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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the kitchen

The on{X} team has just released a very nice new piece of functionality, the Kitchen.  This allows anyone who uses on{X} to very easily write a new recipe, defining novel smartphone behaviors simply by snapping together Lego-like components.

onx - the kitchen

The Kitchen is not only interesting by virtue of what it is, but also by virtue of who made it, and how.  It’s one of the first publicly visible fruits of an ongoing collaboration between our teams in Tel Aviv and Ramallah.  The Ramallah team is relatively new— we began to scale up our investment there in 2012, though the team has existed since 2009.  They’ve been doing really good work.  For the past few months I’ve been seeing the code checkin email flying back and forth fast and thick— even during the crisis in November.  This made me feel very proud of the combined teams.  There is nothing simple about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it seems clear to me that shared creative work and investment are positive forces.  Let’s do more of that!

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marbles coverComics aren’t my usual thing, but I need to give Ellen Forney her due.  I’ve just read her autobiography Marbles, about the nature of creativity, bipolar disorder, and her struggle to achieve balance.  It’s a lovely thing.  The book is a beautiful piece of design, with rich use of archival material, broad variation in style, and a strong sense of rhythm on the page.  Her generous creative power makes an eloquent case that, her own fears aside, mood-stabilizing drugs need not dry up an artist’s wellsprings.  Trials and suffering may make great source material, but Marbles proves that one doesn’t need to remain a tortured soul to make great art.

I don’t know what the “fair use” conventions are for comics.  Normally in a review I’d quote passages of less than a page, but it’s very difficult to convey the sense of the work without looking at whole pages at a time— and often whole spreads.

This page gives a sense of the density and approach characterizing the more narrative sections.  It shows an elegant blend of inner and outer dialog, present and past tense.  Leitmotifs are used to good effect.

marbles - pot And this is the most poetic, economical description of a major depressive episode:

marbles - depressionThe incisive funny-serious minimalism of it brings to mind xkcd.  And finally, here is a less traditional nonlinear decomposition of the page into a story— it could stand perfectly on its own:

marbles - arboretumA well-deserved Genius Award from The Stranger.

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new piece

Rainy day

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the sense that the booker prize sucks

There are two book reviews I’d like to post, by way of comparing great writing with crap writing.  My original thought was to interleave snippets from these two books, allowing one to make its own case and the other to dig its own grave, more or less unassisted.  But when it comes down to it I’d rather not besmirch Michael Chabon’s lovely new Telegraph Avenue by using it to bludgeon and flagellate the watery, pious and flimsy British novella we will now subject to its due mortification— a novella that inexplicably won the 2011 Booker Prize.  This is the same prize for which Cloud Atlas, a novel of surpassing genius whose forthcoming movie adaptation I’m anticipating with equal shares of dread and ecstasy, was only shortlisted.  At this point I’m assuming that the prize is either as corrupt as Wine Spectator, or as lazy and chauvinistic as the Guide Michelin.  I’ll reconsider when David Mitchell wins it.

Perhaps a disclaimer is due.  The opinions below are purely my own, it would seem.  No, really.  Critics at The New Yorker, The Guardian, The SF Chronicle, The Washington Post, The LA Times, Vogue, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The New Republic and many other fine purveyors of culture, not to mention my Facebook friends (hello Sara and Carlos), all seem to love the book I’m about to castigate.  Maybe when I’m of a certain age the “great but invisible skill” with which Julian Barnes has rendered his “crystalline truths that have taken a lifetime to harden” will suddenly become less invisible?  Or maybe the emperor has no clothes.

Let’s begin with the title: The Sense of an Ending (apparently “lifted from a work of literary theory by the critic Frank Kermode”).  Does it get any more half-assed than that?  Actually, yes:

I saw it in his face.  It’s not often that’s true, is it?  At least, not for me.  We listen to what people say, we read what they write— that’s our evidence, that’s our corroboration.  But if the face contradicts the speaker’s words, we interrogate the face.  A shifty look in the eye, a rising blush, the uncontrollable twitch of a face muscle— and then we know.  We recognise the hypocrisy or the false claim, and the truth stands evident before us.  (p. 150.)

Now we know!  If only this wisdom had been written in the right decade, Carl Sagan could have had it read aloud by Peter Ustinov and engraved on the gold record we sent into space, the better to prepare the aliens for discourse with humans.

In case you’re wondering, I picked this passage because it’s about as writerly as it gets over the course of TSoaE’s 163 pages.  What, is this not “elegant, playful and remarkable”* enough for you?

(*Quoth The New Yorker and the book’s front cover, under an inexplicable painting of an egg perhaps elegantly and playfully, if unremarkably, in peaceable repose on a table.)

OK, let’s move on to the dialog course, the better to observe Julian Barnes’s keen psychological insight in action:

So I sent an email to Veronica.  I headed it “Question,” and asked her this: “Do you think I was in love with you back then?”  I signed it with my initial and hit Send before I could change my mind.

The last thing I expected was a reply the next morning.  This time she hadn’t deleted my subject heading.  Her reply read: “If you need to ask the question, then the answer is no.  V.”

[yr. humble crit.: at this point it’s hard not to imagine bringing in Beavis and Butthead as guest critics.  “Try sexting her dude!  Heh heh heh.”  “Uh.. huh huh huh.. yeah, sext her.. like, let her know how you really feel.”]

It perhaps says something of my state of mind that I found this response normal, indeed encouraging.

It perhaps says something else that my reaction was to ring up Margaret and tell her of the exchange.  There was a silence, then my ex-wife said quietly, “Tony, you’re on your own now.”  (p. 116.)

So what did it say about his state of mind the first time, and what something else did it say the second time?  I like how there are four layers here of reality, right— Tony in the moment, Tony at a narrative remove, the infinitely inscrutable & pissy Veronica, and the infinitely wise & suffering Margaret.  Chicks always know best.

Reading this treacly tale of late middle age cluelessness, one does get “the sense” that the English public schools of the 50s and 60s didn’t do much for the development of emotional intelligence in male youth— at least not for straight boys like Tony and, presumably, Julian.  This reminds me how grateful I am that, although love and intimacy lost are such central themes in TSoaE, there are— praise small mercies— no actual sex scenes in this book.  Our good fortune is underscored by the following close call:

I wasn’t exactly a virgin, just in case you were wondering.  Between school and university I had a couple of instructive episodes, whose excitements were greater than the mark they left.  So what happened subsequently made me feel all the odder: the more you liked a girl, and the better matched you were, the less your chance of sex, it seemed.  Unless, of course— and this is a thought I didn’t articulate until later— something in me was attracted to women who said no.  But can such a perverse instinct exist? (p. 25)

I know, I know.  The book is like ambrosia, but strained through the cheesecloth of an unreliable narrator.  It’s postmodern!  The problem is that for us to care about and become invested in an unreliable narrator, such that we can be all shocked and upset later on when the bubble bursts, we need to be drawn in enough to inhabit his perspective early in the book.  This is hard to do in Tony’s case, because he’s so obviously an ass.  One feels frankly insulted that Mr. Barnes would find it plausible for the reader to find this schmuck and his philosophical musings a good impedance match.

Even leaving this issue aside, the unreliable narrator trick requires not only technical skill, but also exceptional sensitivity on the part of the (real) author, in order to bring the “reveal” into focus at the right speed, at the right time, and with the right force.  It’s a demanding feat of ventriloquism, beyond even the usual rigors of free indirect style, and to pull it off the author needs to be working at a far subtler level than the unreliable narrator.  Of course when one writes one also becomes emotionally close to and invested in the characters— even more so than the reader; it’s necessary to do so in order to make the voices true.  However, it’s equally necessary to become close to the characters who are not doing the narrating, to invest the text with their voices— maybe obliquely at first, then more clearly in the endgame.  Otherwise the “reality” undergirding the story will be just as lame as the unreliable narrator’s reality.  And we won’t care.

And this is just what happens.  My recurring feeling, when reading TSoaE, was that Julian Barnes and Tony Webster were too nearly the same person.  It got pretty claustrophobic up there in Tony/Julian’s head.  When the Wise Women made their appearances, they came off flat and gnomic, deployed more in the manner of unyielding bollards along the sidewalks of the plotline than as real voices that could perhaps have turned this story into something more three-dimensional.  In the absence of other voices, the shifts in perspective afforded by the series of big insights and realizations experienced by Tony himself really failed to provide the necessary stereo separation.

Let’s end with a “Royale with Cheese” moment toward the end of TSoaE— on page 158.  By this late stage, the story is as senescent as Tony himself; all investments in character growth etc. are made; the chips, as it were, are on the table:

One day, I said to the barman, “Do you think you could do me thin chips for a change?”

“How do you mean?”

“You know, like in France— the thin ones.”

“No, we don’t do them.”

“But it says on the menu your chips are hand-cut.”


“Well, can’t you cut them thinner?”

The barman’s normal affableness took a pause.  He looked at me as if he wasn’t sure whether I was a pedant or an idiot, or quite possibly both.

[yr. h.c.’s: “both!  Heh heh heh.”  “Huh huh.. yeah dude.. both.”]

“Hand-cut chips means fat chips.”

“But if you hand cut chips, couldn’t you cut them thinner?”

“We don’t cut them.  That’s how they arrive.”

“You don’t cut them on the premises?”

“That’s what I said.”

“So what you call ‘hand-cut chips’ are actually cut elsewhere, and quite probably by a machine?”

“Are you from the council or something?”

“Not in the least.  I’m just puzzled.  I never realized that ‘hand-cut’ meant ‘fat’ rather than ‘necessarily cut by hand.’”

“Well, you do now.”

“I’m sorry.  I just didn’t get it.”

I retired to my table and waited for my supper.

And there’s the moral of the story: Tony Doesn’t Get It.  Pretty “adroit handling”, right, to use hand-cut chips as a metaphor for, you know, other stuff?  Like how you can’t turn an English lover into a French one?

What really made me smile over this little passage was how clearly it was drawn from life.  I’m willing to bet that it was actually Julian Barnes who one day had this exchange with the barman at his local pub.  Barnes and Webster: just too cozy with each other.  Chips cut from the same potato.

OK, now I feel soiled and guilty, like Alex after beating up the old guy in A Clockwork Orange.  It’ time to move on.  I’m going to try not to let my new contempt for the Booker presumptively color my opinion of Hilary Mantel, whose Bring up the Bodies was already on my to-read shelf before the recent announcement that she’s won the prize for 2012.

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