Sunday, February 26, 2023

Dreaming of electric sheep?


iLexx | Deposit Photos
You have likely heard by now some of the furor over artificial intelligence, or AI, creeping into spaces where previously it had dared to tread. Since ChatGPT's debut in November, school districts around the country have banned its use by students. Educators are concerned that kids will use the tool to generate homework assignments. Colleges are concerned, too, but most appear to be leaving the decision about whether to ban use of the technology up to individual professors.

Then there's AI art. Last year the furor was all about apps that could take your selfie and turn it into something artistic or cartoony. The biggest concern was that the apps themselves were skimming too much personal data, maybe for resale -- including your face, which could be a security problem. Those apps dropped out of sight pretty quickly. But complaints have continued, especially from artists, over a new crop of apps that can turn out images based on written commands. The problem is that these apps are skimming images from the internet and slicing and dicing them. Those skimmed images are created by actual flesh-and-blood artists -- and the apps are doing it without compensating the artists. That's not just a financial problem for the artists, although that's bad enough; it's also copyright infringement.

Besides that, the resulting artwork isn't very good. But the AI programs are learning; the more input they get from human users, the better they're going to get at this. Artists can envision their livelihoods disappearing as clients turn to AI-produced art.

Although maybe the machines aren't yet fast enough at learning. Earlier this month, Microsoft unveiled its new AI assistant, Bing, named after its search engine (which I hope has gotten better than it was the last time I tried to use it -- wow). Except that when the New York Times and the Washington Post sent reporters to chat with Bing, they learned her -- okay, its -- name was actually Sydney, and she -- okay, it -- was kinda quirky. She (I give up) pledged her undying love for the NYT reporter, but when WaPo asked her about him, she had no idea who he was. So much for undying love.

Mostly, I've been bemused by it all. Sure, the vast majority of Americans think AI technology will do society more harm than good -- but they conveniently forget that we're already awash in it. Does your email have a spam filter? (I sure hope so!) That's AI. Talked to Alexa lately? She's AI, too.

I do think there are some things AI shouldn't be used for. For example, self-driving vehicles are proving to be as bad an idea as we all suspected they'd be. 

And I think that by and large, creativity should be left to human beings. I know how corporate America works, and I'm worried about artists losing their jobs to technology that turns out an inferior product for less.

Then there's this: Clarkesworld, the online speculative fiction magazine, has stopped taking submissions. Why? Because for the past few months, the editorial staff has been inundated with AI-generated stories. Neil Clarke, who publishes and edits the zine, says by the time they shut down submissions on February 20th, they had received 500 AI-generated submissions this month alone -- and it's getting worse. Clarke says that because his zine pays on publication, it ended up on somebody's list of places to send AI-generated stories and make money from them. 

He says it's not going to work; the AI-generated stories aren't any good.

I get that. But that's today. The machines are still learning.


The illustration up top is not AI-generated, as far as I know; I bought it from a royalty-free stock photo site. I was going for a futuristic take on the "monkeys using typewriters" adage. What do you think?


These moments of blatantly human blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell -- who is still fully flesh-and-blood. Well, except for some crowns in her mouth and the plastic lenses in her eyes.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Aliens vs. gods: who to believe in?

I was pretty disappointed by my Facebook friends earlier this week. I saw the following meme and shared it: 

No idea who created this, sorry.
"Agreed!" I said. Then I added, "Of course, you could say the same thing about the gods..."

Not a single friend took me up on my snarky comment. 

Several folks said they believe there's life elsewhere in the universe and listed good reasons why we haven't met them yet: the universe is vast and they may be nowhere near us; there's life out there, but it may not be intelligent life (with the usual comments about whether there's intelligent life on Earth); aliens know we're here and they're avoiding us because we're primitive and warlike; and so on. 

But nobody rose to my point. Maybe they thought I was baiting them. Heck, maybe I was.

I'm not suggesting the gods are aliens; Erich von Daniken made a lot of money in the late '60s by popularizing the idea that ancient astronauts built the pyramids, but that hypothesis has been debunked long since. 

