Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The loom of fate

If you haven't seen Wanted, there are some spoilers herein about it, so go see it first. Amongst high-octane thrill-ride movies that shouldn't be taken too seriously but are a ton of fun, this is one of the best, so it's well worth watching.

For all that it's a popcorn movie there is one story element which is fascinating in a thoughtful way, and to my surprise it's one that wasn't in the comic books from which the movie is loosely derived. That is the loom of fate.

The main characters are assassins who murder people before they can do terrible things to people or the world, but the really interesting thing is how they find out who to kill. They started out as a society of weavers, and their biggest loom kept causing tiny errors in the weave. When you look closely at those errors, they are a code. Errors occur in groups of five, which groups occur in larger groups; and each error can go one of two ways. When properly decoded, they spell out the name of the next target. No one knows precisely how the errors occur; the assumption is that they are directed to occur by Fate itself.

What fascinates me is the question of how anyone noticed and figured it out. It must have taken many lifetimes.

First, people would notice the error, and try to troubleshoot the loom to eliminate the error, only to find that there were no problems in the loom and nothing they did prevented the errors from happening. Troubleshooting a mechanical device requires analyzing the patterns of when the errors happen and how, so it's easy to imagine some loom engineer discovered that errors occur in groups of five on a single row, and that if there was one row in error there would be around a dozen together, but that would have been taken as a sign of what the mechanical trouble was, not a hint that it was something more than mechanical trouble.

As analysis continued, someone might have noticed that there were certain patterns that occurred often in the groups of five errors, while others happened very rarely, and there were even some combinations which never occurred (six, to be precise). Again, this would at first seem to be a clue about what was wrong with the machine. Perhaps only when someone noticed that some of these patterns tended to occur in combinations (for instance, one particular pattern tended to occur often as the second row, and when it did, the first row was one of only three other patterns) did anyone begin to suspect anything might be found by considering the patterns as having meaning.

Anyone who's done cryptograms knows that certain short common words (like "the", "I", or "and") are often the key to solving the cryptogram, but since the loom only produced names, it would be harder both to decode the cipher, and to realize that it was a cipher in the first place. However, there have always been some names that are much more common than others. People might notice that a certain four-row pattern occurred more often at the start, and even that common patterns occurred in the start but less reliably in the end of the string of errors.

Even once someone felt sure this was a cipher (and really, how could you be sure, given where the errors come from) it would be crazy hard to discover the cipher. And once you did... all you'd get is a name. So what? Probably dozens or hundreds of names went by before anyone began to suspect the pattern to their meanings: after all, in today's world, if you saw a name you'd never heard, you could find out about that person online, and if nothing interesting showed up, you'd probably recognize the name a few months later when they turned up as a serial killer or the architect of a Ponzi scheme. But even a hundred years ago, the majority of names of people who were doing awful things would not come to your attention, ever. And that's not even accounting for the fact that some of these people might be on the other side of the world (a possibility the movie never addresses, actually).

The whole thing would be a heck of a lot easier if someone just got a tiny touch of divine intervention, a vision, a compulsion, anything. But it's far more interesting to imagine that they had nothing but the weave. Then one wonders why no one ever broke down the loom and rebuilt a new one after the first few years or generations of failures to fix the problem. Maybe they did and the problem kept recurring. Maybe the same thing happened in looms all over the world, but only in this one place did anyone happen to have the epiphany that made it possible to understand it; maybe there are patterns like this all around us, the world trying to speak to us in a way that the vast majority of us will never notice.

Pretty heady fare for a goofy popcorn movie.

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