A Funny Philosopher Tackles A Tough Query: ‘Does Santa Exist?’

Eric Kaplan has a long resume in TV comedy, from writing for Futurama and David Letterman to his current gig as a co-executive producer for The Big Bang Theory.

He’s also on his way to a Ph.D. in philosophy from UC Berkeley.

That combination of livelihoods led to his strange and delightful new book, Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation. It combines humor and intellectual heft as it tries to explain people’s seemingly contradictory beliefs about jolly old Saint Nicholas.

Kaplan tells NPR’s Arun Rath that he started thinking about the question after an encounter with a neighborhood mother named Tammi. Kaplan’s kindergarten-aged son, along with Tammi’s, had scheduled a visit to the zoo. But then Tammi called Kaplan to cancel.

There would be reindeer at the zoo, she said. Kaplan’s son didn’t believe in Santa — but Tammi’s son still did, and the mother didn’t want to risk a traumatic conversation about Santa between the two boys.

Kaplan says his initial reaction came from a position of “Santa skepticism.”

“Well, Santa obviously does not exist, and my son obviously does exist,” he explains to Rath. “But then in a more temperate mood, I start to think, how do you know Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”

Throughout his short book, Kaplan applies several philosophical models to that question — which turns out to be much harder to answer than it might seem. Click the audio link above to listen the full interview.


Interview Highlights

On using logic to approach the question

Logic is an attempt to make sure that nothing we believe contradicts anything else that we believe. What’s bad about it is that there may be certain things you just cannot evaluate as true or false. A famous example of this is the liar paradox: “This sentence is false.” If you tell a robot in Star Trek “this sentence is false” … it explodes. But if you tell that to us, we don’t explode. So clearly we have some kind of way of dealing with things even if they’re logically undecidable, or logically self-contradictory.

On using mysticism when logic fails

Mysticism is this very attractive idea that language is a feeble instrument, and the mind is a feeble instrument and the world is inherently impossible to say anything true about — or, everything is true. Anything you can possibly say about it is true.

But I do think a problem with it is that, if everything is true, then for something to be true almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. You say, “Yes, I believe democracy is great. And I also believe dictatorship is great. And I also believe some system where we just type a bunch of random words and do our best to do that in our country — those are all equally great.” And then you start to say, “Well, mystic, you really are just not saying anything.” …

And sometimes mysticism has a tendency to be the kind of sneaky buddy of authoritarianism. Because you’re just like, “Why do we have to listen to that guy?” “Oh, you’ll never be able to understand, it’s very mystical.” So even though mysticism is beautiful, sometimes when people offer a mystical explanation that something cannot be understood by human thought, you should subtly put a hand on your wallet and see it’s still in your pocket.

On the value of comedy as a philosophical tool

I think there’s something interesting about comedy, which is, in one sense, it takes the good stuff of logic, which is the ability to criticize accepted views. And it takes the good stuff of mysticism — a certain conceptual forgiveness about the fact that life has many sides. And it puts them together.

This is a joke that I get into in the book by Robert Schimmel, a stand-up comedian who had cancer. He says, “I thought it was pretty bad when my son had cancer.” (Which he did.) “I thought it was pretty bad when my son had cancer. But then I got cancer.”

I think that’s really funny. And I think the reason it’s funny is that there’s a certain right way you’re supposed to approach misfortune: You’re sorry if it happens to somebody else, and you’re okay if it happens to you. And then there’s another sort of actual way we approach misfortune: You’re kind of okay if it happens to someone else, but you really don’t want to have it happen to you. It’s pretty paradoxical to put them together.

[Humor] takes a joy in those contradictions, and it gives us the opportunity to forgive ourselves for not quite getting it all together. We’re like somebody who’s carrying the laundry and instead of folding it all nicely, it’s all in a big pile. And it’s falling out of your arms in all kinds of different directions, and you’re just barely managing to keep the socks from falling and your jeans from falling. I feel that that is sort of our epistemic situation, that we’re valiantly struggling to keep it all together and failing. And I find that funny, and I think that humor is funny because it deals with situations like that.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Article source: http://krvs.org/post/funny-philosopher-tackles-tough-query-does-santa-exist

Every ‘Simpsons’ ‘Treehouse of Horror’ short, ranked

That’s right: In honor of The Simpsons‘ 25th (!) annual Halloween special, which airs this Sunday, EW didn’t just rank the top 25 “Treehouse of Horror” segments. We took things a step further by ranking every single “Treehouse” segment ever seen on the show—and you’ll find entries 72 through 26 in the list below.

Even when longtime fans sniff that The Simpsons‘ Golden Age is long past, they can agree that late-period Simpsons Halloween shows still pack a punch. Why? Because “Treehouse” segments give the series’ writers a break in two ways: First of all, they’re short, which means that they can explore plot threads that are amusing but too flimsy to support an entire half-hour. And secondly, they’re not bound by the laws of canon (or taste), giving the show’s staff an opportunity to follow their wildest whims—transforming Springfield into a town as drawn by Dr. Seuss, or putting a gremlin on the side of Bart’s schoolbus, or transforming Homer’s head into a giant doughnut.

What makes a good “Treehouse” short? Punchy one-liners and visual gags help, but the best of the bunch have two more things in common: Novel premises (which, admittedly, get increasingly difficult as the show ages) and a genuine stab at including a few real scares. (In other words: The recent trend toward parodies of random movies that have little or nothing to do with horror as a broad category just doesn’t do it.) You’ll find what made the cut in the list below, as well as what maybe should have been left on the cutting-room floor.

72. “The Diving Bell and Butterball”
“Treehouse of Horror XXII,” 2011
This is it: the absolute nadir of the “Treehouse” franchise, and possibly of the show itself. The segment is an inexplicable, years-late parody of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (you know, the noted scary movie) that devolves into an extended, painfully unfunny fart joke. Then, for some reason, the show throws Spider-Man into the mix. The whole thing feels like a bit from a rejected Family Guy spec script.

71. “In the Na’Vi”
“Treehouse of Horror XXII,” 2011
Not to pile on “XXII,” but: If you’re going to spoof a recent cultural phenomenon just because it’s popular, at least try to do it in a timely manner. Unfortunately, “In the Na’Vi” came out two years after Avatar fever swept the globe. What’s worse, the segment trades true wit for cheap shock humor. (Bart, who even in this alternate universe is presumably 10 years old, discovers that he’s impregnated a lady alien.)

70. “The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms”
“Treehouse of Horror XIII,” 2002
That labored groaner of a title should tell you all you need to know. Points have also been deducted for treading ground that other Simpsons episodes covered earlier and better, including zombie versions of famous historical figures (“Treehouse of Horror III”‘s “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombies”) and gun control (“The Cartridge Family”).

69. “Untitled Robot Parody”
“Treehouse of Horror XIX,” 2008
A toothless sendup of the Transformers franchise, which a) yup, still isn’t a scary movie and b) definitely deserves a sharper takedown than this.

68. “Mr. Mrs. Simpson”
“Treehouse of Horror XVIII,” 2007
Another lame movie parody. Sensing a pattern?

67. “Wiz Kids”
“Treehouse of Horror XII,” 2001
The writer of this segment admitted on a DVD audio commentary that most of the show’s staffers were unfamiliar with the Harry Potter series when they crafted their weak parody of it, and that lack of knowledge shows. The show’s spoof is disappointingly vague, especially considering how many specific details in J.K. Rowling’s universe are worth lampooning. Also, the denouement happens at a “big magic recital.” Nope.

66. “Hex and the City”
“Treehouse of Horror XII,” 2001
There are some fun visuals here—Bart’s stretched-out neck comes to mind—but the plot is weak (Homer is cursed by a gypsy; he decides to try to get it lifted by… capturing a leprechaun, for some reason) and so are the one-liners.

65. “How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising”
“Treehouse of Horror XIX,” 2008
Speaking of weak plots: Homer accidentally kills Krusty via wood chipper. He’s then propositioned by a pair of Mad Men-esque ad men, who ask him to murder a bunch of celebrities so that they can use their likenesses in ads without getting their permission. Huh? (At least the Simpson-ified Mad Men credits are cool.)

64. “Don’t Have a Cow, Mankind”
“Treehouse of Horror XX,” 2009
It’s yet another zombie spoof… and this one ends with Bart inoculating everyone against the undead virus by bathing in their food. That’s not funny or scary; it’s just gross.

