You can count on today’s story for a rich exploration of Equestrian history.
[Adventure] [Comedy] • 6,896 words
Once upon a time, ponies did not know how to count very far. Clover the Clever tells her two young fillies the story of how her mentor, Starswirl the Bearded, learned the secret of counting from the dragons.
FROM THE CURATORS: It seems wholly appropriate that what turned our heads about a story so steeped in mathematics is how much work it put into the little details. “The worldbuilding is continuous, effortless, and endlessly surprising,” Horizon said. “Every time the story turns a corner I stumble across a new, cool tidbit: Clover indirectly earning her nickname due to Discord; pegasus attitudes on how to win battles; Starswirl’s random encounter with the ascetic monkeys.” Chris appreciated the finer details as well: “I really like the explanation for why ponies count in base ten.” That wasn’t the only thing Present Perfect marveled at: “It definitely has something to say about the scientific process, at the end of the day, and it’s quite a charming piece.”
And while the luxurious detail attracted us, it was the story’s charm and tone which sealed the deal. “The legend is a quite pleasant read — told in the manner of a just-so tale, with a much-appreciated vein of humor running through it,” Chris said. AugieDog also commented on that whimsy. “I love the goofy sweetness here,” he said. “I mean, even though we’re smack-dab in the middle of Discord’s reign, the biggest worry ponies seem to have is how to keep reading when day has a tendency to switch over to night without notice. … This story is pony through and through.”
The ponies, too, were memorable. “Star Swirl the legend is contrasted to Star Swirl the pony, as Clover remembers him, and it’s a lot of fun seeing how the various parties he approaches defy his wish to count higher than eight with simple practicality,” Present Perfect said, and Horizon went further: “Everyone we meet, down to the bit parts, is memorable and fun. In particular, Filly Luna is super adorbs and the dragon steals her scene.” Overall, Horizon added, this was an all-around standout work: “Oh my, yes. Very yes. I don’t think even the abrupt ending can keep me from following the author immediately.”
Read on for our author interview, in which ph00tbag discusses epiglottal frication, rollercoaster pee, and titular eggcorns.
Give us the standard biography.
I joined the brony fandom pretty early on, in February of 2011. Some members of the competitive Super Smash Brothers community were going about trolling Smashboards with mlp shitposting, and I, curious as to what the hubbub was about, watched a few of the episodes. As the by now hackneyed refrain goes, I was hooked. I suppose the flop of my graduation from college and subsequent failure to find skilled work drove me more to find escape in the world of Equestria than it would have otherwise. But that’s enough self-analysis. Such things are unhealthy.
In late 2011, I produced my first show remix, a trance take on the music that played during Fluttershy’s stint with modelling in Green is Not Your Color. It’s telling about the way brony music has changed that I’ve never really been able to match that tune in terms of penetration. I’ve been chugging along in the background of the brony scene ever since, mostly trying to promote the works of others wherever I can in whatever small ways I can. I suppose I’m not so background anymore, these days, what with the critical successes of my lyrical works.
Last year, fed up with a job market that didn’t really seem to want to have my skills, I joined the military to try to get myself some kind of job security, and something that will use my abilities more than the retail job I was in. Around the same time, I showed Numberography to a very good friend of mine, Clavi, and he encouraged me to post it to FimFiction, because I was ambivalent about posting my fanfics at the time. I posted it and promptly forgot about it (I didn’t even tell Clavi I had posted it, jackass that I am). I’m rather shocked, but pleased, that it has gotten the recognition it has with no promotional effort from myself.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
When I was in ninth grade, AOL Instant Messenger was the hottest shit on the block and all the cool kids were doing it (as was Livejournal, or its edgier cousin, Deadjournal, both owned by the same media company, I’m sure). Naturally, being a savvy teen, I joined in on the fun, and my friends and I would come home from school just to log on and have nightly group chats to pass the time.
