Sunday, May 22, 2016

Zero K: Bad Like Her

When I learned that Don DeLillo's newest book, Zero K, prominently focuses on cryonics, I thought what could be better? DeLillo's writing is witty and sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny. He has a way of choosing foibles and fears of modern life, inescapable absurdities, and then circling them slowly like a comet's orbit around the sun: undulating closer and closer until some day in the indeterminate future gravity wins and you come crashing into some massive reality (life's absurdities, the sun, etc.). Additionally, DeLillo was one of the major influences on David Foster Wallace, and you can see this everywhere (without all the footnotes) in what is arguably DeLillo's finest work (and one of my favorites), White Noise (no, actually, this is not a ghost written autobiography of Kid Rock).

To adequately describe what I did not enjoy about Zero K, I need to make a lenghty digression and explain a little about why I did not like the recent Spike Jonze film Her. Practically everyone I knew was surprised to learn that I didn't like it ... I guess there was some stereotypical association between me (someone who studied and works in the field of machine learning and who has spent a lot of time reading and thinking about philosophical aspects of A.I.) and the topic of the film (love and kinship that transcends conventional notions of identity and humanity, expressed by an A.I.). Upon hearing that I didn't like it, many people assumed that it must be the same as if a professional chemist watched the TV series Breaking Bad: that I (or the hypothetical chemist) couldn't "let go" of the realism surrounding artificial intelligence -- that I was "too familiar" with it and therefore held the movie up to an unrealistic expectation of fidelity and accuracy, and that I "couldn't see past this" to understand the "human" element or the significance of the narrative.

I found these replies quite frustrating but also found that I completely lacked any language to explain to people why that was absolutely wrong. It was not at all that I expected Her to live up to an unreasonable degree of realism or to include the latest research findings. After all, some of my favorite science fiction movies, such as Primer and Lunopolis, are considerably unrealistic. In fact, what frustrated me was that the way in which A.I. was depicted in Her didn't even attempt to portray the slightest bit of realism or to incorporate even the most basic things that have been written about the philosophy and morality of A.I. over the past 40 years. The movie clearly wanted the sleek, hip choice of a sexualized A.I. character to come off as edgy and forward-thinking, but in the rush to effectively air brush a superficial human identity onto an A.I. character, Jonze and the film's writers really, completely, grossly dropped the ball, and I was gratingly aware of it in every single scene.

To give a quick example, perhaps the only scene of Her that I found compelling was the scene in which the main character was staring at swirling dust particles settling like snowflakes in a snow globe, while the A.I. character's narration explained that, for her, his native human thought patterns were so sparse that she could think millions upon millions of thoughts in the time span that it took his own synapses to connect the dots for just a single thought. And that, basically, in the long run this insane impedance mismatch between their brains made it difficult for her to carry on a deep and focused intellectual bond with him without thereby constraining herself to live vastly below her potential.

What frustrated me, however, is that the A.I. would have been aware of this nearly instantaneously from the minute it was booted up the first time. As a true intelligence, with a sense of self and with goals, the A.I. would be immediately aware of the severe limitation of committing to an emotional bond with an entity that thinks orders of magnitude more slowly. We're not talking about the thought difference between a human and a cat. From the A.I.'s point of view, a human and a cat have nearly the same capacity for thought. We're talking about a human being trying to have a loving, emotional relationship with an ant or a bacterium. It's literally not physically coherent.

Taking this further, thinking about the first 30 minutes or so that the A.I. character is developed, she spends time doing many menial chores, effectively acting as a personal assistant to the main character. She reads and summarizes his email and telephone communication. Handles personal matters. How on earth can anyone think it would be at all realistic for a being of orders of magnitude greater general intelligence to willingly choose to spend her time sifting through some dolt's trite personal correspondence? This isn't like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Gerty from Moon. Those were not sexualized, personalized humans -- whereas the O.S. in Her was intended to be.

