TITAA #31: Fluid Identities and Watery Spaces
A God-Dolly - AI Art for Protest, Pixels & Piranesi - Creative Conferences - Game Places
I made a special trip to see the “Beyond Stonehenge” exhibit at the British Museum. It was quite good, albeit crowded. The panel by these creepy wooden figures said,
“These figures with dazzling quartzite eyes and removable phalluses travel on a serpent-headed boat. They were deposited in a waterway as an offering to protect an important travel and trade route. Their shields and three crew mates were found together in a box. Their fluid identities may represent supernatural beings with the power to cross the watery depths to the spirit world beyond.”
There were other interesting gender displays at “Beyond Stonehenge,” including the Glastonbury Idol, I think better known as the Somerset “God-dolly,” which has male and female body characteristics:
This piece was found beneath a trackway in marshy lands and is said to be the earliest depiction of human form known to have been made in Britain. I found one article online about the God-dolly, focused on its placement in the Somerset marsh (but not discussing gender attributes):
“Considered in this context, the ‘God-dolly’ may well have been created to emulate a supernatural figure, a singular entity worshipped at the edge of a track, at a wet ‘lag’, an opening into a watery supernatural realm.”
There was another display showing items usually seen only in male or female burials but found mixed in one East Anglian grave (knives and an amber necklace), suggesting gender rules were being transformed or questioned. Happy Pride Month, a bit late!
AI Art & Creativity Stuff
It’s getting harder to keep up with links as text2image tools hit the media and the meme-circuit. I don’t want to make myself crazy with my completist urge, so I am backing off documenting the “big company” stuff since it’s all becoming easier to find. Lots o’ press and magazine covers and arguments re “what is art” are hitting the mainstream.
I still don’t have access to the DALLE-2, although many I know do. Maybe the invite got lost in spam. As a Google consultant, I haven’t yet gotten access to Imagen or Parti, because perms are hard. Midjourney, on the other hand, is on the edge of open beta and soon you won’t need invites to use it! A Twitch streamer demoed it to 80K viewers last week (er, surprise, MJ team!). MJ remains committed to being a community space with a model producing an artistic rather than photoreal feel, which I personally like.
I do rec the Vox video explainer on AI Art by Jess Fong and the bonus video with quotes from artists. I was background material but was scared to sound like an idiot in video. Two things of many to highlight: Ted Underwood notes that wanting to produce art in different styles means suddenly wanting to learn about artists and art history and art movements, which is a great thing. Museums, take note! Bokar N’Diaye expressed deep thoughts and ended the video with an affirming consideration of the latent explorer artist (I cleaned up a bit):
“Anything we do from politics to any cultural aspect really is born of combinations which evolve over time, and it's hard to—in that whole tangle of interaction and causality— to really put a flag there and say ‘oh that segment is mine’ even though it's completely true, without you maybe things wouldn't have inflected in some way.”
I find this a reassuring thought for artists who use models other people made, or just travelers in these fluid numeric spaces: You saw a thing, with your eyes, that no one else might see or look at the same way. You may also do something new with it. Carpe artem.
But cheers for the non-corporate, open source art models. Evidently Dalle-Mini, @borisdayma’s in-training model on HuggingFace, went viral this month and now even has a great twitter feed of weird image generations with 959K followers (!). It now has an ad-supported site at Craiyon (I guess OpenAI complained about the “mini” name). Speaking of names, I don’t entirely follow the naming scheme here but I gather there’s a model we can download from HF now, called Dalle-Mega, which is the largest Dalle-Mini model? And here’s an article on How Dalle-E Mini Works.
This is weird, and you know I like weird: “Dalle-Mini [now crAIyon] has an obsession with women in saris.”
Moar art tools: A cool pixel art colab, Pixel Art Diffusion (link to V3), based on a model trained and released by @Kaliyuga_ai. The results are excellent! And I’m not usually a fan of pixel art. She has also released a tutorial on how to train your own diffusion model with minimal coding, which is A+.
Jina-AI’s new “Create Disco Diffusion Artworks in One Line” release makes it pretty easy to do that. They’ve released a few good text2image wrapper tools now.
I like this infinitely scrolling Dalle-2 inpainting (h/t Ted Underwood), and MC Frontalot song with images generated by Jason Scott in Midjourney.
I am also a fan of the animation being made using AI generated imagery, like @remi_molettee’s collabs using Disco Diffusion (IG) and also this one (IG); and callanwoolcock did a moonrover in MJ that is animated (IG link).
Other Arty Tooly Things
Artistic Radiance Fields looks insane. Artistic 3d style wrapping.
I had a lot of fun playing with the notebook for ProcTHOR, a 3D-environment generation and dataset tool from AllenAI. “ProcTHOR enables Embodied AI to scale by orders of magnitude by procedurally generating interactive 3D environments.” The colab notebook is very nice tutorial walkthrough, kudos to the authors.
There’s a ton of activity going on in Minecraft-related RL (reinforcement learning) and agent behavior. MineDojo looks absolutely amazing and if I weren’t days late with this newsletter I’d try it out and report here today. But there you go.
MineDojo is a new framework built on the popular Minecraft game for embodied agent research. MineDojo features a simulation suite with 1000s of open-ended and language-prompted tasks, where the AI agents can freely explore a procedurally generated 3D world with diverse terrains to roam, materials to mine, tools to craft, structures to build, and wonders to discover.
Speaking of Townscaper, this is a really good long article about the tech and Oskar’s predecessor games (alert, wave function collapse fans) leading up to Townscaper’s generation algorithm: How Townscaper Works.
The Theory of the Place: Level Design Philosophy for Unexplored 2. (H/T Chris Foster.) A game I have yet to play, but I loved this article. They have a procgen approach to maps and places, so generative map fans take note!
CityBound world simulator game, OS, by Anselm Eickhoff. “A city building game that uses microscopic models to vividly simulate the organism of a city arising from the interactions of millions of individuals.” This is the kind of thing I want to add narration to, immediately.
You have 6 more days to get in on Aaron Reed’s very successful Kickstarter for the 50 Years of Text Games book. He points out to me that he doesn’t actually pocket most of this money, it goes towards fees, actually printing and sending the book, ad spend, rewards for big spenders, administrative stuff. And obviously he took a lot of time off to write the articles and do the book layout. So, he’s not rich and buying new VR headsets or anything.
Yet Another Roguelike Tutorial - in Python. Comprehensive and amazing-looking!
“EmilyBlaster: A VideoGame Based on the Poems of Emily Dickinson.” For the snackable arcade games fans.
Cat Manning made a little Twine-based Shakespearean character pairing game, We Are Not All Alone Together. It’s fun(ny). Can you match up unhappy-ending characters? Kate and Ophelia are a good one.
Who’s Lila? A game where your UI is controlling the character’s facial expressions. (H/t Daniel Abensour. No I also haven’t played this, I’m just struck by the inverse facial recognition UI thing.)
GreenLIT: GreenLIT: Using GPT-J with Multi-Task Learning to Create New Screenplays by Robert Gonsalves. I’m a fan of Robert’s articles, which cover how to fine tune GPT-J in some detail for creative applications. He also put up CLIP and PASTE, a cool article/tutorial on image collages.
Allison Parrish’s keynote for ICCC 2022 on “paratexts” was a great read. I like her point that so many NLP papers, even in a generation context, show only numbers and no examples of their output. Boo.
Paratexts are best explained as those texts that are “on the threshold” of other texts: texts like prefaces, introductions, dedications and epigraphs that present the text and put it into relation with readers and the rest of the world.
Creative/Gamey Conference Papers and Schedules
Papers from ICCC 22 (Computational Creativity Conf) (happening this week) are online and are really fun. There’s a good one by Calderwood et al on using Twine combined with GPT-3 to author online games (with code), and a lot on poetry generation.
Text2Story, workshop papers on narrative extraction from text. Lots of this is about news stories or data, but there are a few on fiction, like this one on generating character arcs from fiction and one on causality mining in fiction. Plus a number on entity recognition.
I’m an invited keynote at the AACL workshop on WordPlay: When Language Meets Games. I’ll post my slides next month.
NLP / Data Science / Web Stuff
SpacyFishing: A spaCy wrapper for Entity-Fishing, which disambiguates entities against wikidata.
BLOOM is done training (but they seem to be baking it a bit more?). It is/will be a giant open-source multilingual language model. A piece by Alberto Romero on why it’s so important.
Observable now has a text grid that works with SQL. Yay! Also the SQL Murder Mystery has been implemented in an Observable notebook. Teaching sure seems easier these days.
Braking Day (SF) by Adam Oyebanji. I started thinking it would be a light YA sf thing that might bore me, but no. A class-based system under brutal rationing on a generational ship is soon arriving at a destination planet. An internal resistance movement doesn’t want to land and mess up the planet and their place in the hierarchy. Ravi, a lower-class engineer from a crime family, is hallucinating about a girl floating in space without a suit. He and his cousin, with an illegal AI bot, look into the history of their ship and discover there might be more ships out there. Contact gets weird, in a good way. Totally enjoyable adventure.
Book of Night, (fantasy), Holly Black. Holly’s adult tale of a con-artist/thief in a world of magicians who draw on their shadow’s power. Magic books are stolen and sought. It was not exactly my thing (urban fantasy is generally ‘meh’ to me), but it’s a snarky fast read.
⭐ The Story of Silence (medieval fantasy?) by Alex Myers. I loved this — it’s a satisfying read of a non-binary medieval knight. Silence is born female but raised as a boy (due to an inheritance law) and identifies as a boy…. mostly. The pronouns shift. It’s based on a French medieval story. It’s told in a chatty style, like you’re sitting in the pub listening to the news from the wandering bard. Also, you get some Merlin appearances and a lot of derring-do.
⭐ Once Upon a River (magical-realism), by Diane Setterfield. Another with good tale-telling style. Set in an old town on the Thames, a pub known for its story-tellers becomes the hub for a mystery about a mute girl who apparently drowns and then comes back to life. Locals theorize and embroider and claim her as their missing daughter; there are very good people and very bad people who want a piece of the action. Ghost stories and thieves and heroes here. Highly recommended.
The Thirteenth Tale (gothic fiction), by Diane Setterfield. After the above, I immediately read one of her earlier ones, in which a shy young woman is invited to record the autobiographical story of a dying, famous novelist. It ends up being a Gothic history about (I would argue) insane people in an old decaying country house, complete with twins and ghosts and crazy mothers and uncles. Also, there are missing governesses. A little bit of a We’ve Always Lived in the Castle feel? I liked it and rec it, but not quite as much as Once Upon a River. I will read her other books Quite Soon.
The Stone Gods (lit sf), by Jeanette Winterson. This is an odd book — three linked stories with a “we’ve ruined this paradise before” theme. A woman named Billie Crusoe is castaway a few times with a female-presenting robot AI named Spike who is in love with her, and everything gets sad. The strongest story is the first one: The inhabitants of climate-ruined red planet Orbus launch a ship to set up an outpost for immigration to Planet Blue, but the travelers have to take care of its infestation of giant lizards first. It’s funny and lyrical and heart-breaking. The other two stories are more parables, and less funny by far, with similar characters reliving these mistakes.
Gentleman Jack s2 (HBO Max). Season 2 of the story of Anne Lister, the “first modern lesbian” in Yorkshire in the early 19th century. GJ s1 was très watchable as a historical lesbian romance, while this is more, uh, “how do we actually live now?” They are confronted with local politics turning mean, business and money worries, family scheming, the dismissal of women by men, and legal boxing over property rights. Not to mention pressure from the dramatic ex-gf. I found it a little stressful, but it was a good Pride Month watch.
The end of ⭐ The Shining Girls (Apple TV+) was very good. A strong rec for time-traveling, serial killer AUs if you like that sort.
