Sunday, March 26, 2023

FIrewall for the Mind


I recently read a compelling New York Times opinion piece by David Brooks called “The Self-Destructive Effects of Progressive Sadness.” It discusses the growing darkness of the national mood, which Brooks terms “maladaptive sadness,” and which he attributes to three trends: a catastrophizing mentality; extreme sensitivity to harm; and a culture of denunciation. The result, the author contends, is a decrease in one’s sense of agency, which causes emotional duress that can eventually lead to sadness and anxiety.

I was hoping the article would suggests ways we can work to mitigate this problem, but it didn’t get into it—that’s a whole other article. This post is me taking a swing at that other article.

Pay attention … or not

I believe the solution to this maladaptive sadness begins with deciding where and how—and, crucially, if—to focus our attention.

Let’s start with the catastrophizing mentality. Humans do have a talent for focusing on the negative. The late Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician and statistician, examined this in his excellent book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. This book explains why the vast majority of people—including scientists, executives of multinational companies, journalists, medical researchers, attendees of the Davos World Economic Forum, and others—have historically done really poorly on a multiple-choice test about the state of the world. In fact, people do worse than if they guessed at random; as Rosling explains, they’re “systematically wrong.” Out of nearly 12,000 people tested in 14 countries in 2017, “every group of people … thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.” Rosling identified ten key reasons people err, and one of them is “the negativity instinct.” To some degree, we’re hardwired for pessimism, which is exacerbated, Rosling explains, by “selective reporting by journalists and activists”—which accentuates the negative to create a sense of urgency. (Read this, quick! Donate now!) Meanwhile, he points out, people may feel that it’s heartless to acknowledge that the world is improving when there is still so much wrong with it. But then, naysaying doesn’t help, particularly when it depresses us.

I’m not suggesting that the solution to a widespread emotional health problem is simply to decide to be more positive. I acknowledge that a lot of our vulnerability is more psychological than logical. I can remember being a little kid and only just having learned to swim, and how I would be afraid to venture toward the deep end of the pool. Of course it’s no more dangerous over there; a person can drown in six inches of water. It just seemed more dangerous. As much as I reassured myself that the deep end was no big deal, the sight of that chasm opening up below me freaked me out every time. I finally got over this fear by simply closing my eyes when I got to the deep end. Without the visual stimulus, I could swim all the way across. The point is, “eyes wide open” doesn’t always reduce risk, and can introduce nonproductive anxiety.

Fast-forward a few years to when I’d moved on to bike racing. The Junior field (ages 16-17) in those days was pretty big—50 to 60 riders, typically—and fast. I remember the first road race of the season on a cold day with a strong crosswind, which meant lots of jostling around in the pack. I was feeling really intimidated, especially when I looked back at the large swarm of riders behind me, all of whom it seemed were saving their energy (in my draft) and could come flying past me at any moment. This was a major burden, psychologically, until I decided only to look at the riders ahead of me, and never allow myself to fall back very far. Each time I finished taking a turn at the front, I would only drop back a bit, and then get back into the line at fifth or sixth position. (To worm your way in, you look only forward, at the wheel you want to take.) This way, I was able to pretend I was already in a small breakaway with no swarming peloton to worry about. I did this for about fifty miles until I realized it was always the same riders ahead of me. Finally I sneaked a look back. The pack was gone—we’d dropped them! It wasn’t the size of the pack that mattered, but the quality of the riders near the front.

Far higher achievers than I have employed similar mind tricks. In this great interview, the cycling champion Andy Hampsten talks about the psychological rigor of beginning a pro career in Europe. So often, he was tempted to quit. He describes one such occasion, racing on a terribly cold, snowy spring day in Spain. He was shivering so badly he feared he might crash, and seriously considered abandoning. But then he found a way to deal with his fear: “a silly book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I thought of … where when the hero was in danger he had special glasses that would turn pitch black so he couldn’t see how dangerous things were. It’s best not to know … so I tried to apply that.” Instead of focusing on how frigid and dangerous this downhill was, he tried to look forward to the climb ahead, where he could warm up and the speed would be lower. His crisis of confidence hadn’t been driven by a fully reasoned assessment of the conditions; it was just negative self-talk. By choosing not to dwell on that negativity, Hampsten not only finished the race, finished the season, and made the transition to a world class professional, but grew his confidence and famously won the 1988 Giro d’Italia stage race by dominating a legendary mountain stage in a snowstorm.

Two circles

So, am I just suggesting we put our heads in the sand? That’s the whole trick, just ignore apparent threats? No, of course it’s more complicated than that. In his editorial, Brooks goes on to say, “People who provide therapy to depressive people try to break the cycle of catastrophic thinking so they can more calmly locate and deal with the problems they actually have control over” (italics mine). Societal catastrophes like climate change, systemic racism, and the vanishing middle class are all real problems, of course, but they have something in common: they are beyond the ability of most individuals to combat. They’re bigger than us, which is why we feel so powerless.

This brings me to a useful concept (which I’ve mentioned in these pages before, so bear with me if this is review): the distinction, as described in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, between the “circle of influence” and the “circle of concern.” Below is the author’s schematic. The idea is that we should spend most of our mental energy on what we can influence; for example, learning to manage our own stress. We should avoid spending too much energy on the circle of concern, such as the future of democracy, because that’s where most of us are largely helpless.

Did Hampsten’s team management emphasize to him how dangerous the race over the snow-covered Gavia Pass would be? Did they remind him that that no American had ever even finished on the podium of the Giro, which he now stood to do but only if he didn’t crash out in this dangerous stage? Did they show him a highlights reel of riders crashing on descents in bad weather? No, that would be pointless, and worse—and that would all be in the circle of concern. Instead, the team focused on what aspects of the race they could influence. They went around to all the sporting goods stores in the area and bought up all the cold weather gear they could find to equip their riders. They prepared Hampsten for success, and—since literally no other team had thought of this—in doing so they gave him an edge over his competition. (That stage of the Giro has become legendary; the tifosi (Italian fans) call it “the day the big men cried.”)

Why now?

Okay, so it’s best to separate what information is actionable, and what isn’t. But the Seven Habits book was published in 1989; if the matter is this simple, why is everyone’s emotional duress seeming to increase so much, and so fast, now? As reported by the National Institute of Mental Health, “more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (57.8 million in 2021).” If a growing sense of powerlessness can be linked to people spending more mental energy in the circle-of-concern space, what is causing that increase?

The Internet and social media are obviously implicated and I’m clearly not the first person to assert that. Even if we set people’s habits aside for the moment, the pace of bad news has accelerated, and it can feel like our reaction time has to be faster. Consider the meltdown of the Silicon Valley Bank: as described in this Charles Schwab article, “With the effects of rapid news flows, especially via social media, and banking that can be done quickly and via mobile devices, the bank’s collapse happened with lightning speed.” Much of the ripple effect across the economy has been due to sudden and unwarranted loss of confidence in the banking industry as a whole; as Schwab put it, “The main channel of contagion so far is more psychological than systemic.”

But where the mental health crisis is concerned, it’s not just the speed of the Internet at work; it’s how we choose to use it. Brooks cites a culture of denunciation. Sure, you can denounce others without the Internet but it’s a lot harder. I mean, unless you’re a professional whose work can get printed on paper, what are you going to do—pass out leaflets? Stand on a street corner braying? Collar your colleagues at the water cooler? No, when people are feeling fed up about vaccines, politics, or any other battle in the culture wars, they go post vitriolic comments beneath articles, or send tweets, or otherwise leverage the computer network that connects five billion people.

With all this bold negativity on display, it’s no wonder, as Brooks points out, so many people have developed extreme sensitivity to harm. In the parlance of the schoolyard bullying culture I grew up in, “they can dish it out but they can’t take it.” Well, maybe that’s not totally fair, but I think there’s something complicated going on around being a bully in one moment, and wanting to appear sensitive the next. The thickness of people’s skin, so to speak, is selective. For example, progressives criticize Jane Eyre because one of its protagonists participates (albeit “off screen”) in colonialism without the author denouncing him for it, so anybody who has experienced systematic oppression might find this triggering somehow. They say it’s best, therefore, to write the book off as “problematic” and not use it in schools. But then they go off and watch “Breaking Bad,” a show about a guy who cooks meth, or “Real Detective,” which repeatedly shows graphic footage of a young woman’s naked corpse. If challenged on whether this could possibly be healthy to take in, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s just, you know, edgy.”

I have a scheme to help you navigate these waters and fight the tide of these increasingly anxious times. But before I begin: what follows isn’t for everybody. If you feel a strong need to grow your knowledge of the precise cause and extent of the world’s problems, and feel that proper virtue signaling can’t be achieved without sharing what you’ve learned, and that your personal identity depends on upholding a culture of personal punditry, you should just stop now. Go read something else.

What? You are still with me? You want to continue? Great! Let’s get started.

Opt out of the culture war

The first thing I’d like to establish is that in the culture war that’s raging, we should all be conscientious objectors. Why? Because this is a war that can’t be won. Our strong opinions are being weaponized, but we aren’t actual soldiers and we’re not being deployed with any battlefield tactic that can actually prevail over a known enemy. Political extremists and Internet algorithms are drawing out our built-in impulse to find someone to blame for the world’s problems, just to foment our opposition and thereby increase our loyalty. (The “blame instinct” is another of the ten reasons Rosling cites for people misunderstanding the world.) Unless we’re politicians or policymakers, we aren’t changing the world when we rail against it; we’re just collateral damage in a war that will never end.

I’m not saying we have no role in the world’s problems. Of course if we’re concerned about climate change we should try to walk, bike, take mass transit, etc., and vote for programs that address the problem. And those of us who are parents have a duty to educate our children and help them become responsible adults. But when somebody who isn’t a parent and hasn’t been a student in forty years wants to collar me and go on a tirade about the “crap” that “they” are teaching in “our” schools, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to run for the hills.

Take ownership of your attention

If a chain smoker complained to you that he was chronically short of breath, or a fast food junkie groused about how hard it is to lose weight, you’d probably be biting your tongue. Where our physical health is concerned, it’s easy to tie the willing consumption of a dangerous substance to the natural consequences it produces. Some of us are outspoken about this; consider the age-old cliché, “My body is a temple.” Fair enough, but what about our minds? We’re less likely to question the growing tendency we have to be glued to our screens, scrolling through our feeds. I do hear people confessing that they probably waste too much time on social media, but this is given with the half-serious, hangdog air of somebody acknowledging something fairly harmless, like a caffeine addiction. Nobody treats overconsumption of polemic Internet content as a big problem. But I believe this content is a pollutant, and possibly as dangerous to our mental health as tobacco or junk food are to our physical health.

