The red thing that I saw

Last spring I visited Denmark. One day in Aarhus, I spent hours in the ARoS art museum, and in its basement I found and photographed a very strange red thing. I have shown this photograph to several people to whom I have subjected my Denmark vacation snaps, and every time I find myself utterly unable to properly describe or even explain this red thing. Let me see if I can do a better job in writing.

Further background: On this day I found myself alone, Aarhus mine to explore, as I had elected not to join my travel-companions on a trip to nearby Legoland. Plodding, then, without particular direction up a hill through the city’s gray downtown, I startled to see the strange rainbow donut on the museum’s roof. The building has prominent “ARoS” signage all over, but that meant nothing to me and I couldn’t read the accompanying Danish. Feeling more than usual like a true foreigner, I could not determine the nature or purpose of the building until I worked up enough courage to walk into its lobby. At first I thought maybe it was an office building or an industrial plant and gave it a pass, then turned back, aching with curiosity. One of the most rewardingly videogame-like experiences of my life.

To my delight, I discovered the exhibits within ARoS to focus on installations, unique and location-dependent, always my single favorite sort of artwork to visit.* The colorful rooftop toroid, Olafur Eliasson’s Your Rainbow Panorama, is the most visible and permanent of the museum’s installed artwork. Inside, I found a number of strange and beautiful works that you’ll have to ask me directly to hear more about, because now I want to take you into the basement.

ARoS had divided its lowest level into nine compartments with sizes ranging down from small theaters to broom closets. Each dimly lit room or space held a single work. A surreal film played in a loop across three side-by-side projectors; a tiny, empty dance club, littered with trash, invited pawing through fictional album sleeves in its DJ booth; and the red thing lurked in a recessed alcove.

I didn’t note the name of this sculpture, or its artist, and I can’t easily find it online. (If you happen to know, please tell me. But see the update below.) It wasn’t my favorite work during my visit to ARoS; just the one I find most consistently challenging to put into words.

The art took the form of an oblong cutout in a wall that slanted physically away from the viewer, the right side more distant than the left. (A rope barrier enforced this relationship with the work.) The cutout held a light, the only light in the alcove, placed so that one could not directly see the source.

One could see how the light reflected through and around the work, though, and this defined it. Somehow, through some expertly uncanny combination and positioning of materials, the space inside the cutout seemed misty. This extended outwards, bulging from the cutout to an uncertain distance. But the thick-seeming air held no motion, no moisture to feel or smell. I cannot recall whether or not I gave into the temptation to wave my hand through the empty space.

Such a strange thing to encounter, in the dim basement of a modern art museum while by myself in a non-Anglophonic country for the first time. I took a couple of pictures of it, and they totally fail to convey any of this. And that is the best I can do at describing the red thing I saw under Aarhus.

Update: Robert Serocki identified the artist as James Turrell, and the work as part of his “Wedgework” sculpture series. Thank you!

* Barbetween represents my attempt to replicate the experience of visiting a physical art installation in a purely online space, somewhat after the fashion of Paul Matisse’s Kendall Band — a work I feel fortunate to have lived over and even occasionally interacted with during what may have been the last few years of its functional life.

I just published Alisio, a free and open-source tool that allows bloggers such as myself to easily tweet text-as-image previews of recent posts. The results look like this:

Screenshot of an alisio-generated tweet

It takes a bit of nerdish skill and resources to set up; it has requirements about as complex as those of Jeremy Bernard’s twitch-to-slack, which I wrote about last month*. My adventures with that simple, discoverable, narrow-focused tool helped inspire the creation of this one, which I hope will possess the same positive attributes.

I haven’t performed a rigorous investigation of incoming traffic sources to Fogknife, not since discovering that counting RSS-based users is hard. But I can tell from server logs that I get plenty of hits from social media, including but not limited to the Twitter posts I make after publishing something new here. I’ve long struggled with how to word those tweets — Should I just post the title and a link? Add a word-count? Write a separate micro-summary? — but in the end I am a very lazy person who gets dumb project ideas in the shower. This was my dumb idea yesterday! I hope it pans out, one way or another.

