Science fiction author Charles Stross took Google’s “Bard” for a test drive. Bard is what popular culture calls “Artifical Intelligence,” a.k.a., but which is more properly called a Large Language Model (LLM); or, to use Ted Chiang’s more general nomenclature, it’s merely Applied Statistics.
In any case, Stross asked Google Bard to provide five facts about Charles Stross. Because he has an unusual name, he was fairly certain there were no other Charles Strosses to confuse Google Bard. The results? “Bard initially offers up reality-adjacent tidbits, but once it runs out of information it has no brakes and no guardrails: it confabulates without warning and confidently asserts utter nonsense.”
Stross concludes his post with a warning: “LLMs don’t answer your questions accurately — rather, they deliver a lump of text in the shape of an answer.” However, a commenter adds nuance to Stross’s warning: “Bard is clearly showing signs of prompt exhaustion, and that should have triggered a ‘this answer is out of confidence’ error and terminated the output. In a well-designed system you would not have seen those answers.” But even admitting that Bard is a poorly-designed LLM, how would the average user know which LLM is well-designed and which is not?
LLMs deliver answer-shaped text — with no way of judging how accurate it is.
Last week, Carol and I spent four days at a retreat center in Deerfield, Mass. We managed to visit four bookstores in those four days. Here are some notes about each bookstore:
World Eye Bookshop is quite small. As is often the case these days, about half the store is taken up with gifts, toys, art supplies, etc. But although the book selection is small, it’s well chosen. A number of interesting books on local history (I almost bought a book on the history of the Mass Central Railroad). If you’re in downtown Greenfield, it’s worth stopping in.
I was sad when Raven Used Books closed their Cambridge location, so I made Carol drive down to Northampton because I wanted to stop in at the store’s original location. Not what you’d call an expansive store, but they pack an enormous amount of books into their relatively small space. Fewer scholarly books than I remembered, but used scholarly books are hard to sell these days so the fact that they had any at all made it worth the thirty-minute drive.
Federal Street Books in Greenfield is an absolute delight. They have a good selection of both new and used books. Not many scholarly books, which is my always my main interest. But the selection of fantasy and science fiction books was especially good, and there were lots of quirky fun books, like the children’s book titled “Goodnight Krampus.” I like the fact that they require masks in the store — lately I’ve been forgetting to put on my mask when I go in stores, and I liked being reminded. This bookstore is worth a special trip.
The real find, though, was Roundabout Books in Greenfield. They’ve just re-opened in a new location. They’re still bringing in books, so the shelves looked a little bare when I walked in. But once I started looking around, I realized that there are actually a huge number of books; they’re just lost in the huge space. I was happy to find both new and used scholarly books mixed in among the more mainstream books. I found an excellent selection in most of the subject areas in which I tend to buy books, including religion, poetry, science fiction and fantasy, and nature and the environment.
Just to give you an idea of the range of the titles they stock, I bought a complete translation of the Ramayan; a trashy science fiction novel; three books of poetry, American, contemporary Chinese, and contemporary Greek; a field guide to the grasses of New England; and I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar Ibn Said’s America by Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst.
Roundabout is so good, it’s worth a long drive to visit.
In our four day trip, I bought a dozen books. The only reason I purchased any of these books is when I leafed through them I realized they were exactly what I needed to read right now. It’s still important to be able to pore through dozens of books, brought into the store by someone who knows books, so you can find books that you didn’t know you wanted, though once you see them you know you need them. (The same principle holds true for libraries, by the way.) This is why Amazon can never replace real bookstores. And that’s why we need to buy our books at real bookstores; even if it costs a little more than Amazon, we need to make sure the real bookstores stay in business.
(And before you ask: No, we did not visit the Montague Bookmill. We’ve been there; you should go if you haven’t been before; but it isn’t a perfect match for us. This, by the way, is why we need a wide variety of bookstores: everyone should have access to a bookstore that’s a perfect match for them.)
