A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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Archive for the ‘Turkey’ Category

the mechanical Turk

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 19, 2009

I’ve been on an Ottoman kick recently, as you may have noticed. One of my more recent Ottoman jags started with a magazine’s casual reference to Amazon’s work-for-hire service, “Mechanical Turk“. The site, whose motto is “Artificial Artificial Intelligence”, connects employers and independent contractors willing to do online tasks that require human, rather than machine, intelligence for piecework rates.

Amazon’s enterprise is always interesting, but what made me curious was the name. What is a mechanical Turk, and why is it Turkish?

Since I was on Amazon’s website anyway, I turned to its book offerings, and found:


It turns out that the “mechanical Turk” was a machine designed by an Austrian tinkerer and scientist in the late 1700s – a time when machines that could simulate some aspect of animal or human life were apparently all the rage at Europe’s courts. On the more charming side was a torso of a boy playing the flute, whose wind-up gears actually produced a flute-like sound. On the less charming side was a replica of a duck, whose primary enchantment was that when fed, his wind-up gears took the food through the process of digestion, including the excretions at the end. Ugh.

The mechanical Turk was something else – more impressive than any other machine of its day, because it seemed to be able to think. The machine (see image on the book cover above) was a large contraption: a semi-solid table, which housed the machine’s gears, and the figure of an Ottoman Turk. What the machine did was to play chess.

I’m not much of a chess player, but apparently the ability to play chess is one litmus test for machine intelligence, because chess requires strategic thinking. In other words, the mechanical Turk seemed to possess artificial intelligence.

What we know now – and what Amazon’s Mechanical Turk plays with – is that the machine’s gears were just for show. A person hid inside the box and manipulated the Ottoman Turk’s arm to make each chess move – meaning that this artificial intelligence was really human intelligence supported by artifice.

I don’t have anything insightful to say about the science side of this story, and I’m not too impressed by the mechanical Turk’s creator. Why didn’t he put his skills to work designing a machine that did work, even if it couldn’t play chess? I found myself wondering as I read the book.

Maybe that question shows my own lack of imagination – or my own hidebound morality. In any case, what really interests me is why he decided to make the figure Turkish – why not dress him as a fellow Austrian, or even another European?

I think I know the answer: the Ottoman Empire was Austria’s historic rival. An Ottoman Turk must have appeared a much more intimidating competitor than a Frenchman, or even a British subject. From the descriptions that cropped up in the book, however, it also made him seem much more alien – and maybe a bit sinister.

Here is one example:

An article [published in 1820] in the [London-based] New Monthly Magazine … proclaimed that “this cunning infidel (for he assumes the figure of a Turk) drives kings, and castles, and knights before him with more than moral sagacity, and with his inferior hand; and, except in a very few instances of drawn games, has beaten the most skillful chess-players in Europe.” (p. 128)

Ah, infidel – one of my favorite, we’re-all-cousins-under-Abraham, words.

Here is another, taken from the mechanical Turk’s tour of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York in the 1830s:

Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia doctor who attended Maelzel’s show as a child, later recallted that “the Turk, with his oriental silence and rolling eyes, would haunt your nightly visions for many an evening thereafter.” (p. 172)

Glad to see that we Americans were so free of stereotypes. If the figure had been dressed as an Austrian, would Dr. Mitchell have referred to his “Tyrolean silence”, do you think?


Posted in Americans, art, construction, religion, research, time, Turkey | 1 Comment »

honoring the victim, in Turkey

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 13, 2009

This snippet of a news article from Agence France Presse has been making its way through various English-language Middle East-based newspapers and blogs. The poor girl – she must have spent the final nine months of her life in such terror. Thank goodness for the judicial system.

A Turkish court sentenced five members of the same family to life imprisonment for the so-called “honor killing” of Naile Erdas, 16, who got pregnant as a result of rape, activists said Monday. In its verdict Friday, a court in the eastern city of Van sentenced the murder victim’s brother to life in jail for the 2006 murder to “cleanse the family honor,” the Van Women’s Association said.The girl’s father, mother and two uncles were also given life sentences for instigating the murder, while a third uncle was jailed for 16 years and eight months for failing to report the murder in one of the heaviest sentences ever handed down in Turkey for such a killing. “We can say this verdict is a first in terms of the harshness of the sentences and the fact that the entire family was convicted,” Mazlum Bagli, a researcher into honor killings at the Dicle University here, told AFP.

Zelal Ozgokce of the Van Women’s Association also welcomed the sentence as an appropriate deterrent. “It is very good that the entire family was punished for the crime,” she said. “It will serve as a deterrent. People will become aware that they will face the consequences of an honor killing.” Erdas became pregnant as a result of a rape but concealed her condition until she was hospitalized for a severe headache, when doctors determined she was pregnant.When the family made threats and offered bribes to get the girl back, doctors decided to keep her in the hospital and informed police and the prosecutor’s office. One week after Erdas gave birth, the prosecutor agreed to send her home after the girl’s father promised she would not be harmed. But she was shot dead by her brother a few hours after returning home. –

Posted in Turkey, women | 1 Comment »

The Ottoman Cage

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 4, 2009

I’ve been a bit under the weather lately – the victim of too many holiday sweets, perhaps, or suppressed endorphin levels due to the horrifying coverage of Israel’s attacks on Gaza. In any case, feeling unwell made the prospect of my flights back to New York less than delightful. Or, it would have had I not had the perfect antidote: a good book.

I am an unabashed Ottomanist – I think that the Ottoman Empire was – for most of its history – a rich space in which multiple ethnicities, languages, religions, and historic influences coexisted and complemented one another. And as an Ottomanist, I am much less interested in Turkey – which seems to me like any other flat, aggressively homogeneous nation-state. I understand perfectly well why Ataturk refocused energies on Turkey – it provided a much-needed fresh start and a chance to break away from the canker that the dying Empire had become – but Turkey doesn’t thrill my heart the way its predecessor does.

So I was prepared not to be that interested in the contemporary part of The Ottoman Cage, the Barbara Nadel mystery I had packed in my carry-on. But I was interested – and more than interested, fascinated. Her characters include middle-class Muslim Turks, upper-class (and former Ottoman aristocrat) Muslim Turks, middle- and upper-class Armenians, and Jews. They are all bound together in some way by the mysterious killing of a young boy, but their interactions together – their friendships and their suspicions – are heavily conditioned by their awareness of one another’s ethnic, religious, and class positions. And all of those have much to do with Turkey’s Ottoman history – a history that apparently still lives on in the behaviors and expectations of Istanbulis today.

The actual mystery was good, too – but what I really loved was the interaction and the depth of the characters. Barbara Nadel has been compared to Donna Leon, one of my aunt’s favorite mystery writers, and the two women do share a tremendous ability to write texture: to bring in the city and its history as a major part of the story-line, and to develop characters who live beyond the page.


Posted in books, Turkey | 7 Comments »

more discount shopping – this time a la Turque

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 17, 2008

Given the sagging economy, perhaps the sudden focus on discount shopping should be no surprise. After yesterday’s post, I found myself reading the New Yorker on the subway – and reading another article about the city’s off-price options.

Some (Loehmann’s, Filene’s Basement, Century 21) are old friends to me. But some – like an East Village shop called Gabay’s – were totally new:


A Turk, I thought. As Kheireddine pointed out the other day, “Turk” was frequently the designation given in Europe and South America – and, to a slightly lesser degree, in the United States – to Lebanese and Syrians who came from the Ottoman Empire.

I bet he was really Lebanese, I thought. And since Sam Gabay came through Ellis Island, I knew how to find him: the online search engine at EllisIsland.org. I love this search engine – what a gift to Americans, to have such a treasure trove of immigration history available to anyone with a working Internet connection.

And when I searched, I found … nothing! Well: I found that no one named Gabay (or Gaby, or Gabey – sometimes you have to try alternate spellings, to account for immigration officers’ and immigrants’ differing ideas about how to spell names in Roman script) immigrated through Ellis Island in 1905.

But I did find that a teenager named Israel Gabay did arrive from Istanbul in 1906 – which might have become 1905 over years of family retellings. And Israel might have been Anglicized to “Sam”.

Between 1900 and 1925, 30-40 Gabays arrived to the United States from “Turkey” and/or “Greece”. I’m guessing that they were all cousins to one degree or another, and that their emigration was inspired first by tightening economic times in the Ottoman Empire, and then by the dislocations involved in the formation of two new nation-states: Turkey and Greece, each of which had a particular religious identity that might have seemed less welcoming to Jews than the multi-faith Ottoman Empire had.

In any case, I was wrong: Sam Gabay does not appear to have been at all Lebanese. But his story, and the story of all his Gabay cousins, was a very nice reminder of the interesting paths by which so many immigrants came to the United States.

You can read about Gabay’s history on the store’s website, here. (In fact, given how closely the article echoes the information on the website, I would say that its author was also a site visitor.) And you can shop there seven days a week, from 10:00 AM until 7:00 pm. See you there!

