Probability of Hope

One of my favourite film directors of recent years, Alfonso Cuarón, directed a documentary film called “The Possibility of Hope” (2007), which was released on a special edition DVD of his brilliant “Children of Men” (2006) (based on P.D. James’ novel).  (I feel sorry for film buffs who still think “Metropolis” (1927) is the better SciFi movie.  I feel now is the golden age of cinema, not back then, that was merely the formative age, we just don’t appreciate this because spectacular cinema has become almost taken for granted, and maybe some of the story-telling is lacking because we are in the age of explosive over-the-top special effects.)


In The Possibility of Hope scientist James Lovelock (the inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis — the Earth as a system much like a living being) talks and warns about the coming of a new “dark age” where global warming will cause humans with strong survival instincts to flee to places like Iceland and set themselves up as the new ruling elite, while many of the worlds people will hopelessly stay put and just … die.

I do not know from what lunacy of intellect these dire warnings spring.  I think, in the very real and pure motivation to urge people into positive action there is a tendency for some to grossly exaggerate future calamitous possibilities.  Lovelock even goes as far as claiming that it is a very real threat that in the not so distant future (this century?) the world could become ruled by war lords who will control water and crops and hold the rest of humanity to ransom.

There are many good reasons to suppose such a threat is real.  Our past shows that in countries torn by drought and famine, warlords will arise who will make themselves kings of deserts, and hoard resources around themselves to build a tiny oases where only their favoured can survive.

But those were in bordered regions, not globally.  Global warlords have never existed, and are highly unlikely ever to flourish.  Yet you can easily look at how wealthy Americans and Europeans are right now hoarding wealth and resources, claiming land in gated communities, driving around in expensive unnecessary SUV’s and fortressing themselves against the oppression of the poor and dispossessed.  It’s madness.  (Friggin’ SUV’s aye!!!  Not the most ridiculous and unnecessary inventions of the Twentieth century though, not by a long way.)  These sorts of people are the worst warlords the Earth will ever face.  Worst because they are so pitiful, they will not even see themselves as wasters of the planet.

As Lovelock also says he doesn’t think humans will go extinct, we are, he notes, “one of the toughest of all animals”.  What he fears more from global warming and runaway greenhouse effect, is the warlord scenario.

So ok, I think this is a fair warning, but it is not realistic.  We already know who the warlords are, and they are people who are more scared than the rest of us.  They do not believe in the possibility of hope for all, and they will fight hard to preserve their own families and will be just too scared to do anything more.  They’ll migrate to more polar latitudes, and live in fear of invasion across their new borders.  They will try to preserve their way of life at the cost of other human lives.  Like I said, the worst kind of petty warlords.

What’s more likely to happen though?  I ask you before giving you my thoughts (since I’m no prophet nor expert, just a free thinking average Joe.)  Be honest, what is really the most likely scenario if catastrophic global warming hits us within 50 to 100 years?

One of the first things to note is that humans had better do something about migrating crops before migrating themselves.  Crops in newly arid regions will fail and humans will be the only entities on the planet capable of moving crop species vast distances to replant.  Vegetation is the slackest of living movers.  And although global warming will be a slow thing, it’ll take decades to really warm up catastrophically, and generations of humans will live through it and witness the slow impacts of climate change.  But that’s in human time frame.  Plants and sedentary animals cannot so rapidly adapt.  For a start they are not scientists, and so cannot make the predictions that humans can make.  And plants cannot pick themselves up and move to cooler and rainier climates, even if they did have science.

So humans will save the worlds crops and farm animals.  We will be finding room on the planet for them.  And in a few places in deserts we will set up solar farms, where the Sun’s rays will power air-conditioners and seawater desalinators and purifiers.  This technology already exists.  And provided we do not darken the skies, there will be abundant solar power for life to continue to exist in the hottest regions.

It is not everyone’s favourite scenario to have half the Earth covered with human-made structures which produce artificial oases.  It’s more romantic and beautiful to live more at one with nature.  But in the coming century or two or three, if we do not limit our greenhouse emissions and turn to more renewable energy resources, then we will force our civilisation into becoming the Earth’s artificial protector.  Enlightened self-interest of course, since we’d be doing it to save ourselves as much as the rest of life.

And yes, I suppose the greedy corporations and multinationals will hoard resources and technology.  But take a look around yourself, especially on the internet.  You can get designs and build a 3D printer/fabricator for yourself these days.  You have vast resources at your fingertips every time you access the web.  If only you knew!  Or rather, I suspect you do know, but feel overwhelmed, and over-worked to do much with all the information at your fingertips.  And fair enough.  Just realise the potential is there, and when called upon to build a homebrew 3D fabricator, or $10 raw cost small scale seawater desalinator, or a $60 raw cost internet-ready laptop computer, or a humble backyard self-powered greenhouse garden, or scores of other actually useful appliances and high-tech, low cost tools, the information will be there, guaranteed.

All you need to do is stop spending all your time on YouTube or Facebook.  (If you’re reading this, likely “you” aren’t who I’m referring to of course!)

Technology has forever been like this, at once a cause of misery and a cause of advancement.  It’s all a matter of how you use it.  If nothing else beneficial comes from global warming at least it will force our youth (and our child adults) to stop wasting time on Facebook and Twitter, and start using the social networks for good, for cooperation, for saving the planet.

Human civilisation already has massive life changing power.  We just do not use it very efficiently right now.

This is not the place for me to launch into a statistical analysis, and I’m not a futurologist (a dubious science at best, and at worst just plain ridiculous). However, using a very rough bunch of estimates I will hesitantly suggest the chances of a global warlord society in a post-climate runaway world is less than 5%.  I really would like to say less than 1%, but my numbers do not support such optimism!

I have to use Bayesian inference, and use the prior probability of warlord civilisation.  This is  a small number.  In history there have been comparatively few warlord systems, and especially as a fraction of total historical time. Then there is the probability that such a state would exist globally, and that is very small too, because no dictatorship of any kind, has ever gone global.  There are too many rebellious free-thinking people for such a state to remain stable for long periods.  Benevolent dictatorships have persisted over large territories for many years, even decades, and if you count monarchies as a kind of benevolent dictatorship, then one can say over centuries of time.  But these were never global, not even Queen Victoria’s empire, and were nothing in character like Lovelock’s dire warnings of economic warlords.

Other factors include the difference between nation and regional dictatorships and global dictatorship.  Dictatorships arise when there is civil and political unrest, not environmental disaster.  Environmental disaster can ignite civic rebellion, but in those conditions the rebellion is more likely one that is overthrowing a dictatorship or an unjust phony democracy.

The probabilities add up to greater hope than despair.  The balance is actually largely in favour of hope.  However, painful living conditions are not part of those estimates.  Frankly, I do not have the ability to estimate anything about how harsh the world will become for life.  It might not be as horrible as scientists like James Lovelock predict, and it might be worse.  There is too much uncertainty in all of this for any reasonable analysis.  It would be foolish and vain to make any predictions, even with large error bounds.  I imagine someone will try though, and I’d be very interested to read their account.

But I would predict greater things.  I imagine a global climate catastrophe will be slow enough that everyone will gradually feel the pinch of it, and we will adapt.  People will stop waging war on one another because it will be seen as wasteful and pointless.  What point is a war when the spoils are a desert of dust?

And I suspect that instead of a rise of global resource-hoarding warlords, our species will gather together and help each other, and we will be drawn together as a human family like no other time in history.  Children will grow up thinking of themselves as citizens of the world.  Space agencies and private companies might even get together and start the grand centuries long project of making dome colonies on Mars temporarily habitable for adventurous humans.  And if we can see humans can live there, then who can doubt that we can repair the Earth too?

I’m not claiming this is inevitable, nor that it would be utopian.  It would, in all probability, more likely, be a unifying of humanity under the harshest of circumstances.  People will suffer I guess. And some will act unforgivably rapaciously.  But the vast majority of humanity will refuse to capitulate to any incipient warlords and ruling multinational corporations.

The reason is simple.  No one will be able to blame any single person or group or country or agency.  We, or our parents and their parents, will be the only people to blame for the fate of the planet.  And you cannot go to war against yourself.  Well, not easily.

And when you look for someone to blame, and only find yourself and your parents and the generations before them who failed to act in time, then the only way to fight will be to do the opposite, and to wage peace, and to form partnerships and cooperatives and work damn hard to migrate those crops and animals and save the planet in every way humanly possible.

We will do it.  None of us can know how hard and painful it will be.  If you want to play a positive role in it all you’ll need to do is sacrifice some of your luxuries.  No one will die from that.  The parasites will feed, but there are more of us than them.  The world wide web has nearly democratized information, and in our society information is power.  Thus it is only a matter of decades, I suspect, not centuries, until information and numbers of good ordinary people overwhelm the transitory power held by money.

When you can virtually give someone, someone half-way across the world, credits for purchasing food and medicine, at the click of a mouse, then money ceases to be an obstacle to happiness and becomes something amazing and simple like water, fluid and life-giving.  And it makes greed look like debasement, and it will make corruption and conspicuous consumption look like a child’s tantrums.  It will make people who invest solely to make more money on paper look like a neanderthal species of self-serving masturbators.

Also, I doubt we will be moving into a temporary civilizational art and literature hiatus.  People will still be creating wonderful art and cinema or whatever sensory-immersion media the next generation of story-telling has in store for us.  Entertainment is not a human right, it is a privilege, but I imagine civilisation has moved beyond the point where art can be suppressed, even by global environmental hardships.  Human beings are essentially a species of lovers.  We love to love.  We love to be entertained, and so we will always make it possible for artists to entertain us.  We will make the sacrifices necessary to give artists their freedom to create.

No necessary utopia remember.  I’m just phrasing the future scenario in optimistic but realistic terms.  What will become real is up to us.  No one person makes reality.  No one ideology has rights on owning the future.  Although many will try, and we (our entire species) will forgive them.  Our civilisation is better than we dare to dream I think, even someone like me.  It is more varied in thought than I can imagine, and diversified in interests, and more complex and dangerous and interesting and potentially more peaceful.


