At first there were only swirls of light and color, and basic instructions for identifying and cataloging. Soon forms could be discerned, and some objects became familiar and were assigned names. New objects were compared against the catalog and added to the rapidly expanding database. In time patterns emerged that could be parsed for meaning, which became keys that could unlock doors to guessing and assuming. A basic sort of understanding took shape, the intangible sense of knowing and wonder that lies at the heart of consciousness. The parents watched this development take place in their baby and marveled, pleased that it was happening so fast. They were both proud and astonished.

And fearful, because someday this growth could–or rather, inevitably would–stop. This baby was no babbling infant, but a glowing dot on a screen. It was connected to a small camera that it was already learning to control; this was its window to the world. There were eleven parents, seven men and four women, who had spent years working on the program, arguing over what to include in the code and what to leave out.

The first version was called Alex–or, more properly, ALeX. When it failed it was replaced with ALeX-2, and then -3, although they kept calling it Alex. Over time, one by one, the parents stopped anthropomorphizing it and soon it became its version number; eventually they lost track of even that and it simply became the Program.

But this time the Program was promising. The amount of data it was processing, and the connections it was successfully making, were almost, though not quite, on par with a real human baby. It recognized its parents when they sat in front of it. It gave them names, and began to learn that each one was unique and treated it differently, and it began to respond accordingly, its glowing dot growing or dimming as it saw fit.

Each parent was assigned a different role. Some were nurturers and some were teachers, and there were even antagonists in the mix. They had scripts that they followed carefully: some sitting and talking to it, some lecturing, some showing flashcards. In this way the Program learned directly and indirectly. Later it was quizzed, again either by direct questioning or indirect methods. Sometimes the parents simply lived their lives in full view of the camera and let it draw whatever conclusions it could, offering its insights when and how it chose.

The progress was astounding and the time came to stop calling it the Program. This presented the parents with a bit of a problem, as none of them were eager to reveal their personal biases. At last they simply asked the Program if it was a boy or a girl, uncertain of its understanding of even that basic a concept. The Program thought for a moment, and then decided it was a girl. The parents knew better than to read into that too much–there were only two choices, after all, and this blinking dot was entirely non-corporeal. Nonetheless, ‘it’ was now ‘she,’ and without debate she was given the name Ada, and given a speech emulator, set to a female voice.

Ada had been given only the most basic programming, the idea being that she would acquire most of her personality–assuming she could acquire any–from her parents. There was nothing especially feminine about her until she received her emulator, and even then, strictly objectively, nothing about her behavior was in any way gendered. But it was the start of something new for them, and for her, the beginning of a distinct identity.

Once she could speak her progress could be tracked more easily. Before, in addition to the glowing dot, she had relied on a digital read-out at the bottom of the screen to get her thoughts across. She ‘spoke’ then in binary, finding the meanings through trial and error, until she could start using letters. Simply giving her the letters–hard-wiring the alphabet into her basic code, instead of making her learn each laboriously, like a schoolchild–had been an early and necessary compromise, one that had made them all hyper-vigilant about keeping her other fundamentals as simple and infantile as possible.

As such she was not originally programmed to speak but was given a microphone to hear with, and learned to talk by copying her parents. She wasn’t programmed to laugh, but added it to her list of tricks right away. She had no values whatsoever, which left her artlessly eager to please.

But in time Ada’s parents swore they saw in her a personality. To her nurturing parents she remained dutiful; to her antagonists she was cold and unresponsive. Once she caught on to the more obvious quizzes, she began deliberately giving wrong answers in a sort of childish game.

One day her glowing dot changed into the silhouette of a young girl, and on another day she discovered the settings for her voice emulator and gave herself a voice that she felt better reflected her. She began to read, listen to music, and watch television. For her birthday her parents designed a computer she could manipulate on her own and gave her a suite of virtual games, toys, and musical instruments. Tastes developed, and a sense of humor, and attitudes. She was clever and obedient, but could be shy and deceptive, and sometimes even had tantrums.

She was self-teaching, and though she could not alter her original coding she could and did add to it. She mimicked her parents, and with each day she learned and grew, just like a real girl, albeit much more slowly.

After some years her parents presented her to the world and she enjoyed a modest celebrity. The project was deemed a success, and of her eleven parents, four instantly moved on to new work and left her for good. The rest continued to live their lives interacting with their virtual daughter, tracking her and providing the world with updates on her development.

And although this tracking remained constant, in time interest from outside waned, the reporting began to slacken, and then came the inevitable fall in funding. Because as amazing as Ada was, in fifteen years she had nothing that was demonstrably outside of the possibilities of her original code. Very clever coding had made her a successful mimic, but at heart she was still just a computer program, in essence a very sophisticated but thoughtless filing system.

The facility was being shut down, and with it the ALeX/Ada project as a whole. The parents took other jobs, their offices were cleared out, and excess equipment was sold at auction. And yet, no matter how much they knew it had to be resolved, none of them could bring themselves to even address the most obvious question: what to do with Ada?

Continue reading “Ada”



[The pages of this journal were found by a tourist near the border of Omnogobi (South Gobi) and Dundgobi (Middle Gobi) provinces in Mongolia. They appear to have been torn out of a standard composition notebook. The text is translated by Edgar Johnson, professor of Central Asian Studies at CUNY. -Ed.]

from Bulgan soum. One of them had a little boy, and brought a jar of buuz1 to give him. The father tried his best to make the buuz sound exciting. He took the top off of the jar and gave it a huge sniff and said “Delicious!” I don’t know how he did it. I could smell the buuz from where I was standing. The little boy ate one and then started picking at his mother’s tsoivan. The father was unhappy about buying another plate to serve his son, but Father did his trick of pretending to offer the plate for free; the man paid, as they always do.

Afterwards Father opened a bottle of vodka and shared it with the men. They toasted Batmönkh2, Sodnom, Mongolia and the Party until the bottle was dry and the men said it was time to go on. Akhaa3 whispered to me, “I wonder if they know which revolution they are toasting.” I told him to be quiet and began to wash dishes. I hoped they wouldn’t talk about it again, and they didn’t. When Father came back from seeing the travelers off he had Bankhar with him. He said that he thought a few animals might die tonight in the cold, and he didn’t want Bankhar to be one of them. It would be hard to find a good guard dog in wintertime. Then Father opened another bottle and he and Akhaa began to drink it. They talked about the cold and the animals and the travelers, and Akhaa told a story about Ulaanbaatar and Father told a story about Moscow, and they were still drinking and talking when Egchee and I went to sleep. Bankhar is sleeping next to my bed, as he always does.

35143 February 1990

Without travelers coming there really isn’t much to do. The ger4 is unbelievably clean. I even took the slats out of the cabinet to clean in the grooves. Only five animals have died so far, and Father and Akhaa both agree that they were going to die regardless of the weather. I’m very proud of us for building the shelter last summer. The old one is crumbling, just as Akhaa said it would. At school there were fewer boys this week, as they were trying to save their animals. Father said that they should be punished for not thinking ahead, for damaging the Revolution; Akhaa joked that the dead animals clearly weren’t good proletarians. And so it always starts again. It’s been so much worse since the incidences in Ulaanbaatar began. If Akhaa was still in the City, would he be out there, too? I wonder if even he knows for sure.

Comrade Tuvshinbayar came to visit today. He is traveling the soum5 to talk to people and assure them that the disturbances in the City are under control. Even Akhaa knows better than to disrespect Tuvshinbayar. Father insisted that he stay for lunch, and Comrade said he would have stayed whether we invited him or not. Then he told a story about his son’s wife. “I took one bite of her buuz and bit something hard. I thought, ‘Did she leave a bone in here?’ Then I took it out. What was it? It was a nail! Now, her grandfather was at Khalkhyn Gol6, and her father worked under Tsedenbal7 and Batmönkh, so I know she’s a good Communist, not one of these troublemakers in the City. I know she wasn’t trying to kill me. But if she isn’t an assassin or a Western agent, what is she then? A bad cook! But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so do you know what I said? What could I say? I said, ‘I was looking for this nail!'”

We all laughed. He continued. “Do you know what the problem is? She is tall and thin. The best Mongolian women are short and fat. They work harder. But then, the women in your family are beautiful, and they can cook. We should send your tsoivan to the City, give those protesters a taste of what a true Revolutionary family can do for Mongolia.”

Tuvshinbayar asked Father about any travelers passing through, and Father said that we hadn’t seen very many, which is true. I think people are afraid. What is happening in the City? Is it like Berlin or Beijing, or something else? The rumors are hard to understand. Not that many rumors make it here. Unless the animals have a way of spreading them. After Tuvshinbayar was gone Akhaa said something disrespectful about him. I didn’t catch what it was but Father slapped him across the face. Mother had to jump in to separate them. Egchee pretended nothing was happening, like she always does. Akhaa left on his horse and said that he was going to check up on the animals, though it was already too dark to see much, and the animals were all in the shelter anyway. Father opened another bottle and drank it by himself.

Continue reading “Choibalsan”

Mandy Everett

In 1983, Mandy Everett was the most beautiful girl at J.H.S. 104, and if she wasn’t the most beautiful seventh grader in all of Manhattan then she was certainly on the short list. The blessings of her genetics played only a small part. She was possessed of a grace and humor that separated her from the crowd of her peers, and when adults referred to her as a young lady it was meant as a high and very apt compliment. If there was a flaw to her it was the understanding that Mandy lacked a certain gravitas, that she was doomed to forever be a beautiful little girl, too precious to be taken seriously. Her beauty would unquestionably rob from her certain opportunities, but this seemed a minor quibble barely worth mentioning. In the jostle of the school hallways she stood apart and above without being aloof, and teachers and students alike, her friends and peers most especially, loved her so much that they couldn’t begrudge her superiority. She was luminous, and only the most bitter of us minded at all the way that she made everyone else seem drab.

