The Flow of Time (Utah 2009 IV)

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What if we had the opportunity to thaw, say 100 years after our death, and, for possibly only a limited time, contemplate and re-valuate our life and its historical context? Would we seek revenge or make amends?

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The flow of time is a tricky thing. Can we stop or even reverse it?

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This already is an intriguing topic, but Evgenij Vodolazkin in his novel The Aviator aims deeper: How does life gain meaning? Does it come from isolated actions of singular importance, or from repeating seemingly insignificant chores?

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Sometimes the timelines of several people can fuse in order to tell a story. 

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Warmly recommended.

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Once Upon a Time…

This post is about a dying species, the physical book. While book sales are stagnating at best, the number of published books is exploding, meaning that fewer copies of each book are printed. How many of these will survive say a century?

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The lucky ones end up in the stacks of large university libraries like the Wells Library shown here. It’s like with animals: In the wild, their life expectancy is much lower than in a zoo.

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I grew up in five minute walking distance to a local, privately owned book store. In 15 minute biking distance were two public libraries. These days, privately owned book stores are nearly extinct, and the chains that helped kill them are struggling. Easily obtainable books in print are either classics or bestsellers.

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If you want that one exotic book that a friend recommended, you probably need a large library (and be able to read in another language). But they are struggling, too: Space is precious, demand low.

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So the aisles are emptied, the books extradited to special auxiliary library facilities, from where you can request them. The happy hours of browsing are gone.

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The Spider

When I was in third grade, my father brought home a beautiful 2 volume edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, illustrated by Alfred Kubin.

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The genre name Horror Story describes very unsatisfactorily what Poe accomplishes. The conventional horror story utilizes a simple scheme: It wins our trust by first presenting a plausible scenario, and then abuses this trust in order to get away with less plausible events.

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In Poe’s best stories, this is not the case. The horror story is happening in the protagonist’s mind, and we become afraid that this same horror might as well infest our own brains.

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There are a few European stories that achieve the same effect, and one of them is Hanns Heinz Ewers’ story The Spider, from 1915. In it, the tenant of a small apartment starts to play a game with a woman in a window across the street: They make movements with their hands, which the other is supposed to copy. The narrator, whose diary we read, is at first surprised how quickly his neighbor can repeat his own movements, until he realizes that he is in fact, against his own will, only repeating the movements of the neighbor.

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This realization comes too late, obviously. No good horror story can end well. The same is true for Hanns Heinz Ewers himself, unfortunately. Despite having understood the machinations of manipulation, he fell under the spell of  a much larger spider, even though he didn’t share their racial ideology, had conflicting sexual preferences, and his books were banned.

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Durissima est hodie conditio scribendi

The regular pentagon is a curious thing. It doesn’t tile the plane, but we can use twelve of them, three around each vertex, to tile the sphere, obtaining the dodecahedron.


This is one of the five Platonic solids. Their symmetries have intrigued mankind back way before Plato and any written history, but today’s story is contemporary. Johannes Kepler needed more than five regular shapes, because he had set his mind to explain the universe. In his Harmonice Mundi, he analyzed regular polygons, star polygons, polyhedra, and (re-)discovered star polyhedra, two of which I will look at today.


The Small Stellated Dodecahedron as conceived by Kepler does not have 60 triangles but rather 12 star pentagons as faces. It also has only 12 vertices and 30 edges. This leads to the annoying observation that this polyhedron has Euler characteristic -6, meaning it is topologically not a sphere, but a surface of genus 4. Similarly, his Great Stellated Dodecahedron


has 12 usual regular pentagons as faces, but is only immersed. To unwrap these, we need the hyperbolic plane, tiles by regular hyperbolic pentagons whose interior angle is 72 degrees so that five of them fit around a corner.

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That is not part of Kepler’s story but that of William Richard Maximilian Hugo Threlfall, who was probably the first who understood the hyperbolic nature of Kepler’s polyhedra, and their group theoretic implications. So we can tile the hyperbolic plane with regular pentagons, five around each vertex. One of the surprising features of the hyperbolic plane is that shapes do not scale as in the Euclidean plane. Pentagons half the area have actually right angles, so that four of them fit around a vertex, as indicated by the reddish grid in the picture above.

Curiously, there also is a uniform polyhedron where four pentagons fit around each vertex, the so-called Dodecadodecahedron (yes, these names are odd).


It has as faces both pentagons and star pentagons.

There is another connection between Kepler and Threfall. Kepler begins the introduction of his Astronomia Nova from 1609 with the sentence Durissima est hodie conditio scribendi libros Mathematicos, praecipue Astronomicos. In 1938, Seiffert and Threlfall published a book (Variationsrechnung im Großen) that has as its motto the shortened quote Durissima est hodie conditio scribendi libros Mathematicos.

That was a risky thing to do back then.

