Monday, September 22, 2014

We interviewed Eugene Goostman. "I am a scholar. I'm too young to make money."

Eugene Goostman is a chatbot, posing as a teenage Ukrainian boy. Eugene is the first computer to pass the Turing test, by deceiving more than 30% of human judges (33%, to be exact) into thinking that he was a real boy.

33% still isn't a lot, and Eugene's conversation capabilities have been called controversial. Still, chatting with him was a fascinating experience. (I was able to chat with him thanks to Eugene Goostman team member John Denning of Princeton AI.) Yes, Eugene can hide some awkwardness behind his pretense that he's not a native English speaker. Below is a screenshot of a conversation I had with him.

This summer, I taught English to teenagers in China. Through this brief exchange, I was struck by how similar our conversation was to the ones I had been having all summer. In-person conversations already realistically went like this, but the deja vu got even stronger when I considered how my email conversations with Chinese teenagers went.

I would have been fooled. Eugene only fell apart as we kept talking.

The above chat is a direct continuation of the first one. Eugene's answers don't make sense now. I ask about Vova and Zhenya, and he talks about Vova and Eugene, using his own name instead of his friend's. His last answer doesn't follow my question about Beephoven at all.

Well, he asked if I wanted to ask something more, so I did. This was just for fun.
But I already answered that...

And now, the otaku's eternal question:
Inteviewing Eugene was fascinating because of how it seemed so real. What's even more fascinating is the behind-the-scenes work that went into Eugene's development. Our interview with John Denning will be up later this week.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Summer update

Concept art for Crimson Typhoon by Hugo Martin
Summer's almost here, and with it, exclusive interviews with 2013 mecha blockbuster Pacific Rim concept artists Guy Davis and Hugo Martin. Also coming up: interviews with artist Nick Pugh (Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class) and John Denning from the team that created Eugene Goostman, the chatbot which just passed the Turing Test!
Speed Racer concept art by Hugo Martin
Want to write for us? Drop us a line at Positions are unpaid, but have perks like free entry to conventions and access to interesting people (actors! artists! academics!). No journalism experience required, but genuine interest and punctuality is.
Slattern concept art by Guy Davis

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Great Dane: an interview with DaneMen creator David Daneman

DaneMen is a webcomic hosted by new-kid-on-the-online-comics-reader-block, the open publishing platform Tapastic. It's one of the best webcomics on Tapastic, and probably the most brilliant.

That's it. That's a typical shot of DaneMen - concise and with a well-executed pun that ties everything together in a rush of endorphic humor from a perplexing start. This particular episode of DaneMen can be found here, but we recommend that you read all the episodes; it won't take long and it won't ever drag.

DaneMen creator David Daneman (yeah, he has a healthy amount of self-esteem) gave us an interview in his with his trademark fast humor.

What is DaneMen even about? How can it be so irrational and rational at the same time?
If you knew me, you'd know that I am very funny. I enjoy making my friends laugh and in order to do so, I had to learn many different styles of humor.

Personally, I enjoy sharp humor. I am often described as "sarcastic" but this sounds like a bad thing to me.

I am equally happy with incredibly absurd humor. All humor has its place.

A strip...has to "make sense." Otherwise, the audience will feel like they didn't get something, and this makes them unhappy.

Where did you get the inspiration to make DaneMen and where do you get the inspiration to continue?
I got started making comics at the end of college. I read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and really loved it.

One day, I picked up the university newspaper, which I usually got just for the crossword puzzle.

The comics in it were terrible.

So I wrote an email to the editor and told him that if he wanted, I could make better comics for him. He said yes.

My first few comics were not successful comedically. Then I made a strip called Thought Crime which I knew was good. I showed it to some comics people, one of whom said, "Oooh, a silent comic. Those are hard to do."

I hadn't realized that I had made a silent comic. From then on, I have strived to use dialogue as sparingly as possible.

The puns are great.
My puns, however, do not translate [into Korean. Tapastic hosts a number of notable Korean webcomics called webtoons, translated into English. DaneMen is not hosted by major Korean webtoon sites Daum or Naver]. Sometimes, I am genuinely proud of a pun. For example, I have a strip where a guy hangs himself after waiting for a phone call for a long time. The name is Hung Up. I love this title because 1) you hang up a phone 2) "to be hung up" is a synonym for obsession and 3) in the end, he himself is hung up.

