Are There Correct Answers to These Questions?

We were having a video chat with our oldest son today, and he mentioned that he had just downloaded the book Hawaii by James Michener to his Kindle. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s a 937-page book based on exhaustive research and told in Michener’s immersive prose. Hawaii is the story of disparate peoples struggling to keep their identity, live in harmony, and, ultimately, join together.

So I asked him if his Kindle felt any heavier after he downloaded the book. He responded by asking me if my iPhone gets heavier after I take a picture.

I said I have no idea, but for some reason it seemed logical to think that a Kindle, a smartphone, or a hard drive that is completely full would weigh more than one that is completely empty.

I tried to look on the Internet, and I came across a web site called Physics Forum where someone had asked this question. As if the name of the web site isn’t intimidating enough, try reading some of the answers.

There’s mention of electrons, entropy (both thermodynamic and information!), and lossless compression, among other words I had no idea what they meant. My general sense though, given the fact that there were four pages of answers to the question, is that there did not seem to be a clear answer.

Can’t somebody just get a really sensitive scale and measure an empty hard drive, then load it with data, then weigh it again?

Anyway, the discussion got me thinking about other questions where I am not sure what the correct answer is, or even if one exists.

Here’s one that has bothered me since I was about 10 (I was addicted to brain teasers when I was a kid):

Would a plane that’s sitting on the runway with 200 birds just sitting on the seats weigh the same as a plane sitting on the runway that has 200 birds flying around inside the airplane?


And then there’s a couple of questions that are more personal, and I’m just not sure what the correct way to respond to these questions would be.

For instance, “Are you as dumb as you look?”

I can’t imagine wanting to say yes, and somehow admitting that you are dumb. But if you answer no, aren’t you implying that you look dumb?

And here’s one more, “Did you lose a ton of weight?”

While such a question may be meant as a compliment, it could have a more evil, subtle undertone.

So how do you answer such a question. If you say yes, you are admitting that you had a ton of weight to lose. If you say no, the implication seems to be that you need to lose a ton of weight.

In general, I avoid answering such questions, and try to change the conversation to something less ambiguous, like “Should gun ownership be made illegal?” (yes) or “Should smoking be banned in all public places?” (yes)

If only all questions in life were so straightforward…

Reader Comments and Questions


It’s been a while since I’ve responded to some of the comments and questions I’ve received, most likely because I don’t receive many any.

But this past week I’ve received a couple of interesting comments that I thought would be worth sharing.

Dear Jim,

You really make it seem really easy along with your presentation but I to find this matter to  be really something which I think I would by no means understand.
It sort of feels too complicated and extremely huge for me. I am looking forward for your subsequent put up, I’ll try to get the hold of it!

Signed, Confused

Dear Confused,

You wrote this in response to my Vuja De post, in which I mentioned that the comedian George Carlin is often credited with coming up with the phrase, using it to describe “the strange feeling that, somehow, none of this has ever happened before.”

That’s exactly how I feel about your comment. It’s quite insightful, and I think by no means understand.

Dear Jim,

Very good, you did understand the principle well enough. I hope you get a lot of views, hitchhiking on someone else’s ideas too.

Signed, Hitchhiker

Dear Hitchhiker,

Thank you for your kind words in response to my post, Google Search and the Tragedy of the Commons. I didn’t really know what I was talking about in that post, since a big part of the post was just copied from Wikipedia, so I’m happy to hear that you thought I understood the principle well enough.

Your final thoughts remind me of Steve Jobs’ famous line that “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

I guess I’ve created a third option, hitchhiking on someone else’s ideas. Maybe that’s what bad artists (and lazy bloggers) do.



Not Sure If This Is Another Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Or if I Just Learned Something New

I had a doctor’s appointment today because of swelling around my eye, the result of blocked tear duct.

I was feeling a bit feverish, and told the doctors that, and asked if they were going to take my temperature. Their response was that they do not see any value in taking temperatures, and that they actually had no thermometers in the office.

Now I’m not a doctor, but that just sounds crazy. At the moment, my temperature is 102.8, and when I called the doctor’s after hours number, he still did not seem concerned.

He said to just give the antibiotics a chance to work, and hopefully the temperature will revert to normal.

Like my title says, I’m not sure if this lack of belief in the value of temperature should be part of Ripley’s believe it or not, or if it is sound medical device.

I guess at this point it’s just wait and see.

In the meantime, I realize no one really cares about my medical problems, but I wanted to write something short and sweet, and this seemed the best way to go.

The one nice thing that came out of this is that my wife keeps telling me how hot I am…

First Night of CERT Training

No, this post is not about how to properly take a breath mint, although I know many of us who could benefit from such training.

This post is about CERT, or Community Emergency Response Team. I’ve written before about how I believe I have no useful skills should a disaster strike. Well tonight was my first night at trying to remedy such a situation.

My son and I attended what is know as CERT training; from the FEMA web site, here is a description of CERT:

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program helps train people to be better prepared to respond to emergency situations in their communities. When emergencies happen, CERT members can give critical support to first responders, provide immediate assistance to victims, and organize spontaneous volunteers at a disaster site. CERT members can also help with non-emergency projects that help improve the safety of the community.

The CERT course is taught in the community by a trained team of first responders who have completed a CERT Train-the-Trainer course conducted by their state training office for emergency management, or FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI). CERT training includes disaster preparedness, disaster fire suppression, basic disaster medical operations and light search and rescue operations.

The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) concept was developed and implemented by the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) in 1985. The Whittier Narrows earthquake in 1987 underscored the area-wide threat of a major disaster in California. Further, it confirmed the need for training civilians to meet their immediate needs. As a result, the LAFD created the Disaster Preparedness Division with the purpose of training citizens and private and government employees.

The training program that LAFD initiated makes good sense and furthers the process of citizens understanding their responsibility in preparing for disaster. It also increases their ability to safely help themselves, their family and their neighbors. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recognizes the importance of preparing citizens. The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) and the National Fire Academy adopted and expanded the CERT materials believing them applicable to all hazards.

The CERT course will benefit any citizen who takes it. This individual will be better prepared to respond to and cope with the aftermath of a disaster. Additionally, if a community wants to supplement its response capability after a disaster, civilians can be recruited and trained as neighborhood, business and government teams that, in essence, will be auxiliary responders. These groups can provide immediate assistance to victims in their area, organize spontaneous volunteers who have not had the training and collect disaster intelligence that will assist professional responders with prioritization and allocation of resources following a disaster. Since 1993 when this training was made available nationally by FEMA, communities in 28 states and Puerto Rico have conducted CERT training.

When I discovered that my township was sponsoring a CERT program, my youngest son and I signed up with great anticipation.

Tonight was the first of seven weekly meetings where we will learn the skills and knowledge needed to be an effective part of helping our community should an emergency arrive.

Next week we meet at the local firehouse, where we will learn how to properly use a fire extinguisher, among other fire-related skills.

The skills and the knowledge we acquire will not only be helpful in case of a community emergency, but will be useful in knowing how to respond when emergencies happen on a smaller scale, such as just in our own home.

You can read more about Radnor Township’s CERT program here, and you can learn more about CERT in general by visiting the CERT website.

Thank you Radnor for sponsoring such a useful program; we look forward to the remaining parts of the program!

My 57 Seconds of YouTube Fame

A couple of years ago I happened to walk outside my house and I noticed one of the neighborhood cats chasing something down our street.

When I went to get a closer look, I noticed it was a baby rabbit which appeared to be injured.

My first thought was that this was not going to be a happy ending for the rabbit, given the reputation that most cats have. However, it didn’t appear as if the cat meant to do any harm, so I decided to film the action on my phone.

As it turned out, the video ended up with a decent number of views, almost 40,000. For me, that qualifies as viral. (For comparison purposes, a video I made about Cost Structure and Profitability, which was much more educational, only attracted 24 views. I guess that says something about accounting, my online teaching effectiveness, and our society’s obsession with cats…)

Perhaps part of the reason the video went “viral” was the title I used, “Cat and Baby Bunny Best Friends”, thinking that using the word cat would help attract viewers.

It was also quite convenient when I went to add some music to the video and found that one of the free music clips offered by YouTube seemed to fit perfectly.

So without further ado, here is the video.

Given the reach of my blog, I am sure I can another six or seven views to the total.

By the way, if you really want to see the video on Cost Structure and Profitability, here you go!

As I tell my students, this video comes in quite handy on those nights when you are having trouble falling asleep…

🎶 Happy Birthday to Me, from Alexa 🎶

Today was my 59th birthday, and my family got me a great gift – the Amazon Echo.

If you’re not sure what the Echo is, here’s a description from the Amazon web site:

Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide information, news, sports scores, weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask.

Echo has seven microphones and beam forming technology so it can hear you from across the room—even while music is playing. Echo is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with 360° immersive sound. When you want to use Echo, just say the wake word “Alexa” and Echo responds instantly.

And here’s a brief demo of Echo singing Happy Birthday to me:

I remember when the Echo first came out, and while it seemed pretty cool, I wasn’t sure if it was something I would really use.

That changed when I read that Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, is a fan of the Echo, describing it as “pretty great” for controlling music.

I figured if it was good enough for the world’s fifth wealthiest individual, then it was good enough for me. So I used subliminal suggestion to put the thought in my wife’s mind, and lo and behold, it showed up on my birthday!

Besides playing music, which I do through my Spotify account, Echo can give me a rundown of the news (which I can customize), the weather, general information from Wikipedia. It can also tell jokes.

Here’s the one she just told me:

Two antenna got married; the wedding was boring, but the reception was excellent.

You can also download “skills” for the Echo, similar to apps, that allow you to perform certain actions. For example, if you wanted to get stock quotes, you can download a stock quote “skill”, and then simply ask Alexa for the stock quotes. I assume that just like the number of apps on Apple’s app store, the number of skills will just continue to grow as the Echo sells more units. I believe the Echo can also control other devices such as Philipps Hue lights and the Nest thermostat.

So far, I am a happy customer, and I look forward to seeing what new capabilities and skills get added over the coming months.

Thank you to my wife and children for such a great gift, and for such a great day!

*P.S. If you have an Echo, be careful if you play the video clip above, it may set off your Echo device!

🎶 Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs. So Please Follow Them…

We went to check out the beautiful new Whole Foods in Wynnewood, PA the other day, and we came away quite impressed. There’s a nice pub and restaurant on the ground floor and a great produce section and bakery on the main floor. The employees we spoke with were also quite friendly and helpful.

It was quite busy, especially for so early on a Sunday morning, so it seems like the store is off to a good start. The parking seemed to be a problem, but I’m not sure if it will be a long-term issue, or if it was just higher than normal volume associated with the excitement surrounding the grand opening.

I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of vegan bakery items, but I realize carrying such items is probably not a high priority, so I can live with this shortcoming.

I did have one primary concern, and it was with the customers.

We were only buying a couple of items, so we headed over to the express aisles for checkout. There is a large sign at the express lanes, shown at the top of this post, indicating that no carts are to be used in the express lanes, and you need to limit the number of items you are buying to around 12.

I didn’t see anyone exceeding the suggested 12-item limit, but of the six people in line with us, three of them were using carts. And one of those customers was complaining to an employee that the carts were too wide for the express lanes! The employee, not wanting to be confrontational, simply agreed and never mentioned the sign.

I often wonder in such situations if such behavior is just an honest mistake and the person did not see the sign or if the person is just blatantly disregarding such a sign. My guess is that it’s probably a mix of the two.

I can live with honest mistakes, but I’ve never been a fan of people who think certain rules don’t apply to them, that they are somehow above the law.

I decided not to say anything, chalking the mistake up to the newness of the store and its rules. I did however, take out my phone and take a picture of the sign, hoping the violators would see what I was doing, and apologize for the mistake, but to no avail.

On the positive side, the incident did provide some fodder for my daily blog, but if I ever go back to this store, and see the same problem, this time I will point out the sign to the offender.

As the saying goes, “if you see something, say something.”

Crowdsourcing Morality

As more and more companies experiment with self-driving cars, new questions arise about how the vehicles should respond in certain situations. If someone runs into the middle of the street, should it swerve and kill the driver or keep going and kill the pedestrian? (from Business Insider)

I’ve written a little bit previously about the ethics of self-driving cars, and in that I mentioned a TED-Ed lesson that looked at such issues.

There are some difficult moral dilemmas associated with this breakthrough technology, and so researchers at MIT have created a fascinating website called Moral Machine to let humans decide what the cars should do in various scenarios.

The Moral Machine is a platform for gathering a human perspective on moral decisions made by machine intelligence, such as self-driving cars.

The web site will show you moral dilemmas where a driverless car must choose the lesser of two evils, such as killing two passengers or five pedestrians. As an outside observer, you judge which outcome you think is more acceptable. You can then see how your responses compare with those of other people.

The web site also allows you to design your own scenarios, which you can then be share with others for viewing and discussion.

Here’s a short video that provides an overview of the Moral Machine.

I went through the 13 scenarios (it just takes a few minutes), and there were some challenging decisions to be made. If you would like to see my results and how they compared to others that have gone through the scenarios, just click here. I also shared them on Twitter, as shown below.

There are no right or wrong answers to these types of questions, but it is a great idea to get these sort of discussions going before the technology is too widespread.

“What Are You Gonna Do? You’re Gonna Hit Me? What Are You Gonna Do?”

Fred Wilson at wrote about a local community board meeting in Brooklyn this past week that got a bit out of control.

The issue – where Citibike places its parking stations.

Apparently, one of the local citizens was not happy that Citibike had placed a parking station for its bikes in his neighborhood. You can watch this older gentleman get a bit “passionate” about the issue in the following video. At one point he keeps berating one of the board members by getting in his face and saying “What are you gonna do? You’re gonna hit me? What are you gonna do?”

As entertaining and concerning as the video may be, I think the best part of it is simply the fact that it took place. I love that there are so many people at the meeting and that the board members are shoved up against a bookcase in order to make as much room possible for community members to attend.

As Tip O’Neill once said, “all politics is local”, suggesting that a politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents. Politicians must appeal to the simple, mundane and everyday concerns of those who elect them into office. Those personal issues, rather than big and intangible ideas, are often what voters care most about, according to this principle. People tend to care about issues that directly impact them, and for the most part are resistant to change.

I think this meeting supports such a claim. These people, or at least this one gentleman, is concerned about parking spaces in his neighborhood. I’m guessing that he does not get as passionate about issues such as minimum wage laws or overcrowded prisons (unless the prison was in his backyard).

The other thing I liked about this story was that the story was covered in the local neighborhood newspaper. While many neighborhoods have such newspapers, this one seemed to have quite an engaged readership.

For example, this story about Citibikes has over 65 comments. Not bad for what in the grand scheme of things may not be considered that big an issue, but down at the local level, it apparently hit a raw nerve with many people.

Reading about and watching such community involvement reinforces what a great country we have. People are given a venue where they are free to express their opinion on any issue they want, whether it’s at a public forum or in the comments section of an online newspaper.

It also makes New York City look like an awesome place to live.

While people will often disagree with each other, as long as they are willing to listen to each other and treat each other with respect, such a system works well.

I also have to give kudos to the people who volunteer their time and energy to serve on such community boards.The time commitment can be significant, the people they deal with can become belligerent (I’ve seen it at our own community board meetings), and they do it for little to no compensation. But without them, the system wouldn’t work.

So thank you to the members of Community Board 6, an to the Radnor Township board members. Please know that many of us are grateful for what you do.


Another One of Life’s Embarrassing Moments

It’s something I’ve done literally over a thousand times – open the door and walk into my classroom.

Well last week that simple action did not go as planned.

This time, as I went to step into my classroom, I forgot about the first part of that process, opening the door. And the result is what you would expect when your face meets an immovable object.

But even worse than the pain was having to face the 30 students that were sitting there and witnessed the entire event.

Since I have all of my classes videotaped, the episode was somewhat captured for everyone to enjoy. While you can’t actually see me walk into the door, that large sound at about seven seconds is yours truly walking full speed right into the glass door shown at the top of this post.

You can also hear one student say “He just walked into the door”, and another student ask me if I was OK. At the end of the video you can see me walk into the classroom trying to act as if nothing happened.

I’m sure that the students were trying hard to suppress their laughter, and I tried to make light of it the rest of class. As the day went on, a lump started to form on my forehead, and after a couple of days, this is what I looked like.


So I think I’ve officially bottomed out with this class in terms of humiliating myself, so it can only get better from here. Perhaps the only thing that could be more embarrassing is if I mistakenly said that I was supporting Donald Trump for President.

I’ve had other embarrassing moments as a teacher, such as the time I was chatting with a student in my office, and in the middle of my pontificating I leaned back too far in my chair and it tipped over, and I somehow ended up partially inside my trash can. Another memorable moment was early in my career and I was teaching students about debits and credits, and I realized near the end of the lecture that I had completely reversed which was which.

I’m sure there will be many more such moments (and who knows, they may begin increasing in frequency), but somehow I’ve survived all the others, and I’m sure that just like the glass door to my classroom, I’ll survive this latest episode of life’s embarrassing moments.

By the way, I found this stand up routine from Ellen Degenres where she talks about the pain and humiliation of walking into glass doors. The clip is interspersed with real examples of such events. After watching the clip, I felt like I was now part of an exclusive club. If you’d like to join, it’s a pretty simple initiation…