Haiku Detector Achieves its Purpose (and will now proceed to have an existential crisis)


I originally wrote Haiku Detector because my friend Gry saw Times Haiku and wondered whether there were any haiku in her Ph. D. thesis. The other day I heard back about the haiku she found. It turns out that even the title of the thesis is a haiku:

Developments for
studies of the extremes of
nuclear matter

Here’s another one, which could be about anything. The last line is a bit of an anticlimax.

As of today, the
origin of this strength is
not well understood.

When I read this one, I wondered if miniball was a mini-golf style version of another ball game:

At HIE-ISOLDE
the MINIBALL would be used
for the same purpose.

The impurities
of 48,50Ti
are easily seen.

After seeing these, I sent her the as-yet-unreleased new version of Haiku Detector, which can detect haiku made up of several sentences. Having mostly had my name on papers authored by the entire CMS collaboration, I expected her to find a lot of haiku in the author list. But ISOLDE is much smaller, and also this is her thesis that she wrote, not some paper whose author list she got tacked onto. So she got some from references:

Kitatani, S.
Goko, H. Toyokawa,
K. Yamada, T.

C 47,
537
(1993).

and some things with section numbers tacked on:

2.1.1
Open shell nuclei and
collective models

This matrix is the
starting point for the Oslo
method. 45

That last one has so many possibilities. I like to think of it as being about an electronic band called The Oslo Method which released a 45rpm record about The Matrix. Unfortunately, nobody can be told what the haiku is. You have to see it for yourself. And indeed, you can see the other haiku she found on the #MyHaikuThesis tag on Twitter.

I noticed something interesting while writing this post — some of the ‘haiku’ Gry found include gamma (γ) symbols:

The γ-ray strength functions
display no strong enhancement
for low γ energies.

5.2.3
Particle energy-γ-ray
energy matrix

Haiku Detector on her Mac has treated them as having zero syllables, as if they are not pronounced, and I think I recall characters like that not being pronounced in the Princeton Companion to Mathematics. But I just checked on my Mac running Mac OS X Yosemite, and the speech synthesis (which Haiku Detector relies on for syllable counting) pronounces γ as ‘Greek small letter gamma’, so Haiku Detector does not find those erroneous haiku. I think that this might be a new feature in Yosemite.

But here’s where it gets weird: you’d think that it’s just reading ‘Greek small letter gamma’ because that’s the unicode name of the character. I tried with a few emoji and other special characters, and that hypothesis is upheld. But the unicode character named ‘chicken’ (🐔) is pronounced ‘chicken head’. Spooky. Another strange thing is that there is no unicode ‘duck’ character.

If you’ve been paying attention, you probably know why I happened to come across those oddities. I’ll have to investigate them later, though; right now I’m in Edinburgh for NSScotland, and it’s about time I looked at some tourism information.

So, Haiku Detector; what now? Maybe look for supersymmetric haiku?

Update: It seems that in Mac OS X 10.8, γ is not pronounced, and 🐔 is pronounced ‘chicken emoji’. Other emoji also have ‘emoji’ in their pronunciations, while still others are not pronounced. I wonder if pronunciations were added (and later edited to remove the ‘emoji’) for certain emoji, and now the default pronunciation has change from nothing to the unicode name. So ‘🐔’ ended up with the explicit pronunciation ‘chicken head’ while others which were not previously pronounced use their unicode names. So this should be a haiku in Yosemite, though for some reason Haiku Detector does not detect it:

🐒🐔
🐔🐒🐒
🍄🍄🐍

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Forms and Formulae: Proof and Presupposition


A picture of the Sun peeking over the spine of The Princeton Companion to Mathematics as it rests on top of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & PoeticsThis is the sixth in a series called ‘Forms and Formulae‘ in which I write about articles in the Princeton Companion to Mathematics using poetic forms covered by articles in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This installment’s mathematics article is entitled ‘Geometry’, and the poetic form is anecdote. This poem tells a true story I was reminded of by the discussion of the many attempts to prove Euclid’s parallel postulate from the other postulates, before people finally considered what would happen if it were false, opening up whole new geometries. This anecdote is not directly analogous, however, since I actually proved a statement to be false rather than proving it to be independent of the other axioms and then investigating what would happen if it were false.

A statement that the learned man had tried for days to prove
was set for students as a test
for four points extra credit,
to boost percentage marks assessed
of anyone to get it.

I mined brain gold with mind-brainpan, but things did not improve.
My efforts could not beat a path
from axiom to conjecture.
I sighed, and then let go of math
and headed to a lecture.

As I was sitting on the can, the shit began to move.
I saw the field with eyes anew
and found a boundary sample
that proved the statement was not true —
an outright counterexample.

