Silly Questions: Beans means a diversity of opinion

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HOW many beans make five what? This has produced a diversity of opinion. R J Pickles refers to the ancient quintin - a can of five beans, but says it is a secret known only to the Heinz production team, who believe it has assured their market domination.

Len Clarke, however, says it is 'five different letters of the alphabet, as in b-e-a-n-s' He warns against thinking about this too deeply, lest considerations of plurality induce a headache. Perhaps that has something to do with Pythagoras's warning that beans are bad for the soul. Anonymous of Cambridge thinks the answer is 'has', as in 'has-beans'.

The definitive reply, however, comes from Brian W Aldiss (whose new novel, Somewhere East of Life, will not be available in all good bookshops until 1 August), who says: 'How many beans make five? I have just discovered this to be an old Zen saying, attributed to Vipasana in the 12th century. It is intended to make you think about the universe.' He refers us to the Zen saying: 'The sound of one bean frying.' He trusts this will aid our meditations.

Why do North Americans have nasal voices? Len Clarke deduces that: 'It's because much of what they say would sound silly if it weren't nasal.' He advises us to try saying 'Buddy, can you spare a dime?' with a posh accent, for example. As to the root cause, he diagnoses: 'It's the coke that does it (liquid or powder, same effect).'

Stuart Cockerill has a different explanation: 'North Americans are a step up on the evolutionary ladder, taxonomically described as homo sapiens megacephalis (although some systematic biologists have argued for the dropping of the sapiens part). The enlargement of the head creates a vacuum beneath the brain into which are sucked the contents of the neck (making that structure redundant). This places the larynx in the vicinity of the pharynx, and leads to the re-routing of the major sound channels.'

Why is Saddam Hussein so lenient to left-handed robbers? (The question related to his recent edict of right-hand amputation for criminals.) Nicholas Gough points out that in the unconscious language of dreams, right hands symbolise rational thought. He suggests that Saddam may be unconsciously seeking to sever his own rationality. Several other correspondents saw something sinister in the whole practice, with ambidextrous and ambisinistrous thieves also coming in for special mention.

This week, we should like to know the following: Why, in supermarket check-out queues, do the majority of women not have the money ready, whereas most men do? (A C Daddow, who claims to have verified this by observation). If 'forward planning' means anything, what exactly is 'backward planning'? (Arnout de Waal). How did we evolve such a rule as 'i before e except after c'? (R Hamilton). Why is it that some condom vending-machines have a picture of a sports car on them? (Nicholas Gough). All replies to: Silly Questions, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.