Complexity isn’t a Vice: 10 Word Answers and Doubletalk in Election 2016

How Donald Trump is leveraging an old Vaudeville trick to heavily contest the presidential election

A Problem with Transcripts

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen dozens of news outlets publish multi-paragraph excerpts of speeches from Donald Trump and have been appalled that I was unable to read them in any coherent way. I could not honestly follow or discern any coherent thought or argument in the majority of them. I was a bit shocked because in listening to him, he often sounds like he has some kind of point, though he seems to be spouting variations on one of ten one-liners he’s been using for over a year now. There’s apparently a flaw in our primal reptilian brains that seems to be tricking us into thinking that there’s some sort of substance in his speech when there honestly is none. I’m going to have to spend some time reading more on linguistics and cognitive neuroscience. Maybe Stephen Pinker knows of an answer?

The situation got worse this week as I turned to news sources for fact-checking of the recent presidential debate. While it’s nice to have web-based annotation tools like Genius[1] and Hypothes.is[2] to mark up these debates, it becomes another thing altogether to understand the meaning of what’s being said in order to actually attempt to annotate it. I’ve included some links so that readers can attempt the exercise for themselves.

Recent transcripts (some with highlights/annotations):

Doubletalk and Doublespeech

It’s been a while since Americans were broadly exposed to actual doubletalk. For the most part our national experience with it has been a passing curiosity highlighted by comedians.

dou·ble-talk
ˈdəblˌtôk/
n. (NORTH AMERICAN)
a deliberately unintelligible form of speech in which inappropriate, invented or nonsense syllables are combined with actual words. This type of speech is commonly used to give the appearance of knowledge and thereby confuse, amuse, or entertain the speaker’s audience.
another term for doublespeak
see also n. doubletalk [3]

Since the days of vaudeville (and likely before), comedians have used doubletalk to great effect on stage, in film, and on television. Some comedians who have historically used the technique as part of their acts include Al Kelly, Cliff Nazarro, Danny Kaye, Gary Owens, Irwin Corey, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Stanley Unwin, and Reggie Watts. I’m including some short video clips below as examples.

A well-known, but foreshortened, form of it was used by Dana Carvey in his Saturday Night Live performances caricaturizing George H.W. Bush by using a few standard catch phrases with pablum in between: “Not gonna do it…”, “Wouldn’t be prudent at this juncture”, and “Thousand Points of Light…”. These snippets in combination with some creative hand gestures (pointing, lacing fingers together), along with a voice melding of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne were the simple constructs that largely transformed a diminutive comedian convincingly into a president.

Doubletalk also has a more “educated” sibling known as technobabble. Engineers are sure to recall a famous (and still very humorous) example of both doubletalk and technobabble in the famed description of the Turboencabulator.[4] (See also, the short videos below.)

Doubletalk comedy examples

Al Kelly on Ernie Kovaks

Sid Caesar

Technobabble examples

Turboencabulator

Rockwell Turbo Encabulator Version 2

Politicobabble

And of course doubletalk and technobabble have closely related cousins named doublespeak and politicobabble. These are far more dangerous than the others because they move over the line of comedy into seriousness and are used by people who make decisions effecting hundreds of thousands to millions, if not billions, of people on the planet. I’m sure an archeo-linguist might be able to discern where exactly politicobabble emerged and managed to evolve into a non-comedic form of speech which people manage to take far more seriously than its close ancestors. One surely suspects some heavy influence from George Orwell’s corpus of work:

The term “doublespeak” probably has its roots in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four.[5] Although the term is not used in the book, it is a close relative of one of the book’s central concepts, “doublethink”. Another variant, “doubletalk”, also referring to deliberately ambiguous speech, did exist at the time Orwell wrote his book, but the usage of “doublespeak” as well as of “doubletalk” in the sense emphasizing ambiguity clearly postdates the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Parallels have also been drawn between doublespeak and Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English Language [6] , which discusses the distortion of language for political purposes.

in Wikipedia.com [7]

 

While politicobabble is nothing new, I did find a very elucidating passage from the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election cycle which seems to be a major part of the Trump campaign playbook:

Repetition of a meaningless mantra is supposed to empty the mind, clearing the way for meditation on more profound matters. This campaign has achieved the first part. I’m not sure about the second.

Candidates are now told to pick a theme, and keep repeating it-until polls show it’s not working, at which point the theme vanishes and another takes its place.

The mantra-style repetition of the theme of the week, however, leaves the impression that Teen Talk Barbie has acquired some life-size Campaign Talk Ken dolls. Pull the string and you get: ‘Congress is tough,’ ‘worst economic performance since the Depression,’ or ‘a giant sucking sound south of the border.’

A number of words and phrases, once used to express meaningful concepts, are becoming as useful as ‘ommm’ in the political discourse. Still, these words and phrases have meanings, just not the ones the dictionary originally intended.

