Strange But True: Feats of strength tested against chimps


Q: During the middle of the last century, a circus act called Noell's Ark Gorilla Show offered this unusual challenge: "Wanted, athletic men to earn $5 per second by holding an 85-pound ape's shoulders to the floor." What was the gimmick?

A: No gimmick at all. The apes in question were juvenile chimpanzees, forced to wear "silence of the lambs" masks (to control biting) and large gloves (to prevent them from maiming faces)," notes Joseph Henrich in "The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter." Beefy linebacker types, eager to impress the crowds at this star attraction, lined up to give it a try. But during the show's 30-year run, no man ever pinned a chimp for more than five seconds. "The organizers ... were wise to use young chimps, because a full-grown male chimpanzee (150 lbs.) is quite capable of breaking a man's back."

Henrich concludes that, from the standpoint of pure physical strength, humans are wimps. But he offers consolation: "If you are challenged to wrestle a chimpanzee, I recommend that you decline and instead suggest a contest based on (1) threading a needle, (2) fast-ball pitching or (3) long-distance running."

Q: More than 20 sports institutes and training centers around the world are using a high-tech, high-end device called Mbody Pro. What's the draw?

A: These compression shorts employed electromyography and accelerometers, combined with heart-rate data, to measure muscle activity, flagging imbalances in the legs, says Emily Waltz in her online posting "The Quantified Olympian." Are athletes favoring one leg? Are their quadriceps being overworked compared with their hamstrings? Feedback from Mbody Pro can provide answers, "helping athletes improve their technique and possibly forestall cramps or injuries."

Who else is using the device? The Los Angeles Lakers (basketball), Pittsburgh Penguins (ice hockey), professional boxers, and Olympic snowboarders and ice skaters.

Q: Are you "big data" literate? Perhaps a crash course in "data science" terminology might be in order.

A: Think of "big data" as "those massive amounts of information that require special techniques to store, search and analyze," says Paul McFedries in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. "Data science" involves the analysis and extraction of all that big data. How big? Data geeks estimate storage units in "brontobytes": Since the average-size hard drive has a "terabyte," you'd need one thousand trillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) of them to fill a brontobyte. Still bigger is the "geobyte," or 1,000 brontobytes. Quips McFedries, that's some "hellabytes."

Of course, professionals are necessary to handle these "data lakes" (data stored and readily accessible in its pure, unprocessed state) so companies are looking for "data architects" (specialists in building data models), "data visualizers" (who can translate data into visual form), and "data explorers" (who change how a company does business based on analyzing company data).

At one time or another we may all need to access "long data" (extending back in time many years); "hot data" (easily accessible because of constant use) and "cold data" (used infrequently so less readily available).

As McFedries concludes, perhaps the times are calling for all of us "to become aware of how our everyday data — our 'small data' — contribute to many different big-data sets and what impact that might have on our privacy and security. Let's learn to become custodians of our own data."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


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