I'm also not advocating some version of Pascal's wager -- which, for the record, I think is stupid. You're familiar with it, right? It purports to use logic to convince people to believe in the Christian God. If God is real and you believe, the argument goes, you win eternal life; but if God isn't real, yet you act like He is, then you've lost nothing but gained a good life.

It's the "you've lost nothing" part that I have trouble with. If I go against my sincerely held beliefs, I have indeed lost something -- my integrity. Is that the sort of "believer" Jehovah wants in heaven -- a person who will say anything to get that eternal reward? I don't think so.

Anyway, that wasn't my point with the alien meme. My point was that there are people who have never seen an alien, but are willing to entertain the idea that they exist. Yet because they disagree with Christianity, they think anybody who believes in any god is irrational. 

Humans on earth have no material evidence for the existence of either gods or aliens -- but while it's okay to believe that alien life might be out there, it's nuts to believe the same thing about the gods.

I dunno. Just seems irrational to me.


As a reward for tolerating my little thought exercise, I'm giving you pictures of my cat.

Tigs is weird about plants. He doesn't nom the leaves or the flowers; instead, he gnaws through the stems. I learned this the hard way right after I adopted him. He went after some roses so hard that he knocked the vase over and it broke. (Before somebody asks: no, roses aren't toxic to cats.)

So for Valentine's Day, I got him a bunch of those little spray roses. (I also stuck them in a brass vase so he couldn't knock it over and break it.) 

Things began innocently enough: 

Lynne Cantwell 2023
But then: CRRUNCHHH! 
Lynne Cantwell 2023
That was Tuesday. He's been at them all week. I got a final shot of the carnage tonight. 
Lynne Cantwell 2023
I guess I need to get him some more.


These moments of destructive blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Happy February. Bah, humbug.

I know I hinted about maybe posting more this week about that star-shaped afghan I've been working on because I'd almost finished it. 

Well, I finished it. And it didn't turn out the way I thought it would -- one side of each star point was obviously narrower than the other side. So I ripped the whole thing. The. Whole. Thing. Weeks of work.

I'm starting over, though, and I'm going to be more careful this time. I was pretty cavalier about counting my stitches the first time, and it's possible that's why it didn't turn out the way it should have. Or maybe I should have tried to even things out by blocking the afghan. If it turns out the same way this time, even with careful counting and so on, I'll try blocking it and see if that fixes it. Anyway, you'll get a picture eventually. Maybe.

That's kind of how this last week or so has been going in general, and it's making me grumpy. Or at least I thought that's what was making me grumpy. Then I looked at the calendar, and it all became clear.

I won't bore you again with my antipathy for Valentine's Day; I've written about it it often enough in the past. Instead, I will offer you, Dear Reader, a Valentine, generated for free from the website of the Washington Post. Feel free to follow the link and make your own!
As long as we're talking about hearts and stuff, I thought I'd mention Medicare. And, what the heck, Social Security, too.

This past week, President Biden kind of pulled a fast one on the Republicans in Congress. He made a big deal during his State of the Union speech about how some of them plan to cut Social Security and Medicare. That is absolutely true, and the White House issued a fact sheet to back him up -- naming names, even. But of course, the Republicans weren't going to admit it in front of 27 million people on live television. So they joined their fellow members of Congress on the Democratic side of the aisle by standing and cheering when Biden said, "we all apparently agree" that Social Security and Medicare will not be cut -- and if a bill containing such cuts does somehow get to his desk, he'll veto it.

It made for great political theater. But we all know how politics works -- or we should by now. The GOP will try to cut the programs anyway; they just won't admit that's what they're doing. They'll call it something else.

One cut/not-a-cut that's been done in the past is to increase the age at which people can collect their full Social Security benefits. My father retired in the mid 1980s at the age of 65. That was full retirement age for everybody back then. But in 1983, saying Social Security was running out of money, Congress began rolling back full retirement age. My full retirement age is 66 and a half; I won't get there 'til next summer. Folks younger than me face a full retirement age of 67. 

