Archive

Monthly Archives: August 2012

The above comic, by Abstruse Goose, doesn’t mean that you can’t write some code after reading a book! Instead in order to become a good programmer, and get  fellow programmers to acknowledge the same, you need to adore what you are doing, love what you are becoming. And then take time to teach you again and again, explore more and more, and program as often as possible. No one will call you a Guitarist simply by reading “learning Guitar, for dummies”, the same is the case with programming – it takes time, effort and results!

To live is to fight , fight the demons outside and inside you. Agree ? Disagree?… Anyways this write-up is not about life nor about fighting your demons, so let me not go any further with that. Instead let me lead you to some rather trivial notions about the basic alphabet of the language of science. The language of science? Yes mathematics. I remember a line, from a famous Malayalam movie, uttered by a headmaster of a school (a character played to perfection by Thilakan) to instill fear and awe in the minds of his students – “without mathematics earth is nothing but a very big zero!”. If you are a Malayali, I guess you might remember this dialogue but its up to you the reader to decide whether that’s true or not! Lets return from cinema and focus on Numbers – the basic alphabet of math.

image not owned by the author. If objectionable please leave a comment to contact.

Here is the fun thing, why fight demons and focus on numbers on the same paragraph? To tell the truth numbers are one of the demons I fight inside me! (Ya laugh! :D) There is something in them that makes me loose cool! The reason for my unease with number is the fact that I usually don’t get them right. Even with basic arithmetic I make it stupid when they come in slightly larger proportion (how large? :D). My past experiences comes to haunt me when dealing with numbers, yes the bloody feedback! Or the cliché, “vicious cycle”, arghh! Even though I demonise numbers in my own ways I can tell you that numbers are something that we all take for granted. As a Computing Science aficionado I understand the importance of abstraction and how its a vital key to learning -”learn to use first, then ask the big question of how and why!”. But after you learn to use its probably good to ask a “how?” or a “why?”.

We are surrounded by numbers wherever we are and spew them out in all directions for every interaction we make with the physical world. Since these things are all around us we generally don’t try to understand them. If someone asks you what are numbers, what will your answer be? If someone asks me what are birds I ill probably point to a crow or sparrow and tell that’s a bird. So would your answer be like ‘hundred’ , ‘10’, ‘1010’ or ‘XV’ ? If you are telling ‘10’ is a number it would be like me pointing at a picture of a bird instead of pointing at a real bird on a tree or in the sky. We cant deal with numbers the same way as we deal with real-world or physical things, why? Because numbers are abstract things they don’t exist as tangible objects in the real world. Since they are abstract things they live solely in our minds, an idea. That’s what a number is , an idea or a concept that helps you keep count. Its the relations that we make with this idea that fills our world with numbers. ‘10’,’hundred’ are all representation of these relations. It would be wrong to say its we humans who came up with this idea, because all creatures have some sense for measuring and comparing quantities. Else a dog would try its chance with a rival pack of dogs the same way its would stand its ground when challenged by a single adversary. Surely a dog can measure resistance offered by a single dog over a pack of dogs, and thus when challenged by a pack it would immediately take flight or get submissive. So if you aren’t a creationist you should thank evolution for gifting you the notion of measurement. But probably we are the first creatures to represent that idea outside of our own brains. We humans have come up with systematic methods to represent this abstract thing, using symbols along with certain primitive operations. The first attempts at representing numbers would have been the unary-system that had n repetition of a symbol to represent n. So if the # was chosen then a single # would mean 1 and ##### would mean 5. The unary system was then probably enhanced by systems like the Roman numerals where certain repetitions of symbol would be replaced by another symbol. And then came the big breakthrough the positional-number system where the value represented by a group of symbols depended not just on the symbol themselves but by position they occupied in that group. The first of its kind is credited to a base-60 system by the Babylonians. The base-10 number system that we all use now to think about numbers came from India and it packaged an idea then unknown to the rest of the world, the idea of zero or nothingness. The West learns about this new system from the Arab traders and they happily name it ‘Arabic numerals’, pathetic!

I think I ill wrap it up here. But I guess I had a few more thoughts to share in this regard, but then this write-up had remained in draft form for than three months now. Also I don’t seem like able to recollect and reproduce other ideas I might have had, so I guess this deserved a much needed closure. Likewise I had mentioned in my previous write-up about a continuation article, I meddled with that idea for some time but didn’t land on anything concrete because the core itself was easily refutable. After that I went lost , down in some drain, not doing anything just big time lazy. At this moment I am trying best to bootstrap myself to bring back the days of activity and zest.