Story-telling pieces of maths

When I was wee and being taught maths in the bad standard manner, I instinctively came up with little characterisations of various mathematical objects, to protect myself from boredom:

  • The positive and negative numbers are mortally opposed armies; the modulus denotes the size of each army; each unit can handle one unit of the enemy before dying (evaporating together, in fact). Addition and subtraction are fair fights upon the field; multiplication and division are espionage and political overthrow. The negatives hate each other as much as they hate positives (-10 x -10 = 100). The positives are very simple and can be easily tricked into fighting for the other side (-1 x 1,000,000 = -1,000,000).

  • Differentiation is desecration and zoom. Integration is reconsecration and overview. Going by the basic fairy-tale story arc, then, differdesecration is never the real end-point; a calculation isn't complete until it is brought back to the initial function... (Here we see the beginning of a perverse side to telling maths stories; it brings arbitrary constraints on operations.)

  • Humans have no right to be using the infinite summation symbol so casually. It is a tense and crackling thing, like the Demon core.

  • I also had a distinct emotional bias against discrete mathematics. 'Discrete entities are fake human constructs; your units are suspended over deep blackness. The awkward, smooth, tricky, crackling continuous is the real.' (Despite appearances, quantum physics doesn't weigh against this metaphysics.)

  • The confusion matrix. Just get a deep sense of security and importance off it. Very glad we worked this out.


Why is this so twee? Among laypeople (who, like feudal peasants listening to a Latin Mass, are forced to put up with a lot of maths despite incomprehension) it is strange because maths is represented as inhuman and boring and not the kind of thing that takes or needs creativity. Among the cognoscenti it's a strange thing to do, because the above is undignified, and one of the big reasons to do Higher mathematics is that it lets you take on the fearsome and transcendent silence of (the lay conception of) maths; difficult, unnarrated mystery is very high status. (This makes Ben Orlin wonderful in yet another way.) Of course one of the things about humans is that they will find meaning, project meaning, anywhere.

adult content miscellany

Age is at least five different things which we currently treat as the same. (We do this by using just one integer, 'years since birth', as the only measure of it.) What several things is age?

  1. Historical periodisation. The person's place in history, extremely well covered by date of birth. Through DOB we get a sense of what cluster of opinions they will probably hold.

  2. Biological age. A person's general senescence. The age-integer is also used a proxy for how much help a person needs or deserves, with 65 years an arbitrary threshold in most of the developing world. (Philosophically, it would make a lot of sense to collapse old-age welfare into disability welfare, since old age is disability, and since both resource allocations seek the amelioration of a difficult life. But, politically, this would be a bad move for the old, since the current climate makes it pretty easy to slash disability while pensions are relatively sacrosanct.)

  3. Total subjective time. How much has the person consciously been through? This measure is not much respected yet; for instance, we call people who wake from long comas the age indicated by their date of birth, and expect the corresponding DOB behaviour from them. Interesting questions as to what dementia does to this variable - do forgotten experiences not count towards one's subjective age? does forgetting make you younger? - and I don't pretend to know.

  4. Social status allocated. (As opposed to the social status deserved...) Much of human history was gerontocratic: you served your time and earned power just by being old. Interestingly, this social pressure (which e.g. led to polygamy for the old élites) is at odds with the presumable motive of judging people by age type (2), as a proxy for reproductive fitness. By now, western cultures have overreached in the opposite direction, toward arbitrary disrespect.

  5. Wisdom and emotional maturity. We even try to use the age-integer as a measure of a person's profoundness and credibility, probably as a result of (4). (We refer to wise young people as 'old souls'.) When staying alive was a hard thing to do, this measure was potentially informative (even if it was just something like 'how much food I have stolen from others', 'how many successful lies I told' rather than 'how well my mind processed reality'). Now...

At the moment, the age-integer carries quite a lot of information about these things. But we can expect this to decline; technology is beginning to unpick the senses. (1) and (2) are already quite divergent: people with the same date of birth vary widely by metabolic and mental integrity. Genetic engineering could make this into a chasm: think of the editing of social scripts (4) needed to deal with a 100 year old competitive Olympean; an awoken cryonics survivor with two centuries between their DOB origin and the apparent wear on their body; living people who remember the days when women used to have to drag around new gestating people, often unto their death. Memory enhancements could affect (3), the phenomenology of age, very, very strongly (some fictional evidence here).

Much later, in space, time dilation and [whatever hibernation method sticks] could make (1), (2) and (3) diverge in complex fashions; when, in Interstellar, the doctor tells Cooper he looks good for being 127 years old, I think he is saying something importantly false, because (3) Cooper did not experience, and (2) his body does not wear, 80 of those years.

Some of you will be thinking 'Huh! The age-integer sucks. Let's not use numbers to categorise people'. On the contrary! we just need four good ones more.


Github pages are remarkable things: a public window on the complex and valuable* mental objects of some stranger. Well, 'so are blogs', you say. But Githubs are different: the projects therein will be totally opaque to most people outside of its relatively narrow corridor in technology. (Even techies often struggle to understand the point, sense, or structure of another's project.)

This total barrier to judgment just doesn't come up elsewhere: it is relatively easy, as an intelligent outsider, to get a rough sense of the value of any work written in prose. Sure, jargon can kill a sentence; an unheralded mathematical formula can foil an argumentative chain; appeal to invisible data can smuggle in a premise. But at the end of it, we still know if the writing is good, if the person is a clear thinker; we know if there is any use in us trying to evaluate the content. Code - personal, creative, fire-imbued code - gives us little of this sense if we are not already in the author's ambit.

* Consider the ~$2bn gift to humanity that is the Linux kernel.


Further chapters from the book of being quite clever but very strange:

Friend: "In the last seven days, I have applied to three jobs, and twelve women. I strongly suspect that given my skill set, I will find remuneration before having sex."

Me: "Moreover, by increasing your effort at either margin and timing the results, this method allows you to measure the exact ratio of your human capital in labour terms v. erotic capital!"


The year 2100 (or whatever): the world's crematoria are modified to sift the ashes of the deceased into carbon fibre, with which to construct Von Neumann probes; the chimney of the place is repurposed as a mass driver to launch the seeker into space. 'Ave atque vale; nunc laborare'.


(c) Ben Orlin (2015)

"A thing is a hole in a thing it is not."
- Carl Andre

And thus: a hole is a thing surrounded by what it isn't.


Web project: the epidemiology of Christianity. Interactive animation showing the shifting of national borders and the dynamics of missionaries, state power, and denomination schisms throughout the world. Inspired by this. (Later, of all Religions.) Shouldn't take more than 1000 hours of expensive and tedious work.


"What is our ‘culture’ made of? Sporranry, alcoholism, and the ludicrous appropriation
of the remains of Scotland’s Celtic fringe as national symbol…"
- Tom Nairn

Is it cultural appropriation when someone who isn't Scottish says 'Slainte'? Is it when someone who doesn't speak Gaelic does so? (Just kidding; I don't care. I actually want to talk about the category 'Anglo-Scot'.) Claim: Since about 1800, every non-island, non-Highland Scot has been an Anglo-Scot. Since about 1960 every non-island Scot has been.

The term used to have a particular meaning, for migrants crossing the border either way, or for folk of directly mixed parentage. But this latter mixing is pretty much true of everyone in Scotland now, and I'm not making any ethnic point. (Nor do I mean by 'Anglo-Scot' just 'possesses the English language' or 'has it as mother tongue'.) Anglo-Scots, these days, possess British perks while maintaining (a bit of) the status accruing to the exotic and the oppressed.

This optional Celtic whim allows us to duck the stigma of British imperial history and snobbery (compare the way that, during the global anti-Americanism of the last decade, Americans pretended to be Canadian when abroad). It's like having a dual passport to different historical and class pretences (aka 'identities').


- Richard Wright

Notable words of the past little while, Q3 2015

  • 'primary' (n. and adj.): Useful term in the modern free-love movement: one's most significant romantic partner (n.), or most significant relationship (adj.), as measured by emotional intensity, tacit commitment, logistical entanglement (cohabitation, children, bank accounts), and their formal priority over others.

    Of course, this is basically what traditional relationships mean by 'a relationship' (or, better, by 'next of kin') but it's a very good idea to be explicit about these things even if, like me, you're not especially modern. Not least, this allows us to understand what it actually means to commit oneself in the standard manner; to question the bits of it that are stupid or overgeneralised; and to think of all other-seeking humans as sharing a great deal of motivation and emotional whatnot, whether they are swinger, asexual, Bostonian, polyamorist or monogamist.

  • 'aromantic' (adj.): Not experiencing romantic attraction (as opposed to asexual, not experiencing sexual desire). The many identity permutations created by modelling the romantic variables with more detail (as passion, affection, commitment, and the tangled set that is sexuality) is another useful offshoot from people being modern about all this.

  • 'Missa sine populo' or 'Missa privata'(n.): A Catholic Mass conducted without an audience (often muttered). A powerful, intimate, odd little image. They're not allowed to do it without one other person present, 'except under reasonable circumstances'.

  • 'belonger' (n.): Citizen of a British Overseas Territory. (e.g. Gibraltar: "a person may be registered as a Gibraltarian at the discretion of the Government of Gibraltar minister with responsibility for personal status (currently Justice Minister Daniel Feetham), if they satisfy the minister that: (a) Gibraltar or Great Britain is their country of origin; (b) he is a British national; (c) he is of good character; (d) he has sufficient knowledge of the English language; (e) he has his permanent home in Gibraltar..."

  • 'drumble' (v.): To go about in a lazy or vague way.

  • 'oophagy' (n. and v.): embryo cannibalism.

  • 'technical' (n.): an improvised gun truck, the light cavalry of modern war. Term originates from NGO work in 90s Somalia: local thugs were hired for security cover using vague, semi-legal 'Technical Assistance Grants', used to rig out pickups with giant improvisations.
  • 'minify' (v.): To remove all unnecessary, human-friendly formatting from code for compiling. See also uglify.

  • 'alt-ac' (n.): 'Alternative-academic'. Refers to those job/lifestyles arising as a result of the bubble in formal education and, more generally, the increased number of people who want to do research. In its uninteresting form it involves just hanging around universities in admin roles; in its transformative form it includes quality intellectual workers of all stripes: coders, activists, librarians, independent scholars, on equal terms as inquirers.

  • 'sunchoke' (n.): Particular kind of artichoke. AKA the 'fartichoke'.

  • 'inuksuk' (n.): A stone landmark built by Arctic folk, often in human form.

  • 'internegative' (n.): Intermediate film between original negative and a full print.

  • 'Enviropig' (n.): A GM breed of Sus domesticus which can digest phosphate much better.(

  • 'acquihire' (v. or a bad n.): To take over a company for the purposes of inheriting its staff.

  • 'BYOD' (adj.): Bring Your Own Device, rather than being supplied one at work.

  • 'OOC' (adj.): Out of Character; a metacharacter used to denote that one is speaking as oneself rather than one's persona in the game or drama at hand.

  • 'kratom' (n.): A legal high with some use in weaning people off other opiates. Included casually as a smoothie ingredient in at least one place.

  • 'perf' (n.): Showbiz for 'performance'.
  • 'performant' (adj.): Tech industry jargon for 'high-performance'.