A let­ter to Washington.


The Hon­or­able Eric Holder
Depart­ment of Justice
Robert F. Kennedy Building
Tenth Street and Con­sti­tu­tion Avenue, N.W.
Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20530

Dear Attor­ney Gen­eral Holder:

I recently attended the TED2014 con­fer­ence, where I had occa­sion to lis­ten to talks by Edward Snow­den and NSA Deputy Direc­tor Richard Ledgett.

I’m a long­time mem­ber of the TED com­mu­nity– it’s my 10th year attend­ing.  I’m a tech­nol­o­gist with a back­ground in applied math and neu­ro­science, cur­rently lead­ing a team work­ing on Machine Intel­li­gence at Google.  In this let­ter I’m speak­ing for myself, not for my employer.

I wanted to take this oppor­tu­nity to share with you my thoughts on the issues around Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

The dis­clo­sures– and the debate they launched– have revi­tal­ized demo­c­ra­tic over­sight. Pres­i­dent Obama him­self has said: “I wel­come this debate.  And I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”

The Pres­i­dent is right. The debate has been healthy for our democ­racy and for democ­ra­cies around the world.  Before the dis­clo­sures, all three branches of the gov­ern­ment had approved these pro­grams in the dark.  Now, all three branches of gov­ern­ment are engaged in a his­toric re-evaluation of the NSA’s sur­veil­lance prac­tices.  And Pres­i­dent Obama has agreed to end the mass track­ing of Amer­i­cans’ phone calls.

As a senior leader in infor­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy (prior to Google I was a Dis­tin­guished Engi­neer at Microsoft work­ing on online ser­vices), I have been espe­cially trou­bled by what I have learned about the NSA’s activ­i­ties– and I am grate­ful to Edward Snow­den for work­ing with jour­nal­ists to edu­cate the pub­lic about them.  The NSA’s drag­net sur­veil­lance activ­i­ties, and its exploita­tion of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, have under­mined our cyber­se­cu­rity and harmed our busi­ness– espe­cially over­seas.  We are now col­lec­tively per­ceived as hav­ing abused our stew­ard­ship of much of the world’s cloud com­put­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions technology.

The rev­e­la­tions have been shock­ing, and I can only wish they had come out sooner, to allow for an ear­lier course cor­rec­tion.  I believe that show­ing leniency to Edward Snow­den would send a pow­er­ful mes­sage to the world that the US takes these con­cerns seri­ously– and is seri­ous about reform.


Blaise Aguera y Arcas

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30 years of TED

TED2014Through­out most of last week I was wear­ing a giant badge with a metal tag on it announc­ing that this was my 10th TED.  The con­fer­ence itself was in ret­ro­spec­tive mode, cel­e­brat­ing its 30th birth­day.  Nos­tal­gia aside though, in many ways this was my favorite TED yet– lots of strong talks, includ­ing a remark­able inter­view with Edward Snow­den (and response from NSA Deputy Direc­tor Richard Led­gett).  My life has been greatly enriched by the ten weeks I’ve spent in Mon­terey, Long Beach, and now (thank­fully) Van­cou­ver.  Of course not all of the talks are good, but many of the most sur­pris­ing and delight­ful things I’ve seen and heard in the past decade, and many of the most inter­est­ing peo­ple I’ve met, I’ve seen, heard and met there.

A num­ber of us were asked to play futur­ist for the TED blog and write down our pre­dic­tions about the biggest and most sur­pris­ing changes head­ing our way over the next 30 years.  Mine are:

1. Machine Intelligence

I think that just as the Inter­net has been such a great dri­ver of change across so many spheres over the past 20 years, we will see machine intel­li­gence in the same role over the com­ing decades.

Today, we are as an intel­li­gent species essen­tially sin­gu­lar. There are of course some other brainy species, like chim­panzees, dol­phins, crows and octo­puses, but if any­thing they only empha­size our unique posi­tion on Earth— as ani­mals richly gifted with self-awareness, lan­guage, abstract thought, art, math­e­mat­i­cal capa­bil­ity, sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and so on. Many of us have staked our entire self-concept on the idea that to be human is to have a mind, and that minds are the unique province of humans. For those of us who are not reli­gious, this could be inter­preted as the last bas­tion of dual­ism. Our eco­nomic, legal and eth­i­cal sys­tems are also implic­itly built around this idea.

Now, we’re well along the road to really under­stand­ing the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of how a mind can be built, and Moore’s Law will put brain-scale com­put­ing within reach this decade. (We need to put some aster­isks next to Moore’s Law, since we are already run­ning up against cer­tain lim­its in com­pu­ta­tional scale using our present-day approaches, but I’ll stand behind the broader state­ment.) When we reach this point, we will find our­selves no longer alone. It’s dif­fi­cult to over­state the impor­tance that moment will have in our future history.

It may well result in fur­ther non­lin­ear­ity in the “rate” of his­tory too, since minds and what we’ve dreamt up with them have been the engine behind his­tory and its acceleration.

2. Gen­der Selection

For many thou­sands of years we’ve lived in a male-dominated soci­ety. I don’t think that we’re shift­ing toward “female dom­i­nance” so much as I think that the whole idea of dom­i­nance is a male par­a­digm, and that it is this par­a­digm that is being selected against— by increas­ing pop­u­la­tion den­sity in the urban cores, increas­ing edu­ca­tion, larger work­ing groups, increas­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion, ris­ing tech­no­log­i­cal lever­age, global trade and so on. It may be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine this now, when the vast major­ity of the world’s cap­i­tal is still in the hands of men and many of the STEM fields (which are also among the highest-paid) are still over­whelm­ingly male, but I think that men— and espe­cially “manly men” exhibit­ing many of the clas­si­cal cor­re­lates of high testos­terone— will be at a dis­tinct dis­ad­van­tage in 30 years time. This rep­re­sents a pro­found upset of the patri­ar­chal sys­tem that has defined vir­tu­ally all of recorded his­tory, so … it’ll be a big deal.

3. Post-subsistence Economics

As machine intel­li­gence, robot­ics, and tech­no­log­i­cal lever­age in gen­eral increas­ingly decou­ple pro­duc­tiv­ity from labor, we will con­tinue to see unem­ploy­ment rise even in oth­er­wise healthy economies. The end state is one in which most forms of human labor are sim­ply not required. In 30 years, if not sooner, we will be fac­ing this unprece­dented sit­u­a­tion— and whether it’s heaven or hell depends on whether we’re able to let go of cap­i­tal­ism, eco­nomic Dar­win­ism and the Calvin­ist ethics that implic­itly under­lie these sys­tems. With­out a change of course, we will see mass unem­ploy­ment drive a rad­i­cal accel­er­a­tion of the already dra­matic imbal­ance between the very wealthy few and every­one else, lead­ing to ugly con­di­tions in the cities and ulti­mately vio­lent uprising.

On the other hand, if we are able to set aside our Calvin­ism, we will real­ize that given the tech­no­log­i­cal effi­cien­cies we have achieved, every­one can live well, with or with­out a job. Cap­i­tal­ism, entre­pre­neur­ship and other sys­tems of dif­fer­en­tial wealth cre­ation could still func­tion on top of this hor­i­zon­tal base; but every­one must be fed and housed decently, have access to free health care and edu­ca­tion, and be able to live a good life. I assume the nation-state will still be a rel­e­vant legal and eco­nomic con­struct in 30 years (though I’m not sure, as cor­po­ra­tions or pos­si­bly other struc­tures will com­pli­cate the pic­ture); my guess is that we will see both paths taken in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, lead­ing to mis­ery and war in some, where either the ben­e­fits of accel­er­at­ing tech­nol­ogy are slow to pen­e­trate or Dar­win­ian eco­nom­ics are left unchecked.

4. Self-modification

We’re rapidly fig­ur­ing out not only how the brain is engi­neered, but also the body. Of course this implies greater mas­tery over mech­a­nisms of dis­ease, but more broadly, as biol­ogy becomes first under­stood and then engi­neered, Nature becomes open to pro­found and rapid mod­i­fi­ca­tion. I don’t doubt that we will be able to alter aging mech­a­nisms, “fix” var­i­ous bugs in human “design”, make novel organ­isms and ulti­mately mod­ify our own natures. As we reach the end of the 30 year period it’s hard for me to imag­ine that peo­ple won’t begin to explore these capa­bil­i­ties, which seems likely to lead to accel­er­ated spe­ci­a­tion. Machine intel­li­gence and bio­engi­neer­ing will both demand that we rethink our legal and eth­i­cal foun­da­tions in a vari­ety of ways.

5. Space

The world’s space pro­grams have been essen­tially dor­mant for decades, as we’ve focused inward on devel­op­ments like com­put­ers and the Inter­net, biol­ogy and neu­ro­science. But as our fun­da­men­tal tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties improve, bar­ri­ers to space explo­ration do begin to come down; what was once a heroic effort requir­ing the full brunt of the resources of the rich­est coun­tries on Earth will come within reach of com­pa­nies and (ini­tially, rich) indi­vid­u­als. We’ve seen only the first stir­rings of this with under­tak­ings like SpaceX and Moon Express.

At some point our grasp of mate­ri­als sci­ence and nanofab­ri­ca­tion will become suf­fi­cient to build a space ele­va­tor, at which point our world will expand a great deal as the ener­getic cost of escap­ing Earth’s grav­ity well goes to near zero, as many sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers of the 20th cen­tury imag­ined. While I’m unsure of whether the space ele­va­tor will hap­pen within the 30 year period, I’m con­fi­dent we’ll see this within our lifetimes.

6. Sex­ual and lifestyle freedom

In 30 years, I think that not only will the more pro­gres­sive places in the world have fin­ished rec­on­cil­ing them­selves to the wide spec­trum of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and expres­sion, but also to a wide vari­ety of life con­fig­u­ra­tions beyond the nuclear fam­ily built around a sin­gle life­long pair-bond. There are many forces con­tribut­ing to this shift, and I sus­pect that an empir­i­cal case can be made for this in much the same way as for the gen­der ideas above. This is the least devel­oped of my six ideas, but one that I think will have pro­found implications.

Bonus: Energy

One thing I’m leav­ing off the list above is the poten­tial avail­abil­ity of very cheap, very abun­dant energy at some point in the future.  Many aspects of our out­look are con­di­tioned on the premise that energy is lim­ited and expen­sive. As a thought exper­i­ment, one can ask, “what if energy in vir­tu­ally any amount were free?” This could imply an end to drought any­where via desali­na­tion of sea­wa­ter; it could allow us to enact cli­mate con­trol­ling inter­ven­tions on a mas­sive scale, engi­neer mate­ri­als that are cur­rently cost-prohibitive, or let us get into space eas­ily even if we con­tinue to do it the hard way.

(Although freely avail­able energy could let us save great ecosys­tems cur­rently under dire threat, with­out great care it could also lead to dis­as­ter through chem­i­cal, ther­mal, bio­log­i­cal and noise pol­lu­tion on an unprece­dented scale.)

We know that in prin­ci­ple vast amounts of energy are avail­able to us through nuclear processes, so in prin­ci­ple an inno­va­tion could come along at any time that lets us tap safely into this energy. That would change every­thing. How­ever, there is no trend or indi­ca­tion that sug­gests a time­line for such a devel­op­ment— it could hap­pen next week, or still be a pipe dream a cen­tury from now.

* * *

As a post­script, one of my col­leagues asked me why cli­mate change didn’t make it onto my list.  I sup­pose it was because the brief was to write about “things that will blow our minds in the next 30 years”, and our cli­mate (and more broadly, envi­ron­men­tal) prob­lem seems likely to be just as bad as every­one intel­li­gent has been say­ing it’s going to be.  I don’t think a sin­gle one of my 10 TEDs so far has failed to include a tightly-argued cli­mate Cas­san­dra– accel­er­at­ing deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, molten tun­dra, drowned cities, a bil­lion dis­placed peo­ple.  So our minds should not be blown when we find out that our mod­els were right.  There are all-too-plausible “mind-blowing” futures in which the prob­lems we’re cre­at­ing for our­selves are so severe that none of my other pre­dic­tions come to pass, and we instead expe­ri­ence global climate-mediated civ­i­liza­tional col­lapse in the Jared Dia­mond sense.  Even in the best sce­nario, there will be dev­as­tat­ing losses.  Let’s hope that we can pull it together enough to mud­dle our way through to the amaz­ing futures on the far side of this bot­tle­neck.  I’m cau­tiously hopeful.

