Friday, 20 October 2017

Semiotic Smugglers

Most of people when they hear the word “smuggler” will probably think of someone selling cheap cigarettes across the border. Maybe some Al Capone type importing alcohol in Prohibition-time USA. Some others might think of fictional characters the like of Han Solo, smuggling Jedi across the Empire, or the Onion Knight, the fingerless hand of a couple of Kings in Game of Thrones. Few, if any, would think of middle aged professors of semiotics.


It is true that cultural smuggling is a thing, especially when confronted with authoritarian states. In Kaunas, Lithuania, there is a statue dedicated to the book-smugglers that were crossing the border of Soviet Union in order to provide books in Lithuanian – a language that was prohibited by the Soviet State in favour of Russian.

It might be unsurprising, then, if our story of semiotic smuggling happened in another Baltic state under Soviet rule: Estonia. By the 1970s, Tartu had become one pf the Owrd's most important hubs of semiotic studies (a singular Mecca-like field for us 'pilgrims' laboring in the domain of semiotics” as Sebeok will later write). The discipline was deemed by Soviet authorities as bourgeois, based on the (questionable) claim that it was in contrast with Marxism materialism. Several semioticians, then, abandoned Moscow for a more low-profile location: Tartu, in Estonia.

The newly born Tartu-Moskow school of semiotics still had a few problems with censorship. Using the word “semiotics” was absolutely out of question, so they started to use “sign systems studies” instead. Still today Tartu semiotic journal has that name even if it conserves, in the cover, a massive trolling of soviet censorship. Tartu scholars, aware that censors weren't very cultivated people, had the brilliant idea for writing the forbidden word on their journal anyway: they simply wrote in in ancient Greek. The censors wouldn't recognise the alphabet and so they would avoid any sanction.

Authorities still kept Tartu scholars under surveillance and Juri Lotman, the most well-known semiotician of the time, had is house searched several times.
This was making it hard also communicating with the exterior: every publication that they wished to translate and to publish in the West had to be checked and approved by the censors, which was making it very hard to disseminate Tartu-Moskow school theories. The permission for participating in conferences abroad was also rather difficult to get.

Thomas A. Sebeok
You can imagine, then, how many suspicions were raised when an American professor, Thomas A. Sebeok, who was in Estonia to attend a congress on Finno-Ugric studies, was informally invited to attend Tartu's Semiotic Summer School (called Summer School on Secondary Modelling Systems, always for censorship reasons). This was a great opportunity for Tartu-Moskow scholars to get out some of their works, as well as for the West to learn what research was going on down there. Sothe 18th August 1970 Sebeok and his wife were driven from Tallin to Tartu by a KGB agent. As he later remembered:

While in Tartu, a number of colleagues handed me manuscripts to convey to the West. Most of these were intended for publication in Semiotica; some were meant for delivery to other editors. Such scholarly papers (the only kind I ever accepted) were entrusted to me to sidestep nightmarish Soviet bureaucratic restrictions. I was aware of the illicit nature of such dodges and the risks if I were caught, but bowed to abet them because of my refusal to condone censorship of intellectual property of any kind. Too, many of the pieces by authors, such as the ones I list in fn. 7 below, that would soon come out in Semiotica, would scarcely have appeared in English otherwise and, very likely, would have remained unknown to all but a very limited readership.

Sebeok, then, find himself entrusted with a series of papers to illegally smuggle to the other side of the Iron Curtain. He knew for sure that his luggage, as all outgoing baggage, would have been searched in the Tallinn harbour. He therefore decided to ask advice to Paul Ariste, the organiser of the Finno-Ugric Studies conference and, most importantly, the friend that had managed to get the permission for Sebeok to come to the Baltic States and even to leave Tallin one day and reach Tartu. Sebeok imagined that Ariste would have advised him against an action that was potentially harmful for the authors of the manuscripts as well as for Sebeok and his wife themselves. At the contrary, Ariste serenely told him not to worry, that he would have taken care of everything.

