Category: ghost in the machine

Convergence and Continuity Across Virtual Worlds

In games, immersive worlds, forums, social networks, and in blogs we inhabit multiple selves. In most cases, theses virtual spaces are walled islands with little relation between them. Increasingly it’s becoming apparent that continuity is necessary to resolve these fractured selves and to open up the channels of communication between the diversity of online containers. This can be seen in the new wave of web 2.0 aggregators like FriendFeed and Plaxo that aim to collate our myriad profiles, friends and content streams into a single portal. Now, Technology Review reports that several companies are working to enable avatars to move between virtual worlds.

More and more, such affordances will move into virtual spaces. 2D content streams and communication pipelines will feed into and across immersive worlds. A WoW player should be able to call up a HUD console in the game and locate their friends across all of the virtual worlds they’re currently in. They should then be able to communicate with them through IM or VoIP and subsequently transport to join them in another world. GTA4 has announced a feature to allow users to call each other in-world using the game cell phone. Shouldn’t this extend across game worlds and out into real-world mobiles? API’s could evolve to mine user communications (Twitter in WoW?) and chart locations on world maps. In the age of digital society, findability is key.

The vast amounts of personal profiling we’re building up around ourselves in MySpace, Facebook, blogs, and other forums should be accessible through our avatars and from all places we inhabit, virtually and in reality. It should be present in our devices and our profiles. As avatars, it should follow us like a digital skin (secured and opt-in, of course) layered in transaction-appropriate trust profiles that fly-out on mouseover. My avatars should contain more information than just polygons and scripted motions. Social transactions are information exchanges. My LinkedIn profile should be accesible to anyone in 2D and 3D if I so desire.

The realness of immersive worlds should leverage the fundamental reality of our digital profiles and interests. If these platforms are going to become truly compelling, they must work to integrate the API’s, content streams, and communication channels of the web2.0 revolution. We’re in the midst of a completely unprecedented historical shift as all of our cultural and intellectual content is going digital, made manifest in searchable, findable, and persistent datalogs. The profiles we create around our virtual selves are growing larger and larger, and they are being recorded and left open for many eyes to see. Imagine the political candidates running 10 or 15 years from now. So much of their lives will be a matter of public record easily searchable and graphed out to show affiliations, donations, histories and contradictions. So much of who they are will live online like a shadow. SO much of who we all are.

Virtual worlds are poised to engage directly in this shift and draw culture and identity into their domain. Instead of closed platforms, worlds like Second Life must open up and grow to become contiguous spaces whose character arises from the types of people that choose to gather there by affiliation, interest, and intention. MMORPG’s like WoW will continue to offer highly crafted narratives, specialized social groups and hierarchies, and bleeding edge rendering tech but will acknowledge the tremendous personal content within each player distributed across their digital and analog lives.

Of course, if virtual platforms become more open, their business models will inevitably shift towards advertising. Space is space, whether 2D, 3D, or 4D, and eyes are eyes especially when they gather in great enough concentration. As in the real world, the exchange of goods and services will always be of great value in any domain, so the shift towards continuity will be a shift towards reality. Virtual worlds have the unique proposition of creating fantasy within the world of life. So the shift towards reality in the context of a realized fantasy brings both closer together. It is part of the alchemical formula of bringing spirit into matter. It is the power of gods to create in an unlimited universe. It is the movement of the ghost in the machine as our real selves grow more and more to include virtual, digital, non-local aspects of identity and presence. Who am I but the sum of my transactions with the world? These words I’m writing and posting on the global billboard become preserved bits of my self. Your interactions with them extend my identity into the virtual world. All my words are facets of my expanding digital identity. My self-reflection extends from my body, my deeds, my actions towards others around me, to include the ideas and statements I leave online, the avatars I inhabit, and the webs of disembodied people I associate with. In 100 years I may roll up in bits under some social anthropologist’s data-mining PhD nudging their graphs this way or that with my Tweets and posts.

Aggregation of social data serves a very practical role of making it easier for us to manage an increasingly vast amount of data, but it also serves a larger role of helping us defragment our sense of self as it fractures out across so many new digital domains rising and falling daily. If we’re to walk like new gods through worlds both real and virtual, shouldn’t we do so with as much wholeness as possible? In a world that’s made it so challenging to have a fully integrated psyche it’s really imperative that we lay down a strong foundation of holism and continuity as we move into the unfettered vastness of the digital noosphere. As strong cohesive selves we can better wear the masks of avatars and wield the power of virtual gods.

