Black History Month

Tomorrow is the first day of Black History Month, an event that is celebrated in many countries around the world. Everywhere, it seems, but in Florida.

In Florida I believe that it is illegal to say the phrase “black history”, unless you whisper it under your pillow and make sure that nobody is listening. Even then, you need to check to make sure that Ron DeSantis isn’t hiding under your bed.

Let’s face it, the entire month of February is shamelessly breaking the law in Florida. So I wonder what the legal eagles in Tallahassee are going to do about the next twenty eight days.

Maybe they will just avoid the entire mess and jump straight into March. I am sure the Florida Legislature has enough votes to outlaw February.

But then I would feel bad for the people of Florida. They will all miss Valentine’s Day.

Corollary to Clarke

In a comment on my recent post about Chatbots, Adrian asserted that people will eventually start to see such things as human and intelligent, even though they are not human and are not intelligent. There is much to unpack in that comment, so today’s post is going to be my response.

When a technology is new and people haven’t seen it before, there is always a tendency to ascribe to it human properties. But at the end of the day, a tool has no consciousness, and cannot / should not be put in jail for breaking the law.

In an earlier time the ML tool that lays out circuit boards might have been thought of as intelligent. But now that we are used to it, we no longer make that mistake.

Similarly, someone not familiar with an airplane might think it is a kind of bird, and someone not familiar with an automobile might think of it as a fabulous kind of horse, or a camera as an astonishingly good realist painter, or a gramophone as a machine that sings and plays instruments.

The fact that people think such things does not make them stupid. They are just trying to make sense of the existence of something that they had always assumed to be impossible.

If you’ve never seen such things before, your sheer astonishment that such a thing is possible might catch you off guard. But eventually you get used to it, and you stop being astonished at what a new kind of tool is capable of producing.

Chatbots do not create original material — they are just a kind of mirror reflecting our human creativity. In particular, they rearrange material that was already created by humans. Without the collective intelligence of the humans who are providing the actual data — original and intelligent human thought — a chatbot would have nothing to work with.

Chatbots are already being used by copywriters in various industries. In those industries, the chatbot doesn’t replace the professional — it is a tool that is used by the professional. The professional copywriter continues to provide their uniquely human insight and humor, but is relieved of much of the manual labor of generating copy.

All automation ends up displacing drudge work, and therefore some kinds of labor-intensive work ends up being done by machines, and those kinds of jobs go away. But automation also provides new and powerful tools for people who know how to use it, thereby creating new jobs that require human thought and judgement, rather than drudgery.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” An important corollary is that technologies do not stay magical for very long.


Today I made up a new word, ephiphemera. I use it to describe something very specific. I will explain.

In every era there are large events that focus everyone’s attention. It might be a war, a rocket ship to the moon, a contentious election, or a pandemic. The one thing you can be sure about is that the same thing is on everyone’s mind.

In the moment, the phenomenon can loom so large that an entire new vocabulary is built around it. Many new words and phrases are coined, each creating its own little epiphenomenon.

Most of those words and phrases will fall by the wayside soon after the phenomenon itself has passed, part of the forgotten detritus of history. Eventually, only people of a certain age will know the meaning behind such epiphemeral phrases as white bronco or the COVID 15.

Invention needs customers

You’ve been working for years on something. By now you are pretty sure you have it all figured out.

And then one day you have a random conversation with somebody. Suddenly you realize that all this time you’ve had it wrong.

It’s not that there was anything wrong with what you were doing.
Rather, you come to see that what people need is different from what you thought they needed.

The person you’re talking with doesn’t have the faintest idea how to make what you’ve been working on. They just know what they need, and they know how to articulate that need.

And you are reminded all over again that invention does not thrive in a vacuum. Invention needs customers.

Piano lessons

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

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.


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

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

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

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