Monday, 8 July 2013

Norfolk'n'Good at maths

In case you were wondering, UP spent the weekend in hospital.  The Cat's Mother took him off to A&E, and they sternly advised against going anywhere.  His heel is broken in several places...and the swelling has been so bad he's blistered badly.  As usual, in my ever helpful way, I've offered him this to help him get better:

It's funny how mathematical problems can crop up unexpectedly.

Rog wrote last week about a new 'app' that identifies each 3sq metre spot on the earth in just three words...this being easier than trying to memorise 14 digit digital codes.  He did the maths to show that it was more than possible even though there are nearly 57 trillion squares around the globe.  It was a sunny Friday afternoon when I read it, my brain was a bit slow, and it's a long time since I did maths (you should see the monthly invoices I send out...invariably wrong!), so not surprisingly I couldn't quite follow his workings.  That does not make him a bad teacher, but it may make me a bad pupil.  It's worth a read here

They say you can't judge a book by its cover, which is, in my book, nonsense.

Many, many years ago I went on a holiday to Turkey...and our flight home was delayed.  I headed to the bookshop which was quite sparsely populated with books strangely.  My usual technique for choosing a book is to open it at a random page, and if I like what's on that page I'll buy it.  I may have done it on this occasion, but I'm not sure.  I was certainly more drawn to the cover...a dirty, sandy yellow, with the dark shadow of a hound across it. It bellowed MENACE.  As we waited for our flight, I settled in to the book.  I was so engrossed, so hooked, that I managed to read it before the flight was finally called.  It was a dark and indeed menacing tale by an author who, at the time I had never heard of - Ian McEwan and was called Black Dogs.  I then went on to buy all his books and read them avidly.   Some have been made into films or TV programmes, and they are lapped up as well.  I wouldn't like to say whether I prefer Atonement or The Comfort of Strangers - they were both excellent on the screen. I'm still an absolute fan and look forward to every novel.  As he has aged, the core of 'fear and menace' that inhabits his books has declined, and both his most recent books - Solar and Sweet Tooth pretty much avoid it altogether.  But I still enjoy his work very much indeed.

We were fortunate enough last week to be able to listen to the man himself talk about Sweet Tooth at an event staged by the Guardian Book club.  This is not the first time I've heard him talk about his work - I went to a similar discussion some years ago.  It was most illuminating...not least because of the way an author can debunk some of the nonsense written about his own works...what do people's names mean?  Nothing - he tries to keep them completely neutral, although by some remarkable coincidence, the 'hero' of Sweet Tooth nearly shared his name with a real lecturer at Sussex University that had the same interests.  Why was the address of one location so precise?  Because it came up on Google Maps. Etc, etc.  He's a witty, interesting and clearly very clever man indeed...I shall return to Sweet Tooth and have a re-read.  It was a great evening...especially for me, although The Cat's Mother hasn't actually read the book...ooops.

One of the topics of discussion at the evening was the 'Monty Hall Problem''s something that makes an interesting appearance in the book.  The scenario is that you can select one out of three doors and behind one of the three is a prize; behind the others, nothing.  Once you have chosen (the door remains closed at this stage), Monty Hall will open one of the other doors revealing that it does not contain the prize.  You are then give the opportunity to switch your choice to the other box or stay with your original choice.  The question is...does it matter if you switch?.  Most people get it wrong...but do you know the right answer?  Problem better explained, and answer given here

And a brief description of how the problem is mis-told in McEwans book (thank you Significance Magazine)

Haley re-imagines the problem as a tale of suspected cuckoldry, in which, after some development, a jealous husband finds himself before three hotel room doors (401, 402, and 403) and knows that his wife is behind one of the doors with another man. He has one chance to break down a door and catch her in the act of betrayal. But which door to choose? Haley's protagonist settles on 403 just as an Indian couple with several small children leave room 401. Convinced that he now has a two-thirds chance of catching her if he switches his initial choice: "He makes his run, he leaps, the door of 402 smashes open and there are the couple, naked in bed, just getting going". Haley titles the story "Probable Adultery".

Haley's work, as Serena well recognizes, is a disappointment logically and artistically. Misguided by rash enthusiasm, he has tried to house a betrayal plot within the shaky walls of a mathematical conundrum, missing the critical point that Monty does not choose a door at random and the larger point that, either way, no reader of fiction is likely to care. What will be of interest to readers is the way, through Frome's reaction to the story, McEwan masterfully turns Haley's creative failure into his own success. By unjustly blaming herself for Haley's mistake--a mistake minds as brilliant as Paul Erdös didn't need a gorgeous blonde to help them make--Serena adds to a pattern of self-condemnation in romantic relationships that has dictated the course of her young life. As with the heterosexual experiments of Jeremy Mott and the dirtied blouse left in Tony Canning's hamper, Serena is simply incapable of telling a man that he has had a silly idea. So, rather than confront Haley with her misgivings, she sheepishly rewrites the details of his hotel scene to make the story, if not artistically interesting, at least logically correct. In this way, the Monty Hall Problem becomes a surprising backdrop to the early romantic frustrations of a female spy and lover of novels.

McEwan's decision to give the most famous of probability problems such prominence in his novel suggests more than a passing interest. The structure of Monty's game, in fact, resurfaces later in the story, when a piece in the Guardian exposing MI5's backing of Haley forces Serena to make a critical and final decision--maintain the lie about her role or confess and risk losing everything. Like so many of the game show contestants that have stood before Monty's two unopened doors, Serena does not turn to a mathematical law or logical rule to get out of her predicament. She relies, instead, on intuition, which proves, in this instance, a less disastrous guide in love than it is probability.