I have a big ‘ol pile of sciencey-type stuff on my desk I’ve been meaning to post… so let’s do this thing:
You probably don’t think about it much, but people who create international websites have a constant stream of pains-in-the-ass to deal with on a daily basis. We all know that British English spells some things differently than American English (“colour” vs. “color”), and that British people write their dates differently than Americans do (“10 January 2014” vs. “January 10, 2014”). But have you ever thought about the grammar quirks of the hundreds of other countries? This video from the guys at Computerphile breaks it all down, and makes you appreciate the developers at Facebook so much more:
Interested in cryptography but don’t know how it works? Check out this video, also from Computerphile, about how public key crypto works. It’s amazing how clever people can be sometimes:
You may not know this, but American soldiers often use a dozen or more radios while out on patrol. You might think this is due to parochialism between the services: the Army has their radios, while the Navy, Air Force and Marines have their own systems ‘cos they think theirs is “better”. And yes, there is a bit of that. But it’s mostly due to physics: the type of radio you need to briefly communicate with warplanes hundreds of miles away isn’t the same kind of radio you need for frequent communications with headquarters a dozen miles away, which isn’t the kind of radio you need for near-constant communication with fellow soldiers only yards away. The US Army spent $6 billion working on a “soft radio” that could quickly be reconfigured to meet any possible need. And, as Ars Technica notes, it was a total disaster. Read this article, not just for the tech behind it all, but how changing the scope of a project during the project can lead to disaster.
Having said that, while we always think of the Pentagon when it comes to massive-scale government waste, things are not always what they seem. Back in the 1980s, there was a “scandal” in which the Pentagon allegedly paid $600 for a hammer. Come to find out, the real story was a bit more complicated: the Pentagon needed to make some repair kits for a specialized device. The company contracted to make the kits had to do some R&D for the project: they were repairing a custom-made product after all. When it came time to bill the government, the folks at the Pentagon for some reason insisted that the contractor spread the R&D costs equally across the project. So instead of paying $5 million in R&D and $15 each for hammers, the R&D costs were $0 and the hammers appeared to cost $435 (which the media later conflated to $600). It’s an accounting thing. If you were to take your car to a mechanic, and he put four $2 spark plugs in your car and charged you $75 for the labor, most people would understand the difference between parts and labor. Journalists back in the 80s apparently did not, and bemoaned the Pentagon spending almost $21 each for $2 spark plugs,
I’m bringing all this up because of the recent stories about how the Army “wasted” $5 billion on a camouflage pattern that didn’t work. Again, this is more about lazy journalism than wasted tax dollars: the Army did try a new camouflage pattern, and no, it didn’t work. But they actually spent well under $100 million on the design. That’s hardly chump change. But the other $4.9 billion was spent on new uniforms and other gear with the new camo pattern on it. The Army actually used most of that equipment… so how much did it actually waste? It’s like when a company decides to change its logo. You often hear that “[company’s] new logo cost $100 million”. Of course, the actual logo probably cost around $100,000 to design, with another million or two thrown in for research (to make sure the new logo doesn’t have an offensive or negative meaning in dozens of countries) and legal fees (to make sure it doesn’t look too much like some other company’s logo). The other $95 million is for new uniforms, new paint jobs on trucks or planes, new stationary, updating the company’s website, etc. But even if a company decides to go back to their previous logo a few years later, how much is actually wasted? Certainly the cost for the new logo and research and legal fees. But employees need uniforms, trucks need to be repainted, and the website was probably going to need some other update anyway.
There is, however, an amusing aspect to this: when the Army decided to change their camo, they had a complicated, bureaucratic process for doing so. When the Marines decided that they needed new camo, they went to their sniper school in Virginia and asked a couple of guys to come up with a better color scheme. So the snipers went to a nearby Home Depot and found some paint samples. Done and done.
The idea of blood transfusions has been around for a remarkably long time. It wasn’t tested scientifically until the 1600s, however. It was a disaster, mostly because doctors of the time were trying to transfer blood between species – putting goat blood into a human, for instance. In 1817 a British physician named James Blundell finally hit upon the idea of human to human transfusion. This seemed to work a tiny bit better: in some cases it worked, but in most cases it did not. Why that was became a huge mystery for medicine, and it wasn’t until 1900 that blood types were discovered. Despite humanity knowing about blood types for over a century, we know very little else about it. Why do European populations have different blood type ratios than Africans and Asians? Why do we even have blood types at all? If you don’t have an answer to that question, rest easy: science doesn’t either. This amazing story from Ars Technica talks about how much we know, and really, how much we don’t know, about the blood in our veins.
