Discover more from Life Litter
Getting paid to waste the days
On asymmetrical butterflies, why you shouldn’t eat blackberries in October and some more on the AI crawly bots — again.
“My heart in hiding …”
— The Windhover, Manley Hopkins
I went for a walk today.
It’s been a long Covid-y week and it felt great to pull on my boots and head up the hill in front of my house.
I’ve got a few thoughts rolling in my head and I’m wondering if the walk will make any of them any clearer.
Reader, I leave that to you to judge.
One bit really stuck for me:
So, OpenAI is working on artificial bodies for artificial intelligence.
This, to get around the issue of AI only being able to recycle what we feed it.
Altman wants to release AI into the world to have its own experiences and generate its own insights about those experiences, just like we do.
Right now, the problem he has is that AIs are incapacitated. They are just … standing still.
I wonder why they are bothering to give AI its own body. There are enough bodies already moving around this world. I think about how everyone’s phones cumulatively build up a picture of an event, seen from a hundred sets of eyes. I think about Apple Health telling the truth of our lives, tracking our heart beats at the precise moment we saw that picture of our ex.
Joel also told me there’s something called Life Streaming, where people stream their life, wear something that records everything so they can play it back. It captures conversations and moments: a dash cam of your life. I think back to times we’ve argued and how I’ve wanted to film him so he can see what I see. What an invasion that would be. Will life streamers need to procure my consent before dash camming the experience of meeting me? What kind of consent will I need to give for an AI bot to draw conclusions about me when I pass it on the street?
Today was the first morning of frost. Crimson clover was splashed about in reckless abundance and inedible red haws, everywhere. There were rosehips in the hedges and still some purple blackberries on the north facing slopes. It was a bad year for berries, no sun. I know you’re not supposed to eat blackberries after Michaelmas but I decided to risk it. I pulled a couple and they were delicious, perfect.
A bot wouldn’t know, I thought to myself, how good the berries are right now. Or would it?
I saw a butterfly alight on a leaf in the hedge near me and stopped. Edged closer. What insights would a bot have here? I noticed the central dark patch and the spots around its edge. How the velvet of its thorax had texture and rippled like bioluminesce, as if underwater.
I was reminded of something I read once about butterflies. There are some rare butterflies that display asymmetry; one wing, the long-tailed male pattern and the other, the shorter-tailed female mosaic. It’s called bilateral gynandromorphy; half-male, half-female.
Now, bilateral gynandromorphs are vanishingly rare: that rare phenomenon wherein some butterflies exhibit asymmetry in their wings, a mixing of male and female.
This is another thing I was thinking about on my walk: gender roles, in all their much-contested nonsense. I work full-time, as does Joel. For me, it’s never been an option not to. I had to feed my baby and give him a home. My job is a means to an end: the only end worthwhile enough to tempt me into corporate hallways.
Would I rather have stayed home with my baby? Yes. One million times, yes. I appreciate this is not the case for all women, some of whom long to return to work. I’m not trying to speak for all women.
I can only speak for myself, and imperfectly at that.
Would I rather have stayed home with my baby, when he was a baby? Yes. Are there other women who would rather chew their arms off than stay home? Also, yes.
We are all different.
Now that I’ve made it through the hell flames of early motherhood, that cuts such a swathe through the working female populace, I feel a great responsibility to keep at it.
But, to whom do I feel that responsibility, I wonder?
I listened to a guy at the sushi counter in London recently talking to a much younger colleague — an intern, I think. Talking to is wrong: he talked at, or over, her all through lunch. An uninterrupted stream of empty-speak about hitting numbers and clients and certain contacts being gold and inviting them to the Oktoberfest event tonight because they’re untapped gold and this is the way to hit those big sales numbers.
Wide eyed, she said: “I don’t know how Rachel does it.”
The implication is clear: Rachel is obviously older, obviously juggling children and home stuff.
“Well,” significant look from him. “With a lot of help from her friends.”
“Oh really?” I cottoned on to her then. She isn’t being wide-eyed. She’s driving in the knife: the silly, little, turkey-voting-for-Thanksgiving bitch.
He is lofty, instructive.
