -- now your documents could have, not only pictures and formatting, but also these strange things called "hyperlinks", which connected them to other, related documents. I remember (this was a long time ago, okay?) envisioning it as a non-linear book, in which certain words might lead into completely different stories. It was an exciting concept at the time. These days, hyperlinks are pretty much the only surviving part of that vision; the box I'm typing this into, for instance, is mostly Javascript. It changed the world and then went its way, gracefully making way for the various languages that came after it. I like to think that its greatest legacy is that even now, most links are blue and underlined.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

News from the front

So, I've recently become interested in the phenomenon of forum roleplaying. I've just joined a game, so I thought I'd take the time to put up some thoughts. (I won't link you to the site; I'm too embarrassed about having people read my writing.) I've done a lot of console and tabletop roleplaying (yes, in case you didn't already know, I play Dungeons and Dragons), but my internet RP experience consists of a few abortive Skype games (it's really hard to keep a game going over Skype). So the things that jump out at me first are the differences in the forum approach. They are, in no particular order:

1) It's generally rules-light. I consider this a good thing. Crunching numbers is fun and all, but the real joy of roleplaying is the cooperative story aspect, and recently I've felt that this means the fewer rules the better. Of course, this only works well as long as everyone gets along, which leads me to my next point.

2) It's on the internet. This is both good and bad. Bad, because as with everything on the internet, most of the forum games out there look pretty awful. The odds of things going poorly (for the players, not the characters) is probably a good deal higher than in your average college gaming club. At the same time, there's so much stuff out there that the odds of finding something that meets your personal tastes (say, psychological horror niche anime) are pretty high. And there are enough people who play that there are most likely quite a few groups full of good writers and nice people.

3) It's not realtime. This is probably the first thing that struck me, and to me the strangest. How are you supposed to have a conversation when the other person might not respond for hours or days? How are you supposed to run a dramatic scene when you don't have everyone at the table? As it turns out, people have come up with ways around it. One of these ways is to have each post partially overlap with the posts before and after it, so that in one post your character might react to a few things someone else did, do something on her own, and ask a few questions for the next poster to respond to. With more than two people, this starts getting messy, but it's better than nothing. And of course, forum posts can be edited after the fact for continuity without embarrassing cries of "retcon!" Even so, the time thing still seems like a disadvantage to me. Maybe I'll change my mind as I play.

So, for the next while, among other things, this shall be a forum roleplay blog. Wow, that's like, Web 3.0 or something. If this much nerdiness hasn't put you off already, stay tuned!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Everything's better free!

Independently made video games are really a wonderful thing. These days, big-budget games have a longer list of credits than most movies; so the idea that one person can use publicly available tools and make a game that's just as fun (and often more original) than the most recent big-name hit (sorry, Square, but it's true) is really incredible to me. And, on top of that, they're often free! I couldn't list all the best indie games out there in one post -- for one thing, I don't know them all, and for another, 1up lists 100 a year -- but here are a couple of highlights.

First, Doukutsu Monogatari (Cave Story) by Studio Pixel. This is an old one, but it doesn't get any worse with age. Though it starts off with no explanation, it has a surprisingly deep story, with multiple paths, great characters, and the kind of adventure gameplay that you can't find in mainstream games anymore. It's going to be re-released for WiiWare sometime in the indefinite future, but until then, the original can be downloaded here (click the little red guy in the 2004 row), and the English patch is here.

Second, somewhat more recent, is Scott Games. This guy's been re-imagining the traditional console RPG for a while, and it looks like he's perfected the formula in his most recent release (though I haven't played through it yet) -- his battle system, in which there's no such thing as a "normal attack", makes even random encounters strategic and enjoyable. While the storyline for the older games is a bit weak, the characters are still charming (and charming's the word; in one you play a walking coffeepot, in another a group of FF flans), and they're a lot of fun to play.

Last but most certainly not least is my friend Ellipsis, who recently released his Chrono Trigger fan game, The Rise of Magus, starring everyone's favorite blue-haired villain. "Platformer with RPG elements" might be a reasonable description of the gameplay; as for the content, it's his interpretation of the part of Magus's backstory that was left untouched in the original game. Needless to say, this is awesome; in fact, it would have been awesome even without the great gameplay, but it turned out to be a really fun game too. If you don't know who Magus is, or why this is awesome, you should play Chrono Trigger, for it is the BEST GAME EVER. Unfortunately, it's not free, though in classic Square style it's now been released for SNES, PlayStation, and DS. And once you play it, you should play The Rise of Magus.

Okay, that's it for now. A word of warning, though; these games don't cost money, but they do cost time. Once you've started, you're liable to be sucked in.... Enjoy!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: TV Tropes

This is probably old news on the internet, but I just stumbled across this site, and became entranced for hours. It's basically what I was trying to do with the thing about hair color, in a wiki, and on a massive scale. Masses of recurring themes, subplots, character types, and gimmicks are recorded and described, with nice little illustrative examples from TV, movies, anime, literature, and so on. A lot of it's focused on speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, and such), which makes it even more fun to read (to me, at least). And that's an important point: unlike sites like Encyclopedia Dramatica (an encyclopedia of internet memes -- reading it hurts the brain), this site is fun, at least to someone with my slightly unusual taste in entertainment.

