26. Smarter Roads Ahead

Coming back full circle

Mark Burgess
32 min readMar 30, 2024

The fateful winds of life have compelled me to write many times over the years. It’s how I make sense of what’s going on. It’s my process. The need to revisit the past has been an odd compulsion. Is it that we need to compare it to the present, to be sure we would still judge it in the same way? Is it an act of calibration for the present? Or is it a kind of flight to a refuge back to a time that felt more adventurous, more exciting, because everything was new then. I’m not sure.

As I write on 30th August 2023, a golden light is suddenly streaming through the living room window of our new flat onto my walnut loudspeakers. The wood shines in such a way that suddenly tugs on my memory and plucks at my heartstrings. Something about it feels like a past home: the UK. It reminds me of trips to York, of driving around Banbury. Half cloudy and half sunny, the light is filtering through the moist clouds creating that special kind of light. Apparently in Holland, the painters know it as a special kind of light. I think the UK and Netherlands are closely similar on this point. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a moment of light in a succession of days that sometimes feels dark or even lost on its way.

Nothing goes to waste

I hate letting things go to waste. I hate unfinished business. I wrote my book The Road Ahead to make sense of one painful ending in 2006, to see if there could be a way forward in the wake of profound loss. When Amazon opened their Kindle Direct Publishing on demand printing service I decided to recover some old manuscripts–books I’d written in the past that could still be useful. The two novels I’d written, called Slogans and The Road Ahead, came out of the closet. I asked Lynn to design new covers for them and I promised my mum a copy, even if no one else would read them. I figured: now I can forget about them. Move on. That’s sort of my position on things. Finish for now and make available, to come back to later if the mood fits.

Although mum hated the dark and cynical Slogans it wasn’t a surprise. Yet, for some reason, The Road Ahead moved her unexpectedly. It was such a personal story born of a painful moment in my life. I think she had been feeling the pangs of loneliness now that the grandchildren were less dependent on her and her mother had passed on.

On a visit after we delivered the newly minted books to her, she asked us to make a poster version of the closing text to hang on the wall next to her beloved Desiderata poster. Lynn designed it in A3 format.

Elephants on a Plane

On a flight returning from Hong Kong one day I saw a documentary film about composer John Williams collaboration with Steve Spielberg. Spielberg mentioned in particular how he’d love working on the Indiana Jones music and how his favourite piece of music had been for a scene in which the characters cross country on the back of an elephant. It was indeed a beautiful piece of music with powerful horns. I was intrigued.

I discovered the GarageBand software on my MacIntosh. It was the first digital recording software I’d used for almost twenty years, but it had an impressive array of sampled instruments. I still had an old Roland Midi keyboard from my musical work in the 90s. I began to play around with it and it opened a possibility that I’d never dared contemplate: to write music for an orchestra.

I frantically began to write music in filmatic styles. Dozens of ideas flooded out after such a long hiatus. I began to learn the discipline of orchestrating again, and now with instruments that I’d never had access to before. The sample sounds in GarageBand were rudimentary but good enough to get started. After a while I discovered that there were plugins one could buy so I bought a relatively inexpensive UWI orchestra plugin which made a big difference.

There were challenges. My Macintosh was ten years old and it had been just the cheapest Air Book I could buy for holding presentations. It was not powerful enough to handle complex music so I struggled with timing issues, but I was able to write (if not perform very well) quite a lot of music in a short space of time. After watching David Attenborough, I made a couple of short films together with Lynn in order to score some scenes of nature in action. The North was a theme I wrote after hearing a Sami Yoik (a kind of yodelling by the northern minority in Norway). The Seabird was inspired by Attenborough’s Planet Earth series. They were rough hobbyist efforts, but I was genuinely excited by what I could look forward to doing in the future. After all my years of imagining the kind of music I’d wanted to make, stuck with only guitars and simple keyboards to play with, the doors to my musical ambitions were opening.

I imagined a couple of soundtracks for my two novels Slogans and The Road Ahead too as practice runs, and I began to sketch out smaller films that I could try to make. My dream was to make an animated film. The documentary about John Williams and Indiana Jones had gotten me thinking about what heroic music meant. I wanted to write an action hero theme of my own. I came up with a sketch for The Ivory River (Adventure of the Hopeless Heroes) about a civilization of half robot elephants oppressed by some high priests and I scored twelve pieces developing themes. It was complex work, and it pushed the envelope of what I could easily do with the software (not to mention my own musical playing skills). As a project it was too much to take on though. By the time I’d sketched out this much I was bristling with new ideas and wanted to move on to develop more kinds of music.