Joanne Jacobs
in A Handy Guide To Politico-babble in the Chicago Tribune on

 

In the continuation of the article, Jacobs goes on to give a variety of examples of the term as well as a “translation” guide for some of the common politicobabble words from that particular election. I’ll leave it to the capable hands of others (perhaps in the comments, below?) to come up with the translation guide for our current political climate.

The interesting evolutionary change I’ll note for the current election cycle is that Trump hasn’t delved into any depth on any of his themes to offend anyone significantly enough. This has allowed him to stay with the dozen or so themes he started out using and therefore hasn’t needed to change them as in campaigns of old.

Filling in the Blanks

These forms of pseudo-speech area all meant to fool us into thinking that something of substance is being discussed and that a conversation is happening, when in fact, nothing is really being communicated at all. Most of the intended meaning and reaction to such speech seems to stem from the demeanor of the speaker as well as, in some part, to the reaction of the surrounding interlocutor and audience. In reading Donald Trump transcripts, an entirely different meaning (or lack thereof) is more quickly realized as the surrounding elements which prop up the narrative have been completely stripped away. In a transcript version, gone is the hypnotizing element of the crowd which is vehemently sure that the emperor is truly wearing clothes.

In many of these transcripts, in fact, I find so little is being said that the listener is actually being forced to piece together the larger story in their head. Being forced to fill in the blanks in this way leaves too much of the communication up to the listener who isn’t necessarily engaged at a high level. Without more detail or context to understand what is being communicated, the listener is far more likely to fill in the blanks to fit a story that doesn’t create any cognitive dissonance for themselves — in part because Trump is usually smiling and welcoming towards his adoring audiences.

One will surely recall that Trump even wanted Secretary Clinton to be happy during the debate when he said, “Now, in all fairness to Secretary Clinton — yes, is that OK? Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.” (This question also doubles as an example of a standard psychological sales tactic of attempting to get the purchaser to start by saying ‘yes’ as a means to keep them saying yes while moving them towards making a purchase.)

His method of communicating by leaving large holes in his meaning reminds me of the way our brain smooths out information as indicated in this old internet meme [9]:

I cdn’uolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg: the phaonmneel pweor of the hmuan mnid. Aoccdrnig to a rseearch taem at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Scuh a cdonition is arpppoiatrely cllaed typoglycemia.

 

I’m also reminded of the biases and heuristics research carried out in part (and the remainder cited) by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow [10] in which he discusses the mechanics of how system 1 and system 2 work in our brains. Is Trump taking advantage of the deficits of language processing in our brains in something akin to system 1 biases to win large blocks of votes? Is he creating a virtual real-time Choose-Your-Own-Adventure to subvert the laziness of the electorate? Kahneman would suggest the the combination of what Trump does say and what he doesn’t leaves it up to every individual listener to create their own story. Their system 1 is going to default to the easiest and most palatable one available to them: a happy story that fits their own worldview and is likely to encourage them to support Trump.

Ten Word Answers

As an information theorist, I know all too well that there must be a ‘linguistic Shannon limit’ to the amount of semantic meaning one can compress into a single word. [11] One is ultimately forced to attempt to form sentences to convey more meaning. But usually the less politicians say, the less trouble they can get into — a lesson hard won through generations of political fighting.

I’m reminded of a scene from The West Wing television series. In season 4, episode 6 which aired on October 30, 2002 on NBC, Game On had a poignant moment (video clip below) which is germane to our subject: [12]

Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centrepiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Governor Ritchie, R-FL: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
President Bartlet: There it is…
That’s the 10 word answer my staff’s been looking for for 2 weeks. There it is.
10 word answers can kill you in political campaigns — they’re the tip of the sword.
Here’s my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer?
“Your taxes are too high?” So are mine…
Give me the next 10 words: How are we going to do it?
Give me 10 after that — I’ll drop out of the race right now.
Every once in a while — every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for 10 words.
I’m the President of the United States, not the president of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.

As someone who studies information theory and complexity theory and even delves into sub-topics like complexity and economics, I can agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Though again, here I can also see the massive gaps between system 1 and 2 that force us to want to simplify things down to such a base level that we don’t have to do the work to puzzle them out.

(And yes, that is Jennifer Anniston’s father playing the moderator.)

One can’t but wonder why Mr. Trump doesn’t seem to have ever gone past the first ten words? Is it because he isn’t capable? interested? Or does he instinctively know better? It would seem that he’s been doing business by using the uncertainty inherent in his speech for decades, but always operating by using what he meant (or thought he wanted to mean) than what the other party heard and thought they understood. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Idiocracy or Something Worse?

