mcgann_letterhead

#8 On order

While your story might not illustrate anything, the worse outcome would have been for you to not have had a story at all. Whatever good could have come out of the world from an earnest, diligent approach to “power corrupts” from the mouths of teenagers in turn of the century Wollongong, it probably wouldn’t exist in your mind (and now immortalised on this blog) if it had followed the rules. Instead it is a funny event that is worth recounting 15 years later, maybe meaningless but not insignificant.

As a teen you probably did it to impress your peers but knowing you and the pleasure you get from writing innuendo, your motivations may be closer to Clinton’s himself. He also had a choice between nothing and something. He could of chose to have a day without fellatio, but instead decided to make the most of that moment. Rather than lying, maybe he could have told the truth in style, echoing his brother democrat: “I chose to shoot the moon not because I was easy but because I was hard.”

Yes let’s avoid relativism if possible. We just need some notion of absolute order among options to say some are better than others. We don’t need a complete order, I think it’s fair to say can’t have an exact way of weighing things up because the world isn’t exact.

Let’s consider a box containing multiple pieces of bullshit. To say each piece is as good as any other is true. But once we provide a context it allows us to start to provide an order. If we were using the shit to do something funny then some may stand out as superior, the ones with bits of corn are funnier than others but really all shit is about the same level of funny. If we want to do something nefarious, then there’s an obvious choice: the wet and powdery one that’s been stuck in the wet corner, green with bacteria. But if we want to do something practical, say pick a lock, then the turds are indistinguishable and I’d suggest you throw up your hands and stop smearing shit into keyholes.

So my plan to avoid relativism is to first pick a context, then just work with what’s obviously better than others. We just need a way to determine obviousness and your idea, proportionality is perfect for the job! I want to hear more about your proportionality aesthetic, especially how to use it to assign attention because that sounds useful. I’m going to provide some precision (not rigour) to this proportionality idea because I see it coming up in physics too. And it may well provide some guide to those poor souls on the dinghies.

Mathematicians are good at comparisons. Because they are working with pure numbers only, they can be very precise. Thus given (A = 424, B = 135) a mathematician would rightly say A > B. In physics you have numbers but you also have errors. If you’re lucky your errors are Gaussian and, with enough rigor you can test a hypothesis to say A > B (with XX% confidence). Any science above physics has more problems, poor definitions, lack of repeatability, things are harder to measure, things aren’t Gaussian, etc.

Theoretical physicists also have to compare things but they are famously lazy. They avoid doing experiments. They also want to avoid doing any hypothesis testing so they either work with perfect concepts (basically become mathematicians) or only claim comparative knowledge when there is an order of magnitude difference between two things (A = 14,255, B = 243) or A >> B. When things are on the same order of magnitude¬† (A = 424, B = 135) we say A ~ B. Considering these things to be “basically the same” we theoretical physicists give up, preferring instead to find a difference obvious enough so that we can avoid the drudgery and pitfalls of p-values and hypothesis testing.

If things are so complex that you need super precise scientific experiments, then that is millions of dollars going in to prove that a ~ is actually a > or < within some error. Such hair splitting can’t generate the thrust to turn a > into a >>. Indeed when things are >> it was usually obvious to everyone, even non-scientists, already.

This agrees with your art example, stepping back and looking at the two, VVG >> JMF (at painting). And right now I’m struck that numbers work like artworks in this sense. But now I realise it’s because we’re ordering sets. I think there is something very fundamental about scale and proportionality in this sense. It provides a semblance in order above an exact¬†order spoiled by errors.

Orderly,
Mat