I mentioned another Douglas Adams novel series and character some time back, in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, during the congressional hearings at Capitol Hill and the beginning of the euro zone sovereign crises:
Grilled Squid and barbecued PIIGS
What I really wanted to share then though, was a haiku I had written in a comment I left on the Ultimi Barbarorum website, on a post musing on poetry, financial shenanigans in the markets and Goldman Sachs:
The above title should be quite clear, what with the roasting going on over at The Hill of the GS vampire squid, as well as the euro-fringe countries being dragged over the coals by the rating agencies.
Here is a frivolous haiku-ed comment made some time back about the GS squid, which came up elsewhere during some ‘ultimately barbarorous’ musings on markets, haikus and vogon poetry:
Gently Dirk-ed, bleeds ancient
While I really enjoyed Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, I thought his second major book series, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, was actually an even more ambitious undertaking with larger and more interesting themes.
And the standout character from this novel, the Electric Monk and his very bored horse in a desert:
High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse. From under its rough woven cowl the Monk gazed unblinkingly down into another valley, with which it was having a problem.
The day was hot, the sun stood in an empty hazy sky and beat down upon the gray rocks and the scrubby, parched grass. Nothing moved, not even the Monk. The horse’s tail moved a little, swishing slightly to try and move a little air, but that was all. Otherwise, nothing moved.
The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.
The problem with the valley was this. The Monk currently believed that the valley and everything in the valley and around it, including the Monk itself and the Monk’s horse, was a uniform shade of pale pink. This made for a certain difficulty in distinguishing any one thing from any other thing, and therefore made doing anything or going anywhere impossible, or at least difficult and dangerous. Hence the immobility of the Monk and the boredom of the horse, which had had to put up with a lot of silly things in its time but was secretly of the opinion that this was one of the silliest.
So what of this horse, then, that actually held opinions, and was sceptical about things? Unusual behaviour for a horse, wasn’t it? An unusual horse perhaps?
No. Although it was certainly a handsome and well-built example of its species, it was none the less a perfectly ordinary horse, such as convergent evolution has produced in many of the places that life is to be found. They have always understood a great deal more than they let on. It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them.
On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.
While Douglas Adams is no Umberto Eco with the latter’s gift for constructing and inserting semiotic and historiographic puzzles within his fictional writings, Adams still manages to present several interesting juxtapositions, clever structures and mathematical/geometric puzzles for the inquiring reader.
And one of my favourite puzzle and situation from the Dirk Gently book, the stuck-in-a-stairwell sofa problem:
He peered at Richard seriously. “Do you have a good sofa?” he enquired.
“Well, yes.” Richard laughed. He was cheered by the silliness of the question.
“Oh,” said Reg solemnly. “Well; I wish you’d tell me where you got it. I have endless trouble with them, quite endless. Never found a comfortable one in all my life. How do you find yours?” He encountered, with a slight air of surprise, a small silver tray he had left out with a decanter of port and three glasses.
“Well, it’s odd you should ask that,” said Richard. “I’ve never sat on it.”
“Very wise,” insisted Reg earnestly, “very, very wise.” He went through a palaver similar to his previous one with his coat and hat.
“Not that I wouldn’t like to,” said Richard. “It’s just that it’s stuck halfway up a long flight of stairs which leads up into my flat. As far as I can make it out, the delivery men got it part way up the stairs, got it stuck, turned it around any way they could, couldn’t get it any further, and then found, curiously enough, that they couldn’t get it back down again. Now, that should be impossible.”
“Odd,” agreed Reg. “I’ve certainly never come across any irreversible mathematics involving sofas. Could be a new field. Have you spoken to any spatial geometricians?”
“I did better than that. I called in a neighbour’s kid who used to be able to solve Rubik’s cube in seventeen seconds. He sat on a step and stared at it for over an hour before pronouncing it irrevocably stuck. Admittedly he’s a few years older now and has found out about girls, but it’s got me puzzled.”
“Please carry on, I shall still be able to hear you. Continue to tell me of your sofa, and do feel free in the meantime to sit on mine. Has it been stuck there for long?”
“Oh, only about three weeks,” said Richard, sitting down. “I could just saw it up and throw it away, but I can’t believe that there isn’t a logical answer. And it also made me think – it would be really useful to know before you buy a piece of furniture whether it’s actually going to ht up the stairs or around the corner. So I’ve modelled the problem in three dimensions on my computer – and so far it just says no way.”
“It says what?” called Reg, over the noise of filling the kettle.
“That it can’t be done. I told it to compute the moves necessary to get the sofa out, and it said there aren’t any. I said `What?’ and it said there aren’t any. I then asked it, and this is the really mysterious thing, to compute the moves necessary to get the sofa into its present position in the first place, and it said that it couldn’t have got there. Not without fundamental restructuring of the walls. So, either there’s something wrong with the fundamental structure of the matter in my walls or,” he added with a sigh, “there’s something wrong with the program. Which would you guess?”
“And are you married?” called Reg.
“What? Oh, I see what you mean. A sofa stuck on the stairs for a month. Well, no, not married as such, but yes, there is a specific girl that I’m not married to.”
“What’s she like? What does she do?”
“She’s a professional cellist. I have to admit that the sofa has been a bit of a talking point. In fact she’s moved back to her own flat until I get it sorted out. She, well… ”
He was suddenly sad, and he stood up and wandered around the room in a desultory sort of way and ended up in front of the dying fire. He gave it a bit of a poke and threw on a couple of extra logs to try and ward off the chill of the room.
And here is an example and one form of the stuck or moving sofa problem:
[Speaking of puzzles, I have so many word, mathematical, geometric, and logic puzzles in my drafts folder and personal journal, that I’m itching to post here… ]
But what is a good puzzle without some good music accompaniments. Sticking to the horse and sofa themes, we have…
徐佳莹 – 身骑白马 Xu Jia-ying – Astride a Pale Horse:
I am astride my pale horse, crossing the three passes
I change into my commoner’s clothing, returning to the Central Plains (China)
Laying down the wearies of the Western Regions, no one to relieve me of my duties
My heart yearning only for, Wang Bao-chuan
徐佳莹 Xu Jia-ying, one of the more talented, young Taiwanese singer and songwriter. The song 身骑白马/Astride a Pale Horse was written when she was still a nobody, but which became her breakout song and won her acclaim, when she performed it at a singing competition and blew the judges away with her very polished and yet restrained songwriting skill.
And the wistful refrain in the song, sung in the Minannese/Hokkien dialect, she adapted from a very popular old chinese folk opera act, based on the historical love story between the commoner 薛平贵/Xue Ping-gui and the daughter of a Tang dynasty aristocratic family 王宝钏/Wang Bao-chuan. 薛平贵/Xue Ping-gui was drafted into the army and sent to the north-western borders, where he spent 18 long and weary years fighting with the nomadic enemy. He eventually rose to high rank and prominence, and returned to his homeland riding astride his pale steed and by crossing the three famous mountain passes (which throughout Chinese history has been both a real physical barrier as well as symbolic boundary) separating the harsh desert Western Regions from the lush and green Central Plains of China, where the ailing 王宝钏/Wang Bao-chuan had been steadfastly waiting for him all that while.
Sigh…good song. Very good song.
[Okay, this post is getting abit too long now. Shall save my sofa song for another time…]