[The liner notes for a mix I put together; see the track listing below, and download the music here.]
In them hills out there, them old colored women’d slip off…You don’t catch nothin’ but them old half-white boys and half-white girls out there…There’s more of that in the hills than in the Delta. (David ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards)
The mythology of the ‘Delta blues’ requires that it sprang up more-or-less fully formed, a spontaneous, or at least prohibitively mysterious, distillation of blackness in that uttermost land of fertile black soil and desperate black folk. Among the less obvious problems with this fantasy is that the Delta itself was always far less a place of origin than a place of passage, a crossroads. The artists who assembled the blues brought its pieces there from elsewhere, as they chased opportunity onto the newly cleared alluvium during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century. Because that modest journey – the first leg, for many black Mississippians, of the Great Migration that would soon transplant millions of their kind much further up the Illinois Central – happened to coincide with the incursion of recorded music into the rural South, its story reads as a genesis. The Delta blues is the ‘deep’ blues only by virtue of historiographical convenience.
Behind it lurks, among other things, the older traditions of ‘them hills’ of central Mississippi – traditions that spawned Charley Patton (from Bolton), Tommy Johnson (Crystal Springs), and Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst), and that carried on as those anointed ones traveled north to do their residencies at places like Dockery Farms. If there has been a certain reluctance to do so, the problem is no doubt that for mythological purposes, these traditions are considerably more complicated and more awkward. Up in the Delta the archetypal figure is that of Johnson, obdurate loner genius wailing from a heart of darkness; down here, center stage goes to figures like the Chatmons, a sprawling Hinds County family of white, black, and Indian heritage who played opportunistic blends of blues, country, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley for audiences of all colors. (The Chatmons both cashed in on their betweenness – naming their hugely popular string band the “Mississippi Sheiks” in the wake of Rudolph Valentino’s ad-hoc Arab – and problematized it, in songs like the unissued ‘The Yellow Coon Has No Race.’) Celebrating the former, in his liberally reconstructed post-revival guise, has always offered to certain white listeners a tantalizing dose of racial absolution; with the Sheiks we are on stickier ground.
But to Johnson or the Chatmons themselves, that supposed divide would likely have seemed nonsensical. The Sheiks were arguably the biggest act in the Delta as Johnson was coming into his own, and he would later brilliantly refashion their ubiquitous hit ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’ into his own devastating blues ‘Come On in My Kitchen.’ More importantly, to make too much of the divide is to underappreciate the key figure in bridging it. Charley (or was it ‘Charlie’?) Patton – born in 1891 (or was it 1887?), and rumored to be the Chatmons’ illegitimate half-brother – was a light-skinned, wavy-haired enigma, a masterful musician who played with a calculated unkemptness, a powerful vocalist who sang with near-incomprehensibility, and an adept professional who presented himself so erratically that even his closest associates would never quite agree on just who or what he had been. Billed by Paramount as the ‘Masked Marvel,’ Patton transcended fault lines like a proto-Michael Jackson; yet if the latter was the King of Pop, the former was the ultimate pop trickster, forever resisting his assimilation into the cultural machine.
Though they traveled the same roads, the generation gap between Patton and Robert Johnson, born some twenty years later, was tellingly vast. Patton was first and foremost a live performer, his multifarious, unstable repertoire reflecting a career spent shapeshifting for a deceptively complex Mississippi audience. Johnson, who came of age just as ‘race records’ were rapidly catching on around the nation, was among the first to very consciously craft a persona as a recording artist. And while both men left behind considerable personal mystery, Johnson’s music ultimately lent itself far better to a simplified white construction of ‘the blues,’ and it was Johnson, rather than his protean forerunner, who was explicitly enthroned as King.
Though he credited the Devil, Robert Johnson apparently got his chops from an obscure mentor named Ike Zimmerman who lived south of Hazlehurst, one of countless local ‘songsters’ populating the towns of central Mississippi. (Zimmerman’s surviving family remembers a couple of RJ’s songs, including ‘Walkin’ Blues,’ as first belonging to Ike.) Yet he was in the end a product of the Delta, or rather of its mythological image. Patton, on the other hand, though he honed his skills and made his name in Drew and Lula and Mound Bayou, forever embodied the more fluid milieu of ‘them hills’ in which he was immersed as a child – a tradition that left him with roguish hoedown tunes like ‘Hang It on the Wall’ and pre-blues slide rags like ‘Spoonful,’ in addition to the proto-blues that he would later refurbish into masterpieces like ‘Down the Dirt Road.’
Patton’s repertoire hints at the astonishing variety of that stratum of black popular music that spanned the emergence of the blues, and it was arguably in the Jackson area, rather than the Delta, that that variety was best preserved into the recording era. The window of opportunity to capture it on wax was vanishingly short, as the Depression and the jukebox would conspire to put the average Mississippi performer out of work by the late ‘30s. That recording here began as early as it did – 1927 – owes almost entirely to the vision of the extraordinary Henry Speir. An uncommonly intrepid white entrepreneur from rural Newton County, Speir opened a music store on Farish Street – the main artery of black Jackson – and soon realized from the popularity of ‘race records’ like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s that a greater opportunity was afoot. Installing a recording machine upstairs to cut acetate demos (and charging the public $5 a pop to use what was an extreme novelty in the 1920s South), he set out to explore the area in search of talent.
For a prospector of sound like Speir, the street corners, honky tonks, and backwoods jukes of central Mississippi represented a gold mine: he could stroll down two blocks to Mill Street and discover Ishmon Bracey fooling around on a guitar (Bracey: ‘I thought he was the law’), drag him back to the store and cut a demo, ship it off to Victor Records, put Bracey on a train to Memphis for a hastily arranged session, and end up with a modest hit single like ‘Saturday Blues’ – all within the span of six months. A slightly more ambitious trip – just across the Pearl River two miles distant – would have landed Speir in the outlaw utopia known as the ‘Gold Coast,’ where some of the South’s finest performers stopped in to play amidst knife fights, blackjack tables, and a sea of bootleg whiskey. Here and elsewhere, he quickly built a word-of-mouth network and soon enough crossed paths with Tommy Johnson, Charley Patton, Skip James, the Mississippi Sheiks, Geeshie Wiley, and a host of other local artists who would become, to varying degrees and over varying timeframes, legends of that great ecosystem of music known for convenience as the ‘country blues.’
Though these figures in fact covered a tremendous range of styles and social positions, at one time or another they shared Jackson as a center of cultural gravity: a place ideally situated for cross-pollination, with jazz drifting upriver from New Orleans, country filtering in over the Piney Woods railroads, and blues innovations wafting down from the Delta, all acting upon a vibrant culture of idiosyncratic black artistry that dated back for generations. There are any number of anecdotes that illustrate the resultant frenzy of exchange. Among them we have Jimmie Rodgers – the brakeman from Meridian who borrowed from blues to found country – buttonholing Bracey and Tommy Johnson outside the King Edward Hotel in downtown Jackson, expressing his admiration, and inviting them straightaway to the rooftop to play for his select white audience. The latter may not even have been especially startled. Rodgers’ yodel, itself a hybrid of black and white elements, had readily found its way back into black music through the cross-cultural popularity of his late-twenties records. It can be heard in several guises on this compilation, as just one among many drifting scraps that attest to a culture of collective authorship amidst a riot of individual creativity.
To say that Mississippi had a rich creative culture is a banality, but one with a depth that may be hard for us now to fully appreciate. Could a Skip James exist today? James, who spent much of his life in minuscule Bentonia, fashioned himself into a sort of dark prophet, a part-time pimp and bootlegger and a full-time twisted, misanthropic genius. He spoke with a bizarrely refined vocabulary, wrote in an elaborate reversed script to confuse his ‘enemies,’ and may or may not have murdered a man in a lumber camp; he also left behind a body of recorded work that stands among the most hauntingly original of all American creations. Skip James’ music has the wildness of a great mind working in a depth of isolation that perhaps no longer exists. When Speir set up shop in the mid-‘20s, ‘schools’ or ‘genres’ of black music were still so diverse and dynamic as to render any labels virtually meaningless (and to forever frustrate searchers for the ‘origins’ of the blues); by the time he hung up his acetates in the late ‘30s, individual artistry was entering a dark age, and most everyone was listening to the latest record – swing, jump, boogie-woogie – out of Chicago.
In evolutionary terms, these discs span from the archaic grotesquerie of minstrel songs like ‘Mysterious Coon’ to the citified proto-rock of the Harlem Hamfats. That the same people were involved in both is a striking tribute to the adaptive forces at work. Whether or not ‘Alec Johnson’ was in fact an older Chatmon brother, as has been surmised, he certainly used Chatmons as accompanists – as well as the ubiquitous McCoy brothers, ‘Kansas Joe’ and ‘Papa Charlie,’ Hinds County neighbors of the Chatmons who went on to find success in Chicago as the Hamfats. The Chatmon-McCoy circle shows up on record in a bewildering array of guises and names, including the Mississippi Blacksnakes and the Mississippi Mud Steppers in addition to those already mentioned. Joe McCoy alone recorded as the Mississippi Mudder, Mud Dauber Joe, Hallelujah Joe, Hamfoot Ham, and the Hillbilly Plowboy, while Armenter Chatmon established one of the most successful solo careers of the ‘30s under the pseudonym ‘Bo Carter.’ Though they are rarely given much retrospective attention, the popularity, versatility, and influence of these two families was virtually unmatched for a decade-plus.
The rest of the compilation touches on ragtime, jazz, gospel, and hokum, while demonstrating the considerable structural and thematic variety within even the strictest construal of ‘the blues.’ If any one song epitomizes the futility of classification it is surely the transcendent ‘Last Kind Words Blues’ of Geeshie Wiley, the inscrutable provenance of both the work and its performer only accentuating its singularity.* Included as well are a few later recordings by relatively isolated artists: Scott Dunbar of Lake Mary (south of Natchez), Mott Willis of Crystal Springs, and Jack Owens of Bentonia. These men belonged to the same generation as those who made it onto wax in the Golden Age, and their highly idiomatic blues underscores the variety from which that era drew, while helping to undermine the contrived folk/pop distinction that has so often muddled blues scholarship.
This was an age more of endings than of beginnings, and few of them were happy ones. Patton’s, in 1934, and Johnson’s, in 1938, were perhaps comparatively merciful. Bo Carter vanished by the end of the decade and was found by chance years later, blind and destitute, in a shared shotgun house behind Beale Street in Memphis. Charlie McCoy slowly lost his mind to neurosyphilis and died in an institution in Chicago, unable (like Scott Joplin before him) to play or even fathom his own music. As for Jackson itself, the city closed a chapter in the summer of 1939 when 150 National Guardsmen were trucked in with machine guns, bayonets, and axes to all but demolish the thirty-odd nightclubs lining the Gold Coast. They would eventually be back, but the music that would return with them would no longer be Jackson’s.
When Tommy Johnson and Ishmon Bracey ran into each other on Jackson’s South Street circa 1956, their days spent playing and recording together must have seemed like an antediluvian past. Bracey had long since hung up his guitar in favor of preaching and painting houses; when at last tracked down for an interview, he wouldn’t so much as put on a blues record until his wife was safely out of earshot. As for Johnson, decades of whiskey had slowly consumed his mind and body, to say nothing of the leg-crippling Jamaica ginger (of Bracey’s ‘Jake Liquor Blues’) and the poisonous Sterno cooking fuel (of his own ‘Canned Heat Blues’) that he and others had so often turned to in desperation. On South Street, an abject Johnson shared his longing to get right, to escape the demons, but both knew it’d never happen; Bracey promised helplessly to pray for his friend, and they parted in tears. The next news of Johnson was that he was dead.
Skip James, meanwhile, would survive long enough to be hunted down by sixties revivalists in a Tunica hospital and awkwardly feted in coffeehouses across the Northeast. Somewhat miraculously, Sam Chatmon would hang on into the 1980s, the light-skinned son of an ex-slave fiddler and last face of a complicated tradition, still compelling guests onto his Hollandale front porch to hear ‘the old-fashioned music that first was handed down’ (along with a few more provocative numbers like ‘I Have to Paint My Face’). But the subtleties of Chatmon’s role had long since been flattened by a corporatized culture industry that needed its recruits to play definable parts. It was a pattern both new and old: his father the fiddler, who had once masterfully navigated the interstices of the plantation economy, had failed to satisfy the image of the moaning negro ‘more plaintive than the lay of the whippoorwill or the call of the sorrowing dove’**; likewise, Sam and other central Mississippi bluesmen proved too slippery to conform to the modern archetypes, and thus found themselves stuck in the footnotes as the blues narrative emerged.
In many ways the Golden Age had been given its aptest conclusion of all back in December 1938, when John Hammond lugged a phonograph onstage at Carnegie Hall to play a couple of Robert Johnson records for a rapt audience. He’d had Johnson himself lined up as the ‘big surprise’ to close out his big retrospective of black music in America, but the bluesman had of course run afoul of some poisoned whiskey in the meantime. Embellishing the story was already irresistible: in Hammond’s version, Johnson had perished ‘at the precise moment’ he had learned from scouts of the New York booking. His facts already giving way to legend, Johnson was collapsed into an iota, the black speaker-hole that would forever emit his abstracted sound and absorb the projected desires of his listeners. A deal with the devil, indeed.
We are told of a research student who took a seat on a fence to listen to the singing of a negro work gang on a railroad. When he finally detected their words he found they were singing lines that sounded like, ‘See dat white man…sittin’ on a fence…sittin’ on a fence…wastin’ his time…wastin’ his time.’ (Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag)
* See John Jeremiah Sullivan’s riveting essay ‘The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie’ for more on Wiley.
** From a description of spiritual tunes in John Wesley Work’s Folk Song of the American Negro.
- Jack Owens – Cherry Ball Blues
- Rosie Mae Moore – Staggering Blues
- Willie ‘Poor Boy’ Lofton – Dirty Mistreater
- Skip James – I’m So Glad
- Bo Carter – I Get the Blues
- Geeshie Wiley – Last Kind Words Blues
- Hamfoot Ham – Little Girl
- Charley Patton – Down the Dirt Road Blues
- Mississippi Mud Steppers – Jackson Stomp
- Ishmon Bracey – The Four Day Blues
- Alec Johnson – Mysterious Coon
- Little Brother Montgomery – Vicksburg Blues
- Scott Dunbar – Blue Yodel
- Robert Johnson – Walkin’ Blues
- Tommy Johnson – Canned Heat Blues
- Blind Roosevelt Graves – Bustin’ the Jug
- Skip James – Devil Got My Woman
- Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas – Pick Poor Robin Clean
- Charlie McCoy – Candy Man Blues
- Johnnie Temple – Gimme Some of That Yum Yum Yum
- Mississippi Bracey – I’ll Overcome Someday
- Charley Patton – Hang It On The Wall
- Little Brother Montgomery – Farish St. Jive
- Skip James – Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues
- Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas – Skinny Leg Blues
- Mississippi Sheiks – Sitting on Top of the World
- Charley Patton – Prayer of Death, Pt. 1
- Bo Carter – Old Devil
- Tommy Johnson – I Wonder to Myself
- Charlie McCoy with Rosie Mae Moore – Ha-Ha Blues
- Blind Roosevelt Graves – I’ll Be Rested (When the Roll Is Called)
- Harlem Hamfats – Weed Smoker’s Dream
- Mississippi Mudder – Going Back Home
- Mott Willis – Baby Please Don’t Go
- Rube Lacy – Mississippi Jail House Groan
- Scott Dunbar – Easy Rider
- Skip James – 22-20 Blues
- Walter Vinson – Mississippi Yodelin’ Blues
- Geeshie Wiley & Elvie Thomas – Motherless Child Blues
- Charley Patton – A Spoonful Blues
- Bo Carter – South Carolina Rag
- Joe McCoy – That Great Love
- Tommy Johnson – Lonesome Home Blues
- Ishmon Bracey – Where My Shoes At
No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it…The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils…The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf.
– Thoreau, Walden
Again and again in the time of Thoreau, the world saw itself in the shape of a leaf. In the days after Enlightenment but before Darwin, the obscure unities behind the Earth’s great multiplicity held an allure that verged on the mystical. Thinkers as disparate as Goethe (‘All is leaf’) and Spencer, Hegel and Whitman, seized on foliage as an epitome of the organic plan that, according to their various visions, generated all form. The same process of evolution (in its literal sense of ‘unfolding’) that carved the veins in a blade of grass, perhaps, guided just as surely the heaving of mountains and the march of civilization–and if one were to study the former with enough care, who’s to say one couldn’t anticipate the latter?
Ironically enough, one of Darwin’s broadest impacts was to nip such notions in the proverbial bud. By proposing a unity that seemingly relied on the absence of all plan or direction, the Origin turned the central Romantic questions on their head. Multiplicity could not be explained by positing a God who reveled in diversity, or some vital drive of all matter to differentiate and rearrange itself constructively. Instead, the question became: if all life on Earth is the product of the same ruthless, pointless reproductive tournament–a process that seems, if anything, guaranteed to destroy rather than construct–then why are there so many different kinds of things? Why, so to speak, have the winners not taken all? The problem of diversity, of the biosphere’s seemingly gratuitous extravagance in spinning off new varieties and varieties upon varieties, was a lifelong thorn in the side of Darwin himself, and filling in its solution has been a preoccupation of Darwinists ever since.
With the workings of natural selection laid bare, the same phenomena that had furnished proof of a congenial Creator, or of an irresistibly fertile life force–the nightingale’s song, or the rainforest’s kaleidoscopic lushness, or the riotous profusion of beetles–now seemed like glaring violations of Nature’s decree against waste. And what better demonstration of this than leaves themselves? Maple and oak, elm and walnut and beech: what had once served as a textbook example of the universe’s creativity, its skill in rendering artful variations on a simple, elegant theme, now read as an awkward footnote to a story about function. Especially awkward, in fact, because if anything ought to be purely and straightforwardly functional, surely it’s foliage. Right? Trees are not like beetles, dividing their labor in the diverse economy of nature. They’re not like songbirds, needing to brand themselves visually or to impress their neighbors through performance. Leaves are all employed in the same blue-collar business, as eaters of light, and they all do it in essentially the same way, with essentially the same toolkit. Right? So after four hundred million years of refinement, why is every forest not now a monoculture, with every tree wielding the same streamlined, optimized leaf?
To wrestle with this question is to confront our kingdom-based chauvinism. The life of a plant, so simple from afar, is in fact no less dynamic and no less challenging than our own. Leaves are far more than light eaters–and even that business is far from a simple one. Light is not just universally there for the taking, and just as the search for carbohydrates has variously shaped us as animals, the fight for light–in different quantities, at different times, under different pressures–has driven a spectacular diversification of form in our vegetable neighbors.
First: leaves are expensive. They have to be gotten to where the light is, arranged so as to best intercept it, and then held there until conditions change. The constraints of support favor certain leaf shapes over others–notably arrowhead shapes, heart shapes, and other base-heavy designs, in which the bulk of the leaf is concentrated near the stem. These shapes are most common in plants for whom leaf support is especially challenging. Take vines, which have given up their robust limbs in favor of climbing the limbs of others, but which nonetheless must stretch their light-eaters as far as possible to avoid being shaded by their hosts. The ideal vine leaf, therefore–think of grapes and morning-glories and ivy–has an unusually long petiole (leaf stem) and a leaf blade with counterweights (such as the ‘lobes’ of the heart) for balance. (This association is strong enough, in fact, that when these shapes happen to arise in non-vines, they may put their owners on the fast track to the climbing life. Among the ubiquitous aster family, there is only one common vine species in much of North America–Mikania scandens, whose closest non-vine cousin is the distinctively arrowhead-ish Ageratina.) Similar shapes often occur in emergent aquatic plants (such as the aptly named arrowheads, Sagittaria), whose petioles must both stretch above the surface and hold their positions against a current.
