Saturday, June 11, 2016

Book 45: Some philosophical musing, a poem, and I manage to squeeze in a reference to Nick Harkaway.

Like the protagonist in The Gone-Away World, the main character in The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty is someone who never existed, at least until now. That seems to be a theme in the books I really love: people whose lives consist of them inventing or reinventing themselves until they run into trouble or learn who they are.

Aside from that theme, there's no similarity between the two books, but I liked each of them equally, albeit in very different ways.

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty takes its name from a poem of a similar name:

The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty 

You are sitting here with us, 
 but you are also out walking in a field at dawn. 

 You are yourself the animal we hunt 
 when you come with us on the hunt. 

 You are in your body 
 like a plant is solid in the ground, 
 yet you are wind. 

 You are the diver’s clothes 
 lying empty on the beach. 
 You are the fish. 

 In the ocean are many bright strands 
 and many dark strands like veins that are seen 
 when a wing is lifted up. 

 Your hidden self is blood in those, 
 those veins that are lute strings 
 that make ocean music, 
 not the sad edge of surf 
 but the sound of no shore.


The poem makes an appearance in the book, which in its story ruminates on what identity we have, and whether we take that identity because it is forced on us, or if we are free to choose it -- as well as whether you can be more than one thing at one time.

The main character never reveals her real name. At the beginning of the book she is on a flight to Casablanca, wanting to sleep but unable to, and as her story unfolds we learn what has led her to be on this flight: she's running away from home, in a way, having left her husband under circumstances in which her entire life has essentially been stripped away from her, more or less literally.

That effect continues when, as she checks into her hotel, her backpack containing all her money and credit cards, as well as her passport and IDs, is stolen. When she contacts the police, she is given a similar backpack with the passport and credit cards of a woman who looks similar to her; becoming convinced that the hotel and the police are planning something sinister (her paranoia about the world around her ends up being entirely justified, in a way), she checks into a new hotel using the new identity.

From there she gets a job as a confidant to a movie star and stand-in on her set, with the story quickly unfolding in a set of zigs and zags that leave a reader almost breathless.

The story itself is satisfyingly, and yet unsettlingly, unpredictable, and pocked here and there with a sly sense of humor; the main character adopts various identities throughout, each seemingly forced on her by circumstances, and when she finally is recognized, the recognition itself is for something completely bizarre.

Midway through the book, the character talks with the movie star's bodyguard to get the stand-in job; she distracts the bodyguard from questions about her by engaging him in a discussion about evolution, which the bodyguard is studying, and the bodyguard talks about how some animals will make sudden leaps in evolution when it is forced on them, like birds which have to move permanently to higher trees naturally selecting for stronger fliers.  That's the tipoff to the theme of the book: each identity the woman takes on is forced on her, each of them springing from some earlier problem that she could not cope with in her earlier guise.

It's an interesting thought. There's an old saying: Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger. I'm not sure that's the case always (polio) but I get the idea.  Here, Vida's theory seems to be that some things are so powerful we must shed our identity entirely to escape or deal with them. Or, given the poem she based the title on, perhaps it's not that we are giving up our identity but simply opting to slide into the other part of us that is more capable of dealing with this. We are multitudes, according to the poem: we are solid and win, hunter and hunted, here and there, and our hidden selves make a music through our veins -- the music of no shore, the music made by a wave that is unbounded and can go on for a long time before cresting and crashing back.

Such a philosophy is seductive: we have it in ourselves not to withstand force, but to deal with it through another form. If the solidly-rooted plant is to be uprooted, we will become the wind; we can pick where we want to be.  But even when we do, we cannot entirely escape our past: while we are the diver, and the fish, we are also the diver's clothes, lying empty on the beach.

If that past is the force that caused us to change, to molt into something ever brighter and bigger and stronger, would we want to escape it? All the forces that have ever acted on us have made us the person we are today: every missed opportunity, successful move, every person we've loved or lost or hated, every job, every day we slept in: all of them led us to be who we are right now, and who we are right now is also who we are then, and who we will be.