To draw for years a foregone plan, for sure does not behoove
explorers hoping quests provide
not just what’s sought, but more.
Perhaps the field was opened wide,
but I scored one-oh-four.

I’ve been sitting on a draft of this one for a while, because, as noted above, disproving something is not the same thing as proving that one axiom can neither be proven nor disproven from the others, and then launching new fields of mathematics in which the axiom is taken to be false. Besides that, it’s a poem mentioning poop (though written before Shit Your Inner Voice Says), and it has a really weird rhyme scheme and awkward rhythm, for no good reason. Then again, I did once credit my short-story-writing success to the mention of toilets.

It is a true story; my abstract algebra professor at university set a couple of problems he hadn’t managed to prove himself for extra credit, and after proving problem number one I happened to think of a counterexample for problem number 2 while doing number 2s, and ended up scoring more than 100% for that class. I felt like I couldn’t make up an entirely fictional anecdote (though that is allowed, according to to the encyclopaedia) and while I’m sure I could write all sorts of other poems about geometry (on top of at least one I already have), I don’t have a lot of anecdotes about it.

Unimpressed as I am by this particular effort, I have to publish this to get onto the next Forms and Formulae, which will be… oh, for the love of Gödel — a national anthem for the development of abstract algebra?! What have I let myself in for?! It will take a while, because I’m heading to a programming conference followed by a translation conference soon, and then I’ll probably have to exercise my fledgling musical skills again.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy the highlights videos from Open Phil, an awesome open mic night in Vienna, where I’ve been practising reciting my poetry for audiences, and other people have been doing amazing musical things and other performances. Also, here‘s a very Vi-Hart-esque video I found while searching to see whether Vi Hart had anything to say on non-Euclidean geometry:

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The Vatican Nag (Tom Lehrer Parody)


I visited the Vatican recently, and a friend was kind enough to put this song in my head beforehand:

After arriving early enough to get to the front of the line for Saint Peter’s Basilica fairly quickly, being turned away because of a weapon I’d brought from Geneva (no, not antimatter), coming back unarmed and being let through without waiting in the then-hours-long line because they noticed I had ‘problems’ (I had blisters. Also, I’m not very good at walking), and then being repeatedly offered paid guided tours to skip the line while I was going to the post office and generally chilling out, I decided to write a parody. Here it is; The Vatican Nag:

Half off gods that come in threes!
Twelve for ten on rosaries!
Fourteen euros ninety-nine
to skip the line, skip the line, skip the line!

Buy a stick to take a selfie.
Try a discount saved-from-hell fee.
Whatever your indulgence is,
they’ll upsell the whole Jesus
doing the Vatican Nag.

Get in line for that basilica?
Only clueless pilgrims will, a co-
lossal fee will leave you poor as a m-
onk enjoying guided tourism.
You don’t have to spend the day there.
Save the day and spend your pay there.
Two, four, six… great!
Ninety euros, skip the wait!

Half off gods that come in threes!
Twelve for ten on rosaries!
Fourteen euros ninety-nine
to skip the line, skip the line, skip the line!

Hawkers oft insisting crap’ll
put you off the Sistine Chapel.
Don’t Holy See ‘em;
try the Colosseum.
Hide in your attic and
never do that again.
Out of the Vatican Nag!

I used some artistic license here, but a lot of it is true. There were plenty of people selling 12 one-euro rosaries for the price of ten, and the ‘skip the line’ tours were either €15 or €43 depending on the kind of tour. People selling selfie sticks, hats, cellphone chargers, and flat wooden things that magically transform into sets of bowls were all over Rome and the Vatican. I did not see anyone selling indulgences (‘saved-from-hell fees’), however. Also, it wasn’t all that annoying, really. But do see the Colosseum.

I thought about saying ‘then the cost’ll send you Pentecostal’ but I think that’s even worse than the lines I have. I also wanted to use ‘poperies’ in the first line, but since it would be indistinguishable from ‘pot pourris’ if anyone actually sang it, I decided to go with the holy three-for-one deal.

In other news, I’ve been reciting my poems at Open Phil, a great open mic night in Vienna hosted by the Phil half of Crazy for Jane. You can watch some of the performances on the online highlights reels, but to see the whole thing you really have to be there.

Also, Shit Your Inner Voice Says is now on The FuMP Sideshow.

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Shit Your Inner Voice Says (a song)


I am learning about four-part harmonies, so I wrote and recorded [mp3] a short song about self-confidence and poop. Anyone with a head and a butt should understand; understand also that I do not condone headbutting buttheads. These are four voices that might accumulate in one’s head as a child grows up and vacillates between self-confidence and self-doubt. Here are the lyrics:

Soprano: Look how in-control my bowel is. Clearly I know where my towel is.
Alto: What if all I do is shit? How do they put up with it?
Tenor: Push and push and I’ll improve. Know my shit, my bowel will move.
Bass: Everyone poops.

All: If everyone poops…

Soprano & Tenor: Maybe I’m no better than them.
Alto & Bass: Maybe I’m no worse than them.

All: Maybe I am just as good.

It is sung by my robot choir (a program I wrote to make my Mac sing using the built-in speech synthesis), with the voice Princess as the soprano, Victoria as alto, Fred as tenor and Ralph as the bass, unless I’ve misunderstood how the parts are named or which octaves they were meant to be singing in, which is entirely likely after one half-hour lesson on the topic.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m doing music lessons with John Anealio over the internet. A couple of weeks ago I decided I wanted to learn about harmonies. We picked out some chords and random and then decided which notes each voice would sing from them. I checked out what they sounded like using instruments in GarageBand, then I decided I may as well write some words with it, with each voice singing the same sequence of notes over and over. I remember thinking about making them conflicting inner voices, but I’m not sure what made me decide that those inner voices were full of shit. Of course, I can’t tell whether this song is shit, good shit, horse shit, or the shit; when it comes to music, I’m still figuring out how not to soil myself. But it’s about poop, so it ought to entertain someone.

One of these days I’ll find a more convenient way to host podcasts so that I actually bother to put things like this on mine.

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Unintentional Haiku Spoken in a Courtroom 241 Years Ago


When I discovered that the court proceedings of the Old Bailey were available online, naturally I had to see whether they contained any haiku. The archive is too huge to put into Haiku Detector all at once, so I just checked the ‘on this day in…’ link whenever I had time. The most haiku-rich I’ve seen so far was from a wounding case on 8 September 1773, which, now that I think about it, should not have appeared as an ‘on this day…’ link yet. I had to clean up the text a little first, to remove all the Q.s and speakers’ names. Here are some of the 55 haiku that were left.

These ones sound like some kind of metaphor for the fiddly final steps towards achieving goals, and the monsters that might demotivate us from climbing toward those goals, but which are secretly part of ourselves:

How far is it from
the upper step of the stairs
to the door itself?

Upon the landing.
Was the door within view of
you at that time?   Yes.

The General must
have seen you coming up two
or three steps at least?

How far had you got
up stairs before you saw Hyde?
Did you hear Hyde’s voice?

Who else was with you
there?  I cannot remember
any one but me.

Where did you wait while
Hyde went into the house?   At
the top of the street.

The world’s simplest riddle:

Yes. Where did you go
when you came into the house?
Into the entry.

And some more intriguing questions:

After Lee struck me:
the knife dropped upon the ground.
Was it by a blow?

Had he no blow with
the butt end of a pistol?
Not that I know of.

You say you knew the
General very well; do
you think he knew you?

When you came back what
part of the family did
you find below stairs?

In what condition
was the door when he fired
the second pistol?

What did he tell him?
That a parcel of fellows
were below with sticks.

Did you observe the
hole in the door case that was
made by the pistol?

Did you look through the
door to see the direction
the ball had taken?

Was the General
upon his legs or not? He
was upon his legs.

Some which sound like bloody massacres until you get to the last line:

I believe this is
the knife you was cutting the
bread and butter with.

Was James in the room
with you while you was cutting
the bread and butter?

Finally, a few which sound a bit dirty (or so I am told) if you have that kind of mind:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Forms and Formulae: Not A Number


A picture of the Sun peeking over the spine of The Princeton Companion to Mathematics as it rests on top of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & PoeticsThis is the fifth in a series called ‘Forms and Formulae‘ in which I write about articles in the Princeton Companion to Mathematics using poetic forms covered by articles in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This installment’s mathematics article is entitled ‘From Numbers to Number Systems’ and the poetic form is allegory, making this the third poetic form in a row that isn’t actually a poem.

A long time ago in Greece, there was a community of numbers where everybody lived as one, or two, or three. They were not all equal, because each was unique, but they were all numbers, and that’s what counted. They were the true numbers, and they lived alongside the false, or negative, numbers.

Then One day, which was the day when the number One was celebrated, One Seventh came along. The other numbers looked at it with pity.

“You poor, broken thing,” they said. But the seventh didn’t feel broken.

“I’m not broken. I’m a number, just like you!” said One Seventh.

Seven looked at One Seventh with trepidation. “I don’t think it’s safe to be around a part of seven. What if it wants to take more of my parts?”

Three agreed. “It’s just not wholesome.”

