September’s Marvellous, Electrical newsletter tells the story of Jay, who found himself running the sole pub in a country town of twenty thousand during a year of renovations.
We come to the final instalment of this series on the forgotten but brilliant science fiction writer John M. Ford.
Over the last few posts, we’ve looked at how he made nifty comedy out of the Star Trek franchise, and how his interest in games allowed him to lend nuance to the usual goodies-vs-baddies-in-space shenanigans when he was playing in other people’s universes.
We also thought about why thinking science-fictionally matters when we try to find new ways of doing things for our communities, our organisations, ourselves. And we considered how good ideas move between the world on the page and the world beyond it.
I wanted to end by coming back to Ford’s actual life in Minneapolis. Read more
I started reading obscure author John M. Ford’s Star Trek books recently and I was blown away by how good they are.
I mentioned this online and other Ford fans started coming out of the woodwork:
Then I picked up a rulebook for a roleplaying game – GURPS Infinite Worlds – to research a time-travel-themed event I’m working on with a client.
Of course, whose name did I find among the co-authors?
Ford wasn’t just a novelist or poet – he also worked on role-playing games, devising scenarios and background material that other people could use to play out their own stories.
The past couple of years I’ve been working on ways to use such games for professional development, so I was pretty excited to have Ford come back into my life so soon.
Not only did he work on Infinite Worlds – a time-travel/parallel universe setting which, as the title suggests, can encompass almost any other scenario or genre – but he created an award-winning caper for the game Paranoia, and a manual for people who wanted to play as the traditionally villainous Klingons in the Star Trek game.
And here’s where we come back round to Ford’s novels, and to the making of fun and brilliant things in the cracks and spaces of big-money enterprises.
Here is where we talk about The Final Reflection.
Life is messy. The structures and services we design need to reflect that.
Creative responses to the world resist programming and procedure. You have to be flexible when you seek to address the challenges of this uncertain, unpredictable existence.
And if you’re going to plan and scheme a better future, that process should be intellectually stimulating, exciting: fun, even. Because if a vision of the future doesn’t engage, convince, and inspire, how are you going to make it work?
Let’s talk about Star Trek.
I’ve been thinking about where we go next.
It’s a big part of my job, which essentially has two sides.
One of them is connecting and coaching people to bring their own bright ideas to fruition: finding resources, partners, and opportunities for them to realise marvellous initiatives.
Another part is scouting out the unmarked territory, the unknown spaces beyond service models and strategic visions, the opportunities we hadn’t even considered yet.
That includes using speculative fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy as a way of thinking about how things could be different…and what comes next.
We’re revisiting two previous instalments of Marvellous, Electrical in a new form this month.
My partner Marta Cabral reads “The Dough“, about Brisbane’s baker of Portuguese pastries, in a bilingual version here:
Portuguese speakers can also enjoy Marta reading “Foolaru”, my Australia Day piece from 2017, here:
Marvellous, Electrical is a two-year project in the form of an email newsletter from across Queensland, Australia and beyond.
June’s Marvellous, Electrical takes us from Salford to the Brisbane suburbs via wrestling, a burglary at LS Lowry’s house, body bequests, and other wayward adventures.
“The world comes together every four years to compete in the soccer World Cup and the Olympics, but there are very few global events that celebrate the cultural as spectacle. We could argue for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but their budget for wind machines and holograms is notably lacklustre.”
Eurovision scholar Jess Carniel talks wind machines, geopolitics, and European identity while we get to the bottom of Brisbane’s moonshine industry in the latest instalment of Marvellous, Electrical.
What can relatively young disciplines like information science and the allied health professions tell us about society and pop culture?
On the eve of a new exhibition at Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art, these three creative professionals got together to explore Marvel’s superhero movies through new lenses informed by their expertise and experience.
Focusing on Doctor Strange (2016), the discussion embraced magic, mystery, science, history, identity, culture, politics, heroism, and lots of laughter.
From the history of Australian censorship to the dark side of healthcare, challenges in identity and representation, plus the arcane mysteries of “readers’ advisory”, listen now for a mind-expanding journey.
Kyla Stephan who writes the marvellous Library Ghost blog knitted me a hat for today’s Science March in Brisbane.
There are rightly some questions to be asked about the march organisers’ approach to diversity and inclusion, but I also thought it was important to show up and be counted in the name of all people who are curious about the world and revise their beliefs in the face of evidence.
In return for my hat, I had to find Kyla an interesting science story.
So here are a few words about drug dosage and cheesy moonshots.
What are the physics of highly compressed cheese and why does it matter?
My favourite science show-off moment was at a conference on Science and Storytelling at the University of Cardiff some years ago.
I was interested in how medics and health workers used storytelling in science, and one of my favourite projects was by an information scientist called Harold Thimbleby (PDF download).
He pointed out that in Europe, about 120,000 hospital deaths per year are caused by drug calculation errors – that’s more people than die in car accidents.
Not all of those errors can be blamed on the staff, however. The automatic pumps which dispense drugs through IVs etc are often difficult to program, and although they look like calculators, they are not.
A “simple” drug calculation is: how many mL/hr should an infusion pump be set to in order to give a patient 5250mg of fluorouracil over 4 days at a concentration of 45.57 mg/mL?
The simplest correct calculation using a basic calculator is: [AC][MRC][MRC]4 × 24 [MPLUS][AC]5250 ÷ 45.57 ÷[MRC] =
After getting all those key presses right, you then have to go through another round of button presses on the pump, without making any mistakes. All as just one task in your busy day at the hospital.
Professor Thimbleby developed a prototype smartphone app which asked you what the drug calculation was, and the type of pump you were using, and then guided you through the key presses step by step.
This reduced human error and created opportunities for the user to check and double check throughout the process.
What has all that got to do with a moon made of cheese?
Almost offhandedly, during his talk, Professor Thimbleby spoke of the certainty with which we know the moon isn’t made of cheese. He compared this scientific certainty to the world of storytelling, where we can still indulge that fantasy.
Even without visiting the moon, we can tell it isn’t made of cheese because of its albedo – the fraction of solar energy which it reflects back into space.
Different materials have different reflectivity: for example, ice and snow have a high albedo and cause most of the sunlight hitting them to reflect back into space.
We can work out the albedo of cheese and observe the brightness of the moon to confirm that it is, sadly, not made from dairy products.
But – but but but – what if the moon were made of cheese? How could we indulge that fantasy while maintaining the rigour of critical and scientific thinking?
Do we need to imagine a cheese-moon which is the same size or the same mass?
If the latter, the moon would have to be a lot larger. Nocturnal animals and the science of astronomy would be affected by the larger moon in our sky, with its much higher albedo.
What’s more, a moon sized piece of cheese would be denser and hotter at its centre owing to gravitational compression.
Would there be volcanos of molten cheese? At extreme high pressures, does cheese maintain its integrity, or break down into its component parts? Would the massive internal pressure cause it to explode?
I love that scientists can begin to explore these hypothetical situations without even having to leave the comfort of their armchair – or in our case, the post-march pub.
I love that there is a happy borderland where science and science fiction meet, and valuably so – because they are, ultimately, both spaces of wonder.
Professor Thimbleby made his cheesy digression and showed the value of thinking carefully and critically, reasoning from available evidence – but his work also demonstrates that you could save lives just by paying close attention to technology and human interaction.
He didn’t need to be in the ward to come up with a way to avoid deaths from drug miscalculation, and he didn’t need to land on the moon to work out what it was made of.
How cool is that? Read more