Source: The C E Hooper Radio Survey of the 2nd of June, 1939.
So we’ve got this worrisome story courtesy Reuters: Robot mother builds and improves its own children. According to Matthew Stock’s report, researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Having Never, Ever Seen A God-Awful Movie developed a robot that builds its own “child” robots, tests them out, and improves the next design.
So far the MommaBot merely “constructs a design using between one and five plastic cubes that are stuck together using glue”. This isn’t too alarming, although I note my mother sent me to make stuff by sticking together styrofoam balls on toothpicks. These would immediately fall apart again, thus ending any peril from styrofoam-ball-robot technology. Glue is an obvious game-changer.
I suppose the saving grace is that since this is British researchers working on it, the immediate goal of all this robot-building-robot experimentation will be a robot that can build its own model railroad. Then on to a robot that can look at its own model railroad while telling everyone no, they may not play with it because they’ll disrupt the timetable. Eventually we’ll need almost no people to fret about model railroads at all, although who knows what we’ll do instead.
For today’s cartoon I’m stepping back into the Fleischer Color Classics, with a short released the 26th of August, 1938: All’s Fair At The Fair. The title gives away the subject: it’s a World’s Fair cartoon, and since it was the late 30s it’s a severely Art Deco setting to show off the automated and mechanized world of tomorrow, the one that doesn’t really need people in it.
This is a setting, and a hook to hang jokes on, that’s well-designed for the Fleischer Cartoons: Max and Dave Fleischer had a particular thrill for ingenious mechanisms and gadgetry. Sometimes I suspect they’re a little bothered to have to have characters in their cartoons, and so the automated, people-less World of Tomorrow plays to their strengths. After the initial scenes this is a very empty World’s Fair, with just one country-hick pair of characters appearing at all. I’m not sure the characters even had any written dialogue. The way they mutter evokes the contemporary Popeye style, in which the voices were recorded after animation. But Elmer and Miranda haven’t got the personality of Popeye and Olive Oyl, and Jack Mercer (the voice of Popeye) and Margie Hines (who had taken over voicing Olive Oyl and Betty Boop) couldn’t do much to give them character.
But this isn’t one to watch for the characters. It’s one to watch for gadgets doing things, and for the lovely background and set designs. That works, all, doesn’t it?
- Robots (the good kind)
- Small rocks
- Robots (the morally ambiguous kind)
Note: I mean eyeglasses. Drinking glasses is a completely different thing.
Last time I had a bunch of mathematics comics to show off I mentioned how Mandrake’s father was being depicted as seeing by his supernatural powers strange worlds where caterpillar-creatures listen to the radio over earphones headsets. I’ve got a fresh batch of mathematics comics to talk about over on that appropriate blog and so I want to point again at Mandrake, as run on the 24th of December this year, and just ask you the question:
Does that alien robot have dreadlocks?
It’s easy to ask why the alien robot has dreadlocks, although asking it answers the question. We’re almost forced to ask why any alien robots wouldn’t have dreadlocks. I think the bigger question is how does the alien robot have dreadlocks, but that’s only longer if you use certain variable-width typefaces which kern the ‘h’ and ‘y’ together a bit tightly. The real question is why the alien robot dog has six legs when the alien robots seem to have only four limbs, although I bet it’s one of those “why does Goofy walk on two legs while Pluto walks on four if they’re both dogs” kinds of questions.
Among the stuff dug out of the attic and basement for the yard sale has been a couple of Furby dolls, which turn out to almost kind-of work for the most part. With the new batteries put in it turns out at least one of them will suddenly pop its eyes open and start muttering chipper things in Furbish, the sing-songy language created by JRR Tolkein, and then keep at it a couple minutes until it gets bored and goes back to sleep for hours and hours.
This made us realize: when the thing was put up in the attic years ago, with batteries in, it was probably doing the same thing, waiting for a random moment and then popping open its servo-controlled eyes and wiggling its slightly lopsided ears and demanding attention in one of several dozen phonemes, and then falling back into a silent wait that might end without warning.
So, now we can finally explain why the bats in our attic were having nightmares all those years. Good to know.
So if you’re like me you got around to thinking about rock-paper-scissors, because you saw somebody wearing a Big Bang Theory-inspired T-shirt reading rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock and were trying to remember how the rules to that went, only to remember that while you kind of respect The Big Bang Theory for getting its nerd jokes accurate you also feel a kind of vague dissatisfaction whenever the show comes on, or up, the kind that inspires you to take the broom out and start a sweeping project that might reach as many as four houses up the street before the energy burns out. I might be over-generalizing from my experience.
But what I was thinking particularly about it is there’s a robot out there that’s able to reliably win rock-paper-scissors contests. And I mean really, seriously win, beating even champion rock-paper-scissors players, the kind of people who insist they’re champion roshambo players because when they tell people they’re champion rock-paper-scissors players they get all kinds of snarky resistance. “Oh yeah,” they hear, “and I knew a guy in college who was one of the world’s top coin-flippers.” “Shut up,” they answer, and start to explain the details of human psychology and discerning choice patterns which lend themselves to long-term strategic insights, and the conversation soon passes the “nuh-uh” phase and turns into a brawl. By using a more obscure word everyone enjoys a more peaceful existence, as it’s easier to get along than admit you don’t know what someone is talking about, and when you think about it this explains about twenty-two percent of all human interactions.
