Posts tagged “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.


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”).


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.

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.

Then say it once, briefly, to the point, or, speaking to Flavia Domitia

The strange urgency with which Flavia Domitia has sought me out suddenly, after two years of silence, has quickly explained itself: she had broken up with her live-in boyfriend; she was – so to speak — back on the market and she wanted to know what my romantic situation was: did someone share my apartment, and did I have a traveling companion?

Ten years ago, I suppose, such a discovery would have flattered me – young men are disposed to imagine that they are liked; today, it makes me sad – because, no longer young, I have been cured. Young men’s illusions of their irresistible sex-appeal are inflated by the elaborate strategies women play against them: younger males being by definition men with a future, females play them for long term gain: they invest a good deal upfront, and patiently wait for the future pay off. Younger men mistake this investment for selflessness and imagine that they make women lose control – but it isn’t them, it’s their future prospects.

Men my age, on the other hand, are at or near their peak earnings, there isn’t much upside, and the expiry date is in clearly in sight:  the pay-off, if any, must be now: people — men as well as women — play us for immediate gain; the terms of the transaction are made far too readily to leave room for romantic delusion.  Donna Flavia’s purpose was not even thinly disguised.

(I suppose, also, that older men’s experience is in part determined by the fact that they tend to encounter older women and older women have less time to play elaborate long-term games: they want to be paid in this life, and, given their age, this, too, has to mean – now).

But my three-hour conversation with Donna Flavia was not all about that; it had other elements deserving reflection.

We talked, for instance, about the way our lives have unfolded – we have known each other for the better part of forty years  – and about the way our lives were likely to unfold in the future, which is a topic rarely discussed — perhaps even rarely thought about — but which has always interested me greatly.

What will I do, Donna Flavia asked me, once I return to my new home from my travels.  I said that I would spend a great deal of time watching the sunrise from my window, sitting in the park with a book, taking walks through my beautiful city, and eating in small, hole-in-the-wall eateries, chasing pataniscas with rich Alentejo; and that I will probably also eventually engage in some sort of a larger project; that I was not yet sure what that project might be, but that I was not inclined to push it, so as not to frighten it unnecessarily: such a project should always germinate and grow on its own, all I needed to do was to nourish it well and – wait. My analogy was to Lampedusa – not that I imagine to write the best novel of my century the way he wrote the best novel of his – but the mechanism is the same: live long, experience much, observe closely, think hard; and only when you have grasped it, digested it, understood it, then say it: once, briefly, and to the point. Under 200 pages, if you can.

Will I stay in my new city for good, Donna Flavia asked me next, accustomed as she is to see my mailing address changing continents every five years.  I replied that my current apartment was going to be my home for a long time, but that it was not going to be my last home; my next home would probably be my last home, but I could not yet tell where that home would be, whether in my present city or somewhere else.

At this, Donna Flavia chuckled and suggested that it probably was pointless to take such a long view of things, given the unpredictability of fate.  As she spoke, I realized that her own, somewhat chaotic life – in which she was as often an object of life as she was its subject — might have been responsible for forming that view; but my life very much proved the efficacy of long term plans. I believe I was 18 when I developed the vision of the future which has now become now my present. I didn’t know at that time how I would get here; nor that my current city would be the place where I would live my future (at that time I imagined that the place might be Athens instead). But the life I envisioned then, the situation in life, was very much what I have now: long park-sittings with a book, in the shade of flowering trees, even longer solitary walks, sunrise watchings, endless slow reading and meandering reflection. I was 27 when I finally formulated the plan that would get me to that future, and 47 when that future arrived. Thinking in 20 year blocks has worked for me.

I was beginning to feel pretty smug about the whole thing, when then Donna Flavia told me about her present life: single again, her children gone from the house but so far un-eager to reproduce, she has now, finally, for the first time in her life, had the time to dedicate herself to the work she had chosen for herself and which she likes.  It consists is researching and writing a series of books of a kind of oral micro-history of her city. In doing this, she is experiencing flow: the satisfaction of working at a project which challenges her skills and fulfills her aspirations. I reflected that I have never had the privilege of enjoying the professional work I have done – which is, no doubt, why I prize my park-sittings-with-a-book so much. At her words, I felt a momentary pang of envy, and resolved, in the back of my mind, to listen more intently for any signs of the future project germinating within me. It would be good to experience flow for once.

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.


(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.

Unrequited love’s other side

Jojin Ajari Haha no Shu is an eleventh century diary written by an eighty-four year old woman. It was written for a single purpose: that of venting the author’s grievance – indeed, incrimination – against her sixty-some year old son, a highly regarded abbot, for having left Japan on a religious mission to China, an act which the author interprets as his willful abandonment of her.

She is economically comfortable and well taken care of, so the abandonment isn’t economic but emotional: “My whole life depends on seeing him every morning and every night”, she says, “and he, knowing this, has deserted me. Words fail me.”

The writing is filled with bitter indignation, and the author seems not to care what weapon she uses to prove that her son’s behavior is unspeakably cruel. Her suffering appears to verge on the hysterical and she thrashes helplessly between the desire for imminent death and staying alive until her son’s return from China (which, in the end, never transpires: Jojin the Ajari will die abroad). One has the feeling that the author’s chief hope is that her son will read the diary upon his return and be struck with crippling remorse as a result; and that she’s only unsure whether she prefers to stay alive until that moment, so as to gather the fruit of the remorse, or to die beforehand so as to leave her son with unatonable guilt.

The extenuating circumstance – that the author was widowed early and left alone to care for two infant sons – seems to extenuate but little: can her son really be expected to serve as her sole source of joy and happiness sixty years after her tragic widowhood? Does the fact that he is the sole source of joy for her place a moral responsibility on him? And what of her other son, who, apparently, not only remained in Japan, but was caring and loving and visited her frequently? Why is his solicitude not enough?

If there is something good to be said about the mother, it is that she doesn’t seem to have turned her bitterness into acts of blind cruelty: she did not conspire to turn the whole family against her son, for instance, as disappointed mothers often do; but then, she’s eighty four, which probably means that her ability to manipulate others is curtailed; and the family itself is perhaps too small to orchestrate much of an ostracism of Jojin — besides herself, there’s only the other priest-son. We can’t be sure that she wouldn’t have done it, if she could. Often, virtue is a matter of insufficient opportunity.

Jojin seems to have avoided his mother for some time before his departure: we hear his excuse that “meetings in this world are of little importance when compared with the true joy of long, uninterrupted meetings in eternity.” Incessant labor aimed at gaining admission to paradise for her and himself (as well as many other people) is his excuse for not proffering the usual manifestations of solicitude, but, one guesses that his mother’s solicitude for him tired and embarrassed him and that he paid such manifestations as he did reluctantly and with dread; and that if he did pray for her admission to paradise it was for her admission to a part of it well insulated from that to which he himself hoped to be admitted.

Indeed, as much as it is a record of the tragedy of a mother who loves her son too much, Haha no Shu is also a record of the misery of a son who is loved too much.

Much literature, perhaps most, is written to express the misery of unrequited love from the point of view of the person whose emotions are not requited. The situation is full of pathos and justly deserves compassion. But unrequited love can be a misery for the loved ones, too. After all, what have they done to deserve the solicitude, the anger and the incrimination of those who love them?