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Who’s allowed to write about technology?

I recently published an article about explainability in machine learning systems for the Harvard Business Review. The article argues that many businesses get stuck applying machine learning because they worry about black boxes; that they should think about what matters for a given use case, as sometimes other governance and assessment metrics are more relevant than an explanation (e.g., precision and recall for information retrieval); and that a close reading of recital 71 in the EU GDPR suggests that an individual’s right to an explanation applies to the procedures used to build and govern the entire system, not to which input features, with which weights, lead to which outputs.[1]

The article’s goal is to help businesses innovate. It seeks to empower people by helping them ask the right questions. The battle cry is: There’s no silver bullet. You have to think critically. Compliance and business teams should align with data scientists early in the machine learning system-development process to align on constraints required for a given use case. Businesses should be as clear as possible on what algorithms actually optimize for, as ethical pitfalls arise between what we can and can’t measure, what our data do and do not index about the world.[3]

The day it was published, I received two comically opposite responses from data scientists working in executive positions in technology companies. The first complimented me, mentioning that they were pleasantly surprised to see someone with my educational background writing so cogently about machine learning. The second condemned me, mentioning that someone with my educational background had no right to write about machine learning and that I was peddling dangerous hype.

I didn’t learn much from the compliment. My Mr. Peanut Butter labrador ego enjoyed being stroked.

I learned a few things from the critique. It helped clarify some of my own tacit assumptions, my ideology, my ethics, the grey matter between the words, the stuff that makes it hard to write because it feels vulnerable and exposed, the implicit stuff that signals community acceptance and alignment and that we rarely sit back, unpack, analyze, and articulate.

Here are some of the lessons.

1. Precision always matters

As with (close to) all tricky situations, I wonder if I did the right thing at the time. Upon being attacked, I chose to diffuse rather than ignite. I thanked the person for voicing their critique and disengaged. The only thing I mentioned was that it appeared that they drew their conclusion from the title of my article rather than its content. They stated that scientists have long had ways to interpret the output of neural networks and that I was peddling hype to write an article entitled “When is it important for an algorithm to explain itself?” I was surprised to see the narrow focus on algorithmic interpretability, as I felt the work my article did was to expand the analytical framework of explainability to systems and procedures, not just algorithm. So, underneath the amygdala’s attack response, my mind said “Did they even read it?”

It took me a few minutes to put (what I assume are) the pieces together. I don’t write the titles for my HBR articles and hadn’t taken the time to internalize how the title could be interpreted. When my editor suggested it, I quickly approved. Had I felt it was important that the title precisely reflect the content, I would have recommended that we say “an algorithmic system,” not an “algorithm” and say “when is it important for businesses to consider explainability in machine learning systems” versus implying that algorithms have agency. (Although it is a thought-provoking and crucial task to think about how we can and should design system front-ends to translate math-speak into people-speak, be that to communicate and quantify uncertainty or to indicate other performance metrics in a way that is meaningful and useful to developers and users.)

Let me be clear on the lesson here. I try to take as much responsibility as possible for outcomes, especially negative ones. I approved this title very quickly because I was excited to see the piece go live. Next time, I’ll think more deeply. I’m not blaming the HBR editorial team. They thought about the title and considered a few different options. I love working with my editor. He’s a wonderful partner. We bounce topics by one another. He’ll push back on stuff he’s not excited about; I’ll do the same for him. What I enjoy most is giving him feedback on questions unrelated to my writing. I like giving back, as he has done much to help me build my reputation as a writer.

The reason I wonder if I did the right thing is that I wonder if it is my duty to other writers, to other professionals, to have stood up for myself as opposed to stepping back and disengaging. But attacks beget strong emotions. For all of us. I needed time to think and let the lessons sink in. This is, obviously, my response.

2. Read things before sharing them and commenting on them

I’m guilty of having shared things without reading them, or having only skimmed an abstract. Mostly because I’m busy and can be impulsive. This is a good lesson about why that’s always a bad idea. I’d feel ashamed if people suspected I hadn’t read an article before critiquing it. There’s a lot at stake here, like democracy. It’s meaningful to engage deeply and charitably with another person’s ideas. To take the time to understand what they are trying to communicate, to find an opportunity to refine an idea, challenge an idea, improve the structure or flow. To teach one another.

3. Don’t judge someone based on their resume

The person who critiqued me seemed to draw conclusions about what I could and could not know based on my LinkedIn profile. That doesn’t reveal that much. You don’t see that much of my college education was funded by Siemens because I was one of 2 female students in New England awarded for having the highest scores on our math and science AP tests. You don’t see that I was a math major at U Chicago who always got straight As in math and struggled much more in humanities, but was ultimately more interested in literature so decided to pursue that path. You don’t see how much analysis, complex analysis, number theory, linear algebra, and group theory I studied. You don’t see how I came to understand how important that training would be once I ended up working in machine learning. You don’t see that I focused on history of philosophy and math in the 17th and 18th century in graduate school, and, while the specific math of that period is no outdated, have thought deeply about the philosophical questions associated with statistics, empirical science, and the diffusion of knowledge in the wake of new scientific discovery. You don’t see how my fellow literature graduate students told me reading my writing was like being in a prison because I was always trying to prove things, as in a math proof.

You might see that I’m not interested in competing with machine learning researchers in their own field. I want to drink in as much of their thinking as possible, want to learn everything they can teach me, want to understand why and what it means for the field, want to experience the immense joy of recognizing structural similarities between two disciplines or applications that can be the seat of innovation, that place where you realize that a mathematical technique originally explored for problem A comes into its own in the world in problem B.

You might see that the role I’ve come to accept is that of the translator, the generalist curious enough to dive deeply into whatever subject matter I’m working on, but will never be the disciplined expert. There will always be questions and gaps. Always more to learn and explore. Always people who can go deeper and narrower. Like Sheldon Levy, I viciously and vibrantly admire those whose creative minds will discover things, will reframe problems to uncover solutions stuck for centuries. They are the heroes. All we do is to sing their song, and help others hear its beauty.

4. Allow people to learn

This is the most important lesson. The one I care about. The one that puts fire into my heart and makes my fingers type quickly.

We must allow people to learn from experiences after school. We must not accept a world where the priests alone are allowed to understand, where the experts alone have the authority to write about, talk about, and share ideas about a subject. Technologies like artificial intelligence are already impacting us all. Work will change. Jobs will change. New jobs and new opportunities will arise. If people are not given the space to change, to learn, if the only people we deem qualified to do this work, to write about this work, are those who come with a certain PhD, a certain educational certificate, a certain type of social rubric of authority, we are fucked. We must trust that people can learn new things and find ways to give them opportunities. We must engage with one another so as to promote openness, to probe and push without the searing pain of judgment, to provide people with the confidence required to ask the simple questions needed to get to the heart of the matter, to give people the breathing room to embrace the initial anxiety of change so they can come to do something new.

No, I did not do my PhD in machine learning. It’s not impossible that I won’t go back and do a second PhD in reinforcement learning, as I find the epistemological questions associated with that subfield incredibly rich, incredibly akin to the perennial questions I have loved in the Greeks, in the early moderns, and again today. Time will tell. I have, however, worked in the field over the past few years. I was fortunate enough to have been granted the opportunity to learn a lot at Fast Forward Labs. I will forever be grateful to Hilary Mason for giving me a chance to help her build her business, and for believing that I could learn. I learned. I am still learning. I write about what I’ve come to learn, and accept criticism, feedback, refinements, all the stuff other people can share with me to expand my understanding and help us all grow. I’m decent at recognizing what I know with precision and where my knowledge starts to falter into fuzziness, and I tell people that. I have made mistakes, thought about them deeply, and try my best not to make them a second time (which I don’t always succeed it). I love enabling others to build sound intuitions about mathematical concepts and technology. To feel empowered, feel like they get it in ways they hadn’t before. And not because it’s dumbed down. Not because we resort to the Platonic blindfolds for the masses. Because we can all do it. It’s just that we have to break down the power walls, break down the barriers, break down our egos, and do our best to make something meaningful.

I will fight for it. There are too many people who hold themselves back because they are excluded from circles protecting themselves within elitism. Everyone deserves a voice. Everyone deserves a chance to understand.

