TITAA #18: OUTER SPACE Edition!
A yearlong storm. Image of Saturn by Cassini from NYT's 100 Images from Cassini's Mission to Saturn by Jonathan Corum.
This past month I went on a space-craze. I was inspired after finishing the great For All Mankind on Apple TV. I looked up old photos, I cruised NASA's gallery pages, I played with 3D terrain shots of Mars here, I bought and played every "realistic" space VR thing I could find (see below)... Well, it was a whole weird thing. Read on. And sorry for being a week late, I had work deadlines!
AI and Creativity Tools
Language Driven Image Style Transfer looks very cool. Describe your style in text. No code yet. (Speaking of which, the various CLIP-GAN generators I've referenced in past newsletters do a pretty good job with distinct artist styles via text, like "in the style of Gaudi." Or you can say "Unreal Engine" and get a high res game render :)
Fab post about a parsimonious image generator from text using LSTMs, Tiger in the Jungle by Chrisantha Fernando (via @hardmaru), with paper "Generative Art Using Neural Visual Grammars and Dual Encoders."
So cool - Swapping Autoencoder for Deep Image Manipulation. We're getting closer to realistic AI image editing as a tool. Adobe folks worked on this, too.
Strolling Cities pairs poetry about Italian cities with AI-generated visuals of them. It's lovely.
StoryVis is an attempt to generate coherent comic-book style stories (sequential images) from text. Code too.
I love the ethos of Imperfect VR, tutorials on making VR content with A-Frame:
Imperfect VR means that we create our own virtual realities, not aiming for perfection but rather seeking fun and meaning in virtual spaces. Cheap 3D assets. Blocky textures. Weird sounds. Queer social places. Forget VR mainstream. Let’s rather meet and stumble around with smartphones strapped to our faces.
Rogue Engine, a toolkit to create games with three.js!
A good list of books on writing via Tor's site, especially for sf&f wannabe writers.
A Generative SVG Starter Kit is a lovely intro.
You must read the deeply weird story of an Irish women's game collective via Aaron A Reed's excellent text adventure history series.
I read the entirety of the expensive-but-worth-it Procedural Storytelling in Game Design this month. I marked about a hundred sentences in it, but this is already getting long, so here's just one of my favorite quotes, from Bruno Dias: "Procedural generation is, effectively, a way of getting you 200% of the content with 400% of the work." Yeah. Anyway, I may recap my fav bits in the next newsletter.
A Few Cool NLP/Data Things
Leland McInnes is looking at other ways to embed and cluster documents using the vectorizers in the UMAP lib instead of using neural net embeddings, and his pictures are great.
Related to UMAP, this ClusterShapley lib helps explain your clusters via your dataset. Very useful!
Jina, neural search on the cloud (in a box) for any type of data, image, text, other.
Many people have admired, tweeted, and newslettered this raindrop-falls-and-travels-a-river map simulation, with reason: River-runner, by Sam Learner.
I really liked the 3d town walkthrough in this NYT story on the Tulsa massacre.
A good beginner JS course online.
Games - VR in SPAAAAAAAACE
Space Engine is a realistic space simulator, which can be explored without VR as well as in VR: "The world's first science-based photorealistic interactive 3D planetarium that models the entire Universe, using procedural generation for uncharted areas." It is big and deep, and the visuals are extraordinary. I've barely cracked the surface. The UI is, uh, complex, and in VR consists of floating menu bars (which you can turn off). But I totally enjoyed accidentally going to a nearby galaxy, zooming in on a planet, and zipping over its procedural generated terrain under a display of northern lights and volcano fires. And zooming around Saturn's rings and moons.... priceless. If only I could figure out how to control where I'm going.
Universe Sandbox is a "physics-based" planetary simulator. "It merges gravity, climate, collision, and material interactions to reveal the beauty of our universe and the fragility of our planet."
The extensive list of simulations built-in ask important questions like "What if 20 moons collided?" and "What if the moon hit Earth?" Or "What if a black hole travelled through our galaxy?" And "What if some idiot launched a car into space?" (Ok, that was me, but there is a simulation.) The visuals are amazing. The amount of control you have over the simulations is intense, too. Like, you can tweak any attribute of a planetary body and see what happens. But I feel it lacks narrative; it's not always obvious what your change has done, since you are looming in space watching the destruction (or improvements) on a system scale. Are tiny people screaming and running from the meteor fragments? Are the fields on Mars ready to grow wheat yet? Etc.
This is what happens when 20 moons collide, by the way. It's really awesome.
Titans of Space gives you a tour of the solar system and more, including moons and dwarf planets, with clickable panels for more info and real pictures from space missions. I learned a lot about some of the moons I hadn't paid much attention to. More like this, please. (This one may have a better PC version than the Quest one, based on review comments.)
There's a surprising amount of free (or very cheap) ISS content for VR.
Space Explorers is a set of videos shot on the ISS in 360, which you pay a small amount for. A VR documentary series, basically. The inside of the ISS is a giant junk heap. Honestly, when one of the astronauts tells a new crew member, "Don't catch your foot on anything, and if you do, go back and make sure it's ok," I just rolled my eyes. Freaking fix up the interior so it's not a terrifying obstacle course and they don't kill themselves already.
International Space Station Tour VR (free) overlaps a bit in content with the others here, with a point-to-hot-spots UI (no 360 motion of your own); but the video segments from Samantha Cristoforetti are interesting. This was the first time I got a solid "there is a Russian section which does its own thing" vibe.
Mission: ISS is a little tutorial simulator that floats you around a (much cleaner, sanitized) version of the ISS, with less space junk, and asks you to do various little tasks like an almost impossible robot arm manipulation and an EVA. You have fun trying to orient and move around weightlessly. There are little videos and photos explaining parts of it, too. Enjoyable, and free! More game-like than the others.
Home - A VR Spacewalk from the BBC. A short, free, well-done simulation of going outside the ISS on a spacewalk and getting caught in a debris storm. Object manipulation is not perfect, and I'm not sure this one can ever end well? The "expert" mode made me stagger on the floor, for which I give it a solid 2 thumbs up. I love the disorientation of moving along the space station over the big curve of the earth. But really, what were the BBC thinking with the way it ends.
You can also pan around in a Google "Street View" of the ISS on the GAC page. See what a total mess it is inside? I don't know how the astronauts don't go nuts from looking at all that crap for months at a time. Surely it adds cognitive load and depresses them?
Not the ISS, but a good VR game: in Red Matter, you are an agent sent to solve the puzzle of a "Volgravian" mining mission on a mysterious moon, where there is a weird red algae growth all over the base and the crew have disappeared... good Cold War vibe with puzzles that are solvable. (I'm not done yet.)
Firebreak by Nicole Korhner-Stace. This is both a story about a MMORPG plot and real-world super-heros in a corporate-run climate-apocalyptic landscape. Our hero gets hired to look into the details of the superhero security agents who are also NPCs in the game she plays for water rations. It's. So. Good.
First Light, Linda Nagata. Military SF on earth. An augmented soldier becomes convinced an AI is giving him instructions, for some mysterious reason. Others believe him and try to end it.
SF Books about Space!
In the Quick, by Kate Hope Day. A neuro-atypical engineering genius girl is obsessed with what happened to the space mission that used one of her uncle's defective power cells. She enters the space program, which is decaying and depressed, and the details like pencils and wrappers and rats floating around in a cargo bay really stuck with me. Especially when I got to the VR Space Station games.
Project Hail Mary, Andy Weir. More Spaaaaace! Very good "gotta work the problem, science it" book of a solo trip to investigate a mysterious space microbe that is destroying the Sun. Interesting alien life in several forms.
Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal. SPAAAAACE! The so-called "Lady Astronauts" series book 2. I was less disturbed by the rampant sexism and racism than I was in book 1. Maybe I've gotten tougher. Loved this and was reminded of For All Mankind s1's space struggles. Lots of issues on board the ship to Mars with 1960ies hardware and attitudes.
Relentless Moon by Mary Robinette Kowal. The MOOOON! Different main character, but seriously, you can't beat a viral outbreak and sabotage on a moon base with former spies investigating. Excellent.
Mare of Easttown was my favorite watch of the month. It has a bit of a Broadchurch-vibe, where everyone knows everyone and has some secret. Just more teen mothers and drug problems and weirder accents. People are praising Kate Winslet's outstanding performance, but the other cast members and the writing were also fantastic.
Unforgotten s3 was good, the latest in a British series about cold cases... prepare for emotional breakdowns.
2 shows with unusual folkloric storylines: Equinox, a Danish series on Netflix, features a missing sister and possible pagan ritual connections. Invisible City, a Brazilian series on Netflix, gives us an underworld of living Brazilian folk characters fighting deforestation. Some of it is really lovely. (That was last month but I forgot to list it.)
The only space-watching was Stowaway, on Netflix, which is a good movie about a crew discovering they are over-capacity and have the EVA from hell to look forward to. It ends a bit suddenly. (Thanks for the tip, Aaron.)
Mythic Quest on Apple TV. It took me a while to warm up to this satire of a game company with crazy power-mad employees, but I did warm up. I really enjoy the competitive/supportive relationship between lead programmer Poppy and narcissist Ian. (Silicon Valley, on the other hand, felt too close to my day job most of the time, especially when I was working with startups.)
I made the ink
that makes this mark
from the worm of a wasp
and the grief of an oak
and I blackened the blood
that writes the word
with the rust that sheared
the anchor cord
and I thickened the ink
that loads the pen
with the tears of a tree
that laughed in the sun.
If a poem is light
and a poem is dark
it's bred of the ink
that makes the mark.
If a word is life
and a word is death
it's bred in the blood
that comes of earth.
by Christopher Meredith.
Well, this was long. I hope you are all feeling like summer is coming? I managed to get my first shot and then took a short-notice trip to Paris for some paperwork, which was lovely and fattening because terraces are now open. I also gave a few talks this past week, which felt like old times. I'm still interested in freelance NLP/data work, if you have any pointers! I'm especially interested in Spanish connections, as I am applying for a freelance visa for Spain.
If you like this newsletter, drop me a note, share it, or buy me a coffee. It's always cheering :)