June 2021
American Robot

As I write this, the video of a rave of robots from Boston Dynamics dancing to the song “Do You Love Me?” by The Contours has over thirty million views. Knowing that readers of 5enses are sophisticated, cultured, and deeply interested in the future, I am sure all of you if not most of you have already seen it. Probably several times. It’s addictive. 

Why? Because outside its supernal coolness, it humanizes a technological development that gives many people a mental hissy-fit. To wit, the notion that one day in the now not-so-far future, humanoid robots will take over the world (unless Pinky and the Brain beat them to it).

For years, engineers and technicians have been working hard to fashion robots that look like us. In contrast, the really practical robots we have built look nothing like humans. Most are little more than mechanical arms terminating in a variety of tools designed to complete one task and one task only, over and over and over. Industrial robots do not get tired, don’t require lunch or potty breaks, can work around the clock and, perhaps most important to certain companies, are in no danger of unionizing. They are the perfect workers: silent, efficient, incredibly precise, and utterly lacking in anything resembling a retirement plan. Watching them hard at work, many don’t even think of them as robots. They're just repetitive, mindless tools, no different from a power drill, bandsaw, or certain Congressmen.

But humanoid robots, even though on the inside they are little different from those automatic welders and lifters and cutters and paint sprayers, have always had a tendency to unsettle people. Blame it on the movies, where most robots seem to have an irresistible desire to burst through walls, assassinate innocents, reject their programming, and occasionally carry off that C-level actress who won Miss Pork Pie Topeka 2020 and whose acting skills barely come up to the level of the machine hefting her, but whose exterior is of a different and usually more interesting configuration altogether.

To reiterate once and for all, robots that look like us are no different from those that polish toasters prior to final packaging. They can only operate according to their programming, right? Except, as demonstrated by the Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot (who, interestingly, has no spots), they are now for the first time capable of making their own rudimentary decisions. Program Spot to run into a wall and Spot’s internal decision-making capabilities will allow him (it? her?) to avoid the collision. That’s an impressive step in the development of robot AI. Maybe not as impressive as a pair of humanoid robots doing the funky chicken, but the latter example is wholly pre-programmed. There’s no independent decision-making involved. When a humanoid robot competes on Dancing with the Stars to its own self-generated choreography, then maybe it’ll be time to be a little twitchy (“I’m sorry, sir, but your moves are entirely too stiff and mechanical”). Subsequent to which the irate robot vaporizes the judges (no, wait ...).

Blame it on the movies.

See how easy it is to lose oneself in contemplation of an entertaining if unlikely near future? I don’t worry about robots. What I do occasionally worry about is inimical programming. Right now there is nothing like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (look ‘em up) because there is no need for them, nor does there currently exist any robot that would need to be governed by their strictures.

The future, now — I can’t predict what artificial intelligence or AI programming will be like in a hundred years. Nobody can. Keep in mind that eighty years ago a video of dancing robots existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. For that matter, video existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. Not to mention having a home computer or phone capable of viewing it. That’s how fast technology is changing.

Simple robotic devices now clean our homes, our hotels, work in hospitals, do limited driving of our cars, make decisions for aircraft (mostly but not always good ones, sadly), explore the oceans, and drive around semi-independently on Mars. None is humanoid in shape. There is no reason why they could not be, except that it is not practical. Remember the animated TV show The Jetsons? The cartoon family had a robot maid who vacuumed and did housework. Today you can buy a robot to do the vacuuming, but it doesn’t look anything like the Jetsons’ loquacious Rosie. Just as all those robots working in auto plants look nothing like the Terminator. Or your Uncle Sylvester from Philly.

If and when we do get commercial-grade humanoid robots, they will have to be programmed. It is conceivable that such machines could be programmed by evil technicians to carry out malicious tasks. We will need some kind of fail-safe built into every robot so that unstable Ted Suburban can’t program his new household model to go strangle his noisy neighbor. Or his barking dog (pace, Spot). Of course, Ted will also program his own household robot to defend him, as supported by the NRA (National Robot Association).We will need new laws, maybe new courts, and perhaps eventually a robot Bill of Rights.

For now, though, I’m happy to watch them dance to “Do You Love Me” on the official Boston Dynamics video. Not so much the fan video that overlays Flight of the Conchords’ “The Humans are Dead” on the same imagery.

I have to admit that one is a teensy bit unnerving.

May 2021
Wither Weather?

This is my one-hundredth column for Perceivings. That’s a lot of disquisition.

So for this month’s column I thought to do something related to the number 100. My initial idea was to write about the hundred-dollar bill, but that seemed churlish given that a lot of people right now are experiencing a shortage of that particular denomination. Times are tough for many folks, and one thing they do not need is to be reminded of what they don’t have. 

What does everybody have? What commonality circulates around the number 100? This being Arizona, often the first thing that comes to mind for residents as well as visitors is the temperature. Every radio and television weather broadcast seems to have a contest offering prizes for the individual who can pick the first day and sometimes the exact time of day the temperature in Phoenix, or Yuma, or Tucson, will hit a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. 

It’s a good thing the Founding Fathers didn’t listen to Benjamin Franklin or we would somehow have to struggle along without these contests. Franklin wanted the nascent US to adopt the much more sensible metric system. In Celsius, a hundred degrees Fahrenheit is 37.77 degrees. This is plainly an insufficiently catchy number on which to base a weather contest. Similarly, a hundred degrees Celsius is 212 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point goofy weather contests become untenable. Also our species and pretty much everything else. 

I reckon I have seen tens of thousands of television weathercasts. In these days of fast internet connections and wristwatches that are smarter than their wearers, the weather forecast is available instantly nearly everywhere in the world. Such forecasting has transformed farming in Africa and fishing in the Pacific. But we still have our television weather segments to break up the actual news and force us to wait for the sports. Green screens and remote controls notwithstanding, these weathercasts represent a link with the television past. Presentations are sufficiently traditional that there is actually very little to differentiate a TV weather forecast of today from those in the early days of the medium.

Still, some things don’t change. For example, in hopes of gaining viewers many station managers experiencing low ratings tend to favor attractive women to present the weather. They may have advanced degrees in meteorology or competing in beauty pageants, and I do not need to explain which one will get you on the air faster. Having both is a rare combination. Failing that, there is a noticeable correlation between the ability to speak rapidly the higher up one rises in national weather presentations on the major networks. The principal weather folk on all the national US channels talk so fast that they might as well be explaining binary code instead of the cold front currently passing through Dubuque. 

In contrast, weather presenters in other countries aim for comprehension instead of speed. I enjoy watching the weather on the BBC, not only because the presentation is sedate (although even the Brits seem to be shoveling it at us faster and faster these days, just like Americans), but also because the Beeb gives us the weather for the entire planet. There’s a bit of a guilty pleasure in enjoying the weather in Arizona while Shanghai is bracing for a typhoon. Tracking the seasonal monsoon in India brings those of us in Arizona a bit closer to the other side of the world.

There are a few things about the traditional TV weathercast that still bother me, though. Why is it that when I really need to see the forecast for Prescott and the weather map is on screen, the presenter always seems to be standing in front of Prescott? And that map! The names of the cities are writ so large it is impossible even for those of us who have lived in this state a long time to locate our communities. Take Casa Grande. On the weather maps, you can scarcely tell by looking at the longish name whether the city lies in the western or eastern portion of the state, much less pinpoint its exact location. In addition to the city names, why can’t weather maps put in little stars or something to indicate exactly where a city is situated? Somehow I think the relevant expensive software could handle that.

At least we don’t live in a vast metropolitan area like greater Phoenix. Presumably the folks who dwell in the Valley of the Sun have some idea where their homes are located when the city weather map appears. Is it really necessary to show the same temperature (maybe a degree difference now and then) between Gilbert and Chandler, downtown Phoenix and Glendale? All those similar, often identical forecasts just crowd the map.

Last, I have to plead with the station weather folk. Please, please, when you’re showing weather rolling through Arizona, could you maybe run through the weather’s progress at a speed lower than supersonic? As it is, within seconds an incoming, developing storm has traveled on the map from Yuma to Window Rock. Then you repeat it. At the same ridiculous speed. Over and over. Maybe you stop the video once. Twice, if the viewer is lucky. Honestly, while you are talking couldn’t you slow down the video so we can actually see where and when the rain or snow is going to materialize? 

