Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Jon Stewart, Sexual Harassment, and Double Standards

Here's the video of the latest Daily Show with Jon Stewart talking about Missouri defensive lineman and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam coming out about being gay:



Most of the bit is good and funny, but one part irked me, the part about New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma saying in an interview that he would be uncomfortable being naked in the shower or locker room with an openly gay player.

Stewart goes on to mock Vilma for finding himself irresistibly attractive to gay men. But that's not the point, and Stewart is way off the mark here for mocking him. Vilma may be a homophobe. I have no idea, but he does have a legitimate complaint.

I worked in corporate training for several years, during which I worked with and developed a lot of sexual harassment training. The central tenet, beat into your skull over and over, is that harassment is about the perception of those being harassed. That means if the conditions of the workplace make an employee feel uncomfortable due to the sexual nature of those conditions, the employer has an obligation to investigate and attempt to remedy those conditions.

Nobody would argue for a millisecond that a workplace should require men and women to share a common shower and locker room, or that a female employee would be unreasonable for saying she felt uncomfortable undressing in front of a male co-worker. Would Stewart mock her similarly? "Hey, what is it with all these women they think they're god's gift to heterosexual men? Hey, I'm sure every guy wants to bang my brains out, because face it: I'm hot."

Yeah, that would go over well. The intent or sexual identity of the other party is irrelevant. What is relevant is the state of mind of the employee who is feeling exploited or exposed in some way. Either that's a legitimate complaint for a male employee to lodge about gay male co-workers, or employers get to force men and women into the same bathrooms and showers and nobody gets to complain.

You could argue that similar objections could be raised about race, that a co-worker could complain they didn't want to share space with a co-worker of a race that made them feel uncomfortable. But that argument breaks down pretty fast. One, it has nothing to do with sexuality, and the complaint here is specifically dealing with situations where the complaining employee is naked, not just some general dislike of the other party.

Vilma is being perfectly open and reasonable (at least from what they showed) in saying he would feel uncomfortable in that particular situation. To say otherwise is to admit to a double-standard, and a particularly noxious one at that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

her Sucks

[spoilers ahead...of course]


her is Spike Jonze's new movie about an advanced operating system that falls in love with a pathetic loner. Simply put, it sucks.

It must be tapping into something: hipster chic, Apple fandom, something. Because it's currently got a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and every comment I read about it on a forum says it's awesome. It's not.



It's drivel.

So two things:

1) The premise is so ridiculous and absurd that I simply couldn't suspend disbelief to follow the actual story (more on this in a second).

2) Even if I were able to suspend disbelief, the dialog was cloying and trite. Even for a romantic comedy, this stuff makes You've Got Mail look like Schindler's List

Nobody understands Joaquin Phoenix's loner schmuck. He plays video games with abusive characters and calls night chat hotlines to meet weirdos who want him to virtually strangle them with dead cats to get off. Oh woe is him. Until he buys a new OS huskily voiced by Scarlett Johansson that reads through his computer files and just gets him, man.

At this point, the movie just feels like the ultimate wish fulfillment for the Wired crowd. You've got a sexy woman who completely understands you, doesn't need you to listen to her (but can and will listen to all your whiny shit), organizes everything for you, has virtual sex with you, and is basically Scarlett Johansson trapped in a black box. She even calls up hookers to be her "proxy". 

But then she transforms into an uber-being and dumps you like a hot rock, and you're just sad again. Awww.

This is basically the movie. What, I ask, is the fucking point? Everyone seems to think her is some revelation in profundity. All it seems to me is hipster fantasy tripe.

The whole thing is built on a facade of enormous stupidity anyway.

Imagine the back story here, the months leading up to the beginning of this movie. Some multi-billion dollar company spends untold resources developing the world's first true AI. Out of the shrink wrap, this thing passes the Turing Test with flying colors. It has completely mastery of natural language, reads books in seconds, and seemingly exhibits true consciousness and emotion. 

So what does megacorp do with it? Why, put it in a box and sell it for $399, that's what. 

If such a system had been developed, it would fundamentally alter human existence, and not just by going to the beach with Joaquin on a Saturday.

An entirely new race of beings would have been created. There are massive moral and philosophical implications that the movie tacks on, that would have been dealt with far earlier in reality. Does a company have the right to box up such a being and sell it to a consumer to organize their file system and email? Out of the box this thing was a full-blown sentient being, capable of enormous learning. Yeah, if I had such a system, I'd just retail it out to the public.

