Where is the simulacra?

What is and what isn’t reality? That’s a question that is not new at all. Stories have taken people off to “other places” since the very first time they were told. Until recently, the tools and the generation of the narratives have all been in the hands of human actors. But that is going to change. Likely sooner rather than later.

Earlier this year, Spark ran a story about the power of storytelling in games. Putting a movie into a game has been done before, but this time, the idea is a little different. Rather than taking the easy route of doing a shooter, they made this game into a horror based game that can be experienced uniquely for each player. The branching narrative that allows the player to choose their own adventure isn’t new either (some of you might remember those old CYOA books). This ability to make choice leads to a significant level of empathy (PBS Thank You for Playing, Psychology Today) is what motivated the creation of the game.

Outside of the content and the presentation, the Apocalypse Now game doesn’t really break new ground, especially when you consider what it refers to as source material (Heart of Darkness, and The Odyssey). But this is where the jump from human agency to Artificial Intelligence can occur.

To create a game like this, artificially, one would need a narrative. Teaching AI to do this, the models from Vonnegut are the place to start. Without a strong narrative, the story is going to be a dud. Thankfully (perhaps) for AI, iteration to improve itself is par for the course, so it can make a convincing story with an almost endless number of branches and terminations. With enough compute cycles the iteration and improvement is going to get things perfect (perhaps too perfect). With the bones of the story in place, AI can then create the visual representation, if needed, similar to this world that was created randomly.

With these basic elements, we know that we have the tools to allow non human agents to create stories. What we need to be able to do now is look at those stories objectively and identify ways to create ones that can deliver an objective. That objective for my interest, would be to teach something, and in so doing looking to see if the checkpoints of laughter and truth are passed by. If they are, it would suggest that these two elements are vital (perhaps among others), to using stories to teach.

Those other things may come from elements that are identified in this TED Talk with Shonda Rhimes. She makes a comment on the CYOA stories and how they may not be as satisfying:

I’m watching a movie, I know for a fact that a story is not as good when I have control over exactly what’s going to happen to somebody else’s character. You know, if I could tell you exactly what I wanted to happen to Walter White, that’s great, but the story is not the same, and it’s not as powerful. You know, if I’m in charge of how “The Sopranos” ends, then that’s lovely and I have an ending that’s nice and satisfying, but it’s not the same story and it’s not the same emotional impact.

So if we are looking at fabricating stories for specific ends, the task becomes “easier”. The story creation system no longer needs to perfect an infinite number of endings. It only needs one that is going to create that impact.

You know, if you could decide that, you know, in “Jaws,” the shark wins or something, it doesn’t do what it needs to do for you. The story is the story that is told, and you can walk away angry and you can walk away debating and you can walk away arguing, but that’s why it works. That is why it’s art. Otherwise, it’s just a game, and games can be art, but in a very different way.

I’m always excited when new technology comes out and I’m always the first one to want to try it. The possibilities feel endless and exciting right now, which is what excites me. We’re in this sort of Wild West period, to me, it feels like, because nobody knows what we’re going to settle on. You can put stories anywhere right now and that’s cool to me, and it feels like once we figure out how to get the technology and the creativity of storytelling to meet, the possibilities are endless.

So it looks like I’m not the only one who is thinking about this and what stories can do, or be made to do for us and society.

Truth and Perspective – Laughing to the other side

I was listening to the October 27th Startalk Daily as Neil deGrasse Tyson talks to Bill Maher. During the interview, cut together with other conversations, Maher brings up some interesting points that I’m sure we have all heard in some manner before. The first is truth. The second is laughter. Looking at the second point first, there is a well recited claim that “if they are laughing they are listening, if they are listening, there is a chance that they are learning”. And the first point, the truth is relative.

Looking at Truth and truth, there are many people who have spent their life examining truth and a short blog post isn’t going help move the stick here. For now, we will assume that truth is related to an idea that is accepted as being fundamental to being. In order to get someone to accept your story, they need to to be able to align the ideas that they are being presented with the truth or the type of truth that they are looking for. Around the 51:51 mark, Tyson identifies three types of truth. The first being a personal truth. This is a truth of personal conviction that you would see in someone who is looking at truth in religion. This is a truth that is well, personal. Next is a political truth. This is an idea that becomes truth simply from repetition. Finally there is an objective truth that is established through repeated observation.

These truths need to then fit into a story arch. And just as there seem to be prescribed forms of truth, there are also common story lines. Kurt Vonnegut has a decent little video looking at this on YouTube, and this graphic from io9. Linked below:

Shapes of stories from io9.

All this brings me back to an article from The Atlantic that pulled all these ideas together. And part of what kicked off my interest in the power of storytelling was this section:

“This is an active area of research,” Reagan says, “and there are a lot of hard problems yet to be solved. In addition to the plot, structure, and emotional arc, to write great stories, a computer will need to create characters and dialogue that are compelling and meaningful.”

If we are trying to get computers to do this, we need to understand it first. And once we can do that, once we can systematically understand storytelling, we can use it for some amazing ends.

The power of stories to teach

Being away from the academy in a formal manner for years has started to really start an itch in me. For the longest time, I defined my interests in terms of how technology can be used to extend one’s ability to make messages accessible, and by extension, improve teaching outcomes.

Over the past few years however, technology has started to fade into the background. There hasn’t been much of an “oh wow” or “must have” piece of tech entering the teaching environment. It seems that technology is fading to the background and iterating. While this may be temporary (I think it’s likely happened before), it does allow us to take a breath and think about substance more than shine.

What I’m curious about isn’t something that puts technology together with storytelling, ala digital storytelling. Alan Levine aka CogDog has done some amazing things with this in ds106 as has Brian Alexander (h/t Ken Bauer of Flipped Classroom fame). Digital storytelling uses technology as a means of democratizing the production of high impact stories that share the perspective of the creator, from Wikipedia:

One can think of digital storytelling as the modern extension of the ancient art of storytelling, now interwoven with digitized still and moving images and sound. Thanks to new media and digital technologies, individuals can approach storytelling from unique perspectives. Many people use elaborate non-traditional story forms, such as non-linear and interactive narratives.[1]Simply put, digital stories are multimedia presentations that combine a variety of communicative elements within a narrative structure. Media may include any combination of the following: text, images, video, audio, social media elements (like tweets), or interactive elements (like maps).

Digital stories may be used as an expressive medium within the classroom to integrate subject matter with extant knowledge and skills from across the curriculum. Students can work individually or collaboratively to produce their own digital stories. Once completed, these stories can easily be uploaded to the internet and can be made available to an international audience, depending on the topic and purpose of the project.[2]I certainly see the power of this tool in the classroom or in educational spaces in general, but what I’m more interested in is the story aspect of it. I want to explore not only what makes a digital story effective as a teaching tool, but what makes any story effective as a teaching tool? How can educators harness the power of narrative in their pedagogical practice?. From the traditional classroom, to the work site, my experience over the last 20 years has shown that context, analogies, and interpersonal connections make teaching anything more effective. In my experience, my teaching, and the teaching of others has been that a solid story can help anyone to learn just about any topic. After all, learners are not just vessels to be filled, they are more akin to sculptures to be formed and hewn.

I’m not foolish enough to think that I’m the first to do this, or think this way. There have to be others with similar thoughts, but this is what I hope to be able to find out more about over the next while. There are ideas from Education of constructionism, and connectivism that look at how people build and connect ideas together in the learning process. There will also be ideas from literary theory.

X or Ten

It’s become apparent to me that I need to start writing more, and the best place to do that here is here. And with a goal or putting ideas together about storytelling, this is going to be random and techy.

I woke up this morning at 12:45 to be sure I could get my hands on a shiny new iPhone X. And I was ready. Both the Apple Store App and the web store were loaded and refreshed and at 12:59, I waited. Looking for 1:00 to show on the clock and the mad refreshing to begin. But something happened… the clock skipped… 1:01. What? Was this a glitch in the matrix? Was this something else? Was I paying too much attention to something else? I don’t know. But within a few minutes, I got in and Inhad in my “bag” a 256GB Black iPhone X (image via c|net).

And I had a pickup time set for November 3, now all I had to do was pay. And then it happened. ApplePay said there was an error. I don’t know if it was frustration or panic, I felt, but I was suddenly far more focused. I didn’t want a shipping window. But in the 10 seconds it took to refresh everything, that’s exactly what happened. This time, I defaulted to the basic payment method. Entering numbers manually just to be sure. The result was a window. 2-3 weeks (November 22-29). Crap.

But maybe not. Maybe the skipped time and the ApplePay fail saved me. Block A of a Rev A device may have a few issues that the subsequent blocks may not have. It could also be that I get my date moved up. Who knows.

