Research Day

 

April 09, 2008

Research Day: The LOST Script Style

This post contains a minor spoiler from the first season of LOST. It also contains the word "fuck." A lot.

Speaking of LOST (as I often am, these days) ...

If you are interested in the show, screenwriting in general, or wanton profanity, head over to The Daily Script and check out some of the LOST screenplays. They are written in a style that is, as far as I know, unique within the industry:

And as Jack slowly looks up -- standing right in front of him -- just FIVE FUCKING FEET AWAY --

Is ETHAN.

            ETHAN
    Hello, Jack.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Jack looks at him, ragged breath, but EYES BURNING. And he asks the question that hopefully all of America has been asking for the past week --

            JACK
    Who are you?

And we're LOOKING UP at Ethan. SOAKING WET but seemingly oblivious to the rain. And his EYES. His FUCKING EYES.

That's from "All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues", season one, episode nine.

J. J. Abrams (the series creator) established this style in the pilot with phrases like "HE SCREAMS BLOODYFUCKINGMURDER" and "this guy is a Class-A prickfuck" (wha-?!). Since then it appears to have become part of the show's template. Most LOST scripts read as if the writer has just hit his thumb with a hammer.

Of course, most screenwriters put some subtext into the action descriptions. In his book Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein (author of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue) dubs these "subtitles for the nuance-impaired."

Subtitles for the nuance-impaired are legitimate when the episode, if properly shot and edited, will easily communicate something that the script might not get across. Producers and executives are used to reading dialogue, but editing, for example, doesn't read well ...

[But] be careful writing directly to the reader this way. It's slightly naughty.

The LOST scripts take naughty to the next level, going beyond "subtitles for the nuance-impaired" and into the realm of "before the nuance-impaired can fucking process anything, the writer SMASHES THE PORCELAIN FOOD BOWL RIGHT INTO THE SIDE OF HIS FUCKING HEAD!" (Actual line from Lost 220! Well, sort of.)

I asked Epstein why the LOST staff writes this way. "It gives an 'energetic read'," he replied. "Network execs like it. They don't have to put too much energy into reading it." He also speculated that it had become part of the LOST culture. "Everybody does it 'cause their boss, JJ Abrams, does it."

Some do it more than others, though. Search the pilot for "fuck" and you'll find it 28 times in 96 pages; do the same on "Two For the Road", and you'll get 96 hits in 56 pages. My goodness. I wonder if they write emails to their mothers using the same fingers they use to type these screenplays. (Though, as Epstein points out, "Abrams probably rewrites all the scripts, so he may put the f-bombs in himself.")

So, is this a good style for an aspiring screenwriter to adopt? Epstein again:

I find it annoying. If I got a script like that, I might not keep reading. I find it vulgar and cheap -- and by cheap, I mean you're getting a zap! into your script without actually working for it.

It's imprecise. Use words like bullets, not like a spray of birdshot. Note how the porcelain bowl line does not mention whether the food bowl breaks, or whether his head caroms off the bowl. Is there blood or not? It's loud, but it's not visual. It's abstract.

JJ Abrams gets paid a lot more than I do, so he can do as he likes. But just because e. e. cummings wrote free verse in lowercase doesn't means you should write poetry that way.

Duly noted. Indeed, when I write my LOST spec script, I intend to adopt a different style entirely:
Jack is peeved as all get-out! His DANDER is TOTALLY UP!

He draws his gun and points it RIGHT AT JOHN'S GOSH-DARNED HEAD!!!!!

            JACK
     See you in aitch ee
     double-hockey-sticks, you
     good-for-nothing so-and-so.

Then, when the LOST staff reads it, they'll be all, "Whoa, check out this FRESH NEW VOICE! This SON OF A BITCH can THINK OUTSIDE THE MOTHERFUCKING BOX!!!"

July 19, 2007

Research Day: The Difference Between Noir and Hardboiled

In a way, this post doesn't really fit under the "Research Day" rubric. What typically happens on Research Day is that I identify a question about which I am ignorant, Google up some answers, and then report my findings here.

This, on the other hand, is an instance where I thought I knew something, and was informed otherwise.

I happened as I was interviewing people for my article on Web Noir. My original thesis was that online crime ezines were the modern equivalent of the pulps, though I was toying with the idea of writing the essay on the resurgent of interest in the pulp aesthetic. To that end, I decided to email to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, to see if he had any thoughts on the matter. (Longtime readers will remember that I have previously professed my love for Hard Case Crime novels, and may suspect--perhaps correctly--that this entire project was an elaborate justification for me to send fan mail to Ardai).

After introducing myself, I posed a series of question to Ardai, the first of which was:

What are the hallmarks of hardboiled, noir stories?
His response, began like this:
To begin with, as I'm sure other folks either have told you or will tell you (people in this field love definitional arguments), the terms 'noir' and 'hardboiled' don't refer to the same thing. They describe orthogonal aspects of a story, in the sense that a given story can be either noir or hardboiled or both or neither -- one doesn't entail the other ...
Now, at this point, I was already writing my reply in my head, something along "oh jeeze, of course I know the difference between 'noir' and 'hardboiled,' I was just lumping the two together in the interest of brevity, etc. etc."

Still, I know better than to stop reading someone who can nonchalantly work the phrase "orthogonal aspects" into a sentence, so I persevered. By the time I reached the end of his response ... well, let's just say that I was no longer entertaining fantasies of trying to impress Mr. Ardai with my worldweary, know-it-all attitude.

Here's the kit & caboodle.

"Noir," though originally used to refer to a particular series of French paperbacks and then later to a category of black-and-white crime movie, is generally understood to refer to a story steeped in emotional (and often also literal) darkness. There is a feeling of dread and doom that suffuses the action; the story typically features a protagonist who's in trouble, who often doesn't deserve the trouble he's in (even if he's a bad guy, he often doesn't deserve the *particular* trouble he's in), and whose trouble just gets worse as the narrative grinds inexorably toward an unhappy -- often tragic -- ending. Once in a while, a book that's noir all the way through winds up having a happy or redemptive ending -- think David Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN, which we just reprinted for the first time in ~50 years -- but those happy endings generally feel aberrant and tacked-on and untrue to the spirit of the enterprise. A noir story can be grim and suspenseful or grim and melancholy or grim and paranoid or grim and fatalistic -- but it's pretty much always grim. Its antecedents in literature include Oedipus, King Lear, and the work of Thomas Hardy; 'noir' posits a world in which either there is no god and men are left to make their way in a universe that's indifferent to justice and to their suffering or else a universe that is actively malign ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport"). More modern practitioners in the literary sphere include Camus and the other existentialists; on the genre side, the masters were James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. The best description of noir I've ever read came from Woolrich: "I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you've put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can't, and it can't, and it can't."

"Hardboiled," on the other hand, refers as much to style as to content -- it describes a story in which the characters and the dialogue are tough and colloquial, where there's usually plenty of action (gunfights, fistfights, guys getting knocked unconscious) and plenty of sex (leggy dames in seamed stockings, etc.) and plenty of atmosphere (smoky gin joints, exotic Chinatown opium dens, races across moody nightscapes). The distinction is between this sort of thing and the world of classic detective stories, which tended to take place in drawing rooms and manor houses, gardens and vicarages, and to involve quiet poisonings more often than fists to the adam's apple. After World War II, readers who had been exposed to the bracing realities of the Depression, Auschwitz and Hiroshima lost patience with dainty tales of violence-as-parlor-game and flocked to the work of authors like Chandler and (even more so) Spillane, the men who (in Chandler's words) "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish." Continues Chandler (he was writing about Dashiell Hammett): "He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett's style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."

Was this the first use of the term "hardboiled" to refer to this sort of writing? No -- but I think Chandler captures perfectly what the term means. A hardboiled novel is a plain-spoken, rough-hewn, unapologetically frank and crude and vibrant one, that tells a two-fisted tale of men and women at their worst -- and at their best. A hardboiled story can be gleeful and funny and entertaining, or it can be dark and tragic and grim. "Hardboiled" describes the comedies of Richard Prather and the lyrical tragedies of Chandler himself. A noir novel can be written in a hardboiled style, but a noir story can also be told in delicate or refined or purple prose. Again, the two qualities are entirely separate.

Which did you find in the pulps -- noir or hardboiled? Well, you found both...but you found hardboiled constantly and noir only some of the time. The crime pulps (as opposed to the science fiction or horror or romance pulps, which are a whole other story) pretty much only published hardboiled fiction -- that's what they existed to do. Some of the stories were rooting-tooting whizbangs just out to please the kiddies (of all ages) among the readership, while others were somber, moving, tortured stories of men swirling down the drain.

So: Not all noir is hardboiled, and not all hardboiled is noir; the old pulps published both, but more hardboiled; the new pulps (if you want to call them that) also publish both, but interestingly more noir than hardboiled. I believe this is because of the relative sophistication of the reading audiences -- or at least the current audience's sense of its own sophistication. A lot of readers today, I believe, feel is it is "cool" to like noir -- like black-outfitted, alienated teens, they relish embracing anything that seems dark and tortured -- while many feel they are "above" reading old-fashioned hardboiled yarns, which often aspired to nothing more than providing an evening's worth of what we'd now call "popcorn entertainment."

At Hard Case Crime, we publish both. Books like Richard Powell's SAY IT WITH BULLETS or Robert Terrall's KILL NOW, PAY LATER are hardboiled comedies; a book like Erle Stanley Gardner's TOP OF THE HEAP is a serious hardboiled novel; but none of them are noir. On the other hand, Woolrich's FRIGHT and Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN are as noir as you can get, as are some of our originals, such as Seymour Shubin's outstanding WITNESS TO MYSELF, or my own SONGS OF INNOCENCE.

February 01, 2007

Research Day: Circumsicison and HIV

The following post was inspired by the seventy-first suggestion in No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog, which was randomly selected by Alison Headley of bluishorange.


I used to work in the field of HIV and AIDS research. So when a friend of mine recently discovered that he was to be the father of a baby boy, he sent me the following email:

What do you know about connection between circumcision and reduced chance of acquiring HIV? We hadn't even considered circumcision until we heard about the study, but now we're wondering about it
To which I responded:
I don't want to discount the HIV transmission thing, but, in your case, I don't know that I'd put a lot of stock in it either. There was a lot of talk about this study back when I was working at the lab, and I don't dispute the findings. But bear in mind that these trials were conducted in areas where HIV was prevalent, and where the participants were engaging in "high risk" behavior (multiple partners, unprotected sex, etc).

If you educate your kid to take precautions against HIV, and he lives in an area where HIV isn't rampant, and he's monogamous (or just-a-fewgamous), his being circumcised might only decrease his overall chance of infection from "pretty low" to "pretty low minus a smidge" (as opposed to, say, a Kenyan trucker who has lots of sex with multiple, concurrent partners, and whose circumcision is his only form of "protection.").

But, before hitting send, it occurred to me that I might not know what I was talking about. I mean, yes, I used to work in the field of HIV and AIDS research, but only as a programmer -- not as one of the genius who actually design the clinical trials or analyze the results.

So I sent my friend's question, and my reply, to M, a statistician I know who still works there. Here's what she had to say:

Hey Matthew,

To assess individual risk, one would need to account for many characteristics and behaviors on the individual level. In most clinical studies, such as those conducted regarding male circumcision, data is collected on risk factors associated with the outcome (HIV infection in this case) and the exposure (circumcision, say). In stat. analyses, we adjust for these factors so that we can come up with a reasonable estimate for the risk of the exposure accounting for all the other potential "confounding" characteristics/behaviors on a population level.

For the individual, however, his/her risk is highly dependent on his/her individual profile of risk. Circumcision, for example, is only one characteristic of a man that might put him at risk for HIV infection. There exist a plethora of others such as HIV status of his sex partners, numbers of sex partners, alcohol/ drug use, injection drug use, condom use, etc.

Your points are well made regarding the differences between heterosexual risk in the US and that in high HIV prevalent areas such as sub-Saharan Africa in that in the US, among heterosexual males, the risk of transmission is much lower since the prevalence of HIV among all people is lower. For example,

"In 2004, men who have sex with men (MSM) (47%) and persons exposed through heterosexual contact (33%) accounted for an estimated 80% of all HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed in areas in the U.S. with confidential name-based reporting. Blacks accounted for 49% of cases and Hispanics for 18%. Infection rates in both groups were several-fold higher than that in whites. An overall prevalence of about less than 0.5% was estimated for the general population [15]."

See http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/resources/factsheets/circumcision.htm for more details.

In observational studies in the US, however, the relative risk of HIV infection among non-circumcised men was typically two-fold that of circumcised men. So, whether you are a man in Africa driving a truck and having sex with many women, or you are a man in the US having sex with one woman, if you are having sex with an HIV+ woman and you are not circumcised, you are pretty much at the same level of risk for HIV, with all other characteristics being equal. One issue that has not been determined, though, is whether or not the different clades of HIV strains could have an impact on the susceptibility of acquisition. If there were a difference, the geographic location (i.e. who you were having sex with and thus, what strain of virus they have), could have an impact on acquisition.

In other words, your risk is highly dependent on your own personal behaviors, rather than the population's behaviors. We use the population stats to help us understand, in general, what behaviors on the individual level will put us at higher risk than other behaviors. But, we cannot quantify an individual's risk based on population numbers unless we design a study in such a way to make these calculations possible.

There is, of course, many other considerations regarding male circumcision for babies, such as risk of infection, pain, etc. to go through the operation. This should be weighed with the benefit (as you pointed out to your friend) of other harms (such as HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases such as Human Papillomavirus, Gonorrhea, Herpes, etc.). Also safe sex practices (using a condom!), in general, will most likely outweigh any risk of not being circumcised if this baby boy grows up to be a real swinger (either with men or women)!!

Hope that helps. Also see http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/news/QA/AMC12_QA.htm for another website to consult, and the press release on the trial in Kenya and Uganda.

Cheers!

M also asked that I add the following disclaimer: "This was written by an anonymous, somewhat crazy biostatistician-woman who happens to have some extended experience researching HIV/AIDS, among mostly & ironically, Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Please take her words regarding the male genitalia, and what should be done with it, with a grain of salt!"

Me, I wouldn't think that circumcision and salt would go together but, like I said, I'm just a code-jockey.

September 19, 2006

Research Day: Taco Bell And The Ozone Layer

Why is Taco Bell so named?: When I was nine or ten, I was in the car with my dad when we passed one of the Taco Bells that were springing up all over our suburb. "Why do they call it that?" I asked.

My father, a classical music aficionado, thought for a moment and said "I think it's a play on the name Pachelbel. You know, the composer who wrote the Canon? And the Hexachordum Apollinis?"

That answer satisfied me for a decade and a half. Recently, though, while driving by another of the ubiquitous fast-food outlets, the question popped back into my head, and it occurred to me that a restaurant boasting a "Cheesy Gordita Crunch Supreme" for 99¢ was probably not named in honor of a seventeenth century Baroque organist. Maybe if they served a "Beef Taccota in C minor," or their soda machine dispensed "Mountain Fugue."

So today I headed over to tacobell.com, and pored over their "history" page, looking for clues as to the store's name. And by "pored over," I mean I read the first two words in their history, which were as follows:

"Glen Bell ..."
Ah. The founder's name is Bell. Duh.

And so my fifteen-year investigation comes to a sudden and anti-climatic end. Wow. Honestly, I don't know what to do with the rest of my life. Possibly just reading through the archives of this fansite.

What ever happened to the ozone layer?: In the late 80's and early 90's, the environmental crisis du jour was the rapidly depleting ozone layer. I distinctly remember hearing somewhere that the ever-widening hole over Antarctica had reached some critical tipping point, where all our efforts to stop the damage would be in vain. David Brin's 1991 novel Earth foresaw a future in which no sane person would venture outside without a hat, glasses, and heavy sunscreen. In the 1992 presidential campaign, George Bush dubbed Gore as "ozone man" for his environmental activism.

Now, of course, Gore is a champion for global warning. (although, technically speaking, I think he might be against global warming) and the ozone layer seems to have been all but forgotten. What happened?

What happened, apparently, is that we stopped releasing the compounds that damage the ozone layer, which took the topic off the polical table -- even though the hole still exists, and was larger than ever before as recently as 2000. Even so, most people agree that it is healing. "All other things being equal," says NOAA, "and with adherence to the international agreements, the ozone layer is expected to recover over the next 50 years or so." The main "international agreements" here are the Vienna Convention (1985) and the Montreal Protocol (1989). The latter, especially, is largely responsible for the worldwide phase-out of ozone damaging chemicals (halogenated hydrocarbons), and it has been hailed by Kofi Annan as "Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date."

So I guess the take-home message here is: if we all work together, as conscientious global citizens, we can collectively confront and even reverse the environmental cataclysms that threaten the future of our species. Or perhaps the moral is: if I, Matthew Baldwin, personally ignore a problem for a decade or so, it will go away. Could be either one, no way to tell.

Here you can find a nice overview of the issue, and a chart showing significant dates, both past and future, in the ozone crisis and response.

May 18, 2006

Research Day: Portable Signs and Dem Bones, Dem Bones

What's the deal with all the people standing on street corners holding "24 Fitness" signs? I don't know how things are in your hometown but, in the not-to-distant past, the corners of every major intersection of Seattle were populated by people holding cardboard signs signs readings "STUCK IN SEATTLE AND AS IMPROBABLE AS IT SOUNDS I ONLY NEED $1.47 MORE TO BUY A BUS TICKET!!" Apparently all those folks managed to get back to Gerbil Junction, Iowa, though, because many of them are now gone, replace by crowds of people dancing around and waving at cars while wearing both a Walkman and a Sandwich Board reading "CIRCUIT CITY NEXT RIGHT ->" Where did all these people come from? Did someone figure out a loophole in signage laws or something, and now everyone is rushing to exploit it?

Actually, "portable signs" are legal not because of a loophole in the law, but because of the law itself -- it's just that the law wasn't settled until a a few years ago. Dennis Ballen, the owner of a store called Blazing Bagels in Redmond (a Seattle suburb and home to Microsoft) had been using these "portable signs" for years, while the city had long been trying to ban them. But Redmond was selective in its sign laws, allowing for political and real estate signs while trying to 86 the rest. So Ballen joined forces with the The Institute for Justice and took the city to court.

In January of 2004, the Seattle federal court ruled in favor of Ballen, stating that Redmond's law "creates content-based exceptions for certain commercial speech that has no material relationship to the safety and aesthetic goals" and declaring it unconstitutional [pdf of ruling]. The finding was upheld later that same year.

With their legality established, guys wearing "Mattress Depot" signs and waving madly at passing cars have begun to appear all over our state. And maybe your state, too. If so, you have us to thank.

What's the origin of the phrase "no bones about it?" Is it related to the phrase "to pick a bone?": A couple of Internet sites take a stab at deducing the history of the phrase "make no bones about it," and they all seem to be in agreement on two points: (a) the term is so ancient that determining its etymology is well nigh impossible, but (b) the best guess is that it comes from Ye Olde Olden Dayes, when soups would occasionally contain tiny bones and the more casual connoisseur would either swallow them down or set them aside without making a fuss. The other hypothesis often mentioned is that the phrase might allude to gambling, where some players make a big deal out of "throwing the bones" while others just quietly go about their business of losing money. (Curiously, every site I encountered while researching his phrase [this one, this one, and this one] all list the same theories in the same order, which means that they are probably all copying one another -- just as I am doing now.)

As for "pick a bone" (and the related phrase, "bone of contention"), the consensus is that this too comes from meal bones, and the quarrel that breaks out amongst dogs when one is thrown to them.

From the comments: "I'd like to know what the origin of using '86' as a verb is." According to Merriam-Webster, the term was first used by restaurant workers as a code phrase meaning "we're out of something," and was chosen because it rhymed with the word "nix." A full account of the phrase is available here.

March 06, 2006

Research Day: How Much Does An Adult, Male, African Elephant Weight?

It's not often that I shout "holy shit!" while listening to NPR alone in my car, but that's what I did a few weeks along when All Things Considered aired the story of Osama the Hippopotamus. "He's believed to be a male," the reporter said of the hippo who has been terrorizing villagers on the Congo River, "though no one has really gotten a good look at him. A full-grown male hippopotamus can weigh up to 8,000 pounds ..."

What?! That can't be right, thought I -- he must have meant eight hundred pounds. What an embarrassing gaff to broadcast on national radio. Later he said that hippos are considered to be "the most lethal animal in Africa, killing more people each year than lions, crocodiles, and elephants." That struck me as almost equally improbable. I thought hippos were cuddly. And only attacked marbles.

But I figured I'd doublecheck before sending an email to NPR starting "Dear dumbasses," and did so as soon as I got home. "How was work?" The Queen asked as I walked in the door; "No time for chit-chat!" I exclaimed, "I gotta go look up hippos in Wikipedia!"

And whatta'ya know? "Hippos average 3.5 metres (11 ft) long, 1.5 metres (5 ft) tall at the shoulder, and weigh from 1,500 kg to 3,200 kg (3,300 to 7,000 lb) ..."

I sat there at my computer for a moment, trying to process this information. Then it occurred to me that the elephant, world's largest land animal, must somehow be even larger.

I braced myself and surfed over the the Wikipedia page for Loxodonta africana. "The Savanna Elephant stands on average 13 feet (4 meters) at the shoulder," it said. "And weighs approximately 15,400 pounds (7,000 kilograms) ...." Subsequent research revealed that Wikipedia's estimate is on the high end of the spectrum -- The Columbia Encyclopedia has them down for an average weight of seven tons (14,000 lbs.); Britannica pegs their maximum weight at 16,500 lb; Encarta says they "weigh up to 7,000 kg (15,400 lb)." My guess is the person who did the Wikipedia entry came across that "up to 7,000 kg" figure, mistaken cited 15,400 lb as their average weight, and that 14,000 lbs. is more accurate.

But still: 14,000 lbs! That's just insane. And I don't even understand the physics of it. If you hollowed out a male, African elephant, I can't imagine you could fit seventy 200-pound human beings inside the skin, even if you ground those people into slurry and poured 'em in through a funnel (free Science Fair project idea right there, if any kid are reading this).

Now, I'm notoriously bad at estimating things: population of cities, miles of a road, number of beers it takes to get myself drunk, etc. But even so, I had a hunch that just about everyone would get this one wrong when asked. So last week I slapped together an poll to see what people say when asked the average weight of a male, African elephant. When I'd amassed a little over 2000 votes, I made some graphs, thereby transmogrifying this exceptionally haphazard experiment into SCIENCE!

And how did you all fare? Oh my goodness, not well at all I'm afraid.

Average guess: 4964.60 lbs. -- i.e., close to a third of the actual weight. It probably would have been a lot lower, but there were a few 50,000 lbs. and one 65,000 guesses. The top five most common guesses: 2,000 lbs (1/7 of the actual weight), 4,000 lbs., 3,000 lbs, 5,000 lbs, and 2,500 lbs. Eighty-one people guessed 12,000 (it was the eighth most common guess), eleven guessed 14,000, and another eleven guessed 15,000.

I'd always heard that, on questions of estimation, you could expect to see a bell-shaped curve around the correct response. Obviously that wasn't the case here. I've convinced that it's because the weight of an elephant is so incredible -- by which I mean, it honestly strains credibility. Two thousand pound is a good guess for weight of "animal that is extremely large and yet still real"; 14,000 pounds is a good guess for the weight of, like, "dragon," or something equally as chimeric.

By the way, the largest elephant ever recorded weighed 12,000 kilograms, or nearly 26,500 lbs. I'm glad they didn't mention that on NPR, or I probably would have driven off the freakin' road.

Thanks to Squant and M-J for fancy graph assistance.

February 01, 2006

Research Day: Brew's Clues

The Queen and I are not above gambling when some fact of brobdingnagian importance is in dispute, such as "did Punky Brewster get a breast reduction?" (She did.) Our standard monetary unit in such wagers is One Beer. Unfortunately we are old and betoddlered, so we tend to forget the bet was ever made mere moments after the handshake is concluded.

Today, however, I have dredged up our last three bets from the murky depths of my memory. If my calculations are correct, The Queen will soon be bestowing Hops On Pop.

Is that Tony Danza?! We both asked that question aloud while watching Crash on DVD. I thought the actor looked like Danza, but decided that it wasn't because he sounded all wrong; The Queen didn't think the guy look like Danza at all, but was convinced it was based on the sound of his voice. Only one place to go for this answer: IMDB -- Crash.

Verdict: Yup, that's a Danza, all right. Winner: The Queen.

Is corn a grain or a vegetable: This one's a bit tricky, because it depends on whether you are considering an entire cob, a bunch of fresh, detached kernels, or ground up meal. The latter -- corn meal -- is a grain, as grain (also called caryposis) is defined as "the seed of a grass. And irrespective of what else it may or may not be, corn is indisputably a grass.

But what of about fresh corn? That's a vegetable, right? Unfortunately, the word "vegetable" does not have a strict botanical meaning, unlike -- just to pluck a random example out of the ether -- "fruit," which means "the ripened ovary or ovaries of a seed-bearing plant." And guess what: they may as well call 'em "Kellogg's Ripened Ovary Flakes," because corn is all fruit, baby.

Verdict: We were both kind of wrong, but as (a) I was only half wrong and (b) The Queen was all wrong and (c) it's my goddamned blog, I'm giving myself the point. Plus The Queen is a professional botanist, so I get credit just for holding my own on any subject that involves chlorophyll. Winner: Me.

Do peanuts grow above ground or below: The nice thing about betting for beer is that you'll wager even when you're not entirely sure you're correct. For instance, I was unsurprised to discover that the Mystery Actor was Danza, and The Queen wasn't adamant that corn was a vegetable.

But we were both suffused with certainly on the question of whether peanuts grew above ground or below. Though peanuts are outside of The Queen's professional bailiwick (she's an expert on native plants, and peanuts hail from South America), she was sure that they grew underground. I insisted otherwise. After all, I reasoned to myself, peanuts are actually legumes, and legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and peas) grow on stalks. I don't need no fancy bow-TAN-ikle degree to know that growing on a stalk = above ground.

Except ...

Except, apparently, when the stalk grows above ground ... and then, in a shocking surprise twist sure to have you on the edge of your seat, bends over and burrows into the soil before producing fruit. WTF PEANUTS?!!

That was totally unfair -- there was no way I could have known that those legumes were going to go all psycho on me. Verdict: Peanuts grow below ground. Winner: The Queen, but only on a technicality. The technicality being that I was completely wrong.

October 27, 2005

Research Day: Red Lights, Brown Crayons, And The Disputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World

If I'm stuck behind a stale red light, is there anything I can do to change it? I used to live in Seattle's U-district, and, for a period of about six months, I had to drive downtown at 4:45 in the morning every weekday. My commute was between seven and fifteen minutes long, and the five minute discrepancy was completely dependant on the state of the traffic light at the junction of Montlake and 25th. If it was green when I arrived, I would sail through and arrive at the office in no time; if it was red, I could get stuck sitting there for freakin' ever, despite the complete lack of competing traffic.

I've heard two hypothesis about actions drivers can take to actually force (or at least hasten) a stale red light's change to green. The first says that you can simulating the strobe effect of ambulance and police car sirens by quickly flash your headlights, and trick traffic light sensors that are programmed to automatically turn green when such a vehicle approaches. The second says that, if you are alone at a light, you can roll your car forwards and backwards, repeatedly triggering a pressure plate in the road and tricking the light into thinking that more and more cars are waiting for it to turn green.

To see if either of these were true, I called up the superintendent at Seattle's Traffic Maintenance Office. She sounded as if she had never heard the headlight-flashing one (which is odd, because pretty much everyone I know if familiar with the ol' "flash your lights" trick, and, to the best of my knowledge, nary a one of them works for the Traffic Maintenance Office). "That would never work," she told me. "They would need the code." She later clarified that "the code" was a signal sent by transmitters in ambulances, which traffic lights are programmed to recognize and turn green when an emergency vehicle approaches. "They don't respond to flashing lights at all," she said.

So is there any way to change a stale red light, I asked. The short answer: no. "If you're the only one at the light it's possible that you didn't trigger the coil in the road, so you can try rolling back and forth," she said. "But in most cases, you're just going to have to wait it out."

The coil, by the way, is part of the inductive loop that traffic lights use to detect when cars are present. The "pressure plates in the road" hypothesis is completely wrong, at least in Seattle.

What is brown? When The Squirrelly is coloring, I take the opportunity to teach him basic color theory. "This is purple," I'll tell him. "Purple is red and blue. This is green. Green is blue and yellow. This is brown. Brown is ... orange and, uh, black? Except black isn't a color. What the hell is brown?"

Holy smokes, did this ever turn out to be a not-easy question (see this contentious Google Answers thread, for instance). The first place I looked was in the "Ask a Scientist" archives, where I found this answer: "brown color is a color combination of red, orange and green -- those colors are not adjacent in the visible colors of a rainbow so they do not combine to form a visible brown. The colors which normally make up the BROWN color, however, ARE ALL PRESENT in a rainbow, but are not present in the color combination we call brown." Um, okay: I get the "red, orange and green" part, but the rest doesn't make a goddamned bit of sense to me, dude.

After further research, I think I figured out what he was trying to say: colors only appear on the rainbow if they are a primary color (red, blue, yellow) or if they are a color made up of two colors that are adjacent (i.e., a secondary color). So orange appears between red and yellow, for instance -- though I'm still unclear on how "violet" winds after blue, when its other primary color, red, is all the way on the other end of the spectrum. Brown, however, is made up of colors that are not adjacent, which is why it's not on the rainbow.

In fact, it appears that brown is the result when you mix a color with its compliment, which is the color found across from it on the color wheel. So you could make brown by mixing purple with yellow, blue with orange, or red with green. This is short of a shorthand way of saying that brown is made up of all three primary colors, but in different proportions. All his I learn from a page on how to mix hair dye.

Are there Disputed Heavyweight Champions Of The World? I know nothing about boxing, except that the best thing to be is the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World. But does the word "undisputed" really mean anything, or is it just a rhetorical flourish on an already overlong title?

According to the Wikipedia entry on boxing, there are no less than three international boxing associations: the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, and the International Boxing Federation. If all three agreed that a certain boxer was the "world champion" then he was "undisputed;" but if any of the organizations object, a boxer "world champion" title is considered disputed.

July 21, 2005

Research Day: Butt Muscles, Tractor Beams, And STUFF IN ALL-CAPS

Is your ass one muscle or two? A female coworker of mine recently signed up for a course in bellydancing. Here's the conversation we had after her first class:

Me: Is it fun?

Her: No, I hate it. It's way too hard. You have to, like, move the left side off your butt up and the right side down at the same time. I don't even think that's possible, since your butt is just one muscle.

M: Is it? I always kind of though it was two.

H: It's called the "gluteus maximus," so I think it's just one.

M: Well, even so, it can't be impossible to do that. I mean, your tongue is a single muscle, and you can move different parts of it in different direction.

H: No you can't.

M: Sure you can. If you stick out your tongue you can move the tip of it up and down without moving the back of it.

H: Oh, I see what you're saying. Like, the front of your tongue is the right side of my butt and the back part of your tongue is the left side of my butt?

{pause}

M: I'm sorry, but as a married man I can no longer participate in this conversation.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time searching the Internet for an answer to this question. My operating assumption was that the human body only contains one gluteus maximus muscle, but I kept coming across illustrations such as the one found here which make it look like there is one gluteus maximus per leg.

Finally I dusted off my old MeFi account and Asked Metafilter. A few minutes after I posted ther query, ikkyu2 weighed in with this: "Two. Definitely, incontrovertibly two, innervated each by the inferior gluteal nerve (right and left)" and cited this page as evidence. Based on the fact that his Mefi profile page lists his occupation as "neurologist," and that he knows how to use words like "innervated," I'm going to believe him.

Update: Although I didn't mention bellydancing in my Ask Metafilter post, that must be the vocation where butt muscle inventory most frequently occurs because equipoise chimed in with this: "I'm guessing [that a previous responder who said that you can't move each side of your butt independently] is not a bellydancer. In Middle Eastern dance,, you can shake your hips by squeezing the right glute, then the left, then the right, etc. ... From experience, you definitely have a separate muscle in each buttock."


What's the origin of the phrase "tractor beam"? "We're caught in a tractor beam! It's pulling us in!" So says Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. This may not be the first time I heard the phrase "tractor beam," but it's certainly the first I remember. But how one earth did a piece of farm equipment come to be associated with staple of science-fiction?

Surprisingly, there's a website devoted to questions just like this one. Science Fiction Citations describes its mission as "hunting for the earliest citations of sf words," and "tractor beam" is one of its many entries. It traces the phrase back to the 1931 story by E. E. Smith entitled "Spacehounds of IPC," which includes the line "Brandon swung mighty tractor beams upon the severed halves of the Jovian vessel, then extended a couple of smaller rays to meet the two little figures ..."

I found a few other pages that corroborated this, but all just attributed it the phrase to Smith without speculating as to why he chose the word "tractor." But in this discussion thread (Google cache), someone posits a fairly plausible hypothesis: that "tractor" is just short for "attractor." And someone else points out that there is no need to look beyond the dictionary for an explanation: the word "tractor" has, as one of its definitions, "something that pulls or draws."

Bonus fact: accorording to this essay, E. E. Smith also gave us the words "forcefield," "mothership," and "hyperspace."


Why, in legal contracts, are some line written in all capitals? I recently had to sign a lengthy indemnity waiver for an event I will soon be participating in, and while most of it was written using the standard rules of capitalization, there were many passages which were written in all-caps. That got me to wondering if the passages in all capitals shared some property, and were capitalized out of legal necessity or tradition.

I asked local blogger and legal mind Snarky, and here's what he wrote:

Items in contracts that are in BOLD AND ALL CAPITALS are usually those areas in which (1) they are asking for an explicit waiver of an important right (and thus can claim that a reasonable person would not have overlooked the item); (2) are contractual terms that vary greatly from what a common law presumption of the terms would be, were that item not present; or (3) for mere decoration (such as "BUYER" and "SELLER" in a buy/sell contract).
Doing a little legwork on my own, I found what probably explains the presence of all-cap statements in contracts. The General Definitions section, and one thing you can do to automatically render a portion of text "conspicuous" is to put it "in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text."

April 15, 2005

Marketplace Music And The Next Weekend Debate

Who picks the music on Marketplace? I listen to two radio stations: the independent and kick-ass KEXP, and our local NPR affiliate. Curiously, I often hear the same bands on each: Death Cab For Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, Yo La Tango, Stereophonic. KEXP plays this stuff 'round the clock, but I also here it wedged between stories on NPR's otherwise staid Marketplace, and I often find myself wondering "who decides to follow up a story about the AARP's position on social security with a clip from The Get Up Kids?"

I went to the Marketplace Homepage to send them an inquiring email, but discovered that I didn't have to: they are so proud of their tuneage that "LIKE THE MUSIC ON MARKETPLACE?" is the very first question they tackle in their Special Features section. A link takes you to Jane's Music Blog, featuring "notes from the show's director on what gets played and why, who is that band you heard on yesterday's show, and ... the connection between that story on global politics and the Massive Attack song that followed it."

Though the blog isn't updated very regularly, the "About Jane" on its side told me that the songs are selected by one Jane Lindholm, Marketplace producer, world traveller, and -- apparently -- fan of the Sneaker Pimps.

When does "next weekend" start? A friend and I were speaking on a Sunday, and made some vague plans to get together on the next weekend. The following day I wrote him an email and officially proposed that we get together "next weekend."

"Sorry, " he replied. "I'll be out of town next weekend."

"Wha-?" said I. "We just discussed this yesterday, and you said next weekend worked fine."

"I said this weekend worked fine."

"No, I distinctly remember you saying 'next weekend'."

"Well, I did say 'next weekend', but that was on a Sunday," he explained. "Now it's Monday, so yesterday's 'next weekend' is today's 'this weekend,' and 'next weekend' is the weekend after. Didn't you know that's how it worked?"

I did not know that's how it worked.

I always thought that "this weekend" referred to the weekend you were either in or chronologically closest to, and "next weekend" referred to the weekend that followed it. So on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday morning, "this weekend" meant the previous weekend (as in, "I had a good time this weekend") and "next weekend" meant the upcoming weekend; from 12:01 pm Wednesday to 11:59 pm Sunday, "this weekend" meant the upcoming weekend (or the one you were currently in) and "next weekend" meant the one thereafter.

I thought I'd get a majority opinion on this, so I posted the following to an online forum I frequent:

"This" weekend vs. "next" weekend debate

Today is a Friday. If I said "I'm going to eat 350 pickles next weekend," what days would you think I talking about: tomorrow (and the following day) or a week from tomorrow (and the following day)?

What about this. On a Tuesday I say "Let's you and I have sex next weekend." Am I talking about: five days from now (and the following day) or 12 days from now (and the following day)?

Bonus question: at what point in time does "next weekend" become "this weekend"?

As it turned out, there was no debate: every person said "a week from tomorrow" for the first and "12 days" for the second. Answer to the bonus question: A second after midnight on Monday morning.

The best clarification offered was "'This weekend' always means 'this week's end'; 'next weekend' always means 'next week's end'." But it looks like I'm not entirely alone in my confusion. Over on this page, a number of folks say that "this weekend" v. "next weekend" isn't as cut-and-dried as some people make it seem. And as one person points out, the confusion isn't limited to time. How many times have you been giving directions to your spouse or partner while on the road, and resorted to the cumbersome locution "not-at-this-light-but-the-next-light" when telling him where to turn, knowing that just saying "next light" might result in a wrong turn and a subsequent argument about semantics?

January 25, 2005

Research Day: Hebrew, Yiddish, and Semi-Weekly

Hebrew vs. Yiddish: The Queen and I had a watched a DVD double-header last week: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban followed by Trembling Before G_D. The former film you made have heard of; the latter is, as IMDB puts it, "A cinematic portrait of various gay Orthodox Jews who struggle to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation." It is also remarkably boring, given the provocative subject matter.

Afterwards, The Queen asked me if the people in the film had been speaking Hebrew or Yiddish, and I confessed to not knowing. "What is the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish," she asked.

"Well," said I, "'Hebrew' is their language, and 'Yiddish' is the sport they play while flying around on broomsticks.

After a few moments of stony silence, I added, in my best (albeit terrible) Hagrid impression, "Yeh mean the Gentiles kept it from yeh for all these years? Yeh don' even know what yeh are?! Harry -- yer a Jew!"

"You are totally going to get hate mail if you put that on your blog," said The Queen.

Anyway.

Dictionary.com defines Hebrew as "The Semitic language of the ancient Hebrews, [or] any of the various later forms of this language, especially the language of the Israelis." Plugging the phrase "what is yiddish" into Google, meanwhile, brought me to this page. "Yiddish was the vernacular language of most Jews in Eastern and Central Europe before World War II ... The basic grammar and vocabulary of Yiddish, which is written in the Hebrew alphabet, is Germanic. Yiddish, however, is not a dialect of German but a complete language - one of a family of Western Germanic languages, that includes English, Dutch, and Afrikaans."

What does semi-weekly mean? Speaking of religion and definitions (that was the best segue I could come up with), the Daily Show "Senior News Correspondent" Stephen Colbert says, in this NPR interview, that he reoccurring segment This Week In God is a "semi-weekly feature." That struck me as odd, because why would you have a twice-a-week bit that purports to recap an entire week?

Then it occurred to me that "semi-weekly" might be like bi-weekly and mean both "twice a week" and "every other week." But then I looked up "semiweekly" in my desk dictionary and verified that it only means "twice a week." So Colbert must have misspoken.

(Wow, is that the most anticlimactic Research Day question resolution ever? I kind of feel obligated to tack on a better, more interesting ending.)

But that gave me a great idea. And soon thereafter I launched "Bi-Weekly Magazine," a publication for the bisexual and bi-curious community. When that became wildly popular -- along with it's sister publications "Semi-Weekly" (a magazine about large trucks) and "Fort Night" (a periodical featuring pictorials of edifices built out of sofa cushions) -- I became obscenly wealthy. And then I used my money to buy the Internet. The end.

December 17, 2004

Research Day: Urban Legend Purge

Once upon a time I was known as the go-to guy for urban legend debunking. I'd read all of Jan Harold Brunvands's books and could spot a foaf-tale at 100 yards. My friends and family were forever calling me up and saying, "my friend Sally said that her aunt bought the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe for $250 -- that ain't true, is it?"

These days, of course, there's snopes.com, so my bullshit detection services are no longer in high demand. But I still consider myself something of a minor authority in the subject. But let's face it -- even someone who makes an effort to keep abreast of urban legends can occasionally get suckered. So this month, I've rummaged around in my mental file cabinet full of "beliefs" and flagged a few that, despite my having quoted them as fact for years, strike me as suspicious.

Bottlers in Washington State are prohibited by law from printing alcohol content on beer labels: This is the belief that prompted this urban legend purge. Some drinking buddies and I were recently in a local tavern, and I noticed that the alcohol content for the microbrews were listed in the menu along with the descriptions. So I asked my friend J., a bartender by trade, how they could do that when they can't print alcohol content on bottles and cans.

"Why wouldn't they be able to print it on bottles and cans?" J. replied.

"Oh, it's some old Washington law," I informed him. "Apparently when they were worried that brewers would get into an alcoholic arms-race if they were allowed to put the alcoholic content on the cans and bottles -- you know, each would try to outdo the others by jacking up the potency and proudly advertising this fact. So they made it illegal, and the law has never been overturned."

"I don't think that was ever a law," said J. "And I'm sure it's not now." He pointed to the label of my own bottle of beer, where, in tiny letters, it read "5.1% alcohol by weight."

Buh-wha?!

The next day I wrote an email to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and they confirmed that there had never been any such law.

I have no idea how that "fact" came to be lodged in my head, but it had been there since college.

Honey never spoils: I learned this in one of those "10,001 Amazing And Poorly Researched Facts!" books I read as a kid. But given that these are the kind of books that perpetuated the great lemmings myth, re-evaluating those "facts" is probably a good idea. And this one strikes me as particularly bogus.

But it appears to be true all the same. According to Wikipedia: "Honey does not spoil. Because of its high sugar concentration, it kills bacteria by osmotically lysing them. Natural airborne yeasts can not become active in it because the moisture content is too low. Natural, raw, honey varies from 14% to 18% moisture content. As long as the moisture content remains under 18%, virtually no organism can successfully multiply to significant amounts in honey."

That is amazing! But it's too bad it's honey, which I don't particularly like. Everlasting corned beef, though -- that would pretty much rule.

Cher had a pair of ribs removed: Having not thought about Cher for a decade or so, this isn't one I've mentioned recently. But I do recall, at some point, telling someone that this was a for-real fact. Alas, no. Snopes has the goods on this one: "In 1988 the chic magazine Paris Match announced Cher had .. two ribs [removed] ... Cher sued the magazine, but the rumor gained even wider acceptance after being picked up from the Paris Match piece and run in other papers. That these stories were later corrected didn't do much to mitigate the impact of the rumor's first finding its way into those pages as revealed fact."

Dude, I came this closed to getting sued by Cher!!!!!

If you'd like to play along, pick one of your own beliefs that you are having second thoughts about, research it on Google, and post your findings in the comments.

November 18, 2004

Research Day: How Are Porn Movies Legal?

A friend of mine works in law enforcement. The other day she and I were discussing the recent election, and I mentioned that I voted for a libertarian for the second time ever. (The last time I voted for a libertarian was in 2000, and it was for the same person for the same position. Jocelyn Langlois says that, if elected as Lt. Governor of Washington, she would do one and only one thing: lobby our legislature to abolish the office of Lt. Governor and save the state $40K a year.) From here we segued into a discussion of libertarianism in general and I mentioned that I thought all acts between consenting adults should be legal, including prostitution. "I mean, porn movies are legal," I said, "and that's practically the same thing"

"Wait a minute," I continued, confused. "That's exactly the same thing. Are all porn movies made in Nevada or The Netherlands or something?"

"I think most of the are made in California," my friend said.

"How does that work?" said I. "I can't legally pay someone to have sex with me, but I can pay someone to have sex with someone else? And film it?"

"You can legally pay someone to have sex with you if you film it," my friend added. "Because, in that instance, you're not paying them for the sex, you're paying them for 'acting.'"

"Get out."

"Totally true," she said. "We even have a prostitute here in Seattle that we can't prosecute, because whenever we bring her in she steadfastly insists that men don't pay her for sex, they pay her for her time."

Thinking that there must be more to it than that, I did a little research. What I found is that that there is no shortage of loopholes to exploit to avoid getting nailed (so to speak) for prostitution. In general, it's the solicitation that's criminalized, not the act itself, which means that exchanging sex for money = legal, while proposing to exchange sex for money = busted. (Although it's probably more accurate to say that the exchange of sex for money isn't so much "legal" as it is largely unprocecutable -- unless the client says "I am now going to compensate you for the carnal acts we are currently committing" and hands over and wad of cash right in the middle of foolin' around, proving that the sex and the payment are irrefutably part of the same transaction is very tough.) So a creative pimp, prostitute, or john could concoct all sorts of wacky scenarios to evade arrest, like, "what if I started a bar where some of the drinks on the menu cost $200, but I let it be known that, historically, everyone person who has every ordered one has later had sex with the waitress who brought it to him?"

So one hypothesis floating around on the Internet is that porn movies are not legal, per se, and the whole industry is just one of these wacky scenario writ large. Because the participants in the sex acts receive money from the film's production company (rather than one of them giving it to another), and because at no point is any actor explicitly asked to engage in (just) sex in return for payment, they do an end-run around so-called "pander laws."

But as this FAQ make clear, there's usually a little more to it than that -- namely, the First Amendment. And there's a reason why California is the center of the porn movie universe.

In 1988, a California D.A. decided to call the bluff of a pornographer named Freeman, and rang him up on charges of "procurement of persons for the purpose of prostitution." After Freeman was found guilty in both superior court and on appeal, the decision was reversed by the state's Supreme Court. They cited two main reasons for their findings. First, the definition of "pandering" in California criminalizes sex-for-money exchanges "for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification of the customer or of the prostitute;" but actors in a porn movie aren't in it for fun, they're just a bunch of working, uh, stiffs.

[Honestly, I'm not trying to make all these innuendos. But every phrase sounds dirty when discussing porn -- there's just no way around it. I've already written and deleted the phrase "tit-for-tat" twice.]

Secondly, the court ruled that the movies were entitled to First Amendment protection, so long as they were not obscene. Since something can only be deemed officially "obscene" if "taken as a whole, [it] lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" -- and since even porn movies meet this incredibly low standard -- Freeman was adjudged to be in the clear. When the US Supreme Court declined to review the case (thereby letting the lower court's decision stand), California became the only state to have such a precedent on the books, and soon became a Mecca for the porn industry.

The curious thing about People v. Freeman, to my mind, is that it didn't actually legalize porn movies, it just declined to declare them illegal. And it didn't really delineate the distinction between porn and prostitution, either. After all, the First Amendment protections apply to the making of the film, but not to the original solicitation of sex for money. Also, the implication seems to be that if California just removed the phrase "sexual arousal or gratification of the customer" from California's pandering law, porn films would become verboten.

So here we have an entire industry operating in an enormous legal gray area, with neither side really wanting to press the courts for clarification as to whether the practice is legal or not. It doesn't make much sense to me. But what do I know? I don't even understand why we have a Lt. Governor.

Note: All the links in this piece lead to work-safe webpages, although you may not want some of the URLs in your browser's history.
September 22, 2004

Research Day: Pee-Chees, Exploding Soda, and Bad Bad Leroy Brown

Do they still make Pee-Chees?: Last night I told this story to a group of friends:

When I was in elementary school I didn't really listen to music, but I knew that liking all the cool bands was essential to popularity. So I used to secretly copy the band names other kids had written on their Pee-Chees onto my own.

One day I somehow wound up talking to this girl I liked, and at some point she zeroed in on one of the band names I had on my Pee-Chee. "Oh, do you like INXS?" she asked. Unfortunately, I had no idea who she was talking about, because she pronounced the band name correctly, as "In Excess." So I tried to bluff. "Yeah, In Excess is okay," I said, but then tapped the "INXS" on my Pee Chee and added, "But the band I really like is Inks."

This story got plenty of laughs, but at all the wrong moments. It was supposed to be a charming illustration of what a dope I was as a kid, but judging from the way everyone burst into guffaws every time I said "Pee-Chee," it was taken more as an illustration of what a dope I am now. Afterwards, everyone was all, like, "what the hell were you talking about?"

Here's the thing: mention "Pee-Chee" to people of my generation who grew up in Seattle, and they immediately know what you're referring to: those goldenrod folders with all the sports figures on them. In fact, at my school, we said "Pee-Chee" to mean any folder, in the same way that people say "Q-tip" or "Kleenex." The Pee-Chee brand was so popular that it was even able to stave off encroachment of the cooler-than-cool "Trapper Keeper" for a while.

Anyhow, that got me to wondering if kids today still use Pee-Chees. And the answer appeared to be "no." "The folders are no longer made today," according to this article.

But I had a hunch this wasn't true -- after all, I imagine the entire Washington State education system would implode in a abscence of Pee-Chees. So I did some actual non-sitting-on-my-ass-using-Google research: I went to my local drug store and perused the stationary aisle. And sure enough, there were the Pee-Chee folders I remember from my childhood, shelved with all the other "essential school supplies."

Incidentally, I took a very informal poll, and it seems that everyone who grew up on the West Coast knew what a "Pee-Chee" was, while those who grew up elsewhere did not. So although my friends were snickering at my usage of "Pee-Chee," in truth I should have been laughing at them, because their unfamiliarity with the term was outing them as a bunch of non-natives, Pacific Northwest poseurs.

Why do bottles of carbonated drinks explode after you've shaken them: This is one of these things I've always taken as a given, without ever reflecting on it: you shake a Sprite, it blows all over your kitchen when you open the can. But only recently, after I had a two-liter bottle of Talking Rain go all a-bomb on me after it had rolled around in my trunk on the way home from the store, did it ever occur to me to wonder why. Obviously the contents are under pressure, but does agitating them somehow increase the pressure? I though the only way to could increase the pressure of something was to reduce its volume or raise its temperature.

According to Ask Science Theatre, the pressure in the bottle does not increase when you shake it, but is still to blame for the phenomonon. In an unshaken bottle, soda occupies the bottom nine-tenths of the container, with a pocket of gas siting on top; this gas escapes with a pfffffft when you open the bottle, leaving the soda undisturbed. When you shake up the bottle, though, some of that carbon dioxide is mixed into the liquid and forms tiny bubbles. The gas still wants to escape when you open the bottle, though, but now has to muscle its way up through the soda toward the spout. In doing so, it pushes the liquid upwards, causing it to gush out of the bottle. The more you shake the bottle, the more thoroughly the carbon dioxide mixes with the soda, the greater the subsequent explosion.

Update: A couple of readers are callin' bullshit on this explanation. I did a little more research and came across this page which provides three answers to the question, all of which are different from the one cited above and, exasperatingly, subtly different from each other as well.

But Richard Shaffstall sent what I find to be the most believable of all the theories. "Soda is carbonated; it has dissolved gasses in the liquid. The bubbles in the liquid that get put there by shaking allow the dissolved carbonation to separate from the liquid [by virtue of being "nucleation sites"] and become a gas. Gasses take up more space then liquids, so suddenly, explosively, the soda/gas mixture takes up more room then the container can hold and boom ...

"This is the same explanation for how gunpowder works. Burning the gunpowder causes gasses to form. The gasses take up more space then the gunpowder un-burnt takes up, pressure goes up, and if it doesn't have anyplace to go (as in a bullet cartridge) it builds up until the container cannot hold it and boom."


What was Encyclopedia Brown's first name: Considering the sheer number of Encyclopedia Brown books I read as I kid, you'd think I'd know this off the top of my head. But when I tried to remember Encyclopedia's real name the other day, all I could come up with was "Leroy Brown" -- and I knew I was just confusing the pint-sized sleuth with Jim Croce's classic song Bad Bad Leroy Brown. So I plugged "encyclopedia brown" into Google to see if I could find out.

Ironically, it was "Wikipedia," the 21st century's answer to the Encyclopedia that had my answer, and I'll be pickled if I didn't have it right the first time. "Leroy 'Encyclopedia' Brown lives in the fictional Idaville, Florida, where his father is chief of police. Whenever a case arises (often one that is stumping his father), Encyclopedia Brown swings into action, assisted in his investigations by his friend (and "muscle") Sally Kimball."

Wow, crazy. And check out the dates. The first Encyclopedia Brown book ("Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective") was published in 1963, with "America's Sherlock in sneakers" aged about 10 or so; "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," meanwhile, was released in 1974. So, conceivably, they could be about the same person. At some point in Encyclopedia's teens, Bugs Meany might have convinced him to join The Tigers, and after that it would have he abandoned his career of do-gooding for the rough-and-tumble life on the streets. Maybe by the age of 21 he was six foot four, had moved to the 'ole south side Chicago, carried a .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and was called "Treetop Lover" by all those downtown ladies.

It's certainly possible. I mean, look at what happen to those kid actors from "Diff'rent Strokes."

Was Encyclopedia Brown the basis for Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"? For the answer, turn to page 113.

August 30, 2004

Research Day: I Get Questions

I do not typically take requests for Research Day, but I've recently been asked an assortment of interest-piquing questions in a variety of situations, and I might as well get them all with one fell swoop.

Question asked by The Queen during a commute: Why does this minivan in front of us have a spoiler? This question was already tackled over at Answer bag, a pretty neat website I just-this-second discovered. In short, the function of a spoiler on the back of a race car is the same as it is on an airplane wing: air exerts pressure upon it, thereby creating a downward force on the vehicle. For a racecar this is good, because it presses the back tires onto the pavement and provides more traction, but given that most street vehicles (a) weigh considerably more than a racecar, (b) go considerably slower than a racecar, and (c) have front-wheel drive, the spoilers you see on the freeway are strictly for show.

Question posed by my mother over dinner: I was once on a plane that got delayed, and the captain said it was 'because the tarmac is too hot for takeoff'. Was he just making that up? Research Day typically falls on the 15th of the month, but this one got pushed back two weeks while I tried to track down any evidence of truth to the "too hot to take off" claim. When I came up empty, I tossed the query over to the Seattle Public Library Ask A Librarian service. They responded three days later saying, essentially, they had found nothing. All of which makes me think that this particular pilot was full of what my dear departed grandfather would have called "baloney slices." But if any readers know otherwise, leave a comment.

Update: Several readers suggested that the pilot wasn't saying the hot tarmac itself prevented take-off, but that the hot weather necessitated more tarmac that the airport had available. In the words of Allan: "As temperature goes up air becomes less dense, so wings generate less lift and thus airplanes require more runway to take off." Two articles on the subject can be found at Salon.com's Ask The Pilot column and Why airplanes like cool days better. Thanks, y'all.

Coworker's musing during Seattle's recent heat wave: When we have a hot day in Seattle, I wonder why it stays warm until, like, 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, whereas, in D.C. for instance, it starts to cool down right after the sun sets?: To get an answer, I wrote my local TV station's meteorology department. Here's what Scott Sistek, the KOMO Weather Producer had to say:

When it's 90 or more during the day, it's because we have an offshore wind blowing from the east. As the air comes down the western slopes of the Cascades, it sinks and warms. Overnight, that constant breeze sinking and warming has been known to hold up our overnight temperatures, whereas in the flat east, they don't have that problem (Although on warm humid days there, the humidity seems to make it feel a lot warmer at night than here).
Thanks, Scott. Wow, I thought you guys just reported the weather -- I never realized you actually produced it.

Question left on my answering machine by a friend I've had since the third grade: Is there a word that means 'to be buried alive'?: I posted this query to the discuss forum of http://www.file- ummmm I mean a website I heard might maybe exist. Anyway, within moments someone replied with with the word vivisepulture which was also the winning word in the 1996 National Spelling Bee. (Actually, the word itself didn't win, some freakishly intelligent kid did.) Thanks guy from, um, some website!

Random email from some guy: Saw your website with the "I don't want to grow up...Toys R Us" words. Do you have the soundclip of that or any suggestion as to where to find it? Here you go, Squirt.

July 15, 2004

Research Day: The Pioneer 10 Plaque

Last week I went to Seattle's new Science Fiction Museum because, you know, paying thirteen bucks to see Paul Allen's dogeared copy of Starship Troopers seemed like a good idea at the time.

Honestly, the Museum was better than I expected (and I'll write about it soon, either here or at The Morning News). Most of the exhibits were devoted to the various subgenres in the field -- time travel, mars, robotics, etc. -- along with prominent books on the subject and props from corresponding movies. They even had a few real (as opposed to fictional) artifacts on display. Tucked away in a display about communication, for instance, was a copy of the plaque that was affixed to the Pioneer 10 probe.

Click here to see a gi-normous version of the plaque. I'm not kidding, it's huge.

The text accompanying the plaque said the densely illustrated message was designed to communicate to any aliens that might encounter the probe. What it failed to explain was how a venusian cephalopod was going to make sense of all the information presented when an average homo sapiens like me couldn't make heads or tails of it.

So I decided to look it up. And the key to success, my research has uncovered, is for the aliens to be way, way smarter than I'll ever be.

Here are the individual components on the plaque, and what they mean:

At the top of the plaque we have two hydrogen atoms, engaged in some activity called "hyperfine transition." Why the word "hyperfine" never caught on as a superlative amongst teens is beyond me. As near as I can tell, this refers to the fact that hydrogen have two hyperfine states: either the magnetic field of the outermost electron points in the same direction as the magnetic field of the nucleus (i.e., they are "parallel"), or it points in the opposite direction ("antiparallel"). When a hydrogen atom flips from one state to another it is called the hyperfine transition, and the phenomenon releases a photon with a wavelength of 21 centimeters and a frequency of 1420 MHz.

Notice that, in the diagram, the hydrogen atom on the left has the electron (on the line bisecting top of the circle) pointing towards the nucleus (i.e, antiparallel), while the one on the right has the electron pointing away from the nucleus (parallel). The line between the two represents the transition, and the hash mark below symbolizes the change, both in terms of distance (21 centimeters) and time (1420 MHz). This hash mark is the standard unit of measurement -- both for distance and time -- used for the other elements on the plaque.

This is not an explosion, and we can only hope that our alien brethren do not interpret it as meaning "we're gonna find you and blow you up real good." This is, in fact, a map of 14 pulsars, with the length of each line showing the relative distance of each pulsar to our sun in the middle.

Now pulsars, you no doubt recall from 8th grade shop class, are "rapidly rotating neutron stars, whose electromagnetic radiation is observed in regularly spaced interval." These regularly spaced intervals (a.k.a. "periods") vary from pulsar to pulsar, giving each a distinct fingerprint. And the periods of the fourteen pulsars are therefore encoded on the map as binary numbers (which is why the rays emanating from the sun look like this: "--||-|----|-|-|||--" -- that's binary, dude!). The alien need only figure out the binary number and then times it by 1420 MHz (the hyperfine whatever frequency, remember?) to calculate the period of each pulsars. Between the unique fingerprints of the pulsars and their relative distances from us, the critters should be able to triangulate the position of our sun. Could it be any more obvious? The only thing it's missing is the phrase "Wish you were here!" emblazoned across it.

But once they get here, how will they know which planet to visit? That brings us to:

Hey, I know this one! It's, like, the social system, right? With Saturn and Pluto and Dagobah and all the rest?

Yes. And what are those crazy "-||-|" things above each planet? Right again: binary numbers. Now the aliens can figure out how far each world is from the sun, by multiplying the binary number by the aforementioned 21 cm. So, for instance, Earth is ||-|- = 11010 = 26 * 21 cm = 546 cm. from the sun. Jesus, no wonder it's been so freakin' hot this summer.

No, no. Actually, the unit to multiply by is not 21 cm., but rather 1/10 of Mercury's orbit. How they are going to know that is beyond me, but, remember: we are presupposing sooper dooper smart aliens. In any case, even without knowing the secret unit, they will at least know the distances of the planets to the sun relative to each other. They will also, from the depiction of the Pioneer probe fligh path, know on which planet we reside, so they can stop by for XBox and crumpets.

Okay, here we go: porn. Finally something I can comprehend.

In the background is a silhouette of the pioneer probe: in the foreground are some streakers. You'll notice that there are height ticks at the top and the bottom of the woman, along with the (vertical) binary number |---. |--- equals 8, which, when the aliens multiply it by 21 cm., will tell them that the woman is roughly 168 cm. (about 5 ft. 6 in.) in height. Either that or they'll multiply 8 by 1/10 of Mercury's orbit, conclude that we're 4,632,8000 km tall, and decide to stay the fuck out of our neck of the woods.

Notice also that the man is making the universal sign for "stop by for some nude high-fiving."

I was kinda of surprised to see how average the man and woman looked on the plaque. What, were Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch unavailable for modelling that week? As it turns out, the figures on the plaque are literally average: or, at least, as near as the human average that computer simulations could determine.

And frankly, I kinda like the fact that the guy on the plaque looks a little, you know, flabby. As I age and get more and more out of shape, it's nice to know I can always say "hey, at least I don't look any worse than the guy in the Pioneer 10 Plaque!"

Research Day Bonus: By the way, guess who designed the plaque. That's right: world famous cosmologist and legendary pothead Carl Sagan, which no doubt explains why the first draft of the plaque also included the Grateful Dead "Dancing Bears."

May 24, 2004

Research Day: The "Teeth Falling Out" Dream

What's the deal with the "teeth falling out" dream?: A few times a year I have a dream in which my teeth are either loose or falling out. I'd always assumed that these dreams were unique to me, until a few years ago at a party when I overheard a girl describing just such a dream to a friend, who responded with "Oh yeah, 'the teeth falling out' dream. Everyone gets those." I've since discover that this is not strictly true: not everyone gets them -- The Queen doesn't, for example. But they are certainly not rare. In fact, in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud named it as one of the four "typical dreams," along with "falling from a height, ... flying, and embarrassment because one is naked or scantily clad."

This was a tough one to research, not due to dearth of information on the subject, but rather because of abundance. There are a bajillion websites that purport to interpret dreams, but most of them appear to utilize the scientific method commonly referred to as "guessing." A good example is this one which says that the "teeth falling out dream" must have to do with anxiety over children, because "animals carry their young around with their teeth."

The most common explanation on these sites is that the "teeth falling out" dream reflects anxiety about appearance. I can see that, I guess, but it seems like that when I have this dream, I am much more concerned about the actual loss of my teeth rather than about my resultant appearance. Another common interpretation is that this results from the dreamer's fears about "losing power". That hits closer to home for me -- in the dreams I always find myself wondering how I'm going to eat with no teeth -- but I haven't made a conscience effort to note when these dreams take place and see if they correspond with feelings of "power loss" in my waking life (like, when I'm in close proximity to Kryptonite).

Perhaps it's the skeptic in me, but I find the most plausible explanation to be the most boring: that the dreams are a manifestation of bruxism ("the habitual, involuntary grinding or clenching of the teeth, usually during sleep") which, according to my dentist, I show symptoms of. I guess I better get that Night Guard after all.

Bonus! Who was in The Wiz?: Dorothy: Diana Ross; The Scarecrow: Michael Jackson; The Tinman: Nipsey Russell; The Lion: Ted Ross; The Wiz: Richard Prior.

April 12, 2004

Emergency Research Day: What The Hell Are Those Squirrels Doing?!

Regular readers of dy know that Research Day falls on the 15th of each month. But this one simply couldn't wait.

This very curious photograph was recently brought to my attention (warning: possibly not safe for work, especially if your boss is a furry or a golden retriever), which appears to show underage squirrels engaged in oral sex. (That pretty much ensures that my referral logs will be filled with "http://www.google.com/search?q=underage+squirrels+engaged+in+oral+sex" for the foreseeable future...) Needless to say, encountering this scant months after seeing Janet Jackson's nipple left me wondering what kind of cesspool of depravity the world has become.

The picture was posted on a discussion site I frequent. No one seemed to know what it was, beyond a great inspiration for jokes about "nuts". The only speculation came from a poster who said that male squirrels will bite one another in the testicles as a show of dominance, but offered neither citation nor corroborations.

Enter Research Day.

Searching Google I could find no reliable evidence supporting the "testicle biting" hypothesis, except for a mention of the practice on deadsquirrel.com, the "Official homepage of the Squirrel Defamation League" (not making this up). Seeking a slightly less biased opinion, I forwarded the photo to Andrew B Carey, Ph.D of the Pacific Northwest Research Station. I asked if the rumors of wanton genital mastication were true, or, if not, if he could explain what in the hell was going on in this photo.

To my amazement, Dr. Carey did not forward my email to the authorities, despite the presence of the words "squirrels" and "oral sex" in a single sentence. Instead, he sent me back a very thorough reply. Here it is:

Rural lore in the Appalachian states has it that red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) castrate their competitors, the larger eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis); no reliable observations of that have been documented and one scientist proffered the explanation that wounds caused by warble fly larvae in the inguinal region may have prompted speculation about castration. I don't know of any other reports of attempted castration.

What it looks like to me in the picture is that there are some young squirrels in captivity and one is exhibiting an innate suckling behavior and just happened to find another's genitals.

Some further light can be shed on this by realizing that many mammals have scent glands in the vicinity of the genitals and that sniffing and licking of these areas is common social behavior that may or may not be sexual in nature, depending on the circumstance. But such behavior is typically quite active, with both individuals alert and showing physiological arousal or tension, while the squirrels in this picture seem asleep.

Ah yes, the old "it's innate suckling behavior" defense. I'm sure we've all used that one from time to time.

Well, I'm going to believe it, because the whole "biting testicles to assert dominance" thing gives me THE SHIVERS. Thank goodness we human males have the good sense to assert dominance through drunken fistfights at keggers and the purchase of Humvees.

Research Day Bonus!: "Inguinal" means " Of, relating to, or located in the groin." Twenty points if you can work that into a casual conversation today.

A big thanks to Dr. Carey for deigning to answer my panicky and admittedly bizarre query.

Update: Mystery solved! Junior sleuth Adam Forbes managed to trace the photo back it's source at the Squirrel Rescue webpage. He even contacted the staff of the organization and got the straight dope from one Mary Cummins:

That is a photo of two orphaned baby squirrels exhibiting suckling behavior. Orphaned baby squirrels frequently will suckle on the nose, ears, elbows, thumb nub, genitals, stomach of other babies or even themselves. They will also suckle on stuffed animals, a towel, just about anything. I tried to make a pacifier for them so they wouldn't suckle each other but nothing's like the real thing I suppose. They can sometimes suckle so much that they give each other hickeys and get themselves very raw.

Attached is a pic of some diapers that another rehabber made in order to stop suckling.

Great work, Adam!

March 24, 2004

Research Day: Carpool Lanes and Outdoor Survival

Do infants count toward the carpool lane? Driving on 520 the other day, The Queen urged me to use the HOV lane. "The carpool on this freeway is for three or more people," I told her. "We are three people," she rejoined. "You, me, and baby."

I said that I was sure the baby doesn't count. "The whole point of an carpool lane," lectured I, "is to reduce the number of drivers on the road." The Queen reiterated her belief that I was wrong; I challenged her to our standard bet ("one beer") and then moved over to the HOV lane all the same, since. As with many husbands, I have long since learned that the key strategy for harmonic spousal relationsis is "make your point and capitulate."

But I still wanted my brewski, so I looked it up on the Washington State Department of Transportation webpage. What do thay have to say about the issue?

Damn it!

From the FAQ:

Why are parents with kids younger than driving age allowed to use HOV lanes?

HOV lanes have simple objectives: to maximize the number of people that can be carried on the highway and to provide a reliable trip to as many people as possible. Developing and enforcing a more complicated definition of who is eligible to use HOV lanes would be difficult to explain and enforce and would reduce the number of people who benefit from the reliability that HOV lanes offer. Allowing adults with children to use the lanes enhances enforcement, simplicity, and efficiency.

Fah! Allow me to translate: "People are too dumb to understand rules, so we accommodate them by making rules dumb."

Wouldn't you know it: the one time government opts to eschew bureaucracy and it costs me a beer.

What's the story behind Outdoor Survival? In gaming circles, Outdoor Survival has an almost mythical reputation as one of the worst games ever, a kind of Plan Nine From Outer Space of boardgames.

The game has the players lost in the wilderness, relying on their wits (and a bevy of favorable die rolls) to survive. As they struggle to make their way to the edge of the map, they must find food and water to stay alive; typically they do not, and the whole game becomes one of slowing starving to death. In a USENET discussion entitled "Worst Game", one poster described Outdoor Survival as "sad, depressing, and frustrating." As another fondly recalled, "we always referred to it as 'that one where you die'." It's like Hi-Ho Cherry-O, except, in the end, raccoons eat your desiccated corpse

According to rumor, the game was literally invented on a dare and designed in a week. It's a fun story, but it sounds too good to be true. So I wrote the designer, James Dunnigan to get the scoop. To my surprise, he told me the the legend is essentially correct, writing:

I told [then head of Avalon Hill] Tom Shaw I could design a game on any situation and he challenged me to do one on "getting lost in the woods." He said if I designed it, he would publish it.

It took several weeks, but I only spent a few hours a day even thinking about it ... Considering how busy I was at the time, I believe there was assurance of publication, otherwise I would not have wasted my time.

Curiously, Outdoor Survival went on to become one of Avalon Hill's bestselling games, not only because many people genuinely enjoyed playing it (as with most "worst evers," its reputation for awfulness is largely exaggerated), but also because the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons specifically mentioned the enclosed map as a good player aide for outdoor scenarios. Adds Dunnigan, "It also became popular with hikers and campers. D&D made it a best seller, otherwise it would have simply been a success (made a profit)."

January 28, 2004

Research Day: Who The Hell Is Silvergirl?

I have been listening to (and learning the lyrics from) a lot of Simon & Garfunkle songs in preparation for The Squirrelly. After all, that's what I was raised on, and look at what a wunderkind I turned out to be. Besides, there's nothing like singing The Sound Of Silence to your child to provide him the existential angst of overwhelming emptiness that most childhoods sorely lack these days.

In particular I've been focusing on "Bridge Over Troubled Water," because it's 66.66% Daily Affirmation. The first two verses describe how the singer is "on your side / when times get rough / and friends just can't be found,", etc. etc. It's all very Stand By Me-esque. But then, in the third and final verse, we get this:

Sail on silvergirl
Sail on by.
Your time has come to shine.
All your dreams are on their way.
See how they shine.
Yo, Silvergirl! What are you doing sailing through my nurturing and supportive lullaby?!

In Googling this, I gathered more supporting evidence for a hypothesis I coined while researching Hotel California: "Any ambiguous lyric in a song released between 1964 and 1982 will be interpreted as encouragement of drug use or Satanism." Specifically, the first few websites I checked out regarding Silvergirl all claimed that the entire ballad was a tribute to smack:

Last Trumpet Ministries: "Paul Simon referred to heroin as being the "Bridge over troubled waters." In that infamous song he referred to the bridge as a 'silver girl', which is the street name for a heroin needle."

In The 70's: Meaning of Lyrics From Songs of the 70s: "My dad told me that this song was about 'shooting up' or IV drug use. He said the part where they say 'Sail on Silver Girl, sail on by, you're time has come to shine....' is about the needle. I don't know how true this is but when you listen to the rest of the lyrics you could see how they might be singing about using drugs to escape the pain of the world."

And so on.

Fortunately -- and unlike Hotel California -- it didn't take me long to get the skinny on this myth. Here's Paul Simon himself refuting the rumor in an Song Talk interview:

SongTalk: [Do] people come up with perverse ways to read your songs?

Simon: Well, yeah ... but to sustain those interpretations, you'll find that people just have to twist themselves into a pretzel to do it. I mean, there was a whole period of time where Bridge Over Troubled Water was supposed to be about heroin.

SongTalk: Yeah. 'Silvergirl' was supposed to be a syringe.

Simon: That's a tough one. It's a tough one to prove cause, of course, it's absolutely not so.

So who was this elusive Silvergirl? In another interview, this one with Playboy (work safe link), Simon spilled the beans:
Playboy: When you wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water, did you know immediately that you had written a hit?

Simon: No, I did say, "This is very special." I didn't think it was a hit, because I didn't think they'd play a five-minute song on the radio. Actually, I just wrote it to be two verses done on the piano. But when we got into the studio, Artie and Roy Halee, who coproduced our records, wanted to add a third verse and drums to make it huge ...

The last verse, it was about Peggy [Simon's girlfriend, later to become his wife], whom I was living with at the time: 'Sail on, silver girl ... / Your time has come to shine' was half a joke, because she was upset one day when she had found two or three gray hairs on her head.

Bah. These things always wind up so mundane.

Moral: if you want to be remembered as a songwriter who routinely encourages drug use and Satanism, it's better to write lyrics like:

And so the flaming argyle hid
Behind a copper flute
Than:
I really enjoy smoking crack
O Beelzebub my master.
Bonus Research Day Fact #1 : I found zero corroboration for the claim that "'silver girl' .. is the street name for a heroin needle". See: Google: ("silver girl" OR silvergirl) heroin needle -bridge. Oh those Last Trumpet Ministries -- I'll never trust them on matters of street slang again!

Bonus Research Day Fact #2 : Paul Simon was married to Carrie Fisher??! I had no idea.

November 19, 2003

Research Day: Texas

All questions inspired by my recent trip to Corpus Christi.

Are those man-o-wars that wash up on the beach goners, or do they just hang tight until the tide carries them out to sea again? I checked about a dozen pages, but none of them mentioned what happens to man-of-wars once they're beached. Eventually it occurred to me that this probably means they die -- after all, if they didn't die it surely would have been noted on at least one of the sites.

Finally, I came across this page, which states: "Once it beaches itself, all of the organisms that make up the man-of-war quickly die except for the organism that control the stinging cells. A beached man-of-war can still emit its stinging cells if someone comes in contact with its nearly invisible tentacles." You gotta like a critter with a built-in Doomsday device.

What's up with that squiggly line on the spider web? Before I start my research, I'd like to publicly state my hypothesis: the squiggly line serves as a "DO NOT FLY THROUGH WEB" sign to birds. Let's see if I'm close.

My first step was to find out the name. (Searching Google for "squiggly line spider" wasn't doing the trick.) I did so via the usual scientific method: I had my wife ask her coworker to ask his spider-owning partner what the hell the thing is called. The answer: the stabilimentum.

So right there it looked like my hypothesis was shot -- with a name like that it's obviously for stabilization, right? Maybe not. While the person who named the thing assumed stabilization was its function, contemporary arachnologist aren't so sure. In fact, they don't seem to really know what it's for. But here are some of the the leading ideas (mostly taken from here):

  • It's camouflage Frankly I'm unsure how that would work. After all, my hypothesis is predicated on the notion that the stabilimentum makes the web stand out, not blend in. But the premise of the camouflage hypothesis is that it disguises the spider instead of the web. Somehow.
  • It serves as a warning to birds Ha! I knew it. But one page also notes "it also makes the web more obvious to those birds who are fond of eating spiders." Uhh ... I guess that's true, now, innit?
  • It's the ol' 'I'm A Stick' gambit Bugs think the stabilimentum is a stick and land on it. No one seemed too enthusiastic about this explanation.
  • It's a beacon The stabilimentum reflects ultraviolet light better than ordinary webbing, and UV attracts insects who mistake it for the sunlight they navigate by. This is given somewhat more credence than the "stick" hypothesis, above.
  • It's a Hummer! The stabilimentum is just the arachnid version of a Hummer: a big, flashy mate-attractor that screams "I have so many resources I can afford to squander them on this useless thing!"
Almost every page I read about the stabilimentum concluded with some variation on the line "it probably exists for a combination of the above reasons," which, as we all know, is science-code for "I have no idea what it does."

As an aside, doesn't "StabiliMentum" sound like a bogus "rebranding" name some marketing weasel would come up for Enron? "It shows that we've got stability, right? That we're rock solid, that we're not going anywhere. But also that we're moooving -- get it? That we've got momentum. Picture the ads: 'StabiliMentum: We're Balancing Our Books. Honestly.'"

What the hell is a "F.M." road? Driving to the sea, we spent a lot of time on FM roads, e.g. "F.M. 2292." Here in Washington we have "I" roads (Interstate) and "SR" roads (State Route) and even "FS" roads out in the wilderness (Forest Service),, but an "F.M." road was new to us. At first we guessed the "F" stood for "Federal," but couldn't come up with an "M". Finally, noting that these roads traveled through the back-country, we decided that "F.M." was simply an abbreviation for "Farm" -- but the presence of a period between the F and M gave us the sneaking suspicion we were wrong.

So, I looked it up. And the answer is ... FM = Farm to Market road. "The system of Texas Farm-to-Market Roads was created to provide access to the rural areas of the state ... The name is derived from the intended use of the roads: farmers bringing their goods to market in the cities." Damn, so close.

