Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More Mad Ads - Prof Bumba and Nangi Herbals

Here are a few more pamphlets making crazy magical claims, as handed out on streets in South Africa. I'm not going to describe these mad ads in much detail - these things get kind of repetitive at some point. Thanks to readers who sent in contributions and links, whicih will all be added eventually.

First up, we have Prof Bumba, based in Johannesburg. The Professor seems to have the power to be in four places at once, given the list of premises. Helpfully, you can use sms to make appointments.

Then we have Nangi Herbals, including the thoughtfully bundled package of schlong related services, the '3 in 1 Penis Combo':

Someone should be printing these things on T-Shirts.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Robophobia in The Grauniad

Last week's Guardian has a blog piece by Mark Lawson about the composer Emily Howell, who has a forthcoming album. Part of what is interesting about Emily is that she isn't a natural person, but a trained computer program. She's the successor to Experiments in Musical Creativity (EMI, or 'Emmy'). Both are projects of David Cope, himself a composer. There's a lot you can read (including a lot that’s on line) about the history of Cope's work, and the music produced by the systems he has developed and trained. I'm not going over any of that here, but I do want to take issue with some things Mark Lawson has to say. Lawson doesn't care how good Emily's music might sound. He says it's "worthless" because it's not made by real people. I think that he is being a silly anthropophile robophobe twerp.

After some rather disorganised paragraphs in which Lawson half-heartedly faces up to the fact that much creativity is a matter of re-arranging elements that are not themselves original, he turns to banging the table. Along the way are a few telling bits of rhetoric that show honesty is not a big priority for him, including the gem that when Emily produces a work it is by “simply randomly reshuffl[ing]” bits of another. Clearly he’s simply ignored the fact that Emily is laboriously trained, and that the process of construction is guided by the set of constraints produced by the training. Anyway, here comes the table banging:
So logic is on her side. Art, though, is illogical. Although she can be defended intellectually, the creator of From Darkness, Light is no more a composer than a synthetic sperm knocked up in a laboratory would be a father.
Oh. So a traffic light isn't a “real” instruction, because it's just a machine. Calculators don't tell us arithmetic truths, because they're not people. I haven't really been to Scotland because I didn't walk there. It’s not about what happens, it’s about where it comes from. Why should we think this? Lawson continues:
Music, writing or art is a communication between two humans. This does not mean it has to be emotional or warm – a delusion industrialised in large parts of Hollywood – but that there is some sort of conversation between two members of the same species, even if the artist's side of the exchange is "go away and leave me alone".

Paradoxically, it was JD Salinger, a novelist who has refused any rapport with his readership outside the pages of the books, who most beautifully captured this truth when the narrator of The Catcher in the Rye suggests that reading a really good book makes you want to phone up the author. A composition by Emily Howell might make us want to email her, but we know that she could not reply. Admittedly, we also know that Salinger wouldn't take our phone call, but the crucial difference is that he could if he wanted to.

A computer, cleverly programmed, could probably produce the Doubting Thomas Passion by JS Bach or More Snow on Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway. But the exercise would be worthless because the works from the software would not be informed by being a God-fearing kapelmeister in 18th-century Germany or a suicidal macho male in mid-20th century America.

Our shelves may be full of composers and writers who could be accused of having only artificial intelligence, but their efforts are still more worthwhile than art created by AI. "From the heart – may it go to the heart," wrote Beethoven on the manuscript of his Missa Solemnis. From the byte to the brain can never be equivalent to that.
This is a pretty strong set of claims. No matter how beautiful, or moving, or exciting, or anything else music, including Emily Howell’s, might make us feel, it's "worthless" because it didn't get to us by being passed through the brain of a natural person. And the reason for that being important is that we could (in some fabulously diluted sense of could, which covers long dead people who can't talk to anyone now, and living ones who don't want to talk to us, etc.) talk to them about stuff.

It's interesting that no matter how it got here, and irrespective of whether anyone could (or would want to) talk to where it came from, that is surely the most lousy justification for a claim that I've seen all week.

Lawson is, I’d argue, perfectly free himself to have a silly prejudice to the effect that he prefers music that in some sense came out of a brain. But it’s arrogant and absurd for him to declaim that such much is in general “worthless” just because he’s prejudiced.

More than that, it’s confused. People, and their brains, are physical systems. Their basic working parts are mechanisms – mechanisms of DNA transcription, protein construction, ion channelling, neurotransmitter action. Their interesting functions are the product of gigantic co-ordinated action among these myriad mechanisms. This means that if having in some sense been produced by mechanisms guarantees being “worthless” then everything made by any person is worthless.

Besides all that, it’s fascinating to learn more about music, and what sorts of process can compose it. There’s little reason to think that what goes on in Emily will be strictly analogous to what happened in Bach’s skull, but there’s at least a tantalising suggestion that we have more idea that we used to about what might have been in there. And there’s exciting work to be done – I for one would like to see computers capable of sophisticated ensemble improvising.

Here are some links:
Lawson’s article (comments unfortunately closed).

David Cope's mp3 page, with material by EMI. (In particular, see 5000 works in Bach Style.)

Article on Ars Technica.

Article on Times Online (includes streaming media with short clips from the forthcoming album).

