Trouble Is, You Think You Have Time. After Reading — Conclusion.

Fall is a time when I think about what I have accomplished in the year past, and what I will do in the year ahead. It has taken me nearly a year to write 70 posts in the After Reading series. About a dozen more would have concluded Part I of the series. I have notes for seven parts. Yup, six more years of essays, and that would have just been another draft of my goal of a book. My plan will take too much time. I keep learning wonderful new things. I can’t keep dragging this project along. I must take a leap.

What my readers love best about the series is the images and personal stories. The images were just meant to provide some eye candy for the text. I dashed off rough sketches in minutes, splashed with a bit of colour. It was the roughness to which people responded. The stories provided an opening, a connection between readers and myself. The essays were okay, but a bit thick with abstract ideas. I will take a leap. This website will go away and return in a new form in 2018. I will shift my energy toward image first, text second. Feeling first, thought second. I will still explore ideas around books, the internet and machine life, but I will also be more present, more current, allowing for divergence. It will be a whole new thing. I hope you join me :).

I Caught the Bug for Technology from Star Trek, when I was Ten Years Old

I caught the bug for technology from Star Trek, when I was ten years old.

Star Trek debuted in 1966, the year I was born. Created by Gene Roddenberry as a western in space, it lasted three years and was canceled. It was in reruns that the show found its following, spawning more series and movies. None of that existed in 1976. Star Trek was not “The Original Series.” It was Star Trek.

I was ten years old when I visited my friend, Luke. Smart, kind, charming, he was my first school friend. We would walk home together and visit at his place or mine. There was no internet, then, and no video games. Watching television was a treat. We had a black and white. Luke’s was colour. Most homes only had one television, and Luke had brothers. His older brother, Derek, was not a nice boy. He was a prick, really, and wouldn’t let Luke and I watch Gilligan’s Island. Derek wanted to watch Star Trek. Luke said the show wasn’t bad, really, so we sat down and watched.

If you have watched the series, you may remember the episode, Who Mourns for Adonais? The crew of the Enterprise are held captive by an alien who claims to be Apollo, the Greek god. A giant hand locks the Enterprise in orbit and Apollo wants the crew to worship him. Kirk, Spock and crew manage to disable Apollo’s power source and escape. Cheesey stuff, for sure, but I loved it.

A new Star Trek fan was born. For years I drew pictures of the Enterprise — badly, it’s not an easy figure to draw. I continued to be fascinated by large feats of engineering like ships and bridges. Star Trek had plenty of cool technology: communicators, phasers, tricorders, replicators, and computers. Computers were still mostly a fiction back then, and when they entered the marketplace I was quick to pick up on them. I had caught the bug for technology.

I have watched every Star Trek series and movie. My kids were brought up to be proper trekkies. This year, I was delighted to watch the new series, Star Trek: Discovery. Star Trek is easily the most successful television and movie franchise. It taps something in all of us. It feeds an optimistic world view in which we live in peace with technology and each other.

Phaedrus the III is Live. A Chatbot that Learns New Words. Try It!

Phaedrus is the chatbot for my website and Facebook page. I created it on a whim, first as a simple “Hello World” version. A second version was functional and prettier. This third and final (for now) version has actual language smarts. You have to play with it. Click on the icon on the lower right of my website, or click the button on my Facebook page, or use this link.

Many chatbots don’t know what to do with words they do not recognize. I kid you not, Phaedrus III identifies words it does not understand, and asks you to teach it the meaning. It asks you to use the word in a sentence. The next time it encounters the same word it gives it back to you in the sentence. See the figure below:

HAL 9000 it is not. I am still tweaking it and there will be errors but I am a little proud that Phaedrus can be taught new words on the fly. Enjoy.

Play with Phaedrus, Version 2 of my Chatbot. Try it.


My friend, “Kerrumba,” said that my chatbot needed a name. He suggested “Phaedrus.” Kerrumba groks this. Maybe it also needs a new picture?

I recently posted the “Hello World” version of my chatbot. It did not do much. The new version is much more functional. Keep in mind that a chatbot is not a full-blown artificial intelligence. It is designed to facilitate a chat-like dialog about a specific range of subjects. Phaedrus can do the following:

  • Present some basic options in button format. E.g, an About button can be clicked to learn more about Phaedrus.
  • Handle chat text for the same, e.g, enter “Tell me about yourself”
  • Show a gallery of some After Reading images
  • Show samples of my After Reading essays
  • Handle subscription requests
  • Send an email directly to the real me
  • Fun. Basic language capabilities. It can recognize and reply to compliments and bad language.
  • It is available on my website — see lower right icon; and on my Facebook page — click the Get Started button. Or click here.

The next step will be to incorporate more sophisticated language handling. Please try it out and let me know how you like it. Thanks.

I Built my First Robot Today

I built my first “robot” today, using snatchbot. If you visit my site and click on the avatar on the bottom right, you will be able to chat with it. That, or click here. It is very basic at present, but it is learning. Visit soon to see improvements.

“Would I start to resemble a book myself?” — Keith Miller, The Book of Flying

And slowly I arrived at a realization so startling I was almost afraid to believe it. I found, as I moved through this subterranean forest, that I could imagine a book, known or unknown, read or unread, and be certain of the path I would have to take to find it. … We all have titles, questions swept like sodden leaves into the corners of our minds, that we have little hope will ever be answered or solved, but that we cannot get rid of. Suddenly, I found myself in the orchard of answers. …
For a time, I wondered if I would simply stay here forever, reading, sampling the delicacies, hiding from the librarians — the ghost of the Library of Alexandria, a reformed thief in paradise. And I wondered what would become of my soul if I chose that path. … Would I start to resemble a book myself?

— Keith Miller, The Book of Flying

Body of Knowledge

A book is a binding of truth. Truth is out there, first in the world, long before anyone commits it to paper. The written form is subject to the errors of brain and body and language, a lesser truth.

A book is a stack of papers bound on edge, pasted with glue or stitched with thread. Websites are also bound, a collection of web pages linked to a single domain name. A book is covered, stamped with a title and name, a face to attract and sell. A book’s binding is covered with a spine for finding on a shelf. A spine, as if a book can stand up and speak its name. Websites too are covered with a banner on a home page, and announced by title and snippet in a search result. The coverings gives identity and soul at a glance, as if truth could ever be bound and tidy.

Every reading is another binding, an embodiment of truth, enlisting the brain and the whole body. From the beginning knowledge has been a whole body experience. When Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived, they were reading the first book.

Reading belongs to the eyes. Reading is a lamp of knowledge, a light illuminating the darkness of ignorance. I read the text, my eyes bouncing all over the page. My knowledge can only be acquired as fast as my eyes can read it.

The nose is a perch for my spectacles while reading. The smell of books is not in leather, ink or moldy pages. No, the smell of books is in feelings. I read about an orchid. The elusive smell is activated. Is it raspberry or coconut? It is delicate and exotic, reminiscent of a past love.

I learned to read with my ears, listening to my mother’s voice. I imagine the voice of an author or a character in a book. Adults still sound out difficult words, trying to recreate the original speech sounds. For centuries, most everyone read aloud, mouth and lips in motion.

Reading is fingery. My thumb lets me grasp and behold a book. I flip pages. I bookmark a page with a finger. I brush the pages, guessing how much reading remains. Reading online I click and scroll and swipe. I turn the pages of my e-reader with a touch. Print or digital, reading is fingery.

Of course the brain features in reading. Learning to read takes years of training, recognizing the shapes of letters, detecting subtle differences in words, encoding units of meaning. Reading is physical work in the brain.

Even the feet are enlisted in reading. Too much reading blurs the questions and dulls the mind. Walking refreshes my spirit and reconnects me to the world where the questions were first asked. True understanding is a dance, a two step between the bindings of books and bodies and first hand experience in the world.

Does the Brain Need the Book? Video by John Miedema


Two thousand years ago the book replaced the scroll. The book was portable. Pages allowed for precise references. The spine allowed a title to be imprinted, easier to organize in libraries. The book was the superior technology for reading. Digital technology has introduced the web browser and the e-reader. Is the book dead? Why has the book lasted 2000 years? Is it possible to change our reading technology so quickly? This video looks at the close connections between the reader’s brain and the book.

(Originally published as part of my I, Reader blog series in 2012. It is a good summary of many ideas about literacy discussed in Part I of After Reading.)

Mitsuku is a Chatbot and Third Time Winner of the Loebner Prize

Mitsuku is a chatbot created by Steve Worswick. It has won the Loebner Prize, which is awarded to the most “human-like” chatbot, three times, again in August 2017. In my first test chats with Mitsuku, its snappy responses were relevant but highly scripted. It recognized me as a returning visitor, but when prompted to “ask me anything,” it always replied with the same question, “Who is your favourite band?”

Only a Mobile Creature Needs a Brain

Only a mobile creature needs a brain, points out New York University neurophysiologist Rodolfo Llinias in his 2002 book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. To illustrate he uses the example of a tiny jellyfish-like animal called the sea squirt: Born with a simple spinal cord and a three hundred-neuron “brain,” the larva motors around in the shallows until it finds a nice patch of coral on which to put down its roots. It has about twelve hours to do so, or it will die. Once safely attached, however, the sea squirt simply eats its brain. For most of its life it looks more like a plant than an animal, and since it’s not moving, it has no use for its brain. Llinas’ interpretation: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” (Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman)

Suppose you already know the outcome of an otherwise difficult choice. Go left or go right. You already know that the left path leads astray into danger, and that the right path leads safely home. Would you bother thinking it over, analyzing the situation, debating your choice? Of course not. When there is no uncertainty, concrete action is preferable to talking and thinking. Thinking too much only causes anxiety; action clears it.

The absence of uncertainty is exceedingly rare. The universe is a story of things in motion. Once there was a high ordered singularity, then there was a big bang. Everything since is dissipation of energy, the expansion of the universe to entropy. Change is constant and the things that survive are the ones that can adapt to it. Brains are for managing change. Humans evolved brains with the ability to think, to analyze and evaluate, to rehearse and estimate, to predict and control. At the limit of our biological brains, we invented technologies to make us smarter yet. Pencils, pens, paper. Books, computers and artificial intelligence. Information technologies externalize and extend human brains.

Is it the universe that is endlessly complex or is it our minds? Was life simpler in the past? We think so, but each generation thinks its time the most complex. Twenty years you thought your life was complex. Complexity may be a constant. Perhaps it is only our minds that are in constant motion. Movement cannot fathom stillness. The only way for movement to be aware of stillness would be to stop, to turn upon itself with a small crunch, and, like the sea-squirt, eat its own brain.