We live for such miracles

I forgot that people actually wrote things by hand long before typewriters and computers were invented, until I came upon this digitised original manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I suppose a lot of other famous writers do this too, both drafting and possibly writing the entire book. Writers like James Patterson, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates (“Writing is a consequence of thinking, planning, dreaming “) all write their works by hand, some even write in pencils, and even much more amazing, in longhand. Some writers, like Niven Govinden found computers are “not conducive to good writing”, “a lined notebook is less judgmental”, “a blank computer screen makes me want to throw up” (why is this also familiar?), and most importantly, the writing flows much better, or in his own words, “I write in a more economical way. I think harder about one good sentence following another, which for me is all that matters”. I personally (not that I am a famous writer) had only written notes or rough structure using pen and paper before transferring them to writing software such as Scrivener or Google Doc, but I do get the idea about the ‘flow’ as you put down your rough ideas into paper.

A screen capture of a scene in Mindhunter with the actors Jonathan Groff, Anna Torv, and Holt McCallany standing next to each other in the lift

I am currently obsessed with watching the true crime series on Netflix called Mindhunter, which was based on the eponymous book. It revolves around two FBI agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench, and psychologist Wendy Carr, who were part of the bureau’s Behavioural Science unit who went around to interview real serial killers to understand how they think — ‘serial killers’ being a term which they apparently also coined, which initially of what they called ‘sequence killers’ — in order to concoct a profiling framework of these killers and how they could become what they have become. The series, part academic part true crime, tries to answer the most important question at the heart of it, “Are criminals born, or are they formed?”. This is a series with as less gunfights as possible, and more chilling moments — such as the scenes where Holden and Bill interviewed Ed Kemper, an apparently very articulate serial killer and necrophile who also killed his own grandparents and mother. The casting, especially for the killers, is on point. The show, however, posed many racist and misogynistic dialogues and scenes, all of those which were probably a representation of its time (the show was based in 1970s). I am still in Season 1 and I would watch one episode per night before sleep (not entirely a good decision though) after writing my thesis.

I picked up Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories at the bookstore today. I am only in my first 50 pages so far (out of 500+ pages) and I feel somewhat guilty for reading a new book despite having not finished the annotated Frankenstein and The Digital Party, but I have always been a polygamous reader and it’s nice to switch books to read once in a while. In his preface, Liu, also a translator (he translated the famous Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem series) wrote about all manner of communication is an act of translation with some beautiful description of how neural impulses travel from his brain to his hands and then perceived by the readers’ eyes, which caught my attention:

Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.

At this moment, in this place, the shifting action potentials in my neurons cascade into certain arrangements, patterns, thoughts; they flow down my spine, branch into my arms, my fingers, until muscles twitch and thought is translated into motion; mechanical levers are pressed; electrons are rearranged; marks are made on paper.

At another time, in another place, light strikes the marks, reflects into a pair of high-precision optical instruments sculpted by nature after billions of years of random mutations; upside-down images are formed against two screens made up of millions of light-sensitive cells, which translate light into electrical pulses that go up the optic nerves, cross the chiasm, down the optic tracts, and into the visual cortex, where the pulses are reassembled into letters, punctuation marks, words, sentences, vehicles, tenors, thoughts.

The entire system seems fragile, preposterous, science fictional. (…)

And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilisation to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.

Does the thought not make the universe seem just a bit kinder, a bit brighter, a bit warmer and more human?

We live for such miracles.

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