⭐ The Seven Lives of Léa (Netflix). Also a time-traveling AU, but not a serial killer! A French series, filmed in Rocher de La Baume in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (southeastern France); the scenery here is gorgeous. One might think I watch TV for scenery? But it’s a bingeable, time-traveling murder mystery with its own very French local spin. A depressed teen finds a dead body in a river, and that night (and subsequent nights) she dreams herself into the body of someone living in the 1990ies, during her parents’ teen years, in the days right before the death. Needless to say, she also tries to meddle, having fallen for the dead boy Ismaël. I was charmed.
Annika s1 (PBS on Amazon). British “maritime detective” story set near Glasgow. Nicola Walker plays a lighter detective character than her Unforgotten character. She also talks to the screen in a wry manner. Made me want to go to Scottish pubs and take Scottish boat rides. But not have a teen daughter.
⭐ For All Mankind s3 (Apple TV+) is on! Yay! It’s still soap-opera-y, but there are also still fabulous journeys in space with plenty of disasters. And, I like a good AU history, since ours seems to suck.
(I’m not watching Stranger Things yet, and yeah, a ton of TV stuff has slipped past me.)
⭐ Deliver Us the Moon. I’m not done, but this is the Sunday matinee science fiction Moon mystery I didn’t know I needed. It takes me back to some of the things I loved in the Lone Echo VR games, and also Red Matter. You should play it if you like adventure games on abandoned bases and gravity-less nav. You get to drive a moon buggy, too.
Paraphrasing a question from a reader: “Hi, I’m a freelance game writer who just raised over $300K on a Kickstarter project. I’m stressed about all the rewards I have to deliver, and I’d like some serene VR recs for my new Quest 2.” Well, you’ll want to install Virtual Desktop and stream from Steam, where there is a lot more on offer than in the Quest store and you can take advantage of things like the current summer sale!
Shores of Loci. This is a 3D puzzle game, but unlike the excellent Puzzling Places which uses 3D scans of real world places, the puzzles here construct fantastical artist-rendered towns. As you snap them together, little white stick people walk around on the streets. It’s very cute and very calm.
Little Cities is a very cute VR city planning game with a minimum of stats screens and numbers to interpret. You can just lay down some roads and houses, and people will drive along and move in. It’s very low key and low stakes, available directly on Quest.
I’m not going to rec Space Docker VR yet, because I can’t get thru the tutorial yet… and it would not be good for people wanting to avoid nausea inducers. It’s basically “navigate in space” for ship deliveries and I can’t get the hang of the controls yet. But I will!
For VR story games, Red Matter is still one of my favorites, but I’m not sure if it will induce nausea. It’s not new. Obviously I swear up and down about how amazing Lone Echo and its sequel are, but likely nausea-inducing if you don’t like floating in zero G. Time Stall is a funny physics game, I think non-nausea-inducing, in that you are in a single spot mostly and control the objects around you. My previous newsletters have a lot more recs but I tend to like the ones with flying, swimming, floating, and walking motion.
Poem: Dark Side of the Room
there’s another room inside this one
an anti-room with anti-matter people
sleeping or screwing on anti-matter beds
every so often someone’s elbow or foot
breaks through an invisible wall
then slips back almost unnoticed
I glimpsed one of them once
staring at me bemused
like a reflection on a dark tv screen
some say the void is not empty
it’s populated by virtual particles
that pop in for a quick bite and run
perhaps you’re unaccustomed
to the world’s indifference or phantom lovers
who annihilate each other over dinner
au contraire it gives me a certain curious comfort
to realize that I’m inhabited by beings
about whom I know virtually nothing
—Charles Borkhuis (sample)
If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I’m trying to figure out how to not scare off my readers (and myself) from this long newsletter. Maybe fewer links and more pictures? I don’t know. We all need distractions as the world burns around us. Take a second to say hi if you enjoyed this. And I’m always looking for escapist recs!
Best, Lynn / @arnicas