Eggers! McEwan! Others! Paradox!

Its been a while since my last blog post. I have been pretty busy, working on my new book (which is very close to a finished first draft) and putting together a print edition of my first novel, Middling. These things have been filling up my time fairly thoroughly and leaving little time for things like sleep, cleaning and paying sufficient attention to the cat. It has not, however, interrupted my reading too much.

four books

All four of these books were really good. It had been a while since I read anything by Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach, shortly after it was released was the last) and The Children Act was worth waiting for. Not to state the obvious but McEwan can really write. Its got a sort of practiced brilliance that seems totally effortless but that just sweeps you along with it. But like I say, the fact that McEwan is a great writer is hardly news.

The new Dave Eggers novel, the untwitterable Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is also well worth a read. I was nervous going into this one. It has an astronaut in it, and so does my new book, so I had an irrational fear that he had written exactly the same book as me, only faster and better. Turned out not to be the case though, as irrational fears tends not to. YFWATATPDTLF? (as I shall now refer to it,) has a really nice opening premise. A young guy kidnaps an astronaut because he wants to ask him a few questions. It spirals out of control from there and every time the protagonists enquiry reaches a dead-end he progresses it by kidnapping someone else who might be able to fill in the gaps.

Eggers manages to pull off a couple of really neat tricks in this book. One is the way that the book begins surreal and slowly, as the story focuses, becomes more and more grounded and realistic. It usually goes the other way. The other is the way my sympathy for the main character shifted as the book progressed. At first, when the handcuffed astronaut is shouting for help and refusing to cooperate, I was thinking he should just shut up and answer the questions. The main character seemed nice enough, quite polite and apologetic and all. The whole kidnapping thing seemed an unfortunate means to his end, but I trusted him when he said that he wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Later though, as more and more people end up kidnapped, his blatant psychopathy suddenly seemed a little more apparent and I felt a little more nervous for his victims. Maybe that says more about me than it does about the book. I don’t know.

Wittgenstein Jr was an unusual book. I had read one of Lars Iyers books previously, (Spurious, though I haven’t read the other two books in the series yet.) This book is a little more experimental, not plot driven, until the final part, but more a series of anecdotes about Cambridge college life and meanderings on the death of philosophy. I spend quite a lot of time in Cambridge these days and it was fun spotting all the parts of the city that I know quite well. It also introduced me to a logical paradox that I hadn’t come across before called the Mere Addition Paradox, which occupied me for a while after.

The last book in my recent readings, Tampa, is a kind of gender-reversed Lolita, but I haven’t actually read Lolita. I’ll probably read it soon, since it will be good to contrast with Tampa. I hadn’t actually read 1984 prior to reading to 1Q84 either, I always get these things the wrong way round. I did read a bunch of reviews of this one on goodreads, which focused a lot on the main characters unrealistic sex drive. I have to admit, her sex drive was pretty exhausting, but I do wonder if that wasn’t a key part of the book. Sex was her answer to everything, even when it was blatantly and woefully inappropriate. Of course, to be fair, her entire sexual appetite was woefully inappropriate. The tragedy of that character was in the fact that she seemed to be completely unable to think in any other way. This was the second book of Alissa Nuttings that I have read (her short story collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls was excellent) and I would read another with interest.

Extra: For people who might be interested here are my meandering thoughts regarding the Mere Addition Paradox

Here’s a link to the wiki page for reference.

So, each of the four steps represents an increase in value, until the fourth step, which seems like a decrease from the full value of the first. Paradox!

Well, the first step from A to A+ seems to represent an increase, but does it really? The graphic represents total happiness on the y axis (we’ll grudgingly ignore how unquantifiable this is) and population along the x axis. Since the poor people in the additional group in A+ have a happiness of greater than zero (on account of how they now exist whereas before they did not) this is seen as a net increase in happiness. This seems like a bit of a leap to me. The total population has increased but the new group that is adding to total happiness seems in a poor position as compared to the original group. The very fact of the original, very-happy group, makes the new partially-happy group seems decidedly unhappy by comparison. Has the happiness of the original group A been improved by the sudden existence of a new group of lower-happiness citizens? The first step relies upon keeping a total of the two groups.

This leads us to group B-. The population has increased, and the overall happiness has evened out. The happiness of one group has decreased while for the second group it has increased, but we are invited to see this as both an increased total as well an improved average. Wait a second though, why are we suddenly averaging? Why didn’t we average group A+? Why are we now impressed that some people are less happy than they were before? Why are we seeing this as pure addition rather than a series of complex gains and losses over a diverse population?

The B- to B step seems innocuous, doing nothing terribly controversial to any of its inhabitants but leaving us with a group of people that are both higher in number and lower in happiness than those in group A. This is the paradoxical decrease that arrives from a sequence of additions. Once again though, we must consider only maximum happiness to see a decrease. That there are twice as many people represented in group B than in group A seems to matter little to the paradox as written. The point that it makes is that maximum happiness is now lower, but mean happiness has gone up on account of the increased population. If group A+ is better than A due to an increase in population and the subsequent minor increase in happiness then the same logical rule ought to apply, no?

If you try to calculate value by multiplying x*y in each group (since through the sequence of steps an increase in population is considered a total increase in value) than is B less the A? Doesn’t look like it. This paradox looks like a series of inconsistent steps leading to a contrived conclusion.

Thanks for indulging me, I have had this ticking around inside my head all week.


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