Memorial Day 2023

I did not serve in any of the US Armed Forces. Given that birthday number fifty-five is a few months away, this is unlikely to change.

I’m therefore grateful to those who have served, and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms and our way of life.

There is much wrong in the United States at present, at least compared to other times that I remember. Yet the fact remains: this is still the greatest country in the world, and the one that the largest number of people abroad aspire to make their home.

As Vladimir Putin, the mullahs in Iran, and Kim Jong Un remind us, civilization can never be taken for granted. The wolf is always at the door.

Below is a brief video about the history of Memorial Day. One personal note here: my grandparents, who were born in the 1920s, always called the holiday “Decoration Day”. This video explains why.

Happy Easter 2023

Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1580

Today is Easter Sunday, 2023. 

Although the connection between this specific day and the historical crucifixion of Jesus is arbitrary, today is the day when Christians around the world celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. Easter—not Christmas—is the most important holiday in the Christian calendar. (See? I learned something from twelve years of Catholic school.)

Many Christians struggle to connect Biblical themes with modern realities. If you’re among that crowd, you’re not alone. Although raised in the Catholic faith, I struggle not just with faith itself, but with how to best practice it in the context of those aforementioned modern realities. I’m not going to hold up myself as an example of Christian virtue. I miss the mark almost every day.

Not everyone is Christian, of course. But not everyone is Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist, either. We live in a world in which “none of the above” is the fastest-growing religious affiliation. 

At the same time, though, atheism, as expressed by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris roughly a decade ago, has failed to supplant conventional religion. Atheism is “no longer cool”. Nor does atheism provide a hopeful vision for fragile human beings who must ultimately confront death—both their own, and those of the people they love.

The West, at least, is in the grip of a spiritual identity crisis.

But back to Easter. If you can think of Easter in its conventional, religious context, I encourage you to do that today. 

But even if you can’t, today might be a good day to reflect on the concepts of spiritual renewal and resurrection in a more general sense. Maybe it would also be a good idea to consider the question: What do I believe? You don’t owe me an answer, but you do owe yourself one. 

The coming AI fiction glut?

Of all the things overhyped on the Internet at present, so-called AI (artificial intelligence) ranks near the top of the list. (Right after whatever Taylor Swift, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex happen to be doing at the moment.)

Perhaps you’re a techno-utopian and you’re already annoyed with me for being a wet blanket. This technology is freaking amazing, you say. Before you send me an email accusing me of Luddism: I’m not against all AI, as a blanket policy. But much of the AI marketed at consumers is onanistic, yet another solution in search of a problem. AI is not a monolith. There are a few gems, but a lot of coal, too. 

For example: the AI in Photoshop that allows me to create a layer mask is clearly worthwhile, and incredibly useful AI. Photoshop is a program of pure genius, that enables the artistically inept—like yours truly—to make composites and image collages with only a journeyman’s grasp of the program. (More complicated artistic tasks, like original illustration, require the hand and eye of a professional, of course.)

On the other hand, my last washing machine had an “AI” sensor that was supposed to detect overloads. The sensor malfunctioned, and basically defined every load as an overload (even a load consisting of three medium-sized bathroom towels).

I had to scrap the entire washing machine. When I purchased my next one, I  specifically selected a machine without any AI capabilities. It functions perfectly. And since I’ve been using washing machines since the early 1980s, I’m fairly certain that I have the common sense not to overload one, sans AI assistance. 

Here’s the point. Sometimes AI is useful, and sometimes it’s like the stuffed birds that briefly appeared on women’s hats in the 19th century, before everyone came to their senses. Washing machines do not need AI. Nor does the phone answering system at your cable company. A menu telling you to press “1” for technical support, “2” for billing, and “3” for sales was always more than adequate. And the number-driven phone menu is early 1990s technology. No one needs an AI voice that sounds sort of like a person, but can’t really do anything extra for you, aside from raising your blood pressure.

In recent months, there has been an endless stream of online hype articles about programs like Sudowrite, ChatGPT, etc. These programs produce walls of text that kinda sorta maybe appear to be stories for a paragraph or two. 

