Category: TTC Notes

Living on the Wire

Screengrab from John Carpenter’s They Live

In the year 3019, a sizeable group of human beings took off onboard the spacecraft humorously nicknamed by some fringe elements the spacovert (space + introvert). The group could in no way claim to be a noticeable player in the mainstream human drama, yet its members were determined. Each one of them had, in fact, parted ways with 1.2 million dollars before she could secure a presence in the adventure. The money wasn’t something you had to somehow make in addition to the usual cost of living, though. The company PR Department had made sure that it was clearly stated on every piece of advertisements, in whatever shape or form, that as soon as you stepped into the space, you would not have to concern yourself with such trivialities as the cost of living. The contract footprint made it clear that every body will be kept active for as long as a continually training model of human longevity determined that the moment of death had not statistically occurred for that particular individual.

What about expenses, while onboard the ship? The company was vague on this topic. While the “user” of the service, as passengers were addressed commonly in the legal documents, would not hold any particular job for the rest of her life, it was made clear that food, shelter, and, beyond all, pleasure, was going to be an abundant commodity. Even in that time and age, however, there were still some brains around that could manage to ask what the other side of the equation that led into this utopia requested in return. Nothing. The user is free to act as she pleases, obviously within the realm of legal activities, and the company would merely observe the user. That was it. The user would allow the company to observe her while she did everything that she did. In theory, one did not have to agree to being observed all the time, yet the more your were observed, the more pleasurable the space became. It made sense, therefore, to let them observe you 24/7 except for extremely private sessions, and those one would want to shorten as well.

So, that’s how the story unfolds. The ship takes off and the passengers claim their seats, then they push the buttons and dive into a space of positive nothingness.

If I could write, I would author science fiction novels and make a lot of money and stop having a fixed address and travel the world wrapped in the warm humid euphoria of the act of existing. And my novels would, on the surface, be nothing out of ordinary. Imaginable extensions of the contemporary. Just more of everything, along every dimension. Farther would be more accessible and smaller would be more intimate. But that would be a setup. I would lure the reader , through that fake promise of familiarity, into a dark space of turmoil and disaster, the inevitability of destruction, the humiliation of irrelevance, and before the reader could manage to console herself that her composure is devastated by mere fiction, I would cut through the facade of the story and expose its treacherous heart to the reader and make it clear to her that what she has read is a true depiction of her everyday life, except for a thin layer of deception that I have wrapped my story in.

If I could write, and if I did write, and if I became famous, then some future literary critic would describe my work as an incarnation of the sunglasses that Nada found in John Carpenter’s They Live. Except, people will pay money for mine.

I don’t think the question is whether or not one must maintain a presence on the social media. The circumstance begs a more elaborate formulation based on the dynamics of power. Hence, given any arbitrary balance of power between the user and Facebook, a particular optimal point could be outlined, most probably through an iterative stochastic optimization model.

Above all, the present situation is a close encounter between man and machine, albeit the machine is a mechanism of exploitation devised by a group of men. Hence, for all that matters, every single Facebook user may run away from it into some notion of safety. None of the “survivors”, however, would have the same option when machines take over the job of determining if a driving accident victim should receive care at the ER.

Heroin, Melange, and Notification

Screen grab from Dune (1984)

My introduction to the cult of the Dune was through a backdoor that I accidentally stumbled through.

Spotify still amazes me with the ingenious usages of learning frameworks that deliver patently usable outcomes to its user base. One such example is the XYZ Radio playlist concept.

Here is how it works. I am listening to @night, my usual nighttime companion, when I hear Ney Nava playing on the speakers. I am called back into a whirlpool of nostalgia and contradictory feelings of joy and pain. I want to hear more. I press on the three vertical dots on the top right corner of the screen and a few options show up. “Add to Playlist”, I have already done that. “Add to Queue”, sure, let’s do that, but I need more, and that’s when I find out about “Go to Song Radio”. I touch the magic words and the gates open and I am flooded with feelings that are too complex to give in to the imposition of words.

Through one such journey I discovered The Squatch Expands Life, by Mr Squatch, and was taken aback by whatever it is that that piece of music is. A short while later, and a few playbacks had already happened during this period, I started to pay attention to the words that are spoken when the track opens. “The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel.” I had no idea where these verses were descending from. I took note of them, and moved on.

The second shoulder tap came in a few weeks later. I was sifting through the Netflix offering to intellectualize my night and then stumbled upon a 1984 film by the name Dune that describes events that take place in the year 10,191. Distant and precise. A Google search later, I had recognized that I am faced with an adaptation of a, if not the, world’s best-selling science fiction novel.

