How far does a mouse cursor travel in a year?

Your mouse cursor does a pretty good amount of moving. It darts from buttons to text boxes to links, always sending you to the next thing you want to look at. Those movements are all pretty small – only a couple inches across the front of your monitor… and yet one could easily see them adding up to pretty good distances over time. So, how far does a mouse cursor travel in a year? That’s a question that desperately needs answering.

Mouse Cursor

Remember back in Windows 98 days, when it was cool to change your mouse cursors and your sound settings?

I actually set out to answer this question back in high school and I determined that a few really basic calculations could yield an answer. If I kept track of the mouse pointer’s X, Y coordinates in pixels on my screen every millisecond, I could use the Pythagorean theorem to determine how far it had traveled since its position one millisecond ago. Of course, that gave me a distance in pixels rather than inches… a challenge which was easily overcome by measuring my monitor’s width and height and calculating the number of pixels per inch in each direction. Then, all I had to do was add things up over time!

In case you’re interested, here’s the code I wrote, in an old game programming language called Blitz Basic, which I apparently thought was the bee’s knees at the time. Disclaimer: I wrote this code in my teens and it’s terrible. In fact, I cleaned up four or five things before I could even bring myself to post it on the web… and it’s still terrible.

OK. So, I’ve got a program to answer my question. How far does a mouse cursor move in a year, then?

Well, I’ve never tracked the cursor on a particular computer for a year… yet. But I have been tracking the cursor on my work computer for a few days, and have a pretty solid average to go on.

Recently, my mouse has been moving somewhere around 2393 feet, 7 inches per day. That’s just shy of half a mile. Assuming I work 245 days in a given year (52 * 5, minus some PTO), that’s around 120 miles that my mouse would travel in a given year.

If all those little mouse movements were put in a straight line going the same direction, my mouse could leave the office and be chilling at the beach by next January!

Miscellaneous Extras:

  1. Apparently, when you hit ctrl-alt-del, your computer is taken to some other dimension mouse coordinates-wise. Like, the ctrl-alt-delete screen’s pixel coordinates are miles away from your regular desktop in physical terms. I do not know why this is, but I did have to protect for it in my code (or, at least, I did when I came back to it as an adult).
  2. You can download a pre-built version of the program from Dropbox here, if you want to. Edit the .ini file to specify your screen width and height. And be warned: this will create a little black window at the top right of your desktop that can’t be killed without terminating the Windows process. I take no responsibility for what this program might do to your computer – download it and use it at your own risk.

What do Catholics really believe about grace and works?

Over the years, I’ve talked to a disconcerting number of people who have an unbelievably over-simplified view of the Catholic doctrine of salvation. Basically, it boils down to this: “well, Catholics think you’re saved by good works, and Protestants think you’re saved by grace.” I’ve heard it from Protestants. I’ve heard it from Catholics. And even people who don’t consider themselves religious jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, the whole notion is hogwash.

Hog in Washing Machine


So, I could try to explain it all to you… but, since I’m not a theologian, I don’t think I’m qualified. Instead, we’re going to do a quiz! Yay!

The Quiz

Here’s ten quotes about grace and works (with some baptism thrown in for good measure) that come from several different authoritative documents in various Catholic and Protestant churches. See if you can tell which ones are Protestant and which are Catholic. (Mouse over the black boxes to see the answers… no cheating!)

  1. “If any one says that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ, he is a heretic.” Catholic – Council of Trent
  2. “Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins.” Protestant – Augsburg Confession (Lutheran)
  3. “If any one says that without the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without His help, man can believe, hope, love, or repent as he ought, so that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him, he is a heretic.” Catholic – Council of Trent
  4. “We can have merit in God’s sight only because of God’s free plan to associate man with the work of his grace.” Catholic – Catechism
  5. “It is not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone that they are justified.” Protestant – Westminster Confession (Presbyterian)
  6. “Faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.” Protestant – Augsburg Confession (Lutheran)
  7. “The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.” Catholic – Catechism
  8. “Their ability to do good works is not at all from themselves, but entirely from the Spirit of Christ.” Protestant – Westminster Confession (Presbyterian)
  9. “[Baptism] is necessary to salvation, and through Baptism is offered the grace of God.” Protestant – Augsburg Confession (Lutheran)
  10. “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” Catholic – Catechism

The Point

Surprised by how difficult it was to tell these quotes apart? You’re probably not alone. That’s because the teachings of the various Christian traditions have been vastly over-simplified in popular culture. (In case you didn’t catch it, Catholic teaching says “salvation by works” is a heresy.) It’s just not as cut and dry as we’ve been told.

