life

That most people would fail the Turing Test

The Turing Test concerns machine intelligence. The question is: when can it be said about a machine that it is “intelligent”? Answer: when we cannot tell from observing its conversation that the machine is a machine.

Trying to think about this test, I have identified three areas that seem essential to me personally in any human interaction – three features of personality which I look for in every human encounter. All three are readily tested through conversation.

Perception

To some extent perception can be trained. For instance, looking at lots of song birds and comparing one’s findings with entries in ornithological guides trains the “mind’s” eye: it teaches the looker to look for features such as “rump” and “wing coverts” which an untrained looker might not notice (having no clue what he is looking at/for); or: looking at lots of very fine details (say, magnitude +6 stars with one’s naked eye) teaches one the trick of looking at things by not looking at them directly but rather by focusing one’s sight just to the right or left of the object (in order to engage one’s peripheral vision); and: smelling lots of roses teaches one not only that roses of different colors smell differently, but that a rose cannot be smelled too long before the brain no longer detects the smell (usually about 20-40 seconds), after which the nose must be “washed”; and that one can improve one’s sense of smell by pouting one’s lips (so that the upper lip creates a kind of “funnel” under one’s nostrils).

But all of these are techniques; and are useless if their owner is not interested to look/ smell/ taste/ observe; and then interested/able to reflect on what s/he sees. This kind of curiosity for the world around us is linked to something Konrad Lorenz called “exploratory instinct” and ascribed to all mammals (mice and hamsters in particular). But it is clear that not all mammals possess it: a great number of human beings are perfectly uninterested in observing and learning. And when they do (as tourists in my city do, for instance) they are perfectly happy to follow a manual (notice only what is pointed out to them).

Yet, to be in any way interesting a person must be able to tell us something new about the world, something they have not read in a book, or heard on TV, but something they saw and realized themselves. Otherwise, why listen to them in the first place? (And without listening The Turing Test cannot be performed).

Authentic aesthetic and/or emotional response

Another thing I look for in people is their ability to surprise me with original, novel, and authentic responses to the world. By authentic I don’t mean heartfelt, but – their own. i.e. ones not borrowed from others (Mom, friends, teachers, TV). I do not only ask them their opinions of things or love stories (or “art stories”), but also look at their clothing, accessories, apartments and furniture. By this measure most people are unoriginal in every way: they furnish their homes at IKEA and paint the walls white; they dress like they see others dress; their professional life is dictated to them by the market (“plastics”); and their emotional life is a copy of what they have seen on TV and read in romantic novels. If you ask them why they do this, or feel that, they shrug: as far as they are concerned, that’s how it is and there is nothing they can (or care to) do about it. Generally, my interlocutors are surprised when they are told they could do something/feel about something differently; prodded to say why not they can’t say why not, merely resist in a kind of panicky, animal, unthinking refulal: it is simply unthinkable. If you think about it, this is how computer generated characters in fantasy action games behave: they behave in some way and you cannot argue with it.

Independent planning

I am interested to talk to people who live their lives “differently” – who do not marry, or reproduce, for instance; or who do not live all their lives where they were born; or who do not buy a 42 inch flat screen TV when everyone else does – and generally do not buy anything when everyone else does; or who do not take a mortgage; or who opt out of the state pension program; or who do not own a car; or who wake up before daybreak; or who do not go to the beach on Labor Day; or who, during rush hour, when all traffic goes zig, drive the only car in the opposite lane, zagging; or who don’t know who won last night on penalty shots and genuinely don’t care; or who marry a woman twice their age, or live with two.

But this in itself is not interesting: a lot of non-conformist behavior is hard-wired – and hard-wired actors can’t tell you why they are doing what they are doing. These are not so interesting, no matter how odd their course of life.

The really interesting people are the ones who are doing odd things – or normal things, but oddly – because of a calculation: people who have thought about their objectives and then plotted their own course because that is what they wanted to do and this was the best way to get there. (They are called “autotelic”).

Conclusion

I can safely say that on these three measures, a very large majority of human beings would fail the Turing Test. Indeed, to an observer applying these three measures to his test, most of us would appear to be automata engaged in an elaborate deception to produce the (false) impressions that we are independently observant, sensitive and autotelic, that we have a taste, or emotions, or cunning; that we are, in other words, actually human. But this deception is easily exposed: put your ear to their forehead and listen carefully: you will distinctly hear the low murmur of the cooling fan.

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Leaving Chiang Mai

There are many reasons to leave this city: air pollution, horrible traffic, noise (there are no rules about intensity or allowed times for karaoke and Thais have discovered they like it late and loud), fast rising prices, slipping food standards, changing climate, the fact that it has finally made it onto the list of the ten best places in the world to retire to; but for me, the biggest reason to leave Chiang Mai after living here ten years are the “citizens” — the normals, the ordinary, usually elderly, white couples — who come here to settle (and die).  For years, one had avoided the expatriate community  because it was a little unsavory, a little… perverse:  a mixture of missionaries, adventurers, and misfits; the usual stories were of run ins with the law, drunk driving, fights, smuggling, quarreling priests and firebombed churches.  Now the dominant element is the lumbering, slow speaking, dull, careful, predictable — and clueless — suburbanite; one flees from them for the opposite reason:  nothing remotely kinky ever will come from this crowd.  In addition to all the symptoms typical of the worst days of an Asian city’s teenage sickness, another threat hangs over Chiang Mai today:  that of becoming Ridgefield Park upon The Ping.  The place the old hands had run from in horror, trading it with relief for a bamboo shack, an easy woman, three cases of beer and, on occasion, a tiger, has come after us.  It has pursued us long and hard; having arrived, it has laid siege to us with big box retailers, a four lane divided highway, and franchise restaurants.  But now it is ready to move on to the next stage:  to bind us hand and foot with visa regulations, drivers licenses, proofs of address, fiscal numbers, and medication no longer issued without legal prescription.  The habitat of the citizens.

The horror, the horror.


Understanding Nagai Kafu

I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself:  every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.

Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does.  How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests.  But it’s hard to blame Snyder:  the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long:  mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages.  Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they?  So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside.  He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life.  In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living:  to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable. 

Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into.  That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life.  Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.

Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive.  Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution.  When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects:  “probably not for long”.  When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.

I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons:  first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before:  the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her.  I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.

I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his:  I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.

This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for.  Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago:  “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”).  Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own.  She would not admit to having any part in it.

As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in.  They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.


Further thoughts on Feinstein’s Becoming William James

If I have expected Howard Feinstein’s Becoming William James to be another touching tale of cultured Antebellum New Englanders fleeing from the dumbification of the Gilded Age (1) for the artistic fleshpots of Europe — something you might get from the artistic biography of Wharton, say, or Sargent — I was to be disappointed.  Instead, it is a grim portrait of a seriously dysfunctional family ruled by a religious madman of the most dangerous sort:  the near normal.

Near normals are dangerous because, capable of convincingly passing themselves off for what they are not, they manage to have themselves taken seriously, while any madman only a smidgen madder would most certainly be locked up.  An element of willful self-delusion is at work here: though any close reading of Henry James Sr.’s writings would have to reveal to any objective reader the man’s essentially unstable mind — his permanently “oscillating” views — Feinstein calls it his “voices” (2) — yet, his sons have utterly failed to read the signs and continued all their lives long to struggle with their father’s mutually contradictory injunctions, trying to make sense of out of them. Love is not so much blind, as — blinding.

But that’s not all:  the children permanently fleeing from home, keep returning to it.  They do not explain anywhere why, though, if asked, I suppose they would say what we usually hear in such situations:  “well, the family isn’t great, but, still, it’s family“, as if “family” were some sort of a transcendental principle — Marcus Aurelius’s gold, ivory, purple; Platonic ideal circles — worth sacrifice for its own sake, while the obvious truth surely must be that a good family being most certainly worth having, one is invariably better off ridding himself entirely of a bad one.

Footnotes:

(1) The dramatic dumbification of New England — and American cultural life in general — following the Civil War is convincingly discussed in William Peterfield Trent, and, as far as I know, nowhere else.  It is as if no one else noticed the dramatic qualitative discontinuity.  I believe R.W.B. Lewis makes an oblique reference to the same discontinuity when discussing the two artistic American diasporas in Paris around the turn of the last century — one “pre-gilt”, like Wharton, the other one “post-gilt”, like Gertrude Stein — which, he points out, did not mix, and had no interests in common, but he does not enlarge upon the idea.  He seems to think it would be “controversial” to do so.

This “controversiality” is an interesting point.  Scholars appear to refuse to see elementary facts: today’s serious art historians treat our Hirsts and Banksys as if there had not been a discontinuity, as if these luminaries were somehow in the same vein with their predecessors.

Interestingly, Trent blames this dumbification on the opening of the West whose economic opportunities sucked out all talent out of New England’s books, starving its culture of human resources.  Trent’s discussion amounts to a revision of the generally dictum that good economy leads to good culture.  (Which, if you look around, can’t possibly be true).  Trent says, in fact, that the opposite is true.  Some evidence may support him:  second half of 15th century in Italy was a period of a protracted recession, for instance.  Which makes me hopeful that today’s recession, likely as it is to last a decade, might lead to cultural revival as people who’d otherwise go into banking enter literature, theater and opera.

(2) Henry James Sr. is a good illustration for my friend’s dictum — call it Anand’s Law — that the people most likely to hang on to religious principles are the confused sort.  About the only thing constant in Henry James Sr’s mind is the presence of Jesus.  Though the figure itself constantly shifts in meaning and character, the constancy of the name Jesus gives Henry Sr the comfortable illusion that he, and his views, are somehow stable.


Feinstein’s Four Laws of Vocational Selection

Feinstein’s Becoming William James will tie your stomach in knots.

