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Applied Math And Other Topics

Math has a bad reputation and people often say it has no application to everyday life.  I dispute this contention.  I had several bad days recently.  Math came in handy on one of them.

I was trimming the grass in my back yard recently with a string trimmer aka “Weedeater” aka edge trimmer when my mind suddenly wandered. (Quelle suprise.)  Next thing you know I had slashed my left lower extremity.

Left lower extremity after mind-wandering

After I finished hopping around and cursing, I went in and cleaned the wound.  Suddenly a thought occurred to me: “I’m an idiot.”  Then another thought occurred to me, that I could actually use this.  After all, every cloud has a silver lining.  Right?

I counted the slashes and there were ten of them.  I reasoned that in the time it took me to withdraw my leg from the crime scene, the trimmer had made ten rotations.  Then I recalled from the depths of my mind somewhere that the reaction time in situations like this is around 200-250 milliseconds.  Not that you care but a perfect example of this would be when you jerk your hand away from a hot object such as a lump of near-critical U235.  And by the way, you should be more worried about the hefty dose of radiation you would also pick up in that situation.  But that’s for another blog.

Anyway, I dug up an on-line visual stimulus reaction-time tester and tested myself.  It came up at 400 msec but per the site, you have to factor in the lag time introduced by your computer and the internet.  Still, that time was good enough to put me at age 29 according to their nomogram, even though I’m rapidly approaching age 61.  So I felt pretty good about that but I kept going.

Then I Googled (I guess that’s an official verb now) “average reaction time hot object” and it returned the reaction times for a variety of stimuli: visual, auditory, touch, dodging a falling 10-ton weight, etc.  I figured my string-trimmer episode fell into the touch stimulus category so I went for 150 milliseconds (0.15 seconds) for the time it took me to jerk away from the trimmer.

So now I was able to estimate that in the time it took me to react, the trimmer completed 10 revolutions in 0.15 seconds.  That’s 67 revolutions per second or about 4000 rpm.  That’s about where you would upshift in a ’99 Civic, not that you care.

Then I looked up the RPMs for a trimmer (don’t you just LOVE Google?) and lo and behold it ranges from 3000 RPM or so at idle to 10000 RPM at full bore.  I was running the trimmer above idle so I reckoned that my math was OK.  (I probably need to work on the whole “Safety First” concept though.)

You can try this at home but don’t say I told you to do it.  And maybe think about wearing shinguards when you trim your grass, and don’t remove the honkin’ big housing on your trimmer about two seconds after you get it out of the box, like I did.  Just bear in mind that if you leave that housing in place, you won’t be able to do precision trimming.  Everything has it’s price.

You might consider trimming your grass borders the old-fashioned way…

Another option to consider if you have lots of time on your hands and were born somewhere before 1960.

You could also say forget it and consider hiring someone to do your trimming as long as they bring their own equipment.

The other bad day I want to tell you about is the day that began when I walked my dog Mickey wearing the same T-shirt I had worn the day before and also the ratty old shorts I tore up when I tried to run my son off a luge course at Canada Olympic Park.

Anyway, when I got home from dog-walking I raced off to work and forgot to change.  No one at work noticed, if that tells you anything.  FYI, I did shower that morning before I donned my dog-walking outfit.

But it gets worse.  Later on that same day I found myself trying to open one of the doors to the lab by holding an orange plastic folder up to the scanner.  Nothing happened.  Then I realized I should have been using my swiper.

Kirlian photography of my fingertips adorning one side of my swiper.

Ooops!  Wrong side!  This is the other side:

Me and my lovely wife Jeanette. Jeanette is on the left.

There, that’s better.  Things went smoother after I got that sorted out.

Later that day I went to visit my son Drew, his wife Dominique and my grand-daughter Max.

Max thinking that a baby elephant would be handy to have around the house

Alexa features prominently in my son’s household.  You know who Alexa is.  She’s that helpful entity wired to Amazon.  Alexa listens to your conversations and will obey your every command.

Drew:  “Alexa, don’t listen to Max.  We don’t need a baby elephant.  Go to sleep.”

Alexa:  “OK Drew. Don’t worry that I might still be listening or anything.  Just saying.”

If she was real I think Alexa would look like this:

Alexa wearing advance neural interface and neck-skin tightener

Based on my earlier experiences that day and also recalling my misfortune with the edge trimmer, I started to think to myself how many ways things could go wrong if you let Alexa into your life.  Because after Drew told Alexa to go to sleep I immediately began thinking to myself: “What if she really only PRETENDS to go to sleep and continues to listen to everything that goes on?”  And also: “What if she can read minds?”

What could go wrong?

Lots of stuff.  For example, next thing you know a truck could be pulling up in your driveway dropping off a bunch of items Alexa happens to think you might need, such as shinguards, a baby elephant complete with several bales of hay or worse yet-two sub-critical chunks of U235 and a neutron source, complete with instructions:

WARNING: DO NOT SANDWICH THE NEUTRON SOURCE BETWEEN THE CHUNKS OF U235 AND CLAMP THE WHOLE SHOOTING MATCH IN A VISE.  THE BABY ELEPHANT WILL RAPIDLY BECOME THE LEAST OF YOUR CONCERNS…

Never trust anyone named Alexa.  Just saying.

Keep an eye on your RPMs.  And your shins.

The Half-Life of Girl Guide Cookies

I know, I know.  A lot is going through your mind right now as a result of reading the header for this blog.

The first thing you’re thinking to yourself is this: “The Half-Life Of Girl Guide Cookies?  That sounds like the title of a Literary Fiction novel to me.” The second thing that you’re thinking is: “What the heck IS literary fiction anyway?” The third thing you’re thinking is: “Why is the featured image for this blog a water molecule and not a picture of a couple of Girl Guide Cookies?”  The fourth thing you’re thinking is: “How does he know what I’m thinking?  Is he psychic?  Or what?” The fifth and last thing you’re thinking is: “What’s a half-life?”

All these concerns will be answered in due course.  Remember: patience is a virtue.

Here we go:

Your concern about “The Half-Life Of Girl Guide Cookies” sounding like the title for a Literary Fiction novel is well-founded.  Literary Fiction novels typically have somewhat cryptic, unusual titles and I think “The Half-Life Of Girl Guide Cookies” fits right in there.  See below for a short list of Literary Fiction novels:

The Shape Of Water

If, Then

All The Light We Cannot See Because We’re Wearing Super-Cool Designer Sunglasses

The Time Traveler’s Unpaid Parking Tickets

The Art Of House-Painting During A Polar Vortex 

Charlotte’s Web Of Deception

Res Ipsum Loquitur

The Florida Man Game

The Weasel Keeper’s Linen Closet

Moby Dick

You asked what the heck Literary Fiction was.  Good question!  For everyone who was asleep during English class-or whatever it’s called these days- Literary Fiction is “a term that came into common usage in the early 1960s… principally used to distinguish serious fiction (a work that claims to hold literary merit), from Genre Fiction and Popular Fiction”.

As well as having unusual – OK obscure – titles, the covers of Literary Fiction novels tend to be “arty”, and the stories tend to be more serious than other fiction.  The plots can be convoluted and slow-moving.  Literary Fiction is also said to offer a deeper look at the human experience which includes posting on social media 16 to 18 hours a day and sleeping 6 to 8 hours at night, plus/minus naps.  This is all just another way of saying that Literary Fiction can bore the crap out of you.  In fact, an entire pack of marauding rabid wolverines was once lulled to sleep in seconds flat by listening to the first few paragraphs of Moby Dick being read aloud by the Literary Critic for the Tuktoyaktuk Literary Review.

So that’s Literary Fiction in a nutshell.

What about the reason that the featured image has nothing to do with the title of this blog?  Well that’s kind of like what happens in Literary Fiction novels.  You sometimes don’t find out what the title of the book has to do with anything, until about page 324.  And the book only has 325 pages.  And sometimes you never find out.  This was typical of the Pythons.  If you happen to own the DVD collection of all the Monty Python TV episodes you know what I’m talking about.  More often than not, the skit titles had little or nothing to do with what the skit was actually about.  But this is what happens when you throw together a bunch of guys educated at places like Oxford and Cambridge.  They start reading Literary Fiction and getting all deep and obscure on you.

You still haven’t remembered what a half-life is!  I know this because I’m psychic.  A half-life is the time it takes for half of something to disappear, either by radioactive decay, a chemical change into something else, evaporation, theft by light-fingered Borrowers, sheer carelessness or possibly mouse-nibbling.

Now that we’re clear on all this, I’m going to open my own literary window into another common human experience: cookies.

One day, three boxes of Girl Guide Cookies appeared in the lunchroom where I work. (I know what you’re thinking here.  Yes, I actually work for a living.)  The cookies were a gift from a mysterious unnamed benefactor.  I’ll call her Tracy Marsden for the sake of argument.

Girl Guide aka Girl Scout cookies (chocolate on left)

I got to wondering how long it would take “Tracy’s” cookies to vanish.  So in the interests of Science, and also Literary Merit, I popped into the lunchroom periodically after the cookies showed up and took note of how many cookies were still there at each check point.  This is a graph of the number of cookies as a function of time:

You can see that the first thirty cookies de-materialized in about 70 minutes. So I guess you could say the half-life was 70 minutes.  But if that’s true then at the end of another 70 minutes there should have been about 15 cookies left.  After 210 minutes there would be 7.5 survivors huddled together.  And 3.25 cookies would still be standing after 280 minutes.  That didn’t happen: the remaining 30 cookies vamoosed in just another 78 minutes.  Clearly these cookies were not made of Thorium or worse yet, Polonium.  And there were no signs of Borrowers or mice.  There was something at play here much more powerful than radioactivity, Borrowing or mouse-nibbling.  I call it “furtive human guilt-snacking”.

I never saw anybody actually EAT a cookie, yet they ALL disappeared.  This tells me that for two and a half hours people were loitering around near the lunchroom until the coast was clear and then furtively swooping in to eat cookies when no one was watching.  This explains why the rate at which the cookies were disappearing increased after the first thirty cookies were engulfed: people started to panic.

