. . . Memento

. . .

Bonkus of the Conkus
Guy Pearce stars in Memento
Movie Comment: Memento

Memento is easy to write about. That's what it's made for.

What it's made from is cleverness, or at least the desire to seem clever. And when it works, it works as its own summary -- all pitch, no pictures. Vacuum-insulated from mundane specificity of time, place, experience, motive (vengeance for wife's rape-and-murder is the long-established Hollywood equivalent of "They have insulted our school!"), or even vice (one character is straight-facedly described as "a drug dealer" who carries a suitcase full of "drugs"), it's more Gantt chart than movie.

Given its abstraction and its reliance on the hero's slogging voiceover, it might seem like the filmmakers could've gone shorter and cheaper using the Detour approach. But that wouldn't have played to the movie's strengths: its gags and made-ya-jump! roller coaster moments. Because it actually is clever for a while. It's never anything more than that, never achieving even the level of observation reached by Reservoir Dogs (if nothing else, Tarantino understood the dynamics of the American workplace), but at least it manages that much. If Christopher Nolan had stuck to ninety minutes and three major plot interpretations, the movie would've been coldly schematic but successful on those terms. Like Blood Simple, say, with a little more flab.

So it's a shame the ride was overextended by a final half-hour of twist, all contact with the extremely narrow rail of the story was lost, the previously one-dimensional characters collapsed into zero-dimensional plot points, and the audience was sent spinning away with a choice of the following reactions:

  1. What happened? (The pick of the intelligent good-hearted observer who wants to give the movie the benefit of the doubt. Eventually likely to mellow into: It was supposed to be ambiguous.)

  2. What a rip-off.

  3. I got it! I got it! We're both clever!

    But definitely not:

  4. That was satisfyingly well done.
The film's not a demonstration of the "human capacity for evil" so much as a demonstration that it's impossible to sustain consistent characterization over two hours when you have a twist every fifteen minutes. On the other hand, this is the first noir formula I've seen that can easily extend into a series.... (Timelessness or no timelessness, Memento II had better include a PDA.)

Summary: It might've been great if it'd starred Bill Murray.

. . .

One step forward, two steps back

Earl Jackson, Jr. writes:

Memento, Fight Club and Usual Suspects seem to resonate in ways that I fear might be terribly obvious after the work I might do to discover that.... I think the producers of Memento should re-release it next year but retitle it Memento II.
Those were the two movies that Juliet Clark immediately associated with Memento, as well. My guess is all three (and many other recent "challenging" successes from Hollywood) share some mutually-supportive traits: But that's probably what Earl meant by terribly obvious.

His Memento II proposal makes sense -- reckon I'll have to wait for Memento III? or Is It IV? before I finally get to see those PalmPilot scenes....

. . .

Movie Mop-Up: Holes

Despite my adherence to movie-is-a-movie book-is-a-book orthodoxy, what a pleasure, after suffering through a long run of incoherent film-schooled star-indulgent crap, to encounter a script so devoted to its source novel.

Oh, the staging of the script had its discords, starting with the obtrusive music. The cast was charming, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for the overgrown hulk somewhere who'd been denied his big break when apish Stanley Yelnats was assigned to a more conventional willowy teenager. And although the desert made convincing desert, standard-issue F/X exaggerated the gruelling trial-by-mountain into Schwarzenegger fantasyland.

But Louis Sachar's transplanted machinery carried on, doing its job: the low contrivance of melodrama built up and extended, gear by chute by trip-board by flywheel, until it became the high artifice of comedy. It's a practical, if currently neglected, aspect of information theory that, while a little complexity creates suspense, increased complexity either collapses into noise or crystallizes into laughter.

Our anxiety and our relief, being pure products of storytelling technique, float free, ready to attach to whatever sentiment we find close at hand. In a screwball comedy, we associate them with romance, which is why screwball comedies are traditional first-date films and the Three Stooges aren't. Holes, on the other hand, induced in me a strong, and more than slightly disconcerting, upflux of patriotism, and I left the theater in as flag-waving a mood as I've felt in some time.

My reaction isn't easy to explain. It's true that Sachar's elaborate multi-generational farce pivots on important aspects of American history, but lynchings, anti-immigrant prejudice, land barons, and chain gangs make weak propaganda. Maybe there's a bit of Stockholm Syndrome here: America caused the story's anxiety, and so I associated America with the story's relief. After all, I'd be at least as hard-pressed to find positive aspects of sexual love in His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby.

Maybe by interlocking our national horrors with the comic survival of individuals, the movie hit at the heart of the particular sort of patriotism I call my own: a love of what Americans have managed to achieve despite all the crap they've gone through; a hope that sheer mobility is enough to release children from the chains and curses of their parents; a fractured fairy tale of chance recombination leading to something better than hostility unto the final generation.

