Friday, February 29, 2008

My LOST Theory

I never thought I'd post a theory about the show LOST online, but after tonight's episode I had to get some more input on an idea I've been kicking around. I need some input on the theory, especially from some mathematicians. Please, somebody let me know what you think! (I tried to post this on, but they seem to be having technical problems.)

I never thought I'd add my own musings about LOST online, but after tonight's episode, I am seeking someone who can confirm or disprove a theory I've been kicking around.

After an attempt at a Charactonym Theory, in which I tried to identify meanings connected to all the names in LOST, I noticed something: Most folks out there online are assuming Jack (and, for that matter, Christian) Shephard's names are Christian references, associating Jack's role as the shepherd of the flock of castaways with Jesus' description of Himself as "The Good Shepherd". But I realized that, while many of the other names are spelled exactly like historical characters they directly relate to (Locke, Hume, Rousseau, etc.), if Jack's name is a reference to The Good Shepherd, why spell it differently? So I started looking into the name Shephard, and guess what I found? There's a mathematical problem called "Shephard's Problem." It relates to projections in a hyperplane. Now, I don;t know much about geometry, and I would love it if someone would explain this to a layman in plain English, but it seems to me this directly relates to the very nature of the island. Sure, the other names relate to writers and philosophers (almost down to a one), and that is what the bulk of the how is about: how these people interact outside of society, with each other and with nature. But maybe Jack's name relates more to the nature of the anomolous island itself.

One of the names I couldn't connect to a thinker is Benjamin Linus. But, if this theory regarding Shephard holds water, might his name refer to Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux? After all, while the other characters are part of the philosophical conflict amongst the survivors, Linus is arguably more involved in the conflict with the nature of the island itself. Also, according to rumor, he's something of an open-source character, his longevity motivated by calls from the public. If that's the case, I am curious to see how Linus eventual role (a surprisingly moral agent, perhaps?) might relate to Linus' Law, which states: "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow". Might this relate to a relationship between viewers (either withing the story, or viewers at home) and the superficiality, reality, or problems of the island?

Can some mathematician explain how Shephard's Problem does or does not relate to the bending of space time evident on the island, especially in tonight's episode?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Kid Is Smarter Than Your Kid

Noah, my three-year-old son, showed off his smarts a couple times today.

Starting back when Paige and I were first married, we’d do this horribly cutesy thing I only share because it relates to today’s story. When one of us would say, “I love you,” the other would reply, “I love you more.”

“I love you more.”

“No, I love you more.”

And back and forth it would go. These, it turns out, are the heady debates of a pair of philosophy majors. We never did this in public, and any observer would have been forgiven for throwing up a little bit. I’m embarrassed to share it now. But it’s our thing, and I’ll cop to it.

Today, Noah climbed onto our bed to wake me up (Paige was already up and about) and started an “I love you” war, which consists of “I love you”s which get progressively louder until we’re shouting them at each other. Falling into an old habit, I said (no, shouted), “I love you more!”

“I love you more!” he replied.

“No, I love you more,” I corrected.

“I love you more, too.”

Why, in almost nine years of marriage, did neither of us think of that one?

This evening he surprised us again. Noah prefers for his mother to read to him while he goes to sleep. I remember more than a few “chopped-liver” moments, when he politely asked me to leave the room so his mommy could put him to bed. Tonight, after his bath, I picked him up, carried him into his room, helped him climb into his PJs, and then flew him out to the living room to get his favorite pillow. When we came back, Paige had dimmed the lights and was preparing the blankets.

“Would you like Mommy or Daddy to put you to bed tonight?” I asked him.

Noah looked down at Paige, already climbing into her position on his bed, then he stared off into the distance, thinking really hard. For a moment, both Paige and I thought he just might surprise us and choose me tonight.

Finally, he spoke.

“I want Daddy and Noah to go out to the living room. Mommy can go to bed.”

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Letter to the Freakonomics Guys

I just sent this email to Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics and the Freakonomics Blog on the New York Times website. I thought I'd share it if anyone else wants to weigh in.

Are New Yorkers Living In My Future?

...and am I living in their past?

