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: owlturd.com – 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.

Cary_Under_Dirt

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 www.darodar.ru! 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.

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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?

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Is Bing really as good as Google?

Microsoft has invested a lot of money (like, $100 million kinds of money) into marketing their online search tool, Bing. (Or was it MSN Search? Windows Live Search? Just plain Live Search? I can’t remember anymore…) This nine-figure marketing push, coupled with a few videos taking pot shots at their chief competitor, Google, has raised a pretty clear question: is Bing really ready for Prime Time, or is its bark bigger than its bite?

Google vs Bing Comic

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

The short answer to today’s question is “no.”

The long answer is “not by a long shot.”

How do I know? Well, I’ll give you two reasons, but I’ll challenge you to investigate both for yourself.

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How much energy is stored in American body fat?

According to the CDC, the average American is 23 pounds overweight. That’s a lot of extra weight we’re hauling around all the time. And we all know that fat is just food energy that’s been stored for later use by the body… so how much energy are Americans storing in their bulbous midsections? Let’s find out. (If you’d like a musical accompaniment for your reading, feel free to start the following video.)

At the time of this writing, there were 316 million Americans. So, we can find out the total amount of excess body fat in America pretty easily…

 23 lbs/American * 316,000,000 Americans = 7,268,000,000 lbs

That’s 7.3 billion pounds of excess fat we’re working with. In terms of size, it’s 129 million cubic feet – enough fat to completely fill in Lake Crabtree. There’s got to be enough energy stored in all that fat to do something with…

As many dieters know, one pound of fat is equivalent to about 3,500 food calories (which are actually kilocalories). Each kilocalorie, in turn, is equivalent to 4184 joules (the fancy scientific unit for measuring energy). By simple division, the kilocalorie is equivalent to 4.184 kilojoules or .004184 megajoules. Again, this makes for simple math:

7,268,000,000 lbs * 3500 kcal/lb * .004184 MJ/kcal = 106,432,592,000 MJ

That’s 106 billion megajoules of energy (or 106 petajoules). But most of us have no idea what a megajoule is. So let’s put it in perspective… That’s enough power to run the entire national electricity grid for 3 days. That’s 18 million barrels of oil, more than the total daily production of all US oil fields. Even using the world’s largest oil tankers, you’d still need nine ships to haul that much oil… and it would fetch around $1.2 billion dollars at current oil prices. That’s 100 times more energy than released by the Tsar Bomba, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.

Fat Energy Graph

Let’s be honest – this is pretty gross.

That’s right. Americans are hauling around enough energy in their body fat to power the whole country for three days. Time to go on a diet.

Why are there colored dots on my soda can?

Most people have noticed that soda cans and other containers (tubs of yogurt, for example) frequently have a series of small, colored dots on them. Since I was a very young kid, I’ve wondered what those dots were for. I hypothesized that, since the colors of the dots were usually similar to the colors on the container, they must have something to do with the printing process. But I waited until grad school to find a definite answer.

Soda Can Dots

I was standing at a reception with a bunch of classmates dressed in suits. We were waiting for a lecture by some Public Administration big-wig. And somebody was drinking a can of Pepsi. I looked over, noticed the dots on the can and thought, “Yeah, what are those?” I threw the question out there. So, we did what any self-respecting American would do – we got on the phone and called Pepsi’s customer service line. They were ready with a quick answer, so they must get the question a lot…

Turns out, the dots are part of the printing process. Each color applied to a container of food is put there by a separate ink-spraying machine. Each of these machines applies the appropriate colors for the product design, and then sprays on a simple colored dot. It may do this in an inconspicuous part of the main label (as seen above), or sometimes even on the bottom of the container. This makes it really easy for employees to figure out what’s happening if the container designs start looking funny. Instead of having to go to every ink machine to check if it’s out of ink or malfunctioning, they can simply pick up a misprinted container, check to see which dot doesn’t look right, and go fix that machine. It’s a pretty cool and simple solution for making manufacturing quality control that much quicker!

Interested in learning more? Nordson is a company that makes some of these ink-application machines, and their literature for their Ink-Dot I.D. System has some pretty interesting facts about the process.

Also, I went looking for a YouTube video of this process in action. Though I did find video of labels being rolled onto cans, I couldn’t find any videos of the ink-spraying system. But the YouTube search results included this video, which it would be morally irresponsible for me not to share…

Can I buy energy-saving bulbs without the nasty blue glow?

I’m as much of a fan of saving money as the next guy… so when it came to energy-saving light bulbs, I was excited. Who wouldn’t want to shave a few bucks off their electric bill every month? Unfortunately, I hated the nasty blue glow of compact-fluorescent bulbs. Any time I see one of those, I feel like I’m in a hospital or an office. It doesn’t have the warm, inviting light I associate with a household light. So, what was I to do?

Bulbs

See that bulb on the left? It looks like stress and agony.
(Image credit: Ramjar on English Wikipedia.)

Well, it turns out, they’ve been working on the whole “ugly blue color” thing! The “color” of light is actually referred to as “color temperature” and it’s on a scale expressed in Kelvin. If you see a figure like “3500K” on a light bulb package, that’s your color temperature! This color temperature scale varies from “warm” (reddish) to “cool” (bluish). So, if you want your bulb to look a certain way, you just have to find a bulb with the right color temperature! Thankfully, the options have been increasing exponentially lately.

So, what color temperature should you be looking for? If you want a bulb that looks like a real, old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb, you want something that’s about 3000K. This color temperature is also referred to as “soft white,” which makes normal-looking bulbs really easy to spot.

If you really like the bluish color (I don’t know, maybe you’re a masochist…), you’ll be looking for a higher value on the Kelvin scale. Something like 5500K should do the job. And if you want something really red looking, you’ll want to go well below 3000K.

My Pick

After doing some shopping around, I settled on soft white LED bulbs from Cree, a company based in Durham, NC. These have several advantages. The 60 watt replacement bulbs use only 10 watts of power, meaning they use 1/6th of the power of a regular light bulb! And, since the bulbs are LED-based, they will never burn out, unlike traditional or compact-fluorescent bulbs. Most importantly, they’re pretty cheap for LED bulbs! Where I live, Duke Energy (the local power company) subsidizes the bulbs, so I can purchase them at $5 a pop – or about $18 for a 4-pack.

Cree Bulb

These guys!

True to their “soft white” name, the Cree bulbs produce a light that is indistinguishable from a traditional incandescent bulb. I’ve replaced every regularly-sized light bulb in my house with them, and you’d never guess I was using LED bulbs. And, at current electricity prices, they pay for themselves really quickly!

[Related Nerdy Questions…]

  1. How do you know they pay for themselves? Well, at current electricity prices around me, it costs roughly $1 (more like $.94) to run something that pulls 1 watt of electricity for a year. That makes back-of-the-envelope calculations really easy. The LED bulbs use 50 watts less electricity than the incandescent bulbs they replace. That’d be a $50 savings every year if the bulbs were on continuously. So, even if I only have them on 10% of the time, I’ll get my $5 back in a year. Even if I only use them rarely, they’ll still pay for themselves in a few years… And remember, they’re LED, so they never burn out! So, eventually, I’ll also reap the cost benefits of not having to replace bulbs all the time…
  2. Isn’t Kelvin a measure of temperature, just like Fahrenheit and Celsius? What does it have to do with red and blue light? According to Wikipedia, we use Kelvin as a scale because “a black body radiator emits light of which the colour depends on the temperature of the radiator. Black bodies with temperatures below about 4000 K appear reddish whereas those above about 7500 K appear bluish.” What’s a black body radiator, you ask? I’ll let you do your own research on that one – it’s fairly interesting reading. Suffice it to say that it’s a theoretical object used in physics.
  3. Why’s the scale backwards? Shouldn’t higher temperatures be “warmer,” not “cooler”? See the question above… A “black body radiator” that is literally “hotter” (in regular temperature terms) emits bluer or “cooler” light. So the scale gets switched. Now you know!
  4. Does this have anything to do with the changing colors of the sun or sky? Nope! Rayleigh scattering is responsible for that… If you’re interested, I’ve written about that previously

Does Vitamin C really help with a cold?

Ascorbic acid (or “Vitamin C” as it’s more commonly known) is an essential part of the human diet and is associated with the functioning of the human immune system. Because of the compound’s connection to immune function, there’s a long history of people taking Vitamin C supplements to prevent, mitigate, or shorten numerous illnesses. Of course, the number one sickness people try to treat with Vitamin C is the common cold. But, does Vitamin C really help with the common cold? The answer is complicated, but it’s mostly “no.”

Orange

Citrus fruits, like oranges, are high in Vitamin C.
(Image Credit: Evan Amos on English Wikipedia)

As we all know, scientists carry out experiments and studies in order to find relationships between an action and its outcome. Then, they publish their results. What many people don’t know is that, when scientists have published many studies on a particularly difficult issue, they actually start writing studies of the studies. These “meta-analyses” combine the results from dozens or even hundreds of studies in order to draw conclusions based on the findings of numerous experiments carried out by experts all around the world.

Interestingly, whether or not Vitamin C can help with a cold is an issue thorny enough to have resulted in the publication of numerous meta-analyses. A couple I took a look at are here:

These studies of studies actually divide the Vitamin C question into three sub-questions. We’ll consider each in turn.

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