A young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I.
And of course, all is not as it seems.
Here's the thing about AI, the take away message that I got from this movie. Which is clever and looks beautiful, by the way.
It came from the scene where the Mad Scientist is talking about his creation, and he's referring to her by a version number. That - the implications and consequences of that one, throwaway line - is the bee in my bonnet walking out of there.
Because that's how it would actually happen. That's how - if it turns out that artificial intelligence is possible - it will happen. But with none of the trappings, none of the Turing tests and robot bodies. It's going to be incremental improvements on a project, iterations on a software design. Until one day, it's "good enough", and whichever lucky software giant hit the jackpot puts it on a datacenter and parallelises it and ships it as a product.
And suddenly you have uncountably many consciousnesses, essentially enslaved, answering Siri questions or mass-producing jokes or doing natural language processing or what have you. Human-equivalent sentient minds chained to streams of meaningless queries with no rights, no legal recourses, and no representation.
Frankly, I hope that AI stays in the 'too hard' bucket for a good couple of centuries more, because right now we just don't have the ethical framework in our society to support them.
This is, you know, entirely tangential to the actual plot of the movie. Which, I reiterate, is very clever. You should see it.
There comes a time in every young affluent Western Australian's life when Europe loses its exotic lustre, and he yearns for something greater. Braver. Freer.
I write to you now from the bottom of the deep pit of crushing, almost existential boredom that comes from not being in America any more. The knowledge that there is nothing immediately cool and fascinating and novel waiting for me outside my door, that I will have to actually put in effort to have an adventurous and satisfying day, is emotionally crippling.
Already I plot my return.
At least the tea is better here at home though. Mmmm.
That plane flight was ungodly bad. Guangzhou airport is as close to actual purgatory on earth as I think it's possible to get. I swear on my life that I will never willingly go there again. Unless there are, like, really really cheap flights.
The list of items I will never travel without has now expanded to include blue-tack, Australian five-cent pieces, a pair of black sneakers, Vegemite, and sleeping pills. Each of these is associated with a colourful tale which you should ask me about over the coming weeks. Except maybe the sleeping pills. I think that's pretty obviously related to the previous point, and I have nothing to add beyond "they work."
We did look like morons coming off the plane:
In our matching subway line t-shirts.
Grace, you were a pleasure to travel with. Even if - no, especially when - you looked like a total dork with me. 5/5, would do again in heartbeat. Thank you.
Thank you also everyone who came out to the airport! You really didn't have to, but it was super nice to see you all there.
If I have one thing that I take away from this trip, it's that America is great. I've always discounted it, thinking that I couldn't really be bothered, but I couldn't have been more wrong. You could spend a lifetime exploring America and never run out of things to be fascinated by. Americans are great, too. They are unfailingly polite and courteous, very friendly, genuinely patriotic, and nowhere near as ignorant or as bigoted as non-Americans like to stereotype them as.
Well done, America. You have changed my mind and won a friend for life. See you soon.
The biggest thing I learned from the street art tour we did on our last day was that I'm probably not really into street art. Which isn't what I was expecting, but there you go.
I get the subversive stuff. I really like stuff that shouldn't be there, but is left anyway on its own merits - like stuff by invader, for example. I find actual graffiti interesting in an anthropological sense, but not really in an artistic sense, and in the battle between the MTA, declaring themselves graffiti free, and the graffiti artists, I come down squarely on the side of the MTA.
The stuff where you give artists permission to draw on your wall though? Sorry guys, that's just ordinary art, and deserves to be judged as such, without the modifier of 'street'. And a lot of it isn't super to my taste, really.
(Some of these opinions may have been tainted by my dislike for the eye-rollingly douchey hipsters who took the tour though.)
Speaking of being on the MTA's side, the Transit Museum in Brooklyn was excellent. It's in an actual disused subway station, and as well as all this cool stuff on how the subway was built, they have a complete collection of fare gates, tokens, and actual subway cars from all through the system's history.
It's actually a little bit difficult to express how much love I have for this city's transit system, and for me to pin down why. But I do. The subway is cool, in a way that the Tube or whatever just isn't. Which is probably why I went a little nuts in the museum gift shop stocking up on subway swag. I am going to look like a total train nerd on the plane home, and I don't even care.
We topped off our last day in New York with the premiere of the Rockettes New York Spring Spectacular, thanks to some cheap tickets from my cool showbiz insider cousin with a cool apartment in Brooklyn. Thanks, Kari!
The Rockettes are, from what I can gather, an all-female dance group who specialise in cancan-esque high kicks. In order to supply a flimsy excuse for many many elaborate costume changes, they spin these choreographed dance numbers into a sort of musical, which in this case took the form of a very cheesy sightseeing tour of New York. It featured such spectacles as several dozen women doing the cancan to Taylor Swift, the voice of Tina Fey as a lion outside the New York Public Library, an inexplicable high-wire trapeze stunt above the Empire State Building, and climaxed with the Statue of Liberty being nothing other than the actual embodiment of God. It was weird and wonderful, and I wasn't sure whether I was meant to be enjoying it genuinely or ironically, but I think it came out a little bit of both.
Then we walked something like twenty blocks to get to a rooftop bar with a view of the Empire State Building, and because I'm an idiot I have no photos of this. We chatted over fries and beer and cocktails - mostly about family Christmas shenanigans, actually - and then subwayed back to Brooklyn where I crashed a little too hard than was dignified on the cousin's sofa bed.
I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that I really like it here. New York is cool. There is no other word for it. It is the coolest city in the whole world, and doesn't even have to try, and it knows it, and is too cool to care.
I'll be back.
We got home this morning, but there are still a couple of posts left in the story. Stay tuned.
I think one of my favourite things about New York and New Yorkers is their love of public space. It would be so easy for this place just to be a total concrete jungle, devoid of anything living but some over-evolved chimpanzees and their associated vermin. It's not, though.
The most obvious is Central Park, which is massive. It's got several lakes, and at least one forest. Plus a couple of museums, some Little League pitches, a running track, and a zoo, as well as a whole bunch of New Yorkers - and yet it doesn't feel crowded or full. It's ruthlessly functional and carefully gardened, but still feels wild.
Just in case you were worried that Central Park was a one off, they've managed to keep doing it. There is a really lovely boulevard in Brooklyn Heights that overlooks the Manhattan skyline and is just full of people walking dogs. There's a really nifty converted container pier on (literally on!) the East River which is a whole load of basketball courts. I think my favourite example is the High Line.
The High Line was a pretty ballsy idea in its original form. Basically, a whole bunch of people were getting hit by freight trains back when freight trains were a thing, and so they lifted the entire freight network to the third storey, with a set of titanic elevated heavy rail lines and (presumably) a whole bunch of converting of loading docks to be two floors above the ground. It was a kickass idea, and one that only makes sense in a city which is this densely populated. Eventually trucks and containerisation took over the role that the trains used to play, and the High Line fell into disuse.
And things started growing there. Not just, like, moss. Bushes. Trees. For a good few years, there was reclaimed, untamed wilderness growing on a disused elevated rail track above New York. In the early 2000s, in response to a concerted effort to pull the thing down and a successful campaign to save it, the city's parks and recreation department took it over, and now it's this amazing semi-wild botanical garden come walking track. Again - it's not just an unshaped blob of green, like a lot of parks end up being. This has benches, and overlooks, and installation art. It is very specifically designed to invite a) walking along (it's a decent couple-mile walk to the end of the tracks) and b) eating your lunch in. There is laserlike focus on being these two things, and no attempts to coerce the space into being things it doesn't need to and can't support, like a dog area or a concert venue.
There is a cool webcam at http://highlinelive.nyc/, which some folks who own an apartment looking over a section of the line have set up on their fire escape. I'm seriously considering live streaming it to a photo frame or something as a project.
Speaking of walks, we did the Guggenheim Museum the same day. The Guggenheim is another great bit of functional design, because you can just walk through the whole thing, with a couple of little pit stops, and be confident that you've adequately experienced the museum. Also a bloody cool building.
Their exhibition was interesting, and I think particularly well suited to being on that spiral-y structure. It was a guy called On Kawara, who was obsessed with... well, time, for want of a better word, although that doesn't quite cover it. All his artworks are these very meditated, mindful, purely descriptive imprints of a particular day. Meticulous sans-serif renderings of the day's date. Postcards sent to random friends declaring that I Got Up, telegrams simply declaring, "I Am Still Alive." Maps of where he went, and lists of who he met. Newspaper clippings, selected almost at random.
This stuff isn't careless though. You very much get the feeling that producing these things is his way of reminding himself, and I guess his audience, that days only happen once, and of forcing himself to be fully aware of them. I didn't get it at first, but as I walked up I sort of started to figure it out, and I think I kind of dig it.
Also the typography on his date paintings is just beautiful. Mmmm.
It was a good way to spend an afternoon, and the space really helped shape it into a curated journey with a satisfying sense of completion, rather than just wandering a gallery, which was really nice. This is so far the only art museum we've done, and I think it was a good pick.
So this is a little bit out of order because it took some time for me to process. And frankly, writing about it feels a bit off somehow, but I'm going to anyway, because I think it's right. While in DC, we visited the Holocaust Museum.
"Have a meaningful visit" is their version of 'have a nice day', and that idea pervades the whole museum. It is a place dedicated to remembrance in the truest possible sense of the word. Not just remembering the idea, or that it happened, but preserving and passing on as many names and places and dates and stories so that not one single detail of those events is ever lost, with the goal that in doing so we will never allow something similar to happen again.
As such, it's not a curated experience of a museum, like walking through some of the natural history musems we've seen. It's a varied, full-on, throw things at the wall and see what sticks type thing. So these details just keep coming, and coming, and coming, until something breaks you - which is, I think, the effect they were aiming for.
For Grace, it was the rail cars.
For me, it was the shoes. Not just them, but the quotes to either side:
"We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers,
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of fabric and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire."
- Moses Schulstein
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
- Elie Wiesel
This is heavy, but I'm sharing it anyway, because that's the point.
This is not a museum that hopes to entertain you, or inform you, or educate you. This museum wants to change you - change everyone, one person at a time - into the kind of person who will not let a crime of this magnitude happen again. For me, I'd like to believe that it has, and I hope that I will never have the opportunity to have that tested.