It’s Hard To Let Go: The Ultimate Mass Effect Fantasy Element Is The ‘Load’ Button

I just finished Mass Effect 2 again. The suicide mission is always unnerving because it reflects reality: it’s possible to do everything right and still lose.

This time, I lost Mordin and Tali. This is especially hard, since both of them have core plot points in the third game. Mordin will never gain pennance and cure the genophage. Someone else will do that…but someone else might get it wrong. Tali’s death ensures that there will not be peace between the Geth and the Quarians – without her, the choice is ‘which race will die‘.

But I don’t have to do that. I can reload my game save and make some changes to who I assign. And if I get it wrong, I can do it again. And again. Until everyone lives.

Beyond the mass relays, quantum entanglement based communications, and all of the other nearly-impossible parts of the game’s story, that ability is the ultimate fantasy: being able to undo your previous choices and avoid having to live with the consequences.

Let’s go save Mordin and Tali.

An Answer To The Question Every Teenager Eventually Asks

This week, a brilliant, well-meaning person in my Facebook feed was discussing the idea of an iPhone app which would highlight viruses (the ‘flu’ or ‘corona’ kind, not the computer kind) if present on a surface. My ‘this is a load of bovine excrement’ alarm went off pretty quickly, so I responded by trying to appeal to the fact that electron microscopes cost as much as an entry-level BMW, weigh hundreds of pounds, and the batteries to power them would weigh thousands, all of that ignoring the incredible amount of computing power required to identify and highlight viruses on a screen in real-time. Naturally, the answer received in response was something to the effect of “well, technology keeps getting better and smaller!”, which is only partially true – the power adapter for my laptop weighs four pounds because there comes a point at which ‘physics’ starts knocking at the door.

The person private-messaged me and attempted to be a bit more convincing. I ended up deciding to do the math. Now, I might not have gotten it correct because ‘powers-of-ten’ has always managed to have me off by a very-important digit or two, but the math I came up with basically said that my 4×2 folding table could fit nearly 8 billion flu viruses on its surface without stacking. The reality I was trying to point out is that everything we touch is covered in microscopic bugs in one form or another, so making an app that would point them out individually would be pointless, because even after bleach or Lysol (but hopefully not both), surfaces would still be too heavily covered for such an app to be useful.

I wasn’t the best math student, and I never, ever enjoyed it. Once I get past, maybe 9th grade math, my understanding asymptotically plummets (though admittedly, I happen to remember what an asymptote is), and if I were to dust off my high school and/or college transcripts, they’d show someone who wasn’t exactly a star pupil of the discipline. Though writing this blog entry makes me want to try taking a 9th or 10th grade final exam found somewhere on the internet just to see how much I actually remember, the high level concepts of algebra, logic, and statistics have served well as building blocks for a bulls**t detector.

When economists seem to project year-over-year growth forever, the math says that there will be a saturation point at which a company will be unable to expand further. This is how we explain why video game maker Bethesda thought selling a $100/year in-game premium subscription to a game that cost $60 off the shelf was a good idea. When politicians talk about massive spending bills, the sticker shock of ‘billions of dollars’ is commonly a scare tactic – those numbers are commonly tied to a multi-year timespan and a population of hundreds of millions of people. I’m certainly not advocating for infinite spending, but I am saying that math helps us turn that “$500 billion” number into “about $156, per person, per year”, which is about the cost of a large coffee at 7-11 twice a week. When friends try to pitch me on the latest multi-level marketing trend, they always tell me about the fantastic opportunities at the top of the mountain. I always ask three questions: What’s the median individual revenue, what’s the average of the first standard deviation, and what’s the percentage of people who make it to this top tier? …I’ve yet to get an answer, but I promise you it’s the fastest way to making sure you don’t get asked about the next one. ” The ‘if-then’ statements used to demonstrate logic proofs help teach inference and deductive reasoning, allowing broader pictures of human behavior to be ascertained with incomplete information. A good number of statements from an untruthful person paired with logic proofs like the fun Latin-derived ‘modus tollens‘ can help catch a liar in his or her tracks. A simple stand I recently made from plywood required a ruler and some trigonometry so I knew how to cut the legs out of a single piece of wood and ensure they were even. Simple multiplication was drilled into me in third grade, and being able to halve and double very quickly is incredibly useful when I’m DJing and have to get my phrases right so I don’t end up with weird segues that are too short or too long.

The fact is, math is frequently distilled down into drills and repetition, sterile in its presentation in some cases, and comically absurd in others. To be fair, the fact that I learned asymptotes in high school but checkbook balancing in college as a byproduct of an accounting class isn’t a testament to properly prioritized curricula. It’s not like there has been a massive push to implement things like tangential learning into math class. This leaves us to be exposed to math for its own sake, and the fact of the matter is that most middle school and high school students (or college students or adults, really) will respond well to that sort of execution. I really can’t fault most students, former or current, for pushing back against learning something with such an unforgiving right-or-wrong grading system at the same time that “getting a good grade” is the only objective ever presented for doing so.

So, when will you use math, you ask? “When you need to figure out if someone is trying to sell you on a load of bulls**t.” THAT is how that question needs to start being answered.

Play the Flute – a Christian film that didn’t learn from Fireproof

A friend of mine invited me to a screening of Play the Flute. I was a bit surprised in that, for some reason, I thought I was going to see Unplanned, so I’m certain that my confusion in that the main characters and plot points of that movie weren’t present, which meant that I kept waiting for that part of the movie to start, which obviously didn’t happen. I think that movie could have solved that problem with a title card at the beginning, which it did not have.

So, spoilers ahead. Also, go ahead and read my Fireproof review if you haven’t already. Also, I’m really annoyed because I had plenty of this written out, and then the WordPress app on my phone decided to have a fit and not actually save what I’d written.

