Underwater Money

Until the 20th century, the people of the Pacifc island of Yap used large stone discs called rai as money. These were usually used in social transactions such as marriage and ransom. The rai, which weighed as much as four tons, were rarely moved. Rather, everyone knew who the owner of a particular rai was. The rai were cut in Palau, an island 280 miles away, and transported by canoes. One of the rai was dropped into the ocean while being transported. It was still recognized as money.


From the September 2011 issue of Happiness Pony. [PDF]

Dream Agenda: September

Response to PonyCon 2011, a convention that took place in the dreams of the attendees, was tremendous and positive. As a follow-up, we have made a list of things which require discovery through dreams and which, while perhaps too much work for any dreamer in a single month, we can research if we work together. Please send the results of the relevant dreams to editor@happinesspony.com for publication.

  • Which of my masterpieces are destined to remain unfinished?
  • How can I best cooperate with the cosmic rhythms?
  • Where did her familiar feeling of worthlessness come from?
  • Where should I go to bury my treasure?
  • Where should I go to grow my garden?
  • What form is the monster under my bed taking this week?


From the September 2011 issue of Happiness Pony. [PDF]

Image: The Orangerie;—or—the Dutch Cupid Reposing After the Fatigues of Planting, depicting William V, Prince of Orange, as a fat, naked Cupid (1796), by James Gillray. (Source)

How to Vote in Worcester

It’s time once again to figure out Worcester’s weird voting system. There’s a preliminary election September 8, 2015, and a general election November 3, 2015. In the For both the School Committee and at-large City Council elections, you get six votes, and the six candidates with the most votes win. This is called “plurality-at-large voting.” In a situation like this, the study of game theory has some ideas on how to put your vote to best use, depending on much you know or care about the election.

If there are candidates you like, but you’re not sure what kind of chance they have, don’t worry about strategy. Just vote for who you like.

If you don’t know much about the election, but someone you trust wants you to join a larger group in voting for a slate of candidates, you should probably do it. That’s called “bloc voting” and it’s a great way to win elections. At the very least you know you’ll be voting for candidates you would probably like, and who probably have a chance.

If you know something about the mood of the electorate and the candidates, and you want to make up your own mind, the Myerson-Weber strategy puts the decision in mathematical terms, by helping you calculate a “prospective rating” for each candidate. To figure your “prospective rating” for a candidate, compare her with every other candidate. For each pair, consider how much more (or less) you like your candidate, and multiply that by how likely the two are to tie for a seat (the “pivot probability”). Add up the results of comparing a candidate with all the others, and you have your candidate’s “prospective rating.” Vote for the 6 candidates with the highest prospective ratings, and you’ve both done your civic duty and maximized your chances for a happy outcome, as proven by math.

Should you leave some of your votes blank? That’s called “bullet voting.” It’s a way to “send a message” that you couldn’t find 6 candidates worthy of your vote. But leaving spaces blank will only decrease your chances of being satisfied with the results. If you can find 6 candidates you even kinda like, you should vote all your votes, and have your fair share of influence on the election results.

Worcesterites do like bullet voting though: for the past few elections, about half the voters leave at least one vote blank, and the average has been between 3.8 and 4 votes per ballot, far short of all 6.

A note on the preliminary election: there are 16 candidates for City Council At-Large seats, and according to the rules that’s too many. So ever voter will get 6 votes, and the top 12 candidates will advance to the general election. In the general, the top 6 will be elected.

From the August 2015 issue of Happiness Pony.

Taste Bud Fraud?

Taste Map by Aiden Duffy

As a youth, you may have learned that the tongue senses sweet tastes at the tip, salty and sour tastes at the sides, and bitter tastes towards the back. This lie is based on Harvard psychologist Edwin Garrigues Boring’s confused 1942 interpretation of a 1901 paper by David P. Hänig. In 1974, Virginia Collings revisited the topic and found that every part of the tongue can taste every taste. See: Human Taste Response as a Function of Locus of Stimulation on the Tongue and Soft Palate. Perception & Psychophysics, 16: 169–174.

Note that before teaching at Harvard, Boring was a professor at Clark University, but left after Wallace Walter Atwood was appointed Clark president; Atwood accused Boring of being a Bolshevik and generally did not think psychological research valuable.

Note also that in recent decades Western scientists accept a fifth taste to accompany sweet, sour, salty, and bitter: umami, the savory flavor of l-glutamate and 5′-ribonucleotides. This flavor is most noticeable in ripe tomatoes, fish sauce, cheese, soy sauce, and MSG.

From the September 2011 issue of Happiness Pony [PDF]. Written by Mike Benedetti. Taste Map by Aiden Duffy.

Quiz Corner: Title Town, USA

When the Bruins hoisted the Stanley Cup in June, Boston became “Title Town, USA,” having won championships in all four top-level professional sports leagues (the NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLB) within the span of less than a decade. The Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX in February 2005, the Red Sox won in 2007, and the Celtics won in 2008.

Five other American cities have achieved this distinction, but they all took longer than Boston—some of them, much longer. Can you identify these other us Title Towns below by matching them with the shortest span over which they won championships in all four leagues?

For clues, I have included the leagues and years that began and ended the span. (For example, Boston (A) is #1.)

A. Boston
B. Chicago
C. Detroit
D. Los Angeles/Anaheim
E. New York/Northern New Jersey
F. Philadelphia

  1. 6 years, 129 days (NFL 2005–NHL 2011)
  2. 11 years, 133 days (NFL 1969–NHL 1980)
  3. 19 years, 300 days (NFL 1960–MLB 1980)
  4. 23 years, 135 days (NFL 1984–NHL 2007)
  5. 34 years, 60 days (NHL 1955–NBA 1989)
  6. 73 years, 210 days (MLB 1917–NBA 1991)

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The Old Hag

When I am about to awake, the limbs and trunk of my body refuse to move. My eyelids flit up and down, but my eyes won’t stay open. Maybe I manage to lift my head a bit, but it weighs an impossible ton of bricks. I need to scream, but my voice can only manage muted moans. A sense of impending capture and/or death go along with all this, so I reeeeally need to lift my body and go. Impossible. I’m paralyzed.

Death is not at hand, but the paralysis is quite real. And I am far from the only poor sleeper to suffer it. “Sleep paralysis,” lasting seconds or minutes, is accompanied by terror, panic, and hallucinations. Vivid horror.

Some folklore call this experience “The Old Hag.” The Old Hag might be a mare, witch, or damned woman who flies around at night resting here and there on rib cages. Her weight presses hard, pins you down, and renders you paralyzed. Tag this feeling catalepsy, narcolepsy, hypnogogic hallucinations, evil jinns, science fiction, alien abductions, lucid dreams, ghouls, haunts, and The Nightmare by Henri Fuseli. There are plenty of tips on “sleep hygiene” out there, and in my experience they work. Don’t despair.

From the August 2011 issue of Happiness Pony. [PDF]

“Turtle Boy” Sculptor Dies in Razor Suicide


Sculptor Charles Y. Harvey, who conceived of the “Turtle Boy” statue on Worcester’s Common, cut his throat with one or more razors January 28, 1912, in a Bronx park. He was convinced that the Italians were out to get him, and haunted by voices that commanded his suicide. His New York Times obituary reported that “Harvey was bitterly despondent about his work and so sensitive to the slightest criticism that any expression of adverse opinion caused him genuine suffering. His friends and fellow craftsmen, however, were most favorably impressed with the finished work that stands in his studio. It is the life-size figure of a crouching boy, holding a tortoise.”

Illustration by Bret M. Herholz. Written by Mike Benedetti. From the June 2011 issue of Happiness Pony. [PDF]

Pony Report

I’m house-sitting in Princeton, at the pony farm. There is a large, new pony named Valerie. She is in the throes of a trial period in which the other horses decide whether or not she will be welcome to stay. Her manner is demure, increasing her chances for approval.


Story by PKP, photo by JSD. From the June 2011 issue of Happiness Pony. [PDF]