Streaming, dreaming, and the world's least popular bugs
Come, traveller – join me at the fire and read this week's links
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. If you’d like to become a subscriber, hit the button below.
Islands in the stream
For my sins, I have been watching the Obi-Wan Kenobi show, the latest experiment by Disney in high-stakes nostalgia arbitrage. (It’s fine.) One weird choice is that the show kicks off with a TV-style ‘recap’ of the Star Wars prequels, which were widely reviled on release but have been reanimated thanks to a new remembrance cycle kicked off by Zoomers who were raised on them as kids.
On the one hand, this is weirdly appropriate. After all, the famous yellow-text opening crawl of the Star Wars films was a throwback to similar crawls from Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon film serials of the 30s and 40s, which were sort of like the TV recaps of their day. But the thing I found so unsettling about the one at the beginning of Obi-Wan — which unfortunately doesn’t appear to be on YouTube — is that the clips had been colour-graded and reprocessed to look more like a Disney+ streaming show. These movies, originally released between 1999 and 2005, are presented in recap with the glassy, oversaturated, deep focus look which would be very familiar to those who watch original content on platforms like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video. In short: they appear to have mildly yassified it.
It’s a kind of visual sensibility I’ve come to call streamcore. Yes, the word definitely invokes the kind of lowest common denominator offal Netflix has been pumping out in industrial quantities over the last few years — and that’s certainly part of the story! — but it’s also an overwhelming aesthetic vibe which is spreading its tentacles into the rest of our visual media. It has its various subgenres and stylistic variations across the various streaming platforms on which it is expressed, but streamcore is identifiable whether it’s a tiresome new Marvel outing or the latest algorithmic high school comedy-drama sludge Netflix has sent down the conveyor belt.
I was trying to figure out exactly what produces that streamcore vibe outside of the ‘I know it when I see it’ factor. Some of it is definitely technical. Netflix, for example, mandates that its original narrative content be shot on 4K UHD cameras, and provides a relatively brief list of systems that meet its standards. This obviously introduces a degree of conformity — and the somewhat uncanny, ultra-slick look common to streaming originals. Similarly, in much the same way as music is now mastered for earphones, streaming video producers have to take into account that their content will be viewed on laptops, tablets and phones in addition to TVs and (God forbid) cinema screens. This also introduces a certain flavour of conformity.
It’s also worth remembering that these platforms do indeed have a house style, as with any production outfit, and their market dominance leads to a wider purchase for that style than you might see elsewhere. (I enjoy A24 movies as much as the next guy who likes using the computer, but I won’t pretend they don’t have a small number of vibe buttons they love to smash.) There’s also a certain aesthetic sensibility of our age, which I guess is a hangover of the ultra-clean Instagram look of the back half of the 2010s, which finds its expression in narrative media too.
Nevertheless, it’s definitely a thing. You know what I’m talking about. Sound off in the comments.
Enter the frog dimension
Today’s dose of generative AI weirdness comes from the thread, which provides OpenAI’s DALL-E 2 with the prompt ‘Kermit the Frog in [movie title]’. It’s an interesting exercise in testing the system’s ability to interpret the visual conventions of both Kermit the Frog and the movies he is to star in.
Some are better than others. Here’s my favourite, which doesn’t make a whole lot of visual sense but feels right:
Tanks for the memories
This is one of my favourite ongoing internet stories. This week, it was reported that a Chinese battle tank crew member leaked classified documents on the forums for War Thunder, a free-to-play military vehicle combat game made by Hungarian developer Gaijin Entertainment.
According to defense analysts, while the details of the anti-tank weapon in question were previously known, this is the first time that authenticating documentation has been seen outside of China. How do we know the documents are authentic? Well, they’re pictured next to the weapon itself.
The weapon in question is the DTC10-125, an anti-tank round fielded by the modern-day Chinese military. Also known as a kinetic energy penetrator, its job is to punch through metal and breach the internal compartments of a tank and knock it out of action. As such, its capabilities are a closely guarded secret. Or at least they were until someone on the War Thunder forums got into an argument and needed to prove a point.
This is not the first time this has happened, and not the first time it has happened specifically on the War Thunder forums. Last year, someone posted an image showing specs of the British Challenger 2 main battle tank, purportedly taken from the vehicle’s technical manual. (The UK’s Ministry of Defence got involved.) Several months later, the same thing happened — this time, a user posted images from the technical manual of the French Leclerc tank.
The latter incident spurred this rebuke from forum mods:
Guys its not funnny to leak classified Documents of modern equipment you put the lives of many on stake who work daily with the Vehicles! Keep in Mind that those documents will be deleted immediately alongside sanctions. Thanks for reading!
The unifying motivation in all three cases is forums pedantry. War Thunder markets itself as being excruciatingly realistic, and boasts pitch perfect simulations of all sorts of modern and historic military machinery. This inevitably attracts not only some of the most insufferable war nerds you could imagine, but also ones that happen to be on active duty and with access to highly classified technical information.
