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I attended the sort of progressive high school that allowed students to create their own classes. I decided to study the practical applications of plants, specifically their uses in food, textiles and medicine.

Basically, I cooked, dyed wool and made diluted poisons. Typical high school stuff.

I learned a lot about my local plants during that semester. What I’m not always great at is identifying new plants. That’s why I downloaded a plant identifier app. I won’t suggest the one I use because it’s just ok, full of tech walls designed to shunt you away from free options and toward a purchase, but I’ve charted a path around those barriers and can get the information I want.

That said, I’ve learned that iOS 15 users* already have a free alternative.

* * *

The feature is called Visual Look Up and once you know it’s there, it’s easy to use. It works for plants but also other subjects like landmarks, art and animals.

Today I learned you can identify plants and flowers using just your iPhone camera

Just open up a photo or screenshot in the Photos app and look for the blue “i” icon underneath. If it has a little sparkly ring around it, then iOS has found something in the photo it can identify using machine learning. Tap the icon, then click “Look Up” and it’ll try and dredge up some useful information.

Is it perfect? Not in my (admittedly limited) experience, but it is surprisingly good. My father-in-law sent me a picture of a mystery flower that had appeared (quite mysteriously!) next to his pond. Despite living in the area for decades he had never seen the plant before. Did I know what it was?

I did, in fact, have a pretty good guess. It looked an awful lot like a native plant Mr Man and I bought when we first moved into the house, the Blue Flag Iris. I ran the image through my app to be sure, and it helpfully appended “Northern” to the name. Points for me, but confirmation is always nice.

After discovering Visual Look Up I tested it on the same photo. It got me to “Iris” but without additional specifics. (To be fair, when I took a quick snapshot of the clearer image below and ran Look Up, it identified the plant as a Blue Flag Iris. Points for it.)

So next time you discover something mysterious that you don’t mind sharing with the tech giant in your pocket, try out this feature.

For a free option covering multiple life and other forms?** Recommended.

* * *

* Those in the US, Australia, Canada, UK, Singapore, Indonesia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Mexico, for now. Not an iPhone user? I haven’t tried it, but Google Lens has similar functionality and works for both iOS and Android.

** But does it work on aliens?

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Ten? Ten.

This morning my computer helpfully informed me that it has been ten years since I started this site.

Seriously? That can’t be true… It is true!

I also passed 1,000 posts a few weeks ago, which felt like a fun milestone.

So, happy site birthday! Any excuse for cake, right? In honor of this week’s Super Strawberry full moon, let’s go with strawberry.

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Photo by Junior REIS on Unsplash

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While I engage in the joy that is Tuesday and also wait for a bit of family news, here’s a window into the happy, hyperactive world of the West Texas hummingbird.

For more live bird cams (including some involving things you shouldn’t do with a squirrel!), visit Cornell Lab Bird Cams.

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If you’re in North America, you may be treated to a dramatic meteor shower tonight. 

Or, you know, maybe not.

Meteor storm of 1,000 shooting stars per hour possible this week | Space

The Tau Herculids meteor shower may light up the skies over North America on May 30 and 31. Or it may not. There’s a chance we might pass through the thickest part of the comet fragment that is creating the debris, in which case the night skies will be filled with shooting stars.

You can watch the possible tau Herculid meteor shower live online, courtesy of the Virtual Telescope Project. The project’s astrophysicist Gianluca Masi will provide live all-sky cameras from Arizona and Brazil starting at 12 a.m. EDT (0400 GMT) on Tuesday, May 31.

I kind of love that despite all of humanity’s scientific advances, such events can remain a delightful surprise.

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Photo by Red Zeppelin on Unsplash

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I forgot to mention yesterday’s Super Flower Blood Moon eclipse. Hopefully you saw at least some of it, but if you missed it NASA has a number of livestreams, including this one from Georgia in the US:

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Some of my time today was taken up by story edits, so I thought I could use a bit of help on the blog post today.

You may have heard the fuss around OpenAI’s GPT-3, a new AI that can generate impressive results with text and code. (Here’s an explainer, or you can think of it as the world’s most sophisticated auto-complete.) I decided to test out an open-source version called GPT-J by asking it to create a list of ten speculative fiction books.

* Disclaimer: I am an untrained hack playing with a system that (in some hands, at least) is giving the Turing Test a run for its money. Cue hilarity.

My new assistant was happy to help, if sometimes a bit, um, off base. After tweaking the prompt, settings, and iterating several many times to get around the length limitations, here is the result:

Original Prompt (My comments in brackets and bold, all else from GPT-J):

List 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Result:

List 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

2. 1984 by George Orwell

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

4. The Shining by Stephen King

5. The Stand by Stephen King

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

10. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’ve been reading a lot of speculative fiction lately, mostly dystopian and post-apocalyptic, so I decided to put together a list of ten of my favorites. It’s probably a bit more of a guilty pleasure than an accurate reflection of my reading habits, but these are all books that I’ve really enjoyed and can’t wait to reread. I’ll probably be back to add some more to the list.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The first fantasy book I ever read and it’s still one of my favorites. I picked it up when I was 14 or 15, and I’ve read it a few times since. It’s a story of good versus evil, with good triumphing over evil. [geesh, spoiler alert] I read the trilogy in order, though I’d recommend reading the prequel, The Hobbit, first if you haven’t already.

2. 1984 by George Orwell

Orwell’s dystopian novel about a future where the government has full control over the citizens. It’s written in the form of a diary entry by an unnamed character, so you don’t really know who it’s talking about. It’s probably my favorite dystopian novel and the one I’ve read most often. I’ve been meaning to reread it for a while, but I haven’t found the time yet.

3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This book is about a teenage boy named Alex who is doped up on hallucinogenic drugs. He gets in trouble with the police, and when the drugs wear off he goes berserk and starts brutally attacking people. He’s a classic anti-hero. [I saw the movie. don’t want to see/read it again]

4. The Shining by Stephen King

I haven’t read this one in a while, but I remember enjoying it. It’s about a writer who gets trapped in a hotel during a blizzard, with an evil presence in the hotel. It’s got a great story and a lot of twists and turns, but it’s also very scary.

5. The Stand by Stephen King

Another Stephen King book I haven’t read in a while, but I remember enjoying it. It’s about a virus that’s being spread by a zombie-like virus, and the only way to stop it is to kill every single person. [admission: haven’t read it, but even I know this isn’t quite on the money]

6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is a dystopian novel about a future where women are subjugated to the men. The story revolves around a woman named June, who becomes pregnant and has to go through an arranged marriage with a man named Nick. [I mean, sort of? on the money about “the men” though]

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

This is one of my favorite science fiction novels. [I can tell, see below] It’s about a time traveler from the future who is stuck in the past, and the only way he can get back to the future is to find the way to his home world. [eehhhh, close enough]

8. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I’ve read this one before, and I loved it. It’s about a group of hobbits and elves [um, kind of?] who go on a quest to destroy an evil ring. It’s not just a simple story about good and evil, but a story about friendship and loyalty. It’s a great fantasy novel. [truth]

9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

[not speculative, but at this point we’re just going with it]

This is a bestseller in Sweden [and everywhere else], and it’s the first in a trilogy. It’s about a journalist who is hired to investigate a crime in Sweden, and the story is told from the perspective of the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist.

10. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This is the second in a trilogy, and it’s about a girl named Katniss Everdeen who gets sent to the Hunger Games to be a tribute, where she has to fight and kill other contestants in a fight to the death.

I’m a big fan of both dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, so I was excited when I found this book at a used book store. I’d been wanting to read it for a while, and I was happy to find it for a reasonable price. 

