It wasn’t so long ago that Microsoft was betting heavily on its Cortana digital assistant. That’s a bet that didn’t pay off. But because this is the new Microsoft, the company is instead betting on integrating its products with those services that its users do actually use. Today, the company announced that you will now be able to control your Xbox One from the Google Assistant. For now, this feature is in beta, but you can expect a full launch later this fall.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean the Google Assistant is now available on your Xbox One and you can’t ask it for the weather. What it does mean is that you’ll be able to ask the Assistant to launch games on the Xbox, pause them, turn up the volume, etc. (“Hey Google, turn off Xbox.”).
You can find a full list of supported commands here.
This will work with virtually every Assistant-enabled device, including your iOS and Android phones. To get started, set up the Xbox like any other third-party Assistant device in the Google Home app on Android or iOS — and that’s essentially what the Xbox One then becomes in the Assistant ecosystem: just another device you can control with it.
It’s worth noting that Microsoft, which has basically given up on Cortana for the consumer market, is also working with Amazon to bring Alexa to your PC. Microsoft doesn’t really care what you use to control your Microsoft devices, as long as you use a Microsoft or Windows 10 device. Now it’s probably just a matter of time before you can control your PC with the Assistant — or even get full Assistant support in Windows 10.
If you’re running a beta version of iOS 13 or 13.1, chances are you can …
A hacker going by the handle T0st says he has figured out a core issue that caused longer-than-necessary load times in Grand Theft Auto Online for years. The hacker has released a proof of concept DLL fix that shortens those lengthy startup times by roughly 70 percent.
Grand Theft Auto Online‘s PC load times have been a persistent issue for seven years now, remaining slow despite general improvements to hardware and the game’s status as a continuing lucrative revenue stream for publisher Take Two. An anonymous Reddit poll last year found that roughly half of players were waiting three to six minutes for the game to load up, and about 35 percent of players waiting even longer to start every session.
That’s not a scientific survey or anything, but even accounting for self-selection and reporting issues, those load times are very long, especially for such an old game. The problem is even harder to understand when the single-player Grand Theft Auto V tends to load many times faster.
Saving time with disassembly
To get to the bottom of the problem, T0st writes that they started by profiling their own CPU to try to figure out why the game was maxing out a single CPU thread for over four minutes during loading. After using a tool to dump the process stack and disassembling the GTA code as it was running in memory, T0st noticed a set of (somewhat obfuscated) functions that seemed to be parsing a 10MB JSON file with over 63,000 total entires.
The JSON file in question appeared to be the “net shop catalog” that describes every single item GTA Online players can purchase with in-game currency. Parsing a 10MB file shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a modern computer, but a few obscure problems in the specific implementation seem to lead to massive slowdowns.
For one, the specific function used to parse the JSON string (seemingly sscanf, in this case) was apparently running a time-intensive strlen checking function repeatedly after the read for every single piece of data. Simply caching that string length value to speed up those checks resulted in an over 50 percent reduction in load times on its own, T0st writes.
After parsing all this JSON data, GTA Online seems to load it into an array in an extremely inefficient way, checking the entire array for duplicates from scratch as it grows. Replacing that process with a hash table that can quickly check for duplicates led to a roughly 25 percent load time reduction on its own, T0st writes.
With these two fixes combined, T0st says GTA Online‘s load time went down from six minutes to just under two minutes on the test machine. Those interested in replicating the results can build a similar DLL from T0st’s source code. Players should only do so at their own risk, though, since this kind of modification could easily (and erroneously) set off the game’s anti-cheat checks.
Meanwhile, T0st writes that implementing this fix for all players on Rockstar’s side “shouldn’t take more than a day for a single dev to solve.” Here’s hoping the renewed attention this issue is getting will get Rockstar to do so sooner than later.
February brings the annual celebration of the lunar new year—welcome to the Year of the (Metal) Ox—and with it two new action-packed films from China and South Korea, respectively.
Directed by Lu Yang, A Writer’s Odyssey—currently playing in select theaters—centers on a man searching for his lost daughter, hired to assassinate a novelist whose fantasy work-in-progress has begun to shape events in the real world. Over on Netflix, Space Sweepers is being touted as the first Korean bona fide blockbuster, focusing on the adventures of the plucky crew aboard a space junk salvage vessel who must save the Earth from total destruction. Together they make for an action packed, fantasy/sci-fi weekend double feature.
