Friday, February 28, 2014

Neuromorphic Processors and the Fall of Man

Photo: Peggy Greb
What will happen when a computer cannot only think, but can think better than a brain? In terms of executive function. if the brain, which heads the food chain, as far as both humans and animals are concerned, can be mass produced, with the concomitant economies of scale, warranties, and even planned obsolescence, then why depend on nature? Who needs it or her? In an article entitled "Brainlike Computers, Learning From Experience” (NYT, 12/28/13), the Times’s John Markoff  describes how “new processors consist of electronic components that can be connected by wires that mimic biological synapses” and quotes Dharmendra Modha of I.B.M. who says, “Instead of bringing data to computation as we do today we can now bring computation to data.” Formerly computers were like dogs or other animals who you could teach to do tricks, but the new chips are producing computers that can “automate tasks that now require painstaking programming--for example moving a robot’s arm smoothly and efficiently.” Google’s Sebastian Thrun has taken robotics so far as to produce a driverless car. The kind of “neuromorphic processors” that Markoff is referring to, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg. In The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology Ray Kurzweil predicted that nanotechnology would produce immortality. But what is really as stake is the future of consciousness. It’s Darwin all over again. Computers will eventually become more naturally selective than brains and a more convenient receptacle for life as we know it--with computer generated consciousness in turn becoming more naturally selective than life itself. Well at least there won’t be the usual justifiable anxieties about work and love, which everyone tells you are all in your head. Now all of existence will be reduced to one big cyber soup.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Learning From McDonald's

Imagine a version of It’s a Wonderful Life, only the main character is not George Bailey (James Stewart) a bank executive with financial problems but McDonald’s. Imagine the guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) coming down to earth and showing us what the world would be like without McDonald’s. Surely all the foodies and health advocates would be in utter ecstasy. We’d have a world without Big Macs, McNuggets or the Filet-O-Fish and the best French fry that the universe has ever created would either be a gleam in someone’s eye or have already met its maker. Everyone bemoans the fact that when you travel you're no longer going anywhere and that one of the symptoms of this is the ubiquitousness of the big fast food chains like McDonald’s. But imagine coming into some strange country like Russia or China, ruled by an authoritarian government whose arbitrary edicts create fear and uncertainty. Suddenly you see the big M and you’re reminded of the connectivity of the global economy. Monopoly capitalism used to be the villain and in the l9th century the Opium Wars a more nefarious form of imperialism laced with capitalism sought to addict a vulnerable population. OK fast food can be addictive too, but it’s not opium and the Big M is a reminder that the liberal minded mercantile spirit greases the wheels of commerce. Can we even see McDonald’s as an aspect of McLuhan’s Global Village? Indeed, the picture of the world the angel might paint without McDonald’s is neither necessarily more sanguine nor sanitary than the one that George faces. McDonald’s kitchens are likely to be a lot more sanitary than what you find in oppressive societies where health officials may turn out to be party hacks and epigones. And there is something beautiful about the McDonald’s arch, which appears on the horizon like the golden minaret of a Byzantine Church. For more on the post-modernist conception of architectural beauty, see Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott Brown’s Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symboism of Architectural Form.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

As a Man Grows Older

Italo Svevo
“I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing…” says Roger Angell in his essay, "This Old Man,” (The New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24, 2014), subtitled, “Life in the nineties.” Angell also quotes another New Yorker writer John Updike citing a story entitled, “Playing With Dynamite,” where Updike offers the choice of “sex or death." Actually Angell doesn’t seem all that negative about death which he refers to as being “less like a threat than like a family obligation.” Certainly there are those who would choose death over sex at a certain age. All the Botox, Viagra and Astroglide are not going to allay nature’s revenge on its old creation. Age is cruel. However, beautiful dried flowers can be, they lack the magic and pheronomic power of spring. There is no substitute for the flower in bloom. And, despite the fact that the human being’s neurogenic pathways may be wired in such a way that he or she may find themselves navigating highways that have become obsolete, the pressure to employ medical science to provide substitutes for the declining sex drive represents a failure to accept the inevitable. But Angell seems to be talking about something more subtle, not the sexual act itself, rather the bonding that is the product of sex. Even animals need to be touched and held which explains the unusual cruelty of solitary confinement as a punishment. Age is a sentence that may seem short, seeing how few years are left, but can end up feeling attenuated due to its boredom, despair and loneliness. There is nothing more grotesque than an elderly man or woman who attempts to act and dress like someone a quarter their age. The sight of a 94 year old man in a tight tee shirt or his female counterpart in a leather micro skirt is merely an advertisement for senile dementia. Senilita, As a Man Grows Older is the title of a novel by Italo Svevo. Angell’s charming and humane piece demonstrates how gray panthers can still get a piece of the action.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Nazi Love

