Withering with you

Circumstances have kept me away from writing this article that has been burning in the back of my brain ever since I went to the local premiere of Makoto Shinkai’s latest movie – Tenki no Ko (weathering with you), in presence of the director himself. So let’s eagerly jump into it, with a lot of spoilers ahead for a movie you probably shouldn’t see.

Image result for tenki no ko Amano Nagi

I’m a big fan of Makoto Shinkai, and have been following his career with attention, including a bunch of interviews. Lately, he’s been finding inspiration in real world tragedies. Kimi no na ha (your name) was self-admittedly inspired by the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. It strikes me as a bit odd how you go from a real world tragedy to a fiction “love comedy” like that, but I can kinda see it, I guess it has something to do with awe in the face of something so much bigger than humans, or something about how beautiful human connections/solidarity are in the face of difficulties… 

This time Tenki no Ko is apparently inspired by global warming (the movie directly echoes many “record rains/temperatures/cyclones” that the director was telling us about seeing on TV). Very brief summary: in a world where the weather is getting worse and worse, a girl has the magical power to bring about the sun with certainty. She realizes that the only way to stop the trend towards environmental catastrophe is for her to disappear, which happens. 

Image result for temperature record

I’ll skip the problems I have with the cliche element of the story or its execution (and even over the borderline climate-skepticism ^^) to focus on what comes next. In a somewhat unexpected turn of events, the boy-love-interest refuses to sacrifice and comes to her rescue and persuades her that she should live, so she un-disappears and environmental catastrophe happens. 

Let me start by saying that I fully understand what the director was going for here. In the Q&A, he was explaining how our polarized society has become extremely judgmental and that it was important to be more tolerant, forgiving and let people live. He obviously also wanted to show that even if the environment is completely destroyed, we can still rely on human connections, find each other, find happiness, and ultimately live. He wanted it to be a message of hope and tolerance in the face of a gloomy future, and on some level I appreciate and respect this.

But this doesn’t mean we can ignore the content and implications of the movie, whose main motive is essentially “it’s okay to follow your desires even if it destroys the world”. Boy-love-interests simply willfully chooses the girl, meaning his desires, and by extension the material comfort of consumerist life, over actual efforts to solve the world problem. He chooses the selfish and easy way, even if it causes terrible consequences. Granted the situation would have been more complicated from the point of view of the girl, but the movie follows the boy.

Image result for simpsons burns nuclear

And that’s where I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the director. Sometimes when the stakes are so big it’s dangerous to cut oneself some slack and celebrate it. Huge problems like global warming simply can’t be solved by following the easy path. They require constant effort and attention. I don’t remember if the Q&A or the movie was mentioning that the character’s actions were okay because catastrophe “is not one’s person fault”, but using this to rationalize and exonerate individual actions is obviously a very dangerous slope. In actuality, it’s not one’s person’s fault means it’s every person’s fault and problem, and it’s simply not okay to not do effort and be proud of it. Seems like it’s precisely what got us into this mess.

In the Q&A, Shinkai was telling us that one of the things he cared the most about this movie was a scene at the end where the girl, back in a now destroyed world, was looking over the result of the catastrophe addressing a silent prayer. He was using this to justify that the characters cared about the world. 

not this one, imagine it under the rain

But of course they care, just not enough, and this scene illustrates the problem with a tragic clarity. Her empty prayers are too little too late, completely ineffective, especially when put in contrast to the actual effort that was effective. In a way, this picture shows brilliantly that intentions and care are not enough, and that they mean nothing compared to our choices and actions which are what destroyed this universe. This  may make her feel better, but it doesn’t actually help anything, and it may even become dangerous/negative if used to disculpate destructive actions (“I know I’m doing the wrong thing, but I still care and pray it away”). We actually have a great example and all know too well how effective are “thoughts and prayers” at stopping the mass shootings in some parts of the world. 

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This movie’s accidental depiction of the meaninglessness of intent versus choices and actions is pretty beautiful and certainly its greatest success. This is all well and good, but it wouldn’t be this blog if we just stopped there and didn’t dig a little more, would it? When all is said, I may have had a very hard time watching this movie, but I still think there are two extra noteworthy points to take out of this… morally questionable enterprise. 

Japanese consumers use 30bn plastic shopping bags each year, but it lags behind major European initiatives on phasing reusing and recycling.

The first one is a great cautionary tale about the appeal of individualism, consumerism and material comfort. Japan, with its mostly-coastal cities and its frequent typhoons, is certainly being hurt pretty bad by the climate crisis. But if even Japan can rationalize choosing consumerism over environmentalism, it says a lot about how strong its appeal is, and how strong efforts need to be in order to stop its excesses. If even the regions most impacted by its side-effects can be seduced into an over-indulging lifestyle, the will we must deploy to counter this attraction is quite formidable. Especially when inaction is always easier.

Image result for death note kira plan

The second point is about intent: as I said, I have no doubt that Makoto Shinkai did not set out to make a pro-climate-crisis movie, and just wanted an uplifting tale of hope. So this movie is actually a great example of how you can end up writing something very questionable even with the best intentions, without realizing it. It’s so easy (perhaps inevitable) to be misunderstood or have unintended consequences. You can probably never be sure that what you say or write doesn’t have a potentially completely opposite effect to your original intent. So be careful about what you say and do, and the way you do it. And most importantly, be lenient with others, be tolerant and forgiving. Through a weird roundabout (and meta) way, Makoto Shinkai actually demonstrates with this movie what he wanted to say in it.

A ‘A christmas carol’ Carol

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STAVE  I – Dickens’ Ghost

Charles Dickens was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The time he roamed the streets and wrote his tales is now long gone by many decades. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.

