Category: Uncategorized

The Inevitability of Cultural Appropriation

Picasso in Native HeaddressI’m on a TGV from Paris to Monaco. The sun was out this morning and the Jardin de Tuileries was filled with homages in tulips to various still lifes at the Louvre. Two days ago, at the Musée de quai Branly—Jacques Chirac, I saw the Picasso Primitif exposition that showcased the influence of indigenous arts on Picasso’s work through the years, often by presenting statues from Africa or Papua New Guinea side-by-side with examples of Picasso’s efforts through the years. If you never made the connection between his cubism and the statuary of Chad (like me), it is eye opening. He wasn’t particularly culturally sensitive—like everyone else until at least the 1960s—because the fascinating people and their cultural works were largely aesthetic objects to him. If he was aware of the significance of particular pieces (and he might have been), it was something he rarely acknowledged or discussed. The photos that tie Picasso to the African statues are the primary thread of the exhibition, with each one, taken at his California atelier or in Paris or whatnot, inscribed by the curators with a dainty red circle or oval to highlight a grainy African statue lurking in the background. Sometimes they provide a blow-up in case you can’t quite make it out. It is only with a full Native American headdress given to Picasso by the actor Gary Cooper that we see him actively mugging for a camera and providing weight to the show’s theme. Then, next, Brigitte Bardot is leaning over him at the California studio and her cleavage renders the distant red oval uninteresting.

I am writing daily about things I don’t fully understand but try to imbue with a sense of character, of interest, and even of humor. In Against Superheroes I try to give a feel for Turkey, despite having never been there and only been introduced to one Turk, a computational linguist for the language, once. Did I do a good job? I can’t say. The audience is not necessarily Turks who would find fault with my renderings. Yet I do strive towards accuracy. I drill down with Google Earth. I read the history. I read recent  politics and analysis and try to imagine what it can be like to be a person there, immersed in that cultural microcosm.

Similar things are afoot in ¡Reconquista!, my newest novel. Though I grew up in the border region with Mexico, I, unlike my son who took three years of it in California, have only telegraphic and pornographic Spanish at my command. Yet I am developing an elaborate plot that weaves together the lives of an underemployed blue-collar white man with a revolutionary-minded Hispanic woman professor who drinks tequila like it’s water and speaks in elaborate abstractions about topics like, well, cultural appropriation. That’s a fighting phrase for her, despite the other incongruities in the tapestry of her life.

Should I feel confident about writing like this? And if I should not, what can I write about? And, the obverse might apply: should an outsider feel free to write about the array of complex social and political issues that make up America? In 2015, Lionel Shriver, the author of a book that got some press and was made into a movie, caused an uproar when she donned a sombrero in Brisbane, Australia and made a series of declarations that such cultural appropriation that might arise from, especially, white males writing about other cultures, should be treated as a celebration of those cultures rather than an attack upon them. Identity is a nebulous concept, she seeemed to be saying, and tying it down to ability, disability, tendency, orientation, upbringing, religion, culture, or nationality does a disservice to the spinning of a good yarn.

I’m certainly not fully in agreement with this, but I do sympathize with the notion that it is critical for writers to embrace the complexity of the pluralistic world we now live in. Doing less than that, avoiding painting pictures that are as polyglot and multifaceted as America and Europe, leaves little room for authenticity unless the works are written by a balanced committee. Perhaps the more important take-away is that building a more diverse collection of critics and reviewers can help, in turn, provide a better filter for the authenticity that, perhaps, critics of Shriver are looking for. This would parallel efforts to rectify the lack of diversity among Hollywood producers, directors, writers, actors, and voting members of the Academy.

I will close by noting that a chubby little French senior is attempting surgery to extract a splinter from his finger across from me. His wife was helping for a bit, too, stabbing at his index with a white Swiss Army knife that he spent some time surveying and unfolding before landing on the right weapon for the job. She hurt him too much, though, it seemed, and he waved her away. This, in public, and in first class? I suppose I need more data points on the French mind that is increasingly moving towards a closed focus on preserving Frenchness against the outsider. Safe for splinter-stabbing, I suppose.

Boredom and Being a Decider

tds_decider2_v6Seth Lloyd and I have rarely converged (read: absolutely never) on a realization, but his remarkable 2013 paper on free will and halting problems does, in fact, converge on a paper I wrote around 1986 for an undergraduate Philosophy of Language course. I was, at the time, very taken by Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter’s poetic excursion around the topic of recursion, vertical structure in ricercars, and various other topics that stormed about in his book. For me, when combined with other musings on halting problems, it led to a conclusion that the halting problem could be probabilistically solved by an observer who decides when the recursion is too repetitive or too deep. Thus, it prescribes an overlay algorithm that guesses about the odds of another algorithm when subjected to a time or resource constraint. Thus we have a boredom algorithm.