With that being said, please don’t leave thinking that Catholics and Protestants think exactly the same things about grace, faith, and works. There are important and meaningful doctrinal differences between the various churches. I’ve just cherry picked some quotes in order to prove a point.

St Peter's Basilica

Differences between the churches include the fact that the Roman Catholics own a whole country and Protestants don’t…

If you’d like to learn more, I suggest reading the documents referenced above. They’re short, they’re relatively easy reading, and they’re very informative (and hopefully edifying). It’ll be worth your time.


What causes snow, sleet, and freezing rain?

If you’re from some God-forsaken outpost in Siberia, pretty much the only wintry precipitation you ever experience is snow. But, if you’re from the Southern US like me, your winters are often sprinkled with a few helpings of several different types of water falling from the sky. Why is that? What causes snow sleet and freezing rain? Let’s find out!

First things first

First of all, let’s start with some definitions, ’cause I’ve gotten into some pretty heated debates with people over what terms apply to what stuff falling from the sky.

  • Snow – We all know what snow is. The white fluffy stuff that comes in flakes.
  • Freezing Rain – This is the stuff that’s a liquid while it’s falling, but turns into a glaze of ice all over everything after it makes impact with the ground. It is not pellets of ice, as lots of people will try to tell you.
  • Sleet – This is little pellets of ice that turn into pellets of ice before they hit the ground. Sleet is not light snow or a snow/rain mix… unless you’re from England. It’s also not hail (more on that later).
Freezing Rain

The aftermath of some pretty serious freezing rain – note the thick glaze of ice over the branches.
(Image credit: Nicolas Perrault III on English Wikipedia.)

How does it form?

Whether water comes out of the sky in the form of rain, freezing rain, sleet, or snow all depends on the temperature of the air – and, more importantly, the temperature of various air pockets that often sit on top of each other… As the National Weather Service explains:

  • Snow – Snow forms when you have cold air from ground level all the way up to the clouds. Frozen water molecules in the clouds accumulate into snowflakes, then start falling to the ground. After a while, things start to pile up.
  • Sleet – Sometimes, snowfall doesn’t go quite that neatly. Suppose a big pocket of warm air comes between the cold air in the clouds and the cold air on the ground. Snow will form in the clouds, melt in the pocket of warm air on its way down, and then re-freeze in the cold air near the ground. By the time it hits the ground, it’s just a frozen water droplet.
  • Freezing Rain – Suppose you had a pocket of warm air (like in the sleet example) that started getting pretty close to ground level. Snow would form in the clouds, melt in the pocket of warm air, hit the cold air near the ground… but run out of time to re-freeze before impact. This causes freezing rain – the precipitation is still melted when it gets to the ground, but it quickly starts freezing up on whatever it lands on.
  • Plain Old Rain – You can get plain old rain when you’ve got warm air in the clouds and the water never freezes… or when that pocket of warm air underneath the clouds stretches all the way to the ground. In that scenario, snow will form, melt, and never re-freeze.

So what about hail?

Like sleet, hail is ice pellets that fall from the sky. But it’s slightly different, and it forms in a very different process. As we’ve already seen, sleet forms when water droplets freeze on their way down to earth – it’s one drop that freezes solid. Hail forms inside thunderstorms, freezes way up high, and has layers like an onion. In a hail storm, droplets of water get blown around by all the air inside a thundercloud. As they move around, they encounter cold air (which makes them freeze), then moist air (which adds another layer of water on the outside), then cold air (which freezes them again). This goes on for a while, until they fall down. Scientists are still debating exactly what the process is, but the results can be pretty terrifying…

Well, that’s all for now. Stay safe this winter!

Why are “Yellow” trucks orange?

This one’s been bothering me since I was a kid… You’re driving down the highway when you see a truck with “YELLOW” emblazoned all over the side of it. Except “YELLOW” is sitting in a big old field of orange. And the cab of the truck is bright orange too. What’s the deal?

Yellow Orange Truck

Image Credit: Cam Vilay on Flickr

As it turns out, Yellow actually started out as a taxi company… with (you guessed it) yellow taxis. Though sources disagree on the specifics, it’s pretty clear that one Cleve Harrell started a taxi service in Oklahoma City sometime around 1910. Wanting to differentiate himself from the other taxis in the area, he began painting his Model T Ford taxis yellow in order to attract attention. (Although Harrell seems to be the first to have painted a taxi cab yellow, it was John Hertz who popularized yellow taxis nationwide.)