Unlike the inevitable follow-up plug for the chili festival in Apache Junction, that would actually be useful, weather-wise.

April 2021
Algorithm for the Deceased

Except in zombie films, we know we cannot raise the dead. But technology is making it increasingly easy for even talented amateurs to restore to some of the deceased a semblance of life.

I’m not talking about modern CGI, where an entire individual is recreated using computer graphics. I am referring to the use of advanced colorization techniques and AI to reanimate the appearance and in some cases the movements of the long departed.

Maude Adams, unknown photographer, 1890s
Maude Adams, after

This is a trend that began by using computers to colorize old black-and-white films. The first efforts were, at best, muddy and consisting of fuzzy imagery that looked like it had been colored with crayons. The necessary tech improved rapidly. Colors became more natural and the images sharper.

Following film, the technique was applied to classic television shows, so now we can watch episodes of I Love Lucy and revel in the sight of Lucille Ball’s red hair without flinching. Whether or not you agree with the practice, it has to be admitted that color adds sprightliness and immediacy to the old broadcasts. I suspect that before too long the technology required will become cheap and easy enough to use so that you can do it on your home computer, enabling you to render in color that favorite obscure TV show from your childhood (well, from the childhoods of folks my age, anyway).

I do not know at what point or place in time it occurred to someone that a similar technique could be equally applied to still as well as moving images. Adding color to still photos by means of hand-coloring has been with us almost since the invention of photography, proving that many people wanted images in color from the beginning. It’s one reason why folks continued to sit for portrait paintings long after photography provided a more accurate rendering of reality.

Emperor Severus Alexander (d. ACE 235)

I appreciate the aesthetic of b&w photography as much as anyone, but eliminating color does not always enhance life. It’s a different art form, much as silent film differs from sound. But from the standpoint of bringing people to life, b&w, especially early b&w, has a number of unavoidable drawbacks.

First off, well, dead people turn gray. No getting around that one. No matter how you try to rationalize the time and tech, sitters in 19th-century photos always appear just a little demised. Then there is the usual stiffness, the formality of their poses. This was largely, but not always, because it was considered appropriate to act formally when sitting for a formal portrait. Our ancestors, famous and otherwise, nearly always appeared downright stoic when having their pictures taken. And they rarely smile. Not only because they’re sitting for “formal” portraits, but because many had bad teeth.

Sarah Bernhardt after
Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar, 1896

The ritual of having to sit motionless for a painted portrait carried over into photography. Not to mention that sitters had no choice in the matter if they wanted the result to be sharp. Long exposure times meant that the subject simply could not move if the photographer was to capture a clear image.

What if newer, advanced colorization techniques could be combined with those of artificial intelligence to not only bring forth natural color from old b&w photos, but movement as well? As the writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

That is what we have now: a process more and more indistinguishable from magic. Consider George Washington. The president sat for many painted portraits, as befits the man and his station. Except: the man is just as valid as the station. What if we could not only view Washington in natural color, but see him blink? See his eyes move? Maybe even see him — smile? We have no photographs to work with, but what if a similar technique could be applied to paintings of the man? And to his successors?

Have a look:

Our predecessors did not appear exactly like us, of course. In those fading black-and-white images, with the antique makeup, jewelry and clothing, we rarely find them attractive, the men as well as the women. But add a little color, a little movement, perhaps even let an algorithm play with a hairstyle, and you have this:

I’ll match Maude Adams against any of today’s cosmetically enhanced beauties. With color and a smile, doesn’t Sarah Bernhardt look just a little like Elizabeth Taylor?
Why restrict ourselves chronologically? Paintings of the Roman emperors are scarce. But the ancient Romans insisted on accurate representations of their appearance in sculpture, so:

Hi, Julius.

What is amazing about this technology is that it is in its infancy. In less than ten years I expect Washington to stand up and speak, Caesar to move in three dimensions, and famous beauties to be available to substitute on your communications device for Siri and Alexa — not just verbally, but in person. In a hundred years ….

In a hundred years we’ll be able to invite them all around for a party.

