John Allen Paulos: Who’s Counting?

A reader noticed that Once Upon a Number: The Hidden Mathematical Logic of Stories is currently in the pile of to-be-read-books and kindly sent the link to John Allen Paulos’ Who’s Counting column at abcnews.com. Thanks, Dan!

There’s lots of good stuff in the archives. For example, concerning hidden codes in text:

If, to use an example I’ve written about elsewhere, you were to look for prophetic evidence of the Clinton sex scandals in the Constitution, you could look for ELSes that begin anywhere within the document, that have any number of skips between letters of the ELSes, that involve any words spelled backward, diagonally, or any which way. With so much leeway, it would not be too unlikely if you found some ELSes that spell out, say, M-O-N-I-C-A or P-A-U-L-A or G-E-N-N-I-F-E-R or K-A-T-H-L-E-E-N, or something similar–seemingly remarkable, yet utterly insignificant.

The moral of the story: if you look long enough and hard enough, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for. Moreover, if you don’t set up strict rules beforehand for searching the data, and if you throw away all of the boring nonresults, then the interesting sequences that pop up by chance do not mean what they seem to.

Kinda takes the fun out of Pi and The Da Vinci Code, though.

That Ain’t Fare

I got into a cab on Saturday night and was greeted by really loud Middle Eastern-style music. It sounded not quite right, and after a few minutes I figured out why. The music wasn’t coming from the cab’s stereo–it was coming from the two-way radio. Once the music ended, the airwaves filled with disgruntled chatter from cabbies all over the city.

Here’s the scoop, as relayed by my driver. Whenever a cabbie uses his radio to broadcast, a log is generated on the computer at the dispatch office. This log contains the vehicle number assigned to the transmitting radio, thereby linking every broadcast to a specific driver. But someone has managed to fix up a radio and prevent it from sending a vehicle number, and this miscreant has been torturing the Liberty Cab community ever since. The anonymous DJ has been playing hip-hop, Arabic, Chinese, and all other kinds of music–for intervals of up to ten or fifteen minutes–for the past several months. My first reaction was to admire the quirky way that a bored cab driver amuses himself. However, it turns out that the bonus songs are not so innocuous.

While a message is being broadcast on the cab radio, the system is essentially locked and no one else can transmit–including the dispatcher. So while our mystery man is spinning the hits, none of the other cabbies can get jobs, and people who have called for a cab are left to wait. So what motivates this guy? Is he a disgruntled employee? Is he deliberately trying to deprive his fellow drivers of fares? Does he broadcast when he has a customer?  So many questions….

If you’re ever in Philly and need a ride, grab a Liberty cab and ask the driver for an update. I’ll be curious to know how it all turns out.

The Yes Men

Yesterday’s Marketplace had an interview with Andy and Mike, a couple of activists who fight “evil doers”:

In 1999, just before the big protests in Seattle, Mike and Andy set up a parody of the WTO website at the domain GATT.org. Some people mistook it for the real thing and wrote in with questions about all sorts of trade matters. Finally, Mike and Andy found themselves invited to conferences to speak as the organization they opposed. They scrounged up their savings, bought plane tickets, and went.

At these conferences, Mike and Andy put forth some outrageous proposals, such as recycling hamburgers in the third-world , encouraging democracies to adopt a free market model by selling votes, and introducing an “employee visualization appendage” (represented by a “three-foot-long-golden phallus”). But the real story is the reaction they got. For example, after the phallus presentation:

the audience rewards Andy with a healthy round of applause, but no questions. A reporter takes photos. As they wander around all that day, Mike and Andy come up again and again against a blank wall, until finally they find one woman who admits being terribly offended by Andy’s Appendage–because women can be factory managers too.

There’s a movie about all of this–it’s called The Yes Men, and it’s showing at the Sundance Film Festival. This could be a great documentary, even though it has a lot of potential to be unbalanced and preachy (Bowling for Columbine, anyone?). I hope the film emphasizes the satire and irony of Mike and Andy’s hijinks and allows audiences to draw their own conclusions.

Megalomaniac Managers

It’s all well and good that Professor Robert Hare and Dr. Paul Babiak have developed a test to detect corporate psychos. The article intriguingly states that “millions of harassed workers could have their worst fears confirmed about their bosses.” Right.

Hello, boss-across-the-hall. Would you mind filling out this 107-point questionnaire? Have it on my desk by the end of the day. Thanks.

Boss-across-the-hall update

He just sent a private, ranting e-mail to the entire membership of a listserve. Heh.

Boss-across-the-hall-update

He sent this e-mail to some people on the team. The timing is suspicious, as it was announced recently that managers are now subject to 360 degree reviews.

Today is the International Day of The Very Good Looking, Beautiful and Very Attractive, Intelligent People, so send this message to someone you think fits this description.