Fed on Peeps, I Guess

It had to happen, I suppose. Just when I get around to turning 70, idiocy strikes my alma mater. Yes, I’m old and crotchety and a product of my times and all that. But, really....

A professor at Northwestern University (motto: “Whatsoever things are true....”) is under fire for daring to criticize the regulatory regime lately adopted to control relations between, or among, the genders. Her criticism appeared in that hotbed of revolutionary and/or reactionary (who can tell anymore?) manifestoing, the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Protest was knee-jerk swift and just as intelligent. Words like “violence” and “inflammatory” and “terrifying” were tossed about with the usual insouciance regarding their conventional meanings. Demands were made.  And would any protest these days be worthy of the name if there were no mattresses? The professor is now under formal Title IX investigation.

Most damningly, “trigger” words were involved. <cue old man> Time was, a trigger was a mechanical device whose purpose was to cause the firing of a bullet. That would be “bullet” as in a small, hard projectile with the capacity to cause great bodily harm or death. Today’s triggers seem to produce a form of neurasthenia in some young persons and opportunistic rage in others.</old man>

It is hard to escape the conclusion that some of our students are not in it for an education. To them I might say, If all you are after is a certificate, that is what the University of Phoenix is for. No one there will provoke you. Others seem beyond the reach of education, as perhaps their upbringing and prior formal training have left them unable to cope with no longer being the superstar so comfortingly celebrated by the bumper sticker on Mommy’s SUV.

<cue old man again>Damned if we weren’t just a bit tougher in my day, and willing to learn something.</old man>


Thinking About Nothing

Twenty years ago or thereabouts I read Hubert Dreyfus’s What Computers Can’t Do (1972; actually, I read the 1992 revised edition called What Computers Still Can’t Do, relishing the nyah-nyah zing of the  new title). Dreyfus is a philosopher of the phenomenological school, and in his book he effectively undercuts the project to build an artificial intelligence on the assumption that the brain and mind are essentially like computer hardware and software.

Dreyfus argues that intelligence, as we commonly understand and use the word, is inescapably an embodied faculty. That is, your brain/mind and mine are not simply OEM gear that would work equally well anywhere. They are yours, in the one case, and mine in the other, both intimately connected with, a part of, the body they seem to occupy. The body’s concerns are the mind’s as well. The mind is always the mind of this body, located here, with this particular view of the world and this history and these plans and worries and hopes.

This kind of argument struck a chord with me. The difference between the predictions and the productions of the standard AI folks had gaped from the beginning and grew wider with each minor achievement. The hullaballoo that greeted IBM’s Big Blue chess-playing computer was nothing short of absurd. The fault lay chiefly with the media, of course. Reporters had no interest in considering what Big Blue actually was; they needed it to be brilliant, powerful, and just a little ominous. In fact, it was a machine that performed certain operations on bits of data. The "chess" happened at the point where the results of those operations were interpreted by human beings as though they were moves in a game of chess.

Big Blue does not play chess. It has no idea of what chess is. When it wins, it feels no gratification, for it does not know that it has won anything. Unless specifically programmed to do so, it will never propose a game.

(Imagine approaching the computer: “Yo, Blue! How they hangin’?” And Blue says “Yo, dog. Grab a chair. Black or white?” Ain’t gonna happen.)

For some reason, after reading Dreyfus I was struck by the thought, It’s death. Death is the difference. No robot is ever going to have human-like intelligence because the robot cannot -- or anyway, need not -- die. It is some mostly unconscious intuition of mortality that motivates human thinking. That there is an unspecified but inescapable outer boundary to our efforts somehow drives us, or draws us, into performance.

Years after reading Dreyfus, but still thinking about his insight and (dare I claim it?) mine, I even wrote this:

          Death is in us, somehow,
          Hid amid the DNA, perhaps, or
          Organelles in cells, passed down from
          Some bacterial mother Eve.
          It whispers unheard, a word within,
          To give us pause, or cause, or cast
          A sombre hue on all we do.
          And yet absent that hint of fate,
          That goad to go and think and make,
          Mere robots waiting for some command
          That never comes.

Comes now this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about three psychologists who have developed what they call a “theory of terror management,” predicated on just this idea that the knowledge of mortality, of death, is what drives virtually all of human behavior. As a scientific hypothesis their idea is, or ought to be, subject to testing and reviewing by properly skeptical peers. But it’s all soft science where they work. One objection noted in the article is that their hypothesis conflicts somehow with evolutionary science, which sounds rather more like the noise of a toe being stepped on than a helpful criticism.

The article refers several times to one variant or another of the phrase “terror of death.” I don’t know if that is the writer’s notion or the theorists’, but I quibble. Certainly it is a standard trope in literature, but that doesn’t warrant unexamined use in science. I suggest that the terror they correctly identify lies deeper, associated not with death but with non-being.

“Death” is an event, or as some would have it a “stage in life”; it is also a cartoon character (you know, black cloak, hood, scythe). It is something imagined, by naming it or by picturing it, and it is imagined precisely to shield ourselves from what is truly terrible because it is unimaginable, and that is the thought of not existing at all. If you, like me, have no expectation of an afterlife, then that thought of ceasing to be must give you pause, to say nothing of the heebie-jeebies and likewise the fantods.

Think of the moment you awaken from an anaesthetic. Then think of the moment just before that: nothing. No awareness, no thoughts, no dreams, no sensation. Just plain nothing. Now transpose that complete blankness to the end of your life. No consciousness, no memory, no nothing. You are not, and it is not simply that you are no longer but as though you had never been. There’s your terror. My mind simply bounces off, for that sort of utter nothing is, in every way, incomprehensible.

And so we invent Mr. Death -- no friend, but something that is in the world and so is seemingly comprehensible. He’s come for friends and family and he will one day come for us. Meanwhile we can dress up like him on Hallowe’en, make movies featuring him, in myriad ways make him something we can deal with. But mainly we can use him to screen ourselves from the terrible truth.

It’s no wonder that the idea of an afterlife is so appealing to so many.


Q.V. second

This month's episode:  Poet v. Poet; or, What's that word? Anal iteration?



Announcing the inaugural installment of a new column devoted to reference books and methods, in the Fortnightly Review.

Q.v., see, is the name of the column, q.v.




Stan Freberg. What can one say? I grew up watching "Time for Beany" on that funny little TV screen and listening to "St. George and the Dragonet" and "Little Blue Riding Hood" on the radio. In high school I was knocked utterly out by "S.F. Presents the United States of America." I can still sing the songs and recite the dialogue.

In middle life I achieved one of my dreams in meeting the man. He was hired to do some commercials for Britannica, and he called me from time to time to ask about what was in the set or where it might be found. The commercials were very funny, although the star, Stan's son Donavan, rubbed some folks the wrong way. This association culminated in Stan's agreeing to speak to one of our first Editorial Convocations. This was held just up Michigan Avenue at the old Charlie Club.

I won't stick a bunch of links in here. Go to YouTube and take your pick. I strongly recommend the Cheerios commercial with the wonderful Naomi Lewis. Build up from there to the all-time great ad for Heinz Great American Soup with the dazzling Ann Miller:

               Let's face the gumbo and dance!

It is a scandal that Stan was not awarded the Mark Twain Prize.