Thursday, 21 February 2008

Afternoon at the Zarzuela

Go to a matinée performance at the Teatro de la Zarzuela. Zarzuela is a Spanish variant of operetta. There's an excellent Web site about it at zarzuela.net and all in English.

The current production is “La Generala” (something like “Mrs General” or “The General's Wife”, referring to the wife of a Venezuelan army General), a romantic comedy about penniless recently-deposed king and queen from an imaginary central European kingdom who have gone to live in exile in England. They plot to manoeuvre and cajole their son into marrying a wealthy princess. The programme notes for the production are by British musicologist Andrew Lamb, translated into Spanish. The original article, La Generala: When Vienna Comes to Madrid is published in English on zarzuela.net and the plot synopsis is helpfully in English the printed programme. Andrew Lamb's article is so thorough that there isn't much more for me to say here. It was first performed in 1912 at the Gran Teatro de Madrid, now no longer in existence, but which I read with curiosity in an article on the Madrid Histórico website was once where now stands the Instituto Francés or French Institute, but which burnt down in 1920, the current institute conserving the original façade, which I must remember to investigate next time I'm in the area.

The performance started at six, attended by what seemed to be mainly a mixture of elderly people and young children with their mothers. Being Wednesday the tickets were discounted, a bargain at only €11, and I was back home in time for dinner.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Modigliani Show at Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Go to the Thyssen-Bornemisza art museum for a guided tour of the newly-opened exhibition “Modigliani and His Times” organised for the friends of the museum. I wasn't very keen, thinking it was all female nudes but it was very enlightening and much more interesting than I expected, with stone sculpture, portraits and even landscapes, in a variety of styles that reflect the diversity of art movements that were current while Modigliani lived in Paris. The guide was wonderful and knowledgable, talking continuously for an hour without notes. Unfortunately, it just whetted my appetite for more, leaving me feeling I needed had even more time to learn about the art and its history.

As is the custom at the museum, half the exhibition is staged at the “Casa de las Alhajas” run by the Caja Madrid savings bank, a former jewellery showroom converted into an exhibition space. I always mean to visit the other half of these exhibitions but never seem to get around to it.

The exhibition continues until 18 May 2008.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Don Juan at the Teatro Español

Go to the theatre to see a new production, “Don Juan, Príncipe de la Tinieblas” yet another reworking of the timeless Don Juan tale this time by Catalan author Josep Palau i Fabre, known for his poetry and translations and as an authority on Pablo Picasso.

This was only my second visit to the Teatro Español. The first time was over ten years ago, to see Molière's The Imaginary Invalid. I was surprised to find the place more than half empty, on the first Saturday of its run. Maybe the critics had been hard on it. For once the constant whispered chatter of the women next to me was amusing “Shocking! Look how he's treating her!”, “Look he's dead”, “No he isn't, he moved his arm”.

As usual the programme gives plenty of waffle but not a lot of meat. I'm not really interested to know the names of the theatre's cleaners and who's in charge of the heating, but I would like to know when the play was written. It was assembled by the director, Hermann Bonnín, from shorter pieces written by Palau i Fabre when he lived in Paris, in the 1940s. I understood that it was written in Catalan, as before the performance began they announced the names of the translators, which they had presumably forgotten to mention in the programme. It's set in 1940s Barcelona. I particularly liked the way the characters moved around the empty stage to create a structured space. In (for me) an unusual twist to the tale, at the end Don Juan falls in love with a woman who turns out to be the personification of death and is seduced by her. She leads him to hell where he is tried by a jury of women and condemned to be faithful to the woman of his choosing, for eternity.

Technology Worship in Boston

In a BBC interview inventor and visionary Ray Kurzweil, attending a get-together of futurologists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, claims that “Machines will achieve human-level artificial intelligence by 2029.” and “tiny robots implanted in people's brains to make them more intelligent”. That's really great news. At last my feeble mortal brain won't have to try to work on its own.

So technology will save us. Technology will make us happier? Wiser? More fulfilled? Help us truly understand why we're messing up this world? I think not. As we become ever more helplessly dependent on technology produced by the likes of Mr Kurzweil. Dependant on technology for awareness of what's happening on the other side of the universe while we can't even understand what's happening around us. Technology to help overcome the barriers caused by... technology.

Ray Kurzweil developed omni-font character recognition software (that could recognize printed characters in any font). The problem at the time was what to do with it. It is a feature of modern technology, that it is self-perpetuating. Rather than being developed to satisfy real human needs, technology develops by its own momentum (often to inflate the stock price of companies that develop it). It survives and grows independently of those it is supposed to serve, and drives its own development. Technologists than come up with (increasingly far fetched) justifications for their innovations. As Kurzweil himself says: “Like a lot of clever computer software, it was a solution in search of a problem.” Having stumbled almost by fluke on applying existing optical character-recognition technology to help the blind to read printed text, like many technologists he seems to extrapolate this to reach the assumption that all people are handicapped by the lack of “advanced” technology. There is a trend towards using people with disabilities to justify introduction of technological dependence by stealth. People with disabilities are thus “given” an illusory “independence” by technology. Independent of what? Of their fellow human beings. Independent of other humans, but dependant for ever on technology. OCR meant that blind users could seem to read (in fact they were innately no more able to read text than they had been before), overcoming sensory disability but becoming dependent on technology. In practice, the voice technologies that seemed so liberating have caused a crisis in literacy and learning among the blind. For the general population, the growth of mass-media technologies like television, radio and mobile communications has produced a generation in which even those who can see text are increasingly unable to read it adequately. While the blind have overcome one disability, the general population has acquired another.

According to Kurzweil, “...we use our technology to expand our physical and mental horizons” I would suggest that the horizons we need to expand are inside our minds and technology increasingly has the effect of stunting our perception of them.

He goes on “We'll have intelligent nanobots go into our brains... to make us smarter.” Isn't that just what we need. As real human wisdom becomes increasingly scarce due to in large part to the now ubiquitous “new technology”, we'll have yet more technology to help us along.

By saying that machines will achieve human-level intelligence, is to say that humans are only as intelligent as advanced machines. Well some of us have varying degrees of wisdom, and “think” otherwise. Being human is not about number-crunching, data-gathering, or about remembering quantifiable facts. Being human is about love, feeling, insight, intuition, faculties that are increasingly under threat as technology stunts our ability to to relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us and our ability to perceive that we're not just underdeveloped robots.

The same story is reported unquestioningly in the Guardian newspaper and they include some real nuggets like “They identified sunshine as a 'tantalizing source of environmentally friendly power'.. But capturing that power, converting it into something useful ... poses a challenge”. Where have you been for the past few million years? And again “clean water, which is in short supply”. Clean water would not be in short supply if abuse of technology didn't pollute it and mess up the climate.

The BBC article lists fourteen “challenges facing humanity” identified by the group of experts presenting their report at the meeting:

  • Make solar energy affordable
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Reverse engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Advance personalised learning
  • Explore natural frontiers

Most of these are about overcoming the problems caused by technology itself. So what do we need to overcome the shortcomings of technology? Of course, you guessed it, more technology. A technological “fix”. They chant “Please let us try just once more. We're sure to get it right this time.” And so we do. Then what do we need to overcome the problems caused by the fix? More of the same. No! What they propose is not solutions, but simply more of the same problems. Technology is in the hands of technologists (and universities and governments) in the pay of corporations. More is not better and their thinking is blinkered by the very technology they try to sell.