“Her days are numbered. There comes a time, you know, managing a team and being a revenue generating team, when some people are just spread a bit too thin. I try and steer clear of the politics of it all, you know, but that’s just how things are.”
He pauses for a bite of sashimi.
“But don’t worry. You don’t need to worry about that for a long time.”
I’ve just had Covid (or something identical to it; lateral flows inconclusive) and didn’t work last week. It gave me a lot of time to think.
A lot of things I’ve read here on Substack have also made me think: Jason atwrote this gorgeous poem 2 and someone else wrote something beautiful about how finite our time is.3
I am so conscious of time slipping away at this time of year. The wind gets chillier, strips leaves from trees. My shelves of books sit glimmering; I want to gorge on them. I don’t have time. I want to cook and organise the house and get my papers in order and transcribe The Notebooks and I want to write, write, write. There’s a book, or several, that beckon from my brainfolds.
Cicero said if you have a garden and a library, that’s all you need.
And someone to pay the mortgage, I think.
I’ve taken a step closer, slowly, to the butterfly. She’s not moving but I know if I go within arms reach she’ll be gone so I stay just beyond and look. She opens her wings and gives herself generously to my eyes.
I stand for a long time. Every so often she shifts a little as if to show me a different angle, a new magnificence to her. I notice the ends of her antennae are bright white and glow as if imbibing electric impulses from the air.
A spider abseils into my face and is off again to the hedge, having looped a web string to me and back.
I wonder how long I would have to stand here to be overcome entirely by cobwebs.
Having stood so long, it’s hard to leave. I’m wary of disturbing her if I turn now. I consider stepping delicately off, slowly, as I would from the locked eyes of a tiger. Just a photo, I think, to remember the moment and get my phone out.
I take a picture and she snaps her wings shut, as if affronted.
And she’s gone.
I feel a great loss and remind myself it’s just a butterfly. And she’s fine. But the feeling lingers. It’s getting cold and I wonder how long she has left.
She is my days slipping away, the days I am paid to waste. She is my baby son, gone forever.
She is me too, long gone and replaced with a bot in this field. A hundred years from now, a bot stands in my place having whatever thoughts it is a bot might have.
At the top of the field I hang a right to loop back home and there’s a red kite hawk circling lazily. It seems to follow my progress, circling with me along the top of the field. I realise after awhile it’s looking to see what I flush out with my tramping steps: what little creatures flee my path.
My son once asked me why don’t our skeletons grow wings?4
I wonder if the AI bots Sam Altman is working on will have wings.
In the British Museum a couple weeks ago, I banged on to Joel about how much I love museums because it lets you see how things used to be.
He looked at these Assyrian murals.
“Hey look — they used to be able to fly!”
I think I did too.
I imagine days of no work: a walk like this to clear the mind and hours to spin my thoughts together.
Maybe marshalling thoughts could be a more revolutionary act than confounding gender stereotypes in a corporate world.
A season feels like it’s drawing to a close. A new season beckons.
I’ve stood still for a long time. But it’s not too late to move.
“Inside the Revolution at OpenAI”, Ross Andersen in The Atlantic, Sept 2023.
I’ve been thinking a lot about AI for a few reasons. There was a great article awhile back fromon refuges of authentic human content (spoiler: one hopes Substack remains such a refuge, for a long time to come). I wrote the same thing back in April about Substack’s value as a repository of authentic human content, so I am on board with this big time. I also had a little back-and-forth with in response to this great piece, which was then mentioned in this piece. And, on cue, Substack just introduced a new setting to Block AI. I’ve switched it on because I think (hope?) there is/should be a protected middle space between paywalled stuff and the general shit pile of Internet dross. I’m grateful for whatever protections has to offer on this because — newsflash — I don’t want bots crawling my stuff. I don’t want AI re-purposing and re-packaging my words — certainly not without paying me. Maybe we can build some momentum to be paid someday by the bot-trainers for our valuable quality words and authentic human perspective. We’ll see. Either way, my Block AI setting is on for now.
To my supreme annoyance, I now can’t find the piece I’m talking about — but I would very much like to update this reference. Please tell me if you know the piece I mean. I think I liked it on Notes but of course now can’t find it
“I've had eight years on this planet,” he said, “and I'm still not used to seeing clouds from below.”