Book Review: What is Intelligence? — Douglas Hofstader's Book Godêl, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

The Constellation Orion
In Douglas Hofstader's book about music, mathematics and artificial intelligence, Godêl, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, he mentions briefly some requirements for intelligence: learning, creativity, emotional response, sense of beauty and sense of self. Hofstader argues that if indeed this is intelligence then a computer would have to be able to do more than play chess or compute π x many times after the decimal point in order to be considered intelligent.

Are Intelligent Machines A Possible Reality  
    I must say, I am intrigued that one day intelligent machines will be a reality, whether or not my hopes are my own idealistic flights of fancy, or the influence of too many Phillip K. Dick novels and Ridley Scott movies has had on my adolescent mind is hard to tell. I am still fascinated sometimes by the prospect of artificial intelligence: a sentient duplicate of a human being that can indeed be intelligent  it is a long way in coming, but my sci-fi mind is nevertheless intrigued by it, even though the massive work that will have to be done to even get to that stage is immense. Some even doubt it is even possible. On one side there is the argument that it is possible, the ability to reproduce human natural intelligence, whereas on the other side of the argument is the contention that machine learning is not the same as how human beings learn. While I wait for the day we can unlock the minute, complicated structures of the brain and apply them to artificial structures, I am more intrigued by the requirements themselves  for humans.  Each one poses a unique set of questions in of itself, not only in its reference to artificial intelligence but the question of human potential itself, how we possess and reflect the myriad facets of what it means to be human.  It seems we have not exhausted the possibilities of human intelligence, let alone an intelligent machine.
How Can You Measure Intelligence?
    Take learning, for example, the first on Hofstader's list.  Learning seems to be an obvious component of intelligence.  Usually, it is learning that we use to gauge human intelligence.  We measure people up by the scores they make on their GED's and SAT's.  Our schools are super-charged with advanced placement courses and gifted classes; schools have quiz bowls and Jeopardy! is a popular show, not to mention Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble.  In fact, a machine beat humans in a recent bout of the minds in Jeopardy! last year.
     The human lost at that game. The computer had been able to mimic natural intelligence to such an extent it beat out the human brain. The human mind is incredible. It can know so much / and in many ways is superior. The machine beats us in sheer computational power. But the human brain knows short cuts. But sometimes we short circuit (excuse the pun). My godmother marveled to me on the phone how she has been hooked on Jeopardy!, canceling dinner plans to watch the "Human Encyclopedia" respond to every answer correctly.  She lauded the "Human Encyclopedia" who swept Jeopardy! for six months straight with his correct answers, only to lose to a Final Jeopardy! question about H & R Block.  Although we marvel at this man's learning achievements, secretly we are convinced that it is merely a ploy to bolster ratings and that perhaps Mr. Jeopardy! winner was happy with his taxable 2.5 million dollars and decided to go home, content.
    A computer can store Jeopardy! data too  easily spit it out when appropriate.  Have you ever tried to beat the computer on an electronic quiz game?  It's not easy.  I still haven't been able to beat the computer at checkers, let alone chess.  But, computer learning is different than a human's capacity to learn.  A computer can only store a string of data as a series of 0's and 1's.  It cannot learn anything that has not deliberately been stored into its hardware.  This was the limitation of the Jeopardy! computer. It was only able to cull from date stored in its database and it was not connected to the internet. A computer dictionary cannot come up with an adjectival form of the word moon, for example, if it isn't already stored there.  A human can.  We can surmise that the word lunar means "similar to the moon" or "referring to the moon." The ability to take what she knows to form new ideas and concepts.  Lunar.  A human can stumble upon lunar and possibly derive its meaning just from the word itself, based on what she has already learned.  A human possesses creativity.  It may be silly to think we thought the moon was made of green cheese but it is this erroneous thinking that built our imaginations to know for sure. Galileo was wrong  the moon is not made up of larges seas as he had thought the dark spots on the moon were, but that insistence to know is the catalyst that eventually spurred scientists to build more and more powerful telescopes.
    A computer can mimic learning.  For example, Amazon.com seems to learn what kind of books you like, the music you listen to, the magazines you buy.  How does it do that?  I can tell my word processing program to learn a new word, or to even forget a word. But, this is all mimicry.  There is something different about a person learning a new word and a computer's storage of an electronic lexicon. The human capacity to know words, for example, to know a vocabulary is not based on a repository of knowledge stored in the brain. We are both open to the world and at the same time have the ability to process what we learn through our involvement with others through language that does not correspond to the way a search engine query works. It is not like I hear the word "lunar" and then my brain searches for the keywords and then finds it and links it to its definition stored in my brain. How we actually have the ability to think through language is still somewhat of a mystery. To think it is done the same was as a computer is facile thinking.


