Citizenfour / The Imitation Game

Two films I watched lately. I did not plan to see them one after the other and, at first, I did not see the connection between the two. Now… well… you know… like two peas in a pod…

The movie The Imitation Game draws its title from Turing’s homonymous paper. The idea behind the paper was to figure out if it were possible for a machine to imitate a human being well enough to pass as one. He suggests that instead of trying to find out an answer to the question of whether machines can think or not we should actually ask if we could imagine a digital computer that would do well enough at imitating a thinking being.

The idea was not new. Hundreds of years ago Descartes asked himself about the possibility of thinking automata. For him, animal bodies were simply machines, although machines too weak to respond appropriately (i.e., humanly) to human stimuli. What about the brain itself? Leibniz, in his Monadology, challenges us to imagine something like a brain but only much bigger, big enough for us to walk about inside it and see how the whole works, how connections are made, how one movement leads to another, etc. Differently put, let us think of a brain big enough to see its synapses firing, its connected neurons pulsing with small electrical charges. Are we also going to see a trace of consciousness somewhere there? How are we to tell? Leibniz thought it wouldn’t work, it couldn’t work. Hence, consciousness (and therefore thinking) is to be found in a simple, separate, immaterial substance.

But I should go back to the movie. I think there are two main arteries pumping life into this motion picture: first, there is the quest for finding the code and second, there is the drama, the personal touch. Neat idea, overwhelmingly common though. The trouble is, the drama is mostly sketched, lacking deep characters (who do not really attempt going over stereotypes). And the febrile search for the code is not exactly… precise. As it is usually the case, less would have been more. Concentrating on one thing and doing it well would have most certainly brought the rest along.

Turing’s life was more complicated than we are tempted to think watching the movie, an impression facilitated by the fast pace at which things seem to happen on the screen, as if explaining his sexuality, his way of thinking and being would somehow be engaged in a race with breaking into the Enigma machine. As if they kept thinking: “We have a couple of hours to get there and we have to explain everything. Oh, my furry ears and whiskers!” Or most of it, at any rate. What Turing’s team was building at Bletchley Park was a computing machine, a bombe, a precursor of the modern computer. Turing did not invent it, but he did bring the whole field a step closer to the modern digital machines. If interested, there are other ways to find out how a bombe works and what was their connection to the German Enigma device than watching this particular movie. One might use The Imitation Game as a stepping stone to wanting to learn more about the whole thing.

On the other side, I think that squeezing a whole life into two hours of screen time is a very risky business. I might be wrong, but I would be happier if I were given the chance to think more about little than little about a lot. This seems to be an almost impossible enterprise today.

Or is it?

Well, let’s have a look at Citizenfour! This is a movie about a computer guy who finds out that something fishy happens at work, something which he could have let happen and moved on, hiding behind a “none of my business” kind of thing. He did not. He reacted, much like a human being would when he realized the seriousness of the breach in trust so many people put in their communication devices. He realized he had a conscience. And no, this is not a fictional movie: it’s a documentary. Snowden decided to leave his country, friends and family, language and his comfortable life just to share one secret with the whole world. In Citizenfour we see him in a hotel room talking with a couple of journalists about about one’s right to privacy being violated (at an unimaginable scale) and his intent on setting the record straight (as much as he can, from the very disquieted position he is in).

It is uncanny to see all the precautions he would take when only typing his password. Thoughts about people building up conspiracy theories out of everything might cross your mind as well. Thoughts about trusting someone like Snowden to tell the truth, would also come up. And how could it be possible that someone like him (a normal human being) could have access to so much information and that he would be willing to go public with it, knowing that his decisions could have devastating consequences (for him as well as for the whole world)?


What Turing wanted to achieve (i.e., a machine that can do lots and lots of calculations in a tiny amount of time in order to crack a code that could lead to saving thousands and thousands of lives every day) has already been built and we are now thinking about how likely it would be for a machine to indeed be so sophisticated that it could imitate a human being (think of projects like cleverbot or Experiments in Musical Intelligence and of ideas behind movies like Ex Machina). At the same time, since these machines have become in many ways the backbones of the society, they can also be easily used to spy on those employing them. It’s as if, ironically, we are playing the Enigma game again and we try to crack open the secrets that we are ourselves, each and every one of us. The machines are trying to imitate us. Again.

What am I to do now, Citizenfour? Is this our fuku or is it our zafa? Are we cursed for trusting our private lives to our gadgets and thus make ourselves more vulnerable than we ever thought possible? Or are we blessed to have someone looking over us, taking care of us and helping us when needed? Who are we to know if we live our lives under the sign of a spell or that of a curse? Where shall we look for that consciousness… thingy… substance… or whatever, Mr. Leibniz? DSC07660


The One or the Other?

