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So here's the ChangingMinds Blog, from site author, David Straker. This is my more personal ramblings, though mostly about changing minds in some shape or form. Please do add your comments via the archive or the right-hand column below.  -- Dave

 


Sunday 8-January-18

But is it art? The tricky question of whether computers can be artists

Can computers, perhaps in the guise of a future artificial intelligence, be creative? Can they create something whereby many people agree that the result is true art?

The first question here is 'What is art?' Is it about the result, created by whatever means? Is it about the customer, the user, the observer? Do people have to agree something is art before we can agree that it is art? Or is it about the artist, and the process of creative thinking? And if so, does this preclude computers from ever being creative? To plunder an over-used metaphor, can there be creativity in the forest when nobody is there?

A simple definition of art (though not the only one) is of something that deliberately stimulates. This allows for art in music, cooking and other areas. It also allows for varying pleasure. While creating widespread pleasure can be profitable, others may scorn such populism and delight in anguished expression. Stimulation may be gained through representation, which can range from a simple photograph (where machines have long played a part) to a clever sculpture made with scrap-yard parts. Even in more abstract representation, if rules can be defined, then machines may create.

An extension of the question of stimulation which resonates with this site is that art changes minds. Through its provocation, it makes people think differently and maybe become different people. In such ways, art can changes lives.

A key aspect is emotion. Art stimulates feelings as reactions to a creation. This is more difficult for machines, but not impossible. While provoking some feeling is quite feasible (we are emoting creatures, after all), gaining the awe and wonder great art may be a more difficult challenge.

A further consideration is in the balance of familiarity and surprise. Representation, even in abstract terms, needs something familiar. From this base, corruption and unexpected variation grabs attention, and the art of the artist is in knowing the line between pleasure and irritation that this creates. This task is far harder for machines and is a boundary that will be hard to cross.

Jack Tait is a retired photography lecturer who builds simple machines that draw, using a careful combination of determinism and randomisation. It uses pens, driven by various motors, gears and cams. Not all drawings are good art, but he is making progress in improving the good-to-bad ratio.

There are many examples of computers doing incredible things. Perhaps one of the most astonishing of late is the story of the Go-playing supercomputer. In 2016, Google's AlphaGo Lee beat Lee Sedol, 9th Dan master, at a game that is reputed to be the greatest intellectual challenge. It did so by analyzing many, many previous games, giving it more options at its super-natural fingers. But then, only a year later, AlphaGo Zero soundly beat its predecessor with only knowledge of the basic rules of the game. Observers of the games were confused by the unorthodox moves the computer made, but were later convinced of the genius when these proved very effective.

Even given all this seems unlikely that computers will create great art any time soon, especially given the emotional sensitivity required. Yet it may come, alongside great empathy when this is cracked. When your computer understand you better than anyone, when you prefer its company and laugh uproariously at its hilarious new jokes, then maybe, only then, will it creates you amazing artworks in its spare time.


Sunday 31-December-17

The years spin by: the psychology of time perception and how our priorities change

Well that's it. 2017 done and dusted. Good stuff and bad stuff, as most years, and whether we see it as one or the other has more to do with our attitude than what actually happened. Because how we experience life and especially how we remember it is what makes our lives pleasant or not. Another common perception that is much remarked upon at this time of year is how fast time flies by. Life is like driving down a road with your foot hard down on the accelerator. Things go by faster and faster until one day, a wall pops up in front of you and that's the end of your journey. Sometimes we see the wall from a way off and sometimes it appears so quickly it is all over in a moment.

How we perceive time is kind of funny. We classically have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. We also know that there are four things in the universe: space, time, energy and matter. We can detect space, energy and matter with our senses, but what about time? We can't see, hear, taste, smell or touch it. So how do we perceive it? The answer is that it is a mental construction. We imagine it as an explanation for changing experience. Time flies when we're having fun and drags when we are bored.

So why do older people in particular complain about the speedy passage of time? One way we assess time is by comparing the time we have spend in our lives with the time we have left to live. For children, their future lives stretch infinitely outwards, while older people know that most of their lives are done and the wall could pop up any time now. This happens too to the terminally ill, who strive to make the best of the limited time left they have. If you were told you had only a month to live, what would you do? Probably something different to what you have planned (if anything) for the coming 30 days.

