25. Death and taxes

Love and honour in the city

Mark Burgess
22 min readMar 7, 2024

I jumped into a rental car in mid Mountain View one day. It was parked along the street next to the Caltrain railway line, close to where I was shacking up with my dear friend Amy, a sweet Taiwanese woman working for Apple. I spent a lot of time in Mountain View, using it as my base for several years. It had an amazing second hand bookshop, which unfortunately closed a few years ago. Just across the street is an amazing Hong Kong bakery for the best pastries.

My phone lit up. An unusual email landed on my notifications. It contained a summons to the Federal Reserve in San Francisco.

Out of the blue, someone who had been reading my books had noticed that I was in the Bay Area from a social media message I’d posted. He worked in the research section of the federal Reserve and he was enthused about my books on Promise Theory and Smart Spacetime. He wanted to meet me since I was in the area. Ironically, although many of my friends had been generally scathing about my books–particularly the more philosophical ones–those books were responsible for getting me attention and actual work more times than anything else. I replied that he could call me on my mobile phone number. Within seconds he called and we arranged for me to drive from Mountain View into central San Francisco near the Embarcadero where the Fed was situated.

I was a bit shocked and a bit excited by the email. Nonetheless, I drove the fifty or so miles into town and followed his instructions to enter the secure car park where visitors could park. The high fences and layers of security guards let me pass cheerily and I was granted a guided tour and a bite to eat. My host was excited by the possibilities for semantic spacetime and had enjoyed what I’d written about micro-currencies. It gave me a warm feeling to know that someone had noticed the very esoteric work I’d tried to do to formalise concepts about money and ownership. The work I’d done on money had been a strange turn.

After discovering Promise Theory and commissioning a book about it, Tim O’Reilly took some interest in what I wrote for a while. O’Reilly read my essay on Banks, Brains, and Factories and shared it with a well known economist friend. I promised to show them my notes as well as to Mike Loukides at O’Reilly publishing, who had been writing about these topics. The first draft turned out to be 80 pages long. Mike replied: “My god, you don’t do anything by halves do you?” But I was only half done!

I’d stumbled across a book by Keith Hart called The Memory Bank. The idea that money could be a memory bank and a communication network seemed ahead of its time. But this was exactly what Promise Theory predicted. Naively excited as always, I reached out to the author to express my enthusiasm for the book. He replied graciously and asked me to send a draft of what I was writing. When he saw my draft text, Hart was brutally scathing and derisive. How was this anything like what he had written? His ideas were political, mine were some pointless mathematics. It was a slap in the face, but as I delved into economic writings, I realised that so much of it was political rather than scholarly. I wanted to do better than spouting opinion, no matter how intuitively correct.

After some comments from Jan Bergstra, I decided that we could turn the 80 page analysis into a book. After all, when a document gets that long, it needs an index and a structure that allows you to flip through it, otherwise no one would be able to read it. Jan was mildly interested on a philosophical level, though he was more interested at the time in the implications of Islamic finance and its interest free lending. Still, he rubber stamped my work and did some critical proofreading. I worked out the details of what ownership can mean from a network perspective. That felt like an important step that everyone thus far had taken for granted, Money, Ownership, and Agency was published in 2019.

It seemed clear that economics was one area where Promise Theory ought to rule. The new forms of money that were coming into being, from flight miles to Bitcoin were dominated by the cryptocurrency movement, but I wasn’t convinced that it made sense. My limited understanding of money was that it relied in many ways on centralization for its security.

The excellent used book shop, now recycled into a shops

The development of Promise Theory took a number of turns over the years. I was always conscious of the fact that there were very few predictions offered by the theory, and that needed to change. Jan Bergstra had been intrigued by the concept of Islamic Financing and had written a couple of papers on the topic. I, in turn, had become interested in the economics of the Market Crash in 2008 and subsequent twists and turns, and had begun to read anything I could on the topic.

I wrote an essay about the likeness between agents in a cognitive model and an economic model, showing how the key part of these systems was the memory boundary. I felt this was sort of what Keith Hart had been getting at, but he wasn’t able to see the larger picture. I wrote up the essay for a keynote speech I was invited to give at the inaugural opening of a new conference called All Day Devops, for an audience of 30,000 people online! Brains, Banks, and Factories 2017 got some nice comments from a range of people and was interviewed on a podcast about the article. The article would later become a book.

The meeting at the Fed didn’t result in any direct work. You need a much higher profile than I have to get on the radar of money men. Also, money men are the ones who have the least amount of money to offer others when it comes to paying for something! For them, money travels in one direction only. Nevertheless, like my other books, the money book attracted a small but select fan base and continues to do so today. A man wrote to me from Australia to tell me how he admired the work, and one the Tim O’Reilly’s economist friends promised to read the book after seeing my popular essay.

I’m fortunate to have the attention of these random strangers. Without their feedback, I would certainly have given up long ago.


I’d been asked to move to the Bay Area several times by different companies, including my own company and Apple. Not moving too far from my family turned out to be a good move, however. I was between trips, travelling between China and the US to work on different projects when it finally happened. I was at home in Norway when my dad collapsed one day from a stroke. He’d tried to get out of bed, but lay on the floor unconscious for most of a day before his new wife returned home from her job and found him. She called me in a panic.

His recent marriage to a Chinese-Japanese woman half his age meant that there was someone in the house to find him as he keeled over getting out of bed. Grace, his wife, called me immediately, as the ambulance was on its way. I called my sister and I began to plan a flight to England. I flew to the UK to see him in the hospital. He was paralysed on his left side and it took some weeks to recover his speech, but he was as defiant as ever.

He wasn’t an easy patient. He denied his injuries and was constantly planning his prison break. It was hard to tell whether he truly believed that he was fine, or whether he was just in complete denial. He’d always been an expert liar, whose first instinct was to make up a story rather than confront the truth of any issue. When I saw him, he would ask me to push him in a wheelchair to the car and make a prison break to go back home. I felt terrible for him. His home was his life,

Although we had never understood one another, I later came to realise that we were similarly introverted. His overtly confrontational nature in public, but personable manner to friends, concealed that for a long time, but I believe that he ultimately preferred to hide away at home. He never went out by choice, except for a famous coffee with friends, after the separation from my mum. I learned this too late though.

He spent two years in hospital and a fairly nice country care home that we selected for him, deteriorating gradually and entirely unhappy. It meant that I was travelling more to the UK than I had done in many years. In some ways, it became easier for me to visit than before the stroke, because I no longer had to deal with the politics of who to visit and who to stay with. I could finally relax about visiting my mum. I got to know my mum better again, after a long distancing.

The stroke was a tragic episode that I was spared from dealing with, at first hand, thanks to his wife’s brave determination to look after him.

Because we were never close, in spite of trying, I didn’t feel his loss greatly until later, after my mum died. We had never been close, but it took a while to feel the regret of not having known one another better. I’m not sure it was anyone’s fault, and I feel awful that it must have been harder on him. Feeling estranged from one’s child, after all, must be heartbreaking.

New York again

On the trip I’d taken to New York for the Transition conference in 2015, I met my friend Tamar Eilam for lunch in Bryant park, just a couple of blocks away from the conference venue. We’d known each other tangentially for years through the Networking conference circuit, and had met semi-romantically a couple of times.

She worked at Watson Labs, currently in the news for its much publicised AI Jeopardy Competition win. As Artificial Intelligence began to rear its head again, she told me that IBM wanted to recruit top people strategically. From my experiences with large companies, I wasn’t too excited about the idea of being owned by a monster like IBM, but I knew several people there that I liked. She persuaded me to try out a project with an eye perhaps to possibly hiring me later.

After a bit of administrative back and forth, I was connected to another friend Nico whom I’d known from the same conferences all the way back to 2001. We agreed on a budget and a vague project description and I was asked to come to Watson and meet with some of the bosses. It should have been a warning flag that the project was ill-defined at the outset, but I’d worked with other companies like Cisco and Huawei under similar scenarios and they had been completely fine. When I arrived, I learned that I wasn’t going to work with any of the people I knew. Someone has decided that I should be placed with a team of unknown researchers, managed by Nico. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but trod carefully to find the lay of the land.

The group was nice enough: a woman and a young Indian man, with random drop ins from folks we both knew. They seemed to be as bemused as I was to be thrown together without much planning. What exactly did we want to do? I explained a bit about the work I’d been doing on knowledge management and semantic spacetime. I talked about smart sensors at the edge of the network to avoid massive data collection. They were polite and we suggested trying to implement something like this for cloud management. We were going to need data to analyze.

At first, my friend Nico came to supervise the sessions, but he was pulled away into something else. As the project started, I was placed with a small group of junior to mid level researchers who had no idea who I was or why I was joining them. They were busy with existing projects and weren’t invested in working together at all. This is the corporate life that I wasn’t keen to join.

The team members were already busy with other work they were invested in and didn’t take the time to understand my ideas. I spent some time making videos and writing papers to explain the background material, but while they nodded one day it was clear that they were just being polite. They saw the project as something that I was going to do for them. Fair enough. I hoped to get some data to work on a smart analysis using knowledge maps, but no one had any data to use. “Of course we have data,” they said, but nothing came. Finally, I received a file of junk data from IBM’s cloud, which was a testament to the poor state of monitoring today. It was terabytes of junk, like licence files dumped to public logging services once per second by some open source packages. It was a facepalm moment, but no one there really cared. They just wanted to get on with what they were doing before I arrived.

I felt bad for them, but they started to needle me about coming up with results without contributing anything themselves, not even the data that I was supposed to analyse. That wasn’t what I signed up for. I was irritated that I was supposed to be a kind of expert consultant to lead an initiative, but they treated me as a hired gun. I went back to Oslo with an official laptop that I was supposed to use. It was a Thinkpad, which had Microsoft Windows installed and all the corporate authentication junk that follows with big companies. I’d already messed up my Macintosh installing a similar software agent from Cisco so I was dreading having to use it. In practice I couldn’t use it at all except to read some emails. I needed Linux to use my programming tools.

I worked on some code to sample the data we were expecting to get, by modifying by fork of the CFEngine open source under the name Cellibrium. I sent them the code, but no one knew how to make and compile software. I made elaborate instructions and come videos to explain, and they were eventually able to make some progress, but the fact remained that they were doing it against their will. Months passed and another trip was arranged to Watson.

Snowstorm in Midtown Manhattan

The second trip was hit by a huge Winter storm that closed the airport just after I landed. The city shut down and I was trapped in my hotel for the first day. On the second day I was given instructions to get the train out of the city where someone picked me up and drove me to Watson, but few people had come to work. It was a huge waste of time and money.

As the meetings came to the conclusion that we had no viable data to study, I generated some test data of my own to show how the knowledge inference could work. By the end of the session, there was grudging acceptance of the ideas I’d tried to present, but still no buy in from the team. The mood was already soured.

It was the worst possible arrangement and it quickly fell apart. As an outsider, I had no authority to decide anything, and they had no interest in the work. I became angry and they became angry. In the end it ended with some bitter words. The project was already out of money, so it was decided to give up! The department administrator asked me how I thought it had gone and if I would consider working with IBM again. I cautiously said, “maybe” if the right thing came up–but it was clear that neither of us were looking forward to that. It was a bizarre episode but I was determined not to let it be for nothing.

Around that time, I went back to China for another project with Huawei. At least, working with the Chinese, I knew that everyone had the respect to listen to the people they invited. Of course, they were also a large company and large companies rarely succeed at innovation internally.

Concepts from text

I thought about going back to develop the machine learning methods for monitoring but realized that there were some big gaps in the understanding of the problem. I drafted a couple of papers about system statelessness and observability of phenomena from a distributed systems perspective. These papers got a surprising amount of attention on Twitter. I wrote them in response to the latest marketing appropriation of well understood concepts in IT. I was even a little irritated by people professing to reinvent issues they didn’t even understand properly. It was a good exercise to force myself to write down the concepts formally in Promise Theory. Indeed, the work formed the basis for a second volume of notes about systems. I eventually turned these notes into my two volume Treatise on Systems.