5. Everyone should be allowed to write about technology

It’s not all going to be good. There is a lot of hype. I’m not sure hype is all bad, as it has the power to mobilize large groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested. Nothing like the fine print of precise qualifications to dampen the mood of disruptive innovation. There is damage when the hype breeds unnecessary fear, rather than unbounded excitement. And there’s certainly lots of work to be done to help businesses bring expectations down to earth to capitalize on what’s possible. But there’s wonderful satisfaction that emerges when businesses start to get traction with a narrowly-focused, real-world application. And it takes different people with different viewpoints from different teams to make that happen, in particularly in established enterprises with their processes and people and quirks and habits and culture.

We may not all want to write, but we all have a part to play. And I’ll always subscribe to the Ratatouille philosophy: it’s not that everyone can cook, but that the greatest chef in the world may not necessarily have a resume our priors deem likely to succeed.


[1] Peter Sweeney has written many great articles about epistemology and AI, and argued that we should conceptualize the outputs of machine learning algorithms as observations, not explanations. He was responding to David Weinberger, who has argued that we should focus governance efforts on optimization, not explanation. I’m partial to that, but again think it depends on the use case. Nick Frosst, who wrote the capsule network paper with Sara Sabour[2] and Geoff Hinton, thinks that interpretability (I must admit that I use the words interpretability and explainability interchangeably, and should take the time to parse the two, both philosophically and technically) is important because those creating systems and those impacted by systems should have the right to intervene to change their behaviour or change the system to change outcomes. So, for example, if a system denies an individual a mortgage because they missed their last 3 credit card payments, then that gives the individual meaningful recourse to act differently to meet the requisite rules in the future. It does indeed get dicey if there are so many dimensions that end up correlated to some output that impacts big deal opportunities for real people living real lives. I analyzed a couple of examples in this podcast.

[2] I’m 99% confident that Sara wasn’t able to attend NIPS in Los Angeles last year because she is Iranian. Knowledge, and credit for new knowledge, is cosmopolitan.

[3] My company recently published a framework to help consumer enterprises develop responsible machine learning systems. It’s practical and breaks down the different privacy, security, governance, and ethics questions cross-functional teams should ask and address at different points in the machine learning system-development process. We worked hard on it. I’m proud of it.

The featured image is of Remy the rat chef. He has a heightened sense of taste and smell but is naturally overlooked as an awesome chef because he’s a rat. He ends up making a ratatouille that softens the curmudgeonly critique because it brings him back to his childhood like Proust’s madeleine. So worth watching over and over again. 

Facebook Portrait Project: Batch 2

About a month ago, I started the Facebook Portrait Project. On July 31, I came to understand the following:

The Facebook Portrait practice yielded an insight today. I didn’t know this before I started. I’ve come to learn it in and through the practice.

I frame the portraits through an anchor experience that is meaningful to me. They aren’t fashioned from some neutral, third-person perch. I unfold love by identifying the essence of the emotion my subject–my friend–invokes in me, and then unravel the acrylic streamers from this emotional kernel.

But I’ve noticed that each person evokes a different aspect of myself and my personality. One person shares the practice of meditation. Another shares my taste in abstract art. Another shares my childhood, my deep history with ninja turtles and home video cameras. Another shares the simple joy of a beet folded into a rose on the dinner table, the elemental goodness of a meal shared with friends.

The Facebook Portrait project, therefore, is also a means of showing the self as a kaleidoscope. Of showing how our narrative is that much richer when it is viewed not as a series of selfies but as a series of self-portraits inflected through the presence and inspiration of those who love us, each person amplifying a different parameter, a different feature. Each person activating a different potential.

The composite of all the portraits is a type of self portrait. But it shows a self in context. A social self. Not a self as monad.

The practice is indeed spiritual.

I do believe this. Our core philosophical task in the early 21st century to unravel the self, this construct we inherited from Humanism, and recover the fluidity of sociality and ecosystems and organisms big and small.

But it’s also overthinking it. I write the portraits because I like writing them. It’s joyful. I like touching people. I like remembering things I had forgotten as I unpack the intuitions that frame the portraits. I like how it’s a form of meditation. I like how it doesn’t hurt because I don’t feel pressure to perform.

Here is the second batch of portraits. I’m currently planning to share them in batches of 5.


Portrait 6: Alisa Wechsler

While not of my blood, you are my sister because we are both at our happiest eating smoked whitefish and sturgeon.

While not of my blood, you are my sister because we have walked the same path in life, both roll up our sleeves to share forearm scars, forever marks of creatives imprisoned, I muting me, you muting you, we together dampened by the cumbersome gaze of what we assumed would be expected, and was.

You are my sister because you left your scars in the backseat with the grocery bags and the milk spoiling in the muggy Jersey sun and walked into life with the kids.

My sister because you saw me for me. The situation begged skepticism, criticism, concern, but you allowed the apartment to silence the voices and clear space for compassion and connection. Perhaps it was the buffalo parchment embrace of the Wayang puppets Rama and Sinta in the alcove. Perhaps the still modernism of Albers above the dining room table. The white cowhide rug. You felt yourself in the design and this recognition of kinship peeled away the prior expectations of concern to see why it all made sense.

My sister because when we walked through the David Bowie exhibit, this proleptic funeral procession he prepared as his final act, we saw permission. We left the shame on the other side. We too were Pierrot in Turquoise, were Ziggy Stardust, were unleashed at last with Eno in Berlin in his screaming ode to the king and his queen loving one another ardently, free, finally, pure, if only for one day.

My sister because I will care for your daughters and be their sister, too. I will keep their seeking eyes in my mind as I make my own choices, know there are young women watching, young leaders in search of a role model to show them what the world can offer and that the world can never keep them down.

My sister because of the constancy. Because we can flake out and be busy and need to take care of 65,000,000 things when we’re on the east coast and christ the time gets away and we really wanted to actually connect this time and it’s just not going to happen but it doesn’t matter, there’s zero resentment, zero concern, because I will always be there for you and know you will always be there for me, we’re united inside the substrata, underneath the erosion of the world. We’re inside the rocks in Arizona holding little girl hands, while outside the parched sun sweeps the lizards and the peyote.

My sister because who would have thought you’d be stuffing meat into a grinder with blood on your hands and sitting up straight in the meetings with the investors unabashedly demanding one more check. And they trusted you. They took a bet on you. They knew with someone as solid as you at the helm, money would flow.

My sister because you play the drums and have that silly purple car and somehow embody the rusty spirit of mullets and hair bands in 2018, but somehow make it fashionable.

My sister because you the world will teach you about itself for a longer time than most. Because you hear its song. Because Gunner will be there with the dogs and you’ll all transcend the wrinkles of time with Peter Pan minds. Because you no longer need a fountain of youth. You have freed yourself to be you, and come into love.

alisa
Alisa and I share a deep connection with the desert. We’re both at ease there.

Portait 7: Mike Hume

Should the ninja turtles (NTs) negatively impact one’s mental well being, Mike Hume is screwed.

The NTs weren’t a Saturday-morning cartoon in the Hume household on 27 Highland Drive, Apalachin, New York (spelling always tripped me up when we first learned geography at Tioga Hills elementary school, up the road past the Starners’ house and then down the road on the left; my hair would freeze walking to school in the winter but I kind of dug it. Still do.).

They were a way of being.

Dad and Mike used to make these home videos of NT adventures, you know, some plot with Shredder and Crang being up to some shit. Dad had a moany Crang voice that may or may not be anything like Crang’s cartoon voice. It was decidedly NOT anything like Pinky or the Brain’s voice (side notes: Mike’s and my favorite Pinky quote is, “I think I am Brain: his name would be far more politically correct as Jean-Claude van Darn.”; Dad DOES have a Brain voice that comes out at Red Sox games in Fenway Park when he puts all of himself into a YEEES, either after some shortstop play is made or he has just punched the beach ball floating around so hard it goes to another part of the stadium; and I do believe the world would be a far saner place if Crang were the mascot for artificial intelligence, not the horrendous cognitive robots that litter the internet.).

