Aria's Past, Present, and Future

On divining the esoteric truth of Neo-Venezia through holes in world-building.
anime, criticism, computer-science, SF, cats
2011-07-132013-08-03 in progress certainty: highly unlikely importance: 3


Here is a con­spir­acy the­ory for you to munch on: just as is actu­ally about how Kyon is god and not Haruhi (see ), so the true story behind has to do with the cats.

Even the super­fi­cial1 overview of the Wikipedia arti­cle men­tioned that they are nearly as intel­li­gent as humans (ex­plain­ing some of their grossly out­sized head­s). They seem to do noth­ing. But we know they live for cen­turies as evi­denced by how the cat-pres­i­dent of Aria Com­pany does­n’t vis­i­bly age even as the founder of Aria goes from a young girl to a wiz­ened granny, while humans in Aria seem to live not much longer than we do (the old peo­ple on Neo Venezia don’t seem to date back to the ter­raform­ing of Mars/Aqua, which was only a cen­tury or 3 ago). Fur­ther, there is the mys­te­ri­ous char­ac­ter of Caith Sith (!) who is enor­mous, eas­ily as large as 3 or 4 humans, and who com­mands all the cats; he too dates back cen­turies—he annu­ally vis­its Neo Venezia cos­tumed as the Venet­ian adven­turer , and those vis­its have been going on as long as any­one knows. Why does each gon­do­lier agency have a cat as pres­i­dent? Per­haps this reflects the hid­den truth of their con­trol; per­haps it gives them license to be con­stantly wan­der­ing the city spy­ing on peo­ple and vis­i­tors. Per­haps they are the small­est of the cats, suit­able unob­tru­sive and invis­i­ble—­Cait Sith’s intel­li­gence agents!

Or con­sider the Aria the Nat­ural episodes where Cait Sith is revealed to have power over evil ghosts, and to be the con­duc­tor of a Galaxy Rail­way2. Con­fus­ing­ly, the evil ghost he dis­pels from Akari is pre­sented as an ancient leg­end from Earth about an exe­cuted crim­i­nal (need­less to say, no one has ever been exe­cuted on Aqua, although we hear of deaths in acci­dents)—although at the end of the episode we learn the leg­end and ghost post-date Aqua and Neo-Venezi­a’s found­ing! How can all this be rec­on­ciled?

Let’s pull back and look at Aqua. Every sin­gle craft and indus­try on Aqua seems aimed at either basic needs (the many wind­mills sup­ply basic elec­tric­ity need­s), or aimed at tourists (the entire undine sys­tem, all the lit­tle coffee shops, the island of glass­blow­ers, etc.). The sys­tem is oth­er­wise absur­d—why are highly edu­cated expen­sive humans spend­ing their lives row­ing peo­ple around on errands over dis­tances of a few hun­dred meters? Even vehi­cles slowed down to the point that their wakes did­n’t dam­age Neo-Venezia would be eco­nom­i­cally supe­ri­or, to say noth­ing of all the labo­ri­ous hand­i­crafts and obso­lete pro­fes­sions prac­ticed. Seri­ous­ly, they have a bustling postal office? We are shown/told this by a nar­ra­tor who is con­stantly send­ing inter­plan­e­tary emails (in the ani­me). Also keep in mind, Aria is set in the dis­tant future, many cen­turies or maybe even mil­len­nia from now, after unknown cranks of 3 or other as-yet unknown laws, at a time where Earth­-Mars travel is rou­tine and human­ity has the power to ter­raform entire worlds and gen­er­ate gravity/anti-gravity and who knows what other mir­a­cles? And yet, here’s an entire city of 100% nor­mal humans with extremely old-fash­ioned social arrange­ments (here’s how old fash­ioned they are: I can’t think of a sin­gle homo­sex­ual pair­ing) going about their busi­ness, with the only inkling of the far future being the occa­sional preter­nat­u­rally intel­li­gent cat, super­nat­ural occur­rence, and float­ing ship/island? Bogus; fail.

