Saturday, October 29, 2005


Eric writes...

Jim- Now here's a question I have no knowledge about: If Halley's comet comes so close to Earth why doesn't it get affected by Earth's gravity and put it into a different path? And how close would a comet have to be to Earth for it to get pulled, or even slightly tugged, by our mass?

Well, Eric, we're in synch here, because I actually know this one. The fact is, Halley's path does get affected by the Earth. As a matter of fact, the Earth's path is affected by Halley's comet. It is just that the amounts are small. Of course, the Earth affects Halley's path more that Halley affect's Earth's path. One thing you have to consider is, even at it's closest pass, Halley is not very close to the Earth.

Let's take a look at Halley's closest approach to Earth. The comet's closest approach to Earth occurred in 837, at a distance of 0.033 astronomical units (4.94 million km; 3.07 million miles). So 3 million miles is not far considering the earth is 93 million miles from the Sun. But still, 3 million miles is pretty far. To try to put this in better perspective, let's shrink the Earth down to the size of a basketball. That would make Halley's comet about 1 mm in diameter or about the size of a pin head. At the closest approach in 837, that pin head would be about 300 feet away from that basketball. If you watched any of the baseball playoffs, and went to Houston and put that basketball on home plate, that pin head would be at the warning track down the left field line, in front of those God awful Crawford boxes. Yet even at those distances, there is gravitational pull by both bodies on each other.

Many of the space probes to the outer planets have used gravitational assist from the inner planets. That is, the probe would be sent past another planet, be drawn into it's gravitational field, gain speed but have a trajectory that would not be sucked into the atmosphere, then is "sling shot" forward with an overall gain of speed. We know that there is no free ride, energy is neither created or destroyed. In the case of the gravitational assist, by the laws of physics, the planet will lose energy. Essentially it will slow down, though it may only be by a billionth of a second.

What it would take to pull a comet into our atmosphere to crash into the Earth, would depend on the speed, mass, and trajectory of the comet. Three things can happen, it can be captured by the gravitational field and crash into the Earth, it can pass by and just be deflected, or if everything comes together just right, it could be captured by Earth's gravitational field and fall into orbit around the Earth.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


How and when did we realize electricity exists, and how and when did we learn how to use it?

While Luigi Galvani and his nephew were busy zapping animals and cadavers, their fellow countryman, Alssandro Volta was making some more practical discoveries. He determined that when you put certain metals together, they would produce electricity. After much experimentation, he came up with the combination of zinc and silver as generating the most power. This is the same process that is still used today for many household batteries.

In the early 1800s, Michael Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, or the process of producing electricity with magnets. This is the way that all household electricity is produced.

These two discoveries gave the world the ability to produce electricity in the amounts needed to make practical applications that ran on electricity. Men such as Ampere and Ohm explained the phenomenon of voltage, current and resistance, plus the basic circuits types of series and parallel.

Now that we could produce electricity in large amounts and understood circuitry, it was up to the inventors to come up with applications. One of the first big inventions that helped make the world a smaller place was the invention of the telegraph by Samuel Morse. Next came Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. Then enters one of the heavy hitters of electrical invention, Thomas Alva Edison. Among his 1,093 patents was the phonograph, movie projector, relay telegraph, and, of course, the light bulb which changed the world forever.

Another heavy hitter in the world of electricity was Nikola Tesla. Tesla was an incredibly intricate and interesting man that is full of controversy. He was somewhere between a genius and a mad man. He got his start working in Edison's lab at Menlo Park, but became frustrated with Edison's technique. He once derisively said of Edison "I he were try to find a needle in a haystack, he would start at the top of the stack and check each piece of straw, one by one until he found it". It was true, once Edison set himself on a path to discovery, he would methodically try one thing after another, making a slight change each time until he had what he was looking for. Tesla, on the other hand, would set his mind to something and would figure everything out in his head before he actually built it. Two of his greatest inventions are the transformer and the alternating current motor.