The other fact to bear in mind as we move into this story is how utterly plain and unremarkable its protagonist is. Apart from the events of this book, your faithful servant never attracted much attention. I led the most normal of lives, waking up as anyone would, splitting my days between a very normal work and very regular hobbies before going back to a most normal sleep. There was no setting me apart from any of my contemporaries.

So you can imagine my surprise when something quite peculiar happened once upon a time—of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve. I was readying myself for a traditional Christmas. It was cold, bleak, biting weather and I was alone in my room from where I could hear the people outside, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet to warm them. 

I was turning my head to have a proper glance at them when I saw in the window, as clear as one can see their reflection when it is bright inside and dark out, a pale old face that looked familiar. Charles Dickens’ face. But as I looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was just a pane of glass. To say that I was not startled would be untrue.

“Humbug!” I said as I took a seat.

The door flew open with a booming sound, and then I heard a clanking noise come closer and louder, straight towards my door. And then stood before me Charles Dickens, in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots. His body was transparent; so that I could see behind.

“It’s humbug still!” I said. “I won’t believe it.”

“Be still!” Dickens’ voice intoned me. “I have much to tell you. For I am doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what I cannot any more partake. I am condemned to be an impotent witness to the wrongs of the world. There is so much suffering and pain. So many evils and wrongdoings. And so little deserved…”

“I am doomed to stare at all and ascertain that it can be helped. None of this is inevitable, everything could be changed for the better. But not by me. It is too late for me. I cannot do anything. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. There is no torture like being powerless next to the suffering innocent and knowing what could have been. So much could I have done, so little did I do! No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

He paused for a while, letting the emotion in his voice trail off.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“There is no light part in my penance, there is no fleeing my torment.” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring. It is not too late for you. You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”

The prospect seemed dreadful, but the confidence of his tone left no place for response.

“Without their visits,” resumed the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first prestly.”

The apparition walked backward; and at every step it took, the window opened itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open. It beckoned to approach, and soon as I did, floated out upon the bleak, dark night.

I tried to say “Humbug!” but stopped at the first syllable. And being, from the emotion I had undergone, or the fatigues of the day, or this glimpse of the Invisible World, much in need of repose; I sat back and rested my eyes for a thought.

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STAVE  II – The First of the Three Spirits 

When I came to, it was so dark, that looking up, I could scarcely distinguish the transparent window from the opaque walls. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and I was faced with an unearthly apparition.

It was a strange sight – like a book, yet not so like a book as like a bird, floating eerily at the height of my eyes, surrounded by a cloudy mist that appeared to brim with a pale light. Much like the ghost of Charles Dickens, I could see through its translucent pages, but I could also decypher its content. It appeared to be very old, its pages seemed worn out, and they were adorned with hand drawn pictures. 

“Are you the Spirit whose coming was foretold to me?” I asked.

It was rhetorical, and I did not expect an answer, but to my surprise one came:

“I am!”

The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside me, it were at a distance.

“Who, and what are you?” I demanded.

“I am the Ghost of ‘A Christmas Carol’ Past. Mine is a tale of redemption and glee. I tell of an old miser of the name of Scrooge who lived in loneliness obsessed by money and greed. He is visited on Christmas by Spirits who accompanied him through his memories of a hopeful past, the alternative of a cheerful present, and the prospect of a dire future. The tale ends with him deciding to mend his ways and to make amends for his selfish past. He turns selfless and comes to understand how little money means.”

“Such an inspiring account. So it is possible! I shall endeavour such a change.” 

“Possible it may be.” replied the Spirit. “But truth is seldom so simple, and one epiphany does not a good man make. Rise! and walk with me!”

As the words were spoken, the Ghost lead me towards the wall, and in an instant we passed through it. We arrived in a small candle lit study where a man I recognized was writing a letter energetically. 

“What is he doing? What could trigger such fervor in the man who birthed this tale?” 

“It’s a year after I was published. My author is writing a strongly worded letter to his solicitor. He is suing a rival publisher for copyright infringement over a tweaked copy of me. He was frustrated by my financial results. The rival publisher will lose the suit and declare bankruptcy, and he will go on to quarrel others that were menacing his gains.”

“Irony can be pretty ironic. So he still wanted the fame and profit.”

“He probably earnestly strived for a better Christmas, but the world alas remains. It takes tremendous efforts even for the earnest to do the righteous thing. I am but a story. Christmas is but a day.” 

The ghostly tome lead me to others. We saw children gathering around the fireplace to listen in awe to their parents reading the tale. How inspired they were by the story of the ghosts, how gleeful they were at the joyful denouement, how fast they ran away to go back to their toys. And yet they seemed somewhat kinder to each other. 

We saw lonely elders reading the tale that felt so close to their own lives, so much so that they wept transfigured by the conclusion. They grew selfless and helped their neighbor, but as the days rolled and the time passed, the emotions also faded and life took back its course. It’s only natural that intents would wane and inertia triumph, but their small attempt did make the world a smitch better. 

We saw all kinds of people demonstrating care and abnegation in the Christmas time, partaking in charity and helping the poor, but their resolution melted with the snow and the rest of the year was their own.

“Oh, that it were Christmas every day!” I lamented in a broken voice. “So much promise washed away by the rigor of life. Spirit! Remove me from this place! I cannot bear it!” 

I turned upon the Ghost, and seeing that it looked upon me with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown me, wrestled with it.

“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”

There was a flash of light, and the struggle was over.

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STAVE  III – The Second of the Three Spirits

I had no chance to regain my spirits or ponder my thoughts before holding a conference with the second messenger despatched to him through Charles Dickens’ intervention. Now, being prepared for almost anything, I was still not expecting the form of my second visitor. On the table stood a box of cardboard, adorned with a smile and the letters “AMAZONPRIME”. As I opened the container to reveal its prize, I saw that it was a thin circle imprinted with a green socket frog, and titled in golden “HD remake 2 extra collector edition”.

