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Nothing Is More Mesmerizing Than This Traffic Simulator Gone Completely Wild

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If you ever wondered what a transportation planner’s fever dreams looked like, well here you go. This is what it looks like being on galaxy brain.

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smallfrogge
20 minutes ago
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Writer/director Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a sprawling, incident- and character-packed extravaganza that picks up at the end of “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens” and guides the series into unfamiliar territory. It’s everything a fan could want from a “Star Wars” film and then some. Even the sorts of viewers who spend the entire running time of movies anticipating every plot twist and crowing “called it!” when they get one right are likely to come up short here. But the surprises usually don’t violate the (admittedly loose) internal logic of the universe George Lucas invented, and when they seem to, it’s because the movie has expanded the mythology in a small but significant way, or imported a sliver of something from another variant of Lucas’ creation (Genddy Tartakovsky’s magnificent TV series “Clone Wars” seems to have influenced the last act).  

The first part of “The Last Jedi” cross-cuts between the remnants of our heroes’ ragtag fleet (led by the late Carrie Fisher’s Leia) running away from the First Order, aka the next-generation version of the Empire; and Rey (Daisy Ridley) on the aquatic planet Ahch-To (gesundheit!) trying to convince the self-exiled Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, whose sandblasted face becomes truly iconic in close-ups) to overcome his grief at failing a group of young Jedi trainees and rejoin the Resistance. The New Order's Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis plus CGI) has grand plans for both Rey and his Darth Vader-obsessed apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The leathery old coot may not be a great bad guy—he’s too much of a standard-issue deep-voiced sadist, in a Marvel mode—but he is quite the chess player, and so is Johnson.  

I’m being vague here on purpose. Suffice to say that, despite being comprised of variations on things we’ve been experiencing directly (in “Star Wars” films) and indirectly (in “Star Wars”-inspired entertainment) since 1977, “The Last Jedi” still manages to maneuver in unexpected ways, starting with the decision to build a whole film around a retreat where the goal is not to win but to avoid being wiped out. Along that narrative backbone “The Last Jedi” strings what amount to several tight, often hastily devised mini-missions, each of which either moves the heroes (or villains) closer to their goals or blows up in their faces. The story resolves in lengthy, consecutive climaxes which, refreshingly, don’t play like a cynical attempt to pad things out. Old business is resolved, new business introduced.

And from scene to scene, Johnson gives veteran characters (Chewbacca and R2-D2 especially) and those who debuted in “The Force Awakens” enough screen time to showcase them at their best while also introducing compelling new faces (including a heroic maintenance worker, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico; a serene and tough vice admiral in the Resistance, played by Laura Dern; a sort of “safecracker” character played by Benicio Del Toro). 

Johnson’s script does a better job than most sequels of giving the audience both what it wants and what it didn’t know it wanted. The movie leans hard into sentiment, most of it planted in the previous installment, some related to the unexpected passing of one of its leads (Fisher—thank goodness they gave her a lot of screen time here, and thrilling things to do). But whenever it allows a character to cry (or invites us to) the catharsis feels earned. It happens rather often—this being a film preoccupied with grieving for the past and transcending it, populated by hounded and broken people who are afraid hope will be snuffed out. 

Rey’s anguish at not knowing who her parents are and Kylo Ren’s trauma at killing his own father to advance toward his "destiny" literally as well as figuratively mirror each other. Lifting a bit of business glimpsed briefly in “The Empire Strikes Back” and "Return of the Jedi," Johnson lets these all-powerful characters telepathically “speak” to each other across space as easily as you or I might Skype with a friend. This gimmick offers so much potential for drama and wry humor that you might wonder why nobody did it earlier. 

Sometimes "The Last Jedi" violates our expectations in a cheeky way that stops short of telling super-fans to get over themselves. There’s a touch of “Spaceballs” and “Robot Chicken” to some of the jokes. Snoke orders Kylo to “take off that ridiculous helmet,” Luke chastises an old friend for showing a nostalgic video by muttering “That was a cheap move,” and an early gag finds one of the heroes calling the bridge of a star destroyer and pretending to be stuck on hold. This aspect adds a much-needed dash of self-deprecating humor (“The Force Awakens” was often a stitch as well, especially when Han Solo, Chewbacca, BB-8 and John Boyega’s James Garner-like hero/coward Finn were onscreen), but without going so meta that "The Last Jedi" turns into a smart-alecky thesis paper on itself.

The movie works equally well as an earnest adventure full of passionate heroes and villains and a meditation on sequels and franchise properties. Like “The Force Awakens,” only more so, this one is preoccupied with questions of legacy, legitimacy and succession, and includes multiple debates over whether one should replicate or reject the stories and symbols of the past. Among its many valuable lessons is that objects have no worth save for the feelings we invest in them, and that no individual is greater than a noble idea.

