Should we let the horse leave the barn?

Brian Feldman wrote about some of the criticisms of ChatGPT and questions about what the impact of AI software is going to be:

“All of these questions are asking “Should we let the horse leave the barn?” while the people asking stand in front of an empty barn. If years of collective online activity is anything to go by, this stuff is good enough for everyone else. If ChatGPT is a blurry JPEG, it’s worth pointing out that the vast majority of web users are totally fine with blurry JPEGs. I see them all over the place. (Sometimes, as I wrote in 2014, the blurriness is the point.) We love parlor tricks like SmartChild and Akinator.”

“Whether or not machine-text and -art is “good” or “convincing” is not the relevant issue. The issue is whether it is “good enough.” Clearly, to many people, it is good enough! Internet users are really skilled at convincing themselves that the convenient thing in front of them is the thing they want, whether that’s a barely coherent machine-generated article about what time the Super Bowl is or dubious footage a preferred/reviled political candidate.”

“I just think it’s worth reiterating that the story of internet culture recently has not been one of austerity or moderation. It’s about taking the easy route and flooding the zone with the same meme templates and TikTok sounds everyone else is using at a regular interval — as opposed to things that are creative and unique and, well, good. This has been true for years: consistency over quality is a winning strategy in terms of audience growth. All of the stories I read about content creator burnout are about how exhausting and awful it is to have to post so often, rather than about what most artists have traditionally struggled with throughout most of human history: being in a creative rut. To me, that’s extremely telling.”

“A flywheel system that encourages this type of brainless output incentivizes the proliferation of automated systems that let people continue to pump out at-best-mediocre stuff while shirking responsibility for what’s actually generated. So I see the twisted appeal of the shortcuts, and am not more aghast about it than anything else I’ve seen over the last decade. The posters have been sleepwalking for a very long time.”

The connection between a volcano and Frankenstein

(via Matt Webb’s blog)

1815 saw the eruption of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. Global temperatures fell. The next year, there were crop failures in Europe, and snow fell in New York in June. Two other things also happened as a result:

  • Lord Byron holidayed at Lake Geneva with some friends, but the weather kept them indoors. To pass the time they told ghost stories. From that trip we get both The Vampyre (the first modern vampire novel and precursor to Dracula) and also Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  • Driven to move by the collapse in grain prices, the family of Joseph Smith Jr migrated from Vermont to the religious hotbed of New York where he began to receive visions. Later, he founded a religion, writing his visions as The Book of Mormon.

The frost is coming out of me and I am heaved like the road

From Henry David Thoreau’s journal, the entry for March 21, 1953I — via the New York Review of Books newsletter, which has been running excerpts:

“It is a genial and reassuring day; the mere warmth of the west wind amounts almost to balminess. The softness of the air mollifies our own dry and congealed substance. I sit down by a wall to see if I can muse again. We are affected like the earth, and yield to the elemental tenderness; winter breaks up within us; the frost is com­ing out of me, and I am heaved like the road; accumulated masses of ice and snow dissolve, and thoughts like a freshet pour down unwonted channels. Roads lead elsewhither than to Carlisle and Sudbury. Our experience does not wear upon us. It is seen to be fabulous or symbolical, and the future is worth expecting. In all my walking I have not reached the top of the earth yet.”

He took his shoes off years ago and never looked back

For two decades, Joseph DeRuvo Jr., 59, has lived an almost entirely barefooted life. He initially decided to forgo shoes because of agonizing bunions, but he has stayed barefoot for reasons that transcend physical comfort. After years spent as a photographer and a photography teacher, he is still self-employed, now as a Pilates instructor, a particularly barefoot-friendly profession. And the couple stays close to home. When they go out, they gravitate toward mom-and-pop stores and restaurants where they can forge personal connections with owners and managers, and he can be seen as more than the guy with the feet. Still, his wife Lini Ecker said, “we get thrown out of a lot of places.”

Children’s author Dr. Seuss cheated on his wife, who committed suicide

Ted Geisel, the cartoonist who became famous for writing under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss, may be known for his winsome children’s books, but he had a darker side. Among other things, he cheated on his wife while she was terminally ill. He was married to Helen Palmer Geisel for 40 years, but she contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, followed by cancer. Ted started having an affair with a close family friend, Audrey Dimond, and when it became public, this reportedly contributed to his wife’s decision to commit suicide. In a suicide note, she wrote that Geisel could “say I was overworked and overwrought” so that his “reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed.”

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Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis, and Corey Haim

If you are of a certain age, you might remember a pop band called Rilo Kiley, although I didn’t discover them until much later via Spotify (possibly because I am old). The lead singer was named Jenny Lewis, and I have listened to a lot of her solo music as well since I discovered the band. How did she get into music? Therein lies a tale, as they say. According to a New York Times piece from 2014, Lewis was a child actor whose work in commercials, TV shows (Mr. Belvedere, Golden Girls, etc.), and movies helped pay the rent for her family. Her mother had split from her father after years performing with him in a traveling Sonny and Cher-style music act called (ironically) Love’s Way.

