Ancient civilizations' fascination with AI, robots, and synthetic life

Stanford folklorist and science historian Adrienne Mayor has a fascinating-sounding new book out, titled "Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology." It's a survey of how ancient Greeks, Romans, Indian, and Chinese myths imagined and grappled with visions of synthetic life, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robots. From Mayor's interview at Princeton University Press:

Who first imagined the concept of robots?

Most historians of science trace the first automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, was it possible that ideas about creating artificial life were thinkable long before technology made such enterprises possible? Remarkably, as early as the time of Homer, ancient Greek myths were envisioning how to imitate, augment, and surpass nature, by means of biotechne, “life through craft”—what we now call biotechnology. Beings described as fabricated, “made, not born,” appeared in myths about Jason and the Argonauts, the sorceress Medea, the bronze robot Talos, the ingenious craftsman Daedalus, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and Pandora, the female android created by Hephaestus, god of invention. These vivid stories were ancient thought experiments set in an alternate world where technology was marvelously advanced.

Modern sci-fi movies pop up in several chapters. How do they relate to ancient myths?

Some 2,500 years before movies were invented, ancient Greek vase painters illustrated popular stories of the bronze robot warrior Talos, the techno-wizard Medea, and the fembot Pandora dispatched to earth on an evil mission, in ways that seem very “cinematic...” Movies and myths about imagined technology are cultural dreams. Like contemporary science fiction tales, the myths show how the power of imagination allows humans to ponder how artificial life might be created—if only one possessed sublime technology and genius.

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Bone & Sickle, a new macabre podcast by Al Ridenour

Krampus LA co-founder (and occasional BB guest blogger) Al Ridenour is taking a stab at podcasting with Bone & Sickle, a show that "celebrates the intertwining of horror and folklore."

He writes:

Like my Krampus book, the show explores elements of horror within folklore, or folklore within horror. It’s not an interview show, but more of a manic lecture spun into an overwrought background of original music, drones, effects, snippets of found audio, etc. All within a fictional, manor house framework. Featuring Rick Galiher as my much abused valet, Wilkinson.

In honor of the German holiday of Walpurgisnacht on April 30, Al has "binge released" three 30-minute episodes at once. He suggests starting with the third episode.

Here's a taste of what to expect:

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Mystery of The Giant's Causeway in Ireland has been unlocked

Time for a bit of folklore.

Benandonner was a giant from Scotland. He was something of a tool and constantly threatened to lay a beating on Ireland.

Fionn mac Cumhaill was a giant too. He resided in Ireland. Fionn wasn't down with Benandonner's wanting to put a hurt on his homeplace. In fact, Fionn was so bent out of shape about it that he decided to rip up chunks of County Atrim and throw them into the sea in order to build a causeway to Scotland. The causeway would make it possible for Fionn to travel and beat Benandonner's ass.

With the Giant's Causeway built, Fionn stomped off to Scotland to get down with his island's adversary. He didn't stay long though: Upon reaching Scottish soil, Fionn discovered that Benandonner was frigging huge – like, giant, even for a giant. Afraid of having his ass handed to him, Fionn hightailed it back to Ireland. When the larger giant heard that Fionn had come to Scotland to fight him, but turned coward at the last moment, he set out for Ireland across the causeway to lay a curb stomping on poor Fionn.

Seeing that her husband was in trouble, again, Fionn's wife, Oonagh, bundled her husband up in swaddling clothes, disguising him as a baby. Benandonner came upon Oonagh and saw the enormous baby. He freaked out: if Fionn's child is that big, even as a toddler, Fionn himself must be HUGE. Benandonner crossed the causeway once more, back to Scotland and safety. Read the rest

Folklore generator

Andy Purviance's Purviance.com/myths generates (and beautifully presents) snippets of folklore: perfect for forming story ideas or oblique strategies.

Some I got:

Pursuit of game leads to upper world Tricksters feign death of their father King mourns so much at wife's funeral he goes on piracy every afterward Transformation by throwing ashes Trolls are skilled smiths Read the rest

Folktexts: How to fill your head with free folklore

In third grade I stole a book from the school library: The Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.

I could barely read it, but the images on its cover and what little inside of it that I could understand called to me. As my reading skills progressed, so too did my love of myths and legends and the study of religion – I was a weird kid.

Also, this might be a good time to suggest that stealing books from libraries is a shitty thing to do.

