Author Archives: JSE

GPT-3 me, by the book

Not gonna lie, it has always been a dream of mine, a marker of being a Real Writer, to do a New York Times Book Review “By the Book” interview, and this summer I did it. Really fun — I got to praise a lot of writers I truly admire (including Janet Malcolm, who I sort of hoped would read it, and who died the day before the interview came out.) and hopefully helped generate some publicity for Shape.

I also recently got beta access to Open AI’s “GPT-3” text-generation engine. So I thought it would be fun to give it part of my interview and see what happened if I asked it to continue.

Here are some results. What’s bold is text I supplied to GPT-3 (along with the whole text of the interview previous to that line.) This uses the davinci engine, with temperature set to 0.7.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read “The Little House on the Prairie” series as it came out, and I think I really liked them. I reread “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” many times. I loved “The Hobbit” so much I would reread the whole thing and just skip the long chapters. The first adult book I read was “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers, when I was 10 or 11, because I loved the title so much. It was a little hard to get into because it was so slow, but I was so happy to be reading a book that was all about people being sad, because I was so sad!

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

“The Go-Between,” by L. P. Hartley. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s so perfect.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Note that GPT-3 has enough text to recognize this as a “By The Book” interview, because the two questions it generates are indeed on the standard list of questions that the NYTBR asks authors. “Temperature” is a measure of how constrained GPT-3 feels to pick the word it seems most likely at each stage. One cool thing about the interface is it gives you the probability distribution it drew from for each word. THe word “Heart” above, for instance, is one of the lowest-probability words in the above response; GPT-3 rated it the 11th most likely next word, with a probability of 0.8%. Top three were “Cat” (4.0%), “Aut” (1.7%), and “Fountain” (1.7%). Wait, “Aut”? Yeah — GPT-3 uses “tokens,” not words, and sometimes these are parts of words, or even just initial letters. I imagine “Aut” could have been the beginning of “Autobiography” or “Author.” Presumably running the algorithm at a lower temperature would have made it much more likely I’d have read something starting with “The Cat.” Having settled on “Heart,” the following word “is” came in with an 87% probability, far above the next most likely candidate, “of.”

In fact, it’s kind of cool how the OpenAI interface displays these probabilities, so I’m gonna screenshot and include:

Red means unlikely, green means likely — so you can see very clearly the red “Heart” and the green “Is.” Note that the standard questions from “By the Book” are almost all green once you get past the first word; you’re on a track the algorithm’s very confident about. “The Go-Between,” by L.P. Hartley is a real book, by the way, though not one I’d ever heard of, and not one I think my earlier responses could fairly be said to make you think I’d like. The answer itself, though, while it’s not my style, is very much “By the Book” style.

Here’s what you get at temperature 0:

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was a voracious reader, but I don’t remember any particular books. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in the room and a cat in the room and a hamster in the room and a goldfish in the room and a bird in the room. I remember the feeling of being in a room with a book and a window and a tree outside the window and a friend in the room and a dog in

This is pretty typical. If you pick the most likely “next word” every time, you get stuck repeating yourself, getting more and more certain that staying in the loop is the right thing to do because after all it’s what you’ve been doing! The only even moderately low-probability words here occur when a new animal is introduced to the room.

What about temperature 1, giving GPT-3 maximal license to draw less-likely next tokens? (Maybe temp 1 means literally draw from the imputed distribution? I’m not sure.)

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Neil Postman recommended “Wind in the Willows,” which my mother read to me and I read at my mother’s knee, many many times, more times than I can count. I come back to it every year or so, and it’s still a great book. I also was nuts about “Blondie”; the single joke in the joke book never loses its appeal for me. I loved “Black Beauty” and several other Victorian kids’ classics with similar emotional power; I haven’t read them again yet because I never have any time. I can’t forget how much I loved it the first time I read it.

Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?

“Lovecraft Country,” without a doubt. Also my essay in the Yale series, “Mao II and Then Some.” I also think my Song of Ice and Fire “house style” recaps (here, here, here and piecemeal here); they’re the most comfortable thing I’ve written. Even my husband likes them, and he doesn’t care about the show or the books. And the recent article on swaddling.

Edited to make explicit that in-kind donations by the author also serve as p.r. I should have included them, which I wish I had done.

