Tweak for soul!

My thoughts on ‘The Turing Test’ nonsense

So, I’ve been seeing a bunch of stories basically saying “Machines can think and feel and love now. They passed a test called ‘the Turing test’ so now they’re real boys.”

I have quite a few problems with this.

First of all, the Turing test isn’t a thing. I mean, yes, it has an entry on but, it’s not in the same realm of scientific rigor as “speed of light in a vaccuum has a constant speed;” it’s much closer to a theory saying “some people like ham, some don’t”.

So where’d it come from? Once upon a time, this awesome man named Alan Turing said (paraphrased) “Asking if machines can think is a silly question. How would you even measure that? Now, if you asked if a machine can fool a human into thinking they’re talking with another human, that would be a question that you could measure at least…”

Then a bunch of grad students went “So, if you can get a human to think they’re talking to another human, we will have created artificial intelligence, and in doing so, become gods ourselves?”

Turing said “No. Um, wait, what?? Were you even listening? That’s not even close to…” But it was too late. People made this a thing. They even hold contests and stuff now. They also tell journalists everywhere that this is somehow a marker of our progress towards Artificial Intelligence.

So, is it? Surely you’d have to write something pretty complex to be able to talk to a human, right? Not really. Most of the programs I’ve seen or read are really straightforward.  You write some text to it, and then it writes some pre-scripted text back.  Some of them are mildly sophisticated in that they’ll remember your name, and if you say you came from Denver, they’ll ask you what the weather is like in Denver etc, but your phone can do that too, only more accurately.

A vast majority of these programs are still canned phrase-responses. So, it’ll scan your text for the word ‘cat’, and if it it finds it, it’ll say “Speaking of cats, my cat is…” and then answer very simple questions regarding the program’s nonexistant cat. If you go off-topic, it will respond with something that would make it sound annoyed, so if you say something like “dog” or “potato” or “libertarian” it’ll give the exact same response: “I wasn’t finished. Can we go back to talking about my cat?”

So, really the accomplishment of these tests is to show how banal our conversations really are, and how little we generally listen to, or engage our conversation partners.

This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, and at the very least isn’t newsworthy.

A typical day

Inciting Scandinavian Anger for Fun and Profit: A How-To Guide

About a month ago, there was a ‘viral’ article passed around in Denmark, and Scandinavia as a whole.  It’s a great case-study in how the modern media works, and how we’re a part of it.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to demonstrate this without ‘feeding the beast’. So, I’ll do so now, but with comments on its anatomy as we dissect it. So, here we go.

This is the article in question.

Part 1: Let the reader imply a story way more interesting than facts could prove

The article’s title, Dark lands: the grim truth behind the ‘Scandinavian miracle’,  implies a certain calibre of revelation. Based on the title, you imagine a story about the Scandinavians achieving their success by secretly feeding children to goats or something. That would be a pretty interesting story. You don’t have enough information to build a whole story in your head, but you’re primed and ready for one that’s exciting and revealing, and you’d like to read it.

Ok, so the article is about Scandinavia and not, say, a koala rescue center, but still, it isn’t the article we were promised. The facts in this article (namely that Scandinavia has its share of problems) couldn’t justify a heading like that to a reasonable person. We’re ‘ok’ with this because we just assume this means our subjective definitions of words such as ‘dark’ and ‘grim’ were wrong. They weren’t.

Part 2: Use basic facts, but be kind of a dick about it

We need not detain ourselves here too long. Only 320,000 – it would appear rather greedy and irresponsible – people cling to this Fleetingly Inspirational, yet borderline uninhabitable rock in the North Atlantic. Further attention will only encourage them.[emphasis mine]

I deliberately chose one of the smaller paragraphs, but the whole article sort of has this feel. There isn’t much information here, but even the one or two facts are completely surrounded by negative words, which I’ve highlighted in bold. The whole thing can be summarized in 3 bullet points:

  1. Iceland has a population of (about) 320,000
  2. Iceland is in the North Atlantic
  3. Fuck you

It’s something like what House does. As a reader, it’s point 3 that really gets you, but he’s right about point 1 and 2…what if others think he’s also right about point 3? Oh no! As a reader, you really want to say something about it, but not really sure what… which brings us to part 3…

Part 3: Profit

Check out the top of the page where the title is. This is the summary of the article. Everything important you need to know about it at a glance.

