Thursday, April 18, 2013

Allow Me To Politicize Tragedy

In this piece I will make a point about healthcare, and I will exploit two recent episodes of American tragedy to do it.

To frame the issue that the point is about, I want to hearken back to a theme often heard from conservatives when discussing public healthcare policy. First and foremost they are interested in efficiency -- in cost containment. "Of course we want people to be cared for and lead healthy lives," they say, seemingly reasonably, before adopting a pinched visage of thoughtful concern: "But who's gonna pay for all that?"

When I read the news and see headlines like "Boston Marathon bombed, 3 dead, more than 100 injured" and "Texas fertilizer factory explosion kills 5, injures over 160," a thousand thoughts rush into my head. But here's one that doesn't: "Who's gonna pay for all that?"

If, on the other hand, your very first reaction to either of those headlines was "but who's gonna pay for all that?" then, by the power vested in me as a non-asshole, I decree that you lack all human compassion.

And if you pass that test, and thoughts of cost containment were at the end of the line, and you do have basic human compassion, then -- why would you wonder "but who's gonna pay for all that?" in any other, lesser, context? What extra moral imperative is imbued in the flashy, obvious, explosion-based disasters that is missing from more subdued disasters like, say, cancer, or clinical depression? Wherever it is that you're drawing that line is morally inferior to simply erasing it.

So in a few months, when things have calmed down, when we're back in the mode where misfortune is more a matter of comfortable, inside-out decay than anxiety-provoking, outside-in impingements, and we're bored enough to argue about healthcare again, I want you to remember this point. Remember, and refrain from changing the subject to economics, when it had properly been the alleviation of human suffering.

Human suffering is worth the cost required to alleviate it, period. It would be interesting to redesign economics around that axiom and see what kind of civilization we arrive at.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Epistle to The Ninety-Nine Percent

I am a member of the 99%. But in truth, I am much closer, in terms of raw dollars, to the One Percent than are 99% of those who eagerly refer to themselves as "the Ninety-Nine Percent." In real, big-picture statistical terms, I'm definitely not in the top 1%, but I'm probably in the top 15%, maybe 10%. This relative proximity to the One Percent has given me the opportunity to realize that, much as a diehard liberal like me might hate to admit it (and even after saying there was only "precisely one" respect in which I sympathize with the One Percent), it turns out there's another one.

I sympathize with the One Percent because, at bottom, they all value efficacy; and so do I. The One Percent and I like shit that works.

And unfortunately, this preference affords them a perspective from which they can look at you, the Ninety-Nine Percent, and point and laugh and joke about how effective the Occupy movement won't be. The fact that you have good, well-thought out points to make, and reasonable, demonstrable grievances to air, doesn't change the fact that, to the One Percent, your points and your grievances don't need to actually be heard in order to dismiss you. All they have to do is say "Occupy Wall Street is just a bunch of bored college kids who can't seem to score pot or level in World of Warcraft anymore. Get a job and a haircut, you hippie jackasses."

I find myself in a strange position because, while I cast my lot with the Ninety-Nine Percent in terms of philosophy (i.e. I agree with most if not all of the points you make, and most if not all of the grievances you air), I still have to side with the One Percent in terms of efficacy. The One Percent are absolutely right that you guys come across as a bunch of bumbling hippie jackasses who make up in earnestness and passion what you lack in pragmatism and efficacy.

But, while I reach the same conclusion about your efficacy that the One Percent do, I arrive at it through different reasoning. And that reasoning is this: Occupy is an urban movement, because the Ninety-Nine Percent are young, creative, idealistic, and educated people who live in cities. To your demographic, cities are awesome; cities are the place to be; why would anyone tolerate rural or suburban life? If it's a given there's gonna be some badass worldwide meritocratic revolution, of course all the action will be in cities!

The One Percent may work in cities, and a handful of them might reside in cities (between jaunts to Bermuda and Zurich), but the majority of them live in the suburbs and commute to the cities only for work. It is therefore easy for them to ignore you, because the only contact they have with you is through the window of their corporate limos and/or taxicabs and/or Escalades, tooling past whatever frozen park the NYPD hasn't managed to evict you from yet. And the only contact their loved ones have with your ideas is filtered through the breathless, schoolmarmish, seventh-grade-educated media. So nothing gets through.

The answer is simple: the Occupy movement needs to target the suburbs. This is where the One Percent actually live. Suburbia is where the policymakers actually live. Suburbia is where the bankers and insurance executives actually live. Suburbia is where, even as we speak, life burbles along tranquilly, blissfully oblivious to the possibility (and necessity) of change.

Disrupt that tranquility -- PEACEABLY -- and the One Percent will finally start to get it. Once the bylines stop reading NEW YORK NY and start reading YORKTOWN HEIGHTS NY, or DERBY CT, or CHERRY HILL NJ, or OSSINING NY, or KENT CT, or MT KISCO NY, or BROOKFIELD CT, or SOUTHBURY CT, only then will the seventh-grade-educated media finally start to get it. Metaphorically hit them where they literally live, and they will get it.

You will still get arrested, definitely. Asshole townie cops will still manhandle you and perhaps even continue to shoot rubber bullets at you. But only if those things occur in the suburbs will there be a chance that actual members of the One Percent will be forced to deal with you face-to-face, in the raw, not predigested by the seventh-grade-educated media. You will get to meet that rare species of primate who belongs to the One Percent without really knowing it or thinking of themselves in that way. And it will be a shocking experience for you both.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Epistle to the One Percent

I am a member of the 99%. But in truth, I am much closer, in terms of raw dollars, to the One Percent than are 99% of those who eagerly refer to themselves as "the Ninety-Nine Percent." In real, big-picture statistical terms, I'm definitely not in the top 1%, but I'm probably in the top 15%, maybe 10%. This relative proximity to the One Percent has given me the opportunity to realize that, much as a diehard liberal like me might hate to admit it, there is precisely one respect in which I sympathize with the One Percent.

I sympathize with the One Percent because, at bottom, they all value the idea of meritocracy; so do I. Where we part company is on whether free-market capitalism is truly the engine of meritocracy that they insistently and ceaselessly trumpet it to be.

I'd like to think that the One Percent would join me in wholeheartedly endorsing the truth of the following statement: "Money is useful and desirable. There are many desirable things money can be used to obtain, and there are many undesirable things money can be used to avoid." But I'm starting to get concerned that the One Percent would not join me in wholeheartedly endorsing the logical corollary of the foregoing: "It is possible for other things to be valued more than money."

Notice how children are born valuing not money, but novelty. Children are born feeling an expectation of happiness, and if that's a thought whose naivete makes you guffaw, then consider the moral implications of such guffawing. There would be no valid moral argument against suicide, for instance. In order to be genuinely happy, people must have an emotionally sustainable way of obtaining the things they seek, and they must have an emotionally sustainable way of avoiding the things they seek to avoid. If this weren't declared true, we would be lending credence to the idea that it is morally acceptable for people to live out their entire lives without ever experiencing even a single instant of joy. What's the point of living, if you don't have some path to achievement of some semblance of some notion of the life you want to live? If we really all couldn't agree to that idea, then the notion of a social contract would never have caught on, even back in the day.

So, I agree with the One Percent about the sanctity of the idea that people need some sense of a meritocratic system in order to live a fulfilling life. They are absolutely right, for that and many other valid reasons (e.g. the free rider problem), that the overall system governing our lives must be a meritocracy. But they are wrong in their utter unquestioning acceptance of free-market capitalism as the only viable way to establish that meritocracy.

Whenever you notice the circulation of the "class warfare" meme through the media fishbowl, understand that this is the One Percent's way of trying to remind people, in the subtlest, least dickish way possible, of the moral imperative of perpetuating a stable class structure. I agree that capitalism is the best way thus far discovered to implement a functioning, scalable meritocracy, but I disagree that our civilization does not pay a large opportunity cost by investing such a concomitantly large amount of faith in it. Capitalism has proved to be only as scalable as the class structure of the culture into which it is installed (see China and India), so that creates a need to perpetuate ours. The metaphor that allows the One Percent to cloak this systemic/structural need in the moral language of human/personal admonition is "class warfare."

