What I have been reading #2

This is a follow up to my previous post on what I have been reading this year (and reviewing, on Instagram).

3rd book of 2021 – “The Spirit Level” by Seamus Heaney.

Heaney won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1995, and this was the first book of poems published after winning that accolade. I found this book discarded by a recycling bin and decided to pick it up, even though I rarely read poetry.

I didn’t “get” some of the poems, as I don’t know the places (e.g., Tollund Moss) or the people that Heaney is writing about. However, I found “A Sofa in the Forties” fascinating, in how Heaney managed to tell so much about people in his life by talking about an unassuming piece of furniture. But, the one that got me was “A Call”. I loved it! Here it is:

A Call

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll just run out and get him.

The weather here’s so good, he took the chance

To do a bit of weeding.”

So I saw him

Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,

Touching, inspecting, separating one

Stalk from the other, gently pulling up

Everything not tapered, frail and leafless,

Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,

But rueful also . . .

Then found myself listening to

The amplified grave ticking of hall clocks

Where the phone lay unattended in a calm

Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . . .

And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,

This is how Death would summon Everyman.

Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.

5th book of 2021 – “You look like a thing and I love you” by Janelle Shane. 

Chapters 1-3 explain what AI is, and how it works.

Chapters 4-7 examine various use cases, and, through these, show the many limitations of AI. For instance, because AI takes shortcuts and can only interpret information literally, if may conclude that the best way to not lose a game is to pause it indefinitely. The conclusion is that AI can only handle very narrow and well-defined problems.

Chapters 8-10 then explain why AI characteristics make it unsuitable for many of the problems that we are trying to apply AI to, such as CV screening, online conversations or driving. Many of the applications out there, that are described as being AI, are actually done by humans – at least, partially. I really like the chapter where Shane discusses the dangers of depicting AI as more intelligent and ubiquitous than it really is; and the one where she provides tips to spot situations when it is a human – not an AI – behind the screen.

The bottom line: The problem with AI is not that it is super intelligent, but that it is depicted and treated as thus, when it is actually very, very dumb. Just like it would be dangerous to let a 4-year-old make hiring decisions, or decide the next family vacations.

It’s a technical book, but really, really accessible. And not at all boring. Lots of examples, and hilarious ones at that – such as the list of ice cream flavours that AI came up with (Beet Bourbon, anyone?), or the list of pick-up lines (one of which became the title of the book).

6th book of 2021 – “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. 

Embarrassingly, I had never heard about this book, which was written by a Holocaust survivor, who was also a psychiatrist. And, boy, was I losing out! 

Frankl tells his experience of being imprisoned and taken to concentration camps, by the Nazis, during WWII, and asks: In the face of extreme suffering, how do you keep on going?

The answer, according to Frankl, is to hold on to a goal. He cites Nietzsche, saying “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”. In Frankl’s case, the goal was to rewrite the book he had just finished writing when he was imprisoned, and whose manuscript was taken from him, when he entered the first camp. This goal gave him a reason to survive, kept his mind engaged, and led him to look out for little scraps of paper where he could jot down text.

He also says that humans can always choose what attitude to adopt in any given circumstances. He calls this the last of human freedoms. For instance, he tells of how “conversing silently” with his wife, in his imagination, allowed him to escape mentally from the hardship of doing forced labour, in icy cold weather, and dressed in only in a few rags. 

This is a great book! Thank you so much to Anna and Dewi for recommending this book (after my Instagram review of “How to stay sane in an age of division” by Elif Shafak); and thank you to Anna for lending me her copy of the book.

Which books have caught your attention, lately?

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