I am again back east this week, grabbing the kid from summer camp. Thursday morning. The area remains under flood watch for the next few days. Montpelier, Vermont, one hour north, underwater.
And Las Vegas forecast to be 118 degrees upon our return.
Pike holding down the fort in The Sheet office this week. 24-year old Pike. “24 and there’s so much more.”
That’s, of course, a line from Neil Young’s “Old Man.”
I saw the Old Man at the Greek Theater in L.A. on Monday. And Neil was … incredible. A true master of his craft. The stage arranged like a cozy living room. Various musical instruments – pianos, organs, guitars – strewn about. And he sort of schlomped around it as he fussed and mumbled to himself about what he might play next. 77-year old Neil. A little rickety on his feet (though not Biden-level rickety). Shoulders hunched. Clad in a denim tuxedo.
But once he starts singing, the years melt away because his voice is still pure. His timbre still good. That inimitable falsetto. And when he sits at the piano, the hunched shoulders don’t betray age so much as suggest a mad scientist.
I wasn’t there to hear a particular song. I didn’t care what he played. In fact, I wanted him to introduce me to things I didn’t know/hadn’t heard.
The mere fact that I had the opportunity to hear him was privilege enough.
And yet, there are always yahoos in the crowd calling out songs they want to hear.
As if Gods are marionettes who deign to take requests.
I was particularly moved during his rendition of “Ohio.”
When he introduced the song, he meditated upon the number four.
Four dead a half century ago meant something.
The number four today, he mused, is simply a fraction.
He sings the refrain: “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground/How can you run when you know.”
And I’m watching this old man … symbolically, he’s not running anywhere because he couldn’t run if he tried, never mind he wouldn’t run anyway. He’s still simply … planted, still fighting his fight ‘til the very last breath. A crumbling pillar, but still upright. Both physically and emotionally.
While younger men take flight, dissembling all the way.
I shed a tear at that.
From “I’m the Ocean”:
I’m not present
I’m a drug that makes you dream
I’m an aerostar
I’m a cutlass supreme
In the wrong lane
Trying to turn against the flow
I’m the ocean
I’m the giant undertow
I arrived in New Hampshire at midnight Tuesday. Made my bus connection by eight minutes. Largely because I upgraded my airline seat from row 33 to row 10 so I could disembark faster.
Cost me $89.
I will admit right now this was the first time in my life I’ve ever upgraded from economy. Could never justify it. Because suffering in economy amounted to paying myself. $89 juxtaposed against five hours of discomfort. That’s $18 an hour.
But if I missed that bus, I’d be in for ten hours sleeping in an airport terminal or $250 for a hotel room, as the next bus didn’t leave until 7:30 a.m. the next morning. I needed to give myself every chance to make that connection. That was my justification. And the ticket agent told me that “Comfort Plus” also afforded me as many free beverages as I’d like.
Here’s my credit card.
There was a young man sitting in my row by the window. The middle seat was empty. The young man must have generous parents. I know he didn’t pay for that seat. Or for his very fancy headphones. And I’m sure he doesn’t know a damn thing about what happened at Kent State.
Of course, I am projecting. I am a grumpy old man. I am Neil-in-waiting.
Yesterday, I attended a free lecture at Dartmouth College. It was by Cal Newport, a Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, and titled “How Worried Should We Be About AI?”
It took ten minutes just to introduce the guy.
Writer for the New Yorker and New York Times. Host of the “Deep Questions” podcast. Author of 65 peer-reviewed academic papers and seven books. Majored in Computer Science at Dartmouth (class of 2004). Received his PhD from MIT.
He broke down his lecture into two parts. The first part was a discussion of how Chat GPT works. Which then fed into the worry question.
The good news: On the spectrum of worriers, Newport is not a Chicken Little. And here’s why.
Chat GPT is not based upon particularly new technology. But what they’ve done is build out these LLMs (Large Language Models) to incomprehensible scale.
To the point where they’ve had to customize buildings and invent coollng systems just to accommodate the computational infrastructure.
Because what Chat GPT does, when fed a question, is sift through a labyrinth of keywords to sort the best response.
But it sorts the info in a forward-looking manner layer by layer. It’s not able to self-referentially circle back to what it’s already produced. So it can’t write three sentences, scrub the second sentence, and then recalibrate. It’s not self-aware. It can only produce the next best word. Brick-by-brick.
As Newport said, “It can’t launch the missiles.”
The threat is not innate in the technology so much as it can magnify the ability of human beings to do bad things.
As Newport said, “It will introduce more bad behavior, but there’s plenty of bad behavior out there already.”
And it won’t eliminate jobs so much as change them, and that these changes will not create upheaval on the same scale as the Industrial Revolution.
Newport said that because he lives in D.C., he is occasionally summoned to Capitol Hill to weigh in on regulatory matters.
He recently attended a bipartisan gathering of U.S. Senators to talk about AI. And the current consensus is that there is no consensus. No one really has a clue how to regulate it at this time.
His final observation was illuminating. Of Chat GPT he said, “It wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. It was just a demo.”
During the Q&A, a student asked what jobs/careers should she shy away from, given AI’s potential impact.
Newport said it was too early to tell what one should avoid. But did offer one surefire path to success: “Transfer to Computer Science and start studying AI.”
Upon learning that the price tag of the Access (Country Glass) Apartments is now projected to be $10 million for 11 units, it makes one pause. At what point do you scrap the idea? Approximately $1 million per one-bedroom unit. That’s 11 lotto tickets.
As opposed to Parcel units, which merely represent half-million dollar lotto tickets.
So I’m sitting in Gayla Wolf’s kitchen the other day, and I’m sipping a glass of wine, and there’s a copy of Emerson’s essay on Self Reliance sitting on the counter.
I ask to borrow it. Well, I basically grab the book and I tell Gayla I’m borrowing it. She doesn’t really have a choice. But she’s gracious, anyway. That Gayla. A local treasure.
From Emerson, who would decidedly oppose public funding of workforce housing:
“Do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-housers to the vain end to which many now stands; alms to sots; and the thousandfold relief societies; – though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give then dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by-and-by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
Virtues are in the popular estimate rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world – as invalids and the insane pay a high board. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than it should be glittering and unsteady.”
And then this next part. It reminded me of so many pat arguments repeated ad nauseam at public meeting after public meeting by the same fools who think we didn’t hear them the first time, because if we’d heard them, we would have lauded them and followed them and festooned them as great citizens and intellects:
“A man must consider what a blind man’s buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side; the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation.
… Most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right.”