Witness for the Prosecution

December 23, 2013

At the end of the 1957 classic Witness for the Prosecution there’s a brief message to the audience:

The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge to anyone the secret of the ending of ‘Witness for the Prosecution’.

It was truly a more innocent age…

For reasons which need not concern you dear reader, I’ve been thinking about numbers as of late. There’s a common trope out there which states that since π is infinite and never repeats, every finite string of numbers you care to come up with occurs somewhere in π, simply because it is infinite and never repeats itself. I should point out right at the start that this is believed to be true by the majority of mathematicians, but it hasn’t been proven. It is certainly possible to create an irrational number which lacks this property. A favourite example is:


which is written in base-10, yet only uses zeroes and ones. Every subsequent group of zeroes and ones is one digit longer than the previous group, hence it never repeats and it is infinitely long. But no matter how far you search, you’ll never be able to find the string ‘492’ in this number. Similarly, we could take π and replace all the nines with zeroes:

Actual π:   3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209...
Modified π: 3.1415026535807032384626433832705028841071603003751058200...

No matter how far you search this new irrational, the string ‘492’ will never occur, yet the number is still just as infinite now as it was before we started dicking around with it.

I don’t think this logic is a shocking revelation, this stuff has been dealt with and is reasonably well understood in a post-Cantor world. The reason I bring it up is because —to me— it sounds like this argument is often trotted out by the multi-verse or infinite-universe crowd as proof of our non-uniqueness. If the universe goes on forever, then there must be infinitely many exact duplicates of Earth (where I am right now writing this exact same blog post) out there because you can only arrange a bunch of particles in so many ways. Is that really true, or is it only as inevitable as being able to find any finite string of symbols in an irrational number?

The Hydrogen Sonata

November 3, 2013

My last week in Seattle at McNeel headquarters and I ran out of stuff to read. I found ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ by Iain M. Banks in the local Barnes & Noble and decided to give Mr. Banks one more chance. I’ve read two of his books (Transition and Stonemouth) before and although he is clearly a gifted author it’s not the sort of (science) fiction I enjoy reading.

I haven’t gotten very far into The Hydrogen Sonata yet and I realise I may be missing large parts of the story as it is the tenth book in something called ‘The Culture Series’, but so far it’s —again— not my kind of story. Too many humanoid aliens, intragalactic travel far too easy, and lots of silly names like Gzilt, Eshri, Briper Drodj and Banstegeyn. I understand things need to have a name and you cannot really get around this when writing a story set in a galaxy densely populated with alien civilisations, but it adds a thin patina of ridiculousness to the whole endeavour in my opinion.

I did come across a scene that struck a chord with me, especially in light of the discussions sparked by one of my recent posts ‘Worrisome trends in architecture education‘. In this scene we learn something about the composer of a famous piece of music (long pauses represented by ellipses removed by me):

“I have no idea,” the old man said, smiling. “But the point is the Hydrogen Sonata is an elaborate, contrived attack on the sort of composition it represents. He […] hated clashing, atonal music. He was basically taking the piss, showing how easy it was to write … how difficult to listen to. Now the piece he’s most remembered for.” He shrugged again. “‘Such is fate,’ as they say.” He gazed out to sea for a moment, then added, “One should never mistake pattern for meaning.”

Iain M. Banks, The Hydrogen Sonata

Sound advice I’d say.

Today part 2 of my 2 part series on religious music. Yesterday I listed my six favourite religiously inspired musical compositions, today it’s all about holding up a critical mirror to that very same religion[1]. To qualify for this listing, a piece has to be musically up to snuff, funny or ironic rather than serious or angry and focus on either religious dogma or religious practice.

From funniest to somewhat less funniest:

1. Always look on the bright side of life by Monty Python. Composed by Eric Idle. Nothing quite sticks in your head like this brilliant ending to this brilliant film.

2. The Spanish Inquisition composed by Mel Brooks. “Torquemada; do not implore him for compassion. Torquemada; do not beg him for forgiveness. Torquemada; do not ask him for mercy. Let’s face it, you can’t torquemada anything!” (I linked a high quality version of the video which unfortunately lacks the non-musical introduction).

3. The Vatican Rag composed by Tom Lehrer. Mathematician and musician and satirist, what more can you ask for?

4. Creation Science 101 composed by Roy Zimmerman, modern master of the clever rhyme.. “… and you are just beginning to, educate yourself when you, shun, evolution.” Definitely check out his other stuff too.

5. The Good Book composed by Tim Minchin. Not his best work, but his other stuff either reflects on Islam or is angry (neither of those links safe for work).

6. Herod’s Song composed by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The sceptics anthem… “Prove to me that you’re divine, turn my water into wine. That’s all you need do, then I’ll know it’s all true.” I’ve long since had a soft spot for Jesus Christ Super Star, it seems to me to be a very human scale version of the Biblical accounts, where nobody is totally good or totally evil, but rather everyone has decent motivations which lead them to immoral acts in the face of an imperfect world. Plus the music and the dancing in the 1973 version is totally awesome.

[1] Again, I’m going to limit myself to Christianity.

I’m in Seattle at RMA headquarters for three weeks discussing the future of Grasshopper (don’t worry, not whether there is a future, but what it might look like). Although there is a great apartment for me to stay in, I’m separated from my books and my music. I don’t hold with Kindle or some such nonsense —paper for me thank you very much— and my laptop speakers can theoretically play my music but what they mostly do is repeatedly stab it in the kidneys until it’s lying as a bleeding and broken corpse on the floor.

However it did get me thinking about music categorization and I thought it would be fun to put up two blog posts with the best humanity has to offer from two opposing groups. Today, my six favourite religiously[1] inspired masterpieces, tomorrow my six favourite pieces making light of religion.

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Book Reviews [2]

February 24, 2013

I’ve read some more since my last book-related post, though not as much as I’d have liked. First the ones without any redeemable quality. I’m not even going to upload cover pictures for these, try and avoid them if you can at all:

  • Kathy Reichs; Flash and Bones (typical popular tripe, happens to be a No. 1 best seller)
  • Jeff Abbott; Cut and Run (typical popular tripe, not a best seller per se, but certainly written by an author who wrote other best sellers)
  • Michael Ridpath; 66° North (typical popular tripe feeding on wide-spread antipathy in the wake of the financial crisis, books fails miserably to deliver on tagline “In Iceland, revenge is best served at arctic temperatures…”)
  • Ruth Rendell; Not in the Flesh (I’m increasingly annoyed by the tendency in modern detective stories and tv series to let the murderer kill everyone before the detective in charge finally arrests the one remaining suspect on account of all the others being dead, put some frikkin’ thought into it already and solve the case before 4 more people die).
  • Robert Ludlum; Bourne Trilogy (typical popular tripe, highly repetitive writing. All of them international best sellers obviously) I’m amazed how the movies have absolutely nothing in common with the book apart from a few character names).
  • Seth Godin; Linchpin (Self help bunkum, normally I quite like Godins books, but this one was hogwash).

Now for the middling to good stuff, in no particular order.

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NVAL2 discovered

January 5, 2013

Gene for poor science journalism discovered.

Now the hunt is on for NOVO2, the gene that causes certain men to drop their voice tonality to unnaturally low bass levels while uncontrollably spewing exaggerated and sensationalist clichés like “killed everything in its wake” and “destruction on a scale never before seen by scientists”.