Road v. Railroad


People travel more by rail in Europe than in the U.S. On the continent they have lots of commuter trains and high-speed rail, The States have some subways and Amtrak. Europeans use their railroads rather differently than Americans. What is largely unseen is the other side of the railroad coin, freight traffic.

Stateside railroads are mainly used to haul freight. About 40% of fright moves by rail in the U.S., and about 30% goes over the road in trucks. In Europe, on the other hand, only 10% of freight goes by rail and about 45% goes by truck. It’s like the Europeans take people out of cars and put them on trains, and take the freight off the trains and put it in trucks.

Co-ordinating the two very different types of trains isn’t easy. Freight trains are much longer and slower, passenger trains are faster and shorter, make more stops, run on tighter schedules, and run more often at peak commuter times. By running very few passenger trains, U.S. railroads move freight much more efficiently than European railroads, at one-sixth the cost of Germany for instance.

In a way, freight trains make more sense than passenger trains. Which is why there aren’t many passenger trains in the U.S. After all, they didn’t die out after WWII because the railroads were making too much money on them.

Filed 12/15/10

A Short Coffee Break


Coffee is the number one cash crop in the world. Coffee is also the world’s most widely used pharmacological stimulant. Coffee comes in many forms, espresso, latte, drip, instant, freeze-dried, and with many nic10-09ames. A favorite is cuppa joe. This came from WWII, the drink of G.I. Joe. There’s also java, as in mocha java, which may or may not come from Java. While coffee is associated with Colombia and not Java, it’s not native to South America.

Possibly the most famous decaffeinated coffee brand is Sanka. The name comes from the French for “without caffeine,” somewhat like sans culotte meaning “without breeches.” Not that coffee has anything to do with pants, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. Anyway, Sanka leaves off ffiene, a lot like decaf leaves off fiene. Though you might ask, why spell Sanka with a K when the French don’t spell caffeine it with a K. It’s because Sanka came from Germany and Germans almost always use a K for a K sound. Like canon is kanone. Carl is Karl. Cold is kalt. Cabbage is kraut. Though kraut ain’t much like the word cabbage, is it?

Maybe I could add more coffee trivia, but I’ll leave it at that. Consider this entry Fun Facts lite. Sort-of the decaf version. As in not very stimulating.

Filed 11/22/10

What You Feel Is Not What You’re Feeling


When you touch something and it feels cold or hot, are you really feeling the temperature of the object? I mean, do your senses extend out of your body into something else? When you walk around bare-footed, why does a stone floor feel cold and the carpeting warm even though the furnace (or sun) is heating everything to the same temp­erature?

As you may have guessed, you don’t feel the temperature of other objects. What you feel is heat loss or gain in your skin. This is interpreted as the temperature of the object you’re touching by proxy, so to speak. A metal or stone object will feel colder than a piece of cloth or carpeting at the same temperature because metal and stone are a better conductors so the heat flows out of your body much quicker. That makes it feel colder even though it’s not.

Filed 10/20/10

How Conservation Can Lead to Using More


Folks naturally figure if you increase gas mileage you’ll save gas. Well, maybe. Obviously you’ll use less per trip, but if driving around is cheaper, will you make more trips? I mean, when something costs less we’re tempted to use more rather than the same amount or less. For instance, if the price of clothing were cut in half are we likely to buy the same amount and pocket the savings, or fill our closets to overflowing because now it’s cheap to be stylish? This brings us to…

Jevons’ Paradox

In 1865 William Stanley Jevons wrote a book explaining how coal consumption rose rapidly after James Watt introduced his improved steam engine. Watt’s engine made coal power more cost effective, leading to more steam engines used for more things. Total coal consumption increased even though coal used for any particular application dropped through increased efficiency.

Jevons’ premise: “[A]ny increase in the efficiency with which energy is employed will cause a concomitant decrease in the price or cost of that resource when measured in terms of work done. Thus, with a lower cost per unit of work, more work will be pur­chased. This additional work need not be for the same product, but it may be displaced into the purchase of new product ranges or work.”

