The Power of Puns

What do you call a blind dinosaur?

A doyouthinkhe-saurus.

Puns hold great power. But it is a pernicious kind of power and one that should be avoided.

John Cleese (of Monty Python Fame) maintains that there are three inviolable rules of comedy:

  • No puns
  • No puns
  • No puns

Now it’s possible his objections are entirely aesthetic. Comedy really is a matter of taste. But I think there is something to it. While some people do enjoy the humour in puns, there is an inescapable groan-worthy quality to them that few would deny—it’s just a different kind of funny.

I was thinking about this when I was thinking about the “Odd Problem of Sugar Cubes”. I first encountered this problem in a Linear Algebra course at the University of Toronto from a professor who, he reported, learned it in another Linear Algebra course he attended when he was a student at the University of Toronto. So forgive me if you’ve heard this one before:

How do you divide thirty cubes of sugar amongst three cups of coffee such that each cup contains an odd amount of sugar.

This is followed by the usual brain teaser caveats like, “no breaking sugar cubes in parts” and “no banishing cubes of sugar into alternate dimensions”.

The “correct” answer (if that word is to have any coherent meaning) is that the task is impossible. An odd number plus an odd number is necessarily an even number and an even number plus an odd number is necessarily odd. So solutions only exist if the total number of sugar cubes is odd.

However, there is another answer:

You place one cube in the first cup [odd], one cube in the second cup [odd], and then twenty-eight cubes in the final cup, which is an odd quantity of sugar cubes to have in a cup of coffee.

Unsatisfying? Yes!

While this may pass as a minor intellectual joke and you can respect the ingenuity and cleverness behind it, the answer strikes all who hear it as cheating. But is this a legitimate objection? Doesn’t it only matter if the solution is effective or not?

The answer is, “Yes, this is cheating!” precisely because the solution does not work. One of the clearest signs that this does not work is that if you translate the problem into another language besides, it becomes insoluble. And intuitively we know that if the problem is about properties of objects in the real world, it is that they are independent of language. The properties of a sugar cube and a coffee cup should be invariant under translation from English to French.

There is a Chinese proverb which states:

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.

There is actually a rule in making a logical argument that you are not allowed to alter the definition of words you use in the middle. To break that rules is to commit the fallacy of equivocation. The idea that words don’t change their definitions over time is central to all kinds of argument. If A implies B and B implies C, then A implies C. But this is only true if someone hasn’t made sneaky modifications to what we mean by B in the middle. Otherwise the whole enterprise breaks down.

Think about how you would feel if you had a significant other that promised never to cheat on you, was free to be flexible with the definition of cheat.

A rather goofy example appeared recently in Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

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If you want a truly frightening example watch this excerpt from a recent episode of Last Week Tonight: 

If you skip to the 13:30 mark, you’ll see someone try and claim that “Un huh” doesn’t strictly mean “yes” so that they can deceive an insurance company to pay for prescription opioids.

This is not to try and advocate for linguistic prescription where you have a committee which decides once and for all what words must mean and resists any effort to change them. Wicked can occasionally mean something good or something bad, and that definition can change—but not in the same conversation.

But this kind of strategic redefinition of words is not about any kind of intellectually honest problem solving. It’s more about cherry picking and massaging the facts to agree with a pre-determined conclusion.

What brought this on?

The appearance of the comic and the newscast coincided with coming across a solution to the sugar problem which actually works. (Thanks to Richard Wiseman’s 101 Bets you Will Always Win.) Instead of messing with the definition of “odd”, we mess with the definition of “coffee cup” to be a paper cup (as at Tim Hortons or Starbucks) so that one cup can fit nested inside the other. Arrange the cubes so that you have two cups containing odd numbers then one containing an even number. (The 1-1-28 from above works here.) To solve the problem lift one of the odd cups and place it inside the cup with the even number of cubes. Now this cup contains an odd number (albeit with a cup in the way) and so does the one above.

It’s not a funny solution but it is an effective one.

The Lesson

When trying to engage in problem solving and critical thinking, the solutions you explore need to be grounded in reality. There is a (very dangerous) kind of magical thinking where we can be led to believe that by changing the name of a thing, we can change the properties of a thing. In the real world it’s not possible to define your problems away.

Along these lines I was shown this “math” problem (taken from this clip by #Mind Warehouse).

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The solution (in case you’re not willing to watch the video… spoiler alert) is that the “equals sign” is counting the number of holes in the numerals in the numbers. (0000 = 4, 1111 = 0). Setting aside the enjoyment and satisfaction you might feel in treating this as a brain teaser and staring at it for an hour or two, as a “problem to be solved” it fails to grasp how numbers actually work. The shape of the numeral isn’t a meaningful property of the number. In fact, it’s entirely arbitrary—an accident of history—what shape they take. The shape of the digits in 200, is meaningless. That’s just the way we’ve agreed to represent, as a convenient shorthand, a pile of two hundred somethings. The answer changes if you change to a different alphabet (or if you insist, “Roman Numerals”).

You can’t pursue this kind of thinking in real world problem solving. Once you do, you may as well just redefine bankruptcy as victory and borrow your way to a successful business.

