Thursday, September 24, 2009

"The Jenna Set" by Daniel Kaysen

Kaysen's short story reminds of the television show Numb3rs* (Or, if you're a child of the eighties, the infinitely more awesome Mathnet). Except that there are no crimes to solve in "The Jenna Set" And the main character, Jenna, isn't a mathematical genius. Okay, so the only connection is that all three contain complex math that I'm pretty sure might just be made up (Except for Mathnet, of course. That stuff was straight from PBS, so you know it was solid).

Truthfully, "The Jenna Set" is more like a British romantic comedy movie, sort of along the lines of Love, Actually, except that, instead of meeting at a coffee shop, or randomly at work, or any of the other standard Rom Com tropes, the characters end up being brought together through the power of Math! Well, sort of. You see, Jenna ends up signing up for this experimental phone service called Palavatar, which, in addition to all the normal telephone features, will reliably automate phone calls for you, mimicking your voice and making up responses based on your observed patterns. Some pretty funny moments ensure, Jenna ends up getting the guy, of course, and Kelly's geeky sister and the inventor of Palavalar end up bonding over how people and their relationships can be mapped out as set of "psycho-socio-mathematical laws."

This last part about the "psycho-socio-mathematical law" I don't even pretend to understand, but I don't think you have to know what they're talking about to enjoy the story. In layman's terms Kaysen's characters come to believe that people can be mathematically defined by what they like, what they dislike, who they're friends with, and who they hate, and that how well you get along with someone can be calculated from these values. Except for the fact that they're applying this idea mathematically, there's nothing really new to that concept. Nick Hornby's characters in High Fidelity basically hold to this kind of "It's what you like, not what you're like." outlook on life, for example.

But the math is also not really the point of the story, either. Ultimately, Kaysen's story does what a good Rom Com should (and there are a few good ones). It's funny and entertaining. There may not be a whole lot there, but you don't really miss it, either.

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