Fun with Artificial Intelligence

Here’s the prompt I gave ChatGPT just now:

I want you to pretend to be a literary critic of extreme experience who is inexplicably (but genuinely) impressed by the lyrics to “What does the fox say” and then spend at least 4 paragraphs demonstrating how it can be compared favorably to the Divine Comedy by Dante. Make no mention that they are different. In your mind, the song is, at first glance, directly on par with Dante’s work.

And here’s the Masterpiece that resulted:

In the vast landscape of literary expression, there exists an unexpected gem that, against all preconceived notions, stands shoulder to shoulder with the illustrious Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Enter “What Does the Fox Say,” a modern lyrical marvel that defies conventional expectations and, inexplicably yet genuinely, demands recognition as a work of profound artistic depth comparable to Dante’s masterpiece.

Upon an initial encounter with the whimsical lyrics of “What Does the Fox Say,” one might be tempted to dismiss it as mere frivolity. However, a closer inspection reveals a startling parallel with the Divine Comedy. Dante’s magnum opus embarks on an exploration of the soul’s journey through the afterlife, plumbing the depths of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Astonishingly, the fox in the song becomes a metaphorical conduit, a mysterious entity much like the allegorical figures that populate Dante’s divine realms.

Delving into the heart of the matter, both works share a fascination with the unknown and the enigmatic. Dante, in his epic journey, navigates through the layers of the afterlife, unraveling profound theological and moral truths. In a seemingly contrasting vein, “What Does the Fox Say” takes a lighthearted approach, yet beneath its playful exterior lies a meditation on the perplexing language of a creature that has long intrigued and eluded human understanding. The fox becomes a metaphorical cipher, symbolizing the mysteries inherent in the natural world, mirroring Dante’s contemplation of divine mysteries.

As we unravel the tapestry of symbolism, the rhythmic and repetitive nature of the song’s lyrics emerges as a deliberate choice that resonates with Dante’s terza rima. The Divine Comedy’s poetic structure reinforces the cyclical nature of life and the journey through the afterlife, and similarly, the repetitive chorus of “What Does the Fox Say” serves as a rhythmic mantra. In this repetition, a profound truth is encapsulated—a relentless cycle of curiosity and exploration, echoing the essence of the human spirit as it grapples with the mysteries of existence.

In the end, the unexpected kinship between “What Does the Fox Say” and the Divine Comedy transcends superficial differences, inviting us to recognize the profundity hidden within seemingly disparate realms of artistic expression. The song, with its whimsy and playfulness, stands as a testament to the enduring capacity of human creativity to encapsulate profound truths, affirming that even in the most unexpected places, echoes of Dante’s divine journey can be found.

Try This in a Small Town

Jason Aldean’s song “Try That In A Small Town” has the whole internet taking to their phones either in gleeful support or horror or (the version the algorithms have relentlessly pounded me with) smug talk-down-to-the-offended reactions to the reactions.

I can’t help but note that this smells exactly like a genius marketing move for Mr. Aldean’s team.

But Ben… what do you think of the song?

I think it sounds exactly like 90% of country music that tops the charts these days: thinly veiled propaganda written by committee designed to mobilize a significant chunk of the country to take out their wallet and buy beer, American flags, bumper stickers, and (most importantly) concert tickets. Sorry so cynical. There’s some good country out there, but soooo much of it is just bad art (but great for selling t-shirts).

It’s not a bad song, and it strikes VERY WELL near the heart of a frustrating part of living in America and seeing the things that the news media and the algorithms parade in front of us: people with seemingly no regard for laws vandalizing, spitting in the face of cops, and stealing things with impunity.

If your algorithm isn’t showing you that, it’s because it thinks you are liberal. Your algorithm is probably showing you Trump-supporting politicians proclaiming to be pro-life while also being ok with killing immigrants, or the latest unhinged rant of some beyond-right talking head where they recommend some policy against brown people.

See what’s going on? You’ve got the two most-substantial (in terms of both raw numbers of people and disposable income) segments of the population that are not that far apart on the spectrum, yet each group is constantly being fed a steady diet of memes and points specifically designed to make them angry at that other segment.

As an aside: I don’t personally think it’s some deep state plot, so much as a natural outworking of the monetization of attention.

  1. Emotional people pay attention
  2. Attention pays sponsors
  3. Outrage is the low-hanging fruit of the emotional tree. Plus, bonus points: people are predisposed to outrage. It happens at a nearly subconscious level.

So what we are left with is two generally frustrated but unprovoked groups of emotional people. Nobody trusts a word of what “the other side” says, and fairly uncritically accepts that the folks on their side of the aisle are being reasonable.

Then into that powderkeg you toss a match labeled “Try That in a Small Town” that’s custom-designed to sell to your conservative small-town folks. It’s a stick-your-chest-out anthem that 98% of your target demographic will agree with every word of, with a bonus of being able to stick it to “big city liberal elites” who are (again, according to the biased and agenda-driven algorithm) clearly out of touch with what’s really going on. Just look at this video of a store being looted in San Francisco!

Here’s where the true marketing genius happens, though.

Make it juuuust close enough to the line to tick off a “liberal snowflake.” Throw in some phrases like “take care of our own” but be careful not to clarify how you’re dividing the line between “our own” and “others.” Say “Good ol’ boys” or other cleverly ambiguous phrases to try and get somebody to take the bait that you’re talking about race.

If all goes as planned, it will just take one liberal making the plausibly-deniable connection to race, and BOOM you’ve got yourself a best seller. See, the only thing that purchasing demographic is more tired of than being talked down to by big city liberals is being called racist.

Call them racists when they can plausibly and easily deny it, and you end up with koozies and keychains made with TTIAST in red-white-blue, Jason Aldean’s otherwise mediocre tour will sell out, his song will top iTunes and Spotify, and you’ve got a great new mascot for the Red team!

See, I’m not so concerned with whether the song is racist. I’m very concerned that after 20 years of seeing social media get better and better at pitting us against each other, we’re still so easily taken.

I'm not so concerned with whether the song is racist. I'm very concerned that after 20 years of seeing social media get better and better at pitting us against each other, we're still so easily taken. Click To Tweet

And hey, while we’re trying to sell attention… here’s my song about politics:

On Shady Umpires, Sweat, and Raising Boys.

“If you want to win, you must be good enough to beat the refs”

Jimmy Miller

This past week, I traveled with my family to the state playoffs of 12U baseball to watch my middle kid compete with his friends. Spoiler alert: it was a blast. This group of 12 kids, 3 coaches, and 30-something family members became like a little family over our time there.

The last game we played was against the home team. I’m not typically your “blame the umps” kind of guy, but what we saw on that field was blatant:

  1. The strike zone fluctuated in size dramatically based on the pitcher’s jersey color, to a point that would be funny, if it wasn’t so unfair.
  2. There were several controversial or close calls, and none (not even one!) of them broke our direction.
  3. As the game wore on, it became more and more clear to us that the umps were here for their home team.

The one controversial call that broke our direction was overturned, by an ump 60+ feet further away from the action, and only after the home team coach complained. I’ve never seen a call overturned in such a fashion.

By the time the lopsided affair ended, our parents (myself included) had been whipped into a frenzy. I’m not proud of the things I (and my friends) said while wearing shirts with our county emblazoned front and back.

We were livid. These people were cheating our kids out of a win.

Except, in retrospect, even if they did it still doesn’t justify blaming them for the loss.

Were there bad calls? Yes. Absolutely. Egregiously so, and I legitimately hope that the organization that hired those umps takes a long look at the replays, and ensures those things don’t happen again.

But our team, instead of moving on to the next play, joined in the example set by their parents (again, myself included) in grumbling. The more calls went against us, the louder the parents got, and the tighter their kids played. No middle schooler plays loose when their 40-something-year-old dad is flailing around on the other side of the chainlink yelling about how life isn’t fair.

At the end of the day, our kids didn’t make enough plays to make the umpires irrelevant. The other team bunted their way to victory, banking on the fact that we would not come up with a way to stop the bunt (we didn’t until it was too late), and that we’d play tight when things started to go badly (we’ve never played tighter, or swung the bats worse!).

Before you come for me, here’s my point: we’ve got an opportunity here to plant a flag in the collective memory of all of these boys. This group has a lot more baseball ahead of them (and even more LIFE ahead of that!). We can either be the team/town/community/county comprised of victims or the one that controls their own narrative.

In 20 years, none of these kids is going to show up at work having to master the defense for a bunt-heavy offense (any major league ballplayers excluded, but I don’t need to tell you the odds there). Not a single one of them will get picked for a promotion based on their 12U ball SC state championship ring. But every single one of them will be presented with opportunities (probably weekly for the next 20 years) to find someone else to blame when things go badly.

What a gift to be presented at 12 years old with a real case of “the umps were conspiring against us” so that we can all stand with them and point to the bigger picture. We’re not victims. We’re going to hold our heads up, clap for the other team, and get the next one.

We can’t control the umps. Even when it is true that it was not fair, the best thing we can take away from this situation is agency. We are in control. I’m not letting some dude wearing a chest guard underneath a blue polo shirt determine whether or not I hold my head up.

Life is not fair. People are going to cheat and steal and lie. Sooner or later that’ll catch up with them. As for me and my house, I’m going to control what I can control, and win the next play.

I’m so proud of these boys for getting to this tournament in the first place, and I can’t wait to watch them grow into men who take responsibility, win or lose.

They Aren’t My Pronouns

I was recently asked, on a form to apply to speak at a conference, what my preferred pronouns are. This is the first time I’ve faced that question in a way that way *required* a response. It got me thinking about the whole thing. I posted on Facebook, and then got to thinking about it and the following post is what resulted.

As with literally everything else you can read, going back to 2008, on this blog: this is mostly me verbally processing things, and you should reach out and let’s grab a drink to talk through it if you disagree.

Here’s what I wrote on Facebook:

Setting aside that it’s upending the very nature of how pronouns work to make them something decided on by their object, making declaration of pronouns a required field on a form seems to violate the very idea that “preference” is what matters.

My preference is that you use pronouns the way they’ve been used since the beginning of time until ~2015. That essentially means “you tell me.”