I had to make it grey so people didn't click =(

‘Erosion of social trust’ and ‘Increased irritation’ metrics conspicuously absent

It’s filed under News » World News » Europe. It was filed January 27th.  Then look at all of the other information: 2811 comments. 74715 Facebook shares. These are reader engagement metrics. Along with pageviews, these metrics mark whether the article was successful or a failure. This is the only thing this article will ever be judged on to those who published it. Raw counts to these numbers. The reason for the shares and the content of those comments doesn’t matter as much as they exist.

In this case, this article is hugely successful because it maximized those metrics. It happened to do so by using some negative elements of the human psyche, but there’s no box on the side to measure that, so it might as well not exist.

The problem is, that this trick is one-off. We now know what his tone is compared to what he delivers, so we won’t fall for it again, right?

Part 4: Recant without revising

Once the initial article’s sharing had hit a saturation point, (approximately 1 week) the writer remarked at how shocked, shocked,  he was that a whole group of people would react to defend themselves when being slandered online. He admitted his article had a negative slant and demonstrated his intent to convey a more genuine experience by going back and rewording the article in a more factual, informative tone.

Just kidding. He left the article as-is (with 1 fact removed since it was wrong), and created this new article instead.  In it, as a show of goodwill, he lets various people from the aforementioned countries have a quick blurb. The blurbs don’t really address the content of the article, and the article doesn’t address the blurbs, but this has the superficial structure of being balanced and representing ‘both’ sides of an issue.  He even includes some humility so he doesn’t lose future credibility.

The end result: you can see by the ‘engagement’ that this one wasn’t as much of a hit, but still had a pretty good return based on the effort it took to write it.


Again, I had no idea how to talk about this without actually giving pageviews and some level of psychological space to the issue at hand (technically, writing this is also a form of reader engagement) and I think I did everything in this post that I mentioned within the post itself (except ‘profit’, I’m not a newspaper).

What’s scary is how natural it seems, and how this is what we think of when we think of “news” nowadays. I don’t know if there’s anything I can personally do about it, but at least I’m very much aware of it now. Hopefully you are now, too.

Photo: I, Silar GFDL , CC-BY-SA-2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Sexism in an Androgynous Society, or “Objectification is bad, mmmkay?”

There’s a TV show here that has generated a very strong visceral reaction in myself and most others in the western world that see the show. I’ve talked to enough Danes about the show to see the difference in views: To the Danes, it’s a somewhat cheeky, somewhat offensive social commentary that exists for shock value, not unlike South Park in the US.  To non-Danes, it’s a borderline hate crime, and the fact that state funding is being used for it is beyond outrageous.  Before I get into the show itself, let me start by talking about an episode of South Park.

In the episode “Chef Goes Nanners“, the chef is upset about the South Park flag. This is the flag:

Yeah, I can see how the violence might offend some.

This sparks controversy in the school, and the children are asked to do a debate.  The children do so, each side talking about whether or not the depiction of violence is something that is inherently detrimental or not.  Of course, they miss the point that the issue isn’t with the violence, but with the overall depiction of a lynching, and all the history and attitudes behind that. In the end, the chef is so touched that the children can’t see the racism or racist act, that he drops the law suit.

Every time I’ve had a discussion about this show with Danes, I’ve felt like the chef. Eventually, I’ve come to realize that the Danish cultural context is one that is so far removed from the actual depiction, that it’s a bit like the chef trying to explain why a lynching is bad. It’s so obviously wrong that it’s comedic on South Park, but when faced with a real-life version of the same scenario, you find outrage turns to frustration as you try to capture something that the rest of the developed world has realized is wrong but you find that the emotions are so strong that the words can barely come out, and you sit there staring at a bunch of dumbfounded faces that keep asking “Really? Violence is everywhere, what do you have against that flag?”

