Posted by: holdenlee | January 25, 2014

Math notes; Radio storytelling

Hi all!

1 This blog will live again

And rather than drop a few extremely well-thought out posts over a long period of time, I’ll write regularly about littler things as they come up.

2 Math notes (Cambridge Part III)

These have been moved to a dedicated page.

3 Radio storytelling

Recently I’ve gotten hooked on radio shows like RadioLab and 99% invisible.

These shows examine what we take for granted around us, and remakes them into stories. And what makes a story? One way to think of this is that stories involve both chance as intention–and these things seem to feed different parts of our brain:

  • chance reminds us that the world is unpredictable, that we should celebrate what we have because it might not have happened that way, to go with the flow and improv, and
  • intention reminds us of how people made things the way they are, and reaffirms a belief that we can make a difference. A quote from 99% Invisible captures this very well:

When you see the care that someone put into something, the genius of everyday decisions, I think it makes you pathologically optimistic.

I’ll summarize some stories I recently heard (likely with inaccuracies, as I’m doing it off memory, go listen to the shows!):

Skyscrapers wouldn’t exist without the elevator. Otis is credited with inventing the elevator, but he really invented the elevator brake, the most essential part. And when he did, people started imagining building high—like 10 or 12 stories. In hotels the most expensive rooms used to be on the ground floor (to save well-to-do guests from trudging up the stairs), but then they became the penthouses, because didn’t it make sense for the rich to look down on the city, spread beneath them?

The first tall buildings weren’t thin and skinny like they are now, but fat because people thought the building wouldn’t stand up otherwise—until an architect thought otherwise, and built one in the midst of ridicule—promising to use the top floor as his office so he would have the “farthest to contemplate his fall”—and braving an experiment in the middle of a hurricane to prove its stability.

Apocalyptical lets the reader imagine the last moments of the dinosaurs: we’ve all heard of how a meteorite destroyed the dinosaurs, but here we zoom in and go through the moments step by step, with sound effects and acting to make us really feel the apocalypse: how the temperature went up to 1200 F in a few hours and nothing on the surface survives. And how humans are still underground, some furry mammal who has been dubbed the “shrewdinger.”

Bundled with this story is a story about a personal apocalypse: how two actors with Parkinson’s had lost hope for their acting career until they found Beckett’s play Endgame on two handicapped people, with little lines like “I hesitate to end,” and “I can’t go on, I will go on” that spoke to the actors very personally. They decided to perform it.  And somehow, even after some mess-ups during the play itself, they feel more alive than they have in very long time.

An ice cold case: Two travelers in the Alps find a body encased in ice—turns out it’s a perfectly preserved man from 5200 years ago, because it has thawed out and refrozen every year. Forensic scientists were able to reconstruct the life of the man in his last few days, how he journeyed between the mountain and the valley, how he was pursued and later killed but somehow had the time to have a feast two hours before his death—by examining details such as the different kinds of pollen in the water in his intestines.

Cut and Run:  David Epstein sets out to find out what makes Kenyan runners so good, and finds two reasons:

  1. genetics—near the equator, body build tends to be long and skinny—in particular, legs have less weight near the tips. However, this fails to explain why many of the best runners aren’t just Kenyan, but come from the Kalenjin tribe.
  2. culture—for 2000 years there has been a type of “cultural selection” going on—after puberty, men have to undergo a painful circumcision trial (and women an analogous trial)—and only those that bear the pain are allowed to marry and have children. Somehow, the tribe may be selecting for or developing pain tolerance, important in extreme sports.

While this episode is about running, what strikes me is how universally these reasons apply: people have innate talents for different subjects, and people build those talents using hard work or endurance.

(1) On one hand, it seems very unfair for chance to dictate how good we are (and David Epstein almost backed out of the project because he was afraid that people would take offense), but on the other hand, it’s a fact we can’t deny.

(2) The second advantage seems fairer, but is troubling in its own way:

if you run with extreme pain for a month,… and somehow that gave you a certain cultural troubling but also real relationship to pain, that feels like a fair advantage to me, not that I would wish it on anyone.

One of the Kalenjin interviewed said how he appreciates what the trial gave him, but that he wouldn’t wish the same on his children, and would find other ways to pass on the Kalenjin values without resorting to the ancient rituals. [Side note: this reminds me of the “tiger mother” approach to learning, and it’s wonderfully ambiguous what the “correct” approach to parenting is.]

So what are we to make of this? In 1968 Kip Keano broke the world record even though he had an extremely painful gall bladder infection. On the show, Jad says,

Kip Keano didn’t win because he had thin ankles, he won because of something which is the reason we watch, the essence, or willpower, the triumph of the human over everything.


  1. Awesome 🙂

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