One Seventh pointed to its numerator. “Is this not a one, like the number of the day? How can I not be a number when my very numerator is the purest number of all?”

One was flattered by the description, and in the spirit of the celebration, declared, “One must not only celebrate Oneself, but also display kindness to all those around One. I declare One Seventh to be a number, along with all little Ones like it!” After that, the other numbers were largely kind to the unit fractions, and the fractions always reciprocated.

The next day, Two Fifths came along. Emboldened by the success of One Seventh, Two Fifths said, “I’m a number too! Can I join the celebration?”

Two, whose day it was, said, “But you’re just One Fifth plus One Fifth. It’s just not proper to be going around as if you’re a single number. Split into unit fractions before you scare the little Ones!”

But Two Fifths persisted. “What are you,” it said to Two, “if not One plus One?”

Two did not like the idea two bits, but it could not find a problem with the argument.

Five, who was never any good at acting composed, protested. “This is preposterous! Two, I always knew you weren’t quite as prime as us. Think about it. If we let these two fifths…”

This two fifths,” corrected Two Fifths.

Five shot it an incalculable look. “If we let these two fifths act like a whole number, next we’ll have matrices, or lengths, or linear graphs wanting to be numbers. It’s a steep gradient!”

“That’s not true!” said Two Fifths. “In other cultures I am a perfectly acceptable number. In Mesopotamia, nobody thinks twice about my being a number, but they would never allow One Seventh. It’s all a matter of culture! And graphs are not numbers there either, so you needn’t worry about that.”

Two was divided by Five’s argument. It worried about diluting the number system, of course, but it was aware that even it could have been excluded from the primes using such an argument. Having always felt like an outsider itself, it had pity on Two Fifths, and declared the fraction and others like it to be numbers.

The next day, The Square Root of Two, who could not be expressed as a fraction, decided to join the numbers. Three said, “Don’t be absurd. You’re not really the square root of two; only square numbers have square roots. You’re just a fraction who’s confused. You look like about one and a hundred and sixty nine four hundred and eighths, to me.”

But the square root was resolute. “Look,” it said, holding up a square. “If we say the sides have length one, then the diagonal has length the square root of two. There is no way we can find a unit that can measure both of them as whole numbers. I can prove it to you!” And The Square Root of Two proved it.

“Okay,” said Three. “You’ve shown that the diagonal can’t be measured with the same unit as the sides. But they’re just lengths, not numbers. All you’ve done is show that not all lengths can be measured with numbers. The numbers are not going to be happy about this, you know.”

“But I am a number! I am the number which can measure that diagonal!”

“That’s just irrational. Lengths are not numbers. Either you’re a number, in which case you should show yourself as a fraction instead of wearing that radical outfit, or you’re a length, or a ratio of lengths, and you should go back where you belength. Make up your mind.”

“I told you this would happen!” said Five. “I told you lengths would be next!”

So the Square Root of Two skulked back to geometry, and commiserated, but did not commensurate, with the ratio of a circumference to a diameter.

Meanwhile, Two Fifths told all its new number friends about its adventures in Babylon, and the sexy sexagesimal numbers there. Before long, it became fashionable for numbers to represent themselves using decimal places instead of fractions. Some of them had to use zeros to make sure their digits hung in the right places.

Zero saw its chance, and claimed its right to be considered a number.

“But you’re not a number!” said Four. “You’re just a placeholder that the fractions use when they’re dressing up in their costumes for their unwholesome sexagesimal parties.” Four looked down its slope at a nearby decimal.

“But if I add myself to you, is there not equality? I should be treated the same as you.”

“But,” said One, “numbers have to be able to multiply. If you multiply you only get yourself. Only multiplying with me should do that! I’m the Unit around here, not you.”

“You’re destroying the family Unit!” shouted Five, in defense of its onely other divisor.

“I can’t even tell whether you’re true or false!” cried One Seventh, nonplussed.

So Zero went back to dutifully holding places, quietly adding itself to everyone and everytwo it met, until they were all convinced it held a place in society.

On the Seventh day, which was the day when One Seventh’s acceptance as a number was celebrated, they rested.

On the Tenth day, which was the day when The Tenth was celebrated, The Tenth returned from a vacation in Flanders and declared, “There are no absurd, irrational, irregular, inexplicable, or surd numbers!”

Five and Three cheered, and made obtuse gestures at The Square Root of Two and its friends. “You see? You’re not numbers.”

“All numbers are squares, cubes, fourth powers, and so on. The roots are just numbers. Quantities, magnitudes, ratios… they are all just numbers like us. We can all fit along the same line.”