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Nick Wing­field at the New York Times just broke the news that I’m going to Google.  On one hand, of course this is tremen­dously excit­ing; Google is a com­pany of grand ambi­tions and bril­liant peo­ple.  On the other hand it has been hard— very hard— to detach emo­tion­ally from Microsoft.  The company’s lead­er­ship has been con­sis­tently good to me over these past eight years, and it has been a time filled with cre­ativ­ity and growth and good friends.  It’s painful to leave behind so many won­der­ful ongo­ing projects, and even more so to leave behind such a great team.

The hard­est deci­sion of my life.

thank you ellen

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latter day scones

It takes only about 15 min­utes to pro­duce a bas­ket­ful of lovely hot scones, feath­erlight, on the table.”

Thus begins the Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly recipe on p. 76 of the Cook­ing Class Cook­book. Although I’ve put the scone recipe on styleisvi­o­lence before, it was per­haps not in the most digestible form. I’ll adapt it more read­ably here, since this is a recipe that I’m sure we’ll need in a pinch some­where, some­time in the future, per­haps on a driz­zly day in a Scot­tish cas­tle with good WiFi, or to impress expats at the British embassy in Algiers.


  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tea­spoons bak­ing powder
  • 1 tea­spoon salt
  • 1 tea­spoon sugar
  • 1oz (30g) butter
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup water

Pre­heat oven to 475 Fahren­heit. Mix the dry ingre­di­ents. Rub in the but­ter with the fin­ger­tips until it resem­bles fine bread­crumbs; do not over-handle. Pour in the milk and water and mix lightly and quickly to form the dough. Turn it out onto a floured sur­face, knead lightly and pat to a 2cm thick­ness. Cut into cylin­ders with a floured cham­pagne flute. Put the cylin­ders on a lightly greased cookie sheet, packed in close, and brush with a bit of milk. Bake about 10 min­utes, or until done. While bak­ing, whip some cream and find the jam.

Make tea.

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This baby has been a long time in ges­tat­ing.  Hats off to Ben, Kai and Tom for cre­at­ing, over I won’t say how many years, the great­est app ever to ren­der a retina dis­play pixel.  Frax is not only the metic­u­lous cul­mi­na­tion of a life­long pas­sion for frac­tal geom­e­try, and a Borges-like infi­nite cab­i­net of won­ders, but also a stun­ning algo­rith­mic achievement.


Those of us who have spent long and lazy evenings at Ben’s place know about his obses­sions.  The beau­ti­ful espresso machine with its many Illy cups in every design, the Bösendor­fer that goes down to 11, the sea kayak­ing, and in recent years, a string of Face­book posts in which he and Jenna are appar­ently break­ing free div­ing records (!?).  Also, the puz­zles.  Dodec­a­he­dral Rubik’s cubes and inter­lock­ing notchy bars and origami impos­si­bil­i­ties.  There are puz­zles every­where at Ben’s, and solv­ing them is his great obses­sion.  Most of them are dis­em­bod­ied: there is no richer, more per­fect lan­guage for pos­ing and solv­ing a puz­zle than the instruc­tion set of a com­puter.  And Frax is the mas­ter­piece.  Nes­tled in the NEON-optimized inner loops of the Frax code are tricks so inge­nious that, if there really is a Book, they must be in there.

Go buy it.

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I began keep­ing note­books at age 7 or 8.  My par­ents must have sent this one in a box a while ago.

00 - notebook

The entries in it date from late 1985 to early 1986, so I would have been 10 at the time: a lit­tle pudgy, with an over­bite, a bowl cut, and a very seri­ous expres­sion.  It’s funny how clearly I remem­ber this object.

02 - notebook open cropped

04 - notebook edge

03 - hecho en mexico croppedI asked my par­ents if we could buy it because I liked its pseudo-Edwardian design— and I liked the idea of a ref­er­ence note­book of this size, with one side a direc­tory of con­tacts and the other a pad of blank paper where I could keep track of the things that really mat­tered to me.  Like resis­tor codes, col­ormaps, note fre­quen­cies, pro­gram­ming key­words and ASCII tables:

05 - computer cropped

In truth this was a the­o­ret­i­cal exer­cise, because I knew all of this stuff like the back of my hand.  It was such a sig­nif­i­cant part of my lit­tle pri­vate uni­verse, as famil­iar as the lay­out of our apart­ment and the graf­fiti scratched into my school desk.

06 - electromagnet cropped 2So in the next pages, ref­er­ence tables quickly give way to notes and inven­tions, real­ized to dif­fer­ent degrees.  I was obsessed with elec­tro­mag­net­ism, which is unsur­pris­ing in ret­ro­spect.  Many of my obses­sions were about the trans­duc­tion of things unseen— usu­ally cur­rent in wires— into the tan­gi­ble, and vice versa.  Any­thing that might medi­ate or inter­con­vert between elec­tric­ity and some­thing that could be seen, felt or heard was interesting.

07 - magnetometer cropped

level meter squareThis was an appli­ca­tion to some­thing like an elec­trom­e­ter or mag­ne­tome­ter— I imag­ined that the com­pass would swing toward north if mag­ne­tized, or the charged nee­dle align with an ambi­ent elec­tric field, and the induc­tors would gen­er­ate cur­rents that would allow the vec­tor to be read out.  It was inspired by the coils in speak­ers, and a volt­meter I took apart.

08 - quad nand croppedI had a 200-in-1 elec­tron­ics kit, and was espe­cially enchanted with the cou­ple of prim­i­tive chips on there— includ­ing such won­ders as a quad NAND gate.  The kit had a book full of cir­cuit designs, which I dis­dained to build as writ­ten (though in frus­tra­tion, when my own designs didn’t work, I would some­times try to appro­pri­ate them by redraw­ing the cir­cuits with­out look­ing at the original).

09 - mystery circuit cropped09a - crystal set radio cropped square

The crys­tal set radio was a main­stay, though the only way I ever got this to work was by string­ing up a giant antenna, and could only ever pick up one station.

09b - initial design for alarm cropped

This was a sim­ple but impor­tant cir­cuit: an alarm designed to go off if my par­ents were in the hall.  I taped the pho­to­tran­sis­tor just above cat height.  For many years I insisted on total pri­vacy while “work­ing”, and hated to be inter­fered with.  Part of the rea­son was that there was gen­er­ally some­thing taken apart in the room that should not have been, per­haps even some­thing not strictly mine.  But I also just really liked to be left alone.

10a - rubber tubing and doped silicon cropped

Mex­ico City’s water was undrink­able.  I wanted to purify it with a still, or maybe by elec­trolyz­ing it and recom­bin­ing the hydro­gen and oxygen.

10b - snorkel water distillation cropped

As some of these designs were solar, this led to think­ing about solar power gen­er­a­tion.  I imag­ined beau­ti­ful glass balls on top of build­ings with spin­ning rotors inside, elim­i­nat­ing the need for a power grid.

11 - pgab solar generator using beta rays cropped

11a - pgab explanation cropped

But in my heart I wor­ried about the effi­ciency of gen­er­at­ing power by knock­ing elec­trons off of the doped selenium.

13 - solar generator with piston cropped

This was a more direct approach, based on some­thing like a Stir­ling engine.  Slowly rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing pis­tons would drive a generator.

14 - perpetual motion with earth magnetic field cropped

14z - perpetual motion reductio ad absurdum croppedAt this point I won­dered why the same couldn’t be done with the Earth’s mag­netic field.  I was very excited by some of these ideas and began talk­ing about them with adults.  At this point the term “per­pet­ual motion machine” entered my vocab­u­lary.  I strug­gled with the dif­fer­ence between force and energy, and remem­ber finally get­ting it— or think­ing I had— with a con­cep­tual dia­gram involv­ing some­thing like a pis­ton in the han­dle of some­thing like a gal­lon milk jug.  Though admit­tedly I’m find­ing the logic a lit­tle unclear now.

15 - shipstone croppedI was frus­trated with bat­ter­ies.  There were no recharge­ables around at the time.  After a few acci­dents, I was leery of draw­ing power from wall sock­ets, and there were always draw­er­fuls of spent bat­ter­ies lying around.  It was waste­ful; and worse, bat­ter­ies seemed to me so clearly just toys, not a real part of the energy infra­struc­ture.  I was read­ing a lot of Hein­lein at the time, and the idea of a super-efficient bat­tery that could power a whole house— the Ship­stone— was impos­si­bly appeal­ing.  I des­per­ately wanted to be Daniel Ship­stone and invent this thing.  Maybe with some kind of semi­con­duc­tor doping?

Those kinds of flights of fan­tasy veered into super-powerful lasers, or anti­grav­ity machines.

15a - new ruby laser design cropped

16 - antigrav cropped

Wish­ful think­ing, in other words.  This made me angry with myself, because it was clearly not “work­ing”, not com­ing up with real stuff.  Which is what I always insisted I was doing, locked up in my room.  Ship­stones and anti­grav­ity machines that couldn’t oper­ate on any prin­ci­ple I knew of were just play, and I was act­ing like a child.  The look of tol­er­ant amuse­ment in the librarian’s eyes when I explained a fan­ci­ful inven­tion drove me into a quiet rage.  I didn’t want to think of myself as a child, and loathed child­ish­ness, and pretty much loathed most other children.

In ret­ro­spect it seems clear that a lot of this was due to other children’s dis­com­fort with me, and my inabil­ity to fit in socially.  I was so odd, so alien, so easy to make fun of— and I was des­per­ate to be the one who did the reject­ing first, rather than risk being the one who was rejected.  This gave me a kind of aloof­ness, hence immu­nity to the hurt of iso­la­tion... but of course it was also a vicious cycle, since this atti­tude hardly helped endear me to my class­mates.  Maybe that’s why the whole phone direc­tory side of this note­book stayed pretty much empty—

97 - not many friends cropped

Well, not totally empty.  There was Luis, who may or may not have been a high school kid in my mom’s art class whom I got on with, and the other ‘L’, a pur­veyor of elec­tronic components.

98 - larry g electronics

There are only one or two other entries in the address­book.  I wrote this “human stuff” in cur­sive, because its inher­ent slop­pi­ness seemed more fit­ting; block let­ter­ing was reserved for real things.

So, bet­ter to be alone, and to be an adult-child.  With grim plea­sure, I’d get back to “work”.  On real things.

17 - conventional half adder cropped

Com­put­ers were more real.  I’d had one in my room since 1981.  Though I still thought there had to be bet­ter ways of imple­ment­ing their build­ing blocks, things like mul­ti­vi­bra­tors and coun­ters.  I imag­ined doing it with tun­nel diodes and spe­cial­ized sil­i­con instead of gates.  Really this was some­thing like a design for base-10 transistors.

17a - attempt to simplify a multivibrator cropped

18 - hundred counter cropped

Vehi­cle design was another pas­sion.  I thought that a “con­vert­ible” meant a car/boat (a James Bond inspired mis­con­cep­tion), and remem­ber being very dis­ap­pointed by how lit­tle was really meant by the word.  The “turbo” in this car could either recover energy from the exhaust or be used to pro­pel it like a squid.

19a - car with turbo cropped19b - hollow airplane design cropped19c - hovercraft cropped

I thought planes might be more effi­cient and make less noise if they were shaped like hol­low tubes, with more slowly rotat­ing fan blades inside.  The pas­sen­gers could sit in the wings.  And what kind of engine could a hov­er­craft have?

But this was again veer­ing toward the uncon­vinc­ing.  I wanted to solve a real prob­lem in a real way, like the unac­cept­able design of the cath­ode ray tube.

20a - oscilloscope cropped20b - flat panel crt cropped

It was essen­tial to flat­ten and minia­tur­ize it.  Why could the elec­tron gun and plates not be arranged on a steep angle?  The point being, of course, wear­able computing.

21 - face wearable computing cropped

22 - watch wearable computing cropped

Toward the end of this note­book, I’m focus­ing on pure physics, try­ing to find good ways to tab­u­late the fun­da­men­tal particles.

70 - particle notes

71 - particle table 1 cropped

72 - particle table 2 cropped 2

One might sup­pose this was because I real­ized that a train­ing in physics would be impor­tant in order to become a real inven­tor.  But actu­ally, some­thing more prob­lem­atic was going on.  I felt that there was a hier­ar­chy of seri­ous­nesses among my inter­ests, and that physics was the most seri­ous thing.  Physics was about the fun­da­men­tal nature of every­thing, not just some tran­sient engi­neer­ing prob­lem or— worse— some­thing merely human.  I imag­ined that things like the elec­tric motor, while not really physics and there­fore far from fun­da­men­tal, were likely to at least be fairly uni­ver­sal devel­op­ments among the uncount­ably many advanced civ­i­liza­tions in the uni­verse.  There­fore not so bad to work on, right?— because if I were an alien I just might be doing the same thing.  This kind of work was sort of species-invariant.  More like physics.  Not that I was able to put it to myself quite that explicitly.

