Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Week 27: The Things Reflected In My Eyes

The Things Reflected In My Eyes (瞳に映るもの)
Why photographs lie, and what beautiful photographs of ugly men can tell us about the nature of truth.

To be photogenic means to photograph well. It means that when four dimensions of space-time are flattened into two and much of your essence is lost, your physical attractiveness—at least—is preserved, captured in a photograph for posterity. 

Through Facebook, I find an endless supply of photogenic individuals at my fingertips. 

I often spend hours browsing through photos, indulging the horny little teenage girl in my mind who delights in filling in the gaps left by all the things not preserved, the dimensions that don’t photograph well.
This one with the strong jawline and caterpillar eyebrows? He seems like the tall brooding type, a quiet intellectual that finds solace in books and writing, but who can also carry himself well in social situations, and happens to love math!
When I meet them in person, and they turn out to be even more than I imagined, I hold my breath and pray for the day when all Californians can get married. 

More often than not though, Mr. Photogenic turns out to be anything but what I inferred from his strong jawline and caterpillar eyebrows. When this happens, it strikes at the core of my faith in mankind: How can a man so orgasmically beautiful be so heartrendingly stupid?

The fact that universally photogenic men can manifest so inconsistently in person is a testament to our multifaceted existence: We are not one-, two-, or even three-dimensional creatures; the essence of man spans so much more.

As beautiful as that sounds (yes I am aware of my tendency to gloss over ugly details), the fact is that there are some dimensions better left to the imagination: Sometimes, man’s essence can look like Maladora (exotically beautiful), but also smell like Maladora (pungently corpse-like).

I am sure photographers imagine their art is like a crucible. They frame the world through a camera lens, searching for that perfect angle, that perfect moment to crop out all irrelevancies and allow them to capture only what is important: the truth, as they see it.

But of course, multivariable calculus teaches us that 2 vectors cannot a 4-dimensional basis make. 

Photographs lie, and photogenic men can turn into the beastliest of boys, precisely because 2-dimensional images can only ever hint at the full nature of infinite-dimensional truths.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Week 26: Why Creationism is Dumb

Why Creationism is Dumb
How multivariable calculus helps us cut through complexity, recognize universal patterns, and thus discover our own truthsand why this scares the Pope.  

I met up with a new client at Cafe Flore today. She's a grad student at Cal taking multivariable calculus (scary!) over the summer.

I warned her that my multivariable calculus was a bit rusty, that I might not always be able to speak from a position of authority, that our relationship might have to assume a more egalitarian formthat we might have to work through this together. 

She seemed okay with it. 

Today's lesson dealt with the concept of basis, which is just a fancy mathematical way of saying coordinate system, or to generalize even furtherframe of reference.

In multivariable calculus, where you begin working in more than just one- or two- or even three dimensions, a basis helps you make sense of a quantitative world that extends beyond the realm of sensory experience. 

I think NYU Professor Morris Kline (1908 - 1992) put it best:
"No one can visualize a four-dimensional, non-Euclidean world, but those who insist on visualizing the concepts with which science and mathematics now deal are still in the dark ages of their intellectual development. Almost since the beginning of work with numbers, mathematicians have carried on algebraic reasoning that is independent of sense experience. Today they consciously construct and apply geometries that exist only in human brains and that were never meant to be visualized."
In one of her problems, my client was given 7 different vectors (think of an arrow), each of varying magnitude and orientation, and then asked to find a basis. 

I explained to my client that the 7 different vectors were like sets of unidentified fingerprints lifted from a crime scene: one from the bedroom doorknob, two from a champagne flute, several taken from a bloody butcher knife...and so on.

To proceed with the investigation, she needed to determine if those 7 sets of fingerprints belonged to 7 different suspects, or if really there were only 1 or 2 or 3 unique suspects.

It was up to my client to eliminate redundant sets of fingerprints (i.e. those belonging to the same person) until only a unique set remained: to find the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The problem reminded me of a Star Trek episode, “The Measure of a Man” (TNG: 2x09). In it, Captain Picard offers this closing argument in the trial over Commander Data’s status as a Federation Citizen:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time."
To solve this problem, my client needed to find a basis—a frame of reference—that would allow her to cut through the complexity and see fundamental truths, to "burn away irrelevancies" until she was left with a purer product.  

And so she did.

She used the tools of multivariable calculus to slice away at those 7 random vectors, cutting through the redundancies, the extensions, the overlapsthe linear combinationsuntil only 3 remained, each pointing in a unique "direction."  

