Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Broeverbial No-No

  Yesterday the 2011 session of Carnegie Mellon U's Pre-College session opened. Apart from the fact that I really enjoy teaching Pre-College, and the fact that my nephew Seth is attending this year, this gave me a chance to speak to Boevers face-to-face about the pic he sent me (Fig. 1), and provide his commentary.
Fig 1. "You'd look like a carrot." -DB

Friday, June 17, 2011

Broeverbs; the proverbial sayings of David Boevers, edition 3: On Sucking

My favorite Broeverb so far is this one, referring to the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama:

"We're the best in the world at what we do, and we still suck."

I have waited a long time to put that one up because I thought it might reflect negatively on the School, but since the Professor went ahead and did it anyway, what the hell. On his blog, David points out that it is actually fairly celebratory, but reminds one to stay humble. True, but actually what I really like about this Broeverb is that it also does the opposite. Now, we have really terrific students in our program, and generally they work their butts off and excel brilliantly. And we, as faculty, work our butts off for them. Every day I solve problems in the program, negotiate with other faculty to help my students, assist other faculty on projects for their students, recruit them to help me with mine, help build the program generally, look for new experiences and resources to improve the student's experiences, and on and on. That's my job, and I like it. But students being students, they sure do seem, perhaps from the exhausted perspective of the faculty, to be able to point out every feature of every facet of the work we do that could be better. I'm not saying they complain constantly. No, actually I am saying they complain constantly, but that comes as much from a place of wanting to have a genuine, profound, and challenging experience as it does from a sense of privilege or entitlement. What the students don't see all the time, I feel, is what they are getting for their investment compared to other programs they might have chosen. The School really is quite remarkable in many ways. As much as I think of myself more as a Tigger than an Eeyore, I guess I tend to concentrate on the things that need improvement, which is fine, but sometimes I forget to think about how much we are getting right, every day, and how proud I am of the work that we do collaboratively with our students, because we still suck and I guess I wouldn't have it any other way.

Broeverbs; the proverbial sayings of David Boevers, edition 2: On Fashion

I mentioned to my colleague and friend David Boevers that I needed some fashion tips - I really don't know anything about men's style, clothes, hair, all that stuff that makes it pleasant to be around a person. I guess I was just in the library the whole time I was supposed to be learning that. So David kindly gave me his three high-fashion secrets:

1. Don't wear anything with a visible food stain on it.
2. Don't wear anything your wife hates [Fig. 1].
3. Never mix green and orange.

As it happens, I don't own a single article of green nor orange clothing, so I'm already 30% assured of success!
Fig. 1. The Boeverses. I don't know what Marisa sees in David's ear that she finds so funny, but I know at least he's not wearing green pants.

Robot Plays

It's well-known that RUR, a play by Karel Capek, featured the first modern conception of a "robot," and indeed coined the term. But for my little friend Data, Heather Knight's Comedybot, there are going to have to be some new titles. Here is a selected list from an old blog I used to maintain, called Lapsus Linguae (, before it was overrun, coincidentally, by robot spammers. Many of my pals at the CMU School of Drama contributed to these. Here's the best of:

A Doll's Mouse
'night, Motherboard
The Merchant of Virus
Riders from the C Drive
Curse of the Silicon Class
Ctrl-Alt-Delete, I Want to Get Off
'Tis Pity She's a Mac
Spam, a lot
The Iceman.cometh
Fool for RAM
Uncle Tom's Inbox
Mourning Becomes Electrons
Long Day's Journey into Byte
Suicide in BASIC
Charlotte's Website of the Western World
Cat on a Bot Tin Roof
Ibsen's Ghosts (In The Machine)
Waiting for Geardot
Downloading at Lughnasa
The King and IBM
Suite In Press Any Three Keys to Continue

The Stronger (by Strindborg)
110 Characters in Search of an Author
Blog of Anne Frank
House of 000FF Leaves
Servant of Two Applications
Curse of the Dialup Class
Scanner Drum Song
The Secret Password
Sunday in the Park with a Laptop
Merrily we Surf Along
A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the FAQ

Robodramatix Video Up!

The long-awaited (by me, anyway) edited video of the presentation Heather Knight and I gave at the TEDxCMU conference this year has been posted on YouTube. Thanks, James Pan and the rest of the TEDxCMU crew. Planning is already heavily underway for next year's conference.

When I was a kid, hearing yourself on tape was always embarrassing and off-putting. Now, seeing myself on digital video - jeez. Is my head really that big? Anyway, I know this presentation is a little bit awkward and maybe under-rehearsed, although both Heather and Data are so magnetic (literally, in Data's case) that it hardly seems to matter much, at least to that audience. But the point is that Data becomes more sophisticated each time he performs. I think you can perceive a lot of development since his debut with TED WOMEN in "Silicon-Based Comedy" a few years ago. Of course, he's been working with Matt Gray, a superb acting teacher of robots as well as humans. And I'll claim to have had a hand in this from the point of view of roboturgy - the "Hath Not a Robot Video Cameras?" speech from The Merchant of Virus by W(i)11-i/am Shakesbot, and perhaps the idea that Data may one day become the new prophet of Prometheus.

The point is that the development of Social Robotics is made of these building blocks - interactions between humans and robots that are analyzed by roboticists like Heather to make one further iteration forward towards increasing sophistication and compatibility. I am convinced now that performance theory is going to be of greater importance as the field develops, and weirdos like me are going to have a role to play, pardon the pun. Social intelligence is the reason why human cognition is so much more advanced over the other primates, and it is heavily imbricated with performance and mimesis. Machine intelligence will have to develop similarly; I'm proud and excited to be involved with this.

Anyway, enjoy!

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Illness and Recovery

If man thinks about his physical or moral state he usually discovers that he is ill.  ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sniffing at the Crotches of Power

Fig. 1. Do you see it? Do you see it?!?
The other night Yours Truly was out enjoying himself with a company of delightful dementigenstia of my acquaintance, pictured here recreating Da Vinci's Il Cenacolo  correcting all of the mistakes in the occult semiotics [Fig. 1].  From left, Louis Brown (holding a credit card rectifying the error in the painting that Bartholemew is not trying to pay for the dinner. Historically, Bartholemew was a notorious check-grabber, and expected everyone else to pony up for the theatre tickets), Mike Dzibiak looking for more vowels for his last name, Wayne Wise (a Professor of Comic Books - it's probably best that we can't see what he's doing with his hands) and Marcel Walker as either Andrew or Judas, depending on how well you know them. In the center is Mark Best, Chair of the Department of Godzilla Studies at Pitt - the less said about his Jesus Complex, the better. The Apostle Thomas is being played by Claude Mauk, Chair of the Languages You've Never Heard Of department at Pitt (you know, like Blonginese, V'larch, and High Pflerman). Then you see Mrs. Doc, me, and Baby Doc there as Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon, naturally! I mean, who else would we be? Also Maya Best is there as the hostess, not depicted by Da Vinci, who is coming over to tell the party they are disturbing the other customers by all sitting on one side of the table.

Just as in the actual last supper, we all fell to talking about famous celebrities we know. Until I joined Carnegie Mellon, I had a few close calls with the A-List, topped by three events:

3. I stood next to Steven Tyler on 7th Avenue in Seattle waiting for the light to change.
2. I attended an exhibition of Impressionist Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the accidental but prolonged company of Jamie Lee Curtis.
1. I took a piss in a Tribeca restaurant men's room next to Bill Murray [Fig. 2].

Fig. 2.  This image always makes me think of Ghostbusters.
But now I'm in show business, however tangentially, and I've hobnobbed with quite a few well-known folks; Alan Arkin, Elaine May, Ted Danson, John Wells, Stephen Bochco, Felicia Rashad, John Kani, Warwick Davis, Mike Carey and Mike Reiss being on the top of my list of good encounters. The funny thing is that a lot of the fanboy glamour goes away when you are doing it as part of your job. Not all of it, but taking an unexpected piss next to Bill Murray is a lot more titillating than spending three days helping John Wells (who is awesome) negotiate the ins and outs of the school to which he is donating a truckload of money. It's work. It's great getting to know John as a human being, and all that, and to learn from his astonishing example about how to do the work we do as well as he does, but you don't have the giggling consequence-free delight of being a faceless joe. Bottom line, you have to TREAT THEM LIKE HUMAN BEINGS, and that means that you have to ACT LIKE A HUMAN BEING.

