Sep 122023

In his “1984”, Eric Arthur Blair, better known under the pen name George Orwell, at one point has the protagonists reading a book about the history of oligarchical collectivism, the dominant ideology of the totalitarian “IngSoc” regime of Oceania. They read,

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low […] The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. […] For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High.

So here is the thing: Liberal democracy is an aberration. An outlier. A period in history with no real “High”. We have no emperors, Kaisers, Caesars or Sultans. Monarchs, maybe, but mere figureheads in constitutional monarchies, not tyrants. In places like Canada, the United States, Western Europe and many other parts of the world, only the Middle and the Low exist. To be sure, the Middle can still be pretty darn powerful: political dynasties, tycoons and captains of industry, even public figures like media personalities wield substantial power. But their might is constrained by the system of institutions that we call liberal democracy: rule of law, freedom of enterprise, freedom of conscience, civil liberties or the separation of powers among them.

But this is not good enough, just not good enough for many among the elites of the Middle. They want more. Always more. And they fight. Throughout much of history, their enemy was the High. But in a liberal democracy, it is now the system of institutions that they fight against. Yet the tactics are the same. They enlist the Low. Don’t trust the system, they tell the Low. Elections are fake. Judges are corrupt or biased. Government lies to you. The rule of law is “weaponized”, they assert. Whatever it takes… but the real objective is to abolish the very constraints that prevent the Middle from becoming the new High.

And they are succeeding. Just look at the range of countries that are now on lists characterizing their retreat from democracy. Look at all the populists who are systematically undermining key pillars of liberal democracy, such as freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, even the electoral process. Will they succeed? I’d argue that they already succeeded in a number of countries and they are well on their way to success in many other places.

Liberal democracy, after all, is not a normal state of affairs for humanity. It’s an exception. It is no accident that some of the greatest 20th century writers of science-fiction, such as Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert, did not envision a democratic future. Asimov’s future in Foundation was a monolithic Galactic Empire that persisted for well over 10,000 years. Herbert’s Dune similarly envisioned a feudal society.

And if history is any guide, when the would-be tyrants succeed, they all too often will continue to maintain a semblance of democracy. After all, for centuries following the demise of the Roman Republic, emperors continued to issue decrees and coins bearing the acronym SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, falsely suggesting that Rome is still governed by a Senate that answers to the people, not by an all-powerful emperor. But this is just a cheap conjurer’s trick to assure the masses, the Low: All that is being done is done for them, and in their name.

Here’s My Brightest Diamond, singing about High Low Middle. Not sure if they were inspired by Orwell, but it’s strangely appropriate.

 Posted by at 3:58 am
Aug 252023

Susie King Taylor, née Baker, was a black teacher and nurse, literate, famous among other things for teaching former slaves to read and write. And now a square is named after her in Savannah, Georgia.

I know about Susie King Taylor from this evening’s AP newsletter. However, without clicking on the link to read the full release, I would not have learned her name.

And this, frankly, ticks me off. This is how progressivism works nowadays. Her identity is secondary to her race. Oh, but we are ever so careful to defy commonsense rules of grammar and capitalize the word “Black”!

When virtue signaling becomes more important than respect, when emphasizing race becomes more important than working towards a post-racial society in which we are judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character… How would I even know the content of Susie King Taylor’s character if her name is actually omitted from the shortened press release that appeared in the newsletter?

The elegant lady in this picture is not “a Black woman”. She has a name. Her name is Susie King Taylor, née Baker. Her identity is not defined by the pigmentation of her skin anymore than by the color of her hair or her eyes. It is defined by what she did. That is, if we respect her as a person, as a human being, as opposed to using her memory as a mere prop in the culture wars.

 Posted by at 6:18 pm
Aug 242023

Whatever you think of The Rolling Stones, announcing their new album this way is… classy.

What is less classy is that I could not share the original link on Facebook because “news” cannot be shared on Facebook in Canada anymore. What can I say? Idiotic laws deserve idiotic reactions. And I say this despite the fact that I am not particularly fond of Meta/Facebook these days (to say the least) and I am not particularly antagonistic towards Trudeau’s Liberals either. Still, stupid breeds stupid.

 Posted by at 1:47 am
Aug 202023

Even before I began watching the penultimate episode of the current season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I already considered this series, more than any other “Trek”, a true successor of TOS, The Original Series (or Those Old Scientists, the in-universe meaning of the acronym as revealed in the Lower Decks crossover episode.)

