Friday, September 30, 2005

Hold it right there, Avogadro! I've got your number!

I carry one of these things around with my on my keychain. To judge how easy it was to find a pic of one in a Google image search, at least some of the rest of you have one too. To the uninitiated, it's a little dongle that generates random six-figure numbers, one per minute. After I fill in my name and password on my work email account, I get challenged for the current number on this little doohickey. If I've filled in the right number, I'm treated to the ten thousand inanities and veiled humiliations that make up my daily professional correspondence.

The thing has always intrigued me. My burning interest in cryptography and codebreaking ends roughly at about Thirteen Down in the Sunday Post crossword puzzle, so just how the little man at the other end of my login screen knows that I've entered the correct number will, I expect, remain a lifelong mystery. I mean, I can generate a six-digit series of random numbers just as expertly as the next galoot, believe you me, but my randomly generated numbers just don't qualify to open my mail -- only the random numbers fed me by The Man's Little Black Handcuff are the correct random numbers. So what's so goddamned, all-fired, Platonic, piss-perfect random about that?

Can you begin to feel just a tiny frisson of paranoia entering the picture? A soup├žon, a thimble, a wee drap, a shiver of the old Thorazine-thirst?

But I am quite piqued at the idea that I allow myself to be coerced by my employer into carrying around a pocket-sized random-number-generator without which I can't function. Something quite surrealistic about it, don't you think?

It occurred to me a while ago that a nice little short story might reside in this premise: A normal guy, no axe to grind, no particular tendency to paranoia, starts noticing patterns appearing in these supposedly random six-digit arrays. One morning, he logs into mail with 123456. Woah, he thinks, what are the odds of that? The next morning, it's 098765. Gaa! Prime numbers, square roots, Fibonacci sequences, Golden Means, all of them appear in his display, one after another. Patterns emerge, sequential predictions come true. All "randomly" generated by a device given him by people who have a vested interest in his servitude.

The climax comes when a number he can't make sense of pops up, a completely unaccountable, truly random number, and he goes into a mathematical crisis trying to discern the pattern of the sequence. He winds up a drooling wreck on the cubicle-farm floor. Of course, the reason he can't fit this climactic number into the pattern is -- you guessed it -- the whole thing's been a creature of his own imagination all along, and any regularities he's perceived have been complete accidents, simply his own projections on the sequences.

And ain't that what paranoia's all about?

(Psst. Help yourself. I'm pretty unlikely to type it up at this point.)

5 comments:

Nobody said...

Call me strange, but I'd probably pay to see something you'd written in the cinema, especially if you cast Al Swearingen in the main role. Bet it'd have one hell of a kick-arse soundtrack too.

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Nobody said...

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Linkmeister said...

So that's where JJ Abrams got the idea for the numbers in "Lost," ya think?

Employee of the Month said...

mmmmm, pi, gggaaahhh