Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Post-Solstice Solar Return

Medieval Robots is two years old! Since I started this blog two years ago over 25,000 people (and bots) have come to check it out. And I'm on Twitter, thanks to Hurricane Sandy. I hope to have some more exciting news about the medieval robots of my own research in 2013. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and have a happy New Year and a wonderful 2013 of your own. 

In honor of the second birthday of this blog, here are two relevant statistics.

The most popular post is Ye Olde Replicants, with over 1900 views. I wonder how popular it is over at RadioLab? 

The most popular search term that drives traffic to this site is: Robocop.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Eschatology, Again

Well, I guess that whole Mayan thing didn't pan out. 

Msc. Bibl. 140, Bamberg Apocalypse, fol. 32v
Kind of like in the Middle Ages, when a number of clerics, theologians, and political figures thought that the Second Coming would happen in the year 1000. Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, commissioned a luxurious illuminated version of the Book of Revelation (the Bamberg Apocalypse), and pursued a policy of linking his reign to those of Constantine (through his association with Pope Sylvester II) and Charlemagne (by visiting his tomb at Pentecost in 1000). The desire to create an environment that would demonstrate to God that the faithful were deserving of his return led, in part, to one of the most important social justice movements of the Middle Ages: The Peace of God. And the wealthy were worried enough about the possibility for the imminent arrival of Judgement Day that they gave land and gifts to monasteries, which, in turn, built new churches. Ralph (Radolfus) Glaber, a monk from that period, wrote that "It was as if the whole world had shaken off the dust of the ages and covered itself in the white mantle of churches." 

Once the year 1000 came and went without major event, people re-dated their calculations to the year 1033, a millennium after Jesus' death, rather than his birth. That came and went, but it didn't slow down the apocalyptic prophets.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Robots Are Taking Our Jobs, Says Krugman. Next They'll be NYT Columnists!

According to Paul Krugman, the nineteenth century is the new black. Robber barons, David Ricardo, Das Kapital--it's all very now. Except then all the robots are going to steal our jobs. 
 "...there’s no question that in some high-profile industries, technology is displacing workers of all, or almost all, kinds. For example, one of the reasons some high-technology manufacturing has lately been moving back to the United States is that these days the most valuable piece of a computer, the motherboard, is basically made by robots, so cheap Asian labor is no longer a reason to produce them abroad." 
But the robots won't be satisfied with only manufacturing jobs! They want to perform highly-skilled labor.
"[snip] Many of the jobs being displaced are high-skill and high-wage; the downside of technology isn’t limited to menial workers."
Technology is putting labor at a disadvantage, and growing monopoly power enriches plutocrats. The result is an increasingly classist, two-tiered society.
And suddenly we live in a horrible dystopia predicted in the classic Weimar sci-fi expressionist film!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Thanksgiving Miracle

Amazing, amazing news: All of the images--all of the data--in the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts is now available in the public domain for non-commercial use. Thank you, thank you! Now we need the other great libraries and museums to put their manuscript images and meta-data in the public domain. One can only imagine that other institutions will be reviewing their policies in light of this game-changing development. 

Will Noel, former manuscripts curator at The Walters Museum and newly-appointed Director of Special Collections Center and SIMS at Penn, has spoken eloquently and persuasively about the benefits of making this data freely available. Digital humanities has enhanced medieval studies enormously. Making the PL and MGH searchable on-line has the potential to rejuvenate the history of ideas, and making manuscript images usable by many people promotes collaboration and scholarship and increases the net amount of delight and beauty in the world. Not bad. 

And, in honor of the feast of Thanksgiving, here's another feast:

The Meeting Of Sir Lancelot And Queen Guinevere, In 'The Romance Of Lancelot Du Lac''

The meeting of Lancelot and Guinevere, in Lancelot do lac, Royal MS 20 D.iv. British Library.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Nate Silver's Medieval Ancestor

As you've no doubt heard, Nate Silver's total win of everything that happens, ever, has prompted suspicion of his methods. Mark Coddington's astute reading of the mistrust of Silver by political journalists eloquently framed the central issue: Nate Silver's methods are epistemologically different from a political journalist's--scientific method vs. analysis & discernment. Is Nate Silver a Witch? took this a step further, by mocking political journalists' and Republican pundits' insistence on their own certainty and complete dismissal of Silver's rational methods.

This narrative of faith vs. science strongly recalls the legends of Gerbert of Aurillac in William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum Anglorum. Gerbert, who reigned as Pope Sylvester II from 999-1003, had, according to legend, created an oracular head that revealed the future to him. Prior to William, writing ca. 1125, chroniclers had insisted that Gerbert's speaking head relied on demonic magic. This was largely due to the fact that, in the 10th and 11th centuries, prediction and forecasting (with the exception of prognostication of the weather and calendrical reckoning) were thought to require demons. But William changed the story, attributing Gerbert's head to celestial forces--the particular conjunction of the planets and stars. By William's era, cosmological and astronomical texts in Arabic, Greek, and Hebrew were increasingly translated into Latin. Many of these treatises involved the accurate measurement of heavenly bodies for the specific purpose of divination (for medical reasons, to answer questions or offer advice, or to cast natal charts). Predicting the future was, now, something that did not require demons but could instead be based on scientific methods. 

Gerbert was an early pioneer in the mathematic and astronomical sciences of the quadrivium in the tenth century. And after he died? He was the sorcerer-pope who traded his soul to the Devil for foreknowledge.
Cod. Pal. germ. 137, Folio 216v. Martinus Oppaviensis, Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum. c1460. Courtesy of Heidelberg University.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

When Pedagogies Collide: MOOCs

Like most people, I had never heard the term "MOOC" (massive open online course) until several months ago. Yet here we are, in the midst of a MOOC moment. Both the NYT and the Washington Post have run (extremely similar) articles about the rise of MOOCs headquartered in elite institutions. It was big news when Harvard and MIT announced their partnership to form EdX, a non-profit platform for free online courses. The recent articles tend to cover the following angles: 1) what MOOCs are; 2) who takes them; 3) who teaches them; and 4) how they will change everything about higher education as we know it. 
Who takes MOOCs and who teaches them are interesting issues: thus far, it seems that MOOCs attract a diverse student body, comprising students from overseas, those who work full-time (in a variety of fields), continuing education students, and those for whom taking courses at Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, UT, or Stanford would be out of the question (for a number of reasons). What most of these students have in common, however, are there general areas of interest: quantitative topics. As Laura Pappano noted in her NYT article, the overwhelming majority of MOOCs are in the hard sciences, engineering, or quantitative social sciences. One well-known counter-example is Al Filreis' course on Modern & Contemporary Poetry at Penn, offered through Coursera (a for-profit platform, currently offering its courses for free).

After looking at a number of different courses, and signing up for Filreis' poetry class, I am struck by how important the lecture is to the structure and pedagogy of MOOCs. Instead of the 55 or 85-minute lecture that has long been the norm at universities and colleges, these lectures tend to be shorter, usually between 10 and 20 minutes. In some sciences classes, they explicate a problem or a specific equation. Students watch the lectures on-line, then generally do some kind of activity (a quiz or a problem set), and participate in an online discussion forum (although there are IRL meetups and study groups, although these tend to be organized by motivated students, rather than administered by the professor). 

In Modern & Contemporary poetry, the close-reading videos are usually around 12 -15 minutes, and the webcasts of panel discussions (on a particular poem or poet) are an hour. The discussion forums are lively, but they don't seem fundamentally that different from some of the lively commentariat for certain tv shows on websites like TLo, Vulture, TWOP, and a few others. Having proctored discussions about close reading different "texts" has been happening, for years, outside of academe.

I find it fascinating that MOOCs are being touted as the spearhead of a revolution in higher education when they rely primarily on an antediluvian pedagogical technique. Lectures began in medieval universities as a way to provide information--contained in canonical texts--to students. Books were extremely expensive, and students couldn't necessarily purchase all of the books they'd need for their degree course (although they famously wrote many letters home, asking for money), so the professor's job was to read the text and explicate it. The student's job was to take notes and to master the content. 

There are other very old teaching methods that have more student participation than lecture. The Socratic method is often still used in law schools. And the disputatio--invented by Peter Abelard and perfected in medieval philosophy classes--involved debate between teacher and student. But these are both more formalized and rigid than the seminar discussions found mainly in liberal arts colleges. Even the Oxbridge tutorial, which can be (though isn't always) less scripted than the other two examples, dates from the 19th century.

The reliance on the medieval lecture is often still the default in college classrooms, even as it has become increasingly clear, over the past several years, that the lecture is not a great way to promote learning. It's a good format for imparting information, but terrible at getting students to use that information dynamically. Discussion-based learning, or even having regular student discussions of whatever material they're studying, is a relatively new way to teach. "Losing the lecture" is the new pedagogical catchphrase, and there's evidence that peer interaction, rapid feedback, discussion, and face-to-face interaction between students and faculty are even more effective pedagogical methods. To be fair, many MOOCs do incorporate peer interaction and use discussion forums in place of F2F group discussions. Rapid feedback can be more of a problem, given that some students are carrying out (and uploading) problem sets or equations at different times. But they can't offer the face to face interaction with a professor, and a professor, having no students in front of her, can't read their body language and nonverbal cues to make her teaching more effective.

The lecture is central to these new frontiers of education,despite its limited utility. I also wonder if MOOCs have been most effective in quantitative and scientific subjects because these subjects have traditionally been taught in very high-enrollment classes with 3 hours of lectures per week, and smaller groups for lab work or problem sets. The on-line platform for teaching these subjects offers, and perhaps requires, certain changes: breaking up the lectures into shorter units (micro-units) and having more opportunities for students to test themselves and give feedback to the instructor (or an algorithm set by the instructor to score student work). It may also be more effective--after all, "lose the lecture" started out in physics. 

For more on MOOCs, see Jonathan Rees' series. 

A 14th century painting of a classroom. Art imitates life: the keen students are sitting up front, while the sleepers and the talkers are in the back rows.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Medieval Star Wars!

This is the perfect mashup of "medieval" and "robots."

  • I feel like the talented Chawakarn Kongprasert has illuminated my psyche.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Natura artifex Redux

Here are three images of Natura artifex, or Natura the artisan, standing at her forge. She uses a hammer and anvil to create new people out of existing archetypes.

You've seen this one before. Natura is forging new people out of parts.
Yale University, MS 418, fol. 282v. France, C15.
 AW, our DC correspondent, alerted me to this version, from a slightly later manuscript. Instead of limbs, she has a baby on the anvil, and dismembered baby bodies lie at her feet.
BL, MS Harley 4425, fol. 140. Flemish (Bruges), late C15.
 And then there's this one. A naked Natura stands at her forge, whanging away at a wang and Balzac.
Obscene pewter badge of Nature at her forge. Netherlands, late C15.Heilig en Profaan: Laatmiddeleeuwse Insignes in Cultuurhistorisch Perspectief. Amsterdam: Van Soeren, 1995.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Creative Construction

We are just about to start a new unit on scholarly practices, changing media, and the purpose(s) of citation in the first-year writing seminar I'm teaching. I have been re-reading The Footnote and "The End Matter" and mulling over what I want to say to my students about how historians use sources to make meaning about the past and the relationship between one's own work and the work that came before. So I read with interest Simon Reynolds' review essay in Slate, in which he confronted the assertion, by a number of artists, critics, and scholars, that citation and stealing and borrowing are the only way that anything is created. There is only recreativity, no creativity. Reynolds argues against this, and in favor of a more Romantic (and romantic) embodied notion of creative genius. 

Recreativity has a lot in common with neoplatonist ideas about creativity. In fact, they're remarkably similar. Hugh of St. Victor argued that all art is inherently mimetic: Humans can only copy from existing natural forms. Or, as I put it elsewhere, "Nature fabricates, humanity imitates." Bark, feathers, and scales provide inspiration for clothing and adornment, the sounds of nature are the basis of all music. The human mind, according to Hugh, was plastic, and could only receive the imprints of what it had seen and try to imitate them. It could not create ex nihilo; only God could do that. Even Nature worked with a set of archetypes handed to her by God; she translated the archetypes into matter. Sometimes copying could make way for combining, as with vernacular writers who recounted history, myth, and fable. Their work was often described as combining elements of story with aspects of style. The resulting mash-up was a new literary genre: romance. In the early modern period, History became a discipline with a set of expectations about accuracy. In this case, subject matter was yoked to verifiable evidence, which gave rise to a new set of scholarly technologies for thinking about credit and the footnote.

Monday, October 1, 2012

College Rank and File

Joe Nocera's recent op-ed piece in the NYT about the college rankings racket exposes a largely unexamined fault line running through contemporary discussions about the many problems facing higher ed and the many problems endemic to academia: credentialing vs. learning. 

Students such as the embittered young woman who was "only" able to attend a state school, or the bright senior intent on "marketing herself" so that she can get into an elite private institution reflect a harsh reality of higher ed: a college degree is a necessary credential for greater lifelong earning power and, one hopes, greater economic freedom. This may be particularly true for young women, as this article points out. And the Great Recession has raised the spectre of our nation's newest graduates living in their parents' basements, as part of some extended pupal stage. Rankings, whether from U.S. News & World Report or Washington Monthly, reinforce this idea, as the rankings implicitly turn an individualized four-year experience into an inherent value of the degree itself. A credential from Harvard is "worth" more--in the marketplace--than a credential from Wichita State. The credential mind-set is behind the drive to monetize on-line courses and increase access to distance-learning and extension schools at elite institutions: students who want a credential for the job market can get one, often at the cost of an actual education. 

As Nocera points out at the end, there are far more important factors than what school one attended that determine the kind of education one might receive. One of those factors is face-to-face interaction with high-quality professional educators, something a lot of companies and institutions are trying to reduce (faculty are expensive--especially those health insurance premiums--and our work can't be easily scaled up or routinized). 

Another is what the student brings to her college experience. A willingness to take risks, to work at the edge of one's intellectual comfort zone, and to fail makes learning more possible and likely. In addition, the lessons of a liberal arts education will stand one in better stead in the long term, as the value of a credential in the marketplace is unstable. Unfortunately, the skills required to get into an elite school are, often, incompatible with intellectual risk-taking and willingness to fail. All too often, students arrive at college and discover that the character traits that have gotten them to college are not necessarily the ones they should continue cultivating. And for the many students who are incurring significant debt to get their credential/education, the cost of taking risks (and perhaps failing) is terribly high. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Black Death PSA: It's Still A Good Idea to Stay Away from Vermin

...especially when it's already dead. 

A young girl in Colorado contracted the Black Death after trying to give an infected squirrel carcass a proper burial. The flea bites on the girl tipped off the doctors trying to diagnose her. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Some Comments on the Medieval Nature of Todd Akin's Assertion about "Legitimate" Rape And Conception

Recent articles and op-ed pieces in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have noted that Rep. Todd Akin's (R-MO) comments about the medical implausibility of a woman becoming pregnant from a forced sexual encounter are based in medieval ideas about female sexuality and anatomy. Vanessa Heggie, in The Guardian, points to a 13th century English legal text, Fleta (in which I am not expert), which states "If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive." Heggie goes on to cite a late 18th century text on medical jurisprudence and further asserts that both texts were grounded in a biological understanding of human sexuality called the one-sex body. Jennifer Wheeler's article, appearing in the HuffPo a day after Heggie's piece appeared in The Guardian, repeated Heggie's claims about Fleta and Dr. Samuel Farr's book on medical jurisprudence. James Taranto, in the WSJ, wrote a piece titled "Middle Ages Man," but none of the sources he mentions or quotes are from the medieval period (one piece, an op-ed in the LA Times, refers only to examples from colonial America).

The initially striking thing about these pieces is that they assert a medieval world-view by relying on evidence from outside the medieval period. With the exception of Fletus, none of the examples are medieval. Heggie, by invoking the idea of the one-sex body and genital homology, mistakenly ascribes an idea that was present in late 16th and 17th centuries to the medieval period. Yet, several scholars have demonstrated that the one-sex body was not a commonly held belief among medical authorities in the medieval period. This reliance on non-medieval sources to reveal a "medieval" set of ideas is a long-standing trope of medievalism: that anything that is backward, or unscientific, or cruel can be termed "medieval." It also betrays a misunderstanding of the historical period called the Middle Ages. It does not extend into the 18th century (or the 17th, or even the 16th in some places). 

Perhaps more relevant to Todd Akin's ideas about rape and conception are 12th century theologians. William of Conches, a theologian and philosopher, puzzled over the reason why forced intercourse could result in a pregnancy. "Although raped women dislike the act in the beginning, in the end, however, from the weakness of the flesh, they like it. Furthermore, there are two wills in humans, the rational and natural, which we often feel are warring within us: for often what pleases the flesh displeases reason. Although, therefore, a raped woman does not assent with her rational will, she does have carnal pleasure" (Dragmaticon philosophiae 6.8.10). This seems to be more in line with Akin's beliefs. If a woman conceives after being raped, then she must have liked it, which means that it wasn't really rape at all. Akin privileges theology over science (after all, many acts of unprotected consensual sex do not result in pregnancy, and plenty of embryos are created in vitro).

I am sometimes asked what a person from the Middle Ages would be most surprised by if they time-traveled to our world (no lie). One of things that I think would be most shocking for a medieval person to discover is that autonomy, economic opportunity, education, and participation in public life have been extended to many more kinds of people than in the medieval period. Akin's views are medieval, but not in the way Heggie, Wheeler, Taranto, and others have asserted. They are based on his ideas of who should hold authority over women's bodies and whence that authority derives (from theology, not science or personal autonomy). I love the Middle Ages, but I don't want to live there.

Monday, August 20, 2012

When Did the Middle Ages Get Medieval?

A few of my readers have asked me about when the Middle Ages became the Middle Ages, and why they're called that in the first place. I get into some of this with my students, and am, in a few months, going to get into it even more, as I'll be co-teaching a new course on medievalisms (about which more later).

The short answer is that the nomenclature and the idea behind it are legacies of Renaissance humanism. In the late antique (late 3rd-7th centuries) and medieval periods, people who were thinking and writing about history, the world, and their place within it didn't think they were in the middle of anything. They thought they were at the end. St. Jerome, who lived and died in the Roman Empire, viewed history in terms of empires (Babylonian, Greek, Roman). St. Augustine viewed human history as comprising six different ages, and he was writing in the last age. Writing during some hairy threats to the Roman Empire around 410, he viewed the end of the Empire as a sign of the coming End Times. Peter Abelard referred to himself and his intellectual cohort as moderni, meaning that they were modern and of the moment. (Medieval is the old modern?)

It was Petrarch (d. 1374), a student of the classical Greco-Roman past, who wrote that he was living in an "age of darkness." No marble statuary could compete with the ancients, no one's Latin was a good as Cicero's, etc. Some of his Italian humanist successors looked to this view as a way of further explicating their own time and a way of distinguishing between themselves and the benighted ignorami who came before them. The "medium aevum," or "middle age" was in use as early as 1469 to describe the seemingly bleak period between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the rediscovery of what humanists considered to be the pinnacle of western achievement: the intellectual and artistic culture of the classical period.

But that term wasn't codified, at least in English, until the 17th century. In part, that's because there wasn't enough weight behind the term. It hadn't been around for long enough. Another reason is that the chattering, writing, thinking classes were still reading (and printing and translating and re-printing) books that had first been written in the Middle Ages, up through the middle of the 17th century. (For further reading, check out Alexander Murray's "Should The Middle Ages Be Abolished?" [sub. req'd.]) By the end of the 17th century, the "Middle Ages" had become an established period, and "medieval" began to refer to a set of practices, ideas, and viewpoints that were seen as largely incompatible with current, "modern" ways of doing things. 

Still to come...musings on how we got from there to here:

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

TDKR About Actual Knight

Medieval Robots' London correspondent, JB, directed me to this excellent piece on TDKR by Gavin Mueller over at Jacobin. Mueller rightly dismisses the vague nods to Occupy and the 99% as smoke and mirrors and makes a far more interesting assertion about the underlying ideology in the film: it is a critique of capitalism in favor of neo-feudalism. 

You should read the whole essay; it's quite good. I have only a few things to add to his reading of Bruce/Batman as a feudal lord. Bruce's anti-capitalist (and anti-Dagget) stance and his role as Gotham's benefactor go hand-in-glove. In BB, Bruce's father tells him (and the audience) that the Wayne family is responsible for the water supply and public transportation system in Gotham. While I'm not a true fanboy, and am sure that others can recite chapter and verse about the ins and outs of Wayne Industries, it does seem that, until Bruce's parents' death, Wayne Industries and the Wayne family are pretty entwined. This supports the feudal reading that Mueller proposes: a wealthy family with a lot of influence steps in to provide basic services that the State cannot. Bruce continues this tradition as Batman, initially as a corrective to the famously corrupt GCPD and an alternative provision of public safety. But it's because Bruce is so wealthy and because of his position of authority in Gotham that his role of Batman is more like that of a feudal lord than a masked vigilante. A constant thread running through all of the Nolan films is that Batman is protecting his fiefdom city from internal and external threats. 

Mueller's take focuses more on the feudal trappings of the ancien regime, which is fitting, given the overt references to A Tale of Two Cities in TDKR. Yet core aspects of the plot within the trilogy actually reference medieval lordship. Feudalism is a problematic term within medieval history these days. Yet the idea of the more powerful (economically and militarily) lord or castellan stepping in to control (or protect) a geographic area or group of people in the absence of a more powerful central authority is, at the macro level, a good place to start when thinking about economic, military, social, and political structures in the eleventh century. This is exactly the role of the Wayne Family/Wayne Industries and, later, Batman. But, as Mueller also notes, there is a strong element of medievalism to Nolan's films, as well. Batman is, in the last two films, the Dark Knight. Batman and Bruce have specific notions of honor, and BB and TDKR feature Bruce on different quests--to conquer his fear, to find R'as Al Ghul, to become Batman, to rise up as Batman once again.

Medieval is the new modern, indeed. Believe it.

Olympic Robots

Just back after ten days in various secluded locations, none of which had any kind of wi-fi. Bliss. I did have access to the gross NBC broadcast of the Olympics, which I dutifully watched, while gnashing my teeth in rage at the inanity of the commentators. (The "bigger" the sport, the worse the commentators, I think.)

But the highlight of my Olympics so far has been the robotic red double decker bus that can do far more push-ups than I can.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Marvelous History

I just finished up a marathon (4-day) conference of medieval things. This was mainly a literary studies crowd, and I found it interesting to be one of the few scholars there not working primarily on literary texts. I talked about the way that medieval authors of historical tales used artificial marvels to comment on truth and authenticity in historiography and to stake their own claims to precedence and authority as historians. 

One of the wilder aspects of medieval historiography is that there is a ton of freaky, bizarre, amazing stuff going on. Severed heads that tell the future, magical amulets, flying horses, subterranean cities, rains of blood, and sorts of other strange things show up. These things seem fantastical to us, but to medieval audiences, these kinds of phenomena differed only in their frequency, not in their inherent plausibility, from other, more mundane events. But marvels were important sites within a narrative where an author could explain or describe it in such a way to allow for a meditation on meta-narrative concerns. 

But I haven't yet figured out *why* marvels, in particular, allow for this kind of intervention. Their inherent weirdness invites lingering over, and can also provide a moment for the author to reassure those who might find a particular marvel incredible. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Sims

Hey folks. Medieval Robots is back from summer hiatus. After finishing a draft of The Big Book of Medieval Robots, I needed some time off to replenish my word-hoard.

Serendipitously, CT over at Brand Avenue tipped me off to the exciting world of patient simulators. Rather than actors appearing in a Beckett play (my first thought), patient simulators are physiologically accurate human robots, like SimMan2(tm). These proxy patients squirt, spurt, secrete, excrete, expel, discharge, and produce a range of fluids and solids (including a baby and placenta), and display subtle symptoms (changes in pupil dilation, respiration, temperature, etc.) that correspond to a variety of medical situations. They're increasingly used in training physicians and nurses

One can only hope that they will appear in a horror film before too long. I can see it: a group of residents gets locked in the skills lab overnight, just as the hospital is evacuated for some compelling reason. The simulators attack the residents, subjecting them in turn to the same torture they have inflicted. The residents must use their skills to save one another, but realize that their time spent in the artificial environment of the lab has made them ill-equipped to treat actual people. Obviously, all except for two of the residents die, the sims are destroyed, and the surviving doctors swear to practice only on human patients.

But doctors have practiced on patients that they deemed less than fully human for some time. J. Marion Sims, widely regarded as the father of modern gynaecology, perfected a surgical repair for vesicovaginal fistula by operating repeatedly, and without anaesthesia, on a trio of slave women. Once he had perfected his technique, he used anaesthesia on his Caucasian patients.*

*Sims is a controversial figure. You can start reading about him here and here


Friday, June 15, 2012

Black Death PSA: Stay Away from Vermin

An Oregon man has been hospitalized in Bend with a disease that appears to be caused by Y. pestis, aka the Black Death. He got it after trying to rescue a mouse from the mouth of a stray cat. People, just stay away from the things cats put in their mouths. Also, beware of mice, rats, and other rodents, including squirrels (esp. in northern CA, which has seen a rash of squirrel deaths caused by the plague). They carry fleas that can transmit the disease.

I wonder if the man's doctor had to wear protective gear, like this:

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What Is Dead May Never Die

Vampires are BACK! Archaeologists in Bulgaria have discovered human remains with iron rods through their chests. These remains date from the Middle Ages, although apparently this custom has been practiced as recently as the last century. Apparently, 
"People believed the rod would pin the dead into their graves to prevent them from leaving at midnight and terrorising the living."

Regional customs for dealing with vampires vary. In Venice, those suspected of vampirism were buried with a brick between their teeth (this is confusing to me, as it suggests that vampirism could be detected before someone died). 

Screw werewolves, zombies, witches, and faeries. Vampires are eternal, and eternally awesome. 

More yes.


Musings on the Transit of Venus

The transit of Venus yesterday has me thinking about rare celestial phenomena and their meanings. It was incredibly cool to read about people viewing the transit and also to watch the NASA live webcam. I watched the transit from my sitting room in London, as the 100% cloud cover made it impossible to see. (The first transit to be recorded was by an Englishman, Jeremiah Horrocks, who saw it while he was actually in England. Talk about a lucky break, given the weather here.) That was my last chance, unless I live to see 2117 (doubtful). 

All of the news coverage I saw referred to the importance of this predictable astronomical event in terms of helping astronomers ascertain more precise information about the Sun. One of the astronomers on the NASA feed talked about how the transit could end up causing disturbances in Earth's electromagnetic field, perhaps leading to patchy cell phone coverage (AT&T, you finally have a legit excuse!). 

Medieval astronomers and scholars thought that celestial bodies emitted cosmic rays absorbed by Earth. These rays had measurable effects on earthly bodies, especially plants and minerals. Certain plants harvested while certain planets or stars were ascendant would have particular potency. Minerals, especially gemstones, would be imbued with particular powers by cosmic rays. William of Auvergne, a scholastic philosopher of the early thirteenth century explained the link between gemstones and celestial bodies:
…they [planets] might be collections of lights in parts of heaven itself, just as it appears among us in certain gems. For in fact I recollect when I saw an emerald, which in brilliance it appeared three shining stars. And this is true of the stone that is called heliotrope, because it is itself a green stone, growing brilliant red by means of a star… (De universo, 1.1.42).

And rare celestial phenomena were believed to portend important events on earth. Halley's Comet appeared over England in 1066, portending Harold's defeat at the hands of William the Bastard. Though now that I've experienced how difficult it is to see any celestial bodies over England, given the cloud cover, I'm beginning to wonder if the whole thing hasn't been completely made up.
Halley's Comet, in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Let's Go to The Automat(a)

H. Maillardet, 1810. The Franklin Institute.

A piece in the Paris Review serendipitously echoed a conversation with a neighbor about the Morris Museum, in Morristown, NJ. First, a confession. Until my neighbor told me about it, I had *no idea* that this museum existed, or that it holds one of the largest collections of mechanical automata in the US. It's not too far from the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, which has a great permanent exhibit of several automata, including an early nineteenth century writing automaton by Maillardet.

I was particularly tickled by the mention of automata that simulate breathing. Adelheid (Heidi) Voskuhl has written about Enlightenment automata that appear to breathe, especially musical automata, in her upcoming book, Mechanics of Sentiment, due out later this year. Medieval automata could also appear to breathe, but in a different way. For example, in Thomas of Britain's version of Tristan and Isolde (mentioned in the previous post), the moving golden statue of Isolde has sweet-smelling herbs in its chest. The odor of the herbs travels through small golden tubes to the nose, so that when Tristan kisses it, the statue exhales scented air. This fake physiology mimics contemporary ideas about physiology, which held that the heart manufactured the spiritus (breath) necessary for life. A similar theory, in Hermetic texts, insisted on the importance of pneuma (breath) as the manifestation of the divine spirit within the individual. Well, as I live and breathe...

Monday, May 14, 2012

Relations with Medieval Robots

Last week, Slate published an article about the technological developments that make it more likely that humans will interact with robots with more intimacy (emotional and sexual). Some of this ground has already been covered in "Lars and the Real Girl," even though Bianca, the "girl," was a sex doll, not a robot. But, as Daniel Wilson points out, David Levy wrote presciently about this in Love and Sex with Robots (2007). Certainly, it seems like this is a zeitgeist-y topic: the summer "offbeat buddy comedy" "Robot and Frank" addresses the relationship between an aging man and his robot caretaker. 

I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently, as I'm currently working on a book chapter that deals with this very issue. While the Pygmalion myth was pretty well known in medieval Europe, I find myself more fascinated by rarer stories of men who fall in love with artificial humans--often copies of recognizable individuals. In one version of the Tristan story, Tristan commands a giant in his debt to make golden statues of Isolde, her serving maid, her dog, and the dwarf who betrayed her to King Mark. Tristan can no longer see Isolde, but is still under the influence of the love-potion. So he uses these golden, moving statues to re-enact his affair with Isolde, and speaks to the statue as if it is his real lover. 

The increased interest in intimate relationships between robots and people makes me wonder if the next step (presaged by the 12th century Tristan story) is robotic copies of actual people, who can replace their human analogues. Medieval is the new modern, people!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Automata Restoration: Hibernian Edition

H/t to two friends of Medieval Robots, PM and JR, for the heads-up about this recent BBC story about Michael and Maria Start. Michael Start was the resident expert for the automata-related aspects of the film Hugo, and is a trained horologist, while his wife, Maria Start, is a sculptor. The Starts operate The House of Automata, which specializes in restoring automata (mainly late 18th-20th century, from what I can glean from the website). The House also houses a small museum of automata, which you can visit the next time you're in Kinloss, Scotland.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Brief Note on Robo-Grading

I wasn't inclined to take the recent articles in the NYT and Inside Higher Ed about a study that "proves" that computers can grade essays as well as people seriously. But then I read Historiann's post about getting a direct solicitation from Pearson offering her an honorarium if she included two short assignments in her course that would be "graded" by Pearson software. 

Read her response, and the comments. I don't have much to add, except to say that this seems to me to be of a piece with a recent trend I've noticed that sees many skills as fungible. While plenty of thoughtful academics have written about the oft-absurd system of doctoral education in this country that uses ABD students as low-paid labor, and requires these same students (especially in the humanities) to go through a rigorous and often poorly guided process to produce a work of scholarship over the course of a decade to receive a professional qualification, the fact remains that this is a professional qualification. Being a college professor (or a high school teacher or a primary school teacher) requires significant professional training. Learning how to be an effective teacher, how to set learning goals for students, how to communicate expectations for an assignment, and how to assess student work takes a lot of experience and thought (as I'm constantly realizing). I don't pretend that my PhD in History or my experience teaching college students makes me an expert on post-adolescent mental health (for example); likewise, I won't entertain the notion that a computer can accurately (or even thoughtfully) assess my students' work.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

RoboCop? More Like ED-209

Obviously, it was only a matter of time before this happened: Robotics scientists in South Korea have designed a prototype of a prison guard robot and have now begun testing it. The RoboGuard is equipped with multiple cameras as well as "software designed to gauge a prisoner's emotional state" in order to prevent suicide and fights.

Perhaps what they need is something like the Salvatio Romae, the elaborate alarm system attributed to Vergil by Alexander Neckam in De naturis rerum (On the natures of things), ca. 1190s. According to Neckam, Vergil had made a building, inside which stood a number of statues, one for each province of the Roman Empire. Another statue stood on top of the building. If any of the provinces threatened revolt or came under outside attack, the corresponding statue would ring a bell, and the statue on the roof would swivel around and point in the direction of the threat.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lost Robot Weekend

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about talking heads recently, and haven't had as much time for blogging. But I was delighted to have a serendipitous encounter with two robots this weekend.
1) The Waffle-Bot. He makes waffles drenched in syrup, follows you around, and then forms an emotional attachment that leads to a life-saving intervention. Thanks, Waffle-Bot!

2) "The Punishment of X-4," Ben Hargrove's  Ken Cosgrove's short story about a frustrated robot that exercises the only choice available to it. I always knew I liked that Ken Cosgrove. The shout-out to fantasy and sci-fi literature makes perfect sense in this episode, too. The first episode of "Star Trek" is only a few months away (September 1966), and sci-fi and fantasy fiction were hugely popular in this period. But it looks like the Campbells and the Drapers just don't get it.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Passover/Easter Recipe Guide: Taketh One Unicorne...

For those of you wondering what to prepare for a traditional Seder or Easter meal, you might look to the newly discovered cookbook manuscript at the British Library. The fourteenth-century compilation has recipes for fish stew, blackbird pie, hedgehog, and unicorn.
London, British Library, MS Add. 142012, fol. 137v.
 In the bestiary tradition, the unicorn was a symbol of the Incarnation, and the death of the unicorn was understood as an allegory for the Passion. So really, this is the perfect time of year to serve one at your own domestic banquet.

Given the traditional relationship between unicorns and young maidens, it's no surprise that the woman in this miniature looks so bummed to be serving unicorn head for dinner.

H/t to AW, Medieval Robots' DC liaison, for this April Fool delight.

Friday, March 30, 2012

If "Game of Thrones" Is For Nerds, Who Is The NYT For?

Just days before season 2 of "Game of Thrones" is set to premiere, Neil Genzlinger wonders if the show can extend its appeal "beyond Dungeons & Dragons types..." But why? It's already hugely popular, just like the books. Genzlinger suggests that what the series really needs is some kind of outside threat to bring the show "back on track." But one of the best things about the series is that it takes the time to explore at length the shifting allegiances, competing plots, and various contingencies that affect all of Westeros, the frozen North, and beyond the Jade Sea. Genzlinger's point, that "Game of Thrones" is only for nerds and the D&D/fantasy/LARP-ing crowd, seems not only feeble, but misguided. Tens of millions of people read fantasy novels, play fantasy videogames, dress up at the weekend and forge chainmail or eat turkey drumsticks. Interest in medieval fantasy is pretty mainstream. Maybe it's just writers for the NYT who aren't into it. Besides, the show is good enough so that people who might not ordinarily watch will tune in (even if only to be part of the conversation). Hey, I don't love Westerns, but I could not get enough of "Deadwood," and I know plenty of people who hate small-town dramas who loved "Friday Night Lights."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Recapturing History, They Capture the Castle

A keen-eyed former student drew my attention to this bit of awesome: A German building contractor will soon begin building a Carolingian monastery town near Messkirch. Wait, there's more: The whole monastery is based on the plans drawn up in the ninth century by Abbot Haito of Reichenau. Yes, the plan of St. Gall. And, of course, the whole thing will be built entirely by hand, using only materials that were available in the ninth century. So that means no plastic tarps, and all nails will be forged on site. Please, please tell me that this will become a reality tv show. I would totally pay for premium cable to see this.
Crusader Bible, Morgan Library M.638, fol. 3r.  

The article took me down the rabbit hole of other sites like this one. For example, the Château de Guedelon, in Burgundy, and the Ozark Medieval Fortress (started by the same man, Michel Guyot, who started the Burgundian project). I think these kinds of projects are pretty neat, as they give a sense of the complexity and duration of the effort involved in building a cathedral or a monastery town. And the experiential nature of the work has already yielded some important insights about medieval building practices. And if you want to learn any more about experiential history, I suggest you re-watch Timeline (2003): Gerard Butler, Billy Connolly, Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, Frances O'Connor, Marton Csokas, and Lambert Wilson (who was fucking amazing in Of Gods and Men). It's almost like Michael Sheen, David Thewlis, and Marton Csokas were warming up for Kingdom of Heaven (2005).


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Is There A Difference between Animals and Robots?

I am a bit behind on my New Yorker issues, but I finally made it through Burkhard Bilger's article [sub. req'd.] about canine police (Feb. 27). Since 9/11, the US military and law enforcement organizations around the country have started relying more heavily on dogs to detect narcotics, explosives, and weapons, as well as to bring suspects (often armed and dangerous) into custody. Most of the dogs are German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, or Labrador Retrievers, as those breeds are highly obedient, fiercely loyal, athletic, and potentially lethal. 

What I found particularly compelling is the way in which these animals are characterized as machines. Bilger first calls them "the weapons" at the outset of the article. Later on, he describes how canine police talk about their dogs' "maintenance" and "superior functionality." At the Canine Detection Research Institute at Auburn University, scientists started out trying to build a robotic dog in the eighties, but discovered that "you can't mimic a dog. It's just a superior mechanical working system." This way of thinking about animal behavior has its roots in Skinner's behavioral psychology, which has made it possible to train (or program) animals to complete previously unthinkable tasks (like the lion who will walk up to its trainer and offer its paw for a shot). By relying on reward-based reinforcement, it's possible to train animals--especially dogs--to have an unvarying set of responses to stimuli.

This characterization recalls St. Thomas Aquinas, who compared machines to animals over seven centuries ago in the Summa Contra Gentiles. A moving statue of an archer (that could shoot an arrow if the mechanism was tripped) is, according to Aquinas, the same as an animal running toward a target: In both cases, the action is accomplished without any kind of free will or choice. He used this example to explain how automata that looked human weren't in fact human. Although he couldn't explain these objects in mechanical terms, he could compare them to a common non-human referent: animals.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Furta Sacra, Again!

Pro nefas, pro nefas! Someone stole the heart of St. Laurence O'Toole, patron saint of Dublin. The twelfth-century relic was in Dublin Cathedral, surrounded by treasure--which the thief ignored. This is only the latest in a rash of furtae sacrae:
"An ornate container that usually contained a relic of St Brigid was stolen from St Brigid's Church, Killester, north of Dublin, where it was screwed onto the altar.
And in October last year a relic believed to be from the cross on which Jesus was crucified, was stolen from Holycross Abbey, near Thurles."
I wonder if the thief is a private collector, or someone acting for another institution or diocese, hoping to lure pilgrims and boost tourism. I wonder if it even was really the heart of St. Laurence O'Toole.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Robot Round-Up

Is it me, or do robots seem to be more present in the news these days?

NASA's Robonaut politely shook hands with astronaut Dan Burbank, an event that was a test of its range-of-motion function. (I guess a handshake is a useful motion when repairing spacecraft?) It took a while for Robonaut to develop its fine motor-control skills enough to execute a "very firm" handshake, but even more exciting is that Robonaut is apparently making friends with other bot-buddies over the internet, via Twitter.  

While a gently-reared space robot is pretty cool, a handshake pales in comparison to the golf world, which is starting to develop robots to mow fairways and greens, as well as a robo-suit to help golfers perfect their swing. Pretty soon, it will be possible to be driven by your robo-car to the golf course, where you can don your robo-suit to golf on courses mowed by robots. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Illuminating Power

Radio silence is over... 

Are you going to be in London in the next month? If so, you should take yourself over to the British Library to check out Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination. Open until March 13, 2012, the BL is showing the best examples of the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts made for the kings and queens of England.
This excellent bestiary, Royal 12 C XIX, is part of the exhibit. One favorite of mine is this copy of the Secretum Secretorum made for Edward III. Here's Aristotle explaining the effects of celestial bodies on plants:

There's also a multi-part BBC Four documentary about the manuscripts in the exhibit, including this one.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Romney-Bot Meme

Mitt Romney is rich, well-groomed, politically experienced, happily married, and, it would seem, probably a robot. The accusation that the preppy family man is actually a soulless automaton has been around for several years, but now that he's that much closer to becoming the GOP nominee for president, it has become more commonplace and more mainstream. 

A recent piece in the NYT posited that Romney's one-dimensional, undeviating focus on the economy is his entire campaign strategy. Like a Roomba in a small apartment, this makes him great at doing one thing, but can also lead to embarrassing or infuriating glitches when he gets caught by the tight corners and rucked-up carpets of political campaigning. From what little I've seen of Romney's campaign appearances, he does display an awkwardness and emotional vacancy--the strange, repeated phrases; the completely false laugh ("ha-ha, ha-ha"); the detachment behind the eyes. He definitely seems a little weird. 

Obviously, his staffers and family recognize this, which is probably why his wife, Ann Romney, tried to "humanize" him by calling him her "most disobedient child." (That is disturbing for a different set of reasons, none of them having to do with his lack of humanity.)

But it's worth considering exactly why this comparison to a robot is so negative. A new book on the history of automata, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines, deals with this from the other direction. Machines that are so lifelike that they can fool us into thinking they are people are psychologically disturbing, evoking horror and sometimes provoking insanity (in fiction, at any rate), because they completely up-end our established and cherished worldview that there are things that are human and alive, and things that are mechanical and outside of the entire category of life/death. 

Comparing humans to machines isn't always an insult. Calling someone a machine can emphasize their drive, discipline, and efficiency. But comparing someone to a robot or an automaton is almost always negative, as it points to a single-mindedness that leaves no room for improvisation, a capacity for rote performance, lack of creativity or spontaneity, and an absence of emotion. People like that lack the messiness and unpredictability that we associate with humanity; paradoxically, that kind of total, unvarying stability makes people feel uncertain of what they're facing. 

In a presidential candidate that undeviating focus on *being* a presidential candidate, on winning the election, seems too nakedly ambitious, too desperate. And there's less chance for the kind of embarrassing gaffe or revelation that the electorate finds so thrilling and entertaining. And that's what it's all about, amirite?