30 Rock x Community

Four blockbusters: The Office, 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Rec aired on NBC on the same Thursday nights at one point in time; this fact is incredible to reflect upon, and will likely never be repeated with the decline of network television. But how did NBC capture (or attempt to anyways) the nation’s attention with back to back to back to back sitcoms?

Part of the reason this bloc of four comedies succeeded was that each had different ideals and  relied on different humor “engines.” Parks and Rec was hopelessly positive about everything, and that optimism carried the show to great success after the initial trudge that was the first season. The Office, while also created by Michael Schur, was more cringe and relied on the prowess of Steve Carell.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed from re-watching a lot of these shows during WFH is that Community and 30 Rock have a lot in common. Not only do the shows share a tendency of utilizing witty repartee and homages, but the character development and themes also followed a similar arc. Nevertheless, even with these shared tenets, it is interesting to conjecture that a crossover episode would never work.

On the surface, 30 Rock and Community shouldn’t overlap much. One is about a lovable gang of misfits in a community college, and the other focuses on the relationship between a show runner, her “staff” and her boss. But it’s not the topic of the humor which unites them, but one facet is how both channel (no pun intended) their inner Abbott and Costello. At their zenith, 30 Rock and Community have fast-paced zingers peppering every line of dialogue. This sort of pitter patter, which makes one’s own real life conversations feel dull and mundane at times, really contrasts with the mockumentary dialogue of the other two NBC offerings. Indeed, it more so reflects Arrested Development, a show which both Dan Harmon and Tina Fey has accredited to being inspirational.

On top of this repartee,  both have an Dada-esque undertone throughout the shows, and I’m not even accounting for some of the fantastical elements in each show (can we talk about how Liz’s stomach is its own magical entity?). In the most mundane of scenarios, a veil of meta-ness would peep out at the perfect times. Of course, in Community, Abed was the clear vehicle for this:

It makes every 10 minutes feel like the beginning of a new scene of a TV show. Of course the illusion lasts until someone says something they never say on TV, like how much their life is like TV. There, it’s gone.

But 30 Rock, a show about people running a show, also has a large share of meta humor:

We’re on a show within a show! My real name is Tracy Morgan!

This probably stemmed from the show runners’ backgrounds. After all, both Fey and Harmon have roots in sketch comedy troupes where breaking the fourth wall is valuable technique for engaging the audience.

On top of the dialogue, music plays a surprisingly large role in the duo. The early Community seasons had many great original soundtracks made specifically for episodes and overall had fantastic music choices. The most glaring example is the Spanish library rap which was repurposed twice: once to apply for the “cool” study group (where Pierce also brings back his musical number GDB) and the other was with the loving Betty White. The latter seasons unfortunately didn’t have such intricate musical numbers, due to the lack of funding and the departure of Childish Gambino.

Conversely, 30 Rock usage of sound bites and musical numbers stayed more consistent, one is partly due to the premise of running a variety show and the other is 30 Rock’s usage of musical themes. The first point should be pretty obvious. For the second usage, 30 Rock would sometimes associate a novel musical motif with a particular character in a situation, and call upon that motif anytime the situation arises. This was particularly noticeable for Jack’s girlfriends: Phoebe and Elisa both had distinct themes when they are in potentially compromising situations. While small, this attention to creativity goes a long way.

Finally, a lot of both shows humor revolves around elaborate, fictional homages while interspersing real pop culture. Dan Harmon did a fabulous job on this aspect with the best being the paintball episodes of Community paying homage to Westerns, space Westerns (e.g. Star Wars) and spy flicks. On 30 Rock’s sides, Queen of Jordan is a clear “spinoff” of Real Housewives.

A sitcom also can’t succeed if there is no heart to the cast; while bits makes for great five minute Youtube clips, a story arc sells seasons. In a lot of ways, 30 Rock’s and Community’s male lead both share the same story line. Both lands in a place (NBC, Greendale) which they both initially thought would be a simple stepping stone towards their final goal (CEO at GM, being a lawyer again), yet no amount of hard work could overcome unfortunate circumstances (bought out by Cabletown, season 5 repilot).

Initially, Jack and Jeff view the other cast members as simple tools to achieve their goals, but gradually start to form meaningful relationships with them. The two have internal reorientation of what they consider success and expect from life. The leads soften up, and become a more complete person at the end of the shows.