The result has been predictable: a vast tsunami of AI-generated fiction, flooding online magazines and Amazon’s self-publishing platform. Clarkesworld reportedly had to temporarily suspend submissions to deal with the glut. 

The AI fiction glut seems to be most acute at the level of short stories and children’s books, which are usually no more than a few thousand words. If you’re going to try to write a book using AI in the first place, after all, why stretch your attention span any more than is absolutely necessary?

Many of these books and stories seem to arise from bets. A recent Reuters story describes a book written by a man “who bet his wife he could make a book from conception to publication in less than one day.” The result was a 27-page “bedtime story about a pink dolphin that teaches children how to be honest”. Make of that what you will.

This trend is also driven by social media, especially on TikTok and YouTube. Since the advent of Amazon-based indie publishing, there has been no shortage of hustlers and scam artists who are eager to tell the unwary how they can “strike it rich!” with low-content books, and even plagiarized books. Should we be surprised that these same video charlatans have now picked up the baton of AI written books? 

The title of this post is a misnomer, of course. The coming AI fiction glut is not “coming”, it is already here. 

We might have foreseen this. Long before AI, overnight fortunes were made by peddling get-rich-quick schemes and “lose weight without diet or exercise” promises. 

Never mind that such ruses predictably disappoint in the long run. The lure of the quick and the easy has an enduring appeal. 

Bengals fever in Cincinnati

I will confess that I am not much of a spectator sports fan. This isn’t the same as saying that I hate them, or that I look down on you if spectator sports are your thing. (I’m all for sports, mind you; but I prefer doing them as opposed to watching others do them.)

Nevertheless, the Cincinnati Bengals have been performing well over the past few years…or so I gather from what I see in the news.

Today the Bengals play in the AFC championship game in Kansas City. If they win that game, it’s on to the Super Bowl, just like last year. (The Bengals narrowly lost the 2022 Super Bowl to the Rams.) Continue reading “Bengals fever in Cincinnati”

Lisa Marie Presley and conspiracy theories in the age of COVID

Lisa Marie Presley, age 54, passed away yesterday from cardiac arrest. I’m 54, too; so this one definitely reminded me of my mortality.

While a singer and songwriter in her own right, Presley always struggled to establish a professional identity beyond her famous patrimony. This in no way diminishes the personal tragedy of her death. But it’s difficult to think of the younger Presley without thinking of the older one.

I am just barely old enough to remember when Elvis died in August 1977 at the age of 42. I had just turned nine.  Continue reading “Lisa Marie Presley and conspiracy theories in the age of COVID”

El Dia de los Muertos

Today is el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) in Mexico. Though it roughly coincides with Halloween and has similar themes, el Dia de los Muertos is something quite different.

Think of it as a national (Mexican) acknowledgement of the inevitability of death, with a fusion of Christian and Aztec symbols and traditions.

That’s a simplistic and incomplete explanation, but it’s a start.

I was in Mexico in 1995 during the annual observance. It is something to see, especially to gringo eyes. 

The above video is in Spanish. But even if your Spanish isn’t so good, you’ll get a feel for what the holiday is all about.

Cicadas and anxiety

There has been a lot of talk in the media of late about the upcoming emergence of Brood X, the next great wave of cicadas. And—in keeping with the spirit of these traumatized, triggered times—some people are now coping with severe cicada anxiety as they wait for the appearance of the red-eyed insects.

For me, any mention of cicadas takes me back to 1987. That was another major outbreak year. I was then 19 years old, and a student at the University of Cincinnati. As this contemporary article from the Los Angeles Times notes, Cincinnati was a major hotspot for the short-lived, unprepossessing bugs.

Cicadas were everywhere in Cincinnati that summer. They crawled on lawns, on the sidewalks of the inner city, on cars. The husks of the dead ones were everywhere, too.

The cicada mania of 1987 even inspired the song, “Snappy Cicada Pizza”.

Let’s return to the issue of cicada anxiety. I can’t say that I like cicadas, or that I would be pleased to come home and find a swarm of them inside my house. But they don’t cause me anxiety, either.

I sympathize, though, with the cicada-anxious. I have an extreme aversion toward wasps. My lifelong dislike of wasps even inspired a short story, “The Wasp”, which you can read here on the site.

Photo credit: Fairfax County, VA