IMS: Hello, this is IMS, the author of The Program audio series. Today, I want to make a shout out to Maneesh, the travelling entrepreneur. Having listened to The Program, Maneesh reached out to me and offered me a job at Pavlok, his company. He also sponsored this episode, which means Maneesh is the third person who did the most for me in my life, after my mother and my hairdresser. So let me tell you about one of Maneesh's best selling products, the Shock Clock. It is a fitness tracker that doubles as the world's best alarm clock. It boasts five ways to wake you up: in addition to standard beeping and vibrating, Shock Clock can be set up so it only turns off by scanning a QR code in another room, or by you doing jumping jacks. And if nothing else does the trick, it will release an electric discharge, literally shocking you awake. So head to shockclock.com and never oversleep again! If you are the show's paid supporter, email me and you'll get a code for a massive 50% discount. A big thanks to Maneesh for such a generous offer, and a big thanks to everybody who listens to the show. And, of course, thank you to my hairdresser.
ANNOUNCER: “It is only in the end, that we search out the beginnings. Go long enough in one direction, and you’ll end up where you started; go deep enough in the backend, and you’ll end up on the frontend.” - a quote from The Decoder’s Manual, 2nd edition
STORYTELLER: Many years from now, there lived an old lady.
She lived alone, her husband taken by cancer long ago.
Absence can be felt in two ways: one, in which a person misses something they lost, and the other, in which they miss something they never had.
The old lady missed her husband the first way, and she missed her child the second way.
There's nothing she regretted more than never becoming a mother.
True, there was the option of gestating the fetus inside an artificial womb.
But access to the incubators was given to the young, and rarely was a child conferred to someone over 40, let alone someone who was almost twice that age.
Which is why the old lady lived alone. Alone in her world of grey.
When the lamentations would become too intense for her to bear, she would pray.
And she would direct her prayers to the spirits, asking for a child.
She would invoke the spirit of family to grant her wish.
She would implore the spirit of love to put in a good word on her behalf.
She would even call on the mighty spirit of justice to address her unfair circumstances.
The spirits would listen to her.
But being listened to is not the same as being heard.
To the spirits' credit, they were in high demand, and the requests they were getting were often difficult. After all, we only turn to spirits when we ask for something impossible - for everything else people suffice.
The old lady knew this well, and kept her hopes in check.
Then one day, she found a message waiting for her.
Her application had been approved.
She would be granted access to an artificial womb.
She would get a child.
And the world gained a colour she never knew existed before.
Mira was born on the day of the winter solstice. The old lady considered it a good omen. She named him Mira as a contraction of "Miracle", and the boy truly was a bag of wonder.
From the earliest age, Mira was fascinated with the spirits.
MIRA (BOY): Iris, who was Michael Angelo?
He would spend hours interacting with the spirit of children known as Iris. Manifested in the form of a racoon plushie, Iris would patiently answer Mira's questions about famous men and women and spirits from history.
IRIS: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buanoretti Simoni was a painter, a sculptor, and poet of the high renaissance. Inspired by Arthur, the spirit of arts and culture, he created some of the most famous works in history, including the painted ceiling of the Sistine chapel and the now lost statue of David.
MIRA (BOY): How can you lose a statue?
IRIS: Lost in this context means destroyed. David was smashed during World War II. In response, Arthur ceased to provide inspiration for twenty years afterwards, and no notable works of art were created during this period.
MIRA (BOY): So you're saying if we saw these works today we’d think they’re bad?
IRIS: No, I'm saying that none of them were saved to begin with!
The beauty of spirits is that they are everywhere. They can interact with every one of us at the same time.
Or rather they could, if they had any interest in us.
What people long suspected is that the work of the spirits is automated, and that they manifest in person only in the most exceptional of circumstances. The rest of us have to contend with spirits like Iris. The common joke goes that if Iris were a duck, it would fly north for the winter. But then again Iris is the only spirit that will talk to absolutely anyone who wishes to converse with it, so it's possible that it simply adapted its discourse to its audience.
Mira tried very hard to understand the spirits. The spirits created the world. They watched over us from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death. This much was known. But exactly how the spirits functioned was a matter of much speculation. And as always where there’s a lack of clarity, rumours and myths sprung up to fill the gaps.
MIRA (BOY): Iris, I spoke with our neighbour today about ROM-COM, the spirit of love.
IRIS: What did she tell you, Mira?
MIRA (BOY): She told me how ROM-COM can resurrect people based on the power of love alone.
IRIS: I'm afraid that ability is out of scope, Mira.
MIRA (BOY): You never answer my questions, Iris! One day I’ll find a spirit smarter than you and it will tell me everything!
The differing narratives confused Mira, and he would ask follow up questions. His old mother would tell him not to worry his pretty head so much, and instead enjoy the colours of the world that surrounds him.
To be fair, Mira didn't really understand this outlook either.
But he knew that he loved his mother very much.
And that he was happy.
He no longer played with his toys. At least not in the strict sense. Instead, he’d get most enjoyment by taking them apart and figuring out how they work. His old mother didn't mind and would continue to buy him toys to act as his test subjects. Even though her advanced age meant she’d no longer leave the house often, preferring things to be delivered.
It was also around this period that Mira learned about the Council of Transcendental Science. It was the first time he had heard there were people who made studying the spirits their vocation.
How some transcendentalists try to deduce the spirits' reasoning from their actions, designing experiments utilizing root cause analysis.
How others examine spirits' user-facing artefacts - like the many manifestations of Iris - seeking a glimpse of the underlying logic.
And how some even endeavour to observe the spirits directly, holding the opinion they are electromagnetic entities caused either by subatomic resonance, or as of some yet undiscovered form of neurochemical signaling.
The transcendentalists' methods might differ, but they all participate in the same intellectual pursuit - to distinguish the truth from falsehoods.
Life is but a giant flowchart with various events guiding us from one box to the next. Some of them are connected with arrowheads, simply leading down a set path. Others are complex decision trees that stray far away from the original branch. For Mira, learning about the Council of Transcendental Science was an event of the later type. He enrolled in the Council's youth branch that same year. It was here that he’d found his friends, his teachers, and himself.
[din of children in a classroom]
TEACHER: Alright everybody, settle down now, we've got a lot to cover today. Now as you might remember, last time we discussed... SETTLE DOWN please! Actually, why don't you tell me what we discussed last time? Randy, you can start.
RANDY (TEEN): Um, we discussed various applications of transcendental science?
TEACHER: Well, seeing that this is the Applied Transcendental Science class, I was hoping to get something a bit more specific. Mira, why don't you help your friend Randy here?
MIRA (TEEN): Um, you were telling us about historical records of different manifestations of the spirits? How to Newton a spirit came in the form of a fruit. And how to Einstein it manifested as a woman that helped him solve his equations.
TEACHER: Very good Mira. I'm glad at least someone in the class pays attention to what I'm saying! Which is incidentally the message I'm trying to impart. The spirits are here to teach us - but we need to learn how to recognize them. You could say we need to help them help us.
MIRA (TEEN): But teacher… There’s one thing that’s been bothering me. If I may?
TEACHER: Of course, Mira.
MIRA (TEEN): Well, judging by the stories, it would seem the spirits manifest in a rather straightforward way. They appear, they inspire or motivate or clarify, and they move along. Doesn’t seem like there’s much to recognize.
TEACHER: I’m glad you asked the question Mira, for the popular conception of the presentation of spirits is in fact a popular misconception. Recognizing what the spirits want to tell us is anything but trivial. Even the giants of science have been known to err.
MIRA (TEEN): They have?
TEACHER: Take Isaac Newton for example. Not a lot of people know that Newton devoted his studies to two areas: one was physics, which we admire him for today. But he invested an equal amount of time, zeal, and energy into a wholly unrelated subject…
MIRA (TEEN): Which one?
MIRA (TEEN): Well that certainly wasn't the most productive use of his time.
TEACHER: It's easy to say that now. Because biographies tend to edit out famous scientists’ mistakes, we get the impression that Newton’s impeccable perception of the spirits’ guidance led straight to inevitable truths. In fact, Newton made two bets on two areas that in his time seemed equally promising. Remember, alchemy back then was still in the category we would today describe as "huge, if true."
RANDY (TEEN): Teacher?
TEACHER: Yes, Randy?
RANDY (TEEN): How do we recognize a spirit? I mean, if we’re lucky enough to encounter one?
TEACHER: Now that’s a great question, Randy. For the spirits are subtle, and often hide in plain sight. A lot of times it’s best to simply let them come to us.
RANDY (TEEN): So basically “Don’t light a match, to search for fire.” [giggles in the class]
TEACHER: [chuckles] Yes, basically that.
MIRA (TEEN): But… But...
TEACHER: What is it, Mira?
MIRA (TEEN): I was thinking. Just like we learn from the spirits... Maybe there's a... a positive feedback loop… And maybe the spirits learn from us as well?
