Sunday, November 17, 2002

Nitpick of the moment
In movies (excepting foreign films, of course), there's always a convention that the characters will speak in English, no matter what language they "actually" speak; it's just implicit that somewhere along the line this has been magically translated into English for our benefit, even though (say) Russian submarine officers obviously would speak to each other in Russian. The one exception to this is, of course, when they want to say something that the hero won't understand, and then they suddenly do speak in Russian, perhaps with subtitles.

Now, Kenneth has bequeathed to me some science fiction anthologies, which I've been sporadically reading. Since they're nominally "best of"-type anthologies, they do somewhat better than Sturgeon's Law, but the quality still has a pretty wide variation.

Wait, I'm getting somewhere with this. So one of the stories makes a big deal about using a base-8 number system, explaining it and all of the associated units in one of the more clunky expositions you'll see. And yet, on the same page as this clunky exposition, the numbers "999" and "ninety" are both used. But in base 8, there is no such number as "9". In fact, I could even argue that there's no such number as "8", either, which (as you might expect) is strewn all over the story. It's like the autotranslator kicks in, but only when the author remembers to stick it in. And because of this carelessness, whenever I see "10", I have to wonder: does he mean 10 base 10, or 10 base 8 (that is, 8)? In fact, you could argue that if it were really in a base-8 system, they would refer to it as base 10, since any numerical system in its own base will be "base 10". (That is, if we had grown up hexadecimal, would base 10 be base 10? No. It'd be base A.)

Oh, and the actual story benefit of having this wonderful, exciting different number system? Nothing at all, of course. All it is is a chance for the author to show off his knowledge of sixth-grade math, at the expense of making the reader think a little harder to figure out just what the heck is going on. Grumble, grumble.

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