Sunday, August 20, 2017

OK. But Why?

Here’s 1,069 Robots Dancing in Unison
     
They set a new world record.

Terrifying. Adorable. Portentous. However the sight of 1,069 humanoid robots dancing in mesmerizing unison makes you feel, it is most definitely record breaking.

Massive robot dance - Guinness World Records


Published on Aug 17, 2017 1 min. 45 sec.
The most robots dancing simultaneously is 1,069 and was achieved by WL Intelligent Technology Co, Ltd in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China. The robots were Dobi models who along with being programmed to dance can also sing, box, play football and execute kung fu moves. The robot display broke the previous record of 1,007, achieved by Ever Win Company & Ltd. in 2017

Shared over on Boing Boing, Guinness World Records put out a video of the 1,069 wiggling robots to announce that the performance had set a new world record for “Most Robots Dancing Simultaneously.” Staged by the WL Intelligent Technology Co, Ltd in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, the spectacle beat out the previous record holder, a performance in 2015 that featured just 1,007 robots.

The robots were all commercially available Dobi bots, the primary purpose of which seems to be dancing. Arrayed in a giant grid, the robots seem to be able to stay in formation pretty well, although they slip out of there lines a bit, and few of the little guys fell over.

Still, it’s a whimsical vision of a future where robots are only stealing our sick dance moves, and not our jobs.

The Wabi of Wabi-Sabi

Kamo no Chomei | PUBLIC DOMAIN

Wabi lies at the heart of Japanese history

by   Special To The Japan Times
You could spend your entire life in modern Japan without ever hearing the term wabi, though no overview of Japanese history or art is complete without it. It’s a beautiful word, hard to define like most beautiful words. Poverty is the heart of it, which sounds dispiriting, but there’s the Zen phrase “To fill a monk’s tattered robe with a cool refreshing breeze,” quoted by Zen master Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966) as an invitation to see poverty through Zen eyes.

“A life of wabi,” he says, affords “an inexpressible quiet joy deeply hidden beneath sheer poverty.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, many of whose political goals spring from a professed love of Japanese tradition, has little to say about this particular one. It’s hard to blame him.

A politician would sound silly campaigning on a wabi platform. Economic growth is Abe’s mantra. It’s every politician’s. It has to be, in keeping with the times. If tradition scorns it, who really cares? No one, not even traditionalists — at least those who run for office.

“An inexpressible quiet joy hidden deep beneath sheer poverty.” If that’s wabi you can keep it, would be the modern verdict. These days we prefer other joys.

But the sages and poets of old were curiously drawn to it. The seeds of wabi were sown by a poet and Shinto shrine official named Kamo no Chomei (circa 1153-1216), who bequeathed to posterity a charming little memoir known as the “Hojoki” (“The Ten Foot Square Hut”).

His withdrawal from society, he candidly admits, was due less to religious yearning than to a string of disasters, natural and personal, that had frustrated his worldly ambitions. Retiring deep into the forested mountains near Kyoto, he lived alone for 30 years in a succession of primitive huts, each smaller than the one before, discovering in the process how little a person needs in order to enjoy the serene tranquility whose joys only poverty can reveal. His last and smallest hut became a model for the tea hut where the classical tea ceremony — wabi ritualized — came to be performed.

“With this lonely cottage of mine, this hut of one room,” said Chomei, “I am quite content. … If your food is scanty, it will have the better relish. … My only luxury is a sound sleep, and all I look forward to is the beauty of the changing seasons.”

The theme echoes down the ages. A century or so after Chomei, the priest Yoshida no Kenko (1283-1350), in a miscellany known as “Tzurezuregusa” (“The Grasses of Idleness”), wrote: “What a foolish thing it is to be governed by a desire for fame and profit and to fret away one’s whole life without a moment of peace. … You had best throw away your gold in the mountains and drop your jewels into a ravine.”

The haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94), setting off on one of several journeys undertaken not to arrive somewhere or accomplish something but because life itself is a journey, wrote, “Following the example of the ancient priest who is said to have traveled thousands of miles caring naught for his provisions and attaining the state of sheer ecstasy under the pure beams of the moon, I left my broken house on the River Sumida … among the wails of the autumn wind.” On the road he discovered, along with much else, “Fleas, lice/ the horse pissing/ near my pillow.” Revulsion is uncalled for, for Basho’s mind was “one with nature,” and “whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams of is the moon.”

Then there’s the poet Ryokan (1758-1831) — beggar, monk, wabi personified: “I’ve forgotten my begging bowl/ but no one would steal it/ no one would steal it — / how sad for my begging bowl.” Speaking of fleas and lice: “Fleas, lice/ any autumn bug that wants to sing — / the breast of my robe is Musashino moor!” In other words: Come, fleas, come, lice, make yourselves at home in the breast of my robe.