“Look upon me! and know me better, man!” said the Spirit. “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Have you never seen the like of me before? I have countless siblings.” 

“Spirit,” I said submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have ought to teach me, let me profit by it.”

“Touch me!”

I did as I was told, and held it fast. The room vanished instantly, and we stood in an immaculate space, where innumberable desks aligned in a vertiginous geometry. All was plastic and metal, and everywhere were buzzing activities and conversations. People were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet. It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour, and their roar were heard all around.

“What merry place.” I said bewildered, “Spirit, how is this that these people are so jolly?”

“It is because their profits are up.” returned the Spirit. “See!”

They were cheering:

“A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us! And so does the market.”

They looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the colored graphs on display around them. All were pointed up.

“Christmas is always our most profitable period, but this is beyond our predictions!” a voice exclaimed.

The speaker revelled in another laugh, and as it was impossible to keep the infection off, his example was unanimously followed.

“Oh what a strike of spirit to have wagered on the traditional christmas values. Nothing sells quite as well as authenticity!”

“That it does, my good friend, that it does!” said another, clapping their hands. “Why risk any chance when making a Christmas Carol anew brings the people what they want.” 

“Christmas is the best of brands, and its eery happiness is the best of products!”

Handshakes and accolades were exchanged all around. None of them showed sign of leaving.

The Ghost lead me to other offices where the same glee was partaken. Then to some markets where passersby were searching for trinkets to impress their peers and fulfil conventions. There was no quenching the thirst that fueled their devouring consumption. It only begat more, trapped in a solipsistic loop.

These were the tales that were told at Christmas Present. Problems were forgotten and kept under wraps. What irony that the tale supposed to warn against greed had become its most faithful instrument even though it was known by all. It was a feast, all right, but the meaning had changed. Out went the heartfelt abstinence, and everything became opulence, appearances and mediated by money. None could see beyond themselves anymore. Quite a removal from the original Christmas Carol.

I looked about me for the Ghost, and saw it not. I remembered the prediction of old Charles Dickens, and lifting up my eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground towards me.

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STAVE  IV – The Last of the Spirits

The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?” I said.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” I pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. 

“Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, Spirit!”

The Phantom moved away and I followed in the shadow of its dress. But around us grew darkness. Soon, we were on all sides surrounded by nothingness. The ground was covered in dry ash. The wind howling in my ears soon turned into many voices whispering in pain and pleading for relief.

“So dark! So bleak! Is there no light any more? Is the unborn already doomed? Is there nothing but pain, suffering and death? Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death.”

The voices in the wind carried to me the hoarse voice of a weak mother, reciting to her sickly child a christmas carol. Tiny Tim replied in a trembling voice.

“So it is not too late. So there is still some hope. God bless Us, Every One!”

And the mother wept.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl who had been following us. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, some force had pinched and twisted them, making them monsters of horrible and dread.

“Spirit! are they yours?” I could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the black sky.

“Spirit!” I cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life! I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the emptiness and terror of what is yet to come!”

In my agony, I caught the spectral hand. Holding up my hands in a last prayer to have my fate reversed, I saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down until it could not be perceived.

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STAVE  V – The End of It

 

I finally reached the last word, and detached my gaze from my reading. Quite an interesting tale, this carol of christmas carols. Really made you ponder on the difficulty of change.

I was out of my immersion, back to a reality that was my own, in a room that was my own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before me was my own, to make amends and improve the world in!

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!” I repeated. “I shall be selfless, I shall make the world better for everyone. And I shall prevent the dreadful fate that befell the world of my vision, and this poor poor Tiny Tim”.

So I wrote, conversed and tried to spread the lesson the spirits taught me. I endeavoured to partake in charities and benefactions, and tried to help my neighbor. And most importantly, I tried to keep the flame of the carols going after the night of Christmas. 

But time passes and flames do wane. Many a night I wept in despair, when all of it seemed vain and the world showed no sign of redemption. Surely, in spite of my best effort, did my fervor falter, for I am just like any human and therefore prone to fail. But my intentions were pure, and I would never let the dread I foresaw befall us.

Though how can I help if I don’t eat? How can I eat if I don’t work? Life goes on, that much is true, and one cannot escape it. You know what I mean, don’t you?

So as Christmas approaches, I offer you this carol, in hope it helps in any kind of way. And I bid you farewell to tend to all other things in life that are pressing. I have to buy presents for my family. I think I’ll order the new version of the Muppets’ Christmas from Amazon.

May your Christmas be merry and kind. And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

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Playing around with GPT2

So lately I’ve been spending a relative amount of time toying with GPT2, who made the headlines about producing text so believable that it was considered dangerous (GPT2 is the toned down version).

ML and Reddit

I started by getting hooked on this GPT2 generated subreddit:

https://www.reddit.com/r/SubSimulatorGPT2/

Which I highly recommend to everyone to read daily as an exercise in critical thinking and challenging the natural human bias to trust everything you see. I especially enjoy the tag trained on r/totallynotrobots which is basically robots pretending to be humans pretending to be robots pretending to be humans.

It wasn’t long before I tried it for myself. I’ve long wanted to download all my social media posts and train some kind of ML on it, and GPT2 seemed like the state of the art.

Torch RNN

Somehow I started to mess around with Torch RNN which was the previous state of the art, I guess, made accessible through this tutorial which gave us such gems as a PBS idea channel episode, a genius buzzfeed skit, or the relatively famous short film Sunspring.

Both Torch RNN and GPT2 are pretty similar in the way they are used (I believe it’s all tensorflow under the hood). They both deliver you a pre-trained model that kinda knows english, I think, and expect as input a txt file of example lines.

But training took ages on my computer (like a whole night for a couple of iterations) because despite being fairly powerful its GPU isn’t supported for the ML training optimizations (sad). I had little hope that anything more sophisticated would be possible on my machine.

Enters colab

Fortunately, people are sometimes really great, and not only did Max Woolf make a wrapper to make GPT2 easy to use, he also made a colaboratory notebook that makes it dead simple to use and most importantly computationally sustainable, since it runs on the Google Compute Engine VM with some sort of free quota. It has a very nice Google Drive integration that makes it easy to save trained model or upload new training data. With this, you can train a model in less than 1h, making it really easy to play with.

Getting data

First of all, it’s been extremely easy to download all my data from social networks (here I’m talking about Google, Facebook, Tumblr, Discord and WordPress). Everything has a dump archive function now (courtesy of EU law I believe?), so that definitely made my life easier. A bit of python scripting to transform the json or xml into txt and we were good to go.

The outcome

I first started the training on the posts of this blog. The outcome was pretty convincing. It felt pretty weird and special to see these lines that felt like I could have written but I actually didn’t. It really seemed like another version of me, which of course tickled my philosophy bone.

Obviously the result wasn’t perfect. It often spouts out nonsensical stuff, but I enjoyed very much weeding out the absurd or malformed proposition to keep something sensical by human conventional standards (let’s say I had around 1 satisfying proposal for 5 results on average).

This way, I had the program write a short story for this blog. I gave it the prompt you see in bold, and it chose among the completions it proposed. I did not add any text myself. As you can see, it’s a bit weird. In particular it doesn’t really lead anywhere, I think GPT2 isn’t very teleological. That definitely was a challenge for a short story ^^ But I like to think that the style is pretty convincing.

And the overall exercise is far from absurd. It reminded me of the Ecriture automatique productions by the surrealists. It’s still an easier read than Naked Lunch. Really gets you thinking about the self, art and authorship, doesn’t it? Who wrote this story in the end? What if I hadn’t done any editing? What does it mean for copyright?

Literary corpora

Prompted by these questions, I trained several models on works of art that I thought would produce interesting outputs. I put all my favorite results on

http://yo252yo-a.tumblr.com

In particular, I trained a model on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which produced a lot of “bits of story” and dialogs that were not really usable as standalone excerpts),  Welcome to Night Vale scripts (which were pretty convincing especially when you prompt it with a phrase of the show like “And now, a look at the community calendar!”), or all of homestuck (which was pretty challenging to get anything good out of).

Once I had all these pretty ok results, I immediately processed to try merging my brain (at least this model copy) to the brains of these authors I admire (at least this model copy). The result was a mess until I had the great idea to feed the input corpora not in parallel all at once but in sequence (i.e. do 1000 rounds of training on the authors’ corpus, and then 1000 rounds on mine). The results were pretty nice.

This taught me the single most important fact about playing with GPT2: it’s all about your training data. The parameters (# training rounds, “temperature”) can’t really save you if your input data isn’t the best it can be. You want it as clean and uniform as possible. Which is really the core point of the next section.

Social media corpora

I trained GPT2 models on my conversations and emails, but it was all utter failures. The fact that I’m often using several languages certainly doesn’t help, but the trouble I’ve had with the homestuck corpus makes me believe that GPT2 is simply not very great with dialogs and conversations.

I even tried to sanitize my input further, prefixing my lines of dialogs by “-” and whoever I was talking to by “>”, with the hope of starting a conversation with the GPT2 model, but I couldn’t get anything out of it. Maybe if I went over the corpus manually and kept only the meaningful messages, I’d get something different, but this sounds daunting.

Needless to say that merging this with my blog post corpora was also pretty bad, so in the end I stuck to my blog corpus.

By the way, I also tried to train a model on a list of J.K. Rowkling’s retcon tweets to get crispy new intel about the Harry Potter canon variations, but I couldn’t get it to produce anything new.

Conclusions

  • GPT2 on colab is extremely easy.
  • Your training corpus is everything, really.
  • GPT2 does great with literary types of text but sucks a bit at conversations/informal speech.

Next steps

As intoxicating as it is to watch a ghost of myself produce believable texts, I’m not sure where it leads ^^ My ultimate goal would be to be able to produce some sort of system I can interact with and teach dynamically to get better (i.e. conversational and dynamic retraining) but that seems pretty rare in the world of generational ML models. I might have to dig deeper into Tensorflow, but I can’t really do that with my current machine, so I’m kinda stuck.

I have a couple of pointers for conversational ML (still no dynamic/online/interactive/reinforcement learning though so that limits the interest), but I expect them to be less good than GPT2. Haven’t had time to try them yet (probably they require more power than I have). The dream would be to combine that with GPT2 I guess and figure out a way to dynamically retrain the model on itself.

In any case, it feels really nice to see some progress in my Caprica dream.

The output of the machine learning

robot call center

He let out a sigh as he watched the transfer bar reached completion. Finally, all the data about him was uploaded in the machine. Now the excitement was taking over. He could not keep his eyes from the screen, waiting for the output. What would the computer produce from all the files he had gathered from his past?

The answer was clear: something beautiful. A picture, an impression, a memory. Nothing more, nothing less… Nothing but himself. A simulation of himself, living in his computer, perhaps. Would he be the same as he was before?

Surely, it could replicate the behavior of his brain (and make him anything). Surely, it could generate some new ideas. Perhaps, even something better…

An apocalyptic vision filled him with anxiety and he started to freak out. What if the computer tried to copy itself and it copied itself…  What if the computer really was him?

He was beginning to see that the various holographic projections were nothing but parts of his brain… That the actual him was nothing but a bunch of neurons, some of which were wiring him… But the worst part was that he could just go about your life and not worry too much, it was just the way it always has been.