One of the reasons it works so well, I think, is that there are so many different ways to slice things; you're bound to find at least a few that apply to your favorite movies/books/shows/bedtime stories. On a meta-level, it's also an interesting resource for looking at how we think -- what features of a story stand out? What attributes allow us to conclude that two characters are similar, or that one movie was ripped off from another? It's not academic, of course, and I wouldn't cite it in a paper (actually, I would, but I'm terrible about sources), but that doesn't mean it's not educational. And if nothing else, it'd be a great source of character ideas for a story or role-playing game!

Sunday, June 7, 2009


I had a very strange experience today. I was reading a book, intently, when I felt slightly nauseous. At first I didn't pay it any attention, and kept reading, but it steadily grew worse. Eventually I realized that it was what I was reading that was making me nauseous. Intellectually, I didn't see anything wrong with it; emotionally, I didn't feel anything unusual; but physically, I felt sick. I finished the section, and sat down for a while, and after a few minutes it passed; I picked up at the next section and felt fine.

Now, let me add a bit of context. I've read plenty of shocking, graphic, and unpleasant material, and I have a fairly vivid imagination. I've read things that have given me nightmares, I've gotten awful mental images stuck in my head. I'm a fan of fantasy horror; I've read Lovecraft before sleeping, and I've read the Sandman graphic novels, in which case I didn't even need to visualize*. The thing I read today wasn't as bad as any of these. It wasn't even particularly objectionable. And yet, as far as I remember, nothing I've read has caused such a dramatic physical response.

A combination of genetics, instincts, and early nurture give us a package of associations that determine how we react to various perceptions. This is, perhaps, what we'd call human nature. Throughout the process of education and socialization, new associations are created, and existing ones are undone or superseded. This is because human nature owes nothing to constructed concepts like right and wrong, safe and risky, kind and cruel. It might, in some general sense, tend to encourage the survival of the human species, as was probably the case in this particular incident. However, it works in a way that often isn't the way we'd like to be, and depressingly often can't be overcome by any incentive. We do our best to reprogram ourselves and others to make us, in some sense, better people, but we're constantly fighting against a tendency that doesn't care whether we're good or not, one that can evoke powerful responses on a level that we can't control.

Of course, I'm being incredibly hypocritical here. I've drawn a huge false dichotomy between the human mind and this animal-level "human nature". Our constructed concepts are built on these instincts, and the associations and reactions they provide are the levers by which we can be taught. We wouldn't be able to have a sense of right and wrong if it didn't grow out of our basic responses to perceptions. If we cut out the animal brain, we wouldn't be super-human and super-moral; we'd just die. A little irrational discomfort, a susceptibility to fear, an inability to care about people we've never met and can't put a face to as much as those we've spent all our lives with; these are part of the price we have to pay to be able to have a mind at all. We can't wipe out the roots of our sentience; rather, by understanding how we work, we can come up with new ways to make ourselves better.

Well, that was a large reaction to a relatively minor event. Maybe it doesn't signify anything so grand; maybe it was coincidence, or suppressed neurosis, or something I ate. Still, though, I think there's an important lesson here. Don't take yourself too much for granted -- take the time to think about why you feel the way you feel. Who knows? You might learn something.

* By the way, please don't be put off by this characterization -- both Lovecraft and the Sandman series are great stuff, and highly recommended reading to anyone who doesn't mind a bit of scariness. They won't really give you bad dreams. Probably.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

a tangled issue

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating opinion piece on the legal issues surrounding same-sex marriage and transsexuals:

It's hard to think of a more omnipresent dualism than gender. It's almost impossible for most people (I know it is for me) to interact with other people in any way at all without classifying them as either male or female. In the majority of cases of real-world interaction, the classification can be made fairly easily, though, as the article points out, not always consistently or coherently.

It's equally complicated in the case of online interaction. When the only clues one receives are written text, and possibly an avatar which may be genderless or intentionally different from the person it represents, the decision becomes very arbitrary. I've convinced people that I'm of the opposite gender before on the internet, often without even trying (is that an embarrassing thing to admit? I'm not sure). And people tend to attribute gender even to genderless constructs like AIs, based on clues that in this case are completely spurious.

So, what's my take on all this? I'm really not sure. I'm as deeply tangled in it as anyone. Part of me wants to say that gender is another irrelevant distinction that'll become obsolete with the advance of technology. Another part sees it as an important part of our culture, albeit one that should be under our control rather than used to control us. And of course there's the backwards-looking part that keeps pointing out that this distinction has a biological basis. For now, the most I can say is that it's something that merits further thought. Oh, and if you're interested in this sort of thing, my good friend ekblack often writes about gender issues and other fun stuff. Check it out!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

a story

I woke up one morning and there was a little man at the foot of my bed. I've never seen a butler, but he was dressed like a butler, in a tuxedo and a top hat. He said, "Good morning, sir."

I wasn't sure what to do, so I just sat there for a bit. He cleared his throat, and then asked me: "Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"Huh? Destroy the world...?"

"Yes, sir, that's correct. Do you want to destroy the world today?"

"Uh... no... not really...."

"Very good, sir." And he disappeared.

It was a weird dream. I don't usually remember my dreams, but this one was pretty memorable. I kept thinking about it all day. "Do you want to destroy the world?" It isn't really the sort of question you'd expect a butler to ask.

