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The Explainer

The Explainer by Slate Magazine
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What happens to recalled meat?
What’s the difference between a serial killer and a spree killer?
How do you stop a lava flow?
Does homeowner’s insurance cover murder?
And what is Ovaltine anyway?

Answers to these and other fascinating questions you never thought to ask, from the writers at Slate Magazine

An entertaining and genuinely informative compilation of answers to some of life's most improbable questions, from the writers of the online magazine Slate. Often inspired by events in the news, the “Explainer” column asks the questions we never think to ask, or that we’re too embarrassed to admit we don’t know how to answer. Filling in these overlooked blanks of our daily lives, the book provides memorable tidbits for conversations, further rumination, or important context as we follow current events from day to day. Full of fascinating information about unlikely but important subjects, The Explainer will entertain and inform anyone who has ever stopped to wonder who runs Antarctica, how cell phones can reveal your location, or whether one can live off lizard meat.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; March 2004
ISBN 9781400076420
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Explainer
Author: Slate Magazine

Can you break even playing slots?

Conservative moralist William Bennett claimed he'd "come out pretty close to even" gambling over the past decade, contradicting a report that pegs his losses at around $8 million. Given Bennett's stated preference for high-stakes slot machines and video poker, does his claim hold mathematical water?

As a few lucky Powerball winners can attest, nothing's impossible when it comes to fighting astronomical odds. But it's highly improbable that Bennett has broken even through the years. The primary factor working against the former White House drug czar is his choice of games. Professional gamblers and mathematicians alike eschew slot machines as suckers' bets; since no skill is involved, they're fixed to favor the house, and the rapid action translates into rapid losses. The notion of any machine being hot or cold on a given evening is pure myth, since they're powered by computer chips that function as random number generators. The belief among slot pullers that past losses mean soon-to-be-realized jackpots-the "I'm due" mentality-is referred to as the gambler's fallacy. One bet has absolutely nothing to do with the next.

Slots are fixed to pay out a certain percentage of the money wagered in each machine. In Atlantic City, for example, where Bennett has done much of his gambling, state law sets a minimum payout of 83 percent. However, because of market competition-everyone wants the "Loosest Slots in Town!" title-the actual average is much higher, usually estimated in the range of 90 to 95 percent. (Predictably, casinos are rather cagey about their gaming statistics.) The remaining 5 to 10 percent is referred to as the casino's hold, or take. The high-stakes machines, which Bennett favors, have higher payout percentages, sometimes hitting 98 percent.

Over the long run, of course, the house always wins, thanks to a mathematical principle known as the law of large numbers. Simply put, the larger the number of plays, the more likely that the fixed probability will catch up with the player. Bennett may have had a lucky night here or there, but after untold thousands of spins, the fixed nature of the slots likely caught up with him: Bennett almost certainly lost between 2 and 10 percent of the millions he bet.

Bennett might have helped his case by following intelligent slots protocol, such as carefully reading the payout rules on each machine (identical-looking slots may feature different maximum payouts, a classic casino trick) and always betting the maximum allowable (which increases the probability of hitting the top jackpot). Over a decade's worth of gaming, however, that's not enough to beat the law.

The wild card (pun intended) in Bennett's hobby was his taste for video poker, which requires a bit of skill rather than just lever-pulling. (Gaming experts always recommend video poker over slots.) There are even video poker machines with theoretical long-term payouts exceeding 100 percent-assuming that the player executes a perfect strategy on each and every hand. Since that's not likely, a competent player can expect an average payout ranging from 90 to 98 percent, depending on his skill and the type of machine. Which means he or she is still going to lose in the long run.

What if you skip the census?

Every year, American households receive census forms sent out by the federal government. Each envelope says, "Your response is required by law." What law is this? Has anybody been prosecuted for not responding?

The Census Bureau likes to stress the positive benefits of participation in the survey, but the proverbial stick does exist. Under federal law, you can be fined up to $100 for refusing to complete a census form and $500 for answering questions falsely. Noncompliance used to bring the possibility of a sixty-day prison sentence and a one-year prison term for false answers, but Congress struck those provisions in 1976.

Although prosecutions are uncommon, people have been successfully tried and convicted. In 1960, for instance, William Rickenbacker of Briarcliff Manor, New York, answered the basic census questions but refused to answer the expanded questionnaire, which asked about the economic status of his household. He argued that it represented an invasion of his privacy. A federal judge disagreed, fining him $100 and handing him a sixty-day suspended prison sentence.

Rickenbacker answered some questions, so his noncompliance was obvious-but how would the federal authorities know about someone who simply refused to return the form? When a census form is not returned, the Census Bureau sends workers to follow up in person. They will return as many as six times to the same residence. That information can be referred to the Justice Department as the basis for prosecution.

Not all prosecutions go smoothly for the government, however. Hawaii resident William Steele appealed a conviction and an accompanying $50 fine he received for not fully answering his questionnaire during the 1970 census. Steele argued that he had been singled out for prosecution because he participated in a public protest against the census. An appeals court agreed and threw out his conviction.

Can ice cubes cool your pool?

"Dedicated pool owners are dropping hundreds of pounds of ice into their 90-degree pools in hopes of some relief," The Wall Street Journal reported in August 1999. "Only one problem: It doesn't really work." Why not? Assume a 15-by-30-foot pool, 6 feet deep. The water is 90 degrees Fahrenheit and you'd like to cool it to 80 degrees. How much ice would that take?

The pool holds just more than 20,000 gallons of water, all of which is 10 degrees too hot. To raise the temperature of a gallon of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit requires 2,100 calories. To cool a gallon by 1 degree requires getting rid of the same amount. To cool 20,000 gallons by 10 degrees means getting rid of 420,000,000 calories.

Ice cools by absorbing heat in two steps. First it melts; then the resulting water rises to the temperature of its surroundings. It takes about 36,000 calories to melt a pound of ice into 32-degree water. Each pound of ice produces about 0.12 gallons of water. Since it takes 2,100 calories to raise a gallon of water a degree, 0.12 gallons of water will absorb about 12,000 calories in the process of warming from 32 degrees to 80 degrees ([.12 x 2,100] x 48). Taking both steps together, one pound of ice will absorb about 48,000 calories in the process of becoming 80-degree pool water (36,000 to melt and 12,000 to warm).

So to lower the temperature of a 20,000-gallon pool of 90-degree water by 10 degrees, you would need about 8,750 pounds of ice. A 10-pound bag of ice costs around a buck, so cooling your pool with ice cubes would cost $875. (It would also add about 3 inches to the depth of the water.) And, of course, as long as the air around the pool and the bodies in it are warmer than 80 degrees, the water would immediately start getting warmer again.

For those pool owners who would like to personalize this calculation, here's how: (1) Take your pool's volume, in gallons. (2) Divide by 1,000. (3) Multiply by the number of degrees (Fahrenheit) you'd like to cool the water. (4) Multiply that number by 43.75. (5) Think again.

Does corking a baseball bat help a hitter?

In June 2003, Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa found himself in hot water for using a corked bat in a game against Tampa Bay. How does corking a bat help a hitter?

Corking a bat lightens the lumber, which in turn increases bat speed and, the conventional wisdom holds, hit distance. Corkers typically drill a hole at the end of the bat, hollow out the sweet spot, and fill it with wine corks or Superballs. The hole is then sealed with a combination of sawdust and pine tar. The result is a bat that's several ounces lighter than advertised, though still as long and thick as its heavier peers. A lighter bat, of course, is easier to whip through the strike zone. The theoretical edge seems infinitesimal. Assume a corker reduces his bat's weight by 1.5 ounces. An average major league pitch travels from the pitcher's hand to the plate in a hair under half a second. The corked bat will give the hitter an additional five-thousandths of a second to see the pitch, judge it, and get the bat head moving through the strike zone.

A quicker bat may help a struggling hitter catch up with pitches, but it actually reduces his ability to smack long drives. The primary equation that determines a batted ball's distance is p = mv, where p is momentum, m is mass, and v is velocity. Though a corked bat will travel at a greater velocity, the tail-off in weight lessens the mass. As a result, sluggers like Sosa will actually see the length of their moon shots decrease. In his book The Physics of Baseball, Yale physicist Robert K. Adair estimated that a corked bat will shave about a yard off a 400-foot tater.

More likely to benefit, then, are slap hitters who specialize in singles. But the advantage is more psychological than anything else-a corked bat is essentially a placebo for hitters on the skids. They also splinter more readily, which makes catching the cheaters a lot easier. Rather than risk long suspensions, Adair advises, players should opt for lighter bats, perhaps those made of a lighter grain of wood. Or they can just choke up three-quarters of an inch, which produces the same uptick in bat speed as corking.

Bonus Explainer: Surprisingly, the same major league baseball rules that outlaw corking make no mention of minimum or maximum bat weights, although there's a maximum length of 42 inches and a maximum diameter of 2.75 inches. The earliest set of codified rules for professionals, published in 1857, recommended bats that weighed up to 48 ounces. Today, given the abundance of pitchers who throw 95 mph cheese, players prefer much lighter bats; the current average weight is about 33 ounces.

Can you give your congressman hockey tickets?

President Clinton spent August 1998 on Martha's Vineyard as the houseguest of a wealthy Bostonian. Renting a comparable house for three weeks would have cost an estimated $10,000 to $15,000, but the president paid nothing. On the other hand, a Federal Trade Commission attorney or a House member, for example, cannot accept even a hockey ticket from a lobbyist. Why the difference? And who decides who can get what?

There are actually four bodies that set ethical standards for federal employees. Representatives are regulated by a House committee, senators by a Senate committee, executive employees (including the president) by congressional statute, and the judiciary by itself. The four sets of rules about gifts vary a little, but all share the common objective of discouraging bribes. (As part of the Republican revolution, both the House and Senate voted themselves stricter rules in 1995, bringing their regulations in line with those they'd imposed on executive employees.)

The rules are: (1) judges and their staffs may not accept gifts; (2) members of the House and their staffs may not accept gifts; (3) executive branch employees-other than the president and vice president-may accept gifts worth less than $20, and no more than $50 worth of gifts from any one source in a year; and (4) senators and their staffs may accept gifts worth less than $50 (one source may give only $100 worth in one year). There are naturally many exceptions and fudges, which differ slightly among the four codes. Friends and family may give unlimited gifts. Trophies, commendations, work-related travel, award money, official dinners, baseball caps, soda pop, coffee, and T-shirts are generally okay. (The House once posted a memo on gift-giving chock- full of real-world examples such as "Laura Lobbyist offers Stanley Staffer tickets to a hockey game taking place in January 1996. Stanley may not accept.")

The most interesting exception to the federal regulations for executive employees applies to exactly two people-the president and the vice president-who are exempted from the limits on gift value. Federal regulations justify the exception "because of considerations relating to the conduct of their offices, including those of protocol and etiquette." The president and vice president may accept gifts of any value from American citizens so long as they don't solicit the gift and aren't influenced by it. A gift from a foreign citizen or government worth less than $245 is acceptable; gifts worth more belong to the U.S. government. When the president accepts certain kinds of gifts from American citizens worth more than $250, he must disclose this fact. In the case of the Vineyard house, though, because it falls into the category of personal hospitality, the president didn't need to reveal the value of this gift on his personal disclosure forms.

Could you really earn $100 million by taking a wife?

In the movie The Bachelor, a character leaves his grandson $100 million in his will. The catch: To receive his inheritance, the grandson must be married before his thirtieth birthday. Is this sort of restriction legal? And are there any limits on the conditions one can place on a gift?

Grandpa is well within his rights; conditional gifts to people and institutions are not uncommon. Although the laws vary from state to state, judges have generally reasoned that since the beneficiary is free to decline the gift, such conditions don't violate anyone's rights. So wealthy parents are free to put virtually any restriction on their estates. Inherited money is most frequently contingent upon the recipient's getting a college education or staying out of legal trouble. But courts have even upheld parents' right to condition gifts on the heir's abstaining from smoking or marrying someone of a certain religion or ethnicity. And conditional gifts to charities-such as the donation of a university building with the restriction that alcohol not be served on the premises-have long been made. The courts have made only a few exceptions:

1. The condition cannot require a violation of the law. This principle has been used most frequently to prevent beneficiaries from having to uphold illegal racial restrictions in order to receive property. For instance, courts have overturned the proviso that donated parkland be available only to white people.

2. The condition cannot run counter to public policy. Courts vary in their interpretation of this principle but have generally used it to strike down requirements that prohibit marriage or encourage divorce. (Most commonly, a man will attempt to leave property to his wife as long as she never remarries.) It has also been used to repeal requirements that would cause family strife-for example, the provision that inherited land can be used by only one side of the family. And it has prevented beneficiaries from being required to change their religion or name.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
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