From my point of view, there is no fundamental reason that machines could not, in principle, someday think, be creative, funny, nostalgic, excited, frightened, ecstatic, resigned, hopeful, and, as a corollary, able to translate admirably between languages. There’s no fundamental reason that machines might not someday succeed smashingly in translating jokes, puns, screenplays, novels, poems, and, of course, essays like this one. But all that will come about only when machines are as filled with ideas, emotions, and experiences as human beings are. And that’s not around the corner. Indeed, I believe it is still extremely far away. At least that is what this lifelong admirer of the human mind’s profundity fervently hopes.
When, one day, a translation engine crafts an artistic novel in verse in English, using precise rhyming iambic tetrameter rich in wit, pathos, and sonic verve, then I’ll know it’s time for me to tip my hat and bow out.
A day later, we drove to a diner that multiple local guides said had the best deal in town, and warned to arrive early to fight for a seat. The parking lot was straight-up empty. Where were all of the old people? What of the need for an $8.99 chicken breast with a pair of watery, steamed-vegetable sides? What happened to the early bird special?
The short answer, I learned, is that the retirees who heralded the early bird are going away, and that their replacements, while burdened by the overall decline of the middle class, have different expectations about what retired life should look like — mostly, they do not want to be reminded in any way that they’re old now, especially if they can afford that luxury. Millennials might be killing chains, but boomers are driving the early bird to extinction.
At some point it dawned on me why I felt so connected to the show: it is, emotionally and often structurally, exactly like a writing workshop or, more loosely, like the art of writing as a whole. A cookie in place of a poem, a cake in place of a story. All day, the bakers stand at their little islands, feverishly attempting to create something that is both beautiful and tempting, that others might enjoy. At the end of each challenge, they’re covered in flour and chocolate, their cooking areas a mess of dirtied spoons and orange peels. Then, one by one, they are forced to approach the judges bearing the fruits of their labors, vulnerable to ridicule and eager for praise. They then wait patiently as their superiors literally tear their creation into pieces before determining their worth as an artist. Whatever the contestants have baked, it’s the best they can do, and yet they understand that sometimes the best is still not enough.
Unlike the hours one has during air travel to while away on, say, an unexpected Mack Bolan, my time on the subway (probably 20 to 30 minutes, tops) feels constrained and precious, so I demand high-reward reading. While I envy the razor-focused commuters who crouch over a dog-eared Dostoyevsky, I’ve learned that my subway-brain, addled by constant announcements and the overheard conversations of my neighbors, can’t give a dense classic the close attention it requires. Nor can I abide playful meta-fiction, digressive autofiction or anything that’s coy with its charms. If the perfect “beach read” is like a slowly melting margarita, to be kept close at hand and sipped at lazily, then the perfect “subway read” is like the hypodermic needle that gets jabbed through Uma Thurman’s breastplate in “Pulp Fiction.” It delivers a jolt, stat.
He promises no happy ending to the tensions that still plague France, but the book manages to thrill and entertain, while never losing the sharp political edge that also makes it important.