Forget Trump. Let's Have Some NICE THINGS.
Photo by Daniel Stockman, Creative Commons license 2.0

It's Sunday, and that means it's time for a break from the ongoing grind of awfulness out there. Let's dive into some cool, funny, thoughtful stuff to fortify ourselves before we get back to the daily madness, shall we?

Artificial Weirdness

One of our favorite online distractions -- but we repeat ourselves -- is the AI Weirdness blog by computer research scientist Janelle Shane, who likes to program neural networks to consume a bunch of information and then spit out their own versions of... things. Like for instance some Valentines Day candy hearts, which was the post that got me to sign up for her weekly newsletter last year. Some of the messages seemed almost plausible, if a bit unorthodox:

Of course, what makes AI Weirdness fun are the examples where the AI gets close, but eats the cigar and calls it a sweaty llama:

If you sign up for Shane's weekly newsletter, she'll send you content that may be a little less PG-rated than the stuff she puts on the blog for just anyone. From the candy hearts supplement, a few samples of a neural net working blue:


Shane has her own meatspace network of educators and other assorted nerds working with AI, and they often provide her with post topics, like for instance a middle school teacher in Austin who had her coding classes program a text generation program (textgenrnn) to create ice cream flavors. As it happens, Shane had that very week been playing around with the very same idea. Here are a few perfectly cromulent flavors the kids in Anita Johnson's classes came up with:

  • It's Sunday
  • Cherry Poet
  • Brittle Cheesecake
  • Honey Vanilla Happy
  • hmm
  • Holy Lemon Monster
  • Cookies & Red Hot Lover

Inevitably, some flavors veered toward the Uncanny Ice Cream Valley:

  • Cupsie Core
  • Washing Chocolate
  • Peanut Cinnamon Budge
  • the United Bacon de Vanilla
  • Texas Boy Nut
  • Strawberry Moons
  • Pretzel Egg
  • Cookies and Green
  • Sea Cheesecake
  • Mango Cats
  • Lemon Cream Grassplay

Not to mention the ones that might just as well be products of the Whizzo Chocolate Company:

  • Pumpkin Trash Break
  • Peanut Butter Slime
  • Gravy Cashew
  • Bug
  • Lament
  • Ants-Almond Cheesecake
  • Chocolate Gingerbread Bum
  • Caramel Livers
  • Elk Peanut Southe
  • Sand & Cream
  • Toffee Frog (!!!!! but was it crunchy?)
  • Snake Vanilla Cream Cheesecake

Turns out the kids came up with far more edible-sounding flavors, probably because the program "remembers" a little bit of its previous dataset. In Shane's case, that had been a project to generate heavy metal band names. Yes, there was some overlap:

  • Silence Cherry
  • Strawberry Cream Disease
  • Chocolate Sin
  • Bloody Coffee
  • Sock Caramel
  • Chocolate Raven
  • Moan Chocolate
  • Chocolate Chocolate Blood
  • Colon Bane

Shane tried again with a different program that didn't "remember," but darned if she still didn't end up with some really edgy flavors. She blames "Death by Chocolate" and "blood orange" in her dataset for at least some of the delicious iced mayhem, but not all or it:

"nose" was nowhere in the input, candied or otherwise. Nor was "turd," for that matter. Ice cream places are getting edgy these days, but not THAT edgy.

Her flavors:

  • Bloodie Chunk
  • Death Bean
  • Goat Cookie
  • Peanut Bat
  • Candied Nose
  • Creme die
  • Chocolate Moose Mange [A mangey Møøse once bit my sister]
  • Lime Pig
  • Beet Bats
  • Blood Sundae
  • Kaharon Chocolate Mouse Gun
  • Gu Creamie Turd

We could probably fill a whole post with this stuff! But there's other great stuff to get to, so let's just remind you to check out the AI-generated cookie names ('Sugar person sugar masts," anyone?), Joke-shaped things that are not jokes (many sound like something tiny kids would come up with), high school Robotics Team Names ("MERM!" and "Robot Robotics of the Robotics"), and Burlesque show names ("Sex Your Eye Out!" "Gourdraiser!"). One of the show names generated for that post, "My Rear's On The Sexy," went on to grace a real burlesque show in Seattle, although we'd gladly attend some of the others, like "The Stripper Stripper Dave Burlesque Show." Also worth noting: the burlesque post was apparently steamy enough that Tumblr's algorithm briefly censored it as "adult material." Ironic coincidence, or AI-ception?

History Coolness!

The Washington Post'sRetropolis feature is just full of history goodness today. First up, there's a piece on the very first congressional investigation of the executive branch, which looked into why a 1791 military expedition was wiped out by Native Americans in what's now Indiana. Over 600 troops died in the surprise attack, the US military's worst defeat by Native people ever. The investigation involved a bunch of firsts, like the basic question of whether Congress had the power to investigate the executive at all (both branches decided yeah, although initially some in the House wanted to direct George Washington to do the investigation himself).

And it involved the first call to invoke executive privilege:

According to Jefferson, Hamilton had reservations about giving Congress access to executive branch documents because lawmakers "might demand secrets of a very mischievous nature." But the Cabinet, including Hamilton, nevertheless agreed that the president should give the committee all papers that "the public good would permit," but "ought to refuse those the disclosure of which would harm the public."

