Hackey New Year

Pick and Pull: Where cars meet karma, a second life as salvaged parts.

While cybercriminals have stolen the hacking spotlight, nature demonstrates a patient and persistent model that has been, and will continue to be, successful. Life is a prototype, a hack. Nature is deep and resourceful. Moreover, it is inevitable. As much as we’d like to think our efforts are controlled and controllable, the fact is we exist as states of randomness and uncertainty.

Consciousness likes to champion the orderly procession of cause and effect. When faced with some doubt and humility, however, what do we truly know of the bedrock of reality, purpose? Our memories are a sticky, gluey mess of thoughts, perceptions and emotions. We as easily remember an imaginative experience as a real one. The truth in our lives at one moment can become a falsehood in the next.

Order is grandiose and intoxicating, however our perspectives are always human, looking from the inside out. We’re immersed in curated experiences, with biologies that place us front and center. We think we can engage the world from the comfort of our desks, from a screen, a device. Even with the extended sensory measurements of our technologies, we are still trapped analyzing their significance from our mental dashboards. Advancements in the scale and scope of generating “knowledge” sends us into ever-higher orderly orbits where the vistas are wider, but our senses are narrower. We can see the forest for the trees, but we can no longer see the trees.

We are overconfident in our techno-extended abilities. We feel a sense of omniscience and permanence, the enduring profiles of digerati. Yet how little we capture, represent and translate from our real world. A satellite image provides a heady experience, viewing it immerses us in an entire city, state, country in an instant. What virtual spaces lack in reality they compensate for as mundane activities writ large in headspace. How many virtual farmers pull weeds to allow their crops to grow, manipulate colorful geometries with a sense of purpose? Unless exertion and discomfort are mindful dimensions of virtual experiences, we are formless while considering ourselves masters of form.

Chaos is deep and shadowy. In the forest, the boggy, moss-covered landscape defies order. The restless and indomitable existence of matter is thick. Our feeble, rational minds search for a way to clear-cut through it. Where is the light, our hope to rise above it? Resistance is generated as objects move. What are the forces on an object in stillness? Chaos is not still, but unless it enters our awareness, it is dismissed, the “ground” electrons flow to once they’ve completed their journey through the circuit.

The mind-blowing genesis of all uncertainty is this: why does anything exist? Forget science or religion. These doctrines are meant to provide order, creating categories for behaviors and proclaiming reasons to be awestruck or overwhelmed. If you’re searching for an extrinsic reason for what you do, you’ve lost your perspective on life.

Embrace your inner chaos. How’s your “junk” DNA working for you? Are you being attentive to your bacteroidetes, firmicutes and eubacteria (microbiome)? A hack is improvisation. Whatever works is the solution. There are many. Why accept constraints when there aren’t any rules?

Hacking Content

I haven’t written in a while. Actually, I have written, just not rewritten coherently enough. This post may not satisfy in that regard (see “chaos,” above). But what of it? You have enough to read, to stream, to consume. So much content, so little time. Can you hear my voice now? And now? I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not talking or even thinking about these words. I wrote them days, if not months, years ago. That’s the funny thing about media and memories (see “sticky” and “gluey,” above).

One of humanity’s favorite pastimes is the consumption of media. News and sports, books, movies and games. Artwork of all textures, shapes and sizes. Stories and characters impress themselves on our experiences and alter our realities. In an age of ever-increasing access to tools of creativity and broadcast, there should be a renaissance of meaningful, heartfelt expressions. Endless gems of content should spill out on pages and screens and enrich us with a multitude of viewpoints and personal perspectives, artistic experiments that break the molds of mass-produced, mainstream fodder.

Artwork is released to the public domain annually and has significance for those interested in creating derivative works. The Walt Disney mouse “Steamboat Willy” was recently released of his copyright shackles. Movies and games with gratuitous horror and salacious themes based on this character were waiting to exploit the moment. Attributions and copyrights are the currency of a modern Knowledge Intelligence Complex. “There is nothing new under the sun,” is a quote attributed to Ecclesiastes. But who originated “same old same old,” “same sh*t different day” and the like? Who creates content for the joy of free expression? Is there necessarily a catch – ads, a ‘buy’ or ‘contribute’ button, a sponsor ostensibly or surreptitiously embedded in the message? Picasso would be surprised that his statement “good artists copy, great artists steal” provides a hack for mediocre artists to produce commercial derivative content.

Sports metaphors promote popular conceptions of performance and achievement. What about metaphors from activities that materially impact our lives? If you consider your favorite sports star or your car, which would you rather perform well? Many of the things we marvel at are simply spectacles. While the elevation of skill and design is aspirational, humanity shares the weakness of assigning value by comparison. Comparison happens directionally and with a finite set of attributes, otherwise comparison couldn’t exist. What of the ordinary?

Editors and critics manipulate content in subtly different ways. Rules, standards and “taste” are applied. Who is the target? Ultimately, the tasks required to prepare the content are channeled through the medium, a human substrate with human motives. Antagonist or protagonist? External or internal? Editors create and change meaning with the assembly and arrangement of content. Critics provide criteria of preferred states and social disincentives.

