The Limitations of Artificial Intelligence…

… and what they reveal about human limitations and strengths. Two quick examples:

Watch this video, which focuses on a picture book while asking important questions about how our brains work vs. how AI works. At what age will a young child understand what happened to the thieving rabbit? Can AI understand the story’s shocking conclusion?

And consider this recent article from CNET on the biases in algorithms (a topic I posted about before). People sometimes think that AI-based decisions will somehow be objective, free from biases and errors in judgment. But what data do algorithms get trained on? And who gets to say what’s a fair AI decision and what’s not?

An example of reducing redundancy in fiction writing

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, a novel written in first-person POV about a newly minted detective who investigates a suspicious death. Sounds like many other crime novels, but the difference here is that no one seems to care about the investigation, because an asteroid is going to hit Earth in six months.

In the following excerpt, the detective, Henry Palace, is at a suspect’s house. The suspect, whose name is Toussaint, has something on his mantel:

There’s a scale model of the New Hampshire state house on the mantel above the fireplace, six inches high and fastidiously detailed: the white stone facade, the gilded dome, the tiny imperious eagle jutting from the top.

“Like that?” says Toussaint when he comes back in … and I set the model down abruptly.

In this excerpt, the narrator never explicitly says, “I picked up the model of the state house.” He just describes what the model looks like. It’s only at the end, when he tells the reader, “I set the model down,” that you know he even had it in his hands.

This is hardly a pivotal moment in the novel. But it’s still a nice example of how you can cut down on redundancy in fiction writing. A narrator doesn’t need to always share each movement, such as picking things up or opening or closing windows and doors.

It’s like if your narrator said, “The window was closed. I opened it.” Would it be necessary to say that the window was closed? Usually not. (Though, who knows, sometimes you’d want to keep that line, maybe to create a certain effect with your prose or to illustrate something about a character’s thought processes.) In any case, when editing your work, it’s important to be thoughtful about these choices.

[By the way, this is off the main topic of the post, but I do recommend The Last Policeman. It’s a good, absorbing read. One head’s up, though: The novel contains multiple descriptions of suicide and suicidal thoughts, plus it focuses on tragedies that are extremely improbable but happen anyway. Just keep that in mind, because sometimes you need to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy a book; other times, you may want to put off reading it.]

Which Kinds of Mistakes Do You Accept in a Nonfiction Book?

In one nonfiction book I’ve been reading recently, I found an inaccurate description of a novel.

In another nonfiction book, the author mischaracterized a Jewish holiday. The author himself is Jewish, but not observant, so maybe he bought into an inaccurate interpretation.

On the one hand, I understand that each of these books has a lot of information backed by hundreds of footnotes. Probably some mistakes are inevitable.

On the other hand, I don’t know how many mistakes the author is making. I picked up on the two I mentioned earlier, because I already knew about the holiday and the novel under discussion. But what about the topics I don’t know about? Can I trust the author to give me accurate information?

Maybe the nature of the mistake makes a difference. For example, getting a date wrong may not be a big deal, if it’s just a typo. Though even that kind of error can be confusing and misleading in certain contexts.

Nonfiction authors often do use fact-checkers, so I’m hoping that many errors will already be caught before publication. Meaning that the book will largely be accurate, with maybe a few minor errors slipping past detection.

But I’m interested in what the line is. Which kinds of mistakes would lead you to put the book aside? And which would you respond to with more lenience?

Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous

One of the things people fear most is being “unneeded” or “useless.” When people feel like they’re superfluous, and that no one really needs them around, they tend to wonder about two things:

  1. “How will I get by?”
  2. “What am I even living for?”

The question of “How will I get by?” comes from a basic survival fear. If someone is made redundant at their job, and no one else is interested in hiring them, how will they keep a roof over their head and afford food, clothes, and health care? If their family doesn’t seem to need or want them, where will they go? When you’re on the fringes of the pack or out in the cold, it’s much harder to get by.

