29 January 2016

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Ineluctable Modality of the Visible

Significant Digits, Chapter Thirty-Eight: The Ineluctable Modality of the Visible

“What stories do you mean, and what fault do you find in them?”

“The fault one ought to find first and foremost, especially if the falsehood isn’t well told.”

“For example?”

“When a story gives a bad image of what the gods and heroes are like, the way a painter does whose picture is not at all like the things he’s trying to paint.”

“You’re right to object to that.  But what sort of story in particular do you have in mind?”

“First, telling the greatest falsehood about the most important things doesn’t make a fine story -- I mean Hesiod telling us about how Uranus behaved, how Cronus punished him for it, and how he was in turn punished by his own son.  Even if that were true, it should be passed over in silence, not told to foolish young people.  And if, for some reason, it has to be told, only a very few people -- pledged to secrecy and after sacrificing not just a pig but something great and scarce -- should hear it, so that their number is kept as small as possible.”

“Yes.  Such stories are hard to deal with.”

- Plato, The Republic  II.377e-378a


John Snow Center for Medicine and Tower School of Doubt (The Tower)
May 17th, 1999
The same day

“Well, that was a waste of two hours,” drawled Draco, as he walked into the Pairing Partnership.  He closed the door behind him, and the Lovegood Leaf rustled.  “I suppose I never really considered just how tedious it would be to watch a gaggle of Muggles for any length of time.”  He shook his head, and swept one hand along his hair, smoothing it.

“Didn’t enjoy the movie?” asked Harry, turning in his seat away from the computer screen.  Auror Kraeme, nearby, kept a close eye on Draco.  She was leaning with her back against a large metal cabinet, arms folded -- but eyes sharp.

“You should call them something different, too.  ‘Movie’... it just emphasizes how primitive the entire thing is, compared to a real play.”  He affected his high-pitched Muggle Voice: “ ‘Wow, look, they’re moving just like real people would, if only we had taste enough to go watch an actual troupe of performers!’ 

“They used to be called ‘talkies,’ ” Harry said, wryly.  “So it could be worse.  But ticket sales at the movie theatre go up every week, so I’m not sure that everyone agrees with you.”

“It’s the thing to do, like eating at Siegfried’s.  People are sheep, and right now you’ve set out some new paddocks.  That doesn’t mean there will be any long-term success.  Grindelwald was a fanatic for painting, they say, but it’s not as though Hungary is full of painters today.  After Grindelwald was locked up in Nurmengard, most of the artists went back to sculpting.  If you want people to become actually interested, not just intrigued by the novelty, then you need to make movies about things that they care about.  Not Muggles with guns,” Draco said.  He pulled a chair over next to the EEG machine, where Harry was sitting in front of the attached computer.

“I am not going to start a production company,” said Harry, shaking his head.  But he froze in the middle of the gesture and frowned.  “Well, actually, I guess there’s no reason why we couldn’t do that.  They could begin with adaptations of some famous wizard plays, and cast some of the same actors, probably.”

“Ah yes, one more industry dominated from first to last by Harry Potter,” said Draco.  “No, I don’t think you’ll be doing that.  It will hardly help generate an appearance of real success if you look to be propping up your Muggle ventures like that.  No, I think we need to decentralize a little.”

Harry laughed.  “Malfoy Productions?”

Draco glanced over at the auror by the wall, within earshot, wordlessly.  Harry followed the glance, then looked back at Draco with a smile.  “A Vow of secrecy, don’t worry.”

The Lord Malfoy nodded, and went on.  “Well, I was thinking of a joint venture with some Americans, actually.  It wouldn’t be difficult to start up a similar movies theatre in Tidewater.  There’s an old Westphalian ally with deep pockets, Littlebrook Strongbound, who might like to get ahead of your bosom friend Hig on something.  Too much gold and control slipping through his fingers… and I think he senses the leash slipping around the Council’s neck.”

“You’ll need visible capital to start something like that,” said Harry,  “since Malfoys have typically been invested rather heavily in flying castles, which are not known for their liquidity.  And the finance sector hasn’t been your friend over the past few years.”  Traditional private usury was almost extinct in Britain, along with the corresponding interest rates.  “Too many people are paying attention.”

“Yes,” said Draco.  “A visible success to explain the new money, and I’ll whisper in a few confidential ears that it’s really Cappadocian gold -- payment for steering things their way, here.”

“I was thinking Amycus Carrow as a source, actually,” said Harry.  “If you’d taken control of some of his assets, it would be a tidier explanation.”

“The Carrow sisters might not appreciate the news that I’ve taken control of some of their uncle’s properties and loans, Harry,” said Draco, raising an eyebrow.  “They’ve already been through rather a lot.”

It was subtle and quiet, but those words were question and concern and accusation, all at once.  It wasn’t like Harry to forget about innocent bystanders -- and whatever their ideology, the Carrow sisters were certainly innocent of anything that might merit dragging them through any more ugliness.

“You’re right, of course,” said Harry, shaking his head.  He rubbed his forehead, sighing.  “I’m distracted -- not at my optimum self today.”

“Mm,” Draco said, in noncommital acknowledgment.  “Anyway, if the Cappadocian plan doesn’t seem enough, add another layer for the clever folk: have Moody ‘investigate’ the possibility that I’ve co-opted one of the Tower arithmancers, and that the windfall is actually your money.  You’ve already been working on building up their mystique for years, so rumors of a rogue arithmancer would help with that, as well.”

“All right,” Harry agreed.  He sounded unsettled.

“Have you been sleeping enough, Harry?” asked Draco.  “Or have you been spending half your time in the clinic tending to mermaids with mumps and Squibs with splinters, and the other half in here, scanning people’s brains as they cast Goat Into Goblet?”

“Why would anyone need a spell to… no, never mind,” said Harry, rolling his eyes.  “Yes, I’ve been getting plenty of sleep.  There’s just been a lot to keep track of.  Managing the Tower and Britain -- and well, the world -- just keeps getting more complicated, especially without Hermione around.”  Draco pursed his lips, and Harry rushed on.  “It’s been good to rely on you, of course… but uniting the Treaties hasn’t actually simplified the situation.”

“And you keep finding new projects,” Draco said, agreeably.  “Like ancient discoveries one of your Unspeakable or Tower minions brought back to you.”

Harry looked surprised.  “How did...”  He followed Draco’s gaze to a nearby table, where a box of Macadam’s Easy-Apply Melters was still out, and made a face.  “Maybe I am tired,” he muttered.

“The only reason you’d need repair strips would be if you were trying to fix something you couldn’t transfigure,” said Draco, smiling.  “And that’s a short list.  Something we can use?”

“A book about Merlin,” said Harry.  “It’s given me some ideas, but nothing I can use -- unless I decide I’d really enjoy the entropic heat death of the universe.”

Draco didn’t ask.  “Then maybe give it a rest.  Honestly, you should probably take a vacation.  You have the government and the Confederation and Tower research and all of your little side projects, like the stupid movies and the sfaironauts and your theory of magic research. And you’ve been at this pace for… well, since we met.  You can’t keep it up forever; you’re only a Ravenclaw.”

“Maybe I just need some smarter Slytherins to help,” said Harry.  “Whatever happened to Vincent Crabbe?”

“Still trying to get something working in Knockturn Alley,” Draco admitted.  “He’s never really forgiven me, and I rather think he’d like to be a power of his own.  He backed a chandler’s, but unfortunately I understand that investment’s gone pear-shaped recently.”  It was an elegant retort and reminder of Draco’s subtlety, but Draco didn’t gloat, and allowed himself only the slightest smirk.  “Anyway, just think of taking a few days off.  Leave government to that gawky frump of a Weasley, the world to Bones, and everything else to Moody and me.  Catch up on your reading.”

“Eventually I’m going to take an entire year off… I’ll go to Japan and spend my days having fun in the lab,” said Harry.  “But not yet.  Things are still delicate.  I’ll be fine.”

“I have a feeling this ‘eventually’ is scheduled sometime after everyone in the world has become free and immortal, there’s a city on the Moon, and you’ve been able to take a quick little jaunt to Atlantis to pick up Dumbledore from outside of Time,” said Draco.  His voice was gentler than his words.

“We’re one minute from midnight, Draco,” said Harry, firmly.  “Muggles have had the capability to destroy the world for generations, now, and it’s only by the grace of Petrov it hasn’t happened yet.  I’m not going to introduce wizards to science and then take a vacation at the most delicate point.  It’s too dangerous.  Look at Edgar Erasmus and how we’ve had to juggle people like him, to keep everyone safe.”  He shook his head.  “Merlin tried to shut down the forward march of knowledge, since he thought that magical power was spreading too quickly and too easily.  I don’t think he was right about the solution, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong about the problem.  We have to keep tight control over things for right now.  It’s too dangerous for everyone, otherwise.”


Elsewhere in the Tower
The same day

Healer Owen Wilifred frowned.  There was something very strange going on, here.

He glanced down at the patient, who was lying unconscious, immobile, and safely stunned.  An older man of indeterminate ethnicity -- Asia or India or someplace.  Clearly never rejuvenated, and no external symptoms.  But when Owen moved his wand lower on the patient’s abdomen, he kept seeing the same thing: absolutely perfect internal organs, without a single flaw or oddity.

The diagnosis convivium seemed to be working correctly; when Owen placed his wand on his own stomach, the spell suite produced a vivid mental image of his intestines gently shifting.  There was a familiar series of benign nodules along the outside of his colon, and his duodenum looked just as oddly lumpy as usual.  But when Owen returned the wand to the patient and focused the diagnosis convivium back on him, there was not a single cyst, scar, or other irregularity.  And no matter where he looked, it was the same.  The patient’s body was as perfect as the illustrations of a medical textbook, and that was simply strange… especially since he was complaining of general aches and pains.  They didn’t appear to have any irregularities at all, much less a condition that would cause any suffering.

Owen considered the possibilities.  It was conceivable that the patient just happened to be a bizarrely perfect specimen who had never had any sort of trauma, despite what appeared to be at least six decades of life.  That was very unlikely, though.  It was also possible that the man -- Mr. Khan, by his intake parchment -- had been seriously hurt and had received magical healing to most of his body.  But that usually left traces; skele-grow, for example, left bones with a distinctive (if harmless) spiral pattern of nonlamellar and lamellar.

The most likely explanation that occurred to Owen, though, was also the most alarming one: that the patient had been one of the first wizards to receive rejuvenation.  If that were the case, it might explain the fact that his appearance was still middle-aged.  In the earliest days of the Tower, Owen had heard that they’d sometimes omitted the cosmetic restoration.  If the patient had been one of the first to be rejuvenated, it might also explain why they didn’t have any treatment records for him.  Many of those early records had been lost in some sort of fire, years ago.

It was also possible that Mr. Khan had been rejuvenated more recently, and had been granted special exemption from the cosmetic restoration.  That was very rare, however, and it wouldn’t explain the lack of a Tower record for the procedure.

At this point, Owen really couldn’t go any further without waking up the patient and eliminating some of these possibilities.  He was beginning to be worried about time, though.  The clock said that he had only about fifty minutes before Harry’s next pass through the clinic.  The Tower enchantments required Harry’s express touch before any healing transfiguration would become permanent, so if Owen didn’t get this solved and the healing done quickly, he’d be stuck with Mr. Khan until the next scheduled pass -- three more hours.

Did he need an auror when he woke up the patient?  Probably not.  Mr. Khan wasn’t important or powerful enough to have any sort of file, and he didn’t have his wand, like every patient.  Plus, Owen wasn’t a bigot or anything, but he hadn’t been able to help noticing that Mr. Khan’s wand was so battered-looking that it must be second-hand (or even third-hand).

Still, protocol was protocol.  The security at the Tower was incredibly complex, considering the difficulties of admitting and treating powerful strangers from all over the world, but it wasn’t infallible.

