The Great Medical Staff Mixup


Looking at the two similar ancient symbols above it’s easy to imagine how one might get them mixed up. Such confusion arose around the 1850s where the Caduceus was mistaken for the Staff of Asclepius and so the Caduceus became the symbol for medicine. Fortunately, sick folks today don’t know what the Caduceus originally stood for or they might not go to any doctor or hospital using it.

The Staff of Asclepius was the symbol for the Roman god of medi­cine and healing. How a serpent on a stick means medicine beats me. I suppose the ancient Romans got it, but there aren’t any ancient Romans around today to explain it.

The Caduceus was the symbol of Mercury, the Roman god of liars and thieves. Mercury also gives us the word mercurial, meaning “changeable; vola­tile; fickle; flighty; erratic. Fast-talking and likely to do the unexpec­ted.” Not exactly traits we look for in medical folks. And when they tell you if you like your health insurance you can keep it… now you know.

Filed 11/21/13

Black & White Gray Squirrels All Over


If you live in my neck of the woods, southeastern Michigan, you’ve likely run across black squirrels. While I don’t actually live in the woods, it’s woodsy enough for tree squirrels to be happy as clams living hereabouts. Clams, not so much. These black squirrels are melanistic gray squirrels. Specifically, eastern gray squirrels – a type, rather than a color, of squirrel like red squirrels, fox squirrels, and flying squirrels.

In some places you’ll come across white squirrels which may be albino gray squirrels or not, depending. At any rate, these not-so-gray gray squirrels are not unique to any one place. There are black squirrels in the UK, for instance. These British black squirrels are American gray squirrel interlopers.

In Britain they’re grey squirrels instead of gray squirrels. Those Brits like to spell the color differently. They even spell colour differently. Then again, it’s their language, so I suppose it’s Americans who spell differently. Though we Yanks haven’t gone so far as to change squirrel to skwurl. On the other hand, since they are American squirrels maybe they should be spelled the American way. Just a thought.

Now then, what do you get if you cross a black gray squirrel with a white gray squirrel?

Filed 10/30/13

Film Shorts


Ever hear of the Wilhelm Scream? Even if you haven’t heard of it you’ve probably heard it. It’s been used in some 225 movies and video games. It’s something of an inside joke in the film biz. They say George Lucas inserts it in most of his films.

Ever heard of Alan Smithee? Yet another Hollywood gag. When a director wants to disavow any connec­tion to a film, perhaps due to someone else’s editing, it’s credited as “Direc­ted by Alan Smithee.”

Citizen Kane often tops all-time-best-movie lists. Though the basis of the movie, searching for the meaning of Kane’s last utterance, Rosebud, makes no sense. Kane says it after falling down the stairs… but there wasn’t anyone around to hear him say it. Except the movie audience, that is.

The Rosebud business might be what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin. In Sir Alfred’s words, “A device or plot element that catches the viewer’s attention or drives the plot. The McGuffin is essentially something that the entire story is built around and yet has no real relevance.”

On the other hand, Kane could have fallen down the stairs and let out a Wilhelm Scream. But where’s the McGuffin in that? Sounds like an Alan Smithee movie.

Filed 10/18/13

P-38 Frozen in Time, But When?


The 3 kilometer thick Antarctic ice sheet is calculated to be 250,000 years old. This is figured by counting ice layers, one layer is a year of winter build-up and summer thaw. However, there’s a fly in the ointment. A really big fly. Maybe the size of a P38.

“The lost squadron” of Lockheed Lightnings were abandoned in Greenland in 1942. Fifty-one years later, a team led by Patrick Epps dug them out from under 250 feet of ice. One might expect he dug through 51 layers. But a quote from Mr. Epps reveals otherwise, “Who told you one layer equals one year? We dug down through fifty years of time and found thousands of layers in 250 feet.”

Seems the one layer per year idea is pretty questionable. Rather than a yearly freeze-melt cycle, it’s more likely a layer is a large storm, a slight thaw at the surface topped by another storm.