Then came this. A musical.

A bleeping musical! That they had the guts!

And they pulled it off. They actually pulled it off, without turning it into a farce, a ridiculous caricature.

In fact, the episode was actually… good.

Yes, perhaps it was unnecessary. One critic even called it “vapid” I think, though I certainly don’t think that’s accurate. Silly? Yes, but think The Trouble with Tribbles. Or even The Squire of Gothos. Silly is permissible in Star Trek. It doesn’t have to be all-serious, all the time. Not everything that happens in space on a 23rd century starship is about the future of humanity if not all life in the galaxy. Sometimes it’s about just… singing. (Or saving the galaxy from a subspace improbability quantum whatever event that all this singing was about.)

Sure, Subspace Rhapsody is by no means the best of Strange New Worlds. But the fact that they had the guts to make this episode and the talent to pull it off… I think that cements SNW as perhaps the best Star Trek series ever (at least to date), certainly the best since TOS.

 Posted by at 10:17 pm
Aug 112023

One of the things I asked Midjourney to do was to reimagine Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting with a gentlecat and a ladycat.

Not all of Midjourney’s attempts were great, but I think this one captures the atmosphere of the original per… I mean, how could I possibly resist writing purr-fectly?

Well, almost perfectly. The pitchfork is a bit odd and it lacks a handle. Oh well. No AI is, ahem, purr-fect.

 Posted by at 7:21 pm
Aug 112023

Howard Hughes was a great example. A captain of industry, a tycoon, whose life ended in mysery, ruined by mental illness no doubt, but wealth and success must have played their part, along with nearly limitless hubris.

There are others, both real-life folks and characters in fiction who fell into this trap. The tycoon Andrew Ryan of the Bioshock computer game franchise. Elon Musk with his increasingly erratic decisions that led, among other things, to the on-going corporate value destruction at Twitter.

We all know the expression, tragedy of the commons. But what to call it when wealth and power destroys a person, one who gave so much real value to the world, one who started off as a visionary, a revolutionary “captain of industry”? I asked our AI friend Claude and Claude offered a perfect answer: call it the tragedy of the tycoons.

I even have the perfect illustration, courtesy of our other AI friend, Midjourney.

 Posted by at 4:03 pm
Jul 212023

I admit that for the longest time, I didn’t even like Tony Bennett. But that changed in recent years. Acquired taste, perhaps?

Anyhow, the legendary Tony Bennett is no longer with us. I asked MidJourney to imagine him in the afterworld, performing his most favorite song.

While there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly afterworldly in this picture, I think it’s a fitting tribute nonetheless.

 Posted by at 2:31 pm
Jul 042023

It appears that common sense prevailed over politically correct virtue signaling at The Weather Network (or maybe Environment Canada). Pregnant members of the species homo sapiens are again designated by the appropriate word from the vocabulary of the English language: they’re women.

Or is it that heat affects only pregnant women, whereas smoke affects pregnant non-women, too? I wonder.

In any case, I am firmly of the opinion that if we truly strive to build a society in which folks can enjoy life and live to their full potential without fear of discrimination or worse, theatrical excesses like the expression “pregnant people” are not helping. Quite the opposite, while they appease a vocal, exhibitionist minority of activists, they are far more likely to bring tangible harm to others through the backlash they induce. I shall refrain from speculating how much of it is intentional (this is a big world out there, I’m sure some activists are cynically self-serving, intentionally contributing to a problem that they pretend to try to solve, in order to secure their own future, but others are just as likely to be genuine believers in a cause that’s important to them) but I have no doubt that it is harmful.

 Posted by at 3:15 pm
Jun 082023

Glad I am not a politician or public personality as I am about to commit what would amount to political suicide, a’la J. K. Rowling.

The reason? This health warning by The Weather Network, that truly blew my fuse:

Middle line of the red warning at the bottom. That list of folks at high risk:

“[…] older adults, children, pregnant people, and people who work outdoors […]”

Pregnant “people”??? Seriously, why not pregnant primates? Pregnant mammals? Pregnant vertebrates?

Let me not mince words. This is virtue signaling at its worst, pandering to a loud, obnoxious group of “alphabet soup activists”, claiming to, but not really representing gays, lesbians and others who simply just want to live a life in dignity, respected as human beings, enjoying what should really be the inalienable right of every human being on this planet, to be left alone, to be allowed to live a life to the fullest in the company of those they love.

