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William Poundstone on Microsoft's puzzle cult

Got a fiver in your wallet? Whip it out. The names of 26 U.S. states are engraved on the Lincoln Memorial on the back of the bill, just like on the real McCoy. Eleven of them are on the frieze just above the columns of the monument, reading left to right in the order in which they were admitted to the union. A second row of state names, printed even smaller than the first row, perhaps a third of a millimeter high, starts with ARKANSAS on the frieze on the indented upper part of the Memorial and ends with NORTH DAKOTA on the other side.

Pre-1999 bills also featured a mysterious clump of shadows that seemed to spell out the secret number 372 (although I can’t seem to find it on the new issue with the bigger, off-center portrait of Abraham Lincoln). And on both bills, the shadows cast by the top of the Memorial and the stair-guard to the left of the steps don’t seem to match up exactly—the one on the stairs seems to be longer than it should be and lying at a different angle. The one-dollar bill is even weirder, rife with symbolic numbers in suggestive groupings (the thirteen stars representing the original colonies are arranged in the shape of a Star of David above the eagle on the back of the bill) that some people see as evidence of a Masonic conspiracy. There’s a lot of weird stuff on money!

In case you’re wondering, I’m neither a Masonic conspiracy theorist nor a disgruntled former Treasury employee trying to pass along counterfeiting tips. I learned all this stuff the same place I learned about the secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, how magician Harry Blackstone saws the woman in half, how only two people allegedly know the complete formula for Coca-Cola, and—sad though I was to let go of this misconception—that Walt Disney’s body probably wasn’t cryogenically frozen after all. Rats!

That place is the Big Secrets series of books by author William Poundstone, which, along with the Vanishing Hitchhiker series by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, I tore through in quick succession one formative teenage summer. Brunvand is a professional party-pooper, an academic who debunks urban legends by examining the way they mutate and survive. Poundstone, in addition to being an excellent science writer who has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize, is also a paid squealer who delights in laying bare the secrets of big corporations—like the truth about Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret recipe (mostly just black pepper and MSG, Poundstone alleges).

Both authors are inspirational in their ceaseless quests to find stuff out. They’ve also disabused me of certain childish notions that in retrospect I wish I could have hung on to into my adult life. On some level, wouldn’t we all like to keep believing that there’s a special place where we can get a free bag of Tootsie Pops by redeeming the wrapper with the Indian shooting an arrow at a star? But not so, not so. On the other hand, one of Poundstone’s books really opened my eyes to the high weirdness of processed lunch meat, particularly the discomfitingly noncommittal Armour-brand Potted Meat Food Product (“America’s #1 Choice!”). Here’s something else to try next time you’re at the supermarket: You know how product ingredients are listed on the label in declining order of quantity? Pick up a package of name-brand chorizo—the first ingredients listed are lymph nodes and salivary glands! Heurk!

How Would You Move Mount Fuji? finds Poundstone up to his usual mischief, in this instance spilling the beans about the hiring process at corporate software titan Microsoft. In the final stage of hiring, Microsoft flies top job applicants to its Redmond, Wash. campus, where they are subjected to an intensive interview process that sometimes lasts all day. It’s a point of pride for Bill Gates that his company hires only “the top ten percent of the top ten percent,” Poundstone writes, and the applicants who leave Redmond with job offers are generally those who can outlast a battery of brain-bending logic puzzles designed to weed out plodding thinkers.

Some of the puzzles can be solved, Poundstone explains, while others are patently unsolvable and useful more for gauging the applicant’s ability to think quickly and creatively under great duress than his ability to arrive at a known solution. The quandary posed by the title of the book is one such unsolvable puzzle, requiring the applicant to formulate a theoretically workable game plan for such an absurd undertaking as moving Mount Fuji by the truckload without anything to work with but his own mental picture of the mountain. Another example of this type of puzzle can be found in this question: How many piano tuners are there in the United States? As Poundstone notes, even the most informed organization of piano tuners hasn’t the foggiest idea about their numbers. The puzzle simply requires the Microsoft interviewee to start grappling with numbers somewhere (for example, by estimating the number of pianos in the country) and extrapolating from an extrapolation. Poundstone refers to this kind of reasoning as a “Fermi estimation,” after Nobel laureate physicist Enrico Fermi, who liked to test his students by having them reckon outlandish quantities without looking anything up.

The puzzles themselves are stimulating and kind of fun, as long as there isn’t a job riding on your answers. Some of them turn up interesting trivia, for example: Why are manhole covers round? Now I know, but reading through the five-page answers to some of the solvable puzzles I now know this, too: I’m nowhere near smart enough to get a job at Microsoft!

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