Blog Museum

This reminds me of an idea I’d still like to see put into practice: a service that pulls posts from old blogs and collects them into a daily digest. I love reading blogs, especially old ones. Scrolling through a bunch of posts from the same author, sometimes written over the course of years, is like reading their journal. It gives you a picture of that writer’s personality and the ideas they’ve wrestled with over the years. It would be exciting to be reminded every so often that such an archive exists.

A Pencil Named Steve

The Turing Test is one which has baffled me since I first heard about it. Basically, when Turing was asking himself what it would mean for a computer to become sentient, he decided that he would count a computer as sentient if, in conversation with it, you were unable to tell whether or not it was a human being. 

This struck me as bizarre at the time, and more bizarre as we have seen the test be run thousands of times in peoples’ conversations with ChatGPT and its ilk. (For those who missed it, in June of last year, Blake Lemoine, one of Google’s engineers, was fired after he became convinced, “talking” with one of the prototype natural language simulations, called LAMBDA, that the chatbot was in fact conscious). If there is one thing humans are good at, it’s believing things to be persons. It’s like… very easy for us, and very hard for us not to do. We are persons, and we anthropomorphize absolutely everything. I used to be scared of the curtains in my parents bedroom because in the dark it seemed like there were people standing behind them. The tendency to see faces in patterns is so pervasive that it has a name – pareidolia. 

We are even prone to do this if we make the thing in question: if we paint a frowny face on a rock we kind of feel like the rock might be unhappy. If you give a child a stuffy, you know that child is going to immediately begin to ascribe personhood to it, even if it is a stuffed animal you made and she saw you making it. Of course humans would be able to make a computer program that would be able to fool other humans into thinking it was a person, and in Lemoine’s case, able to fool himself. We’re incredibly good at making personish things and incredibly good at then kind of thinking they are persons. 

Just to point out, this tendency, to make personish things, then get excessively impressed with and excited about them and ascribe agency and maybe power to them and ask them for help with things, is noted in the Old Testament a good bit; it is called idolatry.

Susannah Black Roberts

This sort of thing reminds me, as it always does, of Steve the Pencil:

Average is the New Zero

As a follow-up to the most recent Scriptnotes, John August wrote a blog post that included one listener’s response:

Language models are built on “training data,” which is the text you feed into a learning process to produce the output. For very sophisticated models, the training data is vast: for something like ChatGPT, it includes something like all the text you can scrape off of the last twenty years of the Internet, or so.

But this means ChatGPT is about as smart as the average writer on the Internet has been over the past twenty years — and indeed, the models that comprise GPT drag the results toward the average, not the extraordinary, because the average has much nicer statistical properties than the extraordinary for companies that seek to produce a marketable, scalable product from their models, which requires the ability to tweak, diagnose, and defend what you’re selling.

Ultimately what these models mean is that with the click of a button you can now be just as good as the average writer who posts content to the Internet, and so the old “average” is now the new “zero.” If you wrote at the average level of the Internet in 2022 you now write at the zero level.

Emphasis in original

Hurrying Through Leisure

The whole attitude seems to be: Let me get through this thing I don’t especially enjoy so I can do another thing just like it, which I won’t enjoy either. This is precisely what Paul Virilio means when he talks about living at a “frenetic standstill” and what Hartmut Rosa means when he talks about “social acceleration.” 

I say: If you’re trying to get through your work as quickly as you can, then maybe you should see if you can find a different line of work. And if you’re trying to get through your leisure-time reading and watching and listening as quickly as you can, then you definitely do not understand the meaning of leisure and should do a thorough rethink. And in both cases maybe it would be useful to read Mark Helprin on “The Acceleration of Tranquility.”

Alan Jacobs

This reminds me of two things, both of which I probably learned about from Jacobs.

The IMDb app

You may not know that the IMDb iOS app lets you sort lists by where they are currently streaming. For a long time, was where I went to find out whether anything worthwhile was available on Netflix or Amazon. The IMDb app is way better. Let’s say you’re a huge Spielberg fan. Go to his filmography page and tap Streaming at the top. You’ll see a list of all sites that are currently streaming anything by Spielberg. Here are some screenshots to illustrate.

Writing Software

Except when forced to do otherwise, I use Highland or Highland 2 to write screenplays. Recently, I’ve been using it for rough drafts of all documents because it’s fast and doesn’t have as many bells or whistles as, say, MS Word. I’m not sure I like it, though. It works for screenplays because you what you see in the document is more or less what you’ll see on the page.

Visualizing my writing on the page helps me imagine the reader, which helps me make small adjustments to clarify whatever I’m trying to get across. Articles and stories, however, look very different in the Editor than they do in the Preview.

Not being able to see the page makes me write faster, but less coherently. At some point in the writing process, I switch over to whatever word processor I’ll use to make the final adjustments. Lately, I’ve been making the switch sooner.

A Man and a Hymnal

Some of the folks on the CREC music email list are discussing the pros and cons of physical psalters and hymnbooks. I decided to weigh in…

Growing up in Moscow, I got used to singing out of the Cantus Christi. My copy (of the venerable blue variety) got so worn over the years that its spine is currently being held together by duct tape. I understand the practical advantages of singing from a bulletin or even a projector screen during worship, but my experience demonstrates some of the advantages of using a hymnal over time, both in worship and in casual settings.

