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.


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

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…

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: – 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.

Continue reading

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?


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.”


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.

Continue reading

Where does the phrase “pull out all the stops” come from?

As we all know, “pulling out all the stops” is an expression that means holding nothing back. For example, if you’re throwing a party and you spare no expense getting the best food, entertainment, and decorations, you’d be “pulling out all the stops.” The phrase would probably also apply to these people…

So where does the phrase come from? It was first used in its modern, figurative sense in 1865 by Matthew Arnold. He writes, “Knowing how unpopular a task one is undertaking when one tries to pull out a few more stops in that… somewhat narrow-toned organ, the modern Englishman.” This is not only the first figurative usage of the phrase, but it also gives us a great clue into its meaning. It’s a reference to pipe organs!

Often found in churches and chapels, pipe organs produce sound by forcing wind through hundreds of pipes of varying size. Airflow to the pipes is controlled by a series of “stops” – little knobs next to the organ keyboard that can be pushed in and out to change the sound of the instrument. When a stop is pushed in, its corresponding pipes are silenced. When pulled out, its pipes begin to play. By carefully selecting certain groups of pipes, an organist is able to dramatically change the sound of the music. The proper selection of pipes can produce a sound that is loud and brassy or soft and subtle. It all depends on what fits the song.

Of course, the more stops you have pulled out, the more pipes are sounding at the same time. If you pull out all the stops at the same time, things will get quite loud. You’ll literally be holding nothing back!

Organ Stops

Organ stops on the 1799 Tannenberg organ in Old Salem, North Carolina. With thanks to my sister, Ashlyn Batten, for getting us in to photograph it – and for playing some awesome tunes on a 210-year-old instrument!

The bottom line here is that “pulling out all the stops” is essentially an older way of saying “turning it up to eleven.” So, next time you’re out kicking butt and taking names, regale your vanquished enemies with epic tales of the origins of “pulling out all the stops!” You’ll be glad you did.