April 28, 2005

Reflections on Student Readings

I really enjoyed reading my classmates' chosen readings for today. Each article made me think about something new and different related to Media Aesthetics, and it was interesting being able to see a glimpse of their presentations (and papers!).

Amanda's article, "Textual Memory: The Making of the Titanic's literary archive" by Peter Middleton and Time Woods offered some very intriguing insights on both James Cameron's film Titanic. Although I enjoyed the movie when I first watched it in middle school, I have yet to rewatch it or look at it with an eye more critical than a twelve-year-old's. This article, however, made me begin to see the different elements incorportated into the film. For instance, in his film, Cameron tried to ensure that "the 'emotional reality' of the past event was there as well as 'the one that was perfectly detailed, minute by minute, historically.'" I've never contemplated how important the balance between memory and history is, but without the memory, the history becomes cold and factual. Cameron would not be able to create a film about the Titanic with as much life as he did without incorporating the memories of Rose:

"Only the force of Rose's memories of the voyage that she survived without her lover, and the consequent absorptive power of the narrative of the voyage and the doomed love affair, which binds the otherwise tough, sceptical, technology-loving men of the crew to her every word, is capable of carrying them and us back in time to see the past reenacted."

Without the memories of Rose, the film may have technically been historically accurate, but the emotional tragedy of the event would have been lost upon the audience.

Denisha's article "Body Image and Advertising" was extremely disturbing to read. Although I'm not sure how reliable many of these statistics are, the author succeeded in convincing the reader that the media is solely responsible for how young females view their bodies. While I agree that the media's portrayal of the female body presents an often unrealistic ideal, there are also many other contributing factors. Another issue I had with this article is the small paragraph it devoted toward male body issues. Although a bigger stink may be made about how the media represents the female body, it is equally unfair to the men. Men are given extremely unrealistic ideals in terms of how their bodies should be sculpted; teenage boys concerned with their appearance are not only "more likely to think about or try smoking" or "twice as likely to experiment with tobacco," but are more likely to use steroids as a means of achieving that ideal.

Anne's chapter, "Architecture of the Senses: Neo-Baroque Entertainment Spectacles" from Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition was not what I had expected it to be. I never thought of architecture before in terms of its portrayal in movies, 3D films, and theme parks. I have always thought of these as separate mediums, not thinking that they could overlap:

"Entertainment forms like the Spiderman theme park attraction engage in such a complex and excessive level of interaction and remediation that it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle one media form from another. Does Spiderman, for example, belong to the realm of the cinema, television, computer technology, sculpture, architecture, the theater, the comic book, the animated series, or the theme park attraction?"

I was very excited when I read this section because it dealt with my own presentation. I am exploring how the television show Alias is represented in its different media forms: the origional TV show, the computer game, the video game, the young-adult prequel novels, the fan-fiction, the magazine, and the future comic book.

This leads me to my two articles: "Staking her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior" by Frances H. Early and "Complexity of Desire: Janeway/Chakotay Fan Fiction" by Victoria Somogyi. The first article deals with the warrior female attributes of the title character in the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The main character in Alias, Sydney Bristow, is very similar to Buffy in that she is the reluctant "Chosen One" who has to balance her evil-fighting life with her normal student life. Both women have men who are not nearly as powerful as they are, and both women have female nemeses who are just as strong as they are.

In my second article, it explores the reasons behind the popular heterosexual pairing of Janeway/Chakotay in a genre normally dominated by slash (male/male or female/female) fiction. After analyzing some of the Alias fan-fiction, I found that although there is some slash fiction (the majority of which is between Sydney and her Season 3 nemesis Lauren), most of the fan-fiction revolves around Sydney's relationships with her on again off again beau Vaughn, her father Jack, and her male nemesis Sark. Somogyi's article claims that the reason J/C fanfic is so popular is because Captain Janeway is such a dominant female character and Chakotay is a not as dominant male. I believe this is similarly true with Alias fanfic because Sydney, although vulnerable and overtly feminine, manages to be more intelligent than, faster than, stronger than, and a better shot than most of the men. This characterization holds true in most fanfics for she is often just as firey and strong, and holds her own against them men just as well as she does in the TV show. When fanfic authors do decide to make her character submissive, it is because she is rarely seen as such on the show, and it offers them an glimpse into the vulnerable side of her character that she tries so hard to keep hidden.