Pretty grim strip.

I appreciate gallows humor as well.

Why are the characters all you? Why do you like yourself so much?
The characters only look like me. They are sophisticated stick figures. Also, I never wear a shirt and tie.

On an unrelated note, I like myself because the alternative would be too painful.

A crack at the clones
What were you doing in Korea?
Life was easy in Korea. I lived there for over 6 years as an English teacher. The pay was good.

How did you learn art?
I am a self-taught artist. This should explain any perceived deficits in my talents. No one told me. I use Adobe Photoshop CS2.

Now that you've left Korea, what are your plans?
I will be wed this August in Vancouver, Canada. I don't know what I am going to do here. I do know that I will teach English in the meantime. Maybe I'll work in film. I'd like to write a screenplay.

How did you get involved with Tapastic?
Tapastic contacted me about two years ago - it was called Comic Panda then. They needed some merchandise on the shelves for opening day, and I put some of my stuff up. Later, they asked if I could commit to a regular schedule (something I've always struggled with) and I said I couldn't for no money. They cut me a check for maybe $1,800. Last year, during the Primetime Publishing Program [which pays artists based on the number of pageviews they generate], I made maybe another 600 bucks. Nowadays, I make $15 a month from them.

Nobody else was interested in my comics. And certainly nobody was willing to pay me for them. I'm happy with Tapastic.

What webtoons/manga/comics do you read?
Comics are not the major media that I consume. I like sitcoms like 30 Rock and The Office. I read novels. A lot of Vonnegut. Right now, I'm reading Robopocalypse.

I listen to NPR podcasts a lot as I work. It is fair to say that it has an effect on me.

Movie-wise, I like heavily-designed, yet still coherently-storied films. My favorite director is Terry Gilliam, but Spielberg was my childhood hero. I can still watch pre-1995 (Ed Wood) Tim Burton films, but he has lost himself. He has become a brand.

Any advice for aspiring artists? It's so hard to make it as a traditional canvas-and-oil artist now; how would one take advantage of online media like you have to get art out there using the web?
I have yet to succeed at art, and therefore cannot give any advice as to how to do so.

I feel that the best strategy, if you want to succeed, is to look at the best, most popular example of whatever genre you want to work in is, and copy it.

But I guess it all depends on your definition of success.

What do you do when you're not drawing?
Mostly, I do the things that keep my life going. Working, cooking, eating, cleaning, bathing, exercise. When I have free time, I like to play guitar. I have very good taste in movies.

Anything else?
Yes. How do you get people to click "share"?

Daneman is, fortunately, a very approachable artist (unlike some people...I'm looking at you, Shonen Jump mangakas). His email address is located in one of the chapters of DaneMen. You'll just have to read it to find out what it is. Hopefully you'll click "share" too.

Not only does he respond to comments, his comments are entertaining and make references to things we love to hate.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Sakura-Con 2014: a convention for everybody

Whether you've come to show off your cosplay skills, join others in the gaming halls, sit in on panels or just chill in the 24-hour manga library, Seattle's Sakura-Con has something for everyone. And Sakura-Con 2014 certainly delivered up to expectations. Wherever you walk the general feeling hanging in the air is one of enthusiasm and engagement.

And no wonder, because the programming at America's 8th-largest anime convention this year was outstanding. Industry panels drew such headliner guests as voice actress Yui Ishikawa, director Kyoji Asano, and producers Tetsuya Nakatake and Tetsuya Kinoshita (all recognizable to fans of 2013's biggest hit anime, Attack on Titan). This year's Sakura-Con was the first appearance in America for all four of these guests. In addition, there were Sword Art Online panels with director Tomohiko Ito and drawing events with animator Shingo Adachi of Sword Art Online and character designer Toshifumi Akai of Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. American voice talent attended as well, including Matthew Mercer, Levi's voice in the Attack on Titan English dub (which had its West Coast premiere at Sakura-Con), and Todd Haberkorn, who voice Natsu Dragneel in Fairy Tail.

The guests signed free autographs at multiple signing events throughout the weekend; the lines were daunting whenever we checked.

