Pandemic Sugar

I’m talking about sugar. Sugar dispensing to be more exact.

Note: if this sounds like the least of society’s problems, I’m going to tell you…yyyyes? aaaaand that there’s an argument to be made in how the quotidian aspects of life matter (accumulatively).

Background: since the start of the pandemic, coffee shops and cafés — I’m not talking Coffee Time or Tim Hortons, but indie espresso places — heeding the assertion at the time that COVID-19 was spreading by coming into contact with physical surfaces (since then dismissed), were forced to remove mixing stations where customers could add their own sugar and milk/cream, for fear of infection. I’m tempted here to paint a nostalgic pre-pandemic picture for those whose memories include this, because it seems that many shop owners have since adjusted and made the removal of mixing stations permanent.

This makes sense economically: there’s less real estate taken up with the mixing station, you can replace the sugar and cream with merchandise (coffee beans, etc), less condiment wastage if the staff is in charge. And this brings us to my problem.

I take sugar in my coffee. One sugar.

The problem is, since the pandemic, when I’m grabbing a coffee to go, and I tell the barista that I take sugar, the results come in two forms. The first is merely irritating: I get too much sugar. Fine, I guess. But the worst is when they put the sugar in the cup first and then add the coffee…without stirring.


No, sir. No, miss. No. Sugar is not a fluid. If you add hot liquid to sugar the sugar does not automagically combine as you clearly have it CONFLATED with milk or cream. What I end up with is effectively a cup of coffee that tastes like they haven’t added sugar to it…only to discover at the end that ALL THE SUGAR IS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE CUP, and NOW I’M DRINKING COFFEE-FLAVOURED SUCROSE.

Do you know how many times in the last four years I’ve had to clumsily use a pen to stir the contents of a coffee in order to avoid this? Do you know what it’s like [Oscar speech] to go through life asking yourself hey, did they forget to put sugar in my coffee or did they simply not understand physics?

(anyways this happened today, btw)

UPDATE: This literally happened again, a week after posting this!


Book Review: The Jazz of Physics, by Stephon Alexander

A publishing colleague posted this book’s cover on Twitter and I was immediately interested. If you know me or know my work, then the subjects of jazz and physics (particularly quantum physics) are both dear to me. To my surprise, I was subsequently sent a copy of Stephon Alexander’s The Jazz of Physics in the mail…which I then proceeded to neglect for over a year.

Why? Well, for one, I had a backlog of books I’d earmarked for reading and I was also finishing off the manuscript for my next novel. However, if I were to be perfectly honest, it was partly out of fear. Aside from the loose premise, I didn’t know Alexander as an author and I didn’t know what the thrust of the book and, perhaps most importantly, its tone would be cover of The Jazz of Physics I was afraid it would be a beginner’s guide to physics using jazz as a loose, entertaining metaphor that ultimately ends up lacking specificity about either jazz or physics.

I could not have been more wrong. It’s the opposite. The Jazz of Physics is written by someone who is as serious and seriously accomplished a physicist (currently a professor at Brown University) as he is a dedicated and well-studied jazz musician. Rather than a figurative metaphor, Alexander uses jazz as a profound analogy for the very workings of our universe. He’s not using it to disingenuously sell physics. Growing up in the Bronx surrounded by musical influences (a story about the Five Percenter Nation is fascinating) as well as having a natural intuition for understanding the principles of science, The Jazz of Physics is a fascinating biographical narrative and nothing short of a passion project, an attempt to argue in the deadly-serious terms of cutting edge quantum theory that the relationship between music — specifically jazz, in how it centres on improvisation — and the formation of the universe is less figurative than literal.

Tall order? Yes.

First, let me stress how difficult a task it is for someone such as Alexander to pull this off. I have read well-argued books by esteemed physicists that ended up self-sabotaging themselves because they lost track of who their audience is — something I am inclined to believe is the chief challenge of any such endeavour. As an author writing for a general audience, the deeper you go into the macro and micro of physics (corresponding respectively to relativity and quantum theory), the harder it is to keep the reader’s attention. Alexander works hard, imaginatively and creatively, to find analogies to help the reader along — the use of analogies themselves are the cornerstone for him:

Next to mathematics, I learned that one of the most powerful tools involved with unraveling the secrets in the theoretical sciences is simplifying the system at hand and borrowing an analogy from what might, at first glance, be a completely unrelated discipline. It is in the limits of these analogies, where there exists a need for further research, that an avenue for discover lies.

Along his path, we are introduced to both eminent physicists — not just the usual suspects such as Einstein, Dirac, and Schrödinger, but contemporaries such as Lee Smolin, Faye Dowker, and Bill Unruh — and their musical equivalents: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and MC Rakim. Yes, I wish there were more women represented in this book, but I’m not going to put that on Alexander because he’s drawing from direct experience.

What leaps off the pages of The Jazz of Physics is Alexander’s passion for both disciplines, and he goes to pains in order to lure the reader — the question of which, jazz fans or amateur physicists, are more likely to be interested is a question I will come back to — into the complexities of these distinct yet related worlds and his unfolding thesis — that, ultimately, the stuff of our current universe may very well have been formed via sound. A stumbling block for some readers might be the extent to which they are either a) versed in these subjects, and b) prepared (if not) to travel the highly sophisticated, often mathematically structured path Alexander is, by his own decision, obligated to illustrate. There might also be those who question the extent to which the term “music” is construed from what is ultimately sound. This latter concern is remarkably well handled by the author who ultimately provides a convincing argument.

With respect to the mathematics and formulae included in the book, there are two sides to look at this from. Alexander is careful in the beginning to encourage the casual reader to accept the parts that are over their head and keep following the tune, as it were. I am by no means adept at math, my interest in quantum physics being more conceptual than anything else. While I was able to proceed past sections where the author felt it necessary to draw the more mathematically-minded kids in the room closer without losing a beat, I have to admit that three-quarters in I began to get lost in the minutiae of quantum theory itself. Want to know what a brane is? Inflaton fields? Anyone? No? After a while, neither did I, and this is where I began to ask myself — as someone who felt that this book was written for me — how many other readers with a general-to-specific interest are going to find themselves skipping numerous paragraphs (if not the better parts of chapters) because of the growing complexity of these quantum building blocks that Alexander discovers in his journey. I can’t fault him because these are the very things that were stumping him so why should we be able to swallow it in one gulp? It has led me to ask myself how well this book sold, seeing as it might be too science-y for jazz fans, and the language of jazz itself can be a figurative mess for anyone who’s never needed to decipher a symmetric diminished scale.

This is a science book that draws its inspiration from a deep and abiding love of jazz (and music as a whole). Anyone expecting to understand music in the same way that Alexander attempts to illustrate his passion for physics might find themselves disappointed, although, to the author’s credit, his passion for both is infectious.

Lastly, there is something very significant in this book about mentorship. Alexander’s journey of discovery is also one of, to use a phrase from Sir Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants. Science, like jazz, is inherently collaborative — the thing is, not anyone off the street is going to be given room for a solo on the stage. You have to have chops, and I appreciate how the author comes back to this bargain one makes, that if you want to learn and grow with the more experienced colleagues in your field you have to first demonstrate your aptitude and willingness to learn.

The Jazz of Physics (ISBN: 978-0465034994) is available at an independent bookstore near you. Curiously, I wonder what it’s like as an audiobook?


Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging

Whenever a mental health authority is interviewed in the media it’s nearly inevitable that this person is a medical doctor, usually a psychiatrist. This individual typically isn’t a practicing therapist; they may only be able to speak of clinical diagnoses and/or the prescription of psychopharmaceuticals. I mention this because when this authoritative psychiatrist is interviewed in the media I end up listening to a depiction of the massively complex human interrelational landscape I see around me every day, as both a writer and psychotherapist, reduced to a chemical imbalance in someone’s brain. It’s like ascribing a boxer’s loss of a title match solely to the width of their biceps.

book coverThe gold standard for looking at mental health is through what’s called a biopsychosocial lens, a flexible model that allows professionals to consider the biomedical (for example, thyroid issues, dementia), the psychological (traumatic experiences, abusive relationships), and socio-economic factors (unemployment, impoverished environment) that might be at play in the mental health profile of any given individual, even if it ends up a combination of one or more parts. In North America there is unfortunately a sacred primacy around the biomedical approach to mental health, with the psychological and socio-economic as (at best) secondary considerations at the table of funding and education. At this moment there are medical doctors losing sleep wondering how to beat the shame of knowing there is a patient in their care whose condition might be psychogenic (meaning, whose pathology is not, strictly speaking, a biomedical end product). Continue reading “Book Review: Casting Light on the Dark Side of Brain Imaging”


Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving

Sometimes I feel that I stand in-between too many things. Un-firm. Undecided. This is in part due to my fond appreciation for not only a lot of disparate topics but also disparate approaches. I believe in the vigour of an approach which involves good research. I also believe that we can lace “good research” with wishful thinking so that the evidence it produces is wishful thinking presented as fact. I believe that there are charlatans who willingly or naively provide a distraction that slows us down. I also believe that we dismiss many things as charlatanism not because they pose a danger but because they conflict with the politics of our personal or professional lives. I believe in intuition. I also believe intuition alone brings us too close to a raw reflexiveness which doesn’t serve long term needs.

So when someone asks me What do you think about x? I sometimes find myself considering a number of things and contexts to understand the question. The drawback is we’ve created a world where this sort of complexity is undesired. Certainly, in some industries and roles, complexity is unnecessary — a prime example would be assembly line work where the task is to simply crank out carbon copy iterations of something already conceived-of and revised to an acceptable standard. If you want to know what roles robots and AI are going to swallow up in the future, it’s those things. Complexity, on the other hand, keeps us guessing, reminds us that there are no set answers, or if there are they are kludges we developed until the next discovery forces us to revise our notions, our presumptions.

In an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr profiles someone turning to exotic flora in order to stave off our imminent depletion of effective antibiotics. The researcher in question turns to the lore of sometimes ancient civilizations, the extracts and tinctures from nature that one might rightly think come from fantasy, or from a presumably primitive culture. From some pharmaceutical industry perspectives, this is quackery. And yet, in one example, Continue reading “Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving”


Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin

I posted about this book earlier, noting that it was surprisingly hard to get into, particularly for someone such as myself who, while not majoring in physics in high school, has always been curious about science and particularly interested (since a young age) in the concepts surrounding quantum physics. Boy, what a difference the last half of a book can make.

Smolin’s approach to the organization of information in his book might make sense to him, and – if I had an undergraduate in physics – it would to me also. He begins by stating five fundamental unsolved problems with our understanding of the universe, not already explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity (governing big stuff) and quantum physics (governing small stuff). He then goes on to discuss the idea of string theory and how it was posited as a candidate for a unifying theory which might possibly go to explain these unresolved problems (along with the effects of gravity). After laying out the details, he then discusses the Continue reading “Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin”