The Arts

The Robothespian

by on March 16, 2017 at 12:55 am in The Arts, Web/Tech | Permalink

When Judy Norman walks on stage for the play Spillikin, she performs beside a somewhat different cast member — a humanoid robot.

Featuring a “robothespian”, the play brings love and technology together for a story about an engineer who builds a robot to keep his wife company after he dies.

Yet accuracy is required from the human thespian:

The robot is connected to the theatre’s control room, where a laptop transmits cues for its performance.

“[There is] a big pressure on the actor…to always have the right lines, always stand in the right place so that the robot is looking at the right direction at that particular moment,” Welch said.

Onstage, Norman talks to the robot and even kisses it. In return, the robot replies, displays facial expressions and moves its hands.

spillikin

Here is the full story, with more photos and video, via Michelle Dawson.

The last time I was in Ireland I wasn’t blogging yet.  What riches lie here, let’s give it a start:

1. Poetry: I pick Joyce’s Ulysses, then Yeats and also Seamus Heaney, especially if the word “bog” appears in the poem.  A good collection is The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty.  Beyond the ranks of the super-famous, you might try Louis MacNeice, from the Auden Group, or perhaps Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who writes in Gaelic but has been translated by other superb Irish poets into English..

2. Novel/literature: Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels.  One of the very very best books for social science too, and one of my favorite books period.  After Joyce, there is also Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Lord Dunsany, John Banville (The Untouchable), William Trevor, and Elizabeth Bowen.  Iris Murdoch was born in Ireland, but does she count?  More recently I have enjoyed Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Eimear McBride, Claire Louise-Bennett, with Mike McCormack in my pile to read soon.  Roddy Doyle is probably good, but I don’t find him so readable.  Colum McCann somehow isn’t Irish enough for me, but many enjoy his work.  Can the Anglo-Irish Oliver Goldsmith count?  His Citizen of the World remains a neglected work.  The recently published volumes of Samuel Beckett’s correspondence have received rave reviews and I hope to read through them this summer.  Whew!  And for a country of such a small population.

3. Classical music: Hmm…we hit a roadblock here.  I don’t love John Field, so I have to call this category a fail.  I can’t offhand think of many first-rate Irish classical performers, can you?  James Galway?

4. Popular music: My Bloody Valentine, Loveless.  Certainly my favorite album post-1970s, and possibly my favorite of all time.  When the Irish do something well, they do it really really well.  Then there is Van Morrison, Them, Bono and U2, Rory Gallagher, Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats, The Pogues, The Cranberries, and Sinead O’Connor, among others.  I confess to having an inordinate weakness for Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Traditional Irish music would need a post of its own, but it has never commanded much of my attention.

5. Painter: Francis Bacon is the obvious and probably correct choice, but I am no longer excited to see his work.  I don’t find myself seeing new things in it.  Sean Scully wins runner-up.  This is a slightly weak category, at least relative to some of the others.

6. Political philosopher: Edmund Burke, who looks better all the time, I am sorry to say.

7. Philosopher: Bishop Berkeley.  He is also interesting on monetary theory, anticipating some later ideas of Fischer Black on money as an abstract unit of account.

8. Classical economist: Mountifort Longfield and Isaac Butt both had better understandings of supply and demand and marginalism, before the marginal revolution, than almost any other economists except for a few of the French.

9. Theologian: C.S. Lewis, you could list him under fiction as well.  Here is a debate over whether he is British or Irish.  Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia covers Lewis, one of my favorite books from the last decade.

10. Silicon Valley entrepreneur: Patrick Collison (duh), of Stripe and Atlas, here is his superb podcast with Ezra Klein.  Here is further information on the pathbreaking Stripe Atlas project.

11. Movie: There are plenty I don’t like so much, such as My Left Foot, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Waking Ned, and The Commitments.  Most people consider those pretty good.  I think I’ll opt for The Crying Game and also In the Name of the Father.

12: Movie, set in: Other than the movies listed above, there is Odd Man Out (quite good), The Quiet Man, and The Secret of Roan Inish, but my clear first choice is the still-underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon.

The bottom line: The strengths are quite amazing, and that’s without adjusting for population.

What makes one song, TV show, or consumer product a hit, and the other not?  Derek’s new book is probably the very best exploration of this question.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I interpret much of his answer in terms of complacency: people want something that appears a bit different, but actually is deeply conservative and keeps them running in place (my take, not exactly his).  In any case, what is the right blend of new and old to captivate an audience?

HITmakers

Here is one good review of the book.  You can buy it here.

The culture of culture that is French

by on February 24, 2017 at 11:30 am in The Arts | Permalink

A French artist is preparing to be entombed for a week inside a 12-tonne limestone boulder in a modern art museum in Paris, after which he will emerge and attempt to hatch a dozen eggs by sitting on them for weeks on end.

…He once spent a fortnight inside a stuffed bear, was buried under a rock for eight days and navigated France’s Rhone river inside a giant corked bottle.

…He also played at being a human mole, and crossed France on foot in a straight line with a friend.

As for the entombment:

The only mystery is how he will go to the toilet, with the artist becoming uncharacteristically evasive when pressed on the subject.

Here is the article, via Anecdotal.

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, and here is the opening bit of the summary:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains were designed not just to gather and hunt, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means. The problem is that we like to pretend otherwise; we’re afraid to acknowledge the extent of our own selfishness. And this makes it hard for us to think clearly about ourselves and our behavior.

The Elephant in the Brain aims to fix this introspective blind spot by blasting floodlights into the dark corners of our minds. Only when everything is out in the open can we really begin to understand ourselves: Why do humans laugh? Why are artists sexy? Why do people brag about travel? Why do we so often prefer to speak rather than listen?

Like all psychology books, The Elephant in the Brain examines many quirks of human cognition. But this book also ventures where others fear to tread: into social critique. The authors show how hidden selfish motives lie at the very heart of venerated institutions like Art, Education, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.

Acknowledging these hidden motives has the potential to upend the usual political debates and cast fatal doubt on many polite fictions. You won’t see yourself — or the world — the same after confronting the elephant in the brain.

Due out January 1, 2018, of course this is essential reading.

Here is an example of price discrimination from the National Museum of India in Delhi, India. Motivating question for discussion. Is this fair or ethical? Would it be legal in the United States?

IndianPriceDiscrim

That is the new and excellent book by Jonathan Buchsbaum, offering the first comprehensive history of the debates over free trade and the “cultural exception,” as it has been called.  It is thorough, readable, and goes well beyond the other sources on this topic.

To be sure, I disagree with Buchsbaum’s basic stance.  He views “advertising dollars” as something attached to Hollywood movies like glue, giving them an unassailable competitive advantage, rather than an endogenous response to what viewers might wish to watch.  The notion that French or other movie-makers could possibly thrive by innovating and exploring new quality dimensions seems too far from his thought.  And he writes sentences such as: “France sought quickly to regulate multiplex development,” yet without wincing.

Perhaps his best sentence is the uncharacteristic: “Other commentators during the 1980s observed wryly that the only real European films were U.S. films, for only U.S. films succeeded in crossing borders in Europe.”

He spends a fair amount of time criticizing me, usually a positive feature in a book.  Furthermore, he delivers very strongly on the basic history and narrative, and draws upon a wide variety of sources.  So this one is definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in these topics.

Tim Steiner has an elaborate tattoo on his back that was designed by a famous artist and sold to a German art collector. When Steiner dies his skin will be framed – until then he spends his life sitting in galleries with his shirt off.

“The work of art is on my back, I’m just the guy carrying it around,” says the 40-year-old former tattoo parlour manager from Zurich.

A decade ago, his then girlfriend met a Belgian artist called Wim Delvoye, who’d become well known for his controversial work tattooing pigs.

Delvoye told her he was looking for someone to agree to be a human canvas for a new work and asked if she knew anyone who might be interested.

…The work, entitled TIM, sold for 150,000 euros (£130,000) to German art collector Rik Reinking in 2008, with Steiner receiving one third of the sum.

“My skin belongs to Rik Reinking now,” he says. “My back is the canvas, I am the temporary frame.”

As part of the deal, when Steiner dies his back is to be skinned, and the skin framed permanently, taking up a place in Reinking’s personal art collection.

“Gruesome is relative,” Steiner says to those who find the idea macabre.

Here is the full story, via the always excellent Tim Harford, author of the new and excellent book Messy.

