25 December 2011

A Good Time to be an Ukiyo-e Fan in Tokyo

This is a particularly good time for Ukiyo-e lovers in Tokyo, since we have two exhibitions running (both in Roppongi):  a Hiroshige exhibit at Tokyo Midtown, and a spectaclar Kuniyoshi exhibit at Roppongi Hills.  Below are some comments on both.

"A Road Traveled by Feudal Lords and Pet Dogs: Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo Midtown

The pieces that catapulted Utagawa Hiroshige to fame were his depictions of the 53 way stations along the road linking Tokyo and Kyoto in Edo-era Japan.  This exhibit centers on two complete editions of that collection, one the earlier Hoeido edition and the second the later Reisho edition.

"Edition" is probably not the correct word for these, since in fact they are not in any sense revised versions of each other.  Hiroshige simply produced a work by this title and theme twice in his lifetime, each time re-doing the images completely.  Comparing them side-by-side is mostly instructive in two ways:  first, it shows that the two work are really unrelated; and second, it shows the Hoeido edition is much more interesting from almost any viewpoint.  The artwork is better executed, the linework is more interesting, and the printers, especially in the early press runs of the Hoeido editions, were working much more closely in accord with Hiroshige's intentions (or at least, were exercising a lot more care in the printing).

For me, I really wondered why they even bothered to present the Reisho edition so exhaustively.  It's likely that the answer is because the Reisho edition is from the collection of the Suntory Museum of Art (the host institution), whereas the Hoeisho edition was kindly leant by the  Nakagawa-machi Bato Hiroshige Museum of Art.  Reisho was the home team here, otherwise they might not as gotten as much airtime.

I got the audio tour (available in English or Japanese) for this exhibit, which I rarely do.  It probably made me take a little longer to get through the exhibition, but it definitely had some information I wouldn't have known, especially about the cultural references and self-promotional advertisements embedded in the series.  While every piece was labelled in both English and Japanese, the explanatory text next to each piece was mostly Japanese-only, so you might want to get the audio tour if your Kanji isn't up to snuff.

On the other hand, the audio kept waxing rhapsodic about the beauty of the prints and execution.  The truth is, I've never really felt that strongly about the beauty of Hiroshige prints; the reason I've always liked Hiroshige is because of his skill at gesture drawing and in particular at capturing the gestures of everyday people.  While they didn't talk about that much, the audio text did agree with me that the best piece of the series is the "Shower at Shono" image from the Hoeisho edition, seen below.  This is my favorite Hiroshige, and I own an original of it.  It really captures the rush and gesture of the folks running to get shelter from the rain, and the execution of the background trees in woodblock printing feels layered and alive.

There's a bit of other material in the exhibition, including some of the keep-the-relatives-out-of-hock paintings; Hiroshige is said to have done over 150 painting for his relatives to be used as payments or gifts to their creditors, since like many samurai retainer families they were seriously in debt to merchants during the late Edo period.

"Kuniyoshi: Spectacular Ukiyo-e Imagination" at the Mori Museum of Art, Roppongi Hills

A much more impressive exhibit has been assembled a few minutes' walk away at the Mori Museum or Art, presented a huge breadth of work from a contemporary of Hiroshige's, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (they were both affiliated with different branches of the Utagawa school).  While I greatly admire Hiroshige's gesture drawing, it's amazing to look at these two artists and think of them as contemporaries:  Kuniyoshi's work feels much more modern in its compositions (he frequently breaks the frames with his figures) and use of color (bold splashes of color like the piece above are common in his work).

Unlike the Hiroshige exhibit which focuses on a single title, the Kuniyoshi exhibit has a huge assortment of work from Kuniyoshi's career sorted by theme.  The first section is the heroic prints, next the famous places, etc.  This categorization reflects the major print genres which all of the working print artists of the time were expected to know and work between.

This opportunity to compare these two artists (I went to both exhibits on the same day, which is easy since they're 15 minutes' walk apart) really reinforced that Hiroshige's strengths were in his gesture drawing and naturalistic poses, whereas Kuniyoshi's strengths are in design, 2D posing, and depiction of faces.  The facial work, especially in the heroic prints of Kuniyoshi's, is dramatically more compelling than the typically symbolic faces in the Hiroshige drawings.

Another thing the direct contrast made clear is that it's really Kuniyoshi who's the visual inspiration for modern manga and anime.  The strong sense of design, the strong (but often unnatural) posing, and the stark colors are all reflected in modern Japanese anime.

I strongly urge anybody with any interest in manga, anime, or Ukiyo-e to get up to the 52nd floor of Roppongi Hills before the exhibit ends on February 12th!

09 November 2011

A linguistic interpretation of the moralism thread in the Euro crisis

There's a thread going around about the Euro crisis suggesting that rather than a lazy-south vs. industrious-north problem, it's more informative to look at it as a balance of payments problem. Basically, the Portugal-Italy-Greece-Spain group of countries are running a balance of trade deficit with the Holland-Germany group. Check out Paul Krugman's writeup on the NYT for the basic idea.

There are two reasons it's useful to think of the problem this way. One, as Krugman points out, is that the balance of payments problem is quite recent. It's not true that Spain, Portugal, or Greece had historically In particular, the creation of the Euro in 1999 is directly correllated with the beginning of the balance of payments problem, as this graph from Krugman's post points out:

Correlation is not causality, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that something about the creation of the Euro is actually what gave rise to a problem that didn't previously exist. Germans like to blame Greece's rigid labour markets, leaky tax systems, and large public sector for the Euro crisis, but somehow those things didn't cause a crisis before 1999.

And that leads directly to the second observation, best described in the Economists' follow-up to Krugman's article. If two American states have an asymmetric balance of payments, we think of it as something that exists; not as a moral failing. While a balance of payments problem has to be corrected long-term, it doesn't lead to moral approbation. Why then is Germany so insistent on condemning Greece?

The easiest answer is political: Germans want the pain of fixing the crisis to mostly be assigned to Greece and as a negotiating tactic paints the other side as lazy/evil. However, in the Economist post referenced above and you see a more intriguing cause: in German (and Dutch), the word for "debt" and the world for "guilt" are both "schuld". In those languages (or more precisely, in those cultures), to say someone is in debt is to say they're to blame. While it's easy to overstate the influence of language, it's easy to think that the subtle influence of the linguistics are keeping the two sides even farther apart.

This gets more important given the likelihood that Germany continuing on the current course will lead to a severe recession in the debtor states. See the post which started the thread, which strongly suggests that a continuation of the de-facto transfer union would be the only way to avoid a serious recession.

09 October 2011

Intersections on Stilts (and Real Estate)

So for the last several years there's been construction outside the east exit of Shibuya station. You notice it particularly if you bicycle through there because there are metal plates on the ground with light metal washers in the corners, and when you ride over them it makes a very distinctive noise.

After awhile I heard (separately) about the fact that they're going to join up the Tokyu Toyoko line and the Fukutoshin line to run through at Shibuya (this means that Toyoko line trains won't terminate at Shibuya, but will just continue, becoming Fukutoshin line trains. They use this system a lot in Tokyo and it is very efficient). I eventually put two and two together and realized this must be what the construction outside the east entrance is about; they're building the new part of the Toyoko line to meet up with Fukutoshin line.

But then I realized the Fukutoshin line is deep; it has to be below the Den-en-Toshi/Hanzomon line, which is perpindicular to it under the ground at Shibuya. And that's when I realized the entire east exit of Shibuya station must currently be suspended about 60 feet in the air. Those metal plates are covering the top of a steel latticework that goes all the way down to the level of the Fukutoshin line, so literally all of that traffic is currently driving around on a causeway 60 feet in the air.

Sure enough, if you poke around at the edges of the construction, you can find some cracks that verify this is indeed what's going on! It made me a lot more queasy about riding through there to think that the entire east entrance including the road I am riding on is 20 meters above the actual ground.

Last week I moved out to Shimokitazawa, and I live quite close to the Odakyu line near Setagayadaita station. By reading the signs out here, I've realized they're also doing a big construction project on the Odakyu line as well. After staring at the signs for awhile, this project is even more amazing: they're taking the entire Odakyu line and burying it under the current, fully operating train line from Higashikitazawa station to Setagayadaita station. And they're not just burying one train line down there, like in Shibuya; no, for most of the length they're creating two train lines, one on top of the other, under the current line; an upper line for local trains and a lower line for express trains.

At Setagayadaita station, both of the new buried lines have to dive even deeper underground to get under the underpass of Kannana-dori. So just a minute and a half from my house, when I walk across the grade crossing the railroad currently has, I'm actually walking across a 27-meter high trench with three levels of train tracks in it. All this while the line is in heavy operation (the Odakyu line is a major commuting line). At this intersection, it's really easy to look down in and between the girders you can catch a glimpse of the fact that yes, you are close to 100' above the ground.

Check out the page here, in Japanese to see diagrams of how complex this track-burying process is.

Now, why would they go to all this trouble? The reasons cited on the linked page (oh, we can improve train service by running more expresses; oh, having no grade crossings makes things safer and more convenient for local residents) are, as far as they go, true. But they can't possibly justify the huge expense of these projects (the track burying construction project on the Odakyu line I'm describing was started in 2004). What can explain the willingness to spend the crazy amounts of money needed to bury these rail lines? After all, Odakyu is a private company.

