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Ideas & Analysis

Discussions of various issues including suggested solutions to problems and pure speculation

Gabby the Image Generator

If you recall, last April I posted a couple of entries about my experiments with AI image generators. There were serious problems drawing hands, feet, and faces. The other day I got an email saying that the Gab social network had installed an AI image generator called Gabby that registered users could try for free. So I tried it.

I have two general test categories of images I would like an AI to generate: Pictures of a thingmaker from my drumlins stories like “Drumlin Boiler,” and pictures of a woman sitting in a magical basket flying over downtown Baltimore, from my still-unpublished novella, Volare! I tried them both, and will include the best images from my tests below.

The drumlin thingmaker is a relatively simple structure: a 2-meter-wide shallow bowl made of what looks like black granite, half-full of a silvery dust, with two waist-high pillars in front of it, one smooth, the other vertically ridged like a saguaro cactus. In the stories, people tap a total of 256 times on the tops of the pillars in any combination, and the machine will then build something in the bowl. There are 2256 different possible codes, in base 10 1.15 x 1077, which is in the vicinity of the number of atoms in the observable universe. The people marooned on the planet where the thingmakers were found learn to use them, and I have several stories about the alien machines and their products, which thingmaker users call “drumlins.” (I know a drumlin is a glacial landform. I’ve repurposed the word, as SF writers sometimes do.)

As with the other image generators, you begin with a statement of what should be in the image. For the woman in a basket, I used the following prompt:

  • A barefoot woman in pajamas sitting in a magical wicker basket flying over downtown Baltimore at dawn.

The best image I got was this:

Impressive, compared to my earlier efforts. The woman is African-American, which doesn’t matter; after all, I didn’t specify the woman’s race and Baltimore is a mostly-black city. The basket is wicker. The city does look like Baltimore. (I used to live there in the mid-‘80s.) So far so good. However, on the one foot we can see, she has two big toes. And it took Carol only seconds to note that she has two left hands.

Alas, she isn’t flying but rather sitting on the edge of somebody’s roof. I did specify “flying.” So I give it a B-.

I did a lot better in some ways with the thingmaker. The prompt I used for the image shown below is this:

  • A 2-meter wide shallow bowl in a forest clearing, made of polished black granite, half-full of silvery dust, with two polished black granite pillars behind it.

The best image for this test is below:

The bowl is actually pretty close to what I imagine a thingmaker bowl looks like. It should be a little shallower. The two black pillars behind it look like trees. Ok, I didn’t specify how tall the pillars should be. My bad. But the dust is simply missing. I guess I should be glad that it didn’t build me a picture of Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Before I ran out of my daily limit of generated images, I decided to start from scratch with the woman in a basket. In Volare! the basket is a wicker basket about 3 feet in diameter, half-full of weeds that my female lead Edy Gagliano had pulled from her garden. So I began with this prompt:

  • A 36" wicker basket half-full of weeds.

How hard could it be? Well, Gabby handed me a wicker basket with plants in it. However, it wasn’t a basket of weeds but a flower arrangement. I tried twice with the same prompt, and got the same thing: live plants in a basket, at least one suitable for putting in your bay window. The weeds were described in the story as wilted dandelions recently yanked and probably wilted if not dead and gone brown. No luck.

In a way I can’t bitch: These are all pleasing images, and Gabby doesn’t have the same problem with plants that it does with hands and feet. And the woman’s hands and feet are mostly better than what I got with Dall-E last April. We’re making progress.

Now, I don’t intend to use an AI-generated image directly as a book cover. There are some weird and currently unsettled copyright issues involved with AI graphics, largely concerned with what content the AI is trained on. I’ve heard rumors that Amazon is yanking self-published books from the Kindle store if it looks like they have AI-generated graphics as covers. That’s an easy enough bullet to duck: I’ll do as I’ve always done and commission a cover from a real live artist. The AI images would be used to suggest to the artist how I imagine various elements of the cover.

This was fun, and if you know of any other AI image generators that you can use without paying for them, please share in the comments, with a sample if you’re so inclined.

Trunk Archaeology, Part 2

As I mentioned in my entry for January 10th, I recently found a bunch of ancient fiction manuscripts from my high-school days, which (old guy that I am now at 71) were 1966-1971. In the same folders was a list of stories (written pre-Selectric) that appears to be in chronological order, with over forty stories listed. Some few of the later ones have dates on them. Most are undated. I know I wrote my first SF short story in the spring of 1967. Alas, a copy of that story was not present in the folders. Still, a lot of interesting material was there, including a significant number of stories that I had utterly forgotten.

In reading through them here and there over the past couple of weeks I realized that the ones I had forgotten were, for the most part, forgettable. I had no training whatsoever in fiction until I attended the Clarion workshop in the summer of 1973. As with a lot of other things, I learned to write fiction by imitating the stories of others.

This explains a feeling I had reading some of my ancient stuff: It sounds like the pulps of the 40s and 50s. Well, that’s because a great deal of what I was reading in that era were story collections full of stories written in the golden age of the pulps, from 1940 or so to the early-mid ‘60s. My local public library had several of Kingsley Amis’ Spectrum anthology series, and a few of Horace Gold’s Galaxy Reader series, which gathered stories originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction. Once I exhausted what the library had I bought a pile of other anthologies as 75c mass-market paperbacks, most of which have fallen apart and were dumped in the 50-odd years since I was in high school. Groff Conklin edited quite a few, of which I only have two left: Elsewhere and Elsewhen (1968) and Great Science Fiction By Scientists (1962). I miss some of the casualties, like the marvelous Science Fiction Oddities (1966) granting that if I still had them, these old eyes would require a serious magnifying glass to read them.

I never did anything with my high-school stories. The earliest story I have that saw print is “Whale Meat,” (written in February 1971; I was in college by then) which appeared in Starwind Magazine (Published by Ohio State University’s SF club) in the early ‘80s and most recently in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories.

The first draft of ”Whale Meat” sounded peculiar and somehow oddly modern to me for a significant reason: I wrote it in present tense. Not because present tense was stylish in 1971. In truth, I don’t recall reading any fiction in present tense while I was in high school. Rather, I guessed that immortal witches who had been born in the 1300s would live their lives and think their thoughts in the literal now. “Whale Meat” passed through a couple of later drafts during my college years. At some point I decided, Nahhh, that’s too strange. Nobody’s going to like a story told all in present tense. I then rewrote it in conventional past tense. So much for SF writers predicting the future…of SF, at least.

An incomplete first draft titled “Prayers at the Plaster Virgin” came to hand, undated but as best I recall, 1974. I finished it sometime during the 1980s, and renamed it “Born Again, with Water.” You can find it in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories. It’s as close as I ever came (or likely will ever come) to writing a horror story.

Everything else I wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s remains unpublished, mostly for good reasons. The bulk of those reasons hover around my failure to create credible characters in high school. Keep in mind (especially if you’re young and haven’t read any of the pulps) that I was in good company: Most of the pulps were action/adventure or tech/science puzzle stories that didn’t really require fully fleshed-out characters to engage the reader. I was writing what I was reading, pretty much.

Clarion changed all that—which is the reason I sold my first stories into professional markets shortly after the Clarion Workshop.

Here and there I think I succeeded in telling a story…by accident. Among my high school stories is one called “The Strongest Spell,” which I remembered badly. It’s a battle of wills between science and witchcraft. In some peculiar post-apocalyptic future, humanity has divided itself into Scientists and Witches. A young boy scientist and a young witch-girl meet periodically at the border between their respective territories, and get into spell-casting contests. The boy has an invisibility technology skullcap. The girl imposes invisibility on herself with a spell. The boy has an antigravity belt that allows him to fly. The girl has a spell for that too. Year by year they grow up and it’s the same old stuff every year: the boy practicing bravado and the girl a quiet and subtle one-upmanship.

There’s something on the table: There are ancient starships in the Scientists’ camp—but the Scientists can’t make them work. The girl knows why, but she’s not talking.

When they’re sixteen the game changes. This time the girl leads off by casting a complicated and (to the scientist boy) inexplicable spell. She summons a Cthuloid monster, which the boy assumes is a weapon directed at himself. Except—the monster attacks the girl instead.

Brute force doesn’t work. The boy attacks the monster with his gadgets and gets nowhere. The creature has dozens of eyes. The boy gets in the monster’s face and forces it to make eye contact. No technology, no science, no muscle: When the monster meets the boy’s furious eyes, it caves, releases the girl from its tentacles, and vanishes.

The boy doesn’t really understand: He was showing off the power of his technology, but she was testing him. She could match him, gadget for spell. But what she wanted to know was something different: Does he have the courage to face down a monster that cares nothing for his technology? Would he risk his life to rescue someone who had always been his rival?

He does. When he bends down to pick her up, assuming she’s injured and intending to carry her back to her own people, she tells him the Big Secret: That the starships need both science and magic to work. Her final spell wasn’t really about the monster. It was an invitation to work with her to make the starships operate, for Scientists and Witches both. He puts his arms around her, puzzled but pleased. You can almost see her thinking:

It worked.

Her spell was stronger than his: Cooperation beats competition. It wasn’t explicitly a love story, but one gets the impression that the girl added something a little extra to her spell.

