Strange but True: Find 'happiness' whereever you begin


Q: Are you familiar with the opening passage of the U.S. "Declaration of Independence"? If so, how might you use it to find almost certain "happiness"?

A: Start by picking any word out of the first 20 and call it your "special" word, says John Allen Paulos in his book "A Numerate Life." Count its number of letters and move forward that many jumps (words) to your next word, and then do this again and again.

For example, the special pick "course," with six letters, would jump you forward six words to "necessary," your next special word. Counting its letters would move you ahead nine jumps to "which." Follow this pattern until you come to the end of the passage: "No matter what word you pick initially, your last special word will be 'happiness.'"

Here's the passage: "When in the COURSE of human events, it becomes NECESSARY for one people to dissolve the political bands WHICH have connected them with ANOTHER, and to assume among the powers OF the EARTH, the separate and equal STATION to which the Laws of Nature AND of Nature's GOD entitle them, A DECENT respect to the opinions of MANKIND requires that they should declare the CAUSES which impel them to the SEPARATION. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all MEN are created EQUAL, that they are endowed BY their CREATOR with certain unalienable Rights, that among THESE are Life, Liberty and THE pursuit of HAPPINESS."

Trying it with a different word will yield the same result.

Q: What are some of the quirkier items to be found in libraries these days?

A: According to Gabe Luzier in "Mental Floss" magazine, librarians have gone beyond their passion for books to offer patrons umbrellas for rainy days (Cornell University Library in Ithaca, N.Y.), American Girl Dolls (Arlington Public Library in Arlington, Va.), sculptures for the office (the Aurora Public Library in Illinois). Then there are items for your hobby, such as musical instruments, board games, video game consoles and even sewing machines (The Library of Things at the Sacramento Public Library). And if you're worried about being snowed in in Canaan, Vt., take out a pair of snowshoes from the Alice M. Ward Memorial Library.

Finally, "to help break stereotypes," Bainbridge Public Library in Washington hosts what it calls a living library that allows patrons to talk informally with "people on loan" of various ages, genders and cultural backgrounds.

Q: What just might be the most fascinatingly useless invention in history? Clue: Think "The Total Library."

A: Only recently has new computer technology brought into reach "The Total Library," containing every phrase that could ever be uttered, says Jerry Adler of "Smithsonian" magazine, reporting on the work of Jonathan Basile. This student of English literature has set his mind to recreating The Total Library as described years ago by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who "imagined it holding not just every book ever written but every book that could be written. ... It would contain, along with an almost infinite quantity of gibberish, all of civilization's wisdom, true accounts of the past and future ..." This was a revisiting of the classic "infinite monkey" thought experiment where endless rows of monkeys seated before typewriters were to keep on typing until they came up with "Hamlet."

In his calculations, Basile quickly discovered that such a library would contain more books than could fit into the observable universe — somewhere shy of 10 to the power of two million! Yet as Borges foresaw, says Adler, "wisdom is useless if it is lost in a sea of nonsense."

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