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March 31st, 2011 (Permalink)


Trees can break wind

Source: Jay Leno, compiler, Headlines, (1989), p. 38

March 26th, 2011 (Permalink)

Blurb Watch: Mildred Pierce

Do you want to know whether to watch HBO's new five-night miniseries Mildred Pierce? Perhaps a blurb from an ad might help:

Blurb Context
"SPECTACULAR…KATE WINSLET AND EVAN RACHEL WOOD BURN UP THE SCREEN…YOU WON'T WANT TO MISS IT"―Newsweek Kate Winslet and Evan Rachel Wood burn up the screen in the spectacular HBO miniseries 'Mildred Pierce.'
If you're into Bright & Sunny, I suggest five evenings of Frasier reruns. Or you could put The Bells of St. Mary's in your Netflix queue. If, however, darkly compelling drama about people who aren't particularly likable…is your cup of bitter tea, you won't want to miss it.
Source: Ad for Mildred Pierce, The New York Times, 3/25/2011, p. C22 Source: Stephen King, "Mommie Dearest and Her Devil Daughter", Newsweek, 3/20/2011

This blurb comes from a review of the miniseries by Stephen King―yes, that Stephen King―but only the last five words are actually his. The first part comes from the subtitle of the review, which was presumably supplied by an editor rather than King. I suppose that this is why the blurb is credited only to the magazine. Moreover, the subtitle somewhat misrepresents King's review, which is rather ambivalent about the show. Like a lot of other reviewers, King thought the performances were excellent but had reservations about other aspects of the miniseries.

Also, as you can see from the quote in context, King's five words are the consequent of a conditional statement, its antecedent having disappeared into those three little dots. That antecedent is a proviso that some potential viewers―Frasier fans, for instance―might want to know about.

Finally, here's an official Fallacy Files unBlurb―that is, a "blurb" taken from the same review that you won't be seeing in ads for the miniseries, but which supplies some needed balance:

"…[T]he viewer…is apt to greet the credit roll at the end of part five with a sigh of relief. Don't get me wrong: this is compelling viewing, but when Mildred's tale finally wound up, I felt a little as I did when, as a child, I finally figured out how to get a Chinese finger-puller off my thumbs. … In words of one syllable? It's too damn long."―Stephen King, Newsweek

March 18th, 2011 (Permalink)

New Book: Great Books, Bad Arguments: Republic, Leviathan, The Communist Manifesto

It's no news that many great books contain many bad arguments, even fallacious ones. W. G. Runciman's new book sets out to dissect some of those bad arguments in three classics: Plato's Republic, Hobbes' Leviathan, and Marx and Engels' The Communist Manifesto.

Resource: "Great Books, Bad Arguments", Princeton University Press. Princeton U. Press' page for the book, from which you can read the first chapter as a PDF.

March 6th, 2011 (Permalink)

Go Figure!

Grab a used cocktail napkin or the back of an old envelope because John Allen Paulos' latest Who's Counting column tests your ability to evaluate the plausibility of numbers in the news:

…[I]t never ceases to strike me how much public misunderstanding of issues derives from not paying any attention to numerical magnitudes in news stories. For too many people, numbers are there to provide decoration, not information.

Of course, this is because billions and billions of people are intimidated by numbers, especially big ones, and by math, even the most simple. Moreover, we don't have a good sense of the comparative sizes of large numbers due to a lack of personal experience with them. Beyond about a thousand we're lost. As a result, any number ending in "illion" might as well be replaced by "a really big number", or "lots and lots".

This is a good reason to be worried about the size of the deficit and public debt. Few people seem to appreciate the difference between, say, a deficit of a billion dollars as opposed to one of a trillion dollars―of course, the latter is a thousand times greater than the former.

To continue the kind of exercise that Paulos started, here's another: Using only the information in Paulos' column, how can a simple calculation put the record deficit into perspective? Try it out before checking the back of the envelope.

See the Back of the Envelope

Source: John Allen Paulos, "Numbers in the News: End Foreign Aid, Save Economy? It Doesn't Add Up", Who's Counting, 3/6/2011

March 5th, 2011 (Permalink)

The Second Puzzle of the Absent-Minded Professors

At a second conference, the same four professors (see the Resource, below) again got their hats mixed up, though luckily this time each managed to find his own coat. Fearing a repeat of the previous conference, the gang of four asked another professor attending the conference who happened to be sitting next to the hatrack to keep an eye on the hats. After the conference ended, each of the professors realized that they had walked off with the hat of one of the other four. The professor who was watching the hats testified as follows:

Professor Church took the hat of the professor who took the hat of the professor―who wasn't Professor Belknap―who took Professor Anderson's hat. The professor whose hat Davidson took did not take Davidson's hat.

Based on this testimony, can you figure out whose hat each professor took?


Resource: The Puzzle of the Absent-Minded Professors, 2/4/2011

The Back of the Envelope: We learn in Paulos' column that the recent record-setting deficit is one-and-a-half trillion dollars. One way of getting a handle on this is to calculate your share. Given that the U.S. population is about 300 million―also mentioned in the column, in case you didn't already know―that's $5,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. Since children don't usually pay taxes, an even better way of appreciating the size of the deficit is to calculate it as an amount per household. Assuming 100 million households in the country, as Paulos does in discussing his second headline, the deficit is $15,000 per household. That's how much the federal government added to its debt.

Solution to the Second Puzzle of the Absent-Minded Professors: To solve this puzzle, it helps to break up the witness testimony into separate clues. Let's abbreviate the four professors' names as "A", "B", "C", and "D", and indicate the unnamed professors by the variables "X" through "Z":

  1. C took X's hat.
  2. X took Y's hat.
  3. B did not take A's hat.
  4. Y took A's hat.
  5. D took Z's hat.
  6. Z did not take D's hat.

Now, we know that the four professors didn't take their own hats, so A didn't take A's hat; and we know from clue 3 that B also didn't take it, which means that either C or D took it. So, let's start by assuming that C took A's hat.

Then A took C's hat, from clue 2 and the fact that C=X=Y, by clues 1 & 4. Now, since A and C took each other's hats, it follows that B and D must have taken each other's hats. So, B=Z, by clue 5, and B didn't take D's hat, by clue 6. However, it's impossible that B both did and did not take D's hat. Thus, the assumption that C took A's hat must be wrong. Therefore, D took it.

So, D=Y=Z, from clues 4 & 5. Thus, A didn't take D's hat, from clue 6. Since neither A nor D took D's hat, either B or C must have. However, C could not have taken D's hat, because that would mean that C=X, by clue 2, which would lead to C taking C's own hat, by clue 1, which is ruled out. Thus, B took D's hat. That makes B=X, so that C took B's hat, by clue 1. Therefore, A took C's hat, by a process of elimination. To sum up:

Professor Hat
Anderson Church
Belknap Davidson
Church Belknap
Davidson Anderson

Source: J. A. H. Hunter & Joseph S. Madachy, Mathematical Diversions (1975). The puzzle is based on one from page 122.

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