In our increasingly specialized world, people eventually have to give in and quit doing some tasks that everyone used to do for themselves. Yesterday I saw a lifeworn woman in her 70s pushing a wheeled wire basket with a 5 gallon container of water from the store to her home. As she shuffled along, I contemplated Thracian people from fourth century BCE doing the same thing except they likely carried amphorae possibly with a yoke and without the benefit of the $10 manufactured custom shopping cart. 20,000 years before that people were still carrying their own water, but possibly without even the benefit of earthenware containers. Things in human history have changed very slowly for the most part, but as we continually sub-specialize further and further, we need to remember that we can’t give up one of the primary functions that makes us human: the ability to think deeply and analytically for ourselves.

I suspect that far too many people are too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to listen to more than the ten word answers our politicians are advertising to us. We need to remember to ask for the next ten words and the ten after that.

Otherwise there are two extreme possible outcomes:

We’re either at the beginning of what Mike Judge would term Idiocracy[13]

Or we’re headed to what Michiko Kakutani is “subtweeting” about in her recent review In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue [14] of Volker Ulrich’s new book Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939[15] 

Here, one is tempted to quote George Santayana’s famous line (from The Life of Reason, 1905), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” However, I far prefer the following as more apropos to our present national situation:

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (), a British statesman, historian, writer and artist,
in House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria.

 

tl;dr

If Cliff Navarro comes back to run for president, I hope no one falls for his joke just because he wasn’t laughing as he acted it out. If his instructions for fixing the wagon (America) are any indication, the voters who are listening and making the repairs will be in severe pain.

Cliff Navarro

Footnotes

[1]
“Genius | Song Lyrics & Knowledge,” Genius, 2016. [Online]. Available: http://genius.com. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[2]
“Hypothesis | The Internet, peer reviewed. | Hypothesis,” hypothes.is, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://hypothes.is/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[3]
“Double-talk – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-talk. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[4]
“Turboencabulator – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turboencabulator. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[5]
G. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four, 1st ed. London: Harvill Secker & Warburg, 1949.
[6]
G. Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon, vol. 13, no. 76, pp. 252–265, Apr. 1946 [Online]. Available: http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/
[7]
“Doublespeak – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,” en.wikipedia.org, 29-Sep-2016. [Online]. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublespeak. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[8]
J. Jacobs, “A Handy Guide To Politico-babble,” Chicago Tribune, 31-Oct-1992. [Online]. Available: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-10-31/news/9204080638_1_family-values-trickle-bill-clinton. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[9]
M. Davis, “cmabridge | Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit,” mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk, 2012. [Online]. Available: https://www.mrc-cbu.cam.ac.uk/people/matt.davis/cmabridge/. [Accessed: 29-Sep-2016]
[10]
D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan, 2011.
[11]
C. Shanon E., “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 379–423, Jul. 1948. [Source]
[12]
A. Sorkin, J. Wells, and T. Schlamme , “Game On,” The West Wing, NBC, 30-Oct-2002.
[13]
M. Judge, Idiocracy. Twentieth Century Fox, 2006.
[14]
M. Katutani, “In ‘Hitler’ an Ascent from ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue,” New York Times, p. 1, 27-Sep-2016 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/books/hitler-ascent-volker-ullrich.html?_r=0. [Accessed: 28-Sep-2016] [Source]
[15]
V. Ullrich, Adolf Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, 1st ed. Knopf Publishing Group, 2016.
Syndicated copies to:

📕 100.0% done with Fletch’s Fortune by Gregory Mcdonald

📕 100.0% done with Fletch’s Fortune by Gregory Mcdonald

The second half read incredibly fast. The plot particularly began unfolding in the end almost too quickly. I wish the last act could have lasted a bit longer.

I really enjoyed the Crystal character and the snide banter she continually spouts with Fletch. The wrap up with Freddie was generally unexpected, but delicious in its oddity in the larger canon. There was surprisingly little talk of Fletch’s ex-wives or even of his potentially adding another to the collection.

Some of my favorite jokes were the chapter headings of the schedule of the conference along with even funnily named rooms in which the sessions were taking place.

I’ll hope to write a longer review shortly.

Syndicated copies to:

📖 53.0% done with Fletch’s Fortune by Gregory Mcdonald

📖 53.0% done with Fletch’s Fortune by Gregory Mcdonald

Making good progress, hope to finish tomorrow. There are certainly some interesting characters here, though perhaps feeling like too many, particularly since most seem to potentially have committed the murder.

Just spent the last 25 minutes hanging out with Terry Tao talking about complex analysis, blogging, and math pedagogy

Just spent the last 25 minutes hanging out with Terry Tao talking about complex analysis, blogging, and math pedagogy

Just spent the last 25 minutes hanging out with Terry Tao talking about complex analysis, blogging, and math pedagogy

Instagram filter used: Normal

Photo taken at: UCLA Math Sciences Building

Dr. Tao is keeping a great set of complex analysis notes on his blog.

Syndicated copies to:

The realty sign just went up Nextdoor 🏡

The realty sign just went up Nextdoor. #WillYouBeMyNeighbor? 🏡

The realty sign just went up Nextdoor? 🏡
Won’t you be my neighbor?

Instagram filter used: Clarendon

Photo taken of: 1414 Columbia Drive, Adams Hill, Glendale, California

Syndicated copies to:

🔖 Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View by Cosma Rohilla Shalizi

Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View by Cosma Rohilla Shalizi (stat.cmu.edu)

Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View
by Cosma Rohilla Shalizi

This is a draft textbook on data analysis methods, intended for a one-semester course for advance undergraduate students who have already taken classes in probability, mathematical statistics, and linear regression. It began as the lecture notes for 36-402 at Carnegie Mellon University.

By making this draft generally available, I am not promising to provide any assistance or even clarification whatsoever. Comments are, however, welcome.

The book is under contract to Cambridge University Press; it should be turned over to the press before the end of 2015. A copy of the next-to-final version will remain freely accessible here permanently.

Complete draft in PDF

Table of contents:

    I. Regression and Its Generalizations

  1. Regression Basics
  2. The Truth about Linear Regression
  3. Model Evaluation
  4. Smoothing in Regression
  5. Simulation
  6. The Bootstrap
  7. Weighting and Variance
  8. Splines
  9. Additive Models
  10. Testing Regression Specifications
  11. Logistic Regression
  12. Generalized Linear Models and Generalized Additive Models
  13. Classification and Regression Trees
    II. Distributions and Latent Structure
  14. Density Estimation
  15. Relative Distributions and Smooth Tests of Goodness-of-Fit
  16. Principal Components Analysis
  17. Factor Models
  18. Nonlinear Dimensionality Reduction
  19. Mixture Models
  20. Graphical Models
    III. Dependent Data
  21. Time Series
  22. Spatial and Network Data
  23. Simulation-Based Inference
    IV. Causal Inference
  24. Graphical Causal Models
  25. Identifying Causal Effects
  26. Causal Inference from Experiments
  27. Estimating Causal Effects
  28. Discovering Causal StructureAppendices
    • Data-Analysis Problem Sets
    • Reminders from Linear Algebra
    • Big O and Little o Notation
    • Taylor Expansions
    • Multivariate Distributions
    • Algebra with Expectations and Variances
    • Propagation of Error, and Standard Errors for Derived Quantities
    • Optimization
    • chi-squared and the Likelihood Ratio Test
    • Proof of the Gauss-Markov Theorem
    • Rudimentary Graph Theory
    • Information Theory
    • Hypothesis Testing
    • Writing R Functions
    • Random Variable Generation

Planned changes:

  • Unified treatment of information-theoretic topics (relative entropy / Kullback-Leibler divergence, entropy, mutual information and independence, hypothesis-testing interpretations) in an appendix, with references from chapters on density estimation, on EM, and on independence testing
  • More detailed treatment of calibration and calibration-checking (part II)
  • Missing data and imputation (part II)
  • Move d-separation material from “causal models” chapter to graphical models chapter as no specifically causal content (parts II and IV)?
  • Expand treatment of partial identification for causal inference, including partial identification of effects by looking at all data-compatible DAGs (part IV)
  • Figure out how to cut at least 50 pages
  • Make sure notation is consistent throughout: insist that vectors are always matrices, or use more geometric notation?
  • Move simulation to an appendix
  • Move variance/weights chapter to right before logistic regression
  • Move some appendices online (i.e., after references)?

(Text last updated 30 March 2016; this page last updated 6 November 2015)

Syndicated copies to:

🔖 Quantum Information Science II

Quantum Information Science II (edX)
Learn about quantum computation and quantum information in this advanced graduate level course from MIT.

About this course

Already know something about quantum mechanics, quantum bits and quantum logic gates, but want to design new quantum algorithms, and explore multi-party quantum protocols? This is the course for you!

In this advanced graduate physics course on quantum computation and quantum information, we will cover:

  • The formalism of quantum errors (density matrices, operator sum representations)
  • Quantum error correction codes (stabilizers, graph states)
  • Fault-tolerant quantum computation (normalizers, Clifford group operations, the Gottesman-Knill Theorem)
  • Models of quantum computation (teleportation, cluster, measurement-based)
  • Quantum Fourier transform-based algorithms (factoring, simulation)
  • Quantum communication (noiseless and noisy coding)
  • Quantum protocols (games, communication complexity)

Research problem ideas are presented along the journey.

What you’ll learn

  • Formalisms for describing errors in quantum states and systems
  • Quantum error correction theory
  • Fault-tolerant quantum procedure constructions
  • Models of quantum computation beyond gates
  • Structures of exponentially-fast quantum algorithms
  • Multi-party quantum communication protocols

Meet the instructor

bio for Isaac ChuangIsaac Chuang Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Professor of Physics MIT

Syndicated copies to:

🔖 Want to watch Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) (imdb.com)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah. With Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Robert Webber, Gig Young. An American bartender and his prostitute girlfriend go on a road trip through the Mexican underworld to collect a $1 million bounty on the head of a dead gigolo.
Syndicated copies to:

🎞 My review of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974) from imdb.com
Directed by Joseph Sargent. With Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo. In New York, armed men hijack a subway car and demand a ransom for the passengers. Even if it's paid, how could they get away?

A great classic film starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, and Jerry Stiller. The plot and story (as well as some great 70’s cinematography) holds up incredibly well and far better than most of its contemporaries. The score of the film does have the definite tone of the 70’s, but isn’t so overbearingly stereotypical as movies which came later in the decade.

While headed by Walter Matthau, this film is far more serious in tone and there are few, if any, bits of humor stemming from his Lt. Garber character (or they just don’t play as well now). The final freeze frame of Matthau’s which closes the film (in an early American studio feature nod to the French New Wave) does have a fantastic feel of sardonic comedy though. Matthau’s function in the film reminded me more of his turn in Charade (1963) than his extensive body of comedic work.

Robert Shaw in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)
Robert Shaw in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

The film does fit well into the crime/drama/thriller progression of the modern blockbuster which includes its classic predecessors: Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros., 1967), Bullitt (Warner Bros., 1968), The Italian Job (Paramount, 1969), The French Connection (20th Century Fox, 1971), Shaft (MGM, 1971), Dirty Harry (Warner Bros., 1971), and Magnum Force (Warner Bros., 1973).

The movie is set in a time period after the prison riot at Attica which is mentioned in passing by the mayor’s staff, but before the film Dog Day Afternoon (Warner Bros., 1975). It’s also obviously set in a time period when people expect airplane hijacks, but think it’s laughable that anyone would consider a subway hijack. (This likely played into the high-concept idea of the studio consider making it originally). However, none of the train passengers takes the hijacking very seriously or seems very scared by the four rough looking characters carrying high powered and automatic weapons. This may be because the terrorism of the late 70’s, early 80’s, or even early 2000s had not yet happened; it was also set prior to John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (Paramount, 1979). I find it interesting that the hijackers in the piece actually verbally explain the capacity and killing power of their weapons as if none of the everyday people on the train would understand their automatic capabilities. (This assuredly wouldn’t happen in a modern-day version.) I have to imagine that more modern actor portrayals would have been much more fearful early on. Here no one seems very upset until Mr. Blue shoots the subway car driver in the back. Until then they just seem like they’re a bit “put out”. As an aside, the perpetrators’ going by the names Blue, Green, Grey, and Brown was most assuredly the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s use of similar names for the characters in Resevoir Dogs (Miramax, 1992) which also included the quote “let’s do it by the books”.

pelham-123-subway The film includes a fantastic (though possibly stereotypical) portrayal of 70’s culture through the characters of multiple ethnicities and cultural types. These are borne out in the credit sequence with character “names” which actually include: The Maid, The Mother, The Homosexual, The Secretary, The Delivery Boy, The Salesman, The Hooker, The Old Man, The Older Son, The Spanish Woman, The Alcoholic, The Pimp, Coed #1, The Younger Son, Coed #2, The Hippie, and The W.A.S.P. One of my favorite stereotypes (which the film may have first immortalized) was the hippie woman calmly chanting “Om” and then later “Om stop” on the runaway subway hoping it wouldn’t crash.

As an indicator of racial change, there’s an odd exchange (that may have been funny at the time), but to a more modern viewer is now just awkward:

Lt. Garber: [looking for the inspector] Inspector Daniels?
Inspector Daniels: [identifying himself] Daniels.
Lt. Garber: [realizing DCI Daniels is African-American] Oh, I, uh, thought you were, uh, like a shorter guy or – I don’t know what I thought.

There’s also a nice indicator of the growth of stature in women in society as the lead character posits (several times) that a plain clothes police officer might in fact be a woman, a fact that one of Garber’s colleagues failed to contemplate. This is offset by a zany statement by an old, gruff (and somewhat marginalized) subway supervisor (following a prior litany of profanity, by almost everyone in the room):

Caz Dolowicz, subway supervisor played by Tom Pedi
in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

 

I’ll have to go back and rewatch the remake again to further compare the portrayal of the two time periods. I will note that the mayor’s deputy comes in at one point in this incarnation and says to him, “Pull your pants up Al, we’re going downtown.” I can’t help but sadly imagine that in a remake, the mayor wouldn’t be laying sick in bed getting a shot in the ass, but would more likely be sitting behind his desk with a woman in a compromising position to get the cheap laugh.

The film also includes some great, but short character actor turns by Tony Roberts as the Mayor’s assistant, Doris Roberts (almost unrecognizable to modern day Everybody Loves Raymond fans) as the mayor’s wife, Kenneth McMillan, and a middle-aged Joe Seneca.

I also noticed an obscure, early production office coordinator credit for Barbara DaFina, better known as Barbara De Fina, much later a well-known and prolific producer and production manager, known for Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and Hugo (2011). She was married to Martin Scorsese from 1985 – 1991, though she had a nice body of work even prior to that.