But through­out these years and many that fol­lowed, I was devel­op­ing a secret love of pro­gram­ming.  Many other nerds grow­ing up around the same time will know exactly what I mean when I write that noth­ing else could keep me so relent­lessly, con­tin­u­ously and joy­fully engaged in a prob­lem.  It let me expe­ri­ence flow, for hours and hours, and it was utterly addic­tive.  Invent­ing on paper could pro­duce a state of reverie and even ela­tion for a while, but mak­ing phys­i­cal things was always hard, always ran up against con­straints.  I’d run aground and need to call Larry and see if he had a miss­ing part in stock.  It was stop and go, every­thing always unfin­ished, the idea always real­ized crudely if at all.  Maybe one day 3D print­ing, pro­gram­ma­ble biol­ogy or nanoassem­bly will really bring “mak­ing” into the same space as pro­gram­ming, but this still seems far off.

In any case, my love affair with the com­puter, while it could hardly stay a secret, was some­thing I felt vaguely embar­rassed about— because it was so far removed from the fun­da­men­tals of the uni­verse.  Because it was engi­neer­ing, and worse, engi­neer­ing with things that had them­selves been engi­neered by other peo­ple.  Sec­ond– or third-order.  So not fundamental.

80 - bugsheet cropped

That’s why the very last page of this note­book, writ­ten slop­pily, is a “bugsheet”— my way of track­ing work items and bugs in the pro­grams I was work­ing on at the time.  These were of course ephemeral for me.  I thought the inven­tions were impor­tant to pre­serve, but these work items were more often than not scrib­bled on scratch paper.  There are lots of pages torn out of this note­book, and I have a feel­ing that many of them were sim­i­lar to this one.  Look­ing at the bugs, I vaguely remem­ber work­ing on a win­dow­ing sys­tem at the time.  (I guess this would have been around when Microsoft released Win­dows 1.0, though I didn’t encounter Win­dows until much later.)

For rea­sons I’m not entirely sure of, I wrote at the top of this page “1986 – 1987 – 1988 – 1989 ~ ”.  This might have been a pre­dic­tion about how long it would take me to build this ridicu­lously ambi­tious project, or— maybe I’m read­ing too much in now— a resigned sense that this part of my life was going to stretch out, and on and on, beyond the unimag­in­able future on the far side of puberty.

I’m sorry to say that my hier­ar­chy of val­ues was rein­forced— matched per­fectly, in fact— by many of the physi­cists I met later on, and by the cul­ture of physics in gen­eral.  I still love and respect the field, but with reser­va­tions.  I don’t know of any other pro­fes­sion that embod­ies such casual, unar­tic­u­lated chau­vin­ism for such a broad range of human activ­ity; every­thing else is too spe­cific, too con­tin­gent, too easy, too man­made, too lack­ing in rigor.  And then even within physics the hier­ar­chy repeats in a self-similar man­ner, with this or that field above the other.  Bio­physics?  Too squishy.  Solid state?  Too engineering-y.  Astron­omy?  Stamp collecting.

I’m glad I got out when I did, before things went really wrong in my life.  I’ve recov­ered— mostly.

I’ve been extra­or­di­nar­ily lucky.  First, I was lucky because my par­ents were so deeply sup­port­ive of me when I was young.  They never laughed in the face of my utter, absurd and rather brit­tle seri­ous­ness.  They encour­aged me in every way with­out ever being patron­iz­ing, they drove me to far­away elec­tron­ics sup­pli­ers in search of exotic com­po­nents in the ser­vice of ill-specified projects.  They smug­gled com­put­ers across the bor­der from the US.  They pre­tended not to notice when remote con­trols went miss­ing, and they gave me the space and time to develop in my own odd, lumpy way.  They trusted me.

And in time, It Got Bet­ter: partly because the pas­sions I’ve always had most authen­ti­cally are con­struc­tive and hap­pen to be in high demand.  I can now admit that what I called “work” as a ten year old really was play; and that I still spend much of my life engaged in this kind of imag­i­na­tive play; and that— in a delight­ful twist— I’m now paid to do it.  I work with many peo­ple who had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences as kids, and who have sim­i­larly found them­selves wel­come and val­ued in soci­ety as adults.  We get to play together, and real­ize really big projects we could never do alone.

99 - egg and sperm cropped

This sketch is the only one in the note­book of any­thing even remotely human or bio­log­i­cal.  I remem­ber a sense of hope­less­ness at the sheer numer­i­cal impos­si­bil­ity of a sper­ma­to­zoon ever find­ing and fer­til­iz­ing the egg.  I wanted there to be more than one winner.

The cur­dled feel­ings that used to lie in wait when I stepped away from the com­puter or the work­bench, the intense sense of alien­ation and alone-ness I would try to pre­emp­tively embrace when I was 10, are mostly gone.  It’s taken quite a few years.  What a joy and relief it is to have close friends, to love and be loved, to be able to con­nect, and to feel, if not exactly nor­mal, at least nor­mal enough.  Human.

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anselm’s puzzle

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wiveliscombe recipe

The dust con­sisted of 2 cups of flour, 2 tea­spoons of bak­ing pow­der, and 1 tea­spoon of sugar pre­mixed.  The added crys­tals are ½ tea­spoon of salt.  “Very hot” con­ven­tion­ally means 450-500F.

This recipe was adapted from the Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly cook­ing class cook­book (1992 reprint) for Eliot’s birth­day trea­sure hunt with Ali, Flora and Ruby.  But I for­got a step: brush the scones with milk before putting them in the oven.  Also, cut­ting them into much smaller discs using a cham­pagne flute works even bet­ter than the usual 2” size (or the dreaded Amer­i­can scone at 4”+).  Luck­ily, indige­nous exper­tise was on hand to cor­rect these errata and ensure a mas­ter­ful result.

The real Wivelis­combe, though cho­sen purely for its name, is a rather cute look­ing town of 2,670 souls in Somerset:


Thanks to Barak for his cameo in step F.

wiveliscombe treasurehunt materials

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Sorel’s basic char­ac­ter flaws had all cemented by the age of fif­teen, a fact which fur­ther elicited my sym­pa­thy.  To have all the build­ing blocks of your life in place by that age was, by any stan­dard, a tragedy.  It was as good as seal­ing your­self into a dun­geon.  Walled in, with nowhere to go but your own doom.”

—Haruki Murakami, Hard-Boiled Won­der­land and the End of the World.

freewillSome­where on the bramble-choked planet where philoso­phers live, Sam Har­ris wrote a lit­tle 66-page book called Free Will.  Har­ris is a fine writer and to the point; also, his min­i­mal title con­sists of the per­fect num­ber of char­ac­ters to hang from a pair of puppeteer’s oper­at­ing crosses.  As this image sug­gests, he is a hard core deter­min­ist: (a) the brain obeys the laws of physics, and (b) there is no “mind” that isn’t a func­tion of the phys­i­cal processes of the brain, there­fore, (c) the idea of free will doesn’t even make sense conceptually:

The illu­sion of free will is itself an illu­sion.

For those of us who are not dual­ists (that would be every­one “philo­soph­i­cally respectable”, as Har­ris puts it), (a) and (b) are givens.*  Har­ris con­cedes that there is an (also respectable) spec­trum of thought called “com­pat­i­bil­ism” that attempts to rec­on­cile (a) and (b) with some mean­ing­ful def­i­n­i­tion of free will; many thinkers of this school (like Daniel Den­nett) use def­i­n­i­tions based on “free­dom of action”.

But Sam Har­ris is not a com­pat­i­bilist: this book is an extended case against them.  I agree with many of his argu­ments.  To boil it down, in order to work within the stan­dard true/false log­i­cal con­structs of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy and still leave room for free will, one is forced to define it in a more or less legal­is­tic sense, as in “of one’s own free will, not coerced at gun­point”.  This “free­dom to act in accor­dance with one’s desires” is a nice thing to have, and it might be rel­e­vant in court, but I agree with Har­ris that it’s irrel­e­vant to the ques­tions about free will that seem prob­lem­atic or inter­est­ing in light of deter­min­ism.  What’s inter­est­ing about free will is the idea of agency itself, of hav­ing autonomous desires and moti­va­tions in the first place— whether they’re car­ried out or thwarted.  But how could there be a “could”, or a “should”, or a “could have”, or a “should have”, if the future— includ­ing every choice you make— is predetermined?

*There are some aster­isks.  Quan­tum physics has some­times been invoked to try to res­cue the sit­u­a­tion, but this is silly— not because quan­tum effects don’t mat­ter, since ulti­mately, at least over long enough timescales, they must— but rather because being at the mercy of coin flip­ping instead of bil­liards doesn’t some­how open a white­space for free­dom of will or action.  It just intro­duces a noise source.  To place the locus of our agency on a ran­dom vari­able is about as mean­ing­ful as claim­ing that a ther­mo­stat is con­scious.  (Oh wait, that’s been done too.)  Any­way we have rea­son­able evi­dence that our moment-to-moment deci­sions and actions rely on neu­ro­phys­i­cal processes that don’t oper­ate near the quan­tum scale.  If we were to some­how pre­pare an ensem­ble of iden­ti­cal copies of a per­son and do a moral or psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ment on the cohort under iden­ti­cal exper­i­men­tal con­di­tions, we’d be very unlikely to get any vari­abil­ity in the result.  It there­fore seems to fol­low that there is no “free­dom” in such a behav­ioral choice, any more than we can say a rock has “free­dom” with respect to whether or not to fall if dropped.

Before unpick­ing his argu­ment, let me state for the record that I think I really like this Sam Har­ris per­son.  He takes a hard line about being non­re­li­gious in a way that few decent-minded peo­ple will admit to in pub­lic these days— at least in the US, given a dis­course that has polar­ized around, on one hand, the hard nuggets of mutu­ally exclu­sive reli­gious views, and on the other hand, a dif­fuse well-meaning lib­er­al­ism within which we must pre­tend to be non­judg­men­tal.  Obvi­ously if forced to choose camps I’ll gladly live in the lat­ter and wear a forced smile, but Har­ris is refresh­ing when he

[…] advo­cates a benign, non­co­er­cive, cor­rec­tive form of intol­er­ance, dis­tin­guish­ing it from his­toric reli­gious per­se­cu­tion.  He pro­motes a con­ver­sa­tional intol­er­ance, in which per­sonal con­vic­tions are scaled against evi­dence, and where intel­lec­tual hon­esty is demanded equally in reli­gious views and non-religious views.  He sug­gests that, just as a per­son declar­ing a belief that Elvis is still alive would imme­di­ately make his every state­ment sus­pect in the eyes of those he was con­vers­ing with, assert­ing a sim­i­larly non-evidentiary point on a reli­gious doc­trine ought to be met with sim­i­lar dis­re­spect.  He also believes there is a need to counter inhi­bi­tions that pre­vent the open cri­tique of reli­gious ideas, beliefs, and prac­tices under the aus­pices of “tolerance”.”

Yay!  OK, but the gospel is not all good.  The over­ar­ch­ing prob­lem with Har­ris is that in his mer­ci­less reduc­tion to the evi­den­tiary, he leaves no space for a lot of use­ful ideas.  First among these is the idea of paths not taken in our behav­ior— of pos­si­bil­ity.  In attack­ing this, he invokes clas­sic fMRI and mask­ing exper­i­ments that reveal how ten­u­ous the rela­tion­ship can be between our aware­ness and our brain processes.  In the mask­ing exper­i­ments, stim­uli can be deliv­ered and then “can­celled out” by a sec­ond stim­u­lus, although the uncon­scious brain can be left in a “primed” state.  There are also deci­sion­mak­ing exper­i­ments, old and new, in which pop­u­la­tions of neu­rons in the brain appear to “know” what you’re going to decide before “you” do.  These exper­i­ments are cer­tainly intrigu­ing and vio­late our intu­itions about causal­ity and agency— if we think like philoso­phers or legal the­o­rists, and insist that agency can only be some­how located in the “text” of our con­scious nar­ra­tive.  If we think more like neu­ro­sci­en­tists instead, we real­ize that what­ever this spe­cial stuff is that we call aware­ness, atten­tion, or con­scious­ness, it’s sup­ported by a lot of neural machin­ery, and this machin­ery doesn’t oper­ate instan­ta­neously or above board.  Of course we can’t be “aware” of every aspect of its oper­a­tion— that we are aware at all is the mir­a­cle.  Lots of cor­ners are cut— thank­fully— in our self-awareness.