The name of Jevons’ book, The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concer­ning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines. Rather a long, you might say inefficient title. That was the style back then, unlike today where books tend to have short, snappy titles. Maybe people these days have shorter attention spans. Or maybe folks back then did judge a book by its cover.

Filed 9/30/10

Not-so-great Greats


Not Necessarily the Top, But Ten Overrated People

  1. William Shakespeare
  2. Marco Polo
  3. Albert Einstein
  4. Alexander the Great
  5. Pablo Picasso
  6. Alan Greenspan
  7. Lorenzo the Magnificent
  8. Jackie Gleason
  9. Spider-man
  10. Mother Nature

1. Preposterous plot elements, stilted dialog, and comedies that are not to be laughed at. Though if Francis Bacon wrote the plays it wasn’t Shakespeare’s fault. Then again, if Shakespeare didn’t write them he’s even more overrated.

2. A total fraud. There’s no record of Marco Polo in any Chinese archives. There’s no record of the Great Wall of China in Polo’s writings. How could he have missed it?

3. Did some nice math, but bend space? That’s like saying you can cut a hole in a vacuum. Get real.

4. He killed how many for what purpose? His empire lasted how long and produced what benefit? I’m picking on Alexander, but anyone called “The Great” usually includes a high body count.

5. The artist as creator of collectibles, valuable because they’re valuable. My niece could paint better, and I don’t even have a niece.

6. The Maestro? Two massive bubbles and two massive crashes. Very masterful indeed.

7. I don’t know a thing about him, but I suspect calling anyone “The Magnificent” might be overdoing it a tad.

8. Only included because he was called “The Great One.” What did he ever do? A sit-com, a variety show, a vaudville act. What am I missing?

9. Spidey powers? C’mon. Superman had superpowers. Superman could put on a pair of glasses and nobody would recognize him. Now that’s a superpower.

10. Freezing in winter, hot as blazes in summer, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes. Some mother!

Filed 9/21/10

Nature’s Invasive Species


To a large extent an invasive species is a human judgement, like is something a weed or ground cover. What I mean is, most species at one time or another were invaders of new habitat. Only we call that colonizing. They didn’t spring up all over the place at once.

Take eagles, for instance. There are various eagle species all over the world. All of them genetically related. How did that happen? Did they all spring up separately? Unlikely. Were they all one progenitor species at one time? How did that progenitor species exist all over the world? Did it spring up everywhere at once?

Somehow eagles spread all over, they colonized, they were invasive species. This can happen a few times a long time apart so you get more than one eagle variety in the same place. Like bald eagles and golden eagles in North America. They may have come from the same progenitor, but the early arrival developed separately so that when the later one arrived they were different.

This is how you get biodiversity. And isn’t biodiversity a good thing? So then, colonizing species add biodi­versity. Since an invasive species is the same thing, they add biodiversity, too. The adaption of the new species to the habitat and the habitat to the new species is the same process how­ever the new species got there. This is one of the underlying mechanisms of evolution.

Filed 7/16/10

Two Two-bit Tidbits


Sugar is a preservative. What do you think preserves the fruit in preserves? Fresh fruits will spoil, rot away in a matter of days if left on their own. Meanwhile, a jar of preserves can last for years in the fridge and still be good.

A banana is not a fruit, so they tell me. It’s an herb. This means… I don’t know, which might be why this is filed under trivia.

At this point the reader might feel a bit shortchanged. With good reason. So as a sop to the disappointed I’ll toss in this bit of food prep advice you’ll not get on most cooking shows.

How to peel a banana.

I don’t know what percentage does it this way, but many peel a banana starting at the attachment end. That is, they tear it open by breaking the skin at the stem. This often as not mushes up the top end of the banana especially the riper it is.

Here is where we can learn from monkeys which open bananas at the other end, at the little black button at the far tip. Try it for yourself if you never have, it’s easier. No muss, no fuss, no tools required, no mushed end of the banana. Peel, eat, and enjoy.

Filed 6/16/10

Did the Ancient Egyptians Eat Potato Cheops?


