Are stores really decorating for Christmas earlier than they used to?

Thanksgiving comes with many traditions… turkey, stuffing, family, football, black Friday shopping, and (of course!) whining about how the stores are decorating for Christmas too early! We’ve all heard complaints that Christmas is coming earlier and earlier each year, but is that really true? Let’s find out.

Of course, there’s not really any available data on when stores around the country start decorating for Christmas (at least to my knowledge). So answering the question required some creativity. I started thinking – if there was one thing that represented corporate America’s Christmas decorating traditions, what would it be? The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, of course!

Rockefeller Tree


First erected in 1933, the Rockefeller Center tree has been set up every year since and has become an unofficial start of the Christmas season for New Yorkers. And, since Rockefeller Center is without a doubt a bastion of American corporatism, the tree gives us a relatively good proxy for measuring the start of the corporate Christmas decorating season. If the tree at Rockefeller Center has been going up earlier every year, there’s a good chance that’s indicative of a larger national trend.

So, I decided to see when the Rockefeller tree went up over time. At great personal expense (OK, it was $.99), I purchased a 4-week subscription to the New York Times, which gave me access to their article archive going all the way back to the mid-1800s. Then, starting in 1933, I searched the archives for articles related to the Rockefeller tree between the dates of November 1 and December 31 each year. To keep things consistent, I located the specific date on which the tree was installed in its stand each year, since traditions surrounding decorating and lighting ceremonies have changed over time. Surprisingly, I was able to find an exact date the tree was dropped into place in 40 out of 82 years – not too shabby, and plenty of data for some basic statistics.

To graph the results, I calculated the number of days before Christmas that the tree was installed each year – a measure I’ve affectionately dubbed the “Little Saint Nick index,” since the only thing worse than decorating for Christmas in October is having the Beach Boys put out a holiday album. I graphed this measure over time, and the results are pretty striking.

Rockefeller Tree Graph


In the late thirties and early forties, the Rockefeller Center tree was installed around the first or second week of December. By the seventies, Center staff were flirting with putting up the tree before Thanksgiving. And, in the noughties, the tree was going up in early November. All told, the installation date for the tree has moved back nearly a full month over time, at an average rate of just under half a day per year. (And, yes, the results are statistically significant.)

So, there you have it folks. If the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is any guide, corporate America has definitely been getting out the decorations earlier every year.

Why does turkey make you sleepy?

I know what you’re thinking… “Oooh! Pick me, pick me! I know this one! It’s ’cause turkey contains tryptophan!”



Sorry there, champ. It’s not the tryptophan in turkey. While tryptophan is an amino acid that is linked to sleepiness, there are plenty of food items that contain just as much if not more tryptophan than turkey, and none of them have a reputation for making you tired. In fact, chicken, beef, and pork all have the same amount of tryptophan as turkey. Egg whites have as much as four times the amount. Have you ever heard people talking about how they need to take a huge nap every time they eat an egg white omelette for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, or a nice pork chop for dinner? Me neither.

In fact, the real answer has nothing to do with turkey, but it does have something to do with tryptophan. While turkey doesn’t make us especially drowsy, we tend to consume turkey as part of a large feast involving lots of complex carbohydrates (mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls) and big portion sizes. Studies have shown that carb-rich meals start a chain of biological effects that eventually results in higher levels of tryptophan uptake, leading to increased production of serotonin and eventually melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep in humans. So, most likely, it’s not the turkey that’s making you drowsy… it’s all the other stuff you eat at Thanksgiving that pushes you over the edge.

If you’re sad to learn that one of your favorite holiday myths is just that (a myth), take heart! There’s plenty of things to be happy about. Like the fact that the Wikipedia article on tryptophan says that it is “an essential amino acid in the human diet, as demonstrated by its growth effects on rats.” (Non sequitur anyone?) Or like this YouTube video of a guy gobbling at turkeys…

Is Newton’s Folly hard cider just Woodchuck with a different label?

I’m a huge fan of Woodchuck, but at a usual $9 for a six-pack it can get a little bit pricey. So, when I discovered that Trader Joe’s sold a cider called “Newton’s Folly” that was made in the same place (Middlebury, Vermont), was sold in the exact same bottles, had the same ingredient list, but cost $2 less, I got pretty excited. Could it really be true? Was Newton’s Folly just a bottle of Woodchuck with a different label? Could I be saving $2 every time I purchased cider? I set out to find out.

Woodchuck vs. Newton's Folly

It’s not totally obvious from the picture, but the bottles are exactly the same. They even have the same numbers stamped into the glass.

My initial sampling of Newton’s Folly led me to believe that it tasted a lot like Woodchuck, except that it was weaker – almost like it had been watered down somehow. However, I don’t have a particularly refined palate, and as Penn and Teller have illustrated in hilarious fashion, humans are notorious for thinking they can taste subtle differences in food and drink even when they can’t. If I was going to be sure, I was going to need to dig a little deeper.

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What’s the pink stuff in my shower / tub / toilet / sink?

I’m not even going to bother with an introduction on this one. That pink stuff is bacteria. If your toilet bowl (or sink, or whatever) has stains like the photo below, it’s ready for a cleaning. Now.

Pink Stain

Credit: North Dakota State University Agricultural Extension

More specifically, the bacteria in question is Serratia marcescens, a species which thrives in damp environments (like bathrooms) and feeds on phosphates (like those contained in shampoo and soap). It’s a human pathogen that can cause a nasty list of conditions including urinary tract infections, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, and meningitis. It’s a frequent cause of hospital-acquired-infections, which is a pretty good indication that it’s a frequent cause of non-hospital-acquired-infections too (unless you keep your home more sterile than a hospital…).

