Strange Horizons Podcast: A to Z Theory

The punchline, as ever, is here.

A little behind the scenes note, for this week’s podcast: I know a lot of math-y people.  It comes of being fond of math, CS, and physics nerds.  As much as I’m fond of crunching numbers, though, I’m not particularly math-y myself.  My brain just isn’t wired for some of the spatial stuff needed for the parts of calculus that were as far as I got.  Sad times, but not more so than my tone-deafness, my capacity to think I’m being brilliant when I’m being utterly insane, or my outright inability to render straight lines.  I need flaws to be a well-rounded, believable character, and these are those.  This is fine.

Until you get to the last section of this weeks story.  When I went over the story evaluating all the pre-performance stuff you need to do, looking for pronunciations I need to check the with author for, or a dictionary, or references I want to look up to make sure I get all the nuance of what the story is doing, I glazed right over the brackets full of slashed zeroes.  I know enough set theory to get what was going on there, and it didn’t register as a thing at all.  I read this story three times before I started recording, and not once did any of those ping me.  My brain took them in as “Function name A,” “Function name B” etc. etc., and didn’t bother parsing them past that.  I didn’t think about how to actually say those things until, literally, I got to them in the paragraph.

“No big deal,” I say to myself.  “I’ve only got a few other things I have to do today, I’ll just spend some time researching it on the internet.”

You know what people writing about math on the internet don’t do?  Tell you how to read any of it out loud.

After several hours I got the bright idea to ask somebody else what to do.  Remember how I mentioned at the beginning of this that I know lots of math, CS, and physics people?  What are the odds, do you think, that the next sentence of this story is, “And then I pinged a contact and had my questioned answered in a jiffy?” Yeah.  About that good.

Fortunately, the person I did ask is smarter than me, and responded with a fantastically eloquent, “Why are you asking me when you know [guy]?”

Readers, I know some fantastic people.  And I’ve had some fantastic experiences in my life.  Let me tell you, though, that there are few things more splendid than watch a math guy’s head explode when you ask him how to pronounce a string of mathematical symbols for fictional theorems, then slowly feed him context, before finally forking over the whole story.  The evolution of what the most accurate, meaningful rendering.  The poetry of his rant about the invasive, self-annealing properties of mathematics. The days of hopeless google searches and Kahn Academy videos you don’t spend. It’s a thing of beauty. Truly.

This week’s podcast is brought to you by the surreal awesomeness that are math geeks and meta-aware Moriarties.


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