The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘conversation’

A New Secret

November 12, 2015 | by

John Singer Sargent, The Birthday Party, 1887.

“It’s weird,” my brother, Charlie, said. “Lately a lot of my friends have been talking about learning things about their parents.”

“You mean, secrets?” said my mother. It was her birthday; we were having lunch. Read More »

Here Are Ghosts

August 12, 2015 | by

Jose Bautista, Hotel Palace de Madrid, 2007

In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority. In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce. Every man is himself a class; every hour carries its new challenge. When you pass the inn at the end of the village you leave your favorite whimsy behind you; for you will meet no one who can share it. We listen to eloquent speaking, read books and write them, settle all the affairs of the universe. The dumb village multitudes pass on unchanging; the feel of the spade in the hand is no different for all our talk: good seasons and bad follow each other as of old. The dumb multitudes are no more concerned with us than is the old horse peering through the rusty gate of the village pound. The ancient map-makers wrote across unexplored regions, “Here are lions.” Across the villages of fishermen and turners of the earth, so different are these from us, we can write but one line that is certain, “Here are ghosts.”
―W. B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore

In a Boston hotel, I sit waiting for a glass of sherry. The hotel is old and historic, but it is not what I envisioned; a corporate renovation has done away with all but the most stubborn traces of the past. Conference attendees stream through, “Jesse’s Girl” is blasting overhead. The menu has gone dubiously fusion. But then, this is why I can afford it.

No matter. I’m a master at ignoring the present. I find the reluctant concessions to history on that menu. I focus on the brass dial above the elevator, and the black-and-white photos in the lobby, and bury my nose in a book. The sherry is warm and sweet and awful, but that’s my fault. Read More »

Wish You Were Here

March 4, 2015 | by

Vasily Perov, The Hunters at Rest, 1871.

Many agree that our language is coarsening. We curse more, insult each other with impunity, and speak like illiterate cats on a regular basis. But in one way, things are improving: it’s been a good ten years since I heard anyone say “Guess you had to be there.”

When I was a teenager, people said this constantly. Someone would tell a well-meaning anecdote, something he considered amusing or interesting—then some jerk would fill the silence with, “Guess you had to be there.” The jerk always waited until the story in question was over. And, yes, oftentimes the stories were lame, and not worth telling, and a waste of everyone’s time. But whoever was telling that story was putting himself out there, in a certain small way, and, in an equally small way, being beaten down. Read More »

As God Is My Witness

February 4, 2015 | by


“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” —Gone with the Wind

The clue for 2 Down on today’s New York Times crossword is as follows: “ ‘If you ask me,’ in textspeak.” Spoiler alert: the answer is IMHO. (Short for “in my humble opinion” or “in my honest opinion,” for those who didn’t know.) This is true not merely because you need those letters to satisfy the needs of mire and Amex and Sofia but because in the world of texts, and in online communication generally, people are constantly asserting their opinions with unnecessary vehemence.

Leaving aside the fact that such opinions are rarely solicited, why is everyone always sharing his “honest” or “humble” opinion? As opposed to what—the civility that normally characterizes anonymous online discussions? Because otherwise we might think you were prevaricating about, like, whether you thought some dumpling shop was overrated or one season of a show was better than another? IMHO asserts that someone is about to tell you the truth—but your veracity otherwise would never have come into question. Read More »

Brian Christian on ‘The Most Human Human’

March 14, 2011 | by

Photograph by Michael Langan.

Brian Christian, who studied computer science, philosophy, and poetry, has just published his first book, The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive. Recently, he answered my questions about the Turing test, online romance, and conversation fillers.

Your new book has an odd but intriguing title: The Most Human Human. Can you explain what it means?

The Most Human Human is an award given out each year at the Loebner Prize, the artificial intelligence (AI) community’s most controversial and anticipated annual competition. The event is what’s called a Turing test, in which a panel of judges conducts a series of five-minute-long chat conversations over a computer with a series of real people and with a series of computer programs pretending to be people by mimicking human responses. The catch, of course, is that the judges don’t know at the start who’s who, and it’s their job in five minutes of conversation to try to find out.

Each year, the program that does the best job of persuading the judges that it’s human wins the Most Human Computer award and a small research grant for its programmers. But there’s also an award, strangely enough, for the human who does the best job of swaying the judges: the Most Human Human award.

British mathematician Alan Turing famously predicted in 1950 that computers would be passing the Turing test—that is, consistently fooling judges at least 30 percent of the time and as a result, generally considered to be intelligent in the human sense—by the year 2000. This prediction didn’t come to pass, but I was riveted to read that, in 2008, the computers came up shy of that mark by just a single vote. I decided to call up the test’s organizers and get involved in the 2009 contest as one of the human “confederates”—which meant I was both a part of the human “defense,” trying to prevent the machines from passing the test, and also vying with my fellow confederates for that intriguing Most Human Human award. The book tells the story of my attempt to prepare, as well as I could, for that role: What exactly does it mean to “act as human as possible” in a Turing test? And what does it mean in life?

Read More »