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    Wednesday, April 21, 2010

    Robot Revolution, When Not If

    The robot revolution has been a popular scifi theme for the last twenty years. In one form or another, robotic servants of humankind become more human-like, develop self-awareness and a survival drive, and act in ways their human masters didn't plan for. It's always presented as an "if" scenario, a distinctly fictionized story. It's likely more of a "when".

    In a previous post I pointed out how we'll definitely see robots in economic functions. Business decisions are always about the best value for the lowest cost and once robotics become commonly affordable it'll make the most sense to have humanoid robots perform tasks already in place for humans, using equipment already in place for humans. I linked to a documentary about how Japanese society is planning for its ongoing population decline by developing human-like robot workers, and this shows there are very real plans to place robotic servants in human jobs.

    Necessarily these robotic servants will have a human appearance, though people have even become attached to their roombas. It will make interacting with them more comfortable and alleviate some of the unease at seeing "mechanical" servants take over human jobs.

    Once you have a human-like being doing a human amount of work how long will it be until people start calling for equal rights? Animal rights protesters fight for the rights of non-human creatures. There will be loud, perhaps violent, counterarguments of robots being manufactured creatures and thus not "alive". However, as we've seen storytellers say in many robot revolution stories: if they think like a human, talk like a human, and act like a human, aren't they also human? It's not like they chose to be "mechanical", they were "born" that way. I don't think it's unfair to say this struggle will resemble the gay rights movement.

    Whether these robots have independent thought or not, it will surely be one of the rights we fight for. Determining the path of one's own life is a right we recognize extended to all human beings, and once robots are recognized as "human", we'll extend it to them as well.

    It's a sure thing there will be discrimination and any number of darker acts on the road to robot freedom. We can only hope that when the robots win their eventual freedom they don't hate us too much for the inevitable shit we will put them through.

    Monday, March 29, 2010

    Digital Memories: Soul Calibur 2

    Following in my post about the ten year anniversary of the PS2, I talk about one of my favorite games for the platform: Soul Calibur 2.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    Bravo, Google

    I'm sure you're aware of the ongoing battle between Google and the Chinese government over its decision to switch to uncensored search. It's important to also keep in mind this battle was started by Chinese-government-sponsored web attacks on Google.

    We're also all aware that China is on the rise to become the next world dominating power. Economically they've managed to recapture momentum after the global crash, even if they did it at the expense of other countries' economies by fixing their currency. They've committed themselves to putting their citizens second and profits first, and they continue to deny their citizens a voice of any kind in the determination of their destiny. China may have changed their image economically but they remain a totalitarian power exercising complete political control over their citizens.

    There are a number of US companies who overlook China's government and are moving their operations wholesale to the Communist country. The vast majority of US companies have exploited the country's cheap labor over the past twenty years. And yes, it's worth pointing out that Google did enter mainland China censored for five years before pulling out this spring. Their posturing may just be putting a good face on a strategic pull-out.

    Even if that's the case, it's the message of this that should be considered. This move won't make Google any money, they'll definitely lose out on a huge and growing market, and there are plenty of other companies that are willing to step over the trampeled rights of the Chinese people to make a few bucks. It does send a message to the Chinese government that not everyone cares more about dollars than freedom. It shows that political censorship coupled with anything goes economic exploitation won't get you the whole way.

    I say bravo, Google. Whatever the motivations that began this, you've decided to take a stand on your principles. That's something the people within China don't have the power to do, and the companies outside of China have no interest in.

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Japan: New Frontiers in Censorship

    Some Tokyo politicians thought up the wonderful idea to "ban provocative visual depictions of characters who appear to be 18 or younger." Many speculate this comes at a time when Japan is facing pressure from other countries to curb its child pornography. I have a lot of problems with this.

    To start, I don't care for these characters in anime. I would rather see realistic portrayals of women (such as Black Lagoon's Revy or RahXephon's Haruka) than the continually rehashed ideal of a naive, junior high school girl pining after a socially inept older man. That said, I don't necessarily think these characters drive fans to sexually abuse young children. Take a look at your average otaku's room and you'll find shrines to these characters alone rather than anything that suggests an interest in real little girls.

    This ban is first of all an act of misdirection. As the author of this article points out, it's merely an "aesthetic bandaid" fix to the problem. Rather than take real, controversial steps to change the state of child pornography in Japan politicians decide to take on a safer target in underage anime characters in order to look like they're doing something. Authorities in Japan, whether in government or in business, favor the appearance of change rather than change itself, as you can read in this heavy, yet accurate rant.

    Secondly, while it's a despicable decision politically it's also a dumb move economically. If this goes through it could injure Japan's anime culture, which is a major financial asset both domestically and abroad. As much as I may not care for the character type, there's no arguing that these "lolicon" characters have become a major pillar of the industry. Straight out banning their depictions would stop shows that feature these characters (of which there are currently a LOT), stop fans buying their merchandise, and cause the anime industry to shrink.

    Finally, it's flat out censorship. Japan has not had a great history of fighting censorship, as their antiquated pornography laws will show, but it is censorship all the same. If no one is being hurt and there are people who want this kind of content, who are they to stand in the way?

    Japan has a problem with fetishizing youth, but it's being sidestepped rather than dealt with by this solution.

    Sunday, March 7, 2010

    Happy Birthday PS2!

    March 4th marks the ten year anniversary of Sony's little black wonder, and inspired by other accounts of the console I wanted to share my own experience.

    The PS2 was one of only two consoles I've bought at launch (the other being an N64). I've read stories about shortages at launch but I had mine preordered months in advance and it arrived as expected in the beginning of the second month of my freshman college year. None of the launch titles interested me so I didn't order any with the system. I was intrigued by the console's ability to enhance the graphics of PS1 games, and it was a noticeable if not mindblowing effect. Within a couple weeks I realised I needed to have a real PS2 title to show off the system and I picked up Tekken. The graphics were indeed a step up from the previous generation. I remember being in awe of the shiny, curvy new polygons and deep, 3D backgrounds. Tekken's intro movie also looked beautiful (I didn't realise at the time such movies were entirely pre-rendered files).

    The PS2 served me well throughout my college years, with some big gaming enjoyments along the way. Final Fantasy X was of course a huge moment. The powerful narrative, the first-time inclusion of voice-acting, the graphics, the music, and an energetic new battle system combined to make it one of my favorite FFs to this day. Metal Gear Solid 2 delivered a Hollywood-caliber espionage story that, even if it largely dropped its star character, lived up to the promise of its predecessor. Soul Calibur 2 brought my circle of friends back together for more fighting game goodness that had begun with Super Smash Bros on the Gamecube. Gran Turismo 3 streamlined the series into a next generation experience that refined the core concept of realistic racing.

    It was about this time, a year to year and a half after purchase, that my PS2 began to wear out. A well-documented issue with the disc-reading laser lens claimed first the systems ability to read DVDs, then PS1 games, and then gradually PS2 title after title began to read errors. I read online guides and opended up my system to tinker with no miraculous results. There was a period of about half a year or so where I couldn't play much else than a handful of the newest games for the system. Luckily a friend of mine came through with a replacement PS2 shanghaied from a deadbeat college roommate and I was back in the game. This system would eventually begin to fail too, and as of this moment I am on my third PS2 system, a brand new Slim bought two months ago.

    Towards the end of the system's time in the spotlight there were some true gems. Final Fantasy XII was a graphical marvel on "aging" hardware, if a bit incoherent in terms of story. Really, for me, the shining moment in the systems twilight time was Shadow of the Colossus. I had seen a puzzle-fiend friend play through ICO and swear up and down its brilliance. The game was breathtakingly beautiful and haunting, though my brain having trouble with the most basic of puzzles I never got into it. SotC immersed me in a beautiful, simple, powerful world that was sublime in its simplicity. The massive "boss battles" were stunning and beautiful, but at the same time I spent hours just riding around the massive world and taking in the gorgeous scenery. I never wanted SotC to end, and one of these days I'll jump back in for a replay.

    There are still games being released for the system, even as it's no longer Sony's flagship. I've heard the recent Odin Sphere is amazing, and Nippon Ichi among others continues to port the vast backlog of Japanese RPGs. Barring the multiple failures of my PS2s I've had a wonderful experience with the system and I hope my current console lasts long enough to enjoy its stellar titles for years to come.

    Battle Angel Alita Plot Details

    Jon Landau, one of the producers on Avatar, and a producer on James Cameron's Battle Angel Alita film discussed the plot in a recent interview.

    Battle Angel Alita is my favorite manga. It's basically the only manga I've read. Besides a couple of one of issues of things like Tenchi Muyo and Eat Man back in the late nineties, the only manga I've read is Alita. I've watched my fair share of anime but never really got bitten by the manga bug.

    It was hinted and obvious from the start that they'd be focusing on Motorball for this film. It's the most accessible plot line of the series and would best translate into a straight action film. It's something I see Cameron having a hard time messing up.

    Focusing on Motorball, I imagine it will be hard to move on to the rest of the story. Motorball is merely one of the settings for Alita's reawakening and remembering her powers. If they start the "series" with a Motorball movie, everyone will be thinking it's all about Motorball and any future installments may be distorted or never even be produced.

    Oh well, I suppose it's not worth worrying over. Even one Alita movie, which I never dreamed I'd see, is a treat.

    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Google Buzz Issues

    Why did Google release Buzz without a closed beta as they traditionally have with their products; such as Gmail, Voice, and Wave?

    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    McG, Murakami, and Dunst are Turning Japanese

    Takashi Murakami and McG teamed up to film a cover music video of The Vapors' "Turning Japanese" in Akihabara starring Kirsten Dunst. A fun video and playful enough to not flog the dead horse of "Japan/Akihabara is different and weird!" Dunst turns in a good performance, and is obviously enjoying herself.

    I think Murakami's genius is simplified by many observers in the current wash of anime-aesthetic hitting US shores. His visions manage time after time to be more compelling and interesting than the vast majority of commercial cash-ins on the anime boom.

    I saw a display of his work at the Little Tokyo branch of the LACMA two years ago. His designs border on the psychadelic but manage to incorporate a bubbly, cute anime/cartoon feel that makes them digestible. I especially enjoyed how he takes the exaggerations of women and sexuality in anime aesthetics to the extreme conclusion. (see: "Hiropon")

    Olympic Theme

    I'm sure news shows in the US are using powerful, bombastic orchestral songs as their Olympic theme but here in Japan our news shows play this over Olympic montages:

    Sunday, February 21, 2010

    Mechanical Tumor

    Part of a Japanese installation art series, a realistic-looking tumor like mass is connected to a PC and inflates to approximate the CPU load of programs and running tasks.

    Sunday, February 14, 2010

    Olympic News Bias?

    Watching the Olympics outside of the US I've noticed that the events covered tend to be those in which the country I'm watching from performs the best in.

    Androids versus Battle Mechs

    My first video blog. I figure I'd try this format as it's less time-intensive. In this post I discuss the commercial and wartime application of robots and why I think the former is more likely to come true in the near future.

    (Here is the documentary I reference in the video, provided by my friend nicopolitan.)