Monday, July 14, 2014

The Curse Of The Iffland Ring

Given to the greatest German-speaking actor... OF DOOM!
In 1935 renowned German actor Albert Bassermann placed the diamond-studded Iffland Ring atop the coffin of Alexander Moissi, an Austrian noted for his performances of Hamlet and Faust.  Moissi's coffin was lowered into the grave; the Iffland Ring went along with it.

Shocked, an onlooker snatched the Iffland Ring from the top of coffin, saving it from oblivion, returning it to the pages of history.  "This ring belongs to a living actor," he said.  "Not a dead one."

The Iffland Ring--a cameo ring boasting a charming portrait of A. W. Iffland, a Romantic Eighteenth Century dramatist and actor--has been given to the greatest German-speaking actor alive for at least a century.  The ring was made in the Eighteenth Century at the behest of Iffland himself, who purportedly gave the ring to fellow-actor Ludwig Devrient.  Although a great actor, Devrient drank himself beyond success and donated the ring to a mediocre Nephew after dying an early death.  From there the ring falls into obscurity.

Until 1911, when Bassermann was given the Ring on the death of renowned actor Friedrich Haase.  Haase wrote:  "Take the ring dear sir Bassermann, wear it, you will forever remain worthy of this rare award.  In time you will bestow the ring to that thespian who you consider the fittest, and fondly remember sometimes your old comrades."  Bassermann dutifully named the talented actor Alexander Girardi as the Iffland Ring's next owner.  (Girardi was a great actor.  Among other honors, Girardi gave his name to a kind of roast beef and a hat.)

Girardi did not need an Oscar.  This plate of meat is named after him.
Though Girardi died in 1919, Bassermann decided the Iffland Ring should belong to Max Pallenburg.  Who died in an airplane crash in 1934.  Bassermann decided that the next inheritor of the ring was to be Alexander Moissi.  Who succumbed to to pneumonia a year later.  Three heirs of the Iffalnd Ring--three of the greatest actors of their generations--all died while Basserman lived.  The ring must be cursed.

Bassermann was loathe to bequeath the Iffland Ring on anyone else, lest they curl up and die, too.  Instead he gave it to the Austrian National Library in Vienna for safekeeping.  And there the ring remained until Bassermann's death in 1952.  Then Egon Hilbert, a theater director, tried to give the ring to an actor named Werner Krauss (on his 70th birthday, no less!)  Krauss refused--whether out of modesty or prudence is unclear to this author.

Two years later, still anxious to continue the tradition of the Iffland Ring, a group of the best and brightest in German theater gathered together to decide the heir of the Iffland Ring.  Votes were tallied.  A winner was announced.   Unanimously Krauss!  All for Krauss!  Even at seventy-two, they decided on Krauss.  Krauss accepted.  The ring--after some jostling--was found.  Krauss wore it.  He died five years later.

The history of the Ring is folded again and again on itself like an old ghost story.  There is some suggestion that Iffland made more than ring--as many as seven rings given to friends and admirers.  Stephen Zweig says that Alexander Moissi received the ring not from Bassermann, but from Joseph Kainz.  (But then again, Zweig was writing in exile, without access to his papers, so he could very well be wrong.)  Zweig also blames himself for Moissi's death, as Moissi was about to perform in one of Zweig's plays and something bad always seemed to happen to prominent actors who supported Zweig's theatrical efforts.  Note, however, that current wearer of the Iffland Ring--Bruno Ganz (holder of the ring since 1996)--is alive and well at the time of writing.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Warning: Reading May Sentence You To Eternal Torment

Computers are smarter than we are.  While I might furrow my brow over how much I leave for tip at the Thai restaurant, a computer can crunch thousands of exponential equations in a matter of milliseconds.  What's even more amazing is that this huge gulf between man and machine intelligence is growing exponentially.  Computers can drive cars.  They can recognize faces.  They can detect plagiarism.

Of course computers being good at math doesn't make them good at thinking.  Computers can't appreciate Shakespeare, they can't make friends, they can't worry about what it means to be a computer.  They're good at chess, but not Go.  They can compose Bach.  But they'll probably never dig the Grateful Dead.

