The Longest Night Arrives


The dictionary defines solstice as either of two times a year when the sun has no apparent northward or southward motion, at the northern or southern point of the ecliptic. An astronomer might define it quite differently as the sun doesn’t really go up and down, north and south. Though it would if you used the frame of reference notion of relativity. I think. Perhaps our astronomer would say it’s when the Earth’s rotation axis inter­sects the axis of orbital rotation. Easier to understand with a picture, and so…


There are two solstices each year, one at the start of summer, the longest day of the year, and one beginning winter, the shortest day of the year. The winter solstice used to be the beginning of the year, which makes sense astronomically. Now we begin January first, which also makes sense, only calendar-wise. The two used to coincide but got out of whack because they didn’t used to have leap years.

This was corrected when they went from the Julian calendar minus leap years to the Gregorian Calendar with leap years. Well sort-of corrected because they didn’t reset January first back to the solstice, but at least it stopped the season creep so that winter wasn’t getting earlier and earlier any more.

To do this they had to remove a couple weeks out of the calendar one year. A sort-of Great Leap Forward year. This upset some folks at the time because they thought they were having those days stolen from their lives by papal decree. After all, we only have so many years to live and if those years are shorter our lives are shorter. Which makes a sort-of accounting sense, but little common sense.

All this calendar funny business is why winter starts, then Christmas is a few days later, and then New Years is a week after that even though at one time they were all marked by the solstice. Now we could adjust things again so they line up, but this would mess up everyone’s end of year holi­day break and the college football bowl season, so let’s not bother.

Filed 12/24/09

The Seeming Marriage Paradox


True or false? In the U.S. most people who get married don’t divorce, yet most marriages end in divorce. Is it even possible?

Let’s examine this proposition with a hypothetical small town of Wedville which has only 14 people, 7 men and 7 women. Let’s say they all marry, that’s 7 marriages. The next year three couples divorce, and then remarry different partners. Now there’s been 10 marriages.

The following year the three remarried couples get divorced while the 4 couples that didn’t divorce before stay married. Now there have been 6 divorces out of 10 marriages. Yet 8 of the 14 people of Wedville that got married stayed married. Meaning most people who get married don’t divorce (8 of 14) while most marriages end in divorce (6 of 10).

So we know it’s possible, is it true? It is true. In the U.S. most people who get married don’t divorce, while most marriages end in divorce. Which means both anti-marriage folks and pro-marriage folks have bullet points in their favor. It’s the miracle of statistics. Or rather the wonder of spin.

Filed 12/16/09

You Can’t Mine Electricity


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 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.

There are not that many uses for electricity as electicity outside of stun guns, electrified fences and crash cart paddles. Even though the work done with your computer is all electrical, you can’t much use it unless it is converted to light energy on your monitor or mechanical energy with your printer or sound waves with a speaker.

Consider the other end, the source. 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. Other than photovoltaics this is done mechanically with dynamos. Turning a dynamo can be done with falling water or moving air. Though usually it’s done with a source of heat powering a steam turbine. Most often the heat comes from combustion of fuel, usually coal or gas. Even a nuclear reactor generates heat for steam turbines turning dynamos.

You could say electricity isn’t so much a source of energy, but 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

Why Model Ts Only Came in Black


“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

Canada, Our Neighbor to the South


If you head due south from Detroit across the Michigan border you’ll arrive, not in Ohio, but in Canada. Windsor, Ontario to be specific. Just one of those geographical quirks where a bit of Ontario over Lake Erie juts under the “thumb” of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

If you drive by car from Detroit to Canada you can go over the border under the Detroit River by tunnel, or over the water by the Ambassador Bridge. What might surprise you, the bridge is privately owned by one Manuel Moroun. You might wonder how a private citizen owns an inter­national bridge. Well, because it wasn’t a public project to begin with, it was a private enterprise from the git-go. It still is.

So the old gag about selling the Brooklyn Bridge to some bumpkin doesn’t work for the Ambassador Bridge. You might actually be able to buy it. Just be sure you’re dealing with Manny Moroun and not a “Realtor” working out of the trunk of his car.

Filed 7/31/09

Stalin Was Bigger Than Life, Smaller in Actuality


If you’re a history buff perhaps you’ve been watching the PBS series WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. As you may know, Joseph Stalin translates as Joe Steel in English. Which might explain his iron fisted rule. All the same it was an alias. A sort-of street name revolution­aries often adopted.

His given name, depending on your source, was Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, Joseph Vissarionvich Djvugashvili or Joseph David Djugashvili. I can only imagine the disagreement comes from translating Cyrillic spelling to Roman spelling. You know, how CCCP equates to SSSR which we further alter to USSR.

All the same, there is something wrong with the casting in the series, and perhaps with some folks percep­tion of Stalin. The actor playing Stalin is a big man, Stalin was not. Take a look at the following picture.

In the pic, Stalin, Churchill and Truman all look to be about the same size. Truman and Churchill were shorter than average, they were not big men. Stalin was not a massive, burly Russian bear. As a matter of fact, he wasn’t Russian. Stalin was born in Georgia, the country not the state.

So, while his reputation might be bigger than life, in real life he was just life-sized.

Filed 6/3/09

Why Type Comes in Upper and Lower Case


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.


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.”


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


April 15th looms and the IRS is expecting your check is in the mail. You might be thinking this is money down the drain you’ll never see again. Maybe, maybe not.

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

Weather Forecasting by the Tides


Not only do oceans have tides, there are tides in the air, too. After all, both are huge fluid bodies covering the Earth. Just like sea tides, atmospheric tides are caused by gravitational pull from the sun and the moon.

As the Earth turns the tides migrate causing changes in atmospheric pres­sure. It’s why there is more rainfall around 4AM and 4PM in the tropics than any other time. This effect on rain times gets later the father north you go. This is why it seems so often you get late afternoon showers.

These tides are the one effect on weather regular as clockwork and for well-known reasons. Even so, the weathercasters on tv can’t predict what time it will rain or even if it will rain or not with total accuracy. They hedge their bets with predictions like “a 70% chance of rain.” But why 70%? Ever wonder where they get that number?

Forecasts like those are calculated by the National Weather Service by comparing all other days in their historical database with the same weather characteristics (temperature, pressure, humidity, etc.) and determine on similar days in the past it rained 70% of the time.

Filed 3/27/09

Everything’s Better with 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

Whale of an Animal


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

Gas Gives the Biggest Bang for the Buck


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

Thanks for Nothing


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.


+ 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

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