I especially enjoyed the part about his interior decorating, this segment was fun too:

Hart’s appetite for complex contract negotiations has also served him well at home. He and his wife embarked on a major renovation of their house several years ago, adding new rooms to the ground floor and expanding the kitchen and backyard. Though he admits that his wife spearheaded the design, which included an open kitchen and new sitting room just off the main entrance, Hart says he negotiated the contract with the builders. “You learn right away that nothing will be completed when they say it will,” he adds with a wry smile. “So there are lessons that even I can learn.”

Here is the full FT story.  Here is The Economist covering Rita Goldberg’s second-generation Holocaust memoir; she is Hart’s wife.

I thought this was one of the very best of the conversations, Jhumpa responded consistently with brilliance and grace.  Here is the link to the transcript, podcast, and video versions.  In addition to discussing her books, we covered Rhode Island, Elena Ferrante, book covers, Bengal and Kolkaata and Bengali literature, immigrant identity, writing as problem solving, Italian authors, writing and reading across different languages, Indian classical music, architectural influences including Palladianism, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

TYLER COWEN: …You’ve written a great deal about not having a native country, about not having a language of your own that’s clearly yours, or even a culture. Having read or reread all of your work and surrounding works, and if I think, “How do I frame you?” I would say I think of you as a Rhode Islander because that’s where you grew up. You were born in England but came here when you were three, grew up in Rhode Island. How would you react to that?

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Uncomfortably.

[laughter]…

LAHIRI: I mean, with all due respect. It’s true.

LAHIRI: Well, I think what was helpful about it is that it opened up the setting of The Lowland, which is set in part in Rhode Island, but it’s the first of my books in which I can actually mention Rhode Island by its name. Whereas the other books, the preceding books, are set in these sort of fake Rhode Island slash Massachusetts, this area, this terrain that really is Rhode Island, just to boil it down. But I couldn’t mention it. I couldn’t name it as such. And I think that’s telling.

It was saying something, the fact that in the earlier books I was writing about the ocean. I was writing about this small campus, this little town, and describing these settings that I knew very well, the settings I had grown up in, but I couldn’t come out and say that it was Rhode Island. I kept calling it some suburb of Boston. So I think the writing of that piece unlocked something. Then in The Lowland, they’re in Rhode Island, and I don’t pretend anymore.

And:

COWEN: If you compare Interpreter of Maladies to your other short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, do you think of the latter, more recent work as being more about reconciliation and there’s a greater role for children or families in at least some of the stories? Or do you think, overall, your fiction with time is moving in the direction of Hardy and becoming darker?

LAHIRI: I think it’s becoming darker and I think that’s usually the case as we get older, right?

Jhumpa on Kolkaata:

…it’s a city that believes in its poets, that believes in its politics, believes in humanity in some sense. And life is so extreme there, in so many ways. People are put to the test, and you see life being put to the test constantly around you. There’s nothing you can really accept easily or take for granted about yourself or about the universe if you’ve been there. It’s a jolt to your consciousness, but a fundamental one, an essential one, to shake us out of this, whatever takes over, if you protect yourself.

Do read (or listen to) the whole thing.  Jhumpa’s last two books are excellent and highly underrated, both were written in Italian (!) and then translated.  One is on writing and reading in a foreign language, the other is on book covers.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is a great documentary about art, the power of heroes, and the end of communism in Romania. After the communist regime was established in 1948, travel was restricted, the media were censored and the secret police watched everyone. Romania was cut off from the rest of the world. In the mid-1980s, however, smuggled VHS tapes of American movies began to circulate. Underground groups would gather together to watch samizdat movies like Rocky and Lone Wolf McQuade.

lonewolfmcquade_quadFor many of the young boys (now men) featured in the documentary the West’s action heroes became role models of endurance, independence and fortitude. I too remember running home filled with enthusiasm after seeing Rocky but in Romania the message was all the more powerful because there was so little else to compete with Hollywood’s images and watching was itself a kind of heroic snubbing of the regime.

The action was exciting but perhaps even more revealing were the ordinary scenes of supermarkets stocked with food, at a time when Romania was racked with severe rationing. City lights, beautiful cars, and the ordinary freedoms of worship and belief casually portrayed, all impressed on the Romanian viewers the starkness of their own situation.

Almost all of the movies were dubbed (technically voice over translated) into Romanian by one woman who took on all the roles. Few people knew her name but her voice became entwined with that of the heroes she translated and she became a national symbol of freedom. Irina Nistor is revealed as a real hero who despite great personal risk continued to translate hundreds of movies because that is when she felt most free.

There’s also a mystery that the documentary discusses but does not fully answer. How did the mastermind of the smuggling operation, Teodor Zamfir, get away with it? At least some of the authorities had some idea of what he was doing but perhaps due to bribery, perhaps because there were no longer any true believers, perhaps because the authorities thought the movies would provide an escape valve from the harshness of Romanian life, they allowed the operation to continue. Zamfir also appears to have had immense personal charisma, so much so that he somehow turned an undercover operative to his side. It’s a remarkable story.

Chuck Norris Versus Communism is available on Netflix.

Hat tip: Dan Klein and also Emily Skarbek’s excellent post.

I wanted to like this book, as I am keen to discover new perspectives on the arts, even if I don’t agree with them.  “False” books on the arts often illuminate the artworks themselves, sometimes more than do the “true” treatments.  Yet this work I had a tough time making sense of.  I will confess to having read only about a third of it, and browsed some more.  As I understand the book’s thesis, the plasticity of the brain, as it changes across historical eras, helps explain changes in the content of the visual arts.  But I view brain plasticity as a generally overrated idea, evidence for such claims about the arts is hard to come by (how much do we know about differences in brains in ancient Athens for instance? And how good is our theory linking brain differences to artistic content?), and most of all neuroscience itself so often disappears during the book’s exposition.  Even the Amazon summary indicates the rather mysterious nature of the book’s main argument.  It is a beautifully produced volume, and it feels important, and maybe there is finally scope for a book of this kind, but…

Here is a (very) negative review by Matthew Rampley.  Some of you may nonetheless find this interesting.  It is a big ideas book, and perhaps it can prompt you to write a more clearly defined big ideas book in response.

Yup, I’m here.  I made this list before setting off:

1. Popular music: Few from any country come close to Fela Kuti, the main question is how many you should buy, not which ones.  Most of them!  On the CD medium, that old series of “two albums on one CD” was the best way to consume Fela.  On streaming, you can probably just let it rip.  And rip.  And rip.  Other favorites are King Sunny Ade and I.K. Dairo, I don’t love Fema Kuti.  You also might try Nigerian psychedelic funk rock from the late 60s and early 70s, for instance found here.  Most of all, there are thousands of wonderful local performers in Nigeria, you can watch a few of them on the Netflix documentary on the Nigerian music scene, titled Konkombe, recommended and only an hour long.

There is now a good deal of hit Nigerian and Nigerian-American music, such as Wizkid.  It is enjoyable but does not compare to Fela in terms of staying power.

2. Basketball player: The Dream is one of my three or four favorite players of all time.  My favorite Hakeem was watching him pick apart David Robinson play after play after play…see the final clip on the immediately preceding link.

3. Novel: Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.  Honorable mentions go to Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, and my colleague Helon Habila.  There are also the Nigerian-American writers, such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  Teju Cole is worth reading, including his non-fiction.

4. Movie: Well, I’ve seen parts of some of them, and you should at least sample some Nollywood if you haven’t already.  It’s kinetic.  The documentary “Nollywood Babylon” (Netflix) gives you some background.  As for “Movie, set in,” I draw a blank.  “Album, set in and recorded in” would be Band on the Run, Paul McCartney and Wings.

5. Actor: Chiwetal Ejiofor, he starred in “Twelve Years a Slave,” and is from a Nigerian family in Britain.

6. Presidential name: Goodluck Jonathan.

7. Artist: Prince Twins Seven Seven, or more formally Prince Taiwo Olaniyi Wyewale-Toyeje Oyekale Osuntoki.  He received his nickname because he was the only surviving child from seven distinct sets of twins.

prince_twins_seven-seven_1

8. Food dish: At least for now I have to say jollof rice, a precursor dish to jambalaya, further reports to come however!

The bottom line: Lots of talent here, plenty more on the way.

Merry Christmas!

by on December 25, 2016 at 12:19 am in History, Religion, The Arts | Permalink

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