Anyone who has traveled internationally has almost certainly cursed the various electrical systems of the world. Why do North America and Japan have one type of plug, while the UK and Ireland have another? And how come those plugs are different from plugs used in India, Thailand, South Africa and Switzerland… all of which are different from each other? And how did China and Argentina end up using the same plugs as Australia and New Zealand?

In short, you might wonder why there isn’t a “universal plug”. If you think about it, though, the real question is… why would there be a universal plug?

When electricity first came to homes in the United States and other countries, it was only used for lighting. And light bulbs were wired directly into the electrical system. Indeed, part of the reason early bulbs lasted so long – like the Centennial Light at a fire station in Livermore, California – was because replacing a bulb meant calling an electrician to remove the dead bulb and wire a new one in.

This, of course, was a huge expense and inconvenience, so a slew of inventors came up with ways for customers to easily replace bulbs themselves. One version became more popular than all others, and it probably shouldn’t surprise you that it came from Thomas Edison. The “Edison screw” became the standard base for almost all household light bulbs in North America and Europe. So now, people could replace bulbs by simply unscrewing the dead one from the fixture and screwing a new one in.

Edison Screw
The Edison Screw, via Wikipedia

What few imagined at the time, though, was the birth of electrical appliances like toasters and radios. Early versions of these products were also wired directly in to the electrical system, which was a huge pain: to move a radio from one room to another, you’d have to call an electrician, and you’d possibly have to repair busted plaster or drywall the electrician would have to open to get to the wires running through the walls.

So inventors went back to the drawing board again, and came up with something like this:

Light Socket Adapter
photo via Amazon

This is a modern device that screws into a light socket, provides two outlets you can plug any two-prong device into, and a pass-through socket you can screw a bulb into. But in the early days, there wasn’t a single standard for electric plugs, and were all kinds of different plugs on the market in the US. A toaster might use one type of plug, a radio another. If you wanted to use the two devices on the same adapter, you’d have to make sure they used the same plug, or have an electrician rewire one device with the appropriate plug.

Finally, in 1904, a man named Harvey Hubbell II was awarded a patent for the modern American electrical plug, now called a “Type A” plug. Some time later, a third (ground) prong was added; this is called a “Type B” plug. Type A & B are used throughout North America, Japan, most of Central America and the Caribbean.

While all this was going on in the US, conflicting plugs and systems were raging all over Europe and the UK, too. Inventors there came up with systems and plugs that worked well for their countries, and eventually standards were settled there as well.

So why didn’t anyone ever talk about a universal plug? Because there wasn’t a need for one. International travel wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, and those lucky enough to travel overseas usually didn’t want to bring lamps with them. International trade in electrical devices wasn’t common, either, since each country had its own manufacturing base. And by the time portable devices like electric razors and radios became common, electric standards had been set. Thus, travelers have been forced to buy plug adapters and power converters ever since.

In 1986, the International Electrotechnical Commission got tired of all the different plug types in Europe and created a new type of plug – Type N – they hoped would become the standard throughout the entire European Union, and perhaps the world:

Type N plug
Photo via

But the EU didn’t consider it a top priority, and since any mention of new plugs set off unending bickering between EU members, the whole matter was shelved for good in the mid 1990s. And the idea was a non-starter in non-EU countries like the US and Japan as they all had plugs that worked fine… or were at least “good enough” not to incur the massive expense of switching over to a new plug for no good reason.

But one country was interested in a new type of electric plug: Brazil. At the time, Brazil had at least ten (ten!) different types of plugs in common use throughout the country. In 2001, the Associação Brasileira de Normas Técnicas (Brazilian Association of Technical Standards) adopted Type N as the sole electric plug to be used throughout the country. Hooray!

There’s just one little catch, though: although the country has had a single standard for electric plugs for 14 years now, Brazil is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t have a standard voltage! As unbelievable as it might seem, most of Brazil’s 27 states use 220 volts, but there are a few that use an older 127 volt standard. So an electric coffeemaker bought in the state of Minas Gerais will blow up if plugged into an outlet in the Distrito Federal… and because every device now uses the same Type N plug, there’s no visual warning to prevent you from doing that!

Technology: one step forward, one step back.

The Mostly-Science Post of the Day

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.


Ever heard of Vulcan Point in the Philippines? Probably not. But you might be interested to know that for years it was thought to be the largest island on a lake on an island on a lake on an island.

I’ll break that down for you: Vulcan Point is an island on Main Crater Lake. Main Crater Lake is a lake on Taal Island (also called Volcano Island). Taal Island is an island on Lake Taal, which is located on the island of Luzon in the Philippine island chain:

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

If all that wasn’t enough, Vulcan Point is actually a cone of the Taal Volcano, which is active. Which makes Vulcan Point the world’s largest volcano in a lake (Main Crater Lake) on a volcano (Taal Volcano).

Now you probably noticed that I said that Vulcan Point was thought to be the largest island on a lake on an island on a lake on an island. That’s because last year some intrepid Google Earth explorers found a larger island in a lake on an island on Victoria Island in Canada.

