Archive for September, 2022

Why VR?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2022

I know that a lot of people like to play computer games in VR. But as a practical matter, I don’t know many people who use it for other purposes.

Sure, there are specialized applications that really call for it. For example, brain surgeons use it as part of pre-surgical planning to work out and practice operative paths, and I am very glad that they do.

But in the workplace you don’t tend to see offices full of people wearing VR headsets. As an item for use by millions of people, there doesn’t seem to be at the moment an application and beyond game play.

I wonder whether this is inherent in the nature of VR, or whether it will change as either technology or culture or both shift in the coming years.

Count your blessings

Tuesday, September 27th, 2022

A lot of people are confused about the nature of today’s machine learning systems. There seems to be a widespread belief that these giant pattern matching and mimicry systems are actually intelligent, in the way that people or dogs or sea slugs are intelligent.

But the more you learn about how such systems work, the more you understand that they are not at all intelligent, in the sense that the word “intelligent” is used to describe a living being. They are very impressive, but then a lot of things are impressive.

For example, an automobile can outrun a human in a race, but we don’t put automobiles and humans in the same category. We understand that they are operating by completely different means, and so we know to keep them separate in our heads.

But most people are not familiar with how machine learning systems actually work. So an ML system’s apparently magical powers of mimicry can easily be misconstrued as a sign of emerging sentience.

To be fair, what is going on under the hood is very technical, so it’s not easy to understand how these systems really work. It would be unreasonable to ask everyone to take an advanced course in computer science.

But once you realize that there is no actual intelligence at work here — just a very impressive feat of pattern matching and generative imitation — you start to count your blessings. It would be much worse for us humans if these things could actually think, wouldn’t it?

Off switch

Monday, September 26th, 2022

Many years ago, when Max Headroom first came out in the U.S., I and my fellow computer animation friends used to watch it religiously. We knew that Max wasn’t actually a computer animated character — he was really Matt Freuer with prosthetics and video effects — but that made it even more fun.

I still recall my favorite moment from the series, a moment which I now take as an eerie harbinger of the future. It’s in a scene in which intrepid reporter Edison Carter (also played by Matt Freuer) enters a room that a group of renegade anarchists had recently made their secret lair.

The anarchists had apparently fled just minutes before the authorities discovered their existence. The great moment comes as Carter is looking in puzzlement at a television set. He is clearly trying to figure out why it looks strange.

Then, all at once, he figures it out. “This TV set,” he proclaims in astonishment, “has an off switch!”

In 1987 that scene played well as absurdist science fiction humor. Today it hits a little too close to home.

Rings of She-Hulk

Sunday, September 25th, 2022

Watching two very different TV series at the same time can be educational. At the moment I am in the middle of both She-Hulk and Rings of Power.

On the one hand, you could say it’s hard to imagine two shows more different in tone or purpose or overall outlook. On the other hand, I am seeing interesting parallels.

At their core, both shows are about a woman, a powerful warrior with uncommon abilities, who simply wants to fight evil. Her agenda is very straightforward and not hard to understand.

But in both cases, she is surrounded by people who just don’t get it. They don’t deny that she is more powerful and more capable than pretty much everyone else put together, but they have other concerns on their minds. Those concerns are far more trivial, and therefore more important to them, then the central question of how do we save the world and stop the advance of evil.

So in a sense, both shows are about a familiar feminist dilemma. Men get to be heroes and nobody has a problem with it. But put power for the forces of good in the hands of a woman, and everybody gets all up in her face.

Retcasting

Saturday, September 24th, 2022

Have you ever watched a movie? Thought to yourself, that movie would be perfect if it starred these people instead of those people? I have often had that thought.

Many times I find myself doing creative recasting in my head, and I imagine what the film would have been like with my ideal cast. To describe this, I coined the term retcasting, a shameless rip off of the word retconning.

I realize that the technology does not yet exist to go back and remake a movie with the cast of one’s choice. But artificial intelligence is getting better every year, and I would not be surprised if, within the next decade or so, we could choose any movie, from any era in history, and drop in our preferred favorite actors and actresses.

It would be especially interesting to mix together actors that actually lived at different times in film history. That could create a sort of tension as the acting styles meld together, as the AI does the best that it can to blend the results so has to fit the intention of the screenplay.

For now, perhaps, creative retcasting remains an idle daydream. But one day, it made very well become an art form in its own right.

Games and stories

Friday, September 23rd, 2022

I had a great conversation this week with a writer friend. We were discussing one difference between the experience of playing a game and the experience of being told a story.

There are many differences of course, but one in particular, we both agreed, is essential. It’s the question of “who am I here?”

When you play a game, you yourself are an inherent part of what happens. You are an active participant in the experience, and your choices explicitly affect the outcome.

One consequence of this is that your ego is on the line. You have a different experience if you win than if you lose.

When you read or watch or listen to a story, the opposite is true. Your goal is to effectively observe. It is not up to you to determine the outcome, and therefore you are free to use your powers of inference and observation, without being judged.

One consequence of this is that your ego is not on the line, because you are not present within the world of the narrative. You don’t “win” or “lose” a story — you receive it, hopefully you are entertained by it, and perhaps you learn from it.

There is an argument to be made from this that the hybrid genre of a “story game”, although certainly possible, is difficult to do well. In a sense, something that tries to be both a game and a story inherently clashes with a fundamental difference between the experience of “playing a game” and the experience of “being told a story”.

Physically gathering

Thursday, September 22nd, 2022

I saw a really good play today. And I was again reminded that there is nothing like actual people physically gathering in the same place at the same time.

I know that a lot of people are wondering about the changes that will come about as virtual presence becomes more practical. There will, eventually, come a time when the Star Wars Jedi Council is an everyday occurrence.

But whenever we are present together in person, we are operating at an entirely different level. When we bring our actual bodies to a social experience, we are bringing something infinitely precious and vulnerable, which could never be replaced.

This kind of vulnerability inherently creates a unique form of social contract. For that reason alone, no on-line simulation, no matter how high fidelity, could ever give us the same feeling of togetherness.

Birthday boys

Wednesday, September 21st, 2022

Today has quite a few famous birthdays. My favorites are Stephen King, Chuck Jones, H.G. Wells and Leonard Cohen.

There is a part of me that wishes these geniuses could somehow get together and collaborate. Between their four different sensibilities, I am sure they would have created something wonderful.

Maybe they could make a movie called: Carrie versus Marvin the Martian in The War of the Worlds. Hallelujah!

I, for one, would pay to see that.

The movie would, of course, need the right leading actor. My vote would be for another genius whose birthday is today — Bill Murray.

What foods these morsels be

Tuesday, September 20th, 2022

Today would have been Jay Ward’s 102 birthday. He was the genius who used the animated tales of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota to delightfully warp the comic sensibility of an entire generation.

I imagine the Walt Disney company would like to be known as the great source of all that is wondrous in American animation. But nothing in the Disney canon can compare with the demented humor of Moose and Squirrel, their no-goodnik foes, Peabody and his pet boy, or a certain Canadian mountie.

Even after all these years, I can still hear all the lyrics of Super Chicken running through my head. I think that’s a good thing.

Jay, I know you have gone to that great Wassamatta U in the sky. But here on Earth, we need you more than ever.

Hate comments

Monday, September 19th, 2022

Sometimes I get comments on this blog that are filled with hate. I can’t know for sure what is the actual cause of that person’s rage, but in that moment they seem to think it’s me.

I suspect there is something about the internet that can trigger people to act like a bull seeing a red cape. They just charge at whatever is in front of them, horns out, without really thinking it through.

You never see those comments here, because I invariably filter them out. And their rage doesn’t really touch me either, because it’s clearly about something going on in their own head.

But I feel bad for them, and I feel bad about the possibility that the internet creates that sort of energy. Part of me wishes I could somehow help them, but a more cautious part of me knows better.