Friday, February 26, 2010

Make a Little Mud

You didn't think I was going to continue the piss and moan about numbers stupidity did you? No! I'll drop that until Monday. It's a day for frivolity today. And random thoughts.

1) Woke up at dawn. Looked out the window, and with the sun shining and the new fallen snow, everything looked like a Gingerbread village. Wow. I'm in a good mood! Won't last though...

2) ...told you it wouldn't last. Between needy and helpless students lined outside my office door looking for answers, and cleaning up the mess from the night before, things went south fast. Plus, I get to the college and today is the day to check on whether I was accepted into a local show. I was rejected. And worse, two people I know who do not even have a fraction of the talent that I have got in. Well, I checked out the website of the artist juror who selected the work. His work sucks a big old turd! So, naturally he does not have the good taste required to appreciate me. Sour grapes? Of course! My coping mechanism and I'll get over it. And see? I'm already in a good mood again, so...

3) Last night, my student aide Caitlin, turned me on to a phenom called flash mob. As she constantly reminds me, I am so behind the times. But, hey, at least I'm staying young by having all these needy and helpless youngsters around me who clue me in to these things. So, how did they all get together and choreograph this? It's fun to watch because let's face it, Life is no high school musical. And I've got to wonder if this could be more useful than performance art? What if something like this could be used for disaster relief? Well, anyway...

4) Last night during the ceramics class, we put on CDs of the Beatles, which, in a kind of a flash mob fashion, turned into a singalong. I think I started it. I've not the greatest voice in the world, but I can sing in tune, and fairly loud if required. Soon enough, everyone was singing. And everyone did seem to be happy by the end of night. that was fun. But today...

5) Well, today, I have to reclaim clay. Which means I'll be up to my elbows in wet mud, throwing muck into a mixer, adding dry powder to reconstitute the texture so that the kids can have clay to throw pots and such. The clay, it turns out, needs to age. It releases kind of a faint stink, a sulfury smell which is all the little archea doing their thing. They act as a consortium, manufacturing a biofilm which is a slime that makes the clay nice and creamy. I really don't mind doing this, but after a few hours my arms and hands ache from moving a few tons around and packing the reclaimed clay into plastic bags. But, hey, it's better than living out of a grocery cart and sleeping outdoors, so I can't complain. In fact...

6) I'll end this with: I've really nothing major to complain about today. Hope the same is with you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Not Even Wrong - Part 3

At this point, you are probably asking "So, why the hell should I give a crap about this metamagical botulism, or whatever the heck you are talking about, Johnny?"

Mathematical platonism.

All-ri-ight. Let's just cut through all my bullshit and get to the point.

FACT: People's world views affect how they receive facts. Information is personal.  Information that does not sit well within your system of beliefs is likely to be rejected. Information that is in line is likely to be accepted. Seems fairly obvious. Are we in agreement so far? If so, then: 

CONSEQUENCE: How often is false information accepted? (And here, I designate false information as demonstrably false, i.e. empirically false, e.g. beyond opinion, beyond suspicion, beyond reasonable doubt, into the realm of science). Answer: as often as your system of beliefs can stand the strain. There are limits to credulity, you know. You may believe in an Almighty, but how far are you willing to go, with both the conceptual assumptions and narratives? Is your Almighty ineffable and immaterial? If so, does He or She or It occupy a spiritual realm separate from material existence? If so, how populous is this realm? Are you willing to believe in gnomes? Goblins? Fairies? How ridiculous does the creature have to get before you don't believe in them? And can you reliably draw a parting line? Etc.

(Lest you think I am picking on spiritual types as the more credulous and naive --and I am, because ultimately this is the frickin' point-- let's not forget that materialism is itself a metaphysic whose assumptions are subject to investigation. The Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that materialists deny the existence of God and the soul. But if you looked at yesterday's journal entry, you can see this ain't necessarily so. For better criticisms, see Immanuel Kant, or, to some extent David Hume, or George Berkeley. Although I should warn you. These guys are seriously boring motherfuckers, and philosophy is, ultimately a giant fucking waste of time).

