Monday, January 28, 2008

the method of daryl zero

[In celebration of the 10th anniversary of Zero Effect]

The similarities between Daryl Zero and Sir A. C. Doyle's iconic detective Sherlock Holmes have been discussed before, at least here, here, here, and here. In particular, there are striking similarities between the principle thematic elements of Zero Effect and those of "A Scandal in Bohemia," the third of the Holmes stories, featuring the sole romantic entanglement of Holmes' career, and a minimal one at that. Likewise, Daryl Zero experiences the sole (seemingly) romantic entanglement of his career, though, admittedly, one much more explicit and serious in character, with Gloria Sullivan.

Holmes disguised as "a drunken-looking groom" in "A Scandal in Bohemia"

The similarities between "A Scandal in Bohemia" and Zero Effect run deeper than general theme, however; in both stories, blackmail, though perhaps justified, is the crime, the blackmailer's secret is revealed during a false fire alarm, a mutual respect emerges between detective and blackmailer, and they meet only while the detective is in disguise (though cunningly identified by blackmailer). When Zero first meets Gloria, he asks her if she is a paramedic; puzzled, she affirms the claim, then asks him how he knew. Zero replies, "I'm very intuitive." Later, we learn, in a typically Holmesian display of "deduction," that it was from the very distinctive smell of iodine that Zero inferred her prior presence in a hospital or ambulance. Likewise, in "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes "deduces" that Watson has returned to medical practice from a similar smell:

As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.

There follows a brief discussion of Holmes' method:

I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. "When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked, "the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours."

"Quite so," he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. "You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.

We see here two acknowledged cornerstones of Holmes' method: "deduction," and observation. Zero likewise characterizes his method with two principles, the "two obs": observation, and objectivity. Before analyzing the method of Daryl Zero, we would do well to consider Holmes' notion of "deduction."

Typically, a deduction is a truth-preserving procedure, reasoning from true premises to true conclusions. Holmes' "deductions," however, are not truth-preserving; there are many potential explanations for Watson's condition other than his returning to medical practice, perhaps he'd been in another doctor's office and spilled "iodoform" on himself, for instance. Holmes is actually engaging in abductive inference, reasoning backwards from effects to causes. In gross terms, we may even want to call such an inference a "shrewd guess."

Daryl Zero likewise engages in the "shrewd guess" of abductive inference, yet he does not emphasize the inferential step in his method, the "deductive" step, as Holmes would call it. Instead, he emphasizes objectivity, the process by which the relevant facts are sorted from the non-relevant facts. Given that virtually any of the infinitude of facts involved in fully characterizing an event could potentially be relevant to determining the cause of that event, the process of sorting through this infinitude, of zeroing in on that which is relevant, is every bit as crucial to the detective's job as the inferential step.

For example, clever as Zero's inference was from the smell of iodine to Gloria's job as paramedic, it would not have been possible if he had not first identified that smell as a potential clue to her profession (as opposed to her clothes, or demeanor, or the time of day, or any one of an infinitude of factors).

Fluctuations in Zero's ability to remain objective in the selection of pertinent facts correlate with fluctuations in his physical and mental state. When first we encounter Zero, for example, he has been awake for three days, binging on amphetamines. Upon hearing that Gregory Stark is the subject of blackmail, he begins to ruminate upon the fact that "Gregory Stark is the son of a fat man." Zero confirms a few minutes later, as he passes out, that his "abilities are seriously impaired, perhaps even disabled," acknowledging the effect of exhaustion on his ability to objectively sift through the facts and identify those of potential relevance. As it turns out, the obesity of Stark's father is irrelevant to the case.