This has forced me to come up with a cogent, logical explanation of why something most people take for granted as being wrong is, in fact, wrong. So, I present what I would feel is the largest straw-man argument in history, but it’s apparently needed…

Why sexism and objectification are bad

So, the show is called Blachman (wikipedia link).  The show’s format is that two men (the show’s creator and a different guest every episode) sit down and then a woman comes out and disrobes. The seated, clothed men, then discuss the naked, silent women, and women in general. I think this is atrocious. I’ll do the rest of this as a Q and A with all the weird responses I’ve heard so far when I talk about this.

Q: You don’t like nudity? Artistic expression? Censorship! (or any other debate point that a middle-schooler might write in their school essay)

A: No. Huge fan of nudity, actually. None of these are close to the actual topic. See the example with the chef from South Park above.

Q: Danish society has lost clear gender distinction, this man wants to rekindle some of that so that women’s bodies can be appreciated for their beauty. What’s wrong with bringing that back?

A: This logic, to me, is sort of like saying “the art of beautiful wheelchair ramps has been lost to society, so let’s bring back polio”. The hidden implication in my analogy, of course is that ‘women’s bodies appreciated for beauty’ has something wrong in it. It does, and it has to do with “objectification”.

Q: What is “objectification”?

A: Good question, Timmy!

Despite what Mittens Romney says, not full of women

For the safety of the binder

On the left, we have a 3-ring binder. On the right we have a Polish fireman. What’s the difference?  Well, many things, but the one I’m interested in right now is the concept of agency.

Most of us believe ourselves to be thinking, feeling, caring beings in a way that the 3-ring binder is not. Most of us also hold the same beliefs about Polish firemen and treat them categorically differently. For instance, if you wanted to get lunch with a Polish fireman, you would ask and await a response and adjust your expectations accordingly.  For the binder, you would just take it with you, because you assume the binder does not have wishes or cares. Treating the binder as though it did is called personification. Treating the fireman as though he didn’t is called objectification.

Q: Blachman and company are only saying nice things and praising the women. They’re not being dirty or disrespectful. What’s wrong with that?

A: So, let’s say I love my 3-ring binder. I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I stick my favorite stickers on it, because that’s what I do with things I like.  My best friend loves his 3-ring binder too, but he shows it by putting it on a shelf somewhere and making sure it always stays clean. The funny thing about being an object, even an adored one, is that you have no say in how that adoration is expressed. As a conscious agent, you can debate whether or not my praise and adoration is actually getting across properly. As an object, you do not have this choice.

Q: What’s the worst that can happen?

A: Tons. This site doesn’t seem to allow you to link to individual posts, but everyday sexism recounts stories of sexism that women face daily in most ‘developed’ countries, ranging from stories that might make you groan to stories that will horrify you. Some amount of sexual assault listed is based on power dynamics (where the women do have agency), but all the stories where the validity of the victim’s feelings are questioned, or even denied? That would be the women being bad objects by having their own subjective views.  This is far more prevalent in non-Scandinavian countries, and over all, not something I think Scandinavia should actively strive for.

Q: How is this any different from other media, or even porn?

A: Porn can objectify women, but that’s not its purpose. The main goal of porn some sort of profit from erotic arousal. Whether that’s achieved through the objectification of women, the subjugation of men, or the personification of quiches is largely irrelevant.  Porn producers seek a profit, one that is reflected from society. They do not seek to change society, particularly to one where women are objectified more.

Again, this is the stated primary goal of the show. It removes the eroticism and specifically instructs the men to treat the women in front of them as objects to be subjectively adored. It literally isolates and controls for the rest of the environment as much as possible, and presents a variety of women of different ages and body types and instructs the men to engage them similarly. If one were to design the ideal laboratory settings to train objectification, this would be pretty close.

Q: Talking about denying agency, what about the choice the women on the show made to be there? No one’s forcing them to. Isn’t it paternalistic to assume they shouldn’t be?

A: I’m fine with the actual participants doing what they want.  What I’m not fine with is a state-sponsored show whose stated goal is to bring more objectification into society. Idiots can be idiots wherever they want to be, and I don’t have an issue with that. I do have an issue with the person who thinks it’s a good idea to give these idiots a camera, a microphone, and tax money and thinks this will have a positive effect on society.

Q: You’re not Danish! What’s it to you?

A: I’m sure not, but I’m living here now, and voluntarily paying 40% taxes to live in an otherwise nice society. One thing I love is the gender equality. As a brown dude, if you’re walking in a dimly lit alley coming home at night and a girl is walking towards you, in the US they cross the street, or walk faster, or turn around, or do something that makes you feel almost criminal. Because they have to, to be safe. Here, they just keep walking and might even say ‘hi’. Because they have nothing to worry about. Because they have such an amazingly equal position in society, it’s just as likely that they’d do something to me as I would to them. Why would you want to destroy that?

Really, I just want to say “You can do better, Denmark”.

Q: If you don’t like it so much, why write about it? Why give it attention? Why watch it? Why not ignore it entirely?

A: The fact that a show can be judged a success (even if it’s measurably detrimental to society) just because it’s getting attention is, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw in the agreement between Danmarks Radio and Kulturministeriet. Remember, this is state-funded but its success is judged based on capitalist standards, but without the checks that exist in a capitalist market. This creates an interesting edge-case that this show falls right into. I’m researching this in much more detail and will write more on it later.

And with that, I NEVER want to bring this up in conversation again.

Ugh. Marketing.

So, this is gonna be a tech-based entry, as opposed to my usual personal entries. You’ve been warned.

I saw a youtube commercial that I thought was kind of cute: 

Something my generation seems to like is nostalgia, and this commercial hits every nostalgia nail square in the head. Very well done. If they had an Etsy store, they’d be raking in the sales right now. Problem is, though, this isn’t the way technology works, or how people interact with technology.

Most people acknowledge that technology, nowadays, does things they don’t fully understand.  This goes with “tech” people like myself as well. Like, I have no idea how a printer works. No idea whatsoever. I mean, ok, I know it’s not telepathy or magic, but is it sending a document with embedded fonts with an accompanying string of text, or is it sending a direct bitmap of everything? Or can it do both? If it can do both, which one comes out looking nicer? Anyways, point is, I have very little understanding of these devices, and there are many people with way less.

Compare this to something like a sandwich or a t-shirt.  You know how a t-shirt works. You know what things you would use it for and what makes a good one.  All things being equal, after you’ve found your minimum level of comfortable material, color, size, etc, you’ll go for the one that makes you ‘feel good’ about buying it. This is why marketing works for a t-shirt or sandwich: you know enough about them to be able to afford buying them for ‘good feelings’ because they’ve already made the grade for your minimally acceptable product.

Again, technology doesn’t work this way. If I want a new printer, I’ll go ask someone who knows a lot about printers. You could make a printer shaped like my childhood and decorate it with astronaut cake, but if my friends tell me that basically it’ll shred every fourth document you print, I won’t get it.

You can’t wow the general public into getting something like a web browser. Everyone that switched away from IE did so because someone like me came over to their house one day and said “trust me, I work in the Internet, this is good for you” and installed Firefox. Everyone that switched over to Mac after OS X did so when their tech friends informed them “No, Mac doesn’t suck anymore.”

I guess my point is, generalized marketing on feel-good-feelings only works if your audience is already an expert in the product, and has already decided your product is minimally-sufficient for their needs. If it’s not, you should focus on making them experts or addressing those needs to people who are experts before going with the feel-good-feelings.

So I won’t be trying it out based on the fact that they mentioned things I was around about a decade ago…unless, of course, some of my Internet brethren and sistren tell me it’s worthwhile 🙂

Fourth Thursday in November

So my first Thanksgiving ever outside the US was spent at a protest.

It was a protest against military actions happening in Israel/Palestine. It felt like a mix between a vigil and some of the peaceful protests that happen in the US. Music, candles, podiums, speakers, the usual. Overall, it was pretty chilled out and relaxed.

Then, all of the sudden, a new protest showed up. It was at the back end of the original protest. It was kind of small, but very loud. The original protest was in Danish, this one was in Arabic, so I couldn’t understand most of what they were saying. They stuck mostly to the call-response format, but once in a while they busted out into shorter responses. I recognized one though because it was English. They started chanting, in the angry way that I recognized from those two clips CNN has been running for the last 10 years, “down down Israel”. They then proceeded to burn the Israeli flag.

I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. There was a person onstage giving a fairly peaceful, informative, but inspiring speech, the solemn passion of a candle-light vigil, the wafting smell of pot (as there always is at these things) and a few yards behind it, a picture-perfect media caricature of ‘the middle east’. In Denmark. In the land of blondes, bicycles, and dairy, you suddenly have a scene that would have been thrown out of Team America for being too scripted and unrealistic. It was utterly incomprehensible.

Then, just at the tip of my hearing range, I heard something else. It took me a minute to realize I heard it because I didn’t want to realize it. For approximately 5 seconds, I heard the Arabic chanting turn to English again and say “down down USA”.

I really didn’t want that to be what they said.

Complete this sentence: “Hi, I’m from ___, pleased to meet you!”  Now, imagine saying this sentence almost daily for the last 6 months. Now, imagine standing a few yards from a very angry group with fire aiming their anger at whatever you filled in the blank with up there. Even for 5 seconds.

I turned back over to the peaceful side. Their message was clear: stop the military actions in Gaza for the sake of the people living there. That’s a message I could get behind. All of the sudden, the chanting stopped. Out of deference to the speaker, the chanting stopped. It was a Palestinian man talking about his experiences. It was in Danish, but I couldn’t concentrate so I don’t know what he was saying. I was worried about the guys in the back. What if they brought out an American flag next? How would I feel? What would I do? I know I wouldn’t ignore it. It’s the American holiday celebrating togetherness and family, I’m out expressing solidarity with people and a small group of them might undo all that with blind anger. After the speaker, their chanting went back to Arabic.

Next speaker was up, who was a rapper, rapping a political message. The tune was catchy but I could still see the syncopated, angry waving of Palestinian and Hamas flags from the corner of my eye.

Then, focusing squarely in front of me, I saw more Palestinian flags; considerably more, but they were different. They were waving and flowing in time with the beat and the music. They were gathered and moving solely in support of the person in front of them. It was amazingly steady and controlled, almost choreographed in comparison to what was going on behind.

Finally, the laws of fluid dynamics took hold. The turbulent flags poured in to the controlled wave of flags as the two crowds merged. There were 2 rhythms and two songs going on at once. I think this was the most important moment of my night…there were 2 incompatible moods that needed to be resolved. I definitely had a horse in this race so I wanted to see what would happen.

I saw the angry flags that their carriers were using to jab randomly at the sky, and then, in front of the canal facing the parliament’s castle, the jabbing changed. Maybe it was the beautiful street decorations, or maybe the air just got too cold, but the jabbing was different now. It started to have a distinct pattern. It was still jabbing, but there was a waving quality to it too. The waves matched the waves that were there earlier. All of the sudden, there were hundreds of Palestinian flags moving rhythmically to the background music of Gary Jules’ cover of Mad World. Some of them might have still been slightly sharper in their overtones than others, but it was clear that, at least for this moment, they were all there for peace.

This brings me to what I’m thankful for. I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to live most of my life in countries where, when a peaceful concert meets an angry mob, the peaceful concert wins.

Happy Thanksgiving.

I plead the 6th

I haven’t posted very frequently lately, and I think that’s because I’m past the ‘strangeness’ stage of moving, for the most part.

I’ve gotten used to things like ‘spicy seasoning’ being labeled as ‘blanding’ and hardly even giggle I walk past something that says ‘mad klubben’. I mean, I still gotta giggle a little because it’s hilarious, but for the most part things have stopped feeling overwhelmingly alien. This means my usual discussions, which mostly consist of me saying ‘How does this make any sense? What’s going on?? Explain!‘ have been replaced by normal discourse, primarily in the form of talks about US vs Danish life, society etc.

I think I’ve realized more about my personal attitudes in these talks than I had before. While it still trips me out to say ‘I live in a socialist monarchy’, it sounds less weird to me than it did before. I think the most amazing thing I’ve realized, though, is that I have a favorite constitutional amendment: the 6th. Ok, maybe it’s not my favorite-favorite, but it’s in the top 3 (trumped by the 1st and the SF version of the 21st). So, I thought, in honor of election day, I’d express my appreciation for the 6th amendment.

6th amendment, you rock. Truly.

It’s the one that guarantees you a trial by jury. I always thought that was a no-brainer. I mean, what’s the other option? Trial by fire? Turns out it’s not as obvious as it seems. I mean, we’re rounding up 12 people who we’ve specifically chosen to be ignorant of the law to make a legal decision. Why would we do that? Someone asked me that a few weeks ago. I really thought about it and realized how awesome the reason is: it keeps the laws in check with social common-sense. It’s like the ultimate anti-bureaucracy move. You can be found guilty of a crime, but not be punished because the average lay-person in society doesn’t think it should be a crime [1]. It means you don’t get blind application of the law, but instead get to stop and ask whether something should be a crime, and if so, how severe of a punishment it really warrants.

The other option would be to be convicted for something silly and be lost in the system until the law adapted. Of course, if you’re a judge or a lawyer, you can’t just say ‘Off you go son, this law is ridiculous and I’d be an ass to enforce it!’ or else your career would be over. A jury, on the other hand, is free to exercise all the common sense they want. We see this in modern times with juries (occasionally) acting against overly harsh drug laws [2]. There’s also the flip-side to this, where you could have committed a racist crime in the deep south and gotten away due to a sympathetic jury, but that’s just unfair jury selection [3].  If you can get a fair cross-section of society, I think that it’s an awesome and amazing way to put people’s voices back into the system.

Shit. I just realized I wrote a mini-civics essay. With citations. For fun. I must be more homesick than I thought…

I guess my point is that there’s some really awesome things about our system that we take for granted, and it really pains me that I wasn’t able to figure out the absentee system enough to vote this time around. Yes, even though it ‘doesn’t count’, and yes, even though there’s a bunch of broken parts to the system, it’s still something I miss and something I hope everyone back home at least participates in. Hey, even if all you get is a bunch of “I voted!” stickers, at least you’ll get some common sense in your criminal trial after stealing those stickers.

[2] (just an example case)

No, no, not those 90s!

So, I haven’t really updated in a while, but I had an experience I had to share…

I was fortunate enough to go to a “We ♥ the 90s” night here. I figured it would either go grunge — something like Nirvana and STP — or maybe stay pop and go with some Paula Abdul or Janet Jackson. Either way, it’d be a fun night filled with nostalgia and singing. I was feeling a little bad about not having any flanel or hammerpants, when I saw tons of people coming in wearing all kinds of neon and carrying whistles, glowsticks, bubbles… everything you’d need for a rave. Turns out the 90s here weren’t quite the same 90s we had in the US.

Think of every Europop stereotype you can imagine. Now, eliminate any guilt you may have for stereotyping and you’d have my night. In fact, there seems to have been a formula to songs that came out back then. The song typically opens with a high-pitched girl declaring herself to be a space alien, a tamagotchi, a barbie… pretty much anything other than a human female. Eventually a low-pitched man comes in talking about things vaguely related to this girl’s claim, accompanied by some fast-paced techno music. Then the crowd goes wild.

Also, the group that does “What is love?” from the “Night at the Roxbury” routine from SNL was there. I mean, I guess they have a name and the song came before the sketch, but that’s what I know them as. The biggest tragedy of the night was they did their song twice, and no one from the entire audience was doing anything from the sketch. Not even the head thing! (For my Scandinavian friends, this is as inconceivable to us as a country without healthcare is to you)

The whole thing was actually really fun; I was just totally utterly unprepared for the music and the culture I encountered, considering what you usually get at a 90s party back home. Even the one artist I found slightly offensive was so outlandish and innocently ridiculous that I found myself singing along to his catchy song.

I also love the idea that I can be nostalgic about an era, others can be nostalgic about the same era, and our nostalgia will barely intersect. I’m scared and excited to go to an 80s night. I’ll be ready for anything from sideways ponytails to wooden clogs and everything in between.