A broad-ranging talk with James Burke

As part of promoting a new Connections series on Curiosity Stream launching on Nov. 9, I got the chance to interview historian of science and technology, science communicator, and series host James Burke:

The more interview-intensive part begins at 3:10.

Reviewing an unreleased book and TV show

While it won’t help with my rent, I nonetheless have some very interesting work for the next few days.

I am doing a close read twice of Professor Peter Russell’s forthcoming memoirs, which has been a privelege because of the respect I have for him as a thinker and a person, and a joy because of their colour, humour, and personality.

I am also previewing a new series of James Burke’s TV show Connections, which previously ran in 1978, 1994, and 1997. I have seen those old shows many times, and I thought a lot about his book The Axemaker’s Gift back in high school. I have the chance to interview him from Monaco on Wednesday, so I am giving the new material a careful viewing and thinking through how to make the best use of the conversation. There is scarcely a person I can think of who has a more educated and wide-ranging understanding of the relationships between science, technology, and human society. Since human civilization is presently hurtling toward a brick wall which threatens to rather flatten us all, it may be invaluable to get Burke’s views on how a defensive strategy from here can be undertaken.

Related:

Libraries as sanctuaries

At least since elementary school, I have loved the combination of charms offered by libraries, perhaps chief among them the provision of a serene space for concentration and thought with the freedom indiscriminately granted to take an interest in anything from the collection. I remember at my elementary school library, at Cleveland Elementary School, there were wooden-drawered filing cabinets for index cards. I remember the age-yellowed peculiar tinge and feeling of the index cards, perhaps made by hand on a typewriter, and the feeling of avenues into knowledge being revealed through the process of beginning with any topic of interest and working from books to index to books to begin tracing paths on rivers of thought and language that exist to help us each understand the world.

The first massive library which I was free to explore was the colosseum-inspired Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library, which was approved by referendum in 1990 and opened for public use in 1995. My friend Chevar and I were excused by our parents from school to attend the grand opening, which included a massive chocolate cake in the shape of the building’s unique form. For visitors to Vancouver, I strongly recommend going up to the appropriate floors to try the sky bridges and outer seating areas available on the far side of the central atrium. It’s a place where I read happily until I stopped being a Vancouver resident, and I can still remember the way the brand-new-library smell evolved into a stable characteristic odor with a hint of escalator oil and rubber as base notes.

Still Robarts-ing

After defending my dissertation in December and collecting my diploma in March, I have been watching my U of T benefits gets deactivated one by one. They cut off my dental insurance between when I defended and when I graduated. My campus wifi access was withdrawn several months ago. As of July, my T-card no longer provided access to Robarts or Gerstein libraries.

I feel it would be a shame to live in a city with a library system like U of T’s and be unable to access it. Luckily, as an alumnus I can get a borrower card for $70 per year. It comes with the very annoying restrictions of no campus wifi use, and no off-campus access to electronic databases — but it does provide access to all U of T libraries, allows you to withdraw fifty (50!) books, and allows access to services like research consultations. I now officially have permission to use U of T’s vast library resources to research anything of personal interest or importance. It’s also a great place to hide from summer heat if you don’t have AC at home.

Can a machine with no understanding be right, even when it happens to be correct?

We are using a lot of problematic and imprecise language where it comes to AI that writes, which is worsening our deep psychological tendency to assume that anything that shows glimmers of human-like traits ought to be imagined with a complex internal life and human-like thoughts, intentions, and behaviours.

We talk about ChatGPT and other large language models (LLMs) “being right” and “making mistakes” and “hallucinating things”.

The point I would raise is — if you have a system that sometimes gives correct answers, is it ever actually correct? Or does it just happen to give correct information in some cases, even though it has no ability to tell truth from falsehood, and even though it will just be random where it happens to be correct?

If you use a random number generator to pick a number from 1–10, and then ask that program over and over “What is 2+2?” you will eventually get a “4”. Is the 4 correct?

What is you have a program that always outputs “4” no matter what you ask it. Is it “correct” when you ask “What is 2+2?” and incorrect when you ask “What is 1+2?”?

