Not all of my blog posts will be about writing, some will be about philosophy, and what better way to start than with numbers. How can numbers be a philosophy? Well numbers seem cut and dry – counting things. Simple. But are they deeper than that? The philosophy of Mathematical Realism believes that mathematics (and thus numbers) exist independently of the human mind, so we did not invent them, but rather we discovered them. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece believed that the world was literally generated by numbers, and this is why they became evident. These ideas are not an explicit theme in my novel Spheria, but it is definitely the case that the world there is based on numbers.
The Metric System
I love the metric system. After struggling for years with the common unit system, in 6th grade science, we were introduced to the metric system, and I fell in love. No longer did I have to take 1/4 of something and then 1/3 of that, and end up with… what, 1/12? Everything was subdivided into 10 parts, and this made it all so much easier, intuitive even. In many cases, dividing things just required moving the decimal point.
But the world is slow to change. The metric system was initially proposed in 1799. England finally started to move to the metric system in 1965 but did not fully complete the transition until just 1995. The United States scientific community has conformed out of necessity, but the government has not officially embraced the system. In fact, we are only one of three nations on Earth that has not officially adopted the metric system, including just Liberia and Myanmar.
This is a problem. Sometimes an expensive one. For example, in 1999, a $125-million-dollar satellite burned up in the Mars atmosphere, rather than achieving an orbit, because the team at Lockheed Martin was sending English units for course adjustments and NASA was expecting to receive metric units.
But let’s step back a second? Why is the metric system (i.e. decimal system) intuitive? Why were we all taught to count to 9 then increment the tens position to get to 10? Why ten? Let’s dig into some alternatives to figure out why.
Clocks and the Duodecimal System
So even if we convert fully someday to the metric system, there is still something forever locked into another system: Time. Clocks have 12 hours on them. This has bugged me for years. If the metric system is so great, why don’t we re-calibrate time to metric. A day would have 10 hours, an hour would have 100 minutes, and a minute would have 100 seconds.
Here is the problem. It would make dealing with units of time… harder. Those fractions I so disdained in middle school, turn out to be very useful when talking about time. It’s much faster to calculate in our heads when we have more available integer fractions (fractions that result in an integer). For 10 increments we get two:
For 12 increments we get four:
So we can express portions of a day easily as a half, a quarter, third, or sixth. If gets even better with 60 increments as in the case of minutes. We can divide an hour easily into many distinct segments, depending on the need. Twenty groups of five minutes? No problem.
Even better than that is the compass, broken into 360 degrees. You can express many different subdivisions of 360 without having to resort to a fraction, and that is a big help when trying to navigate.
Regardless, 12 or 360, the point is these are not based on 10, and they work better.
Why 10 Numbers Then?
It turns out, our use of 10 is completely arbitrary. Simply because we have 10 fingers, and can count on them, our number system became based on 10 (base-10). This is how the Egyptians counted, and the Minoans, and thus the Greeks and Romans also. So the reason is digits on our hands. What if we had 11 fingers? That would be odd. The thing is, this was not the only natural way to count. The Sumerians took a different path. By counting the knuckles on each hand with their thumbs, they developed a natural number system based on 12 (base-12). This later was handed down to Middle Eastern and Asian cultures some of which still use it today.
Base-10 and base-12 were not the only natural systems to develop, even. The Babylonians used a base-60 numerical system, which is where the sixty minutes in an hour come from. So there is nothing inherently special about base-10, it’s just what we were raised on, therefore it feels right.
Too Late to Switch
So if we had a number system based on twelve, the leftmost digit place in a two digit number would mean twelve, so 10 would be twelve (twelve plus zero) , 11 would be thirteen (twelve plus one), and so on. In fact, we would need two more symbols to express ten and eleven. Some have suggested we could use T and E, respectively. So the numbers in base-12 are:
0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,T,E, 10, 11, ...
So if I give the number 65, this is actually, in base-10 notation, 6 x 12 + 5, or 77. The problem is we have all been raised on base-10, so we have a mental image of how much 65 is, and it’s certainly not 77. It would take an enormous effort to reprogram ourselves to think different (despite what Steve Jobs may have wanted). So switching to base-12 would not simply be changing how we measure things, like changing to the metric system, but changing how we actually count things. This is a much more significant change.
