Saturday, December 12, 2009

the mean sun

When observed from the earth, the sun travels overhead once a day. When compared to the stars, the sun travels around the zodiac once a year along the ecliptic.

We can mark the progress of the year by measuring the changing length of days. At the solstices, the day reaches its longest and shortest lengths. At the equinoxes, the length of day and night are observed to be equal.

It is easy to determine the equinoxes and solstices, a simple stick (stuck in the ground to serve as gnomon) and careful observations will suffice. The ancients noticed that the number of days between equinoxes and solstices is not equal. The implication is that the sun's yearly journey around the ecliptic is not of uniform speed.

So, time as told by the sun (say, on a sundial) is not equivalent to time as told by the stars; it is imperfect in that it slows down and speeds up. This corresponds to the changing position of the sun in the sky if measured from the same exact time each day, producing the analemma.

Analemma photographed at Sounion by Anthony Ayiomamitis

Since time as told by the sun does not run at constant speed, it must be corrected for (on a sundial, for example) by consulting the equation of time. The equation of time corrects for the difference between time as told by the actual position of the sun and the mean sun.

The mean sun is an imaginary body that averages over the varying speeds of the actual sun. Time as told by the mean sun is equivalent to sidereal time.

In ancient astronomical models, for example, those of Ptolemy, the mean sun plays an important role. The planets undergo periodic motions which are clearly connected to the position of the sun. Some "clock" is needed to sync the planetary motions in any model, and this is the role played by the mean sun.

For example, one of the fundamental observable properties of planets is their period retrograde motions. Planets, like the sun, are observed to slowly change their position with respect to the zodiac throughout the year. Overall, motion against the zodiac is eastward. Occasionally, however, planets are observed to slow, stop, and before backward against this regular eastward motion. This backwards movement is called retrograde motion.

The "superior planets" (in geocentric terms, those which are farther from us than the sun; in heliocentric terms, those which are farther from the sun than us) are observed to undergo retrograde motion whenever they are "in opposition" (i.e. on the opposite side of the zodiac from the sun. In heliocentric terms, it is easy to see why this is the case: if the planet is in opposition, that means we are passing between it and the sun. Since we are closer to the sun, and thus move more quickly, the planet temporarily appears to move backward, just like a slower moving car when passed on the freeway.

In Ptolemy's model, the retrograde motions of superior planets are put "in sync" with the mean sun. Ptolemy stipulated that the radius of each superior planet's epicycle must stay parallel to the radius of the mean suns orbit.

Here, P is the planet, O is the earth, and the dotted circle with a bar on top is the mean sun. Υ indicates the direction of the vernal equinox.

Ptolemy's model also syncs "inferior planets" (in geocentric terms, closer to us than the sun; in heliocentric terms, closer to the sun than the earth). For the inferior planets, it is the line EK between the equant (the point with respect to which the motion of the point K is uniform) and the center of the planet's epicycle, K. Sun, Earth, and vernal equinox are notated as before.

Note that, it is not just the shift to a heliocentric system which undermines the importance of the mean sun. We can see this in Copernicus' model, which also refers all planetary motion to the mean sun.

It was not until Kepler's Astronomia Nova (1609) that the idea of abandoning the mean sun and referring all planetary motion to the position of the actual sun was hit upon. Kepler's solution was pure engineering. Through trial and error, he discovered that all three current astronomical hypotheses (Ptolemaic, Copernican, and Tychonican (in which the earth is stationary, but all other planets orbit the sun, which orbits the earth) could be improved and made equally empirically adequate. Most famous here is Kepler's decision to abandon circles in favor of the ellipse. More significant for improving empirical adequacy, however, was his abandonment of the mean sun in favor of the actual sun.

It would take Newton, however, to provide a motivation for this decision. Unless one realizes that the cause of planetary motion is in some sense the sun, there is no natural motivation for using the actual rather than mean sun. If all one wants is a clock, the mean sun is clearly superior. Only once a causal story of the planetary motion was provided could the success of Kepler's pragmatic adjustment be explained.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Copernicus' model of Mercury.

S-bar is the mean sun.

P is Mercury.

O is the earth.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

dignity vs. upward mobility

At a recent conference on language and power, David Laitin pointed out that there is often a conflict between dignity and upward mobility.

In this case, the conflict was one concerning language use. It often contributes to the upward mobility of a group to abandon the language of their heritage in favor of a more dominant tongue (this behavior is often witnessed in immigrants and oppressed peoples). Yet preservation of the mother tongue contributes to cultural identity and personal dignity.

In the case of language use, the conflict is at least threefold. In the case of the language user himself, the concrete decision of what language to speak around his children (for example) can turn upon this conflict. In the case of the field linguist, or outsider, it is impossible for him to separate his nostalgia and academic concerns from the value judgments made by a speaker of an endangered language.

We must be wary of arguments based on political considerations. Of course I am no more in favor of genocide or repression of minorities than I am of people dying of tuberculosis or starving through ignorance. We should always be sensitive to the concerns of the people whose language we are studying. But we should not assume that we know what is best for them.

~ Peter Ladefoged

The third facet of conflict is the educator. On the one hand, his altruistic desire to encourage dignity motivates him to encourage the speaker's mother tongue and the tendency to take it seriously. On the other hand, his altruistic desire to better the status of his students drives him to encourage use of the majority language. Unlike the linguist, there is no possibility of choosing not to intervene here; the educator is inherently an interventionist.

An example here is the case of AAVE. On the one hand, the sensitive educator is driven to encourage the (correct) perspective that african-american english is not "wrong" it is simply different from, but equally expressive and subtle as, "standard" english. Nevertheless, cultural prejudices continue to ensure that an inability to construct written and spoken sentences that conform to standard textbook grammar will dramatically diminish one's upward mobility. Here is a case where political correctness carries the potential danger to paralyze a researcher into effective inactivity.

However, there is another interesting case in which dignity and upward mobility might come apart. Consider, for example, the tension between classical and modern liberals on a topic like the welfare state. Here, interestingly, arguments seem to fall on both side for each value.

"Handouts diminish dignity because they make the poor reliant on the state."

"Subsidies increase dignity because they ensure health and home, obviating any need for begging."

"Handouts diminish chances for upward mobility because they reduce the motivation of recipients."

"Subsidies increase the chances for upward mobility because they offer capital to those who otherwise could not acquire it."

[Surely the correct answer to the former debate is known only to the recipient—as for the latter, surely empirical data is easily available!]

An especially interesting case it the post-Hayekian socialism of Theodore Burczak. Burczak sees both foundational and policy failings in Hayek's thought. The foundational failing is the lack of a uniform (more importantly, objective) moral framework. Setting aside the policy failings for future discussion, the theoretical failing depends partly upon what Burczak calls the "ethical knowledge problem." Basically, value judgments are inherently subjective, preventing organizers from any access to an objective value system, defeating the attempt to achieve a "common good" a la socialist concerns. Burczak proposes amending the theoretical gap in Hayek by appending the "capability theory" of Sen and Nussbaum to Hayek's economic views. Capability theory, according to Burczak, offers a form of objective value system that is responsive to Hayek's worries and can thus provide the theoretical foundation for the centralized assurance that baseline values are achieved in a (even free market) society.

Now given the possibility of a trade-off between dignity and upward-mobility, some tensions in capability theory emerge. In particular, suppose our main goal is to ensure that citizens are capable to achieve certain practical goals (e.g. longevity, health, upward mobility) by providing them with certain resources (e.g. health care, baseline economic resources, political privileges). But suppose there is an inherent inconsistency between the goals and the provision of resources. A paradigmatic example of such inconsistency would be the dignity vs. upward mobility tension (if it in fact existed).

The interesting point here is the role of a kind of meta-value judgment. As an individual, if I recognize there is a trade-off between dignity and upward mobility, I can choose to prioritize one goal or the other. If the value judgment upon which the society I live in is predicated does not recognize such a trade-off, however, it runs this risk of aggressively enforcing the one value to the detriment of the other.

So, the attempt to conflate concern with dignity and with upward mobility into a single project is inherently confused (even if the two are thrown under the banner of a single concept, like capability). This follows from the conceptual (and empirical!) possibility that the two goals are inherently in conflict. Furthermore, if we acknowledge the tension between these two values as a legitimate possibility, we have undone the efforts of Burczak and returned to a Hayekian skepticism. Capability theory, at least, is not powerful enough to overcome the challenges of the "ethical knowledge problem."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

hayek on beer in airports

Hayek developed the idea of spontaneous order in order to characterize the organizational properties of certain types of naturally occurring complex system (a camel, a school of fish, an economy). In "Cosmos and Taxis," Hayek defines order in terms of the relationship between local information and global knowledge:

By 'order' we shall throughout describe a state of affairs in which a multiplicity of elements of various kinds are so related to each other that we may learn from our acquaintance with some spatial or temporal part of the whole to form correct expectations concerning the rest, or at least expectations which have a good chance of proving correct.

This definition of order is supposed to rule out chaotic systems like gas in a box or a climate. In such chaotic systems, local interactions do not necessarily give you information about global properties of the system. The bumping of two molecules together does not tell me anything about the overall density of a gas in a box. The weather in Calcutta does not tell me anything about the weather in La Paz.

A natural interpretation of Hayek's definition of order as applied to an economy might be something like this: a local interaction (say, exchange of money for a good) tells us something about global properties of the system (say, the marginal exchange rate of that good). This relationship between local and global properties depends upon the equilibria which develop in economic systems. Because local interactions produce global equilibria, I can learn about such equilibria from the local interactions in which I participate.

However, there is a problem here. Hayek has attempted to define a property internal to the system (its degree of order) in terms of the epistemic access of some agent interacting with the system. This definitional strategy does not (cannot?) take into account an important property of information: information is profligate—information is never monogamous!

What this means is simply that a local interaction contains information about an arbitrarily large number of complicating factors. The agent, attempting to derive "correct expectations" about the rest of the system has no principled way to determine which factors are potentially relevant to his local interaction.

Consider, for example, the case of beer in airports. On average in the U.S., the price of beer in airports is about double that in a regular street bar. If I walk into an airport bar and purchase a beer, the information I receive is qualitatively different from that I receive if I walk into my neighborhood dive bar. The transaction in the dive bar tells me something about the global marginal exchange rate of beer. The transaction in the airport bar tells me something about the marginal exchange rate of beer in airports. But how do I know that the fact that I am in an airport is relevant? We are trying to understand the informational content of a local interaction—how do I even know that I am in an airport?

Both the determination that I am in an airport and the determination that, in this case, the location of my exchange is relevant to the global information I receive from my transaction depend crucially on background knowledge. However, background knowledge is a property of the agent, not the system itself. So, Hayek's definition seems deficient in its attempt to define a property of the system in terms of the epistemological access of a potential agent.

Consider a final example: local beer in a Turkish airport costs roughly the same as local beer in an American airport. Now, suppose I am an American businessman traveling to the Middle East and I have a brief stopover in Turkey. I only see the inside of an airport and during my stopover I purchase a beer at an airport bar. What do I learn? On the basis of my background knowledge, I might deduce that the price of booze in Turkey is roughly that of booze in the U.S. This deduction makes sense on the assumption that the relationship between the cost of airport beer and everyday bar beer is the same in both countries.