Ultimately, Washington turned over all the papers the House committee asked for, and the resulting report mostly exonerated Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair and blamed War Secretary Henry Knox instead. (Oh, hey, spoiler warning.) Knox lobbied for further investigation, and must have influenced at least some in the House, since, after the election of 1792, the new Congress let the matter drop without a vote on the committee report. We bet Trey Gowdy still wants to know find out whether Hillary Clinton ordered St.Clair's troops to stand down.

History Coolness II

Omar ibn Said, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

The Post also brings us an article about an amazing acquisition by the Library of Congress this month: the 1831 autobiography of Omar ibn Said, who was captured and sold into slavery in 1807 at the age of 37. He was already a scholar in West Africa, where he had studied for 25 years, but once enslaved on a North Carolina plantation, he was called "Morro" or "Uncle Moreau." And at a time when teaching literacy to enslaved people was illegal, he wrote his own brief memoir in Arabic, the only known slave narrative in that language.

And unlike many slave narratives, its author penned it while still held in slavery -- Ibn Said never saw freedom. He died in 1864, before he end of the Civil War.

Perhaps because he knew almost no whites could read it, ibn Said was remarkably frank in his contempt for the institution of slavery, according to Mary-Jane Deeb, head of the LOC's African and Middle Eastern Division. The manuscript opens with the Koran's Surah (chapter) 67, which WaPo notes "states that God has dominion over all things."

"Of all the chapters in the Koran, he picked that one," Deeb said. "In Islam, everything belongs to God. No one really is an owner. ... So the choice of that verse is extremely important. It's a fundamental criticism of the right to own another human being."

His own text is hardly any more sparing of the institution or his first owner:

My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tûr, between the two rivers. [I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language. There they sold me to a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.

Fut Tûr is in modern-day Senegal. He ran away but was recaptured and sold to plantation owner James Owen, who would eventually serve in Congress. He wrote that unlike "Johnson," James Owen and his brother John (eventually a governor of North Carolina) were "good men, for whatever they eat, I eat, and whatever they wear they give me to wear." And yes, kids, the Owens were examples of the mythical "good" slave-owner, a trope used before the war and ever since as a rhetorical excuse for owning human beings. Why, yes, you can still find the "good masters" praised in modern right-wing "Christian"-school textbooks. After all, they brought the heathen blacks the Gospel and then the slaves sang spirituals, how beautiful.

But we digress -- go read the WaPo piece, and then look at the Library Of Congress manuscripts, which include other documents as well, like an undated translation of the narrative by Isaac Bird, which is surprisingly readable, or this transcription of Bird's translation. It's a hell of a read.

History Coolness III

Tomorrow is the official Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (his actual birthday was Tuesday the 15th), so hey, how about we remember some of King's speeches BEYOND the 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech? It's a great speech, but there was so much more to the man than his biggest hit.

Bernice King celebrated her father's legacy with this tweet of MLK answering a bigoted question (Why aren't The Blacks successful like other 'immigrant' groups were?) with characteristic brilliance, leaving the "what are you, an idiot?" part up to the viewer, who could hear it all the same.

Anyone painting King as a conventional "patriot" has to contend with his April 4, 1967 sermon at New York City's Riverside Church, "Beyond Vietnam," in which King explained how the anti-war views he'd been talking about since at least 1965 dovetailed with his Civil Rights work. King argued the Vietnam conflict was undermining the progress of the movement and the nation's tentative steps toward ending segregation:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools [...]

For those who ask the question, "Aren't you a civil rights leader?" and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: "To save the soul of America." [...]

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read "Vietnam." It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.

Here, give a listen:

While we're at it, let's spend time with King's message of economic justice, his "Other America" speech, delivered just ten days later at Stanford University. In one America, the wealthy one, it's easy to "experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions." In the other, that's just not so:

In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist [...]

In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children. Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies. As we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams. Many people of various backgrounds live in this other America. Some are Mexican Americans, some are Puerto Ricans, some are Indians, some happen to be from other groups. Millions of them are Appalachian whites. But probably the largest group in this other America in proportion to its size in the population is the American Negro.

Next time some rightwing idiot starts arguing the "Dream" speech magically proves King wanted a "color-blind" America that ignored real racial disparities -- or worse, suggests King would somehow be a Republican today -- feel free to say "Oh, REALLY? and hit 'em with these two speeches.

Martin Luther King was a troublemaker of the very best sort. Never let them turn him into a nice fellow who uncritically loved America and waved the flag, goddamn it.

OK, dang, this turned into a long history dive on heavy stuff (we have an odd definition of "nice things," which tends more toward "Holy wow, look at this!" than "isn't that sweet"), so next week we'll hit more stuff, like occupational and literary Twitter games, and Truckers with Cats. Yes, a place on Reddit that's NICE!

[AI Weirdness / WaPo / WaPo / Library of Congress / WETA-TV / "Beyond Vietnam" / "The Other America" / Omar ibn Said photo: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Libraries /Top photo by Daniel Stockman, Creative Commons License 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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