Reinventing one's self isn't very easy: sometimes it takes the destruction of an entire world, as in The Gone-Away World.  Sometimes it doesn't work well at all, as in Rabbit, Run. Sometimes you have to make compromises, like Bingo's Run. Sometimes it's torturous, like the main guy in Wodwo. (See? I said it's kind of a theme of these books -- although whether they all intended such a theme or I'm just My Aunt's Dog-ging it is hard to say.)  It's easier to imagine starting over if you believe that the new you was there all along, that you always were not just the diver but the clothes and the fish, so that you're not creating a new life, but just shifting into a different aspect of yours.

The air of panic in the book fades away when the main character at last realizes that, that she can take her past and use it to catapult herself higher up in the trees and become something new. This allows the book to end on an optimistic note, and because of the terrible things that have happened to the character, you can't help but feel she's earned this escape into a brighter strand.

It's a great book.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Update on Me: 8 years ago I pointed out that the 'experts' are wrong about the Monty Hall problem and 8 years later it's still a thing.

This week, strangely, two separate webcomics had panels about the "Monty Hall" problem.  At left is the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic; the Wondermark (which has the best solution I've ever heard to this question) is at the end of this post.

The "Monty Hall" problem is a riddle that is supposed to help demonstrate probability, I think. It first became 'famous' in 1990, when it was featured in a letter to Marilyn Vos Savant, who runs (ran?) a newspaper column.

Here is the way the problem is formulated: You are a contestant on "Let's Make a Deal." In the final round, you have a pick of 3 doors. Behind 1 is a prize. After you pick one, Monty opens 1 of the other 2 doors, and then gives you a choice: stick with your original door, or opt for the other, as yet unchosen and unopened door.

This problem was first formulated in 1975 or so but was based on an earlier problem from 1959.

Most "experts" say that you should definitely definitely switch.  They reason that when you first picked a door, you had a 1 in 3 chance of picking correctly, but that after Monty opens a door you have a 1 in 2 chance of picking correctly.

That result has been very controversial, as it goes against what our common sense tells us, and even great thinkers have argued with it (Mathematician Paul Erdos is said to have refused to believe the answer was correct until he saw a computer simulation of it.)

I think the answer is incorrect, and that switching does not improve the chances at all. I believe this because I think that the experts are wrong about your initial odds of being correct.

I wrote about this in a post back in 2008. The problem with the 'experts' analysis is that they assume Monty has changed something in your system.

He hasn't. And the reason he hasn't is a combination of what's known as "Magician's Choice" and the kind of thinking behind is that your final answer from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

It was from Robert Lynn Asprin's "Myth" books -- silly (but good) books about a magician named "Skeeve" who has various adventures -- that I learned about "magician's choice." "Magician's choice" is making the onlooker choose something without telling them why they're choosing -- giving them the illusion that they're making a choice and controlling the outcome when they are not at all doing that. Suppose I hold up my hands in fists. In the left is a $10 bill, and in the right is nothing. I tell you that I've got a $10 bill in one hand and say "Choose one." You say "Right," and I say "Okay, that's yours. You get nothing, I keep the $10." Now, suppose instead that you say "Left." All I do is say "Okay, that's the one I keep. The right is yours." You still get nothing, and because I run the game, you were always going to get nothing. I made it look like you were getting a choice but you had no choice. The game is rigged.

That's the first thing that helped me crack "The Monty Hall Problem". The second was "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," which I used to love before it broke my heart. Remember how, when people played, they'd say "A" and Regis would say "Final answer?" and they'd have to say "Final answer" or they could switch? That's pretty important here. 

The reason it's important is because final answer and Magician's choice help demonstrate that  contestants only have the illusion of a 1-in-3 choice at the outset; their choice always 1-in-2 because Monty removes the third choice. That he does this after you've chosen doesn't matter: If you assume Monty will open a door, then the contestant always only had two doors to choose from.

A contestant looking at Doors 1, 2 and 3 thinks he has three choices. But he has only two, in reality, because Monty is going to remove one of those choices. One of the three doors, the one chosen by Monty, is already eliminated from his universe of options. He just doesn't know, yet, which door is eliminated from contention.