[So, errors but it’s really not terrible so far, although it’s often almost right enough to be problematic if you’re not careful; now here’s where it goes off the rails]

The story is told from the perspective of a 14 year old girl named Charlie who has to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

I’m not a big fan of the Hunger Games series, but I did enjoy this book. It’s a story about the dangers of technology, and it’s one of the few dystopian novels I’ve read that I actually enjoyed. It’s about a man named Anthony, who has a terminal illness and is given the chance to be frozen in a cryogenic chamber and wake up later.

The story is told in the form of a journal entry by the protagonist, Richard. He has a wife and son, and he’s trying to cope with his son’s death, as well as his own imminent death. The story revolves around Richard trying to make sense of what has happened, and trying to cope with the loss of his son.

I read this book in one sitting, and I’m still thinking about it. [me too, GPT-J, me too]

I’m sure there’s a tech explanation for what happened there, but for now I’ll just be amused. 

* * *

In earlier tests, GPT-J did a pretty good job of identifying both science fiction and more generally speculative fiction, but did get a few things wrong.

Examples:

9. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

This is a novel set in a virtual reality world called the Matrix. It’s a world in which you can literally “hack” reality.

It’s a brilliant book. It’s set in a future where virtual reality is the new reality. But it’s a bit like the movie Snowpiercer. Snow Crash is a bit like a cross between Snowpiercer and Snow Crash.

It’s really, really, really good. I can’t recommend it enough.

[just, yeah]

7. The Stainless Steel Rat by John Creasey [nope, that was Harry Harrison; it didn’t know that Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War either]

Also, from some of the earlier versions of this experiment GPT-J seems to have a serious thing for H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Here’s an example:

Prompt:

Complete this list of 10 speculative fiction books:

1. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Result:

2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

3. The City and the City by China Miéville

4. The Iron Heel by Jack London

5. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

6. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

8. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

9. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

10. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

Ok, then!

* * *

I will say that all of this took a great deal more time than actually, I don’t know, writing the list myself. That said, even this tiny glimpse shows off the system’s enormous potential. 

So (aside from “Generative Pretrained Transformer”) what does GPT stand for? 

GPT-J has thoughts:

A: GPT stands for Genuine Personal Testimony.
A: GPT stands for GNU Parted Table. It’s the name of the backend to which I’m referring to when I say that I’m talking about the “system” and not the “table.”
A: GPT stands for “grandparents’ primary teacher”. I created the term to describe those teachers who start a conversation with students and parents as if they are a student’s grandparent. It’s a term I use to describe teachers who have the experience of a parent.

Me, I say it stands for generate, proof, and for the love of The Time Machine, please think.

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Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

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Interested in the short and long term future of food? (Of course you are, we all have to eat.) Then you might like this article from Bon Appètit:

Predicting the Future of Food

To take a look at what the future of food might look like, we talked to experts to come up with menu predictions for the future. For the years 2023 and 2024, scientists offered their insights on how food might change. But for 100 years from now—the year 2122—we spoke with people who were unafraid to make some bold claims: science fiction writers. 

Fascinating, sometimes frightening, fun.

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While we’re examining the relevance of science fiction for real-world action, you might also be interested in the next meeting of the Science Fiction/Real Policy Book Club. They’ll be discussing All Systems Red by Martha Wells, a.k.a. Murderbot.

Join Future Tense and Issues in Science and Technology at 6pm ET on Wednesday, June 1 to discuss the novel and its real-world implications.

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Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

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We’ve reached the point where most people are aware that pollinators need help, that traditional grass lawns do little to support bees and other wildlife, add to pollution, waste water, and contribute to a host of other environmental problems. 

I have mentioned that I am not a big fan of grass lawns. We also know that Mrs. Mannerly (not her real name) down the street will give us stink eye if we don’t toe the weed-whacked, chemical-laced, 2-inch tall, monoculture turf line.

What’s the answer?

Partly, it’s changing what we grow, and we’re adding pollinator-friendly plants as much as we can. But until we’re ready to completely upend the lawn paradigm, we need better ways to deal with the grass we have.

And we’re hoping to bring our little corner of the world along for the ride.

* * *

When Mr Man and I moved to this charming area a decade ago, a typical weekend was filled with the roar of lawn mowers. One fellow a few doors down sported a first-generation corded mower, but for the most part our new neighbors were all about gas.

Garage doors would open each Saturday morning to show off rows of gas-powered mowers, bright red gas canisters, leaf blowers and battle-hardened lawn trimmers. Our morning walks often required us to step gingerly around streams of spilled fuel and shout to be heard over the racket. 

No more.

Sure, that one neighbor with the riding mower still manages to spend a large proportion of his afternoon outside, but that might have more to do with his home life than his landscaping needs.

Otherwise, a remarkable sense of peace has taken over our street.

As new homeowners standing in front of the row of mowers at Home Depot, gas power did not appeal. We picked up a battery-powered unit that played well with our other power tools. The unit was light, easy to use, quick, quiet, cut well and, perhaps most impactfully, was a bright fluorescent green.

The neighbors noticed. The couple across the street watched us for months, then asked about it. It took time, but eventually they converted to an electric mower. Other neighbors on afternoon walks eyed us up as we mowed. Several years in we noticed another handful of neighbors had made the change as well. As minds changed the trend continued to spread.

Now a decade in, it’s hard to find a neighbor with a gas mower, and that’s terrific. 

* * *

What’s the next challenge? Our neighbors still mow early and often. The good news is that the city lets our extensive network of road separators grow bumper crops of dandelions. Bright yellow carpets fill the streets (and feed the bees) for weeks. Still, private lawns account for a substantial amount of acreage* and could be key to turning the tide for bees and the rest of our unpaid pollinator workforce.

“When you run the numbers, it turns that almost anything is better than a grass lawn — except pavement.” 

Lawns are the No. 1 irrigated ‘crop’ in America. They need to die.

Take No Mow May. This movement started in Britain but quickly jumped the Pond to North America. 

What Is No Mow May | Better Homes & Gardens

No Mow May isn’t about laziness (although that is a side benefit); it’s about helping the bees.

Also laziness. Whatever works for you, no judgement!

No Mow May: 8 Reasons to Let Your Lawn Grow This Month – Bob VIla

When it comes to spring yard work, what if you could actually do more by doing less? By participating in No Mow May, you’ll spend less time, money, and energy on your lawn while helping to improve the planet.

I’m hoping that at least some of our neighbors will realize, as we have, that in the case of mowing, less is definitely more.

Why You May Not Want to Mow the Lawn This Weekend

* * *

I hope our shift to an electric mower had some small local impact but it’s not just us, of course. The folks around the corner switched to a xeriscaped yard and posted signs about helping pollinators. The world is noticing that the pollinators need change and wants to help. The question is now less about “what” and more about how to do it in ways that work with the world we have.

So this year I’m supporting my local eco organizations, planting native flowers, and braving potential side-eye from Mrs. Mannerly across the street. 

Who knows? Next time I see her across my bee-filled yard, she might even smile.

* * *

* For example, lawns can be counted as the single largest “crop” in the U.S. and are estimated to take up over 400 million acres in the U.S. And they don’t even taste good!

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Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

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“Honestly, if you’re given the choice between Armageddon or tea, you don’t say ‘what kind of tea?’” 

― Neil Gaiman

Wise advice.

Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change

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Need to take a quick break, maybe get off the planet for a bit? Now’s a great time to visit the Moon!

Send your name to the Moon with NASA’s Artemis mission!

Send Your Name to Space

Add your name here to have it included on a flash drive that will fly aboard Artemis I.

You could even do a little public service and cleanup litter once you’re up there, because Space Junk Just Crashed Into the Far Side of the Moon at 5,800 MPH.

While we’re talking space, you can also check out the current Location Map for Perseverance Rover.

Because sometimes it’s nice to be reminded of the good that humans can do, too.

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Photo by Silas van Overeem on Unsplash

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