Inexpansive Diplomacy

A review floated across my smartphone’s News feed recently lauding the hard realism of the television series The Expanse, based on the novels of James S. A. Covey.  I’m enjoying the series immensely, but probably only because it is vastly superior to most of the SciFi fare served up on TV or even the movies.  But this blog post is to keep things realer.

If you watch any of the diplomatic scenes you should notice the same old nasty stereotypes of politicians.  Anyone who has been close to politics in real life knows that the snarky insults and jibes seen in these movie scripts is nothing like real life.  (My father was an MP and CEO, I know a bit about what goes on in boardrooms and back-rooms and select committee’s and UN conferences.)  Sure, there are always the rotten apples, the evil politicians who either have their own personal agendas or who move and shake at the behest of private donors or corporate interests, but in real politics, at least outside the USA, Russia and China, and a few banana republics, such people are rare.  Lord knows why those three super powers are infested with corrupt politicians, maybe the riches available coupled with the imperfect electoral processes combine to float the crud to the top of the political bowl.

The Earth literally cannot sustain such crud at the leadership top for too long, and I do mean “literally”, this is clear if you witness the almost existential threats we face from climate change to nuclear conflict (once thought a threat of the past, but now renewed thanks to corruption in US politics).  It is likely we will not have to wait too many decades for things to change though, either the Earth will force our politics to get more civilised and scientific, or a few countries will wake up and lead the way, through innovation and economic growth unrivalled by the corrupt countries, the corruption will be self-defeating.  Those are two likely scenarios in my view, and I think the most likely of a few other generic futures for world politics.  (A highly unlikely scenario is some benevolent dictator emerges, unlikely because social media will probably not allow such a figure to emerge, and dictatorship rarely correlates with acceptable benevolence.  Another is a gradually maturation, unlikely because of the rapid changes in the environment and technology field.)

Which brings me to The Expanse.  The diplomacy scenes do move the plot along a bit, but at the gross expense of a nuanced realism that could, I think, only enhance the prestige of the series.  My sense is that by the time frame of The Expanse technology, near 2100 to 2200, I think a more peaceful empirical, consultative world politics will have been either accepted and demanded by the general public, at least in democracies, or it will have been forced upon society out of need for collective action at highly coordinated government scientific levels to control many existential threats facing humanity and a vast proportion of the Earth’s biota and habitats, and not the least the expected and justifiably increasing demands and voice of the worlds poor, who cannot be for long suppressed in the combined weight of their voices, once the minimum poverty level reaches a state where the poor all have a means of living that afford some scant time in pursuit of justice and then eventually maybe some leisure.  Some of these things are just so inevitable they are almost laws of sociology.  The uncertainty, based on extrapolation form history, is just how long these changes will take, and whether the rise of the power of the worlds poorest will lag too much or be fast enough to reach a synergistic confluence with the worlds’ environmental problems.

scifi_TheExpanse_ShohrehA_UN_undersecrataryShohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, UN Assistant Undersecretary in the SciFI series The Expanse


Her character is a “relatively good” politician, but the type who commits vile torture on non-Earthers.

One thing that really irked me was the supposedly principled and good character, Secretary Avasarala, is depicted committing torture to the point of death on a prisoner.  You’d hope in our future no politician would even need to do such a  thing.  At the worst, you’d imagine brain scanning or drugs would do the job of information extraction.  But you’d hope they would not even need to resort to such invasions of a persons mind, just talk to them, treat them well, and certainly do not imprison them because that’s against not only their interest but your interests as well!  Enlightened psychologists know that torture and duress solicit less useful information, and make information harder to discover.

So damn!  I would love to watch an intelligent, gnarly, hard scifi series that does the diplomacy seriously and sanely, without the trashy stereotytpes.  Here’s a glimpse of what I imagine:  around the Earth-Mars diplomatic table, the participants know each other well, they do not take nasty spiteful jabs at each other, they care about their planets, they realise making peace is not only more pleasant, but economically far more sensible as well, they realise warfare is a waste, they have no nuclear weapons because no one will ever use them.  They are working to solve a new existential threat posed by the proto-molecule.  The tension is based not around Earth-Mars-Belter hostility, but based around the uncertainty about the proto-molecule and fears that insane lunatic rebels will exploit the foreign material to wipe out most of Solar civilization.  I think such a pot would be much more gripping, and certainly not as boring as watching grossly and frankly pathetically sterotyped “politicians” and “diplomats” try to stumble towards solar system warfare.




“It Hurts my Brain” — Wrong! Thinking is Not Hard, Thinking is Beautiful

Can we all please get beyond the myth that “thinking is hard”! This guy from Veritasium means well, but regurgitates the myth: How Should We Teach Science? (2veritasium, March 2017) Thinking is not hard because of the brain energy it takes. That is utter crap. What is likely more realistic psychologically is that people do not take time and quiet space to reflect and meditate. Deep thinking is more like meditation, and it is energizing and relaxing. So this old myth needs replacing I think. Thinking deeply while distracting yourself with trivia is really hard, because of the cognitive load on working memory. It seems hard because when your working memory gets overloaded you cannot retain ideas, and it appears like you get stupid and this leads to frustration and anxiety, and that does have physiological effects that mimic a type of mental pain.

But humans have invented ways to get around this. One is called WRITING. You sit down meditate, allow thoughts to flood your working memory, and when you get an insight or an overload you write them down, then later review, organize and structure your thoughts. In this way deep thinking is easy and enjoyable. Making thinking hard so that it seems to hurt your brain is a choice. You have chosen to buy into the myth when you try to concentrate on deep thinking while allowing yourself to be distracted by life’s trivia and absurdities. Unfortunately, few schools teach the proper art of thinking.

Giving Your Equations a Nice Bath & Scrub

There’s a good book for beginning computer programmers I recently came across.  All young kids wanting to write code professionally should check out Robert Martin’s book, “Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship”  (Ideally get your kids to read this before the more advanced “Design Patterns” books.)

But is there such a guide for writing clean mathematics?

I could ask around on Mathforums or Quora, but instead here I will suggest some of my own tips for such a guide volume.  What gave me this spark to write a wee blog about this was a couple of awesome “finds”.  The first was Professor Tadashi Tokieda’s Numberphile clips and his AIMS Lectures on Topology and Geometry (all available on YouTube).  Tokieda plugs a couple of “good reads”, and this was the second treasure: V.I. Arnold’s lectures on Abel’s Theorem, which were typed up by his student V.B. Alekseev, “Abel’s Theorem in Problems and Solutions”, which is available in abridged format (minus solutions) in a translation by Julian Gilbey here: “Abels’ Theorem Through Problems“.

Tadashi lecturing in South Africa.

Tadashi lecturing in South Africa. Clearer than Feynman?

Tokieda’s lectures and Arnold’s exposition style are perfect examples of “clean mathematics”.  What do I mean by this?

Firstly, what I absolutely do not mean is Bourbaki style rigour and logical precision.  That’s not clean mathematics.  Because the more precision and rigour you demand the more dense and less comprehensible it all becomes to the point where it becomes unreadable and hence useless.

I mean mathematics that is challenging for the mind (so interesting) and yet clear and understandable and visualizable.  That last aspect is crucial.  If I cannot visualise an abstract idea then it has not been explained well and I have not understood it deeply.  We can only easily visualize 2D examples or 3D if we struggle.  So how are higher dimensional ideas visualised?  Tokieda shows there is no need.  You can use the algebra perfectly well for higher dimensional examples, but always give the idea in 2D or 3D.

It’s amazing that 3D seems sufficient for most expositions.  With a low dimension example most of the essence of the general N dimensional cases can be explained in pictures.   Perhaps this is due to 3D being the most awkward dimension?  It’s just a pity we do not have native 4D vision centres in our brain (we actually do, it’s called memory, but it sadly does not lead to full 4D optical feature recognition).

Dr Tokieda tells you how good pictures can be good proofs.  The mass of more confusing algebra a good picture can replace is startling (if you are used to heavy symbolic algebra).  I would also add that Sir Roger Penrose and John Baez are to experts who make a lot of use of pictorial algebra, and that sort of stuff is every bit as rigorous as symbolic algebra, and I would argue even more-so.  How’s that?  The pictorial algebra is less prone to mistake and misinterpretation, precisely because our brains are wired to receive information visually without the language symbol filters.  Thus whenever you choose instead to write proofs using formal symbolics you are reducing your writing down to less rigour, because it is easier to make mistakes and have your proof misread.

So now, in homage to Robert Martin’s programming style guide, here are some analogous sample chapter or section headings for a hypothetical book on writing clean mathematics.

Keep formal (numbered) definitions to a minimum

Whenever you need a formal definition you have failed the simplicity test.  A definition means you have not found a natural way to express or name a concept.  That’s really all definitions are, they set up names for concepts.