The question of “What am I even living for?” comes from a loss of purpose. When people feel superfluous, they wonder what it is they’re meant to do. People generally fare better when they’re needed for something or doing something meaningful – when they can create or build things, provide care, render assistance, inspire or teach others, give themselves and others opportunities to grow, explore something interesting, and give love to others in tangible ways.

Why Do Many People Feel Superfluous Nowadays?

The pandemic has exacerbated certain tendencies and accelerated trends that have already been provoking a sense of superfluousness in people, namely:

  • Job loss or job insecurity
  • Isolation
  • A feeling of helplessness

Numerous small businesses have been wrecked this past year, but even before that many were contending with steep competition from internet commerce, along with struggling to pay rising taxes and rent in many places.

Many jobs continue to be in danger from automation, where technology (automated computer processes, AI) performs the necessary tasks and makes human involvement largely obsolete. The pandemic has brought on another wave of automation. For some, job retraining and new placements will be possible. However, there are various barriers to retraining and starting fresh, including the fact that individuals aren’t infinitely adaptable or transplantable. Retraining programs often fall short in various ways as well.

As for isolation, this is more than just being on your own now and then. It’s being cut off from others – family, friends, romantic partners, colleagues, community. The sense of being cut off can stem from literal physical isolation. (For most people, simulations of togetherness via Zoom and other online platforms don’t come close to replacing time spent together in-person.) Isolation may also stem from a feeling of profound loneliness even when you’re among other people. In either case, there’s some lack of mutual connectedness.

Another aspect of isolation is the belief that no one really cares about you. You experience callousness, empty promises, and an abdication of responsibility. This is crushing.

What about helplessness? Sometimes, people have a tendency to overestimate how helpless they are in various situations and miss out on ways to change their lives. But there’s no denying that helplessness goes beyond self-imposed mental limits. People may realize that they have much less influence over their surroundings than they thought. For instance, that their government on multiple levels isn’t responsive to them. One of the issues harshly brought to light by the pandemic is the disconnect between the governing elite and the people they govern, as seen with the insensible policies and the remarkable indifference to serious concerns.

Continue reading “Some Thoughts About Feeling Superfluous”

Four Ways Toxic Relationships Mess Up Your Perception of Kindness

Whether it involves family, romance, or friendship, a relationship with toxic patterns of behavior can change how you perceive yourself and other people. And particularly when it’s abusive, it can mess with your perceptions of kindness. I’ll give you a few examples:

Kindness Becomes Unreliable and Short-Lived

Often, there are moments of kindness even in an unhealthy relationship, or periods of time when kindness and consideration are on the ascendant. You may feel, if not happiness, then relief during those periods. Sometimes, you allow yourself to hope that things will get better in the long-run.

When those hopes are dashed often enough, you perceive kindness as something that isn’t a consistent part of relationships. You see it instead as fleeting and provisional. Even if you walk on eggshells in an attempt to maintain peace and avoid any outburst or explosive conflict, it won’t last.

The idea of being in a relationship of mutual consistent kindness may come to seem unrealistic. And when you experience kindness from others, you have a difficult time trusting its longevity.

Kindness Serves As a Get-Out-of-Jail Free Card

In a toxic relationship, acts of kindness may become an effective way of giving cruelty a pass. If you complain about mistreatment, you’re reminded about the times (or time) that the other person was kind to you, did things for you. How can you be so ungrateful? How dare you complain about anything?

Kindness can also be a way of smoothing over a nasty fight or an incident of abuse without having to deal with any of the underlying issues. Instead of a meaningful change for the better, what you get is a gift and some good behavior, at least for a short while. Until the next explosion.

In these situations, kindness comes across as superficial. Like papering over a wall where mold is spreading or the wood is rotting.

Kindness Communicates an Insult

Kindness no longer seems very kind when you realize that someone is helping you just because they’ve characterized you as incompetent. They’re telling you, without necessarily saying the words, that you’re incapable of doing all kinds of things. This sort of “kindness” becomes a way of diminishing your abilities or keeping you from developing.

Kindness Performed for You Isn’t About You

You may come to realize that acts of kindness are more like acts of self-aggrandizement or a performance put on for others. Kindness may be limited to occasions when there’s a third party, an audience for the selflessness.