63. “E.T., Go Home”
“Treehouse of Horror XVIII,” 2007
Kodos as a Spielbergian extraterrestrial should be a slam dunk, but there’s a lazy, mean undercurrent here that keeps the segment from gelling.

62. “Dial D for Diddly”
“Treehouse of Horror XXII,” 2011
Another great opening credits parody—this time, casting Ned Flanders as serial killer Dexter Morgan—that leads to a middling, overly cruel segment. (Would even Halloween-ified Homer be casually sociopathic enough to impersonate God and sic Flanders on his enemies?)

61. “Frinkenstein”
“Treehouse of Horror XIV,” 2003
Casting Jerry Lewis as Dr. Frink’s long-lost father is a long-awaited coup; too bad the stuff that surrounds his performance is pretty pedestrian.

60. “Survival of the Fattest”
“Treehouse of Horror XVI,” 2005
Something you notice after watching 26 “Treehouse of Horror” specials in a row: Homer resorts to cannibalism a lot. There’s not much else to this Most Dangerous Game sendup, a festival of gentle puns (“Must Flee TV!”), violence, and a particularly shrewish turn from Marge.

59. “In the Belly of the Boss”
“Treehouse of XV,” 2004
Continuing the “meh” trend: The Simpson family goes on a Fantastic Voyage into Mr. Burns’ body to save Maggie, who’s accidentally been stuck inside him. The source material’s been spoofed so many times—perhaps most notably by Simpsons descendent Futurama—that it’s tough for this parody to find anything new to say. And it ends with a twist that will be familiar to those who have seen number 58:

58. “Homer’s Nightmare” (“If I Only Had a Brain”)
“Treehouse of Horror II,” 1991
Hey, even Golden Age Simpsons had its “meh” points! This segment starts out promisingly (Homer gets a new job as a grave digger) before devolving into a pretty basic Frankenstein parody. There is, however, one flash of brilliance: “Look at me, I’m Davey Crockett!”

57. “Master and Cadaver”
“Treehouse of Horror XXI,” 2010
It’s that Dead Calm parody nobody asked for! (You know, Dead Calm? Phillip Noyce’s 1989 thriller starring Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane? Not ringing a bell?) Fun guest turn from Hugh Laurie, though.

56. “You Gotta Know When To Golem”
“Treehouse of Horror XVII,” 2006
Richard Lewis as a nebbish Jewish killing machine? Solid casting. But the segment itself is nothing more than semi-funny Borscht Belt humor, with one nice concluding twist: The Simpsons make a lady Golem to keep their monster company, and she is, of course, voiced by Fran Drescher.

55. “Heck House”
“Treehouse of Horror XVIII,” 2007
A.K.A. “Hey, it was fun when Flanders was the Devil that one time; maybe we should do that again!” “The Devil and Homer Simpson,” from season 5, is an all-time classic; “Heck House” is amusing, but lacks the same punch. The good: Moe’s representation of three Deadly Sins—lust (he goes to a strip club), greed (he steals a stripper’s money), and envy (he gets kicked in the crotch, then moans “Oh, how I envy the crotchless”)—and a closing rendering of Springfield as Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell.

54. “Reaper Madness”
“Treehouse of Horror XIV,” 2003
Homer accidentally kills Death himself, then finds himself filling in for the Grim Reaper—a task he enjoys until he’s commanded to kill Marge. It’s a neat idea, but there’s one problem: Family Guy already did it.

53. “Easy-Bake Coven”
“Treehouse of Horror VIII,” 1997
Hint: A super cutesy title often means a so-so short, and this one’s no exception; like many a middling SNL sketch, it also sort of peters out without bothering to find a real ending. But the sight of a green-skinned Marge Witch is fun, and it does a good job of poking fun at Salem logic: “If they’re really witches, why don’t they use their powers to escape?” “That sounds like witch talk to me, Lisa.”

52. “The Ned Zone”
“Treehouse of Horror XV,” 2004
Stephen King has given The Simpsons plenty of great Treehouse material; this one’s a more minor effort, but Ned (who suddenly begins to have visions of impending doom) and Homer (whom Ned spies destroying Springfield in one of his visions) generally make a winning combination.

51. “B.I.: Bartificial Intelligence”
“Treehouse of Horror XVI,” 2005
This is a parody of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence only in the loosest sense; the sole real similarity is that both feature a cute robot child named David. (The Simpsons bring David home after Bart winds up in a coma; when Bart awakens, he feels threatened by David and assembles himself a new robot body out of the parts of a bunch of other cyborgs.) Maybe it feels less perfunctory than so many “Treehouse” movie parodies because it diverges from the film so much; either way, it’s got some solid Futurama-esque robot humor. (“I was a lawnmower. I could cut grass at three different heights. But I couldn’t love.”)

50. “War and Pieces”
“Treehouse of Horror XXI,” 2010
Speaking of half-baked movie parodies: In this Jumanji riff, Bart and Milhouse get in trouble when they decide to start playing a board game called “Satan’s Path”—and the rest of the games in the attic suddenly spring to life. It’s… fine.

49. “Scary Tales Can Come True”
“Treehouse of Horror XI,” 2000
The title’s generic, and so’s the fairy-tale-inspired segment—despite a few clever twists. (The witch from “Hansel and Gretel” holds her house up with “load-bearing candy canes;” Bart accepts his and Lisa’s fate, while she urges him to “at least stop basting yourself.”)

48. “Dead and Shoulders”
“Treehouse of Horror XXIV,” 2013
Bart and Lisa become a thing with two heads after an unfortunate kite string decapitation. It’s nice to see the show devote some time to their bond as siblings, especially this late in its run. (Though the fact that they do try to kill each other dampens that a bit.)

47. “G-G-Ghost D-D-Dad”
“Treehouse of Horror XI,” 2000
Homer dies after choking on a piece of broccoli—the deadliest vegetable known to man—and goes to heaven. (Wait—how could that possibly be right? Is this an All Dogs Go to Heaven-type situation?) But before he can enter the pearly gates, St. Peter commands him to perform a single good deed. (As Homer explains, “I’m just trying to get in. I’m not running for Jesus.”) It’s funny but gets a demerit for eventually sending Homer to Hell—which just makes you want to watch “The Devil and Homer Simpson” instead.

46. “UNnormal Activity”
“Treehouse of Horror XXIII,” 2012
A cunningly animated Paranormal Activity parody with a few great jokes (“Note to self: Edit out my lies”) that actually packs a few scares, or at least some genuinely creepy moments. Marred by an unnecessarily dirty coda. (Two words: Demon threeway.)

45. “Bad Dream House”
“Treehouse of Horror I,” 1990
The very first Treehouse segment ever was decently transgressive for its time, and its ending still resonates—the haunted house the Simpsons have moved into eventually decides that it’d rather self-destruct than live with Homer, Marge, and co. But although it laid a good foundation for shorts to come, its gags and imagery are both pretty boilerplate.

44. “The Day the Earth Looked Stupid”
“Treehouse of Horror XVII,” 2006
The Simpsons‘ stabs at political commentary are naturally hampered by how long it takes to produce a single episode; by the time the show gets to a joke, chances are Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or anybody else made a similar one months ago. Case in point: This War on the Worlds riff, which morphs partway through into a not-especially-stinging critique of the Iraq War. (Arrested Development did it better a few years earlier.) But the Orson Welles stuff is funny, especially for those who recognize voice actor Maurice LaMarche from his work as the Welles-inspired mouse on Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain.

43. “Tweenlight”
“Treehouse of Horror XXI,” 2010
Sure, it came out a few years after the first Twilight movie, but the franchise was still enormously popular in 2010—and the references here are a lot more precise than they were in that Harry Potter parody. Plus, there’s the meta thrill of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe voicing hot vampire Edmund and a real stab at injecting heart into the story at its conclusion.

42. “Fly vs. Fly”
“Treehouse of Horror VIII,” 1997
Professor Frink, Professor Frink, he’ll make you laugh, he’ll make you think, he’ll sell you a highly sophisti-ma-cated doo-wacky that might turn your son into a horrifying boy-fly hybrid. Pretty standard stuff for a Simpsons Halloween.

41. “The Raven”
“Treehouse of Horror I,” 1990
The final segment of the show’s first Halloween special is moodier than it is funny, although English teachers should give it credit for helping a generation accidentally memorize Edgar Allen Poe’s best-known poem.

40. “I’ve Grown a Costume on Your Face”
“Treehouse of Horror XVI,” 2005
It’s like that episode of Buffy where people turn into what they’ve dressed up as on Halloween, only this time, it’s happening on The Simpsons! The idea does let the show’s animators stretch their creativity, though, and it’s always nice to see Maggie save the day. Plus: Martin as Oberon, King of the Fairies.

39. “There’s No Business Like Moe Business”
“Treehouse of Horror XX,” 2009
Who doesn’t love a musical, especially one that pays tribute to Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd? (You don’t love that? Get out.) The songs here aren’t as catchy as “See My Vest” or “We Put the Spring in Springfield,” but they’re well-crafted all the same—and the trick of presenting the story as though it’s actually being performed on a stage, complete with an audience of Springfielders, is a neat touch.

38. “Hell Toupée”
“Treehouse of Horror IX,” 1998
Aaaand I just got the pun in the title. Yeesh. (It’s about a killer head of hair.)

37. “The Island of Dr. Hibbert”
“Treehouse of Horror XIII,” 2002
Speaking of awesome animation: Transforming the people of Springfield into anthropomorphized animals in this Island of Dr. Moreau parody gives the show’s talented artists a chance to run amok, designing fanciful creatures that cleverly reflect the personalities of dozens of Springfieldians. Seriously—dozens. The attention to detail is amazing, even if the jokes rarely rise above “good.”

36. “The Greatest Story Ever Holed”
“Treehouse of Horror XXIII,” 2012
How can a black hole be cute? Somehow, this one manages—and though the satire of consumerism is as gentle as a butterfly kiss and the big reveal (the Simpsons get sucked through the black hole that they’ve been tossing their trash into; it leads them to another dimension) has a pretty lazy Zune joke, the gags that do hit (“Magic Craphole Waste Removal,” “A black hole! I’m sorry, can we call it that?”) hit well.

35. “Married to the Blob”
“Treehouse of Horror XVII,” 2006
Like I said: A loooot of cannibalism in the “Treehouse universe,” though in this case we can blame it on Homer’s decision to ingest a glowing green extraterrestrial goo—which, naturally, transforms him into an insatiable terror. It’s not a short for the faint of heart (“Must eat, then poop, then eat some more, then eat while pooping”), but if you can get past the gross-out humor and Dr. Phil’s pointless cameo, there’s lots of fun to be had here. “If I can keep down Arby’s, I can keep down you!”

34. “Stop the World, I Want to Goof Off”
“Treehouse of Horror XIV,” 2003
Ahhh, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: The Simpsons takes on Clockstoppers! Fine; really, it’s a parody of another Twilight Zone episode, featuring a watch that can literally stop time. And Bart and Milhouse have plenty of fun with their newfound treasure, leading to a few excellent visual gags and a strong indictment of the mobs that form in too many fantastical stories: “Come, let us kill them before learning of the magical secret they possess!”

33. “The Terror of Tiny Toon”
“Treehouse of Horror IX,” 1998
Another one to place in the “visually inventive, less solidly written” pile: A plutonium-powered remote transports Bart and Lisa into Itchy and Scratchy’s world, opening the door to a lot of cartoonish graphic violence. You can tell the show’s having a blast embracing the possibilities of an animated universe that doesn’t operate on real-world principles, as canon episodes of The Simpsons generally do.

32. “Life’s a Glitch, Then You Die”
“Treehouse of Horror X,” 1999
Another popular “Treehouse” trope: apocalypse scenarios. This one revolves around a meltdown caused by the Y2K bug, although the concept of a global meltdown is general enough that it doesn’t feel too dated. And it’ll always be funny to watch Lisa, Marge, and Maggie step aboard a spaceship carrying the Earth’s best and brightest—while Bart and Homer get stuck on a ship carrying the dregs of humanity (including Tom Arnold, playing himself) into the sun. That’s the hottest place on Earth!

31. “Bart Homer’s Excellent Adventure”
“Treehouse of Horror XXIII,” 2012
Yes, it’s fan service to bring back “The Way We Was”-era Homer and Marge, not to mention Homer’s onetime romantic rival Artie Ziff (smarmily voiced, as ever, by Jon Lovitz). But the segment works as more than cheap nostalgia, thanks to the strength of Homer and Marge’s bond—which is completely unbreakable, for better or for worse.

30. “I Know What You Diddily-Iddily-Did”
“Treehouse of Horror X,” 1999
A straightforward parody of I Know What You Did Last Summer—and briefly, ghoulishly, Weekend at Bernie’s—elevated by gags both classic (Homer: “Hey, we just got away with murder. And it was so easy! You know, I never liked that little wiener Milhouse…” Marge: “No more murders!”) and inexplicable (why is Homer’s “guess I forgot to put the fog lights in” song so funny?).

29. “Terror at 5 1/2 Feet”
“Treehouse of Horror IV,” 1993
The genuinely disturbing Twilight Zone episode on which it’s based loses some of its zing when you get a good look at the goofy gremlin that’s been terrorizing William Shatner. The Simpsons version subs in a much creepier little creature and doesn’t skimp on the buildup—Bart has a vision of impending doom before boarding the schoolbus—leading to a segment with a great arc as well as great jokes. (Skinner: “Hello, Simpson. I’m riding the bus today because Mother hid my car keys to punish me for talking to a woman on the phone. She was right to do it.”)

28. “Bart’s Nightmare” (“The Bart Zone”)
“Treehouse of Horror II,” 1991
More Twilight Zone spoofery of another all-time classic: “It’s a Good Life,” in which a six-year-old boy with mysterious supernatural powers uses them to discipline anyone who displeases him—even if it’s just by thinking unhappy thoughts. “Omnipotent Bart” is a tantalizing setup, and the show around him doesn’t disappoint. Plus, a visit from everyone’s favorite character: Dr. Marvin Monroe!!

27. “Oh The Places You’ll D’oh”
“Treehouse of Horror XXIV,” 2013
This Dr. Seuss spoof is more clever than it is laugh-out-loud funny—but you can tell that great care was put into its perfectly calibrated visuals and rhythmic, Seussian dialogue. (“Take all that you want, I don’t want any trouble/Take Slim of the Jim and gum of the bubble.”)

26. “Four Beheadings and a Funeral”
“Treehouse of Horror XV,” 2004
You had us at “Lisa as Sherlock Holmes”—but the premise works even better thanks to the show’s ridiculous interpretation of common Brit-speak (“And he drops this and runs, cor blimey, skip to me loo!”).

Want to see what we picked for the 25-1 slots? Find the gallery here.

Article source: http://popwatch.ew.com/2014/10/18/simpsons-treehouse-of-horror-ranking/

From Childhood, to College, to Cartooning: An Evening with Matt Groening and …

Courtesy of UCSB Arts and Lectures

When Matt Groening and Lynda Barry stepped onto the stage of the Arlington Theatre on Friday, Oct. 10, it was in a style only two cartoonists could pull off: wearing knit hats shaped like “Futurama” characters Nibbler and Bender and introducing themselves as each other. Such casual humor should be expected of any 40-year friendship, especially when it involves Barry, creator of the comic strip Ernie Pook’s Comeek and author of several novels, and Groening, best known for his comic strip Life in Hell and cartoon sitcoms “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”

The event, arranged by UCSB Arts Lectures, attracted a crowd of several hundred. Audience members ranged from young children to elderly couples, most in semi-formal attire. The huge theater walls were bedecked with balconies and lanterns to resemble the exterior of Spanish Mediterranean buildings. Depthless black covered the ceiling, and one could easily picture themself in a tranquil nighttime courtyard — at least, until the show began.

First came iconic clips of the Simpsons and their antics: Bart showing Lisa his (accurate) illustrated prediction of their father being crushed by a garage door, Homer hurtling down a hill on skis as mounds of snow striked his groin and the entire family suffering epileptic seizures induced by a Japanese cartoon. The audience was roaring with laughter before Groening and Barry even took their seats in a corner of the stage.

The friends began their talk by recounting details of childhood. Barry described her Filipino grandmother, who sang in the kitchen and told far-fetched tales of monsters that attacked misbehaving children. Groening discussed how his family members influenced his most renowned characters. While cycling through a wealth of family pictures — taken by his father, a professional photographer — Groening revealed that Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and Abe Simpson were named after his real life father, mother, sisters and grandfather, respectively.

The discussion shifted to Evergreen State College, which the cartoonists both attended in the ’70s. Barry described the Oregon school as a liberal place where “everyone thought hippies would be around forever.” Groening first met Barry in college, upon learning that Barry had received a reply after writing to Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, one of Groening’s favorite writers. The cartoonists recalled a number of their college exploits, from Barry’s temporary work as a nude model to Groening’s position as editor of the school paper, where he announced he would print “anything anyone wanted.”

From there, Groening and Barry started talking about their artistic work. Barry, an experienced art teacher, encouraged artists and writers to work by hand rather than computer, because hands don’t have delete buttons. She played a video, showing lines drawn by a child juxtaposed with those drawn by Picasso in an abstract sketch and those drawn by a “physics dude” in a diagram. Barry insisted that such lines were alike in that they were all created by people getting ideas.

Barry then showed the hilarious (but not entirely unrecognizable) results of her adult students sketching Marge Simpson for a minute with their eyes closed, to prove that adults who’d stopped drawing for years could still find joy in creating art. Not to be exempted, Groening and Barry made their own blind drawings on stage. Groening joked that he would sell his fairly accurate representation of Marge for five dollars, as Barry cackled at her own flawed attempt.

While Barry leaned back in her chair feigning boredom when it was Groening’s turn to talk, and Groening laughed loudly at Barry’s humiliating stories, it was easy to see that this was a lasting friendship. The cartoonists ended their effortless exchange with an emotional hug, which might have lasted longer if they hadn’t reserved time to answer questions from the audience.

The first question came from dedicated fan Matt Wallace, who asked if he could buy Groening’s drawing. Wallace, proudly displaying the sketch after the QA session, stated, “I met Matt probably 20, 25 years ago … He was doing a book signing pre-‘Simpsons.’”

Lucky, who at age 10 was the youngest audience member to ask questions, said one of her teachers “claimed” to have dated Groening’s father. Though a stunned Groening couldn’t confirm the statement, Lucky said of the event, “It’s really cool because I always watch ‘The Simpsons,’ and [once I] was Lisa for Halloween.”

Fans old and new left the Arlington Theatre laughing. That night Groening and Barry were living proof of the agelessness of friendship and humor.

Article source: http://dailynexus.com/2014-10-18/from-childhood-to-college-to-cartooning-an-evening-with-matt-groening-and-lynda-barry/

A Funny Philosopher Tackles A Tough Query: ‘Does Santa Exist?’


Eric Kaplan has a long resume in TV comedy, from writing for Futurama and David Letterman to his current gig as a co-executive producer for The Big Bang Theory.

He’s also on his way to a Ph.D. in philosophy from UC Berkeley.

That combination of livelihoods led to his strange and delightful new book, Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation. It combines humor and intellectual heft as it tries to explain people’s seemingly contradictory beliefs about jolly old Saint Nicholas.

Kaplan tells NPR’s Arun Rath that he started thinking about the question after an encounter with a neighborhood mother named Tammi. Kaplan’s kindergarten-aged son, along with Tammi’s, had scheduled a visit to the zoo. But then Tammi called Kaplan to cancel.

There would be reindeer at the zoo, she said. Kaplan’s son didn’t believe in Santa — but Tammi’s son still did, and the mother didn’t want to risk a traumatic conversation about Santa between the two boys.

Kaplan says his initial reaction came from a position of “Santa skepticism.”

“Well, Santa obviously does not exist, and my son obviously does exist,” he explains to Rath. “But then in a more temperate mood, I start to think, how do you know Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”

Throughout his short book, Kaplan applies several philosophical models to that question — which turns out to be much harder to answer than it might seem. Click the audio link above to listen the full interview.

Interview Highlights

On using logic to approach the question

Logic is an attempt to make sure that nothing we believe contradicts anything else that we believe. What’s bad about it is that there may be certain things you just cannot evaluate as true or false. A famous example of this is the liar paradox: “This sentence is false.” If you tell a robot in Star Trek “this sentence is false” … it explodes. But if you tell that to us, we don’t explode. So clearly we have some kind of way of dealing with things even if they’re logically undecidable, or logically self-contradictory.

i
i

Eric Kaplan has written for various shows, including The Big Bang Theory, Futurama and Flight of the Concords.

Stephanie Diani/Dutton


hide caption

itoggle caption

Stephanie Diani/Dutton

Eric Kaplan has written for various shows, including The Big Bang Theory, Futurama and Flight of the Concords.

Eric Kaplan has written for various shows, including The Big Bang Theory, Futurama and Flight of the Concords.

Stephanie Diani/Dutton

On using mysticism when logic fails

Mysticism is this very attractive idea that language is a feeble instrument, and the mind is a feeble instrument and the world is inherently impossible to say anything true about — or, everything is true. Anything you can possibly say about it is true.

But I do think a problem with it is that, if everything is true, then for something to be true almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. You say, “Yes, I believe democracy is great. And I also believe dictatorship is great. And I also believe some system where we just type a bunch of random words and do our best to do that in our country — those are all equally great.” And then you start to say, “Well, mystic, you really are just not saying anything.” …

And sometimes mysticism has a tendency to be the kind of sneaky buddy of authoritarianism. Because you’re just like, “Why do we have to listen to that guy?” “Oh, you’ll never be able to understand, it’s very mystical.” So even though mysticism is beautiful, sometimes when people offer a mystical explanation that something cannot be understood by human thought, you should subtly put a hand on your wallet and see it’s still in your pocket.

On the value of comedy as a philosophical tool

I think there’s something interesting about comedy, which is, in one sense, it takes the good stuff of logic, which is the ability to criticize accepted views. And it takes the good stuff of mysticism — a certain conceptual forgiveness about the fact that life has many sides. And it puts them together.

This is a joke that I get into in the book by Robert Schimmel, a stand-up comedian who had cancer. He says, “I thought it was pretty bad when my son had cancer.” (Which he did.) “I thought it was pretty bad when my son had cancer. But then I got cancer.”

I think that’s really funny. And I think the reason it’s funny is that there’s a certain right way you’re supposed to approach misfortune: You’re sorry if it happens to somebody else, and you’re okay if it happens to you. And then there’s another sort of actual way we approach misfortune: You’re kind of okay if it happens to someone else, but you really don’t want to have it happen to you. It’s pretty paradoxical to put them together.

[Humor] takes a joy in those contradictions, and it gives us the opportunity to forgive ourselves for not quite getting it all together. We’re like somebody who’s carrying the laundry and instead of folding it all nicely, it’s all in a big pile. And it’s falling out of your arms in all kinds of different directions, and you’re just barely managing to keep the socks from falling and your jeans from falling. I feel that that is sort of our epistemic situation, that we’re valiantly struggling to keep it all together and failing. And I find that funny, and I think that humor is funny because it deals with situations like that.

Read an excerpt of Does Santa Exist?

Article source: http://www.npr.org/2014/10/18/356425162/a-funny-philosopher-tackles-a-tough-query-does-santa-exist

Peter Norton: We Can Learn From the Movement To Enshrine Car Dependence

It used to be normal to play in the streets. Photo via Peter Norton

Yesterday, we published part one of my interview with Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. We talked about whether the push for infrastructure investment is always code for increasing car capacity, and how the Vision Zero campaign bears the legacy of 100-year-old movements to make streets safe for everyone.

Norton will be speaking on November 13 at the opening reception of Transportation Alternatives’ national Vision Zero for Cities Symposium in New York City.

Below is the audio of our conversation, which went on long after this written transcript. Feel free to take a listen, and forgive the background noise — we were talking in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, one of DC’s most iconic urban green spaces.

Here is a transcript of part two of the interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

We keep calling [the current movement for Vision Zero and livable streets] a “fundamental restructuring,” and I’m curious whether you think that’s accurate. What you’re talking about at the beginning of the last century, which you wrote about in “Fighting Traffic,” was a much more fundamental questioning — because it was new — of the role of cars on streets and in cities. And I’m wondering if you think what’s happening now really gets to those questions or whether it’s just, “Oh, can we just have a little space; we just want some accommodation; we want the buses to be a little better, we want a little bike lane”?

Such an interesting question, because I think that dilemma that we’re in right now in 2014, between fundamental rethinking and just fixes here and fixes there, is the same dilemma that advocates of the automobile found themselves in, especially in the early- to mid-1920s. At first a lot of them said, “We need to take the street as it is and do some fine tuning, things like optimize the traffic signal timings–”

The same solutions we’re looking at!

Exactly! The first synchronized traffic lights for motor vehicles were timed in Chicago in 1926, and at the meeting I was just in, they were still talking about getting the timing right.

Then there were others who began to say, “Stop talking about just retooling the streets to make cars fit in them better; we need to actually re-concieve this.” There was an editorial in Engineering News Record in 1920 — Engineering News Record then and now is the journal of the civil engineers — and the editorial said, “We need a fundamental re-conception of what a city street is for.”

That’s a headline that I would write today!

Yes, exactly. You’re just saying it’s a different re-conception. And to me, in a funny way, it’s kind of an inspiring line, because they’re saying, “We can redefine things.” And they did.

They were very smart about it, and they were very imaginative about it. They got out of just engineering diagrams and reports and started to tell stories about what freedom of mobility means, telling stories about what the future could be, telling stories about sunshine and green space and open areas, and how the car could deliver all those things.

It’s still hard to get to those things without a car.

Yeah! And I personally, just as one person, think there are plenty of good uses for cars. I think where we went wrong wasn’t in having cars; where we went wrong was in rebuilding the world so that’s all you would need to get around.

Sometimes I ask my students, what’s the best paper fastener — a paper clip, a stapler, or a binder clip? And they look at me like that’s the weirdest question in the world, because each one has its place. And my point is, you can’t say what’s the best mode of transportation. It’s just a question of, what’s the tool you need for the job? So I think the inspiring thing about the revolution that made the automobile the predominant thing is that it tells us how you tell stories in ways that capture people’s imaginations.

Probably the most amazing story ever told in order to change mental models about cities was the Futurama exhibit at the [1939] New York World’s Fair, General Motors’ huge thing. It was just brilliant, because it presented a utopian future delivered by cars. And what I love about Streetsblog and Streetfilms is that you all are presenting a vision that’s also inspiring, that says, “Getting around without a car can actually be, first of all, possible and in other ways very attractive.”

Posters like this one, from 1920, advocated a Vision Zero of sorts — but sought to get there by controlling kids, not cars. Image via Peter Norton

One thing I think we struggle with a little bit is: What comes first in this re-envisioning of streets and cities? Do you feel that there needs to be the campaign first to slow everything down; we need to recalibrate the speed limits; we need to do traffic calming — or do we just we start using the streets as if that’s what they’re for — as if they’re for play, as if they’re for bikes, as if they’re for children? Which comes first, or can you do both at the same time? Is it too dangerous?

That’s a tough question, and it’s certainly possible to do these things in a way that annoys people and makes people think that those who want to offer alternatives are cranky, or think they’re better than everybody else.

Like Critical Mass.

Yeah. They can certainly have that effect. I think some of the success stories of recent years show good alternatives, like in New York when they redefined what Times Square is for. That was actually a very controversial proposal, but the way they made it work was they said, “You know what, let’s just try it. We’ll make it totally temporary. We’re just going to have lawn chairs out there. We’re not rebuilding anything. And if you don’t like it, we’ll just take all the lawn chairs out and it’ll be just like it was.” And a lot of the people who said this is a stupid idea ended up loving it.

Making it a temporary experiment, and calling it that — and not telling people who drive that they’re the enemy, but saying to them, “You know what, if you want to drive, drive, but why don’t you try this and let us know what you think about it?”

To get back to driverless cars — and I’m sorry I’m all over the map — you wrote an article saying driverless cars risk answering the wrong question. But what is the right question? And is anybody asking the right question — consumers or auto industry groups?

Boy, I really deserve that question. Because that was my whole point, and I kind of cheated by avoiding that.

So it wasn’t just that I didn’t see it.

No, in fact you’re not the only one that’s asked me that: “Oh yeah, if that’s not the right question, then what is?” A question I’d like to ask is, first of all, step away from the questions we’ve inherited, like “how can we drive with less congestion delay,” and make it a more fundamental question, like “what kind of city do we want,” or “what kind of public spaces do we want.” And that’s a much more general question and the advantage of asking it is that it could start us down a path that leads in a very different direction.

So I guess if I was pressed I’d say, “What kind of city do you want?” And if somebody said back to me, “Well, we’re talking about transportation, not cities,” I would say, “Cities are actually a transportation solution.” And a city says one way to get to where you need to go is either to live near it in the first place, instead of say having a half-hour drive, or to put people close enough together that they can share things efficiently, like buses, like streetcars. And that means that cities can be places, if we want them to be, where people can share modes of transportation, can bicycle, can walk. And the public health benefits, the emotional well-being benefits, the fuel-efficiency benefits, among many others — we really ought to be considering that.

And my problem with autonomous vehicles is they seem to be saying, “The question about how we get around is closed. We get around in cars. So now what we have to do is figure out how to use cars in ways that are more spatially efficient and more fuel-efficient.”

And I say, maybe that question isn’t settled and shouldn’t be settled.

So, I accept the question that you posed. Driverless cars do solve a lot of social problems that we get from cars: some safety problems, some emissions issues, road space, all the things you mentioned. Is there a utility for driverless cars in a world that still embraces — and increasingly embraces — other modes?

This reminds me a little bit of medicine. I think a lot of people would agree we resort to pharmaceuticals too much. But I think most people would agree there’s still a legitimate place for pharmaceuticals. I think cars are kind of like that.

And maybe driverless cars can make us not think we have to expand the number of lanes on our highways every few years, maybe they can help us get more efficient use out of the existing road capacity, and maybe they can help us share cars more efficiently because when the car got us to our destination, maybe we won’t need to park it, it can go get someone else. And I think all those things would be wonderful. And that would be like figuring out, “When do you really need a pharmaceutical, and when do you really just need to change your diet and get some exercise?”

The danger is once we have a pharmaceutical that takes care of something that we could take care of with a lifestyle change it’s not like we’ve just fixed a medical problem, we’ve also encouraged ourselves not to make the lifestyle change. Right?

Same with driverless cars. What if they give us any excuse to not make the lifestyle changes that we probably need to be making for a lot of reasons. And that’s sort of my fear. And I actually feel like the push for driverless cars is a little bit like the push for pharmaceuticals that isn’t just, “Pharmaceuticals have certain medical benefits.” It’s, “There’s nothing in the human condition that we can’t make better with a pharmaceutical.” That’s the message you get. And I fear that that’s what the driverless car rhetoric is like.

Article source: http://usa.streetsblog.org/2014/10/17/peter-norton-we-can-learn-from-the-movement-to-enshrine-car-dependence/

Sherlock v Moriarty: perfect foes

There are no answers to these questions. The simple fact is that Doyle, having
got fed up with his most famous creation, decided to kill him off and then,
tempted by astronomical sums of money, had to find a way to bring him back
again. This required a number of contortions which, looked at closely, make
no real sense. And it’s interesting to note that the magnificent creation
that is Professor James Moriarty was created with one sole purpose: to be
the assassin of Sherlock Holmes. It is his only role. He never returns. He
has nothing else to do.

And even in the stories in which he appears, there is very little to Moriarty.
He really is a phantom in the wind and when Holmes tells Watson that he is
responsible for pretty much all the crime in London, the reader must surely
wonder why he’s never been mentioned before. That wonderful epithet, “the
Napoleon of Crime”, doesn’t even belong to him. It was appropriated by Doyle
after he heard a police inspector describing another criminal, the very real
American thief and smuggler, Adam Worth. Even his name came second-hand when
two Irish boys, the Moriarty brothers, arrived at Stonyhurst College, the
Catholic school where Doyle himself was a pupil. What then is Moriarty’s
secret? Why has he endured when others have faded? And – most pertinently, –
if you are in the business of creating literary villains, what might you
learn from him? It’s certainly a rule of fiction that all heroes have to
have an adversary worthy of them. Harry Potter and Voldemort. Luke Skywalker
and Darth Vadar. King Arthur and Mordred. So where exactly do you begin?