I admire that metaphor, but it has a bug in it. I'm a software engineer, which means I'm good at detecting design flaws in semantic spaces. And there is a big design flaw lurking at the heart of the "class warfare" metaphor, one whose existence fills me with hope for the possibility of real progress. The bug in "class warfare" is this: the term "class warfare" was coined during a period in history in which there was no concept of "war crimes" or "genocide" -- certainly many such acts occurred during those times, but those labels were applied to them only after the fact. Since then, we have learned the ugly truth that there are such things as "war crimes" and "genocide," and that they can and should be viewed from within the metaphor of global criminal justice. But we have not gone back and revisited the "class warfare" metaphor to see how its economic meaning might change when its geopolitical meaning is admixed with the newer "war crime" and "genocide" constructs.

The One Percent continue to invoke an older version of a meme that has since been upgraded, but upgraded with features they don't like. If the One Percent want to allow the phrase "class warfare" to continue to have any real meaning, any genuine cultural relevance, then they must, in order for their underlying metaphor to work correctly, acknowledge the possibility that phrases like "economic war crimes" and "class genocide" could also have real meaning, and genuine cultural relevance. I now invite you to join me in imagining what "class war crimes" could look like in the real world.

The international legal principles that emerged from the Nuremberg Trials divide the colloquial term "war crimes" into three categories: war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace. The first category encompasses things that pertain to the fates of specific individuals: "murder, ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity." The latter two categories encompass things that pertain more to the fates of large, easily named groups, like "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds."

Bernie Madoff is a reasonable example of an economic war criminal, but only in the first sense outlined above: he violated large-scale fiduciary responsibilities -- moral obligations dictated by the underlying promise of meritocracy that theoretically underpins capitalism and made it attractive to everyone when Adam Smith first outlined it in the 1700s -- and in so doing financially devastated the lives of many. But those many had no prior factors in common except for the fact that they were all Bernie Madoff's clients; the victims who found themselves chained against a rock in Madoff's lair must have, at some point, chosen to walk into it. There is certainly no single religious, or ethnic, or racial, or even political, identity that would unify the demographic disparateness of his client list. This lack of any available group identity disqualifies Madoff, in my mind, from being charged with economic crimes against humanity.

Bernie Madoff's conviction represents America's first successful apprehension and punishment of an economic war criminal. From an ontological standpoint, this is good, because it legitimizes the term economic war criminal; and from an intentional standpoint, it is also good, because it represents the indictment of a large-scale economic actor whose intentions were clearly bad. But it seems to me that the real indictment we should be talking about is not of the man, but of the system within which he was allowed to operate for so long. The only reason Madoff was tried in a manner befitting an economic war criminal is that the victims of his economic war crimes were all members of the One Percent. So this proves two things: despite their obvious horror at the thought of openly discussing it, the One Percent do, on some level, acknowledge the validity of the concept of economic war crimes, of economic crimes against peace. And the only thing they find even more horrific is when it happens to them -- when "economic shock and awe" shatters their peace.

It turns out there is another precedent for economic war crimes: the book of Genesis, in which the moral depravities of Sodom and Gomorrah are harshly condemned by the God of Abraham. To most Christians, their intuitive sense of moral depravity is polarized in the sexual direction. But the Hebrew Bible makes clear that Yahweh was just as pissed off about economic moral depravity. Genesis describes wealthy Sodomites giving gold ingots to beggars, after inscribing their names on them, and then subsequently refusing to sell the beggars food. The unfortunate beggar would end up starving and after his death, the people who gave him the ingot would reclaim it. That sounds a lot like how credit card companies do business, doesn't it? The One Percent give ingots of plastic to the Ninety-Nine Percent, after inscribing their names on them, and then subsequently refuse to provide them economic sustenance (i.e. reasonable interest rates that promote actual saving behavior instead of speculative behavior). The unfortunate Ninety-Nine Percent end up economically starving (i.e. jobless with little or no unemployment available to draw, or bankrupt, or scraping by in the present with only a raided pension or cratering 401k waiting for them in the future), and after their economic (or, increasingly, literal) death, the people who gave them the money reclaim it through foreclosure auctions, liquidation sales, Chapter 11, debt collection agencies, repo men, insurance companies, and other unsavory economic constructs.