I remember Mike being Raphael, although IMHO it would make way more sense for him to be Michelangelo, given his personality. The best part of the videos was the Warp Pipe with which the NTs would teleport to Shredder’s lair. The Warp Pipe was a ceramic napkin holder in the shape of an owl. Raphael, expertly voiced by Mike, would stand inside and then we’d put in him front of the Macintosh Classic with the rotating laser screen saver, the kind that better damn well continue to illuminate the background of 2nd-grade school photos, or else the world really is descending into senseless chaos, and there must have been some voice over for the teleportation. Mike was way better than I was at NT simulation because he remembers EVERY SINGLE SOLITARY LINE FROM EVERY MOVIE OR TV SHOW HE HAS SEEN. It’s insane. Like total recall. Sarah McManus (the love of Mike’s life) can attest to this, and likely gets somewhat frustrated that Mike never says anything that isn’t a quote from some movie, or a comment on the day’s golf game.

The NTs in the home movies were the 6-inch-ish figurines. Then we had the 1.5-foot-ish figures that were a softer plastic and were more life size (calibrated to kid height). That means we didn’t film them; they existed in the plane of our own reality. So Dad was at work and Jeff Valenta was over and we’d concocted a scenario where the very same home video camera that Dad used to film the NT home movies became itself Crang’s vehicle (Crang is just a brain so he needed to be housed in something). Mike was Raphael, as always, and he took one of his golf clubs and like BEAT THE SHIT out of Dad’s home movie camera. That was the end of our time making NT movies.

(Side note: Mike was on television when he was 2. It was at the B.C. Open, a PGA golf tournament that took place at the En-Joie country club in Endicott, New York from 1971-2006. Mike was caught swinging his blue tiny tikes driver, the cameraman commenting that he was destined to be a pro. Mike does have a nasty good drive. Side note 2: tiny tikes rakes, hoes, shovels, and spades were prominently featured as air guitars alongside the ray bans in the other Hume-family home movie series where our cousins played back up to Eric Clapton in After Midnight, again and again and again.)

The culmination of Mike’s NT-centric childhood (besides Vanilla Ice teaching us life lessons about dancing, pants, and hair, BTW this song literally has a line that says “Lyrics, fill in the gap” – like he didn’t bother to write the lyrics and forgot to update the template from the producer) was a trip to Disney World where we met the NTs who weren’t just 6-inch figures, weren’t just 1.5-foot dolls, but were 6-foot-the-real-deal-holy-shit-we-are-meeting-the-NTs-in-real-life guys! We stood in the crowd. Mike was 3ish, perched atop Dad’s shoulders so he could have a better view when the NT van came around the corner. We have a photo of his face ANGUISHED with anticipation.

And then he disappeared. Mom was terrified – she’d lost her child in this huge crowd. But April O’Neil was clever enough to improvise. Mike appeared on stage in April O’Neil’s arms. He had made it. Went from directing movies about NTs to destroying the video camera that made the same movies to being up there on stage for everyone else to see. He had triumphed. He had become ninja turtle.

PS – I love Mike more than anyone in the world. He makes my accomplishments feel special in a way no one else does. There’s just something about his kindness. But he makes everyone feel this way. That’s why he’s like an addiction. People want to be with him.

It was his birthday yesterday. 31 and counting. Couple more greys. Love you, kiddo. So very much.

mike
Sarah took this photo of Mike on his birthday, the day before I wrote the portrait. He does that with his eyebrows.

Portrait 8: Donna Flanagan Gaspard

Just 28 minutes ago, I made a choice.

I had spent the morning hours working on my book and felt trapped inside an anxiety pocket, focusing on the outcome rather than the process, questioning the enterprise, the little anxiety homunculus in my brain clamoring to procrastinate, conjuring the self-broom brigade like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, brooms sweeping self-doubt, self-criticism, self-hatred with the waterfall cadence of a machine gone amok.

But even in such moments, especially in such moments, we are invited to love. To return to the beauty of the process, the joy of creating, the immediacy that is always there, offering itself, open, not asking for anything in return, not needing any outcome. Just there. Like a mother’s unconditional love, never requiring anything in return and patient through every foible.

I noticed it was Donna’s birthday. I knew she would be touched by a portrait. I gave myself permission to devote the day’s writing to her.

As I clicked open the dialogue box to start writing, I debated whether to take a moment to breathe, to meditate before diving in. A part of my brain resisted: “Get going. Write. Get to the outcome. After you have completed something, something, you can let yourself off the hook.”

But this was for Donna. The thought of her gave me permission to step back. All I needed to bring to mind was the LinkedIn post she recently wrote about the healing power of breathing.

So, now 45 minutes ago (I think it’s been about 17 minutes), I made a choice. I chose to breathe. To step back for a moment and observe the tension balled up on my quadriceps, in my hips, to release it as Donna sat there with me. And taking this time to step back helped crystallize what matters in our relationship. Helped me find her portrait.

Like Alisa, Donna is my sister. But our sisterhood is very old. It has had years to grow and change. Like all living things, it isn’t constant.

I must have been 15 when I met Donna. I can’t recall precisely. I do recall that the first time we met was at a dinner in San Francisco. My mother ordered a bottle of Pahlmeyer Chardonnay. There was an air of celebration that evening, if only because it was two women and an almost-woman experiencing life together. Donna sensed my dissonance. Saw a young woman who had power and strength, but who held herself back behind bars of pain. Without kids of her own, Donna had space to be the older sister I never had. Space to be my friend, my confidante, the person I could turn to to share thoughts and fears it would be wisest to hide from family and fair-weather friends. And being a sister to me would be an act of love towards my mother and, perhaps most importantly, towards herself.

So in the first phase of our sisterhood, Donna was the person I could turn to to explore the thoughts that hurt my mother and father, work through all the noise, all the tyranny of self-perfection and doubt. And she wasn’t a pushover: I remember her getting frustrated a few times when I droned on like a broken alarm clock about how fat I was. Again and again and again and again.

But she was always there. She came back. She loved unconditionally.

In the second phase of our sisterhood, Donna introduced me to meditation. And to courage. She had decided to walk away from the rat race of a corporate career, a rat race even more difficult for women like me and her who don’t have children of our own, and therefore often place even more of our self worth and identity in our professional success. Donna exudes a strength and grace at work. She holds herself tall (her posture is incredible) and has a slightly masculine energy that evinces power and reliance, resilience and cleverness. But she wanted and needed more from life. So she started to explore and her search led her to meditation. She had to courage to walk away from work and reinvent herself. And the wisdom to know that didn’t mean she would never work in Corporate America again, but that life is long, and we can walk away from the race and return later, refreshed, strengthened, wiser.

During this second phase, Donna was a teacher who helped me begin my journey as a meditator. In Costa Rica, we found a private room tucked away from the noise of the house and lay down on the floor with our feet up on the couch. Donna put her hand on my stomach and showed me where to focus my attention. She helped me find the depths of my belly, deeper than my lungs. Her voice shared the wisdom that only comes with experience, the wisdom of meaning it. It was light and sprightly, like a young girl sharing her imaginary world. It was a voice that had found a sister, that knew she was teaching someone who wanted to listen. Someone who wouldn’t judge. Someone who shared her pain and also wanted to find her joy.

And now, 20 years later, I have come to understand Donna in a way I couldn’t when I was 14. For I too have lived.

In this third phase of our sisterhood, I can sit down on my yoga block and meditate and feel deeply within my heart the resonance of a kindred spirit. For I too am not yet a mother, so I now understand how meaningful it can be to have a younger sister to love and know and care for. I have sisters in Toronto, women like Shems and Lauren who are so dear to me and who are the me that I was for Donna (just a little older and wiser 🙂). I haven’t spoken with Donna for a while, but her presence is a given. Constant, unconditional, yet growing and changing as we grow through our own experiences. She in Arizona, me in Toronto.

The constancy of our relationship provides a miraculous perspective on what has changed and what remains the same. Like breath. Unnoticed, until we realize it is a gift.

meditation
Donna featured this image in a recent post about meditation

Portrait 9: Lauren Deckelbaum

Encounter 1: I improvise my story. I conjure the nadir at the Women’s Lunch Place in Boston, right wrist greasing practiced fluidity as I chop onion after onion to keep myself alive. I expose the hurt to give them strength and show how life stories switchback from failure to success, and back again. That struggle apexing atop a mesa of ease is a parched mirage copied, facsimile, from Roman Epics and Saints Lives. They smile; they applaud; they approach. And then Lauren comes. “I’ve noticed how many successful people meditate, and yet I can’t seem to get into it myself.” I invite her to my house. There was something in her eyes, in her voice. “I’ll teach you.”

