Simon Pampena in The Probability Drive – The Maths Behind The Lucky Country
Simon Pampena @ The Science Exchange (Auditorium)
7:15pm, Thu 24 Feb 2011
As regular readers (yeah, right) may know, I trained as an engineer and mathematician… and whilst I’ve let those skills atrophy with age, I’ve remained interested in comedy that dares to verge into sciencey areas. And, way back in 2001, I had the good luck to see Don McMillan perform some of his engineering-focused, Powerpoint-driven standup material… and he was fantastic, rattling through statistic after one-liner after laser-like corporate observation at a rapid rate of knots, barely leaving me enough time to catch my breath between chest-heaving guffaws.
So, as far as I’m concerned, the bar for science-based humour is set pretty high.
And I initially thought that Simon Pampena (a Math Ambassador, no less) would clear that bar easily. Bounding onto stage singing Brainiac (to the tune of Maniac) was pretty bloody funny… but the seeds of doubt were planted when the song went overlong, clearly outstaying its welcome.
Song over, Pampena leaped into motormouthed coverage of the various statistics of events, comparing the likelihood of winning the lottery to the chance of being struck by lightning. From there, he starts addressing the maths associated with The Lucky Country – or rather, those addressing sport.
In between a few too many references to Nick Riewoldt’s cock (rooster cut’n’paste, ahoy!), he looked at the “best” country in the Olympics – when calculating Olympic medal tallies per capita, Jamaica (with their stellar track and field teams) take top spot.
So far, so good.
Pampena then associates that standing with the high murder rate in that country – and jokes that, because of the need to escape mortal danger, the two statistics may be related.
And that feels like a bridge too far, y’know?
The “mathematics” behind Stephen Bradbury‘s win in the Winter Olympics felt flimsy, at best, as did his quest to prove which sport possessed the better players: snooker or darts? Despite interesting glimpses at the physical target areas involved with the accuracy of each pursuit, no consideration was given to the associated biomechanics; to have each sport present a “something” value of 0.27% felt specious. Luckily, there was a cheap joke – “add beer” – to throw in at the end that made the endeavor less worthless.
And whilst Pampena’s fascination with pi was eccentrically amusing at first, it really didn’t warrant an incredibly protracted sequence that saw him drag an audience member onstage, dress them in an uncomfortable-looking pi costume, then drill them for five minutes to get them to learn pi to ten decimal places.
Simon Pampena is clearly a smart guy; he’s also pretty charming, and his stage manner is immediately likeable. It’s just that a lot of his mathematical analysis felt dubious, even to my born-again-layman ears; or maybe it was just the fact that he was motormouthing so fast that he failed to explain things sufficiently. But at least the flawed analyses erred on the side of humour, and his re-purposed version of Fuck Tha Police (or was it Straight Outta Compton?) was great.
Sadly, however, he failed to match the aforementioned Don McMillan’s humour or precision; and when I snaffled more grins via the guy sitting behind me (clearly a hardcore mathematician – but even more obviously a comedy show novice, conversationally answering every rhetorical question posed from the stage), I can pretty safely say that I was a touch underwhelmed by The Probability Drive.