Wicker King (jtoomey) wrote,
Wicker King
jtoomey

  • Music:

The Plural of Catharsis is Catharses.

I like Warren Zevon's music, but in a different way than I like Lyle Lovett's, but that's not where this post begins.

It begins with a dead dog.



Last night, when I got home from work, Christine told me that I should read the book that she had just finished reading, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon.  After she went to bed, I did just that.  I read the beginning, anyway, perhaps the first seventy pages or so.

It became quite clear quite quickly that this was a different book: the first chapter was chapter two.  This bothered me, but I flipped forward a bit, and discovered that there was no chapter four either, and I was okay again.

The main character and narrator of the book is an autistic boy.  He likes prime numbers, and he knows all of the prime numbers up to 7057 by heart.  That's why he numbers the chapters in his book 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.

I also like prime numbers.  I didn't have to look up 7057 just now, as I remembered that it was the highest prime he knew.  I remember thinking: it's odd, it doesn't end in five, and its digits don't recursively sum to a multiple of three -- I'll buy that it's prime, at least at first blush.  I didn't really feel like trying division by each of the primes less than ninety (a quick overapproximation of the square root), so I took the author's word.

Now, I'm not saying that I'm autistic too -- I don't know all of the primes between 2 and 7057, for example.  I don't have a problem with metaphors.  I can tell the occasional lie without feeling like the world is falling apart around me.  I'm passable at assessing folks' moods from their expressions.  There are, though, quite a few similarities between myself and Christopher, the book's lead, and I don't think I'm alone in this.  What I find interesting are the ways in which I am almost the same.

The book tells the story of the Monty Hall problem, a staple of the mathematics of probability, which can be retold thusly:
    You are on a game show in which you are proferred one of three doors.  The doors are closed, and you cannot tell what is behind each one.  You do know, however, that one door conceals a fat stack of cash, and that the other two conceal absolutely nothing.  Zilch.  Zero.

    The game always proceeds in the same way -- ALWAYS.  You pick a door, then the host selects one of the two remaining doors, and opens it, to reveal... nothing.  (For the slower pokes in the audience, this means that either you selected the cash in the first place, or that the cash is behind the remaining door.)  He then offers you an opportunity to trade what's behind your door for what's behind the last, unselected door.  What do you do?  Keep your door?  Switch?  Does it matter?
This is a famous problem specifically because the correct answer strikes many people as thoroughly counter-intuitive: you should switch doors.  By switching, you double your chances of winning the fat stack.

Some years ago, a columnist who grandiosely claimed to have the world's highest IQ tackled this problem in her column.  Almost.

See, her answer was the same as mine: switch.  The problem was that the question she was answering was not the same.  The writer posed the question in a slight variation:
    You are on a game show in which you are proferred one of three doors.  The doors are closed, and you cannot tell what is behind each one.  You do know, however, that one door conceals a fat stack of cash, and that the other two conceal absolutely nothing.  Zilch.  Zero.

    You pick a door, then the host selects one of the two remaining doors, and opens it, to reveal... nothing.  (For the slower pokes in the audience, this means that either you selected the cash in the first place, or that the cash is behind the remaining door.)  He then offers you an opportunity to trade what's behind your door for what's behind the last, unselected door.  What do you do?  Keep your door?  Switch?  Does it matter?
(I'm paraphrasing -- this is not the actual text.)  Perhaps you caught the difference: the host is not following a set script.  You don't know his motivations.  Perhaps he only opens a door when the door you've selected contains the cash!  If this were true, then your odds of winning the cash if you swapped doors would be zero!  Zilch!  Nada!

The columnist, Marilyn vos Savant, either did not notice the slight rewording, or did not realize that it made a difference in the result, and claimed that you should always switch, as it doubles your probability of winning.

She got a lot of letters, claiming that she didn't know what she was talking about.  Some of them came from math professors.  Sadly, in most cases it's impossible to tell just what they were claiming she did wrong: were they falling for the classic, intuitive reading of the puzzle, thinking that there was no difference in switching or sticking, or were they picking up on the rewording?

Mark Haddon writes about this problem, and vos Savant's solution, in the book, but he takes the line that vos Savant was absolutely correct.  Well, Christopher takes that line, anyway.

Here's where we diverge a bit, Christopher and I.

As far as I can see, though Christopher is a bit of a mathemagician, he would make this oversight, as he is a firm believer in staticity (if you'll allow the wording).  When he reads, "You pick a door, then the host selects one of the two remaining doors, and opens it, to reveal... nothing," he reads it as a static description, that this is how things always happen.  Things are always the same.

This makes vos Savant's answer correct.

I see things as inherently unstable, and I, therefore, pick up on the ambiguity immediately.

That makes me happy, because there are a lot of days in which I'd like, like Christopher, to put my head in the cold, damp grass and groan rather than deal with the world around me.  Society.

People.

In any case, Christopher is writing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time because he has to, for school.  He doesn't like fiction, so he writes about his life.  Christopher treats his writing like a ledger, in which facts are entered, compared, weighed, and evaluated, and that made me wonder how I treat my writing.

I think Warren Zevon (see, I told you we'd get to him) treated his songs like catharses.  I think he was proud of them when he was done writing them, but he never felt any sense of attachment or love for them.  I think he treated music like a toolbox that he could use to shape his words and feelings.  He respected it, felt comfortable with it, and wielded it masterfully.

I think Paul Simon is more interested in music in the abstract than in the concrete products of his creative process.  I think he is proud of his work, but only to the extent that a illustrator would be proud of a diagram that makes clear something that is difficult to describe in words.  His songs are illustrations of possibilities, not meant as endpoints, but as waypoints.

I think Lyle Lovett sees his works as children.  He seems to tread the musical landscape with trepidation, agonizing over arrangements and melodies, but, in the end, loving the results.

I think Tori Amos sees her songs as her literal children, and that kinda freaks me out.

How do I see my work?

I think I see my writing as a paint-by-numbers.  I can quickly write something which gets my point across, but, even after I spend hours upon hours filling in the colors, I'm never truly satisfied with the result.  I end up feeling like true expression was just one more color away, no matter how many shades I applied.  I think this is why I don't write as often as I should -- there's never a resolution.  There's always one more tonic to resolve, to bring back the musical metaphor.

Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be better to be like Christopher, and to firmly believe that there is only one right answer to each problem.  Then, once the colors were applied, the painting would be complete.



I don't know why the dog is dead yet.  Sorry.  I hope I didn't lead anyone on, there.
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