The book stands alone, a genre of its own: it is a minutely researched historical biography written by an insightful psychiatrist and focused on a single life problem of a future great psychologist: his choice of profession. The insights into the psychologies of all the people involved are terrifying, both for their penetrating power and for the ugly mental mechanisms they reveal.

The true hero of the book — if that is the word — is not actually William James, but his father, Henry James, Sr., son of a powerful personality, a hail-and-brimstone Presbyterian and a successful real estate speculator, William of Albany, who made a fortune in upstate New York and proceeded to mold his children ruthlessly according to his will. Young Henry rebelled, refused to study law, and fled to Boston where he took up a job as a religious newspaper editor and — despite his father’s predictions of imminent bankruptcy, actually managed to make a good living. Reasonably successful in his act of defiance, he nevertheless eventually crumbled under pressure from family and friends (set upon him by his father) and, perhaps most importantly, under his father’s express threat to cut him out of his will; returned home contrite; and enrolled in college to study law as his father desired, which resulted in a severe depression.

He must have been shocked therefore to discover upon his father’s death a few years later that, despite all his promises to receive him back in his favor, William of Albany in the end did cut Henry out of his will after all, perhaps deciding that a) Henry’s one act of rebellion proved him untrustworthy forever after; and b) that the untrustworthy do not deserve to be honestly told of our own intentions regarding their fate.

This was not just a financial shock to Henry, but a well aimed slap in the face — a slap from behind the grave and therefore one he could not return. He felt that the will covered him in shame and the pain of parental rejection never really went away. As he grew older, he could forget about it for long stretches of time, but then unexpectedly, recalled by accident, the old wound would open up and hurt again as fresh as if it had been dealt that morning.

This is the common experience of children rejected by their parents.

Henry challenged his father’s will successfully and became a religious thinker and publicist. Eventually, he published 18 books on religion, and countless articles, all of them Utopian theoretical exhortations on how things ought to work (make love not war and all that). Not surprisingly, perhaps, one way in which they should work was, according to him, that it was a father’s duty to accept his prodigal sons; to love them especially; and that, secondly, sons ought to be able to pursue their own ambitions unfettered, their natural inclinations being nothing but expression of a divinely inspired plan of salvation. In one essay, carried away by heat of polemic, Henry even claimed that criminals were in fact saints merely struggling to realize their personal freedom denied them by an unjust society.

In many of his writings Henry proclaimed his intention to be a lenient and liberal father and to allow his children all the freedom they will ever need to pursue their own ideas of personal fulfillment. He seemed doubly well positioned to manage this: first, his own experience taught him how horrible it was to be subjected to his father’s domineering will; and, second, having won the suit to break his father’s will, he and his family were able to live in comfort off their capital, meaning that his children were economically free to do whatever they pleased.

For all that, Henry, Sr., did not live up to his oft-proclaimed ideal and, with respect to his first born William, at least, exerted all sorts of powers in order to manipulate the boy into a profession he had chosen for him: science. (William had both the talent and the strong inclination to become a painter). Henry’s tactics ranged from persuasion, to manipulation (such as the decision to move the family to Europe for a year in order to remove William from the influence of his painting teacher), to violated promises, to threats of imminent death. His drive did not respect truce: when the two men agreed that eighteen-year-old William would try his talent for two years before making a final decision, his father found a way to force his hand only six months later. Letters survive which show how dramatic these struggles were for young William.

Defeated in the end, William enrolled at Harvard to study science where, not surprisingly, he suffered from severe depression. Though his later writings never state it clearly, it is possible to see that even in his sixties, as a successful psychologist and philosopher, he probably regretted the decision. (Forty years later, he wrote obliquely, regarding the matter of a young man’s choice of profession: “he may sometimes doubt whether the self he murdered in that decisive hour might not have been the better of the two”).  And he was to suffer recurring bouts of depression for the rest of his life.

In passing, other aspiring painters of William’s social class are mentioned — all students in the same studio in Newport. And, it turns out, all of them were pressured by their parents not to paint but to pursue a remunerative profession instead. All but one gave in.

A few salient facts emerge from the story. We could summarize them as

Feinstein’s Four Laws of Vocational Selection:

1.  It seems an incontrovertible law of psychology that independently wealthy parents must pressure their children into financially sound professions which their children neither want nor need and that such pressured children, despite seeing the obvious nonsense of the particular choice of profession, almost always give in.

2.  It is also a law of psychology that parents feel justified in resorting in this struggle to ugly and, not infrequently, outright dishonest methods.

3.  Another law seems to state that professions perceived by parents as remunerative are none such: it is little known by people who themselves do not work, or at least not in the profession in question, that though successful doctors and lawyers are among the highest paid professionals in the world, the majority of these professionals are not successful at all.  Parental guidance is, to coin a glib phase, misguided — because it is conducted from a place of ignorance.

4.  Lastly, the fourth law states that such compelled children tend not to make any use of the profession in the end, anyway, the whole thing being a huge trauma for all parties involved — for nothing:  it serves no purpose at all.