As Alisio’s README notes, it’s very alpha, with all the fragility and inflexibility that implies. I expect that to shake itself out if I find it useful enough to improve. It therefore joins Starble and Plerd as open-source, modestly scoped blogging tools that I created as share-worthy utilities but which I ultimately maintain for my own regular use. Not bad!

* I can add, as a proud aside, that I have contributed to twitch-to-slack since then, cleaning up its documentation in a way that makes my own blog post a bit obsolete…

Mae, rat-queen.

The morning after, I feel I wrote too harshly about poor Mae, the protagonist of Night in the Woods. While I stand by my calling her naive, I also implied that she showed cowardice, what with the whole story kicking off by her bailing out of college, trying to recapture her sweet teenage doldrums from her parents’ attic bedroom. I want to walk that back.

Without spoiling the specific things about herself or her hometown that Mae discovers in Night in the Woods, I can still say that by the end of the story she makes it clear that her motivation for coming back home was larger than any basic fear of growing up. She wasn’t ready to leave yet, a year before the story begins, but she did so anyway, carried forward by the enormous pressure behind any first-of-her-name college freshman following her parents’ 18-year plan. In an inverted but real way, her dropping out represented an act of courage, a recognition that she had drifted off-track and needed a reset.

Of course she has no idea how to stick the follow-through; for the first time in her life, she finds herself without a script. And the story of Night in the Woods picks up from this point. And the story is this: look to your family, and find your friends. The story is front-to-back how Mae reconnects with the people she loves of Possum Springs, at first as an overgrown kid, but by the end as a young adult with a basic idea of where she is, who supports her, what problems she faces, and where she can go next. She left her friends too soon, on someone else’s schedule, and you and she spend your time together mending this tear. What she does afterwards is Mae’s business alone. I like to think that she finds her way back to school, on her own terms. But Mae was right to come home and fix the damage first, even if she had no idea why at the time.

One other, unrelated observation (and this contains a very minor spoiler): the sole note I wrote down while playing was “Jesus has baggage”. By this I referred to the slow dawning I experienced that the characters of Night in the Woods, while absolutely living in an analogue of a dim Pennsylvanian ex-mining town and possessing all the cultural referents so implied, don’t practice Christianity per se but a sort of alternate-history-American monotheism. The game stays very deliberate in the distinction. In both the church and the graveyard, one encounters a sun-shaped symbol where one would expect to find a cross, and the people celebrate not Christmas but “Longest Night”, a holiday that clearly serves the same winter-solstice purpose. But the big building in the middle of town is still called a church, its quiet pastor guiding her flock as best she can in ways I found achingly familiar.

Mae, practicing the same lazy-lapsed religion of all her peers as well as most everyone I grew up around in real life, has conversations about God with the pastor and others, especially after events in the story take a stranger turn. But nobody mentions Jesus per se, or any other more specific divine figure. I’d love to ask the game’s writers about this sometime, but for now I appreciate how they went to lengths to make faith present but abstract, to keep a story ultimately about the importance of human relationships grounded by avoiding the distraction of implicating any capital-C Church through invoking any proper-named aspect — other than the Big G at its largest, and most vague.

Mae says, "Decent."

I adored almost everything about this game. I wish that, upon completion, it offered a magic button that would replay the game from the beginning by itself, taking all the major choice-paths that I didn’t, so I could see everything I missed. I’d been looking forward to playing Night in the Woods since hearing its lead designers speak at Word Play in Toronto two years ago, and for some reason their description of a particular scene of the main character and her friend eating donuts at a late-night coffee shop in their decaying rust-belt town really stuck with me. While I felt richly rewarded by every choice I made in my playthrough, I did manage to miss the donuts entirely.

For a puzzle-free game with no voice acting to slow its pace — characters speak as quickly as you can read through their word-balloons — Night in the Woods surprised me with its length. I didn’t time it, but my escorting Mae through her story took upwards of ten hours, all of which required a modicum of active attention. I certainly can’t complain about that, because I loved my playthrough. It’s a peculiarity of interactive narrative that I’ll probably just have to live — in real life! — with my choices, never really knowing how it would have shaken out had I nudged Mae into spending more time with Gregg than with Bea, say.

Years ago I wrote about how Telltale Games, starting with their Walking Dead adaptation, cracked the decades-old problem of interactive television. Night in the Woods felt like something similarly transcendent, but I can’t say what for certain. An interactive comic book, perhaps, given its echoes of Scott Pilgrim? I can’t shake the feeling that the game’s peculiar pace, the repeating days where you patrol Mae through all the stations of her old neighborhood — which become comfortable so quickly — feels almost like a favorite newspaper’s comics page. We flip to the right section and scan through all the strips, reliably in the same place day after day, seeing what our old friends have to say this time. Surely this similarity owes more to accident than intent, since Woods’s city of Possum Springs presents a far more coherent world than an eclectic funny-page does. But, such is the cozily rotating record-groove that Mae thinks, naively, that she can roll back into by returning home.

On that note, the adventures of Mae and her pals hit me where I live, even if obliquely. I don’t think I’ve played any interactive bildungsroman in which I recognized more of myself and my friends, even if removed by a generation or so.

I was nearly 27 years old when I first emerged from central Maine — whose cold little cities bear more than a passing resemblance to Possum Springs — to find my delayed independence in Boston. (I didn’t aggressively bail out of adulthood the way that Mae tried to; it just took its time in finding me.) I made many friends in short order, and one group of them happened to all be around 20, just like Mae and the gang. Through them, and to some degree alongside them, I got to experience the same sort of turbulent exit from adolescence that Night in the Woods depicts: stumblingly learning to sync yourself up with a world you didn’t make, one which will drag you along anyway if you refuse to play. You also learn that your truest friends have graduated from playmates into companions, and how vitally important they become to your ongoing sanity and survival.

The game’s sole discordant aspect — not counting my terrible performance on the bass-guitar minigames — involve its use of a certain trope in a way that doesn’t quite fit right. I recognize how the story benefits from the external and unexpected motivation, but its particular resolution in this case just felt untidy. In contrast, Woods flirts much more effectively with themes from Lovecraft — just a drop, enough to add flavor without redefining the dish. The fears that drive Mae back home seem painfully mundane on one level, but they do, in their way, mesh with existential nightmares about an uncaring cosmos that she can’t even put into words.

What I’m saying is, if you haven’t heard from me in years but you get a call from me this week, you’ll know why.

A twitch notification appears in my Slack!

I wanted to set up one of my social Slacks such that a notification would automatically appear in the main chat-channel when I, or another of our circle of friends, started broadcasting gameplay on Twitch. I got it working, more or less! You’ll need a certain level of nerdcraft to follow the path I found, including access to a Linux server and knowledge of crontasks.

I could find no official integrations between Twitch and Slack, but I easily found multiple pages of GitHub projects claiming to do fill this need. Most have no documentation. Of those that do, the only one that I could get to work is Jeremy Bernard’s twitch-to-slack, albeit after some struggling. It requires a more recent version of Node.js than Debian — my preferred Linux distribution — makes easily available through its standard package manager. Happily, a friend taught me about NodeSource, which offers some Node-upgrading incantations specifically for Debian, and that got me on-track quite nicely.

Configuring the program presented a bit of a puzzle as well, but I managed to piece together the disparate advice from several of these half-baked projects’ files into this list of steps:

  1. Register your instance of the script as a new application with Twitch.

    When filling out this registration form, I found, one needn’t have a meaningful value for the “Redirect URI”; twitch-to-slack performs no authorization magic. I just wrote my personal URL in there, to no ill effect. And I selected “Chat Bot” as my application category.

    At any rate, Twitch will reward you with a “Client Secret” string, which you’ll need, so copy it somewhere.

  2. Add an “incoming webhook” to your Slack. Follow the prompts via the Slack website, and land eventually on a screen that provides you with a Webhook URL. You’ll need to copy this down, too.

  3. Per the twitch-to-slack documentation, copy the file config.json.example to config.json.

  4. Paste the Twitch Client Secret you generated earlier, in double quotes, as the value for this new JSON file’s “clientToken” key.

  5. Paste the Slack Webhook URL you generated earlier, in double quotes, as the value for the “slackHookUrl” key.

  6. Set the file’s “chaineID” value to a JSON-formatted array of Twitch user IDs you wish to track. For example, ["jmacdotorg", "asmadigames" ].

  7. Set “notificationOnStatusChange” to true.

And that should do it. You can test the script on the command line by running nodejs index.js while inside the twitch-to-slack directory. You can temporarily set the “chaineID” array to contain the ID of any currently-online Twitch channel — if all else is well, then a notification should show up within the Slack channel you specified back when you set up the webhook. (While testing, you may wish to aim the webhook to a private channel that only you can see, so as not to spam other Slack users.)

Once you feel satisfied that the script works as intended, set up a crontask to run the script regularly. I have my server simply run nodejs /path/to/twitch-to-slack/index.js every minute. It does get confused every so often, mailing me a random dirty-data error a few times per week, but not so much I feel bothered to try fixing it. It otherwise works just as it should.

Good luck, and happy broadcast-notifying!

The road to The North

I didn’t recognize this delightful novella by Kij Johnson as Lovecraft homage until nearly the end, when I looked up the name of a strange creature mentioned within, and discovered its original appearance in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. From there, surprised, I learned of all the connections between the two century-separated stories. Johnson does not mean to deceive; she names the original work in her book’s acknowledgements, and makes clear her motivation for setting the story in the older book’s world. She writes of a desire to “make adult sense” of a personally formative work she loved as a child, in spite of its transparent racism and its utter lack of female characters.

The territory that Johnson borrows from Lovecraft is “the Dreamlands”, a dimension which appears to be knit by men — and men, specifically — dreaming a certain boys-own-adventure dream in resonance. The sky resembles a rippling, patchwork quilt, highly intelligent housecats travel with agendas, and all the world’s people fear an unseen but very real pantheon of childish, squabbling gods. In one corner of this land, tucked away like the Shire, Vellitt Boe teaches at a women’s college. One of her students, the daughter of an important patron, elopes with one of the dreaming outsider-men, promising ruin to the college (either basely financial or divinely wrathful) if not amended immediately. And so Boe, herself a retired adventurer, straps on her kit and grimly sets out to retrieve the runaway.

Seen through Boe’s eyes, the Dreamlands resemble a world that only grudgingly accepts notions of gender equality, and without letting go of thoroughly male-dominated hegemony. This comes in part, it seems, because men vastly outnumber women in the Dreamlands — something that Johnson layers on to Lovecraft’s vision to explain certain discrepancies in hindsight. Of course, it doesn’t feel at all difficult to draw parallels between Boe’s trek through her fantastic landscape and a real-life woman’s mundane travels. Her perspective reminded me strongly of that of the protagonist in Charlie Stross’s The Annihilation Score, also a middle-aged woman, and who just like Boe finds herself struggling to belong to the only world she has even as it renders her increasingly invisible.

For all this, Dream-Quest keeps its focus on Boe’s quest, larger than this one burden she carries, however constant. Assisted perhaps by my accidental lack of expectations stemming from my unfamiliarity with the source work, I loved the whole strange, engaging adventure, whose satisfying conclusion I arrived at in a single sitting. The author makes clear her own lifelong admiration of Lovecraft’s surreal settings — and the weird creatures and cultures that populate it, both above and beneath the earth — and deploys them with such an original and interesting voice that, as I said, I had no idea until the end that I read a remix.

The other facet that stood out notably (in that I took notes about it) involved Boe’s obsession with her own age. Perhaps understandably, having not rambled through the Dreamlands in decades, she sees at every step visions of young Vellitt, incandescent with beauty and foolish confidence. She thinks constantly about the differences between that woman and her present self. In the middle of her adventure, she reconnects with an old flame, but realizes with distaste that he sees her as she was, now how she is. Does Boe realize the irony of her (not unrightfully) rebuffing him, when she lets herself carry the very same delusion? Perhaps so, and maybe that helps her better accept her particular transformation at the end of her quest.

The road to The North

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad presents its prologue and opening act as straight historical fiction, introducing us to young Cora, born on an antebellum Georgia cotton plantation, the daughter of its only successful escapee. After years of enduring the plantation’s dehumanizing tortures and privations, she embraces her inherited inevitability, stealing off with two other slaves to a rumored safe-house. And here, the novel plays with divergence: the Underground Railroad of Cora’s world exists as a literal subway line, coal-fired locomotives groaning through vast, dark tunnels. The abolitionists risking their lives to act as this railroad’s station agents feel modeled on history, while the stations beneath their homes, and the engineers manning the trains, exist in a surreal half-reality that reminded me of the “Red Room” dream sequences from Twin Peaks.

Through this mechanism, Cora slips between alternate-history views of the United States before emancipation. Each stop on the line carries her to a new state and — it seems — to a neighboring reality as well. South Carolina, here, has somehow become a free state, but its white hegemony still manages to see its black population as a problem to study and solve. Cora, reluctantly, must move on. North Carolina is neither a slave nor a free state, instead opting to bar all blacks from its borders — as well as any whites who would harbor them — on pain of public execution. And if Railroad’s Tennessee has achieved a measure of racial equality, it comes at the cost of universal diminishment, its blasted lands ravaged by fire and plague on an otherworldly scale.

Cora travels through all these states, arrives at a coda elsewhere, and then moves on from that as well. While she does meet friends and allies, Cora is hounded and harried in all these places, without rest, by a society that wants to destroy her. She has committed the crime of stealing herself, and so must run and fight like hell to protect her most personal property from a world which, whether through means overt or insidious, refuses to acknowledge that Cora belongs to Cora alone.

This reading puts me in the mind of Ta-Nahisi Coates, who also writes of the black American experience from a viewpoint that must begin with slavery — an evil whose soul survived emancipation, living on within the pervasively institutional racism that still thrives today. But Coates, like Whitehead, wrote his book before Trump’s election, and one cannot avoid feeling tightly contemporary resonances running through The Underground Railroad. The narrative of a woman fighting for her own bodily autonomy carries a new urgency, of course. As I write this, social media carries reports of American immigration agents breaking up families and deporting life-long residents, and — dizzyingly — I read of refugees fleeing the perils of America for Canada, for the uncertain safety of The North.

All of which challenges one to ask: What state do you live in?

I heard of this book in the most uncanny fashion, its author receiving mainstream acclaim for it just as I finished reading The Noble Hustle, a short and wryly self-effacing account of his brief go at the World Series of Poker. I picked up that book at random from my local library’s stacks because I wanted to read something about Poker, and that book looked new and short. I hadn’t heard of Colson Whitehead before, but his author photo let me know the book would count towards my ongoing mission to read more books by people besides white dudes. So I read and enjoyed it and then serendipity decreed that I would find myself suddenly awash in news features celebrating The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s brand new novel about the titular 19th century American abolitionist network. Okay!

You may find yourself in a situation where, in order to protect the private data on your phone — as well as the data on all the services accessible from your phone — from imminent seizure, you will need to erase that phone as quickly as possible. In such a situation, you may be unable to spare the attention necessary to fiddle around in the guts of your phone’s utility applications, hunting for its rarely used self-destruct command.

With a bit of foresight, you can set up your phone to allow erasing all your sensitive information without leaving its lock-screen — and then give you the ability to restore your data later.

  1. Set up your phone to back up its data regularly.
    • iPhone: In the Settings app, under iCloud, turn on backups. (You will need to set up an iCloud account if you don’t already have one associated with your phone.)
    • Android: (I don’t know! Feel free to tell me.)
  2. Set up your phone to erase itself after a certain number of incorrect password attempts.
    • iPhone: In the Settings app, under Touch ID & Password (or just Password on an older phone), turn on the Erase Data switch.
    • Android: (I don’t know! Feel free to tell me.)

