The Laboratorium
January 2006

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Best. Reference. Ever.

You know what I’d really like? A compendium of Simpsons quotations, organized by subject. I trust that the value of such a book is obvious.

C’mon, you licensing geniuses. Hop to it.

The Pull of the Past

With the assistance of Tim Powers’s almost-superb The Anubis Gates, I have figured out a bit better why I like time-travel novels (and short stories and movies). It’s the puzzle-solving part of my brain at work.

That is, I like novels that play with the manipulation of information. I like novels that have genuinely bravura plot twists. (I won’t name any because I don’t want to ruin the experience for anyone else. Pace M. Night, part of the great pleasure of a twist novel is realizing that it is a twist novel, even before you have figured out the twist.) I like novels that scatter plot threads and characters like cards, only to gather them slowly together again with inexorable logic. I like novels that run through the same events from different perspectives.

All of these techniques have in common with the time travel novel their overdetermination. They have to satisfy significant logical constraints. Pieces of information do double or even triple duty. Details must coordinate with other details. Everything said by the nonexistent person must be recognizable, in hindsight, as a hallucination. The omissions in the earlier narrators’ stories must line up with the corrections in the later narrators’ stories. The gun over the mantel in plot thread one must be fired in plot thread three. The puzzling mind is pleasantly tickled by this secret undercurrent of structure.

The time travel genre is particularly conducive to this structural coherence because of its logical basis. The past must have been interacted with in a way that will result in the odd traces we in the future observe in puzzlement. (Or, conversely, the future must develop in such a way as to send back the bizzare phenomena we in the past are grappling with.) The interaction of a timeline with itself, skillfully done, tends naturally to create the kind of overlapping plot constraints that I find satisfying.

Thus, The Anubis Gates does, to my mind, a masterful job of glossing over all the unimportant bits of setup. The explanation for time travel makes no sense. It’s not supposed to. Powers just gets right into the thick of a bizzarely overlapped set of characters and events. And then he gradually pulls back the curtain, linking up first one and then another. Everything radiates out logically from the first unnatural interference with the fabric of time … it just takes quite a while, narratively speaking, to make all the connections link up. Some are brilliant—Dog-Face Joe, I must say, provides unexpected but quite elegant solutions to some old problems of sci-fi structuring.

Of course, as Steven has noted, the climax is quite difficult to follow. It’s also disappointing in the way that many time-travel novel climaxes are. Once everyone has met up and the odd logical loops have closed off, you’re left with fairly conventional devices and confrontations. People squaring off across time is a lot more interesting than people squaring off with guns and fisticuffs.

One other virtue of the novel, while we’re talking originality, is Powers’s choice not to make the villains omnipotent or all-threatening. They’re certainly villainous blackguards, but they’re driven as much by desparation as by malice. Not only does the choice actually make them feel more dangerous (in their confusion, they seem much more capable of malice towards our heroes than central casting bad guys would ), but it also gives the book an off-center, uneasy energy. The plot kicks forward, driven by impulsive decisions and contingent encounters, everyone crazily trying to make sense out of what’s going on before it kills them. All of which fits in nicely with that other classic time-travel theme: a sense of almost existential dislocation. Things happen that don’t make sense to the characters, and a raw, panicky feeling it is indeed.

One final thought. What is the deep fascination among sci-fi authors of time travel novels for the English Romantics? Powers riffs on Byron, almost unnecessarily. Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion went on about Keats at quite ridiculous lengths. Dirk Gently played with Coleridge. Three times, as they say, is enemy action. What gives?

Pondering the Pool

At dinner on Sunday night the question came up: Why are the newspapers all sendin their own photographer to snap pictures of Alito? Several dozen photographers jostling to get the same shot of him walking seems wasteful. Why don’t the papers (or the photographers) agree to send one and pocket the difference? If you prefer full employment for photographers, why not send the rest to photograph iguanas in the zoo or the other humdrum things newspapers run stories about?

In tribute to Tyler Cowen’s lists, here are some theories bandied about:

  1. It’s an observation-bias-induced illusion. These manias don’t happen all that often. Most of the time, the photographers are off with the iguanas. But we only see news photos of huge gangs of news photographers when there are huge pools to be photographed.

  2. The transaction costs of negotiating comprehensive photography pool coverage don’t justify the savings. The huge news events never feature quite the same cast of news organizations twice.

  3. The fierce competition between photographers improves the quality of their photos. Sure, a few of them get elbowed in the kidneys by the others. But it keeps them on their toes.

