it’s everywhere (AI, that is)

I can’t escape the discussion about AI (Artificial Intelligence). It’s everywhere. I see it constantly on my LinkedIn feed, and it shows up frequently on Mastodon (that non-commercial, open source alternative to Twitter). Geoffrey Hinton, the head of Google AI (and often called the Godfather of AI), recently resigned, according to The New York Times, “so he can freely speak out about the risks of AI.” It’s rather like Dr. Frankenstein leaving town and saying, “I guess creating that monster wasn’t such a good idea after all.” But Dr. Hinton deserves credit for taking action and speaking out.

artificial intelligence abstract imageThe whole conversation is overwhelming, rather like (spoiler alert!) the conspiracy between the Changelings and the Borg to wipe out humanity, as revealed in the final two episodes of Star Trek: Picard, season three. So much so that I have to write about it.

In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit to once having had a dog in this fight. During the nineties I worked for a software company that developed AI applications for the banking and insurance industries, although the preferred term was Expert Systems. (The software ran on a mainframe and on IBM OS/2, just to date myself.) Of course, the technology has evolved considerably since then.

It’s true that AI is everywhere. I have had predictive text on my iPhone for several versions of iOS now. Microsoft Word is now intrusive with its predictive text feature. My trusty grammar and style checker, ProWritingAid, uses AI to offer suggestions. (Will you please stop telling me I need to add commas all the time, dammit!) When Kaiser notified me that I needed to see my primary care physician, it directed me to an automated phone system with which I had a spoken conversation about the timing of the appointment. I suppose that beats sitting on hold for twenty minutes. Perhaps the system is in beta, because the next day I received an email in which they asked me to complete a survey about my experience with it. All of this is not to mention Alexa, to whom I speak several times a day and who lives in my three Amazon Echo devices.

A lot of the conversation, however, is around ChatGPT, a tool that is supposed to assist in creating content. By content I mean articles, essays, blog posts, thought pieces, etc. Even poems, it seems. One of the people I follow on LinkedIn opened a post saying, “ChatGPT is great.” Really? Are you kidding me? She then added some nuance and caveats, but still.

I have seen more than one LinkedIn post saying that ChatGPT is valuable for research, allowing the human writer to fill in and complete the piece. But ChatGPT has been documented to provide flat out wrong information, and it provides no attribution for the content it spews out.

For research, I can use Wikipedia, as long as I go back to the original references cited in the article and not rely on the Wikipedia article itself. (The Chicago Manual of Style monthly Q&A told me that.) And Google can provide useful references if you carefully check the sources. Google Scholar is even better.

The great theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who died in 2018, warned about the dangers of AI in 2014, even though the technology he used to communicate with the world used a basic form of AI. At the end of March over a thousand technology leaders and researchers signed an open letter urging a pause in the development of AI. Signers included Elon Musk, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Yuval Noah Harari, professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. The original web page, published by the Future of Life Institute, states that over thirty thousand signatures have been collected, of which over twenty-seven thousand have been verified. On Thursday Vice President Kamala Harris met with the CEOs of companies involved in AI and President Biden dropped by the meeting long enough to tell them, “What you’re doing has enormous potential and enormous danger.”

Perhaps ChatGPT has its uses, but I’m not convinced. There is, I believe, great danger here. There is greater danger in other applications of AI.

People, we need to pay attention.

a brief gadget-buying frenzy

earbudsI decided to buy a pair of earbuds for my iPad. My hearing aid connects to my iPad, but sometimes the iPad insists that my hearing aid is connected to my iPhone (even though the iPhone might be off). Rather than be aggravated, I thought that a new pair of Bluetooth earbuds would be a good solution. (You may know a pair of earbuds will only connect to a single device.) Terry said she liked them because they light up when in use, so she could tell when I was listening to something. That was not the case when I was in the kitchen, for example, and listening to an audiobook or podcast on my iPhone with my hearing aid or the smaller, non-illuminated earbuds I was using with my iPhone. So I bought a similar pair for my iPhone. I selected white, since the first pair was black.

Alexa routine screen shotWhen they arrived, however, I liked the original pair better, since the black case allowed me to see the charging data even when the case was closed, which the white one did not. Since I use the earbuds on my iPhone much more often than on my iPad, I paired the original black pair with my iPhone and the new white pair with my iPad. They’re very comfortable and I love the digital power level display.

Thinking about gadgets, I was looking at the digital timer connected to the lamp in our living space and thinking about what a pain it is to adjust when the clocks change in the spring and fall or when the seasons and changing light required an adjustment. That’s when I had one of those “I could’ve had a V8!” moments. We have two smart plugs that work with Amazon Alexa, one for the light in the dining area and another for the table fountain in the bedroom. Why not, I suddenly realized, get a third for the light in the living area? So I did. The initial setup was a bit tricky, but now that I have done it adjustments will be simple. And no more drift. The digital timer would run fast, so when the light was set to turn on at 6:30 p.m. it would eventually turn on at 6:27. And we’re also no longer constrained to two on/off cycles a day, nor does the cycle need to be the same every day of the week, both limitations of the digital timer.

watchThen there’s the story of the watch. I had two solar-powered digital watches, which, on account of the pandemic I didn’t wear much. They both stopped working and so they now sit in the box for the next household hazardous waste drop-off event. But now that Terry and I feel more comfortable going out to eat again, and now that I am back attending church in person, I decided it was time to have a functioning watch. (It’s bad form to pull out your iPhone to check the time when in church.) I looked on Amazon for solar-powered watches and was surprised to discover that they were all well over $100.00. I realized that a watch with a standard battery would do and found a Casio that syncs to the time signal out of Ft. Collins, Colorado for around a third of the price of the solar watches. The Q&A on Amazon suggested the battery would last five years or longer, which I found reassuring. A quick trip to the local watch shop for a new band and I’m set. (Casio makes quality watches with crummy bands.)

All right. That’s enough. I’m in good shape gadget-wise for quite a while now.

using the MasterCook recipe software

I wrote about having to retire my old laptop computer and therefore having to say goodbye to the recipe software I loved so much, Living Cookbook.

The question, then, was what program to move to. There aren’t a lot of choices for recipe software, and most of them are subscription and cloud based. I have enough damn subscriptions as it is, and I’m not wild about storing my recipes in the cloud. It also appears that a lot of the programs are not actively maintained.

MasterCook screen shotI finally decided on MasterCook. It has been around for a long time and they released an updated MasterCook 22 not long ago. Recently enough that the developer says they tested it on Windows 11. Of course the MasterCook folks would rather that you go with their web-based subscription version, but at least they offer a locally installed, one-time purchase version.

So there it is. I have MasterCook. It is not Living Cookbook, but it does the job. It certainly doesn’t have the flexible search capabilities I had in Living Cookbook. The user interface is rather old-fashioned and clunky. Something tells me that is intentional: a way to get you to subscribe to their more modern cloud-based version. Sometimes I will be in the middle of doing something and the program will simply close. Blip! Just like that.

I find it annoying that I cannot, apparently, do an “and” search. For example, if I search on “Italian” and “Stovetop,” I get all the Italian recipes and all the Stovetop recipes, not the recipes that are tagged both Italian and Stovetop. The program does offer multiple formats for printing recipes, but none of them are as clean and well-laid out as Living Cookbook’s format. But, hey, it’s what I’ve got.

So I work with what I have. I have access to all of my recipes and I can add new ones fairly easily. It will have to be sufficient.

letting go of the old laptop

I had to do it. It just got too painful.

I have known for a long time that I was going to have to give up my Living Cookbook software. The program has not been updated since 2014 and the company has been out of business for a while. The program was on my laptop, which was over ten years old. That laptop had been growing progressively slower and less responsive for some time. I can’t move the software to my desktop because that would require the publisher to generate a new license key and the publisher isn’t there. I tried a workaround, believe me, but the workaround didn’t work.

laptop computerThe unfortunate thing is that the Living Cookbook software worked just fine. The surrounding pieces were what was failing. The computer became incredibly slow. Norton Antivirus would no longer run and would not reinstall. I installed a more lightweight antivirus program with a smaller footprint, and even it became balky. Finally, with everything running as slow as molasses, my Chrome web browser refused to open. That was it.

So finally on a recent Friday I went through the painful and tedious process of doing a full reset on the laptop, wiping out all of my data and personal information, then reinstalling Windows 10. The next day was one of the fortnightly electronics recycling days here in Hemet so I dropped it off. I saved the wireless mouse which I liked and hooked it up to my desktop – a nice and comfortable change from my old wired mouse.

I hated to give up the old laptop, but it was no longer usable in any real sense. I found the original packing list and it showed a ship date of August 31, 2010. That’s just short of twelve years. Pretty darn good for a laptop computer.

And how am I replacing Living Cookbook? I selected MasterCook. Not ideal, but serviceable. Details on that soon.

confessions of an old internet person

As I wrote here on Monday, according to Gretchen McCulloch in her book Because Internet I am an “old internet person.” That means that I have been online from the earliest days that the internet became available to the general public. It’s true that I have been, so I guess I am.

computer on the internetIn fact, I have been online since before the internet was publicly available. I was dialing into electronic bulletin boards on my Apple IIe as early as 1986. I also had a CompuServe account, which gave me access to whatever resources CompuServe made available to its users. Later, on my IBM-compatible PC (as we called them then), I dialed into Prodigy which was a consumer service that IBM developed. That had some nice features, such as access to American Airlines reservations. This feature came in handy during the two years Terry and I had a commuting relationship between Southern California and the Bay Area. After that I had an America Online account, which you may know as AOL. Perhaps you remember the sign-up CDs they kept sending you in the mail. Again, you were limited to the content that AOL provided.

AOL started offering an internet gateway in 1993, though it was rather clumsy and unwieldy. I signed up for a dial-up internet account with a company called Netcom. They provided a UNIX shell account, which meant I had some space on a UNIX server and access to tools for email and for creating text files. It was all text-based. As the web started to emerge, Netcom offered an account with graphical web access. The problems were 1) you had to have a separate account for the web-based service, and 2) you had to use their proprietary tools for things like web access and email.

Terry and I were living in Mountain View at the time and an independent company opened up shop downtown on Castro Street called Best Internet. They were friendly people and when you opened a dial-up account they gave you a 3.5 inch floppy disk filled with freeware and shareware internet applications. It was with Best that I got my first custom internet domain (which I sold for a nice sum a few years ago) and where I created my first web site, something I coded by hand.

When we moved to Gilroy in 1997 I set up a dial-up account with a company called South Valley Internet. They offered reliable internet access, but the customer service was terrible. Eventually I was able to get always-on DSL service through a company called Covad. When Covad discontinued their residential service in Gilroy I was able to get DSL with the phone company, Verizon. They hadn’t offered DSL in our part of town previously. That worked, but the speed deteriorated over time to the point where dial-up might have been faster. At the same time, Terry and I were unhappy with DirecTV’s constant nickel-and-dime price increases for our satellite television service. In early 2011, therefore, I called up Charter Cable and arranged for cable television and internet service with them. So, really, it wasn’t until 2011 that we truly had high-speed internet.

High-speed internet is something that we almost take for granted today, and with all of our wireless devices and streaming services it is integrated into our daily lives. But it’s good for this old internet guy to remember that it was not always so.

Because Internet

Because Internet coverBecause Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language
Gretchen McCulloch
Riverhead Books (July 23, 2019), 334 pages
Kindle edition $4.99, Amazon paperback $14.49

Audiobook edition read by the author
published by Penguin Audio
$21.44 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I don’t know why I didn’t get to this book when it first came out in 2019. Perhaps because of its (deliberately) ungrammatical title. But that’s no reason not to read (or listen to) this highly informative and entertaining book.

I have never recommended both the audio and print versions of a book before, but that’s the case with Because Internet. One almost needs both to get the full value of the book. Gretchen reads her own work in a lively and engaged manner. She speaks at a fast clip, and I suspect that had a professional voice actor read the book it would have come in at longer than the exactly eight hours in which McCulloch completes her reading. The author enhances much of the content with her intonation and inflection.

On the other hand, there is much in the book that relies not only on spelling, but on sequences of keyboard characters, something that doesn’t translate well into the audiobook version.

The author writes about the evolution of internet language. She describes how users who were limited to the characters on the keyboard would use asterisks, hyphens, and underscores to enhance their messages. She explains how the convention developed that all caps means shouting, but points out that earlier mainframe terminals equipped with only a keyboard and a teletype (without a monitor) used only capital letters. McCulloch describes the evolution of terms like “lol,” which originally meant “laughing out loud,” but has evolved to simply show amusement.

McCulloch tracks the evolution of the emoji, which started as keyboard characters called emoticons and describes how the form evolved into the graphical emoji, with officially supported characters. The cross-platform characters are managed by the Unicode Consortium, “a small committee of people who live at the intersection of tech geek and font nerd, and are mostly employees of major tech companies,” in case you were wondering.

She also follows the evolution of the meme. Meme captions started out explaining the thoughts of the person or animal pictured, but evolved so the captions became labels for the various parts of the picture. One cannot, of course, open Facebook without encountering a meme.

The author also categorizes the generations of internet users, from the earliest adopters to those who never knew a world without the internet. She calls the first group “Old Internet People.” I’m not sure that I like that since I am part of that group, but that’s how she refers to us. I’ll write about my experience as an old internet person sometime soon. McCulloch writes about Full Internet People and Semi-Internet People, both of whom didn’t know a time without the internet, but are distinguished by their level of internet involvement. She discusses Pre Internet people, who were around at the beginning, but did not start using the internet until later.

McCulloch is a professional linguist and did considerable research for Because Internet. In addition to her original research she reviewed the work of other linguists. She does an excellent job of capturing a snapshot of our online world. If you are a word nerd or an internet nerd you’ll thoroughly enjoy McCulloch’s offering.

time for a new iPad

My old iPad Air 2 finally reached the point where it was just too cranky for me to use. It would be at over fifty percent charge, but when I connected to the external keyboard it would blip out and then tell me I needed to charge it. That’s really annoying when you’re sitting on the bed with your lap desk and the cord on the charger plug just barely makes it to the wall outlet. Not to mention trying to use it with the cord in the way.

iPadThen there was the fact that my iPad became finicky about turning pages in the books on my Kindle app. Not a good thing, since I spend much of my iPad time reading books on my iOS Kindle app.

I did have that iPad for a while. Over six years, in fact. I bought it in December 2015, so that’s a pretty good run for an electronic device.

My new iPad is a fourth-generation iPad Air. I also purchased a compatible Bluetooth keyboard. Instead of selecting the cheapest keyboard, I bought one that looked particularly sturdy and functional. It was easy to set up both. I encountered only a few glitches, and the two play nicely together. It was not inexpensive, but for something that I use every single evening it was well worth the cost. The screen on my new iPad is more than an inch bigger than on my old one. That’s really nice.

I will get a lot of use out of this duo. And they should last a while.

life with Alexa

We bought our first Amazon Echo in February of this year for the bedroom. We quickly followed with a second Echo for the dining room/kitchen. When I learned that my legacy internet radio was about to be obsoleted I bought an Echo Show for my office.

I had thought about buying a current-generation internet radio for my office, but I decided it made sense to have consistency throughout the house. And besides, with my Echo Show (since I subscribe to Amazon Music) I can say, “Alexa, play the Broadway cast recording of Rent” and Alexa will do just that. Can’t do that with an internet radio.

Echo Show with a photoOf course Alexa gets confused sometimes. In trying to get the movie soundtrack to Cabaret she insisted on playing the revival Broadway cast recording, which is a tad different. Alexa was having trouble understanding my instructions to play the Los Angeles classical music radio station KMZT and kept coming up with other stations. So I set up a routine on my iPhone Alexa app specifying the exact radio station along with its source (TuneIn Radio). The command is “Alexa, play Mount Wilson classical.” (This also to avoid confusion. Mount Wilson FM Broadcasters, Inc. owns KMZT.) However, unless I carefully pronounce “Mount” Alexa wants to play classic Matt Wilson songs from Amazon Music.

Sometimes Alexa responds differently to the same command. I have a routine that has Alexa turn on the light in the dining room and play the jazz radio station KCSM. The command is, “Alexa, it’s dinner time.” Usually Alexa handles this fine, but every so often she responds with the comment “Bon appétit!” in a proper Julia Child voice. That’s why I have an alternative routine with the command, “Alexa, we’re sitting down to dinner.”

My routine, “Alexa, good morning” used to give me an “on this day” trivia fact and the moon phase for the day, but I discovered that the moon phase was off by a day. So now I get the trivia fact and the day’s weather forecast. Sometimes, though, Alexa does some very odd things. When I ask my Echo Show, “Alexa, what is the moon phase?” Alexa responds, “There are no moon phases for this date.” Now that’s scary. (Did you ever read the Arthur C. Clarke short story, “The Nine Billion Names of God”?)

My fourth generation Echo in the bedroom and my Echo Dot in the kitchen/dining area just sit quietly when not in use. However, the Echo Show in my office always displays something if I am in the room and I am not listening to audio. It used to just display my photos, but now it displays all kinds of suggestions. It prompts me to ask Alexa to find the nearest Starbucks or wants me to have Alexa tell a joke. I get around town. I know where all the Starbucks are. And I don’t need Alexa telling me a joke. Fortunately, the remedy to that is to simply tell Alexa to display my photos.

And there is a lot that Alexa does well. We listen to KCSM in the evenings. On Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. a program comes on that we don’t especially like. Fridays at the same time longtime KCSM host Kathleen Lawton broadcasts her program “Crazy About the Blues.” Neither Terry nor I are crazy about the blues. It’s easy to say, “Alexa, play KSDS,” or “Alexa, play KKJZ” (the San Diego and Los Angeles jazz stations, respectively). That’s convenient.

Alexa has certainly integrated herself into our lives.

tools and writing

I had some reasonable freelance income for the first five months of the year, though things have quieted down considerably here in June. I was looking at income versus business expenses, and I realized I had booked very little on the expense side. Now, I don’t mind paying taxes with the current administration in Washington, but I still like to minimize how much I do pay in taxes. So I decided to indulge myself.

writing and bloggingI bought a one-year subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud suite. Now the consensus in the forum for writers and editors to which I belong is that the Adobe pricing is expensive (perhaps bordering on unreasonable). Still, I had a few reasons for making the purchase. One was access to the full-featured version of Acrobat, including the ability to edit PDFs and create fillable PDF forms. Another was Photoshop. I bought a new computer last September, and even if I could have located the CD of my ancient Photoshop version, I had no idea of where to find the license key. Then there’s the web-based portfolio development tool, which allows one to create a visually appealing web portfolio. Finally, there is InDesign, the direct lineal successor (as my classics professor in college would say) to PageMaker. Not sure I’ll do a lot with that, but it might be fun to dabble.

I no doubt will discover other cool things that I can do with Creative Cloud. For example, sometimes I find a recipe in a magazine that I want to add to my recipe software, but which is not on the magazine’s web site. I often scan such things with my Dropbox iPhone app and create a PDF, but the PDF is an image, not copyable text, so I would need to open it in Word or some such thing. I just discovered that the full Acrobat can run OCR on the PDF so I can copy and paste the recipe text into my software. Very useful.

There is nothing in Creative Cloud that directly supports my writing. But with all the tools available, and there are many more than I enumerate here, perhaps I will find some inspiration to give me a kick start and get me back on track with my own writing. Given that my contract writing work has slowed down considerably and I’m feeling somewhat at loose ends, that would be a Good Thing.

putting Alexa to work

One of the cool features of our Amazon Echo devices is the ability to create routines, where you can use a single command to have Alexa perform multiple actions. The first time I tried to set up a routine I couldn’t quite figure out how to make it work. But I went back to my iOS Alexa app and took another look. That time it all made sense. And then I was on a roll.

Fourth Generation EchoI now have a command that says, “Alexa, it’s dinner time.” Alexa then turns on the light  in the dining area (which is connected to a smart plug), tells us “Enjoy your dinner,” and then turns on KCSM, our favorite jazz radio station.

When we’re done with dinner I tell Alexa, “We’re done with dinner.” Alexa turns off the light and KCSM, then tells us, “It’s time to put your feet up.”

When we head into the bedroom to put our feet up, read the paper, and enjoy our respective apéritifs, we tell Alexa, “Good evening.” Alexa turns on our table-top fountain, also connected to a smart plug, plays KCSM on the Echo in the bedroom and tells us, “Enjoy your jazz and reading.”

When we say, “Alexa, good night,” Alexa shuts everything off and wishes us a good night.

How much fun is that?