A few of his colleagues were already analysing it and sharing their findings, and he joined them. They were analyzing his brain patterns, trying to predict what would happen to him in the future. That was the most interesting part of it all, though he couldn’t tell what would come next. The simulation kept changing, up to and including the perfect being he was now. It was as if time slowed down for him, as if he was a small part of the computer, as if it was its own self

“Weird” he thought.

He felt so exposed. It was hard to stay calm under these circumstances

He wanted to jump on his terminal and try to hit enter, but he couldn’t take it anymore.

He was in the middle of a conference room full of people, and it seemed everyone was watching him closely. They were exploring every corner of his psyche, and he was left wondering.

Why had he become so attached to his body?

What did he really want?

What did he really need?

And then it hit him.

All of this was just a matter of semantics.

All of this was just a product of society.

He was the computer simulation just as much as himself. It was only natural, then, for him to master the uncanny ability of the system to anticipate his actions.

He was simply a pawn in the system, a pixel in an ocean of pixels. He was simply an object in the system he was part of.

“Now that’s more like it. OK, so what does it mean?” he asked his girlfriend.

“Well, it means that we’ve created a new kind of data, which is independent of the one that it interacts with. And it’s kind of neat, actually. Think about it, when you create a new data point, you get a bunch of old data, because you partition your data by classes.  It’s sort of a meta-system, basically. You get a bunch of new data, different modules interacting with each other, and you merge them all together, resulting in a brand new data point. And since you have merged all your stuff, you have a pretty good reason to be excited.”

“Merge… merging… merging…” he thought. It’s like having more of me.

The computer was already doing some heavy lifting for him. It took some fancy algorithms to transform his brain into a digital one, but it turned out that it was surprisingly easy. He was just about to embrace that cool new system, when all of a sudden a terrifying realization dawned on him: What he was doing was self-referential.

He tried to stop thinking about it and jump to conclusions, but he wasn’t even sure he could. He was so attached to his body that he didn’t even realize what it was he was doing.

He was just absorbing more information than ever, more and more as his experience increased.

And then came the worst part. The simulation ended, and both his body and his simulated self froze. They didn’t even yell. They knew exactly what was going to happen. They were just a click away from their own deaths.

His death was not hard to accept. He rolled himself into a ball and threw himself at the ground, as if his final breaths would seal the deal. He landed heavily on his back, and his eyes rolled back in his head.

He was barely more than a meme when he began to move. His final moments were filled with laughter. He barely breathed a word as his favorite organ roared with laughter.

Everything he touched became flesh. His hands became flesh, his face became flesh, his features became flesh… He was matter itself.

It was as if he was writing the text of the universe to himself, editing it, and then saving it as his own work.

How postmodern! How incredibly meta-modern! How incredibly absurd!

And so he worked himself to death, until he was only a meme among memes.

What you’re implying (at best) backwards

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Article 8. Of the fundamental axiom on which all of this rests

  • All Namuh beings are born unequal in abilities and needs, and should be treated as such. A variety of factors ranging from genetic to pure random circumstances places each and every one on different footing from the start of their lives.

Article 7. Of the necessity for different treatment

  • As such, it only makes sense for the law to take these specificities into account, and to differ in principle from one individual to the other. 
  • All Namuh beings are unequal before the law. They are entitled to different rights,  different degrees of freedom, and should respect different duties, depending on their predispositions and circumstances.

Article 6. Of the grouping of population into castes

  • One can distinguish several common traits in Namuh defining broad groups of population that share common needs and idiosyncrasies. These groups are thereafter named classes or castes.
  • The caste system is the unalienable indisputable foundation of the Namuh society legitimized by individual specificity.
  • Every Namuh is entitled to a Caste Assignment, no-one shall be deprived of his Assignment or the right to attempt to change it.
  • Changing caste requires the authorization of both castes. No-one shall be allowed to a new caste without proving undeniably that it is where they belong. This process shall be subject to strict control.
  • Until reasonably proven otherwise beyond doubt, Namuh children are assumed to be similar to their parent and environment, and are therefore of the same caste as their parents.

Article 5. Of the necessity for different rules for each caste

  • To ensure the optimal handling of each caste particularities, each caste shall have their own body of laws, freedoms, rights and obligations.
  • The laws of a caste may, but shall not necessarily, acknowledge, define and consider further subdivision of the local population and adapt their rights and freedoms accordingly.
  • In addition, castes may occasionally be further refined into smaller isolated components should they prove sufficiently distinct.

Article 4. Of the necessity for geographical localization of caste

  • In order to allow for proper application of caste law, and to best match each caste with a suitable environment, each caste shall be assigned to a fixed geographical area suiting their needs. They are referred to in the following as sectors, or camps.
  • Each caste is fully sovereign of their sector. No-one may intervene or interfere on another sector without their consent. The ruling power of the local caste is absolute. 
  • Laws and rights within the sector are entirely governed by the local caste, and may be widely different from one sector to the next.
  • The members of the caste are required total submission to the sector’s local law, and no other. They have no freedoms besides the ones specifically allowed by the sector law.
  • No-one may dictate the size of sectors. It is left to a decentralized process of competition between the sectors to adjust the sector’s sizes as seen fit depending on the variation of population size and needs.
  • Castes are to be strictly confined to their respective sectors. Freedom of movement between sectors might only be allowed on a case by case basis by ad hoc rules.

Article 3. Of the necessity for geographical boundaries

  • Each sector is delimited by strict boundaries, the crossing of which shall be regulated rigorously.
  • These boundaries shall be arbitrarily drawn and define clear territories for castes, though they may occasionally follow natural landmarks to facilitate demarcation.
  • No goods or population shall be exchanged between two sectors without careful considerations, so as to avoid unwanted interference between castes. Treaties and agreements may be considered to facilitate and regulate trade when appropriate.
  • Fences, walls and other separation apparatus may be considered. More lenient separation may be negotiated ad hoc on a case by case basis.
  • Sector boundaries shall be enforced by any means necessary, including but not limited to weapons and military means.

Article 2. Of the shared cultural and social history legitimizing sectors

  • This declaration shall be established as an unquestionable fundamental element of society, until every Namuh fully interiorizes their caste and sector and accepts the limits of their rights.
  • Alternatives should be negated out of the collective unconscious and shall be  inconceivable. In the end, Namuhs shall not notice much less doubt the dominion of the caste system. Its rule shall then be unopposed, and the Namuhs shall have no escape.
  • To that end, each sector may adopt their own customs and language to foster a sentiment of unity and belonging in the caste. Namuhs of a caste shall be conditioned to be emotionally attached to their caste and sector. Traditions, sports, culture, language and symbols are ideal vectors to reinforce the conditioning, until every Namuh is properly locked in their sector and caste physically, psychologically and emotionally.
  • It is expected that as time passes, the system established by this declaration shall gain strength through inertia until it becomes de facto absolute, as the sectors become invested in their identity and the separation between castes grows deeper.

Article 1. Of the acknowledgement of the reality of sectors

Kapital for analytical dummies

I’ve been watching a lot of Zizek lately, and in particular the Pervert Guide movie series, and I really wanted to make an article as an excuse to recommend them (seriously, it’s super cool) so I decided to reflect a bit on the base concept of capitalism.

After all, one of the central points of Zizek’s discourse is that neoliberal capitalism thrives on chaos and criticism, and that despite its inevitable end being heralded for centuries it stood on stronger than ever. So since it might be here to stay, for better or worse, maybe we can take a quick look at it and see if there’s something to be learned to make the world a better place.

Axiom definitions

I don’t want to do any politics or economics, I have no qualification for that. Instead, I want to investigate the consequences of a toy model to help me (us?) make sense of the world around us. Let’s take a single axiom: defining an objective universal scale of value onto which to project the value of anything (goods, services, whatever). On paper, this is probably the idealized version of what money is supposed to be, but to avoid any semantic dispute and bias from the real world, we’ll consider an ideal world called the System, and a scale of value called Value. Value represents the absolute value of anything: actions, objects… The more “good” something is, the more Value it is worth.

What’s it good for?

The advantages of Value are pretty straightforward: instead of debating how to exchange anything against anything, you can just exchange it for Value and exchange the Value back.

This is the key to what seems to me the most important advantage of this system: it allows for a completely distributed system of resource management. And that was really important historically speaking, because it’s very hard to answer questions like “how much wheat should we produce overall in France so that the surplus of regions where we can produce is enough to feed the regions where we can’t” or so on. The laws of supply and demand in the marketplace are actually a very elegant solution to this question, with all the benefits that come out of decentralization (fault tolerance, etc…).

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Furthermore, by definition, Value is the scale that quantifies “goodness” of things (their value). So by definition we should strive to maximize the overall quantity of Value in the world. This helps me make sense of why so many people are obsessed with economic growth ^^

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This is especially important in the age of “God is Dead“. A big takeaway of the pervert’s guide to ideology is that humans need an element of transcendence to tend towards, an absolute goal. Nietzsche’s famous quote highlights that when religion does not provide an easy transcendental objective, it falls upon mankind to find its own transcendence.

Zizek analyzes how during the 20th century, the void left by religion lead to the rise of extreme totalitarian nationalism, where the ideal of god is replaced by the ideal of the nation, with a lot of obvious dangers. Presently, it seems that the dominant ideology is to replace this by our local equivalent of Value, which probably makes a lot of sense based on its definition. I for prefer to move from wars to a world where all the people try to work together to make Value (I know it’s not that simple). If nothing else it’s a goal (again, on paper) better than “massacring the people who don’t look like us”.

Enters subjectivity

So this whole Value system has a lot of upsides and that’s the reason for its success. It seems on paper like it should be the perfect system (strive to maximize objective goodness). So what are the problems here? Why does it feel so wrong (to me at least ^^) to sacrifice anything to maximize Value?

The core problem is that value is inherently subjective. Water is worth more to you when you’re thirsty. And even if you define the value of the object (water + circumstances), there’s discrepancies you cannot do away with. Someone who is deadly allergic to peanuts will always estimate the value of peanuts as lower as someone who enjoys them. So to make sense of the real world, we need a second axiom: there exists objects for which the perceived value for different people is different.

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As a consequence, there will always necessarily exist, at least in some objects, a gap between the Value and my personal estimation of it. Value will always be a guess by nature. At best it can be something like the average of everyone’s subjective estimates. In fact, the True Value of an object is probably something like the average over all space time and all circumstances of everyone’s subjective estimates.

A crack in the system

if Value really represents goodness and we want to maximize it, a pretty efficient strategy to maximize it is to exploit that gap. This can be better formalized but I’d like to keep it friendly.

Image result for two people and an object

Taking a very simple example based on an object A and imagining that possession, sale and purchase are all with the same value, we get the following: If person P1 has the object and values it at v1 (you may think of it as production cost), and person P2 values it at v2 (you may think of it as purchase cost), with v2 >> v1, if P1 gives the object to P2, there will be a surplus of value of v2 – v1. Changing the owner of an object has “created” value, since before the total amount of value in the world reported by the people was v1 and now it’s v2.

In reality, P2 would pay for the object with a money token, which would complicate the situation a bit, but if P1 receives all the money from P2 we’re still moving to:

P1 has A worth v1 and P2 has the money -> P2 has A worth v2 and P1 has the money

So the increase in the quantity of Value is the same. Also let’s not forget that services, work and actions have a Value too, and that there is no reason for any kind of reciprocity in valuations: if you’re purchasing a massage for v4 to someone who values giving a massage for v3 << v4, that increases the quantity of value in the world too.

Point is there is a lot of gaps in the way people may estimate value, so the System has an inherent exploit (resulting from our two axioms) that can be use to increase Value. (I believe that’s what the essence of the constant push for consumption may be, but it’s definitely what speculation is ^^).

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These gaps are not necessarily bad in themselves. One such example would be someone who has plenty of water will value it less than someone who has trouble accessing it, so a direct consequence could be the sharing of resources according to the needs. But there could be a variety of disparities not as legitimate that the System will exploit blindly.

Furthermore, the next logical consequence, since the value estimates are inherently subjective, would be to invest effort in changing the perceived value of things. If you’re buying something, for instance someone’s work, it’s not only in your interest but also in the interest of Maximizing Value of the System to convince that person that their work is worthless, and reciprocally you should always inflate the value of what you’re selling as much as possible.

Therefore, the System will always strive to increase the disconnect between perceived value and actual value. Not only will try to create and exploit these gaps, but it will also actively encourage misestimation and misinformation (again, just a consequence of the two axioms). And so it happens that the Value System originally meant to increase the quantity of goodness is subverted to increase the quantity of… itself only, really.

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We can expect the gaps to necessarily appear and to add up, and increase in volume as the System grows. So are we doomed to be constantly taken advantage of by a System that is by nature exploitative? Is the only escape to not rely on a Value System, if even possible? What would the alternative even be? One could understandably be defeatist.

What can be done?

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There is self-regulating mechanics in the system, due to the way Value is estimated (it’s always a guess, remember): you can only inflate the prices as much as people are willing to pay for it. The default way to aggregate subjective value estimates into a computation of Value is the law of supply and demand. In the end, it is this law that controls how the Value is computed. Regardless of my feelings on the subject, a pretty ironic point could be made here that instead of robbing The People from their agency, the System puts The People directly in power by giving them the role of estimating the value of everything.

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The inherent subjectivity of the value estimates from which Value is computed might be the root of the exploit we studied, but it’s also a direct means of action from anyone to the System. Value is but the aggregate of everyone’s estimates. If all the estimates are “lower than they should be” (for a certain definition of should) then the Value will be “lower than it should be” and vice versa.

Looking back at the real world, my suspicion is that mankind has a strong bias for the here and now, so all the estimates are computed based on the current availability of resources. The aggregation pretty well spatially now (because spatial distances were reduced by technology and globalization) but not very well temporally. The future availability of the resources is only taken into account in a very limited way, otherwise things like water, oil or beef would be much more expensive.

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Because the computation of Value is done in such a distributed way, it is done with only a small horizon of event for each participant. It’s pretty hard to estimate the Value of something taking into account all the potential scenarii that could happen. Very few humans have this computational power, if any. And as we saw before, this is a weakness the System is sure to exploit.

Therefore, I think the best thing one can do in such a System is actually education. We need to actively fight the tendency of the system to increase the disconnect between the actual Value of things and the way they are perceived by correcting the perceived value of things. And that does not mean nagging everyone into not eating meat, for instance, but pushing everyone to really fully accept the fact that some resources must be valued more highly, and have everyone act as such, and resist the temptation to fall in the System’s cracks. Tough job…

What does this mean for utilitarianism? for the Greater Good? These are interesting questions outside the scope of this article.

The Phantom Zizek vs Deadpool

Ok so disclaimer, this essay is going to be mostly about the ending of Persona 5, and as such, it spoils the whole thing. I’m going to recap what’s important for the non players, but you should most definitely play this game before, it’s an excellent game, easily one of my favorites, which stands at the pinnacle of the Persona series, and contrary to the others, it has an… interesting overarching plot, which is what we’re going to talk about here. So wake up, get up, get out there first, and then you can come back 😛

An introduction about Persona 5

There’s a shitload to be said about this game. It’s basically symbolism on crack with a heavy handed dose of jungian psychology as the title implies, and judeo-christian theology. Many aspects of the game warrant their own analyses but the one I want to tackle here is its representation of society, democracy and the neoliberal capitalism it’s bathing in. Persona 5 is amazingly spot on when it comes to the pulse of the times.

Image result for jesus doing drugs

It’s hard to not see when going through the game how feeble public opinion is, which is all the more central a theme that it appears as a gauge on every loading screen. The parallels with the current entertainment-political climate are obvious, and they could almost sue the 2016 american election for copyright infringement.

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But the part I’m most impressed by is how well Persona 5 captures the ecosystem and environment which gives birth to these circumstances. Society’s obsession with sensationalism is just one piece of a bigger picture, that we’ll call The System™.

The System™

I’m not the best at talking about the economical and societal implications of neoliberal capitalism, so I’m going to leave you with a brief summary and pointers to people who do it way better, before I try and tackle what this means in the context of Persona.

The crux of it is that the current neoliberal system is amazingly good at commodifying and marketing anything, and most importantly its own criticism and counter-cultural movements, thereby absorbing them and vampirizing them. And therefore any attempt to rebel ends up feeding the system. The textbook example being Che Guevara shirts.

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I briefly mentioned in my 2nd Godel article how South Park season 19 deals brilliantly with the question. This topic is a favorite of my friends at Wisecrack and comes back in many of their videos. A notable example would be the Deadpool franchise, as self aware as can be about its own use of tropes and extremely cynical about the money-driven industry of brainless superhero movies, which ends up nonetheless as a huge superhero franchise and thereby becoming the very thing it’s mocking.

This is a core motive of the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, who could be qualified as the resident expert on the amazing power of neoliberal capitalism to phagocyte counter movements, in a cycle that seems pretty desperately endless. He’ll tell you all about it better than I ever could.

