28 March 2007

Am I Bovvered?!

Not sure how this skit (from this year’s Comic Relief in the UK) will play to an American ear, but even if you don’t catch all of the references, seeing Tony Blair taking the piss out of Catherine Tate is priceless!

23 March 2007

Joel Brodsky

Joel Brodsky died of a heart attack earlier this month, I’ve just learned. He was 67 years old.

Brodsky’s is not likely to be a familiar name, but his work will be. In addition to arguably the most famous image of The Doors’ Jim Morrison (left), he composed the cover image for Tom Waits’ 1976 album, Small Change (below).

Obituaries can be found on the San Francisco Art Exchange site, as well as in The Independent and The Washington Post. The latter is particularly recommended. Among its gems:

Photographer Joel Brodsky; Shot Album Cover Photos
The Washington Post
March 18, 2007
By Matt Schudel

Featured on the cover of the 1985 "The Best of the Doors" album, the black-and-white image depicts the messianic, sensitive and dangerous qualities that made Morrison such an important musical figure of his time.

Mr. Brodsky described the session in a 1981 interview. The 23-year-old Morrison, he said, was "totally plastered . . . so drunk he was stumbling into the lights."

Still, he projected an edgy charisma that Mr. Brodsky was able to capture on film. "You know, Morrison never really looked that way again, and those pictures have become a big part of the Doors' legend," Mr. Brodsky said. "I think I got him at his peak."


In 1971, Mr. Brodsky photographed soul musician [Isaac] Hayes in sunglasses and a striped robe for his "Black Moses" album. The cover unfolded in the shape of a cross to a size of 3 feet by 4 feet, which is believed to be the largest album cover ever made.


Mr. Brodsky was a meticulous craftsman, spending hours setting up lights, scenery and cameras. Even when his photographs looked like casual snapshots, such as the squalid backstage dressing room depicted on Tom Waits's "Small Change" (1976), they were always carefully composed.

"What Annie Leibovitz and David LaChapelle ended up doing, Joel was doing 30 years ago," said gallery owner Chris Murray, who gave Mr. Brodsky his first exhibition at Washington's Govinda Gallery in 2001. "Joel's work was a precursor to the illustrated concept album, and he's definitely a precursor to hip-hop."

Here’s some footage of Brodsky discussing his work:

22 March 2007

It’s “1984” All Over Again ... in 2008

Say what you will about this mash up of arguably the greatest television advertisement of all time -- "1984," directed by Ridley Scott, and first aired during Super Bowl XVIII -- not only is it clever (one of those “No one thought of this before now?!” things), but it also heralds a new movement in political campaigns: one in which individual, private supporters create and disseminate advertisements of and on their own, one in which candidates are not entirely in control of their message. Whether this is something to be celebrated or lamented remains to be seen (probably a bit of both), but the role of user-generated content certainly represents one more reason why the 2008 presidential election will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.

19 March 2007

All work and no play makes Jack quite fun actually

Ever feel duped by a movie trailer? I could just about retire on the money spent on “promising” films that turned out to be utter shite.

With this in mind, witness a hysterical testament to the powers of packaging:

If The Shining can be re-cut into a romantic comedy, can any trailer be trusted?

18 March 2007

We'll All Be Safe from Satan

From the "You just can't make this stuff up" file comes news that the Vatican -- the Vatican -- approves of Tom Waits.

That's Tom "I left my Bible by the side of the road" Waits.

Tom "I don't go to Church on Sunday" Waits.

Tom "I feel like a preacher waving a gun around" Waits.

Tom ... well, you get the idea.

Here's an excerpt (but do read the entire, brief article):

Drugs, alcohol and sex: why the Jesuits like Tom Waits
The Times of London
March 17, 2007

Barely a week after Pope Benedict XVI disclosed his dislike for the “prophets of pop” and Bob Dylan in particular, the Jesuits in Rome have embraced Waits as a Christian role model.

The latest issue of
Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal, the contents of which are subject to Vatican approval, says that Waits represents “the marginalised and misunderstood.”

True, but incredible!

I can't resist posting this, my favorite performance from the still-yet-to-be-released-on-DVD Big Time (1988).

15 March 2007

Why Aren't Humans Furry?

A fascinating proposal -- viz., that Stone-Age mothers may have regarded furry babies as unattractive and thus abandoned them, in order to devote the community's limited resources to nurturing and rearing hairless (or less hairy?) babies deemed to be attractive -- was recently offered up by the distinguished developmental psychologist, Judith Rich Harris. Harris' conjecture has received quite a bit of attention this week, after being awarded the 2006 David Horrobin Prize for Medical Theory on Tuesday. Here is the press release.

While I have no trouble accepting the suggestion that parental selection may have been a non-trivial factor in the evolutionary development of our species, I find rather incredible the suggestion that the basis of such selection can be put down to attractiveness. I'm also rather reluctant to concede this "just so" story:

Harris suggests that Neanderthals must have been furry in order to survive the Ice Age. Our species would have seen them as "animals" and potential prey. Harris’ hypothesis continues that Neanderthals went extinct because human ancestors ate them.

Then again, I haven't read Harris's work yet, so it's important to try to keep an open mind. To that end, I'm likely to pick up her No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (Norton 2006) just as soon as the budget allows (Amazon link).

Incidentally, Harris herself has led a wholly unconventional career, as this brief bio confirms. Since the 1970s, she has suffered from a chronic autoimmune disorder -- a combination of lupus and systemic sclerosis -- that has left her physically incapacitated. As far as I can tell, all of her work has been done while bedridden.

09 March 2007

Robot Ethics?!

In his ground-breaking 1950 Mind article, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Alan Turing made the following famous prediction:

I believe that in about fifty years’ time, it will be possible to programme computers ... to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 percent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning (p. 442).

(Aside: a nice article, entitled “Turing Test: 50 Years Later” can be found here [pdf].)

When I taught the "imitation game" -- more commonly known today as the Turing Test -- in my intro seminar last week, we all smirked a bit at Turing’s over-confidence. Not only has no machine passed the test to date, nothing has even come close. In fact, even the Loebner Prize -- an annual competition in which machines attempt to pass the Turing Test -- is awarded to those machines which fail least badly (i.e. to those machines which are diagnosed as non-human least quickly).

So today’s news from the BBC comes as something of a surprise.

The Ethical Dilemmas of Robotics
BBC News – Technology
Friday, 9 March 2007

Scientists are already beginning to think seriously about the new ethical problems posed by current developments in robotics.

This week, experts in South Korea said they were drawing up an ethical code to prevent humans abusing robots, and vice versa. And, a group of leading roboticists called the European Robotics Network (Euron) has even started lobbying governments for legislation.

As these robots become more intelligent, it will become harder to decide who is responsible if they injure someone. Is the designer to blame, or the user, or the robot itself?

More intelligent? The moral of the Loebner Prize is that they’re not intelligent in the first place ... at all!

Not yet anyway ...

08 March 2007


CNN reports on the Boston Beer Company’s latest beer, Utopias:

A Taste of Utopia: The Ultimate Beer
February 14, 2006

"It is not only the strongest and most expensive beer in the world," explains Julie Bradford, editor of
All About Beer Magazine, "More important, it challenges our understanding of what beer is.

On the one hand, my suspicion is that this brew -- which was recently released -- wouldn’t be receiving nearly so much attention were it not made by the deep-pocketed makers of Samuel Adams. On the other hand, one can’t be ungrateful when a mainstream brewer invests in higher-quality tipple. Cheers!

07 March 2007

Bird Brain

Yesterday, I taught Colin Allen's "Star Witness" -- a wonderful dramatization of the panoply of philosophical issues surrounding the topic of nonhuman-animal cognition. To warm students up to the possibility of a parrot testifying in a criminal proceeding (!), I showed them this clip from the PBS show, Scientific American Frontiers (featuring Alan Alda).

Once you witness the kind of work the Dr. Irene Pepperberg does with her African Grey Parrot, Alex, you'll never regard 'bird brain' as an insult again.

A useful introduction to Pepperberg's work can be found here. Alex's Wikipedia page (of course he has one!) can be found here, and The Alex Foundation can be found here.

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard died in Paris yesterday. He was 77.

Jean Baudrillard, 77, Critic and Theorist of Hyperreality, Dies
The New York Times
March 7, 2007

One of his better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive “hyperreality,” where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning. Since illusion reigns, he counseled people to give up the search for reality.

“All of our values are simulated,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom.”

This idea was picked up by the American filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who included subtle references to Mr. Baudrillard in their “Matrix” trilogy. In the first movie of the series, “The Matrix” (1999), the computer hacker hero Neo opens Mr. Baudrillard’s book “Simulacra and Simulation,” which turns out to be only a simulation of a book, hollowed out to hold computer disks. Mr. Baudrillard later told The Times that the movie references to his work “stemmed mostly from misunderstandings.”

I couldn't call myself a fan, as what I know of Baudrillard is largely drawn from second-hand accounts -- though I did once spend an afternoon with Simulacra and Simulation many years ago, while an undergrad. And even though I regularly teach parts of The Matrix in introductory philosophy classes (less for its allusions to Baudrillard, and principally for its evocative depiction of thought experiments initially introduced in Descartes's First Meditation), still, I am disposed to regard as prima facie plausible the charges of intellectual irresponsibility raised by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in their Impostures Intellectuelles (1997).

Additional obituaries: Le Monde, The Guardian, and the International Herald Tribune.