The Dim-Post

October 31, 2008

Brain Food

Filed under: books,general idiocy — danylmc @ 3:06 pm

The New York Sun has an article about my favourite short story; Borges Library of Babel. There are a few reasons I’m not a writer, but the fact that Jorge Borges has already written all of the things I want to write about is one of the main ones (profound lack of self-discipline is another, not wanting to spend my retirement years eating dog food is a third).

In Borges’s imagining, the Library of Babel itself is a building composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries. A ventilation shaft in the center of each allows the visitor to see the floors above and below, in endless sequence. Each wall of each hexagon holds 32 books of identical size; each book has 410 pages; each page, 40 lines; each line, approximately 80 letters. All possible combinations of the 25 orthographic symbols make up the books; therefore, every conceivable book must exist in the monstrous library. In his story, Borges gives just a few examples of what might be found here: “the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogues, the proof of the falsity of the true catalogue …”

The numbers he chose for the shelves and books in his story, Borges later confessed, were simply those of the municipal library in which he worked — and which he himself found so horrible. “Learned critics,” he noted later, with some evident pleasure, “studied these figures and generously lent them a mystical significance.” Mr. Bloch, with similar generosity, and in an exercise he himself describes as “tedious, uninspired, but straightforward” if carried out in full, asks whether our entire universe could in fact contain this dizzying number of books. Even if it could (if the size of the library, as Borges suggests, coincided with that of the universe), the inconceivably vast space would make it impossible for a human librarian to even barely begin its exploration. Walking 60 miles a day for 100 years, notes Mr. Bloch, our vigorous librarian would only travel a distance slightly less than that which light covers in two minutes. “To cross our universe, which is incomprehensibly dwarfed by the Library, light would need to travel for a least 15 billion years.” It would take a librarian, moving at the leisurely pace of a connoisseur, considerably longer — a mathematical certainty that mirrors the nightmarish vision Borges said he wished to convey.

Jacob Weisberg at Slate takes an amused look at the response of libertarians to the collapse of the unregulated $62 trillion Credit Default Swap market, which they inevitably regard as a failure of government regulation:

The argument as a whole is reminiscent of wearying dorm-room debates that took place circa 1989 about whether the fall of the Soviet bloc demonstrated the failure of communism. Academic Marxists were never going to be convinced that anything that happened in the real world could invalidate their belief system. Utopians of the right, libertarians are just as convinced that their ideas have yet to be tried, and that they would work beautifully if we could only just have a do-over of human history. Like all true ideologues, they find a way to interpret mounting evidence of error as proof that they were right all along.

The Economist has endorsed Barack Obama – like everybody else they’ve cited Palin as one of their main reasons for abandoning McCain. Epic fail. They’ve also written an article about their recent history of Presidential endorsements. It took me a while to see the pattern.

You can now clone your pet.

“Are they all related?” a woman asks as she watches three puppies romp around Eastwood Park, a little slice of doggy heaven in Mill Valley, California. One of the pups, Mira, is notably larger than the other two, Chingu and Sarang, but they all share similar markings: white snouts and chests, darker fur on their backs and crowns.”They’re clones,” Lou Hawthorne replies.

I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s book Anathem. If you (a) know what a directed acyclic graph is and (b) like the idea of a Harry Potter style novel in which the main characters make jokes about graph theory and platonism while using their knowledge of linear algebra to solve mysteries then this is definitely a book for you. If you fall into the ~99.9999% of the population that don’t meet those criteria then I’d give this one a big miss. Stephenson also uses a lot of made-up words in his books which might ring alarm bells if you subscribe to the xkcd rule of thumb:


  1. It took me a while to see the pattern.

    Palin/Petraeus 2012!

    Comment by gazzaj — October 31, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  2. If you are a subscriber to the xkcd rule of thumb, I presume you think Lord of the Rings is a steaming pile of the proverbial.

    We Elven Folk know where you live…

    Comment by macdoctor01 — October 31, 2008 @ 4:44 pm

  3. Lewis Carroll and Tolkein are exempt, according to the original comic. Presumably also any book where making up language is essential (A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Dr Seuss). No idea where that leaves Shakespeare.

    Comment by gazzaj — October 31, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  4. We Elven Folk know where you live…

    The time of the elves is over.

    What makes Anathem so annoying is that Stephenson makes up words for things that already have words – so a cellphone is called a jewjaw; you have to memorise a large, stupid vocabulary just to understand what’s going on.

    Comment by danylmc — November 1, 2008 @ 7:47 am

  5. not wanting to spend my retirement years eating dog food

    surely a sacrfice you could make on your audience’s behalf in the name of Art.

    the Library of Babel

    in such a library there would be a mere 25^80 books with different first lines so with the universe only having 10^80 atoms there might be a bit of a shortage of ink and paper, not to mention bookselves. And not to get into any pecular Gödel-type problems of having a “faithful catalogue of the Library”.

    The number of books with interesting stories would be a very small subset of the total books in that library but still a large enough number (I think) to expend the universe’s ability to represent. The power of the imagination. (Even if those stories are represented in more efficient methods than books).

    Comment by Neil — November 3, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

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