The kindness may also only occur when the other person wants something from you. Otherwise, you may as well not exist.

How Can You rethink Your Perceptions of Kindness?

A toxic relationship may make you more wary about other people’s motives, and this cautiousness has its benefits for sure. The problem is when you can’t detect or trust kindness when it’s sincere.

What are some of the things you can do to reconsider your perceptions of kindness and open yourself to sincerely kind behavior? Although the following suggestions are broad, and aren’t 100% effective in all situations, they’re at least a starting point:

  • Look at acts of kindness in a wider context, not in isolation. (Pay attention to how someone interacts with you as a whole – and see if the kindness is embedded in patterns of behavior that are damaging or abusive.)
  • Allow yourself time to get to know people better. (For instance, if someone you have just met keeps pressuring you for intimacy, closeness, moving in together immediately, etc. you can definitely take a step back and regard them with caution.)
  • Figure out the things you want from relationships in your life – what mutual giving, trust, and love look like to you. What do you consider unacceptable treatment (to receive or inflict on others)?
  • Distinguish between kindness expressed in concrete actions or speech, vs. a fuzzier “kindly feeling.” There are people who claim to be kind, but their kindness doesn’t seem to manifest in consistent thoughtful behavior. It seems like they’re paying lip service to the idea of kindness.
  • Work on improving how you communicate, both as a speaker and as a listener. This includes strengthening your ability to stand up for yourself and explain your thoughts.
  • Also, work on communicating well with yourself. For example, how do you talk to yourself when you’re struggling? Do you speak to yourself reasonably, or do you tear into yourself and chronically put yourself down? Even if there are various aspects of your life that you’d like to change – and even if you’re full of regret or disappointment about how things are going – there’s no need to be horrible to yourself or to ignore anything that’s good or that has good potential. Treating yourself horribly may “feel normal” by this point, but it doesn’t have to be your normal. With practice, you can start replacing horrible put-downs with more measured and nuanced speech (avoiding extremes of negativity without going into extremes of unrealistic positivity).

A Block Editor Tutorial (WordPress Gutenberg)

Though I’ve struggled with their recent conversion to the block editor, I intend to keep using WordPress for blogging. On YouTube I found a decent tutorial for the block editor, and I followed some of the tips while writing a recent post. (Including how to move the hovering toolbar up and out of the way – shown at around 3 minutes and 45 seconds into the video.)

I thought I’d share it here in case you’re looking for a tutorial that’s easy to follow:

If there are specific features you’d like to learn more about, I recommend opening the video in a new tab in YouTube and checking the description box. You’ll find a breakdown of the video with timestamps.

An Example of “Good Enough” Parenting

I was doing some research for a client when I came across this article about being a “good enough” parent, with insights from moms who have kids with Down Syndrome.

“The Mediocre Mom’s Guide to Raising a Child with Down Syndrome (or Any Kid for That Matter)” has some good examples of how you can be a decent parent without being a superhero who gets everything right all the time.

The Difference Between Ignorance and Willful Ignorance

Ignorance just means you don’t know something. For example, I’m ignorant about the names and accomplishments of many famous athletes and the rules of the sports they play.

At any point, if I want to learn more about these athletes and sports, I can. Ignorance doesn’t have to be permanent. It can change if I want it to, and if I have access to the relevant information.

Willful ignorance is different and worse than regular ignorance. With willful ignorance, I don’t know something, but I act as if I’m knowledgeable. I act as if I know what there is to know. I resist learning anything more, even if that’s what I need to do to share my opinion, teach a topic, or make a decision.

Let’s return to the sports example. If I were willfully ignorant, I would launch into a confident-sounding commentary about a game. I would share some strong opinions about the athletes’ techniques and strategies. If anyone were to tell me, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I would argue that what I’m saying is reasonable, valid, relevant, and sufficiently well-informed. Just by watching a sport for five minutes, I can learn what there is to know about it.

Willful ignorance isn’t just the state of not knowing something. It’s an attitude that blocks learning. It undermines intellectual humility and careful thought. If you’re just ignorant, you can become less ignorant. But if you’re willfully ignorant, how will you learn more?

Catastrophizing as a Form of Self-Protection?

Considering the health-related and economic effects of the pandemic, and the fact that we’re in the final weeks leading up to the U.S. presidential election, it isn’t surprising to come across doom-and-gloom pronouncements virtually everywhere.

If you have a tendency to catastrophize – to dwell on the worst possible outcomes for every scenario – the constant state of red alert may be strengthening your tendency to brood over all the terrible things that could happen, whether tomorrow or next year.

Generally, catastrophizing isn’t helpful. It’s one thing to make plans and provisions, as best you can, for when something may go wrong. It’s quite another thing to get swept away in darker and darker thoughts about the future, and to obsessively visualize the most terrible things happening. Your mind is in turmoil over things that may never happen.

In a strange way, catastrophizing can make you feel powerful and helpless at the same time. Powerful, because you feel as if you know the future, every detail of it. About 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the video I’ve shared at the top of the post, there’s a part I want to highlight: the idea that catastrophizing may serve a protective function, because you feel as if you’re using it to fight against uncertainty and save yourself from future disappointment.

Basically, you feel like nothing bad can shock or overwhelm you because you already expect it. But how much power does brooding over catastrophes actually give you?

Catastrophizing may protect you from taking all kinds of risks. However, some of these risks may be worth taking, such as learning a new skill, or approaching someone to ask them out on a date or hopefully become their friend. Thanks to catastrophizing, you imagine nightmare outcomes even for situations that are mildly or moderately risky. Maybe you fear rejection, for instance, so you imagine harsh and humiliating outcomes to keep yourself from approaching someone and potentially exposing yourself to their indifference or dislike.

What if something terrible does happen? Even if you’re overestimating the possibility of horrific outcomes, there’s still a chance of catastrophe. What then?

For one thing, you can’t know exactly how everything will play out. Even if you imagine a horrible scenario, it won’t unfold exactly the same way in real life. There are factors you aren’t thinking about and twists and turns you can’t anticipate.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way. For example, you may be underestimating your capacity to deal with a terrible situation. Maybe you’ll be able to act in ways you can’t currently imagine or haven’t even considered. Maybe there are avenues of help you don’t know about, other people who will assist you or resources that will become available to you. Even if what you fear is a recurrence of something, maybe this time around you’ll have a greater capacity to deal with it, in part because of the knowledge and wisdom you’ve gained.

When you’re catastrophizing, you may confuse the intensity of your thoughts with the certainty of your knowledge. Turmoil doesn’t mean truth. For better and worse, you can’t predict everything. But it’s easy to overestimate the likelihood of the worst thing happening and underestimate our own ability to respond to it better than we can imagine.

I wrote this post in part as a reminder to myself, and also because it may be helpful to other people in this crazy year and beyond. One of my friends told me that in the midst of catastrophizing she tries to at least get something out of it – like thinking of a solution to a future problem or thinking of something she can change in her life now. The challenge is to not let the thoughts become obsessive and paralyzing.

Huge Song Recommendation List (That I Plan to Keep Updating)

This post has two main purposes: to help me keep track of songs I’d like to keep revisiting, and to share song recommendations with other people. I hope you find something here to enjoy.

A

About Love (Marina); Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers); Ain’t She Sweet (Gene Austin); Alive and Kicking (Simple Minds); All of Me (Billie Holiday); All or Nothing at All (Sarah Vaughan); Alors On Danse (Stromae)

American Pie (Don McLean); And She Was (Talking Heads); Angel of the Morning (Merrilee Rush & The Turnabouts); Angels (The xx); Angie Baby (Helen Reddy); Anthem (Leonard Cohen)

April Come She Will (Simon & Garfunkel); At Last (Etta James); At Seventeen (Janis Ian); Autumn in New York (Billie Holiday); Autumn Leaves (Edith Piaf)

Continue reading “Huge Song Recommendation List (That I Plan to Keep Updating)”