None of my other stories in that era ever came close to this in terms of subtlety, and I assume that my success with “The Strongest Spell” was purely accidental. It was full of tropes and typos, and on the surface a little dumb. Hey, I was fourteen. Sometimes you just get lucky.

I still haven’t finished reading that quirky pile of yellowing paper. If other insights occur to me, you’ll see them here.

New Public Domain Items for 2024

Every year on January 1, a whole lot of things enter the public domain. For the year 2024, anything published in 1928 suddenly belongs to everybody. There’s a substantial but not exhaustive list here on Google Docs. If (like me) you’re a fan of Tom Swift, Tom Swift and His Talking Pictures will now be free of charge and (soon) up on Project Gutenberg. In the long tail of the original series, only one Tom Swift novel was published per year. In 2025 we’ll get Tom Swift and His House on Wheels (1929) in which Tom basically invents the RV. Remember that this is the original series, which some call Tom Swift, Sr. Tom Swift Jr. will still be a long time off, running as it did between 1954 and 1971.

The first three Hardy Boys mysteries went public last year. Three more were published in 1928: The Missing Chums, Hunting for Hidden Gold, and The Shore Road Mystery. Keep in mind that the older Hardy Boys books were updated in the 50s and 60s; those volumes are still under copyright. Nancy Drew didn’t debut until 1930 but be patient; 2026 will be here before you know it.

The House at Pooh Corner and Bambi, a Life in the Woods go public in 2024, as do The Giant Horse of Oz, The Threepenny Opera, Millions of Cats, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Thea Von Harbou’s The Rocket to the Moon—in German. (We’ll get it in English in 2026.) Fritz Lang made a film of it, entitled The Woman in the Moon, in 1929. That same snag applies to All Quiet on the Western Front, which was published in 1928—in German. We won’t get the English translation until 2025.

And those are only the things I recognized. Now, don’t think for a second I forgot that the cartoon Steamboat Willie enters the public domain in 2024. That’s just the film; the character is heavily trademarked by Disney, and I doubt Steamboat Willie’s new public domain status will do anybody any good.

The public domain is a complicated business. It varies by country, so something under copyright here in the US might not be under copyright in, say, New Zealand. Even in the US, there are a lot of details, and gotchas like the issue of copyright renewal of works published before 1963, and much else. A good, accessible long-form overview of US copyright with a focus on 2024 can be had on CopyrightLately.

That’s about all I have time for right now. Once the new year gets underway, Project Gutenberg and will have lots of new items to post. If you spot a good one, do let me know.

Found it! (No Thanks to “Query By Humming”)

Well, after supper this evening I finally found a piece of music I had been searching for since, well, I’m not entirely sure.  But waaaaaay back when I was in third or fourth grade (think 1961-62) my Catholic grade school did a kind of a talent show, mostly by seventh and eighth graders. There was singing and dancing and music of various sorts, but one composition threw me back in my chair. Everything I liked and still like in music was there: melody, harmony, energy. The music was from a record (it was an instrumental) and what may have been an eighth-grade girl in a sequined costume did a dance routine that included baton twirling. (Add “baton twirling” to my list of things that are disappearing or are already gone.) I was impressed by her ability to dance and twirl at the same time, but the song—it has remained vivid in my memory to this day.

I can whistle it—and have whistled it for several people, in hope that they could name it. The name of the song was on the mimeographed show program that we all received, but as vivid as the song itself has remained, its name vanished into the mists of my personal history. I get the sense for a title like “Trumpet Jubilee” but no such song (as best I can tell) exists.

“Query-by-humming” is a term I first heard from David Stafford, and Google can actually do that—sorta. If I’m in a store and their Muzak channel is playing something that appeals to me, I yank out my phone, bring up Google, and hit the microsphone icon. The problem with Google is that it can only identify recorded music. I tried whistling the song into Google any number of times, but it always threw up its hands and gave up.

So this evening over dinner it occurred to me out of nowhere: That song sounds like something Leroy Anderson would do. So once we got the dishes done, I ran back in here to my office and looked for a list of Anderson compositions. No “Trumpet Jubilee.” But…”Bugler’s Holiday?” Dare I hope? I went to YouTube and found a recording by the US Army Band.

YESSSSS! That’s it!

There are a dozen performances on YouTube, all of them very listenable. One thing I found peculiar is that every single one of them seems faster than I recall the rendition played for that baton-twirling eighth grader in 1962. Maybe I hear it more slowly in my head because I can’t whistle anywhere near that fast.

Who cares! I found it!

(I’ve already scolded myself for grumbling that those are trumpets, not bugles.)

