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Weekend Reads (Jan 21): Trogdor, Hollywood, AI Woes,
Recommended weekend reading material for January 21, 2023.
Every week, I compile a list of interesting and thought-provoking articles to offer you some enjoyable weekend reading material.
Are you ready to feel old? Trogdor the Burninator — arguably the greatest one-armed dragon to ever burninate thatch-roofed cottages — turned 20 this month. If that means nothing to you, then please get off my lawn. Or better yet, check out all his majesty.
And if that weren’t enough, the good folks at Homestar Runner discovered this promo for the Peasant’s Quest video game featuring everyone’s favorite Burninator.
Ten years ago, artist KC Green created the “This Is Fine” comic. It’s since become one of the popular, viral, and relatable memes in recent history. To mark the strip’s anniversary, Green reflects on its origins as well as its future.
The canine character — whose name is Question Hound — has also been Green’s conduit for the artist’s own state of mind. Green was 25 and focusing on his mental health when he drew the famed “On Fire” strip.
“I’d been trying to get my anti-depressants right and taking the meds,” he said. “That was my feeling at the time — of worrying if this was the right choice,” he added. “I believe it was now.”
“I was just like, is this OK or am I doing good? Am I supposed to ignore everything else? It kind of feels like you just have to ignore all the insanity around you like a burning house. And the comic just ended up writing itself after that.”
Visual effects have become increasingly important in today’s cinematic landscape, with approximately 90% of all released films requiring some amount of VFX work. However, the folks who create those dazzling visuals are often overworked, underpaid, and underrepresented.
In the summer of 2022, a spate of news stories, Reddit threads and tweets laid bare what insiders say is an overall “toxic” environment for VFX workers. And many techs and artists describe working for Marvel as a uniquely burdensome experience. In an era when one studio remains the most dependable blockbuster factory in history, VFX workers specifically lament Marvel’s voracious appetite for visual effects butting up against its apparent unwillingness to invest in the human capital required to implement them. The dozens of workers I spoke with — variously specializing in animation, physical production, and postproduction — claim that while Marvel’s tendency to compensate contractual employees on a weekly basis (no matter how many hours worked) is common practice across the industry, it pays upward of 20 percent less than other studios when doing so. One visual-effects worker currently employed by the studio on a feature project estimates that they are completing approximately four times the amount of work they are being paid for. “The minute I deliver [movie name redacted], I’m never coming back,” this person says. Moreover, while understaffing is already rampant across the entertainment industry, VFX-IATSE estimates that Marvel hires one VFX artist for every three such specialists another studio might for an equivalent job.
Via Alissa Wilkinson.
It’s ironic (though unsurprising) that Marvel is the worst offender when it comes to the treatment of VFX workers, since their movies and TV shows are heavily reliant on visual effects. Then again, when you’re the biggest player on the field, it’s easy to push people around without consequence. But as VFX artists push to unionize (like practically every other job in Hollywood), that may begin to change.
You know who really doesn’t like AI-generated art? Nick Cave, who recently responded to a Nick Cave-ish song generated by ChatGPT.
“Suffice to say, I do not feel the same enthusiasm around this technology,” he wrote. “I understand that ChatGPT is in its infancy but perhaps that is the emerging horror of AI — that it will forever be in its infancy, as it will always have further to go, and the direction is always forward, always faster.
“It can never be rolled back, or slowed down, as it moves us toward a utopian future, maybe, or our total destruction. Who can possibly say which? Judging by this song ‘in the style of Nick Cave’ though, it doesn’t look good, Mark. The apocalypse is well on its way. This song sucks.”
He called ChatGPT an exercise in “replication as travesty.”
In more AI-related news and controversy, Getty Images is suing the creators of Stable Diffusion for violating copyright and scraping its image library to train their software.
The lawsuit marks an escalation in the developing legal battle between AI firms and content creators for credit, profit, and the future direction of the creative industries. AI art tools like Stable Diffusion rely on human-created images for training data, which companies scrape from the web, often without their creators’ knowledge or consent. AI firms claim this practice is covered by laws like the US fair use doctrine, but many rights holders disagree and say it constitutes copyright violation. Legal experts are divided on the issue but agree that such questions will have to be decided for certain in the courts.
Related: Speaking of AI-generated images, these examples generated by Midjourney are located squarely in the uncanny valley. They seem incredibly realistic at first, but there’s just something “off” about them. And then you notice the extra teeth and fingers…
One more AI-related story: In order to ensure that ChatGPT’s output would be safe and non-toxic, OpenAI paid Kenyan workers less than $2/hour to detect and filter out explicit and graphic content including child sexual abuse, torture, and suicide.
The story of the workers who made ChatGPT possible offers a glimpse into the conditions in this little-known part of the AI industry, which nevertheless plays an essential role in the effort to make AI systems safe for public consumption. “Despite the foundational role played by these data enrichment professionals, a growing body of research reveals the precarious working conditions these workers face,” says the Partnership on AI, a coalition of AI organizations to which OpenAI belongs. “This may be the result of efforts to hide AI’s dependence on this large labor force when celebrating the efficiency gains of technology. Out of sight is also out of mind.”
On a related note, OpenAI is well on its way to becoming a multi-billion dollar company.
This immediately brought to mind The Verge’s 2019 story about workers hired to keep graphic and explicit content off Facebook, and the mental toll such work took on them. We’re so easily enamored by technology — be it social media, AI, new gadgets — that we’re quick to overlook and ignore the very real human cost. And of course, tech companies want to downplay and hide any such costs because they’re bad PR.
There’s a lot in this excellent Verge article about Twitter’s travails under Elon Musk’s ownership, from Musk’s reckless and chaotic decision-making process to the destruction of Twitter’s company culture. However, this part especially jumped out at me:
Twitter might have had a reputation as a left-leaning workforce, but there had always been a faction that disapproved of its progressive ideals. On Slack, some of these workers had formed a channel called #i-dissent, where they asked questions like why deadnaming a trans colleague was considered “bad.” When Musk announced he was buying the company, one of the more active i-dissenters was thrilled. “Elon’s my new boss and I’m stoked!” he wrote on LinkedIn. “I decided to send him a slack message. I figured you miss 100% of the shots you don’t make 😅 🚀 🌕”
This employee was cut during the first round of layoffs. Soon, all the prominent members of the #i-dissent Slack channel would be gone. The channel itself was archived, while bigger social channels like #social-watercooler were abandoned.
As the article makes clear, kissing the ring does nothing to protect you from someone like Musk, a narcissist caught up in his own genius myth.
This seems rather apropos given the recent advocacy for a return to personal blogging: Ernie Smith highlights some of blogging’s early pioneers, including Heather Armstrong, Jim Coudal, and Justin Hall.
Some of these people were big names. Some of these people had smaller presences. Some were influential because of what they said. Others because of what they built, or what they represented. But all of them did something important in the history of blogging — they decided one day to put themselves out there on the internet, writing voice and all, to just see what might happen.
If you’re thinking about starting a blog this year, you could learn a lot from the stories of any of these people. Their writing, both individually and collectively, shaped a medium, and many of them needed a lot more than 280 characters to do so.
[T]o succeed at pseudocide, you really do have to be prepared to give up everything you know and love — for good. You can’t talk to anyone you know (they’re being watched), you have to give up your pets (harder than family, sometimes) and you have to figure out how to support yourself off the books, getting paid under the table or in cash. Your college degree means nothing. Your specialized skill becomes useless. All of your hobbies and interests are bunk, because those things are precisely what investigators like Ahearn and Rambam will be analyzing obsessively for signs of you. Rambam once spent weeks going to mind-numbingly boring coin shows around New York City to locate a coin collector who had supposedly died, and that’s exactly where he caught him.
From the Blog
One of my favorite things to write on Opus is a deep dive into some relatively obscure pop culture artifact. In this case, I wrote about David Zindell’s epic, philosophical space opera, which began with 1988’s Neverness.
Neverness was filled with fascinating ideas and imagery that were quite unlike anything I’d read before in sci-fi. (Granted, I was only 16 or 17 at the time.) Zindell’s prose — much like his novel’s artwork — could be vivid, beautiful, and even stirring. But his storytelling was both dense and meandering, with page after page filled with long, winding passages and numerous segues that were obviously the product of a great imagination, but were also in dire need of an editor’s pen.
Zindell’s novel — which I did eventually finish — left me frustrated and exhausted after that first read so long ago. But fascinated, as well. So fascinated, in fact, that several years later, I bought a copy of Neverness at a used bookstore whilst a starving college student. Jump ahead a few decades, and I finally bought copies of Neverness’ sequels, the Requiem for Homo Sapiens trilogy. It wasn’t until 2022, however, that I finally decided to complete Zindell’s space opera, nearly three decades after that fateful library encounter.
And just like before, I found Zindell’s writing frustrating and exhausting, and yet, filled with moments that fired my imagination quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read, sci-fi or otherwise.
Other deep dives that I’ve written in the past include intros to the Macross and Neon Genesis Evangelion anime franchises; reviews of the Silver Surfer cartoon, the Sleepy Eyes of Death samurai films, and old school Christian goth and industrial albums; and a celebration of Howard Pyle’s Arthurian artwork.
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