But yesterday Jed Harris and I had lunch with the President (Emeritus) of the Pittsburgh City Council, Doug Shields. I'm a fan of the Councilman; voted for him every time he ran since I got here. He backs the causes I believe in, he was a great help to a big project at my son's school, and he came to see our Inspector General twice. After the second appearance he did a postshow talkback with myself, Jed, and Molly McCurdy (dramaturg) and I said "do you think people will be offended by my ridiculous lampooning of city government?" and he said "Lampooning? I thought you had put a hidden bug in the Mayor's Office and just wrote down what you heard." My ego as a writer, dramaturg, and adaptor soared, but my hopes as a citizen plummeted. After all, I put the worst garbage in there I could come up with. Anyway, the Councilman agreed to blurb the back of the book for me, and so when it came out I wanted to give him a few of my author's copies, which I get from CMU Press in lieu of "pay" (love ya, Jerry and Cynthia!). So we had lunch yesterday.

I believe that Doug is on the side of the Wise and the Just, which is probably why he's not Mayor. But every time I speak at length to him I get a better sense of what goes on in government, and at the age of 40 I know I shouldn't be so idealistic that it continues to make me sick to my stomach. It's like the meat and dairy industry - one day you learn how much blood and pus from damaged and infected cow's udders the USDA allows to be legally incorporated into cheese, and you say "I'll never touch animal products of any kind ever again." And a week later you're tucking back into the burgers. Politics is the same way. It's vile and disgusting and warps your mind and showcases the worst aspects of human existence, both on the side of the manipulators and those willing to be manipulated. Plus, no one is interested anymore in listening to me gass on about Marx as a precursor to discussing Brecht or Feminism, or Queer Theory. I should just forget about it and work on robots, but I can't. I keep returning to it like a dog revisiting its own upchuck. Today's sputum has to do with the wholesaling of Pennsylvania's clean air and water to the Marcellus Shale fatcats. I saw a similar process destroy the glorious natural resources of Utah once, and I'm nauseated to think about it happening again here in the woodlands.

Celebrities of any kind, entertainment or political, emit the same smell. It's the smell of your ability to think as an individual rapidly decomposing. The more you sniff it, the more of yourself you lose. Too bad it's so goddam addictive.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Living Without a Uvula;if you call that "living"

Fig. 1. Douchebag.
Coming out of the long, tedious, and frankly painful recovery process, I am now kind of emerging and taking stock of what's changed, apart from being able to sleep without choking. They say there are men of words and men of action - I'm definitely in the former camp. I'm a talker, because if you grow up loving learning (and surrounded by proud ignoramuses) and dark (surrounded by blondes) and fat (surrounded by natural athletes) and funny (surrounded by dull people) you really only have one edge, so you develop it. Being funny got me out of a lot of scrapes when I was a kid - making your persecutors laugh defuses whatever it is in them that wants to beat you up, and might even earn you a couple of friends. And then later, girls seem to appreciate funny and lumpy a lot more than ripped and assholish [Fig. 1]. But it's all about vocal control - pitching, volume, punctuating with noises, doing funny accents, that kind of thing. Cheap tricks compared to real acting, of course, but I found that those skills have served me well in the classroom to keep students engaged. If they're entertained, they're paying attention, at least.

Fig. 2. Oinkiotomy
My surgeon really did a number on my neck, for which I am grateful, but it's taking some getting used to. I kind of had to re-learn how to talk, which didn't take very long, but I am still having trouble with some words, or when I try to talk fast or loud; I trip over my tongue or bounce around in my mouth. I am also, as predicted, utterly unable to correctly pronounce the 'uvular R' in French. Admittedly I don't speak French as much as I used to (say, when I was in France), but I do put on some ridiculous accents in class sometimes. Not sure how to address that - perhaps I will trill my R's in French so people will just think I have a Spanish accent. I also cannot get the deep resonant "p-khhhoooowww!" that one employs when one represents explosions or cannon fire. Zain and I were playing with some pirate action figures and my guy fired his pistol and all I could manage was an airy "poh!" Zain yelled "ha! misfire!" and he proceeded to slash me from brain ter brisket, avast thar. Yardarmed in such manner, later I suffered a further humiliation at bedtime when trying to replicate the snort of a pig and coming up with nothing at all. My dear friend Dr. Mauk, a professor of Linguistics from Pitt, tells me that the uvular R is physiologically the same thing as the explody-noise and the oink, so it makes sense [Fig. 2 and 3].

