Monday, November 1, 1999

All this talk by our city council people about giving the homeless identification numbers to keep track of them has me experiencing roaring mathematical flashbacks of the third kind. Assigning numbers to entities -- how functional! We may soon be able to establish a one-to-one correspondence between Seattle's homeless and an American ton of rubber chickens!

By further applying Pascal's triangle (in reverse!), we can stack both the homeless and the rubber chickens in two dimensional piles (provided we neglect their thicknesses), then stand back and watch them keel over! More fun than blowing up the King Dome! (Remember kids, don't try this at home.)

Speaking of dead French gamblers: when all the homeless in Seattle have their own personal numbers, just think how much easier it will be for them to play the lotto!

I'm hoping that the numbers passed out will include fractions. I don't think fractions get enough attention in our post-modernistic fast-paced internetted digital world. A lonely, neglected fraction is a vindictive fraction. You've all been warned.

But I know that won't happen, because everyone is so keen on the idea of using these numbers to count the homeless, and everyone knows you don't use fractions to count anything, right? You have to use counting numbers, right? That'd be 1, 2, 3, 4, and numbers like those, right?

Wrong. You don't need numbers at all. You need identifiers, and the means to know when to introduce new identifiers (when there is a new homeless person in the city) and the means to know when to retire old identifiers (when someone becomes formerly homeless).

The city of Seattle doesn't know that much. Our city officials can't tell when someone has become homeless, nor can they tell when someone has stopped being homeless. They don't have a clue.

So the "number" of homeless the city arrives at by passing numerical identifiers out is certain to be meaningless.

In our last issue our esteemed editor god, Timothy Harris, pointed out some immediate objections to what he refers to as Tag n' Trak. For example the fact that many will not want to cooperate with the system for fear that the police or the INS will be allowed access to the data.

So at the beginning it is certain that the city won't count everyone.

But then, after a year or two have passed, the count will become too large, as the city is unable to know when to retire numbers, because there will be no sure way of spotting those exiting the system.

As the false count piles up it will become blatantly bloated, & the city will have no choice but to resort to the obvious fix: anyone who doesn't try to use the city's services within a certain time period gets their number retired.

So people who have given up on the city will again go uncounted, and we will be back to where we started.

(Actually there are those in the city government, Tom Byers, Peter Steinbrueck, etc., who say that the purpose of all this is only to count the resources available to the homeless, rather than the homeless themselves. Why then they are not proposing just assigning the numbers to the resources, they don't say.)

At least the proposal only involves passing out finite numbers to the homeless. Because if they were going to pass out infinite numbers I would be really peeved, as the following recycled poem is meant to indicate.

A Finite Rant Against Infinity, in 23 Lines to Be Exact

1. Don't need no body telling me

2. 'bout the 'lleged beauties of infinity.

3. A concept invented for divinity

4. by people with neurotic affinity

5. for passive-aggressive duplicity.

6. Paradox pawned-off as lucidity

7. meeting challenges with contrived absurdity

8. exploiting riddles to extract complicity.

9. THEN there's mathematical infinity.

10. Borrowed tongue-in-cheek from theology

11. and harnessed to Fourier Anal-why-ticity.

12. Hey I got a goddamn math degree

13. so don't even think to try to impress me

14. with your grasp of Cantorian Mystery.

15. Mystery my ass! It's deliberate reductivity.

16. and the fact that infinity squared is infinity

17. has nothing to do with eternity.

18. It is a dodge, a sham, an escape from the complexity

19. engendered by the finite's quirky specificity -

20. a specificity that makes the finite number 23

21. an enigma all too often mistaken for simplicity

22. (and if you really want to make points with me,

23. let's hear you explain the number three).