With the rise of large language models (LLMs), we are once more suffering from La Stilla Syndrome. That’s my Jules Verne-inspired name for the condition in which we keep allowing our technology to fool us into thinking it has finally come alive.
Can AI give me ham off a knee?
Last night I lay awake thinking about how AI-automated writing is about to change our entire language.
Since AI can easily write everything correctly with perfect spelling and punctuation, one way to show you’re human is to do the opposite. At the time of Shakespeare, spelling was wildly idiosyncratic and people just made it up as they went along. I think this free-for-all might return soon, since it’s a neat way of showing you’re not made of silicon.
But there’s another way we might change our speech and writing to subvert our digital overlords. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: ham off a knee! It’s something chatbots can’t provide, but that we humans can understand quite easily.
I lay awake last night thinking about cryptic crossword clues (I never do crosswords, but still, that’s rumination for you!). Here’s a clue I thought up. Not a very good clue, since I don’t know what I’m doing:
“For Joyce, recovery leads to pain, we hear (15).”
The answer? “Fine again so ache”.
Doesn’t make sense to you? Well, Finnegans Wake was James Joyce’s fourth and last major work of fiction. I was thinking of it because it’s packed full of homophony (ham off a knee - get it?).
So what’s homophony? Glad you asked. Homophony is simply when you use a word that sounds like another word. But Joyce used homophones in a complex way. His sentences read one way on the page, but when spoken out loud they often mean something else, subverting the original meaning. That’s why he was a genius and I’m not.
But it also struck me that we could start doing this and AI wouldn’t be able to keep up. Admittedly it took Joyce years to finish Finnegans Wake. It’s certainly complicated to come up with whole paragraphs of homophonic writing or speech. But I suspect young people, who are always the instigators of new slang, will be quite up to the challenge.
Alternatively, it’s the new AI frontier. Imagine if you could command something like: “ChatGPT: give me a written account of a 16th Century tourist visit to Venice, which warns of impending alien attack when read out loud.”
Now that would impress me.
Free books! 📚
TIL: A search on Amazon Kindle produces loads of free academic book titles, many of which are high quality and really interesting. Just search for publisher (e.g. Routledge), or “University Press”, or “open access”, then order the results by price: low to high. The lowest ones are $0.
Hat tip: @aus.social@joannaholman
Big changes at writingslowly.com
New year, new website (backend)
It’s a new year, so it must be time for new web connections! Well, I finally decided to shift from a hosted Wordpress site to go all in on micro.blog.
It was fairly easy to migrate, just following the instructions. Things already feel easier and less complicated.
Why did I decide to make this change?
- I need a simpler system for online writing. It’s been clear for some time that Wordpress was holding me back. I know: “poor workers blame their tools”, and obviously there’s something wrong with me if I can’t just log in to Wordpress and write a line or two from time to time. But really, it felt as though the user interface was presenting a psychological barrier. Every time I logged in it seemed the WordPress UX had got more complex. Anyway, that’s my excuse. I’m hoping that a switch entirely to micro.blog hosting will help the writing to flow a bit better.
- I like the IndieWeb. Although I had some Indieweb plug-ins set up on my Wordpress site, it didn’t feel as though they were getting much use. The Musky shenanigans at Twitter have made it even clearer that independence on the web is essential and that the true social network is the web itself. Switching to micro.blog will hopefully connect me better, and if I ever change my mind, there’s no lock-in.
- Updating the app feels like a chore. When I checked my hosting dashboard it was clear that there were several insecurities caused by a lack of updating. I just hadn’t gotten around to it for ages. But really, I don’t have much interest in which version of PHP I’m supposed to be using, or what version the plug-ins are - so I’d rather not think about this side of things. If micro.blog can do this for me, I’m not complaining.
- I also quite like Mastodon. Micro.blog has a certain amount of compatability with Mastodon, through the activitypub protocol. So I plan to try that out.
- Writing in Markdown syntax has become more and more intuitive to me, despite its limitations, and I like the relative simplicity of static sites. Micro.blog uses Hugo as its site generator, so now I’m now using Markdown to create static pages.