This is where Final answer comes in. On Millionaire a contestant could say "A" and Regis would give him a chance to switch: Is that your final answer? When Regis does that, the contestant has the same number of answers to choose from. Assuming he didn't eliminate wrong answers through a lifeline (I miss that show!) he has four possibilities: A, B, C, and D. When he said "A" and Regis says Is that your final answer? the contestant could switch to any of the other three. He has all of his options still open.

But in the Monty Hall problem, when the contestant gets to give a final answer, when given the option to switch, there are only two doors. Which means the contestant never had the option of picking one of the doors. It's as if Regis said "You can pick A, B, or C, but not D." The fact that the contestant doesn't know in advance that one door is ineligible doesn't change the fact that one door is, in fact, ineligible. The Magicians Choice applies: the contestant is given a choice without knowing the conditions of the choice.

A contestant, when looked at this way, makes a preliminary choice -- Door 1, say. Monty then removes Door 2 from the equation, and asks the contestant if he wants to switch.  Because Monty removed door 2 from the equation, it was never available in the first place.

There are other problems with the claim that switching is always best. People who say you should switch focus on the odds that the third, as yet unchosen door, is best based on the change in probabilities.

Probability is calculated by taking the number of outcomes in which the event will occur divided by the total number of possible outcomes, or:

P = n/t

(My nomenclature: P is the probability the event you want to happen, will happen. N is the total number of outcomes in which that event could occur; t is the total number of possible outcomes. So if you roll a die and want to predict the number of times a roll will result in a number higher than four, the probability is 1/3: N is 2 (the numbers 5 and 6) and T is 6 (all possible numbers you could roll. 2/6 = 1/3).

So in the Monty Hall problem, P (the car behind the door) is the event we want to happen. The odds of it being behind any door seem to be 1 in 3, which is where everyone goes wrong. Since 1 door cannot be chosen, the odds you will pick correctly are 1/2.

But even if the initial odds were 1/3 that you'd pick correctly, after Monty chooses, switching presents no better odds. This is because once Monty eliminates a door, he gives you a brand new choice.  This is, again, where you can see that you always only had two choices.  Just as in Final Answer, you are free to switch or stay. It is not a choice of picking the other door. It is a choice of picking either door.

If Contestant picks Door 1, and Monty opens Door 2, and then says Do you want to switch (Final answer?), Contestant now has a choice between two doors.  Phrasing it as do you want to switch helps invoke psychological conditions making it tougher on people (people tend to see value in a choice they've made even where there is none, for example.)

So when Monty says do you want to switch, the odds that the car is behind either door are 1/2. You have the same odds of winning by staying as by switching.

Picture this: I offer to give you $10 if you pick a coin toss correctly. You can have "Heads," or "Tails," or "Both." You're no dummy; you know it can't be both, so you say "Heads." I then say "All right, I'll tell you what. You can't pick "Both." Do you want to switch?" Only an idiot would say "Switch!" based on the assumption that I have somehow changed the odds. Heads and tails were equally likely all along; both was never in play. 

This analysis doesn't change if I flip the coin and hide the result from you. I flip it. You say heads. I say OK, now I'm eliminating the option of you choosing BOTH. Do you want to switch? 

This isn't a perfect comparison (because both cannot occur, so the probability of both is zero) but it helps demonstrate the problem with the experts' solution -- because the door that Monty opens cannot be chosen by the contestant. They just don't know that yet.

So, in "The Monty Hall Problem," your odds of winning are always 1 in 2 from the start. The third door is there to distract you and make you do dumb things like change doors, to give you the illusion that you are choosing more than you really are; you're making one choice between two doors.  It doesn't matter if you switch or not.







Thursday, June 09, 2016

Hillary Clinton is worth $31,300,000. But voting for or against her will not matter much because Democrats do not vote and do not understand how government works.

There is a chart that is making the rounds right now, and it's worth looking at but it also needs to be thought about more critically.

Here's the chart.



During the time span of this chart, Democrats held the presidency for 10 of the 18 years.