"Sergio Knight"

Perhaps even more interestingly, we can trace the progression of Zero's romantic interest in Gloria through the lapses in his objectivity. Under working conditions, Zero displays an almost preternatural poise, an uncanny ability to guise himself in the garb of mystery (the ingenious Sergio Knight escapade being only one example), yet in two interactions with Gloria he missteps, failing to perceive a relevant fact, losing his objectivity. The first slip occurs when Gloria asks him if he's in town for "that conference"; reluctantly, Zero agrees. "So you're an accountant?" she asks. He's forced to agree again. However, this encounter takes place after his initial meeting with Gloria, the infamous "are you a paramedic" incident (evidence of slippage on Zero's part itself, needless showing off that could potentially jeopardize his cover (though in this case, perhaps ultimately constructive)), immediately after which the talkative gym receptionist informs him that Gloria is "not married." Zero should have realized that the receptionist's laxity in releasing personal information in the furtherance of romance would make any personal information he had given her (including his profession) potentially available to Gloria Sullivan, a woman already romantically linked with him in the receptionist's mind, as evidenced by the nature of her gossip. If Zero had remained objective, rather than succumbing to distraction in the presence of Gloria's charms, he would have realized that exposing himself to being tagged with a career other than architect, by admitting he was in town for "that conference," in the face of the receptionist's tendency to gossip, would have likewise exposed him to discovery.

Of course, only a preternatural talent such as Zero's could possibly have noticed the relevance between the receptionist's comment and Gloria's question, but it is precisely because he does display such deftness elsewhere that our attention is drawn to this slip. Zero's second slip is less excusable; he fails to take the receipt (after claiming receipt-keeping was "just a matter of habit" for him) as the two leave a restaurant on a date (the very date during which we learn both that Gloria is Stark's daughter and that (possibly?) Zero shares a particular family dysfunction with her - he claims that his father killed his mother, then slit his wrists. Gloria's father, Stark, killed her mother, albeit via an intermediary hitman. Zero looks exposed, honest, as he makes this confession; could this be a legitimate point of emotional contact between them? Or, is he just that good? Has he crafted this story, and delivered it convincingly, as a ploy to trigger her emotions? ~ the monologue indeed comes only after Zero has realized who Gloria is . . . ).

These two slips are noticed by Gloria and provide her with the essential clues to discover Daryl Zero's identity.

Of course, Zero's method must also include an inferential step akin to Holmes' "deduction," but he discusses it, however, only under the description "research":

I can't possibly overstate the importance of good research. Everyone goes through life dropping crumbs; if you can recognize the crumbs, you can trace a path all the way back from your death certificate to the dinner and a movie that resulted in you in the first place. But research is an art, not a science, because anyone who knows what they're doing can find the crumbs—the wheres, whats, and whos—the art is in the whys, the ability to read between the crumbs . . . for every event there is a cause and effect, for every crime a motive, and for every motive a passion. The art of research is the ability to look at the details and see the passion.

The connection here with reasoning backwards from effects to causes is obvious. Yet we also see an emphasis upon analysis of human character and motive. Regardless, the process being described is clearly more inferential than mere "research."

The claim that research is an "art" may at first seem puzzling; for is not the creativity of art somehow at odds with the cold detachment necessary for objectivity? Yet the two are actually entangled, for the exacting standards of objectivity and the true selflessness of great art reach their ultimate embodiment in one and the same faculty.
(I need hardly mention here Holmes' violin or Zero's guitar!)

A similar point was expressed far more eloquently than I ever could by E. A. Poe concerning the relationship between the analytic and the imaginative in the character of the first serialized detective, the enigmatic Auguste Dupin. I leave you with his words:

The analytic power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis. The constructive or combining power, by which ingenuity is usually manifested, and to which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ, supposing it a primitive faculty, has been so frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered otherwise upon idiocy, as to have attracted general observation among writers on morals. Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater, indeed, than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

more whist

Whist has long been known for its influence upon what is termed the calculating power; and men of the highest order of intellect have been known to take an apparently unaccountable delight in it, while eschewing chess as frivolous. Beyond doubt there is nothing of a similar nature so greatly tasking the faculty of analysis. The best chess-player in Christendom may be little more than the best player of chess; but proficiency in whist implies capacity for success in all these more important undertakings where mind struggles with mind. When I say proficiency, I mean that perfection in the game which includes a comprehension of all the sources whence legitimate advantage may be derived. These are not only manifold, but multiform, and lie frequently among recesses of thought altogether inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. . . . it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced.

