Archive for June, 2010

Away: The ends of Archimedes

June 30, 2010

Away in a math conference; half-hour chunks of incomprehending dread separated mostly by coffee breaks. Good thing there’s no such thing as caffeine addiction…. aww, crap.

* * *

Archimedes, the famous Greek mathematician, is pondering something deep and mathematical, while the siege of Syracuse is ending. Roman soldiers crowd into the city, liberating all that isn’t nailed down.

Meanwhile, the Roman general Marcellus sends a centurion to bring the famous Archimedes to him if he still lives.

Then what? Since no-one knows, here are four alternatives for the death of Archimedes.

Scenario 1

The soldier comes, sees Archimedes squatting down, drawing circles on the sand. He steps closer, and the mathematician speaks.

“You’re blocking the light.”

“My commander, General —”

“You’re still blocking the light.”

The soldier steps closer and clears his throat.

“General —”

“The light! Careful! Don’t disturb my circles —”

The soldier has a loss of temper, utters a word equivalent to one with four letters, waves his sword-arm, and then returns to his general.

“Why, centurion! Where’s the math-man?”

“He is dead. Can I now go and join the looting?”

Scenario 2

The Roman centurion approaches the Greek great, and cries something like: “Ave! Prior pater, generalum vox!”

The mathematician looks up, frowns, and asks: “Dos moi pa sto, kai tan — que?”

After several more failures to communicate, the sword speaks in a language both can understand.

“Sorry, General. Couldn’t get to him. He’s dead now.”

Scenario 3

“Archimedes!”

“Huh? You’re… you’re one of those Romans, right?”

“Centurion Proforma, yes. You are Archimedes, the famous philosopher and mathematician?”

“Why, you could say — ow!”

“You know, as a boy I had to take tutoring in philosophy and all that.”

“Ow!”

“I hated that.”

And later:

“Oh general, it appears he stabbed himself to death.”

“Oh?”

“Twenty-three times through the heart, my lord.”

Scenario 4

Acta Diurna, Rome’s first source for exciting news and bizarre events from all around the Mediterranean and beyond, and for gladiator schedules, chronicles the soul-shattering regret of one Per Proforma, former centurion in the army of the infamous Marcellus — about whose latest amorous adventures, see pages four through seventy-three —

“And I’ve been told that some centurion — not me! — didnut know who the old baldy was, so he — not me! — stabbed him to death and takes his stuff, you know, double handful of astrolabababions and like that, thinking they’re worth something. But they aren’t. So I — not me! — goes to general and says, ‘Wait, did you say a bald old guy with lots of astrobababilions and stuff?’, and that’s it. Do I get paid now?”

Ah well, it’s always messy when mathematics and reality collide.

Away: Mathematics instruction as a fish

June 29, 2010

Still away in the math conference — i.e. lots of droning and coffee. Here’s a repost.

* * *

Imagine that the theory of some branch of mathematics is a fish; say a halibut. Imagine that teaching that theory to someone is like giving that person that fish.

These are the alternatives.

  • Old-time pedagogic — You are slapped with the fish. Repeatedly. Then there is a quiz.
  • New-time pedagogic — You are never shown the fish. Instead, there is a lot of singing and holding of hands. Then everyone does a mind map about pleuronectidae. (“Sounds like my cousin Bob swearing.” — “Bob has a car.” — “It is a very nice car.” — “It has wonky taillights.”)
  • Very old-time pedagogic — You are informed that there are two of you and only one fish. Two men (plus a halibut) enter, one man (plus a halibut) leaves.
  • New-new time pedagogic — “I wonder… where that fish has gone. It is a most elusive fish.” (etc.)
  • Neurotic Precise — You get the fish and all seems fine. Then when you try to fry the fish in butter, not margarine, someone hits you in the head with a chisel.
  • Full-immersion — The instructor slits open the fish, and makes you wear it as a hat. Or a mask. Or, in the case of function theory, a big floppy body suit. With tentacles. And Poisson glands. (This is the grad student way.)
  • Cramming — Do I need to spell this out? Fish, orifice, definitely no long-term benefits.
  • Enhanced presentation — The fish — or rather the cloud of particles that until one tenth of a second ago was a fish — is shot at you from a cannon. This will leave a high-definition outline of you on the fish-gutted wall behind yourself. There are also about 16 mil colors — mainly variants blood red and innard pink. Oh, and you might see a Flash, or a Shockwave.
  • Diploma mill method — You want some cheap fish, but you get bull instead.
  • Short, what-you-need-to-know, partly imprecise executive overview: You flounder.

