Discover more from Thought Shrapnel
💥Thought Shrapnel newsletter #449
Cosplaying adulthood, avoiding the glitches, and using AI for historical research
💥 Best of Thought Shrapnel
Wise words from Seth Godin. It’s a twist on the advice to stop doing things that maybe used to work but don’t any more. The ‘glitch’ he’s talking about here isn’t just in terms of what might not be working for you or your organisation, but for society and humanity as a whole.
Many moths are attracted to light. That works fine when it’s a bright moon and an open field, but not so well for the moths if the light was set up as a bug trap.
Processionary caterpillars follow the one in front until their destination, even if they’re arranged in a circle, leading them to march until exhaustion.
It might be that you have built a system for your success that works much of the time, but there’s a glitch in it that lets you down. Or it might be that we live in a culture that creates wealth and possibility, but glitches when it fails to provide opportunity to others or leaves a mess in our front yards.
Source: Finding the glitch | Seth’s Blog
Image: DALL-E 3
I’m currently studying towards an MSc in Systems Thinking and earlier this week created a GPT to help me. I fed in all of the course materials, being careful to check the box saying that OpenAI couldn’t use it to improve their models.
It’s not perfect, but it’s really useful. Given the extra context, ChatGPT can not only help me understand key concepts on the course, but help relate them more closely to the overall context.
This example would have been really useful on the MA in Modern History I studied for 20 years ago. Back then, I was in the archives with primary sources such as minutes from the meetings of Victorians discussing educational policy, and reading reports. Being able to have an LLM do everything from explain things in more detail, to guess illegible words, to (as below) creating charts from data would have been super useful.
The key thing is to avoid following the path of least resistance when it comes to thinking about generative AI. I’m referring to the tendency to see it primarily as a tool used to cheat (whether by students generating essays for their classes, or professionals automating their grading, research, or writing). Not only is this use case of AI unethical: the work just isn’t very good. In a recent post to his Substack, John Warner experimented with creating a custom GPT that was asked to emulate his columns for the Chicago Tribune. He reached the same conclusion.
The job of historians and other professional researchers and writers, it seems to me, is not to assume the worst, but to work to demonstrate clear pathways for more constructive uses of these tools. For this reason, it’s also important to be clear about the limitations of AI — and to understand that these limits are, in many cases, actually a good thing, because they allow us to adapt to the coming changes incrementally. Warner faults his custom model for outputting a version of his newspaper column filled with cliché and schmaltz. But he never tests whether a custom GPT with more limited aspirations could help writers avoid such pitfalls in their own writing. This is change more on the level of Grammarly than Hal 9000.
In other words: we shouldn’t fault the AI for being unable to write in a way that imitates us perfectly. That’s a good thing! Instead, it can give us critiques, suggest alternative ideas, and help us with research assistant-like tasks. Again, it’s about augmenting, not replacing.
I discovered this article published at The Cut while browsing Hacker News. I was immediately drawn to it, because one of the main examples it uses is ‘cosplaying’ adulthood while at kids’ sporting events.
There’s a few things to say about this, in my experience. The first is that status tends to be conferred by how good your kid is, no matter what your personality. Over and above that, personal traits — such as how funny you are — make a difference, as does how committed and logistically organised you are. And if you can’t manage that, you can always display appropriate wealth (sports kit, the car you drive). Crack all of this, and congrats! You’ve performed adulthood well.
I’m only being slightly facetious. The reason I can crack a wry smile is because it’s true, but also I don’t care that much because I’ve been through therapy. Knowing that it’s all a performance is very different to acting like any of it is important.
It’s impressive how much parents’ beliefs can seep in, especially the weird ones. As an adult, I’ve found myself often feeling out of place around my fellow parents, because parenthood, as it turns out, is a social environment where people usually want to model conventional behavior. While feeling like an interloper among the grown-ups might have felt hip and righteous in my dad’s day, it makes me feel like a tool. It does not make me feel like a “cool mom.” In the privacy of my own home, I’ve got plenty of competence, but once I’m around other parents — in particular, ones who have a take-charge attitude — I often feel as inept as a wayward teen.
The places I most reliably feel this way include: my kids’ sporting events (the other parents all seem to know each other, and they have such good sideline setups, whereas I am always sitting cross-legged on the ground absentmindedly offering my children water out of an old Sodastream bottle and toting their gear in a filthy, too-small canvas tote), parent-teacher meetings, and picking up my kids from their friends’ suburban houses with finished basements.
I’ve always assumed this was a problem unique to people who came from unconventional families, who never learned the finer points of blending in. But I’m beginning to wonder if everyone feels this way and that “the straight world,” or adulthood, as we call it nowadays, is in fact a total mirage. If we’re all cosplaying adulthood, who and where are the real adults?
Source: Adulthood Is a Mirage | The Cut
✍️ The rest of Thought Shrapnel
📚 Currently reading
Politics On The Edge by Rory Stewart (audiobook)
Everything is Obvious by Duncan J. Watts
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Slimmer pickings this week, I’m afraid! Had to set aside more time than I expected for my MSc, got lots on at work, and my wife was away for four days, meaning I had the kids to myself. I’ll probably write my weeknote for my personal blog in the car tomorrow as we’ll be sharing the driving. (We’re off to Old Trafford to watch the women’s football match between Man United and Man City.)
A heads-up that, as usual, I’ll be pausing Thought Shrapnel in December. So next week’s issue will be the last regular one of the year. I hope you’re well.
Thought Shrapnel Weekly is published by Dr. Doug Belshaw. You can connect with him by replying to this email, or via LinkedIn or the Fediverse. He’s available to hire to untangle your organisational spaghetti through WAO or Dynamic Skillset.
Many thanks to Bryan Mathers of Visual Thinkery for the Thought Shrapnel logo.
All product names, logos, and brands are property of their respective owners and are used in this newsletter are for identification purposes only.
🤘 Super-secret link to reward those who scroll to the bottom of newsletters!