BLOG 2009

End of an Era

2010

Has it really been a decade already? 2009 is on the way out and 2010 looms, or beckons depending on whether it’ll be half empty of half full. Folks hither and thither are assembling their top tens of the decade. I’ll not buck the trend by offering you the…

Top 10 Years of the Decade

  1. 2001
  2. 2004
  3. 2005
  4. 2000
  5. 2007
  6. 2002
  7. 2006
  8. 2003
  9. 2009
  10. 2008

Some joke, huh? All the sports fan in me can say is, wait until next year.

Filed 12/30/09

The Casual Sportsman

Bigger and Less and Better?

pregame

Click on the pic to “hear” the insightful commentary.

What’s with the proliferation of talking heads on the NFL pre-game shows? Do we really need a bar-length desk of five or more ex-jocks and retired coaches jawjacking about the games? What do they propose is gained by having so much overlapping cross-talk of big men in tight suits?

Maybe it’s a sign of the modern audience’s short attention span where we can’t listen to one mouth more than the length of an extended sound bite. Perhaps the ever increasing line-ups are simply a way of filling up the new wide-screen format of DTV.

Football inflation doesn’t apply only to NFL pregame shows. Have you seen the size of these guys lately? Six foot five, 325 pound linemen. Can you imagine being run into by one of these gargantuans at full tilt intent on separated you from the ball and maybe your head from your shoulders while he’s at it? On the other hand the uniforms have gone the other way, shrinking to form-fitting propor­tions where the sleeves of the jerseys have almost disappeared so the stripes are now on the shoulders. Is it fashion or utility? We don’t know, but it certainly let’s us see the ugly tats on their arms are getting bigger, too.

Filed 12/19/09

Mum’s the Word

mimes

“Needless to say, it goes without saying.”

Now, I suppose I should explain. But if it’s needless to say… why bother?

Funny thing is when people use either of these phrases they go ahead at say what goes without saying or is needless to say anyway. Yet nobody gives them any guff for it though it really makes little sense to preface what you’re about to say by saying it doesn’t need saying.

Perhaps what they’re really saying is what they’re about to say is obvious, so obvious it shouldn’t need saying, but you’re so stupid they’ll say it since you wouldn’t know the obvious if it bit you on the ass.

Filed 12/10/09

Infrequently Answered Questions

Are Pirates Sea-lubbers?

avast

Q: Movie pirates call folks landlubbers. The land part I get, but what’s this lubbing they’re talking about?

A: Being a landlubber and not a pirate I can’t tell you. Perhaps the folks at the Official Talk-like-a-pirate Day site can tell you what that’s all about. Though I haven’t a clue about lubbing, I can tell why pirates go around saying “Avast, ye maties!”

avast (ə văst′) interj. A nautical command to desist. [Shortened from the Dutch houd vast, hold fast.]

Why avast and not simply stop? Who knows? Sailors have a language all their own.

Filed 12/3/09

Accidental Optical Illusion

illusion2 illusion

I ran across this optical illusion on my living room wall. It was caused by sunlight streaming through the mini­blinds casting a series of stripes on a framed photo. I recreated it above in simplified form. The frame, mat and photo are square, but it looks cock-eyed on the bottom. Appearing as if the bottom right-hand corner is drooping, so to speak.

Mouse over the image and see what it looks like without the light bands. It’s square, eh?

Perhaps not the most dramatic opti­cal illusion you’ll ever see. I thought it curious because it happened by acci­dent in everyday life and not by design on paper. Thing is, we run into optical illusions quite often without always noticing. I wrote about this a while back, if that or this interests you at all.

Optical Illusions You Often Run Into

Filed 11/29/09

The Casual Sportsman

What Are the Odds?

parlay

It’s the middle of football season and we all know what that means –gambling. There are many ways to bet on football, the favorite seems to be the point spread. This method is basically a way to handicap a game so each team has a roughly 50-50 chance of winning. Against the spread, they don’t actually add or subtract these points from game scores.

Another favorite bet is the parlay, picking the winners in a series of games. This gets bettors a bigger payoff while being harder to win as the more games in the parlay the longer the odds get. After all, there’s only one winning combination in every parlay but more and more losing combinations the more games there are.

So we ask you, if a bookmaker offered 500-1 odds for a ten game parlay against the spread so each game is a toss-up, should you take it? Or is that a sucker’s bet?

Let’s begin with a simpler calcu­lation, a 2 game parlay. Say team A is playing team B, and C is playing D. There are four possible outcome combinations, teams A and C win, teams A and D win, teams B and C win, teams B and D win. So you have one winning combination and three losing ones. The odds are 3-1 against your picking the parlay correctly.