I just want churchgoing Jews and Christians who voluntarily participate in this system to understand something: the supreme being whose opinion you all claim to care about placed economic practices such as these on the same plane of moral repugnance as fucking children and homosexual gang rape.

I hereby declare the One Percent a global terrorist organization, waging a distributed, decentralized, but still coordinated, asymmetric campaign of economic terror against that ragtag band of economic rebels known as "the workforce." We, the Ninety-Nine Percent, have not forgotten what you, the One Percent, have: that free-market capitalism is only as valuable to a client civilization as the extent to which it makes good on its implicit promise to serve as an engine of genuine meritocracy.

I charge the One Percent with economic crimes against peace. I charge the One Percent with class genocide against the "ethnicity" of the Ninety-Nine Percent. And I call upon the International Court of Justice at The Hague to convene a panel to explore the precise legal meaning of terms like "economic war crime," "class genocide," and "economic crimes against peace," and how they might be applied to hypothetical international independent investigations of such large-scale economic actors as, say, Discover Financial Services, or Goldman Sachs, or the SEC, or General Motors, or Union Pacific, or Alcoa, or Boeing, or the Pentagon, or United Healthcare, or the New York Jets, or the House Appropriations Committee, or Iron Mountain, or the Federal Reserve. Or the Vatican.

Only 1% of the One Percent actually deserve, in terms of personal honor and merit, to be in the One Percent. There do exist people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, smart, dogged, energetic people who made themselves rich by thinking of nonobvious, valuable things to build. But they're the minority. The vast majority of the One Percent fall far short of this description. And they've crept into the hospital bedroom where American meritocracy lies feebly in ICU, and they're looking around for a suitable pillow with which to begin the smothering.

Consider this your upgrade notice, One Percent: you no longer get to keep running an old version of the "class warfare" metaphor. Either upgrade to the new version boasting support for war crimes, or uninstall it from your discourse completely.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Worthless Cunts

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are worthless cunts.

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are worthless cunts because they trumpet their own alleged patriotism, pounding their heaving, idiotic chests with their flailing, ignorant fists about the supremacy of self-sacrifice, common sense, and decisive action, while never once coming within 1000 miles of ever conducting their own lives in a way that can render such cuntitude anything other than rank hypocrisy.

As an example of a white, native English-speaking, female, true American patriot, read no further than the case of Heather "Lucky" Penney ( Read her story and then tell me to my face that she isn't, in actuality, what those worthless cunts Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann ceaselessly proclaim themselves to be. Read her story and then tell me to my face that the ideals she can readily prove to have actually structured her existence around aren't the same ideals that those worthless cunts Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann ceaselessly proclaim themselves to honor.

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are worthless cunts because they use exclusive language to talk about how best to solve complex large-scale problems. They invoke the tacit glorification of martyrdom that lies at the core of the entire Abrahamic tradition (smooth move, Yahweh/Allah) to position themselves as "the only ones tough/assertive/bold/brave/etc. enough" to step forward to take the decisive action needed to save this country. And they invoke it loudly over their shoulders while sprinting the fuck away from any political situation that could force them to actually exhibit any of these characteristics.

Contrast this with how Lucky Penney describes her conduct: "I was prepared to die for my country. It's something everyone else would have done if they were in my shoes. I didn't have time to feel fear. We had a mission, and there was a sense of urgency."

The active ingredient in this quote is "It's something everyone else would have done if they were in my shoes." And when she says it, every real patriot within earshot runs the little lightning-fast simulation in their minds and reaches the same conclusion. Like those worthless cunts Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, she too uses plain English to talk about how to solve complex large-scale problems, but unlike those worthless cunts, she does so inclusively. Any other rational adult with equivalent skills would have acted the same as Lucky Penney, she says, and we all know it. But those worthless cunts Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann caw and squawk the exact logical inverse, the contrapositive, of Lucky Penney's statement: there in fact exists a majority of rational adults with equivalent skills that would never once act the way they do, and they are the only ones who don't know it.