Occasionally advanced mathematics requires defining non-intuitive concepts, and these will require a formal approach, precisely because they are non-intuitive.  But otherwise, name objects and relations clearly and put the keywords in old, and then you can avoid cluttering up chapters with formal boring looking definition breaks.  The definitions should, if at all possible, flow naturally and be embedded in natural language paragraphs.

Do not write symbolic algebra when a picture will suffice

Most mathematicians have major hang-ups about providing misleading visual illustrations.  So my advice is do not make them misleading!  But you should use picture proofs anyway, whenever possible, just make sure they capture the essence and are generalisable to higher dimensions.  It is amazing how often this is possible.  If you doubt me, then just watch Tadashi Tokieda’s lectures linked to above.

Pro mathematicians often will think pictures are weak.  But the reality is the opposite.  Pictures are powerful.  Pictures should not sacrifice rigour.  It is the strong mathematician who can make their ideas so clear and pristine that a minimalistic picture will suffice to explain an idea of great abstract generality.  Mathematicians need to follow the physicists credo of using inference, one specific well-chosen example can suffice as an exemplar case covering infinitely many general cases.  The hard thing is choosing a good example.  It is an art.  A lot of mathematician writers seem to fail at this art, or not even try.

You do not have to use picture in your research if you do not get much from them, but in your expositions, in your writing for the public, failing to use pictures is a disservice to your readers.

The problem with popular mathematics books is not the density of equations, it is the lack of pictures.  If for every equation you have a couple of nice illustrative pictures, then there would be no such thing as “too many equations” even for a lay readership.  The same rule should apply to academic mathematics writing, with perhaps an reasonable allowance for a slightly higher symbol to picture ratio, because academically you might need to fill in a few gaps for rigour.

Rigour does not imply completeness

Mathematics should be rigorous, but not tediously so.  When gaps do not reduce clarity then you can avoid excessive equations.  Just write what the reader needs, do not fill in every gap for them.  And whenever a gap can be filled with a picture, use the picture rather than more lines of symbolic algebra.  So you do not need ruthless completeness.  Just provide enough for rigour to be inferred.

Novel writers know this.  If they set out to describe scenes completely they would ever get past chapter one. Probably not even past paragraph one.  And giving the reader too much information destroys the operation of their inner imagination and leads to the reader disconnecting from the story.

For every theorem provide many examples

The Definition to Theorem ratio should be low, for every couple of definitions there should be a bundle of nice theorems, otherwise the information content of your definitions has been poor.  More  definitions than theorems means you’ve spent more of your words naming stuff not using stuff.  Likewise the Theorem to Example ratio should be lo.  More theorems than examples means you’ve cheated the student by showing them lot of abstract ideas with no practical use.  So show them plenty of practical uses so they do not feel cheated.

Write lucidly and for entertainment

This is related to the next heading which is to write with a story narrative.  On a finer level, every sentence should be clear, use plain language, and minimum jargon.  Mathematics text should be every bit as descriptive and captivating as a great novel.  If you fail in writing like a good journalist or novelist then you have failed to write clean mathematics.  Good mathematics should entertain the aficionado.  It does not have to be set like a literal murder mystery with so many pop culture references and allusions that you lose all the technical content.  But for a mathematically literate reader you should be giving them some sense of build-up in tension and then resolution.  Dangle some food in front of them and lead them to water.  People who pick up a mathematics book are not looking for sex, crime and drama, nor even for comedy, but you should give them elements of such things inside the mathematics.  Teasers like why we are doing this, what will it be used for, how it relates to physics or other sciences, these are your sex and crime and drama.  And for humour you can use mathematical characters, stories of real mathematicians.  It might not be funny, but there is always a way to amuse an interested reader, so find those ways.

Write with a Vision

I think a lot of mathematical texts are dry ad suffer because they present “too close to research”.  What a good mathematical writer should aim for is the essence of any kind of writing, which is to narrate a story.  Psychology tells us this is how average human beings best receive and remember information.  So in mathematics you need a grand vision of where you are going.  If instead you just want to write about your research, then do the rest of us a favour and keep it off the bookshelves!

If you want to tell a story about your research then tell the full story, some history, some drama in how you stumbled, but then found a way through the forest of abstractions, and how you triumphed in the end.

The problem with a lot of mathematics monographs is that they aim for comprehensive coverage of a topic.  But that’s a bad style guide.  Instead they should aim to provide tools to solve a class of problems.  And the narrative is how to get from scratch up to the tools needed to solve the basic problem and then a little more.  With lots of dangling temptations along the way.  The motivation then is the main problem to be solved, which is talked about up front, as a carrot, not left as an obscure mystery one must read the entire book through to find.  Murder mysteries start with the murder first, not last.

