Bob Schwartz

Category: Technology

Lock Screen Pure Land

“If you are a smartphone user, you look at the lock screen—the opening screen you swipe to get into your phone—maybe a hundred times a day. Just a second at a time, but seconds add up to a real experience and impression. The pre-loaded images on lock screens are pretty banal, meant to show off the screen’s high-resolution capability without offending or overexciting anyone.”
The Art of the Lock Screen

A while ago—okay, a long while ago in Digital Time—I wrote about the creative possibilities of the lock screen on your mobile devices. Since then, my own devices have gone through a lot of different lock screen looks.

My latest lock screen art is shown above. It is a Tibetan thangka circa 1700, done in ink, pigments, and gold on cotton, depicting Amitabha in Sukhavati Paradise. Amithaba (Amida in Japanese) is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. Sukhavati Paradise is also known as the Pure Land, and is a centerpiece of Pure Land Buddhism—not as well-known in the West as other traditions such as Zen, but the dominant Buddhist tradition in Japan.

What the Pure Land is, where the Pure Land is, and how to get to the Pure Land are big topics for another time. But just look at that image. Even if you know nothing about what it means, seeing it each time you open your phone can certainly be a help in making things better.

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AI Writes: Talk to Transformer

Artificial Intelligence (AI) won’t replace writers. No machine can ride the emotional roller coaster that writing can be, and what computer could consume the inappropriate volume of coffee (or alcohol) it takes sometimes to string words together? I mean, where would you pour it?

But then…

The Verge:

Even the most advanced chatbots can’t hold a decent conversation, but AI systems are definitely getting better at generating the written word. A new web app provides ample proof, letting anyone enter a text prompt to which AI software will automatically respond.

Enter the start of a made-up news article, and it’ll finish it for you. Ask it a question (by formatting your input like this: “Q: What should I do today?”), and it’ll happily respond.

The site is called TalkToTransformer.com, and it’s the creation of Canadian engineer Adam King. King made the site, but the underlying technology comes from research lab OpenAI. Earlier this year, OpenAI unveiled its new AI language system, GPT-2, and TalkToTransformer is a slimmed-down, accessible version of that same technology, which has been made accessible only to select scientists and journalists in the past. (The name “transformer” refers to the type of neural network used by GPT-2 and other systems.)

If you want to learn about AI language generation, there’s no better way to understand its huge potential and serious limitations than by playing around with TalkToTransformer.

On the plus side, the model is incredibly flexible. It’s able to recognize a huge variety of inputs, from news articles and stories to song lyrics, poems, recipes, code, and HTML. It can even identify familiar characters from franchises like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

At the same time, you’ll soon see that, at a fundamental level, the system doesn’t understand language or the world at large. The text it generates has surface-level coherence but no long-term structure. When it writes stories, for example, characters appear and disappear at random, with no consistency in their needs or actions. When it generates dialogue, conversations drift aimlessly from topic to topic. If it gets more than a few responses, it seems like good luck, not skill.

Still, as The Verge explained in our original coverage of GPT-2, this system is hugely impressive. Remember: this is a single algorithm that has learned to generate text by studying a huge dataset scraped from the web and other sources. It learned by looking for patterns in this information, and the result is a surprisingly multitalented system.

It may not be hard to find gaps in GPT-2’s knowledge, but it’s impossible to know whether you’ve explored the limits of what it can do.

Putting Talk to Transformer to the test, I prompted it with some of the most famous opening lines from classic novels (shown in bold). Note that for the sake of space, I have not included the actual opening paragraphs for comparison, author v. machine. If you’re not familiar with the real thing, you can easily look it up.


Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. But no one would speak of him as a beggar. He has nothing that may entitle him to such a wife; and therefore it lies open to him, as to a man of ill estate, and who does not have any means, that he might marry his daughter, to whom his fortune might furnish a dowry—a woman who bore his child. So that, in other respects, the poor man is so fortunate in life as almost to be the chief benefactor of his country, without the necessity of making a comparison of his wealth with his want of property. But he has no reason to make such an comparison. For without it his property may grow to become much greater than the property of the richest in the family, whom it is not fit to receive any assistance from. So that no one will be willing, by any means, to enter into a marriage-contract with any one who is rich enough to support him. But if the property of any one whom he is bound to support can be reduced to…


Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It is possible that the old prophets who would write in our days, the last of them we are not able to remember, would go mad during the coming of the Age of Light, but only among us, for now all is still the same to them.

The world, or at least that part of the world, which is not dominated by the forces of light and sound, becomes a desert of blind blindness, which has its origin in the lack of knowledge in the human brain. The old prophets said that all of us who have knowledge of God must, sooner or later, fall into an abject state of ignorance about the reality of Things. However, those who are the more ignorant, have never the slightest fear of the Age of Light, as there is…


James Joyce, Ulysses:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.  He had a large brown dog with blue eyes in his mouth, about twelve feet long.

“We are in the presence of the gods,” he said with a tone like a dog barking. As I walked inside, I glanced through the mirror which had the words “THE GODS” stamped upon it .  I recognized the face that stood behind the mirror and the voice of the god.  The god, whose name was Ouroboros, the One who is above and beyond, asked him if it was his name.  The dwarf replied that his name was “Buck”.   The god asked Buck Mulligan how he liked to be called.  Buck answered, “Well, in order to be called what we are, we must be named. I like it when you call me that way.”   The god had been talking about the god with his eyes shining and he felt something in his chest.
“I need a shave,” said Buck,…


Albert Camus, The Stranger:

Mother died today.  I’m sure she has a daughter too.  I’ve been trying to get her to talk to me for years.  I tried to give her a name, to remind her what her life was worth, to show a smile to tell her I love her and that she is special.  But, I couldn’t talk to her much.  She just was.  I’m not sure even if I could talk to her on the phone that would be enough to help her out.  Not a real good idea because, the moment she does meet someone, she will feel abandoned and so will almost any adult.   The last time I talked to her was before she passed away.  She was sick.  I saw her one last time in one of her many hospitals in the hospital.  She didn’t talk very often.  She seemed okay, at least when I had her.  She told me she was sorry she didn’t talk to me sooner.  I asked her about her kids, she said she was not home for the kids…


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. If the hobbit was happy, it was also easy to look upon him. Why, that hobbit could do whatever he liked, and so he came often and went noisily and noisily of one to another to meet his needs, but the poor hobbit felt nothing and never had anything to feel for. How can a hobbit feel for someone else? It is hard for him to have the confidence that someone else would feel for him.

Then when the hobbit is very tired and doesn’t know what to do, how he feels for somebody is also not easy to come in contact with him if he is far from civilization; there is so little contact with a non-European. The one time the hobbit fell very sick he looked back in vain for all his friends and nobody would tell…


 

Beyond Smart Speakers and Big Data: L1ZY

Is there is a dark future for smart speakers in our lives—Amazon Echo, Google Home, Facebook Portal, and all the rest?

Introducing the most advanced artificial intelligence platform in modern history, in this brilliant video from Ghost + Cow. Presenting L1ZY:

Facebook Releases Oculus Go—Its First Self-contained VR Headset

This isn’t a review of the Oculus Go released today—Facebook’s first self-contained Virtual Reality headset, requiring no phone or computer.

This isn’t a review of the photo above of Mark Zuckerberg demonstrating the Oculus Go. (Note: you can use the Oculus Go wearing a t-shirt or the occasional business suit, if you are demonstrating it to a Congressional committee.)

This is a mention of the growing movement to travel to and colonize Mars, a movement Trump supports. Until that dream comes true, if we want to avoid and escape the depressing and often insoluble problems we are faced with, problems that some are daily making even worse, a self-contained VR headset—from Facebook!—seems like just the ticket.

“He’s in the bestselling show. Is there life on Mars?”

Thomas Merton on Technology

I am ambivalent about the benefits and effects of unstoppable technological progress. It is nearly a force of nature. Rain helps our plants to thrive, our food to grow, our rivers to flow, our thirst to be quenched. But it can also overwhelm and destroy, so that we seek shelter from it in a flood or hurricane. Still, I wouldn’t trade technology in, not all of it, not easily. I am just wary and watchful.

This is from Thomas Merton’s journals. He lived as a monk in a handmade hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. It is a tiny building that up until 1965 did not have electricity:

“At last the electric line is coming to my hermitage!”

Yesterday in the morning, when I went out for a breath of air before my novice conference, I saw men working on the hillside beyond the sheep barn. At last the electric line is coming to my hermitage! All day they were working on the holes, digging and blasting the rock with small charges, young men in yellow helmets, good, eager, hardworking guys with machines. I was glad of them and of American technology, pitching in to bring me light, as they would for any farmer in the district. It was good to feel part of this, which is not to be despised, but is admirable. (Which does not mean that I hold any brief for the excess of useless developments in technology.)