Owen stuck his head out of the screened-off examination cubicle, pushing aside the curtain.  He called down the hall, “Wake-up here, need an auror!”

A bored-looking auror came striding on down past the rows of cubicles, nodding.  “Anything I need to know?”

“He’s a bit funny in his guts.  I think he might have been an earlier rejuvenation -- back before the Tower moved to this facility.  I’ve heard about them… you were here then, right?” said Owen, handing over the sparse file that they’d started on Mr. Khan in the Receiving Room.

“No,” said Auror Madagascar.  “I was stationed somewhere else, then.  But I heard the same thing.”  He flipped open the file, but it had virtually no information beyond a few uninteresting personal details like place of origin (the Vedic Kingdom, though he was admitted via the Godric’s Hollow pole), number of siblings (seven, all deceased), and the like.  Madagascar shrugged.  “Wake him up.”

Owen did so, after making sure a privacy spell was on and that Madagascar had raised the basic safety wards.  That was just standard -- some people didn’t react well to waking up from the stunning effect of the Safety Stick or Safety Poles.  A majority awoke as calmly though they were waking from a nap, but some people become disoriented and alarmed.

The patient opened his eyes, gently, and blinked a moment.  He tilted his head and took in the healer and the auror, then glanced around.  A flicker of some expression passed over his face -- not the usual fear or uncertainty or pain, but instead a shadow of apprehension.  But it was gone as quickly as it came.

“Am I all right?” Mr. Khan asked.  He closed his eyes for a moment, and let out a long sigh.

Owen smiled.  “You’re fine, Mr. Khan.  You’re in the John Snow Center for Medicine.  In the Tower.  My name is Wilifred Owen.  I’m a healer here.  This is Harry Madagascar -- he works here with me.  We wanted to ask you a few questions, but if you need a moment to get oriented, take your time.”

The patient sat up, nodding.  “May I stand up?  Is that all right?” he asked, mildly.

“No, sorry,” said Owen.  “It might make you dizzy.  Just give it a minute.”  He stepped back next to Madagascar, but the auror waved him to the side.  Clear line of fire, thought Owen, and restrained the temptation to roll his eyes.

Mr. Khan shifted where he lay on the cot, moving carefully.  He was wearing very simple brown robes, worn through in spots with use.

“You told the healer you’d been feeling pains?” asked Owen.

“Yes,” said Mr. Khan.  He turned to look at Owen, and then at Madagascar, and then jerked his head downward, sharply, cringing.  He reached to his chest with one hand, and grimaced.  “Again.”

Owen frowned, shaking his head.  “I don’t know what could be causing that... “  He stepped forward again, lifting his wand.  Behind him, he heard Madagascar move to one side -- finding a good angle for a clear view.  “Tell me, have you been here before, sir?”  Owen set his wand on Mr. Khan’s chest, and stared at the blank white wall of the cubicle as he focused on the view of the patient’s organs afforded by the convivium.  Everything looked pristine.

Mr. Khan murmured something, quietly.  Owen lowered his head a little.  “Pardon?”  The patient reached up and gently touched Owen’s elbow, and repeated himself in a whisper.

“I said, Egeustimentis.”

And Owen went away for a while, and he and Mr. Khan were alone for a time in some narrow space.  It seemed like hours, though it was only seconds.

While they were there, Mr. Khan made some changes to the way Owen thought about things.  Owen distantly observed the process, and found it interesting.  It was as though Mr. Khan were simultaneously very large and very small, peering down from a great height at Owen’s mind -- even as he moved within it.  Owen’s mind, Owen noted, was a ceaselessly sliding mass of a thousand thousand thin layers of slippery jelly, undulating and quivering as they slithered into and over each other.  Simultaneously, it was an intricate tracery of vinegar-smelling lights that touched each other and flared bright and faded.  And it was a stabbing prickery of needles stabbing in and out of dark shapes that quietly sighed.  And Owen’s mind was other things as well, as need be.