Serratia marcescens can be eradicated fairly easily with the application of a bleach-based cleaning solution. Scrubbing surfaces regularly with a household cleaner should be enough to do the job. So, if you weren’t motivated to scrub down your bathrooms before, here’s some extra motivation. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, serratia marcescens has also been involved in a fascinating variety of events in human history. Before it was discovered to cause illness, it was used in “harmless” human experiments involving the transmission of disease and the effectiveness of biological warfare. Oops! Before that, it was discovered in the 19th century when it turned a bunch of Italian porridge pink. And, hundreds of years earlier, it’s possible that it was involved in a supposed medieval miracle involving blood appearing on the bread in Holy Communion. If you’re interested in those stories, the Wikipedia article is a great read.

Why do soda can tabs have special monetary value?

In preschool, one of my classmates was collecting the pull tabs from soda cans for some sort of medical charity. I can remember thinking this was odd at the time – I couldn’t understand why what was essentially trash could have so much value. Yet, even today, people are constantly collecting soda can tabs “for charity” or “for medical research.” And I’m still just as confused… Why not collect the whole can so you have extra metal to recycle? What’s so special about soda can tabs that makes them precious nuggets of economic value? So, after years of wondering about these things, I decided to find out the answer to my questions.

Soda Tab

Credit: Marcos André

The short answer is that there’s absolutely nothing about soda can tabs that makes them especially valuable. Read on to find out the long answer…

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Why are there two unconnected entrances to Umstead State Park?

I’m a big fan of Umstead State Park – especially since getting there from my front door requires ten minutes by bike or five minutes by car. But I’ve always been a little mystified by something. I live on the Cary side of the park, near the Harrison Avenue entrance. A lot of the park’s facilities (for example, the campgrounds) are on the far side of the park on the US 70 entrance. And there’s absolutely no way to drive through the park to get from the Cary side to the US 70 side! One day I decided to figure out why this was and found out there’s a really interesting story for how things ended up. So, how’d we get two entrances to Umstead? Read on to find out…


Umstead’s entrance sign.

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What’s the best Pass the Pigs strategy? (Part 2)

In a previous post, we learned that if you want to maximize your score on any individual turn of a game of “Pass the Pigs,” you should always roll when there’s less than 22.5 points in your hand, and hold when there’s more than 22.5 points in your hand. (If you’ve never heard of “Pass the Pigs,” the rules are explained in the prior post.) However, we also concluded that that’s not an effective strategy for winning the game as a whole. If you have a score of 0 and your opponent has a score of 99, for example, it would be really silly to stop rolling at 23 points just because the “22.5 rule” says to. So what’s a person to do? How do you play effectively? Read on to find out how to really win the game. (Hint: you’ll need to do a lot of math.)

Math isn’t your thing? That’s OK! Here’s a piglet being cute.

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What’s with the hula-hooper crossings?

Many years ago, my family took a trip to Bar Harbor, Maine. I remember many things about the trip, but one thing is particularly vivid – near a science laboratory just outside of town, there were road signs that appeared to indicate hula hoopers crossing the road ahead. Eleven or twelve-year-old me thought this was hilarious, and I’ve never forgotten. Well, just a few months ago, I went back to Maine and saw the same signs all over again. This got me thinking – what do the signs actually mean?

hula hooper crossing

Hula hoopers live in a wide range of habitats.

Apparently, the signs don’t mean anything. In fact, they’re just regular pedestrian crossing signs that people have vandalized with stickers that make the pedestrian look like he’s hula-hooping. I suppose that this should have been obvious to me, but maybe I just really wanted to believe.

Though I didn’t find a definitive explanation for the origins of the stickers, there is at least one highly-plausible theory circulating. A Colorado band by the name of “The String Cheese Incident” adopted the sign as a mascot (as seen on the logo for their 2012 tour), leading to some speculation that the vandalism was a guerrilla marketing campaign for the group. While that may or may not be true, it’s pretty clear that fans of the group were involved in the spread of the decals.

Which leaves me with only one question remaining… where do I get one? I promise I’ll use it for strictly legal purposes…

In space, what would kill an unprotected human first?


Surely, there’s a good reason he’s wearing that suit…

This weekend, I was riding with some friends to a wedding about three hours from home. As the ride got longer, the conversation got more varied, and we eventually ended up wondering whether an unprotected human could survive in space for any period of time. We also wondered what would be the first thing to kill them (as opposed to the second thing to kill them) when they did eventually pass. You know, because that’s what you usually talk about on the way to weddings.

Several ideas were floated: perhaps the zero-pressure environment of space would make your body instantly explode. Perhaps you wouldn’t explode, but you would have tissue damage from expansion in your lungs, blood vessels, and pretty much anything else that traps air or liquid. Maybe you’d freeze? But then, there’s no matter to conduct heat, so maybe you wouldn’t? Alternatively, maybe you’d fry from all the radiation? There were plenty of theories.

So, what would actually happen to you? Read on to find out.

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Why do some cities have an “uptown” and others a “downtown”?

uptown charlotte

Road Sign for Uptown Charlotte, NC.

In everything from America’s biggest cities to her smallest rural towns, the central business district is called “downtown.” Except when it’s not. In some cities, the city center is referred to as “uptown.” As a North Carolinian, the city that sticks out most for the use of this bizarre term is Charlotte. If you’re going into the heart of Charlotte, you’re going to “uptown Charlotte.” Apparently, the city of Greenville, NC has also recently adopted use of the term. So, where do “uptown” and “downtown” come from? And why aren’t we being consistent? Read on to find out!

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