A Question of Reverse Examining the Engineered

Since seeing the film Prometheus, I have been interested again in the robot, the machine. There’s nothing particularly interesting about that, really. Machines and artificial intelligence have been in the thoughts of people for about as long as any other question that brings doubt into the human mind. It’s fun to think about robots acting like and somehow becoming more human through tapping into that unexplainable element of humanness that has been labeled emotion. When the Terminator insists that the computer chip that is essentially his being must be destroyed, the audience is supposed to assume that the machine is, even if accidentally, becoming more like us. The most famous examples of robots or androids all play upon this theme. Unfortunately, the most popular incarnations of robots turned people only look at the one questions: What does it mean to be human?

That question is a natural one. The people asking it are human and we want to know ourselves more than anything. I think the idea is that if we can create a mechanical being that can do what human beings can do, then we may get a little closer to understanding what makes us us. The aim is a good one, but the same conclusion always gets drawn. Where the before mentioned audience projects feelings onto a machine following its programmed instructions, all of the best robots suffer the same fate. HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, murders. That crime is particularly human because the deaths are to prevent the disruption of what HAL has deemed to be the correct course of action. There’s no propagation reason for the killings and thus exits the realm of the mechanical, even the purely animal, and goes straight for human. Roy Batty, in Blade Runner, spouts off about the beauty of the things he’s seen while making war in off-world (world being Earth) colonies, coming to the conclusion that because he is ultimately mortal as a result of a predetermined life-span, he is at least incredibly close to being human.

So here’s my issue with looking at machines through the lense of the human: Why is being human the desired end goal? And are we really trying to figure out what it means to be human? From the examples I’ve given and the countless others that exist, the question has already been answered, with all of the answers being the same. If you are self-aware and you are capable of “feeling” or “emotion”, then you are human-like. Maybe that answer satisfies some, but nobody really bothers to follow up that question with the next logical question: What is “emotion”? You’d think we’d make that leap with all of our preoccupation with trying to figure out what love is, but the curiosity seems to drop off pretty quickly.

It’s untrue to say that nobody has thought about this. Thanks to the Radiolab podcast, I’ve become acquainted with Alan Turing, the mathematician credited with breaking the German Enigma code and more or less inventing computer science. I won’t go into his biography here, but if the characterization of him in “The Turing Problem” is to be believed, he had come to the conclusion that human beings are machines. I agree with this assessment, which leads to the further conclusion that it isn’t so much about humans being all that spectacular except in our design. For me, this idea plays directly into what we know about genetics and the chemical processes that allow us all the things human beings place so high in their minds.

Then I thought about David and Ridley Scott’s latest idea of the robot. In Prometheus, there are a couple of moments that one should expect. One of the crew members asks David why he wears a helmet when he doesn’t breathe. Later, David asks that crew member what the purpose was of seeking out the creator of humans. In that first moment, Scott presents the possibility that humans are uncomfortable with the thought of being artificial in the way robots are and I can only hope that the question was intentional. Unfortunately, that insight may actually have been an accident(or at the very least, terribly undeveloped) because the more the story progresses, the more human David behaves. Everything interesting about him dissipates so that by the time the film ends, you’ve forgotten that early question was ever posed.

I don’t know that a machine will ever be created that can convince a human being that it’s human. I’d much prefer that one didn’t have to. The worst part about this is that it means we also probably won’t ever to be able to answer the question of what it means to be human that will satisfy us culturally. I think the evidence that we are the end result of biological processes that have engineered us in this fashion is convincing, but that won’t stop people from talking about it. Our obsession with ourselves will keep us looking for some exception to keep us from the rest of the world, both natural and artificial. In that way, we are both of those at the same time, making us more like the robots we want so desperately to make like us.

My Not Top Ten Reasons to Avoid Top Tens

I’ve been thinking about lists. The first thing I want to say about that is I think they’re kind of dumb. I should explain further that it’s not the form of the list that I find so irritating. Instead, it’s the way society has decided to take this incredibly versatile framework and pretty much reduce it to a countdown. The most persistent offender of this act is, naturally, the top ten. Want to know who the top ten Classical composers are? Some guy at the NY Times will tell you here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/23/arts/music/23composers.html?pagewanted=all. If Classical music isn’t your thing, then how about the top ten NFL quarterbacks? Here you go: http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/28/top-10-quarterbacks-in-n-f-l/. I swear I wasn’t trying to pull up the New York Times twice, but apparently that reputable journal of information has their hands in a lot of jars. And if you’re not a sports or music nut, how about the top ten most embarrassing moments at the Oscars? Well, I don’t have that, but I do have this instead: http://www.vh1.com/celebrity/2012-02-26/embarrassing-oscar-moments/.

Yes, the top ten has become to serious thought and analysis what pornography has become to real world working sexual relationships. They can be fun sometimes entertainment, but you rarely learn anything of real, practical value. So why do these things keep cropping up? Why does every show, sport season or group of guys who want to be a band they all like but aren’t good at anything but mimicry, have to have a top ten?

Lists, particularly fluff lists, are easy to digest. You don’t have to read through paragraphs of words, discern information and then come to a conclusion all by yourself. Nope, some ass with a keyboard has done all the hard work for you. So what if he’s sixty years old and thinks the top ten guitar players of all time all produced work between 1969 and 1973? Clearly he couldn’t possibly be biased by having grown up listening to those very musicians, nor would he let contempt for everybody younger than him ever cloud his musical judgement. No, you can trust that every single thought (often as little as one word) has been meticulously researched, polled and compiled with only the best intentions.

Lists make sure you know who belongs where. Let’s say you think Tom Hanks is one of the finest actors, but, in a cruel twist of fate, you have doubts as to just exactly how he stacks up against other actors like Al Pacino or Jimmy Stewart. The world demands that you figure out who would win if these guys had an act off. Enter the list. With barely a glance you can put your insecurities to rest and satisfy the most basic of human needs: judging other people on things that you yourself could never do. Maybe you want to just get an idea of who the best actors are. Maybe you’ve got a list of favorites and you want to see how they stack up against the be all end all. Then you can bitch and moan that the person who wrote the list doesn’t know what the hell they’re talking about and come dangerously close to critical thinking.

Lists are final. Whatever gets printed in them goes. If Van Halen is only number three in the top ten list of most homoerotic hair bands, then that is the last word. You can lobby that they should be number two, but your complaints, typed in all caps because F#CK THESE IDIOTS. EVERYBODY KNOWS VAN HALEN RULES!!!!!, will fall upon blind eyes. All of the evidence has come in, everybody of importance who might have an opinion on the subject has been consulted and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it...except find some other website with their own list. Or write one yourself.

I’m not sure exactly what top tens and twenties and hundreds mean in our society. I don’t know why we feel that greatness is finite. Or that worseness is even more so. Call it sensationalism or laziness or an insatiable appetite for controversy, but so long as people accidentally let their nipples slip on camera or screw up singing the National Anthem, there will be lists, and people will continue to judge and judge again things and events and people that have been judged thousands of times before, only to come to the same conclusions.

Butter and Recording Artists

When it comes to creating music, there used to be an argument that got made a lot that really interested me only because it seemed so ridiculous. During this time I was a devout Interpol and Kings of Leon fan. Both of the those bands had a similar beginning trajectory. They had a debut record come out to moderate success, followed up shortly after by another moderately successful record. In the case of Kings of Leon, their sophomore record was released a year after their debut, and Interpol’s two years. For both bands, the debut and sophomore records were of extremely high quality. For me, it seemed like if the bands could keep producing at this rate, it wouldn’t be long before their catalogues matched some of the all time great recording artists. I was frequenting the message boards, trying to connect with other fans and sharing in the wonderment that was music of my generation.

Well, it was on those boards that I began to see people talk about how they thought the bands should take their time, not rush anything, and make sure the sound was exactly how they wanted, as if time was the most important factor when recording music. That advice appeared to have been taken as KOL and Interpol waited three years to release another record in 2007. Both of those records were sub par. I will caveat this and say that, of course, this is a personal opinion, although not one that is shared by me alone. The boards were flooded with disgruntled fans complaining about the music they had paid money to hear. Some of them argued that these records were, indeed good, and that all the fans would come around on them. I shared this opinion. I did not come around to those records, at least not like I did the first two. They were missing the magic that had captured me. Maybe I was just changing my personal tastes, maybe I fell victim to only liking the bands because they were so obscure back then, and now with a more broad public awareness, I was trying to hipster my way out of liking a perfectly good record. Or the records just weren’t as good.

