Generative AI and human understanding

Many years ago, BYTE magazine published an algorithm for something they called a “travesty generator” that generated an infinite length text from a fixed corpus. It worked by statistically generating tuples of characters based on the probability of occurrence in the original; for example, if asked for the next letter that should come after the letter pair “th”, it would likely come up with “e” if the word “the” was commonly found in the original.

The length of the tuple used to select the next letter could be altered. Lower numbers tended to match parts of words, so the output was “words” that more or less approximated English-sounding language but were nonsense. Higher numbers resulted in whole actual words, but sentences that didn’t make sense; as the number was increased, sensible phrases would start to appear juxtaposed with each other. I implemented, modified and used this mechanism in a number of pieces. One of these, “21 bits”, continuously increased the length of the comprehensibility parameter over the course of the piece. I had performers reading the resulting text, as well as a computer vocalizing it.

The point of the text was to play with the audience’s tendency to anthropomorphize what they were hearing. When listening to the generated nonsense, the human inclination was to read meaning into the result. Many people were surprised and amused at the salience of the vocalized output during a performance.

In general, a lot of my music took advantage of people’s inclination to read into the sound they were hearing, by selecting voice-like or physical-instrument-like sound as material. Hearing something like a voice, people tend to want to try to understand what it’s saying, for example. Hearing a piano sound, they tend to visualize the instrument, so there is a dissonance created when the piano sound has vibrato. I used things like this to create a rich context for simple cheap audio.

This effect reminds me of the buzz about generative AI and “understanding”. If I comprehend how things work, it’s a bigger more sophisticated statistical approach to the generation of the “next” set of words from a fixed corpus (or, more accurately, from a neural network trained on a fixed corpus, so somewhat more indirect).

We humans have a tendency to attribute intention to animals, babies, computers. When a puppy does something smart, the puppy must be smart. When a baby smiles at me, it must be happy to see me. When a computer responds to a question with a well-formed answer, it must be intelligent. In my case, I leveraged that mechanism for artistic purposes. I’m sure others will find less benign reasons for doing it.

The Man in the White Raincoat

Mum found a reference to the controversy involving Laci in 2006, at

George Hoffman, a childhood friend of Dad’s who I knew from our first trip to Hungary just after the Berlin Wall fell, got in touch with me, and pointed me at the article in the Hungarian newspaper that is referenced in the book article above (8 Ki a ballonkabátos férfi?” [Who is the man in raincoat?], Népszabadság (30 January 2006), available at (accessed 28 March, 2007).) He said that he’d seen the TV presentation with Istvan Szabo, recognized Dad in the photo and passed along Dad’s name, location and phone number(!) to the Hungarian historian, who then got back to the TV presenters and the press. I read the newspaper article and got in touch with Dad, and he told me his woes: he’d been rung up in the middle of the night for a week by various of the world’s press (Reuters, AP, Hungarian press) asking him to confirm that the photo mentioned was of him. He told them all that his eyesight was basically null and he couldn’t tell who was in the photo.

When I was young, he had tried to go back to Hungary to visit Aunt Lilli, who lived with him during WWII and stayed in touch with his family in New Zealand, but the Hungarians wouldn’t grant him a visa. He told me when he asked one of the border guards why they wouldn’t let him in, they said “You know why” …

He was angry with George for “outing” him as living in NZ and giving out his phone number, and stopped talking to him for a while. He was still worried in 2006 that the Hungarian authorities were not finished with him. According to the book, George later claimed in an interview that the man was definitely not Laci, something I didn’t know ( It’s not clear to me whether George genuinely changed his mind, or felt bad for his initial action that caused such a rift between Laci and him, and just changed his story. George died a few years ago, so I can’t ask him.

A couple of years after the newspaper article appeared, Dad and I went to Budapest for a second time for a high-school reunion. His friends were very keen to see him, to the extent that they had a whip-around to help pay for his airfare. George felt he’d done a good deed identifying Laci; he told me during the trip that he felt that Laci was a real hero during the Revolution and should be recognized for his actions.

By this time, Laci was a New Zealand citizen, the wall had fallen, and Hungary was trying hard to become a good EU state (pre-Orban), so there wasn’t any issue obtaining visas. After we arrived in Budapest, he was contacted by the local press who arranged to do an interview at our hotel. Dad insisted that the interview be conducted in English and that I be present.

They took some photos, and asked questions about his experiences in the Revolution. Clearly, the reporter was enamored with Dad’s potential as a Hero of the Revolution; he framed all his questions in black-and-white, good guys (Hungarians) and bad guys (the Russian Army). Dad pushed back, trying to explain that he saw the people concerned in shades of gray. Most of the Russian soldiers he encountered were confused kids, unsure why they were there and asked to shoot at civilians (at least at first, before the regular Russian army were deployed after 12-14 days). Many of the Hungarians he knew were unwilling to be part of the Revolution, or actively collaborated with the occupiers. The reporter couldn’t hear what Dad was trying to say, wanting to frame Dad with his own preconceptions.

During the trip, we visited the Jewish History center in the old ghetto; Dad had heard that he was on a list of people to be executed after the failed Revolution, and he wanted to see if there was any truth to it. The historian we talked to spent a few days digging through papers trying to find documentation, but didn’t find anything other than lists of people who were killed by the authorities. Nonetheless, he felt confident confirming that if Laci had stayed he would have been arrested and executed.

Laci said to me several times that he didn’t really like Hungarians as a people. When I would talk up the democratic changes in the country after 1992, he was skeptical. He was sure that they’d revert to a statist, anti-Semitic autocracy, that it was in the nature of the culture. By contrast, he told me once that he considered New Zealanders as child-like, disconnected from the terrible currents of the world. I remember as a kid once saying to him that I couldn’t conceive of a reason to go fight a war, and he got very angry with me and said that fighting for your country was important and good.

Affirmative action decision

Listening to an analysis of the Supreme Court case decided today regarding affirmative action at colleges, it sounds like they’re saying that the colleges may not allow the race of an applicant per se to affect their scoring for admission.

Does this mean that laws that favor certain classes of people, based, say, on race, are on their face unconstitutional? So, for example, if Congress was to pass a reparations bill to address the lingering effects of slavery, it would be struck down as unconstitutional?

From The Guardian, discussing the accusation that the dam in Ukraine was deliberately sabotaged by the Russians, this gem presented by an NGO in support of its claim:

a “recently passed Russian law that prohibits investigations into incidents at hydrotechnical structures in Russian-occupied Ukraine offered compelling albeit circumstantial evidence for that case”

V. Specific and useful bit of legislation if you’re a saboteur …

Update Successful!

Anyone else notice how ironic it feels when you update something under Windows and it says things like “Update Successful!”, where the exclamation mark seems to say “surprise, I didn’t think _that_ would work!”? Or you get a dialog congratulating you on successfully updating something, where the subtext seems to be “I’m amazed that you managed to step through all the bizarre requirements we need you to do to get our software up-to-date!”?