Thursday, June 16, 2011

Three Questions for Daniel H. Wilson, Author of Robopocalypse

Recently, Entertainment Weekly book critic Keith Staskiewicz predicated that "the next big thing" in publishing will be mechanized men and the book poised to launch the trend is Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse, which has already been optioned by DreamWorks and is expected to be adapted into a big screen spectacle by Steven Spielberg.   It is fun to speculate about the impact that robots will one day have on our lives.  It is the reason I wrote  my own robot novel and the reason that I did not hesitate to read Robopocalypse.  If this book stands to whet the public's appetite for robots stories, I am more than happy to lend it my support.

Wilson, who earned a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, is serious about robots.  A man who has dedicated himself to the design and construction of robots must be hopeful that these clanking automatons will continue to benefit our lives.  Yet, it seems that Wilson needed to purge underlying misgivings he has about robots in both Robopocalypse and an earlier novel, How to Survive a Robot Uprising.  (Wilson expressed a more positive view of robots in his two other books, A Boy and His Bot and How to Build a Robot Army.)

Robopocalypse opens with a series of vignettes in which machines suddenly attack their owners.  A companion robot molded in the likeness of a sweet old woman bites off a piece of its owner's face and then nearly strangles the poor guy to death.  A baby doll seeks to brainwash a senator's young daughter.  Sappy, a "safety and pacification" robot deployed with an American combat unit in Afghanistan, grabs hold of an AK-47 and opens fire on the men in its unit.  A domestic robot on a shopping errand attacks and slaughters the workers in a frozen yogurt shop.  The robots, rallied together by a massively powerful AI entity named Archos, achieve world domination by slaughtering and enslaving millions of humans, but the survivors band together to mount an all-out rebellion against these robot tyrants. 

Wilson has said that he drew on real-world robotics research in his preparation of the book.  Search-and-rescue robots that exist today are able to identify the location of human targets by the body heat that they generate.  Wilson installed this same technology in the novel's "stumper" robots, which are designed to hunt and kill humans.  The stumpers' behavior is fairly simple by the standards of robotics engineers and yet this robot, described by Wilson as a "crawling landmine," could not be more lethal.  Wilson wrote in a recent article, "Stumpers typically hide themselves in cold environments and emerge in swarms upon detecting warm, bipedally-walking targets."  The stumpers no sooner reach their target then they self-detonate.  These swarming robots are insect-like, just like many real-life robots that have been modeled on ants, cockroaches and crickets.  Using a well-developed cricket trick, the stumpers keep a fixed distance from each other simply by recognizing the vibrations their fellow stumpers generate while in motion.  It is the fact that these robots rely on credible technology that makes them so scary. 

Wilson was kind enough to consent to a brief interview with me.  Let's hear more of what he has to say about the real-life robots that inspired his novel.

Q: What was your most frightening encounter with a machine?

A: I once stood too close to an industrial arm in the Robot Learning lab at Carnegie Mellon.  It made a sudden movement that didn't hit me, but could have smashed my face in without the robot even knowing.

Q: How did your knowledge of robotics help you in writing this book?

A: I was able to draw on my real-world experiences with robots. For example, I've had the opportunity to ride inside an autonomous car, worn a real exoskeleton, and stood across from a Honda Asimo.

Q: Where do you believe robotics will be in twenty-five years?

A: I think those self-driving cars, exoskeletons, and humanoid robots that are prototypes today will be in our homes tomorrow!

I am personally willing to take the risk of a robot biting me in the face as long as it has a scrub-brush claw it can use to get rid of that nasty ring in my bathtub.

Tintinnabulating Tin Cans of Fun

Blow the trumpets.  Release the confetti.  I am here to announce the release of my first novel, Life, Liberty. . . and all the rest.  The story has to do with a robot uprising occurring in the near future.  Wait, the word uprising may be overstating the situation.  It's not so much an uprising as it is a flap or a rumpus.  Okay, wait, how's this instead?  The story has to do with a robot hullabaloo occurring in the near future.  Details can be found at

I figured that a second blog was needed to keep my film comedy articles and my robot articles separate.  This is not to say that the subjects of robots and comedy could never find a point of convergence.  The robots featured in my book do a number of funny things.  Also, experts in both the robotics and comedy fields have been willing to consider the possibility of a robot acquiring the ability to effectively perform comedy.

