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Vail Daily column: What do hyenas laugh about?

Butch Mazzuca
Butch Mazzuca |

If you read the heading of this commentary and asked yourself, “What the hell is Mazzuca referring to?” you wouldn’t be alone, because the title was meant to draw the readership’s attention to a concept defined by the word “frustable.”

So what is a frustable anyway? Frustables are imponderable questions that are impossible to answer with certainty, i.e., why do clocks run clockwise? Why do we so often see only one shoe lying on the side of the road? Why do we rarely see purple Christmas lights, and why do people bite their fingernails?

The thing about frustables that makes them so fascinating is when an answer or solution isn’t obvious or completely clear, someone can posit a rejoinder that can’t be disproved. Take the last question — why do people bite their fingernails? Perhaps nail biting is instinctual. We all understand the basic human drives of hunger, thirst, sex, self-preservation, sleep, etc. But do humans possess other innate lesser drives such as grooming as many animals have? And does nail biting fall into that category?



If you feel nail biting is a manifestation of insecurity, but your significant other feels it’s a response to danger, while at the same time your doctor thinks it’s due to a calcium deficiency, each of you would be equally correct or incorrect — it’s an imponderable.

Author David Feldman has written a series of “imponderable books” wherein “experts” respond to the questions. So just for fun, I thought we might explore a few of his more interesting frustables.



Frustable No. 1: Why did pirates wear earrings? One possible answer is that it was a form of branding, identification or self-adornment similar to a tattoo. But perhaps a better answer is that pirates of the day wore earrings made of gold and silver because they believed it improved their eyesight.

Taken a step further, it’s not unreasonable to examine closely the art (or science if you prefer) of acupuncture because the earlobe is an acupuncture point for some eye ailments. And it’s quite possible the practice may have been brought to the west from the Orient. While this particular answer appears reasonable, I personally think pirates wore earrings because it made them look cool.

Frustable No. 2: Why are blue jeans traditionally sewn with orange thread? Any discussion of jeans must include the name Levi Strauss. And Levi company legend tells us orange thread was used to match the copper rivets that have graced Levi’s since the company’s founding. While there are no archival records to prove this theory, it does seem practical. That said, neither Levi nor other jean manufacturers use orange thread exclusively throughout their respective lines.



Frustable No. 3: In a box of assorted safety pins why are small pins gold but all the other sizes are silver? Gold safety pins are made from brass while silver safety pins are crafted from nickel dipped in a stainless steel solution. Since nickel is far less costly than brass, the cost of safety pins would skyrocket if they were all made from brass. But that begs the question of why not make the small safety pins from nickel?

It’s been argued that people normally use the smaller safety pins on their garments because they prefer the aesthetics of the gold looking brass, not to mention the fact that brass is more pliable and easier to bend versus steel, which is stiffer and tends to break. At the same time however, many clothing manufacturers prefer brass to avoid the rust factor. You can decide for yourself.

Frustable No. 4: Why is X used to represent the unknown in algebraic equations? In developing his equation, famed philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes used letters at the beginning of the alphabet to denote known factors but used letters near the end of the alphabet to represent unknown factors, hence the use of X.

However, why not use Z, the very last letter of the alphabet? Perhaps Descartes felt the letter Z could be easily confused with the number 2. But then again, some postulate he chose X simply because it was easier to draw on a blackboard or make an X in the dirt, just as it’s easier for an illiterate person to use the letter X to sign their name. In any event, X marks the spot!

Frustable No. 5: Both Democrats and Republicans tell us they are against deficit spending; but if they were really against this self-defeating practice, why is this nation $20 trillion in debt? I’ve formulated my own opinion about this frustable, but won’t opine here because it might be more fun to wait and read the responses in the letters to the editor.

Quote of the day: “Good humor is a tonic for mind and body. It is the best antidote for anxiety and depression. It is a business asset. It attracts and keeps friends. It lightens human burdens. It is the direct route to serenity and contentment.” — Genville Kleiser

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@comcast.net.


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