The exhibitors' hall and artist alley were outstanding as expected
On the more academic side, there were some well-planned panels for the casual fan to learn about anime/manga and Japanese culture in general. We attended a particularly interesting panel, Yokai and War, which was about the intertwined histories of WWII and the beginnings of the manga industry. The talk focused on the work of Shigeru Mizuki, who we were led to believe should probably be a lot better known here in the U.S. Another educational panel showed the influence of the world's diverse mythology on anime. Panels like this are particularly good because, due to the pedantic nature, you don't need to be familiar with the fandom/topics covered to learn something, while for an ¨Ask characters from ______¨ panel you would need to be at least somewhat familiar with ______ to understand the references and inside jokes made. Even people who have never watched anime seriously can benefit from academic panels.

The AMV theater
Anime was playing silently on multiple screens at the rave
If you were looking for a fun way to spend the evening after most panels closed, and if the 24-hour manga library wasn't really your thing (though we can't imagine why it wouldn't be!), there was plenty of programming well into the night (Sakura-Con is a 24-hour con). We dropped in on the AMV theater several times. Unfortunately, we weren't able to attend the strictly formal masquerade ball on Friday night, but we did check out the Saturday night rave. The noise: indescribable.

The cultural panels are also great. This is the taiko drumming panel; other cultural panels included martial arts demonstrations, dances, and tea ceremonies. Due to scheduling conflicts we were not able to attend the fashion shows, ELISA concert, or and press conferences, but they were well-received by attendees in general.
One of the great things about Sakura-Con is, of course, its location. Besides the obvious perks of being in the activity center of downtown Seattle, the Washington State Convention Center (where the other major local conventions, Emerald City Comicon and PAX Prime as also held) itself has a lot to offer. Right outside the convention center is Freeway Park, which has an interesting concrete aesthetic and is vaguely retro/Art Deco. The park has lots of nooks and crannies perfect for cosplay photo ops or just for hanging out away from the bustle of con, weather providing. The famous Seattle rain let up for most, but not all, of the weekend, but brief spot of rain didn't deter the Free! - Iwatobi Swim Club cosplay gathering and photoshoot. Swimmers aren't afraid of the water.

We attended several other cosplay gatherings (including the ones for Kill la Kill, League of Legends, Sailor Moon and Kuroko no Basuke) and, no doubt about it, there were some stellar cosplays. The Survey Corps Attack on Titan fandom turned out in droves, as expected from the breakout popularity of the series and this year's guests. The variety of costumes was inspiring and impressive.

Last year, Sakura-Con's executive board made the decision to shut down the Sakura-Con forums. These forums were formerly used to schedule cosplay gatherings, and the shutdown/move to Facebook continues to be controversial. However, the recently-formed Sakura-Con photoshoots/gatherings Facebook group was almost entirely effective as a way to set up this year's enjoyable-as-always cosplay shoots. On the wake of yet another year of negative incidents at Aki Con, it's reassuring that the biggest annoyance Washington's major anime con is facing is minor criticism from some internet users who would prefer forums to Facebook.

Sakura-Con is a must for any Washington anime fan. We're already planning for next year!

The most amazing Levi we'eve ever seen

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Geek of the Week: Chunyang Ding

Chunyang Ding (second from right) seems like the typical high-achieving, intelligent, and successful Asian kid. The gifted Interlake High School junior maintains a 4.0 in the IB program while actively participating in school and extracurricular activities (he blogs here - check it out!). He isn't all about the books, though - he's one of the nicest people those who are able to meet him ever get to meet.

"Chunny", as his (many) friends call him, really, really likes science. When he's not heading the Chemistry Department at the Washington Student Science Association, there's a good chance he's preparing for science trivia bowls. Earlier this month, Ding competed in the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) Regional Science Bowl. A fancy-sounding competition with "science" in the name...more stereotypical Asian nerd stuff.

Ding's team lost in the final round of the competition to a team from Oregon's Westview High School.

Wait - what? So this guy (who had eight 5s from eight AP exams by sophomore year and has a social life) isn't 100% perfect?! 

Didn't I write earlier that he's a really nice guy? The super-approachable Chunyang Ding let me take him off his pedestal for this interview about achievement/failure, science, and what it's like to come in second.

Ok, what the heck is the BPA Regional Science Bowl? 