If you are all confused at this point, don’t feel bad. This would be like asking to think of the color green when I say ‘blue’. However, if we could reset our brains and reboot our culture, surely, knowing what we know now, we would use a base-12 number system.
My intent is not to suggest we change from metric to a base-12 system. Believe it or not there is actually a movement to do just that. They are called Dozenalists and are active in America and Great Britain.
Despite their efforts, this is a near impossibility now. My intent in contemplating all this is to merely accept that I no longer hate the number system of ‘time’ any more, in fact, I am quite fond of it now.
Movies are better
One could argue that movies are easily the best medium to distribute stories to the masses. Surely they are the most approachable. You don’t even need to be able to read to watch a movie. They are generally quick (under 2 hours), engaging, and passive. The viewer can in most cases just sit back and enjoy the ride. How can anything improve on that?
Games are better
Hold on. When I am watching a movie, I am a mere observer. I am being fed information and just looking through a window onto the deeds of the hero. It may be cool to watch, but wouldn’t it be better if I was the hero? This is exactly why games are better than movies. They place me, the viewer, into the role of the hero and the story is about me, about what I do. Granted there are generally confines to this and the designers can tell an actual story, but I feel like it’s about me, I am the glue that keeps it all together.
Also, the average game these days takes between 20 and 80 hours to complete. Compare that to a 2-hour movie. If a movie is $12 a seat, the entertainment cost is $6 per hour. For a $60 game, the entertainment cost is between 75 cents and $3 per hour. That’s a great value! I won’t even get into the typical 99 cent mobile game, the value there is pretty much unbeatable.
Books are better
Given all the benefits we get with movies and games, why would I think books are better? First, no matter how many millions of dollars are spent on computer generated graphics and special effects (e.g. Avatar), nothing visual can ever exceed my own imagination.
In a book, we take visual cues from the author, customize them to fit how we want things to look, and create a fantastic model in our minds. It looks exactly the way we want to see things, and any missing detail can be filled in just the way we want. The characters can even look like whatever actors we might want to be playing the part, not the ones the casting director chose. (Fifty Shades of Grey anyone?).
Because of this, we, as readers, get to see and experience the drama unfold exactly the way we want to. We are not at the mercy of some movie director to choose the setting, the time of day, or the color of the curtains. How many movies have you seen after reading the book, and thought, “that’s not how I pictured it.” Most. And can you think of a case where the movie actually looked better than how you imagined it. Maybe here or there, but this is the exception, not the norm.
Another reason books are better, for the audience, is there are just so many of them to choose from. Anything you could possibly want to experience is in a book. Compared to games and movies, there are way more! Check out these statistics from Amazon. They currently have over 30 million paperbacks, just over 850 thousand movies, and only 60 thousand PC games. To stress this difference, check out this bar chart. You can’t even see the one for games.
As an author, in fact, one of the most challenging things I have found is to think of something truly original to write about. In Blake Snyder’s excellent book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, he goes so far as to say that there are really only 10 unique stories, and they are just retold over and over in different ways. And all good authors, since the time of the Greeks, have “stood on the shoulders of giants”. In other words, we take ideas from the greats, alter them, combine them, and hopefully make something a little bit original from the parts. When I describe the premise for Spheria to people, they frequently ask, “like The Matrix?” or “like Snow Crash?” In fact, yes, it builds on ideas found in The Matrix, Flatland, The Sims, Minecraft, and, to a lesser degree, Avatar. My hope is that I have made something new from these familiar parts.
Staying Power and the Technology Dilemma
Here is the real reason books are better than these other forms of media: they are timeless. I even underlined that for effect. As far as books go, they are about as low-tech as you can possibly get. I know they are all digital now and we read them on our Kindle or iPhone, but that is not a requirement. You can get the same exact experience reading them on a piece of papyrus, or a gold plate.
Movies, however, require technology. And as this technology improves the quality of the experience gets noticeably better. Let me ask you, when was the last time you watched a black and white movie? Unless you are in film school, or have a desire to trace the lineage of modern film, probably not since TVs were in black and white (and thus, for some of you, the answer is probably ‘never’). So herein lies the problem with movies, once technology advances, the old style of movies are no longer engaging. First we had color, then we had high definition, now we have 3D, and we are on the cusp of having immersive movies where you are "inside the movie", also called 360 degree video or VR Cinema. If you want to preview what I am referring to without any special hardware, check out Littlstar.
