Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ideas that start fiction ideas #5: Footnote to the previous, not much about global warming but quite a bit about math

I'm not really very good at math, at least not by the standards of the people I know who are good at it.  Partly that's because I'm a statistician at heart; I don't really believe in immutable numbers, but likely ones, and every number to me, including my street address, seems like "give or take" should be attached to it.

My street address says the building is right on the northeast corner with 13th Avenue, but my office is almost 15 yards north of 13th Avenue, and in Denver blocks that should be 1302, not the 1300 that the building is numbered, and besides the building entrance is even further north, through a door that's at about 1314.  It seems to me that an average of those numbers would be more informative, but just try to get them to deliver mail to 1305 1/3, give or take 7 1/2.

I'm also not particularly talented musically.  With effort I can sing on pitch, I learned a couple of instruments in a half-hearted way, and mostly I use music as Muzak, killing ambient noise that's distracting.  But with the little bit of musical gift I've got, I love the stuff, have always enjoyed directing musicals and taken pleasure in what I manage to understand of what I hear.

And that's more or less how I feel about math; I can perceive it just well enough to envy the people who really have the gift.

What brought these particular thoughts up is David McConnell's  piece about teaching math to longterm prisoners at Riker's Island.

Teaching students with Major Math Issues in an environment that wasn't able to be nearly as supportive as it needed to be, I've had some similar moments, and I have to agree with what I think is McConnell's sneaky little point: you can sell usefulness all you want, but it's only beauty that brings them home.

And again, if it were music, you could put a vast amount of effort into a music appreciation class telling students that if they understood music, they'd be able to socialize better, thus enhancing their personal networks for success.  "It may look useless but it's the gateway to being able to make small talk with your boss's wife when you're sucking up for a promotion."  Or you could just tell them it was beautiful.

So that model I showed you all yesterday is a stepping stone to an eventual novel, title so far unknown, characters unimagined, plot to be worked out once there's a premise, which might start to emerge from the model in the next installment.

And yet I understand the people who drop me incredulous notes saying, you really do that sort of thing?

Hey, if it were just to write a book, I wouldn't do it either.  I'd go consult the Handbook of Generic Fiction Settings and sit right down and type, "The old spacedog looked like he had the radsick bad, maybe was going to be in the recycler by noon, but when I stepped over him  to get into my office, he pulled a blaster from under his plasteel begging sign and said, 'Don't make no noise and you won't git hurt none, but you take me inside. I got something to tell you about the santorum mines on Epsilon Eridani IV, and it ain't nothin' they knows at that there Ministry of Astroresources."

It's just that some models sing, at least to me.  There's that moment when a pattern swims to the surface of the real-world data I start from, and suddenly I see a shape that extends to somewhere in the future, a bend in the river of time that could be there (and almost certainly isn't), and it's worth all the time genning things up and running tests of significance and all the rest.  No, I'm understating again: it's the bonus I get after all the fun of doing the stats.

It doesn't happen just when I'm modeling.  Out in the sea of data where we all float, there are so many unperceived patterns, like the way that some composers I know say that they feel like when they get what they're after, music that has existed since the beginning of time finds its way into our world through their instruments.

I've felt that shiver of insight and that moment of power that comes from perceiving that one particular department must be Malcontent Central within a company, or that the marketing intel people have accidentally profiled a whole category of people who would love the product if they knew it existed, or that with the simplest change of approach, this product could be drowning in love, but not because of the money anyone is going to make -- just the pleasure of feeling the doors of perception swing open for a moment.

Ask a musician or painter if the time they were paid the most was the best work they ever did.  Or let Danny Quinn (the folksinger who used to play in Tommy Makem's band, not the actor) explain it to you.  Somewhere out in that swamp of random jangling digits, a dimly sensed shape wants to stand up, become real, be the thing no one ever saw before.

So model or don't, build models or don't, write about it if you want to justify the time you spent or need to pay the bills for a faster processor and more memory and a better stats package ... but hear the music.  See the beauty happening.