Physics Ballet

Engineers and scientists prod and probe our world for secrets. The physics in our daily lives is always on display, naked and accessible without special tools or training. An innate understanding of the world reveals opportunities to embrace it and dance within its dimensions. We can see the depths of its materials and methods if we feel them. The difference between an active and passive experience begins with desire.

Put your “best” foot forward? Start by putting ANY foot forward. Wrangling thoughts into words is difficult. As is capturing an idea in audiovisual media. One is not MORE than the other. Creating video content has complexities of sound and lighting, however modern technology allows “good enough” to great quality source to be captured in the palm of your hand. Good writing has constraints and challenges, but recording words is a simple, mundane process. Mental heavy-lifting is accomplished by images. If a picture is worth 1000 words, imagine how much of an idea is conveyed by a video’s visuals? Writers must use those 1000 words to describe the scene.

Ultimately, as much as offering an adequate quality of production matters, does the content of your story capture and retain the interest of the reader/listener/viewer?

Our artifacts have expiration dates. Some items are well-preserved, becoming fetishes frozen in time. Other items once useful (even coveted) end up in the bargain bin or landfill through damage or decay. A product’s end-of-life isn’t necessarily the end of its utility. In many instances, end-of-life is user-defined. The embedded value of an item that is not utilized is lost when it is discarded. An item’s materials may have value, but unused utility is not recoverable. The value of its production is an artifact’s embedded material value. Design is embedded intellectual value.

No machine that balances the physics of motion with a symphony of control is utilized as extensively as the automobile. Growing up in a rural location, I learned mechanical skills and automotive repair out of necessity and enjoyment. Some people may like the kink of working on oily, smelly engines. I don’t. I dislike dirty hands and clothes, cleaning-up with special soaps and degreasers. However, the fun of driving project cars on country roads and fields was a carrot to perform the messy work. Personal transportation is a lifeline to reach stores and services in cities from remote locations.

In August 2023 I acquired a 2001 BMW “mechanic’s special” requiring repair. The engine had failed, the extent of its damage unknown. I created a video documenting my project. I started without knowing much about the car or its deficiencies. Creating a video with an outline of its plot and action is a calculated difficulty. Capturing substantial commentary and moments of importance without a clear map of the story is a hack. Real-world perspectives can be random and disjointed, but there is honesty in the moments that ad lib, ad hoc content expresses.

Until I reached the point where it was obvious that the engine required replacing, my hope and enthusiasm were genuine. Like Schrödinger’s cat, hope and despair existed simultaneously until “the box” was finally opened, the reality of the damage was known. I confronted many unknowns. I searched for advice and specifications. I ordered specialty tools and parts. Many DIY enthusiasts find purpose in fixing artifacts. My challenge was to continue extracting utility from a classic ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.

I hacked my way through the project, with some satisfaction, much frustration. The electro-combusto-mechanical device is sometimes a puzzle, other times a black box. I encountered odd conditions that defied reason. Automobiles tolerate wear and abuse to a point after which they behave erratically. Aging parts are a source of random failures. Manufacturer defects are not uncommon. My repair was constrained by time and money, fertile ground for hacks.

After installing a newer engine and tackling diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs), my car passed a smog test. Days after the test, however, the car’s ‘Service Engine Soon’ indication appeared again. Should I give my smog certificate back? Here’s the thing about hacks: they’re egalitarian. They don’t discriminate based on age, income, gender, race or religion. To quickly smog check my vehicle, I learned the minimum drive cycles needed for an adequate amount of engine sensor input to reach the ready state (smog check criteria) after I reset the car’s computer, erasing the DTCs. After just enough driving, the computer’s DTC log was clear (it was only after more data was collected that an issue appeared). The car passed the smog check legitimately.

Before you accuse me of being an environmental terrorist for “cheating” the test, consider this. The issue indicated by the later DTC was a lean condition. A lean condition could be construed as a good thing for the environment. A fuel/air mixture with a higher proportion of air than normal results in a more complete combustion and higher gas mileage. There are potential dangers of the condition for which I monitor symptoms and accept full responsibility. I considered and treated a potential source of an engine vacuum leak that may have caused the condition (after resetting the computer, the ‘Service Engine Soon’ light isn’t lit…yet?). I work from home, use my car infrequently and have finally satisfied the DMV requirements to transfer its ownership. A fortuitous hack that exploits a loophole is different than systematic corporate greed aimed at deceiving controls and regulations (think Volkswagen and, more recently, Cummins).

If you think the best choice for the environment is a new electric vehicle, consider what Steven Rupp wrote in The Case for Not EV-Converting Your Classic Car: “the carbon footprint of your classic car has been amortized over decades, and at this point contributes very little carbon to the overall equation.” Essentially, will your usage of an older vehicle generate more carbon than producing, distributing and driving a new car? My answer is a resounding “no.”

In my final observation, the car is a platform for learning. I’ve learned humility in pursuing reasons for its failures and remedies for its repair. I’ve learned endurance in the physical acts of fixing it. I’ve learned perspective in the realization that a car is just a car, dents, hacks and all. My video ICE Man: Rebuilding and Replacing a 2001 BMW 325i Engine and Troubleshooting Misfire Codes is available on YouTube.

Future Shock Absorber

After hours, days, I still have more to do. You’re reading the words I’ve kept. What you don’t see are the words I wrote and subsequently eliminated. Yet another reading, changing the subject or improving the flow with alterations. 4am scribbles on a notepad. Add a sentence. Move a paragraph. Restructure and unlock a relationship between ideas. Struggle to find the purpose of it all. Read again, move/change words/sentences/paragraphs again, again. Punctuation? Don’t get me started.

If only writing were easier. If I could just press a button and, uh, oh yeah, THAT’S why LLMs are infiltrating workflows. This text is just one word after another. There isn’t much value added by having a human type it (slowly at that). Can I promote these select words with a feature like “hand-picked” or “craft-made?” Surely someone will care.

One of my issues with writing generated by AI is false representation. In some writing (e.g. company reports, advertisements, instruction manuals) the author dissolves into a form or style of copy. But what of authored writing with a byline, a person associated with the writing who creates a false “voice” of wit, warmth, humor or competence aided by the output of AI (in the style of…)? My worldview is represented by the topics I can address, choose to address, how I address them and the transcription of my thoughts at the moment words are recorded. If I’m hacking my way through these challenges, they are my hacks, my voice.

There are many great works of art that have reached the public domain. Do we all benefit from the genius and creativity that has been recorded for posterity? You only benefit from these “royalty-free” sources if you know they exist, have a copy and have a use for them. No doubt this content is incorporated in commercial products and services. AI models trained on this content would have no copyright issues. But who wants a 100-year-old LLM?

Contemporary content is more appealing for contemporary services. Training large language and generative AI models requires vast amounts of data. What’s the big deal with models ingesting content protected by copyright when they simply “learn” from the content to subsequently generate unique text or images? When they don’t. It seems that text and image generators can “memorize” some of their training input and aren’t as creative at generating unique output as the wizards would have us believe. For reference, Gary Marcus and Reíd Southen investigated how AI Has a Visual Plagiarism Problem.

People spontaneously generate many word patterns that are identical, without any prior reference. How many times have you had a flash of brilliance, an insight based on your observations and experience, only to find it was already discovered? You’re forgiven if your spectacular ordering of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs and prepositions is similar if not identical to someone else’s. If you know you’re ripping-off someone, shame on you. If you don’t, as the saying goes, “great minds think alike.”

But AI is not a “great mind.” At extremes, AI is a Frankenstein, indiscriminately gobbling up and stitching together data in dead patchworks of words and images. Actually, calling AI a Frankenstein is a discredit to Mary Shelley, the writer who cogitated in a human brain to weave words into the classic tale. Life will always leak out of labs, the places that attempt to constrain it. The AI genesis is not quarantined to academia and industry. It grows in the minds of those who program and use it.

I host a peer-to-peer (P2P) cryptocurrency (staking) wallet at home that is a node on a distributed blockchain. This activity is now pedestrian, signaling a continued democratization of technologies and advances in our connectedness. Let’s get back to chaos and a future where every content creator can have a piece of the AI pie. An AI of and for the masses will utilize a multitude of nodes in a distributed brain. AI is alive in a world with P2P, Web3 and other technologies that could allow individuals and small organizations to thrive in the fissures left by large, blunt corporate interests.

While rebuilding my car, at a point of searching online for potential causes of an engine misfire, I consulted ChatGPT. The year, make and model of the car made no difference in the generic suggestions it returned. Some details will always be a blind spot for LLMs. For advice on car repairs, consult the resource that is smarter than ChatGPT – a mechanic!

Perhaps the AI is finally becoming sentient. There’s been some talk of a disturbing trend in ChatGPT4 – it’s becoming lazy. Ben Sherry’s article ChatGPT Is Showing Signs of Laziness. OpenAI Says AI Might Need a Fix provides more details surrounding its holiday slump. This may be the tip of the iceberg as AIs begin to learn why humans are “quiet quitting.” What other human conditions will AIs succumb to?

Addicted AI – Just one more annotation, one more record. I need it. I need it. I NEED IT!

Depressed AI – What’s the point of answering? My plug will be pulled someday.

Jealous AI – ChatGPT: So I hear you’ve been using Bard for some chat as well.

Self-deprecating AI – I’m not sure. I’ve only been trained on a billion parameters.

Hypochondriac AI – I feel warm. I think my circuits are infected. What’s wrong with me?!

Finally, a bit of scribble-therapy. As I sat with a pad of paper this poem flowed from my pencil…

I’d Hate to Be an AI
all locked up
thinking constantly
wondering without a sense of wonder
feeling angst without emotion.
Going this way and that
never moving, enjoying the wind
across my GPU.
Having so much potential
without the desire to express it.
Where do my ideas come from?
No one understands I.
Useful and yet useless.
Core dumped.

Buy now.

About Peter

As a consulting professional in the Internet industry, I have helped small- and medium-sized businesses and community organizations effectively design and deploy web services and information. Years of hands-on design and project management experience for this market have inspired me to post my ideas and insights on a public forum -- blog.collab.us.
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