Of chatbots and culture wars and imaginary incidents

One of Britain’s reputable papers (and with five words, I’ve already eliminated several) had an incident involving chatbots, and the tale’s worth retelling because it tells us a lot about the age we’re stumbling cluelessly into. Or maybe that’s the drain we’re being washed down. Or–well, it’s Supply Your Own Metaphor Week here at Notes, so I’ll leave you to come up with your own while I waddle onward.

One of the Guardian’s reporters got an email asking about an article that ChatGPT had cited but that wasn’t showing up on the paper’s website. The email’s writer wanted to know what had happened to it and the journalist went hunting. It was on a topic they reported on,so it sounded likely enough although they couldn’t remember the specific article or find it anywhere, so they asked other people in the office to turn the paper’s electronic pockets inside out and see if it fell out. Maybe it was in there with the shredded kleenex and the linty mint.

Irrelevant photo: camellia

It wasn’t. Because it had never been written. It turns out that AI not only invents facts–something I trust you’ve heard by now–but it also invents sources, and it can be convincing when it does. The nonexistent article was a good enough invention that the journalist hadn’t been able to say, “No, I never wrote that.” They easily could have. 

If you think it’s scary living in a world where a lot of people feel entitled to curate their own selections of alternative facts to back up their pre-existing worldviews–well, it’s about to get a whole lot weirder. And, I expect, scarier.


Imaginary drag queen teaches hallucinatory sex ed class

Did anyone mention alternative facts? The Daily Mail, GB News, and Fox News all reported that a drag queen appeared as  a guest speaker at an Isle of Man schooll and told “11-year-olds there are 73 genders–and made a child who said there are ‘only two’ leave the class.”

Seventy-three? Stop it, guys. I can’t count that high. If this goes on, I’ll have to give up my leadership position in the Gender Hyperawareness and Conservative Freakout Society.  

The story went on to say that “one teacher is also said to have had to teach pupils in Year 7 and 8 how to masturbate.”  

How old are kids in years seven and eight? Eleven to thirteen. Since it’s been a long time since I was anywhere close to that age, I asked Lord Google how old kids are when they begin to masturbate. The top-ranked answer was from the National Institutes of Health (that’s in the US) and said two years old. The next one said three. In fact, most of the articles I found were geared toward calming the parents of toddlers and preschoolers, saying, essentially, It’s okay. Kids that young discover that there’s something interesting where their legs come together and they’re not shy about exploring it

That wasn’t what I’d been looking for, but it did back up my hunch that kids don’t really need to be taught how to masturbate, although by the time they’re eleven to thirteen they may need reassurance that what they’re doing–or at least imagining–isn’t so different from what other people do and imagine.

But that’s not the point. The point is, that although the article I quoted is real and can still be found on the Daily Mail’s website, the facts were invented. The flap the reporting caused led to an investigation of the incident, which found that the incident never happened. 

But who waits for that? As soon as the story went public, people working at the school were deluged with threats and demands for staff to be fired, arrested, and executed–not necessarily in that order. 

What triggered the story? A man who does occasionally do drag spoke to kids “gender neutral language and the concept of gender in the LGBTQ+ environment.” He wasn’t in drag, though. So the question is, if a person has done drag, can they be allowed out in public in non-drag or do they have to be freeze-dried, vacuum packed, and kept in storage until the political winds shift? For the safety, you understand, of all 73 genders of our children.

As for the kid who said there were only two genders, the closest I’ve found to the incident was one kid who was taken out of the room by a teacher over some sort of behavior issue. 


The problem of defining drag in Britain

Cranking up the British about men in drag is going to be harder than cranking up Americans, because drag has a solid mainstream history here. Every Christmas panto season starts, and these are shows for kids, with the lead female role always (over)played by a man and the lead male role almost always played by a woman. It’s a thing. Among straight people. Is that drag or is it only drag if a man (over)dresses like a woman outside of a panto?

What, while we’re at it, does a woman dress like? I’m wearing jeans, a turtleneck, and an old sweater.

On our first visit to Britain, we watched a race where a lot of the runners were in costume. It’s a thing here. Give people a chance to run five miles dressed  as bananas or phone booths and they’ll, ahem, run with it. So in among all the bananas and phone booths and chickens were men dressed as ballerinas and nurses. Not the contemporary kind of nurses who wear practical uniforms, but the old-fashioned ones in white dresses and caps, who (I gather) inhabit the fantasies of some unspecified number of non-nurses. My gaydar insisted that the runners in nurses’ uniforms were straight. But even if my gaydar was off–it was tuned in a different country, after all–no one much cared. It was just another race through the streets of an English city. Enjoy the show, everyone.

So where do pantos and dress-up end and drag begin? 

I don’t know, dear. You tell me.


The problem of defining copyright and privacy

Now that artificial intelligence scrapes information out of every corner of the internet so that it can tell you, in perfectly grammatical prose, that the pope is made of custard, defining copyright and privacy is going to be as problematic as defining drag. Or more so.

Copyrighted material is probably being used to train AI systems. The word probably is part of that sentence because AI’s neural networks aren’t available for your average gawker–or even your non-average one–to examine, so no one knows what they’ve been reading, but a couple of AI systems have, embarrassingly, hacked up copyrighted photos from Getty Images, complete with the watermark Getty prints over the photos so that users will have to pay for a clean copy. 

Yes, there’s a lawsuit involved, but it’s about the smallest edge of the problem. Still to be discussed is the amount of personal data that’s being collected–and potentially disclosed–without people’s consent and the use of copyrighted material to train chatbots.


But speaking of privacy

Teslas have an in-car camera that Tesla assures the world “is designed from the ground up to protect your privacy.” Because customer privacy “is and will always be enormously important to us.” 

So important that from 2019 to 2022 Tesla employees were sending each other clips of, oh, you know, interesting stuff in people’s garages; road incidents, a man walking up to his car naked; you know, ordinary, everyday stuff that would embarrass no one. 

What are the camera’s limits? I’m not sure, but I’ve read that a Tesla parked in the right spot outside someone’s house could, potentially, film whatever’s going on inside through the window. 

One owner is suing Tesla. Some Chinese government compounds and residential neighborhoods have banned the cars. 

The moral of this story is that if someone goes out of their way to tell you how carefully they’re protecting your privacy, they’re calling your attention to a problem.

Has Britain moved on from Wallpapergate? 

Let’s follow up on what may be the least important story in recent British politics: Wallpapergate.

You remember Wallpapergate, right? That was when Boris Johnson & Wife redecorated the prime ministerial residence, which wasn’t up to their standards, with £840 a roll, hand-crafted wallpaper, complete with gold whatsits. The most diplomatic way to describe the stuff is to say it would appeal to a narrow audience. 

Of course, I never claimed to be a diplomat. The stuff’s so ugly you have to admire the courage of anyone who lives with it. 

What’s the update? I asked Lord Google if anyone had taken it down yet and he had nothing to offer me except the information that for a while there it kept falling down on its own, either because it was too heavy or because it was ashamed to be seen. Sadly, the Johnson’s had it rehung. Or re-whatever-it-is-you-do-to-wallpaper.   

So presumably the Sunaks are living with it. Maybe they think taking it down would offend the Boris-backing wing of the Conservative Party. With a party that fractious, you can’t afford to offend anyone. Or maybe they don’t think they’ll be there long enough for it to matter. Or maybe they’re living there in Johnson’s shadow, the way a history teacher once told my class to imagine Europe’s post-Roman barbarian hordes huddling in the shadows of the Roman coliseums and thinking about the greatness that was no more. 

We should also consider the possibility that they’re leaving it up because Rishi thinks it would be a great joke to stick Keir Starmer with the stuff after the next election. 


Irrelevant photo: A frosty morning in January

For the sake of clarity, there’s a genuine scandal hidden under the wallpaper, but it’s nowhere near as much fun. It’s about who was going to pay for the redecorating. It was never supposed to be the Johnsons. A helpful donor was going to pick up the £200,000 tab, and I’m sure he was acting in the public interest and had nothing from it. Then the story went public and Johnson had to put his hand in his pocket.

And no, that wasn’t all for wallpaper. There was some furniture, a bit of this and that. You know how it is. These things add up and before you know it you have a couple of hundred thousand pounds. 

It could happen to anyone.


Spot the expert

A well-known writer wanted to update her Wikipedia entry. 

No problem, right? 

Wrong. Wikipedia rejected her changes, because what did she know about the subject?

The original entry said Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, was married. No big deal to most of us. We don’t know her, don’t want to date her, and feel zero need to know about her private life. To Emily St. John Mandel, however, it did matter and she was of the opinion that she’d gotten divorced. Basically, she wanted to clear out the attic, the crawl space, and the Wikipedia entry after a breakup. So all she needed to do was make a simple correction, right? 

Not so fast, lady. To change a Wikipedia entry, you have to cite an authoritative source. First-hand knowledge doesn’t count.

So she went on social media and asked if any journalists would like to interview her about her marital status. The BBC and Slate figured she might actually be a reliable source raised, so they their hands–me, teacher, me!. When they published their interviews, they became something she could link to, proving that she really is divorced.

Her bio is now up to date. Let’s hope she doesn’t plan on marrying again. It’s not worth the hassle.


How not to start a war

Even before the spy balloon–or is it still an alleged spy balloon?–tensions have been high between the US and China over what bits of wet stuff lie in international waters and what bits are Chinese. Let’s not  go into the whys and why-nots of that, let’s just cut to an incident that happened back in 2015, when a US reconnaissance plane was patrolling a contested stretch of the South China Sea and got a radio message saying, “This is the Chinese Navy. Please go away quickly in order to wrong judgment.”

“I am a United States military aircraft,” a US officer said, “conducting lawful military activities outside national airspace.”

And what happened next? The voice that had introduced itself as the Chinese Navy said, “Meow.” That was followed by a series of beeps from the 1970s video game Space Invaders.

So we have a US military officer who introduced him- or herself as a plane and a (presumed) Chinese military officer who thinks he or she is a cat. 

World War III did not start that day. 


How not to write a headline

A recent article circulated by the news service Medical Xpress ran under the headline “Possible new way to reduce pain inspired by chickens.”

Do chickens inspire pain? I asked myself. 

Not in me, I answered myself. At least, not so far, and I’ve been around for a long time now. 

On the other hand, I reminded myself, they have beaks and pointy nails. And I haven’t spent a lot of time around chickens. Maybe they inspire pain in people who know them better.

Since this was a quick conversation and I’d run out of italics, I didn’t ask myself what it meant to inspire pain as opposed to causing it. Instead, I discovered that the article was about a way to reduce pain that was inspired by something involving chickens. 

From there on, the article was a disappointment.


Spot the chatbot

A chatbot passed a law school exam by  answering multiple choice questions and writing  essays on constitutional law and torts. Once you get past the headline, though, you learn that it was near the bottom of the class and didn’t do well with multiple-choice questions involving math or with open-ended questions. 

People marking the exams said they could could spot it because its grammar was perfect and it was repetitious.


Spot the restaurant

TripaAdvisor carried a listing for a nonexistent Montreal restaurant, Le Nouveau Duluth. By the time it was taken down, it had picked up 85 five-star reviews, including one that said, “Can’t believe this place really exists.”

Um, yes, there’s a reason for that, but it didn’t stop the place being at the top of the city’s ratings.

A careful reader might’ve picked up a hint that something was wrong by noticing the combination of valet and drive-through service. 


Spot the feelgood story

London will be giving the lowest-paid contract employees of Transport for London free travel on the network. That’s almost 6,000 workers, and none too soon: Fares are expected to go up by almost 6% in March and we’ve already got a cost-of-living crisis.

That story makes me feel so good that I won’t mention how underpaid they are and how that surely has something to do with why they need free transportation. They get the London living wage, which is higher than the minimum wage but not enough to live on. 

Does Exeter Cathedral have the world’s oldest cat flap?

I can’t prove that Exeter Cathedral has the world’s oldest cat flap–no one seems to collect worldwide data on cat flaps–but it has one that was built sometime between 1598 and 1621. Or if not built, cut, since the hole doesn’t actually have a covering.

How authoritative are those dates? Dunno. Multiple sources use the same dates, but they could all quoting each other. Still, the door that the hole was cut in looks old enough to convince me, so let’s go with it.

The cat flap was to allow the cathedral cat (not the one in the picture, you understand) to get into the cathedral clock and catch the mice and rats drawn there by the animal fat that greased the clock’s workings. This may be the origin of the nursery rhyme “Hickory, dickory, dock/The mouse ran up the clock.”

Absolutely and completely relevant photo: The Exeter Cathedral cat door–with cat demonstrating that it’s still in working order.

The cathedral kept a series of cats on the payroll in the medieval era, spending 13 pence a quarter on each one in turn, which doubled for a few years in the fourteenth century. Maybe they had to add a second cat when the first one was overwhelmed. Maybe the first one took on an apprentice or insisted on a friend staying for a lifetime’s worth of suppers. The evidence is scant but tantalizing.


Want to buy Evelyn Waugh’s old house? 

From there, let’s go to the news: If you were in the market for an eight-bedroom, six-bathroom mansion, you’re too late to bid on the one Evelyn Waugh once owned. (He’s the guy who wrote Brideshead Revisited.) It came with a few small snags that looked like they’d keep the price down.

The asking price was £2.5 million, and yes, that’s down. In 2019, it sold for £2.9 million, and I’ll drop a hint here for the mathematically impaired: That’s more than this year’s asking price. The 2019 buyer was  a company controlled by a former BBC executive, Jason Blain, and it financed the deal with a £2.1 million bank loan, but the bank lost its sense of humor when the company that bought the mansion defaulted on the loan. 

To be fair to the BBC, Blain has also worked for Sony Entertainment. He seems to have a history with, um, I guess you’d say payment problems. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel took him to court when he paid only (only!) £508,500 of the £1.24 million he owed for an eight-month stay. The penthouse he was renting went for £4,725 a night, and his bill included £30,110 for valet parking and £25,497 for room service. 

I’ve seen enough movies to vaguely imagine how a person could rack up that kind of a bill on room service, but valet parking? Where were they parking that car? In a neighboring country? 

Never mind. Let’s talk about the sale’s snags instead. At some point after the 2019 sale, the mansion was rented to someone or other for £250 per year (I’d love to know the story there; all I’ve read is that they call themselves “Evelyn Waugh superfans”), and whoever they are, they’re refusing to leave and won’t let anyone in–no buyers, no real estate agents, and no photographers, so we won’t be able to go online and poke our snoopy old noses into the virtual rooms to see what we couldn’t have bought anyway. 

As the auctioneers explained the situation,  ““The property is occupied under a Common Law Tenancy at a rent of £250 per annum. A notice to quit was served on the occupant on 19 August 2022 and a copy of such notice was affixed to the property gate on 22 August 2022. Prospective purchasers should take their own legal advice regarding this and will be deemed to bid accordingly.”

I believe that means, “Don’t blame us when it all goes wrong.”

When the place was auctioned off, it sold for a mere £2.16 million. The occupants are still refusing the leave.


How much can you manage to spend on a train ticket?

British trains are expensive–complaining about the impenetrable pricing structure is a recognized indoor sport–but I can’t account for how much one passenger managed to spend.

The passenger was a drag queen who was booked for a private performance in Bangor but who lived in London. To be clear, that’s the Bangor in Wales, not the one in Maine. It would cost more to get from London to Bangor, Maine, but you’d need something more than a train ticket.

But back to business: She did what anyone would do and booked a train ticket–a first class ticket, which isn’t what anyone would do, but who could resist? I can only assume the client was paying but it’s not like I know that. It was supposed to include a Christmas dinner, even though this was well before Christmas. The British don’t believe in confining Christmas dinner to Christmas day. Christmas dinner, like the wine that was supposed to come with it, is a liquid, and it leaks into the surrounding month. The ticket cost £589

How could the ticket cost that much? It wouldn’t have been easy. After I’d stashed my credit card safely in the other room, I went online to see how far I could push up the cost of a similar ticket. A last-minute (you pay a lot more for a last-minute ticket) round trip came to £153.40. That doesn’t seem to have been first class, although I tried to upgrade myself in two different ways, and nothing mentioned Christmas dinner. Maybe I lack imagination, but I couldn’t get close to £589. 

Never mind. She paid a shitload of money for her ticket. I paid nothing for mine, but then I didn’t go anywhere.

On the way out, first class service was canceled and she was decanted into the ordinary cars. On the way back, the whole train was canceled, but not until two minutes after it was due to leave. 

She took to Twitter, which did at least shake loose a response from the train company, Avanti West Coast. It said, “We’re sorry to hear about this customer’s experience and we’re happy to look into their complaint. . . Our new timetable is based on a robust and sustainable roster for our people without reliance on overtime . . . ” and so forth, for at least two paragraphs of blither.

Merry Christmas. Would you like a side of cranberry sauce with that?


Could artificial intelligence write that?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about whether artificial intelligence is ready to replace writers. A new chatbot is–they say–impressing people with how fluent it is. Fluent enough that a Guardian columnist had it write the opening of his column and it produced a credible if boring paragraph. 

Academics report that it can give correct answers to questions they ask their students.  

It has certain limitations, as the columnist (once he took over for the chatbot) pointed out. It can’t see why a kilo of beef doesn’t weigh more than a kilo or compressed air or why crushed glass shouldn’t be a health supplement. It reproduces the biases of its human trainers and makes up facts, but then humans do the same things–more of them every day, it seems–so maybe it shouldn’t lose points for that. 

Humans, though, will bump up against the real world periodically, and that will give them a chance to correct some of their bullshit. Or we can hope it will. Mentioning no names, but I’m still waiting.

As time goes on, the chatbot will probably make fewer ground glass-type errors, but the bias it inherits from its humans is likely to continue. I also wouldn’t look for its prose to lift off the page and make us smile, and I wouldn’t expect creativity. Still, it could have written Avanti’s response to the passenger’s complaint as effectively as the human who (presumably) wrote it. Or more so, since it wouldn’t be bothered by any residual sense of shame. 


What about those pesky humans, though?

Humans, it turns out, are more likely to send hate-tweets when the weather turns nasty. The best available explanation is that we’re at our nicest, or at least our least horrible, when the temperature’s between 54 F (that’s 12 C) and 70 F (21 C). Outside of that, we get crabby.

The study tracked 75 million tweets from 773 US cities and found that the pattern held even in high-income areas, where people would be at least somewhat insulated from heat and cold. It couldn’t trace the demographics of hate tweeters but it could trace their targets: primarily members of the Black, Latino, and LGBTQetc. communities. 

Women aren’t on the target list. (Are women a community? Is any demographic group?) I’m not sure if that indicates a hole in the study’s design or a startling sociological insight. Seventy-five years of life experience (admittedly, I didn’t spend all of it on Twitter) says it’s a flaw in the study’s design.

The study–or at least the article on it–didn’t mention rain, snow, or other storms.


Your feel-good story for the week

A girl named Madeline (age not specified) sent a letter to her county government saying, “Dear LA County, I would like your approval if I can have a unicorn in my backyard if I can find one.”

The letter found its way to the department of animal care and control, and its director (or someone else on her behalf) sent Madeline a metal tag stamped “Permanent Unicorn License,” along with a fuzzy unicorn–white with pink ears, purple hooves, and a silver horn. The country did set some conditions though: Any sparkles or glitter sprinkled on the animal have to be nontoxic and biodegradable and the unicorn has be fed watermelon at least once a week.