STRANGE BUT TRUE- Waaa: Humans are biggest cry-babies


Q. Guess who are the biggest crybabies in the Animal Kingdom? –Gunther Gebel-Williams

A. No guessing here. In fact, we are the only criers, since while other mammals do have tear ducts that bathe and heal the eyes, only ours "hook up" with emotional parts of the brain, says Chip Walter in Thumbs, Toes, and Tears. As you know, crying is the first thing a baby does, and does so well that Mom can pick out cries of her own newborn. Babies even have a wailing "vocabulary," with cries of separation, discomfort, hunger, etc. Surprisingly, tears are sight-givers as well: the lenses of the eyes are actually pocked and wrinkled, not smooth as you might think. Every time we blink, maybe 12 times per minute, tears fill in and smooth out these imperfections– or we'd all have the visual acuity of Mr. Magoo. 

Exactly why we cry is not well understood, but it may help us spill off those excess hormones and proteins that made us sad in the first place. Going by one cry-diary study, a happy cry (21 percent of cries) averages only two minutes, a sad cry (49 percent) more like seven. So go ahead and have a good cry. It could be good for you.

Q. Are those basketball 3-pointers shot from "beyond the arc" a good bet or not? What might a mathematician say?–D. Leitao

A. "Expectation theory" holds that for any gamble, the "expected" gain, on average, equals the payoff times the likelihood of attaining it. Applied to basketball, 3-point shots obviously have bigger payoffs but are harder to make. Team averages show players often hitting a third or more of their 3-pointers, usually half or fewer of their 2-point field goals. 

So for a 33 percent (1/3) 3-point shooter, his expectation would be roughly 1/3 x 3 points, or a point per attempt; at 50 percent of 2-pointers it would be 1/2 times 2, or again 1 point, for these shots. In the long run, then, he'd average about the same number of points whichever shots he "wisely" chose to take. Considerations such as the defense, score, time remaining, and fouls also come into play.

As a rule, both players and coaches would do well to have an idea of the expectation value of 3- vs 2-pointers for each team member. Given the relatively high expectation on 3-pointers, an interesting experiment would be for a team to play an entire game attempting almost nothing but 3's. The betting here is these sharpshooters just might win– and keep the crowd in an uproar!

Q. What trick did U.S. statesman and kite-flying scientist Ben Franklin use to still turbulent streams with a wave of his walking stick? –W. Wordsworth 

A. In 1757, sailing with a fleet near Nova Scotia, he noticed that two of the ships had smooth wakes, the rest were ruffled by the wind, says Walter Gratzer in Eurekas and Euphorias: The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes. From the captain, he learned the cooks had been "emptying their greasy water through the scuppers, which has greased the sides of those ships a little."

Franklin doubted it, but in London on a day of strong winds and rough waves on a large pond, he tried an experiment, dropping a little oil on the water. Nothing happened. Realizing he had applied the oil on the pond's leeward side where the waves drove the oil back to shore, he tried the windward side. Though no more than a teaspoonful, the oil formed a thin film that spread and calmed a quarter of the pond, rendering it "smooth as a looking glass."

 Now, whenever in the country, Franklin contrived to carry oil in the hollow of his bamboo cane, "magically" stilling turbulent streams as opportunities (audiences) presented themselves.

Q. Today's smart computers have beaten chessmasters at their game, offered tax planning advice, helped physicians diagnose their patients' diseases, and plenty more. So could a computer also "read" a college textbook and pass a test on it? –B. Gates

A. Been done, by a computer using a "Latent Semantic Analysis" program (Thomas Landaeur, University of Colorado) to read David G. Myers Psychology, and then take a multiple choice test on the contents. The program not only got a passing grade but evaluated student essay answers and gave helpful feedback. 

Still, computers can't yet pass the famous Turing test, able to fool observers into thinking it's a real person "conversing" with them, says Myers. Artificial "neural networks" have a capacity to learn from "experience," but most computers still process information serially– one step at a time. Where they surpass human thinking is at tasks demanding high-speed calculations, such as helping a pilot bring a plane in for landing. "But computers have not duplicated the wide-ranging intelligence of a human mind, that can all at once converse naturally, recognize a caricatured face, use common sense, experience emotion, and consciously reflect on its own existence."

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