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That’s enough for now. I should add to this list of guides later. I should follow my own advice too.

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“Nothing to Hide” Arguments and Generalisations

A good friend of mine re-posted a link on Google+ the other day: I’ve Got Nothing to Hide” and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy, by Daniel J. Solove. It’s not a bad read, so go check it out.


A great cartoon of Aaron giving everyone access to JSTOR. Whoever drew this needs crediting, but I can only make out their last name “Pinn”. I grabbed this from Google image search. So thanks Mr or Ms Pinn.

So that this is not a large departure from my recent trend in blog topics, I wanted to share a few thoughts about similar “easy arguments” in quite different fields.

The “Nothing to Show” Argument Against Publishing

This is an argument I’ve used all my life to avoid publishing. I hate people criticising my work. So I normally tell supervisors or colleagues that I have nothing of interest to publish. This is an extraordinary self-destructive thing to do in academia, it basically kills one’s career. But there are a few reasons I do not worry.

Firstly, I truly do not like publishing for the sake of academic advancement. Secondly, I have a kind of inner repulsion against publishing anything I think is stupid or trivial or boring. Thirdly, I am quite lazy, and if I am going to fight to get something published it should be worth the fight, or should be such good quality work that it will not be difficult to publish somewhere. Fourth, I dislike being criticised so much I will sometimes avoid publishing just to avoid having to deal with reviewer critiques. That’s a pretty immature and childish sensitivity, and death for an academic career, but with a resigned sigh I have to admit that’s who I am, at least for now, a fairly childish immature old dude.

There might be a few other reasons. A fifth I can think of is that I wholeheartedly agree with Aaron Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which proclaims the credo of free and open access to publicly funded research for all peoples of all nations. That’s not a trivial manifesto. You could argue that the public of the USA funds research that should then be free and open, but only to the public of the USA, and likewise for other countries. But Swartz was saying that the tax payers of the respective countries have already paid for the research, the researcher’s have been fully compensated, and scientists do not get any royalties from journal articles anyway, and therefore their research results should be free for all people of all nations to use. Why this is important is the democratising of knowledge, and perhaps more importantly the unleashing of human potential and creativity. If someone in Nigeria is denied access to journals in the USA then that person is denied the chance to potentially use that research and contribute to the sum total of human knowledge. We should not restrict anyone such rights.

OK, that was a bit of a diversion. The point is, I would prefer to publish my work in open-access journals. I forget why that’s related to my lack of publishing … I did have some reason in mind before I went on that rant.

I’ve read a lot of total rubbish in journals, and I swear to never inflict such excrement on other people’s eyes. So anything I publish would be either forced by a supervisor, or will be something I honestly think is worth publishing, something that will help to advance science. It is not out of pure altruism that I hesitate to publish my work, although that is part of it. The impulse against publishing is closer to a sense of aesthetics. Not wanting to release anything in my own name that is un-artful. I’m not an artist, but I have been born or raised with an artistic temperament, much to my detriment I believe. Artless people have a way of getting on much better in life. But there it is, somewhere in my genes and in my nurturing.

So I should resolve to never use the “Nothing to Show” argument. I have to get my research out in the open, let it be criticised, maybe some good will come of it.

The “Nothing to Fear” Argument Against Doing Stupid Stuff

Luckily I am not prone to this argument. If you truly have nothing to fear, then by all means … but often this sort of argument means you personally do not mind suffering whatever it is that’s in store, and that use of the argument can be fatal. So if you ever hear you inner or outer voice proclaiming “I have nothing to fear …” then take a breath and pause, make sure there truly is nothing to fear (but then, why would you be saying this out loud?). There is not much more to write about it. But feel free to add comments.

The “Nothing to Lose” Argument in Favour of Being Bold

This is normally a very good argument and perhaps the best use of the “Nothing to …” genre. If you truly have nothing to lose then you are not confounding this with the “Nothing to Fear” stupidity. So what more needs to be said?


Superhero Puzzle #905 — “Carbon dating shows … “

From Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 episode 3: what’s wrong with this dialogue?