I thought this was rather brilliant at the time and I ended up having a one-on-one with my prof who scoffed at GEB as a “serious” philosophical work. I had thought it was all psychedelically transcendent and had no deep understanding of more serious philosophical work beyond the papers by Kripke, Quine, and Davidson that we had been tasked to read. So I plead undergraduateness. Nevertheless, he had invited me to a one-on-one and we clashed over the concept of teleology and directedness in evolutionary theory. How we got to that from the original decision trees of halting or non-halting algorithms I don’t recall.

But now we have an argument that essentially recapitulates that original form, though with the help of the Hartmanis-Stearns theorem to support it. Whatever the algorithm that runs in our heads, it needs to simulate possible outcomes and try to determine what the best course of action might be (or the worst course, or just some preference). That algorithm is in wetware and is therefore perfectly deterministic. And, importantly, quantum indeterminacy doesn’t rescue us from the free-will implications of that determinism at all; randomness is just random, not decision-making. Instead, the impossibility of assessing the possible outcomes comes from one algorithm monitoring another. In a few narrow cases, it may be possible to enumerate all the stopping results of the enclosed algorithm, but in general, all you can do is greedily terminate branches in the production tree based on some kind of temporal or resource-based criteria,

Free will is neither random nor classically deterministic, but is an algorithmic constraint on the processing power to simulate reality in a conscious, but likely deterministic, head.

Evolving Visions of Chaotic Futures

FlutterbysMost artificial intelligence researchers think unlikely the notion that a robot apocalypse or some kind of technological singularity is coming anytime soon. I’ve said as much, too. Guessing about the likelihood of distant futures is fraught with uncertainty; current trends are almost impossible to extrapolate.

But if we must, what are the best ways for guessing about the future? In the late 1950s the Delphi method was developed. Get a group of experts on a given topic and have them answer questions anonymously. Then iteratively publish back the group results and ask for feedback and revisions. Similar methods have been developed for face-to-face group decision making, like Kevin O’Connor’s approach to generating ideas in The Map of Innovation: generate ideas and give participants votes equaling a third of the number of unique ideas. Keep iterating until there is a consensus. More broadly, such methods are called “nominal group techniques.”

Most recently, the notion of prediction markets has been applied to internal and external decision making. In prediction markets,  a similar voting strategy is used but based on either fake or real money, forcing participants towards a risk-averse allocation of assets.

Interestingly, we know that optimal inference based on past experience can be codified using algorithmic information theory, but the fundamental problem with any kind of probabilistic argument is that much change that we observe in society is non-linear with respect to its underlying drivers and that the signals needed are imperfect. As the mildly misanthropic Nassim Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, the only place where prediction takes on smooth statistical regularity is in Las Vegas, which is why one shouldn’t bother to gamble. Taleb’s approach is to look instead at minimizing the impact of shocks (or hedging them in financial markets).

But maybe we can learn something from philosophical circles. For instance, Evolutionary Epistemology (EE), as formulated by Donald Campbell, Sir Karl Popper, and others, posits that central to knowledge formation is blind variation and selective retention. Combined with optimal induction, this leads to random processes being injected into any kind of predictive optimization. We do this in evolutionary algorithms like Genetic Algorithms, Evolutionary Programming, Genetic Programming, and Evolutionary Strategies, as well as in related approaches like Simulated Annealing. But EE also suggests that there are several levels of learning by variation/retention, from the phylogenetic learning of species through to the mental processes of higher organisms. We speculate and trial-and-error continuously, repeating loops of what-ifs in our minds in an effort to optimize our responses in the future. It’s confounding as hell but we do remarkable things that machines can’t yet do like folding towels or learning to bake bread.

This noosgeny-recapitulates-ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny (just made that up) can be exploited in a variety of ways for abductive inference about the future. We can, for instance, use evolutionary optimization with a penalty for complexity that simulates the informational trade-off of AIT-style inductive optimality. Further, the noosgeny component (by which I mean the internalized mental trial-and-error) can reduce phylogenetic waste in simulations by providing speculative modeling that retains the “parental” position on the fitness landscape before committing to a next generation of potential solutions, allowing for further probing of complex adaptive landscapes.

Purple Flowers

Pacific GroveI’ve got Ligeti’s Lontano running—vast sheaves of tones, building and yielding like the striated dark bands in the edge sands of a beach—while the sun sets through clouds and fern pines. The shadows on the windows are swarming minnows rising and falling before the dense mass of new rain like a Great Wall to the west.

I just returned from an overnighter to Monterey, running out from Cannery Row along the complex purple-flowered walls of Pacific Grove, yelping harbor seals cooking along the rocks and thin spits of sand, their voices mixing with the endless baby wails of seabirds as evening set in.

And Prince is dead. I seem to be commemorating dead people these days. I thought he was an interesting oddity in the earliest years of MTV with his soul moves, but didn’t really find a degree of respect for his talents until I was in the Peace Corps and on leave to the capital city of Fiji, Suva, over summer break (December-ish, 1990). I had nothing better to do than to wander the streets, meet-up and drink with whoever was available, and go to the air-conditioned movie theater whenever I could afford it. I saw Graffiti Bridge probably four times and, by the second showing, had revised my opinion of Prince to that of a great innovator. The music was both like and unlike anything I had heard, rippling with tempo changes and rapid polyrhythms, sharp synchronization and dense harmonies. The movie was, however, terrible.

Like Bowie’s Quicksand and Velvet Underground’s Candy Says, I memorialize Cream and Kiss, and, perhaps the most impressive, Sinead O’Connor’s rendition of Nothing Compares 2 U. It still brings tears. She apparently had a fist-fight with Prince over her more religio-politico antics.

Vin versus the Vampires, Chapter 2: Dealing with the Creditors

Vin dev Unpublished novel chapter about vampires taking over Hollywood, from the perspective of Vin Diesel. Vin arrives in London to work on a new film about vampires but is attacked by a strange creature while jogging in Hyde Park.

The doctor is a woman, brown, Indian or Pakistani, and, as usual when I first arrive in Britain, I am surprised that the accent can accompany any serious discussion at all. Yes, I had a tetanus shot three years ago. Actually, yes, I had the typhus series, too. No, it was definitely not a dog but admittedly, yes, I am not sure exactly what it was. I’m grinning at her as she projects standardized health system concern through the lilts and dips of pure Londoner. She keeps glancing at my grin, either not recognizing me or just concerned that I am drunk or high. It’s just the accent, I think about blurting out; I can’t take it seriously, sorry, an American oddity exaggerated by the pain in my knee and the early morning hours without much sleep. But I clam up and answer her questions only getting a bit peeved at the third round of, “Had you been drinking”

“No, I was jogging. I was jetlagged. I was jogging. Really.”

There were no stitches, just a bandage and a shot of broad-spectrum antibiotics. As I finished up and signed off, I thought about sneaking a peak at the chart to see if she had annotated “likely alcoholic” or something on the page, but it was almost 9 AM British Summer Time and I needed a nap before my meeting in the afternoon, so I scribbled where I needed to scribble and grabbed a cab back to the hotel, hobbling in past the front desk with my tattered sweats sweeping the marble of the lobby.

Monica was mercifully still asleep and the sheet had drifted down revealing her lithe, young body. I thought about waking her, but I needed sleep more than processing and just stripped and slid in beside her after calling the front desk for a wake-up call from the bathroom phone. Did they know when I called from the bathroom phone?

It didn’t work, of course, and I hit the mini-bar for a tiny little Johnny Walker Red that I chugged down and went back to the bed until the creeping warmth came over me and the fear and pain in my gut subsided.

***

“OK, OK, we have Vlad Tepes and he resents his father for having ransomed him to the court of the Ottomans as a child”

“Right, OK, so he is a footstool to the empire.”

“Nice, huck huck, but it is the resentment that is growing towards the Empire—towards Islam. Is that what this is? Is it a religious war allegory paralleling modern times?”

“Great, an allegory where the Christians go medieval on the Muslims for being forced to pay taxes?”

“It’s all about resentment. Resentment of the father. Resentment of fate.”

“Coppola made it about love.”

“It’s not about romantic love.”

“Why can’t it be?”

“It can’t be because this is a serious film that only takes mild liberties with the history.”

“How mild? Can’t a love interest be mild? The second wife threw herself into the river rather than becoming enslaved to the Turks.”

“But it was the brother, Radu, who was a scion of the Ottoman court who led the assault. It was about power. But maybe it was about family and about sibling rivalry. The return of the brother, the struggle against the prodigal son?”

“Vlad married again. The loss of wife number two was no big whoop. It wasn’t about love, so power may be the motivation.”

“Machiavellian-grade power. Courts opposed to one another in a game of chess.”

“Many wives. Tutors-esque sex games combined with power. Vin could fuck a bunch of class A starlets on velvet altars. Could we get Megan Fox? I bet Lindsay Lohan is available.”

“It’s good to be the Dragon of Wallachia.”

“Good, indeed. Could we tie this to the British Royal Family? They are related.”

“God, that would be sumptuous. Reflections of Pippa as she imagines the ancient royals fucking.”

“Pippa’s a commoner, mate.”

“Fair enough.”

“The power struggle is about the brothers. It’s about loyalty to one another, to family, and to country.”

