The Null Device
Charlie Stross has written a travelogue about Japan. As with most, nay, all of his stuff, it is very much worth reading:
You can wander into a Japanese department store and lose an entire day, without even scraping the surface of the mall it's embedded in. My personal nemesis is Yodabashi Camera: a department store that has a clothing and houseware department embedded in it where most such shops would feature an electronics boutique department. Half of the sixth floor of its Yokohama branch is given over to capsule toy vending machines, where for 200 yen (about 80 pence) you can turn the knob and acquire a tennis ball sized bundle of mysterious plasticky goodness with a model kit of some complexity within. My favourite (which Feorag acquired from a capsule toy machine at Puroland, of which more later) is a capsule toy that contains a self-assembly model of a capsule toy machine, complete with tiny capsule toys ready to vend. Even the toys teach recursion ...
Tokyo is ... well dammit, I only spent four days there and you expect me to describe it? Tokyo left me feeling like an illiterate Albanian shepherd teleported without warning to the UK, staring slack-jawed in wonder at the vast, gleaming, powerful public works of metropolitan Huddersfield, reeking of wealth and efficiency and a goat-free future. From the thirty-seventh floor of a skyscraper I looked out across the high rise skyline, red lights blinking fretfully in the grip of a typhoon as winds strong enough to blow sheets of rain up the glass of the window rumbled around me, and I realized: this future has no place for goats.
Kyoto, the former imperial capital, looks like just another modern Japanese city at first. But then, as you're walking through a shopping arcade that specializes in commercial catering supply shops (such as the shop that sells nothing but cash registers, or the signage supplier), you spot a gap between two stalls — and plugging it, the courtyard of an ancient Buddhist temple, sharing a cigarette with the high wooden archway of a Shinto shrine. There's a sign in front, with an English translation, so you pause to read it. "Founded by the abbot ... around 768 ... burned down during the wars ... this is a modern reconstruction ..." And you're about to walk away, disappointed, when you read the final words: " ... created in 1633." It's just as much a modern replica as the Christopher Wren reconstruction of St Paul's Cathedral — and yet, the same language is used of reproduction castles cast in the concrete of 1930s modernism, or Buddhist temples from the fourteenth century.
These living conditions place a mold around the behaviour of the people who live with them. Take the wearing of uniforms, for example. In the UK, with a few exceptions — the uniformed services of government, police and military and fire services — we respond poorly to being placed in a uniform; it's a sign of depersonalization, stripping us of individuality. In Japan, however, uniforms are everywhere. Even people who don't have to wear them seem to gravitate towards workwear that's uniform in its appearance: taxi drivers in dark suits, peaked hats, and white gloves. Uniforms confer status — a uniform is a sign that you belong to some greater social context, to a corporation or a shop or a school or something important.(The last part makes a similar point to Momus' essay on "superlegitimacy".)
On a tangent: Earthquake sets Japan back to 2147.
The latest innovation from Japan: photographic age verification for vending machines. Cigarette vending machines are being deployed which contain a camera and face-recognition software which estimates the customer's age from their photograph. Given that such a process can't be particularly accurate (would one look that different immediately after one's 20th birthday?), they will also accept ID cards as proof of age.
Another use for all those neatly tagged photos of tourist attractions on websites like Flickr: synthesising accurate 3D models from millions of photos, taken by amateurs from random angles:
To make the 3D digital model, the researchers first download photos of a landmark. For instance, they might download the roughly 60,000 pictures on Flickr that are tagged with the words "Statue of Liberty." The computer finds photos that it will be able to use in the reconstruction and discards pictures that are of low quality or have obstructions. Photo Tourism, a tool developed at the UW, then calculates where each person was standing when he or she took the photo. By comparing two photos of the same object that were taken from slightly different perspectives, the software applies principles of computer vision to figure out the distance to each point.
"We don't quite get the accuracy of a laser scanner, but we're in the ballpark," Seitz said. The recreations of Notre Dame show individual figures carved into the stone facade. A model of The Duomo in Pisa, Italy, a building about 160 feet tall, is accurate to within a few inches. The resolution of the 3D model mostly depends on the resolution of the original photos.The next step in the research will be to create a detailed 3D model of a city entirely from automatically sorted photos from the internet; Rome has been chosen as the city to thus recreate.