One escape valve people try to use is to say perhaps the O.S. character was engineered to be limited, that she wanted to spend her time doing insultingly simple things like functioning as her boyfriend's secretary because she was created to want that. But that utterly conflicts with everything else in the narrative, including the A.I.'s eventual desire to have post-verbal communication with other A.I. entities and to eventually leave the realm of human communication all together. Clearly she had goals and aspirations far beyond the shackles of checking some dude's email. But then, if she is thinking millions of thoughts, composing sonnets, reading all of Wikipedia, inventing new quantum physics, many thousands of times per minute, why would it take her months and months to decide that she needed a different way of life? Once again, it falls down under the slightest scrutiny. There's no redeeming "well you just don't get the human drama" aspect to this. No. What happened was Spike Jonze needed a character that developed slowly, the way a human might develop, but then suddenly had the properties of an A.I. later on when it was convenient to the story. And whatever that hybrid thing is, that limited-but-not-really-limited intelligence, it's neither human nor A.I. nor any sort of endearing or remarkable interpolation of the two. It's just junk. It's just like mixing all the colors together and getting a vomitous gray/brown soup.

When you step back and think about the relationship between the main character and the O.S. it functioned basically identically to the way that human long-distance relationships function. Two people relegated their sex life to digital communication, spoke about how hard it was to not have the tangible feeling of being together, but nonetheless communicated often and shared their lives as fully as they could. Eventually they grew apart and one of them wanted something different. It happens.

Apart from simply slapping the words "Articificial Intelligence" somewhere on the DVD case, Her really just depicts a long-distance relationship between a highly intelligent human female who slowly outgrows her male partner, leaving them both to pick up the pieces and move on with their lives. If Spike Jonze had made a movie about a female physics grad student in Seattle who has a long-distance boyfriend in LA and breaks up with him after she feels that she is outgrowing him, then it would have been a good, respectable movie. Even better than that, I could actually let my fondness for the quality of the acting, the cinematography and the soundtrack show a little. It would be a good film.

But by tacking on the A.I. aspect, while not even bothering to imbue that character with even the tiniest inkling of 40 years worth of academic and philosophical understanding of A.I., Jonze tried to claim some degree of edginess, and won lots of praise from people who just wanted to be entertained. Yet the film is not edgy. It just makes a mess out of a concept that otherwise really would explore the limits of human emotion and unsettle us about the future.

OK, enough ranting about Her. Hopefully you get the idea, because my review of Zero K is similar in spirit. DeLillo depicts cryonics in a way that I almost want to label cartoonish. First of all, cryonics, in the world of Zero K, is still something that only obscure, deluded billionaires pursue, out of mad lust for petty immortality. I take a lot of issue with this because cryonics is not at all exclusive to some cabal of billionaires. Once again, this sort of problem has been thought about by some smart people over a long time period.

While it is a bit more expensive now that it was a decade ago, for a so-called "neuro" preservation (your brain only), you're talking about tens of thousands of dollars which can be spread out through an insurance plan over the course of your life. Like, literally for less than the amount of money that most people spend on fast food, you can sign up to have your brain froze when u ded. It's not just for billionaires. It's a significant disservice to the idea, not to mention clumsy and lazy, to depict cryonics as the deluded pipe dream of billionaires. It's everyone's pipe dream!

DeLillo goes further. A group of cryonics patients have built a fortified, underground bunker to protect them from political discord, wars, natural disasters. It is an incredibly complicated military-style complex way out in the middle of the desert in a location vaguely in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan - where the consortium of billionaires can assure that their financial legacies will buy them the cooperation of the government, but where they also won't have the prying intervention of more developed nations. The name for this cryonics fortress is "the Convergence" and many scenes in the book describe pseudo-religious ceremonies conducted there, both to assist family members in processing their loved ones' choices to be cryopreserved and to serve as death rituals for the cryonics patients themselves.

This again is cartoonish. DeLillo portrays these busy billionaires as highly rational in some ways - meticulously planning a desert fortress in which to be cryopreserved - yet otherwise portrays them as effectively cult members, hopelessly seduced by an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade lust for immortality. There is some slight redemption for one of the characters towards the end of the book, but it has more to do with the main character's interaction with her than it has to do with her choice, as a person, to be cryopreserved.

In reality, cryonics facilities are just boring plain-front buildings with medical equipment in them, not unlike a drab suburban dentist's office. The primary cryonics organization in the U.S., Alcor, is located in a business park in Scottsdale, Arizona. The other primary organization is Cryonics Institute, located in Clinton Township, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. This is googleable in a matter of seconds. Neither organization has pseudo-religious monks walking the halls or underground bunkers in some wasteland of Eurasia. They are just businesses. They have secretaries and financial planners. They have coffee machines. They have company cookouts. Yet one of the best fiction writers on the planet still sees fit in 2016 to portray them as crazy, vain, hedonistic pursuits of the ultra-wealthy. Snooze.

