Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Watched Pot Never Reaches 100 Degrees (Celsius)

"As I recall, King Henry's arm was about this long."

The most reliable way to kill off a good idea is to have a committee study it.  There are thousands of illustrations of that truth, but just to pick one, how about the effort to convert U.S. weights and measures to the metric standard?

There had been sporadic attempts to do that since Thomas Jefferson recommended it in 1790, but the idea to change to meters and grams didn’t gain serious momentum until the late 1960s.  That’s when the U.S. Metric Study was authorized, establishing a 45-member advisory panel to the Department of Commerce.  A committee of five can be unwieldy, but forty-five?  It must have taken months just to find a mutually-agreeable time for them to hold a meeting.

After three years of study, the advisory panel concluded that it was in fact a good idea, and recommended that metrication be adopted… over a decade.  That leisurely pace gave the U.S. Congress time to study the idea some  more, which of course meant more committees.  Eventually Congress somehow passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975.

The stated goal of that act was “to coordinate and plan the increasing use of the metric system in the United States”.  The act also handed that job to another committee; this one was called the U.S. Metric Board.  It held meetings and listened to testimony and took things under advisement and the committee members deliberated.  Their deliberations almost always ended in deadlock.

On one side — the side that favored changing to the metric system — there were scientists, multinational corporations, educators, and to some extent the military.  On the other side were consumers, who loudly complained that they found the metric system confusing.

By contrast the U.S. system, rooted in the British Imperial system, was so logical and easy to understand, you see.  In the Middle Ages, an inch was established as the width of a man’s thumb, or of three barleycorns set side by side.  A foot was — well, you know, the length of a human foot, or roughly 36 barleycorns.  And what could be simpler to grasp than the concept of a yard, since it represented the distance from the tip of King Henry I’s nose to the end of the middle finger on his outstretched hand?

A mile was a little trickier, since it had originally been a Roman unit of measure.  If you can picture the length of 1,000 paces by a Roman legion — considering that a pace has two steps, so is roughly five feet — then you can picture a mile.  If that’s too difficult to comprehend, remember that in 1592, Parliament simplified things by standardizing the length of a mile as eight furlongs. 

You can see why consumers wanted to cling to that system, when the alternative required something far more complicated and scary:  moving a decimal point!  The conversion plan languished in committee, and eventually the committee — the U.S. Metric Board — was itself disbanded in 1982.

As a result, Americans were spared the inconvenience of having to change their treasured proverbs and folk wisdom to sayings like, “Give her a centimeter and she’ll take 1.6 kilometers”, or “28.3 grams of prevention is worth roughly 454 grams of cure.”  The meeting is adjourned.

Blue View


“The Three Sisters” — The Blue Mountains, Australia

If you head east from Sydney, Australia, you’ll soon find yourself in the Pacific Ocean.  If you travel west, on the other hand, it won’t be long before you’ll be in another vast blue expanse.  This area is known as the Blue Mountains, and it is spectacular.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is several thousand square miles of sandstone peaks and chasms, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls, and a network of trails that connect them.

The Blue Mountains, however, are not actually blue.  Oh, they look that way from a distance, but that’s supposedly because evaporating oils in the eucalyptus trees disperse the light in such a way that the blue end of the spectrum predominates.  I’m not sure how much science there is behind that explanation, but that’s what the locals claim.  Whatever the reason, I concur that there is a bluish haze around them, and that the Blue Mountains are worth seeing.  Here are excerpts from my journal entry for April 30, 1995…

At 9:30 a.m. the four of us (Bryan Fryklund, Jen Reeder, Sally and I) met at Central Station in Sydney for a train trip out to the Blue Mountains, which are about 100 km west of the city center.  We got a sense of how big Sydney is as we rolled through suburb after suburb…

At Katoomba we bought tickets for something called The Blue Mountains Explorer, a double-decker bus which toured through the area and had specified drop-off points.  At the first place we got off the bus, we had lunch at a “kiosk” (snack stand).  Not to say the atmosphere was casual, but our waitress wasn’t wearing shoes.

We hiked down to the Katoomba Cascades.  By the time we got back up to the top, we had missed the bus, so we walked the trail toward Echo Point.  Much of the Prince Henry trail was along the clifftops, which presented many magnificent vistas along the way.  We’d round a bend, and there would be an even better view of The Three Sisters than we’d had a few minutes before.  Bryan usually rushed to the railing at the viewpoints, but I tended to approach with my customary caution, so as not to lose consciousness.

We reached Echo Point about 2:15, along with a lot of other people who had gotten there on tour buses.  Since our next Explorer bus wasn’t due until about 3:00, we had plenty of time to catch our breath, take pictures, and watch the progress of some rock climbers who were scaling the middle column of the Three Sisters.

When the bus came, we knew we only had time for one more stop, so we decided on the Leura Cascade, a beautiful mountain stream which found its way over boulders and through ferns and eventually threw itself off a cliff.  From one of the vantage points, we looked down — way down — and saw the remains of a Volkswagen Beetle lying on its side on the canyon floor.  It should not have attempted to be a waterfall.

When the Truth Mattered

Reporter Covers His Own Trial

In a democracy, the election process is like having a physical exam.  We know it’s good for us, but it’s not a pleasant experience.  Most of us are put off by the relentlessly negative tone of politicians:  “My opponent was born on Mars, and was sent here by his masters to subjugate Planet Earth!”  Wild charges and personal attacks of that sort are nothing new, but there was a time when they at least had to have some basis in fact.

That standard — that a statement isn’t libelous if it’s true — was established in the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger.  His case turned out to be a landmark victory for the idea of freedom of the press.

Zenger was a German immigrant to the colony of New York who learned how to operate a printing press.  The colonial governor back then was a man characterized by historians as, among other things, “spiteful” and “greedy”.  The governor’s name was William Cosby, but he was probably no relation to the William Cosby who tried to convince a later generation of Americans that New Coke was better than the original recipe.

The 18th century Bill Cosby quarreled with the colonial council over his salary, tried to rig an election by denying Quakers the vote, and ousted officials who dared to disagree with him.  At the time, the only newspaper in town was the New York Gazette, which was basically a PR brochure for the governor.  To give you an idea, a piece in the January 7, 1734, issue referred to him as “Cosby the mild, the happy, the good, the great.”

Inevitably, an opposition party formed, and they approached Peter Zenger about publishing a newspaper.  Since the only other printer in the colony was cranking out the Gazette, Zenger was a sensible choice.  The New-York Weekly Journal, as Zenger’s paper was called, commenced publication in November of 1733.  The coverage of William Cosby was not flattering, and it didn’t take long before the governor was outraged by Zenger’s zingers.  The publisher was arrested, charged with seditious libel.

Gov. Cosby handpicked the judges to try Zenger, and then he disbarred the attorneys who were going to represent Peter Zenger.  A lawyer from Philadelphia named Andrew Hamilton took the case, and he offered a novel defense.  He made the argument that even if a statement is defamatory, it’s not libelous if it can be proved to be true.  Hamilton didn’t have legal precedent on his side; in those days, libel basically meant publishing anything that offended or embarrassed the Crown.

While that might be valid in England, Hamilton argued, the situation was different in the colonies, and he went on to state that juries here had the right to render a verdict that did not follow the letter of the law.  After Hamilton finally sat down, the governor’s judge gave instructions to the jury that made it very clear they were to find Zenger guilty.  The jury was sent out to deliberate (wink-wink, thought the judge) on August 5, 1735.  In about ten minutes they returned with a not guilty verdict; cheers rang out in the courtroom.

Peter Zenger’s name became forever associated with a cornerstone of democracy — a free press.  Andrew Hamilton’s courtroom skills brought another term into the lexicon:  To this day, an attorney with mastery of legal technicalities is known as a Philadelphia lawyer.

Gibson’s Finest Moment

Happy Birthday to Me

Kirk Gibson hit a total of 262 home runs in his career (including postseason), but if you hear baseball fans talking about “Gibson’s home run”, you know exactly which one they mean.  It was among the most dramatic moments in baseball history, that shot that won Game One of the 1988 World Series.  You’ve seen replays of it a thousand times.

I saw it in person.

My wife had given me tickets to the game between the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Dodgers as a birthday present.  I didn’t want to ask too many questions about how Sally got them, or how much she had to pay.  Let’s just say they were very good seats, except for the fact that we were surrounded by the wives of the A’s players.  I’m sure they are all wonderful human beings, but that night they were the enemy.  One in particular had a voice like a power saw ripping through sheet metal.

Those Oakland wives had a lot to crow about with the A’s holding a 4-3 lead as the game went to the bottom of the ninth.  The inning began with Mike Scioscia of the Dodgers hitting a weak popup for the first out.  He was followed by Jeff Hamilton, who was overmatched against Dennis Eckersley, the best relief pitcher in baseball.  Hamilton struck out looking.  The A’s wives were positively screeching by now, with victory only one out away.

L.A. manager Tommy Lasorda sent Mike Davis to the plate to pinch hit for Alfredo Griffin.  Davis had been Eckersley’s teammate in Oakland the previous season and had put up respectable numbers there.  Maybe that’s why “Eck” pitched cautiously to Davis; whatever the reason, Davis was able to work a walk.

My head swiveled toward the Dodger dugout.  “Here he comes,” I yelled, and at the same time about 50,000 other fans also saw Kirk Gibson limping out of the dugout with a bat in hand.  It was pitcher Alejandro Peña’s spot in the batting order, although infielder Dave Anderson had been occupying the on-deck circle, ostensibly to pinch hit for Peña.

We all knew this situation called for Kirk Gibson, in spite of his injuries.  Gibson had a bad left hamstring and a gimpy right knee that had kept him out of the lineup.  Those of us who were still in Dodger Stadium were on our feet and screaming; however, beyond the center field fence I could see taillights of cars whose drivers had wanted to beat the traffic.  They heard what subsequently happened on their radios.

Gibson was quickly behind in the count, 0-2.  Eckersley tried to get him to bite on pitches off the plate.  Gibson took a couple, and fouled off a couple.  The count evened, and on a 2-2 pitch, Mike Davis got into scoring position by stealing second.

On the 3-2 pitch, Gibson hit the shot that sailed over Jose Canseco’s head into the right field pavilion, and into history.  The A’s wives suddenly got quiet and slumped into their seats, stunned.  The rest of us were hugging each other and ruining our vocal cords for what must have been fifteen minutes after the Dodgers had won, 5-4.

It was a thrill to be there on my birthday, and to see the career highlight of not one but TWO Gibsons.  It was Kirk who ended the game with his memorable home run, of course.  But how could you forget that the evening began with the National Anthem being sung by Debbie Gibson?  What a night.

Susan’s Bad Reputation

On behalf of Toms everywhere, I’d like to proclaim our innocence.  For hundreds of years, our name has been associated with a shameful adjective:  peeping.  That opprobrium is due to a minor character in the Lady Godiva legend, a Tom who hoped to catch a glimpse of the naked lady on horseback.  There must have been lots of Toms who followed the rule that day in Coventry, who stayed inside with their shutters closed.  But do you ever hear anyone use the expression “Law-abiding Tom”?  No!  Because of one rogue Tom, we all get a scornful nickname.

If we go by our given name, things don’t get any better.  What adjective is associated with Thomas?  Right — doubting.  OK, I’ll personally plead guilty to harboring doubts on any number of subjects, but there are probably lots of Thomases who are trusting, even gullible.

Similarly, all Janes aren’t plain; I know some Janes who are vivacious and pretty.  Not every Gus is gloomy.  I think you’ll agree that there are some Jims who aren’t Dandy.  And among the world’s population of Susans, many are not lazy.

I started wondering about that particular example of character assassination while we were in China.  In many restaurants, we were seated at circular tables that each had a large lazy Susan on which food platters were placed.  As you know, a lazy Susan is a sort of round tray mounted on ball bearings; rather than having to ask someone to pass the fried rice, you could give the lazy Susan a spin and bring the bowl right to your place.

