New movies

This evening at the SIGGRAPH conference I watched the Electronic Theater. That’s the big two hour film show at which the very best of the current year’s computer graphics is shown on a huge screen for an extremely appreciative audience of fellow CG practitioners.

The show was exceptionally good this year, not only on a technical level (it’s always technically excellent), but on the level of great storytelling. It’s a sign of the maturity of our field that the makers of CG films are well beyond focusing merely on the “gee whiz” factor of their medium.

Technical excellence has become a given, but it is now being used more and more in support of truly inventive stories, with compelling characters. Still, it takes an immense amount of effort to produce a high quality computer graphic film.

It is possible that one day, decades from now, the process will have become transformed far beyond the level of today’s production tools. Perhaps some future variety of machine-learning enhanced direct-brain interface will become the preferred means of production.

Maybe a future CG artist will merely need to form a clear mental image of the film she wishes to create. Fully automated neurologically attuned software will do the rest.

Imagine what those future artists would think of the cumbersome methods we currently use to realize our computer animated visions. They may well ask each other “What do you think motivated them to go through all that trouble?”

I wonder if they will understand when somebody tells them the reason: Because that was the easiest way to do it.

VR in the material world

Today is the first day of the big annual SIGGRAPH conference, which this year is in LA. Our group has two interactive VR experiences this week, so it’s going to be a busy time (and hopefully fun too).

It always amazes me how these large empty conference spaces become transformed for such events. Below are two photos I took from my phone, one yesterday and one today.

I love how just a little bit of lighting and window dressing can change the entire feel of a space. Yesterday this hall was a construction zone. Today, it’s a wonderland where people experience the latest in VR coolness.

Old movies

I was talking to a film scholar the other day about old movies. Appropriately enough, we were having this conversation at IndieCollect, where he and his colleagues scan and digitally preserve independent films for posterity. Many of those films are quite a few decades old.

Nowadays most movies are both shot and projected digitally. No more internegatives, flatbeds, chemical baths, no more sprocket holes, second reels or work prints. Most of process of getting from lens to screen is now done in software.

But in earlier days making a movie involved many different physical steps. Each of those steps had to be done properly or you were left with nothing. Capturing a good image onto your negative was an exacting process, and everything was highly dependent on good old fashioned chemistry and physics.

Even after the negative was in the can, there was still plenty of work to do. Pulling a good print from the negative through proper control of color and timing, then the laborious and exacting process of physically cutting your film on a flatbed, each of these steps required hours upon hours of dedicated and exacting physical work.

Contemplating the racks upon racks of old reels of film at IndieCollect, the tangible record of an immense amount of collective labor, my colleague turned to me and asked: “What do you think motivated them to go through all that trouble?”

To me it seemed like an easy question. “Because,” I said, “that was the easiest way to do it.”

POSTIT notes

Given his non-stop antics, it is tempting to simply dismiss POSTIT (my current acronym to describe you-know-who) as a ridiculous clown, an international embarrassment with a rapidly degenerating mental state. The assumption, presumably, is that grownups around him will keep our Federal Government running until such time as the office is filled by a functional human being.

But yesterday’s tweet by POSTIT, which took the U.S. Military by surprise, gives the lie to that. It reads, in part:

“…please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory.”

This was an astonishingly direct and overt shout-out — practically a love letter — to Joseph Goebbels’ concept of Wehrmacht, or total war. In his efforts as Minister of Propaganda for the National Socialist Party, Goebbels conflated the need to wipe out the “degenerate” Jews with a directive that the Party should focus all of its energies on, essentially, decisive and overwhelming victory over its enemies.

Goebbels cleverly pioneered an important concept in effecting radical political change: The key to bringing about the transformation of a democracy into a fascist state is to conflate the concept of total war against a perceived external enemy with the degradation of specific groups of people within one’s own country.

It’s pretty clear, given the specificity of his message, that POSTIT is embracing that philosophy, which was highly effective for Goebbels, at least in the short term. You must admit, whatever your political leanings, that the eventual extermination of millions of ordinary citizens under Nazi rule was an impressive achievement.

No doubt POSTIT hopes he can eventually top that achievement. He is, after all, a highly ambitious and self-confident fellow.

Trump bans Jews from the military

The following article appeared in today’s NY Times. I’ve made a few small edits, but I haven’t changed anything of real importance, in terms of what this decision tells us about our current president’s level of respect for American citizens who risk their lives every day to protect our Nation.

WASHINGTON — President Trump abruptly announced a ban on Jewish people serving in the military on Wednesday, blindsiding his defense secretary and Republican congressional leaders with a snap decision that reversed long-standing policy.

Mr. Trump made the surprise declaration on Twitter, saying that American forces could not afford the “tremendous disruption” of Jewish service members. He said he had consulted generals and military experts, but Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, was given only a day’s notice about the decision.

Mr. Trump elected to announce the ban in order to resolve a quietly brewing fight on Capitol Hill over whether taxpayer money should pay for the non-standard dietary requirements and extra rabbinical clergy needed for Jewish service members, which had threatened to kill a $790 billion defense and security spending package scheduled for a vote this week.

But rather than addressing that narrow issue, Mr. Trump opted to upend the entire policy on Jewish service members, a move that few on Capitol Hill or at the Pentagon expected.

Mr. Trump announced the decision with such haste that the White House could not answer basic inquiries about how it would be carried out, including what would happen to openly Jewish people now serving on active duty; of eight defense officials interviewed, none could say.

“That’s something that the Department of Defense and the White House will have to work together as implementation takes place and is done so lawfully,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said.

Still, the announcement thrilled elements of Mr. Trump’s base, who have been dismayed to see the president break so bitterly in recent days with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a hard-line conservative.

Civil rights and Jewish advocacy groups denounced the policy, with some vowing to challenge it in court. Pentagon officials expressed dismay that the president’s tweets, blasted out before they could consider how to make the change, could open them to lawsuits.

The announcement represented a stark turnabout from Mr. Trump’s rhetoric during his campaign, when he billed himself as an ally of Jewish people.

The president, Ms. Sanders said, had concluded that allowing Jewish people to serve openly “erodes military readiness and unit cohesion, and made the decision based on that.”

Mr. Mattis, who was on vacation, was silent on the new policy. People close to the defense secretary said he was appalled that Mr. Trump chose to unveil his decision in tweets, in part because of the message they sent to Jewish active-duty service members, including those deployed overseas, that they were suddenly no longer welcome.

A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that allowing Jewish people to serve openly in the military “has minimal impact on readiness and health care costs” for the Pentagon. It estimated that extra food and clerical costs for Jewish service members are $2.4 million to $8.4 million a year, representing an infinitesimal 0.04 to 0.13 percent increase in spending. Citing research into other countries that allow Jewish people to serve, the study projected “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness or readiness” in the United States.

Social media considered harmful, last part

In his screenplay for the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, Bud Schulberg posits the political rise of Lonesome Rhodes, a populist figure who captures the public imagination through his folksy manner and ability to present himself as a working man’s alternative to the political elite of the day. When a recording of Rhodes speaking, in an unguarded moment, reveals his true feelings of contempt for others, his political collapse is instantaneous.

There was probably a time in our nation’s history when that would have been the fate of a figure like Donald Trump, after recordings surfaced in which he talked about “grabbing pussy” and otherwise revealing himself to be a crude and contemptuous man. But now we live in the era of social media.

Trolls are not merely tolerated these days — they have become woven into the fabric of our culture. The ability to derail rational and constructive discourse through an act of pure verbal aggression has come to be admired in many circles. And I think this goes a long way toward explain the continuing acceptance in many circles of Donald Trump.

As Trump’s true nature has emerged as a troll writ large, a con man and a bully, a supposed “billionaire” who hides his tax returns out of fear of revealing his true financial state, a long time swindler of employees and contractors, a taker of bribes from Russian benefactors in the form of sweetheart real estate deals, an admirer of murderous despots in brutal totalitarian regimes, a man who seems to view his marriage merely as an opportunity for photo-ops, a serial liar on a scale never-before seen in our nation’s political sphere, his popularity in many quarters has only increased.

I don’t think such a figure would have been acceptable to the American public before the emergence of trolling as a form of power. Baseless insults, crude verbal attacks, disgusting comments about women, switching from one set of “facts” to another at the drop of a hat, these are not forms of behavior we historically associate with leaders. Yet now, in 2017, they seem to add up to a set of traits that many in our country find admirable.

One question that remains: Was the rise of a figure such as Trump a consequence of social media, or was it the result of an existing flaw in our social fabric, one that social media has merely allowed to blossom forth?

Social media considered harmful, part 3

So how might the presence of frustrated angry trolls affect the larger societal discourse? Consider, for example, the responses to my post the other day.

I received a number of truly thoughtful and caring responses from people who simply wanted to work in a spirit of cooperation for everyone’s benefit. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires participants to be confident in themselves, and therefore capable of trusting others.

A troll, in contrast, essentially functions as an angry three year old in an adult body, either unable or unwilling to trust, and therefore wanting only to run around tearing things down. When anyone makes a thoughtful or kind suggestion, or attempts to elevate the level of discourse, a troll will respond by going on the attack.

In a moderated forum such as this blog, the effects are minimal. Yet most of society is not a moderated forum. In particular, the political sphere is essentially unmoderated. I fear that a gradual acceptance of troll-like behavior on-line may have helped to lead us down a dark and destructive path in our larger political discourse.

More tomorrow.

Social media considered harmful, part 2

If a stranger walks up to you the street and punches you in the nose, that person is labeled as crazy. But if a stranger performs the equivalent act on-line, that is simply considered rude behavior. The first person might end up in an institution. The second person we just call a troll and shrug our shoulders.

How did we get to this place? Why do so many people on-line come out swinging at total strangers? My best guess is that it’s a way of dealing with feelings of fear and helplessness.

Before the advent of social media, if you were feeling helpless or scared, you would generally turn to the people in your everyday life — your family, your clergy, perhaps a neighbor. These were people you actually knew.

But now there is an easier way. You can go on-line, vent your frustrations, put on a fictional persona, act out all you want. You can avoid ever confronting feelings of helplessness or fear. In fact, you can feel that you have replaced them, through aggressive and inappropriate interactions with strangers, by an illusory feeling of power.

I’m not saying *everyone* does this. Far from it. Most people understand the limits of social media, just as most people understand the limits of alcohol use.

So the underlying problem isn’t social media itself. The real problems lie elsewhere.

Social media merely exposes those problems. But in doing so, it creates new problems of its own. More tomorrow.

Social media considered harmful, part 1

When people keep trying to post hostile troll-ish comments, I end up blocking them, and then I don’t even see their subsequent attempts. But in the one or two attempts that I do see, before I realize they are either crazy or trying to act crazy, I always learn something.

Yesterday the trolls came out in force, because one of my posts was listed on Hacker News. And I learned quite a bit — mostly about the nature of anger.

One of the trolls made sure to announce himself as a troll by posting a comment that was ostentatiously insulting, and then acting offended when I didn’t post it. So here was somebody essentially saying “I will engage you not in actual discussion, but only as my enemy. Those are my rules of engagement.”

So what would motivate somebody to go up to a complete stranger and loudly announce themselves as that stranger’s enemy? What’s really going on in such situations?

I think there are implications to this phenomenon that are more significant than mere bad manners. More on this tomorrow.