The absurdity of bias

Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. The head shavers were civilians—a fat fuck and his women. The women had silver-blue permanents; there were two of them and they were awful. So was the fat fuck. It wasn’t enough for them that we had to pay them money for these haircuts that we were ordered to get; they talked shit to us too. They cut a kid’s head so it was bleeding pretty good and he let on that he minded and they said he was a sissy. They wanted to know if he was from San Fran-sissy-co. Then they cut another kid and the blood was running down and they thought it was funny. They didn’t get bored of it. They had special vacuum clippers that sucked the hair up as they cut. The suction pulled the scalp up into the blades; that was how come they drew blood so much. The fat fuck and his women had to talk real loud so they could hear themselves over the sucking sounds. I wished death upon them. Then we got a hundred fucking shots. We got all our Army stuff: uniforms, boots, helmets, shit like that. We took our papers with us everywhere. They signed our papers. This was in-processing. When we weren’t in-processing we sat in an auditorium and they taught us things: left face, right face, the Army song, whatever. When it was time to eat we acted like the food was really bad even though it wasn’t that bad. One kid said, “I’m a spook. That’s counterintelligence.” Another kid said, “I’m an eleven bravo.” That was infantry. But he couldn’t be an 11B because all the 11Bs went through at Fort Benning. Now we knew he was a liar. The group I came in with was B1, as in bravo one. That night another group came in, B2. We thought the B2s were decadent children. We said, “These bravo twos are ate-the-fuck-up.” We said, “They sure are.” The B2s thought we were weird losers. The mutual enmity between B1s and B2s lasted three days; then we were redistributed at random into three platoons called Alpha Company, and no one could remember who anyone was. The universal baldness made it difficult to recognize people. They packed us into cattle cars and we rode up the hill to boot camp.

Wor(l)d.

Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina's delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and kabbalistic chitchat -- was, literally, talked into life.

This is the story.

This is the Story

This is the beginning. Here is where the story begins. The character is introduced—we meet the character, her, we’ll call her a her. We begin to learn about her background, or if not so much as that, then her habits. We see her doing what she does every day, in medias res. What she does now foreshadows what will happen to her later. She does the same thing every day, and then something changes. It’s not much, but it’s something, and so it is a story.

This is the middle. The thing that happens, the different thing, happens here. She was safe in her assumptions, but this thing occurs, or something occurs to her, a realization, and she can no longer go on thinking what she thought. Perhaps it has to do with him, someone important to her, someone whom perhaps she loves. And yet he is also her antagonist, the one who stands in the way of what must happen for her to be, if not happy, then consummated, fulfilled. This is when we meet him, when we come to understand the obstacle he presents, when we are allowed to wonder how she will, how she can, proceed.

This is the ending. At this point the situation comes to its crisis. Events build to a climax. We have been expecting this: a conflict, and, through its resolution, change. But then something happens that we had not -expected, a surprise, a twist, which nonetheless feels, now that it has happened, -inevitable. They were at odds in a way that had become familiar, and now we learn that their goals are not so far apart, that perhaps what had seemed a conflict is in fact its own resolution.

Finally there is this, something after the ending, after the climax: the result. It is not at all what we expected. Perhaps one of them—him—is left behind in some way by the events that have transpired. He is lost, and she must suffer a kind of grief, as must he, for he is lost but must go on, as she must, too. So the story comes to its conclusion, open to interpretation, and we find that the only way out, for us as well as for them, is this lyrical finale, a few words, a bit of poetry. This last sentence is beautiful, as though beauty is itself the justification, though it isn’t—not quite.

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White-out history.

El febrer de 1948 el dirigent comunista Klement Gottwald va sortir al balcó d'un palau barroc de Praga per adreçar-se als centenars de ciutadans txecs que omplien la plaça de la Ciutat Vella. Aquella havia de ser una gran fita en la història de Bohèmia. Un d'aquells moments fatídics que ocorren una o dues vegades cada mil·lenni. Gottwald estava envoltat pels seus camarades i just al seu costat hi havia Clementis. La neu planava en l'aire, feia fred i Gottwald anava amb el cap descobert. Clementis, tot sol·lícit, es va treure la gorra de pell i la va posar al cap de Gottwald. 

