Sunday, 19 August 2018

Why are they called PET bottles?

When you first come to Japan, someone will teach you how to use their complicated recycling system. This one is for food waste. This one is for things that can be set on fire. And this one is for recyclables, such as ペットボトル PET bottles.

"What the shitting fuck?" you may ask yourself. It's clear from context what they are, and you kind of assume it doesn't have anything to do with pets (unless??), but you have no idea why on earth they would be called that here. Maybe you actually take five seconds to look it up, or maybe, like me, you just file it under "stuff I don't really get yet" and then never bother to find out why for years and years and years.

It turns out, as with most of life's deepest questions, the answer is deceptively simple.

PET is actually short for polyethylene terephthalate, also known as Dacron, as in "Toscanini, Dacron, Dien Bien Phu falls, Rock Around the Clock." It's actually used in a variety of other contexts, such as fibres for clothing, interestingly. But basically it's a type of plastic. That's it. Nothing obscure, no tricky parametres for what does and does not constitute a PET bottle. All this time, when I was being confused by people saying "PET bottles," literally all they were saying was "plastic bottles."

I think there's actually a wider point in there somewhere.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Self-driving cars, Japan, and Rude Boy

If you can't watch the video, it shows a young man in a stylish leather jacket driving a Lexus IS through a mountain pass. “How do I explain it?” he wonders. “It was...exhilarating. Nimble. Responding to my every touch. Moving faster than the wind. That feeling of pure...driving. It was amazing.” The steering wheel disappears beneath his hands and suddenly he's sitting in a spacious self-driving orb, decades older, entering the outskirts of a major city (Toronto?). And then words appear onscreen:

“Enjoy the thrill of driving. While you still can.”

Yeah. Pretty much.


Reading the news today, it's hard not to come to a depressing conclusion:

Self-driving cars will likely be commercially available within our lifetimes.

The Weeknd in his all-red Lamb...borghini Aventador SV
Ok, so depending on who you are, that might not be depressing. It could even be damned exciting. I appreciate that not everybody loves driving like I do, or even particularly enjoys it, or thinks about it at all unless they're currently doing it. They're not against the concept, they just don't care. They don't don't spend all their disposable income on vehicles they don't need. They don't analyze the specs of cars old and new, calculating dollars-per-horsepower or power-to-weight ratios. They don't discover the entire library of The Weeknd because they saw an ad for the Starboy video and clicked on it to see what the car was.

That's fine. Self-driving cars are made by and for these people.

Some people, given the choice, would rather relax and enjoy the ride. There are people who are technically skilled, but so nervous and lacking in confidence that in practice they are a danger behind the wheel. And then there are people who should never operate a motorized vehicle under any circumstances. I'm actually hesitantly in favour of developing self-driving cars, especially if they could communicate with each other, dramatically improving safety and even alleviating congestion.

The only reason I'm ultimately against self-driving cars is because I am deeply afraid that if they become normalized in the public consciousness, real cars will be legislated against, and that if that happens, I'll never drive again.

I mean, Jesus, we practically have self-driving cars already: They're called BMWs. And grocery-getters aren't much better. Automatic transmissions, lane departure warning systems, fucking backup cameras, the entirety of automotive history has described an arc of human beings having to know less and less what the hell they're doing, to the undeniable detriment of their driving abilities. The new Civic Type-R, in spite of being standard-only, will actually fucking blip the throttle for you on a downshift, so that you don't have to learn to heel-toe. Because the last thing you want to do while driving is drive, apparently.

Kylie Jenner in her burnt orange Lamborghini Aventador SV
But Elon Musk, Waymo, Nissan, and everybody else researching autonomous vehicle technology don't care what I think. And one of my firm beliefs is that you can't fight the future: It's coming, and your only choice is whether to smile and hop on board or watch it leave you behind. I'm talking social justice in the 60s, the advent of the Internet, you can see it everywhere. I choose to get on board. I would even work for a company developing self-driving cars, if that came up. I'd hate to know that I helped sound the death knell of real cars, but if it's happening anyway, I might as well be a part of it, profit from it, and help make history. So I guess it's time to at least get comfortable with the idea.


There are, however, some alternatives to full autonomy.

Vehicle autonomy is currently categorized into four levels. Level 1 is what we currently have everywhere, and Level 4 is the long-term goal of zero driver input, ever. Level 3 is basically where the car can drive itself in any situation, but the driver still has the option of driving themselves if they want to.

Level 2 is where it gets sticky, and it's where we're stuck at present. At Level 2, the car drives itself, but it requires constant supervision from a human being, who must be as alert as they would be if driving themselves, ready to take over at a second's notice should the car's AI find itself embroiled in one of the numerous situations it is not equipped to handle. Do you see the problem with this?

Instead, is there a way to make Level 1 safer? What Japanese automakers, in contrast to their American and European counterparts, seem to have arrived at is a broad swathe of features that help a human driver operate their vehicle more easily. In other words, the computer becomes not a chauffeur but a copilot. You gotta like that kind of lateral thinking from a business, filling a need we never knew was there.


Toyota Prius Super Bowl commercial. Source.
Here is where we have to pause to acknowledge that the Prius is an absolutely terrible car. The only car I've driven, so far, that was worse than the Prius was the Smart Fortwo (fingers crossed I get to drive a Lada someday!). Well, ok, Prius is surprisingly peppy in Sport mode. But in addition to being auto-only, on account of it's electric, the, gas ped...the accelerator isn't attached to anything, and feels like it. When you depress it, you aren't pulling a cable that operates the engine, you're asking permission from the computer to torque the drive axle a few extra times each second. Really stupid. (Although the Fortwo still wins the worst because its torque converter shifts like someone learning to drive standard, and not making a lot of progress with it either. Although it was shockingly peppy and oddly fun to wheel around...)