We can only imagine how Sebeok must have felt, waiting in line while the passengers ahead of them were having their baggages thoroughly searched. His bag full of illicit manuscripts was about to be searched too: what would have happened to them? When finally a Russian officer summoned him, he was ready for trouble. He slowly placed his baggage on the counter, but before the official could do anything the door busted open: it was Ariste. The professor was carrying and enormous bouquet of flowers that he promptly offered to the astonished Mrs Sebeok.

Paul Ariste

At the top of his voice, he proclaimed what an honor it was for his country to have had two such distinguished and gracious American visitors in attendance at the Congress. While holding up the line behind us, the noisy hurly-burly fomented such befuddlement and delay that the impatient officer hurriedly waved us, with our untouched luggage, through to board the ship. I thanked Ariste warmly, saying goodbye. I never saw him again.”

Finally, thanks to Sebeok's courage and Ariste's distraction skills, the manuscripts were safely smuggled outside Estonia and published on the West. Who would have imagine that being a semiotic professor could be so adventurous?

I come to know this history of semiotic smuggling thanks to my friend Taras Boyko, to which I'm grateful. He's conducing an extensive and fascinating research on the history of the Tartu-Moskow School. I highly recommend his work, you can find some of his papers here and here.

Sebeok's recollection of his adventures in Estonia can be found in a very interesting and funny paper entitled “The Estonian Connection” and published on Sign Systems Studies 26.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Well, it's done: I am, at last, a Doctor of Philosophy =)

Do I feel proud? Relieved? To be honest, I do not know, yet. I didn't really, fully, realised that it is over, yet.
I feel happy, though, because it has been a wonderful journey that led me to travel across the World, to meet many amazing people and to discover a lot. I'm grateful for that.

curious about my dissertation? Check here!

Now, of course, the big step into academia awaits. It has been a while that I'm applying to post-doc positions and to research fellowships in Europe and beyond. I got some rather encouraging feedback, which is always welcome, but still no job offer. If you hear about any interesting vacancy, then, do not hesitate and let me know! =)

Now, I will try to get a couple of days at the sea, here in Turkey, but Kaunas and the World Congress of Semiotics are approaching and I better prepare some slides...
Hope to see many of you there!

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

De Strijd der Robots, boardgame.
As promised I am back to SemioNerd to share some stuff about games. My dissertation is finished and will be defended bravely by me the 8th of June at my Alma Mater in Turin, Italy.
Today, however, I'll write a few lines about an interesting 1978 boardgame that I just unpacked. I can't say that I am a great fan of unboxing videos (or vicarious thrills from opening new gear). I like boxes as the next guy (I've a hidden folder full of pictures found on the Internet of my old Lego and Playmobil toys) I just do not care much about the unboxing. For this game, however, the situation was different. But let's proceed in order.

Few days ago I was in Copenhagen for the Boardgame Studies Colloquium, a rather nice event full of interesting people - scholars, game designers, collectors, game historians. In one of the sessions game designer Fred Horn dedicated his lecture to "Metropolis - Der Srtijd der Robots" a Dutch boardgame of 1978 by Jaap de Jager and R. Zielschot that Horn claims being the first real Sci-Fi boardgame ever made. The history of the design and publication of this game is complex and full of drama, truly fascinating - or so they tell me.
Yes, because (undoubtedly thanks to some Murphy's law) while Horn was giving his presentation in a room, I was in another room, giving my presentation. When I interrogated my fellow participants they gave me passionate, but vague and contradicting, reports about the game's story.
Nevertheless, even if I wasn't able to attend to the lecture I still got a copy of the game. Fred Horn got several of them from the game designer son (or something similar) and was so nice to give them away at the conference, so I got my very own.
In the next days I grew attached to the game, mainly because I has several days to spend abroad and no luggage to put it in. The game is rather large, 43x34x3 cm, and therefore I could not open the plastic wrap of the game to see what was inside, otherwise it would have been impossible to transport it around under my arm. For several days, then, I wandered in my Copenhagen hostel, in the city airport and then in Berlin and Potsdam and in the airport again all the way home with my sealed copy of Metropolis.
If my apparel indeed draw some curious looks at the check-in counters, still my curiosity of the content of the game was even stronger. So, once finally at home, first thing I did was unwrapping that damn game!

Inside it were a board with a printed map of land and see (10x10 squares of land and 5x10 squares of sea), a manual and 120 plastic figures depicting, in blue and red a set of land, air and sea vehicles with perfect 1970s style. 

The next day I decided to try it, in lack of better opponents, playing against myself. The rules of the game are rather straightforward: every player has 4 metropolises (3 on land and 1 on sea), the first one to capture two of the from the enemy wins.
The game starts by positioning all the figures on the map, that then appears rather crowded.

As the figures has different values, both in combat and for movements, I suppose that this first phase can decide much of the game and the fact that Red has to position all its figures before Blue might be an advantage for the latter. I'm still too new to the game to say it for certain, though.
Once the battlefield is filled with figures each turn players can move one figure on the board. This might seem slow, but in fact it's quite intriguing, as the players has to fight contemporarily on several fronts, without loosing track of their troops. As I played alone, I ended up resolving the sea battle first, and only when Red had an undisputed control of the eastern part of the map I proceeded to continue the battle on land.
The game, mutatis mutandis, often feels similar to chess: several situations of stale are formed, in which the first one to move one of its pieces will loose the confrontation. Protecting one most powerful units bu moving them cautiously and always protecting the square they are in, might be an unavoidable part of every winning strategy.
Several times I had the feeling that there were too many useless figures, too weak to confront the stronger ones, that were just occupying space or be destroyed in series by the artillery. Again, this might be a flaw of my playing and not of the game, only time will tell.
After more or less half an hour of play Red lost all its heavy tanks and was therefore unable to win the game. After keeping Blue in check for some time, its defence failed and two of its metropolises were occupied. 

The overall gameplay is rather smooth and fun, a part for some time spent checking the rulebook trying to figure out which figure moves in which way (there are 26 different types of them). It has a nice retro taste, without the poor rule design that was unfortunately pretty common at the time. The art is also pretty nice and goes well with the retro-sci-fi theme (maybe we need a word for that, like for steampunk? Or it already exist?).
Next objective: play with someone else than me, myself and I!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Dissertation & Co
It has been a while that I was not able to write anything, here, but it was for a good reason: I had to put up on paper my dissertation. I did my best, in the past year, to keep my research coherent, so to have a good map of the areas I wanted to touch in the final step of my PhD, but nonetheless it was an overwhelming work. It probably does not make much sense when someone else says it - many colleagues warned me, and I though I got it - but it is certainly the hardest piece of work I have done so far. Writing it in English wasn't much of a problem (even if here in Italy is still rather rare), what I struggled with the most was coherence.
I had several moment of wondering, where I was just trying to remember exactly what I wrote 150 pages before on a related topic. Thankfully technology is very helpful from this perspective: being able to search the whole text, to copy paste paragraphs in new positions, too look for keyword or systematically change some terminology are life savers. And with a good backup system you do not fear to lose all your writing if your PC breaks down (I know, it's 2017, but I still have colleagues that suffered this atrocious fate).

Anyway, my dissertation now is close to completion: I'm implementing the final changes thanks to the observations of several, wonderfully helpful, colleagues to whom I owe my gratitude. I will soon publish an abstract and the table of contents on these pages for anyone interested.

