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 even healing.

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.

While I will leave it up to you to read the story and experience the beauty and stillness, I believe that you too will find that this story is one of those stories that eases the pain of living and even more, that opens the heart to the hope that heals.

 

 

 

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.

Median Shapes

When I wrote the paper with Simon Morgan pointing out the L^1\text{TV} functional was actually computing the flat norm for boundaries, we suggested this gave us a computational route to statistics in spaces of shapes. While earlier work certainly touched on this idea of using the flat norm for inference in shape spaces — see this paper on shape recognition, it was not until my student Yunfeng Hu collaborated with myself and Bala Krishnamoorthy (my collaborator, also a co-mentor of Yunfeng’s), that we started addressing the idea of statistics in shape spaces in the original paper with Simon Morgan.

The results can be found here: https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.04968 , in a paper with the title Median Shapes, with authors Yunfeng Hu, Matthew Hudelson, Bala Krishnamoorthy, Altansuren Tumurbaatar, Kevin R. Vixie. Tumurbaatar wrote the first complete version of the code used, and Matthew Hudelson contributed a pivotal new result on graphs inspired by a problem in the paper, while Bala led the computational end of things and I led, in collaboration with Yunfeng Hu (and Bala keeping us honest!), the theoretical parts of the paper. It was a fair bit of work.

We went over the more difficult results a few times, finding improvements and corrections. Of course, there may be a few things here and there to improve, but for now, it is done.

Yunfeng probably spent the most time writing up the piece proving that near regular points on the median, the collection of minimal surfaces meeting the median have a tangent structure we describe as a book.  While this is clear to experienced geometric analysts,  there are lots of little details and we wanted most of the paper to be more accessible to a wider audience. There are lots of other pieces here and there that took time to think about and write up (and rewrite). For example, when showing the set of medians need not contain any regular members,  the part where we show that we need only consider graphs when searching for a minimizer was not easy. And of course, as in most all of geometric analysis, there are problems you solve without too much effort at a high level, but find that writing down is tedious, though at times enlightening due to the fact that those little details turn out to be hard and illuminating.

Because the problem of computing the median reduces to a linear program, while the mean reduces to a quadratic program, we focused on the median problem. Some parts of the paper are a bit long winded, for the reason that we wanted it to have more details that would usually be in a paper communicating to others that understand geometric analysis.

Anyway, have a look. If you find yourself interested, there is already code you can use to compute medians, though we hope eventually to have faster code.

 

A Silence that is Rich in 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.