44

Archive for Commentary

Overturning Half-Orc Stereotypes

I’m still pretty sick but that sometimes gives me time to think about stupid stuff while I wait for my face to implode from the sinus pressure. Last night, around 3 AM, I got to thinking about the stereotypical half-orc background story from the olden days, and discovered what I think is a fatal flaw.

(CW: rape)

Right, so, I don’t remember where I read it, but in the 1st edition AD&D days, half-orcs typically had the following “origin story.” The mother was a human who was raped by raiding orcs. The half-orc grew up despised by his human family and neighbors, and set out as an adventurer to find a world where they could fit in. Tired, right? Boring, and offensive, too.

But, this origin story doesn’t work, because I posit that human women would have a very difficult time giving birth to half-orc babies, due to their size and stature, much like how there are some theories about the difficulty of homo sapiens mothers having half-neandertal babies (This might be an actual thing or it might just be something I half-remember from Clan of the Cave Bear). Such pregnancies would often result in death of the mother and baby, given the state of medicine. Magic would most likely need to intervene.

So what if we turn the equation on its head? Half-orc mother, and human father? Ah, now things get way more interesting. I don’t want to get any further into the distasteful subject above, but with these roles reversed, I find consent much more achievable, and the opposite, er, not.

With beauty standards stereotypically being very different between orcs and humans, you can pretty safely bet: half-orc children are the product of loving couples of human men who are into death by snu-snu and orc women who are into the orcish equivalent of 90 lb weakling nerds. Half-orcs must grow up well-loved in orc culture – can you imagine someone telling an orcish mother that her baby “isn’t an orc?” That someone would not last long. Half-orcs are not “half” anything to orcs in their own society. They’re just orcs. Human are responsible for that “half” nonsense.

So half-orc grow up in stable, loving homes, supported and accepted by their society, and they set out to adventure on a grand tour of human society out of curiosity as much as anything else. Experiencing half-orc discrimination probably comes as a huge surprise to them.

Anyway, a bit of a touchy subject with some very unpleasant tropes, but it paints an entirely different picture of people of orcish descent for me.

Permalink

person wearing brown and black mask

Commentary

Taking the Bus

I’m generally pro-public transportation in theory, but I never take public transportation in my town (a town of just shy of 100,000 people, last I checked). There’s a combination of reasons, but it’s mostly about convenience. I own cars and can drive exactly when I want to straight to my destination. However, in 2023, all bus rides in my town are free.

I was curious just how long it would take me to get from my home to our lovely downtown area with many shops, restaurants, and bars. According to google maps, I can walk there in 38 minutes. I can drive there in six minutes. Or I can get there via bus if I walk half a mile to a bus stop to get picked up and arrive in 25 minutes, after waiting 20 minutes from now for the bus to come. I believe the half-mile walk is already factored into the 25 minute travel time.

That’s really not that bad, and if I were retired or unemployed, I would probably not mind the shuffle to get to my destination. During a busy work day, I don’t think I could do it because time is money blah blah blah, but I think I’m going to make it a goal to ride the bus at least once this year in my town while the state is footing the bill.

I think for public transportation to really take off in a town my size and have any scalable impact on the environment, we’ll need more routes more frequently, and probably restrictions on car driving to balance out that convenience factor. I’m not very optimistic. I imagine we’ll restrict driving by car in Kansas just about when Hell freezes over, much like we’ll probably be the last state to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes.

Permalink

bus on road near railing

Commentary

It’s a new year! Time to bring back blogging.

