Sunday, December 31, 2023

Welcoming the New Year with AI

I asked ChatGPT to write my monthly essay a few weeks ago. I first asked if it could write an essay, and it replied "Please provide me a topic or a prompt and I'll be happy to generate a 400-word essay for you." How about that? It would be happy. My prompt: "Wrapping up the old year and welcoming the new year."

The words poured out of the ChatGPT window quickly and assuredly. Put it this way: it "generated" 400 words faster than it took me to write the title to this post. The essay it generated had this opening sentence: As the final days of the year unfold, it is a natural inclination for individuals to engage in reflection, taking stock of the events that transpired over the past twelve months. (To see the rest, click here.)

This essay request is my latest foray with AI. Earlier in the year an old friend asked if I was up to date on AI, and I sheepishly admitted that I was not. I was in the camp of being against it, though I was curious about its recent hype. In the Summer, after a co-worker expressed great enthusiasm for it, I finally logged into Bard and gave it a spin.

I first used AI for looking up technical details I would normally search with Google. LMGTFY is a meme after all! The AI robots have a very confident presentation in their answers. When I type their code or commands in, most of the time their excerpts work! Of course, when they don't work I have to scroll through Google results or use my brain.

Writing essays and doing drawings was something I knew AI could do. I liked what the AI produced for me, but it ended its essay with this sentence: In conclusion, wrapping up the old year and welcoming the new year is a profound and universal experience that unites humanity in reflection and anticipation.

I didn't like the phrase "In conclusion". Too stuffy! Also, it was a bit repetitive. The more I read the essay, the more I found it sterile, and lacking in personality. I like to think that a regular reader of my writing would be able to tell if I decided to replace my writing with an AI's writing. 

What I liked though were the AI's ideas. I liked its conclusion that the year end is not just a "temporal event", but merely a step in our "continuous journey" of growth. I agree with it. I know that the AI is not thinking these ideas, but one day when it does start thinking and writing on its own, I'd prompt it to give me another draft!


Thursday, November 30, 2023

Ads and Ad Blockers

I don't use any ad blockers on my devices. I'm not a fan of advertising, but I have a grudging belief that advertising pays for content. I think about old media like newspapers, television and radio. Consumers of this media endured ads because they were getting something of value: news, entertainment, new music. Ads and content were locked together.

It's hard to justify this position with our new media options today. I can get news from an X (formerly Twitter) timeline, entertainment from TikTok and new music from Spotify. At best, ads get in the way, and at worst they're intrusive. For new media, it turns out you can separate ads from content. I then remind myself that ads provide the funds for the media platform and their creators.

Old media consumers could be considered a passive audience. We just turn to our newspaper, or TV, or radio, and have content instantly available. New media consumers are a more active audience. New media involves establishing a subscription, and perhaps a new device.

The old media audience understood there was no practical way to block out ads. The most you can do is lower the volume on the TV or radio when the ads come on. That's what I do. The new media audience have easy ways to stop most ads, but it involves action: installing a plugin, setting up a Pi Hole, etc.

In the end, it's a software battle: consumer ad blocker software versus media platform servers. Is your ad blocker adept enough to prevent an ad from pre-rolling on Netflix? Or a major news website? It's pretty clear which group has more money.

The new media adage is "if you're getting something for free, you're likely the product." Whenever I'm scrolling through Facebook or TikTok, I'm aware that ads pay for the content and for my (brief) attention. I can only hope they're good ads!


Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Doodling and Drawing

The greatest video on YouTube to me is Jeremiah's "A Conversation with my 12 Year Old Self". It is funny and witty and always makes me laugh. It's been on the Internet for 11+ years and it's an easy favorite.

There is a part in the video where the older present-day Jeremiah asks "What were you doing before you made this video?" and young Jeremiah gives an answer that completely pauses the older Jeremiah. The young Jeremiah was drawing! He shows a picture of a funny looking rabbit, and the older Jeremiah is stunned. It's a perfect moment, in a video that is full of perfect moments. 

Not long after rewatching this I found myself doodling more at work. It's the perfect thing to do during long remote meetings when you're not speaking! Like the young Jeremiah, the young version of myself liked drawing. A long-ago friend helped spur my interest by bringing over a copy of "Draw Comics the Marvel Way" and from that I learned how to draw grimacing faces and action poses.

Like all childhood things, doodling and drawing somehow faded away. But I never really forgot them. When we moved out of our house I found in the basement an old notebook of those long-ago "Action Comics" that I drew "the Marvel Way". The story was about a hard-edged secret agent named Clint Cad. It's a remarkable time capsule!

Like all childhood things, it's fun to take it up again. Drawing, like making music, or writing, or crafting, feeds our creative nature. And while there's an analytical side that gets frustrated at every imperfection, I have been channeling the advice that perfection isn't the goal. Instead, it's about the process and being in a different headspace.

Since I spend my entire working day exercising my analytical nature, it's fun to let my mind engage in something so different and creative. I'm glad it's reentered my life and I'll keep going with this for as long as I can.

Saturday, September 30, 2023


I walked into a restaurant to grab my takeout order and as I approached the pick up area the cashier called to me: "Rodrigo!" Rodrigo? Then I realized he was hailing me by my real name, the one I rarely tell people about. He must have gotten Rodrigo from the credit card slip. Since college I have always introduced myself as Rick, leaving Rodrigo for my tax returns, passport, and other official documents.

Rodrigo is a great name but it is a mouthful. For some of my grade school classmates growing up in New Jersey, they would elide the "d", which comes out like "Rawr-rigo". If I'm remembering the story correctly, my parents began to call me Ric (and Ricky) because in the 1950s there was a Filipino actor named Ric Rodrigo. I am able to see web pages [1] [2] and even a YouTube video (in Tagalog) that prove this namesake. I only wish he had gotten into an American movie!

After my momentary surprise at being called Rodrigo, I confirmed that I was indeed Rodrigo, here to pick up my Saturday night takeout. I guessed he was probably still in high school based on his long floppy hair beneath a baseball cap. I silently applauded his boldness. When I was his age, I addressed older men as sir or mister and I suppose over the last several years I've come to expect that.

I wish I had responded to him with humor or boldness: "And what's your name young man?" or "What do they call you sonny?" I wish I had asked for his name! I'll be sure to next time I'm there. And I'll be sure to invite him to call me Rick.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Gas Translation

At the gas station a few weeks ago, I was sitting in my car jotting down my mileage. My door was open.

The person pumping gas to my left (my gas cap is on the driver side) waved to me. Though unusual, I said "hello" and then made to close my door. He raised his hand again and said "Wait. Wait." I braced myself for a directions question or perhaps a plea for money.

He then held his phone to his mouth and spoke into it. It was not English or Spanish. If I had to guess, I would say it was Portugese. He then turned his phone's screen towards me. On it was Google Translate, and the English text said "Can you show me how to subscribe to gas?"

After a blink I realized what he needed. I got out of my car. He moved off to the side, pointing at the gas pump. The gas station had pumps where you indicated the grade of gas by pulling the appropriate handle. When I looked at him, he pointed again, this time at the sign with the lowest price. 

"Yes, yes," I said. Then I looked at the credit card reader and gave the universal sign for money: rubbing my thumb across my fingers. "Pay? Pay?" I asked. He replied in his indecipherable language. I shook my head. He spoke into his phone again. When he showed it to me, it said "I paid inside already."

I next lifted the handle indicating the cheapest gas option. I picked up the gas nozzle, walked to his open filler and showed him where the nozzle went. I then signaled for him to pull the nozzle's trigger. The display began to cycle and we heard the clunk-clunk of a working gas pump.

I smiled to him this time. He did too. He waved and said "Thank You" in accented English. I smiled and waved and got into my car. All he used to communicate to me was "Wait", "Thank You" and Google Translate. I wonder if I could do as well with just these if I were in his native country.