The scene: the agents are in the lab and Fitz as just discovered sand particles from an ancient scroll he supposed would be a clue to unlocking his love, Jemma Simmons, from the dark matter obelisk, are not what they appear to be …

  • Fitz: OK, the sand itself … not unusual. Mostly silicon dioxide particles just like on Earth.
  • Coulson: But you’re saying this sand is not from Earth?
  • Bobbi: Sir, carbon dating shows that …
  • Fitz: [interrupting] It pre-dates the Earth by a billion years.

Could it be that sand is not made from silicon dioxide particles?

Nope. Sand is quartz, mostly, and that is SiO2 (silicon dioxide) mostly.

Could it be that there is no carbon in sand?

Maybe, but that is not bad science. Silicon dioxide has no carbon atoms in it of course. But any quantity of naturally occurring sand is full of impurities, some organic some inorganic, either of which type could contain carbon.

Might it be that sand is only found on Earth? (If you thought this was the bad science you had to be kidding!)

Could it be the title of this blog post gives it way? Is “carbon dating” phony science?

Certainly not! If you attended the bare minimum of science classes at school then you should know carbon dating examines the ratio of radioactive carbon-14 to carbon-12 atoms in fossils and other artifacts.

The answer is the split dialogue, “carbon dating shows that it pre-dates the Earth by a billion years.”

Why? Carbon dating relies upon two critical things:

    1. Radioactive Carbon-14 is created by cosmic ray bombardment of naturally occurring Nitrogen-14 in the earth’s atmosphere. Nitrogen-14 is highly unstable and decays almost immediately liberating a proton and forming radioactive carbon-14.

So far OK. Plenty of other planets would also have nitrogen atmospheres.

    1. The atmospheric Carbon-14 will combine with oxygen readily to form carbon dioxide.
    2. Living organisms breath in CO2. A certain ratio of which will be radioactive CO2 due to the carbon-14. Organisms also breath in normal non-radioactive CO2 containing stable carbon-12.

Still OK. It would be entirely plausible that life on other planets also uses oxygen and carbon dioxide for respiration.

    1. When an organism dies it no longer takes in the radioactive CO2. So the naturally occurring ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in dead matter slowly decays over time at a predictable rate according to the decay rate of unstable carbon-14. This mechanism creates a natural fossil clock.

Still uncontroversial. The same natural fossil dating clock mechanism would occur on other planets.

So where is the telly bad scifi?

  • Question: How long does the carbon-14 clock work? Answer: only roughly ten to 20 times as long as the radioactive half life of carbon-14 (the time it takes half of a sample of carbon-14 to decay).
  • The half-life of carbon-14 is 5730 years. So we can only expect carbon dating to work accurately for fossils as old as 50,000 years, or at a stretch up to 100,000 years with advanced ultra-sensitive methods of laboratory analysis.

That’s the solution. Any fossil artifact older than about 100,000 years cannot be dated using carbon dating.

So either Fitz was wrong about the date of the sand quartz begin over a billion years old, or Bobbi got the dating method Fitz used totally wrong. Since Fitz is a physicist, and Bobbi a field agent and biology undergraduate, the solution is that the scriptwriters for Bobbi were brain dead at the time of typing up this episode.

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Here’s a v. quick post:  have you been dying to see an intelligent SciFi movie or series?  They are are few and far between right?!  One I am waiting for on DVD is The Martian (2015), I’ve heard ok reviews and the book it was based upon had very good reviews and listening to interviews with the author, Andy Weir, it seems like a quality piece of hard scifi that had some sound engineering physics thought behind it.   Hard to know whether to read the book or watch the film. Film is faster!  Life is short!  Therefore watch the film and sadly miss the book?   Too many mathematics texts to read anyway, so the film it is [sigh]!

If I’m not feeling wide awake enough for a mathematics or physics lecture during my lunch break, I might try a bit of scifi TV or read a science blog article, or sometimes find a good movie to dip into.

And I do mean “dip into”.  I eat fairly quickly, and not too huge helpings, so it’s all over in 15 minutes.  And that’s about as much of a movie I can watch in one session.  Heading out the the theatre is a rare event these days, and besides that, I like to watch a good movie in comparative solitude.

So every purple moon I might find an intelligent SciFi movie.  But I will start watching and get nervous that any moment the story will sensationalize and lapse into horribly saccharine, physically implausible unreality.  You cannot even begin writing a critique of the SciFi genre because 99% of what the film industry turns out is utter crap.  That might seem too harsh, the SFX are vastly better than in days of old, but the stories are the critical component of any good film or book.  And it is the plot, the dialogue, and the whole story structure that really sucks in just about every recent Scifi  film I have seen in the past decade or more.   (Hold on now, I am getting to a good recommendation.)

The problem I think is that the improvements in SFX have outpaced improvements in screenplays.  Older screenplays could be just as good or a lot better than modern scripts because the focus in the old days had to be on stories because the SFX totally sucked.  Take Star Trek as an example.  The modern Star Trek stories have a lot more fancy CGI and the screenplays use a lot more modern science ideas, so they seem pretty cool compared to the camp TV series.  Similar comments could be made about Doctor Who, another generation spanning SciFi series.  But if you analyse them a little more deeply, and think about the dialogue and the psychology, not a lot has really improved.  The dialogue in Start Trek Into the Darkness (2013) was fairly childish.  Whenever a cool science point could be made the pseudo-science explanations lapsed perhaps into even worse quasi-science than the dialogues from the original TV series.  They just use a few more modern science buzz-words.  The actual meat of the scifi science explanations is often a lot worse.  The logic is a lot worse, the liberties taken with reality more extreme. (Recall the “photon torpedo”? … OMG, … let’s not even go there!) The Star Trek franchise should be consulting the chap who wrote the Science of Star Trek books, or Michio Kaku, who can rhapsodize endlessly about plausible scifi science.

I could write a long essay on this, but I won’t.

Can I then get to my recommendation?

Sure dude.  Just hang on one more minute though.   The thing is, I suspect, what makes a really good scifi story is one that dials back the fantasy and aims for a lot of hard realism.  So something like the “near future” genre is always promising, but using plausible and reasonable extrapolations of current science.  Especially stories that obey the principles of conservation of energy, momentum, and the second law of thermodynamics.  Those are perhaps the most blatantly violated principles of science that bad SciFi movies in particular routinely abuse.  My point is that if you discipline your story to obey just these three principles then you will be constraining your plot.  Such constraints are beautiful things.  It forces the other human aspects of your story to be more powerful and it helps make the audience more involved and engaged, even if the average audience member is not aware of the principles.  (I lose count of the number of CGI-mediated violations of conservation of momentum in crashes and fight scenes.  Each instance just makes me more and more nauseous.  even fairly serious film makers like Peter Jackson, routinely violate conservation of momentum — both linear and rotational — in their CGI spectaculars.)

So when someone makes a SciFi film that does not even begin to worry about spectacular CGI, then I am extremely interested.  So here is the recommendation:  go and grab a copy of Robot and Frank (2012).

Robot_and_Frank_movie poster

A movie with no CGI pretensions, and a nice premise on the face of it.

I have only seen the first 15 minutes, so I am still nervous the plot will get derailed later by unrealistic physics or computer science.  But I think this is one film I can happily watch to the end based on the story premise.  Give it a go.

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I guess it is possible the artificial intelligence postulates in this movie will degenerate into implausibility, but over the next week of lunch breaks I’ll risk it. 🙂



Spaghetti Monster with Green Ears — “We lef’ some’in’ unduhn marty”

True Detective.  Best miniseries ending ever! 😉  You have to watch the series to appreciate how misanthropic and utterly cynical Rustin Cohle was before his brief brain death after being stabbed by the serial killer.


So here is the final dialogue.

Marty (Martin Hart): “Talk to me, Rust.”

Rust (Rustin Cohle): “There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something … whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind — it was deeper — warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”

[Rust breaks down, sobbing.]

Marty: “Didn’t you tell me one time, dinner once, maybe, about how you used to … you used to make up stories about the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, that was in Alaska, under the night skies.”

Marty: “Yeah, you used to lay there and look up, at the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, I think you remember how I never watched the TV until I was 17, so there wasn’t much to do up there but walk around, explore, and…”

Marty: “And look up at the stars and make up stories. Like what?”

Rust: “I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking,…”

For the last few lines I’ll use some of: Mah Lousaana ahksent spellin’ ‘sh d’librat.) 😉

Rust: “Ish juhz one story, the oldest.”

Marty “Whash that?”

Rusty: “Light vershus dark.”

Marty: “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but, appears to me tha’ the dark has a lot more territory.”

Rusty: “Yeah,… you’re right about that. …. Hey listen… hey…”

Marty: “Yeah what?”

Rusty: “W’ shyuu you point me in the direction of the car man. I spend enough of my funckin’ life in a hospital.”

Marty: “Jesus. You know what? I’d protest, but it occurs to me that you’re un-killable. You wanna go back get y’ clothes or anythung?”

Rusty: “Nah, anything I left back there I don’ need.”

Rusty:: “Ya know you’re lookin’ at it wrong… tha’ sky thing…”

Marty: “Howz that?”

Rusty: “Well, once tharr was only dark… You ashk me, the light’s winning.”

Marty: “hehehe.”

[Pan up to the stars… fade to black …]

[The drums begin … to “The Angry River“]

“The emptiness that we confess
In the dimmest hour of day
In Automatown they make a sound
Like the low sad moan of prey

“The bitter taste the hidden face
Of the lost forgotten child
The darkest need the slowest speed
The debt unreconciled

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
Before a moment’s glory
The light begins to fade

“The awful cost of all we lost
As we looked the other way
We’ve paid the price of this cruel device
Till we’ve nothing left to pay

“The river goes where the current flows
The light we must destroy
Events conspire to set afire
The methods we employ

“These dead men walk on water
Cold blood runs through their veins
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain”

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Superhero Puzzle #161 Why can’t Reed Richards stretch his hair?

Hey there, yes you! — If you can turn this post into a funnier one then I’ll donate $1 to your favourite charity.  Otherwise this will turn into a biology lesson, so quick with the joke …, ohhh, too late, here comes the lesson!

Comic book background

Reed Richards - Mr Fantastic

Is it “Richards” or “Richard”?  Forgive my slack research, I’m writing this extemporaneously ok!

Reed Richards is MR Fantastic of the Fantastic Four superhero team.  he is a brilliant scientist, who, along with his astronaut colleagues, experienced a supposedly lethal dose of radiation on a space mission, only instead of killing them it mutated their DNA, giving them each unique super-powers.  His fiancé Sue Storm gains force field manipulation ability, allowing herself to surround herself by force fields, one type of which can render her invisible.  That’s the power I’d want out of the four of them.  Her brother Johnny Storm gets the ability to become a living solar flame, and along with it the ability to fly from the propulsion of the flame energy.  Their friend Ben Grimm gets the only permanent configuration, which is a body of solid rock-like material, making him super-strong and invulnerable to bullets and other explosives.  Reed gets the ability to stretch his body to an unlimited degree, giving him the nickname of “Mr Stretch”, but out of respect he is called “Mr Fantastic” since he is the brains behind the team.

Possible Answers

This one is for biology geeks.  The mundane answer is that Richards never tries to stretch his hair.  A scientific explanation is that hair consist of basically dead cells.  So how come hair grows?  It doesn’t really, the hair collagen fibres remain knotted and platted together, and it’s only at the base of a hair follicle that living cells actually excrete the collagen, this pushes a hair out of the follicle, making it seem as if it’s alive, when it’s not.

Here’s an obligatory question for science enthusiasts who like a bit of fantasy.  How would you explain Reed Richards’ superpower using conventional science?

I’ve never read a good explanation, so I had the following thoughts.  Maybe readers can contribute better ideas or improvements.  I hope school teachers use such fantasy in practical classroom lessons for students who might be interested in learning their science this way from time to time.

*        *         *

Well, it’s got to be in the elasticity and cohesion forces in Richard’s cells.  He is still human, capable of conceiving a baby with Sue Storm (yes, they get married and are devoted to each other).

If we assume Richard’s cannot stretch his hair then it’s probably because he can only super-stretch living cells.

If we assume the source of their superpowers was the identical radiation accident, then Richards’ body probably has a similar ability to Sue Storm’s of manipulating force fields around him, but his ability seems to be limited to within his cells, since he never exhibits the ability to stretch other objects, only himself.

So Richards has an innate sensory ability linked to his thoughts of generating extended force fields throughout his body, but restricted to his living cells.  His cells therefore act as kind of super-force vectors, maintaining cohesion even when pulled far apart.

Richards never seems to need to stretch all the way around the planet, and we are not certain of the limits to his stretchiness, so that’s a tricky puzzle, which we can return to a bit later when we think about the nature of the way he controls the cohesive forces.

The amazing thing is that he seems incapable of snapping.  A crocodile could tear at his arm or leg and spin it around in it’s vice-grip to no avail.  The crocodile would just get dizzy, and Richards would simply stretch to accommodate the crocodile bite and thus feel no pain.  This is because along with stretching he never feels the pain of it, so his nerve cells must also naturally stretch and not get activated when they are stretched.

This has to be because Richard’s body is manipulating electromagnetic fields in his body so that spacetime distortions are naturally conformally accommodated, so that to us it looks as though for all practical purposes his body is stretched and deformed, when in fact his cells are all still in perfect conformation.

