Tilting our heads to theta

I am forever indebted to Clyfe Beckwith, my high-school physics teacher. Not because he taught us mechanics, but because he used mechanics to teach us about the power and plasticity of conceptual frames.[1]

We were learning to think about things like energy and forces, about how objects move in space and on inclines and around curves (fear winces before tucking myself into a ball to go down a hill on cross-country skis are always accompanied by ironic inside-my-mind jabs yammering “your instincts suck–if your center of gravity is lower to the ground you’ll have an easier time combatting the conservation of angular momentum”). Learning to think about images like this one:

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The task here is to decompose the various forces that act on the object, recompose them into some net force, and then use this net force to describe how the block will accelerate down the inclined plane.

I remember the first step to tally the forces was easy. Gravity will pull the block down because that’s what gravity does. Friction will slow the block down because that’s what friction does. And then there’s this force we think less about in our day-to-day lives called the normal force, a contact force that surfaces exert to prevent solid objects from passing through each other. The solids-declaring-their-identity-as-not-air-and-not-ghosts force. And that’s gonna live at the fault line between the objects, concentrating its force-hands into the object’s back like a lover.

The problem is that, because the plane is inclined and not flat, these forces have directionality. They don’t all move up and down. Some move up and down and others are on a diagonal.

I remember feeling flummoxed because it was impossible to get them to align nicely into  the perpendicular x-y axes of the Cartesian plane. In my mind, given the math I’d studied up to that point (so, like, high-school algebra–I taught myself trigonometry over the summer but because I had taught myself never had the voiceover that this would be a tool for solving physics problems), Cartesian planes were things, objects as stiff as blocks, things that existed in one frame of reference, perfectly up and perfectly down, not a smidgen of Sharpie ink bleeding or wavering on the axis lines.

And then Clyfe Beckwith did something radical. He tilted the Cartesian plane so that it matched the angle of the incline.

I was like, you can’t do that.

He was like, why not?

I was like, because planes don’t tilt like that, because they exist in the rigid confines of up and down, of one single perpendicular, because that’s how the world works, because this is the static frame of reference I’ve learned about and used again and again and again to solve all these Euclidean geometry problems from freshman year, because Bill Scott, my freshman math teacher, is great, love the guy, and how can we question the mental habits he helped me build to solve those problems, because, wait, really, you can do that?

He was like, just try it.

I remember his cheshire cat smile, illuminated by the joy of palpably watching a student’s mind expand before his eyes, palpably seeing a shift that was one small step for man but a giant step for Mankind, something as abstract as a block moving on an inclined plane teaching a lesson about the malleability of thinking tools.

We tried it. We tilted our heads to theta. We decomposed gravity into two vectors, one countering the normal force and the other moving along the plane. We empathized with the normal force, saw the world from its perspective, not our own. What was intractable became simple. The math became easy.

This may seem obtuse and irrelevant. Stuff you haven’t thought about since high school. Forget about the physics. Focus on tilting your head to theta. Focus on the fact that there is nothing native or natural about assuming that Cartesian planes exist in some idealized perpendicular realm that must always start from up and down, that this disposition is the side effect of drawing them on a piece of paper oriented towards our own front-facing perspective. That it’s possible to empathize with the perspective of a block of mass m at a spot on a triangle tilted at angle theta to make it easier to solve a problem. And that this problem itself is only an approximation upon an approximation upon an approximation, gravity and friction acting at some idealized center to make it easier to do the math, integrating all the infinite smaller forces up through some idealized continuum. Stuff they don’t say much about in high school as that’s the time for building problem-solving muscles. Saving the dissolution for the appropriate moment.


Reading Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time pulled this memory out of storage. In his stunningly lyrical book, Rovelli explains how many (with a few variations depending on theory) physicists conceptualize quantum time as radically different from the linear, forward-marching-so-that-the-past-matters-our-actions-matter-choices-are-engraved-and-shape-the-landscape-of-future-possibilities-and-make-morality-possible flow of time we experience in our subjectivity. When we get quantum, explains Rovelli, the difference between past and future blur, phenomena appear that, like the ever-flitting molecules in a glass of water, seem static when viewed through the blunt approximations our eyes provide us so we can navigate the world without going insane from a thermodynamic onslaught.

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One of the heroes in Rovelli’s book is Ludwig Boltzmann, who used probability to show that the systems tend towards disorder rather than order (entropy) because there are many more possible disordered than ordered configurations of a system. Order, like Reality, is just one improbability amidst indefinite possibles. The equation on his gravestone, S = k log W, shows the relationship between entropy and the number of ways the atoms of a system can be arranged. Boltzmann’s work using probability distributions to described the states of particles in a system was the grandfather to contemporary neural networks (reflected in the name Boltzmann Machine). Someday, someone has to write the book about the various ways in which machine learning is indebted to 19th-century physics (see also Hamiltonian Monte Carlo, amidst many others).

Rovelli reminds his reader that the idea of an absolute, independent variable time (which shows up in equations as a little t)–time independent of space, time outside the entangled space waltz of Wall-E and Eva, lovers saddened by age’s syncopation, death puncturing our emotional equilibrium to cleave entropy into the pits of our emotions, fraying the trampoline pad into the kinetic energy of springs–that this time is but a mental fiction Newton created within the framework of his theory of the universe, but that the mental landscape of this giant standing upon the shoulders of giants became so prominent in our culture that his view of the world became the view we all inherit and learn when we go to grammar school, became the way the world seems to be, became a fixture as seemingly natural as our experience that the Sun revolves around the Earth, and not otherwise. That the ideas are so ingrained that it takes patience and an open mind to notice that Aristotle talks about time much differently, that, for Aristotle, time was an index of the change relative to two objects. Consider the layers of complexity: how careful we have to be not to read an ancient text with the tinted glasses of today’s concepts, how open and imaginative we must remain to try to understand the text relative to its time as opposed to critiquing the arguments with our own baggage and assumptions; how incredible it is to think that this notion of absolute time, so ingrained that it felt like blasphemy to tilt the Cartesian plane to theta, is but the inheritance of Newton’s ideas, rejected by Leibniz as fitfully as Newton’s crazy idea that objects could influence one another from a distance[2]; how liberating to return to relativity, to experience the universe without the static restrictions of absolute time, to free even the self from the heavy shackles of personhood and identity and recognize we are nothing but socialite Bedouins migrating through the parameters of personality as we mirror approval and flee frowns, the self become array, traits and feelings and thoughts activated through contact with a lover, a family, a team, an organization, a city, a nation, all these concentric circles pitching abstractions that dissolve into the sweat beads of an embrace, of attention swallowed intact by the heartbeat of another.

But it’s not just mechanics. It’s not just time.

It can be the carapace we inherit as we hurt our way through childhood and adolescence, little protective walls of habitual reactions that ossify into detrimental and useless thoughts like the cobwebbed inheritance of celibacy.[3] It can be reactions to situations and events that don’t serve us, that keep us back, anxiety that silences us from speaking up, that fears judgment if we ask a question when we don’t fully understand, interpretations of events in the narratives we’ve constructed to weave our way through life that, importantly, we can choose to keep or discard.

Perhaps the most liberating aspect of Buddhist philosophy is the idea that we have an organ that senses thoughts just like we have organs that sense smells, sounds, tastes, and touch.[4] Separating the self from the stuff of thoughts and emotions is not trivial. We lose the anchor of the noun, abandon the grounding of some thing, no matter how abstract and fleeting thoughts or the pulse of emotions may be (or perhaps they’re not so fleeting? perhaps the incantatory habit of neural patterns in our brains is where we clamp on to remain steadfast amidst rough waves beating life shores?). But this notion of the self as thought is also a conceptual relic we can break, the perpendicular plane we can migrate to theta to help us solve problems and empathize more deeply with another.

There is a calm that arises when we abstract away from the seat of identity as a self separate from the world and up into a view of self as part of the world, as one with the coffee cup accompanying me as I write this post, one with the sun rising into yellow, shifting shades in the summer morning, one with the plastic armchairs and the basil plant, one with my partner as he sleeps thousands of miles away in San Francisco, as I dream with him, recovering legs intertwined in beds and on camp grounds. One with colleagues. One with homeless strangers on the street, one with their pain, their cold, the dirt washed from their face and feet when they shower.

The conceptual carapaces that bind us aren’t required, are often just inherited abstractions from the past. We can discard them if they don’t serve us. We have the ability, always, to tilt our head to theta and breath into the rhythms of the world.


[1] Clyfe radiates kindness. He has that special George Smith superpower of identifying where he can stretch his students just beyond what they believe they’re capable of while imbuing them with the confidence they need to succeed. Clyfe also found it hilarious that I took intro to cosmology, basically about memorizing constellations, after taking AP physics, which was pretty challenging. But I loved schematizing the sky! It added wonder and nostalgia to the science. I gifted Clyfe The Hobbit once, for his sons. I picked that book because my dad loves Tolkien and reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were rights of passage when I was a child, so I figured they should be for every child. I guess that means there was something in the way Clyfe behaved that pegged him as a great Dad in my mind. Every few years, my dad gets excited about possibility that he may have finally forgotten details in The Lord of the Rings, eager to reread it and discover it as if it were for the first time. But he’s consistently disappointed. He and my brother have astonishing recall; it’s as if every detail of a book or movie has been branded into their brains indefinitely. My brother can query his Alexandrian brain database of movie references to build social bridges, connecting with people through the common token of some reference as opposed to divulging personal anecdote. My mom and I are the opposite. I remember abstractions in my Peircean plague of being a mere table of contents alongside the vivid, vital particularity of narrative minds like that of my colleague Tyler Schnoebelen. When I think back to my freshman year in college, I clearly remember the layout of arguments in Kant’s First Critique and clearly remember the first time I knowingly proved something using induction, and while I clearly remember that I read Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich that year (apparently was in a Tolstoy kind of mood), I cannot remember the details of those narratives. Instead, I recall the emotions I experienced while reading them, as if they get distilled to their essence, the details of what happens to the characters resolved to the moral like in a fable by Aesop. Except not quite. It’s more that the novels transform into signposts for my own narrative, my own life. Portals that open my memory to recover happenings I haven’t recollected for years, 15 years, 20 years, the white-gloved hand of memory swiping off attic dust to unveil grandma’s doilies or gold-rimmed art deco china. My mind pronounces “the Death of Ivan Ilyich” and what comes forth are the feelings of shyness, of rugged anticipation, as I walked up Rush Street in Chicago floating on a cloud of dopamine brimming with anticipatory possibility, on my way to meet the young man who would become my first real boyfriend, hormones coaxed by how I saw him, how he was much more than a person, how something about how he looked and talked and acted elevated him to the perfect boyfriend, which, of course, gave me solace that I was living life as I was supposed to. My memory not recall, but windows with Dali curtains that open and shut into arabesques of identity (see featured image), cards shuffling glimpses of clubs and spades as they disappear, just barely observed, back into the stack. Possibility not actually reserved for the future, but waiting under war helmets in trench wormholes ready for new interpretation. For yes, there was other guy I didn’t decide to date, the guy who told me I looked like Audrey Hepburn (not because I do, but because I do just enough and want to so evidently enough that the flattery makes sense) when he took me on our first date at the top of the Hancock tower, a high-in-the-sky type of bar, full of women with hair stiffed in hairspray and almost acrylic polyester dresses that were made today but always remind you of Scarface or Miami Vice, with the particular smell only high-in-the-sky bars have, stale in a way that’s different from the acrid smell of dive bars that haven’t been cleaned well, maybe it’s the sauce they use on the $50 lamb chops, the jellied mint, the shrimp cocktails alongside the gin, or the cleaning agent reserved exclusively for high-in-the-sky dance halls or Vegas hotels. It could have been different, but it became what it was because Morgan more closely aligned with my mental model of the perfect boyfriend. We’re still friends. He seems quite happy and his wife seems to be thriving.

[2] Don’t get me wrong: while Leibniz rejected the idea of action at a distance, much of his philosophy and metaphysics are closer to 20th-century philosophy and physics than the other early-modern heavyweights (Descartes, Spinoza, Pascal, etc). He was the predecessor of what would become possible worlds’ theory, developing a logic and metaphysics rooted in the probability, not denotative reality. He loved combinatorics and wanted to create a universal, formal language rooted in math (his universal characteristic). The portion of his philosophy I love most is his attempt to reconcile free will and determinism using our conceptual limitations, rooting his metaphor in calculus. When we do calculus, we can’t perceive how a limit converges to some digit. Our existence in time, argues Leibniz, is similar: we’re stuck in the approximation of the approximation, assessing local minima, while God sees the entire function, appreciating how some action or event that may seem negative in the moment can lead to the greatest good in the future.

[3] It seems like downright sound logic to me that celibacy made economic sense in feudalism, given the structure of dowries and property (about which I don’t know the details) but was conceptualized using abstract arguments about reserving love for God alone, and that this abstraction survived even after economic rationale disappeared into the folds of capitalism, only to create massive issues down the line because it’s not a human way to be, our bodies aren’t made only to love God, we can’t clip our sexuality at the seams, so pathologies arise. It’s not a popular position to pardon the individual and blame the system; but every individual merits compassion.

[4] Something about the cadence of the sentence made me want to leave out sight.

The featured image is Figura en una finestra, painted by Salvador Dalí in 1925. Today it lives in the Reina Sofia. How very not Dalí, right? And yet it displays the same mastery of precise technique we see in the hallmarks of surrealism. The nuances of this painting are so suggestive and evocative, so rich with basic meaning, nothing religious, nothing allegorical, just the taught concentration of recognition, of our seeing this girl at a moment in time. The white scarf draping in such a way that it suggests the moments prior to the painting, when she walked up troubled by something that happened to her and placed it there, with care, with gentleness, as she settled into her forlorn gaze. Her thoughts protected by her directionality, all that’s available to us the balance of her weight on her left foot, her buttocks reflecting the weight distribution. The curtains above the left window somehow imbued with her emotions, their rustle so evidently spurred not only by wind but by the extension of her mood, their shape our only access to the inside of her mind, her gaze facing outwards. I love it. She gains power because she is so unaccessible. The painting holds the embryo of surrealism in it because of what I just wrote, because it invites us to read more into the images that what’s there in oil paint and textures and lines. 

 

Artificial Intelligence and the Fall of Eve

We seem to need foundational narratives.

Big picture stories that make sense of history’s bacchanal march into the apocalypse.

Broad-stroke predictions about how artificial intelligence (AI) will shape the future of humanity made by those with power arising from knowledge, money, and/or social capital.[1] Knowledge, as there still aren’t actually that many real-deal machine learning researchers in the world (despite the startling growth in paper submissions to conferences like NIPS), people who get excited by linear algebra in high-dimension spaces (the backbone of deep learning) or the patient cataloguing of assumptions required to justify a jump from observation to inference.[2] Money, as income inequality is a very real thing (and a thing too complex to say anything meaningful about in this post). For our purposes, money is a rhetoric amplifier, be that from a naive fetishism of meritocracy, where we mistakenly align wealth with the ability to figure things out better than the rest of us,[3] or cynical acceptance of the fact that rich people work in private organizations or public institutions with a scope that impacts a lot of people. Social capital, as our contemporary Delphic oracles spread wisdom through social networks, likes and retweets governing what we see and influencing how we see (if many people, in particular those we want to think like and be like, like something, we’ll want to like it too), our critical faculties on amphetamines as thoughtful consideration and deliberation means missing the boat, gut invective the only response fast enough to keep pace before the opportunity to get a few more followers passes us by, Delphi sprouting boredom like a 5 o’clock shadow, already on to the next big thing. Ironic that big picture narratives must be made so hastily in the rat race to win mindshare before another member of the Trump administration gets fired.

Most foundational narratives about the future of AI rest upon an implicit hierarchy of being that has been around for a long time. While proffered by futurists and atheists,  the hierarchy dates back to the Great Chain of Being that medieval Christian theologists like Thomas Aquinas built to cut the physical and spiritual world into analytical pieces, applying Aristotelian scientific rigor to the spiritual topics.

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Aquinas’ hierarchy of being on a blog by a fellow named David Haines I know nothing about but that seems to be about philosophy and religion.

