Thursday, March 30, 2006

Thursday Beakful of Acronym Knowledge

Although they are only one letter different, laser and TASER* are completely unrelated acronyms. Laser comes from Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Taser stands for Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle.

*Official guidelines on trademark use from TASER International, Inc. maintain that the word be in all caps, and that it is an adjective, not to be used as a noun or a verb. I wish them luck and hope their admin. assistant doesn't xerox the guidelines.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Penguin News

Samuel L. Jackson has signed on to narrate a spoof of March of the Penguins, scheduled for release this summer. By all accounts, Farce of the Penguins will use stock footage of penguins with the narration. The storyline sounds similar to the original March of the Penguins, but with less emphasis on the enduring power of the pair bond in chick rearing and more emphasis on the mating. Just a guess that the family values people won't be all gung-ho for this one.

New trailers are up for the more family-friendly upcoming animated penguin flick, Happy Feet. I still like the first trailer better.

We've all seen the obligatory scene in every submarine movie where the captain takes the sub below the calculated crush depth and the sub comes out OK. Now a Fairy penguin, smallest of all the penguins, has exceeded the calculated penguin crush depth. Scientists calculated that the maximum dive depth a one-kilogram penguin should be capable of reaching is 66 meters. The female Fairy went to 67 meters as recorded by the sensors she was wearing.

Wendesday Beakful of Acronym Knowledge

The polite extended form of "snafu" is Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. It should be noted that the polite form is not the original, which used a different word that begins with F.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

General Announcement

If you send me email, click here and pay attention to the cartoon. It's short.


An alert and knowledgeable reader informs me that "radar" stands for "Radio Aid to Detection And Ranging."

Tuesday Beakful of Knowledge

Radar originally stood for RAdio Detection And Ranging. Similarly, sonar started as an acronym for SOund Navigation And Ranging.

You know you've been playing too much Tetris when... close your eyes and see falling Tetris blocks on the inside of your eyelids. I think I am way beyond that now. I've started mentally dropping Tetris blocks into the ragged right margins of left-justified text to clear lines.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Gotta Get Me One of These

Emp. Peng. reminds me that we have nowhere to put the Blue LED Faucet Light, no matter how cool it is or how useful it might be for illuminating nighttime trips for a glass of water. The bathroom faucet is too short and the kitchen faucet is occupied by the Brita filter. Still, the idea of having blue illuminated water is appealing. Much more appealing than the orange-brown water situation we recently remedied.

Monday Beakful of Knowledge

I'm lightening up this week. The theme will be words that started out as acronyms and what they originally stood for.

Scuba: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Weekend Beakful of Knowledge

Most planets don't experience total solar eclipses with the pretty corona shots (like this one). Those are only possible because the moon and the sun appear to be approximately the same size in the sky. The moons of Mars are too small to produce total eclipses on the planet

Also, it helps to have a moon. Mercury and Venus do not experience solar eclipses because they have no moons to get between them and the sun.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Friday Beakful of Knowledge

Yesterday, I promised to explain the astronomical significance of the Tropics.

The Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn mark the latitudes where the sun is directly overhead on the June and December solstices, respectively. Between those two latitudes, at some point during the year, the sun is directly overhead. North of the Tropic of Cancer and south of the Tropic of Capricorn, the sun is never directly overhead; its highest point at noon is something less than 90 degrees from the horizon. In winter, the angle of noon is lower, and in summer, the angle of noon is higher.

The word "tropic" comes from the Greek word "tropikos," meaning "to turn." Because the sun appeared to turn around on the solstices--on the winter solstice, the angle of noon stopped descending and headed back up in the sky, vice versa on the summer solstice--the word also came to be synonymous with "solstice." Hence, the latitudes of the solstices became the Tropics.

