To Go Where Igor Has Gone Before –Star Trek Battle Music

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I admit in days gone by I was a bit of a Trekkie, or Trekker if you prefer. Forget days, years gone by. This being back when there was only the one series and no movies to be a Trekkie/ Trekker about. When TNG showed up I was frankly disappointed they failed to reprise the opening music. To my ears the old theme was truly classic and memorable, the new theme was just too Superman, the Movie-like generic John Williamsy, if you know what I mean. Not only do I prefer the original title theme score, I thought the battle music was much better as well.

Obviously this is old news and I’m a bit slow on the uptake, but I didn’t realize something about that 1960s incidental music until recently. While listening to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) for the umpteenth time, partway through “Le Sacrifice” (part two) I said to myself: This sounds a lot like the Star Trek battle music.

Myself: Isn’t it the other way around? The ballet was first by fifty years.

I: You know what I meant.

Myself: Of course I do. Myself am I.

I: Why are you talking like Yoda?

Myself: Don’t bring Star Wars into it.

Digressions aside, it took forty years for me to make the connection. I told you, slow on the uptake. The two musical scores are more than similar, Star Trek composer Gerald Fried picked up the theme from Stravinsky in toto. Or maybe it’s a motif, the exact difference eludes me. Now I know why I liked it so much, it’s one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. The ballet, not the Star Trek score.

Listen and compare for yourself: Stravinsky In Space

On the other hand, if we are to believe Kirby Ferguson Everything Is a Remix

My “aha” moment is beyond déjà vu or l’esprit de l’escalier, French for “the wit of the staircase.” You know, the experience of thinking of a witty reply to some comment many hours too late, as the phrase suggests, while climbing the stairs on your way to bed. Or in George Costanza’s case, after you’ve driven from Akron to New York. Though nowadays with Twitter, where we can zing anyone, anywhere, anytime, no l’esprit de l’escalier need go to waste.

Filed 12/26/15

Oil and Water Mixed Trivia

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Modern extracted vegetable oils were first developed in the 19th century to replace whale oil, to make candles, and for other non-food uses. When the advent of petroleum and electricity put the kibosh on all that they repurposed them as food. These oils are liquid even when refrigerated so they hydro­genate them to make them solid at room temperature, which is how shortening is made. Crisco, woulda-been candles you eat. Yummy.

You might wonder what canola oil is. I mean, have you ever run a cross a canola plant? There is no such thing. Canola oil is made from rape seeds. Manufacturers figured folks wouldn’t buy rape oil. Sounds pretty unsavory for more than one reason. Since a lot of the rape plants are produced in Canada, they named it can(ada)ola oil.

Every living thing is mostly water. Think of how much smaller a raisin is than a grape. So, most everything you eat is loaded with water, unless you dehydrate it, like a raisin. Meat is also watery, sirloin steak is 71% water. Care for a swig of roast beef?

Every food containing fat contains all three types: saturated, monounsat­urated, and polyunsaturated. There is more unsaturated fat than saturated fat in red meat, fish, nuts, and seeds. Dairy products have more saturated than unsaturated fat. The award for highest saturated fat goes to… coconut oil.

Filed 11/24/15

Know Your Car Oval Codes

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Dutch door, Dutch uncle, Dutch treat, Dutch courage, go Dutch, double Dutch. Why so many Dutch terms in English? Why Dutch when they come from Holland? Shouldn’t they be Hollandaise? Or is the country the Netherlands? How do you get Dutch from either Holland or Netherlands? Then there’s the Pennsylvania Dutch who aren’t Dutch but German. Then again, Germans aren’t German in Germany, they’re Deutsch in Deutsch­land. Deutsch, Dutch, must be some connection there.

English speakers don’t always call places what the people there call them. That’s why those oval country stickers on cars can be confusing. Then again, it works the other way around, too. Ever hear of l’Angleterre? That’s what the French call England.

Here’s the fun and games part of this entry. From which European countries are the stickers on the car in the opening picture? For the answers, hover the mouse over the sticker. In one case you might think, “A country named after a typeface?” Of course, it’s the other way around. Oh yeah, one sticker is not European. Or is it two or three?

Meanings of oval car stickers around the world

Filed 11/17/15

You Can Tell a Sly Fox by Its Covering

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You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Beauty is only skin deep.

