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.