Or… is it? Every­one in Neo-Venezia is dis­gust­ingly hap­py, and even when they’re sad they do it in a fun quaint way. They all seem far more sat­is­fied in their careers than we are, and cer­tainly their food and art seem bet­ter. Their archi­tec­ture may be ancient, but gosh darn it all, does­n’t Aria Com­pa­ny’s house look clean and liv­able?

Sim­plic­ity of life, even the barest, is not a mis­ery, but the very foun­da­tion of refine­ment: a and white­washed walls, and the green trees, and flow­ery meads, and liv­ing waters out­side; or a grimy palace amid the smoke with a reg­i­ment of house­maids always work­ing to smear the dirt together so that it may be unno­ticed; which, think you, is the most refined, the most fit for a gen­tle­man of those 2 dwellings?4

That is more than I can say of Amer­i­can hous­ing.

What Neo-Venezia is tru­ly, I think, is a pic­ture of la dolce vita—the sweet life, the pleas­ant one. The inhab­i­tants of Neo-Venezia don’t strive for major accom­plish­ments: they com­pete to become Pri­mas or for pro­mo­tions as salamanders/gnomes only so far as the com­pe­ti­tion lends their lives a lit­tle spice.

The inhab­i­tants are, in fact, closely akin to ’s ‘’. They barely work (one can­not imag­ine the word used in Neo-Venezi­a), are never shown in the count­less tech­ni­cal roles that an inter­plan­e­tary civ­i­liza­tion ought to require, and are astound­ingly igno­rant. One roman­tic episode cov­ers how one char­ac­ter is so igno­rant of basic physics that grav­ity has to be explained to her. Even in our age it’s hard to be igno­rant of grav­ity unless one is astound­ingly ill-e­d­u­cated or stu­pid, and the char­ac­ter would seem to be nei­ther. Her igno­rance is likely quite gen­er­al. How do the grav­i­ty-gen­er­at­ing ‘stones’ work? Even the char­ac­ter whose career is main­tain­ing them does­n’t seem to really know. They’re just there. Any anti-grav­ity sys­tem sta­bi­liz­ing moons would require intim­i­dat­ing math­e­mat­ics and pow­er­ful com­put­ers and net­works of sen­sors, yet that char­ac­ter stud­ies dusty old books. Obvi­ously he’s noth­ing but a tech­ni­cian punch­ing but­tons, and maybe not even that.

Of course, there are no in Aria to put our beloved char­ac­ters in dan­ger. They just float along hap­pily through life. No Mor­locks that we ever notice, any­way.

Inter­est­ing enough a view, but what does it have to do with Cait Sith? Well, if Neo-Venezia is a post-post-post…-mod­ern par­adise, then isn’t there some­thing miss­ing—a sense of mys­tery, of grandeur? Mys­tery and a lack of con­trol is one of the fun­da­men­tal things sep­a­rat­ing an authen­tic expe­ri­ence apart from a con­trolled cor­po­rate one; Neal Stephen­son reflects in his essay “In the Begin­ning was the Com­mand Line” that every spot in Dis­ney is cal­cu­lat­ed, and cal­cu­lated to such an extent that if you see ancient Indian ruins in Ani­mal King­dom, then by gol­ly, those ruins look “more like what I have just described than any actual build­ing you might find in India.” And Dis­ney’s “seam­less illu­sion” requires an absence of authors and ties to a spe­cific his­tor­i­cal ori­gin or process: “…the authors’ names are rarely if ever men­tioned, and you can’t buy the orig­i­nal books at the Dis­ney store. If you could, they would all seem old and queer, like very bad knock­offs of the pur­er, more authen­tic Dis­ney ver­sions.” If that mys­te­ri­ous gar­den in a for­mer monastery known only to a select few were actu­ally Mys­te­ri­ous Loca­tion #44, tended every week by Neo-Venezia Ltd’s gar­den­er­s—it would instantly lose most of its charm.