ELSE ALTERNATELY: Congratulations. You have absolutely not a shred of bias or bigotry in that vacuum fresh little mind of yours. You are either a newborn (unlikely, as they have biases, like prefering pretty faces over ugly ones), or you are an idiot, like the Peter Seller's character Chance in "Being There". So, no, there is no Else Alternately. Back to... Consequences!

Here's something. I've run across people who get all excited about things like numerology, or sacred geometry, or even that things like the Golden Ratio, the Golden Mean, the Fibonacci sequence, and basically they swoon over the idea that the universe is founded upon mathematics. The underlying assumption here is that Number is real. Number has a separate, independent, and perhaps transcendental existence from our reality. Or as the mathematician G.H. Hardy once put it, mathematics - numbers - would exist even if our universe did not.


I could give you the standard philosophical objections to this, but it's boring and silly. The most fanatical of mathematical platonists, probably of all time, was Kurt Godel. Godel insisted that not only was the Realm of Number real, but an internal sense called Mathematical Intuition existed that allowed us to tap into this realm. 

Again, bullshit.  

And I'll tell you why I think it's all bullshit tomorrow. But I've run out of time, once again.

Suffice to say, the consequences of accepting this world view are pretty dire, and can in more cases  than not result in some dangerously stupid decisions about what to do in the world.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not Even Wrong - Part 2

The Not Even Wrong series got off to a shaky start. Let's see if we can recover some before we go forward. Yesterday I was to Call Bullshit on mathematical platonism. Well, I think I'll need to move along several tangents to get there. So hang on a sec'.

A 2009 Gallup poll found that 44% of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form within the past 10,000 years. Many of them also think the human body is perfectly designed.

My response to that is... Wow. That Is Really Fucked Up.

And Americans wonder why our nation is in decline.

I think anyone beyond the age of eight, or who uses possibly more than a third of their (God given?) frontal lobes, has to realize that it requires several convoluted explanations that just get stupider and stupider as they go along to get to the Flintstone Theory.

God created Man in His own image? Does God have a prostate? Well, God is a really old guy, so that sucker must have swelled up to the size of Wyoming by now!

Okay, enough funnin' around. The reason I brought up the Gallup poll result was threefold.

1) In order to talk about mathematical platonism, we need to talk about platonism. In order to talk about platonism, we need to talk about perfection. And possibly the divine. Or at least some realm in which perfection exists, which is what Plato was talking about. The realm of God, or the Gods.
2) We need to mention that Plato was Class II Stupid: in other words, ignorant (not, you know, Class IV Stupid: intentionally, willfully, and dangerously stupid like 44% of Americans). He, like Aristotle, or Socrates, or others before our time, was not in possession of facts that we have today.
3) My reaction is a subjective one. But our judgements tend to categories ranging along a spectrum of (if we are honest with ourselves) merely personal opinion to objective fact. Its a question of doubt. As such, I can Call Bullshit on something recognizing that it is merely my personal opinion, and that you might think otherwise (in other words, I have a doubt), to I have a personal opinion which I suspect is also an objective fact (I have only a small doubt), to I strongly consider my opinion to be an objective fact (I have no doubt). Please note, faith is not the polar opposite of doubt. I do not require faith to have no doubts.

So, let's say I consider the idea that "there is no God" an objective fact. I am under a burden of proof, of empirical evidentiary duty to back up this statement.

Why? Some people (atheists, but, you know, they already have a lot of fucked up problems, starting with an undeserved opinion that they are somehow smarter than other people) will try to cop out and say that I am making a negative statement (There is No God), and do not need to prove a negative. Oh, Bullshit. One of the fundamental principles of logic is the principle of Noncontradiction (something cannot be both true and false). The principle is clearly a negative statement, and is easily proved.

(I should note that my opinions about the existence of God, or the logically distinct and independent question of the existence of a human soul, is this: I really don't give a crap).

So, Oops! Did you read carefully bakc there a little while back? I said... the IDEA that "there is.. " etc. The concept. Why did I say that? Because any honest person will recognize that the objective fact regarding existence or nonexistence of a deity is not only not provable through logic or reason, we can neither establish it through empirical evidence. In other words, it is not only philosophically unsustainable, it is unscientific because it is not falsifiable.

(A dorky guy named Richard Dawkins dishonestly tried to say otherwise in his book "The God Delusion". Dawkins is, quite frankly and in my opinion, a douchebag. But that's for another time. Maybe).

