Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Human Whisperer

September 18, 2006

During Orientation, I was expressing my concern about the amount of reading law school was rumored to require, and another 1L shot back, "Yeah, but it's not hours of formulas, it's hours of stories." Well, one case we read last week touched on both, as it quantified a human process (in this case, the calculation of acceptable risk) in a mathematical formula. (United States v. Carroll Towing Co., 160 F.2d 482.)

This, friends, has always been a fascination of mine. Starting, I think, in junior high school, where I explained the cliques at school to my mother with a Venn diagram, and growing into my love of genre fiction, whodunits, and Raymond Chandler's classic "The Simple Art of Murder", where he methodically lays out what works (and what doesn't) in detective plots. This interest stems, I think, from my obsessive personality, my desperate urge to codify, order, predict, and thereby control these messy, loose and sometimes random occasions of human interaction that I perceive as my life. One man (other than Raymond Chandler) I am in great awe of is Andrew Beyer, who horse racing fans know as a Washington Post sports columnist and bettors know as the creator of the Beyer speed index. This is a guy who meticulously went through years and years of horse racing data to develop a numerical formula that could identify winning horses in one of the most unpredictable popular sports around, succeeding where Charles Bukowski and all the other handicappers failed.

It is a very seductive idea, one that can drive you a little crazy, as depicted in the movie Pi. It's a fascination that informs my interest in religious ritual and superstition, sociology, and, most likely, law. I joke with my friends that politically, I am not a democrat, republican, anarchist or libertarian, but a closet fascist. But truth be told, I am a fascist as Phillip Marlowe is a white knight, which is to say, not so much. Even as I yearn to break the code of human interaction, wrestle it into a predictive model, or plug its variables into a formula, I know it can never really be done -- and what a sterile world we would live in were this effort to succeed.

One time I went to check out Noam Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" from the Austin Public Library, and there on the shelf just where it should have been was an index card, covered with ill proportioned, messy print, which read: "In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer."

It's the voiceover that opens each episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. And although my roommates scoffed at the idea that it had been left there for me, I tacked it up in my bedroom as a reminder that sometimes engaging in the willful illusion that everything makes sense is what really matters.

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