10 Things I Didn’t know about P.T. Barnum (1810-1891)

Contemporary cartoon of Barnum as a “humbug”

Sure, we all know him as a great promoter, showman and founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus (at age 60) but here are some things I didn’t know.

  1. He created America’s first aquarium.
  2. He was a Republican member of the Connecticut legislature and the mayor of Bridgeport.
  3. He started Bridgeport Hospital.
  4. He almost bought the birth home of William Shakespeare.
  5. He created the concept of matinées to encourage families to come to the theater and to lessen the fear of crime.
  6. A self-proclaimed humbug himself, he offered $500 to any medium who could prove power to communicate with the dead in his book Humbugs of the World.
  7. He sponsored a law against contraception that was not overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court until 1965.
  8. He made significant contributions to Tufts University, including Jumbo the circus elephant.
  9. He never actually said “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
  10. He made arrangements to read his own obituary shortly before he died.

Source: Wikipedia, “P.T. Barnum”


Air swimmers

Air swimmers are radio-controlled balloons, the fins of which propel them.  Wouldn’t it be fun to put a whole bunch of these in a giant “aquarium” and have a computer control their interactions?

Other fun uses of balloons (or bubbles) include the following ( Wikipedia):

  • balloon helicopters (a full-scale one has been built!)
  • bubble wrap (originally intended as wallpaper)
  • light effects (e.g. glow sticks) carried by balloons
  • balloon-powered water guns and rockets
  • flogos, environmentally-friendly foam bubbles that retain the shapes of flowers, snowflakes, or logos:


Balloons have more serious uses, too.   A rockoon is a rocket carried aloft with a balloon to save on fuel.  An aerobot is a balloon used for planetary exploration ( Wikipedia).

Wikipedia’s article “fire balloon” describes a weapon that killed a pregnant American and 5 children out for a Sunday school picnic:

The Japanese fire balloon was the first ever weapon possessing intercontinental range, using the jet stream to take explosives from Japan to the United States during World War II.  (One landed as far east as Michigan!)   From late 1944 until early 1945, the Japanese launched over 9300 fire balloons, of which 300 were found or observed in the U.S.  Fighters scrambled to intercept the balloons, but they had little success; the balloons flew very high and surprisingly fast, and fighters destroyed fewer than 20.

In what might have been an ironic twist of fate, one of the last fire balloons very nearly set off an uncontrollable nuclear reaction in the U.S. several months before Hiroshima.  On March 10, 1945, one of the last paper balloons descended in the vicinity of the Manhattan Project’s production facility at the Hanford Site. This balloon caused a short circuit in the power lines supplying electricity for the nuclear reactor cooling pumps, but backup safety devices restored power almost immediately. As if explosives weren’t bad enough, the Japanese Imperial Army Noborito Institute cultivated anthrax, Pasteurella pestis, and 20 tons of the cowpox virus, the latter being enough, in theory, to cover the entire United States.  Such biological weapons were never deployed, however.


Picture credits:

  1.  AirSwimmers.com
  2.   https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flogos_Snowflake.jpg





Are misspelled ads an opportunity to make money on eBay?  Is there a strategy for “Rock, Paper, Scissors”?  Why do lobbyists spend so little money to influence our politics?  Why are online betting sites better at predicting election results than pollsters like Gallup?

All these and other questions were raised by the article on auctions.  The EB‘s article is fairly brief, defining English auctions (with ascending prices) and Dutch auctions (used for tulips, with descending prices), but giving little history.  Wikipedia points out that in 193 A.D. the Praetorian Guard put the entire Roman Empire up for auction in 193 A.D.  (Giving new meaning to the phrase “Winner’s Curse,” the auction winner was later beheaded after a civil war.)

I started wondering about the mathematics and strategies behind auctions.  Is one form of auction (e.g., silent, English, Dutch) always better than another, or do some auction forms suit some products better than others?  What strategies and tactics tend to produce auction wins?  Are there behaviors that harm everyone in an auction?  It turns out that economists have done a lot of work in the game theory of auctions.  Here are some fun facts about auctions, with a bit of game theory thrown in occasionally.

1)  In a form of “auction arbitrage,” some people seek out misspelled ads on eBay (e.g., labtop, saphire, or dimond), knowing that there will be fewer bidders and thus lower prices.  They buy at a low price and immediately resell at the “correct” price (http://bit.ly/1HiGIwY).

2)  Takashi Hashiyama, president of a Japanese electronics firm, couldn’t decide which auction house to use to unload the company’s art collection.  He decided to use “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”  Sotheby’s left it to chance, and Christie’s used scissors to beat their rival’s paper (http://cbsn.ws/1HiF52j).  Mathematicians have suggested that if there is only one round of the game, chance is the best strategy, but if there is more than one round certain reactions to your opponent’s play will give an edge (http://bit.ly/1HiG2HS).

3)  Why do the 35,000 registered lobbyists in D.C. spend only $2 billion every year trying to influence Congress?  If government spending is $10 trillion for every 4-year election cycle, either lobbyists are getting a fabulous bargain when they “buy” our government, or our government is only .1% corrupt.  You decide (http://slate.me/1HiDMAl).

4)  In the last four presidential contests, the Iowa Electronic Market’s market price odds on the eve of election were off by an average of just 1.37 percent — better than Gallup, which had error margins of between 1.5 and 2 percent.  It is thought that such auctions tap into a consensus of the more well-informed (http://bit.ly/1HiHGtb).

5)  If you spend much time on eBay, you’re very familiar with sniping, which is attempting to win an auction with a bid at the last possible moment.  This is a very old tactic.  In some parts of England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries auction by candle began to be used for the sale of goods.  The end of the auction was signaled by the expiration of a candle flame, which was intended to ensure that no one could know exactly when the auction would end and make a last-second bid.  One highly successful bidder had observed that, just before expiring, a candle-wick always flares up slightly.  On seeing this, he would shout his final — and winning — bid.  Sometimes, other unpredictable processes, such as a footrace, were used in place of the expiration of a candle. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auction)

So, the next time you are watching the television show Storage Wars, and you see Dave Hester trying to bid up a unit and dump it on someone else, ask yourself “What does game theory have to say about this?”

Illustration source: http://bit.ly/1AYmJfN.