“But dad, the original Dracul, did the ransoming in support of his own rise to power. He was scared, he was cowardly enough that a couple of kids as ransom didn’t matter. He could get another wife and more kids.”

“So could Vlad. So did Radu. These people were fucking monsters.”

“It’s a cold-hearted tale of how monstrous these people were. It’s no wonder they were thought of as monsters later on. Like father, like Son One and Son Two. Son One just gets a little more medieval in his revenge antics. Son One just gets more bloody.”

“There is a subplot built in there, though. There must be. The motivation can’t be that every one of them is horrible by, what? By nurture or by nature? By the struggle for power? By the failure of love? There has to be something that makes us like Vin, Vlad, and makes us respect the decisions that he makes.”

“Maybe not. Maybe I’m not likeable. Maybe that is the subplot.”

“Maybe we can’t get funding for the project, too, Vin.”

“Historical continuity. These people are just part of the flow of history. They aren’t horrible in the context of the civilization they are a part of. The audience can excuse them their sins because they are blown on the winds of fortune.”

“That takes clever direction and a clever screenplay. I want to turn Vlad into an antihero of a sort. He is forced to do what he does because there are no better outcomes. He is conflicted with his brutality, but can’t think of any other way forward.”

“What if he is being manipulated by underlings, by viceroys and priests, all of whom have their own agendas.”

“That might work. He puts the enemies heads on pikes because his court whispers in his ear that thousands of Turks are possessed by demons, or he is seeking revenge on his brother.”

“That might be it. Back to the sibling rivalry, but the killings are trying to kill Radu, and he sits on his thrown in pure pathos.”

“Not at all consistent with the history. Vlad III was installed by the Ottomans, but then was exiled and returned to retake the throne of Wallachia at the point of a very personal sword. He later was held captive for a decade until getting back Wallachia, only to be assassinated.”

“Why not then that Vlad was actually innocent of most atrocities and they were fabricated by that guy who had him imprisoned?”

“Corvinus.”

“Right. It was all hype and we just have a period piece with a complex crusade ongoing. Corvinus didn’t want the Papacy to condemn him for not fighting the Muslim hordes, so he scapegoated Vlad. We would get points with the Romanians for this.”

“And condemnation from Turkey? Maybe?”

“All of Islam, except that Turkey is an anomaly because they weren’t Arab, so they are historical pariahs like Persia or Bactria. Arabs are hypersensitive because Arabic is the language of Allah. Turkish, not so much.”

“I still like love as a motivation. Let’s abandon the pretense of historicity and just charge forward with a brutal rom-com. Vlad’s girlfriend was stolen by his brother for Bey or something, to add to his harem and humiliate the ruler of Wallachia. It was petty for the Ottomans, but personal for Tepes.”

“There is the Hungarian epic, too. Corvinus was the son of John Hunyadi. Neither was royal blood, but were elected by parliamentary action. He’s a Hungarian hero, too, so the story could be that Corvinus was trying to temper the primitive urges of violence and parlay peace between East and West. Vlad was a loose cannon who kept impaling everyone, which was good for the Hungarians in realpolitik, but was bad for the empire. Corvinus becomes the wise uncle who is struggling to hold together nascent democracy.”

“Democratic winds opposed by the zephyr of medieval brutality and invasion.”

“Vin as Vlad becomes secondary if we go that route, and our bankability becomes secondary.”

“Do what you need to as far as my role is concerned. I’ll just go, no-go at the contractually agreed to points, guys.”

***

Fucking writers and producers. And these guys are early development people. They generally don’t last past the first trimester. Insert the seed and move on. Collect a check as you go. There are a few exceptions, but the majority are just looking for easy scores until they find a big project that will translate into consistent, high-value upside. I’m there already, so while I sympathize with the struggle, I have to watch for bloodsuckers, too.

Damn, my knee feels like a fork’s been jabbed into it. Monica gave me a backrub after the meeting, which helped, and the prescription Vicodin from the chemist at hospital (yeah, when in Rome, think with an accent at least) is starting to creep in, warm things up, cancel out the sting. The jab is dropping off behind warm, fuzzy cloaks as the sun retreats behind a cloud bank and gray fades to the sulfur-lit night of greater London. I guess I can’t disagree with hobbling down to the hotel bar with Monica. She’s holding me up against the ache of gravity like I’m a late night drunk staggering home from the football match. She’s doing it with style, too, in a black mini-dress and matching black leather stilettos. She’s worth it there for a moment as she settles me into a booth with a view of the TV and orders a beer and champagne.

***

“The meeting went well, yes?”

“I want to fly to Romania tomorrow.”

“Why? Romania is a backwards place. Let’s go to Barcelona and party all night.”

“Baby, baby, you are a beautiful creature tonight. Romania is where I need to go. I think you fly into Bucharest. We can get a car there and drive up to Transylvania. I need to meet someone there.”

“Meet someone in Transylvania? That is very strange, Vin.”

“Sounds creepy, don’t it? It’s for the movie, ya know? There is a historian there in some place, Sig-his-sour or Sig-his-soar-a, that Jan said I need to talk to. This guy has a theory about the Hungarians creating the myth of Vlad the Impaler.”

“Dracula, Dracula, it is dead, I think. There are too many books, too many movies, little girls and sparkly men, wolves fighting them, diseases, all such things. It is boring like zombies.”

“Zombies are very cool right now. There is still gas in that tank, baby.”

“Maybe you should make a movie about Frankenstein. Frankenstein has not been done.”

“Many times, but you are right that Frankenstein hasn’t been done recently. It seems to have lost its allure. The guy’s kinda creepy, ya know, with bolts and stitches and brain damage. I don’t think it has audience appeal.”

“That is why it needs to be done again, Vin. It needs to be made sexy. You could make it sexy like they make the vampires sexy.”

“Vampires are easy to make sexy, baby. You just dress them up and have them act cool. Frankensteins have damaged brains and have to be primitive. Maybe if the monster was a genetic creation, though, who was extra perfect. Genetics people talk about Frankenstein crops and stuff. I’m thinking cloning.”

“Better than vampires, I think. You get Jan to work on that and we can go back to L.A., OK?”

“No, I think we need to ride the wave, here. Vampires are still hot. Hot like you, Moni-baby. Yeah, we’ll just drop into Romania for a few days. It will be an adventure. You’ll love it.”

“I hate Romania.”

“You been there?”

“Three times, but it is always the same. Sad. Mal. Hotel service sucks.”

“It’s OK, Monica. I’ll get Jan to find us the best place to stay, OK? You can order room service while I go meet this cat. I want to learn more about the Hungarian connection. Jan said there was something more to it that connects to the modern world. Making these old brutal fuckers more accessible is what we need to do or we won’t have a picture at all.”

“OK, Vin. If that’s what you want to do.”

“Yeah, that’s what I wanna do. You along for the ride, baby?”

“Sure, Vin.”

“Jan said that we may need to get back to L.A. pretty soon, anyway. Gil Mempson is a producer on Vlad and it looks like he is still on the fence about funding. I may need to put in some face time.”

“Did I meet him at the Spielberg party?”

“Yeah, I think so. Funny he showed up there. He was drunk, right.”

“He was drunk. He was sexy, too.”

“Old and drunk and sexy, too. You’re fucked up, Monica.”

“I know. It’s good to be me. Romania, yes?”

“Yeah, but just for a few days, OK?”

Curiouser and Curiouser

georgeJürgen Schmidhuber’s work on algorithmic information theory and curiosity is worth a few takes, if not more, for the researcher has done something that is both flawed and rather brilliant at the same time. The flaws emerge when we start to look deeply into the motivations for ideas like beauty (is symmetry and noncomplex encoding enough to explain sexual attraction? Well-understood evolutionary psychology is probably a better bet), but the core of his argument is worth considering.

If induction is an essential component of learning (and we might suppose it is for argument’s sake), then why continue to examine different parameterizations of possible models for induction? Why be creative about how to explain things, like we expect and even idolize of scientists?

So let us assume that induction is explained by the compression of patterns into better and better models using an information theoretic-style approach. Given this, Schmidhuber makes the startling leap that better compression and better models are best achieved by information harvesting behavior that involves finding novelty in the environment. Thus curiosity. Thus the implementation of action in support of ideas.

I proposed a similar model to explain aesthetic preferences for mid-ordered complex systems of notes, brush-strokes, etc. around 1994, but Schmidhuber’s approach has the benefit of not just characterizing the limitations and properties of aesthetic systems, but also justifying them. We find interest because we are programmed to find novelty, and we are programmed to find novelty because we want to optimize our predictive apparatus. The best optimization is actively seeking along the contours of the perceivable (and quantifiable) universe, and isolating the unknown patterns to improve our current model.

Minimizing Existential Toaster Threats

tesla2Philosophy in the modern world has strived for a sense of relevance as the sciences (“natural philosophy”) have become dominant. But philosophy may have found a footing in the complicated space between technological advances and defining human virtues with efforts to address and understand change and its impact on human existence. These efforts have included the ethics of biological manipulation and, critically, existential threats to humanity, including climate change, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering.

I mention all this because I’m really writing about cars but need to fit the discussion somehow into the theme of this blog. So the existential threat of climate change means we need to pollute less and burn less fossil fuels. More tactically, however, my wife and I also needed to buy a new toaster because our five-year-old Oster four-burner unit was failing. There was therefore only one solution to this dilemma: take the brand new Tesla S 70 miles away to the foothills of the Sierra on a test drive and, yes, to buy a new toaster.

