The wisdom of John Wheeler and Oliver Sacks

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A rare and happy coincidence today: The birthdays of both John Archibald Wheeler and Oliver Sacks. Wheeler was one of the most prominent physicists of the twentieth century. Sacks was one of the most prominent medical writers of his time. Both of them were great explorers, the first of the universe beyond and the second of the universe within.

What made both men special, however, was that they transcended mere accomplishment in the traditional genres that they worked in, and in that process they stand as role models for an age that seems so fractured. Wheeler the physicist was also Wheeler the poet and Wheeler the philosopher. Throughout his life he transmitted startling new ideas through eloquent prose that was too radical for academic journals. Most of his important writings made their way to us through talks and books. Sacks the neurologist was far more than a neurologist, and Sacks the writer was much more than a writer. Both Wheeler and Sacks had a transcendent view of humanity and the universe, a view that is well worth taking to heart in our own self-centered times.

Their backgrounds shaped their views and their destiny. John Wheeler grew up in an age when physics was transforming our view of the universe. While he was too young to participate in the genesis of the twin revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics, he came on stage at the right time to fully implement the revolution in the burgeoning fields of particle and nuclear physics. Read more »

Tips for (Fiction and/or Comic) Writers

by Tauriq Moosa

Putting one word, one letter, after the other in order to make a coherent sentence is something most of us can do: you are currently doing it now, except you are forced to ride the tracks of comprehension as laid down by words I choose. There are some of us, stupidly, who are aiming to make this into our profession, in whatever medium most suits our tastes, personality, and continual interest. Having recently begun a thesis, I needed a way to not view writing as a, sometimes, tortuous process, dealing with multiple medical and philosophical and political documents. I decided to dabble in writing comics or, rather, graphic novels.

It’s quite a strange move for me, considering I’ve only started reading comics recently. But that’s not what matters.

What I’d like to do is convey some tips to those looking into writing fiction, in general, and comic fiction, in particular. Because I don’t think people interested in writing creatively are necessarily interested in graphic-novel writing, I will separate the general and specific tips I’ve picked up.

However, here is a disclaimer: I am not a published or recognised writer. I am a complete amateur. Indeed, I have a number of synopses and plot outlines, but no firmly attached artists or publishers to any of them. Finding artists, when you cannot draw, cannot pay, or are an unknown is one of the most difficult aspects of comic writing. This is my current problem, but then I’m in two minds about this as I will explain later. What I am presenting to you is the end results of hundreds of articles I’ve read and discussions I’ve had with more successful people. So I'm not going to keep writing “…but that's just my view at the moment” or “…but do realise this is one person's perspective…”. You've got you're disclaimer. Move on.

TIPS FOR WRITING (FICTION)

1. Read.

This is the second most insulting instruction you can give to someone interested in writing (I’ll tell you the most insulting one at the end). However, it is not unheard of for writers to be lazy or non-readers. I’m thinking of the great Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who wrote beautifully and powerfully, but was not himself an avid reader.

By read, I mean read everything. Published authors and editors constantly state that being unaware of the medium is common problem. You could at the very least simply retell an existing story. Or you could be unaware that your “highly original” idea has not only been duplicated, but told by a writer infinitely more talented (this happened to me and an Ian McEwan story).

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A Diatribe from the Remains of Dr. Fred McCabe

by Daniel Rourke

About a month ago in handling the remains of one Dr. Fred McCabe I found rich notes of contemplation on the subject of information theory. It appears that Fred could have written an entire book on the intricacies of hidden data, encoded messages and deceptive methods of transmission. Instead his notes exist in the form of a cryptic assemblage of definitions and examples, arranged into what Dr. McCabe himself labelled a series of ‘moments’.

I offer these moments alongside some of the ten thousand images Dr. McCabe amassed in a separate, but intimately linked, archive. The preface to this abridged compendium is little capable of preparing one for the disarray of material, but by introducing this text with Fred’s own words it is my hope that a sense of the larger project will take root in the reader’s fertile imagination.