In fairness, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are worthless cunts because their lives have presumably taught them that the only way to get and retain the political attentions of the average white male conservative voter in this formerly great country of ours is to become the physical instantiation of the two emotional concepts that mark the ends of the continuum of femininity that dwell within the minds of those average white male conservative voters. Those Nascar-fellating simpletons view all women they've ever known as occupying a point somewhere on a line that ends with Worthless at one end, and Cunt at the other. They're very shrewd, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. They know there's a vast market of voters who can't conceive of a real live woman as being something other than some alchemical fusion of the base elements Worthlessness and Cuntitude, so they have used Fox News -- the Philanderer's Stone, as it were -- to transmute themselves into flashy, smarmy nuggets of Worthless Cunt gold.

In other words, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are worthless cunts because it takes one to know one. And there are an awful lot of worthless cunts among the white men who are either part of, or enjoy the benefits of a financially parasitic relationship with, the Republican party.

This might seem like an undue psychoanalytic generalization, but the social experiment required to back it up has already been conducted. Its results were published recently at (Go read it; I'll wait.) This article actually contains my favorite political parable of the modern age: a small business owner whose #1 customer base is the GOP brass condemning the economic policies of the GOP brass. This has to support the idea that the GOP aren't pro-business, they're pro-Worthless Cunt. The GOP brass exists to amass money mainly so they can ensure themselves a reliable supply of attractive female human beings that have no economic freedom to do anything other than accept the mantel of Worthless Cunt being handed to them.

Fuck you, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, you worthless cunts. And thank you, Heather "Lucky" Penney, for giving all of the average white male GOP hoarders of Worthless Cunt gold an irrefutable example of what real, genuine white female native-English-speaking American patriotism looks like. Thanks to your having been you, maybe enough of the male worthless cunts running the GOP will come around to a sensible world view, freeing the two female worthless cunts under discussion to finally gather up their balls and go home.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

An Open Letter To Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia

Dear Justice Scalia,

It is with great pleasure that I imagine you deigning to read this letter. It is not lost on me what a legitimate honor that would be, seeing as how you are the longest-serving justice on the Court. After earning a Bachelor of Laws degree from Harvard, you built a successful private practice, but then heard the call of public service and failed to miss the opportunity to ride Ronald Reagan's disgraceful coattails to your current august position.

Before delving into the substance of our discussion, I want to acknowledge the caliber of your legal acumen. I want to recognize your mind as a direct lineal descendant of the Magna Carta. And then, I want to crumple that recognition into a ball, and wipe my ass with it, you warthog-faced buffoon.

It may have penetrated the dimly-lit sphere of your Cialis-fueled consciousness that there is a Constitutional battle brewing in the state of Mississippi, where the unfortunately named "Personhood Amendment" is being debated by a representative subset of that spineless species of asshole we continue beyond all reason to call "legislators." (If any so-called legislators happen to be listening in -- fuck you, assholes.) The citizens of the Mississippi Delta Nuclear Family Waste Containment Area, exhibiting a degree of thoughtful civic deliberation remeniscent of ancient Athens, have proposed that legal personhood be granted to human fetuses.

I have a hunch this case will make it to you at some point, and since you sat on the Court during the recent Citizens United case, you presumably have built up some experience navigating the tricky ontological waters of legal personhood. So, as repugnant as I find you personally, I must overcome this defect in my compassion and actively seek out your expertise.

If the Supreme Court holds that the status of legal personhood can be granted to both corporations and fetuses, then the Supreme Court will create an ontological crisis that will be as devastating to the practice of American law as the Greek debt crisis is turning out to be to the commerce of Europe.

By "ontological crisis" I mean, two things that are both (stipulated to be) real, but are in fact completely fucking different from each other, will be indistinguishable from the perspective of Constitutional protections. Corporations, as you may have heard between pig roasts and rounds of golf, are vast agglomerations of physical objects and human beings, distributed in potentially many geographic places at once, using technology to exchange information amongst each other. Fetuses, on the other hand, are lumps of tissue that are basically indistinguishable from your appendix except for the magical property that they will, left to their own devices, turn into human beings. These two objects, corporations and fetuses, are arranged in an ontological opposition best described as diametric.

Not only are the ontological essences of corporations and fetuses diametrically opposed to each other, but they are both diametrically opposed to the folk notions of personhood prevalent in the American electorate -- y'know, the John Q. Public commonsense notions of what the word "person" means. These notions are hosted in, and originate from, the minds of sentient beings (presumably somewhat like yourself) that our friends and our families have seen fit to call "persons" without a second thought, for generations and generations, long before anyone felt a burning need to give that term legal primacy.

By "ontological crisis" I mean, it will be impossible to contrive a reliable test for determining whether a given ontological entity that might be referenced in a legal proceeding does or does not constitute a person. Such basic ontological tests as "Is it alive?" will fail: this answer is "yes" for fetuses and for the folk notion of person, but is "no" for corporations. "Can I converse with it?" yields "yes" for the folk notion of person and for corporations, but will yield "no" for fetuses. "Is it capable of love?" yields yes for the folk notion of person and for fetuses, but will yield "no" for corporations. "Is it capable of being sued?" will yield "yes" for corporations and for the folk notion of person, but will yield "no" for fetuses. "Can I readily determine how much money it's worth?" yields "yes" for corporations and for the folk notion of person, but "no" for fetuses. "Can it be owned?" yields "yes" for corporations (and maybe fetuses, depending on how our hillbilly fucktard brethren in Mississippi want to play it) but "no" for fetuses and the folk notion of person.

The only ontological tests that can reliably succeed for all three flavors of legal person are so general as to be useless: "Can it die?" Yes in all cases. (Note how "Can its death be mourned?" yields "yes" only for fetuses and the folk notion of person.) "Is it made of matter?" Yes in all cases. "Can it experience the passage of time?" Yes in all cases. Surely a mind as keen as yours sees this Boschlike landscape of hellish ontological chaos. Words (which I understand are used heavily in law) would literally cease to convey meaning reliably, regardless of whose mouths they emerge from.

The way I see it, a strict constructionist like yourself has only one honest option: you get to pick one. Either corporations enjoy legal personhood, but not fetuses; or fetuses enjoy legal personhood, but not corporations. But hear me loud and clear, you bitch motherfucker: YOU DON'T GET BOTH. If you were to get both, that would mark the moment when the entire population of this country realizes that the law has become completely self-referential and untethered to the ontological realities that constrain us all. This isn't a political ax I'm trying to grind, either: I don't give a fuck which one you pick. Leave Citizens United intact, at the price of smacking down this dreadful "Personhood Amendment"; or give the Personhood Amendment the thumbs-up, at the price of overturning Citizens United. BUT YOU DON'T GET BOTH.

So my question is this: what ontological test, or set of tests, do you plan to rely on in this eventuality? What "strict constructions" will you use to express your strict proclivities while orienteering through these thorny wildernesses? What set of guiding principles will you use to map the abstractions of law back to the ontological catalog from which this world is populated with objects? Articulate for me, if you will, your underlying legal philosophy for approaching these questions in the future. Give me a glimpse of the heated conversations you have with yourself when these matters intrude on your CPAP-enabled sleep. Thrill me with your acumen.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why I Got Euler's Identity Tattooed On My Back

The majority of people in my life are uninterested in math, to put it mildly, but that has not prevented them from expressing curiosity about my Euler's Identity tattoo. "What's it mean?" they ask. "Why is it so important to you?" These questions are difficult to answer without invoking so much math as to make the questioners' eyes glaze over (at best; at worst they run screaming from the room). This post attempts to provide a non-mathematical metaphor that, I hope, will convey even to math-phobic readers the same kind of awe and beauty that I experience when contemplating Euler's Identity. I'm going to start with a totally un-mathy topic: literary characterization.

Readers of novels have slightly different ideas about what makes for good characterization than, say, readers of comic books. (I'm deliberately defying the growing pressure to call this benighted artform "graphic novels" by focusing specifically on comic books about superheroes, which is how it all got started, no matter how much the breathless fanboys may inform me that it's grown up since.) Readers of novels define their characters in terms of interiority: they talk about childhood memory, emotional nuance, mannerisms, depth. Readers of superhero comic books define their characters in terms of exteriority: they talk about costumes, superpowers, Achilles' heels, weapons, amulets, etc. It's the difference between viewing a character as a human being versus as a mere bundle of attributes.

Although I have little patience in general with the superhero comic book way of approaching character, it is useful in this context because it provides an interesting approach to numbers. Numbers, too, can be described merely as bundles of attributes. Of any number, there's a list of well-defined characteristics that it may or may not have: odd or even? Real or imaginary? Positive or negative? Whole or fractional? As long as we're willing to view the world through these glasses, then it's not such a stretch to reimagine the set of all numbers as literature's only infinite cast of characters.

Granted, some of these "characters" are a lot more interesting, compelling even, than others. Zero is a good example. We have yet to discover any other number that is as devoted a pacifist and yet simultaneously as rapacious a conqueror as zero. When it comes to addition, zero is a cuddly, harmless teddy bear: you can add anything to zero and that number will just emerge as itself, untouched. But when it comes to multiplication, zero is Genghis Khan, slaughtering all hapless comers, leaving only itself standing. (Don't even get zero started on division.)

In 2005, Roger Ebert popularized the term "hyperlink movie" (coined by Alissa Quart in that same year) in his review of Syriana, where he says it "describes movies in which the characters inhabit separate stories, but we gradually discover how those in one story are connected to those in another." Part of the power of this narrative structure, he explains, is that "the motives of one character may have to be reinterpreted after we meet another one." The TV show Lost, for instance, also has a "hyperlink narrative."

Euler's Identity is the best evidence thus far discovered that all of mathematics is one giant hyperlink narrative. Before Leonhard Euler discovered it in the sixteenth century, mathematics better resembled, say, the work of Stephen King -- a collection of largely unrelated narratives that occasionally overlap in character or location. There was the "number theory" narrative, whose heroes are 0 and 1; the "calculus" narrative, whose hero is e; the "complex analysis" narrative, whose hero is i; and the "trigonometry" narrative, whose hero is pi. Nobody had any idea that the arcs of these characters, which had been entirely separate up to that point, would directly intersect each other.

If math is a hyperlink movie with numbers as its heroes, then Euler's Identity can be thought of as that mindfuck scene at the end that makes the viewer go "No way!" It is the first, and so far only, scene in Math: The Movie in which all five of these compelling number-characters, 0, 1, i, pi, and e, interact directly. (When Heat came out, much was made of the fact that Pacino and DeNiro, two Italian giants of crime noir, had a single six-minute scene together; imagine how much more of a publicity coup it would have been if they were joined by, say, Humphrey Bogart, Denzel Washington, and Laurence Olivier.)

But what are these mathemacting luminaries saying to each other? No one knows. After proving the Identity in a lecture, Benjamin Peirce said, "It is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don't know what it means, but we have proved it, and therefore we know it must be the truth." Euler's Scene is the mathematical equivalent of something out of a David Lynch film -- arresting, bizarre, inscrutable -- only, this David Lynch film is actually a documentary.

Friday, June 26, 2009

I Miss C-Style Switch Statements

It took me about a year to fully warm up to C# after years of unmanaged C++ in the COM/Win32 world. Now I'm at a point where I love it. But there is one thing about it that drives me nuts: Microsoft no longer lets you have "fall-through" control transfer between case clauses inside a switch statement. You have to have every case paired with an explicit break, even if it doesn't make logical sense. This means that now I have to do a lot of if...else if...else if...else-type constructions to get the desired control flow, when a C-style switch statement would've been the most elegant thing. *sigh*