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What is all of this stuff?

Published onApr 30, 2019
What is all of this stuff?

Week 1

What is stillness

From the reading: I and Thou

The It vs. the You, the observer vs. the experience. Is this not what the PhD is all about. It seems the whole point is to treat research subjects as objects. It is absolutely about not being a part of the experience. So, it becomes difficult to experience the moment. For me as the PhD nears a close I am only now beginning to feel that I want to hold onto some moment of it. The experience itself is long and tortuous. I do not wish to hold onto, or rather I am happy to allow the experience of the brutality of the academic feudal system to pass. But, at the same time there is a sense of loss as it passes. The loss of that point when my mind is spun up to make observations of minute detail that play into the arc of the system I study.

The PhD though, for me anyway, is very much about what happens next. While I am proud of the work I have done, I approach the PhD as a preparation for what comes next. Perhaps because of my age, and the stage of life and where my career had already been, It, the PhD, is an It, a means to an end. So, in some ways it feels difficult to have stillness during its pursuit, as it is by design a path, to enable motion.

That all said. I yearn for stillness, to make a moment to examine what is the point of what I am doing, or, perhaps not to examine, but to let some dust settle.

three words for myself: respect, empower, challenge

Feb 17, 2019


How does the personal narrative interact with stillness and awareness? For me stillness is necessary to observe how my daily interactions impact, bounce, merge and meld with my own narrative. Some things fall naturally in line, while others challenge them. I am sometimes surprised by how I am affected by interactions. Whether it is a happy response, a confused or a self-reflected response. These days it is very much self-reflection. Why do I feel confusion, or embarrassment? What is the point of what I have been doing? Right now I am using awareness as a tool - it is utilitarian.

Awareness is to allow myself to acknowledge how my body reacts in a situation, and in moments of stillness an acknowledgement of my overall state integrating over time.

How my emotions might change, and how another person’s emotion might change through conversation. You can see the facial expression, the twitch in the cheek. It is a challenge to slow-down in the moment. That is something I believe practice improves.

Someone reached out to me recently, from college more than fifteen year ago. I didn’t remember him at all. Why did I forget? I find I have allowed some personal interactions to fade, instead focusing on building new skills, clobbering away at work, not revisiting the past.


Is it boredom that kicks me out of stillness? I am not sure. I often feel it is impatience or anxiety. Boredom comes when I am watching something on the screen. I don’t know if it is attention span, or my eagerness for utilitarianism. These days I carry a great deal of stress in trying to move on from my current state. The phd bears heavy. I will watch moving images on a screen to give myself brainless time. Then I find boredom. I am not stimulated.

Stillness seems more useful, because that is actual rest. but it is not rest. Stillness is hard. Awareness is hard. It takes energy to acknowledge thoughts and to allow them to pass-by, I think, because the habit is to allow the thought to drive the focus.

Finding time for stillness, this is hard. Small moments occur, when I’m standing in line, say at the grocery store, no one speaks to another, I am effectively anonymous, and I might do a quick body-scan. But, finding time for 30 minutes of contemplative silence. This feels difficult to carve. I try in the mornings sometimes, but I find eagerness to move on with the day. Evenings are often a good time. I find I need more than thirty minutes. I find it helpful to reflect on the day a bit, because if I do not it continues to show up during attempts at stillness. If I can give it some time, then sometimes I can find a place where I may have stillness.

A handful of weeks later.

Sometimes we say things can’t be put into words, but maybe it’s just the language I’m using that does not have the words for the experience. Sometimes it is just too complex, or emotional to describe. Art can sometimes stand in here: a painting, a sculpture, a statement painted on a wall, can communicate experience more acutely than words. Somethings I would argue just need to be allowed to exist at the moment and in some fleeting memory for whoever was there to experience it. Perhaps no one was there to experience it.

In our conversation of transactional experience we asked if all interactions are transactional and does that build biases?

My first pass at this question: I think that many, most day-to-day interactions are directly transactional, though they need not be. A smile shown to a stranger walking-by along the street: the greeting could ask for a smile in return, but it is given without an expectation or need for a response. It is an offering to another person to liven their day. It is something often not valued on the east coast. It is a cultural exchange. A smile is an offering that does not require a response, though a response does amplify the value of the smile, and in that instant converts the experience into a transaction. Is a transaction necessarily ad? Perhaps it depends on the expectation of response. I think the expectation becomes a bias, a presumed set of conditions, properties or responses.

