Magnet Contest


Contest: Explain this magnet!

My parents were given this magnet awhile back by the friendly folks at a pharmacy near my hometown, and I was sufficiently puzzled by it that I stole it off their refrigerator and took it back to Madison with me.  (That and if you ever stop by my office, you'll notice that I have a thing about magnets.)

It's plainly supposed to be a solution to the memory problem that people often having of forgetting whether or not they have taken their medication for that day. But I can't figure out how it is supposed to work. By "supposed to work," I mean I can't figure out how one is supposed to use this magnet as a way of making the mental work ultimately required easier.

Say you start with the "No" side up, and then turn it over to "Yes" after you have taken your medicine. So then five minutes later when you forget whether you've taken your medicine you can look at the magnet and see that in fact you have. But then you wake up the next morning, and the magnet still says "Yes", even though you haven't taken your medicine. You might remember that you haven't really taken your medicine, but you wouldn't actually turn it back to "No" but instead you would just take your medicine and so you should just leave it at "Yes" where five minutes later it would remind you that you have taken your medicine. But this doesn't really seem satisfactory since it only works because when you see the magnet saying "Yes" you remember whether it really means you have taken your medicine or whether you haven't, which is what the magnet is supposed to do for you in the first place. It seems like you are supposed to reset the magnet at some later point in the day so that when you wake up the next morning it says "No." But then that would seem to imply that consistently remembering to turn the magnet over twice each day is cognitively easier than remembering whether or not you have taken your medicine, which on the face of it does not seem like much of a mental labor saving device either. 

So, the magnet befuddles me, it defeats me and has kept me awake countless nights thinking about it, it has led to various calls to magnet manufacturers who do not seem nearly as eagerly contemplative about the matter as I am, which is both why I've hung onto it so long and why I now offer up the puzzle as a contest. 

The grand prize goes to the first person who can explain to me how one would utilize this magnet as a reminder in a way that would actually make the mental work easier than the mental work implied by not using the magnet at all. The prize will be either (1) an all-expense paid trip to Mars or (2) my gratitude, as determined by the discretion of the judges.

Some esteemed entries

Christy Carson, one of the non-sociologists in my 750 class, was the first to suggest that the magnet could be a useful device if not conceived of as being intended as a reminder to the medicine-taker at all, but instead as a device that the medicine-taker uses to signal to others whether or not they have taken their medicine, if such a signal would be relevant for others deciding whether they should attempt approaching the medicine-taker or not.  As an analogy, one could imagine a coffee/Diet-Pepsi-Twist addicted professor having a giant version of this magnet on their door indicating "Yes, I have had my morning caffeine" or "No, I have not had my morning caffeine," and this being a useful tool indicating to students whether they should dare knock on the professor's door.  That the medicine-taker would have to remember to turn the magnet back over before they went to bed is not as big of an issue since its purpose is no longer as a reminder-device anyway--it doesn't matter that it adds memory demands since it has no pretense of being a memory saver.  This explanation has the great advantage of offering a coherent account of how the magnet could be used that does not mire one in a mindtwisting internal contradiction.  The disadvantage, however, that keeps Christy from automatically being awarded the prize is the seeming implausibility that this is what the magnet was really designed to do, even while it could be used in this manner.

Ricky Leung and Kevin Vryan both proposed that the magnet is supposed to be used with a calendar, with the magnet on top to indicate the date.  As both recognize, this by itself doesn't solve the problem, since if one had a calendar one could seemingly have a magnet that didn't turn and just advance it to the next day when one had taken one's medicine (and there's no way it could work without a once-daily dose or at least there being as many calendar slots as doses).  They both proposed that somebody could normally advance the magnet from day to day with the "No" side up, but that, sometimes, one might be in a position where one did not have the opportunity to move it.  Ricky offers that maybe the person has such an arcane prescription that moving it requires that they use a "medication datebook" to figure out when their next dose is supposed to be, and so the "Yes" can be used when the person doesn't have time to consult this notebook.  Kevin proposes that maybe the "Yes" side can be used if the person needs a placeholder when their prescription runs out and they need to run to the pharmacy for a refill (yes, I didn't understand this either).

David Merrill points out that the telephone numbers could be part of the solution.  He suggests that the magnet is not intended as a reminder at all, but instead, the psychologically needy can use the phone numbers by the YES part of the magnet to call one of two numbers for specialized reinforcing praise or the phone numbers by the NO part of the magnet for specialized encouragement that will help surmount any mental obstacles to taking their medication.  Presumably the heavy use of the service is what requires multiple phone numbers, although one does wonder in that case about the lack of area codes.   

(The Amazing) Rob "Babycakes" Clark sent in an explanation which defies summarization and so must instead be repeated: "the magnet was designed to be a conversation piece and that it was intended to not make any sense. of course, i assume you will wish to disregard this hypothesis immediately for several obvious reasons. first, if my memory serves me correct, aren't there actual phone numbers of hospitals/medical care facilities printed on the magnet? if so, it seems hard to believe that decision makers at these places would be motivated to knowingly sponsor a gag item such as this. second, if the magnet is really just a gag, then it is way too subtle of a gag and too many people would not even realize it was a joke.
    "however, one could respond to this latter critique by arguing that this, too, is part of the joke. people all around the country could be buying this magnet thinking that this is a wonderful memory-saving device, when in fact, they are not. meanwhile, the makers of this product are silently laughing in their dimly lit basement laboratories. in other words, the gag is no longer the product itself, but instead, it is the purchasing of the product.
    "but what happens, you say, if and/or when, the people get wise?  sales plummet and the company goes under. well, okay, then how about a double-pronged marketing strategy? appeal to both fool and genius! sell the product at both spencer's gifts and at the gift shops of these health care facilities. one group of people (GROUP SILLY) would purchase the product to serve as a memory device, while another group of people (GROUP SAVVY) would purchase the product as a gag. then as the sales base gradually shifts from silly to savvy, product supplies shift accordingly and begin to get retailed in shopping mall gag stores across the country. this scenario could also respond to the first critique regarding the phone numbers. if actual hospitals are sponsoring this product, then maybe decision makers at these places were initially fooled by the manufacturers, as well."


Insert standard disclaimers here.
Whatever is original is copyright 2003 by Jeremy Freese.
All rights reserved. All wrongs reversed.

Back Home Up Next