Yellow Model T

“You can have any color you want, as long as you’re willing to paint it yourself.” – Henry Ford
(Image Credit: Lars-Göran Lindgren Sweden)

The scheme worked well and, after a few years, Harrell wanted to expand the business. He didn’t have the capital to make it happen, so he asked his brother, A. J. Harrell, to invest. The other Mr. Harrell got on board, and the brothers opened a joint venture. The “Yellow Cab and Transit Company” would be a hybrid taxi cab operator and freight-hauling service.

Unfortunately, the brothers didn’t exactly get along very well over the years. Again, sources disagree as to whether they were fighting over business or women, but it’s pretty clear they weren’t too happy with each other. So, they dissolved the partnership. Cleve took the taxi cab half of the business, which he eventually sold off. A. J. took over the trucking side of the operation, which he started to build into the major corporation we know today.

So that explains where the name “yellow” came from… the joint venture was named for Cleve Harrell’s yellow taxi cabs, and the name stuck even after the original Yellow Company was split apart. But why the orange? I’ll explain, after a quick break for a cool YouTube video.

The orange color for the trucks and logo was a matter of pure practicality. In 1929, A. J. Harrell started to get concerned about road safety. So, he asked the DuPont corporation to figure out what color would be most visible on the highway. DuPont concluded that “swamp holly orange” would be the safest color to paint the Yellow trucking company’s vehicles. Without so much as batting an eyelash, Harrell went for it… and the Yellow trucking company has been paintings its trucks (and logos) orange ever since.

Additional interesting notes:

  • The swamp holly is a rare form of holly tree that grows in the Southeastern US and which produces dull reddish-orange berries in the fall.
  • The company is now formally named “YRC Worldwide” after a 2006-2009 acquisition/merger with Roadway (which, conveniently, also had orange trucks).
  • As I mention above, there’s a lot of disagreement about company history. At least some of this seems to be related to the disagreement between the Harrell brothers. The YRC site, for example, doesn’t even mention Clevel Harrell’s role in starting the business… That’s almost a 100-year grudge!

What the heck does “Auld Lang Syne” mean?

It’s New Year’s Eve. If you’re staying up, there’s at least a 50/50 chance that somebody around you is going to break into a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne. But what does it mean? Well, the short answer is that it’s Scots for “Days of Long Ago.” For a slightly more detailed explanation, keep reading. And feel free to listen while you read!

As you might have gathered, “Auld Lang Syne” is not English… or not exactly. In fact, the song we sing today was originally written in Scots, a Germanic language spoken in certain regions of Scotland which has similar roots to English. So, the text sounds familiar to English readers but isn’t exactly intelligible.

So where did the song come from? Well, we don’t really know where it started, but we do know how it got popularized. In the late 1700’s, Scottish poet Robert Burns was walking around town when he heard an old man singing a song to the tune of a traditional folk melody. Burns liked the song so much he wrote it down, submitted it to a museum, and then went about re-working it into an original poem, published in 1788.

Most of the original poem is fairly unintelligible to English-speakers (it includes such doozies as “we twa hae run about the braes, and pou’d the gowans fine”), but Wikipedia users were kind enough to translate it into English for us mere mortals. Here’s the full English text…

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and days of long ago?

For days of long ago, my dear,
for days of long ago,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for days of long ago.
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for days of long ago.


We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since days of long ago.


We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine†;
But seas between us broad have roared
since days of long ago.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for days of long ago.


So there you have it, folks! That’s what “Auld Lang Syne” is all about. Happy 2015!

New Years at Time's Square

Image Credit: Replytojain on English Wikipedia

Best of 2014

What were the top posts of 2014 here at “Questions that Need Answering”? Well, it depends who you ask… We’ll start with the posts most popular with readers, then I’ll throw out some of my own personal favorites…

Most Popular Posts of 2014

#1 – Is Bing really as good as Google? Apparently, I’m not the only one that thinks Bing is a joke. At least we can take Microsoft execs seriously, though! I kid you not… Microsoft is a professional organization.

Google vs Bing Comic

Well, we know what the internet cartoonists think… (Image credit: – yes, you read that right.)