At the very least, it might be worth trying out as a replacement for It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the Fourth of July.

. . .

Small Talk

Thomas Carlyle, age 37, to John Stuart Mill, age 26, 22nd Feby, 1833:

I really wish you would write to me oftener. Besides the comfortable, available intelligence your Letters bring, there is a most wholesome feeling of Communion comes over me, in your neighbourhood; the agreeable memento: Thou art not alone, then! Alas, it is a most solitary world; from Dan to Beersheba you walk, and find nothing but masks, a real Man is now almost as rare as a God has always been. One is ready to faint by the way, in that inane hubbub (under which too lies Darkness and Death!); one longs for speech; and there is but the (subternatural) cackling and sniggering “of imps in hellish wassail,” of harpies at their foul feed (the grand passion being HUNGER), intent only to reave and eat. Of all such my soul is exceeding sick; at times, even to loathing. In truth, it is oftenest a very Temptation of St Anthony with me; the inanimate Furniture of this Earth gets a ghastly ludicro-terrific vitality, the clothed Bipeds are mostly spectral,— and the Devil is at the bottom of it all. How pleasant the voice of a brother Eremite, a flesh-and-blood Reality (in better heart and health than yourself), at sound of whom the Devil and his works duck down into the Inane! Write to me, I pray you, with more and more heartiness; shew me your feelings as well as thoughts; and let us in all ways, while so much is permitted us, help one another as we can. “What is cheerfuller than Light?” says some one: “Speech,” is the answer. Speech, however; not Cackle. [...]

On one point, I am getting clearness: that it is not good for me to stay much longer in the Nithsdale Peat-desert. I will leave Craigenputtoch, before very long: but where I shall settle; here, in London, or where, is as dark as may be. Poverty and a certain deep feeling of self-dependence (often named Pride, but I hope misnamed) complicate the matter much. We shall see.— My son, before all thy gettings, get understanding —: now as ever, this is verily the one thing needful. For the present, I think of waiting without much motion till my Brother the Doctor return from Italy; perhaps his place and mode of settlement may help to determine mine. John loves me with a brother’s love; is a man of strong faculty, of the truest heart: it is really one of my best joys of late to discern clearly that he too is fixing himself on the everlasting adamant, and may front this Devil’s-chaos beside me, also like a man. In thes[e] scandalous days, such a brother is a Treasure: alas, unless Nature have accidentally given it you, where shall you seek for Friendship? I often wonder over the love of Brothers, over the boundless capacity man has for Loving: why has this long-continued Baseness, Halfness and Hollowness so encircled him with cowardly distrusts that he dare not love!— You shall see John, were he once home; I imagine, some relation may spring up between you: at lowest, you will learn to respect each other.

John Stuart Mill to Thomas Carlyle, 9th March 1833:

I ought to write oftener; though not exactly for the reason you jocularly give. I ought; and I would, if my letters were, or could be, better worth having: yet, even such as they are, not being altogether valueless to you, they shall become more frequent. Truly I do not wonder that you should desiderate more “heartiness” in my letters, and should complain of being told my thoughts only, not my feelings; especially when, as is evident from your last letter, you stand more than usually in need of the consolation and encouragement of sympathy. But alas! when I give my thoughts, I give the best I have. You wonder at “the boundless capacity Man has of loving” boundless indeed it is in some natures, immeasurable and inexhaustible: but I also wonder, judging from myself, at the limitedness and even narrowness of that capacity in others. That seems to me the only really insuperable calamity in life; the only one which is not conquerable by the power of a strong will. It seems the eternal barrier between man and man; the natural and impassable limit both to the happiness and to the spiritual perfection of (I fear) a large majority of our race. But few, whose power of either giving or receiving good in any form through that channel, is so scanty as mine, are so painfully conscious of that scantiness as a want and an imperfection: and being thus conscious I am in a higher, though a less happy, state, than the self-satisfied many who have my wants without my power of appreciation. You speak of obstacles which exist for others, but not for me. There are many of Earth’s noblest beings, with boundless capacity of love, whom the falseness and halfness which you speak of, have so hemmed round and so filled with distrust and fear that “they dare not love”. But mine is a trustful nature, and I have an unshakeable faith in others though not in myself. So my case must be left to Nature, I fear: there is no mind-physician who can prescribe for me, not even you, who could help whosoever is helpable: I can do nothing for myself, and others can do nothing for me; all the advice which can be given, (and that is not easily taken) is, not to beat against the bars of my iron cage; it is hard to have no aspiration and no reverence but for an Ideal towards which striving is of no use: is there not something very pitiful in idle Hoping? but to be without Hope were worse?

