Infinite Summer

Pemulis: Math and Motives
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Author:  minderbender [ Sun Aug 30, 2009 9:46 pm ]
Post subject:  Pemulis: Math and Motives

[edit: didn't realize links wouldn't work, replaced with url]

Infinite Jest's wikipedia page:

describes Michael Pemulis as "very proficient in mathematics." No one in the book seems to question this, and certainly his enthusiasm for math is evident, as when he tries to convince Possalthwaite that math constitutes truth in endnote 324. However, the two times (if I remember correctly) that we observe Pemulis doing math, he gets it wrong.

In endnote 123, Pemulis incorrectly applies the Mean Value Theorem. I don't want to get too far into the math, but it does not follow from the Mean Value Theorem that "You just skim the highest and lowest ratios off the Eschaton records the Beanie-man keeps on each time." This would imply that only the highest and lowest values affect the average, which is obviously not the case.

In endnote 321, Pemulis incorrectly explains how to take the derivative of a function.

(and no, now that I think about it, I don't think those endnote numbers are a coincidence)

Ominously, on p. 852 (of my version), Hal states, "Pemulis had poured a terrific volume of practical pre-Boards math into my head for two weeks, taking his own time and not asking for anything in return, being almost suspiciously generous about it."

And of course we learn in the first few pages that Hal did poorly on the SATs, though it is his verbal score that we learn is "just quite a bit closer to zero than we're comfortable with." (p. 6)

So this raises the question - is Pemulis intentionally sabotaging Hal's SAT score (and not just by giving him DMZ)? Or is Pemulis actually not as good at math as everyone assumes? Do his enthusiasm and charisma blind everyone to his deficient math skills?

And if Pemulis is trying to sabotage Hal, why?

Author:  robbi60 [ Mon Aug 31, 2009 2:06 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Pemulis: Math and Motives

My opinion is that Pemulis is good at math and is not sabotaging HAL.

The first conclusion follows if we trust the narrator, IJ p. 154:
His early tennis promise quick-peaking and it's turned out a bit dilettantish, Pemulis's real enduring gift is for math and hard science, and his scholarship is the coveted James O. Incandenza Geometrical Optics Scholarship

The second one because it is not in the logic of the plot.

Anyway, the problem of Dubious Math in Infinite Jest has been pointed out many times, see for instance here:

I also found these mistakes a bit bothering and so I tried to understand better. On one side we can imagine that the use of the Mean Value Theorem is just a parody, as the explanation of the Annulation given by the same Pemulis. A fake argument presented by using complicated words, just to impress people. For instance in "derivative sport in tornado alley" we find:
Because the expansion of response-possibilities is quadratic, you are required to think n shots ahead, where n is a hyperbolic function limited by the sinh of opponent's talent and the cosh of the number of shots in the rally so far (roughly). I was good at this.
which is meaningless and just looks like a Pemulis's declaration. (Notice that this paragraph is very similar, but strikingly different to the beautiful one in IJ, p. 82).

Concerning the derivative in n. 321, I have no theory. It could be just a mistake by Wallace. In Everything&More it was possible to find a lot of similar errors Prabhakar Ragde's list of E&M errata. So, probably, the math errors in IJ were not intentional. Or maybe the wrong derivative was just a misprint (like the missing integral sign in n. 123, in the first editions of IJ).

Author:  ijaddict [ Wed Sep 02, 2009 11:28 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Pemulis: Math and Motives

For 1063 ("Just write this on your wrist or something"), although I respect both the "undermining Hal" theory and the "DFW fucked up" theory, I like this idea much better: we constantly see narrators screwing up, not understanding grammar and words or completely misunderstanding what they're seeing, because of their own imperfections. When Hal is narrating, though, we never see screw-ups in grammar and spelling, because he's a sort of vocab savant. But Hal's weakness is math, which is why Pemulis is tutoring him (and even encourages him to cheat). So Hal hears Pemulis say something like:

"Function x, exponent n, the derivative's going to be n multiplied by x and x raised to the n minus one power."

