Consider two experiments — in each you’re asked to make a choice between two gambles:
In the first experiment, most people choose Gamble 1A over Gamble 1B. In the second, most people choose Gamble 2B over Gamble 2A. Neither of those choices, in itself, is unreasonable. But economist Maurice Allais pointed out in 1953 that choosing 1A and 2B together does appear inconsistent. To see why, refine the table a bit further:
Now it’s clear that, within each experiment, both gambles give the same outcome 89 percent of the time. The only thing to distinguish them, then, is the remaining 11 percent — and when we focus on those segments, Gamble 1A matches Gamble 2A, and 1B matches 2B. Any given individual might tend to prefer a sure thing or a gamble, but here, it seems, most people prefer the sure thing in Experiment 1 and the gamble in Experiment 2.
This doesn’t mean that most people are irrational, Allais argued, but rather that expected utility theory might not reliably predict their behavior.
In a lecture at the University of Edinburgh in the 1970s, artificial intelligence pioneer I.J. Good pointed out that a robot cricket player doesn’t necessarily need a complex knowledge of physics in order to catch a ball — instead it might emulate humans, who follow a simple rule: “If the ball appears to be rising in the sky, run backwards. If it is falling, run towards it.”
Similarly, Hope College mathematician Tim Pennings noticed that his Welsh corgi, Elvis, seemed to follow the optimal path when chasing a ball thrown into Lake Michigan — Elvis seemed to realize that he ran faster than he swam, and so could minimize his retrieval time by racing intelligently along the beach before jumping into the water. But how did he make these judgments?
“We confess that although he made good choices, Elvis does not know calculus,” Pennings wrote. “In fact, he has trouble differentiating even simple polynomials.”
It ended as mysteriously as it had started — Pacific University physicist Andrew Dawes, who had been mapping the locations where the noise had been heard, plotted his last point on February 27, 2016. He said the results were inconclusive and didn’t suggest any single location. The police and fire departments have closed the case; Forest Grove Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer said he suspected the noise to be “a faulty attic fan or heat pump.”
I believe it then to be quite simply true that books have their own very personal feeling about their place on the shelves. They like to be close to suitable companions, and I remember once on coming into my library that I was persistently disturbed by my ‘Jane Eyre’. Going up to it, wondering what was the matter with it, restless because of it, I only after a morning’s uneasiness discovered that it had been placed next to my Jane Austens, and anyone who remembers how sharply Charlotte criticised Jane will understand why this would never do.
Here’s a little oddity that I just came across. John Conway’s Game of Life is a familiar recreation that takes place on a grid of squares. At the start each square is either “alive” or “dead,” and then on each turn the status of each square is updated:
Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies (as if by underpopulation)
Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on
Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies (as if by overpopulation)
Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (as if by reproduction)
This produces some surprising creatures, such as the “glider,” a self-propagating “spaceship” that travels diagonally:
Gliders can be generated by an oscillating factory called a “gun”:
Here’s the oddity: It would seem that each gun will produce an infinite fleet, since its gliders all depart in the same direction. But that’s not true if the grid of squares is written on a torus — then the gliders snake around the figure and destroy their maker:
Just an interesting fragment: When the Chiricahua Apaches of southern Arizona went on a raiding party, they adopted a special speech. One informant told anthropologists Morris Edward Opler and Harry Hoijer:
I used to know many words, but I have forgotten just about all of them. Only one sticks in my mind, and that is the ceremonial way of asking for a drink of water. Instead of saying, ‘I want to drink some water,’ we had to say, ‘I begin to swim the specular iron ore.’
Peter Farb writes in Word Play (1981), “This kind of formal speech had to be maintained until the war party returned to the camp, at which time conversation switched back to everyday language.”
The 2018 Name of the Year title went to Canadian hockey player Jimbob Ghostkeeper, beating Dr. Narwhals Mating with 57 percent of 7,500 votes cast. Notable also-rans in this year’s contest: Salami Blessing, La Royce Lobster-Gaines, Makenlove Petit-Fard, Bernard Bumpus, Christine Plentyhoops, Habbakkuk Baldonado, Early Champagne, Fabulous Flournoy, Dr. Dimple Royalty, Darthvader Williamson, Chosen Roach, Chardonnay Beaver, Forbes Thor Kiddoo, Quindarious Gooch, Darwin Tabacco, Blossom Albuquerque, Rev. Dongo Pewee, Mahogany Loggins, and Gandalf Hernandez.
Each year 64 candidates are chosen from reader nominations to compete in an NCAA-style bracket to establish the world’s most entertaining personal name. So far the “Hall of Name” includes Assumption Bulltron, Doby Chrotchtangle, Crescent Dragonwagon, Honka Monka, Excellent Raymond, Licentious Beastie, Mummenschontz Bitterbeetle, African Grant, Largest Agbejemison, Nimrod Weiselfish, Tokyo Sexwale, Tanqueray Beavers, Roszetia McConeyhead, Moses Regular, Jerome Fruithandler, Delano Turnipseed, Princess Nocandy, and Destiny Frankenstein. Send your nominations to email@example.com.
Polish educator Janusz Korczak set out to remake the world just as it was falling apart. In the 1930s his Warsaw orphanage was an enlightened society run by the children themselves, but he struggled to keep that ideal alive as Europe descended into darkness. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the children’s champion and his sacrifices for the orphans he loved.
We’ll also visit an incoherent space station and puzzle over why one woman needs two cars.
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.