Search Results for “StraightDope”

January 12, 2016

Hedgehog’s Dilemma

porcupines by Slug Signorino

The hedgehog’s dilemma is a metaphor about the challenges of human intimacy. It describes a situation in which a group of hedgehogs all seek to become close to one another in order to share heat during cold weather. They must remain apart, however, as they cannot avoid hurting one another with their sharp spines. Though they all share the intention of a close reciprocal relationship, this may not occur, for reasons they cannot avoid.

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud have used this situation to describe what they feel is the state of the individual in relation to others in society. The hedgehog’s dilemma suggests that despite goodwill, human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships. The hedgehog’s dilemma demands moderation in affairs with others both because of self-interest, as well as out of consideration for others, leading to introversion and isolationism.

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May 12, 2014

Christ Myth Theory



The Christ myth theory (also known as ‘Jesus mythicism’) is the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament was mythical, although others define it more strictly that Jesus never existed in any form. The thesis that Jesus was invented by the Christian community after 100 CE was first put forward in the late 18th century and then popularized in the 19th century by German philosopher Bruno Bauer who proposed a three-fold argument still used by many myth proponents today: the New Testament has no historical value, non-Christian writers of the first century failed to mention Jesus, and Christianity had pagan and mythical beginnings.

Despite the debate in popular culture and on the Internet, the position that Jesus did not exist is not held by most professional historians, nor the vast majority of New Testament scholars. Classical historian Michael Grant states that, ‘Modern critical methods fail to support the Christ myth theory…[It has] again and again been answered and annihilated by first rank scholars.’ Other scholars, mostly based in Europe, however, argue their colleagues should remain more open to this possibility and that the debate on the historicity of Jesus is not over.

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April 20, 2014

Ketchup as a Vegetable


Ronald Reagan

The ketchup as a vegetable controversy refers to proposed United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) regulations, early in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, that intended to provide more flexibility in meal planning to local school lunch administrators coping with National School Lunch Plan subsidy cuts enacted by the Omnibus Regulation Acts of 1980 and 1981.

The regulations allowed administrators the opportunity to credit items not explicitly listed that met nutritional requirements. While ketchup was not mentioned in the original regulations, pickle relish was used as an example of an item that could count as a vegetable. Reagan withdrew the proposal after an almost immediate public outcry.

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March 24, 2014

Paperless Office


paperless office by slug signorino

A paperless office is a work environment in which the use of paper is eliminated or greatly reduced by converting documents into digital form. Proponents claim that ‘going paperless’ can save money, boost productivity, save space, make documentation and information sharing easier, keep personal information more secure, and help the environment. The concept can be extended to communications outside the office as well.

Traditional offices have paper-based filing systems, which may include filing cabinets, folders, shelves, microfiche systems, and drawing cabinets, all of which require maintenance, equipment, considerable space, and are resource-intensive. In contrast, a paperless office could simply have a desk, chair, and computer (with a modest amount of local or network storage), and all of the information would be stored in digital form. Speech recognition and speech synthesis could also be used to facilitate the storage of information digitally.

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February 13, 2014

Potemkin Village

sochi by David Horsey

Potemkin village by Slug Signorino

The phrase Potemkin [poh-tem-kinvillages was originally used to describe a fake village, built only to impress. According to the story, Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787.

The phrase is now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is. Some modern historians claim the original story is exaggerated.

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November 6, 2012

False Etymologies

pluck yew by Slug Signorino

There are numerous fallacious ideas and beliefs about the origins (or etymologies) of common English words. The word ‘fuck’ did not originate in Christianized Anglo-Saxon England as an acronym of ‘Fornication Under Consent of King’; nor did it originate as an acronym of ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,’ either as a sign posted above adulterers in the stocks, or as a criminal charge against members of the British Armed Forces; nor did it originate during the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt as a corruption of ‘pluck yew’ (an idiom falsely attributed to the English for drawing a longbow).

Modern English was not spoken until the 16th century, and words such as ‘fornication’ and ‘consent’ did not exist in any form in English until the influence of Anglo-Norman in the late 12th century. The earliest recorded use of ‘fuck’ in English comes from c. 1475, in the poem ‘Flen flyys,’ where it is spelled ‘fuccant’ (conjugated as if a Latin verb meaning ‘they fuck’). It is of Proto-Germanic origin, and is related to Dutch ‘fokken’ and Norwegian ‘fukka.’

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February 9, 2012

Salting the Earth

salting the earth by slug signorino

Salting the earth, or sowing with salt, is the ritual of spreading salt on conquered cities to symbolize a curse on their re-inhabitation. It originated as a practice in the ancient Near East and became a well-established folkloric motif in the Middle Ages. The custom of purifying or consecrating a destroyed city with salt and cursing anyone who dared to rebuild it was widespread in the ancient Near East, but historical accounts are unclear as to what the sowing of salt meant in that process. Various Hittite and Assyrian texts speak of ceremonially strewing salt, minerals, or plants over destroyed cities.

The Book of Judges says that Abimelech, the judge of the Israelites, sowed his own capital, Shechem, with salt, ca. 1050 BCE, after quelling a revolt against him. Starting in the 19th century, various texts claim that the Roman general Scipio Africanus plowed over and sowed the city of Carthage with salt after defeating it in the Third Punic War (146 BCE), sacking it, and forcing the survivors into slavery. However, no ancient sources exist documenting this. The Carthage story is a later invention, probably modelled on the story of Shechem (a city now residing in Israel’s West Bank).

December 14, 2011


bananadine by slug signorino

mellow yellow

Bananadine is a fictional psychoactive substance which is supposedly extracted from banana peels. A hoax recipe for its ‘extraction’ from banana peel was originally published in 1967 in the ‘Berkeley Barb,’ an underground newspaper. It became more widely known when William Powell, believing it to be true, reproduced the method in ‘The Anarchist Cookbook’ in 1970 under the name ‘Musa sapientum Bananadine’ (referring to the banana’s old binomial nomenclature). The original hoax was designed to raise questions about the ethics of making psychoactive drugs illegal and prosecuting those who took them: ‘what if the common banana contained psychoactive properties, how would the government react?’

Researchers at New York University have found that banana peel contains no intoxicating chemicals, and that smoking it produces only a placebo effect. Over the years, there has been considerable speculation regarding the psychoactive properties of banana skins. Donovan’s hit single ‘Mellow Yellow’ was released a few months prior to the ‘Berkeley Barb’ article, and in the popular culture of the era, the song was assumed to be about smoking banana peels.

October 7, 2011

Hysterical Strength

supermom by Slug Signorino

Hysterical strength describes displays of extreme strength by humans, beyond what is believed to be normal. It is a speculative term that is not recognized in medical academia; the concept has only a small body of anecdotal evidence to support it.

The most common anecdotal examples are of mothers lifting automobiles to rescue their children, and when people are in life and death situations. Hysterical strength can result in torn muscles and damaged joints. This is why, in addition to high lactic acid production, the body limits the number of muscle fibers the human body uses.

July 24, 2011

Chalkboard Scraping


blackboard by Slug Signorino

Scraping a chalkboard with the fingernails produces a sound which most people find unpleasant. The basis of this innate reaction has been studied in the field of psychoacoustics. One explanation for the adverse reaction is that the sound is similar to the warning call of a primate.

A 1986 study used a tape-recording of a three-pronged, metal garden tool being ‘grided’ across a chalkboard, which roughly reproduces the sound of fingernails on chalkboard. The recording was then manipulated, removing pitches at the extremities and the median. The results were then played back. It was determined that the median pitches are in fact the primary cause of the adverse reaction, not the highest pitches as previously thought. The authors hypothesized that it was due to predation early in human evolution; the sound bore some resemblances to the alarm call of macaque monkeys, or it may have been similar to the call of some predator.

July 13, 2011


earworm by Slug Signorino

Earworm, a loan translation of the German ‘ohrwurm,’ is a portion of a song or other music that repeats compulsively within one’s mind, put colloquially as ‘music being stuck in one’s head.’ Use of the English translation was popularized by James Kellaris, a marketing researcher at the University of Cincinnati, and American cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin. Kellaris’ studies demonstrated that different people have varying susceptibilities to earworms, but that almost everybody has been afflicted with one at some time or another. The psychoanalyst Theodor Reik used the term ‘haunting melody’ to describe the psychodynamic features of the phenomenon. The term Musical Imagery Repetition (MIR) was suggested by neuroscientist and pianist Sean Bennett in 2003 in a scientifically researched profile of the phenomenon. Another scientific term for the phenomenon, ‘involuntary musical imagery,’ or INMI, was suggested by the neurologist Oliver Sacks in 2007.

People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more likely to report being troubled by ear worms – in some cases, medications for OCD can minimize the effects. The best way to eliminate an unwanted earworm is to simply play a different song. Supposedly, some songs are better for this purpose than others, such as the theme song to ‘Gilligan’s Island’ or ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight.’ Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 short story ‘The Ultimate Melody’ offers up a science fictional explanation for the phenomenon. The story is about a scientist who develops the ultimate melody—one that so compels the brain that its listener becomes completely and forever enraptured by it. He succeeds, and is found in a catatonia from which he never awakens.

June 27, 2011

Flat Tax

fair flat

flat tax by slug signorino

A flat tax is a tax system with a constant tax rate. A flat tax may also be called a tax in rem (‘against the thing’), such as an excise tax on gasoline of three cents per gallon. Usually the term flat tax refers to household income (and sometimes corporate profits) being taxed at one marginal rate, in contrast with progressive or regressive taxes that vary according to parameters such as income or usage levels. Flat taxes offer simplicity in the tax code, which has been reported to increase compliance and decrease administration costs. Proposals differ in how they define and measure what is subject to tax. A ‘true flat rate tax’ is a system of taxation where one tax rate is applied to all income with no exceptions. 

Critics of the flat tax argue that the marginal dollar to low income individuals is vastly more vital than that of the high income earner, especially around the poverty level. In their view this justifies a progressive taxation system as the added income gained from a flat tax rate to the rich would not be spent on vital goods and services for survival as they might at the poverty level with reduced taxation. However, true Flat tax proponents necessarily contest the concept of the diminishing marginal utility of money and that a marginal dollar should be taxed differently.

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