Mr. Khan moved things and explained to Owen that he needed Owen to be a slightly different sort of person.  Not very different, but different enough to help Mr. Khan.  After it had all been explained, it made sense.  They spoke for a long while.  All the while that they spoke, Mr. Khan was moving jelly/lights/needles/switches/teeth.  And at the end of this time, Owen had been both persuaded and altered, and he wasn’t sure where the persuasion had ended and alteration had begun, or if there was even a division between the two, or if there was even a difference.

Owen agreed it was probably best that Mr. Khan set up a way for him to forget about the whole thing.  Mr. Khan set up a pressure in Owen’s mind, waiting to be released by a command word -- thoughts and impulses forced out of place and bent into tension, ready to spring out along a chosen path.  He would leave only the one pressure, Mr. Khan explained, because he didn’t want to hurt Owen.  When Mr. Khan triggered the release of that pressure, Owen’s mind would snap back into place along that chosen path… and Owen would forget that he’d ever treated Mr. Khan, helped Mr. Khan, and even that he’d ever known this Mr. Khan existed.  By that time, everything would be all over.

Everything would be all right, Mr. Khan said.  They’d sort everything out.

And then

“Wilifred, you all right?” asked Madagascar.

Owen turned around.  “Sure.  Just can’t figure this out.”  He shrugged, and turned away from the patient.  “Mr. Khan, just relax for a moment.  Let me get another healer to consult.  We have some excellent people on staff here at the Tower, and we’ll do what it takes to sort everything out.”


Begin by asking students to consider how a rumor might spread among a population. Suppose on Day 1 a single person tells someone else a rumor, and suppose that on every subsequent day, each person who knows the rumor tells exactly one other person the rumor. Have students ponder, discuss and answer questions like: “How many days until 50 people have heard the rumor? 100 people? The whole school? The whole country?”

In the situation with the rumor, the number of people who have heard the rumor doubles every day; this is because, each day, every person who knows the rumor tells it to a new person. In other words, there is a 100 percent transmission rate: 100 percent of those who know the rumor spread it to someone else. A transmission rate this high means that the number of people who know the rumor will grow very quickly. In fact, in this simplified exponential model, one person could spread the rumor to the entire population of the United States in less than a month!

- Patrick Honner, “Exponential Outbreaks: The Mathematics of Epidemics."


  1. I'm rereading this after about two years. Excellent work really, fantastic, really hits it's stride in the second act. But I still get chills thinking about Egeustimentis, such a terrifying and deeply violating spell. Fantastic idea for its role in the story, and really establishes the incredible power and threat of the three.

    1. Rereading this as well, and I completely agree. Happily, I've forgotten so much of this that I can't remember how it ends.

  2. I'm still trying to think of any reason whatsoever why harry isn't letting people opt out of what he calls 'cosmetic' restoration. For what reason does one need some 'special exemption' in order to look like the person they grew into.

    Do scars count? Some wear scars as badges of honor, others use them as a momento of life experiences and changes. Taking them away against ones will would be cruel, and harry doesn't seem the cruel sort.

    1. Agreed. Basic health is easy enough to define the same for everyone, but preferences for how you look is very personal. Not to mention the effects on interpersonal relationships when you suddenly look very different.

      I guess it could be that those special exemptions are routinely granted to anyone who asks, but they make you ask for it to bring down the number of repeat visitors.

    2. I think, but I'm mostly guessing based on context in the overall story, that making someone perfectly healthy is a bit at odds with making them still look old. i.e. if you rejuvenate/replace the cells, the skin naturally looks younger. To make them look the same age but still be in perfect health, might be MORE work and not something they want to make a habit of. If some people are 'burdened' with being young again (oh no! the horror!), so that they can heal more people overall, that is absolutely a choice Harry would make.

      Especially since the vast majority of people would prefer to be young rather than old. As far as scars or distinguishable features, I think that's a case by case basis. Charlevoix keeps her fingers looking burned, despite the chance to fix it, because she sacrificed them to bring back Hermione.