Thursday, January 17, 2019

the Polar Star and the Life Endgame (elegy for a departed friend)


When you approach the age of ninety, death does not come unexpectedly: it is the silent shadow that walks with you, that you get to know intimately long before the final encounter. Such is the nature of things, but much as we all know it, friendship remains entirely oblivious of these considerations: when we mourn the loss of a friend our grief does not care whether it is something we logically should have come to expect. I am not going to write here the obituary you all have seen already, the one everybody rushed to publish, from the New York Times (that by their own admission had it ready since 2015) and the BBC, to the various science academies he once presided and the prestigious British universities he had been a faculty member of. I will not give you the Homeric catalog of the ships, with listings of scientific achievements, prizes, and famous theorems. If you want visions of mathematical heroism, there's a whole seven volumes of them: get hold of your library copy of his collected works, open a random page of a random volume and start reading. You will find beauty and poetry in mathematical form. 


The idea of beauty as a guiding light, the polar star of the mathematical navigators is not new: after all mathematics and aesthetic beauty have been closely connected since at least the classical canon of the Greeks. This is however one of the most striking manifestations of the principle on such a large scale and within the development of contemporary mathematics. Even when the work is at its most demanding technical depth, it maintains always a sense of elegance, of flowing smoothly (even if not at all easily) along a path of minimal resistance through the landscape of our aesthetic appreciation. To those who wonder whether mathematics should be regarded as a science or as a form of art, this lends enough material for reflection: it is, I guess, both and maybe at the same time neither. Much has been said over the years about how mathematics and theoretical physics grew apart during the twentieth century and then began to come to terms with each other again and find novel forms of convergence at a much more sophisticated level than ever happened before. Atiyah himself played a  pivotal role in making this newly rediscovered phase of mutual interaction possible, first with his mathematical development of gauge theories, then by throwing his strenuous support behind the ongoing development of string theory. He was always attentive to many other areas of mathematics where interaction with theoretical physics happened in interesting ways. I became a theoretical physicist first and later a mathematician. I remember the very first research paper I ever read in my early days as a physics student was the Atiyah-Drinfeld-Hitchin-Manin construction of instantons: I was very fortunate to become later on a very good friend and collaborator with two of the authors of that paper. 



There is something elusive about the idea of beauty as a guiding principle of mathematical research, something mysterious. After all, let's admit it, most of the time we struggle when we are trying to get things to work, and there does not seem to be much beauty and calm aesthetic appreciation there. We all agree that beauty is truth, truth beauty in front of a Grecian urn, but what about in front of that calculation that still does not come out right? The key here, the very special skill that makes this possible, is to be able to see beyond, to have a larger and deeper horizon, to be able to see the large scale structure before the detail, without implying that the detail will be of lesser importance in the process: "a great mathematical theory should be beautiful on both large and small scales." The idea that there should be a polar star, our sense of beauty and elegance, driving the process of mathematical creativity is closely related to the sense that the origin of mathematical ideas is very far remote from their ultimate polished form that we see as the end result of the process: "People think mathematics begin when you write down a theorem followed by a proof. That's not the beginning, that's the end. ... You are trying to create, just like a musician is trying to create music, or a poet. There are no rules laid down." Trusting this initial vague intuition enough, regardless of its shapeless form, on the guidance of aesthetic feelings alone, to develop it slowly and over time into a solid and profound piece of work is the most remarkable but unfortunately least documented part of mathematical invention: "the crazy part of mathematics is when an idea appears in your head... it floats around in the sky; you look at it and admire its colours. It's just there." It's good to keep in mind that this is how all of it, all of this huge edifice of work, actually happened to take shape. I remember when a then MIT now Harvard professor commented to me on how Atiyah had a special talent for making his papers walk into the history of mathematics: he didn't mean it as a compliment, but in fact it really is. His papers did walk triumphantly into the history of mathematics because he was every so often able to just see the right openings where a new idea would fit perfectly like the key that unlocked the passage door, that opened up a whole new direction, and ended up becoming extremely influential in all the later developments of the field. This is mathematical creativity at its best.

He argued many times against sectarian divides and ferocious territoriality in mathematics: "I dislike frontiers, political and intellectual, and I find that ignoring them is an essential catalyst for creative thought." Some have rightly cared to also mention in their eulogies his genuine desire to build a better and more inclusive mathematical community, his attentiveness to the many overt and hidden forms of discrimination within the mathematical world and in the larger society, his friendliness, approachability and good humour. I am not here to talk about the many human qualities I have come to know and appreciate over these last few years of discussions, friendship, and collaboration. I am not here to weave a golden tapestry with beautiful stories of mathematics and theoretical physics and the thick interplay between geometry and physics that he came to uncover. I am also not here to compile a long and complicated biography. 



My purpose here is different. I will momentarily wear the mantle and sandals of Shakespeare's Mark Antony and walk so disguised onto the imaginary stage of a mathematical community I have come over the years to regard as violent and hostile. I am here to deliver that speech this community should not be allowed to eschew on this occasion. 

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him 
he was my friend, faithful and just to me 
you all did love him once, not without cause
what cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?

Even if now you are all conveniently pretending to forget, many of you, my fellow countrymen of the mathematical Rome, have been the ones that in the past few months have been throwing around a lot of contemptuous unrequested commentaries: your condescension, your scornful rejection were palpably everywhere, but now, oh now you are all praise and pleasant niceties. 

For Brutus is an honourable man
so are they all, all honourable men

The mathematicians, all honourable men. Yes, so are they all, all honourable men. Some recent sketched out proofs of famous statements seemed unsound? I am not contesting that. So do not hide behind it, for this is not what I am here to discuss. All the Brutus and Cassius are fully right about it, and besides, they are all honourable men. So please don't hide your daggers behind a mathematical exegesis of this or that text: that will not do. 

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
but here I am to speak what I do know

What is a mathematical idea and how does it form? Let me return for a moment to those quotes I mentioned earlier: ideas are crazy and float around in the sky, they have colour more than substance, a theorem is the end not the beginning. These are really not quite metaphorical statements: that was truly how Michael's superb mathematical mind had always worked. The crazy idea that floats in the sky is the part that you don't normally get to see: you get to see the beautiful fully polished theorem that comes much later at the end of the road. The craziness has all but disappeared, leaving behind just a trace of bewilderment that leaves you wondering, in front of the beautiful finished product, how it all came about. "In the broad light of day mathematicians check their equations and their proofs, leaving no stone unturned in their search for rigour. But at night, under the full moon, they dream, they float among the stars... without dreams there is no art, no mathematics, no life."

What happened then? What happens when the night dream suddenly intrudes upon our daylight reality? I've heard several comments in these months attempting to defend the public circulation (without the author's consent) and public discussion of writings that were meant for the eyes of a small number of acquaintances. Who treated confidentiality so lightly I do not know. It seems there is a growing part of us who would like to publicly police (and play at voting up and down) even our most intimate and ill-formed mathematical ideas. Your voyeuristic mathematical surveillance panopticon will only have the effect to kill all thoughts. We need the night, the full moon, and the floating among the starts. We need to be able to form ideas that are wild and inconclusive and only much later, by the light of day, discard them, after we have entertained them long enough to learn from them: we learn from those ideas that do not work, not just from those that do. We need to be able to trust those we confide in during this early phase to at least attempt to see through what at this stage will literally not stand, while we try to sort it through. It's a delicate process that sometimes collapses and sometimes takes off. That's mathematics, the way it works.

The mathematical community as we know it will love its older members, but only when they quietly disappear. Sure, it would like to see them paraded around at special events, to tell a story or two, but ageism is brutal and extreme, and practiced with a vengeance. To continue to be just what one is, a mathematician, is an act of extreme ambition and defiance in the face of this brutality. 

so let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
if this were so, it was a grievous fault,
and grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.

