DECEMBER 31, 2008 NOT ENOUGH HOURS IN THE DAY
A "day" is one rotation of the Earth. But that's not precise enough for atomic clocks that track Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). For them, a "day" is 794,243,384,928,000 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom.
However, there's a problem: The Earth takes just a bit longer than this to rotate, the amount varying with global weather conditions and the like. So every few years, a "leap second" has to be added to UTC to keep it from getting too far ahead of the slowing planet.
One of those seconds will be added tonight, between 11:59:59 pm and midnight. But don't expect to see the lighted ball in Times Square pause just before completing its descent. The leap second will have already been added five hours before, at midnight UTC = midnight in London = 7:00 pm in New York.
Back in April, someone named ShaunL posted a note on the Internet suggesting that we could get more accomplished if there were 926,617,282,461,000 periods between one midnight and the next.
Maybe we should slow down the rotation of the Earth, giving us 28-hour days. We just need to get everyone in the world to grab something solid and all yank to the left at the same time.
And someone named Robin replied:
When I was little, I knew a computer programmer at my dad's work who operated on a week of six 28-hour days instead of seven 24-hour ones. His week synchronized with other people's at midnight on Friday, so he was roughly in phase with other people for weekend socializing but had the office to himself on his (four) weekdays.
I've toyed with concepts like this myself. Flying across the Pacific Ocean in 1988, I tried to minimize the effects of jet lag by briefly putting myself on a 32-hour day.
Therefore, I had to check out Robin's dad's colleague's schedule. How does it mesh with the schedule that we ordinary 24-hour people use?
Let's refer to ourselves as Sols, and let's call the 28-hour guy the Programmer. Let's use "military time" in which 00:00 means midnight, the start of a new day. For Sols, one minute before midnight is 23:59. For the Programmer, it's 27:59.
Everybody gets Saturday and Sunday off, denoted by a tan background in the charts below. Let's assume the other days are divided like this:
The standard for sleep is eight hours per night. On a weekly basis, this totals 56 hours for Sols but only 48 hours for the Programmer, so he may need to catch up by using an hour or so of his daily free time for a nap.
On the charts below, the Sols' seven 24-hour days are on the left. On the right are the corresponding days and times in the Programmer's six-day week.
The Sols and the Programmer are in sync at midnight Friday night. At that point, their clocks all turn over to 00:00 Saturday morning, represented by the upper right corner of each chart. The clocks continue in agreement down the "Sat" column for 24 hours. Then we jump back to the upper left corner of each chart. At that point, the Sols' clocks turn over from 23:59 Saturday to 00:00 Sunday morning. However, the Programmer's clock gives him another four hours of free time to play before bedtime. Only then does it turn over from 27:59 Saturday to 00:00 Sunday.
By Monday, when the Programmer reports to work at 10:00 (in bold type on the right-hand chart, second column), his clock is eight hours behind the Sols. They consider the time to be 18:00 (6 pm), and they're just leaving for home when he arrives. Therefore he has the office to himself all night. He's alone on his "Tuesday" as well. On the next day, his "Thursday," the Sols arrive two hours before his quitting time, so he has to put up with a few distractions. On the final day, Friday, they show up six hours before he leaves. But he wraps up his work week two hours before they do, so he gets a head start on his weekend socializing.
For a workaholic with no weeknight social activities, and with sufficient discipline to delay his Monday-night bedtime to a time that all his friends consider noon on Tuesday, this might actually work.
28, 2008 TRY
RUNNING HOT WATER ON IT
I bought some olives last week. They came in a glass jar marked best by 05/16/11. I reckoned I would probably use the olives before that date.
(This was despite the fact that an unopened 10-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, commemorating Penn State's national-championship football team, has been hiding in the back of my refrigerator since early 1983. Remember glass bottles? They've been replaced by lightweight plastic bottles that can easily be recapped.)