Away: A better math olympiad

June 28, 2010

Away in a mathematics conference this week; internet access likely to be spotty to none, so it’s repost time. Repost time, with the posts from the category of mathematics!

(Could be worse; could be the bad poetry category.)

* * *

There’s such a thing as an International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). It’s for children, though — well, children and children — since you must be under 20 to enter. (Years, not inches.)

Now, why isn’t there a similar thing for adults? And don’t tell me doing actual mathematical research is that, since in research you don’t often have a lot of people pitted against each other in a bitter timed and graded contest, each working on the exactly same and already well-documented problems.

What the world clearly needs — as a PR vehicle for maths if not for anything else — is a big-spectacle Working Mathematicians’ International Olympiad and Games.

The sports could include things like Tricksy Integration, Proof By Tricks Beyond the Undergrads, “Trivial or False?”, Pi Memorization, Six-Digit Integer Speed Factoring (with or without paper), Blackboard Ballet, Handout Out-Handing Gymnastics, Pronunciation of French Mathematicians’ Names, Smooth Anecdote Insertion, Duplex Copies, Soporific Audience-Baiting (held before nine in the morning), Hide the Faux Formula, and Coffee Drinking (speed, endurance and underwater).

Me, I would immediately join the Finnish Bad Bad Bad Math Jokes team. (“What’s purple and commutes?” — “An Abelian grape.” — “Aaand Finland takes the lead with three facepalms and a groan!”)

My suggestion is this: every country in the world takes 10% off its regular Olympics budget and puts the money into this. I think holding the first Mathematolympics in, say, Helsinki in 2011, is quite doable. (I would suggest Hawaii, but one has to suggest a place one can reasonably get funding to get to.)

Or rather the doability depends on how long it takes to mock up rigorous definitions and rules for the sports, because for a mathematician rules are all, and if the rules allow participating naked in the slim hopes of getting more points from that female judge, or with a faucet in your neck for the endurance coffee, well, that’s what a mathematician will do.

And sooner or later there would be something like a doping scandal: “No wonder he’s so fast! He’s approximating!

Mechanical music

June 26, 2010

One can, I’ve understood, simulate a guitar or any other instrument with a computer. That is, one can dance across a keyboard, and what blares out of the speakers is some particular instance of guitar-playing; and there’s no actual guitar anywhere. (Wait wait wait — an e-book is a book, but obviously it is not a physical object with bound paper sheets. So is it according to the same logic sensible to call a guitar-simulation program simply “a guitar”?)

(I know a computer can emulate guitar-playing from notes, but I don’t know if there’s a program that can play all a physical guitar (a p-guitar as opposed to an e-guitar?) does, using some special iGuitarMarkUpLanguage++. See “(long note continues)(Townshend smash)(forlorn broken string 2.3 sec)”. Generally speaking I am a person of many wonderings and little knowledge.)

(The reason for the lack of interest about programs like these might be that for some reason the tapping of keys isn’t as easy to explain as the plucking of strings — “What do you mean you can’t? You’re a guitarist; this is a guitar; where’s the problem?” — and, one might think, it wouldn’t be all that fun to watch a live music performance made of five people sitting at their computers typin’ madly.)

How about the singing, then?

There are speech synthetizers, right, but they’re not for much music yet unless one wants to be MC Hawking. But surely one could create a mark-up language for the sort of speech used in music: rising, falling, growling, screaming, and the like? It wouldn’t be for live performances, but just as one can write down the lyrics of a song, one could use some mark-up (iScream?) to tell a speech synthetizer how and when the particular words are said, right? Describing human speech with precision might be difficult; but difficult isn’t impossible, and we’re talking of chunks of a few minutes here, not RP recordings of the War and Peace. Someone needs to take a phonetic spelling dictionary, a recording of Sympathy for the Devil, and get to work!

