TITAA #22: White Horses and Fast Driving
The White Horse of Uffington, UK - Satellite Pic from Wikipedia
I bought Forza Horizon 4, which is a racing game. Why did I buy a racing game? Cuz I can't visit the UK right now. I was assured by a friend that I could avoid racing, if I just wanted to drive in a very pretty Britain in simulated four seasons (in their intro, "Winter: a song of ice and tires"). Their funky, smooshed up map of the UK is "a place filled with quaint little towns, quiet farms, and snaking country roads lined with hedges and crumbling stone walls. Babbling brooks, dense forests, a wide beach, rocky mountaintops, castles, and other centuries-old structures are scattered all across the map. There is also more life to it, with deer, rabbits, chickens, and some amazingly agile sheep in residence." (IGN review) And it was on sale on Steam.
I'm a bit offended by their fake map sticking the White Horse of Uffington bang up next to Broadway (Costwolds) and Ambleside (Lakes), and Edinburgh (Scotland) is only a couple miles away. This is a fantasy of the "best of British driving scenery," I guess. But it sure is pretty, and I did enjoy saying, "Hey was that the white horse I just sped past?!" It's ok to hit the stone walls and hedges at top speed and even strangely therapeutic.
To take tourist photos, you have to stop racing around and bust thru fences to get your view with the car. I'm entertained by the fact that other people's game pictures are all OF THEIR CAR, with sexy lighting against a blurry background, when what I want is the location shots. Here I am with a bad angle on the chalk horse:
(Here is the stunt-driving car I bashed thru a fence in order to get a selfie in the field of the White Horse.)
Newly motivated, I finally got my Oculus set up with a USB cable correctly and managed to run Google Earth VR. (Note, it won't run via Steam VR.) Here's the White Horse in Google Earth:
I wanted to look for it in MS Flight Simulator, but I have a constant crashing problem now (as many do). This guy found it. So many virtual ways to "see" things now! (Here's the location in Google Maps, btw.)
The White Horse, which I had thought was a recent-ish monument like the white horses of Wiltshire (ie., 1700s), turns out to be late Bronze Age (1300-550 BC)! An academic article on the folklore of the White Horse by Diana Woolner (free here) gives us this charming map of other old chalk hill figures in southern England (some of which are gone now):
Might the horse be St George's horse? Because there is a Dragon Hill next door (visible on my Google Earth pic above on the left side, another chalk white top), on which St George is said to have fought and killed "the dragon." However, based on the dating, this dragon fighting story could be a Christianization. Woolner reports accounts of Saxon midsummer festivals at which the horse would be "scrubbed" to keep it white and clear of growth. She believes the folklore around the horse is Saxon-Pagan, referring to Odin, Sigurd, and the killing of Fafnir, with St. George a relatively modern update.
Speaking of midsummer, I haven't "unlocked autumn" yet in Forza driving skills, so I am forever in the summer in fake Britain. I might be ok with that.
AI & Creativity Links
EleutherAI's GPT-J 6B is now on HuggingFace! You can try the online demo at that link.
Artflow.ai (via Cat Manning.) Generate an avatar from a text description. Here's one I tried:
Crafter: A python-based simple agent game based on Minecraft, for reinforcement learning. You can play it yourself, or set your agent to work. They found emergent agent behaviors like tunneling and hiding in the woods. Same, buddy, same.
MUZIC: Music Understanding and Generation tools from Microsoft.
IC_GAN (Instance Conditioned GANs) from Facebook Research: Output conditioned on input image plus a predefined output class. Here's my attempt at the latter, using a green hill desktop pic plus "castle" class prompt, on their demo at Replicate. I like, but depending on the choices, the output class can overwhelm the input.
CLIPMatrix: Some weirdly horrific 3d textures generated by text, from Nikolay Jetchev. Here's a "green witch of the swampy organic ocean with tentacles":
This shader in a tweet by @zozuar is phenomenal.
"I Wrote a Book with GPT-3 in 24 Hours and Got It Published." Poetry, but still. Some reflections on this moment in AI time. An article by Jukka Aalho.
Other Fun Tech Links
3D: Two good-looking 3D-related tutorials: "Shaded Relief Maps in Blender" by Joe Davies, and the NYT End-to-End Guide to Photogrammetry with Mobile Devices. There are demos for the latter for Google Model Viewer, Sketchfab, and Three.js.
Animation: Two animation libs for JS came out this week: the tiny little Motion, for small animations; and the bigger Theatre.js, a replacement for parts of Greensock, which works with Three.js and React.
NLP & Agents: Building a Smart Robot Using Unity and Huggingface: Thomas Simonini has been exploring using Huggingface NLP models to power NPCs for chat in 3D game environments. (He also has a popular Reinforcement Learning tutorial online, which I haven't taken yet.) He's looking for an AI games job, btw.
NLP & Agents: Tutorial materials for Rasa, the toolkit for building NLP dialogue agents.
Narrative: A good overview on Narrative Theory for Computational Narrative Understanding, by Piper, So, & Bamman. Makes a good complement to the AI storytelling intro by Riedl I linked last month.
Narrative: A Plug and Play method for Controlled Text Generation, with code.
Narrative and text data: TVRecap, a Dataset for Generating Stories with Character Descriptions. (TV shows with character interactions described.)
Image datasets: Img2Dataset: Easily create a dataset of images (or images and captions) from a list of urls. Also see the new datasets for images, PASS (no humans), and LAION, "The world’s largest openly available image-text-pairdataset with 400 million samples."
Good Longish Reads
This longread piece of literary espionage about a book manuscript thief, via Laura Olin's newsletter.
Aaron A Reed's very fun post about the generative world and text in Dwarf Fortress. I am still stalled at part 1 of my Dwarf2Text saga about trying to use DF generated world dbs to generate stories; his quotes from the game reminded me that the game will not be beaten here, I think.
A lovely piece on Remedios Varo's magical work in the NYT. I wrote about Varo in this newsletter in issue #7.
Tree Thinking, a thoughtful long essay about trees of all kinds, by Shannon Mattern.
“Forests are never just evil,” he says, “they are evil and enchanted, they’re places where you go and get lost, but they’re also places where you go and find yourself; they’re places of sin, but they’re also places of redemption.”
Reservoir Dogs (Hulu) has continued to be a weird, small-town reservation slice-of-life, magical-realist show that I really like; but content warning for self-harm. Same for Ted Lasso (Apple TV+, including CW), which has gotten quite a bit darker this season. And I ended up liking Jane? I want to go to that club that Beard and Jane went to. I'm also glad What We Do in the Shadows is back.
Whitstable Pearl (British, Acorn TV) is a cozy mystery set in Whitstable, a seaside town in England, where a woman of a certain age who runs a seafood restaurant also works a local private detective, regularly crossing the path of a new brooding, handsome detective sent down from London. (Also self-harm content warning. What is going on, everyone. Everything I watch.)
The Other Two (two seasons on HBO) is really fun with some cringe caveats - adult siblings Brooke and Carey navigate having a TikTok famous teen brother (13), a sweet kid whose success shoots him into music videos, brand deals, mega $ contracts with unscrupulous agents and PR people. This is good satire on fame today, with some real LOLs, but also some cringy bad behavior from Brooke and Carey. Carey is a gay struggling actor in NYC who at the start is making out with his straight roommate, and Brooke is a romantic and career trainwreck. Carey's storyline is franker and funnier and better drawn, but Brooke is a likable mess. Their friendship saves the show from their occasional awfulness as people.
In a slightly darker comedy rec, I liked Back to Life S1, in which a woman jailed for 18 years for an accidental murder copes with the dismally dramatic town response to her return. How is she so perky despite their shittiness. S2 is out but I haven't seen it yet.
I mostly enjoyed Foundation (Apple TV+) episode 1. I will not read the reviews. I am dying for epic SF over here. Thank goodness for...
★ Infinity Beach, by Jack McDevitt. Loved this and didn't want to put it down. A thriller about possible alien contact and a coverup, set on a far future, Earth colonized world. The search for alien life has just about been given up in a quiet universe. But a prior interstellar quest ended in a strange aborted mission failure, with 2 of the team disappearing afterwards, followed by a mysterious explosion near the (now dead) pilot's home. The area around the explosion site is reputed to be haunted. The sister of one of the missing crew members decides to thoroughly investigate what happened.
Shards of Earth, the new Adrian Tchaikovsky: A good space opera read, with a bit of a Firefly crew feeling. There are some impressive aliens and androids and AI assemblages in this one. I quite liked the Amazonian military clone woman who tries to convince the psychic navigator dude to help against a returning alien threat. OTOH, the psychic navigator dude is a bit of a drip.
Constance, by Matthew FitzSimmons. A good clone thriller. Some echos of themes in Altered Carbon (Netflix and Richard Morgan book). A broke musician gifted a clone by an estranged, dead aunt wakes up in her clone body, finding she is missing 18 months of backup memory. How did her "original" die? Clones in some states, like where her original seems to have moved, have no personhood rights. People from the cloning company are chasing her. Fun times.
Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine. This was very well written and grabbed me despite the bleakness. A young woman who has been isolated on her farm where her family grew weed in Appalachian Ohio realizes the world is going to shit as temperatures drop. There is no more growing season. This climate apocalypse ends in snow and ice, not fire. She loads up a truck and picks up some strays, and it turns into a found-family societal collapse road story. You'll recognize some tropes from Walking Dead et al - there are lots of scary cults and gangs out there. (I had just previously read a litfic climate apocalypse novel and did not like it half as much.)
★ Call of the Sea. A fab narrative-puzzle-adventure game. I was looking for Saturday matinee movie feels, and since you start off in the 1930's looking for a husband who vanished near Tahiti, it sure hit that spot! But it's much more: The scenery is beautiful (underwater is breaktaking!), the clues left by your husband's expedition become more perplexing and concerning (so nice of them to document all their thoughts), the puzzles are big and sometimes complex; and what is up with your weird dreams about breathing under water and that black ooze? The locals might not have been entirely human?! It's very good. Another one I was very sad to finish.
Cloudpunk. I played this as an evening casual driving game, for its noir Bladerunnery city vibe and soundtrack, but found myself more sucked in by the stories than I expected. The main mechanic is driving in the beautiful voxel generated city with packages to deliver, but sometimes you get dialogue chunks (well-voice-acted) from the dispatcher, people who want packages delivered, various android workers and slum dwellers, odd artificial intelligences -- and of course your uploaded android dog, Camus. You have a few options occasionally (deliver or don't deliver), but it's relatively linear, I think? Until the end choice, I guess. It's ok if you are a bad driver, by the way, which I really appreciated.
VR: Moss. It's a lovely 3d platformer with a cute mousie character, and then I remembered I hate platformers with frantic button pushing. If you like them, this has very high-production values. I am enjoying the Talos Principle though, despite how the puzzles feel so separate from the story. I like the decayed temple setting and the old VT100 terminals of corrupted emails.
Don't allow the lucid moment to dissolve
Let the radiant thought last in stillness
though the page is almost filled and the flame flickers
We haven't risen yet to the level of ourselves
Knowledge grows slowly like a wisdom tooth
The stature of a man is still notched
high up on a white door
From far off, the joyful voice of a trumpet
and of a song rolled up like a cat
What passes doesn't fall into a void
A stoker is still feeding coal into the fire
Don't allow the lucid moment to dissolve
On a hard dry substance
you have to engrave the truth
-ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI, TRANSLATED BY RENATA GORCZYNSKI (link)
Hope you are all well. I could already use another vacation trip. If you like this newsletter, which is free but takes loads of time to compile, please reply and let me know, share it, say hi on twitter, or buy me a coffee?
Best, Lynn / @arnicas