21 December 2010

Only Kinect: Monument as Playground in Munich

Last month interactive technology company seeper set up a system of motion sensors and projectors that allowed passerby to 'play' the medieval Karlstor next to Stachus in Munich (via Wired).

The level of hype in this video is pretty comical, but playing the Karlstor looks like fun! Especially after a couple glasses of gluhwein. Repurposing familiar monuments like this is good. So often we feel like old things, especially monuments, rule us. This game creates a kind of inversion of that psychology, creating a dissonance that lets you see old things in a new light. Games like this are also very conservation compatible, since it's non-invasive: a good tip for people minded to turn ancient monuments into modern spectacles.

I did a little snooping and it turns out that the production end is pretty straightforward - the Kinect is an off-the-shelf attachment for Microsoft's Xbox video game console, released last month, that does motion tracking and even face and voice recognition. Microsoft's attempt to one-up the Wii. Combine it with a projector and a little modelling savvy, and interactive games projected onto the urban environment are (or will soon be) within many peoples' reach. There's a ton of interesting implications popping into my mind already: interactive scenes or puzzles as part of museum or monument tours, urban gaming, the fusion of the video game and live-action role-playing experience.

All this, and archaeologists don't even use film yet. Time to leapfrog a couple generations of technology methinks.

20 December 2010

Regulatin' Google Latin

It must be a slow Monday night, I just spent 10 minutes chortling over Dr. Octagon lyrics in bad Latin. I was inspired to this diversion by Mary Beard's review of Google's new Latin-English translator (unenthused):
...the verdict is -- dont touch it with a barge pole.

My first shot was actually quite encouraging. I typed in "arma virumque cano" and "I sing of arms and the man" came out. I have come to suspect that someone had actually specially entered a range of obvious quotes people might search for, with a correct translation -- because Google was unexpectedly good at these ("per ardua ad astra" = "up the steep slope to the stars" etc). Now that may be useful enough in its was, but it isnt what I call "translation"; it's a database of quotes.

Things started to go wrong pretty quickly when I typed in some baby Latin. "Servus est in villa" (and you couldnt get much simpler than that) comes out as "In the town is the servant of" (how come villa = town? and where has the "of" appeared from?).

Agreed, this translator sucks completely. It just transliterates the English without changing the word order, and is full of inexplicable mistakes (due to a small working vocabulary? I wonder).

However, let's not overlook the entertainment value. The English to Latin is a GREAT procrastination tool, even if you don't know any Latin. For instance, an excerpt from a famous recent epic poem, 'Ordinatores':

Eastside iustus ledo de LBC
Legati quaeruntur Mr Warren G.
Vidit currum plena puellis non tweak non necesse
Omnes sciunt quid pedibus sursum CCXIII

(You might know this one as 'Regulators'). The original looks like this:
Just hit the Eastside of the LBC
On a mission trying to find Mr. Warren G.
Seen a car full of girls ain't no need to tweak
All you skirts know what's up with 213
This translation is whack! How does 'skirts' turn into 'pedibus'?! 'Vidit currum plena puellis' is vaguely right (a chariot full of girls! Woot!), but currus is masculine so it's gotta be plenum. 'Non tweak non necesse' has a ring to it though, I'm gonna start saying that to people when they need to chill out.

Anyway, this thing is a total train wreck. And like trainwrecks, it's irresistable.

Here's the video if you feel like watching it. I do.

11 December 2010

A Working Lego Model of the Antikythera Mechanism

Holy crap. From Small Mammal (via Boing Boing), a functional replica of the Antikythera Mechanism MADE OF LEGOS:
This is a 2000-year-old analog computing device reconstructed out of Lego. It predicts solar and lunar eclipses, accurate to within two hours — all using plastic gears. Andy Carol, its designer, builds mechanical computers out of Lego as a hobby. He made this device basically because Adam Rutherford, an editor and producer at Nature, dared him to. When Adam heard that Andy had actually built the device, he called me and said, “Well, clearly we have to make some sort of film about this thing now.”
So they did, and here it is. This makes me jump up and down and shake around with delight.

The Antikythera Mechanism in Lego from Small Mammal on Vimeo.

