STRANGE BUT TRUE- Eyes heavy? Can't tell a poker from a pencil?


Q. When might touching your forearm with a harmless pencil cause blistering like a red-hot poker? –F. Mesmer

A. When you've been hypnotized and told the pencil is a poker. Cornell neurologist Harold Wolff did this experiment, and many subjects developed skin redness and swelling at the site, some even manifested burn blisters.

"Only a minority of people show such dramatic hypnotic suggestibility," says North Dakota State psychologist Joshua Smyth. "Others are not hypnotizable at all."

The eminent Dr. Lewis Thomas once marveled at this sort of mind-control over the body, akin to the ability of certain patients under the power of suggestion to cause longstanding warts to dry up and fall off. "I want to know how this can happen," he said. "I would rather have a clear understanding of this phenomenon than anything else I can think of."

 Q. Are you Web-wise enough to know about "typosquatters"? Doubtless you've had occasion to visit their handiwork, however inadvertent. –R. Soulia

 A. Typosquatting means registering web addresses that differ from popular sites by just single-letter errors or transpositions– "typos" in editors' jargon, says New Scientist magazine. One example is, obviously designed to snare surfers misspelling The popular search engine even anticipated this blunder and tried to buy up the address but was too late, though they did get,, and "But in a veritable domain-name bunfight, typosquatters somehow got the four, nine, and 20-'o' versions. Where does it all end?"

Certainly not at the White House, because if you type in, you won't get the official site– it's at– but rather a political spoofing instead. So, why bother? Dough-re-mi naturally, since many sites pay a small fee to sites that send surfers their way. "Click on one of those ads and you're putting money in the typosquatter's pocket."

Q. The biggest example anywhere stands at about 65 feet, though the average is comfortably household-sized, with some 20 billion made annually, over half in China. Use one of these hand-held "tools," and it'll still be doing its thing 35 miles or 45,000 words later. It can perform in zero gravity and has been called upon to do so. Many Civil War soldiers made its acquaintance, as do millions of schoolkids today who often as not use one for poking, prodding, even pricking instead of for its preferred pontifical purpose. Can you pinpoint this p-word object? –N.-J. Conte

A. It's a pencil, as detailed by Dean Christopher in Discover magazine. The 65-footer is on display near Kuala Lampur, made of Malaysian wood and polymer. Pencil lead actually contains no lead but rather a mixture of clay and graphite, so a prick won't cause lead poisoning though the person could become infected. On the other end, erasers are a fixture in the U.S. but usually not in Europe. 

Q. Why don't woodpeckers get headaches? Their large brain case and shock-absorbing bone structure at the base of the skull to prevent concussions are certainly a start. –P.Y. Leated

A. The bird's muscle and bone structure beneath a chisel-like bill also helps cushion blows, as its stiff- strong tail enables it to lean back for a powerful rat-a-tat-a-tat, says Mike O'Connor in his book, Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? Even its feet are different: two toes in the front and two in the back (not three and one), for a better grip on the tree trunk. Special nostrils help keep out flying woodchips. Yet just maybe its most unusual feature is its tongue, extra-long and wrapped around inside at the base of the head. So to reach an insect deep inside the tree, the bird just shoots out this barbed and sticky-tipped food-fetcher, cutting down on the need for further chiseling.

Q. Here's a tricky one: Which is bigger, the whole number 1.0 or the repeating decimal fraction 0.9999...? The 1 in the first number is certainly bigger than the 0 in the second number, but what about all those 9's, indeed an endless number of them as signified by the ...? –B. Pascal 

A. The magic of this infinite series is that as you add 9's to .99, then .999, then .9999 etc, the value obviously gets closer and closer to the number 1.0 until finally it equals 1.0! To prove this to yourself, suggest Edward Burger and Michael Starbird in The Heart of Mathematics, note that 1/3 = 0.3333... and that 2/3 = 0.6666..., which when added together yield 0.9999... And since 1/3 + 2/3 = 1, then 0.9999... must also equal 1. 

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at