The Casual Blog

Tag: Tolstoy

Our holiday weekend — wildlife and books

Wild horses at Corolla, NC

We had a happy July 4 family gathering at the Outer Banks.  There are a lot of stress inducers in the news these days, and it was good to unload some stress.  It helped to spend some time walking on the beach and some time reading. 

I also brought along my new camera, the Nikon Z9, and started getting comfortable with it.  There is definitely a learning curve, but I was pleased with some of the results, a few of which are here.  It was fun seeing the wild horses at Corolla, which mostly seemed in good health.  We also stopped at Alligator River wildlife refuge on the way and saw a few bears, owls, and (a first for us!) alligators.  

Alligator at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Speaking of animals, I highly recommend a lively short essay by Ed Yong titled How Animals See Themselves.  Yong highlights some of the amazing sensory capabilities of non-human animals, including not just extraordinary sight, smell, and hearing, but also abilities like echolocation which we can barely conceive of.  Appreciating the umwelt (a term he promotes) of these animals makes our own lives richer, and potentially more compassionate.  I’ve downloaded Yong’s new book on this subject, An Immense World.

On a related subject, NPR had a great little piece this week on octopuses and how they operate.  I hadn’t realized that the receptors in the suckers of an octopus are vastly more numerous than the nerves in our fingers, and each sucker has not only a sense of touch, but also of taste and smell.  Instead of processing information in a centralized brain, most of their neurons are associated with their suckers.  Scientists are starting to figure out how all their mini-brains work together so that, for example, they can unscrew jars from the inside and perform astonishing feats of camouflage.  I’ve seen a a few of these creatures on diving trips in the Caribbean, and they are truly amazing.   


Meanwhile, while recovering from covid, I finished a big book: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy.  It had been some forty years since I last read this famous work, but I still remembered some of it.  Besides being long, it is notable for its scope, which is both narrow (a few months in the lives of a handful of Russian aristocrats) and broad (Russian society in the process of major changes).  Having learned some history over the last few decades, I was better positioned to appreciate Tolstoy’s insights and also his blind spots.  

Some of the book, which was written in the mid-1870s was visionary, or at least a magnificent struggle for a vision.  There is insight into the emotional lives of the characters, including their most creative and destructive emotions.  At times Tolstoy’s consciousness seems to merge with the lives of animals and plants, and evokes the grandeur of nature.  But at other times he seems to regard peasants as useful but inferior, like horses, and other animals as merely good targets for shooting.

Part of Anna Karenina deals with the severe depression suffered by its title character, and also by Levin, who most represents Tolstoy himself.  Tolstoy doesn’t use anything like the modern vocabulary for describing psychological problems, but he evokes them with power.  It is not comfortable to enter into these experiences, but they are definitely timely.

A new novel about AI and the Turing test

Sally’s re-reading Anna Karenina, which seems to me both admirable and exhausting. The recent movie version with Keira Knightley was highly stylized, but reminded me of what I enjoyed about the book when I read it in my twenties. It is rich book, full of feeling and thinking. But it’s long!

As a teenager and young adult, I read a lot of long novels, including ones by Tolstoy, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Trollope, Elliot, James, and Proust. My “big novel” period was a time when I was coming of age and constructing a particular consciousness. Those big books were part of the process.

Nowadays most of my waking hours are spent working, and there is stiff competition for precious non-work time. I’m still interested, though, in novels, and especially ones that take on issues that haven’t been thoroughly mined out. I just finished one such: A Working Theory of Love, by Scott Hutchins (Kindle edition). It’s about a guy who’s working on an artificial intelligence program designed to pass the Turing test, which is a real competition suggested by Alan Turing.

The Turing test is designed to probe whether machines can think. The challenge is to build a computer that can persuade 30 percent of humans that it is human. (I wrote about a very interesting non-fiction account of the test and artificial intelligence, The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian, here.)

Hutchins’s narrator bases his program on his father’s diaries. After getting the computer to converse coherently, he works on humanizing it by adding emotion and sex drive. As the program improves he has the feeling that his father is coming back to life. This creates an interesting moral dilemma. His father had committed suicide, but the project seems to be denying him his freedom to choose death.

I found Hutchins’s premise thought-provoking, but I ultimately didn’t care very much for his narrator. But he’s where the action is. It’s exciting and terrifying to see how fast robotics and artificial intelligence are transforming the world. The AP did a good overview piece last week, which I recommend highly. As they note (and as I’ve noted before), jobs involving any sort of routine (most manufacturing, transportation, retail, and office work) will soon be gone forever, taken over by robots and AI. This means increasing efficiency and wealth for some, and unemployment and anomie for a great many others.

We’re going to need to re-think and re-size our social programs for a world where humans are not needed to produce most goods and services. This is a daunting task, even leaving aside the extreme polarization of our politics. The shift away from human labor as a process that is the source of economic value and meaning is hard for us to grasp and accept. But we somehow need to provide a safety net for the millions who will be affected.

I’m not prepared to propose a program, but I do have the name for one: the Big Deal. It will need to be bigger than FDR’s New Deal. It will surely involve some sort of cash payments and medical care. I’d also add a work program that channeled redundant workers to activities that would provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose, like caring for other humans.