The hierarchy provides a scale from inanimate matter to immaterial, pure intelligence. Rocks don’t get much love on the great chain of being, even if they carry the wisdom and resilience of millions of years of existence, contain, in their sifting shifting grain of sands, the secrets of fragility and the whispered traces of tectonic plates and sunken shores. Plants get a little more love than rocks, and apparently Venus fly traps (plants that resemble animals?) get more love than, say, yeast (if you’re a fellow member of the microbiome-issue club, you like me are in total awe of how yeast are opportunistic sons of bitches who sense the slightest shift in pH and invade vulnerable tissue with the collective force of stealth guerrilla warriors). Humans are hybrids, half animal, half rational spirit, our sordid materiality, our silly mortality, our mechanical bodies ever weighting us down and holding us back from our real potential as brains in vats or consciousnesses encoded to live forever in the flitting electrons of the digital universe. There are a shit ton of angels. Way more angel castes than people castes. It feels repugnant to demarcate people into classes, so why not project differences we live day in and day out in social interactions onto angels instead? And, in doing so, basically situate civilized aristocrats as closer to God than the lower and more animalistic members of the human race? And then God is the abstract patriarch on top of it all, the omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent patriarch who is also the seat of all our logical paradoxes, made of the same stuff as Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, the guy who can be at once father and son, be the circle with the center everywhere and the circumference nowhere, the master narrator who says, don’t worry, I got this, sure that hurricane killed tons of people, sure it seems strange that you can just walk into a store around the corner a buy a gun and there are mass shootings all the time, but trust me, if you could see the big picture like I see the big picture, you’d get how this confusing pain will actually result in the greatest good to the most people.

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Sandstone in southern Utah, the momentary, coincidental dance of wind and grain petrified into this shape at this moment in time. I’m sure it’s already somewhat different.

I’m going to be sloppy here and not provide hyperlinks to specific podcasts or articles that endorse variations of this hierarchy of being: hopefully you’ve read a lot of these and will have sparks of recognition with my broad stroke picture painting.[4] But what I see time and again are narratives that depict AI within a long history of evolution moving from unicellular prokaryotes to eukaryotes to slime to plants to animals to chimps to homo erectus to homo sapiens to transhuman superintelligence as our technology changes ever more quickly and we have a parallel data world where leave traces of every activity in sensors and clicks and words and recordings and images and all the things. These big picture narratives focus on the pre-frontal cortex as the crowning achievement of evolution, man distinguished from everything else by his ability to reason, to plan, to overcome the rugged tug of instinct and delay gratification until the future, to make guesses about the probability that something might come to pass in the future and to act in alignment with those guesses to optimize rewards, often rewards focused on self gain and sometimes on good across a community (with variations). And the big thing in this moment of evolution with AI is that things are folding in on themselves, we no longer need to explicitly program tools to do things, we just store all of human history and knowledge on the internet and allow optimization machines to optimize, reconfiguring data into information and insight and action and getting feedback on these actions from the world according to the parameters and structure of some defined task. And some people (e.g., Gary Marcus or Judea Pearl) say no, no, these bottom up stats are not enough, we are forgetting what is actually the real hallmark of our pre-frontal cortex, our ability to infer causal relationships between phenomena A and phenomena B, and it is through this appreciation of explanation and cause that we can intervene and shape the world to our ends or even fix injustices, free ourselves from the messy social structures of the past and open up the ability to exercise normative agency together in the future (I’m actually in favor of this kind of thinking). So we evolve, evolve, make our evolution faster with our technology, cut our genes crisply and engineer ourselves to be smarter. And we transcend the limitations of bodies trapped in time, transcend death, become angel as our consciousness is stored in the quick complexity of hardware finally able to capture plastic parallel processes like brains. And inch one step further towards godliness, ascending the hierarchy of being. Freeing ourselves. Expanding. Conquering the march of history, conquering death with blood transfusions from beautiful boys, like vampires. Optimizing every single action to control our future fate, living our lives with the elegance of machines.

It’s an old story.

Many science fiction novels feel as epic as Disney movies because they adapt the narrative scaffold of traditional epics dating back to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. And one epic quite relevant for this type of big picture narrative about AI is John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic to end all epics, the swan song that signaled the shift to the novel, the fusion of Genesis and Rome, an encyclopedia of seventeenth-century scientific thought and political critique as the British monarchy collapsed under  the rushing sword of Oliver Cromwell.

Most relevant is how Milton depicts the fall of Eve.

Milton lays the groundwork for Eve’s fall in Book Five, when the archangel Raphael visits his friend Adam to tell him about the structure of the universe. Raphael has read his Aquinas: like proponents of superintelligence, he endorses the great chain of being. Here’s his response to Adam when the “Patriarch of mankind” offers the angel mere human food:

Adam, one Almightie is, from whom
All things proceed, and up to him return,
If not deprav’d from good, created all
Such to perfection, one first matter all,
Indu’d with various forms various degrees
Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
But more refin’d, more spiritous, and pure,
As neerer to him plac’t or neerer tending
Each in thir several active Sphears assignd,
Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
Proportiond to each kind.  So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More aerie, last the bright consummate floure
Spirits odorous breathes: flours and thir fruit
Mans nourishment, by gradual scale sublim’d
To vital Spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual, give both life and sense,
Fansie and understanding, whence the Soule
Reason receives, and reason is her being,
Discursive, or Intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours,
Differing but in degree, of kind the same.

Raphael basically charts the great chain of being in the passage. Angels think faster than people, they reason in intuitions while we have to break things down analytically to have any hope of communicating with one another and collaborating. Daniel Kahnemann’s partition between discursive and intuitive thought in Thinking, Fast and Slow had an analogue in the seventeenth century, where philosophers distinguished the slow, composite, discursive knowledge available in geometry and math proofs from the fast, intuitive, social insights that enabled some to size up a room and be the wittiest guest at a cocktail party.

Raphael explains to Adam that, through patient, diligent reasoning and exploration, he and Eve will come to be more like angels, gradually scaling the hierarchy of being to ennoble themselves. But on the condition that they follow the one commandment never to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree, a rule that escapes reason, that is a dictum intended to remain unexplained, a test of obedience.

But Eve is more curious than that and Satan uses her curiosity to his advantage. In Book Nine, Milton fashions Satan in his trappings as snake as a master orator who preys upon Eve’s curiosity to persuade her to eat of the forbidden fruit. After failing to exploit her vanity, he changes strategies and exploits her desire for knowledge, basing his argument on an analogy up the great chain of being:

O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant,
Mother of Science, Now I feel thy Power
Within me cleere, not onely to discerne
Things in thir Causes, but to trace the wayes
Of highest Agents, deemd however wise.
Queen of this Universe, doe not believe
Those rigid threats of Death; ye shall not Die:
How should ye? by the Fruit? it gives you Life
To Knowledge? By the Threatner, look on mee,
Mee who have touch’d and tasted, yet both live,
And life more perfet have attaind then Fate
Meant mee, by ventring higher then my Lot.
That ye should be as Gods, since I as Man,
Internal Man, is but proportion meet,
I of brute human, yee of human Gods.
So ye shall die perhaps, by putting off
Human, to put on Gods, death to be wisht,
Though threat’nd, which no worse then this can bring.

 

Satan exploits Eve’s mental model of the great chain of being to tempt her to eat the forbidden apple. Mere animals, snakes can’t talk. A talking snake, therefore, must have done something to cheat the great chain of being, to elevate itself to the status of man. So too, argues Satan, can Eve shortcut her growth from man to angel by eating the forbidden fruit. The fall of mankind rests upon our propensity to rely on analogy. May the defenders of causal inference rejoice.[5]

The point is that we’ve had a complex relationship with our own rationality for a long time. That Judeo-Christian thought has a particular way of personifying the artifacts and precipitates of abstract thoughts into moral systems. That, since the scientific revolution, science and religion have split from one another but continue to cross paths, if only because they both rest, as Carlo Rovelli so beautifully expounds in his lyrical prose, on our wonder, on our drive to go beyond the immediately visible, on our desire to understand the world, on our need for connection, community, and love.

But do we want to limit our imaginations to such a stale hierarchy of being? Why not be bolder and more futuristic? Why not forget gods and angels and, instead, recognize these abstract precipitates as the byproducts of cognition? Why not open our imaginations to appreciate the radically different intelligence of plants and rocks, the mysterious capabilities of photosynthesis that can make matter from sun and water (WTF?!?), the communication that occurs in the deep roots of trees, the eyesight that octopuses have all down their arms, the silent and chameleon wisdom of the slit canyons in the southwest? Why not challenge ourselves to greater empathy, to the unique beauty available to beings who die, capsized by senescence and always inclining forward in time?

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My mom got me herbs for my birthday. They were little tiny things, and now they look like this! Some of my favorite people working on artistic applications of AI consider tuning hyperparameters to be an act akin to pruning plants in a garden. An act of care and love.

Why not free ourselves of the need for big picture narratives and celebrate the fact that the future is far more complex than we’ll ever be able to predict?

How can we do this morally? How can we abandon ourselves to what will come and retain responsibility? What might we build if we mimic animal superintelligence instead of getting stuck in history’s linear march of progress?

I believe there would be beauty. And wild inspiration.


[1] This note should have been after the first sentence, but I wanted to preserve the rhetorical force of the bare sentences. My friend Stephanie Schmidt, a professor at SUNY Buffalo, uses the concept of foundational narratives extensively in her work about colonialism. She focuses on how cultures subjugated to colonial power assimilate and subvert the narratives imposed upon them.

[2] Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing a talk by the always-inspiring Martin Snelgrove about how to design hardware to reduce energy when using trained algorithms to execute predictions in production machine learning. The basic operations undergirding machine learning are addition and multiplication: we’d assume multiplying takes more energy than adding, because multiplying is adding in sequence. But Martin showed how it all boils down to how far electrons need to travel. The broad-stroke narrative behind why GPUs are better for deep learning is that they shuffle electrons around criss-cross structures that look like matrices as opposed to putting them into the linear straight-jacket of the CPU. But the geometry can get more fine-grained and complex, as the 256×256 array in Google’s TPU shows. I’m keen to dig into the most elegant geometry for designing for Bayesian inference and sampling from posterior distributions.

[3] Technology culture loves to fetishize failure. Jeremy Epstein helped me realize that failure is only fun if it’s the mid point of a narrative that leads to a turn of events ending with triumphant success. This is complex. I believe in growth mindsets like Ray Dalio proposes in his Principles: there is real, transformative power in shifting how our minds interpret the discomfort that accompanies learning or stretching oneself to do something not yet mastered. I jump with joy at the opportunity to transform the paralyzing energy of anxiety into the empowering energy of growth, and believe its critical that more women adopt this mindset so they don’t hold themselves back from positions they don’t believe they are qualified for. Also, it makes total sense that we learn much, much more from failures than we do from successes, in science, where it’s important to falsify, as in any endeavor where we have motivation to change something and grow. I guess what’s important here is that we don’t reduce our empathy for the very real pain of being in the midst of failure, of not feeling like one doesn’t have what other have, of being outside the comfort of the bell curve, of the time it takes to outgrow the inheritance and pressure from the last generation and the celebrations of success. Worth exploring.

[4] One is from Tim Urban, as in this Google Talk about superintelligence. I really, really like Urban’s blog. His recent post about choosing a career is remarkably good and his Ted talk on procrastination is one of my favorite things on the internet. But his big picture narrative about AI irks me.

[5] Milton actually wrote a book about logic and was even a logic tutor. It’s at once incredibly boring and incredibly interesting stuff.

The featured image is the 1808 Butts Set version of William Blake’s “Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve.” Blake illustrated many of Milton’s works and illustrated Paradise Lost three times, commissioned by three different patrons. The color scheme is slightly different between the Thomas, Butts, and Linnell illustration sets. I prefer the Butts. I love this image. In it, I see Adam relegated to a supporting actor, a prop like a lamp sitting stage left to illuminate the real action between Satan and Eve. I feel empathy for Satan, want to ease his loneliness and forgive him for his unbridled ambition, as he hurdles himself tragically into the figure of the serpent to seduce Eve. I identify with Eve, identify with her desire for more, see through her eyes as they look beyond the immediacy of the sexual act and search for transcendence, the temptation that ultimately leads to her fall. The pain we all go through as we wise into acceptance, and learn how to love. 

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Blake’s image reminds me of this masterful kissing scene in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960)The scene focuses on Monica Vitti, rendering Gabriele Ferzetti an instrument for her pleasure and her interior movement between resistance and indulgence. Antonioni takes the ossified paradigm of the male gaze and pushes it, exposing how culture can suffocate instinct as we observe Vitti abandon herself momentarily to her desire.

Details that Make a Difference

George E. Smith may be the best kept secret in academia.

The words aren’t mine: they belong to Daniel Dennett.* He said them yesterday at On the Question of Evidence, a conference Tufts University hosted to celebrate George’s life and work. George sat in the second row during the day’s presentations. I watched him listen attentively, every once and a while bowing his head the way he does when he gets emotional, humbly displacing praise to another giant upon whose shoulders he claims to have stood. I. Bernard Cohen, Ken Wilson, Curtis Wilson, Tom Whiteside (I remember George’s anecdote about meeting Whiteside in a bookstore and saying he genuflected before his brilliant scholarship on Newtonian mathematics). He unabashedly had the first word after every talk, most of the time articulating an anecdote (anyone who knows George knows that he likes to tell stories) about how someone else taught him an idea or taking the opportunity to articulate some crisp, crucial maxim in philosophy of science. Perhaps my favourite part of the entire day was listening to him interrupt Dan’s story about how they jointly founded the computer science program at Tufts, back in the days of Minsky and Good ol’ fashioned AI**, George stepping in to provide additional details about their random colour pixel generation program (random until the output looked a little too much like plaid), recollecting dates and details with ludicrous precision, as is his capability and wont.

Almost every conference attendee had at least one thing in common: we’d taken George’s Newton seminar, unique in its kind, one of the most complete, erudite, stimulating academic experiences in the world today. Some conference attendees, like Eric Schliesser and Bill Bradley, took the seminar back in its infancy in the 80s and early 90s. I took it with Kant scholar Michael Friedman at Stanford in 2009. Each year George builds on the curriculum, collaborating with students on some open research question, only to incorporate new learnings into next year’s (or some future year’s) curriculum. Perhaps the hallmark of a truly significant thinker is that her work is as rich and complex as the natural world, containing second-order ideas like second-order phenomena, phenomena that no one observes–or even can observe!–the first time they look. Details masked behind more dominant regularities, but that, in time and through the gradual and patience process of measurement, observation, and research, become visible through the mediation of theory. Theories as anchors to see the invisible.

This recursive process of knowledge and growth isn’t unique to George’s teaching. It characterizes his seminal contribution to the philosophy of science.

Many of the conference speakers drew from George’s stunning 2014 article Closing the Loop. The article is the culmination of 20 years of work studying how Newton changed standards for high-quality evidence. We often assume that Newton’s method is hypothetical-deductive, where the reasoning structure is to formulate a hypothesis that could be falsified by a test on observable data, and collect observations to either falsify (if observations disagree with what the hypothesis predicts) or corroborate (if observations agree) a theory.*** George thinks that Newton is up to something different. He cites Newton’s “Copernicum scholium,” where Newton states that, given the complexities of forces that determine planetary motion, considering “simultaneously all these causes of motion and [defining] these motions by exact laws admitting of easy calculation exceeds…the force of any human mind.” George writes:

The complexity of true motions was always going to leave room for competing theories if only because the true motions were always going to be beyond precise description, and hence there could always be multiple theories agreeing with observation to any given level of approximation. On my reading, the Principia is one sustained response to this evidence problem.

George goes on to argue that Newtonian idealizations, the simplified, geometric theories that predict how a particular system of bodies would behave under specifiable circumstances, aren’t theories to align directly with observations, but thinking tools, counterfactuals that predict how the world would behave if it were only governed by a few forces (e.g., a system only subject to gravity versus a system subject to gravity and magnetism). Newton expects that observations won’t fit predictions, because he knows the world is more complex than mathematical models can describe. Instead, discrepancies become a source of high-quality evidence to both corroborate a theory and render hypotheses ever more precise and encompassing as we incorporate in new details about the world. If Newton can isolate how a system would behave under the force of gravity, the question becomes, what, if any, further forces are at work? According to George, then, Newton didn’t propose a static method for falsifying hypotheses with observations and data. He proposed a dynamic research strategy that could encompass an ongoing program of navigating the gulf between idealizations and observations. Importantly, as Michael Friedman showed in his talk, theories can be the necessary condition for certain types of measurement: there is a difference between plotting data points indicating the position of Jupiter at two points in time and measuring Jupiter’s acceleration in its orbit. The second is theory-mediated measurement, where the theory relating mass to acceleration via the force of gravity makes it possible to measure mass from acceleration. Also importantly, because discrepancies between theory and observations don’t direct falsify a hypothesis, the Newtonian scientific paradigm was more resilient, requiring a different type of discrepancy to pave the way to General Relativity (while I get the gist of why Einstein required space-time curvature to explain the precession of Mercury’s orbit, I must admit I don’t yet understand it as deeply as I’d like).****

While George is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts in Isaac Newton, his talents and interests are wide-ranging. Alongside his career as a philosopher, he has a second, fully-developed career (not just a hobby) as a jet engine engineer focused on failure analysis. He has a keen sensibility for literature: he introduced me to Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels I have sense devoured. He knows his way around modern art, having dated artist Eva Hesse during his undergraduate years at Yale. He treats his wife India, who is herself incredible, with love and respect. He takes pride in having coached basketball to underprivileged students on Boston’s south side. The list literally goes on and on.