Encounter 2: Fuck fuck she’s like 10 minutes early and I’m still in my pijamas should I just open the door don’t want to make her wait but christ I don’t even know this woman oh well more awkward if she has to stand there outside my door waiting it’s only grey sweatpants and the gingham Victoria’s Secret sheath I stole from Mom like 5 years ago somewhat kitsch but whatever so “Welcome! So sorry I was just finishing up some writing when I heard you knock!” and she smiles wide and it’s like it was meant to be this way and we exchange a few pleasantries but get right to it legs crossed I upon the couch she in the chair next to me and she’s still not comfortable with meditating so she pulls the hat down over her eyes to block out the light and the world and I set the timer and we breathe and I feel ease next to her and I don’t know for sure what she feels because I can’t know can never know and that’s the beauty of it all but when she opens her eyes and asks what I heard and thought about her voice is crystalline and calm.

Encounter 4: I rush into the inky WeWork at Yonge and Bloor only to notice stilton, cheddar, triple-cream brie, cranberries, walnuts, honey, all delicately aligned. My colleagues say it was a gift from a woman I know who works here. From Lauren. How lovely. How perfect.

Encounter 7: I show her what my heart creates. We eat shrimp and arugula, and drink Marsannay. She helps me understand who the words are for.

It complements the haze. It deepens it. The lighthouse repetition in the background, the delicacy of the violin like cormorant staccato in the milk-washed sea sky.

For how could it not be the subject, its fate sealed under barn owl wax in the damp Sunday, as mermen brandished ping pong paddles on silk sleeves? Your precision poaching oatmeal into the winter light, capturing its hue like cupped hands handle butterflies, keeping the wings intact, unharmed, this being so different from you, while you take pictures of white oak on black, on leather, creating your space, your home, your eye creating beauty in its wake, leaving the traces of you, if only I take the time to watch?

Encounter N: She comes to dinner with my mother, my aunts, with Will. We sample the pizza and wood brick chicken. Our conversation deviates from the group, as it’s too hard to hear. But she is a deeper part of me now. A forever friend.

Encounter N+1: I come to dinner with her mother, her siblings, her friends. I sleep in her old bed downstairs, the house bleating kindness in its wake. We sit crosslegged and discuss how minds thwart intimacy. We hike the Montreal mountain. We talk about Carl Sagan on soggy cushions and slice Montreal bagels in time for the party. There is no judgment. It’s home.

Encounter N + N: She gives me the ring with the face on it over dinner. I cherish our differences. I see Lauren for who she is. She is not a reflection of me. She is not something I want her to be. It is her way that has cracked the opening. I love her for who she is because of who I am when I am in her presence. A forever friend. She permits a space for honesty. She is fertile like the ground. She brings forth life.

Encounter N*N: She’s in London this week. She’ll grow and collect stories, share them upon her return. I’ll think of her when I get stressed and my fists clench. I’ll remember her ease and relax my shoulders inside its grace.

And in the future we’ll watch our lives unfurl. I trust it.

hand
That’s the ring. That’s my hand. I put my fingers in silly places to make it look better.

Portrait 10: Allen Gebhardt

“To be exceptional is to be more god-like than most, whether that is a powerful deity of myth or the God who died on the cross of Christianity. Hume’s kind of exceptionality is the opposite: he was more fully human than most, nothing more, nothing less. The virtues he expressed were not extreme ones of daring or courage but quiet ones of amiability, modesty, generosity of spirit, hospitality. Lest this sound like little, consider how difficult it is to live our lives consistently expressing such virtues.” – Julian Baggini, in his recent essay on David Hume

Allen is like Hume: he is more fully human than most, nothing more, nothing less.

And for that reason–gosh, I’m hesitating as I’m quite overwhelmed by emotion–Allen is one of my most important friends. But that’s not quite right. He’s more like a guide, except that, because he is a Humean Human in its purest expression, he doesn’t seek the power a guide seeks. He needs no acolyte. He craves no connection to heal or help. He is far too ironic and cynical to slip into demagoguery. What he does is listen. Without judgment. With generosity of spirit. And he is there, consistently, when a friend is needed. And he celebrates the journey with its freckled growth. As he has done with his wife and his sons.

I met Allen at a Law Firm Information Governance Symposium in April, 2014 in Washington, DC. He was working at Cooley at the time, had helped the firm transition from paper-based records management to the brave new world of digital squalor. We had dinner recently in San Francisco and he reminded me that the seed of our friendship was his making ironic jabs at my self-righteous pseudo-Marxist idealism. I’d completely forgotten, as is my way. What I remembered was that, for Allen, work was primary about people. He cared less about the what and cared more about the how, about the dynamics that make or break teams. He acknowledged the fact that careers are important for dignity and self-worth in contemporary society, but that the self didn’t depend on professional success. That work is a means to stay busy and create value with others. And then it passes, fluid like time or the winding fragility of an Andy Goldsworthy installation.

Nonetheless, a connection was formed. And it grew.

One milestone was a dinner we had in the Castro in San Francisco. Classic diner-like American fare. Been around for years. I searched my email to find the name of the place only to notice a string of restaurants we’ve visited together since we met, Salero in Chicago, Vesta in Redwood City, AQ in San Francisco (now closed), most recently Heirloom Cafe, where I introduced Allen to Will. I don’t remember what we spoke about over dinner. I remember Allen drove me to SFO afterwards and I fell asleep in the car. I was embarrassed. But Allen was flattered: he thanked me for falling asleep because it showed I was completely comfortable with him. We’d passed the threshold to forever friendship, like shifting from vous to tu.

Later, in late 2016, Allen taught me how to love. What I mean is that he helped me navigate a difficult situation I was experiencing with a former partner: I had to learn how to allow someone else to feel what they feel, to make their own decisions, to live how they chose to live, and to not entangle myself in another’s self. I had to learn that if it all fell apart, it was ok, I would be ok. I had to learn that I, too, was able to feel what I felt, and could look at my emotions, observe them, take in their lessons, follow their footprints back to my childhood, know their source, see the habits they’d created, and free myself from them. I’d pace the Brooklyn streets, humidity curling my flyaways, Allen on the phone as my guide. I’d settle down. It was only a few phone calls, but they changed me. Now, each time I make a conscious effort to give space to another to be and feel and live and hurt and experience, Allen is present.

When I met Allen’s wife Julie, the kaleidoscope spun into vibrancy. These lessons Allen shared had been lived and grown through his partnership with his wife. They seemed like an idyllic pair, exemplars of giving and openness and wisdom. Julie showed me a few photos from her popular Instagram feed featuring doorways in San Francisco. Her Renaissance was birthed by curiosity and charity. By walks in the city. Today others join. Julie’s example gives others permission to be artists.

I have yet to meet Allen’s sons. I’m sure I will some day. They seem extraordinary.

Allen and I spoke yesterday. He recently retired and is looking forward to his own Renaissance. It will emerge from spontaneity, in the spacetime crevices that widen when the hustle subsides. When we allow the sub-optimal. When there are no next steps. When we can err and wander, noticing the concentric circles that widen in rain puddles. His voice was joy. He didn’t fear retirement in the least because he is at home in the world. He now has time unbound.

goldsworthy
An Andy Goldsworthy installation I sampled from Allen’s Facebook page

More to come…

The featured image is of my uncle Anthony, my brother, and me. That is the EXACT look Mike had on his face when the Ninja Turtles came around the bend. You can see how self-conscious I was at having my picture taken, even when I was 5 or 6 years old. 

Two lessons from giving talks

So I’m writing this blog post about why the AlphaGo documentary isn’t really about AlphaGo at all, but is squarely about Lee Sedol and the psychological pressure we put on ourselves when we strive to be top performers, the emotional connection we create with opponents, even when they bluff, and a few other things, and I (naturally) ended up down this rabbit hole about the absurd experiences I undergo as a public speaker–in particular a woman speaking about tech–and there are two things that are quite revelatory and meaningful.

The first is that my time with the AV crew before going on stage is priceless. They are always my talk angels, the perfect outlet for self-deprecation and humor and energy release before having to perform. I don’t know if they know this may be the most important service they provide to speakers, at least speakers like me who are introverts inverted into extroverts on stage, who crave the feedback of a smile or a vote of confidence or a pat on the back or a friend before the show. My slides are always ludicrous by design, so we laugh over their skepticism that the slide deck starting with an image of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan is the right one for a talk about machine learning. And then I NEVER have pants or pockets and we play the find-a-place-to-hook-the-microphone-jack game, be that on the back of my neck, the back of my bra, or even the back of my underwear (no joke, did that for the World Science Festival, THANK GOD it was a panel and I got to sit down after walking on stage because it was weighing down my underwear big time and I thought they would fall off right on stage…oh yeah, by the way, this is the stuff you have to think about as a performer, like, all the time, or at least as a woman performer, because I don’t think men have to deal with this kind of stuff).

The second is that having the AV break down may be the best theatrical device to deliver a great talk. I’ve had it happen to me multiple times now (Charlie Oliver thinks my business-card motto should be NO SLIDES NEEDED!) and have actually found that I prefer the energy when I’m screwed on stage. It seems best when the slides stop working two-thirds of the way in. That way, I have the luxury of communicating something using the props of images and memes on slides for a while (note to self: front load the deck with any mathematical concepts that are best explained with visual aids) and then have this magical moment where people are trailing off or looking at their phones or distracted by the rest of their busy lives, and they get surprised and it elicits first their confusion, then their empathy, and THEN, and here’s where the magic happens, their curiosity and their imagination! Because then I am forced to paint imaginative pictures of what the slides would have looked like if they were there, and my audience has a prior for how my talks tend to work, as they’ve seen the first two-thirds worth of images and can fill in the gaps. And the most electrified and engaged audiences I’ve ever addressed have been those whose attention perked up, who were with me, who followed me word by word after everything broke down. It elicits their compassion and, therethrough, their rapt attention. And it creates a virtuous feedback cycle. I have to work that much harder to ensure they understand, and they give me the nods or furrowed brows to show they do or don’t, and we communicate. It’s marvelous. They become actors in my story, part of the talk. Not just a passive audience.

Both of these lessons are about people being people. People connecting as people. Our identity as ruthlessly social beings. We abstract ourselves from our sociality in situations of performance, envisioning ourselves as brains in a vat who act on one plane only. But that’s not who we are. My delight in the absurd details surrounding the performance shows me otherwise. AlphaGo has a lot to say about that too (stay tuned…).

The featured image is of the Fillmore Miami. I gave this talk there, addressing an audience of industrial control systems security professionals. The lights glared in my face and I had no idea what people thought. I only had my own reflection in my mind, so I thought they hated it. After, many people told me it was the best talk of the conference.

The Facebook Portrait Project

I started a project. It’s called Facebook Portraits. It has three goals:

  • It’s like a sketch book, but writing. I practice my craft and procrastinate on my book.
  • It shows how Facebook can be a place for connection rather than narcissism. How we are free to choose how we use technology. How it’s up to us to channel it as a force to bring us together, not divide us. But we have to work at that.
  • It’s a contemporary twist on the age-old practice of epistolary correspondence. Just with the world reading what would have been a private letter now versus after the author dies. Which is kind of how the world works now.

Here are my first five portraits. Dear World, I offer you my sketch book.


Portrait 1: Sanita Skribe-Negre

We are hiring a head of people at my company, integrate.ai. The other day a candidate asked me (and the colleague interviewing with me) about past heads of people I’ve worked with and why I liked or did not like them.

I had the honor of telling the candidate why Sanita Skribe-Negre was the most talented leader I’d worked with. Why she was without a doubt a partner to the business, flying around god knows where and working alongside the C-Suite until 3 am to get deals done. How she navigated the tricky, delicate work of assimilating one culture into another post acquisition. How she dealt with the conflict, tension, anxiety of different business units growing awkwardly into adults. How she was thoughtful about creating company-wide performance management programs that could scale with growth, but did their best not to suffocate individuals under the strange, stifling weight of metrics and boxes and numbers.

And most importantly and meaningfully, for me, how she was a personal coach. How she put her own goal to eventually become a full-time coach into practice with a young, ambitious, emotional, self-critical, but good-hearted 28-year-old recent PhD turned entry-level Marketing Content Specialist (that’s me).

A glutton for mentorship, I like to work through things in dialogue with someone I trust. Someone to whom I can expose all the thoughts, all the doubts, and know he or she will leave loving me more, not less. Intimacy evaporating awareness from the dim fog of emotion like a slot canyon squeezing light. Very different from this refracted self I offer in my writing, this I shaped by verisimilitude or analogy, by whatever mood or tone the words dictate from the outset, this I you’re reading about right now (akin to the one that recently confused people in my profile picture. I was amused they thought I was upset. The picture was taken months ago, so doesn’t reflect any current state of mind or heart. And the ambiguity in my eyes, sitting somewhere between happiness, sorrow, and anger, aren’t native expressions, but my discomfort at being photographed, the charcoal symptoms of a fractured superego).

Sanita and I set up a cadence where we met once every three weeks to go over something that I wanted work on. Most of the time, we discussed local emotional nadirs, not goals or aspirations (admittedly the two are hard to parse, in particular when goals are inchoate, not SMART). It was a mutual arrangement: I benefitted from her presence and advice, from the confidence she gave me in shaping what I could trust was my horizon of possibility in the company (ambitious as hell, I felt perennially short changed, stuck, wanting to be VP of ANYTHING yesterday). She benefitted from putting her aspirations into action, getting early experience in the art of helping one person grow, rather than putting out fires, resolving conflicts, bringing on new hires, doing things at a system level, etc.

Here’s one lesson she imparted that I still think about almost every day (and have passed on to younger colleagues).

I came in frustrated that, once again, something I’d said months ago, and which, at the time, was brushed off as nonsense, had come full circle into execution — with the credit going to someone else! I felt a flurry of entangled thoughts and emotions: why can’t I communicate clearly? why does someone get credit for my idea? is this because I’m a woman so am not taken seriously?

Sanita’s advice was priceless.

“Do you want to be a leader someday?”

“Of course. I will be CEO of EVERYTHING!”

“Well, then, learning how to let go of ownership of ideas, untying them from your ego, letting them grow with the team, is critical to your future success.”

Why this rung of healing, of beauty.

Sanita continued, “The best way to marry accountability and autonomy for people who report to you in the future will be to plant subtle seeds and suggestions that inspire them to reach their own conclusions on what needs to be done, to shape their own goals, to feel like they have skin in the game. It’s a totally different emotional relationship to accountability than that which arises from top-down plans. Early practice in renting your ideas, in becoming the sounding board and mirror for others, even though it’s hard when you’re younger and crave recognition, is what you will accelerate you in your growth goals.”

I still struggle to communicate. I still seek recognition. But the satisfaction is dim in comparison to the immense pride in being the sounding board to help younger colleagues grow.

And Sanita will always be my coach. She’ll always be my mental model for a great head of people.

intapp
Sanita’s handiwork: The Intapp tile at the Nuthouse on California Ave in Palo Alto, CA

Portrait 2: Jaxson Khan

“…It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, ‘Francescco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that
purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers…
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,’
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.”

– John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1984, referring back Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524

parma
The original portrait

How precious, how rare, to feel so connected to and so similar to another that writing his portrait is like writing a self-portrait, only refracted in a convex mirror.

Jaxson Khan and I became Facebook Friends December 2, 2017. A mere 7 months ago. We were friends in this virtual world once removed before we were friends in the real world (post-modernists be damned!), the world of flesh, blood, tears, the smell of camomile in the coffee shop, the sound of panting pawsteps as the dog scurries forth only to scurry back again on the ravine path near Saint Claire, the world where two humans sit across from one another in a coffee shop and, slowly–deftly, with cheetah grace spurred by trust and recognition–reveal heart-thoughts to each other.