~ Edgar Allen Poe

Sunday, January 20, 2008

worst case scenario

Romney v. Clinton: if these are the nominees of the Janus-faced party in November, an interesting question presents itself: will more votes be cast for positive or negative reasons?

To be more specific, suppose we exclude from consideration all though who both endorse one candidate unreservedly and despise the other unreservedly. Of the remaining voters, will those who vote because of their positive feelings toward a particular candidate outweigh those who vote solely out of negative considerations (the lesser of two evils, as it were)? If not, would this reflect poorly on our electoral process and the 2-party system? Or, perhaps, on the increasing role of media coverage in the electoral process?

Monday, January 14, 2008

surreal cinema I

Surrealism - loosely understood as the use of (perhaps physically impossible) emotionally charged imagery structured via "dream logic" or free association (often manifest as apparent non sequitur) - has been a part of cinema from its earliest days. Many of the earliest manifestations, however, (perhaps most notably Un Chien andalou) are shorts and, as such, more amenable to inducing the patience for a lack of narrative structure characteristic of the consumption of paintings or music.

Beginning in the 1960s, however, feature-length surreal films began to appear with more frequency, demanding a genre unto themselves. (Admittedly, L'Age d'Or, 1930, at 60 min., is already long-form, but unlike in, say, painting, the golden age for surreal cinema only arrived in the 1960s.) This phenomenon invites, however, an analysis of what exactly it is that is appealing about 90 - 140 minutes of dream logic, how, in other words, one is to watch / appreciate / understand these films.

We will examine the problem in more detail by looking at a variety of case studies:

1. The Phantom of Liberty (coming soon)
2. tba
3. tba

Briefly, for now, the thesis is, roughly, something like this: Narrative cinema presents us with a sequence of events which, when knit together via the structure of the film, take the viewer through an emotional arc (the shape of which may be quite different from film to film, certainly from genre to genre: the emotional arc of action films is usually quite different from that of romantic comedies). Similarly, long-form surrealist films take the viewer through an emotional arc. This arc is to imposed upon the viewer, not through a literal structure of physically-plausible events, however, but rather through a sequence of images, which, in virtue of being emotionally charged, nevertheless create an emotional arc, albeit one at a very abstract level.

Hopefully, this loose claim will be made more rigorous and convincing as we examine some examples.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

swing down (sweet) chariot stop . . .

. . . and let me ride.

Comparative Poetics (c.f. the essential treatise by Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon, 1995) teaches us that as phrases in a poetic tradition evolve, they can change syntactically / phonetically while semantics remain intact or change semantically while syntactic / phonetic structure remains intact. The increased speed of communication and frequency of exposure to poetic artifacts in the age of mass communication has both sped up the evolutionary change of such phrases and provided us with resources of heretofor unknown richness for studying such change. Furthermore, due to the advent of audio recording, we finally possess resources for examining such change in melodies and musical rhythms.

Consider, for example, the phrases / melodies "Swing low, sweet chariot" and "Swing down chariot stop." Both "originate" in early 20th century gospel (by no means the start of their history! ~ though the imagery is (at least) traceable to the stories of Elijah and Ezekial (following Thomas Mann's strategy, we may even wish to posit a connection of sorts between these themselves)).

We can trace "swing down (sweet) chariot stop," for example, from gospel, through funk, to rap:

Herman Stevens Singers, Swing Down Chariot

Parliament / Funkadelic, Swing Down

Dr. Dre, Let Me Ride

Arguably, while the syntactic / phonetic structure of the phrase has remained largely the same (only the adjective "sweet" has been added, possibly due to assonance with "swing low sweet chariot"), the melody altered only slightly (though the rhythm and tempo being changed considerably), the semantics of the phrase has changed. At least, there is a strong implication in the Parliament performance that the "chariot" is literally a spaceship / cosmic chariot, metaphorically signifying (most likely) the vehicle of some kind of artistic / political / sexual liberation. Even if we take the chariot in biblical tales to be metaphorical for a route of communication with the divine, both the literal and metaphorical roles of the word "chariot" have changed. By the time Dr. Dre gets a hold of it, the phrase seems to literally reference joy riding in Cadillacs, while metaphorically hold little weight.

Furthermore, even if surface structure has remained, one wonders whether the underlying syntactic structure has changed - "Swing down chariot, stop, and let me ride" vs. "Swing (on) down (by the) chariot stop, and let me ride" - changing not just the references of the terms, but even their semantic relationships.

Contrast this with a phonetic change with (arguably) no (or little) semantic change (at least on the metaphorical level):

Dizzy Gilespie, Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac

An abbreviated live version

Here, although the word "chariot" has been replaced with "cadillac," the remaining lyrics are a commentary on communication with the divine in much the same spirit of the original gospel version (though admittedly differing in perspective). Thus, the metaphorical meaning has remained unchanged which the surface expression has changed.

Even if this is an accurate analysis of the phenomenon, however, it seems clear that the subtlety of meaning involved in each case prevents any simplistic arguments that the semantics has changed or not. Even in the Dr. Dre version, there remains a lingering sense of spiritual transition in the chorus; even if highly metaphorical, this slight "color" is somehow inherited from the phrase's original sense, and lingers like a stain on any reimagining of the same.

understanding the mind VIII

John R. Peirce, An Introduction to Information Theory, 2nd ed., 1980

A non-deterministic finite state machine which generates sentences of English. (Directions: begin at box 1, word in that box is produced; flip a fair coin, if heads, follow upper path, if tails, follow lower path to next box. Repeat.) Is this how the human brain generates language? Despite Chomsky's famous arguments to the contrary, we should remember that so long as there is an upper bound on the depth of embedding, any natural language may be characterized by a sufficiently elaborate finite state device. If the probabilities on paths to and from each state can themselves be affected by perceptual input, we could envision a situation for which language, considered as an abstract object, was indeed finite state, but language production in situ was context sensitive.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

the proletariat, RIP

On Feb. 4, Houston's hippest bar will close it's doors for good, a casualty of the new Richmond light rail project. Current plans for which involve establishing a light rail station on the site where The Proletariat now stands."Hipness" here being measured not by the affluence or social cache of the clientele, but rather by a relentless and unswerving dedication to promoting those nooks and crannies of the cultural milieu unique to Houston. Owner Denise Ramos has long been a patron of the Houston art scene, and has graced its stage herself with her paintings, several of which now hang in her bar.But more than any other of the arts, The Proletariat has always been a home to music, hosting not just numerous concerts by local bands, experienced and unexperienced alike, but also a number of one time musical events, encouraging communication and cross-pollination within the scene. These ranged from a night of 60 one minute improvisations by local improv musicians in benefit of the Pauline Oliveros Foundation, now the Deep Listening Institute, to the infamous "Star Project." This latter was a one time musical event. Participants, including both members of local bands and their supporters / fans, drew names out of a hat, creating 5 new bands. Each band had but a single month to write and rehearse a set's worth of songs, to be performed at the Star Project show at The Proletariat. The creativity and electricity that emerged from some of these random pairings was both stimulating and inspirational.Denise details her struggle with Houston Metro and the reasoning behind her eventual capitulation here. In its final days, The Proletariat is doing what it does best: hosting as many local shows as possible. Those of us with a long history with the prole will not only mourn its passing, but remember it and its owner, and the opportunities they have offered us for so long, with reverence and respect. God willing, may it rise like a phoenix from the ashes, and bless the Houston scene again one day.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

what once there was . . .

. . . . you can never go back.