Well, even compiling that short list, it seems that many of these characters
have a close association with the greatest enemy of all and the one that no
man can hope to beat: death. Moriarty, Voldemort and Mordred all reference
the Latin word, mortem, and to them might be added Morgana, another enemy
for King Arthur and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings who lives, after all, in
Mordor. Even the Darth of Darth Vadar is not so very far, homonymously, from
death – it’s fair to assume that George Lucas might not have been taught
Latin at school. Cruella de Vil, often cited as Disney’s greatest villain,
is another unforgettable name with a nudge beyond the grave. So if you’re
intending to create a long-lasting, bad character, a quiet nod towards
mortality might be a good idea.

The fatal struggle at the Reichenbach Falls depicted by Sidney Paget
(Bridgeman Art Library)

The next secret might be that less is more. It’s precisely because we know so
little about Moriarty that he is so open to interpretation and, indeed, to
re-imagination. JK Rowling was probably smart to leave Voldemort out of the
third and sixth Harry Potter books – he barely appears in the fifth too. If
you get to know the villains too well, they lose their efficacy. This might
have been the fate of Hannibal Lecter, one of the most striking creations of
modern times. He makes only occasional appearances in Red Dragon and The
Silence of the Lambs but by the next two books, Hannibal and Hannibal
Rising, he is centre stage and the more disgustingly he acts (eating the
brains of a man who is still alive and talking), the less effective he
seems. Young Hannibal may have been turned into a TV series by NBC but it
its ratings figures have dipped, possibly because it’s too nasty.

Moriarty never does anything cruel or disgusting. Indeed, at the Reichenbach
Falls, Holmes is allowed to inform Watson of his supposed fate after he has
obtained, from Moriarty, “…his courteous permission to write the short note
which you afterwards received.” Watson finds the note, tucked underneath
Holmes’s silver cigarette case. Even Holmes admits that “my horror at his
crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.” The truth is that Moriarty
has never killed anybody. He is a gentleman.

It does help, in literature, if the villains are literate. Every one of
James Bond’s adversaries
speaks well (with the possible
exception of Donovan Grant who is mad and, worse, working class and who
gives himself away by having a Windsor knot in his tie, “the mark of a
cad”). Dr No is scrupulously polite – “You have enjoyed your dinner, Mr
Bond?” – before he opens the door to the torture chamber. In Moonraker,
Bond’s first job is to save Hugo Drax from social disgrace when he’s found
to be cheating at cards. Moriarty may wish to kill Holmes but he still
“awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions that lie
between us.” All very civilized.

Appearances clearly matter. Moriarty is outlandish. Long John Silver and
Captain Hook are both suitably disfigured. Cruella has very strange hair.
Bond villains have all manner of physical peculiarities from Scaramanga’s
third nipple to Drax’s crooked teeth and Blofeld’s eyes with the pupils
completely surrounded by white. Push this too far, of course, and the result
will be ridiculous as can be witnessed by some of the Bond films: Drax
having webbed fingers, for example, or worse, Jaws with his iron teeth. As a
child, I had nightmares about one villain and I still see him sometimes in
my dreams. “…tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like
Shakespeare and a face like Satan…one giant intellect, with all the
resources of science past and present.” That was Dr Fu Manchu who obeyed all
the rules for longevity, but who was also, sadly, Chinese…“the yellow
peril incarnate in one man.” It was not his adversary, Nayland Smith, who
finished him off but political correctness. “The world will hear from me
again,” Christopher Lee used to intone at the end of the films and even now
I still rather hope it will.

In summary, the successful literary über-villain will be physically
impressive, intelligent, articulate and probably won’t be called Bill Smith.
Statistically, he is more likely to be a man than a woman although of course
there have been famous exceptions…Lady Macbeth, Mrs Danvers, Irma Bunt and
the great Rosa Klebb for example. The modern writer will be careful about
ethnicity and disability and even a gay villain (Scaramanga, it was noted,
was unable to whistle which at the time was believed to be an indicator of
homosexuality) is probably out.

And of course, the final paradox. No matter how brilliant, fearsome and
well-organised the villains are, they must always, invariably expect to be
beaten by their adversaries. If they’re lucky, they’ll just have time to
explain what it was they were planning to do before they are prevented from
doing it. At the end of the day, Holmes and Moriarty grapple on the edge of
the waterfall but only one of them gets thrown in. No prizes for guessing
which one it is.

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz (Orion, £9) is published on October 23

Article source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11167631/Sherlock-v-Moriarty-perfect-foes.html

Homer’s Last Theorem

Introduction

I started writing “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets” over a decade ago, so it is hard to recollect the exact moment when I realised that “The Simpsons” was fully of hidden mathematics. My best guess is that I was watching an episode titled “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace”, which contains two references that would inevitably catch my eye. One was a line about Fermat’s last theorem (the subject of my first book) and the other was a line about particle physics (the subject of PhD thesis).

The final third of the book is dedicated to the mathematics hidden in “Futurama”, which is largely created by the same team of mathematically-minded writers. I recall making a radio documentary about the great Indian mathematician Srivinasa Ramanujan, when one of my interviewees mentioned that he (or rather a number associated with him) had made numerous cameo appearances in the show.

I love “The Simpsons”, I love “Futurama” and I love mathematics, so the opportunity to write a book that brought all three together was irresistible. The episode that started the whole project is discussed in the extract below, which is the entire third chapter of “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets”.

Every so often, Homer Simpson explores his inventing talents. In “Pokey Mom” (2001), for instance, he creates Dr. Homer’s Miracle Spine-O-Cylinder, which is essentially a battered trash can with random dents that “perfectly match the contours of the human vertibrains.” He promotes his invention as a treatment for back pain, even though there is not a jot of evidence to support his claim. Springfield’s chiropractors, who are outraged that Homer might steal their patients, threaten to destroy Homer’s invention. This would allow them once again to corner the market in back problems and happily promote their own bogus treatments.

Homer’s inventing exploits reach a peak in “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” (1998). The title is a play on the Wizard of Menlo Park, the nickname given to Thomas Edison by a newspaper reporter after he established his main laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. By the time he died in 1931, Edison had 1,093 U.S. patents in his name and had become an inventing legend.

The episode focuses on Homer’s determination to follow in Edison’s footsteps. He constructs various gadgets, ranging from an alarm that beeps every three seconds just to let you know that everything is alright to a shotgun that applies makeup by shooting it directly onto the face. It is during this intense research and development phase that we glimpse Homer standing at a blackboard and scribbling down several mathematical equations. This should not be a surprise, because many amateur inventors have been keen mathematicians, and vice versa.

Consider Sir Isaac Newton, who incidentally made a cameo appearance on The Simpsons in an episode titled “The Last Temptation of Homer” (1993). Newton is one of the fathers of modern mathematics, but he was also a part-time inventor. Some have credited him with installing the first rudimentary flapless cat flap—a hole in the base of his door to allow his cat to wander in and out at will. Bizarrely, there was a second smaller hole made for kittens! Could Newton really have been so eccentric and absentminded? There is debate about the veracity of this story, but according to an account by J. M. F. Wright in 1827: “Whether this account be true or false, indisputably true is it that there are in the door to this day two plugged holes of the proper dimensions for the respective egresses of cat and kitten.”

The bits of mathematical scribbling on Homer’s blackboard in “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace” were introduced into the script by David S. Cohen, who was part of a new generation of mathematically minded writers who joined The Simpsons in the mid-1990s. Like Al Jean and Mike Reiss, Cohen had exhibited a genuine talent for mathematics at a young age. At home, he regularly read his father’s copy of Scientific American and toyed with the mathematical puzzles in Martin Gardner’s monthly column. Moreover, at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, New Jersey, he was co-captain of the mathematics team that became state champions in 1984.

David S. Cohen pictured in the Dwight Morrow High School yearbook of 1984. The running joke was that everyone on the Math Team was co-captain, so that they all could put it on their college applications.

Along with high school friends David Schiminovich and David Borden, he formed a teenage gang of computer programmers called the Glitchmasters, and together they created FLEET, their very own computer language, designed for high speed graphics and gaming on the Apple II Plus. At the same time, Cohen maintained an interest in comedy writing and comic books. He pinpoints the start of his professional career to cartoons he drew while in high school that he sold to his sister for a penny.

Even when he went on to study physics at Harvard University, he maintained his interest in writing and joined the Harvard Lampoon, eventually becoming president. Over time, like Al Jean, Cohen’s passion for comedy and writing overtook his love of mathematics and physics, and he rejected a career in academia in favor of becoming a writer for The Simpsons. Every so often, however, Cohen returns to his roots by smuggling mathematics into the TV series. The symbols and diagrams on Homer’s blackboard provide a good example of this.