This kind of deformation of objects is the mathematical study of topology.  but topologists do it with abstract spaces and numbers, not with physical objects or living systems.  To deform a living system to such extremes as Richards’ can experience and survive with no difficulty or obvious stresses is outside the domain of mathematicians.  It is a biophysics puzzle.

However, it makes some sense to suppose Richards’ deformations are topological.  So he cannot actually mix up his bodies cells like in a blender.  They all remain connected in exactly the same order, it’s only their space extents which alter geometrically, not their topological configuration.  When two or more objects are topologically invariant this means they can be stretched and squeezed into the same shape without any ripping or tearing or cutting and re-pasting.

but Richards’ is not the pure Topological Man, since he cannot pass his body through himself.  Topological deformations in mathematics are allowed to ghost through themselves.  Not so in real physics topological deformations, so in fact Richards is not the Topological Man, he is more accurately described mathematically as the Diffeomorphic Man, since diffeomorphisms are the types of physically realistic deformations that can turn smooth objects into morphed smooth objects without ripping or cutting.

But these are just words.  Topological.  Diffeomorphic.  Conformal Invariance.  All these terms have precise mathematical meanings, but they do not help us much in understanding Reed Richards’ condition.

What we need is a bridge between mathematics and physics.  And this is provided by the theory of fundamental forces.  At a certain level of physical description all fundamental forces arise from the influence of fields which pervade all of space an time.  The fields exist everywhere, even though their intensity in certain places (localised regions) can be near zero momentarily, in other places their intensity can be enormous.  What generates force fields are charged particles.  And what experiences a force whenever their is an intense field nearby is another charged particle.

Mathematically the fields are smoothly varying, even though over small distances they can appear to change drastically, there is always a smaller region over which the field varies smoothly from small intensity to high intensity (or negative value to positive value sometimes).  A negative field value as opposed to a positive value is not simply a mere calibration issue, it corresponds to a reversal of the force felt by any particular charged particle.

So this is the connection we need to understand Reed Richards’ superpower.  Also, it should help explain Sue Storm’s power as well and maybe also Johnny Storm’s.  But Ben Grim’s orange-rocky super-strength power is just too weird for me to explain without further fantasy.  We could have a go at it another day.

There is still a lot of work to be done to provide more detailed science behind Reed Richards’ stretch power and Sue Storm’s force field manipulation. It should be fun.  The key is to not get too serious, but to play around in a sensitive way with some of the laws of physics.  The good thing for most students at school is that you should refrain from too many equations, since they will usually destroy  the scifi fantasy, but to allow a little mathematics into the play so that you can say that you’ve really done the best you can to justify the scifi.  That’s the game, a’ight.

Some further things to consider for instance are:

  • How they (the fantastic Four) use their mind to control the powers.  (This question can apply to most superheros, e.g., how Superman can use heat vision or X-ray vision, but not all the time).
  • What limits might there be to Richards’ stretchiness, or is there some way scientifically you can think of that would allow him to be infinitely stretchy?

Although this sort of musing seems like fantasy, I hope you can appreciate that it’s a good way to teach science too.  Science is not all just about uncovering facts and performing methodology and getting things clinical and precise, in fact that’s hardly what science is about at all, that’s only the polished published book version of science.  In everyday practice, to be a good scientist, you need a good imagination and whatever helps stimulate your imagination can potentially help you become a better scientist.  All you really need to compliment a good imagination is a willingness to put your ideas to rigorous tests, and eventually learn how to make good tests.  But that’s for another time.  Today I just hope you have fun wondering about the super-powers of the Fantastic Four.

Stan Lee is one of the writers of the past century who we can truly treasure without getting too overwhelmed by literary pomp and pretension.  He wrote, and inspired other writers, for pure enjoyment.  And that’s what also makes him one of the most surprising people who I would say has had a great and yet unfathomable influence on science.  No one will ever be able to calculate his scientific worth, but for a guy who never published a single science article, and who probably never even co-authored a single non-fiction article written in earnest, I think he still could be counted as a hero of many scientists from all fields.  A remarkable accomplishment, and so much more so I think because of his influence on so many people whom he would never have met and who themselves may not even realise or consciously acknowledge his unseen influence on science.  In part, this is just a small beginning to my humble homage to Stan.  Hopefully I’ll have time to write a few more Superhero Puzzles over the next few years.   Even if it doesn’t stretch my knowledge of physics it will stretch out the fun.

* * *


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.