(One objection: “Well, you’re killing the individual talents of the musicians by letting any yahoo program voices with more range than a Halford!” Which is kind of a funny objection if you think about it; what’s the fun of music kept in a ghetto like sports, available only to those with a few helpful genes and years of time to tediously, repetitively build up mechanical vocal or manual skills? (The sport ghetto is justified because without the ghetto there’s no sport, but music, really?) There must be legions of people who know in a way they can’t explain to others what kind of guitarplay would be excessively neat, but they’re embarrassingly undextrous; there must be heap-loads of people that would could sing excessively sweet melodies if they just hadn’t a bad cough, the wrong sex, and an embarrassingly irritating nasal whine for a voice. To program such a thing would be a matter of vision and skill as much as playing an actual instrument, whether a guitar or a voice, but there wouldn’t be the same kind of a barrier of luck and tedious toil.)

Nah, I’m just so tickled by the idea that one could divorce music from all instruments, voice included, like writing can be divorced from all instruments, paper included.

Interpretation is where the Bible and Winnie-the-Pooh meet

June 23, 2010

In this post I will sort of agree with many religious people; but I will do my best to do so in a way that leaves a bitter, bitter taste in their mouths.

Any text that is mulled over, interpreted, commented on, and read and read long enough, and occasionally for reasons not immediately related to the text itself (reader is stressed, sad, in want of agreement, bored out of her skull, etc.) will be polished into a mirror that will, after a certain threshold of smoothness has been passed, only reflect, in various funnyhouse ways, the one looking into it.

If you took the Scriptures of Goat-Baal (c. 1300 BCE, made up) instead of the Old Testament; if Suetonius’s Lives of Famous Whores was taken up for carefully saccharine re-interpretation instead of the New Testament, by Anon (ed.), if you took the Moby Dick instead of the Book of Mormon, you would still eventually get the same result: the text remains the same, but the meaning read into it is something new, alien and shiny. The major difference is Moby Dick and similar works are not of immediately religious nature; but then again not one of the religious works above listed is read today much like it originally was. (And in the case of the few people who do, we often wish they didn’t.)

The great and subtle point in all this is it does not matter what mirror you choose, whether ready-polished by some culture or rough to be worked by yourself. No matter your choice, eventually you will get all the reflections of yourself you want. Take sandpaper and a fresco: eventually the fresco is gone and there’s a nice uniform reflective surface in its place for you to dimly behold your own glory, or the glory of whatever you desire.

You could choose anything with enough commentaries — the Bible, say, has been so immensely interpreted that you can find support for any reading at all: there are commentaries by monarchists and republicans, racists and anti-racists, hellfires and sugarbears, sexual conservatives and sexual liberals, celibates, monogamists, polygamists, polyamorists, masochists, people of justice, people of mercy, people of great flaming chunks of falling brimstone, people of any particular color or nationality, the oppressed, the oppressors, the poor, the well-off, the well-endowed, those that have, those that want, socialists, conservatives, Greens, anarchists, probably Nazis, Communists and UFO believers too; in short, the Bible has been interpreted by every possible group in all worlds where an association with the Bible was a source of respect, a source of “Gott mit uns”.

One occasionally even sees atheists pointing at particular pieces of Scripture and saying they mean, illustrate and/or exemplify whatever secular lesson one wishes to see within.

Then again, to use an empty, irritating, slippery buzzword, there’s something more “spiritual” in picking something a little more off-beat; maybe not quite your favorite issue of the Donald Duck comic, but something different. That way at least one doesn’t get mistaken for the sort of people that get their jollies from imagining Einstein, Gandhi and Anne Frank really tortured for all eternity.

