Skip to content

The Whippet #174: Extending my physical influence

McKinley Valentine — 12 min read

On this page

Exciting news! I'm a columnist in an actual print magazine (although I am about to tell you to buy the ebook version if you live outside Europe because postage costs). Skip this if you don't want the gratuitous self-promotion!

Although this is technically a kickstarter, there are no stretch goals or merch, it's really just the way you pre-order upcoming issues of the magazine.

New Escapologist is a small-press magazine about escape.

We do not dwell on short-term or commercial escapes like television or beach holidays: we're far more interested in well-planned, longer-term escapes from the worker-consumer treadmill into lives of imaginative creativity.

We study things like small business, cottage industry, and becoming an artist or craftsperson. We interview successful and prominent escapees to see how they did it and what they're up to now. We review books, art, culture, and ideas on the theme of escape. We offer a sense of community to successful and budding escape artists through our our letters pages and our new "Workplace Woes" section. We do all of this with a sense of wit, artfulness, and fun.

I've been a huge fan of Rob Wringham since I read Escape Everything! maybe 15 years ago? It was ahead of its time and gave a lot of practical tips on how to convince your boss to let you work from home, but it was also a manifesto. I felt the way some people must have felt the first time they watched Office Space. Except this stuff is... actually doable. It's idle day-dreaming but then you're like "oh, that actually is not such a big step? Like I can't get there right now, but I wouldn't have to get rich and famous before it was achievable, those are normal-person actions." And I think like, yes we mostly have WFH now, but the screws are tightening in a lot of other ways so this stuff still matters, and anyway we can find to be more free is welcome. (I'm being overly earnest and should note here that Rob Wringham is a comedy writer and the tone is much more light and fun than I've made out.)

It's not just me and Rob Wringham in there, it's a bunch of other great writers, you can see who they are here.

'Articles' icon

Danny Lavery on Twitter

The green heron fishes by using breadcrusts and dead insects as bait

Wikipedia says the green heron is "one of the few known tool-using species" but I clicked through to and buddy, there are more than a few.

Every time there's a new discovery on animal intelligence, they're always like "previously, we thought only humans and great apes could recognise themselves in the mirror!" despite this being the 50th such discovery that another species can. (If you think political reporting is bad – it's actually all of it. Journalists are always not putting in the relevant historical context that would change how you see the current news event.)

Now this is the kind of hard-hitting journalism we need more of

Green herons fish by collecting bread crusts and dead insects to use as bait. They drop it in the water then wait for a fish.

Apparently there's some debate as to whether that counts as a tool, because "the bread is not manipulated or held by the bird," which seems uncharitable.

I like these two definitions:

An object carried or maintained for future use.
— Finn, Tregenza, and Norman, 2009

The use of physical objects other than the animal's own body or appendages as a means to extend the physical influence realized by the animal.
— Jones and Kamil, 1973

(I like seeing formal definitions of everyday words that I take for granted; it's strange how many words we use with complete clarity that we can't actually define)

crest up!!

okay I want to talk about AI— WAIT DON'T GO

or, "if you only read one thing about AI, make it this"

[this is all gonna be a write-up of Dave Karpf's piece Two Failure Modes of Emerging Technologies – don't want to waste your time if you've already read it]

I read his piece three months ago, and it's only got more relevant as events unfold. Ot's a take that's been washed and worn and stress-tested and I promise is worth your time. Content warning for general grim-ness.

So Karpf says that a new technology can fail in two ways. The first is the one everyone talks about and worries about: the tech works extremely well, and then gets used for nefarious purposes. He gives the example of Apple AirTags: they work super well! You can find your keys when you lose them and your bike when it's stolen, it actually does the job it intends to. But also, creeps slip them into women's handbags in order to stalk them. That's how people mostly talk about the future of AI: what if it works super well, but gets used for evil? what if it takes our jobs?

[Obligatory reminder that I'm using the word "AI" even though it's a terrible descriptor for Chat-GPT, which doesn't have 'intelligence' (or stupidity). Chat-GPT doesn't know what the words it says mean, it's just seen a lot of patterns and can rearrange words to match the patterns it's seen. It's predictive text.]

The other failure mode is: what if it's not very good, but it gets widely adopted anyway? That's like facial recognition software. It doesn't do what it's intended to, misidentifies people a lot, and in particular tends to think all black people look the same. Which isn't automatically a problem – lots of ideas don't pan out, or need more work before they're ready, or should only be used in specific contexts. The problem is that law enforcement and airport customs etc adopted facial recognition tech even though it doesn't really work, leading to a bunch of wrongful arrests.

When people worry about facial recognition tech in sci-fi, they imagine it's very good at its job, that you can't go anywhere without being tracked. But 'super-effectiveness' is not actually the main way it has done harm.

So with that in mind, let me tell you a thing that happened with AI recently:

The National Eating Disorders Association (a US non-profit) fired some of its helpline operators and replaced them with a chatbot. When distressed people messaged the eating disorder helpline, the chatbot told them to restrict their calorie intake and weigh themselves regularly – advice that is likely to make an ED worse. (Eating disorders have a much higher mortality rate than depression, so that's the stakes we're talking about.) When this came out, the helpline shut down completely. [Guardian article]

So that's pretty clearly not AI being "too powerful", right? Ditto the influx of AI-written articles that are riddled with errors.