Do you remember what the internet was like before Facebook and Twitter ruined changed it? I’ve been thinking a lot about it; I’ve distilled my thoughts into the following generalizations:

  • Longer form. Blogs and journals were our primary means of sharing our thoughts prior to social media, so people often took more time to develop those thoughts and opinions. Facebook and Twitter are engineered to make you post in shorter length with higher frequency. Blogging has always resembled more like the blank page in the typewriter and less like a tiny texting screen on your phone.
  • Meaningful interactions. Prior to the like button, the only way you could interact with someone else’s ideas was to post a comment. Interactions were more rare, but generally more meaningful and contributed to the discourse. Comments aren’t perfect; anyone who has ever scrolled too far on a YouTube video knows that. But comments are more meaningful than likes and reacts generally speaking.
  • More intimate. This one seems a bit paradoxical to me, but I felt like the era of blogging was more intimate that the era of social media. My thinking goes like this: before we developed a way to “live” performatively online, blogs only had journaling and diaries to draw on for a format, so the writing was more personal and raw. There was less of an emphasis on performing your life and more of an act of interrogating it. It was far riskier, but it’s almost like we didn’t know any better.
  • Less groupthink. Blogs weren’t connected to a vast network that made sharing its content 100x more rapid, so it was easier to find corner thinkers, people who came at ideas a little differently. Social media like Twitter especially moves very fast and outlier ideas very quickly are “corrected” by the mainstream through dragging and canceling. I’m not saying I want to read a bunch of racist bullshit, but the lack of nuance means some interesting ideas get strangled before they have time to be explored.

This is not exhaustive. There are definitely ways in which social media is superior to blogging (immediacy is good sometimes). You won’t see me abandoning my social media platforms despite the incessant bitching about them I’ve been known to engage in. They have their uses! But blogging has its uses too. I want to reconnect with my own ideas and my own words in my own space. I want to slow down. This is where I think I can do that best.

In 2020, I expect to blog often professionally and personally. I have some general ideas about how often that will be, but I don’t want to set up myself up for public failure. “Often” is all I will say. As always, feel free to comment below with your own thoughts. Happy New Year!

May we all get the change we deserve.

Permalink

I Trained a Neural Network With the Titles of 3,500 Horror Movies

It’s funny what kinds of things can spark you into going down a rabbit hole and losing an evening of your time to some creative concept. The following conversation inspired me to finally learn something I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

Steve: First up on my Shudder playlist is Prince of Darkness, Sennentuntschi, The Old Dark House, VIY, The Changeling, The Beyond, Monster Party, Revenge, Phantasm Ravager.

Jeremy: You are just making those names up!

Jeremy: I kind of want to train a neural net to make horror movie titles now.

It turns out that with a little minor programming knowledge and some general technical know-how, you can build a neural network and train it off of text pretty easily. This Lifehacker article got me started. I got textgenrnn installed and up and running pretty easily, but the hardest part was figuring out how I was going to build my database of titles.

Luckily, the hard-working people behind Wikipedia had collated tables of movie titles throughout the decades. Copying and pasting a single column of an HTML table isn’t easily accomplished, except I found a Chrome extension that made it simple. From that, I began the laborous process of going through each year and decade and about an hour later, I had 3,500 horror movie titles to serve as grist for my neural mill. I just used all the titles from the 1940s onward that were in Wikipedia. I imagine there are many missing from my dataset, but it seemed large enough to work from.

I trained it on 10 epochs and played around with a temperature score from .5 to 1.0 (anything higher than 1.0 resulted in complete nonsense, and oddly, the rare actual title). Some of the results were awesome. Some were funny. Anyway, enough about methodology. You want to see some of the titles! Here are some of my favorites out of about 110 that I kept.

Top Ten Cool/Want to Actually See Or Possiblly Write

  • Nervosis
  • Cat Mantis!
  • Primal in the Red Wicks
  • A Vampire’s Dead on Elsion
  • Stigmatary
  • Or, Vampire for the World of Grave
  • The Nine Shelley
  • Eat the Night
  • The Chainsaw Mentor
  • Creep Baseball

Top Ten Funny (Or At Least They Made Me Laugh)

  • The Terror of Part II: The Dead Row
  • Lake Bad Haunted Hunter
  • Serial Sister
  • Stard vs. Piss
  • The Night Babes from Maris
  • Shark 2
  • Hot Ransomer
  • Don’t Comb Your Soul
  • Lips from the Wizard
  • Pirhana 33DD (I spit out my soda when I saw this one)

Some of these, for all I know, may be actual titles, but I tried to check them against my master list.

