Upon learning the news that my collection of short stories, The Hidden Light of Objects, was banned in Kuwait, I did not experience the anticipated anger or bitterness. My immediate instinct wasn’t to investigate why my book was banned now, four years after its publication. I didn’t feel compelled to rush out and join the modest public demonstrations taking place against this worrying clampdown on free expression; mine is one of over 3,400 books that appear on a list of books banned by the Ministry of Information over the last five years. I wasn’t inclined to join in the admirable public defense of literature unfolding in local and social media by writers, journalists, and intellectuals. Nor did I consider, even for a moment, contesting the ban in court, as a few brave Kuwaiti authors have done, sometimes with success. What I felt instead upon learning from a Tweet that my book was now officially banned in the country of my birth was an overriding sense of exhaustion.
There are almost too many examples of the power and pervasiveness of mathematical ideas. For instance, this essay was written on a computer. The software of the computer, its mind and spirit, if you will, is a compilation of code that is based on the ideas of Claude Shannon, the father of information theory, and his article ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ (1948). But perhaps this is both too obvious and too slight an example. The personal computer is hardly an essential part of human existence, even if most of us have structured our lives around it today. Let’s take something more basic and widespread, something most of us probably already apprehend, even if only dimly – like the idea of regression to the mean.
There was an important difference with what was happening across the Atlantic, however. Even in a country like Switzerland in 1960, which had a per-capita income higher than the United States, vehicle ownership per capita was barely a quarter as high as in the U.S. What happened? Unlike their American counterparts, European planners designed new suburbs in ways that made transit use still viable. Many new towns were built around train and metro stations.
Early U.S. suburbs like Levittown, New York, on the other hand, were built along highways and had virtually no transit service at all. They’re almost all still built on the model developed in the 1940s: single-family homes on isolated streets, with stores surrounded by parking lots a decent drive away.
When TR4 hits, the destruction is near-total. “It looks like somebody’s gone to the plantation with a herbicide,” Ploetz says. “There are big areas that no longer have any plants at all.” The fungus, which can live undetected in the soil for decades, enters banana plants through their roots and spreads to the water- and nutrient-conducting tissue within, eventually starving the plant of nourishment. Two to nine months after being infected, the plant – hollowed out from the inside – collapses in on itself. The soil it grew in, now riddled with the fungus, is useless for growing bananas.
As TR4 creeps across the globe towards Latin America, the Cavendish’s genetic uniformity is starting to look like a curse. Ploetz estimates that TR4 has already killed more Cavendish bananas than Gros Michel plants killed by TR1, and, unlike the previous epidemic, there is no TR4-resistant banana ready to replace the Cavendish. And time to find a solution is rapidly running out. “The question is, ‘when is it going to come over here?’,” Ploetz says. “Well, it may already be here.”
Sometimes we’re the first to chart an off-menu course. More often, we’re standing on the shoulders of countless prior negotiators, whose efforts have solidified into that rumored list. Secret menus foster incessant bargaining because they depend on uncertainty. We can never predict the extent of a secret menu, and there’s always some doubt about what will be available to us.
Why does the custom persist? I would argue that keeping the limits of hospitality veiled, no matter how lightly, serves the interests of restaurateurs and diners alike.
All of us have been thinking about this kind of thing for years, here at the Department of Ordinary Magic. We are very, very interested in supernatural phenomena that are entirely natural and that everyone ignores.
Take magnets. If they didn’t really exist, they would surely exist anyhow in the imagination. They are exactly the kind of thing some kid would make up. The magical force is strong, invisible, and it only works under certain circumstances. For example, you cannot use a magnet on wood. Superman can’t see through lead, and magnets don’t work on wood.
The novel ends with an image of continuity: “Kim Jong-un had called Trump a dotard, perhaps they’d all be blown to smithereens. Still, ants at least would proceed, building up their infinite cities, stealing honey from the cupboards.” It’s a somewhat precious image, but captures well the spirit of the book: breathless, despairing, convinced that despite everything we can try to be good to one another and, in a measured way, hopeful.