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Sometimes, moral lessons can be learned from blowing away zombies.
- Most video games are happily escapist entertainment, but some are much more.
- One of these is The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2), which takes place in a post-apocalyptic pandemic world.
- Through the innovative use of game play technology TLOU2, radically changes your perspective and elevates this game from entertainment to true art.
There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who play (or played) video games and those who don't get video games at all.
Okay, I admit this might be an oversimplification. But for a 58-year-old guy who didn't start playing until about ten years ago, this bifurcation explains why so many people miss what is truly revolutionary in these revolutionary technologies. I find myself spending a lot of time explaining to my non-gamer friends (both young and old) that in the midst of all the alien shooters, battle royales, and side-scrolling melee fighters — FYI, these are game genres — there lies a radically potent new method for storytelling. And it's storytelling that provides one path by which a great video game can become great art. To illustrate this point, let me introduce The Last of Us Part II.
Released during COVID-19, The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) tells a story in a world fallen to a pandemic. The subject matter certainly seems timely, but by itself, that doesn't mean much. Post-apocalyptic pandemic video games are a dime a dozen. There are a zillion titles out there that will let you spend 20 or 30 hours of game time mowing down zombies of one form or another while upgrading your weapons, health, and skills.
The sublime art of TLOU2
Now, don't get me wrong. The mowing down of zombies and the upgrading of skills common to many video games are just fine. Not every game has to be great art, just like not every movie you watch or novel you read has to be great art. There is, most definitely, a place in this world for mindless escape, entertainment, and fun. That's because — if you are into it — sneaking around some last-outpost-of-humanity while trying to take out dangerous zombies can be a delicious waste of time at the end of a hard day. But with TLOU2, there is all that and more.
The creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence.
Given the "Part II" in its title, TLOU2 is obviously the continuation of a story laid down in The Last of Us. That game followed Joel, a survival-hardened middle-aged smuggler who's been tasked with shepherding teenaged Ellie across the country 20 years after the pandemic outbreak. Ellie is immune to the infection that turns people into zombies. Joel is given his mission by a resistance group that hopes to use Ellie to find a final cure. The journey of Ellie and Joel (who lost his own teenaged daughter two decades earlier in the outbreak) is harrowing and makes The Last of Us almost universally recognized as one of the greatest video games ever made. I've written before about how TLOU's innovative use of game-playing mechanics redefined what was possible for storytelling. In TLOU2, creator Naughty Dog Studio manages to make lightning strike twice, finding an entirely new path to transformative innovation.
Warning! From here on there are serious spoilers. If you think you want to play these games STOP.
The Last of Us Part IICredit: Naughty Dog
You've been warned
TLOU2 takes place four years after the end of the original game. The story is set in motion with the brutal murder of Joel as Ellie is forced to watch. It's an act of vengeance, a retribution for Joel's own choices at the end of the first game. So, what does TLOU2 do to make this game rise above a thousand other stories of vengeance and retribution? The answer lies in the most basic mechanics of game play: perspective.
When you play a video game like TLOU2, you take on the role of the character. This means you literally take control of their actions, seeing through their eyes (or over their shoulder) as you navigate them through the world and the story. This is where the digital technologies of video games take storytelling into new domains. In the hands of lesser creators, the possibilities of that power are lost, and you just get another ho-hum shooter with a weak story. That's not what happens in TLOU2.
The first half of the game follows Ellie as she tracks down Joel's killer and seeks her own vengeance. Her quarry is Abby, the daughter of a doctor that Joel killed at the end of the first game. Abby is now part of a paramilitary group in Seattle, and you, playing as Ellie, must work your way through the city to find her over the course of three days. Using stealth and combat, fighting both the infected (really terrifying zombies) and Abby's compatriots, the effort is unnerving and exhausting. Unlike most games, TLOU2 does not let you off the hook in its depiction of violence. The brutality of what you are doing cannot be avoided. Characters struggle for their lives and call to each other by name if you take one down. They are friends, and you are the one ending that friendship forever.
The big plot twist
Which you are doing because, in a stunning design choice, TLOU2 switches that all-important perspective on you right in the middle of the game. With an impressive narrative mechanism, the clock gets reset to three days earlier, and you are now Abby, greeting one friend after another at the stadium that serves as the paramilitary group's base of operations. You get breakfast at the commissary and chat with folks in the line. You check out gear for the upcoming patrol and take responsibility for a playful guard dog named Alice.
As you move Abby through these often intimate interactions, you come to realize that these are all the people that you just murdered (including the dog) in the first half of the game when you were Ellie. It's a terrible, harrowing shift that colors the rest of the game as it goes on to unpack deeper issues about the strictures of our tribalism, our capacities for choice, and the possibilities of forgiveness. In the end, I was just blown away.
What matters for our discussion today is that the immense power of TLOU2 — namely, its ability to haunt me months after I finished the game — is due to the medium. Yes, a novel or film can force a change in perspective and that can be arresting. But it's the immersion, the agency, and the appearance of choice (even if limited) in video games that radically shifts the experience of perspective in a story. And in that shift comes a transcendence, a reframing, and a learning that are all the reasons why we turn to art. Ultimately, one reason we create art, one reason we participate in art, is an effort to learn something. Through it, we hope to find something deeper, something more about this mystery of being human.
That is what TLOU2 accomplishes. Through the medium of video games, the creators of TLOU2 take players on a difficult, exhausting journey through the consequences of violence. Given that medium's usual careless treatment of violence, making such a journey possible was not a small thing. It was revealing, and that is what we can, and should, ask from true art.
The more you see them, the better you get at spotting the signs.
When Donald Trump belatedly acknowledged defeat two months after last year's US presidential election, some news reports zeroed in on a fundamental question: whether his speech had actually happened at all.
The dramatic proliferation of deepfakes – online imagery that can make anybody appear to do or say anything within the limits of one's imagination, cruelty, or cunning – has begun to undermine faith in our ability to discern reality.
According to one startup's estimate, the number of deepfake videos online jumped from 14,678 in 2019 to 145,277 by June of the following year. Last month, the FBI warned that "malicious actors" will likely deploy deepfakes in the US for foreign influence operations and criminal activity in the near future. Around the world, there are concerns the technology will increasingly become a source of disinformation, division, fraud and extortion.
When Myanmar's ruling junta recently posted a video of someone incriminating the country's detained civilian leader, it was widely dismissed as a deepfake. Last year, the Belgian prime minister's remarks linking COVID-19 to climate change turned out to be a deepfake, and Indian politician Manoj Tiwari's use of the technology for campaigning caused alarm. In Gabon, belief that a video of the country's ailing president was a deepfake triggered a national crisis in early 2019.
However, some say a more pressing issue is the increased vulnerability of non-public figures to online assault. Indian journalist Rana Ayyub has detailed attempts to silence her using deepfake pornography, for example.
Some argue the threat of the technology itself is overhyped – and that the real problem is that bad actors can now dismiss video evidence of wrongdoing by crying "deepfake" in the same way they might dismiss media reports that they dislike as "fake news."
Still, according to one report, technically-sophisticated, "tailored" deepfakes present a significant threat; these may be held in reserve for a key moment, like an election, to maximize impact. As of 2020 the estimated cost for the technology necessary to churn out a "state-of-the-art" deepfake was less than $30,000, according to the report.
The popularizing of the term "deepfakes" had a sordid origin in 2018. Calls to regulate or ban them have grown since then; related legislation has been proposed in the US, and in 2019 China made it a criminal offense to publish a deepfake without disclosure. Facebook said last year it would ban deepfakes that aren't parody or satire, and Twitter said it would ban deepfakes likely to cause harm.
It's been suggested that the best way to inoculate people against the danger of deepfakes is through exposure. A variety of efforts have been made to help the public understand what's at stake.