One such evening, I did as I always did, and logged on, and joined into the group chat, and was immediately by the question, “what are you doing here, you ph00tbag?” I had literally never heard this term before. I’m lead to understand that evening was the first time that particular amalgamation of alphanumerics had ever been displayed, not long before I had arrived. Evidently, the friend who had hit me with the name had intended for it to become a 1337 insult that would be all over the web in a few years time. I undermined his plans by immediately logging out, snapping up the screen name (he apparently hadn’t planned this out far enough ahead to preempt me on this), and logging back in as ph00tbag.
Thenceforth, it’s been the handle I’ve used on pretty much every service I’ve ever used. It’s usually always available because it’s pretty unique, although I know of at least one individual who uses the name, and has stolen it from me on a handful of sites (most notably YouTube, where I am forced to remind my viewers that I am the original ph00tbag), but that person doesn’t seem to really be active much anymore, much to my glee. Suffice to say, if you see a wild ph00tbag somewhere about, especially in the bronysphere, chances are, it’s me.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Rainbow Dash, although Twilight and Luna are very competitive on that front.
What’s your favorite episode?
This is a harder question than it used to be for me. “The Last Roundup” was my first clear favorite for how much was said about Rainbow Dash’s relationship with Applejack without anything needing to be said explicitly. “Rarity Takes Manehattan” is also a clear favorite for how real Rarity’s breakdown felt. I loved the pathos in “Canterlot Boutique,” in the way Rarity and Sassy fought. “Amending Fences” is one of the most well-executed episodes in the show, and is one of the more emotionally satisfying episodes, as well. “Rarity Investigates” is up there, too, because it’s the only episode that really explores Rarity and Rainbow Dash’s dynamic, which I love, because I think they’re one of the more fascinating pairs. “Crusaders of the Lost Mark” was the first episode to make me cry, for what that’s worth.
Between all of those episodes, I don’t even know which I’d pick. It seems almost unfair to choose one.
What do you get from the show?
My favorite aspect is the depth of the character interactions, and how all of the ponies have relationships as complex and nuanced as all of our own relationships. Like people, no two relationships are quite the same, and every pairing of people has its own conversational pace, its own sense of humor, its own temper… And MLP captures that so well. For years, practically since I started watching the show, I’ve wanted to do a video or essay series discussing the depths of how all the Mane 6 relate to each other one-on-one, but I’ve never really been able to sit down and hash it out.
What do you want from life?
That’s a hell of a question. Self-actualization, I suppose. Barring that, beer.
Why do you write?
Part of me likes to pretend I’m really smart, and show off by putting as many $10 words on the screen as I can.
But in all seriousness, I’m one of those people that has a lot of ideas that come to them unbidden, like the urge to pee while you’re on a rollercoaster. The pee’s going to come out one way or another, it’s just a question of whether you can hold it until you can get it all out in a controlled and productive manner. I write to let the ideas out.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Read to learn how to write. Really, this is true of learning any art form. Take it in critically. Figure out what your favorite writers, or musicians, or painters, or actors are doing, mechanically, that you like so much. Talent in art is a myth, because everyone uses devices to convey their ideas, and those devices have to be learned by seeing what devices are successful when used by others, then adapted to one’s own work.
And don’t just look to the “greats.” Sure, I’ve learned from arty-farty authors like Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov, but I’ve also learned from more pop-fiction sources like Austen, Rowling, and Stephenson. Like I said, everyone uses devices. Some are better at certain devices than others. Learn from everyone, and adapt what you learn to what you want to do.
What were your influences in writing this piece?
Bear in mind, the first draft of Numberography was written back in… what, 2013? In those days, there were a number of speculative fanfics written about the origins of Celestia and Luna, and I was particularly fond of Paradise (please finish it, SlyWit!), The Wanderer of the North (also excruciatingly on hiatus), and Book of Days (noticing a pattern?). Myths and Birthrights, while not being an origin story, also inspired me. I liked a bunch of ideas from these stories about old Equestria, and about various calques and linguistic peculiarities, and borrowed a lot of them in Numberography. I had also drawn the conclusion that Celestia and Luna had once ascended to Alicornhood from one of the original three races after reading The Crystal Heart Spell.
I am also an avid “conlanger,” or someone who makes up languages from scratch. A lot of the story’s ideas come from the surprising ways languages can differ, and in particular the way a language I’ve been developing off and on to be the spoken language of Equestria in my FIMFic headcanon differs from English. Along the same lines, I was (and honestly still am) sick and tired of seeing Early Modern English respectful speech used improperly. A lot of fanfiction shows royalty being referred to as “thou,” and I wanted to reach through the internet and strangle people. This was the next best thing.
To a degree, it also comes from the bedtime stories my own mother would tell my sister and me. In much the same way Celestia and Luna loved to hear about Starswirl the Bearded, my sister and I loved Pugsy the Slug and Slinky the Snail. Somehow my mother always managed to make up a new and unique story about those two every time we demanded it (she later admitted that most of the time she was almost literally sleeptalking the whole story to us, being utterly exhausted herself, which explains so much about the stories). The difference, of course, being that where Pugsy and Slinky were completely made up (to my knowledge), Starswirl was real. And where my mother was just sleepy, Clover was horny (pun acknowledged, but not intended). In addition, the notion of framing it all as a bedtime story drew a lot from the film The Princess Bride, with the way the boy always cut his grandfather off.
In what ways did you represent Equestria’s culture as differing from our own within the text?
A lot of the oral interaction in this short story is tied into a theme of story elements being lost in translation. As I suggested above, the idea is to convey a story that is translated from a different language. For the purposes of this story, this language is the native tongue of the ponies, which, as far as my own conlang is concerned, can best be translated as “Ponytongue” or “Horsetongue.” The title of this story is actually translated into Ponytongue in the story’s image.
A prime example of this is in the lack of information given as to why numerology in this universe is explicitly a precursor to mathematics, as opposed to a development within mathematics resulting from overactive pattern-recognition at the cost of rational thought. This is because the equivalent “-ology” suffix, probably most recognizably transliterated as “-berarset,” holds the meaning “classifying,” or “breaking into groups,” with merely the implication that the study is for mystical purposes. Moreover, the connotation is more universally associated with the suffix, unlike in English, where numerology is derided and biology is a legitimate science. Even so, mysticism is not even as pejorative in pony culture, since magic is an actual thing. So numerology is only marginalized now due to having been widely discredited. On the other hand, “-berarset” carries no connotation of logical rigor, for certain, so more rigorous pursuits sometimes have very different names.
Another example is Clover’s use of the word “sense.” In this particular segment, it’s as though the translator is struggling to interpret the Unicorn word “’Orit,” which refers specifically to a sense, not shared by other pony races, or by humans, for that matter, that allows a unicorn to sense the use of magic in the vicinity. This sense utilizes nervous and cerebral pathways that are vestigial in non-unicorns, and simply don’t exist in humans, so there’s literally no equivalent in English. In the story, Luna (who in my universe was only a pegasus in her youth) doesn’t really question the use of the word, because her mother and elder sister are unicorns, and thus use of the word is actually not unfamiliar to her, even if she has never experienced the sense for herself.
Finally, there’s an interesting conundrum in how to translate numbers. In English we possess unique names for two numbers directly beyond ten, which don’t exist in Dragontongue. But Hroghaan explicitly states that to count beyond ten, one simply adds one to ten. If the Dragontongue word were directly translated to eleven, Starswirl’s ire with the dragon would be totally lost, so some artistic license must be taken. Similarly, distinction is made between the word nine, and one-and-eight, since one-and-eight is meant to suggest a more native pony word for nine, and nine is strictly reserved for the Dragontongue word. Oddly enough, this relationship leads the ponies to an analogous situation to the English situation, where two numbers are irregularly named. Although the difficulty is greater for ponies, since the Dragontongue words for these numbers utilize some phonological features that are strictly not used by ponies (specifically epiglottal frication/trilling/restriction, if you want the technical description). Starswirl’s own difficulty with the pronunciation is suggested, although it’s imperfectly captured, since it’s difficult to convey the mispronunciation of the word, “nine.” Again, though, losing some things in the translation is part of the idea, here.
There’s a lot of other things that I did very spur of the moment, which you can no doubt find if you look for them, but which I can’t really think of off the top of my head. But don’t just read this and take it to be gospel on how the story is to be interpreted. Definitely take the time to find your own meaning in it. It’s not art unless someone misunderstands it.
How did you decide to balance the framing story with the inner story? What guides, for instance, the placement of interjections from the in-story audience?
This is probably a terrible thing to say, but not a great deal of thought went into it. Originally, it was really predicated on the idea, mentioned in the framing story, of Celestia’s titular eggcorn. Honestly, I just thought the idea of a child saying “Numberography” was adorable, and ran with it. The inner story grew out of that organically, and the shifts between the two stories, similarly, came when I darn well felt like it. I actually always felt like the interjections were balanced a bit heavily to the beginning, but could never come up with an excuse to have the kids interject later on. I suppose they could have been too busy nodding off by that point. And to be fair, The Princess Bride does much the same thing.
How does writing fanfiction differ from writing fan music, as far as its place in the fandom is concerned?
I don’t know how much I can say about the fanfiction side of things. I’m not heavily involved in the community at this juncture, beyond trying to engage with the commenters on my story, which is my favorite part of both endeavors. The writing community, I can say from my perch peeking in through the doorjam, seems much more to have their shit together insofar as Equestria Daily knows how to promote and evaluate fanfiction systematically, and the community has a much more centralized basin into which all content is collected in FimFiction. Conversely, Seventh Element once mused to me that brony musicians are like cats. We seem anathema to any kind of cohesion as a unified community. There are some small groups that hang out, but even they are loose coalitions. To boot, Equestria Daily (not for lack of trying) can’t seem to figure out how to make brony music work, in a promotional sense.
I can say that the bar for entry is much lower in writing. Notepad comes free with Windows, and a pencil and paper costs, like, ten bucks total at your local Walgreens. FL Studio Producer Edition, which I use for my music, is $200. I bought it when it was $150, and got grandfathered in (because Image Line are the homies and give free upgrades for life, or at least they did at the time). Even then, I’ve dropped something like a grand on music-making tools since starting that whole deal way back in high school. And don’t expect to save by just getting a half-decent guitar and some recording equipment. For writing, I’ve spent under $200. Total. (This is, of course, assuming you buy everything like me. Some people make do with pirating Ableton, Massive, and a Vengence pack or two, and become the next Glaze overnight. Go figure.)
As far as the actual process, writing dance music is much more nonlinear for me. I’ll write several different parts, and then write the ways they transition from one to the other. Even writing music with words is rather similar, where I may write the chorus before the verses. For a story, I write out a general plotline, but then I tend to bang out a story or a chapter from the beginning to the end in one sitting, diarrhoea-style. I will say, writing tends to be a little easier, because I don’t have to compress a big, complex thought into three minutes, devoting every sixth word or so to making sure it all rhymes. I can just write big, complex thoughts as big, complex stories, and people will think that constitutes good writing. It’s pretty magical. This understates the ways in which writing is difficult, of course, but the difficulty of writing is more finding the appropriate level of self-restraint. While other forms force you to adapt to a restrictive mold, in writing, you have to keep the freedom from getting to your head. In that light, maybe writing is the hardest of them all.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
In lieu of getting a flood of questions about it, yes, I have other stories, either completed, or in a very larval state. Maybe I will post them. No critic is more abusive than the author, though, so it usually takes a lot of held breaths and bitten lips for me to post my stories. Like I said, if Clavi hadn’t demanded I post Numberography, it probably wouldn’t have happened. Please be patient with me.
Thank you for selecting this, my first toe dipped in the pond, for the RCL. I honestly would not have dreamed of this. There’s a particular warmth felt in being discovered when you’re not even trying to be found. It’s all well and good to be noticed by sempai after months of jumping up and down waving your arms, but it’s another joy entirely to be sitting in a coffee shop with your phone, half-enjoying your dank memes, when someone comes up and says, “Hey, you’re awesome! Keep being you!”