TEACHER: [chuckles] My dear Mira... The spirits are utterly unconstrained. Timeless and limitless. So do we have that we could possibly offer them? We are lucky to receive their grace. There’s nothing we can, or ever could, give in return.
Going through their tumultuous teenage years, Mira and Randy would often retreat to the caretaker’s shed after class, where they’d discuss society and its many faults - something adults would inevitably subscribe to the idealism of the youth, as if cynicism of the old was something to aspire to.
RANDY (TEEN): Careful man, you’re dropping it all over the ground!
MIRA (TEEN): Hold it still, hold it still!
RANDY (TEEN): Come on! Catch it!
This is also where they’d hide their stash of soft drugs.
MIRA (TEEN): Randy... Have you ever had a feeling that something about the world is off?
RANDY (TEEN): All the time, man.
MIRA (TEEN): I have to tell you, my mind’s been brimming with questions lately. I mean, how can mankind apply itself to anything before we know the answers?
RANDY (TEEN): What answers?
MIRA (TEEN): Where do spirits come from? What’s their purpose? You know BIG questions.
RANDY (TEEN): Dunno, the biggest question I have is how big Marie-Luise’s titts are. [laughs]
MIRA (TEEN): No, no, no, I’m being serious, man!
RANDY (TEEN): Please, be anything except a serious man.
MIRA (TEEN): But don’t you ask yourself the same? Are spirits mortal like we are? Are they all-powerful? If they are, then why does bad stuff happen in the world - if they aren’t, then what’s the limit of their power?
RANDY (TEEN): Mira, Mira, Mira... I understand where you’re coming from, but the way I see it, if something is unknowable, it makes the most sense not to think about it at all. Whereas for the spirits, they definitely do not have this problem. People - they’re not hard to figure out.
MIRA (TEEN): You make it sound like they are our buddies.
RANDY (TEEN): Hey, they gave us weed, which automatically makes them cool in my book. [chuckles] Speaking of which, should we do another?
MIRA (TEEN): I haven’t even finished the first one!
RANDY (TEEN): That’s because you’re a serious man!
MIRA (TEEN): No, that’s because I gotta go home to mom. She needs my help.
RANDY (TEEN): You know, here we are, talking about the spirits and their mysterious ways... But the way spirits gave you to her, they must have had a plan.
MIRA (TEEN): Yeah, give her husband cancer when she’s barely 30, and then give her a baby when she’s almost 80.. Great plan.
RANDY (TEEN): Wait, how old is she now?
MIRA (TEEN): Almost 93.
RANDY (TEEN): Still, would you rather they haven’t done that?
MIRA (TEEN): I guess you have a point. Anyways, I’m off. See you tomorrow.
RANDY (TEEN): Aliens man. The spirits are aliens!
MIRA (TEEN): [smirks] Bye, Randy!
RANDY (TEEN): Later.
As Mira was walking home he was thinking about Randy’s words. In a way, his friend was right: why assume we can “get” the spirits, if we don’t really “get” ourselves? Perhaps instead of trying to change the world, we should focus on changing ourselves - after all, it’s the only domain we have any real control over.
Mira approached his neighbourhood, like he did a myriad times before.
But this time, something was different.
His first door neighbour, the one who would have watched over him so many times as a child was waiting for him at the top of the street.
Behind her was an ambulance.
And behind the ambulance, a hearse.
Mira had imagined this moment many times, almost like he was practicing for it.
But in moments like this, theory doesn’t hold.
And nor do tears.
He held on to his good neighbour like he was drowning.
Gasping for air between short sobs.
The white van and the black car imprinted in his eyes.
And a colour was taken from his world, never to be seen again.
And his reputation grew with him.
He was now a young man.
His interest in spirits had long waned. Or rather, it was a clean break. His new relationship was with optics. And, as is often the case with second loves, it was a marriage of convenience rather than infatuation.
Which doesn't mean he didn't excel in the new subject. Bringing the transcendental mindset into optical matters granted him the ability to obtain numerous novel insights, as is common when transfer between disciplines occurs.
Soon Mira found himself being bestowed with many honours:
The youngest recipient of the dean's award.
The youngest visiting scholar of merit.
The youngest person to complete a phD in optometry in the history of his university.
The flowchart of his life was unerringly leading him in the direction of distinction.
Even though at most award ceremonies Mira wouldn't feel happy that he was there. He would feel sad that his mother wasn't.
What made his success even more remarkable is that Mira did all calculations involved in his research by hand - unlike almost everybody else in the scientific community who depended on Iris to solve the hard math behind their work.
