Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

What Happened to August? Sunday musings…8/13/2023

1 Boredom. “The cure for boredom is curiosity.” Dorothy Parker

Saw this at the town pool and town beach this week watching school kids explore.

2 Curiosity. “There is no cure for curiosity.” Also Dorothy Parker

Thank Heavens for that, eh?

3 Drift. No, not the thing radically cool kids do with otherwise normal appearing automobiles, but rather a newly minted term to describe the oddity that is machine learning in AI. It turns out that AI engines don’t learn the same way that we humans do. Everyone, including computer engineers in the field, has assumed that AI machines learn by adding on in a “building blocks” progression, similar to how our brain works. Doing so leads to the accumulation of knowledge and skills that add up like so many wooden blocks in a child’s playroom.

Only that’s apparently not what’s happening.

“Drift” is the phenomenon in which an AI gets progressively worse at a task at which it was quite adept at the same time that it is acquiring excellence in something altogether different. It’s almost as if these supposedly infinitely capable systems are actually “zero-sum” entities: progress in one domain can only be achieved at the expense of another.

Long-term readers will recall that “Sunday musings…” was created as an outlet for my thoughts on all kinds of things, but mostly in the context of physical fitness. CrossFit fitness defined as “work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” CrossFit held (does it still?) that to be as fit as possible one must have equal capacity in the 10 essential fitness domains (aerobic, strength, endurance, etc.). Over-emphasizing one came at the expense of all of the others. Muscle-laden powerlifters who got out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs contrasted with ultra-endurance athletes who struggled to carry a bag of groceries.

Is machine learning-driven AI like fitness? I don’t think anybody really knows. Ya gotta admit though, it’s pretty weird when you think about it. I mean, a transformative technology that gets better and better at answering inane questions on a customer service phone line that simultaneously loses the ability to do math.

It’s like a kind of “skinny fat”, AI version.

4 August. Jason Gay, the excellent sports columnist/satirist at the Wall Street Journal asks “What happened to August?” in a typically perspicacious essay this weekend. It was a great question to contemplate as I’ve worked on unpacking my radically different summer of 2023. No more Cape Week. My Mom is due to move to Cleveland…Cleveland!…in a week. The overwhelmingness of everything that was our Alaska trip. As an aside I am still so filled with so much happiness and awe over our time together in Alaska that I can’t organize my thoughts well enough to write about it. I mean, my little antique Boston Whaler is still doing lawn art duty in front of my house instead of sitting on our launch, ready for adventure.

In August!

To be honest without kids of my own still hanging around the homestead August just feels like, well, August to me. I think Jason is in his late 30’s or so. His kids are only a tiny bit older than my grandchildren. He might be old enough to remember a different August. More likely he is just old enough to have some sense that August was a bit different for the “big kids” in his neighborhood when he was growing up. That August lasted a full four weeks, of course. Everything about summer was inexorably changed when the universal post-Labor Day start to the school year was dialed back to the third week of August, stripping off almost a quarter of summer.

When Beth and I were kids, and for that matter when our parents and grandparents were kids, summer began around June 15th or so. We’d get in two weeks of swimming lessons and Little League baseball, and then everything would shut down for the first two weeks in July. It seemed like everyone in the country who went to work Mondays through Fridays got 2 weeks off that included the 4th of July. Little league shut down. Station wagons were packed and trips were made. I know intellectually that not EVERYONE went on vacation then, but as a kid it sure seemed that way. Stuff kinda changed when we got old enough to have summer jobs–no more trips–but school still didn’t start until the Wednesday after Labor Day.

We got us a whole August every summer.

Jason Gay is right about the intensity of summers today, though. Our kids certainly experienced a bit more of that than Beth, our siblings, and I did. I vividly remember long lazy days where there were literally no plans at all. Maybe we had those swimming lessons in the morning, or perhaps the rec system had some baseball, softball, or basketball games lined up, but our afternoons were pretty free. Beth and her sisters went to a pretty cool day camp, and graduated to become counselors if memory serves, and we certainly heard stories about kids who spent weeks at sleep-away camps, but not my siblings and me. Mom just stuffed as many neighborhood kids as she could into the Chevy wagon and headed to the local little lakeside beach, spread out a blanket, and opened up a book.

We kids were left to amuse ourselves. No travel sports to rush home to. Summer enrichment programs? Pshaw, we all opened our summer reading book on Labor Day and crammed it in while we made up stuff more exciting than same beach with the same kids doing the same thing everyday for 6 weeks. All of that extra, more high intensity stuff that Jason decries started to show up for some of our kids who showed some aptitude for stuff like hockey with its summer camps and football with its mid-August two-a-days. Even at that, at least for our family, the over-arching prioritization of Cape Week made attendance at many of those activities impossible.

Yup, those were different days for sure. Most families had a non-working Mom, or at least one who got summers off. Neighborhoods were filled with an “it takes a village” ethos where whichever Mom was available just grabbed all of the kids and performed a kind of kid-wrangler function. And you know what? Even without a summer filled with elite travel teams or weekly tournaments every kid who was destined to play a sport at a higher level did just that. All of the super bright kids who were destined to end up at highly selective schools managed to land just where they belonged without checking in to a Kumon to be “enriched”.

Nope, instead we dug for worms, and if we were lucky enough to find a few we went fishing.

Who stole August? I’m afraid that the whole “back to school after Labor Day” thing is probably a lost cause, but frankly the blame for all of the intensity, the frenzy of activity, purposeful activity, lies squarely at the feet of the parents. If you and your spouse both have jobs you get a weekday pass; an early start to the school year is probably a huge boon to families in which both parents work, actually. But the whole travel team, weekend tournaments, and lack of lazy days of summer time? Sorry Jason, you and your peers own that. Some younger Boomers may have started the whole thing, and while my own family bears no guilt there I will nonetheless apologize on behalf of those in my generation who did.

But it’s parents who for some reason can’t seem to abide the non-purposeful minutes, let alone hours, spent by their children in the pursuit of the benefits that August once brought. It’s as if they have boredom by proxy, forgetting that boredom was once the gateway to some of the best things they experienced in their own Augusts past. Where we once packed most of the excitement of vacations into the first two weeks of July, kids are now pedal to the metal all summer long. That kid who’s good enough to play D1 soccer? S/he is gonna do that whether or not s/he practices every day school is out and hits up an elite tournament every weekend. Parents are supposed to make that kid NOT play soccer for a few weeks.

All is not lost, for Jason Gay or any other parents who may feel as he does about August. The solution lies in the wisdom of Dorothy Parker: let your kids have a summer filled with boredom. Time when they get to figure it out. Let their curiosity loose. With as little adult supervision and electronic assistance as possible. More parks and fewer plugs. Parents hold the keys to an August reminiscent of Augusts past, however shorter August may now be. The lakeside beaches of my youth are still there. There are still plenty of worms to dig up, fish to catch, friendships to foster. And boredom, the biggest gift of August.

Boredom can bring back that bit of the August we seem to have lost.

I’ll see you next week…

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