Article on Vox.
(The image at the top was lifted from an image challenge on B3TA.)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lint - some lazy linking

There's more for fans of Lint on YouTube. First, the following brief monologue by Bell Ectric, which regrettably sheds almost no light at all on either Lint's "Belly" phase (if phase it was) or his alleged period of regular lemon consumption:

Second, the following work by "Seven Inch Stitch" entitled "I eat Fog" (a reference to one of the first works Lint published under his own name, rather than by the expedient of submitting stuff to Sci Fi publishers as 'Isaac Asimov' or 'Arthur C Clark'). It's closer to the Beach Boys in idiom and content than the famous and difficult to find acoustic (the term 'musical will not suffice) efforts of "The Energy Draining Church Bazaar". Still, it shows genuine admiration of Lint. We must assume that the "Jeff Lint" identified as a collaborator on this is someone else of the same name:

Lint: The Movie

The details of the production and scheduling of Jeff Lint: The Movie are foggy at best. Those non-waiters and mimophobes who are waiting expectantly can pass the time with the teaser trailers that have recently become available.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Exploiting gullible South Africans (BPSDB)

Over the past month or so I’ve published brief accounts of a series of what I’ve called mad ads. There’s a full list of links to the ones I’ve written up so far at the bottom of this article. These are mostly simple and naïve looking pamphlets handed out at traffic lights and stuffed into mail boxes. A few appear in the print media, and so far there’s also been one web site. All of them offer a range of treatments for genuine medical conditions (including diabetes, HIV infection, fertility, sexual function). Almost all offer to effect anatomical changes, including penis enlargement, vaginal reduction. A very high fraction claim to be able to help influence events in the world at large, including finding employment, finding love, achieving business success, winning court cases, preventing or effecting divorce, winning lotteries.

The supposed means of achieving this impressive range of services varies in detail, but is always some kind of mish-mash of divination and magical intervention, and often involves herbs.

I admit that these adverts are, to a critical and naturalist eye, pretty funny, which is part of why I scan them and write them up. The typos and spelling mistakes and bold claims are easy to laugh at. (‘Dr Raju’ apparently ‘has the power to sit on a crocodile & lion skin while floating on water and communicating with the dead’.) The clearly naïve presentation encourages finding this amusing.

This is also rather serious stuff. Almost all of the claims are close to guaranteed to be false. None of them are supported by anything that looks remotely like good evidence. For this reason I expect that most or all of them would be found to be in breach of advertising standards regulations in South Africa.

Even so, they keep on being produced and distributed. I’ve mostly described ones from Durban, which is where I live. But similar material can be found elsewhere in South Africa. It has been like this for some time. The most obvious explanation for this is that enough people are willing to pay for the bogus services. Why else would those who try to sell them keep on promoting them? How else could they afford to keep on advertising?

It would be surprising, therefore, if there weren’t some people with genuine and sometimes serious medical conditions (diabetes and HIV among them, damnit) who were wasting their time and money, and harming themselves, by responding to these adverts and being charged for rubbish instead of seeking proper medical care. That's not acceptable. It also seems likely that there are people wasting their time and money trying to get semi-magical solutions to problems at work, or in relationships, or in efforts to make money. These people are being shamefully exploited, and that’s not acceptable either.

I will, I promise, get around to reporting at least some of these adverts to the Advertising Standards Authority in South Africa, and I’ll report on the results of those reports. In the mean time, please keep on sending me additional examples, and try not to forget to be outraged as well as amused.

The list of mad ads (to date):

Professor Madu. I kid you not


The less awesome Dr Jadhu

Study in Brown

Dr Jose Buba - all the way from Mauritius

But still, they come: Dr Mama Hafisa & Dr Hashiraf...

The incredible 'Dr Maama Mzei Ndimungoma'

The amazing 'Dr Mama Simba'

The amazing 'Dr Raju'

Friday, October 2, 2009

Professor Madu. I kid you not

I've been collecting more mad ads for the current series, including a few print ads, which I'll scan and comment on soon. A big thank you to those who've sent me links and scans of additional examples. This one really is a cracker - spotted by a reader in Gauteng. It's also unusual in being a web-site. Yup, you can email this guy, and specify what spell you want casting.

And there's a pretty cool menu of spells. You can apparently make people marry you, or just be your Valentine. You can get luck, or be a 'Warlock Lover'. The 'Krakow Spell' will help you 'Become the master of your life and determine the course of your destiny!' which seems pretty cool. Obviously there's much more than this, including 'Aura cleansing', some 'Authentic Voodoo Spells' (clearly there's a worry about the efficacy of fake voodoo...), and the 'Black Curse Spell' that, because 'it can bring about horrendous times for the person to whom' it is directed, you are thoughtfully asked not to request 'unless it is absolutely necessary'. Not only can you, as always, get an enlarged schlong, the Professor will also help you get a 'more vascular look' for your member. If your intended is into veins or something. (Sings: "You're so vein...".)

There's loads more, including a startling biography of the good Professor, who, among other things, was 'anointed' by the 'gods of his fore father's ancestral powers' to 'heal and solve most of the problems and ailments that are failed to be healed by others doctors'. It's awesome, and it's all in delightful clunky web 0.6 style, with flashing stuff and lurid backgrounds, and bizarrely selected images.

You can check out the site here:

My favourite odd image on the site is the one at the top of this posting. Except it flashes