April 21, 2006

An Axiom Short of a Six-Pack (2 of 2)

Thread: Equation

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a deep, male voice intoned.

Diane looked up from the abstract she had been working on, her mouth packed with cookie. She saw the usual tower of paper directly in front of her, on her guest’s chair that no guest could actually make use of, with a pair of arms spilling out unnaturally from either side. Diane flinched instinctively but then peered more closely.

The arms were wearing the sleeves of a blue denim shirt, terminating with slightly podgy brown-skinned hands. One hand was adorned with a thin, gold wedding ring.

Reality re-asserted itself and she realised there was someone standing behind the tower. Diane swallowed the rest of the cookie before it was good and ready, and barked out at the denim arms, “Yeah, what do you want?”

“Hello, ma’am. My name is Earl,” the response came.

“Well, god darn it Earl, why don’t you stop hidin’ behind this paper here?” she hollered. Having cursed spontaneously she chastised herself aloud, “Shit, girl, gotta quit that sorta talk.” Following that, she made a mental note to put two dollars into the cookie repository.

Earl stepped into visibility. He was a bald man of average height and average build, with an average denim shirt and an average pair of denim jeans. Diane was desperate to identify something unique about him but had to be satisfied with his hands, which were a bit too swollen for the rest of his average body. He was actually more identifiable as a pair of arms than he was as a complete human being. She did not think of him as African-American, because that just was not PC, and she wanted to be clear that she was definitely a member of the liberal and tolerant community that would shout down, harass and hound out of town any British professor that used the word blackboard. Particularly British professors that were overweight and unsightly. Look, she wanted to say to Earl, I have a whiteboard.

Although she also found Earl unattractive, another one of her snap judgements that would be set in stone for the rest of her days, his face was well meaning. It was graced with a pair of gentle, innocent eyes that seemed as if they would not even harm a pair of gentle, innocent flies.

“That’s a whole lot better,” she said to the stranger now out in the limelight. “Howdy.”

“Morning, ma’am. A friend of mine told me to look up something called Gödel’s Incompleteness Theory.”

Diane felt that this man had never studied in his life and maybe never even read a book. She was intrigued and said, “It’s a theorem, Earl, but I’ll let you off easy for now. Go on.”

“Well, ma’am, I’ve had a fair look around your library downstairs and I can’t make neither head nor tail. In all my years since school, I’ve only read one book, the good book, you know.”

Diane was pleased that she was almost dang perfect with her guess about the book reading. “Earl, I sure am surprised you came all the way to our library to answer a question if you’re not much of reader.”

Earl looked down at his shoes suddenly, searching carefully for something that could not be found. He scratched his shiny scalp for a moment and then replied, “A good friend mentioned it, ma’am. I’d like to know what He meant by it. Would you please give me a bit of your time and explain the theory to me?”

Diane said, “Earl, buddy, it’s not some god darn theory, it’s a theorem.” Three dollars. “That’s to say, you see, it’s more like a fact. The last thing I need is someone in my office telling me mathematical proofs are just theories like evolution. I already had my gullet of those people.”

“Sorry, ma’am, meant no offence.”

She wondered if she really did look like a ma’am. “That’s okay, it’s nice that someone is taking an interest other than some freshman coming in here begging for more time on his assignment. I’m sorry, they say, I got to drinkin’ Diane, I clean forgot about it. I tell them they’re not going to sweet talk me out of a demerit, flashing their beautiful white smiles at me.

“Anyways, you see, there are actually two theorems but I think I’ll just get right to the point. What Gödel showed was that there are things in mathematics that can’t be proved but are true. That’s to say, truth ain’t the same as provable. Like I can’t prove that the British professor down the hall, Professor Jane his name is, is a racist but that doesn’t make it any less true.”


“You bet your bottom dollar it’s true. And it’s provable.”

Earl spoke the next sentence slowly just in case he was not crystal clearly understood. “You can prove… that there are things you can’t prove?”

“You bet your bottom dollar.”

Earl mulled this over, adopting a pose reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, and then came to his conclusion. “I have a question, ma’am.”

“Shoot.” Diane was actually enjoying talking to one of the lay people.