Kepler was an interesting personality. It must have been maddening for him to believe himself on the verge of unraveling the universe and be constrained by earthly powers that threatened to burn his mother as a witch. There is a biographical novel about him by John Banville (whom I generally like for his affinity to bizarre characters). In this case, I am afraid, he falls short. Maybe only a scientist can truly understand scientific obsession.


Rarely have I enjoyed the first frost as must as this year.

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It’s time to look back, and the theme leaves suggests that I list the books that I found memorable this year.

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In the English language, there were several books I really liked. Zero K by Don DeLillo, and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. DeLillo’s book is atypical for him, the humor of his earlier books has disappeared, and the discussion of the acceptability of death reminded me of classic greek theater. Ishiguro has been writing against being compartmentalized for a while, and his Buried Giant is no exception. I must admit that he has tricked me with this book: I thought it was an easy read, but only later realized that I have forgotten crucial parts, very much akin to the forgetting that is happening in the book itself. It’s a daunting book.

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I haven’t read as many French books from this year as I would have wished, mainly because I will probably forever play catch up with previous years. The one outstanding book though is the completely devastating Chanson douce by Leïla Slimani. The book begins with the death of two children, killed by their trusted baby sitter. While we learn more about it, we have to reconsider what makes a life worth living. This book has won the Prix Goncourt this year. While I don’t trust book prizes blindly, they sometimes get it right.

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Then there are the books in German. For me, the clear winner is Am Rand, by the Austrian writer Hans Platzgumer. Once more this year we hear about a life, and its end. This appears to be this year’s theme in literature: Ways of dealing with death. This sounds morbid, but the point is that while the protagonists approach death one way or the other, we learn about how they deal with life, and in all the books above there is a lot to learn.

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Incidentally, by favorite book this year is not about death at all but rather about a desperate attempt to grasp life. J.M Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus is the sequel to his The Childhood of Jesus, and it is pretty clear that there is more to come. We follow two immigrants (a man and a boy) in a nameless, kafkaesque country. The man is willing to accept his new life, while the young boy questions everything, creating meaning in a senseless world.

The Quarry

The quarry is an interesting design pattern. Our daily lives need nurture, and while some of the nutrients are free or at least easily available, there are some that require hard work: Seek out the sources, mine them with skills and stamina, and transport and transform the goods into desired place and shape.

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We all should have our own personal quarries (which is why I declared them a design pattern, not for computer science but for the architecture of our own lives). My personal quarries, in a pre-internet life, used to be bookstores. They had their own personality that you needed to get acquainted with, invited into, so to speak. There were unforgettable moments, for instance, when I went into one of these quarries in Marseille, found Marcel Béalu’s L’Expérience de la nuit, and was told by the wise person at the cash register c’est une très beau livre. Indeed it is.

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Another key experience was my visit to a museum book store in a city I hadn’t been before. I was instantly struck by a déjà vu experience next to none: I had been in this bookstore before. To prove this to myself, I went straight to a shelf in a particular aisle and retrieved the book I knew was there. I don’t believe in these things, and they don’t happen to me.

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It took me a few hours to remember that I had been to a another museum a few years back, and visited their museum store, which had the exact same layout as the one that caused my déjà vu. This was long ago, and in Europe, and I was not familiar with the fact that store owners had discovered design patterns and used them for cheap and successful replication.

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Since then, times have changed again. Not only are my book quarries mostly gone, but even the chains of near identical book stores have largely disappeared, replaced by electronic online retailers. I don’t object the internet (how could I). But I believe that we need to resist the total commercialization of our lives. We can do so by creating little quarries for others. Maybe.

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The pictures here are from the Old State House Quarry in McCormick’s Creek State Park. Southern Indiana is limestone country, and the lime stone from this particular quarry was quarried in the late 19th century.

Zoppo Trump

In 1969, almost 50 years ago, Zoppo Trump wanted to become the new ruler of the Little People. To avoid the three contests required to challenge the current ruler, he resorted to all sorts of trickery, including kidnapping and attempted murder.
I am making this up? No, this is all written down here, in Tilde Michels’ fabulous book:


This was one of my favorite childhood books. I tells how Jenny and Max discover the King Kalle Wirsch inside a garden gnome, and go on a journey into the realm of the Erdmännchen (Little People), after conveniently being shrunk to proper size by eating raxel root. The meet endearing characters like the ferryman

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and travel inside a fire worm through lava fields

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in order to reach the convention of the Little People just in time to prevent Zoppo Trump to seize power. Here is the bad guy after winning the first contest:

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The story ends dramatically. Maybe you can guess what happens from the last image:


The three middle images are screen grabs from the DVD, made by the famous Augsburger Puppenkiste. As a kid I was glued to the screen whenever this was broadcast. The top image is the front cover of the first edition, and the last image is from within the book, one of the many illustrations by Rüdiger Stoye.

This book has, to my knowledge, not been translated into English. Anyone? Now is the time!