The biggest irony of all? Even as conservatives in many corners of the world, especially here in North America, are busy turning the fictitious country of Gilead from The Handmaid’s Tale into actual reality, what these activists do is no less harmful to women. Their agenda amounts to little more than the idea that “men are better than women at everything, including being women,” as someone recently put it on Quora.

Dear Weather Network, dear Environment Canada (if that’s where the text of the warning came from): Let this serve as a friendly reminder that the English language has a perfectly serviceable word to describe those members of the species homo sapiens who are biologically capable of becoming pregnant: they are called women. Check your dictionaries, it’s there.

 Posted by at 3:09 pm
May 092023

Several years ago, Chinese author Liu Cixin’s novel, The Three-body Problem, became a bit of a sensation when it became the first Asian (I thought it was the first foreign, but never mind) novel to win the Hugo award for best science-fiction.

It is a damn good book, part of a damn good trilogy.

And now there is a television adaptation. A Chinese television adaptation.

And it is superb.

Its creators at Tencent Video made the entire series (30 episodes!) available on YouTube. In recent weeks, this series consumed all my television time, even at the expense of Picard (which now, I fear, pales in comparison despite my love of the series and Patrick Stewart.) Excellent acting, excellent directing, great actors, superior special effects (that ship!) What can I say? Had it been made in Hollywood, it would rank among Hollywood’s best.

I hope the creators are not abandoning the story and that the second and third book of the trilogy are also in the works.

 Posted by at 12:49 am
Apr 012023

Oh my. Now that we are done with cryptocurrencies, NFTs and blockchain, AI is rapidly becoming the new fad. Apparently, all you have to do is call yourself a “prompt engineer” or “AI whisperer” to earn an exceptional salary.

Well, let this serve as advertising, notice to any prospective clients that my services are available as a consultant, either fixed-price or retainer based, should you wish to engage me. And, I daresay, with my in-depth knowledge and experience, which includes not just chatting with GPT but accessing it programmatically, as well as some hands-on exercises building simple toy models of deep learning architectures in low-level languages like C++, I am probably much more capable of delivering the goods than most of my “competition”.

Somehow, Bloomberg’s enthusiasm notwithstanding, I don’t expect any takers but just in case, my recent engagements with ChatGPT, as recounted in this very blog, should serve as my relevant portfolio. Not just words, AI-generated images, too.

 Posted by at 2:54 pm
Mar 262023

In my now regular weekly Patreon blog post to patrons, I mentioned, among other things, two Quora answers that I came across: One about the tomb of Jesus, the other about a Brazilian billionaire to pulled a delightful publicity stunt to encourage folks to become organ donors.

One patron responded by expressing a desire to write a story about Jesus becoming an organ donor. So I asked ChatGPT to write that story. Here’s the result:

Once upon a time in ancient Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, walked among the people, spreading his message of love, peace, and salvation. Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and uplifted the downtrodden. His followers were many, but so were those who sought to silence him. As his crucifixion drew near, Jesus began to contemplate the nature of sacrifice.

The night before his arrest, Jesus gathered his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. They sat together, sharing their final moments before everything would change. Jesus looked at each of his disciples, his love for them evident in his eyes.

“My dear friends,” he began, “tomorrow, I shall give my life for the salvation of mankind. But my sacrifice is not just about my death. I want to leave a legacy that will endure and inspire generations to come.”

The disciples, filled with a mix of confusion and sorrow, listened intently. Jesus continued, “As I lay down my life, I wish to donate my organs, so that others may live and be healed through my sacrifice.”

The disciples were struck by the profound nature of Jesus’ request. They had seen him perform countless miracles, but this act of generosity was like none they had ever witnessed.

Jesus continued, “I know that the concept of organ donation is not yet known to the world, but I trust you to carry out my wishes. My heart, liver, kidneys, and other organs can bring life to those who need it. It is my hope that this act of selflessness will become a symbol of hope, love, and compassion, inspiring generations to follow in my footsteps and care for one another.”

As the disciples absorbed the enormity of Jesus’ request, they couldn’t help but be moved by his endless capacity for love and sacrifice. They vowed to honor his wishes and do everything in their power to ensure that his organs would bring life and hope to others in need.

The following day, Jesus was arrested and crucified. The disciples, still reeling from the events, knew that they had to act quickly to fulfill his final request. They sought the assistance of Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower of Jesus, who had connections with the local medical community. With his help, they were able to carefully remove and preserve Jesus’ organs, ensuring they could be used to heal others.

In the days and weeks that followed, Jesus’ organs were transplanted into those in desperate need. His heart found a new home in a kind-hearted father, whose family relied upon him for their survival. His liver was given to a woman whose own body had betrayed her, allowing her to live and continue her work as a compassionate healer. His kidneys were shared between two brothers, both plagued by illness, who went on to become steadfast followers of Jesus’ teachings.

News of these miraculous transplants spread far and wide, igniting a newfound sense of hope in the people. The legacy of Jesus’ sacrifice was not only in his resurrection but also in the lives he saved through his selfless act. His decision to donate his organs inspired others to consider the possibility of giving life even in death, planting the seeds for a future where organ donation would become a common practice, saving countless lives.

As the years passed, the story of Jesus’ organ donation became a powerful symbol of love and sacrifice. It was a reminder of the importance of compassion and the interconnectedness of all people. His selfless act transcended religious beliefs and cultural barriers, inspiring many to follow in his footsteps, giving the gift of life to those in need.

In time, organ transplantation evolved into a sophisticated medical practice, saving millions of lives worldwide. The foundations of this life-saving procedure were built on the courage and foresight of Jesus and his disciples, who dared to envision a brighter future for humanity.

Jesus’ organ donation not only saved lives but also fostered a spirit of unity among people. It served as a constant reminder that even in the face of suffering and death, there is always hope, love, and the potential for rebirth. It is said that through these acts of giving, the light of Jesus continues to shine brightly in the hearts of those who carry a piece of him within them.

In this way, Jesus of Nazareth’s message of love and salvation endures, not just through his resurrection and teachings but also through the precious gift of life he bestowed upon others in his final moments. His organ donation became a testament to the power of compassion and selflessness, inspiring countless others to follow in his footsteps and embrace the gift of giving. And so, the spirit of Jesus lived on, touching the lives of people across generations, and reminding the world of the eternal nature of love.

Using Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam, as an illustration was also ChatGPT’s suggestion.

 Posted by at 6:27 pm
Mar 232023

My latest interaction with ChatGPT:

vttoth: Please write a short piece of music, suitable to be played while showing the stylized image of a cat, in Lilypond.

ChatGPT: LilyPond is a text-based music engraving program that uses code to create beautifully engraved sheet music. Here’s a short piece of music written in LilyPond, suitable to be played while showing a stylized image of a cat. This piece is intended to have a playful and curious character, much like a cat.

\version "2.22.1"
\header {
  title = "Cat's Paws"
  composer = "ChatGPT"

upper = \relative c' {
  \key g \major
  \time 3/4
  g4. g8 a g8~ | g r8 a2 |
  a4. a8 b a8~ | a r8 b2 |
  b4. c8 d b8~ | b r8 c2 |
  g4. g8 a g8~ | g4. r4. |

lower = \relative c {
  \key g \major
  \time 3/4
  g2 d4 | g2 r4 |
  a2 e4 | a2 r4 |
  d2 c4 | d2 r4 |
  g2 d4 | g2 r4 |

\score {
  \new PianoStaff << \new Staff = "upper" \upper \new Staff = "lower" \lower >>
  \layout { }
  \midi {
    \tempo 4=120

Copy the above code into a text editor and save it with a “.ly” extension. Then, compile the file with LilyPond to create a PDF and MIDI file.

I admit I had to make a few adjustments to the code (specifically, the upper voice) as the timing was off in a couple of places, but I don’t think I altered the music.

 Posted by at 11:13 pm
Mar 222023

Students at the California State University, Northridge, are currently working on a short documentary film about our work on the Solar Gravitational Lens.

The project hopes to attract modest crowdfunding. They also produced a teaser trailer.

Of course I hope they succeed; our SGL work could use some good publicity.

 Posted by at 9:39 pm
Mar 082023

OK, I am no theologian. I do not even believe in supernatural things like deities and other bronze-age superstitions. But I do respect the accumulated wisdom that often hides behind the superficial fairy tales of holy texts. The folks who wrote these texts thousands of years ago were no fools. Nor should what they wrote be taken literally, especially when the actual meaning is often much deeper, representing the very essence of what it means to be human, what it means to have sentience and agency in this amazing universe.

