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Category: Fun

Two cannibals are eating a clown and one says to the other, “Does this taste funny to you?”

September 27, 2017 | 7 Comments

Give It Up

Time for the semi-annual reminder. Give it up, readers. Dig in and pay out.

Here are the ways to support the blog.

  1. Hire Briggs. Use the Contact form.
  2. Have Briggs speak. Use the Contact form.
  3. Donate or subscribe. Use the Donate page.
  4. Buy Uncertainty. Click here.
  5. Buy my next book on popular fallacies—as soon as it’s finished!
  6. Send this blog to Twitter, Facebook, and so on, to show people what they’ve been missing.

The only, the sole, the lone, the single job I have is running this blog, and the consulting, speaking, and writing that arises from it. I do not and will not run advertisements, except, of course, for this one twice a year. Email addresses and names of clients and donors are never used in any way or given to anybody.

Now I am a repentant sinner and unworthy (to say the least), and many other greater causes exist. So if you don’t think you can, or should, hire me, consider giving to rapper B.o.B. who is seeking funds to prove the earth is flat. “I’m looking for a curve,” he says. He wants $200,000 for his own satellite to take definitive pictures. Help him find it.

Status clarification

I was with Cornell, latterly as an Adjunct, up until recently. Regulars will recall I lost my teaching job there this summer (Masters level stats class), after being replaced a feminist lawyer.

Since I have been claiming the credential on my CV, I wrote in April asking about my Adjunct status. Last Friday I received the terse email “The college administration says the term of on appointment has lapsed.” I have, I hope, removed all claims of current Adjunct status from my CV, etc. But it was valid at least through 2016, and I had thought through at least this summer, which is why on older material you will see it referenced.

July 4, 2017 | 26 Comments


This post originally ran 4 July 2014.

The first one that says “grand finale” gets it. It’s over when it’s over.

I spent a year of boyhood in Chicago, 1975. Actually, Oak Park. An enormous creaky house one block from the Chicago city limits. UFOs were in the air—and on television. There were areas of the house into which I would not go unescorted.

Fireworks were legal. So was the idea that you could set your kids loose in the neighborhood with only the warning “Be home for dinner.”

Who was it that said the past is a foreign country?

We would collect pennies and nickels and trade them for weapons of minimal destruction, or WMDs. We’d take off down the alleys on our bikes lighting bottle rockets from smoldering punks held in our teeth, holding the rockets just until ignition to get a better aim. Not unlike jousting.

My favorites were the plastic green grenades which looked exactly like those my grandpa used to hoist at Germans. Inside was a cardboard tube with a fuse. Tremendous thick clouds of white smoke. But they were expensive. So we’d buy the little round smoke bombs, light two of them and jam them into the grenade. Almost the same effect, but you ran the risk of melting the plastic.

They had this one tiny firecracker the thickness of spaghetti. To show your bravery, you lit one and exploded it in your hand. Some guys pretended to do the same trick with the regular-sized WMDs, but we told each other too many stories of fingers flying in all directions to do it for real. Somebody knew somebody who knew somebody who heard of a guy who lit one he was biting. No takers there.

The elusive goal was a cherry bomb, or M-80, said to be illegal. They were supposed to look like an over-sized smoke bomb and be the equivalent of a quarter stick of dynamite. Rumor always had it the kids in the next neighborhood had one. Massive explosions were attested to. Eyewitness reports were plentiful. But none of us ever had one.

Next best thing was to tape a bunch of regular firecrackers together, twisting their fuses into one. If you did it right, these would go off more or less at once. Looking back, I don’t know how powerful these were. We tried to blow up a bike tire with one. No success.

The same trick, incidentally, can be done with bottle rockets. Tremendous boost in take-off speed. And with snakes, those little cylinders of carbon which when lighted unspool to great length. A pile of five or six would release as much smoke in the air as a press conference by Chuck Schumer.

Remember those little green army men? I had battalions of them. Some came equipped with plastic parachutes, which worked if you were careful about throwing the man in the air just so. Well, all experiments to send a parachuter up with a bottle rocket failed. Oh, he’d soar into the wild blue yonder, all right. Sometimes. But he’d always stick to the stick of the rocket—the parachute would never deploy—or fall off at take off. If anybody ever solved this engineering problem, I’d be glad to hear of it.

Since I am, I blush to say, the Statistician to the Stars, I must present the total of all deaths caused by the WMDs in my neighborhood: 0.

Fingers blown off? 0. Teeth shattered? 0. Eyes poked out? 0. Maimings of any kind? 0.

Burns? Well, one or two, here or there. Mostly from holding the punks or the bottle rockets too long, or just as likely from gripping the match incorrectly or from picking up a thought-to-be-cool spent sparkler. Yes: we used to carry packs of matches everywhere.

But even though no mayhem ensued, it is a logical truism that it could have! And this mere possibly is enough for the more effeminate among us to quail and quake and to invoke the ever-present urge to San Francisco the problem, i.e. to ban, ban, ban. For your own good, naturally.

The “grand finale”, by the way, is the end of the fireworks show, the point where dozens of rockets are sent up at once, an end with a bang. It is the event which is always announced half a dozen times before it really happens.

Happy Fourth of July! But be careful about attending a parade or looking at a flag. You might turn into a Republican.

July 2, 2017 | 29 Comments

How Long Is A “Blink of an Eye” Astronomically?

This post originally ran 24 October 2010.

In a 15 January Science news item, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee reported that the earliest galaxies began to form around 300 million years after the big bang. He said this was “a blink of an eye in astronomical time.”

Of course, that is just a figure of speech, but I thought we should figure that figure of speech out. Just what is “a blink of an eye”, astronomically?

Best guess of the age of the universe is about 14 billion years, maybe a little less. There’s about 365 and a quarter days per year, accounting for leap years, and 24 hours to each day. Each hour has 60 minutes, and each hour has 60 seconds. Multiplying those together tells us that 14 billion years translates to a humongous number of seconds. How many?

Write down 44 and then write 16 zeros after it: the actual number is just over 440,000,000,000,000,000 seconds. That figure is—currently—larger than our budget deficit. So it’s pretty big.

A real blink of an eye takes 300 to 400 milliseconds. Since there’s 1000 milliseconds in each second, a blink of an eye takes around 1/3 of a second.

Compared to the time span of one full second, a blink of an eye is an eternity. Thirty-three percent of that second is given over to blindness, after all. But if you’re measuring the length of the blink with respect to an hour, the disparity isn’t so dramatic.

And still less dramatic is the time of a blink weighed against the time it takes the Earth to spin once around its axis (Berkeley High School graduates: that’s one day).

These comparisons are necessary because the blink of an eye is meaningful only when it is measured against some base, or when it is contrasted with some reference.

The reference provides us with a ratio: the length of time of a blink to the length of time of the reference. Once we decide the reference, we’ll use it in calculating the ratio of the length of time for an “astronomical-blink” to the length of time the universe existed.

It works like this: We’ll know the reference time, the length of the blink, and the age of the universe. We can use those to solve for the length of the astro-blink—by applying the beloved techniques of high school algebra. So what’s the best reference?

One second is too short, as is one minute. How about a day? Does the ratio of one blink to one day feel the same as the ratio of one astro-blink to the age of the universe? It does to me.

People blink anywhere from 10 to 20 times a minute. Split the difference and say 15. Now, unless your like my crazy cousin Patrick, you don’t blink when you’re asleep. Blinking 15 times a minute in 16 waking hours translates into a whopping 14,400 daily eye flaps. Sans flirting, of course.

All that blinking sucks up about about one-and-a-third hours. And you thought you weren’t getting much done!

(An interesting side calculation would be to figure how much wind those blinks generate. After all, with each opening and closing, your eyelashes create a tiny breeze. Maybe, in the spirit of Green and to the solve the energy “crisis”, we could hook up tiny turbines over our brows. Anybody have Al Gore’s digits?)

Anyway, each day has 86,400 seconds—a number all who had college physics have memorized—and a ratio of that to 0.33333 seconds for a blink feels right for our reference. Which, by dividing, gives a ratio of 1 to 259,200.

We want that same ratio for astro-blinks to the age of the universe. Again, since we know the age, we can invoke algebra. This tells us that the length of an astro-blink is about 17 followed by eleven zeros, or 170,000,0000,000 seconds.

That number in dollars is not larger than our budget deficit, which, given the context in which it was calculated, we are truly justified in calling astronomical. Or, better, and for fans of bad puns, we could say our economy is on the blink.

Back to work: You can verify on your own that 14 billions years in seconds divided by an astro-blink is 1 to 259,200.

An astro-blink is a long time: all those seconds work out to just over 54,000 thousand years for each flutter! That means that any event that happened over a 54,000-year period would occur in the “blink” of an eye, astronomically.

Humanity’s tenure, with respect to the age of the universe, is close to a “blink.” We’re only three to four blinks old. That means, if the universe wasn’t paying attention, we could have snuck up on it. Maybe we have, too, considering our lack of visitors.

But we do know that the first galaxies did not form in the blink of an eye. It took them 300 million years. That’s about 5,600 blinks, or just over a third of an “astro-day” (a full astro-day would have about 14,400 astro-blinks).

July 1, 2017 | 22 Comments


This post originally ran 31 August 2009.

Everybody knows that a prime number is one which can only be evenly divided by itself and 1. Thus, for example, 13 is prime because no number except itself and 1 divides it. There has always been interest in primes, and lots of fun to be had with them (especially in cryptography, where your author got his start). More than that, primes are foundational to mathematics, as the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic attests: every natural number greater than 1 can be written as a unique product of prime numbers: every number is constructed from the raw material of primes. Isn’t that cool?

There are an infinite number of primes (here’s Euclid’s slick proof); further, and most curiously, primes appear to be salted “randomly” throughout the numbers. By this, I mean that there does not (yet?) appear to be any known list of premises from which we can deduce the primes. Another way of saying this is that there is no known formula for generating the primes.1 The implications of this are deep and vast.

The best all-around book on primes is Ribenboim’s, Book of Prime Number Records: beware, however, that this book requires at least basic familiarity with number theory.

Primes, if you like, are stingy with their divisors; but there are other numbers which are profligate. Antiprimes, which are usually known by the less euphonious title “highly composite numbers,” are the opposite of primes in the sense that they are numbers which have the largest number of divisors. Incidentally, theories about this class of numbers first came from Ramanujan.

The definition of antiprime is this: an (integer) number that has a larger number of divisors than any number less than itself. The first antiprime is 1: it has one divisor and no integers less than itself. 2 is the second antiprime: it has two divisors (itself and 1), which is more than the number 1 had. 3 is not antiprime because it has two divisors, tied with the two divisors of 2—to be antiprime it needed to beat the number of divisors of all numbers less than itself and it didn’t. This makes 4 an anitprime because it has 3 divisors; one more than 3 or 2 had. The first few antiprimes are: 1, 2, 4, 6, 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 120, 180, 240, 360, 720, 840, 1260 (it’s fun to check some of these by hand).

Several of these are familiar, are they not? For example, most of us know that the Earth spins once around each day. It would be useful to divide this period into increments that are easily manageable. 10 such chunks seem ideal: call these chunks hours. There is a lot to recommend 10 as an hour base. 10 can be split into two even chunklettes, one for day and one night, for example. And finger counting is a trick easy to master.2 But what if we wanted to divide the day up into quarters for, say, standing watch? Can’t do it evenly with 10, because 4 doesn’t divide it. In fact, 10’s measly three other divisors (1, 2, and 5) limit its ability to make differently (integer) sized chunks.

12 certainly works: it rates a healthy six divisors (1,2,3,4,6), so we have a lot of room to play. But 24 is even better with eight (1,2,3,4,6,8,12). As a bonus, five divisors of 24 are themselves antiprimes: this gives us lots of room to maneuver if we want to carve up the day into manageable, manipulatable, and malleable pieces. And those first five divisors are almost the first five integers, the naturally divisors to any block (one-half, one-third, one-fourth, and so on). The Egyptians, Babylonians and other peoples who originated the 24-hour day might have thought about the number 24’s special properties.

Now, once you have hours, you still have to divide up the time inside an hour. Small, but not too small, chunks seem to be optimal. Minutes, and inside them seconds, as everybody knows, are used. There are 60 of each of them and 60 is, of course, anitprime. 100 isn’t wonderful because it can’t be, for example, divided by three. The Babylonians, who gave us these divisions, liked 60 astrologically: the heavens are divided into 60 (arc minutes) times 6 equals 360 degrees.

Also interesting is that most antiprimes are next to primes: 2 itself is prime, so start with 4: both of its neighbors are prime; so are both of 6’s and 12’s. Only one neighbor of 24’s and 36’s. The problem starts with 120: both of its mates are composite (119 is divided by 7 and 17, and 121 is divided by 11).

I’m not aware of the common use of antiprimes larger than 60. Do you know of any?


1 There are plenty of formulas to identify prime numbers, and even algorithms to generate some primes, but none that gives us all primes.

212-finger counting is also easy. Ignore your thumb and look at your fingers. Count sections of the fingers separated by the joints and viola! 12 emerges. It is said that Sumerians counted like this.