Photo by Sean (Flickr)

Monday, July 31, 2023

Working on Cars

On my way to my car, I saw a man and (presumably) his son in front of their car with the hood up. The man was examining the engine and showing it to their kid. I wondered what he might be saying to him. "This here is the watchamacallit... And this is the doohickey..." It reminded me a bit of growing up.

My Dad showed me car stuff too. We started with easy things: brake fluid, transmission fluid, and engine coolant. (It never occurred to me to ask why our car at the time needed some of these fluids replenished so frequently.) He then showed me how to check and change the engine oil. It was vital work but getting my hands dirty in this fashion didn't appeal to me.

Years later at a college job my car wouldn't start in the parking lot after work. Someone came out and asked if I was having some problems. I said yes and he said "let's take a look." At least I could open the hood for him. He peered inside and fiddled with some cables. After a few minutes he asked me to start the engine and sure enough it started! It felt like a magic trick.

That was back in the 1980s. In today's cars, the engine block under the hood is more sleek and seemingly less open. I wonder if that competent and kind gentleman could get a modern car to start. For one thing, you need a computer to examine any "check engine" problems. And in battery electric vehicles, an engine block full of engine oil isn't even present. What is there to fiddle with?

I am drawn to automotive tools however. Maybe in another life I would have been a auto mechanic. I've seen the posted mechanics' labor rates at various car garages. It's a decent-paying job, with its own computer work. And maybe in that other life, I'd be curious about the computer talking to the car and wonder how I could work with the computer instead.

(photo: Nenad Stojkovic)

Friday, June 30, 2023

Spielberg Movies Ranked

In preparation for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, I watched for the first time the fourth Indiana Jones movie: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (starring Harrison Ford and Shia LeBeouf). I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. That's a low rating since I consider myself a generous grader when it comes to movies. I thought that out of all of Stephen Spieberg's movies, The Kingdom of the Crystral Skull is his worst output as a movie director.

To back up ths claim, I checked his credits. He has directed over 35 feature films, and by my recollection I've seen 17 of them. Here is how I would rank the Spielberg movies I have seen:

  1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  2. Minority Report (2002)
  3. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
  4. Jurassic Park (1993)
  5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  6. Munich (2005)
  7. War of the Worlds (2005)
  8. Schindler's List (1993)
  9. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  10. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  11. Poltergeist (1982)
  12. The Post (2017)
  13. Jaws (1975)
  14. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
  15. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  16. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
  17. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Saving Private Ryan is a masterwork, and possibly also my favorite war movie of all time (close runner-ups: Inglourious Basterds and Full Metal Jacket). It is powerful and visually stunning. The cast is incredible, the music is rousing, and the action is unbeatable. The emotional punch from this movie is intense. It was easy to select this as my number one favorite Spielberg movie.

From this list, you can probably skip the last four movies, but the rest I would recommend, and the first 5 are must-see. Some might dispute Poltergeist (1982) since the credited director is Tobe Hooper, but I've always considered Poltergeist a Spielberg directed movie (and he was the writer).

Of the Spielberg movies I haven't watched, these are on my watch list: The Terminal (2004), Lincoln (2012), and Ready Player One (2018). How would you rank your Spielberg movie list?

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

WJIB AM 740 (RIP Bob Bittner)

On the Facebook group "Friends and Lovers of WJIB", there was a post requesting songs people had learned by listening to oldies radio station WJIB. The poster wanted a song "that you did not know before" hearing it on WJIB. My mind immediately went to the song Faraway Places, performed by Vera Lynn.

WJIB is a radio station up here in New England. I first learned of it at a barbershop I used to go to back when I lived in Arlington, MA. The barbers there were primarily old Italian men, and I enjoyed their banter while I got my hair cut. One time I noticed the music playing in their shop and I asked where it was coming from. They told me it was WJIB.