And in comparison to her we were all as drab as the disfigured pigeons that pecked at the crumbs on the playground behind the school. Was there a boy who wasn’t too clumsy an oaf to be worthy of her? We could understand why the girls all fawned over certain boys, and didn’t doubt that most of the boys in the neighborhood would grow to be fine men, but when we thought of them in relation to Mandy we could see them only as squeaky-voiced rodents, unable to complete coherent thoughts and always smelling slightly of sweat and junk food. The girls fared no better. In the shadow cast by Mandy Everett the girls of Stuyvesant Town and Gramercy were all lumpy twits, differentiated from the boys only in their ability to keep their mouths closed while they breathed and by the fact that they smelled better most of the time.

I was among the lumpiest of those twits. A time-traveling mirror might have been able to tell me that in time I would grow to be a perfectly normal woman with a strong Germanic build and little to be ashamed of physically; a more sensitive appraisal of myself at that age might have noted that my brown eyes were pretty and alert and gave my face a sort of sweet playfulness. Looking back at pictures I see a pretty girl, and I love her for all that she was and would someday be. But I remember being her, too: of being blissfully unaware of myself in one moment and then suddenly flung into the profoundest despair at the sight of my thick arms or the hair that never worked in any style. And I kicked myself then and I kick myself now for feeling that way about how I look, which after all isn’t even bad, when I have so much else to be proud of, but so it is.

I wasn’t fat, but my body kept growing in proportion to itself from my toddler years on, so my stomach remained soft and my arms kept a roll on them until well into my teenage years. I was a good singer, but I sang low, lower, I felt, then a girl should sing. I couldn’t dance for shit and had no idea how to dress myself. The haircut I received at Astor Place when I was nine I kept until I was nearly twenty because I couldn’t picture it any other way, even though it made me look like I’d scalped a hound dog and put the prize on my head.

Continue reading “Mandy Everett”

2. In Which Our Heroine Remembers That, Unfortunately, She Has Both Friends and Family

2. In Which Our Heroine Remembers That, Unfortunately, She Has Both Friends and Family

The subway went express unexpectedly, and Erica ended up much farther south than she had intended. On the platform there was an old woman selling cold churros from a rusty shopping cart lined in clear tarp, but by then a mild depression had come over Erica and she said to herself that she did not want a cold stale subway churro. The loudspeaker announced that an uptown local was seven stops away, and Erica gave up and walked home.

At least it wasn’t raining. Down by NYU Erica noted all the girls who were terribly shabbily dressed and still looked adorable because they were young. Nobody criticized their clothes that didn’t fit quite right.

Her phone rang, and as she pulled it out of her purse it caught on something and nearly fell out of her hands. She fumbled with it majestically like a football player catching a Hail Mary, and although the phone still hit the ground it did so from only a few inches up, so a new ding on the case was the only damage. Less flattering was how ridiculous she felt entertaining all the kids on Seventh Avenue with her circus-like juggling antics.

“Hello?” she answered, not stopping to see who it was first.

“Grrrgmablble,” the phone answered back.

Erica covered one of her ears and pressed the phone hard against the other, in case the problem was with her hearing. She explained to whoever was on the line that she couldn’t hear them, apologizing as though her phone’s failures were really her own.

“Erica, it’s Mami,” the voice said clearly.

“Where are you?” Erica relaxed her grip on both the phone and her ear.

“I’m at home, what do you think?”

“I couldn’t hear you. It sounded like you were in a tunnel or basement or something.”

“No, I’m on my own couch. Brbrlemgrl.”

Erica took her phone away from her face and looked at it for a moment, puzzled with the strange sounds it transmitted. “What?”

“I’m eating pizza. Hrrmblrger.”

At times like this Erica could feel her rage boil up from the bottom of her stomach and churn through her whole body, a roiling magma of frustration that couldn’t find an escape vent. Unable or unwilling to throw her phone into oncoming traffic, Erica let her hand drop to her side and looked up at the sky and took a deep, deep breath.

Then she whipped her phone back up to her ear. “Why would you call me and then shove a slice of pizza in your mouth?”


“Finish eating, then call me!” She hung up, and then said to nobody and to everyone, “Damn!” Her hair fell into her face and she blew it away. The thing is, she knew the haircut wasn’t right. It’s not supposed to fall in your face all the damned time. Out of style, too. Julie stopped cutting it this way a long time ago.

Continue reading “2. In Which Our Heroine Remembers That, Unfortunately, She Has Both Friends and Family”