What is important for us changes as time goes by. When we are young, having fun is often the most important. If we are lucky, we will enjoy learning, as this pays most back in future years, though another tricky factor gets us here: the areas of the pre-frontal cortex in the brain where we imagine the future does not develop fully until we are in our early twenties. In middle age, time floats by as we are often too busy getting on with our lives with jobs, relationships, families and children. Then children leave and jobs end and our remaining years stretch out before us, fading away into a worryingly near term. In that autumn period if we are lucky enough to be self-sufficient, we may seek to do those things we could not afford or had no time for earlier in our lives. We take up new hobbies. We travel and see the world. We reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Or maybe we stare into the approaching headlights like frightened rabbits.

And so, as we stand on the brink of 2018, what will your priorities be for the year? Are you looking ahead? Imagine you are standing here a year hence, looking back. What do you want to say you have achieved? Because now is the time to look forward to the real differences you want to make. And there is one thing that you must do in order to get it: think differently. If you think how you always thought, you will get what you always got. Is that enough? No? So think again. Change your attitude, change your future.


Sunday 24-December-17

Are we sleepwalking back to an age of feudal, absolute power?

For many, many years, mankind lived by what we sometimes call 'The rule of the jungle', in which might is right and those who ruled did so strength. Up until recent centuries, kings had absolute power, as did every person of position within in a strict hierarchy. Even in families, children were 'to be seen and not heard' and women often had an inferior role.

Such power structures tend to be brutish, with harsh punishment for minor infractions, meted out with little real justice, other than that chosen by the person in charge. Positions of power at any level was often gained by what we would today consider as corrupt means, including bribery, blackmail and bullying. This gave rise to 'leaders' who managed by fear and who could be wantonly cruel at will. While some today might wish for simpler times of past ages, they would probably be horrified by the accepted practices of the day.

Along the way, often through revolution, democracy emerged as a means for the people at the bottom of the tree to control the people at the top. Now, through this distributed power, they could vote in representatives who would truly represent broad social interests and look after weaker members of society.

A problem with democracy is that it is not always wise. Like any system of trust it is open to deception and there are many who can be deceived. For those in power, feudalism can be an attractive system to not only keep their power but also to pass it on to their family and friends.

The internet came along with such promise of openness. When everyone could know everything about everyone, universal social trust seemed inevitable. Yet when those who sought to shape opinion got hold of this tool, the tail started to wag the dog. Activists who used it in repressive regimes suddenly found that the tables were turned as the authorities followed the links back to source. Then with troll farms, clickbait and deceptive tweeting, the internet turned from a tool for freedom to a means of propaganda and social control.

Where will it all end? Democracy, which reached a high water point at the turn of the millennium, seems to be fading in influence. Authoritarian rulers are on the rise through the world, even in countries that elect their leaders, and even again in the heart of the Western world. In particular, the far-right seems to be grabbing more control and working to change the system so they stay in power. Dictatorships easily arise out of democracies when the population vote for empty promises and grand, nationalist speeches. It can seem unthinkable, but history, notably in the last 100 years, is littered with instances of unwise voting leading to appalling autocracies.

It's not about whether we get a left or right government. More, it's about protecting our fragile democracies. The only way that we will avoid returning to feudal times is if people listen, think, organize and most importantly, get out and vote.   


Sunday 18-December-17

Negotiating chaos and lost trust: the price of bluff and bravado

In the recent Brexit negotiations, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May made yet another negotiating error that further weakened the British position in their bid to wiggle our of the European Union. All ready for a triumphant announcement of agreement about Northern Ireland, her parliamentary partners, the ultra-conservative DUP, scuppered her compromise agreement with the EU and Ireland about borders.

How things have changed. Back in May, she was talking tough about 'No deal is better than a bad deal' and her party was scoffing at EU demands for a massive divorce payoff. ’They need us more than we need them' was a common cry. Yet now we are offering tens of billions and conceding at every turn.

So what's up? What should we have done differently?

The first step should have been to understand realities, instead of the 'have your cake and eat it' echo chamber ideals of the hard Brexit advocates. We should have realized their experience of hundreds of years of British conquest and arrogance, and the long desire for revenge. We should also have realized their fear that conceding to UK demands would encourage other doubters. Even then, the temptation to 'divide and conquer' by approaching individual countries (a classic negotiation tactic) was not a good move (ministers tried it) as this just soured the relationship further.

The next step should have been to show respect and empathy towards the Europeans, not disdain. We should have listened and demonstrated concern. We should also have understood the real impact on us and prepared detailed plans for how to handle disagreement. We should have been organized and not shown our internal divisions. The list goes on.

