Friday, January 20, 2023

Your Robot Overlords Await 


Do AI bots dream of a electric sheep?

There's been a lot of chatter lately about great advances in AI, or Artificial Intelligence. Especially around ChatGPT (an advanced conversational chatbot) and a couple of art-generating bots. I tried them. I was surprised by the results but not, you know, overwhelmed or shocked that this spells the end of humanity. The way these kinds of AI improve is by "learning" (whatever that means for software) from existing data. Having access to good data seems to be a big problem from the simplest algorithm to the most complex AI. I know from creating applications that access to meaningful data can be expensive. You can write software that can use Twitter data to accurately find the location of an earthquake, given that you have a lot of Twitter users near where the earthquake hit, and that you can use all that Twitter data. Basically, if a lot of people are talking about an event on their phones that give their location, you can see where the greatest impact of the earthquake occurred. If another earthquake struck in the middle of the Sahara and there is just one guy out there, on a camel, with no phone to post to Twitter, well then, good luck locating the centre of that earthquake.


Images created by AI can be as spectacular and imaginative as the creators can imagine. See more at brutalist.ai and alternatehistory.ai

The art was impressive but that was because of the original art the AI learned from. Most of what was generated seemed more like a really well executed Photoshop script. I don't mean that as derisively as it sounds. If I did a lot of Photoshop work, I'd love a bot to help me cut on the production time. This is sort of my point. The "intelligence" of Artificial Intelligence feels a whole lot more like immensely quick recall and filling in templates very well. I'm not sure that's the kind of intelligence that replaces people. To be fair, there are a lot of people who are being paid to do repetitive work, filling in templates and doing a lot of recall who could probably be replaced by this kind of AI. What I suppose most are surprised about these recent examples is the perceived creativity, but that would be a mistake. The creativity you see in the artwork is coming not from the AI but from the artists the AI learned to mimic and the prompts a human is giving the AI to generate the work in the first place. A big component of human intelligence and creativity is intuition. Mind you, if someone creates an Artificial Intuition engine, well then, I too, along with paralegals and financial analysts who've already been replaced by AI and sophisticated algorithms, would be quaking in my boots.

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Sunday, January 15, 2023

Messing About 


Leonard Cohen knew the value of solitude.

Blessed with one extra day of vacation, what would you do? I can tell you what I did. January 3, should have been the first day back to work, but my company has added four additional vacation days over a year called a "Day for Me". You can work if you like (not bloody likely), or take a class or do whatever. It's your day. I began it by sleeping in, an act of both defiance and denial. I slipped downstairs to find Julia had already made a pot of coffee. This was followed by two clementines, the most seasonal of citrus, though nowadays you can get them any time, they remain one of my favourite Christmas traditions. This was followed by some oatmeal and a small piece of chocolate (I was still on holiday after all). I had two small errands to run so of course, I steeled my reserve with a brief after-breakfast nap.

I then set out to pick up a print job from a local office supply place, return home with it (too large to carry around for the day), then off to return two small unwanted items to a downtown Ikea. A modern day rewrite of both Homer's and Joyce's Ulysees would have included an Ikea labour. Once there, unexpectedly, it wasn't so busy and it seemed necessary to enjoy a cinnamon roll with a glass of "nordic drink" (purportedly lingonberry flavour).

Once again refreshed, I continued on to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the exhibit of Leonard Cohen's photos, writing, music and art. It was surprisingly busy. The joy of having a day off that no one else does, usually means you have most public places to yourself. Not so much on this day. Despite the crowded galleries, the restaurant was relaxingly sparse and it was lovely to have a full table to myself and enjoy a meal with only the side dishes as company. Once I left the cloistered quiet of the gallery's bistro, I rejoined the masses in the streets. Even the streetcars had returned full to the brim with the riding public.

As new years go, I recommend everyone begin with a day only for yourself. Unless of course, all of your days are to yourself, in which case, perhaps seek some companionship at least one day. There is undoubtedly a difference between solitude and loneliness. One is chosen, the other, presumably, is imposed. Leonard Cohen certainly valued the work he did alone in a room or by an open window or sitting in a café. A quote from Cohen in the exhibit was, to paraphrase, "the archive is the mountain and the published work, the volcano", which I took as meaning the mountainous accumulation of work you do in private, that no one ever sees, still informs whatever you reveal to the public. There is the value of solitude. For me, solitude isn't necessarily leaving behind everything to think quietly in a cave, but simply moments you take for yourself. I realized recently when simply walking on your own, you decide when the break between the cars is enough to dash across the street, which is not something you do when walking with others. A holiday like Christmas is seen as a cherished time to spend with family, so much so that Newfoundlanders invented Tibb's Eve to have a night out with friends before all that fam-time. I like to sprinkle days off in the year just for me. Of course, this may be considered selfish to parents with little kids, but that just shows the unusual luxury of time to yourself. There are plenty of ways I like spending a day: at a gallery, a bookstore, a bike shop, or even doing laundry or just napping. Some ways I measure the success of those days for me are how long I spent the day without wearing my glasses, which for me are worn mostly while working at the computer or how long I went without looking at a watch or clock. When you've spent a day not caring about time you've probably had a good day.