“Are you sure this ain’t a theory like evolution?”

“Bullcrap.” Four dollars. “The word you’re looking for, Mr. Earl, is conjecture. This ain’t no conjecture. It’s the honest God’s truth, which has been proved.”

The man returned to his puzzled pose, pensive, almost constipated. After the puzzled phase, he moved into the tortured phase. After the tortured phase passed, which lasted a good twenty seconds, he switched to despair. The man’s face, Diane thought, was a rainbow of expression. How cute.

“Wouldya like a cookie, Earl? I got these home-baked specialities from one of my students. He said they were organic, nice and tasty they are.” Diane proffered the cookie jar that was full of cookies and not the one that was full of cookie dollars.

Earl did not seem to notice the offer. “I get what you’re sayin’ an’ all, what I don’t understand is… sweet aces, why would He do such a thing?”

She made a mental note of the phrase “sweet aces” thinking that it was a wonderful phrase that would not cost her one cursing dollar per use. However, she had to ask, “Sorry, you lost me there, Earl. Who do what?”

“God. Why would He do such a thing? It’s like He put a spanner deliberately in the cogs of science.”

“Earl, buddy, it’s stuff like this that makes the universe interesting! I’m no believer, no real scientist can believe in any of that religious hokum you know, but if I was then I’d probably say he’s made plenty sure we can’t work everything out.”

Earl seemed even more despairing after she said that. “Ma’am,” he said, “I don’t believe that. That’s not what it means, that’s not what it means at all.” He shook his head several dozen times, which Diane believed was either vehement disapproval or an attempt to unscrew his head from his shoulders.

“Shit, Earl, I thought you religious types were keen on belief. So, then, what do you think it means?” Sweet aces, five dollars down!

Earl responded to Diane’s question by entering into a baffling dialogue with himself. “He said… He said He had already seen to that… already seen to what?

Diane was not sure if she wanted to know what Earl was talking about. Perhaps Earl was about to start speaking in tongues or get out the Good Book and start making proclamations based on Psalm 743 Verse 912 that Yea We Shall Walk Into the Valley of the Shadow of Death And We Shalt Fear No Shit.

“My hat!” he cried out suddenly.

Diane may have been an incredibly sharp mathematician capable of making startling logical connections between even the most distant of theoretical concepts but found herself at a loss. She asked, “What in Sam Peckinpah has Gödel and God got to do with your hat?” She considered that a hat would have added a much-needed quirk to Earl’s average appearence. Then she imagined the paper tower wearing a hat. A bowler hat. A British bowler hat.

“Sorry ma’am, I think I left my hat downstairs! My wife got it for me, I couldn’t even think of losing it – I have to go get it!” Earl disappeared behind the paper tower again and never came back.

Diane took out another cookie and started munching on it. They were pretty good cookies, although they smelt a little funny, and had a knack of making Diane feel mellow. She cursed less when under the influence of the cookies and that was how she convinced herself she was not addicted to them.

Why would he do such a thing?

She wondered if Earl had found his hat and whether Earl had found the thing he had come to her to find. Maybe he was looking for a truth or a belief. Or proof of something. You could spend all day asking questions that did not have answers. There was a word for that: procrastination.

Then again…

Diane placed five dollars in the cursing cookie jar and reflected on the problem that you could never know which questions did not have answers. She had seen smarter colleagues devote years of intense effort to the inconclusive and illusory. No-one could write papers on “Some Shit I Labored On For Seven God Damn Years But Nothing Came Out Of Except This Inconsequential Lemma, Sorry”. Failed insight could lead many a decent scientist down the longest and darkest blind alleys, to the smelliest and dirtiest of red herrings, along the zaniest and craziest of wild goose chases. Scientific faith and religious faith; she found the comparison unpalatable but there it was, like dog crap on the sidewalk.

Diane wondered if the organisation of her insubordinate paperwork was a problem without a solution. There was only one way to find out.


Posted by: The Harbour Master @ 2323

April 12, 2006

An Axiom Short of a Six-Pack (1 of 2)

Thread: Equation

Diane put a dollar in the jar, cursed herself for cursing, and then put another dollar in the jar for the second offence.

The cookie jar still smouldered of the smell of ancient cookies. Every dollar that was lost in its depths was seemingly exchanged for a cookie-scented dollar, which retained the same value in everyday commerce, but was regarded with suspicion by recipient merchants. A store owner once asked if she did drugs because her cookie dollars smelt funny. After that, Diane tried exchanging the cookie dollars at the foreign exchange for ordinary dollars and the teller regarded her with suspicion and called for the manager. The manager called up the regional manager. The regional manager called up the national manager. The exchange was refused because the regional manager was fired by the national manager for being bothered in a meeting with the CEO. Diane thought that it was now also possible she was on potential terrorist money-laundering blacklist somewhere deep in the bowels of the Pentagon.

The jar was the least of her worries. She had cursed yet again because she had made little progress in the new offensive against the battalions of reports and abstracts and doodles that defined her office. The use of a trash can had been suggested by Tyler, her favourite protégé, a handsome boy blessed with beautiful teeth so brilliant that they seemed to be bio-luminescent. Diane thought his torch-like teeth would have been useful in the dark closet at home when searching for her tennis shoes or perhaps her bedroom at night searching for something under the sheets.

Diane considered herself a plain sort of individual, a body that was thin and bony to the point of suspected anorexia. Her skin had a snow-white sheen that was oddly complemented by rigidly straight auburn hair that reached beyond her shoulder blades. She had no time for style and the cream pants and cream blouse with no button left undone that she wore today perfectly satisfied this lack of expectation. She had been told once that she was verging on the potential of being attractive, but she had put this down as a vile, disparaging rumour. Being single was a statement, a choice, she would argue with herself in the bathroom mirror occasionally.

Paperwork came with the territory. No mathematician she knew had a foolproof algorithm for marshalling the legions of paper that were part and parcel of the work. She had experimented recklessly with a filing cabinet once, which had only taken three forms to acquire from the office equipment/furnishings deployment/repo department. She had expected at least five, considering the hassle she had gone through to replace her chalkboard with a whiteboard. The whiteboard incident had marked her out as a maverick amongst the deadwood of her own department. She recalled the stimulating conversation she had had with that stuffy British professor in the overtly ostentatious anteroom of his office, a man who insisted on causing all sorts of uproar by using inflammatory words of the Queen’s English such as blackboard. He had said that he simply deplored the gratuitous invasion by these unbecoming whiteboards because the inky mist gets into one’s lungs and does all sorts of untold damage that medical science has barely even begun to inquire into. It does concern one, does it not, eh what what what.

Diane still had the filing cabinet in the room although she could not recall its colour as it was currently besieged by several platoons of books and freshman projects; she particularly feared the reports as they had turned wild and unruly, threatening to murder their would-be shepherd, killing the cabinet in a violent and bloody manner if given half a chance.

The time had come to divide and conquer, take back the territory that she had surrendered to the triple armies of document, journal and note through a series of well-meaning yet conceding compromises that had been brokered between Diane and their negotiators. The time had come. She had to deal with this disaster in her sliver of an office otherwise… well, she could get another fright. Since one of the paper towers on her desk sprouted arms and opened a conversation with her the previous day, she had been jitterier than a paranoid conspiracy theorist on speed.

Posted by: The Harbour Master @ 1301

April 4, 2006

Best of Five

Thread: Game

A few seconds before he went poof, the last man on Earth saw something odd in the sky, aside from the fact that the atmosphere was on fire. A pair of neon blue words, flipped as if reflected in a mirror, had seemed to pop into existence silently. They hung there indifferently as if they had always been there, even though the man was quite sure that they had not been there before. He took a moment to deliberate what ‘REVO EMAG’ was supposed to mean but before the poor bastard realised he was supposed to read it backwards, he was blasted into a shower of ash by the fire shock, like a dandelion’s fragile seed being scattered on the wind.

Poof. And that was that.

* * * *

“Yes!” Dog shrieked leaping up onto the sofa that they had shared for the last four and a half billion years. “I win! Two-one! Two-one! You admit defeat, old man?” Atop the sofa, he began to twirl like a talentless ballerina on heat, repeating “two-one” over and over again.

Dog was a diminutive bag of bones, with a hairless, crimson skin stretched over his spindly frame. Bones jutted out here and there at unexpected angles, lending Dog the appearance of a traffic accident victim who considered a hospital visit to be a waste of his tax money. The only attire he wore was an overly bulgy pair of decrepit navy swimming trunks with the inviting message ‘Eat My Shorts And Don’t Stop There Honey’ splashed across his loins, which was not what Graham had in mind when he demanded Dog put something on while in the house.

Dog suspended his ungainly, reckless spin to unveil a thick, green plume of noxious smoke from his rear end, which exploded out as though dynamite had been detonated in some deep fissure. He returned to his victory jig without further ado.

Graham sat amidst the pea-soup cloud less than amused. He threw the joystick away, with its bulbous red button sticking out like a boil begging to be burst, but its wire pulled taut before it reached the TV and was dragged to the ground.

Towering and austere, yet overshadowed by the inept gymnast bouncing about on the cushion beside him, Graham sported a white, wiry beard that had earned him the barbed nickname of Santa. He bore craggy features that even the most foolhardy mountaineers would have had second thoughts about, and Graham was not ashamed to admit that he once considered using collagen to reduce the appearance of wrinkles. His dress was unflinching in its constancy. Everyday he wore the same tired, sallow toga that pleaded for a trip to the laundrette so it could live in vivid white again, and a pair of home-made ochre sandals with silver buckles that had lost their lustre long ago. Graham carried a certain grace with an uncertain style that Dog commented looked fairly good for a transvestite.

“Best of five,” grunted Graham, who was still not over the incident when Dog shot him in the back thus snatching Graham’s second would-be victory and sticking it so far down the jaws of defeat that defeat had retched up its pasta supper. Dog had protested that it was in his nature. In fact, it was Graham’s fault for inventing that tedious parable about the frog and the scorpion crossing the river. Graham had pointed out that (a) it was a bloody turtle in the story and (b) he could not possibly be the author of a parable that painted people in such black and white terms. It was not in his nature.

Dog broke from his dance and cackled at Graham, “Anything you say, Santa. I can keep my trigger-happy fingers going as long as you can. I practice with these babies all the time!” To demonstrate his meaning, he closed his right hand into a hollow fist and shook it up and down in the air a bit. At least, Graham comforted himself, it was merely a demonstration this time.

Graham sighed inwardly and wished that he were not such a pacifist, because it made the game so much harder. On the positive side, however, it did make victory that much sweeter. When Graham had won the first game, Dog’s face was a complete picture. It was still hanging on the wall behind the TV, having been sliced off and freeze-dried as part of their agreement. Frozen in an enthusiastically blended expression of horror and disbelief, it was guaranteed to make Graham chuckle when the chips were down.

Graham leaned forward and groaned instinctively when he felt the twinge of back pain that was a reminder of when Dog had once stabbed him between the shoulder blades with an oriental ear pick. Before him was the Video Computer System, the bane of Graham’s existence and yet paradoxically the reason for it.

It was a wide, unwieldy black box whose upper surface was dominated by a corrugated plastic surface that drew the eyes towards a slanted control panel that at the back. The Game Program slot sat in the centre of the panel, flanked by three cylindrical metal switches either side. A plastic cartridge poking out of the game program slot bore the words ‘planet earth’ in dull, curvy letters. An apparently pointless wood-trim at the front somehow added a finishing touch to its form. It was a beautiful thing infused with love that Graham detested with a passion.

Graham verified that both game difficulty switches were set to B, to ensure Dog was not going to cheat as he had got away with for around a billion years in the previous game. He depressed the game reset switch. The picture of a scorched, dead Earth flickered briefly and was replaced by a brand new blue sphere with ecosystems, climate and the untapped potential to produce the works of Shakespeare. Or, if Dog had his way again, a TV show called Pop Idol.

“This time,” warned Graham with great authority, “you will not screw with me in the bleeding Garden of Eden.”

Dog snickered, knowing full well that he would screw with Graham in the Garden of Eden.

Posted by: The Harbour Master @ 2301