Thomas Merton Journals, February 16, 1965, V.206–7

More posts about Merton:

Merton: Events and Pseudo-Events

Merton on the Desert

For Me to Be a Saint Means to Be Myself

 

My Birds

My Birds

I started the digital birds singing
Just as the real ones arrived out the window
Mine were louder
And under my control
The wild ones served no one
Least of all me
And would stop and go
At any time
Anyway I silenced mine
To be with
The real singers of spring

Great Cheap Holiday Gadget: SoundPEATS Wireless Bluetooth Earphones

soundpeats-qy7

I love gadgets, especially great cheap gadgets. I don’t usually (ever?) recommend them in this blog. But since I am now inundated with holiday promotions for way overpriced wireless earphones and headphones, I feel compelled to suggest this alternative.

I waited a long time to buy wireless earphones. It is a great idea, but they were too expensive. My ears are good, but not nearly smart enough to pay a premium for the incremental sound differences they promised.

Then a few months ago I looked harder. What I found seemed too good to be true. Wireless earphones that, according to customer reviews, worked well. And cost about $20!

After months of using the SoundPEATS QY7 Wireless Bluetooth Earphones every day, I can say that they do work well. And they still cost about $20. And they come in a bunch of colors (I always go for plain black). And they have over 14,000 customer reviews on Amazon—half of them five stars.

So there you go. Buy one for yourself. Buy them for friends and loved ones. If you’re thinking about those higher-priced ones (some for $200 or more), feel free. Of course, for $200 you could buy TEN of these.

Live Streaming: High Holy Days at Central Synagogue

Central Synagogue

Central Synagogue in New York is one of the great synagogues and congregations in America.

If you are not attending High Holy Days services in-person anywhere, for whatever reason (don’t usually attend, not convenient, not Jewish, etc.), here is your opportunity to join in the services at Central Synagogue. Without leaving the comfort of wherever you have your PC, tablet or phone. For as little or as long a visit as you like.

Central Synagogue live streams its services. Here is just a partial schedule. (You can see the complete schedule here.) All times Eastern Time.

Erev Rosh Hashanah
Sunday, October 2, 8:00pm

Rosh Hashanah
Monday, October 3
Morning Service 9:30am

Kol Nidrei
Tuesday, October 11
6:00pm or 8:00pm

Yom Kippur
Wednesday, October 12
Morning Service 10:45am
Afternoon Service 3:30pm

No prayer books? No problem. You can download those from Central Synagogue too.

Rosh Hashanah Prayer Book

Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur Morning Prayer Book

Yom Kippur Afternoon Prayer Book

These are the highest of all Jewish services with the highest of all Jewish music and prayer on the highest of all Jewish holidays at one of the most extraordinary Jewish congregations with one of the most extraordinary rabbis. And all you need is a browser.

What If There Had Been Hacked Watergate Emails?

The issues surrounding the release of hacked emails from the Democratic Party and related entities are many and gray. If you hear anyone say that all the answers are clear and that there are simple bright lines is either not thinking it through, has some vested interest, or is one of the people who lost their job at the DNC.

To help clarify, consider this. What if there had been emails covering the entire Watergate conspiracy, rather than just the tape recordings that emerged after the fact? What if those emails were hacked and released while the cover-up was still ongoing? (This is not to say that the current situations even approach such gravity.) Would we be wringing our hands because high-level private and confidential communications had been stolen? Would we be happy that what Gerald Ford later called “our long national nightmare” would have been over sooner? Maybe we would be a little of both.

In coming days, as the next batch of leaked documents and data is released, some will be quick to condemn the leaks or to exploit the leaks. The best we can do, hard and unlikely as it is in such situations, is to think it all through carefully. Because like it or not, this is what the future looks like.

Stale Donuts: What I Share with Ted Cruz

Donut

This is a true and inconsequential story.

I may not be as smart as Ted Cruz. But he and I share something important.

Ted has said he loves donuts. I love donuts.

Donuts get stale, somewhat quickly. Donut lovers devise ways to freshen stale donuts.

On the campaign trail, Ted has talked about refreshing stale donuts (really). He says he puts them in a microwave for 12 seconds.

I also have a technique for refreshing stale donuts. I put them in a microwave for 10 seconds. (Too much microwaving can destroy their delicate texture.)

So while he and I share this love, we disagree slightly on this. We have bigger disagreements on other matters, of course.

I did not clerk for a Supreme Court Justice. I am not running for President. Etc. So maybe Ted’s 12 seconds are better than my 10 seconds. If you’d like, you can try it for yourself.