Well, this is the most fun at any rate. I love the idea that Neil Postman was recommending books to childhood me, and to my mom, I guess. This one actually feels to me the most like my own prose style, even as the things it says don’t quite make sense? Maybe there’s a tradeoff between style and sense. At any rate, there is no actual essay called “Mao II and Then Some,” but that’s 100% a title I would use, and DeLillo really is a writer I admire and didn’t mention in the piece. “Anything you’d recommend to someone new to your books?” is not one of NYTBR’s standard questions for this feature, but doesn’t it sound like one? Oh, here’s the color chart so you can see how much redder and more daring this output is.

Impressive work — and let me emphasize that I just did those three runs and that’s what I showed you, no cherry-picking of the best output. Not something that makes me feel easily impersonable, of course. But I didn’t give it that much of my writing….!

Tagged , , ,

“I do it all better”

“I was also at the exhibition of prominent French artists Bonnard Picasso Matisse etc. and noted much to my satisfaction that I do it all better.”

Max Beckmann, letter to his wife Quappi Beckmann, 28 Jul 1925

Self-portrait, from around the same time (this is hung at the Harvard Art Museum and is well worth a trip if you’re on campus)

Tagged , , ,

The Milwaukee Bucks are the champions of the National Basketball Association

First of all, let’s be clear — I am a bandwagon fan. Despite having lived in Wisconsin since 2005, I only got into the Bucks three years ago. I feel a real envy for the long-time fans I know here, who, if they are old enough, have been waiting for a Bucks title since the year I was born. They feel this in a way I can’t.

That said: what a run! Bucks getting revenge on the Heat, who knocked us out early last year … then beating the Nets, the kind of super-team Giannis could have jumped to but didn’t… coming through and winning those key games against the Hawks without Giannis (including a superhero game from my favorite Buck, Brook Lopez) — and finally, Giannis coming back and being so huge in the finals, scoring 50 in the closeout game; and best of all, Giannis got there by hitting 17 out of 19 free throws — it was like, he said “I have one vulnerability and I think tonight is the night to turn it off.” You couldn’t write a better story.

Giannis, the philosopher:

And the text, if that link dies:

When I think about like, “Yeah I did this.” You know, “I’m so great. I had 30, I had 25-10-10,” or whatever the case might be. Because you’re going to think about that … Usually the next day you’re going to suck. Simple as that. Like, the next few days you’re going to be terrible. And I figured out a mindset to have that, when you focus on the past, that’s your ego: “I did this in the past. I won that in the past.”

And when I focus on the future, it’s my pride. “Yeah, the next game, Game 5, I’ll do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate.” That’s your pride talking. Like, it doesn’t happen. You’re right here. I try and focus in the moment. In the present. And that’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting no expectations. That’s going out there and enjoying the game. Competing at a high level. I’ve had people throughout my life who have helped me with that. But that’s a skill that I’ve tried to, like, how do you say? Perfect it. Yeah, master it. It’s been working so far, so I’m not going to stop.

Parade tomorrow in Milwaukee.

Tagged , ,

Standard Form 171

Also in this binder is my mom’s application to work for the Federal Government, which involved filling out “Standard Form 171.” In 1971, SF_171 required you to report whether you were “Mrs.” or “Miss,” your height and weight, and whether you were now, or within the last ten years had been, a member of the Communist Party, USA, or any subdivision of same.

The Bottom Line – A CPA Story

A typescript of about 30 pages written by my grandfather, Jacob Smith, in the summer of 1976, work towards a memoir. Just going to record some facts and details here.

He writes that he was “born more dead than alive,” the last of seven children, six years younger than the rest.

Professor Jellinghouse, a women’s specialist and sainted genius, directed the activities of several neighbors who acted as a committee of midwives. At one point, this committee decided my mother wasn’t going to make it. They prevailed on the famous professor to walk out on the society ladies in his Park Avenue office and hustle down to 452 Cherry Street, on the Lower East Side of New York. He breathed confidence and authority and no stork would dare cross him. He waved away an offered fee, left some free medicine, gave final instructions, and drove back to his Park Avenue patients. Ersht Gott — First God — then Professor Jellinghouse, is the way ma put it when she constantly retold the story.

This must have been C.F. Jellinghaus (obit here), whose office was at 440 Park Ave. I wonder what it was that brought him to do this housecall in the Lower East Side? My grandfather’s first home seems no longer to exist; Cherry Street is still there, just a couple of blocks long off FDR drive, but it doesn’t look like there are any buildings with an address there at all.

My stereotype is that New York Jews lived among other Jews, but my grandfather’s family moved to a part of the South Bronx near the 105th Field Artillery (now the Franklin Avenue Armory) that was mostly Catholic.

There was only one other Jewish boy in the neighborhood, but he was very quiet, dignified, and studious, and he never played with us. I never quite understood why this bookworm commanded so much respect — they [the kids in the neighborhood] even cleaned up their language in front him. Me they treated terrible, just as bad as if I was another old Catholic.

He went to James Monroe High School, which has a newer building, in preference to the run-down neighborhood school, Morris High, which is still there (now the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies.) According to my grandfather, the condition of the building in the 1920s was recorded in a popular neighborhood song:

There’s an odor in the air

You can smell it everywhere

Morris High School!

Morris HIgh School!

After high school he worked as a bookkeeper, and went to accounting school at night at Pace. His graduation speaker was Harry Allan Overstreet, chair of philosophy at City College. (My mother says he would have much preferred to go to City College, and had the grades for it, but because he was working he could only go to a college he could attend at night.) Anyway, here’s what Overstreet told the graduates:

…this is 1935 and the Great Depression is still with us. I hope you all have good jobs to go to when you leave here today. If not, I surely don’t know where you can find any. With all your special skills and qualifications, the world just doesn’t want you.

Inspiring!

My grandfather records the reaction:

Pace officialdom sat pale and frozen-faced as we quietly filed out. In our next communication as alumni, we were told to pay no attention to “Self-centered, egotistical introverts,” and that we would have no trouble finding good jobs.

This is it, right? This is as dogshit as the Orioles get?

That’s it. That’s the post.

[Dean Kremer allows six runs in 1/3 of an inning including a grand slam. Yesterday we lost 13-0. The day before that we lost 10-2 in a game where we were getting no-hit into the 8th. Two days before that we took a 7-4 lead into the ninth and lost 10-7.]

“God, as the Pythagoreans said, is a geometer-but not an algebraist”

A remark of Simone Weil, which I learned from Karen Olsson’s book The Weil Conjectures.

In the original, “Pour moi, je pense bien que Dieu, selon la parole pythagoricienne, est un géomètre perpétuel – mais non pas un algébriste.” Here’s the letter to her brother from which this is taken.

I wanted to write more in Shape about the complicated moral weights people assigned to the difference/tension between algebra and geometry. I wrote a little about what Poincaré thought about it, who saw the two subjects as representing two temperaments, both indispensable, though any given mathematician might possess them in different proportions.

But then there is this, from S.I. Segal’s “Topologists in Hitler’s Germany”

“the … Nazi movement saw “truly German” mathematics as intuitive and tied to nature, often geometrical, and certainly not axiomatic. Axiomatics, “logic chopping”, too great abstraction, was Franco-Jewish.”

It is grimly funny to imagine the Nazi ideologues locating in abstract algebra and the insolubility of certain equations in radicals the ultimate origins of rootless cosmopolitanism.

Pandemic social life as villanelle

When I took creative writing in high school my idea of writing a poem was writing down some thoughts that felt expressive to me and organizing those thoughts into lines of various lengths. Our teacher gave us assignments to write poems in form: sonnets, pantoums, villanelles. This seemed artificial and out-of-date and absurdly restrictive. Why should line 2 have to rhyme with line 5?

What our teacher said was that the absurd restrictions are there to be restrictions. If you sit down with the goal of expressing yourself you only say what you intend to say and this is rarely interesting. The restrictions of form force you into a channel you’re not used to and then you might find yourself saying something you didn’t know you wanted to say.

So maybe pandemic social life was like that? It sort of was, for me. I wasn’t in the office so I didn’t see math people and chat with them there as usual. I wasn’t running into people at the coffeeshop. So I did some things I didn’t usually do. I was on Zoom calls with groups of people from my class in high school. I impulsively accepted Misha Glouberman’s invitations to be on Zoom calls with groups of Canadians I barely knew. I called old friends on the phone without warning them I was going to call, and talked to them. People I usually talk to about every five years I talked to every three months.

Writing a sonnet in class doesn’t mean you go around talking in sonnets afterwards. Maybe you never write a sonnet again. But the things I did when my social life ran through this weird channel are things I’m glad I did.

Tagged

Shape playlist

I made a playlist for Shape, which is coming out in just five days!