Having done this, if you find yourself needing to make your phone’s data inaccessible quickly, you can lock it, then proceed to rapidly and repeatedly tap an incorrect unlock code — 1111, say — until you trigger the phone’s erasure. (Caveat: I haven’t tried deleting my own iPhone’s data this way, so I don’t know if one can expect having to navigate past “You’re about to erase this phone” dialogs or the like, as well.)

When your phone and your attention have both returned to your full control, you can get yourself to a Wi-fi spot and restore its data from its most recent backup. (On iPhone, this option clearly presents itself from a just-erased phone’s setup process.) You can also continue using your phone in its “factory-fresh” state in between its erasure and its restoration, but without access to your data you’ll have to (for example) manually enter your friends’ or family’s phone numbers in order to contact them. It may be a good idea, therefore, to complement this plan by carrying a few key phone numbers on a physical card that you carry separately in your purse or wallet.

I offer this advice as a white American who seldom crosses his country’s national border, such that I don’t feel it that this advice necessarily applies to myself today — but, reading the news, I have prepared my phone as I describe above just the same. I invite readers with different backgrounds or experiences than my own, and who wish to offer counter-narratives, to get in touch; I will amend this post as warranted.

Near and far.

When I launched my flight-turbulence prediction tool in December, I expected it to remain the focus of my attention through 2017. However, the global chaos that has followed Trump’s ascendency beckons me to shift my priorities. Surrounded by crises both suddenly shocking and subtly insidious, I can’t help but turn to less uncertainly entrepreneurial channels in order to assist the new American resistance.

BumpySkies won’t go anywhere, in the meantime. Having achieved minimum viable product, it has reached a sort of local minimum of stable utility; it does its one thing well, and requires little attention from me. I would love to turn BumpySkies into an income-generating venture, somehow, and I can see many paths to profitability I could start investigating — but any one such journey would require a very large personal investment in time and attention.

In the other timeline, I might have felt happy to begin this adventure immediately. In the world we have, though, I feel instead the call to return — at least for a while — to my consulting work, racking up a lot of billable hours and finding new but dependable routes for recurring project fees. I have, for the last couple of weeks, thrown myself into doing good work for my clients, approaching my professional relationships with renewed vigor.

This has meant that, on weekends when my friends and family have been marching in protests, I’ve stayed in my office, my head down over a hot text editor, refactoring code and writing automated test suites. And yet I march with them in spirit, because our goals are the same, and I have conviction that this method, indirect as it may seem, represents the best way I can assist the American resistance. I choose to trade away a larger slice of my time and attention for an activity that pays me well specifically so I’ll have more money to give away to causes I believe in, causes that will in turn help to keep my country and my world on-track.

A friend of mine told me recently that my new conviction resembles the philosophy known as effective altruism. Its Wikipedia entry describes that in rather specific terms, but also links to a related strategy simply called earning to give, which resonates immediately. Effective altruism, when practiced by the book, features an oddly passionless mandate for maximizing charitable efficiency — choosing, for example, malaria-prevention concerns over any charity of closer relevance to one’s own life, because money so applied will help far more people in measurably profound ways, dollar-for-dollar. Earning to give decouples this principle from the simpler pledge of pursuing the highest-paying career one can in order to tithe away a significant fraction for society’s good, leaving the specifics of targeting for the heart to decide.

What does my heart say? At present, there exist two major beneficiaries of my charitable giving; I have set up automated and sizable monthly donations to both. I reserve the right to adjust my sights in the future, but for now I like keeping to a strategy of having one near charitable recipient, whose actions lie close to home in terms of both location and time-span, and a far one concerning itself with long-term, world-wide issues. I do not mean to imply that these charities are the best, or even the most worthy within their spheres. They’re just the ones I give to right now.