A Little Virtual Spice Please

To briefly elaborate on an earlier post about Second Life… And specifically, ways in which I believe a modern 3d immersive world can leverage the new wave of cloud tech and create a truly compelling experience:

I want downtown billboards streaming Twitter feeds, rich dataviz, global network traffic, weather patterns, Flickr streams, and cycling media channels. I want to Dj from Traktor directly into a virtual club. I want interactive music and video remix tools that include the world as a substrate. I want to endow my avatar with metadata callouts, grouped in trust profiles, that display my affinities, affiliations, tag cloud, LinkedIn profile, sms number, twitter id, and credit accounts as appropriate to those I meet. I want to be free to re-purpose 3D assets from 3DSM, Maya, and Sketchup into my worldspace. I want a beautiful living homeworld that gathers the populace and inspires users and developers to create their own content elsewhere on distributed servers. I want to join friends on a virtual hilltop and watch the clouds drift past, watch the sun set, and the moons rise. I want to get lost in emergent behaviors, intelligent agents, and the beauty of physical dynamics. I want to easily find friends across multiple servers, across social nets, and out into mobile, gsm, and phone networks. I want an open-standard, opt-in, cloakable virtual ID that can be searched for and found across all dominant gaming and immersive networked worldspaces – and then when I find my friend I want to be able to join them wherever they are. I want peer-to-peer drop-boxes and back-channels that can address files to dominant industry and open-source applications, then back to in-world interfaces. I want an in-world, heads-up fly-out phone/sms/notepad/web-browser overlay that’s data synched to my mobile phone. I want to stumble into sinuous plotlines that sweep me away to distant parts of the virtual world. And yes, I want an SDK that allows EA to stick the Tony Hawk trick and physics model into a nice binary that can be purchased and installed into my client so I can skate around the place. And yes, I will try to grind your avatar if you have any linear edges sticking out.

I’m totally dreaming, I know. But dreams are what the future is built upon.

Second Life CEO Rosedale to Step Down

Second Life creator and CEO Philip Rosedale announced he will cease his role as CEO of Linden Lab. He states that he will replace Mitch Kapor as chairman and stay committed to SL full-time as it’s primary visionary. No word on Kapor’s alignment.

Rosedale is definitely more suited to the new role as Second Life has failed thus far to capitalize on their hype and advance their platform. The world is dated and has been unable to realize it’s own visionary goals. They’ve generated a decent amount of revenues but have not used the income to grow the platform in any truly compelling way. Their fundamental model – which is a grave failing point for many people eager to move their endeavors into 3D – assumes that people would rather do everything in an immersive world. But the simple fact is that chat, business meetings, online learning, and ecommerce are all far more functional in the flat 2d web. Even advertising loses it’s appeal when your virtual world only supports 100 or so avatars in any one space at a time.

For SL to succeed I believe they need to do the following:

1) Completely re-engineer the scenegraph to catch up with the immersion and realism of modern gaming platforms
2) Hire content developers whose sole task is to create a rich, detailed and compelling world.
3) Rewrite the entire UI, highlighting basic navigation, rich user profiles, and social affordances
4) Focus on user affordances. An avatar should essentially be a living MySpace/Facebook/LinkedIn object.
5) Create engaging narratives that users can easily and unexpectedly slip into. Imagine ARG’s being played out in SL.
6) Break the walls of the Second Life by wiring it up to the First. Avatars should be able to easily send and respond to sms and email. If I buy a new jacket at G-Star, I should also get a virtual copy for my avatar. Cross-channel communication and cross-promotional opportunities.
7) Scale down the virtual economy. The WoW economy is an emergent property of life in the Warcraft world. It should be the same for SL, not the primary business model.

The most compelling possibilities of immersive worlds are socialization, narrative, and realism, not trade and property ownership. Linden has sacrificed the former for the latter, in my opinion.

Of course, the obvious move will be for Google to buy SL and port it into Google Earth. This may be exactly what the Linden investors are hoping for by bringing in a new CEO. Or more likely, they will move further down the road of monetization through in-world advertising.

