Thursday, June 1, 2017

Van Gogh's Irises: How much is a painting worth?

Presented to the Club by David T. Noyes in December 1988

I would like to ask you to think about the items on the following list. Can you identify what they have in common?

  1. Two F-16 fighter jets
  2. The Town of West Stockbridge, Mass.
  3. 3,448 Williams College students
  4. the largest private estate in the United States — the 250 room Biltmore House on 12,000 acres in Ashville, N.C.
  5. The City of Pittsfield
  6. The entire world’s mining production of mercury for one year

We’ll come back to this list in a moment.

A little over a year ago, on November 11, 1987, the art auction house of Sotheby’s in New York City auctioned a painting depicting a garden of blue irises painted in 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh. It was lot number twenty-five in a ninety-four piece evening. A crowd of 2,300 people had gathered in the cramped bidding room with intense anticipation; and at 7:55 p.m., Irises was brought on stage. The bidding started at fifteen million dollars. At thirty million, only two bidders remained. The price then passed forty million, the previous highest price paid for any painting. The bidding finally concluded at forty-nine million dollars. The total elapsed time: three minutes, thirty seconds!  Including the ten percent buyer’s commission, the total price came to fifty-three million dollars, or in real money — eight billion yen!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

John Haines "Jack" Spencer Jr., 1936-2017

By Derek Gentile, The Berkshire Eagle

STOCKBRIDGE — John H. Spencer Jr. was a longtime public servant in his adopted town of Stockbridge, but his greatest impact came as an educator and mentor to hundreds of students over the years, friends and colleagues said on Tuesday.

"He literally hired the first history department at Monument Mountain Regional High school," said his fellow teacher and longtime friend John A. Beacco Jr. "He led in developing a unique ninth-grade course. As a department head, he mentored me, Roselle Chartock, Terry Flynn and Bill Fields, as well as many others."

Spencer died early Sunday at age 80.

He was the longtime chairman of the Stockbridge Planning Board, as well as the Zoning Board of Appeals. He was also the longtime president and member of the board of trustees for the Stockbridge Library Association.

The Most Interesting American: What turned a Theodore Roosevelt skeptic into a fan

Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott in 1959.

“The most interesting American” is a phrase which Julian Street employed shortly after the turn of this [20th] century to describe President Theodore Roosevelt. It was a description that echoed the sentiments of the vast majority of Americans of the day — but perhaps it is not the most apt title I could have selected for tonight’s paper. Perhaps I should have entitled it “The Conversion of a Skeptic.” The skeptic in this case is — or rather was — myself.

The year 1958 was, as most of you know, the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. Early in the year I was commissioned to do the bulk of the research for a new and as yet unpublished life and times of Roosevelt* — an assignment I undertook, quite frankly, for the money rather than out of any great enthusiasm for the subject. I had, when I started, what might be termed the intellectually fashionable viewpoint toward TR — in sum, a highly critical viewpoint, conditioned by a cynical age in which many of the values that he represented have lost their luster. My picture of him was an unflattering caricature — the caricature of a self-righteous and opinionated political adolescent — a somewhat bogus reformer who made loud noises but produced few tangible results — a bumptious swaggerer who conducted diplomacy with a big stick and disobeyed his own injunctions to walk softly while doing so — a jingo who had an almost psychopathic preoccupation with physical courage and with the glories of the battlefield. It was the comic opera caricature of the rather stout and bespectacled Teddy, sword in hand and medals in mind, rushing recklessly up San Juan Hill at the head of his unmounted Rough Riders.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Artificial Intelligence: Should we worry?

Kismet the AI Robot at the MIT Museum, photo by Chris Devers, used under Creative Commons License
Presented to the Club by Martin Langeveld on Monday evening, February 6, 2017

Artificial Intelligence (or AI) is defined as intelligence exhibited by a machine, specifically a computer-driven device.

In popular culture, artificial intelligence is often depicted negatively. Recall the computer HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. While HAL appears benevolent at first, taking care of the spaceship’s functions and playing chess with its human travellers, eventually the computer turns evil and seeks to kill the astronauts after discovering they are having doubts about HAL’s reliability and are planning to disable him.

Many other intelligent machines and robots, some nasty, some nice, figure in movies such as The Terminator, The Matrix, Aliens, and back in the 50s The Day the Earth Stood Still. And science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and many others have explored the implications of intelligent machines as well.

Still, such machines, with true cognitive ability and rational decision making ability, and what might be understood as consciousness or self-awareness, have not yet been invented. In fact, a debate has raged for decades as to how to actually determine whether a computer is intelligent. Most of the methods proposed are variations on the well-known Turing Test, proposed in 1950 by the Enigma code-breaking mathematician, Alan Turing. Turing proposed a test in which an evaluator interviews two entities, a human and a computer in such a way that he can not see them, and receives answers only as text. In Turing’s original formulation, if, after a five minute conversation with each entity, the evaluator can not tell the human from the computer 70 percent of the time, the computer is judged to be intelligent.