I had taken delivery of our Tesla S Performance 85 with Tech Package a week before but didn’t really have any opportunity to drive it because of work obligations that kept me firmly planted in front of a computer monitor. I had driven it briefly but it mostly sat charging in the garage (at the slowish pace of a 120V circuit; Tesla did not deliver my dual charger station in time and I haven’t had the 100A circuit installed to support it either), so when Saturday came, I realized that it was an opportunity to justify a longish trek to test the drivability of the car and to seek out and use the Tesla “supercharger” stations that promise rapid charging in 30 minutes to an hour. I had several choices for supercharging stations, including the outlet mall at Gilroy, Harris Ranch (basically some truck stops between San Francisco and Los Angeles), and Folsom (a suburb of Sacramento) outlet malls. Why outlet malls were chosen for these installations I do not know.

Roadrash
Roadrash

The journey began poorly, however, when I scraped a wheel against a curb at a Starbucks resulting in a small flap of rubber protruding from the Michelin Pilot Sports. That flap oscillated and rattled at highway speeds. I had to pull over and inspect. Luckily my wife as usual has a wood-and-turquoise-handled folding knife handy in her purse. I cut away the rubber and we proceeded north towards Sacramento.

Driving impressions: Quiet at freeway speeds, but not as quiet as I might have expected due to road and wind noises. The technology suite is impressive with such amenities as free internet radio via 3G connectivity (currently paid by Tesla), web browsing, Google-maps-based nav, SiriusXM radio, speech recognition, and smart innovations like garage door openers that pop up via GPS as the car approaches a programmed garage. The torque and acceleration are astonishing and definitely rival or exceed contemporary supercars (save a Veyron or Aventador), but driving hot and fast is discouraged by the psychology of electric cars where calm and slow maximize battery life.

Lunch took 2 hours at Ten 22 in Old Sacramento, starting with duck confit and fig pizzette, then followed by warm spinach and truffle salad, finalized with Marin brie and honeycomb with Earl Grey. We almost didn’t want to leave, much less buy a toaster, but the charging station was only 20 miles away and we found it after crawling around the ring of the outlet mall for 10 minutes. It turned out that there was another gray S charging there, but the other three stations were unoccupied. I spoke briefly with the owner, then re-encountered him 20 minutes later after we had re-charged to maximum range. He was chatting with another couple just hooking up their wine-colored S.

Continuing on to the Galleria at Roseville, I was disappointed to find only two Chargepoint stations for the entire mall (and both occupied by Volts), but at least we got a toaster while minimizing at least one existential threat.

tesla-windmills

Signals and Noise: Chapter 15 (Synaesthesia)

The drift from daylight into twilight held an anxiety for Zach. There was a liquescent feeling to the air that was a result of the luminous ocean, the cars, and the windows of the coastal homes. The morning was much bolder in its transition—less lackadaisical—because the coastal range blocked the light into a striated glow until finally rolling over town in full heat, bearing down on the fogbank that stretched out to the south like twirling cotton candy. He woke up scared in a way that he rarely ever did. There had been days when he awoke in a full flush, bounding out to the living room to peer out through the blinds, marveling that the FBI had not yet arrived, but there had always been a mischievous edge to his fears. If he had been arrested, taken in, interrogated, it was all part of the stripes associated with his own actions. This time was different for Zach. He was scared that there was something else going on that he did not understand, and he was not at all used to not understanding or, at least, thinking he understood.

The online universe had not changed and PoorGore was not back in The Spinner’s miniverse. He checked in on the Idaho papers, narrowing to the southwest corner of the state, watching for anomalies. Pollution, grazing rights, indigenous casinos and their impacts, car dealerships going under, property taxes—it was all normal for the time being except that PoorGore had vanished and nothing significant had happened. Zach’s mental math suggested he could be anywhere in the United States given the elapsed time since PoorGore’s last post. He peered at FC’s house from space again, but the satellite imagery had not changed. The red truck remained the bright spot among the grays of the season. Zach contacted an online acquaintance from Eastern Europe and tried to get access to the cell phone system. He wanted to track FC, to disprove that he was actively plotting some nefarious act. In broken l33t speak, CY411 offered passage into one of three major cell carriers in the United States, but wanted two hundred bucks for the info. Zach knew he was good for it and the information would be accurate, but he was not about to pay for the privilege of getting in a back door to check something so simple. He offered a trade with some hints concerning a banking network in the United Kingdom and eventually CY411 offered to get him the information he wanted. It would take a day or so, he said, because he was just heading to sleep. Zach had to wait.