So, all we got to talk about is the idea of something. Because it is an abstraction. If you want to show me an abstraction, that is outside of your head... hey, have fun with that.

More later tomorrow, hopefully. I gots to go do some work out here in the real world.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Not Even Wrong

I've read more than my fair share of general science books. I recognize them for what they are - a general summary of scientific knowledge of whatever field they cover. I recognize that there are people out there that have a hard time distinguishing between a general summary of conditional, provisional collection of facts and theories and unquestioned dogma. I say this because I have, over time, modified my thinking about certain books which went from (a near) acceptance of the contents of the book as (almost) unquestioned dogma, to, in some cases, a complete rejection of the contents of the book.

I think perhaps one of the more sane approaches I've read was by a cosmologist that reviewed the evidence for the Big Bang theory. The first thing he made clear was that there was no suggestion that a Big Bang actually occurred (despite what most people think). Rather, the evidence to date suggested that if you go back far enough in time (some 13.7 billion years, give or take) conditions get very, very crowded, matter gets hotter and denser, and the universe starts to look like it exploded at some time zero. Not, and this is important, that there was a big huge bang that started it all. But someone could surmise, from the evidence, that it looks like maybe a big huge bang occurred way back when.

There's a huge difference in the two statements.

The first statement (the evidence suggests...) sets initial limits on knowledge. The second (a big bang happened) sets initial limits on correctness - what knowledge is allowed and what is not.

This week, I'm going to try to cover belief. I'm going to try cover my increasing discomfort with what is allowed and what is not. What is considered "settled" knowledge and what is still open to interpretation or challenge.

I think, and will always think, that the scientific endeavor is the best set of skills we as a species have developed for accumulating and evaluating knowledge. It may often fail to describe what, in reality, something is, but it works quite well at helping determine what things are not. 

In short, it is our best tool when it time to Call Bullshit on something.

I think there are far too many people who feel that, since the science is in the science book, that all the facts and theories are now settled. There's no reason to question things. And they think this is the way Science works. "They got that figured out and That's That and now the Science Types are moving on to the next question".

This is not to suggest that Science is evolving into a religion. The very nature of the activities makes this impossible, because, quite frankly, theories have to fit the facts. Facts come from Nature. And Nature, like it or not, keeps us honest. Religion can make up any old silly thing and call it true.

And this is not to suggest that some things are not settled. There are lots of things are just plain wrong. There are things we can call Bullshit on. How do we know? The empirical evidence says so. (Nature keeps us honest).

But I am worried that I'm starting to see a form of fundamentalism develop. I'm worried that there are some brittle thinkers that are popularizers of science who perhaps should instead just shut the fuck up. And maybe I'm one of them.

But, I will attempt to explore science and tradition and faith and belief in a non-boring manner throughout the week.

So, tomorrow, I think I  will talk about I lost my faith in Number, and why numbers are not real, and why I think mathematical platonism is Bullshit.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Lonely Already"

Hey, it's been a whole week since my last journal entry. Well, I been busy. Aside from the occasional inconvenience of doing my regular job, I've been putting the finishing touches on the latest sculpture, and documenting it.

Hey, I figured I'd also update my profile image with something a bit more sophisticated. I chose the image in keeping with the slightly dark nature of my personality. But, if I ever decide to run for Congress, I can use the above picture, which makes me look like obvious presidential material... in Latvia.

Hopeful, dreamy, distinguished, looking towards the Future, which is obviously Stage Left, giving me just the right touch of wholesomeness and humility such that, uh, the electorate will ignore my arrest record on drug and unregistered weapons charges.

But enough about that. I'd rather talk about the latest sculpture. It's a cabinet. And there's a story behind it.

About a year and a half ago, I helped a friend of mine, Lance Friedman, through a minor trouble. (Lance operates a glassblowing studio called Shatter Glass Group, LLC, the oldest glass studio in Chicago. You can see his work here. And, what do you know, he has a online journal as well. I didn't know that). Lance's power had gone out, and his glass furnace was losing temperature. This furnace is a pot furnace, meaning the molten glass is contained in a large crucible within it. If the glass cools too much, it cracks the pot. If that happened, Lance would have been, well, temporarily fucked, in that he needs a new pot and has to clean out the furnace with a jackhammer.