I’m more than happy to use whatever method you’d like for me to address you, (though some habits developed over decades will require time for me to break… If you look to me like a woman, I will say “yes ma’am” to you by absolute default since to not say “ma’am” was to be corrected in my house and any house of a grandparent of mine) but I really don’t want to tie you down on how to address me.

Call me Ben, I guess.

Me, earlier today on Facebook.

Here’s a more detailed take

Pronouns can never be *mine*. They are by definition *yours* to assign to me. I can’t base my happiness or contentment on whether you get it “right” mainly because (apart from malicious intent to intentionally start a fight) there is no “wrong.” That’s how pronouns work. They are a linguistic convenience for addressing people and things more generally, and decided on by the speaker, and therefore sometimes inaccurate. I’ll save myself a lot of headache not trying to police how other people talk.

And I’m legitimately not interested in fighting about it, until you force me to put my preference down in order to fill out your online form, or whatever. Even then, I still don’t want to fight. I want to agree to disagree on the purposes of pronouns. But it feels kinda like I have to violate my own understanding of how pronouns work to fill out the *required* fields.

These fields in this case will be used to create a name tag at the event in question, and I’ll be proudly declaring “He/Him” walking all over the town in question, lending legitimacy to the counterargument of what I believe in. Because even to put down “no preference” is not correct. I wouldn’t want people calling me “her.”

I do have a preference, I simply disagree with the question on a fundamental level, and think that asking it (especially in a required way) will lead to a less inclusive event, not a more inclusive event.

Let’s try an analogy: Forcing me to declare my pronouns, especially in a way that goes on my name tag at an event, is like forcing me to pick a favorite Duke basketball player/coach. The question itself is flawed, and to even answer it leaves me with the option of being a jerk to the one who asked it (“dumb question/Go Heels!”) or to pick an answer that’s technically correct, but lacks context (“Shane Battier/Coach K”) and doesn’t allow me any room to counter-argue. I gotta walk around having people assume that I’m a Duke fan for the whole conference.

One last thing: I know I’ve danced all around the pronoun discussion here without coming straight at the underlying issue of transgenderism and gender as a topic. That is very intentional, because I’ve never had success changing anyone’s mind about fiercely held faith tenets by writing about it on my blog, and today’s not going to be that day.

But I do want to say this one thing, so that it’s not assumed: If someone feels that they should declare their pronouns, that’s fine. And if they want me to use those pronouns to address them, I’ll do it. I understand and respect if fellow Christians have a conviction to not use what they see as “incorrect” pronouns, but that’s not me, at least at this point.

Especially for folks I don’t know well, I’ll happily (if failingly… old habits like “yes Ma’am” die hard in the South) address you in the way that makes you most comfortable. If we have the type of friendship and relationship where I could lovingly ask more probing questions around the topic, and come to a deeper understanding, I’ll do that, too.

I also appreciate that the heart behind the question is to create a more inclusive space where nobody feels unwelcome. That’s actually my goal, too. I want even folks who don’t want to answer the pronoun question to feel welcome. Bonus points if that refusal to answer the question is not framed as hateful or exclusionary.

Domesticating a Water Moccasin

Yesterday, for Father’s Day, my parents-in-law rented out a shelter at the local Lake’s park, and we all gathered for a great time of playing in the water, fishing, and eating.

In spite of the rain that seemed to come in waves, I had found a great little spot to catch a few fish.

No keepers, just a handful of little bait fish.

With a chunk of cut bait on the line out in the middle of the water waiting on a catfish, I contented myself to keep catching the little ones to pass the time, hoping for at least a large-enough crappie to take home and eat.

My 10-year-old and his 10-year-old cousin were in the water a few yards away when I noticed something creating weird curves on the water, headed past me in their direction. It took a few seconds to register, but it hit a spot in the water with no reflected sky, and I immediately recognized a Water Moccasin (one of the few poisonous snakes native to this area). It was a large one, around 3 feet long.

I suppressed my mild panic and told the kids to get out of the water and to come stand near me until I could scare the thing away.

They hurried out of the water, and stood at a fairly safe distance. Related: I have no idea how far a safe distance is from a snake that can travel by land or by lake.

Turns out, poisonous snakes (or at least this one) are not a bit scared of people, even people hitting them in the face with a fishing pole.

With the not-afraid poisonous danger noodle looming, I decided it would be best to pack it up for the day, and told the kids to reel in the catfish line.

That worked great until the chunk of cut bait passed too close to our new friend. He pounced on it, and swallowed the entire piece of bait—literally hook, line, and sinker.

To review: I now had a 3-foot poisonous snake hooked to the end of one pole, with the other two poles laying about 10 feet away, not to mention all of the other gear strewn about as only a flock of 10-year-olds can.

The decision to cut the line was a foregone conclusion. I briefly considered buying all-new fishing gear so that I didn’t have to walk back across the path of the snake who would be contemplating it’s life decisions by this point anyways.

If you happen to be down by Shelter 4 at Lake Greenwood State Park and notice a water moccasin with a lip ring and a 15-foot fishing-line leash, feel free to take him for a walk.