The Robots Are Color-Blind, and Other News


On the Shelf

Robots hate these.


  • Colors: you may not like them, but they’re all we’ve got. Chartreuse, cerise, burnt sienna, ultramarine … our ability to detect and name these things is all that’s keeping us from melting back into the primordial soup. It makes sense, then, that artificial intelligences would mock us for our rainbow. Robots can’t stand color. This is a known fact. They apprehend the vivid reds and blues of the world as mere data, and they hold humans in contempt for finding the beauty in such things. If you need proof, consider the case of Janelle Shane, who attempted to design a neural network that could name new paint colors. And what did the machine do? It spat out new colors full of derision and mockery: Bank Butt. Turdly. Burf Pink. Stoner Blue. Clardic Fug. Caring Tan. Testing. Stanky Bean. Dorkwood. Sand Dan. Dense Blats. Sindis Poop. It was as if the robot was wandering the aisles of Sherwin-Williams and laughing, laughing, laughing, taking all that we hold dear and spitting on it with ersatz robot saliva. Claire Voon has more on Janelle Shane’s experiment, and more of the horrors it wrought: “She fed a learning algorithm a list of about 7,700 Sherwin-Williams paint color names and their RGB values, and watched as it formed its own rules and generated different sets of data. ‘Could the neural network learn to invent new paint colors and give them attractive names?’ she posited, giving examples of existing ones—Tuscan sunrise, Blushing pear, Tradewind. It would be neat if AI could alleviate a bit of stress from individuals chewing on pencils as they conceive of the next great paint name. But Shane’s results, for the most part, suggest that companies may want to leave AI out of the christening process for now.”
  • In happier, more human news, here’s Danuta Kean on a pair of newly discovered Sylvia Plath poems, which two academics found on a piece of carbon paper at the back of one of her notebooks: “Using Photoshop, [they] deciphered the typing on the paper, which is watermarked with an image that might have appeared in a Plath poem—a woman gazing at her own reflection in a pool of water. First revealed was ‘To a Refractory Santa Claus,’ a poem about Spain and fairer weather—a subject that Plath returned to later in ‘Fiesta Melons’ and ‘Alicante Lullaby.’ Written after Plath and Hughes’s honeymoon in Benidorm, it consists of two eleven-line verses and pleads for escape from the cruelties of an English winter to the fresh fruit and sunshine of warmer climes … The second poem proved harder to decipher. Titled ‘Megrims,’ it is a monologue addressed to a doctor by a paranoid speaker about a series of ‘irregular incidents’ that range from the discovery of a spider in a coffee cup to an owl about to strike.”

  • Seinfeld—good show. Louie—good show. But why, James Poniewozik asks, have these two programs inspired season after season of listless sitcoms about the lives of comedians? “They say that explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog: The frog dies in the process. At this point, TV is dissecting so many comedians’ psyches that it risks killing the whole genre … As with a lot of showbiz comedy, there’s an element of write-what-you-know insiderism here—gazing into one’s own belly laughs. But stand-up comedy is also revealing of character in an intimate way. It’s both personal and gladiatorial. Comedians face an audience alone, with no co-stars, no collaborators. They are both material and author, performer and instrument. Even when their material isn’t autobiographical, it’s still personal—their worldview, their judgment—and it’s judged immediately: laugh or no laugh. It’s no-risk, no-reward … What makes a good story about comedy is what makes good comedy: a fresh take and distinctive material.”
  • The German romantic tradition has migrated from the page to the DJ booth, the filmmaker Romuald Karmakar argues in If I Think of Germany at Night, a new documentary about techno: “Karmakar paints an intimate picture of his subjects and their work. His austere filmmaking treats them as serious artists, heirs to a national cultural inheritance stretching back to the Romantics of the nineteenth century (the title is a quote from Heinrich Heine’s famously melancholic paean to his homeland, ‘Night Thoughts’) … The most illuminating of these chats is with Ata, a congenial bearded chap who delves at length into the history of teutonic techno. Tracing its roots to the illegal parties that sprung up in Berlin’s post-reunification euphoria, he places the genre at the center of his version of German national identity. America’s scene is centered on New York, he says, and Britain’s revolves around London, but techno ‘is a German sound.’ The political backdrop is different now from that of the 1990s, but still present. The interviews touch on the importance of escapism and an artistic Gemeinschaft—a community—in the face of terrorism and turmoil. Heine’s poem was written in the context of similarly smoldering unrest across Europe. ‘If I think of Germany at night,’ he wrote, ‘then I’m robbed of my sleep.’ ”