Russia began a captive arctic fox breeding program in the 1950s. They found these foxes had one of three basic behaviors around humans: aggression, avoidance, or calm and curious. The last being what you might call tame, or perhaps dog-like. So the Russians bred their captive foxes for tameness, it just made them easier to deal with.

Then the unexpected happened. While wild arctic foxes are all black, the bred-for-tameness foxes developed white patches. When these tamer foxes were cross-bred back with the wilder foxes the patches disappeared. In other words, even though the foxes were selected and bred for temperament, the appearance changed.

You can’t judge a book by its cover? Considering the Russians experience, maybe you can judge a fox by its cover.

Compare this to the experience of dog breeders. It is well known that different dog breeds have different temperaments. Many show dog breeds were selectively bred for appearance, not temperament. Yet with similar, if reverse-wise, results as with foxes: change the appearance and the temper­ament changes.

Beauty is skin deep? Con­sidering the above, it may go deeper than that.

Gene expression is not so simple as geneticists first thought. Changing one bit of code changes some seemingly unrelated bit of code. Kinda like a Three Stooges bit, close one filing cabinet drawer and another pops open. Get it? The files hold information like DNA holds information…

Now that we’ve tortured those analogies and sayings to death, we have another old saw about leopards changing spots… Aw, skip it.

Filed 11/7/15

Hormones Can Make You Fat

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The beef cattle industry uses what’s called feed efficiency to control both costs and how cattle grow. When ranchers finish cattle, fatten them up for the slaughterhouse, they don’t just put down more feed and say “Eat, eat, you look like a scarecrow.” They give the cattle hormones, insulin, to stim­ulate fat production.

Feed efficiency grew out of Nobel-winning science from the 1960s when the technology was developed to map out the mechanism. Insulin moves calories into fat cells for storage and prevents calories coming out. Basic­ally, high insulin means fat creation, low insulin means fat burning. Carbo­hydrates drive insulin, eating carbs and sugar raises insulin levels.

Normally a body cycles between fat storing and fat burning. It only burns fat when insulin levels are low, which is some hours after eating carbs. For people it’s mostly during sleep or fasting. As you might know, breakfast means break fast. So, to make cattle fat they keep insulin levels higher than usual so they stay in fat storing mode.

It’s complicated, but growing a fat cow is about hormones. Just like growing a big cow is about hormones, growth hormones. Every biologist agrees with all this. So far so good.

When people get fat all the science above is thrown out the window by the experts who instead say people get fat simply because they eat too much and don’t exercise. It’s not hormones or metabolism or anything like that, it’s gluttony and sloth which people were lured into it by junk food, fast food, TV, and video games made by greedy corporations.

Cows get fat because of hor­mones, people get fat because of the seven deadly sins. How very scientific.

Filed 11/3/15

Eat Your Vegetables, Even When They’re Fruits and Flowers

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Simple Fruit Salad: Mix one half cup diced cucumber, yellow pepper and tomato. Drizzle with ranch dressing and top with ripe olives. That’s it.

Perhaps cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and olives don’t leap to mind as fruits, but they are. Then again, who thinks about it that much? If it makes a yummy pie, fruit. If mom made you eat it because it was good for you, vegetable.

Fruits are sort-of roundish, fleshy things with seeds growing on trees, bushes and vines. Zucchini, pumpkin, eggplant, avocado, and squash are fruits despite not all making a yummy pie.

Vegetables are leafy greens, pods, roots, and bulbs. Yet leafy greens are not always green, as in purple cabbage and red kale. You can argue if tubers, legumes and fungi are veggies or not, but it doesn’t matter for now.

So then, what of broccoli which isn’t like the things mentioned above and we don’t eat the leafy green bits? Broccoli is a flower. Ever see yarrow? Broccoli is like edible yarrow. Also a flower is cauliflower (of course, it’s right in the name.

Many leafy greens are flowers harvested before they bloom. Let lettuce mature and it will flower, called bolting. Many bulbs and roots are flowers. Where do you suppose the seeds come from? Queen Anne’s lace is a flowering wild carrot. How about asparagus? In some places it’s called sparrow grass and so… actually, it’s a perennial flower.

We rarely eat anything but the fruit from a fruit plant. Sometimes we eat the seeds, often not. Some seeds, like apple seeds and peach pits, contain arsenic. We eat various parts of vege­tables: flowers, leaves, pods, roots and bulbs. Sometimes we eat just the stalk, like celery and rhubarb. Good thing, too, because rhubarb leaves are toxic. Which leads us to…

Simple Death Salad: Cut up rhubarb leaves and angel wing mushrooms. Drizzle with ranch dressing and top with yew berries. It can be any kind of dressing, that’s the only non-lethal part.

Filed 10/17/15

Dogs Are Like People in a Way You Might Never Suspect

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Genetically people are closest to great apes. Socially people are closest to dogs. There’s a natural interaction and understanding between dogs and humans. For instance, dogs are the only animal that understands pointing. A person points a finger at something across the room and a dog under­stands what it means. “Go there, check that out, that’s where it is.” Our closest primate cousins just don’t get pointing at all.

Not only that, but dogs can get the same information from our eyes and small gestures. That is, a person looks at and/or head gestures slightly to something across the room and a dog understands this is just like pointing a finger.

This communication with the eyes works because of something you’ve probably noticed but haven’t thought much about. On humans you see a lot of the white-of-the-eye, which is called sclera. This is not the case with most every other animal. No other primate has this trait. Here’s the “aha,” dogs have a noticeable white sclera. Not as much as humans, but it’s there and can be seen when dogs shift their eyes.

This sclera trait makes it easier to tell from a distance where someone, or some dog, is looking. Silent communi­cation without big gestures can come in handy. For sneaking up on prey, for instance. In case you’re wondering, wolves have the same trait. But then wolves are dogs that just never socialize with people.

In prehistoric times humans and wolves (proto-dogs if you will) hunting together were more successful than when hunting separately. People and dogs have been working together in other ways, too. It’s the ultimate “You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” alliance. With a little belly-scratching thrown in. Look around, people and dogs are everywhere.

Though dogs don’t do as much work as they used to, we still feed and care for them. Makes you wonder, all things considered, which partner got the better end of the bargain?

Filed 10/3/15

Why Summer Has Dog Days

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According to the temperature record July is the hottest month in these parts. According to my perception record –not that I’ve actually recorded it) August seems like the hottest month. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Or maybe the dew point, or whatever makes up the feels-like index, if they call it that.

In any case, the hottest stretch is the dog days of summer, roughly July 3 to August 11 when Sirius is most prom­inent in the night sky. Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major, Latin for “Greater Dog.” (Not to be con­fused with “the big dog” which I think is an expression from the American south.) Sirius is the dog of Orion, the hunter, and so the star is known as the Dog Star. Sirius is Greek for “searing or scorching.” Very early Greeks thought the Dog Star was partly why early summer was so hot.

In the end, the dog days have nothing to do with dogs laying around in the sun, or the heat making every­one dog tired, or anything to do with earthly dogs. It’s sort-of the Dog Star days of summer. They tell me only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. If they did, they wouldn’t see Sirius which can only be seen at night. Still, there are no dog nights of summer. Go figure.

By the way, all this only applies if you live in the north. Right now it’s winter in Australia, Argentina and lands below the tropic of Capricorn. They might not even be able to see Sirius down there, though I couldn’t say for sure.

Filed 9/20/15

The Short Life and Death of Mouse Utopia

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In 1968 John B. Calhoun created what he called Mouse Utopia for four breeding pairs of wild mice. Mouse Utopia had ample food and water; no predators; no disease; comfortable temper­ature, conditions and space. Here’s what happened:

Stage One: Mice introduced, first litters born.
Stage Two: Population growth, doubling every 55 days.
Stage Three: Population growth slows to doubling in 145 days.
Stage Four: Population stagnates, births and deaths equal.
Terminal Stage: Last conception about day 920, all females become menopausal, the colony ages and all eventually die.

In the latter stages mice exhibited pathological behaviours and a loss of the will to procreate. It’s interesting the colony didn’t return to health with population decline, it died out entirely in less than three years. (There are different speculations as to why, but we’ll not go into that. Instead we’ll just look at some eerie parallels.)

The industrial/agricultural revo­lution kicked off a sort-of Mouse Utopia for people. Starvation, malnu­trition and epidemics became ever rarer. Childhood mortality fell from near 50% to 1%. Everyone survived to reproduce, population exploded. (Stage Two?)

Today in long industrialized countries the birth rate is slipping below replacement levels. (Well into Phase Four?) Childless lifestyles and abortion are common­place. (Loss of will to procreate?) Family disintegra­tion and illegitimacy soar. The anti-hero, the dark, and the bizarre are celebrated. Morality is reduced to personal feelings. (Pathological behavior?) Is the Terminal Stage waiting in the wings?

The human reproductive cycle is much longer than that of mice, gener­ations are measured in decades instead of months. Any such Human Utopia collapse would take a few centuries instead of years. Is the clock ticking?

Mouse Utopia died out, not from deprivation, but by getting everything without cost. Or so it seemed, the ultimate price paid was very steep. I’m not saying humanity will go the way of Mouse Utopia… Still, I can’t resist closing with, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley.”

Filed 8/11/15

Darwin Was Wrong

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OK, I wrote the headline to be provoc­ative. What I’m talking about is the Darwinian evolutionary mechanism of chance mutation being questionable in the light of current research.

The human body is composed of millions of cells. There are many times more foreign organisms in and on the body than there are cells. And there are a many times more viruses, too. (What exactly all these viruses do is not known, but the vast majority of them don’t cause pathologies.) Viruses contain RNA, the basis of DNA, the code for how cells work.

Research has found viruses can share their RNA with living cells. A current hypothesis suggest mutations are caused by cells adopting and incorporating RNA from viruses in response to conditions. Which would make viruses a sort-of free-floating gene pool of a multitude of possible adaptations.

Anyway, as master statistician William M. Briggs says, randomness can’t cause anything anywhere. There is no force of chance. To ascribe something to chance is to ascribe no cause at all. Randomness is the aspect of quantum mechanics Einstein loathed. As he put it, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”

Filed 8/4/15

Fat is Not Giving Europe a Heart Attack

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The health and nutrition experts tell us eating fat will give you a heart attack. So, let’s look at the data from the largest test of this hypothesis ever, the eating habits of the entire population of Europe. The following is from the World Health Organization’s European Heart Study of 2008.

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Notice anything odd? France has the fattiest diet and the lowest coronary heart disease (CHD) death rate. Georgia has the leanest diet and the second highest CHD death rate. The French eat almost twice the fat as Russians and have less than one tenth the CHD death rate. The overall trend shows the more fat the lower the CHD death rate.

Yet somehow a low fat diet is “heart smart.” Why do they say this? I don’t know, but medical experts can believe two totally contrary things at the same time. Maybe they think the sample size, all of Europe, was too small.

After a recent study by the British Heart Foundation the investigators concluded there was no evidence that saturated fat is bad for your heart. At the same time they claimed saturated fat raised cholesterol levels which is bad for your heart. Meaning saturated fat does and doesn’t cause heart disease. It’s not saturated fat, it’s Schrödinger’s fat.

Not all the experts are buying it. To quote Dr. George Mann, former head of the Framingham Study (where the fat causes heart disease hypothesis originated back in the 1950s): “The diet-heart idea (the notion that saturated fats and cholesterol cause heart disease) is the greatest scientific deception of our times… The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.”

The Cholesterol Hypothesis Is Wrong

Filed 6/30/15

Jack “Nostramamus” London

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Top Ten Things Only Ten Years Away and Counting

  1. Soviet Union outproduces the west
  2. Great Society ends poverty
  3. Moon colonies
  4. Cubs win World Series
  5. Practical nuclear fission
  6. Cure for cancer
  7. Coronation of King Charles III
  8. Japan owns the world
  9. Paperless office
  10. Runaway global warming

We admit the clock is no longer running on number one. Let’s substitute People’s Republic of China for Soviet Union and start counting all over starting from 2010.

As somebody once said, “Brazil has had a bright future for fifty years now.” Yessiree bob, it’s hard to forecast the future. Though some folks see trends better than most. Jack London, for instance. In The Iron Heel written between 1906-08, London fictionalized the following:

  1. A world war in the second decade of the 20th Century
  2. A Russian revolution
  3. A second world war in the fourth decade of the 20th Century instigated by a charismatic leader who began speaking to working class men in the streets and bars.
  4. The U.S. Navy suffers a defeat at Hawaii, and recovers to win the war.
  5. The war results in a world economy managed by an American-European banking cartel enforced by a world-wide U.S. military presence.

That’s only five of many more in the book. Read about it:

American Prophet

Filed 6/11/15

Lose Over a Quarter Million Dollars in Bets, Never Pay Off the Winners, Yet They Don’t Complain

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After American Pharoah’s victory in the Belmont Stakes it seems a great many people would rather have a two dollar souvenir betting ticket than the $3.50 it paid. As a result Aqueduct racetrack had a $315,829 windfall in uncashed winning tickets. All total, 90,237 two dollar winning tickets went unclaimed.

