Saturday, May 19, 2012

Through the Computer Screen, and What Alice Found There

I wonder if every computer scientist who writes for the general public is tempted to do an Alice pastiche?

This is a fragment from a draft of the first chapter of my soon-to-be-published book, Computing for Ordinary Mortals. One of my excellent reviewers said that this passage had to go, and so I replaced it. I still like it, though. I'll put up another post, a bit later, with footnotes.

Alice is wandering through the downtown area of her city. As she walks down a side street, she passes a man and a woman leaving the entrance of a small white building. The woman says, "That was an interesting museum."
Alice decides to go inside. She stops in front of a sign titled “Read me” and discovers that she’s in a museum of Victorian artifacts. Alice passes a display of postcards, then an arrangement of fashionable women’s clothing (cuirass bodices, skirts with bustles), and then a penny-farthing bicycle. Eventually she sees a man in uniform sitting behind a writing desk. His badge reads, Docent: Charles Corvus.
"Hello," says Alice politely. "Can you tell me about your museum?" Charles doesn't look up.
"This isn’t a mausoleum," he says.
“Your museeeum," Alice says, enunciating carefully.
Charles glances up at her. "I beg your pardon," he says. “It’s a bit noisy.” He rises and shakes Alice’s hand. “Would you like to have a tour?"
He gives her a small plastic device with buttons and a display. "This is a mobile guide. If you press this button, it will tell you where to go next in the museum."
"Thank you. How does it know what I’ll be interested in?"
"It doesn't," Charles says. "It takes you on a walk in a random direction."
"But how does that help me?” asks Alice. “I mean, the museum seems very confusing as it is. It’s as if there’s no organization to the exhibits."
"Ah, but there is. You're meant to explore the museum, and it's organized so that whatever exhibit you're standing in front of, related exhibits are as far away as possible."
"Does that help?"
"Yes—the key is to take your time. Join me. We’ll explore together."
Alice and Charles pass two stout museum workers holding opposite ends of a large flag. The men are arguing and pulling violently in opposite directions. The threads part and snap, leaving the fabric in tatters.
"Those contentious fellows are in charge of separate exhibits," says Charles. "They're always having a bit of a fight."
Alice and Charles walk through the rooms for a while longer, talking about the exhibits. At the exit she says, "Thank you, it's a very interesting museum."
"All of our visitors say that."
"Do you have many visitors?" asks Alice cautiously. She hasn't seen another inside the museum.
"Uncountably many," says Charles.
"Oh. Have you tried counting?"
“Well…” Charles halts and looks thoughtful. "Good-bye."

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