Fig. 3. Not a douchebag
I'm willing to trade all that, no problem, for the extra twenty years of stroke-free life I've been promised, and the ability to sleep and even to dream again (been having doozies, after two decades of no dreams). Nor am I trying to compare myself with many of my colleagues in scholarship at the Society for Disability Studies, who every day have to deal with a lot more than suddenly not being able to oink. It's just a small reminder of Solomon's law, gam zeh ya'avor; this, too, shall pass. Our health, our voices, our able-ness - easy come, easy go. Carpe diem, y'all. Peace!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Non Culpae ex Esse Lupinotuum? The Werewolf Defense

Woodcarving of the execution of werewolf Peter Stumpfe
Check THIS out. A fellow named Thomas Stroup, from Ohio, was arrested after behaving violently at a campground, on May 31. He told the arresting officers he was scratched by a wolf in Germany, and ever since has blacked out during full moons. He was charged with underage intoxication.

What's interesting about this story is that the plea of "not guilty by reason of being a werewolf" is a very old legal defense with a strong precedent. For centuries people convicted of particularly violent or abhorrent crimes including rape, murder, cannibalism and graverobbing (and combinations thereof) have, at their trials, claimed to be werewolves and had their sentences commuted. It is a kind of "diminished capacity" or "insanity" defense, although it has very specific features, chief among them the subject's modeling explicitly wolflike behavior. Depending on where the trial was held, who was jerking the reins of power at the moment, and which book on the occult the prosecutors happened to be reading, werewolves could be grouped as witches (fully culpable) to be tortured and burned at the stake, or forgiven morally of the crimes committed while a wolf but still considered culpable of willfully becoming a wolf (and so to be executed), or just sentenced to two years in the madhouse as was the case with Jacques Roulet in 1598. In the 16th century, there was suddenly a massive uptick in the number of crimes blamed on werewolves - tens of thousands over a period of about forty years. The early decades of the 17th century, however,  saw a growing number of writers (including James I) who insisted that werewolfism, although certainly a common enough problem, was a psychological one, the product of an unstable mind rather than an unstable body. To this day, clinicians consider lycanthropy or therianthropy to be a valid, serious psychopathological condition.

Fig. 1. Not exactly "full."
Mr. Stroup would indeed have been unlucky to have encountered a wolf in Germany - wolves were hunted to extinction around the 18th and 19th centuries, apparently there are only a few dozen wolves (recent immigrants from Poland) in the whole country, and those in remote areas. Also, on May 31, 2011, the moon was in the waning crescent phase [Fig. 1]. These facts poke some holes in Mr. Stroup's defense, but I note that despite his violent behavior he was charged only with "underage intoxication." That is to say, he is guilty of the crime of choosing to become irrational, not of the crimes he committed while irrational. So, the defense appears to still have some bite to it.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Benefits of Getting Your Throat Ripped Out

I'm writing this because I've always wanted to put it down on paper but frankly I never had the self-awareness before to really describe it.

Fig. 1. Anthony Hopkins as John Talbot. Go get 'em, Tony!
When you are an insomniac, nighttime is, to steal a phrase from the character John Talbot in the recent remake of The Wolfman, "a wilderness of horrors" [Fig. 1]. You never know what kind of a journey you're going to have, but you know it won't be nice. You dread bedtime. You avoid it, you pace around it like a wolf in a cage. A good night is when you lie awake thinking of all the things you've done wrong, ever. Something hunts you. Your brain runs grainy, poorly-produced films of your failures. You spend your time staring at that frozen clock blinking 3:20 am knowing that now, no matter what happens, tomorrow is going to suck. Maybe you get up and watch tv, but you can't really work because you're tired and raw and scattered. On a good night, if you're me, you prowl the house, the internet, the refrigerator, and get whatever sleep you can on the couch. If you do sleep, it's an abyss, full of nightmares, or a gray, timeless blank that seems to do nothing to assuage the fatigue toxins accumulated in the previous day. Coffee would help clear your head, but then you can forget about sleeping at all. I've gone the other way a lot - brew up some joe, do some jumping jacks, and then you can work or play coherently through the night. But that's not a good idea - you can get away with a day, maybe, but the second day is much worse, and by nighttime you want to crawl out of your skin. After three days, you're in a perpetual fog. Little creatures flash at the peripheries. After five days of not sleeping, you have conversations with people who aren't there, and this is in the daytime. You take little side trips to alternate dimensions, which sounds fun, doesn't it? Whee. The thing that hunts you gets closer [Fig. 2].

