Would it be so bad if I’d used ChatGPT to help write this blog?

by Sarah Firisen

I’m going to date myself in a significant way now: when I was in high school, we had to use books of trigonometric tables to look up sine and cosine values. I’m not so old that it wasn’t possible to get a calculator that could tell you the answer, but I’m assuming that the rationale at my school was that this was cheating in some way and that we needed to understand how actually to look things up. I know that sounds quaint now. I also remember when I used an actual book as a dictionary to look up how to spell words. Yes, youth of today, there were actual books that were dictionaries, and you had to find your word in there, which could be challenging if you didn’t know how to spell the word to begin with.

These days, if you have turned in a paper without putting it through basic digital spellcheck, you deserve to fail the class. And most editing tools have some at least rudimentary grammar checking. In addition to those built-in tools, I use Grammarly and have encouraged my college-age daughters to use it. It used to be the case, at least when I was in school and college, that you lost marks for bad spelling and grammar. There is no good reason a piece of writing today shouldn’t have mostly correct spelling and basic grammar. But spelling and grammar checking doesn’t make you a good writer, and a scientific calculator doesn’t make me a better mathematician. They’re just tools. By the way, I also used to get marks deducted for my bad handwriting. Bad handwriting isn’t an issue for anyone over ten or so (or maybe younger these days) when almost all communication is electronic. So does bad handwriting matter? I can’t remember the last time I wrote anything longer than a greeting card. These days, it’s far more important to be computer literate than to be able to write good cursive.

Which brings me to ChatGPT, a new AI chatbot created by OpenAI, an artificial intelligence research company. Read more »

A Buddhist Perspective on Addiction: Nothing is Vital

by Marie Snyder

Now that the hangover from New Year’s Eve is abating for many, and we might be freshly open to some self-improvement, consider a Buddhist view of using meditation to tackle addictions. I don’t just mean for substance abuse, but also for that incessant drive to check social media just once more before starting our day or before we finally lull ourselves to sleep by the light of our devices, or the drive to buy the store out of chocolates at boxing day sales. Not that there’s anything wrong with that on its own– it’s a sale after all–but when actions are compulsive instead of intentional, then this can be a different way of approaching the problem from the typical route. I’m not a mental health professional, but this is something I’ve finally tried with earnest and found helpful, but it took a very different understanding of it all to get just this far (which is still pretty far from where I’d like to be).

Meditation is not about escaping the world but sharpening our awareness of it. Addiction comes from the Latin dicere, related to the root of the word dictator. It’s like having an internal dictator usurping our agency. And Buddhist mindfulness meditation can help to notice that voice and then turn the volume down on it so we can get our lives back.

In many ways the Buddhist perception is closer to Stoicism than to Freudian tactics, but don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater. Many people benefit from the psychoanalytical method of finding themselves before they can work on losing themselves. This is particularly true with traumatic experiences that might need to be worked through enough before allowing the mind to wander into dark recesses unrestrained. Read more »

SBF from Girard to Dawkins to Xanadu and back

by William Benzon

He liked being known as “SBF.” Why? It is kind of cool on its own terms. But I wonder it there might not be some mimetic desire lurking there. After all, there IS an enormously wealthy and well-known man who is known by his three initials, two of which are shared by SBF. I’m talking about MBS of course – Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. Does SBF want to be like MBS?

And there’s that luxurious Bahamian compound, a bit like Xanadu. As you know, Xanadu was the name of Charles Foster Kane’s mansion in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. It is also the nickname Bill Gate’s house. DJT (aka 45) has said that that’s his favorite film. Back in the mid-70s a group of developers made plans to build a hotel in Las Vegas to be called Xanadu. The project fell through, but not before considerable architectural work had been done, preliminary plans, renderings, models, etc. Donald Trump knew about this and was influenced by it in his Atlantic City Casino, which had a night club called Xanadu. All of this is online.

Rendering of a proposed Xanadu hotel.

I discovered this some time ago when, on a whim, I did a web search on “Xanadu.” Why?  Because I have a long-term interest in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” with its famous opening couplet: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree.” Just like that – Make it so! – and there it was. What billionaire wouldn’t thrill to that?

I digress. Much to my surprise the web search turned up millions of hits. Why? Coleridge’s poem is well known, about as well-known as poems can be. I searched the Oxford English Dictionary for uses of the name, and found a few. I also searched the archives of the New York Times and found, for example, mention of a Xanadu yacht in the 1930s. It became clear, however, that it was Citizen Kane that put “Xanadu” on the socio-cultural map, leading to what I have called a sybaritic cluster of associations, which is about wealth and luxury. Read more »

So are you a Narrative or a non-Narrative?

Galen Strawson in Aeon:

Each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”,’ wrote the British neurologist Oliver Sacks, ‘this narrative is us’. Likewise the American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: ‘Self is a perpetually rewritten story.’ And: ‘In the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’ Or a fellow American psychologist, Dan P McAdams: ‘We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.’ And here’s the American moral philosopher J David Velleman: ‘We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.’ And, for good measure, another American philosopher, Daniel Dennett: ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best “faces” on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’

So say the narrativists. We story ourselves and we are our stories. There’s a remarkably robust consensus about this claim, not only in the humanities but also in psychotherapy. It’s standardly linked with the idea that self-narration is a good thing, necessary for a full human life.

I think it’s false – false that everyone stories themselves, and false that it’s always a good thing.

More here.

Why everyone should be at least a little bit worried about AI going into 2023

Gary Marcus in his Substack newsletter:

What do Noam Chomsky, living legend of linguistics, Kai-Fu Lee, perhaps the most famous AI researcher in all of China, and Yejin Choi, the 2022 MacArthur Fellowship winner who was profiled earlier this week in The New York Times Magazine—and more than a dozen other scientists, economists, researchers, and elected officials—all have in common?