This creates a wonderful tension. Winning internet arguments is basically our civilisational death drive now, and possessing top secret national security information is an absolutely irresistible means of achieving a backboard-shattering slam dunk on an online foe. Forums drama: it’s dangerous.
Here’s a fun blog. Programmer Colin Morris tried to answer an eternal and pressing question: what is the least viewed article on Wikipedia? Turns out this isn’t an easy question to answer, even with the trove of data the site offers:
Though Wikipedia page view data is publicly available (as a massive raw data dump, and through an API), there’s unfortunately no easy way to sort out the least viewed pages, short of a very slow linear search for the needle in the haystack… As a starting point, I grabbed 2021 pageview data for a random sample of about 32,000 Wikipedia articles. Maybe the properties of the least viewed articles in the sample will lead us to some heuristics we can use to narrow our search for the least viewed articles.
Morris learns a few things. The first is that most of the low-trafficked pages are disambiguation pages, which you’ll recognise as the navigational aids that point you between different pages that share similar names. For example, the disambiguation page for ‘Sydney’ helps you figure out whether you want to go to the city in Australia, the city in Nova Scotia, or the various people, ships or geographical features which share the name. Disambiguation pages end up at the bottom of the list, Morris argues, because they have been excluded from Wikipedia’s ‘random article’ feature for years.
The two articles with the least human pageviews in 2021 are both species of moth — Trichromia phaeocrota and Opharus corticea — which landed 3 pageviews each. It turns out that significant majority of the 600,000 or so pages at the bottom are various taxons of insect and fungus. These pages exist as an output of Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. Namely, these ultra-specific taxons of bug exist and have been categorised, so they are worthy of a Wikipedia page, despite the fact it’s extraordinarily unlikely anyone will ever need to look them up.
On the other hand, most wars about notability on Wikipedia are about people and organisations. It’s one of the most trafficked websites on the internet, so there’s inherent marketing value in having your name on there, even if no one gives a shit about you and what you do. Hence, the army of moderators are forever engaged in wars of policy litigation with weirdos trying to see their name in lights. Bugs, however, will never have to prosecute a case for their notability, no matter how obscure their taxonomy. (Maybe they should — start pulling your weight, you little freaks!)
I find questions about notability on online databases endlessly interesting, because they represent the collision between our more scientific impulses and our implacable drive toward self-aggrandisement. One unseen marker of notability is less about the policy of a given platform and more about longevity. There are no doubt bits of multi-decade vandalism on Wikipedia and elsewhere that remain not thanks to dutiful sourcing but because they’ve ossified over the course of many years. (The Jar’Edo Wens hoax on Wikipedia is one great example.)
Here’s a more personal one. Circa 2004 a friend vandalised IMDB to list me as the ‘Costume Designer’ for a fictitious 1994 short film named ‘Porn’. It remains, nearly two decades later. The internet never forgets, unless one of my narc subscribers does something about it.
An interview with Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney on the metaverse. Fortnite is, as this story mentions in the opening sentence, “arguably the closest thing to the metaverse that exists today” — but Sweeney seems convinced that it’s basically an entertainment thing, and all the wild-eyed promises about radicalising life and work are barking up the wrong tree.
On Northwoods Baseball Sleep Radio, an ASMR podcast which consists of a “complete broadcast of a minor-league baseball game, between imaginary teams of imaginary players, called by the fictitious play-by-play man Wally McCarthy, and interspersed with short ads for businesses that don’t exist.”
On the boom in ambient music on streaming, largely driven by a constellation of popular playlists, and how all that interacts with the artistry that supports it.
Alison Willmore at Vulture on fan theories that the “haunting and unreal” world of Top Gun: Maverick takes place in a death dream. From another Vulture essay, fortifying that vibe: “Which is maybe why Maverick takes place in such an otherworldly environment. The reality these pilots inhabit is a curiously empty one, mostly devoid of civilians, and the vast stretches of flat desert across which their jets blast feel like a dreamscape — an effect enhanced by the fact that during their training exercises, the valleys and mountains and missiles and enemy fighters they must evade exist only as readouts on computer screens.”
Here’s an interesting project: a Substack sociological inquiry, by a woman who self-describes as “probably” being on the spectrum, attempting to break into terra luxuriosus — the NYC club scene.
We have entered an era of “unapologetically bad taste”, according to the tastemakers at TIME magazine. “Everything is suddenly bigger, brighter, louder, raunchier. Designers are hawking hot-pink suits, belt-length skirts, and logo-plastered handbags. After a boom in scripted programming, trashy reality TV is surging, in a resurgence fueled by self-consciously trashy shows like Selling Sunset and FBoy Island.” (Maybe streamcore fits in here somehow.)
Got a link you think readers of The Terminal will go gangbusters for? Drop it in the comments.