Machine translation and human progress

What subject connects Mass Effect, the Enlightenment philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, and Google Translate?

I was using Google Translate this morning when I saw this article about an earpiece which provides on-the-fly translation into English. The technology is based around a Bluetooth earbud and a mobile app, and provides a digital rendering in your ear of what someone just said. It’s the obvious next step from Google Translate, which now not only provides serviceable translations between most languages via your browser, but also allows you to use your camera to translate certain written languages (and non-Roman scripts) into English.

There’s no question that developments like this are quite exciting. Languages are a major part of human cultures, and linguistic variety is a beautiful and important thing. Nevertheless, there are obviously more languages in the world than even the most devoted polyglot will ever be able to learn, and anything which can promote cross-cultural exchange can only be a good thing. Moreover, learning languages is a time-consuming and, for many, boring process; it’s also expensive unless you’re able to teach yourself out of books, which requires a level of motivation and education most people don’t have. So taking the pain out of learning languages, or more specifically the pain out of understanding and talking to people in a different language, would be great.

Although the technology is new, the idea of rendering different languages mutually intelligible is not. It goes back to at least the seventeenth century, with the characteristica universalis of Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz was a famous polymath and Enlightenment scientist and philosopher, and one of his revolutionary ideas was to promote international scientific exchange by means of a universal language. Leibniz seems to have had the idea of basing this on Chinese, a language which was new to Europeans at that time and which intrigued Leibniz due to its possible relationship to advanced Chinese mathematics.

This sort of idea was popular throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and continental scholars invented a series of so-called ‘pasigraphies’. These were intellectual systems or practical manuals which professed to render languages mutually intelligible. They generally worked by breaking down philosophical concepts and forms of grammar into their basic elements, and trying to find ways to ‘map’ them on to each other across different languages. Such systems generally had limited success, and must have been a nightmare to understand and use, but their originators deserve credit for their vision and effort: essentially they were seeking to accomplish in a pre-industrial society the sort of thing which is only now starting to be made possible by advanced computers.

Of course, another area where this subject has been explored is in science fiction. Shows like Star Trek are based on the idea that languages have been rendered mutually intelligible between diverse alien species. Mass Effect is a recent example of an explicit attempt to address this in popular culture–at least in the form of an explanation in the in-game Codex for anyone who was interested. In the ME universe, most individuals know only their ‘mother tongue’, which is one of many languages from their home world and/or of their own race. They rely on portable computer devices, or implants, to translate other languages for them; someone, a Salarian say, will speak in their own language, but anyone listening will instantly hear it in their own language, be it Turian, Drell or Hanar. The system is subsidized and supported by state authorities who understand that galactic relations and trade couldn’t work without it.

Of course, there is still inherent value in learning languages, as well as in manual translation for artistic or technical purposes. But not everyone needs that, and, in theory, opening up languages to everyone through automated translation could be profoundly democratizing and progressive, and open up vast areas of cultural, scientific and academic collaboration. For that to happen, though, it’s something that needs to be in the hands of the state and public research institutions, rather than Google–and with the current world political system based on imperial competition, rather than human co-operation, that’s a sadly distant prospect. Nevertheless, it’s liberating to reflect on the potential of such technology, and on the ways that people have conceived of universal systems of communication from the early Enlightenment right up to the present day.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (3DS) – First Impressions

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Majora’s Mask was released towards the end of the N64’s life cycle back in 2000, meaning many people (like me) missed out on playing what has since come to be regarded as a classic Zelda game. Happily, Nintendo released an enhanced remake for the 3DS last year, so I’m finally able to fill this gap in my video game experience. So far, I’m only a few hours in, but it’s already becoming clear to m why Majora’s Mask has such an enthusiastic following.

Majora’s Mask was released a couple of years after Ocarina of Time, which is still widely regarded as one of the best video games ever. Sensibly, Nintendo decided against rehashing the story and setting of OoT, and Majora’s Mask instead takes place in a different time and place. Specifically, the story is about what Young Link did next after his part in the events of Ocarina of Time. Link is off adventuring when he runs into a mysterious character who comes to be known as Skull Kid. Skull Kid is a mischievous child who has come into possession of a mask said to house an evil spirit, and who seems to be caught up in a plot to end the world.

Ocarina of Time wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course, but nevertheless Majora’s Mask feels quite ‘dark’ in comparison and certainly has a decidedly creepy and strange atmosphere at times that actually makes it feel kind of scary. There’s one moment in particular early on that would rival much of what I’ve encountered in horror-themed games. This is not what you might expect in a game centered around Young Link and generally childish shenanigans. Of course, there is still a lot of trademark Nintendo humour as well as the odd blatantly weird inclusion like the 35 year old ‘forest fairy’, Tingle, who sells you your maps.

Majora’s Mask is perhaps most famous for its unusual time-based mechanic. The story takes place during a recurring three-day time period, played out in real-time with one minute being equivalent to one second or so. Link therefore spends his time going over a lot of the same ground, like a tiny elfish Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. This time-travelling mechanic allows for some interesting gameplay and storytelling possibilities, as your understanding of the world and its denizens’ routines expands alongside your inventory.

It also impels you forward, and there is a sense of urgency about proceedings that is quite rare. Although Link’s Ocarina has the power to turn back time, you’ll lose many items and progress when you do so, meaning you’ll often feel in a hurry to get things done before you run out of time. Combined with a gameworld where things change depending on what day it is, it results in a more poignant and reflective atmosphere than any experienced gamer will be accustomed to. Time matters in this game: perhaps an unwelcome reminder to some of us who have devoted tens of thousands of hours to video games over the years. The linear progression through Majora’s Mask’s ostensibly looping time cycle serves to remind you not only that time spent is irretrievable, but may also, depending on your own temperament and disposition, lead you to reflect on your own mortality. Scary stuff indeed.

As far as the look and feel of the game goes, Majora’s Mask will be achingly familiar to anyone who played Ocarina of Time in the late ’90s. The iconic music from that game, in particular, is heavily recycled, and I admit to feeling an almost physical sense of shock the first time I heard the Song of Storms since playing Ocarina of Time in 1999 or so. The sound on the 3DS is great, of course, and the graphics translate very well to its 3D display. The controls have also been successfully mapped to the 3DS interface, and controlling Link using the analogue stick is straightforward. The buttons occasionally feel a little small, for those of us used to playing action games on consoles, but it’s very rarely more than a slight inconvenience.

For a 16-year-old game, Majora’s Mask has aged quite well, though of course it benefits from a bit of sprucing up in this version. Having just completed the first dungeon, I’m looking forward to playing through the rest of the game, although I get the impression there is a lot of optional content and I’m not sure how long it will take me. As with many aspects of Majora’s Mask, I suppose you could take that as a bit of a metaphor for life in general.

The Sopranos (season three) – Review

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Season three of The Sopranos comes as something of a disappointment, but it’s not really the show’s fault. There’s only so much you can do when one of your main actors dies, rendering moot storylines you’ve been building up over two seasons. It’s an inherent danger in long-form storytelling. Although the writers do a brave job of coming up with alternative material, season three nevertheless fails to live up to the mark set by its predecessors.

Because of the last-minute changes to the script, some secondary characters get more attention that one might otherwise expect. For example, there are a number of storylines about Tony’s daughter, Meadow, and her boyfriends and other experiences at university. This is fine as far as it goes, but it felt quite melodramatic at times, and you imagine it wasn’t originally conceived as such a major part of the season. Most of the rest of the season sees Tony trying to manage his volatile crew, including a new character, Ralph Cifaretto, played by Joe Pantoliano. Ralphie is one of the highlights of the series; rather like Tony, he’s charismatic while also being extremely violent and very frightening. Unlike Tony, he doesn’t seem to have any protective instincts towards women or children–quite the opposite, in fact.

Tony himself continues trying to balance work and family pressures, continuing his counselling sessions with Jennifer Melfi (who also deals with major problems of her own.) We see Carmela trying to attend to her emotional needs, which proves interesting and provides probably the best scene in the series, when she attends psychotherapy herself. One of the odd things about the season is that, after the first few episodes, there’s no attention at all given to the federal prosecution of the Soprano gang; if the police had kept up their surveillance of Tony, they would have found him in some very awkward situations. As it is, they seem to give him a largely free leash. Maybe it was two for one on donuts or something.

On the whole, while watching this season it felt like the character and story development was in something of a holding pattern. Tony does develop a new romantic entanglement, which he learns from (to an extent) and which provides some more emotional insights. But I’m clutching at straws here. Considering the show’s reputation, and how good the first two seasons were, there’s no denying season three is a low point. Here’s hoping season four sees The Sopranos back on form.

7/10

Green Room (film) – Review

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Green Room is the latest film from Jeremy Saulnier, who made a name for himself with 2013’s violent arthouse hit Blue Ruin. Green Room continues the themes and style of that film, albeit on a slightly bigger budget and with more recognizable actors.

The film starts by following a young punk band who are struggling their way through a tour of America’s West Coast. The band are completely broke and when their latest gig gets cancelled they accept, out of desperation, an invitation to play at a show for skinheads. The next day they find themselves at a squalid building in the middle of the woods playing in front of 50 or so Neo-Nazis.

One of Green Room’s strengths is its authenticity. If you leave aside the whole issue of playing at a neo-Nazi concert, the general experiences of this band will be familiar to many people who have been in one themselves, while the dynamics and interactions within the group also felt real. Moreover, the depiction of the neo-Nazis was deeply menacing and disturbing, partly because of how coherent and real it all seems. The extreme right has been depicted in a number of US shows and films over the last few years–everything from Justified to Sons of Anarchy to True Detective–and the portrayal here felt at least as genuine and frightening as any of those other depictions. Patrick Stewart gives a chilling performance as their leader, Darcy, but the whole cast do a very good job. The film’s setting is hugely important, too. Rural Oregon will be familiar to anyone who has been watching Bates Motel; the remote, dark forest is deeply claustrophobic and very important for establishing the film’s atmosphere.

As with Blue Ruin, brutal violence is a major part of Green Room. One of the things that sets the film apart is its readiness to show gore in general, and in particular the specific results of violence against the human body. The cinematography is unflinching and quite shocking at times. It’s not just the results of violence, but also the abruptness–characters are often killed in an instant, with no warning or even chance to defend themselves. Green Room is a very good example of a film which shows graphic violence but does not glamorize it at all–rather, it serves to show how sickening actual violence really is. There’s very little dignity here.

Of course, a handful of young, unarmed musicians are horribly outmatched here by dozens of armed and extremely dangerous neo-Nazis. In order to have any chance of survival they have to show ingenuity and the film gives them a chance to use their brains. Once or twice you actually feel like the characters are thinking faster than you–which is quite rare in horror films, of course, and makes a welcome change. It helps make you care more about them, too. Unfortunately, some of the more interesting characters are killed off early on, and I felt the latter part of the film suffered simply because so many people had been killed. You also get the feeling that the fascists could have done a much more efficient job, considering they initially had the whole band at their mercy; but the film shows how the skinheads are themselves riven by internal problems, from drugs to police informers.

Green Room is an effective and haunting horror film, notable for its authentic portrayal of a DIY band as well as its terrifying depiction of the American far right. Probably the most frightening thing about this film was the way it forces you to confront the existence of groups like this; which seem alarmingly prevalent in the US but which also, of course, exist in Europe as well. And as anyone with significant experience of playing punk and metal shows can testify, they’re often closer than you think.

8/10

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PS4) – First Impressions

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It doesn’t take long to realize that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a special game. Just like Witcher 2, Wild Hunt features an early cinematic introduction that ranks among the best I’ve seen since the first time I played Final Fantasy 8 in the late 90s. As soon as the game gives you the controls, the sumptuous visuals and stellar voice acting and writing draw you in, while a sedate early section proves a good way to familiarize yourself with Wild Hunt’s controls and dynamics. The Witcher series has always had a distinctive feel to its gameplay, and Wild Hunt is notable for excellent pacing and a strong sense of weight to its movement.

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This is never more apparent than when Geralt is traversing the game’s stunning landscapes on horseback. Witcher 3 sensibly gives you a horse from the beginning, and your mount, Roach, is a major part of the game’s early going. Wild Hunt’s graphics are nothing short of beautiful: its colours are incredible, with sunlight, weather, trees, plants and earth combining to create some of the most stunning vistas I’ve witnessed in a game. Seeing it all on horseback is the perfect perspective. The score is also a delight–alternately mournful and wistful and a perfect accompaniment on your travels.

The game’s brooding atmosphere and weighty control system give your movement and actions a sense of significance and deliberateness that is quite unusual. Geralt is a strong lead, more engaging, less sleazy and (T. informs me) more handsome than he was in Witcher 2. We’re used to being able to create our own characters in these games now, of course, but there is something to be said for having a well-written, dedicated lead for a change. Geralt is generally a morally ambiguous sort of anti-hero, and although you can decide how exactly you want to play him, he’s the perfect fit for Wild Hunt’s dark and tragic fantasy.

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As a Central-Eastern European take on the traditional fantasy genre, Wild Hunt stands out somewhat from the usual and more familiar Anglo-American interpretations. But one of its most interesting aspects is the relatively earthy and realistic depiction of serfdom and feudalism. As you travel through White Orchard, the game’s first proper area, you’ll see peasants toiling over tiny plots of land. Sickness and disease are prevalent due to the masses of unburied corpses from a recent battle nearby; the bodies of deserters hang from trees by the roadside; political tensions are high due to the Nilfgaardians’ occupation of Temeria. Side quests explore various sordid aspects of feudal life, and some of the tragedies that befall peasants who fall foul of their masters.

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Combat is fast-paced and visceral. The game avoids the mis-steps of Witcher 2, the early stages of which were ruined by a maddeningly difficult combat and a bizarre decision to lock central combat techniques behind a leveling system. Wild Hunt provides a wide range of combat options and encourages you to investigate its many crafting trees. The crafting and other menus can be a bit daunting at first, but new mechanics are introduced slowly enough that you’re not quite overwhelmed. Meanwhile, there is an exhaustive bestiary with a lot of well-written text that provides even more context and background. This is a very well-conceived and crafted world, and one that looks like it will reward you handsomely for your time.

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Campaigns against Corbyn’s Labour continue

An intriguing story began to emerge this morning which provides a new dimension to the recent furore over the supposedly ‘sexist’ petition to remove Laura Kuenssberg from her role as political editor of BBC News. This petition originally began and garnered support over what some people viewed as flagrantly biased reporting over the recent council election results. Within a very short amount of time the petition became major news across most major outlets: not because of its content, but because of a supposedly sexist anti-woman agenda that had turned into a tide of misogynist hatred online.

Labour had by what any normal criteria would be regarded as a pretty good set of results in the recent local and mayoral elections, despite a massive, concerted and orchestrated campaign against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership (which goes back almost a year). Yet the narrative in the mainstream media, notably in the BBC and Guardian, has been that Corbyn is a disaster for the Labour Party and that all aspects of his record to date show he is ‘unelectable’. For years the BBC has been derided for biased political reporting, in particular for its pathetic coverage of popular demonstrations against government policy and anything to do with the trade unions or left-wing politics. Kuenssberg’s reporting in the aftermath of the election results became a lightning rod for anger against the BBC–a publicly-funded, and supposedly neutral and accountable broadcaster. However, within hours any discussion of the actual issue had been derailed in favour of a chorus of voices uniting against sexism.

The question is… where was this sexism? This morning, evidence of the actual comments on the petition emerged which reveal a great deal of legitimate and considered anger against the BBC and a negligible (if any) amount of sexist abuse. The sexist abuse that was associated with the petition seems largely to consist of the sort of statements by random trolls on the internet which appear in relation to any news story. There certainly does not seem to be anything like the critical mass of abusive content that would justify the media backlash against the petition, or for the 38 degrees website to take down the petition. Now: evidence is still coming out, and there may be stuff we haven’t seen which shows there was a widespread misogynist campaign, but for now the distinct impression is that the actions of a few toxic individuals on the internet have been used by the mainstream media to orchestrate another campaign against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters.

The media has a great deal of history on this subject. One of the lowlights of the Labour leadership election last year was a risible story whipped up by the media over the subject of ‘women only carriages’ on public transport. Corbyn was asked about the issue of harassment of women on public transport, which he condemned. On the subject of women-only carriages, he gave the impression he was not in favour but would consult with the public (and women specifically) and consider it if there was significant support for such a move. This was turned by the media into outright support for women-only carriages–as if Corbyn was arguing for it as policy–and used by the other leadership candidates to attack him for accepting harassment of women. Anyone willing to engage their brain could see the whole thing was ridiculous and concocted by the media (all of whom opposed him then and now) as a desperate and sinister attempt to make Corbyn’s women supporters favour instead one of the two female candidates.

More recently, the Labour Party was subjected to an obscene smear campaign trying to make out that it is riddled with anti-Semitism–while they were running a Muslim for London mayor agianst a Tory of German-Jewish and French descent. Leaving aside that the Tory Party is much more likely to be teeming with anti-Semites than Labour, it should be obvious that any mass party with hundreds of thousands of supporters will inevitably have a few crackpot members and a few who have extreme and offensive views. But the idea that the Labour Party somehow has a ‘problem’ with anti-Semitism is manifestly absurd. That is, unless you equate anti-Semitism with any and all criticism of the policies and actions of the Israeli state, which certain sections of the neo-conservative right do. Generally speaking, the so-called liberal media don’t go in for this themselves: unless it can help them score points against Jeremy Corbyn.

The readiness of the Guardian and the BBC to propagate such stories is not only sickening on the face of it, but points to a fundamental moral corruption in their reporting of news and current affairs. This is something you expect from the right-wing press, most of which is directly owned by media moguls tied to major financial or other business interests. But the role played by the ostensibly ‘objective’ media outlets in such smear campaigns points to an utter absence of moral integrity or intellectual honesty. In siding with right-wing forces against Corbyn and his supporters, they also, ironically, strengthen forces that are hostile to their own existence; as recent Tory attacks on the role of the BBC show. The idea of independent public broadcasting has long been cherished by progressive movements, but the moral and intellectual degeneration of the BBC signifies an institution which needs tearing up at the roots.

As for the Guardian, Frankie Boyle and Aditya Chakrabortty are just about the only journalists worth reading. Seumas Milne is working for Corbyn now; Owen Jones wrote one good book (Chavs) and seems to have spent the years since styling himself as someone who could be trusted to braintrust for a future Labour government. For all his fixation with changing the paradigms of political discourse which he discussed in his book The Establishment, he devotes most of his time to rebutting idiotic ‘Big Lie’ allegations against the Labour Party over issues such as sexism and anti-Semitism.

One of the issues all this reveals is how the vogue for identity politics is increasingly used by the liberal bourgeois establishment to go after left-wing and minority groups. Rights for women, gays, and transgender people were central to progressive social struggles from the 1970s onwards, and rights in place today were generally the result of strikes and social protest by trade unions, women and oppressed social groups. Women and ethnic minorities remain oppressed sections of society; women in Britain suffer from lower wages, workplace discrimination, and sexual violence and intimidation. But the regular use of concepts like ‘sexism’ to attack women’s rights advocate Corbyn, for the crime of seeming to stand for a better world and apart from the bourgeois political establishment, is simply another example of the tried-and-tested technique of capitalist divide-and-rule.

Fallout 4 (PS4) – Review

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Fallout 4’s post-apocalyptic Commonwealth is rather like most of present-day Australia: its landscape is largely barren and populated by things that want to kill you. This means that, for all its scale and ingenuity, its artistic ceiling is somewhat lower than other gameworlds which haven’t been devastated by nuclear war. It’s less obvious in Fallout 4 than Fallout 3, but nevertheless, you’ll rarely experience the sheer sense of wonder or astonishment that forms such a part of games like Skyrim or Witcher 3.

Fallout 4’s topography is also relatively flat. Whereas Skyrim is punctuated by mountain ranges and ridges, Fallout 4 instead relies on high-rise buildings to provide a vertical sense of scale. These are often impressive, and innovatively used in a few missions; but they’re normally climbed from the inside, which is a quite different experience from snaking round a snow-topped mountain. After a while I found myself skipping breezily along main roads between Fallout’s main settlements, and the overall pace of movement felt a bit free and easy. In a world where survival is so difficult for most of the population, it feels weird to be able to bomb around like the world’s greatest triathlete.

Meanwhile, the absence of a mount to travel on is a bit of a letdown. Most of the best open world games allow you to ride a horse (Skyrim, Witcher 3, Ocarina of Time, Red Dead Redemption), or at least vehicles (GTA). Mounts and vehicles provide an important way for the player to control pacing and also help situate the player avatar more completely in the world they inhabit, providing a sense of dignity that’s missing if your character is just scurrying around the world map… as they do here. A mount or horse would be the ultimate status symbol in Fallout’s world and it feels like an omission.

Fallout 4 does feature a dog companion, of course, who is very welcome. But it’s a shame you can’t bring your dog and another companion–it’s one or the other. This may have presented problems balancing the difficulty, but the upshot is that after the first few hours and one story mission you’re unlikely to use Dogmeat much. Plus, your companions tend to be quite ineffective for the most part anyway. They do, of course, play a very important role in developing your character and in helping him find a place in this strange world. Several of them are quite interesting and pleasant companions, but I was disappointed to find not all of them have their own companion quests. Building and maintaining rapport with your companions is an enjoyable part of the game but ultimately peripheral. It would have been nice if there was more of a way to incorporate it into the main story.

Fallout 4’s story is quite interesting, and the latter part of the game provides some thought-provoking scenarios and forces you to make some hard and perhaps unwelcome decisions. Unfortunately, at a certain point various faction questlines will be closed to you depending on your decisions, meaning a large amount of premium content is locked out of any normal playthrough. (Unless you start reloading save files, of course.) Compared to Skyrim’s wealth of guild storylines and Daedric quests, it’s a shame you can’t see more of Fallout’s faction quests through to the end.

It makes sense in the context of the story, but again highlights a tension I referred to in my earlier posts on this game. In these massive sandbox games, the story is best conceived as a servant of the format and of the player’s anticipated desire to explore the world and all the content it has to offer. The size of the game makes repeat playthroughs problematic. In Fallout 4, the story instead has an emotional pitch and starkness which comes into conflict with the game’s structure and innate rhythm. The game certainly has its memorable moments, as well as incredible elements of emergent gameplay. But other games have done it better.

Fallout 4’s gunplay is a strong point, as is its melee combat. The game has a strong sense of humour (and a strong stomach) in keeping with the sensibilities and expectations of its target demographic. It also features a plethora of customization options for weapons, particularly, and armour, as well as a well-developed and engrossing settlement-building mechanic. There is probably less here in the way of main story and content than in vanilla Skyrim (I clocked Fallout 4 in 100 hours; Skyrim was 150) but settlements can sustain hundreds of hours of investment in themselves. For all of Preston Garvey’s exhortations to take back the Commonwealth, its building settlements rather than blasting Raiders that would really point a way forward, and it’s a shame they didn’t find a way to incorporate this aspect more into the game’s story.

There is a lot coming in the way of Fallout 4 DLC, which may improve the ultimate experience; in the way, say, that Mass Effect 3’s Leviathan expansion managed to amplify and deepen how you experienced the rest of the story. But for now, Fallout 4 feels to me like just an excellent game, rather than anything more profound.

9/10