If you think I am just frothing, you don’t know there are published books that read Winnie the Pooh as an exposition of philosophy, Taoism, and the like. The only difference to various interpretations of Christianity is the Pooh-as-Tao and Pooh-as-Nietzsche people would probably, if sufficiently probed and stripped of their jocularity, admit they knew their reading was not in the original. Religious people, unwilling to let go of the last tatters of their ghost, often insist interpretation #856 is what the text has always meant. (There’s probably a good point in saying that if something can be re-interpreted by every new generation, in always new and different and relevant ways, with no-one raising an alarm, there’s no intrinsic or “original” meaning left in the thing at all — and it’s a knife without a handle because of it: liable cut you.)

(The Bible has an original meaning — but really, when’s the last time you’ve heard someone call the New Testament an outdated anthology of evolved sectarian screeds about how their neighbors were wrong about the fan fiction told over the memory of a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who thought the physical Kingdom of God would be here on Earth in 34 AD, give or take a few months? Oh, and an anthology “inspired by” the Old Testament, in the full Hollywood sense.)

(Wait; that’s a research project — “Slashing swords: Christological controversies in the New Testament versus fan fic pairing feuds on LiveJournal: an essay of comparative sociodynamical metapsychothema-analysis”.)

It pays to pick something with enough curlicues to lose yourself in; something with enough ambiguities and loose ends to let your inner mirrorist semi-sub-consciously pick the interpretation that’s most appealing to you personally; and I think I’ve said something like this before, and in an Erisian holy book, no less (though the book was not really ambiguous enough for this):

Now, however, suppose you are purposefully dense, opaque and abstruse. Or just one of those. People will not be sure of what you mean: and thus they shall read your words in the way most preferable to their own prejudices, and most fitting with the[ir] preconceptions; and you will be hailed as a wise one, a primate among the priests of profundity. [Ook.]

Profound personal meanings are a weird, weird thing. I’ll keep to reading Principia Discordia, Illuminatus! and Azumanga Daioh rather than the Bible myself; less risk of being taken for one of the deranged first-interpretation types that way. (“Hello! I am Jesus; if you do not obey me I shall have you tortured forever!”)

* * *

A tangent, about the Bible and the Prophecies of Goat-Baal: Something that I occasionally wonder about, but am unfit to judge: is the Bible really a great work of literature? Is it, in some literary way, divorced from the influence it has wielded, as a book any better than the other ancient anthologies of Middle Eastern holy writings? (And don’t tell me all that has survived to our time is jewels and jewels; when a god’s on your side, who cares about the reviews?)

Maybe the adoration lavished on the Bible comes from lingering religiosity, and from it having been so inescapable for so long it sourced many literary tropes. I’d guess that if Chinese communism lasted for five centuries it would be so saturated, forcefully influenced and painted red with residual cheerleading that Mao’s Little Red Book would seem a work of immense stylistic genius: not because of brute merit, or because of brute adoration-dogma: but because it happened to be one of the first bricks of the vast edifice, even if possibly half-baked and all.

Then again, disregard this tangent; I don’t know the first thing about judging the intrinsic value of a book as compared to its influence. That’s the expertise of folks alien to me.

On signifying

June 22, 2010

Unsolicited advice for sign-making protesters:

  1. Check your spelling. Don’t thank anyone for keeping you “infromed”. Don’t accuse anyone of being “morans”. Okay?
  2. Also check if you’ve correctly understood the difference between capital and normal letters, or you WilL loOk siLly. (Then again, as idiotic presentations convince only fellow idiots, this is a good policy if you’re strongly anti-elitist.)
  3. Have some sense of proportion. Avoid Hitler. Really, really avoid comparing your cause to the Jews and the ovens; if it’s that bad making a sign won’t help and if it’s less you will seem a tad thick.
  4. The previous point again: proportion. And what I said about Hitler goes double for anything with Hitler and Photoshop!
  5. One exclamation mark per sign, max. More than that is the signical equivalent of running around naked hollering and slapping strangers with your genitalia, and somewhat as likely to get your message a warm reception. (i.e. fifty-fifty, no more)
  6. Lines that do not work: “Would they have given the Nazis the Olympics??”, “Behead those who say Islam is violent”, “Get a brain! Morans”.
  7. Not advice, but observation: no sign ever mis-spells the word “sodomy”.
  8. Lively language is good; but it is easy to overdo. Remember, your message will be lost if the reader gets lost trying to picture the thing taken literally. Pictures can make this worse. “President don’t rape our lawn!!!”
  9. Not that trying to keep things simple always works either; for an example, “Save freedom” sounds like one ought to have a jar and a rationing plan ready.
  10. Always plan ahead to be sure there enough space for all the lettrs u want
  11. Might not be a good idea to have your children hold the signs. I mean, what if someone comes and starts asking them pointed questions? Or if a TV reporter comes and lets them blather? Do you really want to have your 8-year-old pontificating about the Federal Reserve?
  12. Then again, if you have some sign that you’re pretty sure is a tad extreme, have a kid hold that, with orders to cry if anyone comes around all indignant. Instant PR victory!
  13. For heaven’s sake, if you are going to be sullen and angry, don’t be so shy and folksy about it. Say what you really mean. (Try “Kill All Politicians”. Sure to attract attention.) If you are known to be forthright, be a bit more folksy the next time. Say “Fiercely urinate on the Danish people (smiley)”. Variation’s the key!
  14. Humor helps; but it helps if you actually have a sense of humor. Here’s a hint: finding the most insulting combination of stereotype and slur doesn’t usually count as humor. (Then again, if you’re unknown and trying to get fame, not so much agreement, then going full neolithic with xenophobia works fine. Best of all, if you choose your words carefully, no news station will actually utter them, saving at least a shred of your dignity. And you’ll be (in)famous!)
  15. Also, one final thing. Keep looking for the guy whose placard says “I HAVE A SIGN”, “God Hates Signs”, “I’m With Stupid”, “We have no idea what we’re talking about”, or something like. There’s always one around.

Personally, if I ever happened to attend a sign-holding event, my sign would probably be “SODOMY / BABY KILLING / HIGHER TAXES / EUTHANASIA / GODLESSNESS / PORNOGRAPHY / VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES / we need more of all these”.

(“Castrate the Cardinals” would be logical, but unlikely to attract support. And, er, the ecclesiastical ones, not the sports team. Though come to think of it there are more than enough jocks around already.)

The last piece of advice to remember is that there will always be people who look at your signs signifying the end of the world and all that is good, and will not recoil in horror and rise in indignation, but shrug and say: “Hey, yeah, cool, man! Who sells the tickets to that thing?”

I’ve got lots to read, and I like it

June 20, 2010

I think I remember a time I was momentarily sort of without anything interesting to read.

That time must have been when I was ten or thereabout, I think.

It’s wonderful and also scary that there’s just no end to things to read — even to entertaining, well-written things. And it’s wonderful and also scary that with libraries, interlibrary loans and remainders of a graduate student’s pay I have the resources to get my mitts on more of that than I have time for. (Still, the mantra remains: “If you’re stressing over your free time, you are doing it wrong.“)

Someone once said that any decent bibliophile has more books in her (or his) library than she’ll ever have time to read. Often I think the city library or the university one have many times more than that; the only way I can get out of the history section of the university library is by swearing to myself mere “I’d like to know” doesn’t cut it; a “near-stumbling tug of instant curiosity” is what stops me to look, nothing less.

I don’t know if I’ve a very critical reader as far as style, beauty and the like are concerned; I’d guess I am not. I certainly don’t have any special expertise in the fields of emotions and human relations — though on the other hand I’m very capable of endless griping about cliche plotting and world-building. (Not that griping indicates knowledge, but it should at least mean some thought, no matter how prejudiced, has been applied at the subject.)

Now, the reason for these outpourings is that over the last week I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by two usually overlooked, though not to me unfamiliar sources of fiction.