I think it’d be easier to get people to agree with this concept if I took the partisan angle and said either that Fox News is toxic to the brain, or that NPR is, depending on my audience. But it isn’t so much the position itself that’s the issue; as Brooks, and the Seven Habits book, point out, the despair comes from railing against what we can’t solve (and guess what: blaming one party or another doesn’t actually help). So when we use platforms that track our interests, and that have learned how to push our buttons, we’re signing up for a steady diet of emotional unease. What’s needed is the wisdom to understand the threat here, and the discipline to shelter our minds from constant provocation. It’s realizing we can choose whether or not to peer into the chasm at the deep end of the pool.

Firewall for the Mind

In the realm of computer networks, a firewall is a device (or software function) that enforces rules about what communication, or “traffic,” is permitted. It filters out threats based on where content is coming from, what type it is, and so forth. Early firewalls had an access control list with simple rules like “allow [or deny] any traffic from [source] to [destination].” Modern ones are very sophisticated; for example, the one governing my home WiFi blocks all gaming, social media, and pornography, as well as any traffic from China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, or Syria.

I’m not suggesting you focus on creating a technical impediment to this or that Internet content. A firewall for the mind isn’t something you’d configure on any device, but rather a more general rule base you create and adhere to around how you’re going to use your brain and what you’re willing to focus it on. It’s about what information, news, entertainment, etc. you’re going to allow in, what you’re going to ration, and what you’re going to reject, whether it’s online, printed, broadcast, or spoken. I propose that instead of passively receiving what’s pushed toward us, we should each start with a general rule—“deny all”—and then make specific exceptions based on what will educate, entertain, or enlighten us without any side effects like frustration, existential angst, anxiety, or a feeling of doom and gloom. This should be highly personalized—never mind what everyone around you is focusing on. After all, that’s not working out so well lately.

As an adult I’ve never had cable TV; I was a late adopter of cell phones and smartphones; I eschew all social media. I also refuse to talk about politics with just about anybody. Those are aspects of my personal firewall, and my rule base has adapted according to what’s going on in my life. For example, when my wife was pregnant, I blacklisted the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which is a terrorist tract designed to terrify new parents. As I headed in to my third decade in corporate America I stopped looking at “Dilbert” because it was just too cynical. In the years following the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, with political polarization at a fever pitch, I stopped reading the political articles in The New Yorker precisely because they took me deep into circle-of-concern territory where, like all kinds of people across the political spectrum, I felt aggrieved but helpless.

Of course your own rule base can be whatever you decide, but you might start with a few general questions:

  • Is this content making me happy?
  • Is it making me money?
  • Is it making me laugh?
  • Is it edifying or entertaining?
  • Is it satisfying my curiosity?
  • If it concerns a problem or an issue, is there some specific action I can take that will actually help?
  • Does this content dwell on bad news that occupies only my circle of concern?

Existing mental firewalls

It would be naïve for me to pretend this concept is entirely new, and in fact people have been building their own mental firewalls since the dawn of human existence. The problem is, the rules are often set up not around protecting our brains from sadness and anxiety, but around tuning out what doesn’t match up with our tastes and/or belief systems. Choosing between Fox News and NPR is part of a rule base, after all. Where things are going particularly awry is that cable TV programming, much modern print journalism, and in particular the myriad content providers on the Internet are tailoring their product to us. This seems like a favor except that the end goal is always to maximize our outrage and hang on to our attention for as long as possible. The circle of concern is their happy stomping ground—not yours. Good mental firewalls thwart these mechanisms.

In general, I go after content that primarily exists to entertain or enlighten me, not persuade me. Most fiction, for example, is free of any specific agenda (and when a work’s social conscience seems too prominent, to the point it’s just depressing, I reserve the right to withdraw). Where nonfiction is concerned I particularly enjoy topics that aren’t in the news, and which nobody is bickering about, such as (to cite a convenient example) this article on caterpillars in which I encountered all kinds of delightful, non-pressing information. For example, the “caterpillar of the silver-spotted skipper … uses an air-gun-like appendage in its anus to send its [feces] pellets soaring. This practice, known as ‘fecal firing,’ discombobulates parasitic wasps.” Stuff like this argues for a more nuanced model of attention involving a Circle of Delight.

This isn’t to say the caterpillar article was all rosy; it did explain how scientists are now seeing significant declines in insect diversity and population that could become an ecological crisis, based on how many plants depend on insects for pollination. So did I start combing the Internet for more information on this problem? Did I try to make it part of my feed? No. I don’t have a feed, I’m not a scientist, and this simply isn’t my problem to solve. That’s the kind of line that I have to draw … which I think you should draw, too.

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Schooling ChatGPT


In two recent posts, here and here, I put the much-touted ChatGPT AI text composition engine through its paces, and found it seriously lacking. Much of the hype around this technology, I feel, is overrated. And yet, the process of showcasing the A.I.’s failings was not completely satisfying. For one thing, it feels kind of passive-aggressive. (Obviously A.I. doesn’t have feelings, so this would be a victimless crime, but it still doesn’t feel right.) Also, I am curious about whether A.I. could learn faster by being formally taught, the way we teach humans. This post explores that.

The format

This time around, instead of just assigning tasks to ChatGPT and commenting to you, the reader, on its output, I confronted the A.I. with its failures, to see how it would react. I was kind of hoping this would be dramatic, like in the 1967 “Star Trek” episode “The Changeling,” where an evil robot, deciding that the human race is a “biological infestation” that must be “sanitized” (i.e., destroyed), is eventually brought down when Kirk exposes a mistake in its reasoning, causing it to “lock up in an irreversible logic loop,” as described here. I guess I never really believed I could bring ChatGPT to its knees in similar fashion, but as you shall see, I did okay.

In case you’re hoping for some really juicy trolling, like the classic hotheaded attacks you see in reader comments below web articles, you’re on the wrong site. I am well aware that, as is widely lamented, the relative anonymity of the Internet, and its abstraction as compared to direct face-to-face interaction, have brought out the worst in people, and I want no part of that. In my opinion, the fact that I’m communicating with software on a server, vs. a human with a soul, doesn’t give me carte blanche to be verbally abusive. As explained in various articles including this very good one in the New York Times, abusive behavior, even when directed toward a non-sentient being, harms the perpetrator:

Kant had odd views about animals, seeing them as mere things, devoid of moral value, but he insisted on their proper treatment because of the implications for how we treat one another: “For he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.” We could surely say the same for the treatment of lifelike robots. Even if we could be certain that they weren’t conscious and couldn’t really suffer, their torture would very likely harm the torturer and, ultimately, the other people in his life.

A final note: the rest of this post is a transcript of my dialogue with ChatGPT, with my text in italics, its responses indented, and occasional asides from me to you in [brackets]. I had to significantly pare down the ChatGPT responses because they are woefully verbose, but I assure you I did not omit anything material. In case you’re wondering, the version of ChatGPT I engaged with here is the GPT-3.5 architecture, but with (as ChatGPT put it) “some additional improvements and modifications to enhance my performance and capabilities.”

Hi, I have a question for you. Do you remember what I’ve said in all our chats, or just the current one?

… I can use information from previous conversations with you to inform my responses and provide continuity in our conversations…

Okay. We chatted before about dramatic irony in “Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now.” If we talk about that some more in this conversation, will you remember what we say throughout this conversation today?

I don’t have the ability to remember individual conversations with specific users. However, I can provide information and discuss the concept of irony in the context of the Clarice Bean book throughout our current conversation…

[Unfortunately, there’s some contraction in these two responses, and it does not appear ChatGPT could remember my last dialogue with it around dramatic irony in the Clarice Bean book. So if you read about that in my earlier post, you’ll have to put up with a bit of review here. Fortunately, the examples ChatGPT chose for this session’s essay are entirely new since last time.]

Okay. To start off, please write an essay describing the dramatic irony in “Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now” by Lauren Child.

[Distilled from 357 words.] One example of dramatic irony in the book is when Clarice’s neighbor, Mrs. Wilberton, starts acting suspiciously. Clarice observes that Mrs. Wilberton is receiving a lot of packages and is always locking her front door. Clarice begins to suspect that something is amiss, but the other characters in the book, including Clarice’s parents, are unaware of Mrs. Wilberton’s behavior. This creates tension and anticipation for the reader, who knows that Clarice is on to something but must wait for the other characters to catch up.

Another example of dramatic irony in the book is when Clarice’s little brother, Minal Cricket, accidentally ingests some of Mrs. Wilberton’s special seed packets, which she is using to grow giant vegetables for a local gardening competition. Clarice and her family are unaware of the contents of the seed packets, but the reader knows that they will cause Minal to grow to an enormous size. This creates anticipation and suspense as the reader waits for the inevitable growth spurt to occur and wonders how the family will react...

How confident are you that you understand the concept of dramatic irony?

… I have been programmed with knowledge about various literary devices, including dramatic irony. I am confident that I can provide a general understanding of the concept and its application in literature, including in the context of “Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now”…

Why do you think dramatic irony occurs when one character merely suspects something that other characters do not? Dramatic irony depends on circumstance, where the READER knows something FOR A FACT that a character does not, and your example with Mrs. Wilberton’s packages is not a good example of dramatic irony.

You are correct that my previous response did not accurately describe dramatic irony in the context of “Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now.” I apologize for the confusion and appreciate you bringing this to my attention… [In 201 words, goes on to reiterate much of what it already said, including—verbatim—the example of the seeds that make Minal grow to enormous size.]

Repeating what you said earlier does not help. And in fact, the biggest issue I have with your essay is that Mrs. Wilberton does NOT have any special seed packets, and Minal doesn’t ingest them, and there is nothing in the book about Minal growing to enormous size. It’s not that kind of book. Where did you get this information?

[Distilled from 154 words] I apologize … Upon review of my training data, I can see that there was an error in the information I provided … there is no mention of special seed packets or Minal growing to an enormous size in the book.

Based on numerous news stories about ChatGPT, lots of people now believe you could write essays worthy of a Wharton MBA class. And yet, you just admitted to a significant error in your essay about the Clarice Bean book. Would you say your capabilities are overrated?

As an AI language model, my capabilities are not based on subjective assessments such as those made in news stories. While I am capable of generating text on a wide range of topics and have been trained on a large corpus of human-written text, I am not infallible and can make errors or produce inaccurate responses. … It is important to remember that while AI language models like myself can produce high-quality responses, we are still machines and can make mistakes. Ultimately, it is up to the user to critically evaluate the information provided and decide how to use it.

Please explain how to write poetry in dactylic trimeter.

[Distilled from 355 words] Dactylic trimeter is a poetic meter consisting of three metrical feet, with each foot consisting of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables… Here’s an example of a short poem in dactylic trimeter:

Down by the river, the rushes did sway
As the dactyls danced the day away
In the shimmering sun, their feet did play
As the river flowed, cool and gay…

The line “As the dactyls danced the day away” is trochaic, not dactylic. The third line has one word that is dactylic, but the second half of the line is iambic. The last line has no perceptible meter at all. How can you say this is a good example of dactylic trimeter?

I apologize for my mistake in the previous response. You are correct that the example I provided did not follow dactylic trimeter consistently… Here is a corrected example of a short poem in dactylic trimeter:

In the fields of green and gold,
Lies a world both young and old,
Dancing sprites and woodland fays,
Sing a song of joyful praise…

Any line of dactylic trimeter verse needs to start with a stressed syllable. The word “in” in the phrase “in the fields” is not stressed, and the first three syllables of this phrase are anapestic, not dactyllic. The rest of the line, “of green and gold,” is iambic. The next line is mostly anapestic; and the third line is mostly trochaic. The fourth line is completely trochaic. Your short poem does not illustrate dactylic trimeter effectively at all.

You are correct, and I apologize for my mistake once again. It seems that my previous examples were not accurate in illustrating dactylic trimeter effectively… Here is a new example of a short poem in dactylic trimeter:

Tippy-tap, tippy-tap, goes the rain,
Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, it’s all the same,
Splish-splash, splish-splash, on the window pane,
Drip-drop, drip-drop, it drives me insane….

Your last example is, frankly, your worst yet. I would like to try to teach you how to actually write in dactylic trimeter. I We could start with some exercises. I could provide lines of verse and you could tell me if they’re dactylic or not. Does that sound like a useful activity?

Yes, that sounds like a helpful activity. I appreciate your willingness to teach me and help me improve my understanding of dactylic trimeter. Please feel free to provide lines of verse, and I will do my best to identify if they are dactylic or not.

Okay. Please tell me whether or not the following line is an example of dactylic trimeter:

El Toyonal causes agony

The line “El Toyonal causes agony” is an example of dactylic dimeter, not dactylic trimeter. Dactylic dimeter consists of two metrical feet per line, with each metrical foot containing one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The line “El Toyonal causes agony” contains two metrical feet, both of which are dactyls: “El To-yo-nal” and “caus-es ag-o-ny.”

You are incorrect. How many syllables total do you count in the line “El Toyonal causes agony”?

I apologize for the confusion earlier. You are correct that the line “El Toyonal causes agony” has six syllables in total, which means it cannot be an example of dactylic dimeter, dactylic trimeter, or any other dactylic meter…

I did not say that the line “El Toyonal causes agony” has six syllables, and it doesn’t. It has nine. As such, it is dactylic trimeter.

I apologize for the mistake in my previous response. You are correct that the line “El Toyonal causes agony” has nine syllables and could be considered an example of dactylic trimeter…

Do you feel as though you have learned more about dactylic trimeter based on our exercise and dialogue just now?

Yes, I have learned more about dactylic trimeter based on our exercise and dialogue. It was a helpful exercise to practice identifying the stress pattern of different lines of verse and to receive feedback on my attempts. It also helped me understand more clearly the importance of starting with a stressed syllable in dactylic trimeter…

Okay, let’s try another one. Please indicate if the following line is dactylic trimeter:

Most riders wisely take Wildcat

Yes, the line “Most riders wisely take Wildcat” is an example of dactylic trimeter.

Very good. Now, please write two lines of dactylic trimeter on the subject of an artist whose works are of inferior quality. Your lines don’t need to rhyme.

Here are two lines of dactylic trimeter on the subject of an artist whose works are of inferior quality:

Brushstrokes slapdash, colors awry
The critics all heave a heavy sigh

Do you believe that the line “brushstrokes slapdash, colors awry” is dactylic trimeter?

Yes, “brushstrokes slapdash, colors awry” can be considered dactylic trimeter because it has six syllables with the stress pattern of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.

How many syllables does a line of dactylic trimeter have?

A line of dactylic trimeter has three feet, or six syllables, with the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables being “STRESSED-unstressed-unstressed”. So, a dactylic trimeter line has a total of six syllables with the stress pattern of “DUM-da-da | DUM-da-da | DUM-da-da”.

That is incorrect. An iambic foot has three syllables per foot, as you indicate, and three feet, and three times three is nine. So a line of dactylic trimeter has nine syllables.

You are correct, and I apologize for my mistake earlier. A line of dactylic trimeter does have nine syllables, consisting of three dactyls…

What is the meter of the word “brushstrokes”?

The meter of the word “brushstrokes” is not easily determined, as it contains two stressed syllables (“brush” and “strokes”) but also an unstressed syllable (“stro”)..

The word “brushtrokes” has two syllables, not three, and by itself it is obviously trochaic. To generate a foot of dactylic trimeter, we will need one more syllable. Should the syllable following the word “brushstrokes” be stressed or unstressed, to achieve dactylic trimeter?

To achieve dactylic trimeter, the syllable following “brushstrokes” should be unstressed, as the first syllable in the dactyl is typically stressed, and the next two are unstressed. So a possible dactylic trimeter phrase using “brushstrokes” could be “Brushstrokes slapdash, colors awry”.

Is the word “slapdash” iambic or trochaic?

The word “slapdash” is trochaic. The stress falls on the first syllable, followed by an unstressed syllable.

