“It’s Horace, the guy who tells jokes so sophisticated no one can understand them.”

Sent by Andréa, who also kindly linked this Bernoulli explainer. (Which however doesn’t make the joke really clearer.)

Barney and Clyde have a whole series of these this month. They are obscure, but are they funny? Here’s another. The humor seems species-ous.

And then again there are some, like the most recent episode, which we would gleefully consign to an “Ooopses!” list if we didn’t have this post to use it in.

Let us pass over in silence the syllable count of guacamole, and get right to the point: why isn’t there superscripting? If there’s an excuse in “He’s supposed to be speaking these”, still they should be written correctly and trust the reader to vocalize them appropriately; or heck, even write out him saying “times ten to the twenty-third” and something like “inverse moles” or simply “units per mole”.


  1. The only thing I got is that February 12, 1809, was the birthdate of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

    But that might half-explain the punchline without explaining the set-up at all.

  2. It was originally “Avogadro’s Number”, but Trader Joe’s already sells a dip called “Avocado’s Number”, so they’re a little late with that one.

  3. The last one is merely a rehash of an ancient nerd’s joke:

    Q: How many Mols are in a Guacamol?

    A: Avocadro’s Number.

    P.S. I have no idea how ancient this canard actually is, but it was already old when I learned it in high school chemistry. The orthography dates from back then, too.

  4. Kilby says: The orthography dates from back then, too.

    I’m not sure what aspect of the orthography you mean. But I doubt if there is a tradition supporting the aspects I complained of. It says “6.02214076 x 1023 mol-1”. The x is slightly raised, which is a nice touch. But the 1023 is written absolutely like a simple 4-digit number and fails utterly to convey “ten to the 23rd power”, which could be accomplished with actual superscripting, or any of the conventions such as an up-caret like “10^23”. Similarly, “mol-1” means nothing or looks like a subtraction; but it should again be a literal superscripting, or be phrased in words, as “per mole” or even just “inverse moles”.

    This doesn’t make it at all a more subtle or sophisticated technical joke. The joke can work (or not) if properly written; but it just fizzles and confuses here.

    Here’s what it looks like when printed correctly – the context is the Wikipedia entry for “Avogadro constant” —

  5. They doth protest too much, methinks… Clearly the cartoonists are talking about themselves, jokes so “sophisticated”, no one can understand them… They wish! These “jokes” aren’t sophisticated, they’re half-baked, and the teller doesn’t really understand them, but apparently just badly cribbed stuff from Wikipedia.
    1) The Venturi effect describes how pressure changes as flow rates change, such that if you have a surface over which on one side the flow rate is faster than the other side, the pressure of the slower side will be greater than the pressure on the faster side, resulting in a force to move the surface in the direction of the faster side, ie: lift. At no point is the surface made “lighter than air”. Lighter than air flight is achieved by using hot air (which is lighter than cold air), or helium or hydrogen, which are also lighter than our air; flight achieved via the Venturi effect has always been “heavier than air” flight. (The Bernoulli Principle explains in general terms the Venturi effect.)
    2) The “difference” between Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln is “Ape-raham” Lincoln? That’s barely coherent, and what little there is to it relies on outdated notions of a “missing link” in evolution — here they didn’t even bother to crib from Wikipedia
    3) Mitch is all over this one
    4) Andréa and Kilby are all over this one

  6. @ Mitch – Besides the “r” in “Avocadro“, my chemistry teacher favored spelling “mol” without the “e”, both for the symbol and the name of the unit.

  7. What larK said. There’s a difference between “sophisticated” and “obscure.” It’s not hard to make an obscure reference, but that doesn’t make it clever or interesting.

  8. I will note that the cartoonist is using a font in the strips, and it might be a case of not knowing how to do a superscript.

  9. Yes, Brian’s observation is a factor in their support. But still, there are conventions for exponentiation in a linearized context, like a^b.

  10. Here’s one I made up all by myself.

    What did the set of all numbers m such that m = 2n + 1 where n is an integer say to the set of all integers?

    “I can’t even!”

  11. After re-examining the text, I have to agree with Brian: it’s not bad (hand) lettering, it’s incompetent font work. I was fooled for a bit by a few alternative forms among the digits (see for example the variations in the “2” and “6” shapes in the third panel). As Danny already said, that exponent could have been expressed with a caret (^), or perhaps the old calculator format (10E23).