* * *

First: Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop miniature wargame whose background is the supposition that “in the grim darkness of the far future there is only war”. (Mind you, it’s even a theistic future — but the gods are those an atheist like me sees as the most probable ones: malicious monsters of corruption and Chaos.) I’ve never played Warhammer 40K, but I’ve long admired the style of the setting. There’s something very… well, very aesthetic in making the universe as big a crapsack as it can be.

At the moment, I’m two and a half books into the related book series the Horus Heresy, of whose plot it is enough to say that in the middle of vast, brutal war some major crap is picking up in a storm that will make the war a thousand times more vast, brutal and warlike, and seems to involve no faction that can be called “the good guys”. (What’s really delicious is that most main characters start the series as secular and atheistic as one can be… and then learn that yes, there are gods, and incidentally, they are gods of the “Blood for the blood god!” kind.)

The thing is, one would tend to think tie-in fiction like this is pretty horrible; but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far very much; as far as I can see the writing and the plotting is good, and it certainly gripped me. Partly because while there are a few decent guys, there are no good ones; and on the level of factions, every one seems to be becoming worse and worse. That’s not only a minority approach; it’s also one that makes for a very good story, because you don’t ever know who’s going to be foiled or killed, or who to cheer for. That kind of ability to surprise is more infrequent than it should be. So, I’d say one could go pick up the first volume, Horus Rising (by Dan Abnett), and the second, False Gods (by Graham McNeill), and see if one likes them. Good for all friends of over-the-top drama and darkness.

* * *

Second: Harry Potter fan fiction.

What? Some of you are still here? Okay, read on.

Late yesterday I noticed I’d been saving a link to one particular story on fanfiction.net, one called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I painted a few chapters, clicked Firefox’s “show source” for the chosen bit, copied and pasted to Notepad, and ran the html through Mobipocket Creator; five minutes later I was reading it on my Bookeen Cybook. (This is not intended to be toy snobbery; just a mention of the useful fact that at least in Firefox the “show source” choice shows up with the source bit already highlighted; then just copy and paste and you have what you want without spending time snipping out the excess before and after out of whole html files.)

Two hours after that I was back on my computer, adding all the remaining chapters to the file.

An hour and a half later I surfaced long enough to put the Cybook aside and fall asleep; after waking up, it was two hours before I got myself out of the Cybook which my treacherous hands had first grasped as I awoke. (Since then, I’ve been trying to club my brains with Bugliosi’s colossal Reclaiming History because I know the next time I pick the thing up I’ll be bound to stay in until I’ve read all there is to it.)

So, well, yeah: I’d say as my opinion that the particular bit is good. (Long, too; and still ongoing.) It’s a retelling that supposes a Harry Potter that is super-intelligent, super-rational and super-scientific (and super-realistic!); and it gets all kinds of interesting when the other characters have to react to that. It’s smart, touching, full of shadows, and occasionally incredibly funny. (As in when Harry, scientific and sensible, reacts to the overkillific fact that some Hogwarts students are given personal time machines to help their academic performance.)

Like a lot of fanfic, “Methods of Rationality” assumes you’ve read the originals; and if you have, it’s an excellent ride because it is inquisitive about those points Rowling didn’t pay much attention to, like how exactly the wizarding world works, and what the fact of magic being real implies. (Also, I can’t help liking someone whose Rowling’s-property legal notice is eventually formulated as “All these worlds are J. K. Rowling’s, except Europa. Attempt no fanfics there.” Always nice to see someone genre-conscious.)

Oh well, there’s a page for the “Methods of Rationality” over at TV Tropes. Now that I’ve directed you there you’ll have quite enough to read, and I can stop.

Half of the awe

June 19, 2010

Half of the awe and beauty of the skeptical scientific worldview is not in what we know, but in how we know it.

The various religious or mystical worldviews do not compare. What, some wonderful proclamation is so because it was Told or Shown to someone now dead? Because it’s so in inky letters on some ancient parchment? Because a guru whispered it so? Because you thought, thought, and it suddenly became clear to you? Piffle! Not only are those chancy sources of knowledge, they’re prosaic, dull, uninspiring — “I heard that” — “I was told” — “I’ve been lead to believe that” — hah! What’s the worth of fictions with such hateful guts? Can you really get the thrill of a romance by jumping to the last page and digesting just that?

