Monday, December 19, 2005

Miller Time 12/25

Now for the best part of the whole annual affair. I go into the house, stamp the snow off my boots; rip the 24 page off the calendar and settle in in front of the fire, warming my stockinged feet and nursing a mug of ginger tea to settle my stomach. I ask you: what kind of mad barbarian would think of putting raw eggs in milk and drinking the mess? Disgusting. That may be fine for a that Scandinavian fellow they use in all the pictures, but I'm Greek and of course I'm lactose intolerant. Just once I'd like it if somebody would leave a nice plate of olives or some flat bread with coarse sea salt and bit of extra virgin oil.

I'm dog tired but still too hyped up to go to bed. The caffeine levels in my blood would give a lesser man a stroke. I may as well stay up and turn in early tomorrow night. As usual there's nothing on the tube worth watching. We only get one network up here: the Surveillance Network. I thought we might be able to get a dish, but when we told the person on the phone our latitude he just laughed and hung up.

Well, I could get a start on next year's list I guess; it beats talking to myself.

Let's get the worst over first. Let's see... OK, here's little Tommy. He got a game console, but not the one he wanted. He's screaming bloody murder. Mom is going to make it right though as soon as the stores open tomorrow. Unspeakable little blackmailer. Runs in the family though. She threatened him with no presents, and of course now she doesn't have a leg to stand on. The difference between them is that there is no one more ruthless than a child, who doesn't grasp the concept of permanent consequences. Change the channel.

OK, the Smiths. Two kids left, they lost the youngest in November. Accident, completely unexpected. His presents are still wrapped in the attic. First time the kids have almost had fun since it happened, and they feel strange about it. They don't know it, but most of the reason they feel odd is because Joe's ghost is standing right there next to them; he's plain as day on the video. I am telepathically willing his parents, go upstairs and bring little Joe's presents down - he wants to see what he got. It never works, but it was worth a try.

I really wish they'd never mixed me up in this business about rewarding good kids and punishing bad kids. Parents desperately want their kids to believe that people get what they deserve. Well, the cruel truth is that practically nobody gets what the deserve. Not Terrible Tommy and certainly not Little Joe. I'm not saying grab some two year old and tell them that horrible things happen to good little children for no particular reason. The youngest kids certainly aren't ready for the truth yet. But that's no reason to indoctrinate them into a wicked, vicious lie, a lie we hang like a millstone around the necks of bereaved parents.

It isn't just that we didn't even celebrate Christmas back when I was walking the Earth as a mortal. One thing you lean in 1600 years is that feasts change. If we have to nick a holiday from Mithra, well, I'm not complaining. I baptized many a pagan in my day, and if I have to baptize his festivals as well, it's a small price to pay. In fact, this was a well established practice back in my day. A spiritual man has to feast and he has to atone. If he can do so without drawing attention to himself, it's safer, on more than one level.

But if you really knew my story, you know there's a terrible irony in my being picked to represent the idea of Earthly reward and retribution, a pagan idea if I ever heard one.

When I was bishop in Myra, there was a poor family that had the bad luck of having produced three daughters and no sons. Three dowries they couldn't pay, no sons to support them in their old age. Back then, being an unmarried woman of a certain age was as good as being an outcast. One thing you need to understand about Christian communities is that they have two pillars, women and the poor. Once Diocletian was out of the picture, we had everything: the finest icons, the richest vestments, vessels of gold, rare incense, all paid for by the generosity of the poor. So, I put these two things together - rich church, poor family with three girls, and I decided to, well, redistribute things a bit.

I will confess that I'm not the most modest of men, far from it. But I wouldn't be bringing up my little bit of ancient history except to point out that while there are many lessons we could draw from it, "life is fair" is not one of them. "It doesn't take much to make a hero" would be better. What I would like people to take away from this story is the idea that life is not fair, and if you want justice you have go out and make some yourself.

