Thursday 23 March, 2023

Art Class

Two images created by the ‘GenerativeAI’ package, Stable Diffusion. The top one comes from running the app on my iPhone; the other from running a version of the software on my M1 MacBook Air — both in response to the prompt: “Photograph of Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl earring’ but with Apple AirPod instead of an earring.”

The thing to note is that all of this computation happened locally and not in the Cloud — first in a hand-held device, and then in a small laptop. What it means is that this generative technology has escaped from its corporate masters and is now loose in the wild.

Quote of the Day

”The most interesting ideas are heresies.”

  • Susan Sontag

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Mary Bergin | The Flogging Reel / The Ivy Leaf / Trim the Velvet


The tin whistle is the simplest imaginable musical instrument. But when you hear what Mary Bergin can do with it then you realise there’s something sublime there. I once heard her play in a pub in Clare and I’ll never forget it.

Long Read of the Day

The Heresy of Decline

Further to the Sontag quote above, this essay by Paul Constance about the uncomfortable reality that the human population will peak relatively soon is eye-opening. At least it was for me.

In all, more than 2.1 billion people — a quarter of humanity — now live in countries that are smaller each evening than they were in the morning. Because it is diffused throughout millions of people, this phenomenon is essentially invisible to the public, but the numbers are startling in aggregate. Each month, Russia’s population diminishes by around 86,000 people (not including casualties from the war in Ukraine), Japan’s by around 50,000, and Italy’s by at least 20,000. Fertility in these countries has been so low for so long that depopulation is cemented into their future, regardless of any near-term recovery in birthrates. Overall, the UN anticipates that their populations will shrink by between 20 percent and 50 percent by the end of the century. Other studies anticipate much larger and faster declines.

Constance writes interestingly about our general unwillingness to write or think about the long-term implications of depopulation. And he is puzzled by the fact that even sci-fi writers seem to avoid it.

One writer, though, hasn’t — Margaret Attwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, where she explains the demographic origins of her fictional dystopia in a single sentence:

”There was no one cause, says Aunt Lydia… [pointing to] a graph, showing the birth rate per thousand, for years and years: a slippery slope, down past the zero line of replacement, and down and down.”

Books, etc.

This is one of the most insightful books about technology that I’ve ever read. I reached for it the other day when I was writing about the sudden explosion of LLMs (Large Language Models). Arthur is a great economist, but also an expert on complexity. And his theory of “combinational innovation” provides the best explanation I know of many technological breakthroughs, few of which ever stemmed from an ‘Eureka! Moment’.

My commonplace booklet

Botanical ignoramuses

Lovely email from Arthur Kuebel:

Your recent discussions regarding Artificial Intelligence caused me to be curious about its capabilities regarding my area of interest : Botany.

Yesterday evening, I conducted a side-by-side comparison of Microsoft’s AI and Google’s AI.

Both were given the query “is there a brief list of endemic botanical species for Kittitas County?”

Both failed. Miserably.

One response of incorrect biogeographical occurrence. Eight responses of nonexistent botanical species. The tenth response was not a biological organism – it was a rock.

Fairly clear that students should not use these AIs as a study guide nor should researchers inflate their word count by relying on its content generation.

I’m laughing at the irony of Satya Nadella characterizing prior AI attempts as “dumb as a rock” when Microsoft’s much touted AI responds with a type of rock when specifically asked about biological organisms.

I’ve attached screenshots of yesterday’s exercise. Also, being an avid photographer myself, I’ve included an image of the Stuart Range site I annually study for plant responses and endemism in serpentine soils.

That’s it. The morning’s frost has melted and we’re off to measure and assess this year’s emergence of a Lomatium species.

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