Suddenly the lid broke free, shaking everything violently enough to spill olives and pimiento juice on the counter.
So why do innocuous products still come in packaging that's both breakable and child-resistant?
26, 2008 WHERE'D
THE MONEY GO?
How do we keep track of our money? There's a fundamental difference between the public sector and the real world.
In the public sector, legislation often requires that the government must deposit revenue from Source A into Account A and spend it only for Project A. If we want to fix a specific part of our infrastructure, we need to levy a tax or fee specifically for that purpose.
Lawmakers here in Pennsylvania, hoping to reconstruct highways yet avoid a tax hike, thought they could obtain the funds by making Interstate 80 a toll road. However, they were foiled by a rule that I-80 tolls could only be used for I-80 maintenance. An Allegheny County drink tax is supposed to aid public transportation. Bar owners, already claiming the tax hurts their business, object that some revenue is being diverted to local road repair that benefits everybody not just buses.
In the private sector, we don't usually segregate our money into special funds. Maybe Mary has a piggy bank for all the dollars she earns from baking cookies and she's promised herself that this money can only be spent on next year's camping trip, but this arrangement is unusual. What did you do with the $600 stimulus check you received last summer? Probably you did not take the check to a store and spend exactly $600 on a new TV. Probably you put the check into the general fund: you deposited it in the bank along with your paycheck, to be used as necessary for paying the bills.
Now the question arises, what have the nation's large banks done with their federal bailout money? They've deposited it into the general fund, to be used as necessary for paying the bills.
AP reporter Matt Apuzzo wrote this week that the Treasury Department has been "hoping that the sudden inflow of cash will get banks to start lending money. ...Lawmakers summoned bank executives to Capitol Hill last month and implored them to lend the money not to hoard it or spend it on corporate bonuses, junkets or to buy other banks. But there is no process in place to make sure that's happening and there are no consequences for banks who don't comply."
Apuzzo talked to various bankers. The few who agreed to comment pointed out that the private sector does not generally divide money into separate funds for specific purposes. "We manage our capital in its aggregate." The bailout money "doesn't have its own bucket." "We're not providing dollar-in, dollar-out tracking."
15, 2008 AREA
A current magazine reveals "top secret" details of America's next stealth bomber, due to fly ten years from now. It might not even have a pilot.
But our satellites already have captured a photo of a mysterious craft roaring down a runway a mere four blocks from my apartment! It's so powerful that it has distorted the street grid, pushing back the nearby houses. In front of it is a curved supersonic shock wave.
DECEMBER 10, 2008 EXPANDING PERSONAL CONCERNS
Those who are against gay marriage have been reduced to making arguments that sound more and more far-fetched when they're stated in universal terms.
Last night on The Daily Show, Mike Huckabee objected to redefining the term "marriage." For 5,000 years, he said, marriage has been the union of one man and one woman.
Jon Stewart's response: First, you're wrong. The men in the Old Testament did not limit themselves to one woman each; they took as many wives as they could afford. Only relatively recently has marriage been redefined to "just one wife at a time." Second, so what? Words change their meanings all the time.
Then today the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a letter to the editor headlined "Gay couples cannot provide for the survival of civilization." Dolores S. Jarrell wrote, "The state of marriage carries within itself the potential to engender children. That is a benefit without which society cannot continue to exist. ...It is the reason the right of marriage has been granted to a man and a woman who have the promise of giving civilization the gift it most needs survival."
First, this is irrelevant. It's true that if a gay couple marries, they won't engender any children, but they're not engendering any children now as an unmarried gay couple. Their legal status makes no difference to the size of the next generation.
Second, society will continue to exist even though gays don't contribute any offspring. There are plenty of us heterosexuals taking up the slack. In fact, the danger is not that no babies will be born. It's just the opposite: too many babies are being born, and there will soon be so many humans competing for the planet's limited resources of food, water, and other necessities that civilization may eventually fall victim to anarchy.