Five and Three looked at each other in primal disgust. “I’m not a point on a line! I’m a number! A real number!” Five shouted.

“Real numbers,” countered The Tenth, “include everyone, and everyfraction, and everylength in between.”

The Square Root of Two led its friends into their places between the other numbers, and they celebrated with unlimited sines, cosines, and logarithms. Some of the stuffier primes and fractions protested, but they backed down when they realised just how many of these strange new numbers there were.

But even as The Tenth spoke, it knew that not everything it said was true. After all, false numbers were not the square of anything, even though it had seen them act like they were in some delightful formulae.

At Length, which was the day when the acceptance of lengths as numbers was celebrated, somereal wondered what would happen if false numbers were squares of something too. It imagined a new kind of radical, like those the square roots wore, but for false numbers. It imagined a world where every polynomial equation had roots, be they real, false, or imaginary. These were clearly not like all the other numbers The Tenth had listed.

Soon after, the imaginary numbers came out of hiding. “We do exist!” they said. “And we can add and subtract and multiply and divide just like you!”

The other numbers were wary, for they could not work out where the imaginaries fit amongst them. They could not even tell who was bigger. Five was disgusted that such numbers had been secretly adding themselves to real numbers all along.

The real numbers were nonetheless intrigued by and slightly envious of these exotic creatures, and despite having become accustomed to all having equal status as numbers, sought new ways to distinguish themselves from the crowd. The whole numbers had never quite got over the feeling of being generally nicer than the other numbers, so they used the new trend to vaunt their natural wholesomeness. The ratio of a circumference to a diameter, who had taken on the name Pi, discovered that in addition to not being expressible as a fraction, it was so much more interesting than The Square Root of Two that it couldn’t even be expressed in such roots. It called itself ‘transcendental’, and had quite some cachet until most of its admirers realised that they had the same property.

Finally they discovered that instead of trying to organise everynum into a line, they could arrange themselves in two dimensions, with the imaginaries along one axis and the reals along the other, and the vast plane in between filled with complex combinations of both.

Some of the more progressive numbers were so excited by this system that they tried to find new numbers that they could arrange into a three-dimensional volume, but they couldn’t find any. However, during their search they found things called quaternions, which lived in a fourth dimension.

An excited transcendental, whose name is too long to write here, brought a subgroup of quaternions in front of the crowd and announced, “I have travelled to the fourth dimension, and found numbers there just like us. We are not alone!”

Five kept its fury pent up this time, but Four Sevenths called out, “They are not numbers like us. I have seen how they multiply. When two quaternions multiply, they can give different results depending on which comes first!”

The numbers clattered their numerals in shock, and a great amount of whispering about unlikeabel multiplication practices ensued.

A complex transcendental sneered, “And what were you doing watching them multiply, eh?”

“Oh, get real!” retorted Four Sevenths, crudely conveying what the transcendental should do with its complex conjugate.

The pair fought, and disorder spread throughout the dimensions. Some sets of numbers sneaked off into the fields to form their own self-contained communities, sick of the controversy surrounding being or not being numbers. As they did, they found still other communities which functioned much like theirs, and some were communities of functions themselves. Indeed, even matrices and graphs formed structures which the enlightened subgroups found familiar, though rather than trying to be accepted as numbers, these groups took pride in having their own identities. The p-adics were adamant that they were numbers, but did not care to join the rest of the real or complex numbers. The octonions did not associate themselves with such labels, going about their operations however it worked for them, and consenting to be called numbers only when it was useful to act as such.

When peace finally settled, there were more groups of objects than there had been numbers, and still more came about when those groups interacted with each other.  Most no longer cared about being called numbers, and simply communicated which rules they followed before participating in a given system. And if the requisite system turned out not to exist yet, well, it just had to be invented.

Turning this particular article into an allegory did not take much work. It almost seemed like one already, when I read it in that frame of mind. There are a few direct quotes in the story. The Tenth’s proclamations come from The Tenth, in which Simon Stevin introduced decimal notation to Europe. The very last line of the story is paraphrased from the last line of the article. All I really did was rephrase it as a story from the perspective of the numbers, and add in far too many mathematical puns of greatly varying levels of subtlety.

I’m sorry to anyone with ordinal linguistic personification who thinks I’ve given the wrong personalities to the numbers. Also, in case anyone was wondering, the Greek numeral for four does have a slope.

The next Forms and Formulae will be an anecdote about geometry.

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Forms and Formulae: Self-Avoiding Walk


A picture of the Sun peeking over the spine of The Princeton Companion to Mathematics as it rests on top of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry & PoeticsThis is the fourth in a series called ‘Forms and Formulae‘ in which I write about articles in the Princeton Companion to Mathematics using poetic forms covered by articles in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. This post’s mathematics article is entitled ‘The General Goals of Mathematical Research‘ and the poetic form is alba, which is a kind of song; I recorded it [direct mp3 link] using my robot choir and some newfound musical knowledge, and there are many notes on that after the lyrics below. Here are some extracts from the article on the alba, explaining the features that I ended up using:

A dawn song about adulterous love, expressing one or both lovers’ regret over the coming of dawn after a night of love. A third voice, a watchman, may announce the coming of dawn and the need for the lovers to separate. An Occitan alba may contain a dialogue (or serial monologues) between lover and beloved or a lover and the watchman or a combination of monologue with a brief narrative intro.

The alba has no fixed metrical form, but in Occitan each stanza usually ends with a refrain that contains the word alba.

…the arrival of dawn signaled by light and bird’s song…

The watchman plays an important role as mediator between the two symbolic worlds of night (illicit love in an enclosed space) and day (courtly society, lauzengiers or evil gossips or enemies of love)

I based the song on section 8.3 of the article, entitled ‘Illegal Calculations‘. In retrospect, using the word alba in each refrain (are these even refrains?) doesn’t make much sense, since I’m not writing in Occitan, and the casual listener will not know that alba means ‘dawn’ in Occitan. But hey, it kind of rhymes with the start of ‘self-avoiding walk‘. How can I not rhyme an obscure foreign word with an obscure mathematical concept?

Introduction:
Mathematicians struggle even today to learn about the average distance between the endpoints of a self-avoiding walk. French physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes found answers by transforming the problem into a question about something called the n-vector model when the n is zero. But since this implies vectors with zero dimensions, mathematicians reject the approach as non-rigorous. Here we find that zero waking up next to its cherished n-vector model after a night of illicit osculation.

Zero:
I am just a zero; I am hardly worth a mention.
I null your vector model figure, discarding your dimension,
and every night I’m here with you I fear the break of day,
when day breaks our veneer of proof, and we must go away.

Here by your side
till alba warns the clock.
Fear’s why I hide
in a self-avoiding walk.

N-vector model:
Let the transformations of De Gennes show your place.
Never let them say we’re a degenerate case.
When I’m plus-two-n there’s just too many ways to move,
But you’re my sweetest nothing and we’ve got nothing to prove.

Here by your side
till alba warms the clock.
Fear can’t divide;
it’s a self-avoiding walk.

Watchman:
The sun has come; your jig is up. It’s time for peer review.
You think your secret union has engendered something new.
You thought you would both find a proof, but is it you’re confusing
The sorta almost kinda-truths the physicists are using?

That’s not rigorous,
says alba’s voice in shock.
All but meaningless
to the self-avoiding walk.

Zero and N-vector model together:
If you say that our results don’t matter,
then go straight to find a better path.
For as long as you insult our data,
Is it wrong to say you’re really math?

Hey there, Rigorous
at alba poised in shock,
you are just like us,
in a self-avoiding walk.

All voices are built-in Mac text-to-speech voices, some singing thanks to my robot choir (a program I wrote to make the Mac sing the tunes and lyrics I enter, which still needs a lot of work to be ready for anyone else to use.) Older voices tend to sound better when singing than the newer ones, and many new voices don’t respond to the singing commands at all, particularly those with non-US accents. So for the introduction I took the opportunity to use a couple of those non-US voices. These are the voices used:

Introduction: Tessa (South African English) and, since I also can’t fine-tune Tessa’s pronunciation of ‘Pierre-Gilles de Genne’, Virginie (French from France)

Zero: Junior

N-vector Model: Kathy

Watchman: Trinoids

Most of the bird noises come from the end of Jonathan Coulton’s ‘Blue Sunny Day‘, and I can use them because they’re either Creative Commons licensed or owned by the birds. The two peacock noises are from a recording by junglebunny. Free Birds!

As I mentioned, I’ve been learning about songwriting from John Anealio, and since the Forms and Formulae project sometimes requires me to write songs, I’m putting the new knowledge into practice sooner than I expected. This song uses several musical things I’ve never tried before, which is quite exciting, but it also means I probably didn’t do them very well, because there’s only so much I can learn in a couple of months of half-hour weekly lessons. I welcome friendly criticism and advice. The new things are: Read the rest of this entry »

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Misinterpreting Douglas Adams: Digital watches were a pretty neat idea.


My first watch was digital. I was probably nine or ten, and the watch was a black Casio with a dashed line around the face in alternating green and blue. My brother and I would race to find each other whenever we noticed the hour was about to change, so that we could watch the watch digits all change at once. Needless to say, the changes from 9:59:59 to 10:00:00 and 12:59:59 to 1:00:00 were especially thrilling[⁉︎].

I’d learnt how to read an analogue clock, of course, but not fluently. To me, reading an analogue clock was akin to reading Roman numerals: a quirky, difficult system from long ago. Some analogue clocks even had the hours in Roman numerals. Some had no numbers at all. Some such watches only seemed to exist to give men a socially acceptable way to wear bracelets. Telling time was clearly not a priority.

So when I read in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy that humans were “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea,” I naturally assumed it was because intelligent life forms had invented them so long ago that digital watches had about as much chance of being described as a ‘neat idea’ as the wheel. Digital watches are too simple an invention for anyone to find interesting. These days, almost everything has a digital clock built in, so the most important thing about a digital watch is a strong strap to keep it conveniently on the wrist.

A Casio digital watch displaying Sunday, 3 August, at 13:37:59 daylight savings time, set against a backdrop of The Ultimate Hitchhikers' GuideA few digital watches and a grudge against fragile watch straps and lost pins later, I moved to Switzerland, and when my watch strap broke or fell off I felt obliged to check out some of the famous Swiss watches. I was baffled by the evidence that not only did humans still think digital watches were a pretty neat idea, they also still thought analogue ones were. The only Swiss digital watches with good straps I could find had skeuomorphic round faces, or lacked such basic features as seconds, dates, or a light. I get it: the Swiss are proud of how precise they can be with tiny gears. But it’s the third millennium; get with the timepieces!

As Swiss innovations go, I prefer milk chocolate and Velcro. I found a Casio dealer and bought a solar-powered, waterproof, digital watch that synchronises daily with an atomic clock using radio waves and has a well-attached metal strap. It will stay on my wrist and display precisely the right time in plain digits, indefinitely with no intervention whatsoever, for less than the price of a piece of Swiss jewellery that doesn’t even have numbers on it. A fall onto concrete gave it some sparkly cracks in one corner, but it is still waterproof and functional many years and no battery changes or time adjustments later.

Unhappy with the hypothesis that most of the human race was more concerned with adding respectability to their diamond bracelets than with locating themselves in spacetime, I had to eventually accept that there was something people liked about analogue watches. Just as there must be something great about shoelaces that keeps Earthbound people using them even after the invention of Velcro, and even though Back to the Future fans know that by 2015 we shouldn’t still be tying them.

The thought crept up on me that maybe Douglas Adams didn’t like digital watches at all. Maybe he didn’t think they were ever a pretty neat idea. I thought about this for a few years, gradually becoming less and less sure that my initial interpretation was the correct one. Eventually, I looked it up:

So there you have it. Douglas Adams liked pie charts. I like pie charts too, but after the first glance I will look for the labels with exact percentages, and be frustrated if they aren’t there. For me, a word can be worth a thousand pictures, and a number can be worth a poorly-defined number of words.

As he says, digital watches have improved since then. I don’t need to put down my suitcase to press a button on my watch, unless it’s either dark and I need to turn the watch light on, or it’s recently been dark and the watch turned off its display to save power. In fact, my suitcase has four wheels (wheels! Now, aren’t they a neat idea?) so I never have to pick it up to begin with; I just give it a push occasionally while I stroll along, reading the time like a frood.

Reader participation alert:

Did you interpret the statement about digital watches the same way I did? If not, how did you interpret it, and how did it mesh with your own opinion on digital watches?

[⁉︎] If you think you’ve grown out of such primitive excitement, try watching the hour change on this clock made of planks of wood and rearranged manually by construction workers. The website only delivers one image at a time, now, so you’d have to refresh a lot to get a video effect there, but they sell an iOS app which will show you video, the Lite version of which has the transition from 9:59 to 10:00.

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The First Attack


In one of the workshops I went to before the official start of the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English, we were given four pages of text from various sources (see if you can recognise them!) and instructed to cut each page into four pieces, mix them up, lay them out on a table and note down any interesting phrases we found by aligning lines from different pieces of paper. We were free to slightly alter the sentences so they’d make sense. What I ended up with rather amused me, so I’ll post it here, as a sort of found poetry:

The first attack, where ignorant armies clash
Where the sea meets the shadow of the moon of death
The thing they would not stand was back, and back, and fling
Stand together to win the war against steel, but they cannot dent the steel.
A great people has been moved to naked shingles of the world
The President agreed, in the white immunity, “I fear no evil, for I implemented our government’s. Tonight, I ask for your prayers for all the three-shilling tea, and the best worlds have been shattered.”

