Monday, June 30, 2014

Mystery Makers

I recently saw "The Mysteries"--back for an extended run--at The Flea Theater in New York. The play is actually 52 short plays, by 48 playwrights, that comprise an updated version of the York Mystery Play Cycle--a Middle English group of 48 plays depicting the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis through Revelations.* 

Like late medieval mystery cycles, which could unfold over many hours or even days, "The Mysteries" takes about six hours, and includes two longish intervals (with food served). Although the production includes a lot of things that the Middle English versions leave out (nudity, swearing, sex, blasphemy) and lacks the "mysteries" (theatrical machinery) that made the plays so stunning in the late Middle Ages, "The Mysteries" feels medieval. The plays and most of the performances are colloquial but not naturalistic; and just as in the medieval period, the stories of the Bible are transformed and translated for a general audience whose familiarity with the lessons of the Bible might be patchy, at best. The meal breaks and general conviviality at The Flea seems medieval (or do I mean "medieval"?), as well. Pageants were often performed during festivals and fairs, and with plenty of food stalls around. Eating dinner and dessert with my fellow theater-goers and chatting to the actors provided a shared sense of fellowship and community that is also central to certain kinds of medieval drama. 

"The Mysteries" runs through July 14, and there are usually rush tickets available for $35. It's transporting.

* These plays, or pageants, often included complicated theatrical machinery to produce stunning effects. For example, shipwrights' guilds would produce a mechanical whale for the story of Jonah and the whale, or an artificial storm and an ark for the story of Noah and the Flood. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Do People Even Like Robots?

It's nice to be able to invite a guest to your wedding and know that he or she isn't going to make a terrible speech or throw up on the wedding cake. On the other hand, it's also nice to be able to invite a guest to your wedding and know that he or she isn't going to make the other guests feel awkward and uncomfortable, merely by showing up. 

This is the dilemma posed by robot wedding guests, and I learned about this thanks to the recent article in the "Vows" section of the New York Times. Ideally, the robots act as telepresence proxies for guests who can't attend, but still want to be a part of the festivities (although at least one enterprising couple had a robot officiate the ceremony). Of course, the downside is that people still aren't that comfortable interacting with robots, so once the novelty wears off they are largely ignored. 

As men pulled their dates to the dance floor in Australia, Mr. O’Neill watched from Canada sitting at his computer dressed in a suit with a beer in hand, and was able to see what was happening only right in front of the seat where his brothers had propped up the robot.
“I was unconsciously turning my head to talk to people and realizing I’m in a cold, dark basement and it’s 1 in the morning,” he said.

This reminded me of the first episode of season 5 of The Good Wife. I think the callous behavior that the LG employees show toward "Monica" (a co-worker who interfaces with the firm via telepresence robot) emphasizes both the way that certain technologies destabilize social norms and disrupt communication (even--or perhaps especially--if that technology is supposed to enhance communication) and the generally toxic environment at LG.

Compare these examples, in which the human-robot interactions never become truly functional or integrated, with "Robot & Frank," in which the robot and protagonist forge a bond that is as emotionally complex as the one that Frank has with his children. It may be that "The Good Wife" is simply a more accurate reflection of how people feel about robots right now, and "Robot & Frank" is speculative fiction about a near-future in which robots are a little more responsive, a little more common.

More interesting still is that the telepresence robot in "The Good Wife" and some of the examples in the NYT article strongly resemble the descriptions of the wheeled tripodal servants that Haphaestus forged to serve the gods on Mt. Olympus. Indeed, perhaps our longstanding association between "robots" and "servants/slaves" is what makes us react to robotic avatars with discomfort, since they violate that association.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Humanities in Crisis, Medieval Style

The humanities are in crisis! The crisis seems to be that the number of students who choose to study humanities subjects in college is in steep decline, as more students pursue majors in professional fields, like business, or STEM subjects, because these subjects are widely seen by students to be better job training. Some argue that this is because our society has devalued creative and culturally generative work. To some, the narrow focus on employment and earnings is cause for lament and alarm. Others suggest that the decline is overstated, and that the humanities had a brief, anomalous post-war period of popularity. 

There are, I imagine, as many suggestions for how to reverse this crisis as there are proposed reasons for its cause. I merely want to point out that this brief "golden age" of interest in the humanities, followed by a period of greater interest in professional training has happened the outset of the first universities in Europe. In the twelfth century, the great cathedral schools at Chatres and Orléans placed particular emphasis on ancient literature and neoplatonist philosophy. In these places, "the spirit of a real humanism showed itself in an enthusiastic study of ancient authors and in the production of Latin verse of a really remarkable quality."* But this humanistic renaissance was ultimately short lived, as interest in the science of logic and the professional fields of law and medicine prevailed over interest in literature and philosophy. John of Salisbury, in the late twelfth century, complained that the logic masters knew almost nothing of literature. Fifty years later, Henri d'Andeli, a French poet, wrote that "Logic has the students, whereas Grammar [literature] is reduced in numbers, Civil Law rode gorgeously and Canon Law rode haughtily ahead of all the other arts."* Medieval is the new modern, people!

* Taken from C. H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities, ch. 2.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Year in Robots

I've been doing some sifting through the year's news stories about robotics and robots to do a round-up post. But then I came across Lewis Black's segment on last night's Daily Show and thought, why bother?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Chess & Mind

I recently started learning something new: 
The Lewis Chessmen. 

I never played it, I didn't know anyone who played it, and my total exposure to chess came from books and films in which people played chess (see: Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fresh, The Lymond Chronicles (especially Pawn in Frankincense), The Americans, Cairo Time, WarGames, The West Wing, etc.). In the cultural artifacts that introduced me to the game, it was always heralded as something really hard. When a character plays chess in a story, it tells the audience that the person (Fresh, Jed Bartlet, or Francis Crawford) playing is always several steps ahead of the people around them. Chess players think ahead, they can strategize, they can "see the whole board." And the mathematical nature of chess, especially (so I'm told) at its highest levels, lends itself to computational technology. (I vividly remember the Kasparov-Deep Blue matchup.) 

But I confess that I'm confused about how and why chess became a yardstick for intelligence and, in some cases, for humanity, insofar as "human intelligence" is a proxy for what makes us uniquely human. Humans have been building calculating machines for millennia--even before chess was invented. Why is it that the element of human intelligence that is the *easiest* to reproduce with machinery became associated with chess, and used as a marker for intelligence itself? When did this start to happen? And what does this reveal about historical theories of mind and cognition--have they changed sufficiently over the past centuries to reveal any changes in terms of the importance chess as a measure of intellectual capability?

Friday, November 8, 2013

Robots from Days Gone By

Amazing automata from ye olden times have been cropping up everywhere recently! The New York Times recently ran an article about the creations of R. J. Wensley, a robotics engineer and inventor from the first half of the 20th century.* And then the folks at Colossal got excited about Simon Schaeffer's recent (and fabulous) BBC documentary, and a few of the 18th century automata that he profiles. One of these, L'écrivain, is from the workshop of Pierre & Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz. Adelheid Voskuhl has a recent piece in Slate about the importance of the Jaquet-Droz and other Enlightenment
automata.Voskuhl's argument, based on her recent (and fabulous) book Androids in the Enlightenment, is that these luxury objects actually modeled new forms of civic engagement and social behavior by performing affective practices that were important to bourgeois and aristocratic Enlightenment culture. These automata, especially the piano-playing women that Voskuhl focuses on in her book, are conceptually similar to the 16th century praying monk, commissioned by King Charles V of Spain, that demonstrated  proper devotional practice, and to the imaginary figures from the Alabaster Chamber in the 12th-century Roman de Troie, which enacted and enforced courtly behavior.

* While I'm always happy to see Leonardo get name-checked, esp. in relation to early automata, it goes without saying that the *entire point of this blog* is to make it clear that these objects were imagined and built well before the fifteenth century.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Sad State of Education, 12th-Century Edition

I recently had the good fortune to examine LJS 384 (an early copy of William of Conches' De philosophia mundi and an excerpt of Hugh of St. Victor's commentary on the Gospels) in more detail. Doing so gave me the opportunity to spend some time researching William and De philosophia

It turns out that William, a student of and teacher at the cathedral school at Chartres in the early twelfth century, had a lot to say about the sorry state of education. William had been taught by Bernard of Chartres and his cohort in the early twelfth century. But by the time William was teaching students a decade later, he realized that the golden age of learning had passed. Men now call themselves philosophers, he said, but they disdain to learn from anyone and are too arrogant to admit their ignorance.* Students flock to study philosophy in ever greater numbers so that teachers are so preoccupied with teaching that they have little time for research and writing. And teachers are so dependent on their students' good opinion of them that they offer easy courses. "Masters are become flatterers of their students and students judges of their masters."**

Truly, the End Times of advanced education have always been with us.

*This sounds like a veiled barb directed at Abelard, no?
**The info in the paragraph--and much more--can be found in volume 2 of Lynn Thorndike's History of Magic and Experimental Science.