That all leaves are not spades or wedges suggests that there is a price to be paid for this approach. The nature of that price is perhaps best appreciated by considering a leaf at the opposite end of the shape spectrum: the colossal blade of the bigleaf magnolia, Magnolia macrophylla, with its bulk concentrated towards its great, floppy tip. Support is far less of an issue for a magnolia, with its stout twigs that are obliged to carry only a few leaves apiece. What is an issue is light, which is at a premium for a tree that makes its home in the shadowy understory of lush hardwood forests. In such an environment, if you want to most efficiently harvest what little light filters through the canopy, it’s imperative not only to minimize shading by neighbors but also to minimize the risk of shading yourself–that is, to arrange your leaves so that each is as unlikely as possible to obscure another. This criterion favors a shape that expands outwards, collectively forming a fan of foliage with maximum coverage and minimum overlap.
Most plants, of course, feel neither of these pressures quite so disproportionately. Most plants have struck a compromise between balancing their leaves and stretching them toward the light. That is why, if you were asked to draw a ‘basic’ leaf, you would likely draw a simple elliptical shape, widest at the middle. The notion that this shape really is somehow basic, the ur-leaf, is encouraged by the fact that it is so prevalent in the tropics–where much of early plant evolution took place, and where the environment is in many ways least rigorous. Tropical plant identification is not for the faint of heart, and not just because there are so many species; as I myself complained upon first setting foot in Costa Rica, they all look the same! Elliptical, smooth-margined, medium-sized, leathery; these leaf characteristics, which would eliminate all but a handful of trees or shrubs in Pennsylvania, are no help at all in Peru. Here is a welcome dose of perspective for us spoiled, Peterson-armed temperate botanizers. And here, too, is a clue to the next big question to ask.
Instead of imagining the ur-leaf, picture the most distinctive leaves you can think of. White oak. Sugar maple. Sycamore. Sweetgum. Hickory. Buckeye. Tuliptree. Locust. (Those of you from outside the eastern United States, bear with me.) Is it a coincidence that all of these are deciduous trees of temperate forests? Probably not, but the answer to this puzzle is complex and controversial. To get at it, we’ll need to understand the particular pressures that the deciduous lifestyle imposes on its followers, including the urgency of beginning photosynthesis in the spring, and the annoyance of herbivory. But that–as well as other fascinating phenomena, like the strange shapes of underwater leaves, and the use of leaf shape as “camouflage”–will have to wait till Part Two of this article.
Dull to the art that colors or creates,
Like the dead timepiece, godless nature creeps
Her plodding round, and, by the leaden weights,
The slavish motion keeps.
– Friedrich Schiller, “The Gods of Greece” (1788)
The shoulders of José Constanza are not, I will admit, the likeliest resting-place for the full weight of Western civilization. Look at him. The guy is listed at 5’9″ and 150 pounds, soaking wet in galoshes no doubt, on the Atlanta Braves’ roster. Until a few weeks ago, he didn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. José is roughly as likely to achieve lasting fame as his honorary stepbrother, Seinfeld’s George Costanza, is likely to leg out a bunt or chase down a gapper. But don’t be deceived by such trivialities. José has been chosen for a higher purpose. And his fate may just seal your own.
There is precious little to be known about José, the human being. I see him on the streets of Santo Domingo, chasing stickballs, I imagine, across mahogany-shaded sandlots, hustling and diving and laying out to snag the attention of the buscones who scour the backstreets for raw talent, leaving school and family to pile into roach-ridden hovels with boy-men more desperate than himself—and then landing the big break, the gringo’s visit that opens the door to the gleaming Academy, and ultimately across the water to the land of big money. And then the slow deflation of dreams deferred, of detours through the clean alien worlds of Kinston and Gwinnett, pride-sucking stints with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers and the Akron Aeros, endless hot bus rides and the ache of the bat bag and veiled slurs in half-grasped English. Such is José’s life for six years, seven hundred and forty-three baseball games, three thousand one hundred and sixty-four long walks to home plate and, more often than not, right back to the dugout, without any promise of a more estimable future.
And then a hernia changes everything. Deep in the groin of one Nate McLouth, that slumpingest and most-mocked of the Big Braves, something stretches to the point of no return. Nate is whisked, mercifully for all, to the operating table. And for lack of a better option, a certain pocket-sized Dominican journeyman is pluck’d from obscurity and whisked to the Big Show. Where for two wondrous weeks—and counting—Constanza, a fine but unspectacular baseball player for all of his 27 years, proceeds to uncork his best impression of Ted Williams. Hits well north of .400, wreaks havoc on the basepaths, bashes a home run (after hitting six in his entire minor-league career!), makes a circus catch in left. Up here, his new teammates fondly call him Georgie. José’s translator says he doesn’t mind. They probably don’t know his story, most of them, any more than I do.
In another sense, though, I know everything there is to know about him. José Constanza cannot hide from me. I have his ISO and his BABiP, his OPS and wOBA, his O-Swing and his Z-Swing, his BIZ and OOZ and UZR, right here at my hot little fingertips. Baseball feasts on failure, and every failure is witnessed and counted and wrung out and laid flat and, ultimately, embalmed as a statistic. If José aims his bat a quarter-inch too low, if he hesitates for a quarter-second on a liner in the gap, it will be known, and known forever.
In this respect, as in so many others, he is no different from any other ballplayer. In fact, it took me some time to recognize that the weight of Western civilization was resting on his shoulders. Perhaps I should have been tipped off that José was up to something when the cameras—they see all!—caught him licking the barrel of his bat after a foul tip. No real reason, says José Constanza’s translator. I just like the taste of burning wood. Sure, José, and I just like a little brimstone in my coffee.
But no, my first real clue to Georgie’s cosmic significance came later. It came, to be exact, on August 7, when his name appeared innocuously on a major league lineup card for the ninth straight game, and this mere fact caused the Braves blogosphere to crumble into smoking, blood-spattered, apocalyptic ruin. Here I include, as Exhibit A, an abridged (and mildly sanitized) transcript.
* * *
“Commentator A.” An avowed supporter of the Atlanta Braves, and an avowed disciple of the latest and most arcane statistics used to analyze baseball performance.
“Commentators B, C , D, E & F.” Avowed supporters of the Atlanta Braves, and avowed skeptics of the latest and most arcane statistics used to analyze baseball performance.
Sabermetrics. The latest and most arcane statistics used to analyze baseball performance. Named after the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
Jason Heyward – the Braves’ 22-year-old right fielder and superstar-in-training, once the top-rated prospect in all of baseball, yet currently embogged in the proverbial Sophomore Slump, and losing playing time, as a result, to José Constanza.
Act I. Scene I.
Commentator A. I appreciate what Constanza has done, but…eventually Heyward will need those starts. He’s the better overall hitter.
