Yunfeng Hu in Seattle

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View From Yunfeng’s New Office in Seattle

Yunfeng Hu was recently moved from EMSI in Moscow, Idaho to a new research team at Amazon in Seattle. He is understandably very excited. Not only is the pay good, but the work is challenging and interesting and he has an excellent, inspiring team leader, Dennis Craig.

As readers of this blog know, Yunfeng was a PhD Student of mine that graduated in the spring of 2018. His work with myself and Bala (and a couple of other collaborators) is talked about in this post.

Yunfeng deserves this — he worked hard as an undergraduate, becoming an expert problem solver and as a graduate student, becoming an accomplished analyst and programmer as well. His internship and following year and a half at EMSI has prepared him very well for this new challenge.

Congratulations Yunfeng — you deserve this!

 

A Sort of Synesthesia

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Experiences of seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing, often compel me to try to communicate those experiences in some way.  A sort of obsession with the beauty, with the experience of being in the moment, undulating, flowing, singing, vibarting, simultaneously opens all the senses and quiets the mind is an experience that, at least for me, makes translation into words extremely hard. Sometimes I find the words to transmit something of value, but very often I find what I have  written is unconvincing or even completely mute.

I need a sort of synesthesia, making translations from what I sense to words more natural or perhaps even involuntary.

Talking or writing about the experience directly, as though it were a story or a play is something I cannot do.  The full experience is so rich, so overflowing, so infinite in possibilities that direct representation is clearly unattainable. But, like visual subtleties  easier to see with your peripheral vision, something of the experience can be captured indirectly, by way of analogies, of shadows and impressionistic portraits, in reflection, after the experience.

This is why some of the most effective, powerful art is abstract or impressionistic. To transmit infinity, direct representational art that creates the expectation of finiteness must be abandoned. Minimalism in music, moving us into rhythms and flows that slowly shift us to different states, is again, a sort of indirect encompassing that moves us somewhere, but not directly. Experiences in nature align with this method of illumination, gently soaking in, moving us, so that we gradually become aware of the fact that we have been transformed, our attention has been shifted, profoundly altering what we see and hear and know.

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Quietness — rich, vibrating, living, infinite — finds its way from our experiences to the experience of others as they immerse themselves in our art.

We have, together, attained a sort synesthesia.

 

 

 

 

Silence and Beauty

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Silence and Beauty – Makoto Fujimura (Jundt Museum)

Immersing myself in the light and color and feeling of Mako Fujimura’s paintings, I listened over and over to Bach’s “Erbarme dich, mein Gott”, as though somehow this experience could open my eyes to the words that would communicate, that would transmit what I felt and saw.

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Immersing myself, I am drawn to deep stillness.

The quietness sings.

Time stops to listen, to dwell in the color and light and feeling

Light shines through the brokenness

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Words feel clumsy, infinitely poor in comparison. But words can tell my own story of brokenness opening me to light and color and feeling, to quietness that sings, to healing.

It becomes clear that the deep drive to express and illuminate the experience can only be satisfied by taking others by the hand and leading them to their own experience of listening, of seeing, of feeling. I can invite others to “come and see”, to know why their brokenness is the beginning and not the end, for there was One broken before they were.

And that One is ready to shine His light through their brokenness, to pour Himself into their darkness and trauma, to heal them with his Quietness and Beauty.

_____

 

take my hand

 

come and see

the quietness and beauty

in brokenness

 

 

 

 

 

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. But I spent a fair bit of time collecting those 87 threads to follow and found immersion in twitter threads to be oppressive and distracting, though this sense was more of an aftertaste than an in-the-moment realization. I also found that Twitter did not encourage habits of thought, attention and focus.

I had read Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers and Deep Work by Cal Newport, and had rifled through things written by Jaron Lanier (Jaron 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 Levy’s talk had in fact inspired habits of taking breaks from the internet and email, something that came naturally for me because I grew up keeping a pretty strict 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 getting off twitter was the state of mind I seemed to always edge towards (or even run towards) when focusing on twitter — a restless, distracted state that was 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. You could discover cool things by browsing Twitter.

Action came as a result of a combination of the internal debate, slowly moving to a Quit Twitter stance, and the part of Shoshana’s book 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.

And 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.

For the time being 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. Yet, like the Requiem of requiems, it is also a door to renewal.

Slowing down to be embraced by that 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.

Little that I hear that strikes me as coming from a simple, humble spirit of deeply honest, good will. Perhaps this is because most who 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.

Take, for example, the ongoing circus in Washington DC.

 

I am deeply opposed to almost all that Trump is doing. From a distance he seems to be a deeply narcissistic bully, to be into precisely one thing: himself. Yet the rhetoric of Trump’s many enemies is almost always 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. (It is not without merit to wonder what would have been if Trump’s enemies had not opposed him with such contempt and hatred, for does this not feed his worst instincts?)

This dearth of nuance, patience and depth is pervasive, extending far outside of the DC fantasy. The shallowness of TED talks, thought leaders and talking-head experts lulling elites into a self-satisfied state of cozy superiority is rarely interrupted by wisdom, deep thought or fearless attention to detail.

Stories in the news, podcast/televised interviews and broadcast discussions all suffer, sometimes to a great degree, from a lack of details and nuance that would put events in a very different light. 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 hot topic suffering deeply from the lack of nuanced, detailed, deep examinations is the nature and uses of big data, 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 small 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 book-length expansions of TED talk or Atlantic articles. There is an idea or two, inflated into a book, often with haste, with little attention to nuance. The time to think and the discipline of patient observation leading to a mastery of the art of waiting, to finding a “feeling for the organism”, is not often evident.

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 a 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 flowing from the immersive focus that created the book. This intensity in combination with the focus on the threat to the very soul of civilization posed by surveillance capitalism is unique.

 

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 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 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 only the fact 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, 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 hasty, 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.

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 truth 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 and the elitism that blinds them.  Their devotion to the big, fast, crowd and the unwillingness to spend the time to think and see and feel,  to wait patiently for wisdom, doom them to a darkness they think is light.

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, and, above all else, to a fundamental reorientation towards wisdom. When we prioritize the time to think and attention to the patient search, we begin to understand the intense power of quietness. Slowing down,  our eyes are opened to a rich, living path in and through everything. We begin to avoid labels. We abandon the naming so detrimental to our ability to see and to the desire to search more deeply.  Where we are and what we see becomes rich with information and nuance.

In this place of deeper awareness, armed with clearer pictures of the complexities and grounded truth, we begin to have a chance of making progress on real problems.


 

Returning to the work of Shoshana Zuboff, it is this universal lesson that comes as a corollary to a careful reading of her work. Though it seems obvious — that for real solutions, time to see, to feel, to think, to know, must be invested, the fact that books like Shoshana’s are not the norm tells us that the lesson needs much more emphasis.

In fact, I believe it is this deeper universal message that can have the biggest impact on thoughtful readers of the book. And this, in turn, compels me to do my part to make the number of such readers larger.

The stakes could not be higher.