And that led me to Melange. Potentially coming from the French word for mixed, as Google translate suggests, Melange is a fictional drug invented by Frank Herbert. Short named “the spice”, the author has been vague in describing the appearance of the substance. The drug has been rarely observed by people. Among the most frequent sightings stands David Lynch’s depiction in what Netflix was suggesting would make an enjoyable companion for my night.

The point of these paragraphs is of course not Melange. I assume, that is clear. Neither you or I have had a trip on Melange. I have not taken to the skies on the wings of Heroin either. Making the assumption that a similar proposition is applicable to you too, that leaves us with the third drug in the list, i.e., Notification, and I am fairly confident that both you and I have been, or are, addicted to it.

A posts a picture of her lunch on Instagram. B writes a short Facebook post in which he boasts about his latest athletic achievement. C “lives” a concert. For the illiterate, living, and it is pronounced similar to fiving, is the act of being live during an event. D and E and F perform other deplorable acts of narcissistic behaviour. But why is that?

I suggest that every one of these activities is a plea for a small dose of the digital drug referred to by different names, among which Notification seems to be a proper umbrella term.

And here is a prediction. There is going to be a noticable, upside down, correlation between the sales of marijuana in Canada and activity on Facebook in the same geographical location and time.

p.s. I am fully aware that I have utilized a very powerful non-relevant statistical factor in my own favour extremely sneakily. Don’t tell them.

The Sea Outside

Frame from The Sea Inside.

What is a pair of headphones, but a contraption that induces pleasure? And not only the head-mounted device induces euphoria, but, more importantly, it explicitly intends so. One may argue that it is a bogus notion to speak of intention when agency is implied for an inanimate conglomerate of plastic and silicon. The said complainant may be more at ease if intentionality is shifted to the wearer of the portable vibration generation device. Or is it whoever picked the device from the shelf, albeit a digitally reincarnated holding place on the web, that is entitled to the credit of intending to convert fluctuations of ether into a mechanical massage?

Spotify intends to be endeared by its clientele. In essence, the very survival of that establishment is inherently tied in with its bank account receiving the monthly jolt of $9.99 from each and every client. And the legal entity takes elaborate steps in order to make sure that the stream of cash never receded, but instead grows into a flood that on its way may devastate the competitors. Such an incident is but a five star nod to the stock market to quench its thirst off of pieces of paper that denote, as well as electronic representations of, ownership.

What a frenzy of intellectual orgy it would cause on Mars, when through the analysis of the ether that has circumscribed the Earth they recognize that earthlings trade mechanical pleasure for time spent in the cubicle.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, is another masterpiece by the learned spearhead of documenting the context of human life through a lens that never fails to be sober and intriguing at the same time that it is intimate with the subject. From the burning fields of Lessons of Darkness to the fractured prehistoric palm prints in the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog has depicted many peculiarities of human existence while his distinct narrations complement the simultaneous absurdity and intimacy of the scenery. Somewhere in Lo and Behold Herzog spends time with people who are wary of electromagnetism and, henceforth, have taken refuge in the electronic silence of the isolated area around a deep space telescope. Another less fortunate victim of Maxwell’s Equation had resorted to living in a Faraday Cage in the past in order to fend off the invisible flames.

The individuals in the documentary are afraid of the electromagnetic waves that they suspect are the prime causes for their irregular symptoms and ailments. The notion of a wave, however, may bring to mind directionality and selectivity. A wave originates at one location and reaches a circumference before dying out in the spaces that matter leaves unoccupied. The current situation is distinctly different, however. For one, contemporary “waves” are generated everywhere and they are consumed in many places simultaneously. Moreover, the attempt to draw parallels between the state of the electromagnetic bubble that has engulfed the planet and a lake might bring into a novice mind the image of a secluded pond that is generally calm except when it is perturbed by a passing floating object. On the contrary, the ether of electromagnetism oscillates until one source stops transmitting, immediately upon which another strong shockwave will shake the space.

In effect, every digital device that is hooked up to the web constantly vibrates it and is in return vibrated by it until batteries run out on one or both sides.

I am comfortably seated on one of the red seats of the Toronto underground system, while the other half of the passengers grudgingly shifts from one foot to another and groan when the female PSA voice announces a delay because of “injury at track level“. I have my Bluetooth headphones on. They are connected to my phone through a two-way field of electromagnetic pulses which brushes against my skin and also the inside of my body. The duo’s dance is complemented by my smart watch, which itself has established a two-way communication channel with my phone. I am listening to music on the headphones, thus utilizing the phone-to-headset connection. Additionally, I can switch away from We Appreciate Power by Grimes to Istanbul by DJ Pantelis Bossa either by flicking the tiny button on the exterior of the right-side headphone or through interacting with an app on my watch. Either way, the said device notifies my phone of my will through the medium of the electromagnetic field that my body is awash with.

And then there is everyone else around me. Presently, I am surrounded by seven people. One has been staring out of the window since we embarked. Another is peeking into the screen of her companion’s phone. The five others are fervently pounding on their phones. And as if this is not enough, the person on my right just pulled out a second handset from his leather messenger bag and interacted with it momentarily before returning to his other device.

What are these devices, the smart phones, the smart watches, the headsets, and the plethora of other digital beings that shape our lives these days? Are these but mechanical interfaces that allow flesh to interact with electromagnetism? Pleasure inducing devices that convert the superposition of sinusoidal waves into rushes of hormones.

I want to delve deeper into these thoughts, but Dundas Station is approaching and I need to pack up and step into the Winter. I put on my toque, secure my headphones back on top of my skull and turn up the volume so as to let the pleasant vibrations penetrate through the extra layer that is to shield my neurons against the harshness of the winter. A minute later, I let The Watchers by Jean-Michel Jane turn my walk on Queen East into a stroll along the unending lines of trees in my very personal heaven.

An alternative to #DeleteFacebook

There is a distinct anti-Facebook rhetoric in my news uptake these days. In my own attitudes towards the social media as well, I feel an inherent disgust towards what Facebook stands for. My distaste of the notification-for-attention market system has been strong enough to encourage me to wipe every item that has ever appeared on my wall as well as every message that I have sent and received during all the years that I have been a content-laborer on Facebook.

In my heart, therefore, there is no love for Zuckerberg, and yet, I cannot sympathize with the calls to a full departure from Facebook and
Facebookistan. This latter being Instagram, Telegram, and any other service whose data is funneled into Facebook’s databases. I don’t think leaving Facebook is a particularly good solution and before I can meaningfully speak of a solution, I need to have first defined the corresponding problem. Here it is, the problem for which I will later attempt to suggest a solution.

Facebook proposes to build a unique relationship with every individual human being 13 years of age and older, wherein agents of the company shall give pleasure to the human signatory to the contract. In return, Facebook is not asking for anything. Facebook’s official mission statement of “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” in lay terms means that Facebook claims to be offering a service which is one hundred percent flawless and, as if that was not good enough, Facebook is not asking for anything in return. Not even one cent for a lifetime of use. No. Facebook is the ideal cure for the human predicament and it is free as well.

If any human being has taken the above fantasy anything but what belongs to the same perpetually growing garbage heap that spews out The Tick, then, I would ask if something in the genes of that Homo sapiens is the most appropriate candidate for extinction.

It might have been in fact so that Facebook learned along the way how to best squeeze cash out of its customers’ loyalty. Here, “customer” is my preferred term for what may be more commonly addressed as a “user” of Facebook. In my opinion, we did not “use” Facebook; we were in fact in a relationship with Facebook, wherein we were given never-imagined capabilities in return for our attention. Let’s imagine, for example, the possibility to enjoy an instant video chat with someone on the other side of the planet. Five hundred years ago, if you described the concept of a video chat, you had effectively entered your name in the list of questionable characters maintained by the local agent of the Inquisition. And yet, Facebook has made it possible to every one of its 2.27 billion users for free.

Hence, Facebook has been an investment for every one of its customers. And as with any investment, the cost of maintaining ownership and the return that the investment yields over time fluctuate as it matures. It is imaginable that at some point during the life of any investment it may appear as a complete waste of effort or, on the opposite end, an unbelievable gain. Nevertheless, unless maintaining a zombie presence on Facebook is a detriment to one’s state of being, in any shape or form, then I don’t see why one would delete her Facebook account instead of erasing everything in it and letting it freeze.

The proposition that a dormant existence on Facebook is superior to a complete exit, yields a rather desirable side-effect as well. In practice, as long as I have an account on, I am a stakeholder. Hence, whenever Facebook attempts to take another exploitatory step, not only it has to crush the resistance of anyone still active in Facebookistan, but also, every freed up soul who will now return to Facebook for a cause.

I’m not deleting my Facebook account. I am maintaining it in order to protect everyone who is still plugged in.

p.s. Sometime soon let’s also talk about flooding Facebook’s algorithms to the point of complete disorientation through unleashing content generation bots on any piece of hardware that we can get our hands on.

The Hen, The Ox, and The Man; On Evolution 2.0

Except for Mondays, when the St. Lawrence Market closes its doors to the public, the one hundred and seventy year old Toronto city attraction on the intersection of Front and Jarvis is at the top of my list of candidates for buying lunch. More specifically, the Italian takeout in the basement, opposite to a souvenir shop and a hallway away from the jewelry stall staffed by an aging middle eastern couple, is my number one choice for a workday lunch. That does not mean, however, that I get to go to Uno Mustachio too often, at least not as frequently as I desire to. The reason for that is, partly my coworkers interest in many of the other food options that present themselves on the east side of Yonge Street between Dundas and King. I am not always inclined to wolf down the heavy and heavily loaded Nonna’s Favorite either.

