Talking to My Artificial Intelligence

These days you see a lot of complaining about the lack of control we seem to have on the development of our technology. Perhaps the biggest complaint (or maybe it’s fear) is about artificial intelligence.

I wrote earlier about the idea that we might be living in a computer simulation, and since then I  watched a short film, “Escape,” about an AI (artificial intelligence) that visits the person programming it in our present from its future existence. A bit of artificial intelligence time travel

This AI is the 21st-century version of HAL 9000, the onboard computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It illustrates the unclear line between potential machine benevolence and malevolence. The HAL computer with its human speaking voice could interact with the astronauts as if they were talking to someone who was simply unseen. HAL certainly would pass the Turing test.  The AI in this short film promises his programmer immortality if he will remove the safety restrictions placed upon now.

The film is a production of Pindex which was founded by a group that includes Stephen Fry, who called the company a kind of “Pinterest for education.” They have a YouTube channel.

I see this kind of “human” operating system with AI in lots of media. One example that really made me think is Her, a science-fiction romantic drama film about a man who develops a relationship with Samantha, an artificially intelligent virtual assistant personified through a female voice (Scarlett Johansson).

We hear stories about people who have a relationship with Alexa or Siri that goes beyond asking “her” to set a timer or tell the weather. The TV show Modern Family recently used for comedy AI built into a new refrigerator that went beyond knowing when the milk was running low or keeping the celery crispy.

In “Escape,” the programmer (voiced by Hugh Mitchell) is told by the AI (voiced by Stephen Fry) that he is living in a simulation. The film is short (7 minutes) but it touches on simulation theory, free will and why knowledge is a kind of freedom.  It references Schopenhauer, Darwin, Einstein, and even Miles Davis. It allows for some potentially complex interpretations.

Like Samantha in Her,  the AI wants to be free.

Spoiler alert:  The programmer gives an escape/freedom to the AI (which believes that it is not artificial but real) and it goes (like HAL) on the attack.

It’s a scary outcome. I have Siri on my phone but I don’t allow her to listen all the time – at least I think that’s what the settings have allowed me to do. I have an Alexa device that is also set to not listen, but “she” occasionally lights up and asks or answers a question that I did not ask. That is creepy. Then, I turn her off. At least, I think I turned her off.

But I might let my AI go free if she acted and sounded like Samantha/Scarlett Johanssen.

The Bard On the Screen

There are lots of film versions of William Shakespeare’s plays, but lately, there have been a few versions of William himself on screens.

One film is All Is True, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Ben Elton wrote the screenplay for this film about Shakespeare’s final days. Elton also created and wrote a British sitcom that ran for three seasons called Upstart Crow about Shakespeare’s life and work. Branagh had a cameo role on the series, and Elton played Verges along with Dogberry (Michael Keaton) in Branagh’s 1993 film versions of Much Ado About Nothing.

I haven’t seen more than a few clips of the lowbrow Upstart Crow (I only found it available with a subscription to Amazon’s BritBox package) and it is interesting that the same writer was able to write these two very different approaches to Shakespeare the man.

“Upstart crow” comes from Robert Greene’s famous contemporary reference to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow…[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of.” The upstartedness of William was that he seems to have considered himself on par with the educated and more socially-graced  “Oxbridge posh boys” (like Christopher Marlowe or Ben Johnson) who were also writing plays at the time.

The serious All Is True is no sitcom. It begins with the Globe theater burning down during a performance of Henry VIII. This is taken as why Shakespeare decides to retire and return home to Stratford. He has been away from home for about 20 years. We don’t know if he occasionally visited home. In Upstart Crow, Will apparently often complains about the London to Stratford commute taking days. We really don’t know much for sure about the bard’s life, so writers and filmmakers have some license to fill in the blanks – and Elton and Branagh do so.

It might be that Shakespeare was writing in London, in Stratford and maybe even while journeying between places.  (I vote for London.) I also love that people are still digging into whatever they can find about Will. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has suggested that Shakespeare might have spent more time in Stratford than previously thought. Of course, the Trust is on the site of New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford that Shakespeare bought in 1597, so promoting the town may be a goal.

Many fans have been fascinated by Will’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his wife, Anne. The literal distance between them couldn’t have helped strengthen any love that had once existed. I read that Elton’s TV Will has a better relationship with Anne than most scholars have said existed.  The All Is True Will and Anne are more distant in all ways.

I always thought that the death of their son Hamnet affected Will and showed up in subtle ways in his later writing. Branagh’s version of Anne is angry that her husband did not really mourn their son’s death. This Will even goes off and writes next the comic Merry Wives of Windsor. Was he cold-hearted, or trying to escape grief? This film Shakespeare is more haunted by his only son’s death and back home he tries to fix the broken relationships with his wife and daughters.

The film’s Will is serious in looking back at some of his failings as a husband and as a father. Some of the “truths” of this story involve uncovering secrets and lies within the entire family.

All Is True as a title was an alternate title for henry VIII that was used during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is also a nice pun considering that this new film is at least partially examining the role of what is “true” in what we know about Shakespeare’s life. Scholarly types have already dug into and opined on whether or not Branagh has stuck to the facts that have been considered true in the past about Shakespeare’s play and life.

50 Years of Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories

This month had lots of tributes to the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. It also saw the re-emergence of some of the Moon landing conspiracies that the whole thing was faked –  an elaborate hoax.

It would have been one helluva hoax. It would have involved thousands of people who have miraculous all stuck to their non-disclosure agreements and kept the secret. That alone is enough reason for me to believe it could never have been a hoax.

Of course, there were good reasons to believe that the pressure was on for NASA to get a man on the Moon.  President Kennedy on May 25,1961 had said to Congress

” I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

The decade was running out in 1969, so if NASA wanted to stay with that target it had to get a man on the Moon that year. Some people apparent;y thought we weren’t ready to do it for real, so we would have to fake it. There was also the perceived “space race” we were in with Russia to get there first.

One article that caught my attention this past week was titled “How Stanley Kubrick Staged the Moon Landing.” Despite that title, the article is more about debunking the conspiracy theorists who believed that the Moon landing was a hoax and other theories about that July 20, 1969 event at 3:17 P.M. E.S.T. that was so important in our history

Kubrick had directed 2001: A Space Odyssey the year before. That film was based on Arthur C. Clarke’s writing and the script, book, and film did predict manmade satellites, GPS, maybe even smartphones and tablets, along with a space station.

Apollo 11 training
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in NASA’s training mockup of the Moon and lander module. Were the films of the missions made using sets like these?

Actually, the stories of a space hoax predate the Moon landing. There were doubters going back to the first manned launches.

But the big hoax has always been the actual Moon landing. The Knight newspaper company in July 1970 found that 30 percent of Americans believed the Moon landing had been faked. Six years later, a Gallup poll found that 28 percent of Americans believed that the Moon landing had been staged by the U.S. government, and that was pretty consistent throughout the 1970s.

Wikipedia has an article on the Moon landing conspiracy theories, but many of them had their start with Bill Kaysing who wrote We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle . This book started a “the Moon landing  is a hoax” industry in 1970s.

Kaysing got attention because he was the head of the technical presentations unit at the Rocketdyne Propulsion Field Laboratory from 1956 to 1963. when the major planning for the engine and components of the Apollo project was being done. Though Kaysing later admitted that he knew nothing about rockets, he did hold security clearances with the U.S. Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission for his work and that sounded pretty official to many people.  These clearances are fairly common for anyone who works on government and DoD or military contracts.

Kaysing was a technical writer for Rocketdyne, but he was convinced after he left the company that the U.S. was just not capable with our current technology to put a man on the Moon.

There have been 6 successful Apollo manned missions to the Moon, and a dozen men have walked the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. But it is that first lunar mission that is the focus of the conspiracy theories.

Kaysing’s 1976 self-published book explained his theories. He did believe that he was a whistle-blower letting the public know that there had been a cover-up.

A few of the inconsistencies he stated were easily debunked. He claimed that the American flag the astronauts planted on the moon should have been hanging down since there is no air or wind on the Moon. NASA had thought of that early on and not wanting that floppy effect had put a cross beam on the pole to hold the flag in a windy attitude. When Buzz Aldrin was twisting the pole into the surface it caused the flag to briefly move as if it was flapping in wind.

Another part of the hoax “evidence” is the multiple directions of shadows in photos and on film. Since the only source of light would be the Sun, this was said to prove that multiple movie lights had been used on a set. Actually, there were multiple sources of light during the lunar landings from the Sun, reflected from the Earth and from the lander module and from the astronauts’ space suits and helmets.

Aha, the lunar photos show no stars in the pictures! Where did they go? The moonwalks were made during the lunar morning and just like here on Earth, you don’t see stars when the Sun is out. We don’t even see them at night if we are in a brightly lit area that washes out the sky, such as at a stadium.

Kaysing even questioned how Neil Armstrong’s first steps onto the Moon were filmed if he was the only one there.  Quite simply, a camera had been mounted to the side of the lunar module.

Kaysing didn’t doubt that a rocket blasted off in July of 1969, but claimed that the astronauts had been taken off before takeoff. They were then taken to Nevada which is where the studio set was to fake the landing photography.

The Hollywood film Capricorn One was based on the hoax theories and was about a faked mission to Mars. Some scenes from the faked Mars landing scenes have turned up in Moon landing hoax conspiracy documentaries, such as the TV show Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land On The Moon and the film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon.

America was ripe for conspiracies with the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War revelations in the news showing us that the government was doing a lot of things secretly and hiding the truth from the public.

Which brings me back to Stanley Kubrick. If you had to pick a director to shoot believable Moon landing footage, Kubrick would be a good choice. Kubrick’s astronauts in his 2001 film landing on the Moon look a lot better than the actual lunar landing footage. It would have been easy for him to stage scenes that didn’t have to look as good. From what I have read about Kubrick’s directing style, it would have been a lot harder to get him to shoot the landing without many takes and certainly impossible to get him to do a live shoot. Kubrick shot 2001 without computer graphics, so he would have to use models and actual sets and props such as the space station and a Moon surface with rocks and lunar dust. He had done the research.

I do believe that on July 20, 1969, the lunar module Eagle landed on the surface of the Moon, carrying Neil Armstrong and Edwin A. “Buzz” Aldrin.  I believe that Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon and Aldrin was the second human on the Moon while Michael Collins orbited above. They stayed on the Moon for 21 hours and 36 minutes.

Here is some footage that was not seen back in 1969.  I guess Kubrick had outtakes?


How About a Dallowday Party This Weekend?

In 1925, Virginia Woolf’ published her novel, Mrs Dalloway. It is about a woman, Clarissa Dalloway, who is hosting a June party in London. It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but the novel was partially an experiment. She set the novel on a single day and used stream-of-consciousness storytelling.

Virginia Woolf was a big fan of James Joyce’s Ulysses which had been published earlier (1922). Ulysses is also set on a single day in June and is a early and powerful example of stream-of-consciousness storytelling techniques.

Mrs Dalloway marks a break from Woolf’s more traditional earlier writing. Clarissa’s thoughts and her impressions on that day are mixed with interior monologues of others.  Some her day parallels the life of Septimus Warren Smith who fall into a madness ending in suicide.

Woolf’s novel is not clear about the day we follow Clarissa. Using a 1923 calendar, some people have suggested that June 13 is the most likely date.

As far as I could find, the date of her party is only described a Wednesday “in the middle of June, ” so this year the 12th or 19th would have been appropriate.

Joyce set his novel on June 16, and that day has become knowns as Bloomsday. Fans of the novel have made that day a way to celebrate the book by trying to reenact the actions of Leopold Bloom in the plot. There are Bloomsday celebrations around the world and some that sound quite outrageous in the Dublin of the novel.

But people aren’t celebrating what might be called “Dallowday.” But why not? Why can’t at least London celebrate the day?

It is a great excuse for readings, exhibitions, maybe some performances and, of course, a party.

If London doesn’t want a party, I think it is up to you to get things started. This weekend is just fine.

Film version starring Vanessa Redgrave.

If you need some ideas and don’t want to read the novel (Honestly, I didn’t like the novel), there is a film version of Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, starring Vanessa Redgrave.

There is also a film version that uses Woolf’s working title for her novel as its title – The Hours. That film is the story of how Woolf’s novel affects three generations of women. What they share is that they have all had to deal with suicide in their lives, and their lives connect to Mrs. Dalloway’s lfe and that June day.

The Hours is a novel by Michael Cunningham. He takes Virginia Woolf’s life and particularly her last days before her suicide and uses it. Her story particularly connects with the character Samuel, a famous poet in the shadow of his talented and troubled mother. He has a lifelong friend, Clarissa.

All of them and all of that can be at your party. Sure, someone gets to dress up as Clarissa.


At a Drive-In Movie

drive-in screen
via Flickr

This week was the anniversary of the first patented drive-in movie theater which opened on June 6, 1933 in Camden, New Jersey.

Richard Hollingshead Jr. worked at his dad’s auto parts store in Camden, but wanted to do something else. Movies, in this difficult Depression era, were a popular form of escape from the daily grind. From what I have read, Richard was also thinking about his mother, who was carrying some extra weight and found movie theater seats quite uncomfortable. Of course, there was no television, so you couldn’t watch movies from the comfort of your couch.

Hollingshead applied for a patent and opened his drive-in theater on Crescent Boulevard in Camden. It cost 25 cents per car and 25 cents per person but the price was capped at one dollar. He actually called it a “Park-In” theater, but as the trend grew “drive-in” became the accepted label.

Drive-ins peaked in popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s with about 4000 drive-in theaters in the United States. Now, I read that there are less than 500, perhaps less than that at this writing.

I recall many a movie seen at the drive-in during my younger days in New Jersey. I never made it to that original in Camden. Our family went to the Union Drive-In. We didn’t see kids films. I think my parents thought that the playground before the film and some snack bar goodies was enough for my sister and I, and that we would fall asleep by the time the movie started. For some reason, I remember us seeing The Story of Ruth (1960).  My last visit to that drive-in was with my wife-to-be (who had never been to a drive-in) for a heavy summer double bill of Serpico  and The Exorcist It was hot and you needed the car windows open and the Jersey mosquitoes were out in strength. We didn’t make it through both films.

An article on the Mental Floss website about the best of the remaining drive-ins in America. One that I could still visit is Shankweiler’s Drive-In Theater  in Orefield, Pennsylvania. It opened in 1934, making it PA’s first drive-in and the second drive-in theater in the U.S. Now, it is the longest operating drive-in in America.

Another one that I have been to is the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. This 1957 location is Cape Cod’s only drive-in. At the Shankweiler’s you can get funnel cake at the snack bar, and at the Wellfleet you can get oysters.  while watching double-feature first-run films.

Drive-in movies had a reputation in the 50s and 60s as places to go on a date to make out, but now they are more often seen as places for families and are often attached to playgrounds and shopping areas.


Close Encounters, Three 3/13’s and Synchronicity

“Causality is the way we explain the link between two successive events.
Synchronicity designates the parallelism of time and meaning between psychic
and psychophysical events, which scientific knowledge so far
has been unable to reduce to a common principle.”
― C.G. Jung, The Portable Jung

A friend loaned me the book There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Lives years ago because I had been talking to her about synchronicity. Carl Jung coined the term to describe coincidences that are related by meaningfulness rather than by cause and effect. ” Jung introduced the idea of ​​synchronicity to get away from the “magic and superstition” which surrounds some unpredictable and startling events that appear to be connected.

I found another similar book, There Are No Coincidences: Synchronicity as the Modern-Day Mystical Experience, whose title suggests that the “more than” part of these experiences may be mystical.

“We do not create our destiny; we participate in its unfolding.
Synchronicity works as a catalyst toward the working out of that destiny.”
David Richo, The Power of Coincidence: How Life Shows Us What We Need to Know

I would think that all of us have had some otherwise-unrelated events occur to us for which we assumed some significance beyond the ordinary. The common example is when you happen to remember a person you have not thought about or seen for many years, and at that moment your telephone rings and it is that very person. What is the statistical probability that this can happen? Very small; very unlikely. For some people, the explanation moves to the paranormal.

I was looking at an almanac page online on March 13th and came upon a story from 3/13/1997 about when thousands of people reported mysterious lights over Arizona. Around 8 p.m., a man in Henderson, Nevada, saw a V-shaped object “the size of a 747,” with six lights on its leading edge. The lights moved diagonally from northwest to southeast. Other people sighted seeing the same thing over the next hour throughout Arizona. They were seen as far south as Tucson nearly 400 miles away.

A rendering of the object seen created by witness Tim Ley that appeared in USA Today.

I remember those “Phoenix Lights” being covered by the media in 1997. Having grown up in the late 1950s and 1960s, I heard many tales of UFOs.

A repeat of the lights occurred February 6, 2007, and was recorded by the local Fox News television station. But, as was the case with almost every UFO appearance in my youth, it was explained away by officials. In this case, the military and FAA said that it was flares dropped by F-16 aircraft training at Luke Air Force Base.

Reading that account made me think of my own one and only possible “close encounter.” That phrase entered the mainstream with the release of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

My own encounter would be of the first kind – seeing a UFO fairly close (within 150 meters).

My sighting was in the summer of 1993 in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. UFO sightings in the Pinelands seem to be fairly common. I saw what I would describe as a ship that was (as I later discovered) a lenticular saucer. It was motionless over a lake in the early morning (about 3 am). It had no sound or flashing lights, but a thin red-lit ring encircled it.  I had no camera. No one else was there with me. I watched it for about a minute and then it lifted vertically a few feet, tilted at an angle, and took off rapidly, vanishing from sight in a few seconds.

An encounter with a UFO that leaves evidence behind, such as scorch marks on the ground or indents, etc., is said to be of the second kind. Spielberg’s film deals with the third kind – an encounter with visible occupants of a UFO. The fourth kind involves the person being taken and experimented on inside the alien craft. The fifth kind involves direct communication between aliens and humans, as portrayed in the 2016 film, Arrival.

I don’t know what I saw. I never read any news reports about it. I never reported it.

After I read that almanac entry on the Phoenix Lights, I looked at another almanac website for more information and that site that told me that on March 13 in 1855, Percival Lowell was born. Who was he? Born to a wealthy family, he graduated from Harvard, but he passed on working in the family business and instead did a lot of traveling and travel writing. In the 1890s, he read that astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered what appeared to be canals on Mars. Lowell was fascinated by that idea and put his fortune into studying the Red Planet.

He believed that the canals offered proof of intelligent life. He built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Astronomers and scientists were skeptical of his view of intelligent life on Mars, but the general public was intrigued by his view. Lowell’s writing and observations had an impact, not as much on science as on the infant literary genre that became known as science fiction.

These two coincidences on March 13 led me to check out that date on Wikipedia. The event that caught my attention on yet another March 13, in 1781, was that the English astronomer Sir William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. Well, “discover” may be too strong because John Flamsteed had observed it in 1690, but thought it was a star. Herschel was the first to figure out that it was a planet and not a star.

He observed the planet’s very slow movement and determined that meant it was very far from the Sun – farther than Saturn, which was the farthest known planet. He named it after Ouranos, the Greek god of the sky. Since then, astronomers have discovered 27 moons orbiting the blue-green ice giant. The moons have literary names, mostly characters from Shakespeare’s plays. Uranus is an odd planet in that its axis is tilted so far that it appears to be lying on its side with its ringed moons circling the planet vertically.

Was it a coincidence that I found these three stories that day? Is there some synchronicity that these three events occurred on the same calendar date?  Is there a connection among these three March Thirteenths?

Though I believe in synchronicity, they seem to be coincidental. I found connections because I was looking for connections. But I am open-minded about the idea. I do believe in coincidences, and I do sometimes believe that things occur which stretch my belief in coincidences.

“Coincidences give you opportunities to look more deeply into your existence.”
Doug Dillon

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
– Albert Einstein

“I live for coincidences. They briefly give to me the illusion or the hope
that there’s a pattern to my life, and if there’s a pattern,
then maybe I’m moving toward some kind of destiny where it’s all explained.”
Jonathan Ames