If the Internet were a thing back then, maybe I wouldn't have swiped that book. There's no shortage of excellent resources on folk and myth scholarship out there. In my opinion, Folktexts is one of the best. Compiled by Professor D. L. Ashliman, Folktexts is deeply underwhelming in the looks department, but the way that it's organized is pure genius. Instead of simply presenting the stories as so many other online resources do, Professor Ashliman has gone through the bother of categorizing hundreds, if not thousands of stories by their central themes and related tales.

Let's say that you've read "The Emperor's New Clothes" and want to find out if other cultures have their own version of the story. No problem: just look under 'E.' There, you'll find information on the different names that the story is known by and what culture the story comes from. If that's not enough for you, the page even links to the text of all of the versions of the story that the professor is aware of. Read the rest

East of the Sun and West of the Moon – Norwegian folklore intricately illustrated by artist Kay Nielsen

See sample pages from this book at Wink.

If Walt Disney gave us the definitive picture of German fairy tales such as Cinderella and Snow White, first published in 1812 by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kay Nielsen helped the world imagine the settings and characters found in the stories of Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. The lifelong friends were inspired by the Grimms, and like the brothers, the look of the stories they had collected came to life many years after they were published in 1841. In the case of Asbjørnsen and Moe, the catalyst was a London publisher named Hodder & Stoughton, which hired Danish artist Nielsen, in 1914, to illustrate a collection of the friends’ Norwegian stories called East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

That volume is reproduced in its entirety, with a gorgeous new layout by Andy Disl, in a new slipcovered book from Taschen. Like the Hodder & Stoughton version, Nielsen’s illustrations are the book’s stars. Unlike it, the Taschen package also includes illustrated essays about Asbjørnsen and Moe’s contribution to the 19th-century’s preoccupation with “indigenous literature,” as well as an overview of Nielsen’s career, which included a stop at Walt Disney’s studio to create the artwork for the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in the 1941 animated masterpiece, Fantasia.

Nielsen’s influences ranged from the Art Nouveau fantasies of Aubrey Beardsley, which can be seen in his earliest work, to Japanese woodcuts and the Ballet Russes, which dominate East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Read the rest

Scary Swedish bedtime stories for awful children

The creators of the game Year Walk have prepared a special treat for us: a free e-book of Swedish scary stories to tell in the dark.

Fables Super Team: turning the Silver Age superhero inside out to find the fables within

The sixteenth collected volume in Bill Willingham's long-running Fables series is Fables Super Team, and Willingham uses the volume to demonstrate his absolutely catholic approach to mythmaking and storytelling. The Fables, faced with an impossible fight, decide to plumb new mythologies to find ways of overcoming the odds, and hit on the idea of creating an archetypal, X-Men style Super Team. They hold tryouts, locate their miniature person, their giant, their vulpine berserker, and all the other necessary personas for completing the Silver Age formula. This is a lovely bit of inside-out storytelling, a sly way of calling our attention to the ways in which the earlier comics creators filed the serial numbers off the Old Stories for the raw materials to make their spandex-clad heroes. But it's more than a conceit -- because this is Willingham, who never lets it rest at a mere conceit -- and Super Team is actually a suspenseful and sometimes scary story about hopeless bravery and impossible choices. The literal Deus Ex Machina is a rather nice touch, too.

I wouldn't try to read this until you've read the other fifteen volumes in the series. But if you haven't read those, you should.

Fables Super Team Read the rest

"Global Jukebox" envisioned by folklorist, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax comes to life

(Alan Lomax, via Wikipedia)

American folklorist, ethnomusicologist, and traditional music collector Alan Lomax envisioned a “global jukebox” with which to share and analyze recordings he gathered over decades of fieldwork. This week, that dream comes to life. From an article in today's New York Times:

A decade after his death technology has finally caught up to Lomax’s imagination. Just as he dreamed, his vast archive — some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts, much of it tucked away in forgotten or inaccessible corners — is being digitized so that the collection can be accessed online. About 17,000 music tracks will be available for free streaming by the end of February, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads.

On Tuesday, to commemorate what would have been Lomax’s 97th birthday, the Global Jukebox label is releasing “The Alan Lomax Collection From the American Folklife Center,” a digital download sampler of 16 field recordings from different locales and stages of Lomax’s career.

“As an archivist you kind of think like Johnny Appleseed,” said Don Fleming, a musician and record producer who is executive director of the Association for Cultural Equity and involved in the project. “You ask yourself, ‘How do I get digital copies of this everywhere?’ ”

The archive will be made available at the Global Jukebox portion of The Association For Cultural Equity website. Anna Lomax Wood, daughter of Alan Lomax, is the organization's president. Read the rest