Caith Sith and his cat fol­low­ers sup­ply that mys­tery; they are the authors. Where does that train go? How does that cafe appear only to Akari and to every­one else as a dere­lict? What do the cats dis­cuss at their con­claves? Why does Cait Sith annu­ally per­form as Casanova dur­ing Car­ni­vale? This mys­ter­ies con­cern not just Akari, but every­one—the rumors spread, and peo­ple on the periph­ery are affect­ed. Per­haps Caith Sith et al’s only role is to cre­ate this mys­tery, per­haps they are charged with this mis­sion by the ‘heart of Aqua’ that Ali­cia speaks so vaguely of. The ghost may be man­u­fac­tured, and Sith sim­ply saves any­one who is care­less enough to be taken by her (how could the rumor spread if she only approaches soli­tary undi­nes, and kills each one? What liv­ing wit­ness­es?) The per­va­sive illu­sion of seam­less­ness can enrap­ture and lead to the famous iyashikei effec­t—a sense of peace and heal­ing. The sim­plic­ity and con­sis­tency lull us, and draw our minds like how ani­mals draw us (it is no coin­ci­dence we see so many domes­tic or tame ani­mals in Aria and in iyashikei works in gen­eral5); Schopen­hauer com­ments:

What a pecu­liar plea­sure it affords us to see any free ani­mal look­ing after its own wel­fare unhin­dered, find­ing its food, or tak­ing care of its young, or asso­ci­at­ing with oth­ers of its kind, and so on! This is exactly what ought to be and can be. Be it only a bird, I can look at it for some time with a feel­ing of plea­sure; nay, a water-rat or a frog, and with still greater plea­sure a hedge­hog, a weasel, a roe, or a deer. The con­tem­pla­tion of ani­mals delights us so much, prin­ci­pally because we see in them our own exis­tence very much sim­pli­fied.6

But the same con­sis­tency and sim­plic­ity and sur­face appeal can, with a twist, plunge us into a sort of exis­ten­tial hor­ror sce­nar­io, where we decide the entire world is a lie and the illu­sion is not for our ben­e­fit, where our hap­pi­ness (Solon: “call no man happy until he be dead”) turns out to a veneer that is very thin indeed—is the truth some­thing we were arguably bet­ter off with­out, as in , or is it some­thing whose absence will destroy us utter­ly, as in ? Stephen­son again:

…Dis­ney World works the same way. If you are an intel­lec­tual type, a reader or writer of books, the nicest thing you can say about this is that the exe­cu­tion is superb. But it’s easy to find the whole envi­ron­ment a lit­tle creepy, because some­thing is miss­ing: the trans­la­tion of all its con­tent into clear explicit writ­ten words, the attri­bu­tion of the ideas to spe­cific peo­ple. You can’t argue with it. It seems as if a hell of a lot might be being glossed over, as if Dis­ney World might be putting one over on us, and pos­si­bly get­ting away with all kinds of buried assump­tions and mud­dled think­ing.

The true civ­i­liza­tion remains unknown. Per­haps it is run by AIs—per­haps this is what looks like on the other side. There are worse utopi­as, after all, than ones that give us a bohemian Euro­pean lifestyle. Like (“See­ing A Post-Sin­gu­lar­ity World Through Pre-Sin­gu­lar­ity Eyes”) or , one might call Aria a “weird­topia”.

Humans kept as happy pets? (The cats then would be a supreme irony on the part of the AIs.) It’s more likely than you think.

To sum­ma­rize: Aria depicts a vast futur­is­tic con­spir­acy in which cute girls are manip­u­lated by even cuter-look­ing amoral alien enti­ties to cover up an oppres­sive and soul-killing real­i­ty. So it’s prob­a­bly set in the uni­verse of :

A visual com­par­i­son of Aria Com­pa­ny’s cat and Madoka’s Kyubey.

  1. A super­fi­cial­ity encour­aged by deep trends in Wikipedi­a’s edi­tor com­mu­ni­ty; see . The prospects are poor for this being reme­died by the , given to work on Wikipedia specifi­cal­ly.↩︎

  2. Likely a ref­er­ence to the movie or its descen­dant, ; allu­sions to Japan­ese media seem gen­er­ally rare in Aria, height­en­ing the sense of clo­sure and being another world.↩︎

  3. Moore’s law has a ways yet to run. It would only take another decade or two for some truly impres­sive com­put­ing pow­er. And even if Moore’s law stopped, we could expect con­sid­er­able effec­tive turns of Moore’s law, as the absence of Moore’s law now means that it is worth­while to invest in algo­rith­mic improve­ments and opti­miza­tion: this is cur­rently expressed as “Proeb­st­ing’s Law: com­pil­ers will dou­ble the speed of exist­ing pro­grams every 18 years.” (See also Arnold et al 2000.) This is because in part, there is con­sid­er­able low-hang­ing fruit which remain unplucked because another few dou­blings will equal the gains and there are—cur­rent­ly—­bet­ter things to do, like adding more fea­tures.

    are often huge. For exam­ple gained a con­stant fac­tor of >10 just by switch­ing to a of its core data-struc­ture, the extremely well-un­der­stood . (In the same vein, the obstreper­ous Ulrich Drep­per has writ­ten “What Every Pro­gram­mer Should Know About Mem­ory”, demon­strat­ing how var­i­ous uses of RAM and caches can lead to con­stant fac­tors greater than 10.) A Russ­ian pro­gram­mer in ~2010 has demon­strated a 20% gain on the highly opti­mized Java imple­men­ta­tion of (pos­si­bly the most stud­ied algo­rithm in an old & extremely stud­ied sub­-field, due to the fact that sort­ing used to be the most com­mon com­puter task, see ’s Sort­ing and Search), called Dual-Pivot Quick­sort. Com­piler opti­miza­tion, often assumed to be played out, has much room for improve­ment by incor­po­rat­ing or ; already imple­mented fea­tures like are rarely used. Oper­at­ing sys­tems have barely explored opti­miza­tions demon­strated by obscure and aban­doned areas of research like the or . (All of the above is usu­ally done in pure soft­ware, but hard­ware and soft­ware are a con­tin­u­um, and large con­stan­t-fac­tor speedups can be gained from cus­tom hard­ware like FPGAs or alter­na­tive archi­tec­ture like s or spe­cial­ized ASICs; relax­ing require­ments can also yield large gains, eg. Joe Bates claims that float­ing point cal­cu­la­tions could require 100 times fewer tran­sis­tors if small (1%) error bars were accept­ed, and Ben­jamin Vigoda offered sim­i­lar speedups for sta­tis­ti­cal cal­cu­la­tions using slightly erro­neous ana­logue cir­cuit­s.) The area of AI is almost entirely unex­plored—and .

    Algo­rithms research some­times results in use­less galac­tic algo­rithms, but some­times results in mind-bog­gling gains. Improve­ments in or are some­times said to have resulted in speedups greater than Moore’s law since the 1970s. has seen sim­i­lar algo­rith­mic speedups, which have been quan­ti­fied (from “Report to the Pres­i­dent and Con­gress: Design­ing a Dig­i­tal Future: Fed­er­ally Funded R&D in Net­work­ing and IT”, empha­sis added):

    The algo­rithms that we use today for speech recog­ni­tion, for nat­ural lan­guage trans­la­tion, for chess play­ing, for logis­tics plan­ning, have evolved remark­ably in the past decade. It’s diffi­cult to quan­tify the improve­ment, though, because it is as much in the realm of qual­ity as of exe­cu­tion time.

    In the field of numer­i­cal algo­rithms, how­ev­er, the improve­ment can be quan­ti­fied. Here is just one exam­ple, pro­vided by Pro­fes­sor Mar­tin Grötschel of Kon­rad-Zuse-Zen­trum für Infor­ma­tion­stech­nik Berlin. Grötschel, an expert in opti­miza­tion, observes that a bench­mark pro­duc­tion plan­ning model solved using lin­ear pro­gram­ming would have taken 82 years to solve in 1988, using the com­put­ers and the lin­ear pro­gram­ming algo­rithms of the day. Fifteen years lat­er—in 2003—this same model could be solved in roughly 1 min­ute, an improve­ment by a fac­tor of roughly 43 mil­lion. Of this, a fac­tor of roughly 1,000 was due to increased proces­sor speed, whereas a fac­tor of roughly 43,000 was due to improve­ments in algo­rithms! Grötschel also cites an algo­rith­mic improve­ment of roughly 30,000 for mixed inte­ger pro­gram­ming between 1991 and 2008.

    Grötschel report­edly is draw­ing on Robert Bixby’s “Solv­ing real-world lin­ear pro­grams: a decade and more of progress”, who notes that inte­ger pro­gram­ming algo­rithms improved even more than lin­ear pro­gram­ming algo­rithms (pg2):

    Inte­ger pro­gram­ming makes direct use of all the advances we will dis­cuss in LP algo­rithms. In addi­tion, there have been other major advances that are domain spe­cific to inte­ger pro­gram­ming, such as the use of cut­ting planes and inte­ger-pro­gram­ming-spe­cific pre­solve tech­niques. These two classes of meth­ods alone often trans­form mod­els from being unsolv­able to straight­for­ward. There is lit­tle doubt that the over­all improve­ment in pre­sen­t-day inte­ger-pro­gram­ming codes exceeds that for lin­ear pro­gram­ming.

    And the improve­ments to the lin­ear pro­gram­ming algo­rithms work even on ‘chal­lenge prob­lems’ (pg5):

    The degen4 model is a larger ver­sion of the netlib mod­els degen2 and degen3, and is much more diffi­cult. It is an early instance of an air­line fleet-as­sign­ment mod­el. In late 1989, degen4 was pre­sented as a chal­lenge prob­lem to opti­miz­ers and com­puter ven­dors….What was miss­ing was steep­est edge for the dual. That final piece of the puz­zle was pro­vided by For­rest and Gold­farb (1992), who intro­duced a par­tic­u­larly effec­tive approach to steep­est-edge pric­ing for the dual. This mod­i­fi­ca­tion not only works well on degen4, but in gen­er­al. It is one of the key rea­sons why the dual sim­plex algo­rithm has emerged as a pow­er­ful all-pur­pose algo­rithm for lin­ear pro­gram­ming.

    Cus­tomized algo­rithms were devised for these chal­lenge prob­lem­s—and then super­seded by gen­er­al-pur­pose improve­ments (pg7):

    Because of the diffi­culty of these mod­els, they have received con­sid­er­able atten­tion in the LP lit­er­a­ture, and sev­eral spe­cial-pur­pose algo­rithms have been devel­oped. To my knowl­edge, the most recent and best of these algo­rithms is described in Cas­tro (2000). The largest model solved by Cas­tro was pds90, with a solu­tion time of 21,781 sec­onds on a 200 MHz Ultra­Sparc. As we shall see, Cas­tro’s algo­rithms are now dom­i­nated by cur­rent gen­er­al-pur­pose imple­men­ta­tions of the dual sim­plex algo­rithm.

    (Sec­tion 5.3 notes that iron­i­cally enough, the improve­ments are so large that they com­pli­cate bench­mark­ing & com­par­i­son.) For some other areas includ­ing inte­ger fac­tor­ing, chess & Go play­ing, and machine learn­ing, see . And that is to say noth­ing of future research. Here’s an admit­tedly unlikely sce­nar­io: were research to dis­cover with rea­son­able con­stant fac­tors, this alone would be worth decades of Moore’s law.↩︎

  4. , speech, Lon­don (1880-03-10)↩︎

  5. Although it is unusual that Aria is set in a city at all, given cities’ asso­ci­a­tion with stress & mad­ness. It is prob­a­bly worth not­ing that Venice is one of the few real world-fa­mous cities where an iyashikei approach can work; another work set in, say, Tokyo or Kyoto, would prob­a­bly be no more than a or work. I like , but one could not call it iyashikei.↩︎

  6. , “Psy­cho­log­i­cal Obser­va­tions”, Essays↩︎