Of course, trying to find all the possible combinations in a ten game parlay is cumbersome at best, so it’d be easier if we could use a math formula. As we saw above with 2 games there are four combinations, 2 times 2 is four. In a four game parlay there are 16 combinations, 4 times 4 is 16. So then, should we just multiply the number of games times itself to get the odds? Would a ten game parlay have 100 combinations, 10 times 10? Should the odds be 99-1? Is our bookie giving us fantastic odds with that 500-1 payoff?

Actually no, because in a three game parlay there are 8 combinations, which isn’t 3 times 3. A five game parlay gets you 32 combinations not 25, as you would with 5 times 5. Obviously that formula does not work.

Let’s look at another kind of parlay, horse racing’s daily double. In this bet you must pick the winners of the first two races. Let’s say there are ten horses in each race. This means there are ten possible winners in the first race and then ten possible winners in the second race. For each ten first race winners there are ten combina­tions with second race winners, so the total number of combinations for both races is 100. That’s 10 times 10.

Now we know the correct formula, it’s the number of possible winners in the first contest times the number of possible winners in the second. If you add a third contest you have to multiply the number of possible winners in the third race, too. If there were 10 horses in the third the odds of picking three straight races is 999-1. That’s 10×10×10=1,000 com­binations with one being a winner, so 999-1.

Calculating the odds of a parlay isn’t an arithmetic progression, it’s exponential. A two contest parlay is n (number of possible winners in first contest) times z (number of possible winners in second contest), or n×z. If you have the same number of contest­ants in each then n=z so you can replace z with n so the formula is n×n. To put that another way n squared, n to the power of 2, or n^2. Therefor, a ten contest parlay with an equal number of contestants is written out in full as n×n×n×n×n×n×n×n×n×n, or n^10.

In football games there are only two possible winners in each game, so n=2. Which means a ten game parlay would calculate as 2^10, which equals 1,024. (2×2×2×2×2×2×2×2×2×2 written out the long way.) Therefor the odds against winning a ten game parlay are 1,023-1.

Which means at 500-1 our bookmaker is not giving us terrific odds, but really bad odds. I’ve heard where sports books pay around 10-1 for a five game parlay. In such a bet the odds are not 10-1 or even 24-1 (5×5=25), but 31-1 (2^5=32). Now that’s a sucker’s bet.

If you think a ten game parlay is hard to hit, imagine trying to pick all 16 NFL games in a weekend right. The odds are 65,535-1. The odds of finding a bookie willing to take this bet are not calculable.

Filed 11/12/09

Russian Dark Humor

russian

When the Soviet Union fell apart Communism was replaced with… I don’t know what you’d call it, but the Russian president is the former head of the KGB. This might amuse them in some ironic sort of way because it seems one thing that hasn’t changed is the Russians’ dark sense of humor. For instance, here’s a pair of Russian gags from back in the USSR:

What is 150 yards long and eats potatoes?
A Moscow queue waiting to buy meat.

The government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work.

Now one of more recent vintage:

To save energy, the light at the end of the tunnel will be turned off.

Filed 11/8/09

Hollywood Goes Off Script
–Goldwynisms

ramis

“Can you tone down the subtlety?”  —Studio executive to director Harold Ramis.

Now, Hollywood bigwigs have been straining the English language for a long time. Most famously by Samuel Goldwyn who is purported to have uttered the likes of…

“In two words, impossible”

“I had a great idea this morning, but I didn’t like it.”

“An oral contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

“Gentlemen, listen to me slowly.”

“I’m willing to admit that I may not always be right, but I am never wrong.”

“Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.”

“I’ve gone where the hand of man has never set foot.”

“If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.”

Whether he actually said all the things he’s supposed to have said is debateable. As Yogi Berra cautioned the public about many quotes attri­buted to him, “I never said half the things I said.”

Filed 10/31/09

Ye Olde List

old

Ten Signs You Might be Getting Old

  1. Boy scouts often offer to help you cross the street.
  2. Your childhood items show up on Antiques Roadshow.
  3. You go home at the time you used to go out.
  4. You buy clothes for comfort rather than style.
  5. You don’t need to show ID to buy booze, or to get a senior citizen discount.
  6. ”At the turn of the century” is 1900, not 2000.
  7. Every new person you meet reminds you of someone you used to know.
  8. Hair grows everywhere except on top of your head.
  9. ”Wait ’til next year” doesn’t seem that long a wait.
  10. You don’t trust anyone under thirty.

There are signs within the signs that you might be getting old. On number two, that you watch Antiques Road­show might be a sign. On number ten, that you know this is a play on the phrase “never trust anyone over thirty” popularized by 1960s era hippies might be a sign.

Another sign, when perusing the magazine rack you don’t know who any of the younger celebrities on the covers are. Not only don’t you know if Lady Gaga is a man or a woman, you never even heard of Lady Gaga. Lastly, that you read this bit on signs you’re getting old and could relate could be a sign you might be getting old.

Filed 10/30/09

Infrequently Answered Questions

The Pants, Skirt Split

pants

Q: Why do men wear pants and women wear skirts?

A: I’m not saying I have the definitive answer, pants and such were worn by different folks at different times in different places. We will look at one case were men went from skirts to pants. Or rather from skirt-like wear to pants-like wear.

The ancient Romans wore tunics and the more formal toga. These were dress-like, without pants, no separate leggings. Pants came in when they switched from chariots to mounted cavalry. So it was all about practicality and avoiding chafing and whatnot while on horseback. The pants-wearing practice didn’t spread beyond the cavalry to men in general until around the 8th century.

Since it was men riding horses, women retained skirt-like wear. This explains how it came about, but it doesn’t really apply much any more. Now it’s a tradition. But the skirt/pants split can explain why a girl’s bike has a dipping frame. So they can ride a bike wearing a long skirt, which is not something you see much nowadays.

Filed 10/27/09

Good Humor, Man

humors

The picture above makes sense when you are familiar with the old-time idea of good health being a balance of the four humors. These ancient humors are bodily fluids, namely phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile. An imbalance of any of these was thought to cause a disposition and where we got the following words:

phlegmatic (fl mă′-tĭk) adj. Lazy. [phlegm]

sanguine (săn′ gwən) adj. Happy. [blood]

bilious (bĭl′ ē-əs) adj. Irritable. [yellow bile]

melancholic (mĕl ən kŏ′-lĭk) adj. Sad. [black bile]

Another word for bile is choler, and so we get another word for bilious:

choleric (kō lêr′ ĭk) adj. Irritable.

To choler you add melan, which means black, and you get melan­cholic. The others don’t make for good com­binations. There is no phleguine, sangcholic, melan­phlegmic, phlegm­cholic or even melansangmatic.

Filed 10/15/09

You Can’t Mine Electricity

elec

Even though we use electricity, rarely do we use it directly as electricity. By which I mean electricity is converted to some other type of energy to be usefull to us. Such as coverting it to light energy with a lightbulb or computer screen. Or to mechan­ical energy with a motor as in a fan, pump or compressor. Or to sound waves with a speaker. Or to heat energy with a stovetop or oven.

Thing is, there are no direct sources of electricity, no vast electrical fields or reserviors that can simply be tapped into. Electricity must be generated. You could say electricity is a way to transport energy. It begins as mechan­ical or heat energy, flows to your home as electricity and is converted to light, heat, mechanical, or whatever energy that you can actually use. Without it we’d be back to fireplaces, candles, hand cranks and wind-up springs. Or maybe lots of little steam engines on every appliance.

Filed 10/6/09

The Casual Sportsman

Plays to Drive Fans, Managers, Umpires and Official Scorers Crazy

clowns

The playoffs and World Series are just around the corner. Who will take the home the glory, what can we expect? I don’t know, but likely as not there will be a weird play or controversy of some kind. When the unusual happens umpires are expected to make the right call on the spot. Afterwards official scorers must determine what that means stat-wise.

One of the most famous goofy plays was the fly ball bouncing off Jose Canseco’s head over the fence for a homerun. Below are two odd moments in baseball I personally remember happening to the Detroit Tigers.

Grand Slam Out?

The bases are loaded with less than two outs. Dalton Jones hits a long, high fly ball to right that looks like it might go out, or might be caught. The baserunners hold up between bases waiting to see. Jones heads to first while also ball-watching. The ball clears the fence, the first base umpire signals homerun. But in his excitement Jones running full out rounds first and passes the runner who was on first before either reach second. The second base umpire calls Jones out for passing the runner.

Questions: What’s the umpire’s call from here? Do the runners score or what? What’s the official scorer’s call? Is it a homerun or what?

Inside the Infield Homerun?

Bases empty, two outs, Earl Wilson at the plate with two strikes. Low pitch comes in, Wilson swings and misses, the catcher traps the ball. Strike three! The catcher lobs the ball towards the mound and the fielders head off the field. Wilson pauses in the batter’s box for a moment and then walks towards first base. At this point only he and the umpires realize he is not out because the third strike was not caught cleanly, in which case the batter must be tagged or thrown out at first.

The ball comes to rest past the mound and the fielders are in the dugout. Wilson starts running the bases. Seeing this, the opposing team fielders realize their mistake and scramble out to make a play. It’s a race to fetch the ball and throw out Wilson before he gets home. One player heads for the ball and a group go to cover the plate. If this wasn’t comedic enough, it gets more absurd when Wilson falls rounding third and hurts himself. The ball has been retrieved, Wilson gets up and tries to hobble back to third, but is run down and tagged out.

Questions: For the umpire it’s simple, he’s the third out, inning over. Or is he? Can players come out of the dugout and make a play? What’s the official scorer’s call?

Answers

As I said, these two plays actually happened to the Tigers many years ago. I hope I remember the details correctly from listening to them on the radio. Though in scenario two there was no play-by-play as the broadcast crew also thought the inning over and went to commercials. The announcers related the events after coming back.

Play One: All three runners scored and Jones got credit for a single and three RBIs, as well as an out running. (Who, if anyone, got credit for a putout, I don’t know.)

Play Two: Earl Wilson was credited with a three base error on the catcher, and an out running. Players in the field can go into, then out of the dugout to make plays. The putout would be scored as usual, 1-2-?-? depending who fetched the ball and who tagged Wilson out. Had he actually made it all the way, I’m pretty sure it would have been the only four base strikeout in baseball history.

Bonus Hypothetical

This one is invented as a challenge. Bases loaded, nobody out. Batter hits a screaming liner hitting the front of the pitcher’s rubber, exposed by pitchers digging at the dirt. The ball bounds straight back to the catcher who fields it and tags home to force the runner from third. He then fires down to third where the ball hits the runner, who is in the basepath but has already been forced out at home. The ball bounds off the runner into the stands out of play.

Question: What’s the umpire’s call? Is the batter out for baserunner inter­ference? Do the other runners get to advance? Or is it something else? What’s the official scorer’s call? Error, fielder’s choice, or what?

Play three was made complicated to fool you. The ball was fielded in foul territory by the catcher after hitting the ground without touching a fielder or passing a base so it’s a foul ground ball. As a foul ball, the rest of the play doesn’t matter. Which makes the official scorer’s decision easy, nothing happened to score. The batter keeps batting.

Filed 9/30/09

Infrequently Answered Questions

Houston, what’s the problem?

landing

Q: What’s the most over-rated thing ever?

A: It’d have to be landing a man on the moon. How often have you heard someone say, “We can land a man on the moon, but we can’t… fill in the blank with your major concern or pet peeve.” Which means either we’re real slackers about a lot of things or landing a man on the moon wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When you think about it, landing on the moon was a fairly straight-forward engineering problem. Nowhere near as difficult as dealing with complex or even chaotic systems like the environ­ment or human biology and disease. When you consider social systems and the human element, well, confusion and unpredictability are the only things you can be sure of, oxymoronically enough.

On second thought, perhaps the most over-rated thing is sliced bread. Consider all the things that are the best things since sliced bread, as if it were the benchmark to which all things are compared. But, c’mon, what’s so great about it? Taking a knife and cutting through bread is not exactly rocket science, is it?

Filed 9/14/09

A Real Beute

cutieful

cutieful (kū′ tē fŭl) adj. Characterized by being both cute and beautiful.

OK, I might have made that up. Actually I heard it used on sports radio. At least I may have heard it. That’s what is sounded like at any rate. Though I’ve not heard it again. Per­haps it was an unintentional spoon­erism on the speaker’s part. Still, I think the coinage might be useful.

For instance, puppies are cute, not beautiful. Sophia Loren in her heyday was beautiful, but not what I’d char­acterize as cute. I would say Marylin Monroe was the quintessential example of cutieful. Now-a-days I might offer Cote de Pablo as an example of cutieful.

Of course, this is a subjective matter of taste or perception. Some folks think pugs are cute, I think they’re pug-ugly. That’s why they’re called pugs after all.

Filed 9/11/09

Why Model Ts Only Came in Black

modelT

“You can have any color you like. As long as it’s black.”

This is what Henry Ford said about his offering of the Model T in black and nothing but. Luckily for him, and for customers, people like black. They may prefer red, blue, green, brown or something else but they like black, too. Notice he didn’t say you can have any color you want, but any color you like.

One wonders, why did the Model T come only in black. Was Ford arrogant and indifferent to customer demand? Actually, it had to do with Ford’s business model and the state of paint technology at the time.

Back then there weren’t a lot of specialized automotive paints like today and they didn’t bake the paint finish. Black auto paint air-dried more quickly than other colors of the day. On a hot, dry summer day that’s no issue. In a Detroit winter, that’s another story.

Ford’s business model was mass-producing cars at lower costs. Only the black paint available then dried quickly enough to keep assembly lines moving along without huge storage facilities for paint drying. This reduced costs.

Was Ford indifferent to customer demand? Not really. When customer demand is for cheap and reliable, variety of color is of less concern. That’s what customer preference is about. Prefer cheap, get a Ford. Prefer colorful, buy a Rolls.

Filed 9/1/09

Nobody Expects a Parodox

twins

paradox (pâr′ ə-dŏks) noun. 1. A seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true. 2. A person, situation, or action exhibiting inex­plicable or contradictory aspects. 3. An assertion that is self-contra­dictory, although based on accepted premises.

Sometimes people speak of para­doxes in science or medicine. For instance the French paradox, where the French eat the most saturated fat but have the least heart disease in Europe.