Out of a dense fuzz of complexity, a simple pattern of only 3 variables emerged. Here was the basis, the coordinate system, the frame of reference: the truth, for all time. 

The discovery is so spiritually uplifting that Pope Joseph Ratzinger himself is roused from his transcendent slumber and, in nothing more than his pointy Prada shoes, quickly issues a papal bull accusing multivariable calculus of molesting little children.   

The full text of Theodore P. Olson's Captain Jean-luc Picard's speech:
"Your honor, the courtroom is a crucible; in it, we burn away irrelevancies until we are left with a purer product: the truth, for all time. Now sooner or later, this man [Commander Maddox]—or others like him—will succeed in replicating Commander Data. The decision you reach here today will determine how we will regard this creation of our genius. It will reveal the kind of people we are; what he is destined to be. It will reach far beyond this courtroom and this one android. It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom: expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others. Are you prepared to condemn him [Commander Data] – and all who will come after him – to servitude and slavery? Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life: well, there it sits! Waiting." 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Week 25: The (Gay) Butterfly Effect

The (Gay) Butterfly Effect
An urban planning perspective on Prop 8, on what it means to walk, and on the crazy shit that happens when we stop.

The history of mankind is a history of unexpected connections, of chance encounters between people and ideas that pushed the envelope of human understanding and opened our eyes to more of our limitless potential.

This history is inextricably linked to our cities: great urban spaces where people from all over the world and from all walks of life came together, collided, and every so often, gave off a random spark that grew to illuminate the world in a whole new way.

And so I walk, because I know that walking can change the world. I walk because I know that, contrary to what Einstein believed, God does indeed play with dice.

Of course, I also walk for other—less noble—reasons: bumping into acquaintances, ogling cute boys on the street, or overhearing some juicy tidbits about who did what with whom last night.

Walking was all this to me, and more. But then Prop 8 blew into town.

The first few days after losing a constitutional guarantee are always the worst.

I remember sharing a narrow sidewalk in Concord, California with a portly, flaxen-haired office worker the day after Prop 8 passed. I was walking to lunch; she was walking back. I looked at her as we passed, and came to the unsettling realization that, statistically speaking—she probably voted yes. 

The realization unleashed a floodgate of raw emotions. Old wounds from the night before bled anew, the delicate scabs bursting beneath the pressure of a heart that seethed with anger.

I stopped walking.

The public space was supposed to be a forum for building trust. But now, all it did was to remind me with each chance encounter that this country had betrayed me—that it had betrayed itself.


I stop walking altogether, and because I stop walking, I stop trusting. Because I stop trusting, love has no foundation, and so when love finally dissipates—I am left without a community.

I take refuge from the world in an isolated gay enclave, stewing in the idea that they all hate me. Sequestered away in my homogenized homosexual bubble, I stop interacting with heterosexuals, and quickly forget that they aren't all like that. 

Over time, the isolation and ignorance breed fear, which festers until from it emerges an uncompromising hatred.

This hatred goes on to fuel a radical gay minority whose modus operandi involves strapping explosive devices to their bodies and blowing themselves up in the middle of straight nightclubs busy with the activity of breeders, many of whom—ironically—support same-sex marriage.

In a flash of flesh-rendering light, I depart from this world. The physical body dies, but my legacy of hatred—my ideas—live on, inciting still more disaffected and marginalized gay men to martyrdom.

The senseless indiscriminate violence of a radical minority shifts national opinion against the moderate gay majority. Discriminatory and draconian new laws are passed in a new populist uprising led by Sarah Palin; and San Francisco and New York, those bastions of guppydom (like yuppies but gay), respond by seceding from the Union. 

The civil war that follows will be known to future generations as the Great Betrayal: a reference to the large contingent of Bible-thumping Republicans who turn out to be closeted gay men and either defect or are psychologically overwhelmed by their own hypocrisy.

The decidedly un-civil conflict in the US helps to enhance China's standing in the world, allowing them to establish a new global hegemony through which the Middle Kingdom rises once more: English falls out of favor, supplanted by Mandarin as the lingua franca of global capitalism; South Korea re-integrates Hanja into their education system; Taiwan is peacefully reunified with the Mainland; and Vietnam successfully petitions China to become the 23rd province of 南越

Chinese citizens begin immigrating to Israel en masse and, with the tacit backing of the Middle Kingdom, quickly declare statehood. The new state contracts Lee Kwan Yew to serve as enlightened despot, and he—through a combination of social engineering, arranged interfaith marriages, market-based incentives, and the threat of capital punishment—finally establishes a lasting peace in the Middle East. 

...all because a bunch of gay butterflies were never able to flap their wings in California.