M-m-m-m-m Nitrogen


Where can you buy a bag of nitrogen? At the nearest convenience store, bodega, corner market, whatever. But don’t look in the gaseous substances aisle, head for the snack foods and pick up a bag of chips which are inflated with nitrogen. Two reasons. Chips spoil pretty quickly when exposed to oxygen. Which you’d know if you ever ate from an opened week-old bag of chips. The poofiness keeps the chips inside from getting crushed. It’s like an automobile air-bag for chips. Car air-bags also use nitrogen, but for reasons other than freshness.

Pringles come in tubes for protec­tion instead of air-bags. Which they can because they’re stackable. Pringles cans don’t use nitrogen because the chips pack so tightly there’s very little oxygen in there. While you could also stack flat potato chips, Pringles are all made with a curvey, horse saddle shape called a hyperbolic paraboloid. Besides looking nice and more like a real potato chip, the curve gives the chip extra rigidity for dipping in dip.

How the hyperbolic paraboloid adds rigidity would take an engineer to explain. You can demonstrate that it does easily enough. Take a sheet of paper and hold it between your thumb and one finger. It droops. Hold it between your thumb and two fingers, pressing with the thumb so the paper curves and it will extend out. It’s the same piece of paper, only the shape makes it stiffer.


Tennis balls also come in a tube like a Pringles can. Though the tennis ball can came first so it’s the other way around. Why in a can? Maybe it keeps the balls fresh and bouncy. I really don’t know. Balls are curved in every direction imaginable. Which might make them the ultimate in curvey rigidity. They can roll in any direction. There’s no right side up or upside down to a ball. They’re a marvel. Then again, it’s very hard to stack tennis balls like Pringles. Which might explain the can.

Filed 12/19/12

Only Economists and Politicians Don’t Know War and Disasters Don’t Boost the Economy


There is a notion floating around that a natural disaster boosts gross domestic product (GDP). Just think of all that economic activity it takes to rebuild. Surely that’s good for all the workers and businesses hired in the effort, right? Let’s think about it.

No money was created by the disaster. Money spent replacing a destroyed building is money not available for something else. The rebuilding mostly diverts money from one thing to another. In which respect it’s a wash as the money would have added to GDP in some other way. Unless you think that money would have gone forever unspent. Hardly likely.

Except it’s not a wash, it’s a loss. Had there been no disaster you could have had a building and built a second building, a net two buildings. With the disaster you lose one building and build one to replace it, a net one building. How is it you can invest the same amount in both cases, yet be ahead in one and behind in the other? Why is this not reflected in GDP?

GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government + Exports - Imports

Investments are things like building infrastructure, capital equipment, buildings and the like. This adds to GDP. Seems to me the reverse would also be true, destroying infrastructure, capital equipment, buildings and the like subtracts from GDP. What Hurricane Sandy destroyed should reduce GDP by that amount. It’s simple math.

Therein lies one of the many flaws of GDP as a metric. They only add to investment, it’s always positive. They never subtract lost investment. So if disasters were destroying infrastruc­ture faster than you replace it, you could be increasing your GDP all the way to the poor house.

What is GDP telling us? What good is it? Mightn’t it be better to calculate net domestic product? What good are higher sales if the business operates at a loss? Would it be good for an entire economy to do the same thing? This reminds me of the old line, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”

Filed 12/15/12

Fastest Bow in the West


I like a good swashbuckling celluloid romp as much as the next guy. As long as the next guy thinks swashbuckling celluloid romp means Robin Hood and not Miss Tranny Shack, despite both being men in tights. In any case, in such a flick you can generally count on the occasional sword fight. How much these fencing duels were like how folks back in the day really fought, I couldn’t say. One assumes a real life fight to the death would be no holds barred. Eye gouging, biting, kicking, whatever it took.

I seem to recall a story concerning an expert swordsman advising a man who was set to fight a duel. This dueler was older and smaller than his opponent, so a long fencing match was beyond his strength and stamina. The blade maestro told him, “Run at your opponent screaming like a madman, jump in the air and bring the sword down on the top of his head as hard as you can.” Not very swash­buckling, but I guess it worked.

Another thing you’ll often see in these types of “historical” flicks is bows and arrows. One wonders how accurately Hollywood portrays the way ancient archers arched, if that’s the way to put it. We haven’t been using the things in warfare for quite some time now. Have we lost some of the techniques? I can’t answer that. But this short video might:

Lars Andersen - Speed Shooting Bow and Arrow

Filed 12/6/12

Subdivided Subcontinent


To some Britain means England. Don’t say that to a Scot nationalist. To them the English are foreigners. Just mention King Edward I and prepare for an earful. Old Longshanks wasn’t called the “Hammer of the Scots” for nothing. Then again, Scots divide themselves between highlanders and lowlanders. Highland Scots further subdivide themselves into clans. You’ll find this same sort of thing all over Europe. All the same, they have nothing in this regard compared to India.

Due to its caste system Indian demo­graphics are something else again. By discouraging intermarriage, caste has subdivided Indians into multiple what you might call micro-ethnicities. A leading population geneticist, L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, estimates there are 43,000 endoga­mous communities in India. That’s a whole lot of little villages where everyone is related to everyone else in the village, and unrelated to outsiders.