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A picture of George doing what he does best.

The commentary that touched me deepest came from Tufts Dean of Academic Affairs Nancy Bauer. Nancy commented on the fact that she wouldn’t be where she is today if it weren’t for George, that he believed there was a place for feminist philosophy in the academy before other departments caught on. She also commented on what is perhaps George’s most important skill: his ability to at once challenge students to rise to just beyond the limits of their potential and to imbue them with the confidence they need to succeed.

This is not meaningful to me in the abstract. It is concrete and personal.

I took George’s course during the spring trimester of my second year in graduate school. I was intimidated: my graduate degree is in comparative literature, and while I had majored in mathematics as an undergrad, I was unwaveringly insecure about my abilities to reason precisely. Some literature students are comfortable in their skin; they live and breath words, images, tropes, analogies. I teetered in a no man’s land between math, philosophy, history, literature, gorging with curiosity and encyclopedic drive but never disciplined enough to do one thing with excellence. The first (or second? George would know…) day of class, I approached George and told him I was worried about taking the course as a non-philosopher. I was definitely concerned few times trying to muscle my way through the logic of Newton’s proofs in the Principia (it was heartening to learn that John Locke barely understood it). But George asked me about my background and, learning I’d studied math, smiled in a way that couldn’t but give me confidence. He helped me define a topic for my final paper focused on the history of math, evaluating the concept of what Newton calls “first and last ratios”, akin to but not quite limits, in the Principia. He was proud of my paper. I was proud of my paper. But what matters is not the scholarship, it’s what I learned in the process.

George taught me how to overcome my insecurities and find a place of strength to do great work. He taught me how to love my future students, my future colleagues, how to pay close attention to their strengths, interests, weaknesses, and to shape experiences that can push them to be their best while imbuing them with the confidence they need to succeed. I carry the experience I had in George’s course with me every day to work. He taught me what it means to act with integrity as a mentor, colleague, and teacher.

I’ll close with an excerpt from an email George sent me September 29, 2017. I’d sent him a copy of Melville’s The Confidence Man to thank him for being on my podcast. Closing his thank you note, he wrote:

“I was pleased with your comment in the note attached to the gift about continuing influence. You had already, however, given me one of the more special gifts I have received in the last couple of years, namely the name of your site. I find nothing in life more gratifying than to see that someone learned something in one of my classes that they have continued to find special.”

Quam proxime, “most nearly to the highest degree possible,” occurs 139 times in the Principia. George became obsessed with what it means for grasping the place for approximation in Newtonian science. I co-opted it to refer to my own quest to achieve the delicate, precious balance between precision and soul, to guide me in my quest for meaning. How grateful I am that George is part of my process, always continuing, always growing, as we migrate the beautiful complexities of our world.


*George and Dan were my second guests on the In Context podcast, during which we discussed the relationship between data and evidence.

**Over lunch, “uncle Dan” (again, his words, not mine) predicted that the current generation of deep learning researchers would likely take a bottoms up, trial and error approach to inferring the same structured, taxonomical web of knowledge the GOFAI research community tried to define top down back in the 1950s-80s, of course will a bit more lubrication than the brittle systems of yore. This shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Dan’s work, as he often, as in From Bacteria to Bach and Back, writes about systems that appear to exhibit the principles of top-down intelligent design without ever having had an intentional intelligent designer. For example, life and minds.

***I won’t go into the nuances of scientific reasoning in this post, so won’t talk about processes to use data to select amidst competing hypotheses.

****I asked Bill Harper a question about the difference between Bayesian uncertainty and the delta between prediction, likelihood, and data, and the uncertainty and approximations George bakes into the Newtonian research paradigm. I’m looking to better understand different types of inference.

The featured image shows the overlap between the observed and predicted values of gravitational waves, observed by two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGOs) in Washington and Louisiana on September 14, 2015. Allan Franklin, one of the conference speakers, showed this image and pointed out he found the visual proof of the overlap between prediction and observation more compelling than the 5-sigma effect in the data (that’s an interesting epistemological question about evidence!). He also commented how wonderful it must have been to be in the room with the LIGO researches when the event occurred. To learn more, I highly recommend Janna Levin’s Black Hole Blues and Other Sounds from Outer Space

Of Basilicas and Sandcastles

Sandstone blushed pink, washed gold drips spires like kids plodding sand clods, layer upon layer tapering into antique vases and Victorian crowns, cobweb queens crooning nocturnal arias of desert winds in desert pines, ghosts within Native American ghosts, burnt sage bushes carmelizing wellbeing and peace as they caress their canyons, their friends, leaving them be, pruning caves where they might dwell and carve and paint and eat, ghosts long silenced by Manifest Destiny blasting His metallic, electric, self-driving cries to Mars, for yes, the future is already here, just not evenly distributed, moguls gluttonously rich as our anorexic middle class, addicted to their heroine gaze in selfie sticks and Facebook Likes, vanishes from photos like Trotsky, a Mexican ice pick nailing his moustache to the cross, forsaken by his father as parched tears transubstantiate into blood droplets fixed in sacred time together with the ocean hoodoos, voodoo rocks moving, flowing, crooning their ocean hymns with the wind queens till ice cracks the foundations and the avalanche falls.

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The precious colour schemes of Bryce Canyon, up close.

But, somehow, these same rosy blushes and gold lashes appear in Barcelona, on the recently restored façade of Gaudí’s unfinished Sagrada Familia.

I behold the Barcelonan stone blushed pink, washed gold and time somersaults in my lonely chest. Bryce Canyon and the Sagrada Familia stand, silent, 5,586 miles apart. They have co-existed for 136 years. Neither is complete; neither ever will be. The truth is that their pink gold stones likely aren’t very similar to the scientific eye. But to me they are. Similar enough to tear apart the fabric of time as a lover tears silk to expose milk skin, Harem beauty, breasts blanched only by moon rays. So similar that tears pierce their possibility. I don’t hold them back even if others are watching. The others are busy being with loved ones anyway. No one watches. No one except every sometimes the perfect meeting eye to eye, not the groping kind, the seeking kind, the kind astonished to have encountered a self, a soul, curious to see deep inside for an instant, to cradle the shock of what must be beauty, observant enough to recognize unique meeting unique before the footsteps go too far and a we vanishes, stillborn.

I stand alone in Barcelona, walking streets watching others walk streets with others. My very loneliness grants me passage back to the silent sandcastles of Bryce Canyon. Inside this crevice of similarity, I recognize two separate constructions that have come to be one through the patient ravishing of wear and time. In Barcelona, by the grime of the city, exhaust from bankers’ lungs twitching stock exchange profit, orange precipitating scallops doused in chorizo oil; in Bryce, by the violence of the desert, ice tearing limestone hymen with glacier patience, tourist footsteps gently tweezing out the old ocean soul in camera flashes and plastic baggies. The difference is that in Barcelona this pristine blush of pink and gold only juts out when juxtaposed to the tarnished, uncleaned façade, whereas in Bryce it cannot but swallow everyone in its magnificence. It’s likely I wouldn’t have perceived the shocking similarity had I visited Barcelona a few months later, presuming the restoration work will have advanced to no longer leave the striking difference between clean and dirty façades. And I wouldn’t have been primed to see the similarity had I not visited Bryce Canyon just a few weeks before. I, then,–and by I, I mean the set of experiences collected into this unifier we call memory and consciousness, where analogies forge similarity in blacksmith strokes—am the condition of the similarity. It took me moving between continents to notice this unique and beautiful elision. And, it’s likely that it took me being alone to feel it deeply enough to make it matter. Had I wandered the world with a companion, I probably would have noticed the similarities, but they probably wouldn’t have penetrated deeply into the place where the beauty breathes so pure it hurts. Hurts because it carries with it the basic fact of my existence, inviting me to have a seat. To feast upon my life.

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It’s the pink and orange hues of the left façade that caught my eye.

Why yes, the hues of pink and gold in the muted limestone of Bryce Canyon and Barcelona are so beautiful because the perception of their similarity is the trace of my existence. The heightening of what is to what is meaningful. It’s a nostalgic and slightly mourning meaning, as walking the streets of Barcelona I think about García Llorca’s Yerma*, a play about a woman who never bears a child. I often face moments of sadness at not being married, not having children, not being cushioned by normativity’s blessings. But my jealousy and covetousness for others’ lives have eased over time. This is evident in how my relationship with my mother has changed. I’ve done the emotional prep work of still being without child at 40 or 45, empathizing with a future self in a future state and thereby also growing more compassionate to others, today. I’ve experienced many places and opened my heart to many people. It’s an existence worth a second act.

This took place yesterday morning. Saturday. Friday afternoon I recovered a different past. It’s likely Friday’s experience primed my mind and my emotions to notice Saturday’s sandstone similarities.

For Friday I walked into the Picasso museum in Barcelona’s Gothic quarter. The air was damp but the rain held off, at least then (later on I waited out the raindrops with strangers under a group of trees near the waterfront, watching a mother spoon yogurt to some little mouth covered by stroller canvas; the little one seemed to eat well, the yogurt went fast). I’d wandered to the Cathedral, saw the foreboding chiaro-oscuro of the heraldic escutcheons, black and shadowed and tall into cracked gothic arches. I wandered through narrow streets weaved with balconies, some square, others round like Gaudí hobbit holes.

The Picasso museum is housed in a medieval cloister. The entrance is asymmetric, with matte greens and greys and a staircase up the right-hand side. Standing in line for tickets, I encountered my sixteen-year-old self. She was waiting for me; she had never left; she lived in the matte green of the entrance hall. I relived the mild disgust noticing our Spanish teacher’s fanny pack hang like a limp holster under the taught piqué cotton of his mint green polo shirt, I saw the moles on his hairy legs and the forced kindness in his smile. He stood there waiting for all 17 or 18 or 20 of us to gather in the museum. Watching him, sixteen, I relived my projection of myself in the eyes of the boys on the trip, they were juniors, I was a sophomore, I had a crush on Lyle, my experience of Gaudí’s balconies and Picasso’s cubism and Velázquez’s portraits and Franco’s phallic monument and the Roman aqueducts in Segovia were filtered through this prism of insecurity and adolescent desire, my personality still so much in flux, my introversion still so marked. I brought my violin to Spain and played every day. I brought a suitcase that was much too large, as I had yet to pride myself on my practicality, how easily I could move about the world. At the time, I was absorbed by the pulse of my feelings, by the inklings of the self I wanted to project. I was so governed by how I thought others perceived me; still am, but more so then. Painfully so then, my superego cruel and chastising. I jumped forward a few years, into my mid twenties, where I regretted my stupid crushes and insecurity and self-absorption, as I didn’t have strong memories of the objects and monuments and art I was supposed to have learned about. I was so focused on Lyle, so focused on how I projected Lyle saw me, that I missed out on Gaudí, Barcelona, Spain.

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The entrance to the Picasso museum, where I remembered things past.

But now, years later, I love the distortions. I love how walking into the Picasso museum on a damp Friday afternoon, I recover not just the memory of the place, but the feelings and vulnerability and sensations of the past observer. I love how I’m still there in my sensitivity, still there shaping observations based on who I am and what I’ve lived and where I project I might find future happiness. And that that snapshot of a self in development is still available to inhabit, to re-inhabit once more. That we can become again. That just as the pink and gold hues collapse space into the pulse of a single mind, so too do the matte greens collapse time, the identity of place revealing a self growing in time. Eighteen years of experience elapsed under a staircase.

I walked upstairs and, migrating at my own pace from room to room, understood how, like David Bowie, Picasso didn’t have one style, but iterated upon a given style in a given creative period until it was exhausted, then moved on. Impressionism cedes to the blue period cedes to the Russian ballets cedes to cubism cedes to the bombastic primitivism cedes to recreating las Meninas cedes to ad infinitum adoration of his wife cedes to the black and white still lives of old age. It was his recreating Las Meninas that caught my attention. Picasso takes this work, this exemplar of Spanish Golden Age style, where Velázquez enacts the Christ-like elision of creator and spectator, the Baroque practice of inverting the artwork—as representation of reality—to fuse the moment of creation with the moment of observation, perfected through the gaze of the painter himself as of the man escaping from the back lit door, well, Picasso takes this work and exploits the conceit of the artist and, with algorithmic insistence, repaints and repaints and recreates, distilling the essence of the form in the variations of style and look and feel. And the variations themselves eclipse his own journey as a painter, never tied to one style, always free to pivot and redefine himself anew. Picasso’s Meninas telescoping my own experience recovering my younger self, the privilege of my loneliness opening me raw and whole to meet him there, to imagine I might be with him and the pigeons while he painted. Another meeting eye to eye, the seeking kind, inside the artist, back to Velázquez. Complete in a way that can only be described as human.

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My favourite rendition of Picasso’s Las Meninas, a series from 1957.

*I picked up a book in the airport in Barcelona, nearly finished with Galloway’s diatribe against the Four. Niebla en Tánger, by Cristina López Barrio. Funny I’d just mentioned Yerma as I wrote this post on the plane, for I came across this sentence from a similarly childless protagonist: “Está vacío, como el de Yerma, piensa, hueco por esperar vida del hombre equivocado.”

The featured image dates from my recent trip to Bryce Canyon. It’s like a big field of deep dream art, dripping in its delicate phantasy. It was my favourite of the Utah canyons. 

 

Privacy Beyond the Individual

This week’s coverage of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica debacle[1] (latest Guardian article) has brought privacy top of mind and raised multiple complex questions[2]:

Is informed consent nothing but a legal fiction in today’s age of data and machine learning, where “ongoing and extensive data collection can be neither fully informed nor truly consensual — especially since it is practically irrevocable?”

Is tacit consent–our silently agreeing to the fine print of privacy policies as we continue to use services–something we prefer to grant given the nuisance, time, and effort required to understand the nuances of data use? Is consent as a mechanism too reliant upon the supposition that privacy is an individual right and, therefore, available for an individual to exchange–in varying degrees–for the benefits and value from some service provider (i.e.,  Facebook likes satisfying our need to be both loved and lovely)? If consent is defunct, what legal structure should replace it?

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Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith wrote about our need to love and be lovely in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. I’m dying to dig back into Smith because I suspect his work can help show that even personalization and online consumerism independent of any political context dulls our capacities to be active, rational participants in democracy. Indeed, listening to Russ Roberts’s EconTalk podcast, I’ve learned that Smith argued that commerce, i.e., in-person transactions with strangers to exchange value, provides an opportunity to practice regulating our emotions, as we can’t devolve into temper tantrums and emotional outbursts like we do with our families and spouses (the inimical paradoxes of intimacy…) if we want to get business done. Roberts wrote a poem extolling the wonders if libertarian emergence called It’s a Wonderful Loaf.

How should we update outdated notions of what qualifies as personally identifiable information (PII), which already vary across different countries and cultures, to account for the fact contemporary data processing techniques can infer aspects of our personal identity from our online (and, increasingly, offline) behavior that feel more invasive and private than our name and address? Can more harm be done to an individual using her social security/insurance number than psychographic traits? In which contexts?

Would regulatory efforts to force large companies like Facebook to “lock down” data they have about users actually make things worse, solidifying their incumbent position in the market (as Ben Thompson and Mike Masnick argue)?

Is the best solution, as Cory Doctorow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues, to shift from having users (tacitly) consent to data use, based on trust and governed by the indirect forces of market demand (people will stop using your product if they stop trusting you) and moral norms, to building privacy settings in the fabric of the product, enabling users to engage more thoughtfully with tools?[3]

Many more qualified than I are working to inform clear opinions on what matters to help entrepreneurs, technologists, policymakers, and plain-old people[4] respond. As I grapple with this, I thought I’d share a brief and incomplete history of the thinking and concepts undergirding privacy. I’ll largely focus on the United States because it would be a book’s worth of material to write even brief histories of privacy in other cultures and contexts. I pick the United States not because I find it the most important or interesting, but because it happens to be what I know best. My inspiration to wax historical stems from a keynote I gave Friday about the history of artificial intelligence (AI)[5] for AI + Public Policy: Understanding the shift, hosted by the Brookfield Institute in Toronto.

As is the wont of this blog, the following ideas are far from exhaustive and polished. I offer them for your consideration and feedback.


