The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Video games.

The State of the Speakularity
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Matt coined (or at least first wrote about) “the Speakularity” in 2010: “the moment when automatic speech transcription becomes fast, free and decent.”

Five years and change later, we’re still not exactly there! But we are closer. Like the horizon, the Singularity, or the coming of the Messiah, the Speakularity is always ever-so-slightly in the distance.

I recently reevaluated my rig for transcribing recorded audio and thoroughly reworked it. I feel much happier about this than any of my previous setups, which leaned a little too heavily on procrastination and weeping.

Also, I recently read Friend of the Snark Charlie Loyd’s entry on “The Setup” about the tools he uses, and feel correspondingly moved to actually tell people how I do things in the hope that they might add, improve, adopt, critique, be entertained, or otherwise benefit from it. You know, like how the internet used to be!

This setup requires a few pieces of software. Some of them I even paid American money for.

CallRecorder for Skype. Skype is… less than perfect. But it’s common, and you can do app-to-app calls or call an outside phone number. Most of what I do these days is interview sources and contacts on the phone. If you have a landline from which you can easily record incoming audio… do that. The rest of us sinners, we have to do this.

There are a bunch of call recording programs for Skype. There are also ways to rig Skype and your sound card to dump audio into a file. I’ve used Soundflower before. But I like Call Recorder for a few reasons:

  1. I already bought it;
  2. I can set it to record Skype calls automatically;
  3. It can easily split the recorded audio into two files, one for each side of the conversation.

This last part turns out to be important. It gives you a pristine audio file with no trace of your own voice. You don’t have to listen to your own stupid self! Totally worth the price of admission. Or I don’t know, rig Soundflower to do the same thing. I can’t figure it out, but you probably could.

Ok, now I do a rough pass of this separated audio in a voice transcription app. I use an older version of Dragon Dictate. Again, I use this partly because it (kinda) works, but mostly because I have it. It’s like eating what’s in your fridge before you go back out shopping. You can also use YouTube, especially if you don’t care that Google might have a copy of your audio.

You can also use IBM Watson’s speech-to-text API for two cents per minute. This has some advantages in that it’s relatively easy to script. I’ve just started messing with Watson by way of Dan Nguyen’s video transcription project on GitHub. Sometimes Watson works for me and sometimes it times out, which might be a function of my often-iffy Wi-Fi more than anything else. So usually for a first pass I try Dragon instead.

All I want for this quick-and-dirty transcription is a basic idea of what was said. Plus, it’s good to get an auto-transcription of the audio file before you start messing with it, which we’re about to do.

The next piece of software I use is an app called AudioSlicer. AudioSlicer is free but comes with some limitations, like being Mac-only and only working on MP3 files. So I may try another app like WavePad Audio Splitter. Maybe you have a favorite you’d like to share.

The important thing you’re looking for with this app is that it 1) detects silences in an audio file and 2) elegantly splits that file into multiple files, wherever silence is detected.

This, in conjunction with splitting your Skype recordings into a you-side and a them-side, is magic. Not only do you not have to listen to yourself talk, but those places where you did talk? They become punctuation for the other person’s audio. You can get audio files broken up into natural units of conversation. This, unsurprisingly, makes for audio files that make good quotes, and are a natural length for you to edit and transcribe in one go.

Now we’re on to the last app: ExpressScribe. This company also makes WavePad Audio Splitter, which makes me think they might work well together. Anyways, this is a genius little free app. It lets you load and save audio files, has a text editor right there, and adjusts speed without changing pitch. Again, it’s far from perfect, but it solves a lot of problems for you.

So you take all those split audio files from AudioSlicer or WavePad or wherever. Sometimes I sort them by size and weed out the smallest ones, which are usually just somebody saying “yup” or “uh-huh,” “ok,” etc. Then you load them into ExpressScribe. I’ve got my quick-and-dirty transcription of the entire interview, which helps guide me for the quotes I’m looking for. When I find those audio files, I run them through the transcriber again by their lonesome. (If I’m using Watson, I probably bulk upload here; Dragon, you have to do them one at a time). I pick whichever of the two transcription (pre-cut or post-cut) is more accurate, or maybe take pieces of both of them. Then using ExpressScribe, I do a fine-grained edit of the transcribed the text, checking it against the audio.