La secció de propaganda va reproduir en centenars de milers d'exemplars la fotografia del balcó des del qual Gottwald, amb una gorra de pell al cap i envoltat de camarades, s'adreça al poble. En aquell balcó va començar la història de la Bohemia comunista. Aquella fotografia, la coneixien tots els nens d'haver-la vista en els cartells, en els Ilibres de text i en els museus. 

Quatre anys més tard Clementis va ser acusat de traició i penjat. La secció de propaganda el va esborrar immediatament de la història i, naturalment, de totes les fotografies. Des d'aleshores Gottwald està tot sol al balcó. En el lloc on havia estat Clementis hi ha només el mur buit del palau. De Clementis tan sols ha quedat la gorra de pell al cap de Gottwald. 

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Brain's the enemy.

Mary had also taught that the human brain was the most admirable survival device yet produced by evolution. But now her own big brain was urging her to take the polyethylene garment bag from around a red evening dress in her closet, and to wrap it around her head, thus depriving her cells of oxygen.

Before that, her wonderful brain had entrusted a thief at the airport with a suitcase containing all her toilet articles and clothes which would have been suitable for the hotel.

Her colossal thinking machine could be so petty, too. It would not let her go downstairs in her combat fatigues on the grounds that everybody, even though there was practically nobody in the hotel, would find her comical in such a costume. Her brain told her: ‘They’ll laugh at you behind your back, and think you’re crazy and pitiful, and your life is over anyway. You’ve lost your husband and your teaching job, and you don’t have any children or anything else to live for, so just put yourself out of your misery with the garment bag. What could be easier? What could be more painless? What could make more sense?’

Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilogrammes! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. 

So I raise this question, although there is nobody around to answer it: Can it be doubted that three-kilogramme brains were once nearly fatal defects in the evolution of the human race?

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Man created God in his own image and likeness, on Halloween.

The gods play games with the fate of men. Not complex ones obviously, because gods lack patience. Cheating is part of the rules. And gods play hard. To lose all believers is, for a god, the end. But a believer who survives the game gains honour and extra belief. Who wins with the most believers, lives.

Believers can include other gods, of course. Gods believe in belief.

There were always many games going on in Dunmanifestin, the abode of die gods on Cori Celesti. It looked, from outside, like a crowded city.* Not all gods lived there, many of them being bound to a particular country or in the case of the smaller ones, even one tree. But it was a Good Address. It was where you hung your metaphysical equivalent of the shiny brass plate, like those small discreet buildings in the smarter areas of major cities which nevertheless appear to house one hundred and fifty lawyers and accountants, presumably on some sort of shelving.

The city's domestic appearance was because, while people are influenced by gods, so gods are influenced by people.

Most gods were people-shaped: people don't have much imagination, on the whole. Even Offler the Crocodile God was only crocodile-headed. Ask people to imagine an annual god and they will, basically, come up with the idea of someone in a really bad mask. Men have been much better at inventing demons, which is why there are so many. 

*Few religions are definite about the size of Heaven, but on the planet Earth the Book of Revelation (ch. XXI, v.l6) gives it as a cube 12,000 furlongs on a side. This is somewhat less than 500,000,000.000,000,000,000 cubic feet. Even allowing that the Heavenly Host and other essential services take up at least two thirds of this spate, this leaves about one million cubic feet of space for each human occupant-assuming that every creature that could be called 'human' is allowed in, and that the human race eventually totals a thousand times the number of humans alive up until now. This is such a generous amount of space that it suggests that room has also been provided for some alien races or - a happy thought - that pets are allowed.

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Fictions and facts.

A picture hung on the wall of our parlor. In it, a woman was taking a shirt from a clothesline. She had clothespins in her teeth and it was windy and a boy was tugging at her dress. The woman looked like she was in a hurry and the whole scene gave me the idea that, just outside the frame, full, dark clouds were gathering. But that was not what it was. It was paint. So I decided right then and there to see the picture as it really was. I stared at the thing long and hard, trying to only see the paint. But it was no use. All my eyes would allow me to see was the lie. In fact, the longer I gazed at the paint, the more false detail I began to imagine. The boy was crying, as if afraid, and the woman was weaker than I had first believed. I finally gave up. I understood then that it takes a powerful imagination to see a thing for what it really is.

(...)

