History gathers up in a swirl of images
seemingly unconnected as individual incidents
clumping together to form a definite picture
of a species or race or culture.
There is much to be embarrassed of, proud of,
things to distance ourselves from
and things to claim heritage to.
Outside, crows flock in the snow-covered yard
and I wonder if they know they are capable of math
and basic human speech. I join them in the snow
wish myself wings and the will to leave
scatter seeds on the ground and ask them to stay.
Aquariums are currently all the rage. Of the forty-one American aquariums accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 2003, more than half opened since 1980, sixteen since 1990 alone.These are not traditional halls of fish tanks but huge, immersive environments with increasingly exotic fish in ever more realistic habitats: live coral reefs, artificial currents, indoor jungles, and living kelp forests. Massive public/private endeavors, the new breed of aquarium has flourished in an era of ambitious urban renewal aimed at reviving derelict inner-city waterfronts. Their prominent role in such schemes has caused the Wall Street Journal to dub the last two decades “the age of aquariums.” We are in love with looking at fish. But why?
“Social isolation is treated as a fact of life. Women living on higher floors with young families repeatedly lament the fact that they cannot let their children out to play, and often that they don’t see people other than their spouses or children from one day to the next. Several people – usually men living alone – comment on the role of home aquaria in providing quiet company and relieving stress.”
The early Railway stories were based on real railway incidents, and the characters were based on real models of locomotive (Thomas is LB&SCR E2 class). The technical details provided a lot of the stories’ appeal, at least to some children. The stories took ideas from the realm of science and engineering and made them entertaining by weaving stories about them.
See where I’m going with this? The Railway stories have a lot in common with hard science fiction. Especially for modern children, for whom the technology described is outside of their lived experience and therefore as imaginary as an interplanetary rocket.
In this first week in Lent my anthology Word in the Wilderness introduces poems about pilgrimage itself and our life as pilgrimage. We will reflect on maps and mapping, on how outer journeys and inner ones are linked, on what it is we learn from the landscapes through which we walk.
Among familiar poems such as Walter Raleigh’s Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage, there are ones unknown to me. I especially liked Holly Ordway’s “Maps”. I was particularly struck by the line on the egocentricity of GPS (and by extension Google Maps etc.):
Antique maps, with curlicues of inkAs borders, framing what we know, like pagesFrom a book of traveler’s tales: look,Here in the margin, tiny ships at sail.No-nonsense maps from family trips: each stateTraced out in colour-coded numbered highways,A web of roads with labeled city dotsPunctuating the route and its slow stories.Now GPS puts me right at the centre,A Ptolemaic shift in my perspective.Pinned where I am, right now, somewhere, I turnAnd turn to orient myself. I haveDirections calculated, maps at hand:Hopelessly lost till I look up at last.
I posted this review of “How To Build An Android: The True Story of Philip K Dick’s Robotic Resurrection” by David Dufty on the SF Site in 2013 – I originally reblogged this on the fairly quiet A Medical Education, but here it is on my more popular blog….:
How to Build an Android:
The True Story of Philip K. Dick’s Robotic Resurrection
David F. Dufty
Henry Holt and Company, 273 pages
Just over seven years ago, the head of Philip K Dick went missing from an America West Airlines flight between Dallas and Las Vegas. A tired roboticist, transferring the talking robotic replication of Dick’s head from one tech presentation to another, left it in an overhead baggage locker. An incident which has already inspired a radio play (Gregory Whitehead’sBring Me The Head of Philip K Dick) and received substantial media coverage at the time, it initially seemed to me somewhat too slight to merit book-length treatment. Perhaps a long piece in Wired would do it justice. And indeed, surveying what other reviewers have made of the book (David F. Dufty has handily compiled prior reviews, including poor ones, on his website), I find that some have concluded with my initial impression. For instance, New Scientist‘s Sally Adee found “50 pages of detailed historical introductions to every last person involved in the android project… Dufty recounts conversations in exhausting detail, and finds nothing too small or insignificant to share with the reader: we learn where the Starbucks is at several convention centres, we learn of one room that “the frame was made out of timber.” We learn that Google created a famous search engine.”
I however found Adee’s criticism unfair, and somewhat beside the point. Dufty, a postdoc in the University of Memphis at the same time as many of the events described and therefore working with many of the personalities involved, has crafted a readable narrative which ranges from the nature of academic politics (and the grant applications that take up most of any senior researchers time) to the distinctions between Alan Turing’s and Philip K Dick’s visions of what distinguishes — or could distinguish — computers from humans. In the end, the book dealt with weighty themes, some of the weightiest themes we can think of. As Henry Markham of the Blue Brain project so eloquently describes in his TED talk on the subject, computational simulation of the human brain is one of the grandest challenges we can conceive (and possibly an unattainable one, although that’s another debate) Dufty may have a somewhat flat, deadpan style, but it reminded me of the dictum (possibly one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s) that extraordinary narratives should have an unadorned, simple style.
If the book has a protagonist, it is the man who left the head in the overhead luggage compartment on that fateful flight, David Hanson, a trained sculptor turned roboticist who passionately argued — contra to the prevailing wisdom in the robotics community that aesthetics don’t matter — that beautiful and lifelike humanoid robots were crucial in the development of robots that would truly revolutionise our lives. Hanson emphatically rejected the notion of the “uncanny valley,” the supposed phenomenon whereby, as robotic models and digital representations of humans come closer and closer to being lifelike (while missing the mark slightly), we are more and more repulsed. Intuitively the uncanny valley makes sense to many, yet as Hanson has pointed out there is a lack of empirical evidence to support its existence.
Artificial intelligence has evolved to become focused on specific tasks, often those of intellectual prowess (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) rather than the overall simulation of human mental functioning in all its manifestations. This has lead to great, headline-catching successes (such as beating Garry Kasparov at chess) but has arguably lead away from a visionary, transformational view of the possibilities of AI. Hanson advocates approach to robotics grounded more in a gestalt view of humanity and human-ness than the mere performance of tasks in isolation, and one which emphasises the aesthetic nature of the whole android concept. For Hanson, leaps of scientific progress are as much artistic and aesthetic as anything else. Dufty describes the combination of sculpting craft and high tech that goes into the creation of a Hanson style robot very well.
Philip K Dick was an ideal candidate for potential immortalisation as a robot head in many ways. Obviously, his fiction had dealt explicitly with themes of humanity and humanoid robots, and the difficulty distinguishing between them. Empathy, rather than Turing’s imitable intellectual functioning, was the key. Dick has become more than a cult figure and is now widely regarded as a key American author of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Any Dick related project will garner attention, and the project coincided with the production of the Richard Linklater film A Scanner Darkly, and indeed was identified as a publicity aid for the film. Also, Dick’s reputation as a sort of neo-gnostic eccentric meant that elliptical or cryptic responses which might otherwise be seen as failures of artificial intelligence would be seen as just typical Philip K Dick.
Another characteristic of Dick made him an ideal subject for such a project. Although he was dead and therefore his head couldn’t be directly modelled from life, there was a vast archive of conversations he had had with all comers in his California bungalow in the 70s, when his house had been a sort of perpetual symposium of dropouts and outcasts with whom he would hold court. These conversations covered a vast range of topics, esoteric and everyday, which allowed the team to create a bank of possible responses to a great deal of questions. They also programmed some standard responses to questions such as “what is your name?” They never programmed Dick with a response to “do androids dream of electric sheep?”
The head was a hit at the various conferences and exhibitions it was displayed at, to the extent that each member of the public who patiently queued up to meet it could only have a minute or two of interaction. Dick’s daughters were consulted about the project, and after being convinced of the good intentions of those involved agree, but had an understandable ambivalence about it. The head did tend to get caught in infinite verbal loops, which the roboticists tried to manage by creating a “kill switch” to terminate logorrheic conversations. In its exhibited life the head was, to a certain degree, something of a Mechanical Turk, with a human behind the scenes desperately trying to maintain the illusion of spontaneous conversation.
I was reading the English psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissaryaround the same time as Dufty’s book. McGilchrist’s book is a massive, sweeping, visionary book which argues that the division between the two hemispheres of the brain — the one which is grossly simplified into the dichotomy of logical left brain and creative right brain — has been not only a determinant of human history and culture but THE great determinant. McGilchrist has marshalled an enormously impressive range of philosophical, empirical, artistic and other forms of evidence for his argument, and while it is not utterly persuasive in all respects and hemispherical specialisation is itself far from a binary, dichotomous phenomenon, it is a book worth arguing with. In any case, McGilchrist again and again assails what he terms the left-brain tendency towards decontextualized analysis and away from an appreciation of holistic and of nuance. Artificial Intelligence’s turn to a task-focused approach is, in McGilchrist’s terms, a classic case of the triumph of the left brain.
Dufty’s book is deceptive. Initially it seems a rather bald account of the story of Dick’s head, but it builds into a thought-provoking book. Dufty marries the exciting, speculative world of contemporary AI and robotics with the prosaic reality of grant applications and presentations at noisy, busy, conferences. There is an amusing thread of Talking Heads references throughout — indeed David Byrne is a not insignificant player in the story . One of these references is slightly off the mark though — while Talking Heads did do a version of “Take Me To The River,” it is originally an Al Green song. Why does this come up? You’ll have to read the book to see.
Of course there are distractions, says the Lord:
When there are others, they are the distraction,
and when you are by yourself, you are the distraction!
You can try to eliminate them but better yet, to be present and accept © Meisaan Chan
One of the nice things about growing older is that you lose some of the inhibitions about admitting you haven’t read a particular writer. One of the less nice things is that your tastes can become a bit ossified and (internally) predictable.
All of which is prelude to saying that I haven’t read the works of Henry Miller, and up to now he he has been a writer I wasn’t terribly interested in reading. Why did I have this prejudice (a literal pre-judging)? I guess what I had read about did not incline me to read more, and in my mind he was conflated with a certain rather self-conscious American-in-Paris literary pose which grates. Not very edifying on my part, although I do suspect that all our literary tastes have such not very reasonable lacunae.
However recently I have been reading the wonderful blog of Lee Watkins and his discussions / summaries of some of Miller’s work. The highest praise one can surely give to a literary blog is that it makes you want to read the works featured, and in Watkins’ case it is even better – he makes me want to read a writer that not only I have not read, but one I would not have thought I would ever want to read.
This post by Watkins encapsulates what is it about Miller (or, more properly, what Watkins captures about Miller) that attracts: a commitment to truth and an awareness of his own flaws:
Occasionally people will ask about Henry Miller: was he even a real writer? Wasn’t he a fraud who fooled the world into believing he was the real thing?
Miller’s books are, on the one hand, like nothing else that had ever come before: sprawling and spiralling things without beginning middle or end, so that nothing he wrote could ever be called a “novel” or even really an “autobiography”. Miller found himself unable to write a story and so he played to his strengths and created his own way of expressing himself in writing.
On the other hand, Miller’s books can seem derivative of the avant-garde that had arrived long before him – Dada and Surrealism, for example – so that you could ask yourself: What did Henry Miller really contribute as an artist?
Miller’s books speak to me directly as almost no other writing does. And so I know that Miller was the real thing. But it’s interesting to see that Miller doubted himself as much as his critics did.
He knew that he was capable of lies and fraud, and he spent a lot of time bluffing his way through life before he succeeded as a writer, as we see in his “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy (Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus).
The elevator attendant in Chapter 7 of Nexus is bizarrely rude to Henry. We wonder what exactly his problem is. Still, it’s strange to see Henry march back up to him and confront him with “Why do you hate me?” It seems like a sure way to start a fight.
But the encounter is quite revealing. The elevator attendant, a war veteran, has seen through him, he says. He knows a fake when he sees one, and literally has the scars to prove it. Henry is terrified and feels that the man has seen right into his soul
For all that Miller may have used tricks to get by – both in his writing and in his daily life, borrowing and stealing – we see throughout Nexus what it is that he really wants: to find the truth in himself and express it to the world. He is miserable for as long as he is forced to lie and pretend and play a part, and he has to become a writer not because of the expectations of others – since almost no-one expects him to succeed anyway – but because he must do it for himself, to raise himself up to a higher spiritual level. He needs to be able to tell the truth, and to live truthfully.
Miller’s books are an answer to a serious question he posed for himself, and answered truthfully as he could: Who am I? And because he struggled honestly, earnestly, and for so long with this question, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, he was able, finally, to write books that are really worth reading.
Anyway, here is a Christmas with Henry Miller. I found this story moving for its very ordinariness, and also subverting my (and Watkins’) expectations about what a Christmas with Henry Miller might be like!