Heart-thoughts and grand ambition. Jaxson and I went into our first conversation believing what connected us was our common role at work. I started my career as a Marketing Content Specialist at Intapp in 2012 and skipped and hopped around the professional jungle gym, from Principal Consultant at a security firm to Director of Sales and Marketing at an AI research consultancy, to end up nominally leading product and strategy for integrate.ai. Jaxson and I both wholeheartedly endorse the firefly flits of the generalist; it is our lot in life to lie on the horizontal axis of the T, buoyed by our drive and curiosity, our intense need to understand everything, everything, as deeply as we can while always knowing we won’t be the deepest in the group; we will be criticized; it will hurt me more than him; but I will turn to him for support and confidence as I march along this brambled path.

Jaxson is 10 years younger than I, but somehow already has the wisdom and maturity to confidently assess where he stands today and where he wants to go next. He, too, started in marketing but absolutely must test the waters of product management, if only to experiment and shape his path. To view each step in his career as data-gathering exercise to know himself, to grow not only his skills but his values and virtue as he explores. Life as a testing ground. A job as the sandbox to grow roots and shape the soul. But we learned we shared more than just marketing roles: we were both actively engaged in shaping policy around AI, doing our best to ground discussions around ethics in our daily hustle building products that used machine learning models. Yes, Jaxson, yes, it was the first shimmer along the rim of the mirror, the hint of similarity and recognition.

As the sun rose the shimmer expanded into a blinding glare. Almost too much, sometimes.

“The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.”

After our first time coffee, Jaxson took the subway back to his home in the Annex to meet his girlfriend, the woman he was confident would be his bride. Less than two months later she left for Australia, and decided not to come back.

His world broke.

I am fortunate it did. We would be friends, but it would have taken longer to probe the depths of our connection. To feel ourselves in the other’s words. To be startled by the recognition.

I have watched him learn through his pain. He is extraordinary. He allows his emotions to have their place, gives them space to work and hurt as he mourns the loss of his love and gradually recovers the ability to love anew. He has taught me how to turn to friends when I am anxious, taught me that we need not ever be alone, that even when I feel that restlessness in the evening–wishing Will Grathwohl were back but celebrating his extraordinary accomplishments with the concentrated joy of us as future selves looking back upon and growing through our early time apart–I can call him and he will pick up the phone and talk with me on the train ride home, on the walk home, on the bike ride home, that he is there as constant support. That he too has felt alone. I have watched how he has solidified his brotherhood with Zachary Habayeb, benefitted from their vegan meals and the space they provide for acceptance, as if judgment didn’t exist. I have watched him thrive in his job, no one suspecting what lie beneath. I have admired how he embraces his emotionality as a hallmark of a new masculinity, and how it isn’t challenged for a second.

There is no possible world where Jaxson and I won’t be friends for life. I will be godmother to his children (right Jax?). If not in name, in spirit. I will care for them if anything happens to him. They will sleep well at night, and be ok. Know this.

“The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.”

jax and me
Jax, Heather Evans, and myself after recording their first AskAI podcast

Portrait 3: John Alber

“Wait, you wrote a book about poisonous plants?”

“Sure I did. Dodie and I had just had the kids and we wanted to make sure they were safe with all the flowers around.”

“But like, how did you find the time to study baby-safe houseplants–and study them thoroughly enough to write a book–while you were practicing at Bryan Cave?”

“Curiosity, Kathryn, and sheer force of will. And efficiency. Which law firms sorely lack. That said there’s a cheshire cat joy in being a dog-headed Futurist in an industry as slow to innovate as legal services. I consider myself to have had a front-row seat in the amphitheater of human psychology. Where skeuomorphisms are an absolute must to get them to adopt anything. Where identities fizzle as the stolid edifice of white-collar prosperity quickly crumbles under cartoon anvils of outside counsel guidelines and alternative fee arrangements and Latent Dirichlet Allocation finally making it just about possible to go beyond expert systems and use machine learning for legal research, not only technology assisted review.

Did you see my article about Watson?”

“Loved it. Smart contracts make SO MUCH SENSE for tenant rights. OMG imagine how much traction we could make against access to justice issues by baking the commitment landlords have to their tenants, the commitment they have to provide a suitable, humane place to live, in this standing-on-the-precipice-of-third-world-despair of a ramshackle country we find ourselves in these days? But how would a firm like IBM overcome the innovator’s dilemma and solve a problem for a smaller market? C’mon, not so much different from law firms, in particular with their customer-centric ethos. Always drags them down the slippery slope of services and mangled customizations and tech debt.”

“Watson was metonymy. It’s a job for startups. Go build it. We’re counting on you.”

“I’m not ready to be a founder yet. I still have much to learn before I can do this myself.”

“Fair.

But not fair! Are you kidding me? You are starting to exemplify servant leadership. I love watching you explore it, tepidly, with the growing pains and braces of a stunning teenager. Probing the delicate balance between strength and vulnerability, finding it, making it your own, and by doing so, opening the space for expression, acceptance, healing, and growth for those around you. What’s holding you back?”

“John, you know how hard I am on myself.”

“There’s a wonderful book by Pema Chodron called When Things Fall Apart. The notion there is that when things seem most desperate, we experience the greatest opportunity to exert a kind of compassionate curiosity about our inner workings.

All of this difficulty, all of this uncertainty can be on the path. Rather, it certainly IS on the path; we just have the chance to see it as such.

I know what it’s like to be so very hard on myself. It was a condition of everyday existence. It still creeps in now and then to remind me.

Sometimes, I think we choose broken individuals as companions as a means of exercising the compassion we are so desperate for ourselves. We give THEM our hearts instead of opening up to our own humanity.

That’s what it was like for me. I wouldn’t acknowledge that I was flawed, that I was messily, beautifully human.

What we need for our own account is the kind of love a mother, or an aunt, would offer: unqualified, nonjudgmental, open and accepting.

Why, Pema Chodron asks, is it so hard for us to give ourselves that?”

“Because we servants we only have so much love to give, and it belongs to others. What do you remember most from your year on the boat?”

“Stillness is what I treasure most. I rise earlier and earlier to get that…try to see the sun come up down on the waterfront every morning, and be quiet enough to hear the noise it makes.

And, kittens are awwwwww…..damn!”

“Will you help me write my book? Will you be a reader?”

“I’m horrible at that. I use other people’s writing as a springboard. The best I can do with my writing friends is co-springboard.”

“Jesus, if my writing can spur something like this from you, I’ll take it. Incredible. Brings tears to my eyes. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for being one of my most cherished mentors, for being a beacon so clearly showing what freedom and joy can arise from having the courage to just be me. For you are so grounded in yourself. John, you are Odysseus.”

In response to my first blog post about love, John wrote the following:

“The love I wonder about most is what is sometimes described as the love emanating from God. Bare of religion as I am, I translate that as the love of the universe, and immediately come up against the utter brutality of the physical realms that surround us. Temperatures near absolute zero, profound vacuums, nuclear ovens…none of them in any way motherly or fatherly, nurturing or, in any human sense, loving. And then of course there is the brutality of our own tiny world, where the horrible and endless death of innocents is so ordinary as to be unremarkable. Where is the love in any of that?

Then again…

Is it love that inheres in the multiverse, that drives the eternal engine spawning new universes, that fertilizes forming worlds with the life-giving dust of exploded stars and thereby makes possible beings who speak of love? Is all love simply a derivative of that vast life-creating process? Is it really just a taxonomy of the vital forces that inhabit us all? When we say we love each other, are we simply connecting with that most fundamental imperative—the imperative to be? In some ways, I find that the most romantic love of all.”

john alber
This picture perfectly captures John’s spirit

Portrait 4: William Hume

If the last name didn’t give it away, William Hume is my dad. Imagine the laundry list of details I could include in his portrait.

I’ll tell one story. I suspect he’ll read it and wince just a little, concerned my writing exposes too much and baffled by how differently people reconstruct the past, especially one past moment heavied by symbolic gravity. Facts unraveled into kaleidoscope fractals, so difficult to calibrate, even though our ring size is only 4.5.

On November 23, 2016, I took my parents to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City to see La Bohème. My mom had just turned 60. This was my birthday present to her.

La Bohème is not just any opera in my family. It is a talisman. It represents a bond stronger than a wedding ring, locking together my parents’ fingers in trust at the lower phalanx. No matter what comes. In the music I hear what patience and unconditional acceptance sound like. I hear the work that goes into creating a lifelong partnership, to sustaining it, to outlasting the hurdles that came so close to shattering the old-world vase, a relic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that fights, Darwinian, to preserve its chromosomes with the pierogi dough. I hear what one couple’s love looks like. My dad’s love for my mom.

