Archive for the 'Oddities' Category

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Campaign billboard, 1949:

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Small World

globeToday, in a moment of idleness and nostalgia, I tried Googling an old girlfriend I haven’t seen or heard from in decades. She has a very common name, so she’s hard to Google. I’ve tried a few times in the past, and have always failed.

Today, though, I found her. A few minor clues helped me pick her out from the dozens of others with the same name. There wasn’t much. I still don’t know where she lives, and I still don’t know if she has a family. The one and only thing I’ve learned is that she was the screenwriter for two short films, both by the same director.

So of course I Googled that director. The first hit was a list of all his movies, in order of their rankings on IMDB, with cast listings for each movie. The top-billed cast member on the top-rated movie was — (drumroll!) — my son-in-law.

No, there is no conceivable connection between the ex-girlfriend, who I lost touch with when my son-in-law was something like an infant, and the son-in-law himself. No, the ex-girlfriend never lived in the city where I and the son-in-law live now, or in any other city he’s lived in. Yes, I was vaguely aware that my son-in-law was involved with moviemaking as a serious hobby, and somewhat more vaguely aware that he might have done some acting as part of that hobby. That’s all I’ve got.

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Dear Old Golden Rule Days

ssyShortly before I started Kindergarten, my mother purchased a book called “Steven’s School Years”, with pockets to store my report cards and school projects, and questionnaires for me to fill out at the end of each school year.

I was not diligent about filling in the questionnaires, and they remain mostly blank. But had I been forced to, I wonder how I would have answered the following question, which was to be answered annually at the end of Grades 1,2,3,4,5, and 6:

(According to my mother, my ambition at age three was to be an electric drill, and sometime after that a rabbit. No other records of my early career inclinations seem to have survived.)

Continue reading ‘Dear Old Golden Rule Days’

The Ashley Madison Test of College Faculty Cluelessness

Science marches on. Recent developments have made it possible to answer the age-old question: What percentage of your college faculty used their work email addresses to establish accounts at Ashley Madison?

In a sample of 33 highly ranked colleges, the answer ranges from a low of 1.6% at Oberlin to a pretty much unbelievable 22.6% at the University of Minnesota. (The full rankings appear at the bottom of this post.)

I got these percentages by counting the number of unique email addresses ending with, say, “” in the leaked Ashley Madison database, and dividing by the number of Harvard faculty, as reported by the college either on its website or in its Common Data Set filings.

The methodology, is, of course, fraught with peril. First, the majority of academic email addresses belong not to faculty, but to students. But it seems like a good guess that faculty (by virtue of their average age) are both far more likely than students to be trolling Ashley Madison, and far more likely than students to be clueless about acquiring anonymous email addresses. Besides, a quick spotcheck of the email addresses in the Ashley Madison database does indeed confirm that most of them (at least in one small but random sample) belong to faculty members.

There are also, of course, staff, and the staff-to-faculty ratio probably varies a lot from school to school, so weeding out the staff could change the relative rankings quite a bit. But again, my (still small but still random) sample continues to indicate that these are mostly faculty members.

A far more important issue might arise from the fact that some universities have multiple campuses. It’s possible, for example, that the 657 email addresses in Minnesota’s numerator came from many campuses, while the 2913 facuty in their denominator represents only the main campus. This will tend to inflate the rankings of the big state schools, and might account for the appearance of Minnesota, Virginia, Michigan and Cornell at the top — suggesting that if the numbers were crunched more carefully, the prize might go to Liberty University. If I were going to use these rankings for anything important, I’d give this issue a harder look.

One might also note that anybody can type anybody else’s email address into Ashley Madison, but I’m inclined to discount the importance of that, because it’s hard for me to see what the motive would be (except, perhaps, as part of a campaign to flood someone’s email box with unwanted replies).

With those caveats, feel free to use these rankings as a measure of your college faculty’s average cluelessness, at least when it comes to maintaining anonymity over the Internet.