So it's worth noting that simply electing Hillary! not only won't change things because Hillary! is not a populist, not on the side of the middle-class or lower-class, and in fact doesn't understand the concept of irony, given that she recently wore a jacket that cost $12,495. 

She wore it while she gave a speech about income inequality.

But the real problem is that people focus on the presidency. During the time charted above, Democrats DEMOCRATS had control of the Senate for only 6 years (and one 2-year session was a 50-50 tie) and of the House of Representatives 4 of 18 years.

In the 1990s, the Democrats had control of both the House and the Senate for 6 years (1989-1995). Republicans were in charge the next 6, controlling both houses. From 1990-2000, Democrats controlled the presidency for 8 of 10 years.

During the 1990s, median household income overall rose in 49 of 50 states. In fact, household income rose steadily whenever Democrats were in charge. The charts where I got that data from show only overall household income, not broken down by bracket, so it's possible that the median income was rising simply because the wealthy were getting richer, but that's not exactly how medians work. (That's how AVERAGES work.)

With a median, if we take four people, with incomes of $1,000, $5,000, $5001, and $100,000, the median is $5,000.50, while the average is $27,750.

If the highest earner's income in that sample increases to $2,000,000, the median doesn't change. But the new average income is $502,000. In each case, the average misrepresents the real state of income, which is why averages are a horrible measurement. They tell you nothing.

The median changes only slightly, when there is a change near the middle. In our four-person example of $1k, $5k, $5001 and $100k, giving the $5001 guy a raise to $10,000 changes the median to $7,500. (In even-numbered sets the median is determined by averaging the two numbers at the center.)  If you add a fifth person to this new set, making $200,000, the median drops back down to $5,001 -- the point where the number of people on each side are the same.

So it's hard to move a median up very high just by adding to one end. 

Anyway, the real point is this: Congress controls the purse strings. Congress sets tax policy. Congress determines write-offs and loopholes. Congress determines that most hedge-fund investors pay a maximum income tax rate of 20% on their earnings from those investments.  (Which helps make the effective income tax rate on the highest earners a relatively nominal 23% or so, having fallen from 27% since 1979. As with incomes, the effective tax rates on the highest earners showed changes while the Democrats held Congress; the effective tax rate fell steadily since 1979 except for brief periods in the 1990s and 2000s more or less coincident with Democratic control of Congress -- and the latter period was under the Worst President Ever's administration.

Presidents can reject laws, and can be choosy about how to enforce them, but they cannot unilaterally change tax rates or wages or allocate more money to small business loans or change how student loans are collected and funded.  

CONGRESS can.

The Republicans have for nearly 50 years set their main strategy on getting control of legislatures. The Democrats focus on high-profile presidential races.  The Republicans control 2/3 of all state legislatures.   Those legislators set state tax policy, control school funding, control state business grants and frequently administer or allocate federal funds.  They also set the district maps for Congressional races, which is how the Republicans have made Congress so effectively theirs for a long time.

Democrats consistently fail to vote in mid-term elections. 1/3 of Congress is elected at a mid-term election.

Yes, yes, Hillary! helped further crack the glass ceiling. We elected the first African-American president 8 years ago and America is no better for it. Hillary! will not help, not just because she has no interest in changing the economic status quo, but also because Democrats aren't likely to change the legislative makeup this year. The Democrats would have to win 19 of the 27 state legislatures that are at risk of changing in 2016; 11 of the 27 are deemed relatively safe for the GOP.  So the Democrats will have to win the 16 that are generally considered gettable, and at least 3 of the ones nobody thinks the GOP will lose.

Democrats need to get 30 extra seats in Congress to take the House. in 2014, they got 15. The 188 Democrats sworn into the House after the 2014 midterms was the lowest the party has gotten since 1947.

Until Democrats bother voting for something other than president, the US will continue becoming more unequal.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Book 44: Now, now, Nick Harkaway, don't get jealous I still like you a lot too man.

Mark Haddon has become one of my favorite writers, and that's interesting because each of his books has been so different from the last.

The first Haddon book I read was The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime, which was a truly remarkable book told from the perspective of an autistic boy who is investigating the death of a dog in his neighborhood. Not only is the story good, but it seems to me that Haddon nailed how (at least some) autistic people think. (I read the book well before the boys were diagnosed, but thinking back I can see many things he got right, at least about people like my boys; autism is probably one of the most varied conditions a person can have.)

Then I read A Spot Of Bother, which was a comedy (?) about a man who thinks a spot on his body is going to kill him.  I'm partial to British literary comedy, but even so the book was enjoyable.

The Red House was the third book for adults Haddon's written (he also has written 19 kid's books and a volume of poetry) and again I liked it: this was a dysfunctional-family-on-holiday book, another of a genre I like; it was different in tone from his first two; each book in fact was so different that if you didn't know they were written by one man, you'd probably not guess it.

So I had high expectations for The Pier Falls, although it's a rare short story collection that lives up to advance billing. (Off the top of my head, the collections I can think of that are worth reading the whole thing are The Illustrated Man, 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, and Vampires In The Lemon Grove.  There are probably others but those are the only ones I think of when I think good (or great) short story collections.)

The Pier Falls exceeded -- by about a million miles -- every expectation I had for it.  These are some of the best short stories I've ever read, ever.

The stories in general are mostly what might loosely be thought of as fantasy for the most part, but that's a broad brush to paint with. There's one pure scifi story and a few that seem to be no genre at all, other than 'literary', which is sort of a category I guess.

The opener, The Pier Falls, shows the collapse of an amusement pier in England, and reads like a news story, but a story that conveys emotion as a wallop of fact.  From there comes The Island, about a princess who helps a captive escape only to be abandoned by him on a deserted island.  Both of those stories are gripping and memorable. The third, Bunny, is where Haddon really pulls out all the stops: this is a 'non-genre' story of a man who has become essentially housebound as a result of gaining too much weight, and is sort-of befriended by a woman who has moved back in with her dad after a bad marriage.

Bunny evinces the spirit and tone of the book as a whole: most of Haddon's stories are whipsaws, stories that pit action and emotion against each other, or which keep the reader constantly shifting loyalties about the characters.  The princess in The Island, and Bunny's friend in Bunny are two good examples: as the story goes on, Haddon reveals little details about these characters that change them from sympathetic to un- and then back, creating people that you want to hate but can't help but feel sorry for.

Wodwo continues that. I had to look up what the title means; it means wild man in a sort of old English, and was the title of a poem by the guy who was married to Sylvia Plath.  The story is a wonder: it begins as a family-gathering-at-Xmas story with all the usual bits of that and then takes a wild left turn when a man with a shotgun comes into the party -- and then takes an even wilder turn after that.

In The Gun two boys find a gun owned by one of their older brothers and take it to a small woods near them; the story captures perfectly the horror of a childhood day that would include a gun-- then ends not at all the way you'd think it would.

Along with the way Haddon makes you like and then hate his characters, his endings are almost uniformly perfect and unexpected.  Too many short stories leave endings ambiguous, making them feel like excerpts, or they go for a twist (why do so many short story writers feel like there must be some sort of twist? Sometimes I feel as though all short story writers learned at the Shymalan school of plot.)  Haddon's don't suffer from any of them: they end and the ending is almost always not one you would have predicted -- at least by the time the full story has happened.  Each story just keeps moving into territory you wouldn't have expected. It's like walking through a strange city where every street is amazing but none of them lead to where you thought you were going.

The Woodpecker and The Wolf would've been my favorite story of the bunch except they all were my favorite stories of the bunch.  This one is about a trip to Mars, and it avoids the usual claptrap that books about Mars have these days. I've tried reading two different Mars-based books this year (one by Kim Stanley Robinson and one called Finches of Mars) and given up on them because they're just technojunk. Books about Mars seem like they're all meant to be user manuals, scifi writers playing scientist and trying to prove how realistic they can make it by describing in depth every freaking thing down to the light switches.  When this story was set on Mars I thought it'd be more of the same, but it's not. It's absolutely not. The only mention of technology at all is there to drive the story and make it make sense; the story is about a group of colonists sent to Mars to live in a small pod as a sort of advance expedition. The second set of Marstronauts has an accident on the way, though, and the third launch is delayed until someone figures out what went wrong with the second -- which the people already on Mars figure means they are going to die because they can't make their supplies last until the third mission reaches them.