I’ll start by giving credit where it’s due – the tech people involved in producing this film were on point. Camera angles were fantastic, lighting was on point, hair and makeup were done well, sound mixing was flawless, and location shoots were done with consistency and efficacy. The actors and actresses shouldn’t hold their breath for an Oscar, but while the script they had to deal with had massive issues, the cast was pretty well chosen and effective in their delivery. Props to all the people who put in so much hard work into this film.

The movie opens with Matthew 11:16-17, in the King James version of the Bible. That set the tone for a few themes, just none of the ones it was going for. I’m hoping you can agree with me that the language used in the King James version of the Bible isn’t exactly what I’d call ‘readily accessible’ to a modern viewer. I’m not trying to start a “which-version-is-best” debate, but the language used simply isn’t the sort of vernacular which is self-evident to a contemporary audience. The King James version of the Bible is used in exclusivity throughout the movie. I don’t intrinsically mind that, but in doing so, the audience for the film is likely to be an audience of Christians, primarily. Even that, I don’t have a problem with, except that they do the whole direct gospel message in the film, which assumes an unsaved audience. Targeting to a demographic is one thing, but these two things together seem to show a conflict of intent…one which was likely lost on the writers.

80% of Play the Flute takes place in a church setting. A new(ish) pastor comes in to be a youth director at an existing church with an existing youth group, and is shocked – SHOCKED – that a group of 14-18-year-olds aren’t inherently, independently motivated to read the Bible and live their lives according to the principles of the Word of God. He’s shocked – SHOCKED – that those individuals are more concerned with social acceptance and sports, making it difficult for me to believe that he’s ever met an adolescent in a church setting. Now, I’m not an unforgiving person so I do understand that the kids are direct and open about it for the sake of storytelling, but if they were going for realism those kids would have been able to tell the story of Joseph basically-verbatim, and would have been able to give a moving testimony about how much they love God while still ‘doing the bad things’ the other six days of the week. Oh, also, at no point in this movie are any of the kids romantically attracted to anyone else? None of those entanglements are involved? The story would have been much better with one of those, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but the fact that the whole movies goes by with a group of hormonal teenagers never once expressing a desire to even ask another one out on a date is patently unrealistic. While I’m at it, husband-and-wife duo don’t even kiss each other hello or goodbye, let alone express any sexual desire for each other. They are married, movie! If you’re going to take screen time to warn against sex outside of marriage, at least imply there’s sex in marriage!

The youth pastor, along with his senior pastor, throws shade at the churches that talk about numbers and events and programs. I agree with the fact that a church that uses fun events as a replacement to Bible study has issues, for the very reasons they specify. However, that’s like saying that since knives can be used to harm that they shouldn’t be used at all, and the movie itself contradicts this. The youth group goes on their one-day retreat (an event), they have fun, and that event creates an opportunity for the pastor and his wife to impart Godly wisdom into the students with whom they are entrusted. Our protagonist pastor has less success building relationships with the young people and imparting Godly principles to them in a classroom setting than he has at an event or program? I’m shocked – SHOCKED! That’s just not how effective youth ministry works. Yes, a classroom setting is common and it absolutely has its place, but as a rule relationships in youth ministry simply aren’t built that way.

One other thing they did was to go to a cemetery, and the pastor talks about how life is short and fleeting, and gives the whole “where will you be for eternity” thing…y’know, because the perfect way to encourage kids who don’t meaningfully know God to follow Him is to say that the options are to spend eternity with Him…or not. This is a theological rabbit hole of its own, but I’ll say this: the behavioral shifts in the characters are a result of that relationship developing in the natural. How does that work? The pitch is basically a “fire insurance Christianity” sort of thing, but the results are temporal in nature? One of the kids call him out on it, and I was thinking to myself, “that kid would be excellent at CinemaSins”. Even if I didn’t go down that theological rabbit hole, what was his plan? Drive for 20 minutes each way with all the kids in the van, during the day (so, Sunday?) to spend five minutes in a cemetery hearing a story about a turbulent flight and then turn around and go home? That’s a poorly planned Sunday School field trip.

Not a single character has a home life that’s at all expounded upon; every parent seems to just assume the church will handle the spiritual upbringing of their children. We either don’t see parents, or we see very one-note parents who make me wonder about the back stories we spend so much time not-seeing. Natalie’s aunt has four scenes – twice where she laments her getting made fun of (but never encourages her to go to another youth group?), once where she gives the “Moses had a stutter too” speech, and once where she’s around for the apology. Shannon’s mom lets her run the show and the absentee dad is also only discussed in throwaway dialog; basically she’s there to show Shannon’s wealthy background. Marcie’s mom is there thrice – once to say she’s not a fan of Shannon (never explaining why or trying to encourage her daughter to be discerning, just ‘because I said so’), once to exposit the flag metaphor (and assume her daughter was going to make that sort of a choice because her mom guilted her into doing it), and once to show that she’s happy with Marcie’s change. I’m not saying this movie needed more runtime, but I am saying that there’s plenty of lost opportunity here and it’s in conflict with the pastor’s taking responsibility for the choices the students make.

