Author Archives: Kevin R. Vixie

About Kevin R. Vixie

Mathematician, teacher, artist, inventor, observer, poet, father, husband, brother, runner, climber

Goodbye Twitter

I really did not have a lot going on in my twitter account. With 27 tweets over a few months, 20 followers and a collection 87 I followed, I was certainly not making any waves. I did spend a fair bit of time collecting those 87 threads to follow and found the experience of being embedded in twitter threads to be oppressive and distracting, though this sense was more of an aftertaste than an in-the-moment realization. I found that Twitter did not encourage habits of thought and attention and focus.

I had read Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers and Deep Work by Cal Newport, and rifled through things written by Jaron Lanier (Jaon and I were both hanging around NMSU at about the same time back in the 1970’s, he in computer science, I in the music world, though I do not remember meeting him, if I ever did). Even before this, I had read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr and listened to (and had many students listen to) the Google Tech Talk, No Time To Think, given by David Levy at Google in 2008.

These books and the talk all reinforced habits of taking breaks from the internet and email, something that was not too unnatural for me because I grew up keeping Sabbath one day a week.

Given the experiences with Twitter and the fact that I was now reading Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, I began having an internal debate as to whether or not I should just get off Twitter. What argued for this was the state of mind I seemed to always edge towards (or even run towards) when focusing on twitter — a state that was distracted and restless and very far from quiet. What argued against exiting Twitter was the fact that it seemed that every once in awhile, interesting people  would announce something using Twitter. It was also true that you could discover cool things by browsing Twitter.

The decision to quit Twitter was nudged into action by a combination the internal debate which was slowly moving to a Quit Twitter stance and the part of Shoshana’s book where she talks about Pentland’s Lab at MIT. I was acquainted with Pentland and his lab — in fact, some of my early scientific work was connected to his, in the ares of face recognition. The description of the Lab and his funders and his position in the minds of many that access his expertise, somehow, pushed me across the decision boundary.

So, a few days ago, I deactivated my Twitter account. I believe it will be deleted in 30 days.


 

I would like to have something like Twitter, only slower, deeper, and much easier to tune or customize. But it also seems to me that if I succeeded in getting what I wanted from Twitter, I would be operating in an asymmetric fashion, one that expected others to behave in a way that I would not agree to act.

So I have decided to focus on internet enabled tools and activities naturally co-existing with quietness, with taking time to think, with slowness-of-response enabling time to think. And of course whatever gets my attention and repeated use must be surveillance capitalism free.

For now, this set of places and activities will be this blog, my arts blog (http://viksekrarts.com), my website (http://geometricanalysis.org), email (several accounts) and things like github and Google Scholar and LinkedIn (for contacts — I never read the LinkedIn posts).


 

A requiem for quietness can be seen and heard and felt beneath the noise of the mobile device generation. Slowing down to be embraced by the requiem, our own responding stillness opens new paths to explore. Dwelling there, listening to the music of quietness and stillness, alternatives to a slide into a shallow, subhuman future emerge.

 

 

 

Finding Depth, Seeing Clearly

The frequent presence of a serious thread of self-righteousness in the opinions and speeches and exhortations to save the earth, to stop hating, to become accepting, to love everyone, to be inclusive, to stop being a racist, to take responsibility, to work hard — you know, to be righteous — corrupts the conversations we need to have, blinding us to where we actually are and what we need to do.

In fact, there is little I hear that strikes me as coming from a simple, humble spirit of deeply honest good will. Perhaps this is because most of those that do have that authentic goodness — that simple approach to making the world a better place — do little talking and no preaching.

Instead, in the opinions and speeches and exhortations (and tweets and posts) there is often a clear dose of hypocrisy or arrogance or self-righteousness (or all three). Sometimes they are muted. Sometimes it is difficult to see anything but these three. The intensity with which this is impressed on me can be overwhelming, perhaps because I am myself particularly vulnerable to the temptation to self-righteousness myself.

Take, for example, the circus in Washington DC.