In school that day, I asked Alexa about it. "Hey, have you ever thought about destroying the world?"

"Of course! I've told you this already. My army of giant robots will bring the world's governments to their knees, and they'll be forced to acknowledge me as their leader. Then everyone will have to do what I tell them to."

"No, I mean, like, destroying it. Not just taking it over, actually getting rid of it."

"That's stupid. There wouldn't be anyone left to do my bidding. What would the point of that be?"

"Ah, yeah... I guess so...."

"Hey, come on, eat up. Lunch's almost over."

I went home, did my homework, read for a bit, went to sleep. The next morning, the little man was there again.

"Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"Why would I want to destroy the world?"

"That's not for me to say, sir. Do you?"

"No! Stop asking me! Of course I don't."

"Very good, sir. I'll come again tomorrow." And he disappeared again.

The harder I tried to put it out of my mind, the more I thought about it. So I asked Daniel about it during computer lab.

"Hey, Daniel, have you ever thought about destroying the world?"

His eyes lit up. "A good question! Actually, the world is destroyed all the time. At every timestep, the current state is erased, and a new state is determined. It's the connection between them that gives the illusion of continuity."

"Uh, sorry, I tried really hard, but I have no idea what that meant."

"Okay, okay, I'll give you an example. You know the Game of Life?"

"You mean that dumb board game with the little cars and little people?"

"No, I'm talking about Conway's Game of Life. Look, I'll show you." He pulled up a website with a grid of white squares, and clicked on some of them, turning them black. "Here we have a world. Some cells are on, some are off." He clicked a button, and the patterns started moving. "And here we have life. Some patterns fall apart, some sustain themselves, some even produce more of themselves. But in reality, at each step, each cell's state is determined by a few simple rules. At every step, the grid is wiped blank, and new cells are filled in based on those rules. Nothing moves or changes at all; it's constantly destroyed and recreated."

"Okay... so, you're saying the real world's like that too?"

"Exactly! I knew you'd catch on. Matter never changes; it's only created and destroyed."

"If you say so...."

It was pretty cool to watch, though. When I got home, I played around with the game for a while, trying to see what kinds of patterns would survive and what kinds would disappear. I almost forgot, but before I went to sleep, I set my alarm for a bit earlier than usual. I wanted to wake up and have some time to get things clear in my head before the little man appeared. As soon as I woke up, though, he was there again.

"Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"This is some kind of riddle, right?"

"I couldn't say, sir."

"Well, I figured it out. I already destroyed the world. Every time I go to sleep, it disappears. Every time I wake up, it's there again."

"I see, sir. Do you want to destroy the world today?"

"I just told you! I already did!"

"As you said, sir. Does sir want to destroy the world today?"

"It doesn't matter, does it? It'll happen whether I want it to or not. That's how things work."

"That may be, sir. Nevertheless."

", I don't. Go away."

"Very good, sir." And he was gone. I felt... I don't know... disappointed? Frustrated? Here I thought I'd worked it all out, and now I didn't understand it any better than I did before. Thinking about it, it didn't make sense; why would he ask me whether I wanted to destroy the world? What did what I wanted have to do with it? I was feeling pretty down, so I decided to hang out with Jake after school.

"Hey, Jake."


"I was wondering...."


"I know it sounds weird, but... have you ever wanted to destroy the world?"

"...yeah. Sometimes."

I thought he was just going to leave it at that, but just as I was about to change the subject, he started talking again.

"You know, most of the time, the world's a great place. And even when it's not so great, it's gotta be better than nothing, right? But I don't always feel that way. Sometimes I really do think that we'd be better off with nothing at all. So, yeah. Sometimes I feel like I want to destroy the world."

"Oh... huh. Yeah. I guess I see what you mean. That's pretty heavy stuff, though."

He smiled a bit. "Yeah, I know. Don't worry. Things haven't been that bad for a while. And even when I feel that way, I know I'll feel better before long. So I wouldn't really want to destroy the world."

"Yeah, me neither. Thanks, man. For some reason, I feel a lot better now."

This time he actually laughed. "You're so weird. But I'm glad I could help."

I went home, suffered through my homework, and then just sat and thought for a while. I could see how someone might want to just get rid of everything. I can imagine some poor kid whose life has been nothing but miserable, like Oliver Twist or something, wishing it all away. But I didn't have it that bad. I didn't have any reason to want the world destroyed. It sounds depressing, I know, but it cheered me up, and by the time I went to sleep I felt pretty confident.

Of course, the little man was there again when I woke up. "Good morning, sir. Do you want to destroy the world today?"

"No, I don't."

"I see, sir."

"And I'll tell you something else. You don't have to come tomorrow, either. Or ever again. I don't want to destroy the world, and I'm not going to, no matter how many times you ask me."

I felt pretty sure of myself, but he just stood there and nodded. When I finished, he smiled, ever so slightly, and said, "very good, sir. I'll come again tomorrow" and disappeared, just like he always did.

He didn't seem bothered at all, and that bothered me. Didn't he get it? There was something about that smile, like he knew something I didn't. I could hardly concentrate during school, I was so busy worrying about it. Alexa and Daniel asked me if I was okay, but I couldn't really explain it to them. After all, I couldn't even explain it to myself. By the time I got home, I was a nervous wreck. So I finally gave in and talked to my dad about it.

My dad's a psychologist. This means, among other things, that I can't hide anything from him. Whenever I ask him something, he keeps asking questions, trying to understand why I feel the way I feel. Some of the things he says are hard to believe, and some of them make me really uncomfortable, so I usually just make sure not to get him started. This time, though, I really needed his advice. So I started from the beginning and told him everything.

"Hmm, I see. A desire to destroy the world is often the projection of a desire to destroy oneself." He gave me a look. "Have you been having suicidal thoughts lately?"

I don't know, have I? Was that what all this was really about? "I don't think so...."

"A healthy answer. We can't control our subconscious minds. Freud wrote that everyone has, at some level, an inner drive for destruction, whether of the self or of the other. What's important is that you remain in control of yourself. You're empowered to make your own decisions, irregardless of any subconscious desires."

I wasn't really sure what he meant, but there was something reassuring about the way he said it. "So... I should ignore what I feel and do what I think is right?"

"Hrmm... yes, I suppose that's a reasonable way for you to think of it."

"Okay... thanks, Dad. That really helped."

"I'm glad you feel that you can talk to me. Communication is important, you know."

"Yeah, I know. Goodnight."

I headed up to my room and lay there for a while, thinking about it. Eventually I feel asleep. The next morning, the little man was there again.

"Good morning, sir."

"Good morning. Hey... are you a part of me?"

"I couldn't say, sir."

"Yeah, I guess not."

"Do you want to destroy the world today, sir?"

"Not really. You know, you don't have to keep asking me."

He cleared his throat. "That's as may be, sir."

"Why? What's the point? I don't want to destroy the world, I don't want to kill myself. There's no reason for you to be here anymore."

His face never showed a hint of emotion. "Very good, sir. I'll come again tomorrow."

And he was gone. I sighed. I thought I'd finally figured him out, but nothing had changed at all. I didn't even know whether I'd been right or wrong.


I don't really remember what happened next. This was three years ago now. I don't think I talked to anyone else about it; I didn't want my friends to worry. I'm sure the little man appeared at least a few more times, and I said no to him each time. Then eventually I forgot about him. Maybe he stopped appearing, or maybe I stopped remembering him.

I'm not sure why I thought of him now. Maybe now that I've remembered him, he'll come again, and ask me that same question. If he does, I'll say no.

Whew. This is a story I thought of today. I don't write very often, but sometimes an idea gets into my head, and won't leave until I put it into words. I should probably add that the main character of this story isn't me or anyone I know, and that I'm neither depressed nor more than usually delusional. In the words of the late great Kurt Vonnegut, "all persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental and should not be construed."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: Dennou Coil

Yes, that's right, two posts in one day! In one hour, no less! It's extreme, I know, but sometimes it just has to be done. The circumstances are this: today I finished watching one of the best anime series I have seen, a show called Dennou Coil. My first impression of it was something along the lines of "Miyazaki does cyberpunk": an elementary-school girl and her little sister arrive in a new city, are left to their own devices, follow their strange pet, and end up having mysterious adventures. In other words, My Neighbor Totoro, except that the pet is a (adorably ugly) virtual dog that only exists in cyberspace, which they perceive by means of Shadowrun-style image-link glasses. (Note: while the show merits extensive comparisons to the great Miyazaki Hayao, it's not actually by him, and as far as I know he had no involvement in it.)

On further inspection, if one of its parents is Totoro, the other is the cult classic Serial Experiments Lain. As in Lain, the focus is less on the wonders of modern technology than on its effect on everyday life. Don't let the comparison scare you, though; it's much more accessible and considerably less creepy. And there are no little gray aliens, I promise. (On a side note, Serial Experiments Lain is also an awesome show, ranking up there with Evangelion in emotional impact, brilliant writing, and incomprehensible weirdness.)

The virtual worlds here and the creatures that inhabit them are fully as imaginative and charming as any of Miyazaki's work. As the children adapt to their new home, they various mysterious incidents related to the glasses and cyberspace. Interspersed are occasional self-contained episodes surrounding the fuzzy black animal-like entities called Illegals (which, again, bring to mind soot balls and dust bunnies). The asthetic isn't as smooth and perfectly proportioned as most anime, and is that much better for it, taking full advantage of the cuteness of ugly things. The storyline is compelling, the character design charming, the characterization spot-on, and the rare interludes that don't contribute to the main arc are wonderful in their own right. The basic premise of the glasses is a bit pseudoscience-y, but the writers keep the awkward non-explanations to a minimum, and it makes for such a good story that I had no problem forgiving them. It combines the sense of wonder and adventure of the best kids' movies with a fascinating fully realized near-future world, and neither the cuteness nor the technobabble ever become grating.

Megane-moe aside (sorry, couldn't resist), Dennou Coil is quite simply an amazing show. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either; my research indicates that last year it won the Japanese equivalents of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards (the biggest awards for science fiction writing in the country, in other words). If Lain showed the power of anime to depict abstract, amorphous concepts like cyberspace, Dennou Coil shows its power to connect them to (semi-)ordinary human lives, and tells a great story in the process.

Worlds in my head, take 2

It might be obvious by now, but it often occurs to me that my favorite entertainments, chiefly science fiction and fantasy, derive much of their charm from their depiction of alternate realities. Whether it's through books, games, movies, or webcomics, I enjoy imagining (and, if what I've said so far is true, to some extent living in) other worlds. This could easily be described as escapist, and prompts (but does not beg) the question: what's wrong with this world? My first instinct is to get defensive, but that's never a particularly convincing approach. Actually, thinking about it, a better response would be: what do you mean by "this world"?

One of the great triumphs of human society, perhaps even its fundamental purpose, is to convince us that we all perceive the same basic reality. It's obvious why this is generally desirable: we can't work together or communicate if we don't believe that what we see somehow correlates to what others see. Whether this is true or not, as I've said before, is out of my scope for the moment. What's important here is that reality as it's conventionally thought of is just cyberspace on a larger scale, a consensual hallucination including nearly the entire human species. Each of us has different perceptions, but despite this we nearly all believe that we're perceiving the same things. Then to me, what we call "the real world" is the region in which my mental space overlaps with that of (what I believe) most other people think of as real. That is, rather than thinking of the "virtual worlds" I've talked about as alternatives to reality, it makes more sense to think of reality as just another one of these worlds. We each have our own constructed reality, and insofar as we divide it from fantasy that's a constructed division; if we were taught from birth that everything we imagine is real, there'd be no difference to us between reality and fantasy.

Again, it's obvious why this distinction is desirable; a common perspective seems (from the common perspective) to be useful if not necessary to a productive life. Nonetheless, even from within the bounds of our constructed reality we can feel the desire for other interpretations, and can even see it as useful as well, working the idea, if not the reality, of alternate worlds into our own.

So, why fight the status quo, even though it leaves space for the worlds I so cherish? To a certain extent, it's a game; I enjoy thinking about these things, for many of the same reasons that I enjoy science fiction and fantasy. There is, however, a part of me that believes that some serious reenvisioning of reality is going to be required sooner rather than later. The internet has already brought virtual worlds to the forefront to an unprecedented extent, and if developments in any of various technologies continue, including telepresence, AI, and the awkwardly named VR, we'll soon enough have "real-world" issues that can only be discussed coherently by recognizing the proper place of "unreal" worlds. The current debates over intellectual property might well be one of these problems, and of course speculative fiction began to delve into these issues long ago. At any rate, if the future isn't here now, it may well be soon, and if and when it comes this sort of mental exercise will no longer be purely academic. Or so I believe. You have to take anything I say with a grain of salt; after all, I read a lot of science fiction.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The worlds inside my head

Maybe it's the weather, but I'm not really in any mood to write coherently. Nonetheless, there's something I want to say, so I'll just go with the flow and hope you can forgive things like rambling, poor organization, and general incoherence. Let's start off with a little question: what's real? There are various different answers, of course. I don't know whether there's such a thing as objective reality -- in fact, it might well be impossible to know whether there is. I take it as an axiom that everything I know (or think I know) is based on my perceptions -- I don't believe in a priori knowledge. So, not "I think, therefore I am", but rather "I can hear myself think, therefore I am".

Then let's forget about objective reality for the moment. Subjectively speaking, what is real? I've already begged the question -- I'm assuming that my subjective reality is determined by my perceptions. Now, of course, I have a problem, because I perceive things all the time that are, intuitively at least, not real. I might think I heard someone call my name, or misread a word, or dream. What then? The first answer that comes to mind is that, for the moment, even those illusions are real. It's not until I realize I was wrong, until I wake up, that I'm able to perceive the difference between what I thought was true and what was actually true, and until I perceive that difference, it doesn't exist. If I start hallucinating and never stop, that hallucination is my new reality.

The upshot of this is that I believe it's reasonable to say that a completely convincing imaginary world is no more or less real than what we think of as actual reality. For instance, suppose that telepresence* technology advances to the point where I can't tell the difference between meeting someone in person and meeting them through teleconferencing. Then it doesn't seem all that crazy to say that I've met someone "in real life", even if I haven't actually physically been in the same room with them. In mathematics, this is called extensionality -- two functions are extensionally equal if when given the same input they give the same output. I'm sure there's a nice philosophical term for it too, but I don't know what it is.

If you guessed that all of this was just an excuse to fantasize about future technology, you'd be more than half right. From this perspective, an AI capable of passing the Turing Test is basically human, and sufficiently realistic augmented or virtual reality is just as good as actual reality. Bringing it back to the present day, consensual hallucinations like the Internet actually exist, not just as side effects of networks and displays, but as parallel worlds generated by the belief of their users. Less convincing illusions like the worlds inside of novels and movies are slightly less real, little toy worlds in our heads that we can start, stop, rewind, and reshape to some extent. The more the world seems to have an existence of its own, independent of the will of the perceiver, the stronger the illusion -- and thus the reality -- of reality. There's no magical line past which a virtual world suddenly pops into existence; rather, it was there all the time, slowly growing more real as it became more convincing. No matter its substrate -- atoms, words on a page, bits in a computer's memory -- if it seems real to me, then it is real to me.

I've run out of steam for the moment, but I greatly enjoy thinking about this topic, so I'm sure you'll hear about it again if you stay tuned. Again, my apologies for the incoherence.

