Rotary v. Radial Engines


There are a pair of controls on a gas-powered lawn mower that mean “strangle.” One strangles fuel, the other strangles air. These are the throttle and the choke. Appropriately enough, the choke is in the throat of the carburetor.

Throttles and chokes work as their names suggest, they constrict the passage of fuel or air. Think of the terminology we use. When we want more gas we “open the throttle.” We strangle it less. You might say full throttle is when there’s the least throttling going on.

Rotary engines on early airplanes had a two-speed throttle. It was either on or off, there was no other speed. To slow the plane the pilot would cycle the engine on and off. That’s why some WWI airplanes coming in to land sound like, “Brrrp… brrrrrp…. brrp… brrrp…”

Planes don’t have rotary engines now-a-days. Though they may have radial engines which look similar. Both have cylinders arranged in a circle around a central crankcase. While they look alike, there’s a big difference. A radial engine is bolted in place and the crankshaft spins the propeller as you would expect. (red plane) On a rotary engine the crank­shaft is fixed to the frame, the propel­ler is fixed to the engine and the entire engine spins. (green plane)


The spinning engine made for some rather peculiar handling characteris­tics. A rotary engine was like a big, heavy gyroscope on the front of the plane. If you know about gyroscopes you know about precession. Meaning, when you pitch the plane you get a force to yaw the plane. In other words, when you dove the plane would turn at the same time.

Pilots had to compensate for the gyroscope action when flying a rotary engine plane. In effect, the controls worked differently on a rotary engine plane than on other planes and so flying them was tricky. Not only that, with some maneuvers the spinning engine would sometimes rip itself out of the plane. Which might partly explain why more WWI pilots died in accidents than in aerial combat.

Filed 12/29/11

Looking Back at Newest New Things Now Gone


New Year’s is fast approaching. So you can be sure of two things appearing in print and on the web hither, thither and yon: “Best of 2011” lists aplenty and predictions galore.

To do a “Best of 2011” list one had to be paying attention for the last 365 days. Which I haven’t been for most things. Besides rating movies, books, events, and athletes, folks also like to run down the newest new things that appeared in our most recent circuit around the sun. Which would also require one know the latest buzz. I’m afraid I strike out on that, too.

The newest new things I know are not very new. When I think about it, the newest new things I remember do nothing but date me. I remember newest new things anyone under 40 would never think of as ever being a newest new thing. I admit some of these may have begun before my time only to arrive big time later. That’s when they became the newest new thing, so I include them.


At the top of the list is plastic garbage bags. When they first arrived we couldn’t buy them at the store, we got them in 100 count boxes from the fire department. My family got our first color tv in about 1966. Not all shows were in color yet. Ones that were opened with a snippet telling you “The following program is brought to you in living color.” That’s where the NBC peacock came from. As well as the name of the show In Living Color.

While newest new things spring up, old newest new things from before your time die out.


The first item on the list, party lines, might not be familiar to “the youngsters in the audience” as Ed Sullivan used to say. (Dating myself some more.) A party line was when you shared a phone line with another household. If someone called the other person, your phone rang as well. If you were on the phone and they picked up they could listen in on your conversation. If you needed to make a call and they were on the phone, tough luck.

It was a pretty weird deal. Hollywood made a movie based on the trials and tribulations of party lines. Pillow Talk with Doris Day and Rock Hudson. A movie which wouldn’t make sense if you didn’t know about party lines. Anyway, your mother may know. Or your grandmother. Sheesh, I’m getting old.

Filed 12/26/11

The Incredible Shrinking Man as He Would Be


This is purely in the realm of fantasy, but what would it mean if a person shrunk down to an inch tall? In the movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man” we get an idea, only the wrong idea.

In the film the tiny man wants to get down from a table so he rigs a rope, which is string, and climbs down. Thing is, he could have simply jumped down with no problem. Even though he’s really small, the table is still only 30 inches from the floor. The acceler­ation over a particular distance will be the same regardless of the man’s size. If a full-size man can safely jump down from a table, so can a tiny man.

In fact, a tiny man would be able to jump down more safely than a full-size man. The tiny man has a great deal less mass and so the impact at the same speed will be less. The tiny man is so light and lands with so little force he might be able to jump off the roof safely.

Here’s a personal anecdote to back this up. One day sitting on my back stoop I saw a squirrel fall out of a tree from maybe 20 feet up. It landed with a thump, got up, and ran away back up the tree. A squirrel is so light it doesn’t hit with as much impact as a man would falling 20 feet out of a tree. It also helps the squirrel has a higher strength to weight ratio, which is explained next.

Perhaps you’ve heard about how incredibly strong an ant is because it can lift 10 times its own weight. That is not so incredible, its a matter of its being small. Muscles grow heavier with size at a higher rate than they grow stronger with size. Meaning the bigger and stronger an animal gets the less it can lift relative to its weight.

The reverse is also true, the smaller it gets the more it can lift relative to its weight. The ant is not super strong, it’s incredibly small and thus its strength to weight ratio is high. As it would be for any tiny creature, including a tiny man. A full-size man might weigh 200 pounds and it would be an effort to lift his own weight above his head. The tiny man might weigh a pound, but would have little problem lifting twice his weight above his head. Even so, he’s only lifting two pounds.

The tiny man would also move like a hectic little mouse with very quick steps. When a full-size man takes a step his foot will move about two feet. It takes time to move his foot that dis­tance at a given acceleration. On the other hand the tiny man’s step is a half inch or so. It would take very little time to move his foot that distance at the same acceleration. It’s like a long and short pendulum. In one second the long pendulum makes one stroke, the short pendulum two strokes. Yet they both cover the same distance.

The tiny man could jump up higher relative to his height as well. A house cat can jump several times its height, maybe five or six feet high. A lion would have to jump 15 to 20 feet up to do the same. It can’t. It’s too big and the distance is too far. It’s akin to the pendulums, a matter of acceleration of mass over distance. Distance is not relative, 20 feet is 20 feet no matter how big or small you are.

The tiny man’s voice and hearing would change, too. But I wouldn’t worry about that. I wouldn’t worry about any of this because it’s pretty unlikely to ever happen.

Filed 12/8/11

Hell’s Space Kitchen


Eating is a pure, primal pleasure. One we experience several times a day, every day, for our entire lives. We do it so often we don’t always appreciate just how pleasurable it is. Sometimes it might be the only really enjoyable thing we do all day.

Of course eating is important. You have to do it to stay alive. Good thing we like to do it. Besides needing food to stay alive, how important to mental health is having tasty food, food we enjoy eating? It turns out it’s pretty important. When eating becomes a chore, something you must do rather than something you enjoy doing… well, it’s not unheard of for sick people to wither away and die because they’ve lost their appetite.

Which brings us to science fiction stories. You know, ones where people eat cubes of processed food and meals in a pill. Where’s the pleasure in that? Would that drive you crazy? Or if not actually batty, would such a diet be depressing? Would it put you off food?

Now we finally come to the fun fact and trivia part.

Having a supply of tasty food is one of the hurdles we face when contem­plating long space flights. Even frozen food doesn’t last indefinitely. It turns to unappetizing mush. NASA has found a constant diet of such mush is pretty depressing. A depressed crew… Houston, we have a problem. Space flight is not all rocket science. Some­times all the little details you never thought of can be a bigger problem than you ever imagined.

Filed 11/21/11

Heroin the Beginning


Other than both being drugs, what do heroin and aspirin have in common?

German company, Bayer Pharma­ceutical. Both heroin and aspirin were originally brand names of Bayer products. Bayer still makes aspirin, though no longer Aspirin™. But then, a lot of other drug companies also make aspirin as the name has become a generic term for that particular pain-killer.

Bayer stopped making Heroin™ in 1913. Like aspirin, a lot of other people now make heroin, though not Bayer or other companies making aspirin. Like aspirin, heroin is no longer a brand name either.

I don’t know the origin of the name aspirin, but heroin got its name from the “heroic” feeling it gave Bayer employees during testing. Just so you know, Heroin™ was originally sold as a cough remedy. At one point, Bayer even added Heroin™ to Aspirin™.

Filed 8/24/11

Companies that Gave Us Doozie and Jeep


There used to be a lot more American car companies than there are now-a-days. Auburn, Cord, Duesenberg, Kaiser, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, and Studebaker to name a handful. Some old brands were bought by or merged with one of the big three and survive as divisions, such as Buick, Cadillac, Lincoln, Mercury, Pontiac, and Jeep. Some old marks that became divisions later got axed and so are just as dead as the independently dead like Oldsmobile and Plymouth.

Some of the defunct companies sort-of still exist only their mark is long gone. Willys combined with Overland becoming Willys-Overland, which later combined with Hudson to become American Motors. AMC was bought by Chrysler and became the Jeep division and the short-lived Eagle division. Basically Chrysler acquired AMC to get Jeep.

The story of Jeep is a bit odd, as is the name. No-one really is sure where it comes from. Some say it’s from how you’d say GP, which stood for general purpose. Others say it was named after a magical creature from Popeye, Eugene the Jeep.

The Jeep was developed just before WWII by American Bantam using a Go-Devil engine supplied by Willys. The U.S. War Department concluded American Bantam was too small to build enough Jeeps, so the contract and the engineering plans went to Willys. But even Willys couldn’t build enough and so during the war Ford built Jeeps, too.

After the war Jeep production went back to Willys. What’s curious is Overland, before it merged with Willys to become Willys-Overland, built America’s first 4-wheel-drive production car back around WWI. American Bantam, which developed the Jeep, joined the ranks of the defunct.

Of all the defunct car brands men­tioned above, one’s name lives on in the language. Well, kind-of lives on as people don’t say it much any more. In its heyday Duesenberg made fast, sleek cars popular with the rich and famous. Like a Chevrolet is called a Chevy, a Duesenberg was called a Doozie. From this came the phrase, “It’s a doozie.”

Filed 5/17/11

Debt, the Peoples Choice


“When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”

—Benjamin Franklin

And how much money have we been voting ourselves? Quite a lot actually. A lot more than we have, or are willing to come up with. That shortfall is the deficit you’ve heard people talking of. In 2010 the deficit was $1,400,000,000,000.

But that’s just the tip of the old proverbial iceberg. The United States government (USG) has been running deficits for a while now. In other words, add up all the deficits USG has never repaid and you get the debt, which is a good deal more than the deficit. How much more? Here’s a chart. Scroll down to see how much debt USG owes.


Quite a scroll, eh? This is only what USG has borrowed, not what it has promised people it will provide via Social Security, Medicare, and so on. These promises are expected to grow faster than the amount of money people make and pay taxes on. Which already doesn’t cover spending.

One way or another something’s got to give. And someday it will. What and when is anyone’s guess. It’s as much politics as economics and folks have a hard time predicting one let alone both. Which leads us to our parting, bonus quote:

“The mystery of government is not how Washington works, but how to make it stop.”

—P.J. O’Rourke

Filed 4/26/11

Wild Dogs & Tame Wolves


They tell me dogs are descended from wolves and the two are 99.8% genetic­ally the same. You can cross a wolf with a dog and get a wolf-dog. A wolf-dog can breed with another dog or wolf to get a quarter-breed, and on and on for an endless variety of mixtures. So we ask, would a wolf-dog be a new species and are all the various combinations new species or sub-species or what.

Looked at that way it seems a wolf might be just another breed of dog. A Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both dogs and seem more different from each other than a lot of dogs seem from a wolf. Cross a German shepherd with a husky and the results will look a lot like a wolf.

Still, there is an inherent behavioral difference between wolves and dogs. Basically, dogs relate to people and wolves don’t. If you take a wolf pup and raise it like a dog among people it doesn’t grow up and act like a dog, it acts like a wolf. Basically you might say wolves are naturally wild and dogs are naturally tame toward people.

Looked at that way, different as they might be all dogs are alike and wolves are different. Yet, is a behavior differ­ence enough to make it a separ­ate species? I mean, certain behaviors run in families of people, but that doesn’t make them a different species, does it?

Filed 4/15/11

The Origin of Poodle-fros


Poodles were originally bred to be hunting dogs. Even that rather odd haircut they get was not for show, but had a purpose in the field. To under­stand it we need to go back to the breed’s beginnings in Germany, not France despite being called french poodles.

Hunting dogs often go in the water to retrieve downed fowl and what-have-you. That water can be pretty cold so they bred poodles to have a thick, curly coat for insulation. Unfor­tunately that didn’t work as planned as such a coat got waterlogged and the dog sunk like a stone. Which wasn’t good for the hunt or the dog.

To solve that they trimmed off excess fur, selectively rather than all over. They left fur to protect vital areas, the heart, lungs and brain up front and the kidneys at the rear. That’s the reason for those two puffs near the tail. They also protected leg joints with balls of fur near the feet. That pom-pom at the tip of the tail worked like a flag to spot the dog in the water. Something like the way folks put a ball on their car antenna to find their car in a parking lot.

I don’t imagine people much use poodles for hunting any more. Poodles aren’t classed as retrievers, but as non-sporting dogs. While its purpose has rather gone by the board, the haircut remains. Miniature a toy poodles get it, too, even though you’d never go hunting with either of them.

Filed 3/22/11

Ban the Bands


Save the penguins –leave them alone. You know how they say if you love something set it free? This is a case something like that. A recent report has it that banding the aquatic birds is doing them no favors. To quote some-source-or-other-I-forget:

Some scientists studying penguins may be inadvert­ently harming them with the metal bands they use to keep track of the tuxedo-clad seabirds, a new study says.

The survival rate of King penguins with metal bands on their flippers was 44 percent lower than those without bands and banded birds produced far fewer chicks, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The theory is that the metal bands increase drag on the penguins when they swim, making them work harder, the study’s authors said.

This relates to one of those things they talk of in science circles. The act of observing or measuring can change what you’re observing or measuring. Basically it’s because measuring tools can have effects. An observer just being there can have an effect, too. It’s like, if you walk through the forest the animals flee which they wouldn’t if you didn’t.

I think it’s similar to what happens with reality TV. People act differently knowing they’re on TV even though they’re supposed to be acting like their natural selves. But then, who doesn’t act differently in public compared to in private? Nobody picks their nose on a date, but at home alone they’ll go in up to the elbow.

Filed 2/24/11

The Very Old Idea of Hybrids


I heard where the Chevy Volt got a Car of the Year Award. I guess that’s OK since awards of this kind are mostly a matter of opinion. All the same, electric cars of any sort have the same draw­back they’ve had for over 100 years and why they died out in the early 1900s. Batteries, which are heavy and don’t store enough energy.

In listening to some people talk about the Volt there seems a view the battery problems will be rectified as hybrids become more popular. The whole “all new technologies have rapid improvements” idea. Like computers and plasma TVs. Except batteries are hardly a new technology. They’ve been working on them for decades.

Anyway, the hybrid concept isn’t exactly new either. Basically, a hybrid powers the wheels with electric motors from electricity generated by an onboard internal combustion engine. This concept has been up and running for 75 years or so. It’s called a diesel-electric locomotive. Only the Volt also has batteries in the loop.

Unless they come up with vastly improved batteries I don’t see the Volt taking the automotive world by storm. If you really want to save lots of gas commuting, get a vehicle that gets 80 miles to the gallon. It’s called a motorcycle.

Filed 2/3/11



Paleontologists tell us about towering beasts that once roamed the Earth, dinosaurs. Natural history museums prominently display the skeletal remains of the gikgantic creatures assembled like Tinker-toy sculptures. Hollywood has dramatically portrayed the ferocious monsters in numerous blockbusters. There’s one problem, by our current understanding of biology and physics dinosaurs are impossible.

Muscle strength is proportional to size. A muscle two times the diameter of another will be four times as strong. But weight increases even more, a muscle twice the diameter will weigh eight times as much. This relationship limits the size of any animal. Calcu­lations indicate the heaviest elephants of today approach this strength to weight limit.

The largest dinosaurs were many times as big as an elephant. An animal that size wouldn’t even have the muscle strength to stand, let alone walk around. Yet large numbers of unearthed dinosaurs bones show they must have existed. The numerous footprints they left behind showed they walked around on land. On top of that there were elephant-size dinosaurs that flew. Imagine the lift needed for that.

Did dinosaurs have super strong muscles, or were they super light­weight? An elephant of the same weight but four times as tall, and so four times as wide and long, would have 64 times the volume. It’d be full of air, about as dense as a basketball. How would that work? One wonders what happened in evolution so that modern muscles are super weak in comparison. It’s a mystery.

Filed 1/15/11

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