Saturday, August 29, 2009

This Television has been Revolutionized

This television
has been
This television
has been
On this TV the war is on every channel,
the war is on every channel
because the war is nowhere to be found
on any channel.
This war is not one war because it is two wars,
this war is not one war, because it is all wars.
This war has been
because when they show war
there is no war
and the real war
is between channels
The real war
is channel surfing
give me your restless, your tired
and your Taliban heros
your Taliban heroins
injected into the veins
of your heroic soldiers.
This war has been brought to you
by a word from our sponsors.
This war has been taught to you by a word from
our sponsors
who art in board rooms,
hallowed be thy trademark.
This war has been brought to you
by the War President,
this war has been brought to you
by the Peace President
This is the perpetual war for perpetual peace,
it goes on in the bright lights of nightvision,
in the manufactured darkness of televised day.
This television has been revolutionized because
this revolution has been revolutionized.
The revolution will not be tweeted.
The revolution will not be Facebooked.
The revolution will not be electronically
But the revolutionized revolution
The revolutionized revolution texts in darkness,
the revolutionized revolution exists
in isolation.
The revolutionized revolution thinks that nobody knows
your IP address.
The revolutionized revolution is the
white noise on every channel
of an analog TV set without a digital converter
blasting its one message loud and clear:
from now on you will have to pay for your own

What, you think this shit is cheap?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Half Wrong

"To generalize is to be an idiot.”
--- William Blake

The glass is half full or you die.

Optimist shmoptimist. Pessimist shmessimist.

Anyone who isn’t brain dead recognizes that the glass is both half empty, and half full, and that you could even say it is half empty because it is half full, or verse vica.

But what about when the glass is 90% full: is it just as valid to say that it is almost empty as to say that it is almost full?

At some point imprecision slips in: 92.67%? 86.9817%?

At some point, you generalize.

I once read that less than 10% of Americans owned slaves before the civil war.

A slightly higher percentage of blacks were free.

If this were true, it would be as accurate to say that blacks were free as to say that whites owned slaves.

My point here is twofold: if we are “forced” to generalize, we should prefer the generalization that is 90% true and 10% false to the one that is 90% false and 10% true. Both are true (in part). Both, false. But one of the two (optimistic or not) better approximates our sense of truthfulness and honesty.

You can speak conventionally, and you can speak truthfully, but you can’t speak bothfully (I note that my spell-checker does not like this last word).

Take another example. Mathematicians define a “manifold” as something that is locally flat, but globally curved. This is the way living on earth feels. When a carpenter tries to determine whether something is flat or not, he compares it with the flat ground. It does not concern him that the planet itself is curved. People on both the political left and right call their adversaries “flat earthers”, trying to imply that they will not admit the “truth”. But the truth is that the earth is flat. And the earth is round. Bothfulness again.

In an odd obverse of this, consider the human habit of referring to “sunrise”, and “sunset”. More than 400 years after Galileo, you might expect that people would no longer believe, or at least utter sentences that sound like they believe, that the sun revolves around the earth. Are people who use the words “sunrise” and “sunset” “flat earthers”? Think here also of “moon rise” and “moon set”, and recall that the moon really does revolve around the earth.

Revolution, rotation. It’s all so confusing.

The problem is that the problem is always at least two problems. Consider the (non)equations:

2 + 2 = 79
2 + 2 = 4.000001

We want to say that one of these is more right than the other. But asked whether each one is “right” or “wrong”, we feel compelled (for the most part) to answer that each one is wrong. They are both “100% wrong” even though the first one is wrong only by some small fraction of a percent.

We want the fact that the glass is 99.999% full to count for something.

I would be remiss were I not to mention that whatever the case may look like, the glass really is much more than 99% empty since atoms themselves are mostly empty space; atoms themselves are fantastically empty. Should you doubt this ask yourself this simple question; why do x-rays work?

Even the glass part of the glass is more than half empty (more than 99%: light does, after all, pass through it.) The emptiness (or is it the extreme concentration) of matter caused the discoverer of the nucleus, Ernest Rutherford, to wax poetic. Of his early experiments with gold foils he observed it was "as if you fired a 15-inch naval shell at a piece of tissue paper and the shell came right back and hit you."

Another way of describing the situation is as the universal synecdoche (rhymes with Schenectady) of words, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it: “A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).” Note that to restrict the definition of synecdoche to any one of its parts would itself be, in part, synecdoche.

We may want William Blake to be right when he observes that “to generalize is to be an idiot”, but we note that Blake himself is generalizing.

Nor is this fact restricted, as might be concluded from my examples, to scientific situations.

When the United States in an act of naked aggression invaded Iraq thereby committing the supreme crime under international law, many Americans, myself included, were horrified. Many sought ways to make this crime palpable to their fellow citizens, in order to counteract the massive propaganda campaign conducted by the military-industrial media. One group called “Iraq Body Count” sought to collate press accounts of Iraqis killed by American force. Their methodology was such as to err entirely on the side of undercounting Iraqi dead. This was understandable since they wanted to have thorough credibility. But, this had unintended consequences.

When, in 2004, the American researcher Les Roberts published a study of Iraqi mortality based on cluster samples he and his colleagues had conducted in Iraq, he found a number about ten times the size of the number published by Iraq Body Count.

The glass was 90% empty.

Iraq Body Count’s numbers were used to dispute Roberts’ results although the two were measuring entirely different things by entirely different methods with entirely different types of errors (note in passing that an ungelded horse is called an entire.)

With the glass, the sunrise, the flat earth, the x-ray, the nature of error in arithmetic, free blacks, white slave-owners, 15-inch naval shells, Iraqi body counts, we, in order to speak, are compelled, like William Blake, to generalize. To synecdochize.

Maj Ragain writes that we are all f**ked tomatoes.

He may be half wrong.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Love in the Key of Skin

Skin, bright-eyed, sight reads.
Fingersong calligraphy.
You, my holy, braille.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Buy the Numbers

Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science
----- W.H. Auden

Statistics show,
ours is by far the wealthiest age in history, but
we have less land per person, less green space, and dirtier
air and water.

Statistics show
that our phones are ineffably sleek and sexy, that we have more of them, make more calls, with cleaner connections, and do it for less money, but
we say less, forget it faster, confuse more, and abandon commitments sooner.

Statistics show, life expectancies increased by twenty years in the past seventy, and so you'll only age 45 minutes in the next hour; that if you're not already dead you could live to be 300 --- but only if you were born yesterday.

Statistics show, July is warmer than January
and that January is warmer than July --- if you happen to live in Australia.

Statistics show, that every square inch of dry land on the surface of the globe will soon be submerged in wriggling sinuous human flesh, and
that all of these wrigglers will own bigger starter-mansions, and flat-panel TV sets, louder Dolby with less harmonic distortion, posier shock-absorbing mountain bikes, and that they all will have more, healthier, and better-engineered food.

Statistics show, that the average SUV will soon be bigger than the state of Minnesota, and need the total oil reserves of Saudi Arabia just to drive the mean distance between Walmarts (about 50 feet), that computers will soon be so fast you'll be able to calculate tomorrow yesterday, and store the Encyclopedia Britannica, the entire archives of the New York Times, the complete works of the Marquis de Sade, and the film library of MGM in something smaller than a drop of mosquito spit, but
you still won't be able to find your car keys or wrist watch when you're in a hurry.

Statistics show that if present trends continue, children will only be born
to unmarried parents, but only married parents will have kids who are educated,
and fed.

Statistics show,
that statistics lie.

Statistics show
we all know this.

Statistics show, that nothing is growing faster than the use of statistics compiled by governments to increase the profits of transnational businesses.

Statistics show, people choose their statistics to fit their prejudices, they show you should never think with your heart, never act imprudently, never ignore your own benefit, and never ever ever do anything statistics warn you against.

What statistics won't show is how or why to love another human being, cherish the beauty that hasn't been spray painted, strip-mined, industrialized, or urban-sprawled out of existence
demand that the poor and weak receive the same respect and dignity as the rich and the powerful, or deride the mathematical fraudulence of assuming all humans behave as identical, independently distributed random variables when they are in fact
irreducibly, and

(I've been meaning to put this poem on the blog for a couple of months, but have run into problems with line breaks. What exists here is just the best I could do for line breaks using the blogger editor at the moment. I thought this would be fun because of a recent NY Times article about statistics, and note, to follow the link you will need to be a registered user of the Times, which doesn't cost money, but does cost a certain amount in releasing marketing info, which is probably not worth it if you are not already a Times reader.)