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Quasi-reviews: True Notebooks, Curious Incident, Stable Strategies


I recently finished reading Mark Salzman's True Notebooks, which Barbara E loaned me at Xmastime. Salzman is a bestselling author who, in 1997, decided to start teaching a writing workshop at Juvenile Hall in LA; this book recounts his experiences in that workshop. It's not a Great Book, but has some good stuff in it, and it was relevant to the Creative Nonfiction stuff I was thinking about.

I spent a lot of the book wondering how accurate his rendition of the kids' dialogue was. At the end there's an Author's Note that I wish he'd put at the beginning:

This is a work of nonfiction, but not of journalism. I did not use a tape recorder or take notes during my visits to Central. The dialogue in this book has been re-created from memory. Naysayers in the sciences—and, sad to say, even in the humanities—insist that human memory is unreliable. Hard evidence supports this claim but I can cite dozens of personal anecdotes to refute it, and anyway it is a bleak view so I say pshaw.

The examples of student writing reproduced here are unaltered except for the spelling and punctuation corrections I suggested during class. Where alternate spellings, grammar, and so on were used deliberately, I left them alone.

Some names have been changed, but most haven't.

I suspect he's being a little disingenuous about how much he changed the student writing; for example, he keeps some misspellings that I doubt were intentional, presumably to make it sound/look more authentic, not to mention using certain misspellings in dialogue to indicate dialect. And some of the things the kids said sounded a little too earnest to me, a little too much like what a liberal writing teacher would want to hear them say. But still, I was pleased to see the note, and found the book overall interesting.

Meanwhile, I was also reading the other book Barbara and Joe gave me, this one as a gift: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. It's excellent, a superb first-person portrayal of a relatively high-functioning autistic kid in the UK; the narrative voice is so compelling that I kept finding myself sliding into it while writing email. Which is to say I would get more (a) pedantic, (b) unfocused (specifically, not good at determining which things are relevant and which aren't), (c) oriented toward ordering things into neat categories and boxes, and/or (d) full of comparisons between minds and machines. Although I am somewhat prone to all of those things normally, of course.

There were too many good lines in the book for me to begin to track them; I decided early on not to bother marking them. The only one I did mark is fairly atypical for the book, but I did like the image: "I like it when it rains hard. It sounds like white noise everywhere, which is like silence but not empty."

By page 4, the author had already collected enough author points to carry me through the book. I thought to myself, The only thing missing from this book is footnotes. And then, lo!, on page 5 there was a footnote.

By halfway through, I felt that the book had only one flaw: a weird mishandling of the Marilyn Vos Savant/Monty Hall problem. (See also the rec.puzzles Monty Hall solution.) For about fifteen years, I've been remembering the story as another example of Marilyn Vos Savant having made a dumb mistake; but in Curious Incident, it says she was right and all the Ph.D.s who wrote to her were wrong. So when I finished the book, baffled by Haddon's lapse on this subject, I went and looked this stuff up, and discovered that I've been wrong all these years; Ms. Vos Savant was right, and the book's handling of the issue is fine, and the thing I thought was a flaw wasn't.

One odd thing about the book is that nowhere in the entire book (including front and back covers and blurbs) does it mention the word autism, except in the about-the-author paragraph (which is oddly located on a sort of inside-cover page that appears after several pages of blurbs, which meant I didn't see it 'til just now), where it notes: "As a young man, Haddon worked with autistic individuals." Makes me wonder what readers think of the book if they don't know anything about autism. Or if they don't know any geeks; a lot of high-functioning autistic traits are very familiar (albeit in less extreme form) to people who work in the computer industry.

The other published fiction I've been reading lately is Eileen Gunn's new collection Stable Strategies and Others, which I'm quite liking so far. (Also, earlier this week it appeared on the final ballot for the Philip K. Dick Award, along with books by several other cool authors.) I'd read about half the stories in their original publications, but haven't seen most of them in many years, and it's worth renewing the acquaintance. I'll probably say more about this when I finish the book.

Oh—while I'm talking about books, I'll toss in another plug for the fine folks at Night Shade Books. I mentioned a couple weeks back that they had sent me the copy I'd preordered of the new Iain M. Banks short-story collection, The State of the Art; what I didn't mention was that they accidentally included two other books that I had previously ordered, which they had already sent me copies of. I dropped them a note asking how I should go about returning those two, and Jason wrote back to say I could keep them. I plan to repay his generosity by giving the books to people as gifts; with luck, the excellent writing and superb production values (I can't get over how good their books look) will cause the recipient to go buy lots more Night Shade books.


Yep, MVS was correct (although, as I understand it, her derivation wasn't correct, her answer was). I remember having big debates in college about this when her column was printed. I even wrote a short computer program to see which strategy wins on average.

I never really found the solution satisfying until I read a nice description of it in a book on Bayesian probability theory. The author there gave a nice variation on the problem that adds insight. Suppose there are a million doors, and the host opens 999,998 --- which door do you think has it, the one you picked, or the door that wasn't opened?

Now I assign this problem as homework.

coherentness is low at this time of night, but as befits my more or less extroverted nature, I will talk anyway!

I want to read that book; I love books with a strange but consistent POV (as opposed to the unreliable narrator, which makes me want to throw the book across the room.) This leads me to wonder whether you've read "Motherless Brooklyn" by the brilliant Jonathan Lethem. That's the (more or less) murder mystery where the POV character has Tourette's. You can't really call it anything but a tour de force.

Second, to back up what you said about geeks and autism, I'll note that I often refer to myself as one of the more high-functioning non-members of Swil :) Which is to say, I have ok social skills in some ways -- in certain situations, they even qualify as exceptional -- but in a lot of others...it's like there's a veil between me and the normal world. Sometimes I just feel completely cut off from the other people talking in a room.

Thirdly, however, I continue to work on my small talk skills, despite their not always coming naturally. I think small talk is vastly underrated as a virtue by the geek community in general (and by certain sectors of the non-geek, but young, overprivileged, and therefore myopic liberal left.) Being able to make conversation expresses your interest in the other person in the room (and is therefore gracious); plus, you sometimes pick up cool tidbits of information. But even the very basics often seem to elude people that are otherwise very intelligent. When faced with a stranger, you ask them where they're from, what they do for work, do they have children, what is it like? Voila, conversation -- but lots of geeks avoid those questions, because they don't want to make "shallow conversation." But I reject that argument; learning those first few facts about a person is a basis for a whole possible relationship, you know? And also, if more geeks sucked it up and dealt, it would be a huge gift to those of us who are otherwise forced to work at stitching conversations together. I'd love to get a fucking break from managing conversations, and get asked questions by strangers once in a while myself, instead of having to come up with them all on my own.

Hmm, now I sound like a judgmental extrovert. Ironically enough, I have a lot of introvert traits; I could easily spend weeks by myself, if not more, as long as I didn't have to worry about money or food. But a combination of basic curiosity about the world/other people, and a belief that, given that we live in the world together, it's basically our duty to make it a comfortable place for everyone else, mean that I'm doomed to force myself into a lot of extrovert behaviors, even when I really don't feel like it.

By the way, I also enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time, although the latter third kinda petered-out for me.

Not to hijack the comments into a Monty-Hall discussion, but I have found the million-doors analogy less intuitive than the 52-card one. That is, I ask you to pick a card from the deck. I then look through the remaining 51 cards, remove one, and show you that the Ace of Spades is not in the fifty discards. Now, what are the odds that you chose the Ace of Spades? The same as they were before I started waving my hands, one out of 52. What are the odds I have it? 51 out of 52. The advantage, there, is that you can actually do it, while the million-door one you probably can't.

