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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

PopCo revisited

In the past two weeks I haven’t had as much time to read as I would like. I’m woefully behind on the Globe, and it’s only today that I’ve finally finished reading PopCo. In my post of 11/23, I gave my initial impressions of this novel by Scarlett Thomas. Now I can say more. (It’s always best to read an entire book before reviewing it.)

I highly recommend PopCo, at least to readers of a technical bent. It probably helps to be a nerd or a geek. How often do you come across a novel that contains a table of the first 1000 primes, after all?

The site of the book is a business retreat attended by “creatives” from a British toy company. Flashbacks provide additional characterization and background. For the first half of the book I was under the impression that the protagonist/narrator was a mathematician with a specialty in cryptology, but that turned out not to be true. Nevertheless, she’s both deeply interested and deeply knowledgeable about the subject. (I’ll avoid spoilers here, by the way.) Here are a few out-of-context mathematical/cryptological references that might lead the reader to believe that Alice Butler was a mathematician — and might turn off a reader who has the wrong attitude about math:
...a fifty-fifty chance of being correct, then — the same chance you’d have, incidentally, of finding two people with the same birthday in a room of twenty-three people...

The Monty Hall Problem, popularised by maths columnist Marilyn vos Savant, is... [followed by an entire page discussing the Monty Hall Problem]

It looked quite Vigenere-ish to me.

It wasn’t a Caesar shift cipher, that’s for sure: you can tell one of those just by looking at it.

...there would, as my grandfather once pointed out to me, be 403,291,461,126,605,635,584,000,000 potential keys to find, this being the factorial value of twenty-six (rather cutely written down by mathematicians as 26! and proving that they also have a thing for exclamation marks, just like the toy industry).

Alberti was a fifteenth-century architect, and is known as the true grandfather of contemporary Western cryptology. His code-wheel formed the basis for all forms of polyalphabetic ciphers that came later, including Enigma.

“So, the criterion for this exercise is that you’re in a group of about four people, with no one you already know,” Warren says. THere are twenty-six of us in this room. How many different ways are there of dividing us into sets of four or five?

...I have asked her about the Riemann Hypothesis because this is obviously the thing she is most interested in and perhaps she will like me more I understand the thing she is most interested in.

My grandmother...had an Erdos number of two.

It was when I was learning about Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and trying out his number code. Every calculation I did came out with a number so big that it wouldn’t fit on my calculator.
There are also two very large and significant non-mathematical themes to PopCo. One is political and social, having to do with corporate culture, corporate responsibility, and so forth. This theme starts out as a broad and amusing satire of workshops and the like, but it ends up being surprisingly serious. The other non-mathematical theme has to do with the psychology of teenagers and pre-teens, both individually and in a societal context. Although it takes place in England, and although the characters certainly weren’t typical teens, the portrayal definitely rings true.

Thomas writes with a compelling and highly individualistic voice. She puts a bit too much sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll into this novel, and she has some annoying habits like referring to women as girls, but it’s still very much worth reading. Near the end, it turns out to be recursive in a manner that will appeal to any mathematically minded reader. But that’s not the main point. Or is it?

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