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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Martin Gardner: skeptical inquirer

When I discovered him as a teenager, Martin Gardner seemed magical. To this day, the red cover of his Annotated Alice, is a talisman for me. In the dark ages before the world wide web, I never encountered such a network of connections between ideas as his Alice held. In Gardner's world, concepts were like sparks in a roomful of firecrackers--each lit up several others, which in turn, lit up still more.

I found his "Mathematical Games" column a bit too mathematical--not in difficulty but in his tendency to catalogue the attributes of numbers and shapes. But his column was succeeded by Douglas Hofstadter's even more playful "Metamagical Themas" (an anagram homage), and Hofstadter is a hero of mine. Hofstadter's column was followed by A. K. Dewdney's "Computer Recreations" (later renamed "Mathematical Recreations") which was a huge influence on me; a babysitter who taught me how to program gave me a book of Dewdney's columns and I have been a recreational programmer ever since. I worked one of Dewdney's projects--an evolution simulation--into a high school science fair project that was over the head of all the judges. (I was beaten by my friend Leah's "Hot Pants?" in which she set her spandex on fire.)

These writers all treat knowledge as an irresistible fount of joy, and it is their excitement as much as anything that has made me love learning. And I think they had another type of influence on me, one much more unexpected: making me a skeptic.

Gardner's name immediately calls up Isaac Asimov, another absurdly prolific polymath. It makes perfect sense to me that the same mind that hatched the robot stories and was driven to write a guide to Shakespeare (and the overrated Foundation and so much else) would be an atheist humanist. Gardner was one, too, and Dewdney and Gardner both wrote books debunking pseudoscience-like homeopathy. (Dewdney is the only skeptic of the September 11th, 2001 attacks whom I can't dismiss--he couldn't understand how the cell phone calls on United 93 worked, so he chartered several planes and flew around testing dozens of cell phones and networks, with mixed results.)

Beliefs for these people are built carefully, on evidence not whim; they cannot conjure them whole cloth, which is why a belief holds any weight at all. They cannot hear of a theory, of consciousness for example (an obsession of Hofstadter's and of mine) without coming up with questions about it. Not everyone in science applies this questioning so broadly; it seems somehow connected to being a polymath.

To most religious people, it is the most sensible, livable parts of scripture that stand out: the forgiveness by Jesus, the wisdom of Mohammed, the patience of Moses. But to a skeptic it is the most absurd parts that jump out: the commandment to stone to death a disobedient child, the convoluted explanations for why God put fake dinosaur bones in the ground, the ridiculous origin of the book of Mormon. Perhaps this is a reflection a position on the mild end of the autism spectrum; it may be that, in a human world, strict consistency or coherence is a useless preoccupation. A skeptic runs afoul of the greater part of humanity, who do not lose sleep over a contradiction in their priest's sermon.

But this same skepticism can pierce the veil of dogma because logic on its own is a system of meaning independent from dogma. I imagine this is why repressive states so often arrest and suppress scientists; they are natural humanists, since nationalism and other supremacisms are so comparatively arbitrary.

All this is to say, that Gardner, who spent the later part of his life writing for the magazine Skeptical Inquirer is more than another example of a particularly smart man. A polymath is not just a novelty, whose death and decline reflects poorly on age of specialization. He represents a gregariousness of intellect that can transcend borders and boundaries.

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Anonymous Tom on Thu May 27, 08:46:00 AM:
The perception of science and skepticism going hand in hand is a common one.

I was asked yesterday by a group of 6th graders if all scientists didn't believe in god. I had to explain that no, this wasn't the case. But then discussed why they are often seen as skeptics. The truth is, of course, that the nature of science is to question.

Scientists upset people when they don't perceive a boundary between what is and is not acceptable to question.

This isn't new, it is the enlightenment still at work.
Saper Aude! and all that

Monday, May 24, 2010

Breaking down the Law & Order noise

The last chung-chung from Law & Order (at least on NBC) rings tonight, although it will continue to sound in perpetuity of syndication. Here's how Mike Post made the noise:
"I think of it as the stylized sound of a jail cell locking," says the 48-year-old Emmy-winning composer, who also wrote the theme music for Crime & Punishment. "I wanted to add something that's very distinctive but not a literal sound. What I tried to do was jar a little bit." Instead of the electric piano, guitar, and clarinet for which he scored the opening theme, Post synthesized his chung CHUNG electronically, combining six or seven different sounds to get the right dead-bolt effect. One of the eeriest adds: the sound of 500 Japanese men stamping their feet on a wooden floor. "It was a sort of monstrous Kabuki event," he says. "Probably one of those large dance classes they hold. They did this whole big stamp. Somebody went out and sampled that."

The result — which lasts all of maybe a second and a half — does its dark work effectively. "There's very little music in Law & Order, and very little is needed," says Post. "It's odd, to be honest, when you've written a theme that you think is very musical and what everybody wants to talk about is The Clang."

Of course he also wrote the theme for Crime & Punishment!

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Blogger Katy on Tue May 25, 09:46:00 AM:
A few years ago, my roommates and I spent an entire dark New England winter watching endless Law & Order reruns every night. The highlight of our evening was always "singing" the theme song together. We each had different parts that we would do. I did the intro "da-DUM!"
Blogger Meg on Thu Jun 03, 12:48:00 PM:
Sesame Street did a sketch that parodied it. Pretty funny for mom. 3 year old had no idea.

Weather Channel protest idea

The Weather Channel has made the head-scratching change to include more "weather-tainment" in the form of weather-themed movies to its regular programming, leading to this great lede and nutgraf about the failure of the plan:
The woes of the Weather Channel can be summed up in one movie title: “Misery.”

A decision to buy the Kathy Bates thriller — tangentially weather-related because it takes place during a snowstorm — has become a talking point as the Weather Channel renegotiates its contracts with cable and satellite companies.

How about showing Groundhog Day (also tangentially weather-related because it involves a weatherman) over and over again to protest the programming changes, only to stop when better changes are agreed to?

By the way, I am unashamed to admit that I've watched weather-tainment in the form of BIGGEST STORM COUNTDOWNS or whatever. I really like "When Weather Changed History"--not so much to tune in for the amount of time that would be important, but it's interesting to watch while I'm waiting on Local on the 8s.

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Monday, May 17, 2010


Sunday's New York Times crossword puzzle needed lots of new coding to come into being--and to be solved by its online fans. Matt Ginsburg's explanation of how he devised the puzzle is fascinating, as is the reader commentary about not being able to solve the puzzle online because of its special theme answers which were arranged in mini-grids within grids:
Having had the idea, execution was a bit harder because it was difficult to find the theme entries. Two (hopefully fairly long) words that agree except for two letters, and for which the associated “phrase” makes sense. And to make it harder, you have to be able to switch the letters and get two other words that work as well. I eventually wrote a program that evaluated all combinations of four letters to predict how many possible “phrases” there might be for each, and looked at the combinations that seemed the most promising. Lots of the best letter combinations were like the ST-TH in faster father/stefan thefan, where the middle letter is duplicated so you have ST-TH in both word pairs. I thought that things like RS-NT (which turns into RN-ST in the other direction) were much more elegant, but I just couldn’t find enough of them that worked. Hopefully none of the selections I eventually made seem too forced! Jim, sorry I keep making you write special code. Hopefully you enjoyed solving the puzzle, at least!

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ripped from the headlines

I have a self-serving way of justifying Law & Order marathons: it's called "watching in aggregate," in which I argue that you only understand Law & Order when you know the rules of the game (the wisecrack, the false lead, the changeover to Law from Order, the twist) and can be sensitive to how slight variations in the formula teach you something about narrative. As a show that was designed to be formulaic so it could be played out of order, Law & Order has never really been about Law or Order, but about television syndication itself.

So it's fitting, perhaps, that it ends before setting the record for longest-running television drama?

That claim for its self-reflexivity isn't a stretch: after the Jerry Orbach years, the show changed course slightly to really take seriously its role as mediating New York tabloid (and national) news stories. If it hadn't been one before, the show became a way to dramatize other stories and show how other forms of media (newspaper stories, tabloid scandals, Internet memes, reality television) can be formulaic and then remixed into the chung-chung formula.

Just tally up the episodes from recent seasons that were about some form of media: it increased dramatically over the past few years (where they were then rebroadcast on TNT because they know drama). The early and middle years have Orbach, but I'm struck by how the show became about how its characters consumed media and made sense of information on the Internet and in the tabloid news cycles. (There was a wry moment the other night when a vain Octomom duel couldn't be settled in court, so McCoy noted that it would instead mediated--in multiple senses--on a reality show, with former DA Arthur Branch "presiding" over the spectacle.)

The peak of that self-reflexivity (and perhaps self-seriousness) was the episode that started as a riff on the NY Times expose of teenage runaways who are exploited by magazine subscription sales scams and turned into ADA Jack McCoy's moment to expose the inhumanity of the Walter Reed veterans hospital tragedy, which was based on a Washington Post series of exposes.

In honor of the fallen show, here's a section of a great Harper's essay by Edward Conlon, "Flatfoot Agonistes: Inside the Police-Entertainment Complex", about his experience writing a crime novel based on his police work:
In non-fiction--for me at least--the more ridiculous the incident the better: outlandish characters, dubious coincidences, freaks of all kinds were welcome. Fact-checking wasn’t a problem: I’d been cross-examined in federal court about my book, on the page or so about a man I’d arrested for an armed robbery after his fingerprints were found on the cash box. I hadn’t called him by his real name, as the case was still open at the time, but cited it as a too-common circumstance in which tearful testimony trumped forensic science. I’d told the U.S. Attorney about the passage, and he felt we had to alert defense counsel. The question posed on the stand centered on motive--mine, not the robber’s--whether my primary concern was the pursuit of a good story or of a real crime. The metaphysical implications were intriguing what detective doesn’t strive for the jackpot payoff, the feel-better if not feel-good finale? Could I close cases, or refuse to take them, if they struck me as derivative or trite? At any rate, we won a conviction, and a sentence of twenty-five years. Better still, a sale: the defense lawyer asked me to sign his copy of the book.