However, I would be completely incorrect! As it turns out, the price of local beer at everyday bars in Turkey is about a third that of beer at everyday bars in the U.S. So, on the one hand, I have grossly overestimated the cost of beer in Turkey. On the other hand, the cost of hard liquor, since it is mostly imported, is approximately twice that in the U.S.—by generalizing to all booze, I have gone wrong again. Both assumptions (based reasonably on my background knowledge)—that beer in airports is twice that in an ordinary bar, and that the relative price of different types of booze tracks that in the U.S.—were in error. Again, if an agent's epistemic access is built into the definition, then the informational property defined is inherently relative to the agent's background knowledge and cannot distinguish a property purely internal to the system.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

the bird in traffic

Apparently, the middle finger can occasionally be a more constructive and effective means of moving traffic than the horn.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

seen in amsterdam v

A lone swan, white with patches of brown, loitering on Gledersekade late at night.

seen in amsterdam iv

Construction finished: In the space of two weeks, a streetcorner turned from a pile of sand, into a perfectly laid set of paving stones, identical with any other corner in the city.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

seen in amsterdam iii

Everyone knows that prostitutes in Amsterdam stand behind large windows, displaying their wares to passersby. And perhaps you also knew that they have little red lights outside their doors indicating their trade. But did you know (i) that they (at least the ones near me) are on average quite fat and ugly? and (ii) when a single male walks by they will knock on their windows to attract his attention? (ii) is extremely annoying, though it would perhaps be less so if it weren't for (i).

seen in amsterdam ii

A tricycle with a bike lock.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

seen in amsterdam

A dwarf driving a yellow van. As he passed me I could see him bouncing up and down vigorously on his seat like a trampoline and waving his little arms in the air frantically. Not sure how his legs could reach the pedals. (Or how he could steer with his arms flailing about for that matter.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Reality in Shock Cinema: Maskhead

The cinema of the horrendous has always relied on a combination of reality and special effects to achieve its ends—the manipulation of viewer emotional state through a sequence of shocking / disturbing images.

An extreme example are the films of the Viennese Action movement, particularly Otto Muehl's. These films include real blood, real feces, real animal slaughter, and, famously in one instance, a woman pleasuring (?) herself with the neck of a beheaded swan.

A less extreme example, perhaps, is the Mondo genre of films, initiated by the brilliant documentary Mondo Cane (1962). Though it started with the travelogue depiction of bizarre practices around the world, the genre quickly degenerated into a reliance on faked events. Already in Mondo Cane 2 (1963) the self-immolation of a Tibetan monk is faked (though, in fact because, such events actually occur, the filmmakers simply happened not to be present).

Japanese fetish cinema of the 1970s and 1980s also combined actual bondage and torture with simulated violence to create an overall atmosphere of deprivation. Notable examples here include Wife to be Sacrificed (1974) and the significantly more offensive (and less poetic) Captured for Sex 2 (1986). The Japanese also, however, introduced a brand of gore so excessive and minimal there was no room in the plot for real acts at all, most famously with Flowers of Flesh and Blood (1985). Significantly more excessive, though in some respects exemplifying similar spirit (drained, however, of the aesthetic vision provided by Flowers director and mangaka Hideshi Hino), is the utterly repulsive Flesh Daruma (1998), which combines real hardcore sex with simulated torture and murder.

Contemporary shock cinema has sought a happy medium between the real and the fake. The real aspects of the film lend plausibility to the fake, yet frequently now involve willing, even enthusiastic, participants. Here again we can see two dominant strategies for imbuing simulated violence with the veneer of reality: i) the inclusion of real acts of a shocking or graphic nature between simulated ones; ii) a documentary filmmaking style. Obviously, some films choose to employ iii) a combination of the two.

Falling into the first category are the recent films of Andreas Bethman, José Mojica Marins, and Randy Greif. Bethman's Angel of Death II: The Prison Island Massacre (2007) and K3: Prison of Hell (2009) both combine real (and graphic) hardcore sex with simulated torture and violence (via the special effects wizardry of Olaf Ittenbach). Marins' Embodiment of Evil (2008) and Greif's The Three Trials (2006) both feature performances by body modification enthusiasts intermingled with simulated torture and domination.

In the second category, one need look no farther than Fred Vogel's August Underground trilogy and Murder Collection, Vol. 1, discussed in some detail here. These four films all utilize a gritty verité / faux documentary style in order to heighten the effect of scenes of simulated gore.

Perhaps the grandest recent exemplars of the combined strategy are the "vomit gore" films of Lucifer Valentine 666, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006) and ReGoregitated Sacrifice (2008). Both films combine real stripping, domination, and vomiting with simulated torture and murder, all shot in a documentary style. One hesitates to describe them even as "faux" documentaries given that the documented events (domination and vomiting) are frequently real, and the voice one hears of the satanic narrator is that of the director himself instructing his (willing) actors.

This brings us to the latest offering of ToeTag Productions, Maskhead. I have to admit, however, some befuddlement about the exact goal of Maskhead. It is noticeably lacking in any of the three strategies for combining realism with simulation displayed in the shock cinema genre. As a consequence, although the effects are, as always, up to ToeTag's high standards, the atmosphere of the film is confused and lacking in intensity or focus.

For example, Maskhead revolves around a couple of porn producers who lure would-be amateur porn actors and actresses into snuff films where they are slaughtered by an enigmatic masked figure. The trailer promises a puzzle concerning the identity of this "Maskhead"—is he "The Cowboy"? Will he turn on his employers? What are his motivations, his history? None of this is revealed. Furthermore, although the characters are ostensibly shooting porn, there is hardly any nudity in the film. The supposed "fetish porn" which introduces every Maskhead scene is extremely prudish, featuring actors in underwear or neglige. This is all especially surprising given that earlier ToeTag films (Redsin Tower (2006) and Murder Collection, Vol. 1 (2009) both feature sex scenes more explicit than anything in Maskhead (though obviously still simulated rather than real).