Located in Canada’s extreme north, Victoria Island is the eighth largest island in the world – 83,896.5 square miles, about the size of Idaho, which is 83,570 square miles (or 217,291 km2 vs. 216,632 km2 for our metric friends). And here’s the amazing thing: it’s likely that no human being has ever set foot on the island! As of 2009, the population of Victoria Island is 1,875 people, and there are no settlements anywhere near the unnamed island.

According to this post on Live Science about the discovery, Canada already has some notable island trivia. Canada is home to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron (the world’s largest island in a lake) and Nettilling Lake on Baffin Island (the world’s largest lake on an island).

The Mettle to Melt Medals

It’s a pretty well-known fact that that the Nazis financed their portion of World War II in part by seizing the gold reserves of the nations they conquered. It’s hard to know exactly how much gold was stolen by the Nazis: contemporary accounts are a confusing hodgepodge of metric, Imperial and troy units, and books on the subject don’t always make it clear whether they’re using historical or inflation-adjusted currencies. But it’s certain that the Nazis seized tons of gold throughout Europe and sent it back to Germany, where it was melted down and recast with the Nazi stamp.

What is less known, however, is that the Nazis also banned the export of gold from Germany in the 1930s. At the time, the German government faced the dual problem making reparation payments to the Allies while simultaneously (illegally) rebuilding their armed forces. What’s worse, any Jews, academics, intellectuals and leftists who could afford to leave Germany did, taking their gold with them. Germany’s gold reserves fell to unsustainably low levels, hence the law forbidding anyone to take gold out of the country.

Which made the actions of two German scientists – Max von Laue and James Franck – a crime. Both men had sent their Nobel Prizes to the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. The Institute’s founder and leader – Niels Bohr – promised to keep the medals safe for the men.


The only problem was the Germans launched the invasion of Denmark and Norway – Operation Weserübung – on April 9, 1940. The Danes held out for a whopping six hours before giving up, but there was method to their madness: in return for their quick surrender, the Nazis allowed the Danes a fair amount of autonomy, and Denmark was arguably the safest place to be in Nazi-occupied Europe.

But the Nazis did go door to door throughout Copenhagen, looking for gold, Jews or anything of interest to the Reich. Bohr knew the Nobel Prizes would be a death sentence for von Laue and Franck. After all, they were not only made of 23 karat gold – which was illegal to export – they also had the recipient’s names inconveniently inscribed on them. And von Laue was a vocal opponent of the Nazis and Franck was Jewish. If the Gestapo found the medals… it would be bad.

A Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy was working in Bohr’s lab that day. He suggested to Bohr that they bury the medals. Bohr rejected the idea, as it was only a matter of hours before the Nazis arrived, and they certainly would notice any recently disturbed dirt on campus grounds. So de Hevesy had another idea: there was a chemical in the lab, a mixture of three parts hydrochloric acid and one part nitric acid known as aqua regia. It has several uses in the lab and it’s one of the few chemicals that will dissolve gold. Perhaps they could just… dissolve the medals?

Bohr agreed, so the men put the Nobel Prizes in the aqua regia. The thing is, though, aqua regia breaks down gold slowly. Dissolving the medals might have taken days or even weeks! And so the two men spent several very nervous hours watching the medals ever so slowly dissolve. I imagine it was like a scene in a movie where the Good Guy copies a bunch of files to a flash drive while being hunted by the Bad Guys, and we all watch as the agonizingly slow progress bar tracks the copy: 20% complete… 30% complete… 40% complete. Only in real life this chemical process went on for hours and hours!

Continue reading “The Mettle to Melt Medals”

Good News, Southerners!

For years, there’s been this notion that the South is home to the fattest people in the nation. Well, come to find out, people in the South aren’t necessarily fatter… they’re just more honest.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) have been conducting a long-term study called “Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke”, or REGARDS for short. They’ve found that people in the South tend to have higher blood pressure, more cases of diabetes, and more strokes than other regions of the country. And, like most folks, they assumed that it’s because of higher obesity rates in the South.

However, when they started weighing people themselves, they found that the numbers didn’t add up. So they started weighing people in other parts of the country, and found that those numbers really didn’t add up.

Come to find out, most of the data used to determine obesity rates comes from the Centers for Disease Control’s “Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System” study. And that data comes from telephone interviews. And guess what? People tend to lie in telephone interviews. People in the South were simply more honest about their weight compared to people in other parts of the country.

According to the folks at UAB, who conducted their own obesity study which divided the country into the same nine regions the US Census Bureau uses, the most obese part of the country is the “West North Central” region (Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and the Dakotas). The “East South Central” (Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky), which has always ranked first in the CDC studies, came in fifth in the UAB study.

No word on where the “South Atlantic” region (which includes the Carolinas, DC, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, and Virginia) is on UAB’s list.

In their investigation, UAB also found that women are much more likely to underreport their weight than men… but men are much more likely to overreport their height which, of course, makes their weight issues seem like less of a problem.

Read more here. Link to their study in the journal Obesity here.