All these songs have something to do with geometry or with the book. A few notes:

  • “Shape,” BaLonely — a great band from Spokane, a guy who plays guitar and sings and his mom who plays bass.
  • “Pythagorean Theorem,” The Invisible Cities. A terrific kinda-dormant-now band from San Francisco. The bass player dated somebody I knew a long time ago and one time I ran into the band at the Ferry Terminal Market and they invited me to a party at their apartment where there was a giant whole roasted pig on the table that everybody ate out of with a fork, and I talked to the bass player about how much we both admired the bassline on “Radio Free Europe.”
  • “The True Wheel,” Brian Eno. Sometimes I feel this to be the greatest rock song ever made. The lyric “looking for a certain ratio” appears in Shape as a section title and Eno shows up a few other times too. “Let’s get it understood” might be a kind of motto for math itself. The topologist Benson Farb introduced me to this song.
  • “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” Sylvester. Because James Joseph Sylvester appears several times in the book. Also this song can be read as a commentary on the Platonist view of geometric entities. (Is it for or against?)
  • “Feed The Tree,” Belly. There’s a whole chapter about trees, and a tree on the cover. “I know all this and more.”
  • “The Distance,” Cake. I don’t even like Cake that much but their ridiculous shtick worked perfectly this one time. The idea that you have to pay attention to what you mean by “distance” is central to Shape.
  • “Circles,” Post Malone. Once you know what distance is you know what a circle is.
  • “The Globe,” Big Audio Dynamite II. And you also know what a sphere is, and what a ball is. (“gonna have a ball tonight / down at the Globe.” “Axis spins so round and round we go” might have something to do with the quaternions.
  • “Headache,” Frank Black. A lot of this song is somehow about the book. Starts out “This wrinkle in time, I can’t give it no credit / I thought about my space and it really got me down,” goes on to “I was counting the trees” as if he’s about to invoke Kirchhoff’s theorem.
  • “Spiraling Shape,” They Might Be Giants. Unsurprisingly a band that has a lot of geometry songs (like the one about Triangle Man) but this is the one that’s specifically about a shape.
  • “Diagonals,” Stereolab. From an album called Dots and Loops.
  • “Circle,” Miles Davis. Starting a run of shapes in the plane.
  • “Triangles & Rhombuses,” Boards of Canada. More shapes in the plane.
  • “Meet Me In St. Louis,” Judy Garland. Written for the St. Louis Exposition of 1904, where a lot of action in the book takes place, and where Ronald Ross, Ludwig Boltzmann, and Henri Poincare all speak (but don’t all meet.)
  • “Perfect Circle,” R.E.M. More shapes in the plane. “A perfect circle of acquaintances and friends” seems to refer to the social networks I talk about in chapter 13.
  • “Shape of Somethings,” Moving Targets. A little punk rock right before the end of a playlist cleanses the palate.
  • “Once In a Lifetime,” Talking Heads. Co-written by Eno. Quoted in the book as a depiction of gradient descent. I listened to Stop Making Sense pretty much non-stop during the training program for Math Olympiad in 1987 and it still feels joyously like math to me. Maybe only me.

Tagged

Passover food

For the second year in a row, Seder was virtual, with Dr. Mrs. Q’s family the first night and mine the second, so for the second year in a row I cooked our own Passover meal. After a whole cycle of chagim I’m pretty OK at making brisket by now. I like matzah balls, really like them, and so does everybody else in the house, so I went nuts and tripled the matzah ball recipe. What I envisioned: matzah ball soup absolutely brimming with matzah balls cheek by unleavened jowl. What I did not take into account: the matzah balls absorb soup as they cook, which meant that what was left in the pot when they were done was a kind of matzah ball slurry with no soup at all (pictured, top right). The matzah balls themselves were moist and delicious! But it didn’t really feel right. The next night I made a whole new soup and plopped the leftover matzah balls in there (you make triple, you have leftovers) and that was much more like it.

What we usually do on Passover is visit Dr. Mrs. Q’s mom in Columbus, and get a big helping of deli from Katzinger’s ; missing that, I put in a mail order to Katz’s, which arrived today. So now, the brisket leftovers all gone, I am happily eating pastrami and tongue and matzah-chopped liver sandwiches.

(photo by CJ who never ceases to clown me about how much better his phone’s camera is than my phone’s camera.)

Tagged , ,
%d bloggers like this: