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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.