It takes so little. What I did in Myra was hardly more than sound management. Investing in our best customers, you might say. But it didn't take long for people to start make a ridiculous fuss over the thing. It was nice having a church named in my honor by Justinian, but it didn't stop there. I thought the matter had reached the peak of absurdity in 1087, when Italian freebooters stole my bones and had them shipped on the sly to Apulia so they could be venerated. Was I ever wrong.

You people need to get a grip on yourselves. It mystifies me utterly how people can be so sentimental yet hard hearted. You're like ants drowning in honey. Every time I hear one of you giving a homily about the true meaning of Christmas I want to sieze you and shout: Wake up! Your time is at hand! You don't have time for this nonsense.

I don't want to be totally negative here. There are bright spots. Look, look. These are the Mooneys, Jasper and Ted. They're adult brothers. Both were definitely naughty as kids, but with their nasty parents playing them off against each other you couldn't blame them. As soon as they could, they got out of the house and never looked back. They lost touch until this year when both parents, who were divorced twenty years ago, happened to die within a few weeks of each other. There's lots of death this year, same as every year. Jasper and Ted renewed their acquaintance during two successive and grueling death vigils and now they're visiting each other on Christmas. Fears of an uncomfortable situation were greatly exaggerated. Their wives like each other, and their children, who are blessedly normal and reasonably good, are playing happily together. Now the Mooneys are discovering that a lot of their childhood memories really aren't that bad.

Doesn't that warm your heart?

Of course not, because you're a cynical bastard. There isn't a torch in the Home Depot catalog that burns hot enough to raise the temperature of your heart by a single degree. You never waste an opportunity to prove to the world how cynical you are, but you don't have to prove anything to me. You forget that I see into your heart and I can measure to the last atom the cynical part you give to the world against the tender part you keep for your own use. I know exactly how cynical you are. Because I made you that way.

For that I'm truly sorry, I really am. I'd take it all back if I could.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Will Men Ever Pass the Turing Test?

The BBC is reporting on an art installation in which robotic benches and trash bins interact: The benches will flock together and sing to greet the sunrise; each device will have it's own personality and preferences as to other devices.

Of course fans of Douglas Adams will be reminded of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which the robots produced by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation are next to useless because they're equiped with "Genuine People Personalities". Management theoriests have a term, "agency costs", which, roughly speaking, refers to the cost of an employee pursuing his own agenda over that of the organization that employs him. You can think of rock star CEOs using their companies as personal piggy banks, but it applies to uncooperative behavior on all levels down to the lowliest corporate functions. But unlike the case of uncooperative people, you can't go to an intelligent elevator's boss and complain it's hard to work with. The elevator merely has to be useful enough that tolerating it is slightly cheaper than ripping it out and replacing it. Come to think of it this strategy isn't unknown among people working in large enterprises either.

There's also a theory among roboticists that states that when faced with a technology that behaves in somewhat human ways, people's minds will tend to fill in the gap, humanizing the technology. Everybody has known somebody who thinks their old car, with its quirky "personality", must somehow be alive. But (the theory runs) if technology gets too close, then we will to instead focus on the subtle ways the technology falls short of actual humanity. Video game designers are reaching the point where they can do photorealistic depictions of characters, even to the point of modeling how light is scattered and reflected by the layers of human skin. The results are, ironically, an eerie impression of non-humanity, as if they had filmed an animated corpse.

Of course, it may be we ourselves fall short of expectations in various subtle ways as well. With that in mind, I present a little fable of the near future, featuring intelligent dust-bins and benches and people who... Well, let's say some things never change.


(Joe, a young man in his mid twenties, is on the way to an appointment in a city park. He's running late, but he realizes he's forgotten his watch. )

Joe: Bin, do yo have the time?

Bin: It's quarter past nine. By the way the bins down 3rd street say there's a rain squall heading this way; you might want to duck inside until it passes.

Joe: Is there a Starbucks around here?