As the pastor continues trying to use Bible-as-a-textbook methods to reach the kids (all of whom have perfect weekly attendance?), eventually, each of them have a shift in their heart to stop doing the bad thing they did before, and apologize for it. Now, to be fair, I do at least give credit to the fact that these changes are primarily done at an individual basis and are the result of an overarching shift for the duration of the movie, and it’s not necessarily any of them reciting a particular prayer publicly, so I was at least pleasantly surprised about that (though the white flag thing was a bit heavy handed). Even so, the “Play the Flute” title refers back to the verse in Matthew, which essentially stated that “you’re either playing the flute, or the flute is playing for you”. The variant I grew up with was, “you’re either a missionary or a mission field”. That’s fine, but it still leaves a whole lot of questions as to why the kids had their change of heart. The verse, restructured for the context of the movie, amounts to guilting the kids into doing the right thing. One by one, each of them stops doing a thing, and we the audience are supposed to be proud of them. I mean, to take that to its logical conclusion, do we then look at the external actions and say “the end justifies the means”? Yes, film limits the ability to show a change of heart rather than a change of action, but literally no adult has a one-on-one conversation with any kid about where their heart really is, leaving plenty of room for the ending to be a group of moral atheists. Really, each of the characters were problematic in one way or another.

Natalie’s parents died tragically…but it’s addressed one time a throwaway line of dialog. Talk about a missed opportunity – how is that not the perfect setup for a crisis of faith? Let Natalie scream at the pastor, “G-gg-God couldn’t ss-sss-stop my parents from-mm-m dying, He could at l-ll-llleast get rid of this s-ss-stupid ss-ssTUTTER!!”. She would be someone who was doing all the things she was supposed to be doing, but when it really came down to it, she would have had a real internal struggle that would have been incredibly to see unfold. But no, she just has to be the one-note, perfect church girl from start to finish with no growth or development. Her moment of bravery isn’t a matter of bravery at all; telling Marcie what she thought didn’t cost her anything, or have the threat of doing so.
Squirrel admits his fraudulent timeclock punching, but coerces his coworker friend into doing the same. This is another missed opportunity. Let Squirrel do it alone and get fired, while his friend keeps his job. Let his friend ask why he admitted it and took the heat. The ensuing discussion could involve Squirrel saying he did the right thing even though it cost something, and that he was trusting in God to provide for him. The friend could see this, and then go to the boss and admit he was doing it as well, and go to bat to get Squirrel rehired. This would show how Squirrel’s influenced caused his friend to make his own choice, and even allow an opportunity for Squirrel to share the Lord…but instead the scene uses force and Squirrel gives an ultimatum to someone who doesn’t share his commitment, and we’re okay with that? 
Teddy…stops making fun of Natalie. Great, but he’s gotten less positive reinforcement from everyone over time so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice. It didn’t take much for Natalie to end up being more receptive to Teddy at the same time Shannon pushed him away, so Teddy just switched allies. What would have been far better would have been for Teddy to have had a crush on Shannon and having started the movie with Teddy doing Shannon’s bidding to try and win her affection, with Teddy’s big moment being him telling Shannon off, realizing he had no shot with her as a result, and then having to reconcile with a Natalie who is still incredibly guarded and ends the movie willing to be civil with him at best.
Marcie is Shannon’s patsy, but for no defined reason. Throughout the movie there is no indication that Shannon has any leverage on Marcie, they don’t really seem to do anything fun together, and Marcie seems to lack any other friends while also shown as being able to just start being friends with Teddy and Squirrel on the spot. Marcie’s shift away from Shannon was supposed to be her big deal, but Shannon’s popularity was waning and she already had new friends as a result, so it wasn’t a sacrifice by the time Marcie decided to take her stand. 
Then there’s Shannon, the movie’s attempt to have a Regina George character, except she lacked her nuanced moments, charisma, sex appeal, or social authority. A clawless cat if there ever was one. What did she spend her massive allowance on? We never see. Why did Marcie have loyalty to her, but nobody else does? We aren’t told. Why do her parents tolerate her disrespect but also incentivize her going to church? It’s unclear. Shannon put Vaseline on a chair. Regina called the parents of her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s parents and pretended to be Planned Parenthood, breaking up their relationship and making the girl a social pariah. Shannon is what happens when writers of Christian movies try to involve conflict while also trying to avoid showing a sinful thing in a movie – we end up with a character whose salt has lost its saltiness.

Let’s discuss Shannon’s false accusation. We, the audience, know nothing happened…but nobody else does. The #metoo and #believeher movements have their problems on both sides, but on what basis does the whole youth group take the pastor’s side? We the audience know nothing happened, but they don’t. Are they defending him simply because “he would never do such a thing?” That’s the root of the issue at hand, but how come literally nobody even attempts to consider if Shannon was right? They went after Shannon for information but nobody tried to put the pastor through the ringer? When they tricked Shannon into confessing, how come none of them used their smartphones to get an audio or video recording of her saying it so they could prove it to the people in charge? Why not have a text message exchange so they could use screenshots as evidence of the lie to show to the senior pastor and Shannon’s mom? Also, the church across town was perfectly fine having him despite knowing the circumstances and controversy around his departure? 
It would have been far more interesting if they showed Shannon walking out the door behind everyone else, then walking back in the room and having the screen fade to black with the audience never seeing what exactly happened. If I wanted to double down, it would have been particularly interesting to do a sort of flashback scene regarding both accounts of the story, one from the pastor where the apology happens, and another from Shannon’s point of view where she successfully seduces him, leaving the reader to figure to spend a little time debating who to believe…but of course, it would have been much more controversial, and if there’s one thing this movie can’t handle, it’s giving the audience something to think about….and also, it wouldn’t have driven the plot because then there would be a genuine cause for a schism.

