May 30, 2011

The uncanny abyss


Ever since Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori's research on the subject back in the late 1970s, digital animation has been slowly but surely approaching the abyss of the "uncanny valley."

When a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike--so close that it's almost real--we focus on the missing one percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge "the uncanny valley," the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it's bad.

Now it appears that a major motion picture has fallen in. Jonathan Kim writes that "Disney's CG/3D animated film Mars Needs Moms [is] destined to become one of the biggest flops of all time," and identifies the culprits as a mediocre script, dull characters, high ticket prices, and the "zombie effect" of the uncanny valley.

Ryan Nakashima adds a few illustrative anecdotes:

Doug McGoldrick, who took his two daughters to see the movie, said the faces of the main characters "were just wrong." Their foreheads were lifeless and plastic-looking, "like they used way too much botox or something."

Frankly, even the human beings in Toy Story creep me out a bit.

Anime avoids this problem by creating an unique aesthetic that makes no attempt to mimic actual human morphology. Another good example is How to Train Your Dragon (one of the best films of the decade), whose characters are all caricatures, but as Craig Ferguson quips, his digital double is a better actor than he is.

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May 26, 2011

Scarcely believable


A Japanese friend asked about the meaning of a sentence in the sample test questions from a Japanese university entrance exam.

a. I had scarcely spoken to him when he was gone.

The meanings of both "scarcely" and "gone" are ambiguous. The literal meaning of the latter is b, which could imply c or d.

b. I had scarcely spoken to him when he was no longer there.
c. I had just started speaking to him when he died.
d. I had rarely spoken to him when he died.

However, "was gone" can also mean "left." Here's an example from Frankenstein (published in 1818):

e. He was scarcely gone, when I hastened to my room to write to you.
f. Soon after he left, I hastened to my room to write to you.

This meaning implies g, though most people would say h:

g. I had scarcely spoken to him when he left.
h. I had just started speaking to him when he had to leave.

That was when my brain blue-screened. What sadist would put such a sentence in a test of English as a second language? Of course, questions like this have nothing to do with testing English competency, and everything to do the ability of the student to rote memorize huge chunks of information and regurgitate them on demand.

Consequently, the more obscure the material the better.

It's crap like this that gives me an dim view of test-heavy educational "improvement" efforts like NCLB. As bad as it is, the fuzzy-wuzzy approach is better. It produces enough performance randomness to compromise the efficacy the cram school approach. Feel-good, right-brain thinking and political correctness turns out to be good for something.

In Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, China) where getting into the college of your choice is based solely on entrance exam scores, students spend more and more time cramming for tests that elite universities make more and more difficult in order to maintain their standard deviation rank on the distribution curve, resulting in mind-boggling overkill.

It also means that these universities don't really have to be good at anything. They just have to be highly selective. It's a chicken and egg dilemma no elite institution can escape. I mean, if Harvard really was such a great educational institution, it could randomly matriculate students regardless of test scores and turn them all into geniuses. Right?

I'm reminded of the Darwinian dance of death between the poisonous dart frog and the liophis snake. Over time, the frog has become more and more toxic and the snake more resistant to the toxins, to the point that a small frog could kill an adult human. Yet the snakes still eat the frogs, even though the physiological effect is the same as going on a weekend bender.

Which pretty much describes the brain of a Japanese high school student who's made it into an top-tier university. They need to spend four years consuming unhealthy amounts of alcohol just to wash it out of their systems.

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May 23, 2011

Tameshite Gatten


I'm a big fan of slick NOVA and Nature productions, but there's a lot to be said for the laid-back simplicity of NHK's Tameshite Gatten approach. Roughly translated as "put it to the test and understand," it takes the more mundane aspects of everyday life and geeks out on them.

The closest examples that come to mind are Mythbusters and Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda. I really miss the latter, in which Alda stood in for the viewer as the smart everyman who could digest scientific explanations that weren't overly dumbed down.

David Pogue's Making Stuff series had the right idea, but I felt like he was trying too hard to be hip and, hey, you're hip too for hanging out with a hip guy like me doing all this cool stuff! Ain't science neat? Neato cool. Watch me doing all the cool stuff you wish you were doing!

Neil deGrasse Tyson is better, but Nova Science Now still spends too much time and effort selling the concept and grooving up the presentations, while assuring you that you're not a nerd for tuning in.

Tameshite Gatten hosts Shinosuke Tatekawa and Fuemi Ono (like Alda, smart professional entertainers, not scientists or wannabees) are confident enough about what they are doing to dare being totally uncool and unhip--to the point of outright corniness--and yet very educational.


They make it work by turning the show into the equivalent of a Lisa Simpson science fair project, explaining the topic of the week to a panel of three B-list celebrities. The result is a surprisingly demanding Socratic dialogue. (The celebrities do have to be reasonably bright.)

The presentations have a deceptively low-tech gloss. They must have a dedicated staff slaving away all week with sewing machines and cardboard boxes and Elmer's glue, creating oversized models and goofy costumes. Not to mention the staff members deployed as guinea pigs.


(When the producer announces to the crew that next week's show is about colonoscopies, who exactly volunteers? I suspect it's one of those jobs given to the "new guy.")


At the same time, they don't shrink from the hard stuff, the physics and biochemistry, while focusing like a laser on relevancy. And at the end of the show, an expert in the field will come out to sum everything up. Or conduct a short cooking class.

The shows are about 40 percent health and medical topics, 40 percent food and cooking, and 20 percent "home economics." With the first, I have to wonder if there's a "Tameshite Gatten syndrome," people flooding the doctor's office with the symptoms covered in that week's show.

On the other hand, though I rarely watch cooking shows on PBS (I will channel surf over to Kitchen Nightmares, a show more about running a small business), Tameshite Gatten takes a very left-brained approach and makes cooking look geekily interesting.

One program was about the perfect onigiri (flavored rice balls). Along with CAT-scanning onigiri, they selected a panel of best and worst onigiri makers, had them wear pressure-sensitive gloves wired to a computer, and then analyzed the results. That's my idea of cooking.

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May 19, 2011

In praise of cliche


In a post about writing for an RPG called "The Battle for Wesnoth," Eric Raymond describes how modern definitions of "creativity" often send art off the rails.

We're all so marinated in the 20th-century idea that good art is required to challenge one's preconceptions and be original that it is perhaps difficult to receive this sort of deliberately derivative work as art at all. But it's worth remembering that standalone art intended primarily to express the artist's personal creativity is a very recent idea, not actually fully developed until the collapse of aristocratic patronage at the end of the 19th century and the "back to zero" impulse of modernism in the early 20th.

In most cultures at most times, quotation and bricolage have been as important to artists, or far more important, than individual creativity. Art was tied to and primarily generated for non-artistic purposes--as an evocative device for religions, as decoration for craft objects and architecture, as a peacock-tail display tactic for the wealthy and powerful. Individual creativity was restrained, additive, and incremental . . . too much originality would have separated art from its purposes and alienated its audience.

Or as Terry Pratchett puts it, "The reason that cliches become cliches is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication."

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May 16, 2011

Room for the Holy Spirit


I've previously noted what could be taken as covert Mormon references and/or jokes in Bones. Kate recently pointed out another one, "The Death of the Queen Bee" (season 5, episode 17).

The episode takes place at Brennan's class reunion. She and Booth are dancing together. She'd like to dance closer, but he's still struggling with his feelings for her, so he takes a step back and says, "Just keeping room for the Holy Spirit, that's all."

Okay, Catholics attending parochial school probably hear the same thing, a testament to the universality of a conservative religious upbringing. Booth, to be sure, is a cafeteria Catholic, but he eats what's on his plate, and his character is written and acted that way.

Kate thinks there might be two writers riffing off each other. Either way, this confirms my belief that an objectively conservative writer will more accurately capture the essence of quite different religious ideologies than all the touchy, freely "diversity" activists.

This comprehension is also demonstrated in how Brennan's rigid empiricism is evenly matched by Booth's apologetic rationalism. This requires an understanding of how the conservative mind interacts with the modern world, rather than the typical straw men.

Mormonism doesn't reject empiricism or even evolution out of hand, and so has the potential for producing C.S. Lewis-type apologists (like my father with a Ph.D. from Caltech). Whatever their religion background, the writers on Bones often skillfully bridge that divide.

The most recent episode, "The Truth in the Myth" (season 6, episode 18), essentially reframes the main argument of The Silver Chair, without Brennan sacrificing her scientific integrity or Booth giving up on faith. It would have made C.S. Lewis proud.

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May 13, 2011

Being THAT GUY again


As Kate puts it, in making Star Wars I, II, and III, George Lucas

wasn't just trying to compete against directors like Ridley Scott and James Cameron (although he was doing that too), and he wasn't just trying to be rich and famous because he already was. He was trying to be THAT GUY again, the guy who came out of nowhere with a picture that wowed the world.

John Polkinghorne, a renowned professor of mathematics and theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge, resigned to become an Anglican priest. In the Q&A after the lecture, he explains (starting at 37:00) that by his mid-forties, he knew he couldn't be THAT GUY again--the brilliant scientist--and didn't want to stay beyond his "sell-by" date.


Polkinghorne also illustrates what's good about term limits and bad about tenure. He did return to Cambridge and became president of Queen's College, but after pursuing a completely different occupation in the real world. The feudal inclination to perpetual self-entitlement reveals itself most powerfully in politics and academia and must be disciplined.

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May 09, 2011

The taxwoman


When studying popular entertainment across cultures, "the same only different" is easy to spot. Samurai dramas and westerns, for example. But perhaps more compelling are the curious outliers in genres that appear on the surface to closely mirror each other.

The detective series and the police (and now CSI) procedural are pretty ubiquitous around the world. Once you've adjusted for culture quirks and legal differences, a British series and an American series and a Japanese series mostly share the same storytelling space.

But there is one particular genre of the police procedural on Japanese television that you're not going to see anytime soon in the U.S.: the IRS agent. Seriously. For the past several years, a new series about heroic tax inspectors has debuted almost every season.

Actually, there is an American precedent: The Untouchables. Al Capone was ultimately sent to jail by Treasury Department inspectors led by Eliot Ness. The television series and movie, though, are more shoot-'em-up actioners than adventures in forensic accounting.

That's exactly what these Japanese shows are about. They owe a lot to A Taxing Woman and its sequel, Juzo Itami's critically acclaimed 1987 and 1988 films about a tenacious government tax investigator.

Of course, the conflicts are spiced up for entertainment purposes. We watch them going after the big fish, not the sympathetic small fry. The protagonist is the expected combination of tenacious genius and rugged nonconformist (and if a woman, she's probably really hot).

In the current offering (the tagline: "This woman chases money"), Ryoko Yonekura has a ball playing against type as a frumpy, eccentric, Columbo-style investigator (albeit with a supermodel bod).

The puzzle is why Japan has such an abundance of tax cheats that tax inspectors are celebrated. In places like Greece, many of their financial woes boil down to the fact that everybody cheats on their taxes. In Japan, the conviction is that only the undeserving rich are doing so.

The reasons can in part be traced back to practices that date to the 19th century, such as the wide use of promissory notes and accepting signature stamps (hanko) as valid forms of identity. The sure sign of a tax cheat is a stash of bank books and hanko stamps.

But at the root of the problem is that even in the 21st century, Japan remains a largely cash-based society.

For practical purposes, personal checking accounts don't exist. Credit cards have become widely accepted only in the last decade or so. Most financial transactions are done in cash or by wire transfer. When ATMs appeared in the 1970s, so did the ability to wire money via the ATM.

The ATM wire transfer process has become so rife with fraud that police regularly stake out ATMs, not in order to apprehend the fraudsters, but to question the little old ladies targeted by the scams, to make sure they know who they're sending their savings to.

Banks rake in extortionary fees on these wire transfers and so have little incentive to change the system. Avoiding those fees means it's not uncommon for bonuses and even wages at respectable companies to be paid with envelopes full of cash.

The match that lights all this kindling was a post-war anti-corruption law that required the government to publish the tax liabilities of top-earning individuals and corporations. Every year, the tabloids took great pleasure estimating the incomes of the rich and famous.

