Accident and Design

It is weird how people focus on the nuclear angle. One Irish news programme even got a radiological official on to assure us that we wouldn’t be in any danger here. We really have no sense of proportion about radiation – and I speak as someone who is not in favour of nuclear electricity generation. This is against a background of perhaps 10,000 actual deaths caused by the natural disaster. So far it’s only been reported that 160 people may have even been exposed to some level of radiation.

For sure, questions do need to be asked about why such an earthquake-prone country is so dependent on this energy source. And it is also true that the nuclear threat is a human element in the story, a preventable disaster.

But we shouldn’t overlook the preventable disaster that was prevented. An earthquake and a tsunami of unprecedented size struck one of the most densely populated places on the Earth. There might easily have been millions dead.

In a place where almost all habitable land is coastal there is little one can do to stave off a tsunami, short of abandoning the country altogether. But buildings can be designed to withstand tremors. They were, and they did so brilliantly. Compare this to Christchurch where they were not anticipating an earthquake and so hadn’t built for it. Amid this tragedy, Japan can take some comfort in the fact that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.

A Quick Redesign

Redecorate CartoonYou’re in the right place, I just got a little restless with the spray cans.¬†Actually it’s not my own design; I thought I’d try out some of WordPress’s many fine free ones so as to get some ideas for when I finally have time to do my own.

I chose this purely because it seemed fresh and has most of the features I want. It’s only now I realise the colour scheme looks like the national flag – just in time for Paddy’s Day. I guess it can stay, but I will hotly deny that I decorated.

Greetings From Uncanny Valley

Uncanny DiagramThere’s a strange phenomenon, familiar to people at the cutting interface of technology and art, that goes by the name of “the uncanny valley”. As a general rule, the more something looks like a living human, the more humans like it. We like photographs or drawings of humans. We like kittens and monkeys, lively animals with human-like faces, even better.

So naturally in fields like CGI or robot design, people have striven to make their work look more and more like reality. And this is where they hit a strange snag. Because though the relationship between realism and likeability is pretty much a smooth straight graph, as soon as something looks almost, but not quite exactly, like a living human, it suddenly scares the living toothpaste out of us.

It may be because our minds are upset by the category conflict. We like things that seem human, but we aren’t fooled into thinking they really are. When we actually become uncertain, it’s disturbing.

Or perhaps it is simply, if sadly, that instinct tells us something which looks and acts almost but not exactly like a human is a human – but one who is severely diseased and therefore dangerous.

The worst effects occur when something is very human-like in one way but not in another. A robot with very realistic human skin and features for example, but whose movements are unnatural. Or one that moves right, but has an inhuman, skeletal face. These things are as creepy to adults as clowns are to children. So it seems if we ever do have mechanical companions, they will either be friendly, cartoony machines we will never mistake for people, or so damn realistic we wouldn’t know they weren’t without being told.

The computer-animated film Polar Express was said by some to be stuck in Uncanny Valley, the motion-capture technique giving the CGI characters uncomfortably too-natural movements. But today, I came across another example:

Baby sloths.

That’s right. Baby sloths are really cute, really silly-and-sweet-looking. But the way they move… creeps me the fuck out. See for yourself.