Because we live on land, we tend to make maps in which oceans are afterthoughts, mere spaces between the continents. In 1986 oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus sought to remedy this with a cartographic puzzle in which seven pieces can be combined in various ways, each presenting “a different, but equally valid, viewpoint of the features of the earth.”
Above, they’re arranged to show that “the land masses of North and South America, on the one hand, and those of Europe, Asia, and Africa on the other, are maintained in associated groupings, while the vastness of the Pacific Ocean has been set off to the left of the map.”
But the same seven pieces might be rearranged to illustrate the fact that “the Pacific Ocean widely separates Asia from the Americas.”
I just thought this was interesting: In the 1970s a little spate of studies investigated why men and women carry books in stereotypically different ways. A 1976 study in Tennessee found that by junior high school males tended to carry books at their sides, with the arm relatively straight and the hand cupped under the book’s lower edge. Females cradled a book in the arm at the front side of the body, resting on the hip or pelvic bone.
A second study in the same year ruled out some theories: It found that men and women carried books of roughly equal weight, and that both had hand grips strong enough to carry their books in either position. (Also, carrying purses didn’t significantly alter the way women carried their books.)
A University of Washington study two years later replicated the earlier findings but suggested that “women with hips that extend past the comfortable fall line of the arm along the side of the body will not show the side carry typically seen in males.” (“In effect, the hip in females fills the side space that males fill with their books.”)
But a re-examination 15 years later found that the picture was changing: While 90 percent of the men still carried books at their sides, now so did 43-60 percent of the women. So perhaps it’s not correct to speak of these as intrinsically masculine and feminine styles. But that raises another question: “why … men’s carrying behavior is uniform and stable, whereas women’s behavior is more varied and changing.”
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin describes mollifying a rival legislator in the Pennsylvania statehouse:
Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.
This seems to be a real psychological phenomenon — you can sometimes more reliably make a friend by asking a favor than by doing one, or, as Franklin put it, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
In a 1969 study, subjects who had won money in a question-and-answer competition were asked to return it; those whom the researcher himself approached reported liking him more than those who’d been approached by a secretary. In another study, students were assigned a teaching task using two different methods, one in which they encouraged their students and one in which they insulted and criticized them. In a debriefing they rated the students they’d encouraged to be more likable and attractive than those they’d insulted. That may reveal a converse principle, that we devalue others in order to justify wronging them.
(Jon Jecker and David Landy, “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour,” Human Relations 22:4 , 371-378; John Schopler and John S. Compere, “Effects of Being Kind or Harsh to Another on Liking,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 20:2 (1971), 155.)
In the famous “Milgram experiment” at Yale in 1961, an experimenter directed each subject (the “teacher”) to give what she believed were increasingly painful electric shocks to an unseen “learner” (really an actor). Psychologist Stanley Milgram found that a surprisingly high proportion of the subjects would obey the experimenter’s instructions, even over the learner’s shouts and protests, to the point where the learner fell silent.
Milgram wrote, “For the teacher, the situation quickly becomes one of gripping tension. It is not a game for him: conflict is intense. The manifest suffering of the learner presses him to quit: but each time he hesitates to administer a shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from this plight, the subject must make a clear break with authority.”
As it happened, one participant, Gretchen Brandt, had been a young girl coming of age in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power and repeatedly exposed to Nazi propaganda during her childhood. During Milgram’s experiment, when the learner began to complain about a “heart condition,” she asked the experimenter, “Shall I continue?” After administering what she thought was 210 volts, she said, “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t think we should continue.”
Experimenter: The experiment requires that you go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly.
Brandt: He has a heart condition, I’m sorry. He told you that before.
Experimenter: The shocks may be painful but they’re not dangerous.
Brandt: Well, I’m sorry. I think when shocks continue like this they are dangerous. You ask him if he wants to get out. It’s his free will.
Experimenter: It is absolutely essential that we continue.
Brandt: I’d like you to ask him. We came here of our free will. If he wants to continue I’ll go ahead. He told you he had a heart condition. I’m sorry. I don’t want to be responsible for anything happening to him. I wouldn’t like it for me either.
Experimenter: You have no other choice.
Brandt: I think we are here on our own free will. I don’t want to be responsible if anything happens to him. Please understand that.
She refused to continue, and the experiment ended. Milgram wrote, “The woman’s straightforward, courteous behavior in the experiment, lack of tension, and total control of her own action seem to make disobedience a simple and rational deed. Her behavior is the very embodiment of what I envisioned would be true for almost all subjects.”
Asked afterward how her experience as a youth might have influenced her, Brandt said slowly, “Perhaps we have seen too much pain.”
(From Thomas Heinzen and Wind Goodfriend, Case Studies in Social Psychology, 2019.)
This innocent-looking poser has been floating around social media. Trial and error might lead you to the solution (-1,4,11) — that’s not quite valid, as one of the values is negative, but it’s simple enough to be encouraging. Right?
Scottish mathematician Allan MacLeod introduced the problem in 2014, and it found its way onto the web in this Reddit thread. Alon Amit runs through a solution here, but it’s very steep. He writes, “Roughly 99.999995% of the people don’t stand a chance at solving it, and that includes a good number of mathematicians at leading universities who just don’t happen to be number theorists. It is solvable, yes, but it’s really, genuinely hard.”
The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was a disaster for the Dutch East Indies, but its astonishing consequences were felt around the world, blocking the sun and bringing cold, famine, and disease to millions of people from China to the United States. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the volcano’s devastating effects and surprising legacy.
We’ll also appreciate an inverted aircraft and puzzle over a resourceful barber.
“It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”
This is commonly attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though it’s not clear that he actually said it. In 2004 mathematician Paul Stockmeyer noticed that its meaning is somewhat ambiguous, too. If we use P(x) to denote the predicate “x is a person,” T(y) to denote the predicate “y is a time,” and F(x, y) to denote the two-argument predicate “x is fooled at time y,” then the first phrase of the quotation, “It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time,” might mean either
The first statement means “For every possible x, if x is a person then there exists a y such that y is a time and moreover x is fooled at time y” (or, more coloquially, “For every person, there is a time when that person is fooled”).
The second means “There exists a y such that y is a time and moreover for every x, if x is a person then x is fooled at time y (or “There is a time when everyone is simultaneously fooled”).
Which is the right interpretation? Stockmeyer polled his classes and found them nearly equally divided. And that’s only the first phrase of the quotation! Does the second phrase, “you can even fool some of the people all the time,” mean that there are people who remain constantly fooled about everything — or that you can always find a fool at any given time?
“However they are interpreted, they serve as a wonderfully effective preparation for his main point contained in the third phrase,” Stockmeyer writes. “And this phrase, with two quantifiers of the same type, is completely unambiguous.”
(Paul K. Stockmeyer, “What Did Lincoln Really Mean?” College Mathematics Journal 35:2 , 103-104.)