Category Archives: Politics/Law/Government

AI, Art, Ethics, and Me

Here’s why I’m just saying no.

I’ve been playing with AI lately – specifically MidJourney, a “generative artificial intelligence program” that creates art* using prompts supplied by the user.

I started for innocent enough reasons. If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you know that most days I post a Zen-oriented meme which features some brief text – a haiku, perhaps, or a selection from my book – along with an image that complements the thought. Like this one:

The words are easy enough, but the images were often a problem. I wanted something that suited the text, and occasionally I found what I wanted online. Often, though, the images that worked were copyrighted or owned by a stock warehouse. And I didn’t want to steal.

So I thought that being able to create unique images would solve my problem. And it has.

Thing is, these generative AIs are a lot of fun.

It’s absolutely insane what you can do, and so I started experimenting. I learned some basic prompts and rules, and over the span of a month I cranked out some pretty cool images. I didn’t tell myself they were art, because I didn’t really do anything except figure out how to say some words to the machine. And as someone who’s fancied himself an artist since the late 1970s, I have some principles that matter to me a great deal.

Then I discovered the part I didn’t know at first: not only will MidJourney work with text prompts, it will also take reference images. That is, you can give it a picture as well as words, and it will build that into the output.

So I started giving it some of my photos to consider. Most of it was forgettable, but a few were absolute grabbers. (I thought, anyway, and a lot of friends agreed.) Like these:

I began to think about justifications for this new art style.

Aside from the usual (AI is just a new tool and there have been zillions of other disruptive new tools in the past, anything you do will be clearly labeled, so the audience can decide, etc.) I decided that these were different because they began with my art (I used my poetry in places, too). The result, therefore, was a true collaboration between the machine and me. It could not produce any of this on its own.

Interesting idea. Seductive idea. And I went so far as to begin planning a new web site that would be devoted to this work.

And now I’m stepping away.

Two reasons. First, I never stopped thinking about the artistic, critical, and ethical concerns surrounding artificial intelligence taking on work previously done by humans. It was always on my mind. Then I encountered a column in the LAT:

Your boss wants AI to replace you. The writers’ strike shows how to fight back

I was especially struck by this quote from artist and activist Molly Crabapple:

“I saw my work in the LAION-5B dataset used to train Stable Diffusion,” Crabapple says. “I saw DALL-E’s ability to churn out bastard versions of my work with the prompt ‘drawn by Molly Crabapple.’ I saw how tech corporations, backed by billions of dollars, had gobbled up my work and the work of countless other artists to train products whose goal is to replace us.”

“There is no ethical way to use the major AI image generators,” Crabapple says. “All of them are trained on stolen images, and all of them are built for the purpose of deskilling, disempowering and replacing real, human artists.”

For the sheer hell of it, here’s MidJourney’s take on [Molly Crabapple drawn by Molly Crabapple].

The article (which is well worth a read) and Crabapple’s comments brought me back around to the debate I was already having in my head and to my thinking about diving into this new AI art thing “seriously.” Also, it led me to my second reason for stepping away from the machine.

Let me illustrate this one. First, here’s an AI piece I call Phalanx:

Not gonna lie: I like it a lot. Now, here’s the original photo the AI was working with – my contribution and my justification for why Phalanx might, just maybe, be defensible as art. It’s called Lift Up Your Voice:

This is one of my favorite photographs, and others have said they’ll like it, as well. I’ll leave you to your own judgment, but when push comes to shove Phalanx just doesn’t look much like the photo, does it? If I tell you that it is a source for the AI image, you can probably look closely and see…some connection?

But whatever I tell myself, the AI version is one part me and 50 parts someone else. Someone like Molly Crabapple, perhaps. And if you look at the reference images I contributed for the pics above, you’ll find the same thing.

Now what?

[CAVEAT: A friend who read this draft said my tone seemed a little self-righteous, and he may be right. That isn’t the intent – in truth, I’m a little disappointed in myself for falling prey to the charms of the digital temptress. But, as always, YMMV.]

Yeah, I’ll keep using MJ for my daily Zen reflections, and since it’s fascinating, I’ll probably keep playing with the AI as new versions are released.

But no web site, no winterSmith+AI “art” for sale. Essentially, I’ll never use AI in a way that has the potential to take money out of the pocket of a fellow human being. If I hit the lottery, maybe I’ll hire real illustrators to help me with my Zen meditations, even, but for now there’s no money in it for anyone.

But others are out to fuck you for fun and profit. Mainly profit.

Like I say, read that article.***


* I footnote “art” not to start an argument, but because whether or not its output will attain that critical status is far from determined. It will take years, maybe decades, maybe longer, to sort that one out.

** I know, it isn’t real artificial intelligence. Let’s save that for another day.

*** I’m a business writer for a living. Yes, I have heard of ChatGPT. And yes, I’m paying attention.

Angel Reece vs Jill Biden: the First Lady Fucked Up

I don’t know if anyone has been following the NCAA women’s championship kerfuffle with Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese. In short, both are fantastic players and both engage in a little of what we ballers call “smack.” Clark, Iowa’s superstar, likes to do the John Cena/you can’t see me gesture, and in the final the other day, LSU’s Reece did it to her as the game ended.

You can’t see me

And the whole world blew up at Reece’s behavior. Want to guess what the diff is between Clark and Reece?

But public and media double standards aren’t enough, so First Lady Jill Biden said she wants to invite both LSU and Iowa to the White House.

This is a big tradition, of course – the winners of big championships (NCAA football and hoops, NBA, NFL, etc.) get to go to the White House. But inviting second place? This is not done. Until now, because the FL apparently admires Iowa’s “sportsmanship.” (At the risk of being cynical: she may be aware that “moderate” white folks in Iowa vote.)

And now Reece (and at least one Dem legislator) have released the hounds. Reece called Biden a joke and said we’re not coming.

The WH PR machine is now on spin cycle, but let’s be honest: Dr. Biden fucked up. I don’t think she’s a bigot, but this makes clear how the subtle racism is still very real, even in the words and actions of declared and dedicated social justice types. (And subtle can be worse than overt, especially at the West Wing level.)

I doubt this has ever occurred to her. But in context, “sportsmanship” is code.

I hope this gets ironed out. But if Lisa Bluder, Iowa’s coach, is a Republican, she can make some hay by coming out today and loudly accepting the invite.

The Real Problem With AI

The scary part about AI for me isn’t really what it can do. I can imagine all sorts of uses for it in my life (I’m a creative writer and a photographer who makes his living a business/marketing writer/editor and content manager).

The problem is political/economic. Yes, AI will put people out of work. LOTS of them. It already is. Fine, but that, per se, isn’t a problem. The problem – and here comes a critique of capitalism and how it’s wired our brains – is that people will have no way to sustain themselves. Sustaining yourself and working are different things, no matter what rich “job creators” and the pols who work for them say. Sam no longer has a job? But he has the money he needs to live on? Bring on the machines!

But this only works in a society that thinks a few minutes ahead. And in the last election there was precisely one candidate on the stage who wanted to talk about universal basic income (UBI). That was Andrew Yang, and the less said about him, the better.

The alternative is millions and millions and millions of people who can’t support themselves. And to put a very relevant emotional spin on it, can’t provide for their children. These aren’t all “unskilled” laborers, either. Many, many of them used to be white collars and info sector workers. So now you have a huge and very capable and intensely desperate populace. That, by the way, has scary technical savvy and is way armed.

In a lot of ways this is like the Luddite rebellion. Understand, the word “Luddite” is profoundly misunderstood. Let me bore you with a passage from my dissertation, pp149-50.

While the term “Luddite” popularly connotes someone who is anti-technology*, the actual rebellion was more critically aimed at technology which threatened the sanctity of culture (Rybczynski Taming the Tiger; Pynchon “Is it O.K. to Be a Luddite?”). Their reaction was not against progress – they gladly used the newest weaving technology available, and were “interested in innovation and technical improvements to make their work easier” – but were instead opposed to the dehumanizing dislocations of the industrial economy.

At the turn of the 19th Century, factory looms were the latest innovation, and a factory job meant arriving at dawn for a 15 to 18 hour working day, and the door was locked behind you in the morning and not opened until the end of the shift. To the Luddites, the factory looms spelled the end of a way of life, of craftsmanship, of community and of family (Murphy “Are We the Neo-Luddites?”).

