Thursday, August 29, 2013

Have we ever stumbled into war more stupidly than we're about to?

Sorry, I promised a long time ago this was not going to be a political blog, but I can't help it. Have we ever stumbled into war more stupidly than we're about to? I know what you're thinking: Iraq, Afghanistan... Believe me, I hate to defend the people that started those wars but at least they had distinct, start-to-finish plans, as deluded as they might have been. In Syria, the plan seems to be to launch a few cruise missiles to "teach Al-Assad a lesson," and then...something.

A little history lesson: On August 2, 1962, the USS Maddox engaged with three North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, claiming the boats had fired first. A second engagement supposedly took place on August 4th. It's clear today that the NV boats on the August 2nd incident didn't fire first, and that that there was no enemy at all on August 4th. President Johnson himself privately said "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." Nevertheless, the Johnson Administration quickly pressured Congress into authorizing military force against North Vietnam. Which as we all remember, worked out fabulously.

As with the GOT incident, we still have very little knowledge of what happened in Syria. We're not even 100% certain chemical weapons were used. If they were, we don't know if it was Assad or some rogue splinter of his forces that used them. For all we know, it was the rebels that used the chemical weapons. We have little to no idea what happened, assuming we're even trying very hard to figure it out. I assume we're not. And all of this is based on the idea that killing people with gas is so much more horrible than shooting them or blowing them up, something that a lot of people have been questioning lately. 

So why is Obama so eager to start shooting? Because if he doesn't he looks like a pussy, and by implication so do we. This isn't just implied, this is the reason people are openly giving. There's not one person who seriously thinks that launching a few cruise missiles into the catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war will make things better. Not one. It's just that we said that if the bad guys used gas we'd do get them, and they did, so we have to do it. 

This means that our motivations for getting involved in the Syrian conflict is entirely more likely to even be stupider than the GOT Incident. Because at least Johnson knew he was telling a lie to start a war, just as Bush did 30 years later. 

Either Obama is insane enough to want to get us into this clusterfuck, which is bad, or he doesn't want to but feels like he has to, which is worse. 

If you think that the worst thing that can happen from this is that a few innocent civilians die and we reveal ourselves to be worse dickheads than we already are, then fuck do I hope you are right. But let's just consider all the ways it can get worse. Iran and Israel have been fighting a cold war in the Middle East for quite a while now, one that Israel has shown itself eager to drag us into. Syria is Iran's closest ally, and a historical enemy of our ally Israel. Russia and China are both supportive of, if not outright allied to, the Syrian regime. Furthermore the whole region is on the brink of a massive Sunni-Shiite bloody schism. One of the deadliest wars to occur since WWII was the brutal war between Iran and Iraq, centered where just such a sectarian fight would play out. 

So if you're thinking I'm just saying this might be August 1962 all over again... it's a lot worse than that. I'm saying this might be August 1914. 

Nobody knows who I am or cares what I say. But if anyone looks at this, if anyone's listening, please let's think about what we're doing before we press any launch buttons. Just this once. Let's think what we're getting ourselves into. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

See you on the other side, Vern: The World of the End by Ofir Touche Gafla

About a month ago I attended a 5th birthday party for, mostly just to see some friends I expected to be there. At some point they handed out Stubby the Rocket canvas bags, and I grabbed one quickly before they were gone. The bag contained a copy of John Scalzi's "The Human Division," a Stubby the Rocket pin, and an ARC of a translation from Hebrew of a bestselling Isreali speculative fiction book. This excited me for several reasons, not least because I'm not the sort of person who gets ARCs.

Ofir Gafla's The World of the End is an archetypal story: a man travels into the land of the dead in search of his love. The classical version of this story is that of Orpheus traveling to Hades in search of Eurydice. Orpheus travels to the land of the dead magically, and is preceded by his music. Ben, the protagonist of The World, has no magic. A year after the death of his wife Marian he goes the old-fashioned way: he blows his brains out. His suicide is as dramatic as he could make it, occurring at the end of a posthumous birthday party for Marian to which he'd invited all of their mutual friends.

A better precedent for TWOTE might be Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come. But unlike Matheson's work, there is no divide between Heaven and Hell: everyone goes to the same place. Whether that place is more like the latter or the former is open to question. The newly dead are presented with an orientation in which the eternity they have to look forward to is presented as a perfect paradise: You don't need to eat or sleep unless you want to; everyone has a free place to live and public transportation; there is unlimited free entertainment of every type, including a "Vie-deo" of every moment of your lifetime, and you have a special "Godget" that allows you to set your own personal weather.

But in Gafla's novel nothing is what it looks like, and the cracks appear pretty quickly. Ben's first day in Heaven is ruined particularly when the wife he killed himself for doesn't show up to greet him. In fact, she's nowhere to be found; she might not even be dead at all. What happened to Marian is a central mystery of the rest of the book.

I say a mystery, but far from the only one. Ben's story is interwoven with that of many other people, living and dead. All of them are connected to Ben's story, though how they're connected isn't always immediately obvious. Many of them are more entertaining than Ben is. There is the cranky old artist Kolanski, who hates to draw portraits. There is the nurse Ann, known behind her back as AnnPlugged because she gets off on disconnecting people from their life support. There's the Mad Hop, an afterlife private dick of questionable talent that Ben takes on to help him find Marian. There's the twins Shahar and Adam, an asexual method actor and a pedophile video game designer. There's Yonatan, a man who lives a lifestyle that keeps him on the edge of death not because he thinks it can't happen to him but because he knows it will, and who is drawn into an online romance with a mysterious woman over a shared obsession with Salman Rushdie.

