just beneath the silence, the tohu wa-bohu hums its river song, ferments past mistakes in hurricane wreckage, drowns cows whose bells got stuck under children’s car seats, brands now blurry with moss
blank-slated hope wobbles its stilts into Rorschach formations and Voronoi tessellations, generating form for its own sake, as so many ptyxs replicating themselves silly, aural inanity mitosis amok, while Herod steeps his niece’s left rib as she dances under seven veils
he sullies her under his touch, the dice roll slant
for our past accompanies us, stinging lapses of integrity, unable to be undone, fixed like firmament stars; even if we forgive, it’s probable she won’t, at least not anytime soon
we have no choice but to wash our guilt in responsibility, to transubstantiate our past in performances blessed by heavy habits’ habit
the new year brings saints Gildas (the historian) and Bieuzy (the rabies curer), who learned healing by osmosis in their mountain chapel; saints teaching us that three walls suffice, that more is clutter
be it with quiet circumspection that we inhabit our poppy and recollection
this moment where we wake up into form
The featured image is from Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film The Virgin Spring (link to a full feature on YouTube, although it’s in Swedish without subtitles; one benefit of not understanding the dialogue is that you can see the jealousy and pain on the female character’s face. Bergman always mastered the underbelly of female psychology.). Here, Max von Sydow, who also played the existentially fraught knight in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, prepares an act of elemental violence; he wrestles down the tree and hits himself with cut branches in the sauna. His jealous lover watches him beat his chest, her pregnant belly protruding damply into her listless legs, posture sloping under bored indifference.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and never will be. Tis utter blasphemy.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell, in near silence, near but for the methodical gnawing, not unlike that of a mouse nibbling rapaciously on parched pasta left uneaten all these years but preserved under the thick dust on the thin cardboard with the thin plastic window enabling her to view what remained after she’d cooked just one serving, with butter, for her son, there emerged and fell, with the sublime transience of Andy Goldsworthy, a neo-Gothic church of organic complexity on par with that imagined by Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, whose Sagrada Familia is scheduled for completion in 2026, a full century after the architect died in a tragic tram crash, distracted by the recent rapture of his prayer.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell a structure so eerily resemblant of the one Antoni Gaudí imagined before he died, neglected like a beggar in his shabby clothes, the doctors unaware they had the chance to save the mind that preempted the fluidity of contemporary parametric architectural design by some 80 odd years, a mind supple like that of Poincaré, singular yet part of a Zeitgeist bent on infusing time into space like sandalwood in oil, inseminating Euclid’s cold geometry with femininity and life, Einstein explaining why Mercury moves retrograde, Gaudí rendering the holy spirit palpable as movement in stone, fractals of repetition and difference giving life to inorganic matter, tension between time and space the nadir of spirituality, as Andrei Tarkovsky went on to explore in his films.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, Look! Notice, as Daniel Dennett bids, how in an untrodden field in Australia there emerged and fell a structure so eerily resemblant of the one Antoni Gaudí imagined before he died, with the (seemingly crucial) difference that the termites built their temple without blueprints or plan, gnawing away the silence as a collectivity of single stochastic acts which, taken together over time, result in a creation that appears, to our meaning-making minds, to have been created by an intelligent designer, this termite Sagrada Familia a marvelous instance of what Dennett calls Darwin’s strange inversion of reasoning, an inversion that admits to the possibility that absolute ignorance can serve as master artificer, that IN ORDER TO MAKE A PERFECT AND BEAUTIFUL MACHINE, IT IS NOT REQUISITE TO KNOW HOW TO MAKE IT*, that structures might emerge from the local activity of multiple parts, amino acids folding into proteins, bees flying into swarms, bumper-to-bumper traffic suddenly flowing freely, these complex release valves seeming like magic to the linear perspective of our linear minds.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, the eerie resemblance between the termite and the tourist Sagrada Familias serves as a wonderful example to anchor a very important cultural question as we move into an age of post-intelligent design, where the technologies we create exhibit competence without comprehension, diagnosing lungs as cancerous or declaring that individuals merit a mortgage or recommending that a young woman would be a good fit for a role on a software engineering team or getting better and better at Go by playing millions of games against itself in a schizophrenic twist resemblant of the pristine pathos of Stephan Zweig, one’s own mind an asylum of exiled excellence during the travesty of the second world war, why, we’ve come full circle and stand here at a crossroads, bidden by a force we ourselves created to accept the creative potential of Lucretius’ swerve, to kneel at the altar of randomness, to appreciate that computational power is not just about shuffling 1s and 0s with speed but shuffling them fast enough to enable a tiny swerve to result in wondrous capabilities, and to watch as, perhaps tragically, we apply a framework built for intelligent design onto a Darwinian architecture, clipping the wings of stochastic potential, working to wrangle our gnawing termites into a straight jacket of cause, while the systems beating Atari, by no act of strategic foresight but by the blunt speed of iteration, make a move so strange and so outside the realm of verisimilitude that, as Kasparov succumbing to Deep Blue, we misinterpret a bug for brilliance.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, it seems plausible that Gaudí would have reveled in the eerie resemblance between a castle built by so many gnawing termites and the temple Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer, a bookseller with a popular fundamentalist newspaper, “the kind that reminded everybody that their misery was punishment for their sins,”**commissioned him to build.
Or would he? Gaudí was deeply Catholic. He genuflected at the temple of nature, seeing divine inspiration in the hexagons of honeycombs, imagining the columns of the Sagrada Familia to lean, buttresses, as symbols of the divine trilogy of the father (the vertical axis), son (the horizontal axis), and holy spirit (the vertical meeting the horizontal in crux of the diagonal). His creativity, therefore, always stemmed from something more than intelligent design, stood as an act of creative prayer to render homage to God the creator by creating an edifice that transformed, in fractals of repetition in difference, inert stone into movement and life.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites, and yet, the termite Sagrada Familia actually exists as a complete artifact, its essence revealed to the world rather than being stuck in unfinished potential. And yet, while we wait in joyful hope for its imminent completion, this unfinished, 144-year-long architectural project has already impacted so many other architects, from Frank Gehry to Zaha Hadid. This unfinished vision, this scaffold, has launched a thousand ships of beauty in so many other places, changing the skylines of Bilbao and Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Perhaps, then, the legacy of the Sagrada Family is more like that of Jodorowsky’s Dune, an unfinished film that, even from its place of stunted potential, changed the history of cinema. Perhaps, then, the neglect the doctors showed to Gaudí, the bearded beggar distracted by his act of prayer, was one of those critical swerves in history. Perhaps, had Gaudí lived to finish his work, architects during the century wouldn’t have been as puzzled by the parametric requirements of his curves and the building wouldn’t have gained the puzzling aura it gleans to this day. Perhaps, no matter how hard we try to celebrate and accept the immense potential of stochasticity, we will always be makers of meaning, finders of cause, interpreters needing narrative to live grounded in our world. And then again, perhaps not.
The Sagrada Familia is not a castle built by Australian termites. The termites don’t care either way. They’ll still construct their own Sagrada Familia.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. How wondrous. How essential must be these shapes and forms.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. It is also an unfinished neo-Gothic church in Barcelona, Spain. Please, terrorists, please don’t destroy this temple of unfinished potential, this monad brimming the history of the world, each turn, each swerve a pivot down a different section of the encyclopedia, coming full circle in its web of knowledge, imagination, and grace.
The Sagrada Familia is a castle built by Australian termites. We’ll never know what Gaudí would have thought about the termite castle. All we have are the relics of his Poincaréan curves, and fish lamps to illuminate our future.
*Dennett reads these words, penned in 1868 by Robert Beverley MacKenzie, with pedantic panache, commenting that the capital letters were in the original.
The featured image comes from Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Dan on the In Context podcast, where we discuss many of the ideas that appear in this post, just in a much more cogent form.
Treasure Island is a nightmare for the field of location intelligence.* That’s because it is:
in a lake (namely, Lake Mindemoya)
on an island (namely, Manitoulin Island)
in a lake (namely, Lake Huron)
While said to be the world’s largest island in a lake on an island in a lake, Treasure Island is actually quite small: 1.4 kilometers long x 400 meters wide, housing only a few cottages and no permanent residents.** It has a wonderful history. William McPherson, former deputy chief of police for Toronto, purchased the island for $60 in 1883, only to sell it to Joe and Jean Hodgson in 1928. On July 13, 2015 around 11:30 am the Manitoulin Detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) was notified of a series of break and enters that had occurred sometime on July 12, 2015 to one of the few buildings on Treasure Island; hooligans entered the garage area and caused damage to two golf carts, estimated in the thousands of dollars.
Folklore etiologies for the genesis of Treasure Island are equivocal. One tradition plays on the perennial frustrations between husband and wife:
According to local tradition, Treasure Island was originally named Mindemoya, because of the distinctive shape of the island: rising at one end to a long flat hill, with a steep drop to a short low area at the other end. According to legend, a great chieftain or demi-god who once lived in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario had a wife who would not give him any peace. In frustration he eventually kicked her and sent her flying, to land on her hands and knees in Lake Mindemoya, leaving her back and rump above the water, which we see today as the island. The word “Mindemoya” supposedly means “Old Lady’s Bottom”. See dubious Wikipedia
The Anishinaabe tradition, by contrast, features a story about a rogue Odysseus-like trickster hero whose moral defies any heuristic logic (and is thereby much more interesting):
Treasure Island, or as it is also known, Mindemoya Island, can be seen from almost all vantage points around the lake. The shape of the island is of a person lying prostrate with hands outstretched in front. One Anishinaabe tale tells of Nanabush, the Trickster with magic powers, who was carrying his grandmother over his shoulder, and suddenly stumbling, caused her to fly through the air to the middle of the lake, landing on her hands and knees, where she has remained ever since. This is Mindemoya (Mndimooyenh), the legendary old woman of the lake. See The Manitoulin Expositor
In today’s data-driven world, where quantitative interpretations of phenomena have replaced classical, Ovidian etiologies (i.e., where grandmothers or testy wives metamorphosize into islands within lakes within islands within lakes), Nanabozho’s guiles have been recast as topological oddities, recursive structures that break the consistency and unity required to pinpoint a location.
Indeed, what kind of data structure could possibly capture the recursive identity of Treasure Island? At one level of granularity, say measured with satellites that capture diameters of 50 kilometers, our location intelligence analyst (LIA) would say “at 45.762°N 82.209°W there is an island!” (this being Manitoulin Island, the Island around Lake Mindemoya, around Treasure Island). And our heroic LIA would be right, but right for the wrong referent! And that could cause all sorts of problems later on. So if she wanted to be more accurate, she could use smaller satellites that capture locations more precisely, or even a little drone, which could capture distances at, say, the 5 kilometer mark, at which point she would say, “at 45.762°N 82.209°W there is a lake!”, which would be wrong, but also right, just not right enough. And so on and so on, peeling away the layers of the topological onion, unpacking the nested babushkas of the inherited Russian Doll, the lips still crimson, the flowers a pattern indexing styles of yore, styles lost in the clean blankness of modernism.
But isn’t this very recursion the key to consciousness? If we could solve the elusive identity of Treasure Island, might we not have found our topology for the mind’s emergence from matter, Nanabozho laughing heartily from his perch in the past, the old lady’s bottom the key to sentience all along, if we were only wise enough to look?
Why, yes and no.
I don’t know the scientific explanation behind the genesis of Treasure Island, as the internet focuses on the myths fit for tourists, perpetuated year after year in the oral tradition of volunteer guides, kindly ladies with kindly graying hair, ever ready to greet the city folk on holiday from the cottage. But it certainly seems plausible that Treasure Island evolved through some aleatory, stochastic whim of nature, the product of perfectly uncomprehending and incomprehensible forces that, through sheer force of repetition, through mindless trial and error, created a perfect recursive structure, Time outwitting Mind with paleolithic patience, repeating and repeating until chance and probability land on something that exhibits the mastery of Andy Goldsworthy‘s invisible hand, only to blow away in the autumn winds, our secrets transient, momentary missives that disappear upon observation, our Cumaean Sibyl whispering her truth to Schrödinger’s dead cat.
Here’s the punchline: many of the wondrous feats of contemporary artificial intelligence arise from similar forces of competence without comprehension (indebted to Dennett). Machines did not learn to beat Atari or Go because they designed a strategy to win, envisioning the game and moves and pieces like we human thinkers do. They did a bunch of stochastic random shit a million trillion times, creating what looks like intelligent design in what feels like an evolutionary microsecond, powered by the speed and efficiency of modern computation. That is, AI is like evolution on steroids, evolution put on super-duper-mega-fast-forward thanks to the simulation environments of computation. But if we break things down, each individual step in training an AI is a mindless guess, a mutation, a slip in transcription that, when favored by guiding forces we call “objective functions” – tools to minimize error that are a bit like survival of the fittest – can lead to something that just so happens to work.
And it goes without saying that Nanabozho has the last laugh. Throwing grandma into the lake defies logic. It’s an act of absurdity fit for the French, a nihilism fit for Germans donning leather pants as the Dude sips white Russians (will always hate the fucking Eagles), fit for Ionesco’s rhinoceroses prancing on stage. And any attempt we make to impose meaning through reduction will falter under the weight of determinism, strawmen too flimsy for the complexity of our non-linear world.
* A warm thank you to Arthur Berrill for helping me understanding the topological art behind location intelligence, which, when done well, involves intricate data structures that transform spatial relationships into rows and columns or relate space and time, or takes into account phenomenological aspects of people’s appreciation of the space around them (e.g., an 80-year-old widow experiences the buildings around her condo quite differently than a 25-year-old single gal). Arthur introduced me to Manitoulin Island, which inspired this post.
**I once swam to an island of similar size in the Pacific Ocean near Fiji. There was a palm tree and a few huts. I didn’t think there were people, and then some man started to scream at me to shoo me away. I got scared, and swam back to our boat. For a moment, I enjoyed the imagined awesomeness of being all alone on a small deserted island.
The featured image is of Frank Swannell surveying Takla Lake in British Columbia on behalf of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1912. To learn more about Swannell’s surveying efforts, read this article by Stephen Hume, a columnist for the Vancouver Sun who has written an entire series of vignettes associated with Canada’s 150th anniversary. Hume isn’t a last name one sees that often, so Google’s surfacing his articles second only to Wikipedia — which, like the http://www.eraradio.ca is simply not loading well for me recently — for the search term “Frank Swannell” must carry metaphysical significance.
A la pointe de la découverte, de l’instant où pour les premiers navigateurs une nouvelle terre fut en vue à celui où ils mirent le pied sur la côte, de l’instant où tel savant put se convaincre qu’il venait d’être témoin d’un phénomène jusqu’à lui inconnu à celui où il commença à mesurer la portée de son observation, tout sentiment de durée aboli dans l’enivrement de la chance, un très fin pinceau de feu dégage ou parfait comme rien autre le sens de la vie. – André Breton, 1934
(At the point of discovery — from the moment when a new land comes into the field of vision for a group of explorers to that when their feet first touch the shore — from the moment when a certain savant convinces herself that she’s observed a previously unknown phenomenon to that when she begins to measure her observation’s significance — the intoxication of luck abolishing all notions of time, a very thin paintbrush* unlocks, or perfects, like nothing else, the meaning of life.)
I have a few blog post ideas brewing but had lost my weekly writing momentum in the process of moving from New York City to Toronto for my new role at integrate.ai. It’s incredible how quickly a habit atrophies: the little monkey procrastinator** in my mind has found many reasons to dissuade me from writing these past two weeks. I already feel my mind intaking the world differently, without the same synthetic gumption. Anxiety creeps in. Enter Act of Will stage left, sauntering or skipping or prancing or curtseying or however you’d like to imagine her. A bias towards action, yes, yes indeed, and all those little procrastination monkeys will dissipate like tomorrow’s bug bites, smeared with pink calamine lotion bought on sale at Shoppers Drug Mart.
But what to write about? That is (always) the question.
Enter Associative Memory stage right. It’s 8:22 am. I’m on a run. Fog partially conceals CN tower. A swans stretches her neck to bite little nearby ducks as the lady with her ragged curly hair — your hair at 60 dear Kathryn — chuckles in delight, arms akimbo and crumbs askance, by the docks on the shore. The Asian rowers don rainbow windbreakers, lined up in a row like the refracted waves of a prism (seriously!). What do I write about? Am I ready to write about quantum computing and Georg Cantor (god not yet!), about why so many people reject consequentialist ethics for AI (closer, and Weber must be able to help), about the talk I recently gave defining AI, ML, Deep Learning, and NLP (I could do this today but the little monkey is still too powerful at the moment), about the pesky health issues I’m struggling with at the moment (too personal for prime time, and I’ll simply never be that kind of blogger)? About the move? About the massive changes in my life? About how emotionally charged it can be to start again, to start again how many times, to reinvent myself again, in this lifestyle I can’t help but adopt as I can’t help but be the self I reinforce through my choices, year after year, choices, I hope, oriented to further the exploration into the meaning of life?
Associative Memory got a bit sidetracked by the ever loquacious Stream of Consciousness. Please do return!
Enter Associative Memory stage right. It’s 8:22 am. I’m on a run. Fog partially conceals CN tower. Searching for something to write about. Well, what about drawing upon the objet trouvé technique the ever-inspiring Barbara Maria Stafford taught us in Art History 101 at the University of Chicago? According to Wikipedia, objet trouvé refers to “art created from undisguised, but often modified, objects or products that are not normally considered materials from which art is made, often because they already have a non-art function.”*** Think Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made objects, which I featured in a previous post and will feature again here.
But that’s not how I remember it. Stafford presented the objet trouvé as a psychological technique to open our attention to the world around us, helping our minds cast wide, porous, technicolor nets to catch impressions we’d otherwise miss when the wardens of the pre-frontal cortex confine our mental energy into the prisons cells of goals and tasks, confine our handmaidens under the iron-clad chastity belt of action. (Enter Laertes stage left, peaking through only to be quickly pulled back by Estragon’s cane.)
You see, moving to a new place, having all these hours alone, opens the world anew to meaning. We become explorers having just discovered a new land and wait suspended in the moment before our feet graze the unknown shore. The meaning of connections left behind simmers poignantly to tears, tears shed alone, settling into gratitude for time past and time to come. Forever Young coming on the radio surreptitiously in the car. Grandpa reading it like a poem in his 80s, his wisdom fierce and bold in his unrelenting kindness. His buoyancy. His optimism. His example.
Enter Associative Memory stage right. It’s 8:22 am. I’m on a run. Fog partially conceals CN tower. What do I see? What does the opened net of my consciousness catch? This.
It was more a sound than a sight. The repetition of the moving tide, always already**** there, Earth’s steady heartbeat in its quantum entanglement with the moon. The water rising and falling, lapping the shores with grace and ease under the foggy morning sky. Stammering, after all, being the native eloquence of fog people. The sodden sultriness of Egdon Heath alive in every passing wave, Eustacia’s imagination too large and bold for this world, a destroyer of men like Nataraja in her eternal dance.
Next, my mind saw this (as featured above):
And, coincidentally, the woman on the France Culture podcast I was listening to as I ran uttered the phrase épuisée par le vide.
Exhausted by nothingness. The timing could not have been more perfect.
It’s in these moments of loneliness and transition that very thin paintbrushes unlock the meaning of life. Our attention freed from the shackles of associations and time, left alone to wander labyrinths of impressions, passive, vulnerable, seeking. The only goals to be as kind as possible to others, to accept without judgment, to watch as the story unfolds.
* I don’t know how to translate pinceau de feu, so decided to go with just paintbrush. Welcome a more accurate translation!
** Hat tip to Tim Urban’s hilarious TED talk. And also, etymology lovers will love that cras means tomorrow in Latin, so procrastinate is the act of deferring to tomorrow. And also, hat tip to David Foster Wallace (somewhat followed by Michael Chabon, just to a much lesser degree) for inspiring me to put random thoughts that interrupt me mid sentence into blog post footnotes.
*** Hyperlinks in the quotation are the original.
**** If you haven’t read Heidegger and his followers, this phrase won’t be as familiar and potentially annoying to you as it is to me. Continental philosophers use it to refer to what Sellars would call the “myth of the given,” the phenomenological context we cannot help but be born into, because we use language that our parents and those around us have used before and this language shapes how we see what’s around us and we have to do a lot of work to get out of it and eat the world raw.
she blinked it rained
she sat he peed
she read he showered
she typed he ate
she typed he trained
she laughed he elevatored
she listened he sat
she disagreed he read
she acquiesced he typed
she reflected he presented
she worried he nodded rain abetted
she breathed he answered
she typed he typed
she typed he typed
she smiled he ate
she gossiped he bragged
she nibbled he texted
she sipped he slurped clouds tiptoed
she noticed he returned
she presented he typed
she surged he furrowed
she calmed he called
she elevatored he yelled
she walked he regretted
she sat he walked
she nodded he sauntered
she saw he sat
she averted he texted
she reverted he saw
she felt he waited
she tingled he approached
she blushed he offered
she accepted he asked
she answered he answered
she asked he probed
she allowed sun set he dared
she walked he walked
she hinted he touched
she coiled he doubted
she opened he mirrored
she undressed he watched
she slithered he followed
she touched he entered
she winced he worried
she arrived he thrust
she followed he retained
she overtook he watched
she came he smiled
she embraced he continued
she nourished he came
she smiled he breathed
she peed he lay
she washed he slept
she observed he slept
she dressed he slept night hummed
she left he awoke
she walked he noticed
she mulled he turned
she walked he slept
she itched he slept
she relived he slept
she glistened he slept
The image is Magritte’s The Lovers, from 1928. Many say the work represents the difficulty of achieving true intimacy with another, as we retain ourselves behind veils and barriers. Perhaps that’s right. Perhaps it’s not.