Thoughts on “The Imitation Game”

If you want a historically accurate portrayal of the life of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game might not be the film for you. The major contours of Turing’s life are covered, which is to say, you will get a story with roughly the following plot:

Mathematical genius and figure widely regarded as the father of modern computer science provides invaluable military intelligence that leads to victory in World War II by breaking the German Enigma code. He is criminally prosecuted for homosexuality and commits suicide.

However, once you get past those, the similarities between the actual Alan Turing and the one portrayed in The Imitation Game start to break down.

The overarching theme of the whole film is a sort of analogy between some police officer’s evaluation of Turing, and the Turing Test (“The Imitation Game”), which is a famous problem in philosophy of mind and computer science. The idea is that Turing was giving an account of his life to this officer, and from those responses, we were supposed to judge what sort of thing Turing was—machine, man, etc.

I suppose this is why they played up Turing’s social awkwardness as much as they did. They wanted to shoehorn the whole film into an analogy to the Turing Test. I suppose it also introduced some conflict, and they thought they could sell movie tickets with Cumberbatch doing his “I’m a terrible person but you like me anyway because what I do is so useful” routine. (C.f. BBC’s Sherlock, IT WORKED ON ME I GUESS.)

Overall, I am glad I saw it, and I recommend it. It was entertaining. Cumberbatch’s Turing was likeable, and I felt like (inaccuracies aside) it honours the memory of Turing in its own way. It’s somewhat historically inaccurate, and it’s tied together with a fairly hamfisted attempt to unite the story to Turing’s theoretical work, but that might be okay. I feel like modern movie-goers have an easy time separating what they see in the cinema from what they take to be true about history anyway.

One last note about accuracy: At the end of the film, the captions on the screen seem to indicate that computers used to be called “Turing Machines.” This is not quite the case. Turing Machines are abstractions that exist in thought experiments for philosophers and computer scientists. That said, I would be okay with it if we did start calling computers “Turing machines.”

James Bond is super-sketchy and homophobic toward lesbians

Quick summary of how racist James Bond is

I recently finished reading Goldfinger, which is in the Public Domain in Canada, and thus free and legal for Canadians to download from Project Gutenberg Canada. Before I get to the homophobia, I think it’s relevant to report that Bond refers to Oddjob or other Koreans as “apes” or “lower than an ape” on no less than five different occasions—for the interest of those keeping score at home.

James Bond and Lesbians

There are two female characters in Goldfinger: Tilly Masterton and Pussy Galore. Masterton doesn’t reciprocate Bond’s sexual advances, which is explained as follows.

Bond thought she [Galore] was superb and so, he noticed, did Tilly Masterton who was gazing at Miss Galore with worshipping eyes and lips that yearned. Bond decided that all was now clear to him about Tilly Masterton.

So it turns out that both the female characters are Lesbians with a capital L. (Seriously, he capitalises the L every time.) Tough luck for Bond, right? Not so fast! In my previous blog post, I consider the possible meanings of the following quote from chapter 17.

Bond liked the look of her. He felt the sexual challenge all beautiful Lesbians have for men.

Which I understand might be a reference to the rape myth—the idea that if you force yourself on someone, they’ll eventually like it.

Unfortunately, during the action scene, Masterton didn’t stay with Bond as he told her to.

The girl’s hand tugged at him. She screamed angrily, ‘No, No. Stop! I want to stay close to Pussy. I’ll be safe with her.’

Bond shouted back, ‘Shut up, you little fool! Run like hell!’ But now she was dragging at him, checking his speed. Suddenly she tore her hand out of his and made to dart into an open Pullman door.

This was a bad life-choice for her—trying to find her Lesbian love interest at a time of crisis. And we learn how much of a bad choice it was only 10 paragraphs later.

