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Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Dexter ist blutiger als Wasser

Nichts ist eigentlich überraschend, man müsste ja erwarten, dass mans nicht vorhersieht, aber das Überrascht-tun-müssen ist der psychophysische Kern der verbotenen Frucht Erkenntnis: man hat diesen Batzen im Kopf, der andauernd alles nach Mustern durchsiebt, und dann bildet sich ein Zukunftsbild im dummen Kopf, und man verlässt sich drauf und vertraut, aber es ist natürlich alles bloss feiner bröselnder Sand, und Induktion ein Riesenkäse, den das Fortpflanzungsorgan Gehirn da durch die Weltgeschichte rollt: wahr ist, was funktioniert, mit Reinstecken, und die ständigen Enttäuschungen der Erwartung sind Humes Argumentschläge, nur halt in die Eier statt den Kopf, die Organe sind eh alles eins, und zwar: metaphysischer schleimiger Dreck.

Trotzdem staunt man natürlich immer wieder, wenn zurechnungsfähige Leute plötzlich Mist reden oder im Stich lassen, als säge die Trivialität, dass sowas geht, und nichts ist, wie man es denkt, am edlen Weltgebäude, statt nur seine Wackligkeit mal wieder zu bestätigen, was ja eigentlich was Positives sein müsste. Genug insinuiert jetzt, versteht eh wieder kein Mensch, ders verstehen müsste, jedenfalls die Figuren in meinem Kopf verstehns wieder nicht und schütteln nur den Kopf, Pessimismus ist aber was anderes als Induktionsunmöglichkeit, ihr Gegenteil nämlich, Vorwegnahme des Irrtums, aus Feigheit. Mir gehts aber um echten Verrat, nicht um erfundenen, der ist auch gesünder.

Salon.com ist eine der öderen Onlinemeinungsraushauereien, immer sauber kalifornisch durchliberalisiert, aber auf Heather Havrilesky, die dort fürs Fernsehgucken beschäftigt wird, unter anderem, war eigentlich halbwegs Verlass, Galactica hat sie zum Beispiel verstanden, trotz Frausein, und das ist ja schon mal allerhand eigentlich. Aber jetzt. Die vierte Staffel von Dexter, dem Fernseh mit dem Serienmörder, ging grade zuende, schön symmetrisch sass der Sohn des liebenswerten Monsters in der Blutsuppe seiner Mutter am Ende, wie Dexter selber ganz am Anfang, nur diesmal ist nicht das motivationslose, blinde Universum schuld, oder der Anonyme, was dasselbe ist, sondern Dexter selbst, eine schöne Schleife der Gründe, ein Blutfraktal. Und das findet Heather ja auch, aber zugleich geht ihr das alles zu weit, denn hier sitzt ja ein unschuldiges Kind im Blut, und zudem ist ihr erhofftes romantisches Happy-End kaputt, der Ausflug des Mörders und seiner unerträglichen Häppihäppifrau nach Key West, als könne man das freigelassene Monster in sich retten, als sei dieser Impuls zum Eingriff, den jeder normale Mensch hat, haben muss, wenn er kein Arsch ist, durch ein bisschen Sonnenuntergang soziabel zu machen. Wenn man sich hier über irgendwas aufregt, dann doch über den Gewalt-schafft-Gewalt-Dreck, den erhobenen Zeigefinger und die zu befürchtende fünfte Staffel, in der ein Kartenhaus ja wohl jetzt moralwiedergraderückend einstürzen wird, dass man wird kotzen müssen, und nicht über die geschändete Unschuld des dummen Kindes, das da in der roten Farbe hockt und heult, Kinderunschuld und romantische Selbstjustiz des Familienoberhauptes, alles kaputt, wunderbar, wie das dumme Amerika da zerschlagen wird, und Havrilesky empört sich drüber, das ist ja die Scheisse, man möchte mit Äpfeln werfen, Kallisti, Meinungskrieg. Und man war blöd genug, das anders zu erwarten vom Journalismus, und wollte ja selber diese Romantik, die abartige, widersinnige, den geretteten Amokläufer und seine Kleinfamilie; also der Irrtum des eigenen zusammenfantasierten Erwartungswahns ist sowieso der Skandal, und nicht die fremde Meinung der anderen, oder die andere der Fremden. Man verrät sich sowieso immer selber, Passiv wird nicht gegeben.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

ciphers

I hate to bitch. Okay, that’s a lie, I love to bitch, sorry. But at least I can spare you my prefacing this newest bitchfest with the qualifier that the book I’m bitching about is great otherwise. We’ve been over that already, it’s scorched earth. There, spared you. Considerate me.