Gafla comes back to Rushdie frequently, and it's clear that he's a model. Like Rushdie Gafla writes in a distant third person with a lot of authorial interjections, in a style that John Gardner called the "essayist narrator." Like Rushdie Gafla's not afraid to go off on long tangents. And like Rushdie Gafla favors a tumbling manic storyline with a million dominoes all tumbling towards a mysterious end.

I have twice called the book a mystery, but that doesn't fully describe it. Neither Ben nor the Mad Hop seem to be making any particular progress on figuring out what happened to Marian, and Ben's story  is more of a posthumous picaresque. He stumbles across all kinds of strange people's afterlives, not least of which is Marilyn Monroe because she shares his dead wife's initials.

Nevertheless a mystery is being uncovered, one that goes beyond what happened to Marian. It turns out whole branches of family trees (literal trees, in this case), are being prematurely lopped off. The agents uncovering it are among those known as an "alias" (what is the plural of that?), which is the closest thing this version of heaven has to an angel. What exactly an alias is is not revealed to us until much later.

The World of the End is rollicking and playful, hilarious in some places, painfully sad in others, and frustrating and boring in more than a few places as well. It should be no surprise that a novel about life after death is a novel of loss. But the loss of this novel is much more than the loss of the dead to the living, or the loss of life to the dead. As Ben uncovers more and more about Marian he learns that there is no greater loss than that of the way things were for us just yesterday, or at least the way we thought they were. Again and again characters in this book cling desperately to the past, only to cause it to drift further and further away. For other characters the loss is getting what you think you want, only to discover that it's not what you thought it was at all.

Though no one really gets what they want in this book, it's not hopeless. But the hope in it is a painful kind, the kind that comes after you accept you've lost everything you cared about. Then again, if there is an afterlife, that's exactly what it would have to be.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Just how much money does Walter White have? A math problem

Spoiler alert: Breaking Bad spoilers below.

At the end of the last season of Breaking Bad, Skyler presented Walter with an interesting math problem. In a storage shed, probably somewhere in Albuquerque's War Zone (roughly from San Mateo to Louisiana, south of Menaul), she had an enormous pile of Walt's money, and she couldn't begin to figure out how to count it.

Like many psychopaths, Walter is a smart guy; I certainly couldn't cook up a batch of 99% pure crystal meth (I mean, I've never tried, but I never even took chemistry in college). Skyler's no dummy either, her refusal to ditch Walt notwithstanding. She is certainly good at math, since she is a licensed accountant. So I'm amazed that neither of them could even make a good estimate of the amount of money they had.

Skyler was sensible enough to think of counting by weight. Her problem was that the bills were in different denominations, so even if she knew how many bills she had, she wouldn't know how much that was. But this is a relatively trivial problem, if one applies a little basic statistics, something both Walter and Skyler should be familiar with.

I can't weigh Walter's money of course. I'd be happy to try, and if the pile ended up a few stacks of hundreds short, I can hardly see how he'd notice. But I can estimate by volume.

Walt's pile appeared to be a rectangular prism of about 6' long by 4' wide by 4' high, for a volume of 96 ft^3. The volume of a stack of 100 bills of any denomination is about 6.45 in^3(1) or about 0.00373 ft^3 (That seems small, but remember we are talking about volume so we are dividing by 12^3 cubic inches=1728in^3).

Simple division tells me that Walt has about 25,000 stacks of bills in there, or about 2,500,000 bills. If they were all hundreds, he'd have a quarter billion dollars! I assume Walt's not keeping any denomination less than a twenty, so bare minimum he'd have 50 million bucks.

But they could do a much better estimate. All they'd have to do is take a random sample of about 100 stacks, and find how many were of each denomination. Say that your random sample of 100 stacks had 40 stacks of hundreds, 50 stacks of twenties, and 10 stacks of fifties. (I assume fifties are least likely, since big drug dealers deal in stacks of hundreds and small-time buyers mostly use twenties.) If your sample is representative, you can say the average denomination is about 100*.4+50*.1+20*.5=$60, meaning that Walt has 150 million bucks in there.

Since Walter estimated that the methylamine he stole from the freight train would be worth about 300 million when cooked, this would mean he's cooked about half of it and sold it, which makes sense. I wonder what he'll do with the other half? He'd probably like Lydia to buy it wholesale, but she is not really enthusiastic about his retirement plan. Maybe those guys that Mike introduced him to want to buy it. But then he'd have to get into what exactly happened to Mike. But, as mathematicians like to say, I'll leave the general case for the next generation.

Bonus question 1: Research the average income of an Albuquerque car wash. Assuming Walt and Skyler bought another car wash as Walt discussed, how long would it take them to launder all that money?

Bonus question 2: Using Jesse's guilt-driven system of distributing his "blood money" by driving through Albuquerque and throwing out a bundle of bills every few houses, how long will it take him to get rid of his five million dollars? How might this impact the Albuquerque economy?