So. Look for something long enough, and sooner or later you’ll find it. In 1968 I heard a no-hit-wonder band play the Monkees song “Shades of Gray” exactly once…with a faint recall that the band was The Willoughbys. It took 35 years, but I eventually found it in a book listing rock 45s, only the band was The Will-O-Bees. I mentioned it here on Contra and actually got an email from Janet Blossom, their lead singer. I bought that 45 at a crufty used record store, ripped it and cleaned it up, and now I can play it whenever I want.

I’ll do the same with “Bugler’s Holiday.” Except now I’ll just go up to Amazon and buy the MP3. No ripping required.

Having scored this victory, I’ll now dredge the swamp in my brain to see what else in the line of music I might have forgotten that would be well worth listening to.

Still More Things That Are Slowly Vanishing (Or Gone)

Here’s another bunch, some from me, some from readers. Time passes. The world changes. More and more, the world that’s vanishing is the one we grew up in.

  1. Mechanical charge-card imprinters. You know, when charge cards used to have embossed numbers, and the store clerk would put your card down and a 3-carbon slip over it, and go snick-snick to transfer the embossed card number onto the charge slip. I haven’t had an embossed card for quite a few years, so these are well and truly gone.
  2. Pocket radios. I still have a couple of these, but I don’t remember when I last listened to any of them. Carol and I have had a “kitchen radio” (the solid state successor to the archetypal “All-American Five”) for over forty years. It’s in the kitchen. It doesn’t get much use.
  3. 4:3 computer monitors. Although you can get them used on EBay, the canonical 4:3 aspect ratio flat-screen monitor is long out of production. I have several, but if they ever flake out on me I suspect I’m going to buy a big-ass 9:16 and force myself to get used to it.
  4. Churchkeys. And by that I mean the kind with two ends: One to pop the tops from soda/beer bottles, and the other to poke triangular holes in soda and beer cans. Cans are all pull-tab now, and it’s only imported sodas (and some beers) that need a churchkey to open.
  5. Rolodexes. I still have one, and I still use it to keep significant business cards within easy reach. However, I’m pretty sure that my generation will be the last to use them on a daily basis.
  6. Green River soda. This was and would probably remain my all-time favorite soda—if I could still get it. We used to buy it at a quirky grocery store near our condo in Des Plaines IL. They had regular and diet, both in glass bottles and in 2-liter plastic bottles. I used to get the 2-liter diet sku, which I haven’t seen since we sold the condo in 2015. It still exists (and has its own web page) but can mostly be found in quirky little grocery stores in or near Chicago.
  7. In-house intercoms. The 1958 house Carol grew up in had one. Ours (1949) did not. The new house we bought here in AZ in 1990 had one, and that’s as recent as I’ve seen one. My folks had a Talk-a-Phone intercom put in when my sister was born, and for awhile it was a baby monitor. I took the two units apart circa 1969.
  8. Dehumidifiers. These generally sat in the basement, and a refrigerated coil of aluminum tubing would condense all that Chicago humidity into drips that gathered in a pull-out well in the bottom. These may still be in use in humid climates; needless to say, they aren’t necessary in Arizona.
  9. Superballs. Again, these may still exist, but I’ve never seen one recently like those we used in the mid-1960s: Their surfaces were under considerable tension, and even a tiny scratch would spread into a crack. Eventually they just split into chunks. But damn, those things bounced high.
  10. Pocket calculators. When every smartphone is a pocket calculator, there isn’t much call for standalone pocket calculators. I still have my late ‘70s red-LED TI Programmer, and my 1982-ish TI-30 SLR.
  11. Slot cars and retail slot car tracks. Bill Beggs reminded me of slot cars, which were never an interest of mine but in their heyday were a very big thing. There was a storefront slot-car track less than a mile from where I grew up, on Devon in Park Ridge. Long-gone. Still with us, however, is Dad’s Slot Cars in downtown Des Plaines, just outside Chicago. Fifteen years or so ago they added an ice-cream parlor at the back of the storefront. It’s only open on weekends now, but there must be slot car fans somewhere or it would not be open at all.
  12. Car CD players. My 1996 Jeep Cherokee was the first car I had that came with a CD player. The 2001 4Runner we bought not only had a CD player but a CD changer that could play six CDs without needing to reload. By the time we bought our 2014 Durango, the CD player had been superceded by the now-ubiquitous USB port and thumb drive player in the console.
  13. Rear-projection TVs. We bought one of these just before Christmas 2005, and used it until something inside it fizzled out and died in 2012. The picture, while big, was never exceptionally sharp, and once LED panels could be mass-produced in 56” (or more) diagonal sizes, rear projection died in a hurry. I had to pay $75 to a recycling company to get rid of it after it croaked.
  14. Pastel-colored toilets. These were huge in the late 1950s. Carol’s childhood home (1958) had three bathrooms, each with a toilet/sink of a different color. I believe we added a pink toilet and sink when my folks had a second bathroom put in in 1957. You can still get them, but they are now Midcentury Modern retro exotica.
  15. Pastel-colored Kleenex. This was common through the 1970s and then started getting scarce. Carol and I passed a light blue tissue between us as we knelt on the prie deux during our wedding mass in 1976, alternately mopping our eyes.
  16. Paper encyclopedias. My family bought the 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica. It was wonderful. Carol and I bought the 1974 edition shortly before we married in 1976. I read it a lot until the Internet happened, and then little by little Alta Vista searches (and later Google) made research a whole lot easier. We sold it to the people who bought our Colorado house when we moved back to Arizona in 2015. The leather bindings were drying out and cracking, and in truth we went years between sessions with it. I’ve heard they’re now “shelf candy,” and can be rented to stage houses.
  17. Dollar coins. Half-dollar coins died about 2001, though the US Mint struck collectables for a few years thereafter. Just to be perverse, I asked my bank for a few Sacajawea dollar coins circa 2012 and spent them. Older cashiers just grinned. Young people at the register looked hard at them. But really: When was the last time you handled or spent one?
  18. Horse racing. Like slot cars, I’ve never been interested in horse racing, but Rich Rostrom told me that the Chicago Bears bought Arlington Park racetrack, had the grandstands demolished, and may be planning a new football stadium there. Apparently horse racetracks are shutting down all over the country.
  19. Smoking pipes. (And I don’t mean crack pipes, or anything else in the line of drug paraphernalia.) This again came from Rich Rostrom, and he’s right. My father had a pipe but I never saw him smoke it. A friend and I tried to smoke marijuana in a cheap pipe in 1971, and mostly failed. I truly don’t remember the last time I was in the presence of a pipe smoker.
  20. Stove-top percolators. (This from Bill Beggs.) When I was a kid, my folks used a beat-up aluminum percolator to make their coffee. Mr. Coffee drove percolators off the edge of the world, and I think Mr. Coffee is now being shoved toward the same abyss by K-machines. I now mostly buy my coffee at McDonald’s.

