Infinite Jam

Lewis Carroll's Alice drawing, via Wikimedia

Lewis Carroll’s Alice drawing, via Wikimedia

Lewis Carroll is famous for just one story (and its sequel, which is usually lumped in with the first), but he wrote a number of other works. They’re all worse, which explains why they aren’t as famous. But in several of them, the fun math-and-wordplay that Alice in Wonderland is known for comes through. Here’s an excerpt from A Tangled Tale, a 1885 collection of funny stories built around math puzzles, in which a little girl points out a flaw in her governess’s reasoning:

“And what made you choose the first train, Goosey?” said Mad Mathesis, as they got into the cab. “Couldn’t you count better than that?”

“I took an extreme case,” was the tearful reply. “Our excellent preceptress always says, ‘When in doubt, my dears, take an extreme case.’ And I was in doubt.”

“Does it always succeed!” her aunt inquired.

Clara sighed. “Not always,” she reluctantly admitted. “And I ca’n’t make out why. One day she was telling the little girls — they make such a noise at tea, you know — The more noise you make, the less jam you will have, and vice versa.’ And I thought they wouldn’t know what ‘vice versa’ meant: so I explained it to them. I said, ‘if you make an infinite noise, you’ll get no jam: and if you make no noise, you’ll get an infinite lot of jam.’ But our excellent preceptress said that wasn’t a good instance. Why wasn’t it?” she added plaintively.

Her aunt evaded the question. “One sees certain objections to it,” she said. “But how did you work it with the Metropolitan trains? None of them go infinitely fast, I believe.”

“I called them hares and tortoises,” Clara said — a little timidly, for she dreaded being laughed at. “And I thought there couldn’t be so many hares as tortoises on the Line: so I took an extreme case — one hare and an infinite number of tortoises.”

“An extreme case, indeed,” her aunt remarked with admirable gravity: “and a most dangerous state of things!”

“And I thought, if I went with a tortoise, there would be only one hare to meet: but if I went with the hare — you know there were crowds of tortoises!”

Here’s the rest: A Tangled Tale

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Recent Happenings – October

Spoon River

I just published a post on HackCollege:

6 Halloween Costumes for the Terminally Lazy

“When I talk about last-minute Halloween costumes, I don’t mean costumes that take a solid night’s (or week’s) work right before the Halloween parties start up for the weekend. Those guys who put entire hours of work into their costumes are too hard-working for me.

Besides, all the blog posts giving them advice were up yesterday. Now that it’s the eleventh hour, it’s time for the truly lazy costumes ideas — the ones that you can spend five minutes on, but still qualify for a party with.”

Read the rest

Also, my college’s fall play opens tonight, on Halloween. Which is nice, since it’s about a group of dead citizens of a small town sharing their life stories. Here’s an ad for it:

And I also wrote an opinion piece on feminism and Christianity:

“We all agree that women are people and should do people things, like vote. There’s very little controversy over this. And therefore, ‘feminism’—which is technically defined as the belief that men and women are equal in worth—is something that everyone can agree on. But we don’t.”

Read the rest.

More College Life Vignettes

This year, like the last one, I’m the PR intern in charge of enlightening my college’s entire student body about recent news on a weekly basis. And just like before, I get to open with an entertaining paragraph about whatever I feel like. Here’s the Fall 2013 semester so far.

You know it's a quality college when it's got that weathered, old-photo look.

You know it’s a quality college when it’s got that weathered, old-photo look.

Week 1

Fall semester is in full swing.

That’s right, students have returned and classes are underway. Academic Convocation will be on Friday, August 30 at 10 a.m. in the Field-house. Hopefully you’re ready for the busyness of the semester to begin! Because if you’re not, well, man, I don’t know what to say to you. This is FYI. I’m Adam Rowe, and I’ll be your electronic guide to the Geneva-related events and facts that you should care about on a weekly basis. For example, I’ll be telling you stuff like this.

Week 2

Hi all,

As the fall starts up, college has changed a little: offices have moved; professors have come and gone; and the Alex’s fruit basket has moved from near the desserts to near the silverware. It’s almost too much to process. Twice already I’ve walked towards the dessert in search of an apple. My neural paths haven’t accepted the change yet. Continue reading

FYI: Spring 2013 Salutations

My college internship still requires me to email weekly news updates to all the students. And the perk of being able to open the email with whatever I feel like saying is also still required. Here’s all the different openings I used in Spring 2013, minus whichever weeks I didn’t have anything worth posting.

A college. In Spring.

A college. In Spring.

Week 3:

Week three. The beginning of our quest is behind us, and daily activities are settling into repetition. Coffee rations and morale hold steady. Rumors of a “spring break” are faint whispers, ignored in favor of a focus on the task at hand: pressing on.

Here’s the week’s news.

Week 4:

Hey all,

This semester, as you may have noticed, the Cabinet has undergone a graphic-design facelift. Our illustrious editor and friend of mine Joel Shannon (fun fact: if you pronounced that “Joelle,” he’s got two girl names!) has been composing a weekly column. I have it on good authority that his column this week will be on a topic near and dear to all our hearts: how terrible Twitter is. I therefore propose a show of solidarity on the part of those of us with Twitter accounts. We all need to get a new trend in the twittersphere: #nomorehashtags. Get to tweeting!

Week 5:

Hi guys,

I just heard about a health fair we’ve got coming up in a few months… the title is “Health Fair.” Points for being as short and sweet as a candied dwarf, but there’s something missing. “Fair” is just such a boring word when the far more exciting “expo” is available. That word basically means the same thing, but conjures up images of Coney Island dogs or tradesmen hocking wares. And someone gets to just make these event titles up. The opportunity is golden. I’m tempted to improve these titles in the news I deliver via FYI. Ah, the power! Muahahahahahahaha

Week 7:

Hi everyone,

Spring Break officially begins this Friday, March 1 at 5 p.m., and classes resume on Tuesday, March 12 at 8 a.m. All that stands between you and spring break are those terrible midterms! Which has gotten me thinking about a serious question: If I want four hours of energy but only have a five-hour energy drink and a three-hour energy drink, can I get the right amount?

Answer: only if I’ve already drunk enough energy drink to give me the energy to solve that problem. Here’s the weekly news.

Continue reading

List of possible titles for a sequel to my action hero poets film Poetic Justice

poetic justice

Poetic Justice II: Trouble at the Home Font

Poetic Justice II: Inde-font-sible

Poetic Justice II: The Sansof Time

Poetic Justice II: There’s a new Serif in Town.

Poetic Justice II: Courier New? I barely know her gnu!

Poetic Justice II: Apostrophe Catastrophe

Poetic Justice II: Punch-uation

Poetic Justice II: Badassonance

Poetic Justice II: The Last Stanza

Poetic Justice II: Take A Stanza

Poetic Justice II: Rhyme Harder

Poetic Justice II: Mora Kombat

Poetic Justice II: Quintain of Solace

Poetic Justice II: Esprit de l’escalier

Poetic Justice II: While the Irony’s Hot

Poetic Justice II: Heroic Couplet

Poetic Justice II: Stand For What’s Write

Poetic Justice II: The Metaphrast And The Furious.

The problem with Popular Science

At least he didn't use a red and white color scheme. That's even worse than academic dishonesty.

At least he didn’t use a red and white color scheme. That’s even worse than academic dishonesty.

Malcolm Gladwell, popular author of collections of counter-intuitive factoids, recently published a new book, and it’s catching a lot of flack. As the AV Club puts it:

Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint taking true-life stories and statistics, then wrapping them up together into an easily digestible whole. Like the writers of Freakonomics, he trades in counter-intuitive arguments, showing how conventional wisdom is, more often than not, wrong. It’s a good hook, and he’s been successful with it over and over again. But every hook can become overused, and Gladwell’s latest, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, fails to recognize that rather obvious lesson.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Christopher Chabris has even harsher words:

To make his point about the general benefits of difficulty, Mr. Gladwell refers to a 2007 experiment in which people were given three mathematical reasoning problems to solve. One group was randomly assigned to read the problems in a clear typeface like the one you are reading now; the other had to read them in a more difficult light-gray italic print. The latter group scored 29% higher, suggesting that making things harder improves cognitive performance. It’s an impressive result on the surface, but less so if you dig a bit deeper.

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That’s a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn’t matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn’t tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn’t know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale. They might hold up, but there is a good chance they will turn out to be spurious.

This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell’s writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.

Gladwell is probably figuring out the same thing Jonah Lehrer did: it’s tough to come up with entertaining articles, and counter-intuitive facts can quickly run out. There isn’t a good solution.

Popular science articles need plenty of elements to truly become popular — catchy titles; punchy analogies; a fast pace; evocative descriptors; a high concept topic; a fetish-level focus on facts or otherwise seemingly quantifiable accomplishments; and, most importantly, the subversive topic, which must confront the audience with a conclusion that seems to contradict commonly-accepted sense but it shown, through fact and analogy, not to.

Not that that isn't a good name, too.

They’re called test tubes, not crazy theory tubes.

The act of subversion is subversive. No, that’s not a tautological statement; rather, it should be obvious. If expectations are around to be subverted, than there must be a reason behind their existence. This reason, as decreed by Occam’s Razor, is typically because the expectation is a decent reflection of reality. As a result, academic articles live an arcadian existence, eking out the occasional 2000 words of fodder from among the cracks between reality and an audience’s expectations of reality. The struggle for an innovative topic, understandably, drives authors to ever more tenuous tricks.

One of the questionable methods of capitalizing on a breakthrough is to jump on one before it’s been properly confirmed. Academia skillfully sidesteps this problem, allowing less refined news services to spew click-bait about the latest particle to exceed the speed of light. Still, articles try to have their cake and consume it too, reporting on speculation while reminding the audience that speculation is all it is. Scientific studies are a grey area sensational enough to be acceptable: the implications of a study proving ______ is proportional to _____ are free to run wild as long as the requisite chestnut that “correlation isn’t causation” gets tossed in there somewhere. Accuracy might not be upheld with both hands, but darned if the topic isn’t entertaining.

Personally, I’ve found a different solution to the problem: I write fiction.

Merchant of Venice: The College Years

Ideally, all these actors would be in my adaptation, and it would be filmed in 2000.

Ideally, all these actors would be in my adaptation, and it would be filmed in 2000.

“Cut us, we bleed. Tickle us, we laugh. Screw us over, and we’ll screw you over!”

~Shy, My Adaptation

I was bored in Shakespeare class yesterday and outlined a modern-day adaptation of one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice, as set in a college environment. Shakespeare-inspired teen comedies were turned into a fun subgenre back in the late 90s-early 00s, but I don’t think anyone has attempted a version of the play that centers around one guy trying to chop a pound of flesh out of another. The play just doesn’t work well for adaptation. Which is what makes it fun to attempt.

Dramatis Personae:

Tony – The popular, friendly, good-guy jock senior.

“Shy” – A bitter nerdy senior. Nicknamed for his quiet demeanor.

Bill – Tony’s best friend, who has just transferred from another college.

Portia – A smart, driven pre-law student. She’s looking for love, but disillusioned by the self-serving guys within her major.

Jessica – Shy’s freshman sister.

Lorenzo – A dweeby freshmen. Often teased for having a name out of Shakespeare or something.

Plot:

Shy works at the registrar’s desk, overseeing the fraternities on campus. He harbors a deep grudge against Tony, whose frat voted to keep him out back in their freshman year. When Tony comes to him to get Bill into the fraternity at short notice, Shy sees his moment for revenge: he cuts a deal. Bill’s in the fraternity, but if he can’t keep his grades up high enough to stay in, Tony must give Shy his Facebook and LinkedIn passwords — career suicide.

A sub-plot follows Bill’s romance with Portia after he wins a date with her in a contest during Greek Week. He’s the least materialistic, so she picks him. Also, Jessica starts dating Lorenzo, much to Shy’s dismay.

In the end, Bill’s grades tank, and unless he aces his last final, Tony’s career will go down in flames before it has started. Tony must appeal to the student fraternity board, where Portia masquerades as a frat member in order to qualify to defend Tony. Shy is defeated. Everyone else lives happily ever after.

I have a few loose ends to figure out… like how Portia stops Shy, or how the plots can tie together better than they do in the source material. Or how to deal with the extra ring subplot from the original play. I still need a good title. Also, I might give Shy a love interest so that it’s not a totally downer ending for him.

But, perhaps most importantly, this adaptation sets up a nice mirror of the original’s line about Shylock wanting a pound of flesh in order to bait fishhooks:

“What do you want his linkedin password for, anyway?”

“To bait phishers with.”