I’d found a new interest in music to rescue me from the malaise of tech work. If I’d been able to retire from tech I might easily have been tempted at this point, but I couldn’t see myself going back to any other kind of work. I wasn’t exactly getting rich from technology, yet starting again in some other field wasn’t an option either.


While I was playing around with the music, I got a visit from a friend of a friend called Joseph Jacks who was founding a startup in California. He was visiting the Kubernetes convention in Denmark and stopped over to meet me in Oslo. He was co-founder of a startup called Aljabr (from the Arabic word for algebra) formed by a former Google employee who was designing smart data pipelines. He persuaded me to join. I had nothing going on, so I agreed and began to see how I could contribute to the project. Lynn designed a website and the company branding and we began to discuss.

Joseph’s co-founder Peter had invented a new control language for describing data pipelines at Google. Data pipelines are processes that transport data between applications and places. His language was an abstract declarative approach based on some functional mathematics. He called it Ko, to resemble the Go language used at Google. It was lean and interesting but quite impractical for setting up and managing pipelines in reality. Engineers would probably hate it. The state of the art for data pipelines was pretty crude. Several products existed for streaming data for different applications, but they were clunky and very different in conception. I felt that we could do a lot better than any of them and tie the transport of data directly to software defined networking.

I thought I could help to close the gap between abstraction and practice. I set about modelling pipelines in Promise Theory and came up with a design that could be built to support smart adaptive pipelines, without paying attention to the language for describing the pipelines. A dutch programmer Ewout Prangsma worked with me to implement a platform for the design in Go. It could have been a good project, but it seemed to flounder after just a few months. The co-founders became harder to reach. They were both distracted by other matters, like having babies and starting a venture capital fund, so–just as I was getting into full gear the project began to evaporate. Ewout and I kept the software design going for several months but in the end it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to carry on and we’d wasted our efforts.

To brand the project, I’d called the pipeline Koalja (a portmanteau of Ko and Aljabr, with a cute Koala bear logo designed by Lynn). As we wrapped up the code and posted it as open source, I wrote a paper about Koalja in the hope of coming back to it when there was more interest (and some popular articles). It had so many possible applications, so I think it remains a useful technology for the future, but the financial stability of regular money was short lived so I had to move onto other projects. Too many of these efforts were resulting in nothing. I always like to finish something to a point where it can stand on its own, but in my experience most people give up long before that.

Systems and Agile promises

It was back to writing books.

From the seventy pages of notes I had written as part of the work with Huawei, Cisco, and Smart Cities I began to organise a set of notes about Promise Theory applications. I’d already written a book with Jan Bergstra about the basics, but it left too much to the imagination for most of its potential readers. Mathematical skills are not strong to begin with; asking someone to be creative with a new language of mathematical expression was completely unrealistic. Since I never want work to go to waste, I began to turn the notes into book form.

Little applications for Promise Theory had a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Promise Theory had attracted a light covering of followers with some of its notions underlying autonomy, its meaning and implications. I’d always known that the implications were much larger than computer science, but since there was no money in social science, I was drawn to technology projects to stay afloat. With hindsight, part of me wondered if I’d done the wrong thing in abandoning university life a decade earlier. I knew I’d made the right decision though.

As I was looking over the notes to compile a coherent volume, I looked back at the work I’d done on Semantic Spacetime and realized how it would never be understood by anyone unless I took the effort to explain it in a more popular fashion. I was encouraged by the relative success of In Search of Certainty. Although O’Reilly told me the book was a failure as far as they were concerned, a growing number of people told me that book had changed their lives! It was an honour, which for me meant it had been a success. I had written it to save my company CFEngine and explain the ideas behind it to them. That had been a failure, but in the aftermath of that debacle, many of the opportunities I’d been given were a direct result of that book. For me, it was a success.

Years before, I’d written the book Analytical Network and System Administration for John Wiley & Sons.

