Another Weather Report and Stuff from the San Luis Valley

Old Sol is very intense here in the San Luis Valley because of the altitude and the zero humidity. You can be walking along on a cold, calm day, legitimately cold, 15 F/-9 C, and, if you are facing the sun or the sun is on your back, you can find yourself overheated in your down jacket. Yesterday wasn’t that day. It was warmer than 15, but no sun, and during my saunter with Bear, I was cold. It took a while to warm up, too, since the point of the walk was to let Bear have a chance to smell things and toddle along at her own speed. It snowed off and on all day, but it didn’t amount to much.

Today the sun is shining, and the freezing fog has touched the trees. The air shimmers with ice crystals. It’s 7 F/-13 C. BUT a few years ago on this day it was -17 F/-27 C so the warm spell of La Niña lingers.

I keep thinking that it might be time for an adventure in the world, but I don’t know where or what. I am held down by the roommates.

A woman I used to work with at the College of Business at SDSU offered me a job yesterday of editing an academic paper she’s writing. She did a Fulbright a year or two ago. She’s the only person from that life with whom I have any contact. She’s an awesome, dynamic, warm, human, funny person and I liked her a lot. I took the idea out with Bear to think it over and when I came back I had my answer. As Bear investigated a complicated concatenation of tracks, I saw that I’m not the person to edit an academic paper, particularly in a field I don’t know. Her field is accounting. That’s almost like asking me to describe life in New York City. And editing? It’s an enormous word — it means so many different things to people depending on what they think it is. I don’t even know what it is half the time. To some people it means proofreading, to some it means making something sound better, to some it means critique, to some it means making sure the guy rowing the galleon isn’t wearing an Apple Watch.

I’d take on the project if I were still in San Diego, and we could talk about the project over coffee. The whole thing would work better if we could show each other things in the manuscript. Still, I feel really good that she thought of me.

Yesterday, after I got the email asking me to do a survey about using ChatGPT in a communication class, I gave ChatGPT a challenge. The bot couldn’t handle it and THAT turned out to be very interesting. In business communication there are basically two kinds of messages, depending on the audience, always. It’s good news or bad news for the audience, not the writer/business.

One is a “bad news message” a message where (in a general sense) a business will have to say “No” to a customer. It’s bad news for the customer because he/she doesn’t get what he/she wants. The challenge is to keep the customer’s goodwill (and avoid a lawsuit?) while saying “No.” The structure of that message is complicated for students to understand even though it’s very simple. It’s like breaking up with someone — you go to a nice restaurant, compliment them on something, then say “it’s not you, it’s me.” That’s it more or less. The big rule is that you don’t say “No!” in the beginning. I asked ChatGPT to give me instructions for writing a bad news message and then demonstrate.

Basically, a correct answer would be 1) goodwill, 2) policy, 3) refusal, 4) [optional] offer of some kind of compensation (discount on a future order), 5) more goodwill — thanks for contacting us, etc. Simply, thank them for their message, appreciate their concern, explain company policy, tell them not to hesitate to get in touch if they have further questions. The “no” might not even be stated explicitly.

The bot gave incorrect instructions for writing a bad news message, and then wrote an example message using the correct structure. I asked it why it did that. It couldn’t handle the question or see what it had done. If I were teaching business communication now, I would use that in class.

I kind of pushed the bot, and it explained its limitations to me. I knew them already, but I wondered how it would “defend” itself. It didn’t. It couldn’t see what it couldn’t see and admitted it. It doesn’t have the analytical skills or what we might term “self-awareness” needed to see the contradiction between its instructions for writing a bad news message and the message it actually wrote.

To me this says that the bot can get the right answer but not know why or how it got it. To me this means, as far as education, right answers in and of themselves need to be de-emphasized. The process and the reasons behind it, in the case of a bad news message meaning acknowledging the humanity of the person who will be disappointed might be more worthy of an exam question. Could a bot learn to give the right answer to THAT question? Yeah. I can see the bot pushing educators in a very different direction and I, personally, hope that happens. It makes me think of my best ever business communication class in which we met for four hours three days a week in a wonderful room (I called it “the bridge” after Star Trek) and everyone did their work right then and there on laptops, working together and working with me. Everyone learned so much. It’s the only bus comm class I ever took out for pizza at the end of the semester. The bot could push education toward more interactive learning and a different way to grade.

The email came from a group of university instructors who are writing a paper. I’m looking forward to hearing the results of the survey and reading the paper. I know that education is only ONE place where AI will have — and is having — an impact. Since I’ve been playing around with this, I’ve seen how much it is already involved in my life. Yesterday I filed my taxes. I was helped by what I can only call a “tax bot.” Considering how absolutely punctilious and literal Mr. Taxbot is by its “nature,” I was pretty happy with it. So much better than the old days when I had to fill out my tax form myself. One year when I had had a hard time financially and the feds still wanted me to pay, I wrote, “‘You can’t get blood from a turnip. Send me a bill.” I wrote that in red ink. There are times when being human is a liability. Taxbot just asks me to fill in blanks then goes through everything with its utter lack of imagination to see if I’ve done it. It’s programs to have a “friendly tone” which is kind of annoying but it’s better than a hostile tone. And, one good thing about Taxbot; it doesn’t lecture.

Prompts for Winter Writing — For students and??? (more fun with AI)

The link below was shared by the people for whom I’m reading books. Based on my recent forays into AI, I’d say all of these prompts were written by an AI.

So I asked ChatGPT to give me 10 wintery prompts. They are better than the ones on the above site.

I’d have no hesitancy about giving these to a class, and a couple of them intrigue me. I wouldn’t probably give a class prompts that tell them what to feel — like “beauty and serenity of a winter evening” or “complete with snow-covered trees…etc.” And, personally, I hate the word “cozy.” Shudder… I’d want my students to do that kind of description on their own without me or something else prescribing a response. I like 3, 4, 5, 6, 8. Students would like 10.

But they all lead to happy stories. I don’t imagine Alferd Packer or the Donner Party coming out of them — so I asked for unhappy endings.

Still no cannibalism, but you can’t have everything… If you don’t know the story of Alferd Packer, the Colorado Cannibal, (that’s how he spelled his name), you can learn about him here. He was stranded in the mountains not all that far from where I live — up in the San Juans near Lake City which was on the stagecoach route I’ve written about here in the past. One of the restaurants at the University of Colorado in Boulder is named the Alferd Packer Grill. When I was a student there, my ex and I only ate there when (for some unknown reason) we happened to have money. Good burgers and onion rings.

I’m not even going to apologize anymore. Godnose when this will end. It makes me wish I were teaching again. Instead of fighting against some of the things I had to fight against when I retired, I’d probably be embracing some of them.

Chat GPT MORE experimenting

I just had a “chat” about it helping me write a message in Italian. I wanted to know two things — first, that it could do that. Second, Italian is not philosophically or socially English. It’s more “human” if that makes any sense. Here’s our conversation. If you can read Italian even a little you’ll see the difference in “voice,” politeness and “humanness”. I love English, but the underlying philosophy is expedience. Also, I used incorrect verb forms to see WHAT it would take away from that — it did beautifully with the context. I’m really impressed with this thing and the people who developed it.

Me: Poi scrivere in italiano? <– Can you write in Italian?

It: Sì, posso scrivere in italiano. In che modo posso aiutarti? <– Yes, I can write in Italian. In what way can I help you?

Me: Vorrei scrivere un email dicendo that I don’t have anything to say, but I hope my friend is all right. Non posse scrivo questo da solo <– I want to write an email saying (diced is the wrong verb form) that I don’t have anything to say, but I hope my friend is all right. I can’t write this myself. (wrong verb form)

It: Certo, posso aiutarti a scrivere l’email. Ecco un esempio di come potresti formulare il messaggio: <– Certainly. I can help you to write the email. Here’s an example of how to formulate the message.

“Ciao amico, Spero che tu stia bene. Non ho molto da dire in questo momento, ma volevo solo fare un saluto e assicurarmi che tu stia passando un buon periodo.

Un saluto, [Il tuo nome]”

Me: Perfetto. Grazie! <– Perfect! Thanks

It: Di nulla, sono contento di poterti aiutare. In caso avessi bisogno di altro, non esitare a chiedere. <– translate: It’s nothing. I’m happy I was able to help you. If you need more help, don’t hesitate to ask.