September 17, 2003

Research Day: VPs and Teenage Girls

Can You impeach the Vice-President? I don't mean you, personally. Although, if you can, go nuts.

No, but what I mean is: what if, hypothetically, in some bizzarro, alterna-universe, it was discovered that the Vice President of the United States was receiving compensation from a company that landed a bunch of questionable, no-bid contracts in a nation that the US had recently invaded largely at the Vice President's instigation. Could Congress just impeach the VP, leaving the Commander in Chief in place?

In answer this question, I went to the site I always turn to first when I am in the market for some rock-solid, unbiased information: LaRouche In 2004 (dot net). "You cannot stop this process unless you get rid of the Cheney factor," LaRouche says in an essay about Cheney's machiavellian influence on the administration. "So, therefore, " he continues, "various people are conducting investigations aimed at impeaching Cheney on grounds of his financial dealings with Halliburton and so forth ... there's a movement to impeach the Vice-President of the United States, a movement that may not succeed in getting an impeachment, which is intended to break the White House free of control of the influence of Cheney." (Dude, why not change your name to Lyndon LaRun-on?)

Well, if there's really an "Impeach Cheney" movement afoot, then it must be legal. But a Google search for the phrase impeach Cheney doesn't really turn up anything of the sort, leading me to wonder if LaRouche isn't a nut. (Y'think?) Still, such a movement could exist, according to this online copy of the Constitution. Article II Section 4 states, "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Hey, speaking of the Vice-President ... I know Bill Clinton is constitutional barred from running for President again, but could Al team up with Hillary and form a "Clinton / Gore in 2008" ticket? Setting aside the fact that Al and Hillary aren't exactly chums, and that neither would ever agree to be subordinate to the other, is there anything that prevents Gore from serving more than two terms as a Vice-President? This was a pretty easy one to look up, since I just had to find the text of the Twenty-Second Amendment. The amendment states that "no person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once," but never once mentions the vice-president in any context.

Why don't we just make this an All Vice Presidents Research Day? Sure, what the hell.

Who was George Washington's vice president, and what else did he do? Well, let's see. A Google search for "first vice-president" reveals that Washington's second in command was ... oh, it was John Adams. Shit, I knew that. Seriously: I totally knew that. No, for real. I knew that. I did.

Whoa, that was embarrassing! Let's quickly distract the readers by talking about breasts: Okay, I don't really know how to do research on this without getting arrested for sexual harassment, so I'll just throw the question out and maybe one of my readers can shed some light on the subject. What's the deal with teenage girls walking around with their arms folded? In the last year or so I've started seeing this everywhere, and it looks profoundly unnatural. The girls usually have they arms folded under their breasts, which makes me think this is some idiotic "Cosmo Girl" technique that supposedly makes the walker look more buxom or something. Anyone? The comment are open, so give me the lowdown if know the scoop on this regrettable trend.

Update: In the comments, Kelly says "Funny you should mention it, a friend explained this 'technique' to me just the other day. Apparently the crossing arms thing is for girls with low self-esteem who want to make sure that no one sees that their stomach is not completely flat in tight tee-shirts. The crossing of the arms serves as a physical reminder to suck in when walking past cute guys in the hall. " Thanks, Kelly!

Previous Research Days

July 16, 2003

Research Day: Gout, Tridents, and High Concept

What is gout? While reading that Benjamin Franklin book, I was struck by how many people of that era (including Ben himself) were afflicted with gout. Unfortunately, the book never explained the ailment, and these days you almost never hear of someone suffering from it. All of which got me wondering if gout hasn't been eradicated or renamed.

Well, according to this page, gout is still around, affecting "275 out of every 100,000 people." Gout is a form of arthritis caused by the buildup of uric acid crystals in the joints of the body, and is thought to be exacerbated by overconsumption of alcohol, red meat and rich foods (all of which Franklin enjoyed in bulk). The big toe is the most commonly affected joint.

I'm not sure why gout is unheard of these days, since it's incurable and seems to be as prevalent as ever. Perhaps it's just lumped in with generic arthritis. Or maybe I'm not old enough to know anyone suffering from it (or to suffer from it myself): it tends to afflicted men after the age of 45 and post-menopausal women.

What were tridents used for?: Tridents are the weapon of choice amongst sea-faring fantasy races, Ocean Gods, mermen, and anthropomorphic tuna cans critters. But what were they used for?

Fish-poking appears to be the original use of the trident, offering fishermen thrice the chances of stabbing a trout that a spear affords. Tridents were also employed as horse prods. But as with anything with a pointy-end, Tridents were soon adopted by warriors. In fact, the peak of the trident's career seems to have been as a gladiatorial weapon in arena combat. There was even a type of gladiator called a "retiarius" whose job it was to throw nets over opponents and then get all tridental on their ass. Good work if you can get it.

By the way, tridental is an actual word, meaning "having three points of prongs". Neato.

What does "high concept" mean? Sometime, when encountering a new word or phrase, I immediately scurry off to m-w.com to find out what it means; other times, when I'm feeling slackerly (i.e., 91% of the time), I just gloss over it. But after encountering the same unknown word on half-dozen occasions, I can usually pick up its meaning from context.

Not so with the phrase "high concept". Despite seeing this in countless movie reviews and articles about television, I'm still not entirely sure what it means. Basing a story on a single unusual idea or something? And if there's "high concept," is there "low concept" as well?

According to this article about script writing (which I found by typing the phrase "what is high concept" into Google -- it's amazing how well that works sometimes), "High Concept is STORY as star. The central idea of the script is exciting, fascinating, intriguing, and different. High Concept films can usually be summed up in a single sentence or a single image." As examples, the article cites Liar, Liar (lawyer is magically forced to tell the truth for 24 hours), Splash (shy man falls in love with a mermaid), and some flick called Valley of the Gwangi (cowboys discover a lost valley filled with dinosaurs). In regards to the latter, the author writes "The poster shows cowboys on horseback herding and roping a T- Rex. When you see the poster, you almost do a double take. Cowboys? Dinosaurs? In the same movie? You want to know more. You want to see the film. That's High Concept."

Contrawise, the term "low concept" is used to refer to scripts that are character- or plot-driven. In this interview, screenwriter David H. Steinberg puts it this way:

Look at a movie like As Good As It Gets. Totally low concept. It's a bunch of quirky characters who do some interesting stuff, but what really happens in that movie? I don't know. TV is low concept too. Friends is the ultimate low concept show. It's like six people sitting around on a couch.
Previous Research Day entries can be found here.

June 18, 2003

Research Day: Gypped

I received email questioning my use of the term gypped, and apparently I'm not the first. I have used the word "gyp" both as a noun ("What a gyp") and as a verb ("You got gypped") all my life to mean "a fraud" and "to be cheated", respectively. I don't recall where I picked it up, but at my elementary school the term was ubiquitous and used to describe everything from Star Wars Trading Card transactions to unexpected pop quizzes.

After using the word once in college, though, someone told me that it was a racial slur against Gypsies. Lacking large populations of Gypsies in the Pacific Northwest, this had honestly never occurred to me. And I was still skeptical. After all, I was told this at The Evergreen State College, Washington State's stronghold of Political Correctness, where you can't say anything aloud ("I like peanut butter!") without someone announcing that you've just inadvertently committed ethnic slander of some sort or another. But soon thereafter I overheard someone using the word "jew" as a verb in the same sense ("He jewed me out of twenty dollars"), and that so clearly struck me as pejorative that I reconsidered my use of "gyp".

These days I rarely say "gyp," mainly because, having used it a lot in third grade, I tend to regard it as a "kid's word" on par with "lame-o". But I do still employ the term on occasion, so I guess I'd better find out the truth once and for all.

First stop, the dictionary. Merriam-Webster makes no reference to Gypsies in the definition (which it gives as "noun: FRAUD, SWINDLE; verb: CHEAT"), but does cite its etymology as "probably short for gypsy". Tally: one vote for "derogatory".

Next we head over to World Wide Words, where we hear from someone who's had an experience exactly opposite of my own: all their life they thought "gyp" was derogatory until someone told them that it wasn't. Michael Quinion responds, "It seems highly probable [that 'gyp' came from 'Gypsy']. However, direct evidence is lacking, and the term arose in the US, where gypsies have been less common than in Europe." He goes on to mention that "gyp" also means "a college servant" (this was also listed in Webster's), and suggests that this might have been the source of the "cheat" connotation. He also states "Even if the verb does come from gypsy, most people who use it probably don't link the two ideas." Tally: Half a vote for "derogatory against Gypsies," half a vote for "derogatory against college servants," one vote for "not intentionally derogatory in either case on the presupposition of ignorance".

Truth me told, despite all my research I never found anyone convincingly link "gyp" to anything other than the word "Gypsy" -- even the alternate meaning of "gyp," denoting a college student, seems to be an abbreviation of Gypsy. So, in that sense, I guess "derogatory" carries the day. However, I will personally vouch for the fact that many of the people using the word (at least around here) make no mental connection whatsoever between the term and people. This morning, for example, I asked The Queen if she used "gypped," and she said that she did; when I told her about the possible "gyp = Gypsy = racial slur" link, she looked rather aghast at the revelation.

Although my Googling found lots of people asserting that the word "gyp" is offensive, I didn't find a single instance where someone said that they, personally, were offended by the term -- except insofar as they were offended because they assumed that the word was offensive to others. A similar thing seems to have occurred with the word squaw, which many people (myself included) think of as a racial slur, even though the people it's allegedly slandering don't have a problem with it. All of which raises a vexing philosophical point: can something be offensive without actually offending? And given that "Gypsies" aren't even "Gypsies" anymore (they prefer to be known as the Roma), what's the statute of limitation on stuff like this? Would it be okay to say that that you'd been "Aztec'd out of twenty dollars"?

The comments are open, and I'm interested in hearing what readers think. In particular (a) do you use the word "gyp," (b) is its usage prevalent in your area, (c) were you aware that it is considered offensive by some, and (d) are you personally offended by its use?

Previous Research Days: Hotel California, Daylight Savings Time, Odds n Ends.

March 18, 2003

Research Day: Hotel California

Satan!Two months ago, defective yeti announced a bold new initiative, a monthly feature entitled Research Day where I would Google all the troublesome little questions that had recently occured to me and post my findings.

And then, one month ago, defective yeti boldly forgot all about it.

Whoops.

Anyhow, The Queen and I were tooling around in the car the other day, when Hotel California came on the radio. I immediately adopted my patented Way Too Inebriated College Guy voice and bellowed "Duuude, you know this song? It's totally about Satanism. Seer-iously!"

The Queen said "What?"

"Listen," I continued. "Did'jou hear that? 'We haven't had that spirit here since 1969'? That's, like, the Holy Spirit, and they don't have it any more. And 'you cannot kill the beast'? The beast is Satan, man! It's true!"

To which The Queen replied "What in the hell are you talking about?"

I get that a lot.

I assumed -- erroneously, I guess -- that everyone (including The Queen) had, while in college, attended a party where Hotel California was playing, and been cornered by a Way Too Inebriated College Guy, who insisted, with slurred earnestness, that the song was a thinly veiled paean (or perhaps "pagan") to Satanism.* I mean, when I was in college this happened to me, like, twice a month.

But The Queen had apparently missed out on this element of campus life, leaving me to explain my cryptic remarks. When I finished, she asked "So is the song about Satanism?" I shrugged. "I dunno. I never bothered to find out. I should look it up on Google or something."

And that's how I remembered Research Day. So let's get to it.

On the face of it, Way Too Inebriated College Guy has a pretty good case. First, check out the complete lyrics over here. As Hotel California opens, it seems the Hotel in question is nothing more than an illusion ("Up ahead in the distance / I saw a shimmering light / My head grew heavy, and my sight grew dim / I had to stop for the night"), some sort of spectral edifice for the damned. The narrator himself speculates that "this could be Hell." Then, in rapid succession, we get candle lighting (Satan!), dancing in the courtyard (naked dancing? Satan!), and the aforementioned lack of "spirit". Then comes the smoking gun:

Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said "We are all just prisoners here, of our own device"
And in the master's chambers,
They gathered for the feast
The stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast.
The song concludes with the protagonist trying to escape, and being told "You can checkout any time you like / but you can never leave."

Satan!

If the lyrics aren't enough, there are also rumors that The Church of Satan was founded in California, and that its leader was somehow affiliated with The Eagles. A typical assertion: "One of the top songs of the 70's was Hotel California by the Eagles. Most people have no idea the song refers to the Church of Satan, which happens to be located in a converted HOTEL on CALIFORNIA street! On the inside of the album cover, looking down on the festivities, is Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan and author of the Satanic Bible!" (That quotation, by the way, was taken from this page. "When Way Too Inebreated College Guys Get Websites, next on FOX!")

Some even say that there are backwards Satanic message hidden in the song. This site spells it out both ways: "Forwards: 'There were voices down the corridor, thought I heard them say, welcome to the Hotel California.' Backwards: 'Yeah Satan, he organized, oh, he organized his own religion. Yeah, when he knows he should, how nice it was delicious, he puts it in a vet he fixes it for his son which he gives away.'" That's pretty incriminating, because, as we all know, the most effective way to convert an unsuspecting music aficionado to The Dark Side is to take sinister phrases like "he puts it in a vet" and reverse them.

Anyhow, I figured I'd get to the bottom of this in about five seconds by heading over to The Straight Dope, as this is exactly the sort of question Cecil Adams likes to tackle. To my surprise, S.D. only mentions the Hotel California = Satanism question in passing while addressing a different query about the song. Then I checked Snopes and was let down again. What the hell? When I launched Research Day I never envisioned that I'd actually have to do, you know, research and stuff. Lame.

Still, it didn't take me long to find refutations from the band members. In this interview, Joe Walsh was asked it it was true that Anton Lavey, the founder of The Church of Satan, could really be seen on the cover of the album. Walsh's reply:

Absolutely not. Any reference to Satan or anything like that is completely in the eyes of whoever is thinking that. That's a reflection of how sick they are. The guy in the window is one of the Elektra/Asylum publicity guys. The lighting just happened to be bad and he was really shy, so he was just peeking around the corner.
As for the meaning of the song itself, Don Henley has always maintained that the seductive influence alluded to in Hotel California is not Satanism, but rather the excesses of band life that The Eagles grappled with in the late 70's. Here's what he said during a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone magazine:
Q: 'Hotel California' was widely received as a sharp commentary on Southern California's penchant for superficiality and decadence. Was that your intention?

Henley: Actually, I was a little disappointed with how the record was taken, because I meant it in a much broader sense than a commentary about California. I was looking at American culture, and when I called that one song "Hotel California," I was simply using California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture.

It was, to a certain extent, about California, about the excesses out here. But in many instances, as California goes, so goes the nation. Things simply happen out here or in New York first -- whether it's with drugs or fashion or artistic movements or economic trends -- and then work their way toward the middle of America. And that's what I was trying to get at.

(But isn't that just what you'd expect a Satanist to say?)

As for the charge that the phrase "Yeah satan, oh he came, and organized his own religion" is hidden in the song -- well, listen for yourself (mp3 link).

So there you go. The next time I'm drunk at a party where Hotel California is playing, I'm going to throw my arm around some hapless kid and bellow "Duuude, you know this song? It's totally about California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture. Seriously!" I'm sure that will go over swimmingly.

* This sentence was brought to you by the Comma Advisory Board.

Update: In the comments, Mike of Curious Frog remarks "Glenn Frey confirmed the line They stab it with their steely knives, But they just can't kill the beast was actually a nod to Steely Dan ..." In following this up, I found an interview in which Glenn Frey says:

One of the things that impressed us about Steely Dan was that they would say anything in their songs and it did not have to necessarily make sense ... we thought of this Hotel California, we started thinking of there would be very cinematic to do it, sort of like the Twilight Zone ..., one line says there is a guy on the highway, you know, the next line says there is a hotel in the distance, then there is a woman in there and she walks in ... just sort of strung together and you sort of draw your own conclusions from it.
Frankly, I find that to be the most credible explanation of the song's origin I've yet heard, especially when you add in the reference to "Steely" that Mike pointed out. My hunch is that the secret meaning of Hotel California is that it doesn't really have any.

January 15, 2003

Research Day

From now on I'm going to jot down questions as they occur to me, look 'em up on Google, and post my findings on the 15th of each month. And I shall call it: Research Day!

What's the origin of the phrase "Soup to Nuts"? According to this Straight Dope column, traditional British meals began with soup and were followed with port and nuts. Thus, "soup to nuts" came to mean "everything, and then some." (Bob concurs: "They're the courses in a (Victorian?) formal banquet. Soup is the first course, and the nuts are served with the brandy and cigars as the gentlemen retire to the billiards room.")

Why is is easier to maintain your balance on a moving bicycle than on a stationary one?: This is actually something I've been wondering for, oh, a couple decades now. And here, at long last, is the answer. In a nutshell: it's not easier in the short term. Upon a stationary bicycle, if you tilt in one direction and will just fall over; on a moving bicycle, however, you tilt one way and the whole bicycle moves in that direction (pulled by your weight) and gets under you again, thereby restoring your balance. The faster you are moving, the quicker the bicycle gets under you again, the more you feel un-topple-able.

Will a woman who has not just given birth begin to lactate if she allows an infant to nurse over the course of a few days/ weeks?: This question arose after I told The Queen that I thought infants adopted by lesbian couples must be totally psyched (because twice the feeding stations meant no waiting), and she announced that it didn't work that way. The answer, according to this article, lies somewhere in the middle: yes, a woman will start to "produce drops of milk after two to four weeks," but probably never enough to completely sate a newborn.

How long would would I have to search Google to find photos or an account of a couple that exchanged wedding rings engraved with the Elvish inscription on Sauron's ring?: Ready ... go! Sixty seconds -- Found this: "The tengwar Quenya inscriptions on the rings ... are very closely based on the style of Tolkien's own Ring inscription (indeed the Tengwar text was not handwritten, but a cut-and-paste job made from photocopies of Tolkien's inscription)." Close, but I want the inscription on the actual One Ring. 140 seconds -- closer: "My wedding ring is a replica of the One Ring, complete with Elvish script inside (although what it says is much more benign than the Black Speech inscription and is in Quenya)." 150 seconds, closer still: "The rings read: One ring to show our love, one ring to bind us / One ring to seal our love, and forever to entwine us." (Damn, that page has photos and everything, and is probably about as good as I'm going to get. Well, I'll keep looking a for another minute or so ...). 200 seconds: E-weddingbands.com sells One Rings, so I ought to be able to find some couple that exchanged them. 230 seconds: Got bored, declared the "One ring to seal our love" guys the winner.

Should I eat chili for lunch and then go to the gym in the afternoon? I did a little inadvertent research on this subject yesterday, and discovered the answer to be a resounding no.

September 02, 2002

Labor Day

Sure, you can squander your Labor Day celebrating Labor -- "Woohoo, I sit behind a computer screen for nine hours a day!" But me? I prefer to celebrate the Labor Saving Mojo of Simple Machines!

Let's ramp up with the Inclined Plane! About as simple as a Simple Machine gets, the Inclined Plane converts a small amount of force applied over a long distance into a large amount of force applied over a short distance. You dig? Imagine you have a 500 lb. box. It's unlikely that you could lift this box onto a 6 ft' ledge unaided, but you could probably push it a ways. So you set up a ramp (that is, an Inclined Plane) which begins 15 ft. away from the ledge. So what we have here is a triangle, with one side of 6", a second side of 15', and a hypotenuse of the square root of (6^2 + 15^2); i.e., the square root of 261; i.e., 16.12' (thanks Pythagoras!). You still have to expend the same amount of energy as you would to lift the box straight up 6" (actually a bit more, because now you have to overcome the friction of the ramp), but now you can apply this force over a distance and over a period of time -- sort of like paying a $2000 monthly mortgage for 30 years rather than coughing up $300,000 all at once.

Everybody enjoys a Screw! The Screw is simply an Inclined Plane wrapped around a cylinder, and it converts rotary motion into forward motion. Instead of pushing something up an Incline Plane, the screw allows you to push the Inclined Plane into the something -- imagine each turn of your screwdriver as a push on that box. Thinking up a nail was no great feat, if you ask me; but the brainiac who came up with the screw was a friggin' genius.

The Wheel turns me on! And speaking of things I'm glad someone invented ... The Wheel and Axle is, in essence, a rolling Inclined Plane. And why is it useful? Well, you'll recall that (a) the more surface contact two objects have the more friction you'll encounter when you try and move one, and (b) a circle only touches a tangential line at a single point. So moving an automobile forward with only four points touching the pavement (i.e., the four spots where the rubber hits the road) is a helluva lot easier that trying to move the thing forward with its entire underbelly scraping along the pavement.

Update! Reader Henry Stafford calls me to the carpet: "Ummm...you should do some googling on surface friction. Surface area has zero effect on the friction between two objects. For example, take a deck of cards lay it flat on the table, and push it. Now stand it up on one side (the deck of cards should still be in the box - did you just make a huge mess?) and try to push it across the desk. If you have properly calibrated finger-pushing-force sensors, you'll find you need the exact same amount of force to push the boxed deck of cards, whether it's on edge, or laying flat. A wheel is great because it isn't sliding at all, not because it's surface area is small." I strongly suspect that, unlike myself, Mr. Stafford actually knows what he's talking about. So listen to him, okay?

Wheels can also be given teeth and function as Levers -- that, my friend, is what we in the weblog business call a "gear". And what, pray tell, is this this mysterious thing called a "Lever"?

We're all pulling for you, Lever! The lever kinda does the same thing as an Inclined Plane: converts force over distance into increased quantity of force. Or it just changes the direction of force. It all hinges on the fulcrum, which is the point at which the lever pivots. Take a seesaw. Here we have a lever with a fulcrum at the exact center, so the machine just changes the direction of force (one kid goes down pushing the other kid up). That's your first-class lever right there. A second-class lever is one with an off-center fulcrum (such as a crowbar), allowing you to move the end farthest from the pivot point a greater distance to move the side closest to the fulcrum with greater force. The closer the fulcrum is to the end of the lever, the greater the multiplier of force. So with, say, a bottle opener -- where the fulcrum is just millimeters away from the end -- you can push your end down a long way and pop that bottle cap right off. Without levers we couldn't open microbrews, leaving us to consume naught but canned beer and Budweiser. And that's why the Lever is one of the most important tools in the Simple Machine repertoire.

I can't think of a good pun for the Wedge! The wedge converts downward force into lateral force: that is, when you strike the top of a wedge, the force you apply is redirected so that it is perpendicular to the blade. If you hit a log with an axe (which is essentially just a wedge on a stick), the downward force of your swing is instantly converted into outward force radiating from the blade, thereby splitting the wood in two. Or when someone pulls up on your underwear with great force, that effort is converted to lateral motion, pushing your buttocks outwards. Okay, this paragraph is bringing back a lot of repressed memories so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.

Bully for the Pulley! Hey, here's another use for the Wheel. A pulley changes the direction of force -- you pull down on the lanyard and the flag moves up the flagpole. If you connect a series of pulleys, you can lift a heavy object using less force -- the trade-off, as always, is that you must apply your lesser force over a longer distance. It's pretty sure I just misused the word "lanyard," there, but it's okay -- no one read down this far!

Ready for some slightly less simple machines -- like, you know, the Space Shuttle? head on over to How Stuff Works.

April 07, 2002

Research Day: Daylight Savings Time

This entry was retroactively inducted into the "Research Day" category.

After 20+ years of wondering what the hell Daylight Saving Time was all about, I finally got off my ass and did some research on the subject. (Although the beauty of the Internet is that, technically, you get on your ass to do your research.)

So here's the deal. Good ol' Ben Franklin first proposed the idea of Daylight Saving Time (technically there's no "s" on the end of "Saving") to the Parisians in an essay entitled An Economial Project. Franklin realized that if he stuck to his usual schedule (presumable "early to bed and early to rise") even as the days got longer, he would be sleeping through an extra chunk of daylight in the morning and working for the same amount of time every evening in the dark. Since working at night meant spending money on candles, it made economic sense to get up a little earlier during the summer and go to bed a little later. Specifically

183 nights between 20 March and 20 September times 7 hours per night of candle usage equals 1,281 hours for a half year of candle usage. Multiplying by 100,000 families gives 128,100,000 hours by candlelight. Each candle requires half a pound of tallow and wax, thus a total of 64,050,000 pounds. At a price of thirty sols per pounds of tallow and wax (two hundred sols make one livre tournois), the total sum comes to 96,075,000 livre tournois.
I don't have the slightest clue how much money 96,075,000 livre tournois amounts to, but, dude, that's a lot of wax.

This same rationale -- we save money by shifting our schedules forward in the summer -- is what prompted Germany to adopt Daylight Saving Time during World War I. By the time WWII rolled around, many states in the US wised up and instituted it as well. But because states were allowed to choose whether or not they wished to observe DST, the nation was hodge-podge of differing times, which had to be a major drag for, like, train schedule makers and whatnot. Finally, in 1974, Nixon signed into law the Daylight Saving Time Energy Act which settled the matter once and for all ... except for Indiana, Arizona and Hawaii who are a bunch of rabble-rousing chrono-rebels.


And what the hell, as long as I'm spilling the secrets of the calendar I may as well go whole hog. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox unless the full moon is on the equinox in which case it is after the following full moon. A "blue moon" is the second full moon in a single calendar month. (Although some purists argue that, originally, the phrase "blue moon" referred to the third full moon in a season that has four full moons -- follow that?). And in the Gregorian calendar, February 29th is a leap day if the current year is divisible by 4 and is not divisible by 100 unless it is divisible by 400. Oooookay, if you say so.

And that's one to grow on.

Daylight Saving Time facts shamelessly stolen from here.

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