*Telepresence, as sci-fi as it sounds, is just a fancy word for real-time communication methods such as telephone, video conferencing, instant messaging, etc., that allow people to give the impression of "being present from a distance".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

My faces are many, my sides are not few

For whatever reason, the first line of this little rhyme popped into my head this morning. The full rhyme is "my faces are many, my sides are not few; I'm the Dodecahedron, and who are you?", and it's from the truly amazing children's book The Phantom Tollbooth. It's a story about a boy who finds himself transported to a world with no rhyme or reason (literally; Rhyme and Reason are princesses who've vanished from the land), where the king of words and the king of numbers are constantly at war. Eventually the boy reconciles them by proving that there is something they agree on, and brings Rhyme and Reason back to the land. It's safe to say that this book (and the associated movie) was one of the pillars of my childhood. Aside from being full of delightful word games and puzzles and such, it's a perfect allegory for the rational/emotional divide I've been talking about (see, it's not just me). The moral, of course, is that the world makes no sense if we try to separate qualitative and quantitative thought; by thinking of them two aspects of the same mind, rhyme and reason are restored. Anyway, philosophical lessons aside, it's a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it even if you're not a child.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

an idea

Recently a certain idea has been spinning around in my head. I think I want to try to build a steampunk-themed RPG, particularly inspired by the books of China Mieville (who, by the way, is an awesome writer). It'll probably be mostly based on D&D, since that's what I'm most familiar with, but there'll definitely be significant changes. For a variety of reasons, projects like this that I start are almost never finished, but maybe it'll be different this time. Anyway, I'll record my thoughts here as they come, and we'll see what comes out of it.

The most important thing about a steampunk RPG is that the focus should be very different from that of a normal D&D-type game. In D&D, most problems can be solved by quests, and in particular by fighting. In a steampunk world, most problems can be solved by science, and fighting is what happens when things go wrong. I'd like to make a system in which combat is as simple as possible, and science (research, invention, etc.) is as deep and complex as combat is in D&D. This seems to me like a fairly ambitious goal, and I have only the faintest idea so far of how I'd accomplish it.

Of course, if I'm going to make an RPG, I'm going to have to come up with a set of basic attributes. I'm far too picky to stick with the classic six-stat system, or any eight-stat, three-stat, or other pre-existing system; I'm going to have to come up with my own. In particular, I think I'm going to throw out the traditional balance between physical and mental abilities; people's brains are more complex, more varied, and more useful than their bodies, particularly in a steampunk setting. So right now I'm thinking of either five or six attributes: two physical, three or four mental. Physical would have to be something like strength and dexterity; mental must at least include intelligence, creativity, and self-expression. (I wonder if I'm the first to suggest the inclusion of a creativity stat?)

Next up are character classes. I know, not every game has to have classes, but even free skill-based games like Shadowrun end up with characters that conform to certain basic archetypes. You have your fighter, of course, your adventurer, with weird weapons and gear, who provides the muscle and the grit for dangerous undertakings. (There's a great Mieville quote about adventurers that I'd love to put here, but I left my Perdido Street Station at home.) You have your scientist, your mad inventor, with a head full of chemistry and biothaumaturgy, or whatever obscure branches of pseudo-science attract your interest. You have your socialite, your artist, writer, painter, or sculptor, politically active, reads the local seditious newsrag, knows all the cafes. You have your thief, your criminal mastermind or street thug, who knows the underworld, does the dirty jobs, can get you anything from anywhere if you're willing to pay the price. And you have your engineer, your craftsman, your blacksmith or glassblower or golem repairman, who can turn a scribbled blueprint and a page of equations into a real working gadget. It seems to me that at the very least, a steampunk game (or at least a Mieville-inspired one) needs to support characters like these.

From these rantings, maybe you can get an idea of what I'm thinking of. Unless I forget about it altogether in the next week, expect to hear more about this, and perhaps even some actual mechanics. Oh, and if you're not an RPer, feel free to ignore this and related posts. It's just something I do in my spare time. You should still read China Mieville, though, because he's awesome.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Musings on a rainy day and Japan

It's hard to feel enthusiastic about anything on a day like this. It's grey and drizzly, the sky a single sheet of cloud. It reminds me of the weather the day I first arrived in Japan. The sky was solid white, so smooth I could hardly believe it was cloud - it was as if above us was metal plate, painted to vaguely resemble sky, from some future dystopia. And in fact, people often compare Japan to the imagined future. It's not just that Japan controls most of the consumer electronics market, has produced more than its share of technological innovations, and has the most sophisticated toilets in the world. There's a sense, in this consensually homogenous society where the police don't carry guns because the criminals don't either, that this country has moved on beyond the troubles of our still-developing first world.

This isn't true, of course. In some ways, Japan remains fixed in the past. The same political party has ruled, with only minor interruptions, since 1955, and it's solidly center-right. Nativism is at least as strong in Japan as in the US. Leading politicians still spend their time rewriting the events of World War II. Entrance exams are still the primary determinant of college admissions, and employers who look at little more than school name on a diploma provide a powerful disincentive to study abroad. Is Japan a country caught between contesting forces, or a new-age synthesis of tradition and modernity? Or are these both dualistic illusions? I certainly don't know. But both as a case study of the modern world, and as a lens through which to view our own societal development, I think that Japanese society is a fascinating subject. I'm sure I'll have occasion to write more about it in the future.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dye your hair, and you too can be a superhero!

