The Allais Paradox

Consider two experiments — in each you’re asked to make a choice between two gambles:

In the first experiment, most people choose Gamble 1A over Gamble 1B. In the second, most people choose Gamble 2B over Gamble 2A. Neither of those choices, in itself, is unreasonable. But economist Maurice Allais pointed out in 1953 that choosing 1A and 2B together does appear inconsistent. To see why, refine the table a bit further:

Now it’s clear that, within each experiment, both gambles give the same outcome 89 percent of the time. The only thing to distinguish them, then, is the remaining 11 percent — and when we focus on those segments, Gamble 1A matches Gamble 2A, and 1B matches 2B. Any given individual might tend to prefer a sure thing or a gamble, but here, it seems, most people prefer the sure thing in Experiment 1 and the gamble in Experiment 2.

This doesn’t mean that most people are irrational, Allais argued, but rather that expected utility theory might not reliably predict their behavior.

Shortcuts

In a lecture at the University of Edinburgh in the 1970s, artificial intelligence pioneer I.J. Good pointed out that a robot cricket player doesn’t necessarily need a complex knowledge of physics in order to catch a ball — instead it might emulate humans, who follow a simple rule: “If the ball appears to be rising in the sky, run backwards. If it is falling, run towards it.”

Similarly, Hope College mathematician Tim Pennings noticed that his Welsh corgi, Elvis, seemed to follow the optimal path when chasing a ball thrown into Lake Michigan — Elvis seemed to realize that he ran faster than he swam, and so could minimize his retrieval time by racing intelligently along the beach before jumping into the water. But how did he make these judgments?

“We confess that although he made good choices, Elvis does not know calculus,” Pennings wrote. “In fact, he has trouble differentiating even simple polynomials.”

(Timothy J. Pennings, “Do Dogs Know Calculus?” College Mathematics Journal 34:3 [2003], 178-182.)

The Forest Grove Sound

Make of this what you will: In February 2016 a “mechanical scream” was repeatedly heard at night near Gales Creek Road in Forest Grove, Oregon. Described variously as a “giant flute played off pitch” and “a bad one-note violin solo broadcast over a microphone with nonstop feedback,” the sound typically lasted from 10 seconds to several minutes. It annoyed the residents, but authorities determined there were no problems with gas lines in the area, and the police department announced that the sound didn’t pose a safety hazard.

It ended as mysteriously as it had started — Pacific University physicist Andrew Dawes, who had been mapping the locations where the noise had been heard, plotted his last point on February 27, 2016. He said the results were inconclusive and didn’t suggest any single location. The police and fire departments have closed the case; Forest Grove Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer said he suspected the noise to be “a faulty attic fan or heat pump.”

Good Neighbors

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Due_sportelli_di_libreria_con_scaffali_di_libri_di_musica.jpg

I believe it then to be quite simply true that books have their own very personal feeling about their place on the shelves. They like to be close to suitable companions, and I remember once on coming into my library that I was persistently disturbed by my ‘Jane Eyre’. Going up to it, wondering what was the matter with it, restless because of it, I only after a morning’s uneasiness discovered that it had been placed next to my Jane Austens, and anyone who remembers how sharply Charlotte criticised Jane will understand why this would never do.

— Hugh Walpole, These Diversions: Reading, 1926

Friendly Fire

Here’s a little oddity that I just came across. John Conway’s Game of Life is a familiar recreation that takes place on a grid of squares. At the start each square is either “alive” or “dead,” and then on each turn the status of each square is updated:

  1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies (as if by underpopulation)
  2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on
  3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies (as if by overpopulation)
  4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (as if by reproduction)

This produces some surprising creatures, such as the “glider,” a self-propagating “spaceship” that travels diagonally:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Game_of_life_animated_glider.gif

Gliders can be generated by an oscillating factory called a “gun”:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gospers_glider_gun.gif
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the oddity: It would seem that each gun will produce an infinite fleet, since its gliders all depart in the same direction. But that’s not true if the grid of squares is written on a torus — then the gliders snake around the figure and destroy their maker:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Long_gun.gif

War Talk

Just an interesting fragment: When the Chiricahua Apaches of southern Arizona went on a raiding party, they adopted a special speech. One informant told anthropologists Morris Edward Opler and Harry Hoijer:

I used to know many words, but I have forgotten just about all of them. Only one sticks in my mind, and that is the ceremonial way of asking for a drink of water. Instead of saying, ‘I want to drink some water,’ we had to say, ‘I begin to swim the specular iron ore.’

Peter Farb writes in Word Play (1981), “This kind of formal speech had to be maintained until the war party returned to the camp, at which time conversation switched back to everyday language.”

(Morris Edward Opler and Harry Hoijer, “The Raid and War-Path Language of the Chiricahua Apache,” American Anthropologist, New Series, 42:4 Part 1 [October-December 1940], 617-634.)

A Signature Achievement

The 2018 Name of the Year title went to Canadian hockey player Jimbob Ghostkeeper, beating Dr. Narwhals Mating with 57 percent of 7,500 votes cast. Notable also-rans in this year’s contest: Salami Blessing, La Royce Lobster-Gaines, Makenlove Petit-Fard, Bernard Bumpus, Christine Plentyhoops, Habbakkuk Baldonado, Early Champagne, Fabulous Flournoy, Dr. Dimple Royalty, Darthvader Williamson, Chosen Roach, Chardonnay Beaver, Forbes Thor Kiddoo, Quindarious Gooch, Darwin Tabacco, Blossom Albuquerque, Rev. Dongo Pewee, Mahogany Loggins, and Gandalf Hernandez.

Each year 64 candidates are chosen from reader nominations to compete in an NCAA-style bracket to establish the world’s most entertaining personal name. So far the “Hall of Name” includes Assumption Bulltron, Doby Chrotchtangle, Crescent Dragonwagon, Honka Monka, Excellent Raymond, Licentious Beastie, Mummenschontz Bitterbeetle, African Grant, Largest Agbejemison, Nimrod Weiselfish, Tokyo Sexwale, Tanqueray Beavers, Roszetia McConeyhead, Moses Regular, Jerome Fruithandler, Delano Turnipseed, Princess Nocandy, and Destiny Frankenstein. Send your nominations to nameoftheyear@gmail.com.

Podcast Episode 228: The Children’s Champion

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:251012_Janusz_Korczak_monument_at_Jewish_Cemetery_in_Warsaw_-_05.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the children’s champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved.

We’ll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two cars.

Intro:

Elbert Hubbard and his wife decided on a final gesture aboard the sinking Lusitania.

E.E. Cummings dedicated his 1935 collection of poetry to the 14 publishing houses that rejected it.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Janusz_Korczak.PNG

Sources for our story on Janusz Korczak:

Betty Jean Lifton, The King of Children, 1988.

Adir Cohen, The Gate of Light, 1994.

E.P. Kulawiec, ed., The Warsaw Ghetto Memoirs of Janusz Korczak, 1979.

Marc Silverman, A Pedagogy of Humanist Moral Education: The Educational Thought of Janusz Korczak, 2017.

Susan J. Berger, “The Children’s Advocate: Janusz Korczak,” American Educational History Journal 33:2 (2006), 137-142.

Robert Leiter, “For the Sake of Children,” Jewish Exponent, April 6, 2000, 59.

Liba H. Engel, “Does School Reform Have Legs? The Flourishing of Janusz Korczak’s Pedagogy in Modern Israel,” Educational Forum 68:2 (Winter 2004), 170-179.

Reinhold Boschki, “Re-Reading Martin Buber and Janusz Korczak: Fresh Impulses Toward a Relational Approach to Religious Education,” Religious Education 100:2 (Spring 2005), 114-126.

Liba H. Engel, “Experiments in Democratic Education: Dewey’s Lab School and Korczak’s Children’s Republic,” Social Studies 99:3 (May/June 2008), 117-121.

