A vacuum fills itself with whatever’s available in the atmosphere. Under the ocean, it’s water. On dry land, it’s air. So what does it mean when a vacuum fills with hate?

On the weekend of July 22, 1999, concert organizers Michael Lang and John Scher flung open the gates to Griffith AFB in Rome, New York. Three days later, Woodstock ’99 had become a roasting, filth-smeared concentration camp boiling with rioting, violence, and rape. What went wrong? This documentary seeks to answer this question, and unfortunately, it succeeds.

A documentary can commit two mortal sins. The first is to answer nothing. The average Bigfoot, Jack the Ripper, or DB Cooper documentary is a thirty minute recapping of facts, and two hours of randos in armchairs speculating, and then an open-ended question. “Decide for yourself: do these clues mean anything at all? Or does the mystery remain unsolved?” I watched this so you would tell me, sir. That is why I am here.

The other sin is to answer everything. Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage weaves a familiar and too-confident narrative about generational malaise. Basically, the kids were the problem. 50% of them, to be precise.

“To blame the artists, I think it’s too easy. We never ask the deeper existential question why are so many young men in America…Why are they so angry?”

Maureen Callahan

“It’s very convenient to say that this aggressive rock band, it’s their fault, but I think that if you look at what was going on in the culture and the rot that was setting in in a lot of places, it’s bigger than nu metal, and it’s certainly bigger than Limp Bizkit.”

Steven Hyden

“I’m still so baffled, like how [music] went from the sort of progressive enlightened values of Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe to misogyny and homophobia and the rape-frat boy culture that was at Woodstock 99.”

Moby (one month before bragging about fucking a barely-legal Natalie Portman)

In short (according to the movie), Woodstock ’99 was an explosion of white male anger. It was the Stanford Prison Experiment feat. Jamiroquai. Resentful teenage boys, used to being at the top of culture, were being displaced on MTV and TRL by boy bands marketed to their kid sister. Existential rage and resentment went nuclear in the heat, stoked further by violent “bro” nu metal like Limp Bizkit. Woodstock ’99 was more than just a badly run event. It was a Fight Club with 200,000 Tyler Durdens.

The film contains fascinating (and gut-wrenching) footage, as well as vivid little touches like the missed-connections board with hundreds of handwritten “where are you? look for me here” notes on it, because, oh right, nobody has a mobile phone. Woodstock ’99 was the kind of event where you could pick out any random person and get fifty fascinating stories. Like Rolling Stone journalist Rob Sheffield, who mentions that smart people (during the insane final night) slept on piles of pizza boxes. Why pizza boxes? Because they were white. And why was that important? So you could tell when someone had urinated on them.

Sadly the documentary contains many questionable claims. And “everybody wanted to see Kid Rock” is just the start of them.

It really wants to make hay out of the toxic masculinity issue. Early on, a concertgoer (recalling her memories) ominously identifies the movie’s villain. “There were a lot of white boys! Wearing backwards baseball caps!” Then we cut to B-roll footage of members of said demographic. The filmmakers heroically resist the urge to roll John Williams’ Jaws theme.

White teenage boys make easy villains. Nobody has any sympathy for fratties hooting “SHOW US YOUR TITS!” This also lets the filmmakers connect Woodstock ’99 with modern liberal anxieties that are white teenage boy affiliated (these loutish testosterone-fueled rapemonkeys are all grown up and are probably voting for Trump!!!)

But this argument is specious and unconvincing. Korn’s Family Values tours had lots of white boys and weren’t pulsating rape orgies. Neither was Ozzfest (though I did find one reported incident of sexual assault, in 2006). The Rodney King riots did more damage to people and property than a hundred Woodstock ’99s. “Woodstock ’99 was a disaster because of evil white male pissbabies” is the type of thinking Cosma Shalizi calls “explaining a variable with a constant.” You still haven’t explained why this festival went so badly off the rails, when so many others didn’t.

Various 90s shit like Columbine and Napster and Y2K are name-dropped, as if they had anything to do with what the movie’s about. Once we used to laugh at Joe Lieberman and Jack Thompson for saying mass media causes violence. But now it appears to be perfectly respectable mainstream thought.

Blaming the audience does have one nice side effect, it allows the film to exculpate Woodstock 99’s management. I wonder if this was intentional. Perhaps promoter John Scher only agreed to be interviewed on the conditions that he be asked softball questions, and treated sympathetically. They could have been far harsher to him than they were.

Charging concertgoers for water is an asshole move in winter. In a hundred-degree summer, it should be illegal. No water = dead people. Or angry, frustrated people; which also often leads to dead people. The irony of staging Woodstock—connected inextricably with ’60s the antiwar movement—at a military base is palpable. The concrete walls and barbed wire would have only increased the anger and frustration. Who wants to be treated like a criminal? What emerges from the footage we see is a chaotic, slapdash operation with no purpose beyond extracting as much money as possible from concertgoers’ wallets, under the fig leaf of it being a “cultural moment”. Nobody respected Woodstock ’99, or the people running it.

(And I’m not sure that passing the blame onto Fred Durst helps Scher’s case. Did Limp Bizkit just rock up at Woodstock ’99 and play unannounced? Or were they there, perhaps, because somebody put them on the bill? A mystery for the ages.)

Yes, all these things are mentioned, but only in passing. The film is far more interested in allowing talking heads to spin out a huge Decline of Western Society narrative, with Woodstock ’99 being the sack of Rome. I wasn’t joking about them blaming Trump on Woodstock ’99 attendees, BTW. Actual quotes from the movie:

“[…] there is a definite umbilical cord between the dark, sexual, cultural, political underbelly in the country at that time to where we are now.”

“A lot of that energy that was permeating that crowd that day, it just wound up in chat rooms and Reddit boards and it’s just fascinating to think about because I don’t know if it’s possible to get that collection of people together in 2021 without it being a cause for concern.”

I bet Woodstock 99 also caused coronavirus, Brexit, Hitler, and Genghis Khan. Sure, why not. We’ve already got the crack pipe out anyway. Sometimes the connections made are beyond tenuous and enter “Can only be detected by professional ghost hunters using EVP” territory. Are you surprised to learn that Kurt Cobain’s death helped inspire the Woodstock ’99 riots? Me too.

