Professor of Computer Science Michael Littman tells us how to tell machines what to do


Michael Littman, a CS professor at Brown, believes that machines should be able to get better at what they do. For example, if you adjust a thermostat, it should recognize that it was at the wrong temperature and be like Damn, I messed up! I’ll do better next time.

Littman gave a talk on user-friendly programmable devices at yesterday’s Science Underground, a science café that hosts informal scientific lectures through Brown’s Science Center, The Triple Helix, and Sigma Xi. He is currently teaching an introductory course that uses a hands-on approach to problem solving: “CSCI0080: A First Byte of Computer Science.” (Get it? Byte, bite? 8, ate? Computer scientists can be punny, too.) He also leads the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, which aims to integrate robots into daily life in a beneficial and practical way. Littman’s research centers on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and he put these ideas into non-CS-concentrator terms at yesterday’s talk.

Computer science can seem out of reach, and Littman acknowledges that learning to program well is at least as difficult as learning to write English well. Traditional programming languages “look like gobbledygook” to a non-programmer. He wants to make devices more easily programmable, allowing people to customize and simplify daily tasks. Basically, he wants to shove computers into household objects to make them “taskable.” Continue Reading

Professors who do cool things: Seth Rockman

While Gordon Wood (the subject of this squabble) and our beloved Michael Vorenberg continue to hold it down in Peter Green, a trendsetter has emerged from the History Department’s Sharpe House. According to a recent article in the New York Times, capitalism has become the fashionable topic for historians across the country and Brown’s own Seth Rockman is part of the vanguard. Professor Rockman, an early Americanist, has focused his research on slavery and the elaborate economic machinery that kept the peculiar institution running—incredibly interesting for history nerds, but not quite exciting for the student masses.

In a textbook case of historical contingency, however, Rockman noticed that emphasizing a trendy topic such as capitalism in his course might attract more students from other disciplines to his lectures. Subsequently, as the Times notes, Rockman’s course enrollments jumped up when he changed its title from “Capitalism, Slavery and the Economy of Early America” to “History of Capitalism.” Naturally, the lure of big ideas and power relation exploration—the opiates of undergraduate study—attracted students in droves. Capitalism, additionally, will provide the organizing theme for his introductory U.S. survey class next fall. With a couple of books in the works (including one entitled Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development), there is little doubt that Rockman will remain a key player in this emergent wave of capitalist historians. And long as there are new hegemonic relationships to “explode,” Brown students will be along for the ride.

Ask Professor Shiva Balaghi anything about ‘Argo’


With the 2013 Oscars just around the corner, many of us have been curious about the historical accuracy of films like Lincoln and Argo, both in the running for Best Picture. Luckily for us skeptical Brown students, we have an unparalleled opportunity to engage with knowledgable Brown historians about the films that fall within their respective areas of expertise. First, we had the opportunity to ask Professor Vorenberg anything about Lincoln (and we’ll have the opportunity to do so again on March 1, where there will also be cake). Now, the University presents its interactive “Ask a Professor about Argo” with beloved, no-B.S. Professor Shiva Balaghi, a jack of all trades and a master tweeter (Ed.-We’re sorry for “outing” you on Twitter back in the day, and we’re sorry for doing it again now).

Professor Shiva Balaghi is a cultural historian of the Middle East. She’s a Laya Khadjavi Visiting Professor of Iranian Studies here at Brown, teaching in the History and History of Art and Architecture departments. This semester, she’s teaching “Twentieth Century Iran,” a capstone seminar in the History department, and “What is Islamic Art?” an upper-level seminar in the History of Art and Architecture department. Additionally, she is the Vice-President of the American Institute of Iranian Studies. She left her native Tehran for the United States around the time that the events depicted in Argo took place.

Thus, a scholar of Professor Balaghi’s expertise is well-equipped to field questions addressing Argo‘s historical accuracy. You can submit questions to Professor Balaghi by commenting on this picture and choose the questions she’ll be asked by “liking” ones that tickle your intellectual fancy. If you’re interested in learning more about Argo as it relates to the reality of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, you should check out Professor Balaghi’s review of the film in India’s Frontline magazine.

Image via

Did you really read Morning Mail? ‘Lincoln’ screening, cake, and a Q&A with Vorenberg

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 8.44.54 AM

In today’s edition of Morning Mail, we received a very exciting “SAVE THE DATE” to attend a screening of DreamWorks’ Lincoln and a Q&A with Professor Michael Vorenberg—whose book Final Freedom is believed to be a “principal source” for the film—in celebration of Lincoln’s birthday and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Taking place on March 1st at 5:30 p.m., this event will be the most epic party of the semester: a movie, cake, and a chance to engage with a rockstar historian about said movie’s content and factuality? Psh, we’ll see you there. Tickets are required (get one here).

Oh, and just in case you weren’t convinced, there’s also this:


Professors who do cool things: Michael Vorenberg, the unsung hero of ‘Lincoln’?

In an article on The New Republic website, Timothy Noah suggested that Brown University superhero history professor Michael Vorenberg and his book, Final Freedom, were likely the “principal source” for the Oscar-nominated Lincoln. Vorenberg’s book is widely regarded as the most comprehensive account of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which is the main focus of the film.

Noah also expressed dismay that Lincoln‘s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, and the film’s producers had not publicly recognized Vorenberg’s contribution. Lincoln’s promotional materials and final credits state that the film is based “in part” on Team of Rivals, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also served as a historical advisor to Kushner. The problem, according to Noah, is that Goodwin’s book provides only a brief description of the most important historical events in the film—in particular, the legislative battles surrounding the 13th Amendment.

Vorenberg’s Final Freedom, which was a finalist for the 2002 Lincoln Prize, has been commended by many historians for demonstrating the crucial role of 13th Amendment in the abolition of slavery. Both scholarly works and popular narratives had often given the Emancipation Proclamation the principal role, though the wartime measure affected only those Confederate territories in active rebellion and outside of Union military control. It was the 13th Amendment—which, as the film shows, was from far from a foregone conclusionthat formally abolished slavery in all of the United States. (Yes, like almost everyone else at this school, I took Vorenberg’s blockbuster “Civil War and Reconstruction.”) Continue Reading

All (Lincoln) questions will be answered

How many of you know Professor Michael Vorenberg? A member of Brown’s history department since 1999, Vorenberg has been a standout with his beloved courses on the Old South, Civil War, and Reconstruction. As an esteemed scholar of legal history, Professor Vorenberg has persistently blown minds with his legal interpretations of our overly sanitized national past. Yet while his classes are consistent hits (including his new US history survey “American Exceptionalism”), his knowledge is more vast than even his course canon would suggest—enter his Facebook Ask-Me-Anything.

Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, which has begun its national run this week, is a meticulously crafted historical biopic about Lincoln’s latter days between the end of the Civil War and his assassination. Full of intrigue, this film would naturally raise questions about artistic license and inquiries into the nearly impossible story of “what really happened.”

Alas, Vorenberg will be taking ANY questions regarding the film, the Emancipation Proclamation, and President Lincoln in general. Use Facebook comments, tweets to @BrownUniversity and e-mails to to ask and he will answer them during the coming weeks.