Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cherry cherry bloom bloom

Or, 'Bloom bloom pow'.
Or, 'Bloom bloom bloom, let me hear you say "Way-oh!"'
Or, 'They call me Mr Bloombastic'
Ok, I'll stop now.

Last saturday was the long-awaited 'Hanami in the minami' here in Akayu. (You see, minami means 'south', and Nanyo is in south Yamagata. In fact, Nanyo literally means 'southern sunshine'.) It was postponed from the previous weekend, and just as well, because on the day it was originally scheduled, there was a thick covering of freakishly late snow on the ground.

The event was supposed to begin at 10:30am, so being the kind of person who takes punctuality seriously, I was in position at the park then. No-one else was, leaving me mournfully munching edamame on my own. There are few experiences more depressing than a one-man hanami, or Hanami Solo, as I like to call it. Fortunately, after about twenty minutes another guy showed up. I was impressed by his choice of drink - while I had opted for a 1.8 litre bottle of cheap sake from the supermarket (don't tell Marie-san!), he had gone the route of a Japanese old man and brought a bottle of shouchuu (like vodka, but weaker and made from rice), a portable urn of hot water with which to dilute it, and his own special ceramic tumbler.

Over the following three or four hours our party gradually grew like a gaijin Katamari. Conditions were less than ideal; thankfully it didn't rain, but it was decidely chilly, and our exposed spot atop a small hill meant that we were buffeted by icy gusts. We actually resorted to building a makeshift windbreak out of tarpaulins, camping stools, and people. Because of the recent cold snap, the cherry trees themselves hadn't yet reached their full glory either. The buds were swollen and deep pink, but not yet exposing their petals. I found the fuchsia blush on the branches rather fetching, but everyone who had witnessed full-blown sakura evacuated their bladders on my French fries by insisting that this was nothing.

Despite these setbacks, we spent an enjoyable afternoon chatting, drinking, and eating our way through the small mountain of communal food we had assembled in the middle of our main tarp. The previous day had been Marie's birthday, so I was feeling a little jaded from the drinking that had accompanied that. Thus I made the very restrained decision not to crack open my huge bottle of sake until the arbitrary watershed of 14:30. Someone had prepared a Yamagata quiz to entertain us - I impressed with my knowledge of local dialect and the regional differences in Yamagata's traditional stew (down here it's beef and soy, those jokers up north use pork and miso), but slipped up by only knowing one of our prefecture's three sacred mountains. We also played a Taboo-style game, and I got a little overcompetitive, as is my wont.

As the sun sank, the complaints about the cold rose. I guess not everyone grew up at 57deg north, nor enjoyed the insulating effects of a sake jacket and a generous layer of subdermal fat. We decided that the best way to warm up would be with a dip in one of Akayu's famous onsen. (Continuing the etymology lesson, Akayu literally means 'red hot-water' [hot water and cold water are different words in Japanese], which comes from a legend about a wounded samurai who bathed in one of our hot springs, turning the water red with his blood but becoming miraculously healed in the process.) This split the group into two camps: those who love a good onsen, and those who are troubled by the required nudity. The latter group is composed of two factions: those who will not participate in communal bathing under any circumstances, and those who are alright with nude strangers but draw the line at nude friends.

Given that I'm generally uptight and self-conscious, it's surprising that I fall into the onsen-loving group. Maybe the fact that I can't see very well without my glasses - coupled with my general social obliviousness - helps take the edge off it; I can't really tell if people are staring at my white genitals, or Cauc-and-balls, as I like to call them. Anyway, while the prudes holed up in a cafe, we went to my onsen of choice, which features two pools: uncomfortably hot, and hotter. Immersing yourself in liquid substantially warmer than the inside of your body - having drunk sake all afternoon - really does make one feel light-headed, but is strangely enjoyable. Interestingly, one of our female members apparently has several tattoos, including some rather racily positioned on her breasts, but didn't encounter any problems.

After the onsen we took the party to my house. Seeing my webcam, someone teasingly asked me whether I was into Chatroulette. For the record, I am not. However, a few people had never heard of this phenomenon, so I fired up my laptop to demonstrate. For those who don't know, Chatroulette is a website that throws you into a webcam conversation with a random stranger, and either of you can terminate the session at any point and move onto a new partner. Given the internet's predilection for filth, it should come as no surprise that at least 30% of participants are exhibitionist men operating their computers with one hand, if you catch my meaning.

For the duration of the party we had a Chatroullete session open, with people periodically floating in and out to talk to the randomly-assigned strangers. Top tip: having some females on camera substantially reduces your chances of being instantly skipped. We managed to have one long, civil, sensible, clothed conversation with a 17 year old kid from California who was interested in Japan, and to be honest that was more than I was expecting. We also stumbled across a rather uninhibited and attractive heterosexual couple, which raised a few eyebrows.

The rest of us played Rock Band, with the Lady Gaga tracks that recently became available proving popular. As the night wound down, the few of us who were planning to sleep at mine topically chilled out with spot of the ambient, artsy non-game Flower. It was one of those rare occasions when I felt I'd drunk the exactly optimum amount, becoming relaxed and jovial without descending into shambolic intoxication, and as a result I felt fairly fresh the next day. It's a refreshing change to drink with Westerners, who aren't constantly urging you to imbibe more with relentless refills.

My city hall time-killing is almost over, as I am back in the classroom on May 10th, and between then and now is Golden Week, a contrived arrangement of four public holidays in quick succession. Recently, my underemployment has not been quite so painful, as I've been getting out of city hall for two afternoons a week. One of my Japanese teachers' day job is working at a school for kids whose learning problems prevent them from attending regular classes. Because of both depopulation and a move towards including these students in normal schools as far as possible, the place is not very busy. So I've been given permission to hang out there, receiving some fairly laid-back Japanese tuition (in stark constrast to her brain-fryingly hardcore evening classes) and occasionally playing games with the kids.

One of the games I played was Blokus, a four-player game that's kind of like reverse-Tetris, in that you must place blocks in as sprawling a configuration as possible to command the board. Being a bit of a board game geek, I was surprised I'd never heard of it. After being humiliatingly beaten in the first game by a primary school child with learning difficulties (I think she was hustling), I revised my strategy and dominated the second. I was hooked.

As we were tidying up, the sensei mentioned the sub-challenge of arranging all 12 five-blocks (pentominoes) into rectangles of various dimensions (10x6 is easiest, 20x3 is hardest), commenting that neither she, nor any of her students, had ever been able to do it. Well, to someone with a degree in artificial intelligence and a lot of time on his hands, this was a red rag to a bull. (Yes, I realise the answers are readily available on the internet, but that's not the point.) I spent most of the next day writing a Java program to tackle the problem. The answer eluded me, but after sleeping on it and coming up with a smarter, less brute-force approach, I nailed it.

This task is a textbook problem that you might do in second year of an AI degree, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I can get absorbed in a juicy programming problem the same way that people get lost in books or mediatation or art: my awareness of everything but the task at hand falls away giving me a kind of beautiful clarity. It made me realise that whatever I do for a living after JET should probably involve programming.

So, having warmed up on the pentominoes problem, I think I will tackle the game proper next. Multiplayer games are a bit more saucy than single-player ones, as the behaviour of your opponent(s) is ouside of your control, so flexibility is required. I think I'll start with the two-player variant, as that should be a bit more tractable than the full game. Danny, consider this an AI-gauntlet (which I imagine would look like the things they use in Minority Report) being thrown down.

1 comment:

  1. I've solved the pentomino problem by hand before I think (10 by 6), or maybe I just tried it for one minute then looked at the answer. There's no doubt though that I have made all the pentominoes out of cereral packets.

    I imagine what was fun about the programming challenge was that it was small, well-defined, and acheivable to give a satisfactory reward, perhaps not just the fact it was programming?