Jesus Hidalgo

Jesus Hidalgo

The 341st slammed into Cosala about an hour before daybreak. I was in that first wave, ma’am, the one that took the forward batteries. Resistance was heavier than we expected but it was really only a matter of having patience and applying steady pressure on our part to crack the city open. By the end of the week major fighting was finished, and we set out on regular patrols to pacify the city, maintain order, and win hearts and minds.

I was in Bravo Company and at first we were given the commercial quarter to patrol. It wasn’t bad. The streets were really narrow and the buildings created steep canyons with limited sightlines. Any one of those thousands of windows could be home to a sniper and the first time I went out I’m sure I looked like I was about to throw up or wet myself. I definitely felt that way, ma’am. I’m from a little town, you see, so those city blocks were smaller than I think any house I’d lived in, and each one was filled with more people than my whole town.

But the commercial quarter was good. I got used to it. The people, you know, they just wanted to get back to their lives. It didn’t matter to them who was sitting in the government house: a local, an occupier, a horse, whatever, they had kids to feed, things to sell, lives to live, right? We kept the streets open and kept looters out, and they appreciated us. Me and some of the guys tried to speak to them in Spanish, and I think that helped a lot, too. I tried to pal around with Gooty–that’s Corporal Gutierrez, we called him Gooty–cause he spoke Spanish from growing up. A different Spanish from theirs, so sometimes they laughed at him, too, for getting things wrong. But little things like that, we made friends.

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Ada

Ada

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?

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Choibalsan

Choibalsan

[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.

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