What is in a name?

Michael Schur, a writer on The Office and Parks and Recreation has put some very subtle jokes about names into his work on these shows. I learned about Schur from Mindy Kaling and Amy Pohler’s autobiographies.

Gwendolyn Trundlebed (The Office)

From The Believer:
I love crazy names. It comes right from Monty Python and Woody Allen—nothing in the world makes me giggle more than a funny name. It became a thing I started doing when I wrote. If a person came into a store and said, “How much is this apple?” that person would have an insane name. When I was writing on The Office, I wrote a character who literally didn’t have a line, but I made her name Gwendolyn Trundlebed. When I got to set to shoot the scene, I found out that the production team had run with it. They read her name and did their job—they imagined, What is the office of a woman whose name is Gwendolyn Trundlebed? The whole thing was pink, with unicorns everywhere. It looked like a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory set or something. I had to say, “Oh no, I’m really sorry. This is just a normal human woman, and she is named Gwendolyn Trundlebed because that’s a combination of two words that make me laugh.”

Wonderfully Named and Credited (but Not Speaking or Spoken of) Characters on Parks and Rec

From Variety: “I have this belief that most people you meet in life aren’t named Bill Smith,” Schur says. “From early on I thought, ‘Part of what’s going to make (the city of Pawnee) feel real is if people have weird names.’”

Over the years some of the silliest and strangest “Parks” names weren’t even heard on the show.

“There’s a whole family, the Lerpiss family,” Schur explains with delight. “You’ve never heard the name Lerpiss on the show, but there’s probably ten or twelve characters who have had the last name. It doesn’t play into any episode and there’s no plot that relates to it.

“If you look up Lerpiss on IMDb, we wrote character descriptions for them and how they’re related to each other. A lot of businesses in town are like the Lerpiss Moving Company or the Lerpiss Mortuary. There’s a whole other show about this very dynastic but also completely powerless family in Pawnee.”

Schur’s favorites:

  • Judy Zappossoppazzappossopaz
    Schur: “Originally it was Judy Zappos, and I was like ‘You’re gonna have to clear that.’ So I wrote Zappos backwards and it was Judy Zappossoppaz. Then I liked Zappossoppaz so much that I added that whole thing and it became Judy Zappossoppazzappossopaz.”
  • Officer Randy Killnose
  • Mona-Lisa Saperstein
  • Trodd Frankensteip
    Schur: “He comes back (in the final season).”
  • Tyrion Fonzarelli
  • Toni Toné Strunkfuster
  • Gretzky-Susan Pelligrino
    Schur: “I love hyphenates … and a lot of ‘k’ sounds.”
  • Typhoon Montalban
  • Ssassandra Ssassnorp
  • Summer Olé-Kracken Frogfrong
    Schur: “Probably my favorite. It comes right from Monty Python. We also created the opposit

Nontransitive Dice

Nontransitive Dice are pretty amazing things. Basically, in these dice, when they are set up pairwise, one die will beat another 2/3 of the time. However, there’s no “best” die. Even though A beats B and B beats C, A DOES NOT BEAT C. I bought a wonderful pair of Efron’s Dice from the Museum of Math.  For the math nerd, you really have to get a set. They’re amazingly interesting and they really teach kids about probability in a wonderful way!

Without going into all the details, normally, when you play dice you assume transitivity:

  • If B beats A
  • And if C beats B
  • Then C beats A

Which sounds obvious; however, it’s not. take, for example, the game rock, paper, scissors.

Rock-Paper-Scissors from Wikipedia

In this case:

  • Rock beats scissors
  • Scissors beats paper
  • But rock DOES NOT BEAT paper.

When People Can’t See What’s Right In Front Of Them

This is  the preface to Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s book Nurture Shock. It’s one of the best stories I’ve read about how people can completely ignore irrefutable evidence that’s right in front of them:

During the late 1960s, visitors to the Magic Castle— a private nightclub in Hollywood, California, run by professional magicians— were often delighted to see that the club had hired a Cary Grant look-alike as its doorman. As they’d step up to the portico, the door would be swung open by a dashing man in an impeccably tailored suit. “Welcome to the Castle,” he charmed, seeming to enjoy his doppelgänger status. Once the guests were through the lobby, they would titter over just how much the doorman resembled the iconic actor. The nightclub is mere yards from the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame. To have the best Cary Grant impersonator in the world holding the door for you was the perfect embodiment of the magic of Hollywood in all its forms.

However, the doorman pretending to be Cary Grant wasn’t an impostor after all. It was, in fact, the real Cary Grant.

Grant, a charter member of the Castle, had been intrigued by magic since he was a kid. Part of the Castle’s appeal to Grant and many other celebrities, though, was that the club has an ironclad rule— no cameras, no photographs, and no reporters. It gave stars the ability to have a quiet night out without gossip columns knowing.

Grant hung out in the lobby to be with the receptionist, Joan Lawton. They spent the hours talking about a more profound kind of Magic— something Grant cared more deeply about than the stage. Children.

Lawton’s work at the Castle was her night job. By day, she was pursuing a certificate in the science of child development. Grant, then the father of a toddler, was fascinated by her study. He plied her for every scrap of research she was learning. “He wanted to know everything about kids,” she recalled. Whenever he heard a car arrive outside, he’d jump to the door. He wasn’t intentionally trying to fool the guests, but that was often the result. The normally autograph-seeking patrons left him alone.

So why didn’t guests recognize he was the real thing?

The context threw them off. Nobody expected the real Cary Grant would appear in the humdrum position of a doorman. Magicians who performed at the Magic Castle were the best anywhere, so the guests came prepared to witness illusions. They assumed the handsome doorman was just the first illusion of the evening.

Here’s the thing. When everything is all dressed up as entertainment— when it’s all supposed to be magical and surprising and fascinating— the Real Thing may be perceived as just another tidbit for our amusement.

That is certainly the case in the realm of science.

In the immediacy of today’s 24-7 news cycle, with television news, constant blogging, press releases, and e-mail, it feels as if no scientific breakthrough escapes notice. But these scientific findings are used like B-list celebrities— they’re filler for when the real newsmakers aren’t generating headlines. Each one gets its ten minutes of fame, more for our entertainment than our serious consideration. The next day, they are tossed aside, lipstick asmear, as the press wire churns out the science du jour. When they’re presented as quick sound bites, it’s impossible to know which findings really merit our attention.

Most scientific investigations can’t live up to the demands of media packaging. At least for the science of child development, there have been no “Eureka!” moments that fit the classic characterization of a major scientific breakthrough. Rather than being the work of a single scholar, the new ideas have been hashed out by many scholars, sometimes dozens, who have been conducting research at universities the world over. Rather than new truths arriving on the wings of a single experiment, they have come at a crawl, over a decade, from various studies replicating and refining prior ones.

The result is that many important ideas have been right under our noses, building up over the last decade. As a society, collectively, we never recognized they were the real thing.

From: Bronson, Po; Merryman, Ashley (2009-08-14). NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (pp. xiii-xv). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

How to Experience the Future of Virtual Reality Today

Online Learning: Udacity

Udacity is an Awesome Place for Online Learning: In order to review technical and coding skills and to learn new ones, I really like Udacity. Udacity was founded by Sebastian Thrum, founder of Google X and Google’s self driving car project. When Thrum wanted to have more of an impact he created Udacity — which is structured slightly different from other online learning sites. I’ve taken a number of great classes on Udacity including Hadoop and MapReduce (where I downloaded Hadoop to my PC), Intro to the Design of Everyday Things (a fantastic class led by Don Norman), and Intro to Computer Science (a good introduction to Python). They also do some very interesting online talks with thought leaders like Tony Fadell (Nest), Astro Teller (Google X) and Yann LeChun (Facebook’s Director of AI).