Are Pirates Sea-lubbers?


Infrequently Answered Question #39: Movie pirates call folks landlubbers. The land part I get, but what’s this lubbing they’re talking about?

A: Being a landlubber and not a pirate I can’t tell you. Perhaps the folks at the Official Talk-like-a-pirate Day site can tell you what that’s all about. Though I haven’t a clue about lubbing, I can tell why pirates go around saying “Avast, ye maties!”

avast (ə văst′) interj. A nautical command to desist. [Shortened from the Dutch houd vast, hold fast.]

What I can’t explain is why pirates say, Ar-r-r-r-r. Is that one of the symptoms of scurvy? Or is it simply a human growl? Then there’s ahoy instead of hello. Why? Sea folks just like to talk funny and call things by names landlubbers don’t get. Must be all that salt air and grog.

Filed 12/3/09

The Pants, Skirt Split


Infrequently Answered Question #38: Why do men wear pants and women wear skirts?

A: I can guess what you’re thinking, men need the extra crotch room more than women. You’d think so. And so you’d think it’d be the other way around, men in skirts and women in pants. But things happen for reasons that might not apply in modern times.

I’m not saying I have the definitive answer, pants and such were worn by different folks at different times in different places. We will look at one case were men went from skirts to pants. Or rather from skirt-like wear to pants-like wear.

The ancient Romans wore tunics and the more formal toga. These were dress-like, without pants, no separate leggings. Pants came in when they switched from chariots to mounted cavalry. So it was all about practicality and avoiding chafing and whatnot while on horseback. The pants-wearing practice didn’t spread beyond the cavalry to men in general until around the 8th century.

Since it was men riding horses, women retained skirt-like wear. This explains how it came about, but it doesn’t really apply much any more. Now it’s a tradition. But the skirt/pants split can explain why a girl’s bike has a dipping frame. So they can ride a bike wearing a long skirt, which is not something you see much nowadays.

Filed 10/27/09

Houston, what’s the problem?


Infrequently Answered Question #37: What’s the most over-rated thing ever?

A: It’d have to be landing a man on the moon. How often have you heard someone say, “We can land a man on the moon, but we can’t… fill in the blank with your major concern or pet peeve.” Which means either we’re real slackers about a lot of things or landing a man on the moon wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When you think about it, landing on the moon was a fairly straight-forward engineering problem. Nowhere near as difficult as dealing with complex or even chaotic systems like the environ­ment or human biology and disease. When you consider social systems and the human element, well, confusion and unpredictability are the only things you can be sure of, oxymoronically enough.

On second thought, perhaps the most over-rated thing is sliced bread. Consider all the things that are the best things since sliced bread, as if it were the benchmark to which all things are compared. But, c’mon, what’s so great about it? Taking a knife and cutting through bread is not exactly rocket science, is it?

Filed 9/14/09

Munch a Bunch of Lunch


Infrequently Answered Question #36: What were people eating for lunch before the Earl of Sandwich came along and invented the sandwich?

A: To answer that I’d have to consult my great-great-great-etc. grandfather. Which won’t help because he’s been dead and buried a long time now. So, since I’m too lazy to do the research and don’t know the answer by acci­dent, I’ll speculate. In other words make something up.

Before sandwiches people ate bread with cheese and/or meat, often in the form of sausages. Which sounds like a sandwich only it wasn’t assembled as such, but was eaten as separate bits. Or possibly with the cheese or meats on top like an open-faced sandwich which wouldn’t be called that though it was.

Now this all sounds like lunch would be messier, and it probably was. Though back in those days life was generally messier as, like sandwiches, indoor plumbing didn’t exist either. Nor did refrigeration, paper napkins, sliced bread or toothpicks with colored cellulose tassels, all being helpful to easy sandwich making and eating.

Yes indeed, life was simpler and more natural back in the day, which is to say messier. Which is also to say dirtier as there’s nothing more natural than dirt.

Filed 8/26/09

Digital Time


Infrequently Answered Question #35: Why are there 24 hours in a day and 60 minutes in an hour? Why not a metric clock with 10 hours of 100 minutes or something?

A: These numbers come from the ancient Sumerians who counted in units of 12 with their fingers instead of ten. Which might have you wondering if Sumerians where six-fingered, 12-toed freaks or something. Not at all. They just saw the hand differently for counting.

Instead of seeing each finger (and the thumb) as one each, the Sumerians saw four fingers made of three bones each. By counting these segments you go up to twelve on one hand instead of ten on two. That’s four fingers of three segments each, or 4x3=12 for the mathematically challenged.


In this method you don’t count the thumb, you use it to indicate the segment you’ve counted to. To show seven the other way you extend seven digits on two hands as below left. In the Sumerian method to count seven you touch your thumb to the seventh segment on the tip of the ring finger as below right.


This leaves the other hand free for bigger numbers. In this case each of the four fingers represents a full four fingers of the other hand, or 12. This makes the index finger 12, the middle 24, the ring finger 36, and the pinky 48.


This way the highest number you get with Sumerian hand counting is 60. That’s 48 on one hand plus the 12 on the other. That’s why there’s 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds per minute. The 24 hour day is 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. All come from the Sumerian way of counting to twelve and sixty with the fingers.


A base twelve system is quite useful because it divides to whole numbers easily. Twelve hours divides in half (6), thirds (4), and quarters (3) evenly. Even better, 60 minutes divides in half (30), thirds (20), quarters (15), fifths (12), and sixths (10) evenly. Try that with 100 and you get 50, 33.3333…, 25, 20, and 16.666… respectively.

Base twelve shows up in other places: 12 months, 12 in a dozen, 12 inches in a foot. The size of an inch is related, too. The average adult man’s index finger is around three inches long with each segment being about one inch. Yet, none of this explains why clocks have hands without any fingers at all. Unless it’s a Mickey Mouse watch. But then, Mickey only has three fingers and a thumb.

Another thing which might relate to this base 12 counting, the English words we use to count to twelve and then beyond. Notice we don’t say oneteen, twoteen, thirteen, fourteen… nor maybe firsteen, seconteen, thirteen, fourteen…. We have unique words eleven, twelve and then start adding the teen suffix after that. So 1-12 are unique and beyond we start in with suffixes and prefixes, -teen, twenty-, thirty-, etc.

Filed 7/14/09

Rock in a Hard Place


Infrequently Answered Question #34: What’s the difference between a meteor and a meteorite?

A: A meteor is a space rock flying through the air burning up, a shooting star if you will. A meteorite is the same rock after hitting the ground, a shot star. So, a meteor is a meteorite on the move, a meteorite is a meteor at rest on the ground.

Thing is, meteors don’t burn up from air friction, there’s very little friction when a solid moves through a fluid (liquid or gas). The heat comes from air compression in the shock wave generated by the meteor moving at about Mach ten.

Filed 6/11/09

We’ll Take Over the World, and Be Slaves


Infrequently Answered Question #33: Where do evil masterminds get their army of nameless, faceless henchmen in jumpsuits? Who wants a job where the price of failure is not getting fired, but being jettisoned into a bottomless abyss or whirlpool of bubbling acid? Don’t these potential employees know that when the evil plot goes south the leader’s escape pod only has room for one?

A: To answer the first question, they get these folks from central casting. As for the rest, it’s Hollywood, reality and logic don’t really apply.

There’s this bit of Hollywood editing that makes even less sense, how people carry on a conversation over a series of cuts over a period of hours. You know, person A asks a question while walking down the street, person B answers while they’re riding in the car, person A responds while they’re eating dinner, person B replies to that in the bar over drinks. How did this bit ever get started? This only works in the movies, but it would never happen in real life.

Filed 5/15/09

With Friends Like This…


Infrequently Answered Question #32: How is it possible WWII ended the Great Depression? Is war profitable?

A: Economically war is a losing proposition. History is littered with countries going bankrupt by waging war. War production builds things like tanks, planes, ammunition and war­ships that don’t generate wealth and are destroyed at an alarming rate. Bombing places and shooting people don’t make you much money.

So then, why do they tell us the Big One pulled the US out of depression? Here’s what I think.

The only way war is lucrative is by looting. This is how it generally worked in the past and WWII was no exception. Only the US didn’t make out by looting Germany, Italy or Japan, as there wasn’t that much left to loot after having the bejeezus bombed out of them. In this case America got rich by looting their allies, mainly Britain.

This was done by selling and leasing war material, which was paid for in cash up front. The British were almost bankrupted by the war and their gold reserves were very nearly depleted. Shortages and rationing continued in the UK after the war into the 1950s and the country didn’t fully recover from depression and war until the 1960s. If war production was supposed to be a boon to the economy, it sure didn’t work for England.

Filed 4/11/09

Odd Chance


Infrequently Answered Question #31: I’ve heard you’re more likely to be struck by lightning ten times than to win the lottery. Yet people win the lottery all the time, but I don’t hear of anyone getting hit by lightning ten times. What gives?

A: That’s because they’re calculating the odds of a single ticket winning the lottery. But who buys just one ticket? Thing is, you can increase your chances of winning by buying more chances.

Say to win the lottery you need five correct numbers from 1 through 40. Your chance of winning is one in 78,960,960. That’s pretty long odds. If you buy ten tickets you improve your chances to ten in 78,960,960. If you buy 100 tickets… you get the idea.

On top of that, you aren’t the only one playing the lottery. If ten million people each buy ten tickets the odds that there will be one winning ticket are about 100,000,000 in 78,960,960. Better than even odds that someone, though probably not you, will win.

I don’t know what the odds of getting struck by lightning ten times are, but you can’t increase the chances unless you create more of yourself. If there were a thousand you clones, the chances go up. But that’s you as a collection, not a single you or any one of your clones. Either that or you have to be in a thousand places at once. What are the chances of that?

Then again, the first lightning strike may kill you. Then you’d be dead and buried or cremated. Which would make another bolt hitting you pretty unlikely.

Filed 3/25/09

Wishful Thinking?


Infrequently Answered Question #30: If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?

A: The simple answer, smarts don’t make you rich, lots of money makes you rich.

Ask yourself, does being rich make you smart? There’s no cause and effect relationship between brains and money. Sitting around on a rock thinking fine thoughts doesn’t in itself put bread on the table or clothes on your back. Ever notice that Rodin statue of The Thinker is naked?

Filed 3/6/09

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