*switches gears* The traditional style of anime doesn't leave much room for distinguishing characteristics. Given that all faces are drawn more or less the same way in a given show (and often across shows), that choices in clothing may be limited by considerations like uniforms, and that anime faces are generally blank outside of the eyes, nose, and mouth, eye and hair color (and hair style) are some of the very few ways in which a character's individual personality can be portrayed in a design. (It might or might not be relevant to point out that this is often true in Japanese society as well, where dress codes at school and work limit the opportunities for self-expression through physical appearance.) As a result of this, there seem to be certain conventions dictating how a character's eye and hair color reflect his/her personality. (As a side note, the smoothness of most anime faces makes distinguishing marks stand out that much more; for instance, the freckle below his left(?) eye is a huge factor in making Vash the Stampede's appearance so distinctive and memorable.) Through a considerable amount of "research", I've come to some hypotheses on the relation between personality traits and particular hair colors. Believe them at your own risk. (Also note: many of these theories are heavily influenced by Evangelion. I think this is reasonable, since much of anime is also heavily influenced by Evangelion.)

brown: Somewhat surprisingly, brown seems to be the default color for ordinary Japanese people in anime. Even in movies like "My Neighbor Totoro", where character designs are fairly realistic, half of Satsuki's classmates have brown hair. Because of this, a main character will almost never have brown hair, unless he/she is meant to be an everyday person (caught up in events beyond his/her understanding, most likely).

blond: Blond characters tend to be cheerful and flippant, and often not too smart. They're usually class clowns or sidekicks. Of course, blond is also the default Western hair color in anime; I don't think these two are related, though I could be wrong.

red: Similar to the Western stereotype, red-haired characters tend to be energetic, outgoing, and quick to anger. (See Asuka.) This is only true of bright red or red-orange, though; crimson-haired characters are more likely to be serious, even grim.

black: Black is, to make a vast generalization, the Japanese hair color, and black-haired characters tend to hold to traditional Japanese values; they're usually serious and diligent. Drawing a character with long black hair is one of the quickest ways to indicate beauty (especially when the art style makes *everyone* look pretty).

blue: Oddly enough, dark blue seems to be considered a pretty normal color, like black and brown. I really have no idea of where this came from, but as far as I've seen blue-haired characters tend to fit into the "everyday guy" category. Of course, this doesn't extend to light blue, which is largely confined to hyperactive, silly people and Ayanami Rei knockoffs (no offense intended, some of my favorite anime characters are Ayanami Rei knockoffs).

pink: As in the West, pink is a very feminine color in anime, and pink-haired characters are almost uniformly girlish and naive. There are very few assertive characters with pink hair out there, and when it's done it's usually intentionally reversing the stereotype.

white/grey/silver: White-haired characters are usually serene, otherworldly, and mysterious. (See Kaworu.) It's pretty rare to have a white-haired main character, since a main character is expected to be more emotionally dynamic. Of course, this only applies to young characters with white hair; on elderly characters, I don't think it means anything in particular.

That's all I've come up with so far, but I think it's pretty interesting, and holds surprisingly often. Please post with questions, comments, or counter-examples; after all, this is science! Well, social science. Maybe. Not that I know anything about social science.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the nature of nature

A lot of my ideas on what I call dualism (it's possible that nobody else calls it that) come out of an ecology class I once took, in which I learned, among other things, that 1) anything and everything can be thought of in terms of ecology, and 2) the word "unecological" can be used as a scathing insult. I didn't buy wholeheartedly into the professor's philosophy, and I still don't now, but one thing I took away from the class was that people tend to understand things by splitting them into two groups, and then taking sides. This is unecological. The distinctions between between Western and Eastern cultures, between animals and machines, between Us and Them are never quite as sharp as we'd like them to be. For some reason, this inspired me. So, I made dualism my enemy (which, now that I think of it, is rather dualistic of me). I decided that it would be fun to promote greater understanding by, whenever I had the chance, demonstrating that two things people tend to think of as separate are actually inseparable from each other - not only can you not have one without the other, but in fact there's no consistent way of drawing a line between them. A great example of this is the idea of nature.

As a technological crusader (in my own mind, at least), one of the things that most bothers me is the view of the world that says that technology and the environment are diametrically opposed. The basis of this attitude is simple enough: technology is by definition used to change our environment to our liking; the environment would rather stay as it is. But what is this "environment" thing, anyway? Most people would agree that plants and animals are part of it. We might also include features of the land (lakes, mountains, and such), and maybe more abstract concepts like habitats or ecosystems. But what about humans? We're animals too, right? Why aren't we part of the environment? And if we are, what about the things we make? If a bird's nest is natural, then why isn't a skyscraper? We can talk about details like materials, but everything we use comes from somewhere, and if we go far back enough we'll find nature. At what point did humans become a class of our own, separate from the world around us?

My answer, of course, is that there is no meaningful difference. A forest, a park, an office building; there's nothing more or less natural about any of these. Our drive to shape our environment isn't artificial, any more than a bird's nesting instinct. The human capacity for thought, reasoning, innovation is a natural occurrence; everything that follows from it is a natural consequence. This doesn't mean that there's nothing worth preserving in the parts of the world we haven't yet changed to suit us; it just means that casting us as the villains and the woodland creatures as the heroes (or the other way around, which is something I've done on occasion) isn't a coherent line of argument. This kind of dualism is very easy to create, and it might help us make sense of the world, but it doesn't make sense in itself.

