"History is just people doing things"
THE ABQ CORRESPONDENT
ISSN 1087-2302 Online Edition Number 288......December 2019
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There are industries, activities routinely offering special goods and services, of which most of us are unaware unless we happen to need what they provide. They may have well-established infrastructure, operating practices, and fee structures, even trade journals, but the fact of their existence is surprising on first encounter. Headstone cleaning is such an industry, and dumpster painting, cartography, and professional cheerleading with its related fields of professional mourning, and theater claque. There’s even a small, but busy industry in the production of effigies of private or public figures for burning. (2020 should be a big year for burning effigies of political figures, so you’d best get your order in early.) It’s a bit embarrassing to discover industries that really try to do people some good, and deserve more attention. For example, a friend has a chronic wound that has refused to heal for some years, despite extensive efforts of the medical establishment. His current treatment, which seems to be producing results, involves wrapping a fish skin around the wound. He pointed to a conservatively written article (they’re not hawking miracle cures) that reveals a whole industry that had not previously come to our attention. Legitimate organizations here and there around the world, e.g. the U.S. Army, are using natural, if highly processed, materials such as wool and cadaver skins to enable healing. It’s a “field.” Who’d have thought?
SOME THINGS ARE HARDER THAN OTHERS
The Correspo has more than once touched on concern about the “misuse” of machine intelligence* and efforts to guide people to ethical application of the technology. One hopes for kind, thoughtful selection of applications, avoiding irreversible unforeseen consequences. It ain’t easy. We may have crossed the “irreversibility” line years ago, when we enabled interconnected computers to learn from their own experience in subtle, untraceable ways. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier has commented that people have already created in the internet a worldwide intelligent system, a really immense robot, that cannot readily be dismantled. Fast Company has published an article by Albert Fox Cahn, a member of the New York City Automated Decisions Task Force, whose charter was to “analyze the impact of artificial intelligence on government.” The title of the article is “The first effort to regulate AI was a spectacular failure.” It’s hard for an outsider to know how accurate Mr. Cahn’s take on the group’s work over eighteen months is, or the reasons for his conclusions, but what he says is plausible…starting with the initial problem of defining what AI (MI) is. The task force was a mixture of people with different skills, agendas, attitudes, and technical competence working in a tense political context. They were concerned with the risk of a “dangerous system that makes decisions without human oversight.” Considering the effect of many decisions made with human oversight, that’s an issue worth addressing, but it seems to have been more than they could cope with effectively in this initial effort. We may expect many such efforts to follow, some in parallel, in many places, all driven by sincere, baffled worry. The activity should be an interesting show for years to come, and might even do some good.
Mind you, all is not gloom…people seem smarter, more clearly motivated and focused than machines are likely to become, and we are able to deal with problems we don’t fully understand. We can probably defend ourselves, even if the chances of regulating bad guys out of doing bad things seem vanishingly small.
Mr. Cahn is a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. That’s intriguing, because Joseph Engelberg, whom w knew slightly back in the day, was a pioneer figure in the development of useful, smart-ish robots. We find no indication that the Alfred B. Engelberg of NYU had any connection at all with Joe, but it’s intriguing to see the name of a major roboticist in the middle of the hassle.
*Well, most journalists refer to “artificial intelligence.” Only a few of us sticks-in-the-mud are more comfortable for historical reasons with “machine intelligence.”
You don’t often see a gang of robots in action, and we may quibble about the degree of autonomy shown by these critters…but here are nine in the same field. Lots of fun.
The Correspo spoke recently of the sentiment to get rid of the Caps Lock key, which almost everybody hits accidentally, making for frequent, tiresome corrections. Something’s been nagging me about that, and it finally bubbled to the surface. Hitting Caps Lock was never a problem before personal computers came on the scene. I wrote some millions of error-ridden words on typewriters before computers replaced them. (Grandkids were astonished to see a typewriter in action a few years ago, with those levers flying up to mash the ribbon against the paper.) Never had a problem with locking capitals on accidentally, though it was easy to forget to unlock the feature. It took effort to push the key down. Brushing it lightly didn’t lock it, you really had to push. On these computer keyboards, you just have to get close to the doggoned Caps Lock key to create a problem. Let’s get rid of it; there are at least two other ways to capitalize a string of characters. Now, what to do about reaching for the Carriage Return lever occasionally?
At the risk of being too self-referential, this month’s Item From The Past touching on film editing systems recalled a story that didn’t quite fit there. At TV commercial production studio FimFair in the early ‘60s, several of us, including the editor, the agency producer, FilmFair owner Gus Jekel, and cameraman Kent Wakeford were gathered around a great big Moviola editing machine, looking at the rough cut of a commercial filmed at the beach a couple of days earlier. Intense Gus was leaning over the Moviola, running a scene back and forth and expressing frustration at the timing of some birds that had flown through a shot. “They should have come in five frames earlier!” he said angrily. “Don’t look at me,” said Kent,” I didn’t wrangle the seagulls.” Maybe you hadda been there, but I’ve been laughing at that ever since.
ITEM FROM THE PAST
This item from 1995…nigh unto 25 years ago…is brought
to mind by seeing an ad for a 1 Terabyte external hard
drive for $54.99.
NON LINEAR EDITING--EVERYBODY’S DOIN’ IT
Well, movie technology is turning all digital; the same images photographed on film are now simultaneously recorded digitally. (a terabyte of disk memory -1,000,000,000,000 bytes - a million meg - costs about $3k.) The editor transfers icons of the recorded shots into a sequence on a screen in the desired order and lengths, creating parallel lines of music, effects, and dubbed voices, playing back the sequences, and making adjustments until everything seems right. The computer automatically compiles the data necessary to cut the film negative and other elements. Neat. In producing videos, of course, there’s no negative to cut, you just reproduce the edited material electronically as many times as desired. A big name in this field is a company called Avid. I phoned brother Terry at an editing session (where he was cutting a picture he directed, Not of This Earth, with Michael York, to be seen on Showtime in September, see your local listings) and asked if he knew anything about a company by that name. “Well, he said, I’m leaning on a machine with an Avid nameplate on it.” Gad, if Roger Corman Productions is using the technology, the cost must be modest. Somebody now makes a professional video camera recorder with this technology built in. The cameraman can edit what he shoots on-site, to see how it works, instead of bringing raw footage back to the studio. This loss of distinction between cameraman and editor seems to be creating anguish among unions dedicated to classifying jobs neatly. Into each life a little digital rain must fall, what?
The discovery that a 1TB hard drive is available for
55 bucks instead of $3k prompted some search into current
movie technology…and the further discovery that I barely
know what they’re talking about anymore, Yes, if you’re
working with big numbers of digital images in movies, you’ll
need a whole lot of memory, and cost is a major factor.
In the pre-digital era, mine, original footage (the film
exposed in the camera) was copied, and those copy prints
were physically cut and pasted to produce a mock-up of a
finished film. A “negative cutter” would then ever-so-carefully
cut the original footage to match the mockup. Prints of those
high quality images and optical sound would be distributed.
(This is the essence of the much more complicated process.)
In a sort of middle era the non-linear editing Bro Terry
was doing in the ’90s the original was still shot on film, but
the “prints” for editing were digital, allowing editors to do
their cutting, pasting, cross-fading, etc…very fast, with the
magic of video electronics, instead of having to cut and paste
a zillion pieces of film physically.
In a third era now, lots of productions are shot digitally on
very high-resolution cameras that use no film. There is no
negative, and the original images can be recorded on multiple
drives all at the same time…can even be transmitted back to
the studio in real time, where editors can produce rough cuts
of the material by the end of the shooting day.
Somebody pointed out that a release print (the movie film
that goes to theaters for projection on a big screen) costs about
$1500, while a digital version of that same movie for projection
costs about $150.
Lots of people point out that the quality of the digital images
is noticeably lower than the analog images on film, but when
consumers (inexplicably) watch feature films on smartphones,
that may not matter a whole lot.
… except to motion picture artists like Quentin Tarantino
who is morally offended by the notion of giving up the subtleties
of real film for the economies of digital. Martin Scorsese has
yielded reluctantly to shooting digitally, while making major
efforts to preserve real film production. George Lucas dived
into digital production early, saying that digital will inevitably
Probably the real question is “How fast will digital technology
enable the ability to produce the subtleties already available
in film…and go further?”
The cost of digital memory has dropped to less than 2% of
what it was when last we paid attention to it only 25 years ago.
Quantum computing is almost upon us. Perhaps it won’t
years of working and reworking, this has become a real book, via Lulu
Publishing. The blurb on the back (under a picture of the author looking
unnaturally cheerful) says:
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