It’s even worse with games. Games made just 10 years ago look laughable today. In many cases you cannot even run them on modern hardware without some special emulator, assuming they have even been ported. Games that large teams of people poured years of their lives into have thus been lost to time and will never be more than a memory. Take, for example, the phenomenal video game Interstate ’76 from 1997. It had state of the art graphics at the time. Today they look more than primitive. The characters don't even have mouths for God's sake!
The oldest known book is the Etruscan Gold Book which is 2,673 years old. That is staying power. You can still read this book, provided you understand the language, several millennia later. You don’t need anything special to consume the media. It still communicates an identical experience as on the day it was created.
Speaking of language, yes, these can be lost to time, or even evolve, so that older works are unreadable. I personally have difficulty reading Shakespeare. The good news is that most works considered of exceptional merit get upgraded to modern language. Take the Bible as the most successful example. Even the works of Shakespeare have been modernized as in this version of The Tempest.
Call it egotistical. But one of the reasons I am making a book, is I want to make something that has the potential to last. Something my grandchildren can read, and say “I was not alive when he was, but I think I know him just a little bit now.” I will close with an ancient Egyptian quote from 1187 BC which stated:
IBM just announced the availability of their Quantum Experience: a functional general purpose quantum computer that can be accessed, by anyone with an approved project, via the cloud (i.e. Internet). Previously there have been commercial quantum computer efforts, albeit specific purpose ones, by the companies D-Wave and 1Qbit, and projects are underway at Google, NASA, and various academic institutions. These prior efforts have been under constant criticism, as it is questionable if they are even using quantum theory at all, and they are actually outperformed by classical computers working on the same problems. So the jury is still out on if we have achieved this yet or not. Maybe the IBM initiative finally makes this a reality.
Check it out, the IBM project is super cool:
What I find interesting in all this buzz, all this hype, is that nobody has really, in my opinion, been able to succinctly explain what the heck quantum computing is, and how it actually works. I’m not saying this is not well understood, because clearly it is, it’s just not something that is easy to explain in layman’s terms. Take the Wikipedia explanation:
Got it? Yea, right. This is basically the same explanation everyone gives, although worded differently. Hidden in here is the real explanation, but it’s not completely lucid. The key word in that whole paragraph is the last one: probability. The quantum world, as far as we can currently determine, is a world of probabilities. Things are not here or there, but probably somewhere. Some major historical physicists had serious issues with this, including Albert Einstein who famously said “God does not play dice with the world.” The thing is, all the data from our best particle accelerators keeps confirming that this is reality. All our models based on these concepts keep getting confirmed, the latest being the discovery of the predicted Higgs boson.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently attempted to explain this at a press conference announcing $50 million in funding to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics for quantum computing research (incidentally D-Wave is a Canadian company). He said this:
Here is the actual video if you would like to see his speech first hand:
He may have gotten an applause, but his explanation missed the mark. Throwing together a bunch of relevant buzzwords in a haphazard manner may satisfy the press, but it doesn't help us actually understand any of this. A quantum bit is neither a 1 nor a 0, until measured, then it becomes either a 1 or a 0. So it has the same amount of information holding capacity as a classical binary bit. It is when it decides what the information is that is the difference. I don't mean to downplay the significance of having a politician engaged in science and trying to explain something like this; I wish more would take an interest in advancing our knowledge.
So why is this so hard to explain? Because it contradicts our reality. It’s not how we are wired to think. We operate fundamentally at a different cosmic scale than the quantum world. The opposite is also true. The distance from Earth to the center of our galaxy is 27,000 light years. So the light you see when you glance up at that bright spot in the Milky Way has been making the journey to reach your eyes for twenty-seven thousand years! That is a massive, inconceivable, distance. And that is only half way across our own galaxy. The distance to other galaxies? Completely beyond our ability to comprehend. So it stands to reason that if the super large scale is impossible to understand, then the super small scale should also be impossible to understand.
Charles Bennett, an Information Theorist at IBM, has an interesting way of looking at this. Not by explaining it, per se, but by forming an analogy to a dream:
Right on! So the quantum world is just a bit surreal.
So here is where you are expecting me to finally give a better explanation. I think I can do that, and I have attempted it in my forthcoming novel, Spheria, which makes heavy use of quantum computing as part of its premise. I can’t wait to share both the book and the explanation with you soon. Please subscribe to my mailing list and I will let you know the day it is released.