Random Notes

The occasionally-updated public notebook of Scott Nesbitt

On or about November 1st, 2023 this notebook will be shifting to a new home. Random Notes will still be at scottnesbitt.online, but it'll be hosted elsewhere.

Why? It's not that I've soured on Write.as — I still think it's a solid service. It's just that I'm trying to take a little more control over what I write and publish online. Hence this move.

If you have any bookmarks pointing to posts here, those should continue to work. Some posts are bound to fall through the cracks but I'll fix them as I find them.

While most aspects of this space, aside from a small cosmetic shift, are staying the same, there are a few things that are going away:

  • The ability to follow this blog from the Fediverse.
  • Email subscriptions.
  • Older link roundup posts (I'm rebooting those in 2024).
  • A small handful of posts that no one will miss.

Once the move is done, you can follow the blog using its RSS feed.

Looking forward to seeing you at the new home of Random Notes!

Sometime in June or July of 2023, a friend asked me whether or not, as someone who writes, I'm worried about large language models like ChatGPT. Specifically, whether they'll make my work and my somewhat creative efforts obsolete or redundant.

I didn't have an answer to the question then. I still don't. However, that question did spur me to give ChatGPT a go. That was easier than expected, since one of the homegrown tools at The Day JobTM has ChatGPT baked into it — the product teams that I work with, in case you're wondering, use ChatGPT to try to refine the titles and the text of software release notes.

Admittedly, the bar isn't exactly set at a heighty height when comes to improving those release notes. ChatGPT's output is often better than what the product teams hammer out. It's not, however, at the level of what a professional technical communicator can craft.

Using that as my jumping-off point, I decided to see what ChatGPT could do with some of my (then) recent ideas for blog posts. I crafted fairly decent (in my opinion anyway) initial prompts. I even took time to carefully cobble together follow-up prompts to refine ChatGPT's initial output. Iterating over the results and all that.

For personal, opinion-type posts, what ChatGPT spat out was a failure. When I modified the prompts to tell ChatGPT to write a post in my style (pointing it to this blog, in case you're wondering), I wound up with what was essentially a weak pastiche.

That output brought to mind what the actor Fyvush Finkel said to writer Harlan Ellison on a panel show in the early 1990s. After Ellison finished one of his rants, Finkel looked at Ellison and bluntly said: You just spoke for a minute and a half, and said absolutely nothing.

While ChatGPT's output is readable, that output is also pretty generic. It's homogeneous. It's vapid. That's especially true when those results aren't massaged by humans.

I also tried ChatGPT with more concrete, fact-based ideas for my blog covering free and open source software. The results were, again, bland and homogeneous. Plus, there were more than a couple of factual errors — like ChatGPT describing functions that a piece of software didn't actually pack.

The words that ChatGPT spits out are, for the most part, adequate. They're OK. They're just good enough. And that's a problem. More than a few people don't notice or just don't care about anything better when it comes to the words that pass before their eyes. They've become so inured to reading content that it's become their norm.

When it comes to the written word, do we have to settle for what's just good enough? If I'm coming across as a bit of an elitist by writing that, so be it. But is it elitist to want something better than the just good enough? Is it elitist to prefer writing that someone sweated and poured some of themselves into? I don't believe it is. I'd rather read something that packs a certain personal style, a certain warmth, a certain verve and panache than consume content.

While I don't consider myself to be much of a prose stylist, I do think that I have a fairly unique voice and style. One that separates my work from other writers. I just don't get that from the output of ChatGPT or tools like it. From my experiments, I learned that writing from scratch is a lot easier than reworking what a large language model spits out. At least it is for me.

Writing online doesn't need to be letter perfect. It doesn't need to be finely hewn. It doesn't need to be exquisitely polished. But it should have the unique voice of the person crafting it. And you don't get that from a tool like ChatGPT.

I'm under no illusion that this state of affairs won't change. I'm under no illusion that the output from large language models like ChatGPT won't improve. And that change, that improvement will probably come around sooner than I expect. But for now, and well into the future, I'll do my own writing (personal and professional) rather than outsourcing it to a large language model.