The film has many a pearl to clutch over misogyny, and women being treated like sex objects. It emphasizes this by showing footage of every naked woman it could find. I kept a careful count: the film contains exactly 6,351,967,356 sets of bare breasts. You might accuse me of exaggerating a bit here, as there were less than six billion people alive in the world at the time (half of which were men) and only 200,000 tickets to Woodstock were sold, but I was careful to count those breasts. I counted ’em all out and counted ’em all back in.

So I found it very frustrating to watch, overall. It’s one of those “everything explains everything” type of deals, where fact #1 is confidently attributed to fact #2. You can do this with anything. “Remember Beanie Babies? Sure you do! Well, those seemingly innocent toys had profoundly corrosive effects on society. Think about the winner-takes-all mindset they fostered: greed, entitlement, a desire to “own” and “possess”. The collector’s mindset is one of naked, unshackled lust for mammon. You are a player in a zero sum game: your ownership of a toy means someone else is denied one. These former Beanie Baby collectors naturally went on to take on subprime mortgages, because land-ownership scratched the same itch. I have this thing. You don’t. Inevitably, society as a whole was sucked into this hypercapitalist death-vortex. And that’s how Beanie Babies caused the 2007–2008 financial crisis.” I made that up. It took ten seconds, nine of which were spent thinking about how Katy Perry’s shirt would look when wet. Yet it sounds plausible and can’t be easily disproven—for all I know, Beanie Babies actually did cause 2007–2008 financial crisis!—so you might believe it, particularly if it jibes with your preconceptions about society. Trees always fall in the direction they’re already leaning, after all.

The film achieves one thing, though: it reminds me of how things were. Under the baking sledgehammer sun, we see the dregs of American monoculture evaporate.

Once, there was a sort of cultural unity in the US. Millions of little kids sat down at the set and watched Sesame Street at four and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at five and the Electric Company at five-thirty. Whatever their differences in social class, for an hour and a half each day children lived in the same world.

Their older peers watched the same cartoons. Grownups watched the same evening news. Then the internet and smartphones and social media washed over everything in a tidal wave, stranding us on little media islands that only putatively connect to each other. There’s no longer “the” news. There’s “your” news. The old sense of unity is gone: gaze out at the world through a screen, and it rearranges itself to suit your will (or that of Mark Zuckerberg).

This shift happened across all media: we have so much choice now that a thing like Woodstock (a singular music festival, uniting the country in peace and love) feels anachronistic. Media consumption is now defined by its isolation from any larger context.

Beavis and Butthead, the arch-90s cartoon for me, has aged really strangely. Its defining image—two teens sitting in front of a TV, scoffing at music videos—doesn’t work anymore. This is a thing that doesn’t happen. Kids never have to deal with media that baffles or confuses or alienates them. They never have to endure something that isn’t made for them. Algorithms filter it away like a bad small.

Zoomer Beavis and Butthead wouldn’t denigrate Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys. They would barely even know those artists are alive. Forget letting an MTV veejay determine what you listen to: now you can fire up a Spotify playlist, aim it like a cat’s laser pointer at whatever micro-genre your peers socially approve of, and hear nothing except that genre until forever.

I’m still shocked at how the world works now. A few years ago, I heard about someone called “Jake Paul”. I guessed he was some flavor-of-the-month celebrity famous for shaving his balls on America’s Got Pubic Lice or something. I was shocked to learn that he’d been famous for many years, with millions of followers. How come I hadn’t heard of him? It was like being the target of a Kafkaesque conspiracy. Once, 73 million viewers watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and it was a cultural moment. Today, a Youtube video can have multiple billions of views, and it’ll be some kpop performer you’ve never heard of unless you’re “inside” that algorithmic bucket.

Whatever. I don’t feel deprived by not knowing about Jake Paul and kpop. And even though the Woodstockers’ contempt for boy bands is cited as evidence of their misogyny (the Offspring’s Dexter Holland sets up manniquins of the Backstreet Boys on stage, and the audience pelts them with water bottles. That’s gotta be the Woodstock ’99 equivalent of toilet-papering your neighbor’s house at the start of COVID), do you really need to listen to a corporate slop boy band (managed by a Ponzi schemer and alleged pedophile) to respect women? Mass culture is vapid and hollow. Maybe it’s better for it to die, and for all of us to find our own path. But we’re not finding it—for most of us, our path is chosen for us by some social media algorithm. It’s not our isolation that troubles me, but the fact that we’re being isolated against our will. When farmer splits a cow from the herd, he might be doing it for the animal’s wellbeing, but it’s more likely, there’s a bolt gun nearby.

Woodstock ’99 leaves you feeling a bit heavy, because it depicts something unthinkable: an American monoculture. It also shows kids being kids, instead of whatever the fuck they are now.

Here’s a quote from a review I saved. I wish I could find and credit the author:

A concert like Woodstock 99 was a moment in these people’s lives, that they could leave behind. The panopticon we live in has changed our lives away from this more than pop culture growing out of Nu-metal. You tore stuff up, you set shit on fire, you flashed, you saw Kid Rock, and you went home taking only memories and stories. Now everything we do lives on forever. Don’t you wish you could have a moment where you could have fun, see music, get drunk, do drugs, do whatever without the threat of it haunting you forever? Without it coming up when an employer googles your name? Cell phones would quickly start becoming common place after this, then camera phones, then smart phones. This was one of the last bastions of any sort of reckless freedom that anybody had.

Yeah, I noticed that too. The lack of fear.

We see people slumped over and shirtless and covered in dirt, looking their worst and not caring. We see women with bare faces, waving and smiling. Nobody’s running a “brand” and making stupid faces behind a selfie stick. Cameras exist in the world of 1999 (obviously, or I’d be looking at a blank screen), but it’s different somehow. There’s no Eye of Sauron upon these people. No omnipresent dread of having your soul captured and converted into content because you look or act weird. They’re just kids, surrounded by concrete walls and barbed wire, paying $4 for a bottle of water, free in a way that we are not.

