Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

This is right up my alley. Freakonomics Radio, hosted the by articulate and thoughtful writer of the book series of the same name, just recently came out with a sort of spin-off on their normal podcast. Freakonomics is described as teaching you about things that you always thought but actually didn’t or teaching you things that you never thought you wanted to know, but you actually do. This new radio gameshow is lets contestants fill this role with celebrity judges subjectively picking the most interesting facts. As host Stephen Dubner puts it, Freakonomics is tired of having to come up with all of the intriguing ideas and wants to “make their [sic] problem someone else’s problem”. The first episode debuted last week, and so I’ll let the competitors on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know give the topics for this week’s trivia post.

Pinball Machines: Harmless Games or Depraved Devices?

The first contestant came on to wow judges with this fact: New York City had banned pinball for over three decades; from 1940-1976. Pinball was considered a game of chance, not skill, and by some liberal definitions, was thus a means of gambling. Former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, along with the NYC police department, would publicly destroy pinball machines with sledgehammers to really drive the point home: this pinball ban was serious business.

Eventually, a real-life, nearly-bona fide pinball wizard (not blind, dumb, nor deaf) presented a counter-argument to the rationale behind the pinball ban. In 1976, Roger Sharpe stood in a courtroom in front of New York City Council members and told them that he could pull the plunger back and launch the ball wherever he wanted. And like Babe Ruth calling his own homerun; like Joe Namath’s bold prediction to win the Super Bowl; like Cassius Clay guaranteeing his victory over Sonny Liston, Roger Sharpe calls his shot and makes it. City Council overturned the ban.

While this is a great story and is probably more geographically-relevant, since Tell Me Something I Don’t Know is recorded in New York, there was actually more pinball-ban-related news just this year. Oakland, California lifted a ban on pinball machines in July. The neighboring city of Alameda also has a pinball ban, despite it being the location of the Pacific Pinball Museum; coin slots had to be removed to conform to the law.

Who Guards the Art?

To put it simply, the answer to the above question is “basically, no one”. Art museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have billions of dollars-worth of paintings, but their security system is not like in the movies. There are likely no laser sensors that require ninja dives and somersaults. Museum security is not a highly-trained task force; it’s typically poor, aspiring artists hoping to make $12 per hour. One reason for this is that when art that is easily recognizable is stolen, it will eventually be recovered.

These paintings and sculptures have worth because collectors and museums want them. If the Mona Lisa was stolen, the thieves wouldn’t be able to sell it on an authentic Mona Lisa black market; it’s one-of-a-kind. In fact, in 1994, the famous Edvard Munch painting The Scream was stolen. The thieves walked right in and just left a note: “Thanks for the poor security.” Of course, thieves might be more apt to ransom the painting rather than sell it, and that’s what The Scream’s robbers tried to do. Police set up a sting operation and instead recovered the painting unharmed.

The other two facts shared in this week’s episode were interesting but not as tangible as cool tidbits. One woman described an “Awesomeness Factor”, as she called it, that can be predictive of how long a couple will stay married. If, before their marriage, each partner thinks the other is really awesome and their relationship is more awesome than their friends’ relationships, then the marriage will more likely be successful. This was based on a study that psychology researchers published. The other contestant attested that when people lose weight, they mostly lose it through their nose. If you look at the reaction of cellular respiration, which involves sugar and oxygen turning into carbon dioxide and water, you could see that one molecule of carbon dioxide weighs more than one molecule water. So, technically, a larger percentage of weight exits your nose rather than through sweating or through other bodily fluid expulsion, but breathing alone won’t make you lose weight.

Judge’s Choice

Each “something” was judged in the first round and the winner (the pinball story) moved onto the final round. The second round was sort of an open mic; the audience members could approach the stage and tell one quick morsel of information about something that the judges wanted to hear. The judges’ topics of choice were tax law, the Civil War, and astronomy.

For tax law, one audience member talked about a flatulence tax in Denmark and Ireland. Since these governments want to incentivize emission reduction, they introduced a tax on the number of cows a dairy farmer owns.

On the topic of the Civil War, the best fact was that a cancer diagnosis pressured President Ulysses S. Grant to write a memoir, including a lot of firsthand accounts of the war. Cancer basically helped increase current Civil War knowledge.

For astronomy, in my own opinion, the best fact was that if a super nova occurred on the sun, it would be brighter than a hydrogen bomb exploding on the surface of your eyeball. However, the judge chose the fact of a brave 12-year-old, who spouted off his knowledge about the perihelion, the time of year when the Earth is closest to the sun. Instead of being January 1st, the perihelion occurs on January 2nd. New Year’s Day is sort of an arbitrary choice in comparison.

Final Round

The winners of each round moved onto the final round, where they were paired up with judges and had to share their most interesting fact about a random topic. Stephen gave the Spinning Wheel of Maximum Danger a turn, and it chose the topics: Eleanor Roosevelt, focaccia, and indoor plumbing. Of the three facts, one was arguably wrong and the other was a bit of a stretch but still interesting. Quickly, Eleanor Roosevelt was a very close friend to Amelia Earhart, advocating for an extensive search after her disappearance. The focaccia fact was fact-checked and was actually incorrect, basically disqualifying the contestant. And for indoor plumbing, the contestant stretched the definition of indoor plumbing and talked about how Mario (from the video game) is only a plumber due to graphical limitations. To give Mario more features (well-defined arms, legs, and face), overalls, a hat, and a mustache were added. So Mario is only a plumber out of necessity.

The Roosevelt fact ended up winning, but I think the point of this game was more to disseminate awesome trivia to wider audiences. If this is something that interests you, be sure to check out Tell Me Something I Don’t Know through Freakonomics.


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