As a second example, consider the fisting scene, a scene played almost entirely for laughs. The scene works because of the charisma of the only interesting character in the whole movie, The Cowboy. But, again, it feels out of place. In a world where fisting, if not commonplace (though surely becoming more so), is publicly available through the magic of the internet, why not secure a genuine enthusiast to act in the film? The obvious answer—that such an amateur would not be able to uphold the acting standards of the film—doesn't seem applicable. In fact, uniformly, though not engaging in any pornographic acts, the level of sophistication of most of the acting is no better than that in the average porn flick (the notable exception, again, being The Cowboy).

The point here is not that one wishes to see fisting in a gore movie. In fact, quite the contrary. However, it is precisely because this is not the gut desire of the viewer that inclusion of such scenes would have heightened the realism, intensity, and atmosphere of the film as a whole. Surrounded by the implausible and the cartoon, the gore scenes themselves feel confusing and random. There is no build-up, no tension (at least not after it is revealed, early on, that The Cowboy is not Maskhead).

What about the second strategy for imbuing a shock film with a veneer of realism, a documentary style? In many ways the style of Maskhead is documentary-esque—handheld, shot-on-video, sporadic in image quality, etc. However, there is none of the artifice needed to make this interpretation convincing. The August Underground trilogy relied for its success on a compelling and convincing simulation of the homemovie. Murder Collection, Vol. 1 successfully simulates a lone collector's selection of accidental death videos. In both cases, there is a consistency of vision and style that supports the artifice, lending it plausibility. It is the very sporadic character of Maskhead that prevents any such illusion from taking hold. It is not the homemovie of the porn producers, it is not an accidental document, it is not even one of the videos they themselves produce (though there is an episode along these lines).

So, what then to make of Maskhead—who is it for? Why is it? As a piece of shock cinema, it largely fails (speaking by comparison here, of course). There is indeed extreme gore, but it is linked together by unfocussed vignettes featuring bad acting and zero plot development. This sounds suspiciously like porn—not capital-P Porn, but rather any exploitation genre film, serving the sole purpose of delivering the enthusiast his desires mounted on a pointless facade of filler. In this sense, the chop-sockey film is also a type of porn, and Maskhead itself is gore-porn.

Ironically, if Maskhead had included scenes of actual porn, if the fisting, for example, had actually been depicted, it would have been less porn-like in this exploitation sense. For then the gorehounds would have been shaken from their comfort zone, they would have been truly shocked and disgusted, rather then pleasantly titillated. If the viewer of Maskhead were truly made to feel horror and fear, disturbed and disgusted by his own emotional trajectory, then it could have risen to the level of some of the earlier ToeTag offerings.

Alternately, the film could have embraced a more traditional narrative structure. Perhaps if there had been tension, a reveal, a mystery, or retribution—some arc or change in the characters—the film could have avoided the gutter of shock and exploitation entirely and aspired to a more mainstream style. Perhaps this was the filmmakers' intent; though, if so, it leaves one puzzled about why the character of Maskhead was not developed more. Maskhead himself is not even developed as a mystery. We very rarely see him when he is not performing. How does he live? Where does he live? Why does he live? His enigma could have been served as the driving force behind the story, but by the end we have learned nothing. Nothing has changed but the death of some irrelevant (and also underdeveloped) amateur porn actors. Boo-Hoo.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


"tyotto yatte miru?"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

von trier: antichrist

Nature is Satan's Church

The work of Lars von Trier breaks roughly into three periods.

In the first, Trier makes extensive use of cinematic tricks to create an overall aesthetic effect. This is the period of The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa. Rear projection, filters, slow motion, and self referential production effects shape the look of these films. They address the very abstract topic of Europe, its history and decay.

Following his mother's deathbed revelation about his true parentage, von Trier's style shifted dramatically to a focus on naturalistic acting and a handheld, pseudo-documentary style. Breaking the Waves initiated this trend, though it also maintained some of Trier's earlier, self-conscious stylings—the lush chapter headings, for example. The style was pushed to a new extreme in Trier's legitimate (The Idiots) and bastardized musical (Dancer in the Dark) installments in the Dogme95 genre.

Although the U.S. trilogy appears a break with the Dogme style (artificial lighting, sets, etc. are reintroduced with a vengeance), the verite camerawork and sparse style remain. In fact, the strict aesthetic of Dogville and Manderlay represents an even more rigid discipline than the 10 punishing rules of the Dogme "vow of chastity." This third style, then, though distinct is, if anything, a claustrophobic extension of the second.

With Antichrist, however, Trier seems to finally stumble towards a reconciliation between the stylistic indulgence of his early period and the harsh austerity of more recent works. The acting is intense, personal, and claustrophobic; the theme is again the do-gooder whose best intentions produce only pain and evil—the hallmarks of post-Waves Trier. No longer, however, does Trier's aesthetic discipline force itself on the viewer. The use of film tricks—color adjustment, slow motion, animatronics—returns. Unlike Trier's early period, however, these tricks serve and enhance the story and the acting, rather than simply overshadowing them.

The film ends with a dedication to Tarkovsky, whose influence clearly dominates the lush and beautiful nature photography (not to mention the extreme slow motion shots). The attitude towards nature in Antichrist is nothing like that of Tarkovsky, however, whose indulgent and worshipful attitude towards nature and the wild famously warped his version of Lem's Solaris from a story of discovery and wonder into one of nostalgia and romance. No, Trier's attitude is much more akin to that of Herzog, as expressed in Burden of Dreams:

Full of obscenity . . . nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here, I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away . . . The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery; I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain.