  12. In reference to the Bernoulli strip, Li’l Abner had the miracle diet food “mockaroni,” which had negative calories. As I recall (which may not be accurate), folks who ate mockaroni became addicted and eventually floated away.

  13. Also there was a folkloric claim that, if you count the energy expended on chewing and digesting, munching on celery is a net negative calorie meal.

  14. I agree with the upthread comment that it should have been “… times ten to the twenty-third power.” Is it really that hard to type the words I just typed?

    Well, no. I know, because I just typed them. It was easy.

  15. The cartoonist was able to do a subscript, so he presumably should have been able to do a superscript, too.

  16. BTW, molar quantities do get used in some everyday practical contexts (that is, not just in Chemistry classes). The concentration of added electrolytes in a maintenance IV bag is given in mEq/L (milliequivalents per liter). This involves the ionic charge or valence as well as the molar mass.

  17. @Mitch4 – BBC tv panel show QI (Quite Interesting) tackled the folklore of celery, with panellist Mark Watson being hooted at by the system elves when he suggested it.

    “- You do gain calories by eating celery. A medium stalk contains six calories, but a University of Alabama study on a type of lizard called a bearded dragon, which have similar diets and digestive systems to humans, found there is a net gain when eating celery. This is because chewing and digesting are very low energy pursuits. (Forfeit: Negative calories)
    “- XL Tangent: The closest to a foodstuff with negative calories is sugar-free gum. If you chew 100 times a minute for approximately 11 minutes the gum would be negatively calorific.”


    QI XL is an extended length edition of the show – 45 minutes instead of 30. The 45 minutes version fits into an hour on repeat TV channels like Dave that have commercials.

  18. Thanks. I do see the occasional QI, mostly from the Sandi Toksvig era, but I don’t think I’ve previously heard of the XL edition. Good thing they’re not really asserting chewing gum as a foodstuff!

  19. @LarK said: “These “jokes” aren’t sophisticated, they’re half-baked, and the teller doesn’t really understand them, ”

    Actually, I think that’s the point. They are badly told jokes, which just annoy B&C. I think that we are supposed to find their reaction amusing.

  20. @larK:
    Q. What did the psychiatrist and the gastroenterologist call their practice together?
    A. Odds and Ends.

  21. @Pete: yes, that’s their cover story, but I was getting at the obvious subtext: Barney & Clyde often gets accused of obscure references and trying to be too clever for their own good (at least they do here, anyway), and this series is so obviously them “pretending” to poke fun at their own reputation, but actually, not really. They want to project an aura of “we can use really sophisticated references only to come up with really poor puns, see how clever we are, wink, wink”, but they fall flat on the sophisticated references part. I think Mitch’s complaining about half-assing Avogadro’s number is exemplary of this: if you’re going to reference something like that, either get it right, or don’t bother. And this isn’t the beard character’s fault, who is after all “speaking”, so all failure of how to typographically represent powers of ten fall to the cartoonists.

  22. (Kripes, this was too long)

    Joshua K. is the only one who has the right idea about the superscript. And I’m sure W&C et al. did superscript the “23”; it just didn’t say superscripted.

    I’ve found superscripts to be slippery since the MS-DOS days. Not subscripts. So I see 3 scenarios.

    But first, there are comic strips where the fonts are changed after the dialog is written. That’s just something to know for your own thinking about what might have happened.

    Scenario 1: My favorite. This strip is laid out, like making a layout one of the floors of a house with furniture, walls, cabinets, etc. The character images are reused, sometimes with only a change of the eye pupils. The text is typed in and everything is moved around until it fits together. Then something changed, and the layout could not find a way to keep the superscript.

    Scenario 2: Adobe InDesign is a page layout designing program). It is easy to find users who have lost their superscripts when transferring back and/or forth from Word. It seems to be related to the bytes that the superscripting not being recognized a character and are changed to ‘U+FEFF’ which one poster called the ‘no such character’ character.

    Scenario 3. (I spent so much time looking for the Adobe InDesign examples that I forgot what my 3rd scenario one was. I remember it was back, over 20 years ago when I was vexed by superscripts.

