Friday, 28 February 2014

Episode 22: A place where 256 is the equal of 414,825

Change was everywhere and when Crusade and Treason implored colleagues to look beyond their own world to the wider community, they found the plea already echoing around Wordsdrow. New friendships began, visits were made to buildings never hitherto visited and dinners hosted with the guests selected to ensure they represented the component sections of Wordsdrow.

‘I never really thought of numbers or punctuation marks as, you know, equals but actually meeting some has been eye-opening,’ was Coin’s conclusion. Punctuation marks were the focus for much attention and the detached insouciance which both Treason and Crusade noticed was identified as part of their charm. They weren’t restrained by the behavioural parameters within which words were expected to adhere and their enthusiasm for innovation was infectious.

Buoyed by the success of the ATMs, the committee responsible for them continued to meet and drafted Inclusive and & in to their sessions as more initiatives were considered. A suggestion from Plan was to adapt services offered by typical high street outlets in the "real world" to the world of words, numbers, punctuation, etc.

‘What would you typically see on a high street? Chemists, dry cleaners, bakers, supermarkets, jewellers, banks, etc. We already have our own version of ATMs so why not extend that logic? How about setting up the equivalent of dry cleaners where words can be repaired or restored to their correct meaning. I’ll defer to the more scholarly here about the etymology of words and so forth but it really grates with me when a word is constantly misquoted or bastardised.’

‘Hear, hear,’ said Clever. ‘I can think of examples immediately…“awesome” should be something which actually inspires awe rather than just lazy shorthand for anything remotely impressive.’

A flurry of voices proffered a flurry of bugbears.

‘To decimate doesn’t mean to obliterate, it means to reduce by one-tenth. I’ll die a happier word if that one is corrected.’

‘Schizophrenia is one which really gets me. Often as not, it's now used just to highlight somebody doing anything at all beyond their normal behaviour.’

‘Enormity: it should mean something evil, not something large.’

‘OK,’ said Plan. ‘I think we’re on to something here. Let’s see where we can take it.’

The idea caught on and a small service industry emerged which reinforced the correct usage of a word so that inaccurate connotations were eradicated. Two bureaus manned by punctuation marks opened in word buildings where advice was offered on accurate employment of punctuation marks as the demarcation lines between words, numbers and marks blurred. It was now a common sight to see the residents of the various sectors happily mingling together in the spring sunshine.

More momentum for change came from a speech by Celebrity at the Word of the Year Awards. Although the event had been dismissed by Clever, he could see the attraction of a few judiciously-placed words at such a high-profile occasion. He met Celebrity in advance of the awards ceremony and spoke of the changes around Wordsdrow. She, ever eager to advocate a cause which would reflect favourably on her public profile, agreed to refer to them during her stint as a presenter. She went further than that on the night by inviting both ! and 7 to the ceremony and mentioning them during her speech.

In C-block, Crusade watched the awards ceremony on television with Cynic, Clever, Conspiracy and Coin. Afterwards, a news bulletin showed a commotion outside the ceremony where 1 complained that if any number was to be invited, it should be him. Crusade and his friends laughed when they saw 1’s entourage – 99, 999 and 1001 – standing forlornly behind him all wearing onesies.

‘Good God, it’s true! 50 said that 1 had ordered all his personal assistants to wear those ridiculous outfits,’ said Cynic. ‘But I didn’t think he’d make them appear outside of Fibonacci House in them. You really have to feel sorry for them.’

‘I don’t think you’ll have to for long,’ said Crusade. ‘Every time I’m in Fibonacci House, I hear that 1’s stranglehold over the other numbers is being rapidly eroded. Lots of them just ignore him now and he’s openly ridiculed. My guess is that those three lackeys of his will follow suit when he’s the subject of even more scorn after this performance.’

‘You seem to have taken a shine to our digital friends, Crusade. Why the affinity with them? I thought you were more on the side of punctuation marks.’

‘Equally so, Cynic,’ replied Crusade. ‘One doesn’t like to make distinctions any longer; isn’t that what all these new initiatives are all about?’

‘Indeed,’ said Cynic with a smile. ‘You’re sounding just like the Crusade of old.’

Crusade looked away. Crusade and Treason’s role in helping bring factions together was played down by the pair although Crusade’s brief disappearance had raised his profile in C-block and brought attention to the cross-campus initiatives…but there was a bittersweet element for Crusade. The burgeoning friendship between him, Treason and & saw the three spending many hours together and Crusade noticed that Treason would often linger when their discussions had completed. It reminded him of the evenings in A-block when he and Treason would leave together at the end of whichever meeting they’d attended. He didn’t allude to this and, eventually, she told him of her romance with &. To his surprise, he found himself relieved to hear it confirmed; he’d sensed that he was destined not to become intimate with her and wished them both well while remaining a confidante and friend.

As Cynic said, Crusade now spent more time in Fibonacci House. When he first visited the building, Statistics had told him of some of the quirks which led to a number acquiring a physical existence and his interest in the history of numbers grew from there. One evening, he was in a Fibonacci House library leafing through old census results when he became aware of someone watching him and looked up to see a black-haired woman who waved and walked towards his table.

‘I thought it was you,’ she said. ‘Don’t you remember me? We met last Christmas.’

Crusade stared at the woman who stood with her head cocked at an angle.
‘No?’ she said. ‘Well, I don’t forget faces, especially ones which I’ve rearranged, so to speak.’

‘Rearranged? Sorry, I don’t get you.’

She laughed. ‘Rearranged is probably a bit dramatic. That would make me either a cosmetic surgeon or a hired thug…and I haven’t got the required skills with a knife to be either.’

Ah, I remember now. You’re Incognito.

‘That’s me. I won’t pretend that I remember your name…something from an ancient poem?’

‘You remembered that bit. Ubiquarian was the name I chose but it’s not my name any longer.’

‘Oh, so it didn’t work for you then. What did you change it to?’

‘I didn’t. I just reverted to my actual name…Crusade. So, what brings you here? I remember you saying that you had a liking for numbers.’

‘I've always been an advocate of numbers but some of what I like about Fibonacci House is in danger of being lost. It might sound a bit condescending but if this place becomes a haven for visiting hipster words, it won’t be the same.’

‘Which, I’m afraid, does sort of leave you open to accusations of condescension,’ Crusade said.

She held her hands up. ‘Fair cop but at least in my own mind, I know that’s not the case. How come you reverted to your own name? Didn’t things work out?’

Crusade sighed. ‘They did and they didn’t. I was, I guess, on the rebound and even though we met again – here in Fibonacci House as it turned out – it didn’t really…it wasn’t to be.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ said Incognito. She was now certain that the woman who came to her for advice about an identity change soon after Crusade was the other party he’d referred to.

‘Oh, that’s all right…probably all for the best. I’m over it now, happy to be myself again. Anyway, you didn’t answer my question about why you're here. It can’t be for the ambience – or lack of it – alone.’

‘There are a number of reasons. Algorithm introduced me to Fibonacci House and my interest has grown since then. The building itself has a retro charm despite all the high-tech equipment and I just find numbers interesting, all that gnomic inscrutability is a relief from the chatter and babble which surrounds us. I also enjoy conversations which don’t have hidden sub-texts and nuances. I like their lack of front.’

‘Makes sense. I’ve developed an interest in this world recently. It’s fascinating how much of our history can be gleaned from the arrival and disappearance of individual numbers.’

‘What do you mean?’ Incognito asked as she pointed to a chair. ‘Do you mind if I join you?’

‘No, be my guest. Well, a friend told me that there are somewhere in the region of 750 or so numbers with a physical presence at any one time. Most of them are obvious but there are some which you really have to think about and others which seem to exist almost on a whim. Without any help, I tried to work out which ones might exist and drew up a list which only stretched to about 250. Then I looked at the latest numbers census and began to work out why, for instance, there’s a need for 256. Any idea?’


‘A major player in the world of computers. How about 747?’

‘Boeing jets?’

‘Yes. Umm, can you guess the origin of 414,825?’

‘Isn’t that the number of words in the first edition of the OED?’

Crusade nodded. ‘I guess most of us would know that one but the fact that the number exists over in Fibonacci House shows that there isn’t always animosity between words and number. They clearly recognise the significance of dictionaries and did so even before this new spirit of camaraderie around Wordsdrow. OK, you’ll never get this one…61?’

‘Hmmm…I take it 61 is one of the whimsical ones.’

‘You could say that. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited seems to be a favourite album here. OK, 65?’

‘The retirement age?’

‘You are good at this. What I find really interesting is trawling through old census results. Back in the 60s and 70s, 405 appears but has now disappeared. I couldn’t get my head around that one and had to ask. It’s because of the number of lines in an analogue TV signal – or something like that, I may not have the precise terminology – but a signal with 625 lines was introduced in the 1960s and over time, the 405 signal was phased out. Sure enough, 625 appears in the census returns in the 1970s. You could write a history of the 21st century based on stuff like that or a version of it anyway: it might ignore some major events or ideas or umm, things. For instance, you see 57 in censuses because of Heinz’s 57 varieties but there isn’t anything to do with, say, penicillin simply because it doesn’t have a numerical association.’

‘I get you,’ she said with an indulgent smile.

‘Sorry, have I been rabbiting on? Anyway, I’m done here for the evening. Would you like to go for a drink somewhere or have you got plans?’

Incognito arched her eyebrows for a second and glanced at her watch. ‘Er, no, I don’t have anything planned. That’s a good idea. Somewhere here?’

‘There’s a decent bar called 1 Over The 8 here in Fibonacci House,’ said Crusade and smiled as he remembered his last visit there with Treason. Incognito noticed the smile but refrained from comment as they departed in the direction of the bar, both of them aware that something tangible and exciting seemed to be in the air.

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