Category Archives: Aesop is not your friend

Machine learning for the people

It began with a good intention. Someone, somewhere, wanted to create an autocorrect function that improved both spelling and grammar, above and beyond the makeshift implementations found traditional writing programs. After a number of false starts, it finally bore fruit, resulting in a startlingly effective piece of software that could make just about anyone appear a fully literate, articulate person in command of the written word.

At first, this increased clarity of communication across the board. Common misunderstandings decreased substantially, irritation over the intricacies of interjections and prepositions melted away, and overall both sides of written communication became that much smoother. Their, they’re and there – for a while, it was a solved problem.

But then

A few years later, a backlash emerged. Books, blog posts and other pieces of writing all started to blend together into a universal soup of common language. It was subtle at first, but when a prominent social media icon pointed out that a heartfelt recollection of young love lost read exactly the same as a summary of the fluctuations of the stock markets, it became clear as day. The algorithm did enhance legibility, but it was only ever an algorithm.

Needless to say, writers who wrote imperfect prose rose in popularity during this period. In response to this, companies providing proofreading software began to introduce small flaws in their programming, subtle enough not to be noticeable in short pieces of text, but sufficient to differentiate longer works from each other. This dynamic kept up for quite some time, with readers becoming ever more adept at pattern recognition and the programs becoming ever more subtle in their introduction of errors. Readers and writing tools, locked in an ever escalating arms race. In the end, it turned out that the quality of writing generally improved from not using any such proofreading software whatsoever.

Out of the algorithmically imposed lingua franca came a resurgence of antediluvian atavisms, such as unrelenting human editors who simply would not accept you doing less than you were capable of. Humanity, battle-scarred and not quite certain about what language even is any more, resignedly accepted this return of the once dreaded red pens.

Reverse impostor syndrome

He was in quite a predicament.

By all accounts, he was the most successful musician in the world. Album sales were through the roofs, concerts somehow sold out even before the tickets were released, and scarcely a month went by without him on the covers of this or that celebrity gossip rag. By all reasonable standards of measure, he was the thing.

Problem was. He had no idea how to play the instruments he was ostensibly performing. Worse, all attempts to learn were actively discouraged by means of busy scheduling and public imagery. He could not be seen (or worse, heard) practicing at his actual skill levels, and he was at all times surrounded by people whose approval his career needed. The one time he actually found time to practice, he was walked in on by accident, and had to do some fast talking (and startled autograph signage) in order to cover up the whole ordeal. At no point did he actually have an opportunity to learn the things he was supposed to know.

Every month, he received more awards and more notoriety, and every month, he became more and more disconcerted by the whole thing. He contemplated just telling everyone, honesty being a virtue, but his manager had an uncanny knack of reminding him of the positive impact he had on youngsters everywhere. There even was a special pile of letters, from people contemplating suicide but changing their mind after listening to this or that song. It had accumulated to quite a pile.

A predicament it was indeed.

Life lesson: lemons

“When life gives you lemons” he thought, not having the best of days. The universe, for some reason picking up on this thought, did something it does not often do. It Intervened.

Being the universe, it did it in an unexpectedly direct way. It simply gave him a lemon, right there and then. And then another one. Because “lemon” isn’t “lemons”, after all.

As with all cosmic laws, the fine print rules supreme. The intention had been to give him a couple (as in, two) lemons, and then be done with it. Laws being laws and the legislative process being the legislative process, this intention didn’t survive the translation to fine print. So what started out as two lemons turned into lemons, plural, without any particular upper limit.

Which, for our protagonist, turned into lemons. Every time he thought about them. Which he did, since he was surrounded by lemons at all times, due to constantly thinking about them.

Do not wish for lemons. Be glad life does not give you lemons. Avoid thinking about lemons. Avoid lemons.

Have a lemon.

The last line of defense

The prime minister had enemies. Lots of enemies. Powerful enemies. Dangerous enemies. Enemies that could and would go the distance. The kinds of enemies that are not your friends.

But as Plato said: it is not your friends that teaches you to build high walls.

So he built the best wall of them all.

He named his successor, in no uncertain terms, and declared that if anything untoward were to happen, the successor would step in, effective immediately, with full ministerial authority. Which, to be sure, is how it usually goes, but know this: the appointed successor was the kind of person no one wanted in charge of anything, at all, ever, at any point in time. No one.

Including the aforementioned enemies.

Over the next few months, things changed. The prime minister at one point discovered his health care plan had been upgraded. The meals he ate at state functions and lobby lunches became five notches healthier. Every gym, spa and retreat found indirect ways of letting him know that his future payments would default to “on the house”. And somehow, by some feat of magic, there always seemed to be an available seat whenever he rode public transit.

Things improved. In many subtle ways.

Sometimes, the best defense is a good enemy.

A deal too good to be reused

Over the years, many have tried to game the system. The most notable examples – that is, there are more than one who have tried this – are those who sold 49.9% of their soul to the devil. Their reasoning was as follows: if Robert Johnson could sell his soul for an ungodly ability to play the blues, there should be room for negotiation.

After all, most people don’t need an ungodly ability, and could do very well with just a modest increase in skill level. And the devil, in a similar motion, could do more with just about half a soul than no soul.

Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, as the ancient saying goes, the devil is in the details.

So this one person sold 49.9% of his soul for the ability to summon musical instruments at will. The devil obliged, but left in this caveat: the only instruments summoned would be of the kind the summoner couldn’t play. Even with practice.

Another person tried the same deal, and found himself being able to cook the best pasta of the lands. The caveat? He’d forever be distracted from eating it for just long enough for it to become slightly too cold.

Another person tried to get ahead in television. The caveat? She would forever be casted to successful TV series that ended after one season.

Another person wanted to become Twitter famous. Turns out there are more than ten thousand bots out there. Twenty, thirty, forty thousand. And they like to talk.

So if you ever find yourself thinking about going out to the crossroads around midnight and wait for that opportunity to game the system – don’t. The system knows what you are doing, and knows how to counter it.

In detail.