(Some spoilers below for both films, but no major reveals.)
A Writer’s Odyssey
Based on a short story by Shuang Xuetao entitled To Kill a Novelist, A Writer’s Odyssey has a decidedly ambitious, very meta premise, shifting between two parallel worlds: the real world and a fictional fantasy world. Lu Yang is best known for directing the 2014 Chinese wuxia film, Brotherhood of Blades, and its 2017 sequel (a third installment is reportedly in the works). Elements of the wuxia genre are woven into the fantasy portions of his latest film. But the other half is set in the present day. Per the official premise:
A Writer’s Odyssey tells the story of Kongwen Lu (Dong Zijian), the author of a fantasy novel series following a heroic teenager, also named Kongwen, on a quest to confront Lord Redmane, under the guidance of a Black Armor (voiced by Guo Jingfei). But through a strange twist of fate, the fantasy world of the novel begins to impact life in the real world, leading Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) to accept a mission from Tu Ling (Yang Mi) to kill the author.
The film opens with a fantasy sequence in which the fictional Kongwen faces off against one of Redmane’s warriors. He defeats the warrior, but not before his sister is killed. The defeated warrior’s parasitic Black Armor attaches itself to Kongwen, as Kongwen sets off to find Redmane and exact revenge. Cut to the present day, as Ning awakens from his vivid dream of Kongwen’s battle and confronts two child traffickers in a truck—the ones he believes are responsible for kidnapping his young daughter, Tangerine, six years ago. Ning has a special ability: he can hurl objects with great force and control their trajectories. He succeeds in stopping the truck with this skill, but the traffickers escape, and Ning is arrested in their stead.
Thanks to the intervention of Tu Ling, who represents the founder of Aladdin Group corporation, Li Mu, Ning is released—on the condition that he kill Kongwen the fantasy writer, whose latest novel, Godslayer, seems to be adversely affecting Li Mu’s health. The CEO is convinced that if Kongwen finishes the novel, he will die. In exchange for killing Kongwen, the corporation will help Ning find his daughter. But Ning is not a killer at heart, he’s a grieving father, and he inadvertently makes Kongwen’s acquaintance—even inspiring the author through his writer’s block. Real events increasingly begin to mirror the plot twists in Kongwen’s novel, building toward the film’s climactic dual confrontations, which include a battle against a 50-foot, four-armed CGI demigod.
The fantasy storyline in particular feature some eye-popping visuals and special effects, and several spectacular action sequences. Lu told Variety last year that his aim was to maintain some sense of reality, even in those action sequences that clearly defy the laws of physics. “It’s probably one of the most technically challenging films in Chinese cinema to date” on that score, Lu said, adding that he found inspiration in comic books and gaming, avoiding as much as possible the most common tropes of Hong Kong action movies or American blockbusters. (Inception is probably the most similar Hollywood film in terms of ambition and themes.)
One might quibble with the lack of depth to some of the characters, many of whom get the barest of back stories, but it doesn’t really detract much from the overall entertainment value of the film. The talented main cast give terrific performances, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the dual quests of Ning and Kongwen, as the explanation for this mysterious linkage between the two worlds gradually becomes clear. Let’s just say that the film is ultimately about dealing with tragic loss and the lingering grief that springs from it.
With its sweeping epic scale, high-octane action, gorgeous cinematography, and high production values, A Writer’s Odyssey is very much in the big-budget vein of 2019’s The Wandering Earth, based on the novella of the same name by Liu Cixin, which grossed $700 million globally. Even if Lu Yang’s film falls short of a similar box office haul, it’s yet another indication that Chinese filmmakers can give Hollywood a run for its money on the blockbuster front.
Director Jo Sung-Hee was inspired to write the script for Space Sweepers a decade ago after hearing about the problem of space junk from a friend. “It started with the idea of space travelers collecting space junk,” he told Korea Times. “I heard about how these fast-moving fragments of space debris are growing and leading to in-space collisions. I realized that this subject has already been dealt with in animations and games, but never in a film. I started writing the script wondering how Koreans, who possess a tenacious mentality, would approach this problem.” Netflix acquired the film after its release was repeatedly postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Per the official premise:
Set in 2092, spaceship Victory is one of the many that live off salvaging space debris. Crewed with a genius space pilot Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), a mysterious ex-space pirate Captain Jang (Kim Tae-ri), an spaceship engineer Tiger Park (Jin Sun-kyu), and a reprogrammed military robot Bubs (Yoo Hai-jin), Spaceship Victory surpasses all other space sweepers. After successfully snatching a crashed space shuttle in the latest debris chase, Victory’s crew find a 7-year-old girl inside. They realize that she’s the humanlike robot wanted by UTS Space Guards, and decide to demand ransom in exchange.
The world of Space Sweepers is a bleak one in which Earth has become well-nigh uninhabitable. The UTS Corporation, headed by CEO James Sullivan (Richard Arrmitage), has established an orbiting paradise above Earth, thanks to a breakthrough in growing genetically modified trees and plants, but only a select few are chosen to live there. Most residents eke out a living through salvage, either on the polluted Earth or by collecting space junk in near-Earth orbit—the titular space sweepers. The crew of the Victory are the edgiest, most daring of them all. It’s a rough existence. Any profits inevitably get eaten up by the various regulations and taxes—and god forbid your ship should accidentally hit a satellite antenna, because you’ll be financially liable for its replacement.
That’s what happens to the Victory crew, right before they discover the little girl, Dorothy (Park Ye-rin), aka Kot-nim, in a car floating in near-Earth orbit. UTS authorities are hunting for Dorothy, warning everyone she is a humanoid android created by a terrorist group known as Black Fox, with a hydrogen bomb inside hert. There is also a mysterious black market buyer, Kang Hae-yo (Kim Mu-yeol), who is willing to pay handsomely for Dorothy—enough for the Victory crew to finally get out of poverty.
Each member of the Victory crew has their tragic back strory and personal demons, and they each bond with Kot-nim in their own way as the ransom deadline approaches. Is Kot-nim the danger she’s been made out to be, or is she something else entirely? And just what is James Sullivan really up to with his scheme to terraform Mars as a new permanent home planet?
Space Sweepers takes its time establishing its world—perhaps a little too much time, since the pacing lags in places, especially early on. But soon the film finds its footing: the entire middle section is a sheer delight, with lots of action punctuated by flashes of humor and quieter interludes. The third act goes on a bit too long, and there’s a bit of a deus ex machina narrative twist at the end, but these are minor quibbles. I especially appreciated the many different languages spoken in the film, reflecting the global melting plot of Earth’s survivors.
Space Sweepers might be overlong, and it isn’t particularly novel in its concept. It’s more of a pastiche of the space opera genre, clearly influenced by such classics as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and more recently, The Expanse, Elysium, and Alita: Battle Angel, with dashes of Alien and Blade Runner for good measure. But it’s still a lot of fun, and well worth streaming.
A Writer’s Odyssey is currently playing in select theaters, while Space Sweepers is streaming on Netflix.
“ARE DREXCIYANS WATER-BREATHING, AQUATICALLY MUTATED DESCENDANTS OF THOSE UNFORTUNATE VICTIMS OF HUMAN GREED? … DID THEY MIGRATE FROM THE GULF OF MEXICO TO THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER BASIN AND ON TO THE GREAT LAKES OF MICHIGAN? DO THEY WALK AMONG US? ARE THEY MORE ADVANCED THAN US, AND WHY DO THEY MAKE THEIR STRANGE MUSIC? WHAT IS THEIR QUEST?”
With those all-caps words, musician and writer James Stinson wrote the constitution for the mythic, rhythmic nation of Drexciya—a world that he and partner Gerald Donald created in the liner notes of their experimental music project. Their combined work, in the form of five EPs of cutting-edge techno music, did not necessarily sound so politically or culturally charged. Because Stinson and Donald did not participate in interviews or widely tour in support of their albums, Drexciya’s listeners were left to look at the stories and questions that covered the liner notes and artwork printed on the releases’ vinyl and CD versions.
Should you merely pull up Drexciya on your favorite streaming service, you won’t hear those messages in the beats. So to understand this innovative group, it’s crucial to ask the above questions about the fictional Drexciyan quest. And in asking them, Stinson blurred a line between fiction and Black reality—and spoke to a quest of his own.
Up until his death in 2002, Stinson strived to make a case for his original vision of artistic production. As a complete package of mythology and sound, Drexciya’s music remains authentic. It is challenging, elusive, and a towering exponent of Black authorial agency. Sonically, Drexciya joins the lines between the four-to-the-floor electro enterprise forged by forebears like Afrika Bambaataa and jazz-inflected avant-garde explorations of space and time like Sun Ra.
But Stinson’s music, compelling as it was, didn’t come from records or CDs in isolation. It came from a place called Drexciya.
The centrality of Afrocentric world-building
Stinson’s allusion to the Great Lakes and Michigan amid a re-simulated Great Migration puts the fictional Drexciya closer to real-life Detroit. Though from what we understand about Stinson’s views, Drexciya—and its recapitulation of the electro sound—transcended the geographical limits of Motown. Hence, Stinson drew a specific through-line in his mythology, an alternate Black history, to the depths of the Atlantic, one beginning in medias res amid the Middle Passage.
“DURING THE GREATEST HOLOCAUST THE WORLD HAS EVER KNOWN, PREGNANT AMERICA-BOUND AFRICAN SLAVES WERE THROWN OVERBOARD BY THE THOUSANDS DURING LABOR… IS IT POSSIBLE THAT THEY COULD HAVE GIVEN BIRTH AT SEA TO BABIES THAT NEVER NEEDED AIR?”
Those liner notes for Drexciya’s 1997 compilation The Quest spell out the centrality of Afrocentric world-building to Stinson’s music and cultural project. Like Agharta and “Planet Rock” before it, Drexciya explored new states of political being and aesthetic production, all uncompromising in their Black subjectivity. And their albums have, at least in some corners of the musicology world, galvanized conversations about the originary Blackness of techno. In other words, the eventual mainstream explosion of electronic music often (and unfortunately) failed to mention the genre’s seeds planted by Black pioneers.
Stinson would release three more albums as part of Drexciya—among them the equally seminal Neptune’s Lair in 1999 and Harnessed the Storm in 2002—before dying suddenly of a heart condition shortly after.
Erasure of art, erasure of maps
Much else about Stinson and Donald’s subaquatic sonic world has remained opaque—largely uncharted by popular media, as neither creator did interviews or joined promotional efforts. If you’re looking for discussions specifically about the group’s music and how it sounds compared to its apparent inspirations, those retrospectives aren’t hard to find.
But while much of the duo’s catalog has seen reissue, repackages and retrospective laurels tell only part of a broader narrative. As Drexciya’s music has been made more accessible, the conceptual project upon which the music rests has been elided, becoming less provincial, less literary, and, perhaps above all, less Black. Only in recent years have we seen more Black artists speak out about a complex media process—not restricted to the example of Drexciya—that often appears to revise Black authorship on consumer-cultural terms.
In 2012, Drexciya’s early EPs for various labels (Rephlex, Submerge, Underground Resistance) received a combined re-release from Dutch label Clone Classic Cuts, part of the latter’s new anthology series Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller I-IV. But you won’t find this article’s quoted, all-caps passages in those re-releases, nor any other liner notes, album art, or, truly, any of Stinson’s radical touches that made the work equal parts universal and unique. Without apparent irony or self-consciousness, Clone chose to render their new collection’s album art completely white—forgoing the evocative, sub-aquatic sleeve designs that added depth, character, and Blackness to Drexciya’s enigmatic image.
The Quest’s original album art, as one example, features a blackened Mollweide projection—a map well-suited for accurate depictions of continental proportions—that depicts the movement of the Black Diaspora in a purple hue. The repackaged Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller I-IV, on the other hand, is hardly recognizable at a glance as a Drexciya release, were it not for the lone Drexciyan Wavejumper icon—borrowed from the Aquatic Invasion EP—adorning its cover.
The album description for Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller I on Clone’s official Bandcamp page makes passing mention of the Drexciyan myth, but with all the passion of a vapid advertisement. (“First part of the Drexciya reissue series! Drexciya might need an introduction for some…”) While The Quest’s liner notes and visuals outline Stinson’s vision of a future “Greater” Migration—what he called the “JOURNEY HOME” in a map drawn by Frankie C. Fultz—Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller I-IV is silent on Drexciya’s reclamatory and futurist aspects.
Most egregiously, Clone doesn’t acknowledge James Stinson or Gerald Donald by name. The album’s description on Bandcamp, in however stilted prose, explicitly clarifies the label’s decision to de-contextualize Drexciya—partly by rearranging track listings—on the flimsy pretense of being unable to “recreate the magic of the originals.”
When mythology is turned into mere burlesque
The Clone reissues are just the most obvious example of how certain actors have elided crucial cultural context from Drexciya’s legacy. Clone’s actions resemble the all-too-common media practice of editing Black music for so-called commercial viability—rendering it palatable for audiences who, it is assumed, don’t care about the history of Black music. The pop-criticism ecosystem hasn’t helped matters.
In a 2012 Pitchfork review carrying a much-vaunted “Best New Reissue” marker, the reviewer Andrew Garig both ironically and unironically wrote, “My favorite part about Drexciya’s Journey of the Deep Sea Dweller II is how little it teaches me about modern dance music.” Within a narrow prism of paradoxically lazy and contrived formalism, Drexciya becomes mere burlesque: the stereotyped image of two Black discontents in bandanas and futureshades going ape on some Rolands somewhere in a decaying Detroit. Drexciya’s post-biographical and world-building significance is reduced to mere footnotes.
In his lifetime, Stinson wasn’t just aware of this phenomenon; he was unapologetically vocal about it. In a rare interview published after 1995’s Journey Home EP, he decried the efforts of agents of what he called the “Caucasian Persuasion” amid the wider elision of Black techno music. “A lot of people making so-called techno don’t understand where it came from and what it’s all about. I’ve been with the real deal… since this shit was born out the womb,” he said, recapitulating and reinforcing Drexciya’s ontogenetic focus. “Ever since the blues and early jazz, Black music has been stolen and exploited. And it’s happened here [Detroit], too, and it pisses me off ‘cause we let it happen.”
Those who have worked with Drexciya express similar sentiments. In an email interview with Ars Technica, illustrator Abu Qadim Haqq said of the Clone reissues, “[They reflect] a complete lack of concern or empathy for the underlying and background stories… These record companies are content with selling the music over the decades but have never done anything more to broaden the understanding of this group or their background story. It laid dormant for decades.”
Others who have written about Drexciya agree. The theorist and artist DeForrest Brown, Jr. suggests an understanding of Black music as a “multi-century, generational epic” of which Drexciya is one component. The work recalls and updates Sun Ra’s Myth-Science Orchestra and It’s Nation Time, as well as Amiri Baraka’s album of “African Visionary Music” for the Motown sub-label Black Forum. Brown argues that this history is removed by the Clone reissues.
The multivalent state of Black identity
Black artists are entitled to shape their cultural products any way they see fit—and certainly more so than any cultural actor eager to rewrite their efforts. Black artists should be free to imagine the worlds they wish to envision, without concern that their art will be compartmentalized, stereotyped, or reduced to caricature.
Currently, there’s increasing talk about Blackness in techno. A growing chorus of voices, including those of Haqq and Brown, has elevated some of the online world’s techno-history discussion by exploring Drexciya’s interpretations of the Black experience, particularly as relating to Stinson’s home of Detroit. R.C Clarke writes about this while (in admittedly academic fashion) suggesting that this musical history has a lot in common with Diasporic forms:
Drexciya proposes the delineation of pre and post-modernity’s ending-beginning with the Middle Passage. The ends of society being a recursion, not reversion, of blackness’ role in the ends of time.
Detroit’s post-1968 industrial collapse is the context for identifying Black people’s role in the man-machine dynamics towards a path forward. This melding of identity into not just the idea of Drexicya but to actively search for a lack of identity is powerful in its own rite [sic].
The Quest’s ebony-bodied illustrations foreground what Paul Gilroy, an apparent inspiration for Stinson, called the “Black Atlantic”—the multivalent, almost fluid state of Black identity, as marked by the very trauma of the Black Diaspora. In line with that, Drexciya blotted themselves out as identifiable people whenever possible. In their time, Drexciya furthermore forswore media attention, eschewing most interviews and other conventional forms of press. When they performed live, they wore masks to obscure their identities—a convention continued by their Underground Resistance counterparts, also largely from Detroit.
It was as if by rejecting the presence of the media—which, as he claimed in that rare 1996 interview, was fixated on a “Caucasian Persuasion” before acknowledging Black forces in artistic scenes—that Stinson rejected the trappings of a mere mortal world. In effect, he courted the presence of another reality, one within the limits of his own eternal mind and imagination. In doing so, Drexciya confronted North America’s past, and in creating their own future-myth—one belonging to no nation—they sought to look beyond it.