The Fourth Amendment: Knock-and-Announce

As my friend Lisa Sotto eloquently described in a 2015 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, the United States (U.S.) considers privacy as a consumer right, parsed across different business sectors, and the European Union (EU) considers privacy as a human right, with a broader and more holistic concept of what kinds of information qualify as sensitive. Indeed, one look at the different definitions of sensitive personal data in the U.S. and France in the DLA Piper Data Protection Laws of the World Handbook shows that the categories and taxonomies are operating at different levels. In the U.S., sensitive data is parsed by data type; in France, sensitive data is parsed by data feature:

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Screenshot from the DLA Piper Data Protection Handbook. They conveniently organize information so a reader can compare how two countries differ on aspects of privacy law.

It seems potentially, possibly plausible (italics indicating I’m really unsure about this) that the U.S. concept of privacy as being fundamentally a consumer right dates back to the original elision of privacy and property in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

We forget how tightly entwined protection of property was to early U.S. political theory. In his Leviathan, for example, seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes derives his theory of legitimate sovereign power (and the notion of the social contract that influenced founding fathers like Jefferson and Madison) from the need to provide individuals with some recourse against intrusions on their property; otherwise we risk devolving to the perpetually anxious and miserable state of the war of all against all, where anyone can come in and ransack our stuff at any time.

The Wikipedia page on the Fourth Amendment explains it as a countermeasure against general warrants and writs of assistance British colonial tax collectors were granted to “search the homes of colonists and seize ‘prohibited and uncustomed’ goods.” What matters for this brief history is the foundation that early privacy law protected people’s property–their physical homes–from searches, inspections, and other forms of intrusion or surveillance by the government.

Katz v. United States: Reasonable Expectations of Privacy

Over the past 50 years, new technologies have fracked the bedrock assumptions of the Fourth Amendment.[6] The case law is expansive and vastly exceeds the cursory overview I’ll provide in this post. Cindy Cohn from the Electronic Frontier Foundation has written extensively and lucidly on the subject.[7] As has Daniel Solove.

Perhaps the seminal case shaping contemporary U.S. privacy law is Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). A 2008 presentation from Artemus Ward at Northern Illinois University presents the facts and a summary of the Supreme Court Justices’ opinions in these three slides (there are also dissenting opinions):

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Katz+v.+United+States+(1967)+Justice+Potter+Stewart+Delivered+the+Opinion+of+the+Court

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There are two key questions here:

  • Does the right to privacy extend to telephone booths and other public places?
  • Is a physical intrusion necessary to constitute a search?

Justice Harlan’s comments regarding the “actual (subjective) expectation of privacy” that society is prepared to recognize as “reasonable” marked a conceptual shift to pave the way for the Fourth Amendment to make sense in the digital age. Katz shifted the locus of constitutional protections against unwarranted government surveillance from one’s private home–property that one owns–to public places that social norms recognize as private in practice if not name (a few cases preceding Katz paved the way for this judgment).

This is watershed: when any public space can be interpreted as private in the eyes of the beholder, the locus of privacy shifts from an easy-to-agree-upon-objective-space like someone’s home, doors locked and shades shut, to a hard-to-agree-upon-subjective-mindset like someone’s expectation of what should be private, even if it’s out in a completely public space, just as long as those expectations aren’t crazy (i.e., that annoying lady somehow expecting that no one is listening to her uber-personal conversation about the bad sex she had with the new guy from Tinder as she stands in a crowded checkout line waiting to purchase her chia seed concoction and her gluten-free crackers[8]) but accord with the social norms and practices of a given moment and generation.

Imagine how thorny it becomes to decide what qualifies as a reasonable expectation for privacy when we shift from a public phone booth occupied by one person who can shut the door (as in Katz) to:

  • internet service providers shuffling billions of text messages, phone calls, and emails between individuals, where (perhaps?) the standard expectation is that when we go through the trouble of protecting information with a password (or two-factor authentication), we’re branding these communications as private, not to be read by the government or the private company providing us with the service (and metadata?);
  • GPS devices placed on the bottom of vehicles, as in United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012), which in themselves may not seem like something everyone has to worry about often but which, given the category of data they generate, are similar to any and all information about how we transact and move in the world, revealing not just what our name is but which coffee shops and doctors (or lovers or political co-conspirators) we visit on a regular basis, prompting Justice Sandra Sotomayor to be very careful in her judgments;
  • social media platforms like Facebook, pseudo-public in nature, that now collect and analyze not only structured data on our likes and dislikes, but, thanks to advancing AI capabilities, image, video, text, and speech data;
  • etc.
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Slide from Kosta Derpanis‘s extremely witty and engaging talk on computer vision at Friday’s AI + Public Policy Conference. This shows how Facebook is now applying computer vision techniques to analyze images users post, not just structured data about what they like and dislike.

Just as Zeynep Tufecki argues that informed consent loses its power in an age where most users of internet services and products don’t rigorously understand what use of their data they’re consenting too, so too does Cohn believe that the “‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ test currently employed in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence is a poor test for the digital age.”[9] As with any shift from criticism to pragmatic solutions, however, the devil is in the details. If we eliminate a reasonableness test because it’s too flimsy for the digital age, what do we replace it to achieve the desired outcomes of protecting individual rights to free speech and preventing governmental overreach? Do we find a way to measure actual harm suffered by an individual? Or should we, as Lex Gill suggested Friday, somehow think about privacy as a public good rather than an individual choice requiring individual consent? What are the different harms we need to guard against in different contexts, given that use of data for targeted marketing has different ramifications than government wiretapping?

These questions are tricky to parse because, in an age where so many aspects of our lives are digital, privacy bleeds into and across different contexts of social, political, commercial, and individual activity. As Helen Nissenbaum has masterfully shown, our subjective experience of what’s appropriate in different social contexts influences our reasonable expectations of privacy in digital contexts. We don’t share all the intimate details of our personal life with colleagues in the same way we do with close friends or doctors bound by duties of confidentiality. Add to that that certain social contexts demand frivolity (that ironic self you fashion on Facebook) and others, like politics, invite a more aspirational self.[10] Nissenbaum’s theory of contextual integrity, where privacy is preserved when information flows respect the implicit, socially-constructed boundaries that graft the many sub-identities we perform and inhabit as individuals, applies well to Cambridge Analytica debacle. People are less concerned by private companies using social media data for psychographic targeting than they are for political targeting; the algorithms driving stickiness on site and hyper-personalized advertising aren’t fit to promote the omnivorous, balanced information diet required to understand different sides of arguments in a functioning democracy. Being at once watering hole to chat with friends, media company to support advertising, and platform for political persuasion, Facebook collapses distinct social spheres into one digital platform (which also complicates anti-trust arguments, as evident in this  excellent Intelligence Squared debate).

A New New Deal on Data: Privacy in the Age of Machine Learning

In 2009, Alex “Sandy” Pentland of the MIT Media Lab began the final section of his article calling for a “new deal” on data as follows:

Perhaps the greatest challenge posed by this new ability to sense the pulse of humanity is creating a “new deal” around questions of privacy and data ownership. Many of the network data that are available today are freely offered because the entities that control the data have difficulty extracting value from them. As we develop new analytical methods, however, this will change.[11]

This ability to “sense the pulse of humanity,” writes Pentland earlier in the article, arises from the new data generation, collection, and processing tools that have effectively given the human race “the beginnings of a working nervous system.” Pentland contrasts what we are able to know about people’s behavior today–where we move in the world, how many times our hearts beat per minute, whom we love, whom we are attracted to, what movies we watch and when, what books we read and stop reading in between, etc–with the “single-shot, self-report data” data, e.g., yearly censuses, public polls, and focus groups, that characterized demographic statistics in the recent past. Note that back in 2009, the hey day of the big data (i.e., collecting and storing data) era, Pentland commented that while a ton of data was collected, companies had difficulty extracting value. It was just a lot of noise backed by the promise of analytic potential.

This has changed.

Machine learning has unlocked the potential and risks of the massive amounts of data collected about people.

The standard risk assessment tools (like privacy impact assessments) used by the privacy community today focus on protecting the use of particular types of data, PII like proper names and e-mail addresses. There is a whole industry and tool kit devoted to de-identification and anonymization, automatically removing PII while preserving other behavioral information for statistical insights. The problem is that this PII-centric approach to privacy misses the boat in the machine learning age. Indeed, what Cambridge Analytica brought to the fore was the ability to use machine learning to probabilistically infer not proper names but features and types from behavior: you don’t need to check a gender box for the system to make a reasonably confident guess that you are a woman based on the pictures you post and the words you use; private data from conversations with your psychiatrist need not be leaked for the system to peg you as neurotic. Deep learning is so powerful because it is able to tease out and represent hierarchical, complex aspects of data that aren’t readily and effectively simplified down variables we can keep track of and proportionately weight in our heads: these algorithms can, therefore, tease meaning out of a series of actions in time. This may not peg you as you, but it can peg you as one of a few whose behavior can be impacted using a given technique to achieve a desired outcome.

Three things have shifted:

  • using machine learning, we can probabilistically construct meaningful units that tell us something about people without standard PII identifiers;
  • because we can use machine learning, the value of data shifts from the individual to statistical insights across a distribution; and
  • breaches of privacy that occur at the statistical layer instead of the individual data layer require new kinds of privacy protections and guarantees.

The technical solution to this last bullet point is a technique called differential privacy. Still in the early stages of commercial adoption,[12] differential privacy thinks about privacy as the extent to which individual data impacts the shape of some statistical distribution. If what we care about is the insight, not the person, then let’s make it so we can’t reverse engineer how one individual contributed to that insight. In other words, the task is to modify a database such that:

if you have two otherwise identical databases, one with your information and one without it, the probability that a statistical query will produce a given result is (nearly) the same whether it’s conducted on the first or second database.

Here’s an example Matthew Green from Johns Hopkins gives to help develop an intuition for how this works:

Imagine that you choose to enable a reporting feature on your iPhone that tells Apple if you like to use the 💩  emoji routinely in your iMessage conversations. This report consists of a single bit of information: 1 indicates you like 💩 , and 0 doesn’t. Apple might receive these reports and fill them into a huge database. At the end of the day, it wants to be able to derive a count of the users who like this particular emoji.

It goes without saying that the simple process of “tallying up the results” and releasing them does not satisfy the DP definition, since computing a sum on the database that contains your information will potentially produce a different result from computing the sum on a database without it. Thus, even though these sums may not seem to leak much information, they reveal at least a little bit about you. A key observation of the differential privacy research is that in many cases, DP can be achieved if the tallying party is willing to add random noise to the result. For example, rather than simply reporting the sum, the tallying party can inject noise from a Laplace or gaussian distribution, producing a result that’s not quite exact — but that masks the contents of any given row.

This is pretty technical. It takes time to understand it, in particular if you’re not steeped in statistics day in and day out, viewing the world as a set of dynamic probability distributions. But it poses a big philosophical question in the context of this post.

In the final chapters of Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari proposes that we are moving from the age of Humanism (where meaning emanates from the perspective of the individual human subject) to the age of Dataism (where we question our subjective viewpoints given our proven predilections for mistakes and bias to instead relegate judgment, authority, and agency to algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves). Reasonable expectations for privacy, as Justice Harlan indicated, are subjective, even if they must be supported by some measurement of norms to qualify as reasonable. Consent is individual and subjective, and results in principles like that of minimum use for an acknowledged purpose because we have limited ability to see beyond ourselves, we create traffic jams because we’re so damned focus on the next step, the proxy, as opposed to viewing the system as a whole from a wider vantage point, and only rarely (I presume?) self-identify and view ourselves under the round curves of a distribution. So, if techniques like differential privacy are better apt to protect us in an age where distributions matter more than data points, how should we construct consent, and how should we shape expectations, to craft the right balance between the liberal values we’ve inherited and this mathematical world we’re building? Or, do we somehow need to reformulate our values to align with Dataism?

And, perhaps most importantly, what should peaceful resistance look like and what goals should it achieve?


[1] What one decides to call the event reveals a lot about how one interprets it. Is it a breach? A scandal? If so, which actor exhibits scandalous behavior: Nix for his willingness to profit from the manipulation of people’s psychology to support the election of an administration that is toppling democracy? Zuckerberg for waiting so long to acknowledge that his social media empire is more than just an advertising platform and has critical impacts on politics and society? The Facebook product managers and security team for lacking any real enforcement mechanisms to audit and verify compliance with data policies? We the people, who have lost our ability and even desire to read critically, as we prefer the sensationalism of click bait, goading technocrats to optimize for whatever headline keeps us hooked to our feed, ever curious for more? Our higher education system, which, falling to economic pressures that date back to (before but were aggravated by) the 2008-2009 financial crisis are cutting any and all curricula for which it’s hard to find a direct, casual line to steady and lucrative employment, as our education system evolves from educating a few thoughtful priests to educating many industrial workers to educating engineers who can build stuff and optimize everything and define proxies and identify efficiencies so we can go faster, faster until we step back and take the time to realize the things we are building may not actually align with our values, that, perhaps, we may need to retain and reclaim our capacities to reflect and judge and reason if we want to sustain the political order we’ve inherited? Or perhaps all of this is just the symptom of much larger, complex trend in World History that we’re unable to perceive, that the Greeks were right in thinking that forms of government pass through inevitable cycles with the regularity of the earth rotating around the sun (an historical perspective itself, as the Greeks thought the inverse) and we should throw our hands up like happy nihilists, bowing down to the unstoppable systemic forces of class warfare, the give and take between the haves and the have nots, little amino acids ever unable to perceive how we impact the function of proteins and how they impact us in return?

And yet, it feels like there may be nothing more important than to understand this and to do what little–what big–we can to make the world a better place. This is our dignity, quixotic though it may be.

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The Greek term for the cycle of political regimes is anacyclosis. Interestingly enough, there is an institute devoted to this idea, seemingly located in North Carolina. Their vision is to “halt the cycle of revolution while democracy prevails.”

[2] One aspect of the fiasco* I won’t write about but that merits at least passing mention is Elon Musk’s becoming the mascot for the #DeleteFacebook movement (too strong a word?). The New York Times coverage of Musk’s move references Musk and Zuckerberg’s contrasting opinions on the risks AI might pose to humanity. From what I understand, as executives, they both operate on extremely long time scales (i.e., 100 years in the future), projecting way out into speculative futures and working backwards to decide what small steps man should take today to enable Man to take giant future leaps (gender certainly intended, especially in Musk’s case, as I find his aesthetic and many of the very muscular men I’ve met from Tesla at conferences is not dissimilar from the nationalistic masculinity performed by Vladimir Putin). Musk rebuffed Zuckerberg’s criticism that Musk’s rhetoric about the existential threat AI poses to humanity is “irresponsible” by saying that Zuckerberg’s “understanding of the subject is limited.” I had some cognitive dissonance reading this, as I presumed the risk Musk was referring to was that of super-intelligence run amok (à la Nick Bostrom, whom I admittedly reference as a straw man) rather than that of our having created an infrastructure that exacerbates short-term, emotional responses to stimuli and thereby threatens the information exchange required for democracy to function (see Alexis de Tocqueville on the importance of newspapers in Democracy in America). My takeaway from all of this is that there are so many different sub-issues all wrapped up together, and that we in the technology community really do need to work as hard as we can to references specifics rather than allow for the semantic slippage that leaves interpretation in the mind of the beholder. It’s SO HARD to do this, especially for pubic figures like Musk, given that people’s attention spans are limited and we like punchy quotables at a very high level. The devil is always in the details.

[3] Doctorow references Laurence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, which I have yet to read but is hailed as a classic text on the relationship between law and code, where norms get baked into our technologies in the choices of how we write code.

[4] I always got a kick out of the song Human by the Killers, whose lyrics seem to imply a mutually exclusive distinction between human and dancer. Does the animal kingdom offer better paradigms for dancers than us poor humans? Must depend on whether you’re a white dude.

[5] My talk drew largely from Chris Dixon‘s extraordinary Atlantic article How Aristotle Created the Computer. Extraordinary because he deftly encapsulates 2000 years of the history of logic into a compelling, easy-to-read article that truly helps the reader develop intuitions about deterministic computer programs and the shift to a more inductive machine learning paradigm, while also not leaving the reader with the bitter taste of having read an overly general dilettante. Here’s one of my slides, which represents how important it was for the history of computation to visualize and interpret Aristotelian syllogisms as sets (sets lead to algebra lead to encoding in logical gates lead to algorithms).

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As Dixon writes, “You can replace “Socrates” with any other object, and “mortal” with any other predicate, and the argument remains valid. The validity of the argument is determined solely by the logical structure. The logical words — “all,” “is,” are,” and “therefore” — are doing all the work.”