Though many people now-a-days like to blame heart disease on our all-so-modern lifestyle and diet, it seems hardening of the arteries and whatnot are as old as the hills. Or as old as the pyramids. As reported in The Wall Street Journal:

[Researchers] were able to identify the hearts, arteries or both in 16 of the mummies, nine of whom had deposits of calcification… “Not only do we have atherosclerosis [artery harden­ing] now, it was prevalent as long as 3,500 years ago,” said Gregory Thomas, a cardiologist and imaging specialist at University of California, Irvine, who was principal investigator of the study. “It is part of the human condition.”

They tell me the Mediterranean diet is supposed to help prevent coronary disease, what happened? The ancient Egyptians weren’t eating junk food, were they? They didn’t eat non-organic produce, did they? How much non-local food did they consume? Did they guzzle lavish doses of Ramses Cola and gobble Tater Tuts or what?

Filed 5/20/10

Is the Big Bang Science or Religion?


The Big Bang origin of the universe was first proposed by Abbé Georges Lemaitre, both a member of the Catholic hierarchy and a scientist. Lemaitre himself privately said this theory was a way to reconcile science with St. Thomas Aquinas’ theological dictum of creatio ex nihilo or creation out of nothing.

Another thing you may not know there are many who don’t accept the Big Bang Theory. I’m not talking theologians, I’m talking scientists. These scientists, mainly electrical and plasma specialists, not only reject the Big Bang, but great swaths of the standard model of the universe, including dark matter, dark energy, black holes, bending space-time, gravitational waves, an expanding universe and more. There’s even a different theory of how the sun works, not by fusion as is commonly held, but by electricity through plasma.

The Electric Universe

Thunderbolts Project

The Big Bang Never Happened

Agree or disagree, I can pretty well guarantee you’ll find it interesting and thought provoking at least. I’ve even spoofed aspects of the standard model myself with Space Warps and Wefts. Maybe I was onto something and didn’t know it.

Filed 4/20/10

What if They Had a War and Nobody Came?


Ever hear of the 1835 “Toledo War” between Michigan and Ohio? Thing is, there was no actual war, more like a war of words. The maneuvers weren’t military on the battlefield, but political in Congress. Not only that, the city of Toledo hadn’t been founded when all the hullabaloo was in full vent. Which means during the “Toledo War” there was no war and no Toledo.

Basically it was a border tussle between Michigan and Ohio wherein each wanted control of the mouth of the Maumee River at the western end of Lake Erie, where Toledo is today. At the time this figured to be the important (read money-making) terminus of a canal to the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Which goes to show you the animosity between Buckeyes and Wolverines predates the University of Michigan-Ohio Sate rivalry by a century.


The spat was over disputed borders dictated by the Northwest Ordinance and complicated by some mistaken mapping of where the southern tip of Lake Michigan was. The Northwest Ordinance was enacted under the Articles of Confederation before the Constitution was instituted which caused a legal tangle of whether provisions from a previous regime carried over to the new government.


At any rate, Ohio won the dispute in Congress and got the “Toledo Strip.” No surprise considering Ohio was already a state with Senators and House reps while Michigan, being a territory, had little political clout. As a result the Michigan-Ohio border is angled and not due east-west like many latitudinal borders between states.

As a sop to disgruntled Michigan­ians the state was given the western part of the upper peninsula. This likely would have been part of what is now Wisconsin, but folks there had even less clout than Michigan so it went down without too much of a fuss. In the end this tract of “wasteland” full of timber, copper, and whatnot turned out to be more valuable than the Toledo strip.

The canal to Lake Michigan never panned out as railroads came along rendering canal plans moot. After all, railroad tracks could go up and down grades where canals had to be level. Besides, trains were a lot faster and railroads were easier to build as they needn’t be watertight or require a vast source of water for filling. Thus rail­roads could go over mountains and through deserts. Even though there aren’t any between Toledo and Chicago, you get the point.

Filed 4/14/10

Magnificent Merlin Engine Ruled the Skies


The German Me109, the British Spitfire, the American Mustang, and the Japanese Zero are perhaps the most famous fighter planes of WWII. Three of the four used essentially the same powerplant, the Merlin engine devel­oped by Rolls-Royce. The exception being the Zero, or “Zeke” as it was called by U.S. naval air forces, which employed a Mitsubishi radial engine.

One might easily imagine how the Mustang got an English engine as the U.S. and the British were allies. The Mustang had rather unexceptional performance until the Brits put in the Merlin turning it into a great plane. The English also gave the P51 its Mustang moniker.

On the other hand, on the other side actually, the Me109 didn’t use a Merlin built by Rolls-Royce, but a variation of it. This was originally licensed to Messerschmitt before the war and developed into the engine that powered the Me109 in all its many incarnations.

Using basically the same engine is one reason the Spitfire and Me109 had similar performance characteristics. On paper, anyway. In the field the Spitfire bettered the 109 because the British burned higher octane aviation fuel from the U.S. while the Germans, constantly strapped for petroleum, used a lower grade. Of course, the skill of the pilot made a difference, but that’s another story.

The Rolls-Royce building aircraft engines was not the same Rolls-Royce making cars, but was a separate com­pany. They started together but split up only both kept the name. In fact, Rolls-Royce, the aeronautic one, is one of the largest jet engine builders today. Rolls-Royce, the car maker, is now owned by the Germans.

In case you ever wondered, the P in P51 stood for “pursuit” which is what they called fighters back then. The German’s didn’t designate the aircraft Me109, but rather Bf109.

Correction: The connection between the Me109 and the Spitfire was both were inspired by the Heinkel He70 powered by a Rolls-Royce Kestrel engine. That engine was developed into the Merlin. The first Me109 also used the Kestrel, but was replaced with a Daimler-Benz powerplant.

Filed 2/17/10

Bloody Barber Poles!


Old time symbolic signs made it possible for illiterates to know where to shop. For instance, the three balls on a pawn shop told the great unwashed where to get a loan. Still, how does a red and white striped pole mean “get your hair cut here”?

Back in the day, way back, a barber was the go-to guy to have your hair cut off, your beard cut off, or your pinky toe cut off. Ye olde barbers treated wounds and performed simple surgery. The red and white stripes of a barber pole represent blood and ban­daging, or a bloody bandage. You might say early barbers were prot10-09urgeons.

Before the 19th century surgeons weren’t doctors and vice-versa. In simple terms, doctors treated diseases while surgeons treated injuries. Doc­tors employed potions and bleeding and whatnot to restore a patient’s balance of humors which they thought was unique to each patient. Surgeons were more tradesman-like with a hands-on under­standing of flesh and bone which they treated with tools. Surgeons thought a wound was a wound whoever was wounded.

The stock of surgeons rose during wartime where treating wounds was just what the doctor ordered, even though surgeons did it. Wounded soldiers needed surgeons using tools rather than doctors using elixirs and bleeding. Especially since the wounded were already bleeding.

Fast-forward to today and surgeons are doctors, and barbers no longer cut off anything but hair. If the symbolic red and white pole had gone over to doctoring with the surgeons perhaps hospitals would be adorned with barber poles instead of snakes on a winged staff. Where that symbol comes from is another story for another day. As is why a pawn shop sports a trio of balls.

Filed 2/2/10

Eating Rocks is Good For You


They tell me salt is the only rock we eat. At least the only rock we eat on purpose with a purpose. And the only one that tastes good. Other rocks in our food is grit, which is almost always unpleasant.

But then we eat little bits of many unsavory things besides grit that get in food. Like animal hair, insect parts, worm castings and so on. Kept to a minimum we can survive all that. Of course finding an entire rat in your food is an unwelcome prospect. Finding one in your KFC is possibly a lawsuit or an urban myth.

On the other hand salt is required eating as we need it for a biological process we call “being alive.” They also tell me this is because land animals evolved from sea creatures that migrated out of the oceans. To survive out of water, land animals had to take the sea with them. So we are in large part water, or rather salt water if you will.

All of which reminds me of what might be the first joke I ever heard. A riddle actually. What’s big and red and eats rocks? A big red rock eater. Yes, it’s a silly joke, but it didn’t take much to amuse me at five years of age. Still, though I am not five years old, big and red, I do eat rocks. So do you.

Filed 1/14/10

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