Robert Leiter, “‘Who Is That Man?’ In the End, He Was the Comforter of Lost Children,” Jewish Exponent, June 10, 2004, 32.

Daniel Feldman, “Honoring the Child’s Right to Respect: Janusz Korczak as Holocaust Educator,” The Lion and the Unicorn 40:2 (April 2016), 129-143.

Martha J. Ignaszewski, Kevin Lichtenstein, and Maya Ignaszewski, “Dr. Janusz Korczak and His Legacy,” British Columbia Medical Journal 55:2 (March 2013), 108-110.

Gabriel Eichsteller, “Janusz Korczak — His Legacy and Its Relevance for Children’s Rights Today,” International Journal of Children’s Rights 17:3 (July 2009), 377-391.

Sara Efrat Efron, “Moral Education Between Hope and Hopelessness: The Legacy of Janusz Korczak,” Curriculum Inquiry 38:1 (January 2008), 39-62.

Aleksander Lewin and Agnieszka Bolczynska, “Janusz Korczak Is Greater Than His Legend: The Saint of All Creeds,” Dialogue & Universalism 11:9/10 (2001), 75.

Marie Syrkin, “The Saint in the Ghetto,” New Republic 198:23 (June 6, 1988), 44.

Yerachmiel Weingarten, “Janusz Korczak — Living Legend of Warsaw,” Canadian Jewish Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1944.

Vivian Eden, “Korczak Controversy,” Jerusalem Post, April 14, 1989, 7.

Amy O’Brian, “Exhibit Honours Hero of the Holocaust,” Vancouver Sun, Oct. 21, 2002, B2.

Eva Hoffman, “My Hero: Janusz Korczak,” Guardian, April 8, 2011.

James MacDonald, “Himmler Program Kills Polish Jews,” New York Times, Nov. 25, 1942.

Gabrielle Glaser, “Warsaw Journal; Where Children Are Taught Survival,” New York Times, May 30, 1992.

Vincent Canby, “Of a Saintly Jewish Doctor in Poland Who Died at Treblinka,” New York Times, April 12, 1991.

Betty Jean Lifton, “Wajda’s ‘Korczak’; Human Values, Inhuman Time,” New York Times, May 5, 1991.

Stephen Engelberg, “Wajda’s ‘Korczak’ Sets Loose the Furies,” New York Times, April 14, 1991.

Carolyn A. Murphy, “The King of Children,” New York Times, Aug. 21, 1988.

Geoffrey Wolff, “A Saint’s Life in Warsaw,” New York Times, July 31, 1988.

Betty Jean Lifton, “Shepherd of the Ghetto Orphans,” New York Times, April 20, 1980.

James Feron, “Awarding of a West German Peace Prize Stirs Memories of a Wartime Martyr of the Warsaw Ghetto,” New York Times, Oct. 1, 1972.

“Parenting Advice From a Polish Holocaust Hero,” Weekend All Things Considered, NPR, March 3, 2007.

Listener mail:

Annalee Newitz, “Movie Written by Algorithm Turns Out to Be Hilarious and Intense,” Ars Technica, June 9, 2016.

Dyllan Furness, “‘Sunspring’ Is an Absurd Sci-Fi Short Film Written By AI, Starring Thomas Middleditch,” Digital Trends, June 10, 2016.

Jacob Brogan, “An Artificial Intelligence Scripted This Short Film, But Humans Are Still the Real Stars,” Slate, June 9, 2016.

Amanda Kooser, “AI-Written Film ‘Sunspring’ a Surreal Delight, Upchucked Eyeball Included,” CNET, June 13, 2016.

“HAL 90210,” “This Is What Happens When an AI-Written Screenplay Is Made Into a Film,” Guardian, June 10, 2016.

Max Woolf, “I trained an (actual) AI on the titles of BuzzFeed YouTube videos and it generated some *interesting* results,” Twitter, Nov. 19, 2018.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener B Vann.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!