Category Archives: Intellectual Life

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.

 

A Silence, Rich with Inspiration

Glynne Robinson Betts’ 1981 Writers in Residence is for me a lyrical invitation to quietness. The photo illuminated essays on places, in time and space, where writers lived and wrote,  invoke a strong sense of life lived with wide spaces for thought and creativity. The sections on Carl Sandburg, Anne Dillard, Robinson Jeffers and several others, recall daily rhythms friendly to depth.

These passages somehow bring back my life in the late 60’s and 70’s, when computers were rare and time to think was not hard to find. In college in the early 80’s, there was still time to think, time to read through a book on a weekend or master complex ideas in quietness, with a devotion to deep comprehension. I wonder, how many now feel that call to stillness, to a silence that is rich in inspiration?

Where do we find the wide spaces today? And who lives there? Those that tasted the thrill of illumination through immersion in quietness remember those spaces, but what of those addicted to their mobile devices, what of those who believe social media connects, wikipedia illuminates and TED talks are the pinnacle of inspiration? While wikipedia is useful, TED talks are sometimes narrowly inspiring, the intense illumination of bare-handed, personal discovery leaves you changed, forever.

Seeking the simplicity of those wide spaces, listening till we hear the quietness sing, we find the same places the writers found, the same illumination that is never forgotten … we walk through an open door to the infinity that lives between the ticks of the clock, between the words on a page, between the breaths we breath.

 

 

 

Dual Tyrannies of Data and Democracy (and what to do about it)

In this new age of extremes, celebrity and elitism without bounds, those that pride themselves on their enlightenment often make a big deal about being democratic in their ambitions and data driven in their thinking and reasoning.

This is also a new age of openness and deception. The increase in both is of course coupled. As openness is supported or exhibited, some of what is exposed resists and retaliates with deeper forms of deception.

And in ths new age, the old illusions also persist — like the illusions of rationality or unbiased examination or study without preconceived ideas — illusions that have a great impact on inference and our abilities to draw conclusions from observations. Democracy enters when we attempt to create a cooperative or civil society based in some semblance of truth or grasp of reality.

The problems I am focused on in this perhaps too provocatively titled article, are those caused by the use of data and democracy as tools of forceful persuasion or even hammers of coercion. While the idea that democracy is a system predisposed to tyranny is far from a new idea, the dangers in the new bandwagon of data-driven thinking seem to be less well known or thought about (even though Cathy O’Neil’s, Weapons of Math Destruction is a good start). So we will begin there.


It might be seem strange for someone who is a mathematician, with a great deal of experience in data science, who even founded the Data Driven Modeling and Analysis team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to be concerned with or ambivalent about data driven anything.

Yet I am.

In fact I am very concerned. And the source of the concern is the inescapable fact that every inference, every conclusion and policy that is derived from data, is extracted from the data through the use of prior assumptions, many of which are unacknowledged or even very difficult to see. We can begin with the fact that we believe that rationality is the way in which truth is determined. But this is just not the case. Everything we do is framed in the deeper emotional/spiritual context in which “we live and move and have our being”.

As a result, even the decision of what data to collect is determined by our prior assumptions and preconceptions, and as a result, we can, often unconsciously, predetermine our conclusions before we even begin looking at the data.

The other problem I have with data driven scholarship is that, in its current forms, it only tells about what is, about the systems that have gained ascendancy and majority control of whatever it is that we are studying. It can say very little about what is possible. As a result, I believe that the industry of data driven scholarship and decision making will tend to reinforce what is, and limit diversity and real progress and innovation. (And by innovation, I am not talking technological innovation, but something much deeper and far reaching.)

This type of data science determines truth by, in essence, going with the majority vote in which the data doing the voting, has not only been selected by unseen and unacknowledged assumptions and biases, but is also, by its very nature, without an imagination.

What kind of data and data driven inference do I believe in? To begin with, I should say that I am very much for careful observation of the natural world, of human activity and behavior, and of the larger “inner” spiritual world on which everything is based. I think that the art of observation is a deeply neglected art, the rewards of which are little known and sorely needed. The problem lies in the fact that observation — data collection — is too often colored by stiff systems of preconception and unseen prior models of reality, influencing both choice of what to look at and what to do with the observations that are made.

Quietness and stillness as disciplines are not cultivated as ways to begin to really see beyond our current positions and perspectives. The fundamentally spiritual decision to let go and open to stillness is blocked by a complex of fear and fear inspired prejudice which are in turn based on previous experience with violation and force. Those experiences causing so many to relinquish child-like openness to reality, block them from full entry into the “kingdom of heaven”. As a result, those former children grow into adults that create systems that prevent them from entry into that illuminated kingdom and which they then use to block others from entering.

There are of course many flashes of insight that make it through the web of self-defense based preconceptions. But far too many of these quickly become part of that system that then blocks other illumination, blocking even the ability to understand the original insights correctly. The illumination falls prey to the temptations of greed for impact or fame or prestige or even simple fear, and the vision that could have been, fades.


There is of course the question of what to do about preconceptions and biases that are often predetermining results, especially in the case of data driven analyses. I believe the answer begins with opening your eyes, with taking the time to think:

  1. Take the time to think. The drive for bigger, better, faster has moved many people to abandon the discipline of taking time to think, to see, to feel. As a result, this basic first step to moving beyond our operating assumptions to something bigger and richer, to inspiration and growth, is severely limited.
  2. Time to think allows us to cultivate quietness and stillness as ways to let go and hear and see.
  3. We are only willing to see and hear and feel  what that quietness and stillness tells us in a state of emotional safety. This implies emotional wholeness underlies this whole project. Anyone who tells you differently is misguided at best. (This place of emotional safety is not external — this is a thing of the heart, not of “safe places” or elimination of harsh environments. The world is crazy and unsafe in which the emotionally whole still find a way to thrive, without expecting the world to be kept at bay.)
  4. Emotional wholeness requires cultivation of connection with others opened by the understanding that differences, instead of threatening us, enrich us.
  5. Connecting with others, observing their bits and pieces of illumination in a state of quietness, we are enabled to take the useful bits and let the rest go. (Because of emotional wholeness, we filter and thrive. No need for trigger warnings or cocoons that wall us away from reality.)
  6. Data is always filtered — quietness allows you to be aware of exactly what those filters are and to replace those filters if you find better ones.

While this approach to data (observation) and the inferences from that data is not new — it has always been the path of those taking the time to think and seek illuminated inferences, this path is becoming rarer. The noisy, overconfident bubble of thought leaders, influencers and celebrities are drowning out the careful thinkers and doers.


Democracy, even in its most beneficial forms, is only as good as the data driving it. Because of the difficulty in determining what is biased and what is not, the safest route is always to promote maximal freedom, opting for mild regulation only in the cases in which to not do so would harm the principles on which the democracy is founded. When freedom and compassion and safety and a healthy economic/social ecosystem are the principles, then this job is far from easy. But as soon as the regulation is influenced by entities that do not share those values, the whole enterprise is in peril. And if, in addition to this, the data that is used is twisted by the values that do not align with the goals above, it becomes hard to see what is and is not happening.

Of course, there are macro-measurements that reveal problems. When the divide between the rich and poor threatens to engulf us, we know something is wrong. When prisons are overflowing, when the rich are rarely held accountable, while the poor have difficulty for even small offenses or even simply because they are poor or nonwhite or both — when those things become impossible to ignore, we know the system is deeply broken.  And when the data is screaming and subtlety and nuance is no longer needed, when the data overwhelms preconception and prior assumptions, we know we are near a precipice.

But all is not lost.

As we learn quietness and openness to change, the data we gather and use will inform and illuminate, and the collective projects we embark on will reflect a synergy between freedom and cooperation. Time to think, quietness,  and the observations made in that frame of mind will supply the light and progress that keeps the biggest collective project — the democracy we live in — alive and headed in the direction of sustainable progress.

Freedom and Writing

  1. Communicate in person often, one on one, one on few, spontaneously (even if you have prepared for hours).
  2. Write papers and books that you are inspired to write … if you stick to true inspiration, there might not be that many papers and books, but what there is will be very good.
  3. Write ideas compulsively, write, write, write … but do not feel the necessity of publishing most of it, even if you make most or all of it available as notes, online.
  4. See publication, or even posting online, less as carving something into stone and more as an invitation for others to join in your explorations.
  5. Never let the writing replace thinking — take the time to think (and plenty of it).
  6.  Don’t be afraid of mistakes and don’t edit as you write — edit by iteration, by revision.
  7. Polish your writing guided by one simple rule — to make your thoughts clearly visible to your readers. Forget all the other rules for proper writing, for how to write.
  8. Creativity is heightened by simple playfulness. Cultivate it.
  9. Share generously. Spread your inspiration and passion around. Make your environment rich!
  10. Sustain your inspiration by a commitment to freedom (with kindness) + connection (with generosity).

Faith Is Connection

Some use faith to connect with finite, comfortable places, perhaps in response to fears of one kind or another. Little boldness is required. Others courageously connect to the ragged edge, but without the calm quietness that warns of errors, omissions or even danger. Yet others refuse to acknowledge the fundamental, critical role of faith, making the mistake of identifying this primitive human faculty with something that implies a belief in God.

Faith is fundamentally neutral, having nothing to do with belief in dogma or God. “True faith” (or “false faith”) is therefore nonsensical: the words cannot sensibly be used together. Faith is simply the human faculty to connect and it is by that connection that we know, we experience, we see beyond. The great other, the great wholeness that dwarfs the tiny sliver of the universe that we believe we understand, can be opened by that connection we call faith.


In their abdication to a narrow vision of science and philosophy, many have surrendered an openness to paradox and a truly rich spiritual-mental-physical universe. Respectability tempts and seduces, but enslavement follows.

There is a radical faith not shying away from paradox, connecting us with a rich, bold and yet brilliantly simple vision. This faith draws us into a vibrant, living environment, for it is an explicit connection with Infinite Life.

In the patient, illuminated stillness flowing from connection, mystery and paradox, rather than being indicators of fuzzy or wishful thinking, become marks of clear vision. Quietly insisting on both horns of a dilemma, we are driven deeper until we find the transforming resolution opening us to new wavelengths of light, new worlds of thought and action.


Moving on from second hand knowledge of God to the vision through the torn veil, we find the connection that heals and illuminates.

Metrics and Inequality

Metrics — measures of performance or value — drive what we do at every scale, from the small, individual scale to the massive global scales. When those metrics are founded on misconceptions of reality, they contort behavior in such a way as to appear to support those misconceptions. To get back to the natural order of things, away from the artificial reality created by those false beliefs, we must start by reseting our metrics.


I was reminded of this as I perused the Harvard Business Review (HBR) I had purchased for the purpose of inspiring thoughts and reactions. I do not peruse the Review very often, but when I do, I am usually turned off by a large amount of what I find. The price  of 16.95$ reeks of self-importance. And the articles overflow with much that I find distasteful in academia and in the broader, elitist culture — the same culture that is currently driving the world to the brink of destruction. But the metrics and implied metrics in the articles got me thinking about the influence of bad metrics, about the models of reality that implicitly encode inequality. Those models are everywhere.

Take the current focus in the news and social media on racism.

The real problem is that racism is an epiphenomena. Looking more deeply, we find the pervasive illusion of organic superiority/inferiority and the (negatively) powerful habits of ranking in all areas of life. These survive only because people can’t tell the difference between (1) powerful (negative) beliefs that become self-fulfilling prophecies and (2) fundamental truths. (While behavior does follow those unhealthy ideas, I am talking about potential here, not the reality created by those self-fulfilling prophecies.)

But to confront the fact that our brains are all pretty much equal, and what really matters is environment and opportunity, we have to face man’s inhumanity to man and our own moral degradation and greed.

And facing that fact is painful and difficult.

Once we begin to understand the effects of trauma of all sorts, of the massive power of emotions — actually, of our entire environment, we begin to understand the observed behavioral data differently. We begin to see that our beliefs in inequality combined with our inhuman treatment of others actually generate inequality. We begin to see that any solution to inequality that does not begin with the understanding that people are, actually, truly born equal is bound to fail.

Because we cannot fix inequality and believe in inequality at the same time.

Though it is a fact that there are organic differences, that there are a relatively small number of (very) basic groups of talents people are born into, any solution to inequality cannot succeed if it does not start with the understanding that these talents are not rankable, but are equally amenable to (even extreme) development.

When this position is taken, we see that inequality is pervasive, that the roots to racism are found in how we treat each other in every environment, including very white environments. In fact, if you were to restrict yourself to purely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant environments (though finding such environments is getting harder), one would find the fundamental disease that becomes racism in other environments.

When we begin building metrics based on the facts of equality, we begin to stand a chance of making a difference.

This brings me back to the HBR articles and their usual conformity to a traditional interpretation of behavioral data.


Of course the mistake the intelligent people who populate academia and the elitist cultures make, is the mistake that scientists often make, of not taking into account the effects of multiple time/context scales in their studies. It is sort of like the Chinese story of the man who lost his horse ( 塞翁失馬 — Sāi Wēng Shī Mǎ) in which what appears to be a good thing or bad thing depends on context that keeps expanding. Not taking all the different temporal/spatial/contextual scales into account, often leads to incorrect conclusions.

To many such observers, the data appears to confirm that (1) unfettered competition and greed are natural and probably  good and (2) inequality is organically based. (Note: I am not saying that all competition is bad, only that the current vision for competition is deeply unbalanced and actually unfair to many smaller entities that want to compete.) Of course, the more sophisticated the person, the more polished and palatable their presentation of these ideas.  But, as I observed above, the process by which we can see differently is uncomfortable for everyone and painful for most.

So instead, we pretend that the results of greed and inequality are some sort of natural law that we have no power over. And we end up missing the principle that enables us to find richness almost anywhere.

We do not realize that enough is a feast.


I am far from the first to observe that enough is a feast, that aiming for more than enough is wasteful, and that piling up great piles of wealth of all kinds (not just financial) and locking it away literally or figuratively is an obscene crime against humanity. It is just that even though it has been said before, by many others, it seems to be one of those things we need very frequent reminders of.

What I am interested in is a world in which taking time to think has priority over the rush of the over-achiever, where what my family and my dog thinks of me is more important than what my department or academia in general or the National Academy of Sciences thinks of me, where being a fundamentally independent thinker is more valued than status as a “thought leader”, where quiet generosity takes precedence over noisy philanthropy, and success is measured by whether or not I and those around me have enough, not if I have enough money or prestige to supply a small country.

In such a world, where “enough” becomes integral to our metrics, there is enough for everyone. And when this happens the enormous human potential that we have been obscenely wasting is unleashed.

When, as Bryan Stevenson makes a case for in Just Mercy, we understand that healing begins in seeing our own brokenness, we begin to understand why we strayed from “enough” in the first place. We then understand that everything good begins with healing, that, from the humility we gain in that process of healing,  every other good thing flows. Then we understand that humility is not so much the opposite of arrogance and the drive for status, as it is the opposite of spiritual blindness.

For blindness was the problem all along. What we needed, what we really wanted, was always at our fingertips. Only our inability to see the true order of things stood in our way.

Accepting this, we are set free to find healing and a rich abundance that has nothing to do with impoverishing others in any way.