Cartoon schools, robot painters and hot dogs
And a very modest handful of links.
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A fascinating interview at Vox with Erich Schwartzel, author of Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Battle for Global Supremacy, on how efforts to break American films into the Chinese movie market have shaped contemporary Hollywood. One particularly wild quote, about Disney’s efforts:
The other fascinating part about Disney’s strategy involves the string of English language schools that they opened in the country.
When they were building their theme park in Shanghai, they knew that a child won’t beg their parents to go to a theme park unless they love the characters that they’ll see there. Disney said, “Well, okay, we don’t have decades of movies to do this with.” And they were not allowed [by the Chinese government] to get a Disney Channel onto Chinese airwaves.
So what they decided to do was to launch a string of schools called Disney English, which would essentially teach young Chinese children English, but using Disney characters: Mickey wants an apple, or Luke Skywalker is 30 years old. I walked by one of these schools when I was there, and I remember that Toy Story 4 was coming out that week; all of the teachers were wearing Toy Story 4 T-shirts.
(Strong echoes of Troy McClure’s Pepsi school in The Simpsons.)
The last decade or so has been replete with Sinicisation efforts by Hollywood studios and filmmakers trying to crack into China or secure Chinese financing. Some of them are extraordinarily clumsy, like when MGM sent the 2011 remake of oorah American patriot movie Red Dawn to a visual effects studio at the last minute to replace all the Chinese flags with North Korean ones — among other load-bearing changes in a similar vein — once it turned out the Chinese government was likely to bring the hammer down on all future releases from the studio. (At one point, a character in the film says, “North Korea? It doesn’t make any sense.” No, it doesn’t!)
Let us not even speak of the moment in Transformers: Age of Extinction, where Mark Wahlberg’s character, ostensibly a taxpayer of Texas, inexplicably withdraws cash from a China Development Bank ATM.
Anyway, looks like an interesting book.
Despite numerous promises and self-imposed deadlines over the years, Tesla’s Full Self-Driving feature is not remotely ready for anything approaching unsupervised use. I don’t really care about that. What does interest me is that the FSD failures have essentially generated a whole new genre of internet cinema alone, of which the above is an exemplar.
The wider availability of dashcams over the past decade has released a huge new fountain of content generally speaking. There are hundreds of millions of hours of footageon YouTube showing everything from gentle fender benders to full on collisions to UFO sightings from the cold eye of the dashcam, which is rivalled only by GoPros, drones and the smartphone front camera for the vaunted title of The Official Visual Perspective Of The 21st Century. (Surprisingly, it took until last year for someone to wide release a found-footage horror film with the dashcam as its gimmick. Yes, it was Jason Blum’s doing.)
But the Tesla Full Self-Driving fail video has become so common that it has developed into a genre unto itself. The genre conventions are now rock solid. It’s almost always set in a generic American city or suburb during the daytime. It features a man driving, who narrates the experience with the low-energy cadence of a YouTube review video. Where his legs are visible, he’s usually wearing shorts. The video culminates in the wheel spinning suddenly and the car veering either towards another lane or a throng of pedestrians. (Failing to stop at a red light is another common permutation.) You could probably easily train a neural network to generate a convincing Tesla self-driving fail, because they all look so uncannily similar.
Fully automated passenger cars might be a pipedream decades away from anything close to fruition, but at leas they’re generating a new and urgent form of American art.
As you might have intuited from the new style of header photo, I was invited to the beta for DALL-E 2, OpenAI’s new image generating language model. I have no intention of clogging up the newsletter with my random experiments with it, but I am posting them on a Twitter thread here:
But here are a few observations which you might not have picked up from other coverage:
It’s incredibly impressive, and leaps and bounds better than the other models out there — but it fails a lot more often than you might think from the manicured output you see on social media. This includes basic misinterpretation of simple input, as well as the kind of distorted or broken outputs typical of AI art.
You’ll often find playing with these sorts of systems that, even when generating wildly different images in different styles, they often have a kind of overwhelming vibe that emerges through everything, like an artist’s calling card. DALL-E 2 definitely does, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is yet. But I think it’s strong enough that I’d be able to pick something was made with DALL-E in a blind test at least some of the time.
It still isn’t very good or consistent about generating realistic human faces, which regularly end up as indistinct smears as in other AI models. But it can be alarmingly good at generating replicated faces, like on dolls or toys. Not really sure what’s going on there. (Cartoon faces tend to be a lot better too.)
It’s great at generating text, but the text itself is always gibberish. So if you ask it to generate a sign, the text will usually look great, but it will always be an incomprehensible jumble of characters or character-like shapes.
It tries to stop you from generating obscene and violent imagery — anything involving guns, for example — as well as pictures of politicians. Some political figures (like Tony Abbott) slip through its filter net.
I love the powerful introduction for legendary competitive eater Joey Chestnut at this year’s edition of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island:
George Shea, who has acted as the contest’s MC since the 90s, does this every year. The Ringer has a collection of the ten best from a few years ago.
The association of epic monologue and carnival barker antics with novelty sports is a rich and storied tradition. The 1971 film Evel Knievel, which was part of establishing the daredevil stuntman in American legend, featured multiple lengthy monologues digressing on human civilisation and its relationship to daring motorcycle jumps. One example:
Important people in this country, celebrities like myself — Elvis, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne — we have a responsibility. There are millions of people that look at our lives and it gives theirs some meaning. People come out from their jobs, most of which are meaningless to them, and they watch me jump 20 cars, maybe get splattered. It means something to them. They jump right alongside of me — they take the bars in their hands, and for one split second, they’re all daredevils. I am the last gladiator in the new Rome. I go into the arena and I compete against destruction and I win. And next week, I go out there and I do it again. And this time — civilization being what it is and all — we have very little choice about our life. The only thing really left to us is a choice about our death. And mine will be glorious.
The screenplay was written by reactionary iconoclast John Milius, screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, who reputedly banged the whole thing out in a weekend after being paid five grand to punch up a few lines of the original script. After the movie’s release, Knievel started calling himself “the last gladiator” in real life.
The story of Joey Chestnut obviously demands similar valorisation.
On how the self-branding tasks of influencers have infiltrated many other jobs: “Considerations about how to present oneself on platforms have become a part of the everyday routine for a broader swath of the workforce… The mark of influencer creep is the on-edge feeling that you have not done enough for social media platforms: that you can be more on trend, more authentic, more responsive — always more.”
“Why I Am Cryptophobic” — I think this one of the better articulations I’ve read from the viewpoint of someone who thinks cryptocurrency will bounce back strongly from its current crash, and that it’ll be bad for humanity. Most popular discourse on crypto still tends to fall on the skeptic/booster dichotomy, so I always like reading something a bit more considered.
During the UK political bloodbath of the past few days I was reminded they have ‘Department for Levelling Up’, which on the face of it sounds like bizarre self-improvement brandspeak has transcended into the political realm. I wasn’t aware of an etymology for ‘level up’ prior to arcade games in the 1980s, but turns out it has a long history in UK politics and means something totally different in Great Britain. The more you know. (Apologies to readers from that godforsaken island.)
Pretty sure I reflexively dislike everyone even tangentially involved in this profile of obnoxious Instagram meme account admins in inner-city Melbourne. But it’s certainly a window ionto the bizarre politics and internecine conflict that comes with trying to be a big dog in the world of hyperlocal memes about taking ketamine on trams. (Possibly an uncharitable characterisation.)
Another piece on the bizarre and undeniably impressive GeoGuessr subculture I mentioned a few newsletters ago.
Great piece on artmaking and authenticity, with extensive reference to Nathan for You.
On the bizarre conflict gripping the world of pickleball as it attempts to establish itself as a professional sport with a legible hierarchy. (Genuinely very interesting.)
In a somewhat similar vein: a profile of Doyle Brunson, the Texas poker player whose career followed the trajectory of the professional game “from smoky back rooms to stages like the Bellagio”.
Here’s a guy from Uttar Pradesh in northern India who is a big fan of mangoes. That’s all you need to know.
"But it’s certainly a window into the bizarre politics and internecine conflict that comes with trying to be a big dog in the world of hyperlocal memes about taking ketamine on trams."
I literally cackled.
The profile of Doyle Brunson ended with a poem immediately followed by "[Author] was once the top-ranked amateur competitive eater in Texas." Good fun.