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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The Curse of Bigness: Tim Wu channels Brandeis on Big Tech (and Big Everything Else)

Tim Wu (previously) is best known for coining the term "Net Neutrality" but the way he got there was through antitrust and competition scholarship: in his latest book, The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, Wu takes a sprightly-yet-maddening tour through the history of competition policy in the USA, which has its origins in curbing the near-limitless power of the robber barons in the name of creating a pluralistic, open society where anyone could participate, only to have this vision perverted by extremists from the Chicago School, who sold (with the help of wealthy backers) a wholly fictional version of what Congress intended with its antitrust rules. According to Chicago's version of things, the only thing antitrust should concern itself with is the highly technical and speculative question of "consumer harm" (in the form of higher prices) and not competition itself. Read the rest

Restored video of High Street in Marseille, France in 1896

[Update 1/25/19 1:48pm PT: Eric Faden, a film professor who specializes in silent movies, says, "I was struck that the two videos uploaded were the exact Lumiere films I used in Visual Disturbances (given that the Lumieres made 2000+ films, it is quite the coincidence). These are most definitely NOT restorations. They are rips from a French Blu-ray called Lumiere Cinema's Inventors. The soundtrack has merely been replaced. The person uploading the videos notes that they adjusted the speed but the films on the Blu-ray are already correctly adjusted (as has been the norm with early cinema releases/restorations for many years now)."]

I appreciate all the work Guy Jones puts into restoring old movies. He replaces the herky-jerky motion with a more natural looking motion and adds sound that matches the action. Here's a short film of High Street in Marseille, France as it looked on April 11, 1896. There's an advertisement on a horse-driven tram for "Chocolat Russe Du Bebe" but when I google it, the only results are for a "Polar Bear Milk Hat" and "Pregnant Dwarf Hamster Behavior." Read the rest

"Capitalism has outlived its usefulness" -Martin Luther King, Jr

"I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems, it falls victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes." Read the rest

The Nazis and your privacy

The nonprofit organization to which I belong recently put the personal data of around 410,000 people on the internet, connected to interactive street maps of where they lived. The data includes their full names, date and place of birth, known residential address, and often includes their professions and arrest records, sometimes even information about mental or physical handicaps. It also lists whether any of their grandparents were Jewish. Read the rest

Check out this amazing collection of playable spoken word LPs

[Update 1-19-19: a Research Buzz commented that the site has malware. Caution is advised.]

Here's an incredible collection of digitized historical LPs you can listen to online. A lot of them remind me of podcast episodes, like this record about "big-lie-technique" master Senator Joseph R.McCarthy. This is a browser's treat. Read the rest

Watch this marvelous animation that summarizes humanity in five minutes

Director Fabio Friedli animated 3,000 images to tell the story of humanity "from a seed to war, from meat to love, from indifference to apocalypse."

“It is such an excessive amount of things, shown in such a short time, you are never able to perceive everything,” Friedli told Vimeo. “I like to believe it’s one’s subconscious that chooses what you see, hear and feel, depending on what is occupying your head and heart at the moment. No one has the same first ‘In A Nutshell’ experience.”

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Medieval book opens six ways, revealing six different texts

A XVIth Century book held in the National Library of Sweden's collection features a "sixfold dos-a-dos binding," meaning that the book could be opened in six different ways to reveal six different texts ("devotional texts printed in Germany during the 1550s and 1570s,including Martin Luther, Der kleine Catechismus"), with the hinges doubling as latches. Read the rest

An interactive timeline of race categories in the US Census

Every ten years, the US government is constitutionally mandated to carry out a census: the first census, in 1790, only counted "the head of household and the number of free white males, other free persons and slaves in each household." Read the rest

A giant wooden model of 1930s San Francisco has been put online

The David Rumsey Map Collection shares an amazing collection of photographs and the history of this 42 by 38 foot WPA built wooden map of San Francisco. Visit their site for high quality images.

I will be lost in these images for hours.

Full collection here.

For the first time since 1942, the entire immense 42 by 38 foot WPA built San Francisco Model can be seen assembled virtually. Digitally knitting together all 158 separate pieces with over 6,000 blocks gives the viewer a sense of the extraordinary accomplishment the model represents. Recently recovered after decades of dusty storage, the model has been cleaned and photographed by a dedicated team of individuals as part of the SFMOMA and San Francisco Public Library project called Public Knowledge: Take Part. The model pieces were expertly photographed by Beth LaBerge. David Rumsey created the large Composite image below of the 158 pieces, as well as the image and metadata database of all the images, which he hosts. Rumsey also georeferenced the large Composite image and placed it in Google Earth.

Some details of the model's history: it is a 42 by 38 foot wooden replica of the city of San Francisco as it was in 1940 in 158 pieces at a scale of 1 inch to 100 feet. The pieces contain about 6,000 removable city blocks. The model was built by The Works Progress Administration in the late 1930's, under the New Deal. It was first displayed in sections in the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay in 1939.

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More videos from our University of Chicago interdisciplinary seminar series: "Censorship and Information Control"

Between September and December, I collaborated with science fiction writer and Renaissance historian Ada Palmer and science historian Adrian Johns on a series of interdisciplinary seminars on "Censorship and Information Control" with a rotating crew of academics and practitioners from several fields. Read the rest

NYC to name streets after Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and Woody Guthrie

The New York City Council voted to rename streets after hip-hop artists Christopher Wallace (aka the Notorious BIG) and the Wu-Tang Clan and folk musician/activist Woodie Guthrie. If Mayor Bill de Blasio gives his final approval, a block in Brooklyn where Notorious B.I.G. was raised will be called Christopher Wallace Way, Staten Island will have a Wu-Tang Clan District, and part of Coney Island's Mermaid Avenue will be renamed Woody Guthrie Way to celebrate his 1940s home. From Rolling Stone:

Cultural advocate LeRoy McCarthy spearheaded the efforts to rename the streets after the legendary hip-hop acts. “I’m happy that NYC officials are finally giving the city’s indigenous ‘Hip Hop’ music the respect and recognition that it deserves. It took a long time and lots of hard work to advance the Christopher Wallace Way & Wu-Tang Clan District street co-naming, but ya know what, Hip Hop Don’t Stop,” McCarthy told Gothamist.

Additionally, Woody Guthrie Way located at Coney Island’s Mermaid Avenue between West 35th and West 36th marks the section of Brooklyn where the folk legend lived in the early 1940s.

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Humorous ad about South African explorer discovering Europe in 1650

This funny South African ad depicts an African explorer discovering Europe in the 1650s, a counterfactual to the 1652 arrival in South Africa of the Dutch. But it's upsetting people there and fast food chain Chicken Licken has withdrawn it due to the complaints.

South African Sandile Cele lodged a complaint with the Advertising Regulatory Board, arguing that the commercial made a "mockery of the struggles of the African people against the colonisation by the Europeans in general, and the persecutions suffered at the hands of the Dutch in particular".

Upholding the complaint, the board said: "While the commercial seeks to turn the colonisation story on its head with Big John travelling to Europe, it is well-known that many Africans were in fact forced to travel to Europe in the course of the colonisation of Africa.

"They did not leave their countries and villages wilfully. They starved to death during those trips to Europe and arrived there under harsh and inhumane conditions."

Chicken Licken said it wanted to show that South Africa had "all the potential to conquer the world and rewrite history from an African perspective". Read the rest

Burned down National Museum of Brazil rises from the ashes, thanks to Google

This past September, a savage fire cost the world dearly: the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, along with 20 million unique artifacts that provided untold insight into our planet and our civilization's past, went up in smoke. In the months since the flames were extinguished, researchers have only managed to recover a small fraction of the museum's collection from the ashes. It's a loss that even the most obtuse of us can get their heads around. That said, if you're interested in some colorful commentary on the incident, my friend and Faces of Auschwitz collaborator Marina Amaral talks about it at length here.)

While the chances of recovering everything lost in the inferno is pretty much nil, Google's made it possible to virtually tour the museum in its former glory.

From Engadget:

A couple of years before a fire devastated the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in September, Google's Arts and Culture team started working with the museum to digitize the collection. Just a few months after the inferno, Google has reopened the museum's doors -- albeit in a virtual form using Street View imagery and digital exhibits.

The museum and Google were already planning to make the collection available to view online before the incident. Of course, no virtual tour could ever truly replace a physical museum, nor the estimated 20 million artifacts that the blaze destroyed. But tools such as 3D scanning, hi-res photography and virtual and augmented reality can offer some form of protection to items of historical value.

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Videos from the University of Chicago "Censorship and Information Control" seminar

This year, I helped University of Chicago science fiction writer and renaissance scholar Ada Palmer and science historian Adrian Johns host a series of interdisciplinary seminars on "Censorship, Information Control, & Revolutions in Information Technology from the Printing Press to the Internet."

Read the rest

Archaeologist dug up a 500-year-old skeleton wearing boots

Archaeologists at an excavation site for London's Thames Tideway Tunnel (the "super sewer") dug up a 500-year-old skeleton who died with his boots on. Based on the location of the find, the boots, and other signs, the fellow may have been a fisherman or sailor. From National Geographic:

"It’s extremely rare to find any boots from the late 15th century, let alone a skeleton still wearing them," says Beth Richardson of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). "And these are very unusual boots for the period—thigh boots, with the tops turned down. They would have been expensive, and how this man came to own them is a mystery. Were they secondhand? Did he steal them? We don't know."..

The position of the body—face down, right arm over the head, left arm bent back on itself—suggests that the man wasn’t deliberately buried. It’s also unlikely that he would have been laid to rest in leather boots, which were expensive and highly prized.

In light of those clues, archaeologists believe the man died accidentally and his body was never recovered, although the cause of death is unclear. Perhaps he fell into the river and couldn't swim. Or possibly he became trapped in the tidal mud and drowned...

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What if Doggerland had survived?

Countries surrounding the North Sea imposed an outsize impact on world affairs. But the sea itself was once land, and might have stayed that way had world temperatures been a degree or two different. Lee Rimmer wonders: What if Doggerland had survived?

The cultural impact of changing the movement of tribal groupings within northwestern Europe would be immediately evident in terms of language. ...The languages spoken in modern Doggerland and its neighbouring states may sound vaguely familiar to us, but we wouldn’t understand them. ...Doggerland’s more sheltered, lower-lying peninsula may have been a more agreeable farming region than the windswept highlands of the British Isles, leaving them with a much lower population distribution. Stonehenge, or something like it, may have been built on the plains of Doggerland rather than Salisbury Plain.

Wild, impossible counterfactuals. My favored parallel-world Doggerland is one that remained as a small island (even now its uplands lie barely feet under the waves). A strange spooky pinewood backwater where the signs are in three languages and the kids speak them all, and where the rain washes the blood leaching from the deep earth.

The (real) Dogger is to serve as the foundations of a vast offshore wind farm, which will provide 4.8GW of sustainable power. Read the rest

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