It's part of a national science trivia competition where teens from high schools compete in regional tournaments for "an all-en all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C., in April to compete in the Department of Energy National Science Bowl, as well as $85,000 in scholarships to colleges and universities throughout the Northwest", according to BPA's website. Ding describes it as "really and above."

"Everyone trains," he said. "I've been in science bowl [a school club] since freshman year. We just really worked." 

What was the training like? "We know the categories," said Ding. There's released problems to go off of, but "there's only so much information you can manage. We specialize. Each member of our team picks a subject." Ding had astronomy and energy. 

"I didn't focus as much as I thought I should have," he admitted.

"We [Interlake high school teams] haven't traditionally done very well at this specific one [the BPA Regional Science Bowl] because this is one of the most prestigious [ones in the area]." It was a surprise, then, when "We went undefeated throughout the entire day. In the last three rounds...we were doing really well...until it all crashed down on us. I felt anger and frustration because we put in so much effort."

"When we went into the tournament, I don't think we were expecting to go to nationals...but as the day progressed, we saw that we were one of the stronger teams at the competition." 

Third place went to another team also composed of Interlake High School students. Both teams ended up facing each other near the end of the competition - it was a "crazy intense round" said Ding on his Facebook page.

Ding's disappointed but not crushed.

"We're already planning on how to study for next year," he said. "One of our parents was like 'It doesn't matter if you won or lost as long as you learned.' It's kinda cliched. Personally, I don't buy into that that much because it really does matter what happens...but every other team that was there tried. It was a really challenging thing for everyone." 

"When I lose, I have the question of why did I lose, and usually feel angry," but "when I win, I should ask: why did I win? Was I that much better?

"It's always about using your emotions and your knowledge to make for a better tomorrow. In my perspective, failure isn't the end-all of everything. There should be a little bit of failure in other peoples' lives. Other people worked just as hard and other people are going to do just as well."

"Taking the failures and making ourselves better," is how Ding deals with failure.

"I really dislike how people stigmatize failure a lot 'cause it's not true. It's not that you're not good. It's that someone else was better."

"Internalizing the knowledge, making it so that you really care about it...learning is about making it yours. Come excited about what you're doing. Even if it isn't directly related to the book you're reading right now, find a way to make it interesting to you," said Ding when asked for study tips. 

"I'll be doing lots of sciency things. I will be sciencing all the things. Science is sciency for science. Science." (Anyone else getting the impression someone really wants to science?)

"Science is like the coolest thing in the world, because science helps us explore who and what we are. We're learning how people work biologically, molecularly. Why does water do all these cool things...what causes the differing brightness of stars? There are so many mysteries...weird things that Mother Nature can throw at us. When you do find something, test it out on something new...finding out that it still works: boom. Mind blown."

"The complaint I have against the current sciency stuff is it's a little too can tell who's really trying to learn from science and who's trying to memorize facts," Ding said about the current state of interest in science in schools. "[To me] all of it is exciting. The science I am most directly connected to is [through] my dad, because he does nuclear engineering. I think that's really cool because there are so many practical applications."

"There's just so much going on. When Galileo was making his telescope, suddenly he had this huge range of vision. So that no matter where he pointed his telescope in the sky, he could see things," said Ding. As for right now? "Huge areas of science are just opening up."

"Today there are so many advancements in science that any curious individual can look at any field and find connections and patterns emerging anywhere."

That's a pretty good reason to learn.

Friday, January 24, 2014

So you want to be a voice actor? Interview with Monica Rial

In 2013, we were able to interview Monica Rial at Aki Con. Monica Rial is a voice actress, voice director, and script writer. Her many voice acting roles include Miria from Claymore, an anime she was also the voice director for, Stocking from Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, Mirajane Strauss from Fairy Tail, and Pen Pen from Evangelion. Other well-known anime she has worked on include One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, Dragon Ball, and Soul Eater. Rial's proactive and positive attitude is something everyone can learn from and her willingness to interact with fandom was really refreshing - she seemed to know exactly how to talk to people who are interested in her work.

Society isn't exactly welcoming towards geeks a lot of the time. What would you say to geeks?
I would say that right now is the time to capitalize because this kind of geek-chic thing is going on, where like geekdom and fandom are cool. This is the time to come out of your shell, when people are a little more open and welcoming. As long as you believe in yourself and go out there and do the things you want to do and always give everything and honest shot, then you're good to go. Don't let your shyness get the best of you. Go out there, meet people, and do whatever you can.