People today are addicted to filming themselves. It doesn’t matter if nobody’s watching. It doesn’t matter if they’re amassing evidence that sends them to prison (the 6/1 riots are mentioned, of course). Everyone impulsively creates content, like they’re scratching an itching scab. When I go to a concert these days, I’m never in the moment, I’m far outside it, trying to frame it inside a lambent rectangle. I worry that photos I’ll never look at will turn out like shit. When something cool happens, I frantically try to capture it, as though it’s not real unless I do. I, along with everyone else, am the show’s unpaid camera crew. The compulsion to record is overriding. People are now walking, talking cameras, with a vestigial human body attached.

There are signs of things to come. One guy says that he’s gonna get in the moshpit at Metallica’s show. Maybe they’ll film it, and he’ll see himself on MTV! We hear the first rumbles of an the earthquake in his words. People were starting to grasp the idea that, with affordable cameras rolling out from the bamboo curtain in the hundreds of thousands, they could fuse their anima with that of the show. That they were its curators, editors, and sometimes it’s performers. These days, we’re all that guy. The glass media calf has toppled and shattered into a million fractured mirrors, each of them reflecting one of our faces.

It’s somewhat sad watching all this bleary, scanlined footage of the past. Like seeing the final days of a remote jungle tribe, who don’t know their land has been cleared for logging. Five years ’till Myspace, ten years ’till Facebook, twenty years ’till Tiktok. Enjoy it while you can, guys. Baking on the tarmac, getting ripped off for water, immersed in predatory, exploitative anarchy, listening to fuck-awful band after fuck-awful band…they thought they were in hell. Now most of them would give anything to go back.

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Most guides on detecting AI images are from 2022 and have aged like dinosaur milk.

“AI can’t draw hands.”

“AI can’t draw straight lines.”

“AI can’t spell words.”

This is fantastic advice…assuming you still live in the year 2022. However, studies show that 46% of people have upgraded to a later, worse year called “2024”, and if you are one of them (condolences), this no longer applies. You cannot rely on AI images having such egregious errors. So what can you rely on?

There are still some “tells” of AI imagery—many are strangely getting worse as the technology advances—but often they’re not errors so much as they’re “conceptual tension.” Basically, an image generated by (for example) Midjourney has several different priorities:

1) fulfill the user’s prompt

2) look coherent

3) look attractive

4) satisfy a moderation policy

5, 6, 7 etc) do a bunch of crap the user isn’t even aware of.

This is a lot of plates to juggle, and if the goals clash (ie, the user prompts for something ugly or incoherent), the image can get subtly pulled in different directions. I’ll show examples of what this looks like soon, but this sense of confusion—and not extra fingers—is arguably the best way to spot AI images now. It’s not a smoking gun. It can be subtle, and requires a careful eye. But sadly, this is an age of photorealistic fake media, and we must learn to be careful.

Keep an eye on what your older relatives are doing on social media, by the way. They might not be safe.

PSA: Delete Facebook

Facebook is the internet’s fecal tract. A viscerally unpleasant place, but you can learn a lot about what’s making the online world sick from studying it. And right now, it’s inundated by AI image-spam.

As we speak, millions of retirees are blissfully thumbing their way down a black sewer of nonexistent houses, fake people, and assorted nightmares.

These pictures are bizarre. Many don’t even try to look convincing. Some appear to be the work of aliens with only the faintest understanding of our world.

What’s “peach cream”? Who makes their own birthday cake? Why does history’s second oldest woman have prison tattoos? Why does the cake say “386”? Why is there a gun in my mouth?

(Without getting distracted by this, it’s probable that these accounts are run by the same few bad actors. The repetitive phrasing and subject matter is telling—I’ve seen dozens of cakes made with “peach cream and filling”—which makes me wonder about their sky-high engagement numbers. If you have the technical know-how to manipulate dozens or hundreds of fake accounts, you might also be viewbotting.)

Should we care about this? Even if you have a “let people enjoy things!” outlook on life…

…It’s never a good feeling to see an older relative losing touch with reality. And suppose this is all the front for a scam? I’m not sure this alien race of 396-year-old cake-baking prison-tattooed grandmas has our best interests at heart.

But when you tell a boomer that an image is fake, they might ask “How do you know?” And that’s a fair question: how do you know? Vibes? Because that’s the world we live in? Some AI images are incredibly realistic. It’s easy to get stuck in a Twilight Zone of “I know this is fake but I can’t explain why.”

This is an AI generated image. Can you find any mistakes?[1]Tricky, isn’t it? Here’s my stab at what’s wrong with it. First: it’s convenient that the photo is too blurry for us to see fine details. I don’t say … Continue reading

In an age of photorealistic imagery, here are what I see as the signs of AI fakery.

AI Images Are Excessively Archetypal

When you prompt AI for a cow, it’s never content to just give you a “cow”. It gives you the cowiest cow that ever cowed. The God-emperor of cows. A divine bovine. A cow with every “cow” trait cranked to the max on its stat sheet. A cow-icature.

You’ll always get a Holstein or a Jersey, because those are the most famous cow breeds. It will be standing in a green field on a farm, because that’s where cows live. There will be other cow-related details thrown in (like a red barn in the background, or a bell around its neck). Everything will be cow cow cow.

The image above is by Dall-E3. Midjourney V6 is more realistic[2]I have long suspected that Dall-E3 images look shiny and fake on purpose. Sadly, there will be a major tragedy or crisis triggered by deepfakes at some point, and OpenAI doesn’t want one of … Continue reading but has similar issues.

(Animals never stare creepily into the lens, like a monster in a horror movie. Instead, they typically look at the camera body, or the photographer, meaning their head will be cocked a little off-center. This dead-center stare is another “AI tell”.)

Contrast these perfect AI-generated cows with an actual photograph.

A real cow does not exist as a perfect Platonic archetype. It has a certain amount of not-cowness mixed in: flies, a crooked horn, a limp, asymmetry, visible scars, or whatever. AI seldom (if ever) depicts these details, because they constitute deviance from the prompt. The user did not ask for a cow with a crooked horn. They asked for a cow.

Synthetic images have little of what Roland Barthes called “The Reality Effect”—the thousands of small imperfections that make an object seem “real”. AI apparently needs to see a lot of something in its pretraining data before spontaneously including it in an image (note how infrequently Midjourney remembers to put a tag in the cow’s ear, even though nearly every real-life cow has one). When you see an image that’s just a perfect depiction of something—and nothing but that thing—get suspicious. Real life is never that perfect.

AI image models struggle with subtlety. They can mimic almost any art style, but it’s usually a loud, witless parody of that style. The concept that a picture might have depths—that its theme might require thought and interpretation, instead of being blared at the cheap seats—is foreign to them.

I asked ChatGPT to create a challenging Where’s Waldo puzzle. It assured me it had made him “extremely well camouflaged” and “very well hidden”.

I find a lot of AI art really tiresome, to be honest. It’s the visual equivalent of being shouted at through a bullhorn. Human-created artwork is often subtle and seductive: the longer you stare at “Too Late” by Windus, the deeper you fall into its world and story. AI artwork often just feels like disposable junk: a loud surface with nothing substantial underneath.

Going in a darker direction, on 12 Oct 2023, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared a photo of what’s believed to be a burned baby.

(Content warning: burned baby.)

This is a horrifying image, and certain ideologically motivated individuals claimed it was an AI fake. They even got a Ben Shapiro retweet tagged with a community note, stating that this had been “proven”.

“GAN detector” is illiterate gibberish: every popular image generation model uses diffusion, plus “GAN” refers to a species of neural network, not the images produced by them. I guess “GAN detector site proves the verdict” sounds more substantial than “aiornot.com said it’s fake”.

I took one glance at that image and thought “real”.

The reality effect is like a slap in the face. You see those sad little smudges of ash on the rails? Those random dust bunnies (or whatever) against the skirtingboard? AI never puts things like that in an image. When AI makes something dirty, it does so in a stylized, aesthetic way. The dirt will look like it was brushed into place by a professional set designer. Those random smudges in Netanyahu’s photo are too anticlimactic and “incidental”.

Also, if you could prompt an AI image generator for a “burned baby”, you would get something that unmistakably looks like a baby. Not a hunk of charcoal that barely looks like anything.

Other people cropped a few pixels from the image, uploaded it to AIorNot, and got a verdict of authentic, thus “proving” not a damned thing, because AI detectors are trash. They do not work.

I am not saying Netanyahu’s photo is definitely real. It could have been faked through some other method (not that there’s any reason to believe it was). But anyone calling this image “AI generated” is either lying, or being a liar’s useful idiot.

Nothing is Ugly. Everything is Beautiful.

In moments of doubt, ask: “Is there anything about this image that should be ugly, but isn’t?”

Every real photo has some ugliness. Zoom in on the nose of the real cow above, and it’s packed with dried snot.

Compare with Midjourney’s bovines, who thoughtfully blew their noses before being photographed.

I have mentioned the lack of flies. Also, the grass isn’t littered with piles of shit. Anyone who’s seen a cow knows how unrealistic this is.

AI models have a strong aversion to gross or nasty things. They struggle to capture the mundane grubbiness of real life, except in a stylized way. Prompt for an ugly person, and you either get a fantasy goblin… (Midjourney V6)[3]Midjourney also has a “–style raw” flag, which supposedly omits the model’s “beautifying” process. It didn’t help much. To Midjourney, ugly person = DnD … Continue reading

…a “gritty” character actor in a Coen Brothers film that women would probably thirst over if he was real… (SDXL)

…or a refusal. (Dalle-E3)

Fuck you, ugly people! You’re not positive and uplifting!

Genuine, untrammeled ugliness is so rare that it sometimes goes viral. I remember when Loab became a thing. Someone claimed that by prompting SD a certain way you could uncover a paranormal cryptid in latent space.

(Apparently this later turned out to be a hoax or a creepypasta or something. Who gives a rat’s ass.)

As was noted by feminists, in most pictures of “Loab” there’s nothing supernatural about her. She’s not a demon or Lovecraftian monster. She’s simply an unattractive, unsmiling woman with a skin condition! People like Loab are everywhere in real life—I see uglier faces every time I go to a hardware store—but they’re strikingly rare in AI-generated images. So rare that they can literally be passed off as paranormal monsters.

Look For “Concept Merge”

This is awkward to explain, but you’ve seen it before.

Basically, it describes the AI tendency to get stuck between two contradictory ideas. Rather than choosing one or the other, it mashes them together. Here’s an image I swiped off Facebook. (I’m not crediting any of these losers.)

Looks good, but what are those objects on the wall? Brightening the image…

Are they frying pans? No, they have shield bosses. But if they’re shields, why do they have frying-pan handles?

This is concept merge. The prompt was clearly something like “a rustic cabin with a Viking boat in it”, but when it came time to add objects to the wall, Midjourney had a choice between “frying pans” (appropriate for a rustic cabin, inappropriate for a Viking boat), or “shields” (appropriate for a Viking boat, inappropriate for a rustic cabin). It got stuck, couldn’t make a choice, and eventually created weird frying pan/shield combinations.

Concept merge is a frequent feature of AI images, like the one below. It was shared on Twitter by someone who was convinced it was perfect, with no AI mistakes.

Obviously it has many: the girl has three nostrils, weird small gerbil-teeth, hair made of transparent plastic (note the left eyebrow visible under her bangs), deformed egg-yolk irises, and hairstrands that combine, multiply, and flow against physics in dozens of places. She has the generic “sameface anime girl” look endemic to a thousand LORAs such as Wowifier. The image makes incongruent stylistic choices: her exaggerated facial design (huge eyes + tiny nose + pointy chin) looks odd next to the realistic-looking skin and fabric.

But most striking are her clothes. What is she meant to be wearing?

  1. A studded leather jacket?
  2. A crop top?
  3. A schoolgirl sailor fuku?

StableDiffusion couldn’t make up its mind…so it gave her all three at once!

Human artists do not make mistakes like this. Even the shittiest artist does not draw two totally different things at the same time. AI images split the difference and compromise. Faced with two choices, they dive right down the middle.

Concept merge is most obvious in small details. Look for least important thing in the image that’s still a distinct object. Often, it will be a couple of different objects smushed together.

Bricks. Tiles. Planks.

This will be fixed some day, but right now, AI cannot do tesselated patterns. Even the task of depicting a chessboard or a brick wall defeats every model.

Is this what Gary Marcus means when he says AI has “hit a wall”?

It’s a classic case of attacker’s advantage. Tesselated patterns are defined by their uniformity, and every brick the AI renders must be perfect. A 95% success rate isn’t good enough: one malformed brick gives away the illusion. The AI has many chances to fail and only one chance to succeed.

So whenever you’re on the fence about an image, look for a fence in the image. Or a brick wall. Or roof tiles.

“Honey, can you go to Home Depot and pick up a single brick that’s about 4 feet long and bendy in the middle? You know the kind.”

“We’ll also need a perfectly square wooden plank for the floor.”

(This is more “concept merge”, by the way. The prompt was probably “a kitchen in a rustic cabin”. Rustic cabins have wood floors, but kitchens are usually tiled, so the planks assume a weird tile-like character.)

What other things can you look for?

Buttons. Is a row of buttons on a jacket spaced uniformly? Or are some further apart than others? In the grandma cake image, note that the top two buttons on her cardigan are spaced closer together than the bottom two. Likewise, the knobs on the thing in the background are unevenly spaced.

Electrical cables and ropes and strings—particularly if there are multiple overlapping ones. Are they sensible? Can you trace them from place to place with your finger, or do they become scribbled tangled-up garbage?

Tree branches are a big one. They’re so complex that they often look like random scribbled nonsense, and AI depicts them as such. Zoom in and you’ll see something’s not right.

Some beautiful concept merge here too. Is the cabin made of logs or stones?

(The comments on that picture were depressing. “Ha! You’re gonna feel like an idiot when the river floods and your cabin gets washed out!” If Mount Stupid was real, Facebook’s users would be Tenzing fucking Norgay.)

Also, zoom in on chain links.

Again, this might be fixed next year, or tomorrow for all I know. But for now, AI struggles with thin, complicated objects that exhibit a coherent structure.

The wonderful thing about the real world is that physical laws apply everywhere, equally, to all objects. A speck of dust is no less subject to the law than the titanic mass of Jupiter. As is written in the gospels, the regard of God is upon even the smallest sparrow.

AI does not care for sparrows. It has a limited bucket of competence, and lavishes it upon the central, important subject of the image. The small things get forgotten about, so zoom in on them.

Learn Basic Media Literacy

I hope I do not sound condescending or sarcastic. But whenever something happens in the world of synthetic media—whether it’s the GAN deepfakes of 2017, or Sora in 2024—we see the same histrionic reactions, over and over.

“Facts are over. Truth is over. We can’t trust photos anymore!”

Why were you trusting photos before? Does Photoshop not exist? Can’t a 100% real picture still be used to trick and deceive? How does a naïf like you have any money left in his bank account?

Credit: AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye.

As Randall Munroe once observed, every anxiety about deepfakes could be applied to words. “You mean people can just…lie to you? Say that the sky is green when it’s blue? Say that the moon’s made of cheese? Oh my God, nobody can trust anything! We’re in a post truth era!”

Yes, deception is a problem. But it is not insurmountable. It hasn’t spelled the end of truth as we know it. We can defeat liars, whether they use words or photos or (soon) videos. We need to take the natural skepticism we have toward words (“talk is cheap!” / “money talks, bullshit walks!”) and allow it to flow over to images as well. This is an easy thing to do. So easy that there’s no excuse not to be doing it already.

When you see a photo of something alarming, ask questions like:

  • Where did this image come from? What is its source?
  • If it’s a photograph, who took it?
  • Has the person sharing it built up any social capital that would inspire me to trust them?
  • How easy would this image be to fake? Would anyone benefit from doing so? (if unsure, default to “very easy” and “yes”)
  • People never take just one photo of really cool thing. Can I find multiple photos, from different angles? Is it plausible that the Pope would go out in public wearing a puffer jacket and exactly four photos of it would exist?
  • Is this photo even physically possible to take?

Someone shared this photo.

The pelican’s body looks AI generated (“fur or feathers” concept merge). I don’t know about the head. It looks far more detailed than any I can get out of Midjourney—did someone crop out a pelican’s head from a photograph, and paste it in using Photoshop? It doesn’t seem to connect to the body.

But there’s zero chance that it’s real. It’s implausible that a drone would snap such a high-quality photo, perfectly framed and lit. We’ve seen pictures of birds flying into drones. They look like this.

This is another case of AI getting too good. It creates a photorealistic image even when we wouldn’t expect one.

Postscript: How To Recognize AI Generated Text

Models Have a “Voice”

We all know “ChatGPT tone” by now. People mistakenly call it “bland” and “generic”. It’s actually the most distinctive writing style on earth. I can recognize ChatGPT-created text within the first 1-2 sentences.

Dive into the fascinating world of “skub“, a mesmerizing concept that echoes through time like a haunting symphony, unraveling a captivating portrait of the human imagination. “Skub” is more than just a word. It’s a philosophy. A lifestyle. A poignant reminder that divisive concepts can also unite us. As we delve further into “skub”, it is important to be mindful of diverse perspectives, and to recognize that “skub” may be controversial among certain groups. Together, “pro-skub” and anti-skub” activists weave a synergistic tapestry, an intimate dance that highlights the positives of “skub” while remaining mindful of its potential impacts. So, in conclusion, whether you wear a “pro-skub” or “anti-skub” T-shirt, let us stand together in solidarity and mutual respect, allowing our diverse viewpoints to forge a better, more inclusive tomorrow.

(I didn’t generate that, I typed it from memory.)

Nostalgebraiest once described this as a HR managerial fantasy of how humans talk. Peppy and upbeat, with a hint of supercilious smugness. Supremely confident, while being frantically neurotic that it could offend or confuse someone. It over-qualifies and undermines itself with weasel phrases and ambiguity. ChatGPT is so terrified of saying something wrong that it doesn’t care whether it says anything right.

ChatGPT has the most exaggerated writing style of any chatbot, but they all have distinctive voices. Gemini loves contrastive “it’s more than just [thing x], it’s [thing y]” sentences. When you ask Grok to diss something, it always says “you’re like a walking talking [x]”

Many other models are trained on synthetic data from ChatGPT (whether they know it or not), and echo ChatGPT’s pablum.

Lots of Filler Adjectives

AI models are addicted to pretty but empty adjectives. Everything is captivating or enchanting or inspiring.

These are filler adjectives. They are vague, nearly meaningless, and add virtually nothing to the text. Any writing coach would tell you to cut them.

Take “captivating”. Its definition is “capable of attracting and holding interest”…but that could be anything. Sunsets are captivating. Car wrecks are captivating. Crossword puzzles are captivating. If an adjective could equally be applied to love’s first kiss and to a weird bug smashed on a car windshield, then it’s probably better to drill down to the metal and explain exactly what makes the thing captivating.

AI-generated text abhors such specificity. It casts a broad net over the reader’s mind, encouraging them to add their own meaning. You might have your own idea of what “haunting” means, so when you read “he played a haunting melody on the violin” this can easily engage your senses in a way that seems profound. It seems like the AI is reading your mind! In reality, it’s something of a parlor trick. There were no magic slippers, and the profundity was supplied by you.

Sarah Constantin wrote about a thing called “Ra”.

Ra […] can roughly be summarized as the drive to idealize vagueness and despise clarity. […] You know how universal gods are praised with formulas that call them glorious, mighty, exalted, holy, righteous, and other suchlike adjectives, all of which are perfectly generic and involve no specific characteristics except wonderfulness? That’s what Ra is all about. […] Ra is evident in marketing that is smooth, featureless, full of unspecified potential goodness, “all things to all people,” like Obama’s 2008 campaign.

“All things to all people” is a good way of putting ChatGPT’s writing style. It appears to fluently speak dozens of languages. In truth, it speaks only one: Ra.

AI Text Is Tonally Inappropriate

If someone is using AI to write their social media posts, this is usually obvious, because the text will not match the tone expected of the conversation.

When a human enters a social space, they subconsciously “read the room”, and adjust their voice (or writing style) to fit. If everyone is using slangy contractions, they will too. If everyone’s writing in a stiff, formal way, they will too. Linguists call this a “code switch“. AI usually has no idea where its text will end up. Thus, it cannot read the room, cannot code switch, and its output will be very “general”, disconnected from the discussion going on around it.

This is easy to recognize in practice. @fchollet tweeted this:

“Accelerating progress” should mean increasing the breadth and depth of our search for meaning & solutions. Increasing the diversity and creativity of our cultural production and consumption. To a large extent, I feel like generative AI achieves the opposite. It collapses everything into a narrower, standardized, derivative space. It might even result in cultural stagnation if left unchecked. Not for too long though, since people will simply grow out of it, eventually. Humans have a built-in drive towards interestingness. They get bored quickly.”

He received a number of replies. One was written by an AI. Can you spot it? Read them carefully.

  1. Depends on the input, bland input=bland output.
  2. Yes. Several years ago I was impressed… even now I’m impressed, but I’m not interested anymore: meaningless texts, generic art
  3. We get bored too quickly
  4. Very well said.
  5. There’s a parallelism with sports betting: the most probable outcome is the less interesting, thus the smaller prize.
  6. And/or the AI may get better at producing interesting results
  7. Generative AI is a pattern extender. That’s it. This is a very good thing though.
  8. Certainly, generative AI can seem limiting in terms of truncating our creative scope. However, shifting perspective, we may see it as a tool that can enhance our own creativity. Much like a kaleidoscope, it’s our interpretation of AI’s output that truly shines.
  9. This is 100% about not allowing a better approach and a 1a trojan
  10. “people will simply grow out of it, eventually.” That sounds like an implausible prediction. (Did people grow out of their propensity to get sucked into addicting tech in other cases?). Is there a concrete outcome in, say, a decade, that would tell us if it was or was not true?
  11. Companies will pay people to do nothing but create so that they can give data to the ai

#8 isn’t a sore thumb, it’s an amputation. Aside from being generic feelgood blather (not that the human replies are necessarily any more insightful), it simply doesn’t look like a Twitter reply. Nobody says “however, shifting perspectives…” on the Bird Site.

(Plus, kaleidoscopes are hollow tubes containing angled mirrors and chips of glass. They don’t “shine”. Mixed-up metaphors are very common in AI writing.)

You can tell AI to imitate the a style, but that often leads to an unconvincing “hello, fellow kids!” affect (“Not gunna lie, some of those AI art pieces be lookin fire 🔥 tho lol”), burdened with excessive amounts of “style”. Conversational registers can get incredibly specific, and a failed mimickry attempt can be even more revealing than no attempt at all (I asked Gemini to write replies in the style of a /r/redscarepod poster. It came up with stuff like “The hot take I didn’t know I needed. Generative AI is like the cultural equivalent of the McRib.” Talk like that on /r/RSP and you’d get called a cop.)

Yes, some of those replies are innocuous, and wouldn’t attract notice. But if a bot constantly talked like that to an adversary dedicated to unmasking it, it would be exposed.

It’s easy for AI to fool a careless human. They were doing it in the 1960s. An observant one is a different matter. It’s the brick problem again: AI can get it right some of the time, and maybe even most of the time, but if it even slips up once…

“All of your clues can be defeated with about 5 seconds of prompt engineering. You know that, right?”

What do you want from me? If there was a bulletproof way to spot an AI image, I’d tell you. There simply isn’t one.

All of these hints are vague and “vibes” based. All require a close eye. All produce false positives (many photographers employ a staged, archetypal style. And ChatGPT had to learn its writing style from somewhere…) All can be overcome by prompting, inpainting, and Photoshop.

But there’s good news: most AI scammers are lazy too lazy to do that.

Whenever an AI-related scam hits the public’s eye, what’s striking is how flagrantly incompetent they are. They refuse to do any work to make their fraud believable. Remember that fake Willy Wonka event in Ireland? Remember how it had gibberish AI text on the flyers? This is your outreach! The one thing people see! It boggles the mind!

“Willy’s Chocolate Experience” is my new porn name

This is a level of laziness that I didn’t know existed. He could have easily fixed the text in Canva, or, hell, MS Paint. Even if he had zero graphic design skills, Fiver’s right there. It would have cost virtually nothing to have his goddamn ads look professional. Yet for the person running the event, “virtually nothing” was still a price too high.

And what about those repugnant Facebook images from pages called JESUS LUV U and the like?

Words fail me. Apparently they also failed Dall-E 3.

This is not the work of a Machiavellian criminal genius. This is the work of an impoverished Malaysian contract worker, slaving away in a 45C cubical, creating 600 pieces of content per day so he doesn’t get fired or deported. He doesn’t care about quality. Why would he? It just has to be good enough to satisfy his boss (who also doesn’t care about quality, because he, too, is but a cog in a larger system. Hey, you look like you need to read Zvi on Moral Mazes. Understand its lesson, and the world will make about 17% more sense.)

There is no reason to do a good job in that scenario. It’s not as if he’ll win a trophy at the Scammy Awards this year if he makes an image look realistic. (“And the award for best deepfake goes to…Muhammad Awang! Keep it up, and we’ll print an extra visa for your sex-trafficked sister!”). Literally nobody cares.

There’s also the Nigerian Prince effect. Scam emails don’t actually benefit from being clever. They target the mentally ill, or people who don’t have a skeptical bone in their body. If you are capable of asking critical questions, you will never fall for the scam anyway.

Obviously really stupid con artists get caught. But are there smarter ones that aren’t being detected?

I don’t know. My honest impression, based on a glance at the rubbish flowing across my own Facebook feed, that >90% of these people are lazy, careless bottom-feeders. Click on their pages, and everything is bad. Look at the grandma baking a cake at the start of the article. The person prompting didn’t even take ten seconds to prompt a plausible number onto the birthday cake. Expecting them to fix fine mistakes in Photoshop is like expecting them to sail to the moon in a teacup or empty the ocean with a spoon. They are seemingly all like this.

Tech evangelist types are fond of telling us that AI has democratized software engineering, allowing non-programmers to implement their ideas. Well, that’s also true for frauds: specifically, lazy wannabes who would like to make money unethically but can’t quite figure out how to do so. AI—which can generate limitless text and imagery on command—is their Wonka’s golden ticket to a land of “ENCHERINING ENTERTAINMENT”. But they cannot escape who and what they are—incompetents—and give themselves away at every turn.

Horace once wrote “Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt”. Translation: if you suck, you suck. That’s my hope: that most criminals are just too lazy or dumb to do much with AI. Capabilities advance, but human ineptitude is forever.


1 Tricky, isn’t it? Here’s my stab at what’s wrong with it.

First: it’s convenient that the photo is too blurry for us to see fine details. I don’t say “conclusive”, I say “convenient.” Disguising a fraudulent photo by making it too shitty to see is the oldest trick in the book.

The way the second man’s jeans pile around his shoes looks unnatural—his legs seem too short for his torso. He looks like an Oompa Loompa next to the fourth man (in the red shirt), whose legs extend down further, out of frame.

The far-right man is sticking a hand into his T-shirt’s hip pocket, which makes no sense, as T-shirts don’t have hip pockets.

The third man has a lanyard hanging from his pocket, with a second lanyard sprouting off it.

None of this is hard proof. Yet what are the chances of this photo occurring naturally? Where would you find five cartoonishly Midwestern-looking men, with identical jeans and shirts and hats, and with the exact same body type and fat distribution (note the matching manboobs), standing together in a parking lot, being photographed?

There is simply no plausible natural context for this picture. Is it a staged photo, then? Are they contestants at a “Dress Like A Teamster” costume party (the winner gets a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon or something)? But then we’d expect to find evidence of this party online (we don’t), such as more photos of these men (there are none), and we’d expect the photo to be high-quality, with all the men in frame, instead of a blurry cropped mess. And if they’re supposed to look the same, the red-hatted man would have taken off his wristwatch to improve the effect (he’s the only one who has one). This is a rare case of Midjourney including some Barthesian “Reality Effect”, with counterproductive results.

This image is too arch, too perfect, too inexplicable. It literally doesn’t make sense, except as an AI generated image.

2 I have long suspected that Dall-E3 images look shiny and fake on purpose. Sadly, there will be a major tragedy or crisis triggered by deepfakes at some point, and OpenAI doesn’t want one of their models caught holding the murder weapon.
3 Midjourney also has a “–style raw” flag, which supposedly omits the model’s “beautifying” process. It didn’t help much. To Midjourney, ugly person = DnD kobold. Flagging “–no fantasy” gave me a Jabba the Hutt-esque creature.
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You are not supposed to accuse people of being insane on the internet. It is obvious that Kanye West suffers from bipolar disorder. His swings between wild creativity and nihilistic self-destructiveness are indicative. But pointing that out would, of course, be stigmatizing people with bipolar disorder. I’m not his therapist. I have not made an informed diagnosis. So I’m not allowed to speak the obvious, no matter how much sense it makes, or how nonjudgmentally I say it.

Yet occasionally someone is obviously, deeply, flagrantly mad in such an expressive way that there’s no way to escape a reckoning with it. But our reactions are counterproductive, and often mad themselves. Often, we valorize the person, and regard their madness as a form of “specialness”.

Here are two pieces of writing on this topic I find profound. They both basically typed out my beliefs better than I could. I have all these little half-excavated thought-fossils in my mind, buried in sand, and I can’t quite get up the energy to rip them out. It’s nice when I don’t have to, when someone else has captured those same thoughts as huge, roaring, living dinosaurs, far better than anything I could write.

The first piece is Matt Lakeman’s 2020 blog post about The Room, and the Disaster Artist, and the toxic cult around “auteur” Tommy Wiseau. He has since taken it down, and turned his site into a travel blog. But it’s really good.

