Red Light on Modern Myths


Infrequently Answered Question #63: I am thinking of buying a red car. Are drivers of red cars really more likely to get speeding tickets?

A: No. Statistics show they are slightly less likely to get speeding tickets. But the difference is so small it is statistically meaningless. That the police target red cars for speeding is just another modern myth. Here are a few more modern myths that seem to make the rounds:

Suicide rates go up during Christmas.
Crime goes up during a full moon.
When arrested you’re allowed one phone call.
Inuits have over 100 words for snow.

Suicide rates are constant through­out the year. Crime rates are constant regardless of the phase of the moon. In the US by law you are allowed as many phone calls as it takes to get a lawyer or arrange bail.

Inuits have about as many words for snow as English speakers have. In English there’s powder, hardpack, slush, sleet, drifts, blizzard, white-out, flakes, flurries, and more. Inuits probably talk about snow more than English speakers, but they don’t have a lot more words to do it.

Filed 12/5/11

Grape-Nuts, No Grapes and No Nuts


Infrequently Answered Question #62: Is Post Grape-Nuts cereal made of grapes or nuts?

A: Neither. When Post Grape-Nuts first hit store shelves in 1898 it con­tained maltose. In those days maltose was known as grape sugar. That’s the grape part of Grape-Nuts. The nut part comes from the cereal’s crunchiness and nutty flavor.

This is a case of a name based on a notion of the time that no longer is in vogue. Such are fads, in foods and product names. Like adding o-rama to a name in the Fifties, or cyber or e- tacked onto names now-a-days. Though I suppose not for cereal. A bowl of Cyber-Nuts, anyone? Doesn’t work.

On the other hand, Post Raisin Bran does contain grapes, dried grapes, which are called raisins. Whether there’s any maltose in there, I couldn’t say. Wine is made from grapes. Don’t know about the malt content of wine. Malt liquor should have malt. I can’t imagine folks having malt liquor with breakfast. For breakfast, maybe.

Filed 10/7/11

Elephants Can’t Skip


Infrequently Answered Question #61: What is the only mammal with four knees?

A: They like to say the elephant, but not really. Depends on what you want to call a knee.

Elephants have the same basic skeletal structure and musculature as other quadrupedal mammals. Though the bone lengths and angles may differ a bit, their legs are built and work the same way. It only looks like elephants have four knees because their legs are fat all the way to the ground, they don’t taper like horses and the like. So a skinny joint on a horse doesn’t look like a knee, but does on an elephant even though they are the same thing.

What IS different about elephants is they are the only four-legged mammal with just one gait. A gait is the order and timing of how the feet hit the ground. Elephants walk, but don’t gallop, trot, pace or canter. They’re just too heavy. Nonetheless with such a big stride a brisk walk can cover a lot of ground pronto.

Being bipedal humans don’t really trot, cantor, pace or gallop either. But we do have two gaits. For people, walking, trotting and running are all different speeds of one gait, where it’s one foot in front of the other equally timed. The second gait is skipping, where you alternate little hops on one foot then the other.

Filed 9/19/11

The Chicken or the Egg?


Infrequently Answered Question #60: Which is more important, nature or nurture?

A: Which is to ask if we are more a product of our genetics or our envi­ronment. I don’t know that we can work that out logically or otherwise.

Consider the Spartans, a warrior culture. Young men were raised to be warriors and so became warriors. They were a product of their culture. Still, who created the culture to begin with if not the Spartans? It’s not like the culture was there first and they just fell into it against their will or by accident. I mean, it’s hard to imagine a group of pacifists would found a settlement, develop their customs and ways of living, and then, oops! they’re a warrior culture. Would that happen?

So then, were Spartans warriors because they had a warrior culture, or did they have a warrior culture since Spartans were warriors to begin with? Does culture create people or do people create culture? Obviously culture can’t predate the people who founded it. Though once it gets going… seems one reinforces the other.

What we have here is a question of direction of causation. Which is cause and which is effect? Or in everyday language: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Answering that probably wouldn’t help much since chickens don’t have what you’d call culture. The chicken crossed the road to get to the other side, not to get to the opera.

Filed 8/10/11

Forgetting to Remember


Infrequently Answered Question #59: Do you remember the Alamo?

A: Egad! it completely slipped my mind. And the Maine, too.

Which may raise the question, do I have a good memory. Some folks have really good memories. Good memo­ries as in effective, like total recall, not good memories like happy memories. Good could also mean reliable, as in recalling things accurately, or recalling them at all. So you could have good memories of things you don’t really remember, or maybe didn’t happen the way you remember at all.

I recently became acutely aware I don’t have a good memory in the reliable sense while talking about “the good old days” at Orbit magazine and I rather remember being involved in both, what I did generally, but I was woefully short on events, specifics, details. I seemed to have no stories to tell. I’ve forgotten all my memories!

They say you are the sum of your experiences. But if you don’t recall any of them, what does that make you? Who are you then? To be or not to be, what was the question?

Filed 6/14/11

April Fooling


Infrequently Answered Question #58: It snowed yesterday. What happened to spring?

A: Spring hasn’t gone anywhere. Who ever said it never snows in spring? Not me.

This might be another type of April fool. The first inkling of warm weather makes some folks think spring has arrived and they go out planting seed­lings in the garden and stowing away their winter gear and… wham! there’s a snow storm. Seventy-five degrees one week and freezing the next. You just can’t trust April. Hey, it’s the month they make you pay your taxes, too.

Filed 4/19/11

Now Reading!


Infrequently Answered Question #57: Why does it seem the book is always better than the movie?

A: It’s not. That’s one of those things people like to say just to brag they’ve read the book. Pure snobbishness. As if reading is some kind of accomplish­ment. How hard or clever is it to read a book? I mean, the author did all the heavy lifting.

The written word tells you what people are thinking, there’s metaphors and clever turns of phrases describing the world and people in the book. Those are things movies don’t or can’t do very well and so are always lacking from films.

Books can cover a lot more ground than a movie with short descriptions of actions. A single paragraph in a book might contain as much information as it would take a film 15 minutes to show. There’s a lot of things that can be in the book that must be omitted from the movie if they don’t want the movie to run for days.

If those were the only things to consider movies come off as a pale imitation of a book.

On the other hand a movie gives you spectacular, vivid, and continuous visuals no author could come close to with the written word. You know how they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Movies are thousands of frames, thousands of pictures. If a book tried to describe the ever-changing actions in that kind of detail it might take you months to read a book.

I’d also say it’s easier to keep track of characters in a movie because you can recognize faces easier than written names. And in a scene with multiple characters speaking it’s easier in a film to tell who’s saying what to whom. And with what emotion they’re saying it, which is tricky to do in a book.

Another thing, reading a description of some bit of slapstick or a character making a face or gesture will rarely make you laugh. And there are no sound effects in books.

When it comes to visuals the movie is better than the book. It’s pretty easy to understand why — books aren’t visual.

In the final analysis books and movies are so different it’s no good comparing them. There’s the old saying about apples and oranges, but perhaps the difference is even greater than two kinds of fruit. More like comparing pizza to football. Is pizza better than football? As food it’s better, as sport it’s worse.

Filed 3/31/11

Riddles You’ll Get When You’re Older


Infrequently Answered Question #56: How do you get down from an elephant?

A: You don’t get down from an elephant, you get down from a duck.

That was an old riddle my father used to tell me when I was a wee lad. I didn’t get it and he’d never explain it. I couldn’t see what ducks had to do with it when I was on an elephant. Was I using the duck as a stepping stool? It was total nonsense as far as I could tell. I don’t know how old I was when I learned that down was duck feathers so the gag finally made sense.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think my dad thought the riddle was all that funny. Rather he was amused I didn’t get the joke. Like how it’s fun to fool folks with a tall tale. Teasing the gullible is fine sport. Unless you’re on the teasing end when it’s annoying. Which leads us to another riddle where not getting it was part of the gag…

“What’s the difference between a zebra and a hat?”

“I don’t know. What?”

“Social security.”

“Social security? I don’t get it.”

“You won’t ’til you’re sixty-five.”

Getting it or not all depends on what it means. Perhaps that should be, what “it” means.

Filed 3/7/11

The Entertainment Curve


Infrequently Answered Question #55: Why can’t I find any entertainment that’s both smart and exciting?

A: Because such a thing does not exist. It’s a universal truth that smart things are dull and exciting things are dumb. However the opposite isn’t always the case, dumb things are not always exciting nor are dull things always smart.


Basically dumb things stimulate the primitive part of the brain and primi­tives are just highly excitable. That’s why there are soccer hooligans but no chess riots.

Filed 2/5/11

Created Equal to What?


Infrequently Answered Question #54: What is the human body worth?

A: People have calculated the dollar value of a human body, strictly as an academic exercise. If figured on the basic bits, carbon, water, salt and like that, it ain’t much. Maybe less than five bucks. On the other hand, if you base the price on the complex molecu­lar structures like amino acids, testos­terone, insulin, etc., it’s worth a lot. Just ask any pharmaceutical company what they charge for steroids.

These are both somewhat missing the point because that’s the dollar value of the raw material, not the body as a person. A person is worth every­thing they can accomplish over a life­time, which might be $billions or next to nothing. In which case I suppose some folks can have negative value. Though I’m not naming names.

Basically, that’s what insurance companies evaluate in actuarial tables. It might seem cold-hearted, perhaps, but they do. It’s also how slave traders reckoned a person was worth. In court they apply prices to intangibles like pain and suffering on top of that.

So, what is your body worth? It’s priceless. After all, you literally can’t live without it.

Filed 1/11/11

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