Bring on the Twitter Killers!

The whole problem with social media (apart from being a hazard to some people’s sanity) is simple and ancient: Too much power in too few hands. And the threat to sanity could be managed if people cared to. There should not be five corporations controlling 90% of social media. There should be fifty. No, scratch that. Five hundred. My older readers might remember the BBS era. Those are the kinds of numbers I’d like to see.

Well, the solution may be in sight. Every time I turn around, someone is pushing a new, um, “Twitter-killer.” There are lots, most of them pretty new, some of them still requiring invites to join. Meta’s Instagram subsidiary has created something called Threads, which is still invite only and (obviously) I have not seen. (I don’t even think their server is publicly visible.)

Another one being pushed by the mainstream media is Spill, which is still invite-only, and targeted at Black folks. (I won’t say “African-Americans” because as best I know Spill’s reach will be global.) There’s Amino, for teens. I’m 71, but again, Yay!

Lifewire has a list. Have any of you every heard of Plurk? I haven’t. It has “an adorable interface.” Yay wow! (When’s the last time you saw the word “adorable” expressed without irony?) Aside from Mastodon and Tumblr, I’ve heard of none of them. But yeah, bring ‘em on.

The best list of Twitter alternatives I’ve seen here comes (predictably) from Vice. It’s a good article; at least skim it. New to me were Cohost, Post, Substack Notes, Spoutible, CounterSocial, and WT.Social. Other lists are out there, and many other social media sites are new (or new-ish) that I have heard of, like Bluesky, which is touted as a “decentralized Twitter.” Another that’s been around for some time is Discord. A lot of my friends are on LinkedIn, and although I’ve had a login for years, I don’t check it much.

There’s, which competes (as best I can tell) with Substack, though leaning toward shorter posts. Ello dates back to 2014 and was created by and still caters to artists and designers.

Of course, there are Gab and Minds, which offered less censorship of conservative users and positions. Parler was once in that space too, but I think they’re now defunct, though there is some talk about a relaunch.

My point? The more social networks there are, the less power a handful of social networks will have. Network effects are real, of course, and so is tribalism. I infer from the descriptions of some of these sites that they are silos for a particular ideology. That’s all to the good; I don’t like ideology. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter thinned out Twitter’s ideological machinery radically. That’s one reason I see no reason to leave Twitter. Musk is reinventing space technology. I like space technology. He’s ballsy, and seems to be deliberately annoying certain categories of users who liked Twitter’s traditional censorship via cowardly tricks like shadowbanning.