Continue reading ‘The Ashley Madison Test of College Faculty Cluelessness’

The Ballmer Legacy

I just tried to log into my Hotmail account and got a message saying that for security reasons, I have to enter a code, which will be sent to the mobile number or email address of my choice. So I typed in one of my other email addresses, they sent me a code, I entered the code, and I logged into Hotmail.

We all see the problem here, right?

I think maybe all the smart people left Microsoft in embarrassment over MSWord.

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Rational Riddles

Many years ago, when soft pretzels were available on every street corner in downtown Philadelphia at the going price of

Ten Cents Apiece/Three for a Quarter
there was one vendor who occupied a prime location in the City Hall courtyard, and was therefore able to command a premium price. His sign read
Ten Cents Apiece/Two for a Quarter

I always thought we could explain that one away as a case of poor math skills. But now our frequent (and frequently brilliant!) commenter Thomas Bayes sends along this photo of a sign that he recently spotted at a gas station convenience store, and which I’m finding a little harder to get my head around:

Thomas reports:

I asked the person behind the counter if she could sell me one pack for $1. She said no. I asked if she would throw one of the packs away for me if I bought two. She seemed genuinely puzzled. I drive an SUV, so I wish they’d apply this scheme to the gas they sell.

Here’s your chance to get creative. Give me an explanation consistent with rational behavior and orthodox economic theory.

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Sun Burned

This is a picture of Jeffrey Punton, from my hometown of Rochester, New York, standing in front of the solar panels that he installed at a cost of about $42,500. He figures that over the long term, they’ll save him maybe $8000 to $10,000 in power bills. But he’ll only lose a few thousand dollars on the deal, thanks to about $30,000 in government subsidies — in other words, thanks to those of you who pay taxes. He keeps the panels up as a conversation-starter so he can educate people about how little sense these subsidies make.

The story is here.

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Unclear on the Concept

Mike Rizzo at The Unbroken Window reports spotting these two bumper stickers next to each other — on the same car.

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Fortune Comes a-Crawlin’

With great humility, I am honored to inform you that Eric Crampton of Offsetting Behavior has nominated me for sainthood.

Riffing off yesterday’s Acta Sanctorum post, Eric is asking for your help in making this a reality:

So, here’s the campaign for Saint Steven.

  1. Any of you who have any kind of illness at all pray to Steven Landsburg for intervention.
  2. If you do not receive divine Landsburgean intervention, don’t tell me about it.
  3. If you do receive divine Landsburgean intervention, please leave a record of such in the comments. Preferably with a link to a doctor’s note saying that your recovery was unexpected and pretty remarkable. This should happen in maybe 1% of cases.
  4. We submit the documented evidence of the successes, while ignoring the failures. Ta-dah! Saint Steven.

My hope is to beat John Paul II’s record of two reported cures, plus the toppling of one Evil Empire, or, at a minimum, the National Endowment for the Arts. Oh, and while I’m at it I have a couple of other worldly improvements in mind. Watch your step, Paul Krugman!

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Basic Confusion

Andre Weil was a towering figure in 20th century mathematics, his book on Basic Number Theory being just one of his many immortal contributions. (The title is something of a joke; this is a pathbreaking treatise at a very advanced level.)

None of which explains why today, fifteen years after Weil’s death, I received an email from the mathematical publisher Springer-Verlag that reads:

Dear Andre Weil,

We are writing today regarding your book *Basic Number Theory (ISBN: 978-3-662-05980-7), and to let you know about our plans
for an electronic archive, the Springer Book Archives.

Your author benefits at a glance:

- Your book will be digitized and become an eBook, published on SpringerLink, our online platform, and for e-reading devices such as the Kindle or iPad.

- Your book can never go ‘out-of-print’ and will be preserved for future generations of scientists.

- You will be provided with free access to the electronic version of your book once it is included in the archive.

- You will receive royalties, or can choose to waive them in support of charitable organizations such as INASP or Research4Life,
that help provide the developing world with access to scientific research.

Please go to the following website and select your preferred royalty option.

[URL deleted]

Yours sincerely,


Continue reading ‘Basic Confusion’

Looney Tunes

So there’s this man-eating creature named Jozin who lives in a bog, and is vulnerable only to crop-dusting powder. The mayor promises his daughter in marriage to whoever can defeat the creature. A stranger comes to town, borrows a crop-duster, captures Jozin, and wins the daughter. The end.

This, I think, is as good an example as any of why a gripping story requires more than just a good beginning and a happy ending. But sometimes, a hefty dose of looniness can fully compensate for the complete absence of dramatic tension. Et voila:

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The Long Now

Here is a link to my piece in today’s issue of; and here’s the executive summary:

Deep inside a West Texas mountain, engineers are building a clock designed to click for 10,000 years.’s Jeff Bezos has sunk $43 million into this project and that’s just a start. What’s the purpose? “To foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”, say the organizers.

Now thinking and responsibility are two different things, but it’s hard to see how this project is likely to encourage either. Re thinking: The question of what we owe to future generations is subtle and difficult and requires close attention to difficult arguments; it’s hard to see how a ticking clock will do to foster that kind of effort. And as for responsiblity — if responsibility means making a better life for our distant descendants, then Bezos’s $43 million would almost surely be better spent on lobbying for lower capital taxes. Whether the goal is thinking or responsibility, a giant clock seems like a giant waste of time.

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Chain Reaction

If you study economics, or statistics, or chemistry, or mathematical biology, or thermodynamics, you’re sure to encounter the notion of a Markov chain — a random process whose future depends probabilistically on the present, but not on the past. If you travel through New York City, randomly turning left or right at each corner, then you’re following a Markov process, because the probability that you’ll end up at Carnegie Hall depends on where you are now, not on how you got there.

But even if you work with Markov processes every day, you’re probably unaware of their origins in a dispute about free will, Christianity, and the Law of Large Numbers.

Continue reading ‘Chain Reaction’

Llamas in the News

Here. Be sure to read through to the very end.

Hat tip to my sister, who once had her dress pulled off by a llama.

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Topsy Turvy

The AFL-CIO is calling for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act to close the wage gap between men and women, a problem they say is increasingly urgent, with the above graph as Exhibit A. Get a load of that plummetting dotted gray line!

Now have a look at the right hand axis, which the perpetrators have conveniently drawn upside down for no apparent reason other than the obvious dishonest one.

Continue reading ‘Topsy Turvy’

The Star of the Phillipines

One year ago today, somewhere in the Phillipines, a reporter checked his web logs and wondered where all the new readers were coming from. Today we celebrate the first anniversary of one of the most unfortunately worded headlines in the history of journalism.

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The Better to Hear Your Comments With

My 17 year old stepson is learning Photoshop. For his first effort, he…..well, let’s say he sharpened up this picture of his mom and me:

Meanwhile, the responses to yesterday’s Religion on Trial post have been terrific. Keep them coming.

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Triumphs of Capitalism

Lifted from craigslist, with a hat tip to my sister:

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What Women Want: It’s Not Just Wallet Size

If you’re planning to lie about your weight on an online dating site, you’d be well advised to shade downward if you’re a woman and (more surprisingly) upward if you’re a man.

That’s one apparent lesson of the data in this recently published paper by three careful researchers. If I’m reading their tables correctly, they say roughly this:

Taking as given your reported age, height, race, weight, income, attractiveness, education, marital status and so forth, there is some class of users who have about a 50/50 chance of contacting you. Now if you are a 5’4″ woman and you subtract 11 pounds from your reported weight (lowering your body mass index, or BMI, by about 1), then you’ll hear not from 50% of that class but from almost 60%. On the other hand, if you are a 5’10″ man and you *add* 7 pounds to your weight (adding about 1 to your BMI), you’ll hear from about 53%.

Moreover, these effects fall off very slowly, so that even very thin women gain from underreporting their weights, and even very heavy men gain from overreporting. The effects also fall off very slowly with BMI differences, so that even quite heavy men prefer thinner women, and even quite thin women prefer heavier men.

Continue reading ‘What Women Want: It’s Not Just Wallet Size’

Partly Unclear

In the course of planning a rather significant event for the coming weekend, I was forced, for the first time in my life, to confront the following conundrum:

  • Which is sunnier — “partly sunny” or “partly cloudy”?

My faith in the power of pure reason was severely shaken when I realized I could construct equally plausible arguments in either direction. So, with reluctance, I abandoned theory and turned to evidence, in the form of the logos employed by two of the more popular weather forecasting sites:

Weather Underground
Partly Sunny
Partly Cloudy

Weather Underground takes an unambiguous stand: partly cloudy is definitely sunnier than partly sunny. Accuweather is a little, umm, hazier on the issue; apparently at Accuweather, partly cloudy means something like “somewhat wispier clouds, covering more of the central portion of the sun but a bit less of the edges, than partly sunny”. Overall, though, it appears that at Accuweather, partly sunny is sunnier than partly cloudy.

Continue reading ‘Partly Unclear’


deanmartinOver at Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson blogs about a science fiction novel that posits a world where people routinely sell shares in their future income. (I have not read the novel, which is called The Unincorporated Man.) Robin laments that while many reviewers have taken it for granted that we wouldn’t want to allow such contracts, none seem to have seriously engaged the idea.

I’m not sure if this counts as serious engagement, but I am reminded of the apparently little-known fact that the singer/actor/TV phenomenon Dean Martin did exactly this. In fact, he overdid exactly this. By the time he was 27 years old, Martin had sold 10% of himself to MCA Records, 20% to his manager DIck Richards, 35% to his other manager Lou Perry, and 25% to the mobster Frank Costello. That left him with 5% of himself—”$50 for every grand he made” in the words of writer Nick Tosches. A year later, he hired yet another manager and sold him another 10%. Having now sold 105% of himself, it became imprudent to earn money. Therefore, in need of something to live on, Martin sold yet another 10% of himself to nighclub owner Angel Lopez.

Continue reading ‘Overselling’

More Triumphs of Capitalism

Do me a favor. Listen to this 30 second audio clip and let me know if you feel like you can speak a little Gaelic.


The clip is from the Subliminal Learn Gaelic Irish/Scottish CD available from Brainwave Mind Voyages. According to their website, listening to this CD while you sleep will train you not just to speak Gaelic but to read it as well. (If the clip above didn’t work for you, please try it again while sleeping.) If you really want to go high-tech, they also offer an ultrasonic track that teaches you Gaelic in complete silence.

In case Gaelic is not your thing, the same company offers subliminal CDs that will teach you to dance, trade stocks, or stop pulling your eyelashes. Or on the racier side, there are CDs for subliminal breast enhancement, “natural male enhancement”, and combating both impotence and the gag reflex.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have developed a technology that will teach you to keep squirrels in your pocket while you sleep. For the time being, only the traditional methods are available. But who knows what the future might bring?

Triumphs of Capitalism

The secret of invisibility and the secret of keeping a squirrel in your pocket—all for one low price of $24.95. Now there’s something you’d never see under socialism.


An unexpectedly full weekend leaves me caught short without a full fledged blog post for today. I’ll make up for it tomorrow. In the meantime, here are two tidbits to hold you over:

  • A useful recipe for salted water. Do not fail to read the reviews.
  • A puzzle I got from the mathematician Alexander Merkurjev. If I recall right, he told me that it had appeared on a college entrance exam in the old Soviet Union:

    A regular 400-gon is tiled by parallelograms. Prove that at least 100 of those parallelograms must be rectangles.

    (A regular 400-gon is a 400-sided figure with all sides equal and all angles equal. The parallelograms can all be of different sizes and shapes—or not. “Tiled” means that the interior of the 400-gon is entirely covered, with no overlaps.)

Movers and Shakers

shakerI once told the late Nobel prize winner George Stigler that I was teaching a course on the relationship between economics and the other social sciences. “Ah”, he nodded. “That would be haughty superciliousness, I suppose”.

I was reminded of this when a comment on a recent blogpost asked for my further thoughts on the economics of superstition. This, after all, might be one area where economics lags behind its sister sciences. And this in turn reminded me of a true social science classic—anthropologist Michael Pacanowsky’s investigation into the origins of the folk belief that the utterance “Please pass the salt” is causally linked to the passage of salt from one end of a table to another.


If You Licked the Handle, Would a Car Grow Inside You?

While everyone else blogs the State of the Union, I prefer to bring you something a little more uplifting—like a watermelon car. I want one.

I first discovered this at ReflectionOf.Me, which houses a really quite extraordinary collection of beautiful oddities. You might want to mosey around there and take your mind off politics for a while. You’ll feel better.


animal-125Let me tell you about my collection of really bad animal question-and-answer books.

This is a genre that thrived back before the Internet (mostly between 1930 and 1960) when connoisseurs of weirdness and misinformation had only bound books to turn to. Its heroes include Osmond P. Breland (author of the classics “Animal Facts and Fallacies”, “Animal Friends and Foes”, and “Animal Life and Lore”) and Alan Devoe (who gave us “Speaking of Animals” and “This Fascinating Animal World”).

Here’s a six-question quiz I compiled from these books.

  1. Can a toad live for years sealed up in solid rock?
  2. Can a dog procreate with a skunk?
  3. Do snakes swallow their young to protect them from danger?
  4. Can salamanders live in fire?
  5. Is the rattlesnake a gentleman?
  6. Can male animals lay eggs?

Continue reading ‘Animania’

Rock On

usbpetrockIf you’re my age, you’ll surely remember the great Pet Rock craze of the 1970′s. (If you’re not my age, maybe you’ve heard about it from your grandparents.) In any event, here’s proof—if it were still needed—that the world just keeps on getting better: While the old Pet Rock just sat there not doing anything, today you can get a pet rock with a USB connection! Here’s the product description:

Simply plug the USB cable into a free port and let the fun begin. The USB Pet Rock will instantly begin to work its magic. People will stop by and ask you what your USB Pet Rock does. Each time, you can make up a new story; for no matter what you say, it will be greater than the truth – because these USB Pet Rocks don’t do a dang thing. Except make you smile. And confuse your friends and coworkers, which will make you smile even more. So, get your USB Pet Rock today, and help make us rich tomorrow.

Now there’s something that could never have been produced under socialism!

(A grateful hat tip to my friend Johanna.)

In other news, the year is winding down, and everyone else is doing end-of-year retrospectives, so I shall do the same. Check this space tomorrow for a review of the Top Ten posts of 2009 here on The Big Questions blog. And Happy New Year.

On the Amazon: Christmas Edition

Some gift ideas for the more unusual people on your Christmas list:

First, with a hat tip to my sister, three from

  • For your ex’s divorce lawyer: A laptop desk to attach to your steering wheel! Proceed as follows (you’ll thank me, really): First cursor over the customer images on the left side of the page. Then read the customer reviews.
  • For the political activist on your list: Uranium ore!. Again, read the customer reviews. Again, you’ll thank me.
  • For your oddball cousin: Wolf urine!. Not a common taste, but for those who indulge, there simply is no substitute. And of course: Read the reviews.

And speaking of Amazon customer reviews, I was more than pleased to stumble on this quote in a review of The Big Questions:

Also, if you are a parent and are blessed with a math/science inclined child, please, please, please buy them a copy!

It’s not too late!

Finally, as a Christmas gift to my readers—or at least to that vocal subset of my readers who have been clamoring for answers to the honors questions I posted a couple of weeks ago: Your wish is my command.

Postman’s Nightmare


Courtesy of our frequent commenter Cos, I bring you a map of Silver Springs Shores, Florida, the place you most don’t want to be when you’re looking for an address. Go ahead. Click on the map to bring up the full sized version. Start reading the street names. I promise you, the longer you look the more hilarious it gets.

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