I feel really sorry for Theresa May, trying to stitch together all the different interests and emotions. Even if she cobbles together some deal, she has lost the respect of many, including the electorate. So too has her disorganized party.

Enough. What are the lessons for the rest of us?

First, never get arrogant nor underestimate your negotiating partners (and don't think of them as purely opponents -- it a joint process to find optimum benefit for both). Remember also the partners on your own side of the line. The DUP were not sufficiently engaged and the result was last-minute collapse.

Then get your data and facts straight. During the 2016 referendum, Minister Michael Gove said that we had had enough of experts. On the contrary, listen to your experts carefully.

Listen to your partners, too. Research their situation. Understand their deep interests. Build trust, not anger. With this, help them understand you.

Then talk process. How should you proceed? Agree how to agree. The EU blindsided the UK earlier in the year by demanding agreement on a huge divorce bill before moving to the trade talks that the UK desperately wanted.

And manage time. The UK government have had a year and a half so far and are still disorganized. They set the two-year clock ticking last Spring without a plan nor a clear organization, which they made worse with a disastrous election (again, failing to change minds).

Negotiation is a serious business, especially when there are big stakes and many interests. It takes time and planning. Political bluster is no substitute.

All we can do now is watch and learn from this masterclass in failure. And determine not to fall down such rabbit holes ourselves.


Sunday 03-December-17

Subtle headlines and deeper psychology: language used in reporting of the retweet scandal

Donald Trump has expertly grabbed the headlines again, this time retweeting old videos posted by a small, far-right group in the UK. Unlike many others, who strongly criticized the president, Prime Minister Theresa May rather weakly just said it was 'wrong'.

Rather than go into the sordid wrongness and international damage of such acts (even leading Republican Paul Ryan seems appalled), let's look at how the major UK newspapers reported this, on Thursday, 30 November, 2017. In particular, it is interesting to look at the subtle effects of different wording.

The Telegraph: May attacks far-Right Trump tweets

The Times: May criticises Trump over far-right video tweets

The Guardian: May condemns Trump's far-right retweets

The Financial Times: Trump rebuked by Downing Street for retweeting posts by UK far-right group

First, look at the main verb. The Telegraph is a conservative newspaper, which is perhaps surprising as this is the most aggressive wording, with the language of war in 'attack'. The Times is more clinical, using 'criticises'. The Guardian uses the language of a judge condemning a prisoner, framing May in a morally superior role. The FT also places May in a superior position, but now as a parent rebuking a child.

As well as war language, the Telegraph has an embedded indictment of 'far-Right Trump'. This seems unlikely to be editorial accident as it aligns Trump with the extreme racists he retweets. Interesting also is the capitalized 'Right' (unlike other headlines), giving this extra significance as a proper noun.

The Guardian has the shortest headline. Brief headlines can add punch, while longer headlines, like the Financial Times, engages you for longer, giving more time for the message to sink in.

Three papers name the prime minister as 'May'. Using just the surname can be more depersonalizing and pejorative (this insult is frequently used for 'Trump'), although depending on context it can also lend authority (which seems the case here). The Financial Times interestingly uses the indirect metonymy of 'Downing Street', in the same way that 'The White House's may be used, sending a signal that this is a criticism from the whole UK Government, and not just Theresa May.

Headline writers know what they are saying, including from these serious broadsheets (the tabloids were more interested in local gossip). This analysis will not be a surprise to them. It is useful for the rest of is to watch the detail of language used and wonder about the subtle intent behind the words.


Sunday 26-November-17

The illusion of confidence and the road to mastery

Confidence is a watchword of our day. We learn at home, school, work and with friends that confidence is cool and cool is confidence. It is considered an attractive attribute and a basic essential for success in life.

But what exactly is it? You can't put it in a bag and you can't buy it. One way to understand it is that it is the opposite of self-doubt, awkwardness and not knowing what to do. Often, a lack of confidence is based on a fear of criticism by others. Conversely, confidence implies being sure of one's own ability and being less vulnerable to social manipulation.

A problem with confidence is that it easily assumes certainty, stability and detailed knowledge which leads to a state of wilful blindness or blissful ignorance whereby that which is not known is not needed.

And it works. Better than self doubt, at least. It activates you, getting you to at least try when you might otherwise be paralyzed by fear. Confidence also reduces doubt in others as they mistake certainty for knowledge or competence. It is not surprising that it is considered an important skill for leaders.