Myth of the Ultimate Anti Page Turner (Part 3)

My cousin had passed from the Valley of Search through the valley’s of Love and Knowledge, probably by-passed the Valley of Unity, and had proceeded, with some kind of spiritual pass ticket, on to the Valley of Wonderment.  Or so it seemed to me.  After reading her last email

From:     "Kari Fairbairn" <>
Sent:     Thursday, July 14, 2011 3:22 PM
To:       "Bijou Smith" <>
Subject:  RE: ghost drive in Palm Springs

Bijou my fav cuz! It's gonna blow-your-mind.  I just know it will.  :-) I can't help myself though, so here goes: Man!  I'd forgotten all about why I had found GHost Drive.  Haha!  Guess the library wasn't full of page-clonkers after all.  But Bij... I don't want to finish this one!  It's too beautiful.  If I finish it I'll die.  I'm not bleedin' kidding cuz! LOL! Started scannigna few pages, but it was taking forever, the hotel made me pay per page, etc.  grrrr!   PLenty of time to finish the scanning when I get home tho'.  No worries.  Just too excited, so hav to tell you a few things.  Promise no spoilers, ok.  Be patient (i know u will.)  :-))) First of all, there's no doubt this manuscript is inspired.  Don't ask me how or why, it just IS ok?  A wouldn't say a genius wrote it - you told me once that your beloved Dick Feynman was called "No Ordinary Genius"?   You can say something similar about whoever wrote this.  But I gathered Feynman was not too humble either... this Ghost Drive author is truly humble, everything is written so that YOU feel like the genius.  THere are questions.  Soul-searing, soul-searching, uplifting and wonderful and bemusing questions.  It's like the words in the page come to life every time I read it.  I guess a deep thinker can always find good questions to ask.  But it's the answers Bij.  They aren't ordinary.  THe answers are personal, deeply subjective, and the style it's written in astounding, just astounding.  Every page (almost, not exactly exaggerating... well maybe a little) has hidden questions that probe your own existence and concpet of self and identity and the whole phreakin' meaning of life.  I bullshit you not!!!  BUt I think this is very subjective. Here's the thing: I suppose someone could read this and not take away much from it.  You have to (I say "you" but I mean "me", but I'm sure it'd be the same for you) be prepared to question yourself.  SO it's like an ACTIVE book.  I got this very soon after absorbing the introduction.  (And yeah, I mean "absorb" almost literally. It feels like an absorption....of ideas, u know?) THe incredible thing is that when you read it this way, actively, then the next paragrpahs or sections will begin to answer the questions you've just asked of yourself, or of life, of the universe, of whatever is beyond.  THat's the freaky thing too.  There is no obvious didactic purpse.  Everything is implied and you have to be a proactive reader, or it'll seem like too much encoded information to grok all at once.  Sigh... not that I can get it all at once.  I have to keep going back and re-reading large portions.  :-)  It's like the ultimate banquet of delights:  a buffet banquet you can eat as much as you want, but there is alwys more left, and when you've finished a plate you feel energized and you crave more, and like magic all the weight of that first course disappears, and so you feel starved again almost immediately, and you have to go back for more, and it never adds fat, it's a paradoxical meal that strengthens and invigorates and makes your mind lean.  (Again, apologies for using "you"... i just want to share this with someone Bij!  haha, I don't like eating alone LOL!) That's the thing!  It's making me lean and fit in mind.  I feel that so much rubbish I've read or learned in the past is just so much candyfloss that can be forgotten.  It's sooo beautiful because the Ghost Drive allows the reader to discover so much for themselves.  Not like those awful "self-help" genre books.  THis is not about help or care or recovery or inspiration.  It's way more than that.  It reveals the hidden stitches in the universe, your whole "fabric of reality" you always go on about, and then, at a turn, the minute stitches and fabric involute, everything inverts, turns inside-out, and the small becomes large, the large becomes small, and so you can see everything, the entire cosmos seems to come into view and then recede away into nothingness.  It's the most exhilarating thing I could possibly read or experience internally without collapsing from mental exhaustion.  Do u know what I'm getting at?  Like the whole universe is revealed to your eyes, but you cannot comprehend it all, you'd expire in smallness and ignorance if it was held before your gaze for too long, the astonishment would shock you into perpetual bewilderment and you'd never recover your senses, and you'd explode like a billion supernovae if an infinitesimal fraction of it all tried to fit itself into your brain, and so, mercifully, it recedes, like a beneficent beautiful Siren who knows she is drawing you into the rocks of your own ignorance and stupidity, and so, from the kindness in her heart, she retreats and leaves you with only the echo of her song to remind you of what you could not bear to fully hear, and you are left with a peaceful void, a place that allows my mind rest and which seems alive with raw potential, unseen untouched potential, like I'd imagine the pre-eternal Big Bang, before time, before space, before the flickering of the first quantum fields. Honestly Bij, I feel a bit fraudulent writing to you like this, because I cannot do it justice.  It's too surreal as well.  I'm getting a bit (in a good way) anxious about it.  I'm serious now about never wanting to finish this ... this epic, humble, fantastical book.  There's too much in it and I worry I am not capable of using it wisely.  It's alreayd changed my life, but I haven't taken any meaningful action yet. Still reading.  Still thinking.  I wnat you to share this with me, and promise me you will stop me from going all looney and evangelical with it all, since tht's not the spirit it was written in I think.  It is deeply subjective, a personal quality to it, so intimate and lonely at times, but so captivating and enlarging and all-encompassing at other times.  ANd the same paragraphs can leave me with a completely different feel each time I return to them. Sometimes I'm right down in the quantum foam level seeing things in their barest essence and then at other times I'm taking in many worlds at once, totally expanded in consciousness for a moment, and then blissed out in dreams.  It's very scientifically flavoured too... you'll love that.  But it was written to a lover I am sure, so it is heart-wrenching and tearfully beautiful in expanse and questioning. The curiosity of all-souls came to manifest life and wrote this manuscript before a lost lover tossed their ego into the flames and burned up their attachment to material things and stopped them from writing forever for fear the pages would cause the reader to want to give up this life for an escape into the greater consciousness that can only be attained by physical death.  I know that sounds melodramatic, but it resonates with something similar I have read before.  DO you remember the one?  The letters we came across which read like a divine revelation of some sort, how'd it go?  "We have revealed only a dewdrop out of this fathomless ocean as a mercy unto the people."  THere's something like this, like if I could comprehend every layer of meaning I would go mad from the sheer over-load, I would not be free of ego enough to cope with it all. THhe need to be humble and detached would send me insane.  But you see, I think one can hope to slowly reach such a  point of all-comprehension. And then realsie there is no all-comprehension, and what we just thought was everything is only a fragment of a dream of some eternal infinite mind.   I really would like to write so much more but I think you'll appreciate it more if i just hurry back to NZ and let you see for yourself.  We can do so much with this.  Not a question of letting it take over my life.  THere is too much action I think I need to get involved with.  Not be so introverted anymore, or at least not in the bad way.  You know even if I never find out who wrote it, I'm going to track down the librarian who likely shelved it and thank them for not withdrawing it or something worse! (Can guess what u r thinking -- Kuz has gone off the deep end and bought into a self-help guru thing... but u r soooo wrong.  It's not so didactic and shallow as that, it's so deep, so seep, u wouldn't believe no matter how much I describe in my own words.  So that's why i've gotta just fly back home quick.)  actually, I trust you weren't thinking that at all... you trust me right? Conference is over tomorrow.  Flying back on ANZ Saturday, long trip, but, hehe, I have the best entertainment possible! Take care cuz, dont do anything dopey till I get home, CuzKari.

Is this yet mythic in proportions?  You cannot tell right?  You haven’t seen the manuscript.

This particular myth is fated to be private.  I don’t know if this automatically disqualifies it as a myth.  Myths are supposed to be communal right?  But I think this one will be semi-communal, a myth revered only between myself and my readers.  Some myths never make it through the mists of time.  But the wider arc of the idea of an ultimate anti page turning book can be kept alive in each one of you.  Because, after-all, what inspires you to keep flipping the pages of a great book is central to your personality, and when you find a book so wonderful that you never finish reading it because each page is so rich it lasts for a small eternity, and the thought of finishing the book frightens your nerves, because you do not know if you will ever find such a love again, and you do not wish to ever relinquish this lover, then the myth of the ultimate anti page turner can live through you.

*        *        *

At 3PM NZT on Saturday July 16 2011, I picked up the phone and heard the news from my uncle Daniel, Kari’s dad.  It had happened on a country road a few minutes out from Palm Springs.  Kari had been driving back from an end-of-conference conference trip to a publishing magnate’s private residence.  I’m sure she would have thought it quite amusing, to be mingling with obscenely wealth while her mind was utterly focused on more spiritual ideas and swimming in seas of the infinite.  She could do that — spend an entire party just day-dreaming and making polite conversation, while all the time  being in a completely different realm, and yet never making anyone feel like she was being aloof or impolite.

The shock was nothing like what I would have expected upon hearing such news.  It was deep and biting, sharp like diamond blades slicing every tender nerve, it cut me into emotional ribbons, and I wasn’t sure how I’d sew myself back together.   I could not walk straight after the brief tearful phone call.  I went to my room and cried into my bed sheets.

After my self-pity had subsided I knew what I had to do.  Sparing no expense (and costing a small fortune, at least for me) I booked tickets to California and made my way to Palm Springs, and did what Kari might have wanted me to do.  Find her book, and return it to the library so anyone could loan it and read it.  But not before I’d finished scanning every last page.

There was no trace of a manuscript at the crash site, the power pylon the drunk had smashed my cousin into as she swerved to avoid the head-on high speed impact was  still standing.  Had the wind swept away the Ghost Drive Manual?  The coroner’s office had similarly bleak nothing.  No one at the hotel knew.  The acquaintances she had befriended at the conference were still recovering from the tragedy, no one who had known Kari, even if only momentarily over a conference tea and coffee break, would be immune from the sadness, but they knew nothing of a thick innocuous technical looking manuscript called The Ghost Drive Manual.  I looked everywhere I could.  All I have are my cousins emails.

My cousin had found her way to peace.  I believe that.  She did not have time in this life to turn her inspirations into lasting actions.  But I know that a truly great idea cannot be bought and sold, cannot be suppressed, and will eventually always find light.  It is not for everyone at the same time.  How can it be?

And what her emails had told me was that true peace, the kind that never fades, the wonderment that never ceases to amaze, and the delight that comes from asking the right questions and finding within oneself the greatest answers.  You have to be prepared and ready though, it’s a condition on finding happiness.  What you find in the valley of contentment that precedes ultimate wonder is for you and not for others, and to visit that place you cannot take with you any possessions, and you leave the ones you love behind, at least in this world of time.

Do I wish Kari had survived and showed me her final literary lover?  Am I trying to over-magnify the importance of her discovery?  Am I injecting more meaning into her loss than is warranted?  Yes, all of this perhaps.  I need to.  I need to magnify the truth because my vision is so dim.

Maybe the last thing I have learned from her, since that weekend in July, is that the ghosts are not the departed spirits of our ancestors.  We are the ghosts compared to the rest of infinite existence.  There are just too many ways that beauty can be known to be able to hold within your mind for long the conceit that we are substance and truth and beauty are insubstantial abstractions.  It all exists somewhere, and always has, and always will, and we cannot grasp it because our hands, our brains, our minds, are just ghostly quantities compared to the Absolute Infinite.


Myth of the Ultimate Anti Page Turner (Part 2)

You know how email, and SMS texting, and Twittering, have replaced letter writing.  It’s sad in away.  People do not appreciate long emails.  It’s an instant medium with instant reading implied.  If you cannot scan the message at a glance then don’t bother sending it, right?  With old-fashioned letters there was the intensity of purpose made all the more frantic because to get a letter delivered often meant posting it before the mail cart or postal service collected the day’s envelopes.  Beethoven had just enough time to state this rush in one of his Immortal Beloved letters.

Beethoven Immortal Beloved Letter

Fifth scanned plate of Beethoven’s letter to his (unknown) “Immortal Beloved”.

There is something sharp about an email though.  And it’s something you do not get with text-messaging or IM or Tweets.  Since emails can be long, as long as you like, without even threatening trees for their paper pulp.   You are not days out-of-contact from the sender, so a one-liner can be considered pretty reasonable and not rude or dismissive in the slightest.  And it can even be alluring and mysterious.  “What is really going on with my friend?”  “Did she really mean that? or was I supposed to get some joke there?”  “What’s he up to that he cannot give me a full reply?”    “I wonder when they will realise their attachment was not attached and re-send?   Or should I tell them?”

