Human Behaviour

Posted in art, technology by johnsnavely on June 9, 2009

Last night, I watched Primer (spoiler alert). It’s a great movie stylishly told (as a result of a low budget) whose main plot twist centers around time travel.

One of the major themes of the movie, in the words of the director: “the deconstruction of a relationship because of the introduction of this [the time machines] power”.


The two main characters accidentally discover a time machine. Since the discovery is unexpected, their reactions begin as fairly puerile: how can they make money from time travel? Eventually, they sink into the meat of the story: time travel gives them the ability to rewrite history (history in the sense that events are built up of a series of interpersonal events), not only the lives of others but their own.


I also watched– although it took me a while– Gerald Depardieu’s 400 minute film adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. The movie follows the book pretty faithfully, for better or worse. And features the same sort of melodrama that characterized Dumas’ serialized stories– cliff hanger endings, suicides, elopements, weird drugs, etc. I love it… but I suspect not many people could tolerate the tela novella atmosphere of the whole thing.

However, The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite books and I’m willing to tolerate just about any version of it. (I’ve got an anime version of the novel from Netflix on its way to my house as I write this.) The book, for those of you who don’t know, is pretty much the mother of all revenge novels, a grand picture painted across exotic locations and lavish settings of the super rich. The major themes are about good and evil and the tension of the Count’s desire for  revenge vs his “true” nature as a good person. This plays out in many small interactions between the Count and people that the audience knows he wishes ill towards. These bits of dramatic irony are the foundation of most of the suspense in the novel.

To put the cherry on top of this smagasborg of everything-I-have-been-reading-wacthing, the last thing I’m currently reading is a book called: The Mathematics of Marriage. From the cover flap:

Divorce rates are at an all-time high. But without a theoretical understanding of the processes related to marital stability and dissolution, it is difficult to design and evaluate new marriage interventions. The Mathematics of Marriage provides the foundation for a scientific theory of marital relations. The book does not rely on metaphors, but develops and applies a mathematical model using difference equations. The work is the fulfillment of the goal to build a mathematical framework for the general system theory of families first suggested by Ludwig Von Bertalanffy in the 1960s.

The book also presents a complete introduction to the mathematics involved in theory building and testing, and details the development of experiments and models. In one “marriage experiment,” for example, the authors explored the effects of lowering or raising a couple’s heart rates. Armed with their mathematical model, they were able to do real experiments to determine which processes were affected by their interventions.

Applying ideas such as phase space, null clines, influence functions, inertia, and uninfluenced and influenced stable steady states (attractors), the authors show how other researchers can use the methods to weigh their own data with positive and negative weights. While the focus is on modeling marriage, the techniques can be applied to other types of psychological phenomena as well.

I’ve just read the first couple chapters. (One of which is an introduction to Diff. Equations, sorely needed since I’ve retained nothing from my math courses [Math 23!] as an undergrad.) The central idea of the book is to build a mathematical model that can be used to predict whether or not a given couple will divorce. Of course, in the later chapters, the methodology is extended to predict factors or “treatments” that might prevent divorce between couples. In addition, the later chapters describe how the model might apply to a more general set of relationships between people: any “couple”. Any two people involved in conversation.

This spawned a few ideas in my head.

One: Why can’t I have this model and it’s predictions running real time across all of my conversations? Every conversation could be metric-ed and improved on to facilitate things things like meetings.

Two: Could this software be used to analyze fictional dialogue? (Maybe something Moretti-esque?) Or maybe it could have a more significant impact on the creative process of writing dialog?


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