After my Day for Me my only real regret was that it wasn't a "Month for Me". It might seem a bit much to think of having more time off immediately following having time off, but as I have said before, (to quote a certain rat in literature, who I now consider my spirit animal), I can't think of anything more important than simply messing about.

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Saturday, January 14, 2023

Seen in December 


Mysterious cloud formation in Nope. All images via The Movie DB.

There was a time in Christmases past, when I would walk down to Film Buff Video and take advantage of their 5-disc, one-week rental deal. I'd usually get a couple of popular blockbusters, a couple of classics and one, if not more, serious "art" films. One year I watched, Kung Fu Panda, Ran, Andrei Rublev, My Man Godfrey, His Girl Friday, Our Man in Havana, Sullivan's Travels, and It Happened One Night. I guess that year I was watching a lot more older films than blockbusters. At Christmas I tend to enjoy watching old favourites, like a bunch of Bond films, The Harry Potter series or The Lord of the Rings. Yet this year, after watching only one LOTR we realised that watching over nine hours of films excludes nine hours from everything else on the "watch and/or To Do list", so we ditched it and moved on. A wise decision it was, my Precious.


Breaking and re-making black cat stereotypes in Luck.

Luck
Apple TV+

Sam, a young woman who grew up in an orphanage, has perhaps the worst luck in the world. Yet, for all her terrible luck, all she wants is a little good luck for her young friend back at the orphanage to find her "forever family". Despite her bad luck (which, if I'm being honest seems a whole lot more like clumsiness and lack of spatial awareness), she finds a lucky penny, which she immediately loses. While trying to recover the blessed coin she stumbles (fortunately) into the Land of Luck. Here's where her adventure really begins. As far as kids movies go, this is as fun and thoughtful as anything you might expect from former Pixar directors, producers, writers who have now set up shop at Apple. I thought the premise was a bit weak but they still made an entertaining film. But I'm more from the sports school of "Luck" - you've got to be lucky to be good, and good to be lucky with a dash of "some people make their own luck".

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
Disney+

OK. I can't believe I watched this, but on watching it, I was more surprised they made it. The Marvel folks made an hour long Christmas-themed show with the characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy but don't despair nor get too excited. The premise is Mantis (Pom Klementieff) wants to provide Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) with the ultimate Earth Christmas so she convinces Drax (Dave Bautista) to travel to Earth to bring back Peter's idol, Kevin Bacon. There's comedy, sci-fi action and most importantly and somehow unexpectedly, singing. While this is no Star Wars Holiday Special (which is famously cheesy and terrible) it still is a bit too silly to be anything other than the odd curiosity that it is. I was going to say it was a "cash grab" but as this special clearly cost a bundle to make, and went straight to Disney's streaming service I have no idea exactly what cash there was to grab.


A one-eyed doctor, a nurse/heiress and a Black American Lawyer walk into a bar…in Amsterdam

Amsterdam
Disney+

Listed on some "worst films of the year" lists, I can still find plenty to recommend here. One serious problem is the distractingly large number of cameos (Chris Rock, Taylor Swift, Timothy Oliphant, Ana Taylor Joy, Rami Malek, to mention a few) in the cast from this film by David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook and many others). Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie star as three friends who bonded during their time recovering from the War in Europe (WWI). Robbie and Washington briefly enjoy a romantic bi-racial relationship that while tolerated in Amsterdam would be unacceptable in the States. Bale is a Jewish doctor whose own eccentricities have seen him fall out with his fiancé's father and respectable Manhattan medical circles. Through their fundraising and activism of veteran's rights the trio stumble into a fascist plot to overthrow the American government which is more of a backdrop to some madcap adventures than saying anything interesting. It's fine enough entertainment even it fails to provide anything deeper and it doesn't deserve to be considered on any "worst films" list.

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Saturday, December 17, 2022

Seen in November 


Inside the New York Public library. 

Does it seem late to say what I saw in November, mid-way through Decemeber? Pish posh, hang it all, old chaps, this is what I saw in that dreary dark month and there may be something for you to find here.


Ex Libris: The New York Public Library
Kanopy

Despite its three-hour plus runtime this fly-on-the-wall documentary is a fascinating reminder of the scope and scale of the New York City Library. This film may appeal city-builder urbanists and book nerds but the American filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is a master of letting a scene tell its own story. The feeling of immersion, of really being in the room, may lead yourself to excusing your own coughs or sneezes for fear of interrupting whoever is speaking in the scene.

Across & Down
CBC Gem

Word nerd alert. If you do a lot of crossword puzzles, especially ones from American or British sources, you quickly see how important culture is to solving the puzzle. The same is true of creating a puzzle. This documentary shifts from the creation of puzzles to the creators and why wider, more diverse representation counts. While talking about representation of people of colour, or diverse genders or sexuality in the creation of crosswords sounds like the ultimate example of "political correctness", it's really more about the inclusivity of language and popular culture in general. When you think of it that way, why would word games be exempt?

See How They Run
Disney+

What to say. It's a murder mystery set around a long running production of the play Mousetrap. Yet, it's one of those plays, inside a play inside movie type of things. It has a wonderful cast of terribly miscast actors. Sam Rockwell has never been so unbelievable as a tired, jaded London detective. His accent is neither here, there or anywhere. I'm not familiar with the director but more often than not it looks as though they are mining the well-dug soil of Wes Anderson. So many scenes have the Anderson pastiche that it feels close to parody. The murder mystery trope is ripe for comedy and there are plenty of good throwaway lines here but despite a pretty production, it's mostly throwaway.


California. 1970s.

Licorice Pizza
Amazon Prime

This is a perhaps not entirely appropriate love story set in 1970s California, between a fifteen-year-old actor and a twenty-five-year-old who still hasn't figured out her life. What she has figured out is that she should not be falling for a teen-ager. Yet, there she is, drawn to this kid's indisputable charms. Imagine the gender roles were reversed and just how icky it would all be if say, a brightly mature 15-year-old Natalie Portman were trying to catch the eye of an adrift a 30-something Timothy Hutton (as was the case in Beautiful Girls) and you can see the weirdness. The difference was in Beautiful Girls, Hutton's character sees the teen-age Portman as a fascination who is far too young to thinking about someone such as himself, and tries to navigate her interest thoughtfully and carefully whereas in this film, love, despite its roadblocks, eventually blooms. This is the latest film by American P.T. Anderson and it has a very Punch Drunk Love feel to it but also touches on a kind of nostalgia Anderson holds for California of the 1970s where he grew up. I'm not sure what the film is about really. Celebrity? Fads? Opportunity? In the end, it's mostly about, the heart wants what the heart wants.

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Monday, November 21, 2022

A Disease of its Own Kind 


Tormentors in the eighth circle of hell? Yes, that seems about right.

They call it chronic spontaneous idiopathic cholinergic urticaria.

Chronic, meaning, you’ve got it for good, mate.

Spontaneous, meaning it can happen at any time.

Idiopathic, meaning without rhyme or reason.

Cholinergic, relating to nerve cells.

Urticaria, that’s the hives bit.

Put it together and what have you got? Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. No, you do not have bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. You’ve got terrible hives that can happen any time, without a reason, forever. That’s what I’ve got. I recently read about a woman’s experience with this strange condition that essentially is your immune system going all batty, firing off an allergic reaction to things that shouldn’t cause allergic reactions. Things like cold, heat, vibrations, loud noises, looking at goldfish for too long… OK not that one, but all the others, yes. What I could relate to more than anything in this article wasn’t the hives itself, or the confusion of why she was getting them, or even the suddenness of its appearance, what I could really relate to more than any of that, was how trivial everyone else seemed to treat it. Not just that being a bit itchy was trivial, but that the whole thing was somehow funny, unlikely, unbelievable and completely misunderstood. No matter how many times she told people, and no matter how she explained how she felt, the closest anyone came to anything approaching understanding what she was going through was confusion and disbelief.

I’ve described the worst of my hives as some kind of strange electrical storm that took over my skin and was a combination of psoriasis, eczema, the worst sunburn you’ve ever had, with occasional bouts of being attacked by murder hornets. I would be lying if I said there weren’t moments I was brought to tears, panic, and sheer anger. There was a period of several months where I doubt I slept more than an hour at any time. Weirdly, I thank all the gods for the pandemic because just as the world came to a standstill, when were were told to stay inside, avoid other people and when work slowed to a crawl, that was exactly what I needed. When wearing clothing is painful, or you are embarrassed by just how much of your skin is falling off your forehead, or when your eyelashes are full of dead skin, or your arms are covered in claw marks like telltale signs of self-harm, the one thing you don’t want to do, is see other people. Other people can go to hell.

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Monday, November 07, 2022

Craving Comfort 


Ratty is here to tell you, it will be alright.

One day last week, a migraine settled its haze over me and I submitted to it. I didn't need a weighted blanket but a warm compress and time to lie still were my self-care techniques.

When I emerged from the spider hole of my head, still groggy, I craved fat, salt, and sugar or a remedy I call The Cure. I ordered a bacon cheese burger with fries and immediately purchased a packaged cupcake. I'm not sure why, but despite feeling queasy from the pain in my head, I usually feel like vomiting at the sight of fresh fruit, or gagging at the thought of a green salad, but my mouth waters for anything greasy, salty or sweet. Then, once sated, I can sink further into the couch and listen to a podcast or watch a familiar film.

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