Science, on the other hand, does not spring out of empty air. Charles Darwin wasn’t handed an ancient Satanic scroll where evolution was written down. (Well, some fundamentalists would argue.) Lavoisier didn’t decide phlogiston was piffle and oxygen real on a whim, or because a high professor said so. Your local physics professional doesn’t consider Einstein smart because he scribbled an equation or two, but because experiments have again and again shown that those equations, artfully derived, describe something to which reality resonates in some deep way.

They all prodded at nature and at all else they wanted to know about; they examined, interrogated, distrusted, schemed, and made love to reality. The last of these is the most accurate, because science is a romance, a long tale of travails, quests, passions and discoveries, all driven by a desire to know how Mother Nature does those fine things she does. That romance has many chapters, and it makes us care not only because of the excitement and the convolutions of the plot, but because its actors are all of mankind, and the passion of its lead actors is genuine, their love of discovery and learning is real, and the goal, though distant, is a kiss as noble and beautiful as any nirvana: to understand the terrible and lovely machinery of the world, singing and turning all around and within each of us.

Parts of that quest may end in tragedy as well as in victory. Sometimes the truth is simply too far away, and long years must go by before the Ivory Tower conquers the Pink Castle of Real Allure. (No sexual undertones there at all, no sir!) Sometimes, as with Newton and Leibniz and their quarrel, there is unseemly swaggering and fistfights which do nothing but delay the plot. Sometimes a scientist gets what he has desired and wished, only to discover that too much desire can confuse and lead one’s fingers astray, and the lady or rake one kisses is a villain that will cause many a tear before the tale is done; less poetically, that’s homeopathy.

But when the discovery’s made, and when something’s clear and not anymore a mystery; when you know why the stars burn, when you know how all life is interrelated, and can formulate theories for the first spring of it all, and for the opening of the first flower which is the universe itself; when you know penicillin is good for you, and know why that is, exactly — and better still, when you know that’s not a mere guess, not a rumor, not a holy text, not a blind assertion, but something as true as anything you know can be — that is as sweet as anything in life, and a thousand times better than than hoary authorities and tepid mysteries. The true sense of wonder is that which rushes out to the universe to find out how it works, not that which stops quaking at the threshold, and there’s nothing but a reckless idiot’s thrill in a leap of faith. The truest awe, and the greatest thrill, is in learning to understand the world as it is, not in growing used to accepting assertions that do not explain.

To be shorter about it, of all quacks and charlatans mystics are the worst, for they rob half of the awe and the beauty from all their blinding fingers touch.

* * *

One more thing — there’s another pseudo-philosophical reason why mystical assertions are inferior, though they can and do entertain. All holy books and all pseudosciences and aircastled celestial conspiracies are just human constructions, and that shows in them: their powers work through human beings, sometimes for great good though more often for ill. No angel comes down to heal the sick; instead, a latter-day Samaritan has to do the work, inspired by the infections within his head.

That is great effect, but that still is no more than Meyer’s Twilight or Homer’s Odyssey — exciting, yes, but still stuff that just springs out of mankind’s collective frontal lobe and illuminates nothing beyond our interpersonal relations. There’s so much more in the world, and there’s so much more that the things that have no frontal lobes can offer for our comfort and sense of aesthetics. (Er, no, I’m not speaking of Cthulhoid things, but of penicillin and gravity assists, finely ground eyeglass lenses and the beauty of the dance of stellar evolution.)

As angels don’t seem to be coming down anytime soon, it would seem to be better to make our sweet fictions to be about the glory and capacity of the human being, and not about external phantoms. That is all our ghost stories have ever been able to bring out: the human as an angel, or the human as a demon. The things themselves have never materialized beyond that; all the deeds of mankind have been done by our best or worst parts; or more often by the great blundering inertia in between. As spirits plus human hands have done no better than human hands alone, I’d say it would be better to forget about the spirits and instead make sure the hands are guided by an eye that looks outwards as well as in.

