Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever

The Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever came up recently in a Metafilter post, but it linked to a site that gave a very poor explanation of the puzzle and no credit to the original author, Raymond Smullyan (creator of the logic puzzles involving people who always tell the truth and people who always lie).

George Boolos wrote up a nice description of the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever, including clarifications and breaking the puzzle down into more manageable sub-puzzles. The puzzle goes a step beyond the liars and truthtellers by introducing a third entity: someone who just gives random responses. And they all speak in some completely foreign language. If you solve the whole thing, you can claim that you solved the Hardest Logic Puzzle Ever! It is a bit of a project and benefits from contemplation. It's one of my more memorable puzzle experiences.

George Boolos also once gave a short talk on Gödel's second incompleteness theorem, using only one-syllable words. The text is available here in PDF.

And Smullyan does more than just make puzzles! He is a professor of philosophy at Indiana University and has done important work on extending the applicability of Gödel's incompleteness theorems.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How I found Ian Shoales

I remember sitting in a parking lot, waiting for some unrelated event, listening to this little snippet of audio over and over, trying to extract enough of the words that I could figure out what to Google to determine the source. The guy was talking really fast and the other stuff on the cassette seemed to be taped off of the radio... Was it a radio program? The words could have been ungooglable.

I had found this cassette in a box with a bunch of discarded tapes and CDs, left behind by whoever had previously been working in my room. None of it was as tantalizing as this.

It featured someone named Ian in an office fencing with his secretary and spouting diatribes and sardonic top-ten lists before being accosted surreally by an inflating fat man satirizing the stereotypical James Bond (or Dashiell Hammett) villain, complete with henchmen.

I googled my transcriptions and came up with nothing. Then I tried [ian radio monologue -laura] on Google Groups, which turned up a reference to an Ian Shoales and Duck's Breath Mystery Theatre on NPR.

Ian Shoales: Think of him as kind of like Oscar the Grouch, only less muppety and on speed. He is a parody of a critic. Not unlike Stephen Colbert.

He has a web site and his alter ego, Merle Kessler, regularly posts to a blog.

Here is one of his self-introductions:
Hi, I'm Ian Shoales, the-semi-eminent, acerbic social critic. Perhaps you've heard of me. Perhaps you've noticed my hardhitting commentaries on "All Things Considered" and "Nightline," or in USA Today? My trademark, "I gotta go"? That Ian Shoales? Is my name a word in your household? When you see the crossword puzzle clue "bitter, negative, cynical," do you write "Shoalesian" in the boxes, whether it fits or not? I know I do.
Ian on the concept of the state lottery: "Luck gets a bureaucracy."

"I don't like people who speak French in public places. This includes the French."

Ian Shoales on ... himself again:
I admit it freely -- I'm not a positive thinker. On Star Trek, the beautiful alien with the green hair and the taut belly would always say to Captain Kirk, "Oh one called Jim, what is this thing you call a kiss?" If that alien were here today (and in my Perfect World, believe me, she would be), she would gaze at me lovingly and say, "Oh one called Ian, what is this thing you call a sneer?" That's the kind of guy I am. Captain Kirk and I both want the same thing: the whole-hearted devotion of a naive alien. And if certain things stand in our way -- Klingons for Kirk, reality for me -- well, we just have to suck in our guts, set the phasers on Stun, and hope for the best.
Ian Shoales on Twitter:
Posts traditionally have been things like "I'm drinking coffee!" or "A bird flew by!" or "I just shot my parents!". These posts are called tweets. Users of Twitter call each other Tweeple. And haters of Twitter are called Twaitors. It's all a little too *smurfish* for me.
Ian can be heard on KQED (which fortunately has streaming audio), Saturdays and Sundays at around 5:35am.