But you also have to acknowledge that the Prius is kind of an amazing piece of engineering, developed at a time when Toyota was on top and certainly didn't need something new and surprising, but chose to develop something anyway in order to avoid becoming stagnant. It's therefore fitting that it was chosen as the test bed for innovative developments in driver-assist technology, in partnership withresearchers at MIT.

The research project uses what the article calls “parallel autonomy,” human drivers assisted by a computer's detailed analysis and superhuman reaction times. These Priuses use what is quickly becoming a fairly standard combination of GPS, cameras, and LIDAR (light-based radar – so, “eyes”) to facilitate emergency automatic braking and emergency automatic steering. The researchers assert that people become inattentive when riding in a Level 2 vehicle, so instead they sought to augment Level 1.


“If the [self-driving] car hits black ice, it's in charge of staying on the road. But [human operators] can help out when the car encounters conditions it's unsure how to handle. A human operator would look around and use the car's cameras and other sensors to issue new instructions. The teleoperator is there to make sure the car doesn't just shut down when it's too dumb to know what's going on.”

I guess this one's cheating, but it's still an interesting unexpected solution.


Acura NSX. Source.
Honda will apparently be using lessons learned from the Acura NSX to enhance the driving experience of its Regular Joe cars.

For example, the 2018 Accord will “match speeds with the car ahead, nudge the wheel to keep you from straying out of your lane, and it'll even bring the car to a stop if it detects an impending collision. It can even recognize traffic signs and display them to the driver. A multiangle backup camera is also standard on all trims. Blind-spot monitoring, front and rear parking sensors, rear cross traffic alert and a driver awareness monitor are optional.”

This is hardly an exhaustive list of all the developments in self-driving technology, or even just the Japanese sphere of it – that'd be a topic for a whole blog on its own – but it's a representative sampling of what's coming out of the country in that area.


And I kind of hate all this shit.

Elon Musk with a Tesla Model 3.
Tesla has actually recently included an option to allow their cars to go up to five klicks over the speed limit while in self-driving mode, which is unbelievably fucking stupid, because how the fuck did you not understand what you were getting into? Either accept that your car is going to restrain itself to the legal limit, or learn to drive it long distances yourself. Fucking rich people, hey?

And this actually speaks to my wider point: So, so many motorists are overwhelmed by their own sense of entitlement. I mean really. It's why they drive like complete dipshits on the highway, or send Mission Critical texts while driving, or drive while drunk or high. Traffic safety is one of the only things I take seriously. Because I love driving, I respect it.

“Oh, haha, but I actually drive better high, man.” Fuck you. Fuck. You. “But I only text when it's really important.” It's never important. You know it, I know it. It's certainly not more important than what's happening around you. When you say shit like that, what you're really saying is, “I think I'm more important than everyone else.” Oh, you literally think you are? Fuck you. We already went over this.


What's wrong with driver assist?

Takumi (AE86) and Keisuke (FD) race through the twisties.
Let's start with lane departure warnings. This is unbelievably stupid. How can you not notice when you're drifting out of your lane? Just pay attention to what the fuck you're doing! I'm annoyed this is even a thing. Besides, I intentionally drift out of my lane in the twisties, because that's where the best line is. Of course I never do it faster than I can see, because that's fucking obvious. Well, maybe this system could help wake somebody up if their attention starts to drift on the highway. Maybe that's legitimate. Alright. Alright.

Backup cameras? Well, OK, but the problem here is that people think that having a backup camera means they're free to just stare at a display on the dashboard, letting the beeps tell them when they're done. Um, no. You have to look all around the vehicle to make sure that pedestrians, other vehicles, etc aren't staggering gormlessly into your path, as they do. And you need to actually angle your car into the stall you want. And avoid knocking into anything outside the camera's extremely narrow viewpoint as you do it. A backup camera can be a handy tool. But like any tool, it's only effective for its intended use.

How about dashboard lights that indicate when there's a vehicle in your blind spot? Again, fine, as long as you remember that they're just tools. You still have to shoulder check and be certain the space you're moving into is clear, this is just one more safeguard in case you make a mistake. But that's not how most people will use them, is it? They will now trust the car to do their job for them, because no computer has ever had a glitch and no lighbulb has ever burned out. And by the way, when you have a spare moment, learn to adjust your mirrors correctly. Then you might not even have a blind spot. If you can see any part of the vehicle, you're doing it wrong.

Cruise control is bad enough. This stupid thing where it will now accelerate to passing speed without you touching the accelerator is even dumber. But I've already complained about this in another post, so we'll move on.

And now the worst one: Automatic braking. What the actual fuck? Excuse me. I am driving the car. I will decide when we brake. Full stop. No pun intended. Sorry, no, I am just fundamentally against anything that takes control and specifically decision-making out of the hands of the driver.

So what happens the first time the feature malfunctions while you're doing 120 on the highway with an F250 tailgating you? Right.

On top of that, have you ever had your car do something unexpected, perhaps while moving at speed? It's not a great feeling, is it? Do you think it would be improved if it occurred as, say, a drunk driver ploughed into the back of a bus up ahead? Rather than thank their guardian angel, I think the average driver would be so startled by the car taking action without their input that it would actually hamper their ability to perform any other manoeuvres that might be necessary to avoid becoming involved in the accident – manoeuvres which would already be harder to perform under braking, by the way.

Besides which, setting aside how much I've slagged off the average driver throughout this post, how bad do you think people's hazard identification skills are? Most people's kneejerk (heh) reaction when confronted by any kind of driving situation is to hit the brakes anyway, even and maybe especially when the best response would be to accelerate, so the extra half-second is just not worth it.

