Monthly Archives: March 2004

If, as we may assume, weirdness is absolute

I would like to talk today about something I like to call the law of diminishing weirdness.

It works something like this. If, as we may assume, weirdness is absolute (ie. Some things are just weirder than others) then we are faced with a problem. Why do some things seem less weird to some people and not to others. The only possible answer is that people get used to things. The more you are exposed to the weirdness the less weird it seems. Hence the law of diminishing weirdness.

In fact a really weird thing can happen when things go too far with this law. Weird thing, after a while seem really normal and people who don’t do them end up seeming, to the naturalised weirdo, well frankly a bit odd.

A huge hulking human gets onto the tube

A huge hulking human gets onto the tube. He walks over with his girlfriend to an empty end of the carriage. He is wearing a t-shirt which has the speed camera logo on it and has the text “Government cash machine”.

He spots a whole load of discarded nut shells on the floor and suddenly goes bright red in the face and says something quite fierce which I can’t quite discern. His girlfriend tells him to “shhh…”

She sits down and he stands in front of her. Facing her. Holding with both hands the rail above his head. And then he asks her to punch him. At first she resists but in the end she relents. It looks like she’s really hurt her hand. But he has a huge grin on his face.

The blind date is an interesting concept. Will it work?

The blind date is an interesting concept. I believe I may have been on one but I didn’t realise until afterwards.

This might seem a little unlikely unless you include, as I do, meetings of groups of friends with the express purpose of getting one person to meet another person.

I am about to go on one again, not for myself you understand but for somebody else.

You see there is a person, lets call her Cilla, and she has decided to get tow of her friends together. Now I know Cilla and the girl in this prospective couple, but I don’t know the guy.

Now Cilla knows about blind dates and how they work and she believes the best approach is not to get the two together alone and let them go at it. No. She believes that an altogether less pressurised approach is much more satisfactory.

Her suggestion is that a whole load of his friends and a whole load of her friends should meet up and then they won’t notice that everything is focussed on them so much.

Will it work? back for an update soon.

The getting married business won’t occur until his return.

I have decided to work with a running mate on my next novel. It seems the ideal solution.

We have decided that we will complete a chapter a month. Which is probably quite rapid as we both have jobs. I will also be continuing with gambolling and Nick, for it is he, has many projects of his own not least travelling to Argentina and getting married. And these two events are not even simultaneous. The getting married business won’t occur until his return.

The only problem is that I have to pick a novel to finish or work on a completely new one. The rules in the strictest sense call for the latter. But I’ll have to see what comes up.

Anyway I thought you might be interest to know about this and I’ll try and keep you informed.

My cunning trick?

I promised this article in a previous one, but I can’t remember which.

Actually no I can remember which, it was (On Sunday night, I was in Euston train station with Katherine and we spotted an unattended bag. ) and this article is about memory. Do you see what I’ve done there? My cunning trick? Well of course you do.

The particular aspect of memory that I wanted to talk about was the retroactive correction. The moment when you realise that everything that came before has to now be reappraised in light of new information.

It’s an odd thing when it happens. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the moment in Star wars Episode VI: The Empire Strikes Back * when we found out that Darth Vader was, in fact, Luke’s father. A key moment that made you want to go and re-watch the previous movie and see if it was now possible to guess this from subtle signs left before that out of context you had missed.

It’s a very fun trick. You can also see it in Return of the Jedi, The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense.

But is it honest? Is it fair? Well in fiction no trick should be off limits I suppose. So why should it be banned? Maybe it won’t.

Actually there is another version of this which is very similar but not quite the same. This is caused by revealing an earlier scene after the main event and thereby changing everything. This is like Memento. Or what would have happened if they were to put a scene in the prequels to Star Wars which changed the previous films.

They seem different because we seem the action. But actually how different are they? The scene where Darth tells Luke that he is his father alludes to a scene where Darth is having sex with Luke’s mother. We just don’t see it.

* Why does this sound much more ridiculous now?

How do you know that the colour green you see is the same colour green everyone else sees?

What an interesting thing being colour blind is. We’ve heard about it and we know about it. But all we really know about are two types of colour blindness. Either you can’t see a certain colour or range of colours at all and only perceive grey instead of colour. Or you can not perceive the difference between two different colours and so, for example, you would see both green things and red things as red things.

But there is another type which not much gets done about because, mainly, it doesn’t cause much of a problem.

How do you know that the colour green you see is the same colour green everyone else sees? You can’t know. You could be seeing what everyone else sees as red as green ad you wouldn’t know.

How could somebody explain it to you? If red and green were swapped how could they say it to you?

“Green is the colour of grass”, is something you have been told since being a child. It doesn’t matter if you are seeing a different colour than everybody else as long as everybody calls whatever colour they see when they see grass green nobody will every be any the wiser.

It is, I think, a rather unsettling thought that we don’t just all figuratively see the world differently. We might all literally see the world differently.

Maybe the really angry people see a nature full of what peaceful people call red?