The courtroom experience of defending my non-fiction didn’t ready me for certain editorial questions, though, in the early drafts of the novel.

“Is this a character piece?”

“Yes,” I answered. In truth, I didn’t know what she meant. It had characters, didn’t it? Now, I understand the term better in comparison with “plot-driven”; my editor was asking whether interior attributes or exterior structures—relationships, narrative conventions—control the action. It was a miniature of the progressive-conservative debate on crime, individual choices versus societal forces, and it was no better resolved.

“How come so many characters have asthma?”

Air pollution? In subsequent drafts, certain asthmatics were wholly cured, others were given ulcers.

“You have a one character find a body in the park, and later on he finds something else there—there’s too much coincidence. It’s a little cute, a little neat.”

“I had a robbery where a woman was robbed on her way to pay the bondsman to bail out her boyfriend, who was in jail for robbery….We had a triple stabbing, with one guy killed. The two guys who survived ran away and grabbed a cab to the hospital. The cab driver was the dead man’s brother, who had no idea about the homicide until later on….”

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Blogger Alice on Mon May 17, 11:59:00 PM:
Terrence Rafferty's thought-provoking review of Scott Turow's sequel to Presumed Innocent is a great continuation of this quandary about how to dramatize law and order over and over again:

"It’s no crime to write a sequel, but it’s an activity a serious novelist should feel at least a little guilty about. Turow evidently does. (Calling the new book “Innocent” may constitute a sheepish plea for forgiveness.) Practically everyone involved in this strange case is compelled to comment on the been-there-done-thatness of the thing. “Too much history,” Molto says wearily, as his avid deputy tries to persuade him to indict Sabich for murder just this one time more. The defendant himself characterizes the case as “old wine in new bottles.” Acknowledging the “Presumed Innocent” reader’s sense of déjà vu is crafty, but what makes this new book more than a cleverly executed stunt is Turow’s determination to use the familiarity of the story and the characters for purposes loftier than earning some very hefty royalties.

"He seems, in part, to have written this book out of a fascination with the enduring human puzzle of repetitive behavior. Judge Sabich, who strives to be a scrupulous self-examiner, can’t stop wondering why he nonetheless finds himself, two decades older and presumably wiser, making exactly the same mistakes that, as he puts it, “all but ruined his life.” Turow is returning to the scene of a personal triumph rather than a catastrophe, but he’s wondering too: like his protagonist, he knows he’s pushing his luck. In “Innocent,” he’s exploring the many ways in which, time after time, we fail to under­stand ourselves, in which we miss or misinterpret the evidence that could tell us who we are. “If we are always a mystery to ourselves,” Anna asks at the end of Sabich’s latest ordeal, “then what is the chance of fully understanding anybody else?” That’s a novelist’s question as much as it is a lawyer’s."

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Marital fidelity and other fictions

The NY Times ran a profile this week of Carole Mallory, a longtime mistress of Norman Mailer who has just published a memoir. It is full of juicy quotes.

Mailer's seductive line was, according to her, "Take off your panties, I want to experience your soul." She compares herself to Françoise Gilot, the longtime mistress of Pablo Picasso, and argues that she was an artistic and professional force in Mailer's life. On the cheating, with her and plenty of others, she says "Love his acceptance, and I accepted him as a philanderer."

And on Mailer's widow, Ms. Mallory writes that he said "It's not hard to fool someone who loves you and trust you."

Another recent article, which ran on the cover of New York Magazine with the headline "The Half-Hooker Economy", dove deep into the topic of famous and powerful men and their infidelities. It follows a nightclub hostess who was so good at steering trustable women to Tiger Woods's table, probably including herself, that he wrote in an e-mail to her, “I finally found someone I connect with, someone I have never found like this. Not even at home... Fuck. Why didn’t we find each other years ago. We wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

A few more loosely connected points: for years, my wife Kate and I have been giving out copies of a favorite book, Advice To a Young Wife from an Old Mistress. And one of the greatest musical treatments of the topic, this from the wife's point of view, has to be Nina Simone's "The Other Woman".

Finally, not on the topic of infidelity but rather on what makes marriages -- including ones we deeply do not understand -- work, see this NY Times comparison of passages from Laura Bush's recent real memoir to Curtis Sittenfeld's fictional Laura Bush memoir, American Wife:

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