Having previously won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, American Pharoah becomes the first triple crown winner in over three decades. Coincidentally, Barçelona completed the soccer treble on the same day. But that’s another story.

With over 90,000 of them out there, as a sports collectable on some future Antiques Roadshow we can’t imagine one of these winning tickets being worth much. Though a set of winning tickets from all three races might be a nice addition to a horse racing fan’s collection.

In a similar vien, we’ve also heard some personal checks from famous people go uncashed because folks keep them for the signature. It’s not a check, it’s an autographed momento. Heck, for a small payment some sig­natures might be worth more than the the check anyway.

Filed 6/9/15

The Indisputable Facts about Greenhouse CO2

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Bet you thought the headline was about global warming. It’s not. That’s old news, so 1990s. I’m talking about actual greenhouses, not the greenhouse effect.

If you really want to be green you need to increase CO2 not decrease it. I’m using green in the old having a green thumb sense. Thing is, CO2 is good for plants, it’s like airborne plant food. Here’s where I tie in the head­line, many commercial greenhouses pump up the CO2 level inside to increase plant growth and yield.

Now the kicker, increased CO2 works the same way outside of green­houses, too. The world is measurably greener since the man-made increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll have more trust in world renowned physicist Freeman Dyson.

Filed 6/5/15

Star Trek Is Real (Sort-of)

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“Make it so.” A familiar phrase to Trekkers. You know, Jean-Luc Picard, TNG. The very first time I heard the character say it I thought it contrived. The writers attempt to create a catch-phrase for their new non-Kirk captain. I have since learned this bit of naval jargon goes way back in British naval history.

It seems Captain Picard was just continuing an old British captain’s tradition. Which by his time would have been a thousand years old. Still, Picard was supposed to be French, despite Patrick Stewart’s obviously English accent. Shouldn’t he have spoken like Pepe LePew or something?

OK, all very trivial. How about this? Remember transparent aluminum from Star Trek IV? Guess what, it’s a real thing:

Transparent Aluminum

Filed 5/15/15

Simple Water Molecule Is Simply Amazing

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Living things are mostly water. By weight a person is about two-thirds water. On the other hand, the simple water molecule is much, much smaller than long-chained fat and proteine molecules. By count 99% of the molecules in your body are water.

We all know plants get energy from sunlight. Photosynthesis and all that. But, do people get energy directly from sunlight? Well, if Dr. Gerald Pollack is onto something about sunlight and what he calls the fourth phase of water, maybe we do. Shine light on this structured water and it moves itself through a tube, it performs work, it has electrical charge separation. No chlorophyl involved, just H2O. Or in it’s fourth phase, H3O2.

So then, what is a living organism really all about? Is it all a sophisti­cated way of organizing the work done by water into a higher order function? Is life really carbon based as they say, or water based? Is water alive? Or proto-living, if that’s a real thing?

Filed 4/24/15

The Other King of Rock & Roll

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Other than all being rock and rollers of sorts, what do Paul Revere & the Raiders, Jan & Dean, The Sonics, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin, Toots & the Maytals, the Stooges, the Clash, Lou Reed, Black Flag, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, R.E.M., Sisters of Mercy, Bruce Springsteen, and Smashing Pumpkins have in common? OK, rather a vague question. Let’s ask it this way, what song do they have in common? What song have they all recorded, along with about 1,600 other people?

“Louie, Louie” by Richard Berry. Check out the whole story of how he wrote the most recorded song in rock and roll history and hit pay dirt. Forty years later.

Just a little point of style: You almost always see it titled as “Louie Louie.” But on the original record it was “Louie, Louie” with a comma. Which is right? Does it matter? You also see Rock ‘n’ Roll instead of rock and roll. Should you capitalize musical genres? As far as I can find, you don’t need to, but many find it acceptable. As they say, close enough for rock and roll.

Filed 4/13/15

The World Might Turn Upside Down

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The Earth’s magnetosphere is sort-of like a protective force field against cosmic radiation and high energy particles emitted from the sun. Don’t look now, but the Earth’s magnetic field is getting weaker. It’s lost about 15% of its strength in the last 150 years. The pace of the weakening is increasing, the last quarter century accounts for a third of that loss.

Meanwhile, the Earth’s magnetic poles are moving. Also at an accel­erating rate. Could be the magnetic poles are going to flip, or are already starting to. The poles have periodically flipped in the past and those who study these things say it’s overdue to do it again.

Rapid Geomagnetic Reversal Possibility: Confirmed

The sun has gone quiet as well, sunspot activity is much lower than anticipated. Some solar scientists posit we’re entering another grand mini­mum, like the Maunder minimum that accom­panied the Little Ice Age.

Is there a connection between these three things? How weak will the Earth’s magnetic field get? How long does it take the magnetic field to flip? What happens while it does? Will a grand solar minimum be a good or bad thing during all this? Other than com­passes being pretty unreliable, it’s hard to imagine.

Could it be Sir Isaac Newton’s calculation for the end of the world in 2060 was not so crazy as it seems? I make no prediction on that score. Maybe you should consult the Mystic Eight Ball. Should the phenomena start wreaking havoc the information in this Fun Facts & Trivia entry might turn out to be not so trivial. Or fun, either.

Filed 4/2/15

Living In an Ice Age Ain’t All That Bad

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The moon is about as far from the sun as the Earth and gets the same inten­sity of sunlight energy. Yet, the moon is some 50 degrees colder on average. It’s like the moon is in a permanent ice age. Except, it gets hotter in the sun­light than the Earth does. The reason, the moon has no atmosphere.

Here’s how it works, more or less. The sunlight side heats up, as it rotates into shadow it cools by radiating heat into space. Because there’s no atmos­phere the heat doesn’t move around very much. After all, the hard surface of the moon doesn’t flow from place to place carrying heat with it, does it?

A fluid on the surface can move heat to the side in shadow by convec­tion and conduction. Earth has two giant fluids covering the unmoving solid surface, the oceans and the air. So, heat moves from the sunlit side to the shadow side keeping the sunlit side cooler and the shadow side warmer.

The Earth also loses heat at night by radiating it into space. But the two giant fluids delay the suface heat escaping and so the average temper­ature remains higher than the moon’s. This is not due to any green­house effect, but because of the nature of the fluids. It would happen even if the atmosphere were entirely inert nitrogen.

The term “ice age” sounds like it would be winter everywhere all the time. OK, maybe when you first hear it as a kid. If the sun delivers the same energy, if the rate of heat loss (mostly at night) increases you get an ice age. There’s less melt-off, glaciers and snowpacks grow very large and remain all year.

The problem in living during an ice age is not so much the temperature, it still gets warm, it’s all that snow and ice in the way. Life beyond the ice­bound areas would be pretty much as it is today. If you lived in, say, the Bahamas, you mightn’t notice much difference. After all, winter in the Bahamas is pretty warm.

Filed 3/4/15

Army Helmets Increase Head Wounds

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As the use of gunpowder weapons grew, the use of military helmets declined. By mid 19th century soft caps and hats were the norm. When World War I rolled around, high explosive shells raining down shrapnel and debris caused a rethink about helmets in military circles.

Early on in the Great War the British adopted the “Tommy tin hat” patterned after a traditional English design going back to the Hundred Years War. But surprise-surprise, after troops began wearing helmets head wounds increased about 500%. Why did that happen, one wonders. The British command certainly wondered. Did helmeted soldiers think they could now stick their heads up out of the trenches with impunity? In a word, no. Were the helmets themselves some­how dangerous? Same answer, no.

In essence, the increase in head wounds wasn’t real, but an artifact of statistical methods. Basically, if a soldier took a head hit and died they were listed as killed in action. If a soldier took a head hit and lived they were listed under head wound. Troops in helmets took as many head hits as those without, but (here’s the impor­tant bit) they survived at a higher rate. The helmets turned unspecified deaths into specified head wounds.

Once they subcategorized battle deaths by head hits or other causes, they saw how much helmets were saving lives. Funny thing, statistics. They seem straight­forward, after all they’re facts, right? Yet teasing out their meaning can be a tricky business. Something a simple as how numbers are categorized can lead you to the wrong conclusion.

Filed 1/17/15

Things I Learned about Combat Digitally Wandering Around

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Despite Hollywood depictions, pre-gunpowder battles rarely involved a massive, intermingled series of duels with swords, or with any sidearm for that matter. It was more effective to fight as a group and at a distance. Ancient battles generally were fought with pole and missile weapons. Pikes, spears, lances, javelins, arrows, cross­bow bolts, etc. Sidearms were used if the enemy closed to where pole and projectile weapons couldn’t be used.

A shield gives effective front protection, not so much side and rear protection. You certainly wouldn’t want to mix in with the enemy because then you could be attacked from any angle at any time. No, you wanted to keep the enemy in front of you and all your fellows beside and behind you. That way everybody is a shield for everybody else.

In a great jumbled melee once one side got the upper hand it would be quick slaughter of the losing side. For instance, imagine if everyone on your side were fighting individually against two guys. Your side will likely lose most of those fights and you will quickly be outnumbered three to one, then four to one, five to one… bad news for your team.

If packed together only so many of the enemy could get at you even if outnum­bered, only so many men can fit in a given space to fight. Plus, such a group could make an organized retreat, pretty hard to do that out of a disorganized melee. Even if you broke and ran, being all on one side of the enemy gave you a better chance of getting away. Still, a group battle could break down as in the above melee scenario and the losing side would quickly disintegrate and be chopped to pieces. This is one reason why the casualty counts in ancient battles were often so lopsided.

All the same, most ancient wars were not a series of field battles. In fact, such battles were the exception rather than the rule. Battles only happened if both armies decided to have a go. That is, each side thought it could win. If not, the weaker force, unless trapped, would slip away to fight another day.

Most ancient wars were a series of sieges. That’s where weaker forces would often slip away to, the safety of a fortified town. That’s where they were trapped and forced to fight. Still, it was the only way a much weaker force could hope to survive. Sieges weren’t a sure thing.

Of course, Hollywood gets sieges as wrong as they get field battles. In the movies a siege consists mostly of storming the castle. Oh, they might also have trebuchets firing great balls of napalm as their own troops are climbing walls. That’s smart. Then… OK, that’s enough. I’m sure you already know filmic reality is unreal. All the same, why does Hollywood think Vikings dressed like biker gangs in black leather festooned with studs?

Filed 1/31/15

Know-it-Alls That Barely Know at All

D-Keffect1

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

There’s nothing wrong with know­ledge, it’s the little part that causes trouble. Charles Darwin put it this way, “Ignorance more frequently begets confi­dence than does know­ledge.” You may suspect there is a kernel of truth in the old saw about a little knowledge. Suspect no more, researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger won a Nobel Prize for proving it’s true.

They call it the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias where lesser skilled people mistakenly rate their ability unrealistically high. Basically because they don’t know enough to recognize their mistakes. Ironically, gaining competence actually weakens confidence as people start realizing how much more they don’t know. Here’s my version of Dunning and Kruger’s graph with added notations:

D-Keffect2

Having conquered one old adage, perhaps misters Dunning and Kruger are now tackling some other old chest­nut. Maybe, Time is money. This may have them stymied. Physicists don’t agree on the definition of time, to some time isn’t even real. Then again, economists all concur on just about nothing.

Filed 1/11/15

Trivia In Black and White

Telstar

When we think of the iconic soccer ball, we think of white hexagon and black pentagon panels. A ball as if designed by Buckminster Fuller whose geodesic domes used the same pattern. We might be tempted to call it a buckyball (buckminsterfullerene), but that’s actually something else.

Soccer balls weren’t always made this way. For a hundred years or so the balls were made of 18 strips of leather in a pattern like a volleyball. This revolutionary and now famous black and white ball was invented by Adidas for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. This iconic ball had a name, the Telstar.

For readers too young to remember the 1960s, Telstar was the first tele­com­munications satellite. If you know what it looked like you would easily see why the ball was named after it. By the time Mexico hosted the World Cup again in 1986, the Telstar was out of official use. The ball that time was called the Azteca.

It’s claimed the Telstar design helped players follow the flight and spin of the ball easier. Whether that’s true or just marketing by Adidas I’m not so sure. At any rate, the ball was a smashing success. Even though it was used only for a couple decades it’s still what we think of when we think of a soccer ball. Sports websites use it as an icon to mean soccer. You can’t get more iconic than that.

Queen Victoria is well known for wearing mourning black from the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, until her own death years later. Less well known is on the much happier event of her marriage she began the tradition of brides wearing white.

Before then brides wore wedding gowns of no color in particular. Most folks, who couldn’t afford to buy a dress just to be married in, likely wore their Sunday best, whatever the color. The rich and famous often set the fashion and no-one was more rich and famous than Queen Victoria in her day. The fashion of brides in white took hold, spread, and hasn’t receded yet.

Filed 1/5/15

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