Last March, game devs Alex Schwartz and Ziba Scott gave a presentation at the Game Developers Conference called "1,500 Slot Machines Walk into a Bar: Adventures in Quantity Over Quality in which they described how their own dissatisfaction with falling revenues from mobile app stores led them to muse about bulk-creating crappy apps and seeing if they could get paid.
They hit on the idea of churning out thousands of near-identical slot-machine apps, using a basic template they bought for $15; they then proceeded to automate the mass-production of more than 1,500 different slot machine games with every conceivable theme, from "tasteful sideboob" (removed from Google's app store) to "dolphins" and "canteloupe." Mining Google Trends for new themes, they began to target trends.
The whole thing made an improbable amount of money and generated investment offers. Eventually they got ditched by their ad provider and decided to walk away, but leave the automated system running. They document how it took years to fail.
The guys are very funny and clearly bemused and shocked by how well their crackpot idea worked. I love that they used nothing but terrible stock art for their slides.
Quality is overrated. Disheartened by all of the noise in the mobile ecosystem, speakers Alex Schwartz and Ziba Scott set out to determine the lowest bar for success on App Stores. They flooded the market with over 1,500 auto-generated slot machine games, got 1.6 million installs, made money (!!), received some very strange emails, made it big in Iran, and garnered a stupefying number of good reviews on Google Play. They even enlisted the talents of an honest-to-God MIT statistician.Take a fantastic tour of the weird, dark underbelly of the mobile app market. Marvel as the speakers share their experience with pushing the limits of automation as well as the rate limits of every public API under the sun. Silently judge the questionable ethics of their enterprise. By the end, you may be reconsidering your life choices as Alex and Ziba debate the merits of quantity over quality.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. “At the age of 6, Marjane Satrapi privately declared herself the last prophet of Islam. At 14, she left Iran for a boarding school in Austria, sent away by parents terrified of their outspoken daughter’s penchant for challenging her teachers (and hypocrisy wherever she sniffed it out). At 31, she published ‘Persepolis,’ in French (it was later translated into English by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris), a stunning graphic memoir hailed as a wholly original achievement in the form.”
Hold Still by Sally Mann. “The photographer Sally Mann’s memoir is weird, intense and uncommonly beautiful. She has real literary gifts, and she’s led a big Southern-bohemian life, rich with incident. Or maybe it only seems rich with incident because of an old maxim that still holds: Stories happen only to people who can tell them.”
Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee. “The child of Afrikaner parents who had pretensions to English gentility, he was buttoned-up and sensitive, desperate to fit into the ‘normal’ world around him but also confounded and repulsed by it. He noticed how his indolent relatives clung to their privileged position in South Africa’s brutal racial hierarchy through cruelty and a raw assertion of power. Out in the world, he lived in constant fear of violence and humiliation; at home he was cosseted by his mother and presided like a king.”
Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin. “Grandin, a professor of animal science who is autistic, describes the ‘library’ of visual images in her memory, which she is constantly updating. (‘It’s like getting a new version of software for the computer.’) As Oliver Sacks wrote in an introduction to the book, ‘Grandin’s voice came from a place which had never had a voice, never been granted real existence, before.’”
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. “William Finnegan, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, recalls his childhood in California and Hawaii, his many surfing buddies through the years and his taste for a kind of danger that approaches the sublime.”
Sir Patrick Stewart is back: CBS has just released the first teaser trailer for its upcoming series Star Trek: Picard, set to premiere later this year on the CBS All Access streaming service.
It’s a short teaser, but it sets the stage for the series, which appears to focus on an older Jean-Luc Picard. Based on the trailer, it seems that Picard has retired from serving as an admiral in Starfleet to run his family’s vineyards in France, before he’s presumably called back into action.
The series — unlike the rebooted J.J. Abrams films, which occur in a parallel timeline — is set in Star Trek’s main timeline, and will pick up with Picard years after his final canon appearance in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.
“Fifteen years ago, today, you led us out of the darkness. You commanded the greatest rescue armada in history,” says an unknown woman in a voiceover. “Then, the unimaginable.” It’s not entirely clear who’s speaking or what she’s referring to here, but it’s possible she may be referring to the destruction of the Romulan homeworld of Romulus, which was destroyed in last major event in Star Trek’s continuity, splitting the continuity from 2009’s Star Trek film.
“Tell us: why did you leave Starfleet, admiral?” the woman asks, before a brief shot of Picard himself appears. Whatever the event 15 years ago was, it seems to have had a heavy impact on Picard. We’ll likely find out more when Star Trek: Picard starts streaming later this year. No release date has currently been set.
The four bronze lions that surround Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square are pretty passive-looking creatures. They sit on all fours and gaze blankly ahead, more sphinx than lion. Legend has it that their sculptor originally planned for the animals to be posed in more active stances, stood up on their hind legs and roaring at the square. But Queen Victoria reportedly vetoed the decision as too shocking. Now, 151 years after they were originally unveiled, the lions have a new colleague, and he is definitely turning heads.
Lion number five is the creation of Es Devlin, a designer best known for her stage sculptures that are used in opera and theater as well as the world-spanning tours of Beyoncé and Kanye West. Devlin says she was inspired by the anecdote above to make a sculpture that could participate actively in the life of the square, which has long been a site for both celebration and protest.
“The thought lodged in my mind,” writes Devlin for Google Arts & Culture, which sponsored the work for London Design Week. “What if we could invest the lion with a diversely crowd-sourced single collective poetic voice?”
The end result is Please Feed The Lions. Members of the public can approach the sculpture, and, using a tablet, enter a word of their choice for it to “eat.” The lion then roars at the crowd (a sound which is more ethereal than animal, full of swelling strings and distant screams) while a screen inside its mouth displays a snippet of AI-generated poetry based on their input. At night, these words are also projected onto the lion’s body, moving like a torrent of fireflies, and up the side of Nelson’s 169-foot column.
While Devlin is responsible for the overall concept of Please Feed The Lions, technologist Ross Goodwin is the man who created the poetry. His AI generator is built from some common machine learning components; in this case, it’s what’s known as long short-term memory recurrent neural network, or LSTM network. Like many machine learning systems, this generates its output by finding and replicating patterns in a dataset.
This dataset is a huge corpus of 19th century poetry, some 25 million words of it, that was compiled by Goodwin. The neural network scans this information, and it learns to predict what letters tend to follow one another. Then, when someone enters a word, this acts a “seed” for the network, which predicts what letters might follow and churns out some poetry in response.
The resulting verse is readable, although not exactly coherent. When I visited the sculpture, I fed the lion the word “bone,” and in return, I got: “That bone to shadow of the corner smoke / Of calm and splendor and new moon and sky.” Which, you know, fine.
Leaving aside questions of poetic quality, the lion is certainly entrancing. It’s an exact replica of the original four, which were scanned using LIDAR (the laser-bouncing technology that guides self-driving cars) and then re-created in a resin cast. More noticeably, it’s painted in a shade of vermillion so bright that it warps its surroundings.
The color certainly pops in pictures, but it’s just as effective in real life. It obliterates detail, and from a distance, it looks like the sculpture has been edited out of reality, leaving behind a lion-shaped hole where a lion ought to be. This is perhaps the most effective part of the installation. Despite the wonders of AI-generated poetry, we’re still more interested in very bright objects, especially when that color clashes with the classicism of its surroundings.
Both times I visited the sculpture, at lunch and again in the evening, there was a curious crowd waiting to enter a word and see what poetry the sculpture would generate.
Watching people come and go, it reminded me of many of our interactions with AI systems, which we sometimes treat as digital Ouija boards, asking them to retrieve gnostic wisdom for us from beyond the digital veil. Think about those auto-predict keyboard games that sometimes go viral that ask you to type a phrase like “In the future, I will be” in iOS and then hit the suggested word button until you’ve filled out a sentence.
With Ouija boards, we used to ask the spirit world for guidance, half tongue-in-cheek, half serious. Now it’s algorithms that seem like the keepers of a similar, obscure knowledge. People would feed a word to the lion, read the results (“Love like a light unbidden shone the wave / and the still sunshine of the world would glide”), and then walk away looking slightly puzzled, as if they’d hiked up a mountain to ask a guru for guidance and now had to go away and ponder the mysteries of what they’d been told.
Not everyone was impressed, though. As I was taking photos of the sculpture, I saw a smartly dressed man walk up to the lion and rap it on its flank. The surface echoed in a rather wet and disappointing fashion, like plywood, and the man shook his head.
“It’s an obscenity,” he said when he noticed me looking. I asked him to explain. “Because it’s a lion, and a lion is a carnivore, and here it is eating poetry. It’s denigrating art.” And what did he think of how it looks? The man sniffed: “Ocular stimulation.”