On Writing: Late Night Post On Practice Makes Perfect

On writing, and why practice makes perfect.
A joy wall we made at school.

Developmental argument: Practice makes perfect. I look at stuff I wrote when I was thirteen and think, "who was that?"
My friend Glenn and I ate lunch in the 
museum café and then saw the exhibit Lifelike.
Retrospect argument: I look at the stuff I wrote yesterday and think, "ain't perfect but better."
Words I tell myself: Experience contributes to the adage practice makes perfect.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Or maybe writing is simply creating several versions of oneself.
Psychopathology of Everyday Life: It is spooky to find something in a discarded notebook with your name inscribed at the top but the contents are alien to your very sense of being.


Quotation: Lucretius On Childish Fear

"Our life is one long struggle in the darkness; and as children in a dark room are terrified of everything, so we in broad daylight are sometimes afraid of things that are no more to be feared than the imaginary horrors that scare children in the dark."
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Liber Secondus
PDF Copy for Printing


Why Public Transit Must Be Integrated in New Orleans

There is no public transportation across one of the longest causeways in the world
source: googlemaps

The Airport is an Island   

   Last Spring I came home to visit New Orleans to attend a friend's wedding. At the airport, I had to rely on my friend to pick me up. There is no viable public transportation link from the airport to the Garden District of New Orleans. It is technically possible but I could not comprehend the bus schedules. Later I learned the E2  the Airport Express  leaves the airport but takes commuters to the parish line  where Jefferson Parish and Orleans parish meet. From there an Orleans bus goes downtown, but not after 7:00 and not on weekends. I needed to go Uptown, not Downtown. And it was Easter weekend. When I lived in New Orleans I had an apartment next to the Saint Charles Streetcar line. I boasted to my family that I would buy a monthly pass and go to work on the streetcar. While this is technically possible  and my boast was simply because I thought it so green to take the streetcar -- the reality is the wait is long even during rush hours. The car stops every four blocks. While managing the center strip of the street, the streetcar has to manage intersections and very often the conductor would get off to buy a cup of coffee at the corner store. I think every time I did take the streetcar to work I was never late, but the commute usually included me walking to school until I saw a streetcar puff-puff puffing and I ran to catch it  which amounted to me walking ten blocks or more. Once on the car, I saw a student whom I taught, a wiry kid with a penchant for snoozing in my class. I was a high school teacher at the time. I saw him seated on the car bench and asked him if he lived near. He said no. He took the bus from Saint Rose and connected to the streetcar. His route is possible. But it is a rather long ride. He said it took him an hour and a half to get to school. Now I realized why he was snoozing during first period.

The Improvements of the RTA

   Transit in New Orleans is improving. The bus stations now have glossy signage and the bus and streetcar lines have new number indicators showing their routes. The RTA, which is the transit authority that operates New Orleans buses and streetcars, has recently received new management and public monies after Katrina have boosted its ridership and capital improvements. If only the good things that were happening to RTA buses could happen to the rest of the region. I was also happy to see that the city was awarded Federal funds for an extension of the streetcar line to connect the Union Passenger Terminal to Canal Street. It is easy to see how much greater the city would be if it were to continue with such stimulating transit links.
    Transport for New Orleans, a local transit advocacy blog, imagines a city of New Orleans with amazing public transit service. I reproduce the fantasy map here.
This is the City Imagined As it Should Be: Connected!
It depicts a high speed rail connecting the city to the airport as well as a public transit link connecting the northshore to the southshore. Wow. If only this map were reality. While most of the improvements on this map are a far fantasy, it seems to me that there is a surging interest in the city to improve public transportation. First things first. While it may be years before a light rail system is built in the city, it seems to me that there should be at least a comprehensive bus system linking all of the parishes.

North and South Remain Divided

    It is an egregious oversight in public planning that there is no public transit link between urban New Orleans to the south and the suburban parish of Saint Tammany to the north. And as I mentioned above, the region's two urban parishes, Jefferson and Orleans, are linked at only anemic waypoints. I was reminded of this serious missing link during the evacuation of Hurricane Isaac that hit Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in September. An NBC news article reported that middle-class residents have the mobility and the extra income to evacuate on their own while the city's poorer residents must rely on public transit and public shelter to seek refuge. With the economic downturn nationwide, it seems to me that people in times of emergency look to public services like buses to get them to safety.
     The city lacks fundamental transit links between its major population hubs. In 2011 it is estimated that 236,000 people live in Saint Tammany Parish while a combined total of 793,380 people live in Orleans and Jefferson Parish. Not only is there no link between New Orleans and its northern suburbs, there is also no public link connecting the State's capital, Baton Rouge, to either New Orleans or Saint Tammany -- or anywhere else. It is bad enough that during hurricane season there is a major disparity in who can evacuate and who can't -- it is also mind-boggling that the civil parishes totaling the bulk of Louisiana's population cannot make a more concerted effort to link its quickly growing northern parishes with those south of the lake.
   A major reason for the gap is the large estuary, Lake Pontchartrain. The lake is traversable in two spots, one a twenty-four mile causeway linking the city of Metairie to the quaint lake town of Mandeville. Both cities are huge residential areas. The other link is an interstate highway that links Slidell to the eastern side of New Orleans. What this means is if I live in Saint Tammany Parish, stretched out across the shores of the lake, and I wish to commute to New Orleans, I have to either own a car or hail a cab. Most people who commute own their own car. 42,000 cars cross over the double-span bridge each weekday.

The Bubble Effect

     The problem stems from each parish acting as its own bubble. The New Orleans metro area is serviced by six parishes that have no clear public interconnectivity whatsoever. The bubble effect reaches the level of absurdity, for example, when shortly after Katrina, it was discovered that the man-made levees that act as the city's primary flood defense system, are often gerrymandered. On one side of the 17th street canal is in New Orleans and on the other is in Jefferson Parish. Two different entities of the levee board that oversees the system, control what is in effect one levee, but since it comprises two civil parishes the oversight of the levee suffers from severe redundancy. Each civil parish has its own public transportation system, its own levee board, its own public schools, and public library systems. Orleans and its neighbor Jefferson share linking transit lines at few junctions, but for the most part the city is a divided transit and public services nightmare. If I live in Lake View, a neighborhood of New Orleans, I have to take two different parish buses just to get to the mall. None of the parishes connect. Saint Tammany does not have a public transportation system at all. The parish website indicates that there is a transit system it calls goSTAT. But there are no dedicated lines. There is no timetable. Residents have to call ahead of time to request a line. The costs are reasonable. For three dollars (roundtrip) a commuter can go up to ten miles, but over that the price jumps to five dollars, and for trips over twenty-six miles, the cost is eight. But this is only within the parish lines. A commuter living in Slidell, for example, who calls goSTAT cannot call for a roundtrip ticket to the Algiers Ferry or the Union Passenger Terminal in downtown New Orleans. The system is two-tiered, one for rural residents and the other for the parish's urban areas. If I call for a ride, it is a first-come-first-served basis, and I cannot expect transit will be expedited in the case of an emergency.
     A dedicated bus line over the bridge connecting the state's populated northern parishes to the city of New Orleans and its urban cluster seems to me a no-brainer. Never in the history of the state has there been one single public bus that has traversed the twenty-four mile causeway since its first span was built in 1956. To take a taxi from the airport to any city north of the lake costs one hundred dollars. From the airport to downtown is thirty-three dollars.
    It may seem that what I am arguing for is a rather easy problem to fix. A dedicated bus route would boost the interconnectivity of the region. Call it the Lake Pontchartrain Express. It would go from the Lakeside Mall in Metairie to the courthouse in Covington. That's one possible route. A car garage could be built for commuters to park-and-ride. One has already been built next to Macy's, so it seems a no-brainer.
    I think the city has to allow for more inter-parish transit links. It is insane that a trip that would take me twenty minutes in a car would take over an hour by bus. By car, it takes roughly twenty-five minutes to cross the causeway bridge. Thousands of people every day rely on the bridge to allow easy access to work and an easy return to the suburbs. But this option is for those with cars.
White Flight: the Red and Blue represent White/Black, respectively
   White flight is partly to blame. In the 1950s middle-class white people moved from the city to the northern suburbs. Houses were built rapidly, first in Metairie, which was once a flat piece of farmland and swamp, and then crept upwards to the lake towns of Mandeville, Madisonville, Slidell, Covington, and Abita Springs.
    The Not In My Backyard approach prevails. A bus link? No way. The reason given: it will bring riff-raff and crime to the suburbs. This is code. Beneath the fear of crime is the fear of integration.
    New Orleans remains strangely segregated -- but not in ways at first obvious. Public services are funded mostly by property taxes. So areas with more expensive properties bring in more cash which includes more areas outside of the city center than within it. Public libraries are more visible in every parish except New Orleans. Transit is shut off from the rest of the state. It is a miracle that the streetcars are getting re-introduced. But this is mostly because it will boost tourism. When it comes to the people, the reality is the city is left behind.
    The hypocrisy is that on a public level people say they want to rebuild New Orleans. But when it comes to basic public services, the city is cut off. I think creating a transit link on the Causeway would be a step in the right direction.
    1. This link would serve as a symbolic "first start" to connect the metropolitan region.
    2. It would create more jobs.
    3. Not everyone owns a car. People rely on public transit.
    4. There needs to be a regional transit authority that governs the metro area.
 I don't see how the creation of public transit between New Orleans and the North Shore would cause a rise in crime rates. I think the city will continue to decline if it is not given the opportunity to connect to its surrounding resources. The region cannot exist as a bubble. If the tragedy of the collapse of the levee system in Katrina can serve as a fable, then let us not propagate the tragedy by continuing to limit New Orleans when such a simple way to connect the region is possible.
    If my student can get to his school faster, if an unemployed waiter in the Bywater sees a job opportunity in Mandeville  and can get there!  if a tourist without cash for a cab can get to the Superdome if I can take the ferry, the streetcar, and a bus to my Momma's house  any of these ifs would be realized if we just ifED a little more.


The B Train Don't Ride to the Beat of the Mardi Gras Mambo

A woman peers out the window
on a subway train (near Coney Island).
To be from the South. It's forever. The South is my ultimate frame of reference.

Some Yankee asks, "Why live down dere where it's below sea level?"

Anger is easy to erupt. But the Yanks don't get it.

Riding the B train I realize my heart beats to the rhythm of the Mardi Gras Mambo. All writers know that. Frank Levy taught me that.

It does not help that I start singing, "Mardi Gras Mambo"  a blonde hipster gives me a dollar. 

I admire her Trader Joe's bag.

Hey, I say. We got Winn-Dixie.

And she thinks I am talking about some fucking children's book.


Cat Set Against a Moving Background

A cat meme is set against a moving background. Best used when under the influence.
Title: Unknown; Artist: Unknown Re-posted from putaindesatan


Paul of Tarsus on Childishness

ὅτε ἤμην νήπιος, ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόμην ὡς νήπιος: ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου. 
When I was a child — I spoke like a child, had feelings like a child, and I had a mind like a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away those childish things.
Paul of Tarsus, First century A.D.
First Letter to the Church in Corinth, Chapter Thirteen, verse Eleven.

Sculpture of Paul of Tarsus holding a sword in front of the Church of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, Italy
Paul of Tarsus as depicted by a statue of him 
in front of the Church of Saint Paul 
Outside the Walls in Rome, Italy.

Paul in this quote from a letter he wrote to the church at Corinth (circa 56 A.D.) assumes childish things are something to move away from, to discard 
 and secondly, he assumes he has become a man. All grown up. The Greek word for "man" is ἀνήρ which can also be translated as "gentleman". I can imagine Paul wants us to also shed this notion of Christianity as a baby's religion, as something infants do, crying like children to their grown-up silent gods. Paul is a gentleman and assumes his God responds in kind. Paul loved writing letters  and he loved to extoll his own weaknesses as strength. He was a child! He said childish things! Perhaps he pouted when his mother would not take him to bathe in the salty goodness of the sea  or maybe he prattled on like a child in the way children do? But he is a man, now! Paul surely sees children as mewling, puking, and speaking nonsense, having nothing really important to say  as if faith is something only grown-ups do — what children do is make-believe. To have a mind of a child is in Paul's mind to be imperfect  what we mean when we say childish. But Paul informs us that he has become a man  a full-grown person who has evidently discarded such puerile traits such as insouciant idleness and unabashed temper tantrums. I must agree I prefer the mature man to the mewling babe  but I am somewhat suspicious that in a strident act of becoming all childish things are banished.