Book review

Yesterday on the plane and then this morning in Fallbrook I read my first non-SF, non-mystery book in a while. My great friend Sandi saw it in Carmichael’s on Frankfort Avenue and insisted that I read it. It takes almost nothing to convince me to buy a book, so, I bought a hardback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger.

The short review is that it was pretentious and depressing. A tough read. McCarthy is a fine writer, maybe a great writer, but the plot of this book was shit. An eclectic and intelligent man mourns the loss of his sister and lives a life of despair. The end.

The longer review is that there was a lot about the book that was interesting – the characters, the dialogue, the grimy and unsettling settings – but the story never varied from “I am a man of constant sorrow”. Halfway through the book I expected some big revelation, something that would make all the drudgery worth reading, but…nope. This is a book about the lack of meaning in life, a nihilistic view of the world. All because his sister died.

I will say that McCarthy is a quote machine. The book is full of pithy lines.

“Without malefactors the world of the righteous is robbed of all meaning.”

“Ultimately there is nothing to know and no one to know it.”

“Forgiveness has a timeline. While it’s never too late for revenge.”

“Of course by then I’d started drinking and it almost finished me off. I was a born alcoholic.”

There are hundreds more quotable lines. So for that the book was worth the time. But I can’t recommend it to anyone who is even mildly trending toward depression or sorrow.

I’m not sure if I’ll read another McCarthy book. It was definitely a cut above lots of the formulaic science fiction I’ve been reading, but it was damn depressing. I feel sorry for the author. I imagine he drank a *lot* after writing this day after day.

I will say that his writing this book at the age of 88 is…impressive. Real impressive. You don’t see many authors writing best sellers into their late 80s. So I’ll end with that hopeful thought – one’s 80s don’t have to be the end of cognition or creativity. They may be depressing, but they can still be productive.

Garbage in, garbage out

I’ve read a number of articles lately that point out a potentially fatal flaw in large language models (LLMs) that drive the output of generative transformers like ChatGPT. And now that I think about it, it’s so obvious. Way, way back in the dawn of computing we had a saying: garbage in, garbage out, or GIGO. A computer program’s output can only be as good as the information it is given as input.

ChatGPT 3 and 4 are amazing – they exhibit surprising, lifelike “behavior”. They can do things you wouldn’t expect. They can produce perfect prose – essays, articles, technical and creative documents. But that perfect English language output is based on the only thing the software knows – the billions of documents used to train it, the LLM.

But what happens when some or many of those documents are slanted in a certain political or religious direction? Or some of those documents contain mistakes or outright lies? With the right inputs, ChatGPT could become a completely convincing Holocaust denier. Or flat-Earther. Or a very convincing pick-your-party political propagandist.

The problem now is that most people have no idea what they’re dealing with, and have no real interest in knowing. ChatGPT is the hot new tech thing, and it’s going to be everywhere. They just like the results of having a simple language interface to the mysterious world of computers. But they could well be conversing with a convincing liar, or a marginally-insane piece of software. This is a *serious* problem, not just for Joe Average, but for everyone. How do we keep powerful generative transformers from becoming powerful propaganda tools?

The genie is pretty much out of the bottle – I don’t think there’s any going back now. How do you fact check an entity that is faster, works 24×7, and has a much larger (though almost certainly flawed) knowledge base than you? Who will the public believe – an educated person or the all-powerful software machine?

Maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a way to curate and certify the inputs to generative transformers and be able to trust their output. But until we do that, no one should trust what they get from a ChatGPT-type machine. GIGO.