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January 01, 2003

Fact Number 15

Back on Live Journal, there is, as usual, a meme going round. So I sat down with the intention of writing a hundred random facts about myself. However, half way through fact number 15, I got sidetracked.

As a child I liked to sit in the garden on sunny days with a calculator, writing out long lists of primes, squares, cubes, triangular numbers, and so on.

As a fact, this left something to be desired. I mean, I don't think I'm insane, and I don't think I was insane then. But taken like that, it certainly sounds like an odd way to spend the glorious long sunny afternoons of a dimly remembered childhood. We had a large garden, with a large lawn, with a slope halfway down it by the pond. So I'd sit on the slope, in the sunshine, with the calculator, and work out the next prime, or cube, or whatever, and write it down, and carry on until teatime. I am fairly certain this was not an obsessive compulsive disorder. The lists of numbers were useful, you see.

I used the lists to make it easier to solve crossnumbers. Not just any crossnumbers, but the beautiful, complex and fiendishly tricky crossnumbers set by Rhombus. They occasionally appeared, as alternates to beautiful, complex and fiendishly difficult crosswords, in The Listener. We didn't, of course, take The Listener, but we did take Games and Puzzles, which reprinted some of them. I found them astonishingly hard. But given time, and application, and long lists of useful numbers, I could occasionally solve them.

In 1978, when I was 13, I got occasional access to a computer for the first time; our school had a terminal which connected to the minicomputer at the local college. Very nearly the first thing I did was to get it to print out a list of the first several thousand primes. This took a few minutes.

I remember holding the printout in my hands and being enchanted with the sense of possibilities that it represented. It wasn't that I regretted all those hours I'd spent in pointless calculations, exactly. Instead, they were my own personal pebbles on the seashore, being washed away by the incoming tide. That printout was my first glimpse of the way in which computers would come to change the world in which I lived in. Everyone kept talking about the big stuff. But what really made the difference were the things that were personal to me, like fanzines, weblogs, personalised Christmas cards, one-off t-shirts. And lists of prime numbers.

From time to time, over the years, I've googled for references to Listener crossnumbers, or for Rhombus. And today, for the first time, I found some more useful than just a vague reference. This page includes a link to a file containing 20 Rhombus puzzles, including a few errors, noted separately. And this lengthy article on how to solve crossnumbers makes it clear, in passing, what I have long suspected; that nobody before or since has come anywhere close to Rhombus's mastery of the art.

Posted by Alison at January 1, 2003 09:47 PM


Thnx for the Rhombus puzzles pointer.

Of course, my first reaction to the idea of you using a calculator in the garden was not "she's mad" -- it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do -- but "child of privilege", to have a calculator.

Posted by: Damien Warman at January 7, 2003 08:45 PM

This is the most enjoyable personal anecdote I can recall ever reading from you. A small but nicely crafted piece.

Posted by: Kim Huett at January 7, 2003 08:45 PM

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