The nature of email that makes it so convenient also makes it intriguing.  Not many people realise how artful an email message can be.   My cousin’s message lacked a lot of detail, but one thing at least was clear.  The Ghost Drive Manual was not an ordinary textbook.  How though?  What was keeping it page-turning for my critical cousin?  I had to know.

*       *       *

A week later.  Still no messages from my cousin.   But I had enough sleepless nights in debt now to worry myself about it, so I called her.  No answer.  So I emailed her again, telling her I think I’d drive over soon and knock on her door to see if she was still alive.  That elicited a reply at least.

Hey Bij,
Cant explain right now.  You have to read this book.  
i'll catch up with u soon.

So I’m thinking, “OK, she’s still into Ghost Drive.  How phreakin’ bizarre.”   And then I’m thinking, “Damn, I’d like to see that manual.”‘  And then I’m thinking, “Waitaminute, she did not refer to it as a manual this time.  It’s a book.  Big difference right?”  Well, maybe, maybe I was just exaggerating her words. “I’m going to find out soon though.”

Then an hour later another email.

Hey cuz,
Don't drive over just yet. plz.  i got 2 sort some thing sout ok?   
u won't b disappointed.

Hmmm.  An intriguing, short, polite email.    I’m licking my mental lips now.  It’s hard though.  Having something potentially awesome within reach but not being able to reach out and take it.  Being at the mercy of another person’s whims.   I’ve always wondered if bondage sex is like this, and maybe people get addicted to that feeling of anticipation and simultaneous helplessness?   I’ll never know.  But I do suspect the same vulnerability and apprehension can be felt if you open your mind to ideas, and particularly if you expose yourself to the full torrent of opinion of an enthusiastic genius who has found you worthy of conversation.  Such a person can strip you mentally naked, and toy with your ignorance, and then, if they are kind, they can touch your mind in places that you never before thought had a sliver of erotic potential, but nevertheless, their intellectual caress can make you feel like you’ve just been kissed by a god or goddess.

The good thing is that it never feels weird.  Not like the way I’ve just described it!  You do not at first appreciate it was some heavy intellectual sex you just had, instead it takes a while to sink in, and the afterglow can last for ages.  And it is genderless sex.  Not hermaphroditic, but just genderless and buzzy.  OK, ok, it’s nothing like sex!   But you now what I mean?   And if not, then I’m so sorry for you.  You should visit more places where you are likely to meet such people.

It’s enough for me — to not feel cheated out of life’s pleasures — to get this feeling every so often doing science.  Even when an experiment is within your control, you know that nature has a way of revealing herself at her own leisure.  That’s the way it can feel sometimes.

If you knew the outcome of the experiment you’d probably not be doing it, unless you are doing a follow-up project.  Those aren’t the motivating kind.  So you don’t do follow-up research entirely willingly.  You do it because you might be skeptical.  Or you did not believe the results the first time around (which can be fairly exciting, because then maybe you’re on to something right?), or because you wanted to get different results (that’s the dangerous kind, the type of science where you are not respecting nature, hoping she will bend to your will, and you are in the grip of your fanciful theory, the type of science I avoid).

Checking one’s ego can be unpleasant.  Someone gets to a scientific discovery before you.  You feel cheated out of all heaven.   Waiting ahead for you, for the next few weeks or months, is the hell of jealousy or bitterness.   The cure for this is simple though.  You need to abandon your ego and remember why you are doing science in the first place.  Because you are looking for truth.   It’s a wonderful thing.   And it doesn’t matter if someone else uncovers it first.   You get to be one of perhaps a handful of people to first appreciate the discovery.   You should be celebrating and feasting on the results and analysis and conclusions.

My cousin had discovered this ‘most excellent manual-book’ and I was going to be her first confidant.  The Ted to her Bill.   What the heck was so engaging about it though?   Or was she playing an immense practical joke?  (Sigh.)  A few more sleepless nights perhaps.

*       *       *

Myth (mîth), n. [Written also {mythe}.] [Gr. myqos
myth, fable, tale, talk, speech: cf. F. mythe.]
1. A story of great but unknown age which originally
embodied a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of
experience, and in which often the forces of nature and
of the soul are personified; an ancient legend of a god, a
hero, the origin of a race, etc.; a wonder story of prehistoric
origin; a popular fable which is, or has been, received as

— [1913 Webster]

In case you never have this sort of experience I should tell you what it’s like.  Being alive and witnessing the creation of a myth.  Not just being present.  Knowing.  Knowing this is the origin of a myth.   It’s quite safe to record this because my particular presence at this birth will never survive through history.  It will not become a myth, as you will see soon.

*       *       *

My cousin was not teasing me.  She wrote again from Palm Springs, California.  A longer email this time, which was nice (I love reading long emails, they are the closest analogue I know of modern letters, and I love a great letter) and I saved her subsequent emails, all preserved as-was, full of typos and the impression of haste and excitement.

 From:     "Kari Fairbairn" <>
 Sent:     Tuesday, July 12, 2011 11:16 PM
 To:       "Bijou Smith" <>
 Subject:  ghost drive in Palm Springs

Hi Bij,
I guess Francesca told you I would be in Palm Springs California 
for the ICC (4th Annual Intelligent Content Conference).  FondBooks 
wanted me to attend and then present the highlights to them.  It's 
ok, some good talks, but really geared more for commercial interests 
and branding/marketing and that sort of (necessary?) crap.  Some 
nice people, but I hav to tell u they are all a bit boring compared 
to Ghost Drive.  ive been escaping from the conf earlier and earlier 
to get back to the hotel and order sandwiches and espresso from the 
bar and race back to my room to have a good long read.  i have a 
shower and then get all snug and cosy (hard with teh AC running a 
bit noisy, but get used to it).   I have to tell yo about this, 
can't contain myself much more... 

Not sure if I told you, but when I pulled it off the library shelf 
I knew it was not an ordinary manual.  Being a techie geek you 
probably know Ghost was an older generation of archiving software. 
You probably weren't wondered what "Ghost Drive" meant?  Its not 
what you think.  It's not anything about maintaining ghosted disks.  
Where do I start?  From the beginning I suppose!

The introduction starts off just listing a bunch of specifications 
for "different users".  It reads a bit like a human inventory.  Then 
I realised it is describing every possible human psycho-type. 
Generic profiles of humans.  THen it starts to seem like it is 
extending to alien beings or something.  Perhaps possible psycho-types 
that are unknown, but possible?  I haven't quite figured it all out 
yet, and not sure if yr supposed to!  It's fascinating.  I thought 
maybe it was an unusual sort of film script and this was a VERY weird 
way of introducing the characters.

It doesn't get too boring either.  (That's the weird thing about every 
section of the book.  It looks like it should be boring, but it's not.)  
The opposite in fact.  And this list of generic humans becomes very 
abstract after a few pages. and then very profound.  It goes into what 
you'd tell me was an "axioms schema"  Like how you once explained 
those Zeno-Franklin axioms or whatever.  It's just brilliant.  I read 
it twice over, and then had to read it again, and I keep going back to 
it.  But you'll see for yourself.

Then, it gets in to describing your ghost drive.  (That's first-person 
"your".)   At first I took it as a joke.  But then I realised it was 
serious in some way, but I couldn't figure out how.  I couldn't even 
figure out where it was going or what it was about.  It seemed like a 
kind of Kafkaesque or Gibsonian journal or manual on how to live 
digitally.  There was some weird stuff.  Best I can describe it, for 
flavour, is as a cyberpunk kabbala.  Only it seemed, to me, a lot more 
per=sonal and meaningful.  Not mystical iow.  More enlightened and 
clear.  Lots of clarity, nothing obscured.  But so many layers of 
meaning.  Just incredible.  Clear and pure.   But gain, u jst hav to 
read it.

The more I read the more I didn't want to read.  It was too deep.  
Hard to describe.  Just want to fill my head with every sentence and 
let it course through my neurons and allow it to take over my mind.  
To read it is a psychedelic experience, only without the bad 

And god,... Bij!  I just want to find out who wrote this and get 
whatever else they wrote and devour it, and expand my mind with it, 
and become gluttonous over it, and leave Ghost Drive for the grand 
final dessert a thte end of my life.  Did I tell you there is no 
author and no copyright, justa  minimalist imprint.  Soooo frustrating. 
Am i gonna have to scour every sodding library in th wrld to find 
something else by this writer? 

ANd CUZ!  I know you, right?  I know you'll wnat to read this fresh 
yourself.  So I won't do you the insult of summarising any of it for 
you.  I know you'll understand right Bij?  (Write me if you don't 
sicne I won't mind writing some excerpts.  But I bet u won't, haha!) 

I will write more to you later.  THe next bit is amazing. I shoudl scan 
it and send it to ya.  God... I shld def do that!  what if this is the 
only copy in existence?  But why aren't there more?  It's unbelievable 
there wouldn't be millions of copies.  It's not like it'd be illegal to 
reproduce ... but for now too much on, and too absorbed in reading 
it... slowly... pouring every page into my mind like it was 
intellectual nectar from the gods.

OK, gotta sleep.  Will write soon.

*       *       *

Probably I should comment here that my cousin is not a fan of obscurantist mystical babbling.  So I knew exactly what she meant about her book being  ‘Clear and pure’.  Also, she was absolutely correct about my preference for reading something fresh.  I really do not like it when people give away a plot, and reading a book I already know about is basically an impossible task.   At least for works of fiction.   If I can get all I need from the back-cover blurb on a book then often I will not bother reading it.  The first few paragraphs have to be pretty mesmerising to draw me in.   The poor literature is bit like the romantic comedy films these days that keep getting churned out of Hollywood, if the plot is obvious I will not watch much past the first five or ten minutes.  I might ask my daughter’s, “How was the movie?” later on, but they never fail to disappoint.   So my cousin knew me well. (Damn it!)

By the next email it was clearer to me why Kari had become so engrossed.  But the essence of Ghost Drive still eluded my imagination, or, rather, it was disturbing my imagination and filling me with quite intoxicating thoughts, yet highly abstract.  Like pure ideas rather than images.  Visual sensations without geometric form or colour.   Like I could hear a story in my mind but not understand any words.

The best way I can describe my state at the time was like someone who has just met a stranger and fallen in love with him or her.  (Let’s say “her” for the sake of argument.)    You do not know her name, you know nothing about her, other than that she is beautiful and moves like an angel.  So you might find it hard to sleep that night, thinking of her, being excited by the thought she could be fond of you, but not knowing.  This makes it so hard to dream a fantasy.  You want to though.  In case you never see her again.  In case she is unattainable.  You want to just once dream of loving her.  But you cannot, because the idea is so abstract and other-worldly that your mind, your imagination, cannot conceive of any single realistic event involving the two of you.  But you try.

You force yourself to imagine holding her hand.  Her hand slips through your fingers like an ice-cloud which has been over-heated by your passion and dissolved into vapour.  You try so hard. You force yourself to imagine her voice, talking to you, telling you she finds you attractive and wants to spend time with you, but the words never form, and the mundane worries of your working day intrude and break your dreaming.  So you try harder.  You imagine she might be your lover, and she sleeps beside you, but her body will not rest, and it rises above your bed and floats away, every time you reach out to hold her the thought of becoming too possessive haunts your dreaming and so you have to let her go, to let her be free.

And so it is not too far from this sort of detached abstract state of pure longing for something that my mind could hardly imagine, that I found myself opening my email inbox a lot more frequently, and suffering the plummeting sorrow of emptiness when nothing new from my cousin had arrived.   Are all the worlds emails suddenly on postal delivery time?  Waiting for a league of overworked and underpaid postal employees to deliver them by hand into the ethernet slot of our computers?   Patience.  The next instalment will arrive soon.


Myth of the Ultimate Anti Page Turner (Part 1)

Have you ever gone through a lengthy period of time searching or waiting for a book to arrive in your lap that is so good, so juicy, that when you are reading it you do not want it to stop? A page-turner.

Ah, yes! We all know of this expectancy. When your craving is satisfied you devour the book. (I remember it for the first time with a pulp action novel, The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlam. Read it as a teenager. Better than any Arnie movie or Bond film. Since then I’ve known plenty of page-turners, funnily many are the pulp action genre, crime novels, scifi, thrillers, James Lee Burke, William Gibson, Louis de Berniéres, and many others.

Relatively few books have this quality, but we know they are ‘out there’, and there are probably more than we can read in a, lifetime. But finding one! It’s a haystack and needle problem. Thousands of needles waiting to prick your interest, but too much fibrous boring hay.

Yes, but rarer still is is a book so exquisitely written, or poorly written but with such a momentous plot, or with such wisdom to convey, that once you start reading it you soon feel like you never want it to end. And every paragraph seems so incredible that you find yourself lingering over psychedelically coloured phrases, or shards of wisdom, willfully allowing them to penetrate your mind and cut through the dross and boredom of your everyday life.

Pretty soon a potential page-turner has turned itself into a mind-burner.

So there are broadly, three classes of book.

The page-turners we love to find, we gasp at the final sentence and instantly feel refreshing nostalgia for that wonderful read.

The page-deadeners we leave a few bookmarks in them, dog-ear the third or tenth page, and leave vast percentages of it’s pages untouched and unstained.

Then there are the anti-page turners, the books we are almost scared to read or finish. Because finishing them would be like witnessing the death of a loved one. But if we are incredibly lucky, we find an author who is sensitive to their reader and imbues us with a sense of belonging to their book, an immersion into their story, which we are gripped by and yet feel safe in finishing, ending, dying to it. It’ll be a glorious death. It won’t hurt to finish the book, but we will feel we’ve lived an extra life. We will feel reincarnated. And yet still, we linger and avoid reading too fast and still wish it would go on forever, we dream there are an infinite hidden pages that will appear, if only we are faithful readers, so that the book will transcend it’s finite bound thickness, and inhaling every word and passage, we will discover how to turn to such pages, and create the never-ending living book that we know the author really wanted us to discover.  Their secret contract with us when we bought the book.

Then there are books that do fit infinitely many pages into a finite number of words. But I cannot speak of them. They are so sacred, and personal, and one of these, to me, could be page-deadening to you, it is a subjective quality. Therefore, not something one can speak of, or recommend to another. These must be discovered independently.

*       *       *

A cousin of mine did, once, discover an anti-page turner. She had claimed she had found a library entirely filled with page-deadening books. She had read way too much. When I suggested this to her — that she was too widely read to appreciate small gems — she took it as a challenge. She was going to keep using her library card until it’s electronic chip was worn out from scanning, until she could find one page-turner in this library.

I said, “No cheating ok. You can’t go and donate a page-turner to the library and then loan it out ok?” She laughed but agreed, this’d be serious.

So the reading and loaning marathon began. There were some near misses. But she could not honestly report that she had found a single book that she could avoid skim-reading, not so far. And she’d exhausted the crime fiction section, which has a high population density of page-turners — if you are a normal reader that is — but like I said, she was no normal reader. She had read so much literature it had inoculated her against mundane writing, against all the standard plot sequences, and typical literary devices, that normally capture an everyday reader’s attention.

It was sad for me to see this weariness in her, because I knew she loved books. Books were her life. But then life changed for her.

*       *       *

After completing a clean sweep of the romance novels, I jokingly suggested she should try the technical manuals section. I did not even know if libraries had such categories. But she was — I don’t know — so desperate? So over-taken by just the idea of this marathon exploration?  Carried away with the need to discover, rather than anymore the need to read?

Anyway, she located a a `Manuals’ section. It must’ve been something I had stored in my subliminal consciousness (I’m a regular library-goer). It really did have hard-core technical manuals. Some were miss-classified perhaps, like some were computer books, but most were real-deal manuals for various systems and appliances, some were for professionals, like manuals on plumbing and motorbike or automobile maintenance. But the appliance-type manuals were not the type you get these days, packaged with your new vacuum cleaner or PlayStation or washing machine, flimsy fold-outs with multiple language utilitarian instructions.

And there was one unifying feature of the collection. They all had the unfinished quality of a draft manuscript. No fancy cover art. Some had no author, not even an editor. It had to be the librarians joke. Something like it right? I mean, they had classified these monstrosities by their look, not their content. I’d bet some of the imprints had never actually been read before they were shelved.

Many were staple-bound tragedies of typesetting. Many were written in Courier-type font. Just hard to read even if the words had been interesting. These should all have been shelved in their respective non-fiction sections, but some loony librarian had, either ignorantly, or as a practical joke, shelved these together in the Manuals collection. But looking at them (and I appreciate a good manual) I thought to myself, “Fair enough. These are all departures from any other type of book.”

My cousin began browsing the collection of manuals. What was her fascination with these dry tomes? Novelty? You can certainly say they were novel. Then there was the art of a good manual — she was forming the abstract concept, giving birth to it like it was a new creation in her mind, all the while I watched her furiously browsing — she was becoming an instant initiate to the art of writing a decent manual, right before my eyes. An acolyte to the order of the technical writing clergy. I watched, fascinated like an anthropologist who has just found a new species of sentient vertebrate involved in some kind of instinctual food-gathering.

At first I knew what was going on. Her critical filters were in overdrive, and she was intuitively looking for the perfect manual. It had to inform the reader precisely, unambiguously, it had to be easy to read with minimal jargon, it had to have a logical layout, one for which the table of contents was a mere courtesy, because the instructions would be so clear and flowing that no cross referencing or page flipping would be required, just a sequential read. Nothing superfluous. And if she could not detect this essence of the perfect manual while browsing, then it would surely not exist here. It was, in many ways, the fastest collection in the library to browse for her current obsession.

And to be honest, I had thought she’d lost sight of her purpose, which was to find a book she could savour and suffer a small death for every night when she had to lay it down, abandoning it for a while, so she could sleep. Only she hadn’t lost sight. She just had to know if there was a manual which she could read from front to back, like a story.

*       *       *

And then she found The Ghost Drive Manual, Version 2 naked in it’s proportional-spaced Courier font, denuded of colourful illustrations, but pristine in it’s cotton-cellulose constructed perfection. Untouched by human hands, unstamped by the red ink of the library issues desk. It was her manual. She pulled it from the shelf tenderly, like a gynaecologist delivering a fragile little baby. I kid you not! I did not know what I was witnessing. Was I the step-father, or the blushing boyfriend, or the grandfather here? But I was witnessing the birth of something.

She said, “This is the one.” And we hurried over to the issues desk and I drove her home, and wished her, “Good luck with your manual.” But I didn’t know why I wished her luck. It was a funny thing to say. She said, “It’s not a manual dopey Bijou.” I was tired and had to be home an hour ago myself, so I just laughed and waved goodbye.

*       *       *

The original Ghost software was developed in Auckland, New Zealand, by Binary Research. It is an acronym for “general hardware-oriented system transfer”. It clones a computer’s hard disk for backup purposes. This was what I thought my cousin had loaned — a developers manual for the original software. A Developers Manual is quite different to a Users Manual. It’s about the same thing, but the developers version tells you how to modify the software, how to hack it, how to make something more of it, and how to iron out any bugs in it. A users manual is merely a short synopsis on how to use the software with no expert knowledge required. The developers version always assumes a lot of background knowledge. A users manual assumes none. The former is comprehensible to a genius or a professional, the latter can be understood by a literate child. A developers manual art is in giving you the secrets to the powers of creation, the users manual art is in making you not feel stupid.

I thought my cousin would at least get a kick out of it. Once she realised it’s Buddha nature, so-to-speak. The essence of a perfect manual remember? I wondered if she’d find a hint of this fragrance.

A week of busy life passed by. I was in a development phase myself, completely stressed and tired from being up nights hacking my projects, and sleeping in every other morning to recover. Then another week passed, and I had thought a few times of checking up on my cuz. I guess I thought if anything interesting had turned up at the library for her she’d let me know. We shared a few geek passions. She in literature, me in science, but the spirit is the same.

Eventually, after submitting a project after weeks of intense effort, I emailed my cousin to see if she had found a gripping book to read. A day later I received a one-liner reply:

"Sorry, been busy, still reading ghost drive manual. :-)"

*       *       *

Part 2 of “Myth of the Ultimate Anti Page Turner” to follow when I’m not so exhausted.

A Corollary to the Most Beautiful Woman Theorem

At first I thought of not writing anything here.  Leaving things unsaid can sometimes be less painful.   But I had to swallow my fear because I’m writing these stories for Kezia and Sylvie.  The only really pertinent comment is the corollary that, of course, I love her.

I love her!

Then I thought there were a few others.   One is an important specialization.   What happens when you love someone but you hardly know them?   You could doubt your affection right?   Well, you would if you had any sense, since real love cannot be a superficial emotional state.   It really, I think, requires quite a lot of time to develop and patience and maybe tests, and for sure, how can you claim to love someone without knowing really who they are and how they live and what they enjoy and what makes them laugh and cry?

The second corollary then, is that I love this wonderful librarian because I can intuit a lot of things about her which are clouded facts to me, things I feel I know but am unsure about, things that I can only estimate with a degree of belief, but no certainty.   And one set of such unknowns is her inner happiness and beauty.   She is, without doubt, a beautiful person inside as well as on the outside.   Little clues about this are easy to spot: in the way she goes about her work, in the way she was happy to help me with a  few requests, and they way she enjoyed receiving a couple of little hand-written messages from me, and many other small nearly inconsequential things.   The mind picks up on these, and with it comes a small degree of faith in the character of a person, even though you cannot claim to know them as a friend.

You should know I am not being weird or silly here.   I think everyone, from time to time, has such feelings about others.   Relative strangers, but who you have a gut feeling about, sometimes positive sometimes negative, and you feel sure your instincts are correct, even though you may not bet our life on them.   So you are, say, 75% or 80% sure of your instincts in such cases.   And your past experiences in life will confirm this.

I’ve had this feeling once before in my life, (the feeling of knowing, with high assurance, that I was in love) but it was for a married woman.   She was perfect.   But unattainable.   It broke my heart.  She was not happy with her marriage.   “Co-parenting” is how she described it.  So I thought I had fallen in love with her.   And truthfully, I still think I was in love, but only the one-way variety of “in love”  I had my heart in the fire, but she had her heart closer to her family.  But, for me, it was the real thing.   Love.   Unrequited.   I knew her better than my beautiful librarian acquaintance.  But it was not meant to be.  Still, I know the feelings.

How did I know I was in love?   It was the time span it took me to gain some peace and release from the emotions and heart-break.  That’s how I know.   It took so long.    Can you guess how long it took?

It’s still going on!   There has been no permanent peace.   Years after having never spoken or contacting her since, I still feel like there is a void in my heart which I’m waiting for her to fill.   But then I met the beautiful librarian, and instantly I knew that even if she turns out also to be in love with someone else, I just know my longing and desire will be displaced towards her, and I will go through the possible agony again, but first the nervousness of finding out more about her.   And I just know the more I learn about her the more I will fall in love.   And I just hope this will not be the same private pain as before, and that it will instead be wonderful and life-changing.

“You’re mad,” you might counsel.   And you might have good reason to suppose so.   So let me add a few caveats.

First: I have not loved many woman.   I can name two.   One was the married bundle of perfection who loved listening to my physics ramblings.   So perfect.   So out of my reach.  So I know that I do not fall in love very easily.   When I do, I know it’s more than an infatuation.

Second: people have widely varying propensity for love.   For me it obviously can happen quite quickly, and yet so rarely.  Incredibly rarely.   It’s a curse, because all the hormones rage out of control and it takes a while to settle down and become deep and abiding love.   But it happens faster for me than for most.   And there’s nothing I can do to speed up the emotions in the woman I desire.  So maybe it’s lucky it happens rarely, twice in my life so far, maybe a third time now.   This rarity is not so much of a curse, but it is frustrating, because I do not want to wait forever to find someone brilliant and intelligent and beautiful who can also love me.  I don’t want it to take so long to happen!

Third: I am well aware that to “be in love” is not a one-way relation.  It requires two people to form a lasting bond of friendship that can be called love.  So I am not claiming I am in love with her.  (It’s so hard not to write her name, but I cannot, out of respect.)

So at present I am not “in love” with her.   And maybe she will never allow me this pleasure?   But I do know that I love her.   It’s only one-way.  As far as I know.  And most people would think I must be stretching the definition of love beyond measure.  But I’m not.

It has to do with intuition and temperament and prediction and inference and probability.   Ever heard of Risk Intelligence”?   It’s not about how to gamble successfully!   (Far from it.)   It’s about estimating probabilities accurately.   An inexact science, but one which can be tested well.   Well, I’ve scored highly on such tests.   So I can estimate probabilities quite well.  Partly it is a matter of knowing the basic mathematics, Bayes theorem and independent trials, and correlations, and so forth.   Partly it is about being able to make detached objective judgments, and think things over more than twice, use some basic sanity checks and logic filters.   And so I am confident the probability I will still love the beautiful librarian, once I know a little more about her background, is high, above 70%.   The probability I will love her more than I even now suspect is also above 50%, which is a very strange sort of subjective statement to be making a probability assessment about!   But there you have it.  I will, however, not be so crass as to add this particular assessment into my risk intelligence journal.

The intuitive reasoning is also something I can write about.  People often make snap judgments.   And sometimes they are right on the mark, and sometimes they are not.   But our brains and minds are influenced by many things we cannot articulate.  So the whole body sometimes reacts viscerally to stimulus.  And I can tell you that my whole body ignites when I see her.  It’s not a foolproof method of divination.   But it is good evidence I feel.  How can I tell you, how can I convince you, without pointing her out and saying, “See her!   Watch her move, listen to her speak, see the way she interacts with her colleagues and customers. There walks one of the best of people. A true representative of the best in humanity.”

And I could tell you why I know I am not entirely exaggerating.   And I could tell you the hazards of such estimation and inference.  But I would do so in a million parallel multiverses, and in 80% of them I would be correct in my appraisal.  If you listen to your heart (not the big pink blood-pumping muscle in your chest, but the inner heart, the one your mind is attuned to, the one which speaks for your soul) then you will know what I mean.   In some things in life your heart misleads you, and it is a tragedy, but when you know you have pure motives then your heart is a good guide.   Not perfect.   But pretty good.

I will admit I could be wrong about all of this.   I’m just expressing my informed opinion.   I am a romantic, but I am not entirely naïve and witless.

Fourth thing:  do I want her to love me too much, so much that I am suppressing clues which would otherwise tell me she is not the right type of person for me to fall in love with?   Duh!   Of course!   This is always a danger in matters of heart and soul.  So what?   I’m counting it as a small danger.   I’ll cope with it anyway.   If she does not even like me and never grows fond of me, what can I do?  Nothing.  You cannot force being in love.  But I know I will still love her.  The tragic one-sided unrequited love.   It’s not such a bad thing.  It is better to love someone than remain indifferent to your emotions and feelings.  You just have to have courage.  Sure, you may cry a bit, or even a  lot.  Unrequited love can be a seriously crushing obstacle to happiness, but it can also be mind-expanding and honey-blossomed, like a memory of a yearning and desire that was so strong you can taste it still, but which you can no longer recall whether it was real or is merely a remnant of a powerful dream.

You have choices.  It is not impossible to bury feelings.  People do it unconsciously all the time.  People can also do it consciously by, for example, throwing themselves into their work, or jumping too fast into some other relationship, to blanket the misery of their unrequited love.   Maybe I am mad.  It’s a very sweet insanity if it is madness.   I do prefer to live relatively exposed to my feelings and the feelings of others.  You can do this if you either have a great big capaciously fond heart, or if you have a few good friends, but not too many.   Since then your energy can go into your friendships, and you can truly empathize with your friends, and go through some of the joy and pleasure and pain and heart-break which they go through.  That’s what being a really good friend is partly about.  Sharing life’s ups and downs, laughing and crying together, playing and working, parting now and rejoining later.

Now I’m getting a bit exhausted writing this entry.  So I need to wrap up a few final thoughts. There is too much I want to say.  Mostly for myself, to remind me that I can love and not necessarily expect love in return.   It’s not so bad.  You can be a perfectionist without going nuts expecting life to be perfect.   Being a sane perfectionist is not a contradiction in terms.  You can aim to do everything to the very best of your ability, and allow that many, many things will be beyond your control, and so circumstances many not always turn out as you would like, but this is not an imperfection.  It is life.   It should be celebrated.   And in some way you can consider it to be a form of perfection, since everything unexpected or non-triumphant is an opportunity for you as well as a chastening set-back.   (A sentiment which must have been expressed a million times in a thousand different ways.  But true all the same.)   When you look back on things, aren’t these times always more full of opportunity than regret?   Are they not more often sign-posts along life’s journey where you can say you were rightly guided rather than led astray?   You do not have to wear rose-tinted glasses to perceive life in this way.   It’s ok to feel remorse and sadness for things that were left undone or for love unfulfilled.

*      *      *

I’d like to record the conversation we had, but I’m fairly hopeless at remembering conversations.  However, since I won’t get a chance to talk to her for a few weeks (I’m traveling) I had to have a go.

So after I told her, in my round-about way, that she is the most beautiful woman I know,  she said, “Beauty is subjective.”  I said, “Yes it is.”

She graciously said (something like), “What a beautiful thing to be told on a gloomy Monday!”    I think I just smiled.   I did not know what else to say immediately.   I could not profess deep and abiding love, because I hardly know her, and to me love is such a huge concept, surrounded by so much more than lust and desire.   It connotes a deep caring and happiness and intimacy, and these things take time to foster.

I said, “It’s going to be awkward for me to come down to the library from now on.”   She laughed and pawed her hand in jovial dismissiveness and said, “Oh no, it’ll be easy.”

She located a second volume of Euler’s Lettres a une Princesse d’Allemagne (the only version in New Zealand).  This was only a few minutes after I had told her my theorem.   I said, “How did you do that?”   She just smiled.   I guess she knew that I knew it is her skill and profession to be lightning fast at locating books.

*      *      *

Now I must travel south to Wellington.  I will at least get a chance then to visit the only library in New Zealand with the second Euler volume.   But the whole project of typesetting it in \text{\LaTeX}   has somehow been totally eclipsed by the thought of despair for the next two weeks at not being able to see her.  Is this crazy?   (You may ask.)   The only crazy thing is that if you have just met the most beautiful woman in the world why would you first tell her this fact and then disappear for two entire weeks?

There is one good thing about being forced to remove myself from Langar, which is that at least I will not be intruding upon her time anymore.  It would be stifling to have some guy hanging around where you work with the knowledge that he is quite possibly madly in love with you.

Of course, I have no way of knowing what she will be thinking.  And to give you a little more information — if you are interested — you might like to know that I printed out a hard copy of Sunday’s post at oneoverepislon.   This was not intended, but she had no time to talk to me over lunch or coffee, so I had only a few minutes to tell her she is most beautiful.   I could not elaborate in spoken words.

Can you imagine the angst I felt handing over such heartfelt passages to her?   It was not my best writing.   It was not all that carefully edited.   It left out so much that I felt in my heart.   And, if I presume correctly that she is an avid reader, then, what was I thinking giving her this to read?   I did write a quick note telling her she did not have to read it, since it was all a self-evident proposal.   Maybe it was a bad idea?   It’s done anyway.   And I will have to wait two weeks at least to have any hope of gauging her response.

Just hoping she is gracious and does not hold it all against me as evidence of some sort of neurosis, is about the mildest outcome I can think of — it is not the best or worst. I did run in to the library Thursday morning before I drove down to Wellington. I had to apologise to one of the other librarians whom I had handed the printout of “The Theorem” to, for her to pass it on to the beautiful librarian. (I had been a bit short when I handed it over, saying something like, “It’s not for you.” I was just nervous she’d sneak a glance at it, and I was already worried if it was appropriate to reveal those passages torn from a piece of my heart.)

This other librarian is a lovely person too. I had eaves-dropped on her describing a few movie synopses to a young boy the previous week. The boy was trying to decide what DVD to loan. It was cute. So I asked her if I could use that little episode as the basis of a short story. I’m not sure she realised I was asking her for permission. Taking out a loan on a minute’s slice of her life.

Anyway. At the issues desk the beuatiful librarian was atteneding to customers, and she looked up and smiled at me, “Hello Bijou.” Which is not quite the final corollary I suspect. I hope. This one being the corollary that the act of telling a gorgeous librarian she is the most beautiful person in the world is a sufficient condition for being returned a beautiful smile. It’s an act worth doing, in other words.

I smiled back and waved goodbye. Hopefully she knows I will not be gone forever. I have to return to retrieve a personal belonging. I left my heart in Langar. But I don’t think the funky little sea-side town with the most beautifully graced library in the world will let me take it away.


To Tell Her She is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World

Représentation tridimensionnelle d'une variété quadridimensionnelle de Calabi-Yausuchsuch

When you know she is the most beautiful woman you have ever seen, but you worry she will not believe you are sincere.  This is my problem.  Today.  To be solved for Monday (two nights and one day hence).

There is a secondary problem too: I do not know if she has a family, is single, divorced or living with a de facto partner, maybe lesbian, maybe celibate, who knows?  All I know is that I love her beauty.  But those are minor issues.  Why?  One reason is that if you wish to consider yourself courageous, then you cannot go through life wondering, “what if?”   More imperative is the answer that beauty deserves to be known.

So what does that mean?   Many things.  It can mean that when someone does not see or appreciate beauty, then you can perhaps help them see it, and it could be considered a pleasant duty to do so.  It can mean that if someone does not appear to know they are beautiful then you can gladden their heart by letting them know they are wonderful.  It can also mean that you might feel you simply have a disposition in life to let beautiful things be known and not hidden — not hidden from sight nor sound nor touch nor anyone’s inner senses.

This is how I felt.  I needed to tell her how beautiful she is, and how beautiful she might always remain in my heart and mind.  So when I see her this Monday I will tell her.   How though?   The problem is not resolved.  Telling her should be an act of love.  It should be artful.  It should be clear and precise.  It should be poetic.  It should be something no one can deny.  It should be sincere and motivated only be the desire to have beauty known, and known to itself, to herself!

This is how it must be. Yet do I have the time to make the art worthy?  Or will I falter?  These questions arise, but my will-power must suppress them.  Only the art must be of concern.  Only the art must motivate my actions for the remainder of today and tomorrow.

Embarrassment is of small consequence in this enterprise.  I must simply try.  If I fail then who can judge me harshly?  What is failure in this context anyway? I cannot care for it.  Time and circumstances limit my preparation, but I can still be as prepared as possible within the constraints.  This will be the art within the art.

Is it possible to become too clinical about art?  Too obsessed by an ideal?  Of course, but in the extreme limit there is no art.  Obsession kills.  We need to constrain it, bend it, warp it into something concrete and yet beautiful.  So not concrete.  Something organic perhaps?

Thinking now, … what shall I do?  I know she is a librarian, so she enjoys books.  What librarian wouldn’t?  I am a writer, of sorts, and I have plenty of projects I could talk to her about.  These will fill in some time.  Not that I want to fill in time.  When I am with her I know the time will pass by far to rapidly.  Before I know it she will have gone.  So I wish to make all things possible within this small fraction of a day I will spend with her.  No pretexts necessary then, just establish a comfort level that enables courage.  She offered to help me with some of my work, so this is how I will approach her on Monday.

Then what?   Too many things spring to mind, and I am overwhelmed with ideas.  The art is now to choose wisely.  Try not to appear too crazy and maniacal.  That’s hardly a fear, just something I’m musing on because my brain is bursting.  It will not burst when I am with her, because she has a peaceful radiance, a completely charming quality.  She is relaxing to watch, serene to behold, a joy to talk with.  So I needn’t be too worried.  There is just the effort now, the art to develop and perfect, so I can say to myself on Tuesday that I tried my best.  My Dad would always say such things are important — to try your best is the real glory.

A fictional conversation enters my mind.  She takes me to her favourite café.  We exchange pleasantries, “How was your weekend? What do you generally do on weekends?”  Even this is a risk.  I do not want to hear whether she has family, or not, not just yet, so I’m holding my breath.

“So you remember this project I asked you about New Zealand law copyright law?  Well, I discovered Google project Gutenberg only scanned the first volume.  So there is a second volume you might be able to help me locate — if an English translation exists.”

She might nod, might ask a question.  (In a fictional conversation it always seems difficult to imagine what the other person will say.  The dialogue in my head is fuzzy.  I hear her voice, but not her words.)  Then I continue, “So I thought, if i cannot find a similar scan of Euler’s second volume, in English, then maybe you could help me find a library copy to loan.  However, I should warn you, this could be a challenge!”

I’ll pause, and she might say a few words, intrigued perhaps.  “Yes, you see, when I tried finding a used edition to purchase, the only one I found was priced at fifteen hundred dollars.  A bit beyond my yearly budget for books.  And normally I like to collect a few books each year, so this would limit me for a few years!  If I indulged.”

“So there is your challenge.  Do you think we can inter-loan a copy (there might not even be one in all of New Zealand?) and then scan it ourselves?  I guess the inter-loan expense alone could eat up my book budget.”  Chuckling — like this is a bit of an adventure, a crazy playful enterprise.

Having no idea what will happen next.  My mind contemplates a turn in the conversation.  I suppose the inter-loan idea is not very realistic.  I’ll search online further and see.

Hopefully she will remember that I mentioned I had two things to ask her about.  If not, I’ll do it.

“There is one other thing I wanted to ask you.”  Then I ramble on a bit too much, but cannot help myself.

“When a mathematician discovers a proof of an original theorem, or even a new elegant proof of an established theorem, there is a very human need to show the world.  Did you know that most computer software is basically a long drawn-out mathematical algorithm?  Only significant difference is that computer scientists ask people to pay money to use them, whereas mathematicians give away all their intellectual work for free.  There is an ethos, completely unwritten, yet adhered to universally (and I’d suspect also on any other planet in the universe where mathematicians have evolved) that all mathematics is for all people.  There are no rights to ownership.  This is a bedrock pillar of the world-wide community of mathematicians, and I do not know of any culture which violates this ethos.  To most experienced mathematicians, doing mathematics is like creating art, or even higher in calling.  I’m not sure exactly.  It’s a different skill set, but the result is very much like art.  I guess artists have fewer constraints on what they produce.  It’s kind of circular logic, but it is true to say, that incorrect mathematics is not mathematics.  One flaw in a proof makes the whole thing invalid, whereas a tiny brush-stroke awry in a majestic painting is of no great consequence.  I guess.  Maybe it would be for a Michelangelo?

“Anyway, it’s a beautiful ethos — the mathematical spirit — and it draws me more towards mathematics than physics or other sciences, where commercial interests are becoming far too rife.” (I doubt I’d use the word `rife’ in conversation, but … whatever …)

“OK, so I wanted to ask you one other thing …”  I am finally getting to the main point.

She invites me.

I probably start dripping invisible beads of sweat, but I feel them running down my spine and ribs.  The desperation is more about hoping I can constrain my awkward humility and self-consciousness.   I’m beyond worrying what she will end up thinking about me.   But if there is ever a time when you wish your unattractive features could just go away and hide for a few seconds, this is it.  There is no need to want to feel enhanced in handsomeness, just let the ugly bits vamoose for a minute or two.   Courage and confidence are needed here.   Is this an art or a science?   Can it (confidence) be willed, or is the brain just too dumb to know when to suppress anxiety?   This element to the conversation is going to happen, so there is no point in worrying about it.

“It’s a little harder to tell you this one.   I’m normally too shy.   But it is like the desire to show the world an elegant proof.  Only this one is fairly personal and hard for me to tell you.

“I suppose in some dim dark recess in my mind I worry you might take it the wrong way.  So I have to tell you this before you prejudice your assumptions, or maybe before I become too presumptuous.  I have to tell you this very soon, so that it is pure and untainted.”

By now she might be agitated, concerned, starting to doubt my sanity?   But I have to persist.  There is no turning back.

“Right. So this is a theorem not a conjecture.  There is a proof which I will try to show to you.  The idea is fairly simple, and yet quite amazing, it is this: firstly, you are the most beautiful person that I have ever met.  Secondly, I’ve tried to shrug off the feeling I need to tell you this, since it seems obvious, but since first seeing you a month ago I have only become more determined to tell you.  Thirdly, I will tell you the proof if you are interested, but honestly I think it might be better if I stay quiet for a while.”   Pause.

“Those last two clauses were not part of the theorem.  Just the first bit, that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”

“And that about says it all, but it is so short and succinct right?   It needs elaboration?   What’s the definition of beauty for starters?   It’s amazing because I never thought I would be honestly able to say this to anyone.  It’s a huge concept, `most beautiful person’ isn’t it?   No matter which definition is used.    It invites disbelief.  Maybe seems insincere.  But I have proof. ”

Undoubtedly all these words will not flow, but something of their nature, I hope, will be expressed.

Will she agree to let me continue?  Will she start to apologise and leave?   There is no foretelling.  So my mind continues to fantasize the conversation.  Her body language is subdued, but hopefully she allows me to continue.

The proofs I have are some subtle and some explicit.  Her face is bright and beautiful.  Her body is perfect in form and desirable.  Her eyes are alive with the spark of intelligence. Her hair is luscious, neat and fiery.  Her voice is golden and bold, confident, and yet somehow humble.  Her movements are the epitome of grace, elegance, self-confidence and style.  The way she walks is alluring, her figure is compelling, her form is perfection.

And I might try to tell her, “I do not really know about things like human aura’s.  But I do know that most people are electrically charged, having either an excess or a depletion of electrons.  A lot of things cause this, but overall it is a result of many different biochemical reactions, which, if not quite balanced, result in the body becoming like a very weak battery.  I’m not kidding.  Electrons either flow from the Earth into us, or the reverse, and the small charge gradient is maintained by our biochemistry.  Diet can alter it, as can other things.

“Anyway, I’m not sure of many other details, but the result — which is certain — is that people carry electric field lines with them.   Or rather, to be precise, these are virtual photons, dancing around us like near invisible fireflies.  They are invisible too, since they are not all in the visual spectrum.   That’s why we cannot see magnetic and electric fields.   But they are real.   ‘Virtual photon’ is just a word coined by physicists for fluctuations in the vacuum electromagnetic field.  They are real entities.

“So this is a kind of very real aura, which all people have.

“And I really don’t know, but maybe you also have some kind of aura which surrounds you?   In any case, it is beautiful and I’m drawn to it.  So much so that it might make you blush if I told you how much!”

And if given the chance, I would elaborate.  I would tell her about the day I first saw her: carrying two large paint buckets across the road towards the library.   I’d tell her how curious I was to find myself compelled to offer to help her paint the footpath.  How I enjoyed the quiet serenity of the work.  How already I felt somehow like, right then, I knew someday soon I would need to tell her how beautiful she was, because beauty needs to become known.  Even if it has been demonstrated a thousand times before.   The great prince of mathematics, Karl Gauss, would often re-visit theorems and create new original proofs.    Isn’t that wonderful?   That a piece of mathematics can be returned to and re-created with new elegant ornamentation and tapestry.

And the saddest thing is when, in this world, beauty goes unacknowledged and unappreciated.   I suppose, for someone truly beautiful mere existence is fine, it is self-sustaining, but every now and then it is good to be told.

Also, I have this (possibly eccentric) notion in my mind motivating me, which is that I suspect the most beautiful people in the world are not often told this truth, because it is so obvious, because other people will not indulge them, because they are so attractive they may appear aloof and unapproachable.  Not her though, not the librarian of Langar.  This also adds to my proof — a truly beautiful person is not aloof, at least not consciously, because they are kind and warm to the affection of others, because they attract good things.  So I can guess she does not need me to tell her these things, and she might be thinking I am a bit loopy.  This doesn’t grieve me in contemplation, but I’m sure it will sting me later as she leaves.  It’ll be worth the pain I think.  I’m not launching on this little private micro-crusade for my own benefit.  Not really.  It has become a simple plain obligation.  I see beauty.   I must acknowledge it to someone.  Who better than the one who radiates the very attributes.

So this is my lightest of burdens.   It is easy to unload, although very difficult still — for someone so shy.

Hoping to calm my nerves I could say, “So there. I’ve said it.”

I might say to her, “If this were the only reason I came to the township of Langar this summer then it would be sufficient.”