Stamped from the Beginning

Resisting Reduction:

I interviewed at a tech company this past week and was disturbed by the reductionism present in their quest for singularity. It appeared to me that their approached was top-down and blind to many underlying cases and realities. Their quest to attain artificial general intelligence seemed blinded; they know what they are looking for and for that very reason are missing the very nature of intelligence: awareness. The ability to be inspired from the unexpected, or for that matter the ability to accept the unexpected — not to mention the vast male whiteness of these types of conversations. It seemed that they had everything figured out already and they were looking for one specific thing, and yet their very background of limited exposure severely limits their own ability to even know what they don’t know, and so in their quest for immortality they are limited to an algorithmic ideal that is not what brings beauty to this world. It is the rawness of physical that brings beauty. It is the conflict between our impressions, assumptions, and the unexpected that create the magic of inspiration. The arrogance of definition will limit the achievement of singularity, while also amplifying its inherent dangers. What I mean is the assumption that a written definition of parameters will be sufficient to set the expectations of results.

Great power may come from this technology, and sadly it appears its limitations will be the oppression of anything that does not fit within the models defined. The arrogance of algorithmic representation is a narcissistic approach to understanding the world.

Prior to this I honestly had not paid much attention to the paths being taken in this quest for singularity. I respected the alarm bells being rung by people like Joy Buolamwini and the Algorithmic Justice League, and I heard complaints of monocultured, millenial “brogrammers” saturating San Francisco. However, with my own recent exposure to this culture I have a new found realization that we must further ring the bells of alarm. There are billions of dollars being poured into the development of AI systems that glorify algorithmic reduction with a fervent hysteria of support for the promised land of riches. There has been a disturbing obsession with compute resources for financial gain: blockchain proof of work and deep learning. Both are global goldrush frenzies to achieve a financial advantage. The scale of both directly affect our ability to respond to this changing climate, at a time when most energy production remains terribly dirty pumping carbon into the atmosphere rather than reduce we are driving full steam ahead.

Let us not confuse the blind fanaticism with pure curiosity, make no mistake this is a race to achieve an overwhelming advantage over others with limited resources. It will further deprecate our humanity into those with and without access. These algorithms are not so much more superior as they are leveraging superior access compute resources. The power hungry are power hungry. It takes substantial resource to run these neural networks, far more than eating calories, we are talking megawatts of power, billions of dollars of electrons are being thrown at these problems and it is not intelligence but access to electrons that enable such synthetic intelligence. And for what? We already have billions of people on this planet that have inherently more computationally sophisticated system running onboard their shoulders that operate at many orders of magnitude greater efficiency with wide actuation bandwidth, precision and dexterity.

This shit’s kinda fucked.

How many megawatts are consumed each second in order to run that self-driving car? Or to run some deepfake?

We are crushing our planet, yet we already have the resources available to solve many of our problems. Humans can just as well be educated and provide input to these systems. In the US we are locking down our borders to “protect” us from the thousands of migrants who want to come to our country to do jobs that we are attempting (and still failing) to automate with billions of dollars of investment. Why not just let people do those jobs? Why automate? Why try to redesign the wheel, or the human hand, when there are so many hands open wishing to help? Why do we spend our resources to demonize populations that only wish to be contributing citizens in a nation that can offer opportunity?

The great hurdles to automation of assembly systems are: grasping, vision, and dynamic human/machine interaction. In academic settings paper upon papers are published attempting to solve these problems, to reproduce the dexterity and complexity of the hand eye coordination, the human hand itself, the muscle. All of these are amazing instruments of evolutionary technology. Why not utilize them to their fullest? Now of course you might say a country such as China has done just that, leveraged a massive workforce to assemble consumer products and unheard of scales to feed the world’s appetite for consumption of the newest gadget. You might say the United States did just the same through the 1700-1860s with its dependence on forced labor, slavery for the production of tobacco and cotton production.

Readings from Stamped from the Beginning explicitly lay out how the US built its great wealth off the backs of slaves while exploiting a narrow reductionist view of “science” to justify actions. In the eyes of the enslavers they were automating their manufacturing processes with the machinery of the slave. Backed by “rigorous science” they claimed a purity in their goals.

While most would argue we are not enslaving (lest we forget the workers mining the rare earth elements that empower all of this) we do risk falling into a similar trap with the religious zeal of the singulatarians driving into obsession with the “scientific” purity of algorithmic reduction of the natural world in order to achieve artificial general intelligence, the singularity.

