One for All?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave_hale/860846402
Image: Flickr

Suppose that there’s a power outage in your neighborhood. If someone calls the electric company, they’ll send someone to fix the problem. This puts you in a dilemma: If someone else makes the call, then you’ll benefit without having to do anything. But if no one calls, then you’ll all remain in the dark, which is the worst outcome:

volunteer's dilemma payoff matrix

This is the “volunteer’s dilemma,” a counterpart to the famous prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. Each participant has a greater incentive for “free riding” than acting, but if no one acts, then everyone loses.

A more disturbing example is the murder of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death outside her New York City apartment in 1964. According to urban lore, many neighbors who were aware of the attack chose not to contact the police, trusting that someone else would make the call but hoping to avoid “getting involved.” Genovese died of her wounds.

In a 1988 paper, game theorist Anatol Rapaport noted, “In the U.S. Infantry Manual published during World War II, the soldier was told what to do if a live grenade fell into the trench where he and others were sitting: to wrap himself around the grenade so as to at least save the others. (If no one ‘volunteered,’ all would be killed, and there were only a few seconds to decide who would be the hero.)”

The Guinness Book of World Records lists the Yaghan word mamihlapinatapai as the “most succinct word.” It’s defined as “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin.”

(From William Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 1992.)

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Heady Matters

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_House_of_Commons_1834.jpg

Hat-wearing rules in the British House of Commons, 1900:

At all times remove your hat on entering the House and put it on upon taking your seat; remove it again on rising for whatever purpose. If the MP asks a Question he will stand with his hat off and he may receive the Minister’s answer seated and with his hat on. If, on a Division, he should have to challenge the ruling of the Chair, he will sit and put his hat on. If he wishes to address the Speaker on a Point of Order not connected with a Division, he will do so standing with his hat off. When he leaves the Chamber to participate in a Division he will take his hat off, but will vote with it on.

As the century wore on hats grew rare, but technically a Member still had to be properly “seated and covered” to raise a Point of Order during a Division. Accordingly the Serjeant at Arms began to keep two collapsible opera hats for the purpose. In Great Political Eccentrics, Neil Hamilton writes, “Often, several Members wished to raise Points of Order in rapid succession, causing the opera hat to race around the Chamber like a relay baton.”

During one hot spell in July 1893, T.P. O’Connor called Joseph Chamberlain a Judas and a brawl broke out. In the words of Chamberlain’s biographer, “one could see the teeth set, the eyes flashing, faces aflame with wrath and a thicket of closed fists beating about in wild confusion.”

In the midst of this the Serjeant at Arms appeared and addressed himself to a Member standing below the gangway. “I beg your pardon,” he said, “but you’re standing up with your hat on, which you know is a breach of order.”

09/15/2016 UPDATE: The tradition lives on in the Australian House of Representatives: Just two weeks ago MP Christopher Pyne, stuck without a tophat, held a sheet of paper over his head while speaking to Labor’s Tony Burke. Members are required to “speak covered” when the Speaker has called a division.

Starting Over

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LoriEricaRuff.jpg

On Dec. 24, 2010, Lori Erica Ruff shot herself to death with a shotgun in Longview, Texas. After her death, her ex-husband’s family discovered a lockbox in her home that revealed that in May 1988 she had stolen the identity of Becky Sue Turner, a 2-year-old girl who had died in a fire in 1971. She had then changed her name to Lori Erica Kennedy and received a Social Security account, erasing all trace of her origins.

After this she had qualified for a GED and eventually graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in business administration. At a Bible study class she met Blake Ruff, who describes her as extremely secretive. She told him that she was from Arizona, that her parents were dead, and that she had no siblings. The two married in 2003 and Lori gave birth to a girl, of whom she was “extremely protective.” The marriage broke down, Ruff divorced her, and she committed suicide.

The lockbox contained a note with the phrases “North Hollywood police,” “402 months,” and “Ben Perkins,” but none of these clues has led anywhere. No one knows the woman’s real identity, or her history before 1988. Social Security Administration investigator Joe Velling received the case in 2011. “My immediate reaction was, I’ll crack this pretty quickly,” he told the Seattle Times in 2013. It remains unsolved.

(Thanks, Tuvia.)

09/23/2016 UPDATE: Wow, that was timely — Velling just solved the case. (Thanks, Jay.)

Kindling Trouble

Now, for something a bit more serious: I am starting a new religion. Care to join? As with the Catholic religion, my religion has an index of forbidden books. There is only one book that the index forbids. Can you guess which? You probably have! It is the index itself!

— Raymond Smullyan, “Self-Reference in All Its Glory!”, conference “Self-Reference,” Copenhagen, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 2002

Podcast Episode 121: Starving for Science

https://pixabay.com/en/wheat-grain-crops-bread-harvest-1530316/

During the siege of Leningrad in World War II, a heroic group of Russian botanists fought cold, hunger, and German attacks to keep alive a storehouse of crops that held the future of Soviet agriculture. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Vavilov Institute, whose scientists literally starved to death protecting tons of treasured food.

We’ll also follow a wayward sailor and puzzle over how to improve the safety of tanks.

Intro:

Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, shared her home with a 400-pound lion.

In 2009, a California consumer sued PepsiCo for implying that crunchberries are a fruit.

Sources for our feature on Nikolai Vavilov:

S.M. Alexanyan and V.I. Krivchenko, “Vavilov Institute Scientists Heroically Preserve World Plant Genetic Resources Collections During World War II Siege of Leningrad,” Diversity 7:4 (1991), 10-13.

James F. Crow, “N. I. Vavilov, Martyr to Genetic Truth,” Genetics 134:4 (May 1993).

Olga Elina, Susanne Heim, and Nils Roll-Hansen, “Plant Breeding on the Front: Imperialism, War, and Exploitation,” Osiris 20 (2005), 161-179.

Peter Pringle, The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, 2008.

Boyce Rensberger, “Soviet Botanists Starved, Saving Seeds for Future,” Washington Post, May 12, 1992.

Michael Woods, “Soviet Union’s Fall Threatens ‘Gene Bank’ for Food Crops,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 1993.

Joel I. Cohen and Igor G. Loskutov, “Exploring the Nature of Science Through Courage and Purpose,” SpringerPlus 5:1159 (2016).

Listener mail:

Peter Nichols, A Voyage for Madmen, 2001.

Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, 1970.

Ed Caesar, “Drama on the Waves: The Life and Death of Donald Crowhurst,” Independent, Oct. 27, 2006.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who cites this source (warning: this link spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

“Caput Ei Abscidite!”

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:De_Alice%27s_Abenteuer_im_Wunderland_Carroll_pic_02.jpg

Clive Harcourt Carruthers’ 1964 book Alicia in Terra Mirabili begins at once, without a preface:

Aliciam iam incipiebat plurimum taedere iuxta sororem suam in ripa sedere nec quidquam habere quod faceret.

Semel et saepius in librum oculos coniecerat quem soror legebat: sed ei inerant nec tabulae nec sermones. ‘Quid adiuvat liber,’ secum reputabat Alicia, ‘in quo sunt nullae tabulae aut sermones?’

Itaque cogitabat (nempe ut lucidissime poterat, nam tempestate calida torpebat semisomna) num operae pretium esset surgere et flosculos carpere, modo ut sertum nectendo se delectaret, cum subito Cuniculus Albus oculis rubeis prope eam praeteriit.

Only a brief “Glossarium” at the end might give a clue to its origin:

aureorum decoctio malorum: orange marmalade
Baro Cordium: Knave of Hearts
Feles Cestriana: Cheshire Cat
lusio pilae et mallei: croquet
thea: tea