Bare boughs

June 18, 2010

Sometimes it’s nice to write something which has absolutely nothing behind it… though it looks like it should have. (Er, wait: I have done this before!)

* * *

This is what Herodotus said of the places where Atlantis survives. This is what he said; but into his book he put this not, for he was afraid.

In east, beyond Bactria, rise mountains, maybe the greatest and most terrible mountains in all of the world, too high for gods to climb, too high for men to breathe on; and within these mountains live worms that remember Atlantis. The oldest of them, it is said, dwelt there once, and saw it sink.

Beyond icy seas beyond the Gates of Heracles there is an island where summer never comes, a place that fish as big as islands guard, a place where bears and other beasts are invisible, and constantly ravenous for human flesh; there Atlantean warriors sleep. It is said they sleep, for they saw something which no man can see, and sanely stay awake; some say that was the fall of Atlantis.

In the deserts beyond Egypt, beyond Babylon, in the endless empty sands out of which no camel nor nomad comes, there is a tomb where mute guards watch over an embalmed Atlantean general, undone not by arms, but by love. It is said those mute guards wait, but their wait shall not end, not unless Atlantis rises again.

Beyond the Axeinian Sea, and beyond the Scythian steppe and the lands of the wild Amazons, there is a land where the sun never rises, and where forests of bare boughs wave and whisper, alive for there is no man nor woman nor child there to live, so the trees must: and it is said that beyond that land is a village where sunken-eyed, milk-skinned and red-handed live the last men of Atlantis; but this is a rumor.

This say I, Alchemedes, in commentary to what Feydantes the Egyptian thus recorded of the daily speech of Herodotus: Firstly, what Feydantes so records is a lie in attribution, for it is well known that at the time of Herodotus there still were heirs of Atlantis much closer, and in the days of the Historian’s life even Athens was besieged by them; and it is discourteous of the Egyptian to assume we Atticans would forget, or so confuse our names that we would not remember the dark cities of Atla Thebes, one in Boeotia, the other in Egypt, that the exiles of Atlantis founded, thereby seeding much grief. What Feydantes records may be true, but his attribution is lazy and lackadaisical, no doubt seeking to elevate his rumors by ascribing them to the highest authority he knew.

Now in the time when I write of the greater shadow of Atlantis only these lesser shadows the Egyptian recorded remain, if even they still do; for the main part of the shadow of Atlantis after Atlantis was banished by the dawning of Alexander. That immortal Macedonian wished his empire to be a second Atlantis, peerless in might, and thus persecuted the remainders of the first; and when he was struck down by the Sea-People’s poison, he had destroyed that remnant which had weathered the wreck of Atlantis and the dark Arcadian wars; and Atlantis was no more.

On flesh-colored eyeglasses

June 16, 2010

You wouldn’t want to wear flesh-colored, flesh-contoured eyeglasses, would you? (I’m assuming you are a glasses-wearing person; if you are not, use your imagination.) Wearing eyeglasses, unlike sunglasses, is rarely a vanity thing; people wear glasses because their eyes are defective, even though those glasses advertise that defect. People don’t hide that particular defect-fix; many actually flaunt it, and people past the age of fifteen don’t think having eyeglasses is a fate to be pitied.

Thus runs my justification for a trend I’d much like to see: when artificial limbs become available, they will look artificial. No human-colored rubber skin; no, instead colors of crome and titanium. (Or whatever colors and grains Nanomaterial X will take; which may be, any color or grain imaginable.) People of the future might not be all that hung up on looking like people. I think many unusual sights are just waiting for times when they will be more than just pure aesthetic statements.

It’ll help, of course, if the future is largely a more permissive place than today, less hung up on modesty, conformity and the like. (Each person has his nightmares, and one of mine is us slowly descending back to the hypocritical moral straitjacket of propriety and prudery which was the Victorian times, and which seems to be something some modern people are hankerin’ for. Mind you, the Victorian era was generally speaking a nice, interesting time but the morals, egh! a few days of that and I’d be running up and down the streets with me knickers tied to a turban on me achin’ head.)