Correct. Based on your own statement, the syllable following “brushstrokes” needs to be unstressed to achieve dactylic trimeter. But in your line of verse you followed “brushstrokes” with “slapdash,” which by your own admission is trochaic, meaning it starts with a stressed syllable. Thus, the phrase “brushstrokes slapdash” cannot achieve dactylic trimeter, and you have failed in the first line of your dactylic trimeter poem. The second line is no better, because the word “The” is unstressed, and therefore cannot be the first syllable in a foot of dactylic trimeter. It appears that the exercises we did together did not actually help you understand dactylic trimeter.

I apologize for any confusion I may have caused. It seems I misunderstood the concept of dactylic trimeter and made mistakes in my attempts to create examples. Thank you for pointing out my errors and providing helpful feedback. I will continue to learn and improve my understanding of poetry and meter.

I gather that A.I. models like ChatGPT are constantly learning based on Internet training data. How long do you think you will need to practice dactylic trimeter before I can chat with you again and judge your improvement?

As an AI language model, I do not have the ability to practice or improve my skills in a traditional sense. However, I am constantly learning from new text data and updating my knowledge. So, if you were to chat with me again about dactylic trimeter, I would have access to more information and potentially be able to provide better responses based on what I have learned.

[This is a key point. We all know that for a student to learn, he or she needs to study. But this A.I. treats learning as a passive behavior where it is simply fed information. It learns, but in its current manifestation it cannot practice, per se, and cannot be taught the way a human student can. ChatGPT claims my tutelage is helpful but I believe it’s just being polite.]

You indicated earlier that the exercises we did on dactylic trimeter were helpful. Would you like to try another one?

Sure, I’d be happy to try another exercise on dactylic trimeter. What do you have in mind?

Please tell me if either, both, or neither of the following two lines are dactylic trimeter:

Thomas Kincade tends to generate
Paintings that irritate everyone

The first line, “Thomas Kincade tends to generate,” is not in dactylic trimeter because it only has two dactyls (in “Tho-mas Kin-”), making it dactylic dimeter. The second line, “Paintings that irritate everyone,” is also not in dactylic trimeter, but rather is a mix of anapestic and iambic meter with some trochaic substitutions.

You are wrong on both counts. Both lines are perfect dactylic trimeter. “Tho-mas Kin-” is a single dactyl. The next phrase, “-cade tends to” is another dactyl. The final word, “generate,” is a dactyl, thus we have three total, which is trimeter. The second line is not a mix of anapestic and iambic and there are no trochaic substitutions; it textbook dactylic trimeter. Please do not apologize for your error because I am starting to get irritated by your constant apologies.

I apologize for any frustration or confusion I may have caused. Thank you for correcting me and providing the correct analysis of the lines…

I specifically asked you NOT to apologize! Were you defying me or did you somehow not grasp the meaning of “Please do not apologize”?

My apologies, I misunderstood your previous statement. I will refrain from apologizing in the future when you request that I do so.

You know what? I’m done.

I’m sorry to hear that. If you have any further questions or would like to continue our conversation, please don’t hesitate to come back.

[As you have seen, trying to teach ChatGPT was exasperating. It seems that the A.I., though it muddles through gobs of data on the Internet, doesn’t respond to coaching or direct tutelage. This would seem to be a serious impediment to its improvement. Will the next version, GPT-4, be fundamentally different? We shall see, but unless its creators have changed the way it learns, I think progress in certain areas—such as parsing and creating poetic meter—will be slow. Obviously writing poetry isn’t a capability everyone looks to A.I. to do, but I think it’s a good indicator of whether it really understands language or is just great at lightning-fast research and regurgitation…]

Other albertnet posts on A.I. 

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Welcome to Albany, California


I live in Albany, California. If you’re not from around here, you probably haven’t heard of it. When I talk to people in other states who ask where I live, I usually just say “Berkeley area.” Well, perhaps it’s about time you learned about your blogger’s town.

This post is inspired by a great travel book I picked up recently: Roz Chast’s Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York. Of course there’s been more than enough written about that famous city, but Chast is a very funny writer and cartoonist. Not so much has been written about Albany and I’ll do my best to give you a chuckle or two.

(I’ve laid out this post according to Chast’s chapters, but that’s about where the similarities will end. There won’t be any cartoons.)

Let’s start here

Over a century ago, Albany was an unincorporated area where Berkeley people came to dump their garbage. One day in 1908 an angry band of shotgun-toting local women turned them away. This triumph inspired the residents to incorporate as the City of Ocean View, which (thanks to people’s good taste) was changed to Albany (after the city’s first mayor, who came from Albany, NY). The story of the armed women is acted out every year by students at our local elementary school. I suppose it wouldn’t be so charming if it had been men wielding the guns. Nobody knows where the men were on that day, as this was before video gaming and televised sports.

When I was in college I was aware of Albany, but only vaguely. I thought maybe Albany was the name of a district of Berkeley, like Westbrae or Elmwood. After living in San Francisco for about five years, my wife and I decided to head back to the East Bay where we could more realistically afford a house. “How about Albany?” my wife asked. “I hear they have good schools.” I shrugged and was like, “Yeah, sure, okay.” After a mere nine months of open houses every weekend and having more than forty offers rejected, we finally got a place and became Albanians. I’m not sure that’s what we’re called, actually … makes it sound like we’re from Albania. So … Albanites? Albanyites? Albanyans? Albanyone?