At the times when I do treat myself to the layers of taste and guilt-soaked pleasure offered by the Chicken and Eggplant Sandwich, however, I also have the fortune of enjoying an encounter with the unmistakably Italian boss. That is what he calls me; “Boss”. “Any drink today, boss?” “What are you doing this Friday night, boss?” “What’s next boss? Paying through our teeth?” The middle-aged full-bodied man with a round face groaned this last one when I paid for my sandwich using my Samsung S3 smart watch. It was not a question, rather a grunt. A complaint about a situation that even the person who objects to knows that is irreversible.

The decision has been made. We can now pay using our wrist watches. What’s next? With all the technology that is packed into my Subaru Crosstrek, I wonder when I can pay through it in addition to texting and checking the pulse of the stock market. Maybe the driver side mirror would shine a beam onto the POS machine at the drive-through?

Recently, I ended up having to purchase an Amazon Fire Stick because I could not cast Amazon Prime videos on the existing Google Chromecast. As I was rewiring my apartment so that the “old” device would be rerouted to the sound system, I asked myself what might be next. I can now play music, off of Spotify, through at least three channels. Amazon Fire Stick and TV, Google Chromecast and the sound system, and the sound system through its own Bluetooth connection. I am surrounded by technology. What’s next?

The question kept meandering within and between the different corners of my cranial cavity until two nights ago. That was when, while walking on the west side of Yonge Street, between Dundas and College, I noticed how many people on the sidewalk ahead of me were affixed to their phones. I suddenly stopped, turned down the music, and looked behind me, then to the other side of the street. All around me screens were brightening up faces in this dim early winter Toronto evening. And then it hit me. Neural Rewiring. That is what is happening. More accurately, Neural Rewiring is one description for what has already happened and potentially one way to forecast what may be in store for Homo Sapiens in the next decade.

The train took a stop at Rosedale Station and I have to be quick. I imagine for a second that if I did not have a deadline at work, I would get off the subway and finish this piece in the cozy warmth of The Rebel House.

Neural Rewiring. Making the assumption that consciousness is a product of the cumulative activities of the human body and its environment, the properties of that phenomenon, i.e., who one is and what one aspires to be, are determined based on the patterns of connections of one’s neurons and the information that they process and how the results may be implemented. In this light, one may suggest that digital communication technologies have allowed any person as well as everyone else to gain access to everyone’s neural circuitry more directly and in novel ways.

Let me use an example or two to illustrate my point.

The human body is a dynamic system with its own regiment of timescales and causation paths. The society is another example of a dynamic system that is more comfortable when certain things happen in certain ways and at certain paces. For example, and I am borrowing this example from the fascinating book When Old Technologies Were New. Imagine that A wants to present himself as a suitor for B. Not a particularly exceptional story, of course, as more than a hundred thousand people make the same attempt every day. However, let us assume that this particular act of bravery happens in the early years of the twentieth century and in a large city in North America. Hence, for better or worse, the new chapter in the lives of A and B and the other people involved in this hypothetical story coincides with the advent of telephony in the West.

Carolyn Marvin dissects the changes in the properties of romantic encounters during that era and how the new inventions, i.e. telephone and phonograph, affected it. One example is the introduction of a shortcut to lovers, or mates for potential love affairs, for that matter. Before telephones appeared on the scene, a man could only gain access to a women through and under the supervising gaze of the sweetheart’s family. Telephone changed that structure. Now, one could call in. That is what I did when I was seventeen. I would call in, ask the father of my girlfriend to put her on the phone, then play some nice music and converse with her about math and books and whatever else there is that a teenager who suspects that the conversation is eavesdropped on both sides dares to talk about. Phonograph, according to Marvin, caused a somewhat different stir, as it converted speech from what comes out of one’s mouth and enters another’s ear and then dissipates, into a piece of evidence. There is a reference in the book to a newspaper item from that period wherein the father of a girl who has been lured into the bedroom through the disingenuous promise of a future life together, surrenders a recording of the said conversation as evidence and gets the court to condemn the “bastard” who was unlucky enough to be among the first victims of violation of privacy.

What does all of this have to do with the charming Uno Mustachio person and his concerns about the invasive tentacles of digital technologies and how is that relevant to whether or not the sanctity of one’s neural pathways has been breached?

Evolution is a process through which matter modifies its manifestation in order for a particular configuration to keep replicating. Why? There is no why. A configuration that manages to survive has managed to survive and thus it writes its own history, assuming that writing a history, in a literal sense, is what that configuration may have any interest in. Hence, as the context in which the configuration is defined changes, so does the configuration. Otherwise, other configurations may get the upper hand. Whatever survives, does survive, and thus shall inherit the earth.