Wise words:

Does busy-ness mean you’re productive? No, it probably means you’re not good at making choices. To be less busy, you have to decide that some things are more important than others, and say no to the less important, so you’ll have time and energy to focus on the important ones. You can be un-busy, and productive, by giving yourself space to focus on what’s important, the high-impact things that make the most difference in your career and life.

Leo Babauta

We all have at least one book that we've been meaning to read but wind up never cracking open. With me, for the longest time that book was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.

When I was about 15, I found a Penguin paperback of the abridged version of Decline at a used bookstore on Queen St. West in Toronto. Throughout my teens and into my 20s, that book sat on my bookshelf waiting for me to start reading it. Several times, I tried to do just that but could never commit.

To be honest, I was daunted by Gibbon's book, even though it was the abridged version. Each time I reached for it, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I wasn't ready on multiple levels to tackle such weighty subject matter. That I wasn't ready to tackle a book of such scope and depth.

Jump forward to a few years ago, when I stumbled across a short article that Iggy Pop (yes, that Iggy Pop) wrote for the journal Classics Ireland. The three short pages of that piece laid out what Gibbon's magnum opus meant to Pop, and those sentiments stuck with me. So much so that I became determined to finally read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

It helped that I stumbled across an ebook version, which I promptly added to my reading list for 2023. And that's what I'm delving into at this moment, with these key points from Iggy Pop's article floating in my brain as I absorb Gibbon's prose:

The language in which this book is written is rich and complete, as the language of today is not.

I find out how little I know.

I am inspired by the will and erudition which enabled Gibbon to complete a work of 20-odd years. The guy stuck with things.

At some point or another in our all of lives, we've been in someone else's shadow. Growing up, I was in the shadow of a number of people. Many of whom I didn't know or didn't know well.

How did I get there? My parents, in their misguided attempts to motivate me or get me to conform, thrust me into those shadows. I was constantly being asked Why can't you be more like so-and-so? If I was doing something and wasn't achieving to the level they expected, I was told So and so can do that. Why can't you?

As much as I tried to shrug all of that off, as much as I tried to be an individual, what my parents said affected me. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I realized that it was OK to be me. I wasn't that other person. I never would be. I never wanted to be.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

There are people out there who are smarter and more competent than you. There are those who are better at some things that you are. I've run into that countless times in my life, and I'm sure you have too.

Instead of comparing yourself to them, embrace who you are. Instead of living in the shadow of others, cast your own shadow.

How? By know what you can and can't do. Don't be afraid to push against those boundaries. Don't be afraid to try, to fail, then to try again.

The key is to that is focusing on what you want to do, on who you want to be. Ignore the progress and achievements of others. Then, work at your own pace. Do what you can, when you can. Build your skills and knowledge and life one brick at a time. You might not reach the lofty heights that others have, but that's not the point.

The point of casting your own shadow is to become comfortable in your own skin. To accept and embrace who you are, and not who you or others expect you to be.

Be willing to do what you need to do at your own pace. You'll soon find that those other people and their shadows will be meaningless in the grander scheme of your life.

We all have them. Small ones. Large ones. Regrets that are recent and regrets from long ago.

They may be regrets about something we did or about something we didn't do. Or it could be a regret about a failure.

Some regrets linger. They sting. They can put barriers in our way or cloud our judgement or make us second guess ourselves and what we're doing.

But maybe those regrets aren't merely reminders or reproaches or barriers. Maybe they linger to help drive us forward, to push us to try to better ourselves, to influence us to change and to grow.

I'm pleased to announce that I've published a new ebook. Titled Random Thoughts, this book pulls together my favourite posts from this blog between two (virtual) covers.

Random Thoughts is a collection of advice and ideas that prompt you to take time to reflect on your life and on the world around you. It's advice and ideas which will remind you that maybe all your life needs is a few small changes rather than a radical overhaul.

In case you're wondering, Random Thoughts isn't merely a reprint of a bunch of posts. I've reworked, updated, and combined some posts with other material.

If your interest is piqued, you can buy the book from: