Monday, February 1, 2010

Twenty Questions

My father, as the years passed, or as we got old enough to notice, developed a queer form of memory loss. He would forget words.

Sometimes, we'd be working with him out in the garage, and he'd start out "Hand me the uh - the..." and then his voice would trail off.

He'd be completely flummoxed, not able to conjure up the word. It would not even be within the confines of his throat, let alone the tip of his tongue.

We, his sons, all had our various coping strategies for this eventuality.

The eldest, Son #1, would grab the last tool used and display it in front of him. "No, the uh- the uh-".

I, Son #2, would ask him to pantomime what he wanted. "Two syllables" "Sounds like". Which, of course, would just piss him off.

Son #3 would stand in stony silence for a brief moment, perhaps gathering strength, and then would rapid fire off the names of every tool in sight. "No, the uh-" No! The uh -" "NO! NO!"

Son #4, the baby, would treat it like a game of twenty questions. "Is it used on wood?" "Does it have a green plastic handle?" Considering that twenty binary (answerable as yes or no) questions can cover about a million objects (220 = 1,048,576), this strategy might not have been the most time-conservative. Perhaps he should have played Password, or $20,000 Pyramid, with our father.

Sometimes, in triumph, the name would explode out of him "- the HAMMER!". Most times, he, like me, being a Taurus, simply could not surrender, and would stubbornly struggle, would wrestle his own brain, and eventually lose. It was both humorous and sad, heroic and pathetic, to watch. And we, his sons, had no choice but to await the outcome, whatever it was.

And now I know that this trait is genetic, as I am having trouble with words. Just today, I could not, for the life of me, think of the word "discrimination".

Generally, art is about mixing and matching and combining, and not so much about finding the absolutely right mix or match or combination. I could be wrong. There is a certain amount of discrimination involved.

Take the sample space for all diatonic melodies. (The white keys on a piano). If we choose a minimum of eight notes to name the tune, and we use the diatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do), then the sample space* of all melodies consists of all combinations of seven tones in eight notes.

In other words, Melody #1 might be just the note A repeated eight times (Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do). Melody #14 might be (Do-do-do-do-do-do-re-ti). Got the idea? Since the last "Do" is just an octave higher than the first "Do", we have seven tones to play with in eight note combinations, and so the total number of elements in the sample space of white-piano-key melodies is 78 = 5,764,801.

Now, most of these melodies would be kind of boring. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd have to commit serious bodily harm on and about your person if you whistled Melody #1 for very long. So, let's figure we can drop more than half - in fact, let's say three-quarters - of the melodies as something that will never make the Top 40. We are still left with around 1,921,600 melodies. I wonder how many we've heard?

And in visual arts, I suspect there is even more leniency. How far could Jackson Pollock's hand have strayed when dribbling paint, before one action painting became uniquely different from another one? A quick calculation suggests.... well, a very large number.

But writing? Writing is hard. Finding the right word, the right phrase, is the difference between a master work and mediocrity. Musicians, and visual artists, I think, have an easier time of it. Oh, there are times when the right chord, the right rhythm can make all the difference in a piece. And pound for pound, since there is nothing that can evoke an emotion better than music, I'd be willing to bet that a change of one note can ruin the incantation. 

But I don't think there is an art form whose whole is more sensitive to a change in parts than literature.

It's a good thing I'm not a writer. 

*A sample space is simply all possible unique outcomes of a something. So, for example, the roll of the dice contains a 6 x 6 sample space of outcomes (1,1), (1,2) ...(6,6)), or 36 elements. Or the sample space of possible chess moves is a number so large (10120, give or take) it makes the total number of atoms in the visible universe (1075, give or take) seem small. However, since most chess moves are actually dumb moves to make, the number of smart chess moves is actually very small - small enough for our relatively (compared to the universe) tiny brains to remember.


  1. OK, my eyes started glazing over when you started in on all the math. Not that I'm a math dummy. Hey, I can count change back and don't need a cash register to tell me how much.

    I'm finding it hard to recall words now and then. words that I know and have used a lot. sucks.

    My g'girls, the twins, have very poor short term memory. It's surprising how many names of things they don't know.

  2. Sorry Ellen. I keep forgetting the math, and physics, that is freaking obvious to me, is maybe not so to many, many others. And here I thought I'd written an fairly easy to follow by the numbers dealie-o at the wheelie-o.

    Random chance operate in my favor through the next recursive iteration?
    (Better luck next time)?

  3. It's happening to me. Usually it's Hollywood stars I don't much care about one way or the other. Like you, when it's just the right word I'm losing, it bugs the heck out of me. I'm thankful I usually retrieve the word. It takes a while, sometimes.