A paradox can’t really exist in reality, but only in the mind. Forces of nature can’t act against their own properties. An unexpected result can’t be an incorrect result, but rather an incorrect expectation. Which means either the test was flawed or the under­lying premise was wrong. So if you change your expectation the paradox vanishes even though the results are the same.

Filed 8/3/09

“We Don’t Have no Stinking System”

system

There’s a lot of chatter nowadays about the health care system. Is there one? I mean, nobody talks about the car repair system.

Cars are serviced under warranty, covered by insurance, or paid for by the owner out of pocket. Heck, shade tree mechanics fix their cars them­selves, with varying success. Duck tape isn’t proper bodywork and bent coat hangers hang coats a lot better than tailpipes. Still, there is no car repair system I can see.

For health care there’s Medicare, private insurance, employee health benefits, out of pocket payment by the patient and more. Like shade tree mechanics, some patients try self-healing with home brewed elixirs, fad diets, positive thinking, crystals, or whatever else might appear in some book or blog. It’s a pretty unsystem­atic system. More like a variety of systems.

So I wonder, when people talk about the health care system, what are they actually referring to?

Filed 7/28/09

Infrequently Answered Questions

Digital Time

clock1

Q: Why are there 24 hours in a day and 60 minutes in an hour? Why not a metric clock with 10 hours of 100 minutes or something?

A: These numbers come from the ancient Sumerians who counted in units of 12 with their fingers instead of ten. Which might have you wondering if Sumerians where six-fingered, 12-toed freaks or something. Not at all. They just saw the hand differently for counting.

Instead of seeing each finger (and the thumb) as one each, the Sumerians saw four fingers made of three bones each. By counting these segments you go up to twelve on one hand instead of ten on two. That’s four fingers of three segments each, or 4x3=12 for the mathematically challenged.

clock2

In this method you don’t count the thumb, you use it to indicate the segment you’ve counted to. To show seven the other way you extend seven digits on two hands as below left. In the Sumerian method to count seven you touch your thumb to the seventh segment on the tip of the ring finger as below right.

clock3-2

This leaves the other hand free for bigger numbers. In this case each of the four fingers represents a full four fingers of the other hand, or 12. This makes the index finger 12, the middle 24, the ring finger 36, and the pinky 48.

clock4

This way the highest number you get with Sumerian hand counting is 60. That’s 48 on one hand plus the 12 on the other. That’s why there’s 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds per minute. The 24 hour day is 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. All come from the Sumerian way of counting to twelve and sixty with the fingers.

clock5

A base twelve system is quite useful because it divides to whole numbers easily. Twelve hours divides in half (6), thirds (4), and quarters (3) evenly. Even better, 60 minutes divides in half (30), thirds (20), quarters (15), fifths (12), and sixths (10) evenly. Try that with 100 and you get 50, 33.3333…, 25, 20, and 16.666… respectively.

Base twelve shows up in other places: 12 months, 12 in a dozen, 12 inches in a foot. The size of an inch is related, too. The average adult man’s index finger is around three inches long with each segment being about one inch. Yet, none of this explains why clocks have hands without any fingers at all. Unless it’s a Mickey Mouse watch. But then, Mickey only has three fingers and a thumb.

Filed 7/14/09

And Now…

popinfresh

As Monty Python used to say, “and now for something completely different.” A gag cartoon. Which hopefully doesn’t make you gag, though that pun might.

Filed 7/2/09

Worth Saving?

fools

“The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.”
—Herbert Spencer

When fools don’t learn from their mistakes, have you helped or hurt by saving them from themselves time and again. Might it encourage them to even greater folly? Sometimes it takes tough love to straighten out the mis­directed. Or as Shakespeare put it, “you have to be cruel to be kind.”

Maybe bailing out failure, over­paying and risky investing might seem to many a necessary evil, but perhaps we’d better not to make a habit of it or… read the quote again. To put it another way, can you say moral hazard?

Filed 6/30/09

Lubricate This

lubricity

lubricity (lū brĭs′ ə-tē) noun. 1. Lewd­ness, salaciousness. 2. Shiftiness, trickiness. 3. Slipperiness.

Lubricity is word you hear rarely now-a-days. I seem to remember the Surrealists and Dadaists liked using it. If memory serves Marcel Duchamp used it in describing his The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, aka the Large Glass. Duchamp dis­played this piece unfinished, which he described as “a successful state of incompletion.” That is until dropped by someone thus breaking the glass. At which point Duchamp declared it finished.

Duchamp’s descriptions often were quite bizarre and funny. Here’s a bit more of his description of the Large Glass.

The bride secretes “love gasoline”, or “automobiline” which powers the “sex-cylinder”, the heart of the Bride’s desire. Floating across the top the “cinematic blossoming of the Bride” contains three windows called “draft pistons”. Below left is the Bride’s “desire magneto,” which triggers the whole operation of the Bachelor Machine. These are nine figures which “cast the gas into their own forms: gendarme, priest, cuirassier…”

Filed 5/21/09

Infrequently Answered Questions

We’ll Take Over the World, and Be Slaves

minion

Q: Where do evil masterminds get their army of nameless, faceless henchmen in jumpsuits? Who wants a job where the price of failure is not getting fired, but being jettisoned into a bottomless abyss or whirlpool of bubbling acid? Don’t these potential employees know that when the evil plot goes south the leader’s escape pod only has room for one?

A: To answer the first question, they get these folks from central casting. As for the rest, it’s Hollywood, reality and logic don’t really apply.

There’s this bit of Hollywood editing that makes even less sense, how people carry on a conversation over a series of cuts over a period of hours. You know, person A asks a question while walking down the street, person B answers while they’re riding in the car, person A responds while they’re eating dinner, person B replies to that in the bar over drinks. How did this bit ever get started? This only works in the movies, but it would never happen in real life.

Filed 5/15/09

Why Type Comes in Upper and Lower Case

uandl1

Upper case and lower case are pretty well-known terms for anyone dealing in type or the written word. You know, CAPITAL LETTERS and non-capital letters. Have you ever wondered where those terms come from, what they refer to? Here’s the answer whether you’ve ever wondered or not.

It all goes back to the big break­through in printing, moveable type. Gutenberg’s big invention was not the printing press itself, but standardized, individual letters on little metal blocks that could be assembled into any text. This way you could print a Bible or a do-it-yourself book with the same bits by rearranging them without having to start over from scratch.

These letters were stored and organized in wooden cases with a series of partitions making cubby holes for each particular letter. These were standardized so typesetters could find what they needed with all the capitals in the upper part and all the non-capitals in the lower part. Hence upper and lower case.

Now a bit of minutiae you may not have considered. If you’ve played around with typefaces you may have noticed some fonts look smaller at the same point size compared to other fonts. That’s because they are, even though they ain’t. Which sounds like gibberish, but I can explain.

uandl2

Above are the letters “L, x, p” in 80 point type. The first font is Humanist and the second is Helvetica. As you can see, if you set them on the same base line both the upper case and the lower case letters are taller in Helve­tica. But point size isn’t measured that way. It goes from the bottom of the descender, the tail of the “p” to the top of the ascender, the top of the “L.”

uandl3

When you line them up like that, they are the same size. You will notice the lower case “x” in each are different sizes. This is called the x-height. A typeface with a smaller x-height will look, or read smaller than a font with a bigger x-height even when they’re the same point size.

If you’re interested, you can read about the another built-in optical illusion of type here.

Filed 5/11/09

The First SS Beneficiary

ss

Social Security began in 1935 and Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Virginia was the first to receive monthly Social Security benefits. Retiring at the age of 65, she began collecting checks in January 1940. Ida paid a total of $24.75 into the system and lived to be 100 years old. During her lifetime she collected $22,888.92. Which might not seem like a lot, but it represents a 90,000% return on her “investment.”

In a strange way you might think of Social Security as reverse inheretance. Instead of the older generation providing for the younger, it’s the other way around.

Filed 4/14/09

Holy Boatmobile!

bail

Eight Ways for Detroit Auto Makers to Bail Themselves Out

  1. Cut labor costs by selling cars as do-it-yourself kits.
  2. Rename companies in successful sounding Japanese style to General Moto, Fomocohama, and Karisera.
  3. Resurrect glory days when Detroit was king – FINS!
  4. Outcompete everyone on price by building used cars.
  5. Hire infomercial king Billy Mays. He can sell anything. Act now!
  6. Multi-level marketing. Forget about selling cars, sell dealerships.
  7. Sell out to China and let them worry about it.
  8. Hire charismatic economic wizard Bernie Madoff and… wait. Never mind.

Filed 4/8/09

Arrrgh, Decimatie

decimate

decimate (dĕs′ ə-māt) tr. verb. 1. To destroy or kill a large part of. 2. To select by lot and kill one in every ten of.

The second definition explains the origin of this word, from Latin deci­mus, one tenth. It was a practice of the Roman army to punish units for cow­ardice in battle by decimating it. That is, taking one in ten and executing them.

You can decimate a group, but not an individual. You can’t be 10% dead, or kill yourself 10%. Death is either/or, never an incomplete success. So, use the word devastate instead.

Filed 4/2/09

Infrequently Answered Questions

Odd Chance

lotto

Q: I’ve heard you’re more likely to be struck by lightning ten times than to win the lottery. Yet people win the lottery all the time, but I don’t hear of anyone getting hit by lightning ten times. What gives?

A: That’s because they’re calculating the odds of a single ticket winning the lottery. But who buys just one ticket? Thing is, you can increase your chances of winning by buying more chances.

Say to win the lottery you need five correct numbers from 1 through 40. Your chance of winning is one in 78,960,960. That’s pretty long odds. If you buy ten tickets you improve your chances to ten in 78,960,960. If you buy 100 tickets… you get the idea.

On top of that, you aren’t the only one playing the lottery. If ten million people each buy ten tickets the odds that there will be one winning ticket are about 100,000,000 in 78,960,960. Better than even odds that someone, though probably not you, will win.

I don’t know what the odds of getting struck by lightning ten times are, but you can’t increase the chances unless you create more of yourself. If there were a thousand you clones, the chances go up. But that’s you as a collection, not a single you or any one of your clones. Either that or you have to be in a thousand places at once. What are the chances of that?

Then again, the first lightning strike may kill you. Then you’d be dead and buried or cremated. Which would make another bolt hitting you pretty unlikely.

Filed 3/25/09

The Mismanagement Apologizes for Any Confusion

time

“Doing it right is no excuse for not meeting the schedule.”

Or so said a plant manager for Delco Corporation. Yessiree, bob, people say some mighty strange things. This came from a list of real-life Dilbert manager quotes. My dad had another version of this idea when clients seemed obsessed with dead­lines above all else:

“There’s never time to do it right, but always time to do it over.”

The winner of the dumbest real-life Dilbert manager quotes comes from Microsoft’s Fred Dales:

“As of tomorrow, employees will only be able to access the building using individual security cards. Pictures will be taken next Wednesday, and employees will receive their cards in two weeks.”

Makes you wonder if these people have a good grasp of time manage­ment. Or of time, period.

Filed 3/17/09

Everything’s Better with Butter

butter

Vegetables are not only tastier with butter, they’re better for you. That’s because many essential vitamins and carotenes in fruits and veggies are fat-soluble. The bioavailability of alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and lycopene is increased when salads are eaten with yummy full-fat dressing. Studies show up to a 15-times increase com­pared to salads with the funny-tasting fat-free variety.

Add to that the nutrients in many fruits, vegetables and grains are more bioavailable when cooked compared to eaten raw. Plus, high fiber diets reduce the absorption of nutrients in foods. While many extol the virtues of dietary fibers and whole grains while snubbing white, refined foods, this is mostly modern folk medicine short on science.

Filed 3/13/09

How to Sound Funny on Film

jester

Burping, farting, sneezing and snoring are just plain funny to people of every stripe the world over. What can we take away from that? I suppose, if some body function makes a noise, funny. If it doesn’t, not so funny. Basically, sound effects are funny.

The Three Stooges applied this principle with a vengence. I mean, without those goofy sound effects they’re just a trio of morons abusing each other. If a hammer blow to the head made a thudding, skull-crushing sound it’d be disturbing. But a ham­mered noggin that clangs like a bell is a laugh riot. A poke in the eye isn’t funny unless it goes “plint.”

One imagines sound effects were why jesters had bells on their hats. Nodding made them jingle as if their brains were little peas in their skulls. Maybe.

Filed 3/10/09

Now and Then

yogi

presently (prĕz′ ənt-lē) adverb. 1. In a short time; soon. 2. At this time or period; now.

Either the word means real soon or right now. Which seems rather at odds with itself. As The Man in Cool Hand Luke said, “What we have here is failure to communicate.” So, if you don’t understand it presently, read on and you might understand it presently. Make sense?

It all depends who you ask. Three quarters of usage authorities prefer the first definition. While about 50% say the second is OK. Which adds up to 125%. I can only suppose what we have here is failure of arithmetic or some kind of Einsteinian Relativity.

Which calls to mind an exchange between Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra.

Mantle: “Yogi, what time is it?”

Berra: “You mean right now?”

Filed 3/4/09

Monkeying Around

monkey

“We’ve all heard that a million mon­keys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”  —Robert Wilensky

Filed 3/2/09

Whale of an Animal

whale

One of the biggest animals ever to live on Earth is a gargantuan creature that’s around today, the blue whale.

Unlike the biggest land-based beast, the elephant, the blue whale isn’t a vegetarian but a meat-eater. And it eats a lot of animal flesh, if you can call it that, consuming vast quantities of krill, a tiny shrimp-like sea creature. Though it might be thousands of times bigger than a mouse, it doesn’t eat thousands of times as much to get so big. It’s just one of those wonders of nature that the bigger you get the less food per pound you need to live.

You gotta figure the biggest animal would live in the sea. After all, it doesn’t need to use a lot of energy holding itself up with muscle power. Instead all that tonage is supported by water with bouyancy. It’s kinda like living in a weightless environment.

Filed 2/24/09

The Happy Accident

serendipity

serendipity (sâr ən-dĭp′ ə-tē) noun. The faculty of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident.

This is sort-of the positive flip side of contretemps, accidents where good things happen. Something in the way Jed Clampett got rich “while shootin’ at some food.” Or maybe how “you got peanut butter on my chocolate” created Reeses peanut butter cups.

Still, Jed Clampett in the show was supposed to be able to shoot the wings off a fly, right? So, why did he ever miss his target and accidentally strike oil?

Filed 2/12/09

Just Because You’re the Scum of the Earth Doesn’t Mean Folks Won’t Like You

meeting

“I never met a man I didn’t like.”

…As Will Rogers is often quoted. What does it really mean? Was Rodgers a bad judge of character or naive? Did Will Rodgers never meet a bad man? Unlikely. Notice he never said “I never met a man I didn’t trust.” But if and when he did meet a baddie, he liked them personally. Which only shows scoundrels, rascals, and horrid people can be charming.

The full quote was Rogers on Leon Trotsky in Saturday Evening Post of November 6, 1926. “I bet you if I had met him and had a chat with him, I would have found him a very inter­esting and human fellow, for I never yet met a man that I didn’t like.”

Filed 2/10/09

Gas Gives the Biggest Bang for the Buck

carboom

Pound for pound, gasoline contains 15 times more energy than TNT. Which might not be the main reason we don’t drive TNT powered cars, but it’s a good one.

Perhaps you’re wondering how that compares to, say, the high-quality batteries used in cellphones and lap­tops? Batteries have only 1 percent of the energy of an equal weight of gas. While they’re rechargeable, they typically die after 1,000 charges. If you include the cost of recharging and replacement, they’re more expensive to use than gasoline.

Maybe you’re thinking hydrogen fuel has more energy per pound. It does, but less per gallon. In liquid form hydrogen has 25% as much energy per gallon as gasoline, though it weighs less. However, to be liquid hydrogen must be kept at -253° Celsius (-423° F). Not very convenient.

The biggest problem with hydro­gen, it can’t simply be pumped out of the ground. There are no easily-had supplies of the stuff, it has to be manufactured either from water by electrolysis or from natural gas. With electrolysis you can only get back the same energy you put in. This makes a fuel-cell car similar to a battery pow­ered car, it has to be charged up.

By contrast, the energy in gasoline is built-in when you get it out of the ground. That’s why gas is so cheap and easy to use.

Filed 2/5/09

Begging the Question

beg

Many people use the phrase “begs the question” incorrectly as though it means the same as “raises the ques­tion.” Begging the question is a sort of evasion, an unproven assumption, a type of fallacy logic.

Begging the question: the premises are as questionable as the conclusions reached.

Like saying if pigs could fly they’d be faster than cheetahs. Then everyone debates if pigs or cheetahs are faster completely ignoring whether pigs can fly or not.

Filed 1/16/09

Thanks for Nothing

zero

Arabic numerals are not Arabic. Though Europe got these symbols from the Arabs, they in turn got them from India. The concept of zero, a symbol for nothing or an empty set, also began on the subcontinent. The zero was the greatest idea since 1+1=2, and makes modern math possible. Imagine doing simple arithmetic and calculations with Roman numerals.

VII
XXX
CCIII
DCCCIV
+ MMLVIII
?

7
30
202
804
+ 2058
?

Now try using Roman numerals to multiply and divide, do calculus, or simply balance your checkbook. In fact, just try writing two thousand fifty-eight without a zero and you can see how cumbersome it can be.

To give credit where credit is due, they should rightly be called Sanskrit numerals. All thanks to some anonym­ous Indian a long, long time ago.

Filed 1/14/09

Believing Everything and Nothing

2blthink2

doublethink (dŭ′-bəl thĭnk) noun.  The ability to simultaneously know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies. To hold simultan­eously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both.

Doublethink comes from George Orwell’s great dystopian novel 1984. These days we use the phrase cognitive dissonance, but doublethink is better in my opinion.

Filed 1/12/09

In the Beginning Was the List

topten

They say one of the best ways to get links to a blog or website is by posting lists. Why are lists so popular? Let’s see…

Top Ten Reasons We Like Lists

  1. Easy reading
  2. Easy counting
  3. Don’t challenge our attention span
  4. Don’t require writing in complete sentences
  5. Require no explaining*
  6. We like ranking things one to ten
  7. We like arguing about rankings one to ten
  8. To know what to get at the grocery store
  9. Can seem funny when they aren’t
  10. Two words, David Letterman

* Sometimes lists do require explaining, for which we have asterisks.

11. We like adding our own entries to them

If you like lists a lot, List Universe has lots of lists, lists of lists including: Top 12 Things you Need to be a Mad Scientist and Top 10 Worst Logos

If you like funny, if foul-mouthed, lists try CRACKED who’ve got the likes of: 15 overlooked deaths of 2008 and Five Homeless Guys Who Accomplished Amazing Things

Wouldn’t you know it would eventually come to this? Top 10 Top 10 Lists of 2008

Filed 1/9/09

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