The tradition endured well into the 20th century. The protagonist in “Kikyo” (“Homecoming”), a novel by Jiro Osaragi published in 1948, is Kyogo, a disgraced naval officer who, having spent the war years as a vagabond in Europe, returns to a Japan in ruins and ponders the poverty around him in terms of wabi: “Kyogo had grown used to Europe, so that after his return he was able to see what a really meager and impoverished life the Japanese had had through the centuries. … It was because they were so poor, Kyogo saw, that the Japanese had discovered a world of beauty unknown to Western aesthetics and called it by names suggesting melancholy and unfulfillment. They had been denied the luxury of really satisfying their human desires, so they had suppressed them and found ways to enjoy poverty.”

Wabi withered in the modernizing, industrializing blast of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). It breathed its last in the still more frenetic reconstruction boom of the postwar years. By 1980, some 90 percent of Japanese considered themselves solidly middle class. Poverty had been defeated. Wabi was no longer necessary.

The victory proved ephemeral. One measure of the damage done by a recession that set in the 1990s and lingers still is the rising child poverty rate: 1 in 6 Japanese children is said to be growing up in poverty. Given a choice between economic growth and wabi, Kamo no Chomei, Basho and Ryokan would surely choose wabi, but they, having cut their worldly ties, could afford the indulgence. Their sexual abstinence didn’t affect the birth rate, and impoverished modern parents with children they are unable to feed and educate would sound more callous than enlightened offering them wabi instead.
Wabi is, indeed, beautiful in its simplicity, but harsh, as Basho perhaps unwittingly reminds us.

Approached on one of his journeys by a starving, abandoned child of about 3 years old, the poet wrote, “Alas, it seems to me that the child’s suffering has been caused by … the irresistible will of heaven and I must pass on, leaving it behind.”

Michael Hoffman is the author of “Other Worlds” and “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

14 Osprey Sillys and Counting

 3 for Virtual Reality Day

and 2 for Photography Day


One for Hot Sauce Day

One for Bacon Day


And a couple for random silliness



Saturday, August 19, 2017

Cats in Boxes


Bored Panda assembled a massive collection of photos of cats of all sorts getting cozy and napping the day away in the tightest and least expected places. These are some of our favorites.









Yet Another Kind of Predjudice

Why Does a Southern Drawl Sound Uneducated to Some?

Scientific American  by R. Douglas Fields on December 7, 2012

Studies have shown that whether you are from the North or South, a Southern twang pegs the speaker as comparatively dimwitted, but also likely to be a nicer person than folks who speak like a Yankee.
Stereotypes based on accent are deep rooted and they have profound consequences. Accents influence who we select as friends, who we respect with authority and leadership, where we prefer to live, employment, and to the very real extent our personal aspirations in life as a consequence of self-perception directing ambition in education and other endeavors. Strange, isn’t it? From a biological point of view there is no “correct” or “incorrect” accent.

Adele - live in 2009

This is not just a smoldering relic from the Civil War; accent-based bias is universal. Even on a tiny island country like the United Kingdom, accents abound and they pigeonhole individuals into strict social strata that have persisted for centuries. I wondered about this when I was swept away by Adele’s supreme singing voice but had the bliss shattered rudely when she addressed the audience in her “lowly” Cockney accent. 
 She articulates lyrics beautifully with a perfect American accent, but it was if a different person had sprung out when she started to talk the way everyone does in Tottenham England. I wonder; would Adele have attracted notice outside the walls of a Tottenham pub if that same sterling singing voice resonated with a Cockney accent?

Numerous studies show that we instantly attach cultural stereotypes and subjective judgments about people’s knowledge and abilities from hearing their accent in speech. A 2011 study by Rakic and others found that in categorizing people, a person’s accent carried more weight than even visual cues to ethnicity. Americans can be taken back when hearing a black person speak with a proper British accent, for example, or be just as perplexed when they discover that a rapper singing with a “black” accent is Caucasian.

Interestingly, attributes of character that are attached to different accents are widely shared among the population. In surveys ranking where in the country people speak “correctly” or “incorrectly,” the Southern states always get the lowest marks. Italian is judged as sounding beautiful while German sounds ugly. You might presume, viewing human speech like naturalists studying songbird dialects, that people would simply prefer the accent of speech spoken where they grew up, but it’s not that simple. Adults from Mississippi rate their own region as relatively low in linguistic “correctness.” How can that be?

Katherine Kinzler and Jasmine DeJesus in the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago have just published a study of children’s attitudes toward accents that provides some surprising answers. Children 5-6 years of age from Chicago and a small town in Tennessee were shown pictures of people accompanied by a brief 3 second audio clip of speech in either a Northern or Southern accent. When asked if they would want to be friends with the person, the Northerners overwhelmingly selected the Northern-accented speakers as friends. Interestingly, the kids from Tennessee had no preference based on accent.

What do you think happened when the young children were asked who was “nicer,” “smarter,” or “in charge?” The children from Chicago attached these positive attributes to the Northern speakers, but the children from Tennessee were indifferent to how these attributes were associated with people speaking with either accent.