 

I am deeply opposed to almost all that Trump is doing. He seems to be a deeply narcissistic bully, to be into precisely one thing: himself. Yet the rhetoric of Trump’s many enemies is frequently, very distasteful because of the self-righteousness, the hypocrisy, and sometimes even hatefulness.

This phenomena is not new with Trump.

Politics has always had these elements. But in the era of Trump, it is out of control. While Trump has descended to a level that was unimaginable by most before he became president, his opponents have unwittingly become the flip side of the same debased coin they so despise, though this can only be seen in the nuance and the subtle details of the fantasy that is unfolding in Washington DC. This ugly show began as soon as Trump became a threat to the elites who were used to running things. Starting with the mistakes they made in thinking it was impossible for him to win, they quickly settled into the role of full out attack, with little attention to depth and nuance and detail and fairness.

 

This dearth of nuance, patience and depth is pervasive, extending far outside of the DC fantasy. The shallowness of TED talks and thought leaders and talking-head experts that lull the elites into a self-satisfied state of cozy superiority  — with an uncanny resemblance to a slumber punctuated with nightmares animated by the other bad guys that are ruining the world — is rarely interrupted by wisdom, or deep thought or a fearless attention to detail.

Many public discussions or stories in the news or podcast/televised interviews or broadcast discussions suffer, sometimes to a great degree, from a lack of details and nuance that would, if known, put the events in a very different light for those that thought about the whole picture thus revealed. This is intentional at some level — if there were a real will to produce deep reporting, the money aimed at truly thorough reporting would not be so microscopic. In the battle between thick data and big data, between clever TED talks and deep wisdom, between “faster, better, cheaper” and and taking the time to think, it seems that the big data, the TED talks, and the “faster, better, cheaper” is winning.

One arena that I have been convinced suffers deeply from the lack of nuanced, detailed, deep examinations is the arena of big data and machine learning and AI. I know that some would claim that O’Neil’s  Weapons of Math Destruction, or Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, or Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and others like them fill that gap. While these admittedly are a start, these books neither plumb the depths nor exhaust the subject. In fact, they are rather unsatisfying as an answer to the threat that these hitherto undisciplined forces represent.

More generally, non-fiction literature is now dominated by the expanded TED talk or Atlantic article book. There is an idea or two that is inflated into a book, often with haste, with little attention to nuance, and little care for the patient observation that would let the authors master the art of waiting to find the “feeling for the organism”.

Every once in awhile though, you run across someone who has taken the time to really think and feel and see and then write from that place of true depth and intense focus. While I have not finished the book, I am convinced the new book by Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, is one such book. There is a depth and a passion that flowed from the immersive focus that created the book — as she says, 7 intense years in her pajamas. Even more extraordinary is this intensity in combination with the focus on the threat to the very soul of civilization posed by surveillance capitalism.

 

I first heard of this book when I listened to Shoshana being interviewed on the NPR show, On Point. I was very impressed. But a much deeper impression was made when I started reading the book.

I quickly came to the realization that I was dealing with the results of deep, focused thoughts that I was accustomed to seeing in mathematics (for example, Federer’s Geometric Measure Theory) or in philosophy (for example, Josef Pieper’s Leisure – the basis of culture).   An example from Shoshana’s book: though I had thought about the parallels between the ruin brought on the natural world by industrialization and the ruin that the information age promises to bring on the human mind and spirit, Shoshana’s book is the first time I have seen someone else put these thoughts on paper. And it was not the fact only that these observations were there, it was the way in which they appeared and the care with which she examined and stated things. Yet is is not a dead scholastic work, even though it is very deeply researched.

Somehow, it is also alive.

While I have not yet finished the book, the parts I have read so far only confirm the initial impressions of depth and thoroughness and even wisdom.While I am sure that there will be things I quibble with, I am certain they will not be because she is being sloppy or hasty or careless or thoughtless in some way. I am convinced enough of its value to have chosen this to be the next book my own graduate students have to read, the next book for the book discussion group I lead, and the next book that I buy multiple copies of to give away.

 

In order for us to do something, we have to see things correctly and deeply — that is the thesis behind Shoshana’s book. If we are to do this in the political arena, we must first recognize that things were extremely corrupt, even completely bankrupt at the deeper levels long before Trump came along to make that obvious the most casual observer.

While Obama put a good face on things, he was not getting in the way of the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the super-rich, nor was he into the truth if that cost him power. Witness how he dealt with Ed Snowden.  (Those that think the Democrats are somehow more righteous than the Republicans are dangerously deluded. It is not an accident that “House of Cards” has the psychopathic president in the democratic party.) Listening, for example, to Jame Risen (at http://theintercept.com), you begin to understand that both Bush and Obama were doing deeply disturbing things, that they were precursors to Trump in very important, often ignored ways.

What allows almost all of the elite-bubble inhabitants to miss these facts, is the haste with which they seek to know, the elitism that blinds them, the devotion to the big, fast, crowd and the unwillingness to spend the time to think and see and feel,  to wait patiently for wisdom.

The humility that comes from realizing how all of us are actually susceptible to these errors opens us to the pursuit of depth, to investment in thick data, to a fundamental orientation towards wisdom, above all else.

When we prioritize the time to think and attention to the patient search, we begin to understand the intense power of quietness and the richness that opens when we slow down enough to see the living path in everything. We begin to avoid the labels and the naming that stymies our ability to see, and quashes our desire to search more deeply.  We find that where we are and what we see, becomes rich with information and nuance.

Only then will we have a chance of getting to the root of the problems we are faced with.

If more of us emulate the spirit of inquiry evident in Zuboff’s work, then and only then do we stand a chance of righting the wrongs that have put us in the path of multiple disasters.

 

Finding and Following Your Own Path

When my brother succeeded in getting me to join an Alanon group in 1994 or 1995 I had little understanding of the healing for mind and spirit I would find among the gentle, powerful souls that opened the door to healing simply by listening to me and speaking of their own paths in a way that made it clear I could take what I found healing and leave the rest.

What I did know was that I was deeply afraid of others trying to tell me how to think, how to live, or even who to be. What I did not know was that the boundary violations I had experienced when I was young had created some very large trauma that was only increased by living through the slow deaths of both of our parents when my brother and I were teenagers.

Healing and a deep inspiration flowed from a combination of those inspiring spaces for listening and walkabouts in the forests and mountains, first of Orgeon and then of New Mexico. And what I found was an understanding that no one had the answer for me, no one had the right to tell me what I should do, that only by that personal walk with God in those places of quietness and stillness could I hear and see and feel and find my own muse, my own path, my own unique way of creating and connecting.

I have begun to understand the enormous power of words, the extent to which the misuse of words has created large swaths of humanity and society with seriously reduced capacity for sensing reality, sensing the power of the words and images that are thrown around so carelessly.

So much of what we say to each other is either powerless, without inspiration or filled with power to damage and limit those who accept the words. This comes either as a result of ignorance (the most common case) or intentional malevolence. I have been guilty of using words in ways that were not respectful of the need for others to find their own way. Phrases like “you should do …” are rarely helpful or useful and are often damaging. I would now argue that they never belong in print because, when they are appropriate, it is always very situation dependent. When they do appear with well intentioned people, I believe it is most often due to enthusiasm for discovered insights that have worked well for them.

We discover something that works for us and we immediately evangelize others, certain we know the way, that we have the answer for them as well. This is most pronounced in those that have an undeveloped gift for teaching, but it seems to effect everyone who has made discoveries they think others might need. So often we speak these words and add force of our own, lest those listening (or who are forced to listen) not get the importance of what we are saying.

Yet this betrays a misunderstanding of the power of truth and inspiration. It shows we are not sufficiently aware of how others find their muse, their path of creativity and connection.

Balanced, wholistic truth contains in itself all the power needed for it to take root and grow. In growing, it adapts to the soil it finds, encouraging the uniqueness it finds, illuminating the creativity that results. The creativity that results in turn illuminates new and original facets of that truth. A simple telling of a narrative containing that truth, without force, transmits that truth in a way that is most likely to be accepted, though perhaps laying, like seeds in the ground,  awaiting just the right conditions for to take hold and grow.

The encouragement to the listeners to find, explore, hear the stillness themselves, to become adventurers and participants in that deepest conversation with their Teacher — this becomes the most powerful thing we can do for others.

In their seeing what we have learned, what we have found, what is part of our story, they are inspired to begin their own journey, to find their own muse.


It is arrogance, blind as it always is, that leads us to think we can find the path for others. Sometimes that arrogance is a subtle, cultural type of arrogance. Other times it is overt and obnoxious.

When we begin to see clearly and deeply, the humility that must accompany this leads us to get out of the way of others in their quest to discover who they are, where they can go and what they are privileged to create.

We discover that the path of the creative teacher and mentor, collaborating alongside those involved in the joy of finding and following their own paths, is an experience full of living energy and fresh discovery.

 

Fun with simple analysis problems I: the rest of the story

In an earlier post with the same title (and without the subtitle) I introduced some thoughts that were triggered by this simple problem:


Suppose that

     |\frac{df}{dx}(x)| \leq \lambda |f(x)|                    (1)

for all x, that f is continuous and differentiable, and that f(0) = 0.

Prove that f(x) = 0 everywhere.


In that post (which you can find here  Fun with simple analysis problems I ),  I started by presenting three solutions and then generalized and explored further.

What I did not reveal in that post was that writing it gave me an idea for a more advanced problem that could be perhaps pushed a ways. Not too long afterwards, Laramie Paxton joined my group and I gave him this problem to work on for his dissertation. We collaborated in solving the problem, since that is how I mentor all my students — their dissertations are collaborations with me — and this resulted in a paper we wrote together: A Singular Integral Measure for C^{1,1} and C^1 Boundaries that can be found here . The paper explores that idea that was suggested by thinking about the original post I wrote in response to that simple analysis problem that started everything.

Laramie Paxton arrived at WSU quite naive with respect to analysis, having completed an online masters in mathematics that did not give him a good foundation in analysis. But he very quickly he adopted habits that led to rapid progress. He started by studying intensely the summer before arriving and passing the qualifying exam on his first try.  Then he took my admittedly challenging undergraduate analysis course (I used Fleming’s Functions of Several Variables) and courses in advanced analysis, geometric measure theory, applications in image analysis (papers he led) and his dissertation, all in the space of two years. After a year of postdoc, he landed the job he is about to start, at Marian University in Wisconsin. I believe that both the University and Laramie are lucky to have each other.

In general, I believe that small universities are good places to be nowadays, but from everything I hear, this place is better than good — it is perfect for Laramie’s talents and skills. (In addition to his impressively growing mathematical skills, he was already phenomenally skilled in logistics and organization which can be seen in his highly effective help in making the events listed here, from April 2017 to July 2018, a reality.)

While I am sure that there are other undiscovered aspects of the problem that launched these two posts and Laramie’s dissertation problem, I believe that what has been explored illustrates why it makes sense to treat simple problems as invitations to playful exploration and creativity.

 

The Colors of Memory and Wisdom

Reading Zeyn Joukhadar’s novel, The Map of Salt and Stars, has taught me once again that fiction can be more truthful than non-fiction, that even though the vast majority of fiction is to reading what junk food is to eating, there are novels that inspire even the pickiest of readers, with the highest (or most peculiar) standards for what is inspiring or illuminating.

The problem with a lot of  non-fiction is that those that write it often seem not to recognize that what we know is a minuscule particle in a vast infinite universe of what could be known, that the skeptical inquirer is doomed to a rather poorly illuminated reflection of tiny bits of what is known, while those that are willing to use all the tools at the disposal of an aware, enlightened human being, can in fact embark on a voyage filled with light and a rich, ever-unfolding life.