Perhaps one way to lessen our collective confusion is to stick to AI-specific language. AI doesn’t write, get things correct, or make mistakes. It is a stochastic parrot with a huge reservoir of mostly garbage information from the internet, and it mindlessly uses known statistical associations between different language fragments to predict what ought to come next when parroting out some new text at random.

If you don’t like the idea that what you get from LLMs will be a mishmash of the internet’s collective wisdom and delusion, presided over by an utterly unintelligent word statistic expert, then you ought to be cautious about letting LLMs do your thinking for you, either as a writer or a reader.

Ologies on invisibility

Alie Ward’s marvellous science communication podcast has a new episode on invisibility: Invisible Photology (INVISIBILITY CLOAKS) with Dr. Greg Gbur.

I was just about bowled over during my exercise walk on the Beltline trail, when Alie and Dr. Gbur discussed my Hyperface Halloween costume, designed to confound facial recognition systems.

Tomorrow I will read Dr. Gbur’s latest book: Invisibility: The History and Science of How Not To Be Seen.

First night in the woods with the Savage Industries bedroll (v2)

My friend Natalia made a suggestion that gave me a 24 hour respite from the misery of finding a room in Toronto, and we went back to the Hemlock forest near Catchacoma for an overnight camp.

One great thing about short visits to a place that has a brief and easy walk between where we parked and where we camped is that it allows for pretty quick and low-risk evaluation of gear for backpacking and camping. It’s feasible to bring two of something and try both, and not that bad if you only bring one version of something and it doesn’t work.

I have been so happy with my Savage Industries EDC ONE bag that even though I can’t say I ever had “buy a bedroll” on my to-do list, when I saw that they had made one I was curious about it. I have been very pleased with their stuff in the past and I know it sells out fast, so when they issued a second release I ordered one in time to have it to show off at this week’s bluegrass / hike planning evening.

Before leaving, it seemed like a bit of a questionable camping item when a lot of people live some version of the ultralight philosophy. Just the bedroll weighs 4 pounds, and it rolls up into a package bigger than my tent or sleeping bag.

The design justified itself in the field for sure. It has waterproof sailcloth on the outside and a good warranty, so I felt fine about putting it down on little sticks and stones that I would move away from the area under my thin-floored tent. The wool platform was great to rest on after the hike in, and to watch the clouds from. At night, it was a great venue for stargazing, and I expect it will be good for tent-free “cowboy camping” later in the season.

Back in my tent — where on the last trip I spent all night curled at the bottom of my sleeping bag and shivering for warmth — I followed Natalia’s advice to put the bedroll above and below my light sleeping bag. In that configuration, I was warm with my sleeping bag unzipped until after dawn, and then warm with the bag zipped and light clothes on after. Note, however, that we had -11 ˚C and -9 ˚C nights last time, compared with +5 this time. (Though last time, I also used a fleece sleeping bag liner which I never had to pack this time, and slept in all my clothes rather than light PJs.)

One more nice unanticipated feature emerged when we were breaking camp: the bedroll is large enough to use as a soft, dry, and debris-free place to roll up my tent. Being able to pack up a tent clean saves times and annoyance, reduces the odds of needing to unpack it later in the day to dry or clean it, and probably extends the life of the tent.

For the hike out, I even discovered that the integrated straps on the bedroll can be passed through two loops that were already there at the bottom of my pack. The bedroll still needs to be tied so that the middle doesn’t slide out of the roll, but the bedroll is nevertheless quite feasible to carry attached to the outside and bottom of a pack.

I probably would not carry it on a thru hike of thousands of kilometres, but it seems great for trips like this one plus picnics and Hive games in the park.

Review: Savage Industries / Mafia Bags EDC ONE

I’m a big fan of former Mythbusters host Adam Savage — his enthusiasm and curiosity, dedication to making the most impressive and beautiful things he can, and his entertaining thoughts and storytelling style.

Fairly shortly after learning that he had designed a shoulder bag for Every Day Carry (EDC), I ordered a Savage Industries EDC ONE in March 2020 for US$225. I have used it nearly every day since, and in my view it is superbly designed and functional both as an urban commuter shoulder bag and a bag for outdoor exploration and long-distance urban walking.