Guys, first-time e-mailer and long-time reader. Big Fan.

I have an economics question that maybe you guys can help me with. Actually, it's a theory (and maybe even that's too generous. A notion?) that I would love your opinions on.

I live in a small town in rural Oregon. I'm also an admitted New York-ophile. I'd move there in a second if I had my way, but my wife is a small town girl. Her response regarding the idea of moving ourselves and our young son to NY: "We'd come visit you." So, no dice.

I admire (fetishize) New York's role as the cultural, economic, artistic, architectural, and political hub of the world. But my interest brought about another thought: Are New Yorkers living in a world that is, in a way, temporally displaced from my small town universe? I think an argument can be made, and it has a more indirect relationship than all the art, commerce, etc. I think it has to do with cost of living.

As a public high school teacher, I know my income would significantly increase if I taught in New York. However, the cost of living would increase so significantly that I'd be earning less, in relative terms. But do the costs of all goods rise equally in relation to geography? Clearly, in our modern, interconnected world, they don't. So, what's the practical consequence?

Assuming my discretionary income, relative to cost of living, remained constant, what would I buy in New York that I wouldn't buy here? And what would a New Yorker buy here that he or she might not back home?

Say I wanted clothing. The cost of clothing in New York would be much greater than in Independence, OR, but perhaps that would remain constant relative to cost of living. In contrast, high-end items I might buy online regardless of my address would not change their prices. Consequently, a person earning a rural Oregon income, when forced to choose between, say, a new pair of jeans and than new iPhone, would be more likely to choose the jeans, which might cost $25. But, just the other day, my wife was telling me about a segment on Good Morning America in which the reporters were interviewing fashionistas helping folks like us choose flattering, affordable jeans, and the prices started at $95. My wife was stunned. The idea that $95 jeans were affordable seemed ludicrous to us. If that price is truly considered affordable by New Yorkers, might someone living there make a reasonable decision to forgo four pairs of jeans and buy the iPhone online, while I wouldn't consider buying an iPhone in lieu of 20 pairs of jeans? Not that anyone needs 20 pairs of jeans, but you get my point.

Now, this calculation doesn't translate for all high-end items. The cost of a car might not be significantly higher in New York, but all the costs of owning one are so much higher (and the benefits diminished greatly due to the option of reliable public transportation) that someone living in the city would have less incentive to buy a car than some living here in Oregon. But when it comes to high tech gadgetry, those supplementary costs (with the exception of sales tax, which we don't have in Oregon) would be roughly the same. So, when faced with jeans vs. gadget decisions over the long term, wouldn't it seem likely that a New Yorker would be more likely to have newer, fancier technology than someone like me?

Furthermore, because New York is such a significant market, wouldn't people in the city be exposed to the newest technologies more commonly than someone like me? I'm considered a geek for carrying a Palm Pilot (not even a blackberry), something technophiles consider outmoded. Here, my Palm is a cool gadget. In New York, it might be laughable in some circles. Certainly all the same technology is available to me, via the net, but outmoded technology not only carries more social cache here, it's also more useful, as the people around me aren't upgrading at the rate I assume New Yorkers upgrade.

Now, admittedly, there are people in New York and in rural Oregon who also want to have the newest in designer jeans. They could get them sooner in New York, though they'd pay a lot more. But (and maybe this is just me), jeans retain their utility much longer than technology, so they're less of a measure of time. An unfashionable pair of jeans still "works" ten years later, and fifteen years later if holes-in-the-knees come back in style. That iPhone? In ten years, it's just something for kids to laugh at.

If this divide actually exists, on a macro level might it not mean that a New Yorker is wearing equally functional jeans, but using slightly more modern gizmos? And, if, like every B Sci-Fi movie suggests, time is measured in technology, doesn't that mean that someone in New York is living in my future, and I'm living in her past?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tone-Deaf Economics

A piece in today's New York Times titled "You Are What You Spend" tries to make th case that we shouldn't measure the differences between rich and poor in terms of income (which stands at at 15:1 ratio from the top quintile to the bottom) but in consumption. This lowers the difference to a 4:1 ratio. Yes, the top quintile only spend an average of four times as much as the bottom. This is supposed to be comforting to those who have been concerned that wealth distribution is becoming dangerously imbalanced in this country.

First of all, if the wealthy can afford to spend four times as much as the poor, that alone should be cause for concern. A four to one ratio doesn't sound so bad in raw numbers, but let's translate it to goods. Let's say we're talking about cars. If the poor can afford a $10,000 car, the rich can spend $40,000. Think about the differences in models between $10,000 and $40,000. But wait, do the wealthy spend four times as much as the poor on bread? On toilet paper? If the proportion is less than 4:1 for some goods, it must be even greater for others. Instead of thinking in terms of the size of a house (one expects the house of a wealthy person to be significantly larger than a poor person's) think of it in terms of a mortgage payment. If the poor person spends a thousand dollars a month on housing, the wealthy person is spending four thousand. That's a lot of house.

If this isn't disturbing enough, let's consider the real danger here. The article argues that this movement from 15:1 to 4:1 should be comforting, but why the huge differential between the income and the spending of the wealthy? Shouldn't that be the crux of the article? It isn't. The article gives this issue a single sentence: "The rest of their [the wealthy's] income went largely to taxes and savings." Well, how much of that is taxes? If it's mostly taxes, that would seem to imply a very progressive tax structure keeps the wealthy from outspending the poor 15:1. Imagine the social consequences of a 15:1 world. Try to imagine people who buy bread that is 15 times better than yours. What would butter that's fifteen times more expensive than mine even taste like? What would toilet paper that's fifteen times better than yours feel like? Talk about two Americas. These quintiles would be on different planets.

But what if it's not mostly taxes? What if it's mostly savings? The writers of the article, W. MICHAEL COX and RICHARD ALM, seem to be implying that there is not a significant difference between people who can save such a vast portion of their income, and people who can't afford to save anything. If we measure the differences in our social classes merely by consumption, this implies that the amount saved is irrelevant. But it shouldn't take an economics degree to know that savings matters. Not only do people who have massive amounts socked away sleep better at night, but they can make better long term financial choices (improving their financial situations and widening the gap), and they can weather larger economic downturns while the folks on the bottom get hit without any protection.

But luckily we're not in for any recession anytime soon.

Oh, wait.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Most Dangerous Language Game

Taking a break from the novel I'm working on, I came up with this little short story.

While holding his rifle in one hand and scanning the dense jungle, the hunter scratched his khaki pants. The pants held special significance for him. Back in 1880 his father had taken part in a conflict known as the Transvaal War, where he’d helped defend a garrison of his fellow Englishmen from a hoard of Zulu warriors. From this conflict, the term “khaki” became the popular term for the style of pants worn by British soldiers. The hunter’s father had gained something else from the conflict. Enamored with the sound of the word (and perhaps a bit nostalgic for his glory days), upon his return he’d convinced his wife to agree to name their third son “Boer”.

Boer rested the butt of the rifle on the plank on which he sat, holding the long rifle by the stock. Because Boer’s father had done quite well for himself in business during the Great War, his son could afford to travel the world, hunting for big game. Now the Englishman sat in a tree on another island, closer to South Africa than the south side of Brighton. The jungles of Madagascar held their share of game, and the lush vegetation made for picturesque scenery, but Boer couldn’t help feeling a bit of ennui. So this was his life, Boer thought. No particular purpose, no ambition beyond his own amusement. And this particular amusement had led him to a blind in a tree in a jungle, far from friends and family. It had led to more waiting.

While the hunter sat in the seat some three feet off the ground, obscured by the squat tree’s dense foliage, the large wild pig prepared to attack. Sneaking through the underbrush, the beast avoided detection by pure luck. Boer, distracted by his mild existential crisis, failed to notice the rustling below him. The pig, a hundred kilos of muscle, wiry hair, and rudeness, identified the hunter as a threat (and possible lunch) by smell, and prepared to use all 20 centimeters of its protruding tusks to pierce the wooden plank separating it from its prey.

So, to summarize, while Boer sat and contemplated his boredom, a boorish boar prepared to bore through his board.

This proves that English, even for the English, can be a pain in the ass.