Millennials’ skills in making stone tools are pathetic compared to previous generations

A new study from the University of Michigan discovered that compared to previous generations, Millennials are terrible at making stone tools.

“The results were disturbing,” wrote one professor who took the lead on the interdisciplinary study. “Not a single one of our participants was able to knap a knife from flint or even make a single arrowhead. This represents a significant departure from a skill that would have been necessary for previous generations.”

The study went on to theorize that if they were transported back in time to the Paleolithic Age, it would be unlikely that a single Millennial would survive. While no one can be sure why Millennials have departed from making stone tools, several conservative pundits have blamed everything from left-leaning universities to the decline of the hunter-gatherer, nomadic, nuclear family structure. 

Whatever the cause, the truth is out there now. Compared to previous generations, Millennials are just not equipped to handle making stone tools anymore. This amazing skill of previous generations just seems to be gone with the current generation, and one has to wonder whether or not the mammoth hunting industry will be the next to fall to Millennials’ wanton lack of capability.

A concurrent study tried to examine Gen Z’s abilities at making stone tools, but the researchers could not get the participants to stop dabbing and doing Fortnite dances. The study remains inconclusive.

At the time of writing, the team was doing further research to find out if blaming social media or smartphones for Millennials’ lack of stone-craft made for a better headline.

***

In case anyone doesn’t get it, this is meant to be satire. Cheers!

-PWC.

Glossolalia: a broken sonnet form

The words to speak the truth are hard to find
When there’s a space between the symbol
and the sign which it is trying to describe.
The signifier doesn’t show the sign.

What words we have will break beyond repair.
What words we have will fall down to the ground.
And me, a man of unclean lips, I’ll praise
And raise my broken words into the air

But who would lend an ear to hear the sound
Of shattered voices scattered by the wind
That sends them faltering in harmony
Into the air—into the sky to drown?

We try to speak aloud but fail each day.
Our empty words will only fade away.

 

Hey, it’s national poetry month. Take a break and read a poem!

-PWC

National Poetry Month 2019

Milosz

April is National Poetry Month, and this year I’m trying to write a little more. Of course, you can’t really write poetry without reading some of it, so I’ve also been revisiting an old favorite of mine: Czesław Miłosz.

Miłosz is a Nobel Prize-winning poet, originally from Poland, who survived the events of the second world war. A lot of his poetry deals with themes of morality and faith, but having seen the rise of 20th century totalitarian regimes, his work also deals with history and politics. Overall, he’s a complex writer, but one that’s well worth the read.

If you’re looking for something to read for this year’s poetry month, The Poetry Foundation has a few of his poems on their website. I’d also highly recommend the book that I used as the cover image on this post. Miłosz has a lot of great work, and pretty much all of it is worth reading.

Just a fair warning: if you’re looking for a cheerier read, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere. Miłosz saw a lot of the worst things that happened in the 20th century, and he spent a good portion of his life in exile from his own country. The government of Poland even banned his writing for several years. His work is definitely a little more on the grim side of poetry, but if that’s your thing, you’ll probably appreciate his work.

Happy National Poetry Month!

-PWC

The last American folk hero: A short story

Let it never be said that I don’t try creative writing. I wrote some of this last year, but I only just now got it to a point where I felt like sharing. I hope you enjoy!

-PWC

Original illustration by Peter W. Carrillo

Seven feet tall some say he stood. With shoulders bigger than anyone had the rights to have. His real name was Hubert but we all called him Sam for short. To this day, I don’t know why. They say he walked into the lumber camp one day with his own ax. One big enough to cut down trees in a single blow and with a handle all carved into what looked like runes and sigils. He was there, supposedly to ask for work, but he didn’t really have to ask. He was almost given the job before he came in the door.

You see, there was a huge old tree there in the forest way out beyond where the lumber camps were. We’d had a hiker come out and tell us about it, and you can bet the bosses were just salivating to have it down. They sent teams of folks out there to try to cut the thing down, but try as they might, hardly anything left a dent in the bark. All our tools would break when we hit the thing, and it just refused to go down. So for years, it became a test for all of us. Each year, a strong worker would grab an ax, say he was going to fell the tree, and head out there. Of course, a whole crew of people went along to see because we all thought, maybe. Maybe this time, that old tree would go down.

And of course, the same thing happened every time. The strong man would get everyone’s attention, make a huge speech, and the crew would cheer him on. He’d take a few practice swings with an ax, and you could feel the energy crackling like a wildfire. The tree would, as always, stand dark and silent dwarfing the challenger who dared to swing his ax in defiance of the old powers. Then the moment would come. The stroke would fall. The ax would break to the sound of disappointed groans from everyone gathered there, and another challenger would walk away defeated by the old tree. Whatever that thing was made of, the bosses started to see it as a personal challenge, and they started to think that if someone could get it down, they could make a fortune.

