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I love Steampunk, but mostly it seems to be a European kind of thing, although the US had a major hand to play in it between Edison and Tesla. But did you know Japan had its own real-life Steampunk roots, just like the western cultures? I am not referring to the modern Steampunk instances, like the many Animes (Fullmetal Alchemist, Last Exile, and Steamboy being my personal favorite examples). But the roots of Steampunk, the technology that Could Have Been, had things gone a bit different (and yes, that is Paratime again). The best examples of true Japanese Steampunk I have found so far are in the realm of Karakuri; 16th through 18th century Japanese robots.

For a basic introduction to the topic I can think of no better example than I, Karakuri, a wonderful short explanation of both the concept (dolls that would surprise/trick observers by preforming human actions, such as serving tea, while hiding the mechanical bits that allowed them to do so; the humans would suspect an animating spirit, rather than a device, back in those days) and the history of the technology (watches imported by the Portuguese in the 1500’s, reverse engineered and by the early 1600’s the Edo period craftspeople had developed them into mechanical wonders to rival any cuckoo clock Switzerland ever dreamed up). These were developed completely independently of the similar proto-robots in Europe, and had a different style and sensibility even if the mechanical functionality was the same.

The Japan Foundation and MIT Singapore have both done live presentations on Karakuri in the last few years. KaraKuri Info is another great source of information on the background and history of this unique robot lineage, which is enjoying a renewed interest by modern robot inventors in Japan.

If you want to build your own, you don’t have to start from scratch. You can pick up a kit for the Karakuri Gakken tea serving doll from Maker Shed or other similar outlets, and the detailed instructions at Make Zine can guide you through the steps needed to create one of your own. There are kits for a few of the others, of which the most amazing (and expensive) may be the Bow Shooting Boy doll, but they may no longer be available.

While these are dolls, in the sense of being something made out of wood or plastic that looks like a person, they are also actual robots. Hard to believe because there are no computer chips in the device? True, but the logic is built in at the mechanical level, allowing them If/Then/Else choices even without the silicon chips. That means they can be programmed just like any other robots to follow out a sequence of instructions, with any given action only taken when the preset conditions are met (such as turning around and heading back to the tea pot when the weight of an empty tea cup is placed on its tray). The main difference comes when you want to reprogram it; instead of typing or uploading a new sequence of instructions, the gears, shafts, and spindles have to be changed for a set that processes the new logic and decision tree. Brutal but true: reprogramming means rebuilding!

If you have a hard time imagining how that works, the simplest example to explain the process comes from Europe of the same era; the music box. In 1600 Geneva or Paris, if you wanted your portable music player to play a different song, you put a different metal cylinder into it and wound the spring. As the spring unwound the bumps sticking out of the cylinder pushed and released against the differently tuned metal tongues, playing a pre-programed sequence of tones. While the music box did not have mechanical logic circuits built in (at least not until you got up to the ones installed in church towers), it did go through a prerecorded sequence of instructions to create a desired result without needing human supervision. Thus Automation was born.

There are also some inexpensive paper variations available, if you are trying to interest your young child in moving mechanicals, like the Karakuri Teeter Totter Robot or the Smoking Robot. These are not actual robots, and have no logic built in, but they are entertaining psudo-automatons that move when you crank the handle and demonstrate some basic principles of mechanical animation.

Just for comparison, some European Robots from the same time frame

The pick of the release week is the first in a series of movies; the name of this one is The 20th Century Boys 1: The Beginning of the End. It has been making the film festival rounds, and has been doing killer box office back home. With luck, they will be releasing the remaining two films in this set here soon.

I can’t believe they allow them to keep making these things, but as long as they do, I will keep buying them: Robot Chicken Season 4 is coming out Tuesday. In case you have not added any of these to your collection yet, they are also releasing season 1-4 as a box set. This is some of the most sick and twisted humor available today, from the minds of Seth and Seth.

In the Anime department, two old favorites get released in HiDef this week; Samurai Champloo: The Complete Collection, and Basilisk – The Complete Series. Each of these is an incredible job of storytelling in their own very different ways, with some of the best animation you have ever seen. Hell, even the soundtracks are world class. If you were thinking these are both historical action/dramas from the Shogunate period, one involving Ninjas and one Samurai, you would be right. They have a break with reality in the mystical and martial arts powers wielded by some of the combatants, and that is enough of an excuse to allow me to list them here (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

Previously unreleased Anime for this week includes El Cazador de la Bruja – Season 1 Part 2, which is even more interesting because this is the third series of Bee Train’s Girls With Guns set. Noir and Madlax were the first two series in the collection, which should tell you where this one is coming from. There is another Bleach volume out (number 23), but as usual I will be waiting for the box set before adding it to the permanent collection.

For another live action, we have Chai Lai Angels: Dangerous Flowers, the Thai version of Charlies Angels from the creators of Ong-Bak. Chai Lai translates to “gorgeous”, and this action-comedy has plenty of both (action and comedy).

There is a documentary hitting the shelves Tuesday as well that I thought was worth a mention: Fallen Idol: The Yuri Gagarin Conspiracy. They got the story pretty close to the way I heard it, so I suspect this will be worth watching.

There are some days when your native language just won’t express what you have to say in satisfactory manor. For those occasions, you can just Tweet in Klingon, and have the same sounds you get when you hear a Sysop yell at his/her server farm in Spoken *Nix (Ch’Mod! Mk’Dir!) echoing through your posted environment.

You might rather play a Toy Building Game over at the History Channel web site, or for a different kind of silliness, enjoy the Dresden Dolls doing this White Stripes cover (complete with the trangender costuming as a visual aid for those in the audience slow to pick up on the parody). Whatever you choose, I hope you have fun this holiday!

( translation, * = LInix, Unix)

We’re glad you made it; welcome to the future! Right now a lot of the backbone that feeds the routers that feed the cable modems and other WAN/LAN interfaces runs at 10Gig. That isn’t because the switching technology can’t support higher throughput, but rather the ability to encode data for a higher bitrate and throughput has been lacking… until now. Over at Cornell a team has developed a Time Lens system, a chipset that takes that 10Gig baseline data rate and uses an optical split-and-recombine setup to turn it into a 270Gig output to the same optical distribution system. True Broadband may be on the horizon at last, and the same technology could help speed up the end-users computers as well. And here is another fine production that makes you think from TeacherTube.

There are a number of viral Terminator: Salvation sites online, as there were for the new Trek movie and many others. One such site is Resist Or Be Terminated, done as the propaganda arm of John Connors resistance. Another is Enitechlabs Research, at first glance a particle physics web site. But a camera they have developed that takes pictures about 3 years in the future has begun to show some disturbing images, and something seems to be after the scientists now. Then there is Skynet Research, who are looking for a few good robotics design engineers, offering free download and installation of their Distributed Computing Network software, and giving away their security systems to install in your home or business…