So, he calls me to unload the glass into 55 gallon drums filled with water, before it gets too cold. Which I do, seeing as he is my friend. Once we were done, he offered to pay me for my time and troubles. Greedy little guy that I am, seizing the opportunity, I simply asked for the glass. And so I ended up with about 50 pounds of some really nice casting glass.

Okay, fast forward about six months. The glass is sitting in plastic buckets at the college, and I have done jack squat with them, because I have zero ideas what to do with it. None. Finally, I get a break. There's an old guy in the sculpture class named Jim, who wishes to have a mold made of his face so that he can make several copies in clay for a project. I assist him in making a plaster mold in exchange for a few copies of his face. I make the copies in wax.

About six months after that, during the Winter break, the kilns become available, and I am able to cast in glass the wax faces. (I need the kilns for three weeks in order to do this. Casting thick glass takes a long time to anneal).

So now, I have the two faces. I actually know what I want to do with them. I follow my normal materials heuristic, and create bronze frames to hold the glass, and then a wood cabinet to hold the glass and bronze.

I even have a theme planned out in advance. And here I have to digress for just a slight moment.

I've always liked glass, but only certain kinds of glass. I've never been a big fan of shiny, but cast and etched glass I like very much. I like the matte surface and texture. I like the subdued grey colors of rough clear cast glass. It reminds me of fog, I suppose. And storm-tossed seas. And glaciers. And overcast days. Huh, must be the Northern European aesthetic in me.

So, the minute I cast the faces, I says to myself "These guys are ghosts".

Not that I believe in ghosts, but not believing in something has never stopped me from using it as a theme, or concept, or mood creator. So, a ghost box is what I have to make.

Here's the finished piece. It's called "Lonely Already". To me, its sad and funny. Poor, trapped ghosts, probably recently deceased, already unhappy and wanting company to while away eternity, or at least that part of it they have to spend in the box. Enjoy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Mission Accomplished"

That's the title of the piece. "Mission Accomplished". It is 11" x 13" x 2". Basically, a shadowbox. The wood is walnut. The "spermy, jelly- beanie, gummy things" (as one student put it, and the descriptive capabilities of today's generation are just truly stellar) are cast bronze. The glass is glass, and the fabric is fabric.

Not much else to say about it. I suppose it could be a statement about artificial insemination? As usual, I had no conceptual thoughts behind the construction of the piece. I was just going for something that just looked cool.

Oh, yeah, right. If anyone wants to look at my other stuff, you can visit Flickr.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sports Afield

It's snowing again. We are predicted to get 10-12" with the chance of a blizzard tonight. Skies are close down to the ground, claustrophobic, and a solid granite grey. The snowflakes are big huge fluffy fat boys raining down. It took me about ten minutes to remove the snow from my car. The drive in to the college sucked, and I nearly took a spill on the sidewalk.

I could not be happier.

Winter really is my time of the year. The darker and gloomier and colder it gets, the perkier I am. I suppose if it ever got down to Absolute Zero, you'd find a huge shit-eating grin on my frozen mug. 

Winter is when I thrive. I know it is sick and perverse. I know it is barbarous. I can only chalk it up to my loony Scandi-hoovian ancestors, the ones who, as the glaciers retreated, were pioneering a mere foot or two behind the receding ice. The ones who complained a lot died off. The ones who enjoyed it not only survived, but thrived.

It is a pity I live in flat land. I'd love to go skiing right now. Haven't skied in a good 20 years and I know I'd break my ass somehow, but I desperately want to do it.

Speaking of which, I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm not a sports fan. I really don't like sports all that much. Some would say that's un-American, and not very healthy.

Oh, I watch sports. Occasionally. Briefly. But I've never gotten into the glued-to-the-tube sitting in the La-Z-Boy with a Stadium Buddy catheter wrap on my penis to avoid bathroom breaks. I'm just not that into watching them. If you want me to take a nap, put some sports on the TV.

I can, like a lot of American guys, bluff my way through a conversation about sports. There is, because of just the usual media inundation, a minimum of absorption about what's going on in the sports world. But I can't get passionate about it. 

It took me quite some time to realize that it was OK not to excel at a sport and yet still enjoy playing it. I blame the media for this. And since most people actually suck at playing sports, I am several steps ahead, since I 1) have always been in good shape, 2) have always been naturally athletic, 3) know, not wishing to brag, that I possess a not inconsiderable degree of physical courage, and therefore am unafraid of injuries, 4) am, knock on wood, pretty much immune to major injury, and 5) once I warm up, am actually not half bad at sports and enjoy the feeling immensely.

It turns out, even for my age, for example, that I can throw a football as well pro quarterbacks, at least in terms of distance. Oh, you want the ball aimed at something? That's a different story. Same with golf. How far do you want that ball to go? Oh, you want me to put it on the fairway?

Same with tennis. I can get that little fuzzy ball moving at about the speed of sound. Oh, you want it to be in bounds? Baseball. Over the plate? Basketball? Throwing the ball the length of the court doesn't count for anything? It has to go though that hoop?

And I love hurtling my body through space and colliding it into things. It's a great sensation. It's probably why I loved playing football. I know it's why I love to ski. I think I actually spend more time wiping out than I do going downhill. 

So, come to think of it, I guess I do like sports. But playing. Not watching.

That's probably not very American. 

But I guess its healthy.  

Monday, February 8, 2010

Two Odd Sensory Things

Not much time for a journal entry today. Two weird items come to mind. 

Have you noticed how food combinations, or taste or smell combinations work out so well, or don't? 

Chicken and broccoli, or pork and corn, are obvious combinations. They go well together. I believe there is a scene in the movie Ratatouille, where a rat turns out to be a great chef, where they discuss this combination of tastes.

 I like the taste of Wrigley's Winterfresh. The vending machine in the hall by the studio ran out, so I got Spearmint, a sturdy and reliable companion gum. Later, Winterfresh was back. I happened to be chewing a piece of Spearmint when I bought a pack, and popped a stick of  Winterfresh in my mouth and the taste combination was... not good. 

It tasted like the way a urinal cake smells. Not good at all.

The second thing is I experienced synesthesia. That's where your sense get mixed up. Like you see or feel music, or numbers and letters can be certain colors? 

Well, I'm sitting at lunch today, and the person across the table from me has some orange jello. I am just kind of thinking about nothing, just staring at the orange jello, mind a complete blank, and I take a sip of my chocolate milk. Well, it tastes like orange juice.

I spit the mouthful of chocolate milk out, you know, the classic spray, and pretty much ruining the lunch experience of the person across from me. 

I apologized and explained what happened, but got nowhere with the explanation, or the apology.

And those are my two weird things today.

Friday, February 5, 2010

It is, but it isn't

Ellen Abbott and I did an art trade about a month ago.

Both of us think they got the better end of the deal. That makes it a good trade. Win/win, in a nonzero sum game. Would that everything else turned out as such.

The funny thing about the way I work is, it is not unlike creating a picture, then saying "I've got the perfect living room for this". And then building a house around the picture. Admittedly, a rather strange and backward way to do things, but hey, there you go. So it was with Ellen's piece. I started out with a cast glass piece, and said "I know just the right way to present this".

And this is what I am doing right now. I created two cast glass pieces. I am now building a cabinet for them. The facilities here at Harper College are really, all things considered, first rate. No four-year Illinois college has anything close to them. The woodshop, all by itself, has more equipment than most university studios. Granted, the kids have abused the place, but it is something I can work around. "Adapt, improvise, overcome", the Marine Corps credo, is mine as well.

In building the cabinet, I usually start out with a design, with a plan. As Dwight Eisenhower said, "Planning is essential. But all plans are useless". This seeming paradox is only so if you have never built anything, otherwise it makes perfect sense. My cabinet design usually changes after the first piece of wood is cut. Usually because I fuck up, and cannot afford to buy more wood. Dimensions change, or the plan is seen as in one aspect, unworkable.

It's Fun. But it isn't.

I'm looking at my piece of drawing paper with my instructions and admonitions on it. There are some cryptic phrases on there, things that made sense at the time. "Floor is 1 1/4 inches up from bottom, sides, front and back!" Exclamation point, which meant it must have been important. I honestly have no clue about it.

There are dimensions of the cabinet and stand on the paper, as well as perspective drawings, exploding diagrams, and orthographic projections of the piece. Quite a lot for a glorified box! And then there are directions to myself:
  1. Dill, peg, and glue front frame
  2. Buy hardware for doors
  3. Cut panels, fit and glue back frame
  4. Cut front and back panels to match (H+W)
  5. Cut side height to match front and back
  6. Cut bottom to match length of front and back
  7. Cut sides and bottom width to match
  8. Drill, peg, and glue bottom, side, front, back
  9. Drill inside top holes to match side, front and back, peg
  10. Route out top panel, ogive
  11. Buy birch panel (the good stuff)
  12. Glue bottom of stand
  13. Cut keyhole slots in back of cabinet
  14. Buy brass angle brackets to secure stand to cabinet
  15. Buy magnetic stops for doors
  16. Stain doors, cabinet, top, stand
  17. Varnish front of doors
  18. Patina bronze frame
  19. Glue up doors (with bronze and glass inside)
  20. Install light
  21. Buy light first
  22. Install doors
  23. Glue on top
The list probably makes little sense to you. There are some items, in retrospect, that barely make sense to me. And it is nice to see that past-self-Johnny takes no chances, assumes future-self-Johnny is some kind of slack-jawed meat-slapper, and so throws in reminders like the parenthetical one in Item 19, or hopes he reads Item 21.

Already I have a bit of nostalgia about this cabinet, even though I am still only on Item 11.

It was no fun. But it was.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Infinite Elsewhen

I've always enjoyed reading science fiction and fantasy. For a time, that is about all I read. Eventually, thankfully, my brain matured and my interests broadened. But, visiting the library, I will still occasionally snag a book out of the New Purchases section of  the good old comfort food of SF&F packaged in a lurid jacket. 

About a year ago, I came across an author of a short story in a Best Of Anthology named Kage Baker. Her universe was intriguing, and I ended up reading a collection of her short stories and one novel. Can't remember the name of the books, but since Kage Baker just recently died from cancer, there will be no more.

The stories were time travel stories, but with her Kage's unique twist. A corporation in the 24th century had developed time travel. Named Dr. Zeus, Inc. (or Jovian Integrated Systems), the company offered tourist packages into the past, and also ran a very nice sideline of sequestering treasures and artifacts of the past for retrieval in the future. This exploitative archival portion of the business was far from altruistic. These priceless objects, thought to be lost to the past, brought a hefty profit to the company's bottom line.

Like any good universe builder, Kage had rules.

Rule#1 (always a good rule for time travel stories): You Can't Change The Past. Caesar, Lincoln, Kennedy are always assassinated. The Titanic always sinks. The Space Shuttles always blow up. This one simple rule avoids all of the paradoxes inherent in time travel, like the Grandfather Paradox. (Time traveller goes back in time and kills his grandpa. But if grandpa is dead, the time traveller never exists. If he never exists, he cannot kill his grandpa).

The nice dramatic consequence of Rule#1 is that a time traveller can find loopholes around fixed past events. For example, they could smuggle gold off the Titanic before it sinks. Or steal books from the Library of Alexandria before it burns.  

The clunky consequence of Rule#1 is that if a time traveller interferes in past events (pretty unavoidable by just being there), then they were supposed to interfere. So, if a time traveller killed his grandpa by mistake, it will turn out that grandma had slept with someone else who was his (or her) real grandpa. Kind of a safe, pat way to go about things, I admit.

Rule#2: You Can Only Travel Into The Past. You would think that the dangerous part of time travel would be changing the past. But since Rule #1 above takes care of that, there should be no worries. But forbidding travel into the future avoids the complication of travellers mucking about with their own lives, by gaining unfair advantage, perhaps second guessing themselves, or even worse, changing their own lives to avoid some future unpleasantness. But that would, in a sense, from their future self's sense, involve changing their own past, which is not allowed.

Other than these two rules, anything goes. And it leaves quite a bit of wiggle room. As you would expect, a time travelling corporation, not being able to change the past, can still influence people and events to their not inconsiderable advantage. As you would expect, such a corporation, by the time the 24th century rolls around, pretty much has control of everything.

And so it was in Kage's universe. By the time the 24th century rolls around, events and opinions have been manipulated so that, well, we are all a lot more docile and easy to manage than, say , cave people. Everyone is a vegetarian. Most pleasures, both licit and illicit, have been outlawed. All media outlets and sources of information, for that matter any source of anything, are controlled and owned by The Company. Humanity has been reduced to soft, pampered, docile, scared little animals - kind of like the present day US of A.

So, it was a fun but creepy universe. Thanks, Kage. I enjoyed it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Twenty Questions

My father, as the years passed, or as we got old enough to notice, developed a queer form of memory loss. He would forget words.

Sometimes, we'd be working with him out in the garage, and he'd start out "Hand me the uh - the..." and then his voice would trail off.

He'd be completely flummoxed, not able to conjure up the word. It would not even be within the confines of his throat, let alone the tip of his tongue.

We, his sons, all had our various coping strategies for this eventuality.

The eldest, Son #1, would grab the last tool used and display it in front of him. "No, the uh- the uh-".

I, Son #2, would ask him to pantomime what he wanted. "Two syllables" "Sounds like". Which, of course, would just piss him off.

Son #3 would stand in stony silence for a brief moment, perhaps gathering strength, and then would rapid fire off the names of every tool in sight. "No, the uh-" No! The uh -" "NO! NO!"

Son #4, the baby, would treat it like a game of twenty questions. "Is it used on wood?" "Does it have a green plastic handle?" Considering that twenty binary (answerable as yes or no) questions can cover about a million objects (220 = 1,048,576), this strategy might not have been the most time-conservative. Perhaps he should have played Password, or $20,000 Pyramid, with our father.

Sometimes, in triumph, the name would explode out of him "- the HAMMER!". Most times, he, like me, being a Taurus, simply could not surrender, and would stubbornly struggle, would wrestle his own brain, and eventually lose. It was both humorous and sad, heroic and pathetic, to watch. And we, his sons, had no choice but to await the outcome, whatever it was.

And now I know that this trait is genetic, as I am having trouble with words. Just today, I could not, for the life of me, think of the word "discrimination".

Generally, art is about mixing and matching and combining, and not so much about finding the absolutely right mix or match or combination. I could be wrong. There is a certain amount of discrimination involved.

Take the sample space for all diatonic melodies. (The white keys on a piano). If we choose a minimum of eight notes to name the tune, and we use the diatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do), then the sample space* of all melodies consists of all combinations of seven tones in eight notes.

In other words, Melody #1 might be just the note A repeated eight times (Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do). Melody #14 might be (Do-do-do-do-do-do-re-ti). Got the idea? Since the last "Do" is just an octave higher than the first "Do", we have seven tones to play with in eight note combinations, and so the total number of elements in the sample space of white-piano-key melodies is 78 = 5,764,801.

Now, most of these melodies would be kind of boring. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd have to commit serious bodily harm on and about your person if you whistled Melody #1 for very long. So, let's figure we can drop more than half - in fact, let's say three-quarters - of the melodies as something that will never make the Top 40. We are still left with around 1,921,600 melodies. I wonder how many we've heard?

And in visual arts, I suspect there is even more leniency. How far could Jackson Pollock's hand have strayed when dribbling paint, before one action painting became uniquely different from another one? A quick calculation suggests.... well, a very large number.

But writing? Writing is hard. Finding the right word, the right phrase, is the difference between a master work and mediocrity. Musicians, and visual artists, I think, have an easier time of it. Oh, there are times when the right chord, the right rhythm can make all the difference in a piece. And pound for pound, since there is nothing that can evoke an emotion better than music, I'd be willing to bet that a change of one note can ruin the incantation. 

But I don't think there is an art form whose whole is more sensitive to a change in parts than literature.

It's a good thing I'm not a writer. 

*A sample space is simply all possible unique outcomes of a something. So, for example, the roll of the dice contains a 6 x 6 sample space of outcomes (1,1), (1,2) ...(6,6)), or 36 elements. Or the sample space of possible chess moves is a number so large (10120, give or take) it makes the total number of atoms in the visible universe (1075, give or take) seem small. However, since most chess moves are actually dumb moves to make, the number of smart chess moves is actually very small - small enough for our relatively (compared to the universe) tiny brains to remember.