Beyond digesting ducks

Medium-sized data and the street organ’s mannequin.

Doc Searls:

I think the biggest reason people are rejecting ads can be summed up in one word: tracking. Over the past decade, companies have increasingly used technology lurking beneath the surface of online ads to capture as much data about us as possible. Advertisers don’t have to build this capability for themselves: they rely on ad delivery networks that claim they can show relevant ads to people no matter which website they’re visiting. Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School calls this rampant practice “surveillance capitalism.”

Perhaps the most bizarre illustration of this phenomenon at work is a poster published in 2013 by IBM and the Aberdeen Group research firm, headlined “The Big Datastillery.” It shows “clickstreams” (the details of our every mouse movement or finger swipe online), social media, and other sources of data flowing through pipes into a big hopper. At the bottom, “customer interaction optimization” and “marketing optimization” spigots pour distilled goop into empty beakers moving down a conveyor belt. Each empty beaker represents the “right person” getting the “right offer” through the “right channel” at the “right time.” Near the end of the belt, each beaker farts gases upward into a funnel collecting “campaign metrics” to feed back into the top of the hopper.

Crap in, crap out, 1 but this is clearly a massive advance over Vaucanson’s 1738 mechanical defecating duck – for example, the latter didn’t follow you home and rummage through your porn collection:

Some 18th century French writers have the temerity to contradict the English-language Wikipedia: they say that the duck did actually work, although imitations of it didn’t. I am not sure that Voltaire is with them when in 1741 he writes re a provincial play whose subject I will not mention for fear of losing my head:

It is said that the taste for barbs and gibes is the only thing in fashion today, and that without the voice of [opera diva Nicole le Maure] and the duck of Vaucanson you would have nothing that would cause you to recollect the glory of France. 2

One bon mot deserves another. Jessica Riskin, The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life:

by building a machine that played the flute and another that shat, and placing them alongside each other, Vaucanson, rather than demonstrating the equivalence of art and shit as the products of mechanical processes, was testing the capacity of each, the artistic and the organic product, to distinguish the creatures that produced them from machines.

Maybe someone will be able to tell me what if anything Jacques du Phly/Duphly‘s “La de Vaucanson” (Pièces de clavecin, Book IV (1768)), has to do with the duck:

Dogs and children all agree that the organ’s mannequin is a wonderful thing:

… but I am trying to tempt the taxman to progress it to something more reactive than Vaucanson but less intrusive than Facebook & Co.

Stuff

  1. Out of curiosity I sometimes turn my browser’s adblocker off (but the only relevant ads pointed at me are for stuff I’ve already bought), and I recently added an ad block on another site (Google ad revenues don’t cover the postage home).
  2. On dit que le goût des mauvaises pointes & des quolibets est la seule chose qui soit aujourd’hui de mode, & que sans la voix de la le Maure, & le canard de Vaucanson, vous n’auriez rien que fît ressouvenir de la gloire de la France.

Two versions of Flann O’Brien’s “The workman’s friend”

With some relevant chunks of Henry Fielding.

I’ve started doing a bit of Brian O’Nolan, rather nervously: I was immensely impressed as a child by a collection of his Irish Times pieces, and he’s still one of my favourite writers. Eamon Morrissey makes a fine job of his porter:

Then there’s this guy:

Institutional Gaelic mawkishness seems also to be enveloping Ivor Cutler, who fled to London, like Joyce to Paris, but could not escape in the end:

This weakness reminds me of the bit in the preface to Henry Fielding‘s The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great:

It hath, among other languages, been translated into Dutch, and celebrated with great applause at Amsterdam (where burlesque never came) by the title of Mynheer Vander Thumb, the burgomasters receiving it with that reverent and silent attention which becometh an audience at a deep tragedy.

And almost 300 years later, though the Slovak embassy’s canapés are delicious:

Small build, big courage.

Such was Tom Thumb, son of poor parents, who ventured on his trip into the world in search of experience and earnings. Thanks to his confidence and belief in his own abilities he won not only respect and recognition, but also the king’s throne and the hand of a princess in marriage.

Fielding addresses this political drudgery in his prologue to The author’s farce, to which his original Tom Thumb was coupled:

Too long the Tragick Muse hath aw’d the stage,
And frighten’d wives and children with her rage,
Too long Drawcansir roars, Parthenope weeps,
While ev’ry lady cries, and critick sleeps
With ghosts, rapes, murders, tender hearts they wound,
Or else, like thunder, terrify with sound
When the skill’d actress to her weeping eyes,
With artful sigh, the handkerchief applies,
How griev’d each sympathizing nymph appears!
And box and gallery both melt in tears
Or when, in armour of Corinthian brass,
Heroick actor stares you in the face,
And cries aloud, with emphasis that’s fit, on
Liberty, freedom, liberty and Briton!
While frowning, gaping for applause he stands,
What generous Briton can refuse his hands?
Like the tame animals design’d for show,
You have your cues to clap, as they to bow,
Taught to commend, your judgments have no share,
By chance you guess aright, by chance you err.

The tragedy of tragedies, once you learn how to evade the footnotes in the fre-ebook or use this version, is wonderful – there’s nothing in Voltaire (who is quite restrained) or Rabelais (who is quite mad) to equal it:

One globe alone on Atlas’ shoulders rests,
Two globes are less than Huncamunca’s breasts;
The milky way is not so white, that’s flat,
And sure thy breasts are full as large as that.
Hunc. Oh, sir, so strong your eloquence I find,
It is impossible to be unkind.

And:

Par. Happy’s the wooing that’s not long a doing; For, if I guess right, Tom Thumb this night Shall give a being to a new Tom Thumb.
Thumb. It shall be my endeavour so to do.
Hunc. Oh! fie upon you, sir, you make me blush.
Thumb. It is the virgin’s sign, and suits you well

And:

riding on a cat, from high I’ll fall,
And squirt down royal vengeance on you all.

And:

Transports, like lightning, dart along thy soul,
As small-shot through a hedge.

And:

What can I gather hence? Why dost thou speak
Like men who carry rareeshows about?
“Now you shall see, gentlemen, what you shall see.”
O, tell me more, or thou hast told too much.

And:

Merlin. Hear, then, the mystick getting of Tom Thumb.
His father was a ploughman plain,
His mother milk’d the cow;
And yet the way to get a son
This couple knew not how,
Until such time the good old man
To learned Merlin goes,
And there to him, in great distress,
In secret manner shows
How in his heart he wish’d to have
A child, in time to come,
To be his heir, though it may be
No bigger than his thumb:
Of which old Merlin was foretold
That he his wish should have;
And so a son of stature small
The charmer to him gave.

And:

Rebellion’s dead, and now I’ll go to Breakfast.

The king, terminating the marvellous final massacre:

So when the child, whom nurse from danger guards,
Sends Jack for mustard with a pack of cards,
Kings, queens, and knaves, throw one another down,
Till the whole pack lies scatter’d and o’erthrown;
So all our pack upon the floor is cast,
And all I boast is—that I fall the last.

Laetitia Pilkington‘s Memoirs, vol 1.:

[Jonathan Swift] told me, he did remember that he had not laugh’d above twice in his Life; once at some Trick a Mountebank’s Merry-Andrew play’d; and the other time was at the Circumstance of Tom Thumb’s killing the Ghost

I think she means his killing of Grizzle, who threatens with his own ghost.

Splendid stuff, but can any of it be sung, with a street organ? Would current politico-artistic convention allow an appropriately freakshow production? (What was the original production like?)