Michael was a very social person, which is somewhat rare among mathematicians. Being naturally social has advantages in a healthy surrounding community, but if the community is dysfunctional and toxic, it leaves one more exposed, more easily vulnerable to stab wounds. He complained many times over the years about the virulent ageism of the mathematical community. Very recently, during our last long conversation, he told me he was feeling like a prisoner in a community he had for a long time loved, his access to venues to share and discuss his mathematical dreams and visions progressively shrinking. He had been relying mostly, he said that time, on sharing his thoughts privately with friends. But friends unfortunately are a rare commodity and privacy a much violated terrain.  

It is not meet you know how Caesar loved you

But why the urgency, you'll ask, why the rush to share, with the few or the many, ideas not fully formed, why not attend to that same slow process of distillation that leads from this to well grounded and polished final forms we are used to seeing? The continuous speeding up of subjective time is a well known psychological phenomenon we experience throughout the course of our lives. It reaches a frenzied peak at some point, with a compelling sense of time running out in an all consuming rush. Those of you who have close friends in this age range will certainly have experienced, even at a distance, the mounting pressure of this enormous acceleration. Quite unlike the slow-down that common prejudice imagines, life ends in an ultraviolet conflagration of exploding acceleration.

In an interview some years ago he jokingly said "people will say, alright he was a good mathematician, but at the end of his life he lost his marbles". And surely you did say that: you said whatever was easy to say, regardless of its factual reality. That's always the way prejudice works: it replaces a complex reality with a fictional simplicity. For your information, there was no "age problem", not in the sense of all your tasteless and malicious "jokes" and innuendos about cognitive decline. Some bipolar states, yes, which you would not have even attempted to understand, so steeped you all are in your primordial broth of prejudices, so well adapted to its festering ecosystem. 

There were those sudden bursts of cosmic energy, the rapid flow of communications sent in the middle of the British night, piling up lots of thoughts and ideas as if the normal linear ordering of time and language would be too poor a medium to convey all that precipitous blossoming: another polar star that often shines too bright. The somber times were mostly silent, though with time I came to understand that a friend's presence was appreciated even then. I miss all of those times, both the highs and the lows: they were not always the best of times for mathematical discussions (but then perhaps sometimes they were) but they were always special and meaningful. 


What is it? You'd rather not hear about this? Then put those seven volumes back on the library shelf at once and disappear, because I am sorry my honourable dude, please get it: you cannot have one without the other! Perhaps one day in a future world we will have mathematics without mathematicians, with theorems created by intelligent machines; perhaps they will then be able to generate mathematical beauty without the frightening heights and the depressive lows of human creativity. I doubt it, but at least as long as the highest peaks of mathematical beauty are an exclusive product of the human mind, we must learn to accept the package they come with in its entirety, and learn to appreciate all of it, even the parts that feel uncomfortable to your average well-to-do mathematician. 

I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,
who, you all know, are honourable men

Was his also an attempt to provoke the community and force it to confront some of these deeds? He did imply that much at times, but I don't think it could have worked: it'd be like trying to shake a rooting hog out of a pit of sludge. Not even this real drama of pain and death will move those very honourable men out of their dull complacency and their respectable brutality. I've heard those among you who came to me and said: tell him that he should stop making claims, whereby you really meant he should stop living. He did, but I am alive, and I remember all of you: don't think that I will not, just because you're now trying to hide your daggers.

During my visits to Edinburgh I had long discussions, both with Michael himself and with his good and generous colleague Andrew, not just about the mathematics, but on the handling of the difficult highs and lows of mathematical creativity, as well as on the hostility of a community that is all too eager to reap the benefits of this process while refusing to acknowledge its functioning and the human cost that comes with it. Over the years Andrew, who understood very well the situation, always found considerate but significant ways to be of help, until he passed away a year ago: another loss of a rare caring and gentle soul in our community. I wish Andrew were still alive today: he would have been able to find a more delicate way of saying what I am now saying. It was in Andrew's nature to be a kind and loving person. I am not, and besides, I am Shakespeare's Mark Antony right now. 


if you have tears, prepare to shed them now
this was the most unkindest cut of all

I have seen some of the emails that were sent to Michael in recent months, largely coming from some young mathematicians, some postdocs in some somewhere: some of them bordering on what may well be called hate mail. I am afraid that what I got to see was probably just the tip of the iceberg: during our last conversation, just a few weeks before his death, Michael still complained about an incessant influx of such messages in his email, painful and distracting. Is this what we have become? Is this our new generation of reptiles devoid of all humanity, exclusively molded as non-sentient predators by the harshest academic Darwinian selection? What is especially tragic, beyond the fact itself, is that Michael was very much dependent in his well being on maintaining good relations to the young mathematicians. He loved his experience as a formal or informal mentor of students and collaborator with younger scholars. He was always a natural optimist at heart: even at times of personal difficulties he envisioned a brighter future ahead and the betterment of mathematics, as a discipline and a community. 

ingratitude, more strong than traitors' arms,
quite vanquish'd him: then burst his mighty heart

I am also here looking straight at those of you who had known him for the longest time, the friends he once relied on: the ones who came and left, as fast as they could, when he called upon them for help some two or three years ago. I know you all, I don't forget, and I am here, looking at you. Because it was easier for you to be comforted in the self-reinforcement of your ageist prejudice, than to spend a moment of your precious time attempting to understand what was going on. It was especially the ones he had done his best to be supportive of, even in very recent times traveling very long distances when for his own sake he should not have, the same ones he complained about last time we spoke as being among the most aggressive against him in this latest run of time. (I am talking to you, Brutus: I know you so well, you were always so good at driving others to despair.) Why, all of you, why? What kind of rage or fear grips people's mind and turns them so inhuman when confronted with the fact that the making of mathematics is not a rosy garden of perfection but a thorny mess, and so is life?

they that have done this deed are honourable:
what private griefs they have, alas, I know not,
that made them do it: they are wise and honourable,
and will, no doubt, with reason answer you.
I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts.


I guess I was about the last who stayed. All of you who left failed to see that narrow mountain path winding through the rugged landscape, where some peaceful mathematical work could still take place, despite rapid alternation of gorges and peaks, despite the mounting roar of the outside storms. Perhaps it helped, or at least I'd like to think it did, even through small bits and pieces of unfinished work. It did help me, for sure: it was a joyous kind of work, unencumbered by the weight of expectation and prejudice. For quite some time I thought everything was going to be alright. It wasn't in the end, unfortunately though, believe me, not inevitably. It is too late right now to undo what has been done, but still I think the mathematical community as a whole should take a collective step back and do some soul searching and atonement over these events. 

you are not wood, you are not stones, but men

The landscape of Scotland is harsh and beautiful at once. It is tragic in a Shakespearian sense. Our millennia of accumulated culture have primed us to associate great human achievement to the tragic in its most majestic form: the heroic and the tragic are one and the same thing in our still very Homeric worldview. Sir Michael Atiyah's life and achievements have had all the qualities of the classic Greek hero: from his reliance on an aesthetic idea of beauty in mathematics to the monumental scale of his work, to the final tragic standoff between his last mathematical dreams and the collective response of the community at large.  The grand Shakespearian drama comes to an end, the curtain drops, and we are left alone on that empty stage wondering...

Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?






Images:
- Martin Creed, Work N.975 Everything is going to be alright, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh;
- Michael Atiyah's Collected Works, Oxford University Press;
- Alessando Piccolomini, De la sfera del mondo, 1540, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto;
- Marlon Brando, Julius Caesar, 1953;
- personal notebooks, 2017;
- Stob Bàn, Scottish Highlands, Getty Images.

Quotes are from recent public interviews of Sir Michael Atiyah and from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2.





Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Privilege of Escape


Umberto Boccioni, Quelli che Vanno, 1911

So I did it... I am comfortably resting in a nice high-rise apartment in the center of Toronto, with a new very comfortable scientist job (in many ways even better than the Californian one I had for the past ten years)... but most of all, yes, I sleep again at night after a long year of aggravated insomnia. Like many others, I escaped across the border, leaving behind a country where fascism has been growing and strangling civil society like a poisonous weed. Though everything worked out just fine in the end, the experience gave me many occasions to reflect on what I would like to call "the privilege of leaving". Leaving takes a lot of time, energy, planning, and resources, especially financial resources. You cannot just run away to another country at a moment notice. That's where things are very tricky from the start, because when do you decide it's time to plan your escape? If you do it at a time when your life is in immediate danger, as is the case for so many displaced people around the world, who are fleeing war, persecution and genocide, then you don't have the time for any planning and the likelihood of a successful escape is correspondingly very low. People who run away from immediate danger are inevitably forced to put themselves through possibly even more serious dangers in order to attempt an escape. Borders are militarized exclusion zones (some of them, of course, much more so than others) and any person on the move is the enemy they are built to defeat. Relocating across a border, even in the best of circumstances, is very hard: you need to move your job, you need the documents needed to let you seep through the walls of increasingly defensive and paranoid nation states, you need to physically move both yourself and whatever part of your belongings you deem essential, and you need the resources to shoulder the costs of all of these things. Escaping is a privilege, and the privilege starts with being able to plan ahead of the time of immediate threats. I certainly was not in an immediate danger at the time when I started planning the possibility to move away from an increasingly threatening, but not yet immediately dangerous (at least not to me personally) political situation. However, moving an academic job takes time, lots of time: in my case it took almost exactly a year from application to starting date. That was an extremely lucky case. History teaches us that the decision to leave or wait and stay put has momentous consequences, and the life trajectories of people who made that decision at different times have varied enormously: everyone knows the stories of the intellectuals of the Weimar Republic who went into exile in the US, those who had both the privilege and the hindsight to be able to plan ahead, to secure a job and a visa, and the means to travel. Many waited beyond the point where escape was still possible. Others simply did not have the privilege of securing a possible escape and were forced to stay. All those who did not leave, who could not leave for one or the other reason, are lost names, filling endless lists of victims of one of the greatest atrocities of modern history. Maybe history is not repeating itself, I am not saying that the US of today is necessarily on the verge of perpetrating  similar mass scale atrocities. I am saying, however, that in 1933 Germany many people also thought that the new cabinet was a terribly bad government that simply would not last to the next election. Others, the likes of Hannah Arendt, understood immediately that it was better to relocate as quickly as possible (and were in a sufficiently privileged position as prominent intellectuals to actually have the possibility to do so). Paradoxically, Walter Benjamin, who had left Germany already in 1932 anticipating the electoral victory of the nazis, returned to Berlin as late as 1936, when it was obviously extremely unwise to do so, allegedly because he had left his personal library there, and felt unable to work without it. He later escaped again to France, and despite having a job offer in the US, was unable to leave France. When he found the border to Spain closed to all refugees escaping the German invasion of France, he killed himself. The border, it is said, was reopened to refugees the next day. His private library in Berlin was eventually looted and destroyed by the book-burning nazis. There are many such stories from the days when European intellectuals were escaping fascism by attempting to reach the US. They show clearly how complicated a process is this "leaving", how non-obvious a decision, even when it looks like it should have been clear to those who watch from the depth of history. About half of my personal library has moved with me, the other half is still in California. Should it become like 1936 Berlin, I probably would not go back for it. Or would I? It's hard to see history emerge through the fog of future times. For now I do not know if I will be staying here in the North, returning to that place in California I have greatly enjoyed to call home for a decade, or some other likely or unlikely scenario. For now I can enjoy being able to work again, to think about science again without being constantly worrying about the daily list of looming catastrophes, I can return to writing my philosophical thoughts as an anarchist without fear of violent attacks by fascists, and generally I can live the kind of everyday life that allows you to sleep at night: that too is a privilege that I am acutely aware of.

Umberto Boccioni, Quelli che Restano, 1911

Saturday, November 26, 2016

those rifles buried in memory lane

It's been exactly twenty years to the day since my mother died. A life of inextricably high complexity, out of which it is difficult to extract a coherent memory portrait. In light of the current events, I am naturally driven to recall those aspects of my mother's life that were more public and political, and more closely connected to the experience of the antifascist resistance. Among those historical pictures of the armed women partisans, you will not see one of my mother: she was considered too young for those combat roles, but old enough to perform for the resistance the dangerous work of carrier (of food, letters, clandestine press, and sometimes ammunition) from the villages to the partisans mountain camps during the last year of the nazi occupation.


The chronologically closest picture I have of her was taken a few years later, in that same place in the mountains where all the action took place. I was born twenty years later. That may seem like a long time, but I still grew up under the long shadow of the war and of the immediately lived experience that had inexorably divided the country into fascism and antifascism: a divide that became a defining texture underlying the entire country's existence, and that never subsided. The rifles of the Resistance are still buried in the yards.


Antifascism in her country meant largely Communism: even though socialists, anarchists, progressive catholics, and liberals had all participated in the Resistance movement, certainly the communist contingent was by far the largest. Like most Italian intellectuals, my mother was a communist through most of her life, with an earlier period of socialist militance, and a brief allegiance to the PSIUP formation (socialist party of proletarian unity) at a later time.

In the postwar years, my mother studied first as a chemistry student and then as an architect. In later years she also worked in graphic design, textile design, and art history. One of the first things that my mother and father designed together, as young graduates of the polytechnic school of architecture, was this monument to the antifascist resistance.

I grew up in different times. There was a revolution going on while I was living through my childhood years, a revolution that failed. A different one, and yet eerily still that same one, once again involving a fight between fascists and a communist/anarchist revolutionary front. The people who had been personally involved with the wartime Resistance fight reacted to the unfolding situation of the 1970s with a range of very different attitudes. As for myself, I was just growing up, too young to be involved in anything. Yet it was all there, that strange chaotic revolution, it was the world as my generation knew it. My mother, in trying to make sure that the "true lesson" of the antifascist resistance would not be lost, educated me from a very early age with an endless series of drills, lessons, and continuous rehearsals, about what is to be done, practically, immediately, should the fascists gain access to the government again. I must admit that, even though I became politically active at a very early age, I always doubted the need for all those continuous drills and rehearsals. What help is it to know where the rifles are buried? After rusting for so many years, they would blow up in the face of anyone using them. Why training to fight? In my then untroubled optimism, I thought that fascism would never make a comeback: yes, in both Italy and Germany it was voted to power through democratic elections and, once in power, it quickly moved to abolish democracy entirely. Yes, but it would never happen again, because the lesson of history is clearly in front of everybody's eyes, because after all nobody, no rational human being, could ever possibly desire to be a fascist. In the old days people were swayed by the fascist propaganda and did not see the truth, but now... I was sufficiently young and optimistic back then, that I did not even see the circularity of my argument: yes, certainly there were many victims of fascist propaganda, but someone somewhere must have set the wheel in motion, somebody must have indeed desired to be a fascist. The concept still bothers me, but I now understand much better the effects on the human mind of the poison of power (which is why I am an anarchist), and I know how narcissism, lack of empathy, manipulation, and domination can all contribute to create a mental state capable of seeing fascism as attractive: fear of an imagined enemy, an attachment to a fictitious image of "the past" as a nostalgic reference point, the scourge of the nation states and of all forms of nationalism, all of these things can simultaneously fuel the growth of fascism. Yes, my mother was right, one needs to stay vigilant, always, continuously.