I was fairly certain that the lazy Susan was not first called that in China, since Susan isn’t exactly a common name there.  So where did it originate, and how did it get that name?

Some know-it-alls claim that it was invented by Thomas Jefferson and that he named it after one of his daughters.  A flaw in this explanation is that Jefferson did not have a daughter named Susan.  Another flaw is that the revolving tray was probably in existence in Europe before Jefferson could have invented it.

There are extant models that date to the 18th century, when they were called dumbwaiters; the term lazy Susan first appeared in print in the early 20th century.  Some sources cite an advertisement in a 1917 issue of Vanity Fair that referred to a “revolving server or Lazy Susan”.  The price was $8.50, which, the advertisement said, was “an impossibly low wage for a good servant.”  There were earlier uses of the term lazy Susan dating back as far as 1903, but the connection with the servant reference in the Vanity Fair ad may supply a possible explanation for the name.

There seem to have been lots of Susans who were employed as servants, and Susan may have become a generic equivalent, like calling every butler Jeeves whether that was his name or not.  The “lazy” part of the name relates to the lack of work required of the server; those at the table are serving themselves.  “Susan” can sit in the kitchen with her feet up.

Well, no one knows for sure, but that generic-Susan-as-servant idea seems plausible to me.  Being a Thomas, however, I have my doubts.  I’ll bet you’d have no trouble convincing Simon that it’s true, though.  After all, he’s… you know.  Simple.

What Bugs Elephants

Mmm, no ants on this acacia branch.

We could hear the elephants coming toward us before we could see them:  The sound of limbs snapping and trees toppling made it obvious that an elephant deforestation project was underway.  Soon they emerged into a clearing, chomping on branches. 

Elephants are not dainty herbivores, so there are large portions of African savanna that have become relatively treeless.  On the other hand, satellite images of Kenya taken over several recent years showed that there were areas where tree coverage has remained stable.  That was in spite of increases in elephant population in those same areas, which raised the reasonable question “Why?”

A study published last month in Current Biology came up with an answer.  It turns out that ants are defending the trees from elephants.  Yes — ants.  It would seem like a mismatch, since your average ant weighs abut 5 milligrams dripping wet, and your average African elephant weighs 250 pounds — at birth — and several tons when fully grown.

Biologists Todd Palmer of the University of Florida and Jacob Goheen of University of Wyoming conducted a study to investigate the connection between ants and stands of acacia trees that elephants wouldn’t eat.  In one experiment, they removed ants from acacia trees to see if there was something in the tree’s chemistry that repulsed the pachyderms.  Not at all — the elephants gobbled up those branches.

In the second experiment, the scientists added ants to other species of trees that are frequently on the elephants’ menu.  The assumption was that if the ants were in fact a deterrent, the elephants would shun these ant-adulterated morsels.  “Sure enough,” Goheen said, “the elephants were choosing to eat more or less entirely based on whether or not these trees were defended by ants.”

It seems that the ants drive off the elephants by crawling into the elephants’ nostrils and biting them.  Elephants don’t like ants up their trunks, just as human beachgoers don’t like sand up their trunks.  By the way, ants don’t deter giraffes, because they are able to swipe the ants away with their long tongues.

Anyway, this arrangement between acacia trees and ants is what scientists call SYMBIOSIS.  You may recall from your high school biology class that symbiosis is cooperation between two species to their mutual benefit.  Thanks to the ants scaring away the elephants, the trees get to live.  And what do the ants get out of the deal?  They get rent-free lodging and food — they eat the sap that the tree excretes.

Meanwhile, the elephants go elsewhere to find ant-free trees.  Those are typically in areas that have sandy soil; the ants seem to prefer acacia trees that grow in soil that is primarily clay.

Since human beings benefit from having plentiful trees on our planet (they filter out bad stuff and generate oxygen), those ants in Africa are indirectly helping us, too.  It’s strange to think that ants have our back, isn’t it?  Oh wait, there’s one on your shoulder now.  I’ll get it, hold still…