My Inlay and Marquetry Obsession

I’ve been spending the past few months building an elaborate reproduction of a bed designed by Harvey Ellis. The central panel features some inlay work. I cut the wood and metal for this inlay using a jeweler’s saw. My first few attempts were so bad that I considered trying to cut the material at my library’s maker space with a laser cutter. But I struggled for two days trying to learn the software I’d need to use. I just don’t like sitting in front of computers if I don’t have to.

Instead, I decided to just keep practicing doing it by hand, guided by a YouTube lecture by a marquetry expert who learned his craft working at his family’s jewelry business. I used time during a pet sitting gig to make many attempts at the central woodland scene until I understood how to use the tools.

There’s nothing wrong with using computers if you use them consciously. The Bauhaus, the architects of the International Style, and the mid-century work of the Eames all make use of a machine aesthetic that can be elegant. But in 2024 I have an intuition that we need to return to hand work, perhaps as a reaction to the excesses of our Silicon Valley overlords.

The panel above, which awaits more sanding and staining, was done with a combination of hand fret saw work and inlay facilitated by a Dremel and router.  Instead of a CNC router I did it freehand. It’s not perfect but that’s kind of the point.

Local Election Endorsements

I want to highlight one candidate and one initiative on the most complex and confusing ballot I’ve ever filled out:

First I strongly support a vote for Karla Griego for District 5. This article goes into why this race is so important but I’ll just summarize by saying that Griego will stop the privatization and degradation of our schools here in Los Angeles.

Secondly, pedestrian and cycling deaths have skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic and the majority of our city council and the mayor, unfortunately, simply don’t care. It especially makes me very angry to hear the heartbreaking stories of moms who have lost children to our deadly streets. This is why you should vote yes on measure HLA.

Lastly let me say that most people have no idea what’s going on at the local level here in Los Angeles. The news mostly covers the drama at the national level and the lack of focus on the local is only going to get worse with the layoffs at the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps I’ll write more about this at a later date but I’ll just say that the level of corruption and grifting going on in this city is truly astonishing. Almost a quarter of the city council is in prison or on the way. We live in what some call “Chicago by the Sea.”

For the rest of the ballot here’s the DSA-LA voter’s guide.

Escaping the AI Vampire Castle

While I’m not a huge fan of ebooks, I read them out of convenience. I like that I can download free ebooks from the library as well as pick up older books for free online through websites such as and Project Gutenberg. My Kindle displays ads in sleep mode (unless you pay Amazon $20 to remove them), and, lately, these ads are almost exclusively for what I’m nearly certain are AI generated children’s stories. This is just part of  a flood of scammy AI books on Amazon.

The AI children’s books advertised on my Kindle combine titles that have an English-as-a-second-language vibe, vaguely Manga style cover illustrations and author names such as “Leanor Varelade” that either yield no search results or are close to the names of real people (Leonor Varela is a Chilean actress). In short these books are what you would get if you took a statistical average of the entirety of the internet and barfed it out as a book. This is, of course what “artificial intelligence” actually is. We don’t and likely never will understand what human “intelligence” is let alone come up with a model of it. What we call AI is just a enormous statistical modeling game not “intelligence” whatever that is. AI is part of yet another hype cycle out of Silicon Valley giving us things that move fast and suddenly break leaving the world a worse place. We’ve seen this with self driving cars, cryptocurrency, social media, and Elon Musk’s tunnels to nowhere and failed Hyperloop.

There’s certainly useful things we can do with these large statistical models. Writing children’s books, however, is not one of them. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of language, how humans gain experience and how creativity works. I met a translator recently who does English subtitles for Japanese movies and TV shows. Her work is beginning to be replaced with computer based translations. She expressed her frustration that the studio bosses don’t understand that the Japanese language is not in some kind of one to one relationship with English, that it carries cultural associations and subtleties that no computer will ever be able to parse. In short, that translation is interpretation and that human beings need to be involved in that process.

What I got when I asked Google’s AI, Gemini, to create a Thomas Kinkade painting with brutalist buildings.

Part of me admires these AI children’s book hustlers. There’s a long and creative history to be told about the long arc of scammers, from the card sharks of earlier centuries to the crypto bros of the present. If I taught creative writing I’d suggest to my students that you should go ahead and try these tools and see what happens. Maybe there’s a great post-modern novel in this technology, a true “death of the author.” And the early, wonky, days of AI images produced some hilarious results. But I suspect that the real scam is likely selling people on the hustle of  selling AI books, not actually creating and selling the books. I’ve been unable to figure out if these titles are the result of an individual or some kind of foreign scam farm. I suspect the latter since someone has the capital to buy a lot of Kindle ads.

What AI text tools like ChatGPT really excel at is filling out is bureaucratic forms, those documents nobody actually reads. An admission: I once used ChatGPT for this purpose and got complimented for my writing skills. Maybe we can replace the bosses with AI bots who will simultaneously generate and read this textual nonsense leaving us all more time to garden, handcraft chairs and go for long walks. But that’s not, of course, the way things will work out. AI will likely just put already vulnerable people out of work.

As for predictions of an AI apocalypse, what I fear more is a grinding idiocy. I’m really getting fatigued with seeing AI generated images that are just a kind of summary of the most uninteresting “illustration” type artwork. Not surprising as this kind of boring art is likely the majority of the visual content of the internet. I especially hate that moment when you spot it and have to spend precious brain time discerning if its AI or not. AI reminds me of the vampires and daemons joked about by both Marx and St. Paul. As Zizek puts it,

A dead person loses the predicates of a living being, yet he or she remains the same person; an undead, on the contrary, retains all the predicates of a living being without being one — as in the above-quoted Marxian joke, what we get with the vampire is “the ordinary manner of speaking and thinking purely and simply — without the individual.”