I’ll close by talking about the actual dialog itself. The script had so many smaller issues with how the characters talked to each other. People walk into the room to have a discussion, they begin with some thoroughly mundane thing that nobody cares about, and then they change topics to the real thing worth discussing. Does Marcie’s mother always announce when she’s got laundry for her? Did the script really need three lines of dialog between the pastor and his wife about the logistics of returning the shirt? Did Squirrel and his coworker always have to reiterate the plan in an expository manner immediately before they carried it out? So much cringey dialog was present throughout the movie. Virtually every character did it…except, ironically, the one with the stutter. The Moses parallel was obvious it was coming the moment the stutter was introduced, the Joseph foreshadowing was heavy handed, and the theme verse only meaningfully made sense at the end which made it clear they were chosen for plot purposes. I almost have an objection to the Bible being used purely to add literary conventions to such a poorly written script. It was obvious the car wash at the end was coming the moment there was a discussion about the bet being one-sided. Beth trying to get the girls to interact more nicely together “because she said so” demonstrated how out of touch the writers were with how kids actually interact. Even as adults, did nobody think about how they would feel if someone was suddenly nice to them because an authority figure coerced them? There were just so many examples of poorly constructed dialog and annoyingly worded exposition that it made me wish they just started quoting the King James Bible again.

 

In conclusion, I simply couldn’t conjure up any grace for this movie. If it was 1999, maybe…but for all its other flaws, 1999’s Left Behind Movie benefited from Jerry B. Jenkins’ excellent source material, making it a layup to have a script written without cringe-inducing dialog. I had issues with God’s Not Dead, but even those script writers seemed to have been involved in a conversation at some point. Play the Flute was about an oblivious pastor, a paint-by-numbers youth group that failed miserably at character development, and a goal that only makes sense to a church audience while also being called an “evangelical tool” by a group of people who had no concept of how people interact in real life.

Sorry, 3/10 would not recommend to anyone…and those three points all go to the production crew.

 

Edits 4/17/2019 – some rewording for readability and clarity.

Matthew 18 in a Post-Facebook Society

I run a small RocketChat server. Nothing major, just a handful of friends in a private chat, my own personal contribution to the XKCD Chat Platform problem.

I’d love to have more of my friends in it, but RocketChat has a strength that is also its fundamental weakness – the “general” room. Everyone is in it. I can change that behavior if I want, but that’s not the point. 

I’ve got 850 Facebook friends…and only five of them are in RocketChat. Now sure, the nature of the term “Facebook Friend” comes into play here; I’m sure my one FB Friend I met on AIM nearly 20 years ago may not be much of a candidate, nor would the sister of a relatively new friend I met in an online community but sent me a request anyway, but even if I put 90% of my Facebook friends into that category, I still would have trouble getting 85 of my Facebook friends in the same chatroom together.

It would eventually devolve into an argument. That argument would then have chilling effects on discussion thereafter – some people would leave. Others would ignore the general chat and stick to the PMs. Discussion after that would become surface level, as nobody wants to ignite another powder keg. Then, one inadvertently starts, and the cycle begins anew until there’s nobody left except whoever agrees with the last person to win the argument.

I feel like the advice in Matthew 18 is timeless and incredibly relevant, even if you’re more of an Atheist than Richard Dawkins…but I feel like there are concepts between the lines that are worth exploring. For those who aren’t familiar with the passage, it goes like this:

15 If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

The underlying assumption here is that there is, at some level, a mutual desire to rectify a relationship. Also assumed here is that there is a shared agreement on an authority. Both of those are less of a given in modern society. John Oliver said it well when he described a segment of discourse between an Infowars reporter and a very left-wing protester: “What we do have there is a nice distillation of the current level of political discourse in America: two people, who don’t really know what they’re talking about, being condescending to each other nonsensically until one of them lands a sick burn.” While in Oliver’s clip it’s unlikely that either party had a desire to achieve consensus, I submit that the notion of salvaging a relationship at the expense of winning a particular argument seems sufficiently lost on modern society. Getting one’s perspective shifted is a fundamental requirement in order to make any headway, but the willingness to do so seems to be in short supply.

Once there is agreement that the intent is to salvage a relationship, the private discussion between two people disagreeing is useful because it prevents the spread of rumors and helps to address small grievances on a small scale. To bring two or three witnesses into the disagreement is to provide an outside perspective; ideally one that would impact how both people would approach the disagreement, and hopefully the input would be received well enough to achieve a resolution without things escalating further.

Getting to the ‘take it to the church’ situation here, that part gets a bit interesting because of the concept of ‘church’ at that time – Jesus wasn’t describing a group of several hundred people with an elder board…though thinking about it a bit more, Jesus was talking to a crowd more familiar with the temple system, which very much did have a hierarchal structure and political power so I need to do a bit more research on that topic…but, I think it’s safe to say that there is a case to be made about taking the dispute to a mutually recognized source of authority, to whom both parties consider themselves subject to their ruling.

If, one party decides that the ruling isn’t valid for whatever reason, then “treat them like a tax collector” is notable in that, while they were considered so undesirable in their society that the gospels commonly reference “sinners and tax collectors”, indicating an “even worse than sinner” connotation…but, at the same time, the audience of this teaching still dealt with tax collectors. Perhaps it was begrudgingly, perhaps it was a “get in, collect your taxes, get a receipt, and get out” sort of a deal, but Jews still had to work with them, and every so often, there was a Zaccheus – a tax collector who turned from his ways. 

I think this sort of clear and direct escalation is incredibly relevant today. The fact that society has generally turned to “sick burns” as a way to decide how an argument is won, and winning more desirable than reconciliation, is the sort of fundamental shift Jesus spent time encouraging His followers to avoid. The results of this shift have clearly caused a level of enmity that divides people who could probably “agree to disagree” successfully under Jesus’ system, but are sworn enemies on Facebook.

This leaves me with a sparsely populated RocketChat server, and social gatherings which are fewer and further between than even five years ago. Whether you identify as a follower of Christ or not, I can guarantee there’s someone you disagree with on something. You probably agree with them on ten others. Try focusing on that, and try salvaging a relationship. It won’t be fun, but it will probably be worth it.

AI, Art, and Dictionaries

So, a philosopher from Harvard wrote an article about whether or not artificial intelligence is capable of producing art.