The mir­a­cle of self-awareness seems to be a prod­uct of our abil­ity to model rel­e­vant aspects of the world around us, and peo­ple around us.  (And since the self is a per­son too, it should be unsur­pris­ing that we can expe­ri­ence the spe­cial ellip­ti­cal thrill of mod­el­ing our­selves.)  It’s not hard to see why these would be use­ful fac­ul­ties.  A good argu­ment can be made that the whole point of a brain is to pre­dict the future, and espe­cially the futures of oth­ers and of our­selves, per­haps under hypo­thet­i­cal cir­cum­stances.  In a troupe of apes, the abil­ity to empathize— to under­stand what that other ape is about to do, and why— allows one to behave in ways that fur­ther one’s own goals, or the goals of the com­mu­nity.  Brains are good at pre­dict­ing the behav­iors of brains, and they do it by form­ing mod­els.  When we try to for­mal­ize such mod­els, and maybe even test them with exper­i­ment, we call the result “psy­chol­ogy”.  It may not be par­ti­cle physics, but it sure is useful.

In sup­port of his belief that the mind is noth­ing but a pup­pet or help­less wit­ness to unknow­able phys­i­cal processes, Har­ris claims, rather fatu­ously, that our behav­ior is all mysterious:

For instance, in my teens and early twen­ties I was a devoted stu­dent of the mar­tial arts.  I prac­ticed inces­santly and taught classes in col­lege.  Recently, I began train­ing again, after a hia­tus of more than 20 years.  Both the ces­sa­tion and the renewal of my inter­est in mar­tial arts seem to be pure expres­sions of the free­dom that Nah­mias attrib­utes to me.  I have been under no “unrea­son­able exter­nal or inter­nal pres­sure.”  I have done exactly what I wanted to do.  I wanted to stop train­ing, and I stopped.  I wanted to start again, and now I train sev­eral times a week.  All this has been asso­ci­ated with con­scious thought and acts of appar­ent self-control.

How­ever, when I look for the psy­cho­log­i­cal cause of my behav­ior, I find it utterly mys­te­ri­ous.  Why did I stop train­ing 20 years ago?  Well, cer­tain things just became more impor­tant to me.  But why did they become more impor­tant to me— and why pre­cisely then and to that degree?  And why did my inter­est in mar­tial arts sud­denly reemerge after decades of hiber­na­tion?”  (p. 42)

This is the strange cor­ner Har­ris finds him­self backed into by his insis­tence on an all-eclipsing deter­min­ism.  Because if every­thing is deter­mined, then how could any­thing have a “why”— since a “why” implies a “why not”, and deter­min­ism implies that there can­not be a not.

You will do what­ever it is you do, and it is mean­ing­less to assert that you could have done oth­er­wise.” (p. 44)

More­over, deter­min­ism stip­u­lates exac­ti­tude, which for him, owing to a con­fla­tion between lev­els of descrip­tion, means that no approx­i­mate or prob­a­bilis­tic con­cept can enter into the dis­course.  Finally, by not acknowl­edg­ing the dif­fer­ence in level of descrip­tion between physics and psy­chol­ogy, Har­ris seems to inval­i­date the very idea of a sat­is­fac­tory “why” under any cir­cum­stance by insist­ing that it be sup­ported by— what?— maybe an infi­nite regress of sat­is­fac­tory and pre­cise “whys” under­neath it, going back to the Big Bang?

Thank­fully Har­ris does not actu­ally suf­fer from the nar­ra­tive deficit he claims; he goes right on to answer his own unan­swer­able ques­tion, reas­sur­ing us that he’s not actu­ally that dense, before beat­ing a hasty retreat:

I can con­sciously weigh the effects of cer­tain influ­ences— for instance, I recently read Rory Miller’s excel­lent book Med­i­ta­tions on Vio­lence.  But why did I read this book?  I have no idea.  And why did I find it com­pelling?  [...]  Of course, I could tell a story about why I’m doing what I’m doing— which would amount to my telling you why I think such train­ing is a good idea, why I enjoy it, etc.— but the actual expla­na­tion for my behav­ior is hid­den from me.  And it is per­fectly obvi­ous that I, as the con­scious wit­ness of my expe­ri­ence, am not the deep cause of it.”  (p. 43)

Ulti­mate or “deep” causes aren’t nec­es­sar­ily so rel­e­vant.  Whys them­selves have a why, which is to model.  And we are model-makers to a fault.  We can eas­ily be tricked into reveal­ing how often we can make false assump­tions or ratio­nal­ize our own behav­ior, mak­ing up sto­ries that can bear lit­tle rela­tion to the empir­i­cal “truth”.  But often, that story-making capa­bil­ity is pow­er­ful and pre­dic­tive.  We use it con­stantly— in every con­ver­sa­tion, every con­sid­ered decision.

Let’s take an exam­ple.  A gifted ana­lyst and sto­ry­teller like Dan Sav­age can read a short let­ter from one of his fans, or lis­ten to a quick phone mes­sage, and by draw­ing on his “train­ing set”— that is, his empa­thy and the pat­tern match­ing afforded by hun­dreds of thou­sands of such inter­ac­tions over the years— he can rapidly form insights that have mate­ri­ally helped many peo­ple: he is a mas­ter of the “why” in his domain.  Con­sider this recent post, cho­sen more or less at random:

I’m 19 and clos­eted.  I’ve been chat­ting with a guy on the Inter­net for six months and now he wants to meet.  I’m con­vinced that he’s too good for me.  Aside from looks, he’s out and older and I don’t know why he’d want to be with some­one like me.  My other online friends— they’re the only peo­ple I’m out to— think we should meet.  I’m eff­ing scared.  I’m not going to ask you to com­pare our pics, but is there a con­crete check­list to ver­ify if some­one is out of your league? –Inse­cure In Internetland


The good news: If you meet this boy and he’s into you, III, then you’re in his league.  That’s because each and every one of us gets to decide who plays in our own per­sonal league.  If he invites you to play, you’re in.

Now the bad news: There’s lots of scum float­ing around on the Inter­net [...] and you have to be care­ful.  While this may sim­ply be a case of your own inse­cu­ri­ties pre­vent­ing you from rec­og­niz­ing what­ever it is about you that this other guy finds attrac­tive, some­thing more sin­is­ter could be going on.  You say you don’t know why some­one bet­ter look­ing, older, and more expe­ri­enced would want to meet you.  Unfor­tu­nately in some cases it’s because younger, clos­eted, and inse­cure guys are eas­ier to manip­u­late.  So this guy is either hon­estly into you or he’s an ass­hole look­ing to take advan­tage of your youth and inex­pe­ri­ence.  If you decide to meet him, III, meet in a pub­lic place, tell some­one where you’re going, and watch out for red flags.  Does he pres­sure you?  Does he try to get you to do things, sex­ual or oth­er­wise, that make you uncom­fort­able?  If so, run like eff­ing hell.

There’s much to take in here.  Dan rec­og­nizes salient ele­ments in the sit­u­a­tion from sparse data.  He pat­tern matches.  He turns a set of pri­ors into a pre­dic­tive nar­ra­tive.  He explores more than one sto­ry­line.  He con­sid­ers the roles of pos­si­bly unre­li­able nar­ra­tors— both III and his Inter­net crush.  He artic­u­lates impor­tant uncer­tain­ties (while neglect­ing unim­por­tant ones) and frames behav­ioral tests designed to resolve them.  He con­sid­ers motive, mod­els best and worst out­comes for every party, aligns his own inter­ests rel­a­tive to these, and sug­gests spe­cific actions appro­pri­ate to opti­miz­ing for the desired out­come while con­trol­ling for risk.  Whew!  Let me know when an AI can do all of that!  When the robots put Dan out of a job, human­ity will have ceased to be relevant.

All of this is implicit in what I sup­pose we call “wisdom”.

So how does Dan do it?  We don’t quite know the details, of course, but there’s a good deal we can posit.

Dan deals in infor­ma­tion.  His model is nec­es­sar­ily much sim­pler than every­thing it mod­els.  He’s not run­ning phys­i­cal sim­u­la­tions in his head of all of the mol­e­cules in some­one else’s brain, hop­ing to be able to run the code faster than real­ity on his poor slow wet­ware.  He’s clus­ter­ing, con­dens­ing, sim­pli­fy­ing, using nar­ra­tive and metaphor, rea­son­ing, telling him­self sto­ries, using his gut, asso­ci­at­ing, anneal­ing, remem­ber­ing, gen­er­al­iz­ing, mir­ror­ing, and so on.  By using these tricks he— we— can extract mean­ing from raw expe­ri­ence over mul­ti­ple timescales, and use the mean­ing to inform our behavior.

Because mean­ing is inher­ently a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, it nec­es­sar­ily admits a thick­ness of pos­si­bil­ity.  When we say “chair” we’re not spec­i­fy­ing all of the par­ti­cles in the chair.  Prac­ti­cally speak­ing, that would be both impos­si­ble and point­less, because in that overly spe­cific descrip­tion we’d have no con­cept of chair, and we couldn’t gen­er­al­ize or rea­son about chairs— in fact we could never even rec­og­nize another one.  So do chairs have a basis in physics?  Yes and no.  There’s no chair-soul; every instance of a chair is indeed made out of noth­ing but par­ti­cles, and its behav­ior is entirely deter­mined by the par­ti­cles’ behav­ior.  On the other hand the idea of a chair is some­thing quite abstract, and quite use­ful.  To call it “not real” would be silly.  Yet its real­ity depends on a dif­fer­ent level of descrip­tion— the level of talk­ing and think­ing and rea­son­ing, not solv­ing for wavefunctions.

Also, this kind of thick real­ity has inher­ent fuzzi­ness and sub­jec­tiv­ity.  Per­spec­tive mat­ters.  A ques­tion like “is this a chair?” could be legit­i­mately answered not only with a “yes” or a “no”, but also “maybe”, “it sure is a funny one”, or “it’s a doll­house chair, so the answer depends on why you’re asking”.

(This is why for­mal logic is so eas­ily abused at the level of descrip­tion where we live most of the time.  It seems that philoso­phers tend— per­haps willfully— to pre­tend to live else­where.  Maybe on their planet coun­ter­fac­tu­als like “if I knew the posi­tions and momenta of all of the par­ti­cles in your brain” some­how make sense, while other coun­ter­fac­tu­als like “if I had decided to make it to the gym today” or “if I were you” don’t.  Nor­mally I’d be all into space travel, but no need to send me the brochure for this planet.)

Causes, as we under­stand them, are like chairs.  “Per­son”, “mind”, and “motive” are like chairs.  Moral­ity, empa­thy and agency are like chairs.  They aren’t super­nat­ural, they’re very much grounded in the phys­i­cal world, but they are con­cepts, and as such they have their own coarse-grained real­ity.  Use­ful con­cepts and cat­e­gories have prob­a­bil­ity and uncer­tainty quite dis­tinct from the much more lit­eral sta­tis­ti­cal or quan­tum uncer­tain­ties of the phys­i­cal world.  With­out the uncer­tainty, the blur­ring, con­cepts could not be applied, gen­er­al­ized or oper­ated with.  The uncer­tainty is inher­ent.  If one is skilled at the art of con­scious­ness like Dan Sav­age, one can both exploit and model that uncer­tainty, weav­ing inten­tion, agency, pre­dic­tion, empa­thy and pos­si­bil­ity into that won­der­fully dense sparse­ness that defines what it means to be a mind­ful person.

Is the mind beyond you?”

I don’t know,” I say.  “There are times when the under­stand­ing does not come until later, when it no longer mat­ters.  Other times I do what I must do, not know­ing my own mind, and I am led astray.”

How can the mind be so imper­fect?” she says with a smile.

I look at my hands.  Bathed in the moon­light, they seem like stat­ues, pro­por­tioned to no purpose.

It may well be imper­fect,” I say, “but it leaves traces.  And we can fol­low those traces, like foot­steps in the snow.”

Where do they lead?”

To one­self,” I answer.  “That’s what the mind is.  With­out the mind, noth­ing leads anywhere.”

I look up.  The win­ter moon is bril­liant, over the Town, above the Wall.

Not one thing is your fault,” I com­fort her.

Hard-Boiled Won­der­land and the End of the World


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The real Glass—Philip Glass.  I’m lis­ten­ing to the sec­ond move­ment of his first vio­lin con­certo, while walk­ing to the bus through a light snow­fall on Capi­tol Hill.  It feels tran­scen­dent.  For a few min­utes there’s noth­ing else at all.

The sec­ond move­ment is a pas­sacaglia, a sim­ple and ancient dance form based on a four-note descend­ing scale, rooted in Bach and ear­lier.  It rhymes with my old favorite, Biber’s Archangel Sonata for solo vio­lin.  The rest­less binary rep­e­ti­tion, lay­ered tempi, and inner dark­ness in the har­mony com­bine to make this mate­r­ial per­fect for Glass, who ren­ders it with the mod­ern emo­tional inten­sity of a Rothko.

Rothko - Untitled - Whites Blacks Grays on Maroon - 1963

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