I also found the reading Dr. Jerz chose, "Aesthetic Judgements of the Natural Environment and Aesthetic Communication" from Aesthetics of the Natural Environment very interesting. In it, the author discusses the various ways we view the aestheticism of the environment around us, specifically nature. In this article, the author discusses whether or not all nature can be described as aesthetically good, and how we categorize and judge the aestheticism of both nature and our own urban and cultural environments. One quote in particular stuck out to me:

"A rural neighborhood, a city, a trash dump, or a garden all have a history, a complex relationship between parts, that we can come to appreciate. It is not clear why a history of human interference should require us to value an environment less"(199).

Throughout this article, the author cited critics who believed that nature was the supreme aesthetic, and that in "nature that is predominantly untouched by humans - nothing can ever be ugly" (198). Now there are many things that occur in nature that I believe are ugly, and there are many things in our human environment that I believe are beautiful. For instance, in my blog about the aesthetics of cityscapes I discuss how I believe New York City and its skyline to be absolutely beautiful.

While nature can create stunning and humbling beauty, it can also create many things that are not beautiful - for instance, death and decay. I don't agree with "positive aesthetics" who believe that "All virgin nature, in short, is essentially aesthetically good," because that implies that anything touched by humans is somehow flawed. While we have certainly had our fair share of destruction of beauty, we have also created many beautiful things that can certainly compare to the beauty nature creates.

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April 21, 2005

Assigned Readings

I sent out an email, but just in case it's not received, here are the links to my chosen readings:

"Staking Her Claim: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Transgressive Woman Warrior." -Frances H. Early (14 pages)

"Complexity of Desire: Janeway/Chakotay Fan Fiction." -Victoria Somogyi (5 pages)

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April 18, 2005

Perception of Female Beauty and How It Is Portrayed in the Media

Throughout history, the common person has understood his/her era's perception of beauty by how it was presented by the media of the day. The media not only presents society's current ideal, but it helps propagate that ideal through its assertions that the ideal can be made into a reality. In the past, that idea imitated what was being seen in the reality of the time, but in the present day that ideal has become exaggeratedly unreal.

In the Classical era, the feminine ideal was that which was attainable by the aristocracy. Hearty, well-fed, pale, small breasted and statuesque, this ideal was best portrayed through both paintings and sculpture. In the Victorian era, emphasis was placed on thin, corseted waists (again, attainable only by the aristocracy), but the ideal soon returned to the healthy, proportioned look. Sex Goddesses of the 20th Century, such as Marilyn Monroe, had that same pale, healthy, average-chested look that would be considered heavy by our current standards.

Because of various factors, including the supposed abolishment of social classes, our culture’s perception of the ideal has not only drastically changed, but it is now available to the masses through four distinct mediums – Television and Film, Magazines, Comic Books and Video Games, and Traditional Print Media. Each of these mediums uses the same ideal for its own specific purposes.

Television and Film

In most television sitcoms and film, “the ideal” is pitted against “the other.” The other is always a form of comedy, representing either the fat, imperfect, and unhappy female seen in Friends, The Nanny, and Bridget Jones’ Diary, or the short, smart, and funny female seen in Seinfeld and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.

In Friends, Monica’s fatter, younger self is a source of amusement for her and her friends. Flashbacks and a fat suit are utilized to heighten this contrast, and the audience is given permission to laugh because she has now turned into the ideal. Because her miseries as the other have passed, the common woman watching Friends may believe that she too can make a dramatic change toward the ideal. In The Nanny, Fran Fine, the ideal, is constantly worried about turning into her fat, unhappy mother Sylvia. The joke is intensified as Fran dreams of her future self (The actress in a fat suit). The common aging process called gaining weight is seen as the ultimate fall from grace.

For the film Bridget Jones’ Diary, actress Renee Zellwiger had to gain a severe amount of weight in order to play the fat, unhappy woman who tries to find love. In truth, her weight only ranged from 119-133 lbs, well below that of the American average of 162 lbs. Immediately after the movie finished filming, Zellwiger was praised by the media for managing to lose the weight and return to the ideal.

Two of the most famous female comedians fall into the other “other” category – Janeane Garofolo and Julia Louise-Dreyfus. The token female in Seinfeld, Julia Louise-Dreyfus made the character of Elaine famous through her multi-faceted personality. Elaine managed to be selfish, independent, crafty, loyal, funny, and smart, all while remaining loveable in her “normalcy.” Her flaws made her famous, but they also created a character too unlike the ideal to survive without the comedic elements. An actress also appearing in Seinfeld, Janeane Garofolo became famous by capitalizing on the fact that she wasn’t the ideal. In Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, for example, Garofolo played a sarcastic, cynical, and bitter woman whose anger is directed toward the title characters (the ideals). Although she eventually finds happiness in the end, that happiness is dwarfed by that of the ideals.

In recent years, the emergence of Reality TV, in particular makeover shows such as Extreme Makeover and The Swan have changed the popular belief that the current ideal is an unattainable goal. These shows make achieving the media’s ideal of beauty a reality. Many doctors, however, have spoken against these shows, claiming that the plastic surgeries used are themselves ideal scenarios. The candidates chosen are done so based on how dramatic their transformation will look with the least amount of surgeries. Candidates are also chose based on the elasticity of their skin, so that the amount of surgeries performed won’t be as dangerous as they would be for the majority of people who have less elasticity in their skin.

Magazines

While television sitcoms and film can merely contrast the ideal with the other, magazines have the ability to make an exaggerated form of the ideal seem like the reality. With tools such as airbrushing and hours of hair and makeup, they are able to turn the tiniest human imperfections into absolute perfection. In the words of Cindy Crawford: “Even I don’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford.” Magazines capitalize on this method by assuring readers that the look is not only real, but attainable. In the April 2005 issue of Marie Claire, for example, an article entitled “Sexy Body Tricks” illustrated how stars such as Heidi Klum and Jennifer Lopez became “blonder, thinner, and tanner” as they became more famous, then gave the readers quick tips on how to achieve the same look. These tips included getting “face-brightening highlights,” using sunless tanning cream, and using a dry grapeseed oil to enhance muscle definition. While these tips may help, they can in no way produce the desired effect. While the magazines may insist that the ideal is attainable, their step-by-step methods to reach the ideal only gloss the surface.

Another key element to magazines is their ability to show new trends in the ideal. The cover of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition about 10 years ago shows that the ideal was the extremely skinny, almost waif-ish, big-breasted look. Emphasis is placed on her chest, not her body as a whole. In the most recent Victoria Secret Swimsuit Collection, the model is seen as being not only thin, but muscular. While her chest is prominent, so are her abdominal muscles. She is by no means waif-ish; she maintains a healthy balance between thin and fit.

Comic Books and Video Gages

The feminine ideal in both comic books and video games is severely exaggerated – perhaps because they are both male-dominated forms of media. Video game characters such as Lara Croft are shown with disproportionately large breasts and unhealthily skinny waists. In comic books, female characters such as Catwoman are also given abnormally large breasts, although they tend to be somewhat more proportional to the rest of her body. However, more detail is given to her body than it is to her face, which remains rather anonymous. Although part of this is attributed to her anonymity behind the mask, the detail given to Superman’s chin makes his masked face extremely recognizable.

Traditional Print Media

While portrayal of the feminine ideal is not as extreme in traditional print media as it is in other mediums, that same ideal is still subtly portrayed. For instance, in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, he describes the ideal by describing how his love cannot compare to that ideal. By pointing out her shortcomings and flaws, he points out what feminine beauty should be. In the romance novels of today, the majority of heroines are described as having small waists, ample bosoms, and irresistible beauty. While the reader can choose to picture any heroine she wants, the initial description is that of the ideal.

In my presentation on this subject last Tuesday I attempted to portray these themes in similar detail but I know I didn’t go nearly in depth enough. Hopefully this blog will clear up some of my loose ends.


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April 13, 2005

Blog Portfolio 2

Now that two thirds of the semester has passed, I offer my second blog portfolio:

In Revisiting Thoreau - A Great Figure I was able to revisit a text that I had read in High School. Reflecting on the selected chapters from Walden I found that because I am never truly alone I have never been able to really listen and take in every little thing around me. In this blog I also discussed William Carlos Williams' poem "The Great Figure" and the accompanying painting by Demuth. Because I experienced them with the selections from Walden, I perceived the figure 5 as being a solitary figure surrounded by chaos, able to maintain its independent existence.

In Brooklynn Bridge and WTC I discussed Crane's poem "To Brooklynn Bridge," Dr. Jerz's weblog "World Trade Center: Literary and Cultural Reflections," and McNeill's article "Skyscraper Geography." Here, I discussed the aesthetic value of cities, New York in particular, and related my own experiences with the Brooklynn Bridge and WTC to those in the texts. I was discussed the symbolic value of skyscrapers and skylines in reference to 9/11 and the film Metropolis

My blog entitled Expressionism used the wikipedia definition, and the definition given in Dr. Jerz's "American Expressionism: The Hairy Ape (1922) and The Adding Machine (1923)," as reference points for my discussion on how the films Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, along with Capek's play RUR and Antheil's Ballet Mechanique reflect expressionism in their attempt to make sense of the growing relationship between man and machine.

In my blog Intelligent Artifice I discussed my experiences with the IF game "Adventure" and the chatterbox ELIZA. I yet again related this blog to Metropolis in my questions regarding the future of our relationship with technology.

In Intelligent Machines, I discussed both the first section of Galatea 2.2 and the rough draft of Dr. Jerz's article "You Are Standing at the Beginning of a Road..." in relation to both a person's ability to learn from the IF and a machine's ability to learn from a human.

In Galatea 2.2, Part 2, I examined the character of Richard Powers and his relationships to the women and machines in his life. I suggested that perhaps his failed relationship with C. was not only the reason he needed a connection with his mechanical creation, but the reason why he was reluctant to enter into a relationship with Diana.

I used this blog to discuss the idea of imitation versus reality in not only the end of Galatea 2.2 but also in many of the earlier texts we read for this class. In doing so, I found myself asking what it is that separates us from machines such as Helen.

In Video Games as Instructional Tools I discussed problem solving strategies used in Pick Up Ax and in video games such as "Colossal Cave Adventure." I related my absense of video game experience to Heller's real life and virtual experiences in Crowther's cave and discussed how each affects ones ability to problem solve.

In my final blog, Utopian Entrepreneur, I discussed my reactions to Brenda Laurel's assertions as to why girls don't play as many video games as boys and suggested that instead of creating a seperate video game for girls we should strive to create a video game that places an emphasis on not only the digital aesthetics but on the characters and plot as well.


Thank you.

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April 12, 2005

Utopian Entrepreneur

After reading Utopian Entrepreneur, I decided that it's a good thing I'm not planning to start a commercial business anytime soon. The collapse of Brenda Laurel's company, Purple Moon, because she wanted to build it with some social responsibility is disheartening, to say the least. Her ideas that girls don't play video games because of the lack of character development, plot, and character relationships is intriguing. Although I do enjoy my occasional chick flick, I have always held a soft spot for action movies. The Die Hard trilogy (soon to be made greater by the addition of a fourth Die Hard) ranks in my Top Ten favorite movies, and the Lethal Weapons aren't far behind. But while these movies depend on their explosions, comedic timing, and fast-paced action sequences to survive, its the loveable hero with his flaws, his friends, his family (or lack thereof), and his goals that we come to love. Although we enjoy the fast-paced action sequences, what makes these movies appeal to me are the personal risks the characters have to make.

I have to applaud Brenda Laurel for her insights into why young girls don’t usually play video games, but I think she sells boys a little short. I asked my boyfriend what his ideal video game would incorporate and said that he would rather have a fantastic story than spectacular graphics. It would have in depth character development – almost as though he were playing a novel. When I asked my female roommate why she played Super Mario rather than more “masculine games” such as Mortal Combat and James Bond, she said it was because they were too difficult. Laurel mentions that Mattel attempted to create a Barbie game where the action component consisted of marshmallows thrown slowly so that it would be easier for girls to hit. After all, “’everyone knows’ that girls aren’t good at shooting games” (22). [Insert rolled eyes here] Although a failed business enterprise, Laurel’s Purple Moon seemed to do exactly what it had planned – hit it off with girls. Her idea that games should consist of relationships, values such as loyalty, love, and courage, and conflicts such as jealousy, cheating, exclusion, racism, materialism, and broken homes seems worthwhile, but as a young girl I also would have wanted some action as well. Perhaps there is a happy medium that would please both boys and girls – a video game that incorporates action and physical complications into an in depth storyline filled with rich characters, relationships, emotional conflicts, and growth.

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April 07, 2005

Video Games as Instructional Tools

Being one of three girls growing up, I was never really exposed to video games. My father refused to hook anything up to our TV, and the most advanced video game on our computer is still Minesweeper. The most video game experience I ever garnered was when I conned my best friend into letting me borrow her Super Mario for Gameboy. I never thought of myself as deprived, because my sisters and I had more than enough fun making up intricate soap-operaesque storylines involving our vast collection of Happy Meal toys. After playing Colossal Cave Adventure a couple of weeks ago, I found that I was lacking not only the terminology used in games such as these, but the experience of using trial and error as a problem solving tool. While growing up, I never experienced locked grates that I needed to figure out how to open and I was never asked to navigate through a series of underground caves. The most navigation I've ever had to do is find my way from Jersey to Greensburg, and the only time I was faced with a physical barrier was when I accidentally locked myself out of my house (My solution? Walk down to the neighbors and play in their pool until mom comes home). When faced with the simple problem solving needs of Adventure, I got quickly frustrated and didn't want to work anymore. Perhaps that's because the only real problem solving I've ever had to do was in math class. While I have always disliked math because of the frustration I felt when I couldn’t understand something, the feeling of pride and accomplishment that you get once something finally does click couldn’t be greater. Unfortunately for me, that never came often enough =)

In Pick Up Ax, Clarvoe gives us three characters who have very different problem solving strategies. Keith is the technological geek who would rather sit at his computer and think than worry about the business-end politics of his company. Ever since he was a kid, he deferred to Brian, his business partner, when it came to making any real decisions. Brian truly cares about Keith and their business, but is quickly intimidated and overwhelmed by the upper business world. Because of their inability to manage the upper-level problems posed to them, their business begins to decline. Suddenly, the character Mick enters, who is willing to use his mighty problem solving tools to help their company succeed. He doesn’t know anything about their technology, but he has connections and the know how to fight the big fish. The only problem is that he is fighting too hard. His ideas of problem solving do indeed help them grow, but they manage to alienate their suppliers and their board in the process. His methods are a bit dishonest and they don’t sit well with Brian, who eventually can’t handle the pressure and resigns. Keith continues to seemingly be oblivious to everything around him until the end when he finally shows that he has learned how to correctly deal with the problems posed to him. He manages to rid himself of Mick and save his company in the process. Although, like me, he was at first reluctant to solve the problems around him, by sheer observation and a bit of cunning he was able to grow up and start taking care of himself.

In Galatea 2.2, the beginning Implementations had a difficult time processing the information fed to them and making decisions based off this information. Until Helen, not one of the Imps was willing to extensively use trial and error as a problem solving tool, nor really sit and think about the correct answer. Because of this ability, we believed her to be more human than the other implementations. But in the cases of Keither and I, isn’t frustration and avoidance also very human? I don’t believe Helen really reached “human” status until she sat there and said “I don’t want to think about it.” She wanted to avoid the problems, the fear, and the frustration surrounding her. I suppose the only way she could really be improved would be to make her want to work in spite of those problems so that when she finally finds the correct answers she feels pride.

Because I had played parts of Adventure before reading Heller’s essay, I was not nearly as confused as I would have been had I never played the game. I was able to see the parallels to the game and his real-life experiences in the cave with Crowther. Heller really managed to display how the game mirrored his reality, and because it is a game, it has enabled thousands of people to “experience” the hardships, difficulties, and problems posed by caving. Through his game, people can learn the important lessons Heller learned by actually going in the cave without experiencing the pain of muscle cramping, hypothermia, or having legs that “do a bad impression of a sewing machine.”