After a three year hiatus, KOL and Interpol failed to deliver what I had promised myself would be delivered by them. The same old ideas kept popping up on the boards. Interpol should really take their time in the studio, connect with their roots and figure it all out. They did, and released a fourth record in 2010. For me, three years had been too long and I found myself so far removed from the me that fell in love with that band, that I never got around to listening to it. I have no idea whether or not time played any factor at all. I’m going to go ahead and guess it didn’t do them much good. For Kings of Leon, well, they released a fourth album in 2008 and became megastars. I did purchase that record, and enjoyed a song or two, but it just didn’t have the same bite. It sounded so polished and perfect, so unquestionably palatable that I didn’t know who this new band was. The band released a fifth record two years after their fourth and I have no idea how successful it was. Again, my interests had just changed too drastically.

I have come back to that take your time argument because I was so convinced it was wrong. If you look at groups like the Beatles, who released records and singles annually, it would appear that if you just keep on putting in the work, that if you are talented, all of what you do is going to be good or even great. I was so sure this was true that I would bemoan everyone who said that the bands should sit on their ideas and let them brew. It angered me to levels beyond rationality. But I’m not sure how ridiculous this argument really is. Sure, the three years between albums didn’t help Interpol. But I have no idea if their third record would have sounded any better had it come out in 2005. I also don’t know if KOL’s fourth record would sound any better if it came out this year. All I have, really, is two bands, with two amazing records. It’s just as plausible that all four of those records are only good because the bands had their entire lives to think things over prior to ever stepping foot inside a recording studio. Maybe you don’t need one or two years between records. Maybe you need twenty or thirty.

Unfortunately, I, and probably most fans, will have forgotten our favorite bands by then. Maybe all bands only actually have one great record in them. Out of all the groups I’ve listened to since my high school days, that certainly seems to be the case, but would absolutely love it if I was wrong.

Emptying the Bucket List of Metaphors

When you use a term like “bucket list” you are assuming that at some point, you will die. There’s a terrifying recognition in that. It’s even more terrifying when it’s applied to a romance. When planning for the future and including a partner in that planning, there are sometimes very positive assumptions that get made. When asked about perhaps attending a show at some point months away, most might consider that a show of good faith and that the strength of the relationship is to the point where long term goals and aspirations can be made without fear of a sudden departure or collapse of said relationship. But what happens when you call those long terms plans a bucket list?

If you are able to refrain from hyperobservation and examination then you might shrug it off as a somewhat clever jab at either the term “bucket list” itself and all that it implies. You may not even notice the negatives that could be associated with that term. Maybe you might even take it to the most positive point and assume that it assumes the plans you are making are in the best confidence of the relationship and that these things are to be done before either of you actually pass away from this earth. I’m unable to see it that way automatically. Instead, the creeping fears of inadequacy begin. The expectation that a relationship will end and that it’s just a matter of time is the default assumption made by me and people who have deep seeded insecurities. Are these fears shared by the person who used “bucket list” or is it all projection? Is that person even aware of what a bucket list might insinuate to someone with whom they are semi-romantically involved?

I would love to give the benefit of the doubt in this situation, in most, really. Unfortunately, that’s not my style. Couple that with information about individual desires and long term plans leaves me with the thought that this bucket list is more like a bucket time bomb, counting down the days and hours until the words come out of one of the mouths. “I don’t know if this is going to work” or some such variation would be the final click of the clock, at which point worlds dissolve into oceans of mixed feelings and jerking off. Then comes the question: do you pre-empt the inevitable? If you do, are you prematurely ending something that could be worthwhile? People change their minds and change their plans based on their circumstances. Is an individual you enjoy being with reason enough to alter the things you want for yourself?

This kind of spiral is endless and exhausting. It can make your bed the most uncomfortable place in your house. It can make drives to and from work the most lonesome places on earth. These are the types of things I like to avoid when possible, but just as atoms must come into contact with one another, so must people, and every once in a while two people will enjoy clothesless contact and their lives will never be the same because of it. Those changes may be significant. They may be long-lasting. The one thing they won’t be, though, is permanent, because existence isn’t permanent. So maybe the bucket list is more innocent than it seems. Maybe we should have bucket lists for everything.

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