Posted in Arab world, citizenship, family, research, time, travel, Turkey, words | 3 Comments »

the US Congress takes on genocide

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 6, 2007

My friend M sent me this very interesting piece from Monday’s Washington Post. It is tongue-in-cheek, but it is also quite serious – about the very real occurrence of a genocide against Ottoman Armenians, planned or no; about Turkey’s unwillingness to take the final steps to maturity; and about the very curious phenomenon of the United States Congress taking an interest in the matter. (I’ve italicized the funniest – and also least funny – sentence.)

The House’s Ottoman Agenda

By Jackson Diehl
Monday, March 5, 2007; A15

Can a nonbinding congressional resolution really matter? Most are ignored by everyone except the special interests they are usually directed at. Even the House’s recent resolution on Iraq was dismissed by both President Bush and Democratic antiwar leader John Murtha. Yet a vote expected next month on a nonbinding House resolution describing a “genocide” in the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915 has the potential to explode U.S. relations with Turkey, sway the outcome of upcoming Turkish elections and spill over into several other strategic American interests, including Iraq and Iran.

So, yes: The Armenian Genocide Resolution sponsored by Rep. Adam Schiff does matter, logically or not. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul spent several days in Washington last month lobbying against it, though the Turkish-American agenda is chockablock with seemingly more important issues. Friends of Turkey in Washington, from American Jewish organizations to foreign policy satraps, are working the Hill; so is the Bush team. On the other side is the well-organized and affluent Armenian American community, 1.4 million strong, and some powerful friends — including the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi.

Here is a debate that could occur only in Washington — a bizarre mix of frivolity and moral seriousness, of constituent pandering, far-flung history and front-line foreign policy. And that’s just on the American side; in Turkey there is the painful struggle of a deeply nationalist society to come to terms with its past, and in the process become more of the Western democracy it wants to be.

Start with the pandering: Schiff, a Democrat from Los Angeles, cheerfully concedes that there are 70,000 to 80,000 ethnic Armenians in his district, for whom the slaughter of Armenians by the Young Turk regime during World War I is “anything but ancient history.” Local politics also explains why a resolution that has failed numerous times in the past 20 years is suddenly looking like a juggernaut: Pelosi, of San Francisco, also has many Armenian supporters.

“There’s a sense of momentum now about the resolution that we haven’t had before,” Schiff told me. “The votes are there in the committee. The votes are there on the floor.” If Pelosi allows the resolution to be brought up, as she has reportedly pledged to do, it will probably pass. Its language is almost comically heavy-handed: It begins by declaring that the House “finds” a series of 30 paragraphs of facts about the genocide, ranging from the number killed (1.5 million) to the assertion that “the failure . . . to punish those responsible” helps explain subsequent atrocities, including the Holocaust.

Imagine the 435 members of the House, many of whom still don’t know the difference between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, solemnly weighing whether Schiff’s version of events 92 years ago in northeastern Turkey deserves congressional endorsement. But the consequences of passage could be deadly serious: To begin with, Turkey’s powerful military has been hinting that U.S. access to the Incirlik air base, which plays a key role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be restricted. Gul warned that a nationalist tidal wave could sweep Turkey and force the government to downgrade its cooperation with the United States, which needs Turkey’s help this year to stabilize Iraq and contain Iran. Candidates in upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections could compete in their anti-American reactions.

No wonder the Bush administration as well as even Democratic-leaning foreign policy experts, such as Clinton-era ambassador Mark Parris, are trying to stop the resolution. Yet theirs, too, is a contorted campaign. After all, historians outside of Turkey are pretty much unanimous in agreeing that atrocities against Armenians worthy of the term genocide did occur. Though Congress may look silly with its “findings,” the continuing inability of the Turkish political class to come to terms with history, and temper its nationalism, may be the country’s single most serious political problem. Prominent Turkish intellectuals, including a Nobel Prize winner, have been prosecuted in recent years under laws criminalizing “insults” to Turkey — such as accurate accounts of the genocide. In January a prominent ethnic Armenian journalist was murdered by an ultranationalist teenager.

Maybe Congress has no business debating Turkish history, maybe it is doing so for the wrong reasons. Yet if Turkey is to become the stable, Western-oriented democracy that it aspires to be, its politicians will have to learn, at least, to react the way everyone else does to nonbinding House resolutions: that is, with a shrug.

Posted in Americans, Armenia, friends, guilt, neighbors, news, politics, Turkey, words | Leave a Comment »