This next graph is interesting:

It tells me that people have no strong preference for chocolate vs vanilla Girl Guide Cookies because both flavors disappeared at pretty much the same rate. This is maybe why each unopened box contains 10 chocolate and 10 vanilla cookies. But maybe I’m just over-thinking the problem here.  It wouldn’t be the first time and it probably won’t be the last.  I should probably just stick to building rule-based expert systems.

But this strange combination of cookies and rudimentary mathematics is making me hungry.  I’m thinking maybe there are some Cuban Lunches lying around here somewhere.  I think I’d better go eat them while nobody else is at home to watch me.  Don’t tell Clive.

Famous novelist, car collector, general man-about-town and cookie fanatic Clive Cussler

Next blog: Why we shouldn’t trust Alexa and probably also what the heck is the Florida Man Game?

 

 

 

 

What To Expect When You’re Expecting…A Polar Vortex

Like any good science journalist, I did some research for this blog which mostly included checking in with the good folks at The Department Of Large Rotating Masses of Frigid Air. They named it that, hoping that most of the people who wanted to know what a Polar Vortex was wouldn’t actually bother calling in because they would figure it out from the name and save themselves some trouble. That strategy didn’t always work:

“Hello, you are reaching on the Department of Large Rotating Masses Frigid Air. Should I be giving you the assistance?”

“Ummmm, yes. Can you tell me what a Polar Vortex is please?”

Yes! Very excellent! Polar Vortex is great name for rock band. Also is name for large rotating mass of frigid airs. Like toilet in sky, above Poles, but flushing air not water.

“Above Poland you mean?”

“No. Above Poles of Earth planet. The Vortex sometimes move down from North Pole or up from South Pole. People blame Trump. Vortex maybe stay put lots of months. This time maybe until 2020 US Presidential election. Or longer. Cause very cold weather: worse than Newfoundland or maybe even Siberia. Or Minnesota. Nobody in Winnipeg notice this. Maybe even cause Fifth Ice Age. Nobody know for sure. Also sometimes vortex is breaking in two pieces.”

“What happens then?”

“Nothing. Except maybe Climate Divorce lawyers make lots money.”

“Hmmmm. Well…Thank you… I guess.”

” Нет проблем .”

As I mentioned, the Vortexes come in a matched set, but you never hear much about the South Polar Vortex these days, or any other days for that matter. This is because the South Polar Vortex (SPV) stays put above Antarctica. Here’s why:

The nearest city, Ushuaia, is 700 miles away, at the bottom of Argentina, but there’s not a lot going on north of Ushuaia for another 1000 miles or so. And it’s a bit of a sea kayak trip from Antarctica to anywhere else: there’s at least three or four thousand miles of ocean to cross to get to either Australia or South Africa.

Australia is overrun with kangaroos these days and the people in South Africa are currently focused on Maye Musk CoverGirl commercials.

And if I missed anybody close to the South Pole they are probably too busy to care about massive atmospheric phenomena because they’re still obsessively watching Bradley Cooper and Stephani Germanotta sing “The Shallow” and posting comments like: “We’re talking about Rocket Raccoon and Lady Gaga here.”

Gagga and Cooper singing

My point is that it’s just not worth the South Polar Vortexe’s time to go walkabout, so it just stays put and sulks.

On the other hand, when the North Polar Vortex misbehaves-as it’s doing right now- half the population of the United States rush out in panic to buy new shovels, long underwear, cases of bottled water, Cuban Lunches, flamethrowers and copies of We Who Survived The Fifth Ice Age.

what happens if it starts snowing and doesn't stop?

The other half of the American population remain calm and find something else to do, such as decide to let their name stand for the 2020 US Presidential Election. NASA is even reporting that they have been receiving deep-space transmissions from alien beings inquiring about the possibility of emigrating to the United States in order to run for President. Trump is apparently talking about building a wall around the Earth to prevent this from happening.

I mentioned sea kayaking earlier. Speaking frankly here, there was a time when you wouldn’t catch me dead in a sea kayak anywhere in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. The Southern Ocean is infested with leopard seals and I was laboring under the misapprehension that they are voracious man-eating predators-on par with Great White Sharks and Komodo Dragons.

I was wrong. Turns out they’re inquisitive, friendly, rather large- OK, OK- huge sea mammals who just happen to look like terrifying prehistoric aquatic reptiles. For the most part, the leopard seals still haven’t figured out that humans are good to eat.

Yes, they will try to eat your camera, if you happen to be an underwater photographer, but so what? They will also try to teach you how to eat penguins if you hang around them long enough. It’s true. I swear on Jacques Cousteau’s favorite regulator that I’m not making this up.

Jacque Cousteau's favorite regulator
Jacques Cousteau, age 187, showing off his favorite regulator

Fearless wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen had this epic experience with a large female leopard seal:

“She started to bring me weak penguins, then dead penguins, then she showed me how to eat penguins. She would offer me partially consumed penguins.
She started to take penguins and actually push them into my camera. I think she thought the camera was my mouth, which is every photographer’s dream. This went on for four days. And then I think she realized that I was this useless predator in her ocean, probably going to starve to death and I think she became quite panicked… So, here I came to Antarctica, to photograph this potentially vicious animal, to have this predator, this top predator in Antarctica, take care of me, and nurture me, and feed me for four days straight.”

I don’t think that every photographer dreams that his or her camera is his or her mouth. I must have misread that sentence. I think Mr. Nicklen meant that every photographer dreams of discovering that animals which look like they could eat your head in one gulp actually just want to feed you penguins. Repeatedly.

Anyway, all that aside, I think that the penguin below is thinking to itself: “Why in the heck did I ever listen to Mom and Dad? I never wanted to be a dentist in the first place. I wanted to be a tap dancer.”

penguin inspecting mouth of leopard seal
Leopard seal patiently enduring annual dental exam

Sorry, I seem to have gotten a little off track here. We were talking about what people rush out to buy during a Polar Vortex shift and I mentioned Cuban Lunches. I know you’re still wondering about that.

The Cuban Lunch is a delicious, calorie-dense chocolate-and-peanut ingot which was invented in Winnipeg almost 100 years ago, and was manufactured and sold in Canada for decades. It became endangered in the 1990’s and was hunted to extinction around the year 2000 but was brought back to life just before Christmas 2018 by a woman named Crystal Regehr-Westergard who found one of the original Cuban Lunches encased in frozen maple syrup while walking her dog in a dense forest. Crystal managed to extract a small sample from it (the frozen Cuban Lunch), and recreated it as a treat for her elderly mother using advance culinary techniques including messing around in her kitchen a lot.

Crystal didn’t stop there, but went on to buy the trademark, find a factory willing to start making the iconic treats once more and start distributing them throughout Western Canada. She is now reputedly also working on a way to recreate the famous Mammoth Burger offered by A&W back in 1650 BCE, on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia.

I swear on Mme “First, spray everything with PAM” Jehane Benoit’s eyewear that I’m not making up more than 79% of what I just told you about Cuban Lunches .

jehane benoit
Mme Jehane Benoit-coauthor of We Who Survived The Fifth Ice Age- and recipient of the Order of Canada for the invention of PAM cooking spray in 1959

Here is a picture of Crystal presenting her Mom with one of the no-longer-extinct Cuban Lunches, and to the left is a box of them in their natural state at the Safeway just a few blocks from my house.

I may keep a couple of thousand boxes of these on hand (twenty to a box) just in case it keeps snowing. You never know. The Fifth Ice Age could be just around the corner.

Those extra calories might come in handy.

What Is This Woman Smiling About?

Lord knows I’m not an art critic, but I thought I would add my own take on why the Mona Lisa is smiling. Not that 80,000 other people throughout history, many of them art critics, haven’t already tried to answer that same question. Personally, I think that the Mona Lisa is smiling because she thinks I’m going to fail utterly at trying to write a blog that somehow includes shoebill cranes, sea cucumbers (Genus: Holothuria), and also a book. Ha, ha! Little does she realize…

Shoebill crane patiently waiting to eat one or possibly both of the other items in this collage although it would probably prefer to eat the sea cucumber
PG-13 version of another book that looks almost identical to this one.
sea cucmber
Sea cucumber resembling orange day-glo mop that is being electrocuted

 

 

 

I’ll start with the book. No sense starting with the shoebill. We’ll get to it in due course. I just realized that the book cover is almost the same color as the sea cucumber! Weird. Anyway, the book is basically about how to lead a better, more examined life. I found it very helpful.

One of the things the author suggests is that instead of striving to be right all the time and to be certain about everything, we should try to just be a little less wrong every day, and to embrace uncertainty. We should try to remain uncertain and hence less judgemental about the motives and actions of others; we should be uncertain about our values and should always attempt to reassess them; we should also be uncertain about whether or not I should have strung this last bit together with colons, or used something else. Commas maybe. Definitely not hyphens.

My point here is that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. Take the shoebills for example. Where do they live? Are they friendly? They seem friendly. They look happy. ARE they happy? Are they related to cranes, storks, velociraptors? Something else? Why are they also known as whaleheads? Are they patient? Can they fly?

Received wisdom says that their large beaks or bills resemble large shoes-which is why they’re called shoebills-no suprise there. So whose shoes are we talking about? Paul Bunyan’s? Shaq O’Neal’s? Bozo the Clown’s? Great question.

I have to add Rosa Kleb’s shoes to that list though. She was the SMERSH agent in the movie From Russia With Love; she also tried to kill James Bond with a poison-tipped shoe dagger. By the way, SMERSH stands for Shoebills Mostly Eat Really Slimy Holothurians.

Don’t give me that blank look. I told you already that sea cucumbers belong to the genus Holothuria.

I’m pretty certain that shoebills would use that wicked spur on the tip of their beaks to spear the sea cucumbers before the spiky, edible sea creatures could inch away. I’m not certain that shoebills eat sea cucumbers though.

Rosa Kleb's shoe-dagger
You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but don’t try picking your friend’s nose-or your nose for that matter-with this shoe

Sorry, I got a little sidetracked there. Back to the long list of uncertainties surrounding shoebills: What else might shoebills eat besides sea cucumbers? What kind of noises do shoebills make?