Promise Theory had grown out of the deficiencies in coverage of that book. I had wanted to create a second edition to that book, but John Wiley & Sons had a policy of making their academic books increasingly expensive. No one could afford to buy it anymore so it failed to sell any copies for a couple of year. It went legally out of print. I wrote to the publisher to recover the rights to the book, as this is normal in publishing when books go out of print. Their lawyers wrote back and generously accepted to return the copyright to me as long as I didn’t use their materials.

I had my original Latex materials, which had plenty of corrections added. I expanded these and planned to rebrand the two books together as a Treatise on Systems, volumes 1 and 2.

Writing the technical Promise Theory details was tedious work, but I forced myself to do it in the interests of encouraging others to learn and use Promise Theory. I added as many index points as I could manage to think of so that the result would be a book in which one could look up topics. The seventy pages grew into seven hundred before you could say metaphysical graph theoretic agent based modelling. I made the book available through Amazon so that people could get a convenient printed copy, and left the PDF version free to download. Then it was time to write something more inspiring.

I began to write a second popular book based on the deep ideas behind Semantic Spacetime. I would be an audacious blend of topics from physics to artificial intelligence, something akin to Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach. It was an enormous effort. Once again, I published it on the Amazon KDP platform and publicised it on Twitter, betting on it taking several years to get noticed. In fact, readers picked up on it much more quickly than I expected. Smart Spacetime also felt like an important step in getting people to think about my work. Ironically, t would eventually open some doors for me in neuroscience.

The Return of the Son of Physics?

I received an unexpected invitation to dinner at the house of retired physics professor Jon Magne Leinaas, from the University of Oslo one day. Leinaas was the co-discoverer of the theoretical possibility for anyons with Jan Myrheim. It was his 70th birthday, as I recall, and he had invited a few friends for dinner at his house. I had not seen him for almost twenty years and was very surprised to be counted amongst them. He explained at dinner that he considered me to be an accomplished person and wanted to honour my work in computing, which he had heard rumours about. I was flattered and surprised that he would even know about any of that. The dinner was nice and afterwards, he suggested we get together for coffee from time to time. Perhaps he was lonely after retirement. We met a few times for a coffee at the university library.

When I finished my book Smart Spacetime, I was eager to show him what I’d been doing. Surely such a deep thinker would be interested in the results of a new way of looking at spacetime? I was wrong. He was quite unimpressed by the idea of using graph theoretical models. He actually chided me for not following the conventions of physics and mathematics and pointed me to the work of Jan Myrheim, his long term collaborator who had written about statistical spacetimes back in 1978 at CERN. He suggested I write to Myrheim, so I did, but he didn’t reply. Much as I liked them both personally, I was annoyed to be dismissed for my own efforts and for the suggestion that I should learn from his colleague how to do it properly. I realized we didn't really have much in common. We didn’t meet again.

Another retiree from the university physics department was my old friend Finn Ravndal–the professor who had first invited me to Norway almost 30 years earlier. I’d also not seen him since being invited to his 60th birthday party many years earlier, but I thought of him often. We bumped into one another somehow in the Internet age and recouped our relationship. We met after long absence at the House of Literature in Oslo and he told me about his move to Berlin for retirement, after a divorce with his then wife. He had met a new partner, Katja, some thirty years younger than him and was happy in his retirement. We had much more in common than I had with the other professors, and bonded over our shared interests. Without students or work to distract us, we rediscovered our connection and were able to talk about all things human and physical.

I didn’t meet Jon Magne Leinaas again after the uncomfortable encounter, but Lynn and I became close friends with Finn Ravndal as he commuted back and forth between Oslo and Berlin. Finn had never lost his excitement for physics. His curiosity has no bounds. He didn’t show much interest in my work either, but he didn’t dismiss it out of hand. There were always open minded conversations we could have and we had much more in common to be able to hang out together. At the same time, I rediscovered some old colleagues from physics on the Internet and began to chat with them more often via Twitter. It was as if my physics identity had been reborn as a caterpillar after thirty years of lying in the dirt! It was nice to hear from those people again, and to be able to talk about physics.

Quantum Inequality

One subject that Jon Magne reminded me of was that of quantum entanglement. It was a topic that I had never taken the time to understand properly in my youth, even as arguments and controversies raged around me. As a student it had seemed impenetrable, and with good cause. There’s an enormous amount of discussion about issues that seem to be entirely beside the point. The EPR paradox and Bell’s theorem are not about the weirdness of quantum mechanics as much as it is about a stubborn idea of what classical can be.

