Me and Mr. Chicken (Or Not Just a Bunch of Abstract Math-Class Vomitus on Transfinite Set Theory)

Surprisingly I just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s book about infinity, Everything and More: A Compact History of ∞*. Like his other books a lot of it is over my head but it’s fun to read anyway. He could be talking about math, tennis, lobsters or tennis and it will be an interesting experience.

I don’t have much to say about the math bits**, instead I wanted to talk about the story of Mr. Chicken (you can go read it online on pages 15-17 of the book starting at “This latest thought may or may not be accompanied…” through “…the concrete business of the real workaday world—from the unhinged.” [plus footnote number 8]). This provides a perfect explanation of why I dislike flying so much.

In my experience people tend to call a fear of flying irrational based on the statistics involved in flying versus driving. If I understand the Mr. Chicken story correctly, it is the people who are unfazed by flying who are not being rational (or rather, they are the ones who are able to cut off the abstract thinking process in order to go about their business).

In my case, I am being rational but the process of thinking through the statistics and justifications goes on forever without end and that ends up causing logistical issues in real life. Or to bring it back to Mr. Chicken, I’m not reassured by having flown successfully before since there’s no reason that past experience with flying will have anything to do with my next flight***.

Anyway, it was a good book.

This book seems to lead in to another book in the Great Discovery Series about Gödel. I’d like to read that soon, but up next I’m going to read a book by Michael Pollan.

* There’s been a lot of hanging out on the couch with baby asleep in my arms time over the past three weeks (I had forgotten that babies are a lot less active than toddlers).

** One of his examples about infinity cleared up a question I’ve had ever since plotting low-resolution graphics for the Apple II on graph paper in our middle school computer class. Back then you took a piece of graph paper and used that to select the pixels you would draw on the screen. If you drew a right triangle on the graph paper, the long diagonal line would have the same number of pixels in it as the shorter line running below it. That seemed odd to me since the diagonal line is longer than the other line (see the Pythagorean Theorem).

Low resolution right triangle
Low resolution right triangle

DFW explains that although the lines are different lengths, they both have the same number of points (they both have an infinite number of points that match up in a one-to-one correspondence). In the book he uses the example of drawing a series of vertical lines through the triangle to show that there’s one point on the longer line for every one point on the shorter line (pages 37-38 in the paperback I was reading). The low-resolution pixels show the same thing just using big chunky points.

*** Investment advice almost always features something along these lines with the words “Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results”.

2 thoughts on “Me and Mr. Chicken (Or Not Just a Bunch of Abstract Math-Class Vomitus on Transfinite Set Theory)

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