Last year, the creators of the popular American cartoon series "South Park" posted the viral video "Sassy Justice," which features deepfaked versions of Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. They explained in an interview that anxiety about deepfakes may have taken a back seat to pandemic-related fears, but the topic nonetheless merits demystifying.
For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:
- A growing awareness of deepfakes meant people were quickly able to spot bogus online profiles of "Amazon employees" bashing unions, according to this report – though a hyper-awareness of the technology could also lead people to stop believing in real media. (MIT Technology Review)
- The systems designed to help us detect deepfakes can be deceived, according to a recently-published study – by inserting "adversarial examples" into every video frame and tripping up machine learning models. (Science Daily)
- Authoritarian regimes can exploit cries of "deepfake." According to this opinion piece, claims of deepfakery and video manipulation are increasingly being used by the powerful to claim plausible deniability when incriminating footage surfaces. (Wired)
- It's easy to blame deepfakes for the proliferation of misinformation, but according to this opinion piece the technology is no more effective than more traditional means of lying creatively – like simply slapping a made-up quote onto someone's image and sharing it. (NiemanLab)
- A recently-published study found that one in three Singaporeans aware of deepfakes believe they've circulated deepfake content on social media, which they later learned was part of a hoax. (Science Daily)
- "It really makes you feel powerless." Deepfake pornography is ruining women's lives, according to this report, though a legal solution may be forthcoming. (MIT Technology Review)
- "A propaganda Pandora's box in the palm of every hand." Deepfake efforts remain relatively easily detected, according to this piece – but soon the same effects that once required hundreds of technicians and millions of dollars will be possible with a mobile phone. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
Are we enslaved by the finer things in life?
- The Roman writer, Tacitus, argued that the Roman Empire was built by enslaving conquered people who became accustomed to fine living and luxury.
- Technology today has become so essential to our daily lives that it seems impossible to break free of it. It's as much a cage as a luxury.
- Being dependent on a thing gives it power over you. To need something or someone is, for better or worse, to limit yourself.
Philippa has decided she wants to quit social media. She's worried about how addictive it is and thinks it's not doing her any good at all. But then, how will she speak to her aunt in South Africa? What will happen to all of her photos? And how can she organize that party?
Trevor wants to leave the country. He distrusts the government, dislikes the people, and hates the weather. But, then, he does get good healthcare. And he does like the TV. The roads are pretty good, too.
Philippa and Trevor are two examples of how luxury, technology, and easy-living can ensnare us or box us in. In many ways, it's a modern and relatable phenomenon, but it goes back at least to the Roman writer, Tacitus. It's the idea that the trappings of civilization enslave us. How is it that, without even knowing it, those things we thought were helpful and time-saving became indispensable essentials?
The hidden danger of luxury
The Roman army was one of the most militarily effective and successful forces the world has ever known. On open land, their legions were pretty much unbeatable. But the Roman Empire was not built on the back of military genius and short, stabbing swords alone. The legions might have beaten a people, but they did not subdue them. It was the love of luxury and easy living that did that.
The Britons, Tacitus noted, were enslaved, not by chains, but by their desire for good wine and elegant dinner parties. In fact, the governor of Britain, Agricola, deliberately sought to pacify this tribal warrior society by the "delightful distractions" of warm baths, togas, and education. As Tacitus wrote, "The naïve Britons described these things as 'civilization,' when in fact they were simply part of their enslavement."
Comfort and convenience had morphed painted, screaming warriors into genteel, pacified civilians. (It should be noted that Tacitus likely over-exaggerated all this. Britain was never as compliant as France or Spain in the Roman Empire.)
The use of luxury to win over a people is a tactic mirrored across time.
Faced with a trade deficit with China, the British Empire flooded their country with cheap opium they had shipped over from India. A luxury drug became an addiction, and the British traded their opium for porcelain, tea, and silk.
Mikhail Gorbachev enjoying the American way of life.Credit: Bob Galbraith / Public domain via Wikipedia
The Cold War was also won on the back of luxury. When cheap American TVs and refrigerators inevitably worked their way into the USSR, the Soviets couldn't hope to match such opulence. The bloc came to see such "luxury" domestic goods as essential, and only the USA could give them.
But the most relatable example for most of us today is our relationship with Big Tech. Companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google slowly and surely wire our lives into their algorithms and platforms. Social media are designed and calibrated to be deliberately addictive. Time- or money-saving services, like cloud-based storage, have become so universal, that going back is becoming impossible. It's increasingly the case that we don't even know our passwords for things—we let our phones or apps invent and store them for us.
You can't leave the machine
A new technology or service is initially a luxury—until it becomes so normalized and ubiquitous, so essential—that we can't go back to the time before it appeared. What was once a "want" becomes a "need."
E.M. Forster's novella, "The Machine Stops", imagines a world where every facet of life is provided by "the machine." There are buttons "to call for food, music, clothing, hot baths, literature and, of course, communication with friends." How prescient has this turned out to be? Today, we have Uber, Skype, Hello Fresh, and Amazon Prime. Our friends and family are also plugged into the machine.
Is it possible to leave?
Though we view technology as liberating, it also boxes us in. If we believe Tacitus, we are now enslaved by the things we once saw as luxury. It's the job of philosophy to see these chains for what they are. And, as we examine our lives, we can then choose to wear them happily or start the long hard journey of throwing them off.
The EmDrive turns out to be the "um..." drive after all, as a new study dubs any previous encouraging EmDrive results "false positives."
- The proposed EmDrive captured the public's imagination with the promise of super-fast space travel that broke the laws of physics.
- Some researchers have detected thrusts from the EmDrive that seemed to prove its validity as a technology.
- A new, authoritative study says, no, those results were just "false positives."
Now it seems that, yep, it was too good to be true. Scientists at Dresden University of Technology (TU Dresden) appear to have conclusively proven that the EmDrive does not, in fact, produce any thrust. They provide some compelling evidence that small indications of thrust in previous research were simply false positives produced by outside forces.
How the EmDrive is supposed to work
Credit: AndSus/Adobe Stock
In the EmDrive, says
the company that owns rights to the invention, "Thrust is produced by the amplification of the radiation pressure of an electromagnetic wave propagated through a resonant waveguide assembly." In simpler words, trapped microwaves bounce around a specially shaped enclosed container, producing thrust that pushes the whole thing forward.
They also assert that while the EmDrive is not exactly on speaking terms with Newton's Third Law, the company says it's perfectly in line with the second one:
"This relies on Newton's Second Law where force is defined as the rate of change of momentum. Thus, an electromagnetic (EM) wave, traveling at the speed of light has a certain momentum which it will transfer to a reflector, resulting in a tiny force."
Interest in the EmDrive has been understandable considering what it was supposed to do. Speaking to Popular Mechanics last year, Mike McCulloch, the leader of DARPA's EmDrive investigation, describes how the engine could "transform space travel and see craft lifting silently off from launchpads and reaching beyond the solar system." He mentioned his excitement at being able to get from here to Proxima Centauri — 4.2465 light years away — in just 90 human years.
It doesn't work. Yes it does. No, it doesn't.
NASA Eagleworks' EmDriveCredit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons
DARPA, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, is only one of the organizations investigating the claims made for the EmDrive. In 2018 the agency invested $1.3 million to study the device in research that will be wrapping up this May barring any significant last-minute breakthroughs.
Teams from all over the world have been testing Shawyer's idea since it was introduced and releasing often contradictory test results. This may have to do with the fact that teams detecting any EmDrive thrust at all have reported vanishingly small amounts of it, measured in milliNewtons (mN). A mN equals about 0.00022 pounds of force.
"Ever since the introduction of the EmDrive concept in 2001, every few years a group claims to have measured a net force coming from its device. But these researchers are measuring an incredibly tiny effect: a force so small it couldn't even budge a piece of paper. This leads to significant statistical uncertainty and measurement error."
For a sense of how minuscule these results are, consider that the possible thrust force reported by NASA in 2014 of 30-50 micro-Newtons is roughly equivalent to the weight of a big ant. Chinese researchers have claimed detection of 720 mN in their tests. That would be 72 grams of thrust. An iPhone 11 with a case weights 219 grams.
Too small to stand out against background noise
These tiny amounts of EmDrive thrust lie at the heart of what the TU Dresden researchers are saying: The effects are simply too small to rule out effects that don't really come from the EmDrives at all. The researchers have just published three papers. The title of one "High-Accuracy Thrust Measurements of the EmDrive and Elimination of False-Positive Effects" tells the story. The other two studies are here and here.
When the UT Dresden team turned on their EmDrive based on NASA's EmDrive, they, too witnessed tiny amounts of apparent thrust.
However, says Martin Tajmar of UT Dresden to German media outlet GreWi, they soon realized what was going on: "When power flows into the EmDrive, the engine warms up. This also causes the fastening elements on the scale to warp, causing the scale to move to a new zero point. We were able to prevent that in an improved structure."
Putting the kibosh on other researchers' results, the authors of the studies write:
"Using a geometry and operating conditions close to the model by White et al. that reported positive results published in the peer-reviewed literature, we found no thrust values within a wide frequency band including several resonance frequencies. Our data limits any anomalous thrust to below the force equivalent from classical radiation for a given amount of power. This provides strong limits to all proposed theories and rules out previous test results by more than three orders of magnitude."
This would seem to be the definitive end of the EmDrive story.
Researchers in Singapore invented a novel device that may help the island nation illuminate its growing underground infrastructure.
As nations like Singapore continue to build sophisticated underground infrastructure, there's growing need for reliable and affordable lighting systems. To meet that demand, a team of researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore created an innovative solution: a smart device that harvests real daylight and transmits it underground.
The device, described in a paper published by the journal Solar Energy, is something like a "smart" magnifying glass. Its main component is an acrylic sphere that sits above ground to absorb and concentrate sunlight. A plastic optical fibre is positioned under the sphere to collect and transport the concentrated sunlight to a desired location up to two stories underground.
To ensure the system collects the maximum amount of sunlight, a GPS device uses motors to move the fibre cable into optimal positions, depending on the position of the sun. This helps save energy, considering the only moving part is the lightweight cable, not the heavier sphere.
But what if it's cloudy? To solve that inevitable problem, the team outfitted the emitting end of the fibre cable with an electrically powered LED bulb that produces artificial light. The researchers said future versions of the device may include a high-efficiency photovoltaic cell that would collect and store energy, meaning it could power the LED bulb during overcast conditions. That would make it a zero-energy device.
Credit: Goela et al.
It's poised to be an efficient system for underground lighting, especially considering the study results showed that the device's luminous efficacy rating was more than double that of commercially available LED bulbs.
"The luminous efficacy of our low-cost device proves that it is well-suited for low-level lighting applications, like car parks, lifts, and underground walkways in dense cities," Dr. Charu Goel, Principal Research Fellow at NTU's The Photonics Institute, said in a press release.
"It is also easily scalable. Since the light capturing capacity of the ball lens is proportional to its size, we can customise the device to a desired output optical power by replacing it with a bigger or smaller ball."
While some of the early prototypes look like complicated snowglobes, future devices would likely be designed to look and function like traditional lamp posts, illuminating streets above ground using electricity.
Credit: Goela et al
This hybrid system could help light the way for Singapore's plans to move more of its infrastructure underground.
As an island nation with a fast-growing population, Singapore has for years been exploring strategies to use subterranean space more efficiently. Singapore has already built underground highways, parking lots, and walkways, and by 2030 the government hopes to expand its subterranean infrastructure, including underground utility plants, roads, and railways.
"Where it is feasible and meaningful, going underground would be the approach to optimise land use and improve the quality of our living environment," reads a report from Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority. "In general, the shallow levels of the underground would be used for people-centric activities that require connectivity to above-ground; while the deeper levels would be used for utilities, infrastructure, storage and logistics uses."
Researchers find that the coffee pulp is valuable in its own right.
The coffee beans that keep us going don't grow on the vine in bean form. They grow as coffee "cherries," skin and pulp inside of which resides the precious beans. Before coffee beans can be fermented in water as many are, the cherries pass through a machine that extracts the bean from the skin and pulp. Miraculous as coffee beans are, new research suggests that their typically discarded pulp is even more amazing. It can restore tropical forests.
Researchers from ETH-Zurich and the University of Hawaii have found that this waste from coffee manufacturing is a fantastic growing agent after testing it out on some agriculturally depleted land in Costa Rica.
"The results were dramatic," reports lead author of the study Rebecca Cole. "The area treated with a thick layer of coffee pulp turned into a small forest in only two years while the control plot remained dominated by non-native pasture grasses."
Coffee pulp arrivesCredit: Rebecca Cole/British Ecological Society
The researchers delivered 30 dump trucks full of coffee pulp to a 35- by 40-meter parcel on Reserva Biológica Sabalito in Costa Rica's Coto Brus county. The land, previously part of a coffee plantation, is in the process of being reforested.
Starting in the 1950s, Costa Rica experienced rapid deforestation followed by coffee-growing and farming that resulted in a 25% loss of its natural forest cover by 2014.
Before spreading out the coffee pulp into a half-meter-thick layer for their test, the researchers measured the nutrients in the soil. They also catalogued the species living nearby, and made note of the size of woody stems present. The amount of forest ground cover was recorded, and drones were sent aloft to capture the amount of canopy cover.
Reforestation in the blink of an eye
(A) Coffee pulp layer; (B) control area after two years; (C) coffee pulp area after two years; (D) overhead view of canopy in control area, above the red line, and the coffee-pulp area, below the red lineCredits: A, B, and C: R. Cole. D: credit R. Zahawi/British Ecological Society
At the end of the two years, the control area had grown forest covering over 20% of its area. In contrast, 80% of the coffee-pulp section was canopied by trees, and these trees were four times the height of those in the control parcel.
The researchers analyzed the nutrients available in the soil and found significantly elevated levels of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous, all vital agricultural nutrients. Curiously, potassium, also important for growth, was lower in the coffee-pulp area than in the control section.
The researchers also found that the coffee pulp eliminated invasive pasture grasses that inhibit reforestation. Their removal facilitated the reemergence of tree species whose seeds were introduced by wind or animal dispersal.
A much-needed growth agent
According to Cole, "This case study suggests that agricultural by-products can be used to speed up forest recovery on degraded tropical lands. In situations where processing these by-products incurs a cost to agricultural industries, using them for restoration to meet global reforestation objectives can represent a 'win-win' scenario."
Promising as coffee pulp may be, Cole cautions: "This study was done at only one large site, so more testing is needed to see if this strategy works across a broader range of conditions. The measurements we share are only from the first two years. Longer-term monitoring would show how the coffee pulp affected soil and vegetation over time. Additional testing can also assess whether there are any undesirable effects from the coffee pulp application."
In addition, she notes, the experiment only documents the value of coffee pulp on flat land when delivery of the substance by truck is fairly simple. "We would like," Cole says, "to scale up the study by testing this method across a variety of degraded sites in the landscape."
Just as exciting is the possibility that other such agricultural waste products may be good for reforesting depleted areas. Cole mentions orange husks as a material worthy of investigation.
"We hope," Cole concludes, "our study is a jumping off point for other researchers and industries to take a look at how they might make their production more efficient by creating links to the global restoration movement."