In medieval times, secular courts often transferred “undesirable” cases to church courts, where the accused would be subjected to “trial by ordeal”. You probably learned about these in history class, but if not you’ve probably seen a movie or TV show where someone accused of a crime was made to do something horrific, like stick their arm into boiling oil to retrieve an object at the bottom of the pot. The theory was that an innocent would be protected by God, while a guilty person would not. So, after a few days, the person’s wounds would be checked, and the person’s guilt or innocence determined by how well they’d healed. It sounds barbaric, but economist Peter Leeson argues (PDF) that such trials were actually a clever bit of game theory devised by priests, probably based on the Judgment of Solomon. If you’re not up on your Old Testament (specifically 1 Kings 3:16-28), two new mothers come to King Solomon for help. One mother claimed that the other had accidentally smothered her son while sleeping, and had secretly swapped the other’s son for hers. Solomon thought about it for a while, and called for a sword. He intended to cut the baby in two, so that each mother could have half the baby. One mother said this was fine with her, while the other cried out for Solomon to stop, that the other woman could have the baby. Solomon reckoned the latter woman to be the baby’s mother, since a baby’s true mother would rather give the baby away than see it hurt. It’s one of the earliest written examples of game theory, and Leeson thinks those “trials by ordeal” were just a variation on that. Leeson has done statistical analysis of such trials, and his theory appears to be correct, Incidentally, Leeson thinks that priests knew who was guilty before the “ordeal” even happened (which is the whole point), and for innocent people the “boiling” oil was actually “uncomfortably warm” instead.
For decades, historians and anthropologists have tried to paint Native Americans as eco-aware pacifists who didn’t know of war and strife before those eeeeviiillll Europeans showed up. Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler disagrees, and in a recent paper he argues that the most violent period in Native American history happened some time in the 1200s. Kohler even argues that, as far as “genocides” go, what happened to the Mesa Verde people of modern day Colorado was worse, percentage-wise, than what happened in the 20th century in China or the Soviet Union. It’s an interesting read, to be sure.
Kids are funny: they do stupid stuff over and over again until they’re hurt or humiliated, and it’s only then that they learn not to do it again. All of us probably remember being repeatedly told “not to play on the railing, ‘cos you’ll fall off and get hurt” or “don’t run with scissors in your hand” and totally ignoring that advice… until you fell off the railing and broke your arm, or fell with the scissors and cut yourself.
This isn’t quite the same thing, but I had a similar thing with Limburger cheese.
Originally from Duchy of Limburg, an interesting corner of the Holy Roman Empire where modern day Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands meet, Limburger cheese is one of the foulest-smelling foods ever invented. When fresh, it’s a harmless hard cheese, not unlike feta. But then a bacteria is added which actually decomposes it into a creamy cheese… that positively reeks of ammonia. It smells… well, I can’t even describe it. Imagine if a soldier or homeless person wore the same boots for 6 months without taking them off once. Now, imagine the soldier or homeless person taking the boots off and sticking them into a giant pile of monkey diarrhea… while getting a perm… in a slaughterhouse. It’s about that bad, really.
German and Belgian immigrants brought Limburger with them to the US in the early 1880s… and Americans started making fun of it immediately, Seriously: it’s possible that the very first Limburger cheese joke was made on Ellis Island. It was called “the cheese you can find in the dark”. Vaudeville acts of German or Yiddish immigrants – even young Groucho Marx – were said to speak “Limburger English”. Mark Twain used Limburger in a short piece called “The Invalid’s Story”, in which a man wants to take a dead friend home by train, but is mistakenly given a box full of guns. The box is placed next to a shipment of Limburger, which begins to stink… so the protagonist thinks it’s his dead friend stinking up the rail car.
In real life, an Irish woman in New York City tried to commit suicide in 1895 because her German husband ate Limburger all the time and tried to “get amorous” with her with it on his breath. That same year, a strike broke out at a dairy in Newark when a Swedish worker smeared Limburger all over some equipment as a prank, causing anti-Swedish sentiment to boil over, which caused the Swedes to walk off the job.
Speaking of pranks, for decades comedies and cartoons had Limburger whenever something foul-smelling was needed, especially in Warner Brothers cartoons. Penelope Pussycat tried to escape from Pepé Le Pew by hiding in a Limburger factory to throw off her scent. A cartoon dog had Limburger dumped on him while reading the “a rose by any other name” line from Shakespeare in 1949’s A Ham in a Role, the “last cartoon of the Golden Age of American Animation”. And, of course, Tom and Jerry had Limburger in damn near every episode.
For some reason, this cheese was available everywhere when I was a kid. No joke: you could go to a Piggly Wiggly on Route 207 in East Bumble, Alabama, and they’d have it by the lunch meat (next to the Oscar Mayer braunschweiger, which I actually like, but never see anyone buy, either). And every single time I saw it, I just had to smell it.
“It can’t be as bad as I remember it,” I’d think. But it always was. Worse even.
“Mr. Head awakened to discover that the room was full of moonlight. He sat up and stared at the floor boards – the color of silver – and then at the ticking on his pillow, which might have been brocade, and after a second, he saw half of the moon five feet away in his shaving mirror, paused as if it were waiting for his permission to enter. It rolled forward and cast a dignifying light on everything. The straight chair against the wall looked stiff and attentive as if it were awaiting an order and Mr. Head’s trousers, hanging to the back of it, had an almost noble air, like the garment some great man had just flung to his servant; but the face on the moon was a grave one. It gazed across the room and out the window where it floated over the horse stall and appeared to contemplate itself with the look of a young man who sees his old age before him.”
– Flannery O’Connor
“The Artificial Nigger”