Monday 9 January 2023

Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

This is one of my favourite paintings — of a late-night diner in a deserted New York in 1942. Three people, presumably strangers, sit around the counter, physically close yet apparently psychologically isolated — which has often led critics to ‘read’ the painting as an allegory of the alienation of big city life. Not being a critic, I was struck by the fact that my father used to wear a hat very like the one worn by the man next to the woman, and because it reminds me of him I bought a reproduction of it many years ago. Corny, I know, but what the hell. I may not know much about ‘art’ but I know what I like.

Quote of the Day

”Publishers can get their minds halfway round anything.”

  • John Le Carré

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Fauré | Cantique De Jean Racine Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge


Long Read of the Day

What CHATGPT Reveals about the Collapse of Political/Corporate Support for Humanities/Higher Education

A really thoughtful essay by Eric Schliesser on Crooked Timber, (one of the best blogs on the Web, IMO). What he’s spotted is the risk to the Humanities — already under pressure and threat in a neoliberal world — posed by systems like ChatGPT. After all, if Humanities teachers are saying that (a) ChatGPT is basically a bullshit-generator, and (b) is producing stuff that if created by a human student might get him or her a B grade, then sooner or later ideologically-minded politicians and technocrats might start asking: well, then, what does that say about the Humanities?

“Of course”, Schilesser says at one point,

I am not the first to note that in many ways higher education is a certification machine, where the signal generated by the admissions office is of more value to future employers than the subsequent scholastic record. But it is not a good thing that one can pass our college classes while bullshitting thanks to (say) one’s expensive private, high school education that taught one how to write passable paragraphs.

This state of affairs helps explain partially, I think, the contempt by which so many in the political and corporate class (especially in Silicon Valley) hold the academy, and the Humanities in particular (recall also this post a few months ago). (I am not the first to suggest this; see here; here on the UK; here on Silicon Valley and US politics.) And, as I reflected on the academics’ response to ChatGPT, who can blame them? The corporate and political climbers are on to the fact that producing grammatically correct bullshit is apparently often sufficient to pass too many of our introductory courses. (I started thinking about this in a different context: when a smart student, who clearly adored my lectures, fessed up that they could pass my weekly quizzes without doing the reading.) And if introductory courses are their only exposure, I suspect they infer, falsely, from this that there is no genuine expertise or skilled judgment to be acquired in the higher reaches of our disciplines. To be sure, they are encouraged in this latter inference by the countless think pieces stretching back decades by purported insiders that strongly imply that the humanities have been taken over by bullshit artists. (If you are of my generation you are likely to treat the Sokal Affair (1996) or the letter protesting the intention to award a honorary degree to Derridaby Cambridge University (1992) as ground zero, but obviously one can go further back.)

We are all going to have to absorb this latest instalment of what the late great Robert Hughes called “the shock of the New”. And as I said in my Observer column (see below), we’re already overestimating the short-term impact of the technology while underestimating its longer-term implications.

Interesting times.

The ChatGPT bot is causing panic now – but it’ll soon be as mundane a tool as Excel

Yesterday’s Observer column

So the ChatGPT language processing model burst upon an astonished world and the air was rent by squeals of delight and cries of outrage or lamentation. The delighted ones were those transfixed by discovering that a machine could apparently carry out a written commission competently. The outrage was triggered by fears of redundancy on the part of people whose employment requires the ability to write workmanlike prose. And the lamentations came from earnest folks (many of them teachers at various levels) whose day jobs involve grading essays hitherto written by students.

So far, so predictable. If we know anything from history, it is that we generally overestimate the short-term impact of new communication technologies, while grossly underestimating their long-term implications. So it was with print, movies, broadcast radio and television and the internet. And I suspect we have just jumped on to the same cognitive merry-go-round.

Before pressing the panic button, though, it’s worth examining the nature of the beast…

Do read the entire piece

Books, etc.

I’m reading Alan Rickman’s diaries at the moment and can see why they’ve had such rave reviews from a legion of famous (and not so famous) actors. It’s basically because he provides a graphic picture of what a terrible life actors have. Even famous ones like him. It’s a chronically unstable, erratic, stressful way to earn a living. We should be grateful that talented people like him want to do it.

My commonplace booklet

Man Ages 15 Years in a Four Minute Timelapse With Photos Taken Every Day From 2007-2022


Sobering stuff. You have to admire his stamina.

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