The little figure still lay sprawled where she had fallen. Bond knelt beside her. The broken-doll angle of the head was enough. He felt for her pulse. He got up. He said softly, ‘Poor little bitch. She didn’t think much of men.’ He looked defensively at Leiter. ‘Felix, I could have got her away if she’d only followed me.

If only she had stayed with Bond! The gentle but firm hand of a man was what she needed. Not some Lesbian. So I guess Goldfinger is supposed to be a cautionary tale? “Don’t be too capital-L Lesbian, or you’ll end up dead?”

Anyway, after the action is all over, Galore throws herself into Bond’s arms, and the creepiest pillow-talk imaginable happens:

She lay in the crook of Bond’s arm and looked up at him. She said, not in a gangster’s voice, or a Lesbian’s, but in a girl’s voice, ‘Will you write to me in Sing Sing?’

Bond looked down into the deep blue-violet eyes that were no longer hard, imperious. He bent and kissed them lightly. He said, ‘They told me you only liked women.’

She said, ‘I never met a man before.’ The toughness came back into her voice. ‘I come from the South. You know the definition of a virgin down there? Well, it’s a girl who can run faster than her brother. In my case I couldn’t run as fast as my uncle. I was twelve. That’s not so good, James. You ought to be able to guess that.’

Lesbianism explained! Galore’s uncle turned her into a lesbian, and now Bond will turn her straight again with the sexytimes that she always wanted. And the book ends with Bond’s “passionate, rather cruel mouth waiting above hers,” and Bond’s mouth “ruthlessly” coming down over hers.

So, there we go. Somebody wanna write some good non-racist and queer-positive fan-fiction to get this taste out of my mouth?

In other news

I think there’s a typo. In chapter 20, it should be “Cary Grant” instead of “Gary Grant.”

James Bond is super-racist

I have always been a big fan of the Public Domain. For works that are still under copyright, I feel like I am (and legally speaking, I think I might be) just renting them. This is unsettling to me for a few reasons.

First off, there’s always the possibility that publishers could claw back books from my e-reader that I rightfully paid for, by doing something like deleting them remotely. This is unlikely, but it has happened before.

Also, I don’t generally write fan-fiction, but I like the idea of fan-fiction. Some of it is better than the original even. While I don’t write much of the stuff myself, I do make cultural references either in conversation, or writing or blogging, and there’s a difference between making a cultural reference to a non-Public Domain thing and making a cultural reference to a Public Domain thing. When you draw an analogy to a Harry Potter character, for example, it comes across as corporate. Like you’re an advertisement for Warner Brothers. You know that for anyone to “get” your reference, they have to have lined the pockets of either WB or Bloomsbury Publishing. If I make reference to Moby Dick in an essay, though, it doesn’t have that same “corporate sell-out” flavour.

And that’s why I was so excited by the fact that this January, James Bond himself entered the Public Domain in Canada. That’s right, Ian Fleming died on August 12, 1964. Since he’s been dead for 50 years, that means that in Canada, there are no laws protecting his intellectual property anymore. Of course, the movies, the soundtracks, and everything else associated with James Bond will be under copyright forever, but the original novels by Ian Fleming and the characters within them, including James Bond, are now fair game.

So when Project Gutenberg Canada announced that Goldfinger is available for download (free and legal for Canadians), I got myself a copy. I was prepared to a certain extent for the novel to be a … umm … product of its time. After all, Bond is a fast-living, smooth-talking, hard-drinking, womanising secret agent man. That’s kind of his thing.

Then I got to this description of Oddjob:

He was a chunky flat-faced Japanese, or more probably Korean, with a wild, almost mad glare in dramatically slanting eyes that belonged in a Japanese film rather than in a Rolls Royce on a sunny afternoon in Kent. He had the snout-like upper lip that sometimes goes with a cleft palate, but he said nothing and Bond had no opportunity of knowing whether his guess was right. In his tight, almost bursting black suit and farcical bowler hat he looked rather like a Japanese wrestler on his day off.

Which was unsettling. But then it got worse:

‘Here–‘ Goldfinger took the cat from under his arm and tossed it to the Korean who caught it eagerly–‘I am tired of seeing this animal around. You may have it for dinner.’ The Korean’s eyes gleamed.

Those two were pretty bad, but I think par for the course for 1950’s racial sensitivity. The next quote takes it a bit further than the last two.

Bond intended to stay alive on his own terms. Those terms included putting Oddjob and any other Korean firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.

It’s not just a casual statement of implied inferiority. He’s explicit about exactly how he feels about Koreans. And in case you thought that Bond was just being angry because he got beat up by Oddjob, he doubles down on the whole “ape” thing later on.

There’s only one way out of here and Oddjob, that Korean ape, is guarding it.

I haven’t quite finished the book, although it’s pretty short, so I imagine I’ll be done tomorrow or the next day, depending on how my métro ride goes. I may have to update this post with more Ways In Which James Bond Is Super-Racist. For right now, I’ll leave you with this weird homophobic thing:

Bond liked the look of her. He felt the sexual challenge all beautiful Lesbians have for men.

I really don’t know exactly how to interpret that. Maybe a straight guy can fill me in on what sexual challenge it is that all beautiful Lesbians have for men?

Switching to left-handed Dvorak

I’m doing an experiment. A lot of my thesis work consists of me clicking between form elements, spreadsheet cells, or parts of text documents, entering short bits of text and then clicking away to another thing.

I’ve been trying to bring my efficiency up, but running into a wall. The rate-limiting step in my workflow is not my typing speed or how quickly I find information, but rather how fast I can switch from mouse to keyboard.

A few years back, I switched from QWERTY to Dvorak, which was distressing at the time, but turned out to have been an excellent life choice. (Highly recommended!) I’m going to try left-handed Dvorak out for a bit and see how it takes. :)

An unexpected link between computer science and the ethics of consent in the acutely comatose

Yesterday, Dr Weijer from Western U came to the STREAM research group at McGill to give a talk on the ethics of fMRI studies on acutely comatose patients in the intensive care unit. One of the topics he briefly covered (not the main topic of his talk) was that of patients who may be “awake,” but generally unaware of their surroundings, while in an acutely comatose state of some kind. Using an fMRI, questions can be asked of some of these subjects, by telling them to imagine playing tennis for “yes,” and to imagine navigating their home for “no.” Since the areas of the brain for these two tasks are very different, these can be used to distinguish responses with some accuracy. In some rare cases, patients in this condition are able to consistently answer biographical questions, indicating that they are in some sense, conscious.

One of the questions that arises is: Could we use this method to involve a comatose patient in decision-making regarding her own care, in cases where we were able to establish this sort of communication?

Informed consent in medical ethics is usually conceived in terms of: disclosure, capacity and voluntariness, and the most obvious question to arise in the types of cases we’re considering is whether or not you could ever know with certainty that a comatose person has the capacity to make such decisions in such a state. (Indeed, a comatose patient is often the example given of someone who does not have the capacity to consent.) Dr Weijer was generally sceptical on that front.

Partway through his discussion, I had the impression that the problem was strangely familiar. If we abstract away some of the details of the situation in question, we are left with an experimenter who is sending natural language queries into a black box system, which replies with a digital (0/1) output, and then the experimenter has to make the best evaluation she can as to whether the black box contains a person, or if it is just an “automatic” response of some kind.

For those of you with some background in computer science, you will recognise this as the Turing Test. Over the 65 years since it was first suggested, for one reason or another, most people have abandoned the Turing Test as a way to address the question of artificial intelligence, although it still holds a certain popular sway, as claims of chatbots that can beat the Turing Test still make the news. While many would reject that it is even an important question whether a chatbot can make you believe it is a person, at least in the fMRI/coma patient version, no one can dispute whether there is something important at stake.

Four causes in Aristotle and in Lojban

Cause of parents' death? Got in my way.
Cause of parents’ death? Got in my way.

Reading through Lojban for Beginners on a Friday night (like everyone else who knows how to party—am I right?), I got to the chapter where causation and implication are discussed. In it, the authors explain that Lojban has 4 ways to say “because.”

The inventors of Lojban were not the first to preach a Doctrine of Four Causes. Aristotle also believed that when you asked Why?, you could be reasonably taken to be asking one of four different questions, which I have summed up below in Table 1. In Table 2, I summarise the four ways to say “because” in Lojban.

I made an attempt to see how well these things would match up by giving examples and rough equivalents. Unfortunately for Aristotle, they only seem to correspond decently well in two cases. But then I guess if I were trying to write a timeless philosophy, and someone told me that after ~ 2300 years, people would still be interested in half of the questions that I identified, I’d probably think that I did pretty well. Especially considering that Aristotle spoke Ancient Greek, which is pretty much the anti-Lojban if any language is.

For the other two of Aristotle’s causes, there are words in Lojban for the ideas expressed, but they aren’t really “causation” type words in the same way.

Table 1. Aristotle’s four causes

Cause Example Rough Lojban equivalent
Material cause The house is here because there were bricks, mortar and wood here previously. te zbasu (?)
Efficient cause The house is here because Bob built it. rinka
Formal cause The house is here because the materials have been arranged in a certain way. tarmi (?)
Final cause The house is here because Bob wanted to have dance-parties inside it. mukti

Table 2. Causes in Lojban

Cause “Because” word Root gismu Example Rough Aristotelean equivalent
Physically caused ri’a rinka la bab. morsi ri’a lonu mi darxi by
Bob is dead because I hit him.
Efficient cause
Motivated mu’i mukti la bab. morsi mu’i lonu mi na’e nelci by
Bob is dead because I didn’t like him.
Final cause
Justification ki’u krinu la bab. morsi ki’u lonu by djuno lo dukse
Bob is dead because he knew too much.
Logically entailed ni’i krinu la bab. morsi ni’i lonu ro lo remna mrodimna kei .e lonu by remna
Bob is dead because all humans are mortal and Bob is a human.

In defense of #selfies

Someone felt good enough about her appearance that she took a picture. Let us all ridicule her for that.
Someone felt good enough about her appearance that she took a picture. Let us all ridicule her for that. HA HA.

It is fashionable these days to tease people who take selfies, or to look down one’s nose at those who do take selfies, or to dismiss them as juvenile, feminine, vain, or generally bad for reasons unspecified.

You’ve seen it before. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. You see someone pull out a phone to take a selfie, and you make a joke about it, or someone complains about how “everyone is always taking selfies.”

There’s a sort of a snobbish “I’m better than that” attitude that comes along with all these condemnations. The commentator looks around after the comment was made, grinning in a most self-satisfied way, as if he has said something most original and daring. There’s a smug, superior, aren’t-I-clever-for-going-against-the-grain vibe that I get from people who say things like that, and I just can’t deal with it anymore.

First off, when you condemn selfies and those who take them, you are not saying anything clever or original. It’s not funny. It’s not illuminating. You haven’t picked out some interesting and unremarked-upon feature of human experience that no-one else has noticed. (Not that I’m claiming that any of the following ideas are original to myself either—plenty of other people have had reasoned pro-selfie positions. Consider this more of a rant than a claim to an original philosophy.)

Further, you are not some brave individualistic rebel among a flock of narcissistic sheeple. If anything, this makes you more like a corporate shill, helping to ensure that a new generation of young people is intimidated into believing that they have good reason to be insecure (and thus prepared to spend money to make that feeling go away). There are, after all, entire industries whose business model depends on encouraging our insecurities and preying on them. So if you’re feeling smug about being the lone wolf who’s bucking a terrifying trend of vanity, you should consider that every single person you’re criticising has been told “you’re not good enough and you should feel bad about it” in a million subtle (and also a million not-so-subtle-and-corporately-funded) ways for their entire life.