  4. Newspaper readers have strong (if perhaps unconscious) preferences for very subtly different photos. Washington Post readers like their headshots zoomed a little closer than AFP readers do. Photographers are just catering to an incredibly finely-divided market.

  5. Readers don’t give two hoots about the precise differences, but editors do. The editors abuse their agency relationship with readers to run the photos they want to run.

  6. Papers are always engaged in pooling, but with the future, not with other papers. Each is trying to build up its own comprehensive archive; not sending its own photographer would cause it to fall behind in this cumulative arms race.

  7. Freelance photographers systematically overrate their own ability to get the best shot; newspapers systematically overrate the ability of their staff photographers.

  8. The problem statement is confused about opportunity costs. Papers need to have a staff photographer around for taking iguana pictures most of the time. But on the comparatively rare occasions when a Supreme Court nominee shows up, it’s a better use of the photographer’s time to get a redundant photo. After all, the iguana can wait.

Yes, there was a plurality of economists present. Perhaps that was why the table broke up laughing when the following formalization was jokingly suggested:

We model the optimal strategy for news photography using a simple game. In each time period, the newspaper has a choice between sending its photographer to take pictures of a Supreme Court nominee or of an iguana …

Please Join Please Stand By

For years, I’ve been keeping an eye out for broken digital signs. It started with LED displays — the one on the T in Boston at Park Street was malfunctioning for several years. More recently, they’ve been growing in technical sophistication, which only means that they’ve also been growing in their bugginess. There’s been something about transportation signs, in particular, that seems to attract malfunction. Some combination of continuous operation and clueless operators, I suspect, causes them to be disproportionately likely to be both broken and unnoticed by the fixers-that-be.

I’ve started taking pictures of these signs in their casters-up states. Please join me in documenting the comedy of technological failure.

Working My Way Back

Ah, fame! I’ve made Brad DeLong’s blog, albeit rather indirectly. The story, such as it is, is that DeLong decided to triple the cinnamon in his recipes. Tyler Cowen leaped in with an economic analysis of inputs to recipes. He invited his readers to jump in. I’m a reader; I jumped in. Then DeLong closed the circle and posted about Cowen’s response, including some of the comments, including mine.


Annals of Test-Marketing

I was approached by some college-age folks in the train station the other day. They asked if they could show me a movie clip and ask me a few questions. I was waiting for a train and thus in no rush, so I agreed. From the exercise, and a little educated guessing, I can tell you this:

16 Blocks is scheduled to be released on March 3. It looks dreadful. Bruce Willis is in it, being Bruce Willisy. Ugh. It supposedly also stars Mos Def, but I don’t even remember seeing him.

They may advertise it during the Super Bowl. In any event, they’re trying out trailers. The trailer they showed me certainly isn’t doing them any favors. The trailer itself was stylish — a top-down view of city streets, ala the early Grand Theft Auto games — with brief clips from the movie superimposed on the tops of buildings. Stylish but a bad idea; I found myself watching the streets, not the clips. I also had to listen very closely the second time through to hear what the voice-over guy was saying.

Also of interest to me were some meta-details: the survey procedure and the watermarks. They had two guys roaming the train station with laptops. I guess one was the lead, and when he found a willing victim, er volunteer, he’d sic the other guy on while rounding up the next person himself. They had me give a phone number so that their boss could follow up to make sure they were doing the survey properly, and sure enough, their boss did. From the questions she asked, it might have been that they were supposed to be doing the survey at a movie theater. Since she didn’t directly ask where I’d taken it, I didn’t feel the need to volunteer that it had been the train station. I liked the guys. They were cutting a few corners and my guy seemed too shy to be doing marketing surveys, but they basically did it straight.

The clip seemed to have not just one but two watermarks. There was one watermark from the studio, which faded in and out — smaller lines saying “property of.” There was also a large Getty Images watermark right in the center, which struck me as odd. But then I went and searched the Getty archive and found a half-dozen clips shot in the exact top-down style of the trailer. 814-52 is typical. You can even save yourself the trouble of watching the trailer — if you look at one of these clips, you’ve pretty much seen it, minus the annoying voice-over and the always shudder-worthy visage of Bruce Willis.

Meatpackers, Meet Alfred Packer

I talked earlier to Lady Grey about her first day of anatomy lab. I found it noteworthy that during the conversation, parts of the human back were compared to bacon, roast beef, and beef jerky. I found these images unobjectionable, even interesting. It was only the discussion of folding muscles over to get at the parts beneath that triggered my ick reaction.

In other news, salt ham is pretty tasty.

UPDATE: Add ground beef and prosciutto to the list.