STRANGE BUT TRUE- Aim high: Avoid first shot in truel

Q. Three game theorists have a serious falling out and challenge each other to a pistol "truel" (3-way duel). Mr. Black is the worst shot, hitting his target one time in three; Mr. Gray, a better shot, scores two out of three; Mr. White hits every time. By agreement, Mr. Black will go first, then Mr. Gray, finally deadly Mr. White, and around again until only one survives. Who should Mr. Black aim at first? –L. Valance

A. Let us examine his options. First he could aim at Mr. Gray, but if he is successful, then with Mr. White shooting next, Mr. Black will be a dead man. A better option for Mr. Black is to aim at Mr. White. If he is successful, then the next shot will be taken by Mr. Gray, who hits only two out of three, and so Mr. Black may survive to fire back at Mr. Gray and possibly win the truel.

However, there is a third and even better option, points out Simon Singh in Fermat's Enigma. Mr. Black could aim into the air. Since Mr. Gray has the next shot, he likely will aim at Mr. White, who is the more dangerous opponent. If Mr. White survives, then he will likely aim at Mr. Gray, the more dangerous opponent. By shooting into the air, Mr. Black is allowing Mr. Gray to eliminate Mr. White, or vice versa. So Mr. Black will have manipulated the situation to where instead of having first shot in a truel, he has first shot in a duel.

Q. Do people with really bad eyesight also see poorly in their dreams? –M. MaGoo

A. People with poor but consistent vision probably get used to this and don't necessarily see any better in their dreams, says Deirdre Barrett of the Harvard Medical School.

However, people whose vision is in the process of rapidly worsening– from cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, etc– often report dreams where their vision is just fine or where they're noticing a degree of impairment that's much less than in their waking life.

"One of my blind-for-20-years patients had about half perfect-vision dreams and about half ones where she had blank patches in her vision, which is how the process of her blindness had begun years before," Barrett says.

A man who was going blind continued to have visually clear dreams but often with recurrent scenes of windows with the shades drawn, an obvious metaphor for his condition, says Robert J. Hoss, executive officer of the Association for the Study of Dreams. Of course, people blind from birth lack visual imagery in their dreams but dream more strongly in the non-visual senses (touch, sound and sometimes smell).

Q. "Nobody is considered dead until warm and dead." What's meant by this wilderness medicine rule-of-thumb? –W. Earp

A. A person in deep hypothermia following an accident in extreme cold may lose vital signs but be revivable once inside, says Frances Ashcroft in Life at the Extremes. A 29-year-old Norwegian woman in a skiing accident was wedged between rocks and ice, and drenched by a waterfall. When rescuers arrived over an hour later, she was clinically dead, her body core at 13.7 C. They began CPR and headed for the hospital, where a resuscitation team was able to revive her. When a five-year-old boy fell through the ice on a river, he was trapped without air for 40 minutes. When frogmen fished him out, he had no pulse, wasn't breathing and looked blue-gray. But after two days on a respirator, he recovered consciousness and started to talk. Eight days later he was home, with no apparent brain damage. Small children usually do best in such ordeals because "they are quickly chilled, their oxygen demands fall rapidly, and they enter a state of suspended animation."

Q. You marrieds, how's your marital health? Could a mathematical formula help predict if trouble's coming? –A. Landers

A. Here is a ratio to wrap your wedding band around: 5-to 1. That's roughly what it takes in positive interactions such as laughing and joking v. negatives to stay successfully hitched, as tallied by psychologist John Gottman and mathematician James Murray, reports Science News.

The two researchers did 15-minute tapings of couples discussing contentious issues like sex and finances, then analyzed these for tip-off clues. The single best predictor of divorce, it turned out, was a contemptuous facial expression by one partner as the other spoke– for instance, pursing one side of the mouth and rolling the eyes. "Contempt is the sulfuric acid of love," says Gottman.

After tracking hundreds of couples, Gottman and Murray devised equations to quantify "matrimonial health," weighing the partners' overall outlook on life, persuadability, and interaction profile. So good was the measure that its prognosis proved accurate in 94 percent of cases! The duo is now experimenting to see if the model can be used to tailor a couple's therapy, such as suggesting the wife ignore her husband's negative remarks.

To date, roughly 2/3 of relationships so "treated" have shown lasting improvement.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at, coauthors of "Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So- Everyday) Questions," from Pi Press).