Fig. 2. Insomnia - an insider's perspective.
Sleep to me is something that has for the past twenty years come in sporadic, short bursts - little oases in a big desert that slake just enough to make the aridity worse. If you're an insomiac, you know this - you fall asleep for fifteen minutes, then you're awake for two hours, sleep for fifteen minutes, and awaken again disoriented, frustrated, heart pounding, brain yoked in steel wool. The thing hunting you all night manifests in the room, staring from the edge of the bed. After a century, it gives up that soulless stare and gradually resolves itself into a shirt hanging from a hook, or something, which is small comfort. You feel like you're losing your mind. Or, you choke down some zolpidem tartrate (the down-market ambien), and then you feel like the poisoned corpse of Alexander VI, so bloated that the Swiss Guard have to jump on you to stuff you into your coffin. Sleep comes then under pressure, like a big hand holding you down until the alarm goes off. You come out of that groggy and bleary and on edge, and it takes a steady suction of caffeine to get through the waking day.

This experience is not uncommon, I know. But in my case, things continued to get worse over the years. For years, the second I fell asleep, I stopped breathing, so my brain mainlined the adrenaline cascade, and I caromed out of a dreamless sleep bolt upright, scared, angry, ready to fight or run, sometimes thrashing. The air pressure unit I had made things better for a while. If you have a CPAP you know it's no picnic - it's uncomfortable, noisy, it constantly blasts you with random spurts of air in your face, when it's up to speed you have to really work your lungs to exhale, and it perpetually farts and squeaks. Mine was set at 18 psi, out of 20 maximum - I hear that's pretty extreme - everyone else I know has theirs set at 4 or 6. But for me it improved my ability to stay asleep by about 50%, and so it was worth putting up with.

Fig. 3. This won't hurt a bit.
How you live with this, and try to eat right and exercise, and have a career and raise a family? Well you can plow forward with your wind machine telling yourself nothing's seriously wrong and yet complaining about it to anyone who has the misfortune of being stuck in an elevator with you until sooner or later it gets the better of you and some doctor says "it's time to rip out your throat" [Fig. 3]. Which, if you have a sense of humor about it (which I did NOT) is kind of like letting that thing that was hunting you catch up and kill you, and in the process discovering that you actually were the thing that was hunting you. Very Zen.

So the good news is, like most of the things that Zen promises if only you can resolve the ridiculous paradoxes, it worked. Haven't used the CPAP since. I admit it has been hard to fall asleep, because I am pretty uncomfortable from the surgery still, but once I fall asleep I more or less stay asleep -at least, I do not choke or stop breathing, and when I wake up I FEEL like I've slept! I used to drink about six cups of coffee before 1 o'clock - now I drink one or two.  I used to drink four diet cokes in in the afternoon and at dinner, now I drink one. I'm settling into a sleep pattern I can describe as "regular." The effects of the surgery were immediate but, as the scars in my throat solidify and tighten, it's getting even better.

I'm not fully recovered yet from the surgery, but it's kind of a new world. And best of all I'm not going to have to buy those silver bullets - which is a relief, because, have you priced those things lately?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Commencement 2011

Fig 1. Hogwarts Class of 2011

Not going to lie - I was less than a week out of surgery here, barely vertical, felt like there was a party in my head and everyone was being sick at once. But I love commencement. I know it's part of the things that make other professors look cockeyed at me and say "but, not really, right?" But I do. I worked my tuchas off for that ridiculous Grimace (tm) costume [Fig. 1] and by thunder I'm going to wear it, if only once a year. Yes, the royal robes of my Alma Mater do garner a lot of attention; but that's what Hogwarts regalia looks like. This was a particularly fine year for me, though - five graduates, many awards garnered by my students, and Anthea was the CFA Banner Carrier, which meant we walked through the campus together [Fig. 2]. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Also, a young fellow named Richard McIntyre was taking photos for The Thistle. Richard, as it happens, is my neighbor, and also a student in the karate dojo where I teach, and a friend of the family. So this was once of those very pleasant conjunctions of life, not to be missed. Also, Nicholas Mudd's mom Mary Jane gave me a Shofar from Jerusalem [Fig. 3].

Fig 2. Carns lets her freak flag fly
Fig 3. Shofar, so good.