Fortunately (well, we put effort in to coordinate), my talk was a nice primer for Graham Taylor‘s superbly clear introduction to various forms of machine learning. I most liked his section on representation learning, where he showed how the choice of representation of data has an enormous impact on the performance of algorithms:

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The image is from deeplearningbook.org. Note that in Cartesian coordinates, it’s hard to draw a straight line that could separate the blue and green items, whereas in polar coordinates, the division is readily visible. Coordinate choice has a big impact on what qualifies as simple in math. Newton and Descartes, for example, disagreed over the simplicity of the equation for a circle: it’s a pretty complex equation when represented in Cartesian coordinates, but quite simple in Polar coordinates. Our frame of reference is a thinking tool we can use to solve problems — I first learned this in high-school physics, when Clyfe Beckwith taught us that we could tilt our Cartesian coordinates to align with the slope of a hill in a physics problem. It’s a foundational memory I have of ridding myself of ossified assumptions to open the creative thinking space to solve problems, not unlike adding 0 to an algebraic equation to leverage the power of b + -b.

[6] If you’re interested in contemporary Constitutional Law, I highly recommend Roman Mars’s What Trump Can Teach us about Con Law podcast. Mars and Elizabeth Joh, a law school professor at UC Davis, use Trump’s entirely anomalous behavior as catalyst to explore various aspects of the Constitution. I particularly enjoyed the episode about the emoluments clause, which prohibits acceptance of diplomatic gifts to the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, and their spouses. The Protocol Gift Unit keeps public record of all gifts presidents did accept, including justification of why they made the exception. For example, in 2016, former President Obama accepted Courage, an olive green with black flecks soapstone sculpture, depicting the profile of an eagle with half of an indigenous man’s face in the center, valued at $650.00, from His Excellency Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P., Prime Minister of Canada, because “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. Government.”

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Courage on the right. Leo Arcand, the Alberta Cree artist who sculpted it, on the left.

[7] Cindy will be in Toronto for RightsCon May 16-18. I cannot recommend her highly enough. Every time I hear her speak, every time I read her writing, I am floored by her eloquence, precision, and passionate commitment to justice.

[8] Another thing I cannot recommend highly enoug is David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech This is Water. It’s ruthlessly important. It’s tragic to think about the fact that this human, this wonderfully enlightened heart, felt the only appropriate act left was to commit suicide.

[9] A related issue I won’t go into in this post is the third-party doctrine, “under which an individual who voluntarily provides information to a third party loses any reasonable expectation of privacy in that information.” (Cohn)

[10] Eli Pariser does a great job showing the difference between our frivolous and aspiration selves, and the impact this has on filter bubbles, in his 2011 quite prescient monograph.

[11] See also this 2014 Harvard Business Review interview with Pentland. My friend Dazza Greenwood first introduced me to Pentland’s work by presenting the blockchain as an effective means to executive the new deal on data, empowering individuals to keep better track of where data flow and sit, and how they are being used.

[12] Cynthia Dwork’s pioneering work on differential privacy at Microsoft Research dates back to 2006. It’s currently in use at Apple, Facebook, and Google (the most exciting application being fused with federated learning across the network of Android users, to support localized, distributed personalization without requiring that everyone share their digital self with Google’s central servers). Even Uber has released an open-source differential privacy toolset. There are still many limitations to applying these techniques in practice given their impact on model performance and the lack of robust guarantees on certain machine learning models. I don’t know of many instances of startups using the technology yet outside a proud few in the Georgian Partners portfolio, including integrate.ai (where I work) and Bluecore in New York City.

The featured image is from an article in The Daily Dot (which I’ve never heard of) about the Mojave Phone Booth, which, as Roman Mars delightfully narrates in 99% Invisible became a sensation when Godfrey “Doc” Daniels (trust me that link is worth clicking on!!) used the internet to catalogue his quest to find the phone booth working merely from its number: 760-733-9969. The tattered decrepitude of the phone booth, pitched against the indigo of the sunset, is a compelling illustration of the inevitable retrograde character of common law precedent. The opinions in Katz v. United States regarded reasonably expectations for privacy were given at a time when digital communications occurred largely over the phone: is it even possible for us to draw analogies between what privacy meant then and what it could mean now in the age of centralized platform technologies whose foundations are built upon creating user bases and markets to then exchange this data for commercial and political advertising purposes? But, what can we use to anchor ethics and lawful behavior if not the precedent of the past, aligned against a set of larger, overarching principles in an urtext like the constitution, or, in the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an? 

Love 2 | An Indefinite Taxonomy

Love is multivalent.

I’ve been floored by how many readers have engaged with last week’s post about love. As I clumsily expressed in that post, as in so many others, I’m still quite uncomfortable exposing thoughts about affect and emotion. Starting that post as this, I relive a conversation I had with Jean-Marie Apostolidès, a professor in Stanford’s French department, at his home in the 13th arrondissement in Paris in 2008. It was the summer after my first year in graduate school, during which I had taken Jean-Marie’s seminar on Guy Debord, a mid-20th century French kinda-philosopher-but-more-critical-theorist-performer-narcissistic-bastard-but-super-self-aware-and-totally-French dude.* Boris Donné was with us.** Jean-Marie wanted us to meet because we were the nerdiest and mathiest of the scholars interested in Guy Debord. Before dinner, like Jupiter foretelling the events in the Aeneid at the outset of book one, Jean-Marie foretold the pain I would experience during graduate school. “You, Kathryn (hear this in your mind with a thick French accent, Kath-REEN), have something enormously sensual and emotional to offer to the world. You feel so deeply and, when you’re 50, you’ll come into your own as a writer, exposing this sensuality, this depth of emotion, and freeing yourself into the space of inspired expression. But you won’t get there in grad school. Everyone will say your work is brilliant but deep down they’ll hate every abstract word, every stilted interpretation of the history of math; hearts unmoved and minds twitching with impatience, they’ll begrudgingly provide accolades and praises as you continue your fight to show yourself that you think as well as any man in the philosophy or math departments. And that’s fine. It will take its time. But you will look back when you are older and wish you could recover lost time and present your true art.”

Those weren’t his exact words, but that was certainly the gist. They struck a deep chord. They nagged me like harpies as I wrestled to find a dissertation topic I could pridefully stand behind. Jean-Marie was largely right. And yet, there were a few instances at Stanford where I was time-pressed or tired enough to write from my heart. Each time I did, people responded. They paid attention. Each time they did, I was surprised. The wisdom in those words came from the Richmonds (my mother’s tribe), was grafted into my blood upon birth, was a purer exposure of what I felt day to day (I’m not so naïve as to say they expressed my true self, as that’s all bollocks, but they certainly flowed as opposed to being trapped inside the screaming clenches of my superego). Perhaps my blog is my beating Jean-Marie’s predictions of my cloistered destiny by 17 years. I’ll take it.

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Guy Debord made a few films, including In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. The title is a riddle; it’s my favorite palindrome. I learned Latin about a year after seeing this film, which opened my eyes to how the morphology is integral to the palindrome (e.g., the i at the end of igni is a dative, signaling agency by the word ignis, which means fire in Latin; igni, therefore, means “acted upon by the fire”).  I don’t remember much about the film itself except that Debord plays around with self-referentiality, how the work of art, as my friend Peli Grietzer has brilliantly shown, is something like an auto-encoded representation of lived experience. Autoencoders seem very strange to people outside the machine learning community: they make facsimiles of data sets, with the goal of minimizing lost information as they make a copy. How transient are our representations of past experience. Today, I offer what will come in this blog post. Were I to write tomorrow, were I to have written yesterday, my representation of my lived experience would be different.

Since last week, partially in response to emails and notes I’ve received from readers, partially inspired by listening to podcasts on runs and walks to and from work, partially by the basic fact that I spent one more week alive, I’ve thought of many more types of love. It felt right to follow up. I doubt there will be a third post. I’m often wrong.

To that end, here are further thoughts on the types of love that have shaped me or that I work to practice and cultivate.

Love between mother and daughter

I nearly titled this section love between mother and child, but believe there’s something unique and precious in the particular love a mother has for her daughter, as a daughter has for her mother. Or, the particular love my mother has for me and I have for my mother.

Our love is mighty. Any who meets us recognizes this immediately.

I gave a speech at my grandparents’ 60th anniversary party. I started off by saying that I’d spent 15 odd years of my life actively trying not to become my mother. I’d seen how hard she worked, how she flew around the world and drove herself to the ground (and worse, to regular illness) in her restless pursuit to excel and show herself that she was worth something. I wanted to become her opposite, to cleave and create an identity as a calm, thoughtful academic working to slowly unpack the history of mathematics in the scientific revolution and the enlightenment (it won’t take a careful reader to notice the discrepancies between this vapid self fashioning and what I presented in the introduction). I tried; it hurt like a bitch. I left academia to explore the possibility of greater happiness as a businessperson (and have written about the transition).

It was when I allowed myself to become more like my mother that I started to thrive.

The complexities of the love that can exist between mother and daughter stem from the deep entanglement between their respective identities. I’m not a child psychologist and am wary at best of Freud and Lacan (let along Jung…), but the mirror effect of psychology–where we develop self-reflexive consciousness via awareness of self in the eyes of the mother, the first other being we know in the world–must undoubtedly shape patterns in the limbic system and is a good device to ponder the give and take of identity. My mother has a strong personality and I admire her immensely. I often feel reduced to a shadow of myself in her presence, and have fashioned other avenues of strength over the years to claim my own territory for excellence and beauty. You are extroverted? Fine! I will sit in the corner and attract attention with my mysterious silence. You are an amazing cook? Fine! I will go downstairs and read and develop an erudition few will compete with. You are rail thin? Fine! I will be thinner. I will apply monk-like discipline to my eating schedule, not snacking if my life depended on it as family friends worry I’ll soon be too small for a size zero.

Over the years, pockets of easier love, of my mother accepting that I am different than she, of my accepting that I need not be threatened by her habits, need not view her going to the gym at 5:30 as an indictment on myself, but as something to accept as what she needs to feel ok in the world, have gradually emerged. And they’ve grown deeper with each passing year. The resilient insecurities that pepper my personality are still land mines that ignite conflict between myself and my mom. But I’m getting wise enough to take a step back from them and point them out to both of us so we don’t get trapped. She’s growing too. I can see how her wisdom emerges and shines, see how she’s changes ever so slightly as she calms into acceptance of her identity.

I hope someday to experience this love for my own daughter. I hope never to harm her, but accept the tragedy that no matter how hard we strive to will the impact we want, our emotions communicate on a different plane, spurring horses to skittishness and shaping the delicate limbic systems of our children. Love between mother and daughter begs total acceptance: I am me because you are you. You have shaped how my emotions filter the world. You have shaped the horizons of what I might become.

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My mom and I at my grandparents’ 60th-anniversary party on July 21, 2013. My grandfather has since passed away. I wrote about him in this post.

Friendship

This merits its own indefinite taxonomy. Here’s a small sample.

There are friendships built on collaboration, where the underlying trait, I think, is deep respect and the electric energy that results when we sense another’s mind will help us grow, push us beyond what we might achieve on our own, just as the mechanisms of self-play in AlphaGo Zero. Tversky and Kahnemann, united by the different styles of thought and how funny they found our mind traps as they devised experiment after experiment to show why we suck at probabilistic thinking.*** Jefferson and Adams, whose opinions and goals differed during most of their lives, who sought different political ends and sometimes downright hated one another, but whose epistolary exchange at the end of their lives showed a deep respect and love (they died the same day, July 4, 1826; could it be more symbolic?). Hume and Smith, a generation apart (Hume was older), but whose relationship transitioned from being one of teacher-student to friends. The depiction of the Hume-Smith friendship in Dennis Rasmussen’s recent book (which I’m having trouble finishing it as it’s descriptive rather than philosophical) reminds me of my friendship with Alfred Lee (who also has a blog!). I told him:

I’m reading a book about Hume and Smith‘s friendship. Drawing on Aristotle, Smith divides friendship into three types: those motivated by utility, those motivated by please, and–the highest and rarest of the three–those motivated by virtue and excellence. The HumeSmith friendship was based upon a shared quest to understand and live well in the world. I believe our friendship shares the same characteristics: it is motivated by virtue and excellence. I admire how you take the time to explore yourself and solidify your values, how you strive to live well each day. And I feel you see the same in me.

I wanted to tell you that reading about Hume and Smith made me think of us. There is perhaps no greater compliment I could give.

Some people keep a small group of the same friends throughout most of their lives and others make new friends frequently. As your token 21st-century neoliberal cosmopolitan nomad, I’ve had a lot of practice honing the skills of making new friends over the years. I’ve uprooted myself so many times, found myself all alone in new countries, new jobs, new environments. I’ve learned how to overcome that awkward feeling of showing up at some networking event and walking over to a group of people in conversation and slyly inserting myself into the circle, glass of red wine in hand, timidly hoping that someone, please someone, will address me lest I am forced to stand there and awkwardly smile at comments out of context before I walk away and try another group. Loneliness in a new place is the best way to rid oneself of judging others. I’ve opened myself to friendships with people from every walk of life because I didn’t have the luxury to do otherwise. My first friend in Frankfurt, Germany was the Serbian cleaning lady at the Avaya offices; I spent days at her home with her daughter and granddaughter, they chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes and we went to these dance parties where the entire former Yugoslavian community of Bad Homburg linked arms in a circle while men with mustaches played accordions and bouzoukis. I worried I’d be lonely in Toronto when I moved last May, but it’s been delightfully easy to feel connected. It may well be because this is a city of nomads; we’re here joined by this desire to research and build an ecosystem and challenge the boundaries of what’s possible in tech. One of my favorite people in the city is Michael D’Souza, a career CBC reporter and producer who seems to devote his entire being to cultivating beauty and kindness. He cooks and entertains and shaves beets so they look like roses and serves his wife Colleen’s famous shortbread cookies and puts cashew liquor into his pork stew (Michael’s family is from Goa, home of sorpotel, an inherently political food because it contains pork and beef and therefore can only be eaten by Christians, not Hindus or Muslims) and showcases the gentle blues and purples on his matte Korean pottery and takes the time to drive a few hours to watch Tundra swans fly north over waters sparkling in spring sun and welcomes friends of friends to dinner and has been so open and kind with me I sit there flummoxed by generosity, taking careful notes of what it means to be truly hospitable.****

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Michael sent me this picture of tundra swans flying north. Tundra swans mate for life and fly in pairs. These two are followed by their child.

I turn to friends to help me get through moments of pitched emotion. When it’s too hard and too dangerous to stay home alone. When every experience is an out-of-body experience as 99% of my neural activity is fixated on the pain, but friends are ok taking the 1% and just being with me, biding the time as I get back to stability. Those friends know who they are.

And then there are lost friendships. Losing friends creates a different kind of pain than losing lovers, the loves of omission I described in my last post. Every time I do something I feel lacks integrity, I think about friends I have lost because I was selfish, dishonest, or did something to let them down. Sometimes time heals the pain, and they forgive and resurface. Others are gone forever. I feel the pain acutely and call forth the loss as my talisman to help me strive to be a better person.

Self-Love

Not my forte. Have preferred the haunts of self-hatred.

Notions of self-love have changed over time. These days, it seems most pronouncedly influenced by self-help and the trappings of pop psychology. Tangential territory would be yoga and secular Buddhism. This goes kitsch when its stripped of spirituality and devolves into mindfulness 2.0, self-hacking to promote productive automata fooled into thinking we’re living the good life. Lifestyle and shit. Don’t get me wrong: I meditate; I practice yoga; I can’t wrap my head around traditional Buddhist notions of karma because the casual structures drive me bonkers, so I’m not a die-hard Buddhist. Self-love in these traditions is at its best when described by someone like Jack Kornfield (whose dharma talk podcasts are masterful), where the end goal is not self-perfection, but compassion and trust. When there’s the recognition of commonality. Where self-love means to make space for nobility, to encounter familiar habits of mind for what they are and have the ability to act on them or not as we gradually grow.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau differentiated between amour de soi and amour propre. Amour de soi is a basic right of self-preservation, actions and attendant feelings that stem from an innate bias towards existence (to quote Thomas Metzinger). Today, we’d say it’s a good thing to take care of yourself, to keep yourself healthy, to honor your body and your being. Amour propre is insidious self regard built in contrast with another, where our success is relative to another’s failure, where we view ourselves as we assume others view us, where we feel empty unless we’re the center of attention. Rousseau was an inveterate wackjob who identified as a loner and favored radical self-reliance. Adam Smith had a more nuanced appreciation of our need not only to be loved, but also to be lovely, to be appreciated by a given social group and cultivate a sense of belonging.***** There’s an art to finding the balance between the growth that comes from being lovely and the pain the results from being dependent.

In my own quest to gradually tip the scales from self-hatred to (healthy) self-love, I’ve found that compassion is a much more efficient tool for conversion and growth than reason. A colleague tried to convince me that self-hatred was the perfection of egotism, where the act of holding myself to higher standards than others (and hating myself for never being able to achieve those impossibly high standards, “write like James Joyce!” “weigh less than 100 pounds!” “found and sell a company for $100 million by the age of 31!”) covertly shows that I think I’m better than everyone else. That makes logical sense but is emotionally damaging: all it does is exacerbate the anxiety of potentially being selfish. I find it’s much more salutatory to follow Kornfield’s advice and be grateful for the protection patterns of self-hatred have provided as a defense mechanism in the past, and to come to understand they may no longer be needed. The creates a feedback loop of love rather than criticism. Like many others, I’m grateful for how my drive galvanizes me to create and achieve, but work to keep it in check so it doesn’t tip the balances too far and lead to self-destruction. Finally, I find self-deprecation is like salt: just enough can bring out the flavor in food, can level any perceived power discrepancies between people and create a space for connection; too much overrides everything and devolves into awkwardness.

So many more…

3691 words is enough for one day. Can’t do any more. I meant to write about faith (as a non-religious person), love for all mankind, love for a subset of mankind (like womankind), love as striving, love for teachers and mentors, and love of beauty. I’ll likely withhold them unless readers request otherwise.


*Guy Debord is best known for The Society of the Spectacle, which critiques first-generation Marxist thought that religion, politics, and ideologies are nothing but superstructure mirages built upon underlying economic realities–where history unfolds towards the inevitable end of the proletariat coming into awareness that they deserve more, thereby toppling greedy capitalists and instituting equality once and for all–by showing that, in the age of mass media, the spectacle has primacy over economic, material reality, guiding and shaping our tastes and understanding of who we are and what is essential, as we lose touch with what we actually want and need and become worse than automata. It’s not that different from what we read about today with fake news; it is different from insipid impact of personalization in that it promotes collective delusions rather than filter bubbles. There is a small group of die-hard Debordists around the world, including Ken Knabb, who, if I’m not mistaken, lives in a lighthouse near Oakland and still embodies the renegade spirit of what San Francisco was like in the heyday of City Lights Bookstore (my friend Robin Sloan captures the palimpsestic nature of San Francisco’s hippy-now-technocrat culture masterfully in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore). The most sophisticated of Debord’s projects may be A Game of War, a board game he invented with then-wife Alice Becker-Ho to perform power structures. The folks at the Partially Examined Life (PEL, one of my favorite podcasts) did an episode on The Society of Spectacle late last year; worth a listen if you’re curious.

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Debord and his wife Alice Becker-Ho playing Le Jeu de la Guerre. I consider this not a real game, but an artist staging a theory of political resistance by pretending to have made a game that embodies principles of Clausewitz’s theories on war. It was, after all, the 60s and 70s.

**Donné is a man of many talents and deep erudition. After our dinner, he sent me multiple recordings of Bach masses to help make the case that the modulation from d-minor to D-Major about two thirds of the way into the Bach Chaconne is a musical representation of grace, a citation of a mass Bach had written to lament the passing of a woman he loved.

***Michael Lewis’s Undoing Project is well worth the read. Kahneman was also featured on last week’s 100th episode of the Hidden Brain podcast.

****Another great recent PEL podcast is the March 5 episode on ethics in Homer’s Odyssey. Hospitality was a big part of ancient Greek ethics and is still a big part of what it means to be a good human in many cultures. We don’t focus on it enough in North America.

*****We tend to remember Smith for the Wealth of Nations, but Smith diehards, like Russ Roberts of Econtalk, all think The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the real masterpiece. I’m planning to dig back into it as I’m taken by the idea that commerce is a forum for ethical growth given that we need to regulate our emotions to get along with strangers. The workplace is similar (depending on the culture).

That’s me and my mom in the featured image. We were in Jamaica. I believe I was a senior in college. A few months later I moved to Frankfurt, Germany, where I spent a year between undergrad and grad school at, perhaps, the apex of my striving. I was a dogged learner. It took me eight months to learn German well enough to pass the Grosses Deutsche Sprachdiplom, which is the most advanced of the language tests offered by the Goethe Institut. While there, I wrote my first literary non-fiction work, Inlets of Tonic. I wanted my writing to heal my mother. I wanted to absorb and erase all the pain she’d experienced, propose a way to reinterpret the past that would free her to love herself more fully. It was a Jesus move, I wanted to take on the sins of everyone else so they could be happy. My father read the story and said I didn’t understand the emotional dynamics at play; I’m not sure he understood that my purpose was to rewrite history, not understand it.

Love | An Incomplete Taxonomy

Love is multivalent.

As with qualia, a term some philosophers use to refer to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience, “the ways things seem to us” (Dennett), how a glass of wine tastes, what the particular richness of a crimson velvet dress in a Singer Sargent painting or Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander evokes in you or in me, there’s likely no way to know if love means the same thing to each of us. It may well be ethically preferable to have as many kinds of love as there are instances of its expression, be that to celebrate and respect a person or object we love in her individuality, to more fully cherish the details and differences, or to awaken our minds and hearts to the nuances of what it can feel like to be in the world, to refine our emotional palette through practice as we do with taste buds, each next sip of wine or pu’erh or Himalayan pink salt shifting ever so slightly the weights in our neural network, sharpening our perceptive capacities as we interact and engage.

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A velvet dress, or perhaps a velvet wall behind oiled lampshades (detail from La verre de porto)

But love is also the word known to all men.* An indelible universal. So recognizable that it feels like a crime to utter it prematurely, that it must preserve its status as sacred and rare to carry with it the power of discrimination, of choosing the partner who can promise transcendence, to betoken the uniqueness of a connection and conjure the mild guilt and embarrassment of not being able to say I love you in return. Or to mark the milestone of a phase shift, when it suddenly feels unnatural not to end a phone call by saying I love you, and from whence, ever forward, there is no phone call or parting that does not end with an expression of love.

I don’t think I’m overthinking things if I think through the various types of love that are actively shaping my own experience on this March 10, 2018. It’s hard to expose writing about love to the public: I fear criticism, fear exposure, would prefer to stay safe behind the abstractions of technology and math, prefer to be seen amidst the pantheon of men rather than degraded to tabloid femininity. But my writing habits have gone slack and pudgy, and, as productivity gurus or psychological hackers like Ryan Holiday or Tim Ferriss or Patrycja Slawuta or Nir Eyal would say, I need to make it easy to get started again so it becomes impossible to rationalize an excuse. This is what’s on my mind and in my heart. I’ll brave the exposure as a means of getting back on track.

What follows, then, is a sample of the kinds of love that currently shape how I live in the world. How beautiful that they may be like water around me: Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere. This list is far from exhaustive, but I’ll give until I’m too exhausted to give any more.

Metta (loving kindness)

People frequently ask what kind of meditation I practice (and teach, as I’ve started leading a (very small!) meditation group at work). The question makes me uncomfortable because I feel it exposes me as a dilettante for not aligning myself with a particular school. I guess my standard style falls under the general rubric of mindfulness, as I’ve learned most of the techniques in yoga classes and do things like alternate restrictions on breathing across nostrils (pranayama), slow my breath cycles to 30 seconds in and 30 seconds out (it’s pretty cool to do one breath per minute), focus my attention on sensations in one local part of my body (like my second toe on my right foot), or scan my body for tension from the top of my head down to the bottom of the soles of my feet. Sometimes I repeat mantras (which I believe is transcendental meditation, although I have to admit I don’t really know what that means). Very infrequently I visualize beings and try to imagine myself being like them. Often when I meditate before writing in the morning, all I end up doing is composing and playing around with ideas in my head. I like doing walking meditations and focusing on all the sensations around me. Or eating meditations, where I pay attention to each bite. I’ve had moments where I’ve completely failed to meditate because I am unravelled by the intensity of an emotional situation. I have yet to fully incorporate meditation into stressful situations, but am getting better at it with each passing day and year. I love how the characters in Dune turn to their breath for mastery in each moment, blue eyes emanating excellence.

One technique I cherish in particular is metta meditation. Metta is normally translated as loving kindness. Don’t let the awkwardness of the term turn you away from its salutatory power. The foundation of metta is to wish well being in the world, where well being means being free from suffering. The tradition characterizes the state of being free from suffering as being safe, happy, healthy, and full of ease. As opposed to wishing for safety, happiness, healthfulness, and peace in general, the practice bids us to direct attention towards various people who cause different kinds of emotions in us. The progression I’ve learned is:

  • Direct metta towards yourself, saying “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be full of ease.”
  • Direct metta towards someone you love, saying “May (s)he be safe. May (s)he be happy. May (s)he be healthy. May (s)he be full of ease.”
  • Direct metta towards a mentor or teacher who is helping you.
  • Direct metta towards someone completely neutral.
  • Direct metta towards someone you don’t like or you are having a hard time with.
  • Direct metta towards all beings.

My emotions tend to evolve in predictable ways when I practice metta. The first act of love and kindness towards myself feels like a mere formalism, with the exception of “may I be full of ease.” Ease is meaningful because it signals relief from the familiar dialogue of anxiety and self-hatred. In the latest Tim Ferriss podcast, Buddhist practioner and meditation teacher Jack Kornfield comments on the fact that self-flagellation is a Western endemic: the Dalai Lama found the concept completely illogical when he first heard of it! Kornfield powerfully and astutely shows how we can even come to love our self-hatred as a thinking tool that served as protector and shield in the past, but that ossifies into a useless habit when we gain the strength and wisdom to move beyond it. A bit like celibacy in the Catholic church, which played an economic function in distribution of wealth in feudal societies but has since come to be an ideological restriction repressing natural sexuality and leading to abuse and sex scandals.

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Always loved this image from the inimitable Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

The joy of metta starts in the movement from self to lover and teacher. I love taking the time to focus on the man I love, to reflect on areas where he may not be happy or thriving and to think about what I might do to bring about greater well being. I love visualizing him and reliving particular moments. I love basking in the warmth and glow of gratitude towards my mentors, finding I often return to the same few people who have patiently accompanied me through so the repetitions of the same mistakes and same dialogues again and again and again. I love deepening my awareness of the humanity that is always around us by focusing my neutral metta at a homeless person I crossed on the street or a stranger who smiled slightly when we passed by one another or someone who sat next to me at a basketball game or a colleague I don’t spend enough time with. Most importantly, I love how my shoulders relax and ease enters naturally when I direct wishes of well being towards someone I am struggling with. I find this simple act of wishing someone who has hurt me–or perhaps who has done nothing wrong except be a catalyst for feelings of self-hatred as I grapple with my own mistakes (anger is a very rare emotion for me, as I transform it into guilt and self-recrimination)–almost instantaneously rewrites my interpretation of what the other’s motives and intentions may have been, and enables me to see him or her from a place of charity and compassion. The possibility of negativity washes away into equanimity. It feels like the way I want to live. I have always felt immense calm embodying a sense of self as unified with everyone and everything else, self not only as species consciousness but as world consciousness, incidentally caught in the limitations of subjectivity. Morality feels different when we move from the utilitarian principles of negative liberty, where our actions may be unfettered unless and until they harm another, to recognizing that others are also us. The golden rule becomes tautological, reciprocal. Wishing well being for another is the same as wishing it for ourselves. This feeling of love is always available. It is a way of being with and in oneself that connects oneself to everyone and everything. It is always there, if we choose to look.

What I’ve learned while writing this is that my deepest and purest act of metta towards myself occurs when I love those I am struggling with.

Loving, not liking

My violin teacher at Stanford, Anthony Doheny, had an immensely positive impact on my life. It was with him that I learned that music is a conversation without words, a back and forth where you listen to the dynamics and speed and cadences of your partner and imitate, with variation and difference, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That the fusion of two people truly playing together, truly communicating, can compensate for any lack in technical virtuosity and rigor; sure, it would have been even better if I took the time to master the difficult sixteenth note passages, but I played with Tony with a different mindset than available before. I played with him.

And our conversation was about more than just music. Tony would pay attention to my emotions and my state of being, and play the piano part of the Brahms violin sonata in d minor just a tad bit louder when he recognized I had demons to exorcise. He knew his playing louder would inspire me to express more, would increase my catharsis, because we were indeed conversing and not just playing separately. He knew why I played; that, at my age, I wasn’t looking for technical mastery, but for expression and joy, for a place to focus my attention while creating music, for a focused reprieve from the pain of my day to day.

One day I walked in and was complaining about a woman in my graduate program I didn’t like much. As standard, my attention focused nearly exclusively on the things I didn’t have, on my failures and shortcomings, on the people who didn’t like me, rather than on all the people who love me and respond well to me, the positive things in my life. His advice was wonderful: “you don’t have to like everyone,” he said, “but you do have to love everyone.”

Monogamous relationships

I can’t write about this in the particular. It’s too private. I’ve dated men of many ages, shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and degrees of emotional availability. People have judged my relationships; I have suffered because I followed my somewhat unorthodox heart but wanted to nonetheless be approved and rewarded as if I followed standard social conventions. That didn’t work. I’m still friends with many former partners, which makes me enormously happy. I’ve messed up bad a few times and have had moments of incredible compassion when I’ve come to experience for myself, in a subsequent relationship, some emotional state I had put a former partner through in the past. When possible, I’ve reached out to apologize and express my compassion. I’ve grown. I laugh at all the shit I did in the past to these poor men who stuck with me for god knows what reason. When I was young, it look me a long time to say I love you. I wanted to mean it. I wanted it to look like it does in fairy tales. The older I get, the more freely I love. The word is not cheapened, but its scope is expanded. I no longer believe in “the one”; I’ve loved too many times and different partners have introduced me to different aspects of myself and stimulated growth in different ways. I believe what I seek–or at least have sought–from relationships lies in the sparse air atop Maslow’s hierarchy (oh those naïve visions of martyrdom as some form of transcendence!). I am gradually learning to temper my yearnings. The purpose of tragedies, after all, is to provide a fictional, protected space to exercise and exorcise surging emotions; they’re not good handbooks for living. Hours and hours and hours of draining emotional energy have been spent coming to learn that lesson.

Erotic love

Another one I don’t want to write about. I’ll share a few things I find philosophically interesting.

I love how Kamala, the sexual mentor in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, teaches the protagonist that what’s unique about sex is that it’s an act where the best way for a woman to give is to take. Too much focus on the other will never lead to an orgasm. There needs to be some willingness to take and to take care of oneself, and yet this is often best achieved by the ability to satisfy and stimulate the other. That’s why there’s such a difference between great sex and making love and just passive receipt of physical pleasure.

I love how Jean-Luc Marion defines what he calls the erotic phenomenon, where one’s sense of self becomes totally relative to the imagined physical and psychological situation of the other. Where phenomenology cracks at the seams and the center of gravity shifts to be entangled with what we imagine and experience as the presence of a lover. How magical.

I’m not the first person to say that my most powerful and purely joyful sexual experiences have resulted in an experience of focused synesthetic attention and flow. My psychology has been all over the map depending on the man, but the moments I cherish most are those that offer a rescinding of the ego and an aware becoming of movement and sensation. That’s not animalistic. It’s quite spiritual.

Love for colleagues and students

In Plato’s Symposium, the character Phaedrus commented on the power of male sexuality to improve bravery in the military. The argument is that a soldier in love with a fellow soldier would be spurred to incredible feats of bravery and self-sacrifice to protect the loved one. We see the same in Homer’s Iliad, where Patroclus sacrifices himself to protect Achilles; it’s never made explicit that the two are lovers but there are enough clues to lead us to believe that’s the case.

Our culture is quite different from that of the ancient Greeks. Most militaries have a vastly different stance towards homosexuality. I’m not even sure where to start in commenting on potential erotic relationships between colleagues in the age of Harvey Weinstein, Travis Kalanick, and Donald Trump. And it’s not what I want to comment on either. I want to comment on an act of love that is about supporting the growth and expansion of younger colleagues and students.

As I prioritize my activities at the beginning of each work week, I ask myself what I can do to provide a platform for achievement for others in my company and what activities are best carried out on my own. My colleague Jason Silver has inspired me here by his strong and selfless example. It feels good to achieve, to set ever higher goals and do what it takes to accomplish them; there’s a sense of satisfaction that arises from setting an example for others. But it feels 65809090432 times better to enable others to achieve and grow. For me, then, loving my colleagues is synonymous with a style of leadership, and with careful craftsmanship. A leader needs to shape opportunities or goals for junior colleagues that can at once push them beyond the familiar, but are scoped tightly enough to enable achievement in a reasonably short period of time. The sense of satisfaction that results is marvelous. When I look back on professional accomplishments, what sticks out are others’ wins, not my own.

I’ll close this section with a note I sent to my female colleagues in honor of international women’s day:

Recently, my dear friend John Alber wrote me a note to tell me I have been given an immensely wonderful gift, the gift of responsibility, the gift of being able to marry strength with vulnerability, power with pain, competitive spirit and striving for excellence with deep, deep compassion for all other beings, as all other beings are myself. At 33, without children of my own, the example I can set is to be a beacon of possibility for so many women in the world; for our teammates here at integrate.ai as for the thousands of young girls I’ve met and worked to set an example for since joining integrate.ai last year. I am often overwhelmed by this responsibility, and amazed that, somehow, the universe has granted me this gift. I’m coming to accept it, and the willingness to do so is galvanized by the awareness that it is by revealing and sharing our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, our love, that we can give real strength to others.

Love for those who have died

I have yet to lose someone whose death would tear me asunder. I have been fortunate. My father had a heart attack last January. He is just fine, but it was the first time I had to sit on the plane for six hours, from New York to San Francisco, not knowing if he’d be alive on the other side. I still remember the afternoon with acute clarity, remember running the bath water in my tub in my Brooklyn apartment, remember how the faucet had these little acid pockmarks on it, which, in my memory’s eye, become associated with rusty water even though the water was never rusty, remember my mother calling as I drew the bath, calling from Paris hysterical to tell me I had to go to the airport immediately because he was all alone, remember the determination, how easy it is to act when we need to, how easy to drop everything and execute even though only a small fraction of our mind is there, remember calling my friend Yaro and asking him to stay and take care of my father, remember the sensation of relief and humor when he was ok. I have relived what it felt like to be on the plane, not knowing if he’d be alive on the other side, many times; it orients me, prioritizes what matters, shows me how deeply I love my father. It would shake me deeply to lose him, as it would shake me to lose my mother or my brother.

The loss I’ve experienced at losing a few lovers has also felt like they have died. It elicits a wailing mourning like Italian widows with shoulders bent over graves, a mourning that incapacitates and dampens the rest of the world behind a curtain of emotion. I can do nothing but restlessly wander around the city. Aimless days etched with loss. But they are still alive, and I hold back the desires to reach out and express how frequently I think about them. These are loves of omission. I take solace in directing metta their way and recognizing that to reach out would be more about myself than about them.

My love for my late grandfather, who died 2 years ago, and aunt Leslie, who recently died from pancreatic cancer, expresses itself in vivid images and memories. The images are always joyful. I see them dancing, I see them smiling, the energy they have emitted into the world is full of lessons of the preciousness of daily acts of kindness. I don’t think of them every day, but when I do they pop up with the vividness of Proust’s childhood after biting into the Madeleine and they are so terribly present it’s as if I were just with them yesterday. The difference is that they won’t be there tomorrow, that the dinner table conversation won’t ever be quite the same. I don’t understand why the Christian church required an imagined future life as a place to recover and find lost ones again. There is much more palpable and tangible hope in seeing traits of the dead alive in their children, alive in how the world is different because they acted in it.

Love as practice

There are many more kinds of love, each mapping to the different kinds of relationships we can enter into and the way these relationships engage and challenge the ever-evolving way of being we call the self. At the root of all of it, I believe, is our essence as social beings. Each kind of love is a mode of being created in conjunction with and connection to another, a style of action that seeks fusion rather than difference, even though sometimes–most times–the act of love is to step back and enable the difference rather than imposing interpretation or control.

The act of love I extend towards myself in writing like this is one of abandonment, of hoping that things that feel meaningful to me won’t be ridiculed by others. My experience has shown that expressions of vulnerability empower. Should this attempt to get back into writing empower one other person, it will have been time well spent.


*”Touch me. Soft eyes. Soft soft soft hand. I am lonely here. . . . What is that word known to all men? I am quiet here alone. Sad too. Touch, touch me.” People think of James Joyce as esoteric and impenetrable. Are you fucking kidding me? This language pulses. He offers a simplicity underneath all the complexity.

I struggled to find a good image to represent this post! Tons of bad ones, including many photos of tattoos with the Greek word agape–love for God and all beings–all over people’s bodies. I decided to go with this fresco of a banquet at a tomb in the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter in the Via Labicana in Rome. I don’t have a great reason why. 

Of Thread and Mermen

I bought a dress Tuesday evening. It’s silk and it billows, the cut loose, elegant, harkening flappers and 1930s France. The print seems sampled directly from a Wes Anderson film. Featured in the image above, it has a Jerry Garcia merman with sunglasses and a ping pong paddle rippling regularly across the silk. The design house, La Prestic Ouiston*, hails from a family that maintains a traditional oyster farm in Brittany. The brand’s manifesto celebrates “craft, tradition, virtuosity, always [seeking] to work and to hightlight** the craftsmanship of artisans by producing unique pieces such as garments with embroideries hand-made in Rwanda or clogs made in Brittany and painted in Paris by an artist.” It’s a small brand that proclaims the local, that “dedicates itself to the return of slow fashion.” The silk is infused with mists from the nearby salt marshes in Guérande, it billows brine gusts and ocean raked into flat white squares. Eyes closed, I imagine walking in merman silk barefoot, bare legged, over the desiccated marshes, shaved salt embedded flake by flake into foot arches, falling flake by flake back to a new place of rest, ever migrant with the opalescent tides. Oysters turgid under rugged shells, their taste reminiscent of our common ancestry as ocean. Sweat and blood betokening a past too old to be remembered but by cortisol and heartbreak.***

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The salt marshes in Guérande, just south of Brittany, where you can find the La Maison Mer oyster farm affiliated with La Prestic Ouiston. I visited the marshes in the summer of 2009, learning that the fleur de sel is the crystal crust that forms atop the rectangular marshes. They still use rakes to shave off the salt, collecting it into piles like those in the photo.

I purchased the dress at GASPARD, my favourite clothing boutique in Toronto. The owners are attentive and visionary; they comb the world to find designers with beautiful clothing backed by stories and introduce their unique clothing to Toronto. The first time I visited, I immediately felt the ease and grace of a new relationship. I told Ayalah, who was working at the boutique when I bought the dress, that I speak in public frequently and was excited to wear such a rad dress on a panel the next day. She invited me to send photos in the dress to Richard, one of GASPARD’s owners, as it was currently his favourite. And then she asked if work ever paid for my wardrobe, given my public-facing role. I laughed the idea off as absurd, as I work for a small startup and can only imagine what our controller would think if I included a line item for a merman dress on my January expense report.

But her suggestion sparked an idea. How awesome would it be to collaborate with a design house like La Prestic Ouiston on a wardrobe for talks and public appearances, to design an identity either tailored to or able to challenge an audience, in the same way that, as speaker, I shift my approach, content, and tone depending on whether I’m addressing a super technical artificial intelligence research audience, a super practical business audience who need just enough technical detail to feel empowered but not so much as to feel alienated, a passionate and righteous sociology and critical theory audience who want to unpack the social implications of new technologies and do something to fix them, or a muted, constrained policy audience fascinated by the potential of a new conceptual framework to think about what it might mean to regulate AI but trapped within the confines of legal precedent and the broad strokes of the electorate?

What I imagine isn’t sponsorship à la Tiger Woods or pick your favourite athlete. It isn’t trendsetting or luxury branding à la pick your favourite actress wearing Alexander McQueen or Dior or Armani or Gucci or Carolina Herrera on the red carpet at the Oscars. It’s more like Bowie or Lady Gaga or Madonna, Protean shapeshifters whose songs and performances embody a temporary persona that vanishes into something new in the next project. I imagine a collaboration with an artist or designer. Couture not as fitting a dress to individual proportions but as context, each performance exposing its roots, not just measuring bust and waistlines but identity and persona, my providing constraints and parameters and abandoning myself to the materials, shapes, patterns, folds, twists, buttons, sleeves, lengths, tones, textures the designer felt appropriate for a given performance. Not unlike the dance between authorship and abandonment Kyle McDonald experiences in algorithmic art, where the coder sets the initial parameters of the algorithm and experiences what results. Design a mode of creation girding both fashion and product marketing, both ethnographies of what exists today, techniques to tweeze out mental models that guide behaviour and experience and emotion, but that always go beyond observation, that infuse empiricism with the intuition of what could be possible, of how today’s behaviours could be improved, changed, optimized to create something new.

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Kyle McDonald has been working a lot of algorithmically generated music of late, and featured this image on a recent post about using neural nets for music.

I knew from the outset the idea would be polarizing. Fashion and brand sponsorship is at home in sports because athletes are more than athletes; they are cultural icons. It’s at home in entertainment, where physical appearance and beauty are part and parcel of stardom, whether we like it or not. But it’s not at home in math, quantitative fields in academia, or technology. Which is why the topic is thorny, uncomfortable, interesting.

I was concerned about the potential negative reaction to the very post I’m writing (you’re reading) so shopped the idea with a few people to tally reactions.****

Those in fashion were non-plussed: “Fashion x public figures is as old as bread, it’s just a question of finding someone up for a collaboration.”

The way I engage with my younger, technical, male colleagues inspired a presentation of the idea as an act of badass empowerment. They saw and heard what they normally see and hear from me. I could have been talking about research. I could have been talking about speaking on cybersecurity to a bunch of generals. They didn’t hear me speak about fashion. They heard the persona I embody when I work with them, one where I am at once trusted mentor and role model for the leadership positions they want to occupy someday. My being a woman in amazing clothes on stage was a means of embodying something empowering for them, perhaps even masculine.

My ambitious, female colleague, passionate about diversity and inclusion and also interested in clothing and style, said, “gosh, can I do that too?” She and I inhabit our positions as strong women in technology differently. A jack of all trades, she owned branding efforts early on and got excited about the prospect of our having bright pink business cards. I was appalled, as I couldn’t imagine myself giving a bright pink business card to the scientists and executives I typically engage with at conferences. At the time, I felt it was important to deliberately embody androgyny, but elegant androgyny, to wear a-lines and black and neutral professional clothing, but nonetheless extremely feminine clothing, this subtle dance that both erases and underlines gender, but that is so much different from the direct statement of hot pink. Grappling with the difference teases out the subtleties here.

Friends who openly eschew gender essentialism commented on the thorniness of the issue, likely engaging with my own hesitation, which muted the brazen excitement I embody with my younger colleagues. Here conversations waxed consequentialist, focusing on the fact that, whether intended or not, deliberately collaborating with a designer would reinforce stereotypes aligning women with clothing, while brogrammers perform nonchalance in, well, standard brogrammer garb or icons like Steve Jobs perform aestheticism that indexes the life of the mind by donning plain black sweater uniforms. I worried.

Some admonished me for pursuing the project, commenting on my responsibility to the brand identity of the various organizations with which I am associated professionally. This harkened the split ethical imperatives I explored in Censorship and the Liberal Arts. For indeed, as professionals we sign a social contract where we trade unadulterated free speech and expression for the benefits of collaborating with others to build something and do something we’d be unable to accomplish ourselves. But the line between personal and professional brand is anything but clear, and varies greatly between companies and contexts. As evidenced by his world-class out-of-office emails*****, my partner John Frankel at ffVC falls a few standard deviations from the norm, while also insisting on rigour and consistency on the firm’s positions on investment theses. Friends in government rarely express their personal opinions, ever beholden to their duties as representatives of a public body. This forces the question of how much the integrate.ai brand, for example, stands for personal expression. The nuances here are as delicate as those related to feminine identity: it’s our responsibility to embody the brand that supports our business goals, but I’ve always found that success emerges from the breath of fresh air promoted by authenticity.

What do I think?

I doubt the collaboration will come to be, at least not anytime soon. I spent a few days inhabiting an imaginary potential, thinking about how fun it would be to co-create outfits for different performances, one day a boxy Yamamoto, the next a flowery Dior, the next a Katharine Hepburn-inspired pants suit to index a potential future in politics. I remembered all the articles about Marissa Mayer’s style back in 2013, the fact that her having style was news for the tech industry. I reread Susan Fowler’s post about her disgusting experience at Uber and found another very touching post she wrote about what it feels like to be someone who “wants to know it all,” who lacks a singular destiny. I imagined peppering this post with myriad quotations from Ellen Ullman, my new hero, whose Life in Code I devoured with the attention and curiosity spurred by feeling prose so much in line with my own, by reading a vision of what I’d like to write and become.******  I thought about the responsibilities I have right now as a pseudo-visible woman in technology, as a pseudo-visible woman in venture, as a woman who doesn’t write code (yet!!) but serves as translator between so many different domains, who struggles with her identity but wouldn’t have it any other way, who wants to do what’s right for the thousands and thousands of young women out there watching, dreaming, yearning, ready to do amazing things in the world. I just want them to be themselves and not to fear and to create and to be free to become. To have a voice to shape the world. And to fucking wear beautiful clothing if that makes them happy, and alive.

I wore my merman dress on Wednesday on a panel with my friend Steve Woods and the CEO of Wysdom.AI. The audience comprised mostly men; I felt they paid attention to what I said, not what I wore. On Friday, another strong female leader in the Toronto AI community told me she admires my style, and asked where I buy my clothes. I referred her to GASPARD, delighted to support local entrepreneurs making the world more beautiful.


* It took some digging to find the primary designer behind La Prestic Ouiston. Her name is Laurence Mahéo. She looks unabashedly at the camera in the photos various media outlets have posted about her and her spectacular, singular existence. Her head often tilts slightly to the side. She doesn’t smile widely.

**Typo in the original (English translation from the original French).

***Isak Dinesen understood our oceanic roots, as in one of my favourite quotations: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” I remember hikes up Windy Hill in 2009 and 2010, mourning the loss of my first real love, tears, and sweat, and sea all needed to get back on my feet, love that broke me, that altered my course in life, that changed my emotions ever forward, instilling both negative patterns I still struggle with eight years later and positive patterns, widening my heart and permitting expressiveness I hadn’t known possible there prior. Memories fixed solid in my synapses, of such heightened emotional importance I will carry them with me intact until the day I die. He always knew that the self he saw and enlivened wasn’t the current me but the me he saw I might one day become, knew I was helplessly addicted to this promised self, as I knew he was helplessly addicted to the child I recovered in him, personhood long silenced, but for which he desperately yearned and was grateful to remember existed as a kernel of possibility.

****I had a hell of a time writing One Feminine Identity exactly one year ago today (curious how those things work; my father had a heart attack exactly one year after his father died, as I commemorate in this post). I was dating an ardent feminist at the time, who criticized me for the lack of rigour and systematicity in my approach to female empowerment. His critique lodged itself in my superego and bastardized my writing. I hedged so as not to offend anyone with what I assumed were offensive positions. Then, two other friends read the piece and criticized the hedging! I learned something.

*****This week, John’s out-of-office email featured this poem, which I sent to two colleagues as I felt they’d appreciate it:

Life is like a grain of sand;
it can slip through your fingers
at any time and be lost forever.
We must enjoy every minute
while we have it
in case that too
slips through our fingers.
Love is a fleeting thing
that passes all too quickly through our lives
unless we grasp it tightly
never letting it go.
Our lives are like a grain of sand
and will slip through our fingers
before we get to enjoy it thoroughly.
A Grain of Sand by David Harris

******Here is Ullman giving a talk at Google. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCcVyuq9aRE

I took a photo of the featured image last Tuesday evening with my iPhone. The shadows arise from the ill-fit black plastic cover that partially covers the lens, tailored for a previous iPhone release. The tag on the dress indicates that the merman’s name is Seb le Poisson. Seb is in the closet, awaiting his next appearance. I write in my pyjamas. 

before the beginning

and we wake up into form

beloved effortlessness before the voices return

just beneath the silence, the tohu wa-bohu hums its river song, ferments past mistakes in hurricane wreckage, drowns cows whose bells got stuck under children’s car seats, brands now blurry with moss

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 10.01.29 AM
William de Brailes’ 13th-century depiction of god creating heaven and earth from the tohu wa-bohu, the confusion and emptiness that predates creation. Matter before spirit, even in the book of Genesis.

blank-slated hope wobbles its stilts into Rorschach formations and Voronoi tessellations, generating form for its own sake, as so many ptyxs replicating themselves silly, aural inanity mitosis amok, while Herod steeps his niece’s left rib as she dances under seven veils

he sullies her under his touch, the dice roll slant

for our past accompanies us, stinging lapses of integrity, unable to be undone, fixed like firmament stars; even if we forgive, it’s probable she won’t, at least not anytime soon

we have no choice but to wash our guilt in responsibility, to transubstantiate our past in performances blessed by heavy habits’ habit

the new year brings saints Gildas (the historian) and Bieuzy (the rabies curer), who learned healing by osmosis in their mountain chapel; saints teaching us that three walls suffice, that more is clutter

be it with quiet circumspection that we inhabit our poppy and recollection

this moment where we wake up into form

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 10.58.24 AM
In 538, Gildas and Bieuzy shared a grotto in the space now occupied by a small chapel built right into the mountains in Brittany. The chapel has been there since the fifteenth century. To visit, you have to park your car about a quarter mile away and walk through a forest. When I visited in 2009, I felt like I was transported into the Virgin Spring.

The featured image is from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring (link to a full feature on YouTube, although it’s in Swedish without subtitles; one benefit of not understanding the dialogue is that you can see the jealousy and pain on the female character’s face. Bergman always mastered the underbelly of female psychology.). Here, Max von Sydow, who also played the existentially fraught knight in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, prepares an act of elemental violence; he wrestles down the tree and hits himself with cut branches in the sauna. His jealous lover watches him beat his chest, her pregnant belly protruding damply into her listless legs, posture sloping under bored indifference. 

Exploration-Exploitation and Life

There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one. – Kazuo Ishiguro

On April 18, 2016*, I attended an NYAI Meetup** featuring a talk by Columbia Computer Science Professor Dan Hsu on interactive learning. Incredibly clear and informative, the talk slides are worth reviewing in their entirety. But one in particular caught my attention (fortunately it summarizes many of the subsequent examples):

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 9.44.34 AM
From Dan Hsu’s excellent talk on interactive machine learning

It’s worth stepping back to understand why this is interesting.

Much of the recent headline-grabbing progress in artificial intelligence (AI) comes from the field of supervised learning. As I explained in a recent HBR article, I find it helpful to think of supervised learning like the inverse of high school algebra:

Think back to high school math — I promise this will be brief — when you first learned the equation for a straight line: y = mx + b. Algebraic equations like this represent the relationship between two variables, x and y. In high school algebra, you’d be told what m and b are, be given an input value for x, and then be asked to plug them into the equation to solve for y. In this case, you start with the equation and then calculate particular values.

Supervised learning reverses this process, solving for m and b, given a set of x’s and y’s. In supervised learning, you start with many particulars — the data — and infer the general equation. And the learning part means you can update the equation as you see more x’s and y’s, changing the slope of the line to better fit the data. The equation almost never identifies the relationship between each x and y with 100% accuracy, but the generalization is powerful because later on you can use it to do algebra on new data. Once you’ve found a slope that captures a relationship between x and y reliably, if you are given a new x value, you can make an educated guess about the corresponding value of y.

Supervised learning works well for classification problems (spam or not spam? relevant or not for my lawsuit? cat or dog?) because of how the functions generalize. Effectively, the “training labels” humans provide in supervised learning assign categories, tokens we affiliate to abstractions from the glorious particularities of the world that enable us to perceive two things to be similar. Because our language is relatively stable (stable does not mean normative, as Canadian Inuit perceive snow differently from New Yorkers because they have more categories to work with), generalities and abstractions are useful, enabling the learned system to act correctly in situations not present in the training set (e.g., it takes a hell of a long time for golden retrievers to evolve to be indistinguishable from their great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers, so knowing what one looks like on April 18, 2016 will be a good predictor of what one looks like on December 2, 2017). But, as Rich Sutton*** and Andrew Barto eloquently point out in their textbook on reinforcement learning,

This is an important kind of learning, but alone it is not adequate for learning from interaction. In interactive problems it is often impractical to obtain examples of desired behavior that are both correct and representative of all the situations in which the agent has to act. In uncharted territory—where one would expect learning to be most beneficial—an agent must be able to learn from its own experience.

In his NYAI talk, Dan Hsu also mentioned a common practical limitation of supervised learning, namely that many companies often lack good labeled training data and it can be expensive, even in the age of Mechanical Turk, to take the time to provide labels.**** The core thing to recognize is that learning from generalization requires that future situations look like past situations; learning from interaction with the environment helps develop a policy for action that can be applied even when future situations do not look exactly like past situations. The maxim “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” holds both in a situation where you want to gossip about a colleague and in a situation where you want to criticize a crappy waiter at a restaurant.

In a supervised learning paradigm, there are certainly traps to make faulty generalizations from the available training data. One classic problem is called “overfitting”, where a model seems to do a great job on a training data set but fails to generalize well to new data. But the super critical salient difference Hsu points out in his talk is that, while with supervised learning the data available to the learner is exogenous to the system, with interactive machine learning approaches, the learner’s performance is based on the learner’s decisions and the data available to the world depends on the learner’s decisions. 

Think about that. Think about what that means for gauging the consequences of decisions. Effectively, these learners cannot evaluate counterfactuals: they cannot use data or evidence to judge what would have happened if they took a different action. An ideal optimization scenario, by contrast, would be one where we could observe the possible outcomes of any and all potential decisions, and select the action with the best outcome across all these potential scenarios (this is closer, but not identical, to the spirit of variational inference, but that is a complex topic for another post).

To share one of Hsu’s***** concrete examples, let’s say a website operator has a goal to personalize website content to entice a consumer to buy a pair of shoes. Before the user shows up at the site, our operator has some information about her profile and browsing history, so can use past actions to guess what might be interesting bait to get a click (and eventually a purchase). So, at the moment of truth, the operator says “Let’s show the beige Cole Hann high heels!”, displays the content, and observes the reaction. We’ll give the operator the benefit of the doubt and assume the user clicks, or even goes on to purchase. Score! Positive signal! Do that again in the future! But was it really the best choice? What would have happened if the operator had shown the manipulatable consumer the red Jimmy Choo high heels, which cost $750 per pair rather than a more modest $200 per pair? Would the manipulatable consumer have clicked? Was this really the best action?

The learner will never know. It can only observe the outcome of the action it took, not the action it didn’t take.

The literature refers to this dilemma as the trade-off between exploration and exploitation. To again cite Sutton and Barto:

One of the challenges that arise in reinforcement learning, and not in other kinds of learning, is the trade-off between exploration and exploitation. To obtain a lot of reward, a reinforcement learning agent must prefer actions that it has tried in the past and found to be effective in producing reward. But to discover such actions, it has to try actions that it has not selected before. The agent has to exploit what it already knows in order to obtain reward, but it also has to explore in order to make better action selections in the future. The dilemma is that neither exploration nor exploitation can be pursued exclusively without failing at the task. The agent must try a variety of actions and progressively favor those that appear to be best. On a stochastic task, each action must be tried many times to gain a reliable estimate of its expected reward.

There’s a lot to say about the exploration-exploitation tradeoff in machine learning (I recommend starting with the Sutton/Barto textbook). Now that I’ve introduced the concept, I’d like to pivot to consider where and why this is relevant in honest-to-goodness-real-life.

The nice thing about being an interactive machine learning algorithm as opposed to a human is that algorithms are executors, not designers or managers. They’re given a task (“optimize revenues for our shoe store!”) and get to try stuff and make mistakes and learn from feedback, but never have to go through the soul-searching agony of deciding what goal is worth achieving. Human designer overlords take care of that for them. And even the domain and range of possible data to learn from is constrained by technical conditions: designers make sure that it’s not all the data out there in the world that’s used to optimize performance on some task, but a tiny little baby subset (even if that tiny little baby entails 500 million examples) confined within a sphere of relevance.

Being a human is unfathomably more complicated.

Many choices we make benefit from the luxury of triviality and frequency. “Where should we go for dinner and what should we eat when we get there?” Exploitation can be a safe choice, in particular for creatures of habit. “Well, sweetgreen is around the corner, it’s fast and reliable. We could take the time to review other restaurants (which could lead to the most amazing culinary experience of our entire lives!) or we could not bother to make the effort, stick with what we know, and guarantee a good meal with our standard kale caesar salad, that parmesan crisp thing they put on the salad is really quite tasty…” It’s not a big deal if we make the wrong choice because, low and behold, tomorrow is another day with another dinner! And if we explore something new, it’s possible the food will be just terrible and sometimes we’re really not up for the risk, or worse, the discomfort or shame of having to send something we don’t like back. And sometimes it’s fine to take the risk and we come to learn we really do love sweetbreads, not sweetgreens, and perhaps our whole diet shifts to some decadent 19th-century French paleo practice in the style of des Esseintes.

Des_Esseintes_at_study_Zaidenberg_illustration
Arthur Zaidenberg’s depiction of des Esseintes, decadent hero extraordinaire, who embeds gems into a tortoise shell and has a perfume organ.

Other choices have higher stakes (or at least feel like they do) and easily lead to paralysis in the face of uncertainty. Working at a startup strengthens this muscle every day. Early on, founders are plagued by an unknown amount of unknown unknowns. We’d love to have a magic crystal ball that enables us to consider the future outcomes of a range of possible decisions, and always act in the way that guarantees future success. But the crystal balls don’t exist, and even if they did, we sometimes have so few prior assumptions to prime the pump that the crystal ball could only output an #ERROR message to indicate there’s just not enough there to forecast. As such, the only option available is to act and to learn from the data provided as a result of that action. To jumpstart empiricism, staking some claim and getting as comfortable as possible with the knowledge that the counterfactual will never be explored, and that each action taken shifts the playing field of possibility and probability and certainty slightly, calming minds and hearts. The core challenge startup leaders face is to enable the team to execute as if these conditions of uncertainty weren’t present, to provide a safe space for execution under the umbrella of risk and experiment. What’s fortunate, however, is that the goals of the enterprise are, if not entirely well-defined, at least circumscribed. Businesses exist to turn profits and that serves as a useful, if not always moral, constraint.

Big personal life decisions exhibit further variability because we but rarely know what to optimize for, and it can be incredibly counter-productive and harmful to either constrain ourselves too early or suffer from the psychological malaise of assuming there’s something wrong with us if we don’t have some master five-year plan.

This human condition is strange because we do need to set goals–it’s beneficial for us to consider second- and third-tier consequences, i.e., if our goal is to be healthy and fit, we should overcome the first-tier consequence of receiving pleasure when we drown our sorrows in a gallon of salted caramel ice cream–and yet it’s simply impossible for us to imagine the future accurately because, well, we overfit to our present and our past.

I’ll give a concrete example from my own experience. As I touched upon in a recent post about transitioning from academia to business, one reason why it’s so difficult to make a career change is that, while we never actually predict the future accurately, it’s easier to fear loss from a known predicament than to imagine gain from a foreign predicament.****** Concretely, when I was deciding whether to pursue a career in academia or the private sector in the fifth year in graduate school, I erroneously assumed that I was making a strict binary choice, that going into business meant forsaking a career teaching or publishing. As I was evaluating my decision, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that, a mere two years later, I would be invited to be an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary Faculty of Law, teaching about how new technologies were impacting traditional professional ethics. And I also never imagined that, as I gave more and more talks, I would subsequently be invited to deliver guest lectures at numerous business schools in North America. This path is not necessarily the right path for everyone, but it was and is the right path for me. In retrospect, I wish I’d constructed my decision differently, shifting my energy from fearing an unknown and unknowable future to paying attention to what energized me and made me happy and working to maximize the likelihood of such energizing moments occurring in my life. I still struggle to live this way, still fetishize what I think I should be wanting to do and living with an undercurrent of anxiety that a choice, a foreclosure of possibility, may send me down an irreconcilably wrong path. It’s a shitty way to be, and something I’m actively working to overcome.

So what should our policy be? How can we reconcile this terrific trade-off between exploration and exploitation, between exposing ourselves to something radically new and honing a given skill, between learning from a stranger and spending more time with a loved one, between opening our mind to some new field and developing niche knowledge in a given domain, between jumping to a new company with new people and problems, and exercising our resilience and loyalty to a given team?

There is no right answer. We’re all wired differently. We all respond to challenges differently. We’re all motivated by different things.

Perhaps death is the best constraint we have to provide some guidance, some policy to choose between choice A and choice B. For we can project ourselves forward to our imagined death bed, where we lie, alone, staring into the silent mirror of our hearts, and ask ourselves “Was my life was meaningful?” But this imagined scene is not actually a future state: it is a present policy. It is a principle we can use to evaluate decisions, a principle that is useful because it abstracts us from the mire of emotions overly indexed towards near-term goals and provides us with perspective.

And what’s perhaps most miraculous is that, at every present, we can sit there are stare into the silent mirror of our hearts and look back on the choices we’ve made and say, “That is me.” It’s so hard going forward, and so easy going backward. The proportion of what may come wanes ever smaller than the portion of what has been, never quite converging until it’s too late, and we are complete.


*Thank you, internet, for enabling me to recall the date with such exacting precision! Using my memory, I would have deduced the approximate date by 1) remembering that Robert Colpitts, my boyfriend at the time (Godspeed to him today, as he participates in a sit-a-thon fundraiser for the Interdependence Project in New York City, a worthy cause), attended with me, recalling how fresh our relationship was (it had to have been really fresh because the frequency with which we attended professional events together subsequently declined), and working backwards from the start to find the date; 2) remembering what I wore! (crazy!!), namely a sheer pink sleeveless shirt, a pair of wide-legged white pants that landed just slightly above the ankle and therefore looked great with the pair of beige, heeled sandals with leather so stiff it gave me horrific blisters that made running less than pleasant for the rest of the week. So I’d recently purchased those when my brother and his girlfriend visited, which was in late February (or early March?) 2016; 3) remembering that afterwards we went to some fast food Indian joint nearby in the Flatiron district, food was decent but not good enough to inspire me to return. So that would put is in the March-April, 2016 range, which is close but not the exact April 18. That’s one week after my birthday (April 11); I remember Robert and I had a wonderful celebration on my birthday. I felt more deeply cared for than I had in any past birthdays. But I don’t remember this talk relative to the birthday celebration (I do remember sending the marketing email to announce the Fast Forward Labs report on text summarization on my birthday, when I worked for half day and then met Robert at the nearby sweetgreen, where he ordered, as always, (Robert is a creature of exploitation) the kale caesar salad, after which we walked together across the Brooklyn Bridge to my house, we loved walking together, we took many, many walks together, often at night after work at the Promenade, often in the morning, before work, at the Promenade, when there were so few people around, so few people awake). I must say, I find the process of reconstructing when an event took place using temporal landmarks much more rewarding than searching for “Dan Hsu Interactive Learning NYAI” on Google to find the exact date. But the search terms themselves reveal something equally interesting about our heuristic mnemonics, as every time we reconstruct some theme or topic to retrieve a former conversation on Slack.

**Crazy that WeWork recently bought Meetup, although interesting to think about how the two business models enable what I am slowly coming to see as the most important creative force in the universe, the combinatory potential of minds meeting productively, where productively means that each mind is not coming as a blank slate but as engaged in a project, an endeavor, where these endeavors can productively overlap and, guided by a Smithian invisible hand, create something new. The most interesting model we hope to work on soon at integrate.ai is one that optimizes groups in a multiplayer game experience (which we lovingly call the polyamorous online dating algorithm), so mapping personality and playing style affinities to dynamically allocate the best next player to an alliance. Social compatibility is a fascinating thing to optimize for, in particular when it goes beyond just assembling a pleasant cocktail party to pairing minds, skills, and temperaments to optimize the likelihood of creating something beautiful and new.

***Sutton has one of the most beautiful minds in the field and he is kind. He is a person to celebrate. I am grateful our paths have crossed and thoroughly enjoyed our conversation on the In Context podcast.

***Maura Grossman and Gordon Cormack have written countless articles about the benefits of using active learning for technology assisted review (TAR), or classifying documents for their relevance for a lawsuit. The tradeoffs they weigh relate to system performance (gauged by precision and recall on a document set) versus time, cost, and effort to achieve that performance.

*****Hsu did not mention Haan or Choo. I added some more color.

******Note this same dynamic occurs in our current fears about the future economy. We worry a hell of a lot more about the losses we will incur if artificial intelligence systems automate existing jobs than we celebrate the possibilities of new jobs and work that might become possible once these systems are in place. This is also due to the fact that the future we imagine tends to be an adaptation of what we know today, as delightfully illustrated in Jean-Marc Côté’s anachronistic cartoons of the year 2000. The cartoons show what happens when our imagination only changes one variable as opposed to a set of holistically interconnected variables.

barber
19th-century cartoons show how we imagine technological innovations in isolation. That said, a hipster barber shop in Portland or Brooklyn could feature such a palimpsestic combination.

 

The featured image is a photograph I took of the sidewalk on State Street between Court and Clinton Streets in Brooklyn Heights. I presume a bird walked on wet concrete. Is that how those kinds of footprints are created? I may see those footprints again in the future, but not nearly as soon as I’d be able to were I not to have decided to move to Toronto in May. Now that I’ve thought about them, I may intentionally make the trip to Brooklyn next time I’m in New York (certainly before January 11, unless I die between now and then). I’ll have to seek out similar footprints in Toronto, or perhaps the snows of Alberta.