In the meantime, I linked in the video section my last lecture at Turin University (for Italian speakers only, I'm afraid) in which I bore the audience with an etymological map of aspectuality (am I the only one that find etymologies great?) and some considerations on the aspectual features of play. I also analyse some comics for one of the best strips ever: Calvin & Hobbes. I'll try to write a few lines on this on the blog one day.
By the way, this year Meeting on Meaning are particularly interesting: you can check all the full conference videos in HD on Lexia.
 Other than that, I updated the "papers" section with a few more articles available online. You will find my most complete overview on Lotman's semiotic of culture applied to games, a framework to analyse the implementation of history in digital games (written with Vincenzo Idone Cassone), some notes on narratology and board games, a paper on the semiotics of toys and an article dedicated to post-digital graphic regimes.

 It's all, for now, but I'll be back soon!

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Sunspring: can AI write screenplays?
In the last couple of days many are taking about Sunspring, a short film whose screenplay has been written by a neural network (for more details see arstechnica). These means that the fed an AI with the scripts of may sci-fi films, gave some fundamental instructions and let the AI create an imitative text. The result was a quite surreal screenplay, that was turned into this short film:

After watching the film, take some time to carefully the script, shown at the beginning of the video. After all, that is the only part actually created by the neural network (together with the lyrics of the song).
It is immediately evident that the AI is not the author of the short film. This is generally true for the writer of any film - the latter are always texts with multiple authors (cast, director etc.) - but even more in this case. The cast and the crew of Sunspring made a huge work of interpretation to make the screenplay work. They've drawn isotopies, changed wrong pronouns and tried to give a visual existence to sentences like "taking his eyes from his mouth". It is these interpretations and the acting (that charged emotionally random sentences and transformed them into a dialogue) that make the film (kind of) meaningful. In other words, the people who worked at the film provided to the film what Eco called intentio auctoris, the author's intention.The director himslef stated that thank to the work of the cast "somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world".
The result is still an open text, that requires the audience to put together the loosely connected parts of the film and make sense of it (it is the so called intentio lectoris). This is also what gives the feeling of being confronted with an "artistic" film: it is open to many different interpretations and therefore it is able to generate new meaning (which, roughly, Juri Lotman's definition of artistic text).
Finally, there is the intentio operis, the meaning that rises from the text itself. If we focus on the screenplay itself this is particularly interesting. The text was build upon recurrent paths found by the AI (that calls itself Benjamin) in similar texts. We could say that the neural networks try to find out what is that makes an architext (Genette's word for a genre). In particular, Benjamin had to find out what features a screenplay has (1st architext) and what characteristics has science fiction (2nd architext).
On the one hand Benjamin's screenplay follows the structure of other screenplays: action, dialogues, indication of who is saying/doing what and so on. Apparently the rules of this stylistic architext were easier to reconstruct fro the neural network, which followed them strictly and with success.
On the other hand, the AI also had to recognise what features are typical of sci-fi. As Oscar Sharp, the director of the film, points out "There's an interesting recurring pattern in Sunspring where characters say, 'No I don’t know what that is. I’m not sure,' (...) They're questioning the environment, questioning what’s in front of them. There's a pattern in sci-fi films of characters trying to understand the environment.". Additionally there is the use of a certain keywords such as "spaceship" and "stars" even if it is always out of context. There is also a certain measure of conflict and romance - that becomes more evident in the film because is recognised and stressed by the authors. Despair is also featured, when the character named H points a shotgun in his mouth and when he cries looking at his backpack (?).
Much of the meaning stored in the text, therefore, is the result of the imitation of the rules of these two architexs. This brings us to the last question: in what measure Benjamin is an author?
For Sharp and Goodwin (the AI specialist that built the network) it is something in between. It is not a "real" author because it would have to be able to create something original, while Benjamin only remixes statistically relevant elements of what other have written.We could argue, however, that that's what every author does, exploiting elements from its own encyclopaedia (for semioticians it's the sum of all its previous knowledge) and combining them through linguistic ans stylistic rules that he reconstructed from the use made by other authors. Where is the difference, then?
The difference is that Benjamin - despite its human name and the easy with which we tend to consider it an individual - is something automatic, which means, it doesn't know what it is doing. Meaning creation is also a matter of interpretation, first of all operated by the author himself. Benjamin is not able to make sense of what it reads and even less of what it writes. That's why its text lack so much in coherence, and that's why it is the film-makers and the audience that have to draw their own isotopies in order to give a meaningful axis of the process (the chronological, cause/effect development of the text) to the statistically selected elements of the system (the parts of the text that the AI retrieved from other screenplays).
Benjamin is not an author, then, even if it can be used as one. It could, however, be an extremely interesting tool for semiotic analysis and, in particular, a way to point out structural commonalities between huge amount of texts. It could be a valid help to semioticians that would like to support they qualitative analysis with quantitative data.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

 New book: Urban Gamification

Today, one year has passed since the workshop "Mettiamo in Gioco la Città" was organised by my colleagues from CIRCe and myself (you can find all the materials online, videos, photos, pics, abstracts... alas only in Italian). After the success of the workshop, we decided to continue the project and to dedicate a book to the challenging topic of urban gamification. For a happy coincidence, today is also the day in which that book is being published!
This work is part of the series "I Saggi di Lexia" and contains chapters by Ugo Volli, Peppino Ortoleva, Gabriele Ferri, Agata Meneghelli, Mauro Salvador, Massimo Leone, Fabio Viola, Vincenzo Idone Cassone, Simona Stano, Federica Turco, Gabriele Marino, Elsa Soro, Eleonora Chiais, Alessandra Chiappori and Marta Milia.

Here a brief preview in English:

In the last few years the boundary that separates play and everyday reality is becoming more and more thin and permeable. The importance of playfulness in society is greater than ever. This phenomenon, called ludification, seems to answer the need to resemantise (i.e. to give a new meaning) times and spaces that the digital era made indifferent and de-structured. Play appears to be able to give structure, rhythm and direction to time and space - in other words, to make sense of them. Therefore the city - the quintessential human environment, the place of experience and of the construction of autobiographies - undergoes acts of urban gamification, practices that aim at re-writing the city by the means of play. The latter is a powerful tool to act on urban areas: it is able to trace paths, to give value to places, to transform citizens into players. Ranging from flash mobs to urban games, from locative technologies to street art, playfulness invade the cities, bringing along new strategies, new values, new ways of being citizens and new interpretations of the urban areas. This book offers a collection of papers from scholars, experts and professionals that approach urban gamification in all its nuances, using the tools of semiotics, philosophy, media studies and, last but not least, game design.


Wednesday, 4 May 2016


I know I should be writing my dissertation, right now, instead of playing with photoshop. But today is a nerd festivity, May the Forth - keep it holy - and therefore the perfect occasion to launch some silly projects about Star Wars.
So, well, here it is: JangoTravels a microblog dedicated to our favourite bounty hunter and to his travels around the galaxy. 
Toyrism is a new, extremely nerdy, trend that consists in bringing some toys along, when you travel, and take pictures of them. I stumble upon this phenomenon while reading Kati Heljakka's wonderful work on toys and adult play and I thought it was exellent. And... yep, it looks definitely like something we saw in Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain...

I decided to mix this idea with another of my passions: miniatures. I always liked the resemantisation that happens when you deal with small scale objects. If you place a toy, a miniature, on ground and you look at the room from its perspective, the world will look like a pretty weird place. Table legs will become columns or towers, the carpet a forest (as Sir Terry Pratchett thought us) and so on. It is a playful practice, but also deeply semiotic - as it deals with the meaning that we give to everyday objects.
The child of these two passions is JangoTravel, where I put together my poor knowledge about photography, my poor skills with photoshop, a couple of Star Wars spaceships from Micro Machines and a lot of stupid hashtags.
Don't know about you, but I'm having fun.

May the 4th be with you !