You see it is cold comfort which I can give to any who need the greatest of comforts, sympathy in moments of dejection; I, who am so far from being in better mental health than yourself, that I need sympathy quite as much, with the added misfortune that if I had it, it could do me no good. When you knew me in London I was in circumstances favourable to your mistaking my character, and judging of it far too advantageously: it was a period of fallacious calm; grounded in an extravagant over-estimate of what I had succeeded in accomplishing for myself, and an unconscious self-flattery and self-worship. All that is at an end; which is a “progress” surely. I would not now take the greatest human felicity on such terms.

Thomas Carlyle to John Stuart Mill, 21st March, 1833:

My Dear Mill,

Will you accept this feeblest Apology for a Letter, and write to me again, till I have time to answer you more deliberately.

You do your nature great injustice, as I can well discern, who see some ten years farther into it than you. However, this also was among your endowments, that you should be unconscious of them, and even prove their existence by sorrowing for the want of them. For the rest, go on boldly, whithersoever you have Light to go. To all men, whom God has made, there is one thing possible: to speak and to act God’s Truth, and bid the Devil’s Falsehood, and whatsoever it can promise or threaten, an irrevocable farewell. For no man is there properly speaking any more possible. I rejoice very deeply to convince myself by clearer and clearer symptoms that you have chosen this “better part”; and so I prophecy nothing but good of you. But we will talk all those matters, far more at large, in August; which will be here by and by.

One other thing gives me pleasure, that your interest in Politics abates rather than increases. Your view of that matter corresponds perfectly with my own: a huge chaotic Deluge of floating lumber mud and noisome rubbish, in which is fixation or firm footing nowhere. “Cast thou thy seed-corn on the Nile waters; thou shalt find it after many days.” What thou doest is is of most uncertain moment; that thou do it truly is of quite infinite moment. So believe; so have all good men, from the beginning of the world, believed.

I am grown a little better, both in body and mind. These wretched east winds are still to be tolerated: but the business of assiduous scribbling comforts me; heartfelt writing would make me forget everything, only this is not always possible. I have written a long half-mad kind of story about the Archquack Cagliostro, which you will see some time in some Magazine or other. I feel half-tempted to burn it; nevertheless let it stand: it is all moderately true, tho’ written about a grand Falsehood. One is rather sadly off with these Magazine-vehicles (Dog’s-meat Carts, as I often call them): however, it is once for all our element in these days; let us work in it, while it is called to-day. The sheets of Diderot were all fairly corrected two weeks ago; you will see it in the next Number of Cochrane. [...]

Thanks to John Plotz for drawing attention to this exchange, and to the Duke University Press and The Liberty Fund for making it publicly accessible.

. . .

Kat meets Manifold, 1935-07-07

2. Picture Book

(or, Fun with Your New Manifold)

In this paper, I will picture
    I will illustrate a law.
Everybody likes to picture;
    No one wants to learn to draw.

Imagine that the graph-paper-covered room above is a warehouse (offsite storage for a museum or a library, say, or a barn) completely filled by some sort of object or another (archaeological artifacts; books; fodder), piled up and shoved back in some order that I'll leave vague for now.

And now imagine all the warehoused objects of some more specific sort (pseudo-red-figure painting; cyberpunk novels; mycotoxin-contaminated grains) hovering on or near that twisted and tugged tie-died sheet like mosquitoes attacking a net. Then (if we really wanted to) we might say to ourselves that the sheet represents the subcategory.

As to why anyone would really want to say such a thing well, I'll get to that too. First, though, I should confess that the figure I've been pointing to is randomly chosen clip-art, and the reassuringly regular digits marked off along its edges have sweet fuck-all to do with what I've been asking you to imagine. I placed the image there as an arbitrary sample of an allegorical simplification (reduction to three Euclidean dimensions from an indefinitely expanding set of "real" dimensions, some of which are discrete and finite, others continuous and infinite, others difficult to describe at all) of an inexact metaphor for some concepts of interest to myself and Dr. Grietzer.

For both of us, what's imaged is the launch of a research program rather than a graphic summary of its conclusion.

I wonder to what degree doing mathematics is constructing a mental model for a mathematical object, comparing the properties of that model to the facts associated to the object and then trying to reconcile the model with the facts?
Jon Bannon at MathOverflow

Revisiting my randomly chosen absurdly oversimplified allegorical diagram, let's say our warehouse is full of digitized photographs and we're interested in those which contain smiling faces (whether lying or not). Where might they be found?

That depends on how the warehouse contents were originally sorted, or, equivalently, what the fictional coordinates marked off on those imaginary walls might be measuring.

Say left-to-right marks the brightness of the top-leftmost pixel of a photograph, back-to-front marks the color of the bottom-rightmost pixel, and floor-to-ceiling marks the original photograph's area in millimeters. Then the photos we want would probably look as if they were shoved into the warehouse at random.

Which doesn't necessarily mean that they'd look random in our imaginary diagram of the warehouse. If the warehouse contained only 3.5" x 4.25" Polaroids, then smiling-faces would be graphed as points in one satisfyingly compact little sphere. But we wouldn't have learned much, since all the uninteresting photographs would be there too.

And so my and Grietzer's "image" contains the implicit assumption that we can collect some dimensions which are germane to the subcategory of interest: some things other than the categorization itself which could (after a brisk massage) help distinguish the interesting objects from their neighbors. That assumption might be wrong. Given a warehouse of Polaroids and nothing else, there might simply be no distinguishable-or-distinguishing pattern for the immunization records (or criminal inclinations, or IQs) of those depicted no matter how many measurable dimensions we throw at the problem.

One must anyway admit that a question need not have answers, that it is not even bound to have any, since a great part of scientific activity consists, precisely, in seeking the good questions. Thus, the correspondence between planets and regular polyhedra, of which Kepler was so proud, is not even a wrong hypothesis, it is an absurd connection, which only deserves a shrug of the shoulders, a question that did not deserve to be posed, to be compared to speculations linking the length of a ship with the age of her captain. Transparency stumbles on the questioning as to the interest of questions, next on the difficulty to find the answers to the supposedly good problems. Indeed, answers are, mostly, partial: a half-answer accompanied with a new question. The relation question/answer thus becomes an endless dialogue, an explicitation process; it is in this process, which yields no definitive and totalising key, where the afterworld of appearances, i.e., knowledge, is to be found.
- The Blind Spot: Lectures on Logic by Jean-Yves Girard

Besides the dimensions tick-marked across the warehouse edges, both Grietzer's trained-autoencoder "image" and my self-generated "image" hide another dimension in plain sight: the dimension which measures if (or how much) a particular thingmabob matches the particular category of interest:

"This is a face. And this is a face. No, that's not a face. But this here is a face."

"Is this a face?"

"Sort of, I guess; it's a dog's face."

"Are these dog's faces?"

"No. Willie and Joe are dogfaces, but what they have are real faces."

If the question is "How close is that particular thing to what we mean by this name?", then what the manifold depicts is "What we mean by the name." And unless "What we mean by the name" is well and stably agreed upon, we can't expect to derive well and stably agreed upon results.

For categories like "Smiling Faces," that caveat is easily ignorable, albeit at the risk of it publicly biting you in the ass after you've trumpeted your success. But tribal and cultural labels (ethnicity, religion, nation, discipline, art, genre) are blatantly impermanent and localized. They appear post-facto, they vary by time and place, they pass away, and their applications are disputed throughout their existence.

"Nostalgic music," for example, is an easily explained category which can't be placed by sonic properties alone. The germane dimensions are observer-dependent: age and circumstances of the first encounter; extent of later encounters.... For American sports fans, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is unlikely to be nostalgic, whereas their high-school marching band's fight song might be.

Artistic genres, on the other hand, are socially negotiated but also socially contested, and their rival imaginary-manifolds will be involuted, trimmed, and extended (science fiction incorporating alternate history; romances incorporating the undead) until the genre becomes moribund.

Here was my initial random snatch of a computer-generated image:

three-dimensional graph

And here is another piece of sample-allegorical clip art, grabbed from an introduction to autoencoding techniques in Python (and thank you, Jake VanderPlas):

A word deformed into an S shape

Considered purely as suggestive fact-free allegory, the first figure has a more or less arbitrary look, like a satellite photo of a landscape generated and weathered by unpredictable forces, or a spectacularly unmade bed, or a smushed hunk of clay. "It is what it is," but could easily be something different. Contingent, it invites further contingency.

The second figure suggests a definite thing-in-itself, with its own integrity, crystallized or grown or manufactured, hidden by noise and then unearthed.

A picture is worth a thousand words, most of which disagree. My own "image" stands in for a baggy one-size-fits-all Emperor's-New-Clothes sort of allegory, a fluffy cloud bobbing in hot air.

Whereas the extended legend attached to Grietzer's chart points toward some more, well, pointable things up here an intuited "vibe" or "feel" or "groove" shared by representatives of this set of artifacts and down there some machine learning techniques whose usefulness largely depends on the extent to which distinctive latent features can be derived from the set. (Any random selection of UTF-8 transcriptions of European texts, for example, can support some sort of autoencoding, but the "latent features" will probably approximate an equally random list of suffixes, prefixes, and roots.)

Because criticism must articulate a system of differentials
- "Shall These Bones Live?" by Jerome J. McGann

If we (virtually) reach into the previous graph, take that enticingly physical-looking ribbon, give both ends a good yank, and flatten it out, we can read a TOP SEKRIT MESAJ:


What machine-learning usefully "learned" in this case wasn't so much an ability to spot new category matches in the original three-dimensional space, as it was something about the arrangement of matches across the derived two-dimensional manifold itself. (Our deft jerk, however, discarded the original graph's equally readable "S", and so perhaps we'd better keep the higher-dimensional affair around.)

More generally, where autoencoder compression might help human interpreters find latent features, manifold visualizations might help expose latent dimensions. VanderPlas's much-plundered page shows how arranging sample images of handwritten digits over their positions in the derived manifold calls out variations in slant, the choice of serif or sans-, and noisy bits we might want to correct somehow:

Manifold spread of sample handwritten digits
"Now, this in itself may not be useful for the task of classifying digits, but it does help us get an understanding of the data, and may give us ideas about how to move forward..."

Elsewhere on that page, a manifold arranges a rogue's gallery of faces to pivot from left-profile at the top through full-face to right-profile at the bottom.1

And elsewhere in Grietzer's verbal explorations of his "image":

[...] no less than it means a capacity to judge whether a set of objects or phenomena does or does not collectively possess a given style, to grasp a ‘style’ or ‘vibe’ should mean a capacity to judge the difference between two (style-conforming) objects in relation to its framework. Learning to sense a system, and learning to sense in relation to a system—learning to see a style, and learning to see in relation to a style—are, autoencoders or no autoencoders, more or less one and the same thing.

1  Those overlapping playbills irresistibly recall the attempt to flatten a projection of my scattered wits against dorm room walls: a full-page tabloid photo of three rednecks preening en route to crack skulls at a civil rights march; my father's "Please, Mr. President, Don't Go!" petition from the John Birch Society; Patti Smith cupping her bare breast; Samuel R. Delany's sultry Tides of Lust author photo; beatific Squeaky Fromme led to prison; Bobby London's Ramones portrait; the Eraserhead poster as memento-mori of my summer-long St. Louis nightmare; M. K. Brown's perky "Magic Orange"; the white rat's funeral from Khatru 6; naturally-wavy-haired Yeats defocusing for the camera....

The SHELLO graph's origin page describes the effort of its unearthing:

The left-hand picture was generated by one algorithm for summarizing the distance between points; the right-hand picture was generated by a different algorithm.

As I established early in my research career via a series of rigorously fucked-up connect-the-dot trials by crayon, any fixed set of points can be plotted onto an unlimited choice of surfaces. How do we choose? Why should we choose?

For typical machine learning applications, we're after a submanifold that not only connects or closely neighbors our original dots, but will also encompass or approach previously uninspected points of the "same type" or "same border between types," so that new specimens can be classified, denoised, or generated.

But what if we don't want to improve the product recommendations Amazon shows to collectors of Kathy Acker, or to generate Trump re-election ads in the style of "Eumaeus" for Facebook? (I mean, I've already read books which manually approximate what Google's DeepDream would output if it had trained on Molloy or Finnegans Wake instead of dog faces, and I'm not sure they were worth the effort.) What if we don't actually expect to glance at a machine-quilted Scholar's Counterpane of modernist texts and see one axis of parataxis-to-cohesion crossed by another axis of working-class to upper-crust? Why shouldn't we be grateful for the nice tidy plateful of points we've been dished and leave it at that? What do we think we're doing?

A possible answer is this: we are handling real things which can be studied as if they were ideas, "reproducible objects with mental properties." Each such object must be rigid enough to keep its shape in any context it might be used. At the same time, each such object must have a rich potential of making connections with other objects, and the connections between them may acquire the status of ideas as well.

"When any man pretends to mix in manifold activity or manifold enjoyment, he must also be enabled, as it were, to make his organs manifold, and independent of each other. [...] How difficult, though it seems so easy, is it to contemplate a noble disposition, a fine picture, simply in and for itself; to watch the music for the music's sake; to admire the actor in the actor; to take pleasure in a building for its own peculiar harmony and durability. Most men are wont to treat a work of art, though fixed and done, as if it were a piece of soft clay. The hard and polished marble is again to mould itself, the firm-walled edifice is to contract or to expand itself, according as their inclinations, sentiments, and whims may dictate: the picture is to be instructive, the play to make us better,— every thing is to do all. The reason is, that most men are themselves uninformed, they cannot give themselves and their being any certain shape; and thus they strive to take from other things their proper shape, that all they have to do with may be loose and wavering like themselves."

- Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship and travels,
translated from the German of Goethe by Thomas Carlyle

Returning to Jake VanderPlas's SHELLO graphic:

A word deformed into an S shape

Rather than silently translating that crudely material vehicle into mathematical objects consisting of naught but coordinates, let's take the definitely more-than-none pixels on the screen (or more-than-none inked areas on the page) at their graphic word, and reconsider those imaginary zero-dimensional points as bounded neighborhoods (or submanifolds) of their own, multi-dimensional spaces which maintain their own integrity. (If the sample data consists of books, or movies, or paintings, or, for that matter, human beings, this will, I hope, not seem counterintuitive.)

Then the manifold vectors which previously connected-the-dots now pierce-the-objects. If the categorical manifold changes shape, its intersecting vectors shift like a flashlight playing around the object's interior.

