Thursday, June 18, 2020

Solaris, Solaris, Solaris, Solaris

I've watched three (count 'em, three) versions of Solaris now. If you're unaware (and if you've read movie reviews, you may well be), Solaris began as a highly acclaimed novel by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Having read the book, the only film I can recommend is the 1968 TV movie. Of course, the production values are lower, but this isn't a special-effects story (something forgotten by both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh). 

Something that absolutely pisses me off about the later two adaptations (and book-to-film adaptations in general) is the degree to which the director is willing to change the author's message into something else.  Stanislaw Lem himself complained about this with regard to the feature films. Tarkovsky's indignant response was proclaim that his "artistic vision" should not be constrained.

People watch movies based on books because they either liked what the author had to say or they haven't read the story and want to find out what it's all about. Of course, they're not going to find out from most movie adaptations. You'll find very few cases where someone has read a book and said that the movie is better. Very few. And in almost all of those, the author had a hand in the production of the movie.

If you've got your own message to tell, then the simple fact is that you can create your own story to tell it.  Of course this is harder. You don't get to ride the author's coat-tails that way. You don't get instant name-recognition and fame. But at least you get to present your vision without stepping on someone else's.

So why do they do it? Well, for one thing, they've been trained to. They have to film something that's film-able, and since millions of dollars are at stake, they have to maximize their chances of it being a commercial success. It's risky to put a lot of investment in something that no one's ever heard of. So they pay off authors to buy the name recognition. The culture among filmmakers normalizes the behavior. It's not just 'Hollywood', either. Tarkovsky was a Soviet. The rationalization is that the author was paid and now the screenwriter and director can have their own way with the story unimpeded.

I've heard the same arguments before. It's the sort of thing a misogynist says when he misuses a prostitute. "She's been paid" makes whatever they do alright and not at all demeaning. Why should they invest a loving relationship when it's so much easier to spend a few bucks and rape a hooker? To too many film directors, authors are merely hookers. Even when they pay lip service to being "faithful to the source material", they're not. They don't even know what "faithful" means. Some of the worst cases are when a dead author's name is plastered over the title as if you're about to see the real, original vision. News flash: you're not.

So I won't join with the teeming crowds that proclaim Tarkovsky a visionary genius. I'm not going to praise his disjointed use of color, or his slow, plodding style as artistic wonderment. It remains slow, plodding, and disjointed. I've read plenty of analyses of the film, and every one comes across as rationalization. If there's genius here, it's Lem's, and it's a poor, distorted shadow of what you get from the book. Lem engaged in a loving act of creation. Tarkovsky raped a hooker.

I won't praise Soderbergh's 2002 vision either. He copped out. He said he wanted to be closer to Lem's story than Tarkovsky; then having said it, directly proceeded to chuck that out and do whatever the hell he wanted to instead. Might as well depict Solaris as a magical fuzzball instead of an oceanic world. Might as well cap it off by having George Clooney live in an idyllic fantasy world where "everything we've ever done is forgiven". Bend over, Lem.

Lem's Solaris is not a love story. There is no happy ending. This is a story about what happens when humans encounter a truly alien entity. As Lem himself pointed out, the title of the book is not Love in Space; it's Solaris. That's what the story is about. It's not about people finding absolution, love, forgiveness, or the illusion of the same. I won't detail the story since you can just read the book. I will tell you that the book ends on a cliffhanger, and a good part of Lem's message is summarized on the last couple of pages. Chris Kelvin doesn't know what's going to happen next. Although he clings to hope, it's a desperate hope, with no guarantees. Only the 1968 TV movie had the balls to show it.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Lyra (Revised Rules)

Let me tell you about Martian Cake: Through his telescope, a Martian sees an Earthman approaching in a rocket, and wants to make him feel at home. So he bakes a cake. Unfortunately, all he knows about cake is what he's seen through his telescope, so he substitutes local ingredients. It looks beautiful, but the Earthman is immediately poisoned upon eating it.

That's the design conceit of the game of Lyra. What might Chess look like if it were "re-created" by someone who's had glance at the game, but never learned the rules and doesn't even quite remember what the pieces look like, or even what size the board is? He knows that the pieces move differently from one another, and one piece is more important, but that's about it. As a result, this game is played on a 6x6 board and the movement of every piece has changed (other than the General, which moves as a King).