Ultimately, though, Antichrist is about people and the evil that they do—nature reflects and symbolizes that evil but, much as we desperately wish it to be the case, nature is not the cause. It is only us who are to blame for our sins.

Ever since Breaking the Waves, Trier has been accused of misogyny. Waves, Dancer, Dogville, and Manderlay all revolve around naive and well-meaning female characters who are forced to endure a sequence of cruel and degrading public punishments and indignities—in some cases climaxing with the character's death—all toward the supposed end of their pristine intentions. Usually, the perpetrators of these public cruelties were men, and the interpretation of Trier as misogynist on the basis of these stories seemed reactionary and misguided. Yet, with Antichrist, these concerns emerge more strikingly than ever before. Once again suffering and pain are inflicted, but no longer is the female victim innocent and virtuous. Of course, she's also no longer a mere victim either, but an active participant in the games of torture and degradation.

Still, it would be foolish to judge Antichrist as merely the product of misogyny and a simple-minded hatred of psychiatrists. For the evil that men do is that much more evil when its source is ambiguous and not mere misguided virtue, even if virtue for von Trier is always revealed as the mere semblance of virtue in any but the disabled. Furthermore, adding complexity and moral ambiguity to the motivations of the female protagonist deepens and enriches the role of the male protagonist. The recurring "Golden Heart" motif in Trier's work reaches a new level of sophistication (and moral gray) in Antichrist for precisely these reasons.


matched with an aged wife, i mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race that hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

this labor, by slow prudence to make mild a rugged people, and through soft degrees subdue them to the useful and the good.

death closes all; but something ere the end, some work of noble note, may yet be done, not unbecoming men that strove with gods.

come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world. push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until i die.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

president's speech to students

Many of the students, even (especially?) those directly in front of the president can be seen recording the speech with their phones and cameras ~ instead of watching the speech directly, they watch it through the screens of their electronic recording devices. And is it any wonder? The president's stationary body, rhythmic teleprompter head turns, and cliched hand gestures are designed for the small screen.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

for the longest time

doo wop started with gospel:

then it became secularized:

this evolved into a 50s rock style:

then there was 80's post modern doo wop, when billy joel extracted the style into a quitessential 50's revival faux-doo-wop rock beat:

I recall finding this tune especially moving despite a failure to properly identify it as post-modern commentary on 50's and 60's rock quintet style. I wonder whether something about the emotional structure of the tune resonates especially strongly with the high school student - perhaps that's the ideal age group for the emotional message involved. Certainly a random search of covers reveals the most sensitive renditions coming from that age group.

Friday, September 4, 2009

the 80's

decade of greatest social and racial equality? ~ at least as portrayed in popular culture?

wrist cut rally

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Thursday, July 30, 2009

information ii

Last time we considered the information in a single event and determined that a decent measure of that information might be:

I(e) = − log P(e)

Suppose, however, that we are not interested in the information in a single event, but in a source of information. We can think of this as a source of events, or a source generating signals. All that really matters is that there are a number of possibilities, and they appear with different frequencies. Let's use π to denote a source and pi to denote the probability of the ith outcome amongst the n possible outcomes π might generate.

What can we say about the information generated by this source? Well, suppose we want a measure of the average amount of information in any signal coming from this source. This could mean something like "How chaotic is this source?" Suppose we are looking at fluctuations in background radiation—are they the result of chance (i.e. chaotic) or are they remnants of communications from an alien civilization?

An equivalent interpretation is this: "How efficient is the coding of this source's signal?" If there is lots of redundancy, then there is less information in each event generated by a source. For example, if the source is generating letters of the alphabet and it generates "th" then we would not be surprised if the next symbol is "e"—if the source is generating English text, that is. This is because there is a lot of redundancy in written English. Whenever the probability associated with the next symbol drops below 1/26, i.e. whenever some symbols are more likely than others, we receive less information when the likely symbols occur.

A third interpretation here is this: "How predictable is the source?" Suppose the source is generated by the toss of a fair die and the symbol "x" is sent if the outcome is 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, but the symbol "y" is sent if the outcome is 6. Then "x" should appear five times more frequently than "y" and we receive much less information whenever "x" occurs. So, if all we do is predict "x", we'll be right five times out of six.

So, a chaotic source is an efficiently coded source is an unpredictable source. But how can we put a measure on this property? Claude Shannon (1948) "The Mathematical Theory of Communication" argues that we need a function H which will satisfy four intuitive properties:

1. H should be continuous over the event probabilities—i.e. small changes in the probability distribution should only have small changes on H.

2. If the probability of all events generated by a source is equal (i.e. for n events, the probability of each is 1/n), then the value of H should increase as the number of possibilities increases (intuitively, there is more information in a die toss than a coin flip).

3. If the end results (the sequence of events) are generated by different probabilistic processes, but the ultimate probability of each symbol is the same, then H should return the same value in each case. For example, consider two sources, π1 and π2. π1 first flips a fair coin. If it comes up heads, it sends "a", if it comes up tails, then π1 rolls a fair die and sends "b" if the outcome if 1, 2, 3, or 4 and "c" if the outcome is 5 or 6. π2 just rolls a fair die and sense "a" if the outcome is 1, 2, or 3; "b" if the outcome if 4 or 5; and "c" if the outcome is 6. Although the signals are generated by different mechanisms, in both cases, "a" will appear with probability 1/2; "b" will appear with probability 1/3; and "c" will appear with probability 1/6. So, H should assign the same value to both π1 and π2.

