On YouTube rants…

I have noticed that video is increasingly becoming the preferred communication medium on the web, especially for the younger generations. This is especially noticeable amongst the newly formed gator/puppy set which has spawned in the August that never ended, but not limited to just them. Any time these folks get some thought in their head that they feel is worth sharing with the world, they turn on their webcam, ramble off the cuff anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours and then promptly upload the whole thing to YouTube without editing.

Back in my day (only a decade ago, but that’s like a million internet years) we might have called this “vlogging” but I haven’t really seen that word used in ages. Personally, I always thought of vlogs as prepared essays with with visual components. To me the whole point of doing a video to show viewers examples of the stuff you are talking about. What Anita Sarkesian is doing is a good example: well researched, well edited, succinct, to the point visual essay with concrete examples of game-play and game dialogs. On the other hand, someone just talking “off the cuff” into the camera for twenty minutes in a single unbroken cut is…

Well, to me it just seems lazy. Here is the thing: I can read faster than you can talk. Therefore, if you have a message you want to get out there, the most efficient way of doing this is via text. Text can be absorbed very rapidly, even if it is an unstructured stream of consciousness jumble. I can skim long articles pretty quickly without losing too much information, but there is simply no way to skim a video. You can skip around, but that’s not the same. Skipping feels lossy. When I skim I can still look at the length and shape of the paragraph, check the opening and closing lines, scan for relevant keywords within and etc.. The best YouTube can do for me at the moment in this respect is to show me still thumbnails of what I can expect to see on the screen when I skip to that point. Which, if I’m watching a 20 minute unbroken rant, is always going to be your face.

Writing things down takes some effort. The very process of arranging words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs and so on forces you to think about structure and flow. You can’t just vomit words in the exact order they pop into your mind. Written word has rules, and ignoring them yields unreadable and confusing mess. But if you use video, you can just ramble, talk in circles, get tongue tied, correct yourself and go on tangents without losing too much coherence. Our brains are pretty good at making sense from unorganized, jumbled speech, because that’s how we communicate on the daily basis. So you can talk to a camera the way you would talk to your friend, and chances are most of your viewers will at least get a gist of what you’re saying. But the fact people can comprehend what you’re saying doesn’t mean you are coherent, or that you are not wasting their time. Because you are.

Guy in Bathtub ranting into a camera

Yep, that’s a dude who didn’t even bother getting out of the bathtub to share his brilliant insights on ethics in video game journalism.

If you turn on a webcam, and hurl words at it for an hour without at least an outline, and without at least some basic editing to remove filler words (umm.., err..) and stuttering you are saving yourself time while wasting mine. Considering that, according to some estimates, over 20% of sounds we make during regular, conversational speech are non-lexical vocables, false starts and corrections, this is rather inconsiderate. This is why you don’t usually see people speaking this way on TV or in movies (save for maybe, you know mumblecore stuff, which consciously mimics “natural” conversation patterns) because for the most part its just noise. Useless, pointless interference that is not conducive to getting your message across.

So if you have some thoughts you want to share, write them down, kinda like I’m doing it here. Put these words on Medium, or Twitlonger, or one of the other five million sites designed to facilitate exactly that. Ranting into camera is just lazy.

Then again, maybe I’m just getting old. Perhaps there is a generational shift away from textual communication happening right now. And why not? It has never been easier to publish video online, and with ubiquitous broadband and storage we don’t have to aggressively edit for size, like we used to. So people are taking advantage of this.

There is this vision of the future that worries me quite a bit: one in which text is dead. In this future all interfaces we input data using touch and speech, and all output is visual and verbal. Humanity is mostly illiterate (save for handful of historians and archivists who study old text) but not uneducated. Poets and writers simply dictate their books to machines, because we perfected speech processing algorithms, and we have them read to us by descendants of Siri, who have perfect cadence and inhumanely soothing voices. Scientists and engineers dictate their papers and equations. Math is done in-silico…

There are no keyboards in Her

Have you noticed how no one ever types in Spike Lee’s Her?

But would that even work? Can you read and write scientific papers without the ability to skim? Can you write good code, without actually… Writing? Up until now, education and literacy were inseparable: one depended on the other. But can technology disentangle the two? Can it help to create a society of highly educated analphabets, and would that even be a desirable thing? I’m inclined to think that this future simply won’t happen, because text is just too fast, efficient and convenient. It compresses insanely well, can be searched and indexed with frightening speed and efficiency, it can be absorbed much faster than audio and it can be translated without artifacts and side effects (such as lip movement being out of sync with dubbed speech on video). I just don’t see us ever giving up all the benefits of text, without getting anything in exchange. Because even if we get perfect speech recognition software, and machines can interpret our commands with flawless accuracy, talking is still slower, less accurate and less focused than writing. It just would not make any sense to abandon it.

But, Spike Lee’s movie Her does provide a vision of the future in which no one ever types anymore, but people still do read. And that is potentially something that could happen one day. And that’s my worst nightmare, because I can only ever properly organize my thoughts when I write. Which is one of the reasons I never felt compelled to make these sort of stream of consciousness type videos. Vocalizing my thoughts adds another layer of abstraction and takes me that much farther away from my message. I feel that dictation is nowhere near as flexible as typing. For example, have you ever tried to someone how you want them to re-format a document?

Can you copy that sentence… No that’s too much… No, actually I meant this sentence, and the short one afterwards. Now cut them out, and put them… Wait, scroll up a bit. No too much. Lower. Third paragraph… Sorry, I guess technically that’s fourth if you count that single word over there as a paragraph. So we put it here, but now we have to change it up to fix the flow…

It usually takes five minutes to explain to a human something you could do yourself in five seconds. Now imagine parsing all of this in an unambiguous way that can be understood by a machine. Editing text with speech would be a nightmare. In fact, editing anything with speech seems like an uphill battle. I think we would literally have to invent new, un-ambigous sub-dialects just to efficiently interface with machines. Or maybe learn Lojban.

I think what we’re seeing here is just laziness, and not some generational paradigm shift.

Then again, I have been wrong on things like these in the past. If this is the way of the future, I will have to adopt to that new, nightmarishly inefficient world. I don’t want to be the bitter old man who doesn’t get the new technology and refuses to get with the times. And at the very least, this strange future without reading and writing would result in more engaging, and visually pleasing Powerpoint presentations without bullet points…

Posted in futuristic musings | Tagged | 5 Comments

Age of Ultron

No one at Marvel/Disney seem to know what to do with Black Widow. It is clear that the studio does not see her as a useful asset because she is missing from most of the Avengers merchandise. It is clear that Avenger’s stars don’t view her as an equal team member but rather as eye candy and distraction. But Joss Whedon, self proclaimed feminist, known for creating well rounded, interesting and compelling female characters on TV will surely buck the trend and do something interesting with her in Age of Ultron, right? I mean he didn’t do much with her in the first movie, but that’s understandable. This is the middle film in the trilogy: the one when you spread the wings and flesh out your characters. He will surely give her a more interesting role, won’t he?

Nope. Not even close.

Halfway through the movie Black Widow gets kidnapped by Ultron and thrown in a cage. She is a super-spy though, so she can escape, right? Wrong. She sends a message and waits to be rescued by the new boyfriend. Nothing says “full fledged member of Avengers that should get her own movie one day” like demurely waiting to be rescued by your most recent “it’s complicated” boy-crush. And yes, you read that right. The only lady on the team gets “romance” as her story arc. While other Avengers worry whether or not they are strong and heroic enough to save the world (outside enemies or from themselves), Black Widow gets to swoon and cry that she had her tubes tied when she attended The Evil Dance School and now she can’t give Bruce Banner little Hulk babies. That and sit in a cell and wait to be rescued. No I’m not kidding. That’s her entire story arc in this movie.

Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron

Let’s unpack that a bit. There is one particular exchange between Banner and Romanoff in the second act that is weird and unsettling for all kinds of reasons. The heroes just lost a big fight and they are hanging out at a safe house, trying to re-group. The two briefly discuss eloping together. Banner rejects the proposition, pointing out they have no future. He can’t be in a relationship, he can’t settle down and most of all, he can never have children. He does not elaborate why, but we know. Banner can turn into a monster at a drop of a hat, and he simply does not think he has enough self control to keep his family safe from the Hulk. He views himself as a threat to any potential life partner and children. Natasha’s response is bizarre. She confesses that she was sterilized as part of her assassin training, so she can’t have children either. The way she says it, indicates that she believes that this makes her “damaged goods”. She is trying to tell Banner that they are both broken people who can never be whole, which makes them good for each other. Except that she is not broken. Infertility does not make you less of a woman. Losing ability to give birth is a tragedy, yes, but it does not preclude one from starting a family or leading happy, fulfilling life. If Black Widow wanted to quit being an Avenger, settle down and adopt a horde of kids, she totally could. Banner does not have that option.

This is what makes this whole situation so bizarre. Out of all possible back stories and personal demons to wrestle, Marvel’s deadliest and most cunning assassin gets a broken heart and “lady problems”.

That is not to say that it is wrong for a female heroine to fall in love or to muse about motherhood and fertility. But if you only have one woman of note in your movie, don’t you think it is a bad idea to make her story arc to be solely about these things? Don’t you think that taking away her agency and making her a powerless damsel in distress in the second act is just bad writing? Don’t you think that “evil ballet school” is an incredibly awful back-story for an assassin super-spy?

Come on Joss, this is inexcusable. Between this, and the prima nocta joke… I expected better of you.

Black Widow

Black Widow is tired of this shit.

I really wanted to write a glowing review of the movie and tell you it is was really fun to watch, because it was. There is a lot to love about Age of Ultron. But it is really hard for me to overlook just how utterly Whedon dropped the ball not only with Black Widow but also with Scarlet Which. The later is first established as hyper-competent villain, but when the time comes for her to undergo a heel-face turn, she gets overwhelmed and needs an inspirational pep-talk from Hawkeye to transition into the role of a hero.

What’s worse, Scarlet Witch is the one hero in the entire movie that gets no funny quips of slapstick moments. Everyone else, including her brother get at least one Whedonesque smart-ass comment or at the very least a visual gag. That’s what makes this ensemble cast so engaging: we love to watch them squabble, bicker and joke together. But Scarlet Witch barely interacts with anyone. Here is a first female avenger with actual super powers, and Whedon writes her to be so dull and uninteresting I can’t even describe her personality. She literally has none. I guess she won’t get any merchendise either, because I bet most people already forgot she was ever in the movie.

Scarlet Witch

I want you to go out there and be as dull and uninteresting as humanly possible.

This is especially jarring since in all other aspects the film is either great or at the very least perfectly satisfying.

Whedon’s signature funny banter is there in full force. He is a master at creating extremely funny, quotable and captivating dialog and he does not disappoint. I could watch the Avengers just hanging out and partying all day. He also has a knack for injecting the same type of humor and witty banter into action scenes. Let’s face it – watching people punch hordes of robots over and over again, can get boring after a while. Whedon however can write protracted fights that are as amusing as they are suspenseful.

The titular villain, Ultron is as funny and engaging as a mad murder-bot could possibly ever be. I expected him to be a dull, distant, detached vengeful machine god. Instead we got an angry internet nerd with superiority complex and daddy issues. I think Lindsay Ellis hit the nail on the head when she described him thus:

This seems especially astute observation when you realize that Ultron literally learned everything he knows from the internet. He coalesced into being at the intersection between Wikipedia, Reddit and 4chan without context or real world experience to help him navigate the murky underworld filled with philosophical manifestos written by angry thirteen year old Frank Miller fans or six hour video monologues about ethics in game journalism delivered from a bath tub. No wonder he emerged as a murderous, megalomaniac, arrogant asshole. No wonder he is fond of making overly long, self aggrandizing speeches. And to be honest, I kinda like him that way. It’s the familiar kind of evil I wish I did not know so well.

Ultron

Actually, it’s about ethics…

Which does not mean he is a great villain, merely an acceptable one. Best MCU villain still belongs to Loki (eat your heart out Thanos) who is not only charismatic, but also flawed, human and relatable in all the right ways. He is powerful enough to be dangerous, but not threatening enough to warrant being destroyed. He is the kind of villain who can be thwarted, and imprisoned only the break out and wreak havoc in the next movie. But he can’t be the bad guy every time the Avengers assemble. That would get old really fast, and the Marvel universe has no shortage of interesting villains. Whedon makes a valiant attempt at humanizing the inhuman murder-robot and he does succeed at making him more entertaining he had any right to be. But Ultron is a ticking time bomb and he can’t be put in a box and saved for later. He must be utterly destroyed by the end of the movie, which makes him seem disposable. I have seen him described as “monster of the week” type threat, and I think this is somewhat accurate. He is merely a bump in the road to Infinity War, but I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with that.

