Friday, February 12, 2010

Transformers, robots in Nagai

I'm in last friday afternoon limbo again, so here comes a blog.

At lunchtime I walked past two teachers standing in the hall, doing a kind of brisk upright Russian dance. One of them was even humming a tune that sounded a lot like the Tetris music. Amused and mystified, I complimented their dancing in the local dialect (the Yamagatian equivalent of the Doric "fit rare") and they invited my to join them, which I did. I have no idea what that was all about. They were probably just trying to keep warm; the corridors of my school do put one in mind of Siberia.

It's only been a three day week. On wednesday the first and second graders had a ski trip (to which I was not invited), while the third graders had a day of tests. They must have been gutted. Anyway, there was no call for an ALT, so rather than spend all day at city hall, I burned a day of annual leave. Asking just two days in advance was maybe a bit cheeky, but since I was fitting my day off around when I wasn't needed, and given my pre-school heroics of monday, they couldn't really complain.

The long-range forecast promised blue skies over Zao for wednesday, but by the night before this had been downgraded to 'show showers' and on the day it was overcast, misty, and snowing heavily. On top of that, the snow was decidedly icy. So, a pretty sketchy day all in all, but I enjoyed the empty pistes and free parking (as opposed to the usual 1000yen fleecing) afforded by weekday riding. My piste-side quasi-vert moves are getting better (including the harder-than-it-looks air-to-fakie, or "pop tart"), and I'm slowly working through my boardslide issues. Also, I managed to recover my glove (and more importantly the valuable ski pass contained within in) that I left there last time, without any hassle. I love the honesty of the Japanese when it comes to lost property.

Thursday was - you guessed it - a public holiday: "National Foundation Day", as if anyone cares. So I took the opportunity to hit up an izakaya on wednesday night with an assortment of native and gaijin teachers. We really pushed the boat out with 3 hours of nomihodai (all you can drink) - 90 minutes is standard. Somehow I managed not to get too outrageously drunk, and even had the sense to stay out of the soy sauce drinking contest that occurred. Of course, unlike at a British pub, eating is just as much of the izakaya experience as drinking is. I manned up and sampled the horse sashimi (raw horse) - not bad, but not as good as raw Yonezawa beef.

Ok, let's backtrack to saturday. Oddly, the nearby town of Nagai (another sleepy farming town of a similar size as Nanyo) was playing host to a robotics competition. There was no way I was going to miss this, so I braved the near white-out conditions in my little car. The event proved very popular with the local gaijin community, with around 20 of us turning up, and thus constituting a good third of the audience.

I was a little disappointed when I realised early on that all the robots were remote-controlled; there was no AI to be found. On the plus side, it was a bipedal robot competition, and clearly androids are more fun to watch than wheeled vehicles. The whole thing had a charmingly amateur feel, with the roboticists ranging from high-school students that were presumably taking part as some kind of project, to flannel shirt and combat pant wearing otaku. My kind of people. Remarkably, there were even a couple of female entrants. The only threateningly nerdy presence there was some guy who dressed up in a bunraku outfit and attached a teddy's hands to his thumbs, to give the impression that the teddy was operating the controller. The thing with bunraku is, it kind of requires a black background to work.

The first event was robo-karuta. Karuta is a reaction-based card matching game that is strangely popular in Japan. It's a bit like hardcore snap. I guess if your language doesn't lend itself to word games, something has got to fill the game vacuum left by Scrabble and Boggle. So this was just a test of which robot was agile enough to reach the correct card first. Many people adopted a kind of shuffling side-step gait, which I felt was a bit of a cop-out. I was pleased to notice that many people were using PS3 or Xbox 360 controllers to operate their bots. No-one was mental enough to use SIXAXIS.

Then came the main event: one-on-one fighting! The first robot to knock over its adversary three times was the winner, or failing that, it went to the robot that had scored more downs at the end of three minutes. The judgement of this was a little subjective, since unforced falls were not penalised, and there seemed to be a bit of a grey area surrounding attacks that resulted in both robots hitting the deck. While possibly detrimental to fairness, this ambiguity facilitated some enjoyable punditry between us spectators.

As someone who has programmed simulated bipeds to fight in the past, I can tell you that it's not easy. It's hard enough to make a two-legged robot move around without falling over; delivering any kind of shove, kick or punch without sending yourself flying backwards is really tough - Newton's Third Law is a bitch. The less sophisticated robots just shuffled into their foe hoping to knock it off balance, but the stronger competitors had some proper moves.

The contest was rather overlong, dragging on for several hours. This did however mean that one had time to get to know the bots, choose one to support, and trash talk to the fans of whoever it was up against. I gave me backing to the poorly-named rsv3, a very surefooted effort with a nice crouching/scything attack. It made it all the way to the final, but narrowly lost out to 'Garii' following a couple of dubious judgements. I'm real happy for Garii, and I'ma let it finish, but rsv3 was one of the best robots of all time. OF ALL TIME!

The most crowd-pleasing robot had to be the one that was dressed as a teddy bear, and thus looked just like 'Teddy' from AI. This robot was perched right on the edge of the uncanny valley, looking adorable when it bowed at the start of a fight or clapped its hands to garner support, but suddenly becoming genuinely unnerving when it shuffled around with its distinctly mechanical gait. It's creepiness was not helped by the fact that its head was on a bit squint, giving it a zombie-like quality.

The final event was a five-a-side robo football match. Predictably, this quickly descended into a chaotic ball-chasing clusterfrak, but there was something deeply pleasing about watching nine androids and a teddy fighting over a ball.

As I now have quite a lot of spare time, I did entertain the notion of becoming a robotics hobbyist. But I imagine that it's rather an expensive pastime. Then I thought about entering an online simulated robotics competition, but the notoriously buggy Webots (the simulator) seems to crash as soon as I start it. Still, maybe its something I should persevere with. It occurred to me the other day that this is the longest I've gone without programming in a decade, and I miss it.


  1. W've never met but I've been thoroughly enjoying reading of your Japanese experiences.

    Janice (cousin of your mum so your 2nd cousin I think)


    "Hi - I'm Finlay and I write programs."

    Help is out there Finlay.

    Now, this idea of nine androids and a teddy bear playing football begs the obvious quesion - was it McCulloch or Lafferty that had been sent off?

  3. I see you've adopted a non-standard romanisation of your pseudonym there. You'd get a big tick if you did that in my classroom. Ticks mean wrong in Japan. Fact!

    And sorry, football banter is way outside my realm of expertise.

  4. Although they don't involve robots, are the Winter Olympics popular in Japan?

  5. typo error

    Karoushi San?

    The football banter was in case your dad read it.

  6. Yo Finlay, I think Shaun White is channeling your old look (wild long hair before the makeover). They should rename it the Winter Olympic X Games considering how dangerous most of the events are.

  7. Karoushi-sensei: Well, it's very rude to use an honorific on your own name. However, supposedly respectable people like teachers, doctors, priests, artists, etc. get called 'sensei', so I would address you as 'sensei'.

    Andrea: I'm not managing to see much of the Olympics because of a) the timezones b) the TV is in Japanese, and seems intent on only showing the Japanese competitors in the highlights and c) I can't access BBC iPlayer from Japan. I still haven't even seen this legendary double McTwist 1260.

  8. the double McTwist 1260 is way cool and he did manage to pull it off in his final run. i still have access to iplayer for about 10 days before those IT guys in edinburgh delete my student account. it will be a sad, sad day for me and the start of my BBC iplayer withdrawal symptoms...

  9. Wait, what? How are you using your Edinburgh student login to access iPlayer? I fear I have badly missed a trick here.