Bin: No, but there's an independent espresso shop at 150, just half a block north of here. They left a promotional message on me, would you like to hear it?

Joe: Uh, no thanks.

(Later, at the park.)

Joe: Bench, have you seen a girl named Mary?

Bench: Somebody was sitting on me for about five minutes earlier this morning, but I don't know if that's who you're looking for. That was about 8 am.

Joe: Well if she shows up, tell her that I waited for half an hour but I had to leave.

(Some minutes later, Mary, an attractive young woman about Joe's age, walks up briskly. She's obviously not in a good mood; for one thing she's soaking wet. )

Mary: Was there somebody waiting for somebody here?


Bench: I'm sorry, dear, were you talking to me?

Mary: Yes, was somebody waiting for me here?

Bench: Well, somebody was here at about 8AM. About 10 there was a young man who was here for about five minutes. He left a message for somebody he was waiting for.

Mary: What was the message?

Bench: I'm sorry, I'm afraid it might be personal; would you mind telling me your name, dearie?

Mary: My name is "Mary Moe."

Bench: Well, he said if Mary shows up, I should tell her he had waited for her for half an hour.

Mary: But you said he was only here for five minutes? Around 10 AM?

Bench: Yes. He arrived here at 10 AM, four minutes and five seconds, and left at 10 AM, eight minutes and fifty three seconds. That makes a total four minutes and forty eight seconds.

Mary: Oooh. How can he be such a jerk!

Bench: I'm sorry dearie, I can't help you with that. You sound like you might be in trouble. If you need a real person to talk to, I can put you in touch with one. Are you in trouble?

Mary: Uh, no thanks, I'm fine.

Bench: Don't mention it.

(Later on that day Mary calls Joe)

Mary (on phone): Joe, you jerk! You stood me up!

Joe: No I didn't! I waited for half an hour! I left a message with the bench, the one that sounds like somebody's grandmother!

Mary: You idiot. The bench told me you were only there for only five minutes. And you were late. And you were supposed to meet me by the statue of Douglas Adams, not Lewis Carroll.

Joe: Which statue of Adams?

Mary: The Equestrian one you dope. The seats at the big monument are granite.

Joe: Oh, no! I hate that bench. It's so crabby.

Mary: Not as crabby as I am.

Joe: OK, look, I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you I swear!

Mary: Yeah right.

Joe: No, really. Meet me this afternoon at the bench by the pond.

Mary: Which bench?

Joe: The one that sounds like Barry White.

Mary: Oooh! I love that one.


There's a test posed by the mathematician Alan Turing , as way to judge whether a machine has achieved intelligence or not. The test and all its variations boil down to this: You interact with something that is either a machine, or a person, and if you can't tell the difference then you have to admit machine is at least as intelligent as the person. Naturally, you have to contrive this interaction to hide information that is irrelevant to intelligence from the judge. For example, the judge can't see the person he is interacting with face face, but only over a computer link. Initially, this may be difficult, but given sufficient time, the judge can distinguish between true intelligence, which understands what it is talking about, and simulated intelligence, which uses clever strategies designed to evoke favorable results statistically frequently.

Which raises the question: Will men ever pass the Turing Test when it comes to women's feelings?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Nine Theses of Ethical Ironicism

  • Any non-trivial system of beliefs is bound to be riddled with absurdities.
  • So a person who must take himself seriously at all times is either a simpleton or morbidly attached to his ignorance.
  • We make an exception for those whose benign obsessions are so manifestly and magnificently ridiculous they clearly must be saints.
  • Nobody laughs at a joke they don't understand.
  • So a person who laughs at himself is on the path to enlightenment.
  • Nobody can truly love another unless he truly knows the other. Nobody can truly know another without knowing the full measure of their absurdity.
  • Therefore verily I say unto you that Love is Absurdity.
  • And God is Love.
  • And therefore God is Absurdity, and Absurdity, God.