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Aria’s Past, Present, and Future

On divining the esoteric truth of Neo-Venezia through holes in world-building.

Munch on this conspiracy theory: just as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is actually about how Kyon is god and not Haruhi (see The Melancholy of Kyon), so the true story behind Aria 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 Casanova, 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 Moore’s law3 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; worldbuilding 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 sanded floor 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 The Time Machine’s ‘eloi’. They barely work (one cannot imagine the word karoshi 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 Morlocks 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 Philip K. Dick 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 Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, or is it something whose absence will destroy us utterly, as in Higurashi? 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 the Singularity looks like on the other side. There are worse utopias, after all, than ones that give us a bohemian European lifestyle. Like Humanity Has Declined (“Seeing A Post-Singularity World Through Pre-Singularity Eyes”) or Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō, 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 Puella Magi Madoka Magica:

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 In Defense Of Inclusionism. The prospects are poor for this being remedied by the right to fork, given the powerful incentives to work on Wikipedia specifically.↩︎

  2. Likely a reference to the movie Night on the Galactic Railway or its descendant, Galaxy Express 999; 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.

    Faster: Constant factors are often huge. For example Varnish gained a constant factor of >10 just by switching to a cache-oblivious variant of its core data-structure, the extremely well-understood binary heap. (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 quicksort (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 Knuth’s Sorting and Search), called Dual-Pivot Quicksort. Compiler optimization, often assumed to be played out, has much room for improvement by incorporating metacompilation or partial evaluation; already implemented features like profile-guided optimization are rarely used. Operating systems have barely explored optimizations demonstrated by obscure and abandoned areas of research like the Synthesis microkernel or exokernels. (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 Lisp machines 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 there’s a lot of possibility there.

    Algorithms research sometimes results in useless galactic algorithms, but sometimes results in mind-boggling gains. Improvements in integer factoring or primality testing are sometimes said to have resulted in speedups greater than Moore’s law since the 1970s. Linear programming 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 & Goldfarb1992, 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.

    (§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 Grace2013. And that is to say nothing of future research. Here’s an admittedly unlikely scenario: were research to discover P=NP with reasonable constant factors, this alone would be worth decades of Moore’s law.↩︎

  4. William Morris, 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 moe or slice of life work. I like Kamichu!, but one could not call it iyashikei.↩︎

  6. Arthur Schopenhauer, “Psychological Observations”, Essays↩︎

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