Apparently there was a club called Alphy’s Soda Pop Club that catered exclusively to child actors and other performers, and at a party there when Lewis was 10 years old, she met Corey Haim — the Canadian actor who starred in the movie Lost Boys and other more forgettable tripe, and died after years of struggling with drug abuse. Haim gave her a mixed cassette tape he had made with Run DMC on one side and The Beastie Boys on the other. “There have been a couple of cassette tapes that have changed my life,” Lewis told Rolling Stone, “and that was the first one.” Lewis not only cofounded Rilo Kiley (with Blake Sennett, a fellow child actor known for Boy Meets World), but also went on to create Postal Service with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie.

Gone With the Wind: The deleted scenes

David Vincent Kimel, a historian completing his PhD at Yale, found a rare copy of the script for Gone With The Wind that contains a number of deleted scenes, including one in which Rhett Butler considers suicide: “Selznick harbored a shocking secret never revealed until today: a civil war that had roiled the production internally over the issue of slavery, with one group of screenwriters insisting on depicting the brutality of that institution, and another faction trying to wash it away. Selznick’s struggles over the exclusion of the KKK and the n-word from the script and his negotiations with the NAACP and his Black cast are the stuff of legend. But the producer’s decision to entertain scenes showcasing the horrors of slavery before deciding to cut them has never been told.”

First Black man to win hiking’s ‘triple crown’ says trails are for healing

Akuna Robinson is the first Black man to wear the “triple crown” for completing three of the most challenging U.S. trails: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. He’s also the winner of the 2022 George Mallory Award for outdoor explorers. But his advocacy and kindness loom even larger than his accomplishments: He’s a trail mentor, a nature lover and a survivor of depression and anxiety who advocates for mental health. Robinson, 41, was born in Germany to a military family and grew up in New Orleans. A veteran of the Iraq war, Robinson found himself suffering from PTSD, alcoholism and mental health struggles after being discharged in 2003.

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Hackers on the front lines of the Ukraine war

After Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year, the country’s military responded with a range of defensive measures, but it also took steps to open a second front in the war—a digital one. As I reported for CJR at the time, the Ukrainian government posted appeals in online hacker forums, asking for volunteers to protect Ukrainian infrastructure and conduct digital missions against Russia. The posts asked hackers to “get involved in the cyber defense of our country,” and according to Foreign Policy, within a couple of months more than 400,000 had joined the informal hacker army.

Cybersecurity experts say Ukraine had one thing going for it when Russia attacked a year ago, at least in terms of computer warfare: it was already well aware of the risk of Russian hacking. In 2015, a digital attack crippled Ukraine’s power plants and left hundreds of thousands without electricity, and many believe hackers affiliated with the Russian government caused the outage. In 2017, a ransomware attack known as NotPetya, which most experts believe was created by Russian entities, caused an estimated $10 billion in damages globally, and much of that damage occurred in Ukraine. One year later, there have been thousands of digital skirmishes between Russia and Ukraine, but it’s unclear who (if anyone) is actually winning, or what impact all this cyber-rattling has had on the larger war.

According to a recent presentation by Gen. Yurii Shchyhol, head of Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection, the country’s Computer Emergency Response Team responded to 2,194 “cyber incidents” last year, one quarter of which targeted the federal government and local authorities, Computer Weekly magazine reported. The rest involved defence and other security sectors, as well as energy, financial services, IT and telecom, and logistics. On the other side of the ledger, Russians in close to a dozen cities were greeted one day last week by radio alerts, text warnings, and sirens letting them know about an air raid or missile strikes that never came. Russian officials said the alerts were the work of hackers.

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A note about Francis Bacon, and the ChatGPT engine

Yesterday, I included a link to a blog post from economist Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution, about Sir Francis Bacon and his dislike of the printing press. Among other things, the post quoted Bacon as saying “But these three [inventions], perhaps, have fallen out by a certain fatality or providence of such a kind, that though they have added much to human power, they have not much increased human goodness; nay, rather, the first and last have furnished men with the means of doing more mischief, and the please say more second has made them more vain and arrogant.” This was attributed to a book from 1605, Chapter I, section 5.

The only problem is that Bacon never wrote this — from what I can tell, the only place this appears is Cowen’s blog. A number of commenters on the blog post believe this entire post was written by ChatGPT or some other AI. One giveaway? In the quote above, I believe the “please say more” is actually a command directed at the ChatGPT engine to continue its fabricated writing. Apart from just the quotes, the substance of the post also appears to be incorrect — Bacon was not a critic of the printing press, as far as I can tell from my somewhat limited research.

He said that it was one of the inventions (including the magnet and gunpowder) that “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world,” which isn’t necessarily an endorsement, but I can’t find any evidence that he thought it was responsible for the evils attributed to it in Cowen’s post. Is the post intended as an elaborate satire on our fears about AI engines, and how similar they are to criticisms of the printing press? Perhaps. Hopefully Cowen will reveal what he was up to in a future post. One possible downside of this sort of thing: Cowen’s post is now showing up as a search result for “criticism of the printing press.”

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