The answer, of course, is real estate. By burying the tracks, Odakyu will come into possession of a huge amount of real estate, much of it conveniently located near major railroad stations. So despite the mind-boggling amount of investment, afterwards they'll own the most conveniently located, eminently developable land in Shimokitazawa.

Going back to the original topic, in Shibuya the motivation for the Tokyu Corporation is even more blatant. The current Shibuya Toyoko line station is huge: it's a four-platform terminal station that takes up a ton of space. While the through-running system undeniably helps Tokyo trains be admirably efficient, it's more likely that the real reason Tokyu is motivated to bury the Toyoko line is because when they're done tearing down the current station at Shibuya, they will have possession of dozens of acres of land directly adjacent to Shibuya station. It's almost incalculable what the development rights to that land will be worth.

02 October 2011

Items Available

These things won't be needed at my new place so they're free if you want to come grab them! Please let me know you want them by Wednesday so I won't throw them away; you'll need to pick them up before October 14th.


Fujitsu 305 liter (yes you read that right, this is big for Japan!) refrigerator/freezer.
Model ER-M305-Y-C 60cm (w) x 70cm (d) x 147cm (h)

This is too big for the refrigerator spot in my new apartment!

From Scrapbook Photos


Brown curtain, 145cm (w) x 185cm (h)

From Scrapbook Photos

Green curtain, 155cm (w) x 185cm (h)

It looks like it's a sheer curtain in the photo, but it's actually opaque.

From Scrapbook Photos

Blue Curtains (2). Each on is 75cm (w) x 90cm (h)

The horizontal pattern is the result of my lamp; there's no actual pattern on the curtains.

From Scrapbook Photos

20 August 2011

Vancouver & SF Food Roundup

So between SIGGRAPH in Vancouver and a week with my foodie friends in SF I had an awesome vacation of eating! Here were some highlights:

Steamworks (Vancouver)

Brew pub at the entrance to Gastown. The food wasn't remarkable but the beer is solid, good place for a party or getting together a group of friends. The Vancouver answer to Gordon Biersch (with both the good and bad points that implies -- definitely a bit loud).

Revel Room (Vancouver)

New Southern-influenced small plates. This place is where the Lighter/Darker party was on Wednesday, and the party was so loud that I lost my voice for a couple days even though I was only at the party for an hour. Came back with Carmi on Thursday for dinner and was pleasantly surprised to get yummy small plates including cornbread, hush puppies, beef ribs, and so on to go with our local microbrew. Definitely an easy choice in Gastown.

Locavore (Mission, SF)

MJ picked this for my arrival-day dinner. Despite a lost-key episode giving rise to a 90-minute delay (Sorry MJ!) this place is fantastic. Locally-sourced ingredients as you might guess from the name make anything you order an excellent choice; we shared around and didn't have one miss in anything we ordered.

Little Chihuahua (Divisadero, SF)

I had lunch with Dave Moore at his neighborhood Mexican (lucky dog!), Little Chihuahua. Great unpretentious Mexican food at Divisadero and Page.

Little Star Pizza (Mission, SF)

One of my rituals when heading to the Bay Area is to get some Chicago-style pizza, usually at Little Star, still the best Bay Area option IMHO. Went with Nick and Naoco on a Saturday and just barely beat the rush (I was the latest arrival since there were no taxis in all of SF this weekend due to the Outside Lands concert!).

Ben & Nick's (Oakland)

Great neighborhood craft beer bar. Two new IPAs for me and a whole host of catching up with Ben Thompson!

T-Rex (Berkeley near Gilman)

Met Ewan and Sonoko for yet more new-southern-esque food, this time with an emphasis on the BBQ. Their cornbread is even better than Revel Room, and the Mac 'n Cheese, Beef Ribs, and Brisket meant that we couldn't finish it all so E&S got some take-home food. I predict they made their cats happy with it ;-).

District (SOMA, SF)

Met Melissa Bachman here to catch up on life events, dirnk excellent wines and grab a light dinner. All the small plates are good, the wine is awesome, and the divan seating is fun.

Pixar Cafe (Emeryville)

It seems weird to review a corporate cafeteria... but I have to call out the Gazpacho here! Green tomatillo, garlic... it packed a punch in the mouth and was as satisfying as twice the quantity of something else would have been. Got to catch up with Jeff P. and Ken Lao, ran into Andrew Stanton and Craig Good as well.

Sidebar (Oakland)

The whole week I was in the Bay Area it was sunny, clear, and fair (temperatures in the 60s). It's pretty hard to beat Sidebar as a place to meet for drinks under those conditions: Oren and I sat at a window table and looked out at Lake Merritt. The Paprika Fries are a pretty good choice to munch on while chatting too.