In the fable and living experience woven together in Zeyn’s novel, the human spirit and the Infinite meet in an explosion of life and color and light and dark that moves us to a place where we can see and feel far beyond the narrow confines of overly rigorous, reductionistic thinking and experience. The deeper truths in the stories, sometimes stated very plainly, other times only seen in the wholistic experience of the story, are profound, demanding a stillness and quietness before they open to our view.

The overwhelming energy that moved through the story, illuminating my response, was one of light and color and memory and feeling, reinforced by the synesthesia of Nour, the little girl through which we see the story. While a few might consider Nour’s synesthesia to be an unnecessary device, I found it to be not only completely natural, but in fact a door that anyone can enter if they will but take the time to listen to the music and feel the color to be found in stillness and quietness, to see the light that shines through the broken places, to experience the infinity between the ticks and tocs of a clock.

When I taught 7th and 8th grade science during graduate school, I used to take my students out into nature with notebooks in hand and ask them to see and feel and hear and then write. Most had a very difficult time finding the stillness necessary to do this and probably had a hard time connecting with my descriptions of what happened on my walkabouts when I moved into that living path mode of seeing and hearing. It was also my first time trying to describe this mode and inspire others to try it for themselves. After those experiences I usually simply shared the insights I found in that state.

Nevertheless, I am no less hopeful today than I was when I tried guiding the students, that this mode of seeing and hearing and feeling is open to anyone willing to listen to stillness. Immersing myself in this story, I find again, in yet another form, that stillness containing infinity.

Lately I had started losing hope in the power of words to actually enlighten or inspire or even prompt others to begin a journey. I could find lots of examples that supported my growing doubt. But when I laid this book down, I was struck by a strong sense that I was wrong about that, that some written words were still very powerful, inspiring and healing and opening to that infinity I began to experience so many years ago in my walkabouts in the desert and later in the forests.

I was also reminded that when you have passed through extreme crisis, you learn what is important and what is not, you learn to choose the simple life and connections with those that love you and those that can benefit from your simple help. You remember that so many things in our surroundings, considered so important, cannot compare with the song of an insect, or connection with a friend, or peace of encompassing sunshine. You realize that there is nothing to prove, that the simple things contain everything you need because they are doors to infinity. You see that helping those that struggle, easing the path of those that have very little and seek simply to live in peace, is an integral part of finding and sharing the depth and beauty we are wired to seek, to explore. One cannot truly have the depth and beauty without the healing and compassion.

What remains for me, as I write these words in the afterglow of the story, is a sense of living stillness and remembering and color, and the deep peace that comes when we remember the intense richness of knowing what is important.

 

 

 

Cultures of Creativity and Innovation

Books reliably inspiring enthusiastic conversations are books worthy of close attention. When Beata read and recommended Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Culture Code”, encouraging me by reading bits and pieces of it to me, it was not long before I knew that I had been introduced to just such a book. Soon I was buying copies and giving them away. Over the course of 2-3 months I gave away a bunch of copies and organized an evening in the top floor of the Monarch Motel in Moscow, Idaho devoted to discussion of the book.

The present article is part of my evolving reaction to the stories and theories in Coyle’s book, prompted by the reading inspired barehanded combat with those ideas.


The stories of remarkable environments for creativity and productivity, as well as the stories of studies and research aimed at understanding cultures of creativity and productivity are brilliantly chosen. For this reason alone, I can and do recommend the book to everyone.

If those stories are listened to and felt and thought about and experimented with, the effect on the reader is large.

When I get a (non-mathematical) book and read it carefully, it means I have chosen to engage rather deeply. Usually I write in the margins, in a sort of hand to hand combat with the details and nuances. And there is a fair bit written in the margins of this book. But while I sometimes have issues with the theories used to explain things – mostly nitpicky like the fact that nonlinearilty does not equal non-logical, see the story of the Allen Curve – the quality of the inspiration affected by the book completely outweighs any concern about the book’s shortcomings.


The core of this book is the threefold cord of (1) safety, (2) vulnerability and (3) purpose which, expanded a bit, becomes:

  1. Safety and belonging – taxing existential questions are never the lot of individuals in highly creative, productive environments. The growing scarcity of safety and belonging in many workplaces should be a source of deep concern. The gig economy is an indication that we are eating our seed corn and have ceased to pay even lip service to wisdom and a sustainable future.
  2. An empathetically evolved environment enabled by vulnerability powered connection. A status flat environment in which creative energy flows easily is an environment in which truth and kindness (together!) are common, even foundational. Empathy, in its nuanced and expanded incarnations, is at the root of all highly effective, sustainable environments.
  3. Purpose and vision – a bold, omnipresent clarity on the deeper foundational laws of being as well as the aims, the goals and the lofty visions that drive everything. An environment filled with signals keeping these principles and visions in constant view, is an environment whose vision is sustainable. Opposing the natural trend towards higher organizational entropy, these signals are an energy that enables the culture to remain inspired and organized for innovation and collaboration.

These three threads are the pillars of environments that have no trouble keeping those that enter their influence. We visit and never want to leave – quite literally. In fact, Daniel himself admitted that when he was doing the research for the book, he found himself making excuses why he needed to stay in the environments he was investigating, even after he had the information he needed for his book.

Of course, some of the research was historical, visible only through the stories of those who were lucky enough to be part of those past places. Take for instance, Bell Labs in its heyday and Harry Nyquist.

In trying to understand the smaller group of super-innovators at Bell Labs, every possible factor was eliminated until it was discovered that all of these super-innovators ate lunch with Harry. He would draw out and listen to his lunch-mates with interest and curiosity, quietly giving them inspiring ideas and questions to go away and think about. Though Harry was also well known and influential because of his own research and innovation, neither this fact, nor his ability to spark innovation in others, seemed to effect his gentle, fatherly demeanor or tranquil reliability. In fact, these characteristics seemed to be significant part of the reason for his power. Disarmed by his demeanor, they opened up to his relentless curiosity.

At IDEO, the design company responsible for a large number of design innovations,  Roshi Givechi plays a similar role, roaming from one design group to another, helping them to overcome obstacles and find new creative grooves through a powerful ability to listen and ask questions. In fact, when Daniel Coyle told her the title of the book he was doing the research for, it was not long before he had a new subtitle after she asked a question about his choice of subtitle.


The other stories and anecdotes are very well selected and wide ranging. Some illustrate principles of collaboration. The Allen curve, showing that effectiveness of collaboration is inversely proportional to the distance between desks of those collaborating, is another striking story of discovery that is both surprising when you hear it for the first time and sensible, even intuitively reasonable, when you take it in and think about it for awhile. While it is not an illogical relationship, as Coyle asserts, it is a non-linear one that will nonetheless make sense to anyone whose intuitions include some instincts for physics and chemistry and interactions and reactions.

Other stories are rich with insight, a sort of living book waiting to be read more and more deeply. Coyle starts his book with such a story, of kindergartners outdoing, by a factor of two, groups of business students and professionals in a challenge to build the highest tower with a piece of tape, a string, a few dried spaghetti  and a single marshmallow. And for me at least, this set the tone of the book.


As noted above, I ended up with a book full of marginal notes (in pencil!) and a lot of thoughts that were discussed with others. If I had to select a phrase that captured the influence of the book on me I think it would be:

… brilliantly selected stories and simple principles that were even more compelling because they were validated by my own experiences in trying to build highly effective teams of innovators …


And the effect of the book does not end with the sharing of the book and discussions.

The histories of places like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC and Los Alamos and the Rad Labs in Boston were already part of my own context, either through direct experience or through careful histories that I had read and internalized, but something about the combination of this book and my own struggles with getting groups together that were sometimes partly or mostly successful and other times were pretty clear failures, created in me a deeper openness and readiness to put these principles into action.

While the experiment that is now underway is a topic for another article, I can say that the timing for the discovery that Beata made and passed on to me was remarkable.

I give the book my highest recommendation.