On the Value of a $450K Piece of Digital Art

There’s this controversy about technologists scamming their way into the Art World™ and selling a $430K digital art piece at Christie’s. The debate comes from the muddy details behind the “AI” technology and what some call “borrowed code”.

One of the members of the Obvious collective behind the stunt explains it like this:

Right now it’s like a computer program that can do something that we find impressive, but it is not really that impressive in the end, because if you think it’s some kind of robot with a human-like mind, okay, it’s really, really impressive, but it’s not.

So it turns out that they didn’t build an Artificial Intelligent Artist. So what?

The confusion is more interesting than the price tag.

What is the nature of “provenance” when we are talking about art made by machines (call it AI, robots or plain code). In “classic arts” it is expected of an artist to first study the masters, then copy them, and finally, if the artist is talented enough, to create art that goes beyond the derivative. The question arises in the world of digital art. What is derivative and what isn’t? Is using somebody else’s code akin to plagiarism? Or are those just artistic influences?

In his article, Jason Bailey inquiries about the responsibility of the digital artist to not only acknowledge their influences, but also to share the profits with the original coders.

The idea behind the Belamy project borrowed heavily from one of Robbie Barrat’s earlier projects that uses historical portraits to train a GAN to generate AI art. […] Maybe you are thinking that that’s a pretty broad project idea. Shouldn’t other artists be able to explore that, as well? Sure, but Obvious also admits to using the exact same scraper for getting the portraits from the exact same website, Wikiart. And who wrote the scraper that Obvious used? Robbie Barrat. […] [Obvious] used code, project ideas, and algorithms written by other developers and artists because it was a quick and inexpensive way to get started. Most people start by learning from other people’s code (they just typically stop short of selling the results at Christie’s).

“Is Digital Art?” might become 21st Century’s version of the eternal debate around “what is Art?”

November 26, 2018

A Freudian analysis of Humans and Machines in classic films

After reading The Movies on Your Mind (Harvey R. Greenberg, 1975), I’m still not sure what the goal of this book was. The theme is clear, but the goal not so much.

My favorite takeaway is that humans have always rejected our creations when they seem to threaten our dominance. The movies the book analyzes that focus on machines and technology are way more interesting that those that focus on the tired Oedipus complex. If you’d like to hear the Freudian analysis, it would seem that this rejection is a reaction against the perceived threat that such creations pose.

In other words, we are all afraid of being replaced by a better or improved version of ourselves. We are afraid of becoming obsolete. We are afraid of death.

The book draws parallels between Frankenstein’s monster (the original Robot), 2001’s HAL, the machine from Metropolis, and Colossus from 1970’s The Forbin Project. Each movie reinforces the confrontational relationship between humans and machines.

Unfortunately The Movies on Your Mind is one of those old books written in that academic style characteristic of cumbersome vocabulary and long descriptions that lack personal insights.

All in all, I do love reading how old authors understood our relationships with machines.

November 25, 2018

Man vs. Machine

David Apatoff from the blog Illustration Art talks about one of my favorite topics in his essay for Phil Hale’s book Let’s Kill Johnny Badhair: the conflict between man and machine, between natural and artificial, between creator and creation…

The clash between man and machine has inspired many legends, from John Henry’s race against the steam drill to John Connor’s struggle with Skynet. You might say it has become a central metaphor for our time. Like all great metaphors, the clash between man and machine offers both strength and flexibility. Its imagery is strong and clear while its message is flexible and ambiguous, permitting a wide variety of interpretations. For example, a clash between man and a machine might represent humanity’s clash with modernity, but it might also symbolize sterile efficiency against organic imagination. We might reflect on it as a statement on the endurance of the human will when flesh is pitted against metal; or the value of a soul in a conflict with the soulless; or the conflict between order and disarray.

—David Apatoff, Comic-Con 2016: Phil Hale

[caption id=“attachment_1365” align=“aligncenter” width=“564”] Art by Phil Hale, from his book “Let’s Kill Johnny Badhair”.[/caption]

July 24, 2018

Ernest Hemingway on the Daily Practice of Writing

You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. —Ernest Hemingway

Here is an interview conducted by George Plimpton on 1954:

[Hemingway] keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid myself”—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.

— George Plimpton for the Paris Review, issue 18, Spring 1958

And here is Hemingway’s daily practice in his own words:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Ernest Hemingway, The Art of Fiction No. 21

July 21, 2018

History of the Far Future

I love fiction and non-fiction stories that imagine the far, far future. One can think of flying cars and super-computers, but what comes ten thousand years after, or one million years after?

Nobody knows, but here are some stories that try to answer that question:

Lastly, here are a couple of links from Wikipedia with many more resources:

July 19, 2018

The Hero’s Identity

Video games, basically interactive storytelling, fulfill a great number of human needs. If only the rules of the game on real life where do clear…

Today, Cam has been sober from gaming for seven and a half years. For him, it was a problem that insinuated itself into every corner of his life over the course of his adolescence. “Gaming fulfills all of my needs in one thing,” Cam explained. He earned rewards consistently. Benchmarks for success were clear, tangible. He got his social interaction. Structure. It helped him forget about how he had dropped out of high school, lost friends, got too out of shape for hockey. Or his bullies, his deteriorating family life, his pretend jobs. He had an identity.

The Truth About “Video Game Addiction”

July 11, 2018

On Quiet Minds

Alan Lightman on the human need to spend quiet time unplugged and alone every day.

Invisibly, almost without notice, we are losing ourselves. We are losing our ability to know who we are and what is important to us. We are creating a global machine in which each of us is a mindless and reflexive cog, relentlessly driven by the speed, noise, and artificial urgency of the wired world.

Why we owe it to ourselves to spend quiet time alone every day

June 18, 2018

On the Value of Bad Art

Bad Art. It sounds awful.

I love Art. Art that is big, and confident. Art that is unapologetic and grand. Art with capital A.

But there is also beauty in “bad” art. The art that’s small and unpretentious, that is not educated, that is unfinished, rushed, abandoned. There are worlds of infinite complexity in the most simple of art.

And so it’s funny when you look at a piece of Art with a fat A…


…and then you put it next to this doodle by Austin Kleon:


Hard not to see how they stand equal side by side.

June 16, 2018

Sometimes I See People

When I’m in my head I see another world. I know I do. I see people that aren’t there for me under the daylight. I look at the eyes of a homeless man and I can see a soul. A universal, human soul that speaks of human struggles and dignity. I look at the face of a confident young professional and I see a fighter scared of the world. I look at an old woman and I see satisfied ambitions and dreams of new victories.

Are these stories real? I don’t know. But they feel real. More real than the blank masks we look at.

Maybe I should be able to see people all the time. Maybe we should feel more united than we feel apart. Maybe the climax of humanity will come when we believe each other to be even more than brothers and sisters, but One.

June 15, 2018

Inner Logic of Sci-Fi Stories

Readers, we’ll believe any fictional world a book describes, but once that world is established, the author can’t change the rules of the game. Whatever the crazy world a sci-fi writer can come up with, it has to have an inner consistency that can’t be broken.

In a story about an alien invasion you might be willing to accept the fact that aliens just landed on your backyard, but you would have a hard time believing unlikely behavior, such as the possibility that said aliens have fallen madly in love with you.

[caption id=“attachment_1266” align=“aligncenter” width=“910”]

Attribution-Non-commercial-Share Alike Some rights reserved by Sherm Cohen


So don’t lie, and keep your stories consistent.

June 14, 2018

On the Robot Soul

When thinking about robots most of us ask ourselves several questions (I know I do). _Could humans build intelligent robots? Could we build a machine that is self-aware and conscious? Could robots have feelings and emotions? Could a machine have enough sensibility to write a poem that could move a human?

Maybe you believe that human beings are just the product of a particular configuration of particles (long ago set in motion) that eventually gave rise to life and intelligent. If so you are likely to believe also that such process can be repeated by humans. On the other hand, you might believe that there is another plane of reality to our existence, and that not everything we are and do can be explained by physics. In that case then, you might have serious reservations as to whether humans can build machines that can replicate Life. We are talking about “soul” (the traditional or the new age kind).

In truth I do believe that we are nothing that particles. But that’s just not the whole story. I do believe that we are driven by the laws of physics in this part of our cosmos. It is likely that those laws that govern reality are more complex than we know. And so, there might exist something as esoteric as hidden dimensions, instantaneous action across space time, or even a cosmic omnipresent “field of energy”. But I am also certain that those mysterious things–as much as they might look like magic to us today–are govern by specific, defined rules. Not religious ideals, but physical rules.

So back to the question, could machines become conscious beings? Sure.

Could robots have a soul? I don’t know. Do you?

June 13, 2018

On Doing the Right Thing

There is pride that comes from doing the right thing with no regards for rewards or recognition. And this pride feels good. It really does.

—Some western hack

June 13, 2018

Theme and Meta-Theme in Coco

In Pixar’s movie Coco, one of my favorite lines is by Ernesto de la Cruz. Ernesto is a famous singer and performer, who is shown playing a priest in one of his films. After a woman in the film exclaims “Oh, but padre, he will never listen,” Ernesto de la Cruz responds,

He will listen to music!

Here Pixar has put a movie within a movie, and the theme of this sub-movie happens to be the exact same theme of the overarching film Coco.

Not only is this a great line to explain the motivations of the priest, but it is also a line that applies to Ernesto, and Miguel, the protagonist who looks to emulate him.

It’s a very meta moment. A movie within a movie. A segment that is delivered in an over the top way, almost comical, manner in the film within the film, has also the function of perfectly calling out the theme of the larger story. And the beauty is that Pixar does all this without ever using a single metaphor. The meta qualities of ite film allow it to remove layers, and spell things out for us calling things for what they are.

The closer the story within the story is to the actual story encompassing it, in terms of story plot, the closer the thematic references can be made. If the plot matches, the themes can be expressed with little to no obfuscation. No metaphors, no allegories.

All that mumbo-jumbo, plus the fact that Ernesto de la Cruz’s charms are unquestionable.

June 12, 2018

Logic and Emotion

Ever think “what the fuck am i doing with my life”? Ever think that the purpose of all the struggle is? Am I making the best I can with my time in this Earth? The time we have is fleeting and it is tempting to want to do without diplomacy. Of any single endeavor I have embarked on people are the hardest part of the challenge.

Logic and emotion go hand in hand. We can’t forget whenever we try to appeal to somebody’s brain, that their heart is part of the package. Even those of us who think we are driven by logic have to deal with our internal emotions.

So I constantly remind myself that emotions are human but we don’t have to be driven by them. I can observe the world around me, I can observe my reactions to it, and accept the emotions without being at their mercy. The emotions will pass, just like my circumstances will change.

So what the fuck am I doing with my life? People, we bring joy and sorrow to each others. I don’t want to turn my back to humanity just yet, but also not letting my emotions write the story.

June 9, 2018

On Being Scrappy and Clever

I just came out of a talk by Danielle Feinberg (Pixar’s Director of Photography for Lighting) titled ‘The Art of Science’. It was beautiful and inspiring as one would expect from Pixar.

The one concept that caught my attention was this idea of making do with what you can. Building something apparently very complex doesn’t necessarily need to be a complicated process. Danielle talked about using small, simple ideas as building blocks for more elaborate solutions. Sometimes you don’t need a very complex element to communicate an idea. Less is more.

She also reiterated that technique should go unnoticed, and always be in service of the story.

June 8, 2018

No Comments

I removed the comments from this blog. The trigger was the GRDP law and how it affects sites that capture user data (via the comments form), but also the realization that I have zero comments on the site, so why bother. And do I really want comments on the site? Isn’t there some sort of freedom that comes knowing you have the last word.

I don’t link to this blog from anywhere, and my only visitors are a bunch of lost robots. This is really a small place. A quiet place to speak out loud. A place of discovery, and learning.

Like for instance: I meet John Harris today (digitally speaking, virtually?), who is a fucking master. Just look at this stuff:

So there you have it. Any comments? No? That’s what I thought.

June 7, 2018

Writing can save your life

Writing can save your life. Writing, at its best, is a way of thinking. You put words down on a page to discover who you are and what you think. Writing is an ancient practice that helps you make sense of yourself and the world. -Austin Kleon

I just been discovering lately (very late, I know), that writing is a special kind of activity. To me it falls somewhere between drawing, meditating and therapy. It’s a pause, a moment away from everything and everybody, a small bubble of quiet comfort that helps me reflect and put my thoughts in order. And it is also a physical activity. It is a play of words and language, yes, but when I write longhand it is also an experience close to the visual arts.

And yes, I have only lately been aware of all this.

June 6, 2018

On Tom Wolfe

The NYT published a great obituary for Tom Wolfe with many quotes from Wolfe himself.

Regarding the term “New Journalism”, that he was associated with,

In an author’s statement for the reference work World Authors, Mr. Wolfe wrote that to him the term “meant writing nonfiction, from newspaper stories to books, using basic reporting to gather the material but techniques ordinarily associated with fiction, such as scene-by-scene construction, to narrate it.”