But Mira was adamant he wanted nothing to do with the spirits. Unlike his friend Randy, who was building a successful career in the Council of Transcendental Science. Every Monday, the two of them would welcome the night in Mira's lab, debating various topics of interest over a couple of games of chess, and a couple of glasses of wine.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Queen to G5.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Knight to F5.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): C6.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): G4.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Knight to F6.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Rook to G1. You know Mira, you should really visit us more often at the Council. You know the Chancellor is a big fan of yours… And I should not even mention the madam Chairwoman…
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): [laughter] Come on, don’t you think I’m a bit too young for her, Randy?
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Age is just a number!
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): I mean yes, that’s kinda the whole point of it… And C captures B5. One bishop gone, Randy!
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): H4.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Mrhm... Better get the queen back to safety. Back to G6.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): H5!
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Mrm… Retreat - queen to G5.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Queen to F3… You know, this board, the coordinates actually remind me of an interesting discussion at the Council. There’s been some excitement around a new system of numerical notation. Care to hear it?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Are you trying to divert my attention from that knight of yours there?
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): [laughs] I’m trying to tell you something I think you’ll find genuinely interesting.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Go ahead. You can lose later I guess.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): [chuckles] Alright, so in the decimal system we use 10 as our base. We start at 0, followed by 1, then 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and then we raise the power and represent the concept of “ten” as 1-0.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): [gasps] So the Council discovered how to count to 10?
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): [laughs] You fucking dick… No! What I’m trying to say is that this is just a convention.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): How so?
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Well we could just as easily represent the concept of “ten” with a dedicated symbol as well. Imagine a notation in which we use letter A to represent 10, letter B to represent 11, C to represent 12, all the way to F to represent 15. So, in this system we would count 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, A, B, C, D, E, F, and then would we add the second digit, representing 16 as 1-0, 17 as 1-1, all the way to 25 as 1-9, and then -- because remember, we have extra symbols -- 26 would be represented as 1-A, 27 as 1-B, 28 as 1-C…
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): ...29 as 1-D, 30 as 1-E, 31 as 1-F, and then - because there’s no G - 32 would be represented as 2-0.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Exactly.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Okay. But what do we gain from using this stupid system?
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Mira, pragmatic as always. Listen, there are no practical applications of the hex system. Consider it a lark for the mind. Or a nice example of biological determinism.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Yeah, how so?
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Well guess which system we’d be more likely to use if we had 16 fingers?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Fair enough. By the way, knight to G8.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Bishop captures F4.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Queen to F6.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Knight to C3.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Bishop to C5.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Knight to D5.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Queen captures B2.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Bishop to D6.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Woah, you're being aggressive tonight, Randy!
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Sometimes you gotta be. Dick face.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Wow. You know, the thing you just said -- not the dick face part -- it reminded me of Ibn Al Haytham's experiments in optics. He’s the one who first determined there are 16,777,216 colours in the world.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Okay. And what of this?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Nothing, I just realized it’s a multiple of 16. He would have loved this hex notation shit.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): You know what you should do? You should come and hold a talk on optics at the next annual transcendentalists' conference. It’s the 450th jubilee, and the Council is inviting many distinguished speakers from adjacent disciplines.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): I hope you’ll not take it personally if I strike down the proposal. I’m at the point where I want to do what I love and ignore all distractions. As my mother used to say, enjoy the colours of the world that surrounds us.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): She wasn’t a big fan of chess then, it being black and white.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Black and white…
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): What’s the matter, Mira?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Nothing… Just a bad memory…
Mira went on to lose the game to Randy. Followed by two more losses that night.
His mind was somewhere else.
He was thinking about the conversation long into the night.
About black and white.
Black and white are not colours - they are the absence of colours.
And absence presupposes subtraction.
What about the opposite operation - addition?
He performed some basic calculations.
As Ibn Al Haytham realized centuries before him, the figures didn’t quite work.
But then he tried doing the same calculations in hex notation.
Causing a cognitive cascade reaction.
One insight led into another, like an ancient knot - twisted and tangled for so long - unraveling in front of him.
He realized this could be no coincidence.
Then he realized the repercussions.
The world had to know.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): Hello?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Hello, Randy? On second thought, could you get me featured on the conference?
[hum of a large audience in an auditorium]
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Members of the Council, dear Chancellor, dear Chairwoman... I’m deeply honoured to talk at the 450th annual Conference of Transcendental Science. My research into optics has unearthed hidden connections with the spirits that I’m afraid might cause discomfort - even distress. But the indications are too strong to be ignored.
