Robots, Endhirans, Etc.

I’ve been on a robot kick recently. Not that it’s new, but that it’s accelerating. I don’t think I posted about this before, but about a week ago I borrowed an awesome book called Loving the Machine, by Timothy Hornyak*, which traces Japan’s complete obsession with robots as personal companions.

One of the possible reasons for this affinity for all things mechanical and non-human is that robots have always played a huge role in Japanese society – from the first robot in the 1600s that was built exclusively to serve tea, to the mechanical marvels used in religious festivals. As Hornyak says, one of the people he spoke “believes that centuries of enjoying karakuri dolls performing in settings like religious festivals is what allowed Japan to deploy industrial robots so widely”.

I can see my thesis turning itself on its head right about now.

Also, somewhat coincidentally, I was working on my (relatively) epic next installment of time traveling shenanigans, and discovered that Leonardo da Vinci, whom I already sort of love, designed the Western hemisphere’s first robot. I don’t know if this is the world’s first robot, or just Europe/West’s, but the thing was discovered by researchers to be totally legitimate – when built, the design allowed it to move its jaw, for one thing. How cool is that?!

Now I have borrowed a book called Leonardo’s Lost Robots, by a man who was a certifiable Leo nerd at about twelve. Leo was called upon to design a mechanical lion for a French king, which would move forward, rear up on its hind legs, and then open its mouth to reveal flowers. From studies of his notebook, Leonardo apparently used wound-up springs for this. But it’s such a scarily intelligent book – nearly every page has studies of human/machine movement and is full of cogwheels – that I am almost afraid to read it.

About the last thing completing my nerdy week is the soundtrack for Endhiran, the latest Kollywood disaster, starring Rajini and Aishwarya Rai. I feel entirely justified in calling this a disaster, because not only is the trailer something you wouldn’t want to inflict on your worst enemy, Rahman’s soundtrack itself is barely tolerable.

The lyrics – like “butterflies taste with their feet; humans, capable of love, taste with their eyes” – leave much to be desired. Vairamuthu seems to be suffering from the same concussion that has felled Rahman’s music. But two things are interesting about the sentiments expressed in the tracks:

– Robots can develop “love” – this isn’t new, because it’s been cropping up in sci-fi ever since the concept of robots was introduced by Capek. But for some reason I’ve always thought South Asia’s attitude towards robotics was as something to be awed, feared, something unattainable. It’s not as if India has been a slouch at technology – far from it – but robotics doesn’t seem to have the same resonance there as it does in, say, America or Japan (can anyone confirm this?)

So this sort of sentiment seems relatively new to me, coming from India. Unless, of course, this is just another indication of how hallucinogenically bad this movie is going to be, and Ash-Rajini(Robot)-Rajini(Scientist) are all caught up in a love triangle.

– Another track is talking about how a robot is really a “new man” (pudhiya manidha) and then goes on to express all kinds of hopes: about how the robot can be the savior of the human race, a change for the better, etc. Again, not exactly the norm in a Western context – this is far closer to the Japanese worldview. It’s just an interesting juxtaposition of two opposing views – that robots could take over the world and displace us, or that they could help us enormously.

Or I could just be desperately mining those lyrics for meaning.

In other news,  I think I’m just about ready to get back to Austin. It’s been great, but I do value my independence greatly, and 11.45 pm is not a late time to be getting home for me usually, so the implication that it is, is making me uncomfortable. And – I never thought I’d say this – but the American accent is infinitely better than the Singaporean one. Even people at my place of work (a newspaper) are prolific users of Singlish. Not that it’s a crime or anything but… it’s awful, you guys. I thought it would get better with exposure, but… no.

Now I’m ordering all my school books! And I am nerdily excited! I’m taking Plan II physics (killer), History of India around the time of the Mughals, and a science writing course. They will all be waiting for me when I collapse into my new apartment!

* Try saying that last name out loud – Horn! Yak! I wonder what his ancestors used to do – did they herd yaks with horns? Don’t all yaks have horns anyway? Maybe they lived next to a mountain that looks like a yak’s horn?

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