Johnson has made some very good theatrical features, but the storytelling here owes the most to his work on TV’s “Breaking Bad,” a playfully convoluted crime drama that approached each new installment like a street illusionist: no matter where you decided to fix your eyes, the source of delight was always in the hand you weren’t looking at. There are points where the film appears to have miscalculated or made an outright lame choice (this become worrisome in the middle, when Dern’s Admiral Holdo and Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron are at loggerheads), but then you realize that it was a setup for another payoff that lands harder because you briefly doubted that “The Last Jedi” does, in fact, know what it’s doing. 

This determination to split the difference between surprise and inevitability is encoded in “The Last Jedi” down to the level of scenes and shots. How many Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, Imperial walkers, lightsabers, escape pods, and discussions of the nature of The Force have we seen by now? Oodles. But Johnson manages to find a way to present the technology, mythology and imagery in a way that makes it feel new, or at least new-ish, starting with a shot of Star Destroyers materializing from hyperspace in the sky over a planet (as seen from ground level) and continuing through images of Rebel ships being raked apart by Imperial cannon fire like cans on a shooting range and, hilariously, a blurry video conference in which the goggle-eyed warrior-philosopher Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o) delivers important information while engaging in a shootout with unseen foes. (She calls it a “union matter.”) 

There’s greater attention paid here to color and composition than in any entry since “The Empire Strikes Back.” Particularly dazzling are Snoke’s throne room, with its Dario Argento-red walls and red-armored guards, and the final battle, set on a salt planet whose flat white surfaces get ripped up to reveal shades of crimson. (Seen from a distance, the battlefield itself seems to be bleeding.) The architecture of the action sequences is something to behold. A self-enclosed setpiece in the opening space battle is more emotionally powerful than any action sequence in any blockbuster this year, save the "No Man's Land" sequence of "Wonder Woman," and it's centered on a character we just met.  

There are spots where the film can’t figure out how to get the characters to where it needs them to be and just sort of shrugs and says, “And then this happened, now let’s get on with it.” But there are fewer such moments than you might have gone in prepared to forgive—and really, if that sort of thing were a cinematic crime, Howard Hawks would have gotten the chair. Most importantly, the damned thing moves, both in a plot sense and in the sense of a skilled choreographer-dancer who has visualized every millisecond of his routine and practiced it to the point where grace seems to come as easily as breathing. Or skywalking.     

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smallfrogge
1 day ago
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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What can possibly go wrong?

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AI assisted porn video is, it seems, now a thing. For those of you who don't read the links: you can train off-the-shelf neural networks to recognize faces (or other bits of people and objects) in video clips. You can then use the trained network to edit them, replacing one person in a video with a synthetic version of someone else. In this case, Rule 34 applies: it's being used to take porn videos and replace the actors with film stars. The software runs on a high-end GPU and takes quite a while—hours to days—to do its stuff, but it's out there and it'll probably be available to rent as a cloud service running on obsolescent bitcoin-mining GPU racks in China by the end of next week.

(Obvious first-generation application: workplace/social media sexual harassers just got a whole new toolkit.)

But it's going to get a whole lot worse.

What I'm not seeing yet is the obvious application of this sort of deep learning to speech synthesis. It's all very well to fake up a video of David Cameron fucking a goat, but without the bleating and mindless quackspeak it's pretty obvious that it's a fake. Being able to train a network to recognize the cadences of our target's intonation, though, and then to modulate a different speaker's words so they come out sounding right takes it into a whole new level of plausibility for human viewers, because we give credence to sensory inputs based on how consistent they are with our other senses. We need AI to get the lip-sync right, in other words, before today's simplistic AI-generated video porn turns really toxic.

(Second generation application: Hitler sums it up, now with fewer subtitles)

There are innocuous uses, of course. It's a truism of the TV business that the camera adds ten kilograms. And we all know about airbrushing/photoshopping of models on magazine covers and in adverts. We can now automate the video-photoshopping of subjects so that, for example, folks like me don't look as unattractive in a talking-heads TV interview. Pretty soon everyone you see on film or TV is going to be 'shopped to look sexier, fitter, and skinnier than is actually natural. It'll probably be built into your smartphone's camera processor in a few years, first a "make me look fit in selfies" mode and then a "do the same thing, only in video chat" option.

But with procedural speech mimicry on top of face/body substitution, all video evidence turns questionable. We can no longer believe the evidence of our own eyes and ears, unless we are in-person witnesses to a politician's speech. Everything becomes deniable, and in an age of state-sponsored infowar waged in social media it'll be trivially easy to discredit anyone. The political consequences of this toxic metastasis of "false news" I leave for discussion in comments.

And then things get surreal.

For a while now there's been a very weird phenomenon on YouTube, whereby popular childrens videos are pirated, remixed, and reuploaded as advertising delivery vehicles. The content and keywords on these ad-videos is largely algorithmically composed, and optimized for maximum eyeball draw. (The preceding link is long and deeply creepy in its implications: it's a must-read.) And when algorithms go hog-wild to maximize eyeballs and/or sales you get weird and unpleasant results like this:

Keep Calm and Rape A Lot - computer-generated tee shirt ad

(This came up because some idiot wrote a bot to sell tee shirts via Amazon, with the caption "Keep Calm and [X][Y]" where [Y and [Y] are phrases some sort of machine learning system scraping lists of verbs and pronouns. Most of the output was random gibberish, or inoffensive at worst: the same can't be said of "Keep Calm and Knife Her" or "Keep Calm and Rape A Lot". It's possible the perpetrators don't speak or read English; this is a side-effect of machine learning tools gone feral.)

Maximizing views is easy if you decide to go for the shock value. Spamming YouTube keywords for ad revenue? Also possible. The point is, we're close to going beyond simple recaptioning/keyword addition of pirated kids' cartoons, and getting into AI-assisted remixes of real people with TV/movies/game content, optimized to compel the viewer to watch it. Forget troll armies harassing people they don't like by 'shopping their heads onto snuff movie victims and posting this on social media (so that if you naively go searching for person X, your first thousand hits are videos of person X committing horrific acts or being dismembered). Once we combine procedural video generation with toolkits for promoting social media addiction and good old web tracking, we're on course to all be parasitized by our own AI stalkers, helpfully generating video and other content tweaked iteratively to compel us to pay attention, whether due to arousal, disgust, happiness, fear, or whatever. It doesn't matter how insanely CPU-intensive this sort of application is: some dipshit with no social insight and an underdeveloped sense of morality is going to deploy it in an attempt to monetize us. The low hanging fruit is procedural porn tailored to appeal to the micro-targeted audience's kinks, even if they don't think they have any (use A/B testing to see which random fetish images get their attention, then converge). What are the high-end applications, beside destroying all trust in news media forever?

Discuss.

(PS: This blog entry was delayed because I needed to finish and formally submit "The Labyrinth Index". Which is now with the editors at Tor.com and Orbit. Phew!)

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smallfrogge
2 days ago
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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brennen
1 day ago
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Yep.
Boulder, CO

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Apes

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
In fact, I'm gonna time travel and kill baby you.

New comic!
Today's News:
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ameel
1 day ago
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Melbourne, Australia
smallfrogge
2 days ago
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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"I’m like ‘the Tea Party is racist’ and my friend is like ‘Kamau, you can’t call the Tea Party..."

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I’m like ‘the Tea Party is racist’ and my friend is like ‘Kamau, you can’t call the Tea Party racist. They’re not all racist.’ And I was like, you know what, I don’t need the Tea Party to be 100% racist for me to feel perfectly fine calling them racist. I don’t need 100% racism in the group. It could be way less than 100%. 10% is plenty for me. If the Tea Party is 10% racist I feel comfortable labeling the whole group racist.

Let me explain how that works. If I offer you a shake, a milkshake. I say ‘would you like a milkshake?’ You go “yeah, sure I’d like a milkshake.” I go, ‘okay, here you go, but just so you know it’s 10% shit.’

Oh, now you suddenly you understand how it works. 10% is kinda a lot ain’t it. You go ‘uh oh, that’s too much shit in my shake.



- W. Kamau Bell on the Tea Party and Race
(via themushroomblues)
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smallfrogge
3 days ago
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
ameel
3 days ago
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Melbourne, Australia
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tehzii: thelibrawrian: i was thinking about the weirdest phone calls i got when i still worked at...

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tehzii:

thelibrawrian:

i was thinking about the weirdest phone calls i got when i still worked at the public library and i remembered this one phone call. it was probably less than 20 seconds long, but it still makes me laugh.

anyways, this woman called and without even saying hello after i said the usual “public library, how can i help you?” spiel, she said, “i have a very important question: when you shelve books, do you push them all to the front of the shelf or all the way back?”

it took me a second to process the question and then i answered that, at the library, we always shelve them so that they are even with the front edge so they’re easier to grab and see. she was obviously delighted by this answer and then, as if an afterthought, she asked, “okay, what about you? what do you do at home with your books?” i said i did the same thing. she hummed in obvious agreement and then just like that she said “thank you!” and hung up.

i never heard from her again. i hope she won whatever argument she was having.

for about a year, i worked at a call center for sprint. i have a similar kind of story.

a woman called, and said she had a question about the call history on her bill. “sure, let me just pull up your account-” and she cut me off going, “no, no, it’s not anything specific, it’s just. so, if you change the time on your phone, does that change the time on the bill?”

“uh… no? the time on the phone doesn’t matter, the call history is recorded by the towers.”

“ohhhh” she said in the saltiest voice i have ever heard “so even if you changed the timezone it wouldn’t change the time on the bill? to, say, the middle of the night?”

i stg yall i looked into the camera like i was on the office. “um… no? it would still be the local time of the tower. is there anything else i can help you with?”

to me, overly chipper: “nope! thank you! have a great day!” turning on someone as she hung up: “she says yoU’RE A LYING SACK OF-”

i still mean-snicker every time i think about it.

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Nadezh
3 days ago
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Melbourne, Australia
smallfrogge
3 days ago
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
ameel
3 days ago
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Melbourne, Australia
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