    WAIT; Holy Moly! ‘U-FEFF’!! Just last Friday, I was working over, phone and email, with the owner/developer of a popular patient monitor data collection program to find out why one section of of an .ini file was being written twice when the .ini file was being written out. He found that the cause was that our copy of the .ini file had a ‘U-FEFF’ as the first character.
    (He very kindly and happily called it as a “bug” in his software that had been noticed once before, and now he could fix it.)
    That mark cost 4 hours of my development time (and I don’t know if I dare charge it. because I can’t justify ever thinking it was a bug in OUR software that had been working for years. )


    The byte order mark (BOM) is a particular usage of the special Unicode character, U+FEFF …
    “The Unicode Standard neither requires nor recommends the use of the BOM for UTF-8, but warns that it may be encountered at the start of a file.[3]” (<- That [3] was a superscript in Wikipedia) :~) :~)

  23. Somebody calculated that when you drink a martini that is properly chilled, the calories you expend to bring it up to your temperature are greater than the calories in the drink itself, so martinis have negative calories.

    The person forgot that the calories generally calculated for heating water (the amount of energy to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius) are not quite the same as the Calories nutritionists talk about. One Calorie on a food label equals 1,000 of the other calories. The calories in one martini would raise 125,000 grams of water one degree Celsius. If my calculations are correct the calories in one martini would bring about 4 liters of martinis from serving temperature to internal body temperature.

  24. @ MiB – I’ve seen that same mistake, but instead of alcohol, it was applied to a dish of ice cream. The error is encouraged by the English shorthand of using “Big-C” Calories (and the symbol “C”) to denote “kilocalories”. In German, the nutritional information tables always use “kcal” and “kJ” (for kilo-Joules), so the confusion cannot occur.

  25. It’s always been petty amazing to me, the amount of energy our bodies get from such small amounts of food — a 125 Calorie martini can heat 4 liters (a gallon!) of water by nearly 37˚ Celsius! That’s amazing! (Do most of the Calories in the martini come from the olive or the alcohol?)

  26. The olive is probably not negligible (because of the oil in it), but the majority of the chemical energy is in the alcohol. Two and a half ounces of 100 proof gin works out to about 35 milliliters of pure alcohol. Even when burned inefficiently (in a lamp), it would generate a fair amount of heat, but if oxidized completely (in a bomb calorimeter), it would definitely be able to warm up a large amount of water.

  27. People have used pure alcohol as fuel in race cars. C2H5OH + 3O2 = 2CO2 + 3H2O. Ethyl alcohol plus oxygen yields carbon dioxide, water, and lots and lots of energy.

  28. Alcohol burns in a normal lamp with remarkable completion. The only way any of its chemical energy isn’t released is if the flame produces sooty smoke (unburned carbon), which I have literally never seen from an alcohol lamp. You can’t recover all the energy for any purpose except heating, but it’s 100% converted to heat.

    OK, technically the light generated might escape through a window and not heat your house, but ….

  29. You read about how many Calories are burned by drinking cold water and such. I’m not entirely convinced. Basal metabolism creates a lot of waste heat that in most circumstances has to be expelled or the body will cook. I’m not sure that consuming cold substances doesn’t at least in part just reduce the waste heat. Just like running the heater in an ICE engine doesn’t really take very much energy, because it’s tapping the waste heat from the engine, other than a bit of electricity to run the fan and electronics where applicable.

  30. Normally the problem is how to get rid of excess heat, but the body’s metabolism will indeed burn (some) calories to maintain its core temperature in the face of cold conditions. The problem is that the body only has to burn calories to do this, not (kilo-) “Calories”. For example, the energy required to raise two glasses of cool water up to normal body temperature works out as follows: 500 ml x 20°C = 10000 calories, but that’s only 10 kcal = 10 Calories.
    Even if we accept that bleeding off excess heat will force the body’s metabolism to replace it, one would have to drink about 25 glasses of water to counteract the dietary energy in one bowl of cereal. You could reduce the volume by starting with colder water, but drinking 15 glasses of ice water is simply not a part of a nutritious, balanced breakfast:

  31. The author of The Frogs took his trousers for repair.
    The tailor said “Εὐριπίδης?”
    The author replied “Yes, Εὐμενίδες”
    Alternative punchline:
    The author replied “No, Ἀριστοφάνης”

  32. OK, I understand that the tailor asked “You-rippa-these?”, and the author answered “You-menda-these”, but I cannot figure out how “Aristophanes” is supposed to fit into the conversation.

  33. Kilby, it’s the answer to an unspoken question, “To whom should I make out this receipt / claim check?”. Or rather, in this version that is the import of the initial “Euripides?”.

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