WJIB plays music from a different era, one that I realized was primarily crooners and big swing bands, from the 1930s through 1950s. I am not a regular listener. Instead, I'd go on WJIB whenever I wanted to listen to something new and different. And instead of venturing into today's music, I'd venture into the distant past.

One day I heard Faraway Places on WJIB, and I was instantly smitten. It was sung by such a beautiful voice, and the lyrics were wistful and captivating:

Those faraway places
With the strange soundin' names
Are callin', callin' me

I liked its slow and gentle beat. I sang the chorus to myself a few times so that when I got home I could look it up. I found it on YouTube: Faraway Places. I wrote this comment: "WJIB (Cambridge, MA, AM740) brought me here. Thanks Bob!" Bob is Bob Bittner, the owner-operator of WJIB.

Since that comment from 2016, I learned that WJIB is an ad-free station that is entirely operated by just Bob. He would be the only DJ I'd ever hear on that station. One time I heard him requesting donations just like an NPR station! It was easy to become a fan of his unique and individual style.

Fast-forward to last week. A poster on the WJIB Facebook group announced that Bob Bittner had passed away at the age of 73. The group began to fill up with many reminisces from people who knew Bob well, but also many posts of admiration from plain old listeners. I read an article by Scott Fybush that revealed the extent of Bob's operation and individuality.

Music comes from many places. Nowadays, I pick up songs from Twitter and YouTube and Spotify. Bob represented the older way of discovering music: plucking songs out of the air, as if by magic. Thank you Bob for broadcasting Faraway Places all those years ago. RIP.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Jersey City

I was in Jersey City, New Jersey a few weeks ago, the city where I grew up. The GPS put me on Rt 440 near Lincoln Park, and though I know these landmarks from my youth, it was barely recognizable. I drove timidly as the GPS guided me through streets that I remembered but could no longer navigate. I eventually reached my great friend James McDermott, who took over all the driving duties for my brief stay.

He and I were going to an all-years grade school reunion at a Jersey City bar. I knew where the bar was located but this was likely my first time inside. On our way there, he drove by St Aedan's, Journal Square, and a few familiar houses of our past. We went down our long list of mutual acquaintances, taking note of who was here, and who had left.

He took me to Jersey City's downtown. It was teeming with new buildings and people eating at cafes with outdoor tables. Parking was challenging. Amidst the new I spotted the old: my old high school buildings, the office of my first job, the downtown train station entrance. We went uptown past my old dentist's office building, a rival high school, and the library.

I was struck by all the high-rises. Jersey City had been building upwards. Like New York City across the Hudson River, the skyline of Jersey City was transforming to accommodate. It made me think of the little town where I live in Massachusetts: more people coming in, construction seemingly everywhere, though perhaps not on the same scale, and not as towering.

At the bar, there wasn't anyone from our year, but we socialized as best we could. James called another grade school friend and we were able to catch up briefly. I met a few people who grew up on the street next to where I grew up. I said hello to my sixth grade teacher. We all looked appropriately old. 

In the morning, I followed James back to Rt 440. "You know how to get home from here right?" I said I did. Determined to get out of Jersey City using my wits, I followed my hazy memory towards Rt 3. When I got to Secaucus and MetLife Stadium I was at last comfortable. On the drive here I was sure that I had gone over new roads that made the trip faster, if a bit unfamiliar.

Jersey City is no longer the city of my childhood. It is still a dense and muscular city, filled with a casual roughness, but parts of it now has some of New York City's sleekness. 70s and 80s Jersey City exists only in the memories of those who experienced it. I'm always grateful for my life there, and as I barreled north to New England, I thought: perhaps I shouldn't be such a stranger!

Bergen and Highland

Friday, March 31, 2023

A Fox in Space

Last year, my old college friend Paul pointed me to "A Fox in Space". It's a cartoon in the style of Watership Down (1978), The Plague Dogs (1982), or Iron Giant (1999). Hand drawn and very expressive. However, instead of animals in peril here on earth, "A Fox in Space" is a story about the animals in the Nintendo video game Star Fox.

