Life in an inhospitable future

Because you’re going to need shelter — and people don’t give their homes away. They barricade themselves in.

So, sooner or later, exhausted and desperate, you may have to make the decision to give up and die — or, to make somebody else give up and die because they won’t accept you in their home voluntarily.

And what, in your comfortable urban life, has ever prepared you for that decision?

From episode 1 of James Burke’s 1978 TV series “Connections”, entitled: “The Trigger Effect“.

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.

Another example of Canada’s dishonest climate policy

These linguistic evasions demonstrate both our continuing lack of seriousness about climate change and how the public policy agenda remains captured by the fossil fuel industry protecting its narrow interests:

Western premiers push back as Guilbeault calls for ‘phase-out of unabated fossil fuels’

We know that greenhouse gases are the cause and there is no solution to climate change without fossil fuel abolition, but we are stuck talking about a “phase down” instead of elimination, and using the magical idea of “abated” fossil fuels to use a technology that does not exist at scale (carbon capture and storage) to justify continued fossil fuel development.

Pip’s guilt

“He was a world of trouble to you, ma’am,” said Mrs. Hubble, commiserating my sister.

“Trouble?” echoed my sister; “trouble?” and then entered on a fearful catalogue of all the illnesses I had been guilty of, and all the acts of sleeplessness I had committed, and all the high places I had tumbled from, and all the low places I had tumbled into, and all the injuries I had done myself, and all the times she had wished me in my grave, and I had contumaciously refused to go there.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1861.

My hand-crafted text guarantee

Long ago, I turned off autocorrect on my phone. Sure it would sometimes turn a typo into a properly typed word, saving me a second or two — but whenever it turned something correct or outside the dictionary into something wrong, it would annoy me enough to undo the value of hundreds of correct corrections.

Now the world is abuzz with ChatGPT and its ilk of so-called articial intelligence that writes. Even people who I know are excited about using it as a labour-saving device or for tedious tasks.

I will not.

While I have worked in a variety of job positions, the common characteristic has been the centrality of writing. I am a writer first and foremost, though I have never held that formal job title, and it is important to me and to me my readers that the sentences, paragraphs, and documents I produce came from my own mind and took advantage of my abilities to express a thought in a comprehensible way, as well as to imagine what impression it will make on the reader and adapt my language accordingly.

To call ChatGPT-style AIs stupid and likely to be wrong gives them far too much credit. You need some intelligence in order to have a low level of it, such as stupidity. You need to have the slightest ability to distinguish right from wrong claims in order for readers to be truly confident that what you have produced is accurate or inaccurate. A highly sophisticated parrot which regurgitates fragments of what it found online can clearly be very convincing at imitating thinking, but it’s a deceptive imitation and not the real thing. A ChatGPT-style AI will blithely repeat common falsehoods because all it is doing is telling you what sort of writing is probable in the world. At best, it gives you the wisdom of the crowd, and the whole basis of academic specialization, peer review, and editing from publishing houses is that serious texts should meet a much higher standard.

My pledge to people who read my writing — whether in academic papers, job applications, love letters, blog posts, books, text messages, or sky-writing — can be confident that it came from my own brain and was expressed using my own words and reasoning. I will never throw a bullet point into a text generator to expand it out into a sentence or paragraph, or use an AI to automatically slim down or summarize what I have written.

My writing is hand-crafted and brain-crafted. In a world where there will be more and more suspicion that anything a person wrote was actually co-written by a parrot with godlike memory but zero understanding, I think that kind of guarantee will become increasingly valuable. Indeed, part of me feels like we ought to make an uncontaminated archive of what has been written up until about now, so we at least have a time capsule from before laziness drove a lot of us to outsource one of the most essential and important human activities (writing) to a tech firm’s distillation of the speculative and faulty babble online, or even some newer language model trained only with more credible texts.

It is also worth remembering that as ease-of-use leads language models to produce a torrent of new questionable content, the training sets for new models that use the internet as a data source will increasingly be contaminated by nonsense written earlier by other AIs.

The soundest base for a diagnosis

So much depends on style, that factor of which we are growing more and more suspicious, that although the tendency of criticism is to explain a writer either in terms of his sexual experience or his economic background, I still believe technique remains the soundest base for a diagnosis, that it should be possible to learn as much about an author’s income and sex-life from one paragraph of his writing as from his cheque stubs and his love-letters, and one should also be able to learn how well he writes, and what are his influences. Critics who ignore style are liable to lump good and bad writers together in support of pre-conceived theories.

Connoly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd. Broadway House: 68–74 Carter Lane, E.C. 1938

Slides in academic presentations

I have seen hundreds of academic presentations, the great majority with slides. Unfortunately, I would say that the most common practice is one of the worst: putting all or nearly all of what you will say on your slides. Since nearly everybody reads faster than you will talk, this gives the whole presentation a dragging sense of going over the same ground slowly and repeatedly.

Putting totally different text on your slides is in some ways even worse, since now the audience needs to follow two simultaneous narratives which may not combine perfectly or benefit from being put forward in parallel.

The approach which I use and have found successful is to make myself a Powerpoint deck with speaking notes in point form. With the slides on a screen that only I can see, I can be sure to follow my overall outline and not miss any points. It also lets the audience concentrate fully on what I am saying, without the distraction of comparing it against text on slides. Generally I think it sounds more engaging and human to turn point form text into full sentences on the fly, rather than read a speech verbatim, but if the presentation is very short it can be best to have everything written succinctly in advance and then to try to read it in a way that doesn’t sound like a recitation.

A couple of ways to have slides with fewer problems are to only include very brief summary or conclusion text, which the audience will be able to read so quickly it isn’t a distraction, or using slides more-or-less exclusively to show charts, graphs, and photos. That is what I tried to do with my recent lesson on the robotic exploration of the solar system.

These approaches do detract from the viability of a slide deck as a standalone presentation which can be understood without the accompanying speech, but I would argue that a deck meant to be used that way should have a totally different design from slides meant to support a spoken talk, whether it’s in-person or online. If the priority is the live audience, the talk should be designed to engage them in the moment and not to be a set of reference materials that would be equally comprehensible to someone who hasn’t heard the talk.


Language use by non-human animals

I came across an interesting video debunking the idea that Koko the gorilla actually used sign language:

I don’t have the expertise to fully evaluate this on my own, but it accords with the theory which I have heard that it is more plausible that Koko was trained to respond to prompts from trainers than that she expressed her own thoughts and used language in any kind of sophisticated way.

Nevertheless, it remains a fascinating question whether inter-species communication will ever be possible with non-human beings who do seem to use sophisticated communication, such as whales, dolphins, and great apes. The question of whether they are capable is different from the question of whether we know how to help them do it. Maybe one day we will find techniques that allow them to express what they say to each other in a form that people can understand.

P.S. A great recent episode of the Ologies podcast discusses acoustic ecology.