Shannon proves that all functions which satisfy these three desiderata will be of the form:

H = − K ∑i=1n pi log pi

Where K is a constant (essentially, it sets an origin) and the basis of the log represents a choice of units.

Shannon called H the entropy of a source. This is because it happens to be the same equation as is used to calculate entropy in statistical mechanics (note, however, that the derivation of the equation is totally different). Is there any deep connection between entropy in information theory and entropy in statistical mechanics? This is an open question about which opinions differ wildly.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

information i

Suppose we observe an event e — how much information do we acquire?

We'd like a function I such that for any e, I(e) tells us how much information is contained in the occurrence of e.

Intuitively, if the probability of e occurring is very large, then I(e) should be very high. We learn a lot when something unlikely occurs. If your math teacher stands on one leg, barks like a dog, turns around three times, then leaps through the window, you learn a lot about him.

If the probability of e occurring is very high, though, I(e) should be very small. In the limit, as the probability of e approaches 1, i.e. certainty, I(e) should approach zero — we don't learn very much when we see the sun rise in the morning (at least, not if we've been paying attention!).

In the limit in the other direction, as the probability of e approaches zero, the information we gain from observing e approaches infinity.

Finally, if two unconnected (i.e. independent) events occur together then the information we receive about them is just the sum of the information we would have received had each of them occurred separately. (Remember that two events are independent if the probability of both of them occurring equals the probability of one times the probability of the other.) If my math teacher puts a banana on his head, and your english teacher, in a different state, smothers himself in jello, then we learn everything I would have learned separately about my math teacher, plus everything you would have learned separately about your english teacher.

So, we now have several constraints on the function I:

1. P(e1) < P(e2) implies I(e1) > I(e2)

2. P(e) = 1 implies I(e) = 0

3. P(e) = 0 implies I(e) =

4. P(e1 ∧ e2) = P(e1) × P(e2) implies I(e1 ∧ e2) = I(e1) + I(e2)

One convenient analysis of information which satisfies these four constraints is

I(e) = − log P(e)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

FCP anomaly

[I was too scared to click on it and find out what happens . . .]

Monday, June 29, 2009

zabriskie point, warner NTSC transfer

too cold in the desert, unfortunately

more detailed review here

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

what is post-post-modern?

Modernism invited artists to play with technique, to utilize the medium as medium in their storytelling.

Post-modernism encouraged the use of technique for its own sake: story and character, depiction and meaning became subordinate to self-awareness, self-reference, and alinear linguistic puzzles. If there was a surface narrative in the post-modern work, it was always subordinate to the numerous subnarrative strands which served to subvert it, seeping in through the interstices, reversing the author / reader power structure, etc.

But what of the post-post-modern narrative arts? Once the door to self-awareness and self-reference has been opened, it can never be closed. Nevertheless, the luster of for its own sake self-referentialism has worn thin.

Let's look at three strategies for bridging this gap, for moving beyond the self-indulgence of post-modernism while retaining its techniques; and reclaiming (if at all possible) the traditional narrative ideas of story and character and meaning.

David Foster Wallace, for example, explicitly speaks of finding a "compromise" between a fractional nonlinearity and a seductive and compelling story in this interview with Charlie Rose, discussing Infinite Jest from 19 or so min. and post-modernism ("after modernism") from 21 or so min.

What's of interest about Infinite Jest (in this context) is that the meaning of the novel has nothing to do with its techniques (or language, relativism, power-structures, etc.). The novel is a deep investigation of the contemporary American cultural of addiction, and unabashedly so. But it is not language which is convicted, but something subtler. And at all times, the individual is held to task and examined, rather than subordinated to the political and cultural commentary.

The centrality of the individual and his struggle to construct meaning in his life is also at the heart of Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions, a film about filmmaking in which one director forces another to repeatedly remake his most famous short, each time following a different set of bizarre rules. Despite the blatant self-referentialism and absorbtion in the medium of film itself, The Five Obstructions culminates in a touching a deeply humanistic affirmation of the human spirit, one which feels all the less trite for transcending its deconstructionist trappings.

As a final example, consider the Southpark 2-part episode, "The Cartoon Wars." A cartoon about cartoons and censorship, which itself is censored. The creators' commentary on the second episde is here:

Not only is the storyline self-referential and self-aware in the extreme, it overtly comments on the need for story and character development rather then mere fractured joke telling. Although the ultimate message is political, the emphasis is again on the responsibility of the individual rather than the culpability of society, language, or power structures.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

the philosopher's oath

If you are a practicing philosopher, please consider taking this oath:
I, [insert name here], do hereby vow to never use, in speech or in print, the locution "X taught us that Y", where X is a famous philosopher and Y is a claim which they have defended. Furthermore, whenever I read or hear claims of the form "X taught us that Y" made by some other philosopher, I vow to remind myself that mentioning a claim in conjunction with its most famous defender does not constitute an argument for that claim, and that it is a defining feature of philosophy that it should have no dogmas, that all claims are open to question. Finally, I recognize that it is this feature of philosophy which distinguishes it from science, but also which prevents it from degenerating into hollow and dogmatic scholasticism, and I vow to maintain an open mind and protect philosophy from the descent into scholasticism until my dying day, or forfeit my right to practice philosophy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

sonnet ~ to science

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise?
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jeweled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

~ Edgar Allen Poe

Monday, May 18, 2009

Thursday, May 14, 2009


For the first time, neither sales nor property nor income taxes are the largest source of money for state and local governments. The federal government is.
. . . .
The Obama administration's agenda of maximizing dependency involves political favoritism cloaked in the raiment of "economic planning" and "social justice" that somehow produce results superior to what markets produce when freedom allows merit to manifest itself, and incompetence to fail. The administration's central activity &mdash the political allocation of wealth and opportunity &mdash is not merely susceptible to corruption, it is corruption.

