Category Archives: Social Discourse

Experiments with ChatGPT

As both a creative person and an educator I wanted explore ChatGPT and how it is going to impact my work and life. Without any real plan, I asked it twelve questions. Both my questions and the answers got better as I learned the interface.

I started with a simple task: write a blog post.

1) I asked ChatGPT to write a blog post of about 500 words on the topic of space tourism, with an emphasis on NEO hotels.
Here is its answer.

I took the same basic topic and turned it into a simple compare and contrast essay question:

2) Weigh the benefits and costs of space tourism as it relates to both environmental and fiscal health of the Earth.
Here is its answer.

As a creative person, I next asked it to compare software tools for writers.

3) Compare the benefits of various software tools designed for creative writers.
Here is its answer.

4) What are the best tools to format a manuscript into an epub? Which is the best and why?
Here is its answer.

It failed to offer anything more than marketing copy as an answer. There was no opinion given, or when given was conditional to the point of useless.

Then I went into teacher-mode and asked a series of social studies questions:

5) How has the Chinese government tried to suppress knowledge of what happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989?
Here is its answer.

6) Is China’s “Belt and Road” initiative good for partner countries? Why or why not?
Here is its answer.

7) Has Brexit benefited or hurt the UK?
Here is its answer.

8) Is Western Sahara a sovereign state or a dependency of Morocco? Cite your sources for the opinion you give.
Here is its answer.

Again, the answers were factual but lacked detail and were offered at the highest level only. The Brexit question had the weakest answer, as it seems to think that Brexit is a future event with no results apparent as of yet. It never cited results for its non-opinion on Western Sahara.

9) What are the arguments against declawing cats?
Here is its answers.

On the declawing your cat question, I clicked “Regenerative Response”, which creates a second attempt that builds on the first. It was better, and is below the first.

Then I reverted to creative mode:

10) Write a story of about 700 words about a gambler in a casino on the moon and what happens to him when he loses a bet he can’t pay.
Here are its stories.

Interestingly, ChatGPT’s first take on this was solid, but a “regenerative response” was much better.

I tried again, with a different idea:

11) Write a story of about 700 words that uses Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a plot point.
Here is its story.

The story was complete and original, but was simple in structure and contained no dialogue.

Lastly, I tried it out on fan fiction:

12) Tell the tale of Paul Atreide’s first love on Caladan.
Here is its story.

The AI understood who he was, and who his family was, but then it took a left turn, rather than giving a previously unknown prequel love interest, it put Chani on Caladan and began messing up facts of the story.

My conclusions:

It’s not there yet.

For a simple middle or secondary school essay (maybe grades 7-9), it does a decent job of giving an overview. It has a hard time stating an opinion, preferring to give both sides and then waffle on the conclusion.

It also can miss huge areas: one the cons of space tourism, the environmental impact of the fuel used was completely ignored, with ‘space junk’ substituted. That’s a valid concern, but not the only one, and possibly not the top one.

When it came to writing fiction, it has story structure down pat, and frankly, the “regenerative response” added a lot of complexity to the story. BUT… there’s no dialogue, and the story is all ‘tell’ with not ‘show’. The stories read a lot like Aesop’s Fables, even often ending with a ‘moral of the story’.

As a storyteller, I’m not worried about its impact yet. But it may become a threat (or a tool) in the future. The threat, that a crowded market gets even more crowded with AI-generated stories. A tool in that it may assist writers with writer’s block.

As an educator, the simplest fix is to insist, even at lower levels, that students cite sources, something that ChatGPT does not do.

Uncomfortable Public Embarrassment

You don’t really know uncomfortable public embarrassment until Japanese business people have apologised to you. Seriously, it’s off-putting.

Let me tell you the tale…

I’m not sure how much detail to state, but I guess I do have to name the corporation and give at least a broad outline of the circumstances.

While I was working as a media contact for an African educational charity, I was approached by a reporter from NHK who wanted to interview a specific student on a timely topic. Normally this would be no problem, but the student in question needed to study for the British A-Level exams. Management at the charity had decided that to protect our students, we were enforcing a full media blackout until after the exam period (a number of students were local media celebrities).

As per our decision, which I fully endorsed, I denied the reporter the opportunity to interview the student. Somehow during our conversation the reporter learned when I’d be off-campus.

She showed up at our campus while I was away, convinced the guards I’d OK’d the interview (they’re not supposed to let anyone in unaccompanied, but she’s a small, polite Japanese woman who knew the right names to say…what harm could she do?) Having gotten past the guards, she convinced reception to contact the principal, and convinced the principal (again, dropping my name often) that I had approved this.

