19
Oct
10

Stephen Fry meets Kurt Gödel

Self-referential structures are endlessly amusing to math nerds like me.  A quine, for example, is a computer program that prints itself as output.  (If you haven’t written one, the process of discovering how to do so can be quite diverting; once you know how to do it, it’s a bit less so.)

Self-contradictory structures are of more theoretical importance.  For example, a Richardian number is an integer whose arithmetic properties cannot be concisely described (in the sense that “n is even” concisely describes 2, 4, …; “n is prime” describes 2, 3, 5, 7, …; and so forth).  But by defining Richardian numbers we eliminate them from existence!  For a number to be Richardian, we’d have to be unable to describe it as Richardian, and so we trap ourselves.  Richard’s paradox is similar in construction to Cantor’s diagonalization argument, and more complex forms can be seen in Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and the simple proof of the Halting problem’s undecidability.

And now, thanks to Stephen Fry, we have another example:

Fry takes language pedants to task as humourless greyfaces with sticks up our asses, utterly lacking the capacity for either creativity or simple fun.  It’s a well-constructed, well-paced, and well-delivered rant (if you ignore the obfuscatory and faux-creative kinetic text and focus on Fry’s words instead), and a certain segment of the internet is bound to seize upon it as God’s literal truth given Word.

The only problem is that its structure undermines its message: Fry’s complaint is compelling precisely because he cleaves so closely to proper English usage and grammar.  If, like, he was all like, um, colloquial and stuff?  And wasn’t so precise with his, like, intonation? And diction? We wouldn’t, like, care? And stuff?  If, rather than brush off pedants with the vaguely erudite Britishism of “sod them to Hades”, Fry had instead drawn from high-school hallways the phrase “God, that’s so gay“, his Jeremiad would have collapsed under the Cyclopean weight of its own frustrated curmudgeonliness.  And of course if he hadn’t so carefully adhered to convention in the rest of his speech, his triumphant and deliberate pluralization of “none” would have gone completely unnoticed and carried none of its rhetorical impact.

Fry comes across as a sort of desperately Protean hipster who, dismayed to find that all the cool kids these days are complaining about kids these days, chooses instead to climb up a meta-level and complain about the kids these days who’re complaining about kids these days.  (I used to like proper usage back before it got so popular!)

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