ACLU. The near-term one, obviously. I last gave to them once the latter Bush administration grabbed the opportunity of a terrorist attack to enact its own abusive regime. If I recall correctly, I gave them a single gift of $100 — an amount commensurate with my financial status more than fifteen years ago. Today, I can afford to give more, and more often, and I do. Like countless others, I see its leading the swift legal fight to nullify Trump’s thoroughly un-American travel ban as immediate proof that I have invested wisely.

Union of Concerned Scientists. Prior to last November, I couldn’t have named a single politically active organization dedicated to legally challenging the forces who would keep the world ignorant about the threat posed by climate change. Now I know at least three. I learned about UCS first, and began monthly donations to it on November 9. I have since then encountered both EarthJustice and NRDC.

I may re-examine and rebalance my giving; UCS seems to emphasize communication and organization, and I may prefer supporting a group that favors direct action and legal challenges, in the same vein as ACLU. In any case, I find myself as frustratingly susceptible as anyone else to losing focus on climate change’s fearful, long-term promises when surrounded by closer crises of every kind. I very much want to support an organization that will pay attention to it — and act on it — in my stead. For now, UCS will do.

Robert Hooke's drawings of a pin's head and razor's edge as seen through a microcope

The first chapter of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, which I read late last year, reviews the start of humanity’s study of microorganisms, made possible with inventions like Leeuwenhoek’s microscope. These new technologies inspired the naturalists of the day, such as Robert Hooke, who dove hungrily into this new science of looking very closely at tiny things. Yong relates how Hooke gave a series of celebrated lectures on the topic for the Royal Society, which he later collected into a book titled Micrographia; the author noted in particular its beautiful and groundbreaking illustrations, drawn by Hooke himself.

Okay, thought I, and followed my impulse to pull out my phone and see if Rhode Island’s library system had a copy, and I’ll be damned. So some days later I brought home this small but heavy volume, a 1960s reprint on oddly thick, smooth paper of a 1920s edition which in turn precisely replicated the printing of something centuries-old, not re-set into modern type but preserving the block-printed appearance of an ancient book. Old enough for utterly unironic use of long esses throughout its text, and something else I’d never seen nor heard of before: every page ended with, in the lower-right margin, a preview of the next page’s first word. A checksum to help the book-binder get all the pages in the right order? I have no idea.

All of which made for quite a challenging book to actually try reading, so I approached it lightly, taking it only the gist of Hooke’s prologue and the text of his first couple of illustrated presentations, and then just content to flip through the promised pictures. With delight, I was able to extract Hooke’s spending many pages arguing that the reader accept the efficacy of the scientific method, of the value of creating new knowledge based on observation and experimentation — rather than merely faith, “common sense”, or received wisdom. This implied that this approach, which we learn today as essentially as eternal as science itself, held an uncertain novelty to the book’s learned contemporaries.

After that lengthy prologue, I unpeeled enough of the equally dense text around his first couple of illustrations to appreciate Hooke’s desire to punch up his topic by applying a narrative order to it. The first object he illustrates and describes is the tip of a pin, and the second is the edge of a razor — neither one the compound fly-eyes or finely haired flea-legs that inevitably serve as the book’s cover-worthy images. Hooke starts here, he writes in so many words, because he enjoys the idea of starting with objects that a reasonable person of the day might assume are manifestations of a geometrically perfect point and line, respectively.

Hooke then relishes his reveal, in both cases — not so! See: the microscope shows stunning imperfections in both. Under the apparatus, the pin-point appears as a crudely blunted mound, containing pits large enough to house bits of dust. The razor becomes a mere wedge, holding no more Pythagorean perfection than a door-stop. Both objects boast innumerable warps and scratches, all spotted with rust. The ineffable rendered ordinary, three-dimensional, and subject to the same mortality as all else on earth.

And that’s as far as I got. Really reading this book would require more study than I know I could reasonably give a book that my library card allowed me to keep for only a few weeks, so back in the return-bin it went. Still, a delightful adventure in chasing 17th century references in a 21st century book at a 20th century pace.