A plea for clemency: these are very rough ideas. There may be holes, there may be avenues of argument I've missed. Part of my goal in putting these up here is to help turn my vague ideas into a coherent philosophy. Please comment, but please be gentle.

(As a side note, half of the aforementioned class was spent in debates between two students who considered themselves to be on the side of nature and the environment, and myself and one other student who considered ourselves to be on the side of technology, human progress, etc. I thought this was kind of ironic.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Profiles in Awesome: Webcomics of SCIENCE!

First, I'd like to mention that SCIENCE! is awesome. SCIENCE! is a way of re-envisioning science and engineering, a counterweight to the negative image that science has among so many people (particularly students) today. SCIENCE! isn't boring, overly complicated, or mechanical; it's a craft, an art, maybe even a superpower. SCIENCE! can be biology, chemistry, or physics, but it can also be biothaumaturgy or crisis theory, transhuman robotics, Frankenstein-style reanimation, or even magic (in the words of one of the webcomics I'm about to mention, "any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science"). You know those shirts that say "STAND BACK, I'M GOING TO TRY SCIENCE"? This is the SCIENCE they mean. Referring back to my previous post, SCIENCE! is quite clearly *not* a purely left-brain enterprise; it requires knowledge, skill, will, and the hubris to want to change the world. So, SCIENCE! is awesome.

So, on to the comics. First, Girl Genius. The setting is a Victorian-era world where a lucky few are blessed/cursed by the Spark, an intuitive talent for all things scientific and technological. Sparks can perform amazing feats of SCIENCE! on a whim, the likes of which normal people can't hope to achieve even with years of study and practice. Of course, they have a tendency to go insane, destroy themselves with their own inventions, or be brought to justice by angry mobs with pitchforks and torches. The hero is a girl named Agatha, who really wants to be good at science but isn't.... And so a steampunk epic ensues. I first discovered this comic on an off-week during exams; for three days, I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read Girl Genius. Not only are the art, characters, story, setting, etc., all amazing, it also updates regularly, three times a week, all the time, which is really rare for webcomics, and even rarer for good ones.

Second, Dresden Codak. This is a very weird comic in which Kimiko Ross, a college student, roboticist, and quantum physicist, explores the strange corners of science and philosophy, along with her possibly nuclear-powered friends Dmitri and Alina. It starts off very strange and random (but hilarious), but eventually gets into an epic saga of futurism and transhumanism (which is also still hilarious). It's a bit less accessible than Girl Genius, because 1) it's full of references to advanced science and obscure philosophy and 2) it's extremely surreal, but it's definitely awesome nonetheless, and even more awesome when you know what it's talking about. The epic saga ended last October, and it doesn't seem to be updating very often anymore, but it's still an awesome read, and unlike Girl Genius could (theoretically) be read in a single day. If you've ever dreamt of becoming the light guiding humanity into a scientific/technological utopia (and who hasn't?), you have no excuse not to read this comic.

As a side note, it occurred to me that the protagonists of both these comics are female. There doesn't have to be a connection or an underlying reason for this, but in my capacity as an untrained amateur sociologist I theorize that it's because SCIENCE! is all about breaking taboos and stereotypes, and one of the strongest stereotypes afflicting science in our society is that women don't do it. So, support the last, best hope for scientific progress: read awesome webcomics, and believe in the power of SCIENCE!

Monday, April 13, 2009

A skirmish with an old enemy

Today, for whatever reason, I've been thinking about the divide between the rational and the emotional. We're raised from birth with this idea of the two halves of our mind, the left brain and the right brain, the analytical and the creative, and so on. This has several implications, the most serious being that the various range of human mental activities can be classified as one or another, or perhaps on a sliding scale between the two. Painting, singing, writing fiction, "self-expression" sit solidly on one side; solving puzzles, conducting experiments, programming, learning facts belong largely to the other. From this it follows that talent in one is linked to lack of talent in the other; overly analytical people can't make or appreciate art, overly creative people can't do math, etc., and if they can, then clearly these are two separate talents, a case of unusual gift in not one but two unrelated areas.

At this point, of course, I point dramatically and shout "objection!" I've done my best not to make a straw man of this argument, but it still looks like it's full of holes to me. In what sense are these two categories different? At the bottom level, thought is just brain chemistry; at the top level, it's impossible to disentangle "rational thought" from "emotion". As a computer scientist, I can assure you that plenty of emotion, and yes, even creativity goes into solving problems classified as technical; as an amateur sociologist, I can purport that the appreciation of arts such as music, literature, and video games is inextricably linked to analyzing the material in terms of one's social context. Fields like music and architecture are sometimes brought up as rare cases where the two tendencies intersect; I think this is the tip of a broader recognition that the two are intermingled in *every* area of thought.

I think I'll leave it at that for now; I have a tendency to rant, especially on this topic. Rest assured, dualism, we *will* meet again!

Once upon a time,

"why not" outweighed "why", and thus was created this. I think I'll use it as overflow space, to store my extra ideas. It's as good a use as any.

Being shy, I won't introduce myself yet. We'll see how things turn out. Being me, I feel the need to apologize in advance if this doesn't meet your expectations, though I don't know why it should, or mine, though I don't know what they are. Now that that's out of the way, I suppose I'll just dive in, and see where this newfangled web-log thingy takes me.