a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)
|Eggheaded actuary Milton Northey Haskins quits his job upon learning that his company has lost money due to his misplaced decimal point and he joins a carnival in the 1941 novel Slightly Perfect. This was made into the Broadway musical Are You With it? in 1945 and in 1948 that musical was released as a Hollywood film starring Donald O'Connor.
The book does a admirable good job of describing Haskins as a person who not only has mathematical talent, but ``lives life by the numbers''. By ``admirable'' here I am referring to Malcolm-Smith's flair with words that kept me enjoying the novel despite the fact that this is a stereotype that I generally find tiresome and annoying. For instance:
Of course, the actuary is presented as being too serious to have any fun, too clueless to notice that his attractive secretary has a crush on him, and so good with numbers that he works everything out with mathematical precision. Fortunately, in the case of that last one, this is presented as being a sort of asset.
Slightly Perfect is at its best when the author is describing the carnival life and the actuary's attempts to fit in, and it is at its worst when it tries to say something about math. Perhaps that isn't really fair of me. Perhaps it is because I know a heck of a lot more about math than I know about the life of carnival geeks in the 1940s.
The slang (such as the phrase "Are you with it?" which became the title of the musical version of this story) and the lifestyle of the carnies satisfied the anthropologist in me, as if I've learned about a real foreign culture, though it may be that the author knows no more about it than I do.
On the other hand, it is quite apparent that the author knows little of math. When the author wants to show us that the secretary is smart (though, of course, not in the same way as our hero), it says: "She was no Einstein, but in her way she could make parallel lines meet and could make one plus one equal one"...as if mathematical intelligence was measured by one's ability to achieve mathematical falsehoods. And, in discussing her chances of finding a new husband, Haskins tells the widowed `bird woman' from the sideshow:
Of course, if one doesn't say what A, B, C and D are, the first remark is just a long and rather odd way to say that the probability is given by a cubic polynomial. I've never seen a cubic probability distribution in any real application, so I was relatively certain that this was just the author trying to sound mathematical without any real math behind it. However, the information given was so intriguing, I had to look a little further. Specifically, I noticed that we could use the information given to determine what the coefficients had to be. Since we are given five different values of the probability and there are four unknown coefficients, we have more than enough information to determine the coefficients. As it turns out, it is over-determined (there is no way to get all five probabilities he predicts out of the cubic distribution), and even worse, the polynomial one gets is certainly not a probability distribution at all since the area under the graph between X=16 and X=38 is larger than 4 and the values are negative for X>40. As I said, I was pretty certain that the author had no idea what he was talking about, and this just confirms it.
Milton himself, being such an egghead, might not be able to enjoy this book because of the author's lack of mathematical knowledge. For me, however, it was not a problem. Unlike some books where the misunderstandings of math make the entire plot unbelievable, here it is just a few easily ignored remarks that demonstrate the author's ignorance. Despite those, and the passage of time, the basic story and the characters remain interesting and enjoyable. If you can obtain a copy of this old book or have a chance to see the film (it was shown recently at a New York film series), I recommend you give it a try.
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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)