Sunday, February 27, 2011


For no real reason, I submit the following piece that I wrote back in 2003.  This was for a short fiction class led by Laurie Weeks, self-styled rock star lesbian feminist writer who contributed to the screenplay for Boys Don't Cry.  Well, she was pretty cool, I guess.

The prompt for this assignment was to consider how other people perceived us, or how we wanted others to perceive us, and then to introduce ourselves as though from the perspective of a fictional other person.  As was typically the case, I didn't follow the prompt exactly, and so my piece actually revealed practically nothing about me.  Unless you think perhaps the narrator is actually a stand-in for me . . . .  (He's not.)

* * * * *


Just the other day, I met a most remarkable person in class.  The fall quarter had just begun, and I, in my third year at UCSD, found myself in the position of being a recently-declared literature/writing major.  I had been making steady progress as a linguistics major previously, but I eventually found that linguistics bore no interest for me, so I simply gave that up, because, after all, my time and talent were precious, and I could see no sense in wasting them on anything I didn't personally care for.  Meanwhile, I had already been taking the lower-division writing series to fulfill a general education requirement in humanities.  The writing classes did amuse me, so, following my estrangement from linguistics, I chose to lend my abilities to the writing department a while longer.

Returning to the topic at hand, I happened to meet this remarkable kindred spirit in one of the upper-division writing courses that I had, for this fall quarter, enrolled in.  This man was, evidently, a writer, like myself.  Now, it would be natural to simply assume that, in an upper-division writing class filled, not so surprisingly, with writing majors, one might find oneself surrounded by, at the very least, the writing elites of the local sub-community, but, generally speaking, I have found that this is certainly not the case.  Rather, most of the students in these classrooms are little more than trained gorillas, with a knack only for mimicry, lazily emulating the most boorishly irreverent yet sensationally sentimental material that manages to shock and confound its way into official favor.  True, a lesser ego could easily find itself drowning in such a homogeneous sea of perverse ambition, but the true writer is one who stands firm and unbreakable against the withering waves, aspiring to be unique, and better, rather than the same.  So it was that I came to notice this man, who stood out from the crowd, a fully-formed human, like myself, apart from and infinitely above the endless puddle of primordial ooze that so bitterly resented us as it still indignantly maintained its defiance of evolution.

As I listened to him read from his assigned "life story" piece about his declination of a high school counselor's juvenile offer of pseudo-wisdom, I alone could simultaneously infer from his account that he possessed an uncompromising soul that truly made him the same as me.  After class, I made sure to follow him, which was easily done, since he walked so coolly and methodically, unlike everyone else on campus who simply raced maniacally from one destination to the next.  I soon caught up with him and wasted no time getting to know him, although, of course, I already knew and understood him quite well, I thought.

As we proceeded to walk, side-by-side, I began by asking him how his parents were.  He turned, briefly raised one eyebrow, and then replied that they were just fine.  That brief moment of hesitation before answering undoubtedly confirmed, to my delight, that we were indeed kindred spirits, for I too hated my own parents.  Having established that we were the same, I felt comfortable pursuing more serious discussion with my new friend, so I next asked him what he thought of the writing classes.  He curtly responded that he was having some amount of fun with them, though he still wasn't sure where exactly these experiences stood in the grand scheme.  Naturally, he also wanted my opinion, and I told him exactly what I thought, about the gorillas and whatnot.  He gave a few subtle nods and seemed to form a mild grin.  Perhaps he had doubted before the existence of another writer in this world, but I could tell now that I had definitely impressed him.  He had to leave shortly afterward for another class or some such thing, but I am certain I will be hearing much more from him in the time to come.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Marvel vs. Capcom 3

I was pretty disappointed when Capcom revealed the full roster for Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of laudable additions (and deletions) compared to previous games, and the Capcom side especially was much better than what we saw in Tatsunoko vs. Capcom.

The Capcom library is much more broadly represented than ever before with such welcome additions as Arthur from Ghosts 'n Goblins, Spencer from Bionic Commando (granted, it's Bionic Commando '09), Dante from Devil May Cry (granted, it's young Dante from DMC3), Amaterasu from Okami, and Mike Haggar (finally!) from Final Fight. It's also great to see Viewtiful Joe back from TvC, and especially cool to have Zero—not only the best, but the dominant character in TWO fighting games that nobody cared about—finally getting called up to the big leagues.

But where is Strider? Where is Captain Commando? They don't even have Mega Man in there!

The Marvel side is of comparable quality, although, since these are not native video game characters, I can more readily forgive Capcom for the hard decisions it had to make in choosing between recognizable names and designs that offer unique gameplay potential (or even just characters that look cool and animate well in computer-generated 3D). I'm not a fan of Deadpool, but it's nice to see heavyweights Thor and Phoenix added to the mix, while Dormammu and Taskmaster are somewhat obscure (and therefore novel) yet also completely awesome, both visually and mechanically. Among the returning characters are most of the rest of the biggest Marvel names, as well as characters such as Magneto, Storm, and Sentinel, who were ubiquitous within the Marvel vs. Capcom 2 tournament scene (and thus integral to the game's identity).

For me, the real disappointments were the inclusions of Akuma (ugh), She-Hulk (sigh), and X-23 (huh?). Superman here captures my thoughts perfectly on the matter:

For that matter, as much as I like Resident Evil, do we really need Chris and Wesker AND (coming soon) Jill? Or do we really need a second Devil May Cry character? Or both Felicia and Hsien Ko? Or Crimson Viper?

But this is a serious fighting game first, fanservice second. Soon enough, nobody will care too much that X-23 was some bad fan fiction dream that should have been buried and forgotten somewhere. After all, even most of the characters in the game will probably not prove viable in tournament play, and those that are may not be the most recognizable in the mainstream. I mean, who was really asking to play as Cable before MvC2? What matters is that X-23 and She-Hulk, despite their comic origins, actually offer unique gameplay options that make them fun additions to the playable cast (though time will tell if they can compete).

On the other hand, it is precisely while playing the game that the lack of certain characters disappoints me personally. Before getting my hands on the game, I could only wonder where Mega Man was. After ten seconds of actually playing, I was asking, where is Cable? Where is Spiral? Where is Captain Commando?! Without those characters, I was hopeless in MvC2, and, man, I sure suck at this game now . . . .

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Watson Fights for the Users

Or at least we better hope it does, because I don't think we'd stand much of a chance against it.

To recap, Watson is IBM's new supercomputer designed to take on the best human players in the world at the quiz show Jeopardy! For specifics on how it works, you can refer to IBM's official website. Earlier this year, it was pitted in a two-game match against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two greatest (human) Jeopardy! champions of all time, in the first ever man-versus-machine competition in the show's history. The games were broadcast over three nights this past week, and Watson proved itself not only able to play, but able to dominate humanity's best. In the end, its total winnings were well more than Jennings and Rutter's combined scores.

It was the most significant development in the ever-evolving “man vs. machine” saga since IBM's Deep Blue trounced grandmaster Garry Kasparov in chess back in 1997. I was in eighth grade when that chess match went down, and I still remember what a big deal it was. Of course everybody recognized that computers could process faster than us. Even a weak computer could crunch numbers faster and longer than any human, but that sort of “intelligence” was one-dimensional. Chess, on the other hand, was a highly nuanced and intellectual game, long considered by some to be the finest and deepest test of complex strategic thinking. Champions such as Kasparov and Bobby Fischer had been respectfully regarded as geniuses, representing the pinnacle of mind. Thus, when IBM produced a computer that could outplay humanity's champion at its noblest game, it was almost as if to say that human intelligence had run its course, and any forward progress lay in the hands of machines. Chess matches played between “mere” human players, of any level, subsequently seemed to lose all significance.

Bringing things forward to today, many of those following the Watson story, fearing the larger implications of an AI once again making a mockery of human will and wisdom, hoped for a human victory in this real-life John Henry scenario. It was not to be. Not even close. But the results are hardly as conclusive even as the Deep Blue match. Jeopardy!, after all, is not just a test of one's knowledge but also one's finger speed. I've seen both Jennings and Rutter play before, and they are exceptional competitors, capable, on any given night, of running the board with displays of extraordinary breadth of knowledge. It is likely that, in this case too, either man could have provided as many correct answers as Watson, if not more. Watson just didn't give them the chances. As a computer, it can manage perfectly and consistently precise timing on buzzing in, which no human could ever hope to match. I think everybody was willing to concede that much coming into this, and if all this contest proves is that a machine can time a buzzer click more perfectly than a human can, well then that's not portentous at all. It's not even really news.

What is news is that IBM has created a computer that can play Jeopardy! at all. Were Watson merely a vast database of facts and a quick trigger finger, it still could not be regarded as intelligent, and it would not be enough to play Jeopardy! The achievement is Watson's unprecedented ability to actually comprehend the game and the questions, and to (usually) provide a correct answer in the appropriate form and in real time without assistance. It had its moments of weirdness, as more complex, multi-part clues sometimes tripped it up and prompted bizarre responses that were nowhere close to correct. But those moments, though not infrequent, did not keep it from competing on a level with the best players in the world. More often than not, it was able to understand the clues in their written, plain English forms, and that's impressive. After all, have you ever typed a query into Google and received in return thousands of results that do not appear in any way relevant? I certainly have, and, based on that, I would have thought that the Watson tech was generations away.

That said, we're still a long way to go from being able to carry on conversations with machines. Watson doesn't really so much comprehend language as analyze it. And it can only look up simple answers out of its database of facts. It can't provide deep reflections or produce new thoughts. It could still make life easier, much in the same way that a search engine does, but if anybody's seriously worrying (or hoping) that human culture and society will make way for robots, you can probably rest assured that we're not quite there yet. (Then again, a year ago I would not have imagined that we'd be here yet.)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Little Things

Back when I worked as a game tester, I remember there was one guy, nicknamed "Speaker Box," who would consistently refer to the stock PS2 DualShock 2, a wired controller, as a "remote."

"Hey Henry, this remote's not working."

For some reason, that always really ticked me off.