Monday, August 25, 2014

This is a test of sherapop's salon de parfum broadcast system...

This is a test of sherapop's salon de parfum broadcast system. This is only a test.

My fragrant friends--and flagrant fiends--it has been brought to my attention that my post alerts are not being transmitted by Feedburner and have not been emailed for a very, very long time. Apologies to all of you who wondered what happened. I did not notice because, well, as I'm sure you're aware, sherapop is something of a snob and does not really agonize over blog stats and what not because she only wants you to visit if you want to, and most people are not very big on phenomenology and the like.

It appears that my posts are TOO LONG for Feedburner, which prefers soundbites similar in size to the "news items" featured on mainstream media sites. Obviously, I'm not about to shorten my posts, so I'm going to try another tack: posting a short "notice" of a sherapop posting. Let's see how this works. As annoying as it may be, this method is infinitely less annoying than condensing, reducing, and changing my posts to fit some unknown administrator's arbitrary idea of how long a blog post should be.

This is a test of sherapop's salon de parfum broadcast system. This is only a test.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Problem of Other Minds and Vintage Perfume

Reflections on Artificial Intelligence (2001) 
directed by Steven Spielberg

When I was growing up, my father, a civil engineer by training and profession for nearly four decades, was fond of quipping now and then, "You could be replaced by a machine." Who knew that Dadoo was a prophet? Today, with technological gadgets rapidly proliferating, it may not sound that profound to opine that everything a person does could be done at least as well—and probably better—by a machine. My father, however, began using computers back when they were the size of buildings. Programs back then were written on huge stacks of punch cards. Suffice it to say that the state of technology was fairly rudimentary, relative to where we are today. 

Thanks in large part to DARPA and the DoD—and, above all, the federal taxpaying citizens of the United States—we've reached the point where people's jobs are constantly in the process of being rendered irrelevant by technology. Yes, it's true: "You could be replaced by a machine." Having witnessed this happen over and over again, in many different realms, one might reasonably begin to wonder: 
Is there anything that a person does which a computer cannot also do? Has the U.S. president perhaps been microchipped to spout out Pentagon-speak whenever troubles arise on the horizon? Could that humming bird whirring outside your window be a microdrone collecting information about you for the NSA? Are you even so sure that your best friend is not really a robot? How could you ever know with certainty that you are not the only conscious mind in existence, which generates in the manner of a dream all of the phenomena you take yourself to see?

Believe it or not, philosophers have been debating "the problem of other minds" for a very long time. You may not know anyone who spends time and expends mental energy on this issue, but that is because those who do tend to be segregated away in closed spaces where outsiders are strictly forbidden entry except under close supervision. No, I am not talking about insane asylums, but modern academic philosophy departments. Of course, people in insane asylums may also be discussing such questions, but they are not earning salaries for doing so.

I am of the considered opinion that philosophical thought is no more and no less than intelligent thought. There are two activities of philosophy: posing questions about inconsistencies in theories (aka: criticism), and devising hypotheses to explain things (aka: theorizing). But any theory is subject to criticism, and any phenomenon is open to explanation. Therefore, any person who engages in these activities is a philosopher, whether or not he or she would label him- or herself in that way.

Being a philosopher is not, however, the same as being an academic or professional philosopher. To be one of those, you must agree to spend your time on questions deemed worthy of discussion by whoever the current holders of endowed chairs happen to be. If you are not particularly interested in such things as tropes, possible worlds, the problem of other minds, the so-called problem of reference, or the metaphysical substratum of the universe, then you might be rejected by the club officers as not "intelligent" enough to be inducted into their group. 

In truth, it's a clever confidence scheme. The differences in opinion about which specific matters warrant sustained investigation and debate are fundamentally a matter of values. Or, if you like, they are matters of taste. Your not being particularly interested in what academic philosophers happen to be discussing today has nothing whatsoever to do with your level of intelligence. It has to do with your interests, formed over the course of your life through a contingent historical process, in a very specific cultural context. 