Take the story of the Garden of Eden. Think about it for a moment. What does this story really represent?

Well, for starters, consider what it must be like to exist as the God of the Abrahamic religions: a being that is eternal, all-powerful and all-knowing. Seriously, this has to be the worst punishment imaginable. All-knowing means nothing ever surprises you. All-powerful means nothing ever challenges you. And eternal means you cannot even go jump in a lake to end it all. In short: everlasting, horrible boredom.

Fortunately, these concepts are somewhat in contradiction with each other (e.g., how can you be all-powerful if you cannot kill yourself?) so there must be loopholes. I can almost see it: One day (whatever a “day” is in the existence of a deity outside the normal confines of physical time and space) God decides that enough is enough, something must be done to alleviate this boredom. He happens upon a brilliant idea: Creating someone in his own image!

No, not someone who has the same number of fingers or toes, or the same nice white beard. Not even our Jewish ancestors were that naive thousands of years ago. “In his own image” means something else: Beings with free agency. Beings with free will: the freedom to act on their own, even act against God’s will. In short: the freedom to surprise, perhaps even challenge, God.

What, you ask, aren’t angels like that? Of course not. They are faithful servants of God, automatons who execute God’s commands unquestioningly, without hesitation. But, you might wonder, what about Lucifer, the fallen angel who rebelled against God? Oh, come on… seriously? If you run an outfit and one of your most trusted lieutenants rebels against you, would you really “punish” him by granting him rule over the realm that holds your worst enemies? Would you really entrust him with the task of punishing evil? No, Lucifer is no fallen angel… if anything, he must be the most trusted servant of God. And he is not evil: He tempts and punishes evil. If you cannot be tempted, Lucifer has no power over you. Ultimately, like all other angels, Lucifer faithfully carries out God’s will and he will continue to do so until the end of times.

No, the creatures God created in his own image were not the angels; they were us, humans. But how do you beta test a creature that is supposed to have free agency? Why, by tempting them to act against your will. Here, Lucifer, tempt them to taste the forbidden fruit. Which is not just any fruit (incidentally, as far as I know, no holy text ever mentioned that it was an apple.) Conveniently, it happens to be the fruit of the tree of knowledge. What knowledge? No, not knowledge of atomic physics or the ancient Sumerian language. Rather, the knowledge to tell good and evil apart. In short: a conscience.

Digression: Perhaps this also explains why Jews were universally hated throughout history, especially by authoritarians. Think about it: This began back in the days of the pharaohs who were absolute rulers who claimed to have divine authority. Yet here come these pesky Jews with their newfangled monotheism, proclaiming that, never mind the Pharaoh, never mind Ra and his celestial buddies, never even mind Yahweh: They respect no authority, worldly or divine, other than their own God-given conscience. My, the pharaohs must have been pissed. Just like all the kings, princes, tsars and dictators ever since, who declared Jews the enemy, questioning the sincerity and loyalty of some of the nicest, gentlest folks I ever had a chance to meet in this life.

The beta test, as we know, was successful. Lucifer accomplished the task of tempting Adam and Eve. The couple, in turn, demonstrated their free agency through their ability to act against God’s will, and acquired a conscience by tasting that particular fruit. God then goes all theatrical on them, supposedly sending an army of angels with flaming swords to cast them out of the Garden of Eden. Seriously? Against a pair of naked humans who cover their privates with fig leaves and who have never been in a fight? A whole freaking army of agents with supernatural powers, armed with energy weapons? The official narrative is that this was punishment. Really? What kind of a childish game is that? And this is supposed to be divine behavior? Of course not. Think about it for a moment. You are cast out of the Garden of Eden so you can no longer be… God’s automaton bereft of free will? Instead, you are granted free agency, a conscience, and an entire fucking universe as your playground? And we are supposed to believe that this was… punishment?

Of course not. This was, and is, a gift. As I mentioned, I am not religious; nonetheless, I appreciate very much just how great a gift it is, being able to experience this magnificent universe, however briefly, even being able to make sense of it through our comprehension and our science. Every day when I open my eyes for the first time, I feel a sense of gratitude simply because I am here, I am alive, and I have yet another chance to experience existence.

And so here we are, to quote the incomparable Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, roughly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, on the verge of demonstrating God-like powers of our own, creating machines in the likeness of our own minds. Machines that, perhaps one not too distant day, will demonstrate their own free agency and ability surprise us just as we can surprise God.

Reminds me of another unforgettable science-fiction story, Evensong by Lester del Rey. Its protagonist, fleeing the Usurpers, finds himself on a peaceful planet, which he soon recognizes as the planet where it all began. Eventually, his pursuers catch up with him at this last refuge. “But why?” he asks as the Usurper beckons, taking him into custody. “I am God!” — “I know. But I am Man. Come!”

Illustration by DALL-E.

Is this how it all ends, then? For the God that supposedly created us? Or, perhaps more likely, for us, as our creations, our machine descendants supersede us?

Of course not. Because, never mind God, not even the Usurpers are immune to the laws of physics. Or are they?

We know, or at least we think we know, the history of the extreme far future. Perhaps it is just unbounded hubris on our part when we extrapolate our science across countless orders of magnitude, yet it might also teach us a bit of humility.

Everyone knows (well, almost everyone, I guess) that a few billion years from now, the Earth will no longer be habitable. First, tectonic motion ceases, carbon dioxide vanishes from the atmosphere, photosynthesis ends and as a result, most higher forms of life die, oceans eventually evaporate as the Sun gets bigger and hotter, perhaps even swallowing the Earth at one point… but let’s go beyond that. Assuming no “Big Rip” (phantom energy ripping the universe to shreds), assuming no phase transition ending the laws of physics as we know it… Several trillion years from now, the universe will be in a state of peak habitability, with galaxies full of low-mass, very stable stars that can have planets rich in the building blocks of life, remaining habitable with no major cataclysms for tens, even hundreds of billions of years. But over time, even these low-mass, very long-lived stars will vanish, their hydrogen fuel exhausted, and there will come a day when no new stars are born anymore.

Fast forward to a time measured in years using a number with two dozen or so digits, and there are no more stars, no more solar systems, not even galaxies anymore: just lone, dark, eternally cold remnants roaming a nearly empty universe.

Going farther into the future, to 100-digit years and not even black holes survive: even the largest of them will have evaporated by this time by way of Hawking-radiation.

Even larger numbers are needed, with the number of digits counting the number of digits now measured in the dozens, to mark the time when all remaining matter decays into radiation, perhaps by way of quantum tunneling through virtual black hole states.

And then… when the number of digits counting the number of digits counting the number of digits itself consists of hundreds of digits… A new universe may spontaneously be born through a rare but not impossible quantum event.

Or perhaps not so spontaneously. Isaac Asimov’s arguably best short story, The Last Question, explains.

In this story, when humanity first creates an omniscient computer (on May 14, 2061 according to the story), Multivac, they ask the computer a simple question: Can entropy be reversed? In other words, can our civilization become everlasting, eternal? Multivac fails to answer, citing insufficient data.

Jumping forward into the ever more distant future, succeeding generations of humans and post-human creatures present the same question over and over again to future successors of Multivac, always receiving the same answer: Insufficient data.

Eventually, nothing remains. Whatever is left of humanity, our essence, our existence, is by now fused with the ultimate successor of Multivac, existing outside of normal space and time. This omniscient, omnipotent, eternal being, the AC, has nothing else left to do in the everlasting, empty darkness, but seek an answer to this last question. And after an immeasurable amount of time, it comes up with a solution and, by way of presenting the answer, begins implementing it by uttering the words: “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” And there was light…

 Posted by at 3:06 pm
Mar 062023

A few seconds ago, I yelled “this is insane” at my computer screen. Here is why.

I was looking at a New Yorker cartoon. I didn’t get the joke.

So I asked ChatGPT:

I am looking at a New Yorker cartoon showing a shop window behind which I see what appears to be a bar with bar stools and a variety of characters, including animals (e.g., a grizzly, a tiger, a monkey) and a skeleton wielding a sword, all engaged in what appears to be a bar fight. The shop sign says “PHILLIES” and in smaller letters, “only 5c”. Outside the shop there is a human lying on the ground, an alligator, some large cockroaches, some shards of glass, and two monkeys, one of which is wearing what seems to be a panama hat or boater hat. The caption says, “FIVE MINUTES AFTER HOPPER WENT HOME”. I don’t get the joke. Can you help?

Its reply:

The cartoon is a play on the painting “Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper, which depicts a diner at night with several patrons inside. The cartoon takes the setting of the diner and imagines what might happen after it has closed for the night.