February 2021
Metal Can Be Funny

Yes, metal can be funny. It can even make you laugh out loud while not taking itself too seriously. But you do have to pay attention and ….

Oh, wait, not that kind of metal. I’m referring to the musical kind. The genre known as heavy metal, or more concisely, just metal. Music as typified by such progenitors as Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rammstein, Evanescence, and these days by bands like Apocalyptica, Sonata Arctica, Amon Amrath, Sabaton, Stratovarious, Hammerfall, and many more. Far too many to name. And of course, Nightwish. Calling Nightwish a metal band is like labeling Beethoven a songwriter, though they can go as hard as anyone.

There are so many practitioners of metal and so many bands that there are specific publications dedicated to the genre, like Metal Hammer (metal-band names tend to be takeoffs on High Fantasy tropes). Confusingly, the illustrated magazine Heavy Metal was about comics and graphic novels, and was the English-language version of the French magazine Metal Hurlant.

When any creative subgenre, be it of fiction, music, painting or sculpture, gets popular, satire and parody inevitably follow. The best satire builds on its subject matter instead of simply making fun of it. Think the political sketches on Saturday Night Live. The skits skewer their subjects while also becoming political commentary in their own right. Metal-music parody is no different. Any group can make fun of the genre by dressing up and throwing out thunderous riffs. Borderline metal group Spinal Tap naturally comes immediately to mind. Or, going back much further and branded as pop-rock, The Monkees. What was intended to be little more than a TV joke ended up producing some very good music.

Performing musical satire while simultaneously making good music is much more difficult than it sounds. With regard to classical music one thinks of the Hoffnung Music Festival, or for Americans, Victor Borge.

Performing musical satire while simultaneously making good music is much more difficult than it sounds.

Ever heard of Pirate Metal? It’s exactly what it purports to be: metal produced and played around a pirate theme. Its foremost proponents are the Scottish band Alestorm (even the name is a satire on the genre). I highly (perhaps I should say heartily) recommend their video Drink. Also Keelhauled, Shipwrecked, Fannybaws, and, well, one that’s not reproducible in a family paper. With some sharp instrumental playing and wackadoodle singing, this band will have you in stitches while simultaneously appreciating their musical abilities. Nothing is sacred and the only thing they hold back on is their actual capacity to imbibe all manner of recreational stimulants.

I am told this how Scotland is and the Scots are, but having been there a couple of times myself I remain dubious. Perhaps it all takes place behind closed doors only, and me without a ticket.

Currently we have Gloryhammer, which has a creative connection with Alestorm (there is more incest in the metal genre than in six generations of mittel-European royalty). Scifi Metal instead of Pirate Metal. Once again, driving power metal with excellent musicianship in the service of songs like “Legendary Enchanted Jetpack,” “Power of the Dragon Laserfire” (I am not making these up), “The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee” (these are Scots, remember), and the immortal “The Epic Rage of Furious Thunder”— about as metal a song title as anyone could come up with. The lyrics are commensurate with the titles, but if those are all cheese, the music is not. Inspiration is where you find it.

I could go on, but we’ll end with the band Nanowar of Steel, which is an Italian parody band doing satirical music in the style of northern European metal groups. The lyrics to their songs are hilarious, the music is great, and the musicians are inspired. I recommend “Norwegian Reggaeton,” which may change your perception of Caribbean music forever, “The Call of Cthulhu,” which is something other than what Lovecraft had in mind, “And Then I Noticed that She was a Gargoyle,” which is kind of the obverse of the TV show The Bachelor.

In any event, there is the recent “Valhallelujah.” If you don’t have a favorite Christmas song, even ifwhere Christmas is concerned you are deeply and severely humbugged, I suggest you watch the video for this one. There is a great central riff, some moving gospel, and a concluding suggestion for Christmas gifts as well as the anxiety that attends them. Furthermore, the band’s founder, Edoardo Carlesi, is a noted polyglot and astrophysicist. So if “Valhallelujah” is not your liking, you can try his 2013 paper The imprints of quintessence dark energy on the cosmic web and galaxy clusters.

These groups are not a vaccine, but they do inoculate against taking everything too seriously. Also, unlike anything from Pfizer or Moderna, you can sing along with them.

January 2021
The Buzz

It seems that folks are pretty agitated right now, opinions sharply divided, neighbor quarreling with neighbor, even battling over something as silly as signs (my favorite sign says “Ice Cream Sold Here”). Might be a good time for everyone to take a step or two back and spend a few minutes contemplating the marvelous part of the world in which we are all fortunate enough to live (maybe minus the signs). If Nature can do it on a regular basis, why can’t we?

Take bees, arguably our most beneficial insect. They provide us with honey that is not only nutritious and tasteful but therapeutic as well. They pollinate our fruit and vegetable farms, giving us food. They pollinate flowers, giving us beauty. And yet for many people they have somehow acquired a reputation for being argumentative. Yes, they sting, but only when seriously provoked, something useful to remember during election season. Bees always work together for the general good of the hive, one reason they’re called “social” insects. Nobody rails at them and calls them communist insects. Bees don’t worry about being labeled by other species.

About ten years ago they colonized our well house. Starting from nothing, they built an enormous, thriving hive, not unlike the folks who founded this country. They made use of their natural environment (without destroying it) and constructed a compact, highly successful little civilization. They’re all immigrant stock, too. Our honeybees were imported from Eurasia. I enjoyed watching them at work on the blossoms around our house. We’ve been here for forty years and in all that time I was stung only once, my fault. Can’t say the same for local politicos.

One time they colonized the main house, and we had to have them put down. It was a painful but necessary move. Their buzzing was keeping us awake and they posed a danger to our dogs. But the colonization of the well house was another matter. It was well away from the main structure and posed no threat to our animals. Except — the combs they constructed outside the smaller building blocked the doorway.

I could walk right up to the hive, filled with thousands of busy workers, and they completely ignored me. But if I opened the door it would break off some of the comb, and they would likely react the same way as if someone broke into our house. So we had them moved by a beekeeper. Ten years later they were back, and the same situation developed.

Combs hanging outside, filled with honey and larvae. This time we engaged some folks from Skull Valley. Tom and Michele Veatch of Prescott Beekeepers came out and spent the better part of an afternoon moving the bees. This involved cutting the combs from the well-house roof overhang and placing them in wood slots that then fit neatly into a wooden box; a hand-built new hive.

Understandably, the bees were a bit upset. Even though it was to their ultimate benefit, making them understand was not possible (when was the last time you were forcibly relocated?). So they swarmed a bit, and some of them got a bit pissy, as Tom and Michele said. But there was no ferocious attack. These weren’t Africanized bees (I prefer the term ‘uncivilized’). Watching Tom use a flat-bladed tool to scrape hundreds of live bees off a comb and into a box was fascinating. Michele and I monitored the process from maybe thirty feet away. Even though there were bees all around, they never bothered us.

When the sticky job was finally complete, Tom loaded the newly populated hive into the rear of his pickup, which was uncovered. “They’ll stay with the hive,”Tom assured me, as indeed they did, all the way back to Skull Valley, where they are now comfortably ensconced in their new location.

Subsequently our flowers have been visited by other bees, and not just honeybees. At least half a dozen different species have come to visit. Arizona is bee-rich. I watch them when I can, usually when I take a break from work. They’re having a long season, not unlike our politicians. Also unlike our politicians they’re not interesting in stinging and raising welts and injecting venom. They just go about their business: building their hives, raising their young, making honey, getting ready for winter and trying to stay healthy while avoiding the Varroa mite. The Varroa is to honeybees what Covid-19 is to us.

I’d say that we could learn a lesson from our local honeybees, but somebody would probably call me a radical socialist for making the analogy. Honey is bees’ Social Security, and nobody seems to object to honey. But I still think it’s a good lesson to learn. Maybe if we were a little more like honeybees, sharing the work and the honey, we’d stop yelling at each other for a while. Even the drones get their share, but just a fair share. If the drones monopolized all the honey, you wouldn’t have much of a civilization, and the hive would die.

I don’t want to see our hive die. I don’t want to see it become uncivilized, striking out violently and blindly at every perceived threat. That doesn’t make for a happy hive.

So I’m taking a few moments to watch the bees and enjoy the flowers. Winter will be here soon enough.