I suspect that these nonsensical attempts to make large-scale, universal arguments against gay marriage are actually a disguised form of small-scale, personal entreaties.
A parent says, "Please don't legitimize gay marriage. When my daughter grows up and it's time for her to get married, I want her to find a good man. I don't want her to think she has the right to marry some lesbian. If she did decide to marry another woman, I'd be mortified in front of everybody. What would I say at the wedding? To our family, marriage has always meant husband and wife. Not only that, there wouldn't be a next generation. I'd never have any grandchildren."
DECEMBER 9, 2008 POCKETS
In a new article called Give It a Rest, I remember an odd line that my father once used. A customer at his automobile dealership asked whether a newfangled gadget was any good, and my father told him where he could put his foot.
NOVEMBER 28, 2008 EGGS AND MORE
Yesterday's Thanksgiving celebration got me thinking about food in particular the food we had when I was growing up, especially the eggs.
My father and I liked soft-boiled eggs, boiled for only three minutes, then scooped out of the shell into a cup with a bit of salt and butter. You hardly ever find those nowadays.
And my mother had a unique way of making deviled eggs. I describe it in Deviltry at the Thomas House.
NOVEMBER 24, 2008 GRIDIRON GALA
I've almost recovered from being both the graphics coordinator and the graphics operator for four football telecasts in a single day. The details are here.
NOVEMBER 19, 2008 SALT LAKE? NO, SALT LAKE
I feel as though I have two Mormon friends on the Internet, as I regularly visit their blogs. Both graduated from Brigham Young University, served their time as missionaries, and eventually moved from Utah back to the West Coast. One is the son of a bishop. But neither seems at all fanatical about LDS beliefs, and their writings are intelligent and amusing. Check out this example.
One is movie critic Eric D. Snider (BYU 1999). I started reading his "Snide Remarks" column when I was preparing to spend a month in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics and was looking for some perspective on the local culture.
The other is Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings (BYU 2000). Ken has many talents and interests besides trivia. For example, he painted a frieze around the walls of a bedroom in his house, depicting each letter of the alphabet with an illustration from children's literature.
Recently Ken and his readers discussed a topic that most of us have never noticed: how we pronounce two-word phrases. Which of the two words do we accent?
For example, names of thoroughfares. Usually the stress goes on the second word: Fifth Avenue, Mulholland Drive, Tobacco Road. But if the second word is "street," it's not accented: Main Street, Easy Street.
For another example, names of sports venues. Even though the first word is the key identifier, we always seem to stress the second: Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, PNC Park, Conseco Fieldhouse. The exceptions might include United Center or Staples Center, where the two words are given approximately equal weight.
Most of us emphasize the first word in the combinations on the left, but the second word in the combinations on the right.
NOVEMBER 13, 2008 MORE MISLEADING PERCENTAGES
There are four major state-related universities in Pennsylvania, including Penn State. There are also 14 smaller state-owned universities with an additional 113,000 students. According to a report yesterday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, most of the presidents on these smaller campuses will be receiving salary increases of as much as 11 percent.
When salaries rise, eyebrows rise. The economy is worsening, state financial support of higher education is being reduced, and students are paying more in tuition to make up the difference. Is this the time to be giving out raises?
Most people understandably object when they see top executives getting bigger bonuses while they themselves endure cutbacks. They should consider the bigger picture.
Competition makes higher salaries necessary to retain highly-qualified executives. According to the article, "The recipient of the biggest percentage raise was Mansfield University of Pennsylvania President Maravene Loeschke, whose salary was upped by roughly 11 percent, to $189,195, this year. The raise includes an $8,547 merit increase and a $9,708 'market adjustment' to bring her pay closer to what peers on comparable campuses around the country make."
Percentages can be misleading. The raises seem large when compared to the previous salary, but they're practically infinitesimal when compared to the total operation. Mansfield University of Pennsylvania's operating budget is reportedly $52 million. Dr. Loeschke's raise amounts to less than 0.04% of that budget. If she declined her raise and instead distributed the money among her students to help defray the cost of tuition, each student would receive about five bucks.
And she's already saved Mansfield 21 times her raise, or $383,000 a year, by eliminating football a couple of years ago.
NOVEMBER 9, 2008 IT'S ONLY A PAPER MOON
Since ancient times, the theater has told its stories through its costumed actors. Scenery is less important. Often the actors perform in front of generic backgrounds, not detailed representations of a particular place.
Cinema went in a different direction, in an attempt to convince viewers they were watching an actual event. Here's a pair of examples from nearly 50 years ago. Each is a staging of the song "Show Me" from the musical My Fair Lady. On the left, the theater: Julie Andrews in front of Broadway's simple scenery, as seen in a television special. On the right, the movies: Audrey Hepburn on a sound stage resembling a real London alley.
Back then, television was new and could have adopted either tradition. I've seen a kinescope of The Honeymooners from the early days when it was a sketch within Jackie Gleason's variety show. Usually the action took place in the familiar room of the Kramdens' apartment, but this episode required an exterior scene. When Ralph and Ed conversed on the sidewalk, the scenery was as crude as the yellow flat behind Julie Andrews: just some storefronts sketched on a canvas backdrop.
In 1967, as we see below, a TV production of the musical Damn Yankees stayed under budget by eschewing realistic scenery and by replacing extras with cartoons of a bartender and a juror.
Such stylistic sets seem jarringly wrong today, because we've become accustomed to the "real" look, not just a suggestion of reality. Set decorators make big money.
TV networks could have saved millions over the years if they had decided to forego elaborate sets in favor of a neutral curtain. After all, the characters are the focus, not the pictures they have hanging on their walls.
NOVEMBER 4, 2008 WHO'S RED? WHO'S BLUE?
Awaiting tonight's television coverage of the Presidential election returns, I naturally think about TV graphics, because that's my vocation. In particular, I consider the representation of the electoral vote on a national map. As analysts declare one candidate or the other the winner in a particular state, that state is filled in with the appropriate color.
At first the colors were arbitrary. Red and blue were obvious choices, so that the map would bear the colors of the flag, but which party should be red and which should be blue? I recall in the not-too-distant past that NBC did it one way and CBS the other.
But around the turn of the century, somehow the opposite coloration became the rule.
Where's the logic now? There is none, except for the fact that Republican and red both begin with the letter R, and the fact that after the 1960s (when Lyndon Johnson came out for civil rights and Richard Nixon adopted a "Southern strategy") the red-meat-lovin' rednecks began voting for the GOP.
However, I'm glad that we've agreed on a single color scheme, even if it's not the one I would have chosen. Standardization allows us to use the terms "red state" and "blue state" as an unambiguous political shorthand.
And we can hope that tomorrow all the rancor of the long campaign will begin to fade away and we can once again join in singing the praises of these united States, e pluribus unum, neither white nor black, neither red nor blue but "O beautiful ... for purple ...."
NOVEMBER 2, 2008 CORPORATE EARNINGS WAY UP
"CNX Gas profit soars by 115 percent," read the headline last week. I suspect many will consider this another example of an energy company making obscene profits while the rest of us have to pay high prices and cope with a recession.
However, we have to be careful when comparing year-to-year profits on a percentage basis. In some cases, this statistic could be misleading.
Suppose that Sam's Store had a bad year in 2007, barely breaking even. Sam's revenue was $100,000, but his expenses were $99,985, so his profit was a measly 15 dollars. "Well," said Sam, "I guess I'll cancel that annual ad in the high school football program. That'll save me 60 bucks."
Nothing else changes, and in 2008, Sam has another $100,000 in revenue. But his expenses are now only $99,925, so his profit is 75 dollars. That's up 400% from the year before! Better slap a windfall profits tax on Sam.