Tomatoes Are Fruit
There’s a term in machine learning called “ground truth”. It’s used as a label describing the ideal expected result, i.e, the correct result. The purpose of the ground truth is to determine how well a machine learning algorithm is performing. Once the ground truth is defined, the algorithm will continue to optimize itself until its own predictions match the ground truth. It’s easy to forget that the ground truth isn’t always true. It’s a subjective description that often carries biases and assumptions made by the person that defines the ground truth. This is why it’s important to keep in mind that the quality of a machine learning model can only be as great as the quality of its ground truth.
For example, a model trained to classify images of fruits and vegetables as either a “fruit” or “vegetable” would be of poor quality if an image of a tomato was mistakenly classified as “vegetable”. This could happen because the algorithm isn’t performing as well as expected or if the ground truth used to train this model simply did not label tomatoes as fruits. Tomatoes are most definitely fruits, but if its ground truth is labelled as “vegetable”, the algorithm will continue optimizing itself until it predicts all tomatoes as vegetables.
Everyone Has a Ground Truth
I have a fundamental belief that everyone has an idea of the person they want to become or an idealized version of themselves. This idealized version is shaped by our beliefs and value systems. It represents our desires, habits, and goals. And that idealized self, is what I refer to as my personal ground truth. It’s the metric I use to determine how well I, as my own learning algorithm so to speak, am performing. I believe that fulfillment of our lives comes from living as close to the ground truth as possible. The more I deviate from the ground truth, the more inauthentic I feel. Usually this feeling builds up subconsciously. But when I notice it, I take it as a sign to improve some part of my life, similar to tinkering with a machine learning algorithm when it outputs unexpected results. But in rarer cases, I would need to re-evaluate my ground truth to determine if I’m still trying to optimize for the right things. This is a story of how I re-evaluated my ground truth.
Last year, I exited an abusive relationship. It was emotionally abusive and physically abusive. His shrewd words were often accompanied by deliberate acts of violence meant to harm and intimidate. Even now, I almost hesitate to call it physical abuse. I used to feel like calling my experience physical abuse would discredit women like my mother, who regularly had a knife pulled out on her by my father, while he would threaten to kill her.
My siblings and I grew up in a household where we had to watch our mother get beat up to the point of cuts and bruises. We witnessed her justify my father’s actions and tell herself lies over and over again until she slowly believed the words she was saying. I remember her hiding her marks from the police, distancing herself from her parents, and defending my father to her friends. My mother’s ground truth was being a loyal wife, hopelessly devoted to her husband. She had changed her learning algorithms iteratively to accept the abuse she faced, and in turn continued the same cycle of physical abuse with me. She blamed me as being the cause of the abuse that she faced from my father. She blamed my existence for the reason she had to keep enduring my father. She had always been very vocal about how big of a disappointment she viewed me as. I understood what she meant and my guilt worked in a way to please her.
Despite these events occurring regularly, I knew that was physical abuse, but I couldn’t recognize it when it was happening to me with my ex-boyfriend. Maybe it’s because in that relationship with my ex-boyfriend, I never felt like my life was in danger. Maybe it’s because I never ended up with cuts and bruises on my body. Maybe it’s because he used to tell me that I deserved it. I believed him.
My ex-boyfriend frequently referred to me as “below average”. He followed up all my news of achievements I was excited to share with explanations of how he could have easily achieved them too, if he wanted to, of course. He would get angry often and tell me how badly he wanted to punch me in my face, and then later convince me I was projecting my daddy issues onto him for telling him that I thought his actions were disrespectful. He said his belief was that every act should be faced with some sort of reward or punishment. He believed he had the right to punish me if he disliked something I did. Sometimes it was mild punishment like silent treatment lasting for a few days, and other times it was pushing, slamming, or hitting. I felt small. I wasn’t allowed to ask what I did to trigger his anger. I was supposed to know. And in the most cyclical way, just like with my mother, my guilt of making him angry worked in a way to please him.
After separating myself from both of those relationships, I felt deeply ashamed for allowing those patterns of behavior to continue around me. I was embarrassed for not noticing the cycle of abuse in all the forms it was present in my life. I felt inauthentic. My ground truth was a strong independent woman that had a secure sense of self and a moral code that valued honesty. My definition of ground truth became the reason I neglected my physical and mental health for 3 years in that relationship. I convinced myself that the emotional abuse and criticisms from my ex-boyfriend was a form of honesty. I convinced myself that his degrading comments about my body and my intelligence weren’t contemptful enough for me to end the relationship, because his words weren’t supposed to impact my “strong sense of self”. I convinced myself that his anger and physical violence towards me wasn’t enough to take away my perceived independence, because I thought I could walk away if it got worse. But then it did get worse, and I didn’t walk away.
It only recently became clear to me how determined I was to continually match my ground truth. I changed the way I perceived concepts like independence and honesty just to match my reality. This realization hit me like a brick wall, and I felt like I could no longer trust my own judgment to evaluate if I was still working towards my ground truth.
This was most definitely a case in which my ground truth needed to be re-evaluated. My original ground truth of being a strong, independent woman was not a good quality description of my ideal self. I dove into a hole of morality and existentialism until I was finally able to redefine my ground truth and the value systems that inspire it. To describe it simply, I want to be a person that makes the people around me feel good about themselves, and I only want to surround myself with people that make the people around them feel good about themselves. No exceptions. I want to be a person that is transparent, even when being honest is difficult. I want to be a person that is kind, but sets boundaries to acknowledge the limitations of the emotional investment I want to make. I want to be a reliable person - someone others, including myself, can trust and take seriously. I want to be a person that expresses my appreciation and gratitude for all of you that support me in the many ways that give me the courage to post stuff like this, reflect, and learn. And most importantly, I want to be a person that is comfortable iterating this idea of ground truth. I’d love to dive deeper into my thoughts on value systems and discovering ways to leverage them, but that could be an entire essay on its own so I’ll save that for next time.
Thank you for reading my first essay. This was a heavy one. I made it my new year’s resolution to start publishing bi-weekly essays in an effort to share and improve my writings. The topics I will write about will follow the general theme of “something I’ve been thinking about the past week”. I hope future issues will bring you the same amount joy to read as I feel when writing them.
Thank you to Sonaya, Kevin, Sergei, and Micah for reading drafts of this.