And so, their greedy eyes turned to Sam, to his size, and to his strange ax, and they gave him the job almost before he walked in the door. Of course, they were smart enough, so instead of sending him right out to the old tree, they tested him first and put him to work with a crew. The first day, the crew that went with Sam felled more trees than we had in a week of being out there. The second day, they did the same. And it wasn’t just Sam that did the work. Those around him seemed to be so inspired, they did the work of two people when he was there.

We damn near cleared a whole forest that year (replanting, of course. Regulations and all), and the lumber company was starting to make a fortune. The bosses were getting fat, the workers were getting strong, and it seemed like we were undefeatable the whole second half of the year after Sam came along. He just had something about him. Seemed invincible. A natural born leader. And somehow he was just a worker like the rest of us.

Eventually, the time came to really test Sam’s mettle. It was late in January, and that time up in the mountains, things started to get cold. Snow fell. Enough to chill you and to get everything soggy, but never enough to really slow anything down. That January, the bosses called Sam into their office to give him a nice long talk. I don’t know what they said to him, but he walked out an hour later with his face set like iron. All of us knew something big was about to go down.

The next day, Sam was the first one in, but he wasn’t going to go out with the crew. Instead, he took his strange ax and got himself a sharpening stone. We had some standard-issue stones we all used, but like everything else with Sam, his was different. Bigger looking, and it had a strange mark on it too. He spent the day sharpening that ax on that stone. Every time he slid the stone along the blade, sparks would fly, and it looked like Sam was gonna burn down the whole camp. Fortunately, everything was so wet and sodden that nothing caught fire, and the sparks winked out as they hit the ground.

By the time Sam left that day, the ax was polished like a mirror and sharp enough to draw blood if you ran a thumb along it. Trust me, one of the men tried. He got stitches in addition to an almighty berating by Sam who started the process again the next day to make sure the blade was still as sharp as can be. When the ax was ready to go, Sam told all of us to never touch it and that he’d be back in the morning to fell that big old tree.

And so we gathered there, before the dawn, on the coldest day of that winter so far. We were expecting something big, but a feeling of apprehension ran through everyone like an electrified coil. Something was gonna happen, but to a man, none of us knew what. Then Sam walked in looking for all the world like an executioner. His face was grim, his eyes were cold, and he didn’t greet a single man there with a smile. Instead, he only said three words that were as much a warning as anything else. “I’m going alone.” With that he picked up his ax, the blade still shining in the cold morning light, and he walked out.

None of us knew what to make of that, but not a one of us was about to follow him. Whatever path he was heading down, none but he could walk it. We all just sort of stood around the camp in the cold waiting silently to see what would happen. Turns out we didn’t need to see anything. We could hear the whole thing.

The first crack was loud as a cannon. An almighty boom that echoed around the hills. The second was a thunderclap that broke over everyone and made the men shudder and wince. The third was the distinctive sound of splintering wood, but it was amplified so loud that it brought boulders rolling down the hills and caused a minor landslide. The sound echoed around for a long time after that, and eventually blew away on the wind. Everyone in the camp stood dumbfounded for a minute just looking around at the hills and at each other. Then we all started to run. Command or no, we had to see what Sam had done.

When we got to the old tree, we saw that it was down. Toppled from a broken stump in three blows. The shining head of an ax was embedded in the tree. We found pieces of a carved wooden handle around the stump. None of us ever saw Sam again.

Dear Grammarly, it’s not passive voice misuse

Passive voice misuse
But I wanted to use it that way!

Here’s something to keep in mind: there are plenty of writing tools out there, and most of them are complete garbage.

One that stands out from the rest by not falling into the garbage category is Grammarly. It really is a useful tool that helps speed the proofreading process along. It’s a lot like the built-in grammar checking tools for Microsoft Office and Google docs, but it’s in a cleaner, easier to use package. That being said, it does have one thing that just bothers me: the way it talks about passive voice.

If you’ve spent any time learning to write or reading advice about writing, you probably already know that there’s an incredible amount of hatred for passive voice out there. For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen that, give it a quick Google search and come back here.

If you need a definition, here you go: passive voice is when you switch the subject and the object of a sentence around the verb. For example, an active sentence looks like this:

Jimmy threw the ball.

Jimmy is the subject, threw is the verb, and the ball is the object. In English, the subject and the object can be switched, giving you a sentence like this:

The ball was thrown (by Jimmy).

That’s what passive voice looks like. The parentheses around by Jimmy are there because the sentence is still grammatical without that part.

Passive voice is a little more complex than that, but that’s a decent enough definition for now. So passive voice is grammatical, it’s possible to do in English, and there are a few reasons you might want to use it. If the subject isn’t known, for example, you might get a sentence like this:

The bank was robbed last night and the thieves are still at large.

I doubt even the most curmudgeonly grammarian would bat an eye at that one. Another example might be if you’re writing something like a scientific paper that focuses on the process rather than the subjects:

The test was conducted on 120 participants.

You actually have several occasions where passive voice makes more sense in writing than active voice. From what I can tell, the hatred for passive voice is more of a writerly meme than anything else. Some of the hate is because it can be used to hide responsibility. You might think of a politician’s “mistakes were made” instead of “we made mistakes,” but if you really think about it, that use of passive voice isn’t all that common.

But I started this post with Grammarly, and I should probably tell you why. Whenever you use passive voice (whenever passive voice is used?), Grammarly marks it as “passive voice misuse” regardless of context and intent. Here’s the thing: as I just showed, there are a few times where passive voice isn’t misused, and where it actually makes more sense to use it.

What really gets to me is that all this does is perpetuate a writing myth that probably should have died a while ago. Sure passive voice can be misused, but not every case of passive voice is a misuse. Ironically enough, Grammarly’s own blog talks about the same thing.

Don’t get me wrong, Grammarly is a wonderful writing tool and probably the only one I would recommend, but can we stop pretending passive voice is bad?

-PWC

Robots writing revisited

AI Writer
He’s coming for your blog

At some point last year, I wrote about writing assisted by technology, but what happens when the technology is writing everything?

I read something recently on Forbes about AI starting to write content. Apparently, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a few other online publications are using AI to write some of their content for them. Before you starting ringing the alarms bells and deciding nothing is safe from automation, take a deep breath and read on.

The trouble with the headline is it was written like this: “Artificial Intelligence Can Now Write Amazing Content.” That’s a big “yeah, right” from me. Science and tech journalism is never great, but this was one of the more overstated pieces I’ve seen in a while.

What the headline leaves out is that AI can currently write sports content, can compile financial reports, and can write local news stories. All of these follow a who, what, when kind of formula, so yeah, AI can easily write that stuff. The thing is that’s not “amazing content.” If anything, that’s the kind of content that gets churned out for no other purpose than to have content. It’s not written for thinkers, for readers, or for anyone really interested in learning anything new.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of content, but let’s not kid ourselves. It’s a far cry from amazing. What really characterizes amazing content is not whether it can get the facts straight. That’s an important part of it, but amazing content is far more about the ideas that are presented and the effect they will have on the reader. To put it simply amazing content is content that reads like one person talking to another.

But that’s just my take on things, so let’s take a look at the actual amazing content that this kind of AI can supposedly write. AI-Writer.com lets you actually take their bot for a test drive, so I gave it the headline “how to write a good blog post” just to see what it came up with. Oh boy. Here we go.

The contours are very useful and probably your life story number 1 when you master how to write a good blog.

Here’s how to build trust and ultimately how to write a good blog.

To keep your efforts more consistent as you learn how to write a good blog, it is a great idea to create an editorial calendar.

Generally speaking, your job when creating a blog is to share information that no one else shares or information that people would like to pay for, but you give them for free.

And that’s not even the most egregious part. Nope, that goes to this one that formed the conclusion:

You can decide on your final title before writing the rest of your message ( and use your header to structure your outline ), or you can write your blog with a working title and see what fits when you’re done.

Writing headers for blog entries is an art as well as a science, and probably it justifies its own post, but for now all I would recommend is to experiment with what works for your audience.

So, you have done your research, set up a headline ( or at least a working title ), and now you are ready to write a blog.

Often, people simply don’t have the time, willingness or ability to concentrate on long blog entries without visual stimulation.

But if you need a little help to break the blank page or invent blogging topics, we have created a handy set of tools to make your creative juices flow.

Zero coherence, awkward phrasing, nothing connects. Sure, the sentences are grammatical, but there is SO much more than that to be an effective writer. Amazing? I don’t think so.

And the worst part of all of this is that the bot is really just scraping content from other sites. It’s pulling originally written content, and changing a few words here and there. I’m not sure how other AI writers work, but if that’s what all of them do, that sounds like plagiarism to me. Maybe that’s a philosophical question for another day, but it doesn’t seem right or ethical to me.

I said it the last time I wrote about robots trying (and failing) to write, and I will say it again. There will never be a tool, a hack, or an AI that will come along that will help you write better. Good content is just work, practice, and a person who’s put in the hours, and no AI is going to be better at content creation than a person.

But there’s another question waiting behind this one: why would you want the kind of content that an AI can churn out? Unfortunately, everything from major news publications to professional industries have this bad idea that content is an end in itself. It constantly needs to be there and constantly needs to be refreshed.

The result is tons and tons of mediocre content that serves the SEO bots on Google but doesn’t take into account the human being on the opposite end of the screen. That person (bless their heart) who is unfortunate to be on the receiving end of content for content’s sake is not having a good time and will probably leave with a negative impression—especially if they came across that content trying to answer a real question.

In general, I think you should put your reader’s needs above everything. Ann Hadley even calls this “relentless empathy” for a reader, and I honestly don’t know if there’s a better way to say it. The point is, AI can produce more content and it can constantly refresh a webpage, but that content will never rise above mediocrity. It can’t empathize with a reader, it can’t know what they need, and above all, it can’t care about any of that.

So no, Forbes, AI cannot write amazing content because amazing content shares complex ideas and connects to people. It can produce marginally readable content that no one wants to read. No one needs more of that around.

-PWC

Tolkien reading day 2019: Tolkien and the mysterious

King of the Golden Hall

The Tolkien Society puts on a themed reading day every March 25th (the day that the ring was destroyed and Barad-dûr fell if you didn’t know that already), and this year’s theme is Tolkien and the mysterious. Since Tolkien wrote a full-sized, believable world, there is plenty that is and will be mysterious in Middle-Earth. So there’s plenty to choose from. My personal favorite on this theme is Théoden’s healing by Gandalf, some of which I’ve excerpted below:

‘Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you harken to me?’ said Gandalf. ‘Do you ask for help?’ He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. ‘Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give those that despair. Yet counsel I could give and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.’

Slowly, Théoden left his chair. A faint light grew in the hall again. The woman [Éowyn, by the way] hastened to the king’s side, taking his arm, and with faltering steps the old man came down from the dais and paced softly through the hall. Wormtongue remained lying on the floor. They came to the doors and Gandalf Knocked.

‘Open!’ He cried. ‘The Lord of the Mark comes forth!’

The doors rolled back and a keen air came whistling in. A wind was blowing on the hill.

I’m skipping ahead a little because of copyright reasons. I’d love to quote the whole thing, but I can’t. May I suggest reading the book?

‘Now, lord,’ said Gandalf, ‘look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!’

From the porch upon the top of the high terrace they could see beyond the stream the green fields of Rohan fading into the distant grey. Curtains of wind-blown rain were slanting down. The sky above and to the west was still dark with thunder, and lightning far away flickered among the tops of hidden hills. But the wind had shifted to the north, and already the storm that had come out of the east was receding, rolling away southward to the sea. Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass.

‘It is not so dark here,’ said Théoden.

There’s more, of course, and I’d write it all for you if I could. So why this passage for the theme of Tolkien and the mysterious? Arguably, one of the most mysterious things in Tolkien’s legendarium is the power that words have in Middle-Earth. If oaths are made, they have to be kept, and, somehow, words have the power both to harm and to heal given the right circumstance. In this context, the thing that’s poisoning the mind of Théoden, in addition to his leechcraft, is Grima Wormtongue’s counsel. His words. And Gandalf’s healing comes, again, with counsel and with words. Even the beginning of Gandalf’s work here starts with him asking if Théoden will listen. If you pay attention, references to words are just littered throughout the passage. Wormtongue’s name is a great example, of course, but there are more subtle references than that.

What makes the mystery is how all of this works. Tolkien never set about to write a magical system that is all-encompassing, but what he did believe in (being a linguist and all) was the power of words. I’ll admit that this is not the single most mysterious thing in Tolkien’s legendarium, but it’s an interesting thing to notice that, most of the time, any magic in Tolkien’s works is either confined to objects, like the one ring or Andúril, or to words like we see in this passage. What’s interesting to note here as well is that Théoden’s healing happens in a sort of call and response. Gandalf offers the word, but Théoden also has to listen. You get the feeling that a great choice was made and Théoden’s choice to listen is what pulls him out of the darkness.

What I think Tolkien is doing here is getting us to share in some of his own appreciation of language. Obviously, in the real world, words have no magic to them, but they can harm or they can heal. Maybe not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, certainly. This passage is Tolkien inviting us in to share in enjoying that mystery with him. Personally, I think it’s always worth considering what words can do, how they can shape you, and how they can definitely hurt or heal depending on their intent and the person speaking those words. Maybe Wormtongue is just the ultimate bad advice guy, but maybe he’s also the representation of how some folks just try their hardest to bring everyone down with what they say.

I hope you all have an excellent Tolkien reading day!

-PWC