Sad news: Trinkaus is out for the count

November 12th, 2017

John Trinkaus, who was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel literature prize, for meticulously collecting data and publishing more than 80 detailed academic reports about things that annoyed him, died. His family notified us today.

John (who enjoyed jokingly referring to himself as “Trinkaus”) was one of New York’s overlooked treasures. We became friends after he won his Ig Nobel Prize. Trinkaus loved to explain that he did all those studies for the satisfaction of doing them—not to amass academic credit. He published the first of those reports, he said, after he had gotten tenure. He was a professor at the Zicklin School of Business, in New York City.

One of the most unusual things about Trinkaus was that he, mostly, simply counted how many times the annoying things happened. Unlike many academics, Trinkaus did not search for imaginative theories about the things he counted. Here’s a photo of Trinkaus (center) accepting his Ig Nobel Prize (a plexiglas cube containing a nanogram of gold) from Nobel laureate Wolfgang Ketterle. Ig Nobel minordomo Julia Lunetta is at left:

Here are a few of the studies of things that annoyed John Trinkaus:

  • What percentage of young people wear baseball caps with the peak facing to the rear rather than to the front
  • What percentage of pedestrians wear sport shoes that are white rather than some other color
  • What percentage of swimmers swim laps in the shallow end of a pool rather than the deep end
  • What percentage of automobile drivers almost, but not completely, come to a stop at one particular stop-sign
  • What percentage of commuters carry attaché cases
  • What percentage of shoppers exceed the number of items permitted in a supermarket’s express checkout lane
  • What percentage of students dislike the taste of Brussels sprouts.

Eighty-six of of Trinkaus’s publications are listed in “Trinkaus—An Informal Look,” which appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research, vol. 9, no. 3 (the special Everything issue), May/Jun 2003.

You can watch video of Trinkaus receiving the Ig Nobel Prize, and delivering his acceptance speech.

Trinkaus did some of his finest work after winning his Ig Nobel Prize. The most celebrated was a series of studies in which he documented that most children seemed indifferent about visiting Santa Claus at a shopping mall — and that the kids’ parents, unlike the kids, were excited.

To the best of our knowledge, no academic has followed Trinkaus’s lead in carefully, relentlessly documenting things that annoy them, tallying exactly how frequently those things occur.

If there is a heaven, it will now learn exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

BONUS: The year after Trinkaus was awarded his Ig Nobel Prize, he returned to the ceremony and took part in that year’s mini-opera. You can watch him dancing the can-can as part of that opera’s final song, about the coffee diet.

BONUS: In 2004, Fortune magazine asked me to write about Trinkaus. I began that article with this question: “Does one man count for nothing?

UPDATE: His obituary, in Newsday.

Richard Nixon’s inauguration day haul of dead pigeons

November 12th, 2017

“In his previous inauguration, Nixon had noticed that there were a large number of birds in the trees, and didn’t like the thought of being pooped on as he drove down the National Mall in Washington DC in an open-top limo. Nixon ordered that the pigeons were to be removed – and so the US government spent some $13,000 on a pest spray, Roost-No-More, to get rid of the offending birds.”

Polly Chapman tells the tale, in Chemical World‘s “Chemistry In It’s Element” podcast.

BONUS FACT: The 2003 Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to Yukio Hirose of Kanazawa University, for his chemical investigation of a bronze statue, in the city of Kanazawa, that fails to attract pigeons.

Research Hazard: Instrument Eaten By a Camel

November 12th, 2017

Two researchers appear to be unusually frank, in this study, in telling why some of their data is flawed:

Desert Dust and Health: A Central Asian Review and Steppe Case Study,” Troy Sternberg and Mona Edwards, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 14,  2017, p. 1342 ff. The authors, at the University of Oxford, UK, include this explanation for certain items that are listed in Table 3:

“Dust deposition (mg day-1) by dust trap sites. Dust site locations by number are in Figure 7. n.s. = signifies no sample was collected. Reasons include trap eaten by a camel…”

(Thanks to Tom Gill for bringing this to our attention.)

The STRANGE QUESTIONS issue of the Annals of Improbable Research

November 11th, 2017

The special Strange Questions issue (vol. 23, no. 5) of the Annals of Improbable Research is now available.

The issue’s table of contents is online. And you can obtain, for a pittance, the full issue, in PDF form.

In this issue you will find, among other things:

  • Strange Questions*
  • Strange’s Questions*
  • Strange Medical Questions*
  • Are Lung Cancers Triggered by Stopping Smoking?*
  • Cases of Usmani*
  • Other Strange Cases*
  • Biology Questions*
  • Strange Counting Questions*
  • Strange Culture Questions*
  • Strange Economics Questions*
  • Strange Psychology/Philosophy Questions*
  • Strange Snake Questions*

‘The Archers’ in academia (UK radio soap conference 2017)

November 11th, 2017

‘The Archers’ is the world’s longest-running radio soap opera. Although the BBC has been transmitting it in the UK for more than 60 years now, it’s only recently been gaining traction in the academic world. See, for example, the 2017 “The Archers in fact and fiction: Academic analyses of life in rural Borsetshire* conference which took place 17th-19th February, hosted by University of Lincoln, UK.

The conference featured 32 speakers and 27 papers from universities across the globe, covering such topics as :

• “My parsnips are bigger than your parsnips”: The negative aspects of competing at flower and produce shows. (Cranfield Defence and Security, Cranfield University, UK)

• ‘Big telephoto lens, small ticklist’: birdwatching, class and masculinity in Ambridge(Sheffield Hallam University, UK)

• The Ambridge* Paradox: Cake Consumption and Metabolic Health in a Defined Rural Population (from Christine Michael, editor of the Ambridge* Observer) [See photo above]


[1] Various YouTube videos of the conference are available here

[2] The Archers theme music

* Note: The town of ‘Ambridge’ does not exist, neither does the county of Borsetshire. Nevertheless, the BBC does, however, provide a map.