What’s in a Number?

There was a minor kerfuffle on the intertubes earlier this week as Digg tried unsuccessfully to limit links to web sites that contained a 16-digit hexadecimal number that is part of the built-in copy protection system used in HD-DVD players. The reason Digg undertook to limit these links is because the AACS Licensing Authority, which controls the anti-copying technology underlying HD-DVD, sent out hundreds of legal threats to sites that had posted the key, including Digg.

Digg eventually caved, having no real choice as users posted the number so often that Digg’s entire front page was filled with links to the forbidden number. As it turned out, trying to suppress the number only caused it to grow like wildfire. One the first day of the excitement, there were about 30 thousand entries when searching for the magic number; by week’s end there were over one million results!

In addition, a variety of creative expressions of the number were posted on web sites around the world and via other means, such as t-shirts, Google Maps mashups, and more. Wired has a nice collection of related entries for your enjoyment (though some are much more creative than others).

One of my favorites, from the Wired article, is this riddle, also available at Flickr.

Finally then, a poem that reflects on the whole crazy affair:

Zero and her Origin

Zero, the number said to be discovered
Nine times by ancient magicians, was
Found again by a mysterious order of
Nine modern alchemists, who built
One machine after another, until finally
One exploded with fascinating results.
No fire emerged from its
Twin engines, but instead
Nine small automata crawled out,
Denying the proposition that energy,
Seven millenia or more in the accumulation,
For most purposes, remains
Ever constant, throughout the
Three ages of man’s civilization.

Five hundred years after the death of Cesare
Borgia, whose image infected those of the
Divine Lamb (so called), still she who
Ate of the pomegranate seeds
For her indiscretion, must ever wend her
Solitary path amongst the
Five true worlds, stopping only for
Sex and occasional rending of garments.
Constant travel drains her.
Five worlds is too many for one lifetime, yet the
Sixth can never claim her.

Three wise men write, of the sefirot,
Five are false, and four are lies.
Tiferet alone among them holds the world’s truth.
Eight lifetimes of study,
Eight generations of blind encoding,
Cannot release the final answer:
Zero defined by itself; no further emblems exist.

by Jeremy Bornstein