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The Swimmer swims

Saturday, 13 August, 2016 0 Comments

It’s early to be contemplating life after Rio, but there’s just a week to go and our thoughts will soon turn to Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics, and the only Asian city to host the games twice. The first time was 1964 and highlights of the Games of the XVIII Olympiad included Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser winning the 100 metres freestyle for the third time in a row, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila winning his second Olympic marathon, New Zealand’s Peter Snell winning gold in the 800 metres and 1500 metres, and the US men’s swimming team winning all but three gold medals in the pool.

“The Swimmer” is a famous short story by John Cheever, which was published in The New Yorker in the summer of 1964. It begins with Neddy Merrill sitting by a friend’s pool on a sunny day. Suddenly, he decides to go home by swimming across all the pools in the neighbourhood, which he names “The Lucinda River” in honour of his wife. He starts off energetically, but his journey takes on a dark and surreal tone. Snippet:

“He took off a sweater that was hung over his shoulders and dove in. He had an inexplicable contempt for men who did not hurl themselves into pools. He swam a choppy crawl, breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of a flutter kick. It was not a serviceable stroke for long distances but the domestication of swimming had saddled the sport with some customs and in his part of the world a crawl was customary. To be embraced and sustained by the light green water was less a pleasure, it seemed, than the resumption of a natural condition, and he would have liked to swim without trunks, but this was not possible, considering his project. He hoisted himself up on the far curb — he never used the ladder — and started across the lawn.

When Lucinda asked where he was going he said he was going to swim home. The only maps and charts he had to go by were remembered or imaginary but these were clear enough. First there were the Grahams, the Hammers, the Lears, the Howlands, and the Crosscups. He would cross Ditmar Street to the Bunkers and come, after a short portage, to the Levys, the Welchers, and the public pool in Lancaster. Then there were the Hallorans, the Sachses, the Biswangers, Shirley Adams, the Gilmartins, and the Clydes. The day was lovely, and that he lived in a world so generously supplied with water seemed like a clemency, a beneficence. His heart was high and he ran across the grass. Making his way home by an uncommon route gave him the feeling that he was a pilgrim, an explorer, a man with a destiny, and he knew that he would find friends all along the way; friends would line the banks of the Lucinda River.”

You can download a PDF (89.3KB) of “The Swimmer” here.

The pool


The human heart and face

Friday, 12 August, 2016 0 Comments

On this day in 1827, William Blake died. The English poet, painter, printmaker and visionary was largely unrecognised during his lifetime, but is now considered a pivotal figure in the arts of the Romantic Age. When he was 14, his family decided that he would be apprenticed to an engraver, so his father took him to William Ryland, a highly respected master of the trade. The boy, however, resisted the arrangement telling his father, “I do not like the man’s face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged!” The grim prophecy came true 12 years later.

William Blake’s uncanny ability to expose the face that lies behind the mask resulted in some revealing and enduring paintings and poetry.

A Divine Image

Cruelty has a Human Heart
And Jealousy a Human Face
Terror the Human Form Divine
And Secrecy, the Human Dress

The Human Dress, is forged Iron
The Human Form, a fiery Forge.
The Human Face, a Furnace seal’d
The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

William Blake (1757 – 1827)

William Blake - Nebuchadnezzar

William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar is a print portraying the Old Testament Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. The story of Nebuchadnezzar tells of a ruler who through hubris lost his mind and was reduced to madness and eating “grass as oxen.”


James Joyce and Italo Svevo, Trieste and Zurich

Thursday, 11 August, 2016 0 Comments

In The Spectator, Philip Hensher offers a poignant review of Stanley Price’s James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship. Trieste played a key role in this happy episode of literary history and, recalling his time in the Italian seaport, Joyce said, “I met more kindness in Trieste than I ever met anywhere else.”

Joyce and his family had to leave Trieste shortly after the outbreak of World War I and they settled in Zurich, where most of Ulysses was written. The story goes that he went for a walk one evening by the shore of Lake Zurich and bumped into the English painter and Ministry of Information employee, Frank Budgen. After exchanging pleasantries, Budgen inquired as to how the novel was progressing and Joyce said that he had managed to produce two sentences during the day.

“You have been seeking the right words?” asked Budgen.
“No,” replied Joyce, “I have the right words already. What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentences I have.”

When the anti-hero of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, is walking along Sandymount Strand, he observes a dog belonging to a pair of cockle pickers discovering the body of another dog washed up by the sea. Here’s how Joyce used his vocabulary and syntax to convey the animal’s reactions:

“Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolfstongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies dogsbody’s body.”

The perfect order of words.


And may you go safely, Pádraig

Wednesday, 10 August, 2016 0 Comments

One of the founding members of folk group Clannad, Pádraig Duggan, died yesterday aged 67. Taking their name from the Irish word for family, the band consisted of Ciarán, Pól and Máire Brennan and their twin uncles Noel and Pádraig Duggan. Their younger sister joined the band in the late 1970s and went on to international success as Enya.

Clannad successfully fused Celtic music and pop, and their breakthrough came in 1982 when they recorded the theme for ITV series Harry’s Game, set among the sectarian killing in Northern Ireland. Siúil a Rún is a traditional Irish song, sung from the point of view of a woman lamenting a lover who has embarked on a military career.

“I wish I was on yonder hill
’tis there I’d sit and cry my fill,
And every tear would turn a mill,
Is go dté tú mo mhúirnín slán
(And may you go safely, my darling)


“Put it off for a bit. All life is putting off.”

Tuesday, 9 August, 2016 0 Comments

“I am a storyteller, using film, animation and a peculiar imagination to solve problems, connect people, and make change,” says Stuart Langfield tongue-in-cheek, using all the clichés of the trade. He’s fond of that story one, though: “I’m also developing a brand storytelling system for Shopify’s product marketing films,” he says. That should help pay the bills. The Ottawa-based e-commerce software maker more than doubled its sales in the second quarter of this year to $3.4 billion.

When storytelling was young and commerce was not preceded by an e plus a hyphen, Thomas More said, “What is deferred is not avoided.” Some 500 years later, Anthony Burgess said, “Put it off for a bit. All life is putting off. Well, not entirely.” In that spirit, Stuart Langfield tackles that most unavoidable of chores: Procrastination.

“But indefinite visions of ambition are weak against the ease of doing what is habitual or beguilingly agreeable; and we all know the difficulty of carrying out a resolve when we secretly long that it may turn out to be unnecessary. In such states of mind the most incredulous person has a private leaning towards miracle: impossible to conceive how our wish could be fulfilled, still — very wonderful things have happened!” — George Eliot, Middlemarch


Girls gone, gone, gone, gone, gone

Monday, 8 August, 2016 0 Comments

The huge commercial success of both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has not passed unnoticed by the modern version of Grub Street, the London thoroughfare once famed for “its concentration of impoverished ‘hack writers’, aspiring poets, and low-end publishers and booksellers.” Young women have been pressed into service by this cruel trade in the hope that another lady-vanishes winner can be typed while the genre is hot. Five hopefuls for the crock of gold:

Good as Gone by Amy Gentry. “When 13-year-old Julie Whitaker is kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, her family shatters. As the years go by and the search for Julie turns up nothing, even her mother Anna begins to lose hope. Then one night, the doorbell rings.”

All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda. “It’s been ten years since Nicolette Farrell left her rural hometown after her best friend, Corinne, disappeared from Cooley Ridge without a trace.”

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. “As soon as Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw sees the photograph of missing Edith Hind — a beautiful Cambridge post-grad from a well-connected family — she knows the case will be big.”

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry. “A woman is missing in the East Riding. She vanished from Hedon, near where we grew up. When Rachel will learn of the disappearance, she will think it’s him.”

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. “This would be the piece that mattered most later, months later when Ryan was gone. She would think of their arrival and wonder why she hadn’t seen it all coming. But who could have seen anything at all that night but their bright-spangled beauty?”

According to the Paris Review, George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) “is good for a whole host of reasons, but it’s a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on ‘the writing life’ — in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece.” Ouch!

“Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell, he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits.” — George Gissing, New Grub Street


Light in August

Sunday, 7 August, 2016 0 Comments

“In August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and — from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone.” — Light in August, William Faulkner

Light in August


@WPOlympicsbot

Saturday, 6 August, 2016 0 Comments

The Washington Post will use artificial intelligence (AI) technology to report on and from the Rio Olympic Games. Its “Heliograf” technology will automatically generate short multi-sentence updates, offer a daily schedule of events, update results, calculate medal tallies and send alerts 15 minutes before the start of a final event. These updates will appear in the paper’s blog and on Twitter.

“Automated storytelling has the potential to transform The Post’s coverage. More stories, powered by data and machine learning, will lead to a dramatically more personal and customized news experience,” Jeremy Gilbert, director of strategic initiatives at the Washington Post, told Recode.

Heliograf will also play a role in the paper’s coverage of the November US elections, where it will generate stories for some 500 races. Heliograf is part of a suite of AI tools at the core of Arc, the Washington Post publishing platform.

PS: The world’s first website went online 25 years ago today. Created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, it was a basic text page with hyperlinked words that connected to other pages. Berners-Lee used the launch to promote his plan for the service, which would come to affect so many aspects of life and business in the 21st century. From hyperlinks to AI bots filing reports on the Olympic Games, it’s been an extraordinary 25 years.


