My Daughter’s Life on Artificial Intelligence

I presented the following post as a talk April 19, 2019 at the MIT Tech Conference.[1] It’s the first time I’ve written a talk as a post (I never write out my talks; I compose jazz talks, where a sequence of metaphorical images indexes ideas to riff on like minor seven chords). The talk had the same images and ideas as this post, but expressed the ideas in different words. I wanted to post this before the talk to make a meta point about the future being marvelously different from our models and predictions. But the writing process out-meta’d my intentions, and I didn’t have enough time to finish both the talk and the post. The post needed more time, more care, more space to gestate and come into life. Like a baby…

Something strange happened the morning of October 29, 2018. I was lying in savasana, the final corpse pose of yoga class. It must have been 7:26 am (hour long class that began at 6:30 am). As is sometimes my wont, I placed my right hand on my belly and my left hand on my chest so absorb my breathing in my hands.[2] And as I inhaled, expanding my belly to its fullest, I suddenly had a vivid sensation that I was pregnant. So vivid it felt like my surroundings blurred as I stepped through a time warp into my future self, when and where I lie on my back on the slightly smelly wooden floor of the Iam Yoga studios at the intersection of Yonge and Isabella in Toronto, having walked up the dark stairs for the 6:30 am class, smiling at the toppled leaves of the ivy plants on the way up, still there, living their plant life in plant time and changing slower than we humans change, just pregnant this time. It was crystal clear to me that this was Mihnea’s baby. I’d never felt this before. Been in the pose with my hands on my belly and chest hundreds of time, and only felt air rising to relax the mind. The force of the vision was intense, jogging, real.

Mihnea and I weren’t officially dating yet. I texted him immediately to ask if he had time for a call. A reasonable modicum of fear that he’d deem me crazy laced my voice as I explained what happened. He was pure joy. “Her name is Clara.”

Time passed.

We spent more time together. We spent as many waking and sleeping moments as possible together. We loved each other as much as two humans are able. More than that. We love one another as much as the maximum quantity of love two any two humans can share (call this LMax) factored by all the love connections possible between all the world’s humans, which, right now, is (7 billion x 6,999,999,999 billion)/2 = 2.45e19 x LMax. But that’s just now, so if we go all the way back in history to include all the possible love connections between all the humans on the planet at any moment in time, it would have to be at least 2.45e25 x LMax (no calculation regarding population growth over time completed. Just a pure guess). Sometime soon, we hope to conceive Clara.

And when we do, if we were to tell Clara’s untellable life story as viewed through the tiny prism of how her life will be shaped by technology, we could, in one possible world, tell a story that begins once upon a time in a fluorescent-lit hospital room in downtown Toronto, at the witching hour of 4:56 am, when, after 37 hours of labor, Miss Clara, just like her Mom, decides she never wants to leave the placenta-world she knows, and therefore never breaks her water, leaving Dad to scream with delight when the doctors pierce placenta splaying amniotic fluid like a firehose as Clara slides into the world like a kid on a waterslide, her skin unblemished and her eyebrows thick and black from two extra weeks of gestation.

“My goodness, it’s another Brooke Shields!”

“OMG that’s exactly what the doctor said when I was born! This has to be the last generation where that statement will mean anything to anyone!”

Clara little heart struggles to take in oxygen as she enters our world. Despite my fierce resistance, the doctor takes her from me to put her in intensive care.[3] I crumble with fear; Mihnea strokes my hair to calm me as my mother did when I was a child. For the next hour I check the iPad giving status updates about Clara at least every 15 seconds.  Mihnea comments that the stylistic quality of the Arria language generation system is quite good and asks whether I’d find a woman’s voice more soothing, whether our attempts to humanize an interface and interaction with data should go further, whether it would be more powerful to have Cate Blanchett as a nurse avatar with the superpower of being able to be two places at once, observing Clara in one room and soothing me in another, as Soul Machines could render possible.

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Many of the conversational interfaces popular these days are design choices around how we present data and make it meaningful to humans. Computers like data best when it’s presented as a stream of numbers. We can’t make sense of that, so design interfaces so we can immediately interpret it, as the ups and downs of a heart monitor.
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Natural language generation is a variation on how we present data to make it meaningful to humans. One benefit is we can personalize a narrative to features the kinds of interpretation that matters to different users.
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Or, we can take data representation a step further and embody it in a visual, humanoid form with a human voice of the emotional sophistication of Cate Blanchett.

When the nurse brings Clara back to my arms a few hours later, she comments that her oxygen uptake is now outstandingly high, much higher than the average child. No brain damage. She just decided she’d syncopate the experience, just like her birth, waiting a little longer to enact her final performance with perfection.

We quickly understand this isn’t a fluke, but something constitutive of Clara’s personality. Like her father, she decides her first word won’t be just a word, but a fully-formed, grammatically-correct sentence: “Mommy, the words will make sense once you have enough examples.”

“Mihnea, did you just hear what Clara said? Who the fuck is this child?”

“Wonderful! I knew she was following along when we read Robbie the Robot Learns to Read!”

When Clara is born, my friend Noah Waisberg gives us a copy of his baby book about natural language processing and a onesie from Le Trango Studios, with my all-time favorite cast of baby clothes characters.

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Mihnea translates Robbie the Robot into Romanian in real-time, deciding Clara should cultivate polyglot-hood as soon as babyly possible. Apparently Clara loves Alex the Owl, a wise friend of Robbie who advises him to stop trying so hard to break down semantics and syntax and simply read for examples:

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Every time Mihnea and Clara read Robbie the Robot, Clara throws the book across the room (to Dad’s delight), crawls to pick it up, and then opens up the book to the page with Alex the Owl. I start to worry that her approach to language acquisition won’t be all that different from Robbie’s, based on pattern matching of thousands of examples:

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Mihnea assures me, however, that there’s still something to Chomsky’s universal grammar, this innate structural and symbolic substrate layer we language-exchanging creatures are born with. Clara starts to add more words to her vocabulary with an astonishing clip: I notice she only needs to see a few instances of stuffed animal bears before she points and utters “bear” (her Mom’s first word), despite grandma’s genetically-inherited tendency to want to shower Clara with as many stuffed animals as possible. Robbie, by contrast, would have needed to see 50,000 bears (and jazz saxophonists) before he could distinguish between bear and jazz saxophonist. Clara also exhibits intuitions in physics, tracking objects over time and discount implausible trajectories or recognize that the size and sequence of blocks matter when she makes towers (and then knocks them over to make them again). In 1-2 years time, it’s still an open research question to train a machine to predict when a Jenga tower will fall.

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Clara looks nothing like this child.

When Clara is two, the tempestuous temper tantrums start. I’ve recently founded a company and am in pure startup mode: fighting to find talent, fighting to make sure the product teams are moving fast enough, expending tons of energy being rigorously present during internal and external meetings. It’s hard to come home to my lovely but admittedly pain in the ass screaming toddler.

“What if we use i2Eye to help Clara understand what she looks like when she behaves this way?” I suggest in desperation.

Mihnea built i2Eye in 2018, originally as a tool to help students in Rotman’s Self-Development Lab understand the emotional landscape they project to others when the give talks or attend meetings (a much more challenging landscape to navigate than an audience of thousands of people given the mental models we make to project what colleagues are thinking, what we know that everybody knows that everybody knows, what we know that some people know and other’s don’t know, what others think and feel when we speak, what others think but don’t say, and what we need other people to do, etc…). It combines a series of different kinds of machine learning classifiers (speech sounds, textual sentiment analysis on text, visual sentiment analysis based on facial features, etc…) to map how the emotions one projects when communicating change over time. In 2022, i2Eye is widely adopted by CHROs to help evaluate job candidates for culture fit, reduce gender bias in hiring, and improve team dynamics and collaboration.

i2Eye suggests, for example, that Donald Trump manages to have such power over and audience because there is a high correlation between the emotions his words project and the emotions his face projects. As in the image below, his dominate mode is disgust, a raw and visceral negative emotion that lacks the high-browed intellectualism of contempt. His rhetorical style is honed to project a simple, non-complex set of signals to his audience: they suck, you should be outraged, we are disgusted together. 

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The emotional spectrometer shows that negative emotional valences dominate Trump’s facial landscape.

When we show Clara how her face projects disgust, sadness, and anger (with intermittent hints of joy, depending on who’s present) when she has a temper tantrum, she simply doesn’t care. It almost seems to encourage her to reach even higher levels of rage, to quintuple the violence of her emotional outbursts and response.

“What if we use a variant on Lacan’s mirror theory and, instead of showing Clara images of her own behavior, help her understand that if she keeps behaving this way she may turn out like her Mom?” suggests Mihnea.

“Worth a try.”

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I have a horrible tendency to display contempt when I’m listening to others on stage. My presence in Twitter is like a cavalcade of misery. However, when I give talks my emotions move very quickly and are often complex, confusing machine classifiers to pick up anger, joy, surprise, and sadness all at once. Apparently actors like Anthony Hopkins and Cate Blanchett also project complex emotions, which keep listeners attentive because they’re not sure what will come next.

Upon seeing how ridiculous I look displaying contempt in professional interviews, and forecasting that, if she were to continue having temper tantrums the way she does, she would likely end up looking like me in the future, Clara immediately ceases her temper tantrums. Our evenings are a bastion of erudition and calm.

Clara’s two grandmothers, Adina and Pat, adore spending time with Clara. Both extremely successful in their careers (Adina as a physician and Pat as a software C-Suite executive), they instill confidence, willpower, discipline, and grace in Clara from her youngest years. Both grandmas are creative women with vigorous imaginations. They never let Clara sit around and watch TV or play with devices mindlessly. Pat takes Clara for walks and lives with her in all sorts of imaginative worlds; Adina teaches Clara how to paint and diagnose illnesses based on observing a few symptoms acutely. Mihnea encourages both grandmas to engage Clara in turn-based conversation to build her empathic and reasoning skills, which works well enough until Clara gets the hang of it and starts to embrace Pat’s claims with a hefty amount of skepticism.

“I’m worried about Clara,” my mother says to us one evening. “You two are taking the magic out of the child’s world with your ruthless obsession with communicative ethics and reason. Can’t she believe in Santa Claus without having to dissect the mechanisms of how presents end up under the tree?”

“Mom, it’s better than when you stuffed my imagination with absurd associations, like when we went to the Philadelphia Zoo and you told me I’d turn into a dwarf if I touched the peacocks. Jesus, think about what that did to me! To this day, 30 years later, I see peacocks when I watch Bergman’s The Silence.”

“Well, I didn’t want those dirty birds to bite you and you simply wouldn’t be persuaded unless you were given some reason your little mind could grab on to.”

“What did Clara say?” asks Mihnea.

“Much of what she says reveals a budding sense of rebellion against Katie. It’s as if she’s identified the relationship between language and power, and resists any statements backed by will and hierarchy rather than evidence or logic. ‘Because Mom said so’ is sinful in Clara’s world.”

Joy illuminates Mihnea’s face. “Can you remember her exact words?”

“When I told her Katie told me that the tooth fairy would bring her eternal happiness if she were nice to her little brother, she said the ‘source was not sincere’ because Katie ‘says lots of things to get her to be nice.'”

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The only mobile app Grandma Pat allows Clara to use is Arguendo, which shows Clara the logical scaffold of arguments rather than displaying conversations linearly like the social media platforms we use today.

Clara’s kindergarten field trips are remarkably different from the field trips we took when I was a kid (which, growing up in Massachusetts, included trips to Salem to learn about witch hunts and whaling, and watching a young Ben Affleck nearly die of hypothermia in the PBS educational series The Voyage of the Mimi).

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When I was a kid, we spent countless hours in school watching every episode of this PBS educational show.

In Clara’s world, field trips are augmented by augmented reality (AR) tools that automatically classify flora and fauna and trace the relationships between genus and species while they’re out walking through forests and botanical gardens. Hiking with Clara is an enlightening experience: whereas I used to wonder about the names of all the different trees I smelled and saw around me, now I have Clara to tell me the names and taxonomical relationships of the world around us (she quickly grew beyond needing her device).

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Clara’s AR flower classifier for field trips.