Commentator B. [Commentator A], we all understand you want to use metrics to prove your case on anything. Then please explain to me why the developers of SABER have stated in repeated interviews…that the metrics system is flawed…I honestly would like an honest answer and not some…….I know more than you because I look at different stats…
Com. A. [Explains several of the “metrics,” including BABiP (Batting Average on Balls in Play), which suggests that much of Constanza’s success can be attributed to luck.]
Com. B. I respect your view but I contend they are just numbers.
Com. A. [You] can say they are garbage all you want. But it really is like saying that you don’t believe in gravity or the speed of light or the pythagorean theorem.
Com. C. …All of this infatuation with applying endless stats to a game involving humans, human judgment, the wind, the rain, turf, maple vs hickory bats, baseballs in humidors and on and on…is for you and the others that really want to spend endless amounts of time second guessing what the guys are doing on the field and in the dugouts…. I’m in love with the game of baseball …. not some math geeks efforts to run the game like it was a rocket going to the moon.
Com. A. …It’s not trying to run it like a rocket ship, it’s trying to run it correctly.
Com. B. Grow up and stop getting defensive. You want to live in a metric world fine. Go for it. But I do have a problem when you try to look down you nose as you do reapeatedly to people that want logic instead of arbitrary numbers. By your Metric holy numbers……..Constanza never should have been on the roster.
Com. A. All these numbers do is show you what they did and how they did it. It digs through the chaff to get to the wheat. It shows you that (over a large enough sample size of course) you can expect player A to be this type of player.
Com. C. I’m betting Ted Williams didn’t studfy physics to make him the all time greatest hitter…here we’re just enjoying a kid’s game….of course a long comes a bunch of adults and screws it up….
Com. A. Yu are being aggressive. You accuse me of not presenting facts (and i have) you offer no facts of your own to back up your case…These numbers make the game better by providing a better tool for the mgr’s ,gm’s coaches, fans scouts..etc to use to determine player value. It’s foolish to not take advantage of more information when it’s available.
Com. B. …How old are you [Commentator A]? ” no i not aggressive you are”. Grow up son. And I call you son, if you want to try and question me there……..I served 10 years in the US ARMY, also gave up a baseball scholarship to do so. So just maybe I might know a little bit about a game I was good enough at playing to earn a scholarship even though I turned it down to serve my country. What about you?
Com. D. …I guess that you mean that Georgie can not play up here with all of us Phds with a chaw in our cheek cause he’s just a little 5-9 guy that spent 7 years riding buses?… No wonder he doesn’t speak English after all those years up here. I do not blame him a bit; if he did he might screw up and read those numbers and find out he can not do what he is doing…
Com. A. I’m saying that Constanza is probably going to regress to his normal numbers eventually in the big leagues. It may start tomorrow, it may start 3 weeks from now, it may start in April of next year, but He’s obviously not going to keep hitting .423.
Com. E. …there is one thing that can’t be quantified in numbers to predict performance and that is HEART AND DRIVE…i’m not saying constanza will keep it up but there always needs to be some magic for a team to win.
Com. A. [cites examples of players’ major-league performance conforming to their minor-league trends]
Com. B. Anybody can pick 2 names at random. You used avg/obp/ops…..where is your holy metrics? You believe in them use them…Son With all due respect you wouldn’t last 3 days in basic training at fort benning. Don’t test me son.
Com. A. I lasted 4 years in the Army, I’m 38 years old. I’m 6 foot 3 235 pounds…You silly attempts at belittling me as some sort of weakling is amusing.
Com. B. No soldier is as defensive as you sir. I am sorry, but we have pride and honor…You miss the point of all of the criticism. You claim numbers that are arbitrary and mean nothing. Baseball is a game of numbers but you are going over the top and not looking at logic…You are not a soldier. If you ever were, then I am embarrassed.
Com. A. I’m not defensive, I’m frustrated with the complete lack of cooperation or even an attempt to go “ohh, hmm you might be right about that” not it’s been pretty much “BURN THE WITCH!!!” …I left the army after 4 years to get away from all the meathead career army people…I’m the grandson of a 3 war vet AF colonel who started in the army air corps (which became the air force) he said that he retired because there were too many thick neck idiots coming in and not enough cream of the crop.
Com. C. …Pardon me but you are an arrogan elitest SOB. You skated thru a tour in Europe in peace time and were so damn smart you detest the thick necked “moron” that died so that weasels like you could preach statistics on a baseball blog…You are disgusting…..I’m out of here…you guys can have this little weasel
Com. F. Look out world. We are being attack by geek monsters!…Hide all of your “FIRST BORN”. THE GEEKS ARE TAKING OVER!
* * *
You dare to bring BABiP into my home? Sir, you are a coward and a blackguard! Fetch the dueling pistols! Just Southern men being Southern men, we might say. And Southern manhood is indeed a delicate thing. We take offense easily and badly—this much is the stuff of proverb—and nothing offends us more than an infringement on possibility. Hence the fondness for the tall tale. Hence the suspicion toward Big Government. And hence the fixation on baseball’s mythological Intangibles: Heart, Drive, the Hot Hand. The fabled conservatism that supposedly defines the South, and thus much of Braves fandom, is just a symptom of the deeper and wider condition of romanticism. A world in which little Georgie is forever imprisoned by his numbers, never given the chance to make his own magic, is a world in which the romantic finds little reason to live.
Heyward vs. Constanza is just an excuse, of course: a convenient dueling-ground for the Forces of the Old and the Forces of the New. It doesn’t hurt that Constanza is a throwback, a scrappy, pesky, hustling, grinding, hit-‘em-where-they-ain’t sparkplug rugrat (did I miss any?) who seems tailor-made for the small ball of yesteryear. Heyward, for all his neo-Ruthian exploits (see the trails of carnage he left through the Braves’ spring-training parking lots), is very much a product of modern baseball: hyped and coddled at every step through the farm system, fawned over by sabermetricians even—or especially—when his Standard Stats seem wanting, and doggedly milked by the PR machine as the messianic new face of African-American baseball. Heyward’s greatness (30 home runs, .400 OBP, plus arm, double-digit steals, etc.) is preordained and predetermined; it’s the inevitable output from a computer program, one that damn well better get it right, considering all the money we put into it. If he doesn’t fulfill his destiny, it’s going to be our fault for pressuring him too much. Or not giving him the at-bats. Forgive the old-timers if they can’t find the romance in all of this.
And if they can’t look to baseball for romance, after all, where can they look? Doesn’t the greatness of baseball depend on its indeterminacy? In this sport, impossible things happen routinely; its Valhalla is bedecked with portraits of unlikely heroes. Bill Mazeroski, a man whose offensive prowess earned him the nickname “The Glove” (in the spirit of “He’s got a great face for radio”), naturally slew Mantle and Maris and the rest of the mighty Yankees with one blast over the Forbes Field fence. Kirk Gibson, staggering to the plate on a blown knee, a shredded hamstring, and a flu-ridden stomach, naturally tore the hide off the ball and single-handedly snatched control of the ’88 Series. Francisco Cabrera (another Dominican Brave), after managing to bat only ten times during the whole of 1992, naturally stepped in for the eleventh time with two down in the ninth and the pennant in his hands, and naturally plated a lumbering Sid Bream to provide a life-defining moment for a generation of fans. Baseball is the sport in which no lead is safe; in which there’s nothing, in theory, to stop a game from stretching on towards extra-inning infinity; in which a hitter—even one as mortal as José Constanza—can at any given moment soar above the rules, the rhythms, the very boundaries of the game with one transcendent swing and one heroic trot.
And yet! And yet no other sport is so encrusted with numbers. No other sport is so quantifiable. No other sport, in fact, is so predictable, because no other team sport depends so much on the isolated work of the individual. For those fans mindful of rain and turf and hickory bats, the greatest fear is that the geeks at the walls will one day complete their conquest. Today’s “metrics” may be flawed, but science marches on, as long as there’s money to fuel it. Imagine a world in which we can predict not only José’s long-term value but his moment-to-moment reactions. A world with electrodes in José’s brain, feeding real-time data to MLB-sponsored supercomputers. A world in which we could all pause our TiVos, freeze that backdoor slider, hit the Markov Chain button, anticipate the swing and the miss (or the kiss of the bat?), and turn back to our dinner with muttered oaths but unoffended eyeballs. A world in which José is nothing but a stream of bits, and to actually “watch” him is a messy waste of time. To know baseball fully would be to kill baseball. Wouldn’t it?
But this is not really about baseball, just as it’s not about the Southern man. As promised, it’s about the fate of civilization. The disenchantment of the diamond, that project to which the “metrics”-mongers are so fanatically devoted in the eyes of their enemies, is merely Step 8,732 in the disenchantment of the whole God-forsaken world. Old Max Weber, who gave us that word (actually, he said: Entzauberung!, with a Teutonic flourish of his bushy eyebrows—or so I imagine), saw it all coming. The gods will be driven out! Magic will succumb to reason! And lo, we will be no more than cogs in a machine, locked in an “iron cage” of soulless bureaucracy. Weber was not one to sugar-coat things much; he also foresaw modernized life as a “polar night of icy darkness,” haunted by “sensualists without heart” and “specialists without spirit.” His thoughts on Sabermetrik would surely have been dire. But Weber also held out hope that a new breed of heroes might someday emerge: a breed with the ability to find and defend some precious patch of meaning amidst the soul-crushing forces of rationalization; a breed able to harness the powers of modernity without succumbing to dissolution, anomie, and protein shakes.
Like all of us, I guess, I aspire to be that guy. I love sabermetrics. I love taking a player—for comedy’s sake, let’s say Wily Mo Peña—cooking him down to a handful of decimals, tossing him back like a shot of whiskey, and feeling the satisfying warmth of digested knowledge. I also love watching baseball, love all the stuff between the boxscore lines. I love seeing two grown men barrel into each other in shallow left field. I love the broken bats, the barehanded rollers, the rundowns, the dogpiles, the mound visits and patted behinds. I love seeing a borderline dinger coaxed into fair territory by a little gesticulation and sweet-talk. I love the simple feeling of adulation when Francisco Cabrera, or whoever, fulfills my fondest hope.
But adulation is a dying art. Today’s baseball gods are a far cry from Olympians like Cobb and Ruth; steroids, endorsements, Twitter feeds, reality TV, vapid postgame interviews, and yes, statistical cynicism have made sure of that. The kid’s game has been ruined by grown-ups; the numbers say that we’ll all come down to earth, when all we want to do is leave it for a while. So is ignorance really bliss? Doesn’t the thick-neck idiot have something we covet? Is baseball fandom, truly meaningful baseball fandom, really possible without sticking one’s head in the sand? Or can I have my Constanza and my Heyward too?
In the old times, whenever the Higher Powers got too lazy or fractious or full of themselves, whenever things got too heavy or dull or one-sided, you could count on the Trickster to show up. The Trickster was pesky, scrappy, and a sparkplug. He went by Puck, or Loki, or Coyote, or Anansi, or Brer Rabbit, but regardless of guise, the message was the same. Keep it loose! Rules and numbers, science and progress, are all well and good, but go all in and you’ll hear that iron door locking behind you. So long as you don’t know everything, leave yourself a little wiggle room; without a little irreverence, a little wildness, a little bat-licking crazy juice, the unexpected is impossible. Small wonder that tricksters so often did double duty as world-builders or fertility gods.
What do you say, José? You’re nothing but a bush-league scrub, underneath that small-sample veneer, and you know it. You’ll cool off any day now; the metrics are coming for you. I dare you to prove me wrong. That’s what I’m saying to my TV on the night of the twelfth, as Constanza digs in—for the first time in his life—against the Cubs’ plume of molten rock better known as Carlos Zambrano. First time up, he drags a bunt toward first, does a little softshoe to dodge the tag, and is called for leaving the baseline. Baselines! says José Constanza. I don’t need your stinkin’ baselines!
But he digs in again in the fourth, one out, bases empty. Takes three straight pitches. Waggles his bat—or the bat waggles José, it’s not clear. Gets a fastball at the letters, middle of the plate. Lifts his leg sky-high like he’s going to defile the thing, and then reaches out instead and swats it toward the opposite field. Looks for all the world like another one of his slap singles, and from the way José takes off out of the box, you’d guess he thought so too. But it just keeps carrying, like it’s hitched to piano wire on a Hollywood set. And before you have time to blurt out what you’re thinking—No chance, this can’t happen, dude weighs a buck fifty, he’s got six homers in the past six years, and he already hit his one fluky big-league shot the other night—it’s screaming over the fence and José Constanza is sprinting round the bases, holding onto his helmet like he’s on the ride of his life.
Outlier, say the metrics. Magic, says baseball.
 I provide the link for your convenience, but also to spare you the indignity of Googling “licking bat”—although hidden in those unsavory results, it must be noted, is Tan et al.’s must-read article entitled “Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time.”
 Walker Percy said it better: “Like many young men in the South, he became overly subtle and had trouble ruling out the possible. They are not like an immigrant’s son from Passaic who decides to become a dentist and that is that. Southerners have trouble ruling out the possible. What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course. Except war. If a man lives in the sphere of the possible and waits for something to happen, what he is waiting for is war—or the end of the world. That is why Southerners like to fight and make good soldiers. In war the possible becomes actual through no doing of one’s own.” (The Last Gentleman)
I started another blog, because that, clearly, is what the world needs.
Here is the link:
This is from the “About” page:
GLIFFIN, v.n. To open the eyes at intervals, in awaking from a disturbed sleep or slumber.
– John Jamieson, An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 1808
A Gliffin is simply a (found) image plus a (found) piece of text, put together in such a way as to unsettle the imagination. Making a Gliffin is easy; making a good Gliffin is hard. Gliffins can serve as many things, including aphorisms, jokes, puzzles, dream triggers, writing prompts, and research starters. The Gliffin’s ultimate purpose, of course, is to invite us to worlds not yet known.
Material is everywhere, but Wikipedia and Google Books are very useful and one could chase Gliffins through them for a very long time. The image and text can come from any sources whatsoever; they can come from the same source, if you like. But it is said that the most wonderful Gliffins lurk in the remotest and farthest-flung places.
Here is one example:
(Image: Max Ernst, from Une semaine de bonté, 1934; text: James de Mille, An Open Question, 1873)
I for one welcome our new computer overlords.
– Ken Jennings, ex-Jeopardy! grand champion
I’ve been thinking about Watson, the supercomputer that got its 15 minutes of fame last week after leaving microchip tracks all over the backs of humanity’s top quiz whizzes. We know now, after years of hype, what Watson can do. But what does Watson mean? There’s been a lot of ink flying around lately regarding that question, but I’ve yet to see a clear answer emerge from the general splatter. The mainstream media, it seems, is not going to be much help:
What humans have that [computers] do not have and will not get is the sort of thing that makes song, romance, smiles, sadness and all that jazz. It’s something the experts…know very well because they can’t figure out how it works in people, much less duplicate it. It’s that indescribable essence of humanity.
In other words, Watson will never be a real boy: he lacks that, you know, that something — which, whatever it is, is so obvious that it hardly needs to be articulated. This sort of glib reassurance has been a very popular response to the whole affair, but it sure leaves a lot of questions unanswered (or answers unquestioned, in keeping with the Jeopardy! spirit). A suggestion for those who are anxious about the prospect of being overthrown: barricading yourself behind an ‘indescribable essence’ is not the most daunting defense.
If you don’t watch Jeopardy! and you read commentaries like the one quoted above, you could be forgiven for thinking of Watson as nothing but a turbocharged calculator, relying on brute force to crunch the data faster and harder than its human opponents. Big whoop, you might say. We’ve been relying on computers to crunch our data for us for decades now. And if the game had been made up of questions like ‘What is the capital of Burkina Faso?’ or ‘What is the sum of 5,891 and 12,435?’, Watson’s accomplishment would have been underwhelming indeed. But the reason IBM saw Jeopardy! as such a tantalizing challenge was precisely that it’s not just about crunching data. (If it had been, they would have been better off bringing in Tianhe-1, the just-unleashed Chinese machine that is to Watson what Usain Bolt is to yours truly.) Consider the following, each of which Watson answered correctly (though it wasn’t specific enough to get credit for the first one), and think about all the mental work, conscious and sub-, that goes into parsing each clue and homing in on a solution. And if it doesn’t seem like much work, think harder.
It was the anatomical oddity of U.S. gymnast George Eyser, who won a gold medal on the parallel bars in 1904.
Wanted for a 12-year crime spree of eating King Hrothgar’s warriors; officer Beowulf has been assigned the case.
In English law, it’s a title above a gentleman & below a knight; in the U.S., it’s usually added to the name of an attorney.
William Wilkinson’s “An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia” inspired this author’s most famous novel.
A Dana Carvey character on “Saturday Night Live”; isn’t that special…
In order to unpack each sentence, correctly interpret each word in context (such as ‘wanted’ or ‘title’), discard the irrelevant bits, assess the unexpected juxtapositions (‘officer Beowulf’), sniff out trails of associations through multiple sources, and quickly whittle those associations down to a single answer that makes sense, Watson had to do a lot more than shuffling digits. In fact, it had to do something very much like understanding English. But of course that’s preposterous, because we know that as a computer, all Watson really does is shuffle digits. Right? Well, for that matter, all that his hapless opponents really did was shuffle synapses. What does Watson have to do to earn, as Ken and Brad and you and I have, a higher level of description? More on this later.
Of course, Watson’s inevitable failures offer plenty of ammunition for artificial-intelligence skeptics. Its biggest blunder last week came, awkwardly enough, during the Final Jeopardy round, when the category was announced as ‘U.S. Cities’ and the clue was: Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle. Watson is programmed to buzz in only when it reaches a certain threshold of confidence, but since everyone has to put down an answer in Final Jeopardy, it was forced to reveal its wild guess: ‘Toronto?????‘ What a dope! What a cretin! Everyone knows that Toronto’s not a U.S. city! I guess we can all breathe easy about those would-be computer overlords after all.
And yet the more I think about that response, the more intelligent it seems, in a way — a quite human way, in fact. Like me, Watson didn’t know the answer; like me, it must have formulated a guess partly by hunting for clues, and partly by a process of elimination. For instance: this city is going to have to be a large city, with multiple airports that one might have heard of; that narrows the list quite a bit. In the 30 seconds allotted for responding, like me, Watson no doubt picked the question apart and scrambled through the various possibilities, hoping for some faint bell to ring. Unlike me, Watson apparently thought of Toronto, and perhaps dredged up the datum that the city’s Pearson and Bishop airports both have World War associations (both men served in WWI, as it so happens). That being Watson’s strongest lead when time was up, that became its reluctant answer.
But wait — why was Toronto on the list at all? Because Watson was thinking outside the box. Thanks to its training, it was smart enough to recognize that categories in Jeopardy! are very often playfully misleading; ‘Country Clubs’ might include clues like ‘This is the French word for “stick.”‘ So when it failed to quickly find a match among U.S. cities in the strict sense, Watson likely tried going down side roads. Perhaps, as Watson’s lead designer suggested afterwards (he cheekily wore a Blue Jays jacket to his interview), it fixated on the fact that Toronto fields a team in baseball’s American League, and decided this might be a clever reinterpretation of the category. You and I know this just doesn’t work — the joke isn’t funny — but had that category been ‘American Cities,’ it almost would have. Watson’s answer was amusingly out of touch, but it wasn’t unreasonable; it strikes me as just the sort of mistake an intelligent extraterrestrial might make, after boning up on Earthlings for a few years via books and newspapers. The point is that Watson, when backed into a corner, seems to have responded creatively and unexpectedly — qualities we’re not used to attributing to computers.
For some people, the key word here is seems. You can simulate intelligence all you want, they say; that doesn’t make it the real deal. Literary and cultural critic Stanley Fish believes this. In a recent Times Opinionator piece, which brushes off Watson as a glorified spell-checker, Fish plays a philosophical trump card by invoking the hallowed name of Wittgenstein. Here’s what that ‘indescribable essence’ is, he says, that will always separate us from the machines: it’s a form of life. Although Wittgenstein himself (who coined it) never fully fleshed out the term, Fish understands it to mean the ‘situation,’ the ‘context,’ the ‘world’ within which every human intelligence operates. He finds it all but obvious that such a world is categorically off-limits to the fleshless: ‘The computer inhabits nothing and has no purposes and because it has no purposes it cannot alter its present (wholly predetermined) “behavior” when it fails to advance the purposes it doesn’t have.’
That’s an awfully dogmatic statement. Sure, Watson is not going to shoot spitballs at Trebek or walk offstage to grab a sandwich; those particular behaviors are off-limits to this particular machine, just as they are to an ant or a fish or a newborn. But Watson does inhabit a world, albeit the extremely circumscribed world of one particular game show. It does have purposes, albeit the extremely trivial purposes of answering quiz questions and amassing prize money. For that matter, your world and mine would no doubt seem circumscribed, and our purposes trivial, from some loftier vantage. And to call Watson’s behavior ‘wholly predetermined’ is a stretch: after all, Watson has read things that its creators haven’t (about 200 million pages’ worth), drawn connections that they’ve never imagined, and surprised them continually with the things it does and doesn’t know. (Years ago during early training, Watson answered a question about Louis Pasteur by citing the ’70s cannibal flick ‘How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman?’) Like humans, Watson has a predetermined program — call it a genome — that is designed to help it cope, in often unexpected ways, with an unpredictable world.
But these objections aside, it’s not really fair to pick on Watson, is it? As its proud parents at IBM readily point out, Watson was obviously not designed to simulate a human; it was designed to simulate a top-level Jeopardy! player, and that’s it. If they had wanted to, they could have built in a module that improvises marimba solos, or one that composes corny puns, or one that detects opponents’ emotions and sheds tears of empathy. They could have built in a general decision module, a frontal lobe of sorts, that chose which of these motley behaviors to engage in, depending on an instantaneous assessment of internal states or external stimuli. They could have given Watson a pair of giant robotic legs and had it shamble around the set, looking for a sandwich. They could have endowed it, cruelly, with embarrassing sexual urges that clouded its Jeopardy! judgment. At what point could we say that Watson had entered a ‘situation’?
Now hold on just a minute! you may say. Perhaps I’m taking way too many liberties with the language here. Sure, you could program in some machine-code equivalent of raging hormones; you could devise some algorithm that scrambled Watson’s answers by x amount when those ‘hormones’ raged; but to say that Watson, this machine, this heap of metal, would then ‘feel’ some kind of ‘urges’ is absurd. A computer can’t truly feel anything, just as a computer can’t truly understand anything. This is part of Fish’s claim (‘the computer doesn’t know anything in the relevant sense of “know”’), and it’s been echoed by Stephen Baker, the guy who literally wrote the book on Watson:
See, Watson isn’t nearly as smart as it looks on TV. Outside of its specialty of answering questions, the computer remains largely clueless. It knows nothing. When it comes up with an answer, such as “What is ‘Othello’?,” the name of Shakespeare’s play is simply the combination of ones and zeros that correlates with millions of calculations it has carried out. Statistics tell it that there is a high probability that the word “Othello” matches with a “tragedy,” a “captain” and a “Moor.” But Watson doesn’t understand the meaning of those words any more than Google does, or, for that matter, a parrot raised in a household of Elizabethan scholars.
Really? Watson doesn’t understand the meaning of words any more than a parrot does? What exactly do we know about Othello that is fundamentally, decisively, categorically unknowable by a computer — even a computer with a computation speed (80 trillion operations per second) and a memory capacity (4 terabytes) that, while fairly puny by the standards of today’s supercomputers, already rival our best estimates for those of the human brain? How exactly do we ourselves come to understand the words ‘tragedy,’ ‘captain,’ and ‘Moor,’ if not by ‘correlating them with millions of calculations’? At what point in our education can we claim to have truly grasped these words, as opposed to ‘just’ assessing their relationships? Anyone with a small child can testify that language learning is a haphazard, probabilistic, indefinite process, not unlike the one that is modeled (however crudely) in Watson’s primitive brain.
But there’s a powerful intuition lurking behind Fish’s and Baker’s arguments — one that was best expressed years ago, by the philosopher John Searle, in his notorious thought experiment of the Chinese Room. Here’s how it goes: say, first of all, that I don’t understand a bit of Chinese (which I don’t). Say you were to stick me in a little room, with a door that has a slot in it, and that the only thing in the room is a stack of instructions — detailed, tedious, mind-numbing instructions — for taking questions in Chinese and generating appropriate Chinese answers: ‘IF INPUT = 你好吗, OUTPUT = 很好谢谢你,’ and so on. Say you were then to start passing notes in Chinese through the slot. I could follow the instructions and crank out Chinese all day long. I could crank out Chinese till I was blue in the face. You’d think for all the world you were chatting with a native speaker. But that would never, ever, change the fact that I don’t understand a bit of Chinese. I’m just computing — following rules, stupidly, blindly, just as Watson does.
Searle’s paper, one of the most controversial in the recent history of philosophy, has been attacked by a lot of people from a lot of different directions. The clincher, for me, is the observation that there’s some serious sleight-of-hand going on in his basic analogy. What’s the computer here? The line of reasoning above assumes that the computer is me, the person inside the room. I don’t understand the data I’m processing, so a computer must not either. But wait — put yourself in the shoes of the person outside the room for a minute, and assume you’re clueless about what’s going on behind that door. You’re not passing me the Chinese notes; you’re passing them to the room, and the room, thanks to whatever mysterious subprocesses and submodules are housed within, is holding up its end of the conversation. So the real question is: does the room as a whole understand Chinese? Or, if you’d rather: does the room as a whole constitute a mind?
If we insist on denying that, then it puts us in a tight spot. How can I be sure that anyone really understands what I’m saying? You may be nodding thoughtfully right now; you may even leave a clever and insightful comment; but how can I be sure that you’re really understanding (i.e., that you’re the equivalent of a room with a real Chinese speaker inside), as opposed to ‘just following rules’ (i.e., that you’re a room with a dumb American and a stack of paper)? This is, of course, a stupid question. In real life, if a person speaks intelligently, we have no trouble whatsoever calling them intelligent. Why should we hold computers to a higher standard?
In one sense, none of this matters; it’s all just semantics. Certain commentators will keep on imposing a glass ceiling on artificial intelligence, insisting on indescribable essences of one sort or another; and AI researchers will keep on ignoring them, and building smarter and smarter computers capable of more and more things. My children and grandchildren will interact with machines in ways I can’t yet fathom — machines that ‘simulate’ reason and emotion, creation and conversation, more and more convincingly, making it harder and harder to draw a line between their minds and ours. Last week, the machines took another big step down the road toward intelligence. They’re still a million miles from us, to paraphrase Stanley Fish; on that much, at least, we agree. But they’ve built up quite a head of steam. And if there’s something big blocking that road, I have yet to see it.