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Walk away with $1 million — if you can

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Question: OK, muscle guy. A rich guy offers you $1 million if you can carry it away barehanded. But wait. It has to be in $1 bills and taken all at once, not piecemeal.

Answer: Steroids or no, you've got more chance of getting rich by marrying the rich guy's daughter than as a dollar-lugger. Figure it: Pile approximately 500 on a scale to make a pound. Now divide 500 into 1,000,000 and you get 2,000 pounds (a ton!) to stack up to a cool million.

Even if you could lift the bills, you'd need to maneuver — at about 200 per inch — a greenback tower 400-plus feet high; or 50 "short" stacks each taller than a pro basketball player.

Question: Sweltering day, air conditioner's broken, so why not open the refrigerator door to cool the room? Cool move?

Answer: It might work momentarily but when the fridge's cooling system cranks up, more heat will be generated than is absorbed by the released colder air, so the room will become even hotter, says Jearl Walker in "Flying Circus of Physics."

Question: In a race of the sluggards, pitting a glacier, snail, growing scalp hair and fingernail in competition, which finishes first by coming in last?

Answer: Moving at a brisk glacial pace, a typical glacier advances maybe 500 feet/year, 1,500 times faster than a growing hair (1/3 inch/month), 4,000 times faster than a fingernail (1/8 inch/month), but less than 1/500th of the pell-mell pace of the proverbial snail (30 feet/hour).

That is, the fingernail wins by a hair. (Lucky for the fingernail, all toenails sat out the race.)

Question: "Have a NICE day." Nice of you to say so nowadays, but what if you'd said it to someone in England in 1200?

Answer: "Nice" has a rich history, borrowed from Latin as NESCIUS, or "not knowing," says University of California-Berkeley linguist John Whorter. As such, in the 1200s it meant "foolish" or "ignorant." Later the meaning drifted (via unclear logic) to suggest "extravagant" (Chaucer), then "precise" and "discriminating" (a "nice" distinction), soon also "dainty" (in an aunty, antimacassar kind of way).

And it seems to be from here that the current meaning of "pleasant" comes, which has only been dominant for a few centuries. "Thus 'Have a nice day' meant different things in different periods, and 800 years ago would have been rather like telling someone to dumb down for a day."

Question: A computer-whiz friend says she's thinking of a number from 1 to 256, and challenges you to figure it out by asking her eight yes/no questions, and no more. And a related curiosity: Do you know how big is a gigabyte?

Answer: To be sure of success, you have to be systematic: "Is your number higher than 128?" (256 divided by 2)

"No," she answers. (Suppose she picked 1.) Then, "Higher than 64?" "Higher than 32?" "Higher than 16?" "Higher than 8? "Higher than 4? "Higher than 2?"

"Is your number 1?" Got it.

Called a "binary search," each successive question cuts the "deck" in half, so to speak. Since 256 divided by 2 eight times equals 1, eight properly chosen questions will always pinpoint the mystery number.

In computer lingo, each of the eight yes/no questions corresponds to a "bit" of information, and eight bits make up a "byte." As a string of eight yes/no Q-&-A's, a byte contains enough information, as we've seen, to represent any one of 256 different outcomes. Since there are roughly 256 computer keyboard keys, this means each letter, number, etc., constitutes about one byte of information.

So now you know, very approximately, what a megabyte is: It's roughly a million keyboard characters, or enough words to fill 50 pages of a standard telephone directory.

For a gigabyte (typical memory of today's home computers), make that 50,000 pages, or 50 fat full city phone books.

And that's quite a bit.


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at: strangetrue@compuserve.com .