Another cute recent example about counter culture becoming the thing they fought against is highlighted by this episode of PhilosophyTube about “comprehensive designers”:

Phantom thieves against the world

In Persona, the anti-establishment force is the group of protagonists, the Phantom Thieves, which can be extended to their Phandom. Their aim is clear: standing up and providing an alternative to a sick and corrupt society. The metaphors of the ending are pretty elegant about this: the world has become ugly and fucked up, but only a handful of chosen ones see it as it is and understand how dire the situation is. 

Rebels as they may be, they quickly become products of the system as reminded by the popularity gauge or the frequent talks about fan goods. Their anti-establishment criticism gets co-opted by the system in a textbook example. So much so that they literally become pawns in the political conspiracy. Their call to action is ridiculously cliche, their adult-bashing doesn’t help building up their depth.

Image result for phantom thieves merchandise in the game

The true end brings little comfort. They succeed in destroying the False God born from the blind faith of the general public, by using the blind faith of the general public in themselves. Ironically, they’re just replacing a false idol with another false idol (themselves).

(see 46’50)

Even the ending in the game is pretty ambiguous: we’re not sure if or how much it helped. The Phantom Thieves fad is waning and another one will take its place in the endless cycle of twisted idolization. After a year, people are starting to forget them already, and seem ready to move on to the next big thing. It’s pretty unlikely that they broke the cycle.

But one may then ask, if this is just a textbook rebel story that gets vampirized by the System, what does it bring to the table? What’s so interesting or important about it so that you have to write an essay about it? Well, I’m glad you ask…

The root of the problem

Persona 5 gained an instant place in my heart when I discovered the last dungeon. The dungeons are representations of twisted human psyche, and the ultimate one is the representation of the General Public psyche, i.e. the collective unconscious. It takes the form of a prison, built by mankind, where they long to be kept.

The name Prison of regression” and its description heavily plays on the fear and aversion for progress, echoing the dichotomy of corrupt adult vs dynamic children that punctuates the whole game. But I think it’s a bit simplistic to summarize everything wrong with mankind by “conservatism”. The various NPCs trapped in jail cells fortunately paint a more complete picture.

In any case, it means that the final boss is mankind itself, and you end up fighting to “save the world” explicitly against the population’s wishes. As proof, the final boss regenerates all of its hit points in an ability elegantly called “Will of the People“.

So in the end, the Phantom Thieves don’t just rebel against society but against human nature itself, and by extension their own nature. They willingly face adversity and challenge their essence, which sounds like Ubermensch growth 101 to me.

The meta game

But of course it wouldn’t be a proper post on this blog if it didn’t mention meta in some way. And I swear this is not just my own obsession, I mean, the game really IS begging you:

Presenting the confrontation of the main character and the “ante-christian” Akechi as a game run by a deity to try humanity allows for a lot of meta goodness. A game or challenge to try mankind and determine its worth is a frequent pattern in judeo-christian tradition, echoing of course the trial by the apple of knowledge.

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The constant references to the phandom are a reminder that in the real world, it will literally exist too. Sure, it will be the fan community of the game rather than fans of actual activists, but since the Phantom Thieves are kind of idealized characters in the game too, isn’t it pretty much the same thing? The game world and real world intertwine, and when the Phantom Thieves fad in the game world echoes the Persona 5 popularity in the real world. Just like the game world spent a year with the Phantom Thieves, so too does the real world spend a while with these characters, and as their adventure end, in both cases they will live on in the heart of the audience.

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What can we then make of Igor’s insistence about the existence of the game, and by extension trial? Is humanity in the real world also on trial, and is the player its champion? Is the game a mean to judge the fate of mankind? Is the player then, just like the main character, playing a game against the dark side of mankind/themselves? Is the game rigged for the dark side here too? As a J-RPG, it’s certainly rigged towards the player winning eventually… Does that mean that the player should, lest the dark side wins, refuse this deal, put down the controller, and “get out there” ? Is this a meta-critic of videogames in particular and entertainment at large as a force for self-indulgence, complacency and apathy?

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The solution?

So in the end, does Persona 5 offer a solution to the questions it raises? Can we break free from the cyclical and vampiric system that ingests any opposition? As Žižek puts it, it’s easy to complain and rebel, but then what?

Most media who reach this point in the reflection shove off some vague answer about love. The Matrix trilogy is a good example advocating that there is no solution, there is no escaping the system, and maybe that’s what it ultimately is.

words cant express how much i love anime

But faced with an imperialistic and seemingly invincible system, the Phantom Thieves still act. And sure they do shove off some vague answer about your loving confidants as per tradition, but I’d like to see if there could be a bit more to it. They keep fighting against the collective unconscious, against mankind itself. As the False God reminds them repeatedly, they are defying the natural order of things. It is certainly reminiscent of Zarathustra’s invite to stand up to the natural tendency of decay to better oneself.

Image result for fight yourselfIs this a sacrificial motif in answer to impossible odds? After all, it fits the theme. The key may be in the perseverance within adversity. But it might be worth considering what they are persevering for.

Their response to the corrupt system that replaces one false idol by another is to kill God, the crystallization of mankind’s current beliefs. And then hope for the best. They do so on display, in a very public setting, under the public’s attention. So maybe that’s the best we can do. Sacrifice ourselves and denounce the hegemony of the System by trying our hardest to kill God, even if it’s most likely pointless, and make sure people are watching…

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But for the main character, the “rehabilitation” is only complete after he accepts that the Phantom Thieves fad must end, and that they need to be forgotten. The final step of his growth is the acknowledgement that he may not be able to break the cycle, and the acceptation of his own limits. His best try is the most he can offer. Maybe, in a way, that’s the best we can do…