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.