Universal Story Engine

Will I Be Replaced Soon

A leading edge question about AI is how soon will it replace human thinking and creating. How long, people want to know, before I am replaced by a machine that never complains, doesn’t need breaks, and never expects a raise in pay.

When it comes to interacting with our everyday digital devices, machine thinking has already replaced human thinking. We allow machine intelligence to navigate the road for us, spell check us, choose how we spend our time, and recommend movies and books. How long before it is creating for us? Writing for us? Composing for us? Making paintings?

Maybe longer than you think.

Look at journalism. Bots already write weather reports and report on sports scores. Since 2017, the Associated Press has been using computer vision AI to label incoming photographs so editors can work faster. The system isn’t totally independent, though. It required editors to supervise and train it.

There’s a project in the UK called RADAR that semi-automatically creates news articles. It still needs human help as well. Six journalists give it government data sets and help the program decide what is newsworthy about them. A story about aging could have localized stats included.

We’re at the stage right now where AI can automate only about 15 percent of a reporter’s job and nine percent of an editor’s job. Humans are still ahead of bots when it comes to working with sources, making choices about what goes in and what stays out of a story, and the broad area of guesswork and genius we call creativity.

It’s a different story in generative art and audio. Bots are able to learn how to create visual art if they are trained on existing examples made by humans. And if you’ve played around at all with Garage Band lately, you’ll find that the machine can do a lot of your creative thinking for you, choosing instruments and even genres for you to work in. You don’t need to know your way around a piano to instantly get the value of Garage Band’s arpeggio builder. You can sound like Philip Glass in about a minute.

Machines already help me with my writing when I need to remember things, connect storylines, and remain consistent in my storytelling. I am a devoted user of Scrivener. It’s of great value for me to have a table of contents that updates depending on what stage of writing I’m in. With long-form projects, like the novel I’m working on, I cross-reference facts across all chapters. With short-form projects, like podcasts edits, I use Scrivener to help me divide up interview transcripts into segments so that I can build the storyline.

Planning long-form fiction in the digital world is a pleasure. I still write in notebooks. I like pencils. But there is something about seeing the whole picture that the digital environment delivers that I can’t resist. If you want to go deeper into this, Granthika is an app designed to be your extra brain when working on longform fiction.

The Chosen Blog

Funny thing. My blogs aren’t often chosen by editors to feature but it happens from time to time. About 7 years ago Wordpress chose to feature a blog I wrote about coffee. A few years ago, the editors at Medium chose to feature a blog I wrote about media and YouTube. Last Friday, the Medium editors discovered a blog I wrote about cooking and decided to feature it. I sure wish I could recognize the pattern here, but since everything I write is good :) I don’t know why some are chosen above the rest.

How to Buy a Mask

We are prepared and resourceful people, we Americans, so I knew it would be easy to buy a mask when I needed one. Since the fires tore through here back in the fall, I had a wrinkled cache of N95 masks in the back of a drawer and one crushed at the bottom of my backpack. I would be shamed for wearing that kind on the streets of our little town, however; it had happened to friends. I didn’t want that. No, I needed a mask for a prepper: Stylish, effective, providing air flow and filtering, serious.

Amazingly, there are no masks like that in America.

It must be because we are too optimistic. Or I guess this whole pandemic thing caught us by surprise or something. Or we thought we had it covered and we didn’t. Not even remotely. I had to search in China, Eastern Europe, and in the UK, where they take air pollution seriously. They have developed good masks there. I looked longingly at online pictures of the most useful masks,masks with ventilation and filtering, masks that were rated by respected authorities, masks that worked, as evidenced by the filthy filters that could be removed from them, and replaced, after a gray, gritty day in bad air. That’s what I wanted. They were all sold out, but it was briefly reassuring to see a working mask, one designed to filter and allow you to breathe, one not made in a semi-panic out of a t-shirt, not tossed up online by a sewing expert to extract a few dollars of profit and maybe goodwill from a pandemic. I kept trying Google searches.

One mask maker in the UK had a range of wonderful masks, masks that may have been designed like Dark Vader liked colors other than black. Red, blue, bright but serious. Even the name was perfect. Ultralight. They had nothing in stock. Their website said nothing about when they’d be back. A different mask company in the UK sent me a polite, flawlessly-worded note about having no masks until mid-August, and then only one kind that you could pre-order, blue, unisex. They hoped it would suit me. It did not. I needed one this month, not two months from now. The Eastern European suppliers seemed to be running a scam, inviting me to charge up my online shopping cart with masks at an 8 AM Monday click frenzy. I tried this, logging on at 7:59, but before I could check out, the mask I was about to buy disappeared from my cart, leaving just the strap. A strap without a mask wasn’t going to filter anything. I canceled the order. Feeling chastened, but proud I wasn’t caught up in their scam, I searched online again. My searches led back to the same companies that were sold out. The Eastern European scammers were starting to look better — at least they had masks in stock. I kept typing in keywords: “face masks in stock,” “face masks for cyclists,” and the brand names I’d already tried, going around and around, always getting the same results. Being a prepper was proving harder than I thought.

I could have bought colorful masks from fashion companies, a dignified, understated mask from Brooks Brothers, but no masks that would actually filter anything and no masks that looked like they meant business. The cloth masks out there were sublimating the anxiety of the pandemic, turning it into a fashion statement, making wearing a mask something lighthearted and kind. I didn’t want to go there. I wanted a mask that said *this was serious.” I was trying to take it all seriously.

I already had my unsanctioned N95s, and some ill-fitting cloth masks I bought from Etsy in the early days of the pandemic. I made masks from scissoring up two old t-shirts. We had some paper surgical masks that were decent and disposable. They fogged my glasses while on walks or rides and felt like running with a paper bag over my face when out for a run. I could talk myself into believing they did something. Doctors wore them in surgery so they couldn’t be worthless. They kind of said this is serious, but not for me, because I wasn’t a doctor. I needed a mask worthy of a prepper.

Digital Preppers 🖥📓

You know about preppers? I think of men comparing notes about hunting knives to buy in the camping aisle at REI while mansplaining the salesperson about what kind of dried foods last longer in a bunker.

Yes, there is a white male nutcase element to the prepper lifestyle. How to trap, skin, and eat a rattlesnake and that sort of thing. How to live off the grid. Some paranoid ranting about government surveillance. Shaving by looking at your face in a stream or a piece of broken glass. Fascination with weaponry. Self reliance. On the edge.

But lately, that edge has come inside to put its feet up around the fireplace instead of being hunkered down around the campfire. COVID-19 has made us all more cautious (or at least I hope it has.) The supermarket aisles are bare every other week, and there are weapons in the streets, often wielded by police. Curfews drive us inside to doomscroll on our devices. Being a prepper doesn’t sound so crazy any more. It sounds ... logical. Being prepared would be, right now, the height of rationality.

We live in earthquake country here in Southern California. In our relationship with the outside world, we already live a prepper life. We have the dried food, the extra water, the iodine pills, the first aid kits, the go bag, the defiant yet fatalist attitude. So maybe I was kind of a prepper all along. I'm going deeper. Looking at my devices, I am becoming a digital prepper.

Day by day, I obsess more often about clean, uncontaminated email messages than about clean, uncontaminated water. I consider hacking scenarios more than I plan for having enough firewood or furniture to burn. My iMessage texts have end-to-end encryption - good. But not when I text someone who is on an Android phone - bad.

Watching the police riot in the streets has brought out an anti-authorarian streak in me, one that I haven’t experienced since I was a geeky teen. I’m not doing anything illegal, but I wonder what would happen if my actions were judged illegal by the authorities? A corrupt government would search my texts, phone calls, and emails to build a case against me. If I went to a protest, I would wear goggles and a mask, leave the contract lenses at home, and would debate whether or not to bring my phone.

That's the key dilemma for a digital prepper in the streets. Bring the phone and be ready to document what’s happening? Bring the phone and it will be used to track your location by law enforcement? The Markup published How Do I Prepare My Phone for a Protest? Other experts, like EFF, has recommended you keep your phone in airplane mode so your camera is ready but you are not broadcasting your presence.

Posting pictures and videos of police and protestors has added to the outrage. Documentation matters. It can help with police reform. The ACLU has at least one lawsuit going against local police and Black Lives Matter has filed another that I know about. But posting photos of protestors’ faces can subject them to surveillance and tracking by law enforcement. Police departments are using facial recognition technology to pick protestors out from a crowd and identify them for tracking and in some cases, arrest. Signal, the encrypted voice and messaging system, just issued an update that permits users to blur the faces in photos, protecting protestors from being identified.

If you use gmail, Google is reading all your email. It's nice, because it predicts responses for you and anticipates when you may went to turn an email into a task or calendar event. It's not nice when your emails are used to target advertising on you, or when you become a target of any kind of investigation. What if Google releases all your stuff? What if your account is hacked? Proton Mail and Tutanota offer end-to-end encryption for your email and both have free versions. The issue there is getting enough people to use it, kind of a like a digital herd immunity.


I’m on Signal.

Amazon: A Necessary Evil or Just Evil

"If Amazon previously had us addicted to its services as convenience, it now has us reliant on them as necessity" via NYT

We’ve all been ordering more online because, well, we haven’t been able to go out. But now that some of the restrictions are lifting, I’ve started to reimagine my relationship with Mr. Bezos. When it was time to order my stack of stay-at-home books, I chose Powell’s Bookstore instead of Amazon. I wanted to support an indie. I didn’t want to throw any more money Jeff’s way. I figure he has enough already.

When I wanted to do some stress baking (the kind of baking you do when you are trying to stay calm under trying conditions), I couldn’t find flour at the supermarket. The shelves were empty because everyone was stress baking. So I sought out and found small mills in Arizona and Pennsylvania and bought flour from them. The quality of pizza has improved around here significantly, as has the granola.

The Amazon Reflex, the medical condition that forces you to reach for an iPad and begin ordering, was not as strong in me as it was before the pandemic. I was seeing a way forward, away from the business that wanted to dominate all life on Earth.

Amazon hired an additional 100,000 workers around the beginning of the pandemic. People are desperate for work so that was good. Working for the company can be bad, though. Amazon has fought against unionization. Conditions are unsafe in its warehouses and shipping facilities, with workers being forced come to work sick and being denied adequate protective gear. Then again, company has raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour. It pays pretty good benefits, including paying tuition costs for some of its workers.

World domination comes at a price, I guess. I’m not sure I’m willing to pay it any more. I like indies.

A Red Cup Agency production. Stay one click ahead and be good to each other.