Thoughts: Turing’s Cathedral

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book attempted to be both the story and the explanation of the first computer, and ended up accomplishing a very confused mix of the two. It’s a beautiful effort with a ton of information (and I understand from other reviews, new information) about the building of the first computer, and everything that led up to it, and its lasting impacts on the philosophy and structure of computing.

Unfortunately, the chronology was confusing, the narrative was unclear, the explanations assumed more knowledge than I had, and the rhapsodizing about search engines as the ultimate—even possibly thinking—computers put the other philosophical/prophetic passages in doubt.

I don’t have another history of computers book to suggest at the moment but I have a feeling that there are far better ones out there depending on your level of previous knowledge and desired depth of knowledge. It’s a shame because there’s so much great stuff in here. It was just hard to parse most of the time.

That being said, there were plenty of themes/questions/ideas/tidbits that got me thinking. Here are a few of those:

“The part that is stable we are going to predict. And the part that is unstable we are going to control.”

John von Neumann said that, and it’s part of a larger theme about how computers were made only once people realized that instead of expecting perfection, they should expect imperfection and account for it.

“There is reason to suspect that our predilection for linear codes, which have a simple, almost temporal sequence, is chiefly a literary habit.”

I have no idea if this is true but seems like an interesting thing to think about.

“If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent.”

So like humans then?

“Machines will dream first.”

Before thinking that is. What a wonderful thought. It brings to mind the silent square nineties computer that sat in my father’s office at home, alone in the dark after we all finally went to sleep. Did it dream?

“That the resulting human behavior can only be counted on statistically, not deterministically, is… no obstacle to the synthesis of those unreliable human beings into a reliable organism.”

This (which comes from the section on the future of computers, or what its first inventors thought of its future back in the fifties) is terrifying. Not only because it suggests a future where humans are controlled by computers, but because it means that now currently, we are already statistics. And the fact that predictions made about us based on human data are predictive but not deterministic is not a consolation.

Oh, and the origin story of the Monte Carlo method. It’s a great origin story and now I actually understand what it is!

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Ordinary Americans

This is ostensibly a review of the biography of Hitler by Volker Ullrich, but is actually a fragment of a year’s worth of jumbled thoughts on the 2016 election.

I’ve been questioning this idea, the core of which I still can’t articulate, but essentially asks this: if the Germans didn’t know the future, can we cast moral judgement on their decision in the early thirties to vote for Hitler, and in 1933, before the worst of the fear regime made resistance deadly, to worship him?

Why that’s important is because, the narrative has been distilled (and now that I read the book I know is fairly inaccurate) into: the Germans felt sad and the economy sucked, and so were eager for a savior to make them great again. Similarly, in country after country, election after election, people feel downtrodden, forgotten, disenfranchised, and not represented, plus the economy almost always sucks, and if it doesn’t suck for everyone, it sucks for a lot of people, and so they vote for whomever promises them salvation: Obama gave them hope, Trump promised them greatness.

I don’t pretend to know how Trump won or why people voted for him (I suspect it’s less a mystery than it seems) but I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s critique that the “economic anxiety” narrative is bullshit. Not necessarily because the real reason people voted for Trump was racism — I’ll let Coates argue that point. It’s bullshit because that’s what they said in 1968 and in 1972 and in every single election since the glory days of the fifties, which were an anomaly. (And white people means default people, who can’t explain life’s difficulties as a factor of structural intent to make life difficult.)

So back to Germans and the early thirties and Trump voters: even if it were true, even if times were hard and jobs were scarce and the ladder to the middle class was essentially rung-less, how much does that excuse?

Can the German who wildly and throatfully exclaimed his or her admiration and support for Hitler in 1931, when he was already the party of the ethnic German, and of hate and violence — though not to the degree he would be later — but did it out of a desperate hope for a better tomorrow, be held accountable? After a decade of national indignity and personal sorrow, can we blame the German citizen for falling for a carefully curated message of a future rectified by way of a return to the past, by an image of restored German sovereignty and power, by fear of an enemy just as carefully curated and held up for righteous indignation? After all, he may not have wanted the Jews dead or an Aryan-only state; he certainly didn’t want a world war and a dictatorship, but he was experiencing economic anxiety, and when along came a firebrand rebel who was equally man-of-the-people and savior who promised change, how could he refuse?

I do believe that thirties-era Hitler was far worse than Trump. And so I do believe that forgiving Trump’s sins in the name of a vague promised land is probably a more forgivable offense, but that may be because I know what happens next.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t change the essential question: when people vote out of their own concern, and are driven only by a sense of grievance, are they morally to blame? or perhaps they are not to blame, but there is a more noble idea of citizenhood which we may have, or never did, believe in — and what is that? we vote for the greater good? for the greater good of who, our neighbors? the entire country? at the expense of whom?

And a second, but crucial question: if I had been there, if I was a me in 2016 but with a different sense of geography and history and a different set of social and media inputs, what would I have done? And since I have no way to know, what right do I have to wave the moral banner and dismiss half the nation as racist bigots? But if I do not renounce them, then am I perpetuating moral ambiguity that is merely a luxury of not being the one to suffer the fallout of my pretty mental games?

(Okay, that’s like 8 questions, but who’s counting?)

Thoughts: I Love Dick (the series)

I recently finished the first season of Jill Soloway’s TV series I Love Dick, based on the semi auto-biographical novel/cult-classic by the same name by Chris Kraus.

The show disappoints. It doesn’t pull off the precarious line of turning obsession into power, of turning feminine obsession into feminism. “I won’t be muzzled,” stated by the protagonist Chris, is as close as we come. It feels more about Chris’s awkwardness and her willingness to put herself out there—maybe bravery?—than about how the renewed ability to love and the power of giving in to fantasy woke her up inside.

It barely touches on her journey as an artist: which is the whole point of the book. The book is about how her ability to love/lust and embrace the love/lust interact with her being, with herself as an artist. (And asking the question about the way we understand masculine desire differently. Is the ability to inspire, is having a muse exploitative, or is there something between objectification and inspiration?)

But then, Vogue’s dismissal of it on the grounds that it is not transgressive – and mostly because it features a white woman who is not poor, assumes too much. Sure, we have Lena Dunham’s Hanna and New Girl’s Jess and the rise of the insecure, awkward, quirky, beautiful-but-not-sexy protagonist who is bad at getting sex, or wants too much of it, or flaunts it, on the screen, but that doesn’t mean that to be a woman—white or otherwise—is solved. It doesn’t mean that we’ve resolved the ways we think and talk about sex, and that a story about attempts to portray a real woman and her desire and socially inappropriate ways of acting it out, is not worthwhile.

Here’s the thing: stories that have been told over and over and over again are still worth repeating when done right. So the problem with I Love Dick is that it isn’t that good — certainly not as good as the book — not that it doesn’t fit someone’s political agenda.

What I’m trying to say is that I am interested in female desire, and I don’t see enough of it. And for that, I’m grateful for the show.

And so, this show might not be perfect, it certainly is not as starkly original as the book, but it is the parts that are off-angle: the old feminist film clips; the sidebar stories; the half-baked ritual beauty dance for men, the telling of Toby’s tale about doing a PhD on hardcore pornography, that make it—or made me find it—original enough to stimulate thought/self-reflection.

Is it feminism if you don’t know it

I read “The Feminine Mystique” as 2016 turned to 2017. I spent several hours riding from Harlem to Crown Heights and back on the first day of the year, engrossed in the feminist classic, somewhat embarrassed to be coming to it so late.

I hang out with people for whom I assume Betty Friedan’s book is biblical; if they haven’t read it they’ve absorbed its content anyway. And I had been feigning feminism for several years now, so the outrage that began to flame in me as I hurtled to Brooklyn felt amateur.

I was hangry by the time I reached Crown Heights to meet my family for dinner at a greasy Kosher restaurant. They had already posted a picture to WhatsApp — a religious ritual at this point — of the whole gang surrounding a table covered in the disposable flotsam of dinner.

I walked up a dark Empire Boulevard, and passed the Kosher market where the automatic doors were open, framing a large, shoddy man in black hat and beard, paying at the cashier. I stared egregiously at him, thinking that if I looked harder, I would know him.

Then I saw a poster stapled to a pole advertising a lecture series called “Dating with awareness,” with Chana Schneider*, an acclaimed dating expert. The name catapulted me back ten years to a makeshift classroom in Tzfat in Northern Israel when Chana Schneider had come to talk to my seminary class about dating and marriage.

I remember only that the gist of the conversation was advice on how to deal with petty arguments about open toilet seats and dirty socks left on the floor. As a 17-year-old, this genre of marital education seemed ridiculous. I had no intention of marrying anytime soon. And this dowdy woman, in blond wig, oversized suit and buttoned-up shirt, who was heralded as some sort of bride-whisperer, was not going to be my guide to womanhood.

Since then, I have made choices that would have endeared me to feminists, but I did not know it. I went to college, I chose a career, I left a set of rules and searched for new ones. Yet somehow I’ve been called a bad feminist by feminist friends because I don’t know their canon and my version of sexism was and remains different. (The slow realization of my body’s power over men, something I had legitimately not known until my middle twenties, meant that for a long time I preferred reveling in that power, rather than acquiescing to the narrative that a male-dominant civilization equals a male-dominant interaction on a street corner.)

Ironically, in following the path away from early marriage, I ended up living across the street from Chana Schneider and her many happy, well-adjusted children in Los Angeles. I ate Shabbat lunch with her and was advised to seek her counsel by people with my best interest at heart.

Now, reading Betty Friedan, I recognized so many of the argument that had been made in the name of god and the Torah. And here there were, visible now as angry, domineering, morally righteous, outrageous positions of men against every attempt women made at freedom. Some of those arguments had been made by our beloved Rebbe, whose teachings line the walls of my childhood home and continue to dictate the lives of my parents.

Empire Grill is a loud shop, full of Israelis and Yeshiva students. When I came in, a patron was slurping noodles steeped in a brown sauce off a paper plate. I sat down next to my mother, a woman who bore nine children, and who since her last child has left home, has blossomed. Her brown wig had been curled to frame her face like a young girl. She talked gaily about shopping with her twin-sister.

Later, I left my mother outside my brother’s home, where she’d play grandmother to his five or six kids. I took the train back to Harlem where I live with two roommates, too many frozen Trader Joe’s dinners, and a life that is Chana Schneider’s worst nightmare.

*Not her real name

Thoughts: I Love Dick

I Love DickI Love Dick by Chris Kraus

This was a fun book to carry around on the subway in New York.

It’s also the kind of the book that if I hadn’t known previously that it was seen as some sort of feminist breakthrough, I might’ve been more amused, or less.

Once I knew it was based on real people and that it was less fiction than a very conscious attempt to create art from reality, I felt like I was complicit in violating Dick’s privacy.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the genre-bending read, and slipping from feminist essay to memoir to romantic noir, all while staying resolutely meta about the creation of it. I definitely scribbled notes to myself about the artists/writers/feminists I’d like to check out, and highlighted in my mind gems like this one, “There’s not enough female irrepressibility written down.” Plus, the whole meditation on Kikes versus Cowboys was dangerously alluring.

(It got a little academically heavy, even for a novel that didn’t fully intend to be a novel, towards the end. Which is why I have no idea why Chris keep saying that she’s not an intellectual. Was it because the people around her didn’t consider her one? Is it another effort at pointing out how women erase themselves? Does she mean a paid intellectual?)

Under it all, it’s a very simple story of the power of love, even (or especially) unrequited love. It wasn’t Dick’s love of her; it was the awakening of her own love/libido that turned her on as an artist so that she became irrepressible and wrote and came alive and Dick became a muse that she kept creating for herself.

That could be a disempowering message, because love like that isn’t a choice. And if that’s the case, than neither is inspiration. Unless the message is that by nurturing that initial spark between her and Dick, by embracing it wholly and submitting to it and thereby risking everything — that’s what woke her up.

 

Austerlitz

In Sebald’s book “Austerlitz” it isn’t until you’re more than halfway through that you find out what you probably knew a lot earlier, that Austerlitz left as a child during WWII, that whatever life he’d had before the war was gone, in reality, and in memory too.

Only after unlayering the years of his childhood, and then his years as a student, and then a professor, and then a loner wandering through London and talking with strangers on trips to Brussels, do both we the readers and Austerlitz himself go back to find his past.

It’s then when he’s talking with Vera in Prague, Vera being his nanny as a child and a friend of his parent, that she tells him everything he had repressed.

Vera tells Austerlitz what his father Maximilian told her about his trips to Germany in the 1930s, about the “positive horror” it filled him with, watching the country become ready for greatness. It’s hard to excerpt this part, because the effect of the way Sebald writes is its buildup, over pages, and the sentences that don’t end but that you can trace through the pages. Here’s how he begins a description of a Hitler rally in Nuremberg:

Hours before his arrival, the entire population of Nuremberg and indeed people from much further afield, crowds flocking in not just from Franconia and Bavaria but from the most remote parts of the country, Holstein and Pomerania, Silesia and the Black Forest, stood shoulder to shoulder all agog with excitement along the predetermined route, until at last, heralded by roars of acclamation, the motorcade of heavy Mercedes limousines came gliding at walking pace down the narrow alley which parted the sea of radiant uplifted faces and the arms outstretched in yearning. Maximilian had told her, said Vera, that in the middle of this crowd, which had merged into a single living organism racked by strange, convulsive contractions, he had felt like a foreign body about to be crushed and then excreted.

What emerges from these pages is not that Maximilian saw it coming, but that he knew what he was witnessing. But Maximilian didn’t need to know the future—he didn’t need to know the camps and the gas and the dead children and the death marches—to know that these crowds and their need for Hitler’s promises; their worship of them, was its own evil. And all because, in Maximilian’s words to Vera, repeated to Austerlitz who then tells them to the narrator and the narrator to us, he recalls Hitler’s speeches coming through the wireless, “drumming into the Germans the notion that the promise of their own greatness was about to be fulfilled.”

And their wild, hungry, bottomless acceptance of it.

Maybe you don’t need 1939 to be held accountable for 1933.