This is the week, it seems, of people reading my posts and making them better. First, Ken Hite revealed the infomantic significance of the Ford’s Theatre index card disaster. Then, Barista‘s David Hiley expanded my link to Jess Nevins’ post on Japanese automata with a fuller biography of Gakutensoku, the golden calligraphy-writing robot.* David also pointed out the secret through-line between the automata and index card stories:

Here he [ie, me] combines two wonderful and pathetic factoids in the one zany flow. Handy, dandy, it has the logical flow of the management of information which leads to proto-robots which takes us ultimately to these machines, which we all share as we prowl the world from our keyboards.

The way I see it, I didn’t combine the Ford’s Theatre and Gakutensoku stories, he did. I just put them next to each other. But I appreciate his kind words and the phrase, “wonderful and pathetic factoids.” That goes on my ever-growing list of alternate taglines for this blog.

This is what I love love love about the 21st century: Barista posted about Gakutensoku three days after Jess Nevin’s original post, two days after my own. Granted, I’m impressed by anyone who writes a post in two days. (I have on my hard drive a half-written response to Seth Shulman’s Telephone Gambit that I started writing when I saw Shulman give a talk at MIT… in 2005.) But the real infomancy is the way these not-necessarily-pathetic factoids carom around the internet. A librarian in Texas (who knows everything, by the way) writes a short piece about a 1920s Japanese robot. It bounces off a Canadian history professor, and is read by an Australian film writer. Who then researches the history of that robot, using an amazing online encyclopedia of more than 2 million user-generated articles, not one of which existed eight years ago. It’s easy to take it all for granted, my friends, but we are living in the future. Where’s my flying car, you ask? You’re driving it right now.

(At least until Big Cable / Bell Canada takes away the keys.)

*Barista says Gakutensoku “ain’t no robot–it is an automaton.” But are the two categories mutually exclusive? Mr. North, Ms McDougal, Mr. Da Vinci, can I get a ruling?



My friend Jess Nevins, the extraordinary gentleman himself, offers up a history of Japanese robots and automata and the blasted gaijin who keep making off with them:

Japan’s first modern robot was created in 1928 by Makoto Nishimura, as part of the formal celebration of Emperor Showa’s (a.k.a. Hirohito) ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The robot, Gakutensoku (or “learning from natural law”), was 7’8″ tall, painted gold, could open and close its eyes, could smile, could puff out its cheeks, and at the beginning of each performance would touch its mace to its head and then begin to write.

How much do I want a 7’8″ gold Japanese robot called “learning from natural law”? RTWT, as they say, for a robot haiku by Kobayashi Issa*, an unscrupulous American magician, and intimations of occult robot conspiracy.

Speaking of occult conspiracy, Ken Hite showed once again why he is the king, picking up on the Paul Collins post I linked yesterday and spinning it into secret magical history gold:

[Collins:] In the U.S., for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of haphazard medical files until the newly touted method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Hundreds of clerks transcribed personnel records dating back to the Revolutionary War. Housed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC — the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination a generation earlier — the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death.

[Hite:] Can anyone say Ascension of the Bureaucrat in 1894? Blood sacrifice to begin the Information Age? Creation of the “mass man” from data (which is to say, DNA) and crumpled flesh (of 22 people — where was the 23rd, necessary to complete the full chromosomal pairing?), intermingled on the blasphemous regicidal altar of America? The possibilities are limitless.

Do not fold, spindle, or sacrifice.

Also, there’s a nice link back to me today at Dug North’s excellent Automata blog. (Dug, I owe you an email.)

Edit: Engadget has video of a spiffed up Gakutensoku in action. (Hat tip to my man Sepoy.)

*Question: Would the great 18th century haiku master really use the word “coolness”? Answer: He would if he were writing about tea-serving robots!


Bowling For Geisha

(Originally published on my old LiveJournal.)

Goddamn, you half-Japanese girls / you do it to me every time.
—Weezer, “El Scorcho”*

Last week was Lisa’s birthday. We went out with a bunch of friends to Peking Tom’s, and ran up a big bill on dumplings and tropical drinks. As a present for her, I had a couple of large prints made and framed from the photo archive of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. Lisa’s worked with the PEM on a bunch of Asian history things over the years. She took some of her students to China under the museum’s auspices in 2001, and would have taken more last year if not for SARS. (They’re supposed to go this year, so we’re watching the spread of Mad Chicken Disease with alarm.) And she also ran a workshop on their photo collection last summer, which makes the prints a pretty cool present if I do say so myself.

The PEM is absolutely worth visiting if you’re ever near Salem. They’ve got a huge gorgeous new building, they’ve got Yin Yu Tang, an entire house brought over peg by peg from southeastern China and rebuilt here, and then they have great rotating exhibits on Asian history and New England maritime history. There’s an exhibit of 1920s photographs of China, Tibet, and Mongolia on now and an exhibit on geisha opens this week. You can see many of their photographs (though no bigger than these images) at something they call ARTscape.

Above are the two prints I had made. They’re both from around 1880, by a Japanese photographer named Kusakabe Kimbei. I really dig the nineteenth-century photos—actually, I really like all old photos. Kusakabe was one of the first and best-known Japanese photographers. His pictures differ from most taken by Westerners of the era, who were more likely to pose their subjects directly facing the camera. Kusakabe’s photographs are not without artifice—the samurai era had been over for twenty years when the samurai picture there was taken—but they’re just a little more alive then the formal Western pictures, a little closer to offering a window on the past, which is what makes pictures like these so compelling for history nuts like L & myself.

That’s not to say that the Westerners’ photographs in the collection aren’t cool too. Especially since the main aspects of Asia that Europeans tended to want pictures of were: 1) “exotic” clothing and costumes, 2) cool architecture, 3) nekkid ladies, 4) torture and mutilation. And who can argue with wanting to see any of that?

Here’s two more pictures from the PEM I really like. On the left is a pagoda in Fuzhou, China, photographed in 1871. On the right are three Indian soldiers serving the Maharaja of Kashmir in the 1870s. At this scale you probably just notice their funny hats, but if you see this picture full-size you can tell from their faces these dudes are BAD ASS. I’m reminded of a comment in the letters column from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen:

The depiction of Verne’s Nemo is born of dislike for the fashion by which Western media unvaryingly characterize those of Indian descent as high-voiced, wobbly-headed, timid, ineffectual shopkeepers … Clearly such people have never had several hundred wild-eyed fanatical devils over-run their cannon positions. Or wondered why [Hindu] deities possess so many arms, the great majority of which are holding something sharp.

The only depressing thing about the Peking Tom outing was how it was one of the very few times I’ve actually seen and interacted with Lisa in the last few weeks. We’ve both been busy and stressed lately, and when that happens we tend to revert to our natural biorhythms—I stay up and get up later and later, she gets up and goes to bed earlier and earlier. Eventually we’re like acquaintances who pass each other on the way to and from bed around 3 am. Lisa declared Sunday a mental health day for both of us, which meant no work, not even email or weblogs. A lot of lounging, snogging, canoodling, and we even started drinking before noon. Heaven. Lots of things to get stressed about again come Monday—medical problems in the family, the job hunt, the dissertation, her grades due, money—and oh yeah, our roof is caving in! But Sunday was a damn good day.

My Linking Technique Is Unstoppable!

  • Samurai Archives! Electric Samurai! The Samurai Code! Akira Kurosawa! Did I mention that I’m on a samurai kick?
  • I watched The Seven Samurai last week for the first time in ages. I’ve seen Ran and Rashomon, never seen Yojimbo. Besides that, what other Kurosawa movies are must-sees?
  • Lisa ran her Sengoku-inspired classroom LARP last week. This is I think the third time she’s done it, and something cool and different happens each time. This time the ninja assassin killed the daimyo, but she let him hang around as an unquiet ghost. I wish I’d had her as a teacher in high school. Except for the ickiness our being married would then create.
  • Samurai Jack just gets better and better, doesn’t it? I can’t tell how “seasons” work on Cartoon Network, but virtually all of the newer episodes (Robo Samurai versus Mondo Bot, the secret origin of Aku, the one where Jack and Aku agree to fight without sword or magic) have been priceless.
  • Anyone out there seen the movie Samurai Fiction? Worth renting? Mostly I want to hear the soundtrack and find out if everything Tomoyasu Hotei does is as cool as the song on the Kill Bill soundtrack. I’d hate to drop $40 for a import CD and have it turn out to be noodly 80s J-Pop.
  • Speaking of that, what = up with Kill Bill Part 2? Wasn’t that supposed to be coming out this month?
  • Getting away from samurai per se: Chris/Gamma Fodder had a great post on Asian junk food cinema recently. I’ve seen many of those films, mostly with him, but I’m still saving the link to fill in the ones I’ve missed. Plus here’s an RPGnet thread with more samurai movies and comics for me to go through.
  • Edit: One more link for my own benefit, from China rather than Japan: Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

*”El Scorcho” came very close to being the first dance at our wedding. As a public service I will explain for you the part of the lyrics that nobody can figure out:

I asked you to go to the Green Day concert
You said you never heard of them
How cool is that?
So I went to your room and read your diary:
“watching Grunge leg-drop New Jack through a press table”
And then my heart stopped:
“listening to Cio Cio-San”
I fall in love all over again.

The fifth line refers to wrestler Johnny Grunge putting the hurt on Nu Jack Isone in (I’m told) the old ECW wrestling league. “Cio Cio-San” is the title character in Madame Butterfly—which, like the album “Pinkerton” and this post, is about a Westerner’s infatuation with the East. A girl who shreds the cello, has never heard of Green Day (in 1996!), but writes in her diary about wrestling matches and Madame Butterfly is clearly a strange girl worth holding on to. Is it any wonder that this is “our” song?