Sunday, 17th December 2017
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Q. For an odd sports fact, do the world's teams tend to field an odd or even number of players? But please don't ask why.

A. Generally the best-known team sports field an odd number of players such as 11 for cricket, 11 for field hockey, 13 for rugby league and 15 for rugby union, say Rob Eastaway and John Haigh in "How to Take a Penalty: The Hidden Mathematics of Sport." Odd too are the three major American sports of basketball with 5, baseball 9, football 11. Many of the world's smaller sports also fit, as 15 for hurling and Gaelic football (down from 21 in the early days), 11 for bandy and speedball, 7 for netball, water polo, kabaddi and handball. Of course, exceptions do occur: There have to be an even number of oars in a boat or it would tend to go around in circles (though the presence of a cox ensures the number becomes odd again); polo uses 4 on a team, volleyball and ice hockey 6. The first team sport to choose the popular 11 seems to have been cricket, in 1835. Many of the earliest association football clubs were cricket offshoots, and so 11 on a team. Soon afterward the number crossed the Atlantic, with Yale introducing 11-on-a-side football. Thus American football's 11 probably had its roots in cricket. "How man Americans would guess that?"

Q. Imagine if the great 17th century physicist Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of gravity, had studied the world of animated cartoons instead of falling apples. How migh his famous laws of motion be different?

A. From Cartoon Laws of Motion, by Mark O'Donnell i his book "Elementary Education": 1. "Any body suspended in space will remain suspended in space until made aware of its situation." Daffy Duck steps off a cliff but loiters in midair until he chances to look down. Only then does the familiar principle of 32 feet per second per second take over. 2. "The time required for an object to fall twenty stories is greater than or equal to the time it takes for whoever knocked it off the ledge to spiral down twent flights to attempt to capture it unbroken." 3. "All principles of gravity are negated by fear." spooky noise or an adversary's signature sound will induc motion upward, usually to a chandelier, treetop or flagpole. 4. "Certain bodies can pass through a solid wall painted to resemble a tunnel entrance, others cannot." Usually the painter, having tricked a pursuer on through will suffer a flattened face when attempting to follow. 5. "Any body passing through solid matter will leave a perforation conforming to its perimeter." Called the silhouette of passage, this is the hallmark of victims of direct-pressure explosions or cowards beating a hasty retreat from skunks or matrimony. 6. "For every vengeance, there is an equal and opposite revengeance."

Q. Are doctors at the stage yet where they can measure you with a medical instrument to tell how happy you are?

A. Electromyography can detect electrical signals of certain facial muscles, such as those that furrow the frowning brows or that pull the mouth into a smile, says Harvard's Daniel Gilbert in "Stumbling on Happiness." Physiography allows quantification of electrodermal respiratory and cardiac activity that change with strong emotions. Electroencephalography, positron emission tomography (PET scans), and MRI measure electrical activity and blood flow in different brain regions such as the left or right prefrontal cortex signaling positive or negative emotions. "Even a clock can be a useful device because startled people tend to blink more slowly when feeling happy compared to when fearful or anxious." So "measure you" is right. Alas, all these measurings don't mean a thing individually since there is one and only one observer stationed at the critical point of view: YOU have to report how you're feeling right now. At this stage of psychological science, the "view from the inside" is the only true view there is.

Q. Would you rather have 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8 x 9 euros, or 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 euros?

A. The question may seem ridiculous since both products are obviously the same. Yet when psychologists showed the first series to test subjects, they guessed an average of 500; for the reverse, 4200. Both woefully underestimate the real answer of 362,880, say Tom Stafford and Matt Webb in "Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using You Brain." Why the difference? Psychologists say we tend to "anchor" on the first number of a series. So when the first number is a small 1, the guesses are smaller; the initial 9 prompts larger estimates. The "anchoring gambit" also explains why donation solicitors will suggest you give €50, €20, €10, or €5, rather than €5, €10, €20, or €50. And it probably underlies the common practice of pricing things at €9.99, for example; although this price is only 1 cent below €10.00, it feels closer to €9 because that's the anchor triggered by the price tag. Irrelevant anchoring is just one of numbers' many slipperinesses and "helps explain why people so often try to con us with them."

Q. What's the trick to cutting out background noise while on your mobile phone in a loud and crowded place? No, sticking a finger in your other ear won't do it.

A. Surprisingly, the way to hear better is to cover the mouthpiece. Though you'll hear just as much noise around you, you'll be able to hear the caller better, say Sandra Aamodt, PhD, and Sam Wang, PhD, in "Welcome to Your Brain." The human brain, it turns out, is a marvel at picking out the voice you want to hear from a host of other - the "cocktail party effect." But the phone (cell o not) makes this harder by feeding sounds from the room you're in through the circuitry and mixing them with th signal coming from the other phone. So now you've got the voice plus distorted room noise coming into one ear plus the room noise coming into the other. This is worse than hearing at a cocktail party because both the caller's transmitted voice and the room noise are tinny and mixed together. Covering the mouthpiece can stop the mixing muddle and recreate the live cocktail party situation. "Try it. It works!"

Q. Violate the "no eye contact" rule on an elevator and what happens?

A. "I got on with three other guys," James W. Vande Zanden recounts a student's story in "Social Psychology." The riders promptly positioned themselves at the four corners, maximizing distance, all facing forward and watching the door or the lighted floor numbers. Now the student, standing near the door, tried an experiment: "I twisted my upper torso and with a quick head turn and eye glance looked all three guys straight in the eye." All eyes immediately shot ceilingward, in unison. "Frankly, I felt uneasy... I felt I had made a sexual overture to the guys and... I was embarrassed... When the door opened, I took off like a bat out of hell."

Q. "What in the thunder was that?" she marvels, not remembering ever hearing thunder in a snowstorm before.

A. Thundersnow, though rare, can happen with sufficient instability and electrical buildup in the storm, bringing on flashes of lightning, says Randy Cerveny in "Freaks of the Storm." Often this will portend as much as 10 inches of the white stuff, report University of Missouri atmospheric scientists, who analyzed 30 years of data from the U.S. Midwest. Wind and hail are often part of the mix. Another weather oddity is St. Elmo's fire, a small static electricity discharge that can occur with storms, Cerveny adds. A nineteenth-century British surgeon once commented that during a snowshower his horse's ears becam luminous and the brim of his hat appeared on fire. Minute sparks darted toward the horse's ears and "the margin of my hat looked beautiful, and I was sorry to be so soon deprived of it." More recently, Arizona meteorologists observed an odd electrical discharge during a rare snowstorm in Tucson. From atop an 80-foot tower, they could see short flashes of light originating at or near the ground all across the city. "These were less flickering and intense than normal bolts. There was neither thunder nor radio static. One of the meteorologists speculated that the unusually large wet snowflakes were able to pull electric charges down from the clouds in the fashion raindrops usually do."

Q. Ticklish question #1: Why is it virtually impossible to tickle yourself? And #2: Is tickling ever a torture?

A. For you to become "ticklee," there needs to be a "tickler," a "safe" person and not a stranger, say Tom Stafford and Matt Webb in "Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain." The problem with your self-tickling is that your brain makes an "efference copy" of any motor command, like a carbon copy, so you know it's your movement. That's a "no go" for tickling. So here's the trick: You set up a robotic system where the robot responds and tickles you in one of your ticklish zones. But you'll need to buil in a TIME DELAY that fools your brain into thinking the tickle was externally generated! "This just might do it," say the authors. Yet while the pleasure of tickling is well known, the act can generate pain as well, with the ticklee simultaneously laughing hysterically and writhing in agony. "Indeed, in Roman times continuous tickling of the feet was used as a method of torture."

Q. From an editor: "Why is the letter 'W' called a double- U instead of a double-V? It sure looks like a double- V. Who mixed up these two letters in the first place?"

A. Norman scribes in the 11th century introduced the "w" to replace the runic symbol "wynn" from Old English, says David Crystal in "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language." It got the name "double-U" because in Middle English "v" and "u" were interchangeable forms, with scribes writing "uu" for the /w/ sound. This old double-identity is still evident in cognate pairs such as flour/flower and suede/Swede (from askoxford.com). Oddly, the "w" is the only English letter name with more than one syllable, says Wikipedia.org, giving the Web's ubiquitous nine-syllable initialism "www" the irony of being an abbreviation with three times as many syllables as the unabbreviated form World Wide Web. (Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich

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