Monday, 13 January 2014

Episode 13: Name? Number?

Ubiquarian, though familiar with descriptions of Fibonacci House and its inhabitants, was still surprised when he walked through the building for the first time. All around was the hum of machinery as pale-faced men and women stared fixedly at screens or tapped at keyboards in staccato bursts; conversation was minimal with only the occasional few words puncturing the hum and tapping.

Coffee mugs were visible on every surface with dark rings underneath indicating the position of their predecessors and it seemed that eating at one’s desk was the norm; empty pizza boxes protruded from rubbish bins and the smell of processed cheese and pepperoni wafted around the room as the resident numbers munched them mechanically, scarcely looking away from screens and keyboards.

Accustomed to a backdrop of conversation and discussion in C-block, Ubiquarian found it unsettling and eerie. He passed by a man who sat with his feet up on a desk holding in his hand a small device with a screen which he read while laughing loudly. Ubiquarian glanced at the content on the screen but could only see blocks of zeros and ones. A woman at the next desk leaned over and viewed the screen; the laughing man pointed to one of the blocks of numbers and she giggled, continued to read from the screen and then guffawed. Ubiquarian carried on walking and was approached by a man carrying a briefcase who peered at him.

‘Don’t I know you?’ the stranger said to Ubiquarian.

Ubiquarian stopped with a jolt...would this be the first test of his new identity? ‘I shouldn’t think so. My name is Ubiquarian but I’m not officially…’

‘Ah, that’s it,’ interrupted the stranger. ‘You’re a word! I thought there was something different about you…we don’t get many of us here. I’m Statistics, pleased to meet you.’

‘Likewise,’ said Ubiquarian as they shook hands. A few tutting noises and disapproving frowns were directed towards them. Statistics ushered Ubiquarian through a door into a corridor and smiled as he nodded back towards the room.

‘Not ones for noise, are they? Mind you, you should’ve heard them the other day when it was announced that the largest prime number ever had been “discovered” and, suddenly, there were groups of them talking about it. Well, a lot of them were; the real hard-core numbers logged on to internet chat rooms where they discussed it in binary code. It’s odd that they actually call them chat rooms but these guys are just plain odd anyway…apart from the ones which are even, of course.’

‘Binary code! That’s what he was reading! I saw a bloke with a device which looked like a Kindle except there was no text, just blocks of numbers. He pointed out something to a woman sitting next to him and they had a right old laugh about it.’

‘Those devices are specially adapted Kindles which use binary code rather than text. He may have been reading an actual book although the chances are it was some sort of manual. Numbers find manuals a great source of entertainment. So, what are you doing here? I, at least, have an excuse to mingle with these freaks. Statistics, as you can imagine, are their lifeblood.’

‘Well, I’m not officially in the OED although I I soon will be. I thought I’d take the opportunity to wander around a bit. Besides, with a name like mine, it’s pretty much in my nature to get around.’

‘Er, yeah. I hate to be rude but…Ubiquarian? What exactly does it mean?’

Ubiquarian explained the derivation of his name and Statistics began to share his knowledge of Fibonacci House. ‘It’s good to have another word here, somebody I can actually converse with. Even the way they speak is bizarre; it’s all clipped, short sentences and if they attempt anything longer than 20 words at a time, they trip over themselves. And they’re a bit guileless, you know, they just blurt out whatever they’re thinking without considering the implications although they don’t offer opinions too often. The best you’ll get from a lot of them is either “correct” or “incorrect” or, as often as not, just a blank stare.’

Ubiquarian giggled. ‘Surely they’d refer to that as a zero stare?’

‘Wrong, wrong, wrongitty, wrong! 0 is one of the top dogs here…damn near all powerful. Only 1 has a similar status and even he can be brought to his knees by a misplaced 0. At least 0 has a sense of humour, there’s a bit of devilment about him. 1 is absolutely unbearable. Let me show you something.’ Statistics pointed upwards out of a window to the next floor of Fibonacci House; the building consisted of two conjoined circular blocks which represented the symbol for infinity. ‘There. 1 occupies the entire first floor of that circle…the whole bloody thing! I’ve met some egotists in my time but this guy takes the biscuit. Apparently, the building design was also his idea – he instructed the architects that he wanted this shape because n tends towards infinity. He seems to think it’s the funniest joke ever.’

‘Odd,’ said Ubiquarian, shaking his head.

‘That’s another thing. Odd and even numbers; boy, can things get heated between them. I know us words have our own cliques and gripes against other words and letters but it’s nothing compared to some of the invective between those two groups.’

‘Interesting; I suppose you have a vested interest in all this.’

‘Oh yeah, back in S-block, I’m seen as a geek.’ Statistics laughed. ‘There is a kind of logic to the place though. All the minus numbers are housed in the basement floors but decimals are a grey area – you get impassioned debates about where exactly they should reside. I guess there should be some veranda or balcony offices and rooms for them between the ground and first floor but, of course, 1 won’t have any of that. Apparently, it would ruin the view from his palatial suites.’

‘Don’t the minus numbers feel a bit inferior?’

‘Not a bit of it. The amount of mathematical equations where minus is crucial means that they’re treated as equals and by equals, I mean our interpretation of the word. I’ll tell you something else interesting: you probably wouldn’t think computers are bridging the divide between our world and theirs? Well, the thing about computers is that they depend on programmers who write code in text before it’s converted to binary so programmers are seen as poster boys (and girls) and have made us words more welcome. I know that we look down on numbers but that snobbery exists here too…we’re seen as simpletons.’


‘Oh yes. They scoff at us words for being overwrought and allowing our emotions to dictate what we say and do. Numbers can’t survive without certainty and absolutes. If they can’t put something in an equation with an irrefutable answer, then they get overwrought.’

‘Are they all a bit samey? You know, is 23 any different from, say, 54?’

‘They seem alike when you first meet them but some have their own quirks; a few odd numbers have a maverick spirit. 13 is quite funny; he loves the fact that superstitious people are wary of him and plays up on that but in general they don’t really like standing out…with the exception of 1, of course. “Safety in numbers” is their mantra.’

‘That’s another thing I’ve often wondered about. How many of them are there? I assume that there isn’t an individual called, say, 764?’

‘No, there’s a 1, a 2, etc. up as far as 20 and then it’s mostly in sequences of 10 or so. There are, of course, anomalies. Because of the significance of the age 21, there is a young lady by that name. 24, obviously, for reasons to do with hours and 48 and 72 also exist as multiples of 24. Likewise, the need for 365 and 366 is pretty clear. In general, however, it tends to be 25, 30, 40, 50 and so on. There's 99, 150, 199 and other what you might term landmark numbers but it’s mostly composites beyond that, individuals who don’t have a permanent manifestation. Every so often, a specific number becomes important – like 2,012 recently. There are others with a more permanent historical significance – 1,066 or 1,945 – so someone assumes the role.

‘Interestingly, 101 used to exist but when Nineteen Eighty-Four became such an admired novel, the folks here grew uncomfortable with the association of Room 101. The poor guy himself used to get a dreadful time from any words who called here to see him for any reason. They’d snigger and loudly insist that he come down to the lobby as they didn’t want to visit Room 101. Eventually, he pleaded to be assigned another name and became 102. There’s no good reason why 102 should exist other than that.

‘Our friends over in the punctuation warehouse – you know what they’re like when they get hold of a chance to poke fun at words and numbers for taking themselves too seriously – have actually got a Room 101 in their building. They use it as one of their meeting rooms for occasions when words or numbers visit them. It’s supposed to be pretty decrepit, wedged in between one of their machinery rooms and a room which houses the heating systems so it’s as noisy and hot as you imagine…but that’s the punctuation marks for you.’

‘Ties in with what I’ve heard about them…pranksters and iconoclasts,' said Ubiquarian. 'Tell me more about these number chappies.’

‘You get quirky ones like 666 – a right little devil, he is – and, as you can imagine, some numbers which were once significant lose their distinction over time. With the decline of vinyl records, 78 is a lot less in evidence than back in the day and 45 would be the same if it wasn’t for its significance in football. It’s funny seeing 45 trying to edge away from 78 on social occasions; all poor old 78 wants to do is wax nostalgically about the good old days whereas 45 isn’t so keen. 33 and 1/3 actually exists but, again, is less prominent than back in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Mind you, he has got something else in his favour; he’s Irish and could survive just on the strength of the number of people wishing to hear him introduce himself as “turty tree and a turd”.’

‘Is there a 69?’ asked Ubiquarian with a grin.

‘Yes,’ replied Statistics, smiling. ‘She, yes, it’s a she, is the subject of much tittering among visiting words. Sport has led to a few numbers gaining a profile; 180 owes its existence to darts, 147 to snooker, 1,966 has a certain status amongst English football fans as does 1,970 for Brazilians but the most far-fetched one is from Australia where 99.94 lives in their equivalent of Fibonacci House…something to do with cricket, apparently. Just as some numbers decline in popularity, others emerge to replace them…for instance, when the National Lottery began, there was a clamour for 49. I think that, at any given time, there are between 700 and 800 numbers in existence.’

‘That many? Fibonacci House must be the ideal place to lose oneself…should one so wish.’

‘Oh, it’s been done before. They love telling you about words who defected to become numbers although I’ve never found out who they are. They get all secretive when you ask. I guess I can see why; we’d give similar protection to a number which turned.’

‘Hmmmm, I’m not so sure. Think how uppity we can get at the prospect of a new word in the OED. I can speak from recent experience.’

‘Your own, I presume? You did say that you’re not an officially accepted word.’

Ubiquarian paused; he was unsure how much he could confide in his new acquaintance and Statistics sensed his hesitancy. ‘Now you’re getting mysterious. Still, I’m sure you have your reasons so I’ll leave it there. I have to go; I have some data to collect. Nice talking to you and good luck with your quest.’

The two shook hands and Statistics walked away. Ubiquarian’s curiosity had been piqued by this fleeting glimpse into another environment. Words harboured an in-built animosity towards their numerical equivalents; maybe not animosity but definitely a sense of superiority. It never occurred to Ubiquarian that this was reciprocated and he realised that he’d never actually spoken to a number. He was now seized by a desire to do so. He ran towards the door after Statistics and flung it open. Statistics swivelled around towards him, tensed.

‘Ubiquarian!’ he exclaimed. ‘Jesus, don’t do that. You scared the hell out of me. I thought I was about to be mugged by 404 or one of those numbers everyone here is a bit wary of. What’s up?’

‘I’ve got a favour to ask. Can you introduce me to a number; you know, one of the more loquacious ones? I’ve never spoken to one before and I’m curious to see what they’re like.’
Next episode: Treason and Thirteen......

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