[Update] One of the primary 3rd party developers for SL, Electric Sheep, has laid off 22 of it’s SL content creators. Blood in the water?

Parting Notes on ETech

This was a great conference and the most consistent collection of speakers and topics I’ve ever experienced. Very fun and inspiring. Lots of hip 30-somethings trying to dream up tomorrow and make it real. It was a a very balanced, yet cutting-edge talk aimed at an eager (and surprisingly mixed-gender)crowd. I noticed that most folks were using Mac laptops – this part of the edge seems to prefer Apple – and it was fascinating to watch many who were blogging the talks while pulling up references dropped by the speakers, tweeting out to Twitter, and snapping/downloading/posting photos in real-time. As speakers dropped references I was pulling them up on my laptop and dropping links into my blog notes.

In the lobby a team was showing off a data viz video mapping real-time communications connecting NYC to the rest of the world. Andrea noticed that a surprising number were with an Italian city called Perugia. Maybe next year they could map the live feed of all web traffic from ETech. Imagine the bitstreams rising off such a gathering of digiterati.

Maybe it was just the Sudafed coursing through our virus-ridden veins (thank you Portland) but ETech was a total intellectual turn-on, from ambient objects, Asian mobile media, green policy and sustainability, hardware hacking & drone building, Austrian post-Situationists, neuroengineering, and the digital salvation of Democracy itself.

I hope I can go back next year!

Futuretainment: The Asian Media Revolution (Mike Walsh) – ETech08

Components of Asian Media Revolution: Futuretainment

Fun
Internet in china is predominantly about entertainment – onine music & film. Email is roughly 50%, unlike in US.
94& positive about entertainment as primary internet experience.
Email is moving to IM in Asia. Chat, peer-to-peer, and games. Not email and business.
TV in China sucks (obv). Marketers are having to use web content channels for advertising.

Mobility
Mobility is a lifestyle, not just a device. More mobiles than internet pc’s. More people access internet through mobiles than through pc’s.
Digital TV is standard in Korea, China, Japan. TV is viewed on mobiles. Integrated with GPS.
Half top-selling fiction in Japan last year was published/written on mobile.

“We are who we pretend to be”.
QQ IM has over 240 million users. Users have 6-digit numeric ID, not names.
Mixi (invitation-only social net) priveledges real identity. Mobagetown is social net that forbids real identity.
Highly constructed virtual identities and relationships. People act out parallel roles and existences.

Togetherness
Very common across Asian media consumption.
Too many friends in social nets. Cyworld – Korean social net. “Ilchon”: internet friend (Korean).
Asia has a strong formality of social structure. Where do you fit? Where you fit determines how much access you have into someone’s life.
Strong networks can turn small blog posts into national news. Ex. Starbucks in Forbidden City; Nailhouse campaign.
Changes the balance of power. 72 million blogs in China with 36% active. Many female. 1 in 4 users in China have a blog and publish regularly.
Entertainment, upload/display of pictures. Powerful platform to share content.
Group buying: 100’s hit a store and demand discoutns on a particular item.
Continual overlap of high-tech & low-tech. Ex: skyscraper construction using bamboo struts instead of scaffolding.
Hi-tech is treated in a very common way.
Thailand urban park: internet cafe on steroids. Screens everywhere.
India has explosive growth in mobile phones. Internet is a sleeping giant.

Virtual
Virtual economy boom in China. QQ coins are a virtual currency. Chinese bank has issued warning out of fear that QQ coins may destabilize national currency. Entire parallel trade in virtual items. Virtual economies cross-over and directly impact real economies.
Mobagetown: buy a real Coke, scan QR code, and get a virtual Coke in Mobage game world.

Status
Mobile devices can show status. Online status is very important. Naver is most popular Korean search engine, has built huge database of people answering questions. Driver is the status that comes from answering questions.

Location
Sony Advanced R&D Facility: device that tracks your location, notices deviations in your path and flags content generated on that day as special.
Popular mobile sites are often giving directions and info.

Complexity
Media density is much greater than in the West. Eye tracking of Asian users is much greater and more dense.

Fame
Chinese netstars get huge sponsorship deals. Bloggers, virtual characters, web stars find huge fame. Democratizing. Edison Chen took photos of all his naked starlet friends. His laptop went in for repair and found the photos. Hong Kong police cracked down and started arresting people. Mass protests against censorship ensued. Chinese want thyeir content.

Now
Entertainment product consumption in Asia is all about instant gratification. Tudou.com is streaming more minutes of content than YouTube. Hosting copywritten content whose distribution is limited by major providers. Again, democratizing content for instant production & engagement.

Audience networks: the connectivity of audiences, not broadcast networks. The future of entertainment.
Taiwan Tv show, Blackie/Woo. How long you stay on the show is determined by how much traffic your web/sms receives.

How many Asian models of use are being transplanted to the West? Quite a bit. Much western content appears to be lifted from Asian sites.

Middle age & older consumers? Common in Japan and India, more of a youth phenomenon in China.

[Ed note: It’s fascinating to see the expansion of the self across social nets. Virtual identities allow multiple selves and fabrication of imagined/idealized identities. The flip-side is a fragmentation of the self or a denigration of the meat self.]

Heading to San Diego for ETech2008

Hacking brains & iPhones, building DIY aerial drones, ambient data streaming, data viz and crowd movements, ARGs, Vegas, and the Self awakened to it’s own tech. Oh baby!

With the help of my special lady friend (who got work to sport for the hotel, pass, and air) and the help of my employer (I’m doing some booth shifts on the floor in exchange for a pass – I get to rep Adobe AIR), I’m leaving tomorrow morning for sunny San Diego and a week at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference! I’m psyched. I’ve wanted to go for the last few years but couldn’t afford it. All this time, I should have just told my corporate overlords they needed to send me on the company ticket!

I’ll be sending photos to the urbeingrecorded portal via tumblr, and I’ll likely post some keen bits here. Otherwise I’ll be fast hacking my iPhone to control a robotic crowd-sourcing drone I will use to track the culinary habits of tech luminaries and international political dissidents whose footpaths I’ll be datastreaming to various dynamic art installations and ambient devices.

From their site:

How does technology help you perceive things that you never noticed before? How does it help you be found, or draw attention to issues, objects, ideas, and projects that are important, no matter their size or location?

At the 2008 version of ETech, the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, we’ll take a wide-eyed look at the brand new tech that’s tweaking how we are seen as individuals, how we choose to channel and divert our energy and attention, and what influences our perspective on the world around us:

Body Hacking. Genomics Hacking. Brain Hacking. Sex Hacking. Food Hacking. iPhone Hacking.
DIY Aerial Drones. DIY Talking Things. DIY Spectrum. DIY Apocalypse Survival.
Emerging Tech of India, Cuba, and Africa. International Political Dissidents.
Visualize Data and Crowds. Ambient Data Streaming.
Good Policy. Energy Policy. Defense Policy. Genetic Policy. Corruption.
Alternate Reality Games. Emotions of Games. Sensor Games.

ETech 2008 will cover all of these topics and more. We put on stage the speakers and the ideas that help our attendees prepare for and create the future, whatever it might be. Great speakers are going to pull us forward with them to see what technology can do… and sometimes shouldn’t do. From robotics and gaming to defense and geolocation, we’ll explore promising technologies that are just that–still promises–and renew our sense of wonder at the way technology is influencing and altering our everyday lives.

w00t!

Second Life a Bastion of Terror

The Washington Post notes that Feds are concerned that Second Life is a hotbed of terror. Or at least, that virtual worlds present “novel ways for terrorists and criminals to move money, organize and conduct corporate expionage”.

Intelligence officials… say they’re convinced that the qualities that many computer users find so attractive about virtual worlds — including anonymity, global access and the expanded ability to make financial transfers outside normal channels — have turned them into seedbeds for transnational threats.

So don’t be surprised if that hot leather-clad fembot with fairy wings isn’t just a 46 yr old fat guy in his mom’s basement. He may also be a fed!

Virtual worlds could also become an actual battlefield. The intelligence community has begun contemplating how to use Second Life and other such communities as platforms for cyber weapons that could be used against terrorists or enemies, intelligence officials said. One analyst suggested beginning tests with so-called teams of cyber warfare experts.

