Friday, October 3, 2008

Palin: Babel Fish

(Updated, but then retracted, see below)

From last night's debate, Gov. Sarah Palin, translated, it would seem, from the original Japanese:

"Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration. Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I'm glad you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right? I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he's a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate."


Palin's responses in interviews and in the debate last night have tended to remind me of three things. First, as suggested, the grammatical diaspora and non sequitur bonanza that is the Japanese language as poorly translated into English, exemplified by the classic Mr. Sparkle commercial on the Simpsons. Second, Word Salad as used by computer spammers to string together a reasonable-sounding email that will sneak past your filter to try and sell you cheap watches. Third, and this just occurred to me, she comes across almost like a primitive Turing Test artificial intelligence, like ELIZA.

Let me explain:

Alan Turing, a pioneering computer scientist and cryptographic hero of World War II (and tragic figure in being gay at a time that homosexuality was illegal in Britain, prosecution of which led to his suicide), posited in 1950 that the test of an artificial intelligence is whether, when interacting with a human being, the AI can pass as human. ELIZA, named for Eliza Doolittle of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, was a simple attempt at AI using the psychoanalitic technique of turning a patient's statement around as a question. You chat with ELIZA like you were on an instant messenger program, and she chats back. This idea has evolved into chat bots, which have been used as amusement, advertisement, and, annoyingly, customer service tools.

Anyway, these AIs are programmed with simple rules to mimic the behaviors of a human being. I am of the opinion that Sarah Palin has been similarly coached to mimic the behavior of a candidate with a basic working knowledge of national policy and politics. Her answers have consistently seemed copied-and-pasted, often without regard for their appropriateness. This was exemplified by the bit last night where, instead of answering the question on what spending items she and McCain might have to give up, given the increasingly staggering defecit, she riffed on her energy talking points again. Now, granted, Biden's answer sort of went at the question sideways, but it at least had some relationship to the question. His answer acknowledged the existence of the question. Add to this example her constantly looking down at her cards, her general sense of recitation, and especially her recent collapses in follow-up questions, and I think it's clear that all she has to work with is memorized chunks of stump speech. Stump speech wood chips, if you will.

The professional Conservatives, of course, love her. She's awesome. She rocks. Performed brilliantly. They often point, as does the Wall Street Journal editorial, to her convention speech as evidence that she's a natural. Look: opponents of Barack Obama have often said that he's only great with a teleprompter. I happen to disagree with that, but for those same critics to now say Palin's a natural is laughable. Here's what she's done: she read, off of a teleprompter, a speech written by this guy (wonder what he thinks of her wolf policies - incidentally, the Humane Society has never endorsed a presidential candidate before), most of which had been written before she was picked. In public appearances she has recycled (mulched?) pieces of that speech, and she has attempted to do the same in interviews and in the debate, with mixed success depending on the ability of people to ask her follow-up questions. But there's no "there" there. Even when she's talking about the subject that she's supposedly a top expert on, she has no idea what she's talking about.

Palin has a background as a sportscaster. She's good at reading material prepared for her. Any competent former broadcaster could have done the same. Like Amelia Santaniello. Or Ted Baxter.

Update: Check it out. Reading a script:

Retracted: Apparently the debate commission provided blank paper - no notes or pre-prepared anything were allowed out on stage. I retract my suggestion that she was reading something she brought with her. I stand by everything above the Update, though.


josh said...

There are rumors that she was wearing an ear prompter and being fed what she needed to say. She could've written down notes and regurgitated the information.

Fred said...

I hadn't heard that allegation yet. It's an old chestnut, that one (that one!). There was Bush in '04 with his weird rectangular back-bulge, and I guess there's a photo circulating of Obama from one of this Fall's debates that detractors claim shows a clear earpiece in his ear.

I dunno. I think the risk/reward ratio for an earpiece, and the level of scrutiny and multi-angled photo and video are sufficiently high to effectively discourage use of a prompter. Too much chance for exposure, and too steep a penalty. I'm unconvinced.