In these last weeks, all those years of endless training suddenly kicked in and turned my mind into an unstoppable wailing siren engaged in a continuous screaming of alarm signals. Here it is, get ready, act now! I am endlessly going through that old list of "do/don't do" things, trying to mentally update them to the needs of 21st century technology and society. Is your passport up to date? Check. Can you do something to improve your mobility across borders? Think about it and act now. Renew the contract for your second job in Canada. Check. What next? Communications, yes, secure your communication channels. In those days that meant postal communication, a friend's address to whom mail for you can be delivered without raising suspicion. Now it's Signal on your cellphone and PGP on your email. Next, find the people most at risk in your immediate surroundings, at work, among your friends. That used to mean jews, now it's muslims, people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, and yes once again jews since nazis don't lose their old habits. Think about how you can help them: contacts, safe space, protection from violence. OK, mom, what was next on your list? Why did I stop rehearsing so many years ago, did I really think it would never happen again?

Antifascism is complex and subtle: in Italy the fascists were elected to power in 1922. Up until the days of the Spanish Civil War, the Resistance consisted of a completely non-violent organization whose main purpose was to distribute banned information (clandestine press, dissenting opinions), largely produced by those who escaped in exile in various other countries, distributed though a networks of people willing to face the risk of violence and imprisonment. The Spanish Civil War for the first time gave rise to an armed resistance to fascism, and it was finally only in the 1940s, in light of the ongoing horrors of the war and the holocaust, that the Resistance as we usually understand it really took form. It is dangerous to get romanticized ideas about the struggle against fascism by watching war movies: that's not how it works! You cannot just dig up the rusty old rifles, that would not do: it would be tactically, ethically, and ideologically wrong. You cannot jump start a resistance movement in such a naive way. Opposition is multiform, organization is crucial, refusal to cooperate is essential, and most of all there is a lot of intellectual work involved that is long and demanding. The crucial practical steps, as my mother's drill list taught me, are how to stay safe, how to help others stay safe, and how to organize and maintain a robust and reliable network of communication. Focus on these goals.



My mother taught me the love of science. Her life was an incredible amalgam of optimism and despair, inspiring and frightening. There are many possible different ways in which I can choose to remember her. Today, on the twentieth anniversary of her death, I prefer to remember that she also taught me basic antifascism skills. I do still hope, somehow, that they will not be needed, that we can build a world in which they won't be needed.



Monday, November 21, 2016

Mathematicians and the Moral Responsibilities of Science



Three years ago I was giving my plenary address at a posh conference in Shanghai, all luxury and splendor in one of the most beautifully futuristic cities in the world. I was content enough to entertain my audience with the innocent and amusing mysteries of the "field with one element". My talk was followed by another plenary speaker, a famous applied mathematician, who suddenly shocked me into awareness of the murky ethical waters mathematicians are threading in our society. The work presented by my colleague, who like myself lives and works in the Los Angeles area, was nothing short of a Minority Report quality dystopian-futurism. It claimed to have developed an algorithm that would allow the Los Angeles police to estimate the most likely places and times where crime (from gang crime to burglaries) was about to occur and intervene promptly by allocating their forces to the predicted hot-spots. Now if you live in LA (and even if you don't, I would imagine) it shouldn't be lost on you that the LAPD is one of the police departments in the country with the bleakest record of brutality and human rights violations. It does not take much thinking to realize what the immediate consequence of applying this algorithm will be: the LAPD will show up where the algorithm indicates and will find criminals there, regardless of whether they exist or not. In other words, the alleged sense of "objectivity" provided by the presence of a "mathematical formula" will provide a police force of dubious ethical reputation with a very convenient excuse to brutalize low income communities.

In a similar vein, many appeals have already been launched by influential voices within the mathematical community, raising serious ethical questions about mathematicians working for the NSA, in light of the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance. The NSA, it is worth remembering, is the world largest single employer of mathematicians. In the very near future, we are going to be faced by an even more pressing ethical issue: the US just elected a fascist government. This is probably the single scariest event that happened in the world since the end of World War 2. The question now is not going to be just whether it is ethical for a mathematician to work for an agency that engages in mass surveillance, but whether one is willing to be a collaborationist of a fascist government. The lesson of the historical European anti-fascist Resistance tells us the answer to that question, but who is listening? We seem to be really coming to the point where, as a very famous mathematician friend of mine once said: "applied mathematics is the art of doing with great skills and proficiency what shouldn't be done at all".

It needn't be this way, though. There is a struggle and we need to take sides. Scientific and technological expertise are going to be crucial now more than ever. The new government may be the most bigoted anti-science team ever assembled, but at the same time these fascists of our time can count on hordes of technically savvy alt-right trolls in their service. It is crucial to maintain the upper hand in science and technology. I am especially speaking to all those who will be organizing the actual Resistance on the ground. Don't shy away from science, just because you are wary of its unethical involvement with power. Don't leave the fascists with the exclusive access to it, or all will be lost. Applied mathematics can also do what should be done, not only what shouldn't. In the example of the model predicting crime hotspots mentioned above, a discrete sample of event locations is used to generate a probability density that produces an estimate with priors on certain spatial data. All their papers are available. They can equally well be used to predict occurrences of neo-nazi attacks on various communities and concentrate antifa resources where most effective. Better still, we are soon going to witness waves of deportation raids on a scale unprecedented in history. As a scale for comparison, remember that, in order to carry out its genocidal plans, the German Third Reich had to organize the arrest and deportation of six million people, which they then proceeded to murder. This was an operation on an impossibly gigantic scale, carried out across the entire European territory. Now the incoming fascist American government has promised the deportation of eleven million people, almost doubling that scale. (Yes, I know, they are not claiming any genocidal intent, for the moment, but the Nazi Germans also continued to talk only about deportations until the "final solution" was adopted in 1941 - remember Eichmann's Madagascar? As history teaches us, the step from mass deportation to genocide is brief.) Deportation raids can only work if they involve a surprise element: raids on farms, on housing complexes in the middle of the night... if anything can be done to reduce the surprise element, to have a better than chance predictor of where the next raid is likely to occur, it can save lives. In a similar vein, French mathematicians who joined the anti-fascist Resistance during the war, and who were acquainted with the early famous mathematical game theory paper of Emil Borel, tried to apply mathematical methods to improve the efficiency of the distribution of initiatives, strikes, and resources in the Resistance. Scientific researchers tied to the US military later widely developed these ideas into what came to be known as 4th generation warfare. Again, the mathematics can be applied to what should or to what shouldn't be done: the choice is ours to make. We need to take sides, we cannot be impartial spectators because lives are at stake and the very texture of our civilization lies in the balance.

Pack all the tools you need in your bag: network theory, bayesian analysis, probability, differential equations, cryptography, computing, game theory, neural networks. We need them all and we need them now. Get down to work for the sake of our future.

Se non ora, quando?

  

Monday, August 29, 2016

The trouble with Oomza



I just read Okorafor's remarkable novella "Binti" that recently won the 2016 Hugo award (scruffy and rabid puppies of all kinds notwithstanding). The main character is a young student, on her way to the Famous University, half a galaxy across, where she's just been admitted to pursue her graduate studies in Mathematics, the first of her people ever being offered a graduate fellowship at this international (interplanetary, intergalactic) center of learning, the famous Oomza University. Her people, the Himba, are a discriminated minority treated with contempt and belittled by the dominant ethnicity of her home planet, the Khoush. The setting of Binti's home planet, sketched in colorful brush strokes, hints at both ethnic tensions between different ethnic groups in sub saharan Africa, with the never explicitly mentioned but always looming threat of genocidal war, and also, on another level, it seems to refer to the tensions between the privileged white American community and the African American, so dramatically underrepresented in the high echelon of academic prestige. The story begins with Binti leaving in the middle of the night to the spaceport where she will be boarding the starship to Oomza. She is leaving in secret, without the consent of her family, violating the expectations of her society. She is afraid and alone. She is closing a door behind her back, burning her bridges, leaving her whole world behind. She knows it is quite possible, maybe even very probable, that she will never go back. Never come home again. Home, even that may soon cease to make sense as a concept. This opening scene is dramatic and so well crafted: anyone who has been that student, leaving everything to move half the world across to some Famous University, perhaps not in secret in the dead of night, but certainly not without tension with family and environment, immediately relates fully and completely with every nuance of her many fluctuations between hesitation and boldness. Okorafor hinges on those details that relate to Binti's cherished habits of life: certain ways of dressing, certain ways of covering her hair and skin with red clay. One understands immediately how such gestures with symbolic meaning, which are largely aimed at signifying a sense of belonging to a community, a shared environment where such things indeed carry a meaning, will be the first victims of the kind of drastic uprooting she is about to embark into. None of her shared heritage will signify anything in her new environment, and perhaps that is a necessary and maybe even desirable loss, at some level, but still one that contributes to create an enormous vulnerability and dramatically increases the overall sense of alienation and isolation that inevitably accompanies this type of transition. A good part of the novella, where all the action takes place, deals with the voyage to Oomza, where the starship is attacked by a warring race of Medusas who kill every other human on board, except for Binti who is protected by an ancient artifact she found in the desert of her home planet, without knowing its meaning and origin, and that she took along with her as a talisman. The artifact not only defends her from the Medusas assaults, by emanating energy beams that hurt their tentacles when they get too close, but it also allows her to communicate with the Medusas, by acting as a translator machine. Here the story becomes quite predictable: the Medusas are not the horrible monsters they seem to be at first; they are good guys afraid of humans, whose honor has been wounded by the stealing of their chief's stinger that is kept on display in a museum on Oomza. Binti promises to help them get back their stinger and their honor, while befriending an impulsive but ultimately cool Medusa guy named Okwu, who will become her buddy by the end of the story. OK, I must admit that, while I think this is an excellent sci-fi story, I am not so terribly fond of all this "honor of the Medusa" business. The story gets quite interesting again, from my own personal point of view at least, when they finally get down to the Oomza campus, where Binti successfully carries out her promised duty to help the Medusa with their stinger quest. The structure of Oomza is only hinted at, just as the social structure of Binti's home planet was described more in allusions than in overt details, but a few interesting characteristics immediately emerge: (1) the faculty of Oomza is extremely cosmopolitan (as appropriate for a university of cosmic reputation) with representatives from many different alien races; while the members of the faculty council Binti interacts with while advocating the Medusas cause appear aloof and somewhat unsociable, they are ultimately open minded and progressive; (2) a good part of this Famous University is dedicated to carrying out weapons research, so the enlightened attitude of the faculty members does not stretch as far as rejecting their alliance to the galactic military-industrial complex; (3) Binti has changed already, physically as well as mentally, because of her direct contact with the Medusas, and it is questioned whether she could still belong to her home planet and her people and be accepted by them. Interestingly, the novel is silent on this last issue and leaves it hanging, with the final scene ending just at the moment when Binti tries to re-establish contact, remotely, with her family on her home planet. We can only imagine whether we want that attempt to lead to a reconciliation or to an ultimate uprooting and rejection. I am inclined to believe the latter is more realistic: she no longer belongs to her home planet and she never will again. Well, this is just personal experience: she is a different person, in a different world, with very different experiences. There is no going home. There is no home. What about Oomza? The novella also leaves that to the reader's imagination, although it seems that a sequel is announced to be published sometime in 2017. Well, since the sequel isn't out yet, we are still free to speculate, and to use the freedom so kindly bestowed upon the readers by the author, to keep the story going from the point where it ends, somewhat abruptly, in her narration. So how is Binti doing at Oomza? She is received with great honor, given her brilliant solution of the Medusa problem. So it appears she is valued and respected. Is that really so? Other students who have, long ago, journeyed to the Famous University half a world across had also been received with great enthusiasm, yet things soured very quickly. Binti is known in her own world as a master maker of astrolabes. The astrolabes of Okorafor's story are both beautiful art objects and functioning computer like devices, upon which a great deal of civilization evidently depends. This means that Binti has a talent that is highly respected in her home world, despite the fact that she belongs to a discriminated ethnic community. This point in the story is very interesting: Okorafor describes very well a paradox by which a minority group is considered at the same time highly talented and yet somehow despicable by a privileged and racist majority. This appears to be a clear hint to the tragic anti-semitic discrimination against Jews in European history. Once again, there is an unspoken but clearly recognizable threat of genocidal violence behind this combination of fear and loathing. Interestingly, while ethnic and racial discriminations form an important subtext throughout the novella, the galactic civilization Binti belongs to appears to be remarkably free of gender discrimination, and Binti seems to suffer no ill effect for being a woman mathematician. I guess that's some kind of progress, if one can call it so: well, one less prejudice is surely better than one more, but that's a meagre consolation when painted over a general background of racial and ethnic tensions. Coming back to the astrolabes, Binti has a highly regarded technical skill that she developed on her home planet, and that was directly influential, we are told, in her getting admitted to Oomza. One point to consider here is the implicit assumption that her mathematical skills are, in her society, closely tied up to the realization of technical objects (the astrolabes) that are highly coveted by society. It is a bit like an appreciation of mathematics, in our society, based largely on its potential of application to computer science. Well, oh right. So Binti is admitted to Oomza because of her mathematical talent and her reputation built out of her previous studies and experience on her home planet. How is this going to play out once she is actually at Oomza? I am again inclined to give a very pessimistic view here: the young student who happily travelled to the Famous University across the known world on the premise that her talent and experience will be valued and appreciated finds her experience immediately invalidated and denied upon her arrival. Why? Because of course Famous University, in order to assert and maintain its power and image, has to deny the validity of anything which is not Famous University. So whatever talent was highly appreciated a moment ago when selecting students for admission is immediately trashed as worthless as soon as the students get actually there, because whatever knowledge they have refined over the years was not coming from Famous University and therefore it is by definition worthless. I am unfortunately inclined to believe that this is what will happen, shortly after the point where the narration of the novella ends, to Binti and her astrolabes. How will she put up with that, when that denial of her entire history and knowledge happens at the same time as she is coming to terms with her no longer having a home world and a home community? At the same time while she is struggling with racial discrimination? I do not belong to a discriminated ethnic minority, but I do live in a world where being a woman mathematician carries a series of problems that do not seem to play a role in Binti's universe. I am not sure whether this constitutes in some sense a similar experience. However, I certainly know the effect of the two pronged fork of rejection of both inner and outer world being simultaneously played out. If the promised sequel to "Binti" is going to be in any way realistic in this respect, it is going to be grim. What else can we say about Oomza? The Famous University I am talking about is also founded on the history of military-industrial complex, down to the basement foundations where my graduate student office used to be, in the still radioactive rooms that housed the Fermi nuclear pile in the early days of the Manhattan project. The great enlightened, cosmopolitan faculty of the great Mathematics Department of the Famous University are not only aloof and somewhat unsociable, but their progressive vision stops at some high sounding public declarations that hide a great deal of Machiavellian double speak. Take the enlightened faculty member turned skillful administrator who recently proffered deep wisdom such as "The purpose of a university education is to provide the critical pathway by which students can fulfill their potential, change the trajectory of their families, and build healthier and more inclusive societies". Wow, who would disagree with that? And what about "Essential to this process is an environment that promotes free expression and the open exchange of ideas, ensuring that difficult questions are asked and that diverse and challenging perspectives are considered". Again, who could even for a moment consider not being on the same boat with this? Only some kind of inconsiderate authoritarian censorship prone individuals (or "groups" as they are referred to in this well crafted speech) who "assert that universities should be refuges from intellectual discomfort". Ah, here it comes: "intellectual discomfort", what kind of "discomfort" are we talking about, here and in what sense is this discomfort "intellectual"? This guy is more intelligent (he's a distinguished mathematician after all) and more articulate than his subordinate who sends letters out to incoming freshmen, so he steers clear of using buzz words loaded with all kinds of interpretations, such as "safe spaces", but his intervention comes right on the heels of much less carefully worded statements issuing from some steps down the chain of command. Is it so frightening to these enlightened intellectuals to imagine the possible existence of spaces on campus that can offer help and support to students who come from the whole world across, having left everything behind, welcomed by the most chilling denial of their whole existence (even without the help of any considerate dean's letter)? Is it a threat to free speech? How so? Is this a Machiavellian maneuver by Administration to actually undermine academic freedom and faculty initiative, while at the same time pleasing conservative donors? Most likely. The pretense of defense of a culture of intellectual openness on campus is risible: the only advice I can give to the students who wish to enjoy the Famous University's "defining characteristics", their "commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression" is to graduate as fast as they can and move on to some other place where such things exist. I am eagerly waiting for Okorafor's sequel of "Binti": I do hope that the Oomza version of Famous University will turn out to be less grim and more open than this other Famous University.



Oomza University and the Medusas... oomz, no... this is that other Famous University, my dear Alma Mater

Monday, August 15, 2016

Who counts as a futurist? Whose future counts?

A shorter version of this text appeared as a guest post on the Mathbabe blog.

For a good part of the past century the term "futurism" conjured up the image of a revolutionary artistic and cultural movement that flourished in Russia and Italy in the first two decades of the century. In more recent times and across the Atlantic, it has acquired a different connotation, one related to speculative thought about the future of advanced technology. In this later form, it is often explicitly associated to the speculations of a group of Silicon Valley tycoons and their acolytes. Their musings revolve around a number of themes: technological immortality in the form of digital uploading of human consciousness, space colonization, and the threat of an emergent superintelligent AI. It is easy to laugh off all these ideas as the typical preoccupations of a group of aging narcissist wealthy white males, whose greatest fear is that an artificial intelligence may one day treat them the way they have been treating everybody else all along. However, in fact none of these themes of "futurist speculation" originates in Silicon Valley: all of them have been closely intertwined in history and date back to the original Russian Futurism, and the related Cosmist movement, where mystics like Fedorov alternated with scientists like Tsiolkovsky (the godfather of the Soviet space program) envisioning a future where science and technology would "storm the heavens and vanquish death". The crucial difference in these forms of futurism does not lie in the themes of speculation, but rather in the role of humanity in this envisioned future. Is this the future of a wealthy elite? Is this the future of a classless society?



Konstantin Yuon, "A new Planet", 1921



Fast forward to our time again, there are still widely different versions of "futurism" and not all of them are a capitalist protectorate. Indeed, there is a whole widely developed Anarchist Futurism (usually referred to as Anarcho-Transhumanism) which is anti-capitalist but very pro-science and technology. It has its roots in many historical predecessors: the Russian Futurism and Cosmism, naturally, but also the revolutionary brand of the Cybernetic movement(Stafford Beer, etc.), cultural and artistic movements like Afrofuturismand Solarpunk, Cyberfeminism (starting with Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto), and more recently Xenofeminism. What some of the main themes of futurism look like in the anarchist lamelight is quite different from their capitalist shadow.

"Morphological Freedom" is one of the main themes of anarchist transhumanism: it means the freedom to modify one's own body with means provided by science and technology, but whereas in the capitalist version of transhumanism this gets immediately associated to Hollywood-style enhanced botox therapies for those incapable of coming to terms with their natural aging process, in the anarchist version the primary model of morphological freedom is the transgender rights, the freedom to modify one's own sexual and gender identity.



It also involves a fight against ableism, in as there is nothing especially ideal about the (young, muscular, male, white, healthy) human body. The Vitruvian Man, which was the very symbol of Humanism, was also a symbol of the intrinsically exclusionary nature of Humanism. Posthumanism and Transhumanism are also primarily an inclusionary process that explodes the exclusionary walls of Humanism, without negating its important values. The fact that Posthumanism and Transhumanism have moved beyond the Humanism tradition originating in Renaissance Humanism does not mean rejecting Humanism entirely: some of its basic foundations are also at the basis of both Anarchism (which is in essence a humanist philosophy) and Trans/Posthumanism. For example, one of the most important contributions of Humanism was replacing religious thinking, as a basis for ethical values, with a vision of ethics grounded in human rights. Accepting that we live in a world of natural phenomena, approached through science and reason, is a fundamental basis of Humanism as a philosophy and it remains fundamental to both Anarchism and Transhumanism. An example of Morphological Freedom against ableism is found in the rethinking of the notion of prosthetics. The traditional approach aims at constructing artificial limbs that as much as possible resemble the human limbs. Implicitly, this involves declaring the users of prosthetics as being in some way "defective", lacking an aspect of their "intact" human ideal form. However, when children are given the possibility to design and 3D print their own prosthetics, they make colorful arms that launch darts and flying saucers and that make them look like superheroes, and professional designers have realized that prosthetic arms that do not imitate a human arm, but that work like an octopus tentacle can be more efficient than most traditional prosthetics. Abandoning the notion of an ideal human form allows for the freedom to create better forms. These are just a couple of simple examples of how prejudice prevents us from making a better use of technology. Anarcho-Transhumanism not only values a diverse and non-ableist approach to the body form, but it protects and values the importance of Neuro-diversity.


The mathematical theory of networks and of complex systems and emergent behavior can be used to make protests and social movements more efficient and successful. Sousveillance and anti-surveillance techniques can help protecting people from police brutality. Hacker and biohacker spaces help spreading scientific literacy and directly involve people in advanced science and technology: the growing community of DIY synthetic biologywith biohacker spaces like CounterCulture Labs, has been one of the most successful grassroot initiatives involving advanced science. These are all important aspects and components of the anarchist transhumanist movement.
Needless to say, the community of people involved in Anarcho-Tranhumanism is a lot more diverse than the typical community of Silicon Valley futurists.
Anarchism itself comes in many different forms, anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndacalism, mutualism, etc. (no, not anarcho-capitalism, that is an oxymoron not a political movement!) but at heart it is an ethical philosophy aimed at increasing people's agency (and more generally the agency of any sentient being), based on empathy, cooperation, mutual aid. Science and technology have enormous potential, if used inclusively and for the benefit of all and not with goals of profit and exploitation.

For people interested in finding out more about Anarcho-Tranhumanism there is an Anarcho-Transhumanist Manifesto currenly being written (which is still very much in the making). There is also an Anarcho-Transhumanism Facebook page, which posts on a range of topics including anarchist theory, philosophy, transhumanism and posthumanism and their historical roots, and various thoughts on science and technology and their transformative role.



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Invisible Pachyderm: Ageism in Science and in Radical Communities

There is a big Elephant in the Room, a large old pachyderm nobody is willing to see. Certain widespread prejudices that have been entrenched in the scientific community since time immemorial have come under the spotlight in recent years (primarily sexism and racism, and to a much lesser extend ableism). This certainly does not mean they have been eliminated, far from it, but at least a certain degree of awareness has started to circulate within the community, and some attempts (largely inadequate) at addressing the problems have at least taken place, sometimes, somewhere. On the other hand, radical communities, by which I generically mean variously organized groups that self-identify with radical politics (I will mostly focus on anarchist communities for the purpose of the discussion here), have made it a part of their platform from the beginning to fight against these old prejudices, seen as oppressive power structures. Yet in both communities the same large invisible pachyderm is roaming the room unhindered and entirely unnoticed: the elephant of Ageism.
(Banksy, Elephant in the Room, 2006)

Let me start with the scientific community, and let me focus in particular on the community of mathematicians, because that is where Ageism is most brutal and barbaric. Mathematics is a beautiful and highly rewarding intellectual activity, with its own intrinsic beauty and poetics. However, this is not how it is perceived by a part of its practitioners. I am not talking here about how the general public perceives mathematics, the global catastrophe of the "oh, I never liked math in school" type, the global catastrophe of school in general. I am talking about professional mathematicians and how they relate to their own creativity. There is an unfortunate widespread tendency to view mathematics as a form of gymnastics, that is inculcated into promising young people at an early age through other global catastrophes like the mathematical olympiads and various similar competitions, which perpetuate an ideological view of mathematics as a competition sport, rather than as a creative intellectual activity. The rhetoric implicit in this view and the language employed is akin to the fascist mythology of the muscular body (adopted by stalinists with equally zealous fervor), forcibly imposed upon an intellectual pursuit, where it really should not belong.


Of course, there is a significant gap between the mathematical competitions for young kids and the actual work of a research mathematician: not all good early mathematical gymnasts become professional mathematicians and certainly a large part of the most prominent professional mathematicians had nothing to do with the circus of mathematical gymnastics in their early years. However, there is enough overlap that traces linger. There have been long (and usually not very interesting) discussions in the mathematical community on the distinction between mathematicians who are problem solvers or theory builders (sounding suspiciously like body builders). Of course these are both distinct aspects of mathematical creativity, and different creative persons express themselves in different styles. Not all novelists or poets write in the same way, not all painters or musicians compose in the same style. There are many other distinct aspects in mathematical creativity, however, and I believe that's not where the focus should be. The problem the rhetoric of muscular mathematics generates in the community is best exemplified by the typical question you hear professionals ask to and of each other: "what is the hardest theorem you've proved?". It's never "what is the most beautiful structure you have discovered?" or "what is the most surprising unexpected connection you have uncovered between seemingly unrelated mathematical phenomena?": after all these are some of the most exciting things that happen in mathematical research... but no, it is only the "hardest" (turgid?) that matters. Why? Well, because problems gain notoriety not necessarily because of their intrinsic beauty, or their wide applicability, but a lot more easily because some other big-muscle-dude tried to solve them before and couldn't: enough of a line of big-muscle dudes, and there's your famous problem. The next even muscular dude that comes along and solves it wins all. All right, now imagine for a moment if music, art, and literature were running along the same principles, what an awful disaster for humankind that would be! So where does Ageism enter this picture? Naturally, once the emphasis is on mathematics as a thinly disguised metaphor of the muscular (male) body, this casts it immediately into an Ableist and Ageist frame. There comes the absurd mythology, repeated like an obsessive mantra in the community, of the "mathematicians can only do their best work before the age of forty", as if they would be some kind of cinderella whose carriage of mathematical knowledge turns magically into a pumpkin at the stroke of their fortieth year. You are offered the pathetic spectacle of endless hiring committees made of mathematicians, debating on whether that thirty year old candidate may be too old for that full professor position: yes, in principle discrimination on the basis of age is not allowed, but where is that principle hiding? I never saw it getting into the room. Imagine for a moment if a similar discussion would take place in a hiring committee with age replaced by race or gender, how would that sound then? You can also observe the even more depressing case of that famous mathematician who is now 90 (a friend, no names, sorry) who established himself as one of the best mathematicians of the 20th century and still feels under enormous stress and pressure to prove himself by attacking some of these fucked up "big problem" (big, hard, turgid, whatever) to defend himself against the all encompassing Ageist prejudice. Mathematics as a war of all against all, relentless and meaningless. A landscape where one should see beauty, pleasure, and enjoyment reduced to a scorched earth. It drives me to tears just to be forced to witness all this. Ageism in mathematics (the rest of science is not off the hook: this is just the worst case example) is widespread, tolerated, indulged in, and largely actively encouraged.


Things get even creepier when we move from science to the fringe of science, that area in between science and fiction (or, better still, in between science and market baloney) that is largely populated by the wealthy Silicon Valley capitalist sharks. There the fascist mythology of the young and muscular body is overt and explicit in the obsession for the magical potion of eternal youth, developed courtesy of the technological singularity no less, and restricted for the use of a selected wealthy elite of aging narcissistic white males who are structurally unable to come to terms with their own mortality. This may sound like a strange statement coming from a person like myself, who generally sympathizes with Transhumanist ideas and is largely involved in the anarchist version of the Transhumanism movement (I'll come to anarchism soon). However, the version of Transhumanism I sympathize with primarily advocates an aggressive and fast developing version of what modern medicine has been doing all along, namely the improvement of the quality and extension of human life through whatever means science and technology can provide, and equal access, for all humankind, to the benefits of advanced technological innovation. This is a far cry from the elitist pseudo-religious resurrectionist fantasies dressed up in techno-scientific language that populate the fascist leaning fringe of Transhumanism.

It is important not to conflate, in this discussion, the problems of Ageism and Ableism, although they frequently manifest themselves together, especially when the aging process also involves some loss of physical ability. I prefer to focus here only on the prejudice related to age itself, because that is indeed the elephant in the room that is hardly ever confronted. This is the prejudice that assigns a lesser ability, capacity, or a lesser value, to an older person. Most people (like good wine) improve with age. They tend to become more interesting, more knowledgable, more sensitive, less violent, less aggressive, less prejudiced, and generally better human beings when they get older. So why is this generally not valued and not even acknowledged, even if it is under everybody's eyes? In the case I discussed above, of the dynamics within the scientific (and specifically mathematical) community, the main reason seems to be that aggression, violence, prejudice, and insensitivity are the qualities that are implicitly valued, hence their general decrease with age is regarded as a loss of value, not as an improvement. In the case of fringe-transhumanities, an irrational fear of human mortality appears to be the motor behind the profoundly Ageist stance, combined with the narcissist ideal of consumerist young-looking Hollywood-style bodies. It was a long process in the history of humanity to get rid of the religious fantasies of eternal afterlives and embrace the value and importance of human mortality. This does not mean, of course, that we should not struggle to extend and improve human life with all the current means and the wonderful future possibilities that science provides. It means recognizing that "immortality" per se is not just a physical impossibility like perpetual motion (the second law of thermodynamics, anyone?) but also a childish fantasy. "Fighting old age" is a horrible expression that should be banned from the transhumanist vocabulary: fighting illness and improving and extending human life, sure. Aging, however, is an important process that makes better people. Fighting the better part of ourselves will be hardly an improvement on the human condition.

  

This brings us to the radical anarchist milieu. With all its dedicated fights against all forms of oppression in society and in interpersonal relations, with its ideal basis in the human capacity for empathy and mutual aid, it is still unfortunately marred by an enormous widespread and overt Ageist discourse. Inevitably, when young people see themselves as revolutionaries, they want to overthrow "the old" (the terminology used in the language is already telling) in favor of "the new" (but read also "the young"). Revolutionaries necessarily look more towards the future than towards the past, or so they are inclined to think. However, there is no Revolution without memory, and preserving the memory of the past is a crucial part of building the future (from the memories of the people who fought in the anti-fascist resistance and the Spanish Civil War, to all the people who experimented at building a better world in the past generations). Maintaining a multigenerational connection is crucial to any radical movement. It is not just this, however. Even in the setting of radical communities there are widespread mythologies that need to be debunked. One of the most dangerous myths is the idea that older people are necessarily (or at least prevalently) conservative. Certainly, if one looks for example at the situation in the US, it is true that the constituency of older white males is overwhelmingly conservative compared to any other population in the society. However, the people who belong now to that constituency grew up in an environment like 1950s America where young white males were extremely likely to be already very conservative. The old conservatives of today where the young conservatives of yesteryear. The old racists of today were the same young racists of the times when lynchings took place on a regular basis. The myth that young revolutionaries turn into older conservatives is just that, a myth. Young revolutionaries turn into older (and perhaps more experiences and wiser) revolutionaries. There is nothing intrinsically conservative about older people, like there is nothing intrinsically revolutionary about younger people. There is people and there are life experiences, and there is intellectual understanding, both of which have very good chances of improving along with the aging process. The role of young and very young people is crucial to any radical revolutionary movement, and so is the role of old and very old people. Any radical community that is not seriously age-inclusive is not truly radical.

  

Sunday, July 3, 2016

mourning the MOOC


Coursera: "Philosophy and the Sciences", The University of Edinburgh (no longer available)

I am recovering from a veritable MOOC addiction. It started a few months ago, when for some reasons I kept finding myself wide awake at 3am. Ordinarily, I would pick a book and read it, but that means turning on the light and concentrating and relinquishing every hope of getting back to sleep, so I tried a different strategy and I began my binge adventure in MOOC entertainment. Coursera is one of the main platforms offering MOOC classes and over the span of a few months I went through over thirty of them. I can certainly say that it was good entertainment for sleepless nights: I would spend a couple of hours listening to various classes (most of them are subdivided into small units of some fifteen to twenty minutes, so it is easy to keep hopping) and then even have time to fall asleep again and make it look like a normal night when I woke up again later in the morning. As a form of intelligent entertainment, I certainly think it should be widely adopted and encouraged, but how about all the those other bold claims that were repeated ad nauseam in the recent past, according to which the new MOOC fad was the death knell of university education and at the same time the trumpet announcing a triumphal new era? I call bullshit on that all.


Coursera: "Automata", Stanford University (no longer available)

When I first started browsing through the Coursera catalog some months back I thought, wow, this is great! I binged through a dozen classes immediately, and within a short time I realized what exactly had made it all sound so exciting. I noticed how, if someone had asked my six year old self how I would have wanted my university curriculum to be, I would have ended up with a list that resembled pretty much what I picked in the Coursera catalog: yes, I want to take a class on neuroscience, and one on robotics, and one on cosmology, and one on dinosaur paleontology. I also want a class on science fiction, and one on artificial intelligence, and one on astrobiology, and one on the philosophy of science. I want the history of astronautics, and a course on Chinese characters, and one on video games, and one on Buddhism, and one on jazz improvisation. For a few months I indulged my inner six year old self with each and every unfulfilled desire about what a university education would have been like if only she had had her way. It was fun. I think it was also therapeutically important to find ways to reconnect, as an adult, to one's inner child, to those early dreams and aspirations. So, besides the fun of it, there was also that, some kind of self help therapy by MOOC. That's all fine, and pleasant, and helpful. However, let's pause for a moment and reflect on why the typical university curriculum is not structured in the way a six year old would design it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the curiosity of a six year old: it is wonderful and it is crucially important. However, unlike a more adult notion of learning, the child's tends to focus primarily on subjects of immediate reward. I like the dinosaurs and I want to learn about them. I am curious about Chinese ideograms. I am powerfully attracted to the vastness of the cosmos. Of course, this is all deep and important, but precisely for that reason, we (as adults) also know that cosmology is best tackled after and with the use of advanced mathematics, and paleontology with a serious background in geology and biology, and so on. We understand that some delay of gratification is necessary and important for the sake of gaining in depth of understanding. As an adult and a professional scientist, I can piggy back on a lot of background already built through my (traditional) university education, on a previous in depth (traditional) humanities education, and on the subsequent twenty years of professional experience, and pick and choose from the MOOC catalog to indulge my inner child, while playing the MOOC pretend game according to which these online classes would provide a replacement for actual university level classes. This is an obvious lie that many conveniently pretend to believe. It is a lie because the course content is obviously an enormously watered down version of what a typical university level class on the same subject would be like. It is intelligent entertainment, much better than watching TV, but it is certainly not a university education.


Coursera: "Spacebooks: an introduction to extraterrestrial literature", 
University of Zurich (no longer available)

This is by no means the most problematic aspect of the MOOC system. There is a much more sinister and troubling part of the picture. The available platforms that support the current MOOC system, like Coursera, are commercial platforms aimed at making a profit. A way in which they expect to obtain a monetary gain is through the selling of some certificates that state the student's achievement based on some online multiple choice tests associated to the class, and on some assignments that are peer reviewed by other students in the same class. As a university professor myself, I find a lot that can be criticized about how these assignments are constructed and handled, but this is not specifically what I want to discuss. I want to take a step back and look more closely at the underlying assumption. The motor of learning is curiosity. It must be driven by curiosity otherwise it simply does not work, and the satisfaction of that curiosity is the reward in itself, the quenching of that thirst for acquiring new knowledge. The fact that someone is trying to attache a certificate and some silly multiple choice tests to it is only a nuisance, not an incentive. If you are watching the lectures of one of these online MOOC classes because you are interested in learning something, I bet you would be much more likely to use them the way I did, namely watch all the lectures for your curiosity and entertainment, then get a good book on the subject and read it for some more serious learning. Screw the tests and the certificate, who bloody cares! Yes, that is indeed the way it goes, because that is the natural way in which it should go, and that is why trying to mix education and profit is an extremely bad idea. It turns out that the Coursera platform and whoever is running it have very quickly become aware of this themselves, and realized that, precisely for the reason just described, all the course content they were offering that had some interesting intellectual content was not making a profit, while what was bringing them buyers was the content-free business mumbo jumbo, the quackery they list under "self-improvement" and such things, that are entirely disjoint from intellectual curiosity and that people buy, in the form of statements and certificate, to show some fluff to their jughead corporate employers. 


Coursera: "Sleep: Neurobiology, Medicine and Society", 
University of Michigan (no longer available)

So comes July 1, 2016, nearly all of the courses that had at least that quality of intelligent entertainment and could help fulfilling some intellectual curiosity suddenly disappear from the Coursera catalog. Even the ones that still show in my feed now link to a somber "ooops... HTTP 404... looks like you found a page that does not exist...": all of them removed from the Coursera catalog and from the Coursera site altogether, while a veritable avalanche of business-bullshit and quacky-self-improvements is flooding the site. This finally takes us to the most profoundly troubling aspect of these experiments in online education. Over the course of decades of my own personal intellectual education, which did not stop when I got my PhD but continues every single day of my life, in the face of any stupid collection of grades and certificates, I have been going back, over and over again, to the material I learned over the years. I kept all the books I read on all the subjects I have been learning. They grew over the years to a sizable collection and a private library of several thousand volumes. Barring major natural catastrophes, nobody is going to come all of a sudden and erase my access to all that without warning. I have books that are over half a century old and that will continue to serve their purpose as repositories of learning and references ready to be looked up at a moment notice for many more decades to come. I am greatly in favor of disseminating knowledge through the internet and digital media: I am in favor of online lectures, and of digitalizing and distributing academic journals and books of all kind. However, what I think is an enormously serious danger is the terrible impermanence of online repositories of knowledge, the fact that they are controlled by entities whose motives are driven by profit and not by the quest for knowledge. The enormous vulnerability of this model of digital access to knowledge and learning is evident in the ongoing sinister transmogrification of the Coursera site. What remains of the more than thirty courses I have taken on that platform over the span of the past few months is an impression, a memory of the lectures I watched, some of them very interesting, which will no longer be accessible, and thankfully those physical books that I bought and read as a consequence of the interest sparked by those online classes. Beware of relinquishing the caring and transmission of knowledge to entities with their own incompatible agenda. If the MOOC signifies anything about the future of university education, it is only a vision of its worst nightmares: the watering down of content, the rapid elimination of all intellectually viable subjects and their replacement of dubious objects more suitable for the purposes of buying and selling, for the logic of profits. Greater availability of online classes is great and should be pursued, but definitely not through these channels. 


Coursera: "Graphene and 2-dimensional materials", 
University of Manchester (no longer available)