The Moment of the Message: A Diatribe

by Dr. Fred McCabe

More than ten thousand books on mathematics and a thousand books on philosophy exist for every one upon information. This is surprising. It must mean something.

I want to give you a message. But first. I have to decide how to deliver the message.

This is that moment.

I can write it down, or perhaps memorise it – reciting it in my head like a mantra, a prayer chanted in the Palace gardens. And later, speaking in your ear, I will repeat it to you. That is, if you want to hear it.

I could send it to you, by post, or telegram. After writing it down I will transmit it to you. Broadcasting on your frequency in the hope that you will be tuned in at the right moment. Speaking your language. Encoded and encrypted, only you will understand it.

I have a message for you and I want you to receive it. But first. I have to decide what the message is.

This is that moment:

This is the moment of the message

From the earliest days of information theory it has been appreciated that information per se is not a good measure of message value. The value of a message appears to reside not in its information (its absolutely unpredictable parts) but rather in what might be called its redundancy—parts predictable only with difficulty, things the receiver could in principle have figured out without being told, but only at considerable cost in money, time, or computation. In other words, the value of a message is the amount of work plausibly done by its originator, which its receiver is saved from having to repeat.

This is the moment my water arrived at room temperature

The term enthalpy comes from the Classical Greek prefix en-, meaning “to put into”, and the verb thalpein, meaning “to heat”.

For a simple system, with a constant number of particles, the difference in enthalpy is the maximum amount of thermal energy derivable from a thermodynamic process in which the pressure is held constant.

This is the moment the wafer became the body of Christ

The Roman Catholic Church got itself into a bit of a mess. Positing God as the victim of the sacrifice introduced a threshold of undecidability between the human and the divine. The simultaneous presence of two natures, which also occurs in transubstantiation, when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, threatens to collapse the divine into the human; the sacred into the profane. The question of whether Christ really is man and God, of whether the wafer really is bread and body, falters between metaphysics and human politics. The Pope, for all his failings, has to decide the undecidable.

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Desire Paths: Reading, Memory and Inscription

by Daniel Rourke

The urban landscape is overrun with paths. Road-paths pulling transport, pavement-paths and architectural-paths guiding feet towards throbbing hubs of commerce, leisure and abode.Beyond the limits of urban paths, planned and set in tarmac or concrete, are perhaps the most timeless paths of all. Gaston Bachelard called them Desire Paths, physical etchings in our surroundings drawn by the thoughtless movement of human feet. In planning the layout of a city designers aim to limit the emergence of worn strips of earth that cut through the green grass. People skipping corners or connecting distinct spaces vote with their feet the paths they desire. Many of the pictures on the right (from this Flickr group) show typical design solutions to the desire path. A delimiting fence, wall or thoroughfare, a row of trees, carefully planted to ease the human flow back in line with the rigid, urban aesthetic. These control mechanisms have little effect – people merely walk around them – and the desire path continues to intend itself exactly where designers had feared it would.

The technical term for the surface of a planetary body, whether urbanised, earth covered or extra-terrestrial, is regolith. As well as the wear of feet, the regolith may be eroded by wind, rain, the path of running water or the tiny movement of a glacier down the coarse plane of a mountain. If one extends the meaning of the term regolith it becomes a valuable metaphor for the outer layer upon or through which any manner of paths may be inscribed.

The self-titled first Emperor of China, Qín Shǐhuáng, attempted, in his own extravagant way, to re-landscape the regolith of time. By building the Great Wall around his Kingdom and ordering the burning of all the books written before his birth Qín Shǐhuáng intended to isolate his Kingdom in its own mythic garden of innocence. Far from protecting his people from the marauding barbarians to the West or the corrupting knowledge of the past Qín Shǐhuáng's decision to enclose his Kingdom probably expanded his subject's capacity for desire beyond it. There is no better way to cause someone to read something than to tell them they cannot; no better way to cause someone to dream beyond some kingdom, or attempt to destroy it, than to erect a wall around it. As we demarcate paths we cause desire to erupt beyond them. The regolith, whether physical or ethereal, will never cease to degrade against our wishes.

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