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AI Essays: No the Sky is Not Falling

The funniest thing I've heard this morning is teachers talking about using AI to detect AI essays. This, of course, based on the old maxim "Set a 'bot to catch a 'bot." But it is deeply, deeply ironic to use the technology we would forbid our students to use.

People are running around screaming, "Augh! The sky is falling!" But, you know what? People have been saying this about technology forever. I remember when people had an outsized reaction to search engines. "OMG! What if students can just look up the answers to all my questions?" Faculty in my department seriously suggested disabling network connectivity in classrooms to prevent students from having access to the Internet.

Burying your head in the sand is not a solution. I used to say, "If you're asking students questions they can answer using Google, you're asking the wrong questions." And, more recently, I've said, "If you're asking students questions that don't *require* them to start with Google, you're asking the wrong questions."

The thing to focus on is what the technology *can't* do. The AI can come up with human language that's statistically associated with the words you're using, but it doesn't *understand* what the words mean.

Years ago, Randy Phillis and I worked together developing problems for students to solve in class. Using a classroom communication system, you can poll students and then project results, to see whether the students predominantly choose one option or are divided among other options. Some people call these "clicker questions" and think they are asking them to see if students are getting the "right" answers. We realized we could ask students model-based problems and see whether students could reason effectively with the models. This is *not* a skill that the AIs can solve. Yet.

You what else AIs can't do? Anything else. So if you ask students to do a project, the AI can't do that. They can't dig a hole and look for earthworms, for example. Or interpret a set of data. Or build a device.

Students have been able to buy essays for a long time. This is not really all that different.

Open Letter on the Elimination of the Mask Mandate

I was appalled this afternoon when, as a member of the Rules Committee, less than 2 hours after I received word from the Secretary of the Faculty Senate that the University was "going to recommend dropping the mask mandate very soon" to discover that "very soon" was tomorrow. TOMORROW.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tricia Serio for Provost who spoke eloquently -- and at length -- about the importance of rebuilding trust at the University. I must tell you that this unilateral action -- with absolutely no consultation -- has utterly violated whatever trust I might have had with the administration.

To spring this cackhanded and misguided maneuver by surprise -- after years where I had respected the administration for taking care to act in a deliberative and consultative fashion during the pandemic -- has stunned me and made me feel extremely unsafe.

Why tomorrow? The Board of Health of the Town of Amherst is meeting on Thursday to discuss the mask mandate. And I understand that Hampshire College has planned to eliminate the mask mandate a week after the students return from spring break. Why are we making no effort to consult with stakeholders and to move forward deliberatively? Why surprise people with this on a Tuesday afternoon?

I am utterly disgusted with the idea that I have devoted huge parts of my professional effort trying to effectively build trust: to work with the Union and the Rules Committee to build an effective relationship between the faculty and the administration. And for what? So that it can be squandered by a high-handed and unilateral action that endangers faculty like myself who must worry -- not only for myself, but for my elderly mother who shares my household.

I am appalled and disgusted.

Parboiled Parable

So some guy on twitter was complaining about people trying to "take control of our language" by discouraging use of racially insensitive terminology and I replied (perhaps foolishly) with a parable.

You could be forgiven if you didn't notice that I got the story wrong. The inspector dumped the salt in the guy's outhouse -- not in his well. But I actually liked it that way too. Can you imagine the health inspector thinking, "Well, you're not going to listen to me, huh? How about I just dump a huge bag of salt in your well and see you how like it." And if you did dump a big bag of salt in someone's well, well it would be totally reasonable to say they ruined it.

And if you use racially insensitive language, you should also not be surprised if someone dumps salt in your well.

Or if you foolishly try to tell parables to the willfully ignorant.

Depression lifts

For the past few years, I've been really struggling. I don't know if it's technically depression or just an extended series of events for which it was entirely reasonable that I might be depressed (e.g. close friend died while we were together, a child was diagnosed with a serious illness, that other guy got elected, the pandemic happened, etc., etc.)

While I was on my professional improvement leave, which should have been a bright spot, my Department chair decided to unilaterally rewrite my job description without consulting me. I could go on at length about how poorly it was handled and how it violated a long-standing agreement with the union. But it happened.

In any event, I've been down in the dumps for a few years. It made it hard to find joy in anything -- or do anything creative.

Last fall, though, I finally started to perk up. I had an idea for a story I wanted to write. I basically hadn't completed any speculative fiction since I wrote Krepusko sub Fago in 2015. So I wrote the story I was thinking of and submitted it for publication. And it was rejected. But by then, I had already started to work on another story, or perhaps chapter, about the same characters. And I wrote another and another and another. And suddenly, I realized, I was having fun. It felt good.

During the summer, I decided to approach submitting my fiction seriously -- or, at least, more professionally. So I set up a spreadsheet to track submissions, studied, and tried to get all my stories working for me while I continued to write new stuff. I wrote several more stories at the same time I got out some older stories I'd written before that I've never gotten around to submitting and got those working too.

Everything got rejected. And rejected and rejected. And rejected some more.

But in August, I attended Readercon and met up with Water Dragon Publishing, and the rest is history. My first English speculative fiction publication is out: The Third Time's the Charm!

During the semester, I haven't had much time to write. But I did find the time to write the first draft of a sequel to my first story. It was a lot of fun to revisit those characters and think about what happens next.

I still haven't published the stories (totaling about 22,000 words) that first got me started in this direction. But I'm hopeful that soon I'll hit my stride and start getting more stuff published. And hopeful is the word. It's wonderful to have hope again -- and to feel like things could get better.


My first piece of speculative fiction in English has been accepted for publication by Water Dragon Publishing. It's a swashbuckling tale of piracy and airships called The Third Time's the Charm. It's been a real adventure submitting stories, getting rejections, getting an acceptance, and then discovering how deep the rabbit hole goes when you publish something. I had the idea that something gets accepted for publication and then, like, you start writing the next thing. Nooooooo. No, now you have revisions to make, reviewers to identify, covers to approve, proofs to check, etc., etc. Death, as they say, is just the beginning.

As part of this, I've set up a separate identity for myself as an author, with separate social media accounts and a separate blog at I intend to keep blogging here but as myself, rather than as my author persona.

I haven't written much here in the past couple of years: It's been a rough time. I might be ready to write about it soon. But not yet.

International Mother Language Day Activity

For International Mother Language Day, I propose the following activity: Construct a corsage or bouquet that conveys a secret message in floriography (the language of flowers) that honestly describes yourself, where the significances of the flowers have complementary meanings in both Victorian and Japanese traditions.

For extra credit, create similar arrangements for one or more of your acquaintances.


Over the past few years, faculty have found something new to complain about. They used to complain bitterly about students who forgot to silence their cell phones in class. And faculty would rail about how unbelievably thoughtless it was for students to do this. Who could IMAGINE such rudeness!?! Then, one day, faculty just quit. The reason, of course, was that they themselves got a cell phone and discovered that it was incredibly easy to forget to silence your cell phone before class. Once it had happened to them — in church or at a movie or in their own f***ing class — they realized that maybe this wasn't the hill to die on.

Lately, it has been about email from students. Faculty love to get on their high horse about email communications from students, railing to one another about how rude students are. And some are now providing students a guide to email communications in their syllabus. Here's a nice one from a writing center: Effective email Communication.

OK. We've all gotten email that was thoughtless or poorly written. But c'mon. They tell students that they need to use a salutation and a closing, like a business letter. Stupid. Email is a memo, not a letter. It has a "To:" line. Now, it's true that if I send a letter to someone I don't know — or if I sent a letter to one person and copy others — a salutation to make clear to whom the letter is written might be helpful. But mostly, it's just ballast. The same with a closing. You should be using a properly structured signature block.

Now, it may be true that showing some additional care -- or stroking the ego of a fragile faculty member -- may score some points with some people. So I'm not saying it's necessarily bad advice to be aware of these expectations and tread carefully when you're not sure. But the tender snowflakes getting pissed off if someone doesn't conform to one is just pathetic. Get over yourselves.

Government Investment

This week, David Brooks describes how innovation may transform the economy over the next few decades.

[…] what if we gradually created a world with clean cheap energy, driverless cars and more energetic productive years in our lives?

He says, "Government investment has spurred a lot of this progress." But remember: the Republicans have crushed the ability of the government to invest in anything. The austerity imposed on government spending since Reagan has left Universities on their knees and a whole generation — maybe two — of promising young scientists have given up on academia, unable to make a living.

Basic research is fundamental to creating the opportunities for innovation. But that's precisely what's gotten choked off. I'm not saying that the reason you don't have a flying car is because of the Republicans, but we'll never know how many additional avenues for innovation have been missed because people weren't looking.

The Long National Nightmare Ends: Biden Inaugurated

Four years ago, like the majority of people, I was horror struck by the election of Donald Trump. But I was not surprised. I had recognized the strong anti-establishment fervor in the country and realized that, in spite of her eminent qualifications, Hillary Clinton was the wrong choice for the moment. In large part, the dissatisfaction was the Democrats' failure to successfully deliver on many of the needs of ordinary Americans. There were many reasons for this.

Barack Obama was extremely cautious as President. I believe he recognized the historic nature of the first Black presidency and wanted to make sure his administration was free of scandal and avoidable failures. But this resulted in choosing safer, less risky alternatives when choosing among options. For all the Republicans tried to find even a whiff of scandal in his administration, the greatest problem they ever found was that he wore a tan suit one time.

Obama expended a huge amount of his political capital trying to reach out to Republicans. He genuinely believed he could be a transformative figure in American politics and tried to bridge the divide between Democrats and Republicans. They ruthlessly exploited his overtures and unified against him to minimize his accomplishments. But he wasted a lot of time and made a lot of concessions and got nothing in return.

There was a point where a lot of people were disappointed with Obama's lack of accomplishments and some joked, "Where are my rainbows and unicorns?" But this was always projection with Obama. He was always a center-right technocrat. He was never a populist or leftist. We got Obamacare which, for all its flaws, was a huge accomplishment and which the Republicans have spent 10 years fruitlessly trying to overturn. But we also got a huge increase in the drone wars and deportations. The post recession stimulus was nowhere near large enough and in his second term, he was paralyzed by Congress and limited to what he could accomplish by executive order. All of which could be quickly undone when Trump took over.

Now that the long national nightmare of Trump is over, I'm looking at Biden and trying to make sense of what he's likely to do. On the one hand, he's also presenting himself as the unity candidate, seeking to unify both parties. But, at the same time, he has several things Obama did not. For one thing, he has 36 years of experience in the Senate. This is undoubtedly going to give him a leg up. He's also been inside the White House before, which will help him hit the ground running. Finally — to be blunt — he's white. As we've all learned, this might make a significant difference — especially with the racist Republican scumbags he has to work with.


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