This last result, as I mentioned above, deviates from how Southern adults associate positive attributes to people speaking with a Northern rather than a Southern accent. So the researchers then gave the same test to 10-year-old children. The results after children had aged 4-5 years were quite different. Ten-year-old children from both Chicago and Tennessee thought the Northern-accented individuals were “smarter” and “in charge,” and that the Southern-accented individuals were “nicer.”

Clearly, children must learn these attitudes from us; that is parents and other adults. This develops in part by the attitudes we subtly convey to our children and by how we adults organize our society and culture. This is where human nature takes a nasty departure from the way songbirds use dialect. Our attitudes toward accents are strongly influenced by what we hear in infancy and childhood, but learning and acculturation are imposed on us by subtle indoctrination and experience.

Here’s the telling experimental result: When children of either age were asked whether the speaker was “American” or “lives around here,” children from Chicago selected Northern rather than Southern speakers as being locals or Americans. The kids from Tennessee did not show any such preference at either age. The authors suggest that Southerners do not categorize speakers of either accent as being alien, because they hear Northern accents at a young age from National news anchors, film and television characters. The kids in Chicago don’t have the same opportunity to hear a Southern accent. As they grow up, attend school, and develop social awareness, Southern children begin to associate the Northern accent with people being “in charge and smarter,” because these prestigious “celebrities” of high social status and respect speak with a Northern accent. This nurtures a self-perpetuating stereotype which takes root by at least the age of nine.

Preference for the sound of local language is established at birth according to what the fetus hears as its auditory nervous system is developing, but stereotypes based on accents, whether a regional English accent or a foreign accent, are learned in childhood. The subtle attitudes we attach to accents have a profound impact on others, and on ourselves.

Thanks Adele for the music and the insight!

Rehab for Haters

Yes, Expose the Neo-Nazis. Then Recruit Them Back to Humanity


White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the so-called alt-right exchange insults with counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park during the Unite the Right rally on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Wired  Dave Algoso  8.19.17

Last weekend's events in Charlottesville, Virginia, showed the ugliest face of white nationalism in the United States. That racism is a problem—in both its structural and personal forms—shouldn't surprise anyone. But even if you knew that virulent hate groups existed, they're fringe enough that most Americans have never spoken to their members. Aside from a few figureheads like David Duke, you're more likely to have seen one of their memes than one of their faces.

Today, that's no longer true. We know exactly what they look like. The weekend was well-covered, with participants and journalists capturing most scenes from multiple angles. Last Friday's tiki torch march through the University of Virginia, last Saturday's rally in Emancipation Park, and the violence that accompanied both reached us in real-time over Facebook and Twitter. The nightly news and front pages of newspapers have replayed those images in the days since.


Crowd-sourced sleuthing soon turned up the identities and social media profiles of several participants. The willingness to show their faces put "Unite the Right" attendees in stark contrast to the iconic hooded Klansman. As sociologist and educator Eve Ewing commented on Twitter: "They're all confident they'll have jobs on Monday."

They turned out to be wrong. Cole White had lost his job at a California hot dog joint by Sunday morning. Peter Tefft faced a scathing open letter from his father in North Dakota, denouncing his son's hateful beliefs and attendance at the Charlottesville rally. 

Peter Cvjetanovic, a college student from Nevada, defended his participation after he was identified; more than 40,000 people have signed Change.org petitions calling on the university to expel him. Chris Cantwell, featured in a Vice documentary on the weekend’s events, was kicked off the dating site OkCupid.

The trolls of the so-called alt-right are making a twisted "free speech" defense, playing the victims of an intolerant left. They claim they're being punished for their political beliefs. But the weapons that rally participants brought to Charlottesville undercut that claim. 

Last Friday's assaults on students and last Saturday's attacks on counter-protestors—including the group beating of local resident Deandre Harris in a parking garage—reveal the group's insincerity. And the murder of Heather Heyer by a member of white supremacist group Vanguard America shows the argument to be a cover for a cynical, hate-filled world view.

If this had been a peaceful rally within the realm of normal political discourse, then publishing the names of attendees or firing them from their jobs would be an unreasonable reaction. That's not the case here. No one responded this way in the past, even for white nationalist rallies. This wasn't even the first time they'd marched in Charlottesville this summer: A smaller group had held a torch-lit preview at the same park in May. But it was the first time white nationalists showed up armed, in large numbers, and became violent.

Fascist views were already well outside acceptable politics. By enacting those views with violence, the rally violated a deep norm that undergirds our social contract. As political scientist David Karpf argued on Twitter, these violations must be met with penalties or the norms fade away. The Trump administration has seen norms against nepotism, kleptocracy, and profiteering soften because a Republican-controlled Congress has refused to impose any penalties. In this case, ordinary people can step in and assert that these norms matter. We should applaud them for it. (Though the task could be approached with more care: Misidentification is a problem, and even accurate identification shouldn’t be followed by threats of violence.)

Unfortunately, this penalty only applies to the rank-and-file. The organizers and leaders were never anonymous. Their names were on the rally posters. Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler have proudly sought notoriety by promoting white nationalism. Last weekend drew rebukes from the mainstream right, but rally leaders saw a victory in President Trump's reluctant, kid-gloves condemnation. They left Charlottesville emboldened and empowered.

The job losses and other punishments facing the members of this mob are necessary but will have unintended consequences. When those individuals woke up on Monday morning, they returned to the same online forums and Twitter feeds where they'd first encountered hateful ideologies. Social sanctions may even deepen their involvement. When part of your identity is challenged, you double down on it. Movements unify when under attack.

Society needs a follow-up to the rebuke. We need to help white supremacists unlearn the ideologies that took them to the streets of Charlottesville. One group doing active outreach is Life After Hate, a nonprofit run by former far-right extremists who now work to bring others out of the movement. They were approved to receive federal funding by the Obama administration, only to have their funding paused and then cancelled by the Trump administration. In response, the group launched a crowd-funding campaign that’s taken off since last weekend, raising more than $200,000 for their programs.

One group can't do it alone. Churches and religious groups are also critical to this effort. Drawing on research from violent groups around in the world, peace and conflict expert Rebecca Wolfe has pointed to the important role of families in pulling extremists back from the brink. Institutions like faith and family provide people with narratives about themselves and their identity that can counter those offered by white supremacist groups. Many of these groups are ill-equipped to do this work on their own, especially given the role of online communities in radicalization. Lessons from anti-gang work show the need for a whole-of-community approach.

Reaching white nationalists isn’t just about restoring their own humanity. Their place at the extreme end of the spectrum legitimizes other forms of white supremacy. Conservative politicians can swat away accusations of racism—even while advancing policies of mass incarceration, police violence, racial profiling, economic inequality, inhumane deportation, and voter suppression—by pointing to the crazies in the street and saying: “Me? A racist? I’m not one of those neo-Nazis!”

By reining in the extremes, we can shift the middle ground toward justice. The goal should be to leave people like Spencer and Kessler out on their own, without support from the political establishment or their previously anonymous troll army. That creates more space for the hard work of dismantling white supremacy in its more prevalent forms, bringing allies and waverers over toward active anti-racism. Let's not just ostracize the neo-Nazis. Let's counter-recruit their base out from under them.

WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here.

 

Animals & the Eclipse

During the solar eclipse, animals will be extremely confused

A clouded leopard at the Nashville Zoo, where the public will watch the animals for reactions to the eclipse. (Christian Sperka)
 
The Washington Post  
Margarita Woc Colburn’s childhood memories of a July 1991 total solar eclipse in Central America are of a social gathering for excited adult relatives who spent hours waiting for an event that was over in minutes.

But the future veterinarian’s gaze was drawn earthward.

“I was looking down on a valley in Guatemala, and I just remember the flock of birds, this massive thing going down to the trees getting ready for nesting, just like what you see at night,” Woc Colburn said, describing a short span when the moon completely obscured the sun. “Then, it felt like a new day.
Birds came out and were singing.”

Today she is an associate veterinarian and researcher at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere — which is in the path of totality. During Monday’s total solar eclipse, Woc Colburn’s primary concern once again will be on the animals she has made her life’s work. She predicts birds are likely to provide the greatest spectacle this time around, too.

“We might see something similar with the starlings,” she said. “I’m interested to see whether they go to roost. It will get very noisy if they do.”

Woc Colburn thinks additional bird species and other zoo animals such as lemurs, clouded leopards and kangaroos may also begin to exhibit nighttime habits when totality hits, whether that’s waking up, going to sleep or lining up for a feeding.

It’s all speculation, however, which is something Woc Colburn finds quite surprising.

There is scant research on animal behavior during solar eclipses, owing primarily to the rarity of such events and the difficulty of recording enough observations. That’s poised to change.

“Sometimes you have great research ideas and just need people to do the observations,” Woc Colburn said. “That’s not going to be a problem Monday.”

Observers nationwide, including visitors to the Nashville Zoo, are being encouraged to join an ambitious and unprecedented attempt at crowdsourced scientific research by using the California Academy of Sciences’ iNaturalist app to document animal reactions.

Nashville researchers also plan to scrape social media postings that tag the zoo. Spokesman Jim Bartoo said researchers will accept any analog observations that are submitted.

“We’re expecting everyone to be in the 21st century,” he joked, “but if they take handwritten notes and can call us from a landline later, we will welcome that as well.”
At a minimum, Bartoo said the zoo will make the data collected Monday available to other researchers. Decisions on when, how and if the observations will be further used or published won’t be made until they are gathered and analyzed.

Bartoo predicts the zoo’s southern white rhinos may have a particularly interesting reaction, possibly lining up to go inside to eat, which is their routine at the end of the day. And how will they react if they aren’t fed, or when totality ends and it appears to be the middle of the day again.

The zoo is located in a mostly residential area 20 minutes southeast of downtown and is preparing for as many as 15,000 visitors.

Eclipse watchers are bracing for a major bummer should clouds obscure their view. While Woc Colburn agrees that would be a serious letdown, she also noted that clouds shouldn’t affect how animals react, so those who choose to spend the eclipse at the zoo won’t be wholly deprived of a unique experience.

Woc Colburn said it will be interesting and potentially useful to learn how much of an impact sunlight, versus other cues, has on animal behavior.

“I would have thought by now we would know more,” she said. “It will be worth noting if they have a very negative reaction. We can share that with other zoos and places, and they might take note and take certain precautions. But I’m not really expecting anything besides the ordinary nighttime routine.

“I think you’ll have more human reactions than animal reactions.”

Don't Eat Your Vegetables

What Happens to Creativity as We Age?

Marion Fayolle

One day not long ago, Augie, a 4-year-old Gopnik grandchild, heard his grandfather wistfully say, “I wish I could be a kid again.” After a thoughtful pause, Augie came up with a suggestion: Grandpa should try not eating any vegetables. The logic was ingenious: Eating vegetables turns children into big strong adults, so not eating vegetables should reverse the process.

No grown-up would ever come up with that idea. But anyone with a 4-year-old can tell similar stories. Young children’s creativity seems to outstrip that of even the most imaginative adults.

How does the ability to come up with unusual ideas change as we grow older? Does it begin to flag in adolescence? Before then? To investigate these questions, we and our colleagues recently conducted several experiments, which we relate in a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

We began with a group of participants of various ages: 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers; 6- to 11-year-olds; 12- to 14-year-old teenagers; and adults. We presented them with a scenario involving a physical machine that lit up when you put some combinations of blocks on it, but not others. Either of two hypotheses could explain how the machine worked. It could work in a usual and obvious way: Some individual blocks would make it light up, and the other blocks were irrelevant. Or it could work in a more unusual way: It would take a combination of different blocks to make the machine light up.

We presented the participants with another scenario as well, also with two possible explanations. This scenario was social: We told a story about Sally, who approached a skateboard, and Josie, who avoided a scooter. How come? The usual explanation was that something about Sally’s and Josie’s individual traits made them act as they did — maybe Sally was braver than Josie. A more unusual, though equally valid, explanation was that something about the situation was important — maybe the skateboard was safer than the scooter.

Then we added a twist. Another group of participants saw the same scenarios, but this time they saw an additional set of facts that made the unusual explanation more likely than the more obvious one. Would the participants go with the obvious explanation, or try something new?

When it came to explaining the physical machine, the pattern was straightforward. The preschoolers were most likely to come up with the creative, unusual explanation. The school-age children were somewhat less creative. And there was a dramatic drop at adolescence. Both the teenagers and the adults were the most likely to stick with the obvious explanation even when it didn’t fit the data.

But there was a different pattern when it came to the social problems. Once again the preschoolers were more likely to give the creative explanation than were the 6-year-olds or adults. Now, however, the teenagers were the most creative group of all. They were more likely to choose the unusual explanation than were either the 6-year-olds or the adults.

Why does creativity generally tend to decline as we age? One reason may be that as we grow older, we know more. That’s mostly an advantage, of course. But it also may lead us to ignore evidence that contradicts what we already think. We become too set in our ways to change.

Relatedly, the explanation may have to do with a tension between two kinds of thinking: what computer scientists call exploration and exploitation. When we face a new problem, we adults usually exploit the knowledge about the world we have acquired so far. We try to quickly find a pretty good solution that is close to the solutions we already have. On the other hand, exploration — trying something new — may lead us to a more unusual idea, a less obvious solution, a new piece of knowledge. But it may also mean that we waste time considering crazy possibilities that will never work, something both preschoolers and teenagers have been known to do.

This idea suggests a solution to the evolutionary paradox that is human childhood and adolescence. We humans have an exceptionally long childhood and prolonged adolescence. Why make human children so helpless for so long, and make human adults invest so much time and effort into caring for them?

The answer: Childhood and adolescence may, at least in part, be designed to resolve the tension between exploration and exploitation. Those periods of our life give us time to explore before we have to face the stern and earnest realities of grown-up life. Teenagers may no longer care all that much about how the physical world works. But they care a lot about exploring all the ways that the social world can be organized. And that may help each new generation change the world.

Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths are professors of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of “The Gardener and the Carpenter.” He is an author, with Brian Christian, of “Algorithms to Live By.”

