STRANGE BUT TRUE- You betcha: Why casinos stay open 'round the clock


Q. Why do casinos stay open all night? Are there sound neuroscientific reasons for this?– R. Van Winkle

A. You can bet on it. Evidence shows that sleep enhances memory, even just a brief nap of six minutes, says John Whitfield in Scientific American magazine. A sleeping brain is not just on standby but runs through a complex suite of activities, such as "moving" short-term memories from the hippocampus over to the cortex for more durable storage. Thus, slumbering helps the brain juggle new information, extracting the gist of it and combining it with the day's emotions. This "executive thinking" is especially impaired by sleep loss as people become more mentally blinkered, less able to deal with novelty and to evaluate risk. Says sleep researcher Jim Horne of Loughborough University in England, "This of course is bad news for medics, shift workers, military commanders, and perhaps explains why casinos stay open at night."

Q. Plato takes his friend Aristotle, who has a strong philosophical streak, down to the waterfront to show off his new yacht. He's beaming with pride, but Aristotle one-ups him with, "Plato, I thought your new yacht was bigger than it is." How does Plato cleverly one-up his one-upper? – B. Oaster

A. "No, Ari," he answers, "my yacht is not larger than it is. And I don't know many things in this world that could be. If you really find something bigger than itself, I'd love to see it!" (From British philosopher Bertrand Russell, author of On Denoting)

Q. What's perhaps the most famous sci-fi movie prediction to actually come true? –O.S. Card 

A. It's more a "carryover" than a prophecy, as the classic backward countdown of "ten ... nine ... eight ..." as used by NASA before a spacecraft blasts off, first appeared in Fritz Lang's 1929 silent movie "Frau im Mond" ("Woman in the Moon"), says Sidney Perkowitz in Hollywood Science. The cinematic spinoff then led to this dramatic pre-launch ritual finding its way deep into the culture of space travel. 

 For more examples, visit the Web site and scan its lists of over 1,000 inventions and ideas predicted in science fiction stories. "Many have come to pass, not because science fiction writers are clairvoyant but because they extrapolate the scientific and social currents of their time."

Q. Commenting on the interstate migration brought about by the Great Depression of the 1930s, Oklahoman Will Rogers reportedly quipped: "When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, they raised the intellectual level in both states." Here he was playing on the low regard for the Okies and the even lower regard for the "Wild West" Californians of the time. This quirk of statistical averages, where moving part of one set to another set raises the average values of both sets, came to be known as the "Will Rogers effect." Oddly enough, this turns up today in medical statistics. Can you say how? –J. Wayne

A. As medical technology advances, improved detection of illness can lead to rapid reclassification of people from the class "healthy" to "diseased." Now since diseased people are removed from the ranks of the healthy, the average lifespan of the healthy group increases. But since the people newly classified as diseased tend to be less severely afflicted than those previously diagnosed, the average lifespan of the diseased group also increases. Based on this statistical quirk, overall life expectancy can appear to increase even if no treatments have improved! It's called "medical stage migration," where people are moved from one medical classification to another (from Julian Havil in Nonplussed! Mathematical Proof of Implausible Ideas).

Q. How might more cars coming onto a freeway actually speed up the traffic flow rate? – I. Leadfoot

A. As the passing lanes become more congested, they eventually reach a state where no one can pass, says Barry Parker in The Isaac Newton School of Driving. Now vehicles move as a steady synchronous block, increasing the average speed. There's little lane changing and few accidents. But add more cars and another "phase shift" occurs; cars now follow too closely, bottlenecks occur, and a mere dog nearing the road can result in a two-hour tie-up, or worse. 

 But there's a way out, says Parker. A typical freeway lane can handle maybe 2,000 vehicles per hour. But using an "intelligent" transport system where computers control the vehicles via roadway signals, flow can go to 6,000 or more per hour, studies show. Single lanes could be automated, or entire highways. To get really fanciful, a driver might just select the destination, then the vehicle navigator takes over, communicating with other vehicles via radio and with the roadway via buried magnets.

 Falling asleep at the wheel's no problem now.

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