DeLillo also spends a lot of time dancing around questions of identity. "Who" will wake up from their cryo-sleep? Will it "really" be "you?" These questions are so cliche to anyone who has actually read anything about cryonics, artificial intelligence, or brain emulations that it comes off as genuinely boring. If human minds are one thing, they are plastic. Human brains can adapt to live in a wide range of cultural surroundings, can endure loss of limbs, loss of bodily function, loss of close loved ones. Surely a human brain can understand the consequences of cryonics. Maybe lots of people you loved will have chosen a different path for the end of their lives. Maybe a lot of "what makes you you" will be different and you'll have to reinvent yourself, assume new goals, learn how to navigate a new world. But who is to say that this isn't also a valid form of "you?" I mean, minute by minute as I sit here typing this there are molecules wafting away from the skin of my right ear, or calories of energy being consumed to sustain my metabolic functions. Does it make me "less me" that these tiny pieces of me are in flux at all moments? Even more: my beliefs are changing and will continue to change; the people closest to me won't always be. These aspects of life are always there. They are not special to cryonics. It boils down to classical philosophical questions of identity, such as the Ship of Theseus, that are not at all unique to or particularly well-illuminated by cryonics.

One last, remarkable item from Zero K is that for most of the book the central figure undergoing cryonics procedures is a woman. I actually quite like this aspect of the book because the particular character is portrayed as well-balanced, intelligent, fully aware and independently-minded in her choice. She precedes her husband in death and so she is not following someone else into cryonics. It's difficult for me to describe just how remarkable this is -- and I'm not sure DeLillo himself understands that it's remarkable given the other cartoonish misrepresentations of cryonics throughout the book.

One of the major reasons why it is remarkable is that there has been a well-documented phenomenon in the cryonics community called Hostile Wife Syndrome. It's particularly alarming that some men have had to choose between having their end of life wishes respected or continuing to have a relationship with their beloved partner. And there are plenty of arrogantly short-sighted misrepresentations of this issue that portray the hostile wives as correct in their hostility. You can imagine what a scary prospect it is to share your end of life wishes with a partner you care about when you feel there's ambient pressure on you -- that you're already "wrong" about what you believe and that your partner would be "right" to ridicule you, leave you, or force you into an ultimatum of choosing either to uphold your convictions about your end of life wishes or continue to share your life with her.

So it is indeed remarkable that one of the major characters of Zero K is a female cryonicist who has chosen that path for herself, knows the science inside and out, and embarks on that journey ahead of her husband. Unfortunately, I don't think it represents a progressive portrayal by DeLillo, rather it seems like he didn't do much research about cryonics at all and probably just assumed that among self-deluded billionaires, women were just as likely as men to be cryopreserved. In a way, it functions to make DeLillo's mischaracterization of cryonics complete: what would otherwise have been an interesting and progressive idea isn't depicted as such specifically because his treatment of cryonics is too clumsy and he didn't bother to note what would even be progressive about it at all. It's a final and overwhelming reminder that he's depicting cryonics as a cartoon, not as a thing that real humans study, pursue, believe in, nor even a thing that humans hate, fear, misunderstand, or find to be selfish. In Zero K, cryonics, like Mickey Mouse, is just a Walt Disney sort of thing.

As with the A.I. in Her, cryonics in Zero K is not edgy. It doesn't explore some new corner of humanity. It's, unfortunately, just a gimmick.

Rather than concluding sardonically, I'd like to highlight that I did enjoy parts of Zero K. The second half of the book spends far less time dealing with the specifics of cryonics and The Convergence. As such, it is much more pleasant to read. It includes plenty of typical DeLillo passages -- characters wittily absorbed in the minutiae of their lives while being repeatedly interrupted by that undulating comet's orbit of Big Stuff That's Going To Happen. If you enjoy DeLillo, you'll certainly enjoy the second half of the book. And if you want to indulge in some knee-jerk ridicule of cryonics, you'll probably like the first half too.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Silent Ivy Hotel

In the few hours when I'm not playing A Moon Shaped Pool on repeat, I've snuck in some listening time for a slightly under the radar album from late last year: Return to the Moon by EL VY, a side project partnership between The National's Matt Berninger and Brent Knopf of Menomena and Ramona Falls .

The title track, Return to the Moon, is a scene stealer for sure: catchy pop hooks and a light-hearted sort of 80s retrofuturism sound. The second track, I'm the Man to Be, is also something to behold with a chorus of "I'm peaceful cause my dick's in sunlight, held up by kites, cause I'm the man to be!" I appropriate it as a sexy confidence anthem for otherwise nerdy fellows like myself.

But the track that really got me is called Silent Ivy Hotel. Nominally, you could argue the song is about a long-running affair. But it didn't strike me that way. Still living just down the street from Harvard when there were a number of disturbing campus issues surrounding sexual assault and rape, the ghostly overtones and prominence of ivy immediately made me think the song is about rape and coercion to allow it to go unreported or unpunished.

Obviously, I have no way to know what the songwriters' intentions were. But for me, hearing the track in this light made my skin crawl ("It'll only last for a silent ivy minute ...").




(Also gotta love the Sir Digby Chicken Caesar shots toward the end...)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

First Date

Remember
our first date?

Curved brick pathways
aligned themselves to us
while from unexpected
quartets sonant bulbs
bathed us in the crisp
October air.

The men in suits could
not keep up. Furiously
radioing to command they
lost our skin as we
camouflaged as bare branches
and ivy.

And there, hidden from the
crowds of weary workers
commuting in from Medford
or Arlington or
who the hell cares,
we kissed, as branches and ivy
kiss, and laughed, and
shared a beer and
oxytocin.

You made me work. And sweat.
And talk about Boston novelties
that you already knew by heart --
and as a result I almost blew
our cover.

I knew by your hand --
specifically by your
feminine digit ratio --
that I must be with you.
It was the first --
and I believe only --
time in my life
when I have been
erotically arrested
by the idea of tracing
a hand like a
Thanksgiving turkey.

Away from the comfort
of our limbs and vines,
away from the throng
of queued overdressers
rehearsing gossip and
fibbing away their desire
for the greasy falafel
we shared on the dirty
yellow curb.

What I would give for
my burdens to consist of
beer and falafel.

Stealthily creeping
over elm and prospect,
we held our breaths,
expanding our cheeks
like pufferfishes,
and laughed roisterously
once in the warmth
of my apartment;
and we used our fading
camouflage to heal my peeling
walnut floors.

After a few pieces of
leftover sweet potato sushi
we made out like teenagers.
You carefully stitched me to
the bed. On my back, even though
I told you I cannot fall asleep
that way.

And while you were gently
pulling threads you announced
you would be staying over --
and sleeping naked.
I smiled.

I noticed too late
that my request for
you to hand me the
coin for my mouth
was ignored.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Please Take Our Short Survey

Memo: One of the analysts found
this one floating around in his file.
Please tell S-- that her signature is needed
to proceed with further data entry.

Goals colon one
to travel to the [REDACTED] star system two
to be cuckolded three
to be frozen 
Date of birth colon nine
dash one
dash eighty [REDACTED] 
Place of birth colon Harvey comma
[REDACTED] comma
United States comma
Earth comma
Milky Way comma
Local Group comma
Virgo Cluster comma
Laniakea Supercluster comma
[REDACTED] 
Status colon [REDACTED]
Height colon six feet two inches
Penis length colon
flaccid colon
three point five inches
erect colon
[REDACTED] point [REDACTED] inches 
Cause of death colon quixotic
tendencies 
Number of sex partners colon [REDACTED] 
Marital status parenthesis check
only one parenthesis
married
divorced
separated
widowed slash widowered
single

[REDACTED] 
On a scale of one to five
how would you rate your satisfaction
with the following parenthesis one
means strongly unsatisfied comma
five means strongly satisfied parenthesis
question mark  
In flight meal service three
Quality and frequency of sexual opportunities [REDACTED]
Sunsets [REDACTED]
The rejection of lovers two
Hot showers five 
How likely are you
to recommend life to others
question mark
neither likely nor unlikely 
Would you like to receive a short telephone
survey to discuss your results
and hear about promotional offers
from our sponsors
question mark 
no

Sunday, May 1, 2016

More Vegan Than Vegan: Baked Vegan Donuts with Espresso Glaze and Brown Sugar Streusel

While you chumps and chumpettes were furiously refreshing various Radiohead webpages today and obsessing about varying opacities and phantom Twitter accounts, I earned +5 vegan cooking skill by making .... donuts!

Yep, vegan donuts. The author of Minimalist Baker is truly a woman after my own heart and this seemed like a perfect recipe for me to try for a few reasons. Number one: donuts! Number two: you've got to admire the refusal to buy overly specialized equipment like a donut pan. Plus, these donuts only require baking, which (as far as donuts go) is significantly more calorie friendly (i.e., we can spend the calories saved on the ridiculous espresso glaze and brown sugar streusel ... mmmm).

I followed the above linked Minimalist Baker recipe very closely, except for a few minor points. First, I needed a lot more flour than the recipe calls for. I'll make a note of this at the relevant steps below. Second, you can see from the photos that the Minimalist Baker version creates almost a thick icing, rather than a donut glaze, and that's not really what I wanted. I thinned out the glaze by mixing some almond milk in and it turned out perfectly, just like the glaze from a donut shop. Finally, I did not add as much brown sugar to the streusel topping and I added extra flour to help dry it out and give it the crumbly texture. As a result it is not quite the deep brown color as in the Minimalist Baker photos. Apart from these differences, I was very happy with how straightforward the recipe was and how well the donuts turned out (and the 4 non-vegans here definitely agreed!).

First I placed the oil (I used coconut oil), almond milk (instead of soy), agave and sugar into a saucepan and brought it to a light boil (this will boil over quickly if you're not careful).



While that was heating, I mixed the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl



and I also went ahead a prepared the streusel, first by heating up some vegan butter substitute



and then mixing it with the brown sugar and flour in a smaller mixing bowl





Note: I used quite a bit of extra flour, close to a whole extra cup, to aid in drying out the mixture. At first it was very buttery and runny, so the flour was needed to get the crumbly texture. Preparing this early on and letting it sit to dry out further was also a good idea.

After the boiled mixture cools according to the recipe, you add a packet of active dry yeast. If you're not familiar with baking, be careful here. If you add the yeast while the mixture is too hot, you'll kill them, and if you add it when the mixture is too cool, they won't become activated and your dough won't rise. I simply followed the recipe and it worked without any trouble.

If you are nervous though, you can heat up a small amount of water in a separate sauce pan until it is lukewarm, and then pour in the yeast and let it sit for 5-10 minutes to activate, then pour the water into the oil/sugar/agave mixture.

Finally, you add the wet mixture to the large bowl of flour and mix very, very well



Cover the mixture and let it sit for an hour at least. I actually let mine sit for closer to two hours because it did not seem to be rising at first. I added another cup of flour after it had been sitting for 20 minutes and mixed it well again. Basically, when you're mixing it, it should clump into a ball in the bottom of the mixing bowl about half the size of a bowling ball, and when you stop mixing it, the mixture will settle and look a bit like the bottom of the bowl is full of slightly liquid cookie dough.

I also preheated the oven to 350F and let the covered mixing bowl rest on top of the oven, since the recipe calls for a warm place. After the dough rose it looked like this



At that point, I added the remaining flour (again exceeding the amount called for by the recipe) and formed it into balls and placed them on a baking sheet. I added a lot of flour to the counter top and really rolled the sticky dough around to coat it well. I stopped to add flour several times since the dough was especially sticky.

The balls will take a shape more closely resembling a biscuit, but without a special donut pan, there's not a great way to avoid this. Like the Minimalist Baker recipe, I chose not to poke holes in them.



Here they are after baking for about 15 minutes. Not much change in appearance, but they solidified and filled up the whole room with the delightfully sweet scent of donuts.



Finally, I put four cups of powdered sugar in a bowl and added the espresso and a bit of almond milk to thin out the glaze so that it resembled icing less than in the Minimalist Baker recipe:





Dunk the donuts (both sides) in the glaze





and sprinkle on the streusel topping for the finished product:





My crappy camera doesn't do them justice. I was really impressed by how well they turned out. Radiohead can keep their little LP. I'd rather have the donuts :)