A Prologue, Some Thoughts, and a Warning

Thanks for getting this far!

We are almost at the bit that actually has content. First, a few more words about the book, specifically about how it is written. When you write an (academic) book, there is a certain expectation that it be a serious endeavour. This book was no exception. It started well, and then I got to looking at it, and thought, “well this looks boring“. And then I thought, “it really doesn’t have to just because it’s academic.”

At the same time, I was getting very excited about sketchnoting and sketching in general. I’m really not very good at either, but to be honest, that doesn’t matter. I wasn’t that good at it when I was a child and it didn’t stop me. I was also really excited about using Explain Everything to do just about everything. If you’ve never heard of Explain Everything and you are in any way associated with education I highly recommend looking at it.

No, I don’t get paid by them.

I don’t get paid by Apple either but the iPad Pro, an iPad Mini and my trusty Apple Pencils have been invaluable tools along this path.

It may well be that putting together a bunch of newbie sketchnotes and ‘attempts’ at drawing arrows and stick people is a mistake. Nevertheless here we are. It’s a bit different, so, let’s begin with a brief set of thoughts about its objectives and why it is how it is.

The objective of any book is to engage. The objective of a scientific book is to impart knowledge. The assumption is that the writer is capable of doing so. Unfortunately very few scientific tracts are engaging. I grant you that this is a subjective opinion. That said, the fact that Bill Bryson can write a science book better than most scientists is a fair indication that scientists can try a little harder.

I’m nowhere near the writer Bryson is. And that’s okay.

I am pretty good with trust though. That is, I’m pretty good with the topic as a field of study, having been in it for over thirty years as I write. Whether I’m good at it as a human being is more open to debate. This is so for all of us. We’re pretty much all of us ‘experts’ on trust, but many of us get quite flustered if we’re asked what it really means to us. Try it — asking people why they trust something or someone is like that game your 5 year old played with you. The one where they always say “Why?” To everything you say.

Well, I use the word ‘game’ rather loosely… (It drives me up the wall.)

This book was written primarily as an electronic book. As such, it follows different kinds of, shall we say, conventions from physical books. Margins can be different, images and videos can be included all over the place, even widgets can be plopped in occasionally to help engage. I wrote the first drafts of it in Ulysses, which means it was written with a markup language, and this also meant I could export it in many different forms. So there’s an HTML version around someplace (maybe you are reading it now) as well as an eBook in various forms. But it’s still at heart a book. Sure you can print it. There’s bound to be a way.

Why did I write it like this? I wanted to experiment with imparting knowledge differently. There are (Bryson aside) plenty of good examples of this — James Burke, a science historian, has written books like Connections and The Day The Universe Changed that left me in awe as a young child and almost certainly put me on the path I tread today (as it happens, his was also probably one of the first voices I heard on TV when he covered the Moon Landing in 1969 when I was just 1 year old); Ted Nelson’s Literary Machines foresaw and demonstrated in book form how Hypertext is used, whilst Burke (again) took that idea for a spin in his book, The Knowledge Web (see also here)[1]. And some time ago I read Brian Fawcett’s book, Cambodia. It has an interesting layout where there are in fact two different things going on. In the top bit of each page is a story, but in the bottom is a sub-story, probably the real point of the book, about what happened in Cambodia and why we should care. This isn’t just because what happened was terrible, that the 20th century in Cambodia was basically all but wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. It’s because of why we all missed it, and what our consumer culture does to us. It’s a fascinating book and troubling. But as a written document it appealed to me because of the way the subtext worked: it was a separate but connected part of the message being conveyed in the short stories above it.

I have tried in this book to inject some of the same kinds of oddity that make for interesting reading: there are (hopefully) fun and definitely information-rich images as part of the book. The footnotes, whilst not as complex as Fawcett’s, hopefully add to the message. There are links shown here and there when they make sense, both to different parts of the book as well as external material. Every so often there’s a movie too.  This means that on some eReaders you won’t get the movies but you can always grab them from the website for the book, which also has different versions of the book as well as other bits of writing and a blog on it. There are also exercises wherever possible to help you figure out things that are important[2]. Finally, at the end of most sections or chapters, there’s often the name of the music I was listening to as I wrote, more for posterity than anything else but also as a reminder that you don’t have to suffer in silence when you write.

One note about the characters you may encounter in the book. Computer security uses different characters to give its stories focus. First introduced in Rivest et al. (1978), they have been extended somewhat and from our original Alice and Bob we now have Carol, Chuck, Charlie, Dan, Eve, and many more. We’ll use some of these characters in the book as we move forward. Sometimes they just appear by accident. Sometimes there is a purpose.

The many images in this book use pretty basic stick people. One reason for this is because I am, as I have already noted, a rubbish artist. However, there is a more serious reason for using stick people. They have no gender, no race, no obvious creed, indeed they are as anonymous as we can make them. Sometimes you can infer gender (but there may well be cis gendered males called Alice, and lots of blokes wear kilts).

Sometimes you’ll see my dogs too: Charlie, Jessie, Sally and Ash. They are important, and immortalizing them in ‘print’ seems to be a rather apt way to thank them for their love.

The point is that we can imagine these characters, these stick people, as all kinds of things: humans, computer-based ‘agents’, Artificial Intelligences, and so on. It’s a great shorthand for the things for which trust has a meaning.

Plus, I’m a rubbish artist (did I already say that? I may, to paraphrase Dickens, also be a large absent-minded scientist…)

The title mentions a warning. Here it is: if you haven’t realized it yet[3], this is a serious book about a serious subject but it doesn’t present the serious subject as seriously as some would undoubtedly like it to. If you would rather not read it as a result, this is entirely your choice. My own take on it is this: serious things don’t always have to be presented entirely seriously. There is much to be gained from looking at them in different ways, with different kinds of prose or presentation. Of course, this doesn’t always work and there are some parts of the book that are more serious than others and that’s fine too. But consider yourself warned, it is not your average textbook. At all.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did writing[4] it. If you spot any errors, however small, or have any feedback, or any questions at all, please get in touch: stephen.marsh@ontariotechu.ca

Huge thanks are due to the OER Lab at Ontario Tech University, who put this into PressBook for me and worked on exercises and more – the end product is amazing because of you all. Finally, thanks to eCampus Ontario for the grant which enabled this to be done.

On that note: Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Steve Marsh
Dalkeith, September 2021

powder! go away : laika still wants go home

 


  1. One thing: when I reference things I will put links to them if at all possible, or to a place you can get them from, or follow links to in order to read them or watch them. This may be Wikipedia links, or links to various online bookstores, or doi links. Regardless, the things I do reference will also be listed at the end of the book in a largely traditional reference list as well as a growing further reading 'chapter.'
  2. Yes, it's subjective, but I think they're important so that's at least one person.
  3. If I haven't been subtle enough...
  4. And drawing.

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