Over the years, my experiences with Promise Theory caused me to revise several of my cherished beliefs about physics. This was no exception. With the experience of Computer Science. The notes I’d written about “Motion of the Third Kind” aka virtual motion had given me a renewed insight into quantum mechanics, confirming suspicions about what could be a reason for the apparently “weird” behaviour in quantum mechanics. Let’s face it, I was sick reading about the same old tired story of incomprehensible quantum behaviour. No one was even trying to understand anything anymore. Quantum mechanics has become doctrine.

Many things about the weirdnesses of quantum theory get misrepresented and arguments fall to the wrong focus points. It took me a couple of weeks of reading between the lines of Bell’s papers and just about every account of entanglement I could find to realize what the actual issues were. If I had to read another story about coloured socks, I swear to Dog…

Although I created the virtual particle model years ago, I’ve come back to it several times, especially when I get frustrated by the stubborn refusal to understand why the regular idea of what classical behaviour is is far too limited and I want people to see how the essence of the EPR paradox is present in simple software systems. At the end of this exercise, the conclusion I came to was this. There is nothing weird about quantum mechanics. It clearly has hidden degrees of freedom in internal spin, that’s not news. The problem is in the poverty of imagination that surrounds what “real” means. Shame on our unimaginative philosophy. It took me a couple of weeks to wade through these issues, mostly wasted time, but how can we only have come this far in advancing our understanding of quantum theory? This is what happens when exploration turns to doctrine. We are not supposed to be able to understand quantum mechanics, therefore we can’t.

Graph spacetime and virtual motion

I had done some work on natural language processing years before, and had written my own graph database to solve the problem on a small scale. I thought I could use narrative data to try to understand how a stream of data got turned into concepts and eventually stories. Now, using the code I’d developed for Arango I was able to expand on that and reimplement my old Cellibrium knowledge code. I went back to the fruits of my work on Semantic Spacetime and its application to knowledge management. It seemed that I could use the improved data tools to develop text analysis to the point where one could see the scaling of concepts from fragments of text. My thought was that this was going to work like bioinformatics and immunology. Without trying to understand natural language, I would look at the patterns in sequences of words by breaking them up into little pieces and looking for the smallest pieces, like in DNA analysis, or Millikan’s experiment for the electron charge. I found some interesting relationships by scanning the text from books and trying to extract concepts that described the books. It was a crude attempt, cut short by having to look for more paid work, not a hundred percent convincing but definitely promising. It’s something I would come back to yet again later as a tool for understanding trust.

I moved on from the experimental work, which would need a lot more time to develop, to playing around with a new idea from Semantic Spacetime: the notion of virtual processes as a model for physics. When I’d written my book on Smart Spacetime, I’d imagined virtual processes as agent-like software running on an absolute substrate of basic processors. Virtual motion would be something like the migration of software from server to server in the cloud. I wondered how one could characterise such motion, as one uses Newton’s laws in physics, to define dynamical quantities. It turned out to be a very interesting exercise that led to any number of new ideas, including a new appreciation for quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics, it seemed to me, was very much like what a virtual process would look like.

Foundational Psychohistory?

As I was filling my unemployment gap with writing, a lot of work got ploughed back into systematising the work I’d done on Promise Theory. Most of that was technical computing work, and some work on semantic spacetime. In the early days of its development, in 2004, with my student Siri Fagernes we had looked into some of these sociological implications of Promise Theory, but those ideas had lain dormant for a decade as I was called on to do all kinds of technical things. However, in those fifteen years or so of the ideas languishing in the back of my mind, my brain had been hard at work processing and recognizing how to develop those ideas,

Out of the blue, in 2018 I received an email from Daniel Mezick, the co-author of a book called Inviting Leadership. He had discovered Promise Theory somehow and had written about how it applied to his own ideas about Agile leadership with Mark Sheffield. He was developing an organisation called the Open Leadership Network and he invited me to present a keynote about it at a conference in Boston in 2019. It seemed like sa great opportunity to indulge in some social science–something that had always intrigued me. Today there is a subject called Social Physics, which harks back to Asimov’s Hari Seldon from the Foundation Trilogy and his Psychohistory for predicting the behaviours of human civilization. I had no such ambitions, but I’d always maintained that, if physics was any good, it ought to be able to make predictions about social systems too on some level.

