Saturday, September 09, 2006

Anyone for Tennis?

I just watched the US Open Championship between Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin-Hardenne. Wow.
A close and spectacular competition filled with amazing shots. I mean, wow.

A couple of things, though… Sharapova played through (and won) the game wearing a thin gold chain and pendant around her neck, with a pair of low-hanging earrings to boot. Why in the world would anyone subject herself to that during a championship? I take my watch off for serious air-hockey games just so I won’t have the shift of metal against my epidermal sensory neurons to distract from the feel of the table and of the instrument in my hand. I can only imagine the infuriating distraction of a lobe-dangler bopping my cheek during a dash for the ball or a good swipe with the catgut.

But, of course, the most important thing to discuss about the tennis world is the assortment of commercials. For, while the Super Bowl advert is dead as a source for effective comedic writing, the spirit of brilliant humor thrives on alongside these televised racketeers. Honestly, I enjoyed my viewing all the way around.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Flipping Idiot

It was one of those charming traditions of a bygone era. Whenever my brother and I would disagree on something relatively minor (who got shotgun privileges that day, for example), dad would reach into his pocket and pull out a quarter. Up it would go, then be caught, then be slapped firmly against his arm. Brother was always ‘heads,’ I was always ‘tails.’

Cool, huh? Except that I never won.

Well, during a recent discussion of the Monty Hall Problem, a friend at work said something about “fifty-fifty—like flipping a coin.” I couldn’t resist bringing up a study I ran across many years ago that said pennies, at least, tended toward one side by around a percent. (I have since diligently searched for information on that paper, but have so far been unable to find it again.)

“Have you ever heard of ‘The Pretender’?” I had not.
“Well, he’s a genius who was kidnapped by an evil corporation as a child to solve complex problems. Well, there’s one episode where he reads that if flip a nickel a certain way, it’ll land on ‘heads’ a certain percentage higher than tails, but he’s skeptical. He gets stuck in a motel room for two weeks waiting for someone, so he spends the entire time flipping this nickel and recording every result to find out. And in the end it turns out what he’d read was right. You remind me of him.”

Well, after a story like that, how can I not watch the show. “The Complete First Season” [1996] now sits on my DVD case. It includes, by the way, the coin flipping episode, though ten years caused my friends memory to be a little off on the particulars. That episode (“Curious Jarod,” show no. 4) ignited in me a curiosity over the old quarter-dollar decision-making no-win question. Why did I never win?

So a few days I ago I entered the vacated bedroom on my floor and transformed it into a statistical laboratory.

I modeled the setup on what I could remember of the Lincoln-cent-piece statistics. On the edge of a level, elevated surface the quarters were balanced so that when a force struck the center of the surface the coins would plummet toward the surface below, turning end over end on the way down. I augmented that recollected setup by selecting sixteen quarters of random age and wear (who’s to say both faces erode equally compared to their unsullied state?) and drawing a line dividing each one directly in half with a fine-point Sharpie.

In my thinking, half of the coins should start out their drops heads-up, half heads-down. Of the eight coins drawn for each plane, my dividing line was drawn vertically for two, horizontally for two, diagonally one way for two, and diagonally the other way for two. Each set of two was further divided in that for one an arrow was drawn to the right of the line and for the other, to the left. In this way, starting the coins out all with the arrows pointing outward and then switching to all arrows inward, their combined falls would approximate every possible flipping orientation.

My theory of a predominant side is that for it to come up more often on one face than the other, the coin itself must slow in its rotation when one side is facing more generally and the other side is facing more generally down, and that the rotation would then accelerate as those faces reverse attitudes. In this hypothetical case, one side will stare upward more often than the other, and thus land that side up more often as well.

And so I began testing and retesting my array of sixteen quarter-dollar pieces. (The fact that I did this mostly during the course of a single night, with barrages of metallic change repeatedly striking the platform below them, was greatly the chagrin of the neighbors down the hall.)

The results after a total of 768 (I had hoped to go at least to 1000, but time ran out due to my painstakingly precise process for setting up each drop) individual landings? Three hundred and sixty-five heads, four hundred and three tails! That’s 47.5 versus 52.5 percent!!! And if that favors ‘tails,’ ‘heads’ will be the more likely result of the old catch-and-invert-on-one’s-forearm routine.

Of course, with only sixteen actual individual coins used, the test is probably open to error…

Another good probability question is this: Since 1965, quarters have officially had a constitution of slightly under ninety-two percent copper, clad on each side with nickel, which makes up the remaining eight-and-a-third percent by weight. But in each real-world example, the copper sits more on one side of the coin than the other. By the table I’m looking at, Cu is 1.0036 times as dense as Ni. By how much will this affect the probabilities of any particular quarter?
Maybe someone could suggest to their highschooler as a science-fair-winning project. Be sure to drop me a link to the results!

As another aside: my preliminary results on another front would indicate that the quart-dollar’s propensity to fall heads-down are dramatically increased if the coin is spun on edge. Somewhere around fifty-five or fifty-six percent tails-up.

Anyway, even if my coin-flipping results are untainted by error, a 52.5% inclination toward one side doesn’t explain my virtually 100% losing streak. For that, I may have to fall back on that most unscientific of principles, luck.
(Well, that and the variety of personal flipping styles, perhaps?)

Friday, September 01, 2006

Getting ‘Sleep’

As Allen Barra writes in an old issue of American Heritage on my shelf:
Legend has it that William Faulkner, who worked on the screenplay [for The Big Sleep’s adaptation], couldn’t figure out who killed whom even after phoning [author Raymond] Chandler in London.

Note his professional use of the words “legend has it.”
It is a fairly famous story now that the great Raymond Chandler, sovereign of the hard-boiled club, created such convoluted plots that even he didn’t know who really was plugged by whom. I’ve seen it in many a vague form on the Internet and other media over the years, never with so adequate citation as Barra’s “L-word.”

Below, I present the only “early generation” source I’ve been able to find which, if true, cuts through the confused muck of which of the many murders was unsolved, etc etc. It is excerpted* from one of director Howard Hawks many lengthy interviews, this one at age seventy-seven.
During the making of The Big Sleep, I found out for the first time that you don’t have to be too logical; you should just make Good Scenes. […]
[William] Faulkner and Leigh Brackett […] did a whole script in eight days. And they said they didn’t want to change things. They said the stuff was so good, there’s no sense in making it logical. So we didn’t. […]
Because once during the picture Bogart said, “Who killed this fellow?” And I said, “Well, I think it prob’ly was that…” I said, “I don’t know.”
So we sent a wire to the author, Raymond Chandler, and asked him and he told us the name of the fellow. And I wired him back and I said “He was down at the beach when that happened, it couldn’t have done that way.”
So nobody knew who killed that bird. It didn’t hurt the picture!

Right there it would appear that several things have been cleared up. No longer is there much basis on which to claim that it was the chauffeur’s death so deemed unexplainable. Rather it is the death of the man Geiger, antiquarian book dealer, pornographer, and blackmailer, that is a supposed mystery.
For whom did Chandler name as the dealing hand of death? That very same chauffeur who was later that night fished out of the deep, dead. What is left unexplained, however, is why Hawks would assume his (the chauffeur’s) role as killer impossible, when any mystery-goer in the world knows one can be alive and firing in one place one moment and be dead down at the pier an hour later.

Not that any of this really matters too much, for while Hawks’ The Big Sleep is a fairly enjoyable, light movie, it in no way compares to the book. The director’s predisposition toward a breezy view of empty diversion is in violent contrast with the darker world of Raymond Chandler, wherein all that is empty is treated with brooding contempt.
Perhaps most important in terms of the above discussion, however, is the fact that the book succeeds not only in being more convoluted than the film, but many times as logical simultaneously.

*I have here transcribed Hawks’ words from that interview by way of The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks [1973]. A re-cut of that documentary television piece, circa 2002 with a new narration from Sydney Pollack, is available on Disc 2 of Bringing Up Baby [1938], the essential screw-ball comedy.