During the twentieth century, academic philosophy became more and more narrow, focusing on more and more obscure questions because people who disagreed with the men (and they were nearly all men) in philosophy departments about what was interesting were at a decided disadvantage. This problem was exacerbated by the modern tenure system, ironically established in order to protect political and intellectual freedom, but having instead a squelching effect. 

Dissenters were automatically spurned by "the experts" for refusing to spend the best years of their life writing footnotes to already-tenured professors' academic screed. Those who did not agree could not break into the club, because “the experts” deciding what was worth discussing—again, in disciplines such as philosophy, this is a question purely of values and taste—simply turned them away, by hook or by crook. As a result of this severe homogenization process, professional philosophers today occupy a very insular space which many students quite naturally avoid because they find it irrelevant to their experience—and interests. 

Some of the intelligent people who left academic philosophy gravitated toward film. Errol Morris (the director of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Fog of War) is one example. But the best filmmakers have always been philosophers: posing critical questions about received views, and offering their own novel pictures of reality. When I learned that Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick had collaborated for twelve years on Artificial Intelligence, my interest was naturally piqued. Unfortunately, owing to circumstances perhaps beyond either director's control, the film was highly disappointing to me. Rather than risk being accused of self-plagiarization, I'll share here my short review from IMDB:

Do Spielberg and Kubrick mix?
17 July 2014
Artificial Intelligence ends up being less than the sum of its parts. I am a big fan of many of the works of Spielberg and Kubrick. Both have created resplendent masterpieces. This collaboration, however, is something of a mess. It's not abysmal, but it strikes me as akin to the filmic equivalent of a garbage pizza. Lots of good ingredients thrown together pell-mell to produce something rather unappetizing.

The idea for a good film—or five—is here somewhere, but it's so tangled up with so many other ideas none of which is ever resolved in any satisfactory way, that it's hard to see what exactly the take-away was supposed to be. Monica loves David because David loves Monica but not enough to persuade her husband to keep him around. From there everything devolves into a "please every crowd member with something or other" adventure-action flick.

The film starts down one path for a while, but when it becomes clear that there isn't enough interesting material there, then it lurches in another direction before abandoning that path as well. Maybe this is a case of production fund surfeit? Not sure.

I had no idea what this film was going to be about. I am not sure what I was doing in 2001, but I never read or heard anything about Artificial Intelligence. I picked up the DVD at the library under the assumption that it would offer some sort of eye-opening perspective on technology. It tries to, but falls flat because of the incoherent schmaltziness. It just doesn't work.

It seemed initially that this was going to be a deep philosophical reflection on love and perhaps even a critique of selfishness and possessiveness. The idea of wanting a robot to love one's self unconditionally and unilaterally--is that really so different from getting a dog? I have to wonder. It's not really like Pascal's Wager, which exhorts would-be believers to go through the motions of religious faith, and one day they will find that they truly believe. That probably works because on some subconscious level the mind recognizes that if the person is doing all of this stuff for God, then if God doesn't exist, that can only mean that the person is flaming mad, complete with visions, voices and ubiquitous spies. But that's another story.

The combination of Color Purple-style emotional string pulling and A Clockwork Orange's brazen amoralism doesn't work in this production. It's like oil and water. The movie is also too long, and the utterly gratuitous Jude Law character, to be perfectly frank, just seems like an effort to compensate for some of the vacuity of the main storyline. He plays the role of a gigolo robot—in effect, a man-shaped, walking and talking dildo. I'm not making this up.

I do not recommend Artificial Intelligence. It's not the worst movie I've seen, but it's nowhere near any of the masterpieces created by Spielberg or Kubrick individually. Some of the scenes are well composed, but taken together as a work? This is truly a mess. Sometimes less is more.

The first several minutes of Artificial Intelligence seemed very promising. The problem of other minds loomed ahead, with a female "mecha" (from mechanized) being displayed for his colleagues by the professorial William Hurt character:

In fact, both this mecha and William Hurt disappear from the rest of the film after what ended up being a few cameo shots. 