For one thing, there’s the fact that over time the physical hymnal became a familiar object. Even when I didn’t remember page numbers, I remembered generally where in the book a particular hymn or psalm was because I knew what the two halves of the book felt like in my hands when I was singing that one. (Now that I think of it, hymns near the middle of the book may have been more popular simply because the book was easier to hold when it was open to that position.) I even remember the location of certain hymns because of the communion wine stains on the edge of the page.

Another benefit of having a common physical hymnal was that any gathering of church members could grab a few copies and have an impromptu psalm/hymn sing. Having sung all the same stuff for years, we knew what we knew and what we liked. It was a treat when we had a group skilled enough to sing one of the fugue tunes (e.g., ‘Tis By Thy Strength), and when we didn’t, we knew that there were simpler crowd-pleasers available. Whether hanging out in the park or in a friend’s living room, we always had the option of singing together. One hymn would remind someone of another favorite and we could all flip to that page and give it the old college try. It was even better if half the group knew the hymn and the other half didn’t, since that gave you the chance to learn a new tune. I always hoped that eventually I’d know every song in the Cantus. The physical book gave me something to shoot for.

Lastly (for now), a physical book gives you the magical ability to browse. Digital editions are great for finding something when you know what you’re looking for, but if you’re hanging out at the piano on a Sunday afternoon, plinking away, you definitely want a physical hymnal to flip through.

A Man Smudges Productively

Austin Kleon writes about chalkboards, quoting this NYT article:

In many fields of science and investigation, blackboards have been replaced with whiteboards or slide show presentations. But chalk is cheaper and biodegradable. It smells better than whiteboard markers and is easier to clean up, mathematicians say. It is also more fun to write with.

One of the chalkophiles he cites says that “the value [of chalk] is in using it up.” This is one reason I love using wooden pencils. Yes, you have to sharpen them, but you get to measure your work against the diminishing length. Empty pens, too, give me the same satisfaction.

Austin’s post reminded me of this NHPR story (that’s New Hampshire Public Radio) about why mathematicians love using chalkboards. Here are a few of the juicier quotes.

On the sound chalk makes on the chalkboard:

It’s much louder than any other writing implement would be. And as a result it’s much harder to interrupt somebody who’s writing on a blackboard. So if you’re up there, it’s like there’s this noise that keeps you from saying “Wait a minute! What about this?” whereas if you’re writing with a marker on a whiteboard, it’s easier to interrupt. This actually leads to longer flow of thoughts, which is important in mathematics; you’re not breaking it up as much. So that’s one possibility.

On the size of the writing:

You have to write big. Easier to see. But also it means you can fit fewer character on, you have to be more concise. And frankly, conciseness is what mathematics is. Mathematics is distilling information down to the minimum amount of characters. That’s really the essence of it. So that contributes to it.

On “productive smudging”:

Another thing he talked about that’s actually useful, and this is my favorite one, he said that blackboards smudge productively, which is just a great line. You know, you’re writing on a blackboard and oops, you make a mistake, you can rub it out with your hand, or you rub it out with an eraser. And it’s really easy to do. But it’s really hard to do it completely. You can’t get rid of it entirely. There’s always a little bit of a smudge and you write over it. And I’ve always thought that was a bad thing. And he argues that for mathematics, and particularly mathematics research, it’s a good thing because a lot of math research involves taking existing concepts and applying them in new ways. And so if you’ve written an existing equation everybody’s familiar with and then rubbed out a part of it and written something new over it, there is a visual sign that you have taken an existing concept and tweaked it, which is sort of like a reminder to the people in the audience that this is how you approach it. This is not some new thing you’ve brought down from on high, it’s an alteration of an existing one.

A Man Likes to Repeat Himself

W. H Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson, wrote,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

According to Mendelson, we moderns are hopeless romantics, allergic to repetition. How would marketing departments across the country feel to learn that their promises to constantly innovate are nothing more than romantic puffs?

Combined with this overweening optimism is the worship of the new. Our culture is addicted to novelty. In the days of Shakespeare, “innovation” meant the same thing as “confusion.” Those who constantly upended the past were dangerous, out of their minds. Now, of course, we are so hyper-aware that others may have something or know something that we don’t, we race to adopt new fashions, electronics, attitudes. We have convinced ourselves that keeping up with the New is our civic duty. And if we meet someone who doesn’t read the newspaper, doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, and doesn’t have an iPhone, we treat them as some kind of fanatic. They must be tripping on something to want to avoid the New.

A Man is Amazed by an Old Thing

Click here and listen to a recording of Ernest Shackleton telling a story from one of his expeditions to the South Pole. The audio was recorded in 1910 on a wax cylinder. Now, you can listen to it in all its digital glory.


Besides amazing the dungarees off me, this recording reminds me of the relative costs and benefits of different media. A wax cylinder can exist in more or less the same condition for 109 years. But it’s confined to one place. A digital recording can travel the world, but will probably be lost, corrupted, or obsolete a decade from now.