Look, I’m not really complaining about WordPress. I like it, and Automattic isn’t Apple/Facebook/Google/Twitter/Amazon, so there’s that. If I had to choose a dictator to rule the world, Matt Mullenweg would be on my shortlist. It’s not Wordpress, it’s me. I’m ready for a change.
Writing about reading
Also, I’m making a commitment to writing about my reading in 2023.
I love reading. Each year I read about 30-40 books and this year I’ll be writing about it here. There’ll soon be a ‘reading’ category at the top of the webpage. Why am I doing this?
- for motivation, and
- to leave a record, sharing what I know and
- to encourage you, dear reader, to stop scrolling and go read a good book.
Micro.blog has a series of companion apps, one of which is Epilogue. You can set an annual reading goal and every time you blog about a title you’ve finished, your goal moves one step closer to completion.
Micro.blog also has some other great book-related features, including a handly bookshelf, and this is one of the things that made me want to switch.
I keep a private TiddlyWiki Zettelkasten in which I already reflect on my reading, so the only real change is in making it public.
So that’s what’s new. But don’t worry, whatever happens I’ll still be writing slowly.
I'm now @Richard@mastodon.au - yes I joined Mastodon. There's an original idea. As though there aren't enough half neglected social media accounts in my life. Pretty sure my micro.blog account federates semi-automatically anyway, but haven't worked it out yet. Can someone please point me to a simple how-to article, I wonder?
Not thinking of writing a novel in November
Well, I didn't sign up to NaNoWriMo, where you undertake to write 50,000 words in a month. Partly, it's just not my way of doing things. I have recently completed a novel manuscript, which took longer than a month. But then again I also wrote a lot of other stuff while I was doing it. As previously mentioned, you can get a lot done while writing slowly.
Thinking of writing a novel
Manton mentioned NaNoWriMo and that has got me thinking.
Living beneath the shadow of the past
In former times people lived their lives beneath the shadow of their past. The golden age was always behind them. The olden days were the good old days.
Since the end of the Victorian era, though, the past has lost its hold on the collective imagination. Since then we have been living instead under the almost unbearable weight of the future.
Once upon a time the past used to determine the present, even though it was over. But these days it’s the future that looms over everything, even though it hasn’t happened yet.
As the conservative writer G.K. Chesterton put it:
“Instead of trembling before the spectres of the dead, we shudder abjectly under the shadow of the babe unborn."
He was writing in 1910 on ‘What’s Wrong With the World’, and pointing out that the 20th Century had switched to looking forward as its key register. He claimed this was extraordinary:
“there is something spirited, if eccentric, in the sight of so many people fighting over again the fights that have not yet happened; of people still glowing with the memory of tomorrow morning. A man in advance of the age is a familiar phrase enough. An age in advance of the age is really rather odd. “
These days we are constantly in advance of the age. Everything is about the future, or more precisely about fear of the future, future dread. The short term question is: How will the COVID pandemic find a resolution? In relation to the longer term we ask: How will the climate play out? These anxiety-freighted questions seem completely unavoidable. To ignore them seems impossible at best, and at worst deeply immoral. Our era seems to have no place for a person who doesn’t appear to care about the future. And to care about the future in the proper manner is to be weighted down with concern. If you resist, you’ll hear in the back of your mind a constant chiding voice, the voice of Greta Thunburg, the conscience of a new generation: How Dare You?
Chesterton gets it right, I think. The presence of the future is indeed ghostly. It casts shade. Its dominant mood is abjection and we shudder. The ghost of Christmas Future has a new name: Extinction.
Why? Does it have to be this way? Surely it would be possible for this mood to lose its hold, for the sensibilities of the early Twentieth Century to relax their grip a little on the Twenty-First. Is it too much to ask that we might perhaps contemplate the future without the dread?
