Do You Feel Lucky, Steampunk?

Benjamin Rush's 'Tranquilizer', ca. 1810
The Kinematrix Has You.

Speaking of Victorian internets… (Raise your hand if you figure I wrote all that just to give context to this.) It should go without saying, but these are not supposed to be nice alternate histories. The second one is particularly unpleasant–it’s like the photo negative of Gernsblack. Much as I love the steampunk aesthetic, a world combining 19th century ideas and prejudices with 21st century technology could in practice be pretty dire… Read more


You Are Number 0110

English Village to be Invaded in Spybot Competition

A village in south-west England will shortly be swarming with robots competing to show off their surveillance skills. The event is the UK Ministry of Defence’s answer to the US DARPA Grand Challenge that set robotic cars against one another to encourage advances in autonomous vehicles. The MoD Grand Challenge is instead designed to boost development of teams of small robots able to scout out hidden dangers in hostile urban areas. [Read more.]

You have to get to the third paragraph to learn that the village is in fact a mock East German village built for urban warfare training during the Cold War. Insert Prisoner reference here.



This is the week, it seems, of people reading my posts and making them better. First, Ken Hite revealed the infomantic significance of the Ford’s Theatre index card disaster. Then, Barista‘s David Hiley expanded my link to Jess Nevins’ post on Japanese automata with a fuller biography of Gakutensoku, the golden calligraphy-writing robot.* David also pointed out the secret through-line between the automata and index card stories:

Here he [ie, me] combines two wonderful and pathetic factoids in the one zany flow. Handy, dandy, it has the logical flow of the management of information which leads to proto-robots which takes us ultimately to these machines, which we all share as we prowl the world from our keyboards.

The way I see it, I didn’t combine the Ford’s Theatre and Gakutensoku stories, he did. I just put them next to each other. But I appreciate his kind words and the phrase, “wonderful and pathetic factoids.” That goes on my ever-growing list of alternate taglines for this blog.

This is what I love love love about the 21st century: Barista posted about Gakutensoku three days after Jess Nevin’s original post, two days after my own. Granted, I’m impressed by anyone who writes a post in two days. (I have on my hard drive a half-written response to Seth Shulman’s Telephone Gambit that I started writing when I saw Shulman give a talk at MIT… in 2005.) But the real infomancy is the way these not-necessarily-pathetic factoids carom around the internet. A librarian in Texas (who knows everything, by the way) writes a short piece about a 1920s Japanese robot. It bounces off a Canadian history professor, and is read by an Australian film writer. Who then researches the history of that robot, using an amazing online encyclopedia of more than 2 million user-generated articles, not one of which existed eight years ago. It’s easy to take it all for granted, my friends, but we are living in the future. Where’s my flying car, you ask? You’re driving it right now.

(At least until Big Cable / Bell Canada takes away the keys.)

*Barista says Gakutensoku “ain’t no robot–it is an automaton.” But are the two categories mutually exclusive? Mr. North, Ms McDougal, Mr. Da Vinci, can I get a ruling?



My friend Jess Nevins, the extraordinary gentleman himself, offers up a history of Japanese robots and automata and the blasted gaijin who keep making off with them:

Japan’s first modern robot was created in 1928 by Makoto Nishimura, as part of the formal celebration of Emperor Showa’s (a.k.a. Hirohito) ascension to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The robot, Gakutensoku (or “learning from natural law”), was 7’8″ tall, painted gold, could open and close its eyes, could smile, could puff out its cheeks, and at the beginning of each performance would touch its mace to its head and then begin to write.

How much do I want a 7’8″ gold Japanese robot called “learning from natural law”? RTWT, as they say, for a robot haiku by Kobayashi Issa*, an unscrupulous American magician, and intimations of occult robot conspiracy.

Speaking of occult conspiracy, Ken Hite showed once again why he is the king, picking up on the Paul Collins post I linked yesterday and spinning it into secret magical history gold:

[Collins:] In the U.S., for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of haphazard medical files until the newly touted method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Hundreds of clerks transcribed personnel records dating back to the Revolutionary War. Housed in Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC — the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination a generation earlier — the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death.

[Hite:] Can anyone say Ascension of the Bureaucrat in 1894? Blood sacrifice to begin the Information Age? Creation of the “mass man” from data (which is to say, DNA) and crumpled flesh (of 22 people — where was the 23rd, necessary to complete the full chromosomal pairing?), intermingled on the blasphemous regicidal altar of America? The possibilities are limitless.

Do not fold, spindle, or sacrifice.

Also, there’s a nice link back to me today at Dug North’s excellent Automata blog. (Dug, I owe you an email.)

Edit: Engadget has video of a spiffed up Gakutensoku in action. (Hat tip to my man Sepoy.)

*Question: Would the great 18th century haiku master really use the word “coolness”? Answer: He would if he were writing about tea-serving robots!