Which ones are your favorites?

Photo by Pelly Benassi on Unsplash

Permalink

Life Cycle of the Common Parking Lot Sandberg

When I was a boy, I loved the archipelagos that formed in parking lots towards the end of winter and the dawn of spring. Murky, sand-drenched snow-islands accreted around every lamp post, existing in defiance of air temperatures thanks to their composition of half grit, half ice.

They seemed towering, ephemeral Everests that demanded conquering. Often my siblings and I would try to climb them to the chagrin of my parents who only wanted us to get in the damned car so they could get home after a long day.

As spring bounded on each year, the islands wore ever downward, the warming tide against their shores, until nothing remained but a sea of asphalt left pocked by potholes. But for a brief few weeks, there they dwelled in the K-Mart lot, a temporary geography ripe for imagination, calling to be explored and to be dreamed larger than they really were.

Permalink

Some Thoughts on Solitude

I recently sat down to watch the first episode of Maniac on Netflix.  and I was struck by a line in the opening narration that went:

It’s quite terrible to be alone.

In truth, I was only half-paying attention up until that line to the rambling, philosophical notions espoused by the unnamed and unseen narrator in those early moments, but that line made me sit up and take notice because of simply how wrong I found it.

“There is the thought,” I said aloud to nobody because I was alone in the house in a rare moment, “of a person who doesn’t have small children.”  The kind of profundity issued by someone who has been able to use a toilet in silence more than once in the past four years. Parenting is a wonderful thing that has enriched my life in many ways, but one thing it takes away from you rather quickly is the option to be alone very often.

In solitude, I think we find ourselves best. You truly get to know yourself with only yourself for company; alone, we wear no masks for the show of others. We do not find ourselves moving along with the crowd while entertaining silent, private doubts.  Solitude is a form of nakedness, and I think for some, it’s absolutely essential from time to time.

I find my ability to truly be alone has weakened in this era of social media, however. Thanks to the internet, we can always distract ourselves with socializing in some way.  My early mental picture of the internet was a vast library, but anymore, it looks like an enormous coffee shop full of chattering patrons.  To be truly alone anymore, I have to discard all my devices and rough it out.  It’s uncomfortable at first, but it usually leads to some deep reflection that I need.

Consider me a champion for solitude, at least in moderation (like all things). And hell, I try to give it as a gift to those I love.  For Mother’s Day, I give my wife a day of solitude.  A day with me and the boy she can have any time!  We go on an adventure and let her rest with her thoughts in peace.  My wish for you is to find that time for yourself now and then.

Permalink

Thoughts on Nature

I went for a walk at the Baker Wetlands this morning. I’ve driven out there a couple of times before, and it usually makes me feel conflicted.

The Wetlands I spent countless hours working at in high school are gone. The place isn’t really recognizable to me at all, thanks to the SLT. I remember most the paths among the line of trees at the northern edge, and that’s mostly gone now, bulldozed for progress, or cut off from the proper wetlands by the highway.

Initially, coming back out here made me feel sad. So many of the nature landmarks from my early life are now strip malls or highways. But the new wetland does actually seem quite a bit bigger, and it teems with wildlife. (more…)

Permalink

Ready Player One wasn’t unmitigated garbage, but it wasn’t that plausible either

I finally got down to the local cinemaplex to take in a viewing of White Nerd Fantasies: The Future part one.  Based on the general backlash to the book that’s been circulating online, I expected that the movie would continue the weird 80s nostalgia excesses of the book (which I frankly loved, despite acknowledging its problematic aspects). The book and the movie don’t share a lot of similarities in that regard.  The soundtrack seemed to be the primary place that called out the 80s. There were plenty of more modern references and cameos to be seen as well but I think visual references seem a lot less obnoxious than those on the written page.  I expected to find a much more off-putting movie than I did, so I was pleasantly entertained, and indeed, part of me was thrilled.  I’ve had a personal fascination with virtual reality since the 9th grade, when I spent the year writing a research paper on it. I’ve waited my whole life for virtual reality to be taken this seriously, and it took seeing it up there on the big screen to realize just how ridiculous a future including something like the OASIS really seems.