The “Monty Hall” Problem

For years I’d heard about the “Monty Hall” math problem, and I could never wrap my head around it. I’d read about it in a magazine or newspaper, or on a web site and it always seemed so counter-intuitive. But this year I finally figured it out, and thought I’d share my “solution” with the Internet in case some mathematically-challenged folks want it explained to them in simple English.

The problem comes from the old TV game show Let’s Make a Deal. Host Monty Hall would pick an audience member and show him three numbered doors. Behind one of the doors was a genuine prize, like a car or vacation. Behind the two other doors were booby prizes called “zonks”. These were usually live goats for some reason, but would sometimes be wrecked cars or junk furniture. The audience member would pick a door. Hall would reveal a booby prize behind one of the other doors, then ask the contestant if he or she wanted to switch their pick to the other door.

Lets Make A Deal

The actual math part of the problem addressed whether it was better to stay with your original choice or switch to the other door. Mathematically, switching increases your odds of winning to 66%, while staying with your original choice only allowed for a winner 33% of the time. So my question was always… why? Doesn’t it seem like the odds don’t matter? There are only two doors left, so shouldn’t your odds be 50:50 regardless of whether you switch doors or keep your initial choice?

No. You see, this problem has to do with timing and knowledge.

Let’s imagine that instead of 3 doors, Hall shows you, the contestant, 100 doors. You choose one of the doors (let’s say door #23). At that point in the game, you have a 1 in 100 chance of picking the right door… because you chose 1 door, and there are 100 total doors. Ergo, 1 in 100. But then Hall opens 98 of the losing doors and asks if you want to switch. At this point in time, choosing to switch gives you a 99% chance of winning, because you now know which of the 98 doors are losers, whereas before you lacked that knowledge.

If it helps, think of the doors as groups. With your first pick, you chose 1 door. There is one door in that group. But if you switch, you not only get the second door, you’re also getting the 98 losing doors, too. So the second group contains 99 doors – the 98 losers plus the door you switched to. You’d be a fool not to switch to this second group!

Of course, the exact odds will vary based on the total number of doors. And that’s where my confusion came from. With one door out of the picture, it appears that you only have two to choose from, and it’s natural for humans to have two choices and think 50:50 odds. It’s also worth nothing that if you came in to the game after the first door had been picked, then your odds really would be 50:50.

Math… so confusing!

GT Researchers Make Power Out of Nothing

Researchers at Georgia Tech have come up with a way to pull electrical power out of thin air… sort of.


Basically, they’ve taken an ink solution containing silver nanoparticles and printed a grid onto paper or plastic (pic above). The grid pulls electromagnetic energy out of the ambient environment, providing around one milliwatt to a battery or capacitor… which is not a lot. However, the researchers hope to increase this to 50 milliwatts using advanced capacitors, and you can also use several such grids wired together to increase the yield.

The technology, which would be insanely cheap if scaled to production levels, has many possible uses, such as environmental sensors (to power seismographs in remote locations, for instance), or as part of a distress sensor (in life rafts or industrial applications, for instance), or to power RFID tags in commerce, or to power inexpensive (easily hideable and movable) bomb sniffers at airports, or even to power stress sensors underneath bridges, where solar power is not an option.

Read more about it here. Go Jackets!

Happy Birthday, Neptune!

Yes, this is a week late, but uh… better late than never and all that.

Happy “first” birthday, Neptune!


Our solar system’s last “real” planet (I’m still torn about Pluto) was discovered on September 23, 1846. Neptune is far too dim to be observed with the naked eye, so it wasn’t until the telescope was invented that it could even be seen. However, although it was observed by astronomer after astronomer, every last one of them thought Neptune to be a star (with “them” including Galileo, Jérôme Lalande and John Herschel). In 1781, British astronomer William Herschel discovered Uranus, and by 1846 it was clear that Uranus had some orbital oddities that could only be explained by the presence of another planet. Thus, Neptune is the only planet in our solar system discovered by mathematical means, not observation. Interestingly, Neptune’s massive moon, Triton, was discovered by English astronomer William Lassell just 17 days later.

Neptune is the forth largest planet by diameter and the third most dense in the solar system. It orbits the Sun at an average distance of 30.1 AU (astronomical units, the average distance from the earth to the Sun). It takes Neptune 165 years to circle the Sun, thus, if there were people on Neptune, they’d be celebrating the first year anniversary of when earthlings discovered their home.

Here’s a cool video from the BBC’s 1999 series The Planets about Neptune:


Even cooler, here’s a sound recording from the Voyager mission. This isn’t what the planet actually sounds like to human ears; it’s what the radio waves coming from Neptune sound like. And it’s really cool:


I love Neptune! It’s my favorite planet after earth!

The McGurk Effect

The McGurk effect is an illusion that proves that what we hear is directly affected by what we see. It seems counter-intuitive that the sense of hearing can be affected by our vision, but it’s true. Check out this short clip from the BBC show Horizon to see how it works:


What makes the McGurk effect so especially interesting is that the illusion always works, even after the subject knows how it works. Most optical illusions, by contrast, seem to not work once the subject understands how it works. But the McGurk effect appears to be a fundamental part of the human mind.

Read more about it at Wikipedia here.