My mom suffered when I was a child. She tried to protect me and my brother from the pain. Her will is of iron. But the pain seeped out in ways she couldn’t control, shaping my delicate limbic system, itself singed by my extremely sensitive senses (sounds are louder and smells are stronger for me than they are for most people). When her parents died, memories she had repressed for years bubbled up. They bit at her rugged ambition with the persistence of horseflies. She swatted them back and went to the meeting in stilettos and big silk bows. Only dad saw what her face looked like when she dreamed on the swing set, saw how far away she seemed under the cheerful dominants of Paul McCartney.

Her unravelling strained their relationship. It came perilously close to ending. I didn’t know that: I was 6 or 7 or 8. Young. I envision myself carrying silver polish around with my black bob, but that home video was from much earlier. My hair must have started to curl, just a little, when they reached the nadir.

Mom came home. I envision a cold winter night. Cold in the way that only exists in upstate New York, where I grew up, and Canada. 8 foot snow drifts. Grey that cloaks the sky for months, starving our happiness of vitamin D. The stuff of Russians, just it’s the east coast, so defaults to the caricature of the Mummers.

She came home from work, torn. He had realized that he loved her unconditionally. He was ready to communicate that.

He held her hands. He turned on Puccini. Che gelida manina.

What a frozen little hand. Let me warm it for you.

I don’t know how often my parents hear che gelida manina in their minds. I don’t know what emotions it incites in them when it comes on.

They must be powerful. For, at the very inkling of the chords, in the very cusp of Pavarotti’s tenor, time collapses for me. I go back to 27 Highland Drive. To the tiny little house they bought for $13,000, nothing to their name but the promise of the future.

I am grateful that he loves her the way he does. When my dear friend Julien Rosa met them in Paris years ago, he told me the image that left the strongest impression on him was how my father looked at my mother.

My father taught him something profound about what it means to love.

mom & dad
My dad loving my mom with every breath

Portrait 5: Michael D’Souza

I have this friend Michael. He and his wife Colleen just got back from a 14,317-kilometre drive around god-knows-where in Canada. They didn’t care how long it took. They didn’t watch the clock, for that would have compromised their rapt attention to their surroundings and their gentle awareness, like water by now, of the other’s presence. Their destination was Tuktoyaktuk, which means “looks like a caribou” in Inuvialuktun (Western Canada Inuit). They told me that hotel rooms in Tuktoyaktuk follow a peculiar supply and demand curve: as there are only 3 beds for rent in the city–not 3 hotels, 3 beds–they can be relatively pricey. During his trip, Michael populated his Facebook feed with stillness. Lakes and lines of bread and bears and prairies and hummingbirds and bison and mountains. All still. All gleaming.

I met Michael on July 28, 2018. I was a guest at one of his famous dinner parties, courtesy of the inspirational Charlie Oliver. “Do you have any food restrictions?” “Nope, omnivorous.” “That’s just the kind of people we love!”

I had just recently moved to Canada. Was still tiptoeing through the little hits of loneliness and bemusement at finding myself, once again, in a new city: I’ve lived in many places and self-identify as a cosmopolitan nomad, though I’d love to stay put for the someday kids. Being welcomed by Michael and Colleen, therefore, was extra special. I had somewhere to go on a Friday night.

I didn’t expect to meet a best friend. My Toronto Dad.

Michael is also close to enlightened as we mere mortals get.

He is a lover and creator of beauty. He rolls his beet petals into roses, pickles them mildly so they are sweet without turning acrid. He serves the sorpotel, spiked with Feni, a Goan cashew liquor, in elegant Korean pottery, basks it in matte grey. He walks miles to ensure the strawberries are crimson, the tomato skins burst with the right pressure, the fish isn’t fishy. He puts capers in the mashed potatoes and shapes them into leaves baked brown. He and Colleen prefer not to eat out. They have too much to create at home.

He is a lover of and fighter for people. When I say fight, I mean fight. Michael spent his career working at the CBC. He has seen all the people. But he didn’t document them: He learned about them, respected them, opened the curtains wide onto the uniqueness of their culture and their personhood. He regularly corrects my cultural faux-pas, my maladroit misspellings of languages and religions, my imprecision in attempting to write about others. Michael pays attention to cultures with surgical precision. He titrates myths and stories. The seats at his dinner table are filled with doctors and human rights advocates and journalists and AI researchers and ambitious, young, striving, wonderful women from all over the world, women like Anne T. Griffin, another one of Michael’s daughters, like myself.

He is a lover of deadlines. Having spent a career as a journalist, Michael knows that things remain akimbo in limbo unless we have a deadline to birth our creativity, the 9-month mark where it’s either through the canal or a C-section. He keeps me on track, perhaps unaware. He seems to read everything I write. He seems to appreciate it. I cannot express how meaningful it is to me to have a reader who cares, who takes the time, who engages and corrects me.

He is a lover of grace. He carries himself quietly, sipping his wine without garnering too much attention when he’s in public. The dapper elegance of someone who always wears a tie. His demeanor carries with it his long history, the childhood in Pakistan and Goa. But when he is at home, comfortable, free, he laughs out loud. Shrills in joy. The kind of laugh that emerges from a clear conscience.

July 28 is a Saturday, and unfortunately (though very fortunately!) I have dinner plans at Actinolite that evening. Michael, I trust you’ll have me for dinner on the 27th to celebrate the anniversary of what cannot but be a lifelong friendship.

michael-2.jpg
Michael being awesome

More to come…

The featured image is of my dad and me on Father’s Day in 2017. I had just come back from a conference in Paris. We were about to eat oysters with my brother and his girlfriend. 

Love 3 | A Countable Taxonomy

This is the third post in a series about different kinds of love. The first is an incomplete taxonomy and the second is an indefinite taxonomy. More taxonomies will follow.

This gem of a post popped up on my twitter feed this week. Tim Urban posted the original on his super-awesome blog Wait But Why on December 11, 2015.[1]

The post starts by laying out the human lifespan visually, in years, months, weeks, and days.

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Tim Urban’s depiction of the human lifespan in months.

Tim goes on to measure his life in activities and events rather than units of time. When he wrote the post in 2015 he was 34 and assumed he’d live to 90. That meant, he had around 60 superbowls left and, since he doesn’t love going to the beach and only goes around once a year, 60 more times he’d swim in the ocean.

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Number of superbowls left.

I don’t share Tim’s visualization skills (at least not yet!), but loved his post and figured I’d apply the methodology to my own life.


Axioms & Assumptions

Axiom 1: I am 34-years old. Ain’t nothing I can do about it.

Axiom 2: I am an early-stage startup person. My career will be spent founding companies and getting them through infancy and adolescence but when they become mature adults, it’s time for me to move on and have another kid.

Axiom 3: I am a writer. I will write books. Note this is an axiom, not an assumption.

Assumption 1: I will live to be 95 (two of my great grandmothers, one from Mom’s side and one from Dad’s side, lived to be 98 and 102. One smoked for 80 odd years of her life and trafficked bathtub gin during Prohibition, #badass. Genes indicate decent longevity).

Assumption 2: My parents will both live to be 95 (they’re in good shape).

Assumption 3: Will Grathwohl and I will continue to love one another and live happily ever after. He will also live to be 95, so I’ll die before him.

Assumption 5: We will not have completely destroyed the earth in the next 61 years, so  will still have things like oceans we, turtles, whales, fish, and coral can swim in, and cities that are not yet drowned, burned, or ravished by income inequality so stark that they look like the final fantasy scene in Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s 15.5-hour, 14-part miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz[2], adapted from the amazing novel by Alfred Döblin (which doesn’t get the international acclaim it deserves outside a small circle of people who read a lot of literature), sadly not a far cry from areas in contemporary San Francisco.

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Frank Biberkopf, portrayed by Günter Lamprecht, in Fassbinder’s 1980 miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, with two angels of the Armageddon.

Deductions

24 rounds of golf with Dad

Dad loves golf. It’s not a hobby: he is (provisionally?) retired, so it’s become a job, an obsession, the thing he does day in and day out (Mom cringes every time she hears the thump of the 9 iron on the carpet upstairs as we practices not casting like EVERY morning). Let’s assume Dad will be able to play golf until he’s 87: that’s only 24 more seasons of golf. At the rate we’re going, I will play with him around once a year. That means, my Dad and I will only play 24 more rounds of golf together. That’s few enough to remember every single round. Dad will remember every shot, mind you, and dissect them post-round with my brother while Mom and I sit there befuddled. But I’ll remember the killer par 3, as well as the putrid embarrassment at just nearly throwing my club at the foursome out of self-disgust and frustration.

23 trips with Mom 

Mom and I made one of the better decision of our lives a few years ago: we stopped getting one another things for Christmas to instead split costs for a trip somewhere together, just me and her, at some point during the upcoming year. So far we’ve gone to Orange County (Laguna Beach is a geographical oddity, we swear all roads somehow lead back there and we hate the place with every inch of our being…), Jackson Hole, and southern Utah. We both work far harder than any sane human being should work and we both have tortured relationships to ourselves, so it can be hard for us to really talk to one another, to get under the surface available in a phone call and give and know and love. These trips are an opportunity to do that. So, Mom is dogged. It’s realistic to assume she could continue taking trips until she’s 90. That means, we have 28 more to go. I’m giving myself the benefit of the doubt and assuming I will have kids someday. That means, kids complications may make it so that we miss 5 trips. 23 is still a ton of trips. We’ll see a lot of the world together. Mom has already seen tons of the world because she travels for work. I have inherited her Bedouin spirit. I want to walk the world. I want to touch it and have my footsteps seep history and whispers and pollen like osmosis into my soul.

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John Frankel inspired me to write unorthodox out-of-office messages (his are way more creative than mine). I’ve gotten really into adapting the genre and making it my own. This was my out-of-office response when Mom and I took our mother-daughter trip to Utah in April. People respond well to these emails: they love being surprised, love learning something about you as a human rather than getting frustrated by boring-old business facts. I searched for “out of office Veerman” because Alan Veerman from the Vector Institute said he liked this response. I remembered that. An out-of-office email brought Alan and I closer.

102 opportunities to dance to Billy Ocean and Whitney Houston with Mike

The best (or worst, depending on your proclivities and perspective, which unfortunately tends to be how my boyfriends feel) part of being a Hume is that we dance. Like, at a Hume wedding, the whole wedding party is up dancing before we sit down to eat, all we want to do is drink and dance, we don’t care about the food. Thanksgiving is a dance party (for real). The song selection inevitably includes polka hits like the Too Fat Polka by Frankie Yankovic (thanks to Dad) and, without fail, Billy Ocean’s Get Outta my Dreams and Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody (80s songs that have outta and wanna and gotta and stuff like that). It is impossible that I will ever tire of dancing to these two songs with my brother Mike. Impossible. So, I’ll be alive for another 61 years. Mike’s younger, let’s assume he lives at least as long (Mike, you gotta take care of yourself). Let’s cut off 10 of those years as times where dancing to Billy Ocean may be tough and let’s assume we average two opportunities to dance per year (weddings, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc…). That means we’ll do Whitney another 102 times! That’s too many times to remember, which is great.

1123 more books read

The good thing about reviewing all the books I read on my blog is I can count how many I read last year. I’m ashamed to admit that last year I only read 13. That sucks. I work too hard. I also use time I used to devote to reading to writing, which is a good thing. If I kept up at that pace, I’d read another 793 books. I don’t plan to retire until I’m in my mid 80s (for real, I love work). Say I retire at 87. That’s another 53 years of work. During many of those years I’ll be super-duper-can’t-see-straight busy with kids and my job and my writing. Those years I may even read less books! So let’s do:

  • Next 3 years = challenge self to read 18 books/year = 54 books
  • Following 15 years (kids in the equation!) = realistically read 10 books/year = 150 books
  • 52-80 = challenge self to read 18 books/year = 504 books
  • 80-87 (weaning career years) = challenge self to read 25 books/year = 175 books
  • 87-95 = more time without work, so I can read 30 books/year = 240 books

That’s 1123 more books. Lots more to learn! (Tim had a much smaller number of 300, limiting himself to five books a year, outside his research – which means he reads many more books).

12 books written

I am working on my first book (unless we count my dissertation as a preparatory book-writing exercise, although I never tried to publish it). Hopefully it will be published next year. It’s taken me time to come into my stride as a writer: I started my blog at 2:09 pm ET on January 2 of last year, timid and tepid, but committed to writing regularly. I’m happy I did. I now face the growing pains of shedding blog-writing habits, the Saturday- or Sunday-morning sprints that yield these 1500-5000-word posts, to cultivate book-writing habits. I’m writing every morning. The blessing of regularity is that it’s ok if there are off days, it makes it possible to fathom getting started. Michel Serres, one of my mentors in graduate school, inducted me into the sanctified club of daily writers: himself, Graham Greene, Balzac, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Henry James, Faulkner, gosh they are all men (my friend Lucy Alford endorses the practice too). Given that I anticipate working until I’m 87 years old, it’s irrational to expect I’ll write a book every two years. If I mean this–which I must, it’s an axiom–I could reasonably expect myself to publish a book once every 5 years. That means, I have 12 books to share with you, Reader. You may die before I do. I hope you have the chance to read some of my better work, or at least fall in love with the promise of future potential.

4784 meals cooked for Will 

I love to cook. My partner Will loves to cook. He’s great at it. He’s great at just about anything he does, however, including, in decreasing order of importance to him, theoretical machine learning, honesty, being a good friend, cooking, vibraphone, fashion, watching TV, mandolin, running, origami, fencing, etc.

So, let’s assume I cook for Will on average twice per week during our time together. If we stay together until I die, that’s 3172 weeks. I assume I won’t cook much from the ages of 90-95, that Will and I, given how ambitious we both are, will spend 3 years of our life living in different places (like right now, he’s in San Francisco doing an internship), that we’ll travel and eat out so let’s take off 2 years, and that for at least 5 years we will need help with childcare so may have someone who helps us cook. That’s 46 years of my cooking twice a week for Will, or 4784 meals. We can explore SO MANY RECIPES. I still want to make a pizza with bresaola and prickly cactus nectar; want to include braised dill in a panna cotta dessert; want ricotta and cardamon stuffed savory macaroons with burnt sage.

66,795 expressions of love

I am ridiculously affectionate. Cloyingly. Used to be ashamed of it, but age helps. Let’s say I utter the phrase “I love you” three times a day for the rest of my life. I will say it 66,795 times! Recall, love can encompass the many kinds in the taxonomy: friends, colleagues, mentors, parents, partners, the universe, myself, herb gardens, mentees, yoga teachers, dogs, cats, food, lots of things to love.[3]

What events and activities are worth counting in your life?

(Note that not all my axioms & assumptions were relevant for the deductions. Oh well. Stuff for a future post!)


[1] I’ve mentioned Tim multiple times on my blog, most recently criticizing a talk he gave at Google because he put forth what I consider to be a medieval, Judeo-Christian frame for assessing our future as shaped by artificial intelligence (this isn’t his fault, this is the posture shared by many big names in the field). His TED Talk on procrastination is one of my favorite things on the internet and his latest post on choosing a career is a must read for anyone who takes their career seriously.

[2] Note he made this movie in 1980, so long before HBO and Netflix series existed, which is cool. But there were also literature series that appeared in magazines in the late 19th and early 20th century: Emile Zola and Henry James both authored a few.

karina roulette
Fassbinder made a lot of interesting movies. His style isn’t for everyone: it’s like Hunter S Thompson meets Pier Paolo Pasonlini meets Günter Grass. I like some films better than others. This image is from Chinese Roulette. The woman is Anna Karina, best known as Jean-Luc Godard’s muse. I saw her speak in Paris once and left crestfallen. She was so pretty but wasn’t as clever as her characters led me to believe.

[3] I made a few edits on July 2, 2018, the day after writing this post. Now I only have 66,792 expressions of love left.

The featured image is of my Mom and me on our latest trip together. This is inside a rock called nautilus, given how it wove around like a shell. We rode horses out there in the dry Utah sun. It was a happy day, one of those days where there’s no place we’d rather be. 

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):

Katz+v.+United+States+(1967)+The+Facts

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?