Perhaps Mr. Epps exaggerated. Maybe he found hundreds of layers. Say a thousand all told in 51 years of build-up. This would mean about 20 layers per year. This being the case, 250,000 ice layers would not mean 250,000 years, it would mean 12,500 years. Twenty-five layers per year would mean 10,000 years.

In which case they know what was happening on Antarctica 250,000 years ago. With a margin of error of 240,000 years. Or maybe those P38s were really lost by Erik the Red.

Filed 9/5/13

Mòran Taing!


Scotch drinkers should lift a glass and salute Malcom Purcell McLean. Whether the name is Scottish or not, he didn’t make scotch. His business was trucking and shipping. He was the “Father of containerization.” Why scotch drinkers should care will be revealed.

Malcom P. McLean owned a Trucking company in North Carolina. In 1955 he bought a shipping company with the idea it would be simpler and quicker to lift a truck trailer directly onto a ship without having to unload its contents. Remove the wheels, rein­force the box and they could be stacked and packed together. Thus was born container shipping.

Mr. McLean called it intermodalism. Most folks call it containerization. This reduced the cost and increased the speed of loading and unloading, and so of shipping. Con­tainer shipping grew steadily from then to now where container ships carry about 60% of the value of goods shipped by sea.

Long gone are the days of gangs of laborers loading and unloading assorted barrels, bales, sacks, crates and such, when it would take a week to unload a ship, and when Scotch whiskey was unprofitable to export from Scotland because much of it would be stolen by dock workers. Or so I read elsewhere on the web so it’s gotta be true.

Filed 8/31/13

Sun Flunks Test


Modern science tells us with no uncertainty they know how the sun works: It’s a thermonuclear fusion ball. Recently scientists ran an MRI on the sun to map the convection of heat from the nuclear core to the photo­sphere. Unfortunately, they could only find 1% of the convection needed for the sun to work.

There are a few other problems that defy solar theory: the sun is too round; the equatorial regions rotate faster than the poles; particles streaming from the sun accelerate as they get farther away; it’s hotter on the outside than on the inside; there’s no good explanation for the cycles and the tiny variation of visual light, but huge vari­ations in other wavelength emissions; every prediction of what they’d find at the edge of the heliosphere was wrong.

So, except for lacking 99% of the heat convection required the standard model of the sun is an atom-smashing success. I guess being one percent correct is close enough for settled science.

Filed 8/21/13

Yes, But Are They Pants or Trousers?


Though now-a-days we think of jeans being made of denim, originally jean and denim were not the same thing. Denim derives from serge de Nîmes, a fabric of the city of Nîmes, France. Jeans, on the other hand, comes from the Italian city of Genova. That’s Genoa to English speakers, and Jennes if you parlay Fran-say. The fabric made there was called jean or jeane.

Then we have dungaree, from Hindi dungri which was a coarse calico named after a village in India which is now a section of Bombay.

We don’t much associate blue jeans with France, Italy, or India but rather with America. More specifically with the California gold rush and the work trousers made by Levi Strauss in San Francisco. Other folks made work trousers out of jean, denim and dun­garee before Mr. Strauss came along. Strauss’ big innovation was adding rivets for durability. Check out the pockets of the jeans you might have on right now. Rivets.

Levi’s pretty much set the pattern for the modern jeans we all wear today. Though we might not call them Levi’s had Mr. Strauss not changed his name from Löb to Levi. We might go put on a pair of Löb’s. Just doesn’t have the same ring to it, even if you did know how to pronounce it.

Filed 8/8/13

A Couple Car Bits Just For the Heck of It


A now standard bit of automobile gear was introduced at the first Indy 500 in 1911 and helped Ray Harroum in a Marmon Wasp win the race… the rearview mirror. Other racers had a co-driver/mechanic/spotter in the passen­ger seat to serve the same purpose.