The idea was to "save Social Security" by encouraging people to work longer. But it hasn't worked. CNBC has a great analysis of why it has failed. In a nutshell: Congress thought 401(k) plans, which were brand new at the time, would fund a bigger chunk of retirees' income. But not everybody has access to a 401(k) plan at work, and not everybody who has access to one is as diligent as they should be about paying into it. The result? The vast majority of retirees still rely on Social Security for most of their income. (In fact, according to the CNBC article, lower-paid workers are taking Social Security early to supplement their income. When they can't work anymore, their income drops. That's one reason why the poverty rate among seniors is rising.)

Keep that in mind the next time you hear somebody suggest that Social Security should be privatized; that's what 401(k) plans were supposed to do, and it hasn't worked. (Ditto for Medicare Advantage plans, which are supposed to save Medicare but instead are rife with fraud and abuse. I railed against that here not long ago.)

Congress in '83 also thought, somewhat giddily, that American workers would be healthy enough to work longer. While that's true for well-educated White folks with office jobs, it's not universally true. In fact, it discriminates against minorities and those who aren't as well educated. (Even having a cushy office job doesn't guarantee a long life; I watched for years as secretaries I worked with at the BigLaw firm retired, then died just a few years later. Turns out being sedentary is bad for longevity. Who knew?)

Regardless, the Republican Study Committee in the House of Representatives has drawn up a budget that would once again "save Social Security" by rolling back full retirement age some more, phasing in the rollback until folks born in 1978 or later would not reach full retirement age until age 70. 

You know what this would do, right? It would kick the can down the road, just like in '83. As Alicia Munnell, the director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, says in that CNBC article, there are only two ways to fix Social Security: "You can have less money go out or more money come in." And Republicans won't raise taxes. The only solution they'll entertain is to cut benefits -- and as Munnell says, "increasing the retirement age is a benefit cut." Twenty years from now, or sooner, we'll be right back where we are now. 

I suppose eventually, Congress could raise the full retirement age so high that most folks would die before they could collect anything. That'll save Social Security, all right.

Now I'm getting grumpy again. I'm going to go knit. Happy Valentine's Day.

These moments of grumpy blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Let's get crafty again.

I am fresh out of new ideas for a post this week, so maybe it's a good week for an old idea. How about a crafty post?

This one won't be as varied as the one I did in November, when I had refinished a table top, among other things. But I've finished a couple of projects since then, and I'm working on a couple more.

First up: weaving. You may recall that I made four matching cushions for my dining room chairs and that I had enough yarn left over to make a table runner. I did get the table runner done -- and as soon as it came off the loom, Tigs, claimed it. 

Lynne Cantwell 2022
Don't worry -- I got it away from him and onto the table. And as you can see, it does match the cushions. 
Lynne Cantwell 2023
On to knitting. I'd had a scarf pattern called Gridlock in my Ravelry queue for more than ten years, so I figured it was time to make it. Except I don't wear scarves anymore; I prefer cowls these days -- they're just easier to deal with. So I converted the scarf pattern into a cowl pattern. 
Lynne Cantwell 2022
I have enough yarn left over from this project to make a hat to match -- and I started it, but then realized I hadn't cast on enough stitches for the cable repeat, so I frogged the whole thing and started over. I've made progress since then, but it's been set aside for several weeks in favor of another knitting project: a holiday-themed afghan. Here's what that's supposed to look like when it's done: 
image stolen from
This pattern has been around for approximately a million years. It was originally a free pattern from Bernat, but the yarn they developed it for has been discontinued, and the pattern itself is only showing up on random websites these days. I'll tell you more about this adventure when I'm done, which shouldn't be too much longer now -- I started the final rounds of green around the edge last night.

That brings us up-to-date. Hopefully I'll have something more scintillating to talk about next week.


These moments of fibery blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!