They are all worried about the near-term future of AI. The most worrisome thing of all? They are all worried about different things.

Each spoke last week at December 23’s AGI Debate (co-organized by Montreal.AI’s Vince Boucher and myself). No summary can capture all that was said (though Tiernan Ray’s 8,000 word account at ZDNet comes close), but here are a few of the many concerns that were raised…

More here.

Volt Rush: The Winners And Losers In The Race To Go Green

Leon Vlieger in The Inquisitive Biologist:

The problems created by humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels are widely appreciated, and governments and businesses are now pursuing renewable energy and electric vehicles as the solution. Less appreciated is that this new infrastructure will require the mining of vast amounts of metals, creating different problems. In Volt RushFinancial Times journalist Henry Sanderson gives a well-rounded and thought-provoking exposé of the companies and characters behind the supply chain of foremost the batteries that will power the vehicles of the future. If you think a greener and cleaner world awaits us, Volt Rush makes it clear that this is far from a given.

As Sanderson explains in his introduction, his aim in writing this book is to equip readers with the background knowledge needed to ask critical questions regarding our transition away from fossil fuels. Without it, we risk falling prey to feel-good narratives and corporate greenwash. Though not apparent from the title and flap text, Sanderson focuses on four metals important in the batteries of electric vehicles. Lithium is one of the substances that will be in high demand, and I am reviewing this book in tandem with Lukasz Bednarski’s Lithium, but as Volt Rush makes clear, cobalt, nickel, and copper are equally vital.

More here.

Does true kindness have to be selfless?

Claudia Hammond in The Guardian:

I really enjoy doing it: it makes me feel good about myself. It gives me a boost, mentally and physically.” If these were your reactions to an activity, you’d surely be inclined to do it as often as you could. After all, aren’t a lot of us looking for ways to find more meaning in life and to be happier and healthier? What, then, is the act that elicits such positive responses? The answer: being kind.

A growing body of evidence from the fields of psychology and neuroscience demonstrates that performing kind acts increases mental wellbeing, enhances physical health and might even improve life expectancy. Kindness is not just beneficial for the recipient, but also for the giver.

In 2021 I worked with a team at the University of Sussex to create the Kindness Test. This online study was launched on BBC Radio 4, and more than 60,000 people took part. We found that the more acts of kindness people told us they carried out, the greater their wellbeing.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Sitting With Others

The front seats filled last. Laggards, Buffoons,
and kiss-ups falling in beside local politicos,
the about to be honored, and the hard of hearing.

No help from the middle, blenders and criminals,
And the back rows: restless, intelligent, unable to commit.
my place was always left-center, a little to the rear.

The shy sat with me, fearful of discovery.
Behind me the dead man’s illegitimate children
and the bride’s and groom’s former lovers.

There, when lights were lowered, hands
plunged under skirts or deftly unzipped flies,
and, lights up again, rose and pattered applause.

Ahead, the bored practiced impeccable signatures.
But was it a movie or singing? I remember
the whole crowd uplifted, but not the event

or the word that brought us together as one —
One, I say now when I had felt myself many,
speaking and listening: that was the contradiction.

by Rodney Jones
Salvation Blues
Mariner Books, 2007

Male and Female Stem Cells Derived from One Donor in Scientific First

Dan Robitzski in The Scientist:

Scientists have developed a new line of stem cells—all derived from the same person—that can be used to study sex differences without the confounds of interpersonal genetic differences.

…To develop such a model, the team obtained cells from a repository that had been taken from someone with an unusual case of Klinefelter syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects roughly 1 in 500 boys in which they’re born with an extra copy of the X chromosome, resulting in an XXY genetic makeup. What made this person even more unusual—and ideal for Reubinoff’s vision—is that, in addition to the 47XXY cells characteristic of the condition, they also had a large number of 46XY cells, a phenomenon known as a mosaic phenotype. As the study, published on November 24 in Stem Cell Reports, describes, the variety of cells taken from the Klinefelter patient allowed the team to generate 46XX, 46XY, 45X0, and 47XXY hiPSCs that are otherwise genetically identical. This means that any observable differences among them—related, for example, to disease risk factors or response to a pharmaceutical—can almost definitely be attributed to genetic sex differences.

“When you study individuals, and you compare males to females and you find differences, you cannot differentiate whether they stem from the chromosomal differences or hormonal differences,” Reubinoff explains. “This model is unique because it allows you to differentiate between chromosomal effects and hormonal effects.”

More here.

This Nerve Influences Nearly Every Internal Organ. Can It Improve Our Mental State, Too?

Christina Caron in The New York Times:

In recent years, the vagus nerve has become an object of fascination, especially on social media. The vagal nerve fibers, which run from the brain to the abdomen, have been anointed by some influencers as the key to reducing anxiety, regulating the nervous system and helping the body to relax.

TikTok videos with the hashtag “#vagusnerve” have been viewed more than 64 million times and there are nearly 70,000 posts with the hashtag on Instagram. Some of the most popular ones feature simple hacks to “tone” or “reset” the vagus nerve, in which people plunge their faces into ice water baths or lie on their backs with ice packs on their chests. There are also neck and ear massages, eye exercises and deep-breathing techniques. Now, wellness companies have capitalized on the trend, offering products like “vagus massage oil,” vibrating bracelets and pillow mists, that claim to stimulate the nerve, but that have not been endorsed by the scientific community. Researchers who study the vagus nerve say that stimulating it with electrodes can potentially help improve mood and alleviate symptoms in those who suffer from treatment-resistant depression, among other ailments. But are there other ways to activate the vagus nerve? Who would benefit most from doing so? And what exactly is the vagus nerve, anyway? Here’s a look at what we know so far.

More here.