Mad about the bots: Daniel Mendelsohn on robo-history

By now, most of us know that the history of computing machines goes pretty far back—all the way to the ancient world, as the Antikythera mechanism shows. Devices such as the chess-playing Turk and the clockwork duck that could eat and defecate make clear that the same is true for robots and other automata. Both of those happen to have been hoaxes, but even they illustrate that our interest in simulated creatures is not newfound. (Incidentally, a short and lively book by literary critic Hugh Kenner called The Counterfeiters, published in the late 60s, discusses some of these simulacra; it’s where I first learned of them.) The recent film Ex Machina put me in mind of this historical question, and it was easy to think of the Pygmalion and Galatea story as one long-ago antecedent and the golem legend as another. Unsurprisingly, there’s more to it than that, and this article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, by Daniel Mendelsohn, makes clear that “We have been dreaming of robots since Homer.”

The article is in part a commentary on the movies Her and Ex Machina, and it discusses the entirety of their stories, so if you’re concerned to avoid spoilers, you should read Mendelsohn’s piece only after you’ve seen them. Though it’s not intended as a compendium, Mendelsohn touches on enough treatments of androids that I was a little surprised he didn’t discuss Metropolis, whose robotic woman goes against the common narrative of rebellion. Another conceivable counterexample that he passed over—probably because it’s too far off his tack—is the lovely but solipsistic Björk-bot in Chris Cunningham’s music video for “All Is Full of Love,” a work that leaves the human world behind altogether. And I disagree with him on a point or two with regard to Ex Machina. Nonetheless, Mendelsohn’s essay is by far the most sensible and sensitive reading of Her and Ex Machina that I’ve found.


Fiasco’s Two Gentlemen: A play for blooming spring

The troupe of strolling players in Fiasco's Two Gentlemen: Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen, Emily Young, Jessie Austrian, Paul L. Coffey, and Noah Brody. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Troupe of strolling players: Zachary Fine, Andy Grotelueschen, Emily Young, Jessie Austrian, Paul L. Coffey, and Noah Brody. (Photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Is The Two Gentlemen of Verona Shakespeare’s most bro-y play? Maybe not; it isn’t purely about the guys. Yet they clearly have the upper hand, and it’s easy to see 2GV as a Vince Vaughn–Owen Wilson comedy, in which one of them, leaving his lady love behind in Verona, goes to visit his best bud forever in Milan, where he instantly falls for the woman his pal is also set on. The frolicsome plot involves meddlesome parents, a disguise, some comic servants, a dog, and a band of not-very-fearsome outlaws. This is early Shakespeare, and though it lacks some of the clarity and depth of his later writing, the play is lyrical and mostly lighthearted even in its serious moments—it abounds in the spirit of youth in springtime. In dramatizing a clash of love and friendship, it’s also—no surprise—more daring than anything in Vaughn and Wilson’s scripts.

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Are Twitter announcements private? A brief consideration

As most people who follow the news are aware, on Tuesday an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia, injuring most of the 200-plus passengers and crew and killing eight. On Thursday, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who studies technology and social media, quoted a tweet saying this (note that the tweet she quoted appears at the bottom):

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Revisiting earlier impressions of Mad Men

In March 2012, as the fifth season of Mad Men got underway, I wrote about the show for the blog to which I contributed at the time. My perspective on the issues raised by the show is now sharper, more complicated, and better informed, thanks largely to this collection of critical essays, and if I were to write about Mad Men now I’d have to tackle some of those issues. This post is largely a matter of personal impressions—but those, after all, are part of everyone’s response to the show. (Incidentally, anyone who has yet to experience the show at all will find nothing essential spoiled here.) I’ll let these rather limited remarks stand and add one further thought. With just two episodes left, we still aren’t sure—or at least I’m not—how to interpret the show’s title sequence. Don Draper enters his office, suitcase in hand; his surroundings collapse, and he finds himself falling, through towering buildings and a collage of ad-like images. It suggests that the character is heading for a fall, yet the sequence ends by restoring him to stability, comfortably reposing on a couch. Does Don always land on his feet—or, more precisely, on his seat?

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Mad Men: Still Smokin’?

Did people really smoke that much? This was one of my first two responses when I sat down to watch Mad Menfrom the beginning on DVD two years ago: it could’ve been called That Cigarette-Smoking Show. In much of America, the slate has now been wiped so clean—a process begun by the 1964 Surgeon General’s report, dealt with in Season Four of Mad Men—that it’s hard to believe the clouds we used to live and work in. But it’s true: in 1965, after that unsettling report, 23 percent of American adults smoked a pack or more a day. (It had fallen to 7 percent in 2007.)

If you’ve seen AMC’s show, you know what clouds I’m talking about. If you haven’t, try dropping in on an episode. It may seem uneventful, which is because everything connects—much of the meaning derives from implications for…

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Mark Morris at BAM: A bit of a letdown

From Mark Morris's Crosswalk. (Photograph by Elaine Mayson)

From Mark Morris’s Crosswalk. (Photograph by Elaine Mayson)

Most artists, like most people, have their ups and downs. Choreographer Mark Morris may have had an entire down year recently, to judge from a program of three dances from 2013 that the Mark Morris Dance Group presented at BAM’s opera house in late April. (This was the second of two programs that MMDG offered; I didn’t see the first.)

Crosswalk is a work for 11 dancers set to a Carl Maria von Weber piece for clarinet and piano (his Grand Duo Concertant, op. 48), and upon hearing the clarinet, my first thought was that Weber’s playful, spritely use of the instrument would bring forth the same qualities in the dancing. In many small ways, it did, but overall the piece seemed pedestrian, sometimes literally so—part of it involved dancers walking across the stage in planes, as if they really were using crosswalks. It’s as if Morris had observed the jostling disorder of a busy intersection (which, coincidentally, is just the human scene that the artificial intelligence named Ava longs to watch in the current film Ex Machina) and had refined the experience into something neat and slightly stylized. The picture is enjoyable, but the dance doesn’t seem dense or varied enough to support its length of roughly 20 minutes.

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