Yet fake confidence cloaks doubt, which can stubbornly cling on as we project confidence while hiding our uncertainty. But this can cause unbearable inner tension that needs an escape. We want to be confident. We act confident, but doubt. And eventually our minds concede and believe our own propaganda. In this way, we gain real confidence that is not justified.

Overconfidence means ignoring risk. Pride goes before a fall and failure may be denied even as that walls crumble. But what then? If it can't be me, it must be others or external factors. To sustain confidence, we excuse ourselves and blame others.

Confidence does not give space for learning. Or does it?

It seems that doubt is bad, unhelpful and unhealthy. And it can be. Yet it can be healthy too. Healthy doubt does not undermine confidence. Indeed, it makes a great, if paradoxical, partner. It adds realism, humility, and a pause that gives time to consider alternatives.

To be properly confident means taking time to acquire knowledge and skills. It means a long apprenticeship that leads to real mastery. Even then, real confidence means being realistic about failure, indulging in neither excessive doubt nor prideful certainty. What mastery gives is the confidence to cope with variation, surprise and even failure. When you know from experience you can handle whatever happens, you can then be truly confident.


Sunday 05-November-17

Reconnecting: a natural response to vulnerability

A relative recently became more friendly they have been in the past and I wondered what was up. Did they want something from us? No, didn't seem so. Notable, perhaps, was that they had been unwell a couple of times. Hmm. This could be a case of hedging ones bets in case of future need.

Being sick, suffering losses or otherwise experiencing problems, makes us feel vulnerable. And, while we may not like to impose on others, it can make us realize that we may have to in the future if things become more problematic. A natural response to this is to re-evaluate our relationships, thinking about who are our 'real' friends and who we could depend on in an emergency. A result of this thinking is that we turn down attention to more frivolous friends that, while fun, are less likely to help out when we are in need, and turn up the time spent with those who seem likely to be more empathetic and who would offer practical assistance.

Reviewing relationships is a good idea for many of us in any case. You don't have to wait until you are vulnerable before standing back and taking stock. It doesn't mean ditching all your fun friends, but you might want to wonder who would step up if you fell down. This is not necessarily an easy task. My daughter has been through many ups and downs and has been surprised by who turned out to be fair weather friends and who really cared about her.

Life is a game of give and take, though some take more than they give. Figuring out this balance in people is a useful skill. If you are feeling really brave, it can be a challenging task to look in the mirror and ask: Am I giving as much as I am taking? Pragmatically, you also need to ask if you are giving to the right people, because if you are giving only to takers, when you need to take, there may be nobody to give.


Sunday 29-October-17

The madness of Brexit and blind, belief-based decision-making

I was listening to a podcast recently by a reporter who was covering the UK's Conservative party conference. She noticed there a particularly alarming attitude towards 'Brexit', the exit of Britain from the European Union. The Conservatives used to focus first on the economy, but now they seem to have developed a mad obsession with Brexit. And not just a negotiated, gradual exit but the 'hard Brexit' where we leave completely, overnight. And not even just that, but we should be putting up two fingers as we leave.

The chaos that this would cause may delight the ultra-right and survivalists who can grab power or hunker down, but it would be disastrous for the vast majority. As the borders slam shut, yes, excess immigration would be addressed at a stroke. But so also would other imports be halted, resulting in empty supermarket shelves and long queues for fuel. And this would just be the start.

Europe also would be seriously affected as British funding dries up and trade tanks. Yet there is also a madness there, as they refuse to progress talks until a massive 'divorce bill' is agreed. It probably doesn't help that we have a long history of conflict with them.

Further out, this extreme, polarized, intolerant approach is appearing elsewhere. Even within terrorist groups, it is not whether you believe, but how ardently and blindly you believe, even to the ultimate madness of self-destruction.

What causes this madness? How do people get so fixated on one issue? How can suicide seem so attractive?

A. starter is discontent. A person is unhappy about something in their lives. They may lack purpose. They may have difficulty reaching their goals. Whatever it is, they are unhappy.

The next step is simplification and blame. They reduce the problem to simple issues, then blame others for this. Very quickly, this becomes an us-and-them polarization. They get together with like-minded people and create amplifying echo chambers of agreement.

After this comes organization and status, which means social games come into play. Within this group, status comes from holier-than-thou purity, of who follows the ideals more closely. Which means more extreme simplification and blame. And to gain the ultimate status position of hero, it means turning extreme views into extreme action.

And so we stand on the brink. Perhaps we will jump. Perhaps we will wake up and step back. These days, there are no guarantees.