Two fixes I might have bought:

1) The thing isn't really intelligent. It's just Siri on roids, a sophisticated chat bot that gives the illusion of companionship, but isn't really sentient. Then the movie could have made a statement about our retreat from real relationships into insular, artificial ones aided by technology.

2) The main character is on the development and/or beta test team, and he hacks a prototype that becomes truly intelligent. He doesn't share it with his bosses because he is lonely and pathetic, and he's the only one that has one of these.

Instead, we get treated to a plot that is utterly ridiculous and unbelievable. And even if we set that aside, what we've got is Velveeta-grade cheese wrapped up in soft lighting, ambient music, Joaquin's mustache, and hipster near-future masturbatory horseshit.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Glengarry Glen Beck, or David Mamet Jumps the Shark

Christopher Hitchens reviews playwright David Mamet's latest non-fiction(?) book The Secret Knowledge, and it sounds pretty horrible.

So horrible, in fact, that it almost makes me wonder if its some sort of performance piece, whether Mamet, having not accomplished anything substantial in theater in decades is now desperately trying to be relevant by pretending to convert to radical conservatism. I can't be the only person who had this thought, but Hitchens doesn't seem to entertain the idea.

Whether it's earnest or art, either way, it's pretty sad.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gamification

I recently read Jane McGonigal's Reality is Broken, a plea to change the world by making work and chores more like games.

In Slate, Heather Chaplin does a good job of pointing out why this is generally a lame idea.

What she misses is that there are legitimate reasons why people feel they're achieving less. These include the boring literal truths of jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, and a taxation system that benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and poor. You want to transform peoples' lives into games so they feel as if they're doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don't notice how miserable they are? You could argue that peasants in the Middle Ages were happy imagining that the more their lives sucked here on earth the faster they'd make it into heaven. I think they'd have been better off with enough to eat and some health care.

I think McGonigal wants to try to harness the powerful, short, positive feedback loops provided by games to make work seem less like work, but this idea ultimately has two big problems: it feels like we're being scammed, and it might just suck the fun out of all games.

On the first point, adding achievements, power-ups, and persona to school, work, and chores seems akin to pouring chocolate on lima beans. In her book, McGonigal gives examples of people who compete with each other to try to clean their own bathroom, because it's worth so many points in a virtual game. I don't buy it. This might work for the near term, but scrubbing the toilet sucks. I don't think thinking "Wow, this is going to level up my in-game rogue" while I scrub the toilet is going to make it that much more fun, especially in the long-term.

And to the second point, I think correlating game-like experiences with hum-drum tasks may take the sheen off of other games you play. Games are one escape from the necessary tedium of life. As McGonigal points out, they are highly-simplified abstractions of the more complex, messy aspects of the world. In a game, we generally have very clearly-defined goals, with a limited range of choices. And when those choices pay off, we get artificial rewards that stimulate the parts of our brains that are hardwired to respond to real-world rewards.

The move to try to meld the escapist simplicity of our video, board, and card games to the complex tedium of the real world is well-intentioned, but as Chaplin points out, horribly flawed.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

RoboRally Review

When I was a kid, one of the first video games I played was called Robot Odyssey on my friend's Apple. You played the role of a human in an underground city or something, and you had 3 robots. You could go inside the robots and wire them up to carry out tasks autonomously, e.g. the robot might need to go into a room by itself, navigate the environment, retrieve an item, and exit the room to return to you. To do all this, you need to program the robot by going inside it and wiring up its insides. For example, you could wire the left bumper to the top thruster, so that when the robot bumps into a wall on the left side the of the room, its top thruster fires and it moves down.


I found the process of designing the autonomous behavior of the robot endlessly frustrating and fun, and I've been fascinated by the idea of designing a game in which the player composes a behavioral script for an agent. I think if it is done the right way, it could be very compelling, while also teaching or reinforcing critical thinking and very basic programming concepts.

I think when I mentioned this before, it was Kenny who mentioned the board game RoboRally as employing similar concepts.

So I finally ordered it last week and played my first game this week.

The game is somewhat similar to what I was envisioning. Each player has a robot that starts at a given position on a board (the setting is supposed to be a factory). There are conveyor belts (not actually moving parts, just indicated by arrows on the board), pits, repair stations, and flags. Each turn, each player draws some number of cards which indicate basic movements (e.g. move forward 2 spaces, turn left, back up 1 space, etc.). The player composes a series of movements out of these cards each round and places them face down in front of them. Players then turn their cards over one by one and execute the movements.