I anticipate that after the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has done its worst, there will be a palpable sense of collective relief. The worst, after all, will not have eventuated. For many this will not be true. They will be dead or grieving. The relief will certainly not be universally felt. But for the rest, those not directly affected, and especially for younger people, there will be the slow release of a breath long held. Tensed shoulders will relax slightly. The babe unborn will become, however briefly, a promise, a creature of blessing not curse.
In his book, On Memory, Adam Roberts recalls the 1969 science fiction novel, Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert, in which the protagonist Paul Atreides is to be cast out into the desert because of his unacceptable blindness. He defends himself by demonstrating his visionary powers, which enable him to remember with absolute clarity past visions he has had of the present. In this way, he claims, he can see as well as the next person.
This capacity – to navigate the present by remembering past visions of the future – is what we need now. The present, our Twenty-first Century, wasn’t always doom-laden. In the past it was longed for as a golden age, in which people lived many healthy years, mostly at peace with their neighbours, having experienced fulfilling lives. Such a world was full of technological marvels and discoveries of wonder, that would have been almost unimaginable to previous generations. So marvellously frequent were such innovations that the people took them almost entirely for granted and came to expect life to be like this always. We are living in the golden age of the past’s future.
And so the future is precisely as dreadful as we imagine it to be. It has always been this way. Mark Lynas’s book on climate change, published in 2020, is titled ‘Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency’. Reviewing it in the New York Review of Books, climate activist Bill McKibben writes:
“Because humans have fundamentally altered the physical workings of planet Earth, this is going to be a century of crises, many of them more dangerous than what we’re living through now. The main question is whether we’ll be able to hold the rise in temperature to a point where we can, at great expense and suffering, deal with those crises coherently, or whether they will overwhelm the coping abilities of our civilization. The latter is a distinct possibility... “
– 130 Degrees
In the past, great religions agreed more or less on the future. They collectively imagined an imminent end time of existential tribulation in which famine, pestilence and war would ravage the world until a divine judge would finally appear to weigh up the moral worth of the living and the dead once and for all. These days science does what only religion used to be allowed to do. But it is the same vision. Are we morally worthy to avoid the Eschaton?
The same year G.K Chesterton was telling the English what was wrong with the world, a collection of medieval religious texts was purchased for the British Museum from Lord Amherst. It contained a Fifteenth Century transcription of the original ‘short’ manuscript of the Revelations of Divine Love, a work by the English mystic Julian of Norwich - the first book known written in English by a woman, probably composed in 1388.
Julian was born during the ‘calamitous’ Fourteenth Century, in 1343, the same year as Geoffrey Chaucer. Six years later in 1348-9 the Great Mortality reached her hometown of Norwich, killing between a third and half of its 12,000 residents. The bubonic plague continued to break out regularly throughout England. In 1361-2 it killed another fifth of the population, and in 1369 it killed yet another 10-15%.
Apart from widespread death, the plague had colossal social effects. The dissident cleric John Wycliffe wrote in 1356 of how the world wouldn’t last beyond the century. The Great Rumour protest movement of 1377 became the Great Rising of 1381. Norwich was at the centre of one of the more violent episodes of the Peasants’ Revolt. In the summer of 1381, the city was taken over and ransacked by the rebels, who were then routed at the nearby Battle of North Walsham by ‘fighting’ Bishop Henry le Despenser.
In 1373, when Julian was thirty years old, she succumbed to a serious illness and on the verge of death she was given the last rites.
Surprising everyone, she didn’t die. Instead, she survived, having experienced a series of mystical visions, in which Jesus Christ appeared to her. She went on to become an anchoress - a kind of nun, living a secluded life in her cell - a private room attached to a church. She didn’t go out, but people came to her.
Let’s just pause and recall the main events surrounding her life in Norwich up until this time.
1348-9 (age six) The Great Mortality kills up to half the city’s population.
1361-2 (age 18) The Bubonic plague strikes again, killing another one fifth of the population.
1369 (age 26) A third outbreak of the plague kills another 10-15%
1373 (age 30) Having survived three waves of the bubonic plague, she succumbs to illness and almost dies.
