Saturday, July 26, 2008

You can have my recipe for genius, but I will never give up my recipe for my awesome homemade pizza. Never, I tell you! NEVER!!!!!!

Thomas Edison, I think, said that genius is 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration. Or he said it was exactly the opposite, maybe, that it was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Or maybe it was Thomas Jefferson that said it.

Either way, he was wrong, or both of them were wrong. Genius is 99% inspiration, and 1% perspiration, and roughly 20% lack of sleep, and then another 17% or so wet Babies!, and also genius is a willingness to simply ignore math rules like "there's only 100% of something."

I know what genius is, because I am one, and I know the prescription for genius because I realized that I had all those ingredients when I yet again this week proved to myself that I am a genius by solving The Monty Hall problem while also giving the boys a bath. Now, that is multitasking.

If you are not some sort of uber-nerd, you don't know what the "Monty Hall" problem is, so I'll take a moment to explain. Monty Hall was a game-show host in the 70s, when everything was funny to Will Ferrell and game shows required even less intelligence than they do now. I never watched Monty Hall's show, "Let's Make a Deal," but I've come to gather that it involved making deals and opening doors. Apparently, at the end, Monty would give a contestant a choice between three doors; behind one was a great prize and behind the other two were... I don't know. Junk, or the board game home version of "Let's Make a Deal" or old copies of "Field & Stream" magazine.

The person would pick a door of the three; Monty would then open one of the two non-chosen doors, showing that it was not a winner, and then offer the contestant a chance to switch doors.

And that's where "The Monty Hall Problem" comes in, because a lot of people who think they are smart and who, in reality, are not smart, have weighed in on the Monty Hall problem and all of those people who think they are smart but who, in reality, are not smart, say the same thing:

Switch doors.

They universally tell you to switch doors. Some woman named "Marilyn Vos Savant," who manages to sound smarmy in writing says to switch doors. "The Straight Dope" says to switch doors. Even math professors tell you you have to switch doors. Switch doors, they all but scream, because statistically and mathematically speaking you'll win.

Here's why they tell you to switch doors: You have three doors at the start, they say, so your odds of winning are 1-in-3. You choose, say, door 1. Monty opens door 2, and asks if you want to switch.

Now, all those people who think they are smart, but who in reality are not smart, betray their Achilles' heel (i.e., not-smartness) and yell: Switch because now your odds are 1 in 2! Switch you fool, because my name is "vos Savant" which almost seems to mean "smart."

That is, they say that when Monty opens door two, he makes the odds of winning 1-in-2, when before they were 1-in-3, so they say you'd be a sucker to not switch because your odds are so much better now than they were a second before.

Well, those people are morons who could not think their way out of a pile of wet noodles, and they demonstrate, with that advice, the difference between "book learning" and "genius." I have both and I have solved the problem, and I did it through a combination of sloganeering and making my subconscious mind do most of the work.

I'm a big believer in subcontracting my thinking out. Why should my conscious mind do all the work when my subconscious sits around being 95% of my brain and never being used? I've heard all my life that if we could fully use our brains, we could levitate and see the future and stuff. If my subconscious mind is going to sit around knowing how to levitate, so that I could float up to the ceiling and sit there in the dark and then when The Boy came in, I could yell and totally scare him, if it's going to have that kind of information and not share it with my conscious mind, well, then, I'm going to put it to work and let my conscious mind keep coming up with interesting dinner conversation like "Who do you think would be a more terrible mother, Paris Hilton or Amy Winehouse?"

That's what I did this week: pose that question to Sweetie, and operate on autopilot with my subconscious running things. I had to put my subconscious in charge because I haven't really slept in four days.

Tuesday, I was woken up at 1 and 3 and 5 by Mr F, who has re-adopted "Monster Voice." He's almost two years old, and has not really shown any interest yet in (a) sleeping through the night or (b) talking using words. Instead, he uses what we call "Monster Voice," which is a loud, roaring type of scream to indicate that he's hungry, or full, or happy, or mad, or wants you to leave him alone, or wants you to pay attention to him, or that he exists. (He's combined "Monster Voice" with "No Bones," the result being that in public sometimes, he will let out a hideous roar as he collapses into a puddle and people will either flee or give us the kind of looks intended to convey a serious disapproval of my parenting techniques. It doesn't help that I deal with the situation by calmly saying "Have bones, please" while trying to ignore people. When that doesn't work, I simply get over it by noting that their kids are almost always ugly whereas mine are perfect.)

So I was tired going into Wednesday night, when Sweetie got a kidney stone in the middle of the night and we spent from 2:30 to 5:30 in the hospital, where I alternated between reading Newsweek, shivering in the air conditioning, and damning my soul to eternal torment by secretly resenting the people being brought in by ambulance.

Sweetie mostly gets kidney stones at night. Sweetie mostly gets everything at night; if there is a condition somewhere in her or elsewhere that will require my attention, Sweetie notices it at 1 of 2 times: the middle of the night, or 8:15 a.m. when I've just arrived at work. I'm routinely awakened by comments like "I have a kidney stone" or "I can't breathe" or "I think the basement is flooding," and while I get up and deal with them because I'm a good husband, I also have to wonder why it is that medical emergencies can't happen at about 6:15, just after we've finished dinner, so that we could take her to the hospital and be home in time for me to watch my TV shows and get a good night's sleep?

Sweetie gets me back for my attitude, though, because in addition to after-midnight-medical emergencies, she also can spot spiders, but only in the dark and only when I'm half asleep. She knows that I can't stand spiders and that I have a long-running nightmare in which spiders drop into my mouth while I sleep, and I, for the sake of our marriage, assume that she is not taking unfair advantage of that when I am laying down in bed and nearly asleep, and out of the blue, in pitch black, Sweetie will say, all innocence, "Is that a spider?" and then I have to get up and track it down and then go get something to kill it; and I can't just get, say, toilet paper, because those don't do the job. Try to kill a spider with toilet paper, and it just laughs and drops into your face and then lays eggs in your eye. Instead, I have to find a heavy magazine or book or hammer. I tell Sweetie "Keep your eye on it and I'll get something to kill it with." Then I go down to the garage and because we don't have a power sander, I bring back a giant high-top sneaker and say "Where'd it go?" and Sweetie says "I don't know, I lost it," and then goes back to watching Law & Order reruns while I try to watch everywhere at once and not sleep.

The alternative, though, is the 8:15 a.m. call, when she calls me at the office and announces that there is mold in the basement, or that one of the cats is sick, or that the garage door is not working, or that they've parked the car in the street and now can't get the key to turn in the ignition. After that type of call, I'm more or less useless. If it's not an absolute emergency requiring me to leave, I'll stay in the office and think I'm going to get work done, but I don't. Instead, I spend the day googling things like inexpensive cures for cats or trying to price new carpet for the basement.

By Thursday night, then, I was exhausted, and Sweetie was still recuperating from the kidney stone, so I was in charge of the babies and dinner and everything else, and things were really not working all that well. Mr F and Mr Bunches knew something was up because I was in charge, so they were randomly destroying things, and The Boy, in cleaning up after dinner, appeared to be making more of a mess than had previously existed. I don't like to watch The Boy clean up; it's like watching sausage be made -- better if you don't know the process. Sometimes I walk into the kitchen where he's supposed to be cleaning, and there's things on the floor and garbage disposal is running and plates and pans and rags are stacked all over - -while he's over at the computer trying to create a good playlist of songs to clean to. I think, at times, that he makes it messier than it was as a challenge; or, maybe, that by making the kitchen even more messy, he will get credit for doing a less-than-stellar job. If he starts with a slightly-messy kitchen and it finishes slightly-messy, he has to redo it. But start with a kitchen that looks like a frat has been renting out the premises while their own is fumigated, and finish up with a slightly-messy kitchen, and he should pass, right? That's his plan, I suspect.

The end result of that all was that I was upstairs supervising Mr F and Mr Bunches in their bath, and that, too, was exhausting. They have a kiddie pool in our backyard, and we run the sprinkler for them near their pool, and they love that. Love it so much that they think the bathtub, too, is like a kiddie pool, and so they insist on trying to climb in and out of it and turning the water on and splashing it, and standing up and trying to slide down the slightly-sloped edge of the tub, and they throw their toys and washcloths. I spend their entire bath trying to sit them down, and putting things back into the tub, and getting splashed, and trying to turn the water back off without their noticing it, and yelling over the noise various Dad-ly orders like "Butts on the bottom!," which is my way of saying sit down; they respond to that by throwing squirting Cookie Monster toys at me, which is their way of saying You don't seriously think you're in control of us, do you?

It was as I watched the water pool on the floor and wondered just how long it would be before the floor rots out and we all go crashing down onto the lower level, landing not far from where The Boy would be sitting creating an even-better cleaning playlist of songs, that this thought flashed to me:

It's like the Magician's choice and 'final answer,' combined.

That would not mean much to you yet, but it meant a lot to me, because I had solved "The Monty Hall Problem" all out of the blue. "Butts on the bottom!" I said again, getting a toy thrown at me and a dose of Monster Voice, but I had already worked it all out and knew, then, that even if the bathtub did crash through the floor, even if The Boy never finished that playlist or his kitchen chores, I was smarter than all those other would-be smart people combined.

They're wrong. You don't switch; switching has absolutely no effect on the outcome whatsoever and does not change your odds at all, and they're all dumb because of this:

Your odds do not improve from 1-in-3 to 1-in-2; they were ALWAYS 1-in-2.

That is what I realized through a combination of having read silly fantasy books and watching TV and being, generally, smarter than your average bear.

It's from Robert Lynn Asprin's "Myth" books -- silly (but good) books about a magician named "Skeeve" who has various adventures -- that I learned about "magician's choice." "Magician's choice" is making the onlooker choose something without telling them why they're choosing -- giving them the illusion that they're making a choice and controlling the outcome when they are not at all doing that. Suppose I hold up my hands in fists. In the left is a $10 bill, and in the right is nothing. I tell you that I've got a $10 bill in one hand and say "Choose one." You say "Right," and I say "Okay, that's yours. You get nothing, I keep the $10." Now, suppose instead that you say "Left." All I do is say "Okay, that's the one I keep. The right is yours." You still get nothing, and because I run the game, you were always going to get nothing. I made it look like you were getting a choice but you had no choice. The game is rigged.

That's the first thing that helped me crack "The Monty Hall Problem" and be smarter than everyone everywhere. The second was "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," which I used to love before it broke my heart. Remember how, when people played, they'd say "A" and Regis would say "Final answer?" and they'd have to say "Final answer" or they could switch? That's pretty important here. Watching TV in general is pretty important, but it's extra-important that the TV you watch be "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" if you want to be considered a genius.

I put those two together, and realized that contestants only have the illusion of a 1-in-3 choice at the outset; their choice always 1-in-2 because Monty removes the third choice before you're done.

A contestant looking at Doors 1, 2 and 3 thinks he has three choices. But he has only because Monty is going to remove one of those choices. So while a contestant think he's choosing between three doors, he's only choosing between two doors -- and that's proven because when he's given a chance to switch, when he has to give his final answer, his choice is between two doors, not three.

A contestant, when looked at this way, makes a preliminary choice -- Door 1, say. Monty then removes Door 2 from the equation, and asks the contestant if he wants to switch. At this point, all the "smart" people (who are about as smart as "scientists") think you should switch, because, they say, your odds have gone up. Your odds on the first "choice," they say, were 1-in-3; they're now "1-in-2" so you should switch. But they've missed three important things:

First, if your odds are 1-in-2 now, then either door 1 or door 3 has an equal chance of being right; so to say "switch" is dumb; each has a coin-toss probability of winning. You're just as likely to win if you stick with Door 1 as if you switch to Door 3.

But second, and more importantly, your odds haven't gone up at all; they were always one in two because Monty was going to get rid of that third door all along; you never had a chance to pick it.

Picture this: I offer to give you $10 if you pick a coin toss correctly. You can have "Heads," or "Tails," or "Both." You're no dummy; you know it can't be both, so you say "Heads." I then say "All right, I'll tell you what. You can't pick "Both." Do you want to switch?" Only an idiot -- or all those smart people -- would say "Switch!" The rest of us, including geniuses like me, recognize that both heads and tails were equally likely all along, and "Both" had no chance of winning. The door that Monty opens is "Both." It's the door that never had a chance of winning because Monty was always going to take it away. So you always had only 1-in-2 odds.

But, those would-be smarties say, I didn't know that when I first chose, so I had only a 1-in-3 chance at the outset. Well that's... wrong. Because you did not make a choice until after Monty opened Door 2. You told Monty you wanted Door 1 -- but you weren't locked into that yet; it wasn't your final answer.

So, in "The Monty Hall Problem," your odds of winning are always 1 in 2 from the start. The third door is there to distract you and make you do dumb things like change doors or listen to Marilyn vos Savant and give you the illusion that you are choosing more than you really are; you're making one choice between two doors.

And that, my readers and friends, is absolute proof that reading silly fantasy books and giving your Babies! baths is better for you than joining Mensa, and I am the smartest person in the world. And now I'm going to take a nap.

If you liked this, you may also want to read about my recent trip to Orlando -- where I learned that my brother takes hurricanes and sharks for granted, and also how long a McGriddle stays fresh in a backpack.

Monday, July 21, 2008

One Down, 7,904 to go.

Who Needs You, by Queen...

My older brother had this album on vinyl. I don't remember ever hearing this song before it came up on my drive into work today. What I do remember is that I had a large collection of cassette tapes, and shared a room with that older brother. One day, I came home to find that he'd thrown out all of the little album-cover inserts from the cassettes, leaving maybe 40 cassettes on the shelf, all identical and with no way to tell which was which unless you pulled it out and looked at the cassette itself.

He said he did it because it "looked neater that way."

Down... To Go... is a new feature to kill time between longer entries. I have 7,904 songs on my iPod and will eventually count them all down here.