Question: Let's say you've played your share of lotteries in the past but have gotten tired of losing. Now your daughter is infatuated with a game called MongaMillions, with a 1-in-100-million chance of winning, and has started sinking in plenty of her hard-earned bucks. How might you use a "guesstimate gambit" to help her break her habit?

Answer: To make her gamble more graphic to her, you set out to compute the height of a stack of all possible tickets, assuming there are in fact 100 million different ones, say Lawrence Weinstein and John Adam in "Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin."

While it's hard to gauge the thickness of a single lottery ticket, try instead for the thickness of a packet of 52 tickets, which is close to that of a pack of 52 playing cards, or about 1 centimeter. This would put the thickness of one ticket at about .0002 meter. Next multiply .0002 times 100,000,000 tickets and you get roughly 20 kilometers, or 15 miles.

If stacked vertically, these tickets would be twice the height of Mount Everest or twice as high as jumbo jets fly. As will be manifestly clear to your dear daughter, "the chance of pulling the single winning ticket from that 15-mile-high stack is pretty small."

Question: It's said that "money won't buy happiness." But what if you spend it in just the right way?

Answer: As people increase their wealth, they often pour their money into pursuits that have little effect on lasting happiness, such as purchasing costly consumer goods, say psychologist Elizabeth Dunn et al in "Science" magazine.

Ironically, the potential for money to boost happiness may be subverted by the very kinds of things that thinking about money promotes. The mere thought of having more makes people less likely to help acquaintances, to donate to charity or to spend time with others — all things strongly associated with life satisfaction.

"Prosocial" is the operative word here, though sadly the majority of people underestimate the powers of generosity to reward the giver. So pass along the message from the researchers: How people spend their money is as important as how much money they have. The old adage "it's better to give" seems to be literally true.

Question: "I'm not an X, but I play one on TV." "X is the new Y." "If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, imagine how many words X have for Y." "Snowclone is the new cliche." Come again? What's this all about?

Answer: They're actually all "snowclones," a term coined by economist Glen Whitman, who was punning on the syrup-flavored shaved ice snowcone, says Paul McFedries in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. The original formulaic format followed the Eskimo snow statement above. Never mind that the major premise is false — Eskimos have no more words for snow than anyone else — this cultural cliche was born.

By now, scores of snowclones are firmly entrenched in mainstream culture:

• "I'm not an X, but I play one on TV" spun off from a cough-syrup ad some 20 years ago where an actor said, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV"

• "X? We don't need no stinking X!" from the 1935 book "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," popularized in Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles": "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!"

• "X and Y and Z, oh my!" from the 1939 film version of "The Wizard of Oz": "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"

• "X is the new Y," the idea being that some new thing X has become more popular than the older thing Y, such as the current "green is the new black," "40 is the new 30" or "Snowclone is the new cliche."


Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.