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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 urbandictionary.com 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.

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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

ICELAND
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.

Conclusion

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

My brusebad is in the køkkenet

This has been a pretty good week or so.

First off, I got most of my immigration stuff sorted. I don’t know why, but Denmark chose to split its immigration service.  They have the official one called “The Danish Immigration Service” and another one called “The Danish Agency for Labour[sic] Retention and International Recruitment”.  The former is in charge of figuring out why your stay in Denmark might be illegal, and the latter is in charge of keeping talent and skilled labor inside the country.

For sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to these as Slytherin and Gryffindor, respectively.

I’d been talking with Syltherin house and they’d been telling me how many horrible things that would happen to me if I stay past my visa, and various actions they might take against me, including the dreaded deportiamus curse. It seemed like my application to stay was in limbo and I might have to just go home.

Then, out of desperation I started searching around and found an office building surrounded by bright, shiny reasonableness. I walked in and found Gryffindor hall. I got all my questions answered and found out that, had I brought in my passport that day, I could’ve gotten an extension from the sheer power of sensibility. Instead, I opted for a full-on work permit.

Oh yeah, I have a job here now too.  I’m going to be working on a Wikipedia-esque online community, except specifically dealing with educators, education researchers and related partners (like NGOs). We officially launch in September, and I’m genuinely excited about it…I think Scandinavia and the Free, Open-Source culture are perfect for each other.

Anyways, I got a “Denmark can’t kick me out for a while” permit which, if the name is any indication, should let me enjoy some level of stability.

I also found an apartment. Well, I say ‘apartment’ but it’s probably closer to ‘closet’. It’s 44 m2. I still haven’t learned the metric system yet, but that appears to be the size of a nice table, or maybe a spacious SUV trunk. It’s fully furnished though, and there’s a bedroom and living room, which means I can finally have guests and show them around, which I’m also excited about.

The weirdest part, and I’m not making this up, is that the shower is in the kitchen. Think about that for a minute. It’s utterly ridiculous. My shower is in the kitchen. Mit brusebad ligger i køkkenet. It doesn’t look or sound any more normal in Danish. Oh yes, there will be pictures later.

The major redeeming part is that it’s in the middle of Vesterbro, which is the part of the city I most wanted to live in. As the ‘vest’ and ‘bro’ in the name might indicate, it’s full of hipsters, but also has lots of cool restaurants and bars in it, and is relatively central to the city so will give me plenty of opportunities to explore.

So, overall, a pretty good week. All the things I’d been most worried about seem pretty close to being resolved. I kinda wish Danish immigration wasn’t run by he-who-must-not-be-named, but at least I was able to eventually navigate their system. I got a place to live, got a job working on something that I enjoy, and most importantly can peel potatoes and wash my nads in the same place. Who’s coming over for the housewarming dinner?

Suck it, your majesty

I got to go back to the US for a week or so for my sister’s wedding, which was pretty incredible.  They decided to go all-out Nepali for it, which made it even more fun with the pageantry involved.

Thing is, with Nepali ceremonies, all the actions you perform in the ceremony carry the consequence of having actually done what the ceremony says.  So, for instance, there’s a part where the bride and groom put garlands around each other to choose the one they want to marry. If my sister suddenly decided to go rogue and throw it around a random parking attendant, I could’ve gotten free parking for life in the greater Boston area. Way to ruin that.

It was still really fun going through all the ceremonies and learning what all of it signified, though. It’s weird because it all seemed so natural to the members of my family that grew up in Nepal. Towards the end of the ceremony, there was a tug-of-war between the bride’s side and the groom’s side. My relatives all went “oh goody, the tug-of-war!” because they’d done it before. It took some of us by surprise though.  At the end of it, the priest asked “Who won?”  We responded “the groom’s side.”  “Oh good,” he said. “That means he can marry you.”

I think he was joking, but it’s not really clear when you’re not familiar with the ceremony. If it went the other way, is it like accidentally saying “Why not?” instead of “I do” (not super consequential) or is it like filling out the marriage certificate in crayon with fake names (slightly more consequential)?

I’d been thinking a lot about how traditions define a culture when I got back over here, especially since it’s highschool graduation time out here now. They get all their students super drunk, load them up unharnessed onto the back of a truck that drives all over town, give them sailor hats and let them loose on the city for a week. It’s funny because several people I’ve met here saw one of those trucks go by and said “Oh, it’s that time of year again.”  It’s just weird how blasé people were about it. “Yep. It’s drunk sailor kids in trucks season. Just between the time the fireflies return and the first snow.”

Thing is, if I grew up here, that would be totally normal too. As would all the ceremonies in the Nepali wedding if I grew up there.

So the other day was the 4th of July and I started thinking about that a little bit. We went to the beach and had a few beers, had a little barbecue, played some games and roasted marshmallows. American children who’ve grown up here would assume this is the general thing one does on the 4th. And it is. But then if they ever went to the US they’d probably be taken aback by the whole fireworks aspect of it and the scale of celebrations that couldn’t be delivered out here.

“Why are they shooting off fireworks?” “To tell the British monarchy to suck it!” “…what?!” “Isn’t it awesome?”

I think it’s kind of cool seeing these aspects of culture, really seeing the random things people take for granted and basking in the strangeness for a while. I like it because it highlights how arbitrary and random some of my own thoughts, beliefs, and habits are.

I had a choice a little while ago as to whether or not I wanted to keep trying to immigrate, or just call it a day and head home. These kinds of little insights totally make it worthwhile to stick it out, so I’ve decided to do what I can to stay. I’ve been doing more immigration research and am ready to fight for my independence, win the tug of war, and um…release my inner drunk child.

Why Copenhagen?

Why Copenhagen? Why Denmark? I get that question enough I think I should write it out somewhere.

Most people assume it’s work, love, or some government regulations that brings me out here. It’s actually none of the above. I actually hadn’t even been to Denmark, nor had I met anyone from Denmark prior to me deciding to go.

I went to Sweden and Norway for a month or so back in November. The Scandinavians I randomly met were some of the nicest, most warm-hearted people ever.  To the point where I literally said to a few of them “Stop it, your kindness is making me uncomfortable.” They seemed to be caring on a large-scale as well, as in they seem to care about their citizens.  At the very least, they give them things like socialized health care, their allotment towards education, not to mention that their public transportation is (relatively) clean and reliable.  Not that I personally needed lots of that, but when people are generally not miserable, it seems to reflect on the way you feel while walking around in public and interacting with people day-to-day.

I started looking at other stats as well, such as their sociology.  There’s the happiness index, an organizing principle and other random sources that claim this is a great place. There’s also the fact that their economy is far less in ruins than most of the world right now.

They also seem to know how to actually balance work and life.  I feel like we’re getting into a feudalistic perma-debt situation in the US, and even when you’re doing fairly well for yourself, you still feel like your situation is precariously hanging on your job. If you lose your job, you lose absolutely everything. This makes people very stressed workaholics, and not really willing to push the status quo at work.

I have no idea if any of that is different here. I might find the exact same things. I might find something completely different. But I thought I’d explore while I still have the ability to do so.  I’ll try to keep this updated as to how it goes!

Hello world!

I thought I’d start blogging so people know what I’m up to in Denmark.

For people who might’ve found this by accident: I’m Nimish. I moved from the US to Denmark, possibly without much forethought.  The internet offered to chronicle my thoughts and adventures, so I obliged.