Cohen was keen in this instance to include scientific equations alongside the mathematics, so he contacted one of his high school friends, David Schiminovich, who had stayed on the academic path to become an astronomer at Columbia University.

The first equation on the board is largely Schiminovich’s work, and it predicts the mass of the Higgs boson, M(H0), an elementary particle that that was first proposed in 1964. The equation is a playful combination of various fundamental parameters, namely the Planck constant, the gravitational constant, and the speed of light. If you look up these numbers and plug them into the equation,1 it predicts a mass of 775 giga-electron-volts (GeV), which is substantially higher than the 125 GeV estimate that emerged when the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012. Nevertheless, 775 GeV was not a bad guess, particularly bearing in mind that Homer is an amateur inventor and he performed this calculation fourteen years before the physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, tracked down the elusive particle.

The second equation is . . . going to be set aside for a moment. It is the most mathematically intriguing line on the board and worth the wait.

The third equation concerns the density of the universe, which has implications for the fate of the universe. If Ω(t0) is bigger than 1, as initially written by Homer, then this implies that the universe will eventually implode under its own weight. In an effort to reflect this cosmic consequence at a local level, there appears to be a minor implosion in Homer’s basement soon after viewers see this equation.

Homer then alters the inequality sign, so the equation changes from Ω(t0) 1 to Ω(t0) 1. Cosmologically, the new equation suggests a universe that expands forever, resulting in something akin to an eternal cosmic explosion. The storyline mirrors this new equation, because there is a major explosion in the basement as soon as Homer reverses the inequality sign.

The fourth line on the blackboard is a series of four mathematical diagrams that show a doughnut transforming into a sphere. This line relates to an area of mathematics called topology. In order to understand these diagrams, it is necessary to know that a square and a circle are identical to each other according to the rules of topology. They are considered to be homeomorphic, or topological twins, because a square drawn on a rubber sheet can be transformed into a circle by careful stretching. Indeed, topology is sometimes referred to as “rubber sheet geometry.”

Topologists are not concerned with angles and lengths, which are clearly altered by stretching the rubber sheet, but they do care about more fundamental properties. For example, the fundamental property of a letter A is that it is essentially a loop with two legs. The letter R is also just a loop with two legs. Hence, the letters A and R are homeomorphic, because an A drawn on a rubber sheet can be transformed into an R by careful stretching.

However, no amount of stretching can transform a letter A into a letter H, because these letters are fundamentally different from each other by virtue of A consisting of one loop and two legs and H consisting of zero loops. The only way to turn an A into an H is to cut the rubber sheet at the peak of the A, which destroys the loop. However, cutting is forbidden in topology.

The principles of rubber sheet geometry can be extended into three dimensions, which explains the quip that a topologist is someone who cannot tell the difference between a doughnut and a coffee cup. In other words, a coffee cup has just one hole, created by the handle, and a doughnut has just one hole, in its middle. Hence, a coffee cup made of a rubbery clay could be stretched and twisted into the shape of a doughnut. This makes them homeomorphic.

By contrast, a doughnut cannot be transformed into a sphere, because a sphere lacks any holes, and no amount of stretching, squeezing, and twisting can remove the hole that is integral to a doughnut. Indeed, it is a proven mathematical theorem that a doughnut is topologically distinct from a sphere. Nevertheless, Homer’s blackboard scribbling seems to achieve the impossible, because the diagrams show the successful transformation of a doughnut into a sphere. How?

Although cutting is forbidden in topology, Homer has decided that nibbling and biting are acceptable. After all, the initial object is a doughnut, so who could resist nibbling? Taking enough nibbles out of the doughnut turns it into a banana shape, which can then be reshaped into a sphere by standard stretching, squeezing, and twisting. Mainstream topologists might not be thrilled to see one of their cherished theorems going up in smoke, but a doughnut and a sphere are identical according to Homer’s personal rules of topology. Perhaps the correct term is not homeomorphic, but rather Homermorphic.

     •

The second line on Homer’s blackboard is perhaps the most interesting, as it contains the following equation:

3,98712 + 4,36512 =
4,47212

The equation appears to be innocuous at first sight, unless you know something about the history of mathematics, in which case you are about to smash up your slide rule in disgust. For Homer seems to have achieved the impossible and found a solution to the notorious mystery of Fermat’s last theorem!

Pierre de Fermat first proposed this theorem in about 1637. Despite being an amateur who only solved problems in his spare time, Fermat was one of the greatest mathematicians in history. Working in isolation at his home in southern France, his only mathematical companion was a book called Arithmetica, written by Diophantus of Alexandria in the third century a.d. While reading this ancient Greek text, Fermat spotted a section on the following equation:

x2 + y2 = z2

This equation is closely related to the Pythagorean theorem, but Diophantus was not interested in triangles and the lengths of their sides. Instead, he challenged his readers to find whole number solutions to the equation. Fermat was already familiar with the techniques required to find such solutions, and he also knew that the equation has an infinite number of solutions. These so-called Pythagorean triple solutions include

32 + 42 = 52

52 + 122 = 132

1332 + 1562 = 2052

So, bored with Diophantus’ puzzle, Fermat decided to look at a variant. He wanted to find whole number solutions to this equation:

x3 + y3 = z3

Despite his best efforts, Fermat could only find trivial solutions involving a zero, such as 03 + 73 = 73. When he tried to find more meaningful solutions, the best he could offer was an equation that was out of kilter by just one, such as 63 + 83 = 93 − 1.

Moreover, when Fermat further increased the power to which x, y, and z are raised, his efforts to find a set of solutions were thwarted again and again. He began to think that it was impossible to find whole number solutions to any of the following equations:

x3 + y3 = z3

x4 + y4 = z4

x5 + y5 = z5

x6 + y6 = z6

xn + yn = zn, where n 2

Eventually, however, he made a breakthrough. He did not find a set of numbers that fitted one of these equations, but rather he developed an argument that proved that no such solutions existed. He scribbled a pair of tantalizing sentences in Latin in the margin of his copy of Diophantus’s Arithmetica. He began by stating that there are no whole number solutions for any of the infinite number of equations above, and then he confidently added this second sentence: “Cuius rei demonstrationem mirabilem sane detexi, hanc marginis exiguitas non caperet.” (I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.)

Pierre de Fermat had found a proof, but he did not bother to write it down. This is perhaps the most frustrating note in the history of mathematics, particularly as Fermat took his secret to the grave.

Fermat’s son Clément-Samuel later found his father’s copy of Arithmetica and noticed this intriguing marginal note. He also spotted many similar marginal jottings, because Fermat had a habit of stating that he could prove something remarkable, but rarely wrote down the proof. Clément-Samuel decided to preserve these notes by publishing a new edition of Arithmetica in 1670, which included all his father’s marginal notes next to the original text. This galvanized the mathematical community into finding the missing proofs associated with each claim, and one by one they were able to confirm that Fermat’s claims were correct. Except, nobody could prove that there were no solutions to the equation xn + yn = zn (n 2). Hence, this equation became known as Fermat’s last theorem, because it was the only one of Fermat’s claims that remained unproven.

As each decade passed without a proof, Fermat’s last theorem became even more infamous, and the desire for a proof increased. Indeed, by the end of the nineteenth century, the problem had caught the imaginations of many people outside of the mathematical community. For example, when the German industrialist Paul Wolfskehl died in 1908, he bequeathed 100,000 marks (equivalent to $1 million today) as a reward for anyone who could prove Fermat’s last theorem. According to some accounts, Wolfskehl despised his wife and the rest of his family, so his will was designed to snub them and reward mathematics, a subject that he had always loved. Others argue that the Wolfskehl Prize was his way of thanking Fermat, because it is said his fascination with the problem had given him a reason to live when he was on the verge of suicide.

Whatever the motives, the Wolfskehl Prize catapulted Fermat’s last theorem into public notoriety, and in time it even became part of popular culture. In “The Devil and Simon Flagg,” a short story written by Arthur Porges in 1954, the titular hero makes a Faustian pact with the Devil. Flagg’s only hope of saving his soul is to pose a question that the Devil cannot answer, so he asks for a proof of Fermat’s last theorem. After accepting defeat, the Devil said: “Do you know, not even the best mathematicians on other planets—all far ahead of yours—have solved it? Why, there’s a chap on Saturn—he looks something like a mushroom on stilts—who solves partial differential equations mentally; and even he’s given up.”

Fermat’s last theorem has also appeared in novels (The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson), in films (Bedazzled with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley), and plays (Arcadia by Tom Stoppard). Perhaps the theorem’s most famous cameo is in a 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Royale,” in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard describes Fermat’s last theorem as “a puzzle we may never solve.” However, Captain Picard was wrong and out of date, because the episode was set in the twenty-fourth century and the theorem was actually proven in 1995 by Andrew Wiles at Princeton University.2

Wiles had dreamed about tackling Fermat’s challenge ever since he was ten years old. The problem then obsessed him for three decades, which culminated in seven years of working in complete secrecy. Eventually, he delivered a proof that the equation xn + yn = zn (n 2) has no solutions. When his proof was published, it ran to 130 dense pages of mathematics. This is interesting partly because it indicates the mammoth scale of Wiles’s achievement, and partly because his chain of logic is far too sophisticated to have been discovered in the seventeenth century. Indeed, Wiles had used so many modern tools and techniques that his proof of Fermat’s last theorem cannot be the approach that Fermat had in mind.

This point was alluded to in a 2010 episode of the BBC TV series Doctor Who. In “The Eleventh Hour,” the actor Matt Smith debuts as the regenerated Eleventh Doctor, who must prove his credentials to a group of geniuses in order to persuade them to take his advice and save the world. Just as they are about to reject him, the Doctor says: “But before you do, watch this. Fermat’s theorem. The proof. And I mean the real one. Never been seen before.” In other words, the Doctor is tacitly acknowledging that Wiles’s proof exists, but he rightly does not accept that it is Fermat’s proof, which he considers to be the “real one.” Perhaps the Doctor went back to the seventeenth century and obtained the proof directly from Fermat.

So, to summarize, in the seventeenth century, Pierre de Fermat states that he can prove that the equation xn + yn = zn (n 2) has no whole number solutions. In 1995, Andrew Wiles discovers a new proof that verifies Fermat’s statement. In 2010, the Doctor reveals Fermat’s original proof. Everyone agrees that the equation has no solutions.

Thus, in “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace,” Homer appears to have defied the greatest minds across almost four centuries. Fermat, Wiles, and even the Doctor state that Fermat’s equation has no solutions, yet Homer’s blackboard jottings present us with a solution:

3,98712 + 4,36512 = 4,47212

You can check it yourself with a calculator. Raise 3,987 to the twelfth power. Add it to 4,365 to the twelfth power. Take the twelfth root of the result and you get 4,472.

Or at least that is what you get on any calculator that can squeeze only ten digits onto its display. However, if you have a more accurate calculator, something capable of displaying a dozen or more digits, then you will find a different answer. The actual value for the third term in the equation is closer to

3,98712 + 4,36512 =
4,472.000000007057617187512

So what is going on? Homer’s equation is a so-called near-miss solution to Fermat’s equation, which means that the numbers 3,987, 4,365, and 4,472 very nearly make the equation balance—so much so that the discrepancy is hardly discernible. However, in mathematics you either have a solution or you do not. A near-miss solution is ultimately no solution at all, which means that Fermat’s last theorem remains intact.

David S. Cohen had merely played a mathematical prank on those viewers who were quick enough to spot the equation and clued-up enough to recognize its link with Fermat’s last theorem. By the time this episode aired in 1998, Wiles’s proof had been published for three years, so Cohen was well aware that Fermat’s last theorem had been conquered. He even had a personal link to the proof, because he had attended some lectures by Ken Ribet while he was a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ribet had provided Wiles with a pivotal stepping-stone in his proof of Fermat’s last theorem.

Cohen obviously knew that Fermat’s equation had no solutions, but he wanted to pay homage to Pierre de Fermat and Andrew Wiles by creating a solution that was so close to being correct that it would apparently pass the test if checked with only a simple calculator. In order to find his pseudosolution, he wrote a computer program that would scan through values of x, y, z, and n until it found numbers that almost balanced. Cohen finally settled on 3,98712 + 4,36512= 4,47212 because the resulting margin of error is minuscule—the left side of the equation is only 0.000000002 percent larger than the right side.

As soon as the episode aired, Cohen patrolled the online message boards to see if anybody had noticed his prank. He eventually spotted a posting that read: “I know this would seem to disprove Fermat’s last theorem, but I typed it in my calculator and it worked. What in the world is going on here?”

He was delighted that budding mathematicians around the world might be intrigued by his mathematical paradox: “I was so happy, because my goal was to get enough accuracy so that people’s calculators would tell them the equation worked.”

Cohen is very proud of his blackboard in “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace.” In fact, he derives immense satisfaction from all the mathematical tidbits he has introduced into The Simpsons over the years: “I feel great about it. It’s very easy working in television to not feel good about what you do on the grounds that you’re causing the collapse of society. So, when we get the opportunity to raise the level of discussion—particularly to glorify mathematics—it cancels out those days when I’ve been writing those bodily function jokes.”

1: Hints for those brave enough to do the calculation: Do not forget that E = mc 2 and remember to convert the result to GeV energy units.

2: I should point out that this is a story that is close to my heart, as I have written a book and directed a BBC documentary about Fermat’s last theorem and Andrew Wiles’s proof. Coincidentally, during a brief stint at Harvard University, Wiles lectured Al Jean, who went on to write for The Simpsons.

This excerpt is Chapter Three, taken from The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh. Copyright ©2013 by Simon Singh. Used by permission of Bloomsbury USA/UK. Now available in paperback.

Article source: http://boingboing.net/2014/10/17/homers-last-theorem.html

Netflix claims it can ‘coexist’ with HBO in streaming, investors aren’t convinced

While HBO may be riding high on today’s announcement of plans to break free from the bonds of cable and satellite subscriptions for a standalone Web service, Netflix is having a bad day. Today’s news that its biggest rival is elbowing directly into its space coincides with its own report of lower-than-expected subscriber growth for the third quarter, which sent its stock plummeting in late trading.

Related: HBO breaks free of cable, will offer online-only subscription service

After reaching an all-time record high last month, share’s for Netflix dropped by around 26 percent today, to near $331. In its letter to investors, Netflix blamed its slowed subscriber growth over the last three months on the company’s price hike of $1 per month, announced in April. While Netflix’s earnings show it added around 3 million new subscribers overall, it had forecast the addition of 3.69 million.

By the numbers, Netflix’s quarterly reports show an addition of 980,000 members domestically, and 2.04 million internationally, which were low enough to send shareholders running for the door in after-hours trading. On the bright side, the company reported better-than-expected earnings of 96 cents per share, or $59 million, thanks in part to the rise in subscription fees. Netflix had predicted a profit of just 89 cents per share.

Netflix said the second season of its breakout hit Orange is the New Black helped keep the rate increase from further affecting profits, claiming the enthusiastic reception for the show offset the price hike “for about two months.” The service also said its new animated series BoJack Horseman drew more viewers in the first weeks of inception than many out-of-house animated series it has licensed, such as Archer, Futurama, and Bob’s Burgers.

Regardless of missing expectations when it comes to pulling in new subscribers, Netflix has showed clear dominance in the streaming space up to this point, with Amazon, and Hulu playing perpetual catchup. Boasting more than 50 million subscribers across the globe, Netflix said it doesn’t see those services, competitors like TV Everywhere apps from cable companies, or even piracy as major threats, claiming its retention in the U.S. is as “strong as ever.”

Related: Netflix could top 100 million subscribers internationally by 2020

As for HBO’s forthcoming move to online streaming, Netflix claimed the two services should have no trouble co-existing in the rapidly expanding cord-cutter space.

“Starting back in 2011, we started saying that HBO would be our primary long-term competitor, particularly for content.” Netflix said in its letter to shareholders. “The competition will drive us both to be better. It was inevitable and sensible that they would eventually offer their service as a standalone application. Many people will subscribe to both Netflix and HBO since we have different shows, so we think it is likely we both prosper as consumers move to Internet TV.”

As more and more people look for a broader range of content away from the grips of cable and satellite packages, that may very well be true. That said, few would argue that today’s win goes to the opposition.

Article source: http://www.digitaltrends.com/home-theater/hbo-rides-high-netflix-stock-takes-nose-dive/