Loaded onto the kobo this month

Magnetic circuits, ancient Greek, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.

Which direction do numbers go?

Feels like a weird thing to not have known, but now I know: the symbols we refer to in the West as “Arabic numerals,” aka regular ol’ numbers, while indeed (“Western”) Arabic, are not the (“Eastern”) symbols used in conjunction with the actual Arabic alphabet.

While learning to count in Arabic, it occurred to me that English having acquired the (Western) Arabic numerals from a language written right-to-left, the way we write numbers in left-to-right English is arguably backwards in relation to the rest of written language. This probably would not have occurred to me had I not just taken a class on digital logic, where the basic material often involves converting between decimal and binary (or hexadecimal if you’re fancy). The understanding required to do that, which generally goes unspoken even though everyone who has mastered counting does know on some level know it, is that a “number” is a collection of symbols representing multiplications of each power of whatever base you happen to be counting in, going up from the right to the left, starting with the base to the power of 0. So the number 6358, in our base-10 system, is implicitly understood as (6 × 103) + ( 3 × 102) + (5 × 101) + (8 × 100), or if you prefer, (6 × 1000) + (3 × 100) + (5 × 10) + (8 × 1).

When you’re reading a number in English, your eyeball hits the most significant digit, i.e. the one on the left which is multiplied by the largest power, first; but you don’t actually know what that digit means until your eyeball hits the least significant digit, i.e. the one on the right. The fact that the number 6358 starts with a 6 means nothing about its magnitude until I know that there are four digits making up the number. In regular life nobody could possibly care about or even notice this discrepancy with how the rest of the language works. But if you wanted to convert numbers between different bases, the first thing you might do is write out all of the powers of the base you have, from 0 up to the highest power needed to give you the number you want– and the only reasonable way to do that is starting at the right and working to the left, since that’s the order in which the final number is going to be written. Similarly, any basic arithmetic operations have to proceed in a right-to-left fashion, since you need to add/multiply/whatever the digits in the smaller positions in order to bring any carries forward to the larger.

Numbers, then, are written in reverse from the rest of the English language in terms of the direction in which you need to work through them. The names we give to numbers fixes the “don’t know what the first digit means until your eye hits the last one” problem, if that could be called a problem; in general the most significant digit is stated first, using a word that tells you how many digits there are going to be in the number before you actually know all of them. The word “twenty nine” tells you from the first word that there are only two digits. In contrast, the Arabic words for numbers reads them out right to left, giving them in order of least to most significant; so 29, or ٢٩, is read “tis’a wa-’ishrun”; first there’s a 9, tis’a, and then a 20, ‘ishrun. You don’t know the order of magnitude of the number until it’s finished being stated, but proceeds in what seems to be a more logical and extensible fashion, from smallest to largest.

So for instance this page states that “numerals in Arabic are written from left to right, while letters are written from right to left.” Unless it’s perhaps referring to usual stroke order, in which case I have no idea, this seems to me to be incorrect or at least Anglocentric. An Anglophone would consider the “direction” a number goes to be from most to least significant digit, but there is no reason that insist that’s the case, and several good reasons to say it’s not and the real “direction” of a number is from least to most significant digit. In which case numerals in Arabic are written right to left, just like they secretly are in English.

Today’s journey through the Hajar mountains, from Sohar to Nizwa by way of Ibri:


Toronto to Dubai is 12 hours; I tried sampling the in-flight entertainment system, which now has a huge number of titles, but many didn’t have subtitles and you can’t hear anything over the airplane itself, so unsure what the point is. Ended up rewatching stuff where I already knew more or less what they were saying, namely the episodes of Succession in which this guy mops the floor with those rich fucks (“You can’t make a Tomlette without breaking a few Gregs?”)

Perhaps this was on the mind because my only previous association with Dubai was also this particular guy being really fed up, namely, in the reboot of Interview with the Vampire:

At the limits of that entertainment I also worked on what I’d meant to be working on for the last year, which was that I’d wanted to at least be able to sound out words in Arabic by the time I spent two weeks in the Middle East. Not exactly for practical purposes– in most of the places we’ll be going, all important signs and directions are transliterated anyway– but it would have been nice to have some mode of interaction with the environment other than wandering around saying “English?” like the north american anglophone tourist I am. However, I spent the past year learning circuit analysis and digital logic, not Arabic, so here we are.

I downloaded an Anki deck for the alphabet, and by the time we got off the plane was able to pan around Oman on OpenStreetMaps (the only one I’d downloaded yet since that’ll be most of the trip) and read the place names with, hmm, perhaps 57% accuracy. Extremely introductory language learners– I have noted many times from the other side– are the absolute worst company, because they are likely to point to any word they recognize in the wild and force a full reckoning of their thought process upon anyone in the vicinity. “Look!” I say, pointing to the sign that also says “Dubai Duty Free” in English right there. “That says ‘Souk Dooty something’!”

The UAE gives all incoming travellers a SIM card that works free for 24 hours, right there when they stamp your passport, which is both a) a thing that the kind of person who prattles about surveillance capitalism and the horrors of the corporate web and uses a VPN and surfs the Fediverse as a primary internet activity would never use, and b) a thing that anyone who has just spent 12 hours on an airplane and was already worrying about having to go find a SIM card first thing is absolutely going to use immediately.

Took the metro (“look! those letters spell ‘metro’!”) to the hotel. Perhaps this is just a function of it being, well, not cold as balls outside, but we were remarking on how the residential area surrounding the hotel, at around 10 PM, had a whole lot of people just hanging around outside in ways that you don’t tend to see in the West; for instance, sitting in circles in the middle of a parking lot outside storefronts selling snacks to fuel your parking-lot-sitting. I got some samosas from one such storefront and brought them back to the hotel to eat while engaging in my usual hotel activity of reading the literature provided beside the bed.

From the first few sections of the English Quran, I remarked in even more irritating fashion that a lot of Arabic words are recognizably, and understandably, derived from ancient Phoenician: for instance بَيت bayt, “house”, which corresponds to the (indeterminately vowelled since the Phoenician writing system was an abjad that only included consonant sounds) “BT” listed in the Xeroxed 1974 dissertation on the Phoenician and Punic languages lying around on my computer somewhere. Similarly, the Gideon Quran’s footnote on the use of the word رب rab, “lord/master,” which made me suddenly remember that that was the title applied to Carthaginian political leaders. Which is practically the only words I know in either of those languages, so not exactly conclusive, but (doofenshmirtz voice) it’s weird that it’s happened twice!