Andy Carol also made a working model of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, probably the most complex analog computer since the Antikythera Mechanism! Of course, the real thing looks totally different (by which I mean ugly):

The story of the device itself is amazing - discovered in a shipwreck by sponge divers in 1901, it remained a more or less a mystery for decades. Everyone knew it was a sophisticated machine but the thing was in such bad shape that no one could do much with it. (Besides speculate about the influence of ancient astronauts, as the "History" channel is wont to do.) The advent of high-tech x-ray scanners, however, unlocked the device's mysteries, as this video from Nature reports:

I think Michael Wright's model of the device gives a great sense of how the device actually looked and functioned:

I have to put in a plug here for my pet project, "archaeological optimism". Most of the news coverage of the device portrays it something out of time. Like this headline from an io9 story on the device: "Advanced imaging reveals a computer 1,500 years ahead of its time". Bullshit! It was exactly appropriate for its time because that was the time when it was made. Greek scientists had the capacity to create complex mechanical calculators, and did. No need to drag them out of their place.

The 'device out of time' trope is just the arrogance of the present, thinking that we are the culmination of all of history so far. Bullshit. Time and civilization does not have an end point or a state that is 'better' than another. That attitude becomes an excuse for belittling the genius of our forebears by painting their greatest accomplishments as something abnormal, instead of granting them an equal moral status to us.

10 December 2010

Excavating with the X-Clan

Archaeologists discover the tombs of the Underseer and the Overseer, and lo, X-Clan is unleashed! Thanks to Sean for the video tip.

X-Clan was formed in 1990, broke up in 1992, and recently re-formed. They came out of a New York hip-hop scene that was heavily intertwined with political activism and Black nationalism. Besides having made some total jams, they have awesome uniforms and a great archaeopop aesthetic that mixes ancient Egypt, the African diaspora, and American urban style.

In North America, I think esoteric/Afrocentric hip-hop artists have done the best job of using archaeological and historical motifs to create a modern identity, mostly through the beliefs of the Nation of Gods and Earths (aka '5 percenters') a religious tendency that branched off of the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. There's been a lot of influential hip-hop artists out of this philosophy (Busta Rhymes, Eric B, Wu-Tang, Nas, Brand Nubian, Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z). The symbology of Egypt is crucial (e.g. this Nas cover) and a lot of these artists' work deal with history and identity in one way or another.

X-Clan have a habit of poking fun at the historical representations of Black people in their videos that I really dig, pun intended. The tomb-opening scene in the video above lampoons the idea that African history is something of the past: Egypt's not dead! The opening to the video of 'Fire and Earth' (below) totally destroys the stereotype of the 'primitive' Black man AND sarcastically suggests that the white guys in black face are the real neanderthals, all in about 10 seconds:

This is one of the songs that has gotten stuck in my head most often over the last 20 years.

A lot of people find Afrocentric approaches to archaeology absurd or offensive. I think that's bullshit - people have the right to remix archaeology however they want and it's GOOD if the past means something to everyone.
Stop yourself next time you see a neoclassical façade in an American city and contemplate the breathtaking audacity of white Americans claiming to be the heirs of the ancient Greeks. I mean, check out this building here, the Nashville Parthenon. It's a life-size reproduction and is actually more complete than the original. It even has a cult statue of Athena, right here in the bible-loving heart of our "Christian Republic"! In Nashville! Weird as hell. But no one's shocked anymore by the bizarreness of the ideological program "America=Ancient Greece". 200 years of familiarity, and patronage from powerful people, have made the aesthetic vocabulary of Greece and Rome boringly normal. Remixing the past only seems ridiculous when it's people who are traditionally disempowered doing it. Daring to find your own meanings in the past is 'uppity' behavior (that stuff is for the experts, y'all quiet down!).

Seriously? We could use a lot more uppityness in the world of history and archaeology.

05 December 2010

Noah's Ark theme park, brought to you by the Kentucky taxpayer

The governor of Kentucky is pushing for major tax breaks to a Christian fundamentalist group who plan to build a full-size "reproduction" of Noah's Ark as part of a theme park in the northern part of the state. Expected to open in 2014, the park will be run by the same group, "Answers in Genesis", that runs the nearby Creation Museum (where "Biblical history is the key to understanding dinosaurs").

The question in the New York Times today is, does public funding for creationism violate the separation of church and state? Duh. As usual, the Times gets into elaborate hand-wringing over obvious questions. (Though such funding may not be illegal since a recent Supreme Court decision.) On the other hand, if the project does pump the projected $500 million per year in tourist dollars into the area, I see why the governor is into it.

But let's talk about the proposed attraction. Though their ideological agenda is a bit stomach-churning, Answers in Genesis does represent some "best-practices" in building a museum. They did a national survey to assess the attractiveness of their museum concept. They have a well-organized, accessible website with great graphic design (I love the font!) and a clearly-identified audience that will be bombarded with a sophisticated fundraising campaign (you can become a 'Peg', 'Plank', or 'Beam'-level supporter for donations of $100, $1000, or $5000).

The Ark Encounter will be a 800-acre (320 ha) mix of amusement park, mall, and zoo with lots of multimedia action:
  • The Walled City: Along with plenty of shopping and food, guests experience Bible events through various themed venues situated on 40 acres.
  • The Ark: A full-size wooden Ark.
  • Noah’s Animals: Live shows with animals from around the world, and a large petting zoo.
  • Children’s Play Area: A highly themed, interactive environment where kids can explore and play.
  • The Tower of Babel: A 100-foot-tall themed building with exhibits and a 500-seat 5-D special effects theater.
  • Journey Through History: This themed attraction takes visitors on a trip through events of the Bible, experiencing spectacular special effects.
  • The First-Century Village: This attractive area presents a town as it might have appeared in the Middle East.
  • Aviary: three bird sanctuaries presented in a natural setting, plus a nearby butterfly exhibit.
  • Special Events Area: A venue for large gatherings; this area will also showcase some of the Leader in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building techniques used to build the Ark complex.
Let us pause in admiration of the complexity and diversity of the project. A themed 'ancient walled city' environment, sort of like Disney's Main Street USA but with an ancient history vibe. Play area for the kids, plus bird sanctuaries with pretty critters. A replica first-century village, which I'm sure will have costumed actors. 5-D special effects in the Tower of Babel?!?!?! I have no idea what the other 2D are but it sounds tight. And the buildings are LEED-certified and environmentally friendly? Damn. There is definitely something for everyone here. Honestly, I would probably go to this, just to see it for myself.

The introductory video is fascinating. Experimental archaeology is the basis of the whole project: since the overriding mission is to prove that the Book of Genesis is a historical text, building Noah's Ark and showing that people and animals could actually have lived inside will serve as "proof" that the story is not just a myth. Lived experience is much more persuasive than text, and millions of people will leave the park believing that the biblical stories could have actually happened. It's a totally accessible, non-elitist approach to presenting a historical vision.

Don't get me wrong, it's a vision based on the false assumption that myth and history are the same thing (though archaeologists used to do this, sometimes with success: cf. the life of Heinrich Schliemann!). As someone who likes the Bible and Jesus and goes to church now and again, I am appalled and frustrated at the way these guys completely misunderstand Genesis and Christianity. But they are good at presenting their vision. Their art director worked for the 1984 Olympics and at Universal Studios, for chrissakes!

Contrast this to a climate for museums with real historical artifacts, where selling off their collections seems the only possible way to pay for basic infrastructure in the current economic climate. But what do you see in those museums? A bunch of static objects in cases. You have to read a book or two before you visit, or you won't understand anything. You're expected to be silent and worshipful no matter how bored or confused you feel. God forbid you try to touch or interact with the exhibits. As I've said before, ever since the cultural élite stopped going to church, art and history museums have tried to fill the gap and give us that experience of awe and reverence. But they do a bad job of it. The creationists, on the other hand, know how to tie history and religion together into a lived experience that is fun, kid friendly, and compatible with modern lifestyles. I wish I could say that of the rest of the museum world.

01 December 2010

Not so newsy newsflash

Il Messaggero newspaper reports the assassination of Julius Caesar. ("Suetonius' Shock: 'It was a stab in the back'".) Part of their ad campaign to convince you that it's Rome's 'traditional' newspaper. I wonder where Alitalia was flying in 44 BC?

Photo: me. Spotted in the Coliseo subway station, Rome.

More archaeo-protest: Chichen Itzá

Last week Italy, this week Chichen Itzá: holding your protest in front of ancient stuff is becoming de rigeur these days. As part of the climate summit in nearby Cancun, Greenpeace floated this consciousness-raising hot air balloon in front of a Maya pyramid on Sunday. I have to admit, it's eye-catching marketing.