Sock it to me: Picking the right number


Q. Oh, no, it's 6 o'clock Monday morning, electricity's out, and you can't see the jumbled socks in your drawer. You know there are 8 blacks and 24 blues. How many do you have to take with you downstairs to guarantee you've got at least one matched pair of blacks for dressing by flashlight? –G. Coles

A. Taking 8 obviously won't do it, nor even will taking 24– all could be blue. You need to grab 26 to make 2 blacks a certainty. But that's a lot of socks to carry. Still, you don't want to have to come back upstairs. For a better than 50-50 chance of having 2 blacks, you'd need to carry down only 7 socks; for a 75 percent chance, 9 socks. For a 90 percent chance, 12 socks. How stairs-lazy are you?

Q. Why would anyone talk on and on, earnestly and ardently, with someone who doesn't speak the same language or understand a word of what's being said? –T. Babel

A. This describes "baby talk," that distinctive way of altering normal sounds, grammar and vocabulary to foster communicative rapport, says David Crystal in Language Play.

Here the parent's or carer's lips are rounded, vowels lengthened, voice volume, rhythm and pitch heightened. At the same time there are frequent nonsense vocalizations–tongue clicking, lip smacking, and others.

"There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in human expression, the closest being the way we might talk to animals." Mother (looking at Baby's face): "You are lovely, aren't you! Oh yes you are! A gorgeous bouncy bit of baba..."

Mock-threats, mock-disgust and mock-horror are just as common: "What a horrid stinky pong, you're going back where you came from!"

Some adults fear that baby talk may derail language learning, but young children rapidly learn to distinguish language varieties, including playful from serious, says Crystal. Soon enough, kids are imitating, playing as mommies or daddies with their dolls.

"Parents sitting around a group of children in a nursery often hear their own baby-talk echoed in the play of their child– sometimes with embarrassing accuracy. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed."

Q. It involves a qualitative mental shift, with functions operating that do not operate normally. Probably most familiar is the dream state, but it can include changes in thinking, disturbed time flow, loss of bodily identity, extreme fear or extreme bliss, hallucinations, illusions, profound insights, feelings of rebirth. What is this extraordinary transformation? –T. Leary

A. It is an altered state of consciousness (ASC), when a person's mind moves outside of the everyday realm of "consensus reality," says Leonard George in Alternative Realities. Later, the stabilizing forces of ordinary awareness return.

ASCs can be caused by trauma, sleep disturbance, sensory deprivation or overload, or fever; or self-induced by frenzied dancing, chanting, or other social behaviors, says Robert Todd Carroll in The Skeptic's Dictionary ( Electrical brain stimulation or drug use can also do it. Some athletes describe a "flow state" or being "in the zone," or religious experience can bring a sense of oneness and significance of all things.

Modern Western culture holds that the ordinary state is superior to all others for most purposes, says George, though in many other societies ASCs are more routinely harnessed for the benefit of the community.

Q. In frigid weather, put out two identical pans of water, one hot and one lukewarm. Which will freeze first? –A. O. Aquarius

A. Amazingly, the hot water just might. This is common knowledge in cold regions like Canada or Iceland and was even commented on by philosopher Francis Bacon centuries ago, but people in warmer countries find it mysterious, says Cleveland State University's Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics.

The explanation is that the hot water evaporates faster, which saps heat energy and spirits away much of the liquid.

"With less mass to cool, the water in that container can overtake the cooling of the initially cooler water and reach the freezing point sooner," Walker says.

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