Vale, Eusebius McKaiser

Just a few hours after Eusebius McKaiser posted a recommendation to his social media networks, encouraging everyone to listen to Musa Motha, we learn that he has died at the age of 45.

His death was sudden, with no forewarning, and it was apparently an epileptic seizure that took him down. My deepest condolences to Nduduzo, and of course also all the other members of his intimate circle, that I never got to meet.

Currents and undertoads

Things have been rather adrift for some time, for many of us. Obviously Covid-19 for all of us, and then everyone’s other stuff – perhaps the same as before or perhaps changed, but always at least complicating the lives of the person dealing with their particular version of a life.

My novel story (as in “a new thing that one is dealing with”, also sometimes an escalation of an old thing) involves the last few years at the University of Cape Town, which has been in the news of late, for the same reasons spoken of in said news. As you’d expect.

Further notes on OpenAI and ChatGPT

Continuing with the theme of my previous post (on higher education and OpenAI), John Maytham invited me join him in discussion on CapeTalk to explore some of the implications of these AI tools for student assessment and the educational project. The audio on my side was not great, but it’s certainly audible, and the podcast is available here.

In any event, here’s a more structured version of what I said, and wanted to say. In his introduction, John referred to the comments made by other guests he’s had on the show, including by some friends of mine, but those contributions seem to have largely been focused on the implications of ChatGPT/OpenAI on human creativity, how it is identified (in light of these plausible simulacra), and the implications of that for culture.

Review: The Psychology of Stupidity

A friend recently asked me to review Jean-Francois Marmion’s book, The Psychology of Stupidity, for her radio show Book Choice (that’s the podcast link – my bit starts at 39m50s, and it is also embedded below).

As it happened, I was reading the book in any case, so happily agreed to provide the requested 3 minutes of audio commentary. For those who prefer reading to listening, the (fuller) text is posted after the audio.

I hope this finds you well

Readers of a certain age (in this case, I suspect this means anyone over 30 or so) will remember that there was a time when nobody started an email with the sentence “I hope this finds you well”.

Sometime in the last 5 or so years, some evil cabal has decided to tell secondary school pupils – and even (theoretically) fully-hatched people in the workplace – that all emails have to begin with this sentence.

Who will we be “after” Covid-19?

When I was selling books on the floor of a branch of Olsson’s Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore, MD 30 years ago, Robert Pirsig’s Lila: An Inquiry into Morals arrived in one of our regular shipments from the distributors. Lila was the sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1992.

Square Brackets: a podcast about elisions, ambiguities and [our] confusions

Podcasts continue to increase in popularity, and after years of being encouraged to try my hand at producing one, Greg Andrews and I decided to do just that. Square Brackets is the result, and after releasing a weekly episode for the past two months, it’s probably time to announce it here on Synapses.

Judge Learned Hand and liberalism

“Judge Learned Hand” reads like a Zen koan or something, but he was in fact an American judge, who has been “quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge“. Yes, that is (most of) his real name – the full version is Billings Learned Hand.

His Wikipedia page (linked above) makes for fascinating reading, but if you leave this post wanting to know more about his thinking, I’d encourage you to read Jerome Frank’s 1957 article titled Some reflections on Judge Learned Hand (pdf).

The aspect of his thinking that I want to briefly discuss here is about what liberalism meant to him, and what it means to me. In 1944, Hand gave a speech titled “The Spirit of Liberty” to a gathering of around 1.5 million people in Central Park, NY, many of them newly-naturalised citizens.

You can – and indeed should – read the full speech. The portion of it I want to address goes as follows:

No, that doesn’t actually beg the question

Greetings from the Franschhoek Literary Festival where, when we’re not sitting in panel discussions, you might often find us sitting drinking wine and debating important matters. Today, after our table resolved the issue of whether you should wear your name tag in a visible (to some, ostentatious) fashion (yes), we moved on to talking about whether it was worth contesting the increasingly prevalent misuse of the phrase “begs the question”.

Dying with dignity

Yesterday, a strange collection of people received an unusual email. It was a suicide note from a man we knew to varying degrees, sent to people with whom he’d formed a connection over the years, whether via secular humanist activism (as in my case) or badminton, or something more intimate, like being family or close friends.

It was scheduled to be sent hours after he had taken his life, and included instructions regarding memorial services, burial and the like.

I didn’t know him well, so I’m not sad at his death in any personal fashion. I am however sad at how he had to die – alone, and with no certainty that his suffering would be alleviated, given that the medical support that should be available at times like these cannot be provided unless you can find a physician who is willing to break the law.