A most ingenious paradox

Here is a puzzle that I posed to Jonah last night, and then helped him to solve in fulfillment of his required ten minutes of nightly math homework:

What is the date (day, month, and year) at the beginning of The Pirates of Penzance?

Solution follows.

Continue reading “A most ingenious paradox”

Fun With Fun With Dick and Jane

Ed McMahon died. Though I don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s nice to think about him and Johnny Carson together again.

Dicks and Janes

The news about Ed McMahon made me think of the one real acting role of his I’ve ever seen — that of Charlie, the aerospace executive who fires George Segal in Fun With Dick and Jane (the original, from 1977). He was surprisingly good in the part.

That made me think of the 2005 remake of that film, with Jim Carrey, which did poorly at the box office. Not surprising, considering that it was one of Hollywood’s many completely unnecessary remakes, but more to the point, it was made during an era of economic good times. The original was from the depths of the drawn-out economic malaise of the seventies, so its premise of a white-collar executive on the ropes and turning to a life of crime was relevant social satire. The remake was merely zany.

If it were remade today I’m betting it’d do better.

Toujours l’audace

We closed out another difficult April with Jonah’s seventh birthday party, an event that didn’t even have a coherent plan as late as one week beforehand. We didn’t have time to assemble and send one of our trademark clever party invitations, so we made do with an Evite.

Last year Andrea sprang an idea on me for Jonah’s party that was challenging but obviously right. This year was no different. As we struggled with how and where to stage a Scooby-Doo party for him (his requested theme) — ruling out one venue after another on the basis of expense, distance, logistical complexity, unavailability, or thematic unsuitability — a plan suddenly occurred to Andrea. “Honey,” she said to me, “I love you, and I’m sorry to say this, but I think it has to be a slumber party here at the house.”

Once again the rightness of this idea was immediately apparent — as was the magnitude of the task ahead. Jonah’s guest list had the names of more than twenty six- and seven-year-olds on it. None of the families had yet attempted a sleepover with more than two guests at once. Our modest little house would barely contain them all while fast asleep, to say nothing of the wakeful hours before and after slumbering! And because we eschewed any location that might have provided its own Scooby-Doo-ish appeal — Alcatraz prison, an old movie house, a Victorian mansion, and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum were candidates — we’d have to stage our own mystery for the kids to solve.

Make no small plans.” In the week after sending the Evite, nearly every parent who RSVP’d made some comment along the lines of, “You are very brave” or “I salute you.”

In the afternoon before the party began, as we were getting the house ready for the onslaught, Andrea emerged from the study holding a deck of playing cards. “Boys,” she said to Jonah and Archer, “was one of you playing with these cards and writing on the backs of them?” “No,” they both said. Andrea held them up. Sure enough, each card had a letter written in permanent marker on the back. “Someone wrote on the backs of these cards. It wasn’t either of you?” “No,” they insisted, puzzled. “That’s strange,” said Andrea. “Yeah, that’s weird,” said Jonah.

A few minutes before six, when the guests were scheduled to arrive, Jonah checked on his Scooby-Doo cake, which he’d helped decorate himself. It sat protected in a pink cake box on a side table. A few minutes later, when his first friend showed up, Jonah brought him straight to the cake box to show off his cake artwork. But when he lifted the lid, the cake was gone! In its place was a note:

The cake is all mine, ha ha ha!
If you want to know where I took it, you’ll have to “puzzle” it out.
Signed, The Villain

Jonah was gobsmacked. “The cake was stolen!” he exclaimed and started looking for it all over the place. It was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile more guests arrived, and as soon as each one did, Jonah filled them in. “A villain stole the cake!” While they tried to figure out that mystery, there was pizza and there were hot-dog-pasta creatures.

Then I realized something. “Jonah!” I said. “I think I understand what the villain meant by ‘puzzle it out’!” “What?” Jonah asked. I brought out five boxes, each containing a Scooby-Doo jigsaw puzzle. “I bought these for everyone to do around bedtime, but look! They’ve already been opened!” Jonah got the idea immediately. “Maybe the villain left a clue in the puzzles! Maybe we have to put the puzzles together!” So amidst the general seven-year-old-boy chaos five groups formed, one around each puzzle. The puzzles were found to have some kind of design on the backs of the pieces, but they had to be assembled front-side-up first to make sense out of the markings on the back.

After a while, the first puzzle was complete and I flipped it over with a couple of stiff pieces of cardboard. On the back were two playing card symbols — 3 of hearts and 7 of clubs. Jonah looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes got really big. “That explains it!” he blurted out and ran off in search of Andrea. “Mom! Mom! Where are those playing cards from before?”

One by one the puzzles were completed and flipped over, each revealing a pair of playing card symbols. We found the altered deck of cards and dealt each kid a handful. “Who has the 7 of clubs?” I asked. “Who has the 3 of hearts?” Soon we had ten cards with these letters on the back:


The kids moved the cards around on the table for a while until they made the letters spell:


“Let’s go to the playground!” Jonah announced. With some difficulty, Andrea and I and a few grownups who were helping us organized 16 kids for a raucous walk to the playground up the street in the gathering dark. Our friend Greg, who was also helping but whose foot was injured, stayed behind.

At the playground, we discovered a piñata in the shape of the Mystery Machine, the van from the Scooby-Doo cartoons. I tied it up and the kids whacked at it until a ton of candy spilled out — along with a folded note. Jonah opened it up and read, “Ha ha, fooled you. Now the cake is all mine!”

“Back to the house!” Jonah declared, and again we organized for a noisy march. When we got close to the house, the kids broke formation and ran inside — where they discovered our friend Greg, with the Scooby-Doo cake in front of him on the table, about to eat it himself! “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

Cake eating followed, accompanied by Scooby-Doo cartoons, changing into pajamas, and unrolling sleeping bags. After that was lights-out, carefully timed to coincide with a sugar crash, producing a trouble-free night of sound sleep for everyone — even Andrea and me. In the morning, each kid took home a personalized “Meddling kid” t-shirt with himself as Shaggy.

Jonah was all smiles throughout the party and for hours afterward the next day.

After the last guests left in the morning, and after I literally passed out for a couple of hours that afternoon, I remarked to Andrea that though I used to feel guilty at Halloween time (because our kids wear store-bought costumes, even though my mom used to make professional-quality ones by hand), I don’t feel guilty anymore. We have carved out a funmaking niche of our own in which we excel.

A much better George W.

Speaking of presidential inaugurations, it was only a few days ago that we were deeply moved by watching America’s latest one; and then last night we watched the very first one — that of George Washington, also very movingly staged, in the HBO miniseries John Adams.

The kids have been clamoring to watch each new episode of this enriching and educational show, which we pause often for discussion. They love it! How lucky am I?

Coincidence fatigue

Part 1.

The first time I heard the song, “Going in the Right Direction,” by Robert Randolph and the Family Band, I thought this lyric sounded familiar:

I was lost
I thought the losing dice were tossed

Wracking my brain for a minute produced the answer: it’s also a lyric from the song, “Just In Time,” an old standard from mid-century.

Part 2.

Out of the blue several days ago, Andrea calls me and asks whether she should buy a group of discounted tickets to an upcoming Cal Bears game. “College football?” I asked. (I was right.) I said sure — it’d be fun to take the boys, and maybe a friend or two, not that it had ever occurred to us before to go see a live football game. We’re baseball people (and we barely manage even to see that once a year).

Part 3.

Our friends Michael and Julia are buying a house! I’d previously offered my help moving their belongings when the time came. But when the time did come, it coincided with the Cal Bears game. “I can help later in the day,” I told them apologetically, “but meanwhile, if it helps, we can take your son (Jonah’s friend) to the football game with us so he doesn’t get in the way.” Oh my God, came the reply: their son is already scheduled to go with his aunt to the same game. This, from another family that has exhibited no particular interest in football before now.

Part 4.

Driving home from Point Reyes this afternoon, the song, “Going in the Right Direction” comes up in my thousand-song MP3 shuffle. As usual I idly try to remember the name of that other song that has the same lyric, but this time I draw a blank and then forget all about it. The very next song that plays is a Mel Tormé rendition of “Just In Time.” I am gobsmacked. I explain the coincidence to Andrea. She hears the identical lyrics. Shrugs. I do the verbal equivalent of grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her, but she is unimpressed despite the long odds.

My only explanation is that she has coincidence fatigue from the business with the Cal Bears tickets.

What are the odds?

Our PlayStation 3 is not just a gaming console; it is our entire living room entertainment delivery system. It has replaced our DVD and CD players, and with its front-facing USB port I don’t even need CD’s; I just load up a thumb drive with music, plug it in, and play.

I have a thousand songs on one of those thumb drives, and I always play them in “shuffle” mode. Yet it seems that there is always a lot of overlap between one listening session and another — the same songs that I heard yesterday are in today’s mix. You’d think that with a thousand songs to choose from, it would be a while before I hear the same song twice, unless there’s something not sufficiently random about the PlayStation’s song randomizer.

I was all prepared to fire off an indignant letter to Sony’s customer support department when I decided I first needed to understand exactly how unlikely was the overlap I was encountering.

Figure that a “listening session” includes twenty songs. There are 339,482,811,302,457,603,895,512,614,793,686,020,778,700 (339 duodecillion) different ways to choose twenty songs from a collection of a thousand. This result is given by the combinatorial formula:

n! / k!(n-k)!

where n is the number of items to choose from (1,000, in this case), k is the number of items to choose (20), and “!” is the “factorial” operator that means “multiply the preceding number by every other number between it and 1.” Five factorial, for instance, is written “5!” and is equal to 5×4×3×2×1, which is 120.

The combinatorial formula above is sometimes abbreviated “nCk,” pronounced “n choose k.” The very very big number is the result of calculating 1000 C 20.

So there is a vast number of possible listening sessions. But in how many ways can one listening session overlap with another? Let’s consider a second listening session that doesn’t overlap at all with the first. The way to think about this is that the first listening session “used up” twenty of the available songs, leaving 980 to choose from — specifically, 980 from which to choose 20, or 980 C 20, which is 225,752,650,356,644,030,123,857,337,771,499,346,518,885 (225 duodecillion).

So of the 339 duodecillion ways to choose 20 songs from a thousand, 225 duodecillion, or 66%, do not overlap — but that means that 34% do overlap. There is a one-in-three chance that at least one song in the second session will be the same as one in the first.

This was a stunning result to me. I never expected the odds of an overlap to be so high.

That doesn’t mean that the PlayStation is working correctly, necessarily; it’s my impression that I’m getting multiple-song overlaps, and I’m getting them much more than one-third of the time, so the PlayStation still may not be adequately randomizing its playlist. But this result does send me back to the drawing board to gather objective data about just how much overlap I am getting.

I hate people

Rolling Stone ran a feature on their website recently: “The 25 Funniest Web Videos (No, Really!)” First on their list: “Fat Kid on Rollercoaster,” from Australia’s Funniest Home Videos.

It’s fifty-seven seconds of hell. The camera is tight on two rollercoaster passengers. One is in extreme distress, pleading for help as he suffers unending pain and terror from which he cannot escape. His tormentor sits at his side, cackling with delight. A canned laugh track perfects the horror.

I am not exaggerating. See for yourself, if you can stomach it.

Enough people saw humor in that video that it made the Rolling Stone list and earned a lot of defenders in the online commentary, where a few folks who still have some common decency (“I don’t see what’s so funny”) expressed their dismay at those who found it funny (“Lighten up, it’s a terrified fat kid now being endlessly humiliated, haw!”).

One gets the impression that the common-decency folks are in the minority. Which explains much about the state of the world.

Mind like a steel sieve

This past weekend we took a family roadtrip to L.A. to see my dad and his wife, who were passing through, and to see new (but fully grown) family member Pamela, and to visit Disneyland once again, which we were not originally going to do but which we decided almost at the last minute we couldn’t not do while so close.

Friday night we ate dinner at Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, where actors and actresses who are waiting for their agents to get them better gigs (but are none the less enthusiastic, ’cause you never know who might be watching) perform a musical acrobatic pirate comedy aboard an elaborate pirate-ship stage while you eat your dinner and are occasionally called upon to participate. It’s just a few doors down the road from Medieval Times — same idea, but with knights and horses. Since seeing it depicted in The Cable Guy, I’ve wanted to try a medieval-style dinner, with no utensils for your mutton leg and nothing but mead to drink. I said as much as we sat down to the pirate dinner and Andrea told me, “We did that years ago at the Excalibur in Vegas.”

No way, I said. She described some details from it. You’re making that up, I said. I had absolutely no memory of it. But I knew she was right, because she always is about this sort of thing. Try as I might, though, I could not conjure any genuine memories of that dinner show. I could remember plenty of other details from that Vegas visit and others, but that entire experience, which I fully acknowledge did happen, is a complete blank.

Why? I have no idea. If I did drugs or drank to excess, that might explain it; but as is almost always the case, I was sober as a judge. If I were a seriously sleep-deprived new parent, that might explain it, but this was years before kids. No, I simply don’t remember it. I remember Siegfried and Roy, I remember Penn and Teller, I remember David Cassidy, Lance Burton, Wayne Newton, and two different Cirque du Soleil shows, but for no discernible reason, not that one.