At which the categorizing submanifold stops being a destination place and starts to become an interpretative filter. We may decide to switch goals and gears, so that our so-to-speak job is no longer to tighten and stabilize the focus of an embedding submanifold, but instead to transform an exploratory submanifold. We might do so by adding or removing or re-weighting the data's input dimensions the extent to which it justifies the divine right of kings, for example, or the correctness of its diction or we might instead radically change our training-set of sample data by adding, for example, a notoriously unsuccessful attempt at rollicking sea adventure to the canon of nineteenth-century American literature.

More particularly, I might do so. Not to establish a more solid representation of a canon, but to trace through a space, to cast a new (or at least new to me) light, to burn with, if not god no not a "diamond-like flame," possibly not even a disco-ball-like flame, at least a lava-lamp-like flame.

To stretch a point

When Bernhard Riemann introduced "manifoldness" into mathematics, he did so hoping to liberate physicists from Kantian constraints on the imaginable Real. Then, rather than presuming that the a priori notions of continuous and infinite Euclidean geometry always and necessarily described space-that-is-the-case, scientists could (and must) let their models be guided by physical observation. As one example, it might be that three-dimensional Euclidean models were only more-or-less-effective over relatively small distances, and that if scientists were able to zoom out enough, they'd find something more like the non-Euclidean surface of the Earth: curved and finite.

Turning from imaginary telescope to imaginary microscope, Riemann suggested that real-world space wasn't necessarily infinitely dividable; it might merely be parceled out in packets too small for us to notice. Which (he wrote) carries some interesting consequences:

In this respect there is a real distinction between mere extensive relations, and measure-relations; in so far as in the former, where the possible cases form a discrete manifoldness, the declarations of experience are indeed not quite certain, but still not inaccurate; while in the latter, where the possible cases form a continuous manifoldness, every determination from experience remains always inaccurate: be the probability ever so great that it is nearly exact. [...] Now it seems that the empirical notions on which the metrical determinations of space are founded, the notion of a solid body and of a ray of light, cease to be valid for the infinitely small. We are therefore quite at liberty to suppose that the metric relations of space in the infinitely small do not conform to the hypotheses of geometry; and we ought in fact to suppose it, if we can thereby obtain a simpler explanation of phenomena.

[...] in a discrete manifoldness, the ground of its metric relations is given in the notion of it, while in a continuous manifoldness, this ground must come from outside. Either therefore the reality which underlies space must form a discrete manifoldness, or we must seek the ground of its metric relations outside it, in binding forces which act upon it.

Closer to virtual-home, if for argument's sake (and certainly nothing else is at stake) we assume that all possible purely-textual works can be contained in sets of 1-to-4000 page volumes containing 32-bit Unicode characters, then the Universal Library is clearly finite. Too large to fit on my phone's SD card, maybe, but still of calculable size. And although it'll sadly lack Krazy Kat, Sherlock Jr., and Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy, there's nothing to stop our constructing a similarly finite Universal Spotify of 0-to-100-dB 1-to-64800-seconds 24-bit FLAC files, then moving on to a finite Universal Coffee-Table of art prints, and a finite Universal Movie Archive....

As Riemann wrote, and as the Universal Comedy Club independently discovered, if you want to find an element in a discrete manifold, you don't need to fuss with never-completely-accurate comparative measurements: you can just count off the elements and assign each an index number for precise future reference. But then you need some way to remember that Joke 847656 requires a Yiddish accent, and Joke 57 is not for mixed company, and Joke 766362254 might be too soon, too soon, and at some point it's easier to just try to re-tell a joke.

We assembled a loverly bunch of signifiers, and several data server farms of signified objects, but we bottlenecked on interpretants. Although our collection may be discrete and finite, since each reader will encounter different subsets of the collection in different orders at different times in the midst of different contexts, no Reading Experience will be repeated and the Conversation will remain, if not Infinite (unlikely, given the fragile set of conditions required for any Reading Experience to exist at all), then at least Interminable within reach of the Library. Of taking many books there is no end.

The Universal Library demonstrates that our sense of culture's infinite dimensionality, of an unbounded continuous manifold, must derive from something other than a (relatively) small number of artifactual points. Conversely, if we lean in more closely, those artifacts no longer look so pointy. When we actually open one of the volumes which seem so impressively solid on our shelves (organized as they are by binding size and color), we find hundreds of dark smears on yellowing paper, and then another big bunch of dark smears, and another, and another where the hell did the book go?

Just as there's eventually some audio sampling rate at which a strictly finite digitization becomes humanly indistinguishable from an analog sound even if the human is Neil Young, it's possible that the apparent continuum of space-time comes in strictly indivisible packets. Since humanity (like other animals) remains incapable of holding all of those digital samples or all those space-time packets separately in mind, human experience will remain analog and continuous and simpler: we will read one extended book and hear one extended sound and see one extended object.

Again as pointed out by Riemann, once you've committed to the quantitative simplicity of continuity (one persistent physical thing with a heft and a surface texture, instead of umptygazillions of vectors of probabilities seeping and spraying every which where and when), you've also condemned yourself to imprecision. We're never gonna get it right.

Which is good. Rightness isn't what we've been built for; we'd never have time to get anything done. Giuseppe Longo straightforwardly founds our a priori (or so) ideas of the infinitely extensible horizon and the infinitely divisible continuum on mammalian forgetfulness and boredom, and I don't see why we'd need anything more hifalutin. Our cognitive limitations are effective adaptations to Real Life.

In turn we use those cognitive limitations as cognitive tools: they make movies move, make a novel out of graphical variations, make a song out of amplitude samples, and make a geometry out of give-or-take or just-plain-wrong measurements. And we then use those imprecisely derived exactitudes to construct new and occasionally useful imprecisions: a physics,1 a faith, a revised physics, a reformed faith....

1   Clumsy conscience-haunted easily-distracted students fare poorly in labs. Listening to a podcast during one of my last commutes, I felt a keen fraternal warmth towards Carol Cleland:

I was a physics major, but I didn’t like labs. I was a klutz in the lab and my experiments never turned out right, and I was more interested in theoretical science. [...] I was always the last one; something was always wrong with my equipment. Just like when I cook. When I cook and I follow a recipe, I never come out with the same thing twice. [...] I'm not really good at following procedures.

On the considerably smaller scale of Grietzer and myself, our (apparently) graspable "image" takes the place of something which cannot be itself be fully articulated: an attractive ambient feeling which seems to be shared across a set of artworks, or a sheaf of possible connections between experiences-of-the-real and objects-in-the-world. We share an impulse to describe a neighborhood around or within each not-so-atomic atom.

Alternatively, we could steal a trick from Riemann's quanta and WAV's amplitude slices and try to make the invisible and/or imaginary manifold irresistibly apparent even without connectives. If we arrange our canonical samples closely enough and selectively enough, we don't necessary have to draw the lines or drape the sheet ourselves:

A 3-D scatter plot of dots arranged in a spiral

And this may be one spot where our preferred methodologies overlap. I'm clearly attached to collage and found-writing, both as consumer and as so-to-speak "producer". (I often feel I "produce" nothing else.)

As for Grietzer:

This relates to what I’m really excited about, which is undoing the distinction between ‘interpretation’ and ‘erotics’ (in the Sontag sense) or between ‘cognitive mapping’ and ‘listing’ (which Jameson is fixated on), or between mimesis on the one hand and curation, installation, and collage on the other. The fundamental drive is really to create a viewpoint where the ‘radically aesthetic’ — art as pure immanent form and artifice and so on — is also very, very epistemic.
- “‘Theory of Vibe’: A conversation with Peli Grietzer” by Brian Ng

Should we call such a move creation or interpretation or simple parasitism? That question is above my pay grade but I'm fairly comfortable with calling it a construction.

The question of motive remains. Even if we do manage to find some subset of the population who are able to see the ducky or horsie we've so carefully assembled, what would compel us to act out in such an eccentric manner? What's the parasite get out of it?

I'll attempt an answer in this saga's third volume, a thrilling tale of love, literacy, and mathematics. (For my neighbors' peace of mind I'll go light on love.)

But first an end-point.

In Parmenidea; or, The Compassion of the Bodhisattvas

And it is right for you to learn all things
Both the unshaken heart of well-rounded reality
And the beliefs of mortals in which there is no real trust
But nonetheless you shall learn these things too
For nothing else either is or will be
Beside what-is for fate shackled it
To be whole and unchanging. All things will be its name
As many as mortals laid down believing them to be real
Both coming to be and perishing, both being and non-being
And altering place and exchanging bright color
- Parmenides, as translated by Shaul Tor
in Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology
Heaven and earth are equipped with a set of kiln-bellows and air-pipes. Once the mechanism starts moving, wherever the moving air reaches all is stirred. To the ignorant this is the acme of mechanical genius, but what do the pipes and bellows do? They remain void without collapsing. That is why they can move again and continue producing. And so ten thousand things are created, the manifold forms etched and carved between the heavens and the earth. Those who see the heavens and the earth producing fail to realize that their productivity depends on their emptiness.
- Su Che, quoted in Dao de jing: the book of the way, translation by Moss Roberts
There would be nothing whatsoever that was to be done, action would be uncommenced,
and the agent would not act, should emptiness be denied.

The world would be unproduced, unceased, and unchangeable,
it would be devoid of its manifold appearances, if there were intrinsic nature.
- Nāgārjuna’s Middle way: the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā,
translation by Mark Siderits and Shōryū Katsura
Who seeth red
He seeth manifold,
And manifold is tolled
Within his head.

Rejoice in all that's seen,
Or said,
The gold, the green,
The purple, and the red.
- "Bidding the Moon" by James Stephens

Like Belgium, the island of Parmenidea brings two nations into uneasy proximity: Aletheia (that's pronounced "Althea") and Doxia.

Aletheia, "Land of Abstractions," promises investors immortal, unchanging, unyielding, and singular Truth, by which, so far as I've been able to ascertain, is meant perpetual warfare. This is my own, my native land. However, the fatherland didn't conveniently border a plannedparenthoodland, and I've always gotten the impression that it would sort of like to see me dead. (I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, mind you; I'm just saying.)

Doxia, "World of Meat" (or, as Aletheians prefer to call it, "World of Hurt") promises only transient Reality (or, as Alethians prefer to call it, "the conventionally real").

My fellow Aletheians are correct (correctness is their business!) in accusing Doxia of a surfeit of suffering. They less frequently mention the liberality of our own pours. Doxia may not exactly be the land of milk and honey that would be seismically unsound even by mundane standards but it is the land with some occasional milk and honey. A taste: worse or better than none at all?

Down the road a piece, the roulette wheel at Pascal's Casino offers a choice between thirty-six slots (Jansenist, Lutheran, Sunni, Shi'ite, Zoroastrian, Shaktist, and so on and on and on, but let's stop at thirty-six), each of which promises eternal joy for you and eternal agony for the rest of the table if it pays off, and a final thirty-seventh (the green zero) which pays a teaspoon of honey and lifespan-limited suffering all round. It is, obvs, a matter of taste, but I'd feel like an ingrate if I placed my wager elsewhere.

Thus am I a traitor to my country as well as my class. Unfortunately, I retain too strong an accent to ever feel fully at home in Doxia, or be welcomed as a native. And so, in my touristic wannabe way, I approximate as best I can that happy land fur, fur away (yet as near as the kiss of a brick) with the one language I've been given.

But trying to directly communicate the space of all possible communications, the indefinitely-dimensional real continuum itself, is literally pointless. Instead of inducing synesthesia, we create a tsunami of noise: the medium becomes opaque, a wall. Reading Finnegans Wake aloud clarifies it only by forcing us to select a through line ("Oh, I see, this is really 'God Save the King'"), temporarily defocusing everything else into ambient atmosphere or chicken fat. The fish can't describe water but the fish can traverse it.

Why a "manifold" rather than "scattered points in a multidimensional space whose axes are chosen to draw them closer together"? Or a "named finite set of elements"?

My goal (like most worthwhile goals, only describable once you've decided you've reached it) was to replace (as best I could) the ugly choice between anguished conflict and pratfalling certainty by that "pleasant confusion which we know exists." In a pleasingly confusing paradox, that goal is as one with what Giuseppe Longo calls "knowledge construction" (which "will obviously replace, in mathematics and in natural science, the notion of 'ontological truth'") and Fernando Zalamea calls mathematic vision:

To those ends, we will adopt certain minimal epistemological guidelines, furnished in philosophy by Peirce's pragmatism, and in mathematics, by category theory.

A vision moderately congruent with the multiformity of the world should integrate at least three orders of approximations: a diagrammatic level (schematic and reticular) where the skeletons of the many correlations between phenomena are sketched out; a modal level (gradual and mixed) where the relational skeletons acquire the various 'hues' of time, place and interpretation; and a frontier level (continuous) where webs and mixtures are progressively combined. In this 'architecture' of vision, the levels are never fixed or completely determined; various contextual saturations (in Lautman's sense) articulate themselves here (since something mixed and saturated on a given level may be seen as skeletal and in the process of saturation in another, more complex context) and a dynamic frontier of knowledge reflects the undulating frontier of the world.

[...] One obvious obstruction is the impossibility of such a system's being stable and definitive, since no given perspective can capture all the rest. For, from a logical point of view, whenever a system observes itself (a necessary operation if it seeks to capture the 'whole' that includes it), it unleashes a self-referential dynamic that ceaselessly hierarchizes the universe. As such, a pragmatic architectonic of vision can only be asymptotic, in a very specific sense interlacing evolution, approximation and convergence, but without a possibly nonexistent limit. An 'internal' accumulation of neighborhoods can indicate an orientation without having to invoke an 'external' entity that would represent a supposed 'end point' - it has the power to orient ourselves within the relative without needing to have recourse to the absolute.

- Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics by Fernando Zalamea

Can these words be made flesh? These wooden bones of abstraction become a Real Live Boy? No, but they more closely approach that unbroachable phase shift with gesture, the sweep of articulation through space and time, miming the thick dimensionality of organic form through transforms and translations which, if nothing else, can proudly lay claim to mortality.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.