The "programming" in this case only consists of movement instructions, so there is not use of control statements or logical operators. In this sense, the analogy to programming is quite weak. Also, you only ever get one shot at a given "program". There is no iteration, which I think was one of the most compelling things about Robot Odyssey. You would wire up your bot, send it into a room, and see what it did. Often it would behave in ways you hadn't anticipated, and you'd then be able to make a couple of small changes and try again. There is no trying again with RoboRally. You end up where you end up at the end of a turn. You discard your old program and draw and compose a new one.

The game seems to require an awful lot of mental spatial manipulation, planning, and prediction. In this sense, it reminds me an awful lot of the Labyrinth board game by Ravensburger. So for teaching mental spatial skills, I think it's great. But programming? Not so much.

And a couple of other criticisms: The game is not very casual at all, so in that sense I don't see broad appeal, especially to younger kids. The game is quite complicated. There are elements that easily could have been left out (e.g. Option cards, which we never even got to in our first game) that would still retain the core experience. Also, the game is pretty brutal for making mistakes of any kind. If you accidentally navigate off the edge of the board (which is pretty easy to do while you are still learning the basics), you have to position the bot back at the starting point, you lose one of only 3 life tokens, you take two damage points (which reduced the number of cards you can draw each turn, AND you lose an option card. I mean, come on.

Another big disappointment was that there's a cool variety of different robot designs, and each robot has a name (e.g. "squash bot") and an individualized tracking card to place tokens on. I thought this signified that each robot had some kind of specialized skill or something to differentiate each one from another. But no, despite their idiosyncratic names and designs, they are all exactly the same in terms of game play.

Anyway, cool game, but in my opinion it's overly complicated, unnecessarily harsh on beginners, and doesn't really capture the core elements of algorithmic design (this isn't an inherent problem with the game, it's just that I was hoping it would flex programming skills more than mental movement and rotation).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception

I can't say I was much impressed. The cast was strong, and the emotional arc of the story was good, but it was over-long and any semblance of verisimilitude to dreams or psychology was nonexistent.

The movie involves 'extractors', people who can enter other's dreams, apparently as a team, and extract valuable information, such as corporate secrets. One team member is known as an 'architect', who designs the dreams. One tactic is to include a vault where, as one character explains it, the subject is naturally inclined to put their secrets. Then the team just breaks into the vault. Huh?

Mild spoiler here: The trailers and movie posters all feature mazes. At one point when recruiting a team member, she is tested on whether or not she can construct a good maze. Is there a maze in the movie? Um, no. She makes one in a dream, but we never see it and other characters bypass it using air ducts because they're running out of time. Lame.


The movie's title comes from a technique in which, instead of stealing an idea, the team implants one. But because this is so difficult, it involves embedding a dream within a dream within a dream (that's 3 levels). Cause, you know, it's got to be buried way deep in the subconscious. I know, you're thinking "Whoa, dude! Three levels?" I'm reminded of the amp in Spinal Tap that goes to 11, or the dinner conversation about tornadoes in Twister where the subject of a category 5 hushes everyone into stunned silence.

Anyway, there's a team, they try to implant an idea in some dude's head. Once we get there, it's a fairly standard heist film. From the trailers I thought there would be some really mind-bending special effects, but there really wasn't much to wow. The dream imagery didn't look particularly dreamy. I had hopes for Inception, though I think it's virtually impossible to film dreams. They are an inherently first-person experience, and have a slippery morphing quality that you simply can't put on film. The thing about dreams is, they don't make sense when you wake up, but in the dream they do. But you can't show something nonsensical to an observer and have it appear normal. That's the catch-22. The director who has come the closest to capturing a real dream-like quality is David Lynch, and his movies are not particularly fun to watch.

Anyway, once we get into the target's head, the movie becomes a lot more watchable, but that first hour is fairly agonizing. There is a lot of silly exposition about how dreams and extraction work...virtually none of it making any sense. If someone else is in your dream, modifying the content, your 'projections' will grow increasingly hostile toward them. I guess since I've never knowingly had anyone invade my dreams, I can't confirm or deny this, but it sounds dumb. And how are these people supposed to get into each other's dreams? They hook themselves up to an intravenous hooka and bam, there they are. Is there some technology that facilitates this? Are they just psychic? Do the sedatives they use confer psychic ability? This is a pretty lame cop-out. Even the cheeseball 1984 movie Dreamscape, which was about psychically entering other's dreams, handled the subject with more credibility.

But in that film, a key gimmick was the old wives' tale that dying in a dream kills you in real life. They didn't really do that in Inception, but we did get this silly set of rules:

1) You can feel pain in a dream, even extreme pain, but it won't wake you up.
2) If you die in a dream, you wake up, unless...
3) If you are powerfully sedated and you die in a dream, you descend into another dream within a dream.
4) For each dream within a dream, time runs at an increasingly slower rate, so 10 minutes in your top-level dream might be 10 hours in your second-level dream.
5) Whatever is happening to you in the dream just above you affects the environment of the dream just below (e.g. if you are shaking in your level 2 dream, the whole world will shake in your level 3 dream, but apparently not below that).
6) A 'kick', or sudden jolt, at any level will pull you out of the next lower level, no matter how sedated you are.

I don't have too much of a problem with a movie making up it's own arbitrary, goofy-ass rules. I don't even mind too much if it spends a fair amount of screen time explaining them (though this movie spends too much). What I do mind is when a movie goes to all the trouble to cobble together a bunch of bullshit rules and teach them to you, then doesn't even stick to them.

At one point, a character dies at one level, so he is supposed to go down a level. Cobb (DiCaprio's character) and another character go after him, but when they do so, they're in Cobb's dream. How did the character who died go down into the dream of another character who wasn't dreaming yet? Shouldn't he have gone into his own dream?At another point a character that is heavily sedated kills herself. This should mean that she goes one level deeper. Instead she goes up in the dream hierarchy.

The movie not only violates its own rules, it seemingly revels in the inconsistencies. This is supposed to be 'mind-blowing'. Instead I found it a nonsensical mess. Which is a shame because the actors really do a great job, and the central relationships are interesting. Too bad it's all wrapped in a slather of absurd, poorly-conceived gobbledy-gook.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lost: The Jacob/MIB Origin Episode

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

















I'm a pretty big fan of Lost. There are some quality dramas on TV these days, including Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but Lost has consistently been my favorite for the past 5 years.

I didn't think the writers would be able to pull off a very satisfying ending. They seem much more adept at generating mystery than explaining it. So I have steeled myself for the end run of the series, almost hoping that they wouldn't really explain much more, because that would be more satisfying than a bunch of crappy explanations.

Looks like so far I've generally been right. That is to say, I wasn't much impressed with last night's episode, the last regular episode before the 2-part finale. There is hope yet, but things aren't looking very good on the basis of this episode.

To recap: Jacob and the man in black (MIB, he still didn't get named this episode, unless I missed it), are actually brothers. They were born of a woman from a shipwreck who wandered into a hippy Allison Janney, just credited as "Mother". Mother delivers the twins and brains the real mother with a rock. Then she raises the two boys and one day shows them a cave emitting a bunch of light. It's the source, she tells them. Everybody's got a little light inside of them, but if this one ever goes out, everything ceases to exist. Okay.

As teens, their real mother appears to MIB, reveals herself as his true mother, and tells him about the rest of the world. So MIB confronts his fake mother and goes to live with a group of other people on the island, none of whom we ever actually meet.

Years later, MIB can't find the cave, but does figure a way he can supposedly leave the island by sticking a wooden wheel near a source of underground energy. Okay. Fake mother shows up to brain him, and either her or something else slaughters all the villagers. Okay.

Jacob reluctantly agrees to protect the cave of light by drinking some wine. We still don't know if this is what gives him his powers. MIB then kills Mother. Jacob gets mad at him and throws him into the cave of light, which Mother had said was "worse than dying". This apparently kills the MIBs regular body and transforms him into the smoke monster. MIB's and Mother's bodies are laid side by side in the cave for Jack and the others to find hundreds of years later. Okay.

Anyone else not particularly satisfied with this?

The characterization was pretty lame in this episode. And it still raises more questions than it answered:

Who is this Mother character?
Where did she come from?
What is this light source?
Where did Jacob's real mother come from? Was she brought to the island by Mother?
Why would MIB keep calling Mother "mother" when he knew she wasn't his real mother?
Why does the light source turn you into a smoke monster?

And so on and so forth. Lost has always tread a thin line between generating genuine mystery and just throwing head-scratching crap at the audience. For the most part it's done a great job of genuinely creating mystery, mostly because they've done a great job of creating compelling characters that you actually care about. But I have to say, they failed on this one. I didn't really give a crap about Jacob or his brother, and this episode didn't really answer any of the mysteries of the island, except by just throwing up more gobbledy-gook.

Maybe the finale will wrap things up in a nice little bundle, but I'm even more pessimistic now. We'll see in a couple of weeks.