The In-Flight Movie: Veronica Mars

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Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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  1. Avatar zic
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    says:

    Perhaps he doth protest too much, for he selects a video of Summer on a distant planet, not a video of spring on Mars.Report

  2. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    Batman is more interesting than Superman, for similar reasons.Report

  3. Avatar veronica d
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    says:

    +100

    One of the nice things about being transgender is you get to pick your own name. One of the nice things about being me is I got to name myself after Veronica Mars.

    Totally true!

    Anyway, yeah.Report

  4. Avatar trizzlor
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    says:

    I think this is a case of overlearning from the extremes: Autistic people with unusually high intelligence do exist, and so we assume that intelligence ability must be linked with social disability along the whole spectrum of humans.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to trizzlor
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      says:

      Intelligence is linked with Motivation, as it is hard work to train yourself to be smarter.
      Motivation is linked with sex drive, as it’s about the most “creative” instinct we’ve got.

      Also, sociopathy does not equal social disability.Report

  5. Avatar DavidTC
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    says:

    I don’t know how any discussion of how TV shows depict intelligence can even exist without a discussion of the absurdity that is Scorpion.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC
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      says:

      I always thought Numb3rs did a respectable job of it.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        says:

        Numb3rs did a good job of it by not doing it at all.

        I can’t recall Numb3rs, at any point, having to convince us that the characters were intelligent.Report

        • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC
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          says:

          It was established in the pilot that Charlie was a math prodigy, and Don was no mental lightweight, even if he wasn’t in Charlie’s league.

          The key to that show being able to do it was that Charlie was not shown as being incapable of some aspect of normal society, but rather, he missed some things that are common to non-prodigies. Given the opportunity to fill a given gap, he did so (with varying degrees of difficulty), and the character grew.

          I also liked how the show visually represented his mind working a problem, the mental blackboard rapidly running from some first principle toward something useful, complete with explanations and even abandoned dead-ends.Report

          • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon
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            says:

            Another way Numb3rs succeeded: Not only did Charlie have gaps in his knowledge from his weird childhood, but he *also* didn’t know ‘relevant things’ that he’d have no reason to know.

            Like, if he needed to do a statistical sampling of murders, he wouldn’t immediately sprout off the average murder rates of everywhere. He’d be informed of what he was going to need to know, and then we’d cut to him with charts, presumably having looked that up.

            They did a really good job of convincing me he know, basically, every single mathematical concept and could immediately figure out how to use them in different circumstances (Aka, that he was, in fact, a prodigy mathematician), but he *didn’t* have the entire damn universe memorized.

            Vs. on Scorpion, where at least two different characters would immediately know that information. And say something really stupid about statistics while reciting it, because the writers are as dumb as dirt.Report

            • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC
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              says:

              DavidTC: Vs. on Scorpion, where at least two different characters would immediately know that information. And say something really stupid about statistics while reciting it, because the writers are as dumb as dirt.

              YES! Thank you. I knew there was something off about that show, but for the life of me I could not put my finger on it, only that it beggars my ability to suspend disbelief.Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon
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                Really? That’s the *only* thing about the show that beggars your ability to suspend disbelief? 😉

                But, seriously, ignoring all the dumb plots and gibberish technobabble, Scorpion basically does every single bad ‘smart person (nerd)’ indicator. (As mentioned in the OP, there’s also the ‘smart person (non-nerd)’ version that Sorkin and others do.)

                That’s why I brought it up…it’s like every damn ‘This is a smart nerd, I promise!’ cliche turned up to 11…and then turned up to 14 or so.

                1) Everyone knows all facts. Although Scorpion at least has enough ‘smart people’ that these facts can be distributed by field…plus Walter, he knows everything.
                2) Everyone knows all odds. As I’ve pointed out, calculating odds like that in RL is nonsense, even *if* you did magically know all the facts…and you don’t know all the facts!
                3) Able to diagnose problems just by guessing. Seriously.
                4) All of them have fairly serious interpersonal issues. The only person who is normal-ish is Toby, so he gets a serious gambling addiction.

                Walter has even more dumb specific ones:
                1) A ‘extremely high IQ’. Which is, uh, nonsense.
                2) A hacker for fun. Hacking is a fairly specific skill set, but doesn’t really require any more intelligence than programming…and I promise, not all programmers are geniuses.
                3) Claims to not have emotions, but really does.
                4) Likes a girl but can’t admit it.
                5) Extremely blunt, even when it would be obvious to anyone of even *low* intelligence to speak in some other way or just shut the hell up. Hell, he *hired* someone to interact with the world for him…and doesn’t use her for that purpose.

                None of this is helped by the writers being way out of their depth, so much so that half the time their solutions are gibberish, and the other half the time *I* figure out what needs doing before the characters do. (I like to think of myself as smart, but, seriously.)Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to DavidTC
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                It wasn’t the only thing, but perhaps I am so inured to stupid TV tropes that the rest just failed to pique.

                But the whole “knowing of all trivia because of a ridiculous emergency/plot device” – blah!. I think the one that really killed it was (hang on, I gotta look this up) the 5th episode, where at least two of the characters had disturbingly detailed knowledge of the control systems of an old nuclear reactor.

                I gave up after that.Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon
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                says:

                I actually gave up after the first episode, then later I started angry-watching.Report

            • Avatar j r in reply to DavidTC
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              says:

              Isn’t Scorpion the show about the DHS’ special ops Help Desk?

              And didn’t the first episode evolve around having to update a flying plane’s navigation software with a really long cat 5 cable?Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to j r
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                The first episode is where 1) Flight controllers update software without a rollback plan, 2) They don’t have an old copy of the software, 3) Their backups is not accessible remotely, 4) Their backup only has one version, so will overwrite with the new version every day, 5) They don’t have a way to stop this, 6) I could not longer watch the show because my television mysteriously was lying in pieces on the ground outside my window.Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to DavidTC
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                says:

                And, more seriously, the answer to your question is no. They were updating a *ground* computer *from* the airplane’s software. Now that I have described the *first* part of the episode, I shall describe the end:

                They need to get the software off of an airplane (Why the hell an airplane would be flying around with ATC software is beyond me.)

                They’ve been unable to make contact with any of the airplanes (Because apparently receiving airplane radio transmissions are…part of the ATC computers? And not something any idiot with a ham radio can do?) until they track down a guy with a dumb phone (Which they call an analog phone, despite it clearly not being) because it’s a well-known fact that everyone with smartphones turn their phones off when flying.

                They then need to get the program off the plane, which is apparently accessible over the plane’s wifi (?!). And instead of just getting someone with a smartphone to turn their phone on and connect to the plane’s wifi and sent the prgram via their cellular data, they decided that *they* needed to connect to the plane’s wifi. (Of course, if the plane has wifi, it *already has an internet connection*, you dumbasses.)

                They tried to connect to the wifi with the plane flying close overhead, which didn’t work, but let me mention *why* they said it didn’t work: Because radio waves emitted by things moving at different speeds don’t work or something. Basically, they tried to claim doppler frequency shifting…on an airplane moving at few hundred miles an hour. They did this despite them having a *perfectly good* logical explanation of why it’s impossible to connect to a plane’s wifi from the ground…the damn plane is out of reach too fast. And despite the fact they were talking *via cell phone* to someone on the plane. Even when they happen to get something right…it’s wrong.

                So, they got a fast car, and decided to speed along under the plane…and instead of trying wifi again, they got the plane to drop down a cable, and hooked it up to the laptop…and this program, downloaded to the laptop, somehow then immediately made it to the tower (And the laptop falls off and dies), despite the fact they had *just* explained how wifi didn’t work at those speeds. (Perhaps the laptop had a cellular modem, but that just makes their forgetting about smart phones even stupider…and why do cell phone ‘radio waves’ not doppler shift?)

                The entire thing was just so stupid…and that was literally the first episode.Report

              • Avatar trizzlor in reply to DavidTC
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                This is great! I would love to see a post series along the lines of “A math-literate watches Scorpion”Report

              • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to trizzlor
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                says:

                How many TVs do you want thrown out of windows?Report

              • Avatar Glyph in reply to Oscar Gordon
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                says:

                In MY day, you had to call a friend over to help you, if you wanted to throw yr TV out the window. Or you could shoot it up like Elvis.

                Now you young whippersnappers can just pick up your plastic LCD flat-panels, probably with one hand, and slide ’em out the barely-cracked-open window.

                I’ll bet it doesn’t even explode upon impact in a satisfying way, sending deadly glass shards flying in all directions.

                Hmmmph. No respect at all for the way things used to be done.Report

              • Avatar Chris in reply to Glyph
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                Heh… I just had a conversation with my son about the television my parents bought in the late 80s, and only got rid of in ’04 when they moved. He remembers it only vaguely, and was convinced that we had put the TV into some sort of large TV cabinet. I had to explain to him that that whole thing was the television. Televisions used to be furniture, instead of something you put on or above furniture.

                I doubt many of us could have thrown that damn thing out of a window with only one friend helping.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Glyph
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                says:

                In MY day, you had to call a friend over to help you, if you wanted to throw yr TV out the window.

                A few years ago, our city (pop around 110K) ran a one-day program where people could drop off old CRT televisions and monitors for a small fee (IIRC, $10 for sets less than 32 inches, $20 for sets 32 inches or larger). They got the lettermens’ clubs at the high schools to provide large bodies to do the heavy lifting from vehicles to pallets, and opened for business at 9:00 AM on Saturday morning. When I got there at 11:00 I had to wait in line for a half-hour to get to the front. There must have been a couple hundred pallets already filled. It was an amazing sight.

                If you had an old 1960s style wooden console TV they sent you to a separate area where it was handled with great care. There is apparently a substantial and profitable business restoring the cabinetry and loading it up with contemporary electronics.Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to trizzlor
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                says:

                That rant above is a rephrasing of a rant I made immediately after the episode on Facebook. I actually did consider writing up my rants and putting them somewhere.

                I mean, I’m a computer guy…but it wasn’t just me. I got a lot of feedback from a lot of people saying ‘Yeah, I’m not a computer guy, but the backups things didn’t make sense.’ and ‘Yeah, I couldn’t figure out how that airplane had wifi but not internet’ and even ‘I caught that a dumb phone and an analogy phone weren’t the same thing, and also that a lot of people circling an airport for hours would turn their phones back on.’

                Sadly, the *next* episode was about some sort of engineered disease that supposedly would only kill people with certain DNA. I don’t know enough about biology to catch where they made errors there, but I remember there was a fairly obvious plot hole of ‘Why on earth is *this* the best way to assassinate this guy?’ along with ‘Would you really use this weapon in this way?’Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to DavidTC
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                says:

                People at work on stuff like that are thinking genocide.
                Of course, they’re also stupid shits, in the main, but still…Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Kim
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                says:

                @kim
                People at work on stuff like that are thinking genocide.

                Yeah, that’s where my thoughts were going with that, too. I was thinking ‘Man, sell this tech to racist terrorists, and assassinate *this* guy with a poison dart or something.’Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to DavidTC
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          says:

          Amita drove me away though. The sort of casual, “I have some time between classes this afternoon so I’ll invent a new algorithm, type in a few thousand lines of code, and it runs perfectly the first time. Don’t bother me with test cases.”Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            I couldn’t watch Numb3rs, because every time Morrow was on screen I pictured him as Joel Fleischman.Report

          • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain
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            says:

            Yeah, the way they casually treat software development…

            But of course, very few productions ever get software development, or hacking/cracking right.

            I mean, have you seen CSI: Cyber?Report

            • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Oscar Gordon
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              says:

              “Being an FBI computer expert may have been the opportunity of your lifetime, but I don’t want your life”Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to Oscar Gordon
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              says:

              Torchwood did a pretty good job about hacking…
              of course, there were reasons for that.
              [Torchwood, the incompetent “secret” agency]Report

            • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Oscar Gordon
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              @oscar-gordon
              Yeah, the way they casually treat software development…

              Well, the software development on Numb3rs *was* fairly casual. It’s not like they were writing for end users or to fixed specifications. It was always just some code to crunch their own numbers. Probably within a framework that specifically exists for that, either a generic one or one they wrote ethemselves.

              Granted, some testing would have been nice, and a few ‘I’ve finished the software, let’s run it!’ *it crashes* ‘Okay, I haven’t finished the software!’ events would have been more realistic, but we weren’t talking professional software development in the first place. It was just someone throwing out some code for their own use.

              They just left out the boring part, like all police procedurals leave out ‘interviewing every single person in the apartment building’, or ‘tracking down a car spotted near the crime scene that turns out to be completely unrelated’.

              It’s not perfectly realistic, but it was a damn sight more realistic than the way TV shows treat professional software development (Which at this point is always about video games for some reason.) *or* hacking. (Which has always been nonsense.)Report

              • Avatar trizzlor in reply to DavidTC
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                The unrealistic elements were there though when the software included highly advanced visualizations (e.g. fully interactive 3D models of the city where the crime took place) which would have been entirely useless to a real analyst, who – on a good day – will copy numeric outputs from terminal into Excel to make a stock graph. That’s the problem with working in a visual medium, I guess, but I would have preferred if the visualizations were explicitly metaphor and not pretending to be part of the software.Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to trizzlor
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                says:

                I don’t remember that happening in Numb3rs at all. Then again, it’s been years.Report

              • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to trizzlor
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                says:

                I could live with the 3D visualizations. Although it would have been nice if there had been a throwaway comment about “I grafted this onto the 3D city system that a dozen minionsgraduate students spent years assembling the data for.”Report

              • Avatar DavidTC in reply to Michael Cain
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                Numb3rs started in 2005. Even back then, you could easily purchase wireframe 3D city models of major cities. Flight Simulator junkies all had them, along with rough textures. Hell, that was the year Google Earth launched, which boasted ‘3D buildings in major cities across the United States’. (Although, again, I don’t actually remember Numb3rs doing that…in fact, I don’t remember us seeing computer output much in that show at all.)

                Yes, it’s extremely goofy how everyone on TV plugs locations into 3D models of cities, and then swoops around on them. Instead of what the police *actually* plug locations into, which I’m certain is just a plain old 2D map viewed from above. (1) But it’s not like it’s *impossible*, or even much more difficult…it’s just pointless, and clearly done to make things more interesting to the viewer.

                Now, you want something that’s nearly impossible…try the people modeling software on Bones, where a few commands will model one person killing another with a pitchfork or whatever. No. Just no.

                1) Although at this point, instead of specialized software, it’s probably easier and cheaper to automatically generate a kml file or something and load it in Google Earth…which *will* do all that 3D swooping and stuff, whether you want it to or not. Heh.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to DavidTC
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                I’m sure anyplace with a Thieves Highway has it on the maps.
                Of course, that just means three maps or so… no need for 3d, just stackable maps.Report

              • Avatar Kolohe in reply to trizzlor
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                says:

                trizzlor:
                The unrealistic elements were there though when the software included highly advanced visualizations (e.g. fully interactive 3D models of the city where the crime took place) which would have been entirely useless to a real analyst, who – on a good day – will copy numeric outputs from terminal into Excel to make a stock graph

                Please excuse the crudity of this model. I didn’t have time to build it to scale or paint it.

                Report

  6. Avatar Mike Schilling
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    says:

    Walter White is an interesting character because he combines a genius-level intellect with backward child-level emotional maturity. It’s why he’s barely getting by when Gretchen and Elliott, also super-smart but without his flaws, are billionaires, but overall pretty boring people.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird
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    So I’ve been stewing on this all day and I’m thinking “how do you depict intelligence in a television show or movie?”

    The ham-fisted way is probably to just go across a wall covered with degrees and pictures of the person receiving awards and then pan over to a bookshelf with a couple of books written by the character. If we wanted to do the “show, don’t tell” thing, how to do it?

    As I age, I realize that “intelligence” is a lot like “fitness”. In the same way that a marathon runner is differently fit from an Olympic lifter is differently fit from a professional ball player is differently fit from a college diver is differently fit from a yoga trainer, intelligence probably refers to a number of different things, some of which don’t look *ANYTHING* like each other. (A body builder and a gymnast, for example.)

    As such, most people who are of average intelligence can probably do most of these things around average ability with, maybe, one or two at above average. “Smart people” can do one or two things at a high level, and “geniuses” can do two or three (or four) at a very high level and once you’re doing those things at a level that high, you can lose one or two of the others and people will make excuses. (See, for example, the old “absent-minded professor” or, sigh, the modern “aspy” tropes.)

    But if I wanted to demonstrate that someone was intelligent, fairly quickly, and show it (not tell it), the quickest ways that occur to me are to:

    1) Have him be exceptionally observant. Sherlock Holmes can guess whether you’ve recently broken off an engagement, for example. Something like that.

    2) Not only capable of wordplay but engage in wordplay for pleasure. We’ve mentioned Sorkin above. The scene that first appears to me is from Sports Night where people were arguing over the use of the word “momentarily”. There is a small subset of people who argue over the proper use of words (as adults with adults, anyway) and smart people are disproportionately represented among this group.

    3) Speaks multiple languages, plays multiple instruments, creating art with several different media, capable of writing poetry/blogposts/books, and making it look effortless. Cooking different genres of foods. Tonight making Thai, tomorrow night making French, the next night making Ethiopian.

    4) Work-related competence. Like, an insane amount of competence. Fixing 7 different problems as she walks down the hall to the water cooler and then 9 different problems on the way back.

    5) Uses complete sentences with a minimum of contractions. Opens most scenes with nose in a book, then puts book aside. The book is always different in each scene. Not always fiction. Not always non-fiction. Answers questions about stuff like “how do I look?” with a line such as “words fail”.

    Those are probably a handful more but those are the big ones. The big problem is that “intelligence” is one of those things that, like strength, is difficult to depict if you’re not showing a brute force display. A shortcut is “clever” but “clever” is relational and you have to have someone more clever than someone else for it to work (in the same way that you can show an arm wrestling match to show strength… but that’s qualitative rather than quantitative). Cunning works similarly to clever, if you want to get dark and gritty.

    It’s really tough to do well. It’s so easy to just show a PhD on the wall.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to Jaybird
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      Even easier than showing a degree is just having another character say how super duper intelligent and that the person “best at what he/she does”. That seems to be the most common and laziest way to do it.Report

    • Avatar veronica d in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      This ties in with a conversation over at SCC, this one: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/07/23/the-general-factor-of-correctness/

      (And actually there is a lot being said on Tumblr as well.)

      The thing is, the idea that “math smart” implies “not word smart” seems not to be the case, at least most of the time. There are exceptions. There are the weirdo savants, and they can be really interesting people. However, they are not the norm. Lots of people who are quite bright in one way turn out to be quite bright in many others.

      Regarding your list, item number 3, the person who speaks a ton of languages and cooks in every cuisine and so on, always annoys me. It’s not that they don’t exist, but it’s such obvious “look how smart I am” signal that I don’t trust authors who pull that routine. To my view, it’s not much better than the diplomas on the wall.

      Which goes to some lit theory: but “character” is not about incidental color; it is about what the character wants and what they are willing to do to get it. Showing them cook a billion cuisines is boring, unless that matters to the story.

      For example, we know Tyrion is smart not because we see him reading books, but because of the things he says, the choices he makes, and what happens to him when everything totally unravels around him.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to veronica d
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        I admit to using examples from my real life there. I was thinking of several of the absolute smartest people I know and thinking about some of the stuff that made me feel like a rube as I sat dumbfounded.

        The cooking example is a real one. (The person also wrote books, poetry, blogposts, played musical instruments, I was sitting there thinking “I can’t believe that I thought I was smart in 2nd grade.”)Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to veronica d
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        The thing is, the idea that “math smart” implies “not word smart” seems not to be the case, at least most of the time. There are exceptions…. However, they are not the norm. Lots of people who are quite bright in one way turn out to be quite bright in many others.

        Most of the people I know who I think of as “really smart” can, in the proper setting, talk off-the-cuff in sentences and paragraphs. My experience is that this is much rarer in real life than it is for TV/movie characters. Probably because screenwriters write in sentences and paragraphs, rather than fragments, backing up and starting a sentence over, losing track of the thought, etc.Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to veronica d
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        says:

        v,
        lots of people turn out to be learning disabled too.
        The thing about intelligence is that you can train up things you’re weak in.
        And needing to train something gives you a lot more finesse than you’d get if you were automatically good at it.

        Natural socialites make horrid spies.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      In The Bucket List, we were shown that Morgan Freeman was super-smart because he knew all the answers on Jeopardy.Report

  8. Avatar Kim
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    says:

    How to do Intelligence:
    1) Have decent gambits, outread the other people, and outspeak the rest of the characters. To Wit: Omar Little from The Wire — who’s generally using Batman Gambits.
    2) Your plans come with backup plans, and your backup plans come with better backup plans. Close enough to the Xanatos Gambit form of strategy.
    3) Be flexible enough to change your plans on the fly in order to win (in extreme cases, this is Xanatos Speed Chess). This is really difficult.
    4) Know when to call for help, and make your solutions plausible.

    The Chessmaster, The Clock King, The Trickster and the Manipulative Bastard… It’s not a coincidence that most of these are villainous tropes. If the smart people are on the side of good, you need smarter people on the side of bad (well, not always, but it helps). Orphan Black is a good example of the “heroine” jumping to other people’s tune, pretty much the entire show.

    Social expertise is a great way to show intelligence, particularly if you want to do it on the sly.

    Intelligence, true intelligence, is about creativity. Humor and talking smart is just one aspect of it, but it’s a good one.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe in reply to Kim
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      says:

      Kim:
      Intelligence, true intelligence, is about creativity. Humor and talking smart is just one aspect of it, but it’s a good one.

      Kim, you’re the smartest person I know on the internet.

      (Srsly tho, good analysis and use of TV tropes. & without dangerous links)Report

      • Avatar Kim in reply to Kolohe
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        says:

        Oh, don’t let me fool you.
        It helps that I know television writers (both comic and dramatic), but that first line I pulled directly from someone who researches intelligence and how to train it.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Kim
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      says:

      Intelligence, true intelligence, is about creativity.

      “One intelligence to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”Report

  9. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    says:

    I’ve more focused on the acting, noting that not that many actors can successfully portray somebody who is really smart. An example of a failure is the Bond girl Natalia Simonova from Goldeneye, played by Izabella Scorupco. She does not come across to me as being anything like the many women I’ve known in computing. Spock is only a semi-fail, the odds calculation thing seemed more like an attempt at portraying alieness, which was the focus of Nimoy’s performance. But in doing so, he captured something of the sense of alienation that so many smart people feel in American culture.

    A bigger failure in the Star Trek universe would be Dr. Noonian Soong, the creator Data. He never seemed smart to me, just ranty.

    The best onscreen performance of smart I know would have to be in _A Beautiful Mind_. Having touched the world of higher mathematics, it felt very real to me. Russell Crowe has done several smart people, he does it well.

    And oddly, I endorse the idea of wordplay. The very mathy smart people I know do it – Lewis Caroll, something of an icon for mathy smarts – did lots of it. It may not look quite the same as when the word smart people do it, though.Report

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