Unsettling info graphics of the day

Patent diagrams by Donald Spector from 1988 and 1999 respectively:

The top one is for an inflatable doll that expands when taken out of its test tube. The bottom one is for something called the Mommy Box that provided a ‘soothing’ video link to mother for distressed babies. These diagrams make a lot more sense in context, of course, but with all the mimicry going on (baby <> doll, real mom <> video mom), it’s not surprising that the initial effect is highly disconcerting.

(Via Thingamababy).

More bogus/silly info graphics here. More on unintended consequences of creepy robot doubling here.

PK and ERNIE (Psychokinesis and Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment)


Ever find yourself in a conversation with, say, 10 or so people where somebody brings up astrology? This happened during my recent trip to Poland and I noted how the group reaction is always pretty much the same (so long as you’re among a reasonably average cross-section of people and not, say, hanging out at a Renaissance fair): there are always 1 or 2 kindred spirits who brighten up and immediately join in the astrologizing, and then 2 or 3 people who seem palpably disgusted and even seem to feel sort of personally implicated by the topic, like Oh no: I was enjoying this discussion and now they’re talking about THIS… does that make me an idiot too? The rest become completely neutral and blank and wait for the conversation to fade into another topic (which it must be said takes a long time when astrology is involved, something I guess you have to hold against it slightly).

I count myself in the blank group: on the one hand, I find the personality archetypes astrology describes – be they true or fictional – to be really interesting and persuasive as character descriptions, and have observed enough anecdotal evidence (mainly, an astrology-obsessed friend who can guess random celebrities’ birth months with eerie precision) to believe that there’s something going on. On the other hand, it’s all pretty tiresome, self-absorbed and annoyingly deterministic, such that I get depressed if I try to imagine someone who actually treats it as a predicative science and allows it to influence their feelings about who they’re dating or whatever. In short, I’m maddeningly agnostic, a personality trait that I’m also aware of whenever I talk with somebody who swears they saw a ghost or describes some other kind of supernatural experience first-hand: I often find myself simultaneously believing them and not believing in a way that seems like it should be impossible to experience at the same time.

Where this issue gets really maddening is when you read about the attempts of scientists to either prove or disprove paranormal things one way or the other and find that such paranormal things basically refuse to either (a) quietly go away and be proven non-existent or (b) manifest themselves in a way that’s strong enough to justify adjusting your world view taking them seriously. Consider, for example, one phenomenon that’s been observed over and over: if you take a random binary number generator that spits out 0s and 1s and place a subject in front of it and ask the subject to will it to produce a certain number, over time you will observe a tiny but statistically-significant effect. Think about this: person… concentrating on box… statistically-significant effect, over and over again.

The first tests done along these lines were conducted in the 1930s with dice throws and a subject who tried to will a certain roll to come up. The ‘father of Parapsychology’, J.B. Rhine, conducted an experiment over several years that involved 651,216 rolls and produced an effect that he calculated would have a 1 in 10,115 chance of occurring by coincidence. Still, there were many problems with the methodology, mostly associated with the vagaries of rolling dice– first, special rolling cups and, later, electronic dice-rollers had to be introduced to rule out the possibility of cheating. Later, ERNIE (Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment) was brought in to spit out 1s and 0s. While this controls for the problem of cheating, I wonder if it didn’t introduce another possible methodological flaw: APATHY. How do you rest assured that subjects aren’t just zoning out and not trying, given that you’ve given them the task of staring at a box and willing it to produce more 1s than 0s (or vice versa). Another problem that is both more serious and extremely silly is the problem of differentiating between psychokinesis (controlling objects through your mind) versus precognition (predicting the future). If you allow that both skills could exist, then how do you know that the subject isn’t psychically anticipating the number that is going to come up more often rather than willing it to come up? You can get around this by having the experimenter indicate the number that the subject is supposed to will to come up… but then what if the experimenter is exhibiting precognition in his or her choice of number?

I guess I don’t have a concluding point except to say that all of this psychokinesis business seems too silly and obscure to merit serious study, and yet too striking and weirdly probable to ignore altogether. Have a nice day!

Sports before radio

I was just talking about this with a friend, so I was happy to randomly come across photos of it via shorpy.com. It’s somewhat in the same vein as the Harris 20th Century Railroad Attachment in the sense of My god, I can’t believe this was commonplace one hundred years ago.

Prior to the advent of radio broadcasts, people would actually mass in the streets to stare intently at this really mechanical “baseball game reproducer” that looks like a pinball machine. Updates would be phoned in or delivered via telegram and then be put up on the board to – one assumes – thunderous reaction. Amazing how the standards of what passes for entertainment change over time. I can’t imagine announcing to my wife, “OK, I’m off to stare at the baseball game reproducer. See you in three hours!”


Futurism and the Musee Mecanique

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Futurist Manifesto, when F.T. Marinetti (the self-proclaimed ‘most modern man in Europe’ at the time) introduced his cult of dynamism to the world through a combination of incendiary rhetoric, genius publicity stunts and Fascist agitating. The Futurists were fascinated by speed, technology, war, Moussellini, masculinity, action and loud noise; they were contemptuous of civility, history, culture, women, and everything else they associated with polite society and the existing status quo. The only avant-garde art movement I’m aware of with a strong right-wing orientation, Futurism remains weirdly alluring and seriously off-putting.

As Futurists were obsessed with the dynamics of the early machine age, I had the idea many years ago to illustrate their manifesto with photos taken from San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique, a highly-enjoyable collection of antique arcade machines. The common link is that both the Manifesto and the MM collection show the imaginative possibilities of the early machine age, and both produce results that are both appealing and monstrous. I printed a few copies of this as accordion-folds.