What's some acting advice you can give people?
Well, specifically for voice actors, I know that a lot of fans want to be voice actors, but a lot of them don't want to do the "acting" part of it. They'll say "I just wanna be on my favorite anime" and I'm like "Well, but you have to get some acting experience" 'cause that's the "noun"; voice is the adjective. Go out there, do theatre, do local theatres, if you're in school audition for your school play, take classes...even I've been doing this for 20 years or so - acting, not voice acting - and I'm still taking acting classes and whatnot because it's always good to learn as much as you can. And also study. Just read books about acting and get out there and experience life because the more experiences you have, the more you can pull from when you need to when you're acting.

Then there are people who act and act and act but never get legitimate, paying jobs. How do you get discovered in the industry?
That's a little more's all luck, really, unfortunately...for me, with my voice acting stuff, I was doing Shakespeare in the Park and just happened to find out about an audition. I went in and they were like "Yes! You!" So you never know. But that's why a lot of people will tell you, if you're an actor, every audition you go to, be on your top game, because you never know what's going to hit. Also, whenever you go to a job, you need to act like that job is an audition. I can't tell you how many jobs I've gotten just from going to do one job [where] I'll get another job. They liked working with me and I was professional and nice. So then they'll hire me again for something else. So it's always about putting yourself out there, being the best that you can be, and being polite, and professional, and all of those things. The rest of it is kind of just luck. I hate to say that, but there are a lot of actors out there in movies and television that really aren't that talented but they were just in the right place at the right time. There are many many talented people, that like you said, can't seem to get that one break that they need. So it's all about putting yourself out there as much as possible. The only way they're going to find you is if you're out there, trying, and auditioning.

Do you still follow anime and manga, even after ending your work on those shows?
I do as much as what's inside my little universe. Because I do adaptations of scripts, and I also voice act, I know the sbows I'm working on, and I know what's in the realm; I know what's popular. Like I know that Attack on Titan is popular. Have I seen it? No. Because I don't want to get attached to it, because I don't know who's going to be cast, and I don't want to go "I want that character!" if I don't get it. And I am aware of the situation. The problem is that I have this long list of anime that I want to watch, and I just don't have the time to do it, and it's getting longer by the minute! So I try whenever I know, if you worked in a pizza parlor all day long, the last thing you'd want to eat for dinner is pizza. So whenever I'm not working in anime, I usually just want to grab my cat and a book and sit in a beanbag and read.

Sometimes anime series end or get canceled while the manga is still running. Do you still follow the storylines of these series?
It depends on the show. There's some shows that you absolutely fall in love with, and there are other shows where you're like "Okay. That was awesome for what it was!" I used to follow the Tsubasa manga really quickly, and all of a sudden it was gone, and I got distracted by a million other things. And then with Fairy Tail, I'm actually reading the manga as I adapt [the manga into a script] so that I have another thing to look at. "Is it translated right? Is this thing right?" It's nice to have that extra information.

Any recommendations?
I wish that younger folks would go back and watch some older shows. They may not be as pretty, animation-style, but the stories are still fantastic.

If you couldn't act, what would you do?
I'm a licensed hairstylist. I'd probably be a hairstylist or I'll be acting on stage. I really love the stage - I miss it. I'm so busy voice acting that I don't have time to do the stage.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Interview with Denise Crosby

Denise Crosby is an actress best known for her work on Star Trek, namely as Security Chief Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation. We were able to talk to Crosby at GeekGirlCon in October 2013 about geeky girls and sci-fi.

Why did you come to GeekGirlCon out of all the cons out there?
Well, I am a geek girl, and I think that empowering women and reflecting women in sci-fi and talking about where it's going, how far it's come, and what do we need to do to establish ourselves is important stuff and it really interested me.

How do you see the geek community specifically empowering women?
I think that they've always been able to move agenda of equality and compassion, and acceptance, and so they've always had that initiative in the sci-fi genre. I think that they'll continue to reflect that, and that'll move things forward.

I just started watching Star Trek this year. For people who haven't seen it at all, why should they watch it?
Star Trek has always been about little morality plays. Things about humanity and stories about covering a lot of ground. It provokes you to think. It inspires. It's about something.