I see lots of people saying they’re leaving Twitter. I wonder how many actually are. I’m all for Twitter refugees finding a comfy home somewhere else. The sort of people who will flee a network because it doesn’t censor enough are people I’d just as soon not hang out with.

Of course, most of these networks will probably croak after a couple of years. But some may grow, and siphon off some of Twitter’s bellyachers. (I have some hopes for Bluesky and Threads.)

Will the new social networks really kill Twitter? Don’t be absurd. Most of us are happy with Musk’s changes. I’m even considering getting a verified account, just for the hell of it. I used to pay for Compuserve and LiveJournal, after all. I’m not averse to paying for what I use, if it’s useful enough.

Twitter, so far, has been more than useful enough.

RTL-SDR Software Defined Radio

I’ve been meaning to try software-defined radio (SDR) for a good long while. I had a suspicion that it would require some considerable research, and I was right. However, it wasn’t especially difficult or expensive to give it a shot. Amazon offers a kit that consists of an SDR USB dongle, plus some whip antennas and connecting cables. Price? $42.95. I also bought a book by the same outfit that offered the kit: The Hobbyist’s Guide to the RTL-SDR. Given that it’s 275 8 1/2 x 11  pages of small print, I’ll be plowing through it for awhile.

Of course, my first impulse is always to just run the damned thing, and do the research later. Very fortunately, the firm has a “quick start” page online, and by following its instructions (carefully) I got the product running in half an hour. The UI is reasonably well-designed:


It has the waterfall display and amplitude display that you would expect, plus the ability to detect AM, NBFM, WBFM, CW, USB, LSB, DSB, and RAW. There’s a squelch and several ways of selecting the tuner frequency. There are other things that I haven’t figured out yet, but that’s also to be expected.

The software is a free download (see the Quick Start Guide) with a slightly fussy installation mechanism that runs from a batch file. The dongle has an SMA connector on its end for an antenna. The kit includes a little tabletop photo tripod that can carry an adjustable whip dipole, which I put on the tripod and eyeballed at 100 MHz. Without further ado, my favorite FM classical station, KBAQ on 89.5 MHz, was roaring out of my headphones.

Although the dongle can technically tune from 500 KHz to 1.7 GHz, I found that there’s a low-frequency cutoff at 24 MHz. I saw some mumbling in the book about an upconverter, but haven’t explored it yet. The implication is that it’s part of the dongle but you have to select it as an option somewhere. I’ll get to that eventually.

The software installs on Win7 and up. I have a Win10 Intel NUC box that isn’t doing anything right now, and the plan is to put it in my workshop, where I can feed the SDR with the discone I have on a mast above the garage. It’s currently down in the garage for repairs—one of the cone elements fell off. All the more reason to put it back together and get it up on the mast again.

This isn’t supposed to be a review. I need to dig into the doc a lot deeper than I have so far before I can say with any confidence how good it is. It receives broadcast FM just fine. However, like most Arizona recent construction, this is a stucco-over-chickenwire house, which means (roughly) that I’m running the SDR in a so-so Faraday cage.

I see some fun in my near future. I’ll keep you all posted on what I can make it do and how well it performs. So far, so good.

Feet Have No Excuse

(If you haven’t read my entry for April 23 yet, please do so—this entry is a follow-on, now that I’ve had a chance to do a little more research.)

AI image generators can’t draw hands worth a rat’s heiny. That’s the lesson I took away from my efforts some days ago, trying to see if any of the AI imagers could create an ebook cover image for my latest novelette, “Volare!” It wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just the two image generators I tried. If you duckduck around the Web you’ll find a great many essays asking “Why can’t AIs draw hands and feet?” and then fail to answer the question.

The standard answer (and it’s one I can certainly accept, with reservations) is that human hands are very complicated machines with a lot of moving parts and a great many possible positions. I would argue that an infinite variety of positions is what hands are for—and are in fact the reason that we created a high-tech civilization. Even artists have trouble drawing hands, and to a lesser extent, feet. This is a good long-form tutorial on how to draw hands and feet. Not an easy business, even for us.

In photographs and drawn/painted art, hands are almost always doing things, not just resting in someone’s lap. And in doing things, they express all those countless positions that they take in ordinary and imaginary life. So if AIs are trained by showing them pictures of people and their hands, some of those pictures will show parts of hands occluded by things like beer steins and umbrella handles, or—this must be a gnarly challenge—someone else’s hands. In some pictures, it may look like hands have four fingers, or perhaps three. Fingers can be splayed or together and clenched against their palm. AIs are pattern matchers, and with hands and especially fingers, there are a huge number of patterns.

So faced with too many patterns, the AI “guesses,” and draws something that violates one or more traits of all hands.

The most serious flaw in this reasoning comes from elsewhere in the body: feet. In the fifty-odd images the AIs created of a barefoot woman sitting in a basket, deformed feet were almost as common as deformed hands. This is a lot harder to figure, for this reason: feet have nowhere near the number of possible positions that hands have. About the most extreme position a foot can have is curled toes. Most of the time, feet are flat on the floor, and that’s all the expressive power they have. This suggests that AIs should have no particular trouble with feet.

But they do.

I’ll grant that in most photos and art, feet are in shoes, while hands generally go naked except in bad weather or messy/hazardous work. So there are fewer images of feet to train an AI. I had an AI gin up some images this morning from the following description: “A woman sitting in a wicker basket in a nightgown, wearing ballet slippers.” I did five or six, and the best one is below:

Woman In Basket in Ballet Slippers

Her left leg seems smaller than her right, which is a different but related problem with AI images. And her hands this time, remarkably, are less grotesque than her arms. But add some ballet slippers, and the foot problem goes away. The explanation should be obvious: In a ballet slipper, all feet look more or less alike. The same is likely the case for feet in Doc Martin boots or high-top sneakers. (I may or may not ask an AI for an image of a woman in sandals, because I think I already know what I’d get.)

There were other issues with the images I got back from the two AIs I messed with, especially in faces. Even in the relatively good image above, her face seems a little off. This may be because we humans are very good at analyzing faces. Hands and feet, not so much. Defects there have to be more serious to be obvious.

Anyway. The real problem with AI image generation is that they are piecing together bits of images that they’ve digested as part of their training. They are not creating a wire-frame outline of a human body in a given position and then fleshing it out. At best they’re averaging thousands or millions of images of hands (or whatever) and smushing them together into an image that broadly resembles a human being.

Not knowing the nature of the algorithms that AI image generators use, I can’t say whether this is a solvable problem or not. My guess is that it’s not, not the way the software works today. And this is how we can spot deepfakes: Count fingers. The hands don’t lie.

Why All the Layoffs?

Really. Why so many, and why now? I’ve been sniffing around looking for insights. The insights have been thin. I have some thoughts that may seem a little blue-sky. Let me put a few of them in front of you to see what y’all think.

  1. Elon Musk did it. Well, not exactly. Elon Musk started it, by buying Twitter and owning it completely. The first thing you do after buying the meat is cut the fat, which he proceeded to do, bigtime. What came next was a classic instance of monkey see, monkey do. Once Musk showed the tech world that it was possible, the tech world, perhaps terrified of their employees before, began to do the same. Once corporate management saw that they wouldn’t be hung from the lampposts, they began cutting their own (considerable) fat.
  2. Higher interest rates did it. Elon Musk started it, but now that the Fed is raising interest rates to bring money-supply inflation down, the cost of cash is going up fast. Cash flow matters more than profitability in some respects. You can be profitable on paper and not have enough cash on hand to make payroll. Shrink payroll, and your cash flow requirements ease up a little. I’ve lived this issue. I know that it’s true. But the core problem here is actually my next insight:
  3. Tech firms hired all the heads they could afford, rather than all the heads they needed. Heads are easier to afford when interest rates are hovering close to zero, as they have for quite a few years now. Once again, Elon Musk put this problem up in lights. He said that all over Twitter there were managers who managed managers who managed…nothing. Thousands of people working at Twitter had absolutely nothing to do. Musk realized that Twitter would work just fine with 7,500 fewer people on the payroll. Predictions that Twitter would implode without all those idle bodies never came true. That was back in November. When January arrived and Twitter was working just fine, the rest of the tech world dove into that admittedly chilly pond. Yes, but why did they overhire? Maybe this:
  4. Tech firms were afraid that in a tight job market, they might not be able to hire the people they needed. So they hired more than they needed, to keep other tech firms from snapping all the talent up first. I can almost understand this, given how much airtime was given to the supposedly desperate search for workers over the COVID era. (I had my doubts about its truth back then. I still do.) So in a sense there was an employment bubble in tech…and Elon Musk popped it.

Those are my insights. The chattering classes, who now (with devalued bluechecks) loathe Musk down to the last person, haven’t tried to blame him for it, though I think they could make a good case if they wanted to. Musk won’t care. He’s laughing at them, as well he should. I’ve heard rumors that if Starlink rolls out as designed, Musk will have his talent design an iPhone workalike capable of connecting to Starlink. That would be one helluva game-changer. The guy can land rocket boosters on a barge and use them again and again. Don’t be too quick to decide what other bubbles he can’t possibly pop.

A Conversation (Sort of) With ChatGPT

An AI chatbot named ChatGPT has been getting a tremendous amount of publicity lately, and a boggling amount of what I consider unwarranted acceptance, bordering on the ridiculous. No, alas. That border is now behind us: Buzzfeed will soon begin using ChatGPT to generate content for their sites, which include the Huffington Post. The source is a paywalled article in the Wall Street Journal, or I’d post a link. Doesn’t matter. Buzzfeed is clearly trying to replace human writers with an AI. Their investors evidently think it’s a good idea, given that the Buzzfeed stock price rose 92% later that day.  I’d say I’m skeptical but I’m always skeptical. Being skeptical is part of my worldview. Other skeptics are out there: One clever wag on Twitter pretty much nailed it when he said, “Journos should have learned to code before the code learned to journo.” 

Heh. Anyway, after I stopped giggling I went over and created a free account at ChatGPT. You might recall my experiments with AIs writing fiction given a few sentences to start with. It was weird. Indie SF writers are in no danger, at least for the time being. I wanted to give ChatGPT a fair chance, just like I gave Sudowrite last year. Sudowrite started out weird and got weirder. Well, hey, I wanted to see it write fiction. My challenge to ChatGPT is to answer technical questions accurately and usefully.

It’s a chat program. So I started a chat:

Jeff: Will there ever be 128-bit CPUs?

I get asked this question a lot. My answer will be in the upcoming fourth edition of x64 Assembly Language Step By Step. It’s relatively simple, though there is some nuance.

ChatGPT’s first response:

It is possible that there will be 128-bit CPUs in the future, but it is not a certainty. The development of CPU architecture is driven by a variety of factors, including performance, power efficiency, and cost. Additionally, the need for increased computational power may be met through other means, such as the use of multiple cores or specialized hardware. As a result, the use of 128-bit CPUs will depend on the specific requirements of various applications and the availability of other solutions.

Hmmm. Saying this is sophomoric would be a slander on sophomores. But rather than reply to it immediately, I was given the option to re-generate the response. I clicked the button. ChatGPT thought (erk) for a few seconds and replied:

ChatGPT’s second response:

It is possible that there will be 128-bit CPUs in the future, but it is not clear what the need for such a large word size would be. Current 64-bit CPUs are more than capable of handling the vast majority of computing tasks and the industry has not yet identified a need for CPUs with larger word sizes. Additionally, the development of new technologies such as quantum computing may render traditional CPUs obsolete in the future.

This, in fact, is true, though it was still pretty much an obvious answer to a subtle question. So I clicked the “Regenerate” button again.

ChatGPT’s third response:

It is possible that there will eventually be 128-bit CPUs, but it is not currently a technology that is in widespread use or development. The current standard for most consumer CPUs is 64-bit, and there are also 32-bit CPUs still in use. The need for a 128-bit CPU would likely depend on advancements in technology and a growing demand for more processing power and memory capacity.

Sigh. Drink from the same well and you get the same water. I figured I needed a better question. I had one lined up and ready to go:

Jeff: Aren’t 128-bit registers useful for math?

128-bit registers can be useful for certain types of math, particularly for tasks such as floating-point operations and high-precision computations. Larger registers can increase the precision and accuracy of calculations, as well as allow for more efficient processing of large data sets. However, the need for 128-bit registers would likely depend on the specific application and whether the benefits of larger registers outweigh the cost of implementing them in terms of power consumption and hardware complexity.

I didn’t bother to regenerate this one. So far it seemed to be scraping Google, and while I mostly agreed with its answer, I would hope that Buzzfeed would require something more focused and in-depth. So I mulled it a little more and asked a third rather leading question. Read it carefully. There’s a lollapalooza in there:

Jeff: Wouldn’t the vector registers in the AVX-512 math subsystem make 128-bit registers unnecessary?

AVX-512 (Advanced Vector Extensions 512-bit) is an extension to the x86 instruction set that is designed to improve the performance of floating-point and vector operations. One of the key features of AVX-512 is the use of 512-bit wide vector registers, which can be used for a wide range of scientific, engineering, and financial workloads. The wide vector registers in AVX-512 can be seen as an alternative to 128-bit wide registers, as it allows to perform more operations in parallel with a single instruction, but it doesn’t necessarily make 128-bit registers unnecessary. For example, in certain types of workloads, it might be more beneficial to have a few large 128-bit registers rather than many smaller 512-bit registers. Ultimately, the choice of register size would depend on the specific requirements of the application and the trade-offs between performance, power consumption, and hardware complexity.

Bzzzzzzzzzt! Suddenly ChatGPT’s distant descent from poor ol’ Eliza became obvious. A few large 128-bit registers might be better than a bunch of smaller 512-bit registers. Right? Right?

I may test it more as time permits. After all, it’s free. But this will have to do for today. Among other things, I write humorous stories about AI. Looks like I just wrote another, without even trying.

Sudowrite would be proud.