Yesterday when I got up I found a request from PhilPapers in my mailbox. I wasn’t really awake; still had to rub my eyes to see well. Had nothing to eat or drink… But enough excuses… And what did the guys from PhilPaper want? A test. They wanted to make a DB and a statistic with the answers. Here are some questions.

    • Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?
    • Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?
    • Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?
    • Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
    • God: theism or atheism?
    • External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?
    • Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?
    • Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?
    • Mental content: internalism or externalism?
    • Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
    • Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes?
    • Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?
    • Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?
    • Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?
    • Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?
    • Proper names: Fregean or Millian?
    • Time: A-theory or B-theory?
    • Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch?

Well, it felt like a cold shower in the morning. I think now I have to do this kind of stuff each time I wake up. Gives you food for thought. Makes you think a bit the rest of the day. And, what’s more, made me think about starting a system, a structured way where I should bring together my thoughts on various matters and see how well they go together. This poll is a very good start. Having all this stuff put together… Yummy…


While running I had the chance to hear a discussion on the radio with Richard David Precht. I heard about his latest book and wanted to read it, but now I have second thoughts. It started pretty interesting anyway. And I thought the guy had a certain sense of humor. But then, as he went on he became bitter and was snapping around at everything.

Adam Smith put out the idea that capitalism is good for you. Think greed! As long as the buy-sell machine works, that is. If it doesn’t any longer, i.e., what started to happen (again) last October, it crashes and it takes pretty much everything down with it. We have to buy to keep the beast going (and not only that, draining up the earth of its resources in the process). Well, the guy suggested we should stop doing this, we should stop buying things we do not need. (Duh!) But, because it is not an easy decision, we need someone, or a sort of moral instance who could guide us and teach us how to do it right. Too bad the church lost its power (duh!) because it could’ve been a good leader. In terms of reaching out the masses, of course! Because, I would say, in lots of other ways it kind of screwed up big time quite a lot. Well, it does not have the same power it had once upon a time and now something has to fill up the vacuum it left behind. Who should that be? The politicians? No, he says. They’re only interested in securing their votes. Saving the planet is of little interest for them. Today’s democracy is very tightly linked to capitalism. Then, who’s going to do it? Well, the philosophers! Might this be an answer? Does this mean going back to a  Plato’s Republic of a sort? Cannot think about this without Popper’s take!!!

But it’s not the individual people who do most harm. Not you and me who buy the crap we don’t need. Just think about the big guys, the huge corporations!

Then, somehow (I must have lost a minute concentrating on running), the whole discussion changed and got into the field of genetics and biology in an effort to explain love. Well, his latest book is a book on love (!). He says that between 80% and 90% of Richard Dawkins’ readership is male. Most of the popular science writers who come from this field (the evolutionary biologists) have a huge appeal to men because they somehow provide them with a (more or less) clear cut answer to questions/problems which are rather difficult and not easy to even circumscribe. Somehow, they provide them with the escape goat. If your personal relationship is not running as it should, until now one had the choice between “it’s me” or “it’s you” when it came to explaining why this does not work or why that should be different. Now, with the emergence of gene research, one can blame the genes. It’s not me and it’s not you, anymore. We’re alright! It’s the genes! A clear cut answer. Well, I might be interested in reading his book and see what he thinks about it. The thing is, I suspect him of a sort of preciseness/correctness which I am not very fond of. Hearing him speak, saying the words he said, talking about himself it gave me the impression of an old man. But he’s only 44. His way of speaking, of gathering answers was likewise. There was no thing he would leave unanswered, he never cracked a joke or provoked a smile or a laugh during the discussion (and not only that – actually, I watched some interviews with him on youtube: he’s pretty much the same).

I can only take him seriously if I trust him. Do I? Well, do I? Not at the moment. I’ll have to read him first.

If he could only smile a bit…

letters never sent

i was going over some stuff i wrote a few years ago – a couple of letters i thought about sending. one of them to paul auster and the other to eva hoffman. i do not really know why i wrote them any more. it certainly must have been the desperation i was going through trying to arrange the ideas i had while writing the ph.d….

but here they are:

Dear Sir,

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing to you for a couple of months now. It’s not that I postponed doing it. Although I thought it would be interesting I did not pursue it seriously. Bits of sentences that might fit into such an epistle kept spinning in my head. But nothing clear, nothing specific. Every so often, under the influence of your ideas about coincidence, I felt like jotting down something in the way of… ‘Hi! This is just a sign from a Romanian living in Austria, trying to work on a Ph.D. about identity, language and multiculturalism. Should you come across any of the above mentioned things these days, it means the coincidence theory still works! Oh, and my name is Gabriel…’

But it did not feel right. Because I do not intend this to be a fan-letter. I do like your writing indeed, but I never thought about writing an extolling note. I was just surprised by some of the stories in the ‘Red Notebook’. Leaving aside coincidences as such (which, by some coincidence seem to be playing a significant role in my own life) I am trying to figure out other puzzles: issues that deal with identity. That is, narrative identity. Not only of characters in a story, but of people, in real life. One of the philosophers I am interested in is Paul Ricoeur. He developed a theory of identity that is quite ‘clean’ (i.e., that does not rest on the idea of immaterial substance, etc.) and gives a few pertinent answers. I adhere to his ideas for various reasons (philosophical and personal). However, after ‘The Red Notebook’ I found myself facing a difficult question.

