A Great Big Hand

Once thought to be a sign of witchcraft, extra digits are actually the most common developmental abnormality found at birth. About two children in a thousand have extra fingers or toes.

They’re even more common among the Amish, probably due to the “founder effect” — because the original settlers were few, their genetic legacy is amplified among their descendants, and apparently one of them had an extra finger.

If it’s so common, why does it creep people out? Fictional villains from Hannibal Lecter to Count Rugen have been given extra digits, to make them seem alien and somehow menacing.

They’re actually in quite good company. Marilyn Monroe didn’t have extra digits, urban legends notwithstanding, but Anne Boleyn and Winston Churchill both did. And Atlanta Braves pitcher Antonio “The Octopus” Alfonseca was born with six fingers and six toes. I’d like to hear him play the piano.

Fractious

The Your Mom! Joke Directory now has a section for math geeks:

Your mom is so stupid she tried to use substitution to find the definite integral of f(x)=x2 over the interval 0

You might want to bring a baseball bat, just in case.

Vischeck

Upload any image and Stanford’s Vischeck program will show you how a color-blind person would see it.

The program lets you choose among three flavors of color blindness. This macaw appears as a protanope would see it, someone who can’t distinguish between colors in the green-yellow-red section of the spectrum.

About 10 percent of American men have some deficiency in color perception, but it’s not always a handicap. In some situations it’s actually an advantage: Color-blind hunters are unusually good at picking out prey against a confusing background, and color-blind soldiers can sometimes “see through” camouflage that fools everyone else.

In fact, it’s possible that in extreme situations we’re all color-blind. Some people claim that in extreme emergencies, like a train or aircraft crash, the brain’s visual system suspends color processing and switches to black and white. If that’s true, then designers should pay even more attention to the color of emergency brake handles, phones, etc.

If you’re interested, the Stanford page can also display your Web page as the color-blind would see it, and it even offers free PhotoShop plugins so you can experiment further.

Venn and Now

I admire anyone who can fit Andrew Dice Clay and Dante Alighieri into the same Venn diagram. And it’s all accurate!

St. Andrews Face Transformer

Upload your own photo into this face transformer and you can change your age, race, or sex, or see yourself as a Modigliani, Botticelli, or El Greco, or even as manga. (This Mona Lisa is half chimpanzee.)

The software was developed by Bernard Tiddeman and David Perrett of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Earlier this month they estimated how Elvis Presley might have looked on his 70th birthday, and they’ve also rendered John Lennon at 64 and morphing videos of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.

Tiddeman says, “This technology was designed to help psychologists understand how our brains interpret faces, an immensely important social function, helping us to recognize friends, choose a mate, or read people’s emotions.” They’re also using it to plan facial surgery and to help find wanted and missing persons.

Why do we recognize each other by the fronts of our heads? Because hair and clothing change too much, and because people’s hands are too similar. Studies involving prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces, imply that there may be a specific face perception system in the brain.

Even stranger is Capgras delusion, in which you recognize the faces but lose the emotional response to them, which makes it seem as though your friends and family are being replaced by impostors. Creepy.

Creature Physics

“The upshot of all this is that Mothra is going to have to add a lot of tracheal tubes to maintain a sufficient oxygen supply. Of course, the more of its volume that is tracheal tubes, the less is biomass that needs oxygen, but this implies that although Mothra may be heavy (because it’s big), its density is going to be very low — about the same as your average cotton ball.”

Zoologist Michael LaBarbera deconstructs classic monster movies at The Biology of B-Movie Monsters.

Fanciful Units of Measure

Little-used measurements:

• 1.2096 seconds ≅ 1 microfortnight
• π seconds ≅ 1 nanocentury
• 3.085 centimeters ≅ 1 attoparsec
• 2 mm square ≅ 1 nanoacre
• 2.263348517438173216473 millimeters ≅ 1 potrzebie (the thickness of MAD magazine issue 23)
• 20 terabytes ≅ 1 Library of Congress

After Jurassic Park came out, some paleontologists started measuring Tyrannosaurus rex food consumption in lawyers. If the average attorney weighs 150 pounds, they figure, a warm-blooded T. rex would eat 292 lawyers a year. A cold-blooded one would eat 73. I guess that means they were cold-blooded; there’s certainly no shortage of lawyers today.

Irrational Slumber

In 1610, Ludolph van Ceulen died of exhaustion after deriving 35 decimal digits of pi.

They’re engraved on his tombstone.

Photon Finish

I’ve been sleeping badly this winter. I’m dead tired in the evening, but I wake up unaccountably at 3 a.m. I’m not positive what the reason is, but I’m going to blame daylight saving time.

I had to do some research even to understand why we follow this barbaric practice. Some people think farmers are somehow to blame, but farmers actually hate DST, because farm animals, pretty sensibly, don’t observe it.

The real point is supposed to be that when the days are long we shift an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. That way, there’s still plenty of daylight after work, so everyone uses less light, TVs, VCRs, etc., which together use 25 percent of our energy. In the winter, pitch-black mornings start to take their own toll, so we shift the clocks back again.

That’s the idea, but it doesn’t make sense. I may use less light if the sun’s up, but I’ll still be watching Scrubs. And now I’ll have my A/C on. I guess they figure I might go out and play football instead, but is that really happening? Two-thirds of this country is overweight.

Worse, the time change zonks people out. This country loses \$56 billion a year to sleepiness, plus 24,000 deaths, 2.5 million disabling injuries and 52 million work days. Sleep deficits contributed to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Challenger disaster, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. We’re actually sleeping 2 hours less each night because of Edison’s light bulb.

So what’s the answer? Just drop it. Arizona, Hawaii, and most of Indiana stay on standard time year round. And having lived in Indiana, I can tell you it’s wonderful.

In 1947, the magnificently crotchety Robertson Davies wrote: “I don’t really care how time is reckoned so long as there is some agreement about it, but I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind. I even object to the implication that I am wasting something valuable if I stay in bed after the sun has risen. As an admirer of moonlight I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves.” Hear, hear.

In the Stars

My horoscope today on astro.com says “this is a good day for a short recreational trip to indulge your desire for beautiful surroundings,” “you should be able to negotiate in business to your advantage,” and “anything that you buy today should prove to be a worthwhile investment.”

Now, let’s think about that. The current world population is about 6.5 billion, and a twelfth of us are Pisces. Can 540 million people all negotiate favorable business deals on the same day?

Astrologers would say no, those general predictions are worthless, what really counts is a personal reading. Okay, then astrologers should be able to match a person’s birth data with a personalized questionnaire, right? Well, no: A 1994 experiment showed they might as well flip coins.

Even if you accept astrology’s tenets, its reasoning doesn’t make sense. For one thing, the stars are drifting. Due to the precession of Earth’s axis, the stars have moved by 24 degrees during the last 2,000 years. Following the old charts, astrologers are now placing planets in the wrong signs.

For another, that 2,000-year starting point is arbitrary. The heavens change all the time. Four thousand years ago Taurus was the constellation of the vernal equinox. Six thousand years ago it was Gemini.

Anyway, if you’re into this stuff, the rather creepy Horoscopes of Our Time lists precise birth dates and times of various famous people, so you can practice.