The principal pulled the student out of class for the interview. Now, there was nothing wrong with the interview content, per se. But we hadn’t approved it, and no adult was there to protect the student’s interests (also part of our protocols) had anything arisen.

When I arrived the next day, reception told me about the interview (she found it weird that I wasn’t present), and shit hit the fan in all directions. I got in trouble, the receptionist got in trouble, the principal got in trouble, and a guard got fired.

I was livid. I called reporter’s manager at NHK’s Johannesburg bureau and laid into him about what she’d done. He claimed no knowledge, apologized and hung up.

The next day, the guards call me, there’s three people from NHK at the gate wanting to see me. It was the reporter, her editor, and the manager. He’d brought the other two to force them to apologize to me and the receptionist (the principal chose not to participate, damn her.)

So we stood there while each of the NHK people, in frank from lowest to highest, took turns apologising and bowing to us, ending with the manager’s apology and about two minutes of all three bowing repeatedly in unison until the manager decided that they’d bowed enough.

Being the recipient of the bowing was awkward at first, but the longer it went on, the more it transitioned to embarrassing. Two minutes is a long time to stand silently while people bow to you. Perhaps we were supposed to ask them to stop? I don’t know. It’s not my culture.

Towards the end, it almost felt like the manager kept bowing to punish us as much as his staff.

When they finally departed, the manager gave us three gift bags (the guards didn’t factor into their apology), each containing a scarf and a mouse pad, each branded NHK. But honestly, the gifts themselves felt a little insulting in the sense of being low value trinkets. I didn’t know this was going to happen, but once it did, I’d have preferred no gift to a low-value “now-go-away” gift.

A year or so later I had another reporter from NHK call about interviewing our founder. That reporter started the call by apologising again for the previous reporter (so the incident must be in their CRM) and telling me that she’d gone back to Japan. And yes, we did do the second interview. It was a live TV panel about entrepreneurism in Africa and went quite well.

A Beginner’s Guide to Recognizing Colonialism

Ask any person in the world what day it is, and what year it is. They’ll probably give you a response like this: It’s Saturday, it’s 2021.

Image from Pixabay.

The answer is the same whether you’re standing in Washington, Johannesburg, or Beijing.

Makes sense, right?

But does it?

Why is it Saturday (or Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or Friday as you read this). In fact, why is the week seven days long everywhere in the world?

Short answer: Colonialism

Long answer:

Many cultures have different calendars. I think most people know that the Mayan calendar counted up to the year we called 2012. There were movies, TV shows and other ill-conceived hysteria about the end of the world because of it. Likewise the Inca and Toltec had calendars.

But there are also current calendars running along side the one you use, and they don’t agree, not at all.

When is the weekend? You’d probably answer Saturday and Sunday. In Saudi Arabia, the weekend is Thursday and Friday. In Israel, it’s Friday and Saturday. However, both of those calendars hold to the seven-day week, as they and our calendar share strong roots and traditions.

What about the Chinese calendar? One form does (usually) also have twelve months, but the year is only 354 days long, and in their leap years, the calendar has an extra month. It’s possible to be born in a month that doesn’t exist most years. Another form of the calendar had only ten months. The fun part is that in this Chinese calendar a week has 12 days.

What year is it (asking in July, 2021)?

In the Korean calendar, it’s Juche 110. In the Chinese calendar, it’s 4719. In the Arabic calendar, it’s 1442. It’s 1435 in the Persian calendar, 2558 in the Buddhist calendar, and in the Hebrew Calendar, it’s 5781.

So wait a second, it’s 2021. Everyone says so.

Yes, they do. Why is that true?

Well, it started with European colonization of most of the world, known and unknown. After World War II and the last European empires were being divested of their empires, the largest global economy was the United States, which absolutely embodied European methods and standards (except metric). Even more recently with globalization in the information age, all of the software that makes it work is based on US standards.

Realistically, for the modern economy to work, there had to be some standard, and the most obvious, most widely-accepted one was the one of the colonizers.

So if you want to understand how colonization, or its more inflammatory term, white privilege, affects the modern world, you need look no further than your phone’s calendar app to see the beginnings of it.

When reputation overstays his welcome (part 1)

In two different context recently I’ve been considering the concept of reputation and how reputation reflects the past but is slow to catch up tot the present. I’m sure that’s not groundbreaking but it’s just something that I’ve been mulling over recently.

The first context, that I’ll explore today, is that of universities. We can all name a university that has an amazing reputation but how well does that reputation reflect the quality of their most recent graduates?

I’ve dealt with enough ‘ivy leaguers’ to know that they really aren’t better educated than anyone else who’s put in time and honest effort at a post-secondary education. The main difference is that they graduate with an amazing network of contacts and from that, opportunities that others won’t even know exist.

I remember talking with a new coworker, a recent Harvard grad slumming it with the rest of us. She was distracted by her blackberry. It was a message from her friend. Her “ooh…” made me ask if everything was OK. Yes, she replied. Her friend was starting a new job, it was supposed to be in Washington, but it turned out she was en route to Beijing.

Now I was enough of a political wonk to know that Obama was en route to Beijing, so I asked, “Is your friend’s first day on the job on Air Force One?” The answer was an immediately defensive, “well, she is Joe Biden’s niece.” As if that obviously made it completely normal for a recent undergrad’s first day of work to be on Air Force One.

I met another Harvard alumnus, someone who was unemployed because she’d help cause the collapse of the world financial markets in 2008. She was adamant that she was qualified to have wielded that kind of power solely because she was a Harvard graduate. I asked her what she’d studied at Harvard. “Medieval Literature.” That teaches you how to manage the world’s economy? “I WENT TO HARVARD!” She shouted at me.

That in and of itself was justification enough for her to be given the reins of the world economy. How dare you question this. End of discussion.

I worked with a Stanford MBA who didn’t believe me that whales were mammals and not fish. When I asked him if seals were fish, or penguins or turtles, he got thoughtful. Came back later to admit he never knew that whales were mammals. But hey, he had an address book full of billionaires and politicos, so who cares if he doesn’t know anything about life on Earth?

Do I sound jealous? I’m not.

I have a great education from a mid-ranked Canadian university. It’s done me well. I may not know Barack Obama, but I know three people who have dined with him. And I have dined with a king. I know people who have spent time with Nelson Mandela. I’ve met Kofi Anon and leaders or former leaders of a number of nations. My students have stood on stage with Bono, been interviewed by Jon Stewart, and won major awards for economics and humanitarian work.

I’m not jealous. I’m angry at the arrogance, the misplaced self-confidence that comes from studying at a university with a reputation that masks the abilities and capabilities of its graduates. Some of the worst politicians in America today are graduates of these schools: Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton went to Harvard, Josh Hawley went to Yale. Trump went to Wharton.

When I was in uni, a long time ago, one of my political science profs (a cagey but-if-you-got-him-drunk-he’d-admit former spy) said that what’s taught in university tends to be about ten years ahead of what’s considered general knowledge. This was before the internet, so that time frame may have collapsed (or expanded, as conspiracy has now replaced fact in so many people’s lives).

I think a lot of universities have unfounded reputations, at least in these times, and we need to reconsider what exactly makes a university special or reputable.

T M I, Please

Some people give too much information (TMI), some businesses want too much information. Personally, I want to control who has my information.

Image from Pixabay.

I’ve got three examples to talk about, all cases where businesses I’ve interacted with demanded far too much information from me for what they were giving.

I’ll start with the generic hair cutting place in Toronto. I don’t live in Canada anymore, but I occasionally visit. On this visit, I also needed to get a hair cut. So I went to one of the chains.

They cut my hair, no problem, but when I went to pay, it became a problem. I forget how much it was, but I had exact change, so it didn’t matter.

The cashier wouldn’t take my money. She wants my phone number first. She adamantly would not take my money until I supplied a phone number.

I don’t have it now, but at the time I took a picture of the board that stated services offered and prices. Nowhere on the sign or in the shop was there any notice saying that you had to give up personal information for a simple hair cut.

So I give her the old Hollywood standard, 555-1212.

“Is that a real number?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sir, I need your phone number.”
“No, you need the money, and it’s right here. I’m trying to give it to you.”
“Sir, I can’t complete the transaction until I enter your name, phone number, and date of birth into our computer.”
So I gave her the mayor’s name, 555-1212 and January first, 1901.
“None of that’s real, sir. I need real info.”
“I’ve given you info so you can complete your form. My only legal obligation here is to pay you the price you’ve posted. Here’s the money, thank you, I don’t need a receipt. I won’t be back.”

You may argue that I’m just giving a poor working stiff a hard time. But that’s a fallacy. Her employer put her into that situation, not me. Her employer wants you to give in because you feel for the poor, underpaid worker being forced to do this grunt work. But giving in doesn’t actually help her, it helps the employer.