Mystic Halloween – Connected Circle

This Friday, I’ll be performing at Connected Circle’s Mystic Halloween show.

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Have you ever wondered how magic is done? Is there something you want to say to someone in the afterlife? Do you know the benefit of aligning your spirit, body and energy?

Join the live studio audience at the upcoming “Mystic Halloween” Connected Circle Live Show and Dance Party! as mystic guest mediums, tarot card readers and magicians share insights to help you discover your mystical self. Meet the mystics and dance the night away with other audience members.

Halloween costumes optional but encouraged.

The show’s live filming will take place on Friday, October 28th from 5:30pm onwards at Maezo Restaurant + Bar (formerly The Rum Exchange) in downtown Toronto.

Tickets are now available if you’d like to join us. (And apparently there’s a dance party as well.)

Face2Face – Podcast Interview

I sat down recently to have a chat with David Peck, the host of the Face2Face Podcast. As far as I can tell, David is a man who never sleeps. In addition to putting out a prodigious number of podcast interviews (mine is number 222) he also teaches in the International Development Program at Humber College, practices magic and has a family.

David has been a guest on Magic Tonight a few times, so this was a chance to return the favour.

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Actually, I’ve appeared on Face2Face before along with the magician, skeptic and humorist Michael Close. This time, we talk about mathematics, magic and mystery, risk and about how to leverage small secrets, and why it’s not about how smart you are, but it’s about what you know.

Listen to the interview at DavidPeckLive.com or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

The Majestic Return of Will & Grace

Ten years after the series ended, the cast of Will & Grace returned to the screen to offer up their brilliant take on the US election. Looking back on the series a decade later with all of the progress that has been made for civil rights in North America, it seems a bit cliche. But it’s important to remember that at the time it was light years ahead of the curve.

Grand Spirits Getting Grander

Grand Spirits, the organization secretly masterminding my new show, Magic and Martini, is making a little piece of history up north of the city.

While we take organizations like the LCBO and The Beer Store for granted, we don’t realize  that this is not how the sale of spirituous beverages works just about every place else in the world. But with changing regulations, this is the first legal distillery to open in this region in over a century.

Read the full story at CanadianRestaurantNews.com

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PG?

I’m often asked if my shows are appropriate for children. I know that some people are confused, expecting magic shows to be designed for children. I know that there are sometimes economic realities mean that a ticket to a show and dinner for a small person can be less expensive than a babysitter. And I also know that some kids just enjoy more grownup activities.

It’s a tough question to answer. My secret mantra, given to me by a friend years ago is that “I perform magic for grownups.” Which somewhat ironically means that my shows tend to be entirely G-rated.

That’s not to say they’re for kids. There will be words they won’t understand, and I can’t promise they’ll understand everything, but there’s nothing in the show that will leave them traumatized — certainly nothing as bad as Bambi.

Where we settled running Magic Tonight was the rather vaguely worded “family friendly but not intended for children under twelve.” Basically a polite way of saying that the show was G rated but that young kids wouldn’t find us all that interesting—no fluffy bunnies to see here. That never stopped children from turning up. I would always make it a point to ask how old they were. What I discovered, more than once, was that the children had been instructed to lie and say they were twelve. (How were they supposed to know that we didn’t actually care?)

I was struck by Doug Walker’s recent vlog essay about the standard movie rating system we all knew growing up. When I was younger, I paid attention to the ratings of movies because I know that they influenced whether or not my parents would let me watch them. In fact, to this day, there are films I’ve never seen, like Terminator, which were rated R, because at the time I wasn’t allowed and by the time I was allowed, the need to see it was no longer pressing. It was also that awkward era where video rentals were becoming obsolete but pure on demand services like Netflix and iTunes hadn’t come about yet.

Now I’m a grownup and can watch whatever I want, so I really haven’t paid attention to a movie rating in probably a decade or more. So I was shocked to discover that both Frozen and The Hunger Games both had the same PG rating. So take a look at our ****ed up rating system:

Of course now, Magic and Martini is strictly nineteen plus because of the spaces we’re using so we can get the most interesting cocktails to go with the show. I can’t claimed to have added any mature or adult content anywhere in the show. So who knows, maybe some industrious twelve year old with a very good fake ID will make an appearance at one of our shows.

On the taxonomy of Dragons

This is deeply nerdy but still oddly fascinating. AronRa gave this talk at DragonCon about how to fit the dragons of literature and film and fit them into modern cladistic taxonomy.

AronRa is a giant of a human who is physically intimidating and has this astonishing knack of churning out these 45-60 minute talks at an alarming rate. There are tricks that I’ve had in nearly every show I’ve ever done for over a decade and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give the same talk more than once.

No (fair) Dice

Persi Diaconis is an ex-magician. He left the world of professional magic to become a professor of statistics at Stanford. But those influences are still reflected in his work as many of the simple tools used in the exploration of statistics — coins, cards, dice — are also favourite tools of the magician.

So nothing specifically to do with magic, but if you wanted to know how fair your super-complicated D&D dice were.

Watch to the end to get the link to the hidden part 2!