As might be expected, this isn't "Earth cake" (Chess). However, I'm tweaking the rules as gameplay, and may introduce variants. At the end of the rules pdf I've noted a few that I've tried in playtesting.

UPDATE: In extensive play-testing, the game wound up being too cautious. To fix this, I've added an element of chance using dice. The conceit here is that the game is 'properly' played with actual people who duel on the playing field. While in Chess, the only difference in the strength of the pieces are in their movement, in Lyra, the pieces also differ in their attack strength. Each piece attacks and defends using dice to simulate the uncertainties of hand-to-hand combat. Chess purists probably won't like this borrowing from a Jetan variant, but it honestly makes for a much better game. And if you'd rather play Chess, well... you know where the board is.

WHY?

Lyra game in progress
"Design conceit" aside, I wrote the game purely because I had built a very beautiful 6x6 physical board and pieces, and just wanted something different to play on it. I made the pieces visually unique because playing it with Chess pieces is mildly confusing (though it can be done).

It's named Lyra merely because I like the name.


HOW TO PLAY

You can download the rules here: Lyra-rules.pdf

Each army consists of the following:

  • General. The general moves like a Chess King (one square in any direction). It attacks with a d12 and defends with a d10. It is not obliged to avoid check.
  • Assassin. This moves one square diagonally or horizontally (not forward or back. It attacks with a d10 and defends with a d8. When the Assassin captures another piece, it takes on that piece's movement in addition to its own. A promoted Assassin can jump enemy pieces.
  • Captains.  The Captain moves 1 or 2 squares orthogonally, or 1 square diagonally forward. It may jump friendly pieces (but not enemy pieces). The Captain attacks with a d8 and defends with a d6. A Captain cannot be promoted.
  • Lieutenants. The Lieutenant moves 1 or 2 squares diagonally, or 1 square orthogonally forward or back (not side-to-side). As with the Captain, it may jump friendly pieces (but not enemy pieces). The Lieutenant attacks with a d6 and defends with a d4.
  • Soldiers. The Soldier moves 1 square forward or sideways, and captures the same way. It attacks and defends with a d4. Upon reaching the back rank, the Soldier is promoted to Lieutenant.
To deal with attack and defense, each player should have one each of the following dice: d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12. It's best if these are colored dark and light, similar to the playing pieces. Combat is as follows:
  1. The attacking player threatens an opposing piece.
  2. The players choose the appropriate dice as described above and roll simultaneously.
  3. If the attacker's roll is higher, the defending piece is removed. Otherwise, it's a 'push', no one wins, the pieces stay where they are, and the attacker's turn is over. (You may think that the attacker's piece should be removed if the defender's roll is higher, but playtesting shows that it's enough of a penalty that the attacker has effectively wasted a turn on the attack. I've seen the defender ignore several failed attacks in order to strengthen his position. It's a big advantage.)

STRATEGY

The game itself has some interesting features:
  • The Assassin piece takes on the movement of the last piece it captured in addition to its own. It's helpful to place the captured piece at the side of the board to remember this.
  • Soldiers do not move or capture like pawns. There is no choice in promotion... Soldiers always promote to Lieutenant. It's helpful to make a couple of extra Lieutenants when building a set to allow for this.
  • Officers (Lieutenants and Captains -- and Assassins who have captured either of them) can step over friendly pieces. 
  • The pieces are designed to have weak spots. Proper play should find and exploit them.
The most important thing to remember is that this is not Chess. Very little of what you know about Chess is going to help you here, beyond some very general rules of thumb such as maximizing your mobility and keeping pieces defended. In particular, there is no onus whatsoever for a player to announce check.  There is no checkmate here, as a General can fight himself out of a trap that in Chess would be absolutely hopeless. It's a fight to the death, and in combat the General is the strongest man on the board.

There are two basic strategies that can prove effective. The first is to take advantage of the leaping ability of your officers to get them onto the field quickly. This allows you to clear some room to allow Soldiers to promote to Lieutenants in the endgame. The second is to use your Soldier early, holding back higher ranking officers for the endgame. Even though a Soldier is relatively weak in battle, it does stand a good chance against a Lieutenant, and has a better-than-nothing chance against any other piece. In either strategy, you'll probably find your Lyran General much more active than a Chess King would be. Because of his combat strength, you may find it advantageous to get him into striking distance when threatened by an officer.

With Lyra's smaller board, the pieces engage much more quickly than in Chess, so there is no en-passant. Also, since officers can step over friendly pieces at any time, there is no castling, and nothing like a Knight. And since movement is generally limited to a maximum of two steps, you won't generally find a lot of back-field infiltration in this game. It's very much a field of battle with a definite front. When played without dice, since the pieces are more similar in strength than in Chess, a game tends to be either cautious dancing or a bloodbath. In other words, without the dice it's a fairly boring game and draws are common. With dice, it's a nail-biter.

When playing with dice, you'll find aggressive play is rewarded. Your pieces are stronger when attacking. Although a General greatly outmatches a Soldier (d10 to d4), it's possible for the Soldier to prevail. An attacking Assassin is on equal footing with a General (d10 to d10). Nevertheless, it's possible to lose the game due to chance, even if your strategy is perfect. Stuff like that happens in war. For best results, you'll want to cherish your high-ranking officers to give yourself the best chance of delivering a finishing stroke.

EQUIPMENT:

As for equipment, you can play it just fine on a chessboard. Just set the knights aside and ignore the outer ranks and files of the board. But if you'd like to make a set like mine for yourself, I'm not going to pretend this was difficult. I cut a 12 x 12" inch sheet of plywood, glued some 2" tiles (from Home Depot) onto it, and then grouted it as you would a floor. I affixed it to a 12 x 12" picture frame in place of the glass and backing. The pieces are made from bits of craft wood that I got from Hobby Lobby: balls, eggs, doll pin stands, and screw-hole caps. The dice can be gotten from any gaming or hobby store or online.

Or, you could play against a computer using Zillions of Games. Here's the file containing the game: [Lyra.zip]. Keep in mind that you'll need a copy of Zillions of Games to run it. Registration is only about 25 bucks and for that you get, as the name implies, a potentially unlimited supply of boardgames, card games, and puzzles.

When I first conceived of the game, I created the ruleset for Zillions. It actually plays a decent game, albeit without dice, and follows all the basic rules, including the wonky captures of the Assassin piece, and the fact that officers can jump over friendly pieces. I'm currently working on a version that includes the new combat rules with dice. This is a little tricky in Zillions, as it doesn't natively implement dice or math, so I may do it in Ludii instead (or as well). In addition to handling a more robust set of ludemes than Zillions, Ludii is free. And being Java-based, it can run on any platform.

A nice box (and dice!) completes the set!
These are the dice you'll need.


--==//oOo\\==--

If you have Zillions of Games, you might try my other games for it:
  • Jedi Chess pits a powerful Sith Lord and his apprentice against the Jedi Order. The Apprentice moves like a Chess Queen; the Sith Lord combines the moves of the Chess Queen and the Knight.
Jedi Chess
  • A variant of Jedi Chess (found in the same file) called Rebel Chess pits the Emperor and his new apprentice, Darth Vader, against an army of familiar freedom fighters. Vader moves as a Queen. The Emperor's power is waning: here he combines the moves of the Chess King and Knight.
Rebel Chess variant
  • Qui-Vive challenges you to place five pieces in any of the following arrangements: V, +, X, /, \, ̶, or |. It's harder than it sounds, because the computer is doing the same thing, and it's very good at setting two different patterns at the same time. I would say Zillions plays this at expert level. Of course, you can choose to dumb it down.
Qui Vive

Thursday, June 11, 2020

IBM Opts Out of Facial Recognition

The Verge reports that IBM has ceased offering, developing, or researching facial recognition or analysis software.

Some notes about the article and what I see as politically motivated statements.
"Facial recognition software has improved greatly over the last decade thanks to advances in artificial intelligence. At the same time, the technology — because it is often provided by private companies with little regulation or federal oversight — has been shown to suffer from bias along lines of age, race, and ethnicity, which can make the tools unreliable for law enforcement and security and ripe for potential civil rights abuses."
This isn't accurate. The reason that the tools show bias has nothing to do with lack of regulation or federal oversight. It's because some ethnic groups show a lesser degree of facial morphism than others. If you have ever taken part in a study to check a computer's findings against that of a human evaluator -- and I have -- you have seen that for yourself. Human evaluators do not get it right 100% of the time either. And the bias among humans is similar to that of computers, no matter who is doing the evaluating. Some subjects are just harder to tell apart. That's a fact that no amount of oversight, regulation, wishful thinking, or outrage can eliminate.

Facial recognition software doesn't correctly identify members of any group 100% of the time; but that shouldn't be its purpose. Rather, when properly employed it would be used to narrow down a search so that human evaluators are not flooded with obvious mismatches. The problem isn't the technology. It's the use to which it's put. In not making this distinction clear, the article is misinformative.

More properly stated, the tools are unreliable for law enforcement and security because they are being improperly employed. That's where oversight is necessary.
"In 2018, research by Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru revealed for the first time the extent to which many commercial facial recognition systems (including IBM’s) were biased. This work and the pair’s subsequent studies led to mainstream criticism of these algorithms and ongoing attempts to rectify bias."
They are referring to results posted at gendershades.org, and I invite you to follow the link to see them. All products exhibit similar bias, which is exactly what you would expect to see if what I stated above is accurate. Some groups are simply more difficult to classify by gender than others, even for neural networks. This alone is not an indication of either sexism or racism. Gendershades.org makes this insightful comment: "However, accuracy is not the only issue. Flawless facial analysis technology can be abused in the hands of authoritarian governments, personal adversaries, and predatory companies." Again, it is the use to which the products are put that are primary concern. 

The Verge continues:
"IBM has tried to help with the issue of bias in facial recognition, releasing a public data set in 2018 designed to help reduce bias as part of the training data for a facial recognition model. But IBM was also found to be sharing a separate training data set of nearly one million photos in January 2019 taken from Flickr without the consent of the subjects — though the photos were shared under a Creative Commons license."
In other words, they did have the consent of the subjects. The statement strongly suggests that author of the Verge article is unclear on what "Creative Commons" means. It is a license to use the material without having to bother the copyright holder for permission. An appropriate Creative Commons license is permission. The article is again inaccurate in phrasing this as if it were an object of concern.

In IBM's letter to Congress [PDF], Arvind Krishna (CEO of IBM) makes it clear why IBM is withdrawing the products: "IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency. We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies." It's being misused. 

"Bias" in the products is inherent. You can't make it perfect. People can't do it perfectly. So to use it properly, you have to know where the weaknesses are and allow for them. Used properly, it could be a valuable tool. Unfortunately, we have people in positions of authority who don't know how to use their tools properly.

And that, folks, is why you can't have nice things.

--==oOo==--

Aside: The difficulties inherent in using facial recognition software remind me of a business rules engine I designed for a major mortgage insurance company. At the turn of the century, lenders were pressed by the Federal government to increase lending to groups that wouldn't typically be regarded as strong financial risks. This increased the number of questionable applications that the underwriters had to evaluate. To an extent, we had to introduce bias in order to deal with this, as purely objective financial information alone was the cause of the perceived bias Congress was legislating against. The purpose of the rules engine was not to do the job of underwriters. However, some decisions are slam-dunks... either an easy "yes" or "no". This leaves a grey area of uncertainty where human evaluation is required. So the engine gave trinary results. The easy yes/no decisions were automatically processed, and difficult decisions were left to humans who were qualified to deal with uncertain judgment calls. This didn't absolve humans for responsibilities for the slam-dunk yes/no decisions. Humans still wrote the rules. But once the rules were written and approved, the software allowed for thousands more transactions to be processed in a day than would be otherwise possible if human underwriters were bogged down mechanically responding to loan applications that didn't require their talents. Software exists to make people more efficient, not replace them.





Thursday, May 21, 2020

No, they didn't (part 3)

It was about time for more bullshit sensationalist "science" headlines. This time people are geeking out over the possibility that a science experiment in Antarctica detected "evidence" of a parallel universe where time runs backward.

Of course they didn't.

The latest Internet frenzy comes to you via this article from NewScientist.com with the headline, "We may have spotted a parallel universe going backwards in time". Other news outlets dropped the "may" from their headlines and simply reported it as "fact". You can thank sloppy headline writers for the hype... again. Which gives me the opportunity to pull out this graphic one more time, and award it to all the media outlets that have copied it from one another without the slightest effort toward critical analysis.

The source of the data is the Antarctic Impulsive
Transient Antenna (ANITA), a NASA-sponsored balloon experiment. You can read the report here [PDF]. The report details four anomalous particle detections over the years, the results of supposed neutrino collisions. A problem with these detections is that they appear to have originated from the direction of the Earth, which would be unlikely given the way these are known to originate. Note, please, the word unlikely. Note that it does not mean "impossible". Rather, it hints at a possibility. It is possible, for example, that the readings were erroneous. It is possible that the current models are not accurate. It is possible that some other factors, as yet unknown, were involved. For instance, while the polarity is inconsistent with a reflection, multiple reflections, as unlikely as they may be, may account for it. It is possible that, as unlikely as it may be, the detected neutrinos made it through the Earth. It is also possible that a very unlikely hitherto unobserved event did in fact occur.

What is less likely than any of those possibilities is that the readings have revealed a hitherto-unknown entire universe, along with evidence of how the laws of nature operate in same. There is no evidence that there is a universe where left is right, up is down, and time is reversed. While in the right hands these may become hypotheses, as reported they are speculations and fantasies. Not evidence. At the moment what we have is four readings in need of explanation.

Let me be clear, though... the NASA report is not at fault. The authors are exceedingly clear about what they discovered. They don't say what it is; rather, they say what it's unlikely to be, and why they think that. And as they state in the report, "Current or future data may be able to confirm or falsify whether neutrino interactions are the origin of this event." These are scientists, not click-mongers and sensationalists.

In case you've forgotten previous hype, the following once-major headlines are also bullshit:
  • Scientists have discovered cold fusion
  • Study finds scientific reproducibility does not equate to scientific truth
  • Bristol academic cracks Voynich code
  • Satnavs ‘switch off’ part of the brain we use for navigation
However, one headline that is decidedly not bullshit is this:


Keep calm and carry on. Your life hasn't changed after all.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Critical Thinking Skills are Harder to Find than Toilet Paper

This bit of faulty logic was seen on Twitter:


Yes, we all know that the President of the United States has had his eye on you for some time. His cup of hate runneth over for you and your family. The logical fallacy here really shouldn't have to be explained. If you can't see it, it's because you're not thinking very well. And unlike the President, I'm directing that comment directly at those who re-tweet this nonsense. If that's you, then I'm talking to you. The one who doesn't see the fallacy. It's certainly possible that at one time you exhibited a fine measure of intelligence, but you have chosen to set it aside. Your thinking skills have been quarantined with the rest of you, and you're not letting them loose on the world.

Let's see if some other examples of the same fallacy might make it clear.
  • 1.25 million people die in road crashes every year. When the government granted you a license to drive, it's because whoever was President at the time personally wanted you... yes, you... and everyone in the car with you to die. Not some abstract percentage. You.
  • 320,000 people die annually from accidental drowning. When your parents took you to the beach or lake, it's because they wanted you to die. Not some abstract percentage. You... their own child. Your parents want you to die.
  • All retirement plans are invested in the stock market. When clueless idiots like the one who posted that faulty tweet wish to trash the market, it's because they personally want you... yes, you... to spend your retirement in dependence and poverty. Not some abstract percentage. You. They mean your mom and your grandparents should suffer simply to lift their image as "social influencers". This poster wants you to starve.
I could go through a long list of these things, in each case citing WHO fact sheets and other objectively verifiable sources, but it should be unnecessary. Of course none of those people want these horrible consequences to fall on you personally any more (or less) than the President does, but they are the inevitable result of freedom of action. Some people hate this simple truth: then again, simple truth isn't very popular in this age of wishful thinking and magical ideals.

As noted above, all pension and retirement plans are kept solvent through investments. Sheer ignorance results in the mistaken impression that it's the "rich" and "one-percenters" who unfairly take advantage. There are people who do get rich off of the stock market. They're doing what the socialist mouthpieces are not, but could. But millions of blue collar people depend on that same stock market, and they're foolish desire to 'stick it' to the few rich adversely affects those millions proportionally more.

Just. Because. Of. Jealousy.

At least, that's the way it is among the rank and file. Socialist leadership is another story. Their attempt to keep you distracted with misinformation and feed your envy is calculated to gain power. To make socialism look good, they have to make capitalism look bad, and that requires that they frighten you into acting against society's best interest, and your own.




Stargirl: I LIKE IT



With the vast array of on-screen superheroes, you'd think we were in the middle of a renaissance. Sadly, I haven't felt that way until recently, with the screen debut of Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018.

Here's the thing: since Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, live-action comic adaptations have tried to be "grounded in reality", with varying levels of success. But for me the successes have been "nice try" at best. At worst, they've been horrible failures.What they fail to do is capture the sense of excitement that you feel when actually reading a really good comic book. And to find a really good comic book, you're going to have to go back a couple of decades, as this live-action miasma has wended its way back into the parent medium in recent years.

DC's Stargirl Reveals Justice Society of America and Villains ...Historically, Marvel has been better about their live action adaptations than DC, which is a shame since I think DC has the better characters. DC, on the other hand, has been producing superior quality animated series and movies for some time now. When watching a DC animated movie I've often found myself asking "why don't they do this in live action?" Instead, for the most part what they've done is bury mediocre material under layers of leather, armor, and bad CGI. The best comic book heroes are not encumbered with such things. They are larger than life.

What I like about Stargirl -- and I'm having to judge it by the first episode alone, not being a privileged critic -- is that it is unashamedly comic book material, with no excuses. It gets in there, gives you an origin story, a backstory, and jumps right into the action. One episode. Why? Because nobody reads comics for the origin story. You have to have it, yeah; but you just get it out of the way, usually in a few panels or at the most one issue. What Geoff Johns has done is take something that he knows very well -- comics -- and scripted it into television format.

Stargirl vs Vector & X-Ray - Battles - Comic VineIn this one pilot episode you know who the Justice Society of America (JSA) were and what happened to them. You know who the bad guys are. You know who the new heroine (Courtney Whitmore, played by Brec Bassinger) is going to be, and you how perfectly ordinary her "known world" is. You know that she has some skills already (she's an aspiring gymnast, and the boxing gloves in her room hint at at least some training in pugilism). You're introduced to the mentor (Pat Dugan, played by Luke Wilson) and to the magical item (Starman's Cosmic Staff). And you take your first step outside of the known world. Time to get this Hero's Journey underway.

I have no doubt that paid critics are going to blast the series for the speed at which this happens. Pay no attention to them. This is how comics are done. Pay no attention to their subtly racist prattling about Courtney being a "generic blonde girl". Physically, the casting of the lead is perfect (go ahead and compare). The casting of secondary characters likewise. Casting comedic actor Luke Wilson as Stripesy was inspired. He brings just the right touch of innocent acceptance to the role, leading to a moment of gravitas that somehow manages to be poignant and genuinely funny at the same time. And though I really don't want to go into spoilers here, I adore the fact that the Cosmic Staff is not just an artifact, but a character in its own right.

This is pretty hard to spoil anyway. There are some things you're able to glean from the poster alone. You know that there will be a new Justice Society. You know that they will be young and multi-ethnic, and you know on first meeting who they're going to be. But knowing that stuff in advance doesn't ruin the story for me. I'm just jazzed somebody finally decided to bring actual high-quality comic book fare to the small screen without miring it down with an entire season of origin story and angst. Do you hear me, Doom Patrol? Titans? In my opinion, this pilot does for superheroes what The Orville did for Space Opera. It's a great start. Let's hope they don't screw it up.

Stargirl can be seen on The CW and on DC Universe. Give it a shot.











Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Listening to the Professor

Alright, this one's been making the rounds:


It's far too easy to point out that the fictional castaways were stuck on that island for 15 years. If you really want to point to someone who can get you out of a mess, perhaps you should choose a better example.