From the perspective of modern-day Luddites, the “original rebels against the future” reacted against technological encroachments on the natural order of human society. The Luddites had no objection to many technologies such as the carding engine and the spinning jack that supplemented human labour, but were not a threat to their livelihoods. By contrast, the inhuman machines that characterised the Industrial Revolution were new and different in that they were independent of nature, of geography, and season and weather, of sun, of wind, or water, or human or animal power. They not only destroyed jobs, but marked the beginning of an environmental catastrophe (Ludd “New Luddite”).

Parliament, already fearing the spread of unrest from France to Britain, was persuaded that the Luddite uprising “signaled a population prone to revolution,” and dispatched the military to smash the rebellion in 1812. The size of the detachment – 14,000 soldiers – was “seven times as large as any ever sent to maintain peace in England” (Sale “Lessons”). The movement’s leaders were either executed or deported (Rybczynski; Ludd). Factories, it was assumed, along with the wider transformation to industrial society, “kept people in their place – passive, orderly and productive (Ludd). Perhaps even more important than the physical victory, though, was the linguistic and ideological victory.

The triumph of industrialism was such that Luddism could be reduced to a term of abuse by the new technocratic elite and politicians. Colonial powers imposed destructive innovations on much of the rest of the world’s population, and once their armies had left they re-named their exploitation development (Ludd).


*A 1997 declaration by the “Humanist Laureates of the International Academy of Humanism” – a group of Nobel Laureates, Emeritus scholars, political leaders, activists, and authors which counts among its number such luminaries as Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Edward O. Wilson, and Kurt Vonnegut – vulgarly characterizes “the Luddite option” as historically seeking “to turn back the clock and limit or prohibit the application of already existing technologies.” The statement comes no closer to acknowledging the critical social contexts surrounding the movement than lamenting the possibility that “ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning” (International Academy of Humanism). Vonnegut, at least, should know better.

I don’t see how we move through the automation of our society without lots of bloodshed. I mean, ask yourself how many oligarchs you’d murder to feed your children.

Elon Musk and the Quiet Voice in My Head

Anytime the world’s attention diverts towards something shiny or outrageous or noisy or over-the-top entertaining, I try to step back and see who’s working the crowd. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but a lot of times circuses take attention off of something else.

Right now, Elon Musk is the greatest show on Earth. But I wonder. People like Trump are a huge threat – to democracy, to peace, to basic human decency – but longer-term the bigger threat is the oligarch class.

Peter Thiel worries me more than Trump. Billionaires are the enemy. Billionaires are dangerous. Billionaires should not exist, especially in a society with so much poverty. And the last thing billionaires need is for the rest of us to start looking at them too closely.

Along comes Elon, burning billion-dollar bills, dancing on tables like a drunk monkey, and making a general fool of hisself. All of eyes turn toward the jester, capering around under the big top at the edge of town. Look, we say. He ain’t nothing to fret about.

Thiel & VanceWe laugh and clap and point and chomp our ten-cent cigars, but what are we not looking at as, for instance, Peter Thiel’s pet hillbilly wins a Senate seat in Ohio?

No, I don’t think the dark cabal sent Elon out there to take one for the team. But what does it mean when things just naturally happen the same way they would if there were a conspiracy?

This is what the voice in my head is quietly thinking about this Veterans Day morning…

Graphic: The American Left-Right Political Spectrum

UPDATED 2022/7/4

Several conversations since I originally posted the spectrum have made clear that some elaboration and refinement is in order. In this update I add elements for context and present a revised spectrum graph that more accurately reflects the US political-economic spectrum with respect to the global “left-right” divide.


There exists a sort of consensus among Americans about left-wing vs right-wing (vs “moderate” or “centrist), but this narrow popular view fails to account for historical shifts and the global context. In short:

The US is significantly more conservative than the rest of the industrialized West and we have shifted dramatically to the right over the past 50 years. Read more

From Sand Creek to the Table Mesa King Soopers: Here’s What I Think

king-soopers shooting

Welcome to Colorado, the Shoot-’em-Up State

We do have a bloody history, don’t we? The latest breaking news happened the other day at the Table Mesa King Soopers in Boulder. At least three or four good friends live nearby and shop there regularly. And I used to shop there two or three times a week – I lived maybe a mile up the hill toward NCAR during grad school. Read more

Inauguration Day: Dignity Returns to the Oligarchy


I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for four years.

But today the relentless assault on truth, on justice, on fundamental human decency comes to an end. At least, the portion of it originating in the Oval Office does.

I know I’m imagining it, but it’s almost like I can feel my blood pressure dropping.

Of course, I know we haven’t really won anything, and I hope you know it, too. January 6 was just an amuse bouche, and even if we make it through the day without running street battles our various fascist terrorist cells still exist. Maybe not in sufficient numbers to take down the government (fingers crossed), but there are certainly enough of them to wage a disruptive campaign of terror of the sort we tend to associate with the Middle East or Northern Ireland.

Even if that doesn’t happen – even if the Proud Boys and the Boogaloos and Lauren Boebert lay down their arms and assimilate into civil society – Joe Biden ain’t the messiah. Along with the Clintons, Obama, Chuck Shumer, Cory Booker, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Kamala Harris, and the entire Colorado Senatorial delegation, he’s the face of what’s wrong with the Democratic Party. His administration will be friendly enough to the various causes of social progressivism – up to a point. Our racist, militarized police problem, for instance, will get a sparkly Band-Aid at best.

And while he won’t fluff Wall St. in public the way any member of the GOP would, he won’t be putting them out of business, either.

In essence, President Biden will restore dignity to the oligarchy.

“Better than Trump” isn’t the same as “better.” So my expectations are tempered by my basic habit of paying attention and thinking about what I observe.

Still, while Better than Trump isn’t everything, it isn’t nothing, either. So if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to mark today by exhaling.

In the morning we all need to take another deep breath and get back to the barricades. Because losing less isn’t winning.

The Progressive Response: Grief, and Tears


I wasn’t surprised by the election results. They’re still incomplete, and Biden may yet win, but regardless of the final tally half the country turned out to make clear just what they are. Just what we are.

The thing that did take me aback a bit was the reactions of my friends. Sure, there was some outrage, as you’d expect. But the dominant response of the day was … heartbreak. Disbelief. Sadness.

If you wanted, you could attribute 2016 to ignorance. But 2020? Nobody is blind to what the GOP is anymore. This was a calculated assertion of spite. Read more

11.4.2020: American Democracy To-Do List


Short term:

  • get rid of electoral college
  • fix Senate
    • four-year terms
    • eliminate filibuster
    • lay groundwork to eliminate it entirely (see below)
  • eliminate gerrymandering – require that Congressional representation mirror popular vote
  • eliminate superdelegates
  • eliminate presidential veto and restrict executive orders
  • make election day a national holiday
  • all state and federal elections to be 100% publicly funded
  • eliminate all bribery lobbying
  • fix Supreme Court
    • explicitly limit de facto legislative powers of Supreme Court
    • expand number of justices to reflect growth in population
    • limit terms to ten years, subject to reappointment
  • make voter suppression a federal crime punishable by no less than five years*

Read more

The Ties That (No Longer) Bind

Donald Trump is a referendum on what kind of human being you are

A few months ago I wrote that “I don’t want to “heal America’s divisions.” I’m reflecting on that sentiment this morning, the day before what may be the most important election of our lifetimes.

Many of us have some version of the braying racist, fascist, misogynist drunkle archetype in our lives. A Karen, a Chad, a Becky. Maybe it’s a relative we have to contend with at holiday dinners. Maybe there are family obligations, so we grit our teeth, bite our tongues, and tell our children (before and after) to ignore the ravings of the yahoo at the other end of the table. For others it may be a long-time friend who drifted in the wrong direction through the years. Or maybe the friend never changed, but we drifted in the right direction. Read more

I’m Glad I Wasn’t Black Today


I came home this evening after running a couple of errands to find a half-dozen people at my door. Two or three were uniformed.

Two followed me around back as I parked. Since my girlfriend (let’s call her J) has never so much as jaywalked I figured they had to be after me. No idea why, but the adrenaline was starting to pump.

I’m not going to talk to cops but I can hear what they have to say. It turns out they were looking for a woman named Amanda, whom they had seen coming in and out of my apartment routinely over the past three weeks. Read more

Dear Conservatives: It’s Judgment Day

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? - Matthew 7:16

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump stood before America and refused to denounce white supremacy. Instead, he used the opportunity to order one of America’s most notorious hate groups to stand at the ready.

He did this on national television, with millions watching and the cameras rolling.

After years of denial, years of deflection, of misdirection, of dog-whistles and whataboutism and hey-look-over-there-ism, after years of insisting that black is white and up is down, you, Trump supporters, find yourselves standing naked in full daylight. Read more

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