The idea that a robot can now reliably beat humans at rock-paper-scissors suggests there’s been a real breakthrough in getting robots to fritter away time. Someday humans might be able to let robots do all manner of minor and marginally useful selection tasks, like one-potato-two or settling shotgun disputes ahead of a trip to PathMark, or maybe checking if PathMark is still a thing that exists and replacing it with, I don’t know, A & P if it doesn’t.
Then we might see robots finally come to their potential of saving us from the minor tasks that, if we really thought about them, we’d realize we don’t need to do. They might sneer for us at the satellite TV descriptions of shows on the channels we don’t watch, or maybe take over the whole of playing hopscotch. The savings in excessively minor time-consuming tasks would compare favorably to the time which would be saved if you never accidentally put your socks on inside-out ever again.
At least, that’s the promise you might think this all has if you don’t know how the rock-paper-scissors robot works. The reason it can beat anyone is it watches the human’s hand, and it can tell the difference between the first fractions of a second of throwing rock, or paper, or scissors, and then picks what it throws. In short, it succeeds by cheating. I’m not sure “cheating robot” is really that big a breakthrough in robot technology. The artificial intelligences behind Civilization games have been cheating for years because there’s no way the Aztecs build Michelangelo’s Cathedral right from under me, and the only thing you’d gain by putting a robot in to cheat at Civilization is you could punch it.
But that overlooks the interesting part, which is that a robot can now figure out in fractions of a second which of three ways you might extend fingers. Surely in time the computer will be able to figure out dozens, maybe hundreds of potential hand signs, each linked to some desirable behavior like “turn up the music” or “change the channel to something more sneer-worthy” or “order an appliance to send information over the Internet”, and they’ll be able to follow those directions before you even finish making the hand sign. By 2025 we could see the average home become a haven of quiet as everyone sits on top of their hands in the middle of an empty room, feeling too nervous to even twitch, because last time they sneezed and ineptly covered their mouth, then tried to shake it off, they ordered services from three online companies and sent a panic alert to the Coast Guard, and they don’t dare start that trouble again. Thus, as ever, does rock-paper-scissors bring life to a Ballardian nightmare. Can’t wait.
Today’s cartoon is another silent-era one. I hope I’m not trying people’s patience with these, but they are more commonly public domain (so I feel safer including them), and I find them fascinating, and this is after all a place where I share stuff that amuses me. But, anyway, this one is an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, called, aptly, Mechanical Cow. It comes from Walt Disney Productions, directed by Disney and animated by Ub Iwerks and surely others, though it was produced for Universal Pictures, before Disney went into business for himself proper. Famous-in-animation-circles story.
Anyway, the plot is what might as well be the standard-issue black-and-white cartoon: genially pleasant, faintly Harold Lloyd-ish lead character goes about his business, with a string of amusing gags where he does something clever with the stage business, and then his girlfriend gets introduced and gets captured by the big bad guys, and then, the lead has to go rescue him. The plot doesn’t matter. Look at the animation: it’s much smoother, more naturalistic, more skillful than even the very good work of the Fleischers or the other studios of the time. Disney and Iwerks had great talent and great craftsmanship, and that shows through in, for example, the moment when Oswald steals the cow’s bed.
Curiously to my eyes, the fact that this is a mechanical cow doesn’t seem to figure much. You could recast it with a real cow and … all right, some of the jokes would become more disturbing, but I don’t think they’d be that much worse than was already the norm for silent-era cartoons. I have to wonder if the animation team started with the title — and it’s a good starting point for a cartoon, certainly — and then developed the short without quite making full use of it.
I know this is sudden, but I had a bunch of other mathematics-themed comics over on the mathematics blog, where you can see again about how cartoonists keep finding something funny, almost, about an infinity of monkeys for some reason. Go figure.
Meanwhile, in 1959, for all those of you who were curious how Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon was making out against the StabBot, I’m happy to report that Flash swiftly defeated the Knifeketeer’s robot minion, and did so with style and grace, by which I mean he passed up the clearly-marked target of the robot’s groin.
I have no important updates on how Mary Worth is doing with her casserole, although Iris and Tommy do continue to look terrified.
Do alien armies really spend all their time in close-up knife-brawls with robots? We could make a fortune selling these people laser pistols.
This isn’t going to be a particularly sophisticated little installment. What sets it off is that I was reading the story comics. I didn’t think much of the story strips when I was a kid; they were just this inky-black column on the left side of the Star-Ledger‘s comics page where there were never any jokes and nothing seemed to happen. There’s still nothing happening, albeit at a much slower pace than back then, but I’ve come to understand the charms of their storytelling structures.
That’s not to say I won’t giggle where it’s really not meant as a result of the strip not doing what it wants. For the first, here’s Wednesday’s Mary Worth, by Karen Moy and Joe Giella, which is the usual setup in which Mary is using a tiny casserole to shove her way into someone else’s life. It’s just the looks on Mary’s and then Iris’s faces that makes me laugh. The two of them have plastered these wide-eyed stares and are looking any any direction except at the person they’re talking to. And then you notice in the second panel either Mary’s falling over backwards or else she’s thrusting her hips at Iris, and either way, well.
The other is from back in the day when they knew how to introduce and run through a story in a reasonable time. From April 1959 it’s Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, and in this story Flash has been impressed into an alien army’s suicide squadron and is being put up against a training robot which … well, perhaps there’s a time when I would have taken “this knife-fighting robot — it plays for keeps!” in utter seriousness, but that time was before Futurama introduced us to robot criminal Roberto.
I laughed so at the reveal of the knife-fighting robot that my love called downstairs to ask if I was all right. I swear.
(Again I apologize for the comics being small on the page. If you click on them you should see a wider version, and appreciate the strips in more of their glory.)