I got the model with the original concept of an all-white interior and exterior. The idea for the white interior is brilliant — “first order retrievability” where the absence of pockets and the ability to see everything in the brightly-lit interior means everything is easily found and nothing gets lost in a sub-pocket because it is not visible with the bag open. I have found this very effective. Inside I carry a Klein Tools 55470 Utility Bag in Orange/Black to hold my keychain and SAK as well as my wallet. Those are the only things that ever go there, and those are the only places those things go, so a momentary glimpse at the bag confirms that I have my wallet and keys. The Klein pouches are deigned to be tough enough to hold tools, so I don’t need to worry about the sharp edges of my keys cutting other things in the bag or the upcycled sailcloth of the EDC ONE itself.

Speaking of the sailcloth, both its toughness and its water resistance are excellent. I routinely carry books and electronics in the bag without fear that even heavy rain will get past the sailcloth and tough (but not indestructible, if you overfill the bag) main zipper. As I understand it, the all-white exterior is part of the concept for the bag too, and meant to develop a unique patina which is revealing about the specific uses each owner puts theirs to. I always wear mine over my right shoulder, because of my injured left shoulder, so I see a wear pattern and pattern of light staining that shows where it always rubs against my blue coat. The bag actually gets most worn of all in the perhaps-unexpected spot where the handle on the body-side attaches to the main body of the bag, since walking motion causes one piece to routinely rub against the other there.

In addition to the pouch for my wallet and keys, I carry a 9″ x 7.25″ Defy Bags (made in Canada, so no international taxes or customs chartes) Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) water-resistant pouch containing an Anker 20,000 mAh external battery which will cover my original iPhone SE for at least three days of heavy and data-intensive use, as well as make sure to start the phone reliably even at temperares around -20 ˚C. I have a less tough pouch for my Bose noise-cancelling over-ear headphones, for when I am not wearing them. I use a 4.5″ by 3.5″ Defy Bags DCF pouch as a micro first aid kit, with Aleve; antihistimines; diarrhea pills and Pepto Bismol tablets; a pair of non-latex gloves; and a few tiny adhesive sutures for serious cuts. In the one small wallet-sized internal pocket, I carry a Bic lighter, PaperMate Sharpwriter pencil, ballpoint pen, and Sharpie. I also have a vanilla and myrrh scented lip balm which I am using in an Andy Warhol-inspired memory experiment, to try to reinforce my recollection of approximately six-month periods by associating a distinctive lip balm odour uniquely with each.

I don’t have anything bad to say about this bag. The strap might seem a bit thin, but I have carried it a long way and sometimes with a lot of weight and it is solid. The bottom of the bag is sufficiently waterproof to let you fill the bag with water in the bath and pick it up, as well as to float quite tolerably if it ever tumbles out of a canoe (though the bag does have holes in the side to let air escape when it it closed and gets squashed down, so it won’t float forever). The handles are excellent for when it is heavily laden, and very comfortable and intuitive with the embedded dowels and magnets. The way the large zipper unzips to leave the bag standing open, ready to look inside, reinforces the functionality of the “first order visibility” from the white interior. The only trouble I have ever had was when I damaged the zipper by forcing it shut around too many groceries which were pushing up and keeping the lid open. The manufacturers at Mafia Bags in San Francisco graciously replaced the top panel and zipper for me for free, as part of the lifetime maintenance warrantee.

I have found the bag to be well-sized to carry my day-to-day needs, to pack away a layer or too for if/when the weather changes, and usually to pick up a supplementary batch of groceries on my way home from an exercise walk too.

Perhaps the strongest testimonial for the bag is this: if you see a photo of me taken outside since March 2020, this bag is probably over my shoulder or on the ground beside me. I have carried the bag on by far the greater part of 6,000+ km of pandemic exercise walks, so I can testify to its durability, suitability in adverse cold and rainy weather conditions, and general toughness and ability to exclude water.

(If you are Adam Savage Googling reviews of your gear, thanks for making such cool stuff with people who have a manifest commitment to quality construction and long-term customer support. I have the EDC ONE and EDC THREE, plus your pouch set and tape measure. I also have v2 of your bedroll currently in the hands of UPS.)