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More "little things"

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. More ‘little things’. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, February:9–10.

This month, we return to the topic of an earlier article: more of the little things that we ignore or pay little attention to, but that can be interesting or significant nonetheless. (Note: To date, not a single reply has been received to the challenge issued in my last article. I haven't got a full list of ten either, so you can still beat me with a quick reply.)

Compound interest is a fine thing when it works for you, as in the case of a long-term investment, but not so nice when one considers such matters as inflation. Just as one scary example, consider the price of the ubiquitous $1 loaf of bread. (Actually, this is last year's sale price.) If we assume an increase in the consumer price index of about 4%, which is the last rate of inflation that I recall hearing about), what will happen to the price of bread in the future? In ten years, the same loaf will cost $1.48; in 20 years, $2.19; in 30 years, $3.24; and in 40 years, a simple loaf of bread will cost $4.80, which is vaguely obscene. In reality, I may have been too conservative in my estimates: I recall my grandfather telling me that bread cost $0.10 a loaf about 40 years ago, which means a 10-fold (not 5-fold, as I calculated) price increase. [Editor's note: I'm no grandmother, but I certainly remember the 10-cent loaf of bread.—Constance Plexman] Gumballs used to cost a penny each 20 years ago, but now cost a nickel in many dispensers (a 5-fold increase in 20 years, as opposed to the 2-fold increase I calculated). One wonders how, with the wonders of the modern agricultural revolution, prices of a basic foodstuff such as bread (or gumballs, for the kids among us) has increased at about twice the rate of inflation. Perhaps the answer lies in Frances Moore Lappé's observation that the average food in a supermarket package costs as little as half the price of the packaging that contains it. I've done much of my shopping at bulk food stores since I discovered this fact.

Rabbit ears are another interesting little item. Our rabbit, an eastern cottontail, is properly paranoid, as our dog hasn't quite learned that rabbits don't play as roughly as dogs. As a result, he's always on the lookout for an ambush, and even when he's resting inside his cage, he has his ears alertly cocked for signs of trouble. The other day, I noticed that his ears always face in opposite directions from each other, which means that it is impossible for a noise to escape his notice. In fact, the only time when the ears face in the same direction is when he knows we're stalking him to administer his medication or to lock him back in his cage. It also seems to me that the ears are nicely parabolic in cross-section, although I confess that I haven't actually done any measurements to confirm this. (I'll let you figure out why.) It's interesting to note that the microphones used by police to eavesdrop on a distant conversation are also commonly parabolic. Maybe we should train rabbits as spies?

Parabolic microphones, and many other examples of human engineering seem to have been duplicated long ago by nature; indeed, many of our modern technologies have been developed as a direct result of imitating nature's inventions. Here are some examples:

Did you know that the functions of the human brain seem to be split along the middle of the brain? Apparently, the left side of the brain controls the actions of the right side of the body, and vice versa. More interesting still, the right side of the brain seems to be devoted more to spatial perception and artistic endeavors; conversely, the left side of the brain tends to be specialized more towards symbol processing (mathematics and language). This is interesting for several reasons, one of which is the choice of professions one might adopt. I'm definitely a left-brain-dominant person: my proficiency with symbols is one reason why I edit for a living, and it may also explain why I couldn't draw a straight line with a ruler, let alone draw a cartoon. By contrast, my wife isn't as good with words or mathematics, but she's one of the best graphic artists I've met. Most of the left-handed (right-brained) people I've met seem to be talented artists, but lousy mathematicians; conversely, I haven't met many right-handed artists, but a lot of mathematicians are right-handed. (This observation is by no means a law of nature, as I do know of several exceptions; however, it is perhaps a bit too common an observation to be mere coincidence.)

There's yet another interesting side effect of this "brain dominance": the side of the brain that dominates probably draws the most blood. Have you ever wondered why some people sleep on their right side whereas others sleep on their left? Perhaps this is the way the dominant side of the brain ensures that it receives more blood... which would explain why my wife sleeps on her right side, as do all of the artists she's talked to, whereas I sleep on my left side, as do many right-handed folks I've spoken to. There might be a similar observation for sleeping on one's front versus sleeping on one's back: the rear of the brain tends to involve vision and memory, whereas the front involves "the higher cognitive centers" (language and abstract thought). I suspect that it would prove interesting to see what sleeping habits are typical of various professions, but I have no data to offer on this topic.

More addition: the last McDonalds sign I saw said "over 75 billion served". (This is unusual, it seems; most of the restaurant owners seem to have tired of always changing their signs and have adopted Saganisms such as "billions and billions" served.) I got to wondering, one day, just how much that really was, and here are the quickie calculations I came up with. (Please use a calculator if you want a more accurate figure for some purpose, such as horrifying your vegetarian neighbor.) If every one of those people bought the equivalent amount of meat in one burger (average thickness about 0.5 cm), this would mean a stack of burgers about 3.75 × 10^10 cm (or about 4 × 10^8 m, or 4 × 10^5 km) high—that's a stack 400,000 km high, give or take a bit. The Earth is about 13,000 km in diameter at the equator, or 39,000 km in circumference; hence, a stack of these burgers would circle the Earth ten times. (Again, please note that this arithmetic wasn't done with a calculator, so it's only an approximation. Nonetheless, this is a suitably impressive statistic to bring up at the next cocktail party.) If you really want to impress someone, look up the distance to the moon and do the same comparison. In terms of weight, if we assume that each burger was a quarter-pounder, that's about 20 billion pounds of meat (before cooking, of course). That's a lot of cows too, along with associated byproducts.


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