A story about waiting

November 20, 2020

Painting Four Lane Road by Edward Hopper
Four Lane Road by Edward Hopper (1956)

Finally, after a few gloomy and rainy days, it all changed. In a few hours, scattered and oppressing clouds got displaced by a fat sun brightening up the sky. As soon as Joseph realised how the weather changed, he took the opportunity and went for a walk. His back was hurting, and his shoulders were hunched. Working from home was a pain. Without his daily commute, he moved less, and his body was getting stiffer. His head was hurting too. Teaching online was harder than in-class: a student with an unstable internet connection was even more disruptive than one with a bad attitude. Not enough sunlight and too much LED light took away his usual restoring night, which did not help with his headaches. So, as his lesson ended, Joseph did not think twice and took the riverside. After a few steps, he was already feeling the gentle warmth on his cheeks.

The day was superb. As a turn revealed a distant view of the river, the shimmering sunlight on the pear-coloured water stunned Joseph. "Oh, I am sending this to Marie - he thought - so she will see what kind of views I distract myself with". As Joseph searched for the best spot to capture the scenery, his mind kept going after Marie. His colleague was not replying his "How are you? Missing our chats during the kids' breaks" text, of five days earlier. "I should not have said missing. She must be thinking that I am a bellyacher who cannot enjoy the present and transmits negativity. None wants to hang out with those that cannot enjoy the moment, but this picture should change her mind, she can't ignore it". Joseph was hoping that, besides getting sunlight and stretching his legs, the walk could help him relax. Since a few hours after texting Marie, he had started feeling apprehensive. For the past days, whenever his mind was idle, it would wonder why she was not replying. Whenever his hands were free, they would check for messages. Joseph had never been an anxious person, but texting was different, especially since he was working from home. When someone was not replying, it seemed to him as if they had put on pause the record of his life. He felt brittle, like the shimmering water in front of him.

With the perfect view in sight, Joseph pulled out the smartphone, ready to snap. But as his face encountered the front camera and lighted up the screen, something distracted him. The just-made plan of attracting Marie's attention, whom he tried to court for months, was quickly trumped by the dopamine rush of a new notification. A text from Carl, his nerd friend and former roommate. Joseph's brain anticipated beer invites, inappropriate dating questions and amusing future tech. Yes, gimme some, his swiping finger resolved. "Dude, this is unbelievable, must watch: AI goes hippie!" read the text above the video that Carl sent. Joseph felt a bit disappointed, but it did not stop him from hitting play. The video was a bland voice-over of some beaming visuals, but the story kept Joseph listening. It described the discovery of an algorithm that learnt to wait. The program was instructed to maximise test users' curiosity, which was measured by the number of times they would return to check out web pages generated by the algorithm. After millions of attempts, it converged towards producing a page which was perpetually about to display something but never did. While they did not stay long, the users kept coming back, eager to wait alongside the algorithm for what was about to come. "How quaint! - Joseph thought - it reminds me of that weird play that Marie was enthusiastically talking about. What was it called? Waiting for God? No, that's not it, does not sound like something Marie would like".

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"Ah! Sounds like an algorithmic Beckett, very funny" a voice emerged behind Joseph's shoulders. "Sorry for hearing over, Sir, but the prompt intrigued me beyond resistance". Joseph happily replied: "Nothing to worry, it was not personal, just a funny link sent from my software engineer friend". The quirky man who started talking to Joseph ignored his explanation and continued talking about the algorithm. It was unclear if he was talking to Joseph or himself. "If even an algorithm can learn how to wait, then my hopes are brighter. What a great day, first the sun and now this". Full of the same zeal to help others that brought him into teaching years before, Joseph disrupted the monologue. "I'll excuse myself this time, but can I ask, what are you talking about?". The other turned his eyes to Joseph, and surprisingly joyful explained: "Oh, in simple terms, waiting takes up a large portion of my time". Joseph smiled, luckily he knew how to solve this and was about to supplement his sunny walk with a good deed. "That's easy to address. Take more action. Work out what is making you wait and resolve it. Follow up with who is putting you on hold. It is your right to get timely responses". The other giggled, appreciating Joseph's clumsy altruism. "I would happily lend you my phone if you could ring up some exoplanets and ask them to hurry up". Then, met with Joseph's puzzlement, he explained. "I study the atmospheres of planets far away from us, and I often have to wait long times for the right conditions to collect data relevant for my investigations". Joseph was intrigued, but also saddened that his attempt to help failed. "Oh, I am sorry to hear. It must be frustrating to have to wait so long." Unsurprised, the astrophysicists replied with relentless glee: "Not for a minute. Waiting is actually the sweetest part of my job. I get endless time to imagine how those planets may look like. I envision the strangest possibilities and most fascinating theories. In fact, I like to think that I have come up with worlds so strange that will never exist. So, in a sense, my imagination is ampler than the universe. Isn't it funny?"

A picture of TrES-2b, the darkest known planet in the universe
TrES-2b is an extrasolar planet that has been identified in 2011 as the darkest known exoplanet, reflecting less than 1% of any light that hits it. (Picture credit, bigthink.com)

As Joseph parted from the astrophysicists, his brain kept buzzing. "Enjoying the waiting ... that sounds delightful. When did I start feeling so uneasy and stressed about waiting?" And as his reflection evolved, pictures replaced words, the shimmering lights attracted his attention again and Marie's smiling face popped up. Sharing the scenery. His hand reaching for his phone got interrupted by the completion of his reflection. "That's how it happened. I click, buzz and swipe all day at fast speed. There is no place for waiting in the world of notifications. My waiting muscles have atrophied". With his new insights, a renewed and empowering representation of waiting in his mind, Joseph's hand left the pocket alone. It then started gently swinging as his owner immersed himself in his sunny walk.

Walking fast, Joseph left behind his text anxiety and freely embraced imagining. He thought of Marie and imagined what may have kept her busy those days. Joseph imagined how she may have managed her classes and spent her extra time reading up how to engage kids during online lessons. He imagined the quirky online games that she may have tested with the students. Joseph thought of the stress that, like him, she may be facing. He asked himself how she may have reacted and remembered her tendency to close up when in difficulty. Marie had strong will of not being a burden on others. An idea popped in Joseph's brain. "Perhaps I can research how teachers can cope with this situation. What I learnt about psychology should help me dig out something useful".

Back at home, Joseph started looking things up, opening tabs and writing notes. A set of tips, an illustrated guide: "Experimenting on myself first". Ideas kept churning through his mind as he learnt more. He then remembered about the teacher forum he used to consult. He opened it up and stared at the password field hopelessly. He really did not want to open his email and break his flow, but "Did you forget your password?" was the only way back into the forum. Reluctantly, he clicked it and opened his email. As he reset his password, Joseph could not help but notice that among the pile of new automated mails, there were two important ones. One was from his headmaster and the other one from Marie. "Not now, later" he concluded, as he immersed himself back into learning about the struggles of online teaching.

As Joseph discovered sometime later, the headmaster was asking him to back up some of the students' phone numbers and emails on a new system that they just set up. "This is because keeping this information just on your devices could cause the school significant administrative troubles. Unfortunately, we painfully learnt this from one of our teachers losing their smartphone a few days ago". "Ah, Marie", Joseph guessed. The ending of Marie's email confirmed his guess, but, surprisingly, Joseph did not dwindle much on this discovery. What really struck was the opening of Marie's email.

"Dear Joseph. I have been thinking a lot about two things during this period. One is this quote:

'What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.' [1]

And the other is you. Let me explain".

[1] - This is an actual quote from Joseph Tussman