A History of Our Future Masters…and a bit of Chess.

I have not forgotten about the looming robot menace.

The Nonist (always, always excellent) has a very interesting post on early robots. See the links at the end as well. Do go visit.

I was totally unaware of the fact that Karel Capek coined the term “robot”.

Reading that post made me recall the 18th century Chess Automaton known as The Turk. Its most famous game ran like this:

The year is 1809 and Napoleon is on campaign—not at war, but chess. And his adversary is not a man but a machine.

Napoleon attacks early, rushing out his queen. The Automaton defends easily, threatening to capture it. Already Napoleon is in retreat. A bad loser at anything, he is visibly annoyed. He tries to confuse the machine with an illegal move. In one version, he even covers its head with a shawl, then places a huge magnet on the board. In vain: the Automaton wins. Napoleon storms out.

Of course, should one read on, one would see that it was all a hoax, one of the finest and most elaborate in modern history. Well, 18th century chess history.

The history of chess automatons is an interesting one. There was The Turk (1769), Ajeeb (1868), and finally El Ajedrecista (1910).

The latter was the first true chess automaton. It was designed and built by Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, a Spanish mathematician, engineer, and genius. El Ajedrecista was not a full blown chess player. It could only play three piece endgames (King and Rook against King), but it won every time. It could even detect illegal moves. It is on display now at the Colegio de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos in Madrid.

Flash forward about a century and we have computers that regularly test (and often defeat) the finest chess minds in the world. We also have robots that can hit a mjaor league pitch. But don’t worry… we have things totally under control.

R.I.P. Mrs. Coretta Scott King

Here.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King’s top aides, said Coretta Scott King’s fortitude rivaled that of her husband. “She was strong, if not stronger than he was,” Young said.

Coretta Scott King was a supportive lieutenant to her husband during the most dangerous and tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, and after his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968, she carried on his work while also raising their four children.

“I’m more determined than ever that my husband’s dream will become a reality,” the young widow said soon after his slaying.

She pushed and goaded politicians for more than a decade to have her husband’s birthday observed as a national holiday, achieving success in 1986. In 1969 she founded the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and used it to confront hunger, unemployment, voting rights and racism.

“The center enables us to go out and struggle against the evils in our society,” she often said.

She also accused movie and TV companies, video arcades, gun manufacturers and toy makers of promoting violence.

She was 78 years old.

Sundry comments on her death.

Visit the King Center’s website.

Man Destroys Priceless Vases in Museum Fall

I have often wondered how frequently this actually happened. I once set off an alarm at a museum in Hanover (I was leaning in close to a painting to get a good look at some brushwork and my nose brushed the canvas), but how much art is destroyed by overzealous or clumsy admirers?

LONDON – It was every art lover’s nightmare — a stumble, a crash and thousands of dollars worth of historic fragments lying on the floor.

The incident happened last week at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, which for decades has displayed a group of Qing dynasty Chinese vases on a window sill.

A hapless visitor tripped on a loose shoelace, tumbled down a flight of stairs and crashed into the vases, smashing them into smithereens.

The man, who has not been named, left the museum shaken but undamaged — in sharp contrast to the vases.

“It was a most unfortunate and regrettable accident but we are glad that the visitor involved was able to leave the museum unharmed,” museum director Duncan Robinson said on Monday.

Full story here.

Sundance Wrap-Up

One of the nice things of living in Utah is Sundance film festival. Sarah and I were seeing movies almost on the daily basis. We didn’t see any of the winners (except one), but it was still really exciting to watch all these premiers. Sundance is incredibly well attended. Even the midnight showings are packed with audience. Most people buy passes to see all movies, and in reality they don’t see all of them. So, ticket and pass holders stay in line to take the best seats. It’s no fun being in line when temperature outside is below freezing. When all ticket holders are seated, about 80% of the theatre is full. People who don’t have tickets form another line and then the rest of the theatre is filled with these folks. Of course, they too pay the entrance fee. What’s interesting with the Sundance film audience in contrast to the regular movie goers is that they are very reactive audience – they laugh, they cry, scream and applaud. See comments to read aboout what I saw this year.

And now…. ELMO!

Read all about it…

A character in some copies of an Elmo potty training book has an unusual message that you may not want your toddler to hear. The Baby David character in “Potty Time With Elmo” says, “Uh oh, who wants to die?” when a read-along button is pushed, NBC News reported.

He’s supposed to say, “Uh oh, who has to go?”

Wow. Just wow. Imagine all the kids growing up death-obsessed and going on to write all sorts of great novels, compose really moody string quartets, and saunter shiftlessly through NYC, a rejuvenated New Orleans, or Paris. Waitasec…

So I was about to write this story off as another “penis on the Little Mermaid VHS package” situation, but then:

The publisher said the sound was recorded correctly, but some consumers hear a different phrase due to compression of the digital audio file.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the above is simply not true. An Elmo coverup? The Pr department must be really excited.

Related but not related: Harlan Ellison was fired from Disney for suggesting, well…

A few hours after arriving for his first day of work at Disney Studios, Ellison and several fellow writers headed off to the studio commissary for lunch. Once there, Ellison jokingly suggested they “do a Disney porn flick” and proceeded to act out the parts while imitating the voices of several animated Disney characters. Unbeknownst to him, Roy Disney and the other studio heads were sitting adjacent to his table. Ellison claims that he returned to his office to find a pink slip on his desk and the name on his parking space whited out. He recounted this incident in his book Stalking the Nightmare, as part 3 of a section entitled “The 3 Most Important Things in Life.”

Mojo Top 100 – my contributions

Mojo magazine requested from their readers to make Top 10 of their favorite albums in period from 1994 to 2006 – which so far was the lifetime of this magazine. All contributions will be added to a big top 100, and prizes will be drawn. I don’t want to clutter the front page, so click on comments to see what I sent to their designated email address…

More Varo

As if anyone needed an incentive to visit Giornale Nuovo

Mr. H has yet another post on Remedios Varo. Applaud him. Visit his site very day. Learn Something.

Like this, for example:

In the comments section of the aforementioned post, someone mentions Maruja Mallo. Enter Google.

Some Drawings by Maruja Mallo. This site is on the Tulane University server. Note the disclaimer: Images on this page can only be used for educational or knowledge purpose. Fucking Tulane*. If anyone asks, you did it for “knowledge purpose”.

Her Bio on ArtNET.

I’ll say that I prefer Varo. Mallo’s work is “big”. The colors are bold, the shapes are… man, I lack the vocabulary to write cogently (or even seriously) about art. “Big” will have to do.

*The Tulane ribbing in this post is all in good fun. I went to a rival school…. So no Katrina-related hate mail or Greenie bitterness. It’s a great school.

Oulipist Madness

Spineless Books is a nice little Oulipist website that contains some fiction, some books for sale, some audio, and some writing exercises (challenges?).

The palindrome story “2002” disappoints me for two primary reasons.
1. It makes no sense as a story or as anything else. Sure, I could invest it with all sorts of interesting subtexts and meanings, but that would be ME, not the text. Am I being draconian?
2. THEY USED A COMPUTER TO HELP WITH THE PALINDROME. What am I left to be impressed with? The state of modern programming? The author’s audacity?

I’m still waffling on whether or not to tackle Perec. Anyone have any advice?

Pamuk Case Dismissed

I have tried to let the news digest so as to offer up some cogent gem on this whole affair. Count yourselves lucky, brothers and sisters, that I cannot think of anything to add to all the heat and light pouring off of this news.

I’m elated, sure, but not astonished that the case was dropped. This was about more than just Pamuk.

Get the story here and here.

The Popinjay on Iraq.

From Slate. Hitchens seems to be the only journalist nailing the fact that Iraq ain’t as simple as we all think it is. Is he? The full article is here (please ignore the sensationalist title).

Just for once, those of us who have known so many democratic and decent Iraqis got to see our friends quoted on the front page. “We have had enough of this nonsense,” said Sheik Ahmad Khanjar, the leader of the Albu Ali clan. “We don’t accept that a non-Iraqi should try to enforce his control over Iraqis, regardless of their sect—whether Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs or Kurds.” Ali Hussein Lifta, a local Shiite repairman, responded handsomely. “So many ties of friendship, marriage and compassion” connect people, he said. “We have become in fact part of the population here.”

Of course, most reporters then returned to their insulting (and insultingly easy) task of demarcating and segregating all Iraqi opinion as if it had to fall into one of three groups. In Washington, in public, but unquoted, Ahmad Chalabi said last fall that it would be the Sunnis who would get rid of Zarqawi. Now we read (in the Jan. 12 New York Times) of members of the Sunni “Islamic Army” directly confronting al-Qaida’s gangsters on the streets of Taji, a town to the north of Baghdad, with appreciable casualties on both sides. And within a few weeks, when the Dec. 15 elections occurred, armed supporters of the local insurgent militias were guarding polling places (in Ramadi, among other previously hot locations) and warning al-Qaida to stay away. Interviewed for the Times piece was Abu Marwa, a militia activist from a town farther south, who described setting a trap for two Syrian al-Qaida members—and killing both of them—after their group had tortured and killed one of his Shiite relatives. (“His legs bore drill holes revealing bone. His jaw had slid off to one side of his head, and his nose was broken. Burns marked his body.”)

The significance of this, and of numerous other similar accounts, is three-fold. First, it means that the regular media caricature of Iraqi society is not even a parody. It is very common indeed to find mixed and intermarried families, and these loyalties and allegiances outweigh anything that can be mustered by a Jordanian jailbird who has bet everything on trying to ignite a sectarian war. Second, it means in the not very long run that the so-called insurgency can be politically isolated and militarily defeated. It already operates within a minority of a minority and is largely directed by unpopular outsiders. Politically, it is the Khmer Rouge plus the Mafia—not the Viet Cong. And unlike the Khmer Rouge, it has no chance at all of taking the major cities. Nor, apart from the relatively weak Syrian regime, does it have a hinterland or a friendly neutral territory to use for resupply. And its zealots are now being killed by nationalist and secular, as well as clerical, guerrillas. (In Kurdistan, the Zarqawi riffraff don’t even try; there is a real people’s army there, and it has a short way with fascists. It also fights on the coalition side.) In counterinsurgency terms, this is curtains for al-Qaida.

Which is my third point. If all goes even reasonably well, and if a combination of elections and prosperity is enough to draw more mainstream Sunnis into politics and away from Baathist nostalgia, it will have been proved that Bin-Ladenism can be taken on—and openly defeated—in a major Middle Eastern country. And not just defeated but discredited. Humiliated.