Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Piano lessons

Friday, January 27th, 2023

There was a time and place in history when the piano was seen as the enemy of music. Unlike other musical instruments, which require serious time and effort to learn to play, the piano lets you begin playing with little or no training.

Some argued that this was harmful. If just anyone could walk in off the street and start playing an instrument, that would promote laziness and sloth, and would devalue the efforts of real musicians working to master the violin or oboe.

But of course that is not what happened. The piano made instrumental music accessible to an entirely new population of students. As an added bonus, it turned out to be the ideal instrument to use when composing original work.

I think something analogous is going on right now. Rather than complaining that Stable Diffusion and Large Learning Models are making it easy for students to cheat, we should start teaching our students how to use these powerful instruments.

Of course that is easier said than done. Most teachers don’t know how to use these newfangled instruments, and good practices have not yet been developed for using them to teach history, math, literature and other subjects.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, we can’t afford not to try. Much is at stake.

Think of it this way. A lot of the music that you cherish was composed on a piano. Our world would be a much poorer place if those songs and compositions had never been written.

An awkward conversation

Thursday, January 26th, 2023

I had a dinner conversation this evening with someone who is completely convinced that ChatGPT is going to become a fully intelligent entity sometime in the next 6 years.

Given that I know that the current path to machine learning cannot, intrinsically by its nature, lead to general intelligence, you can imagine that it was an awkward conversation.

I feel as though we are in a situation somewhat akin to the time way back when, at the dawn of the invention of photography, when people became convinced that artists would be put out of business by photographs.

I wonder how soon we will get out of this intermediate space, where people apply magical thinking to the wonderful, yet limited, capabilities of modern machine learning techniques.

At some point, these techniques will be just another tool that we will use in our everyday lives. But as long as people continue to believe that such things bring us into a world of Harry Potter or C-3PO, we still have some conversations to work through.


Wednesday, January 25th, 2023

Today, for the first time in a long time, I heard the song Imagine, written and performed by John Lennon and inspired by Yoko Ono’s poetry. And once again I was struck by how wildly radical it is (in a good way).

In a calm voice, to a very pleasant and catchy melody, Lennon essentially says that our three most sacred cows — religion, nationalism and private wealth — are destructive forces that we might think about abolishing.

He doesn’t sound angry about it. He’s just inviting us to imagine a world in which people were free of three of the most powerful ways that humanity becomes divided into separate tribes.

I can’t think of any other instance in which a revered popular figure sent such a radical idea out into the culture — and in such a clear and highly visible way. And yet somehow, by couching it in a calm and soothing presentation, he got that message out.

By all accounts Imagine is one of the most beloved and often performed songs in the world. More than half a century after its first release, it is the song that is played after great tragedies, to give people hope and help them pull together.


Fruit cake

Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

For fun, I spent some more time this evening chatting with ChatGPT. I asked it all sorts of questions, from the meaning of Hamlet’s question “To be or not to be?” to an explanation of why people like Picasso’s paintings. What I found was that the answers were sort of informative, but in a startlingly uninteresting sort of way.

All of ChatGPT’s answers sounded reasonable, but there was never any insight. It felt like the verbal equivalent of that joke about Christmas fruit cakes:

When you get one for Christmas, you can just put it on a shelf. That way, the next Christmas you can take it out and gift it to somebody else. This will go on for years, because nobody ever eats the damned things.

Listening to ChatGPT’s answers feels exactly like receiving that Christmas fruit cake. You appreciate the gift, but you don’t actually expect to be nourished.

Ernie Kovacs

Monday, January 23rd, 2023

Today is the birthday of Ernie Kovacs. On this day he would have been 104, had he lived.

When I was a kid, there were many varied offerings on TV, but nothing was quite like watching reruns of Ernie Kovacs. He was a true aesthetic anarchist, a revolutionary who did for the blackout sketch what Allen Ginsberg had done for poetry.

Throughout most of your life, people will tell you that everything needs to make sense. Kovacs dismantled that tired bromide with the exquisite precision of a talented surgeon.

His underlying message was that the usual notion of “sense” is the real enemy. True freedom comes from tacking left when everyone is expecting you to tack right.

It wasn’t until after his untimely death that people realized how much of our post-modern culture was essentially dreamed up by Kovacs. Every popular offering from SNL to Wednesday has essentially built upon his casual and effortless take-down of received wisdom.

All these years later, when life threatens to slide comfortably into something boring and expected, I think of Ernie Kovacs. And I remember that life is absurd, and that is what makes it infinitely precious.

Silver lining

Sunday, January 22nd, 2023

These days it is not great to fly
And it’s easy, my friends, to see why
    The seats are too small
    (Or I am too tall)
And the snacks are so bad I could cry

But before you all think I am whining
I should add there is one silver lining
    If you program, each flight
    Is a coder’s delight
Which makes up for the lack of fine dining

Made words

Saturday, January 21st, 2023

One of the rules for the New York Times Spelling Bee is as follows:

Our word list does not include words that are offensive, obscure, hyphenated or proper nouns.

So you know that if a word starts with a capital letter, it’s not going to be in the word list. This knocks out a lot of words.

Yesterday, just for the hell of it, I tried “google”, since I saw that it had the requisite letters. Sure enough, it was accepted!

Which means, I assume, that google — as opposed to Google — is now a word in the English language. Presumably it is the verb form of the word that is being accepted here: I googled, you are googling, they will have been going to google.

I immediately thought of the Mafia. If you’re a “made man”, then you’re in the club, and your colleagues are less likely to whack you when you’re not looking.

It seems that “google” has now joined the exalted club of “made words”. No wonder Google’s stock has been going up.

RIP David Crosby

Friday, January 20th, 2023

seagulls circle endlessly

i sing in silent harmony

we shall be free


Thursday, January 19th, 2023

There is a feature on the Meta Quest that allows you to “cast” everything you see within the headset, so that people can view it later as a video. It is very useful. My students regularly use it to show in class the things that they have created for homework.

It is possible that one day, given sufficiently advanced technology, we will be able to exactly this with our dreams. When you wake up in the morning, there will be a dreamcast file waiting for you, ready to play.

When you open that file, you will be able to review your dreams, edit them, and ultimately share them with whomever you wish. Or you can just delete them.

I am trying to decide whether this will be a good thing. I suspect that it might not be.

Tune Typing revisited

Wednesday, January 18th, 2023

This evening I went ahead and added those new features to Tune Typing. Now, after typing a tune, you can use the left/right arrow keys on your keyboard to go back and forth to any given note. Once there, you can use the up/down arrow keys to change the note’s pitch.

If you have selected a note, then you can also build chords by playing another note on the keyboard. The new note will play at the same time as your selected note.

It’s still not fancy, but it gets the job done, and now it’s a little more useful. You can play with the new version here.

One more hidden feature for advanced users: If you hit RETURN, then the score data prints out on the Javascript console.