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 My campus wifi access was withdrawn several months ago.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.

Awarded my dictionary

As distant and improbable as it seemed at times, at tonight’s Convocation High Table I was given the dictionary traditionally awarded by Massey College to PhD graduates:

Photo by Chantal Phillips

This was a much more meaningful graduation for me than attending a U of T ceremony would be, and hearing the biographies of all the graduating Junior Fellows was a reminder of how many critical fights humanity is engaged in right now, and how it will take the best from all of us to fight our way to a successful, liveable, humane future for the world.

Early tomorrow I am off for back-to-back-to-back trips: first to visit our dear friends in Ottawa; then for a couple of days of quiet and reading at a dairy farm in Cambridge, Ontario; and then straight out on my first camping trip in many years.

After that, my full-time job will become finding a new affordable place to live in Toronto. Finding inexpensive accommodation is actually more urgent and important than finding an OK job. Per George Monbiot’s tough but invaluable career advice, financial security really comes from minimizing your expenses, not maximizing your income. The cheaper you can live, the freer you are to work on what is important and bring everything you can to the fight.


Prompt to ChatGPT:

Have people written about how life is like a river delta or the path of a particle through the detector in a particle accelerator lab – it spreads out in a triangle or cone as decisions are made and outcomes are determined


“The metaphor of a river delta or a particle’s path through a detector in a particle accelerator lab as a representation of the spread of possibilities and outcomes is a common concept in several fields, including philosophy, physics, and psychology.

In philosophy, this concept is often explored in discussions of determinism and free will, where the metaphor of a branching tree or river delta is used to describe the way in which the potential outcomes of a decision or event spread out in a tree-like structure, with each branch representing a possible future.

In physics, the concept of a particle’s path through a detector in a particle accelerator lab is often used to describe the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, where particles exist in a superposition of states until they are observed or measured, at which point they “collapse” into a specific state.

In psychology, the concept of a branching path is often used to describe the way in which life choices and experiences lead to different outcomes and potential paths, with each decision or experience leading to a different branching point in the individual’s life trajectory.

While there may not be a specific work that focuses solely on the metaphor of a river delta or particle path as a representation of the spread of possibilities and outcomes, these concepts are frequently explored and discussed in various fields and contexts.”

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.

Dissertation on TSpace

I am still trying to get them to replace the file with one that has a few minor typos corrected, but my dissertation went live on the University of Toronto’s TSpace platform today:

Persuasion Strategies: Canadian Campus Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaigns and the Development of Activists, 2012–20

Please don’t buy one before asking if I was planning to make you one already, but you can buy a print copy at cost from I am also ordering a batch to reduce shipping costs, so if you want to get in on that let me know.

Limits of ChatGPT

With the world discussing AI that writes, a recent post from Bret Devereaux at A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry offers a useful corrective, both about how present-day large language models like GPT-3 and ChatGPT are far less intelligent and capable than naive users assume, and how they pose less of a challenge than feared to writing.

I would say the key point to take away is remembering that these systems are just a blender that mixes and matches words based on probability. They cannot understand the simplest thing, and so their output will never be authoritative or credible without manual human checking. As mix-and-matchers they can also never be original — only capable of emulating what is common in what they have already seen.

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

Nobody to write for but myself

It has occurred to me that, while I am waiting to hear back on numerous job applications, and while I am waiting to graduate in absentia on March 10, I can shamelessly use the University of Toronto libraries to research absolutely anything of interest. Today, I got some guidance in digital cartography, was invited into a 2.5 hour workshop on making honest and educational infographics, and began reading Cyril Connoly’s 1938 Enemies of Promise in search of backstory and inspiration for my Sherlock Holmes pastiche project.

By the way, while it hasn’t always been treated with perfect gentleness, and the repairs are such as would be used for a practical object rather than a museum piece (bent corners and pencil-marks abound inside, and whoever taped the barcode on to the cover didn’t think tearing the tape unevenly would mar its appearance), based on the front matter I think the Connoly is a first edition.

I intended the title, incidentally, to refer to self-motivated writing not being actively overseen, edited, or hurried along and not to suggest that nobody is reading my writing or that I don’t care about those who do. In fact, I am always curious to know who is still lurking around here after all these years, or who has stopped by because they found a single post of interest.