Another quote that I can’t help but mention not only for its sheer joy but because it’s also one of the first lines of spoken dialogue of the film:

The Pimp played by George Lee Miles, referring to his clothing, confidence, and swagger on the dark, dank subway platform
in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (United Artists, 1974)

 

In the pantheon of first lines of poetry, this captures the tone of its time incredibly well.

Syndicated copies to:

Book review: Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald

Fletch by Gregory Mcdonald (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
Fletch Book Cover Fletch
Fletch #1 (in the stories' chronological order: #4)
Gregory Mcdonald
Fiction; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
1974; Reprint edition (March 12, 2002)
Kindle e-book
208
Amazon.com / Overdrive

When a wealthy California industrialist tells apparent beach bum I. M. Fletcher that he wants to be murdered, the undercover journalist investigates the businessman's private life. Winner of the Edgar Award.

The book that started it all!

I’d originally read this sometime around 1988 after seeing the Warner Bros. feature film of the same name. It’s not quite as over-the-top as the comedy of the film and the humor is a little sharper and wrier.

For the most part, the plotline of the text is nearly identical to that of the film with a few exceptions mostly relating to names of characters and casting (warning: spoilers follow):

  • The Collins family has been renamed Boyd, likely so as not to run afoul of the name of author Joan Collins.
  • Fletch’s editors Clara and Frank are concatenated into the character of just Frank.
  • Fletch’s beach girlfriend Bobbi doesn’t exist in the film, likely to focus more on Joan.
  • Montgomery is a younger high-school aged student with more social ties than the Gummy of the film.
  • Stanwyk is not involved in the drug trade and his death at the hands of the Chief of Police is motivated by a different bit of plot. He also has an additional local paramour. His character and motivations are much better delineated in the book and several characters backing this up were missing from the film.
  • Much of the shennanigans of the film was added there and didn’t exist in the book, though almost all of the motivating comedy and sense of humor is surely there.
  • Large chunks of dialogue from the film are drawn almost directly from the book.
  • The film is obviously a bit more cinematic and kinetic with Fletch doing much more movement, travel, and even chase scenes to make things in the film move along, while the book is a bit more balanced and even realistic.

Certainly there are many other differences, but this covers the broadest spectrum.

In this motivating text for the remainder of the series, Fletch is drawn as a very clear-cut and incredibly interesting character with a fantastic sense of morality and humor. Of the parts of the series I’ve read thus far, this is definitely one of my favorites, second only perhaps to Confess, Fletch.

Here the cat-and-mouse-game between Fletch and Joan is better delineated and the relationship between Fletch and Stanwyk’s father is quirkier and more interesting.

If you enjoyed the movie (and even if you didn’t), you’re sure to appreciate this as fiction, particularly with Mcdonald’s ability to paint a picture with words and write story through character.

A brief note on the physical text

This is assuredly an optical character recognition scanned version of the original text. There are a dozen or so obvious typos that didn’t get fixed. There are more than several places where a temporal change in the plot occurs, but the additional line returns that were originally included to indicate the break are now missing. This can make reading portion a bit annoying. The quality control of the typesetting of the e-book text could certainly have been much better.

Reading Progress
  • 08/7/16 marked as: want to read; “The Rio Olympics reminded me that I’d gotten Carioca Fletch to read back in the 80’s and never got around to it, so I thought I’d come back and revisit the series.”
  • 09/16/16 marked as: currently reading
  • 09/19/16 27.0% “So far this is maybe even better than I remember it.”
  • 09/20/16 68.0% “This just keeps getting better. I’m enjoying some of the subtle differences between the film and the book. No surprise that the movie renamed Joan Collins to Boyd. I know I’d read this 20+ years ago and I remember it being darker than the film, but the tone seems lighter to me now somehow.”
  • 09/22/16 100.0% “A slightly different ending than one in the film, but still nicely tied together… Possibly my second favorite in the series so far.”
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
Chapter 1

“What’s your name?”
“Fletch.”
“What’s your full name?”
“Fletcher.”
“What’s your first name?”
“Irwin.”
“What?”
“Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch.”
“Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away, and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?”
“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”
“Of course.”
“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to murder me.”

—Page 1 · Location 37 This is the first exchange of the book and a really great opening

The license plate of the car was 440-001.

—Page 3 · Location 68

The paintings in the room were not particularly good, in Fletch’s opinion, but they were real.

—Page 4 · Location 92

“I’m a fairly reliable-looking drifter.”

—Page 5 · Location 106

Chapter 2

“Bye, Clara. Nice talking with you. Don’t get any crumbs in Frank’s bed.”
“Prick.”

—Page 9 · Location 180

“Wise ass. What if some ladies were around?”
“There are no ladies in California.”

—Page 10 · Location 193

“Dishonest of me, I know. “But as Pappy used to say about violating virgins, ‘Son, if you’re not the first, someone else will be.’ ”

—Page 12 · Location 231

Chapter 3

“My extension is 705. Many thanks.”
“Christ.”
“No. I.M. Fletcher.”

—Page 13 · Location 264 Like the man says: ‘I’m’ Fletcher, not Christ.

“Vicious and violent. Bullshit. One night I stepped on the cat’s tail.”
“You pitched the cat through the window of your seventh-floor apartment.”
“The whole place smelled of cat.”

—Page 15 · Location 297 

“There you are, Mr. Gillett. Thanks for stopping by. I’m sorry we’re not on the seventh floor.”

—Page 16 · Location 313 Fletch had just mentioned throwing a cat out of the window of a 7th floor apartment.

Before leaving, Gillett tried to look haughty, but only succeeded in looking as if he were in the early stages of a sneeze.

—Page 17 · Location 324

Chapter 4

Marvin and Helen Stanwyk, Nonheagan, Pennsylvania.

—Page 24 · Location 458

You just fired someone.”
“As a matter of fact, I just did.”
“Who?”
“A kid in the city room. He had been calling people up and asking them stupid questions, saying he was someone from the Associated Press.”
“Really? How awful! I always tell people I’m from the Chronicle-Gazette, myself.”

—Page 26 · Location 487

“Fletcher, we have to talk.”
“Are you up to it?”
“That’s why I thought we should have lunch. In the cafeteria. Put your shoes on.”
“You’re not taking me out?”
“I wouldn’t be seen in public with you. Even a drugstore lunch counter wouldn’t let us in, the way you dress.”

—Page 27 · Location 495

“See you upstairs. Put your shoes on.”

—Page 27 · Location 503

Chapter 5

Clara Snow had ordered an uncut bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwich on toast. When she bit into it the two edges of toast nearer Fletch gaped as if about to bite him.

—Page 27 · Location 504

“I don’t resent women. I rather like women.”
“You haven’t had much luck with them.”
“My only mistake is that I keep marrying them.”

—Page 28 · Location 512

He chewed his calves’ liver open-mouthed.
“Such principle,” she said, sucking Coke from a straw.
“You can’t tell me you haven’t made every strung-out little girl on the beach.”
“That’s different. That’s for a story. I will do anything for a story. That’s why I put penicillin on my expense account.”
“You do?”
“Under Telephones’.”

—Page 28 · Location 519

“If there is no one to complain for a kid, the law don’t give a shit.”
“Fletcher’s Rule.”

—Page 30 · Location 548

Chapter 7

“A dowdy old thing. She always reminds me of an Eskimo full of baked beans. I mean, she looks as if, if she ever got unfrozen, she would evaporate in one enormous fart.”

—Page 41 · Location 748

Your style is exactly what Beau Brummel did in his time. All Brummel did, you know, was to bring the lean, simple country style into the city.”

—Page 41 · Location 754

henna

—Page 41 · Location 763 An interesting use of the word from the 70’s. I don’t think I’ve seen it again until the early 2000s otherwise, and then in reference to tattoos.

Chapter 9

His apartment was on the seventh floor of a building that had everything but design. His apartment— a living room, a bedroom, bath and kitchenette— was impeccably neat. On the wall over the divan was a blow-up of a multiple cartes-de-visite by Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi.

—Page 53 · Location 973

Chapter 10

In an ell of the room,

—Page 57 · Location 1035

Chapter 11

“I used to be a pretty good house burglar myself,” Creasey said. “I even had equipment.”
“What happened?”
“I got ripped off. Some bastard stole my burglary equipment. The bastard.”
“That’s funny.”
“A fuckin’ riot.”
“You should have had business insurance.”

—Page 63 · Location 1153

Chapter 12

Utrelamensky. John Utrelamensky.”

—Page 69 · Location 1268 One of Fletch’s pseudonyms

Chapter 15

hibachi.

—Page 87 · Location 1585 What a fun word, and somehow so culturally 1970s 

“John Zalumarinero,” Fletch said.

—Page 87 · Location 1587  One of Fletch’s pseudonyms

He knows less about cows than I do, and all I know is that a cow is square with legs sticking out at the corners.

—Page 92 · Location 1687

“Sorry I didn’t get to meet their daughter, Julie.”
“Little brat.”
“Little brat?”
“Jesus, I wish she had a sister so I could beat one of them to death with the other one. Have another drink?”

—Page 93 · Location 1693

Chapter 16

Some of these people had been hanging fire two or three days.

—Page 99 · Location 1808 What a great phrase for people with no drugs.

Chapter 18

Sitting on the divan under the Disderi, he ate two delicatessen sandwiches and drank a bottle of milk. On the coffee table in front of him was the big tape recorder. On the wall across from him was a copy of William James’s Cherry Beach. After he had finished his sandwiches and milk, he went into the bedroom and lay on the bed. Facing him was a copy of Fredric Weiss’s 1968 photograph of a boy apparently walking in midair beneath two roofs, Boy Jumping.

—Page 101 · Location 1832

“Jim Swarthout speaking.”
“Hi, Jim. This is Bill Carmichael.”

—Page 101 · Location 1840  Another of Fletch’s psuedonyms

Chapter 19

“I’ve got a lot of painin’ to do. To make up for what I did.”

—Page 112 · Location 2030 Painin’ is such a great word here. (Presuming it’s not a typo from OCR…)

Chapter 20

Fletch wanted to open the window, but the window jack handles had been removed. The police were probably afraid someone would try to commit suicide by bopping himself on the nose with one.

—Page 115 · Location 2085

Chapter 25

But again, she was educated and experienced without the flash that makes champions. And she was without the playful joy of the beginner.

—Page 142 · Location 2570 This description was used to describe both Joan’s tennis ability and then a few pages later her ability in bed.

“Zamanawinkeraleski.”
“God, what a moniker. Zamanawink— say it again?”
“— eraleski. Zamanawinkeraleski.”
“You mean someone actually married you with a name like that?”
“Yup. And now there are three little Zamanawinkeraleskis.”
“What was her maiden name? I mean, your wife’s?”
“Fletcher.”
“That’s a nice name. Why would she give up a nice name like that to become a Zamabangi or whatever it is?”
“Zamanawinkeraleski. It’s more distinguished than Fletcher.”
“It’s so distinguished no one can say it. What is it, Polish?”
“Rumanian.”
“I didn’t know there was a difference.”
“Only Poles and Rumanians care about the difference.”
“What is the difference?”
“Between Poles and Rumanians? They make love differently.”
“Oh?”
“Twice I’ve made love Polish style. Now I’ll show you how a Rumanian would do it.”
“Polish style was all right.”
“But you haven’t seen the Rumanian style yet.”
“Why didn’t you make love Rumanian style in the first place?”
“I didn’t think you were ready for it.”
“I’m ready for it.”
It was eight-thirty.
In forty-eight hours Fletch was scheduled to murder her husband.

—Page 144 · Location 2605 Another of Fletch’s pseudonyms sparking an interesting passage.

Chapter 26

“Charles Witherspoon.”

—Page 147 · Location 2644  Fat Sam’s original name.

Chapter 28

“Oh, I forgot: you’re a pulse-taker. When I was home for lunch, Mrs. Stanwyk was still ticking over nicely. The older models are the best, you know. Better built, and they use less fuel.”

—Page 162 · Location 2916

If I remember rightly, girls have a couple of legs under them, a hank o’ hair up top, and a couple of protuberances about grab height. That about right?”

—Page 162 · Location 2921 Marvyn Stanwyk’s definition of girls.

“What I mean is, did you mean girls, or girl?”
“I’m in the hardware business, son. I’m apt to speak in gross lots.”

—Page 162 · Location 2923

She insisted it happened only once, but as Mother Goose said, once is enough.

—Page 164 · Location 2953

Chapter 29

R. Sanders Fletcher

—Page 168 · Location 3030 The pseudonym Fletch uses at the Newspaper

All I ever won in the marines was a disease coffee doesn’t cure.”
“Do you still have it?”
“No. I lost it on a toilet seat.”
“At City Hall, I hope.”
“Probably. I thought you picked up the Bronze Star years ago.”

—Page 176 · Location 3164

Chapter 30

Prowling the room, watching her, Fletch had the sudden, irrational desire to marry Joan Collins Stanwyk.

—Page 180 · Location 3232

“How very interesting. You go to that much effort for one paragraph?”
“You should see the efforts I go to sometimes for paragraphs I don’t even wite.”

—Page 181 · Location 3246

Chapter 31

“The thing that tipped me off was something your wife said the other night when we were in bed together.”

—Page 187 · Location 3358 A great quote that made it directly into the film.

Chapter 32

“Helluva story this morning, Mr. Fletcher.”
“Thanks for reading the News-Tribune.

—Page 192 · Location 3434

fp

—Page 192 · Location 3444 A nice bit of newspaper terminology

Typos

—Page 32 · Location 601 Should be ‘I’ instead of ‘You’.

—Page 68 · Location 1244 There should be a text break above this.

“The Nonheagan Inn. Good afternoon.”

—Page 85 · Location 1566 Text break before this.

“Swarthout Nevada Realty Company.”

—Page 86 · Location 1575 Should have text break before this.

“Where’s Gummy?”

—Page 111 · Location 2009 Should be a text break before this.

—Page 141 · Location 2540 Typo: should be “Your”.

—Page 151 · Location 2728 “it” instead of I (typo)

At six o’clock

—Page 183 · Location 3289 text break before this

—Page 192 · Location 3444 typo: should be “l”

“Anytime you’re ready, Mr. Fletcher.”

—Page 195 · Location 3494 text break before

Syndicated copies to: