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.

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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?


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.

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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.

How do you beat that stupid game at Cracker Barrel?

You know the one of which I speak. It looks extremely easy, is actually rather difficult, and it makes fun of you if you can’t beat it. Cracker Barrel calls it the “peg game,” but it’s really just a variation on “peg solitaire,” a game dating back to at least the 1697.

Cracker Barrel Game

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

So, how do you beat it? Well, plenty of people on YouTube have given demonstrations. Here’s one of them…

But, as you may have already learned, we like to analyze games to death around here. Thankfully, in this case, others have already done the work for us. For example, some guy named Keith Wannamaker (a bored software engineer) modeled the game from every starting point, concluding that a player had the best chance of winning the game by starting with the missing peg in the middle of one of the sides of the triangle. His statistics also show that, from the best starting position, your chances of winning are only about 7%. They’re as low as 1% if you start from the worst position. So, don’t feel too bad if you’ve never been able to beat the game. It’s a statistically challenging feat.

You also shouldn’t feel too bad about Cracker Barrel making fun of your intelligence. On a recent trip, I observed “fixin’s” spelled “fixin’s,” “fixins,” and “fixins'”. Admittedly, whether or not it’s appropriate to put an apostrophe in “fixin’s” (hint: it is – it shows the removed “g”) is a question that seems to cause a lot of pain and sorrow. Still, you’d think a $2.5 billion company that makes its money servin’ up fixin’s could at least come up with a consistent spelling…

Why does the big globe in Raleigh have silver oceans?

Several years ago, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh added a beautiful new wing, complete with a four-story tall globe. If you haven’t visited yet, it’s pretty awesome. The inside of the globe is a huge circular theater, with seating on each floor of the museum. And the outside of the globe is, well… mostly gray.

SECU Daily Planet

In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the oceans… gray.
(Image Credit: Radiofan)

So what’s going on here? Why didn’t they bother to paint in the oceans? I got in touch with Roy Campbell, Director of Exhibits and Digital Media at the Natural Science Museum to find out. Here’s what he said…

The decision to leave the ocean blank on the Daily Planet was a combination of factors. If we had depicted them we more than likely would have portrayed the ocean floors. We would have put a blue cast to that so as not to cheat the sea in favor of the geologic surface. But then again the oceans are dynamic. They show currents and sediment influx, algal blooms, storms and calm. All according to season.

But we never got to argue over all of that because cost was a very major consideration. It cost roughly a quarter million dollars to place simply the continents and the ocean because it is larger than that would have ramped up costs dramatically.

We also were expecting to use the Pacific Ocean as a projection space for all sorts of content but ran short of money and planning time for that as well.

The good news is that we are hopefully back on track to re-install the night lighting effect we had for just three days at the opening. This casts a blue flood light on all the oceanic areas but a white light on the continents to show them in real color. So hopefully within the year you will be able to walk by at night and see the blue planet as it should be.

This leaves us with several fun facts:

  • It cost a cool $250,000 to paint the continents. (Good thing the whole globe was donated by the SECU!)
  • Museum curators have arguments about how to paint oceans.
  • The globe in Raleigh can be lighted up with blue lights to make it look more “realistic.”
The globe can glow blue at night!

The globe can glow blue at night!
(Image Credit: NC Museum of Natural Sciences)

Let’s hope they get that blue lighting back in place soon!

Does sleeping on my back give me nightmares?

I’m not really the type of person who has nightmares… but on the occasions that I do, they have one thing in common: I struggle to wake up, I’m gasping for breath, and I’m lying on my back. So I started to wonder – am I imagining things, or is this a real thing?



It didn’t take much research to find that, yes, this is a real thing. The phenomenon in question is called sleep paralysis, which is a terrifying night-time state in which the brain begins to wake up before the body. The science behind sleep paralysis posits that, while asleep, the body both shuts down the active mind and paralyzes the muscles so that the person doesn’t move around while sleeping. Of course, sometimes this goes awry. If the muscles start moving around without the brain waking up, you get sleepwalking. If the brain wakes up without the muscles, you get sleep paralysis.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Sleep paralysis is commonly associated with terrifying visions or the feeling that there is a person or being in the room. Throughout history and all around the globe, human cultures are replete with references to this feeling of being paralyzed while attacked by some sort of intruder. In many English-speaking countries, it’s called “being ridden by the witch” or “ridden by the hag.” In Fiji, it’s getting “eaten by a demon.” You get the idea. In fact, sleep paralysis is actually where our word “nightmare” comes from! “Mare” was an Old English word for an incubus, a specific type of demon believed to sit on the chest of its victim during sleep. Putting “night” and “mare” together in reference to these unwanted visitors gives us the term we use today.


“The Nightmare” – A 1781 painting by Henry Fuseli depicts an incubus sitting on the chest of his sleeping victim.

But, getting back to the original question… Sleep paralysis is associated with all sorts of nasty sleeping disorders (including sleep apnea). Moreover, research has shown that both sleep apnea and snoring can be triggered by lying on the back. So, it’s at least possible that, in my case, lying on my back is contributing to my experience with this phenomenon. It’s also possible that I experience sleep apnea on my back. But, given that I usually sleep on my side and stomach, I’m not too worried about it.

Thankfully, sleep paralysis is a pretty rare thing for me. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Where does turkey come from?

The United States of America is by far the world's leading producer and consumer of turkey meat (although, on a per-capita basis, we're beat out by several other nations). In 2014, Americans will eat about 5 billion pounds of turkey and turkey farms will produce over 200 million birds for consumption both in the United States and around the world. So where does all that turkey come from?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic's QCEW program, there are 317 business establishments involved in the production of turkey in the United States. They employ nearly 5,000 individuals in 26 states. If you map out the location of all those turkey farms, you get something that looks a little like this:

As the map above suggests, US turkey production is dominated by just a small handful of states. In fact, Minnesota, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Indiana account for about 50% of all US turkey production. And it should come as no surprise - states with the highest production are also home to some of America's biggest turkey-producing companies. In Minnesota, it's Jennie-O. In North Carolina, Butterball. These top-producing states churn out millions of live birds every year.

And, if you're more of a table person...

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