There’s something magical, in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of the word, about compression algorithms — take something that’s too big for a box, and squeeze it into that box regardless.

But, of course, not everything can simply be squeezed smaller.  Some coworkers and I were talking this week about needing to extract the information in an image from a range of wavelengths about a nanometer wide, and how that wouldn’t really just work by filtering an optical image repeatedly (the range of light visible to humans is about 300 nm).  Encoding enough information in the original image so that filtering it down is actually useful — and so that the original image doesn’t take up a server farm worth of digital storage — would probably take a huge amount of compression, ratios of 1000 or 10,000 to 1.  To put that in a little bit of perspective, an uncompressed song file would be maybe 50 MB, while an .mp3 of the same song could be as little as 3.5 MB — a 14:1 ratio.  So thousands-to-one is a lot.

This is when one of the PhDs who started this conversation compared this task to trying to represent The Iliad as a limerick.

Well, challenge accepted.

It varies by translation, but The Iliad is about 150,000 words long.  A limerick, in its classic form, is two lines of two anapests (those are the ones that go “da-da-DUM”) sandwiched between three lines of three anapests for a total of 39 syllables.  It was surprisingly hard to find a good answer for the average number of syllables in an English word, but 1.3 seems to be a good guess.  (If you’re interested, you can look at this paper or use this online calculator, which I dropped some public domain works into: The Time Machine, Huckleberry Finn, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.  You can also look at this Wikipedia list, which is mostly unrelated but fantastic.)  That means 39 syllables is approximately 30 words, and turning Homer’s epic poem into a form more widely know for New Englander autofellatio jokes is about a 5000:1 compression — an impressively accurate off-the-cuff analogy for what we were talking about.

Here’s my shot at The Iliad in limerick form:

With abduction of Helen the source,
Menelaus responded with force
So the Greeks sailed for Troy
Set to burn and destroy
But just eked out a win with a horse

And why stop there?

How about the Old Testament in haiku, or taking 600,000 words down to 17 syllables (13 words-ish)?

Birth of light, then man
Wandered until given rules:
Be nice, no bacon

I’m open to suggestions for future compression here.  Will update this post as I have more ideas.


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