One can also draw connections between other characters. Liz very much resembles Abed in how both of them came to achieve what they wanted through deep character growth. Abed noticeably becomes more empathetic and learns the human-side of film making, resulting in his final departure to Hollywood. Liz realizes what she values in life and a partner which allowed her to tank TGS. On the other side, Britta and Jenna both became increasingly weird…

In conclusion, two great shows with great dialogue that uses homages and meta humor to tell, usually, relatable stories in vastly different settings. As an exercise to the reader (e.g. this blog post has more than 1000 words now and I’m tired), consider how a crossover episode would work. Does the dynamic change is the episode happened in a different season? Which characters would not work at all?

A not so organized guide to The Organized Mind

I made the drive between Rhode Island and Florida two and a half times now. On the very first trip up, I listened to the Organized Mind by Daniel J. Levitin. On the most recent drive, I unwittingly borrowed it again from the library, thinking I’ve never read it before. This should be an indication of how much impact this book has.

To be fair, the first part of the book is quite illuminating, with actual neurological and psychological results on how attention works. With this in hand, he gives practical advice on how to structure one’s work and life, with the biggest theme being “export work out of brain and onto physical space.” The book could have ended after part 1, and it would still be a best seller I bet.

But then, the book divulges into an awkward mishmash of applied math and medical advice. In the section discussing Bayes’ rule, I almost felt that he had a personal vendetta against MDs with many anecdotes of “hurr durr, doctor know no math, dumb.” What was the point of this section? I doubt many people know how to perform a literature check on the efficacy of treatment. Later on, while discussing structure of organization (why?),  he seemed to pen in Shannon’s information theory just to say that the number of levels grows logarithmically (again, why bring it up?).

All in all, read the first part. Disregard rest.

Salt Sugar Fat

I listened to the audiobook version of  Salt Sugar Fat: How the Foot Giants Hooked Us recently, and it’s quite a depressing listen. The author very nicely describes how the processed food industry managed to hook most of the US population on a diet of unhealthy, albeit delicious, foods.

Ultimately, it seems to reside in biology: humans are really bad at living in the modern world. I learned that while there’s a “bliss point” where additional sugar causes actual less enjoyment, no such point exists for fat. That’s a terrifying thought, and one that I have encountered in my own home cooking. The existence of a theoretical maxima for sugar is not a place to anchor one’s hope either; sugar is far less filling and can be incredibly addictive to the point where symptoms of withdrawal can arise.

Another culprit it seems is just greed. The goal to capture more market share results in the manufacturers inventing new ways of capturing the American eye, nose and mouth. The easiest way to do that is the infusion of salt, sugar and fat onto the preservative-laden food, without any regard for the well-being of the consumer. The author constantly makes comparisons with the beleaguered tobacco industry, and it does give the reader glimmers of hope that maybe legal action can help alleviate some of the obesity crisis.

All-in-all, the book was a bit repetitive in some of its material, but still quite interesting.


Eigenfunctions and Eigenvalues of the Laplacian of the “Pacman” Domain

We will derive eigenfunctions and eigenvalues on a Pacman domain, which in polar coordinates is $\Omega = \{(r, \theta) : r \in [0, 1], \theta \in [0, 3\pi/2]\}$.
The problem is
-\Delta u &= \lambda u \qquad \Omega\\
u &= 0 \qquad \partial \Omega

In polar coordinates, the Laplacian is
\Delta = \frac{\partial^2 }{\partial r^2} + \frac{1}{r} \frac{\partial}{\partial r} + \frac{1}{r^2} \frac{\partial^2}{\partial \theta^2}.
Thus, using separation of variables $u(r, \theta) = R(r) \Theta(\theta)$ where $R(1) = 0, \Theta(0) = \Theta(3\pi/2) = 0$, we have
\Delta u &= \Theta R” + \frac{1}{r} R’ \Theta + \frac{1}{r^2} R \Theta ” = -\lambda R \Theta.
Simplifying, we have
\frac{r^2 R” + r R’ + \lambda r^2 R}{R} + \frac{\Theta ”}{\Theta} = 0.
In order for the above to be satisfied, we need each term to be constant, so assume that
\frac{\Theta”}{\Theta} = -\lambda_\theta
where $-\lambda_\theta$ is a constant.
Taking into account the boundary condition, we know that
\Theta(\theta) = \sin\left(\frac{2}{3}n \theta \right)
and $\lambda_\theta = \frac{4}{9}n^2$ for $n \in \mathbb{Z}$.

Now, using (2), we have the corresponding ODE for the $R$ variable
r^2 R” + r R’ + (\lambda r^2 – \frac{4}{9}n^2) R = 0.
Let $\rho = \sqrt\lambda r$, then $R_r = R_\rho \frac{d\rho}{dr} = \sqrt\lambda R_\rho$ and hence $R_{rr} = \lambda R_{\rho\rho}$, hence
\rho^2 R” + \rho R’ + (\rho^2 – \frac{4}{9} n^2) R = 0.
By the change of variables, we know that $R(\rho) = J_{2/3 n}(\rho)$ where $J$ is the Bessel function.

It remains to impose the boundary condition $R = 0$ at $r = 1$, so
R(\sqrt\lambda r) = J_{2/3 n}(\sqrt \lambda r) \qquad J_{2/3 n}(\sqrt{\lambda}) = 0.
meaning that $\lambda = \alpha_{2/3 n, k}^2$ for $k \ge 1$, which are the eigenvalues.

Quickdraw Reviews

Selection bias is a well known fallacy in statistic that is epitomized in the following story:

During World War II, the statistician Abraham Wald took survivorship bias into his calculations when considering how to minimize bomber losses to enemy fire. The Statistical Research Group (SRG) at Columbia University, which Wald was a part of, examined the damage done to aircraft that had returned from missions and recommended adding armor to the areas that showed the least damage, based on his reasoning. This contradicted the US military’s conclusions that the most-hit areas of the plane needed additional armor. Wald noted that the military only considered the aircraft that had survived their missions; any bombers that had been shot down or otherwise lost had logically also been rendered unavailable for assessment. The holes in the returning aircraft, then, represented areas where a bomber could take damage and still return home safely. Thus, Wald proposed that the Navy reinforce areas where the returning aircraft were unscathed, since those were the areas that, if hit, would cause the plane to be lost. His work is considered seminal in the then-nascent discipline of operational research.

While shopping for quickdraws, whose quality is critical to the safety of climbers, there was a product on REI with a good bunch of 5 star reviews with one that stated “I did not die when using it.”

I ended up buying it.

Hopefully, there isn’t a heavy case of selection bias in quickdraw reviews.

The Anime High School

The fact that Cobra Kai is the most popular show on Netflix right now is surprising. I couldn’t help but characterize the show as Americanized anime without the animated aspects (of course) or the gratuitous fan service (thank god). Otherwise, if someone puts a cartoonify filter over the visuals, uses the same dialogue and writes a theme song with actual lyrics, it’s almost indistinguishable from some Japanese anime.

Let’s compare it to the list of tropes from here:

  1. Some Girl’s Unexplainably Huge Boobs Are Going To Be Obsessed Over” – Thank goodness this wasn’t as focus.
  2. “They Go To The Beach Exactly Once” – Check! And even have karate training over water.
  3. Parents Basically Don’t Exist” – Literally no, but figuratively, the adults are generally useless with respect to the kids.
  4. Every Protagonist Starts Off As An ‘Ordinary High School Student'” – Check.
  5. There’s Going To Be A Love Triangle (At Least)” – Check
  6. A Mean Girl Is A Hopeless Romantic” – Season 2, check.
  7. There’s A Club For Everything, And It’s Always Super Important” – Uh, in fact there’s TWO clubs.
  8. There Are Insanely Powerful Student Council Overlords” – Miguel + Hawk/Sam + Robby? Check.
  9. “There’s At Least One Scene Showing Off Traditional School Swimwear” – Okay, this is more a Japanese anime thing…
  10. A Character Who’s Late For School Will Run With Toast In Their Mouth” – WTF. Maybe the corresponding thing in America is being dropped off by the parents?
  11. The Teachers Are So, So Sexy” – Thank god no.
  12. One Person That’s Over-Determined To Have A Rival, Who Just Happens To Be The Main Character” – LITERALLY THE WHOLE PLOT IS KIDS/ADULTS LOOKING FOR AN ENEMY JUST BECAUSE.
  13. A Girl Gets Scarily Obsessed With Someone” – Season 2 finale anyone?
  14. They’ll Have Insane Names For Sports Tricks” – Nope.

So out of fourteen, there’s a total of nine. Of the five tropes that aren’t in Cobra Kai, three of them are the stupid sexual fan service nudity…

Probably why it’s so addictive.