~ George Will

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

trends in meta-snuff: Murder Collection, vol. 1

So far, there appears to be no such thing as a snuff film.

Nevertheless, the possibility of snuff has been a powerful source of inspiration for the underground gore community.

This inspiration has expressed itself in two basic ways:

1. Imitations of Snuff, i.e. fake snuff films
2. Films about Snuff, in the best instances providing some form of commentary on the nature of snuff and its appeal.

The most famous instance of the first type is perhaps the guinea pig short, flowers of flesh and blood, 1985. Which Charlie Sheen famously believed to be a real snuff film.

Instances of the second type include those that focus primarily on the psychology of those making the snuff films (Peeping Tom, 1960), the society that consumes snuff (Videodrome, 1983), the victims of snuff (Evil Dead Trap, 1988), or even all of the above (Cannibal Holocaust, 1980).

A compelling new trend in snuff-aesthetics can be seen in the films of Fred Vogel's ToeTag Pictures. The August Underground trilogy (August Underground, 2001, August Underground's Mordum, 2003, and August Underground's Penance, 2007) manages to combine the best features of the two primary types of snuff inspired film.

Technically speaking, these are all fake snuff films. This allows them to take advantage of the primary aesthetic virtue of the fake snuff film: its ability to connect viscerally and emotionally, to induce direct bodily reactions.

However, films about snuff traditionally find it much easier to investigate the underlying psychology of snuff. This psychology includes that of the filmmakers, the consumers, and also the society as a whole which has produced this trend. And it is this last factor, of course, which is in many ways the most interesting, as it implicates even those who do not seek out and consume extreme gore in the trends which it expresses.

The August Underground videos, especially when taken as a whole, manage to comment on the underlying psychology of both the murderers depicted and the society which produced them. On the side of the murderers, their attitude towards their violence gradually shifts from indifference in the first video, towards emotional, romantic entanglement in Mordum, eventually degenerating into empty, unfulfilling compulsion in Penance.

Society at large, however, is implicated in the extended non-gore scenes. The films intersperse scenes from the everyday lives of the protagonists along with extended of scenes of them torturing their victims. Unlike in a film such as Peeping Tom, where the protagonist is introverted, socially maladjusted, and explicitly attempts to erect a barrier between his snuff-habit and his everyday life, the August Underground films portray the protagonists' violent behavior as lying on a continuum with their everyday activities.

Conversations with friends, a walk in the park, dancing at a concert, getting a piercing: all these activities are presented as mere manifestations of the same underlying drive which motivates their crimes.

ToeTag's most recent picture takes this technique a step further, this time attempting to directly analyze and implicate the audience. The video is called Murder Collection Volume 1. Strictly speaking, Murder Collection is not a fake snuff film. Rather, it is a fake instance of a very real phenomenon: the collection of death footage.

This trend was perhaps initiated by the shocking but brilliant Mondo Cane, but in the days before everyone was walking around with phones and cameras which can double as video capture devices, footage of actual deaths was hard to come by. This inspired a number of fake collections, such as the Faces of Death films.

In the age of the internet, however, accidental (and deliberate) death footage became widely available. Sources range from accidents to Islamic extremists, to honest-to-god serial killer home videos (yes, if you look hard enough, they can be found). Murder Collection purports to be a mixtape of such found footage by a mysterious figure named Balan who helmed a site catering to those interested in such fare from the early days of the internet, i.e. 1994.

Much like actual sites which distribute such footage, Balan runs afoul of the authorities and the site is dismantled. Murder Collection, however, presents videos from his collection, interspersed with commentary by said shadowy figure. Unlike previous films like Faces of Death, which proclaimed itself real in all advertising material, or Cannibal Holocaust, for which the director asked the actors to go into hiding for a year in order to heighten the illusion they'd been killed, Murder Collection does not hide its fictional character. It has opening credits listing the (to my knowledge real) names of all involved, and ending credits which clearly list all actors in all segments. Furthermore, promotional copies have been distributed signed by all participants.

Essentially, then, the video is a collection of short stories, each fulfilling two constraints: (i) somebody has to die (usually accidentally), and (ii) the action must be captured by a video recording device plausibly operating within the context of the story. The stories themselves are quite clever, and, in particular, use time and perspective to generate substantial suspense. Overall, the gore level is quite low compared to other ToeTag pictures, but the suspense and intensity in the stories makes for a compelling and disturbing experience.

For our purposes, however, it is the interjections by host Balan which are perhaps of most interest. We never see a clear picture of Balan's face, only snippets of distorted and manipulated video, capturing various features in isolation. It's clear that these are compiled from a number of different faces, and features of the three main protagonists of the August Underground films are all in evidence (if my eyes do not mistake me). Balan's voice is distorted past the point of recognition, and his interjections are subtitled. It is clear that there is no direct connection between the text and voice.

Here's an example of one of Balan's comments, occurring a third of the way through the film. The grossly distorted voice uttering a string of expletives, something like: "[unintelligible] this motherfucking, stinking [dog?] pitiful piece of shit . . ." [etc.], which are subtitled:

"The joy of being repulsed stirs up our viscera. Causes us pain, nausea and discomfort. For most it is not enjoyable to watch another human die. Yet, it gives great pleasure to some. It makes them yearn for it. Even want to take a life for themselves. Regardless, in the end it's all the same. Viewing death generates acids in our guts and makes us feel alive."

Here we can clearly see the implication of even those members of society who choose not to watch gore, snuff, or death footage. The physiological reaction which motivates those who enjoy gore is the same as that which motivates those who despise it. Furthermore, the end consequence of this physiological reaction is the same in both types of people, it makes them "feel alive." This is perhaps Balan's own answer to the question he asks at the start of the video: "Why are you watching?"

Murder Collection is the gore underground's attempt to adapt to the times. Snuff films are not real, but accidental death videos are. Now that, thanks to the internet, they are widely available online, it is imitation death videos, rather than imitation snuff which are of interest. In the words of Balan: "the new media shines light in dank crevasses." Furthermore, the role of the snuff filmmaker has been replaced by the role of the death vid collector. In many ways, this subject is potentially more compelling from a psychological standpoint as he is much closer (in terms of his behavior and the lines he is willing to cross) to the audience of gore than the genuine psychopath.

One can see this in the content of the short stories. Although some capture thieves, kidnappers, or intentional murderers, others capture pranks which go too far or accidental expressions of emotion which cross the line into fatal excess. These serve to implicate the viewer and the everyday hooligan in much the same way as some of the most ambiguous august underground scenes.

But Balan's questions, whether sincere or ironic, remains hanging in the air: why violence and death? Will there even be an interest in the fake accidental death video when the real is so readily available? Is this human nature or perversion? Are we all implicated?


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Saturday, March 28, 2009

cheapening the incredible

without CGI:

The creation of an incredible event on film depends upon the ability of an individual (or group thereof) to manipulate and guide the environment, physical objects, light, time, and actors to create a particular moment.

with CGI:

The creation of an incredible event on film depends upon the ability of an individual (or group thereof) to imagine and simulate some *possible* moment.

The problem here is with possibilia. What defines the possible moment? In fact, the possible is defined by the actual - we cannot intuit or a priori predict the possible. We discover it by attempting it. Without CGI, one demonstrates the limits of the possible by testing them empirically. With CGI, one foresakes the possible (and thus the interest of its limits) for the imagination.

Here also, admittedly, there are limits - but are these as interesting as the limits of possibility in the world?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

comcast "agreement"

Comcast is the only provider of faster-than-dial-up internet in my area (that's right, no DSL). As such, they have a monopoly, and anyone who wants (or needs) to use the internet at modeRn speeds must do it through them. They just mailed a change in the "Comcast Agreement for Residential Services" along with the most recent bill. It contains this passage:
You understand that your computer or other devices may need to be opened, updated, accessed or used either by you or by us or our agents, in connection with the installation, updating or repair of HSI or video services. The opening, accessing or use of your computer, other devices used in connection with your computer, or your video devices may void warranties provided by the computer or other device manufacturer or other parties relating to the computer's or device's hardware or software. Neither comcast nor any its affiliates, suppliers, or agents, shall have any liability whatsoever as a result of the voiding of any such warranties.

Is it irrational for me to be disturbed by this?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

playing cards

Cards are 52 rectangles of stiff paper, or cardstock decorated uniformly (to ensure indistinguishability) on one side, on the other, divided into four "suits" of thirteen cards each, numbered from two to ten, plus a jack, a queen, a king, and an ace.

Cards are randomized via a physical process called "shuffling," which can be realized via a number of techniques. Proper randomness is achieved by seven "shuffles."

Although a number of different games involving any number of players and cards (e.g. poker, "go fish") are possible, there is a long tradition of four player games, where each is dealt thirteen cards (i.e. a quarter of the deck). Usually, one suit is declared "trump" (i.e. it dominates cards of any other suit, no matter their value), and play proceeds as players lay down cards sequentially. Every four cards constitute a "trick" which one player wins and keeps for himself. Games in this tradition include whist, bridge, spades, and hearts.

I appear to be a member of the last generation for which the above is common knowledge. Casual questioning of average samples of those not ten years my junior reveals (i) the general assumption that card games are simply a subset of computer games, (ii) uncertain knowledge about the constitution of a deck, and (iii) a vanishingly small understanding of appropriate randomization procedures.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

theory and measurement

How does theory infect scientific observations? When are observations "theory-laden"?

One answer, obviously, is in terms of the interpretation of data, even in the subjective assessment of data.

A second answer, however, comes from the practice of measurement itself. Many quantities of scientific interest are difficult to measure directly. As a consequence, we must instead measure a proxy. The relationship between this proxy and the quantity of interest is purely theoretical. For example, Galileo's experiments rolling balls down inclined planes were an attempt to use height as a proxy for velocity in order to measure the effects of gravity (anachronous, but that's how we would put it today) near the surface of the earth. There was simply no direct way to make appropriately exact measurements of velocity.

A modern example: measurements of brain activity. When an fMRI scan is performed flow of blood to an area of the brain is a proxy for "activity" (as very loosely construed), which is itself a proxy for the real topic of interest, the modular role of different areas of the brain in complex mental calculations.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Apparently, the current federal debt in dollars is orders of magnitude greater than the age of the universe in years.

I find this deeply disturbing.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

more alex jones

"pitch perfect performance"

Who first coined this phrase? This metaphor is now officially dead.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

patrick mcgoohan, r.i.p.

war machine

The idea of non-human devices of great power and great ability to carry through a policy, and of their dangers, is nothing new. All that is new is that now we possess effective devices of this kind.

In the past, similar possibilities were postulated for the techniques of magic, which forms the theme for so many legends and folk tales. These tales have thoroughly explored the moral situation of the magician.

In all these stories the point is that the agencies of magic are literal-minded; and that if we ask for a boon from them, we must ask for what we really want and not for what we think we want.

The new and real agencies of the learning machine are also literal-minded. . . . We cannot expect the machine to follow us in those prejudices and emotional compromises by which we enable ourselves to call destruction by the name of victory. If we ask for victory and do not know what we mean by it, we shall find the ghost knocking at our door

Norbert Wiener (1961) Cybernetics, 2nd ed.