What is going on with the Wallacester and the math? I’m now about halfway through Infinite Jest (what’s half of infinity? Am I done, then?), and as of yet there is nought in terms of indication that his shortcomings in the land of numbers are a jester’s crown worn for some – however obscure – purpose of Jest, finite or otherwise.

The newest item from DFW’s confoundry: Eschaton’s rules are only touched upon tangentially in the main novel’s text, vague hints at complexities of being hit, influenced by weather and all sorts of other variables, which is fine. But then we are taken into lengthy details in an endnote about how the First Mean Value Theorem of Integration allows Lord to get by without calculating complicated integrals for setting up the game. In some rather unspecified way the initial allocation of resources to players for a game’s new round depends on the average value of some equally underspecified ratio, and so Lord needs to calculate the integrals of this variable over previous game time. Except that apparently he doesn’t, because this magical Theorem allows him to use a shortcut right out of the convolved space of higher math into a paradise of simplicity. Which sounds quite nice. And is quite untrue.

The average value of a variable over an interval of time will be it’s integral over said interval divided by the interval’s length. Now, the First Mean Value Theorem indeed guarantees that the integral comes to the same as the intervals length multiplied with the value of the function at a point within the interval, and so that the average itself is identical to the value of the function at this point within the interval. The logic of this is nicely developed in the lengthy endnote’s lively interchange between Incandenza and Pemulis. But nohow does this integral theorem allow you to infer which point within said interval you’d have to choose, and thus for all practical purposes of setting up tennis socks and buckets of bald nuclear balls, this little piece of abstract mathematical wisdom, rather than being the prized insight allowing young kids to cheat the forces of nature Pemulis wants to sell it to us as, is utterly useless. Plus also, in the sloppy plot nicely labeled Halsadick, the supposed average value doesn’t even look like the actual average value, for crying out loudly in complicated semantic structures.

A bit later we read that computer discs squeeze whole high definition movies into 4.8 MB of binary space, which claimed figure must have been ludicrously and unrealistically low in the B.S. 90s already. Such a disc wouldn’t hold two single uncompressed HD images of finely rendered water (assuming 24 bits of liquid color shades). A typo, one hopes. The DVD was introduced in 1995, by the way.

They still are a puzzle, these oddly shaped holes in the otherwise beautiful fabric of this tome, and I’ll keep on logging them. It amuses me.

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

unlikely likelihoods

Maybe it’s because I’m cranky today, maybe it is because the represenation, or lack thereof, of mathematics in popular and high culture is a constant annoyance to me. Or maybe it is because it is deeply mystifying to me how someone as learned as David Foster Wallace can screw up so badly with numbers; anywho.

I’ve advanced to page 259 of Infinite Jest now, the book gets better and better, but then this: “a 54 match conclusion [of a 108 match tournament] is extremely unlikely – odds being 1 in 227“. Whoa, hold on. Really?

So Wallace gets the binomial distribution wrong, big deal, you might say – the correct probability for a draw is about 0.0766 or 1 in 13, by the way – but that’s not what irks me. How could a number so wildly implausible sail unchecked past both his and his editor’s critical skills? In a tournament with 108 matches, there is 109 possible outcomes (from team A loses all, to team A wins all). The average probability of each outcome then is 1/109. Now if the two teams are equally matched, a draw is the most likely of all these outcomes, making their average (1/109) a lower limit on the actual probability. For this kind of reasoning you need no binomial, no probability distribution, just a little bit of mathematical common sense. Which, for some odd reason, seems to be a rather rare commodity.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

finite complaint

I am reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and I need to complain. If you haven’t read it, and plan to, don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. If you hate nitpicking, on the other hand, maybe do worry a bit, because I will pick nits. Three of them.

Overall, the book is fabulous so far (page 100), and I love the combination of low brow comments with language so erudite it often borders on the pretentious. This is a great stylistic game to play, and it is enhanced by esoteric factoids, partly made up, partly accurate. But for it to work it needs to stay on the light side of the pretentiousness boundary, and the author needs to be in control of the pieces of knowledge he’s throwing around. Now lets pick some nits.

Nit the first. In a discussion of the philosophical aspects of tennis, Hal’s father is cited, obliquely, as telling people about how a tennis move affords n responses, and how there then are 2^n responses to that move, soon spiraling into “a Cantorian continuum of infinities”. Now, firstly, the correct formula for this is n^2. Wallace might have done this on purpose – somewhat suggestive is the fact that the date of Cantor’s diagonal argument is given in the endnote as 1905 (Einstein’s two seminal papers came out that year) instead of the actual 1891. This is probably a purposeful mixup put into the mouth of the fictitious narrator to highlight the distant past-ness of it all – but if so, I fail to see the point of giving the wrong formula. On top of that, however, talking about a continuum of infinities is not quite accurate. The number of replies approaches the number of elements in the continuum only for games with countably infinite many moves, and any transfinity beyond that (the actual family of infinities Cantor discovered and Wallace alludes to) is unreachable by any tennis match. Overall, the passage sounds like a bit of finitely hot air to me, unlikely to come out of the mouth of an MIT educated polymath with an actual interest in Cantor.

Nit the second. When we first meet the assassin Marathe on the mountainside, he watches his shadow wander out in the setting sun toward the city of Tucson and, as the sun gets low enough, eventually reach it across the plains. This can not happen. A circular object of 20 cm diameter (a human head, say), has the same angular size as the sun (about half a degree) at a distance of roughly 22 meters (or yards). At distances greater than that, the object can no longer fully block the sun and casts no total shadow, or umbra. Moreover, the darkest point of the penumbra actually cast rapidly loses contrast and definition. At 44 meters, the darkest point will have 75% of the luminance of the surround, at 88 it’s up to close to 94%. A shadow of a human or anything smaller, cast by the sun and reaching out visibly for kilometers, is a physical impossibility.

Nit the third. Again concerning shadows, in that same scene: when the sun finally sets, Marathe sees his shadow return to him up the incline. This would happen with a rising sun, not a setting, and of course he’d have to face west, not east. If the sun were a point, the shadow cast out by a sunset would retain definition across large distances and grow longer and longer until it hits the advancing terminator and fuses with it. It would not shorten back toward the object casting it.

Is it sloppy writing and editing? Or a deliberate ruse to tick off obsessive compulsive physicists like me? It doesn’t really matter, because the book is still great, and these are tiny complaints.

Later Addition: The term Bröckengespenst Wallace uses for his fictional shadow is a) inappropriate, since a Brockengespenst is actually a shadow cast into fog or clouds, and b) has false diacritical marks on the o. This German spelling SNÄFÜ is in tune however with his german character later on calling his students “mein kinder”, which sports the wrong numerus of the possessive. “Meine Kinder” would have been correct. I’m leaning toward the sloppy writing hypothesis.

Monday, January 14th, 2008

Tim Burton – Sweeney Todd (2)

st-movie-poster.jpg There is a hole in the world like a great black pit, and the vermin of the world inhabit it. Not entirely taken with the beginning of the venture – the opening credits looked less than good, and Todd’s song to his knives seemed drawn out and overacted to the verge of embarrassment – but from judge’s failed shave on in I enjoyed every last drop of it. And of dripping there is aplenty, of course.

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

Antonio Damasio – Looking for Spinoza (2)

0156028719.jpg I found this a somewhat strange book. The central neuroscientific idea put forth is a fascinating one. When we separate feeling from emotion by declaring the former to be the inner state and the latter to be the outward expression of that state, we find complex interactions between the two, and a convincing argument can be made, that feeling in essence is a mapping of internal body states, and that the sinking feeling int he gut, the racing heart, the tenseness in the chest, aren’t side effects of feelings, they are in a sense what feelings are. They are their substance.

Even more interesting is Damasios suggestion that we can turn these insights into practical advice, by uncoupling the stimuli that would generate negative feelings from those feelings, so that we can register the stimulus without the turmoil and detriment that is often so detrimental even to solving the situation that caused it.

All this I found highly interesting. The parallel attempt to introduce me to Spinoza’s life and work, however, I must consider a failure. While I find it interesting that Spinoza would have suggested similar notions such a long time ago, I didn’t really see the relevance of any of it and have to admit to skipping over parts of Spinoza’s life story. It felt like two books, only one of which I actually wanted to read. But that one turned out quite good.

51WH7Q4VB7L._AA240_.jpg A wonderfully inventive collection of stories, and again a work of Science Fiction as it should be written, with regards not only for the abstract gimmicky idea or the strange and attractive world, but for the mundane experiences of both the characters and the readers in such a situation, and well rounded and balanced characters. Or so they should be, but somehow they fail to make me care about them. Maybe that’s my fault.

Monday, January 7th, 2008

Tamara Jenkins – The Savages (2)

savages_ver2.jpg Quirky, drab, touching and depressing, all at the same time, this is the story of a father slowly dying, and his estranged children struggling to find their place in what unfolds. I’m not entirely sure of its quality objectively – I suspect it’s rather good, if you must know -, for it hit close to home for me on a personal level. Having been in a similar situation just recently, I found myself both relating to the characters’ confusion, and back in my own bewildered state at the same time. And when we left the theater, I heard an old gentleman tell his wife “that was really sad”, in a broken voice, which was both sweeter and sadder than anything within the movie, and that’s in spite of that Lenya song and the ending.

Monday, January 7th, 2008

Zach Braff – Garden State (2)

Garden-State-DVD.jpg A delightful and touching comedy, with a lovely soundtrack, and wonderfully understated moments of dry humor, mixed with the emotionally touching story of trauma overcome and love found in the most unlikely of places, Jersey. I’ll go to southern Newark soon, looking for the infinite abyss and the old leaky boat guarding it, not to move in with the young couple, but to also stand on top of the excavator and shout at the unknown.

0716740044_cs.jpg To the reader interested in love, sex and animal and human happiness, though rare a beast such a reader might be, this book holds a treasure trove of observations, deliberations and insights. Always keeping in mind the obvious question – how does all this relate to us? – the authors lead us on a walk through animal species, to look for evolutionary reasons and pressure for or against monogamy, and revealing it to be quite uncommon even among species long thought to be faithful mates for life. As it turns out, the fact that affairs need to be concealed from the adulterer’s mate implies automatic and almost perfect concealment from the researcher ape hiding in a camouflaged tent, who after all is much less adept that the animals involved in detecting suspicious behaviour.

The second half of the book then is devoted to the human animal, with the evidence seeming to indicate that our natural instincts would have us being a mildly polygynic, socially monogamous, but sexually adventurous bunch of chimps. As the authors point out in a final chapter aptly captioned “So what?”, no moral law follows directly from any of these observations. Natural impulses do not necessarily have to be acted upon – indeed the core of the idea of civilization might be perceived to be the reining in of such impulses -, yet their denial, and the forcedly naive insistence that monogamy is the mature way of channeling sexual and romantic desires that so much of the western christian tradition hold in fairly low esteem to begin with, seems unnecessarily dire and uninspired a reaction to the question that could well be said to be at the heart of human happiness and fulfillment. For, to change Dorothy Parker’s delightful punchline around on her, what earthly good does not, in fact, come from the sweet tensions of love, courtship and attraction?

General Review of the Sex Situation

Woman wants monogamy;
Man delights in novelty.
Love is woman’s moon and sun;
Man has other forms of fun.
Woman lives but in her lord;
Count to ten, and man is bored.
With this the gist and sum of it,
What earthly good can come of it?