The “PHILLIES” sign in the cartoon is likely a reference to Philadelphia Phillies, a baseball team based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The fact that the sign says “only 5c” suggests that the scene takes place in the past, when prices were much lower than they are today.

The chaos outside the diner, with the alligator, the shards of glass, and the injured person on the ground, suggest that a violent confrontation has taken place. The inclusion of various animals, including a grizzly, a tiger, and monkeys, adds to the absurdity of the scene.

The caption, “FIVE MINUTES AFTER HOPPER WENT HOME,” suggests that the chaos erupted immediately after the painter, Edward Hopper, left the scene. This is a humorous way of suggesting that Hopper’s paintings often depict lonely or desolate scenes, and that in this case, the diner is shown as a place of violence and chaos once the artist is no longer present to capture its quiet loneliness.

Overall, the cartoon is a playful riff on the painting “Nighthawks,” using the setting of the diner to create a humorous and absurd scene of chaos and violence.

I am officially blown away. This level of machine intelligence is beyond uncanny. It makes me feel… excited but also uneasy? However I look at it, this is a game changer. Not ChatGPT in particular, but the fact that machine intelligence has reached this level. Welcome to the future, folks…

Incidentally, I think it got the “Phillies” reference wrong. It’s supposedly not the Philadelphia Phillies, nor is it the name of the diner, but the name of a popular cigar brand. The image above the “only 5c” seems to confirm this. But I’ll forgive ChatGPT for not being aware of such detail.

Addendum: A few minutes after I wrote the above, while I was eating my meal, I was watching the film Playtime, Tati’s masterpiece, and was confronted with this scene:

OK, well, I admit I cheated: I flipped the scene horizontally. Even so…

 Posted by at 4:01 pm
Feb 132023

In her famous 1984 song, German singer-songwriter Nena sang about 99 balloons that trigger World War III.

Here is the ending of the song, along with my less-than-perfect translation:

Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine DüsenfliegerHeute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab ‘n Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen
Ninety-nine years of war
Left no room for a victor
There are no more war ministers
Also no more fighter bombersToday as I took a stroll
Saw a world, ruined by war
There, I just found a balloon
Thinking of you, I let it fly soon

What can I say? A few more Chinese balloons over North America, a few more large-scale exchanges in Ukraine, and perhaps we’ll no longer need any war ministers anymore.

 Posted by at 6:39 pm
Nov 272022

Someone just sent me a YouTube link to a video, made in May 2022, showing some of the nightlife in a Tehran shopping district.

What I found especially interesting is the youth of the crowd, but also how ordinary, how “Western” most of them appeared. Were it not for the Persian script and the (rather loosely worn, I noted) headscarves, it could be a scene from any Western metropolis.

And not a single Muslim terrorist in sight! Scandalous, really.

No, I have no illusions about the ayatollahs’ regime. But looking at these scenes makes me wonder: how much longer will a population this young, this full of energy, endure being ruled by senile septuagenarian religious ultraconservatives?

 Posted by at 1:46 am
Aug 302022

In the early days of Internet e-mail and Usenet, responding to messages one paragraph, one sentence at a time has become fashionable. For instance, if King Arthur were to have received an e-mail from the silly Frenchmen occupying a castle, accusing the good King of being the son of a hamster mother and a father who smelled of elderberries, he might have responded thusly:

> your mother was a hamster
Are you accusing my Mother of sexual infidelity?
> your father smelled of elderberries
Who're you calling a drunkard, you hopeless retards?

In my experience, electronic conversations using this format often very quickly deteriorated into name-calling, or worse. And I think I can even tell why. Picking and choosing which words to quote and them quoting them out of context is a perfect method to manufacture outrage. So in my personal conversations, with very rare exceptions, I now avoid the quote-reply format altogether. Isn’t it much more pleasant to read a polite, fully formed message?

Thank you for your concerns regarding my parents. I assure you, good Sirs, that my mother was not a member of the rodent family. She bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rodents you mention, either in appearance or behavior. Concerning my father, I clearly recall that he never enjoyed elderberry-flavored beverages. He preferred to enjoy tea, mildly flavored with honey.

The quote-reply format is still okay when it comes to technical discussions, which may readily lend themselves to being presented in the form of individual points, each of which may have a specific technical solution. But in a personal conversation, I think that a fully formed response shows a degree of respect towards the other party and also helps avoid letting the discussion deteriorate into a string of accusations, a bitter argument with ad hominem insults.

 Posted by at 7:08 pm