Weeknotes S04E15: non-deterministic polynomial time

Non-deterministic polynomial time problems, or NP, are problems whose positive answer can be solved in polynomial time. That is, you can prove that the solution you’ve come up with is correct before the heat-death of the universe. I started the week with one of these problems, so that’s the theme

planet you

The Ship of Theseus always bugged me as a kid. I think it’s supposed to bug you, but it bugged me an unreasonable amount. It’s a question without a real answer. It seems obvious but it’s not.

The Earth is a giant Ship of Theseus problem, and so are you. Consider your endless complexity. You have a core of steel, but that’s not all you are. You’re the layers and layers of danger survived and eons of boredom and brief, short-lived passions. You have survived terrible blows that came from the dark and you have thrown out yourself and seeded worlds beyond your witness. At one time you were pure passion; spewing hot air everywhere, vibrant, acidic, practically murderous. Which is the real you? Is there a real you?

Yes. They are both real. But the one that was is dead, and the one that will be is yet to be born and, like a plant, you are born and you die and you are born again. You are different and also the same. You are you. A butterfly is not a caterpillar, but it was, and it remembers being low to the ground and flies all the higher for it.

You cannot un-be the planet that you were, nor should you: every layer in your psyche has, over time, been transformed. Views you used to hold have been crushed and transformed and made into something different, or maybe they haven’t – maybe they’re still there, just waiting to be uncovered.

Your core is still the same, but it’s also not you.

My core is still the same, but it’s also not me.

I was a thing. And now I am a different thing, and extracting the – the old stuff means tearing open big chunks of me. I think there is a desire to understand the world and its layers and environment and everything, everything, everything about it with a view to making it better. To “fixing” it. And I think I am going to try instead to live with it; I shall try not to terraform myself but instead learn the currents and patterns and movements of myself.


I was at the Tate Modern the other day, because I live in the greatest city in the world and stuff like this is on my doorstep. I was also going because my friend told me she had never been, and I strongly believe in the ten thousand:

And so we spent 90 glorious minutes trailing through just three galleries in a building whose entrance hall is a cathedral. We saw a fraction of the displays. We hung out with the cool modern artists like Picasso and Braque, who invented cubism. Cubism is an attempt to represent reality from all perspectives: a glass of water seen from front, back, left, right, top and bottom all at the same time. It rejects the illusion of depth and instead aggressively reminds you that you’re trying to see a three-dimensional shape in two dimensions, and your brain will squidge out of your ears if you try to reconstruct all these planes at the same time.

And when my friend and I stood in front of Autumnal Cannibalism and, on the count of three, came up with different genders – and perfectly good rationalisations – for one of the figures I realised that seeing Art with friends is cubist. I’m moving around in three dimensions, and next to me is another three-dimensional creature, and inside each of us are thousands of dimensions all curled up inside one another; planes that intersect at weird angles; and your brain will squidge out of your ears if you try to reconstruct all these planes at the same time.

You can’t ever really know anyone, but I love the weird reflections you get when you put someone in the shining light of something that moves you. And sometimes you get to see yourself refracted through the art and the friend, and the person you see is unmistakeably you but different and perhaps – perhaps a little better than you thought you were. Perhaps the point of seeing art with friends is to be reminded that truth in art is subjective but at its core is identification: is the moment when you see yourself in it, or at least see a little splinter of reality.

It is also a specific and particular joy to be hurried out as you try your best to dally by water lilies, and to walk back through London by routes you had half-forgotten, to name confidently this bridge or that and then be rightly ribbed for being wrong. To eat a hot dog – or, at least, watch someone else eat a hot dog while you form an honour guard against the plague of pigeons – the vile, grey, brainless cousins of crows – that crowd the city. And finally to get a message in the early hours of the next day, because your friend has a brain like yours and they’ve been analysing the art and my goodness.

Aren’t friends the absolute bees knees?


“There used to be an art to this,” grumbled Jas. It was 3am and we were on a video call, working together to fix something that had conked out halfway across the world. “If you needed to fix tin, you had to get in the server room and fix it.” His hands flew over the keys, manicured nails picking out a delicate pattern. “Nowadays it’s all software. Just tap-tap-tap and, bosh, job done. A light goes on, a light goes off, anonymous servers in some farm in -“

“Brazil” I supply.

“- Brazil or some other far off-location, hum a little. There’s no romance in the thing any more. When I started, I spent two days locked in a server room. I was flown out to Berlin. And now I’m shuffling about in my PJs writing infrastructure. Writing! Infrastructure!”

“It’s a good thing we’re doing though. And it saves the planet. And it means you don’t have to leave your husband in the middle of the night.”

“Mike’s a good man,” he said gruffly. “He knows what the job entails.”

“Sure,” I said, chancing my luck. “But you don’t have to leave your husband, and that’s got to be pretty nice.”

He just grunted. I saw his eyes flicker over the screen, which was reflected in his glasses. “Review this. I think it’ll fix the failure for now.”

“It’s only got to be for now though, right? We’re pulling it in the morning.”

Someone’s pulling it in the morning. I’m staying in bed until 10 at the very earliest.”

“Fair.” I read through the code. “This is really elegant. How would you have done this in the good old days?”

“Buggered about with a floppy disk I daresay. You happy with it?”

I took a final glance over the change. It really was very elegantly written code: all it did was change a letter to another random letter, but you had to admit that the old-timer did it with a certain style.

“Yeah, it looks good to me. Let’s get it out.”

“You mean ‘Click the deploy button’?”

I laughed. “I do. The modern world is full of magic”

We watched as the code was packaged up and passed to a server several thousand miles away. Jas tutted. “No art,” he said again, and then yawned loudly into the microphone. “I’ll see you back in the office. Don’t forget to document the changes.”

I pulled off the best salute I could with a cat on my lap. He threw one back and killed the call.

Four hours later, a light went on in a room. A couple of electrons shifted places. A light went out.

Ten minutes after that Zou Lingxin, in surgery following a car accident, died due to a massive blood clot forming in his lungs. The last thing he reported was a feeling of intense dread, as if something terrible was about to happen.

He was right. He just didn’t know how right he was.

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