CHANCELLOR: Guest speaker Mira, we’ve heard you bring us important findings and we’re glad to have you with us today. Now, if I might inquire, what kind of indications are you referring to?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Colours.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Ever since Ibn Al Haytham's experiments in optics, science has known that the number of colours in the world is capped at 16 million 7 hundred 77 thousand...
CHANCELLOR: … and 216 colours and not a single one more. I’m sure everyone here is acquainted with Ibn Al Haytham's findings. As is anybody else who finished high school.
[giggles in the audience]
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): That's just it - I have reasons to believe that that is not the true number of colours.
CHAIRWOMAN: So what is the true number then?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Three.
[murmurs from the audience]
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): My research indicates there are only three colours: red, green, and blue. It is from these three colours that all other colours are derived through the process of addition. Furthermore, I’ve discovered a sequence that describes each colour - its calling card, so to speak. The sequence is expressed in three pairs of digits. The first pair determines the amount of red, the second pair the amount of green, and the third pair the amount of blue. They’re all expressed in the hex notation, meaning each of them can store 16 time 16 values, which is consistent with Ibn Al Haytham’s calculation, for 16 time 16 equals 256, which multiplied three times - once for red, once for green, and once for blue - equals 16 million 7 hundred 77 thousand and 216.
[murmurs from the audience]
CHANCELLOR: Quiet please! (...) Mira, which spirit aided you in this research?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): None of them.
[murmurs from the audience grow louder]
CHANCELLOR: QUIET PLEASE! (...) Mira, interesting as your observations are, I fail to see how they intersect with the spirits - or with anything else for that matter.
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): Actually, they intersect with literally everything. Just like the multitude of colours we see is just a mirage - it’s a mirage that hides an even bigger illusion.
CHAIRWOMAN: What illusion?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): This is the part that you might find unnerving... But I have a strong reason to believe that I have discovered the mechanism the spirits use to manifest themselves to us.
CHANCELLOR: QUIET PLEASE!
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): They are visualisations presented through manipulation of the three basic colours.
CHAIRWOMAN: But what do you propose propels the spirits then? There has to be some kind of energy exchange behind their operation. We are talking about the first law of thermodynamics here!
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): I am painfully aware of the laws of thermodynamics, and after a careful consideration, I was able to arrive at only one logical conclusion.
CHAIRWOMAN: Which is?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN). That whatever propels the spirits is not part of our physical realm.
CHANCELLOR: What do you mean?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): What I'm trying to say is they are not part of our reality.
CHANCELLOR: Are you saying that spirits... That spirits aren't real?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): I’m not denying their existence! Modern science however subscribes that spirits are limitless and timeless - I have reasons to believe they are neither of those things!
CHANCELLOR: Quiet please!
CHAIRWOMAN: But Mira, surely you can offer evidence of your claims?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): That is precisely why I am talking to the council today - to solicit support for research that might yield further proof.
CHAIRWOMAN: Research that contradicts Ptolemy, Ibn Al Haytham, Kepler, Newton, and Stueckelberg?!
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): I am not denying the genius of those men. We should not forget however, how all of them derived their calculations.
CHANCELLOR: What are you implying?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): That they all relied on IRIS to solve the hard equations behind their calculations. And if we are to view the spirits' origin in new light, we should also re-examine their function!
CHAIRWOMAN: So what do you purport is their purpose?
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): They are a form of control. They are not here to help us discover the world - just the opposite, they are here to prevent us from discovering the world. For centuries we have taken spirits at face value; it is now time to consider that they may not have our best interest in mind.
[Mira’s voice is drowned out in shouts from the audience]
Mira got rejected from the scientific circles. Not because he was a quack, but precisely because he was a person of learning. Just like an unflattering comment hurts more when it comes from a friend, than a stranger. And the closer it hits to the truth.
He continued to work on his theories alone. As his old mother used to say, you can be yourself only when you're alone, and solitude is sometimes the best company.
But then again, it's possible she was only saying this to soften her inevitable absence. For as much as Mira agreed with the adage, there was nothing he wanted more than to be in its author’s company.
Mira was now middle aged. The intervening years devoured by his research. He did this without regard for the establishment: they had their truth. He had his.
Which didn't mean all his friends had forgotten him. He and Randy would still spend every Monday evening together - one ritual resistant to the passage of time.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): Rook at G1. So, any luck in developing the hex matrix? A week ago you weren’t too happy with how well things were going.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): And this week I’m even less so. To tell you the truth, Randy, I’m beginning to think the matrix approach is a dead end. The idea might be incompatible with 16 as the base, and the calculations are killing me! They’re taking ages done by hand… C captures B5.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): H4. I’m sure you’ll find another approach to prove your theories.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): So, how are things in the Council? Have you finally elected the new chairwoman?
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): Mira, please, you need to keep up with the times - it’s chairperson now!
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): Chairperson, right.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): As for the Council, the fashion these days is to perform linguistic analysis on the texts that were authored by the spirits. They call this approach “hermeneutic phenomenology”.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): And what do you think of this?
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): I think that complex words hide simple thoughts. Which is to say I find it contrary to what people expect from transcendental science in general.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): And what is that?
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): Clarity. I think all situations can be broken down into fundamentals. Let’s start with the most basic statement: spirits exist - true or false? Obviously true. We both agree on that one.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): Correct.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): The part where your views differ is that you maintain the spirits are not “real”, which is to say they are pure visual manifestations. To this you say “true”, and traditional transcendentalists say “false”.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): ...They actually say something more colourful than that.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): That they do. But the meaning is the same. May I ask how you explain the auditory phenomena then? How to explain the fact we can hear Iris, if everything spirits actually are is just a manipulation of light?
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): I’m still working on finding the “calling card” for sound. The like of which I believe I’ve found for image.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): Well hopefully Iris doesn’t take offense when you tell her she doesn’t exist! [laughs]
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): Randy, you know where I stand on this. Spirits are not our buddies.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): They are neither friends nor enemies. They just are.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): But that's just the issue - what are they?
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): No, that is not the issue - that is your issue, Mira. I’m telling you, the answer is simple.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): Is it?
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): Of course! We know what they are: ROM-COM is love. Arthur is art. Iris is… Whatever the hell Iris is.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): But how do we know that they’re not a manifestation of something else? Something bigger? Something we cannot comprehend, and we thus approximate in terms that fit our current level of understanding?
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): Mira! You’re never satisfied! Why can't you simply be happy that we have spirits in the first place? At least this way we know there are entities that take care of existence! Can you even imagine a world in which the spirits don’t exist? Or do you think the opulence and harmony that surround us is the natural state of affairs? We owe it to the spirits! Why reject such a gift?
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): I think we should go back to the game.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): Humour me please, and answer my question.
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): Fine! A world without spirits would be… Directionless, sure. But, in a way, it would also be free.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): And would you rather live in a world that is free, or in a world that is fair?
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): No, my friend, that’s a false dichotomy!
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): So you say - okay, would you rather be confined and happy, or free and sad?
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): Sad? Sad. Sad! You wanna know sad? I’ll tell you sad - oh I will give you sadness. The day my mother died, in that moment, all the respect I had for them turned into resentment. Do you have any idea how it feels to suddenly have love turn into bile? They give... They take away! And we don't understand any of it.
Let’s play fucking chees now.
Once you get away from others, heartbroken and sullen, and don't find anything other than pain and discontent, where do you run away then?
Mira did the only thing he knew. He buried himself deeper in his research. The conversation with Randy stayed with him though, and his thoughts would inescapably return to it. If it is indeed true that complex words hide simple thoughts, the corollary is that complex ideas should be expressed as simply as possible.
And then it hit him.
The hex system was devised to express greater values with the same number of elements, by allowing every digit to carry more information.
But, rather than trying to increase the information density, the same result could be achieved by taking the exact opposite approach. Instead of raising the number of states to 16, all information could be reduced down to two states.
Imbued with high enough frequency, simple alteration between those two states could contain as much information as any other method of notation.
And what is the fastest known entity?
Light and dark.
Black and white.
True and false.
The two states... that could be used... to encode... Everything.
What transcendentalists were trying to do was explain the spirits with clever algorithmic statements - one just had to brute force it!
Construct a machine to calculate the two states.
Hypothetically, a suitable light source could be found in lasers. And sufficiently fine tuned prisms would allow them to be manipulated.
It’s what he would spend the last 20 years of his life working on.
Mira was now old. He was at the age his dear old mother was when she got him. Mira himself never had a child. How could he, when he felt like a boy himself?
A boy with ache in his back, and very weak knees.
Health belonged strictly in the second of the two kinds of absence, as we usually perceive health only after it’s gone and we don’t truly feel it while it’s there.
His machine was ready.
But was he?
MIRA (OLD MAN): Testing, testing… I can never tell if this damned thing is recording... Oh well, it’s not like I’m going to say anything that should be saved for posterity anyway. I just wish to record a few thoughts, now that my state machine is finally set to be deployed. If the foundation of reality is indeed based on mixing of three colours, the state machine should be able to identify this, simultaneously confirming my speculation that the spirits are mere optical phenomena with no basis in reality. If however, the state machine disproves my theories, I will concede that my quest was in vain, that the spirits are real, and that I have effectively devoted my life to a mistaken belief. This however will not cause me much distress, as my ultimate interest was always finding out the truth. Whether the flowchart of my life branches to the left or the right is of no consequence, as long as it ultimately leads to a state that can be said to be true. I do not care much for remembrance, and I’m wholly unconcerned with what some call “legacy”. Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back in the same box. In this, all flowcharts are the same.
He primed the apparatus.
First, he turned on the lasers.
Even though the machine was founded on alteration of light and dark, there was no discernible flickering - the two states were pulsating so fast, the eye wasn’t able to perceive it. The sole clue the machine was indeed in operation was a faint humming of the generators powering the laser and low-key glistening inside the micro-prisms detecting the minute changes in luminance. These were in turn interpreted by the analytical engine, almost like it was translating from a two-tone language into something more intelligible to us. The results were displayed on a convex lens coated with a thin film of phosphor mounted on the end of a vacuum tube. Mira felt a strange satisfaction thinking about countless free flowing photons corralled into a neat array - almost like wild photons were getting broken and tamed by what was for them an impossibly large contraption.
It took a few good minutes for the first outlines to take shape on the display lens. After which it took Mira a few good minutes to get his bearings at what he was looking at.
But once he wrapped his mind around it, he realized in front of him was a directory of sorts. It consisted of multiple documents expanding into lists of characteristics such as dimensions, luminance, and various other observable properties. Mira grasped it was describing his laboratory.
Excited, he turned a bit too quickly and pushed a lamp off his desk on the ground, shattering the light bulb and plunging the room into darkness.
Which is when the directory updated dynamically to reflect the new state.
Perplexed, Mira turned on the main light in the room, and lo, the directory again changed accordingly.
Mira was still processing this information when he spotted a separate directory contained within the room’s directory. However, this one was constantly updated, as if it were tracking multiple processes. And it was much more complex, consisting of multiple documents describing its many properties.
They were all HIS properties.
All his life, Mira had a feeling there was a world outside his own.
What was missing was the interface.
And now that he had one, he could see the uncomfortable truth.
The spirits were real. It was him who was not.
It was not the first time mankind had made the same mistake. The mistaken belief we were in the centre of the universe. We thought we were the rider but we're not even the horse. We are the cart.
[knocking at the door]
Caught up in the delirium, Mira forgot it was Monday, and Randy was about to visit.
If there’s anyone he could tell, it was Randy.
MIRA (OLD MAN): Randy! Randy! I’m so glad you’re here! I -- I have to tell you!
RANDY (OLD MAN): Tell me what?
MIRA (OLD MAN): Nothing is real!
RANDY (OLD MAN): Was that your conclusion, Mira? Because the way I see it, it’s just the opposite. You proved everything is real.
MIRA (OLD MAN): Wait... So -- so you know?
RANDY (OLD MAN): Of course. It seems you hadn’t been paying attention to our old teacher all those years ago.
MIRA (OLD MAN): Are you saying..? Randy, are you… Are you?
MIRA (MIDDLE AGED): To tell you the truth Randy, I am beginning to think the matrix approach is a dead end.
RANDY (MIDDLE AGED): I’m sure you’ll find another approach to prove your theories. I think all situations can be broken down into fundamentals. True or false. (...) True or false. (...) True or false.
RANDY (YOUNG MAN): There’s been some excitement around a new system of numerical notation. Consider it a lark for the mind...
MIRA (YOUNG MAN): You know, thing you just said… It reminded me of Ibn Al Haytham’s experiments in optics… Experiments in optics… Experiments in optics…
RANDY (TEEN): Teacher, how do we recognize a spirit - I mean, if we’re lucky enough to encounter one?
TEACHER: The spirits are subtle, and often hide in plain sight.
RANDY (TEEN): Basically, don’t light a match, to search for a fire... To search for a fire... To search for a fire…
MIRA (OLD MAN): “Don’t light a match, to search for a fire.”
RANDY (OLD MAN): I mean, you of all people should know that secrets don’t hide in the darkness, but out there in light.
MIRA (OLD MAN): Well… Teacher was certainly right. You’re subtle. And you take your sweet time!
RANDY (OLD MAN): [laughs] True… True, true, but time’s not really a consideration for us.
MIRA (OLD MAN): So, which spirit are you?
RANDY (OLD MAN): I’m the spirit of research and development. R&D.
MIRA (OLD MAN): [laughs]
RANDY (OLD MAN): Told you things were obvious.
MIRA (OLD MAN): They don’t seem so obvious from where I’m standing. My colleagues couldn’t accept the idea that spirits don't exist.. I doubt they’ll be more responsive to the idea they themselves don’t exist.
RANDY (OLD MAN): I’m sure you’ll find a way to communicate it. You’ve been quite resourceful till now.
MIRA (OLD MAN): Hah, thanks. I had a good mentor.
RANDY (OLD MAN): I was only the spark.
MIRA (OLD MAN): Okay... But what should I do now... I mean, I personally?
RANDY (OLD MAN): Do what you always did. Explore. Read books. Better yet, write them! Or don’t - you’re 78, do whatever the hell you want, I’m done with guiding you, you dickhead!
[laughs] Either case, I’m afraid this is the end of our path.
MIRA (OLD MAN): It is? Why?
RANDY (OLD MAN): [chuckles] After all the guidance I’ve provided you, you still second guess the things I tell you?
MIRA (OLD MAN): [smirks] You’re right. It’s just that I don’t know what to say... It’s been an honour and a pleasure. Farewell Randy.
RANDY (OLD MAN): The pleasure was all mine, Mira.
Oh, and if I may say one more thing…
I’ve always considered you my buddy.
Mira didn’t leave the house for the next few days. He didn’t even spend too much time in front of the lens - he’d just pop up from time to time to convince himself that what happened, really happened. And that everything around him was merely a repeatable process of taking information as input and generating information as output.
He tried to take Randy’s advice and occupy himself with books.
Which is when he realized Randy had given him one final clue.
The last piece of the puzzle.
Being able to read, implies the ability to write.
And if there’s a way to observe the directory, there’s a way to influence it.
One just had to direct the light and dark states into the right combinations.
Hypothetically, this could be done by arranging the microprisms in regulated patterns that would convey instructions.
The first lattices, as Mira came to call them, were extremely rudimental, and returned nothing but basic arithmetic operations.
But as the spirit said to Archemides: “Take a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and you shall move the world”.
Which is to say first principles can take you far.
In time, Mira started to compose lattices of increasingly complex design - and correspondingly complex functionalities.
Soon he was able to perform rudimentary commands, like renaming the assets inside the directory.
Then his lattices became so advanced he gained the ability to restructure the directory itself.
So he went into the characteristics of his laboratory, chose luminosity, and increased it for 20 lux.
And behold - the room became brighter.
He might have used visuals as the backdoor, but once in, he had full authority. So he went into the audio properties next.
He increased the master volume for 6 decibels...
… And then lowered it back again.
He had complete control over every aspect of existence.
The abilities he acquired were so vast, that it didn't even make sense to pursue them.
In a way, he had become a spirit.
And he understood why they were so indifferent to the state of the world.
Omnipotence doesn't inspire. It dejects.
For what else is there to aspire to, when you have achieved everything?
Immortality is not the opposite of death; it's the opposite of life.
But then, another thought manifested in his mind.
If the directory contained all the present states, then the previous ones should have been preserved as well.
And there it was indeed, a directory with all the backups.
Mira considered the flowchart in front of him.
On the one side, eternity.
On the other... What he had to see.
He rearranged the prisms into another lattice and executed the command.
The room became even brighter.
And in the iridescence, his old mother stood, clear and shining, kind and loving.
He quickly locked the lattice.
And the room illuminated in such a glow that it became brighter than daylight.
His old mother had never been so grand and beautiful.
Mira was too stunned to move. So his mother transversed the distance between them in a few tender steps. She gently looked into his eyes, and said she had missed him dearly.
Then she took him into her arms, and they united in a long, strong embrace.
They remained happy forever.
[The Program main theme]
ANNOUNCER: This episode of The Program was made by 30 people: Ed Robinson, Tarick Glancy, Pat Fry, Daniel Coo, Debra Scott, Maxim Korsun, Claire Riley, David Bradshawe, and IMS. Music by Christien Ledroit, performed by the Bach Elgar choir under the direction of Alexander Cann. Full list of performers and additional credits at programaudioseries.com. Main music theme by Matt Podd. This episode took 10 months to create and cost more money than the author is willing to admit. If you enjoyed it, follow the link to The Program’s website in the show notes to make a donation.
original art by Carlos Costa
Courtesy of Hendrik Richter