Woodpecker had what I thought at first was a happy ending but then the more I thought about it the less sure I was that it was happy. So far through each of the stories there wasn't a happy ending among them.  The stories are sad in the kind of enjoyable way a good sad or frightening story can be, but it meant I couldn't read them all straight through.

Which is probably good anyway: reading a bunch of short stories in one sitting can dilute them. But these aren't stories to read when you're already feeling down.

Breathe is a strange story about a woman who quits her job and flies back home to find her mom suffering from a sort of dementia; it's another one of those left-turn stories that keeps doubling down on how unsettling it is until the ending just makes you suck in your own breath.

The Boys Who Left Home To Learn Fear is another great one. Like his books, none of Haddon's stories seem all that similar to each other. This one is a 'Victorian' adventure story -- a group of rich kids in Victorian England have set out on a trip to try to find out what happened to another family's kid, spurred on by a map drawn by the only survivor of the earlier expedition -- a map that he also drew a minotaur-like beast on.  It's a fantasy story in which there are none of the typical fantasy elements, which doesn't prevent it from being a gothic fantasy horror jungle adventure.  It's the kind of story that's so good you want at first to have it expanded into a book, a set of books, even -- but then you realize it's that good because it's so short.

The collection ends on the only story with what passes for a happy ending. In The Weir a man, recently separated, sees a girl jumping off a bridge with a backpack full of stones, and dives in to save her. He does, but when he calls an ambulance she runs away, only to look him up later.  It's a sad little story that's sad only because as the story unfolds you realize that the story you're being told is the high point of the characters' lives -- and it's not much of a high point, at that.  But the ending manages to be kind of hopeful, or at least accepting.

Haddon is the kind of writer that makes me envious. He isn't showy, and isn't (so far as I know) very well-known. Instead, his books and stories are perfectly crafted quiet masterpieces, the kind of books that stay with you for a long, long time.  I can recall bits of Curious Incident and A Spot Of Bother years after I read them, and I can remember the feel of them, too, how much I liked them. (The Red House I remember less clearly but that's no fault of its; it's just that in its setting and manner it's similar to a lot of other books I read.)

These stories might be his high point, though. This is one of my favorite books so far this year.




In Which An Important Lesson (About Bridges) Is Learned

Story by Mr Bunches; artwork by Daddy.




















Monday, June 06, 2016

You always know where you stand with Mr Bunches.

We were playing Alphabet Soup Sorters, in which you take little cards out of a can, each starting with the same letter, and say or do something about them.

For G one card is gift. So I pretended to open the package and said "Oh, look it's a gift. A new pair of pants!"

Mr Bunches said: "Are they pants for you?"

I said: "Yes."

He said: "They look too tight."

Sunday, June 05, 2016

I hate it when I have to look up jokes it makes me feel old but at least I learned something about Shazam.



I didn't get it, but it turns out that there's a verse in Paradise City by Guns "N" Roses that goes:


Captain America's been torn apart
Now he's a court jester with a broken heart
He said— Turn me around and take me back to the start
I must be losin' my mind—"Are you blind?"
I've seen it all a million times

I've heard that song probably... 7?... times in my life and never realized Captain America was in it until Wonderella's Twitter made me look it up. I'm pretty sure now Marvel's going to sue. It'd be the biggest comics-related lawsuit since DC Comics stole elements of Shazam/Captain Marvel (which at the time was far more popular than "Superman") and then successfully sued Captain Marvel's parent company until it disintegrated.  (No lie.) Then DC licensed the character and added it to their universe.  LIKE A BOSS.

Also like a boss: This guy playing an awesome cover of Paradise City on piano:




Somehow in my piano lessons we never got around to THAT. I could've been the most metal kid at the recital.

In case that's not quite hardcore enough for you here's Welcome To The Jungle on cello(s):