The first barrier you’d have to get over for wide-spread adoption of something like VR as depicted in this film is the “ridiculous” effect.  People participating in VR look absolutely insane to those who don’t have a screen strapped to their face. The movie played up this effect to great impact, intercutting between dramatic action-filled moments in virtual reality with the real world ridiculousness of people in black lycra suits waving around frantically.  Not impossible to overcome, but definitely something that hampers the development of an OASIS.

The second barrier is the idea that anyone would spend that much time playing the same thing for more than a few months. Take a look at the “free to play” games list on Steam sometime.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of games on there, some of which are being played at any given time by sixty people at most.  The diversification of options means getting a large crowd onto the same service or “planet” or whatever you want to call them seems impossible and absurd.   There would be a dozen or more OASISes and most of them would look like ghost towns.  An awful lot of people would be holed up in private creations, probably.  IOI would have just created their own competing simulation platform.

Also,  the film kind of portrays a wide web of people who seem to ignore those closest to them in favor of distant connections.  While this is a life some of us do indeed live, the majority of people use the connectedness of the internet and social media to stay in touch with people that live near them, that are already important in their lives.  Not an awful lot of people seem to use social media to connect to random strangers.  They use it to reinforce the bonds they already have.  So social media, not gaming, makes up a good chunk of internet usage.  We don’t really see that in this future.  Perhaps it’s there off camera?

Virtual reality, as I grow older, seems like the bizarre fantasy of social misfits and shut-ins who want to be isolated, but still have life experiences.  “Wouldn’t it be great if we could climb a mountain without actually leaving our house?” Why would that be great?  I understand the appeal if you are, for instance, disabled, but for the relatively average person, I suspect the experience will always pale to the real thing because as Halliday says in the movie, it’s not real. Realness matters and will continue to matter until they’re plugging our brains directly into a simulation, which I’m not sure will ever truly be possible (but who knows).   It’s like androids. Androids don’t make much sense to me except in a few rare instances.  Why make artificial people who are indistinguishable from people when you have a surplus of… actual people around who could really use something to do?

Don’t get me wrong – I still see utility in virtual reality as a tech innovation, and maybe one day I will actually own my own gear, but I suspect it will mostly be a niche experience.

Finally, my main complaint is that the future in the film projects the apathy of Generation X onto new generations that have as of yet not displayed any of the apathy that seems necessary to give us the RPO future.  Today’s teens seem far more engaged in trying to change the world than the rest of us.  That alone makes RPO’s future seem pretty implausible.  The #NeverAgain kids are pretty unlikely to lose themselves to spending all their time playing games on Planet Doom.  The kids are alright.  I don’t think they’re going to let this happen, and I for one look forward to how they’re going to make visions of the future like this one utterly obsolete.

Permalink

Filling in the Cinematic Gaps: Goodfellas (1990)

One of my favorite things in this cruel and uncaring world is to watch a movie in the theater, followed not too far down the list by watching a movie at home after my preschooler has finally gone to $*%#ing sleep. Lately, inspired by my friend Marc’s deep dive into cinema, I’ve been working to fill in the gaps in my cinematic experiences when I can find the time. The latest hole to be patched was Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

I’ve seen plenty of gangster movies and maybe a dozen episodes of the Sopranos, but it’s never been a genre in which I’ve taken a strong interest. Obviously I tend to go for things that are a bit less grounded in reality, and I’m not particularly a big fan of Al Pacino or Robert De Niro, who seem to have acted or starred in 95% of all modern gangster movies.

Gangsters in this genre make me uneasy in the same way I suspect sharks make other people nervous. They’re unpredictable, dangerous, and deadly. Their deadliness makes it hard for me to watch stories about them because I spend the whole time waiting for them to come through the screen and whack me and my whole family. You might think this is odd because I like crime and heist movies. In those movies, the characters are less often murderers and more the thieving kind, and I find that less threatening and uncomfortable. Let’s face it: an awful lot of gangster movies end in an orgy of murder and mayhem.

That said, I overcame my discomfort long enough to sit through Goodfellas and generally, I’m glad I did. This is an oddly placed film in time, having come out in 1990, but it feels very much like an 80s or 70s film rather than a 90s one. The film grain, the acting, and the music choices anchor it in an earlier era, and as the film drifts from the 50s into the early 80s, it never quite stopped holding on to its earliest time periods.

One thing that stood out in the early chapters was how Scorsese leans hard on a freeze frame narrative device, in which Ray Liotta’s character can pontificate about his past without the film’s action running ahead of him. It’s an odd technique that I don’t recall him utilizing nearly so often in his other pictures. It had the overall impact of slowing down the picture to start, which may well have been his intent. At 146 minutes, it felt at times more like a solid 180+ minute picture.

A big surprise for me was that Ray Liotta was the real lead of this picture. Everything about this movie that had drifted into my general pop culture knowledge involved Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro. Many of the lines of dialogue that were likely strong, memorable moments to original viewing have long since been milked of any vitality by the parodies that have followed (especially Pesci’s infamous scene where he busts Liotta’s balls over a simple compliment to the point where we soon fear violence will break out).  Liotta’s performance as a somewhat dim-witted and at-times decent man contrasted well with his co-stars, and served as a strong narrator who at times faded a little too much in the background against his more colorful co-stars.

The stand-out performance here was Joe Pesci’s, of course. I loathed Pesci’s character from the first minute he was on screen until he finally took a bullet. Pesci’s performance here was great, definitely the kind of thing he specialized in for years–characters that you absolutely loved to hate.  Pesci absolutely earned his Best Supporting Oscar in this picture, and as time goes on, his performance as that unhinged and unpredictable man will linger even as other memories of Goodfellas will fade.

If I had to summarize this movie, I would say: it’s about sharks in suits who spend a lot of time treating women like shit and then come to morally appropriate ends. It’s not a masterpiece of cinema like The Godfather and it’s not probably even as memorable a movie overall as even Casino. Scorsese’s ability to get memorable acting work out of these actors in goodfella wise-guy roles is on display here as usual, but structurally, and from a story-telling standpoint, it doesn’t stand up to the test of time. It ranks in the middle of Scorese’s oeuvre for me, but that’s still better than an awful lot of cinema out there.

Permalink

Deepfakes Will Destroy Our Society, but Let’s Talk About the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Foundations Instead

Last night, I felt a hankering to watch the original Iron Man movie, and because this is the era of instant gratification, once we’d finished dinner, coaxed the little dude to sleep, and shut down business operations for the night, we settled in for a viewing via Amazon Prime. Okay, so as instant as it gets when you’re parents, but we did eventually watch it and I think the wife only fell asleep a couple of times.

The reason it was on my mind was because I was browsing the deepfakes gifs subreddit and for some reason, someone had taken a bunch of scenes from that movie and mapped Elon Musk’s face onto Robert Downey Jr’s.  It wasn’t a particularly believable deepfake, unlike some of the ones with Nick Cage’s face (I’ll never understand Reddit’s fixation with Cage).  We’re 3-4 years away from being able to recast any movie with any person utilizing neural network-based software and a boatload of photographic reference.   The deepfakes phenomenon started out primarily being used for incredibly creepy porn, but the technology will likely see numerous uses we haven’t predicted, especially given just about anybody can set up and train one with a little effort.  The implications for journalism are particularly worrisome, especially when combined with the level of voice synthesis tech that’s been circulating.  Talk about “fake news”… but that’s a much more depressing post. My dive into deepfakes got me thinking once more about the MCU’s beginnings. Let’s fiddle for a while and ignore all that smoke, shall we? (more…)

Permalink