The law was repeated in 2004, but this curiosity in the financial lives of others surely continues. Add to that historically lax reporting requirements and the temptation to imagine squirreling away tax-free money for a rainy day gains a whole new appeal.

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May 05, 2011

A common comic enemy


Kate wondered recently why so many time-travel television episodes/movies include a variation of the line: "In the future, I can't believe a B-actor will be elected president!" Okay, maybe writers are frustrated elitists who hate actors, but don't the actors have any self-respect?

Benjamin Schwarz gets at an underlying reason in this article about screenwriter James Cain (simply replace "Los Angeles" with the latest Hollywood gripe du jour):

Just as hipsters today use white pejoratively, denoting sterile, bland, non-ethnic suburbia, so sophisticates in Cain's day enjoyed skewering Los Angeles--[then] America's whitest, most Protestant, most bourgeois big city--as an artificial tropic teeming with displaced rubes, an opinion Frank Lloyd Wright neatly encapsulated in his contemptuous remark, "It is as if you tipped the U.S. up, so that all the commonplace people slid down to Southern California." So conditioned, writer after writer churned out the same derisive commentary on Los Angeles.

Because, as William Goldman observed, "Nobody knows anything" in the movie business, the reflex is to keep repeating whatever worked the last time until it utterly and undeniably fails, and then a few more times after that to make sure. So any "derisive commentary"--any trope no matter how overused--that once went over well takes on a life of its own.

Though it's also the result of the never-ending search for a Great White Menace that writers can mercilessly mock without arousing the ire of the professional offense takers. Add to this the earnest belief that there is nothing worse than having at any time (infancy included) been associated with anything held in high regard by religious conservatives.

The best way to dissociate oneself from the latter is to flock to the former like crows to road kill. Jokes about Republican politicians serve these ends perfectly. Actors willingly diss their own profession out of loyalty to their own ideological beliefs (and, to be sure, loyalty to a paycheck). Though I imagine self-knowledge has a lot to do with it too.

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May 02, 2011

Raise the Castle!


In order to enjoy Raise the Castle! it's important to realize what it's not. Despite the main character being a sixteenth century warlord named Ondaiji, it's not a samurai flick. Despite Ondaiji showing up in the modern day, it's not time travel. Despite a haunted cave, a witch, and spirit possession, it's not horror.

It's an "independent" film, meaning it was made independent of a sizable budget. It's more like somebody decide to film the local road show, which is what it is. Raise the Castle! belongs to that genre of quirky, feel-good films about the guy in a small town who gets a crazy idea and everybody pitches into make it happen.

In this case, the soul of the warrior Ondaiji possesses the town nerd, who then dons samurai armor (stolen from the local museum) and commands (in the Japanese equivalent of Shakespearean tones) the townspeople to rebuild his castle. That not being in the budget, they recommend making it out of cardboard boxes instead. And merrily set to work.

This has got to be one of the most unintentionally meta films I've seen, a movie about a guy who can't build his real castle and so makes one out of cardboard, made by a guy who can't afford to build scale sets and so makes them out of cardboard in the high school gym. In both cases, they get the townspeople to pitch in and make a party out of it.

There is one campy special effect that's even better because it's campy. I didn't notice most of the digital mattes, a tribute to how sophisticated desktop editing software has become. The acting (local stage talent) is good and Yo Kohatsu's direction is equal to the task (he wisely keeps the camera fastened down most of the time).

Lurking beneath the goofy, sweet surface is some real depth. The local historian learns to his chagrin that sometimes you "print the legend." The answer to an architectural puzzle makes a clever (and respectful) nod to Christianity (during the Warring States period, a small but influential number of local warlords were devout Christians).

All in all, the whole thing can be taken as an anthropological treatise about how local traditions and town festivals get started in the first place.

In the last scene, as the mayor surveys the big cardboard mess and gripes to his lackeys and wonders who to blame it on, the president of the Chamber of Commerce rushes up to him and exclaims, "This was so much fun! Let's do it next year!" That's what "community" really comes down to in the end--a big mess worth making on a regular basis.

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