Heinrich Himmler
According to a recent Times story (“Himmler Papers Shed Light On Personal Life of a Nazi,” NYT, 1/26/14), Mr. and Mrs. Himmler lived a life that was no different than the average American couple then or now. Evan S. Connell wrote the Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge novels. Here we have Herr und Frau Himmler. The Times quotes Mrs. Himmler as writing, “There is a can of caviar in the ice box. Take it.” Okay for most of us it’s Spam, but here we have Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” all over again. The Times quotes another letter from Heinrich to his wife Margarete, “I am off to Auschwitz. Kisses. Your Heim.” Of course, the syntax of this last note to Margarete, or Marga, who the Times describes as previously divorced and seven years older gives pause. If one were to do a computerized analysis of all the times that the word kisses has appeared next to the word Auschwitz, the examples would undoubtedly be scarce and yet there isn’t an inkling from Herr Himmler that this little phrase, “Auschwitz. Kisses” may be one of the most outrageously horrific oxymorons in the history of language. What’s particularly interesting is that the German language is full of compound words. For instance, Vergangenheitbewaltegung means “the burden of the past.” Kisses may have skidded into Auschwitz, like a car on a slippery road, but one would think that even a murderer might have somehow moved one out of the way of the other before sending off a missive to his beloved wife. In her filmic portrait of Hannah Arendt, Margarethe von Trotta portrayed the controversial philosopher as arguing that Adolf Eichmann's pathology resulted from a failure of thinking. There’s something purgative about screaming at a killer, provided he or she is not in a position to strike back, but as a form of preventative medicine, it’s always useful to get an insight into the killer’s thought process—or in these cases, failure thereof. Which is something that these love letters enable us to do.

Monday, February 24, 2014

North by Northwest

Can the scene where Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) and Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) descend Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest, which was recently revived as part of the current Hitchcock retrospective at Film Forum, be compared to the Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin? It’s just one of a number of historical landmarks turned into imaginative constructs in the film. The U.N. was still a fresh contribution to the Manhattan’s skyline when Hitchcock cast it and the cantilevered shots are prescient of both the majesty and tragedy of the enterprise the structure represents. “War is hell, even if it’s a cold one,” says The Professor (Leo Carroll), the film’s intelligence operative, but that still doesn’t do justice to either the pseudo-politics of the setting or to the multivalent levels of Hitchcock’s canvas. The answer may be found in the title, which derives from Hamlet who says “I am but mad, North by Northwest.” The movie starts out with another piece of New York architecture, a classic modernist skyscraper of the Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building variety in which reality is reflected, a reality of bustling cabs one of which reads “Kind Taxi.” Is it kind or one of a kind? Little by little we are given coordinates. George Kaplan occupies suite 796 at the Plaza, but he doesn’t exist, and is only identifiable by a valet and a maid who identify him respectively with a room key and suit. When Thornhill fills a void left in time and space, he becomes Kaplan and that sets the plot in motion. Then there is berth 3901, Suite E on the Chicago Limited and Prairie Road 41 which is the site of the famous crop duster sequence. The doomed diplomat Leonard Townsend (Philip Ober) is mistakenly identified by the house he no longer occupies and the wife who is no longer alive. In neurology you have Capgras Syndrome in which a familiar person seems like an imposter (in one of the film’s comic asides, even,Thornhill’s mother doesn’t really seem to know the person who inhabits her son’s body) and the countervailing prosopagnosia in which the familiar is no longer recognizable. Here we come closer to the heart of Hitchcock’s visions, a nightmare world in which appearances whether they be awe inspiring landmarks or merely individual identities (the redcaps sequence in which the police futilely try to locate Thornhill amidst a sea  of baggage handlers is another example) are obscured by the presence of more unsettling realities.  Eva Marie Saint is just another setting which Hitchcock’s camera explores. Her ethereal beauty can lure a man into bed or death.  She is Janus-faced like Hamlet who also says “When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” One of the many triumphs of this masterpiece occurs when Hitchcock peels away the layers of darkness, transforming madness into romantic comedy.