1377 (age 33) Increasing peasant unrest leads to the Great Rumour protests in the South of England
1381 (age 37) The Peasants Revolt leads to the sacking of Norwich followed by violent reprisals and a pitched battle outside the city.
All this was local news for Julian. But the national and international news was just as tumultuous. The death of King Edward III in 1377 led to the accession of his ten-year-old son Richard II. It was to be a very unstable reign, dominated by the aspirations of his uncle, John of Gaunt for his own son, Henry Bolingbroke, to take over. All this is to say nothing of the widespread tumult taking place at this time in Europe and spilling over into England. The Western Schism of 1378 saw two rival Popes struggling for supremacy of the Church. The ongoing Hundred Years War saw the French and the Castilian Spanish raiding and burning towns all along the South coast of England.
It was in the midst of all this personal, political, social and religious turmoil that Julian received visions of Christ’s Passion. Her ‘shewings’ took place when she was recovering from her life-threatening illness in 1373. She wrote of her experience fairly soon after, in what is known as her ‘Short Text’. She then reworked this over the following decades into a ‘Long Text’. Although her writing survived through the centuries, the earliest in English by a woman, her life and work were obscured by the Reformation, and it wasn’t until the end of the Nineteenth Century that the Long Text, republished, began to receive attention. The short text, thought to have been lost, was rediscovered in 1910 and published for the first time in 1911. Because of this loss and rediscovery, Julian of Norwich is both very medieval and yet somehow very Twentieth Century. Nor has her star faded. In the present century there have already been at least nine new editions of her work.
Given the turbulence surrounding her life and times, it’s amazing that Julian had such a clear sense that the future was not heavy, Although thoroughly medieval, her visions contradicted the gloomy spirit of the age. She’s been called a visionary and a mystic, but her visions were so out of tune with the spirit of her age that I can’t help thinking of her as a kind of science fiction writer. What was revealed to her was that in spite of all the signs of the times, her God was not winding up the world but sustaining it, like a hazelnut held carefully in the palm of the hand.
“And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, it seemed, and it was as round as any ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and I thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus: ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for I thought it might suddenly fall to nothing for little cause. And I was answered in my understanding: ‘It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it; and so everything has its beginning by the love of God.’ In this little thing I saw three properties; the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; and the third is that God keeps it. “
Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, chapter V “Westminster Cathedral Treasury, MS 4 “
People are rightly sceptical of religious certainties these days, and dogma is shunned. Medieval talk of sin and wrath and atonement seems beyond anachronistic. Talk of God is just distasteful. And yet the climate-fuelled certainty that we’re all doomed passes as a rational discussion-starter. It’s increasingly our consensus reality. Now I’m not challenging reality, I’m just questioning the way we choose to look at it. I’m not suggesting we can all relax, since Progress with a capital ‘P’ will fix everything. We can’t and it won’t. There is work to be done which neither the past nor the future will do for us. My suggestion is modest: perhaps our navigation of this difficult present might be aided by remembering our past visions of the future. As I read Julian of Norwich I can’t help asking myself, was her lifetime really less fraught than our own? War, pestilence, political strife, the death of collective meaning. She had it all, in spades. And yet having nearly met with her own ending, she somehow imagined a resolutely hopeful alternative: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well. “
We can believe it or not, but we can’t put it down to naivety. The future is what it has always been: it is precisely as dreadful as we imagine it to be.
See: Chesterton on futurity
G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World (1910), 24-25. Quoted in Adam Roberts, Morphosis
Rolf, Veronica Mary (2013). Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life & Revelations of Julian of Norwich. Orbis Books. ISBN 978-1-62698-036-5.
BBC Four HD The Search for the Lost Manuscript Julian of Norwich (2016) - YouTube
Thanks to Tom Critchlow, I now know a simple JS trick for including the micro.blog feed into a website:
Best albums of 2018
Thanks to NPR’s list of great albums of the year, I found Jeremy Dutcher, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. Spent a marvellous evening listening to this mesmerising album twice in a row. Since he’s won the Polaris Music Prize probably everyone in Canada already knows about it. If you haven’t heard it you should fix that at the earliest opportunity. 🎵
I had forgotten that posts to my wordpress site only show up on micro.blog if there’s no title.