First Parish in Cohasset, where I work, has a meetinghouse built in 1747. When you come at it from the north and see it across Cohasset Common, it looks like the classic white New England church with a simple steeple:
But the tower and the steeple weren’t added until 1799, over half a century after the meetinghouse was first erected. Let’s go back to 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party. There were three young men from Cohasset who participated in the Boston Tea Party (after being encouraged by their Patriot minister), and they might have seen something like this when they came at the meetinghouse from the north:
Instead of the tower and steeple, there would have been small belfry on the north end of the building. (When you go up into the attic today, you can see timbers in the north end that now serve no special purpose, and it’s possible they served to support the belfry.) I haven’t found any record of what Cohasset’s belfry looked like, but there are drawings of other eighteenth century meetinghouses with belfries. The sketch above shows the north facade with a representative eighteenth century belfry.
This still isn’t the original appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse. Originally, there was no porch on the west side. That porch was built in 1761. In order to create more floor spaces for pews, the original stairs to the gallery in the northwest and southwest corners inside the main building were removed. The porch was added to house a new set of stairs to the gallery. Prior to the addition of the porch, the Cohasset Meetinghouse looked something like this:
As you can see, prior to the addition of the porch the meetinghouse was just a simple rectangular building with a small belfry on the north end. Mind you, we don’t really know the exact appearance of the building. In my visualizations, I’ve added triangular pediments above the doors, but who knows if there was even that level of ornamentation.
The earliest drawings we have of the Cohasset Meetinghouse date from the mid-nineteenth century. They are fairly consistent in showing the tower with crossed balusters at the bell level, and a steeple with a rounded section before the actual spire — quite different from the present steeple. The meetinghouse was not painted white; it was pea green. In fact, most New England meetinghouses were not painted white prior to the Colonial Revival in the late nineteenth century; documented colors include various shades of yellow, red, and green; there were even a few meetinghouses painted orange. Here’s my digitally edited version of an 1850s woodcut showing the Cohasset Meetinghouse:
There have been several other changes over the years. The clock was added in 1764. Shutters (or more accurately, exterior louvered blinds) were added around 1765. The steeple was completely rebuilt after 1769; it got shattered by a lightning strike in that year. The shutters were removed again around 1986.
In short, like most historic buildings the Cohasset Meetinghouse has changed considerably over the years.
According to the BBC, Elon Musk recently shared “an antisemitic conspiracy theory, calling it ‘actual truth’.” Of course, Musk has denied that he’s antisemitic. And no doubt he’ll insist that he’s just a free speech advocate. But his remarks are yet more evidence that platform decay has progressed quite far on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. It’s no longer a social media space, it’s a cesspool.
I actually spent some time on Twitter, during the second year of its existence. I liked it at first because it allowed me to post to my blog using my phone (I couldn’t afford one of those fancy new smartphones). I soon discovered that Twitter’s biggest strength was in polemic and diatribe, with a subsidiary strength of news-without-nuance. Not my jam. But that mix attracted a lot of people, especially (from what I could see) people who were a generation younger than I: tail-end Gen Xers and older Millennials.
I get the impression that most of the people lamenting the ongoing demise of X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, are still from that age group. Without realizing it, they’ve gotten to the age where it’s hard to let go of the familiar, hard to adopt something new. It’s hard for them to watch X turn into a cesspool of hatred which is now led by an antisemitic conspiracy theorist. They lament the loss of what they once had.
Here’s some advice from someone who’s ten or twenty years older: Don’t go around lamenting the loss of something that no one else cares much about. If you do, you’ll sound like the Boomers lamenting the Sixties — which weren’t all that great to begin with, so that lamenting them just makes Boomers look faded and sad.
There are many problems in the world worthy of lamentation: antisemitism, racism, conspiracy theorists. The demise of Twitter is not one of them. It’s time to move on.
The war in Israel and Gaza is horrific. Here in this country, there is disagreement about what to do. People are staking out positions; to even name the positions is to take a position, because of the way you describe the different positions. I’m not particularly adept at politics, and I feel the proverbial deer in the proverbial headlights: no matter which way I go, it looks bad. Thus I was relieved to read this on The Velveteen Rabbi’s blog:
“One recent day on social media, comments from two people I respect crossed my transom within about an hour. One said (I’m paraphrasing both) that any rabbi who doesn’t call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza is morally bankrupt. The other said that any rabbi who would call for a ceasefire, given Hamas’ stated goals of destroying Israel, is betraying the Jewish people. I’ve been sitting with that tension, and it feels like a black hole inside my heart. How am I supposed to know which path is most likely to lead to a future of peace and justice and coexistence in that beloved land? How would I know whether more military response or a ceasefire is likelier to bring about the just peace both peoples need? I can’t possibly know….”
Like the Velveteen Rabbi, I never studied political science, international relations, or military strategy. Yet she knows more than I — at least she’s been to Israel, and clearly has a better sense of the issues than I do. I’m glad that someone else is willing to say, “I can’t possibly know.”
I don’t know what the path to peace is for any of these major ongoing wars. I’m not one of those religious leaders who will tell you with great self-assurance what we should do. I can’t possibly know….
Today was my day off for the Veterans Day holiday, and I managed to come down with bronchitis. What a waste of a holiday. I’m ill enough that I can’t do anything fun, but not so ill that I can sleep all day. By mid-afternoon, I got so bored that I was reduced to watching sports.
I’m generally not much of a sports fan. But I watched the entire hour-long Asia-Oceanic guts final. And you know what? — It took my mind off my hacking cough, it took my mind off all the wars in the world, it took my mind off the growing effects of climate change. It was like meditation, only better (for me, anyway). Maybe that’s one reason why sports is now bigger than religion in the U.S. (or, more precisely, sports is now the biggest religion in the U.S.).
I get most of my online news from BBC.com. I’m also a regular online reader of Religion News Service, which covers the news beat I’m most interested in, the role of religion in culture.
But I’ve put off subscribing to other online news outlets. If I want local news, I’ll go out and buy a print copy of the Boston Globe and the Quincy Patriot Ledger. But an online subscription? No thanks. The Globe and Patriot-Ledger websites are ugly, riddled with ads that hold no interest for me, and the stories I actually want to read are too hard to find.
Then today, just by chance, I stumbled across the Christian Science Monitor website. The old days when the Monitor was a daily are long gone — it’s at best a weekly now — but I quickly discovered some great journalism on their website. The story that grabbed my attention, and made me want to subscribe, was titled “Americans have a right to guns. How about to public peace?” Rather than framing the story as a partisan issue of Democratic gun control advocates vs. Republican gun rights advocates, the Monitor frames this as a story about peace: how do we achieve peace in our neighborhoods? As a pacifist, I found this refreshing.
A key finding, in my opinion: Gen Z are quite willing to find and define sacred moments outside of traditional religion. Tricia Bruce, executive director of Springtide Research, told Religion New Service:
“‘Certainly, we might expect young people to tell us, “Yes, I’ve experienced the sacred when I attended a religious service or in prayer,” and they do, but they also told us “I experienced the sacred in nature,” “I experienced the sacred when I got into college,” “I experienced the sacred in a virtual connection,”‘ Bruce told Religion News Service in an interview. ‘Creative spaces that we may not think of as sacred themselves, or as religious, or we may not materially construct as such, young people are telling us that, in fact, that’s where the sacred lives for them.'”
Actually, some of us do in fact view “creative spaces” as sacred. (1) I’m one of those people, and I’m not even in Gen Z. I’ve had some of my most intense sacred experiences through the arts — in my case, through things like the visual arts, making music with others, poetry, and so on. (2)
Apparently, the survey also found that 69% of people in Gen Z have experienced a sacred moment in nature. Here again, although I’m not in Gen Z, I’m one of those people who experiences the sacred in nature.
Honestly, I don’t often experience the sacred in a worship service. (When I do, it mostly comes through music or group singing.) For me, the point of a worship service is not to experience transcendent experiences, but to provide a community where I can make sense of the transcendent experiences I have in the rest of my life. And then, once I make sense of those experiences, I want to figure out a way to use them to make the world a better place.In my opinion, transcendent experiences can be justified only if they bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice (otherwise they’re just self-indulgent), and if you want to make justice happen you’re going want to be part of a community.
(1) I actually don’t like the term “sacred experiences.” It sounds too Christian-centric to me, and not in a good way. I prefer to talk about mystical experiences, or better yet transcendent experiences.
(2) I’ve always taken this for granted, but I guess it’s not obvious to others. Maybe I need to write more about how I have transcendent experiences through the arts.
Ardoksho (also spelled Ardochsho) was a deity who is best known for her appearances on gold coins of the Kushan (also spelled Kusana) Empire roughly two thousand years ago. The Kushan Empire included parts of today’s nations of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and the northern part of India. Contemporary empires included the Han Empire in what is now China, the Roman Empire, and the Parthian Empire between the Kushans and the Romans.
It may be that Ardoksho had never been represented visually prior to her appearance on Kushan gold coins:
“…Taken collectively, the coins of the Kusana include twenty-three (and possibly as many as thirty) confirmed different-named deities, most of whom seem to have been drawn from Iranian, indian, and Greek pantheons. Zeymal has argued that the vast majority of these have no known anthropomorphic form before their appearance on Kusana coins. He asserts that only three of the religious figures depicted on Kusana coins draw from preexistent figural forms, and one of these is the Buddha. However, the rest of the deities, such as Miiro, Mao, Ardochsho, Athsho, and Pharro, are unkonw in figural art before the intervention of the Kusana die cutters. While the exact motivation for this explosion in iconographic innovation is unknown, it is conceivably a by-product of Kusana cultural borrowing. In other words, after the tradition of minting coins with images of deities on the reverse was adopted, such practice was expected, and the coin makers were compelled to create forms for those gods that had no prior iconography….” (1)
Ardoksho was a fixture on Kushan coins for something like five hundred years. As a goddess of prosperity, she would have been a likely candidate for inclusion on a coin. Her origins are not entirely clear: she may be related to the ancient Greek goddess Demeter, or perhaps the ancient Greek goddess Tyche or the Roman goddess Fortuna; or she may have been her origins in a local goddess of eastern Iran known as Ardvi Sura Anahita, a goddess of water and moisture; and she is said by some sources to be the daughter of Ahuramazda. But Ardoksho’s iconography is fairly stable, always relating to prosperity and plenty: she was typically depicted holding a cornucopia or horn of plenty; a cornucopia and a wreath; a flower in her right hand and a wheat-stem in her left hand (not unlike Demeter); or a cornucopia in her right hand and a fillet in her left hand. (2)
Empires tend to bring different cultures together, which can lead to cross-cultural fertilization. Over the centuries she appeared on Kushan Empire coins, Ardoksho is one of the deities who engaged in cross-fertilization:
“…If Greeks were converted to Vaishnavism or came to accept the presence of Bhagavata and Shaiva deities, Indians began to worship deities from across the borders, some of which entered the Indian pantheon, such as the goddess Ardochso in the form of Shri….” (3)
Indeed, the Kushan Empire was quite tolerant of local deities and religious practices:
“Although the Kushans had a favored style of military architecture, it is clear they did not attempt to impose a single religious tradition on their empire but rather patronized key regional cults. Vima Kadphises’ son, Kanishka (127-147), thus dedicated a major ceremonial complex at Surkh Kotal in Afghanistan which combined dynastic statues with a [Zoroastrian] fire-temple but also established a major Buddhist stupa at Shahji-Dheri, in Peshawar to the south. His coinage demonstrates similar plurality, and he was equally happy to be portrayed with the Hellenistic deity Helios, the Iranian deity Adsho, and the Buddha, whose identities were confirmed in Greek script.” (4)
On the coin shown above, Ardoksho appears in the center, with her name written at left. I don’t think she’s holding a cornucopia; I believe on this coin she’s holding a flower in her right hand and what might be a wheat stem in her left hand.
(1) Robert Daniel DeCaroli, Image Problems: The Origin and Development of the Buddha’s Image in Early South Asia (University of Washington Press, 2015).
(2) Prashant Srivastava, A Dictionary of Divinities and Their Symbols on Ancient Indians Coins (WebGuruCool, 2022), pp. 10-11; excerpts from the earlier publication by Srivastava, Encyclopaedia of Indian Coins: Ancient Coins of Northern India up to c 650 AD, 2 vols. (Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan, 2012). See also: British Museum website, “Ardochsho,” https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG132101 accessed 3 Nov. 2023; this web page references J. Rosenfield, Dynastic Art of the Kushans (Berkeley, 1967), pp. 74-75.
(3) Romila Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, p. 223.
(4) Robin Coningham and Mark Manuel, “The Early Empires of South Asia,” in The Great Empires of the Ancient World (London and New York: Thames & Hudson, 2009/2021), pp. 187-188.
Updated to add more info about Kushan religious plurality.