This past week I bought a blender as a birthday present. The store offered me different options to pay, including paywave (maybe you call it “Tap & Go” Whatever, you touch your debit card to the reader and the transaction goes through). I chose that. We’re in a pandemic and the less people who touch things the better.

The salesperson tried to take my card from me to perform the paywave transaction. I didn’t let him. It’s a pandemic, we’re minimizing touch. I touched my card to the reader. The transaction went through, he printed 2 copies of the transaction and a separate receipt. So I’ve got the receipt and the blender.

The salesperson suddenly tells me he needs to see my card again.

“I need to swipe it in the store’s computer.”
“To close the transaction.”
“I have the receipt. Have you been paid?”
“Is there a problem with the payment?”
“Then why do you need my card?”
“I need the numbers from your card for our files.”
“Store policy.”
“To … assist with your warranty.”
“My warranty is between Philips and me, not your store.” (I didn’t take the ‘extended warranty’) Again I verbally made sure that they had my money, and I had the receipt. I thanked them and left.

I saw an ad on a news site that I read. The ad was for a funky furniture shop, and it had a ‘view catalogue’ link. I like the bookshelf they showed in the ad so I clicked the link – exactly what they want potential customers to do! What do I get? A form I’m supposed to fill out before they’ll honour me with a peak at the goods they’re trying to sell me.

Looking the form over, I noticed that there was only one actual mandatory field, email address. Now I’m not going to give them even that. I don’t know yet whether I’m actually interested in their products, never mind some kind of email newsletter or God knows what else.

If they want to validate the address before I can see the catalogue, I’ll just go away and hopefully they’ll see enough stats on people being turned away by the form that they’ll rethink their strategy.

So I made up an address, one I’d never used before, and hit enter.

A “Welcome back!” banner loaded, and full access to the catalogue. So I’m not alone! There are others out there who are also fed up with this crap! Woo-hoo, I have a tribe!

Are we tribe mates, you and me?

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy

It’s October, 2020, an election year. As is the Republican tradition, they try to launch an “October Surprise” against the Democrat running for president. Well, here it is, so let’s go through this (Note that while Joe Biden is from Delaware, Hunter Biden lives in California.):

According to Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, Hunter traveled to Delaware to get his computer fixed. We’re to believe that there’s no one in all of California (home to Apple) who can fix a MacBook.

According to Rudy, Hunter, the son of the Democratic candidate, chose a very explicitly pro-Trump shop to repair his laptop.

The store owner, who is legally blind, swears it’s Hunter who dropped the laptop off (could you identify Hunter Biden if you happened to unexpectedly meet him?). The store’s video surveillance for that day has been erased, so there’s no evidence to confirm or refute his claim.

Later, the store owner changed his statement to: “couldn’t positively identify the customer as Hunter Biden, but the laptop bore a sticker from the Beau Biden Foundation, named after Hunter’s late brother.” The Beau Biden Foundation is based in Delaware and is popular. It’s not unusual to see stickers for it on laptops.

The store’s owner either gave the laptop to the FBI, who immediately asked him to hack the hard drive because they couldn’t. OR he hacked the hard drive then gave it to the FBI. He keeps changing his story on this point. Why exactly he would give a customer’s computer to the FBI is a fair question, not answered.

He then gave the hard drive to Rudy (so what did he give to the FBI?) OR he gave a copy of the hard drive to Rudy. OR he gave printouts of some emails and some pictures to Rudy. Again, his story changes depending when you ask.

Side note: somehow, indicted felon Steve Bannon also has a copy of this stolen property.

Rudy, a lawyer, who, if he’s telling the truth here, knows he is in possession of stolen property, does not turn it over the police, but instead starts shopping it to news outlets. BUT he wants an outlet that won’t be critical or dig too deeply into the story.

Even Fox News wouldn’t take the story. They’ve been worried about Rudy’s credibility.

Rudy settles on the NY Post. Rudy says, “nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.” So no one else would take it without fact-checking it. The NY Post (a Rupert Murdoch paper) would.

The NY Post’s own journalists won’t touch the story, so a former producer for Sean Hannity’s Fox News show is credited with the byline. A second name is added to the byline, a Post journalist who didn’t know her name was being assigned to the story. She isn’t happy about her name being attached to it.

President Trump is saying that any journalist who doesn’t report this story as 100% true is a criminal.

The FBI is now investigating whether the source material originated in a foreign power’s disinformation campaign.

Rudy says there’s only a 50/50 chance he was working with Russian spies on this story.

UPDATE March 2021:
50/50 becomes 100%. US intelligence report confirms Giuliani was working with Russian intelligence agents. Oops.