The reason they are called the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn brings us back to precession of the equinoxes. The two Tropics were named about 2000 years ago, when the sun appeared to be in the constellation Cancer on the June solstice and in the constellation Capricorn on the December solstice. Because of precession, the sun is now in the constellation Sagittarius on the December solstice and in Gemini or Taurus on the June solstice. The June solstice position crossed the official astronomical boundary into Taurus about 25 years ago, but the official and traditional boundaries differ; according to traditional boundaries, the June solstice is still in Gemini.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Beak Addendum-Sidereal and Tropical

Tropical, in today's Beakful, has nothing to do with pina coladas under a palm tree on a white sandy beach with comely ladies in bikinis. There is an astronomical reason for the latitudes around the equator being called "the tropics," but you will have to wait for tomorrow's Beakful to find out.

To clarify the difference, Tropical is basically solar time, while Sidereal is based on observation of the stars.

The differences add up to about 21 minutes a year, meaning that Tropical and Sidereal observations of the sky sync up on a cycle of about 26,000 years--and we're back to precession of the equinoxes.

Thursday Beakful of Knowledge

Precession also causes the equinox and solstice points to drift across the backdrop of stars, including the constellations that cross the zodiac. The zodiac is a line in the sky that one gets by extending the plane of the solar system (all planets except Pluto orbit on approximately the same plane) into space. Astrologers extend the zodiac zone about 8 degrees above and below that line for purposes of noting planetary alignments and such. That's about 16 times the width of the full moon.

Tropical astrology, the type used in most newspaper horoscopes, uses the solstice points of the first millennium. Since then, precession caused the astronomical solstice points to drift almost a full sign.

The dates of the Sidereal zodiac, practiced by Indian astrologers, adjust to account for precession. This adjustment means that a person’s sign under Sidereal astrology, which may not match the sign of the Tropical zodiac, more closely matches the actual position of the stars.

Both Tropical and Sidereal astrology divide the zodiac into 12 equal segments and assign each segment to a sign based on the constellation that is now or was in that general region of the sky. However, the actual constellations are not uniform sizes, and the amount of space on the zodiac is not equal. While astrology allocates 30 degrees for each sign, the constellations occupy more or less than that. In addition, a thirteenth constellation, Ophiuchus, lies on the band of the zodiac, a fact noted by Ptolemy in the second century and generally ignored by most astrologers.

This link has a handy chart of dates for the signs of the Tropical and Sidereal zodiacs, as well as the dates the sun crosses the official astronomical borders of the constellations on the zodiac.

“Zodiac” is good for 18 points in Scrabble. The word comes from the Greek words for “animal” and “circle.”

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Penguin News

The first penguin chick has hatched at Malaysia's Underwater World Langkawi. The African Penguin chick is being kept in an area accessible to only authorized keepers, out of concerns of avian flu. Three other African Penguin eggs are still being incubated at the park.

Ten Gentoo penguins have been named and moved into their new homes at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina. The penguins--now christened Alex, Bosco, Caroline, Hallie, Harmony, Jack, Maddie, Oreo, Orlando and Zoey--originate from Sea World Orlando, and have just recently come out of quarantine to join the rest of the exhibit, which features Rockhoppers and Kings.

Wednesday Beakful of Knowledge

Because of precession (see yesterday's Beakful), pole stars are not permanent. Polaris, the current north star, will eventually lose its navigational usefulness as the direction that the north pole points starts to drift away from it. Our next north star will be Gamma Cephei, aka Errai, a binary star known to have a planet. You have about 900 years to wait before the pole stars change over, and another millennium beyond that before the north pole points most closely to Gamma Cephei.

There is a south star, Sigma Octantis, but it is too dim to be of much practical use in navigation. In a couple millennia, the southern hemisphere will get a better pole star.

Mars currently has a south star, Kappa Velorum.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tuesday Beakful of Astro-Knowledge

The Earth wobbles slightly (about 23.5 degrees from vertical) on its axis, due to the same forces that make a toy top wobble slightly as it spins. The technical term for the wobble is "precession," and it takes about 25, 800 years for the earth to complete one precession cycle, where the projection of the Earth's axis traces out circle against the backdrop of the stars.

This phenomenon has two practical effects for Earthlings. First, the pole stars change periodically as the axis traces out that circle. Second, the signs of the Tropical Zodiac (the one used for most newspaper horoscopes) drift out of sync with the position of the sun on the Zodiac. Details on both in future Beakfuls. Stay tuned to find out what your actual astrological sign is.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Equinotical Beakful of Knowledge

The vernal equinox occurred at 6:26 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time today, marking the official start of Spring. Astronomically, the equinoxes are when the sun crosses the plane created by extending Earth's equator out into space. The two equinoxes are also the points when the Earth's rotational axis, which is tilted with respect to the plane of Earth's orbit, is perpendicular to the sun, pointing neither toward the sun nor away from it. The practical upshot of that here on the surface of the Earth is that day and night are equal in length. From now until the summer solstice, days will get longer, and until the autumnal equinox in September, there will be more light than dark, at least in the Northern hemisphere. While the equinoxes are often thought of as being days, actually they are only a moment.

Nothing about the vernal equinox makes it any more amenable to standing an egg on end than any other day of the year.

The word "equinox" gets you 23 points in Scrabble.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Random Thought of the Day

The Star Trek series included several examples of Klingon Opera. What do you suppose Klingon Top 40 sounds like?

Weekend Beakful of Knowledge

The Pillsbury Doughboy is, or at least was, married. In the 1970's, Poppin Fresh was joined in advertisements by his wife, Poppy Fresh. Poppin was originally voiced by Paul Frees, who has far too many credits to mention. When Frees died, the voicing was taken over by Jeff Bergman, who also supplied the voice for Charlie the Tuna.

Though there is some disagreement about who at the ad agency actually conceived of the idea of Poppin Fresh, one of the first people to commit Poppin to paper was Martin Nodell, better known as the comic book artist who created The Green Lantern.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Friday Beakful of Trivia

The horse who played Mr. Ed started off life named Bamboo Harvester. He was foaled in 1949 in El Monte, California, a short trail ride from where yours truly was born.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Thursday Double Beakful of Knowledge

"His Master's Voice," the painting that became the RCA Victor logo, featuring Nipper looking into the horn of a phonograph, originally featured an Edison-Bell wax cylinder phonograph and a black bell (contrary to legend, there is no indication that it originally showed Nipper and the phonograph at a funeral). No wax cylinder record company wanted to buy the painting, so Francis Barraud painted a Gramophone with a brass bell over the Edison phonograph when he sold the painting for £100 to the Gramophone Company. The original "His Master's Voice" hangs at EMI's headquarters. Barraud was commissioned to paint 24 copies of the work for the Gramophone Company. The image and the phrase "His Master's Voice" are both trademarked.

As for Nipper, he started off as a stray mutt from Bristol, England. He was owned by Francis Barraud's brother, and Francis inherited the pooch upon the brother's death. Later, Nipper went back to the brother's widow. Nipper is said to have gotten his name from his habit of nipping at ankles. He died in 1895 at age 11 and is buried at Kingston-upon-Thames, in what is now the parking lot of a bank.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tuesday Beakful of Knowledge

Though the first record to "go gold" was the soundtrack to Oklahoma!, the first Gold Record was given to Chattanooga Choo-Choo by Glenn Miller, and the award was made from one of the masters for the album, lacquered in gold. The official Gold Record award is now given by the RIAA, and the records in the award plaque are often not copies of the album receiving the award. That was true even before the decline in popularity of vinyl records.

Happy Pi Day

...Unless you are a DD/MM/YY date format user, in which case today is 14/3, and you have your choice of celebrating Purim or one week until the vernal equinox (note: Purim has better pastries). However, for those of us on the MM/DD format, today is 3/14. Mark your calendar: in nine years, we get 3/14/15 9:27. Party down with all things circular. The DD/MM folks will have to wait for January 3, 2042, when the date will be 3/1/42. If we go to decimal time in the next 35 years, they can celebrate a year early on 3/1/41 at 5:93.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Monday Beakful of Knowledge

The mountain goat is more closely related to antelope than goats.

Porpoising through Current Events

Don't eat this yellow snow, either. Yellow snow is common enough, but the yellow snow in South Korea was falling that way. Yellow dust regularly blows in from the northern Chinese desert, and this time the dust storm met up with snow flurries. Officials warn that the yellow snow presents a health hazard, being somewhat more toxic than standard yellow snow.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Friday Beakful of Knowledge

The first "bug in the system" was a moth that found its way inside a computer. The moth carcass is now housed in the Smithsonian.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tuxedo Junction

We went to see the Glenn Miller Orchestra tonight. The band was great. I should have suspected something about the audience, though, when the tickets misspelled "Glenn." About 90% of the audience was of an age to have possibly seen the Glenn Miller Orchestra when it was led by Glenn Miller, so one would think that they would be able to handle a well-cued sing-along to "Pennsylvania 6-5000." Not so. Apparently, the bulk of the audience forgot the words. That's saying a lot, since there are only four words to "Pennsylvania 6-5000," and they are (get ready) "Pennsylvania six five thousand." Well, there are five words if one counts the final line, which is "Pennsylvania six five oh oh oh." The only song with easier lyrics is "Tequila." Nothing contrasts with the authentic acoustic big band sound like 1,200 people not singing along.

Thursday's Beakful of Trivia

Jane Barbe, the voice behind phone messages such as "At the tone, the time will be..." and "Your call cannot be completed as dialed," was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and her normal speaking voice had a southern drawl.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

In the Craw: Lime Jelly Beans

I love Easter. Not so much the holiday, which I do not celebrate, but the candy. Easter has the best original candy of any holiday. Later, I will go over the science lesson that can be had microwaving Peeps. Now, there is a much more serious problem plaguing Easter candy: the green jelly bean flavor reassignment. The lime jelly bean appears to be going the way of the dodo. Of a dozen different jelly bean brands and flavor mixes at my local grocery store, only one had not reassigned the green jelly bean to Green Apple flavor.

Penguin News Roundup

As posted previously, March of the Penguins won the Oscar for Best Documentary. The filmmakers accepted carrying life-sized plush Emperor penguins.

A library in Missouri has moved the children's book recounting the true-life tale of male penguins Roy and Silo, residents of the Central Park Zoo, adopting an abandoned egg. Such egg adoptions are known to occur in the wild. In response to complaints by two parents while the juvenile fiction work was shelved in the juvenile fiction section, the book is now shelved in the nonfiction section, where children never go unless they are looking for references for a school report.

Wednesday's Beakful of Trivia

One of the co-inventors of the car radio, William Lear, also invented the eight-track tape player and the Lear Jet. The other co-inventor, Elmer Wavering, developed the automobile alternator, which makes power windows and air conditioning possible.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Tuesday's Beakful of Useless Knowledge

Bubble gum's traditional pink color came about because that was the only color food dye available when the first batch was mixed up.

The Blog, She is A-Changin'

Thanks for bearing with me during the recent lull in posting. I have made a few subtle changes to the design of the page. The most obvious change you will notice is I intend to return to daily blogging with a legitimate publishing schedule. Check back daily for a Beakful of Trivia, and weekly features. Wednesdays will bring you the Penguin News Roundup and Fridays bring Porpoising through Current Events. I am setting Fishing the 'Net, Slender Walk Tips, Stuck in the Craw, and From the Rookery on ice floes to float through the week. Other items of interest will appear at randomly to keep everyone from getting complacent.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Watch this space for some changes in the coming week.

Penguins in the Arts

Woo-Hoo! March of the Penguins won the Academy Award for best documentary. Not that the news comes as much of a surprise, nor did the penguin/tuxedo joke in the acceptance speech. I did like the life-size stuffed penguins.