The text alert didn’t come until after school, leaving him the day to think about whether PoorGore had said anything about the place The Spinner had chosen for his incomprehensible last stand against the oppressive anti-freedom powers. He surfed through this question at lunch, brushing off Shakey and the pugnacious and plump Wilmer to focus on his phone between slices of tasteless pizza. There had been some rumblings and theories about why the school had been chosen shortly after the event. imPalin44 had offered the first speculation, claiming that The Spinner had gone to school there and knew how the system was brainwashing the kids into accepting the dysfunctional liberalism of California as normal and healthy. The teachers were following a script concocted by an army of dilettantes bent on Marxist subjugation. They were collateral damage in imPalin44’s worldview (Zach recoiled at the notion that there was such a thing as a worldview but it was a temporary placeholder for him, as useful as the shorthand of cultural anthropologists trying to stay objective while witchdoctors exorcise demons from cancer patients). But PoorGore had stepped in at that point, derailing the suggestion because he could not believe that The Spinner would have succumbed to something so limited. He had a bigger plan, PoorGore asserted, and dozens more agreed with the assessment. Zach was impressed that there were even a few moments of disagreement among The Spinner’s cognoscenti, but saw how PoorGore had stepped into the role of central Alpha through a series of quick corrections and focusing of the group’s attentions. He had waited just enough for the initial, malformed and malleable suggestion, then responded with a forceful objection and choreographed series of alternate hypotheses that were followed by a promise for more soon. He had implied that he knew the answer or at least an answer, and had heightened the tension by suggesting a scaffold of supporting evidence. There had been no note with the body or in the home, implying that The Spinner had been trying to avoid intervention in his plan by vigilant enemies or spies, and that he had not planned on killing himself. He had driven his silver Ford truck directly into the staff and visitor parking lot and had parked rather than stopped in the fire lane, implying that he had planned to return to his vehicle rather than having gone on a suicide mission. To PoorGore and his audience these facts seemed to support a narrative where The Spinner had been after something specific and had perhaps not been planning to kill at all. His suicide on the beach wasn’t a suicide at all, but had been staged to simply resemble one.

Zach was impressed by the reasoning that emerged herky-jerky from the collective posts of PoorGore and others. They were rational when confronted with a problem that challenged them, and set aside the magic and fear enough to make progress on the dilemma at hand. Zach looked through the police reports and press stories for confirmation of each of the factual claims and found them to be true. He also dug up a sketched map from a detailed next-day news report outlining how The Spinner had traversed the school. He had walked right past the main office and headed for the science wing, it appeared. His shooting began there, but not immediately inside the doors. He had walked past three classrooms to open the door of a fourth, shot twice, killing a girl and the teacher, then moved on. He was not a pachinko ball deflected among random interactions until firing without thought. He had had a goal.

Zach wandered to the science wing, modestly active due to lunch schedules. He saw the classroom shown in the drawing. It was closed and locked with a sign behind the crossed wires of the vertical window indicating that classes had been moved down the hall. He peered over it and saw a few desks at slight angles but little more. If there had been blood it had been cleaned up. The science teacher had had an accent, Zach recalled. He was Southeast Asian and a first generation immigrant. Zach had been transfixed by the news and had watched the man’s life story unfold like a flower in the morning sun. He was Cambodian and had fled the Khmer Rouge with his family, making their way to the United States. He had studied chemistry at UC Northridge, but then took his Masters in education. He had been married but was divorced for a year or two after eight years of teaching. There had been photos of happy times on TV. There had been photos of Mr. Buna as a kid, smiling with an ice cream at Disneyland in the late 70s.

Zach remembered something else, though. He had thought he had seen an Asian man walking outside during the shootings. It had to have been The Spinner but never quite fit for Zach. If the man had been The Spinner, why was he in the quad at that time? He was starting to doubt the standard narrative but didn’t know whether there was any sense to the new narrative that was trying to crowd out the standard one. There were inconsistencies that were beginning to become amplified, and it made Zach nervous. He wanted to warn someone but was acutely aware of the level of paranoia that he would be projecting if he made the series of unsubstantiated and insubstantial claims that he was contemplating.

The bell rang and Zach was shivering a bit. He had sudden fight or flight and started to jog towards the rear exit from the wing. He could see faint tufts of palms rocking and whipping in the winds. Stay away from crowds. Stay away from school. The impulses subsided lightly as he threw open the door with a clang of the cross bar and hit the blacktop below. A few students pushed their way passed him, absorbed in their discussions, and reset Zach against the nagging of the quiet in the empty hall, and back to the chirping of the birds of youth.

Back to class, Zach saw, heard, and felt tension. There was a buzz in his ears and the air was again liquescent, thick and suddenly humid. He tried to focus on the lecture about cross-sections of curves, miniscule slices of an envisioned model of how physical systems interacted. There was something almost tactile about the model, just briefly, as the thin segments scratched in chalks narrowed down towards infinitesimal. Zach didn’t believe that there was any possibility that the image came first, before the mathematical complexities that were imperfectly projected on the cave wall. It couldn’t, he surmised, because there was no way to connect the squeezing of the infinitesimals to the symbolic transformations that were swirling beside it. The equations came first during play, he suspected. First was the realization that the differentiation could be mechanically rendered using a few almost algebraic flips of the pen, writing long down the columns of old parchment by candlelight. Then came the interpretation, the visual phantoms erupting days and weeks later in trials at forming an explanation of what it all could possibly mean. Then, suspiciously, the visual compression of the slices into something thinner than air itself took on a physicality that felt like touching sharp claymation intent on animating the imagery of possible explanations.

Zach felt the same about The Spinner and his web. He could again taste the metallic fear that had dried his tongue as he crouched beside his desk. He could feel the weight of panic and intrigue, the silenced breaths, hanging around him as the shots had echoed behind the dividing door. Reconciling that deathly fear with the facts was opening a new canyon beneath him. He had been standing for an hour at the docks watching a yacht. He was trying to score the cell phone records of some nut from Idaho. He could stop briefly, hold in place, but he could not completely deactivate the swirling mental processes that began with ponds of paranoia drawing thin filaments between events and people, then poured away most of the thicket like hot metal from the mouth of a mold. There were patterns and hidden variables and he was attuned to touch and feel them. He watched and felt the lecture reach a crescendo as the final answers were revealed: pi over 3 square meters. Zach’s sensorium registered relief as the result emerged from the tangle and it made perfect sense to him that there were complex variables rigidly resolvable in the fluidity of the argument about change and slopes. That slope’s the dope, he thought, and didn’t bother to do the homework problems.

The user and password did not arrive on time and Zach was tracking his source while waiting on the train after school. He cajoled and exhorted but CY411 was cold, nonresponsive. Then, with a l33t yawn of indifference, he was back in the chat rooms that morphed from continent to continent, server to server, and had the keys to the kingdom of the boring world of call detail records. Zach took them away and secreted them on a server in the gray universe of open Ukrainian servers. He imagined young men in black leather blowing into their hands to warm them as they set up email servers for Russian mobsters, for botnets, and kiddie pornmeisters hiding behind the complexities of international law. He had a small corner there where he stuck sensitive materials, with redundancy in the backwaters of an Indonesian military contractor. He felt around a bit for strange signals and rootkits, then encrypted the data into a random field of peaks and valleys before trying his first access to the cell phone system.

He was in immediately and started familiarizing himself with the landscape. There was a central database with many tables for customers. There was a second database for corporate employees. He did not have credentials for that one. And then, with a shallow breath and gulp of energy drink in the late afternoon of his cavern, Zach found Finley Carlton of Idaho. It was a clean find, too, because Finley Carlton was unambiguous. If he had been searching for Jim Smith he would have had problems. The billing address was a match, as well. Zach stared at the screen and it almost pulsed at him for a moment. The clarity was just so perfect. He spilled the call record and sorted by date and time, isolating the last few days.

And there it was: a call from San Chardin to Idaho dated yesterday, lasting two minutes and thirty three seconds. Mid-afternoon, while Zach walked the quad, heading for the parking lot. Zach’s breath was shallow again and he heard his heartbeat in his ears. He was here, he thought. He was here and no one knew it but Zach. He grabbed the phone receiver and stared at the amber keyboard. What would he tell them, though? What made sense when no crime had been committed? Maybe PoorGore/Finley Carlton just wanted to see the scene of The Spinner’s alleged crime spree (the introduction of “alleged” served both as a prospective acknowledgement of the kind of neutrality that the local news haphazardly engaged in and as a recognition of the vague unease that Zach now felt about the facts of the shooting incident). Maybe he wanted to try to unravel the tangled motivations that he attributed to his former friend and acquaintance. In either case, Zach was panicky enough that he double-checked the door lock and spent twenty minutes peering between the front blinds. He did not just glance, either, but stilled his breathing and encompassed the visual scene, watching for abnormal stillness in the grasses across the road. He slid across the window to see the blue Honda parallel parked: no occupant. There was anticipatory dread, though Zach knew that PoorGore had no idea who he was. It had little impact on the fear that had enveloped him. He stayed by the window until his mom returned home at eight, Thai take-away in her arms. He was so glad to see her he hugged her as she came in the door. She sensed a crisis moment and started to run through lists of responses that she had found online. The list was long, though, and she didn’t have any bearings to navigate the reasons for this sudden assault of affection, and finally untensed and leaned into her son and they were still for a few moments as his breathing slowed to normal against her neck.