This left me with two major questions: First, how do we define artificial intelligence? Second, how do we define art? I believe the answer to the question hinges on these two things.

Strictly speaking, a computer is capable of creating aesthetically pleasing pieces of media, and have been doing so for decades. Whether an audio visualization counts as art due to them being a result of a computer following a strict set of programming guidelines is the nature of the question – how few inputs does it take before the definition crosses over from ‘program’ to ‘AI’?

The term ‘AI’ seems to be a common enough buzzword, but I don’t think that Data or HAL9000 were deemed AI’s because they could tell bees from 3s with good accuracy (spare a thought for ‘Robot’ from Lost in Space who never even got a name). The Google Duplex system is a bit closer, but even it is incredibly easy to trip up even while staying on topic. Watson is good at jeopardy, but its success in its core purpose – cancer treatment – is a bit less rosy. I submit that current generation of what is called ‘AI’ consists of many very good incremental improvements, and is to be lauded. However, I don’t think it is correct to assign the description of “artificial intelligence” to a computer that can win Jeopardy but not understand the humor behind saying “let’s finish, chicks dig me”.

On the flip side, let’s discuss ‘art’. Though this video has its flaws (most notably comparing the best of the past with the worst of the present), the takeaway here is that what does and doesn’t constitute ‘art’ is so subjective that even defining it is subjective. If I, as a DJ, play a good set for a live event, is it art? If I do the same thing and post the recording on Mixcloud, does it then become art? If I produce a song using the sounds and plugins of Ableton or FL Studio and nobody else hears it, is it art? Does it become art if I do this a dozen times and release an album? Is is more or less ‘art’ than Handel’s The Messiah? Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder, or is there really a need for some sort of a governing body who defines what ‘art’ is, especially for exhibitions? If the latter, then how do those people ultimately decide? As one example, to what end does context play a role – does a piece of graffiti become art because it was painted on the Berlin Wall rather than an abandoned subway tunnel or a chalkboard frozen in time?

The fact that it is so difficult to define what ‘art’ really is makes the question of AI producing art fundamentally unsolvable. If art is is defined by self-expression, then the definition of AI would need to include a ‘self’, and that AI would need to have something to express. If art can only come from emotion, then the entire wing dedicated to furniture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is on shaky ground since a nontrivial number of those pieces were simply ‘ornate contract work’ whose artistic merit is commonly tied to their owners or context. If art is defined solely as something aesthetically pleasing, then “$5 Million, 1 Terabyte” doesn’t fit that bill (unless the case counts as art), but assisted CGI does.

Once we can settle on how to consistently define ‘art’, then we can talk about whether AI can do it. If art can’t be defined, then the source and inspiration become irrelevant, ironically meaning that one can equally argue that AI is capable of creating art and that humans cannot.

Caller ID: The Cultural Shift Nobody Realizes

I’ve written before about how disruptive technology doesn’t always cause headlines. It was only twenty years ago that Caller ID was an add-on feature, that Ma Bell charged a premium for, and required a separate box to utilize. There were even commercials for it. Early cell phones didn’t have it at all. Today, it’s almost like cell phones themselves – so ordinary and ubiquitous that trying to explain a world before caller ID is like trying to describe a Yellow Pages or a card catalog.

But this isn’t about the technological advances of the CNAM protocol, or to take another nostalgic journey.

Caller ID’s cultural shift made avoidance possible. Prior to caller ID, one always had to pick up the phone because it could be someone important or desirable to talk to. It could well be a phone solicitor, but if one was arguing with another person, and that person called, there would be some sort of exchange. Even if it was an immediate hang-up, it is still a form of exchange. In a post Caller ID world, calls could be ignored in the same way that written communication like texts, e-mails, and letters could. Without Caller ID, ghosting would not be possible.

On one hand, this is ultimately a matter of technological enforcement of intent. In some contexts, this was a positive measure – people being harassed had a means of mitigation, and phone solicitation became less profitable – and by extension, less common.

On the other hand, it allows people to avoid conflict resolution. Still angry at someone? Intentionally ignore their calls. Don’t want to deal with a bill you’re late on? Ignore the bill collector. Feel like a conversation might not go your way? Send it to voicemail until you think it will.

Like anything else, these things are not always bad. Sometimes, it really is better to have a cool-off period before talking to someone in order to have greater success in resolving a conflict. However, as a society, Caller ID gave us a means of conflict avoidance, rather than conflict resolution. We got used to those capabilities and took them with us to our cell phones and text messages and IM apps, making sure that “block user” was always a possibility in every new communication app we used.

I’ll reiterate that these measures are good things when being used to ensure safety and security. The cultural shift, however, isn’t about the use of Caller ID in matters of safety. The shift is in the ability to use them for reasons of comfort, convenience, and control. Deciding whether we have used these tools for good or for ill is an exercise I shall leave to my readers.

The Orville, and My Commentary On Its Social Commentary

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to actually get a blog post out the door. I’ve got a number of started drafts in my queue here in WordPress, but I’ve never managed to circle back to any of them. Recently, my life got overtaken by a server migration, and although it worked out as smoothly as a server migration is going to go, it was far from perfect, and I managed to learn that, in 2017, VMWare still doesn’t support drives with 4K sectors, and the QNAP OpenVPN module doesn’t seem to do split tunnel VPN. I also managed to handle the little victories, like finally managing to correctly configure a Raspberry Pi as a print server, and quickly learned that my stance that “graphics don’t have to be that good for a game to be fun” apparently has a base minimum, as a number of my original-Playstation games definitely have not aged well after I tried getting them running on a 1080p TV. On the personal side of things, I got to see my sister’s family twice in the same month, which was nice. I also have managed to retain a rhythm of washing my dishes in the morning, rather than turning it into a battle of endurance to get through a full sink.

Now that I’ve caught you up, let’s discuss the topic discussed in the headline.

I’m quite happy that The Orville is on the air. I watched the first two hours of Star Trek: Discovery, and was ‘meh’ at best about it. Two broadcast hours used to attempt to convince me to subscribe to CBS All Access to continue watching the series…and I get Klingons who don’t look like Klingons, who fight because they’re Klingons and for little other reason, a metric ton of backstory on a single character but about 90 seconds of screen time for half the supporting cast who all seemed a whole lot more interesting, and cinematography from someone who went to the Michael Bay school of lens flares. Discovery may do well with the critics, but Orville is far better liked by audiences, and both shows demonstrate a highly measurable difference between the two. Supposedly, Discovery has gotten better as the episodes progressed, but since I can’t set my DVR to record them or get episodes on iTunes or Amazon, I couldn’t say.

For real now, I’m getting on topic.

As Star Trek has always done, The Orville takes its turn having episodes where social commentary is made. Two in particular have stood out to me this season. The first was “Majority Rule”, the seventh episode of the season where people upvote or downvote things they like or don’t like, to the point where sufficiently high downvotes can be cause for the cafe to refuse service, and doing an outlandish thing that goes viral is a criminal offense (with innocence and guilt, of course, being determined in the court of public opinion). There was a lot to unpack in this episode. My first set of questions had to do with how the society got to that point – what did they do before the badges? Before “The Feed”? How did the society calculate upvotes and downvotes before it was possible to automate it? How is it clear that a badge’s owner is the person wearing the badge? Next, what are the protocols for giving upvotes and downvotes? How frequently can a person receive an upvote or downvote from the same person? There’s only so much that can be covered in a 44-minute episode, but those questions remained in my mind.
However, I think there were even deeper points to be had in that episode. It was possible to be arrested for not wearing one’s badge. Who does the arresting, and if it’s a pure democracy, what set of laws are there to enforce? The real people in power, however, are the news anchors. I’m certain there were a dozen other things that happened that day of similar offense to that society, but they chose one thing to show the video to everyone. Who picks which stories get that sort of publicity? Because that person is the one with the power.
Additionally, it was abundantly clear how the mob mentality quickly became a part of the problem, and the challenges with basing the court of public opinion on what everyone else has already said. Conversely, the proposal that a voice must be ‘earned’ sounds right at face value, but fails at the next level in that the decision of whether a person has earned a voice is determined either by being appointed or elected, so it’s not quite the contrast it sets out to be. Finally, at the end when they flooded the feed with good news, it was said that nobody fact checks what’s on the feed. Hopefully, that one is self explanatory.

 

The other episode with its social commentary was the season finale, where Kelly becomes a deity to a planet in the bronze age, but which experiences rapid acceleration of time to the point where it is in the quantum age by the end of the episode. It’s clear that Christianity is the core target of the commentary where the planet’s evolution past religion is both positive and inevitable, as well as unsurprising.
I submit, however, that it’s riddled with plotholes. The child falls without anyone seeing that it happened. No one sees the injury, and no one sees the healing. For the next 700 years, the entire planet’s religion is based upon a single girl’s story for which there are no witnesses and no further contact with Kelly by anyone, and the belief system is the basis of the society? The belief in Kelly becomes exclusive, with no unbelievers shown to war with, yet people kill each other?
The Old Testament narrative has no shortage of examples of people having encounters with God, with witnesses. From the burning bush and the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea to seeing Canaan from a distance, Exodus is filled with miracle after miracle, and the Israelites winning more battles than anyone, with fewer numbers. Throughout the Old Testament, this is the case, and it’s the reason the belief system spent thousands of years being the bedrock of Judaism and Christianity. The “Kelly sees everything and is going to get you” line is intended to resonate with the Christian belief in God’s omnipresence, but that belief stems from God being creator; Kelly did no such thing and there was no basis for a Bronze Age society to attribute a healing to a single girl and also enshrining her as an omnipresent creator. Props to the priest who was willing to let the people decide, but from the moment that convincing a single priest was possible, it was obvious that wasn’t going to go anywhere. It was at that point that I felt the commentary went from exploration to heavy-handedness and persuasiveness at a level even Roddenberry didn’t have in Star Trek.
The reason Christianity is still believed is because there are still personal encounters with God, there are still miracles that take place, and there are prophecies verified to be true hundreds of years after they were written. I understand that not every reader shares these beliefs, and that’s to be expected, but it’s these core tenets upon which the basis of Christianity lives. The end run around all of them makes the parallel fall flat. A 44-minute episode lacks the time to delve into these things in detail, and I can understand that what they were going for was to see the situation through the eyes of Kelly who felt responsible for all the problems of the society. The ending with the statement that the society would eventually grow out of it as some sort of message of hope, I would argue, was also a core goal. Ultimately, the episode attempts to make parallels to Christianity while also basing the whole thing on the unsubstantiated claims of a single child. This setup makes the commentary feel more like a heavy handed fist rattling from McFarlane than encouraging introspection by those who still adhere to such belief systems. By contrast, this sort of commentary was done better in the episode of Star Trek: Voyager “Distant Origin”.

 

Overall, I’m continuing to look forward to season 2, and am glad it got renewed. Though I think McFarlane’s social commentary tends to toe the line for the sorts of commentary acceptable in current Hollywood (and by extension doesn’t seem to feel very risky or controversial as Star Trek was), The Orville is at its best when it blends its space exploration with humor and effective storytelling.

Why Communicators and Tricorders will never exist…or shouldn’t.

I decided to dust off my copy of the Star Trek TNG Technical Manual, and see what it had to say about the famous communication devices and “exposition boxes” that became as much a part of Star Trek as Klingons and transporters. By what I read, I’m pretty certain they will never exist.

“But Joey! We’ve surpassed comm badges already! They’re called cell phones, and you have one! How can you say they don’t exist?” Well, that depends on how we define “communicator”. A thing that lets someone else who has a thing talk to each other? Sure, cell phones fit that role in the broadest mindset. However, dig just a little bit deeper and you’ll likely agree with me that they are likely to forever remain a plot device, rather than actually existing.

Let’s start with the most obvious example of this: Neither Kirk, nor Picard, nor Sisko pay a Verizon bill, and Janeway was too far away to do so. While cell phones require the PSTN to function, communicators and comm badges clearly do not. Even if we get as close as currently possible – fully decentralized, open source, peer-to-peer voice communication software, the call is still being carried by one’s ISP, rather than communicating directly between the initiator and recipient.

According to the technical manual, the maximum range of a comm badge is 500 kilometers. Even if we cut that down to 100km, that’s still beyond the horizon of virtually any planet that could be landed on by an away team without the gravity being a crippling problem, meaning that communicators can punch through at least some of the curve of a planet. By contrast, current technology would require roughly 5,000 watts of FM transmission power to achieve something even remotely close without a line-of-site, something very seldom seen between sections of an away team engaging in dialogue. Now, to be fair, it’s highly irregular for parties to be more than a mile or two away from each other when using communicators, but while some high quality Motorola walkie-talkies might get a mile range, they require both batteries and antennas which each exceed the size of a comm badge. Moreover, communicators and comm badges only experience static when relevant to the plot – literally no cell phone owner can say that they’ve been able to thoroughly avoid dropped calls or audio dropouts.

Let’s assume that the range issues are addressed by way of “subspace”; the magical portion of the space-time continuum that powers both warp and communications in the Trek universe. The next massive concern is how communicators decide the recipient of the message. When Kirk says, “Kirk to Enterprise”, does everyone in the ship hear it? Just the bridge? Furthermore, the “Kirk to Enterprise” is frequently heard by the recipients. Even if the computer onboard the ship is ascertaining that the message is for them, do away team communicators have that same ability to discern? Ultimately, the future has no concept of ringtones, except one time toward the end of the Voyager episode “Future’s End, Part 1”. The rest of the time, the message is heard ‘on speaker’, making that scene rather strange. In another episode of Voyager, Chakotay calls “to anyone who’s left”, as the ship has been largely taken over by aliens. How does the communication system know to reference explicitly Starfleet crewmen, and do so ‘on speaker’ without the hostile aliens hearing? I hear you all saying, “It’s just a plot device”, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t jive well with the notion that cell phones are akin to the communicators in Star Trek. The amount of technology required to facilitate communication between the communicators, over great distances, establish the recipient, do so without static or interference, and perform all of these tasks without a communication infrastructure beyond the devices themselves, is far beyond anything we presently possess.

Let’s then discuss tricorders, devices that have a sensor for basically-anything, and a tiny display that makes it nearly impossible to display the results which is only eclipsed by the minuscule size of the controls. Sure, today’s phones have gyroscopes, ambient light sensors, cameras, compasses, even temperature and pressure sensors, but how accurate are the readings? Enough for a racing game, sure, but does anyone use the onboard sensors for measuring with scientific accuracy? No, they do not. Would anyone be comfortable with a doctor taking measurements with an iPhone rather than dedicated tools? That’s unlikely as well. There is still a world of difference between the capabilities of a tricorder as a scientific measuring instrument, and the capabilities of current smartphones. As a counterargument, however, it’s surprising how infrequently (if ever) data communications between tricorders and/or the ship itself are used. If the comm badges in TNG are able to communicate 500km, shouldn’t tricorders have some circuitry of that nature implemented as well? They really should be better at that, and there are no shortage of moments where data transmission or nonverbal communication would have been helpful. I’ll close that thought by addressing the idea that my thoughts on that front only stem from pervasive text messaging that was not prevalent at the time of TOS or TNG. To that, I will say that the inclusion of a small CRT display in TOS implies an intended output, and by TNG, there was no shortage of text-based communication happening over BBS systems, IRC, and Usenet. The idea of transmitting messages that way was far from foreign.

The next time you’re watching an episode of Star Trek and think that their handheld devices already exist in more usable ways, the deeper implications illustrate that there is still plenty of work to be done to achieve the levels of functionality we see used to advance the plot.

The advertising echo chamber

My friend’s mother posted an article on my friend’s wall with respect to a set of privacy settings. As a matter of course, I do tend to read through such articles, since the endless maze of Facebook privacy settings tends to mean it’s well within the realm of possibility that I’ve missed one. I found yet another place where there were settings I’d missed – specifically my set of interests, upon which interest-based ad profiles are created. I proceeded to then remove all the data I could, though I’m quite sure that little, if any, is gone or will go away. My friend’s response to the article was this:
it’s nice getting ads that are relevant to me. If advertising​ is a necessary evil to keep costs low, I’d prefer to see things that are tailored for me personally.
His response did make me stop to think, as such things tend to.

Targeted ads are great for advertisers. It enables them to spend a bit more per ad while serving overall less ads and giving a higher level of return. I’m not intrinsically opposed to ads; this article in the New York Times sums up the problem perfectly. I held out for as long as I could, but ad overlays, subscribe to our newsletter” interstitials, and Chrome tabs with 400MBytes of used RAM for three paragraphs of text-based content brought me to the point where even I started utilizing ad blockers – and, by contrast, why I will never run ads here. As my friend pointed out, it’s at least partially a win for end users as well – an ad for a restaurant opening halfway across the country is a losing proposition for everyone, as is a Tesla ad for someone in an apartment complex or international air travel for someone without a passport. The fact of the matter is that I can’t blame both consumers and marketers for wanting ads and potential customers to align.

