Image of children sitting on the floor in a classroom, raising their arms.

Review: The Hour of Letdown in The Second Tree from the Corner

Gareth B. Matthews

Review of The Hour of Letdown in The Second Tree from the Corner by E.B. White (New York: Harpery & Row, 1954, pp. 46-51).  Originally published in Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children 12(1): 1.

A man came into a New York bar with a big, ugly-looking machine, which he put down near the beerpulls. He ordered two drinks, one for himself and one for the machine. First the man downed his own drink, then he poured the second whiskey into a small vent in the machine and “chased it” with water.

The bartender was not amused. He ordered the man to remove the machine from his bar. The man refused, quite cheerfully, and then explained that the machine needed to be able to “let down;” having just won a chess tournament.

After several increasingly hostile responses from the bartender, the man ap­pealed to the bartender’s sympathy.

“You know how it is when you’re all fagged out mentally,’ he said. Another patron, someone evidently more sympathetic to the machine than the bartender said he understood.

The bartender remained hostile; he refused to give the machine another drink. “How do I know it ain’t drunk already?” he asked in defense.

The man proposed giving the machine a mathematical problem to test its sobriety.

“Ten thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, multiply it by ninety-nine;’ the bartender responded, viciously.

The machine set to work on the problem. lt flickered and jerked and spat out the answer: “One million seventy-five thousand three hundred and thirty­ eight:’ Another customer checked the result and called out excitedly, “It works out, you can’t say the machine is drunk!” temporarily defeated, the bartender poured another drink fix the man, and another one for his machine as well.

After the two of them had finished their drinks, they left the bar in the company of a new-found friend. Another patron went to the window to see where the odd threesome would go. He watched them all get into a Cadillac. “And which one of the three d’ya think is doing the driving?” he asked.

Readers sometimes ask why this column doesn’t include stories for high­ school or college students. In fact, many of the stories discussed here, though simple enough to be understood and discus­sed by elementary school students, are yet profound enough to stimulate the best reflections of philosophy graduate students.

Still, even if most philosophically interesting stories for children are also suitable for discussion by adults, it is not the case that most philosophically interesting stories for teenagers or adults are also suitable for young children. So maybe it is a good idea to include, from time to time, a philosophically interesting story that is not aimed at children, such as this story by E.B. White.

One thing the reader of this story needs to appreciate is the culture of New York bars at around the time of World War II. The bar in the story would be patronized only by men, in fact, only by white men, almost all of whom would be business and professional types.

Could a robot find acceptance in such society? And if not, would rejection necessarily be based on narrow-minded prejudice, the same sort of prejudice that excluded women and minorities? Or is there some entirely justified reason for excluding even the cleverest robot from the barroom society portrayed here? There is a yet more profound issue.

Perhaps women and blacks were excluded from such “saloons” in New York half a century ago because they were not thought to offer the right sort of companionship to the regular patrons. But could a robot offer them any real companionship at all? Or would the idea of “hanging out” with a computer have to be a sick joke?

Nowadays many of us spend important parts of our lives “interacting” with computer programs. We may learn the “mindset” of our computer game and, if we persist, we may come to distinguish the clever and sophisticated opponent we faced when we set the playing level at, say, 12, from the stupid opponent we deal with when we turn down the playing level to 3 or 4.

Following Alan Turing, many philosophers have come to think that the problem of minds and machines is, in the end, a problem about whether a computer program can be constructed so “knowledgeable” and so sophisticated that, sitting at our terminal, we could not tell for sure that we were “talking” only to a computer. What E.B. White’s wonderfully whimsical story suggests is that there will always be a categorical difference between human beings and the most clever robots, unless someday there is a robot who needs to let down in something more than a metaphorical sense of “letting down;’ and unless it is something more than a joke to think of hanging out with such a machine while we let down together.