Death is a funny thing. Not funny haha, like a Woody Allen movie, but funny strange, like a Woody Allen marriage. When it’s unexpected, death comes fast like a ravenous wolf and tears open your throat with a merciful fury. But when it’s expected, it comes slow and patient like a snake, and the doctor tells you how far away it is and when, exactly, it will be at your door. And when it will be at the foot of your bed. And when it will be on your flesh. It’s all right there on their clipboards.

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Class struggle revisited.

In the rarified air that was pumped into the Concorde Room, there nonetheless hovered a hint of something troubling: the implicit suggestion that the three traditional airline classes represented nothing less than a tripartite division of society according to people’s genuine talents and virtues. Having abolished the caste systems of old and fought to ensure universal access to education and opportunity, it seemed that we might have built up a meritocracy that had introduced an element of true justice into the distribution of wealth as well as poverty. In the modern era, destitution could therefore be regarded as not merely pitiable but deserved. The question of why, if one was in any way talented or adept, one was still unable to earn admittance to an elegant lounge was a conundrum for all economy airline passengers to ponder in the privacy of their own minds as they perched on hard plastic chairs in the overcrowded and chaotic public waiting areas of the world’s airports.

The West once had a powerful and forgiving explanation for exclusion from any sort of lounge: for two thousand years Christianity rejected the notion, inherent in the modern meritocratic system, that virtue must inevitably usher in material success. Jesus was the highest man, the most blessed, and yet throughout his earthly life he was poor, thus by his very example ruling out any direct equation between righteousness and wealth. the Christian story emphasized that, however apparently equitable our educational and commercial infrastructures might seem, random factors and accidents would always conspire to wreck any neat alignment between hierarchies of wealth on the one hand and virtue on the other. According to St Augustine, only God himself knew what each individual was worth, and He would not reveal that assessment before the time of the Last Judgement, to the sound of thunder and the trumpets of angels – a phantasmagorical scenario for non-believers, but helpful nevertheless in reminding us to refrain from judging others on the basis of a casual look at their tax returns.

The Christian story has neither died out nor been forgotten. That it continues even now to scratch away at meritocratic explanations of privilege was made clear to me when, after a copious lunch rounded off by a piece of chocolate cake with passionfruit sorbet, an employee called Reggie described for me the complicated set of circumstance that had brought her to the brutally decorated staff area of the Concorde Room from a shantytown outside Puerto Princesa in the Philippines. Our preference for the meritocratic versus the Christian belief system will in the end determine how we decide to interpret the relative standing of a tracksuited twenty-seven-year-old entrepreneur reading the Wall Street Journal by a stone-effect fireplace while waiting to board his fight to Seattle, against that of a Filipina cleaner whose job it is to tour the bathrooms of an airline’s first-class lounge, swabbing the shower cubicles of their diverse and ever-changing colonies of international bacteria.

At the end of my life, may my sons wear many hats.

The son of the late philosopher-mystic Perelmann, who was writing a biography of his father, used to say at our weekly brown-bag colloquiums that he wore two hats: that of Perelmann’s son and that of his biographer. We assumed that this was just a figure of speech until a graduate student who happened to be renting an apartment across the street from him told us that he really wore two physical hats: the son-of-Perelmann hat was a Boston Red Sox cap, and the biographer-of-Perelmann hat was a brown fedora. Some evenings he wore the Red Sox cap, some evenings he wore the brown fedora, and some evenings he went back and forth, more or less rapidly, between the cap and the fedora.

Word circulated, and before long the chair of the department knocked on Perelmann’s son’s office door. The chair urged him to take some time off, please, for his own sake.

“Bill,” Perelmann’s son said, with a knowing smile. “Is this about the hats?”

The chair admitted that he was concerned.

“Bill,” Perelmann’s son said again, touching the chair’s wrist. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not going crazy, at least not yet! The hats serve a purely functional purpose.”

It looked silly, he knew, but the hats helped him keep separate his two conflicting roles—first as a son still grieving for his father, second as a scholar trying to understand, to historicize, and, yes, to critique, as dispassionately as possible, his father’s ideas. Before hitting upon the two-hat system, he’d lived in a state of perpetual self-reproach: when he thought of Perelmann in the way that a son thinks of his father, the scholar in him condemned his lack of objectivity, and when he thought of Perelmann in the way that a scholar thinks of his subject the son in him condemned his lack of loyalty.

The hats put an end to all that.

When he pulled on the old Red Sox cap, its snug fit and familiar smell had a Proustian effect. He was returned to the grandstands of Fenway Park, beside his father. He was suffused with compassion and pity, with respect, love, and acceptance—for his father’s flaws no less than for his virtues. He wanted to annihilate his father’s academic detractors and slaughter those who would attempt to understand him as a product of his milieu. Such was the effect of the Red Sox cap. But under the weight of the brown fedora, beneath its sober brim, he could put aside his childish devotion and scrutinize his father’s thought with the skepticism required of an intellectual historian. He investigated the genealogy of his father’s ideas, examined their internal consistency, considered their presuppositions and limitations.

“Bill, I admit it’s a strange system!” Perelmann’s son said, laughing. “That what happens in our heads should be so affected by what happens on top of our heads. But, for me, this does seem to be the case.” He shrugged. “It helps me proceed. I do not question it.”

The department chair went away intensely impressed, even moved. Word went around that Perelmann’s son was not crazy but brilliant.

At our next brown-bag colloquium, Perelmann’s son claimed to wear “four hats.” He was Perelmann’s son, Perelmann’s biographer, Perelmann’s philosophical interlocutor, and Perelmann’s estate executor.

The following morning, the graduate student reported that two new hats, a black bowler and a purple yarmulke, had entered the rotation. From what he’d seen, he hypothesized that the bowler was the executor hat and the yarmulke was the interlocutor hat. Perelmann’s son had spent most of the early evening going calmly back and forth between the Red Sox cap and the bowler. At around eight o’clock, the yarmulke had gone on and stayed on until just after nine. From then until midnight, he’d frantically switched among the yarmulke, the Red Sox cap, and the brown fedora. He had ended the night with forty-five relatively relaxed minutes in the black bowler.

“I’m fine, Bill!” Perelmann’s son said, touching the chair’s wrist. “How can I summon memories of my father one minute and deal with his taxes the next? Impossible, unless I physically put on the bowler hat. One minute I’m recalling the sensation of being up on his shoulders, the next I’m attacking his peculiar interpretation of Kant? The purple yarmulke. Who taught him this idiosyncratic Kant, and when? Brown fedora.”

By the next colloquium, Perelmann’s son wore sixteen hats. He was Perelmann’s son, Perelmann’s biographer, Perelmann’s philosophical interlocutor, Perelmann’s estate executor, Perelmann’s publicist, Perelmann’s usurper, Perelmann’s housekeeper, Perelmann’s zealot, Perelmann’s annihilator, Perelmann’s designated philosophical heir, Perelmann’s defector, Perelmann’s librarian, Perelmann’s gene carrier, Perelmann’s foot soldier, Perelmann’s betrayer, and Perelmann’s doppelgänger. Twelve new hats joined the repertoire, including a beret, a bandanna, a small straw hat, and a sombrero.

Naturally, we were a little alarmed. Perelmann’s son’s evenings, the graduate student reported, were now mere blurs of hat transitions. Nothing stayed on his head for long. But reality, we assumed, would sooner or later impose a limit on his mania. There are only so many kinds of hats, just as there are only so many relations that can possibly obtain between a father and a son. In due course Perelmann’s son would run out of either hats or relations, we thought—probably hats—and thereafter he would return to reason.

But soon there were relations we had never considered, hats we’d never heard of. He was Perelmann’s old-Jewish-joke repository, Perelmann’s voice impersonator, Perelmann’s sweater wearer, the last living practitioner of Perelmann’s skiing technique, Perelmann’s surpasser, Perelmann’s victim. He wore an eighteenth-century tricorne, a deerstalker, a round Hasidic kolpik, an Afghan pakol with a peacock feather tucked into its folds.

By the end of the fall semester we knew something had to be done. The explosion of hats and relations had not abated. Left alone, we realized, Perelmann’s son would partition his relationship with his father ad infinitum, and for each infinitesimal slice of relationship he would purchase a hat. Ultimately, he would turn his relationship with his father—by nature, one simple thing—into something infinitely complex, and his hat collection would, correspondingly, grow without bound, and he would wind up destroying himself. His analytical tendency, along with the huge hat collection that resulted from it, would obliterate him.

So, one morning, in an attempt to save Perelmann’s son from himself, a group of graduate students and junior faculty members slipped, with the department chair’s blessing, into his apartment. (He was at a Perelmann conference.) We gathered all the hats and put them in garbage bags—a hundred and twenty-eight hats in twelve garbage bags—and got them out of there.

But in our hearts we must have known that we were treating the symptom, not the cause. Yesterday, according to our informant, Perelmann’s son spent all day and all night in a ten-gallon hat of thus far unknown paternal associations.

Adam Ehrlich Sachs, (2016) Two Hats - The New Yorker Feb 1, 2016

 

Reality generates data. Or is it the other way around?

Everyone knows that dragons don’t exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. The School of Higher Neantical Nillity is in fact wholly unconcerned with what does exist. Indeed, the banality of existence has been so amply demonstrated, there is no need for us to discuss it any further here. The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, probability theory to this area and, in so doing, created the field of statistical draconics, which says that dragons are thermodynamically impossible only in the probabilistic sense, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, witches, pixies and the like. Using the general equation of improbability, the two constructors obtained the coefficients of pixation, elfinity, kobolding, etc. They found that for the spontaneous manifestation of an average dragon, one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years. In other words, the whole problem would have remained a mathematical curiosity had it not been for that famous tinkering passion of Trurl, who decided to examine the nonphenomenon empirically. First, as he was dealing with the highly improbable, he invented a probability amplifier and ran tests in his basement – then later at the Dracogenic Proving Grounds established and funded by the probability theory to this area and, in so doing, created the field of statistical draconics, which says that dragons are thermodynamically impossible only in the probabilistic sense, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, witches, pixies and the like. Using the general equation of improbability, the two constructors obtained the coefficients of pixation, elfinity, kobolding, etc. They found that for the spontaneous manifestation of an average dragon, one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years. In other words, the whole problem would have remained a mathematical curiosity had it not been for that famous tinkering passion of Trurl, who decided to examine the nonphenomenon empirically. First, as he was dealing with the highly improbable, he invented a probability amplifier and ran tests in his basement – then later at the Dracogenic Proving Grounds established and funded by the Academy. To this day those who (sadly enough) have no knowledge of the General Theory of Improbability ask why Trurl probabilized a dragon and not an elf or goblin. The answer is simply that dragons are more probable than elves or goblins to begin with. True, Trurl might have gone further with his amplifying experiments, had not the first been so discouraging – discouraging in that the materialized dragon tried to make a meal of him. Fortunately, Klapaucius was nearby and lowered the probability, and the monster vanished.

Let me help you with that.

He recalled what his favorite professor, Leonard Leech, once told him about getting ahead in law. Leech said that, just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands.

"In every big transaction," said Leech, "there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on. If the man who is to receive the treasure is unused to wealth, has an inferiority complex and shapeless feelings of guilt, as most people do, the lawyer can often take as much as half the bundle, and still receive the recipient's blubbering thanks."

Kurt Vonnegut (1965) God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Secret handshake.

Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains chapters in every city—in every cranium—in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirily from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.

A-players and A-bombs.

For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30% or so. The best airplane flight, the best meal, they may be 30% better than your average one. What I saw with Woz was somebody who was fifty times better than the average engineer. He could have meetings in his head. The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players. People said they wouldn’t get along, they’d hate working with each other . But I realized that A players like to work with A players , they just didn’t like working with C players. At Pixar, it was a whole company of A players. When I got back to Apple, that’s what I decided to try to do. You need to have a collaborative hiring process. When we hire someone, even if they’re going to be in marketing, I will have them talk to the design folks and the engineers. My role model was J. Robert Oppenheimer. I read about the type of people he sought for the atom bomb project. I wasn’t nearly as good as he was, but that’s what I aspired to do.

Walter Isaacson (2011). Steve Jobs.

Live your life at 80%.

I’ve always thought of myself as an 80 percenter. I like to throw myself passionately into a sport or activity until I reach about an 80 percent proficiency level. To go beyond that requires an obsession and degree of specialization that doesn’t appeal to me. Once I reach that 80 percent level I like to go off and do something totally different; that probably explains the diversity of the Patagonia product line—and why our versatile, multifaceted clothes are the most successful.