And then Hal writes down, from memory:

"Function x, exponent n, the derivative's going to be nx + x^(n-1)",

which slightly screws up whatever it was that Pemulis said, because Hal just doesn't know basic calculus and even though he has near-perfect recall (p. 1023: "dictating to Inc, who can just sit there making a steeple out of his fingers and pressing it to his lip and and not take notes and wait and like inscribe [sic] it anytime in the next week and get it verbatim, the smug turd.") Pemulis cannot speak the formula {nx^(n-1)}.

Oh, and I just reread the penultimate sentence of n. 123 on 1025: "It's going to be interesting to see if [sic] Hal... if Inc can transpose [sic?] the math here without help from his Mumster."

That, I think, clinches it for me. Pemulis is guessing Hal won't be able to coherently transpose the math he's heard, even though Hal'll remember the words he heard, without help from someone who understands math much better. And presumably Hal doesn't try to get help, since he isn't sure whether transpose is an appropriate word in this context (it is). (He certainly doesn't get help from Avril, because Avril would realize that "[sic?]" implies uncertainty about whether the original word really was thus, not uncertainty about whether the original word was a mistake.)

Author:  doubtful geste [ Wed Sep 02, 2009 5:31 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Pemulis: Math and Motives

Wow. I think you just grounded that theory so well in the text as to pretty much close the issue on at least that math error. Leave to to DFW to embed a bad math joke inside a syntax joke.

eta: and the "Pemulis sabotaging Hal" theory just doesn't work for me at all, especially as the description of Hal's score points to his verbal score being low, and I don't think Pemulis could mess with Hal's verbal abilities in any organized fashion (inadvertant sabotage by DMZ is, of course, a whole different thingummy).

Author:  robbi60 [ Thu Sep 03, 2009 12:23 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Pemulis: Math and Motives

ijaddict wrote:
"Function x, exponent n, the derivative's going to be n multiplied by x and x raised to the n minus one power."
And then Hal writes down, from memory:
"Function x, exponent n, the derivative's going to be nx + x^(n-1)"

I love this idea. :D. r

Author:  mjdemo [ Wed Sep 09, 2009 10:31 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Pemulis: Math and Motives

The main thing that I think argues for Pemulis not being as smart as he thinks he is, is that he is the analogue of Polonious from Hamlet. In Hamlet, the court jester (the "fool") is actually really wise and always speaks the truth (=Mario), while the King's supposedly "wise" counselor, Polonious, actually gets everything wrong. Almost everything he thinks and does leads to bad outcomes - he is seductively fun, ironic, clever, and likable. But he tries to electrocute someone, spikes his opponents water with drugs, can never actually play tennis up to his potential, and tries to talk Hal out of quitting drugs. I think his counsel to Postal-Weight ("you can always trust math"), is like, exactly the wrong thing to tell someone who is having an existential crisis ("Nothing is true.") Meaning, it's technically correct but totally unhelpful.

So, I think the Pemulis math errors are there for a reason - you can't trust Pemulis even though you like him.

Author:  mikek [ Wed Sep 09, 2009 10:14 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Pemulis: Math and Motives

One of the real letdowns of the end of the book for me was never finding out what Pemulis wanted to speak with Hal about. One of the topics, I assume, was Pemulis' getting kicked out of ETA, and possibly Avril's relationship with John Wayne, which I don't think Pemulis is aware that Hal is aware of. But maybe he wants to talk to Hal about the missing DMZ? Maybe he suspects something? And I don't have the book in front of me, but doesn't the narrator of the last tennis scene mention that someone had seen Pemulis lurking around looking worried? Pemulis' manner in the last hundred pages feels like he has a premonition of doom.

Author:  doubtful geste [ Wed Sep 09, 2009 10:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Pemulis: Math and Motives

You can't trust that fool much either! Damn lazy bastard refuses to show up for all five acts of Hamlet (save as a skull!), probably because he's too damn busy slumming off with that crazy Lear fellow! Who does he think he is fucking up a reductive one to one correspondence of characters like that?

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