Also — my recent foray into this has shown me how much of WordPress is probably relying on some kind of AI. I think a lot of times we won’t know and I guess that’s scary in its way or I’ve read way too much Philip K. Dick. 😉 But, I’m not scared of it and never have been — I played with a low-level primitive version myself back in the 80s to introduce my students to writing programs in BASIC and to get them comfortable with using a personal computer. It’s a little hard to believe that there ever WAS a time like that but there was.

OK, I’ll quit boring you with this. Or not, I’m not sure.

ChatGPT — more experimenting

I finally got on ChatGPT, and I like it. I asked it to write a few things — a poem in the style of Goethe and another in the style of Du Fu. They were both on target but not great poetry. It also told me who Goethe and Du Fu were. I asked it ethical questions about how I could use it in my college English classes. It’s been well trained for that and, I think, difficult to abuse. I asked it (after it wrote a sappy love story with happy ending) if it were capable of writing a story with an equivocal ending. It proceeded to write one and then told me what an equivocal ending is and why it’s used and how it engages people. I told it I liked it and it thanked me for the positive remark and explained its mission. I asked it various questions related to teaching college English and got useful answers that I’d put on a syllabus.

If I were teaching today I would learn all I could about this interface and introduce it to my students as I did introduce Grammarly when it came out and I’d played with it.

It took 3 days for me to get on ChatGPT to try it out. When I suggested that people must have had fun making it, it explained to me that fun has nothing to do with it, which made me laugh because I was having a LOT of fun with it.

Here’s a slideshow based on the questions I asked it about its use in a college English class. I might actually (were I teaching) give this as an assignment, to help my students find out how to use it responsibly. I identified myself as an English teacher; I wouldn’t have my students do that, of course. I’d give them the statement to start with, “I’m in a college English class and my professor wants to know how I could use you to help me with my essays.” It’s a very cool tool, way too much fun, and it might actually suck students into writing… In my career one of the hardest things for students was the solitude of writing.

Rambling Rant about AI and Teaching Writing

City Lights Bookstore

In a discussion with Carrot from The Dihedral, about Artificial Intelligence (AI), I was inspired to think about my life as a teacher. For the first time since I left the profession, I cried. That wasn’t really surprising because I loved teaching — really LOVED it.

I taught writing, all kinds of writing at the college/university level from remedial grammar (yikes!) to advanced business communication. For thirty-four of my thirty-eight years I got up ready to go and happy to start the day, though, admittedly, in the final four years or so various external problems and changes in the way my students had been taught before university diminished the joy. I took that as a sign to get out of the classroom. At the end, I hated going to school, but by then I had retired and was a “short-timer.”

I loved MOST the moments when a student GOT it, and the times when a student became inspired by what we were reading and it showed up in his/her writing. There were many students who understood that freshman comp was going to help them be what they wanted to be, and took the skills and ran with them — one of those guys is a DA in Florida now, though his dream was Oakland, where he grew up. The Iraqi girl who challenged everything then, when I told her that Fahrenheit 451 changed the world, she lit up. She wanted to change the world, too, and here was a novel that had? The list of amazing experiences is too long to write — or is it? Is a teaching memoir at all appropriate? Naw… My LinkedIn is mostly former students.

Yeah; we’ve all had crappy teachers and for some students, undoubtedly, I was one. For most, not. For a few I was inspiring.

Carrot is a philosophy teacher, and some of what he’s written is about AI as a writing “tool.” The point — one point — is that AI can do only what it’s learned to do, but it can do that very well. Humans can go beyond what they’ve learned to do. This matters. Maybe it’s where lovers and creators of AI are hoping AI will go, to legit reasoning in a creative way, but I don’t know that for sure.

It made me think about the role our senses play in our thinking process. I think our senses play an immense role sometimes in our thinking process and sometimes in overriding our thinking process like, you know, “luv’.” Would AI have that danger or that power? What about imagination? The ability to be inspired or (more important in a classroom) to inspire? The root of that word is what the classical writers prayed to the muses for, the breath of the gods. The breath of life. Would that magic ever show up in a text written by AI, except as it might be derived from the work the AI has “grazed”?

Carrot and I were discussing how to keep students from turning in papers written by AI. I think, you know, an old-school copy book, pen and in-class writing, but there are limits to that. Ideally it would — applied soon enough — give kids the idea that writing is a wonderful activity and not something you worry about “getting right.” All AI can really do is “get it right.” Sadly, toward the end of my career more and more students had been taught toward that very end; getting it right. AI can get it right. In standardized tests and standardized writing texts is the robotization of humans — and teachers.

I can imagine a whole coterie of people who would like to make teachers disposable. Yeah, I’ve learned from a “computer,” but it wasn’t really the computer teaching me. It was a group of people who’d made a really good language program who were teaching me.

Writing is thinking. We discover so much when we sit down with our thoughts and allow them to happen.

I don’t want to write (or read) about grades or evil English teachers or any of that. We’ve all had to contend with both — I had an English teacher in university who mocked me in front of the class for an essay I’d written. There are assholes everywhere, and I’m the first to agree that what we write and submit for someone else’s scrutiny and evaluation makes us vulnerable. I know how much students hate English and hate to write. I know all about it. I taught it for more than half my life. Every bad teacher taught me how to teach. Every bad paper (my own) taught me how to write. Every bad paper I read (from a student) taught me to teach better. It is the nature of learning to live in the world that — in the “safe” environment of a classroom — we meet the same jerks we’ll meet in the world of work.

But writing itself should never be “safe” or something we “get right.” Maybe AI can write “like Mark Twain,” but one Mark Twain is enough. That won’t inspire anything and the “god” that “inspires” AI is no divine voice. It’s us.

Commatose Mechanics

Driving to the store yesterday I thought, “Well, there’s something funky about that article. It’s not really clear in this part…” Later on, having sent the article to a friend to read, I got, “I think you need commas here and here.” That was it. Just a couple very tiny marks fixed the whole thing.

All over in Europe is stuff the Romans carved into marble. Noneofitispvnctvatedandtherearenospacesbetweenthe words. It’s all just one long “word” and with a few other things it’s all pretty hard to read, especially when it’s 30 feet up. In Europe 300,000 is 300.000 which is very confusing for us, and the quotation marks are different — I learned a lot about that when I had German housemates for a time; a couple of students/friends lived with me for a while in the 90s and used my computer. There was endless cursing and frustration over the keyboard. And “Ja Marta how can you type with this?” They weren’t thinking that the language conventions that led to THAT keyboard were MY language. I got that. I remember standing in line for bread in China and hearing the woman behind me teach her little girl to say “Auntie” in Chinese. I guess until that moment I believed the Chinese people all around me had been BORN with their language abilities. I didn’t even remember that someone had to teach me English.

OH well. We all know (from innumerable Facebook memes) that missing a comma or misplacing it can lead to really funny sentences. I’ve had a lot of colleagues who believed THAT was writing, and it isn’t writing, but if it’s wrong? Well… One of my bosses absolutely LOVED the Panda book — Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation which is very clever and cute.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots & leaves.

The thing about punctuation is it doesn’t make good writing, but it can make good writing bad.

I’m back in the book reading mode and yesterday read two that demonstrated that the writers knew how to write a story or a poem, but had nothing to say in a story or a poem. There’s a whole argument saying that writing is a craft — ok, that’s somewhat true, but mastering the craft doesn’t make a good story or a good poem. As I was reading these two small books I thought of a book I read a couple of years ago that was a mess in terms of the craft, but what it had to say was very, very important. Because of the importance of its message, and the determination of its writer, it was a good book.

Quotedium Update 43.2.xi.b

We got a micron of snow last night. My first awareness of it was the muddy footprints on the dog pads that protect my rug, pads that I cleaned yesterday. 🤣 Another micron is predicted next week, a low probability. Yesterday I read that the last 8 years have been the hottest on record. Very strange thing to read — almost mind-boggling. I know that humans have not always kept a record — though, it seems, we tend to leave them.