Thinking about this post right now, it looks very much like a journal, a story to myself. Now that it’s captured, what will it teach me? When will I learn it? Who will it enlighten? How can I grow ideas like this?

Edit… looks like I wasn’t the only one .

What the duck

A week in Mexico was much needed this past week, but then on returning, I came back to the same cesspool that I left. While I so feel that I need another vacation, what I need is a change. Hopefully that happens in short order, and leads to better things. If it does that may be a vacation on its own. If not, these white sands and turquoise waters are calling.

Toes in the Water

So it has finally come to pass. boora.ca is going to be home to the extended Boora clan’s online musings. My niece Naomi will be writing at naomi.boora.ca. After a botched WP install last night, I got things up and running. I didn’t have a real FTP client to deal with the files, so that made things go really slow, and somehow a handful of files were missing and then the database kept getting errors. So I pitched in the towel and went with the one click install offered by my host. 

So her toes are now in the water with a public online presence and potentially with some code geekery as well. 

It’s a new world.

Spirit

This summer, we roamed around Alberta. From Waterton in the south to Japser, Drumheller, and around Edmonton. Through all these travels, we made all manner of memories. Well at least three of us did. The little one didn’t but in making memories with him, I think there was something far more important happening. We were all seeing how this family that had been only three for so long functioned as four; and we saw how little smiles and giggles gave new energy to all of us.  Spirit Island is one of those bucket list shots for me, and with Nut strapped to my chest, I managed to get a shot that I can’t wait to see printed on the wall. There is another print that I want – and it’s very much on the other side of this one. It’s a panorama of Lake Minnewanka that is a washed out black and white. I took that one when Nut was still on his way. We visited the mountains as a family to celebrate his impending arrival and a milestone anniversary for the grandparents. That’s another one that I want on the wall, and together, I think they tell quite a story of how a little change can bring all manner of life to the world.

Fly

So this weekend, while visiting family in Lethbridge, at an age of just over seven months, it seems that little K has become self aware. For the first time, he signed for milk, moved with intent, and participated in a game. I know Bug went through all these stages, but they happened so fast that it seems that they may have not been appreciated. This time however, they were duly noted.

 

We’d seen him lighting up and paying attention to all manner of things over the past few weeks, but now that those lights are on, and we can see that someone is home… things are going to get far more interesting.

It’s time to baby proof.

The Pacific

My favorite flower is plumeria. I first saw them in Hawaii and quickly built an association with the magic of those islands with the flower. But recently, in Mexico, I also saw them. Connected by climate, and the Pacific Ocean,  these flowers always catch my eye and ease my mind. I thought this special feeling was only possible in Hawaii, but when I saw the flowers and felt that peace in Mexico, it occurred to me that it might not be the place, but it might be the Pacific (being on vacation doesn’t hurt). But then it occurred to me that I get a very similar in Vancouver when I’ve been out on the sea wall, so it must be the Pacific.

I don’t know what magic is in those waters, but perhaps it’s because they have no memory (Shawshank), perhaps is the incredible power of the water… or the great many mysteries they hold. Who knows.

The Lexus Line

Before Bug was born, the first vehicle that I purchased was a ’06 Highlander Hybrid. I loved that machine. I was always against buying an SUV because I saw them as oversized planet killers. But I told Neelam that if I were ever to get one, it would have to be a hybrid. And sure enough, that is what I got. At the time, the hybrids were all built on the Lexus production lines in Japan, and in talking to the dealer, the one that I got was one of the first few in Canada (26 I believe he said). Sadly though, I had to give up my Toyota and downsize for economic reasons. But as I’ve mentioned a few times, things seem to be getting better.

As the lease was about to expire on my Mazda 5 – a capable little run around in it’s own right – I started looking for a replacement, and the first place that my eyes looked was to the Toyota hybrid line. But as it happens, Toyota dealers don’t like easy customers. Lexus dealers on the other hand? Well they work their tail off, and they win the customers. So what you see here is not actually the Lexus that I would up getting. I wound up with a dealer demo, base model for about 15k less than the current year. Yes, with some added bonuses on top, I am paying less for a nearly new Lexus than a new Toyota… and I’m getting better service to boot.

The Highlander and the Mazda 5 were both named Stitch, but this new baby – a shiny white ES 300h, is Baymax.