#2 – What’s the pink stuff in my shower / tub / toilet / sink? Frankly, this is borderline click bait. I should be ashamed of myself. “A local housewife found a disgusting secret in her bathroom. You’ll never guess what it was…”

Pink Stain

Credit: North Dakota State University Agricultural Extension

#3 – What goofball decided “A Few of My Favorite Things” was a Christmas song? Yeah, I think people are pretty mad about this one too…

Maria's not an asset to the abbey. Or your Christmas playlist.

Maria’s not an asset to the abbey. Or your Christmas playlist.

#4 – Why are there colored dots on my soda can?

Soda Can Dots

#5 – How do you beat that stupid game at Cracker Barrel? If you’ve eaten there, you’ve wondered this.

Cracker Barrel Game

“Leave four or more’n you’re just plain ‘eg-no-ra-moose.'”

My Personal Favorites

#1 – How much dirt would it take to bury Cary, NC? A serious quantitative answer to an absolutely pointless question. Because who wouldn’t want to turn their hometown into a mountain of dirt? This one had me dusting off my GIS skills (no pun intended) and doing some serious computational work.


Image Credit: Ethan Kan

#2 – Are stores really decorating for Christmas earlier than they used to? I slogged through 80 years of New York Times articles to find the answer to this question… If we use the date that the Christmas Tree is put up in Rockefeller Center as a proxy for when big business decorates for Christmas, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’!

Rockefeller Tree Graph

#3 – What’s the best Pass the Pigs strategy (Part 2)? In which we learn how to create an artificial intelligence engine capable of playing a perfect game of Pass the Pigs. It’s not useful at all, but it’s a great way to learn a little bit about probability, programming, and artificial intelligence.

Pass the Pigs

Image Credit: Larry Moore

#4 – How much energy is stored in American body fat? Another completely useless mathematical exercise. It’s gross, it’s math-heavy, and it’s a lot of fun. (Of course, another option here would have been to ask how much soap Tyler Durden could make with it…)

Fat Energy Graph

Let’s be honest – this is pretty gross.

#5 – Is Newton’s Folly Hard Cider just Woodchuck with a different label? I don’t always drink cider. But when I do, I research its origins thoroughly.

Woodchuck vs. Newton's Folly

2014 Odds and Ends

With 2014 coming to a close, I thought I’d do a bit of a year-end recap. Here’s a few questions with super-interesting answers that weren’t quite meaty enough to merit a full blog post. Enjoy!

  • Did some woman really microwave her poodle in an attempt to dry it off? Nope, urban legend. People have microwaved pets, but only out of cruelty – not stupidity. Since thinking about people torturing dogs is sad, here’s some exploding eggs to cheer you up…
  • Speaking of microwaves, some people think microwaving food kills the nutrients. Is that true? No. But yes, too. It’s complicated. Generally speaking, cooking food by any method results in a loss of nutrients. This is why, for example, it’s healthier to eat raw vegetables than it is to eat cooked vegetables. But is microwave cooking especially bad? Nope. Research suggests that microwaving is no worse than any other cooking method and that, if anything, it might be slightly better due to the decreased cooking times involved! Nuke on!
  • Is Jesus coming back at the Davis Drive exit off of I-40? Nope! The bright lights you’re seeing are a result of Syngenta’s new high-tech greenhouse. The company, which specializes in high-tech crops, has built a $72 million dollar greenhouse facility capable of simulating the growing conditions of any climate in the world. If they’re simulating, say, the Sahara desert… things can get pretty bright around Davis Drive at night.
  • Speaking of high-tech crops… GMO crops are bad for you, right? It’s possible, given the fact that we don’t know all of the health effects involved. (But, then, we don’t know all of the health effects involved in eating asparagus, either.) However, there is currently no scientific evidence to support the existence of adverse health effects. In a 2012 summary report, the American Medical Association concluded, “Bioengineered foods have been consumed for close to 20 years, and during that time, no overt consequences on human health have been reported and/or substantiated in the peer-reviewed literature.” You can take the tinfoil hats off now.
  • What happens when people with hyphenated last names get married? Things get messy. NPR covered this one pretty well.
Hyphenated Name E-Card

Awwww… being PC is so romantic!

  • Do the Russians really like my blog? I’ve been getting lots of Russian readers for my blog! And they’re all coming to my page from sketchy Russian sites like! Or at least that’s what it looks like in my Google Analytics reports. Turns out, nobody from Russia has visited. At all. Instead, the “traffic” is a result of Russian bot-nets spamming random Google Analytics account numbers with referral-traffic beacons in an attempt to get unsuspecting webmasters to visit the aforementioned sketchy Russian sites…
Putin Drinking

“This Dayne fellow…” “Indeed!”

  • What do the stars on the uniforms of Cracker Barrel employees mean? As a very nervous new recruit explained to me one day, they represent levels of training. Cracker Barrel gives their employees a lot of training, and tests them every couple of months to see if they’re ready to move up a level. Employees that have just started get an apron that says “Rising Star.” As they complete training, they get a uniform with one star, then two. Four is the highest number of stars a Cracker Barrel employee can have.
Cracker Barrel Apron

Joseph’s got four stars. What a stud!

Finally, to wrap up the 2014 Odds and Ends post… the one question that I haven’t yet been able to answer! Why does UNC-Chapel Hill hyphenate their name, while other UNC system schools (e.g., UNC Greensboro) do not? If you know the answer, get in touch!

What goofball decided “A Few of My Favorite Things” was a Christmas song?

The hills are alive with the sound of… Christmas?

Maria's not an asset to the abbey. Or your Christmas playlist.

Maria’s not an asset to the abbey. Or your Christmas playlist.

Most of us know the song “A Few of My Favorite Things” from the 1965 musical film “The Sound of Music” starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. What most of us don’t know is how in the world we started hearing it every December on the local Christmas music stations… So, what’s the deal? Are “brown paper packages tied up with strings,” and “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” just kind of Christmas-y enough that somebody decided to make it work? Does Julie Andrews have a really good agent? What’s the story?

The part where I digress…

My first instinct was to think it was just a product of America’s short memory and lack of any kind of cultural awareness. After all, we’re a nation that celebrates its history by playing the 1812 Overture, which just happens to be a song commemorating Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in… well.. 1812. Very American. Of course, every good red-blooded American also loves a rousing rendition of “Born in the USA,” which is (as we all apparently don’t know) about the horrors of the Vietnam war, among other things. Maybe, as a nation, we’re just really bad at knowing what songs are about? But I digress.

The part where I get back to the point…

Anyway, it turns out that “A Few of My Favorite Things” was a Christmas song long before it was ever even a part of the movie! The song was originally penned by Rogers and Hammerstein for the 1959 musical The Sound of Music and was performed by Mary Martin and Patricia Neway in the original broadway production. It became a Christmas song in 1961, when Julie Andrews performed it for the Garry Moore Show’s Christmas special – nearly four years before the release of the film version most of us remember! A recording of the 1961 Christmas performance can be seen here…

So there you have it! The goofball in question was apparently Garry Moore, and he decided “A Few of My Favorite Things” was a Christmas song over 50 years ago now. Of course, why he chose to air the song on his Christmas special still remains a mystery. Maybe he really did just fall for those snowflakes and packages…

How do you get a whole town to decorate for Christmas?

In the little town of McAdenville, NCeverybody decorates for Christmas. Everybody.

McAdenville Lights

Lights come on at one home in town just a few minutes before sunset…

McAdenville, which calls itself “Christmas Town USA,” expends serious effort trimming town-owned trees, lamp posts, and signs with Christmas garland and lights every December. But, if you ever get a chance to visit, you’ll notice one thing that makes the annual light display truly stand out: everybody in town gets on board.

Even in a small city with a population of only around 600 residents, you’d expect there’d be at least one Grinch. There’d have to be that one guy that’s going “I ain’t doin’ that again…” Or, worse still, the one guy who decides that he needs to fill his yard with aliens, dead reindeer, or messages about how the government has screwed him over. Yet, in McAdenville, every house and yard is trimmed with picturesque red, white, and green lights. It all looks so classy!

So how do they get everybody to participate? And how do they keep it looking classy? Is it some draconian Christmas ordinance? Is it the light police? Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

Continue reading

What does a real sword fight look like?

Hollywood movies are filled with sword fights that look both hilariously fake and also extremely cool. But are they realistic? Most of us would assume the answer is no… but, having never seen an actual sword fight, it’s kind of hard to know. I decided it might be interesting to find out.

Sword Fight

A refereed saber duel… It’s all fun and games ’til somebody loses an eye.

Of course, probably the best answer to this question would be a YouTube video showing an actual to-the-death fight between trained swordsmen. (Do we have to call them swords-people now?) But there are a number of problems with this. First, swords kind of went out of vogue long before video cameras were a thing. Second, even though there are still people that study and practice sword fighting, most of them don’t engage in fights to the death with them. And, finally, most of us don’t want to watch a guy get killed with a sword on YouTube. So, recognizing these limitations, what do we have?

Continue reading