More importantly, the AR tools help Clara refine her own perceptions, just like the Inuit see detail in snow because they have classified snow into fifty different kinds. She doesn’t see trees as amorphous leaf-bearing organisms that protect our neighborhood with oxygen and shade. She sees the oblong shape of oak leaves, the three-pronged shape of maple leaves, the relative thickness and spikiness of Balsam versus Fraser furs. Interestingly, Clara’s ornithology teacher, Mr. Jeremiah, still has the class carry around paper books with hand-drawn images when they go bird watching. Not because he’s a technology laggard but because the bird-watchers need very localized feature resolution to distinguish, say, the bowed wing arch of the red-shouldered hawk from the slightly bowed wing arch of the broad-winged hawk, which is easiest to depict from Platonic, idealized angles rather than captured in photos out in the wild.

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From Jerry Liguori’s Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors in Flight, which falls into the tradition of bird books that use hand-drawn images alongside photos because it enables us to draw a bird in the position most amenable to isolating and explaining a distinguishing feature.

When Clara is seven, we take a family vacation to Europe and visit the Uffizi and the Louvre. A nostalgic and stalwart proponent of the aura of the original, I insist that we stand and sweat for hours in lines to see Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David, and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (Clara is bigtime relieved that no one is in line to see Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in the Convent of Saint Marco, and she, Mihnea, and Felix (Clara’s younger brother) all suspect my forcing them to stand in the other lines is either a delicate style of torture or a covert strategy to help the kids appreciate the lesser-known but equally fine classics).

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Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, which hangs over the top of the central stairs in the convent of Saint Marco. It’s worth watching the Khan Academy video about the painting, which explains why Fra Angelico designed some of the perplexing perspectives to map the perspective to the angle a viewer has when walking up the stairs.

At the Uffizi, while our tour guide is explaining the significance of The Birth of Venus in the Italian Renaissance tradition, I lean down and whisper in Clara’s ear a meta-commentary the deplorable and kitschy effects of cheap mechanical reproduction, which has destroyed the aura of Botticelli’s masterpieces with cheap, sleazy reproductions as shower curtains, pillows, key chains, bottle openers, t-shirts, Dolce & Gabbana dresses.[4]

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In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin predicted the decline and fall of the value of the original work of art and the elite power structure associated with accessing the original. Mechanical reproduction reached its apogee in Andy Warhol.

Clara gives me one of those piercing stares I used to give my parents and pleads that I be quiet so she can pay attention to what the tour guide is saying. Over dinner that evening, she brings up art criticism and argues that, pace Mom’s having read Walter Benjamin countless times when she was in college in the early 2000s, the philosophical questions the art community is grappling with in the mid 2020s is quite different and much more closely aligned with late capitalism and mass personalization rather than early Marxist critiques of society of spectacle in mid-20th century capitalism. 

“Mom, we’ve moved beyond the issues of mechanical reproduction and are now grappling with the issues of algorithmic reproduction. Since startups like Pikazo commercialized Gatys style transfer algorithms way back in 2016–four years before I was born!–we’ve been thinking more about the democratization of style, which was historically associated with artistic talent, the special hallmark of the genius of an individual artist. For more than 10 years, people have been able to create their web presence–God, what’s the name of the app all the old people use, Facebook?–in the style of Kandinsky or Mondrian or Van Gogh or Rembrandt. It’s not that we reproduce Van Gogh, but we personalize it, take the style and reshape our lives and experiences that way. People used to have all these parochial discussions about man versus machine or, like, machines debunking our assumptions about the preciousness of human creativity, but it was actually much more a social issue about anyone and everyone being able to mimic individual style.”

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Style transfer algorithms have changed the questions about the reproduction of art: it’s no longer about mechanical replica, but about our ability to quickly personalize canonical style.

“The flip side of being able to abstract artistic style and replicate it on whatever image you’d like is restyling a famous picture in any artistic style. So, for example, Gene Kogan’s work bids us to ask what qualifies as the minimum viable Mona Lisa, the minimum abstract form a painting needs to retain for us to recognize it as the painting we know it to be. Dad told me that an interesting corollary is that what we consider to be style is what an algorithm attempting a classification task would consider noise, the details a machine needs to abstract away to accurately distinguish one object from another. But, like, could we carry out this same task with cubist paintings or does it work best with more natural-seeming forms of visual representation?”

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The minimum viable Mona Lisa, from Gene Kogan’s experiments with style transfer

When we travel to New York City, Clara’s favorite activity is to take the F train to Roosevelt Island to visit our old friend Helen Nissenbaum, who encourages Clara to gently rebel against Mom, Dad, and the larger surveillance state from the first time she meets her. Under Helen’s influence, Clara rejects the rights of the data subject on pragmatic grounds and, instead, seeks to deeply understand the mechanisms of any system so she can subvert it and protect her autonomy and freedom.

When Clara is eight, for example, she notices the Lighthouse surveillance system Mihnea put in the house when she was young to alert us if ever she were in danger. “OMG what is this? Are Mom and Dad monitoring me make sure I practice piano long enough? How am I supposed to learn if I’m constantly observed by a creepy panopticon lurking over my shoulder and recording every wrong note, every mistaken phrasing? Fuck this shit.”

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The home security system with computer vision.

Clara thinks back to the lessons Helen has taught her about obfuscation, recalling how pilots used chaff to evade radar detection back in WWII. “So I gotta trick the system using its own mechanisms, rather than seeking to minimize its use or, like, ask Dad only to use it in the kitchen rather than in the piano room. So it’s just a neural network detecting the presence of a body, maybe a body that looks close to mine and not someone else’s…

“Angela!”

Angela is Clara’s American Girl avatar, which comes on the market after Mattel buys  New Zealand-based Soul Machines in 2022. How dolls impact girls’ self-image continues to be a problem eight years in the future. When I was young, the Pleasant Company made four original American Girl dolls, each of which was modeled after an historical character embedded in a particular context. The company sold life-size outfits so the girl who owned the doll could dress and act like her doll friend. I happened to look most like Samantha, an orphan adopted into a wealthy New York family who grows up prim and proper.

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When I was a young girl, I dressed up to look like Samantha, my American Girl doll.

By 2019, mass personalization combined with a drive towards diversity and inclusion  flipped the mimetic orientation between girl and doll: it’s no longer that girls seek to look like their dolls (for not everyone is a white brunette who looks like Samantha), but that girls “express” their looks through their dolls, the doll becoming a miniature outlet to mirror budding identity.

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After Mattel bought the Pleasant Company, they got rid of the original American Girl characters and replaced them with Truly Me, dolls with hundreds of iterations to match a girl’s identity. Note, however, that the doll girls all have cell phones and wear slightly sexualized attire better fit for teenagers.

By 2028, American Girl Soul Machines take things a step further: Angela, Clara’s avatar, has grown up in our house and learned from local stimuli and agents (i.e., me, Mihnea, Clara, Felix, Argos (dog), and the stuffed animals (inanimate)). She isn’t an inanimate extension of Clara, onto whom she projects her thoughts and thoughts, but a convex reflection of Clara, whose silicon consciousness is shaped by interaction with our family. Angela is like a moralistic mirror who reflects to Clara the consequences of her different actions. The doll’s dialogue and diction is overfit to Clara’s speech, as she spends the most time bringing her to life, but it includes hints from Mom and Dad (whose skew is particularly recognizable). When Clara starts swearing like a sailor, I know I have to change how I speak at work.

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Baby X, from Soul Machines, learns to pay attention to the moving figures.

Although Clara grows out of Angela when she’s six, she resurrects her at eight to dupe the video surveillance system in an obfuscation act of which Helen would be proud. Regularly, Clara places Angela at the piano so the Lighthouse camera gives Mihnea the impression she’s practicing piano: instead, Clara goes out and plays capture the flag in the ravines with her friends in peace. (She does practice piano later on, but feels much more comfortable without the big brother double of her superego judging every note and pitch).

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Clara uses her avatar Angela to dupe the Lighthouse system into seeing her practice piano

Dad is also proud that Clara has outsmarted his device and ceremoniously throws the  rusty Lighthouse camera with its old-school face recognition technology in the garbage on the curb.

When Clara is 13, I find I home DNA saliva kit in the mailbox when I come home one evening after work.

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“Clara, honey, why are you sequencing your DNA?”

“Jeez, Mom, it’s none of your business! Gene sequencing is totally run of the mill anyway.”

“Yes, but what’s wrong? Are you feeling ok? I haven’t taken you to the doctor recently so can’t imagine what this is about. And I know that you know that our family has a history of high cholesterol and heart disease. Easy on the McNuggets, remember? Please, baby, you have to tell me what it’s about! I’ll go mad with worrying!”

“Calm down, Mom. I’m fine.”

“Clara!”

“Ok, ok, it’s for a dating app.”

“Dating?!? What do you mean dating? You’re 13! You should think other kids have cooties!”

“Well, if the system works like it’s supposed to, it will weed out potential partners with whom I have immunological and endocrinological incompatibility. C’mon Mom: you’ve always bragged about how you mentioned ‘but what does she smell like?’ in your OKCupid profile in grad school. It’s mega important, right? That’s why data apps sequence DNA now. Look, this isn’t a thing kids do to rebel against their parents or grow up too fast. Some of my friends parents force their children to use the app so their kids will find partners who will keep them happy and create beautiful and super smart children. It’s about controlling the outcome, kinda like an arranged marriage. You and Dad with your stupid focus on freedom and autonomy and the self as fiction and all the meditation crap are totally behind the times. Teenagers don’t want to think for themselves anymore, Mom! We just want to be happy! And we all know it’s too hard to figure that out given our limited subjective perceptions!”

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By the time Clara starts dating, DNA-based dating apps like Pheramor are commonplace.

Clara goes on a few dates with boys with sweet-smelling sweaty t-shirts (to her, at least). They bore her to tears. So much so, in fact, that she becomes deeply skeptical of the simplifying assumptions of DNA-based theories of compatibility and seeks to better understand how epigenetic factors influence compatibility. She gives up dating for the moment (“God these conversations are making me dumber by the second! It’s like dating is an intellectual liability!”) and instead spends her free time in the urban microbiome club, canvassing the Toronto subway system to trace its bacterial history, building on the work the lab at Cornell did in New York City back in 2015.

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The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of urban microbiomes, identifying subway systems near Korean restaurants.
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The South Ferry subway system is perhaps the most fascinating of all, as it has multiple unique bacteria strands, including aquatic bacteria normally found in fish. Researchers conjecture this is the historical footprint of Hurricane Sandy.

Mihnea and I still have to drive Clara to her various after school activities and clubs, soccer practice, orchestra, urban microbiology, break dancing, basketball, sign language, hardware designers club, choir, mindfulness volunteering, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately self-driving cars never make it to prime time after a slew of fake videos generated using adversarial networks flood Twitter and Facebook in late 2019, creating vast public outcry that the populist administrations use to their advantage to shut down all autonomous vehicle research.

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While the technology was advancing, autonomous vehicles dry up given public outcry at the danger after a series of fake news attacks flood social media.

Autonomous vehicles do go on to leave a different legacy, impacting the structure of philosophy departments across the globe. When Clara is 16, she enrolls in the Trolleyology elective at her local high school, adapting the trolley problem beyond its origins as a thought experiment in ethics to learn domains as different as recursive systems, game theory, quantum mechanics, probability theory, and even existentialism.

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Ethics: The original trolley problem poses an ethical conundrum: while everyone would prefer to pull a lever to kill one person rather than five, most people say they wouldn’t push someone in front of the tracks in an effort to save five people.
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Trolleyology is a universal philosophy course generation function that reshapes any discipline in philosophy or science as a trolley problem (see Reddit for additional variants).

By the time Clara goes to college, society prizes different subjects and expertise than it does today. As many of the repetitive white-collar jobs prized by the late 20th and early 21st century economy have been largely automated (radiology, investment banking, law, accounting, machine learning science, data science), society has come to increasingly prize the skills that make us quintessentially human: dialogical reasoning, judgment in quickly-changing environments, coherence and attention to long-form narrative, storytelling, emotional sensitivity, creativity, first-principles thinking, complex system design, machine learning task and objective function design. To keep her job prospects as wide as possible and hone her capacities for adaptability and learning, Clara studies the humanities. But the humanities don’t look anything like the disciplines we know today: she doesn’t sit around reading other people’s writing on Descartes, doesn’t waste her time listening to people peddle around inchoate terminology irresponsibly to play power games instead of expressing their ideas in simple and precise words. Instead, Clara and her classmates read classic texts and perform situations that make them visceral and real. They learn history using VR tools that simulate what it was like to be Alexander Hamilton (not totally dissimilar from how Lin-Manuel Miranda adapted Chernow’s Hamilton biography to reflect his own experience as an immigrant). They watch Kurosawa’s Rashomon and make films that reveal how different subjects register and represent the same phenomenon. They build software interfaces that align with human needs, conducting ethnographic research in diverse communities and representing the inner world of their subjects in stories. They learn science and math, too, but accompany their quantitative reasoning skills with sensitivity towards human perception and phenomenology.

When Clara is twenty, she discovers a collection of postcards visual artist Jean-Marc Côté created in 1899, depicting visions of the world in the year 2000.

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She’s taken by the quaintness of the images, by how our visions of the future are ineluctably anchored in our experience of the present, and even more taken by the fact that the kinds of tasks Côté designed to shape with technology aren’t that much different from the things people still automate today. She finds postcards with technologies that make us smarter, make it easier to clean, enable us to fly, enable us to travel, enable us to fight with and kill each other, farm, raise livestock, make the environment more beautiful, make it easier to live.

Twenty-one years in the future, Clara feels something remarkably similar to what her mother feels as she sits here typing today, finally finishing a post about her yet-to-be-conceived daughter on this dull and cloudy morning of April 21, 2019. Clara pauses, Mom pauses. She looks up, over the edge of her computer at the silent garden in front of her. She thinks about the fact that, just like Côté’s postcards, Clara’s life won’t look anything like the way it’s depicted in this blog post. There will be non-linearities that change the trajectory of technology. There will be heartache when loved ones die. There will be beauty that breaks our heart and changes the contour of all future experience. There will be room for mistakes and freedom.

And yet, somehow, miraculously, in a narrow crevice of possibility, Clara and I will encounter the overwhelming recognition of our shared humanity, of our identification with others in the future as in the past, others who fought different battles and engaged with different technologies, but who somehow, some way, were able to meet us in the space of imagination and feel what we feel as deeply as they would if they’d lived it themselves.


[1] I don’t think many people in the audience liked the talk, even if Mihnea and my mom both said it was great (Mihnea went so far as to say it’s the best talk he’s seen me give). Their opinion didn’t stop my from spending much of the afternoon in a funk wondering why, time and again, I chose to do something outside the mode of the distribution of social acceptance, desire praise and accolades as if I were inside said mode, and then suffer from regret and disappointment when people don’t praise me as I want them to. I do and have done this is almost every facet of my life while being entirely aware that it would be much wiser to seek praise from a few people outside the mode should I continue to behave and value the things I do.

[2] When I mediate with Mihnea, I flip around my hands and mirror this disposition on his belly and chest so I can better tune into his breathing and feel it stream through my body.

[3] Here is our first breach in the morality of story-telling geared to illustrate technical ideas. It’s hard for me to entertain a world where anything negative happens to my newborn daughter. It feels like I’m cursing her by even mentioning this as possible, simply to illustrate a technical possibility. Subjugating her story, her life, her well-being to the logic of the narrative and the demonstration. Does this force us to think more deeply about all the technology we build? To move from the place of cold abstraction to feel, deeply, viscerally, that when we talk about the “ethics of AI” we aren’t just talking about statistics, people left out because of “algorithmic bias” but real individuals with real stories and real lives who are impacted by the choices we make and the tools we build? If for this alone, it’s worth facing the emotional impact of making it personal, making it about the little being I anticipate to love differently than I have ever loved.

[4] Another fantastic replica of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is in the Elefante restaurant in the animated Netflix series BoJack horseman. The details in the show are without fail marvelous.

Birth_Of_Venus_Art_from_Elefante
I could only find this tiny little image on the internet so decided to put this in a footnote.

The featured image is from my friend Noah Waisberg’s book Robbie the Robot Learns to Read, a baby board book about machine learning. Noah is also the Founder and CEO of Kira Systems, an AI startup I’ve always admired because they focus on the value their tool provides to users rather than making empty claims about how it’s powered by AI. I’ve always believed the best way to test our understanding of a complex concept is to explain it in language a three-year old can understand. My former colleague (and lifelong friend) Tyler Schnoebelen wrote a wonderful post explaining AI to a five-year-old…or CEO in their respective language systems, inspired by the one-and-only Charlie Oliver. In his tribute to the late Arthur Samuel, TEX-creator Don Knuth praised Samuel’s long-time interest in writing tutorials for beginners, including First Grade TEX. Dan Dennett once told me he writes trade books to help clarify his ideas and get out of the epistemological sludge of feeling a need to express ideas in complicated professional jargon so as not to offend colleagues. I think a great service would be done to humanity if all introductory technical books were baby books. We need more levity and less hype. 

Reading Italo Calvino

You might prefer to read the second part of this post first. It will seem more familiar, as its I is closer in voice and referent to the I in other posts on this blog. Or, you might prefer to read the first part first and see how you feel.    


It became possible when I noticed him noticing the quick assuredness of Agilulf’s hands arranging pine cones in an isosceles triangle at dawn. It was one of the early moments where he identified completely with nonexistent knight. Where they shared a feeling. Where his need to feel in Agilulf a presence more solid and concrete than the other paladins was met with and mirrored by Agilulf’s own need to count objects, arrange them in geometric problems, resolve problems of arithmetic, apply himself in any way possible to recover precision into a world faintly touched, just breathed on by light. In that hour in which one is least certain of the world’s existence. I was manically focused on Agilulf at the time, so focused that I was unable to recognize Raimbault’s sensitivity through the mask of his youth. But here, now, having come into my desire, the recollection changes. I am able to see that, had Raimbault not sought solidity, and, what’s more, not questioned this very act of seeking as he started to sense that the tiresome need to tuck himself into a ready-made belief system, a system retrofit with ritual and rules of conduct, might actually signal cowardice, he wouldn’t have felt oppression upon seeing the nonexistent knight counting trees, leaves, stones, lances, pine cones, anything in front of him. There was undeniable kinship when we first met, but it was hoplite kinship, the homoerotic, fraternal bonds Plato describes in the Symposium, the mute community born in battle. I stayed silent. Refrained from speech lest anyone, even he whom I protected, discern my womanhood. I’ve grown accustomed to the dull pain of absconding my identity. It rings in my ears like tinnitus. Reminds me that I will always be excluded because I am a woman. When I first entered the knighthood, I tried to be one with them, to participate in the fraternity that arises when they, we, together, act according to the oaths we have taken as knights. But my path is one of solitude. As woman, I am unable to fulfill their aching needs on the battlefield. I watch how they relive Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu, recover Achilles’ love for Patroclus, how they seek a mirror self to offset the traits they now know they lack and therefore desperately seek to replenish in another. I can only feel this bond, this mute community, from a place of pretense, by covering my gender, a portion of my identity, so they see what they need see and so I can continue doing what I was born to do. What I love. This is where Raimbault, at first, was so mistaken. He reduced me to a caricature, assumed, because of the excellence of my practice, that I existed, that I was definite. He couldn’t grasp that what I sought was an entirely different way of existing, one that reached the apotheosis of form in the form only embodied by the nonexistent knight. That the vagaries of men tired me. Their slothfulness. Their corpulence. Their farts and burps. I wanted more. Would go so far as to enter a nunnery to learn the dark arts of sublimation, of esteeming the permanent above the fleeting joys of the world. It was a bold act of autonomy, a clamoring for existence so that I no longer had to endure the alienation. In retrospect, I’ve come to feel pity for Charlemagne. Like me, he has been rendered myth. Like mine, his story has been written and rewritten so many times. My entrance into the narrative space of play was set in stone epics ago, imprinted on sandstone by Virgil and twisted, like a variation on a musical theme, through Ariosto and Tasso. The Christians fight the Moors (or the Greeks the Turks, or the Romans the Celts). The damsel comes, our virgin Sophronia. She is abducted and flown on a hippogriph through farfetched twists and turns of fortune to a dragon’s den, her virginity kept sacrosanct so the knights have their way. Her skin is white as lilies, her hair long and flowing like the Nile for the privileged one (few?) who see it free from diadems and braids. And in the heat of battle, just when a hero is about to meet his fate at the brutal swords of the Moors, I appear, a man. I appear with mastery and skill, brandishing the enemy to save the hero. He then seeks me to express gratitude to his kin. But, of course, I’ve disappeared, to the riverside to wash my wounds and calves. When he stops looking (and, concomitantly, the reader has forgotten), he finds me. And discovers, what ho!, that I’m a woman. And since I’ve already forgone the stereotypes of that define my gender, so too might I forgo the innocence of idealized sexuality. At least in the freer times of Ariosto, I am naturally also the representation of homoerotic desire. The voice of the oppressed. For everyone who reads, including the knights, want nothing more than to watch as another, a woman, caresses my milk white breasts. And that is precisely why my path is solitary. Why I had no authentic place on the battlefield. Why, tired of this narrative, I entered the convent to subvert it. This time playing a different female role, that of a nun, of Sister Theodora of the order of Saint Colomba. But even here I found myself caught in a new nexus of alienation, bearing the weight of my elected verisimilitude. For what would a nun, who has no experience apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, know of battle and knighthood? Nothing. Of battles, I now feign to say, I know nothing. I must rid myself of my past precisely as I go about reconstructing it in my tale. But perhaps it is this distancing from my past that grants me freedom to create a new future? Perhaps it is this distancing that has granted me the ability to create worlds within from a pen stroke act of will, as here on the river’s bank I set a mill, and there, beyond the town I trace out a wood, and in this wood follow Agilulf as he scours it through and through, follow him to Priscilla’s palace where I live my own dream of chaste seduction as the nonexistent knight subverts all direct acts of concupiscence and sexuality. There was a rush to the power. A draw to a newfound ability, to a creativity absconded from the pressures and pulls of others, a place of repose. But I also felt fear at how precarious and coincidental the space available to my imagination turned out to be. One morning, for example, as I was writing I was constantly distracted by the clatter of copper and earthenware as the sisters in my convent washed platters for dinner. It reeked of cabbage. The smells infiltrated me. And when I went back the next day to observe my creation I was appalled to see I’d brought the convent to the book, describing the mess hall and how out of place Agilulf seemed at the feast. The contingent determinism of my environment, of a bunch of nuns making cabbage soup, seemed crass in contrast to the dusty aura of the epics that had grafted my existence before. So I stopped. Wrote more and more quickly. Abandoned the details. Didn’t retain the discipline required to recreate the scene, to help you, reader, live it, feel it, enter it fully. Jumped from France to England, England to Africa, and Africa to Brittany with utter disregard for the Aristotelian rules of time and place. I relaxed the constraint that weighed me down, the discipline of a cohesive third-person chronicle and even went so far as to address the book I was writing in the vocative like I did when I wrote in my journal as a child. Book, I wrote, now you have reached your end. And miraculously, at this moment of abandon and decadence, I heard a horse come up a narrow track. I recognized the voice of Raimbault. And while I’ll never love him ardently, never find in him the elision I seek with another to finally know the world, I know from what I’ve chronicled how much he loves me, how he has loved me since he noticed me peeing in the stream after I saved his life. I’ll rush to meet him, let him guide my pen as life urges along, and mount the crupper of my horse to find my future. Because no one would have expected it. It’s not the plot. Nothing I’d create. It could not be Bradamante. Therein, perhaps, I’ll find the possibility of freedom.

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Pino Zac’s depiction of the anagnorisis moment when Sister Theodora reveals that she is Bradamante (or vice versa).

What you’ve just read is an experiment. An attempt to become a better reader.

In the experiment of reading Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight, this meant a few things.

First, it meant engaging with the text actively–and returning to it a few times in a short time frame–to better register and remember it. This took effort, even emotional effort. Reading literature and philosophy passively is at once an indulgent pastime and an attempt to keep a former self intact and alive, a self who spent most of her time reading books and writing about books, whose job it was to say something about books that no one else had said before.[1] My professional success no longer hangs on my knowledge of literature and the artfulness and ingenuity of my interpretation. I changed. Moved to technology. Strive for excellence according to the standards and conventions of a different social circle and profession. But, pretend though I may, my transition was not a complete epigenetic phase shift. Reading still matters to me. And I experience unnerving discomfort when a passage I read just a week ago, a passage that was so alive and vivid while I was reading it, has disappeared like vapor on a car window or footsteps washed away by the sea. My emotional discomfort, therefore, stemmed partially from self-criticism, frustration that total recall wasn’t a given, didn’t effortlessly arise from passive consumption. It was a recognition that I had work do to, coupled with the desire to keep on doing the same because it was easier. So I had to make it fun. Do something creative. Trick myself into making engagement effortless to silence to lacerations of the superego.

Which lead me to fiction. Writing a companion piece that grappled with the question: who is the narrator of The Nonexistent Knight? I’d engage with the book by replicating it, adapting it, making it my own by assimilating it.

This is almost accurate. I actually started by composing a different blog post, one whose I was close in voice and referent to the I in most of my other posts. But I felt too exposed. Projected judgment around the triteness of my conclusions. Felt silly writing a post about trying to remember what I’d read. I needed fiction to protect myself. Needed Bradamante to exorcise my fear. Without her, I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing these words.

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Charlemagne informs that nonexistent knight that he has no choice but to rescind his knighthood if there is evidence that the virgin he saved wasn’t really a virgin.

Fortunately this cloak of fiction added a layer of reflexivity. The Nonexistent Knight is itself a kind of reading, where, like a medieval artist painting her version of the annunciation or the pietà, Calvino engages with the familiar stories of the Carolingian epics. His writing is a reading of Ariosto, of Tasso, of scenes and memes intimately familiar to his readers. Or at least to some readers. For us, today, there can be no presumption that people know those tales. No awareness of the tradition into which the stories fall. The text doesn’t have a shadow. It lacks the trappings of identity it would have had in a time where it was a given that people know Bradamante, knew Charlemagne, had grown up with the tales. We’re bid to ask what means it means to rewrite a Renaissance Romance in an age when people don’t recognize it’s a recapitulation, but are reading it for the first time. It kaleidoscopes the nonexistence of the protagonist in the text.

And there was more.

Why did I care about becoming a better reader in the first place? What did I seek? Why did my lack of recall create such a rabid sense of discomfort and shame?

The system of identity Calvino grapples with through the character of the nonexistent knight constitutes selfhood through the embodiment and application of codes of conduct and structures of belief. Knights do X in Y setting; one becomes a knight by passing through Z ritual. Take away a paradigm sanctioned by others’ recognitions that you fit into their code, that you act in a way that confirms how they view themselves, and all that remains is the raw encounter with experience. The constitution of self through and via an amassed collection of experiences. But this self as conversation with the world stands on precariously flimsy stilts unless one can recall with fidelity, unless there is a distancing from the vagaries of momentary subjectivity. In short, it mattered that I could remember things accurately because my very identity was at stake, an identity constituted from a series of encounters and experiences. I wanted, needed, to know the book for what it was, to love it for what it was, so I myself could stand on firmer ground. It’s a lesson I can apply elsewhere, a moral attitude for engaging with the world. An attempt to know the world and its people for what it is and who they are.

One final thought.

There are a few passages in The Nonexistent Knight that I’d remember without all this effort and alienation. The introduction of Gurduloo in chapter three, for example, is hilarious. Gurduloo is the foil of Agilulf, the man who exists but doesn’t think he does as opposed to the man who doesn’t exist but thinks he does. He’s marvelous. Sees ducks and joyfully becomes duck. Sees frogs and mindlessly becomes frog. Sees the king and impudently becomes king. It’s a variation on the joker from an opera di buffa, who speaks the truth no one else can tell. Like Gurduloo to his surroundings, the passages existed without needed to think they existed. They just were. There to be enjoyed without all the reflexive reflection. It feels cliché, but it’s too true not to acknowledge. It’s the bliss of the poet. The ability to be so engaged with the world that it sticks with us and shapes us.


[1] In retrospect, I wish I had been a more dialogical scholar of literature. I admire how my Stanford colleague Harris Feinsod, now a professor at Northwestern, wrote articles in response to and in dialogue with other active literary critics. Responding to someone wasn’t on my mind when I was a graduate student. I engaged with secondary literature, engaged with others’ ideas about the text I was working on, but felt I was arguing with an absent ideal rather than a person.

The featured image is from Pino Zac’s 1971 film adaptation of Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight. I presume (because I only skimmed the film) the man with his arms raised is the King of the Grail, who abdicates the moral weight and responsibility of killing innocent people in the name of fanaticism, which is too often guised as perverse form of Enlightenment. It is a paragon B film, weaving technicolor, black and white, and animation to visually represent the different ontological levels Calvino sculpts in the book (Agilulf and Raimbault as real characters in color; Charlemagne and the other knights as animations; Sister Theodora, the author of the work, imprisoned in her penance of black and white).  My partner Mihnea found its style to be unmistakably in the tradition of Federico Fellini. I saw hints of Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s a fascinating artifact. I’m glad it exists. 

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 the world will teach you about itself for your whole life. 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.

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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.

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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. 

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. 

before the beginning

and we wake up into form

beloved effortlessness before the voices return

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

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

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

he sullies her under his touch, the dice roll slant

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

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

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

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

this moment where we wake up into form

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

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

Clinamen

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.

tarkovsky mirror
From Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. As Tarkovsky wrote of his films in Sculpting in Time: “Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and, inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not a part of it — so the film-maker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an element of the finished film.”

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.

Bocabella
A portrait of Josep Maria Bocabella, who commissioned Gaudí to build the Sagrada Familia.

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.

columns
The top of the columns inside the Sagrada Familia have twice as many lines as the roots,             the doubling generating a sense of 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.

fish-4
Frank Gehry’s fish lamps, which carry forth the spirit of Antoni Gaudí

*Dennett reads these words, penned in 1868 by Robert Beverley MacKenzie, with pedantic panache, commenting that the capital letters were in the original.

**Much in this post was inspired by Roman Mars’ awesome 99% Invisible podcast about the Sagrada Familia, which features the quotation about Bocabella’s newspaper.

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. 

 

Analogue Repeaters

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Imagine my disappointment (gosh, never know if it’s two s’s or two p’s (gosh, never know if I should use an apostrophe to designate plural letters, i.e., not one unit of letter stwo units of letter s! (gosh, never know if I should use italics to emphasize a word or idea in a sentence, as my mind’s ear echoes the judging-but-because-too-polite-to-outrightly-judge-nudging voice of a dissertation advisor of yore, reprimanding me for the immaturity of style, as the semantics (the meaning (gosh, why in god’s name do people use such fancy words, just to exclude the rest of us?, diction synonymous with power (gosh, David Foster Wallace’s essay AUTHORITY AND AMERICAN USAGE* is so bold, so brilliant, so relevant today, as we skirt the elephant prancing around the delicate Sèvres teacups in Trump’s ramshackle cabinet of curiosities (gosh, the INCREDIBLE (intentional) elegance of Charles Sanders Peirce‘s prose, master of metaphysical metaphor, expert in epistemological eloquence, who writes sentences like That much-admired “ornament of logic” — the doctrine of clearness and distinctness — may be pretty enough, but it is high time to relegate to our cabinet of curiosities the antique bijou, and to wear about us something better adapted to modern uses and Thought is a thread of melody running through the succession of our sensations), a polka dot, maladroit elephant screaming at the top of her lungs that SOCIAL CLASS IS TABOO!, as we can’t mention it, we hide it under euphemisms like “income inequality” and our bad faith creates warts manifest as mean and hateful ideologies like white supremacy and terrorism as we ignore the root cause, cloaking our fears in political correctness and identity politics, it being too damn hard to change the system, too damn hard to imagine a different sociopolitical constellation, too damn different from what we’ve inherited, a system showing signs of wear and tear like my battered GI tract (gosh, it would be fucking wonderful if Western Medicine could get its fucking act together and stop poisoning us (me) with its antibiotics, its linear “science”, its specialities, its discrete anatomies that create nothing but carcasses and bulbous gout (no, fortunately, I don’t have gout!), for Christ’s sake why is it so hard to figure out what the hell we should eat to be healthy? Gluten, no gluten, Dairy, no dairy. No sugar (that one at least is clear). Legumes, no legumes. Onions, no onions. Meat, no meat. For fuck’s sake each microbiome is different, stop subjecting us (me) to your blunt diagnostics!))) (I think that’s the right number of close parentheses; does this mean I’d be a shitty programmer?) should carry enough weight without needing the crutches of form (gosh, Thomas Bernhard would be disappointed, as would so many crappy deconstructionists following the crumbs littering the pitiful trail created by the third-rate-metaphysical essays of Derrida and de Man)))) (again, I may have fucked up the number of close parentheses) upon clicking the URL for ERA Welcome** (ERA an acronym for Escarpment Repeater Association, an amateur radio club in Ontario presumably eponymous for the Niagara Escarpment) only to find that service was temporarily unavailable! (Yes, those are my bookmarks. I have multiple email inboxes because I have multiple jobs, each enabling different vectors of curiosity and expressing different sides of my personality. This post excavates the one side of me, a side unfettered by any professional obligations, unindexed by form, without requirement to keep those emails short and sweet, as it doesn’t matter if no one will read this or no one will respond, doesn’t matter if pure confusion thwarts action, a refuge (or, for fans of puns, a hamlet (personally most fond of Asta Nielsen’s 1920 interpretation)) from the day-to-day toil of pragmatic communication, where it’s so damn hard to muster the courage to cleave the continuous and create the necessary and sufficient form to catalyze “next steps” (gosh, how deeply Thomas Mann’s*** statement I wanted to write you a short letter but I didn’t have the time! resonates!))****  *(or, “POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE” IS REDUNDANT) (parenthesis and capital letters original) ** I no longer remember how I found the ERA. It showed up during my search for all things related to Treasure Island, the subject of this post. It seemed quite fitting for a post about recursion, even if the members of the ERA use the word repeater much differently than I. ***One of those quotations (I was also taught that quote is a verb and quotation is a noun, and that I should display my erudition and never placate to common use) attributed to 5000 different people, just like that which doesn’t kill me make me stronger, which people attribute to St. John the Baptist, Nietzsche, or Rose Kennedy, depending on taste, experience, and predilection (admittedly redundant, but I liked the tricolon). ****Footnote Four, the most famous footnote in American Constitutional Law, comes from the 1938 ruling US v. Carolene Products CoIt reads: “There may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten amendments, which are deemed equally specific when held to be embraced within the Fourteenth….
It is unnecessary to consider now whether legislation which restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation, is to be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny under the general prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment than are most other types of legislation….
Nor need we inquire whether similar considerations enter into the review of statutes directed at particular religious… or nations… or racial minorities…: whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry… (italics added by the author of the Wikipedia article from which I copied and pasted the quotation). Ruth Bader Ginsburg has apparently drawn upon it during the Roberts’ Court to push the Court to do a better job protecting minorities, who, as recent politics and hate acts have shown, still need protecting.
Asta Nielsen - Hamlet (1921) cape
Had to put in this photo because it is just that awesome. Playing Hamlet, the beautiful Asta Nielsen rushes in to challenge Claudius, the new king. Nielsen uses her gender superbly to channel the great prince’s doubts.

Treasure Island is a nightmare for the field of location intelligence.* That’s because it is:

  • an Island
  • 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

800px-Nanabozho_pictograph,_Mazinaw_Rock
A pictogram of Nanabozho, an alternative Romanized version of Nanabush’s name, which itself varies across Ojibwe dialects. Nanabozho is part Shiva, a spirit involved in the world’s creation, part Odysseus, a wily trickster hero who outsmarts bad guys and throws grandmothers into the middle of the lake.

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.

goldsworth
Imagine creating art destined to disappear. Imagine not caring if it didn’t last, but focusing on the momentary beauty, on the trick of the mind, where intentionality appears as natural as aleatory design. (If this sounds cool, check out Rivers and Tides.)

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. 

Objet Trouvé

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!

Take 2.

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 Wikipediaobjet 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.

Duchamp.-Bicycle-Wheel-395x395
One of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made artworks.

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.

Take 3.

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.

water
Mon objet trouvé

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):

vide

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.

Point : Counterpoint

she woke
she blinked
it rained
she stretched
she peed
she ground
she brew
she drank
she read
she shat
she breathed
she wandered
she ran
she wondered
she stretched
she showered
she sang
she ate
she dressed
she walked

he woke
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
she slept

love happened

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.