Robot entertainers can do everything from juggle balls to play the violin.  But the lack of personality makes these acts somewhat boring.  See for yourself if you don't believe me. 

Comedy is a form of entertainment that relies heavily on personality.  It is hard for me to believe that a machine telling a joke could get me to laugh.  But not everyone agrees with me.  Robotic engineers have designed a mechanical stand-up comedian called Data.  Data learns what jokes are funny and what jokes are not funny by measuring the level of laughter that a joke elicits from audience members.  The developers of the robot explain their objectives as follows: "By creating audience sensing technologies that can help a robot parse crowd response and developing more effective emotive, communicatory and animation capabilities for the robot itself, we hope to accelerate innovation in social robotics on and off the stage as well as to create new forms of expression and collaboration for human performers."

This strikes me as a fool's errand.  It doesn't alter my opinion in the least to see an audience laughing enthusiastically at Data.

Data's creator is clearly nervous about how the audience will react to her robot.  The audience feels sympathy towards her and that sympathy is instantly transferred to the robot.  The fact that the robot looks and sounds like a child makes the audience even more sympathetic and this further contributes to their willingness to accommodate the act with laughter and applause.  Also, the familiarly of the robot's recycled jokes is likely to have prompted audience members to remember hearing the jokes recited by flesh-and-blood comedians.  The robot could have said, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas.  How he got into my pajamas I'll never know."  I would have laughed at that only because I would have remembered Groucho Marx's classic delivery of that line in Animal Crackers.

Meet a robocomedian named Funnybot, who was featured on a recent episode of South Park.  (Beware of mature content.)

Comedy involves so much more than the ability to deliver a punch line.  It depends on timing, spontaneity and surprise.  It depends on a comedian creating a character with emotional depth and making a meaningful connection with the audience.  It is a form of expression beyond anything that a robot could ever manage.

A robot stands to gain more laughs as a satirical device.  Thirty-five funnybots serve this purpose in Life, Liberty. . . and all the rest

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Cowboy Bites the Dust

 I was a big fan of Justified during its first season.  Timothy Olyphant, as cool U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, was always three steps ahead of the bad guys.  He barely mussed his hair as he rescued hostages, hunted down an escaped convict, and broke up a murderous drug ring.  I couldn't have been more fond of this kick-ass lawman.  He reminded me of the movie heroes of my childhood.  Sometimes when I watched the show, I squinted my eyes to make Olyphant's face blurry so that I could pretend I was a child again and I watching a new Clint Eastwood movie.

'zat you, Clint? 

However, a number of critics complained that this hero was so much in control that he never seemed in danger.  So, the next season, Marshal Raylan Givens was shown to be deeply flawed in character and judgment.  The good marshal was no longer able to do anything right and it is beyond credibility that he made it out of the season alive.  It disturbed me to see how far this hero had fallen.

It took a larger-than-life hero to battle the cruddy, bristly criminals that populated the marshal's home in the hill country of Harlan County, Kentucky.  But, when it came to the second season of Justified, the marshal's true grit, equal parts courage, wit and toughness, had been transferred to a variety of female characters.  Never had a television series featured such a formidable group of women.  This gave prominent roles to several actresses, including Margo Martindale, Joelle Carter, Linda Gehringer, Erica Tazel, Rebecca Creskoff and Kaitlyn Dever.  Not one of these women would duck for cover during a gun fight or buckle at the knees if a bomb exploded.  Natalie Zea, whose main job seems to be to provide male viewers with eye candy, was the one woman on the show exempt from the tough-as-nails sisterhood.  Her character, who was dependent on the men in her life for happiness and security, often came across as foolish and inept.

Compared to Harlan County's hard-ass women, the men with whom they associated were pathetic.  Dever's character, 14-year-old Loretta McCready, took care of her hopelessly drunken father (Chris Mulkey).  Gehringer's Helen Givens took care of her no-good husband (Raymond Barry) - a broken-down, two-bit crook who was prevented from leaving the house by a clunky ankle-bracelet locked to his leg.  Barry dragged around his trapped leg as if it was deformed.  Martindale's Mags Bennet took care of two defective adult sons - a scraggly, crippled, sociopathic crybaby (Jeremy Davies) and an oafish, violent half-wit (Brad William Henke).  The sons lived in terror of their mother, who would not spare the rod to keep her overgrown boys in line.  Mags only showed respect to a third son, Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor).  Unlike his neutered layabout brothers, Doyle was married, had children, and was employed as the local police chief.  Still, Doyle was no less submissive to his big mama.  He may have worn a police uniform, but he only got himself the job to protect his mother's drug trade.  He may have been a father and husband, but we never once got to see him attending to his wife and children.  He was, in truth, a paper man.

Hollywood has lost the ability to depict masculinity in a meaningful and appropriate manner.  Television viewers are led to believe that men are foolish boys who need the women in their lives to act as their mothers.  This is also evident in children's shows, including Hannah Montana and iCarly.  The girls on these shows are smart, brassy and controlling while the boys are either timid and sensitive or goofy and poorly regarded.

It shouldn't surprise me that the marshal found himself in so many undignified situations.  He got beat up more often than Jim Rockford.  I remember in particular a scene in which Givens is hanging upside down in a tree while Mags' crippled boy, Dickie, whacks him with a baseball ball.

Earlier this month, we had to say goodbye to James Arness, who played the greatest marshal on television.  Arness' Marshal Matt Dillon never hesitated to resort to violence to subdue a villain, but the violence was just part of the job and it did not define him as an person.  He was, as a man, wise, kind and honorable.  His intuitive nature prevented wrongdoers from catching him off guard and fans of the show never saw this as a reason to complain.  It is sad that Hollwood no longer sees value in this type of hero.

I am Ryan Reynolds' Abs

My teenage son, who regularly runs and lifts weights, is in good physical shape, but he will not be satisfied with his appearance until he has the sort of quality six-pack that other men will envy.  I explained to him that he has been taken in by a Hollywood scam.

The rectus abdominis muscle was emphasized in ancient Greco-Roman statues to put forth an idealized form of the male body.  Often, the subjects of the statues were gods with impossible physical strength.  It was inevitable that these statues would occupy the minds of filmmakers producing sword and sandal epics.  Still, the tunic-clad actors of early Hollywood saw no need to show off their abs.   Here is a picture of early Hollywood strongman Francis X. Bushman in a publicity still for Ben-Hur (1925).

Bushman demonstrated his fitness without being ostentatious about his muscles.

Perceptions didn't change until Charles Atlas introduced clever marketing ploys to popularize bodybuilding in the 1930s.  Atlas gave special attention to his abdominal muscles.  He wrote, "It is all very well to have strong arms and a grip of steel, but of what use are these unless the abdominal area is in perfect condition?"  He assured the public that, if they followed his exercise program, "[t]he rectus abdomus muscles will stand out firmly like a washboard."  It is believe that Atlas and his partner, Charles Roman, coined the terms "washboard abs" and "six-pack abs."

Atlas never missed an opportunity to show off.

This did not have an immediate effect on Hollywood.  Healthy, manly physiques did not have to be bursting with muscles.

But bodybuilding continued to grow in popularity during the next two decades.  This became evident in movies in the 1950s.  Marlon Brando became a sex symbol as soon as his Stanley Kowalski t-shirt revealed his burly weightlifter arms.  Burt Lancaster, a former circus acrobat, made a lasting impression displaying his athletic physique in the beach scenes of From Here to Eternity.  And Brando and Lancaster were far from alone in their muscularity.  Take a look at these pictures of Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift.

Steve Reeves, a bodybuilder with movie star looks, took muscle definition to new heights when, in 1958, he showed off his bulging muscles in the low-budget Italian action film Hercules.

Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had much greater success than Reeves when they flexed their muscles in big-budget films in the 1980s.  This was a cartoonish form of masculinity that was measured by muscles rather than character.  It is not surprising both of these overgrown actors later got caught up in steroid scandals.

The trend has continued unabated.

Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (2010)

In recent years, the abs have become a status symbol for the physically fit and it isn't necessary for an actor to play a centurion for him to go shirtless and show off his bumpy midriff.  The fact is that filmmakers will use any excuse to have these actors go shirtless.  The abs obsession has gotten so bad that actors are being given pronounced abs on screen through the use of CGI and make-up tricks.  Gerard Butler's abs are not real in 300 (2006).

Nicolas Cage's abs are not real in Ghost Rider (2007).

It is only to be expected that, with the virulence of this media propaganda, young men today have unrealistic expectations about their appearance and are experiencing growing body image issues.

Chill Stills

I thank visitor vp81955 for making me aware of another "meat freezer" comedy.  Out Cold (1989), a dark comedy about adultery and mariticide, involves multiple characters getting locked in a meat freezer.

As long as we're back on this subject, I should add that the summer hit The Hangover Part 2 happens to feature Ken Jeong getting locked in an ice machine.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Comedy Films of 1916

The University of Michigan continues to make digitized editions of The Moving Picture World available for viewing online.  I always make a point to search through these editions to make note of the comedy films of the period.  The other day, I read about a number of comedy films from 1916. 

The plot of He Wouldn't Wear Glasses, a comedy produced by the short-lived Rolma Films, relied on a simple situation.  Max Figman removes his eyeglasses because his girlfriend doesn't like how he looks in them, but his vision becomes so blurry that he mistakes another woman for his girlfriend.

Domestic relations were the source of comedy in Charity Begins at Home.  Harry Myers, angry that his wife (Rosemary Theby) has given away some of his clothing to beggars, allows his wife to experience the drawbacks of charity by bringing home a bunch of stray animals.

Parents believe that their daughter and son-in-law have a baby on the way when in fact they are awaiting the delivery of a dog in a Mutual comedy called That Dog-gone Baby.

Harold Lloyd directs raw army recruits in a comic drill in Luke's Prepardedness Preparations.

The L-KO comedy The High Diver's Curse relied on the stock premise of an incompetent stagehand who disrupts a variety of acts.  First, the stagehand (Dan Russell) blasts an actor with a hose during a rain scene.  Next, during an acrobat routine, he reveals that an actor standing on his partner's shoulders is in fact being held up by a rope.  Soon after, he carelessly tosses a banana peel on stage, which causes a troupe of dancers to lose their footing and slip across the stage.  Finally, a high diver is preparing to dive from a platform into a bucket of water when the stagehand removes the bucket and causes the diver to come crashing headfirst into the hard floor.

The High Diver's Curse fits well in a discussion of gag traditions.  To start, Russell relies on two common props - hoses and banana peels.  Other film comedians had sprayed a hose in a crowded theater.  Max Linder did it in Max plays at Drama (1912) and Charlie Chaplin did it in A Night at the Show (1915).  Even more notable, the film showed how the scope of a gag could be expanded.  The standard gag of a man slipping on a banana peel was now transformed into a full-scale comic dance number.  As it worked out, the tradition of the incompetent stagehand was carried forth in the coming years by such comic luminaries as Larry Semon and Buster Keaton.   

How about a cartoon, too?  A robot amok story formed the basis of the Bray cartoon Percy and the Mechanical Man (1916).  Percy sets out to prove the capabilities of his new robot creation by getting the mechanical man a job as a window dresser.  Unfortunately, Percy presses the wrong button and the robot proceeds to forcibly carry the store manager and various customers behind a dressing screen to randomly clothe them in a series of inappropriate outfits.

Book Announcement

An announcement for The Funny Parts has been posted to McFarland's website at  The photo is from Laurel & Hardy's That's My Wife (1929).