Sunday, September 23, 2012

Strange Loop - Analysis of "The Soul unto itself"

(I submitted this to my Modern Poetry class on Coursera)

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend  –
Or the most agonizing Spy  –
An Enemy  –  could send  –

Secure against its own  –
No treason it can fear  –
Itself  –  its Sovereign  –  of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe  –

This topic of this poem is the soul's relationship to itself. There are two descriptions of this relationship which wrap around each other throughout the poem - master and enemy.

Let's consider the phrases of the poem individually.

"The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend  –"

The first concept introduced is the "Soul". The soul is the entire essence of a person - his identity, his thoughts, his emotions, his desires, and his will. The soul is a complex thing with multiple dimensions. Plato thought that it had three parts - roughly the animal appetites, the rational being, and the will which arbitrates between them.

"Soul" is similar to the words "self", "being" or "consciousness". But "soul" is a richer and more complicated description of a living thing than any of those alternatives.

Soul language is used in many passages of the Bible which Dickinson would have been familiar with. In the creation story, god blows life into the lungs of the first man and "he became a living soul". The word "soul" is also used to refer to animal life in the Bible, and god himself is described as having a soul.

The first line introduces the topic of the poem - "The Soul unto itself". The second line contains a first attempt at describing this relationship - "an imperial friend". So the soul is in command of itself, an emperor. But the relationship the soul has with itself is warmer and closer than between an emperor and subject - it is also a "friend".

Describing the soul as its own emperor makes for a complicated relationship. An emperor and subject are two different people. So too when the soul perceives itself there is a strong sense of a distinction between the perceiver entity and the perceived entity. The soul is a singular thing that paradoxically fills multiple roles in relation to itself.

When an emperor commands his subject, compliance is not automatic. The subject can disobey. An emperor's nominal authority is not sufficient by itself to run an empire. He needs to build armies and bureaucracies to enforce his decrees. Managing our souls is a similarly complicated affair. We all act against our better judgment and desire. A large amount of life activity is devoted to soul-management: planners, todo lists, support groups, church, self-help books, classrooms, and more. Dickinson's metaphor hints at the difficulty of self-control.

The next lines introduce an alternative description of the soul's self-relationship as a counterpoint:

"Or the most agonizing Spy  –
An Enemy  –  could send  – "

Why is the soul the most agonizing spy possible? Because it knows itself better than anyone else. The pain of betrayal is strongest when it comes from someone close to us. There is nobody closer to a soul than itself.

For whom does the soul spy? Who is the "Enemy"? Again, itself. If we temporarily change the first dash to a comma, we get the phrase "Or the most agonizing Spy, An Enemy". The dashes can be translated multiple ways to get sentences with multiple meanings, and the ambiguity is purposeful.

In these lines the poet introduces the warring kingdoms contained within a soul. There are many sovereigns within a soul - the sovereign who is on a diet and the sovereign who likes chocolate cake. They are all constantly spying on each other, looking for advantage - and they all know, love, and hate each other intimately. They are agonized at the idea of letting another kingdom have control.

Now moving on to the second stanza:

"Secure against its own  –
No treason it can fear  –"

This phrase illustrates the soul's vulnerability and its strength. A soul is strong because it cannot be hurt by anything from the outside world. The invincible soul is illustrated by the example of sages who calmly face their own execution. Again, this recalls biblical language: "fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul".

However, the soul is very vulnerable because it can never be safe against itself. It can always betray its own intentions and values. It is always divided against itself. It can never hide from its own spying eyes.

These lines also show the obscurity of the soul. It is the only thing that can know itself. Barriers prevent it from being known by outside eyes. That is why it would fear no treason if it were secure against its own.

Finally the last two lines:

"Itself  –  its Sovereign  –  of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe  –  "

Building on previous images, "Itself - its Sovereign - of itself" is the line that most clearly states the paradoxical oneness and multipleness of the soul. Standing in awe is an action that we usually take when perceiving something grandiose and external, such as a mountain range. Standing in awe of itself, the identity of the soul splits and multiplies.

The author concludes by describing the feelings that characterize the souls relationship with itself. She suggests awe as the proper emotion to show to a sovereign. However, we have previously gone through the emotionally-loaded words "friend", "agonizing", "Enemy", and "fear". So the complete emotional palette that a soul feels towards itself contains the warmth of friendship, agony, hatred, fear, and awe.

Friday, September 14, 2012

(part 1)

Under an unblinking august moon
frost clouds shroud a purple sky.
Silver magic splashes everywhere,
bathing dust and skin and hair - 
and a false-winter chills the dunes
beneath the piercing pagan eye.

Transfixed by that timeless gaze,
I fall under silent command
bidding me march through desert lands.
A river of moonlight marks the way
past dusty worlds of frosted grey
spilling over dunes and horizon bend,
before coming to a cryptic end,
arid miles over the clay.

Joined by none of human kind,
following countless pilgrims past,
I know my journey is not the last
to meet the eternal desert mind.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Next Challenge

"Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" - Steve Jobs
I will be joining the software engineering team at Coursera starting next week. Coursera was my first choice among all possible employers, so I'm thrilled to be able to make that announcement. 

The decision process was short and easy. I asked myself, "five years from now, what is going to be the result of all my time and hard work?". If Coursera is successful, my efforts will help millions of people will get a quality education that otherwise wouldn't have one. That's an awesome legacy to boast of.

Education is a major challenge and opportunity for the global economy. The high-paying, low-skilled jobs of the past are getting eaten up by robots and software. More than ever, an education is the ticket to the good life. 

But the barriers to education are growing higher, not shrinking. The cost of college has shot up way faster than overall inflation or income. And more degree seekers means more competition for the limited slots at good schools. To fill the gap between supply and demand, low-quality schools have swept in to take the money of the disenfranchised while providing little value in return.

Brightening this bleak landscape, experiments with online courses at Stanford University showed that information technology can be used to scale the classroom to hundreds of thousands of students at a time. Since then, multiple companies have started to expand on this model, shattering the barriers that prevent the masses from sharing the same education as the lucky, rich, and elite.

Perhaps most heartening is the large number of third-world citizens taking advantage of the top-rate first-world education being offered through these online platforms. The egalitarian promise of the global web is finally becoming reality in education. 

Out of all the online higher-ed companies, Coursera stands out for their ability to move fast and to execute on the vision. The business development team has closed partnerships with a dozen top universities, enabling them to use the prestigious brands of university partners in their web classrooms. Handicapping the market right now, no company stands a better chance than Coursera of harnessing the brainpower, prestige, and capital of the traditional education system to create a futuristic, post-scarcity learning platform.

Coursera owes its early success to co-CEOs Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University's AI department. Daphne's TED talk is an inspiring introduction to the world of online education:

So I'm happy to be joining a great team working on an important problem. I'm in the right place at the right time and it feels good. Five years from now, people will struggle to remember when education was an elite, expensive commodity enjoyed by a few. I'm looking forward to being a part of that revolution. 

If you take online courses and have any feedback on how we can make them better, please drop me a comment or email. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Revenge of the Clones

I finally figured out where the instinct to make B.S. copycat startups in Silicon Valley comes from - a misplaced sense of risk-aversion. Instead of confidently building the future, a founder tailors his company to appeal to the uncreative bottom 90% of investors. With their backing, his company will peter out over 24 months instead of failing spectacularly in 2. A worse outcome for all involved, but each step feels less scary.

I'd rather work on things that matter.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

i am new-born

i am new-born
i taste the world with my skin
wholly and directly,
without interpretation

i need your love,
hold me in your love.
hold me in your warmth.
mine is freely given
come, have my love

hold me and i will shine for you.
i will repay you a million times,
for there is no art like a life
and no joy like the first

i am small, so small
hold me in you
i am so small
hold me

i cry at fresh beauty
and justify the cycle of death.
my newfound laughter
is the fount of redemption

i circumscribe the limits of evil,
it will never be absolute.
i set its boundaries and barriers
no darkness can reach this -
this holy apprehension