Stephen Pinker on Free Speech

Stephen Pinker, of Harvard University, offers up a wonderful discussion of free speech.

What I particularly enjoyed was that over half of the video is Q&A, so he is off-script receiving some great and stimulating questions.

I’m glad I took the time to listen.


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:


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).


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.


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.

The Science of Gambling

When you’re a magician, the question comes up often, “Can I take you with me to the casino?” Never mind that there are no casinos in Toronto, my background in math means I’m fascinated by gambling but know enough about the odds to not want to do it in casinos.

The Royal Institute in London offers up its public talks for free online and I thought I’d share this really interesting talk about the intersection between science and gambling including using computers to cheat at the roulette and blackjack tables, the mathematics of shuffling applied to card tricks and strange ways to win at the lottery.

And the Q&A to follow up:


I’m a strange enough person that when I was young I had a favourite physicist. This was in the days before YouTube when if you wanted to learn about someone you had to have a book, or happen upon something on TV live.

Since Richard Feynman passed away when I was three, there was not really any new material on him coming out. By the time I finished university, I had read all of the published books and listened to the audio lectures. Shortly after that, Bill Gates released Project Tuva [which now seems to be a deal link – the videos are now hosted by Cornell].

But now all the little snippets of interviews and documentaries have managed to make their way online so I was able to enjoy this wonderful collection of quotable and insightful Feynman:

The American Election

The Simpsons have weighed in on the upcoming US Presidential Election. As someone who embraces habit and tradition, I still watch the Simpsons regularly even though they are well (well) past their prime. But this is fairly astute.

As you may recall, the Simpsons actually predicted a Trump presidency in an episode several years ago.

Hiding up here in Canada, I’m watching this election coverage with a strange fascination. The Trump nomination defies all reason and yet here it is. I don’t want to get bogged down discussing politics for the wrong country, so I’ll just take a moment now to congratulate our neighbours to the south on electing their first female President and we son’t have to talk about it anymore.

Just a con game?

I just came across this video from Big Think with Maria Konnikova which is very interesting. (Full disclosure, I haven’t yet read her recent book on cons but it’s in my pile.) The video is provocatively titled What Do Con Artists and Religious Leaders Have in Common?

The claim is that we have an insatiable hunger for meaning and certainty and that con artists are prepared to provide that — although not necessarily honestly. While I agree that religion superficially satisfies the hunger for meaning and certainty, even in the presence of better explanations, I’m not entirely sure that’s what con artists do.

I’m currently reading a different book on cons: The Art of the Con by R. Paul Wilson. The principle force driving cons, according to that book, is not satisfying a thirst for meaning, but offering potential financial rewards — offering what can be loosely classed as “investments” that have essentially zero return so you are essentially handing your money over in whatever quantities they can get from you.

On the other hand, about twenty minutes before I was reading this, I found his formula for convincing people to accept false information. It’s framed, not quite correctly as an equation: X + Y = Z when it really should be something more like a syllogism. Either way:

is the conclusion you want your mark (victim) to agree with.
is a fact that is verifiably true.
is a fact which is false.

X and Y taken together imply your desired conclusion, Z

The idea is that if you can provide legitimate sources for X, and Z is desirable (you want it to be true), then people will just quietly accept Y without questioning it too much. And when you try to reverse engineer your own thinking, you feel as though you’ve just carried out a proper logical argument because X + Y really does imply Z. You don’t realize that the reason you accepted Y as true is because you wanted to believe Z was true. It makes the argument circular in a way which is extremely difficult to detect.

This is most definitely not how you do logic, but that’s the point. It’s about convincing people to believe things for irrational reasons. I see this used all the time by people who are trying to use logical arguments to convince you of religious truths. So perhaps that’s what they have in common.

The Big Picture: Sean Carroll Explains It All

I recently completed Sean Carroll’s most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfIt is, undeniably, one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years and one that I will start recommending to everyone forthwith.


It’s a book written entirely about physics which somehow manages to be a book about religion in spirituality. The closest comparison I can think of is Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. It demolished a large number of rather deeply held religious beliefs, not by attacking them, per say, but simply by explaining what we actually knew about science.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist that works at Caltech. (I found out in one of the interviews that the desk in his office used to belong to one of my other heroes, the late Richard Feynman.) What Watchmaker did for biology, this book does for physics and cosmology and it’s been long overdue.

Most people who stop learning about science in high school simply don’t know just how much we actually know about the universe. It’s very easy to make the (fallacious) leap from “I don’t know” to “nobody knows” without skipping a beat. But the information is out there, and has been for a very long time.

Spirituality and religion survives largely by leveraging the unknown. Narratives about how the universe began and what happens after we die survive because very few people are willing to put in the years it takes to learn the science to prove them wrong. And for the most part, science stays politely silent in what is usually called “tolerance”. But — as is extremely well explained in the book — the science that definitely disproves notions like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and an anthropomorphic deity that takes an interest in our lives is really well understood.

It’s gotten slightly worse in recent years because of the magical-sounding properties of quantum mechanics. They’re only magical when they’re poorly understood, so it’s nice to have someone who actually understands them and their predictions explain them.

But establishing what we know is only part of the book. In the latter sections, he outlines the consequences of these scientific facts for more philosophical matters like meaning, purpose, free will and morality. It’s a wonderful resource to have all of this addressed in one place.

If you don’t want to splurge for the whole book, the author gives a fantastic interview at Inquiring Minds that’s worth checking out. The interviewer, Indre Viskontas, says that some of the later sections actually made her cry. I didn’t go quite that far, even though I cry at mostly anything, but I still definitely recommend the book, more or less to everyone.