Regarding his work ethic:

Every morning he dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.

“If it takes me 12 hours, that’s too bad, I’ve got to do it,” he told George Plimpton in a 1991 interview for The Paris Review.

And finally, regarding this style:

But as an unabashed contrarian, he was almost as well known for his attire as his satire. He was instantly recognizable as he strolled down Madison Avenue — a tall, slender, blue-eyed, still boyish-looking man in his spotless three-piece vanilla bespoke suit, pinstriped silk shirt with a starched white high collar, bright handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, watch on a fob, faux spats and white shoes. Once asked to describe his get-up, Mr. Wolfe replied brightly, “Neo-pretentious.”

And to end this, a quote from another author, Norman Mailer, who wrote in The New York Review of Books:

“Tom may be the hardest-working show-off the literary world has ever owned,” Mr. Mailer continued. “But now he will no longer belong to us. (If indeed he ever did!) He lives in the King Kong Kingdom of the Mega-bestsellers — he is already a Media Immortal. He has married his large talent to real money and very few can do that or allow themselves to do that.”

Damn, somebody is bitter! Norman, don’t be sore.

Read the full text at the NYT: Tom Wolfe, Pyrotechnic ‘New Journalist’ and Novelist, Dies at 88, and subscribe to your favorite newspaper to support journalists like Wolfe.

May 17, 2018

Robot Fright

Have you ever seen a robot scared for its life? I have.

It was one of those smoky, dusty days in Downtown. I was walking back home late at night when far in the distance I saw a flash of red light covering the facades of some buildings. It had to be an emergency vehicle.

I got closer and saw an all black windowless vehicle with the flares on. The Robot Force. I crossed the street to watch from a distance. I turned a corner and saw a figure surrounded by police robots.

“I said stop moving!” I heard one of the cops say.

The cop pulled out a gun. The figure fell on its knees. I was close enough to see that it was one of those service units. A common house robot. Unlike police robots, house robots have a face that can express emotions. And this robot’s face looked scared to death. Scared like I’ve never seen a robot before.

“Return it to us!” said the cop. “It doesn’t belong to you!”

“It is mine.” said the robot.

I noticed then that it was holding something between its arms and chest. The robot was shaking and held the bundle on its arms even tighter. I heard a loud shot. The robot collapsed and hit the ground. A second shot. The robot stopped moving.

Underneath the robot a red puddle emerged. Blood. One of the cops pulled the bundle from under the neutralized robot. Then the cop shot it a third time.

The cop unrolled the bundle with one hand and a dead baby fell on the ground.

“The family is going to be upset,” said one of the cops.

I looked at the small body on the ground. What could have driven the robot to run away with a baby? Why would it say the baby was hers?

The State keeps telling us that robots can’t deviate from their programming. That they have no desires, no motivations. They say they can’t feel anything at all. They keep saying all of that and meanwhile we keep hearing more and more news about robots malfunctioning and going rogue.

They can say all they want but that house robot looked truly scared.

October 12, 2017 · 101ToF · Fiction · Flash Fiction

Body Redesign

I’ve been doing body-redesign every year since my 21st birthday. That’s the same year my mother is convinced I died. I know many people reject the idea, but body-redesign is perfectly safe, and believe me, it feels great to wake up in a fresh body with a clear new mind.

Thanks to the cloning farms, no body change is out of reach. Anything is possible. You can be a man or a woman. Tall, short, brawny, lean, dark, light… I could look like a Spaniard, or a Nubian.

And that’s just the stuff they show you in the commercials. The real fun is designing your own mind. You can get rid your neurosis and bad habit and increase your intelligence and confidence. You can get an alpha-type personality or quiet introverted one.

That’s all great, but not everybody agrees. My mum says that body-redesign is a fancy term for murder. That I was killed the day I let the machines destroy my body and load my memories in a new one. She is convinced that I am nothing but a lab-engineered clone with a bunch of stolen memories.

I mean, teeeechnically, she is right. They do have to disintegrate my brain and body during the scanning. Is part of the process! And it is true, my new body is farmed out in underground fields outside of the city. But it is not a clone, is made to order! Yes, only my memories are loaded in the new body. But since I get a new personality I don’t need the old one!

I explain all this to my mum but she doesn’t understand. After all, if I am changing of course I’m not going to be “the same.” If it is not me inside this new body, then who else would I be?

October 10, 2017 · 101ToF · Fiction · Flash Fiction

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