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Editor’s Note: Nothing Writes Itself, Yet

March 15, 2021
by Pat Joseph

“This practically writes itself,” is something writers often say but don’t really believe. No story worth telling comes without toil. That could change, however, with an assist from artificial intelligence. Already, AI programs are being used to help craft poetry, stories, and essays. California’s Laura Smith examines what this new development may mean for the future of literature in our cover story, “The Mechanical Muse.” (You can also hear more on the subject on our podcast, The Edge. Look for episode 7: “Hey Siri, Write Me a Poem.”)

From robotic literature we turn to flesh-and-blood journalism. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Daily Californian, Berkeley’s student newspaper, and the 50th anniversary of its independence from the University. Emancipation came rather abruptly for the Daily Cal, after an editorial it ran either did or did not incite a riot in nearby People’s Park. David Dozier, Daily Cal editorial page editor at the time, relates the story here.

Writing this note in the week after Trump’s second impeachment trial, it’s hard not to hear certain echoes from that story in current events. “You are invited to a party this Saturday,” the Daily Cal editorial slyly informed readers on May 11, 1971. Maybe someone will “volunteer some wire-cutters.”

“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” President Trump tweeted to his followers last December. “Be there. Will be wild!”

Wild it was. It was also surreal and horrifying and heartbreaking. Just ask Representatives Colin Allred (D-Tex.) and Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), both Berkeley alums, who were on the House floor that day and shared their harrowing experiences with the magazine. (See “A Day Unlike Any Other”)

“I just want to cry for our democracy,” Sánchez said.

“The biggest divide in our politics isn’t really between Democrats and Republicans,” said Allred. “It’s between those who believe in democracy and those who don’t.”

Viewed from above, the mob storming the Capitol looked like nothing so much as a swarm of ants, the hive mind in action. As the essayist Lewis Thomas once observed, “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”

Being intensely social animals, they’re also vulnerable to pandemic, a fact that got California’s Leah Worthington to wondering how our arthropod cousins deal with disease. See her Q&A with Berkeley biologist Neil Tsutsui for more on that.

Finally, we turn to Homer for some much-needed wisdom—and comic relief. Homer Simpson, that is. Dano Nissen tracks down three Berkeley alumni who’ve toiled in Matt Groening’s writers’ rooms, cranking out some of the finest humor American culture has to offer. It may surprise you to learn that all three writers have advanced degrees from Berkeley, and not in English or drama, but in mathematics, philosophy, and computer science. You’ll find Nissen’s story here.

And that’s my editor’s note. It didn’t exactly write itself, but I daresay it’s not bad—at least as good as AI could have done. In fact, I’d give it the Krusty the Clown Seal of Approval: “It’s not just good. It’s good enough!”

Hope you agree. As always, thanks for reading.

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