A Chinese Family Problem
One unfortunate effect of the one-child policy in China was to produce an imbalance of men to women, because so many couples wanted a boy more than a girl. As a result, after several years of the policy there were more young men in China than young women, meaning that many young Chinese men would have to live without a wife.
In order to correct this imbalance, a government bureaucrat in the same agency that had devised the one-child policy proposed a solution. The policy would be revised to say that couples could have as many girls as they wished, but must stop having children after one boy.
"Clearly," argued the bureaucrat, "this revised policy will correct the imbalance between the sexes. There will be families of one boy, one girl and a boy, two girls and a boy, three girls and a boy, and so on. Since Chinese parents want most of all to have a boy, they will keep having babies until they get one, thus producing more girls than boys. In just a few years, the imbalance will disappear!"
Assuming that the Chinese people obey the new policy as written, will it redress the imbalance in a few years?
No. The policy will not produce more girls than boys, but will instead produce an approximately equal number of babies of both sexes. So, if kept up for many years the balance between the sexes would eventually be restored, but not in only a few years.
The reason for this counter-intuitive result is as follows: In the first generation, half of the babies born would be male and half female, so the balance between boys and girls would be even. The couples who had boy babies would have no further children. In the second generation, those couples who had girl babies could have another child and, again, the balance between boys and girls would be approximately even among those who did. This process will continue with each generation, with half of the couples who have children―those having boys―eliminated from continuing to enlarge their families. So, the policy will not produce more girls than boys.
Disclaimer and Disclosure: This puzzle is a work of fiction, but there really was a one-child policy in China, and it did indeed skew the sex ratio towards males. However, no one suggested the alternative policy of the puzzle, at least as far as I know. See: Kenneth Pletcher, "One-Child Policy", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 4/5/2021. The puzzle is based on "A Family Problem" from George Gamow & Marvin Stern's Puzzle-Math (1958).
2020 Hindsight, Part 2
Last month, we looked at a "prediction" of the coronavirus epidemic attributed to Nostradamus, which turned out to be a retrodiction created after the epidemic had got underway1. This month, let's look at some predictions of the events of last year attributed to Nostradamus that were published before the year started. How accurate were such predictions, and did the famed seer foresee the most important event of the year, namely, the coronavirus epidemic?
On the last day of 2019, the British tabloid newspaper Express published an article with the five top predictions for 2020 from the Nostradamus2020.com website2. Here they are in the order given by the article:
- Trump wins re-election: I suppose that some of Trump's supporters, and perhaps even the man himself, would claim that he really did win so that the prediction came true. Had Trump read and believed this when he claimed that he won? Of the five prognostications, this is the only one for which the newspaper article supplies a quatrain:
The exiles because of anger and intestine hatred
Will bring a great conspiracy to bear against the King
Secretly they will place enemies as a threat,
And his own old ones against them sedition.3
This is a loose translation of Nostradamus' quatrain I-13:
Les exilés par ire, haine intestine,
Feront au Roi grand conjuration:
Secret mettront ennemis par la mine,
Et ses vieux siens contre eux sédition.4
Of course, this quatrain doesn't predict anything about Trump or anyone else being re-elected. Instead, it predicts a plot against some unnamed King. Maybe Trump would have liked to be king, but he was only president. Nostradamus lived during the time period when there were still kings with real power, so there's no reason to think that he was using the word figuratively. Other than that, there's no indication of when the prediction is supposed to come true, nor any details that apply to Trump rather than some real king. Now, if it had predicted a conspiracy against the "great orange man", I would be impressed.
Furthermore, at the time that this article was published, there was already a conspiracy aimed at impeaching Trump and removing him from the presidency that had been going on since before his election. So, even assuming that "the King" refers to Trump and not Elvis Presley, this is not a prediction, but an attempt to apply the quatrain to an event that was ongoing.
A test of such a vaguely-written prophecy is how it was interpreted prior to the supposed event that fulfilled it. In this case, an early Nostradamus interpreter named Étienne Jaubert5, interpreted it as referring to the conspiracy of Amboise, which occurred in 15606. While Nostradamus lived until 1566, this quatrain is the thirteenth in the first book of "centuries"―collections of a hundred quatrains―so it was probably printed in the first edition of 1555, five years prior to the conspiracy.
Another interpreter, Henry C. Roberts, wrote the following about this quatrain: "The progress of the Italian conspiracy is indicated―the rise of a fifth column rife with internal dissensions, culminating with a plot against King Victor Emmanuel.7" This is itself ambiguous since there were three kings of that name, but given that Roberts interpreted the two previous quatrains to be about the rise of fascism in Italy, he may have been referring to the third one8.
In any case, the poem is so vaguely worded that it can be interpreted to apply to almost any plot against a king, but not to the re-election of President Trump.
- Earthquakes: There are earthquakes every year somewhere, but the website made a surprisingly precise claim:
The prophet announced the occurrence of a strong earthquake in the future that will lead to the sinking of the entire state of California under the ocean's water. Nostradamus foretold a great earthquake in 2020, in America. In the New World (the West Lands), California seems to be the logical guess. This will happen next time Mercury is retrograde in Cancer (between June 18 and July 12).2
Though its politicians seem intent on destroying it, the last I heard California was still there. How the website interpreters came up with such a precise prediction, I've no idea. Usually, Nostradamus had more sense than to make falsifiable prophecies. Fortunately for Californians, the Nostradamus interpreters were wrong again.
- The United Kingdom will gain a king. The last I checked, it still has a queen.
- Major war: Whatever you can say against 2020, you can't say this.
- Kim Jong-Un gone: Unfortunately, the dictator is still dictating.
So, that's zero for five, and no mention of an epidemic. Of course, these predictions are only Nostradamus as interpreted by his modern followers. This is convenient for him, since he's never to blame for a failed prediction; instead, it's the fault of whoever misinterpreted his vague and ambiguous doggerel.
- 2020 Hindsight, 3/10/2021.
- Ciaran McGrath, "Trump re-elected, Kim Jong-Un out―& King William? Nostradamus predictions 2020 Revealed", Express, 12/31/2019. Unsurprisingly, the website is no longer available, but you can see the Wayback Machine's cache of its main page here: "Nostradamus Predictions for 2020", Internet Archive, 12/8/2019.
- This is Edgar Leoni's translation, see: Nostradamus and His Prophecies (1982), p. 135.
- See: Leoni, op. cit., p. 134.
- For Jaubert, see: Leoni, op. cit., pp. 62-63. Leoni finds this interpretation credible, but adds: "The wording, however, is sufficiently general that the quatrain may fit other palace plots of history as well. (p. 572)" The aptly-named Erika Cheetham also adopted Jaubert's interpretation, see: The Prophecies of Nostradamus, translated, edited & introduced by Erika Cheetham (1981). She translated the quatrain as follows:
Through anger and internal hatreds,
The exiles will hatch a great plot against the king.
Secretly they will place enemies as a threat,
And his own old (adherents) will find sedition against them.
- Editors, "Conspiracy of Amboise", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 3/12/2021.
- The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus, translated, edited, and interpreted by Henry C. Roberts (New Revised Edition, 1982).
- Editors, "Victor Emmanuel III", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 3/12/2021.