Front and back cover:



(Note how much the giant doll on the cover looks like Moussellini- a happy coincidence!)

Inside spreads:







Blue-some buddies


After reading Krafty’s Blues Brothers post a second time, I now realize he didn’t mean to say that there are thematic similarities between The Blues Brothers and Star Wars (just that both are highly imitated)… but this is how I took it on first reading, and it got me thinking:

  1. Land Cruiser = Blues Mobile
  2. Rowdy alien bar = rowdy redneck country/western bar
  3. Death Star = IRS building
  4. Alec Guiness = Ray Charles
  5. Carrie Fisher = Carrie Fisher
  6. There’s something to this!

Where it becomes a stretch is when you try to draw parallels between main male characters: Jake and Elwood are the consummate partners, whereas Han Solo and Luke have a very different ‘upstart vs. wily veteran’ rivalry that powers much of the Star Wars plot. Then it hit me that Jake and Elwood are really more like C3P0 and R2D2: inseparable buddies who are with us from the movie’s opening scene and loyally adhere to a single mission while other plot arcs and characters with more compromised motives swirl around them. Even the body types are identical, with each group having a more moderate tall/thin member and a more impetuous short/fat member.

(Incidentally, this kind of analogizing was done to much better effect by some genius on youtube, who pointed out the underlying similarities between Star Wars and Magnum P.I. opening credits.)

On a slightly more serious and hopefully more insightful note: Krafty poses an interesting point about why the movie felt so seminal at the time (aside from our age and its R rating). I think it featured two key elements of 80s movie-making that were just coming into focus:

1.  Cutting, dark humor. I heard an interview once where someone claimed that the National Lampoon ushered in a new era of American humor with Animal House (which Belushi of course starred in) whose touchstone was no longer Jewish humor (characterized by ‘What a fool am I!’-type jokes) but rather more biting English and Irish traditions of humor (‘What a fool you are’). While The Blues Brothers wasn’t as dark or cutting as, say, Monty Python or even Animal House, there’s a gleeful kind of absurd and unexplained quality to a lot of the jokes that seems to come from the same place as David Letterman dropping refrigerators off buildings and making a musical beat out of it on his show around the same time. In other words, while the humor itself isn’t necessarily dark, the willful disregard for clearly-explained jokes seems to come from that same contemptuous, cynical place.

2. The being-cool and rocking-out factor. The Blues Brothers were simply cool, and while their coolness was on display throughout the movie, the musical scenes where they would sing cool R&B songs and do flips and stuff was the cudgel with which their coolness was impressed on the viewer. I can’t think of any movies before 1978 where you were simply invited to enjoy someone singing and being cool in the middle of a movie, but starting in the 80s, it becomes a staple: Tom Cruise rocking out in his underwear in Risky Business, the infamous Van Halen air guitar hamburger scene in Better Off Dead, Ferris Bueller performing Twist and Shout to the entire city of Chicago, etc. I’d never thought about it before, but I’m sure the watershed moment for this trope must have been Grease in 1978, which, by dint of being a musical, had Travolta suddenly being cool and and rocking out in all kinds of contexts. Movie execs must have realized the potential in this and started writing it into movies without worrying about how incongruous air-guitaring hamburgers might seem to future generations.

The Uncanny Valley


Dan’s Robot Double post reminded me of one of my new favorite terms, “The Uncanny Valley.” It’s a hypothesis that humans have an instinctive response of revulsion to facsimiles of themselves. The “valley” is based on the idea that if you encounter a very crude and not-really-that-human-like robot, you are OK with it, but at a certain point as it gets too close to human-like, you have a response of revulsion that can be graphed as a dip or “valley” (and then you get out of the valley, presumably, when it becomes so real that you can’t tell the difference).

So in the handy chart above, industrial and even “humanoid” robots are fine, as are stuffed animals, “healthy persons,” and “bunraku puppets” (whatever that is) — but corpses, zombies, and prosthetic hands all fall within the Valley. These examples all seem to conjure up images of death, which may be what it’s all about — or maybe an instinctive fear of being replaced by robots? Anyhow, Dan’s robot doubles would surely have to contend with the Uncanny Valley as they went about their masters’ business.

More here, including a laundry list of possible explanations, with both the fear of death possibility alluded to above and some other interesting ones.

Robot Doubles

radio_shack1Spring is always the most listless semester in my teaching gig. Energy is low, weather is good, and class attendance basically collapses once the beer gardens open in mid-April. One weeknight not long ago, I was feeling uninspired to teach one of my more droopy classes, and remembered my robot doubles concept from many years ago:

Let’s say that everyone had (or could easily purchase, at least) a robot double that looks almost exactly like you and has about 70% of your mental capabilities. You could send your Robo off to take care of minor errands for you (say, picking up a package from the post office) and be pretty confident that he/she would be up for the task. There would probably be legalese written into many social transactions that forbid people from sending their Robos on their behalf and maybe even ‘No Robos’ stickers on certain storefronts (the DMV, for instance), but for the most part you could be confident that nobody would notice the switch.

But the question would be whether you would dare to send your Robo off to deal with more complex and critical tasks. I imagine people getting busted periodically for sending their Robo to work for them while they stayed home and slept in. In extreme cases, faltering marriages would collapse when one already-jaded partner detected that their husband or wife had sent their Robo home to deal with them so they could sit in a bar or have an affair. The Robo problem would crop up especially in school– I can almost imagine certain students of mine trying to pass off deficient robotic doubles of themselves if they had the chance. But then again, they also might notice that the person teaching them was, in fact, a Robo. The real question would be whether our Robos would be capable of detecting other Robos, and if so whether they would inform their Humans, or whether they would instead form a tacit alliance to keep it a secret among themselves.