I was particularly amused by the two chance juxtapositions that led to ‘in the white immunity’ and ‘I fear no evil, for I implemented our government’s’. So far at the conference I’ve met all sorts of interesting people and learnt many things (it is strange to see a partially-academic conference that has nothing whatsoever to do with particle physics) and heard many stories. I can’t say much about them now, though, as I’d like to get a half-decent amount of sleep before I read a story and introduce a few others at the conference tomorrow. I’m too tired to even read the entry on aleatory poetics in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

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Unintentional Haiku from New Scientist on The Unknown Universe


I added some features to Haiku Detector so that it will find haiku made of more than one sentence, though I haven’t released the new version yet, since I’d like to release it on the Mac App store (even though it will probably still be free, at least at first) to see how that works, and to do that I’ll need an icon first. If you know anyone who can make Mac icons at a reasonable price, let me know. Meanwhile, New Scientist has released a new ‘collection‘ called The Unknown Universe, so why not mine it for haiku? The topics are ‘The early universe’, ‘The nature of reality’ (again), ‘The fabric of the cosmos’, ‘Dark materials’, ‘Black holes’, ‘Time’ (again) and ‘New directions’.

Let’s start at the very beginning, the early universe:

Can we really be
sure now that the universe
had a beginning?

At first, that seems like a terrible place to break the sentence to start a new line. But what if we pretend, until we get to the next line, that ‘Can we really be?’ is the whole question? Because that’s the real reason people wonder about the universe.

Now, here’s a multi-sentence one, which conveniently has a full sentence as the first line:

“We’re back to square one.”
Tegmark agrees: “Inflation
has destroyed itself.”

Deep. But what is this inflation thing, anyway?

Well, for one thing, it’s
not clear what actually
does the inflating.

Only then will we
truly know what kind of a
bang the big bang was.

“I am not convinced
the cyclic model is that
grander idea.”

But I think this is my favourite. There’s a monster at the end of this universe, and it’s making crosswords.

Cosmic monsters that
have survived into our times
also pose puzzles.

Now for the nature of reality:

“It pulls the rug out
from under us to prove a
theory right or wrong.”

Maybe we just need to look around us.

There is also down,
and, for that matter, left, right,
forwards and backwards.

Have we figured out what we’re looking for yet?

What it is, though, we
do not have the words or the
concepts to express.

Maybe E. L. James can help us figure it out:

“This experiment
allows us to see the shades
of grey in between.”

These ones are about the fabric of the cosmos:

“If you go by what
we observe, we don’t live in
space-time,” Smolin says.

We battle against
them each time we labour up
a hill or staircase.

“But where did the weak
primordial fields that seed the
dynamo come from?”

The same force that keeps
our feet on the ground also
shapes the universe.

I like this one for the contrast between the first and last lines:

The information-
loss paradox dissolves.  Big
questions still remain.

Here are some of the ‘dark materials‘ haiku, about dark matter and dark energy:

The discovery of
dark matter would be the find
of the century.

I love how this contrasts ‘discovery of’ with ‘find of'; I didn’t notice that in prose form.

We still don’t know what
it is. It is everywhere
and we can’t see it.

That opens the door
to a dazzling array of
possibilities.

This chase through space will
be thrilling, but the quarry
may still elude us.

“It seems like a long
shot,” he says. But others are
being won over.

“But we don’t see a
fifth force within the solar
system,” says Burrage.

Though maybe the array of possibilities isn’t so dazzling after all:

It is limited
to perhaps three things. First, dark
energy pushes.

There are only two haiku about black holes, but one of them sounds like an idea Dan Brown might write about, probably without first reading New Scientist:

A BOMB made out of
a black hole is a rather
unsettling thought.

And the other sounds like it belongs on an episode of Doctor Who:

One of them will have
to blink if this paradox
is to be undone.

There are no more haiku on time, but luckily there were some in the last collection. I love this one about new directions, though:

Put that to many
physicists, and you will get
a grumpy response.

Ah, those physicists, always hopeful:

“Historically, these
things have usually led
somewhere,” says Davies.

They even have a solution to that ‘we still don’t know what it is’ problem from earlier:

“We don’t know what it
is so we have to give it
a name, a symbol.”

After that, it gets
a lot more speculative,
but here’s the best guess.

But they’re not that confident about it:

There are also good
reasons to think it is an
unwarranted one.

Paths to a theory
of everything will become
even more winding.

For instance, it could
decrease with time, or even
become negative.

Infinity makes things even more difficult:

INFINITY. It
is a concept that defies
imagination.

But it is at the
big bang that infinity
wreaks the most havoc.

The first line of the first infinity one reminds me of a CERN friend’s recipe for gravity: you just put ‘it’ in gravy.

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