No War, No Riots, Just Kids, Critters and One Hot Tiger

Anchovies eat plastic because it smells like their prey - Proceedings of the Royal Society B​ journal 

 Brown bear with cubs fishes on Lake Kronotskoye in South Kamchatka sanctuary, Russia - Tass

Chichester, England Runners and riders ease down after finishing a race at the Goodwood festival. Photo - Alan Crowhurst 

London, England - Children play inside an area designed to look like a badger set during a photo call at Kew Gardens - Dan Kitwood 

N. Carolina Sand tiger shark swimming through a bait ball of thousands of fish - Tanya Houppermans
 
One of 13 animals from zoo in Aleppo, at Al Ma’wa wildlife reserve in Jerash, near Amman, Jordan - Muhammad Hamed (Probably being hosed down to cool him off)
 
Strawberry poison-dart frog carrying its tadpole, to a safe orchid where it can put its new offspring - Roberto García-Roa
 
Suining, China - Chinese tourists swim in the lake called the ‘Dead Sea of China’ in the resort of Suining - Lola Levan

How to Get to Mars

 
Published on Feb 28, 2011  6 min. 32 sec.

"How To get to Mars" is a clip from the IMAX documentary "Roving Mars" from 2006. This is an edited short version. 

Note: This video was posted on 3 quarks daily five years ago by our co-editor Morgan Mies. Re-posting it today because in these chaotic times, it is good to be reminded of what beautiful things humans are capable of achieving. Please watch! Thanks Morgan.

Gachapon

Capsule toy vending machines in Yodobashi Camera in Tokyo's Akihabara district. | TIM HORNYAK

Gachapon: Tracing the evolution of Japan’s colorful toy capsules

Glorious gachapon offer cheap thrills, no bills required

The Japan Times  by   Special To The Japan Times
Where else but Japan could you buy a miniature version of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” figure crouching over a squat toilet, horror-struck? It’s one of thousands of ingeniously designed trinkets you can buy for a pittance from toy machines across the nation. They’re subversive, beautifully crafted and often hilarious. They are gachapon.

“Gachapon” refers both to vending machines and the capsule toys they spit out. When you crack open one of these plastic eggs, you’ll never know what you’ll get even though it’s part of a defined set of toys. That’s only a fraction of the fun of gachapon, a roughly ¥30 billion industry with 150 new toys hatched every month. While capsule toys originated overseas, gachapon are uniquely Japanese.

Capsule cornucopia

 

If you grew up in North America, chances are you raided your piggy bank to feed gumball and capsule toy machines made by Oak Manufacturing, Beaver Machine and other manufacturers. For a fistful of quarters, you could go home with a jawbreaker in your cheek and a pocketful of miniature playing cards, die-cast animals, toy soldiers, rubber monsters and other novelties. Then you grew up and forgot all about the trinkets you once coveted.

In Japan, however, childhood seems to enjoy an extended lease. And gachapon are loved by kids of all ages: At the capsule toy corner on the sixth floor of Yodobashi Camera’s Akihabara outlet, you can see boys and girls and men and women, even suit-and-tie salarymen, jamming ¥100 coins into stacks of machines, perusing the display cards and hunting for a rare prize. Akihabara is a mecca for otaku geeks, a moveable feast of subculture products, and gachapon can easily be overlooked in the riot of anime and electronics. But step outside of Yodobashi Camera and you’ll find gachapon shops along Chuo-dori, in the back streets and at the station. At Gachapon Kaikan, a legendary specialist shop that has been around for about 16 years, there are some 500 gachapon machines and 60 percent of its clientele are non-Japanese.
Capsule toy vending machines in Yodobashi Camera in Tokyo
Capsule toy vending machines in Yodobashi Camera in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. | TIM HORNYAK
“Gachapon used to be mainly figures, but recently they’re small items you can place around your computer, or attach with a strap to your smartphone or key ring,” says manager Yo Kono, who tends to the machines and fields customer requests, often in Chinese. “They were also more geared to guys who were into anime, but younger females, and ordinary men and women, are getting into it.”

The freaky factor

 

Like modern-day netsuke accessories, gachapon are remarkable for their multiplicity, craftsmanship and sheer wackiness. They’re miniature works of art in plastic. There are gachapon sushi, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, dinosaurs, trains, insects, Tokyo Towers, manekineko cats, daruma dolls, Mount Fujis and samurai. There are oodles of popular anime and manga characters on Lilliputian scale from franchises such as Pokemon, Anpanman, Sailor Moon, Dragonball, Doraemon, One Piece, GeGeGe no Kitaro, and, of course, Gundam.

And then there are the progressively wacky gachapon. These could fill an encyclopedia, but here’s a selection: capsules containing tiny office chairs, backpacks, camping lanterns, water faucets, wrist pillows, traffic lights, raw eggs, stretchable tamagoyaki, pizza toast, ramen, pygmy hippopotamuses, aquatic animals wearing bowties, cats showing off their butts, headscarves, bunny ears and penguin bonnets for cats, police caps for dogs, whales with oversized chins, the Statue of Liberty hoisting a glass of beer, cute girls with snail shells on their backs, Easter Island Moai wearing lipstick, underwear and sweaters for plastic bottles, futons for smartphones and — drumroll, please — Godzilla formally apologizing at a press conference podium for wanton acts of destruction. Now who wouldn’t spend ¥300 for one of those?

Humble beginnings to big brands

 

While modern, coin-operated vending machines selling postcards and gum date to 1880s London and New York, the zany, freewheeling culture that is gachapon began with an entrepreneur named Ryuzo Shigeta, known today as Gacha-gacha Ojisan. In the 1960s, Shigeta and his brother had been exporting cheap goods to the United States and a partner there sent them an American vending machine known as a bulk vendor. For ¥10 a pop, it would spit out candy and cheap toys, but they came out willy-nilly, all mixed together. Shigeta found that unsanitary and frustrating, and had a brainwave: Why not encase each product in a plastic shell? On Feb. 17, 1965, gachapon were born when Shigeta set up the capsule vending machine at his shop, Penny Shokai, located in Kuramae 3-chome in Tokyo’s Taito Ward.
For the next 10 years, gachapon featured cheap novelties made with scrap plastic. Manufacturers such as Konno Sangyo Co. also pioneered the industry but it was revolutionized in 1977 with the entry of a toy giant: Bandai Co. Founded in 1950, Bandai was a trailblazer in gachapon. Aside from trademarking them as Gashapon, its executives gambled that their capsule toys would sell even if priced at ¥100 a pop, much more than competitors who were offering ¥20 trinkets.

That gamble paid off in spectacular fashion. On the back of Gundam, Kamen Rider, Ultraman and other popular brands, Gashapon lifted capsule toys to new heights and Bandai sold an astonishing 3.4 billion units in the 40 years to March 2017. The company says it has some 360,000 vending machines across Japan and claims a roughly 70 percent market share; it has some 20,000 elsewhere in Asia.

Hand-carved in Japan as prototypes, then manufactured and hand-painted in China, the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia, Gashapon lead a brief retail existence. Bandai launches 30 to 40 new Gashapon every month, priced at ¥100 to ¥500 apiece, with some tied to seasonal events. Popular Gashapon can sell out in a week or two; while some see repeat production runs, the vast majority are done after only one batch.

The three booms

 

There have been three gachapon booms. The first was in 1983 with the launch of Kinniku Man Keshigomu; Bandai sold more than 180 million units of the polyvinyl chloride muscleman erasers in over 400 varieties. This emboldened Bandai to launch capsule toys priced at ¥200 in 1991. The second boom began in the mid-1990s with the appearance of full color, detailed Gashapon figures such as the SD Gundam series. This attracted an increasingly adult clientele, especially collectors and fans of anime and manga. The third boom began with “Yokai Watch,” the hit multimedia franchise that debuted in 2013 as a Nintendo 3DS game. Meanwhile, gachapon have grown more sophisticated, with intricate items that require assembly. They can include up to 24 joints and even have glowing LED eyes, as seen in the Ultraman Ultimate Luminous series.

“We can see gashapon all over Japan and I’ve come to think it’s part of Japanese culture,” says Kenichiro Otsuka, assistant manager in Bandai’s Vending Machine Business Department, where about 30 staffers dream up new capsule toys. “In recent years we’ve seen women getting into them for Sailor Moon and Disney, as well as foreign tourists buying gashapon as souvenirs.”

The evolution of gachapon hasn’t been confined to toys. Gashapon machines were at first large and clunky and delivered the capsule to a basket at the bottom. Today they’re slim, double-decker affairs, allowing them to be lined up by the dozen in compact rows. This can be done anywhere, since most don’t require electricity, though some of the newer models do because they can accept payment by smart card; some capsule toy machines even work with large video or lottery game screens. While originally confined to dagashiya neighborhood candy shops and the roofs of department stores, gachapon are now found everywhere, from street corners, convenience stores, supermarkets and electronics retailers to train stations, airports, tourist spots and locations such as Gashapon Street in Tokyo Station.

Capsules themselves have changed little over the years from the original design of connecting halves, one of polypropylene and the other of polystyrene. In recent years, however, Bandai introduced polypropylene-only versions that can be recycled more easily. It also launched cylindrical capsules to accommodate larger products, as well as capsules that form the toy itself, such as the head of Doraemon or a Zaku robot from the Gundam franchise.
Kitan Club
Kitan Club’s Koppu no Fuchiko capsule toys | TIM HORNYAK
 

Life on the edge with Fuchiko

 

Some capsule toys are a phenomenon unto themselves. A standout gachapon in recent years and one of the drivers of the third boom has been Koppu no Fuchiko. With a name that plays on the Japanese word for “edge” (fuchi), she’s an OL (office lady) whose outstretched arms allow her to hang from the lip of a glass or whatever else you fancy.

Launched in 2012 and designed by manga artist Katsuki Tanaka, Fuchiko has been a smash hit among all capsule toys, with sales of 20 million units and more than 1,500 variations of her in various poses, wearing everything from Hawaiian dresses to Shinto robes. She’s extremely popular online — do an Instagram photo search with the hashtag #コップのフチ子 (koppunofuchiko) and you’ll find more than 145,000 hits — and even has her own set of Line stickers. Manufacturer Kitan Club, which has turned out some of the more bizarre gachapon in recent years, marked Fuchiko’s fifth anniversary with special sales and exhibitions.

“We had noticed that many OLs would post rather boring photos of their lunches to SNS sites such as Facebook, so we thought about how they could be made more interesting,” says Kitan Club spokesman Seita Shiki. “Since its launch, Koppu no Fuchiko has been featured at meetings, tea parties, drinking parties, and so on. The ‘cup edge’ became a completely new genre that took off with the whole SNS craze.”

Indeed, Kitan Club has launched about 40 other “cup edge” gachapon under its Putitto series. Kitan Club and other makers have produced hanging cats, dogs, frogs, hedgehogs and penguins, anime characters from Pikachu to Golgo 13, “Star Wars” Imperial stormtroopers and even singer Shigeru Matsuzaki.

Collecting craze

 

It’s perhaps not surprising that gachapon have spawned a fan subculture that includes avid collectors.

Waki Kaiyama is an author, TV and radio personality from Sendai whose business card features a cartoonish drawing of him holding a capsule and a gachapon machine. Kaiyama began collecting in 1977, the year Gashapon hit the streets, and is still going strong 40 years later. He now has an unbelievable 100,000 capsule toys and is known as the top gachapon collector in Japan.

Kaiyama became addicted to the capsule toy drug through his grandmother, who ran a dagashiya candy shop with gachapon. When his parents were splitting up, she took him in. He didn’t have friends in her neighborhood, so gachapon became his friends. While other kids would buy them and eventually toss them out, he held on to them. A collector was born.
Collector Waki Kaiyama has around 100,000 capsule toys.
Collector Waki Kaiyama has around 100,000 capsule toys. | TIM HORNYAK
Over iced coffee in Tokyo, Kaiyama proudly displays some of his treasures: an early alien figure gachapon, originally priced at ¥100, and now worth ¥100,000; simple gachapon of yesteryear featuring musclemen and sumo wrestlers; vintage vouchers that, if found in a capsule, entitled the bearer to pick any number of novelties; gag knives and poop; and intricate modern gachapon such as a rickshaw from Tokyo manufacturer Epoch. He even has an old capsule toy vending machine to show off. “You can really get a sense of time travel back to your childhood when you look at gacha-gacha,” says Kaiyama, who goes by the name MC Wacky when appearing on television. “Gacha-gacha are like a barometer for life — reflecting your happiness, sadness and all your ups and downs. You can see how such silly products are being made and perhaps find encouragement for your own ideas.”

Those views are echoed by another “capsuleist,” Hiroaki Omatsu, a journalist and gachapon fan who has just written his own book on the subject, “Gachapon Idea Note.” In it, he profiles not only dozens of crazy gachapon but the insights of about 10 designers. For instance, Hiroaki Haba of capsule toy maker Takara Tomy Arts created a series of richly detailed salarymen figurines called Kakkoi Ossan that are engaged in uncharacteristic action poses such as firing guns or baring washboard abs, all while keeping their neckties, glasses and comb-overs intact.
Some examples of capsule toys from Waki Kaiyama
Some examples of capsule toys from Waki Kaiyama’s collection. | TIM HORNYAK
The book quotes Haba as saying he watches a lot of movies and was sketching a typical middle-aged salaryman face in a meeting when he started thinking about how it could look cool. The result was a hit gachapon for 2016.

“Gachapon that appeal to adults are a form of pop culture plus traditional Japanese monozukuri craftsmanship,” says Omatsu, who has accumulated more than 1,000 gachapon. “There’s definitely a nostalgic element to it. When we were kids, we didn’t have any money to buy these things but as adults, we can.

“However, gachapon can also be a communication tool, for instance as desktop ornaments at work. In an age of video games and virtual entertainment, gachapon are wonderful analog toys that haven’t changed for decades.

“For just three coins, they give you a thrill, a surprise and a lot of fun. I hope this form of Japanese culture will spread overseas.”


 

All in a name

 

Capsule toys in Japan are known by various names, but the most common term is gachapon, referring to the toys and the vending machines themselves. It’s an onomatopoeia based on the sound of the vending machine crank and the thud the capsules make when spat out. Depending on demographics and trademarks, however, people may use a different term.

“Japanese in their 40s and 50s tend to call them gacha-gacha,” says gachapon fan Hiroaki Omatsu, “while Japanese in their 20s and 30s call them gachapon.”

Meanwhile, Bandai Co. calls its capsule toys Gashapon, while Takara Tomy Arts Co. uses the trademark Gacha.

To make things slightly more confusing, not all gachapon sold under these makers’ machines are their trademarked products. For instance, Bandai machines also sell other companies’ toys, which are not Gashapon.