Artificial Intelligence might have investigated the nature of self-deception, given the opening problematic, but it did not—perhaps under executive producer veto (who really knows?). Instead, the main plotline is best viewed as a high-tech variant on the familiar “boy meets girl” theme.

The Opening Story

Monica and Sam Swinton are a couple plagued by the near loss of their son Martin—he’s not dead, but he lies inert in a coma. The boy is being preserved in a potentially living state by a fancy looking contraption. He is being essentially stored, seemingly asleep, at some sort of medical science center. The distraught mother pays regular visits to her son, reading him stories in the ardent hope that somehow he will be jolted back into consciousness by the warm caresses of her voice.

The prospects for the boy are dim, the doctor informs Mr. Swinton, but offers the concerned husband a way to save his wife, who is being slowly whittled away by worrying. At the same time Monica’s life is being consumed by the unrealistic and likely to be unrealized hope that her son will rejoin his mother and father in what was their happy home. 

It turns out that great strides have been made in robotics by this point in future history, making it possible for barren women and men to raise their own children without having to compete in the adoption market. Actually, it appears that in the world of this science fiction there is no human adoption market, because breeding has been curtailed—along the lines of the Chinese system limiting reproduction to one child per couple.

This couple has a son, but he is a son only in name and memory. The doctor proposes therefore that Monica and Sam adopt a robot son, a recently perfected prototype, a “mecha” who acts, looks, reacts, and indeed seems identical to a real boy. Monica’s husband agrees to give the idea a try, reasoning along something like these lines: 

What have we got to lose? Worst case scenario, it won’t work. It’s only an experiment with a machine. There is no risk involved.

Initially Monica is appalled by the proposal and deeply offended that her husband could even entertain the possibility that a robot might be able to fill the void left by her unconscious son. 


Soon thereafter seduced by the sheer cuteness of the Haley Joel Osment character, the empty-nest-syndrome sufferer agrees to a trial period, allowing this new mecha boy, David, to live at the house just as her biological son had before. 

After a time, the couple and their mecha begin to bond, and it becomes clear that he is significantly enhancing the quality of their family life.

Mrs. Swinton decides to go ahead and execute the imprinting protocol, after which David will be connected to her eternally—in the manner of a biological son, only better, since he will never, ever stop loving her and his loyalty and devotion will persist through any and all challenges and obstacles. 

The "mecha-mom"-to-be follows the detailed instructions for the sacred “love-instilling” imprinting ritual, which involves holding the back of David’s neck while he looks at her and she reads an apparently nonsensical string of words to him.

In an amusing variation on the paradox of happiness (that the more one consciously seeks happiness, the more elusive it becomes), once Monica and Sam have begun to settle in with their adopted "son" and new happy family life, Martin, the couple’s biological son, miraculously awakens from his coma! Perhaps it is a primeval territorial response, the biological son having perceived on some subliminal level the threat to his status represented by the effective invasion by an outsider of what is by birthright Martin’s home. Who really knows? 

What matters for the plot is that now, of course, a problematic arises: competition between the real son and the mecha son. The jealous biological son begins a concerted campaign to implicate his mecha brother as a miscreant and wholly unfit to remain in the family—indeed, a threat to its very existence.

Predictably, like a once-beloved pet abandoned upon a young couple’s first pregnancy for fear that it might eat their offspring, David is thrown out of the house. Monica cannot, however, bring herself to comply with the original terms of the contract. If the arrangement did not work out, the couple was to return the robot to the factory for destruction, since once imprinted no robot can be reassigned to any other human being. Monica drives her mecha son close to the factory but then releases him rather than leaving him at the unwanted robot depot to be destroyed and recycled. David is now free, but he must live without Monica, whom he however refers to as Mommy and loves (apparently—he is a robot, after all!) unconditionally.

Fortunately, for our exalted purposes here at the salon de parfum, there is no need to rehash the absurd plot of what this movie eventually becomes. Artificial Intelligence is replete with intertextual film references, by the way: to Kubrick’s oeuvre, to Spielberg’s oeuvre, and of course to the omni-film referent: The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps that is why the work garnered some critical praise (who really knows?). But all of the bells and whistles add up to no more and no less than cacophony, in this not-so-humble viewer's estimation.

Despite the promise of its name to offer philosophical insight on the problem of other minds, Artificial Intelligence ends up, remarkably enough, weighing in on only one philosophical issue: the question of vintage perfume. For those who watched this movie but missed this short but profound philosophical excursus, or who later became discombobulated by the plot-overload and general turgidity of the rest of the production, sherapop has arrived on the scene to salvage the relevant scene.


Steven Spielberg on Vintage Perfume—sort of

The perfume sequence of events begins with Monica standing before a large mirror in a formal gown. She is dabbing perfume on in preparation for a big night on the town. Her husband approaches from behind to embrace his wife as he sniffs the air and gushes, 

“I love it when you wear this stuff.”

Revealing the precious rarity of the elixir which she has just applied to her décolleté, Monica replies: 

“Will you still love me when it’s all gone?”

Her husband assuages any fears in Monica’s mind that he may love her only for her perfume: 

“Yeah… That way we can get married again and begin with a fragrance
that’s not in such short supply.”

The perfume in question? Chanel Coco.

Obviously by this time, in a distant sci-fi future, the perfume is no longer being produced—not even in an abstract, shadowy and shallow reformulation altogether devoid of natural essences. Monica has somehow scored a bottle of bona fide vintage Coco, and she and her husband have been cherishing every drop since the day of their betrothal. We have no idea, of course, whether Monica’s vintage bottle was produced pre-Y2K or post-Y2K or even post-Y3K.

In all likelihood, Monica’s bottle is “vintage” because—and only because—production of the perfume was halted during her lifetime. Any bottle older than that would have evaporated from the face of the earth over the course of a century or more—even if stored at the Osmothèque and opened only on occasion for specially selected sniffers so that they could write irrelevant appendices to mediocre books.

Can we say anything at all about the perfume which Monica is wearing? Not much. Only that company executives at Chanel christened the liquid as still being Coco. It may contain none of the ingredients of the originally launched perfume. It contains whatever the final creative director decided to sign off on—the final formulation of Coco accepted as adequate by whoever was making production decisions immediately prior to the perfume’s discontinuation.

For all we know, the bottle may contain a liquid empirically indistinguishable from Grès Cabotine. Or, for that matter, Britney Spears Believe. Simply calling the liquid inside the bottle Chanel Coco was enough to sell the remaining bottles at no doubt elevated prices, to be cherished ‘til death or drainage did they part, by whoever the lucky winners of the final ebay auctions happened to be. (For those interested in more on “the question of ebay,” I refer you to the blog of my comrade-in-nose, Bryan Ross, who recently opined at From Pyrgos on these matters as they relate to a different fragrance, one made for men.)

On its face, the above-cited little exchange may suggest that both Monica and Sam regard perfume only functionally. Monica jests that her husband only loves her for her perfume—in the way that women sometimes worry that their husband only loves them for their body. And the Jude Law character of this very film suggests that some women may love their husbands only for their body parts as well. Monica’s husband assuages her facetious fears by making clear that his attachment to this particular scent is purely nostalgic. He loves this perfume, Chanel Coco, in particular, because Monica wore it for their wedding. Had she worn another perfume, he implies, he would love that perfume instead.

Of course, we cannot test this hypothesis. Suppose, for example, that Monica had chosen to don for her wedding Grès Cabotine, from a bulbous Grès Cabotine bottle with a bright green molded-plastic flower cap. Now there’s a liquid which should be running freely from fragrance taps until the end of time. Given its hypothesized ready availability in the world of this film—not all fragrance has been abolished by the perfume police and their henchmen at the IFRA—what if Monica not only got married in but also showered herself daily in Cabotine?

Perhaps with a large volume of her signature scent ready at hand, Monica would become a ten-spray spritzer, having developed an olfactory tolerance approaching anosmia to her own fragrance. Would her husband then love her more, or would the scent become banal, rather like the automatic air fresheners dispensed from boxes on the wall in public restrooms? Worse, perhaps an overload of Cabotine could spell disaster for their marriage, serving as the prelude not to cuddling and lovemaking but to divorce.

Is Monica’s attachment to Coco only as a tool of seduction, to keep her husband near and dear? Fortunately, her mecha son David arrives on the scene to resolve for the viewer all of these vexing questions in one fell swoop: the first of a fated series of debacles which eventually lead to the would-be son’s expulsion from the family. It may not be obvious, at first glance, that perfume was implicated in David’s fall from grace to pariah status, but on reflection this seems clear.

The couple is preparing to leave the house for their party when Monica sniffs the air, suddenly worried that she may have overapplied her perfume. Will she be clearing the room? seems to be her concern. Glancing up the stairwell, she sees her mecha son standing with a Cheshire grin on his face.

Mecha-mom Monica dashes up to her boudoir where she finds to her dismay that her worst perfume nightmare has come true: David has drained the precious bottle of Chanel Coco! Some of the liquid is on his body and clothes, and a few drops were spilled on the vanity. Now they lie there next to the empty crystalline vessel, like the victims of a multi-vehicle accident on a highspeed freeway, beyond the possibility of resuscitation. Dabbing her fingers in the remaining drops, Monica attempts to contain her emotions, but she is devastated.

A very well-programmed mecha indeed, David attempts to kiss and make up with his “Mommy”, distracting her attention from the loss of her cherished perfume with the topic of mortality. He endearingly tells Monica that he hopes that she will never die. The robot’s ruse works. For now, the two are reconciled, as the woman appears to have forgotten momentarily that her mecha son is no more and no less than a robot, programmed to express emotions as though he really felt them. 

Monica has been thoroughly seduced. She cannot distinguish David’s behavior from that of a real, biological boy. She has in effect achieved the dream of the robot’s designers: to enter the realm of willful self-deception. Monica now experiences reciprocal emotions toward this boy in response to a clever, mechanical feint.

We know from this exchange that Monica has been thoroughly duped to the point of delusion vis-à-vis the status of her mecha son. Is she also in a state of delusion about perfume? The extreme emotions which she experiences upon the discovery of the “demise” of her cherished Coco suggest that Monica is indeed a member of the class of “vintage lovers”, who will travel to the end of the earth to “score” a vintage bottle. The problem now, of course, is that there is no more Coco around. Perhaps if Monica were to sell some of her stainless steel appliances or mortgage her gorgeous multi-level home complete with hardwood floors (no doubt also a rarity in the world of this sci-fi film), she might be able to procure another bottle of Chanel Coco.

Instead, she may have to adopt a new perfume, one which has been vetted by the IFRA and is in abundant supply. Or perhaps she will forego perfume altogether, having lost the love of her fragrant life. In this way, the empty bottle of Coco is an apt metaphor for her relationship with the mecha boy David, who is doomed (if it makes sense to apply such a term to a thing devoid of true feelings) to exile. Because of her real son, Monica must learn to live without David. Because of David, she must learn to live without Coco. But she cannot let go completely. She cannot destroy David, because to do so would be the equivalent of pouring her cherished perfume down the sink.

The arbitrariness of the source of her emotions is beside the point. In preparing for her wedding day, Monica might have scored, after all, a bottle of vintage Jean Patou Joy instead. Indeed, she might have scored a bottle of vintage Britney Spears Believe, which will likely be discontinued some time after the passing of the pop star, if not earlier. Would Monica not have loved any surrogate perfume just as dearly as she did her bottle of Coco for the simple reason that she chose it first? Would Monica not have loved any surrogate robot son as much as she came eventually to love David, though it would have been run by the very same program? 

Are our tastes in perfume anything more than a product of cultural happenstance? Can we not reprogram ourselves to prefer vat-produced chemical soup and thereby avoid the emotional upheaval caused by the discontinuation of what we in our benighted state take to be the mangling reformulation of our favorite perfumes?

I open the floor now to you, my fragrant friends, and anxiously await 
your response to these modest perfume provocations!