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Letters to the editor

Pas de Deux ex Machina

A computer can be configured to form sentences and respond to human language, as Brian Christian details in “Mind vs. Machine” (March Atlantic). But for the Turing Test to mean anything at all, the machine would need to demonstrate the capacity to conceptualize, and not merely to retrieve pieces from a vast toolbox of indexed algorithms and memories. We are capable of endless conversation largely devoid of content, which says more about the humans conducting the tests than it does about the computers’ ability to think.

Steve Mittelstaedt
Ferndale, Wash.

The distinction between judges and confederates in the Turing Test is unnecessary. You could instead have two groups of people, each randomly paired with either a computer or a person from the other group. Each person would demonstrate his or her humanity and assess the humanity of the conversational partner. As in real life, each would both judge and be judged.

A further variation would be to randomly pair computers either with people or with other computers, and ask each computer to evaluate the humanity of its conversational partner. It could be a humbling experience to watch two computers pretending to be as slow-witted, irrational, and fumble-fingered as mere humans.

Robert Mack
Cambridge, Mass.

Foodie Indulgence

B. R. Myers’s March polemic, “Fed Up,” conflates the gluttony of outrageous food entertainment with the socially conscious, sustainability-seeking food movement. Butchery may not be literature, but it does, literally, feed people. B. R. Myers’s derision smacks of pride, which I believe is somewhere on that list of seven …

Adam Cook
Lincoln, Ill.

How dare B. R. Myers claim that people—like Michael Pollan, like myself—in the slow-food movement “feign” concern for animals. Caring about food, how we share it, how we prepare it, where it comes from, and the impact of our eating on animals and the environment is a much-needed corrective to the industrialized and inhumane food system that provides the majority of edibles in this country. Myers does no service by confounding a laudable effort to bring awareness and compassion to the dinner table with simple over-indulgence.

Diane M. Jones
Boise, Idaho

Why the vitriol? Was B. R. Myers’s mother run over by a grocery truck? Perhaps the state of food writing is as bleak as he argues—certainly the examples he quotes are unattractive. But he does tar interest in food with a broad brush. Life is a great, diverse experience. Some people are interested in cars, some in music; others collect stamps. We all have to eat. Why not enjoy it? Is it “elitist” (a term Myers applies to foodies) to take interest in your meals? Does concern with one’s health also make one an elitist?

In any endeavor involving humans, there will be some unpleasant people. It would be unfortunate if all food writers were among them. But, Myers can be sure, not all “foodies” are.

Rick Ross
Sweet Home, Ore.

B. R. Myers replies:

A foodie is by definition an extremist; the word was created to distinguish those who live to eat from mere food-lovers like myself. The point I hoped to make in “Fed Up” is that we should no more leave the food discourse to these people than we would leave sex education to lechers.

Yes, Adam Cook, butchery feeds people, but the less butchery that goes on, the more people we can feed. I agree with Diane Jones that factories cannot supply the growing demand for meat without abusing animals and destroying the Earth. Unfortunately the solution dreamily proposed in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is to farm ever more meat ever less intensively, and chew it with proper “reverence,” only shows how hard it is for foodies to think outside the mouth. The best corrective to factory farms is a vegetarian diet, but the advertising-driven, foodie-controlled food media will never admit that.

Evidently Rick Ross saw no reason to check the state of food writing before insinuating that I had done it an injustice. Will he also send a letter chiding Anthony Bourdain for his consumption of endangered ortolan, perhaps joking about how his mother might have died? I doubt it; and as long as such “pleasant” foodies refuse to criticize the “unpleasant” ones, I will go on overlooking the distinction entirely.

Whither the Ticks?

What happened to the tick population on Mark Bowden’s farm (“Those Things With Feathers,” March Atlantic)?

David A. Thomas
Leesburg, Va.

Mark Bowden replies:

So far, our effort to control deer ticks with guineas has been a complete failure. Complete may not actually cover the extent of it. In collecting eggs from the surviving hen last summer, my wife and I both crawled through enough brush and high grass to increase our normal exposure to the dangerous little bloodsuckers manyfold.

We have hopes for the regenerated flock … but low hopes.

Building Demand

It’s puzzling that Edward Glaeser (“How Skyscrapers Can Save the City,” March Atlantic) applies a straightforward supply-and-demand calculus to New York City real estate, pointing out that housing costs were higher during the 1980s and ’90s, when the city issued relatively few new construction permits, than during the post-war boom of the ’50s and ’60s. The relationship between supply, demand, and cost in New York real estate is more complex than that—as Glaeser knows, better than most. What he leaves out here is that the number of new residential construction permits issued in New York doubled between 2000 and the start of the recession in 2008, reaching levels more than triple those during the peak of post-war construction—yet prices soared at the same time.

The reason supply and price can rise at the same time is that factors other than housing costs—principally, crime rates—affect the city’s desirability. It’s true that during those same (Bloomberg) years, more and more of the city came under protection from the landmarks law, and the zoning code became more and more detailed and complex, restricting the free market. But the city grew denser, controlled how that density was distributed, and became more expensive, all at the same time.

Building skyscrapers can make a city cost more, not less—until you build so many that fewer people want to live in them.

Justin Davidson
Architecture Critic
New York Magazine
New York, N.Y.

Covering the Secret Service

Marc Ambinder’s “Inside the Secret Service” (March Atlantic) was interesting. As a professional photographer, I have had many interactions with the Secret Service, and I took the New York Post photo that Ambinder wrote about.

It was a beautiful early-fall Sunday morning. I was chatting with another photographer across the street from the French president’s hotel. A third colleague arrived—the photographer described in the article. He was not wearing his press pass and had not yet taken his camera out of his bag.

Suddenly, a huge motorcade—at least 20 vehicles plus an ambulance—came blaring up Madison Avenue. Only high-priority heads of state generally have an ambulance, so we knew this was someone important. The photographer took off running, I suppose out of curiosity more than anything. The agents and officers saw a man running at top speed with no press pass and a hand in his bag. I walked toward him, I suppose out of curiosity myself. I got halfway down the block before I had a clear view. He was already down on the ground with his hands stretched out in front of him, as he is in my photo.

Seeing the guns drawn stopped me in my path immediately. Instinct and experience made me lift the camera and start shooting. I did not notice right away, but a member of the NYPD SWAT team was pointing a machine gun at the crowd, telling us to move back. That is when I stopped taking photos.

Experience and training kept anything awful from happening that day. I guess the idea is to not run after a motorcade.

Andrea Renault
New York, N.Y.


Atlantic readers complete “The Sentence.”

In “Mind vs. Machine,” Brian Christian writes that we “have been puzzling over the essential definition of human uniqueness since the beginning of recorded history. The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that every psychologist must, at some point in his or her career, write a version of what he calls ‘The Sentence,’ [which] reads like this: The human being is the only animal that ______.” According to our readers, only the human being:

• tries to finish sentences like this.

•makes rules for its kind and then breaks them at will.

•cleans its teeth.


•tries to win the Turing Test.