Inside Jokes Everyone Was Inside On


Infrequently Answered Question #77: What is Penny’s last name on The Big Bang Theory? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it.

A: Nobody’s heard it. Penny’s last name has never been said. In the episode her father showed up, he wasn’t called Mr. … uh… What’s-his-name, Leonard called him by his first name. Kyle I think it was.

TV shows sometimes have similar gimmicks like unseen characters and inside jokes. Some Green Acres characters, but not Oliver, could hear the background music. No matter how wild the ride, Magnum’s Ferrari made it through unscathed. The Simpsons live in Springfield, but in what state remains a deliberate mystery.

I’m sure there are many more of these inside joke/gimmicks, but I can’t think of them. Or, not having watched every show there is, I don’t know them. Penny not having a last name is one, too. Though, if everyone knows it, how inside is it?

For my money the top TV gimmick of all was the final episode of Newhart where Bob Newhart’s character gets hit in the head and wakes up in The Bob Newhart Show where his new show was all a dream of the character in his old show. Relive the moment here. Watch closely, you might recognize someone from Friends in a bit role as the wife of Darryl. Or was it Darryl? And one last gimmick there: it’s the only time Darryl and Darryl speak.

Filed 10/2/13

Measuring the World


Infrequently Answered Question #76: Did the Ancients really measure the size of the Earth? How?

A: They did, to answer the first part. The how takes some explanation. In 230 BC the Greek astronomer-geographer Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with a tall pole. He didn’t do this by dragging the pole around the world marking pole lengths on the ground. He used geometry.

Here’s the basic method. Stick a tall pole in the ground at the tropic of cancer, making sure it’s plumb. Stick a second pole in the ground a good distance directly north of the first. On the summer solstice the first pole will be directly under the sun at noon and cast no shadow. Meanwhile, the northern pole will cast a shadow. Draw a line from the top of the pole to the end of the cast shadow. Calculate the angle between the drawn line and the pole.


Imagine the poles going down to the center of the earth where they meet. The angle between the poles will be the angle you found with the cast shadow. You now have a “pie slice” of the Earth where you know the distance between the poles along the rim of the “pie” and the angle of the slice at the center of the “pie.” A full circle is 360°, divide the angle into 360. Now you know how many “pie slices” it takes to make the whole “pie.” Then multiply the distance of the “pie slice” edge by the number of “slices.” This will give you the circumference of the “pie.”


This was how Eratosthenes did it, only he used a tall pole in Alexandria and a water well in Syene, present day Aswan. On the summer solstice light shone directly down the center of the well, meaning it was on the tropic of cancer. This made things easy because he didn’t need a pole in Syene, the angle of the shadow from the pole in Alexandria would give the angle he needed. This was 7.2°, one 50th of the circumference of the Earth.

Eratosthenes figured the distance north-south between Alexandria and Syene as 5,000 stadia, about 575 miles. This would mean the Earth was 250,000 stadia around, roughly 28,740 miles. Unfortunately it’s actually 526 miles between the two sites and the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere. Earth is 24,900 miles in circumference at the equator. Still, a pretty good effort all around. Sorry for the pun.

Filed 9/10/13

Bureaucracy has Brought Meaning to the Lives of Many Bureaucrats


Infrequently Answered Question #75: What would a computer cost if Con­gress passed an Affordable Computer Act?

A: I don’t know what a computer would cost, but compare the diagrams and make your best guess. And I haven’t even included the bureaucrats to write computer specs. Which would likely mean computers must come with every bit of software the bureaucracy demands they have whether you need it or not. You probably couldn’t design a worse system if you tried. But give the government credit, they keep trying.

If you ever thought government bureaucrats were efficient, here’s a nice anecdote. The USG hired a private firm to do a job bureaucrats had been doing. The job was done by three people in the private sector where the government needed 16.

Filed 8/4/13

Marbles That Aren’t Marble


Infrequently Answered Question #74: Why are marbles called marbles when they’re made of glass?

A: Not all marbles are made of glass. Some modern marbles are plastic. In some places marbles are made of agate. In Australia they sometimes use balls of polished wood. In NYC they play marbles with steel ball bearings. In the Middle East they play with balls of baked clay or the knucklebones of sheep. All over in various times and places you’ll find marbles made of all sorts of things other than marble. Though on rare occasions you’ll find marbles were made of actual marble.

When I was a kid we called the little glass orbs marbles, and we called games played with them marbles. This isn’t the case everywhere. You may have played ringer or immies or mibs. In England, Scotland and Ireland it’s taw or boss or span. In Brazil children play gude. They play pallina di vetro in Italy. All over in various times and places you’ll find marble games that are not called marbles.

So then, marbles aren’t always called marbles and aren’t always made of glass. Still, some are glass and called marbles. Why is rather hard to pin down. As are a lot of terms that go way back in the mists of time. Maybe it’s because they have viens of color running through them, they’re marbled. Maybe it’s because they once were made of marble. No-one is really sure. At least I’m not. Here’s a bit more about marbles if you care:

History of Marbles

Filed 4/29/13

Disunited States of America


Infrequently Answered Question #73: Given the red state, blue state divide, is the United States all that united?

A: Not so much as you might think. Though we rather think it’s even more divided than only two factions. If the good old USA were itself to break up, what form might this take? Red states and blue states? What happens to the so-called battleground states that flip-flop back and forth?

Perhaps instead there could be some division along cul­tural lines. Granted there’s not as much difference between New York and Minnesota as between Greece and Germany. I mean, New Yorkers and Minnesotans both speak English. Of a sort. All the same, you must admit there’s no mistaking New England for Texas.

With this in mind, I give you the map of the late, great United States circa… 2025?

Mouseover to enlarge

Seems when the going gets tough, the tough get going there own way. Not that they will, mind you. But over the long haul, nothing lasts forever. Just think of these other acro­nymical empires: USSR, HRE, SPQR. Will we add USA to the list?

Filed 4/3/13

Do Elephants Never Forget Mice?


Infrequently Answered Question #72: Are elephants really afraid of mice?

A: There’s plenty of animal folklore out there. Like cats always land on their feet, bulls are provoked by the color red, and elephants never forget. Another bit of elephant lore there. I have no personal experience with bulls or elephants, but I know first-hand cats have an uncanny ability to twist themselves in mid-air and land on their feet. But I seem to have drifted off the point.

On the face of it, it seems absurd that an elephant would be afraid of a mouse. What could a mouse possibly do to an elephant? It’s like a cat being afraid of a fly or something. Pretty ridiculous. How do such tales ever gain traction? I can’t explain it.

Well, the Mythbusters tested this old bit of folklore and if their video is right, elephants ARE afraid of mice. Or at least they shy away from mice. Hard to believe, but there it is in living color. I can’t explain this either. All the same, I’ll never forget it. Whether the elephants in the video will forget or not, I simply don’t know.

Mythbusters, Elephant and Mouse

Filed 3/20/13

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