So many questions. Thankfully I have answers. Some of them are even true. Most of them are true. Maybe they’re all true. I’m not sure.

Shoebills live in marshes in various African countries. They are NOT friendly. They’re feisty and pugnacious as hell. They will go toe to toe with a crocodile if they have nothing better to do. Or fight with their nestmates if there are no crocodiles around.

As adults they’re pretty solitary. I don’t know if they’re happy creatures, but they always seem to be grinning in the photos and video clips I’ve seen. This could be misleading though. The average shoebill is likely thinking: “Hey buddy, I’m going to put you off guard by appearing to grin at you but secretly I’m just waiting to rip one of your ears off with my fearsome beak if you even THINK about calling me a whalehead.” They’re most closely related to pelicans and herons. Since all birds are descended from dinosaurs, I guess you can also say they’re sort of related to velociraptors.

shoebill that looks like a velociraptor
Do NOT call me a whalehead

Apparently shoebills are super-patient. They will lurk in tall marsh grass for hours on end, waiting to lunge out and rip the ear off a tourist or nab a tasty eel, a lungfish, a snake, a duck or maybe a poodle. (No loss there.)

They make some great noises. For example, their mating call is a series of loud pops that sounds like a machine gun. Some describe it as terrifying. I don’t think it’s particularly terrifying; somehow I don’t think they mate very often though. Not sure why.

They can fly with a series of slow flaps interspersed with gliding. They can grow to be as tall as Danny DeVito. This one kind of reminds me of the Mona Lisa:

shobeill that looks like the Mona Lisa

They also like to do yoga:

shoebill doing yoga
Shoebill trying to get in touch with inner velociraptor

I want one…I think. It would probably clean out the rabbits that are racing all over our neighbourhood this winter. I might check in with Mark Manson first though. He gives pretty good advice.

 

4th Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide

I got sidetracked on the chinchillas yesterday and realized: “Holy Kadoda!  There are only seven more shopping days until Christmas!  I need to put out the Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide!”  So without further ado, here it is:

Whale Earwax Plug

I swear on Herman Melville’s beard that whale earwax is a real thing.  I’m quoting here from the site that I link out to down below: “a plug can grow up to 10 inches long, and looks like a cross between a goat’s horn and the world’s nastiest candle.” I don’t know where you can buy it but apparently museums all over the world have stashes of whale earwax cones.  Try the Smithsonian to start.  They apparently have pallets and pallets of whale earwax and they’re not going to hang on to it forever.  I know for sure that Amazon doesn’t carry it (yet).  Try again next year.

cone of whale earwax
Glistening plug of whale earwax looking a lot like a cross between a goat’s horn and the World’s nastiest candle.

What is it good for?  It’s a great gift to give to a Clinical Chemist, Medical Biochemist, Whale Researcher, Butcher, Baker or Candlestick Maker.  Seriously, researchers have measured the yearly variation in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in earwax samples from an assortment of whales.  They can correlate these levels to changes in the intensity of whaling over the last 120 years give or take a decade or two.  They can also tell when any given whale goes into puberty.  Maybe you could try that on your kids, if you have any.  Or you could just note when they (the kids) turn into horribly unrecognizeable humanoids.

B Vitamin and Enzyme Supplements For Your Dog

Is your dog gobbling rabbit poop voraciously?  Get him or her some B vitamins and an enzyme supplement instead.

rabbit poops

Rabbit poops are loaded with B vitamins and enzymes.  That might explain why my dog Mickey has gotten into the habit of voraciously gobbling the rabbit poop which is littered everywhere in our neighbourhood since fences were put up to keep out the coyotes, not that I’m bitter.  He must have had a deficiency of some sort.  He seems to be doing fine now, except that his ears grew two inches this past year.

 

Wine Glass That Holds 27 Ounces aka A Whole Bottle

Hic!  This is a great gift.  I forget where you buy them. Try Amazon.  Urp.  Or Liver Transplants R Us.

full bottle wine glass
Full-bottle wine glass.  Comes with free book of forearm-strengthening exercises.

Electric Nasal Irrigation Device

Three guesses where you can get this thing.  I’m not one for simply parroting the copy from other sources (exception Testicle Navigators) but I couldn’t resist:

“This is the world’s only nasal irrigation system that uses gentle powered suction to relieve sinus congestion without medication. During a typical 20-30 second treatment, the cordless irrigator’s battery-powered motor pulls saline rinse from its upper tank through one nostril, then out the other, after which it (the nostril?) collects in the bottom tank. In the process, the rinse flushes sinus-clogging pollen, chinchilla dust, mucous and small metal parts, instantly clearing nasal passages for easier breathing—it can even help reduce snoring.  Mostly because the person you give it to will immediately run screaming out of the house in a fit of sheer terror.”

sinus decongester
What exactly powers this thing?  Thought?  Americium? Cosmic rays?

Bio-Bricks

Have you ever wondered whether it’s possible to turn sand and urine into building bricks?  Turns out it’s possible.  Egyptologists have finally decoded an ancient recipe developed by the ancient Egyptians, who as we know, were surrounded by sand.  The recipe had nothing to do with bricks.  It was actually a recipe for  Shoebill Stork Fricassee.  The Egyptologists promptly threw up in their mouths and forgot about that recipe entirely.

Meanwhile students at the University of Cape Town figured out another recipe to make building materials from nothing more than urine, sand and bacteria.  Apparently the bacteria ferment the urine and make a sort of glue which sticks the sand together as it cures.

This is actually a terrible gift suggestion because these bricks aren’t currently available.

But speaking of current, some solid materials generate electricity when they are compressed.  This is called piezoelectricity.  If these bricks turn out to be able to make electricity, I guess it will be called peezoelectricity.  Just saying.

bricks made from urine
Peezoelectric bricks?

Dyson Air Multiplier Fan

I included the Dyson Air Multiplier as a grand finale because it was designed using complex airflow simulations which can be graphically displayed.  This one below sort of looks like a jellyfish.  But a really excellent jellyfish, as far as I’m concerned.

air-multiplier-cfd-base-streamlines

And here is a picture of  an actual Dyson Air Multiplier.  It’s so powerful that it is sucking the hands of its inventor, James Dyson, into the vortex ring.

james dyson's hands being sucked into air multiplier

Don’t show this column to anybody who is into fluid mechanics.  (Yes, air is a fluid.)  They will just snort and say: “The guy that wrote this is an idiot.  That is not a vortex ring.” And they would be right.

There is a vortex but it’s in the base.  The air gets sucked into the base and jetted out through a slot in the ring.  At 55 mph.  And the reason that the whole shebang is called an air multiplier is that it shoots out more air than is sucked in the bottom. About 15 times more. Did I mention that it comes out at 55 mph?

Airflow-Image-650x365

The Air Multiplier has two flaws though. Well three, really.  First of all there’s that 55-miles-per-hour wind blasting into your face.  Then there’s the cost: expensive.  And the noise.  Supposedly it sounds like a jet engine taking off.  If you get one for anybody, give them some hearing protection too.

I hear whale earwax works pretty well.

 

 

 

 

 

Tips For Excellent Christmas Gift-Giving (How To Avoid Getting Someone A Set Of Socket Wrenches When They Secretly Want A Chinchilla)

Let’s face it: giving really great Christmas presents is a lot of work.  You never want to give someone something they say they want if you can help it.  You want to get them something they don’t even know they want.  Or something they secretly want but never mentioned to anyone. Or something they mentioned but it was so long ago that they forgot they mentioned it to anyone, least of all you.  Something like an Irish goatskin drum or bodhran for example.  (I think bodhran might be Gaelic for goatskin drum.)

So what I’m saying here is that in order to surprise somebody at Christmas, you have to basically hang around them, watch, listen and take notes.  You typically start that process on Boxing Day or no later than January 2nd, so that you have pretty much a full year to get ready. You might even start loitering around the intended recipient or “giftee” two or three years in advance.  I don’t know-it’s up to you.  (I told you there’s a lot of work involved.)

Irish bodhran and tipper
Bodhran and tipper

The other aspect of giving great presents is that you should also think about having the recipient open a premonitory gift first; it’s like a little clue about what their real, excellent gift is going to be.  For example, if you were to give the giftee a bodhran and tipper like the ones pictured above, I suggest handing them the wrapped tipper first.  You could even wrap it in a tartan dish towel or something.  (On second thought, a tartan dishtowel is pretty big for a little stick.  Maybe you want to save the tartan to wrap the bodhran in.  I don’t know.)  However it ends up, at least teach the giftee how to pronounce “bodhran” because I have no clue how.  (I’m lying.  It’s pronounced “bore-ann.”)

Just to give you a more realistic example of how this whole excellent gift-giving process might unfold, let’s say my wife Jeanette secretly wants a chinchilla for Christmas but she didn’t put it on her list.  She wrote: socket set, new bunny slippers and shoebill crane.  I have no idea why she wrote “shoebill crane” and omitted “chinchilla”.

socket set
Pretty righteous socket set

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing like a pretty righteous socket set when you need one.  Or bunny slippers.  Or even a shoebill crane or two.  These are side issues.  The real issue is that since Jeanette wrote “socket set” on her list, it’s going to be hard for her to fake being surprised when the time comes, if I cave/get lazy/become apathetic and just get her the socket set.  Unless…

Unless I get her a socket set but I also somehow combine it with a premonitory chinchilla- related gift.  This is where things get interesting.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking: (a) How in blazes is he going to pull that off? (b) How did he know that she secretly wants a chinchilla anyway?

So to answer part (a) of your question, I simply find a chinchilla bath house big enough to hold the socket set.  And then I put the socket set inside the chinchilla bath house.  Voila!  Diversionary socket set gift AND premonitory chinchilla-related gift!

empty chinchilla dust bath house
I swear on James Dyson’s wind tunnel that this is a chinchilla bath house

I know. I know.  Now you’re thinking: “What in tarnation is a chinchilla bath house?”