MCU is interconnected, and villains don’t exist in void. They have comparable power levels, and they must scale properly. Ultron must be mid-level, disposable threat so that Thanos can be adequately scary when he finally arrives. That’s just how these things work.

Hammer Lift

Couldn’t find appropriately sized gif, but can we all agree that this was a brilliantly shot scene?

I guess it helps when you don’t think about Age of Ultron as a middle movie in a trilogy, but as an episode in an ongoing shared universe series. Because that’s what MCU is now: a serialized story told in summer blockbuster movie installments. What is happening here is a storytelling media convergence: our TV series become more like movies (with season spanning story arcs, and no weekly resets to the status quo) and our movies become more like TV (shared universes and continuities between spin-offs, frequent cross-overs, story arcs that span many movies). It is happening now, because our media is no longer consumed in isolation. With on demand services, video streaming, online wikis and social media it is impossible to miss an episode or be confused by continuity. There is a whole cottage industry of commercial sites and fan driven communities which specialize in explaining and contextualizing everything. In fact, getting new viewers up to speed now became part of the advertising campaigns with marathons, TV specials, magazine features, interviews and promotional re-cap articles.

Age of Ultron may seem sloppier and less focused than it’s predecessor but it is also much denser with lore. The first movie had one goal: to provide an origin story for the Avengers as a super-hero team. The sequel is trying to accomplish several things while at the same time telling a self-contained and compelling story about crazy robot trying to blow up the Earth.

Let’s try to enumerate all the things that Whedon’s team managed to squeeze into the two an a half hours of screen time:

  • It sets the stage up for Avengers: Infinity War (which should go without saying).

  • It lays down the ground work for Black Panther by introducing the hero’s fictional homeland (Wakanda), it’s source of wealth (vibranium ore) and a potential villain (Klaw).

  • Foreshadows Thor: Ragnarok via visions and prophecies that disturb the son of Odin and take him away from Earth

  • Has Steve and Tony bicker and argue over tactics and their vision for the team, maneuvering them into position for the conflict that will break up the team in Captain America: Civil War

  • Introduces not one, not two, not three but four new characters: Ultron, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Vision. By comparison, the first Avengers film did not introduce any new characters. Everyone was either an established hero, villain, sidekick or supporting character in the MCU. Except maybe for for Hawkeye who only had a brief cameo in the original Thor.

  • Attempts to flesh out Hawkeye who spent most of the first movie as a remote-controlled villain. Age of Ultron gives him family, motivation and makes him the relatable everyman to replace Agent Coulson.

  • Tries to give all the Avengers some sort of story arc: Cap accepts he can never go back to his time, Hawkeye realizes he is “too old for this shit”, Thor finds questions that need be answered, Scarlet Witch gets to have a heel face turn, Banner loses faith in his ability to control the Hulk, Stark learns that its ok to fuck with infinity stones as long as you can do it right the second time around, and Black Widow gets… Well, Beauty & The Beast subplot with some Black Swan flashbacks…

  • Attempts to give screen time to few supporting heroes such as The Falcon, War Machine and Nick Fury.

  • Establishes The Avengers as an institution with a rotating roster by seemingly retiring some heroes (Hawkeye, Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk) and recruiting new ones (The Falcon, War Machine, Scarlet Witch and Vision).

That is a lot of stuff to fit in a single movie. The fact that Whedon can keep all these balls in the air, and only drop one or two is still very impressive. According to some of the interviews, his original cut was only a little short of four hours. A lot of stuff got cut from the theatrical release, though Whedon claims most of the lost scenes were small, and inessential character bits, and more screen time for side characters. It’s a pity because the small, inessential moments is where Whedon shines the most. One would hope that perhaps one day we might get a Lord of the Rings collectors edition, directors cut version of the film, in which Scarlet Witch is actually a funny and memorable character. I would love to see it.

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On Black Widow and that Bro-tastic interview…

Avengers, Age of Ultron is almost upon us, and this means it is interview and promotion season for Marvel movie studios. Last Thursday, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner (Captain America and Hawkeye respectively) were doing an interview as part of the scheduled media blitz, and then this happened:

Chris, dude, this wasn’t even half as funny as you are making it out to be. This should probably be a sobering reminder that the actors that portray some of your favorite heroes are most definitely not their characters. The clip above for example shows Evans and Renner sharing a definite “dudebro” moment and firmly placing their feet in their mouth. Definitely not cool.

And yes, I know it was “just a joke”. I also realize that they are not talking about Scarlet Johanson, that Black Widow is not a real person, and that a fictional character does not need her honor defended. This is not really the problem here. The problem is the culture which enabled this. Think about this: Evan and Renner were doing a promotional interview, end goal of which was to convince as many people to go and see their movie. And yet, within confines of that public appearance, during which it was their literal job to be on their best behavior, they felt comfortable making disparaging sexist jokes. Jokes that punch down at approximately half the viewing audience, and let the world know that dudes who play Captain America and Hawkeye think women who do not conform to the narrow behavioral scripts of sexual expression are “sluts” and “whores”.

It is the same culture that perpetuates the ridiculous double standards which were brilliantly highlighted in another promotional Avengers interview which took place only a day before the Evans and Renner fiasco:

It’s the same culture that facilitated Joss Whedon (a self described feminist) slipping up and inserting an off color proma nocta joke into an otherwise a fantastic scene in the upcoming movie without any push-back, or critique from the cast and crew:

You would think that at least one of the people involved in the movie would take Whedon aside and go “you know, while this is totally in character for Tony stark, do we really want to have rapey joke in our movie?”. But no one did, and for all we know this scene will be in the theatrical release. Because this is our status quo. This our normal.

I’m not trying to shit on Whedon here. In fact, I’m a big fan of his work. But he is only human, and he makes mistakes just like the rest of us. The problem is that when no one tells you about the mistakes you make, then you will keep making them. Which is why Joss, Evans and Renner all need various degrees of scolding, so that the franchise as a whole can improve. Because, god dammit, I need Captain Marvel to be good. This world deserves a female led super hero movie that is mind blowing. My niece deserves a kick-ass female super-hero role model with an actual costume and super powers, who is not anyone’s sidekick. But if we keep allowing the Marvel team to make these kind of goofs, then they are going to royally fuck it up come 2018.

It is true that Black Widow has been written as a sidekick character since she appeared in the MCU. That’s actually another valid criticism of the MCU which seems to push women into the background. It is also true that she has been portrayed as being overtly sexual. But, so what? Tony Stark has a reputation of a playboy and a ladies man an no one seems to hold it against him. In his case, it is seen either as one of his strengths, or at the very least as a lovable character quirk. I would argue that Black Window uses her sexuality in about the same way as, say, James Bond does: as a tool or a weapon. Both these characters are in approximately the same line of work, and both use their personal charm and sex-appeal to get the mission done. But only one gets shamed for it.

Perhaps, I was not paying much attention, but I don’t think I ever read her interactions with Hawkeye and Cap as overtly flirtatious. We knows that she cares for Hawkeye because they have worked in the past, and he is someone she grew to trust and rely on. In Winter Soldier she gets close to the Cap, but again, they’re not falling in love in that movie. They are learning to trust each other so that they can save the world. But shippers gonna ship, so I think the interview question was mostly precipitated by wishful thinking of the fans and the eagerness to see a love triangle emerge where one is definitely not needed at the moment.

But even if Natasha decided to flirt and/or sleep with every other member of the Avengers, would that make her less of a hero? Would it make her less of a woman? Come on guys, it’s 2015, time to let these sexist notions go.

Black Widow

Black Widow does not approve of your sexist bullshit.

For what it’s worth, Marvel acknowledges the interview was a disaster. Both Evans and Renner released public apologies. Evans sincerely regrets what he said, while Renner sincerely regrets some people did not get his “hilarious jokes”. So there’s that.

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