However, is there no utility for generally unrelated ads? I personally don’t use tampons, but knowing a few name brands may be helpful if I ever need to pick them up for whatever reason (or, conversely, know that I’m in the wrong aisle if I’m looking for toothpaste). I might not be financially able to fly to Tahiti between now and the end of the Trump administration, but what if I wanted to go on a more cost effective vacation two years from now? I could assume Florida or SoCal, but there’s no shortage of places to travel domestically. Have you ever stopped to think about your computer’s backup? Carbonite might be the most well-known name at a consumer level, but who knows what tomorrow brings? Altaro and Veeam are excellent. With John Deere getting the ire of farmers as a result of their fight against equipment repair, being aware of the existence of Kubota as a competitor might be worth knowing. If you’re not a homeowner, is there still value in knowing how solar panels are financed, or the types of pipes and other plumbing equipment are available? I’d say so.

Advertising as a whole has been distilled from “trying to educate consumers about a potential need which, conveniently, this product solves”, to “make consumers feel like they’d be better having what we’re selling”. Now yes, this clearly a generalization. There have always been creative ads, as well as ads that tried to appeal using information that were far from star examples of truth in advertising. At the same time, compare this Valtrex commercial and the Wikipedia article on genital herpes (no, I’m not linking it). If Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline can be of the persuasion that TV commercials for fibromyalgia or post-menopausal osteoporosis are worth airing, then I submit that there is a use for advertising that provides awareness over stressing immediate purchases.

It is for these reasons that I submit that perhaps an echo chamber of highly curated ads based on existing known needs may contribute to a lack of diversity of thought. I fully realize that leaving it up to the advertising industry to spend money on ad space to increase the overall understanding of our society isn’t exactly a winning expectation, but I also believe that interacting solely with like-minded people, seeing ads solely for things that are deemed relevant based on stated interests or activities, and interacting primarily with businesses who cater primarily to that particular group, ends up becoming a monoculture. If you want to see what I’m talking about, ask your friend to borrow their phone and spend 15 minutes browsing the internet, and see if their ads are anything like yours.

I removed all my interests from Facebook, because I don’t want targeted ads. While I’m sure they’ll target me anyway, I’d rather have at least a cursory awareness of what Nordstrom has on sale or new carbon fiber fishing poles, than to get an endless barrage of ads from Motorola or Samsung regarding phones I already know about.

But hey – if my thoughts on the matter were widespread, targeted ads wouldn’t be sustaining the internet as they are.

A.I. Cupid?

The interwoven topics of data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data are common topics of discussion amidst some technical forums I frequent. For the handful of regular readers here, you know that most of those topics fall under the “#DoNotWant” category. It’s this sort of thing that causes things like the purchase of wild bird seed or the time of day you pay your bill to affect your credit rating. Data mining is how Target found out a teenage girl was pregnant before her parents. Self-driving cars are great until that realization hits that you’ll never own the car1 no matter how much you pay for it.

But despite my major aversion to all of these things, I still think there’s at least some good that’s possible. Watson is helping to diagnose strange diseases at rates and accuracies that rival the most skills doctors. A more crude form of AI has helped over 200,000 people successfully fight parking tickets. And I wonder if online dating could be one such area.

If you haven’t had the privilege of trying an online dating site, consider yourself fortunate. Nobody really likes it; it’s really the cesspool of humanity. Guys commonly open with crude remarks and make girls feel uncomfortable, girls commonly fill their picture slots with heavily-filtered duckface selfies at the expense of actually writing a profile, and the fact that ghosting is an actual thing done by both sides is almost as sad a reflection on our society as the fact that most of those conversations started with a “swipe right” in the first place. It’s really a pretty sad state of affairs when 59% of US adults consider this a “good way” to meet people to date.

So, in what sort of ways could AI help with this task? Let’s start by coming up with metadata with which to help influence matching. Are you a night person that can’t stand morning people who expect coherent thoughts (or worse – excitement) by 6AM? Are you a morning person with a group of friends who keep inviting you to things well past your bedtime? Logon times and frequency could help match this. What about profile length? Does a given user prefer lengthy profiles to succinct ones? Does the quantity of pictures of a potential match have an impact on their swipe direction? What about the use of a mobile app or website vs. a desktop, or the type of device? Does the user log in multiple times daily, or are they a once-a-month type? Is a given user more likely to send the first message? What about sending the last message (or failing to do so)? How long does an individual communicate through the service before providing e-mail or phone number? All of these are ways that the usage of a dating site itself could help narrow down the possibilities.

Then, there’s the more invasive sort of thing. Does a user prefer particular colors in photos? Are there common words in the profiles of their likes and dislikes? On the flipside, if a user is consistently declined, do they have anything in common with others who have been declined by the same set of users (especially ones who have been liked by that user) that can help optimize their profile? Could this information even help provide an “estimated interest level” and prioritize high-interest matches? Could users be penalized for ghosting or crude remarks, or conversely given preferred status for positive discussions? Let’s go for broke and incorporate an analysis of e-mail accounts and social media profiles, or even Amazon purchase histories, Netflix watching lists, and browser history to get the most complete possible profile of a person. Comparing that level of data between two people may make it entirely possible to get it right on the first swipe.

Yente is a well-known character in Fiddler on the Roof for being a matchmaker, and she was good at it in part because she knew everything about everyone, for good or for ill. The art of matchmaking requires more than simply a few photos and a laundry list of favorite foods and movies (or, heaven forbid, a collection of emojis) to be effective. I think that such a system could be effective, more so than the current situation as it presently stands. The question is whether letting a computer program mine vast amounts of data to become a 21st century Yente by determining the true nature of a person is the sort of tradeoff that makes the data collection worth it.

For some, it would be. And I submit that there is a fortune to be made as a result.