As you can imagine, this made for a pretty closed community. As a result life for the rural Indian villager has been isolated and limited for no little while. In 1952, the fifth anniversary of independence, the government initi­ated a survey to discern whether the average villager had learned yet the British had left India. The study was abandoned when early results indicated most villagers didn’t know the British had ever arrived.

Filed 11/13/12

Latin Greek You’ve Likely Seen


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consec­tetur, adipisci velit. Perhaps you’ve run across that sequence before. It’s a bit of standard placeholder text used by graphic designers to mock up a page when a manuscript is not avail­able. Oddly enough, they call this greek text even though it appears to be Latin using Roman letterforms. The curious might wonder, is it real Latin or gibberish, and what might it mean.

It is real Latin. Mostly. It’s Latin with bits missing here and there. It comes from Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum, a treatise on the theory of ethics from 45 BC. The original goes as follows, Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit… Which translates as, “There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain…”

How and where this bit of text being used as a placeholder started is unclear. There’s some indication it traces back to the early days of movable type when most scholarly books where in Latin. It’s lasting power is easily understood. If you need greek copy it’s easier to simply copy than to write or find something else. As they say, why re-invent the wheel.

On a related note, you may have run across this sentence which sounds like something from a children’s book, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This is an example of a pangram, a phrase containing every letter of the alphabet. Typographers often use it to show what every letter­form of a particular typeface looks like in text rather than as an alphabetical table.

Filed 10/4/12

How Cold is Space?


Thing is, space is not very cold at all. It’s not very hot or lukewarm, either. Temperature is the measure of matter’s kinetic energy. Where there’s no matter, there’s nothing there to have a lot or a little kinetic energy, in other words to have a temperature. Meaning space, a vacuum, has no temperature at all.

Think of it like momentum, a ball flying through the air. You can speed up or slow down the ball, change its momentum. You can’t speed up or slow down a vacuum because there’s nothing there to speed up or slow down. Measuring the speed of nothing is meaningless. It has no speed, color, weight, smell, taste or anything else. Being nothing, it has nothing. In the same way, it has no temperature either.

One of the greatest dangers to space-walking astronauts is not freezing in their suits, but dissipating excess body heat. The reason being in a vacuum the free exchange of temper­ature is nearly impossible. There’s no convection or conduction in a vacuum. On NASA’s Staying Cool in Space web page it states the “ISS (Interna­tional Space Station) needs huge radiators to get rid of its excess heat.” The ISS requires 14 honeycombed ammonia-tubing-filled aluminum panels totaling 1680 square feet to stay cool.

On the other hand, some object in deep space away from a source of heat can be very cold indeed. All the same, the space around it will still have no temperature at all.

Filed 7/31/12

“I’m Gonna Eat Some Worms”


Some things sound better left untranslated. That really goes for food.

Italian pasta names in English

cannelloni – little tubes
fettuccine – little ribbons
linguine – little tongues
manicotti – pipes
mostaccioli – little mustaches
ravioli – little turnips
rigatoni – little stripes
spaghetti – strings
tortellini – little fritters
vermicelli – little worms

Be honest, do you really want to dig into a heaping plateful of hot strings and meatballs? Or chow down on a steaming serving of little tongues in Alfred’s sauce? Marinara sauce is mariner’s sauce in Italian. Other words for mariner are sailor and seaman. Anyone for some little worms in seaman sauce? Yummy.

Yeah, some things are better left in Italian.

Filed 4/13/12

The Reports of Our Bee Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated


Starting about five years ago stories circulated of an alarming develop­ment, bee hives were suddenly dying out. The phenonmenon was called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). All sorts of reasons were suggested why it was happening. The usual suspects were rounded up; pesticides, polution, genetically modified crops. We were killing off the bees. Disaster loomed.

And now, the rest of the bee story perhaps you haven’t heard. CCD is natural, nothing new, and bees are not going to disappear any time soon.

Professor Lawrence Harder from the department of biology at the University of Calgary and Marcelo Aizen from Buenos Aires set the record straight: There has been no worldwide collapse in honey bee populations; The bee disaster scenario relies on data which is too regional and doesn’t represent global trends; Managed hives have increased by 45 percent over the last five years.

So, the die-offs are isolated and not widespread. Bees as species are not in danger. Still, what’s killing bees in those cases? Turns out the culprit is mother nature and not man; namely parasites, fungi and pathogens.

Bees are subject to parasitic Varroa mites and tracheal mites. Pathogens include the Israeli acute paralysis virus and two other viruses that transform the shape of wings or cause a disease only affecting queen bee larvae.

A phorid fly, Apocephalus borealis, parasitizes bees causing them to become disoriented and abandon their hives; a primary symptom of CCD. The florid fly lays eggs in the bee’s abdomen. As the larvae grow the host bees begin to exhibit zombie-like behavior by walking around in circles with no apparent sense of direction. Bees then leave the hive at night flying blindly toward light. It even­tually dies and the fly larvae emerge.

The bottom line, parasites are the major component in CCD with fungi and disease playing a major role. Bees have been plagued by these for a very long time. Considering their ubiquity in nature, parasites, fungi and patho­gens should have been the first usual suspects.

Filed 1/18/12

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