The Sixth Best Email We Wrote This Past Weekend: WELCOME TO HMM WEEKLY PREMIUM

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This week we got mad at the anime-inspired film Alita: Battle Angel, a trip into the uncanny valley. Before that, we had also become aware of a thing called when a post by a friend popped up on our Twitter feed, describing “a hellish website that apparently generates an AI-created fake person every time you reload the page.” It does indeed reward the viewer with a novel face upon each reload, and there’s just something not quite right about each image, and yes, it dipped our souls in hell as we pondered the terror of looking at a face that was not a face, along with all the heartless glitches peering out of the abyss. It is said that God does not make mistakes, and now, neither does AI, just iterations along a path to the event horizon.

We did as much Googling as we could stomach (hardly any) and saw an immediate published use for the AI as a way to generate fake avatars for social media. Till now, one way of checking a suspected bot on Twitter has been to copy the image file of its avatar and then drag it into Google’s image search (which we fully realize is a way of granularly contributing to Google’s own AI image reference library). If you see a bunch of different names attached to the image, or a URL for a stock photo company, then you know whoever (whatever?) made the bot just copied a face from a stock photo page or maybe someone else’s social media. Those days will soon be gone, we realized, as we watched the “This Person Does Not Exist for Sketch” plugin generate a series of potential avatars for one Igor Antonovich, if that is its real name.

The Verge explained the site this way:
The site is the creation of Philip Wang, a software engineer at Uber, and uses research released last year by chip designer Nvidia to create an endless stream of fake portraits. The algorithm behind it is trained on a huge dataset of real images, then uses a type of neural network known as a generative adversarial network (or GAN) to fabricate new examples.

We clicked through one face-approximation after another, looking for weaknesses or glitches or tells. It soon became clear that the ThisPersonDoesNotExist AI is not learning about People, but about Photos of People. Even on the normal-ish ones, the glare of a camera flash on shiny skin came up again and again, as a salient feature of the archetype. And then there were the abnormal ones: glasses sitting on one side of the face and dissolving away on the other; chronically mismatched earrings; small children with old-person features creeping in; lots of mouths with their teeth oriented incorrectly, like Tom Cruise.

Above the faces, the algorithm gave the appearance of a frustrated milliner, rendering countless semi-amorphous designs in place of hair. Some of the unpeople wore tiaras made of fragmented sunglasses. In our human understanding, we thought the Intelligence was bad at rendering hats, but of course it has no concept of "hat." It was blundering along creating horrifying attempts to incorporate images of the things people put on their heads into the images of people's actual heads.

Artificial Intelligence, however, cannot be horrified. Nor can it be pleased. In this particular Uncanny Valley, none of the faces were good-looking, like those faces psychological researchers get by averaging out features into symmetry and uniformity. They were not averaged, just derived from the corpus. Eventually, the Internet being the Internet, some of them will migrate into the corpus.


It helps somehow to have one flannel shirt I don't especially like. Not an old, ratty one, to throw on in the morning if it's cold and I'm walking the younger kid to school, but a decent and intact one that's not all that appealing. I bought one in college, cream-colored with a blue windowpane, shorter and more close-fitting than my other flannel shirts. It lasted for years and years because I only wore it every once in a while, when the shirts I did like were all dirty or when I had gotten bored with them. I'd feel not quite like myself, and therefore a little more aware of what it felt like to be me.

This shirt recreated this feeling. I'd done a round of flannel-shirt buying from Uniqlo, expecting I'd wear it like all the other shirts in the batch. I failed to link the wide-spaced pattern on the cream-colored background to the memory of the previous shirt until I had it on, at which point it was obvious. But the shirt felt fine; I wasn't not going to wear it. I just was not going to wear it as much.

What is it about those patterns, relative to all the other ones? Technically I guess this one was a tattersall, but it had the same character as the old windowpane, which was some ineffable degree fussier than an otherwise identical shirt in a more normal plaid. That much white in the mix starts to scramble my proprioception. It feels like someone would wear it tucked in.

Still I wore it just like the others, only not as much. One of the days I wore it was either Valentine's Day or the day before, a year ago. There was hand-crafting of valentines, and at some point in cutting out red paper hearts, for reasons I can't quite reconstruct, I stuffed some surplus cut paper into the breast pocket of the shirt.

I'd say I forgot about it, but I'm not sure I did it consciously enough in the first place for it to count as an act of forgetting. I certainly failed to notice it the rest of the day, or when I took the shirt off, or when I put it in with a load of laundry. But I did notice it when I took the shirt out of the washing machine and saw a pink splotch in the middle of the off-white.

The unequivocal good news was that the red paper had stayed inside the pocket through the whole hot wash cycle, and the red dye had migrated no further than the fabric of the shirt. Everything else in the wash was fine. The thing that was agonizingly close to being good news, but was not, was that the heart shape had almost perfectly transferred itself to the fabric. Almost! One lobe of it was just a little too diffuse and blurry.

Accidentally, I had come close to making the shirt weirdly likeable. With a heart dyed tiltwise into the breast pocket just a little more sharply, it would have become a different shirt. The accident could have become an intention.

Instead it was the same shirt as before, only messed up. I tried treating the stain and rewashing it, but it was stuck there, disfiguring it. The shirt had lost its past without gaining a future. It took me a full year to get around to admitting there was nothing I could do with it.

Nineteen Folktales: A Series

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]

6. The Wizard's Education

There was a young man who, through diligence and native ability, had studied and mastered the arts of wizardry at an unusually early age. It would not have been accurate to call the young man a wizard, however, because no one in all the country around him ever sought to call on his abilities. Crops withered in the summer heat, yet no one pleaded with him to conjure the rain. Couples plighted their troth in grievous mismatches, yet no one scheduled a preventive divination, nor even ordered a love philter to fix up the aftermath. Not even the lowest or most desperate gambler would commission him to supernaturally load the dice or domesticate a deck of cards.

The young man who was not quite a wizard kept himself fed by doing his own farming and a bit of woodworking. HIs neighbors did not hesitate to ask him for help with the latter. He was sociable and very handy, and he projected competence in everyday matters. His house was sound and orderly: walls well scrubbed and whitewashed, stone hearth neatly laid and always swept clean. To the rear was a medium-sized brass cauldron, kept untarnished and undented, and an oak bench with glass phials carefully filled and tidily labeled. On a shelf were books and scrolls of sorcerous instruction, worn by the ages but free of dust or mold, their edges unfoxed. None of his visitors paid the array any attention.

At times the young man was tempted, while joining a cupboard, to add the touch of his other craft so that any crockery put inside it would become unbreakable. Or while patching a bucket, he rehearsed in his mind the syllables that would fill it with wine and keep it full. But the owners had not asked him for such things, so he delivered the cupboard or the bucket on its own terms.

One day the young man was hoeing his turnip patch near the road when he struck a rock. With a flick of his hand and a few muttered words in an obscure and guttural tongue, he caused the rock to explode into a fountain of shimmering sand, and with another gesture he turned the sand into a flight of gleaming dragonflies and sent them scattering.

As he turned back to his hoeing, he saw a gaunt figure watching him from the roadway. Ever polite, he waved a hand in greeting, and the stranger--an old man or perhaps a woman, in layers of rags--stepped over the ditch and approached him.

"No fool could wield such craft," the stranger said, without preamble, in a tone that mingled alarm and contempt. "Yet who but a fool, with this craft at his disposal, would be mucking around among the turnips?"

The young man sighed and explained his plight. The stranger looked him up and down and gave a dry and sour chuckle. "What do you expect, going about like that?"

The young man looked down at himself in confusion. "The boots," the stranger said, pointing a grimy finger. "Sturdy, polished boots. Trousers--trousers! Unmended ones. Your shirt, if I don't mistake it, was put on clean this very morning. Your hair—"

"I don't understand," the young man said.

"Respectable!" barked the old one. "Conscientious! No one trusts in a sorcerer who looks like a decent neighbor, you goose! What would you know of the unearthly realm, with your feet—your boots—so squarely planted in this one?"

"But I can—" said the young man, and the elder cut him off with a glare and a shake of filthy locks.

"Yes, of course, you can," the old one said, "with more skill than I ever dreamed or dared. That is obvious. Two-thirds of my own conjuring work is sleight-of-hand and fraud. Yet people in my country beg me to wield my powers and name my price, because I look the part. You manipulate the invisible realm. I manipulate the visible. Enchant yourself, or enchant nothing."

The elder spat and went off down the road, head still shaking. The young man stood a while. Then he dropped his hoe and left it there, and went back to his house, and shut the door.

Five days later he emerged. His cheeks were unshaven, his hair uncombed, and on his feet were slippers of felt. As the weeks went by, brambles sprung up in his dooryard. The thatching of the roof slumped. He ate fistfuls of dandelions and bark from the trees. By autumn he wore a brushy beard, and by springtime the beard had clay and twigs and unidentifiable matter tangled in it. Strange fumes rose from the chimney, or seeped out the door because a squirrel's nest was blocking the chimney.

The neighbors stopped bringing him their carpentry problems, and gradually began to show up at his doorstep with their fainting calves, their blighted potatoes, their night terrors and secret desires. And if the wrong powder from the jumbled bench went into the blackened cauldron to be decanted into their potion, or a page of the wrong incantation was pulled from the cobwebbed piles around the shelf and read aloud, so that the enchantment missed its mark, and the wrong heart was quickened or the pear tree fruited with bricks—so much more esteem they held the wizard in, that he could work at all with such dreadful and capricious forces. Indeed, the worse he grew at his work, the greater respect he commanded. By his old age he was almost entirely incompetent, and was acclaimed for 200 miles in every direction as the mightiest wizard the land had ever known.

Hmm Daily is a website in the Civil Network, offering commentary and news and other things. This email newsletter is written by Tom Scocca, the editor of Hmm Daily, and Joe MacLeod, the creative director.

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