But I didn’t want to be stuck in the past. I wanted to get back to problems that would move my knowledge research forward. I’d just been treating water to get others to join in at IBM. If getting data was the problem for machine learning, then how could I find data that I didn’t need to rely on anyone for? I came up with the idea of reading books. The Internet surely has a lot of text. Surely I could use that to develop some of the ideas. But the more I thought about the original idea, the more I realized that I could use all of the concepts from Semantic Spacetime to develop a scaled model of the conceptualization. I just needed to do the work in detail to prove the point. I needed to get my hands dirty with data analysis.

I read some books on Natural Language Processing and decided that none of them were doing what I wanted to do. I developed some methods of performing n-gram fractionation of text. It was based on my old ideas of Computer Immunology.

I had an idea, based on linguistic interpretation of space and time as a process (basically the Chomsky hierarchy or the Turing tape) that concepts were the long term scaled evolution of fragments of pattern acquired from spacetime cognition. The idea was obvious from the viewpoint of promise theory and semantic spacetime interpretation. I’d said as much in the original papers, but it was hard to see in practice. It needed a proof of concept.

I returned to my systematic approach and began to build a model from the bottom up. It was arduous work, but also pleasantly practical. It had been a while since I’d done any programming. Now I could learn Golang for this new project and get to see exactly how everything worked at first hand–just from my laptop. One thing I was adamant about was that I would not pursue giant models that needed hundred of cloud computers to solve. For one thing, I couldn’t afford to do that. More importantly, I wanted to place understanding first. I wanted to see how much could be inferred from just small patterns–the way small brained animals work. This is how evolution finds its way.

After a few months of working and writing, filling note books as well as databases with ideas and calculations, I had enough structure to define the problem and draw some conclusions. I wrote a first paper on the statistical meaning of intent from patterns, and a second paper on the emergence of concepts by scaling stable meanings. It was fascinating to discover that the concepts I could find were nothing close to linguistic notions of things or ideas, but rather more primitive colours of emotional “feelings”. What is Moby Dick about? Not whales, as it turns out. It’s about anger and obsession. That was the result of the analysis.

I learned a lot by doing this work, and the results were definitely suggestive of the idea that I was trying to demonstrate. Ultimately, however, the results from such a small scale experiment were not conclusive enough to go very far, so the key questions remained open. But it was not in vain. Later, I would come back to revisit these ideas–after developing some interim concepts–in connection with two later project works on neuroscience and on trust.

Strokes of misfortune

In the midst of this travelling, I was trying to go back to the UK regularly, visiting my Dad whenever I could. By this time, he was deteriorating from his stroke and subsequent microstrokes and barely recognized me. It was tragic to see him like this, refusing to eat, and so filled with sadness. Even now, in the midst of his fear of death and unhappily wasting away, he didn’t really want to see me. He would send me away shortly after I arrived. Perhaps he didn’t want anyone to see him in that condition. I could only regret that we were never able to bridge the gap between the two of us and understand each other better.

Madrid airport

That summer, I was recruited to be a part of an advisory board for a large Spanish Bank called BBVA. It was a lovely arrangement, set up by an American go-between advisory company. They offered a generous amount of money to have four meetings and I jumped at the chance. It seemed like manna from heaven.

I love working for bankers and financiers. They fly you business class and fetch you in limousines. I was one of four “experts” brought in, mainly from the USA, to advise on technology. I was so enthusiastic that I put off some work for Huawei in order to be sure to keep their meeting schedule. That turned out to be a mistake.

The BBVA people were lovely, but I had the sense that this was a management initiative that the tech folks hadn’t agreed to. That also quickly fell apart, which was a shame. I’d been looking forward to the meetings, and I’d out off other projects to make room for it. I ended up losing several months of money due to the cancellation, which set off a chain of poor finances for years in which money became very tight.

L days–serendipity

I was suddenly 50 years old, and it felt as though half my life had been wasted unsuccessfully on things I hadn’t been able to finish, as well as people I’d not been able to know properly. I’d resigned myself to the idea that I wasn’t ever going to meet a partner as someone who would accept me for who I was. Likewise, whom I could accept having pushed people away for so long. But then, just when I thought it was a done deal, out of the blue, I did.

For years, I’d been in a kind of relationship purgatory. A darker episode in my life had compelled me to support someone close to me, an addict who could be both emotionally demanding and occasionally violent and threatening both to me and others. I could expect visits to my door at any hour of day or night, demanding attention. If I didn’t behave properly, emotions would fly out of control. I had to be careful about inviting anyone into my home. I went to Japan with cracked ribs in 2010 and lived with the constant threat of jealous rage. I was afraid to expose anyone else to this potential jeopardy, and so my romantic relationships were always opportunistic, secretive, and necessarily tenuous.

For the most part, I succeeded in stealing moments of adventure, but it felt unfair not being able to explain my dismissive behaviour to the beautiful liaisons that I dated. Everyone I did steal moments with had to be precious to me to risk the consequences. Some of them merely used me too, of course, some had emotional issues of their own. Still, I cherished all those memories and I carry them with me every day. I hope they don’t judge me too harshly.

One day all that fear and trepidation came to an end, when my dark shadow turned a corner and moved on. I was suddenly free of obligations–released from the unintended captivity that had hung over me for more than a decade. I was granted a second life, just as I was feeling ready to give up on the one I’d already had.

I didn’t exactly rush out to marry the first suitor–indeed, marriage was never on my list of interests. Instead of going out hunting for a mate, I shut the doors and hardly spoke to anyone. Exhausted by the years of work and by juggling too many personal issues, I’d given up wanting to be close to anyone. But no one can deny loneliness. No matter how you try, it lingers and haunts.

On a trip to Paris I met a lovely Phillipino girl, smart and sexy. I dated and travelled with her for a while. She was lonely too in a different way and worked (a little too hard) to turn us into a couple for several years, but we weren’t a good match. Our needs didn’t overlap. She was an irrepressible extrovert and needed a level of energy I couldn’t muster. Like the friendship I’d just escaped from, it placed more expectations on my shoulders, but I was already spent. I tried to turn it into something more casual, but that left some wounds. At this point I wasn’t sure I wanted anything except casual liaisons.

I tried Tinder for a while, and met a few nice women, but it felt fake and it was stressful to my introvert nature. After talking to a friend in New York, I checked out a website for connections that she had recommended out of sheer desperation. The very first face I saw turned out to be a young Chinese girl who went by the Western name of Lynn.

Speedboats passing in flight

Lynn had posted an unusually honest set of pictures from her travels, featuring her art and her fashion. It wasn’t the usual cheesy vanity poses. She seemed to be travelling alone, as many Chinese girls do. I was moved to compliment her on the pictures, thinking no more would come of it. Unexpectedly, she replied and we began to chat.

By chance she was travelling to Spain (Barcelona) to Oslo. And by chance I was travelling from Oslo to Spain (Madrid). One picture had her posing in a hotel somewhere for a humorous Instagram moment that just broke my heart. The picture felt so lonely that I wanted to open my heart to her and rescue her in whatever way I could. She was far too young to be as lonely as I was, and apparently for similar reasons. Of all the women I’d been privileged to know, this meeting of minds drew me to her more than anything. It seemed like we could understand each other.

By coincidence as I was travelling from Oslo to Spain, she was travelling from Spain to Oslo! It was a ridiculous coincidence. We crossed paths without even meeting in person and kept going. Our journeys were both long since planned and going in completely opposite directions, and yet we bonded somehow–perhaps sensing compatible values and compatible longings. We started to chat regularly on WhatsApp, falling into an easy style of sharing pictures of where we were, so that we were virtually together all the time. It wasn’t a relationship based primarily on attraction, but on familiarity. We could speak, make video calls, but mostly we would chat.

In her art, what struck me was that both of us had created worlds inside our own minds of fun and of darkness. Our problems seemed to lie not in being alone, but being with others. I saw a kindred spirit. An artist, a writer, a stylish and playful spirit. Someone running from her life. Mostly, I saw someone who was as profoundly lonely as I was, and trying to hide it–but not too well. My heart broke for her. I knew we could be friends.

She went to New York, and I flew back to Oslo, and helped her in some minor ways to navigate the city by chat. Then she went to Boston, which was tantalising. I was going to Boston too, but not for another month! In the end, after some time travelling, I think she felt the depth of her unhappiness alone, on the run, and decided to fly back to China. Ironically, her home was Shenzhen just across the water from Hong Kong–the two cities in China where I’d worked, and that I knew well.

I promised her that I would come to her. It felt like my last chance. I’d found a kindred spirit when I wasn’t looking–someone it felt natural to communicate with. From half a planet away, she was only half my age, but if that’s what it took, then so be it. She told me later that she didn’t really believe that I would come, but I was never in any doubt. This was likely my last chance. It was only when I showed her the plane ticket that it raised an eyebrow. Are there people who do what they say? I had a date!

But, I had several promises to keep before that. I had to fly to Paris to give a keynote–another rendition of Banks, Brains, and Factories. Then I had to fly to Boston for my final LISA conference. I returned to Oslo and had only a few days to wash and recoup. Then I jumped on the plane to Hong Kong, right before Christmas.

I took BA’s giant A380 airbus to Hong Kong. via London, treating myself to business class to survive the 12 hour flight. I wasn’t going to save pennies on this trip. On the plane, I watched the latest Star Trek movie and hated it, but at the end there was a song by Rihanna that instantly grabbed me: Sledgehammer. To this day, that song fills my stomach with butterflies for our first meeting.

Lynn met me at the Hong Kong arrivals gate. We’ve been together ever since.

Landmark christmas

The Landmark shopping centre in HK

I was 50 years old. Lynn was half my age, and from half a planet away, but we clicked almost straight away and we’ve been together ever since. We spent days in Hong Kong, and crossed into Shenzhen, as I still had my Chinese visa. We walked, we ate cake, and looked at Hong Kong’s world famous Christmas decorations. I’ve never felt so comfortable with someone so quickly. No expectations, no demands, just walking hand in hand.

Tsim Sha Tsui park

I left Hong Kong on Christmas Eve and flew back to London. Lynn found a job for a few weeks over the New Year, but found it hard to adjust to life back in Shenzhen. After just a few weeks, she quit the job and told me she was coming to Oslo. It was the best news I could imagine. I quickly bought a new sofa to spruce up the apartment and made some welcome decorations.

Death and taxes

As Lynn flew back to Oslo to be with me, the news came that my Dad had died. I took it with great ambivalence. His misery was finally over, but what had I done to prevent it?

We had to fly to the UK almost immediately for his funeral. Within days of arriving in Oslo, we had to fly to the UK. Although we hardly knew each other, I knew her better than people I’d known half my life. Luckily she had a visa for the UK. We booked a hotel in Banbury and went straight to my mum’s.

Lynn was the first person I’d ever taken to visit my mum. That didn’t escape her notice. They bonded instantly. Lynn’s sense of humour was very much like the humour on my mother’s side of the family–silly and playful. That’s one side of (mainland) Chinese people that I was always drawn to from the beginning. The sense of humour is very compatible with British humour, and Lynn’s humour is very compatible with our family’s.

Imagine, to have someone who genuinely cares for you. As you get older, you realise that gets rarer and rarer.

For fun, I would sketch cartoon versions of our adventures. Then later, Lynn too drew her own cartoon versions, but as highly professional cartoons far superior to my silly sketches. We were a couple. It was all very unexpected, and all very welcome.



Mark Burgess

@markburgess_osl on Twitter and Instagram. Science, research, technology advisor and author - see Http://markburgess.org and Https://chitek-i.org