Curve Control

I would argue that in Resisting Reduction Joi even himself falls for the algorithmic justification in his own argument questioning where we lie in the runaway exponential or self-regulating S-curve of growth while missing the troubling reality of physical systems. The trouble in all of these arguments is that a physical system’s control effort may not saturate safely and the hard limits will always be found by the system, whether you explicitly defined them or not, the limits will be found and when not defined they are damaging if not catastrophic.

Rather than heady system dynamics or statistical analysis I offer a mechatronic control system as analogy. A step input or impulse to a system results in a response that is ideally smooth and critically damped. Depending on the gains of the system whether controlled or uncontrolled the system dynamics may lead to oscillating response at best, and at worst explosive instability. An S-curve response requires sophisticated control effort to map the system response to gradually settle. Strategic high power effort is often required to decelerate system dynamics. It is quite possible the control effort required to safely decelerate the system may be out of the safe operating bounds of the hardware, thus the effort saturates and the system continues to respond violently or uncontrollably until possibly oscillating back into a controllable regime.

What the singulatarian describes is an optimistic ability to breach this saturation limit by finding additional power to enable continued exponential growth. Again, we can look to a physical control system where this condition surely exists. A position controlled robotic arm will execute a command to move a mass to a position, regardless of if a wall blocks its way. The motors will request the maximum current available to achieve the goal, and if the safety limits are removed, or fail those motors will pull as much power as is available, simply melting themselves and their associated electronics — a catastrophic failure — as they repeatably pound into that obstruction. The same goes for a combustion engine, keep feeding it an air-fuel mixture and it will spin faster and faster until it rattles itself to pieces.

Yes, you can overcharge a system, but if that system is pushed beyond its design limits it will fail.

Control Continued - The Observer

This is not to say we should not pursue technology, it is that we should do it with awareness. A technique used in control theory to handle the mismatch between idealized models of a system and physical reality may again be a useful analogy: the disturbance observer. With this control technique there is a desired outcome; there is a closed-loop feedback model that is designed to achieve some desired outcome. A proposed controller often takes into account a model of the natural system dynamics and attempts to invert them such that the system can be controlled beyond their own natural capabilities. The trouble is physics; the real world is nonlinear and difficult to model. The disturbance observer looks at the real response of a system, multiplies it by the inverse of the idealized model, compares that response to the desired response, and then feeds that difference back into the control effort loop. The result is a control command that looks at the reality that the real world is not fully model-able and includes those differences in its desired control effort. The results are robust to disturbance and effective at achieving desired outcomes within system limitations. And never, ever, are the safety limits overridden because the goal is to achieve a robust outcome.

A similar control strategy might modify the argument in Reducing Reduction to add awareness, and observation to the models in addition to physical system constraints to achieve robust performance within safe operating bounds.

Much Later

I’ve been finding it difficult to reach a resting state. I’m attempting to do my final committee meeting (the real defense) at the end of May and there are many hurdles still to overcome. The biggest is the keeping my hardware up and running and fixing it when others make use of it. I forget that my coworkers are mostly a decade or more younger and inexperienced, particularly when it comes to hardware. I found someone had completely disassembled the core structural loop in my actuator the other day because they thought it would be the easiest way to reach a spot on a circuit board they had just installed. That is insane. I just forget the vast difference in common sense among people. The pressure that is mounting has been making it difficult to sit in silence.

I’ve noticed my lab has a bit of an empathy problem at the moment. It seems a number of people are not able to understand the contributions of others. There is a lack of understanding the effort of others. Now this is not everyone but there is a substantial disconnect between the folks who build hardware — which is massively time consuming and difficult — and those what want to use the hardware to get fancy publications. There are folks clamoring for authorship, without regard for the hard work from others.

I have gone back and forth between my practice techniques in an attempt to find a peaceful place. My two practices are vipassana and listening. In Vipassana I sit, focusing on sensation under my nose. Once (if) I can attain some consistency and sensation I then move on to body scans. The other is sitting in silence listening - listening for the faintest sounds. The Red Line runs under my house, so when at home I am reminded of the time by the frequent rumble of the train.

The listening has been helpful in pulling my attention outside of my head. I find it is helpful in that manner.

My emotions are almost entirely devoted to the work these days. I have very little time off, I come home to sleep and nearly every day I am working. I think I am relatively stabilized in this routine. During the week there is nothing but distraction, particularly M-W. It is the weekend when I can finally make progress with limited interruption. I am also consumed with thinking about next steps.

I am recently trying to remove all of external stressors at this point. This includes giving up a job offer that seemed quite solid because I realize this is not the right time to make a big decision that puts additional time constraints on me. I am looking forward to the mountains.

Karthik Dinakar: