Deep throat

Q: Are sword-swallowers for real, or do they use some sort of illusion or trickery? L. Lovelace

 A: Proof positive is Guinness eight-swords-at-once record-holder Brad Byers ("Warning: Do not attempt these amazing feats! Severe injury or death will result!"), later topping himself with 10 swords and leaving nothing to question with on-site X-ray documentation. For more thrills, watch curved blades, bayonets, coat hangers glide down his hungry hatch.

Yes, hungry, for as Daniel P. Mannix describes in his classic Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, his first attempts ended in gagging and retching, until he learned the value of an empty stomach. "If I practiced after eating I simply lost the meal. Finally, I stopped gagging only to find that my throat had closed so tight I couldn't get the sword down... Apparently an involuntary muscle in my throat had snapped shut, and there was nothing I could do to open it."

With practice, he conquered this, letting the blunted blade touch the back of his throat, then bending forward with the sword straight out in front, now over a little "hump" in the throat just back of the Adam's apple, then straightening up again and down went the instrument. Sword length is limited by distance from lips to pit of the stomach, so tall performers have a leg up.

To beat hecklers who claimed the blade somehow retracted into the handle, Mannix swallowed neon tubes that would light up his insides. "When the skeptics see the light shine right through your chest, there isn't much they can say."

 

Q: What's the biggest ever of all Earth's creatures? ­R. Barr

 A: The mammoth blue whale at around 120 tons, equaling the weight of 1,600 150-pound people, or 120 midsize cars, or 20 African elephants. It would have taken two large Brachiosaurus dinosaurs, at 50+ tons each, to rival one whale, whose tongue alone weighs as much as an elephant and heart as much as a car. Whales are seafarers, able to haul around so much mass because the buoyancy force of water largely negates gravity. In fact, a beached whale rests so heavily on its lungs it slowly strangles to death.

 

Q: If you're ever tempted to fudge data on a lab report, expense account or tax return, there's a powerful tool called Benford's Law ready-made to trip you up. To know it is to avoid its bite. Know it? ­A. Anderson

 A: Also called the "Law of First Digits," it goes like this: In lists of "amorphous" data such as expenses, gas or electricity bills, stock market quotations, populations of cities, areas of rivers, baseball stats, etc., first digits of entries are most likely to be a one, two or three (30 percent of the time, 18 percent, 12 percent respectively). Far fewer entries begin with seven, eight, or nine (about five percent for each).

This is a startling finding– you'd expect an equal distribution one thru nine– first noted in the late 1800s but still not fully understood. You can demonstrate this to yourself by a rundown of addresses in a phone book: Roughly 60 percent begin with a one, two, or three (1600 Pennsylvania Ave., 1 Downing St.), few with a seven, eighht or nine. (This does not apply in the case of truly random numbers like lottery picks, or for highly organized numbers like phone numbers.)

So subtle is Benford's Law that many fraudsters are leaving telltale digit tracks, as when one insurance claims agent was reportedly caught with too many first fours in his reports– from inflating claims into the $400s even as he stayed under the $500 cutoff requiring report to superiors.

 

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at

 strangetrue@compuserve.com )