I suppose when all of my futile attempts to get my dad to let us play video games failed, I should have asked him to take us on a caving expedition. Maybe then he would have caved (no pun intended) and bought us Nintendo.

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April 05, 2005

"When Does Imitation Become the Real Thing?"

I suppose the big question at the end of Galatea 2.2 is whether or not Helen became conscious. Richard believed she had, but he also seemed to believe in her consciousness because he wanted to believe in it. After the bomb scare, Lentz calls this to Richard's attention:

"How do you feel, little girl?"
"I don't feel little girl."
He faced me. "Gibberish. She doesn't even get the transformation right."
"You're kidding me. You don't see...? She means all sorts of things by that. She could - "
"All the meanings are yours." He returned to the mike. "Were you frightened?"
"What you is the were for?"
"Damn it, Helen. We're giving you quality time here. Please t ell me: what hell that mean?"
"It's obvious," I answered for her. "She wants to know which Helen you are asking. Which one in time."
"Oh. You mean: 'When?' But let's not take points off for style. You realize that a conscious entity just coming through the fright of her life would know which 'you' I was talking about" (274).

Even though I found myself failing the Turing Test by the end of the novel, I do not think that Helen became conscious. Yes, she could categorize, label, and make associations with seemingly incredible insight, but she does so only because she has been fed an incredible amount of information. Even her personal inquiries regarding her sex, physical appearance, and reason for being were born from her observations of the information fed to her and her mechanical need to categorize everything. Richard was captavated by these inquiries, however, and truly believed that she was thinking. She became real to him. More real, perhaps, than either C. or A. was to him. Richard loved C. for what she was when he met her, he loved A. for who he thought she was, and he loved Helen for the consciousness he thought she possessed. Even though his love for Helen was still deluded, it was more real than his love for either of the other two. Perhaps that's why she was given a full name, as opposed to the single letters of A. and C. He did not worship Helen as he did the other two, he merely loved what was. Helen was also the only one who loved him back.

She loved me, I guess. I reminded her of some thing. Some chilly night she never felt. Some where where she thought she'd once been. We love best of all what we cannot hope to resemble. I told that woman everything in the world but how I felt about her. The thing that might have let her remain. I was too late in seeing who she had become. I should taught her the thing I didn't know (324-5).

After reading this passage, I realized that Richard made the same mistakes with all three of his women. With C., he spent too much time loving her, and not enough time talking with her. With A., he immediately fell in love with her and did not bother to get to know her. With C., although he finally learned to talk with her about reality, he failed to give her the love she needed. He failed all of his women because he was unable to see past his own selfishness and give them what they needed. He thought he was doing that with C., by following her wherever she wanted to go, but the one thing she needed he never thought to give.

Throughout this course, we have discussed imitation versus reality, and how the two relate. After finishing the novel, I can see the obvious connections to the very first story we read: Pygmalian. Like Pygmalian, Richard tried to turn his imitation into a reality. He loved his creation (Yes, Helen, but also his creations of C. and A.), just as Pygmalian loved his statue. To him, she was reality. The outcome of the experiment seemed to prove Plato's theory that all art is merely imitation. Helen's answer, although painfully human in its sentiment, illustrates how she never could become a substitute for human consciousness because she would never feel, hear, touch, and see things the way humans can.

You are the ones who cana hear airs. Who can be frightened or encouraged. You can hold things and break them and fix them. I never felt at home here. This is an awful place to be dropped down halfway...Take care, Richard. See everything for me (326).

After writing that, I starting thinking about Mike May's Journal, and the story "The Cathedral." These two texts show how although someone may not be able to experience the world through certain senses, they are still able to experience the beauty of the world around them - oftentimes with more comprehension than someone with sight. If Richard had read Helen these two texts, would she have felt better about her existence? Would she have remained "alive," even though she would never be able to "see" Paris?

She had come back only momentarily, just to gloss this smallest of passages. To tell me that one small thing. Life meant convincing another that you knew what it meant to be alive. The world's Turing Test was not yet over (327).

Despite their blindness, both Mike May and the blind man in "The Cathedral" were able to convince others that they "knew what it meant to be alive." They were able to enjoy life not only despite their disabilites, but because of them. Perhaps that difference is what makes them human and Helen a machine.

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