Sunday 15-October-17

Poundland Boris, Trumpelthinskin and the corrupting fascination with narcissists

You can hardly look at the news these days without seeing reports of the latest faux pas of those in power. Two in particular come to mind. In the USA, Donald Trump has been expertly vacuuming up air time and column inches for over a year now with his attention-gathering tweets and alarming statements. Here in the UK, our own cunning buffoon is Boris Johnson, recently and scurrilously described as a 'Poundland Trump'. The insult is that Poundland is a low-cost store and infers that Boris' attentional efforts, while somewhat effective, are not in the same league as Trump.

Both reflect an alarming modern pattern where narcissistic people gain the public eye and somehow seem to get wide approval for doing things that you or I might get thrown in jail for doing. It's a bit like that cool kid in school who could get away with things that would get lesser kids into deep trouble. We wanted to be like that kid but didn't dare be that bold, so instead we extended our identity to encompass them, vicariously enjoying their chutzpah. The underlying dynamic for the narcissist is about power. Powerful people deliberately break rules to demonstrate and strengthen their grip on control. The narcissistic lock is that power feels good as the resultant attention boosts their sense of identity.

Is this what we want? To be ruled by blatant rule-breakers? It can seem attractive, that those in charge can cut through all the red tape and get things done. The trouble comes, however, when power corrupts or when the already-corrupt seek power by dishonest means.

When the corrupt and selfish are in charge are they going to act for the greater good? Only if they have to, and then in a minimal, lip-service manner. They may indeed make grand promises, but the reality will be delay and dilution. For every good they do, they will take far more. They may set up apparently social systems and generous laws, but they may also make these deeply corruptible, filled with the loopholes that lawyers love. Perhaps worst of all, they weaken and dismantle the institutions that make the nation great, especially where thinkers can see what they are doing and call them out.

In this way, we may allow democracy fall into autocracy, where rulers become untouchable as they bend the rules to enrich and protect themselves. We also must accept our part in this. If we become fooled or corrupted by their promises, if we put fascinating narcissists into power so we can goggle at their antics, if we place our hopes in those who are so patently in it for themselves, we may enjoy the ride but will be ultimately and bitterly disappointed.

A free and honest media. A fair and independent judiciary. A challenging education system that teaches us to think. These are signs of a great nation, not braggodocio and bullying. It is also why the discipline of voting is so critical. It is said that we get the government we deserve. One vote seems a drop in the ocean, but it is so critical that each of us listens, thinks and votes for the people who make sense, not for those who promise and lie.


Sunday 01-October-17

Elitism, literature and identity: how we all like to feel special

Elitism is a common cry these days as we point collective fingers at the super-rich fat-cats. That 1%, or maybe 0.001%, are ruining the world with their ostentatious greed, we say. They have so much, why don't they give it away? But hang on -- many of the pointers are themselves so much better off than millions, perhaps billions, of others. Who should be casting the first stone here?

The root cause here is not money, nor envy, though these have a part to play. Digging deeper, a key way we construct our sense of identity and self-respect is by comparing ourselves with others. We like to be better, somehow, and though money is a handy metric, it is not the only way.

In fact if we narrow our scope enough, most of us can find something where we are better than others. This is a reason why we take pride in our jobs, so even a plumber can feel good as they point out how they are paid to know just where to tap the pipe (which, by inference, their hapless customers do not know). Even though plumbers may jostle for superiority amongst themselves, they all know that any one of them is better than any householder.

Like plumbers and bankers, we associate with named groups so we can borrow their status and collective power

All this came out of a conversation with my wife about literature, and whether authors like Terry Pratchett's and J K Rowling will be considered great authors in the future. This question depends on those who decide on greatness, which is not necessarily connected to book sales. This group of academics and critics, who hand out prizes, teach students and write reviews, form a literary elite, whose views are respected by the media and who enjoy the power this gives them, even as on-the-ground English teachers like my wife consider them arrogant idiots. Her identity is bound up in teaching expertise and I'm careful not to gainsay her on matters of literature (like she does for me on matters of psychology and science).

In changing minds, this offers a useful approach. When you want people to feel good and like you, flatter them by praising their ability in some subject that seems important to them, but which is not significant for the matter at hand. Then claim your own superiority in a small but critical point. Basking in the warmth of your elevating them to elitehood, they may more easily cede the point and so let you convince them.


 

 

For more, see the ChangingMinds Blog! Archive or the Blogs by subject. To comment on any blog, click on the blog either in the archive or in the column to the right.

 

Best wishes,

 

Dave

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