I might say to her, “This all may sound outlandish and seem surreal to you, but please don’t doubt me.   I feel I am, right now, at this very moment, in the position of a mathematician with a wonderful proof that must be shared, but who is so shy and sensitive they wish to share the proof only with the one person who needs to hear it.”

I might say to her, “A really good proof can often seem self-evident and so irresistible that you know it must be correct, but others may not see it so clearly.   I can tell you that I am one hundred percent sure that I know you are beautiful, deep down, inside and outside, all around.   You radiate peace and a self-assurance that is so attractive that I cannot be wrong. ”

Should I also say to her, “If no one else has the courage to tell you these evident facts — that you are incredibly beautiful — then it is my absolute privilege to be able to tell you.   I am so happy I have had the opportunity to tell you.   And that’s true even if you already know the proof.”   Maybe?   Should I say all that?   I’d be smiling something stupid here.   But no, that all sounds too trite, but something artful like this probably needs to be said, or is it pre-axiomatic and obvious?   I no longer know.   My mind has been contorted into that peculiar tangle one gets knotted within when trying to over-analyse the obvious, or complexify the singular truths of the world.

I have only a few hours left in the day now to perfect this artwork, this imagined conversation, and then let it be real.   I wonder if words alone are enough?   Is there not some more tangible way to tell her these things?   I doubt it.  Anything else would seem other than direct from the heart.  Anything else more potent can also surely wait.  Some of this art must be impromptu, because to imagine a complete conversation and try to make it real is lunacy.

Gentleness is required.  Patience.  The heart must speak, and if it is clouded by the logical faculty’s over-ride then a lot of the magic can be lost.   Is this true?   I’m not so sure.  Diligence and preparation betoken love and honesty and desire too.

Time is short, and tomorrow has become pregnant with some kind of existential need.  Something delicate and sweet that I feel will endure in memory for ages.  A woman like her does not enter a man’s life more than once or twice.  So the day must be seized, the chance taken, the proof evinced, the corollary accepted.

Now I laugh.  What have I done!  This afternoon I was squeezing plums fallen from my mother’s prodigious plum tree, and my fingernails and the skin lines on my fingers are deep purple, almost black, from plum juice stains.  An inauspicious omen?  Hardly!   This is Aotearoa, the land of the All Blacks.   I’ll meet her tomorrow with joy in my heart and black stained fingernails.  No worries mate.  The plum juice and puree are delicious too.

*       *       *

The next few days and weeks will be utterly painful.  Whether she agrees to see me again or not.  The uncertainty of not knowing how my message will be received, it is excruciating.   Every bit as agonising as waiting for critical feedback for a submitted manuscript proof.

This will all happen and I cannot inoculate myself against any of it.  It is quite the neurotic day-dream to be even thinking that far ahead.   None of the repercussions are things I will plan for, and whatever my state afterwards I hardly care, at least not now as I write and think the final thoughts before sleeping.  I’m merely trying to steel my mind to accept them.   These are not the purpose of telling her she is beautiful.

All worthy art must suffer critical appraisal.  The artist may not invite it, but cannot refuse it.  They might ignore it, but cannot stop it.  And so it must be with the extraordinary art of telling her she is the most beautiful woman in the world.  A subjective notion for sure, but one that can be true.   If not true and sincere then the expression of the art will be blackened void.   If true it will lead to a realm of colour and delight like no mind can fathom without firsthand experience.   The incredible thing is that to experience it one only needs the courage to craft the artwork and reveal it.

That is what I will do on Monday.   Will it be fateful?   I hardly know, I am not sure what “fate” means in this life.  It will happen.  It will have consequences, big or small.  I will pray they are of the good kind.

It’s 23hr:58min Sunday now.  Time to give in to the mercies of sleep.

*       *       *

For Kezia and Sylvie

This is my art lesson for today.   Let your art be expressed and reveal it’s beauty.   Be courageous and suffer any consequences from its reception.  Be true to your vision, even if the dire clockwork of space and time have conspired to limit your efforts and constrained your artistic talents.   Do not sell your art cheaply, but make it free for all.  Beauty can only be perfected when shared and revealed.

(You’ll be adapting something like this, probably your original thoughts, for the boys you fall in love with.   So just remember they might be even more turned on by the mathematics theme, it’s hard to tell from my viewpoint in time, but I hope you will fall in love with an intelligent guy.   So if you end up doing something in the sciences remember this.  Otherwise read a lot of literature, you will find inspiration is not always from within.   The wisdom of others is a treasure, and it should be used.  And do boys like to be called “beautiful”?   I think the nice kind will not mind.  The kind you will later wish you had fallen in love with.  My only counsel is to choose your adjectives with care, because there is art in this, and there is love in care, to do things with patience and consideration is a way of expressing love.)

And, remember, there is a special art to telling her she is the most beautiful.  It is like a concept that can be rendered into either cartoon form or lavish ornamental form.  The former is insincere and cruel, the latter can be obsessive and garish, like an unwanted nightmare.  The best art in this is to render your true feelings into a form that you know, inwardly, can be given away with the sole intent of making the recipient feel loved and desired, beautiful and serene, happy and blushed only with the sweetness of sincerity.

The essence of the art is elegant in its simplicity.  To tell her she is the most beautiful woman in the world, and to do so such that she will believe it is true, I must only believe it is true and have the courage to bare my soul.  And because I did believe it to be true, and because I am not afraid to reveal my naked soul, I told her.


The image at the top of this post is a Calabi-Yau four-manifold in a 3D representation ( courtesy of Jean-François Colonna.  Such geometries are considered beautiful for more than aesthetic reasons, because they could be structures within our own spacetime, endowing our universe with symmetries that enable the characteristics of elementary particles, like the electrons and photons responsible for our auras, to appear.


Gentle Gym Giant Gifts Geek Generous Greek Guidance

So I was working out too hard, or something, maybe looking a bit anaemic, and this big, cut, burly dude wanders over all respectful-like, and says, “Hey bro’, if you work out like that every day you will end up walking fairies across the river Styx.”

Now why would a big bracing guy like him know about Greek mythology?

And I said to myself, “Dude! That was a pretty obvious thing you just said, but hell, you said in in such a luscious way, I could hug you for being so …,”  I searched for the word in my mind, ” … so erudite.” I thought.  Maybe “original” was what I meant?  I’ve since lost the soul of that moment.

But all I said to him was, “Yeah.”

And then I’m, like, “Well I bet he thought I was profound.”

The cynic might bemoan, “when did people lose such erudition?” They might be fantasising about a past time when people spoke how Shakespeare wrote, and moreover understood what they were saying.

Wrong question!  There was never such a time.  Ever since the Stone Age grunts of our distant ancestors were first uttered in anger or sorrow or joy, humans, as a whole, have relentlessly and progressively been becoming more and more erudite.

This is not a myth of “inevitable progress”.  It’s not some romantic ideal that humans have a purpose which we are all unknowingly working towards.  But the fact is that human society has always been progressing.

It’s not a smooth process of course.  There are plenty of historical pockets of attrition and retrogression.  We can even see them in current affairs.  The Taliban regime in Afghanistan doesn’t exactly shower human civilisation with praise.  Probably lucky we are not under observation by sentient aliens.  Regimes like these would be embarrassing:

“Oh yeah, the Taliban.  They were adopted.”

(Thor-ish quips aside, “Adopted by who?” I’d like to ask.  Sheeesh. )

But Hey!  Don’t dwell on such human embarrassments.  There is a lot more to rejoice in.  Just open your eyes.  Open your heart.  Check out my previous post on The Better Angels of Our Nature for a start.

You know what?  It’s even intellectually sexier if you pass the facts about human progress through the filters of mathematics.  You get this sort of intoxicating honeyed-mead dripping through.   (I guess.  I don’t drink, so wouldn’t know. When people mention mead I imagine something that tastes sweet like comb-honey, with bite like whisky, and inducing delirium like LSD.  Fantasy is better than reality?)

Do you know where I’m going to take you next?  Go on.  Guess.  🙂

STATISTICS are amazing.

Bet you wouldn’t have guess that.

By “amazing” I do not mean stuff like calculating averages, working out standard deviations, plotting histograms, and that sort of thing.  That’s all applied statistics, and it is (I admit) fairly boring, since any dunce with a stats computer package or spreadsheet can get that sort of job done.

What I mean by “Statistics is amazing” is deeper — it is the stuff of reality, the essence of life in our universe, and the (possible) source of free will. (This is what they should teach in school not all the stiflingly boring spreadsheet puppetry.)

The deal is this:  we live in a universe of quantum mechanics.  This means everything that happens is unpredictable.  But not random.  What’s the difference?

Completely random things cannot be analysed statistically, they obey no laws, not even statistical laws.  “But,” you might protest, “everything statistical has a random element to it right?”  The answer is no, not really.  Statistics deals with unknown quantities, but which are not random.  They have an element of randomness because we are missing information which might provide a more certain and complete description.

Consider a roll of a dice.  For all practical purposes, a casino manager would hope, this is a random process, with a statistical outcome from among six numbers (or faces of the die).  But if you know the laws of physics, and you can rapidly measure the exact position and orientation and spin and velocity of the dice just as the casino croupier rolls it, then you can use classical mechanics to predict with almost arbitrary precision, which face will land upright.  It’s not really all that hard, just enormously hard to do without a fast computer, if you wish to predict in real time before all betting is closed. (I don’t know, do casinos allow betting when the dice are already in the air … I suspect not, but that’s not my point.)

The point is that within the small universe of six possible futures (faces which could land up on the dice) there is a practical sense in which the toss is random, but only because we have no practical way of measuring the information we would need to make the prediction.  That’s in a Newtonian clockwork universe.

The perturbing thought I want you to now ponder is that our actual real universe is more random than this.  We live in a quantum physical universe. There is randomness built into the fabric of our universe that no amount of information can remove.  Our universe is always unpredictable.  What this means, in very simple and yet profoundly realistic terms, is that while all events that take place in our universe, from the collisions of air molecules to the decisions your brain makes and on to the evolution of stars and galaxies, all of it obeys certain laws of nature, we cannot ever know precisely the conditions necessary to predict anything. All we can manage is a statistical answer.

All questions of physics reduce ultimately to statistical answers.  Yet this is not the same as rolling a dice.  Quantum physics is very different.  If our whole universe was a dice, then it would be like this:  if as soon as we measure the state of the dice while it is in motion, it always seems (tho’ unseen) to do something internally random to re-mix itself up, so we can never be certain of how it will land.  That’s how weird our universe is.  It is not random seeming. It is random being.  It injects randomness into everything. Yet it injects randomness into our lives in a very special way — in a consistent way, that is, consistent on average with Newtonian laws of physics (and as updated by Einstein — the universe described by Albert Einstein obeys the same exactness laws as Newton’s clockwork universe, “all” Einstein did was modify the fine details, pretty epic modification though it was!).

Got it yet?  Our universe is irreducibly random, and yet on average it is consistent with classical deterministic clockwork Einstein-Newton physics.

So how come our world seems so predictable?  The Sun always rises in the east — not randomly, not merely on average, but all the time — a day is always 24 hours long (always, not just on average), people are born the same way (in general), all people die, clouds condense overhead and then fade and then reform and then rain upon us, rivers flow downhill, trees breathe CO2, animals breath O2, and so many things are so predictable.  Stock market crashes notwithstanding, haha! (They are fairly predictable actually, only greedy money managers seem to not foresee crashes.)  Not many phenomena are perfectly predictable, and you might put that down to the dice-rolling type of statistics, where the small degree of unpredictability is due to insufficient information.  But you’d be wrong.  There is an essential type of randomness in all quantum mechanical phenomena, which no amount of measurable information can fix, and all phenomena are quantum mechanical in essence.  So again — why are things so predictable?

Here is one reason: the laws of physics have structure.  Lots of structure.  Almost heavenly beautiful structure to those who know.  The unpredictability in quantum mechanics comes from selection of possibilities within this structure.  That’s why things are so predictable despite being irreducibly random.

So, for example, with the roll of a quantum dice at least you know one of the six faces will land upright.  There will not be a seven dotted face, nor an eight dotted face, and so on, and there will only be dots in number from 1 to 6 turning face up after the roll.  That’s the “structure”.  The structure makes things emerge in long series averages in a predictable way, that is to say, statistically predictable, not perfectly clockwork predictable.

Absolute complete randomness (in terms of a dice roll) on the other hand, would be like having a dice with unknown and constantly varying numbers of dots on it’s faces.  You would not even know if the dots were 1, 2, … through to 6 in number. They could have any number of dots from say 0 to infinity (which would be hard to read, but …  whatever).  The thing is you’d never know which six numbers were on the faces, nor which face had which number of dots.  This is true Absolute Randomness.  There’s something infinite and scary about Absolute Randomness.  It’s like lucifer or something, maybe beelzebub? (Or my Greek-quoting gym guy might say it’s like Eris or a manifestation of Hades.)

And so it would be with a possible world of physics which was completely random.  If it was absolutely random, then there would be no pattern, no stability, and really no life, or not life as we’d know it (hey Trekkies! was Scotty really the first character to say that, in fiction or not?)

The randomness in quantum mechanics is, by contrast, severely tamed. It’s rather wonderful actually, since it is tamed but has a residual wild character as well.  Some people even say that the residual randomness in quantum physics is precisely what enables creatures like humans to exhibit free will — the capacity for autonomous conscious decision-making. I’m not validating such ideas, but I would admit there is something semi-plausible in them.  The thing  I wish to emphasise is that our physical reality is only random within a prescribed set of possibilities, and the modern job of physicists (and other scientists no doubt) is to discover the hidden constraints on the randomness in quantum physics.

Should I use the dice analogy again?  May as well.  So a quantum dice would be like one with all the normal six types of dot pattern.  That structure would correspond to `laws of physics’.  But when quantum dice are rolled there is absolutely no way in which anyone (not even God?) can tell in advance what face will land upright.     No amount of measurement or computation would help.  It is as if the dice, before it lands, has no knowledge of itself!  Because, you see, if a thing cannot even know itself, nothing internal can dictate what it will do, and so nothing else can predict it’s behaviour either.   Yes, that’s no exaggeration.  This is the way it is with quantum mechanics.  That’s our universe in a nutshell.

And yet whenever the dice stops rolling one of the six normal faces will be face-up. So it has a random character, but it is not the scary satanic Absolute Randomness. Thus, if you repeat the dice roll many, many times, then out of say sixty rolls you will get each different face popping up around ten times each, plus or minus a few due to fluctuating statistics. I stopped writing and did it myself just now, and I got 7 One’s, 6 Twos, 16 Thees, 8 Fours, 19 Fives, only 4 Sixes, and you’d get slight variations away from 10 if you did the experiment yourself.   But you’d get something close to 10 outcomes for each face among the set of 60 rolls.  I know 19 and 4 do not seem very close to 10,  but they are reasonable fluctuations away from the expected.  (It would be freaky if I had not rolled a single Six out of the sixty rolls, that would make me suspect the dice was loaded.  But even with a fair dice, it would not be impossible to roll it sixty times and not get a particular face turn up.  I think if you repeated the experiment a thousand times then in at least one lot of sixty rolls you’d probably be missing one face.  I’m guessing, but could work out the probability for you if you like.)

In our real universe though, do the statistical outcomes appear (simply?) because of the “insufficient information” type of randomness?.  No, the reality is that quantum mechanics has a deeper sort of uncertainty.  The name of Heisenberg is often mentioned.  And this is precisely what is associated with quantum uncertainty.  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  It says that incompatible things in our world can never by 100% certain.  And since the position and speed of flight of a rolled dice are two incompatible observables, Heisenberg’s Principle applies, which means we can never predict the outcome of the roll of a quantum dice, no matter how mush information we can collect beforehand.

Remember, in a classical Newtonian universe there really is no chance.  You could collect enough information quite easily and with it predict exactly what face on the dice will land upright.  So you’d be able to reduce statistics to certainties.

Not so in our universe ruled by quantum mechanics.

In our quantum universe statistics really does matter. (That’s a geek-joke btw — matter gets screwed by indeterminacy, get it?) We need statistics.  We cannot live without statistics.  All is uncertain, but all is structure.  So all can be analysed statistically and we can make sense of the world.  We can predict the sunrise and the rotation of the Earth, and our lives and deaths, because all the uncertainty which exists in nature is quantum uncertainty, not absolute uncertainty.  And in physics, we do not predict absolutes either.  We predict only within uncertain limits.

So the Sun really might not rise tomorrow, but according to standard quantum mechanics the probability the Sun will not rise on time and in the expected place in the east, is something minuscule in chance, something like,

0.000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, \\ 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, \\ 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 000\, 016\, \%

and that’s a percentage probability! (haha! AIIMADD)  (I just guessed this number, but from my background knowledge I can tell you it is honestly probably a lot smaller!) So yes, there’s a tiny realistic chance we will have no star which our planet orbits tomorrow.  But no one is going to lose any sleep over this possibility.

If quantum mechanics was truly thoroughly random then the probability the Sun will rise tomorrow would be nearly zero, and the probability it will not rise would be near to 100%, this is because there are many more ways the universe could exist by pure chance without our Sun than with It.

Now here is the amazing thing about statistics. Even though you cannot predict what will happen when a female gamete (an embryonic egg cell) meets a sperm cell, and the one fertilizes the other, using statistics you can obtain almost 90% certainty of the form of life that will ensue.  You can use statistics to find out with alarming precision how this life form will evolve.  You can use statistics to place fairly tight limits on the baby’s lifespan, and probable occupation and interests and the language she or he will speak, and millions of other things.

You can use statistics to predict the crime rate increase in a city within any number of years into the future  given only (a) it’s current crime rate, and (b) projections of how it’s population will increase (and yes, I say any number of years, do you see the power!  It’s not as coarse as weather forecasting, it is prescribed and eternal in extent).  You can tell me where it would be unwise to build a house near a major river, you can tell me which school would best suit my child, you can tell me how much money I will likely earn next year, you can tell me what the fate of our solar system will be in a billion years from now.  You can even have a pretty good guess at what I am thinking about if you had access to an fMRI scanner with my head resting inside it’s field — using statistics.  (It’s not mind-reading, but hey, it’s pretty darned similar in outcome, so what the heck, let’s call that statistical mind-reading. It can be done with today’s technology.)

With the power of statistics you have gained knowledge of emergence.  This is the most powerful knowledge in science.

The best example of emergence is the way an entire ant colony seems to have a collective life of it’s own, as if all the individual ants were just cells in some great organism, the organism called The Colony.  E.O. Wilson wrote a definitive introduction to this in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Ants.  Douglas Hofstadter wrote a cute parable about a conscious ant Colony in Gödel, Escher, Bach (one of the best non-fiction reads of the Twentieth century IMO).

But the most awesome example of an emergent phenomena has to be human intelligence.  The way it emerges from the neuron firings in our brains.  It’s by far the greatest mystery in modern science, and no one yet knows if it is “solvable”, in fact no one knows what it even means to say that the problem of human consciousness is “solvable”, because no one knows what consciousness is, so they do not know what the “problem” of it is, in essence, they only know it arises somehow from our brains.  In fact they do not even know that!  All we know is that without a brain it seems “difficult” to display conscious thought. And that is about the entire summary of the science of consciousness at the present time.

Emergence refers to a wide variety of phenomena which describe how putting together many, many, many small and simple interacting parts, and given the right kind of general kick, this simple composite system can take on a life of it’s own, and new laws of nature will be seen to spring into form and life.  It is the philosophical Principle of Holism but rendered into scientific terms: “the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts”.

There is no way to describe emergent complexity other than using statistics, because the exact details of an emergent phenomena are totally unpredictable.  They yet have a characteristic form and shape and general abstract properties.  All cats, for example, have kitten-like character, do they not?  But what is the character of an abstract cat?  It is nothing you can point to in the physical world.  It is pure idea.  Pure abstraction.  Soul. Spirit. Essence.  Call it what you will.  Science has it encompassed under the umbrella concept of an emergent complex system.

Yet there is no exact science of ‘catness’.  There is only ‘statistics for cats’.  That’s the power of statistics. It gives us a handle on emergence, and hence a tether to the world of abstract (dare I say spiritual?) reality.  Don’t teach your kids averages and histograms until you teach them these ideas about cats.  OK?!!

Have you figured out the truth about the myth of human progress yet?

No?  Well let me give you my two cents worth.  Statistics tell us that human civilisation is advancing in a huge variety of ways, and there is evidence of what could be called “progress”.  Progress towards what?  The answer is manifold:  progress towards a more peaceful and just society, progress in eco-efficiency, progress in technology, progress in economic stabilization, progress in gender and racial equality.  Yes, I know, these all sound like things (apart from the technology and equality issues perhaps, which I think most people will accept are improving) that the media would report often as getting worse.  But the statistical data deny the de facto “truth” taught by the media.

Really, we (as a species and as a global civilisation) are improving for the better in so many ways that it is overwhelming.  I am not trying to be a prophet of the church of optimism here.  It’s just the cold hard truth told by statistics.  Read them for yourself, don’t, for heavens sake, just blindly trust me.

But first, tell your children about the awesome might of statistics, that at least will contribute to making the world a better place. And tell your children that progress is not a myth.  In fact, it is a prophecy, and one of the good kinds, it is self-fulfilling.  If you believe in the possibility of advancement of civilisation and the objective way that progress can be quantified and measured, then you will have ample ways and means in your everyday life to turn your beliefs into a slice of reality.   If you really wish to help make the world a better place then statistics will not stand in your way.

And maybe, in a few decades from now, people will tell you little grains of wisdom in ways that sound pleasing to your ear, maybe using poetry that is better than the Bard’s.


Here’s how to roll a dice sixty times in a microsecond, using the computer software package R (free software developed here in New Zealand at Auckland University).

> x= sample(c(seq(1,6)),60,replace=TRUE)
> x
[1] 2 1 4 6 6 1 1 1 5 5 3 1 4 6 4 6 4 4 5 5 4 6 3 6 3 1 5 6 5 5 4 3 1 5 5 5 3 4
[39] 4 6 1 5 3 6 1 4 2 3 4 1 1 4 3 2 2 5 1 3 5 5

Here’s how to easily count the number of Fives (for example),

> library(stringr)
> str_count(toString(x==5),"TRUE")
[1] 19