Another, less convincing but in my mind more interesting way to look at to look at what you know when you have chosen one door (or card). You know that either my two doors both hide goats, or that one of my doors hides a goat and one hides a car. In other words, you already know that (at least) one of my doors hides a goat. When I open a door on a goat, that just shows you which door that is, which is irrelevant. I've made you think you learned something, but you didn't, really.


Yes, in fact one of my colleagues teaches this example in a similar way to what you're describing. He has three pieces of paper, and the students have to pick one, then he decides to reveal one more. They do this a few times, and, when they see him making a decision about which door to open, they start to get the intuition for what's going on. The fact that he chose to show card #2 gives some weight to the interpretation that he was forced to because card #3 contains the prize.

The title "Stable Strategies" provokes my curiousity. To hazard a guess: does the iterated prisoner's dilemma figure as an illustrative metaphor? (Or maybe a different one of the toy systems that show stable and unstable strategies? Which might be more entertaining, since my impression is that the IPD has 'been done' in SF, though I'm not sure why I think that.)

My meandering mind now comes around to asking if you've ever read the Greg Egan story "Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies."

A couple assorted notes:

Aaron: Yeah, the 100-door version of Monty Hall is what finally convinced me of the right answer, back when I first encountered the problem on rec.puzzles. ...And yeah, agreed that the last third or so of Curious Incident wasn't as good as the first third. But still pretty good, imo. ...Cool that you're assigning those Monty Hall questions; do the students seem to get it?

V: I hadn't seen the 52-card version, but I like it.

Catherine O: Alas, I've read almost no Lethem. One of those gaps in my reading that I really ought to rectify at some point.

Re smalltalk: Yeah, I can definitely see what you're saying. For me (though this isn't directly relevant to what you said), I think the problem I have with engaging in smalltalk isn't so much not wanting to be shallow, as knowing that unless the other person's an extrovert, I won't be able to keep the smalltalk going indefinitely, which means at some point there will be an awkward silence. At a party, that means awkward attempts at disengagement; on an airplane, that means potentially hours of sitting next to each other awkwardly. ...Then, too, there are plenty of situations in which I really do just want to be left alone—I'm reading, or writing, or thinking about something, or daydreaming, and I don't want to interact with strangers.

...I think the "make [the world] a comfortable place for everyone else" thing is extremely relevant, because ime a lot of extroverts don't realize that it's more comfortable for most introverts if you leave them to themselves. A lot of the things extroverts do to make others comfortable end up making introverts uncomfortable.

It cuts the other way, too, of course. I used to avoid interacting with grocery-store clerks because I assumed they'd be more comfortable if left to themselves. It didn't occur to me that introverts are probably relatively unlikely to apply for jobs that involve interacting with people all day.

Anyway, I don't think you sound like a judgmental extrovert; I agree that being able to engage in smalltalk is an extremely valuable life skill, and that people should learn how to do it at least a little bit. Most of what little smalltalk abilities I have came from taking an interviewing class at SGI many years ago; these days when I'm in a smalltalk situation I try to think of myself as sort of interviewing the other person to find out what their life is like. I imagine it sometimes comes across as grilling (and I try to be sensitive to that), but more often people seem to like talking about themselves.

Dan: The book's title comes from Eileen's best-known story, "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," which was nominated for a Hugo when it was first published. The story doesn't explicitly talk about game theory or Prisoner's Dilemma—it's really about office politics—but I suppose those things are sort of indirectly relevant to it. ...Nope, haven't read the Egan; where was it published?

I can't think of an SF story that deals with the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. Can anyone -- Dan or someone else -- come up with an example?

Jed, "Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies" is in Egan's first collection, Axiomatic.

It's funny, I can't think just now of a story I've read that uses the IPD (or just the basic Prisoner's Dilemma) as an illustration. There *is* the Richard Powers book Prisoner's Dilemma which appears to use the titular problem, but I haven't read that one yet.

Still, I have the sense that if I read a story now that used it, say, to talk about why cooperation is usually an invasible strategy, I'd think, "yeah, yeah, here we go again."