Aziza (Outer Sunset, SF)

As hard as it is to pick one, this was the food highlight of my entire trip. Not surprisingly, Charles picked this place out and guess what he's a regular there (we even got his favorite waiter). I pushed for the tasting menu, which is slightly pricey but oh-my-god good. Aziza is new Moroccan and man have they got it down.

Their cocktails are a revelation. I'm not really a cocktail guy -- beer or wine depending on the food -- but at Aziza the cocktails are a must. Pretty much every single one is a revelation combining ingredients you know in a way you don't, balanced to perfection. Charles had the gin/pilsner/beet and I had the rye whiskey/absinthe/bitters/grapefuit -- both were incredible (beet cocktails! who knew). It seemed like mine tasted more like lemon than grapefruit, Charles was guessing it contained the pickled lemon used in North African cuisine.

The tasting menu takes you on a pretty thrilling run through the menu. I didn't take notes but the highlight was probably the off-the-menu refresh course which was a three-layer with (IIRC) a tomato ragout on the bottom, goat cream in the middle and whipped potato on top. The entrees we went for were the exquisite lamb shank and the squab with fig; the only complaint was that the lamb shank was a bit too much to eat at that point. Fantastic restaurant.

Darwin (SOMA, SF)

But was I done? No! Steph and I met for lunch at Darwin, in fact just around the corner from District. Darwin is a pretty humble sandwich place, but since the sandwiches are *awesome* the lines get pretty long at lunchtime. I had the pastrami, Steph the roast beef. We got lucky and scored a table so we didn't have to use the curb chairs ;-) but definitely be prepared for lines 12-1.

Local Mission Eatery (Mission, SF)

The last stop was this place with Ruby and Axel. When Ruby first mentioned it, I thought it was a description not a place name! Again they emphasize local sourcing and the result is sweet; Ruby's Beef Tongue was good but the Albacore, Beef Stroganoff, and Ratatouille all got great reviews. I skipped the dessert but the really perfect French Press coffee made for a awesome capper to my week of eating my way through SF!

Movie and TV Roundup

Thanks to the entertainment system in the Airbus A380, I saw a bunch of stuff on the plane and tried to watch 2 more...

Big Bang Theory

The best thing I saw was not a movie, but finally getting a change to check out some episodes of this TV series. It's awesome (as much as I like musicals, this might grab top spot from Glee in my limited TV-watching time). Like many of the awesome series work on TV, this is very much writing-driven, with the actors gleefully each pushing their characters to the extreme of their role. So fun to watch, very light although the characters stay real enough to keep you coming back.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

As all friends who've seen it reported, this is a really fun movie. The videogame tropes come fast and furious and despite our hero's relatively lackadaisical approach to life it's a fun ride to watch. The visuals are awesome, completely having fun with the situation (as does the movie in general -- you're clearly meant to believe in the emotional journey, not the literal events).

Fast Five

So, I'm not a huge fan of this franchise but this was a totally entertaining caper movie. In this case, calling up the testosterone warhorses (Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson) and putting them in roles suited to them lets them just have fun with their toys (many of which explode very satisfactorily). A host of fun ensemble members round out the banter. Opening prison break sequence is awesome, as is the train heist sequence. I kinda wish I had seen it in the theater, this is a loud summer popcorn movie.

Kung Fu Panda 2

It had a subtitle, but it doesn't really matter: the plots are going to be pretty interchangeable in this series from now on. This is an OK sequel (seeing on a plane was optimal), the additions to the character list mean that no character really has time for actual character arcs. They're still having fun with the concept though (Michelle Yeoh joins as a soothsaying goat with a tendency to eat whatever paper is in front of her), and both the opening and ending credits are beautifully designed (someone finally figured out that scrolling text is a bad idea!).

01 August 2011

Bands I saw at Fuji Rock (Part 2)

And more....

  • Fountains of Wayne - Really good show. Yes, they were playing all these hit songs you've heard on the radio, but they changed things around a bit, worked with the crowd throughout, and I wasn't bored at any point.
  • レ・ロマネスク / Le Romanesque - Oh so don't ask. We made the trek out to the farthest venue at Fuji Rock called Cafe de Paris, which was supposedly a cabernet/burlesque sort of venue. Unfortunately, after the second continuous day of rain, the path to get there was an neverending slog through the deepening mud and the act that was performing was a Japanese guy in drag with a fake French accent. They did a couple funny bits in between the acts, but it didn't make the 40 minute trek to the back end of Fuji Rock feel worthwhile.
    It's sort of a shame because the Cafe de Paris venue has a couple good ideas (you can join in a drum circle), but the access situation made it pretty brutal.
  • Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra - Just awesome. Super high-energy full (12 or 14 people) Japanese ska band. As it turns out, language doesn't matter at all for ska... no one sat down during this show!
  • Digitalism - We only caught a little bit of this show because we were headed to the next one, but while electronica isn't my particular favorite, they were doing the music/video integration thing pretty well!
  • Faces - If you haven't heard of them, it's worth reading the Wikipedia article about this influential band. My friend Ken was very excited that I would get to see this show. Ken, I'm sorry to tell you that the reformed band has it's strong points (bass, guitar, and keys were all rocking) but it definitely has its weak points (vocals... after this show you can put me down as a Mick Hucknall non-fan, and frankly the bass player was so good that when the drummer didn't play it was better). They were all having fun playing loud roots rock, though. Probably it suffered because the next thing we saw was...
  • Incubus - OK, so I had heard enough Incubus songs that I wanted to go to this show, but it's not like I was a huge fan. That all changed pretty much in the first song. Incubus, it turns out, is a live band -- the stuff on the radio isn't the point. First of all, they were incredibly tight (although at Fuji Rock, that was hardly rare). Next, they had the best sound mix of any band we heard... you might think that was a coincidence, but they also had the best video performance on the big screen -- it looks like they brought their own video guy with them. I didn't realize that Incubus has (always) included a DJ -- but seeing them live we realized how important it was to the show. They didn't just play the songs from the record, they made every song a little different and interesting. Brandon Boyd is really interesting to watch on stage, and did a good job of both letting everybody in the band have some time and of interacting with the audience. Even on "Drive", which is probably the song they were least interested in, they simply gave it to the crowd, having the audience sing most of the choruses. This is a band that understands what a modern concert needs to be, works all aspects of that experience, and delivered a great show. The best performance I saw at Fuji Rock.
  • No Age - We saw this two-person outfit more or less by chance. They're pretty noisy-punky but high-energy and lots of fun. Impressive to see two people make that much noise!
  • Cornershop - I was really looking forward to seeing this English band which mixes a lot of Indian themes and sounds to their pop (you may know their song Brimful of Asha). They turn out to be a 10-piece band with the guest Japanese DJ they had on board and did lots of extended jam songs, completely obviating my worry that they would just play their hit songs. Unfortunately, their frontman Tjinder Singh, while he writes cool songs and sings well, is just not very dynamic on stage. He ended every song by running back to get some water and generally stood perfectly still exactly behind the microphone. Again, no slight to him for the musicianship but...

I had to be at work first thing Monday morning so that was Fuji Rock for me this year! I did learn a few important things for attending Fuji Rock:
  • You must must must must must come to Fuji Rock prepared for rain. Next time it's the full-on Japanese rubber work boots for sure, not to mention a better tent.
  • Don't bother to come up Thursday unless you're the person grabbing the campsite. Take a half-day off Monday instead (stupid, stupid, stupid me, I had to miss the Cake and Chemical Brothers shows).
  • The bigger the group of friends, the better!

Th-th-th-th-that's all for Fuji Rock 2011!

30 July 2011

Bands I saw at Fuji Rock yesterday

  • The Vaccines - BritPop, a couple interesting songs but didn`t liveup to the article I read about them
  • The Kaiser Chiefs - A British rock band I hadn`t heard of, delivered agreat set andreallyknew how to work the audience. Best large concert of the day!
  • Manu Chao la Ventura - didn`t realize I knew them from the Once Upon a Time in Mexico soundtrack. These guys rock out, fantastic high-energy show and I would love to see them again!
  • Jimmy Eat World - You know, when they played their hits they were really great and everybody liked it. But playing any other songs they were... not so great.
  • Arctic Monkeys -- Came highly recommended and definitely know how to play their brand of hardish rock. But all the songs sounded the same and the rhythm section sometimes seemed like they were playing a different song than the leads. Farthest below expectations of any show of the day.
  • uhnellys -- My favorite show of the day. A Japanese guy playing guitar and Coronet, and a Japanese woman on drums and backing vocals (and we were suspecting, a third critical person coordinating all the loops). He would lay down some loops on guitar and vocals, she would drum to them and sing along, and then he would play/sing over them improvising along the general theme of the song. As we said, we saw more creativity in his first song than Arctic Monkeys` whole set. Will definitely be looking out for them again!
  • Widespread Panic -- Hadn`t heard of them below, but they seem like good ol` (southern?)rock and roll. Enjoyable, especially since they were in the mellow venue at Fuji Rock.
  • Big Audio Dynamite -- great show, these guys are looking kind of old but you wouldn`t know to listen to them!
  • Four Tet -- Dylan had heard some good recorded stuff from them but their set last night wasn`t amazing to listen to.

...and that was just the first day!

25 June 2011

Super duper super strings

I just finished reading The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, which attempt to explain the newest bit of theoretical physics, Superstring Theory, to non-physicists. The elegance in the title comes from the fact that the real quest of superstring theory is to combine general relativity and quantum mechanics in one elegant theory, instead of the messiness of currently having two not-quite-reconcilable ones. I think the book succeeded at this goal, in fact this post is mostly about my reactions to the content of the book rather than a critique of the book itself.

One reason the book was very satisfying to me is because ever since I learned about the lengthening list of so-called elementary particles (bosons, muons, etc.) my first thought has been, "hey, you don't really understand this yet, and when you do, that list suddenly all turn out to be something simpler."

That's exactly what string theory purports to do. It posits that everything is made up of tiny (but not infinitely tiny) loops of string, and that the different forms of matter can all be derived by looking at the different fundamental vibration modes of the string. Just as a guitar string when plucked has a fundamental, first harmonic, second harmonic, and so forth, these hypothesized tiny strings can only give rise to a finite number of expressions. Due to a mathematical trick involving nearly-self-canceling probability waves, the string theorists are able to show they can rise to expressions that look like quite a number of the basic particles in the catalog .

This also resonates (get it?) with me. Another of my thoughts way back was that particles would all turn out to be just periodic waves. String theory is actually a lot better than that (the fact that string are not infinitely small but rather just small helps with a lot of things in quantum mechanics that are otherwise mathematically intractable) but it's at least along the same lines.

Quite aside from the string theory portion of the book, it's also a good explanation of the basic of 20th century physics, namely relativity and quantum mechanics. In particular, while I spent time in college calculating Lorentz contractions and time dilations for homework assignments, I never encountered as satisfying an explanation as Greene's of exactly how to think about both Lorentz contraction and time dilation as simple consequences of treating time as a fourth dimension.

So far so good. However, there are several other qualities of string theory as explained in the book that make one go "Eh?"

The big one (which to his credit Greene does not shy away from or obscure) is that we have no idea if string theory is correct or not. The math is so complicated that there aren't many ways that scientists can actually calculate the predicted properties of string theory with enough precision to verify that it's a complete explanation of previous observations (more about why the math is so complex in a minute). As Greene says after spending an entire chapter showing how five competing. branches of string theory actually are just the same theory expressed in different math - a happy conclusion that was greatly to the relief of all involved - he points out, "of course, we still have no proof any of these theories describe the world we live in."

Related to this is the fact that string theory has so far failed to be able to make any predictions about the world that we don't already know. That is, string theorists are busily working away trying to advance the math to the point where they can explain all the measurements of the world that have already taken place. However, so far they haven't been able to use it to make a verifiable prediction about anything we haven't measured yet. Greene points out how this predictive ability was a big factor in making both relativity (with the prediction of light rays being bent by gravity) and big bang theory (being ably to accurately predict the at-that-time unmeasured strength of cosmic background radiation) turn into accepted knowledge.

Finally, string theory as currently formulated contains one of those "Eh?" moments that's so strong you have to ask for the evidence again (and as mentioned previously the evidence is not yet forthcoming). Namely, current string theory posits that the world is 11-dimensional (10 dimensions of space plus time). Why does the world seem three-dimensional in space to us?

To even explain the answer I have to make use of Greene's excellent analogy from the book. Suppose a tiny snail-like creature lives entirely on the surface of a garden hose. The surface of a garden hose is two-dimensional, that is, it takes a minimum of two numbers to explain where on the garden hose the snail is: one giving where the snail is along the length of the host and one giving where the snail is around the circumference of the hose.

However, unlike x, y, and z in our world, the two dimesions of the snail's existence are very different from each other. The distance around the circumference of the hose wraps back on itself, so if the snail travels in the direction around the hose they get back to where they started.

So, now we go back to why we don't see the other dimensions of our world. The answer according to string theorists is that the other dimensions are firstly, curled up like the circumference of the garden hose, and secondly are very very small (i.e., the radius of the equivalent of the garden hose is very small) and so we haven't seen them yet.

Frankly, "Oooooohhhhhhhkaaaaaaayyy..... Ssssssuuurrrrreee." is a pretty reasonable reaction to that. However, implausibility doesn't make a theory wrong either (let's remind ourselves we're in the same discipline as general relativity and quantum mechanics here). However, it does make you long for some actual predictions about the world that would make this theory testable. Since unlike quantum mechanics (which for all it's implausibility has actually succeeded in predicting stuff that goes on at the micro-scale pretty well) we don't have a lot of predictions out of string theory yet, skepticism is still justifiable.

And this cuts to the biggest worry I have about string theory after reading the book. In a lot of ways string theory is very elegant - it derives all of the fundamental particles rather than taking them as assumptions. If correct it will provide an integrated theory for understanding both microscopic and cosmological phenomena. And scientists and engineers both really like elegant theories.

But elegant theories can be wrong in sufficiently complex systems. Actual systems have a way of requiring somewhat inelegant solutions. But the intellectual appeal (and mental convenience) of elegant theories still gives them a powerful appeal. While my elegance-admiring side (which I am as prone to as anyone else) revels in the possibility of string theory explaining everything, my experience with humans suggest we would pursue this theory vigorously even if it was wrong because of its elegance.

I hope the string theorists do keep going, and it will be neat if they're right. I'm all for it! But... Let's just say that after reading this book, I'm even more convinced that there is no pressing need to spend billions and billions building the Superconducting Supercollider just yet. This feels like an area where we need the theory to advance quite a bit before it will have any impact on the world outside of intellectual stimulation.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

15 May 2011

Black Swan

Saw "Black Swan" today. The Oscar for Natalie Portman now makes a lot of sense. I really liked the film with its Hitchcockian atmosphere, awesome on-stage cinematography and use of Tchaikovsky (not sure any film has ever used classical music better). A little less of the off-stage handheld would have made it even better.

Having now seen both "King's Speech" and "Black Swan" I don't understand the directing Oscar at all though. I think it's arguable that "King's Speech" is the more enjoyable film, and thus maybe it deserved Best Picture; but as an achievement in directing it's miles behind "Black Swan." "King's Speech" is a extremely well-done person-overcomes-handicap-in-time-of-need story that's been done many times (not faulting it for that, just pointing it out); the only direct antecedent I can point to for "Black Swan" is Satoshi Kon's "Perfect Blue", and "Black Swan" is quite a bit beyond that work.

07 March 2011

There are haters, and then there are haters

I try to avoid reading user comments but this thread (from RT) regarding Rango was too good.

The original commenter posts:

XXXXX#1 on 03-6-2011 05:40 PM
Omg..is so funny some persons are trying to change people minds..Rango is AWESOME,great and fantastic movie and sure it gonna be nominated for best movie too.And Johnny is wonderful,his voice is unique and so sexy,the best and nobody can't deny that.I really want Rango will be NUMBER ONE again here and all around the world too!

Your uninteresting hater just takes the bait:

XXXXX#2 on 03-6-2011 05:57 PM
".And Johnny is wonderful,his voice is unique and so sexy,the best and nobody can't deny that." I can haz grammar?

The hater whose hate we like takes a different approach:

XXXXX#3 on 03-6-2011 09:31 PM
So, what are your thoughts on Twilight?

15 February 2011

Nokia is explaining that they're doomed

I rarely feel compelled to comment on business news, but Nokia's recent announcement that it was adopting Windows Mobile 7 contained an item that's breathtaking.

As reported in a number of places including here, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop acknowledged that Nokia looked at adopting Android, but concluded Nokia "couldn't differentiate products" from other Android manufacturers. They decided to go with Windows Mobile 7, where they obviously feel they can do a better job differentiating themselves from other Windows Mobile devices.

Wow, this is classic. Uh, differentiating yourself from other Windows Mobile 7 devices isn't the point. Smartphone consumers are madly buying iPhones and Android phones now. Your job is to convince us your products is better than an Android phone or iPhone, not that it's better than the current Windows Mobile 7 phones that we don't care about and aren't buying.

To put it another way, if you can't compete with HTC or Samsung by selling a phone that runs Android, you're really screwed, because you certainly won't be able to compete with those same phones when you don't run a competitive operating system.

Elop has a reputation for being honest (and I certainly give him credit for being able to acknowledge that Symbian and MeeGo weren't awesome options). But if he really wanted to face up to the new world he should have chosen Android and admitted that to thrive Nokia needs to be a competitive hardware maker to HTC or Samsung.

06 February 2011

Nihonga Avant-Garde at National Museum of Modern Art

I went to the "Nihonga Avant Garde 1938-1949" exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art (東京国立近代美術館)today. In Japanese, nihonga refers to "traditional Japanese painting", which really, by the era covered in this exhibition, could only be distinguished from "youga" or western-style painting being done in Japan by the formulation of the pigments used (earlier on, the styles were somewhat more distinct).

Really, not the greatest art exhibit ever. Very few of the paintings spoke to me in any way or contained much that I felt was noteworthy; indeed, were it not for an academic need to study and classify art, and thus be able to focus on a ten-year-period of "nihonga", I don't really think many of these paintings would be exhibited a lot.

As always, there were a few paintings really worth seeing. Toyoshiro Fukuda's "Scenery of a Mine" stood out for capturing a little bit of the spirit of 1930s muralism. The most powerful piece was 山崎隆 / Takashi Yamaziki's "Impression of Battlefield / 戦地の印象", a completely abstract room-panel-sized piece which contains absolutely fascinating details that suggest rather than state what's going on, and only when viewed close-up (for the exact reason, seeing a scan of "Impression of Battlefield" is pretty pointless).

On the way out I ran into the book "The Hiroshima Panels" in the bookstore. A husband-wife team spent thirty years painting a series of panels about the horror of Hiroshima and eventually other events; again high-quality scans are critical, the versions available on the web don't capture what was shown in the printed book I saw. The artists had an unblinking eye for documenting tragedy: in addition to the deaths directly from the bomb, the fate of the American POWs in Hiroshima (tortured to death by enraged captors) and the Korean forced-labor workers (bodies never buried) are both included in the series, and later they painted a panel about the Rape of Nanking. Apparently the gallery for their work (they're both deceased) is out in Saitama, I'll need to make a point to get out there.

05 February 2011

Japan Media Arts Festival 2011

I went to the Japan Media Arts Festival today. More so than in previous years, there was a lot of stuff I hadn't seen before. Here's a few things I thought were particularly awesome.

The Eye Writer

Inspired by an artist friend of their falling prey to ALS, and put off by the U$10,000 price for commercal eye-tracking devices, an international group of artists came together to develop a super low-cost eye-tracking system and develop a suite of software around it to allow their ALS-stricken friend TEMPT1 to continue to create. They had two stations set up where you could actually use the system yourself (it requires a MacBook and a tiny amount of camera hardware) and it actually worked pretty well, although freeform drawing is probably the outer limit of what it can accomplish -- basic UI control was actually quite straightforward, with none of the "my head hurts" aspects of a lot of gaze-driven UIs; but drawing a little tougher.

The Men in Grey

A great bit of agitprop about the meaning (or lack thereof) of "privacy" in the digital age. The moment you click on the above link, information about you will be recorded.

Succubus by Peter Tilg

This sonic sculpture, controlled by electromagnetic forces, doesn't come across in pictures all that well, but live it truly conveys the sensation of being a living being. Unfortunately, in the JMAF venue I couldn't really hear the faint sounds it allegedly emits.

100 Years Sea

Every time I go to a festival like this there's at least a couple artworks I react to as being ludicrously pretentious and under-executed. This video-cave-like projection of simplistic wave graphics intended to gradually swallow up the audience and eventually produce a space where "reality and unreality and inseperable" was clearly one of the qualifiers in that group this year. Other qualifiers including "Edge of Love 3" and "Rugged Timescapes".

Nuit Blanche

I've seen this several times not least at the SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival, but if you haven't seen this amazing indie visual effects short yet, go watch it now.

The Johnny Cash Project

A crowdsourced music video for the song "There Ain't No Grave" from Johnny Cash's American VI album. This is totally worth checking out to see bot the potential and the limits of crowdsourcing a creative endeavor. Personally I don't think Mark Romanek's career is threatened but it truly is an interesting experiment.

Crowbot Jenny

Awesome. Robot crow attempts to interact with real crows.

The Faddist

Reconstruction of famous western art with, uh, stuff.

Arukuaround / Sakanaction

One-take music videos rule. Especially when packed full of Japanese typography. The great thing about music videos is that they're all on the web.

iPad Magic

It turns out, you can do magic tricks with iPads. Even on the first day they're released! Destined for YouTube greatness worldwide, it has already achieved that in Japan FYI, when he holds the iPad up to reveal his brain scan, the Kanji characters are the ones for "woman" and "money".

Kamikara Papercraft Dinosaurs

Kamikara makes all sorts of really cool Japanese papercraft (cut out and tab-slot together paper sculptures), but the new dinosaur collection has an unbelievable number of action features. Yes, action features. To see them in motion, search for this phrase on YouTube: カミカラ恐竜編. The egg is probably the coolest but a lot of them are neat.

If you want to make them youself, you need to buy the book (go to this page and scroll down to see the image with the dinosaurs) , but unfortunately it's only published in Japan so far.

Fumiko's Confession

This is not earth-shaking, but man it's funny. By the way, the setup is that at the beginning the girl does a classic Japanese-schoolgirl "declaration of love" to the guy and is rebuffed. It was produced by a third-year college student -- thank goodness there are some Japanese art schools finally loosening up enough to have anime programs. Some other anime mentioned at the show I haven't seen yet but want to check out include "Colorful", the latest from the director of "Summer Vacation with Koo" and "Mai Mai Miracle", which was directed by the assistant director of "Kiki's Delivery Service" and looks more like a Miyazaki movie than most recent Ghibli films.