When I’m done with the transcription (either piece-by-piece or the whole thing), I put the transcribed files into my notes (which I keep in Scrivener). Now I’ve got a bunch of separate quotes that I can deploy anywhere I need them. I’ve got the audio that goes with each note, if I have to finesse it. And I have a transcription of the entire talk, for context.

If I need to, I transcribe my side of the conversation — but most of the time… this is actually unhelpful. I mean, sometimes I say something really smart on a phone call or I stupidly phrase a question in a way that you need it in order to make the answer make sense. But most of the time, even if I say something smart, it’s to try to goad the other person into saying something smarter. The more I can get out of my own way, the better.

So right now, February 2016, that’s how I’m transcribing my phone calls. I’m sure I will relentlessly fine-tune this process, especially when doing so means that I might be able to avoid actually writing or especially, actually hand-transcribing audio.

What do you use?

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Or not

Imagine, if you will, the following as narrated in a British accent. Or don’t. It’s really up to you.

It was a late spring afternoon when the reader discovered a new post at a beloved but recently quiet site. The reader’s initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when it was discovered that the post took a video game as its jumping off point. “Wasn’t the last post about a video game?” the reader sighed, but continued anyway. This was, after all, the sort of site where interest was often found in unexpected places. Whether motivated by fascination or nostalgia, the reader moved past the somewhat awkward third person narration of the opening paragraph, and began to read in earnest.

Binary

While videogame developers like BioWare (Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect) and Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls) have generated a great deal of sound and fury by designing games on the premise of meaningful narrative choices, there has been in the past few years a quiet movement of smaller games such as Pathos, Unmanned, and The Stanley Parable which throw into question the very possibility of meaningful choice in an “interactive” narrative environment. Read more…

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Old blood

I don’t know a great deal about the upcoming PC game Apotheon beyond what can be gleaned from the trailer. According to Polygon, it’s a Metroid-like 2D action platformer whose original comic book visuals were replaced during the development process by its current classical-Greek-inspired look.

While the trailer doesn’t seem to delve much into the why of what goes on in the game, it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of combat, and that the game takes the idealized figures of ancient Greek pottery and adds a great deal of blood. Exploding clouds of blood, in fact, not even imagining that every wound must hit an artery so much as the human body itself as a film special effect, with a layer of explosive squibs directly beneath the skin.

That said, it must be acknowledged that while classical Greek art might not often be gory to our modern, horror-film-jaded eyes, it is frequently violent. (See, for example, this image of a pot depicting Achilles dragging Hector’s body behind his chariot, which probably illustrates my point better, but doesn’t look quite as nice on the page as the more generic battle scene below.)

Amphora_warriors_Louvre_E866

And if the ancient Greeks valued a clean line in their visual art, they certainly didn’t shy away from detailed descriptions of the effect of violence on human anatomy in their poetry. Read more…

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‘he deserves another shot’
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DayZ is a zombie-themed video game, one of the most popular entries in a recent streak of revenant-driven survival horror titles that shows no sign of ending anytime soon. This particular game began its life in 2009, when an Army officer trainee modded another game to help him prepare for training exercises. His mod snowballed in popularity, has been remade and released as a standalone game, and can now boast imitators of its own (such as 2013’s Rust).

It’s been true for a while now that video games are able to provoke a type of fear experience that no other medium delivers. Playing a survival horror game is much scarier than reading a book or watching a movie with equivalent plots and themes. We play these games to experience feelings that are difficult to recognize as pleasure or enjoyment.

The thing about good zombie fiction … is that the zombies are never the most horrific thing. Zombies don’t typically have the capacity for complex thought — they don’t execute stratagems, play politics, torture people. All they do is feed. The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.

Dayz is a zombie game in which the player’s main antagonists are actually other people, which makes it unnervingly compelling:

Any satisfying gameplay requires working together, but the alliances are informal and can be dissolved at a moment’s notice, plunging the player back to the opening beach. Any institution — even one as meager as Freeside’s trading post — is under constant threat of attack from roving bandits. On forums, players describe being forced into slavery by marauding gangs. One popular video shows two players boarding a bus, supposedly bound for a camp in need of workers, then being forced to fight to the death.

The best chronicle of the weirdly poignant and disturbing human behaviors DayZ brings out in its players might be Christopher Livingston’s Tumblr hey are you cool (that phrase was the first thing Livingston heard from another player). Here, via Rock Paper Shotgun, is a peek into a hostage situation Livingston happened to overhear in the game:

You are dead.

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Starting areas
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This short post is about starting areas in MMOs. When you create a new character in, say, World of Warcraft, where do you begin? How much of the world is available to you, and how soon?

Here’s the author Keen’s ideal starting situation — one that apparently goes against the grain of modern MMO design:

Players start hours apart, and in areas of the world so different from each other that the social mechanisms are different. I remember seeing people say, “We do things differently in this part of the world.” Someone hunting in Crushbone might be used to players behaving differently than those in Blackburrow. Even the experiences are totally unique; players on one side of the world might have a dungeon crawl deep into the depths of a vast cavern network, and players on the other side fight camps of orcs in a forest. The unique experience matters because people can swap stories.

Because people can swap stories! That’s so great, and so important. I don’t know exactly how this applies to domains beyond MMOs, but I’m quite sure that it does.

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“Give me a hand…”

I don’t have the time anymore to sink into playing million-dollar blockbuster videogames, but occasionally I’ll watch other people play, as recorded on YouTube. It’s fascinating to see and hear people reacting to things happening onscreen. The closest thing that we had to this before the Internet were DVD-commentary-tracks, and while those have an appealing sense of authority and finality in a director-driven industry, player-commentary Youtube videos are actually perfect for games. What better way to represent games as systems, where all kinds of things can happen depending on what players do, than having hundreds of videos by players taking hundreds of different paths?

This morning I watched James Howell’s multi-part commentary on The Last of Us:

The Last of Us is by Naughty Dog, known for crafting expensive, well-written games that are as fun to watch as they are to play. (Their previous games include a trilogy of treasure-hunting adventures that feel like extended Indiana-Jones movies.) Unlike their earlier work, though, The Last of Us is set in a post-apocalpytic world with zombies, and notably focuses on cooperating with characters the player gets stuck with. This means moving through levels and solving puzzles together, boosting each other up to high ledges, and carrying around planks of wood to span wide gaps.

It’s not particularly ground-breaking or challenging as gameplay, but James argues that these basic actions are used over and over again as a vocabulary for talking about trust. Over the course of the game, the main character Joel has to work with a cast of characters, who he (dis)trusts on varying levels – and it’s expressed in gameplay as he lets some help him and tells others to just stay put.

There’s a whole set of variations, though – it foreshadows betrayal when someone accidentally drops Joel while pulling him up to a ledge, it shows distance and tension when characters forget to boost each other up, and when an initially distrustful pair begins to show cohesion and teamwork as they open gates together and fend off zombie attacks off one another, it’s a glorious feeling.

Characterization by systems! Storytelling in interactivity! There’s so much space to explore here.

Having a vocabulary to explore this in all its subtleties is amazing for another reason, too – I point to Tim’s post about journalism dynamics as Batman vs the Justice League – because many of us don’t know how to talk about freelancing on our own, or being part of a loose collective or even an institution. What does dysfunction feel like? How can you recognize it? It’s hard to spot the warning signs unless you’ve gone through it (and have the battle scars to match). But in these systems of interactivity, between the zombies and the shooting, are safe zones from which to look at and play with this stuff.

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Laughing at the game

After having completed developer Quantic Dream’s most recent game Beyond: Two Souls, I felt myself compelled to tweet that the ending had made me laugh out loud.

No, really.

Now, like other Quantic Dream games — Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy/FahrenheitBeyond: Two Souls can pretty fairly be described as a game that is not trying to engender laughter. It’s a serious game about 15 years of its main character’s life in which serious things happen. Like being abandoned by her parents to be raised in a secret lab, and fighting Very Bad People in the Third World, and then discovering that maybe the Very Bad People weren’t who she was told they were. Also, there’s a ghost who follows the main character everywhere. Did I mention the ghost?

There are also big problems with the game. The nonlinear structure of the game’s chapters doesn’t appear to be very well thought out. For a character-driven story, none of the characters are particularly realized. I’ve heard more than one person comment that it appears at times that the writers have never actually had a conversation with another human being. I haven’t even mentioned the “Navajo” chapter, in which the white main character saves a Native American family by recovering the rituals of their people, and, um, yeah.

But for all this, I found myself laughing at the end of the game. Not screaming, not throwing my controller at the TV, laughing. Somewhere, at least for a minute, Beyond: Two Souls had crossed the line separating the ridiculous from the sublime, and that, for me at least, was a striking event.

While videogames are built on over-the-top, excessive worlds, where if one of anything is good, fifty is better, I’ve almost never seen a discussion of a game in terms of camp — Read more…

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