Of course, unlike in the real world, everything you do in the virtual world leaves a trail behind. Consider Second Life:

Officials from Linden Lab have initiated meetings with people in the intelligence community about virtual worlds. They try to stress that systems to monitor avatar activity and identify risky behavior are built into the technology, according to Ken Dreifach, Linden’s deputy general counsel.

Dreifach said that all financial transactions are reviewed electronically, and some are reviewed by people. For investigators, there also are also plenty of trails that avatars and users leave behind.

“There are a real range and depth of electronic footprints,” Dreifach said. “We don’t disclose those fraud tools.”

Second Skin Trailer for Doc on Virtual Worlds

Embedded below is a trailer for a new documentary about life in virtual worlds called Second Skin. I was especially impacted by the concept of digital selves falling in love through virtual interactions. I’m fascinated by the parrallel worlds in which our selves bloom and grow without the bounds of meatspace. Increasingly, self identity is expanding out across the virtual data spaces we move through. Who I am includes the footprint I leave in blogs and forums, the profiles I establish and maintain in social communities, and the characters I might inhabit in virtual worlds. All of these somehow sum to make “me” more than just the body I inhabit.

androids dreaming of electric dino’s

I saw this post on Boing Boing today wherein Mark Fraunfelder talks about his unexpected emotional empathy for the Pleo robotic dinosaur that his two daughters have fallen in love with. What strikes me is how we humans naturally want to imbue life and feeling into the things around us. Mark and his family know the Pleo is a robot and yet it’s behavior is real enough that they instinctively come to regard it as having feelings. It makes me suspect that the animistic quality of a thing is a very real property that is not simply a quality of the thing itself, but is an emergent state between the thing and it’s witness. In other words, the Pleo becomes real by it’s interactions with sensitive humans.

We want those quality interactions with our world so we give life to the things around us. Hence, the Turing Test which postulates that any AI that can be mistaken for a real human in a natural-language conversation is, effectively, as intelligent as a human. So the validity of a thing’s intelligence or sensitivity to it’s world is based in part on the human observing and interacting with it. Furthermore, I would suggest that it’s irrelevant to discuss whether or not animism is real. It’s as real as the real effects it has on the behavior of those who witness it as such.

I’m impressed with the robot’s behavior. It snuggles when you hold it. It falls asleep when you cradle it. It gets frisky when you scratch it under the chin. It’s much more lifelike than Sony’s discontinued Aibo.

So when I watched this video of a couple of guys from Dvice torturing the Pleo and making it whimper pathetically, I felt uncomfortable, even though I knew it was absolutely ridiculous to feel that way.

My wife didn’t want to watch the video. She said that even though the Pleo was incapable of feeling anything, watching the video is “bad for your psyche,” and that the people who hit the Pleo were damaging their pscyhes, too.

tomorrow is here

Smashing Magazine has a brief but nice round-up of items under the title User Experience of the Future. They list several technologies under development – some of which I’ve blogged about on a few occasions, like multi-touch and the Reactable – all of which taken together certainly paint an intriguing near-future. Off the radar are the skunk works, undiscovered breakthroughs, and emergent interactions between devices and their interface with user communities that will push the ever extruding scifi narrative further into weirdness and fancifulness. Crowley considered the new age as being represented by the spiritization of matter, and I think we’re seeing that on greater and greater scales as the lines between human and machine, imagination and reality, continue to blur into strange new forms. As Clarke wrote, that which is sufficiently technologically advanced is indistinguishable from magic.

self & avatar

In Japan, researchers wire thoughts to Second Life avatar movement:

A research team led by professor Jun’ichi Ushiba of the Keio University Biomedical Engineering Laboratory has developed a brain-controlled interface (BCI) system that lets the user walk an avatar through the streets of Second Life while relying solely on the power of thought. To control the avatar on screen, the user simply thinks about moving various body parts — the avatar walks forward when the user thinks about moving his/her own feet, and it turns right and left when the user imagines moving his/her right and left arms.

[at Pink Tentacle]

tokyo return

New pics.

We’ve made it back and gotten through the 5 brutal days of jet lag, thanks in part to a two-day Lord of the Rings marathon caved out at home on the couch (and I mean caved out – we hung sheets over the windows to shield the LCD screen from the sunlight).

Our final week in Tokyo was wondrous and frenetic, flying by far too quickly to see and do everything we wished but quickly enough to satisfy our deepening pangs of homesickness. Again we padded mile after mile through streets and alleyways hunting down treasures of food and gift, experience and insight. The days were both long and short, filled both with the excitement of new discoveries and the mounting tedium of now old inconveniences (the language barrier!). The past two weeks of travel were beginning to catch up with us, translating restless nights into long sleepy mornings, exhaustion cast aside and mortgaged until we were home again.

On our return to Tokyo we stayed the first 3 nights at the Park Hotel in Shiodome, to the east along the bay just across from Odaiba. We shot out on foot and explored the ritzy, euro, too-rich-for-my-blood glam and glitz of Ginza. Gucci, Cartier, Salvator Ferragamo, Burberry, and US$2500 cats filled the multi-story department stores heaved up on some of the most expensive real estate this side of Olympus Mons.

We sought the evening madness of Akihabara, bright and buzzing with relentless neon, hawkers and barkers of the latest electronic wizardry, trance techno blasting out from packed pachinko parlors, and the ubiquitous gaze of wide-eyed manga and anime stars staring out from billboards, posters, and almost every other surface not otherwise in use by shining adverts. Buildings are tall and tightly packed side-by-side with long lit signs running up their outer walls indicating, floor-by-floor, the shops and clubs and bars available within. They’re like American strip malls tipped on end and stuffed into buildings covering entire city blocks for maximum efficiency. We found ourselves winding up floor after floor of brightly lit and densely packed shops, each level presenting some new and possibly haunting surprise, hopelessly sent further and higher up into the seedy den of Otaku nerdery by seemingly exit-less escalators, only finally finding hope on the top floor in some tucked away elevator built for two, to be chucked back out onto the wet flashing street below.

Caught up in the excitement we hopped the Yamanote train line back around the circle to Shinjuku – a station vastly labyrinthine and subterranean beneath the city center, resonant and thick with the passage of over 2 million commuters each day. Eventually we made our way out onto the night street and found we’d taken an exit far away from our intent, with dark looming government buildings rising up around us like docked and slumbering spacecraft waiting for the dawn to meet their launch towards the next great frontier. After securing necessary sustenance we walked a few blocks towards Shinjuku Dori guided by map but met only by a wide and tall wall of closed department stores. The view beyond was obscured and the court around us quiet. I knew this wasn’t the Shinjuku we sought. On Andera’s urging we turned down a side alley towards the high reflection of a great flashing light that brought us out to the boulevard of Shinjuku Dori. It was a moment later that my mind slipped its reigns and basically refused to accept what my eyes saw.

Past the rumbling Yamanote overpass and down the street, 10 to 15 stories tall and stretching out beyond the receding parallax of my perspective, an inconceivable canyon of light like 100 Las Vegas strips scooped up and painted along the walls of Manhatten, buzzing and flashing with inexhaustible neon, splashed with inconceivably humongous LCD screens dancing with the latest video of this or that idoru star, strobes of 5-story tall electric signs blazing out corporate logos to the world and beyond, still-life waterfalls of glowing kanji and signage lining the sides of every building surface, down to the ground and the thousands and thousands of bustling japanese swimming past in black business suits and evening dress. The crackle and buzz that filled my ears was either the fission of Tokyo’s nuclear reactors straining to power it all, or the failure of my own nervous system to rewire the multitudinous neurons necessary to adequately parse the massive download of my experience. I smelled smoke or perhaps ozone as the Yamanote line pounded out its steady rhythm on the steel overpass above us. This was the Shinjuku crossing, next to the busiest train station on the planet, in the heart of the largest city so far heaped up by humanity’s will.

And while the main street of Shinjuku Dori was mind-boggling, each and every side street and alleyway reiterated the same light blasted theme running along every single building facade like a snapshot of the Matrix in full technicolor. So many shops and stores and bars and clubs for so many people. Stumbling through it all agape I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be a local – to be so totally accustomed to it all that the kaleidoscope receded into the background of awareness, as if one could walk these streets and sift through it to find the smallest details. As if it could all just be simply tuned out like shutting the blinds against the sun. We were there 20 minutes and had to flee back to the peace and serenity and simple manageability of our hotel.

Shinjuku stayed with me the rest of the week and still continues to reach up from the depths of my mind and demand some structure of meaning. In our final days we visited the great Meiji Shrine; toured the endless back streets of Harajuku and Aoyama; took a tour of Tokyo bay on the most futuristic and cool boat I’ve ever seen with ovoid curves and windows giving way to a neon lit dancefloor accented with excellent drinks and table service. We sipped martinis under the lights of the future city Odaiba and then went to the top viewing deck of the Tokyo Tower, some 300 meters up, again overwhelmed at the sheer size of the metropolis rolling off in every direction below us, it’s lights hung like stars in a galaxy far larger than is humanly observable.

If the strangeness and scale of it all was at times overwhelming, the simple joys of good food grounded us out. The Westin buffet was fit for a roman emperor. Tonkatsu (fried breaded pork) at Meisan demanded a return trip to savor more of its succulence. Afternoon snack at a fruit boutique on Omote Sando ($100 cantaloupes!) was beautiful and refreshing with an entertaining view of the Harajuku kids swarming past. Windowside tempura with kobe beef on the 39th floor of the Ebisu Palace building, floating high in the Tokyo night. Late night cake set of divine origin with table-mixed martinis at the Park Hotel in Shiodome. And oh if I’d had one more chance to eat at that amazing little ramen place on the street behind Meguro station…

And so finally we bid Tokyo and Japan a fond sayonara, glad to be heading home but certain to return again and enjoy its hospitality. We didn’t see enough robots, didn’t have drinks at the Park Hyatt ala Lost in Translation, missed the best club gigs at Womb and Air, and never had that night sipping Absinthe and stumbling around deeper into Shinjuku. Yet, we both learned so much about Japan and much more about ourselves and our place in this large and often foreign-seeming world. So many differences concealing a far greater amount of sameness. Even the most foreign realms of the Earth are still gathered around the hearts of its people. And some places that may have seemed so very distant suddenly can seem as close as home.

Previous photo libraries:
Tokyo 1
Kyoto & Shimoda
Tokyo Street Design

nerv

“Each Eva has its own designated pilot, and operates by synchronizing the pilot’s soul and the human soul inside the Eva via the enigmatic liquid substance known as LCL. Surrounded by LCL, the pilot’s nervous system, mind and body join with the Eva’s controls, allowing the Eva to be controlled by the pilot’s thoughts and actions. The higher a pilot’s synchronization ratio, the better the pilot can control the Eva and fight more adeptly.

“…the extent to which the Evas are biological is not immediately apparent.”

tokyo street design

I’ve created a new Flickr set of photos Andrea & I took in Japan of cool design bits (sadly limited to 200 lest I send Flickr $25, which seems a bit much for me right now after hemorrhaging cash in Tokyo). Lot’s of street tags and stickers, adverts & signs, various anthropomorphic critter logos, infographics, temple design elements, night-time street neon, et cetra. Most are from Tokyo but there are also some from Kyoto and Shimoda. Great inspirations for design/manga projects and a nice travelogue of detail from street level in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Tokyo Street Design

As an aside, I knew that black lab was famous and full of doggly integrity (my original guess was that he’s running for Senate). Searching a bit, I found this (masterfully translated by Google’s wunder-engine). But clicking a bit further reveals a lovely page featuring photos of people’s dogs with the poster.

kiyomizu

more pics here…

We’re back in Tokyo for the final run, a bit tired, hemmoraging credit
on the verge of complete blood loss, and missing our friends and
family and cats and the comforts of home. Still having a great time
but it will be good to return Sunday.

After the last report we headed south on the shinkansen bullet train
to Kyoto. The train was indeed extremely fast and surprisingly gentle,
coursing through the countryside mile by mile like a big steel
electric eel. We arrived in the afternoon heat and humidity ferried by
taxi to our ryokan, a traditional japanese inn. As is often the case,
the pictures on their website were a bit shinier than reality but we
settled into a very spare and peaceful room. They call these
traditional style homes machiya, or “bedrooms of eels”, due to their
slender and lengthy form based around the arrangement of standard 3×6
tatami mats. Shoes are never worn on the mats, chairs have no legs and
all seating is on the floor, doors are replaced by sliding rice paper
screens, and beds are futons brought out after dinner (though the hard
core sleep directly on the mats). In our room, the toilet and shower
were much like what you might find in your average RV but the public
(gender-segregated) bath house and onsen in the basement included the
seated shower arrangement common to such spas.

Kyoto itself is somewhat uninspiring on the large view but it’s glory
lies in the details found wandering along street level. Many of the
homes and buildings show the traditional style of architecture begun
during the Tokugawa shogunate back in the 1600’s, though it should be
noted that most of the current structures, including the temples, have
been rebuilt since then due to fires – an unfortunate but frequent
consequence of packing all-wood structures into very tight quarters
across the city. (As an aside, the history of Japan’s primary city
centers, such as Kyoto and Tokyo, has been in large part defined by
regular and devasting conflagrations and disasters occuring almost
every hundred years or so.) Furthermore, and most interestingly, there
are temples and shrines everywhere, acknowledging the deep and
abinding Shinto Buddhist roots that still permeate the Japanese
culture. People of all ages regularly make pilgrimages to the shrines
seeking blessings and heavenly oversight for their endeavors. In
Japan, spirituality is a very practical and present affair.

We padded around the streets daily, our legs and feet still aching
from Tokyo, to visit the Imperial Garden (nice and huge but much of it
shut off to the public); the Nijo Castle (absolutely lovely though we
were caught under a “smoking shelter” packed in with the puffing
locals trying to avoid a sizeable downpour, which was actually kind of
cool); the Kiyomizu temple complex (beautiful and stunning and flooded
with beaming visitors praying and snapping photos – in a good way, it
was more like an amusement park than a church, yet the depth of
history and contemplative devotion was entirely tangible); and the
Tenryu-ji temple and garden (lovely and large, excellent architecture
with a fantastic bamboo forest – but the best part was the
mountain-top monkey preserve!). We enjoyed a wonderful and tasty
traditional kanseiki meal at Kinmata; ate at a tiny sobu noodle house
that’s been in business since 1710 (!) and apparently used to serve
the Tokugawa samurai; had dinner at an awesome yakitori house (various
meats on little skewers); and generally tried our best to acquire
whatever food we could in this town of very little english.

I should note that we’d been marvelling at the insane pitch of insects
buzzing up in the trees in both Kyoto and Tokyo. It got me feeling
that at any second a huge swarm of alien insectile robots might
descend upon the populace, seize control of the rice, eel, and
hairspray supplies and bring this country to it’s knees. My fears were
somewhat confirmed when I found a few hulking carcasses of the local
fawna, far larger than I had presumed from their electric cacophany
buzzing around us at all times. These things were massive, and spiny,
and scary, and I’d be seriously freaked out if one landed on me. I now
understand why so many japanese b-movies feature giant bugs.

After 5 nights in Kyoto (the last three in a well-apportioned Hyatt
whose interior was almost certainly modelled after the David Best
temples at Burning Man) we hopped the shinkansen up to Atami, then
transferred to a funky commuter train with sideways view seats that
wound down the coast of the Izu peninsula to the small (but supposedly
up-and-coming) beach town of Shimoda. Our hotel (again the gap between
web presence and reality) was Reno chic circa 1964 but the view was
excellent, right on the water. I had hoped to score some surf at this
beach noted for it’s clean water and consistent break. Although
beautiful and enjoyable, the surf was minimal, the beaches were laden
with washed up trash (Japanese are only recently discovering that
beaches are more than just where fishermen ply their trade), we had
one day of sun and two of rain (with a couple of hardy fools trying to
surf the small, choppy, and inconsistent break below the hotel
balcony), and we faced ongoing challenges acquiring food and
transport. If Kyoto was friendly and hospitable with little to no
English, Shimoda was all of the above except for friendly and
hospitable. They showed little interest in serving us or attempting to
manage our lack of japanese and my brief attempt to enquire about
renting a surfboard from the local surf shop was met by a gruff and
surly shopkeeper with little interest in my desire to give him money.
After 3 nights we were ready to get back to the polite and
cosmopolitan buzz of Tokyo.

And so here we are again, plodding around the metropolis, a bit weary,
moving more slowly, facing the brutal reality of our mounting debts
with 4 more days of food and lodging ahead, but still determined to
see more of the nooks and crannys and ridiculously huge canyons of
light (Shinjuku – Oh. My. God.) in this impossibly vast and dense
city.