Shedding the Weight of Old Dreams


While testing out the new ChatGPT chatbot several days ago, as I detailed in my most recent blog, I had neglected to notice that the bot allowed you to post follow-up questions in your session, to ask for more information or clarifications or such. While not perfect, this makes the chatbot exponentially more useful at certain tasks, so I want to take back what I said last week and state, on the record, that ChatGPT does represent a quantum leap forward in chatbot technology. I’ve messed around with the bot a little more these past few days, and while its limitations are still evident, this is something I can see myself using regularly over my upcoming winter break, both as a very useful tool and as a very engaging toy.

In particular, asking follow-up questions when I give the bot prompts for short stories almost instantly took me back to my earliest years. Both my parents read to me when I was very young (one of the things I advise all parents of young children to do, as repeated studies have shown the benefits it provides children throughout their lives), and I can remember repeatedly asking my parents to elaborate on the details that were in the book, to the point where I must have been tremendously annoying. Mom always indulged me and used her own imagination to fill in those details, whereas my father usually told me to just shut up and listen. If this comes as a shock to any of you, then you haven’t been reading my blog for long enough. The point is, in its fiction-writing mode, ChatGPT can answer those questions to the nth degree of detail, without complaint, and while I don’t see much practical use of this feature, it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable aspects of the chatbot to play with.

Another big thing that happened this weekend was that I finally got the new lighting setup for my computer desktop installed. I had been vacillating on whether or not to get LED lights for my primary workstation for years, mostly because I felt like they’d underwhelm me. I’ve blogged here before about how I’ve had a fascination with coloured lights since my parents took me to Southwyck Mall in Toledo in the eighties, and I couldn’t stop staring at the bulbs at the bottoms of the fountains there. I’ve owned a portable light that has a similar feature for a few years now, but it’s not suited well for workstations, and as often as I’ve seen strips of LED lights for sale in recent years, I couldn’t make myself bite the bullet on them.

Finally, though, I ordered some stick-on puck lights with similar features, as well as some LED drink coasters (that I need for practical reasons, since I messed up and ordered black coasters to put on top of my new black desk here, so I’ve been having spill scares ever since I got to Platteville). I finally got all the stuff I needed to mount the lights over the weekend, so I took care of that, and I’m drafting this blog now with color-changing lights illuminating the wall behind my monitors here, and my water bottle and other drink on a couple of light-up coasters that look like something out of my childhood dreams.

Before the mounting hardware came, I tested the setup I had in mind by duct taping the lights in various places, and as I looked at the lights cycling through all their colors, I did feel underwhelmed. This was the kind of rainbow, kaleidoscope setup that my younger self dreamed of living in, and now that I finally had it, I guess it just felt kind of empty to me. I certainly didn’t feel any happier. I guess I’ve had a similar reaction to finding out I can ask ChatGPT for nearly-endless detail about the fiction it produces; it’s nice, but it just doesn’t feel that special.

A short time after I tested things out, I was talking with one of my most trusted companions, and she managed to cut to the quick almost instantly. She pointed out that in all the decades since I had those dreams about colors and stories and such, I’ve had a lot more dreams that I’m working to fulfill now: Helping my students, writing books, trying to make the world a better place, and all that. It’s natural that my focus now is on those dreams, but that doesn’t make my old dreams matter any less. It’s still cool that I have all this new stuff to play with, and I should appreciate it for what it is.

That helped me feel better, and I have to say that typing at my desktop at night now, with all these coloured lights around me, is definitely more enjoyable than just turning a plain white light on here. Once I get done grading my students’ final papers in a week or so, I’ll probably unwind from my semester-end stress by lying in bed with ChatGPT on my tablet for a while, just asking it question after question in full confidence that I can’t annoy it. I’ve still got a lot of work to do in order to make all those newer dreams of mine come true, but having a couple of older dreams come true for me has definitely helped. I just needed to shift my perspective about them.

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