When you say things like, “No one wants to see your selfies,” you are not actually commenting on the value of the photographs that you’re disparaging, even if you think that’s what you’re doing. You’re coming closer to making a commentary on your own value as a friend, though. With a statement like that, you’re saying, “I don’t care about you, how you look, or what you’re doing. I don’t care that you felt good about yourself today.” And when you say things like that, you’re telling everyone in earshot that they shouldn’t expect positive feedback or encouragement from you.

It’s the same sort of attitude that you get from people who say things like, “Don’t tweet about what you had for breakfast,” or “You don’t need to make a Facebook post every time you go for a run.” You know what? If you care that little, no one’s forcing you to use social media. You can leave the party if you’re not enjoying it.

And this is why the whole thing is hypocrisy: When you say, “How egotistical—my friend posted a selfie,” what you are really saying is “I don’t care about my friend—if they’re feeling good about their appearance, or what they’re doing, or if they just want some positive attention from their friends, then that is unimportant or offensive to me somehow.” And that attitude—trying to make someone feel bad, just so you can have the satisfaction of looking down your nose at them—is so much more self-absorbed than posting a selfie.

As for me, I do care about my friends, and when I see a friend’s selfie go by on my Twitter feed, I want my first thought to be “Aww, isn’t that cute,” and not “How can I make that person feel bad?” That’s the kind of person I want to be.

Here’s some materials for learning Lojban

Here are a few of the resources that I’ve been using to learn Lojban so far. I will very likely update and expand this list as time goes on.

Basics on Lojban

Good Lojban reference sites

Flash cards for learning Lojban

Anki (free and open source for Linux/Mac/Windows/Android/iOS)

  • Has a set of Lojban cards
  • Syncs between devices

So I started learning Lojban .ui

This Friday past, I started learning Lojban. For the non-initiate, Lojban is a constructed language based on predicate logic that is syntactically unambiguous. I’d known about it for years, probably hearing about it first on CBC, maybe 10 years ago. It’s the sort of thing that shows up in Dinosaur Comics or in XKCD periodically. Up until this weekend, the existence of Lojban had mostly been one of those “cocktail party facts,” but then I finally took the plunge. After 1 weekend of working on it, I’m about 35% of the way through Lojban for Beginners, having downloaded it to my Kobo for reference during the car ride to Stratford.

It’s often billed as being an ideal language for fields like law, science or philosophy, due to its unambiguous and culturally neutral nature. So I set out to find out certain specialised terms from my field, bioethics, and it turns out that they mostly don’t exist yet. This, of course, offers some exciting opportunities for a grad student. :)

I’ve convinced a few people in Montréal to learn Lojban with me, and even found a Montrealer who speaks Lojban on a IRC channel. (Yes, IRC still exists!) We may “ckafi pinxe kansa,” as they say in Lojban, apparently.

If you too want to get in on the ground floor of Lojban Montréal, let me know!

Dr Susan’s counselling service for para-magical, epi-paranormal and time-travel adjacent children and young adults

Dr Susan's Counselling Service
Dr Susan’s Counselling Service

For this year’s upcoming NaNoWriMo, I think I have settled on an idea and a title.

A recurring trope in sci-fi and fantasy is the minor character who significantly helps the main character to accomplish a fantastical and difficult-to-believe goal (e.g. returning to her own non-dystopian timeline, saving a magical kingdom, etc.), and does so often at great cost to herself, without any hope of participating in that victory, and with little or no proof that anything of importance happened at all. I want to write a series of short stories about this sort of character, and a therapist whose job it is to help them pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, after they discover that they’re living in a dystopian timeline bad enough that a time-traveller needed their help to go back in time to prevent it, leaving them hopelessly behind.

The title will be Dr Susan’s counselling service for para-magical, epi-paranormal and time-travel adjacent children and young adults.