Challenge/Response (2) was published on March 13, 2014 in response to a challenge by Robin Sloan: he wanted me to try writing about something that had nothing to do with technology.
This is the second of the three challenges.
Previously, on this newsletter:
Robin Sloan challenged me to write three consecutive newsletter episodes that had nothing to do with technology or the culture/economy thereof. Flatteringly, he compared it to “one of those runs in X-Men comics where Professor X is in a coma or something, so someone else has to lead the team for a while, and it was always interesting to see what happened ;-)”
This is the second response to his three-part challenge.
This is a story about a brain and its hands.
This brain thinks it’s a fast brain: it sees patterns and pieces of things and jumps from place to place and then suddenly, *snap*, there is a new thing made from those pieces of things that is not quite the same as one of the old things: it’s subtly different and then *boom* we’re suddenly at one of those large maps in the situation room where troop deployments are being planned and the fast brain is pushing things around using a large wooden stick to get things into the right hands.
But the fast brain is hooked up to slow hands.
A fast brain is reading a lot, skimming a lot, taking in a lot, but more than just the surface, more than just the gist, it thinks, and then trying to figure out if it fits together - which it might not - or just waiting for it to fit together, for the right moment to happen when everything rotates *just so* and then the fast brain remembers that one little piece and it slots into place and then everything shatters and reforms.
A fast brain does not like the details.
A fast brain gets frustrated by the details because it can already see the shape of the end result, see, it curves over there and there’s a sharp point here and it’s gestures and motion and a point cloud so not solid and the idea of a silhouette and then if you ask it: come and look over here, look at this piece of the shape, did you mean for it to be this angular, should it work this way, should this part flap or ooze or when you press it should it bounce back quickly or slowly then looking at the overall shape I will say: yes, it should be like *this*, because if it is not like that, then it is not like the overall shape.
A fast brain when it’s growing up gets asked to do chores and wash a car and understands the idea of washing a car and has processed that idea, and the idea of a clean car is apply this process to these components and there is a *system* for that and maybe if we tweak the system then perhaps it could be faster or it could be cleaner but do we still have to clean the car because the car in the fast brain is clean now, but then the fast brain missed a bit and it was all about that bit, so what’s the point of the fast brain because the idea doesn’t matter when the car isn’t clean.
A fast brain needs patient hands. It gets frustrated and flips out because it can see: okay, this is the shape of the music, it doesn’t want to learn how to read sheet music because it can *hear* the music, see, it moves here and then it moves there and there’s a relationship did you spot it, it was there for that bar, and it’s *faster* if it hears the music and translates it into fingers but then its fingers don’t move fast and they ache and they’re so slow, sound isn’t right, but the idea of the sound is right. The fingers need patience and then seven years later, the fingers have caught up with what the brain wants to do.
But the fast brain is already on to something else.
A fast brain is fractal. It takes an idea and splinters it, makes thousands of copies of itself, spawns millions of threads, boots up billions of instances, multiplies connections and does a path analysis, not a random walk, a concerted walk, and all this while the body is there, paused: because the fast brain is trying to figure out - what is the right thing to say, what is the solution to the question posed in this relationship and then the face is beachballing because the brain is racing, exploring deeper and deeper down the tree of conversational probabilities and then…
A fast brain ruminates. A fast brain pulls the thread on a thought, the scab of an idea, the tiniest tear of a piece of self criticism and then devours it, falls down the rabbit-hole, explodes and re-forms, constructs towers of self-reinforcing arguments about worthlessness and futility and self-hatred, self-similar reflective concepts of loathing and goes on and goes on and doesn’t know how to solve the halting problem because it’s just an infinitely long piece of ticker tape that will eat itself and won’t stop at three o’clock in the morning or two o’clock in the afternoon or after fifteen years.
A fast brain looks at microexpressions and tone and cadence and delivery and eye contact and says to itself: this person is screaming meaning but not saying it look at what this person’s brain is saying and the person who is supposed to be listening is hearing the wrong thing and everything is so slow the fast brain has to tell the mouth to jump in and help explain because this is so frustrating why can’t people understand each other, but then the fast brain remembers: it is always jumping in, it can’t always jump in, people don’t like it when it interrupts with the non-sequitur that it has to explain because it got from a to b to c to d and then applied that function and now it’s at a1 to b1 to c1 to d1 and why are people so slow.
A fast brain looks at the washing up and says: the concept of clean dishes has been applied to this collection. It is a trivial, solved problem. Next?
A fast brain takes a single piece of music and puts it on repeat and uncovers new details every single time and can listen to it for eight hours straight, will listen to it all the way from New York to London and come out of it not sick of the music but practically worshipping it, and the fast brain will have eaten it up and then it will say to the fingers: you know this now.
A fast brain feels inadequate and useless and pointless because although it remembers the idea of a thing it doesn’t remember the steps of the thing; it remembers the shape and maybe how many steps and what the idea does to the input and what the shape of the output is but then the fast brain didn’t remember the details: why is it so stupid, fast brain. Why can’t it make things.
A fast brain walks into a meeting about a giant problem and no time and fifteen people and then it zooms out and sees a pattern and a direction and a goal and then the people aren’t people anymore because it’s zoomed out and there’s objects with properties that need adjustment to vectors and there are field lines that need tweaking, so the fast brain looks up in its table and sees: to adjust this field line here disarm the system here so deploy humour here to release tension there and recognise that object there to influence this object in the corner and make this observation but do it aloud so that object thinks it’s their idea and then when the fast brain adjusts the system *just so* and provides the instructions and un-pauses the system and then watches it go the system races toward the goal and there is no problem any more and then you zoom back in and there are people again and then the fast brain decides to execute the program with the jokes in it to disarm and that result in an increase in the amount of reciprocal social capital that may be used at a later date.
A fast brain looks at itself and sees all the rules and algorithms and if-then-elses and considers: what does the fast brain want. What does the fast brain feel. So the fast brain pauses the slow fingers and turns its gaze inward, constructs a giant reflecting parabolic mirror and focuses its attention on itself and sees: nothing.
The fast brain is just a massively complicated computing engine for taking in input and then performing operations on it and when it looks at itself it doesn’t even know if there’s an itself there’s just: a giant sphere. A solid, impenetrable, giant sphere.
And then the fast brain has to pause because a piece of input has come in from the slow world outside and the question is this: would the fast brain like some ice cream?
The fast brain considers this: ice cream is just a food, a way to ingest energy, which the fast brain needs and which the fast brain knows in abstract has been designed to hit this receptor over here which causes a cascade over there which results in this physical, chemical, electrical reaction. So the fast brain reasons to itself: the fast brain can decide to like ice cream, or the fast brain can decide to not like ice cream.
So the fast brain can’t decide, because like is a value in a look-up table and the location of the look-up table isn’t in read only memory, it’s in writeable memory so its value is arbitrary. A flick of a bit and the value is yes, another flick and the value is no.
Meanwhile, the brain’s body is beachballing.
“I don’t know,” the fast brain says.
This was Season 11’s Hiatus episode 2 of 5.
Things That Caught My Attention, Volume 1 is out now: you, my three thousand-odd true fans, can [get a copy with 20% off](https://store.verylittlegravitas.com/l/ThingsVol1/subscriber).
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