People are asking "will AI take my job?" and the media has answered with discussion of AI capabilities and what jobs it might be able to do well. But that's not really the failure mode that seems to be happening. The question is more, "will I be replaced with AI despite the fact that it can't do my job at all?" and the answer probably depends on the brazen short-sightedness of your boss/company/industry.

Anyway my suggestion is, when you're reading future stories about AI (and other tech), keep an eye out for which failure mode you're actually seeing happen. Not predictions, but real events.

(Because the other point made by Karpf is that 'fear of a too-powerful AI' articles are advertisements. Like imagine if I could get the media to write thinkpieces saying "Could reading The Whippet make you so intelligent and attractive that you alienate your friends and intimidate prospective dates? Will The Whippet trigger a new loneliness epidemic??"
– that's not really criticism, is it? That's basically what you should have in mind time you read a breathless AI cataclysm article.)

Two Failure Modes of Emerging Technologies
Some thoughts on AI and sociotechnical thought experiments.

I only focused on and expanded one main point of Karpf's piece – there's other valuable stuff in the original ^


New topic: amazing what parts of normal speech apparently used to be slang! This is from around 1910, about organising an Australian-led Antarctic expedition (hence "nearest to the proposed field of investigation")


Excerpt: Ghosts of the Tsunami

Illustration by Dadu Shin

This is an excerpt from an absolutely excellent book about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. (I listened to the audiobook version and the narrator is great.) It's whatever the opposite of that exploitative voyeurism you get in some true crime. Not disaster-porn, but still in something like awe of the immensity of the destruction the tsunami can cause. Mostly very human stories. Sad and haunting but not depressing, also very warm in places because of how people changed and reoriented their lives in the aftermath.

(And the following is not meant to be read as in "ooh spooky ghost stories", but to think about what it means that so many people began to see them, if you believe they're not lying, which I do. I'm very interested in ghosts, as a cultural phenomenon and metaphor. I don't spend much time thinking about whether they're 'real' or not, that is not so interesting to me – as the priest says in the excerpt, "what matters is that people are seeing them")

A fire station in Tagajo received calls to places where all the houses had been destroyed by the tsunami. The crews went out to the ruins anyway, prayed for the spirits of those who had died — and the ghostly calls ceased.

A taxi in the city of Sendai picked up a sad-faced man who asked to be taken to an address that no longer existed. Halfway through the journey, the driver looked into his mirror to see that the rear seat was empty. He drove on anyway, stopped in front of the leveled foundations of a destroyed house, and politely opened the door to allow the invisible passenger out at his former home.

At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbor would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she had sat was wet with seawater.

Such stories came from all over the devastated area. Priests — Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist — found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about “the ghost problem,” and academics at Tohoku University began to catalog the stories. In Kyoto, the matter was debated at a scholarly symposium.

“Religious people all argue about whether these are really the spirits of the dead,” Kaneta [a Buddhist priest] told me. “I don’t get into it, because what matters is that people are seeing them, and in these circumstances, after this disaster, it is perfectly natural. So many died, and all at once. At home, at work, at school — the wave came in and they were gone. The dead had no time to prepare themselves. The people left behind had no time to say goodbye. Those who lost their families, and those who died — they have strong feelings of attachment. The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead. It’s inevitable that there are ghosts.”

The rest of the free excerpt is here:

The Ghosts of the Tsunami - Longreads
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami killed thousands in Japan. Those left behind were haunted by the dead, and some were possessed by them.

Unsolicited Advice

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard

Alamy trying to claim copyright on a blatantly public domain image

Came across this the other day and really love it! To my ear, it criticises an attitude that I think is super prevalent and super harmful.

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.

When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’
They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’
He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’
When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received a denarius.
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius.
And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

— Matthew 20:1–16, New Revised Standard Version

Wikipedia reckons it's about how early converts to Christianity shouldn't be mad at late-in-life converts for getting the same reward (eternal life in heaven).

But as a non-Christian it makes me think of the sentiment you often hear from any generation older than yours. In summary: "I had to do it tough, so why should you get it easy?"

I've heard older female celebrities say this about #MeToo and I've heard it from people resisting basically any policy that might make life not such a struggle all the damn time. I think it's a big thing holding us back! I don't have much insight, because the attitude is completely alien to me. I guess... it feels unfair, when you had to suffer, that someone else might... not... have to??

No I mean I get why you'd feel a strong sense of unfairness when there's a chance it could be remedied – like if I get paid less than you for the same work, I think making a fuss might mean having my pay brought up to yours. But when it was 30 years in the past, when it's too late to make it better for your younger self, but it could still be better for someone new...

I try to be even-handed when there's an attitude that I don't share, but that is really common, because that means it's a normal part of humanity and there's no point shaming people for it. I don't want people to feel ashamed (that would contradict my claim that we shouldn't want others to suffer needlessly), but I do think: un-normal it, if you can. It's good if someone else doesn't have to struggle like we did, an unadulterated good.


Thanks for reading! Unusually political this issue, expect much less next time

If you've been forwarded this email, you can sign up for free here.


Sign in or become a Whippet subscriber (free or paid) to add your thoughts.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.