Samson Drifter from Mafia 3. Source.
“So, Rude Boy, I suppose you hate ABS too.” Actually no. ABS is acceptable because it genuinely improves safety, is fairly reliable, and – and this is critical – behaves consistently, generally activating under the same combination of conditions (speed, load, brake input, and so forth), thus becoming no more than another tool in the driver's toolbox, augmenting her abilities and contributing to the driving experience rather than detracting from it. Yeah, you can grow to depend on it, but the average person will never again drive a car without ABS (most people under, like, 30 never even have), and for a majority of people, in a majority of situations, ABS is superior to no ABS. (Yes, you can, and indeed must, learn to balance the brakes right on the edge of locking up in a vehicle without ABS, but does that shorten your stopping distance relative to if it DID have ABS? No.)


Now there are, last time I counted, roughly a hundred billion companies competing in this space. Tesla is doing it because Elon Musk is forward-thinking as hell, hence the electric cars (OH MY FUCKING GOD ELECTRIC CARS UGH.) Uber is going for it because, presumably, they imagine a future in which they offer a fleet of self-driving taxis rather than contracting service providers. Google, via Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, is in on it too, because since the day it was founded Google's business strategy has been “try a bunch of random bullshit.” And then there are the various startups focussing on just this one particular issue, many of them formed of refugees from some of the companies I just mentioned.

The significant thing here is that each of these companies has slightly different reasons for pursuing this goal – meaning their vision of the future of autonomous driving may actually vary more widely than you'd assume – and that they bring vastly different strengths and capabilities.

Mercedes's self-driving concept. Source.
Because it's not just tech companies who are in the game – traditional, non-Tesla vehicle manufacturers are having a go at it as well. It would be like if instead of getting Bill Gates to make Windows, IBM not only attempted to make their own software solution, but were actually competing against his at the same time. Toyota even partially funded the MIT project mentioned earlier. It's a new frontier in business, and in some ways it doesn't even make a lot of sense, but here we are.

I wonder if this is the beginning of a bigger trend? If it's good enough for Prius and Spider-Man: Homecoming, what other intersecting markets could benefit from collaboration between semi-competing companies?


The Prius article shares some words from the team lead: “I think we share the vision with Toyota that driving can be fun and people want to continue to drive.” And an unrelated researchers says, “Everyone thinks it's going to be super exciting to be in a self-driving car but it's actually going to be super boring.”

I still hope I never have to give up driving. If the Japanese government grandfathers in currently insured vehicles, I will keep all my current cars on the road until I die, probably in a spectacular traffic accident caused by human error and safety standards that are decades out of date. If they give everybody a hard deadline, say ten years, then my motorcycle will become my new daily. (Unlike most motorcyclists, I actually prefer driving to riding, but, if it comes to that, ten times out of ten I will choose to ride a motorcycle over being chauffered inside a robot.) If they take away our motorcycles – and they haven't so far, incredibly, so it's possible they never will – then I guess I'll just be hitting the track every weekend. I'd still be having a huge part of my identity ripped away, but at least I'd be able to get that comforting sensation of controlling a vehicle every once in a while. And I'll also, uh, play games like Grand Theft Auto, I guess?

Enjoy the thrill of driving. While you still can.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Wonder Woman 2017 review

Here's a post that has little, if anything, to do with Japan. Sorry. Sometimes you have to follow your heart.

So, Wonder Woman, you guys.

There's this scene where she's in a WW1 trench, looking out across No Man's Land (get it? GET IT?), where a small village held by the enemy is slowly starving. She wants to cross, but her male partner is like, "But bro, you can't, because you will literally die." And then she's like "BUT I'M WONDER WOMAN" and she fucking SPRINTS across that shit, and suddenly her allies are backing her up, and angry Germans are shooting hundreds upon thousands of bullets at her and she just pulls out her shield and is all "I'M WONDER WOMAN THOUGH." It's pretty great.

I really liked this movie. Maybe more than it deserves, because I badly wanted to, but it's still a good movie. The pacing and editing could use some work, especially the interminable front-loaded exposition scenes, but things pick up once we hit the comic relief detour in London. The fight scenes don't have a lot of tension, but that's endemic to the genre, and at least they're brief enough to at least feel exciting. Characters' abilities are telegraphed fairly well, that is to say, they don't suddenly develop new powers as the plot demands. Wonder Woman gradually manifests her strongest abilities over the course of the story before finally getting a grip on them for the final confrontation, rather than having them come out of nowhere at the end. When Chris Pine has to fly a plane at one point, we don't blink, because we've already been shown that he knows how. The WW1 setting is cool, as well (opening up comparisons with Captain America: The First Avenger, but that's a topic for another blog and another blogger).

Viewing the movie as a man, it seems like the Chris Pine character was supposed to be our audience insert. I was prepared to be annoyed by this, because like, why can't I envision myself as Gal Gadot instead? I want to be Gal Gadot. Everyone wants to be Gal Gadot. But it actually ended up being really well-done. They could have played him as a boorish horndog who only finally comes to acknowledge Wonder Woman by the end, but no, they had him be respectful from the start, not to mention intelligent, funny, and moral. He treats her as an equal partner, if not more so, giving credit where it's due, and admonishing any card-carrying member of the Old Boys' Club who suggests she may be anything less than capable for being a woman. In other words, he's a fine role model for young MEN, which I wasn't rea;;y expecting from this movie.

UPDATE: Here's a column that says everything I just said, except articulately.

Also, Diana gets to have sex! And again, it's done really well! It comes off as a sudden but natural development in their growing relationship. She doesn't “give in” to his advances, and it doesn't devalue her as a woman or in any way whatsoever diminish her power as a feminist icon. She goes for it because she wants it, has fun, and doesn't regret it. Fucking perfect.

I don't know yet what the reaction has been from Japanese women, but women in the English-speaking world seem to be psyched about this movie, and it's awesome. Will Wonder Woman signal the beginning of a new era for women in action movies, or cinema in general? Will we FINALLY get a Black Widow solo film? Wait, does this mean Gal Gadot will get a larger role in future Fast and Furious movies?! Because that would be fucking sick.

By the time I was done, I felt like I'd glimpsed the future.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 4 - A Sense of Place

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 4 - A Sense of Place
Part 4

In the final part of this long-ass series, we're going to tackle the main point I was going to structure it around, back when I was envisioning a single post of maybe a thousand words. As I played through these games and read through the Metro books, it occurred to me that, sometimes without even meaning to, each one in some way embodied its country of origin. Yeah, every work of art is the result of a certain person living in a particular place at a particular time, and could have turned out radically different with but a nudge. But I still contend that Fallout is uniquely American, Metro is uniquely Russian, and Fragile is uniquely Japanese. I will now explain!

A sense of place

The town of Goodneighbour from F4
One of the coolest thing about Fallout is that everything in its world is based on the state of the world in the 1950's. Communism is still regarded as the greatest threat to world peace, although it's now China rather than the Soviet Union, or was right up until it and the United States wiped each other out. The science, too, seems to be based on what was generally understood back then, so wasteland denizens find radiation poisoning fairly inconsequential; it's true that they have spent generations building up resistance, and it's natural for any wasteland doctor to be well-trained in the matter of curing radiation poisoning, but on top of that, radiation was once thought to be far less dangerous than we now know it is, allowing your character to shrug off a dose of rads that would be fatal in our universe. Regarding the retro-futuristic laser guns, the physical appearance of alien grays, the focus on nuclear power to the detriment of computer development, and other relics, we can see that Fallout basically looks like how people of the 1950s imagined the future.

And it follows culturally, as well. Like any truly great work, Fallout draws inspiration from all manner of sources, but the little details of people's everyday lives, particularly as they were before the Great War, is clearly based on classic Americana: the attitude that America is Best and would only keep getting better, that the worst was over and it was only a matter of time before technology solved all of humanity's problems. I think that's probably an exaggeration of the American mentality of the time, but just comparing their media with our modern media it's pretty clear that we're a lot more jaded now. Well, considering how that worked out in the world of Fallout, you might be able to draw some interesting parallels with our own disillusionment...but anyway, the point is, the series could not have been made anywhere else but America, or more accurately, it would look very different if it had been. That is, it wouldn't be Fallout.

Fallout is as American as cultural imperialism or gross ignorance. F3 takes place in Washington, DC, for Christ's sake. It's not just window dressing, either. The theme of what is America and how do we find it runs thick throughout the main storyline. The Enclave, the remnants of the American government, still claims to hold jurisdiction over the original borders of the United States, but in reality, they're fooling themselves, as their authority has long since been supplanted by new governments such as the New California Republic, the state of independent Las Vegas, and small groups of humans long cut off from civilization who have reverted to tribalism. Hell, even the military swore off its corrupt parent and reformulated itself into a neo-knightly order, the Brotherhood of Steel. But while the United States may be gone, America and the values it believed it stood for may still be hiding somewhere out there in the wastes. Ulysses, a tribal whose people were forcefully absorbed into the expansionist Caesar's Legion, stumbled upon an old US flag and decided to dedicate his life to resurrecting the country, and while I think it's a fool's errand, I can't help but admire his principles.

And while Ulysses's story is the only one that's fleshed out properly, others aspire to rebuild the United States as well. The Enclave's Colonel Autumn wishes to restore it because he believes in the righteousness of the cause, and is willing to go to despicable lengths to achieve this goal. Part of this entails wiping out all mutated beings in the Capital Wasteland and presumably the rest of America after that, but everybody has been affected by radiation at this point, so his plan seeks only to garner his organization a greater share of nothing. Van Buren and Fallout Tactics both introduce us to AI protocols designed to take effect should the worst happen, but both go terribly wrong.

Metro, too, derives a sense of place from its set pieces. It does a good job of painting the city overhead as a sort of Necropolis, frequented only by well-equipped adventurers and the sometimes literal ghosts of its former inhabitants. And, at least in Metro 2033, it's encased in ice and snow, which, you know, tracks with my understanding of Russia.

I somehow feel like there's something uniquely Russian, and Moscovite, about Metro's metro. The defining feature is that the Moscow Metro was explicitly designed during Soviet times to double as a massive nuclear shelter. It is so much deeper underground than similar systems for this exact reason. It also has its share of legends owing to this, most notably D6, an even deeper, most likely fictional secret line that supposedly connects important points of interest such as the Kremlin and the national theatre, should high-ranking political executives ever need to be evacuated while at a function. And I only say “most likely” fictional because it's totally absurd, but a) it would make perfect sense, and b) if anybody could keep a construction project of that magnitude a secret, it's the Soviet government. By the way, Metro 2035 was first published in Metro, a free magazine distributed only in the Moscow Metro. I was just thought that was amusing, and kind of brilliant marketing.

The character of each station is evoked beautifully, whether it's a local station with a handful of tents scattered across the platform or a relative metropolis built throughout the shell of a former transport hub. From what I can tell, each station was realised by a different architect rather than a team of city planners, giving each one a distinct flavour (here's a sample). The creator might have slapped some ornate columns or controversial murals up in there. Even those that were the result of a Soviet-era relentless pursuit of function over form end up being unusual simply by comparison to their neighbours. The result is a series of stations that stand as works of art – or maybe the entire Metro is one big work of art. (Oddly enough, thanks to constantly referring to the maps while reading the books, I now feel like I know Moscow's public transit system better than some places I've actually lived in.)

Much of this beauty has been lost by 2033, but history is a continuum, and new traits have popped up to replace the old ones. Some stations have had their art preserved, to the ambivalence or even derision of those who pass through them, where others have come to stand for something else entirely, like the city of Polis, a conglomeration of four different stations now dedicated to the preservation of knowledge and nobility. And, generally, the reason for the evolution of a particular spot is clearly explained, and somehow rooted in its past.

There is also the fact that Ghlukovsky wrote Metro 2033 as a veiled evaluation of Russian society. Knowing this, the portrayals of, say, the Hanseatic money-grubbers, Communists driven mad by ideology, and exaggeratedly naiive and illogical Christians, suddenly seem a little less gratuitous. And the Nazis aren't really Nazis, but anti-immigration conservatives and racists. Maybe some characters and their motivations could do with a little more nuance, but at least it makes sense as an allegory. Dissecting all of modern Russian culture would be a mammoth task, but the author brings it down to a manageable scale. The Metro is a microcosm of Russia itself.

F3's Meresti Station, where, if I recall correctly, your
character murders a troublesome journalist by
pushing her into the path of an oncoming train.
Of course, other cities certainly have their own metros, so could you do a Metro-alike in another city? Sure! In fact, the wider Metro universe includes books set in locations like St Petersburg, elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and even as far afield as London, which is, after all, known for “the Tube.” Paris and New York come to mind as well. For that matter, both Fragile and Fallout 3 spend significant spaces of time in their cities' subway systems! (Shinjuku Eki is a major location in Fragile, and in F3 much of DC's streets are impassable due to rubble, making many downtown areas accessible only through the subway tunnels.) Vancouver might not work, since a SkyTrain station is a little less insulated, but you get the picture.

Speaking of Fragile's subway, the first real level takes place within Shinjuku Eki, famously the largest and busiest in all of Japan. Except, of course, that it's now deserted, save for a smattering of wild dogs and other monsters. Not saying that train travel is unique to life in Japan, but it's definitely an inextricable part of it, and one of the things I noticed most when I did my high school exchange.

After exploring a platform and concourse, the stage moves farther underground, to the 地下商店街 chikashoutengai, literally “underground shopping district.” I have no idea if they have these in countries other than Japan (surely China and Korea at the very least?), but I love these places. Narrow, crowded, and confusing, in another post I said that navigating them is like trying to play Pac-Man in first-person. The steet-like halls are lined with restaurants, clothing stores, all kinds of stuff really. The shops are densely packed and it's impossible to find what you're looking for. You might think that they cater to people in transit, but that's not true at all. Actually, it's just that their accessibility makes them terribly convenient. It's not uncommon for someone to head for a major station just to shop, then head on home. I've always loved train stations because they are the intersection of so many lives, shared alone; chikashoutengai are all of that PLUS the socializing of a mall. The energy is infectious, and I always end up leaving with that feeling you get when haven't accomplished anything of any great consequence, but you have experienced a slice of life.

But even if these aren't found elsewhere in the world, they are all over Japan. So, sure, Shinjuku Eki puts in an appearance, but it could be replaced with any other major station in Japan with little impact; for the most part, the city of Toukyou does not assert herself. The exception here is Toukyou Tower, an omnipresent neon presence off in the distance, not to mention your ultimate goal and the site of the final battle. It demands your attention when you first leave the observatory, it frames the background when Ren first appears, and whenever you venture indoors, almost forgetting about it, it's the first thing you notice when you reemerge, slowly but surely drawing closer.

Does it say anything that Fragile includes an amusement park level? Probably nothing significant about Japanese society, but the fact that the developers picked this as a stock setting (alongside the more universal train stations and hotels) might. I could be wrong, but I feel like not a lot of Westerners would.

For what it's worth, the choice of art style is undeniably Japanese. I mean come on now, it's freaking anime. If you were deliberately trying to make something Japanese and you picked an anime art style, people would tell you it was too on the nose. Flat cells, detailed textures, bright colours, exaggerated features – yup, that's Japanese animation.

And then there's the themes. Whether or not I'm right about the global warming angle, we have the scenes of nature to go off of. There's the northern lights scene we talked about earlier, visible through a smogless sky, and of course the hotel, slowly being reclaimed by the forest. The moon, as beautiful as it is cold and implacable. No less a person than Miyazaki Hayao has based many of his works on environmental themes, and he's regarded as one of the finest creators in Japan. Plus, what's the overriding emotion throughout the game? Loneliness. Various characters complain of the pain. Humanity is nearly destroyed in trying to eliminate it forever. Seto loses one person after another until he finally finds one who sticks around. Even the player may share in his distress, wandering a hostile environment without company. To paraphrase Hitching Rides With Buddha: “In the West, people fear irrelevance; in Japan, people fear loneliness.”

As with Fallout and America, I have to conclude that Fragile could not be made anywhere other than Japan – or that if it had been, it wouldn't be Fragile as we know it.

(Additionally, I resisted watching the Mad Max movies until after I'd completed this post, because I didn't want to be influenced except by the works I was actually writing about. There were a few reasons for this, number one being that the Mad Max game hadn't come out yet, and I thought I'd keep things consistent by following the gaming thread. Three is also a nice number. But more significantly, while I'm far from an expert on Russian or American culture, I know next to nothing about Australian culture. I've since watched the films and can safely say that – unsurprisingly, since it invented half the tropes that Fallout, Metro, and Fragile are drawing on – Mad Max would have been a good fit for this series, so expect an update eventually.)


By now it's probably pretty clear why I play these games and read this books (and watch these movies, and...), and why I wrote this post: I love thinking about this stuff. That, to me, is the real heart of philosophy: Taking extraordinary situations or seemingly impractical thought experiments, and finding a way to relate it to your real life. By asking us to confront questions about technology, the place of humanity, and what you the reader would be capable of in exceptional circumstances, Post-Apocalyptic fiction not only succeeds in provoking contemplation but delivers it in an entertaining package to boot.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 3 - Bits and Pieces

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 3
Bits and Pieces

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

We're back and talking about three great works in one of my favourite genres! Before we conclude, here's some stray thoughts that don't fit anywhere else. Together though, they kind of do.

The supernatural

When I started playing Metro, I was briefly surprised by the prominence of an unexpected supernatural element. It doesn't jar, in fact it's enmeshed in the world extremely well, and in a manner that contributes to the plot and atmosphere. But you wouldn't normally think to go that direction in a post-apocalyptic story. You might think that the seriousness of the subject matter would funnel you towards “realism,” and Fallout, after all, didn't really have anything like th—oh, wait, Fallout had ghouls and Super Mutants.

Oddly, none of the properties is satisfied to bank on interest in the post-Apocalypse alone; all three decide to introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings.

Fragile features robots and woodland creatures as enemies, but also contains plenty of supernatural enemies, such as ethereal jellyfish. More significantly, of course, is the Glass Cage, whose entire premise is on technology unavailable in the real world. The impact of this decision is very large, given what it allows the creators to do with the story, as only a select few humans are spared, and they're located far from one another. Seto also encounters several ghosts, one of whom is his main companion throughout the adventure. Another is the main antagonist, and others impede his path in various ways. There's even an old woman who projects the residual self-image of a small child. Many more appear as weak enemies, including banshee-like foes and little kids playing hide-and-go-seek. It's unclear what causes someone to linger after death, but it wasn't the failed human instrumentality attempt per se, otherwise there would be millions of them stalking the streets of Toukyou, rather than a few dozen.

It's hard to say what's behind this interest in blending the serious and supernatural, but it may be to make technology a little more mysterious. We use it in our everyday lives, our dependence upon it increasing by the second, so we tend to assume we have a pretty good handle on it, and yet in these stories it has nearly destroyed us. By introducing unpredictable effects, the creators point out how little we really understand about our own technology, and, indeed, the world around us.

The place of technology

What's the most important piece of technology you're going to need to survive the post-Apocalypse? Your trusty gun, right? Of course not, don't be daft.

"Millions...perhaps even billions, died because science
 outpaced man's restraint!"
By far the most valuable technology is anything that can help you grow or acquire food or water. Even Fallout knows this. Tons of major characters devote their lives to seeking out powerful relics of the Old World. The Brotherhood of Steel, a neo-knightly order of technophiles, jealously hoards its knowledge, even placing the value of its retrieval over that of human life (“After all, everyone knows how to make another human, but the secrets to making a P94 Plasma Rifle are all but lost”). Despite warnings from some members, the Brotherhood gets so wrapped up in locating bombs and weapons schematics that it neglects more useful technologies like aeration or securing the safety of the populace. This difference of opinion tears apart one chapter and nearly destroys another. Plus, the whole plot of Fallout 1 is kicked off when your Vault's Water Chip fails, threatening to leave its residents without potable drinking water and forcing the Overseer to open the Vault early so that you can go look for one.

Metro takes this to a whole new level. Sure, people value weapons maybe a little more than they should, but they focus on the fundamentals of survival, tracking down or reinventing the most primitive, unsexy technologies available. We're talking water purification. Gardening. Domestication. That kind of stuff. They don't talk about it, but I imagine electric sewing machines fetch an outrageous price. And don't forget medicine! Some medical textbooks have survived in Fallout, but in Metro we only ever see two infirmaries in all of Metro, one at Polis in Last Light, and one in I forget where in 2034. I'm sure I don't have to explain why doctors would be highly valued. The gaudiest stations in the series are described as having medical facilities, hot running water, and adequate lighting.

The antagonist in Fragile believed that technology would solve the world's problems, but instead it nearly ended it. And all the everyday technology that once made life possible now sits unused and decaying. Surely the writers don't mean to suggest that we need to get some global genocide happening pronto, but they may be trying to tell us that we'd do well to get back to nature from time to time. Technology makes our lives possible, but it can also end them. A sickle can sustain life, or it can kill, depending how it is used. In these stories, we used the bounties available to us to destroy ourselves. Hell, you could even argue that we're doing that today, with problems like global warming. Some creators may even have had this is in mind when making the games. Nuclear bombs as a stand-in for global warming – well, the latter is slower and less exciting, but just as deadly. And just as avoidable.

What is the place of technology in our world – and in theirs? What technologies should these people pursue – and what should we? These stories are not necessarily anti-technology, but they do seem to warn against its misuse.

Sex and sexuality

Fahrenheit, an ass-kicking woman from F4
In Fallout, conventional racism has given way to an equally insidious prejudice towards the irradiated, nigh-immortal ghouls. Sexism, however, has all but been obliterated. Oh, you still have the odd old-fashioned gender roles type cropping up here and there, but for the most part, except as it pertains to whether or not you want to sleep with somebody, sex and gender are a bit of a non-issue. When your camp is assaulted by raiders, nobody cares what's between your legs – they only care how well you can fight. (The exception to this is Caesar's Legion, in which women are childbearers and caregivers and literally nothing else, but even this is more part of Caesar's ruthless division of labour than actual sexism – the same as how his veteran soldiers are never the first into battle not as some kind of privilege, but because it's more effective to hold them in relief until the enemy is already fatigued from fighting the grunts.)

On a related topic, homosexuality in the world of Fallout is a-ok. There's only one instance where I can remember it being frowned upon, and only because it was among a group of isolationists who felt that it was their peoples' duty to procreate lest they all die out, so it was more of a practical issue than actual bigotry. Basically you're free to bang whoever you want; I always play a woman and try to be as slutty as possible, and everybody's fine with it, and they give equally few fucks if you're a blushing virgin. Which is partly down to freedom of player choice, but there are plenty of non-hetero relationships between NPCs as well. It makes total sense that people would have more pressing issues on their minds than who's sleeping with whom, but there's also the fact that danger is a powerful aphrodesiac, and Post-Apocalyptia is nothing if not dangerous. Biology drives them to panic procreate, and perhaps they also realise that every chance at a good hard pounding may be their last, so they pretty much just take whatever they can get, whenever they can get it.

Also, Fragile features a totally out of nowhere boy-on-boy kiss, in a game from a country not exactly noted for its social progressivism, so wrap your head around that one.


As described above in the section on economics, both Fallout and Metro feature interesting substitutes for money. Metro uses pre-War AK-47 casings, now impossible to counterfeit. The underground inhabitants still make bullets, but they are vastly inferior to the industrial products manufactured for use by the actual military back when there was one.

Similarly, the people of Fallout use Nuka-Cola bottle caps as currency, as their veracity and scarcity are guaranteed because no one knows how to make them anymore. However, as soon as people started cobbling together a semblance of society once again, one of the first things they relearned how to make was high-quality weapons and ammunition. I think that says a lot.

(And by the way – in Mad Max, people don't ever figure out how to mass-produce ammunition, leading to the emphasis on melee combat.)

Glad you could join me for today's session! I've got one more point to make, so I hope I'll see you again next time.

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Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Star Wars vs Gundam: An unprofessional comparison

You probably haven't noticed since it hasn't really been mentioned in the news or on social media, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently hit theatres. Plenty have been showing Star Wars and only Star Wars for several weeks running. They are going to make a lot of money. Meanwhile, I, a longtime Gundam fan, am currently watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam for the first time. For its age, it's an incredible show; the quality of the animation is astounding, and the story is pretty timeless. Still, I can't help but notice that it came out in 1979. Know what else came out just two years earlier? The original Star Wars.

Creating the “space” genre, or merely repackaging it?

A lot of the Star Wars pre-game analyses I saw in the weeks leading up to the new film's release claim that Star Wars launched the space genre. Before Star Wars, commercially viable, intellectually accessible science fiction simply did not exist.


I'm not just saying that because of Gundam. Gundam launched after, not before. I just explained that like two paragraphs ago. Jesus, please try to pay attention. No, I'm alluding to something interesting I read in a recent Cracked article:

George Lucas, hot off the enormously successful American Graffititried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon to turn it into a big-budget film franchise. They couldn't come to terms on a deal, so Lucas just decided to just write his own version. That's all it was. ... The rough draft of Star Wars was an incoherent rambling mess, borrowing entire scenes from other movies, mostly Akira Kurosawa samurai films (then again, Kurosawa had borrowed his from American Westerns). ... For the space dogfight that would mark the climactic battle at the end of the film, Lucas literally stitched together footage from war movies and documentaries, then just re-filmed them with spaceship models, shot for shot. In other words, Santa Claus isn't real."

Space Captain Harlock
Flash Gordon, "Buck Rodgers, Kurosawa, Westerns (Tattooine!), old WW2 footage. Sounds like Lucas had a lot of good material to draw on. But don't think that Japan was devoid of material at this point, either! It had its own “swashbuckling space adventure,” the 1970s anime Space Captain Harlock. It was popular enough to merit a revival a couple of years ago. And there's plenty more where that came from. 2001: A Space Odyssey, both book and movie. Or how about The War of the Worlds, an HG Wells story from fucking 1897. The decade preceding Star Wars even saw the rise of another space-themed series of TV shows and movies, an obscure property called “Star Trek.”

Metal Gear REX
Everything new steals from everything old. Harry Potter draws on centuries of mythology. Divergent mashes up Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, which in turn probably took ideas from Battle Royale. Metal Gear is a mixture of old movies, whatever is currently on Kojima's mind, and, inevitably, Gundam, because you can't tell me the series that launched the mecha subgenre did not in some way influence the eponymous war machines. Hell, even Gundam itself mercilessly cannibalizes its own plotlines to new purpose. Gundam Seed is just a repackaged Mobile Suit Gundam; 00 is just Wing for a post-9/11 audience.

Neither franchise “created” the space adventure. That door had already been slowly dilating open for decades. What they did was put an interesting spin on established conventions and make their own contributions to the cultural landscape. Which, given the flood of boring, derivative fluff we're inundated with every day of every year, is a huge accomplishment anyway.


A steam-powered Oobu machine from Sakura Taisen. This one
in particular is piloted by the character Sakura.
Supposedly, less than 1% of people (English speakers?) have never seen any of the Star Wars movies. I was actually surprised it was that high! That's the power that these movies have. And besides Dragonball Z and Pokemon (in that order), I can't think of any other cultural treasure that has had a stronger or more enduring impact on the modern Japanese popular consciousness than Gundam. Final Fantasy? In Japan, Dragon Quest is bigger. Dragon Quest? Nice try, you sarcastic twit, because Dragon Quest is kind of only for nerds, while the other three are widely known by everyone. Sakura Taisen? You know what, now you're just annoying me.

I've heard that when making Sonic 2, Naka Yuuji wanted to pay tribute to the most popular things in America and Japan at the time, which he determined were Star Wars and Dragonball Z, respectively. Hence why Sonic collects seven Chaos Emeralds to transform into a golden, super-powered state, and why Eggman/Robotnik's latest creation is the planet-like Death Egg. I'm not completely sure if that's a true story, but it sounds credible.

The point is that both series have had such a – what? Oh, you think Gundam's not that important because Dragonball Z beat it out for a reference in Sonic 2? Go plan a day trip to Odaiba, tell me if you see anything interesting.

Close to 40 years later, both Gundam and Star Wars are huge, at least in their own countries. In case you forgot, The Force Awakens has just dropped. 2015 saw the beginning of a new Gundam continuity, the Iron-Blooded Orphans, which I haven't watched yet but is most likely far less silly than the English title makes it sound. Both have been the mother of sprawling franchises encompassing everything from physical toys, books, comic books, video games, all kinds of shit.


 “Lucas,” notes the Cracked article, “knew that he was, in part, making a series of toy commercials.” Once you see it, you can't unsee it. Why are there so many variations of Stormtrooper? Because then you can make a separate action figure for each of them. Ayla Secura gets an action figure. Lando's co-pilot gets an action figure. You can buy a goddamn Lego Death Star. The Expanded Universe is/was so successful because it explores intersting, in-depth stories within a compelling universe, but also because it allows for a nearly limitless number of concurrently developed products, with a huge install base, across every creative medium known to man. They had these novels about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan pre-Phantom Menace, I thought they were just about the pinnacle of literature when I was a little kid. RIP Expanded Universe.

GAT-X131 Calamity Gundam
Now Gundam is an interesting case, it wasn't designed with the possibility of merchandise in mind, rather the プラモデル plastic models were designed first, and then Tomino was called in to create the anime in order to market the toys. When I first found out that Calamity from Seed was originally supposed to be 1.5 times the size of a regular Gundam, but this was changed because it would mean the scale model would have to be bigger and thus more expensive, it absolutely blew my mind that something so seemingly trivial could actually affect, no, constrict the creator's vision. Of course, back then I also didn't know that a lot of the best moments in movies were born from blind chance, that the stories and settings of video games are crafted in response to the gameplay mechanics and not the other way around, etc. Well, I was a child.

Which, while I'm on the topic, is why it always amuses/frustrates me when people complain that in making the prequels, George Lucas took Star Wars and “made it for children.” Uh, have you fucking seen the first three movies? THEY ARE FOR CHILDREN. Look at Luke – he is a hero made for children. His robot buddies are hand-made for children. And I'm sorry for treading well-trodden ground, but come the fuck on:

Star Wars is for children and always has been. And actually, so is Gundam. It's sophisticated enough that you can see it for the first time as an adult and still appreciate it, but let's be realistic, here, we're talking about giant robots fighting each other. It's only that Japan is a little less moralistic about its entertainment and coddles its youth a little less. (Broad strokes. Obviously.)


Char Aznable, fan favourite and one of the key characters of
Gundam's "Universal Century" continunity
 Psych! The two couldn't be farther apart. Gundam tells a nuanced anti-war tale in which there are no clear good guys and bad guys; the antagonists in the first series, the Principality of Zeon, want nothing more than independence from the oppressive Earth Federation (and I spent much of the series trying to figure out why the Federation didn't just give it to them). Later series continue the story from their perspective. As things develop, Mobile Suit Gundam scratches topics such as ecology (decades before An Inconvenient Truth) and transhumanism. Star Wars, meanwhile, is about how war is awesome, violence solves every problem, the good guys not only always win but always survive, and your enemies are all irredeemably evil.

Hero's Journey?

You could say that both Luke Skywalker and Amuro Rei follow a fairly typical Hero's Journey, one of the recognized plot structures in literature. Luke has humble beginnings (a moisture farm), gradually comes into his abilities, and finally destroys the Death Star in the climactic action sequence. It works even better on a trilogy-wide scale, with blind luck leading the way to victory in A New Hope, Luke screwing up and battling his inner demons in The Empire Strikes Back, and emerging in Return of the Jedi as a confident, skilled combatant.


Similarly, civilian teenager Amuro Rei is thrust into a combat role by circumstances, and initially depends heavily on the capabilities of his machine to achieve victory. Understandably, he develops (a fairly believable depiction of) PTSD after a few battles, stops eating and sleeping properly, and lashes out at the people trying to help him, including his closest friend. At one point he even deserts his ship, White Base, and absconds with the Gundam, which is military property in the first place. Eventually he comes to terms with his fear, achieves his potential, and becomes a truly skilled pilot bent on protecting White Base and its inhabitants.

Of course, I'm not sure this actually says anything substantial about these two series. It probably just indicates that the Hero's Journey is a good fit for a space opera. Which I guess is interesting in itself, actually.

Accidental retro-futurism

This is a common pitfall of science fiction: By the time the real world has caught up chronologically with the one you've created, it may have actually surpassed the technology you were envisioning, or gone off in a completely different direction. Early cyberpunk had conceived of the Internet before the Internet was the Internet, but it didn't occur to people back in the 80's that we would eventually be able to access it wirelessly.

"These days its design seems completely inadequate." Source.
 Again, even today I find Mobile Suit Gundam relevant and immensely enjoyable, but one does notice the occasioanl hiccough in technological progress. I think this is most noticeable in the viewscreens used by crewmen on White Base and in their mobile suit cockpits, which is to say they look like an old TV your father has stored in his basement because he hasn't bothered to throw it away yet, not like modern monitors and certainly not like anything we'll have by the time we're living on the moon.

Meanwhile, control panels on the shiny, just-finished Death Star look as though they're best suited for operating a Magnavox Intellivision.

Cutting-edge computer technology in the world of Fallout.
This can injure suspension of disbelief, but I actually really dig this. It's kind of like a fingerprint left on a work by the era in which it was created. You can always think of it as an alternate timeline, like in Fallout, where humanity pursued nuclear technology instead of computer technology, so that even computers manufactured circa 2077 intentionally look like they came out of 1950.


The Death Star destroying Alderaan is the cayalyst for sections of plot in A New Hope. Mobile Suit Gundam kicks off with the destruction of the protagonist's home, the space colony Side 7. Huh.

Laser swords

Lightsabre – beam sabre. Even the names are similar.

If there's one thing East and West could agree on in the 1970s, it was that laser swords are just plain cool. Or “totally radical,” I guess.

But all of this pales in comparison to...

Amateur mechanics

As a young boy, Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO...

...and as a budding scientific prodigy, Amuro Rei created the purely decorative robot Haro.

Anakin, of course, becomes Darth Vader. And in some Gundam series, Amuro occupies the role of villain.


The crossover section of thinks not.