A chinchilla bath house is a small hut into which you put some dust-after you take out the socket set.  Then one or more chinchillas can furtively scuttle into the hut and proceed to wallow leisurely in the dust.  In case you didn’t know, chinchillas love to take dust baths to keep their coats clean and soft, and to relieve their stress.

OK, I’m lying.  There is nothing leisurely about their dust baths.  Not one thing.  Stop right here and watch this epic clip if you don’t believe me.

Done?

OK.  Now that you’ve cleared all the mucous out of your lungs from laughing so much, I know you’re puzzling over how in the heck rolling in dust is good for anything with fur.  Turns out that when it comes to chinchilla dust we’re not talking about just any dust.  We’re talking about a mixture of Andean volcanic ash and clay.  Surprisingly, it’s only a couple of bucks a pound.  Heck you pay more than that for butter.  Not that you would make a chinchilla roll around in butter.  My point here is that these critters like to roll around in dust from their home territory, which is high up in the Andes mountains.

And since I already know you’re thinking hell I’ll just use some house dust, you need to know up front that house dust contains about 20% insect parts, tracked-in soil, soot particles from cooking, burning candles, small house fires, etc.  And the remaining 80%-follow me closely here- consists of sloughed bits of human skin.

I know. I know. You just threw up in your mouth.  I don’t blame you.  But I don’t blame the chinchilla for not wanting to roll in someone’s discarded skin either.  Just saying.

Now we’re on the same page about the dust bathing.  And you also know why there is such a thing as a chinchilla bath house.  But I also know you’re in a quandary about how exactly dust bathing might relieve chinchilla stress.  Not bragging here or anything, but I’m out ahead of you on this too.   The Andean Volcanic Chinchilla Dust gets in the chinchilla noses and triggers long chains of adorable little endorphin-releasing chinchilla sneezes.

We all know that uncorking a half-dozen or so volcanic (!) sneezes feels wonderful, regardless of what rung of the evolutionary ladder you happen to be perching on currently.  By the way, now that I’m thinking about it, I might add The Volcanic Sneezes to my growing list of potentially excellent names for bands.

Godzilla about to cut loose with a volcanic sneeze.

Now we’re going to fast forward a bit here to the point where Jeanette puts down the socket set-laden chinchilla dust bathing enclosure and has just unwrapped the actual chinchilla.

Jeanette: “Oh my goodness! A chinchilla!  Thank you so much honey!  How ever on this Earth did you know that I have always wanted a chinchilla?”

Me (shrugging with eyes looking up to my right):  “I honestly don’t know.  Just a wild guess.”

Jeanette: “Your eyes looked up to your right when you said that.  And you’re right-handed.  That means you are totally lying through your teeth!  How did you know???”

girl gazing up and to her right
Woman wondering if she will get a chinchilla for Christmas.  Or maybe lying through her teeth.  We don’t know because we can’t see her teeth.  And this is a still photo anyway.

Actually, the woman in the photo is innocent although she might not be thinking about chinchillas. I’m the one lying through my teeth here about how to tell if someone is lying through their teeth.  The whole gazing-up-to-the-right-if-you’re-righthanded-and-also-lying-through-your-teeth thing turns out to be a myth.  But we can talk about that another time.

So anyway, back to the answer to part (b) of that question I listed up above here somewhere.  How would I have known that Jeanette might have wanted a chinchilla?  That’s the easy part.  We happened to go to Petsmart one day a couple of years ago, and I noticed her gazing longingly at the Andean mountain cavy enclosure and muttering: “Dang, these cavys are OK but I sure wish I had a chinchilla.”  (The store happened to be out of chinchillas that day.)

andean mountain cavy
Andean mountain cavy (Microcavia niata) anxiously hoping for arrival of dust storm

I immediately whipped out my phone, typed “chinchilla” into my list of gift ideas, right next to “shoebill crane” and under the “Jeanette” heading and tried not to look furtive.

Jeanette said, “You look furtive.  What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I quickly blurted.

My eyes might have looked up to the right.  But only for a titch.  I was thinking about the chinchilla.

 

Next column: 4th Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide

shoebill crane
Shoebill crane smiling and wondering if someone will give it to someone else for Christmas.

 

The Worst Sounds In The World: Part II

The man up top here might be hearing one of the worst sounds in the world.  I think maybe a bee flew into his ear. Anyway, whatever is going on, he doesn’t seem too stoked about it.  But the question is: are we talking about a Type I or a Type II sound here?  A bee buzzing in your ear may very well be a Type I sound.

Remember how in Part I  I talked about how I think the worst sounds in the world can be categorized into Type I (Neurological/Hardwired) and Type II (Situational/Generally Ominous)?  And remember when I told you that Type I sounds fall somewhere in a specific range of frequencies?  You don’t remember, do you?  You didn’t even read Part I, did you?  OK whatever.  Go read Part I.  I’ll wait here…

Type I sounds have frequency components ranging between 2000 and 5000 Hz.  Right?  And while you were refreshing your memory I found out that bee buzzing doesn’t go higher than about 1000 Hz.  That’s 1000 wingbeats per seconds, which is a lot of wingbeats, even for a bee.  So bee-buzzing can’t go on the list of Type I sounds.  But I agree that hearing an angry bee buzz inside your ear canal isn’t all that great, so I’m putting it on the list of the worst Type II sounds.  Meanwhile, here are the rest of my worst Type II sounds:

Driveway Crunch:  This is not the name of a new kind of chocolate bar.  It’s the hideous crunch you hear when you’re in a hurry and you back your new car out of the garage into another vehicle. Trust me, I know.  I backed straight into the the driver’s side front bumper of my ancient Honda Civic, now being driven by a teenager who wasn’t supposed to be parked on the driveway in the first place, not that I’m bitter.

img_2511.jpg
’99 Civic now referred to as “Hubert” by its current driver.

You can tell by the expert repair job just where my rear bumper impacted Hubert’s front bumper. (That tape used to be red, by the way.)  The tape doesn’t seem to detract from the cred that the driver -whom I’ll call Andrew for the sake of argument-earns with his friends.  Apparently it’s way cool to be able to drive stick these days.  Anyway, like I said, Andrew wasn’t supposed to be parked on the driveway but in my defense, I think a bee or something flew into my ear just as I was backing out.  Either way, I will never forget the sound of  that crunch.

Cap’n Dave Swears Up A Blue Streak: This is the sound of a man I’ll call Dave swearing his head off as he hops around his back yard on one foot.   This sound happens to have been triggered by another sound, which was the sound of a nail being driven laterally into Dave’s right pinkie toe, when he stepped on the air-nailer lying in the grass.

 

 

air nail protruding from pinkie toe
See that little thing sticking out of the side of “Dave’s” pinkie toe?  I’m talking about the thing that looks like it could be the head of a nail.

Now I’m sure that there are a host of questions buzzing (!) around inside your head at this point.  What’s an air-nailer?  How in the heck did this happen?  Is it in any way remotely possible, I mean just even a teensy little bit possible that this man is wearing a flip-flop?  If so, why in heaven’s name would a man wear a flip-flop when he’s working with an air-nailer?  Especially if he’s had about 40 years experience in the construction industry.  Hypothetically.

Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you.

Actually, I do know what to tell you.  This is a perfect segue into the next sound on my list.

The Next Sound On My List:  This is the sound of a person you might be married to saying, “I told you to put on your work boots!  Why in heaven’s name were you rushing around the back yard in your flip-flops, trying to nail those boards back on the fence before it rains?”  This sound is also called: “I told you so.”

I hate that sound.

The “You’re an idiot” Sound:

Note: if you’re not from Ontario you can skip this sound.  No one from outside of Ontario seems to know how to play Euchre.

Sweet Euchre hand. If spades are trump.
If spades are trump, and this is your Euchre hand, you are laughing my friend.

Picture this: You’re playing Euchre (like watered down bridge but with fewer cards).  You and your partner are down nine points to six.  (The game goes to ten.)  You’re dealing and the nine of spades is up.  You hold the ten of spades and in desperation you pick up the nine, hoping that your partner has a hand something like the hand in the picture above.  Why did you make it spades?  With the nine and ten.  You should never do that! Even a baby chimpanzee knows you should never do that.  Anyway, spades are now trump.  You say, “I’m going alone.”  That’s even worse.

You’re probably an idiot.

Your partner Tim has no spades so when he hears your declaration, he immediately makes a distinct choking sound, indicating that you just blew the game.  For the third time in a row.  That choking sound is the “You are definitely an idiot” sound.

Ominous Mechanical Sound:

This sound can also be called the “You’re an even bigger idiot than I thought” sound.  This sound is the sound that the motor in your treadmill desk makes when its bearings are giving out.  Again.  You heard this sound two years ago before you had to replace the original motor.  It’s an ominous grating/rumbling sound, in case anyone asks.

It’s also the sound that makes you realize that you ignored the fact that after you replaced the original motor, your treadmill was still generating massive amounts of static electricity because you had been neglecting to keep the deck underneath the belt you walk on for 6-8 hours/day properly lubricated-which wrecked the bearings of the second motor.  That was definitely a run-on sentence, but who cares at this point? In your defense, the people who sold you the treadmill in the first place neglected to mention that little detail about lubrication.

Still and all, you are at least a Class A Dunderhead.

diagnosing a bearing problem with a stethoscope
Never throw away your stethoscope.  Even if you’re a dunderhead.

Penultimate Bad Sound (#5 if you don’t count the bee):

This is the absolute worst sound in the world.  I mean it.  It’s the sound that your dog Mickey makes at 3 A.M. when he has what I’ll call a: “G.I. Event” beside your bed.  In other words, he’s pooping on the carpet.  Again.  For about the fourth time.  Why did you feed him those old Shitake mushrooms for supper?  He nosed them suspiciously.  That should have been your first clue.

img_25112.jpg
I tried to tell you I didn’t like those mushrooms

Anyway, that sound means that you will spend the next three days applying every detergent/enzyme/powerful oxidant concoction in the known Universe to the stain in an attempt to remove it.  If your carpet could talk, you know what it would be saying.

You should just get a new dog.  Or a new carpet.  Or both.

And earplugs.  Because…

grinch
“Is there an echo in here?”