Ricoeur’s theory starts with Aristotle and Augustin. It receives input from the former in the dimension of narrative and from the latter in the dimension of time. After elaborate constructions, Ricoeur ends up going beyond analogies between narratives and life. ‘Literature is a vast ethical laboratory’, he says. Stories augment our understanding of the world. Our own story, when told to others or even to ourselves, puts issues of self-awareness and self-understanding in a completely new perspective. As well, as it happens in a story when contingent elements become necessary to the plot taken as a whole, contingent events become an integral part of our own life. Through the plot, through narrating our life, these diverse and different elements are brought together in a unity, under the sign of necessity. Now, how does one find a place for coincidences here? They are not contingent elements. It’s not as if we have many possibilities but only choose one thing. Because with coincidences one loses one’s power of choice and with that one’s status as agent, as doer.

More: Milan Kundera’s ‘Immortality’. He goes overtly against Aristotle, saying bluntly that he does not want to chase the characters up the narrowing street of the plot, towards the climax point. Something like: ‘Let them be!’. The plot loses its Aristotelian structure: beginning, middle and end. It dissipates in a multitude of directions. Like a kaleidoscope.

So, how does one narrate one’s story at times when coincidences strike, when ‘being lived’ seems more in place than ‘living’? What’s the status of a coincidence? It seems it is definitely free from our power as agents. And it is not a simple event, something that purely happens. Might it be something in the middle, between motive and cause, between action and event, but with serious implications on us?

I do not know how to answer this yet.

Do you have any suggestions?

My best wishes,


Dear Mrs. Hoffman,

I am a Ph.D. student at the University of Vienna. My research deals with issues connected to identity, language and multiculturalism. I intend to use your book ‘Lost in Translation’ as a case analysis, trying to point out how intimately language and identity are laced.

Although it only happened a couple of months ago and by pure chance, reading ‘Lost in Translation’ proved to be a capital experience. After it, a good number of things started to fit together, to make sense.

I remember how, while still in Romania, I had to keep company to a Japanese physicist who came to visit some friends. Neither of us had a very good command of English but we managed to have a simple, straight forward dialog. At one point, he told me a little story, something that had happened to him. I cannot remember what it was because I got stuck when he said ‘I…’ and pointed, unexpectedly, to his mouth, as if trying to touch the word coming out, the ‘I’ which for me, until then, was located somewhere a bit higher than the solar plexus. Later, when I allowed myself to go over it again, I realized I just met another kind of ‘I’, another way a person related to their own identity. The ‘I’ was spoken; it had the apparent immateriality of words.

After a couple of years, in a small city in Canada, I was struggling to find a way to voice my thoughts, something that would allow myself and the world to meet without much complication. For a time I wrote, in Romanian, a sort of diary, something where I brought myself in front of myself, attempting a validation of my own ‘I’. But words just flew away, disappeared in a black hole, eaten up by emptiness, an absence of a ‘radiating haze of connotations’. An ‘I’ shaped hole in the written Universe. I tried to level it up by making use of English in all other kinds of writing which did not involve me directly. A failed project. My attempt to be faithful (on my own) to my native tongue, to keep the old associations words had for me proved to be a fiasco. The mistake was that I was trying to rebuild the world I took with me in my new surroundings. Somehow, following Plato, to make the world fit my Forms/Ideas, my Romanian Forms/Ideas. But the world I was living in was not Romanian any longer. My Ideas did not rest on anything real. I was living in an artificial world. Thus, I had to choose to live either in an artificial Romanian world or in a real English world. I opted for the second. I was aware of the challenges that came along but I remained determined in my choice.

Now I try to make sense of the changes I went through. My work is a sort of investigation in today’s unavoidable state of being ‘lost in translation’. As I received considerable help from your book, I try to get access to other essays you wrote that centre on identity and language. However, there is a difficulty I have to confront with: my minute search through the Viennese libraries did not bring much satisfaction. From the Internet, I got a few interviews and some book reviews but, although they were a good read, I am sure I need more. This is why I would like to ask you (if it is possible) to let me know of any (digital) resources of/about your writing and about works that you consider important or think might go in the same direction as your ideas about language and identity.

Many thanks,