This is our eleventh article, and yet I’m entitling it “Three.” Why? My Computer Science students should know… and if they contact me by email and tell me the solution to this little riddle, there might be some points in it for them on the upcoming midterm! If you aren’t in any of my classes and want to email me the solution anyway, maybe (MAYBE, if there aren’t too many of you) I’ll try to work with one of your current teachers to get you some bonus points on an assignment or something, but there is absolutely no guarantee of success there.
Here’s a hint: It has to do with numbers and pattern recognition.
So we’re talking about pattern recognition. I was taking the bus to work a few days ago, and a young woman got on at one of the stops along the way. She was wearing a t-shirt with bright, colourful letters on it, and it read, “Hugs were invented so that people can say ‘I love you’ without…” and then she turned around and sat down!
I never got a chance to read the rest of this potentially life-changing revelation, and so I was faced with three choices. The next few moments were critical.
a) Find an excuse to go talk to her. Unfortunately, on a crowded, moving bus, there’s really no way to do that without coming across a bit odd and/or desperate for companionship, especially if I appeared to be in any way fixated on her shirt… area.
b) I could learn to get over it and move on with my life. This was probably the most reasonable option.
Then there’s the one I chose…
c) I could make stuff up for myself.
I was on the bus, after all, and had nothing better to do with the half hour or so before I arrived at Galen. So I got to work. What would be a worthwhile ending to this most august and sage assertion?
I came up with quite a few of them, and I am listing here the ones I think are best. Let me know what you think.
Hugs were invented so that people can say ‘I love you’ without:
- Saying a word
- Having to learn a new language
- Anyone having to go first
- Avoiding physical intimacy
- Looking someone in the eyes in case they’re lying
- Needing to lend anyone money
- Committing one’s self to a course of action that renders one emotionally vulnerable and could very well end in rejection, tears and recrimination
The second-to last is my favourite, primarily because the last one probably wouldn’t have fit on her shirt considering the size of the lettering.
Being able to recognize and complete sequences of information is essential for what we understand intelligence to be. The ability to draw likely conclusions from partial data is a sign of proper reasoning, and many puzzles and intelligence tests targeted at critical thinking are based on this idea. Incorrect conclusions are signs of either insufficient information or faulty processing. For examples of the latter, try Googling “autocorrect fails.”
As clever as the predictive algorithms we use in our various devices are, they are deeply and obviously flawed. Human language simply has too many variables, and too many diverse contexts, for you to always be able to tell what someone is going to say spaghetti (I mean, “say next”). Much of our understanding of the universe is based on patterns. The most common numerical system used for counting, base 10, consists of a repeating sequence of digits from 0 – 9, that goes up in “places” that represent 0 – 9 units, and then 0 – 9 tens of units, and then 0 – 9 hundreds of units, and so on. With such well-established sequences, patterns are easy to learn… and software developers are getting better at producing programs that are either able to tell what the next value in a series is, or can learn to tell after sufficient exposure to known sequences.
We see examples of these programs in areas of interest ranging from the stock market to medicine, doing things such as predicting the spread of infectious diseases through a population. We learn to recognize patterns through a combination of innate biological predispositions, culture, and education. These are in conflict surprisingly often. Imagine what someone who had learned patterns of behaviour solely from biological urges might be like. Fortunately, most people aren’t raised by wild animals, and they learn to be “civilized” from parents and peers. When we find someone who acts contrary to societal norms, we recognize that something is wrong with them… they may come from a very different culture, they may be deliberately acting in an unusual way for some non-apparent purpose, or they may have a “processing” problem.
When computers act in unpredictable ways, we say they are “malfunctioning.”
When patterns are subverted, people tend to become either very upset, or very happy. Let me explain what I mean by that. Perhaps the more obvious is the “bad” kind of subversion; this is what makes people upset.
When someone acts in an awkward or socially unacceptable way, people tend to become uncomfortable. If an unlikely and tragic accident befalls a loved one, we mourn. When our plans go awry, we may feel frustrated. These are all the results of the patterns, the likely, predictable results, falling apart.
On the other hand, humor results from the unexpected, the weird and unusual, revealed in a (usually) non-threatening manner. It is a subversion of patterns that provides a sense of relief when we realize that the incongruity was planned, intentional, and that our reasoning skills are, in fact, working as intended. Naturally, the more patterns we can recognize, the more we can detect actual or potential inconsistencies, and what that means is, the more intelligent you are, the better your sense of humor should be!
These days, a sense of humor is practically a requirement to live a well-adjusted life. The patterns that we, as human beings, are producing for ourselves are becoming increasingly complex. Consider the rapid changes to the way that interpersonal interactions are conducted in just the past couple of decades with the introduction of emails, instant-messaging, and other forms of social media. The amount of people we can influence with just a few taps on a keyboard is truly unprecedented, and not everyone who enjoys the benefits of this technology appreciates the responsibility inherent in its use.
We now have access to a vast amount of information and opinions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. We also have access to a gigantic cache of MIS-information and uninformed opinions. The work of filtering the diamonds from the rough can be demanding and, if it’s an issue in which you are personally invested, emotionally exhausting. At some point you just have to draw your own conclusions, and dismiss the rest – and it can be beneficial to do so with a laugh, or at least a satisfied smile.
I never got to read the girl’s shirt on the bus that day, so I made up my own concluding phrases, some of them more worthwhile than others. I see a lot of things in the news and online that are unpleasant to read – some of the “old reliable” patterns are breaking down. I might be optimistic about many aspects of human development, but nobody can afford to be dismissive of the very real problems we must face. There are so many things that even the brightest of us just can’t understand; so, how do we deal with this?
Well, sometimes you just have to make stuff up. Sometimes you have to take refuge in the audacious, and find relief in the absurd. There is a time for serious solutions, and for hard work, and there’s a time to say, “I have no idea what I’m doing here, and that’s okay too.” This is also a pattern, of adaptability.
Life has survived, and continues to survive, because it is flexible. It can change itself to respond to new stimuli, and human culture is trying its best to adjust to not only vast increases in technology and information, but an increasing rate at which these things are added. A few years ago, I read that an hour of new content is added to YouTube every minute. This is probably an incredibly low estimate today. At some point, we may come to the realization that we’re just part of something greater than we can conceive of, some grand cosmic drama playing itself out across the ages.
What is our chapter going to be? Will it be a romance? A tragedy? A comedy? The best-lived lives, I believe, will be an engaging pattern woven from the most significant elements of all three.
Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering