Monday, 28 November 2011

Mt. Ōyama

To the west of Tokyo rise the Tanzawa mountains, whose breathtaking forested slopes and ridges loom upon the city's outer reaches. A popular place to hike, as evidenced by the masses of people on the paths and summit of Mount Ōyama, from where I watched the autumn struggle in late this year.

Click below for a lot of photos!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

World of Warcraft

Identity is a complex thing. Though our choices determine its path, so too do the realms and relationships through which it journeys. Here is one of the most significant of mine.

World of Warcraft (WoW) has been a part of my journey for over half a decade. It may perplex those who have not encountered it, and alarm those who have heard of it from the wrong sources. So let's clear things up a bit.

World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game – an MMORPG. That is to say:
RPG - An artificial world, in which you as a player can take up a character's persona, go on adventures, fight monsters, interact with non-player characters and elements, and so on. A classic genre of videogames.
Multiplayer/Online – This world is located on the internet. From their own computers, multiple people can enter the very same world, interact with each other, partake on those adventures and journeys alongside one another, or if they so wish, against each other.
Massively – By 'multiple people', we mean millions. As I write this, WoW has 10.3 million subscribers worldwide. That's a larger population than about 150 countries.

World is very much the operative word. This is no mere game: it is a new and created social space, no less a set of "imagined communities" than nations or states or tribes; and in which play out the same range of personal, social, political and economic human relationships. It is an extension of our two-hundred-thousand-year migration, which having more or less saturated the inhabitable continents of Earth, pushes its journey into spaces entirely of its own creation.

WoW has its own complex and comprehensive storyline, spanning thousands of characters and their relationships, into which your player-character is free to play his or her part: from mundane trivialities (collecting boar livers etc.) to cosmic narratives where the fate of the world is threatened by forces of galactic scale. I cannot possibly begin to provide a synopsis: go here if you're interested, and make sure you have several hours to spare and a very strong cup of coffee.

But it's the human element that defines it. Your interactions with this virtual world are played out through your social activities therein: above all in dungeons and raids, where you join up with five, ten or twenty-five other people (in the old days it was forty) to overcome the most formidable challenges. And raiding is not a dinner party: it requires organization, logistics and teamwork on a quasi-military scale, with a balance of player classes and roles, strategic and creative thinking, and dedication and cooperative persistence on every party member's part.

Of course, because humanity (especially in the "West") has acquired a problem with cooperation, these are often unsuccessful and frustating experiences. Corrupt leaders and abuse of power, clashes of inflated egos, conflicts over loot distribution, ninja-looting (i.e. theft of an item to which one is not entitled), discrimination, bigotry, callous social norms, or the kind of attitudes only arrivable at when education systems blast a person's intellect backwards from where it started at birth: all these occur, and reflect not problems with WoW, but the same mistakes and corruptions afflicting the same old humanity which has extended its journey into it.

And sometimes the boundary between WoW and the world outside it is vaguer still. A surreptitious (and illegal) industry has sprung up, most infamously in China, where people are paid to amass in-game currency all day, then sell it to players for "real-world" money. (Indeed, it recently emerged that corrupt officials in a prison in China were running a sweatshop by which prisoners were forced to farm virtual gold, with the proceeds lining the officials’ pockets and the inmates subjected to appalling violence if they did not comply.) In 2005, the lethal corrupted blood of the evil serpent god Hakkar the Soulflayer broke out in a virtual pandemic that spread through all the game’s major settlements – drawing the attention of the international epidemiological community, with calls for further research into the incident, referencing the contemporary challenges of SARS and avian flu, and suggesting what lessons the incident might provide in modelling the real-life spread of infectious disease, and developing our ways to combat it. "Just a game"? Hardly.

And then there's the classic one: romantic relationships. There are successes: players who get attached in the game, or decide to meet up outside it, leading to many happy partnerships, or even families. And there are calamities: internet anonymity and its notorious false personas, but also all the disputes and breakups and gender prejudices and discrimination against sexual or romantic diversity (to which might be added, disdain for online relationships) – all of which originated not in WoW, but in human society, for which WoW is but one more setting into which the toxic fumes from our breaking of love have been fanned.
My own journey through WoW has been long, and its influence on my overall journey enormous. I started in 2005, when I was more in need than ever of a different setting. In over half a decade that followed I bore witness to both the best and the worst that humans can be; but whether the net effect was positive or negative, I would not trade off the inspiration and insights it gave me for any other. It was in WoW, more than any other society, that I reforged the pieces of my life which the UK had shattered, and began to carve an identity which would not have been possible in Britain alone – and which eventually found paths out of Britain to carry on its journey, first to Guyana, now to Japan.

I don't log into WoW so much today, mainly due to commitments outside it. But I still find it important to remain connected to the people I know in it, and the World itself, so once a week I get ten of us together and we raid the latest content.

And still today it informs my perspectives and work. In practically everything I write, a discerning eye might make out fragments or traces of WoW's Azeroth.

So, what is reality? Sometimes, perhaps, that's something we'd best answer by ourselves.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Japanese robots!

Think of Japan, and you might visualize those demonstrations you see on TV of robotic vehicles, pets, appliances, humanoid servants, or practically anything that can be recast as an entity of circuitry and moving parts. Those images which could occur nowhere else, of constructs doubtless destined to become mainstays of every person's kitchens, living rooms and boardrooms within half a century, when robots will clean your furniture, wash your clothes, and spray machine fluid at you when you give them commands they don't like.

Robots like these:
This is Halluc II. It lives in the Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo's Odaiba district, where I got to watch its operator demonstrate the hundred ways it can nose a path across any terrain anywhere in the universe. I counted at least half a dozen methods of locomotion: rolling on its eight wheels, turning them ninety degrees and strutting like a caterpillar with a point to make, sliding in smooth diagonals – there seems no limit.

Halluc II makes pragmatism adorable. We might compare that with its robotic neighbour, 'Therapeutic Robot' Paro:
Built in the shape of a baby seal, Paro responds to your touch with fuzzy movements and high-pitched cries. Relaxing and soothing, as planned? I'm undecided: receptive to both its intended cuteness and my friend's misgivings that it was actually rather perturbing. Is there something not quite right about our good comrade Paro?
Masahiro Mori: 'The Uncanny Valley' (trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato): Energy 7(4), 1970.
In 1970, the pioneering roboticist Dr. Masahiro Mori advanced the notion of "uncanny valley": that as robots look and behave more like human beings, they look more appealing, familiar or cute to us – until a point where they are both so similar yet still so perceptibly unlike us, that this familiarity drops away into a disproportionate revulsion or even fear. The "valley" in question refers to the trench in the graph.

As the graph suggests by citing stuffed animals and zombies, this phenomenon is not restricted to robots. Unease towards clowns, the dead (whether animated or still), disturbing masks or enigmatic oddly-proportioned humanoids may attribute to their position in the valley, and lend to their frequent appearances in the horror genre. Nor need this be limited to human similarity: the same effect may be palpable with resemblance to other things we expect to be familiar or cute, such as animals. TVTropes even has an exhaustive directory of examples from all the creative arts and "real life".

Of course, the location or mere existence of the uncanny valley is subjective: not everyone responds as it suggests. Perhaps we all have different valleys: coulrophobia is as novel to those who've not heard of it as it's bloodcurdling to those who experience it. As for the dead, there's no reason they can't make amicable companions:

If you're familiar with World of Warcraft, consider the undead therein. Isn't there something construably cute about the way the ghouls gargle, and flail their arms left and right as they run? And the Abominations, monstrous golems created from many dead bodies sewn together to crush all in their path, and endowed with extremely limited intellect, evoke a simple joy at the world around them: especially when they go on adventures or are peculiarly tiny. If one can stand the ethical dilemmas, not to mention the smell, they'd likely be really easy to make friends with.

Is Paro the "baby seal" an unfortunate victim of the uncanny valley? If so, might he be helped out of it with some adjustments, perhaps to the pitch of his cry? Or is his potential to disturb a more fundamental burden? Dr. Masahiro Mori identified this concept as pivotal in robotics design: the line between attractive and alarming can be astonishingly abrupt, with tiny changes making the difference between public acceptance and mass dismay.

Writing in Japan, it's a topical example of the problem of social science. The uncanny valley troubles enough people that it's been identified as a social phenomenon, a general concept; yet has enough exceptions and conditionalities – such as certain strange persons who find ghouls can be cute – that it's nowhere near a universal "law", too subjective even to stand as a hypothesis, let alone a theory, in the proper scientific sense. Yet it's still fascinating and tangible, and through its effect in robots and so many technologies and creative arts, has implications for the quality of the human experience.

In my opinion, that's good enough. It doesn't have to aspire to universality or timelessness to be worth discussing, so long as we remember that it is far from absolute. Beware certainty, the scourge of humanity: even if most people are averse to looking into the valley, it doesn't mean there's something wrong with you if you're in the minority which is not.

And as with all phenomena in social science, remembering humility and foregoing certainty is to our advantage. If nothing else, the uncanny valley gives us an excuse to reflect on the targets of our disgust, and why we feel that way about them – because there are so many things we get disgusted by for no reason at all, feeding so many stereotypes and stigmas and prejudices and bigotries and purposeless suffering. Here again, social science encompasses not just what "is" but what "should be". It's high time we thought over our disgust, and asked ourselves just how much of it is actually warranted.

Monday, 7 November 2011

"Reality": how can we be so sure?

Hypothesis: Bears are capable of performing mathematical calculations written in hieroglyphs.

"It's reality." "Be realistic." "The real world." We assert "reality" with a sense of finality: as though no matter what else you have to say, the bottom line is that there is a solid, objective, and frequently nasty truth to our world that does not like you. It's there because it's there, needs no reason or justification, and you can't change it, so just stop complaining and accept it.

But is this realistic?

The natural sciences attempt to understand reality. Through scientific method, we dig for "laws of nature" that can explain the universe and how it behaves: fundamental principles, valid in all places and times, accessible to everyone equally, unbreakable even by gods. Some of these are convincing: we've built many creations to improve our lives on such principles as universal gravitation, or that springs extend in proportion to the load placed on them, and these principles' reliability thus far is 100%. There is, we can be next to certain, such a thing as reality.

Whether we're in one tenth of a position to speak of it as though we are certain of what it is, is another matter.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Another tribute

But of a rather different kind today, inspired by a tiny eight-legged friend now frequenting my apartment.

No, not the one in the picture: that was a more sizeable comrade I spotted in an outhouse in Guyana. But to that spider and many others, the same sentiment applies. I write today in honour of some of the finest, most patient and resilient artists of our world, for whom our appreciation and respect is not one tenth of that they deserve.

True story: a few years ago, languishing in London, I took notice of a very large spider who'd deigned to build her web outside my window. The rain was falling, and soon a massive storm was upon us: and I watched with concern as the spider held fast to the centre of her web, which shook violently on its moorings as though due to be ripped into the wind at any moment. Hours passed, but still the spider stood firm; and when the storm subsided, spider and web were still there, those thin fibrous anchors withstanding what many of our own dwellings do not; and then the dew condensed upon the web, and that whole magnificent strucutre sparkled triumphantly in the warmth of the sun.

Why do humans fear and loathe spiders so? The vast majority are harmless to us; indeed, can do us a lot of good by controlling more aggressive little things that would otherwise drink our blood. Only a small proportion of spider species are dangerously venomous, and fewer still of those actively seek to harm us unless provoked. They spin beautiful webs many times their own size, with a creativity and patient determination we can learn so much from; and some species' approaches to exploring and hunting suggest curiosity and intelligent cunning. We can even borrow their venom for medical applications, and their remarkable silk surpasses many materials we've synthesized.

I mean no disservice to arachnophobes, of course. I was one once: irrationally feared spiders, though it was a fear I did not understand. As I encountered these creatures and learnt ever more of their ways, that fear disappeared: because when fear and love collide, love always wins. Fear is weak, relative to all other motivating forces. And now, as one who pursues the art of writing, I salute the spiders of Earth with a fellow artist's respect.

Guyana had some especially mighty examples: like this fellow on the Burro-Burro River, and the fuzzy tarantulas that liked to turn up in outhouses or thatched roofs. Of course, you do occasionally encounter more disagreeable arachnids who like to make trouble...

But the same is true of humans. I don't think we're currently in much of a position to talk to spiders about ethics.

No, the popular revulsion is baffling. You are way more likely to be hurt or killed by another human than by a spider; so why do these fragile yet masterful little artists and architects get so unfair a share of human resentment? They deserve so much better.

Shortly before I moved to Japan, I received a great privilege. I woke up one morning to find that for whatever reason, a spider had decided to build her egg sac on the side of my computer:
I don't know by what criteria this spider decided on the location, but it was a flattering decision, so I took it upon myself to make sure nothing disturbed the eggs until they hatched. Several months passed, in which the spider sat there guarding them, barely ever twitching; until she reached the end of her lifespan and fell off. But I made sure no harm could come to those eggs, until two or three months later, I awoke one morning to find they had hatched, with barely-visible tiny little spiderlings emerging, the cutest sight imaginable, to go forth to explore the world and establish their artistic identities therein. The miracle of life; a truly joyful moment in a city where joy is hard to come by.

This tale provokes varying responses in people. I have yet to understand the reactions of disgust. Spiders are not at all dirty creatures; if anything they are clean, efficient and resourceful. Less still do I comprehend the drive so many seem to have to harm or kill them on sight – to which they are usually powerless to defend themselves. Who could do such a thing?

That neither we nor they chose this setup is significant. Size is relative. We should consider the possibility that one day it will be we humans who are at such a disadvantage, and the arbitrary power of life and death looms against us. Who knows? Our world has changed much over the last few billion years. The greater the kindness we show to the vulnerable or fragile today, the more likely that they will remember it tomorrow if it turns out that one day the power is theirs to wield.