Infinite Summer

Formed in the summer of 2009 to read David Foster Wallace's masterwork "Infinite Jest".
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 Post subject: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2009 10:02 pm 
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The computer tech is frequently embarrassingly shortsighted, in particular the mentioning of 3.6mb discs on page 342 (100mb ZIP disks were introduced in 1994; 650mb cd-roms were utterly common at the time), or implying that you'd need some kind of massive super computer to process the calculations for Eschaton, which is frankly ludicrous in the face of dual core systems with 2-4gb of ram being nigh-ubiquitous at this point.

It's as if no hardcore nerds were ever consulted about the tech name dropping. I'm pretty sure there's a mention of video files being in the mb, which is just silly when coupled with the "so HD it's like you are there"... The specification for DVD was finalized in 1995 at 4.7gb, though it didn't hit the consumer market until 1997.

Also, while there is at least one mention of the Web, the book is dated, and quite specifically so, as being from 1996 or earlier because the omnipresence of the Web took hold that year (first year of Google) and as of 1997 or 98, I'd suggest it'd be hard to write a serious near-future novel that didn't have the internet as a big deal.

Interlace obviously being a close but not quite replacement.

I found this stuff immensely distracting when I started re-reading IJ early this year; by the time Infinite Summer was announced and I decided to start over with the group, I had managed to "find it charming" instead of distracting, but still wanted to bring it up.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2009 10:05 pm 
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Of note, the computers for Eschaton are specifically introduced as taking advantage of an old/out of date gaming program that runs on otherwise outdated equipment, so the Eschaton stuff, at the very least, provides no evidence at all for or against the tech preescince of the book.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2009 10:48 pm 
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It depends on how old those computers are supposed to be; I read them as being old in YDAU, but not 1996-era old. I'll find some time soon to find the bits that struck me as the most off and cite them with page numbers and quotes.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Fri Aug 21, 2009 1:34 am 
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Location: Italy
Maybe I'm wrong, but I see the IJ's world as an alternative world, a sort of bifurcating world.
So, I'm not really bothered by these details (even if I was surfing the web using "Mosaic" already in september 1994... :) ).
It is similar to ADA by Nabokov (where there is a time shift and no electricity, television and telephones do not exist, but are replaced with similar devices powered by water etc...).


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Mon Aug 24, 2009 6:27 am 
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For example, page 750:

"Marathe had begun locking down in RAM every detail of every moment..."

To someone with a fair amount of Comp Sci background, this reads as trying too hard / failing to understand what RAM is; you can't lock anything down in RAM, it disappears the second power is lost. It's a temporary place for data.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Mon Aug 24, 2009 11:59 am 
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I was going to make this exact thread! There are so many technical errors, that I assumed DFW was doing it consciously:

1. As mentioned, none of the computer stuff makes any sense.
2. Quite a bit of the math is wrong.
3. Lemon Pledge isn't useful as sunscreen.
4. I'm pretty sure that burning off your outer layer of skin daily would leave you with more than a permanent tan. (And what does it say about a person who literally cannot stand to be inside their own skin?)
5. The Entertainment cartridge master copy/read-only copy stuff is complete bullshit from a technical perspective.

I'm a computer programmer, and not a biologist or an organic chemist, so it's entirely possible that the medical/drug/etc. stuff was all crap too, and I'm sure I've missed several other examples.

Unfortunately, though I'm fairly sure it was intentional, I still have no idea why. I have a vague impression it's meant to demonstrate the fallibility of the narrator, and provide a warning to people who would spend ages picking apart the technical details for hidden meaning. Maybe it's kind of an annular thing; I really have no idea.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Mon Aug 24, 2009 1:17 pm 
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Bergamot, I think you are probably correct to bring up the possibility that there are narrative/narrator reasons for some math error – I've seen the web page you reference before and it is worth a look. At least some errors in math or computer issues likely go purposely unremarked in the narration just as, say, bunches of Lenz's misuses or mispronounciation of words are allowed to pass without a hord of "(sic)" markings. (I believe that DFW has also been shown to have a few errors in his non-fiction "Everything and More," although they are over my head. But to my mind, the math of multiple infinities is way tougher than, say, Pemulis summarizing some basic calculus-level stuff that Wallace clearly had enough math background to be unlikely to completely mess up unintentionally through several drafts.) I think this grain-of-salt approach is worth keeping in mind for things like the "RAM" use issue: apfEID, the basic understanding of "RAM" that you mention is hardly high level computer knowledge, and has been entry-level basic knowledge for anyone who learned anything at all about computers in the last several decades: I find it way more plausible that DFW is intentionally playing with the nature of trying to permanently memorize something than that he misunderstood the term, which would be akin reading a novel in which a character adds 2 plus 2 and gets 5 and assuming this meant the novelist didn't understand basic addition.

As for his computer/tech knowledge and predictived abilities, while DFW definitely makes some mistakes and definitely does not have perfect predictive abilities, I think it is useful not only to keep in mind the possible narrator issues Bergamot mentions, but also (and with only limited examples given here):

-how much he gets astonishingly RIGHT from the perspective of writing mostly around 1994. The modern "web" (via HTML and the first "browsers") was literally appearing for the first time around the time he was finishing the novel, and his interlace stuff and "teleputer" stuff is nicely assumed as part of the daily life of people. He is aware that terms like "HD" are going to become standard, which was not common talk. He pictures a media world devided between things like "spontaneous disseminations" and focused downloads (and he is generally in the ballpark on size things: While DVD recordable disks have a standard capacity of 4.7GB, the size of a video file depends, among other things, on its length, on whether it is truly "broadcast HDTV" specifications (the 16:9 aspect ratio that calculates out to 1920×1080 pixels) or a different source/aspect ratio of equal detail, etc, and a quick look at the source video files in a number of formats will show "hour" long tv episode lengths taking, usually, several hundred MB, generally less than 1GB.) This is completely leaving aside the insights about the NATURE of spectation/entertainment that he is working on, that is, how he tries to foresee our current EXPERIENCE of the media environment (as immersive/addictive/etc).

-stuff he purposely exaggerates for effect, such as the ridiculous Yushityu subsidized year name, or the baroque histories of video telephony or the end of broadcast TV, all of which is c/w the general hyperbolic-to-the-point-of-annularity elements like ONAN, the concavity, subsidized time itself, etc.

-how he occasionally seems to purposely introduce anachronism or backwards tech, whether to protect himself from certain errors or for other narrative purposes. I have mentioned the Eschaton computer. A more important one might be the issue of phones: beyond his videophony rant, he goes into a bit of detail about the ancient hand-me down phone in Hal's room, and protects himself further by noting early on that the ETA kids are limited on what tech they are allowed to have at school/in their rooms. Somewhere around the time of the climax of Lenz's dog killing (somewhere around page 575), he points out that cel phones are banned at Ennett House, which seems to assume cel phones are otherwise common for even these mostly poor and at rock bottom of addiction types, which was in no way true in 1996 – so he both fairly accurately anticipates the direction of telephone communication, yet does a decent job of picking primary locales for his story where he can fairly realistically ignore most of this tech when it isn't key to his interests: The tennis students and addicts are all people who we realisticially can expect to spend less time immersed in video and communication tech than most people because of the nature of their situations as top athletes or early-stage recoveiring addicts.

-how much about video, communication, and computer tech format debates were either hugely up in the air circa the writing of IJ and/or remain up in the air even now: Whether the future of media dissemination would be primarily by hardwire (cable) or airwave (satellite) or internet was a big debate in a film course I was in around 1994, and is still actively being fought today, as is the question of how internet itself will be delivered in the future: citywide wireless vs. cable vs. dsl, etc. Not to mention the whole Netflix-vs-digitial streaming-vs-iTunes-store methods of choosing to view non-"network" content. CD-ROMs may have been common, but the question of whether writable CD's or more traditional cartridge formats (a ZIP disk is, ultimately, built on the same idea as an old floppy disk: magnetic media in a casing) would win out, not to mention whether/how quickly other forms of storage (net, etc) would take over. When the first iMac came out in 1998, two years after IJ, it was considered radical to the point of possible fatal flaw that it had a CD drive but no traditional disk drive! In this environment, it is hard for me to see DFW as being naive in his various and often playful descriptions of a possible future.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Mon Aug 24, 2009 2:35 pm 
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On the RAM point, non-techies constantly confuse memory and disk space. I've heard, in 2009 even, "I'm running out of memory" when someone really meant "I'm running out of disk space."

Even if it's intentional, it's distracting and, for me, reads like DFW is trying to capture the feel of technobabble without actually understanding what is being said. Sometimes in IJ it works, and sometimes it doesn't.

While that section is largely written in Marathe's "babelfish-esque machine translation of American English idioms into french and back into English" style, I don't see Marathe as being the kind of person to think in computer metaphors, so it reads like author error instead of character error to me.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Tue Aug 25, 2009 7:30 pm 
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Well I feel a little vindicated about scratching my head about the applicability of the MVT to calculating nuke supplies, then. Once you've regressed the historical data into a predictive function, which seems to me like the hard part, you're set, no? Who needs historical averages, and why use calculus to get them?

The computer stuff makes me chuckle about quainter times.

But in the end, even the stuff that's not just wrong predictively but wrong factually manages to add a layer of richness and specificity to the language and the whole affair, which I love.

fwiw, it's the same with the optics, though I'm having trouble tracking down the tiny pins of optics-specific talk in the haystack... if memory serves, the terms "f-stop" and "focal length" were bandied about incorrectly, and some nonsensical prescription for low-light cinematography was made.


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 Post subject: Re: Computer mistakes in IJ
PostPosted: Tue Aug 25, 2009 11:22 pm 
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Just wanted to chime in that I noticed a few of these as well, though as always, it's tough to tell what's deliberate. I'd like to give DFW the benefit of the doubt. I also acknowledge that he was human, and made mistakes. As doubtful geste pointed out, it's a Herculean achievement to have made so few mistakes (and been so prescient) in a work of this complexity.

Here are a couple little bits that bugged me:

p.48
Quote:
with the aid of cutting-edge Positron-Emission Topography or 'P.E.T.' technology (since supplanted wholly by Invasive Digitals, Orin hears the developmental psychology graduate student mutter to herself, watching rapt over her cup, unaware that Orin's paralytically awake), they could scan and study how different parts of poor old Fenton's dysfunctional brain emitted positrons in a whole different topography than your average hale and hearty nondelusional God-fearing Albertan's brain,


I like the above bit a lot, but shouldn't it be "Tomography?"

p.435
Quote:
The state employees who supervise the shelter at night are dead-eyed and watch soft-core tapes behind the desk and are all around Gately's size and build,


Should they be tapes, or cartridges? The Shattuck would probably have some kind of low-rent TP, like the Antitoi's. I thought old TVs and VCRs were deprecated by this point.


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