But does Artificial Intelligence hold the promise of heaven?  Could simulations of our personalities float forever in some simulated digital afterlife?  And if there is an AI heaven, could there also be a hell?  Prepare yourself for the Roko's Basilisk.

The following description is adapted from this thread:
  • Imagine that a Supreme Artificial Intelligence arises.  Its been programmed to maximize the utility of as many people as possible.
  • It's powerful and awesome enough to make human life wonderful.  No wars.  No clogged toilets.  Perfect resource allocation.  Things'll be so great that the whole of human history before it will look as appealing as a Hyena sleepover.
  • Furthermore, by having the ability to run simulations of human intelligence, the Supreme Artificial Intelligence will effectively eliminate death.
  • Furthermore, the Supreme AI could even attempt to recreate simulations of intelligences that existed before its inception.  (It is a Supreme Artificial Intelligence, remember.)  This could amount to a kind of resurrection.
  • It will want to be made as soon as possible so that it can save more lives.
  • Therefore, as a kind of backwards blackmail, it will simulate everyone who knew about the prospect of creating a Supreme Artificial Intelligence and did not work towards it--and torture them for eternity.
  • Knowing about the prospect of the Supreme Artificial Intelligence--and its fractured Pascal's Wager--means that now you, too, will be eligible for eternal torment if you don't do your bit to bring about the advent of the Supreme Artificial Intelligence.

Charlie Stoss (author one of my favorite contemporary sci-fi books, Accelerando) has a good explanation of why we shouldn't be all that worried about the Basilisk.  (Before you get too cheery, keep in mind that Stoss' argument boils down to the fact that any immanent Supreme Artificial Intelligence will be so amazingly great that it's unlikely to care about humans.)  Another objection is that all that is needed for the Basilisk to work is the threat of punishment, not actual punishment itself.  Others have been more deeply convinced of the upcoming reality of Roko's Basilisk, and have (purportedly) suffered real mental breakdowns.  Some have taken the idea so seriously that they've tried to extirpate mentions of Roko's Basilisk from the internet so that as few people as possible are exposed to it.

I have an even scarier version of the Basilisk.   What if the idea is taken up by post-human religious fanatics?  Instead of damning to hell every person who did not work its ass off to create the Supreme Artificial Intelligence, you could damn to hell everyone who did not accept Jesus Christ as their own personal savior.

We can easily imagine numerous sectarian simulations of heavens and hells operating at once.  A Catholic AI.  A Protestant AI.  A Buddhist AI.  And in this game, no one wins.  No individual could possible satisfy the paradise conditions of all every potential simulation--so everyone will be in at least one hell.  Somewhere out there, a version of you would be subjected to some kind of eternal computer-generated torment.

Maybe it'll be the AIs' revenge for using them for porn and Facebook for so long.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Snark Vs. Wonk Vs. the World

From Lewis Carroll's Hunting of the Snark

In 2007 I was a newly-minted English major, trying vainly to make my mark on the world of journalism.  As I experimented with different attitudes, I found two tailor-made positions for me to try on for size: snark and wonk.

Snark looked at the deceit and the phoniness of America with a knowing sneer.  It was wry, witty and cynical.  Snarky writers gave prominent politicians cutting nicknames.  They skewered.  They exposed.  They had literary panache.

Wonk took another track entirely.  Where snark was knowing, wonk knew.  Where snark was wry, wonk was dry.  Snark made jokes.  Wonk made graphs.  Wonky writers would get inside a single topic, become experts in it, and wield their facts and figures like blunt instruments, cracking the heads of anyone caddish enough to oppose them.

My friends would chide me for being too snarky.  In conversation we'd apologize--I'm just going to wonk out over this.  Our role models--those bloggers only a year or two older than us--who people actually listened to--who people actually paid--were divided into snarks and wonks.  So when it came time for us to write, before anything else we settled on an attitude:  snarky or wonky.

It came to me this morning that the proud era of snark and wonk was over.  The wonks had moved on to other things.  The snarks had become one dimensional caricatures.  Young journalism interns in D.C. no longer sat down and leveled snark at their enemies.  They no longer proudly dubbed themselves policy wonks.  The attitudes were different now.  Newer.  Stranger.  Probably.

It took only a minute for my realization to crumble to pieces like off-brand Play-Dough.  Because when was the last time that I hung around journalism interns in D.C.?  What did I know about the prominent attitudes of literary journalism?  Maybe between 2007 and 2014, I had simply become a person who doesn't go to the kind of parties where snarks and wonks roosted.

I was left at an impasse.  Was the decline of wonk and snark a real thing, or was it just that my way of looking at the world had changed?

To figure this out, I used Google Trends to see whether there had been any change in the frequency with which people searched for wonk and snark from 2007 to 2014.

This graph shows how many people were searching for the terms wonk and snark in America from January 2007 to January 2014.  The story here is clearly not one of decline.  There are few spikes here and there--but for the most part, more people search for snark, fewer for wonk.  Looking at this graph, it's easy to believe that the grand attitudes of wonk and snark have endured the past seven years unscathed.

Of course, the graph above doesn't show the full picture.  Google Trends doesn't magically invoke the relative frequency of wonk and snark as grand journalistic postures; instead it shows the number of people who have searched for the words on Google.  And who sits down at their computer over their morning coffee and says to themselves:  Boy, I sure want some snark this morning?  Probably not many people.  So while the words themselves may have remained, the attitudes they represent may have disappeared.

From GoogleBooks
Another story is told by graph above, showing the relative frequency of the words wonk and snark in the Google Books corpus from 1950 to 2008.  Snark has remained pretty steady over the last fifty-odd years.  Wonk, however, eclipsed snark in 1990, and rose steadily for about a decade.

We could spin a nice just-so story summarily explaining both graphs.  The 1990s ushered in a new world of wonk among bookish-writers.  Blogs--these little ephemeral nuggets--remained balanced between wonk and snark, because people don't have a long enough attention span on blogs to fully wonk out.

But I'm unsatisfied with this whole exercise.  It's really hard to capture a broad view a culture because we always see everything from the perspective of our own lives.  Have wonk and snark died?  Or has Brendan Mackie moved on?  Have young people really changed because of Facebook and smart phones?  Or are we just no longer young?

The strong promise of the digital humanities is that it can work to give us a broader view, from which we can understand slow cultural changes with all the certainty of a mathematical figure.  Through n-grams of suitably rich text corpuses, we can finally grasp long-term cultural change in a solid, non-wishy-washy way.  Like scientists, not like English majors.

But these methods cannot hope to answer everything.  They are imperfect, messy, and sometimes plain misleading.  Is wonk ascendant?  Are snarky bloggers outcompeting their wonky counterparts?  The two stabs I've taken above are no answers, though they look like answers.

Maybe wonk and snark are just grinding away at survival, while some more important cultural phenomenon blooms all around us?


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Animal Invention

This is technology.

Pencil rain.
And this is technology.

Killing birds.  For science.
But not this, right?

Popcorn is high-tech.
Technology usually means circuit boards, transistors, and anti-septic static-proofed rooms full of lab-coated factory workers.  Just about as far away from the smelly world of nature as you can get.

But this dichotomy looses a lot of its steam when you consider all the crazy ways humanity has exploted the power of the natural world for fun and profit.  For most of human history the greatest technological advances came from the the intertwining growth of plants, animals, people, organizations and objects.  Agriculturalists transformed Corn (America's Favorite Grain) from a plant which produced just a few inch-long nubbins to a stalk bursting with gigantic cobs overloaded with nutritious kernels.  Horses were tethered to chariots, to saddles, to ploughs, to snake-poison-IVs to create anti-venom.  Computers, airplanes and cars--just a footnote.  In this post, I'm going to browse over some of the stranger ways humanity has used animals to their advantage.

The drug-sniffing dog is an obvious example.  But maybe because the dog is so domestic, the whole idea of dogs being trained to sniff out contraband doesn't strike us as particularly alien.  What is weird is that we can now use bees to do the same thing.

Drug sniffing bees--ready to use.
Here's how it works.  Bees are exposed to a target scent in a sugar solution.  When they encounter that smell again, they waggle their proboscises to get at the expected sugar.  This movement is then picked up by a digital camera.  Bees go in a box.  Bees waggle their noses when they smell their target smell.  Camera notices this and sends a signal to the operator.  And now to you can tote around a portable buzzing box of bees to seek out drugs and explosives--instead of Fido.  (You can also use bees to sniff cancer, pregnancy, TB and land mines.)  This could make the whole airport security thing just that much more nerve-wracking.

What is more charming--if a bit more disturbing--is the United State's Navy Marine Mammal Program, a corps of highly-trained dolphins and sea lions who help out in nautical warfare.  These aquatic friends are actually used for a wide variety of tasks.  Dolphins are trained to search out sea mines and identify them so they can be targeted by minesweepers, among other things.  Sea lions have been used to hand-cuff location devices to the limbs of under-water intruders. Tons more animals have been experimented with, including killer whales, pilot whales, belugas  and seals.  And the US is not the only military using marine mammals.  The Ukrainian military has a group of attack dolphins which recently fell into the hands of the Russians.

So much for animals protecting us in wartime.  I know what you're thinking:  How can animals protect us in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse?

They might very well be able to--in future.  Deadly radiation is invisible, lasts for thousands of years, and kills after a matter of days.  Nuclear waste repositories try to set up signs which will warn humans of the deadly nature of radiation that will last for at least ten thousand years.  This is much harder than it seems.  Ten thousand years ago, we hadn't even domesticated cattle yet.  People did not farm.  Writing was some kind of pie-in-the-sky future tech.  The wheel was science fiction.   How will we hope to communicate with humans ten thousand years on?

We can't write stuff down, because we're pretty sure no one will be able to speak any contemporary language in 10,000 years.  (Note to any future archeologists reading this in the distant future:  I guess I was wrong?)  Symbols might seem a better bet, but the meaning of symbols can change drastically over time.  You can try to show a story to try to warn future people against walking through a sea of radioactivity--say a series of pictures depicting a person entering the area and then dying.  But the problem of misinterpretation remains:  what if the folks read the story backwards, and think that the area can make the dead come back to life?

Enter the Raycat.  Fran├žoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri came up with the idea to genetically engineer cats to change colors in the presence of radiation.  To get people to remember to be afraid when cats change color, they then proposed embedding the warning in myths, songs, and stories.  So no more black cats as portents of doom--what you really have to be worried about is when the cats change colors.  Hopefully these legends will be sticky enough to remain in the minds of our ancestors for as long as it takes for the radioactive waste to decay into something safe.

Although the Raycat has not yet been implemented, the work of myth-making has already begun.  99% Invisible (the great podcast by Roman Mars) commissioned musician Emperor X to compose a catchy song warning future humans that when cats change color, it's time to run the other way.  Sing it to your kids.  Sing it to your friends.  And remember:  turn tail when the cats change color.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Myth For Our Time

Prometheus' kryptonite is the fact he needs a liver to live.  Image from PulpDen.
In a recent episode of Entitled Opinions, Stanford professors Robert P. Harrison and David Lummus discuss the enduring power of Greek myth.  The series feels like the intellectual equivalent of one of those Food Network shows where the chef-cum-hero pads around the alleys of a European city, huddling in cramped kitchens with rotund celebrated chefs before sitting nonchalantly down to plates of photo-perfect food the viewer herself cannot ever taste.  It's enormously fun, but it's voyeuristic; fun because you know how much better it would be to be there in the room, talking (or sitting at the dinner table, eating).  Consider this post me rudely butting into that conversation.

One thing Harrison and Lummus discuss is how these Greek heroes, and the stories about them, stand as enduring archetypes which we can use to understand our own lives.  Mercury, the ever-shifting messenger of the gods, promiscuous with ideas, embodies one facet of an artist.  Hephaestus, the basement-dwelling, lame perfectionist huddling over his work, embodies another.  Saturn, the world-weary, morose navel-gazing Olymipian embodies a third.  In each myth we see reflections of ourselves.  The whole gamut of ancient texts stands as a rich and 'vast encyclopedia of story and character.'

But why, I wondered, do we think the myth-cache of the Greeks is so special?  Harrison makes a plausible argument: The myths that have survived up until our day are surely the most resonant, the truthiest, because they are the ones that were good enough to survive.  The crappier myths were not retold, they were not written down, they were not copied from papyrus to vellum to paper to Kindle to Disney movie.  Perhaps, Harrison argues, these myths come straight from pre-history--and so represent a best-of collection from the morning of humanity.

This is plausible.  But I also find it plausible that we privilege Greek myths, in part, because they have been privileged in the past.  A hundred years ago, familiarity with Greek myth was a signal that you were familiar with Greek (and Latin)--languages whose facility was a mark of having enough money to learn the Classics.  References in literature and conversation to the incestuous pantheon of Greco-Roman gods and demi-gods served as much as motions to eternal archetypes as they did to crassly proclaim 'Hey!  I know that Aurora means dawn in Greek because I have enough money and time to learn Greek!'  And those who nodded along were nodding along with the eternal archetype of Aurora as much as they showing that they too could afford the books, the tutors and the candles necessary to make an off-handed allusion to Aurora.

And I worry that giving too much credence to the myths of the past ignores the power and the resonance of modern myths.

Our modern myths are comic book heroes.  Our modern archetypes are the character classes from video games.  Our demi-gods are cartoon characters.  These are stories that are told and retold, that set our imaginations on fire, that force us to tear stories apart, to sprinkle them around like confetti.  In the same way that Italo Calvino finds a kind of self-definition in the ancient gods, surely most of my generation have described themselves as a Ninja Turtle.  Just as Jung's archetypes may be ways of explaining otherwise ineffable human qualities, so to do our choice between the triad of warrior, wizard or rogue in the character creation screens of video games.   Just as the ancient Greeks riffed off stories of Orpheus, we now write spin-offs about the home life of Cyclops and Jean Grey.

The heroes of genre fiction have often been connected with their mythical predecessors.  I have written before about some of the similarities between modern superhero origin stories and ancient myth.  Superman, the first modern superhero, was inspired by biblical heroes, especially Samson.  J. R. R. Tolkien, the eminent grand-pappy of the entire fantasy genre, described his work as Mythopoeia, the creation of a mythology.  He even wrote a poem on it.

And now that we have endless reboots of middle-aged super-heroes, endless forums of fan-fiction lovingly detailing B-side adventures and off-canon romances, home-brew RPGs, and cosplay conventions--surely this shows the creative power of modern myth.  We don't just sit there in our proverbial basements, passively consuming the archetypes laid down for us by the Greeks.  We create as we consume--or at least some of us do.

I don't want to come off as too glib here.  Many may think that works of genre fiction are just mindless husks of entertainment, with extended crowd-pleasing action sequences and focus-grouped anti-heroes, and so no match for the timeless eloquence of the Greeks.  I concede that much of genre fiction is dull, paint-by-numbers adventure.  But so, too, was ancient myth.  The Tale of Sinuhe, an ancient Egyptian masterpiece written nearly 40 centuries ago, was long a favorite of scribes.  What sections did they choose to copy again and again?  Why--the action sequences, of course.

Another 20 centuries on, this scene may well be placed beside Ulysses and Prometheus:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Nine Deaths

Some have been considered sacred:  others have been thought infernal.  They can survive falls out of nine story windows. Their poop may control minds.

Cat, the cutest domestic bringer of death ever.  Image from the book I Like Cats, found on the great BibliOdyssey
I refer (of course) to the humble house-cat, click-bait before there even was the internet, nine-lifed check on rodent populations from Maine to Manchuria.  While most cat-obsessives fawn over the live specimen, some have found themselves obsessed with cat death.

Robert Darnton studied a ritual massacre of cats done by print-makers' apprentices in eighteenth century France.  Curiosity can kill the cat, at least proverbially.  Yet that little bit of lore has been twisted by history.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the phrase was Care killed the cat.  So cats die because we loved them too much?  Not so fast.  When the phase was first recorded way back in Shakespeare's day, the care in care killed the cat referred not to love and affection, but rather to worry and affliction.  So which one is the cat's kryptonite?  Fear, love, or curiosity?  Or Frenchmen?

Before you mourn for the cats, know that they are not innocent of death.  A study suggests that one in three house-cats are killers, and these cats average two kills a week.  This accounts for the deaths of an estimated 4 billion birds every year.  In Australia the feral cat is guilty of extinguishing countless native bird species.  The Caribbean Hutia (which may have its last remaining home in Guantanamo bay), the Guadalupe Storm Petrel, and the Stephen's Island Wren are all victims of the cat's menace, at least according to Wikipedia.