Friday, December 12, 2014

And That’s the Truth

For no particular reason, here is a list of a dozen random facts that caught my attention this past week. Calling anything a fact will stir challenges just on principle in these cynical (yet, oddly, not “skeptical” in the proper sense) days, but I deem the sources, ranging from a chemistry text to The New York Times to be reliable enough to regard the items as the truth until proved otherwise.

1.       Neptunium, element 93 (wedged between uranium and plutonium), doesn’t have significant commercial applications, but you probably have some of the stuff in your hallway anyway. Smoke detectors commonly use small amounts of americium (element 95) isotope 241. Alpha particles from the decay of americium interact with smoke particles in a detectable way. Am241 decays into Np237. Am241 has a half-life of 432 years while Np237 has a half-life of 2,145,500 years. So, in several thousand years nearly all the americium will have been converted to neptunium. You’ll probably need to change the batteries in the smoke detector before then.
2.       Among the scams practiced by our nation’s enterprising criminals (Mark Twain’s remark on the criminal class notwithstanding, I don’t refer in this instance to Congress) is the one of filing a fake deed in a county courthouse, and then borrowing money against the property, usually as an equity loan. It’s the kind of borrowing that doesn’t get paid back. The real owner suddenly discovers a lien against his property. To show how disturbingly easy this can be, in 2008 the New York Daily News gave it a try. They successfully filed a deed in the New York City Hall recording the transfer of property from Empire State Land Associates to Nelots Property. If anyone at the city hall noticed that the property address was the Empire State Building, the datum apparently wasn’t considered worthy of comment. Nor was the fact that the witness on the deed was Fay Wray and the notary Willie Sutton. (Perhaps those names really mean nothing to those below a certain age.) Nelots was fictitious and the Daily News revealed the hoax without making an effort actually to defraud the owners, so no one did jail time, but they made their point.
3.       Blue whales’ tongues typically weigh 2700 kilograms. I do not know who weighed them.
4.       69% of cell phone owners experience “phantom vibration,” the sense that the phone is vibrating when it isn’t. While there might be physical explanations in some cases – perhaps there are instances of resonance or feedback or something – the prevailing opinion is that it is generally a psychological phenomenon.
5.       Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the first draft of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde inspired by cocaine. The second draft was inspired by his wife Fanny Osbourne. She read the first and made suggestions, so he burned it. He found it easier to rewrite it in line with her suggestions that way.
6.       On September 11, 2001, Ben Sliney had a tough day. He was the FAA National Operations Manager. He took charge in the emergency and ordered the immediate suspension of all civilian flights, a radical but much praised decision. It was Ben’s first day on the job.
7.       On June 26, 1944, was the only (so far) three way major league baseball game: Yankees vs Giants vs Dodgers. The teams rotated through the tops and bottoms of nine innings. Dodgers won: Dodgers 5, Yankees 1, Giants 0. It was a novelty game intended to sell war bonds to the stadium audience; attendees bought $6,500,000 worth.
8.       “D’oh,” Homer Simpson’s characteristic exclamation, is in the Oxford English Dictionary: “Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish.”
9.       It long has been known that tasters (even professionals) are remarkably poor at ranking cheap and expensive wines in blind tests, and that tasters’ opinions about the wines do not match what they say when they can read the labels. Expectations count for a lot, it seems. In 2009 researchers from the American Association of Wine Economists tested whether people were just as unreliable judging food such as pâté. They had eighteen subjects taste Spam, pork liver pâté, liverwurst, duck liver mousse, and Newman’s Own Dog Food. They were asked to pick out the dog food. Three of the eighteen got it right, no better than chance.
10.   The record for going without sleep according to Scientific American is 264 hours. It was set by a 17-year-old at a science fair in 1965. I think I’ll let him keep the record.
11.   A diamond five times the size of earth orbits the pulsar PSR J1719-1438. I’ve read why astronomers have reached this conclusion, but I’d still like to see it for myself. That might be difficult. If true, there’s no need fussing over the F. Scott Fitzgerald tale The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
12.   The little metal casing that holds an eraser to a pencil is called a ferrule. Maybe you knew that. Until this week I didn’t.


  1. As a kid I used to like those Ripley Believe It or Nots. They used to collect them in digest-size books, and were fun to read.

    I wonder if that borrowing on a equable loan still stands and is criminally prosecuted? Granted that would be chicken feed for some of the 1%ers. I say that as I heard this week that Congress wanted to pass a piece of legislation, even though it would undo a pillar of the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory overhaul by freeing banks to more readily trade the exotic investments known as derivatives.

    I guess Congress does not remember past mistakes very well, when it comes to money.

    1. A facebook friend posted a news link about a Florida couple who falsely deeded themselves a house and moved in. So, I guess the answer is yes.

      Whatever the merits of Dodd-Frank,Greenspan, who admits his mistakes in his latest book, suggests that higher capital requirements matter more than regulatory changes since crashes happen in every regulatory environment. The 2000 crash wasn't a catastrophe, he says, because banks had enough capital to weather the losses and pick up the pieces. That changed in the next several years, and he says banks are still undercapitalized. Maybe.

  2. I had no idea it was called a ferrule. I wonder who sits around and comes up for names for things like that? Neat list. :)

    1. It smacks of the sort of trade jargon invented to separate insiders from outsiders. By calling it a ferrule you show that you're a pencil professional.

      It reminds me of the scene in "Mr Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse" in which a workman asks the customer (Cary Grant) whether he wants rabbets in the lintels; Cary, of course, doesn't want to admit he doesn't know what that means.

      I'm terrible at scrabble but I once scored some points with "metope." (I had a minor in classics.) Challenged, I was able to answer that it was a lacuna between two triglyphs of the Doric frieze. I still lost the game, but I felt much better about it.