Which raises the question: what other episodes from my life are missing? At least I haven’t ever woken up next to a dead hooker. I think.

I’ll give you a pink pill for that

Briefly noted, since I haven’t managed to do any proper blogging this past week:

  • Roger Moore (who played The Saint on TV in the 1960’s) is behind a new push to revive The Saint yet again. Although he’s in good company (e.g., Barry Levinson), if past performance is any guarantee of future results, the new Saint will be sucktastic, at least compared to the canonical pulp-novella Saint from the 1930’s.
  • Way 11c: on Thursday Ken Jennings lamented the loss of the old meaning of “gay” exactly as I did in 2006 in the above-linked Saint post.
  • Strangeness update: the closer we get to consummating the Microsoft acquisition of Danger, the more I feel like Charles in the classic Ray Bradbury story, “Fever Dream.”
  • They stole my idea: the celebrated guerrilla-performance-art group Improv Everywhere planted sixteen “agents” in the food court of a Los Angeles shopping mall. At a signal, they suddenly staged a musical amid unsuspecting shoppers. Many years ago, in college, I tried to sell my friend Steve on the same idea: I wanted to perform the “Moses Supposes” number from Singin’ in the Rain in the school cafeteria. The main difference between me and Improv Everywhere is that they actually execute their hare-brained schemes…
  • It’s been a good week for darnedest utterances from my kids:
    • Me: It’s a homework night. (for Jonah)
      Jonah: Aww.
      Archer: Yippee!
      Jonah: Wouldn’t you rather play with me, than me doing homework?
      Archer, leaning forward and whispering: Then I can play with your toys.
    • Most mornings, Archer and I drive Jonah to kindergarten, and then I drive Archer to his preschool. We have recently developed a ritual for that second leg: we each chew a piece of gum, spitting it out when we arrive. Here’s how Archer chose to stage that ritual last Wednesday: “You give me the gum and I open it and take one myself, then I close it and give it to you and you take one. I unwrapper [sic] mine and you unwrapper yours and throw your wrapper away in the garbage. When we get to preschool you spit your gum into my wrapper and I spit my gum into my wrapper too. You spit yours first.”
    • Jonah, who’s been learning about Europe in kindergarten, identified Italy (the “boot-shaped country”) on a map. Trying to recall the name of the island off the tip of the “boot” — Sicily — he ventured, “Shitaly?”

The I Can Do It better blog-a-thon, day 4

I’m sorry to report that for the final day of this blog-a-thon we have fewer contributions than yesterday, meaning you’ll have to content yourselves with my own entry.

2005 saw the release of two star-studded big-budget action films that were unrelated other than that they both told the story of how a troubled young man, trained in combat and philosophy in part by Liam Neeson, grows into a fearsome alter ego who wears a black helmet, black armor, and a black cape. One of them sucked, and the other, Batman Begins, kicked ass.

That’s not to say it couldn’t have been improved in a couple of small ways. When Bruce Wayne is doing his carefree playboy act and the maître d’ complains to him that the pool in which his gorgeous model dates are splashing “is for decoration,” I really wanted him to confide to the maître d’, “So are the women” (instead of his lame quip, “Well, they’re European”). Although come to think of it, “So are the women” could be taken to mean, “I am gay.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but while Batman Begins offered a fresh perspective on many aspects of the Batman mythos, ambiguity about his sexual identity would have been taking things a little farther than I suspect audiences were prepared to go.

Next: there is a point in the film when Jim Gordon arrives at Arkham Asylum, where Batman is busy rescuing Rachel from The Scarecrow. Gordon sees a bunch of cops standing around outside and asks the chief, “What are you waiting for?” The chief responds, “Backup.” Impatient to act, Gordon runs in anyway. A short time later, Gordon is with Batman when he hears the sound of a zillion bats approaching. He asks, “What’s that?” and Batman says, “Backup.”

Here’s the improvement: instead of “What’s that?” Gordon again says, “What are you waiting for?” to Batman (as Batman pauses for a beat after he’s given Gordon some marching orders for helping Rachel), and Batman answers, “Backup,” exactly as in the earlier exchange, and Gordon again does not wait for the backup to arrive before leaping into action.

But as I wrote to my sister a few months after seeing Batman Begins, the best improvement of all “would have been a scene with Batman rescuing Katie Holmes in real life.”


  TOM CRUISE and a spaced-out looking
  KATIE HOLMES are involved in heavy
  petting on the sofa in the penthouse
  suite.  Things progress until Katie,
  under Tom's Svengali gaze, obediently
  wriggles out of her panties.

          Tonight is the night.  You
          will conceive my child.

  Crash!  The door splinters from its
  frame under the weight of BATMAN's
  boot.  With a deft leap he swooshes
  his cape between the two lovers.  Tom
  falls backward off the couch, naked,
  in surprise.  Katie appears to snap
  out of a trance.


          This time you've gone too far,

             (dawning horror)
          You're "The Cruiser"?

  Tom seems about to answer, then
  launches himself feet-first into
  Batman's chest, toppling both men to
  the ground.  Tom rolls deftly across
  the room before Batman can recover.
  He grabs an item from a dresser drawer
  and whirls around with it.  A gun?  A
  knife?  No: it's the terrifying mask
  of The Cruiser, vicious arch-nemesis
  of Gotham's law-abiding citizens.

          Katie, get out of here!

             (donning mask)
          Katie, stay!

  Katie's paralyzed.  The Cruiser comes
  at Batman again, still naked but for
  his mask.  Batman defends himself but
  can't land a blow on his amazingly
  nimble enemy.  Batman manages to shove
  him across the room long enough to
  dash back to the sofa and shake Katie
  out of her paralysis.


  The Cruiser regains his feet and
  punches a hidden button.  An entire
  wall of the room rotates aside,
  revealing The Cruiser's secret
  laboratory -- and A DOZEN BURLY

          Cruiser Crew -- attack!

  Batman now has a full-fledged melee on
  his hands.  Far from fleeing, it's the
  best Katie can do to protect herself
  from the fists and bodies flying
  around the room.  In the confusion,
  The Cruiser grabs her arm and pulls
  her roughly into a concealed escape
  chute.  Katie fights back but is no
  match for the highly trained

          Stop it!  Stop it!


  Katie and The Cruiser, both still
  naked except for The Cruiser's mask,
  slide in tandem down a spiral chute
  leading from the top of the hotel down
  to the street.  The Cruiser presses a
  switch hidden in his mask,
  illuminating a strange glow in the
  mask's eyes.  He turns his masked gaze
  on Katie.  She immediately returns to
  her earlier trance state.

          You will conceive my
          child.  Now!

  Hypnotized, Katie swings a leg over
  The Cruiser's torso even as they
  spiral downward together.

  Unseen by either one, Batman drops
  through the center of the spiral on
  the end of a Batrope.  He tosses a
  Bat-grenade onto the chute,
  obliterating a long section of it.  At
  the sound of the explosion, The
  Cruiser looks away from Katie and sees
  the smoking gap, which they are fast
  approaching.  He abandons his efforts
  to penetrate her.

          Oh no.

  There is no way to stop, but that
  doesn't stop The Cruiser from clawing
  frantically at the smooth slide.

          No!  No!  Xenu!

  Batman dangles at the end of the
  Batrope just beneath the gap.  As The
  Cruiser and Katie sail into space, he
  deftly plucks Katie from the air and
  allows The Cruiser to fall.


  As he disappears into the darkness
  below, only the mask's strange glow
  remains.  Then a crash and
  silence... and the glow is gone.




          But how did you know that Tom
          Cruise was really The Cruiser?

          There were little hints
          everywhere -- the too-perfect,
          vaguely artificial good looks;
          the disproportionate power
          over women; the gay rumors
          designed to conceal the true
          nature of Tom's contacts with
          porn star Kyle Bradford, who's
          really a genius chemist in the
          criminal underworld.  And I
          knew that the chemicals that
          gave The Cruiser his powers
          would slowly destabilize his
          mind, just as we've all seen.

          What's going to happen to
          Katie Holmes now?

          She's been through a lot, and
          her rehabilitation is going to
          take some time.  Luckily I
          reached her before it was too
          late.  The police now have
          Bradford in custody and he's
          cooperating with Bale
          Enterprises to manufacture an
          antidote.  Plus Katie's
          strong, and she's in the care
          of the finest minds at the
          Bale Institute of Mental
          Health.  I think we'll be able
          to welcome Katie back to your
          show in no time. 

I know, picking on Tom Cruise these days is too easy and not entirely sporting, especially since Jonathan Coulton has done it better. Plus this is a bit more perverse than my usual imaginings. But what can I say? I just couldn’t keep this attempt at symbolism to myself:

Hypnotized, Katie swings a leg over The Cruiser’s torso even as they spiral downward together.