One keynote, sponsored by the conference, seemed easy enough to do. Lynn and I revelled at the chance of being able to visit one of our favourite cities. We stayed in an old house in the suburbs of Boston along with the other speakers, in a unique bonding experience, and commuted to the Microsoft building nearby for the sessions. Unfortunately Lynn fell ill during the days of the conference with some stomach pains and had to stay in bed, but we later moved to the city and retrieved some magical medicine from Chinatown. We spent a couple of days walking around the centre and catching up with a couple of my long standing friends there.

Daniel became a friend and collaborator, along with several others I met there: a group of truly nice people, interested in the matters of social governance. On returning to Oslo, I began to think about the eightfold way of patterns described by Daniel and how they matched the notions of Promise Theory. Daniel was well read and had plenty of books to recommend. The conference had inspired me, so I began to work on adapting Promise Theory to some of the specific social issues I’d learned about from the OLN. In a way, it was a new breath of life for Promise Theory that led me to study issues from Authority to Trust. I started to hold some online training sessions for the attendees of the conference. During the coming COVID lockdowns this course material even brought in a little money by remote video course meetings at a time when there was little work to be had.

Daniel introduced me to Jim Rutt, a very interesting podcaster with a history from the Santa Fe institute and Internet Commerce. I was invited to his podcast to talk about my book Smart Spacetime. It helped to give a little publicity to my work and made a good acquaintance in Jim, who I liked a lot. It was followed up by a second podcast about The Physics of Money. Jim was enthusiastic about the first episode, saying it was one of his best shows back then.

Flying sideways into COVID 19

Daniel invited me to participate in the next OLN meeting to be held in Tampa Florida in 2020 too. I held a Promise Theory training course, but only for a couple of interested people. It wasn’t a great success financially. Lynn and I spent some lazy days exploring Tampa, and the Salvador Dali art museum. We went to the beach and spent some time filming some chats with Daniel with an eye to making a documentary film.

I gave a teaching class at the conference but it was a very small affair. Mostly, it was a chance to bind with the OLN folks again. We managed to avoid catching COVID (or at least had no symptoms). The event was scaled back by fears of a new virus circulating in the far east. COVID 19 was a term starting to be on everyone’s lips. News of the COVID virus had been leaking out of China just before we left for Tampa. It struck the Western Hemisphere just as we were getting ready to travel back from Florida.

The flight back to the UK was uneventful until we reached London. A massive hurricane was moving from New York to the UK and was arriving before us. It struck the airport just as we were landing. There was a risk that we would be diverted, but the two female pilots, captain and first officer decided to try to land the massive A380 airbus. The plane was flying almost sideways into land and we had to go around three times with emergency pull-ups to attempt it, but they managed to set us down safely in the end. It was a scary episode for the whole crew. After doing a pilot victory tour around the plane to settle everybody’s nerves, we left the plane and picked up the rental car to drive rather carefully to Banbury.

We had plans to meet my mum for a few days in Banbury. We had to be extra careful not to infect her with a deadly new virus! We spent some cosy days together, treating her to some outings to the extent we could, and picking up some deliveries from the UK that we could have sent to her house to take back to Oslo.

Documenting Lockdown, Bigger, Faster, Smarter

Not long after getting back to Norway, lockdowns came. Governments began to see staggering numbers of deaths from COVID. After first, the West took it all very glibly, assuming that the virus would not spread beyond Asia, but it quickly had to declare a public health emergency. The death tolls in Italy were particularly bad. The UK told people to stay at home. Finally, it came to Norway too, despite Norwegians being largely oblivious to it and assuming that a good dose of fresh air and plenty of fish would cure any ailment. No one was allowed to go to work, or even to leave the house but for essential services.

For a couple of introverts, this wasn’t entirely bad news. Lynn and I had run out of work so there was little to do except to find new pet projects to stay active. There was always more writing, but I was exhausted from the recent books I’d squeezed out. I’ve never been short of ideas for making myself busy, but the income situation was more worrying because I had to make sure our business could sustain Lynn in particular, in order to keep her residence permit alive. Being a Foreigner in a Foreign Land is no joke. Many projects were cancelled due to COVID. I took to giving some online courses to try to make a little money. In the end, it would force us to downsize and sell the apartment for a smaller place.

When we returned from Tampa Florida, with some new footage of Daniel Mezick, I began to ponder something that I’d wanted to do for many years: make a film. I started writing a script for a documentary film, with the idea that I could score some music. I began to teach myself how to use the editing program. I started with a couple of music videos to get the hang of video editing and scoring music from the film. It turned out to be fairly easy, but extremely resource intensive.

I had been collecting bits of film on my phone and camera with the idea of making a documentary about technology, but I hadn’t given the idea much time or thought up to that point. I had only my old Airbook, which barely had enough memory and disk to hold one film at a time. When it came to rendering the music, it was difficult to get the timing to be true. The computer couldn’t quite keep up with all the parallel tracks.I had a cheap plugin for orchestra sounds, which was buggy, but it gave just enough colour to make the kind of music I wanted.

The lockdown was on and off for a while, so we could get out from time to time to a restaurant. I began to film anything and everything I could possibly use and started to get an idea of what the films would be about.

I quickly realised that the sound quality of the film snippets I had recorded was very poor. I’d tried hard to capture the sound under good conditions, but reality intruded nearly always to capture echo and background noises. At first I thought the footage was useless, but with some painstaking editing, I was able to process each recording for sound first to improve the quality greatly. That still left a lot to be desired, especially in recording Daniel, because the room acoustics were very poor. Another problem was that particularly Americans would talk very quickly, without gaps, and say ahhhmm altogether too much. I had to edit out all of those gaffs and then massage the film so that it didn’t jump oddly due to the edit.

I was making everything up as I went along. On the one hand, I had an idea of what I wanted to say in the film, but I had no idea who I could get to be in the film. I wanted to do as little of the talking as possible–even if I had to tell others what to say!

Since travel was out of the question, I cajoled some contributors to be interviewed over Zoom. The high demand on Zoom meant that recording quality was cut in half to cope with the onslaught. The timing couldn’t have been worse, but I had to work with what I had. No one was training in giving interviews, and I had to edit furiously in some cases to make sense of the clips. In the end, though, I’m amazed that it worked at all. I think the result is not too bad.

For some sequences, I had to make some animation, which I made using Keynote, the mad presentation software, moving images frame by frame. Again, it was painstaking work–just what you need to pass the time in lockdown. I bought a subscription to a film clip library for some stock footage. It was just a monthly subscription that was quite cheap. For whatever I couldn’t piece together in video, I made still photo sequences with zooming to cover up.

I was looking forward to scoring the music for the films. I knew that I wanted to start with a sort of trotting pace string opening, leading up to a soaring flying spectacle, but otherwise I had no idea what the music would be. Earlier, I’d made some short test films starting with music and adding film like a music video. This time, the film came first, to it was my first experience in balancing the score with the essential content.I got started on a simple theme, which was surprisingly rich in possible variations. I used that throughout all three films in different styles and guises.

The iMovie program had a bug in the final rendering of sound. In a few places, where sounds overlapped, it would introduce a burst of spontaneous loud noise–very disconcerting. I managed to workaround most of these but a couple remain in the first two films. By the time I got to the third, they had finally fixed the bug and everything was smoother.

I was constantly having to delete source footage and files to be able to render one part at a time. Eventually I pushed them out, warts and all. I uploaded the finished thing to YouTube and cried “be damned!” Then I had to delete the originals and start again.

Apart from the documentary music,I had a backlog of ideas I wanted to finish musically, but the software and the computer I had were not up to the task. After finishing the films, with a new work project for a German startup, I was able to buy a new computer and a new plugin–much more expensive and much better quality to start rerecording music closer to the way I wanted it to be.

It turns out to be a painstaking process playing music for an orchestra by MIDI. You have to play every part and try to emulate the phrasing of the instrument to what you can do with a keyboard. It takes a lot of practice, so even when I thought I was finished, I would come back later to find that everything was awful and needed to be done over again. Converting some pieces that I’d played earlier wasn’t just a case of changing the plugin, because each plugin responds very differently to the recorded notes–and all the timing problems had to be fixed. Everything had to be played over again.

I had had travel plans arranged since before COVID, and they included some expensive flights that couldn’t be cancelled. I was afraid that I would lose these flights, which would be alot of money I couldn’t reclaim. The airlines were not being too helpful at the beginning. My only chance was that the airline themselves would cancel the flights and leave me with a voucher than I could use later. Luckily, the most expensive flight was cancelled at the very last minute.

Lynn took to studying Japanese and Norwegian so that she could apply for permanent residence. I began to take the mandatory exams for citizenship. As the lockdowns proceeded, more and more workarounds were created for getting on with life. We both took our exams and I eventually added Norwegian citizenship to my British in 2023.

Calculating the dimensionality of the Internet

My former colleague from Aljabr contacted me. He had gone to work for a graph database company in Germany called ArangoDB. We had always gotten along well and, as the company was growing, he had the idea to bring me on board to help them. The timing was perfect, since I needed to make up for a lot of lost income. The subject was also very close to my heart, since I’d written my own graph database to solve some issues and, because of the master student I had helped at the university, I knew that ArangoDB was the closest fit to my own. I was happy to accept the offer.

It was an opportunity for me to work on general methods for knowledge management with graphs and third time lucky for implementing a knowledge map. However, I quickly realised that the company was struggling to find its way, with most of the core team on their first startup journey and already fixed in their ideas. My first impression was that it was quite hard for users to know how to use the database, so I began to write a series of blog posts explaining to users how they could get started and use the features to solve powerful problems. I had a good relationship with the core engineer and we discussed ways to potentially turn the database into a powerful calculating engine, but graph based Machine Learning was coming into vogue at the time and supporting this seemed like a lifeline to the management team.

I finished the series of blogs and elbowed my way into some discussions with people about technical solutions and sales to see if I could either help them to focus on their core value. I realized that, at the end of the day, they didn’t want my help. After some six months of trying, I asked for some awkward conversations with the leadership team. We decided mutually that I would not continue. It was just a waste of their money. But all was not lost. The code I’d written had given me ideas to develop some very useful code based on the graph database for applying to different projects. I reached out to my friend KC Claffy at the CAIDA institute in San Diego about modelling the Internet. They had a method for collecting data about routes using the Unix tool traceroute, but were still using some rather old models based on traditional relational databases. I thought they could improve on that by making a semantic spacetime. I secured access to their data and “uploaded” their map of the Internet into Arango and showed how they could use it to calculate some new statistical metrics. It took almost a week to load the data into the database, but just 30 minutes to run a query on my laptop to calculate the local dimensionality. I wrote up the results as a paper and a popular article.

The dom

The dimension of a graph is not a uniform thing, unless good old fashioned Euclidean space. This is what had irked Jon Magne Leinaas about my book Smart Spacetime. But here, I was able to use Jan Myrheim’s idea about statistical density of points to define a measure of spatial embedding dimension. For small distances, the Internet is quite well connected with many possible routes. Over longer distances, there are far fewer possible routes, but since it has finite size it doesn’t trail off endlessly. In fact, I found an average dimension of about 6: about twice the effective dimension of its embedding space! If that sounds counter intuitive, it it! Placing something inside a three dimensional box gives twice as many degrees of freedom? Well, one could say the same for intrinsic spin in quantum mechanics, where interior spin has twice as many rotational degrees of freedom as exterior spin. Sorting out these “weird” ideas is a fun aspect of theoretical science.

Neurological Storytime

An unexpected side effect of my book Smart Spacetime was that it introduced me to a very nice Hungarian neuroscientist called György Buzsáki. I asked Twitter one day what I should read to learn the latest about brain wave research, as I was interested in the role of waves through networks in connection with my Virtual Motion work. Jim Rutt replied to me that I should read György’s book: Rhythms of the Brain.

I’d had the idea years before that the experience of consciousness in the brain was related to storytelling. Our brains have to pull images and ideas from random access memory, but we replay them in our minds as imagery. When we dream, it’s like experiencing wakefulness but without the sensory cues. I felt sure that the key to artificial intelligence and consciousness lay in the reasoning of memories into stories. How do we make a storyline of our lives?

Almost immediately, I was impressed by this book. It spoke a language I’d been missing about timescales and spacetime processes. I found a second book by the author where he actually spelled out his belief that spacetime processes were behind an understanding of memory and brain function. I was excited enough to write to him and tell him about my own book Smart Spacetime. I was delighted and amazed to read that he had identified space and time as a central player in the story of brain function, just as I had speculated in my own book. Of course, I wrote to him as I always do when excited to discover a kindred spirit. More amazingly, he wrote back. Few scientists will reply to a random letter from the void, but he was generous and charming. He bought my book and read it too and we began to write occasional emails to one another.

Gyorgi became intrigued by Promise Theory and later invited me to take part in a Kavli Foundation workshop on Neuroscience in Los Angeles together with some of the leaders in the fields of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and graph theory. It was one of the rare successful moments one has as a researcher in reaching out in a spirit of cooperation. Most researchers are quite snobby when it comes to it, as indeed were a few of the elite institutional scientists at the Kavli meeting. But there were also some lovely people there and I enjoyed meeting them.


Lynn and I were back in Oslo, enduring vaccinations and lockdowns when my mum died. We were stuck because Lynn was not allowed to leave the country while waiting for a new residence card to arrive. Everything was delayed by COVID. Since my dad’s passing, we had built up a new rapport with my mum. We had a regular WhatsApp channel going most of the time. We shared pictures everywhere we went. But for a few trips to her sister, Mum had scarcely left Banbury her whole life. She would help us order “goodies” from the UK and send them to us in variety-starved Norway.

On the 23rd of March, we were on our way to an afternoon tea at the Bristol Hotel before attending a concert in Oslo with friends. Lynn felt that too long has passed since we saw Mum last, and suggested that I travel on my own to visit her. She was 84 now and she could be lonely. I sensed that she wasn’t in top spirits and she was visiting the doctor for something she didn’t reveal. We texted her the night before about my coming over alone. Travel was still awkward with the restrictions and few flights between UK and Norway. “No, no,” she insisted, “you just stay safe, I’ll be fine. As Melee (her mum’s nickname) used to say, what can’t be cured must be endured.”

We sent her a funny picture before bed and expected a reply in the morning, but none came. We assumed that she must be busy with something, but time dragged on and it felt unusual. We sent a picture of our tea from Hotel Bristol but no response. Now we were worried. I interrupted our tea to call my nephews (actually their wives) to ask if they had any news. They hadn’t. But they immediately sprang into action and went to her house.

They arrived to find the curtains still closed and no reply from ringing the bell. Police were called. The rest is history. We found mum in the doorway between kitchen and living room as if she had been wanting to reach her phone to call for help when she simply lost consciousness, laid down and passed away. The autopsy showed an embolism arising from clots originating from many small cancers.

It was an unexpected loss that affected me more than I could have imagined. Since I’d moved from the UK, for a time, we’d grown apart. Lynn has been the catalyst to reconnect us. We’d become almost a tiny private family again, with a different shape than before. The three of us were closer than ever.

Lynn was still unable to leave Norway for her funeral. Luckily, in the 21st century funerals are quite professional–filmed and broadcast online. My nephew’s wife Leah wrote a lovely Eulogy for mum, I chose three pieces of music for her: Barber’s Adagio for strings for the welcome introduction, Rimsky Korsakov’s Song of India (from the opera Saidko), and Holst’s Jupiter from the Planets Suite. These were some of her favourite pieces. I gave a brief address and welcomed those who had come for her. Some old work colleagues, her best friend Ilsa a German emigré from her time working at the hospital and others. For years she had selflessly looked after the people around her, putting her own wishes last. She was perhaps the only person close to me who was encouraging and supportive of my ideas and accomplishments; the only one who wasn’t dismissive and even disapproving of my choices. I’ll miss that.

Now she could rest. Her ashes were later scattered by my nephew in the garden of the Banbury crematorium, reunited once again with her own mother.


In the days following, I was suddenly driving along a country road, sucked into a memory of my past with a sensation of bewilderment. Where was I? Where had I been? What was I doing? This was the moment I resolved to write these biographical notes. And so we’ve come full circle.

I think was this: I hadn’t known what family was before that moment. Growing up we hadn't been close, I was loner, they were busy, then leaving home, losing touch, being driven by a sense of obligation … and then being able to find it for the first time after so long, only to have it torn away so soon.

I returned to Oslo, to my love.



Mark Burgess

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