After this recommendation, I checked out the first episode on YouTube and was amazed. The characters are sharp and speak with Rated R language. The cartoon is highly stylized, yet it feels like it's been around forever because of its hand drawn lines. I wished I played this video game so I could get all the inside jokes and references.

The first episode came out in April 2016. When Paul told me about this last year, I expected there to be a slew of episodes to watch. Instead, creator Matthew Gafford had yet to release his second episode! Since 2016, he’s been working on his second episode, trying out new animation techniques and drumming up a livelihood on his popular Patreon.

I am always drawn to these creative people with a singular focus. They want only to execute their vision on their terms. I'm amazed at Gafford’s focus and dedication. Seven years! But he has been putting it out there for a long time. Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, he’s been creating videos and posting them in far-flung forums under the name of Fredryk Phox.

Gafford has been open about his process. On his Patreon and in various interviews on YouTube, he's been unwavering in his commitment to release his second episode, but he's been stubborn about doing nearly everything himself. He's a one-person animation studio who is completely self-taught. His skill level is remarkable to me.

Just last week, his long-awaited second episode premiered on YouTube. I fired it up on the big TV and watched it as if it were an Oscar-nominated film. The episode matched the high expectations its long incubation cultivated. It had great animation, great music, great vocal performances and a story that sets up nicely for a great third episode.

Check it out!

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Doing the Dishes

Over the last several years, doing the dishes after dinner has become a welcome part of my day. It wasn't always this way. This task is called a chore for a reason: it's a routine task that is generally unappealing. Put it this way: after dinner, I would definitely prefer to go right to the couch to start a movie. So while I don't look forward to doing the dishes, I've grown to welcome its routine.

The phrase "doing the dishes" encompasses all the procedures to shut down the kitchen. That means wiping down the stove top and counters, storing leftovers, and putting away pots and pans and other kitchen implements after they've been hand washed. I spend time toweling things down when necessary. I admit all this is easier with our empty nest.

Growing up, my family did not have a dishwasher. I was raised to hand wash everything. My two brothers and I took turns weekly, I think, doing this chore. I applied to be a dishwasher at a restaurant near our house, but when they found out I wasn't 18, they backed out. After I got married, I decided that since I couldn't contribute making meals, my contribution would be the dishes. 

Over the past several years I have refined my dish washing techniques, but there is one essential element: near-constant running water when rinsing. My mother chides me on how much water I'm using. I've learned to be more frugal, but I like a lot of water. I run my fingers over what I'm washing, to be sure all the grit is gone.

Of late, doing the dishes has become calming for me. I find myself doing it deliberately. I go carefully each step of the way. Sometimes, when the oven was used for dinner, I'll finish by holding the wet dish towel over the partially open oven door so that it gets slightly drier. 

I think my change in attitude comes from the chore's finite duration and my sense of accomplishment when I'm done. It's 20 to 30 minutes, though sometimes longer. The result is a kitchen ready to go for tomorrow. When I turn out the light, whatever relaxation happens afterward feels earned.


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

My 2022 Books and Movies

In 2022, I read 28 books (Goodreads) and watched 91 movies (Letterboxd).

My book reading story for 2022 can be summed up in one title: Infinite Jest. It consumed a month and a half of evenings, and even now I'm still thinking about certain scenes and moments. When I look at the other books I read from last year, the two I would highly recommend are The Descendants (Kaui Hart Hemmings) and Life in Code (Ellen Ullman). I also am grateful to discovered The Gray Man thriller series.

For movie watching in 2022, the thing that stands out to me is that I rewatched more movies. In 2022, 29 movies were rewatches. Some I have just recently seen (Margin Call, Green Room), but others were from further back (Marathon Man, The Black Hole). I will try to put together a list of "reliable rewatches" inspired by The Rewatchables podcast. Of the new movies I watched, I most especially recommend "Stillwater" and "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent".

Some 2022 movies (Letterboxd)