Human cruelty and evil

Friday, 5 August, 2016 0 Comments

Yesterday’s post here about artificial and emotional intelligence referenced Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty. The book appeared under a different title in the United States: The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Human Cruelty. The use of the “e as in evil” added to its impact in the bookstores, no doubt, as the combination of “Evil” and “Cruelty” beats “Empathy” and “Cruelty” when it comes to visceral reactions.

Evil The cruel person, says Professor Baron-Cohen, treats someone as if they are an object — ignoring their thoughts and feelings. This is one of the worst things a person can do to another human being. A person suspends empathy when thinking only about his or her own mind (single-mindedness) because empathy is the ability to “identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and respond to that with appropriate emotion,” writes Baron-Cohen. This “empathy erosion” arises from emotions such as resentment or hatred and those who entirely lack empathy are borderline personalities: psychopaths and narcissists.

Compared to the cruel person, an empathic person does not merely ask someone how they are feeling, rather he or she avoids hurting their feelings, considers how to make them feel good and evaluates the impact of his or her words and actions on others. The empathic person listens to what is said, notes how it is said and responds in a decent way. In this way, empathy is a human and a saintly quality.

In the final chapter, “Reflections on Human Cruelty,” Baron-Cohen deliberates on the risks of indifference to cruelty and terrorism. Hannah Arendt’s famous “banality of evil” characterization of Adolf Eichmann is assessed in light of the criticism expressed by the late David Cesarini that she observed only the beginning of the war criminal’s trial. Had she stayed longer, she would have seen how the Nazi displayed extraordinary creativity in planning mass murder. As regards terrorists, their unempathic acts are not necessarily the result of lack of empathy claims Baron-Cohen. “The belief and/or the actual political context may drive the behavior,” he says. This may be so, but as the 9/11 terrorists flew their planes into the Twin Towers, few would deny that their switched-off empathy had led them down a path of cruelty to acts of incomprehensible evil.

Cruelty and evil are facts of life. We should not shy away from naming and shaming them or those persons who engage in human cruelty and evil.

“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago


Intelligence: artificial and emotional

Thursday, 4 August, 2016 0 Comments

This short clip about an AI unit that is “anything but artificial” is the the creation of Dennis Sung Min Kim. He describes it as a “First year film at the University of Pennsylvania, taking around ten months for completion.”

Empathy has been termed the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. In his best-selling book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, writes:

“It allows us to tune into how someone else is feeling, or what they might be thinking. Empathy allows us to understand the intentions of others, predict their behavior, and experience an emotion triggered by their emotion. In short, empathy allows us to interact effectively in the social world. It is also the ‘glue’ of the social world, drawing us to help others and stopping us from hurting others.”

Simon Baron-Cohen? Yes, he is the cousin is the actor Sacha Baron Cohen. Why no hyphen in the latter name, but one in the former? It’s because of a typographical error in Simon Baron-Cohen’s first professional article. He didn’t correct the publisher’s misspelling, but he did adopt the punctuation mark.


Future sex with gynoids and guynoids

Wednesday, 3 August, 2016 0 Comments

The word “gynoid” was used by Gwyneth Jones in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance to describe a female robot slave character in a futuristic China. Does this mean, then, that the male equivalent is a “guynoid”? Not quite. Gynoid is created from the Ancient Greek prefix gyno– (of or pertaining to women or the female reproductive system) + android, a Greek word used to refer to robotic humanoids regardless of gender. However, the Greek prefix “andr-” means man in the masculine sense and because of this android is used to describe male-styled robots. Given the established etymology, it’s going to be a battle to replace androids with guynoids.

All this is by way of saying that sex with robots is very much in the news. Let’s take three of today’s headlines, starting with The New Scientist. “Could sex robots and virtual reality treat paedophilia?The Daily Mirror is more of a mass-market publication: “Expert to publish ‘how to build your own sex robot’ handbook after Scarlett Johansson lookalike success,” while The South China Morning Post brings us back to the gynoid world of Gwyneth Jones: “Sex and robots: How mechanical dolls may press all the right buttons for lonesome guys.”

Actually, that last headline is quite topical in light of the work being done by Kathleen Richardson, a Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University in Leicester. Last September, she published a position paper titled “The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots.” Snippet:

“Following in the footsteps of ethical robot campaigns, I propose to launch a campaign against sex robots, so that issues in prostitution can be discussed more widely in the field of robotics. I have to tried to show how human lifeworlds of gender and sexuality are inflected in making of sex robots, and that these robots will contribute to gendered inequalities found in the sex industry.”

The debate about the gendering of robots and the sexualized personification of machines is on.

Ex Machina