The Sunday Post for January 1, 2017

The Great A.I. Awakening

This piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a little late to the Sunday Post but is so darned good we can’t resist. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are an arms race in the tech sector right now. Most progress is incremental, but the breakthroughs — like Deep Blue’s victory over Fan Hui — are both exhilarating and terrifying. Now Google Translate has another.

Epic geekery, global collaboration, and a translation of The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Order a second cup and settle in for this one.

Pichai has an affection for the obscure literary reference; he told me a month earlier, in his office in Mountain View, Calif., that Translate in part exists because not everyone can be like the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who learned Sanskrit to read the Bhagavad Gita in the original. In London, the slide on the monitors behind him flicked to a Borges quote: “Uno no es lo que es por lo que escribe, sino por lo que ha leído.

Grinning, Pichai read aloud an awkward English version of the sentence that had been rendered by the old Translate system: “One is not what is for what he writes, but for what he has read.”

To the right of that was a new A.I.-rendered version: “You are not what you write, but what you have read.”

It was a fitting remark: The new Google Translate was run on the first machines that had, in a sense, ever learned to read anything at all.

Darling Nikki

In one last look back, Maggie Nelson’s gleeful, thoughtful, sex-fiend celebration of Prince’s Purple Rain.

Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace. I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front and wore it with skintight crushed-velvet hot pants, laid a full-length mirror on the floor, and slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage. Half naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince is telling us a story. An important one.
A Year in Reading: Kevin Nguyen

Kevin Nguyen is angry at Book Twitter, primarily and unfortunately for being Book Twitter. Agree or disagree, a powerful read alongside Simon and Schuster’s recent announcement.

After the election, there was no soul searching on Book Twitter. No one questioned the power structures of publishing. Can we talk about how one of the Big Five publishers is owned by News Corp? Often the publishing of things like Bill O’Reilly’s twisted histories is justified as a means to support literary fiction. But does anyone ask if that trade-off is worth it?
The Crazy Story of the Professor Who Came to Stay — and Wouldn't Leave

Elizabeth Abel, an English professor at the University of California-Berkeley, handed her housekeys to a colleague for the duration of her sabbatical in Paris. When the rent stopped coming, she asked him to leave. It was the first act in months-long struggle to reclaim her home and a tragicomedy of academic indignation.

Ian Gordon documents Abel’s experience with the dark side of the sharing economy.

Abel peered behind him into her living room, which was practically empty. Most of her furniture was gone: a dining table and four chairs, two easy chairs, an antique piece. Her books and rugs were nowhere to be seen. Even the artwork had been taken off the walls.

As Abel walked around the place she'd called home for three decades, she had the distinct feeling that her life had been erased.

The Scare Quote: 2016 in a Punctuation Mark

Stop worrying about whether grandma is joining dinner or is dinner — punctuation has subtler tricks up its sleeve. Megan Garber reports on the rise of the scare quote: the sardonically raised brow, the sneer, and the cowardly sidestep of this ugly political moment.

Those little marks, hovering miasmically over our civic discourse, also suggest, in the aggregate, the unsettling fragility of language. Scare quotes aren’t just about distance; they’re also about disruption. They are a little bit belligerent, and a little bit anarchic. They want to destabilize, to make us question the things we thought we shared — indeed, to question who the “we” really is in the first place.