Human consciousness is a product of three and half billion years of evolution. Change, rather drastic and catastrophic alteration of the environment, has been a constant affliction of life throughout that expansive period. And, as it appears, life, as we know it, has been able to survive the winds of change, by changing in return, of course. Digital technologies are solely a new chapter in the life of life. Intention used to have to pass through layers of flesh and air and dirt in order to turn into action; man wants to meet woman, he walks toward her hut, asks her dad, and if allowed in, talks to the woman, rather briefly and utterly soberly. Nowadays, there is no walking, and there is no dad. Man decides to contact the woman, and equally likely the other way around, and a second later a message is on its way. Is that “good”? I do not know, before at least knowing how one identifies being good.

For all that matters, the recent changes in the human landscape are not exogenous to man. Man has sweat over the ages in order to push forward piecemeal inventions that incarnated their collective scheme in what became the plethora of digital technologies that are intimately familiar to us now. The Internet is a man-made concept and man made it because, at least at an incremental scale and at the time, every step seemed like a worthy endeavor to at least one person.

And thus man disrupted the known rules for life and set up a new framework. What is going to happen to man? That is the important question and while not pretending to be offering any notion of an answer, I would like to point out that humanity, although it often makes the claim to be so, is not one homogeneous unit. Hence, the question is categorically not whether or not man will survive the hardships of digitalization as an entity. That is certain. In other words, it is very likely that something will survive the current cataclysm and it is possible that that thing might like to address itself as a man, possibly for the sole purpose of claiming ownership over the rest of human history and also in pursuit of identity, authenticity, and authority. The key point, however, is that survival is seldom a win-win situation for everyone.

The hen ends up on the dinner table and the ox pulls the plow. Would the bystander passersby of Yonge street, who are glued to their screens, end up around the table, in the sweatshop, or on the pages of history books, that is what is yet to be known.

Photograph courtesy of Wired

Grappling with Conformity

The person was comfortably seated in my living room when they stated, without hesitation, even a sublime hint of it, that life is not a book club, that there are norms in the society that need to be subscribed to, rather sheepishly, in order for the individual to belong. Or rather, for the subject to not have to face the mighty wrath of the occupants of the streets.

A claim so bold and at the same time uttered so matter-of-factly. It took me more than ten days to absorb the audacity of the proposition. Within that week and a half I busied myself with a Raspberry Pi project so that my mind would steer away from the cold reality of human tendency to conformity, and yet, I attended to the supposed “distraction” in my own living room, where their casual body language, as they hastily discarded the value and merits of thousands of years of human attempt at finding some meaning to life that would exceed, at least momentarily, the activities of the flesh, still lingered on.

Ten odd days later, I have now shifted my attention from the other to my self, from without to within, from what I had to endure to how I was an accomplice. I am still digesting the course of events that led to that frightful Sunday morning and I am far from a solid theoretical framework that would dissect the misfortune and give some hope that the malaise is somewhat less likely to repeat.

These days a portion of my commute time is alloted to Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy and I have developed the daily habit of posting a picture of a page that I have read on Instagram, wherein one or more sentences are highlighted. Here is the share of enlightenment that I received, and attempted to share, today: “The depth of his attachment to La Boetie signalled the extent to which, in his interactions with others, he had been forced to present only an edited image of himself to avoid suspicion and raised eyebrows” (read more).

On safety from the mass

The problem with people is not that they are highly likely to subscribe to a mediocre perception of the human predicament. More importantly, and arguably more suffocatingly, the average person is a hazard because she has in her arsenal an army of like-minded bipeds. Fortunately, that is exactly where a glimmer of hope can be spotted.

Safety from the mass can be achieved without having to resort to a blanket avoidance of people, an approach that will turn one’s life into an arid landscape. A more intelligent approach is to become alert when one’s circle of companions slips into an orgy of concordance that is built around distaste for deep thought and honest analysis of societal norms.

Man is worthy of companionship strictly when she possesses the higher faculties that distinguish it from the beast. Proximity to one individual who lacks that distinction is a hazard. Allowing a herd of such persons into one’s life is complete travesty.

Incapability is Bliss

In front of me a middle-aged woman has been posing for a patently fake smile while stared at the front side of her smartphone in the past few minutes that I have been clandestinely watching her. I have just found a seat on the subway and I am in the process of liberating myself from the winter garment that is the Canadian equivalent of the suite that men wear on Mars and Martians wear where men live. Her summertime flat-sole canvas crimson shoes are angled inwardly. She has her earbuds on. They are the stock listening devices that smartphone manufacturers ship alongside the latest incarnations of their gadgets.

As I approached the subway station my mind wandered while high on Vesna by DakhaBrakha. I inquired my within, as I habitually do after I wake up and before I get in the shower and during every pitstop before the night falls. The topic of today’s contemplation was a phrase that I wrote towards six months ago. “Leftists are more pleasurable in bed”. At the time of writing that sentence I was still situated well within the rosy realm of assuming that something has recently gone wrong with people and that the situation could be repaired. I also derived an imperative out of my musings, that people ought to be salvaged, that some evil has bestowed its nasty infection upon the humanity and that the blaze could be extinguished.

That was then. I have since found myself leaning towards a different perspective. That of calling my previous conviction rudimentary and an outcome of my naivete. Now, I find myself questioning my motives for attempting to save the humanity, or at least the isle of it that is accessible to me. The key question, therefore, and the point of departure from my past state of mind is what if this is people. What if the living and breathing vehicle and seeker and enforcer of survival is nothing but a mean sucker of resources, albeit beyond the limits of necessity and well into the basic requirements of the survival of everyone else? What if the current afflictions of the human race are seldom a momentary hardship and in fact the phenomenon striped naked and in full bloom?

That question and any understanding that they may beget are not objective contemplations. On the one hand, I am interested in observing and understanding people. From this vantage point, a person, or the whole notion of personhood, for that matter, attracts one’s attention in a way that is not characteristically different from one’s interest in observing and developing an understanding of rocks, insects and clouds. There is a second dimension to one human’s attempt at understanding the rest of her kind, however, and that is the pursuit of safety from the alleged predator that is at the moment safely contained under the sharp gaze of the microscope and is well separated from the observer by layers of thick glass and a breathing mask, but may in fact break loose at any instance. Along this line of thought, one would develop anxiety when her observations of her own kind reveals dark traits in what is observed. At the end of the day, people are at the same time the subject of intellectual pondering as they are also a prominent component in one’s environment as well.

In essence, whatever it is that one discovers under the microscope of attempted objective analysis of people and their ways is also what one is faced with in the street. To make matters even more unsettling, there is an additional outcome corresponding to looking into people and that is the matter of introspection. Whatever people are is also what I am. A violent bunch? So am I. The same flesh and practically identical chemical composition. From the cold unaffectionate vantage point of a Martian, I am, for all intents and purposes, a replica of Donald J. Trump. The accused might attempt to save her soul by pointing out differences in mental processes and past behaviour, upon hearing which the wise Martian will assert, quite correctly, I tend to believe, that the claimant has not had the opportunity to unleash a catastrophe, potentially because she does not have the required arsenal. Give the person an overflowing bank account and connection to the apex of the pyramid and watch if she would refrain from being another manifestation of the devil.

What then? Are good people merely the incapable? Is their incapability what makes them attractive? And more importantly, what are the implications of this dark view of humanity given the fact that one is condemned to live with people while being one of them at the same time?

The train is closing its doors to Dundas Station and I need to pack up and get ready to disembark when it stops two hundred and sixty meters closer to the lake at Queen Station.

Picture courtesy of as I walk Toronto

How fast is too fast for a brain?

Breathing in and breathing out. The pounding of the heart. The digestive tract cooking and crumbling smelly mush into juice for the cells. Not only there is a rhythm to life, but also, and categorically more importantly, there is a safe range of frequencies in which life occurs and beyond which it first shows signs of distress and then it falls into the havoc of anxiety, bouts of rage and depression, and the inevitable demise into the basic elements. And life does not stop there. The insects, the bacteria, the chemical reactions that deliver life as well as its digression into deadness, they all happen within a safe range of frequencies. Arouse the drums, or calm them down, too drastically, and the bridge collapses.

Every student of control systems is some time in her first year of introduction to concepts pertaining to dynamic systems presented the stark example of a system that is forced to operate outside of its safe zone of frequencies and the inevitable catastrophe that ensued. Here is how the story goes.

Once upon a time, there was a bridge that was considered as a marvel of construction by its builders and the public alike. The honeymoon for the bridge was very quickly blown away, though, by strong gusts that stroke its sides and made it have to respond to frequencies that it was not prepared for. In the short video recording of those fateful moments one can watch as a deserted car oscillates with the entire bridge. The dance of the bridge at first appears docile. Nothing more than a momentary surge that is to pass harmlessly. It is imaginable if a spectator found excitement in the little benign trick that the nature seemed to be playing to that bridge. As the reel proceeds for about two minutes, however, it would be hard for a sharp eye to not discover, taken aback by terror of course, that the bridge is collapsing. And collapse it did. The incident has become over the years an example of the dangers of dynamic systems being exposed to, or rather not being protected against, the inferno of hostile frequencies.

The fate of Tacoma Narrows Bridge is important to us, as homo sapiens, not only because it is a potential threat to any not-yet-constructed bridge, but also, and more importantly, because any threat to one dynamic system may be an indicator, a proverbial canary in the coal mine, that other dynamic systems are endangered by a similar phenomenon. And endangered they are. Bend a piece of metal too quickly and too aggressively against its will and it will break. Move your hand too quickly while trying to balance an inverted pendulum and it will succumb to the ensuing chaos. One can seek and in fact find the catastrophic impact of unexpected frequencies in many dynamic systems and as these systems encroach upon the human skin it is only inevitable to inquire if such a phenomenon is also a threat to us, the majestic homo sapiens. And I believe that is the case.

The human biped is a product of millions of years of evolution that occurred within carefully maintained and adhered to frequency limits. Things happen at a particular pace and we might not always have ample time to respond but somehow at the end things work out. Intervals of hyperactivity are compensated by periods of relaxation. We take a nap when faced with prolonged periods of physical labour. It is as if, although frequencies rise and fall, but at the end they balance out into what is, non-incidentally, our comfort zone of facing stimuli and responding to them. While that sounds like a safe mode of operation for the human animal, the frightful question is what may happen if this delicate balance is disrupted, momentarily or intermittently.

Standing in a busy subway car, packed with exhausted labourers at the end of their shifts, a messages comes in and rudely makes its existence known via a vibration on my wrist. The train has peeked its head out of its dark cavern for a short breath and the invasive organelles of digitality have found an instance to hand a message over to me. A few lines of text, maybe accompanied by a picture, in Farsi or in English, if the sender has deemed her message worthy of her time. Otherwise, the mumbo jumbo of Finglish, Farsi words typed in English, will make my eyebrows turn away from their linear cohesion and into a frown. Notwithstanding, an intrusion has occurred and I must respond to it. Not only that, I need to be quick as well, or rather I need to also decide how quick I want to be in responding to this message. The situation is more dire, in fact. I first need to decide if I am going to respond to the message. A great friend of mine suggested in the weekend that we, human beings, are capable of making only about thirty well-contemplated decisions in an average day. Any attempt to elevate that number would, in her words, jeopardize the quality of those and all our other decisions as well as the tranquility of the person who is forced to make the decisions. If there is a shred of truth to that proposition, then the non-distinct incident of having received a text message on the subway consumes at least three seats on that departing ship.

It is important, however, to avoid falling into the deception that receiving a text message is a calamity in this time and age. I would argue that the downsizing of the other opportunities for making contact with people has effectively made us reliant on the new technologies for building and maintaining human relationships. My own personal experience, for that matter, is a testament to the important role that digital media plays in discovering and developing exquisite connections with rarities within the human race. I have observed, rather gleefully, that a significant majority of my most cherished relationships have either started on the web or could have been significantly damaged had I not used the social media to the extent that I do. There is no doubt, therefore, that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram are not void of value and content. They do, at the same time, however, cause harrowing disturbances in ones equanimity, partly because they alter the pace of human interaction towards high frequencies that have had no precedence during human evolution.

Here is the key question. What is the safe range of frequencies for the human psyche to operate and communicate at? At what point does the soul fail to ride the waves and fall into despair? And ultimately, experience seems to make it abundantly clear that the human body, and that includes the human brain as well, is generally in need of protection against the elements. No astronaut would even consider allowing the ferocity of vacuum and the solar blaze meet their bodies absent of the circumvention of a thick spacesuit. Why would then any person, in their right mind, allow the unknown ether of the digital sphere come in contact with the delicate balance of their neural circuitry?

A major theme for creative efforts of the human mind has been to devise shields that would allow a person to step into the unfamiliarity of the spaces in which life never took hold. Breathing masks for the deep ocean, goose feather jackets for the frigidity of the polar caps, and, in fact, much closer to home, the popularity of leather gloves between November and April in Toronto, they are all successful human achievements in protecting her cells against the outside. Why would then any person allow the strong winds of electronic representation and stimulation sweep her brain cells unfettered by a protection mechanism? Have we not witnessed the carnage already? Is there anyone out there who does know of a person who bent and broke and dispersed away in the hurricane of the social media?

Note: Marquee picture is a frame in the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse video found on YouTube.

To whom the machine listens

Gathering up a crowd of more or less ten people in my apartment and watching them as they interact with each other and also with their own thoughts constitutes a favourite Friday night for me. The event generally starts at around eight pm and continues well into the  early hours of the next day. People usually show up at around the same time and the evening starts. The departures are less homogenous; some people leave before midnight. These are the ones who have something “important” to do the next day, or even the same night. Parents are generally amongst this group, as it is known that the environment may not be safe for minors. And that is one of the curious properties of these gatherings. No particular activity or imagery can generally be pinpointed as a potential source of duress for a child that may be present in my living room in these magical get-togethers. I have come to the understanding that it is the atmosphere that is deemed inappropriate for an immature brain. And that primarily is an artifact of the thoughts that are shared. Here is an example.

A friend who is the newest addition to these nights announces, upon taking a seat and greeting Sion, my cat, that he has chosen to make fewer decisions about the mundane aspects of daily life. He approaches this idea from a philosophical perspective, while using his hands to stir the air in front him so that he can find a more appropriate channel for communicating with the others. His mouth is dry, possibly as a result of the mixture of the passion that he has inside of him for expressing his thoughts while, at the same time, knowing that a typical audience would find his musings confusing and potentially outright incongruous. There is nothing typical about this audience, however. I have arrived at the understanding that many of the participants of the Friday gatherings in my apartment do in fact belong to the fringes of the societies, most of them lacking at least one aspect of the “usual” way that people live their lives. And this alone has given me much food for thought.

Why are there so many “normal” people out there? The ones that seek and find and marry the least unsuitable mate, reproduce once or twice or three times, bury their finances in the pithole of a hefty mortgage and manage to become the Platonic Form of the banality of existence. What is the appeal of the usual, the highway, the path taken by any and every one? These questions do indeed carry in them a judgment, however sublime that is, and yet the questions themselves are important and if one answer to them is that these actions constitute the conventional way that one may live her life, then a more critical question would become relevant and also ever so sensitive: How do I manage to steer away from the banality of being taken away by the strong winds of living life as the shopping mall wants me to.

Here is a thought.

I came to work on Sunday and was welcomed by a notice from the cluster that every task that I had deployed has successfully completed. I deployed the tasks at the end of Friday. More precisely, I issued a single command to one machine, which then translated that command to a set of instructions for the entire cluster. I did not bother to watch the machines as they took off and started their choreographed dance, yet I knew that it was happening as I took off towards the subway station with Abeer Nehme’s delicious voice caressing my earlobes. In the meantime, the machines distributed the work amongst themselves and worked for thirty six hours. They then sat still for me to come back and harvest the fruits of their labour. I, on the other hand, spent those thirty six hours primarily “doing” three things, the first of which was the Friday gathering in my apartment. In addition to that, I also spent some time on the Machine Learning piece of digital art that I am working on with a group of friends. We are breathing life into a set of traffic lights that we are planning to take with us to the next Mooseman, and, who knows, to the Burning Man, at some point. To make my weekend slightly more enjoyable, I also watched the Theatre Gargantua production of the The Wager and completed the night with a drink and a discussion about the play and everything else that was of interest to the small group of us who went to the play. I was able to do all of this because I have transferred a minuscule shred of my cognitive abilities to the machines that do my dirty work, or rather my boring work. Is that the key to freeing one from the banality of the contemporary society?

To live a life of meaning one needs money. This proposition may appear perplexing at first because it seems to resort to an aspect of the hegemonic ideology in order to combat it. I suggest that is not the case. Indeed access to financial resources does not guarantee that one would lead a life that is capable of sticking its head above the smog of mediocrity that covers the earth. A healthy bank account is, however, a necessary requirement for such an endeavour, and one must be careful when considering what constitutes a “healthy” bank account.

One needs to have access to food, shelter, and pocket money to go to plays and to purchase books and also to travel the world. The minimum number of zeros on the right side of the balance on one’s checking account that would allow for these activities to happen, is dependent upon one’s skillfulness in managing her expenditure, of course. And that is a key distinction between different individuals and why there are people who can happily subsist on smaller incomes that allow them to live more and why there are people who live a life of self-induced, or at least non-mitigated, misery whilst their bank accounts are overflowing with cash. Given the vast range of people and how they manage their own financial footprint, I suggest that there is an underlying reality in the system: One needs to have money in order to stay away from the catastrophe of the lifestyle that is so prevalent and is in fact imposed by the modern society. I opine that Machine Learning is one way to achieve this state.

I imagine every mathematical model that I implement and every line of Python code that I write as one step towards freeing my soul from the shackles of the modern day symbolization of life. In other words, what is important about Machine Learning is not only that one can make a living out of it, but, more importantly, that one does not need to spend one’s own time for that purpose. Hence, for example, one can replicate herself within and through the machines and then escape away from the harshness of the city for the closest lakeside and let the machines that follow her instructions to the word translate miniature jumps of electrons within silicon into cents and dollars that pour into one’s bank account.

And this is where the key question stares into one’s eyes and becomes undeniable. Machine Learning does fit the bill for a technology that can help select individuals escape the humiliating crush of the society into a box of mass-produced human figurines. The same technology, however, is the force that will devastate the scaffolding of the dignity of a sizable portion of the human population. Is Machine Learning the wagon that will lead the elite into intellectual prosperity whilst leaving the rest of the humanity in the agony of ultimate uselessness? Is that the next stage in the predetermined fate of the herd? Are the zombies that roam the shopping mall destined to the distress of having to compete with and surrender to the Machine Learning algorithms that the new elite are devising as the vehicle of their superiority?