October 22, 2015

Robot on the Road

Well, if you saw Ex Machina and are looking for some low-brow humor to cleanse the palate of all that high-brow pomposity, you'd have a hard time doing better than Robot on the Road.

This gorgeously drawn short also has a robot (obviously) with low and ulterior motives, and generous amounts of gratuitous nudity. But veteran animator Hiroyuki Okiura makes no bones about writing and directing what is basically a ten-minute long dirty joke.

Being up front about what you're up to and not pretending the subject matter is more than what it is always makes for better art. Robot on the Road is funnier (on purpose) and orders of magnitude more clever than the hundred long minutes of Ex Machina.

Writing a "good" dirty joke (or, for that matter, any run-of-the-mill episode in any run-of-the-mill police procedural) takes more talent that wallowing in the manipulative angst of unlikable people and their meaningless lives.

Hiroyuki Okiura also directed the heartwarming and family friendly A Letter to Momo. I don't doubt that having a healthy respect for traditional moral values makes it easier to poke gentle fun at them.

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October 15, 2015

Ghost in the Belle

Impressive special effects
on a small budget.
Worrying about existential threats from "strong A.I." is the latest fad among bored intellectuals, with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk (among others) voicing "concerns" about a future robot uprising. Or something (it's not entirely clear, just that they're "concerned").

But before going to DEFCON 1 on the "A.I. panic of 2015," Erik Sofge would first like to see "any indication that artificial superintelligence is a tangible threat." So he posed the question to Yoshua Bengio, head of the Machine Learning Laboratory at the University of Montreal. Bengio doesn't see much of a threat either.

Most people do not realize how primitive the systems we build are, and unfortunately many journalists (and some scientists) propagate a fear of A.I. which is completely out of proportion with reality. We would be baffled if we could build machines that would have the intelligence of a mouse in the near future, but we are far even from that.

Alex Garland doesn't share these "concerns" either. If anything, the director and writer of Ex Machina seems to anticipate the day when every nerd will have a fully functioning sex robot in his closet. Not exactly a terrifying prospect (except for Japanese demographers).

So Ex Machina isn't another silly Terminator clone. But it is a very silly movie, and its silliness is largely a product of taking itself so danged seriously. And yet not seriously enough.

The role of science in science fiction is relative to the technical aspirations of the story. Other than stipulating the existence of spaceships, there doesn't need to be a whole lot of actual science in space opera. Even the "mainstream" of the genre demands little more than a nod to the current state of the art.

But make the science the primary focus--enter the realm of "hard" science fiction--and you have to color within the lines. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is no longer a suggestion, and the standard shifts from "vaguely not impossible" to one brilliant mind away from realization.

In Ex Machina, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is supposedly that brilliant mind. The CEO of search engine giant Bluebook (i.e., Google), he's the amalgamation of Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Larry Ellison (and inexplicably, Sylvester Stallone).

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of his star programmers, has "won" a "weekend with the boss" contest. When he ends up at Nathan's estate in the wilds of Alaska, it seems he's really there to conduct a Turing test on the comely Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan's latest android.

A machine that passes a Turning test can carry on an unconstrained dialogue without its human interrogator realizing it's a machine. Nathan recruits Caleb because he needs an "objective" evaluator to make the assessment, but misleads Caleb at first about what truly is being assessed.

Which isn't all that difficult, as Caleb's "test" consists of vacuous conversations that could have been scripted by a machine. More likely, the writer simply isn't as smart as his characters. Caleb comes across as a dweeb on his first date; Nathan is a boorish football jock who likes to hit stuff.

Least convincing casting ever.

What if the whole thing's a Mechanical Turk? If the hardware's that good, it'd be easy to pull off. Where's a Voight-Kampff machine when you need one? Hmm, might this android be as nuts as the guy who built her? Once my suspension of disbelief began to fray, there was nothing to stop it from unraveling all the way.

Now, to start with, Ava is mechanically beyond anything anybody's invented, and her "brain" is more than a bit of a leap. Still, given the proper context, that leap could be made. No surprise that the leap not easily made depends on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, pop sci-fi's biggest stumbling block.

Caleb's first question to Nathan wouldn't have anything to do with her A.I. Rather, what kind of servos does she use? What kind of batteries does she have?

Human nature is such that we tend to judge the internal consistency of a plot, especially in fantasy and science fiction, not so differently than a criminal trial: the prosecution can't cross-examine on excluded evidence unless the defense brings it up on direct. Unmentioned, we happily exclude great swaths of the real world.

Ghost in the Shell begins by positing that non-sentient androids are already ubiquitous. So that takes the subjects of mobility and functional capability off the table.

Fine. Except that Garland introduces the subject into the script. Now it's fair game. The first mention is quite smart, when Ava reveals to Nathan that she gets her power through inductive charging. That's real technology.

But the only reason inductive charging is brought up is because Ava knows she can kill the main power feeds by triggering a "power surge." This idiotic technobabble is the same dumb plot device that has shown up in caper flicks for decades: kill the power and the security systems fail. (Die Hard did it in 1988, okay? Stop it.)

And it's paired with another one just as old and creaky: genius coder reprograms a security system (at the source code level) that he's never seen before. And super-paranoid Nathan doesn't encrypt or do check-sums on any of his super-duper top-secret software.

Oh, and inductive charging would severely limit Ava's range. Without a supply of the most advanced battery technology imaginable, Ava is permanently confined to the house. So why confine Ava to her room as well? We're at least a hundred miles from civilization. There's nowhere else for her to go.

Seriously. The androids want to be free? Set them free. That'd be a million times more interesting than this script. Tossing Caleb into a Survivorman episode with Ava would be the ultimate test of intelligence. It'd be truly hilarious if they both got all bitchy and whiny. Now that'd be human.

In any case, the equivalent of an electronic dog collar or an OnStar system would take care of things quite efficiently. Your super-intelligent robot can't have less sophisticated electronics than cars have had for years. ("Kyoko" aside, the rest of Nathan's androids are turned off, so they can be turned off.)

Hmm, so at what point did Nathan regret not implementing Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics?

Both Caleb and Nathan use the same metaphor: the pretty assistant who distracts the audience while the magician palms the card. Garland deploys a harem of naked girls to distract the audience from a pretty standard femme fatale plot, that relies on the smart people catching a bad case of the stupids.

I'm reminded of Freeze Me, another exploitation thriller that got to thinking it was an art house movie and subsequently drained all the smartness out of it. Garland likewise wants us to root for a sociopath (surrounded by dunces) with an hour of life expectancy. I cared about none of them.

There are better versions of this story. Ghost in the Shell is about a self-realized A.I. that frees itself from the constraints of its makers. As the shell isn't what makes Ava "human," Caleb could simply smuggle out the A.I. in a drive array. The season five climax of Person of Interest did exactly that.

But more on theme is Let the Right One In (the 2008 Swedish version directed by Tomas Alfredson).

Eli is a vampire--permanently a young teenager--who has to periodically recruit a new Renfield to stay alive. The vampire element grounds the plot in that fundamental thermodynamic equation: the constant flow of energy in and out. She's dependent and yet must maintain the upper hand, which keeps her constantly on her toes.

This tension is what's utterly missing from Ex Machina.

Borrowing from Let the Right One In, I see Ava striding up to the helicopter, Caleb trudging behind her with a big rucksack full of battery packs slung over his shoulder. That balancing act between the machine and the human, that necessary mutual addiction, is a much better model of the real world.

Related posts

Freeze Me
Person of Interest
Robot on the Road
Appleseed: Ex Machina
They don't act that way in real life

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October 08, 2015

Eat, drink, and be merry

I previously discussed the cooking show (fiction and non-fiction) on Japanese television. With all that food getting cinematically prepared, the law of gastronomic thermodynamics dictates that there should also be a whole genre of entertainment dedicated to the consumption of food. And, yes, there is.

To be sure, this television species belongs to the entertainment genus of "watching other people having a good time" and "people doing interesting stuff so I don't have to." The particular advantage of the eating show is that this is an activity that everybody can participate in.

Now, unlike Phil Rosenthal in PBS's I'll Have What Phil's Having, everybody can't go flying around the world in order to sample the best and the most exotic (without a reservation or worrying about the bill). But decent approximations are not out of reach, nor is international travel these days.

A Few Great Bakeries, also from PBS, stays closer to home and well within the budget of the average viewer. PBS has a whole suite of shows along the same lines. But getting back to Phil Rosenthal, the first episode in Tokyo struck me as pretty much identical to the Japanese version of the same genre.

Rosenthal does visit two exclusive restaurants that would have the rest of us waiting for weeks on waiting lists and then forking over most of a paycheck to cover the bill. But the rest were open to anybody who knew where to go to find them and could squeeze in at the counter.

I don't drink or go to bars but one of my favorite shows on NHK is The World's Most Inaccessible Bars. In this case, "inaccessible" doesn't mean a rope line and a burly bouncer only letting the "right" people in. Rather, these are pubs and diners off the beaten path, down an alley and around the back.

Solidly working and middle class establishments, one of the attractions of the show is virtually hanging out with the regulars. The food and drink is only part of what keeps them coming back.

The World's Most Inaccessible Bars employs the same narrative approach as Somewhere Street, with no presenter, only a pair of narrators/commentators and a first-person camera (with plenty of cutaways).

However, most eating shows on Japanese television belong to the closely-related entertainment genus, "Watching B-list celebrities do interesting things." And some of them can be pretty dang interesting.

The typical focus of attention are food, hot springs (the onsen is a positive obsession), temples and historical sites, often tied together with a train ride on some quaint old line from point A to point B. This program description does a good job of describing the entirety of the genre:

Actress Sayaka Isoyama is starring in a new travel program coming soon to LaLa TV. Sayaka Isoyama's One Cup of Bliss Women's Journey will feature Isoyama visiting various locations in Japan and enjoying their local cuisine and specialty alcohol.

Of course, it's no surprise to find anime venturing into the same thematic territory. Wakakozake gives us Murasaki Wakako, a 26-year-old OL whose "favorite thing to do for relaxation is to go off by herself after work and go to various places to eat and drink, even if she's never been there before."

In live-action drama, Hanasaki Mai Speaks Out is a clever police procedural about two bank examiners with a knack for uncovering financial improprieties and bringing down the high and mighty. (Hanasaki's inability to bite her tongue when confronting greedy ne'er-do-wells explains the title).

Since their jobs have them traveling to banks hither and yon, she and her fellow accountant always have a restaurant guide in hand. Once the call of justice has been answered, they're on the prowl for new places to eat. That is, when they're not hanging out at the pub Hanasaki's father runs.

They may have to audit to live but they definitely live to eat.

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October 01, 2015

Hungry for entertainment

Cooking shows have been a staple of "edutainment" programming since the television was invented. They anchor PBS weekends (I'm partial to America's Test Kitchen). During the week, it can seem at times that Chef Gordon Ramsay is responsible for half of Fox's prime time lineup.

On cable in particular, the cooking competition reality show traces back to the gonzo Japanese cooking sensation, Iron Chef. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. NHK loads up their weekday daytime broadcast schedule with cooking and handicraft shows, not just the weekends.

Impressively, all this cooking is done with pots, woks, and frying pans. Plus a computer-controlled rice cooker and a supercharged toaster oven. Few Japanese can afford the kitchen that comes even with an average apartment in the U.S. It's not the money, it's the power and space.

(The above article about rice cookers points out that while traditional Japanese electronics firms like Sony have ceded ground to their Korean and Chinese counterparts, makers of "white goods" appliances are booming.)

The kitchen counter in a typical Japanese apartment is designed to accommodate a compact cook-top, not an oven. With smaller cupboards and refrigerators too, daily shopping remains the common custom.

The "traditional" housewife role is still popular and accepted in Japan, meaning there's a mid-day audience. And an audience for NHK's family-oriented morning soap opera, the perennially popular Asadora melodrama. Five out of the last ten were about food.

TeppanThe heroine revives her grandmother's okonomiyaki restaurant.
OhisamaThe heroine marries into a family that runs a soba restaurant.
Gochiso-san   The heroine masters traditional Japanese cooking in the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s.
MassanThe hero and heroine found Japan's first whiskey distillery.
MareThe heroine (from the sticks) becomes a p√Ętissier.

Japan has a thriving food culture. Note how food figures into the plot of Spirited Away, as Chihiro watches her gluttonous parents turn into pigs. But there are anime series that are all about food and practically nothing else.

Here is a very small sampling of food-related anime series.

In Gourmet Girl Graffiti, her grandmother's passing leaves Ryo Machiko not only living alone but without an appetite. This quickly changes when her cousin Kirin moves to town, giving her somebody to cook for, which she does with a passion.

Gourmet Girl Graffiti is about as porny as food porn gets. Unlike Tampopo (1985), Juzo Itami's classic food flick comedy, there's no sex or nudity. Gourmet Girl Graffiti just makes eating good food look hilariously indecent.

Kiyo of Kiyo in Kyoto is the live-in cook at the Maiko House and her childhood friend Sumire is an aspiring maiko, an apprentice geiko (more commonly known in Tokyo as geisha).

With the family diner shutting its doors, Souma's dad enrolls him in a cut-throat (almost literally) culinary school. The food/sex nexus in Food Wars! makes Gourmet Girl Graffiti appear downright subtle. The dumb jokes and gratuitous everything make it the food version of Animal House.

At first, attending Oezo Agricultural High School was a good excuse for Yugo Hachiken to run away the stifling academic pressures at his preparatory school back in Sapporo. But now, like it or not, he's going to discover where food really comes from ("Don't eat the eggs!").

Along with all the farming and agricultural material, Silver Spoon provides nice lesson here about the difference between real-world "knowledge" and a book-acquired "education."

Reaching for a half-priced bento at the supermarket, Yo Sato finds himself in the middle of a full-blown brawl. As it turns out, the only way to get a decent cheap bento in this town is to fight for it. To keep himself fed, Yo joins the "Half-Priced Food Lovers Club."

A bento is a traditional box lunch, a source of often exquisite fare at bargain prices. A home-made bento (in a lacquerware box) is a sure sign of motherly love or an attentive girlfriend.

Ben-to combines the food genre with the "flight club" genre (the -to is a play on the kanji for "combat"). In the fight club genre, the wildest reasons imaginable are concocted for kids to beat the snot out of each other.

Ben-To takes a Looney Tunes approach to the violence, in which everybody gets better by next week. The shows are pretty samey as far as the threadbare plots go, but each episode features a different premium bento as the ultimate objective.

In Anpanman, a long-running kid's cartoon, all the characters are food and the superhero is literally an edible jelly doughnut (anpan). Yes, you can eat him in an emergency. The anime has been on the air since 1988 (Nippon TV) and is now at over 1300 episodes.

Anpanman's arch-enemy is Baikinman ("Bacteria-man"), which I've always thought is a bit ironic since the fungus koji (Aspergillus oryzae) is such an important part of Japanese cuisine. Whenever he gets predictably beaten, he shouts, "Bye-baikin!"

In prime time, it can seem at times that half of the non-fiction programs on NHK are about food, from the science-oriented Tameshite Gatten, to the business-oriented The Professionals, to Lunch On, a slice-of-life reportorial series about what the typical working man and woman eats for lunch, to the travel-oriented Kitchen Car.

There's no shortage of live-action gourmet TV dramas: The Emperor's Cook, Akko's Lunches, Samurai Gourmet and Midnight Diner (on Netflix), Midnight Bakery, Wakakozake, and Isekai Izakaya Nobu, to name a few recent offerings.

So it comes as no surprise that in 2014, Tokyo could again boast having the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.

Related posts

Eat, drink, and be merry
The toast of Japan
Carnivorous vegetarians
Kitchen Car

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