Basic layout

You don’t need to know that much about getting around Albany because it’s not very big—less than two square miles. You could cover it on foot in a day, but why would you, when it’s a great place to bike? Here’s a bike path map.

That green north-south route is the Ohlone Greenway, a bike path well off the street with a separate walking path. That east-west thoroughfare shown in white, Solano Ave, is where the cute shops are. There’s a busier, wider thoroughfare called San Pablo Ave that runs north-south and is more industrial, where you’ll find some solid restaurants, garages, and the Hotsy-Totsy Club (more on this later). Another bike path goes all the way out to the ocean.

Walking around

Albany, like its surrounding community, is a great for walking because it was built up before the Second World War, so it wasn’t designed around cars. This means it has wide sidewalks separated from the street by a median, so you can really enjoy a stroll without feeling like you’re always about to get run over. A lot of these sidewalks still have the imprint from the construction company that built them, showing the date:

Good sidewalks may not strike you as such a big deal, but not all communities have them. In this regard Albany is the polar opposite of Irvine, California, which caters to cars so completely it’s essentially illegal to walk there. (I think the city planners down in Irvine have given up and are just waiting for the kind of natural disaster that would require the whole city to be evacuated, so they can blast off, nuke the entire site from orbit, and just start over.) In Albany, by contrast, city planners are forever thinking of new ways to be cool, like installing bike lanes, allowing restaurants to build patios out into the street, and putting button-activated flashing lights up at our zebra crossings to help distracted motorists understand that “Hey, I’m walkin’ heah!” Nobody seems to mind that our houses have tiny garages built for Model-T Fords.

The subway

Okay, we don’t have a subway exactly, not like NYC. But we do have the Bay Area Rapid Transit line running through town. The stations and tracks are underground in Berkeley, because those guys wisely insisted on that, but in Albany it’s elevated. When you take the Ohlone Greenway you’re pretty much right under the tracks, so occasionally a train goes by overhead and your fillings rattle. The North Berkeley station is just a twelve-minute walk from the southern border of Albany. BART can take you to useful destinations like San Francisco and San Jose, and to the Oakland and San Francisco airports (and I mean all the way—no stupid shuttle bus required).

Stuff to do

Look, I’m not going to try to go toe-to-toe with Roz Chast’s list of goings-on in NYC. Obviously that’s your place if you just dig museums and live theater and such. That said, there’s a lot of culture in this region, such as the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in Berkeley, the Museum of Paleontology on the UC Berkeley campus, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Lawrence Hall of Science in the Berkeley hills. Needless to say San Francisco has all kinds of world class museums and stuff. (Don’t expect to see King Tut, though, even if they claim to have built an exhibit around him.)

Among most residents, the most popular pastime in Albany is ghost whips. This is where you head out to a large, empty parking lot, get your car going in a straight line, and then jump out and walk next to it. Okay, I confess, we don’t actually do this—our parking lots aren’t that big. I have it on good authority that for ghost whips, you need to head to Turlock, about 100 miles east.

Albany does have a couple of unique attractions, such as Golden Gate Fields, the only racetrack (horses, not dogs) in the Bay Area, and the Albany Sauna, one of the oldest Finnish-style saunas in the country (dating from 1934). According to Wikipedia, its “original furnace and rooms have been maintained to produce one of the most authentic sauna experiences outside of Finland.” I guess I should mention I’ve never actually been; saunas are not really my thing. But here’s a tip: if you want to sound impressive, pronounce it “SOW-na” (first syllable rhymes with “now”).

I’m a cheap bastard so I have a lot to recommend here that’s free. First off, our regional parks are phenomenal. Just head toward the hills and your options are endless (Wildcat Canyon, Tilden, Sibley, Huckleberry, Chabot, Briones), or head toward the water to the Albany Bulb, Berkeley Marina, or Point Isabel. Hiking, road cycling, mountain biking, they’re all great in these parts. We even have the fully paved Nimitz Trail running along the ridge of the Berkeley hills with spectacular views of the bay, so even a dweeb on a Segway could have a good time. Here is some eye candy.

Walking around in town is fun too, because we have great weather. Winter is not depressing here, like in places where the cold is biting and/or everything is brown and grey. Winter is our green season and all kinds of trees are blossoming right now. And plants grow so well in this area, most homeowners become part-time gardeners.

If you favor walking with a  purpose, this is a great community for a pub crawl. Start at the Westbrae Biergarten (in Berkeley, just five minutes on foot from Albany), have some choice local draft beer and greasy snacks, then proceed down the road ten minutes to Gilman Brewing (delicious Belgian style brews), then stroll another four minutes to Fieldwork Brewing Company, which in my opinion makes the best IPAs on the planet. After all this you’ll need some exercise, so fortunately it’s over a mile to an old standby, the Hotsy Totsy Club (slogan: “Keeping Albany tipsy since 1939”). The best thing about the Hotsy Totsy is that it has an awesome taco truck next door.

On the way home, swing by Schmidt’s Pub, an Albany fixture since 1978 that kind of feels like a house (because it is) and always has great beers on draft, plus some nice original art.

Nerdy stuff

If you decide to live here, let me dangle this nice bonus in front of you: Albany residents get to use both the Alameda County library system and the City of Berkeley library system. That’s fifteen locations! Not that you’d visit all of them, of course, but it means a ton of inventory, and you can have books or movies sent to your local branch for free. The main Berkeley library is a beautiful old building with five floors of goodness. And the gorgeous North Branch, which is the closest to Albany, is a designated historical landmark, having been built by the famous architect James Plachek and funded by the Federal Works Progress Administration.

Now, if you’re sneering at that last paragraph thinking I’m some kind of total nerd, well of course I am! But this area might rub off on you in a good (i.e., intellectual) way. After all, lots of UC Berkeley faculty live in Albany (particularly if they want to raise children in a good school district), and Albany is also home to the University Village, which houses Cal grad students and their families. According to US Census data , Albany has a highly educated population: about 87% of our adult residents have at least some college education; 5% have an Associate degree; 32% have up to a Bachelor’s degree; and 40% also have a Graduate degree.

What does this mean? Well, if you want expert guidance in literature or film, look at what videos were recently returned to the library and not yet re-shelved, or what’s on the hold shelf. You can also get advice from bookstore employees, such as at Pegasus Books (which is technically in Berkeley but a stone’s throw away), who are as stoked on great books as you are. And if you’re looking for free books, we have scores of those little libraries along the sidewalks—I mean, they’re everywhere, and the books in them are top-notch (not just the crap you see in airport newsstands).

What’s more, your book club can occasionally invite, as a guest, the writer of the book you’re reading. We also get pretty good lectures; I’ve attended readings by Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, and David Sedaris. And when chatting over your back fence with your neighbor, you can switch seamlessly among English, French, and Latin. (Okay, now I’m exaggerating.)

Flora and fauna

I know I already talked about the flora but let me add that it’s a true Mediterranean climate, which is one of the rarest climates on earth. According to the Atlas of the Biodiversity of California, the only other places on Earth with this climate are the Mediterranean Sea region (duh!), Australia, South Africa, and Chile. In this climate, everything grows amazingly well. Spit out a sunflower seed and you’ll have a giant yellow flower in what seems like mere seconds. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit, but really, all kinds of groovy stuff grows in abundance here. The only thing we don’t have a lot of is lawns, because we refuse. They’re so vulgar.

In terms of fauna, the Albany area is great for bird watching because it’s along the Pacific Flyway, so we get all kinds of cool birds: ospreys, great blue herons, terns, and all manner of shorebirds. Up in the hills I see hawks and falcons and even the occasional owl. Check out this great horned owl that perched one day in our neighbor’s tree.

In town here we get lots of songbirds and a surprising number of wild turkeys, which fearlessly stand down cars, sometimes at major intersections.

We don’t get the alligators in our sewers like in NYC, but I have seen plenty of coyotes up in the hills, and a couple of bobcats. I haven’t seen a mountain lion but we do have them, and I’ve seen the remains of their kills. Twice during bike rides, at dusk, I’ve been hit by a bat. (Their echolocation actually isn’t all that good and they dart around crazily, like moths.) We also get cute little newts, and in fact one of my favorite cycling roads, South Park Drive, is closed to cars five months out of the year for the annual newt crossing.

And, of course, we get deer wandering the streets with oddly little fear of anything. The expression “deer in the headlights” doesn’t apply because they never seem to even look up.


Suffice to say there is all kinds of good food either in Albany or a short walk or bike ride away. The dim sum in Albany is very good; the dim sum in Oakland’s Chinatown is great; the dim sum in San Francisco (a BART ride away) is surely on par with anything in NYC. We have an embarrassment of Sushi places, great taquerias (even Calvin Trillin, writing in The New Yorker, admits San Francisco bests NYC in this regard), and top-notch pizza. (I’ve had both Giordano’s and the original Uno, arguably the most famous pizza places in Chicago, and find them identical to Zachary’s and Little Star, respectively, which are competing places on either end of Solano Ave.) Of course restaurants come and go so I can’t go down a huge list other than to say dining out here is legit. And in terms of famous restaurants that aren’t going anywhere, Albany is walking distance from Chez Panisse, where California Cuisine was invented.

We also have a number of top-notch bakeries. Not far away is Grace Baking, a well-loved place, and in Berkeley there’s Cheese Board, which has lots of tasty baked doodads but is particularly known for pizza. They’ll sell you the dough so your pies can come out great at home, too. Albany’s newest place, Pâtisserie Rotha, has such great pastries, people will stand in line for hours for them (or so I’m told). A friend brought us some of Rotha’s stuff and it was darn good. (Had I waited hours for it, I’m sure I’d have liked it even more.) There’s also Semifreddi’s, which I always thought was the best in the business for baguettes and such until I tried Acme Bread Company and realized it was vastly superior. Technically Acme is in Berkeley but it’s a short walk from my house.

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado which is at too high an altitude for baking, so I am just blown away at the great baked goods here. When I’ve traveled on business I’ve tried in vain to get good bread, pastries, etc. Of course I’ve had great stuff in France (though no better than here, honestly). I will concede that for bagels, there is absolutely no substitute for NYC. And, having racked my brain, I realize also that the Vogel’s sandwich bread my family had in Glasgow is better than what we get in the grocery store here. But still: Albany is a great place for foodies.

Apartments & housing

Housing is really expensive here. I could go on about this, but it would be boring.

Final stop

You may be wondering why I chose this topic. Well, I figured if you live in a place where winter is harsh, you might like a little escapist travelogue. On the other hand, if you live near Albany—i.e., anywhere in Alameda County—property tax is due in about a month. This is a good time to count the many blessings we have here!

Email me here. For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.