I read Disaster Artist on a whim when the movie came out. I’ve since gone through the audiobook 3.5 times and can confidently say it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I expected just to hear funny anecdotes about the making of a famously awful movie and the man behind it, but I found so much more depth. In my eyes, Disaster Artist is an examination of insanity (which I am defining as “the inability to perceive reality to the degree of low or non-functionality in regular life”). The book is a pushback against a subtle cultural norm that sees crazy people as having some sort of gift or potential or insight that everyone else doesn’t.

The next is Tom Ewing’s 60,000 word exploration of Cerebus, which is a 300 issue British comic about an aardvark whose creator went insane. Apparently the back half of the comic devolves into bristling thickets of gynophobic rants and mystical Torah analysis.

Here is a comment I left on the last entry, Aard Labour Epilogue: Dance Of The Aardvark Catchers.

Thanks for writing this series. I enjoyed it immensely. It actually inspired me (contra doctor’s orders) to start reading Cerebus.

I read issues #1-#3, then skipped ahead to somewhere in the high 200s. The difference was amazing—going from a bud sprouting on a stem, to a huge rotting flower, petals dissolving into muck. Obviously I didn’t expect to understand the story, but the sense of aesthetic collapse was stark. The start and end of Cerebrus barely look like they were created by the same species, let alone the same human!

Even in the early issues, Dave Sim isn’t an amazing writer. I noticed this in the letters of introduction: Deni Loubert’s will be fun and witty and engaging…but then I turn the page, and crash at high velocity into an ENDLESS BLATHERING TEXTWALL that I kind of bounce off. I’m sure Dave sharpens up after a few volumes, but I’m not looking forward to his Torah exegesis.

You’ve mentioned anime several times. Cerebus is also seen as an influential early work in the furry fandom (along with other culturejamming “comix” like Fritz the Cat and Omaha the Cat Dancer). Ironic, given Dave’s stance on gay people, that furries later became possibly the gayest subculture of all. (“By and large, furries are bi and large”—Eric Blumrich).

“The world, or the further-right parts of it, have moved closer to Sim, and one of the questions I had sitting down to re-read Cerebus is “how come this guy hasn’t become a cult figure on the alt-right?”. Reading it sorted that one out: Sim’s views on gender and politics are ordinary enough in those circles, but his religious convictions are intense and bizarre and inseparable from anything else he thinks, worlds away from the convenient surface performances that pass for faith on much of the right, and grossly heretical to anyone who does believe.”

Well, there’s also the paradox at the heart of extremist movements. The worst thing you can do is ACTUALLY BELIEVE.

The ones who rise to the top tend to be grifters and carpetbaggers. People with no real ideological attachment to the cause, but who have glommed onto it as a way to raise their own status. (Example: one of the main figures of the GamerGate movement was Milo Yiannopolis, who a year previously had tweeted that men who play videogames are losers.)

The grifter’s strength lies in knowing when to backpedal, when to apologize, when to moderate their words and behavior. They have rabbit ears to how they (and their movement) are perceived by outsiders, and are willing to pull things back to the center (at least on a shallow rhetorical level). They play the game.

Dave Sim does not play the game. He doesn’t think it’s a game at all. He’s on a holy quest to share the truth which supersedes all politics and optics. He either doesn’t know how repellant he looks or doesn’t care.

Hardcore culture-warriors of every stripe—Ayn Rand, Andrea Dworkin, Kellie-Jay Keen—often end up as pariahs in their own movements. Their charisma and force of will gets bums onto pews, but eventually, they bog the movement down, jamming it up with their unwillingness to compromise. Not that Dave Sim is necessarily on a level with those people (he’s not charismatic), but the same principal applies.

I mostly stand by that, although Milo Yiannopolis did not call gamers losers, he said “Few things are more embarrassing than grown men getting over-excited about video games”. I have unalived myself in Minecraft for this error.

But I also deleted the latter half of my comment, because I wasn’t sure how it would be received.

One of Ewing’s recurrent points is that Sim’s “madness”, when verbalized, sounds like standard cant for parts of the extreme right. There is some truth to that. But that doesn’t mean Sim also isn’t mad. It is not true that being mad gives you a unique and interesting perspective on life. Often the opposite is the case.

We have this cultural idea of mad people that isn’t true to reality. Louis Wain drew cute cats. As his schizophrenia advanced, the cats become distorted and twisted, resembling owls and hyenas and demons, before finally becoming abstract detonations of light. (Or so goes the story. Much of Wain’s work is undated and often nobody knows when a certain illustration is from.) Madness, like what happened to Bowie in 1976, gets seen as a kind of kind of gnostic initiation. Sane people have a locked door at the back of their minds, leading to worlds undreamed. Madness turns the key.

But that’s not how to works. In reality, mad people are usually the dullest people you will ever meet. They waste their lives retweeting political slogans on Twitter. They tumble down into predictable conspiracist obsessions. They end up as hollow spaces, filled with wind, chanted slogans, and fragmenting memories. They are tragic, but also boring and tedious.

Obviously it’s not the job of mentally ill people to be entertaining. That’s offensive—they’re not zoo animals. But there’s a stark difference between madness as popularly portrayed and madness as it truly exists. I dislike the pop cultural idea that mad people are “gifted” or have some creative spark denied to sane people. Madness isn’t creative freedom, it’s chains.

My father suffered a slow and hideous decline. He spent his final days nearly catatonic, watching Yes Minister DVDs. Occasionally he’d enter a manic state and “clean the house” (frantically strew rubbish everywhere, and then leave it like that until someone else tidied the mess.) When he stopped taking his medicine he did things that were embarrassing and out of character. At one point, he asked me to copyedit his autobiography. I agreed, and he he emailed me a few pages of rambling nonsense that trailed off mid-sentence. I found the document heartbreaking, and although I have kept it, I still wonder why I did. There is nothing of my father in that document. I am preserving some scrambled words that could have been generated by a Markov chain. In any meaningful sense, my dad died before he wrote it.

Sometimes crazy people are interesting (I know some), but they are not the plurality. Madness (on the whole), is “an empty head thinking as hard as it can.”

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