I finished a nearly-final draft of the crane festival article and sent it to my two interviewees. I used Google-docs and don’t know if that was a good idea or not. I guess I’ll find out. For me it’s better because I’ll have their comments in one place, but there’s no way to know what someone is familiar with.

I was also thinking about people in general. I like to write, but most people don’t. I was thinking, also, about the old “science vs. arts” dichotomy — it’s real whether I believe in it or not. For me as a writer the big change happened while I was teaching business communication and had to emphasize the idea of audience to my students. How much attention had I paid to that? Almost none. For every non-artistic writing project (papers for conferences, articles for scholarly journals, etc.) the audience was, more-or-less, me. Teachers learn a lot in their classroom. Hopefully the students do, too.

Scientists have a necessarily different idea of precision than a writer writing for a general audience might have. That makes total sense to me even if only that when we love something we always want to tell people more than they want to know about something. The difference shows up in WHAT a general audience wants to know. I think a writer needs to be aware of that. I remember getting lost in my dad’s explanation of the quadratic equation. I just wanted to know how to work it to get the right answer. In 9th grade, I really didn’t need more than that.

Anyway, we’ll find out. 😀

Socking it to ’em (huh?)

Socks are great. I like them, wear them, and appreciate their various attributes and purposes. This time of year I spend most of my time in expedition weight wool socks. They’re warm, soft and help me keep the utility bills down. Summer? Sol-mate “mis-matched” cotton socks. But the GREATEST socks are the lightweight wool socks my friend Elizabeth knits. Wool is a miraculous fiber that doesn’t smoosh down when you walk on it; it’s warm when it’s wet; can be spun fine to be light and abrasion-proof on a summer hike. AND they’re pretty AND my friend made them. Seriously, they are the Uber-sock.

I have a few nostalgia socks in my sock basket. Swiss socks from those great times in the 90s when I spent a lot of time in Zürich. Since they are generally not pairs, but single socks and well worn, they don’t go on my feet, but I can’t let go of them.

I have some novelty socks, too — rabbits for Easter, moose for Christmas. They’re not very durable, but they’re cute and/or funny.

You can see I don’t organize my socks. I let them do their thing. It’s interesting to observe how the summer socks rise to the top of the pile when it’s their turn. Right now, winter socks have taken the top berth in this basket, but that will change.

In less sock driven news, my interview with the wild-life biologist crane festival coordinator went well yesterday. I don’t know if I’m a good interviewer or not, but even that question brings up questions. Is a good interviewer the kind of interviewer that asks pointed questions or loaded questions that provoke or which already have a particular spin or is a good interviewer someone who inspires the interviewee to speak freely. I guess that would depend on the point of the article, other factors. I should work on the questioning aspect of interviewing, I think, but overall I like what I’m getting which is long rambling open comments about the thing in question and the person’s relationship to it. It’s a little unfair to the interviewee, though, because it takes up more of their time than pointed focused questions would.

I record the interviews and transcribe them when I get home. It’s something I learned to do in my life as a secretary. It’s good for me because I have very weak listening skills. This way it turns into a kinesthetic experience and I can go back and copy/paste. That’s when I really hear what’s been said. I also wonder how the interviewees feel in our interviews. Comfortable? Nervous? On stage? I hope the bumbling reality of their interviewer puts them at ease a little.

The woman I interviewed yesterday was worried about what my article would say. She would probably like to control that, but her goals and the goals of the magazine are not the same, though there are many points of intersection. It was — for me — a great interview and there are many potential stories in it. It was great.

After the interview I was able to get Bear alone and we headed out for a walk. It was wonderful and we met the only other people we ever meet out there walking — and now I know their names. They love Bear, and as we chatted, Bear got attention. The interview left me feeling kind of doubtful and keyed up, our talk and the gray world of the Refuge was grounding.

Lois Lane, Here…

Life as a world-renowned journalist will continue later this morning when I go interview another Crane Festival organizer and wildlife biologist. I hope this time I remember to take the questions with me. She’s a person I’ve met before — on the golf course on skis. I liked her.

Yesterday I worked on the article, integrating my last interview into the structure of stuff I already have. Some basic information has to go into that piece, but as I transcribed the interview I took last week I realized what my job is; it’s less about informing people as it is about exciting people.

What a cool job description! “Write a story that makes people excited to see Sandhill Cranes.”

When I was talking to my cousin on my birthday I learned that he’s written a book. It would be his second. As he talked about what he’s doing (getting editors, having it read, etc.) I thought but didn’t say, “Tom, there are no guarantees.” I did say, “Wonderful!” And somewhere in there I said, “The most important thing about writing is that you do it and enjoy it.” But really I can’t speak for anyone but me there. He could have heard that in a lot of ways — one as me trying to cushion him from disappointment, but, I was just speaking from my experience.

Sitting here with all these independently published books I feel differently about THAT than I might have felt 20 years ago. Independently published books are not (necessarily) “second class” or “not as good as,” not at all. Usually (in my experience) they are just different. The big difference is in audience, not the quality of the writing. IF these authors had sought “conventional” publication and had not found it, it would have been, in most cases, because the book they’d written would not have an audience. The publisher wouldn’t sell many of the books he’d paid to produce. That’s the major factor in the decision to take on a writer’s work. Logically so from a business perspective. The moment I understood that for myself, I knew what direction I would have to take. It’s a self-knowledge thing, I think.

Well, that said, and none of it new, I’d better get ready for my gig… Here’s Stephen King’s advice for wannabe writers. The only points I agree with unequivocally are #6, #8, #11, #14. For me the other points are matters of personal taste and style. Some people are quashed by a “daily writing goal,” for example. I have no idea where the word for today, “coddle,” was supposed to go in here; I had an idea when I started, but… OH well.

Life as a Journalist (huh?)

Yesterday I interviewed a woman for the article I’m writing on the upcoming Crane Festival. It was very interesting. The dark side was technology. She has two VHS tapes of Crane Festivals from the antediluvian era. She brought a VCR to the Chamber of Commerce to hook up to their TV but, of course, the TV is too new to have RCA hookups. Today we are embarking on Plan B which involves my TV with connectors dating back to the transitional epoch between RCA and HDMI.

Life as a world-renowned journalist is pretty interesting and not always in the writing. The best part of the interview for me (so far) was talking to another person who gets excited about wildlife and birds. Not since I was hanging out with the rangers at Mission Trails Regional Park have I had that experience. She also had a really nice dog.

The video tapes are from 30 some years ago when the festival was still called the “Whooping Crane Festival.” I also learned yesterday what happened to the Whooping Cranes. As a species they are larger than Sandhill Cranes and the mountain ranges and the altitude made life — migration — here very hard for them. Then the problem of electric wires. Cranes get tangled in them often. Last summer I learned from a maintenance guy at the Refuge about 40 cranes who died from being tangled in power lines.

I don’t know how much of the dark side I want to put in a 1000 word article, but I will put some. One thing about being a future Pulitzer Prize winner is that the time invested in an article brings the hourly rate down to about a nickel. 😀

Both species were severely threatened back in the 80s, but have made a comeback thanks to people as it happens.

The word for today is “depauperate” which kind of breaks my brain because I think it should mean “enrich” but it means the opposite. He was a poor guy but thanks to his great work ethic he’s depauperated but noooooo….. English, that whore, takes a little bit from HERE and little bit from THERE and constructs meaning in a completely arbitrary fashion.

Anyway — it occurred to me last night that I’m an amateur naturalist at this point, just from going out there for most of my life and watching stuff, then reading about it. I guess I must be pretty obnoxious to real naturalists who’ve studied formally. It made me think of Goethe who had an axe to grind with the then new approach to science which was based on experimentation rather than observation. The experimenters had an axe to grind with HIM.

We humans have this “either/or” thing going on. Experimentation requires observation so it’s not really one or the other, but humans take sides. Goethe was an observer. His theory of plants and his theory of colors were both based on direct observation and neither theory is totally flawed. Darwin said he owed the Theory of Evolution to Goethe’s observations on the growth of plants. Early humans, too, survived better because they observed how nature worked. What made yesterday’s interview fun was getting her to share things she had seen. I think that will inspire people to attend the festival which is the whole point.

Thank goodness my dogs like tourists.