Michigan’s M-185 is the only state highway that bans automobile traffic. It’s located on historic Mackinac Island where only foot, bike, horse and horse-drawn carriage traffic is allowed.

Filed 5/16/13

Hemp Is Better Than Cotton


Almost half of the world’s pesticides and herbicides are used to grow one crop, and we don’t even eat it. Cotton. You may be sporting cotton head-to-toe right now. T-shirt, shirt, under­pants, socks, denim jeans could all be cotton. Even your baseball cap, should you be wearing one, might well be cotton. Go through your dresser drawers and closet. Cotton everywhere.

Could we do without cotton? Is there another plant that can make better, more durable cloth while using less pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, energy and water? Yep. Everything you wear made from cotton could be made from hemp. Hemp’s long fibres make stronger, more durable cloth than cotton. Or a stronger yet softer fabric than cotton. Makes great rope, too.

Hemp grows fast, its dense foliage shades the ground inhibiting weeds so needs less herbicides. The shade also retains soil moisture. Add hemp’s deeper roots and little to no irrigation is required. Cotton cultivation uses lots of fertilizers and growth regu­lators. On the other hand, hemp leaves the soil enriched. It’s deeper roots break down aerating the soil while providing humus.

Better cloth, fewer chemicals, less energy and water. It’s a wonder plant. Only one problem. In our infinite wisdom we have made hemp ilegal. I guess that’s the price we’re willing to pay, plus law enforcement costs, to rid ourselves of pot smoking. What’s that? There are people smoking pot anyway? H-h-m-m-m…

Filed 5/3/13

Favorite Pet Names


See Spot run. Run, Spot, run. Familiar with that? Do schools use the old Dick and Jane readers any more? I don’t know. Are dogs named Spot any more? How about Fido, Rex, Rover, Lady, Lassie, and King? Below are the top ten dog names according to, left column, and, right column.


Seems the old popular dog names are not so popular nowadays. As you can see, Buddy makes the top spot on the left, but is only number six on the right. Bailey is number two on the left, but didn’t make the right-hand top ten at all. And what’s with the popularity of Bella? I don’t get that.

All the same, I don’t imagine there’s some official registry of all dogs and their names. Dogs don’t get issued birth certificates generally speaking. If you try some other source you might get yet a different list.

None of these top ten dog names make the top ten names for cats, except for one. The most popular name for both male cats and male dogs is Max. Well, depending on who you ask.

Filed 4/9/13

Happy Birthday, Everybody


The most common date for an American to be born is September 16th. The least likely is February 29th, unsurprisingly enough. I “borrowed” this birthday heat map from The Daily Viz which shows every day of the year by numbers of births.

At a glance an obvious overall pattern emerges. Fewer babies born in January, gradually increasing up through September, then tapering off back toward the end of the year. This makes intuitive sense, babies born in months with plentiful food. Harvest times. A sort-of biological clock held over from days of yore?


However, there are curious hot and cold spots that buck the trend. There’s an uptick in December, with a cold spot at Christmas. There are cold spots right around Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. There’s a hot spot on Valentine’s Day, February 14th. It’s like women somehow can avoid giving birth on certain holidays. While they can force the issue (pardon the pun) on Valentine’s Day and right before New Year’s where there’s a hot spot leading up to December 30th.

Another thing you can see is a downtick across the board on the 13th of every month. Appears as if some women prevent giving birth on Friday the thirteenth. Whether this is for their own sake or so the kid won’t have a Friday the 13th birthday is a question. As is are mothers aware they’re doing this.

All this b’day blather brings up what you might call the birthday quandary. Which is, if you had a random group of 30 people, what are the chances two of them share the same birthday? 100 to 1? 50 to 1? 50-50? Here’s the possibly surprising answer.

Filed 3/26/13

Bad-ass Brass Kills Germs


Are you a germophobe? Here’s a little tip that may help you: get brass door­knobs. That’s because researchers have found that copper and copper alloys like brass can kill germs and prevent antibiotic resistance in bacteria from spreading.

Plastic and stainless steel surfaces allow bacteria to survive and spread when people touch them. Even if the bacteria die, DNA that gives them resistance to antibiotics can survive and be passed on to other bacteria. On the other hand, copper and brass kills the bacteria and also destroys this DNA.

To quote Professor Bill Keevil of Southampton University in the UK, “There are a lot of bugs on our hands that we are spreading around by touching surfaces… On stainless steel surfaces these bacteria can survive for weeks, but on copper surfaces they die within minutes.” Source.

Nowadays when we think clean and sanitary we think of stainless steel. It’s all over our kitchens and hospitals. But we may have rather missed the boat, sanitary-wise. Brass and copper would be better.

Filed 3/16/13

The Pareto Principle


Ever hear of the 80/20 rule? This basically applies to statistics like this: 20% of the beer drinkers drink 80% of the beer. I made that up, but it sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Maybe this jibes with your own experience. You might know lots of folks who drink a few beers now and then, but a few people who drink lots of beer all the time. The whole 80/20 thing just seems right.

Thing is, there’s some truth in the 80/20 rule. The rule came about because that distribution, or something close to it, happens to be true for many things. Economist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. Further research in other areas turned up a large number of other natural and social examples of a similar distribution.

This led to what is called the Pareto principle, the Pareto distribution, or simply the 80/20 rule. The Pareto distri­bution isn’t a law of precise prediction, it’s a power law probability distribution projecting probabilities and ranges, not exact numbers. For example: the top 25% of U.S. wage earners pay 87% of the Federal income taxes. Sort-of 80/20, though not exactly.

The next time you hear such a statistic at a cocktail party you might figure it was made up. But even so, might still be close to the truth. What­ever the case, you can challenge it or just let it slide. After all, at any cock­tail party 20% of the people speak 80% of the nonsense.

Filed 2/19/13

Hazardous New Year!


Some people celebrate New Year’s Eve in strange, and dangerous ways. For instance, many folks like to shoot guns in the air. OK, they shoot the bullets in the air with guns. This is actually less dangerous than many worry-warts suppose. Provided merry-makers shoot straight up. Bullets go up from the explosive force of gun­powder. But they come down from gravity, and due to air resistance reach terminal velocity. Which is not nearly as fast as going up, and not nearly as lethal.

However the French have their our peculiar way of celebrating. They burn cars. This past New Year’s Eve 1,193 vehicles were burned in France in matter of a few hours. Then again, burning cars is something of a national pastime over there. On average about 110 cars go up in flames daily. It is a tradition no-one can explain.

Of course, there’s a lot of things French no-one can explain. Like French cars, for instance.

Filed 1/5/13

A Few Tidbits to Start the New Year


2013 will be as long as normal and shorter than average. A year is nor­mally 365 days, and 365 1/4 days on average. Now then, the year in Greece will shorten by 2 months. Or rather, govern­ment employees will go from 14 monthly paychecks to 12.

In Japan, child diaper sales are less than adult diaper sales.

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Federal Reserve. Since 1913 the dollar has lost 97% of its value and prices have risen 3,300%.

2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Cubs last World Series victory, the longest drought in major league sports. Still, the Cubs are more popular than the Federal Reserve.

If the government taxed adjusted gross income over $66,000 plus all corporate taxable income at 100% it would not cover the yearly increase in government liabilities.

A simple arithmetic question most Harvard students get wrong: “A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

If you came up with 10 you got the same wrong answer as most Harvard students. An easy puzzle can evoke an answer that is intuitive, simply arrived at, and wrong. If the ball cost 10 the bat cost $1, which is only 90 more than the ball. The correct answer is 5. While Harvard students get it wrong a little over 50% of the time, the general public gets it wrong nearly 80% of the time.

H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” I guess that can go for simple problems, too.

Filed 1/1/13

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