Archive for June, 2009

Teleology

June 28, 2009

soda1Heard any good actuary jokes lately? Here’s one:  How do you keep an actuary in the shower all day? Give him a bottle of shampoo that says ‘lather, rinse, repeat’. Here’s another: An actuary and a farmer were traveling by train. When they passed a flock of sheep in a meadow, the actuary said, “There are 1,248 sheep out there.” The farmer replied, “Amazing. By chance, I know the owner, and the figure is absolutely correct. How did you count them so quickly?” The actuary answered, “Easy, I just counted the number of legs and divided by four.” This one, though, is my favorite: Actuary talking: “There are three kinds of actuaries. Those that can count. And those that can’t.”

I don’t know if this is a general truth or not, but it seems in proportion to the seriousness of the profession, and in proportion to its obscurity, the sillier and the more voluminous the jokes about it are. Actuarial science might serve as the poster boy for this idea. For one, it is a rather grim area of investigation, and two—well, admit it, you’re not too sure what it is an actuary practicing actuarial science actually does, are you? Turns out, insurance companies use it to figure the averages on things like how long we will live and how much money they will need to pay us our pensions. Actuarial science is the way they have of estimating when you and I are going to die and how they can make money off it. So, yes, a good actuary needs to be able to count, but he also needs to understand the statistics of mortality. If I live to 110 and the actuary has said it was okay to pay me x thousands dollars a year, it’s no big deal; but if we all live that long then the insurance companies will take a beating—and we don’t want that, do we? Actuaries do the math. They set the odds on old age. They estimate how many of us will die at age 20, for example, in a motorcycle crash and how many of us will die at 49 from leukemia, and how many of us will live into our 80’s and 90’s, burdening the health care system. It’s calculating the future, and it depends on a stable, predictable society. The goal of the actuary is to insure that most of us don’t beat the actuarial charts.

My father understood the science pretty well: When I was 16, 17 years old, he came home with a stack of photos from his office. These photos were not scenes from the Christmas party, or the annual company outing to Bear Mountain. They were pictures of mangled machines and mangled bodies, pictures taken by professional photographers to be used in court cases to settle insurance claims. They were pictures of motorcycle accidents. Machine and bodies smashed and pulped. The machines were replaceable; maybe some could even be rebuilt. The bodies were all dead bodies. And this is a general truth: You can’t rebuild a dead body. My father was telling his son: you have a shot of walking away from an accident if you’re in a car. Take a good look. This is a statistic you don’t want to be.

So, as a symbol of freedom or craftsmanship the motorcycle has never worked for me. While I liked Easy Rider and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance well enough, it was also clear that you weren’t really free on a motorcycle and that there were other ways to get into Buddhism. While it’s true that both freedom and Zen involve commitment and risk, stupid is still stupid. My father set up for his son a path through the middle class of post-war America. It was a path that did not include motorcycles; it was supposed to be the same sort of path he walked on, in the stable, predictable society he lived in. My father had no thoughts about a Heideggerian equation between thinking and following a path; he would have considered Flaubert’s self-description that he ‘lived like a bourgeois and thought like a demigod’ mere pretension; and he would have snubbed the use of such words as ‘teleology’ in thinking about the science and craft of the actuary. The idea that the motorcycle was a symbol of anything other than a too early death would have struck him as errant nonsense.

Let’s look up ‘teleology’ for a moment, just a dictionary definition: The study of design or purpose in natural phenomena; the use of ultimate purpose or design as a means of explaining phenomena; belief in or the perception of purposeful development toward an end, as in nature or history. Humm. Is it a stretch to say that actuarial science is anti-teleological, that it’s a study in the limits of human striving, a pitting of man’s wishes and desires against the hard statistical reality of sickness and death?

Now, no one denies that when I walk to the corner store to buy a loaf of bread, I am engaging in a purposeful activity, and it would be foolish to think of my walk only in terms of a step-by-step account of my neural-motor functions. It would miss the fact that I wanted a peanut and jelly sandwich for lunch. So, from that perspective, working in a little teleology seems reasonable: humans do have goals. We call these goals ideas. The issue is about a broader conception of end directed activities—does the universe have a purpose? does history? does evolution?—that kind of question. The issue may be about the humanizing the universe—are we extrapolating wildly from our petty human concerns and projecting human goals out on to what is an indifferent cosmos, or are we seeing what is really there? I have a good idea. Let’s have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Would it make any sense to attribute such a thought to the universe? Humankind, love one another and your life will be enriched.

In a way it’s strange that we are still batting this question around. Kierkegaard in the early part of the 19th century put it dramatically, thus:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?

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Bird in Space

June 7, 2009

The first sentence test: It is not a serious novelist’s nightmare (the possibility is so absurd); nevertheless, suppose you fancied yourself a serious novelist (a writer, as they say, of the first rank), and a wire were delivered in your dream (the telephone rang, there was a sudden knock), and this were followed by the formal announcement that you, Julia Peterkin, or you, Marjorie Rawlings, or you, Allen Drury or Michael Shaara or Alison Lurie, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 1929 or ’39 or ’60 or ’75 or ’85.

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So, what do you think? This is Bill Gass, and he has done worse and/ or better, depending on ‘blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers and sung by Longshoremen, that lead like look the skin has when affected by the cold, contusion, sickness, fear’ to get his point across; depending, that is, on whether you think such sentences are ‘beautiful and breathless’ (and, yes, use these words when quoting), or a type of prison (as in prison sentence), because this particular sentence, the opening one for On Being Blue (I mean the quote in this sentence; we will get back to the first sentence), via the semicolon, will go on into the next page and he doesn’t even get to Babe the Big Blue Ox; and depending if you want your sentences to actually say something, something like ‘Dick and Jane went to the corner store and brought a loaf of bread’, and hold off to page two the injunction to, “Run Spot, run,”; depends anyway on if you think such sentences should name something, or at least say something (call them facts, call then propositions) or just be…gassing.

And it depends on how much work you are willing to let ‘depend’ do in any one sentence; I had it doing too much, I think; first pointing to some simple sentence structure, and then suggesting your evaluation depends on your tolerance for verbal flora and fauna, and then luring you perilously close to committing  something philosophical on names and propositions (‘say something’) or at least committing to a kind of realism, and maybe got you wondering if an account of language use was equivalent to an account of learning a language—what are you learning about anyway—and ending in some kind of childish appeal to flatulence. I could have said Out, out damn spot; and enough with the semicolons already.

In fiction, it makes sense to start with a character, put her right in that first sentence. This fiction we will call Bird in Space

Saint Bromide surrendered to the stench of death as she forced herself to step into the darkened classroom. The purpose of the first sentence, she thought, is to get the reader to read the second sentence .It was like stepping over debris. If you don’t read the next sentence you will die a horrible death, and besides it’s a short sentence, so go on, take a look—please—I’ll be your best friend forever.

But the children had turned to clay and stone.

‘Call me Ishmael’, she announced to the darkness. Could anyone hear her voice? Was there anyone still alive? Speak the passwords and wait, she had been told.

From nowhere a voice emerged. ‘Melville’, it said. ‘Herman Melville.’

‘Bromide’ she answered bravely. ‘Felicia Saint Bromide’.

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