Let’s see whether this post, written on my new iPad, makes an appearance…
Finally the iPad
Having finally got hold of an iPad, I’m expecting more posts here soon - and by extension on micro.blog
I'm imagining writing a handful of 'zines and setting up stall at one of those 'zine fairs. I would like that. I just looked it up and found a pop-up 'zine fair just down the road this Sunday. I will go to seek inspiration.
Great bike ride down the river and along the bay this morning. Cold to start but warmed up nicely. Flat rear tyre though - twice... argh! I'm getting new tyres, finally. Should be good by Wednesday.
You have been warned
It starts innocently enough, then they take over the world. You have been warned.
Fit for humans
Vrypan says ‘social networks don’t scale socially’. It’s true. We need a distributed alternative to the monolithic megacorporations. The indieweb is a way of including in the web itself a set of social network protocols. The big social network silos are then redundant, because social network functionality can exist everywhere by design. An example Vrypan uses is the webmention. I’m loving micro.pub and am also intrigued by the DAT protocol and beaker browser. Such ideas are the building blocks of the next web, I hope. The next web will be fit for humans. The issue for semi-commercial operations like micro.pub and hashbase is whether they should develop a business model that recognises an optimum size. What even is the optimum size for a social network? One metric might be: ‘can be maintained by one admin person’. That would be a small network – hence the value of distribution and federation.
[DAT protocol]: https://datproject.org/
A big win for civilization in England?
A judge has ruled that a local council in England needs to consider its statutory duties before closing down libraries due to funding cuts.
[The Guardian] (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/14/family-claims-win-in-high-court-challenge-to-northants-library-cuts)
What keeps me from blogging?
Mark Sample asks himself what it is about blogging that keeps him from blogging. For me, to be honest, it's Wordpress. The editor tool makes me feel like I'm engineering something rather than creating. Even with Gutenberg.
[caption id="" align=“alignnone” width=“393”] Olivia Chaney - Shelter[/caption]
Really enjoying this. English song reimagined. The producer, Thomas Bartlett, has had a role in much of my favourite music. 🎵
Blogs are back
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, blogs are back! The article references one of my favourite metaphors for the web: the garden and the stream. It’s worth reading Mike Caulfield’s classic keynote presentation (for dLRN2015) to understand the contrasting and sometimes complimentary benefits of both.
Should I read the Indieweb Guide?
I’ve now added the Indieweb plugin along with webmentions. Looking forward to finding out how it works! (There’s a guide - maybe I should read it).
Only sinners left down here
I miss my old habit of blogging regularly. It used to make me happy.
I like the idea of cultivating one’s garden1 online. But somehow the tools have become harder to use, or just less accessible, which for me amounts to the same thing. The end result is less writing.
I don’t think this is unusual. To browse the remains of the blogosphere in recent times is to see that many blogs just faded out around 2014-16. It feels like the Web’s own version of the Rapture. The righteous seemingly vanished. They ascended to Facebook and Twitter I guess. Only sinners were left down here in the blogs. But besides this great shift there is something else remarkable about the experience of writing online. It relates to the general shift from PC to mobile. Clearly this is a great leap forward. It is a kind of technophile dream to have an always connected computer in your pocket. But as Neil Postman reminds us, progress isn’t linear - it’s ecological. Every technological ‘improvement’ changes the whole ecosystem, and not everywhere for the better. As we spend more time on my phone there is less time left over for the old (relatively productive) way of doing things.
But some of us just like it down here in the blogs. The mission, then: to find ways of writing more, more often; to find and use new ways of working that can support a justified feeling of accomplishment.
: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media ecology
Just by posting on my site, the post is automatically mirrored to micro.blog
New micro.blog account
I did in fact add a micro.blog account, which you can find at micro.blog/writingslowly(but it's not fully linked up yet - that's the next step).