Don’t touch, check with other passengers, inform station staff or call 999

“Don’t touch, check with other passengers, inform station staff or call 999”.

This is the suggestion, made by London Underground staff of what to do, or rather not do, if you see a suspect package.

Of course the problem is that they mean something different from what they have written. The easiest way to get a sense of it is to read the phrase out loud.

Some people still argue that the phrase is correct. But it isn’t. The sentence is simply an extended version of this “Don’t do this or that”.

Perhaps the best alternative would be this. “Don’t touch. Check with other passengers, inform station staff or call 999”.

On Sunday night, I was in Euston train station with Katherine and we spotted an unattended bag.

We seem to be doing better in London now – security wise. It’s an odd thing because before I just sort of assumed we were doing things properly but now I can tell they’ve improved and that’s coloured my opinion of what things were like before.*

On Sunday night, I was in Euston train station with Katherine and we spotted an unattended bag.

We quickly and dutifully found a member of staff and informed him of this bag. But he knew about it already. Several people had informed him of it. Apparently the bag had been left by a rowing couple.** But security was rounding them up and reuniting them with their bag.

Now, well just five minutes ago, in the very tube carriage that I’m sitting in as I write this article had an unattended bag in it. Some attentive citizen had spotted it and alerted the station staff. The underground staff arrived within seconds and came onto the train looking for the bag. Just at this moment he owner of the bag woke up. And was able to, if you’ll allow me, diffuse the situation.

* I like to think there will be an article on this at some point soon.

** Originally when I read this back I thought I was suggesting that the couple were rowing in a boat. I can them now as they go paddling up platform 11.

Mathematical biography

I wrote an article the other day (I’m fascinated by board games) on the subject of games. And in it I mentioned the man John Nash, the subject of the movie “A Beautiful Mind”. This reminded me of a peculiar situation that occurred to me a few years back.

I had for some time been trying to find Sylvia Nasar’s book “A Beautiful Mind” which the movie was to be based on. When I had first started looking, as far as I know there was no movie planned.

Now I know that books can be found on the internet and I will sometimes employ that method but only in very specialist circumstances. Generally however I prefer to have a mental list in my head and then look around every bookshop I come near until I find it. This way it a) takes longer and b) costs more because generally I find may other books I didn’t really know I needed until I held them in my hands. But somehow I feel this is still the better method.

I suddenly found the book completely unexpectedly in the Waterstone’s on Charring Cross Road. I was amazed to discover that they had a dedicated mathematical biography section. And lo the book was there. As I went to the front desk clutching the last copy they had, I decided to mention something to the salesperson.

“This book,” I said, “is very difficult to find.”
“Oh,” she asked, “where did you find it.”
“Mathematical biography.” I replied. I’m sure it wasn’t a trick of the light there was pity in her eyes.

“No, no!”, I said, “this book may be in ‘mathematical biography’ in only one bookshop in the whole of London right now, but within a year I promise you this book will be in the bestseller section of every bookshop in the land.” I was warming to my subject now.
“Um, why?”
“Well, this morning I saw that Brian Grazer had secured the rights to this book. And Brian Grazer is Ron Howard’s favoured producer. So it’s very likely that this movie will make it big.”

And it was true, I had seen that piece of news that morning on the internet before I had gone out shopping. It was an incredible co-incidence, and for a time I believed that perhaps some ambitious bookseller had realised the rights had been sold and had started stocking the book. But then why only 1 copy? How so fast? It must just have been a co-incidence.

Anyway despite all of this the teller looked sceptical. I paid my money. And I left the shop.

Three years later I returned. Well I had probably returned in between but I don’t remember any of those times. Anyway as I was paying for my purchases this time the sales person suddenly said to me, “hey you’re that beautiful mind guy”.

How odd, I thought, this girl has confused me with John Nash, a septuagenarian of some repute. You see although these incidents have been brought together in this article at the time they did not seem connected at all. In fact I am pretty sure that I hadn’t thought of the incident since it had occurred.

She could clearly see the confusion in my eyes so she added, “No you’re the guy who came in here and told me that ‘A beautiful mind’ was going to be a big seller. And you were right. It was”.

Suddenly the original incident came back to me. The improbability of the whole set of coincidences on top of other coincidences seems astronomical. Although I’m sure if we were to ask Mr Nash he would be able to show that actually wasn’t as unlikely as all that.

Her left leg is itching

Her left leg is itching. Not the kind of itch you can scratch. It’s just slightly vibrating. A nervous twitch. As though that one part of her body was more ready to go than the others. Her head wanted to stay. She knew that but her foot had other ideas. And now it had spread up the length of her entire leg.

It must, she reasoned, have been the left hand side of her brain that wanted to stay. Something to do with cross lateralness or something. Each side of the brain controlling the other half of the body.

But slowly the adrenalin was building up in her limbs, her brain was the last to succumb. Just a fraction of a second before she ran the liquid in her brain felt like it had been turned into a fizzy drink.