Electrical production was on the verge of great things and this was one of those defining moments. Edison, was a firm believer in direct current, while Tesla was a proponent of alternating current. The main advantage of alternating current is it lends itself to transforming voltages up and down with the use of transformers. This gives us the ability to transform electricity to very high voltages so it can be sent over great distances, then transformed back down to safer voltages at the point of use. In today's hind sight, that is such a remarkable advantage over DC that, I, for one, can't imagine why Edison fought so hard for direct current. In a ploy to convince the public that DC was better than AC, Edison started a smear campaign against DC. He said that AC was very dangerous. To prove this point he invented the electric chair. Somehow people dying from AC was supposed to be more dangerous that people dying from DC (i.e. lightning).

Anyway, Tesla's system of alternating current won out. George Westinghouse, who had already made a fortune from inventions for trains, saw an opportunity with Tesla's AC inventions. He bought Tesla's motor and transformer and hired Tesla to work for him. Today, two of the biggest names in the electrical industry Westinghouse and Thomas Edison's General Electric, remain at the top of their industry.

As a sideline. Tesla went on to invent the Tesla coil, which is the main component of every radio broadcast station today. Only by patent rights has Marconi been acknowledged as the inventor of the radio. The same can be said for Edison who had a working model of the telephone before Bell, but lost on the legal front and patent office. Tesla also claims to have invented the Xray and the vacuum tube amplifier, but never received credit for those. Finally, Tesla claimed to have invented a death ray that could down 10,000 airplanes from 250 miles or split the Earth. Another claim was the idea that he could generate electricity with a generator that used cosmic rays to produce unlimited power. Unfortunately, investors could never quite dump enough money into those, and other incredible inventions so they never came to fruition. When he died, the FBI who was interested in his death ray, raided his apartment and confiscated all his papers, however, his nephew got there first and supposedly took some documents and destroyed others helping to fuel endless debate as to whether Tesla was really a genius or madman.

Monday, October 24, 2005

How and when did we realize electricity exists, and how and when did we learn how to use it?

Electricity was discovered around 600 B.C., by a Greek named Thales, when he noticed that a piece of amber, when rubbed with wool, would pick up pieces of leaves and straw. For the next 2000 years we never got any further with it. The first modern scientist to experiment with electricity was William Gilbertt, in the late 1500s. He systematically rubbed all kinds of materials with all kinds of other materials to see if they would exhibit any powers of attraction. He classified things into "electrics" for those things that have an attractive force when rubbed, and "anelectrics" for those things that don't. He also noticed the differences between magnetic attractions and electrical attraction.

By the mid 1600's, Otto von Guerike had invented the first electrical generator. Otto was best known for his experiments with vacuum and pressure, including his most famous demonstration of holding two halves of an iron sphere together with vacuum, while horses were trying to pull them apart. His generator was a solid sulfur ball with an iron pipe through the middle. You would spin the sulfur ball with the pipe, and then rub you hand on the spinning ball. This would generate enough electricity to create small sparks. This is the first time that scientists put the attractive force together with the electricity that we think of today.

Over the next several hundred years, electrical generators became more and more refined. Most of them were various ways of spinning a glass object and rubbing it with wool. These were electrostatic generators. Static electricity is electricity in a still state. Charges are built up so that they can be let loose in an instant. Another important invention at this time was the Leyden jar, A device (essentially a capacitor) that could store electrical charges. With these two apparatuses, electrical experimentation took off. People hooked electricity up to anything and everything to see what happened. Electricity became entertainment. People would assemble a whole host of electrical toys and head for the lecture tour. They would make things spark, make bells ring, make things glow in the dark, attract things and repel things.

It was one of these traveling shows that got Benjamin Franklin interested in electricity. He started experimenting with it and made huge discoveries. He showed that despite the fact that some things were attracted to each other and other things repelled, there was only one electricity. He came up with the concept of positive and negative charges. And of course his most famous demonstration was to show that lightning was a form a electricity with his kite and key stunt. He not only invented the lightning rod, to help protect buildings from being struck but he also invented a warning system that would ring a bell when lightning was approaching. He one time had (in his words) "a party of pleasure on the banks of the Skuykil river, a turkey is to be killed... for dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack (I'm not sure what that means) before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle (Leyden jar): when the healths of all the famous electricians in England, Holland, France and Germany are to be drank in electrified bumpers (pewter mugs given an electrical charge) under the discharge of guns from the electrical battery".

In the late 1700's, when the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani discovered that a jolt of electricity induced a twitch in a frog's leg, the whole world went ga-ga for medical electricity. There were no end of devices made to put electrical charges to or through animals and humans. Galvani's nephew Giovani Aldini got into the act by collecting cadavers of people who had died of disease and subjected them to electricity. He ran current through hands and arms and watched their movements. He eventually got a deal with the local government to use cadavers of freshly executed criminals for his experiment. One day he procured a freshly dead head and ran wires to each ear and watched the facial contortions. As luck would have it, they had a "two-for" day and that afternoon acquired a second head, put them ear to ear and ran current through both heads to see them twitch. No wonder Mary Shelley came up with the concept of Frankenstein. The crux of many of these experiments were to bring the dead back to life.

Physicians became "electrotherapists" and created one machine after another to cure one thing after another. Some machines would "electrify" an object that the patient would touch or sit on, and would build up a high electrical charge, similar to the generators you see in the science museums that you touch and your hair stands on end. There were also many machines that would actually run a current through the body for various cures. Maybe Eric "the dismissed" would care to elaborate on the subject as the owner of several medical "magnetos".

In any case, right up to the 1800's, most of the research of electricity yielded interesting but useless toys and bogus medical therapies. Stay tuned for the next installment containing modern electrical history.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Eric writes...

So Jim, I was just watching "The Deep" (an episode from the documentary "Blue Planet") and it talked allot about bioluminescence. Now what exactly causes bioluminescence? I realize that it's made by bacteria called photophores, but how do THEY do it? How do the photophores live on deep sea animals? Is it possible for photophores to grow on humans? Could WE bioluminate? (is that the right verb for bioluminescence?

First of all, it is true that some organism have a symbiotic relationship with a bioluminescent bacteria called photophores, but that is only one way to do it. There are more than a dozen different mechanisms that cause bioluminescence. Let's take a look a just what Bioluminescence is.

Bioluminescence is produced by a chemical reaction. A cell will contain a chemical, called a "luciferin", then adds another called a "luciferace". The luciferace acts as an enzyme, allowing the luciferin to release energy in the form of light, as it is oxidized. It will also give off an inactive byproduct called "oxyluciferin".

So, could humans bioluminess (or nate)? The potential is always there but it would take some heavy duty evolving or gene splicing to make it happen. As far as photophores starting to grow on humans, it is unlikely. Just like any bacteria, it has preferred environments. What grows on you, doesn't necessarily grow on your dog and what grows on a jelly fish may have no inclination to grow on you. So you better keep a good stock of batteries and a flashlight, if you want to glow in the dark

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Adam writes...

So Jim, for superstition's sake I'm going to lay off the baseball questions for now.

So tell me the deal with this, Jim. If you look at the different milestones going back down the communication technology curve, you'll see computers, then TV, then radio, then telephones, telegrams, and finally singing telegrams. All of these advances (plus light bulbs, home appliances, and heavy metal music) are made possible by electricity.

What IS electricity? The flow of charged particles? Is that right? Are there different types of electricity? How and when did we realize electricity exists, and how and when did we learn how to use it?

Now Jim, I know that's a lot to ask of a busy man like yourself. Perhaps you could answer in several different posts rather than one uber-post.

That is a lot of question and it does seem appropriate to answer on the installment plan. For the first part, let's answer "What IS electricity? The flow of charged particles? Is that right? Are there different types of electricity?"

Electricity is free electrons, and there is only one type of electricity. To understand electricity, we have to go back to our chemistry lessons and look at elements and atoms. As I'm sure you know, atoms contain a nucleus made up of positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. Orbiting around the nucleus are negatively charged electrons. These orbits are more accurately called shells. Each shell can hold a limited amount of electrons and the outer or valence shell can hold no more than 8. When all the shells hold the maximum number of electrons, all the electrons are very stable. If you add one more, so the new outer shell contains only one electron, that one valence electron is no longer stable. It will jump off one atom and on to another very easily. The three elements that do this best are copper, silver, and gold.

There are six ways to produce electricity. 1. Friction (this produces the static electricity we are all familiar with when we get a shock after touching metal on a cold day while wearing a wool sweater). 2. Chemical (batteries) 3. Heat (the principal is used in thermocouples, a device that generates a small amount of electricity when heat is applied.) 4. Light (photocells) 5. Pressure (used in gas grills to light the flame, you know, that thing you push, you hear a snap, and the flame comes on). and 6. Magnetism (all household electricity is generated by magnetism).

All the electricity that we use is done by coaxing electrons to travel together down a wire. If you pass a copper wire through a magnetic field, that field will induce the electrons to travel in one direction. Pass that wire through that magnetic field in the opposite direction and those electrons will travel in the opposite direction. Every power plant, be it coal, hydroelectric, or nuclear, does the same thing. It uses a source of energy to move wires through magnetic fields (or move magnetic fields passed wires). As one electron is coaxed to move in one direction, it coaxes another electron to move. As this chain reaction moves down the line, it travels at the speed of light (though individual electrons are moving at a fraction of that speed).

Friday, October 14, 2005


Tommy writes...

Jim, much like yourself and Adam, I am quite the fan of baseball. I spent the majority of my life in Atlanta, Ga, and while there became a fan of the Atlanta Braves. For years, 14 to be exact, the Braves have continued to drive up the hopes of thousands of fans, and continuously let them come crashing down in early or mid October. Now here is my question for you; Despite having a top notch coaching staff, consistently ranking in the top 12 in payroll, as well as having above average pitching year in and year out why, aside from 1995, can't the Braves win a World Series?

Sorry Tommy, you have stumped Ask Jim. If I could answer that question, I'd have Bobby Cox's job. That is one of those great mysteries of the universe. Everyone wants to know the answer to that question. Cox did another incredible job this year with his new, young team. He should be in line with LaRussa again for manager of the year. I'm not sure what would be more maddening, winning the division and loosing in the post season, or not winning the division 14 years in a row.

Seeing you stumped Jim, Jim gets to ask you a question... Why doesn't Atlanta ever sell out for the first round of playoffs?

Bri & Leah writes...
Fishinating stuff, Jim. Since I am a vegetarian, I think if ever went fishing again I would be inclined to throw the fish back. However, Leah loves seafood and would enjoy keeping hers.

So tell me, Jim. What do you do with your fish once you catch them? How do you decide what to keep, and what to return?

That is an easy one. Most of the time I let them go. One way to insure that fishing remains good is to practice "catch and release" fishing. I'm simply there to harass god's little creatures and maybe teach them a little lesson. (such as... "Don't eat that in the future because the next guy may not be so kind".) Not only does that help keep the fish population in better condition, it eliminates the need carry them and keep them cold and fresh. Less cumbersome and more enjoyment.

I only keep fish twice a year. On father's day, we go fishing at a place where they stock trout every day for the sole purpose of harvesting. We catch enough for a dinner that evening. The other time I keep fish is at our annual boundary waters fishing trip in the summer. The fish are quite abundant and the fishing pressure is quite light. We try to catch enough fish for one meal a day. There is little concern of hurting the overall fish population with our harvest.


Adam writes...

Wow, Jim. That was incredible. No, that was Jim-credible.

So Jim, tell me something else. In game 2 of the ALCS, home plate umpire Doug Eddings made a bad call, allowing Chicago batter AJ Pierzynski to take first base. The bad call clearly changed the outcome of the game: it was the bottom of the ninth, tie score, and pinch runner Pablo Ozuna was able to make his way to third and then score the winning run off a hit by Joe Crede three pitches later.

Can you think of any other time in baseball where an umpire's bad call has changed the outcome of a game, league championship series, or worst of all, the WORLD SERIES?

Ah-ha-ha! A thinly veiled request for the 1985 World Series rant. Well okay, if you insist.

The 1980's was one of those banner decades for the Cardinals with 3 trips to the World Series. and one win. 1985 was right in the middle of the Whitey Herzog era. Whitey had spent five years with Kansas City and brought 3 AL Western Division titles. When he got to St. Louis, he took over not only as manager but as general manager for the first year. At the time Busch was a big cookie cutter stadium with Astroturf. The fences were more that 10 feet further out than they are today. Whitey built a team around this park. He assembled a team of fast runners (Vince Colman, Tommy Herr ), great fielders (Ozzie Smith, Willy McGee) and an ace pitching staff (Andujar, Tudor, Cox and Forsch). They played classic National League small ball (called Whitey ball at the time). They had won the 1982 World Series and they were heavy favorites to win the '85 as well.

The Cardinals took the first two games from Kansas City in Royals Stadium. "No team has ever lost the first two games at home and won the World Series" could be heard time and time again. The teams moved to St. Louis where KC took their first win, then St. Louis took their third win in game 4. The Cards had to win only one of the next three. After dropping game 5, the teams went back to KC for the final confrontations.

Game 6 was a pitchers duel. Leibrant for the Royals shut out the Cards for 7 innings but in the 8th, with two outs, a single, a walk, and another single brought in a run for the Cards. In the mean time Cox pitched seven shut out innings for the Cards and Daley came in and pitched another one in the 8th. "The Cardinals have not lost a game in the 9th inning all season" says one announcer. "If the Cardinals go on to win, they will have the lowest number of runs scored (14) for a World Series winner" says another.

Now the chess game begins. Howser sent in Darryl Motley (a right handed pinch-batter) to face the left handed Daley. Herzog called for right-hander Todd Worrell. Howser countered with Jorge Orta in place of Motley. The lefty responded with a hot grounder towards first baseman Jack Clark who fielded it and tossed it to the covering pitcher. Umpire Don Denkinger called Orta safe although everyone else in the park knew he was out by a step. Television replays showed Denkinger was wrong, but the contested runner remained on first. An argument ensued but fell on deaf ears. That moment, that one call, set in motion a ridiculous turn of events. The Cards simply fell apart. Steve Balboni followed Orta with a textbook pop-out, but Clarke (out of position because he was covering the runner at first that should have been called out) was unable to field the ball. Balboni then singled. Jim Sundberg bunted into a force out at third. Hal McRae stepped to the plate (for Buddy Biancalana) and after Darrell Porter committed a passed ball that advanced both runners, he was intentionally walked. Dane Iorg brought Concepcion home with a single to right followed closly by Sundberg who avoided Porter's tag at home and the Royals tied the Series with the 2-1 victory.

That was it. Game seven started with Tudor for StL., Saberhagen for K.C. and Denkinger behind the plate. Saberhagen was untouchable, Tudor was flat. After having victories for games 1 and 4, Herzog had gone to the Tudor well once too often. The Royals teed off on Tudor as they did with Andujar who came in for relief. When the "one tough Dominican" thought he was being squeezed in the strike zone, he lost it, Denkinger lost it, Herzog lost it, words were said and when Whitey told Denkinger "If you had done your job last night we wouldn't have to be here tonight", Herzog was ejected. A few pitches later, Andujar joined him. Meanwhile, Tudor was so ticked off that when he got back to the clubhouse, he punched an electric fan, slicing his hand open and needed to be taken to the hospital for stitches. It was an eleven run shut out. It was ugly and it was excruitiating to watch. No Cardinal fans have ever been that miserable until the Cards met the Red Sox in 2004.

To give Denkinger credit, he has always been considered a very good umpire. He has taken endless heat for the call and he has faced it like a man. He admits the mistake and probably feels worse about it than anyone. He has even been on sports talk shows several time in St. Louis to answer questions.

It's a game, that's the rules and as the A's manager, Mike Sciosia aptly put it, "Anyone who blames the outcome of the game on one bad call is just giving his players an excuse to lose". For as great as I think Whitey is, to this day, I think he should have done a better job of inspiring his men to forget about game 6 and take care of the business of winning game seven. That's my rant and I'm sticking to it!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Adam writes...

So Jim, tell me something.

I've been watching a lot of baseball lately. In fact, I've been tuning in on it all year -- on TV, on, even on the antiquated amplitude-modulation radio stations. I've been to pro games and to minor league games, enjoying them all the same.

Just about all of my friends (2 of my 3 friends) tell me that baseball is boring and contains less action than other professional sports. They say that baseball players are less athletic, and they say because there are 162 regular season games there is simply less on the line in any given game. Overall they rate baseball as slow and less competitive.

Now what would you say in response to these different arguments? To what extent do these points of view hold weight? I prefer your answer to be 60% fact-guided reasoning, 40% emotional rant.

Well, let's just take these arguments one at a time.

"baseball is boring" - The question at hand is really what do you enjoy and why do you enjoy it. Baseball or football? Sailing or power boating? Fly fishing for trout or spin fishing for bass? Classic car or hot rod? Boxers or briefs? Patty or Kathy? Ginger or Mary Ann? Anything is boring if you don't enjoy it. Soccer is the sport of the world. wars and revolutions stop for soccer matches. How can people go so crazy for a game that most Americans find boring? Because they love it. It's a part of the chicken-egg syndrome. You enjoy a sport, you follow it. You follow it, you learn all its subtleties and strategies. The more knowledgeable you are about a sport, the more interesting it is. The more interesting it is, the more you enjoy it....

"contains less action than other professional sports" - Football is supposed to be full of action, but if you were to time the actual "action", that is, from the time the ball is hiked until the play stops, you'd find about 3-5 seconds of action amongst many minutes of substitutions, huddles, replays, time-outs, and penalties. Action would probably have to go to the hockey, basketball, soccer trilogy. (They are essentially the same game.) They run up the court, they run down the field, then they skate back up the rink again. Constant movement, that is the definition of action, but that doesn't translate into interest. During a close baseball game, especially a post season game, you hang on every pitch, each one being more excruciating than the next (especially when Isringhausen is pitching).

"baseball players are less athletic" - This is a truly absurd statement that no one could justify. The need for strength, agility and speed is needed by every player on the team. Can an offensive lineman be called more athletic because he is very big, heavy, and strong (and slow)? Can a man who does nothing but kick field goals or punts be considered more athletic?

"because there are 162 regular season games there is simply less on the line in any given game" - I think you could make a case for that, however, at the end of the season, it is often a matter of one or two games that make the difference between division winners and division losers. So just which game was the one that didn't matter. That is not a liability. With a 162 game schedule, you can't get by with one hot streak. The best teams don't always make it to the World Series, but they make it to the playoffs. At the end of the regular season, there are no lucky teams in baseball, and there are no cries about easy or hard schedules. On the other hand, you can look at a 16 game football schedule and make a case that, if the old adage is true that any given Sunday any one team can beat another, then it is better to be lucky than good in football.

"Overall they rate baseball as slow and less competitive" - This belongs with the "athletic" comment. It holds no credence. Does the base runner run slower than the running back? Can anyone see Jim Edmonds catch in game 7 of last year's NLCS and say anyone is more competitive than that. That statement alone deserves more than 40% rant.

So now I will indulge myself and tell you some of the reasons that Baseball is my passion.

First of all, it is a game that is unlike anything else in professional sports. Most games are a variation of soccer. Get your object down the field (court, rink) and put it in your opponents goal (basket, net). Basketball, hockey and soccer are the exact same game with football being the biggest variation on that theme. Baseball is the only game that is a team sport played one man at a time. It is the pitcher against the batter or the runner against fielder. If you keep a scorecard, like myself, you can look back and tell every important event that every player made. You can see all of the important statistics. Do you know anyone who has ever kept a scorecard of a football game? Could you tell anyone how many passes the quarterback made and what percentage were caught? Only if the announcer or stat man gave you those figures.

One of the things I find the most frustrating in football (and I realize a lot of this has to do with my lack of knowledge about the game) is on any given play such as an incomplete pass, it is very hard to tell exactly where the problem lies. Did the quarterback make a poor pass? Did the receiver blow the catch? Did an offensive lineman not do his job? Did a defensive back do his better? There is just too much going on all at the same time to analyze the whole play. Half of the enjoyment of watching sports is to analyze the game, and second guess the manager or coach. When we were at the Cubs-Cards game with the score tied 1-1 at the bottom of the tenth, Maybry on third and no outs, our minds were racing with the possibilities. Tagguchi gets up, you know he's no power hitter nor is he a great contact hitter, so he's just going to be trying to get a base hit. Sure enough, swings and grounds out to the shortstop leaving Maybry stranded. Next Eckstein is up, you know he strikes out less than almost anyone in baseball. It's a perfect situation for a suicide squeeze. Sure enough, he squeezes, the run scores, game over. The ability to understand the players abilities, strategies of the game and tendencies of the manager is what it is all about. There is nothing slow or boring about it. To say the game is boring only shows you know very little about the game.

Another disadvantage of football is it is not TV friendly. With men running in 22 different directions, it is hard to see a play unfold. You take that pass play again. You can see the quarterback set up and throw the ball but you don't know who is down field, or how many are down field or what their coverage is, until the ball is there. Was anyone open? Was there someone else it would have been better to throw to? You'll be lucky to find out during the 1/2 dozen replays they need to show you to see what just happened. In baseball, even though you can't see the outfield when the batter hits the ball, you know where everyone should be. There are many times you know whether it should be a hit or an out as soon as the ball comes off the bat. And if it should be an out, but it is not, you know exactly where the problem was.

Also there is very little specialization in baseball. True, each player plays a different position but after the ball is hit, everyone's job is to catch the ball and get the batter or runner out. There is no offensive line and defensive line. Every man who plays in the field has to take his turn at bat (of course with the exception of the AL designated hitter which is a bad idea, has been a bad idea, and will always be a bad idea. I can't understand any true baseball fan wanting anything to do with it).

Let's take another look at the athleticism of baseball players. I enjoy that fact that it takes a balance of speed, agility and strength. Relatively normally proportioned people play it. Anyone familiar with David Eckstein or Ozzie Smith can see that you don't have to be freak of nature like a 300 pound linesman or an 8 foot basketball player. Again, I'm not trying to take away from football or basketball, it is just one of the things that I enjoy about baseball.

I could go on all night, but I'm sure I lost most of you a long time ago, so I'll just make one more point. Baseball has more history than all other sports put together. It evolved from games that were played during the revolutionary war and solidified during the Civil war. The first professional baseball league started in 1871. That is 5 years before Custer had his bad day at Little Bighorn. Statistics have been kept since Henry Chadwick came up with the box score in the 1860s. That gives us a lot of reference to who are good players and what makes them so. And now I will shut up (I'm over on my rant allotment!)

Monday, October 10, 2005


Adam writes...

Say there, Jim!

Here's the deal. It looks like the St. Louis Cardinals are playing the Houston Astros in the NLCS. How many times have these teams met in the post-season, and what have been the results in the past? In terms of competitive advantages, what do they got that we ain't got, and what do we got that they ain't got?

Actually, we have only faced the Astros once in the post season, however, in the past ten years, it has usually been a battle between Houston and St. Louis for the lead of the Central Division. St. Louis has taken five of those titles, Houston has three, one year we tied, and one year the Cubs snuck in there. Last year, while the rest of the country was fixated on the Sox - Yanks series, St. Louis and Houston were locked in an totally enthralling battle. The outcome was each team won all its home games. First two in St. Louis, next three in Houston and last two back in the 'Lou. In the end, both teams had garnered so much respect for each other that when the Cards won the last game, they all went over to the Houston dugout for a round of handshakes and admiration. The rivalry reminds me of the one that the Cards had with the Mets in the '80s. Both teams were always in contention for the division and always seemed to meet each other near the end of the season with the division on the line. The major difference was there was no respect for each other, either by the teams or the fans. "Mets are pond scum." was the cry of the 80's, and there was always trash talk between the two teams.

Last year, when we went into the NLCS, both teams had pitching problems. St. Louis's best pitcher, Chris Carpenter (from Manchester, N.H.), came up with a nerve problem that kept him out of the playoffs. Matt Morris was also injured and required surgery at the end of the season. Houston was missing Andy Pettitte. The series included many memorable plays. Carlos Beltran feasted on Cardinals pitching. He would have easily been MVP if things had gone the other way. Jim Edmonds hit a two run blast in the 12th inning of game number six to win 6-4, only to be followed by a spectacular catch to save two runs in the second inning, while down 2-0 of game seven, giving them the chance to come back and win 5-2. How competitive were those teams? After six games, each team had scored 29 runs. Each team had an ERA of 4.80. And each team was batting .264.

This year has had some changes. Andy Pettitte has returned to join Clemens and Ozwalt to give Houston one of the best 1-2-3 punches in baseball. Beltran and Kent are gone and Bagwell is in a limited role as he rehabs from shoulder surgery. St. Louis has acquired Mulder. Carpenter is coming off a year that gives him as good a chance to win the Cy Young as Clemens. Renteria, Womack and Matheney have been replaced with Eckstein, Grudzelanek, and Molina. Very little lost there and much gained. The biggest advantage that Houston has over St. Louis is Brad "Lights Out" Lidge. If their starters take us deep into the game, Lidge is the man to put it away. Our bullpen has been suspect all season and has been getting more so in September and October. Our starters can go toe to toe with theirs but our relief pitching will bring out the nail biters and Rolaid poppers. On the other hand if our relief pitchers have had a hard time keeping a lead, Houston's offense has struggled to score runs.

The Cardinals have something to prove to the world and themselves after the embarrassing showing on the national stage against the Red Sox, however, Houston has much to prove, barely losing to the Cards last year, plus the specter of never having made it to a World Series. This is one of those match-ups that has potential for some great baseball. The stuff that real baseball fans dream of. The only problem is will anyone else care to see the best team in baseball meet their best match? Or will the series get lost in the shuffle of the big TV market, coastal, apathy of the "fly over" states mentality that brought the Cardinals and Padres the horrendous playoff schedule during the Divisional Series games?

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Eric writes...

This is about your answer to me, the one about the dinosaurs having hair. I was not only talking about dinosaurs, what about hominids? Have we found fossilized skin of Australopithecus africanus? Or even Homo erectus? How do we know their bodies were covered in hair? And why is Homo neanderthalensis always depicted without hairy bodies?

Well, Eric, I'm in a bit over my head here. Yours is a fairly technical question in a science that could include anthropology, paleontology, geology, anatomy, physiology, and archeology, but I'll give it a shot.

First of all, don't confuse theory with fact. "How do we know their bodies were covered in hair?" implies fact. Much of what is "known" in this science is theory. They take information from fossils compare it to anatomy and physiology, take into consideration the environment they lived in and extrapolate their theory.

The BBC ran a great series called "Walking with Cavemen". On their web site, they give a description of different hominids and then give the evidence to support that. An example would be the description and evidence about Homo ergaster:


Homo ergaster was tall and muscular. Slim hips and long legs enabled this species to walk long distances. Their skin was smooth to cool themselves through sweating, meaning they no longer had to pant to keep cool.

Homo ergaster probably obtained food by scavenging or by chasing animals across the Savannah until they died from exhaustion.

This species was amongst the first to leave Africa and colonize other continents. After ergaster leaves Africa, it becomes known as Homo erectus.

In Asia, Homo erectus lived in the bamboo forests and may have made tools such as staffs and spears from this strong, versatile material.


The structure of Homo ergaster's facial bones suggests they had a human-like nose with downward pointing nostrils. This allowed them to add moisture to exhaled air, useful for an active species roaming through dry, open terrain.

Animal bones from ergaster sites have been found etched with the characteristic marks of stone tools used for butchery.

Several Homo ergaster fossils have been discovered in the Lake Turkana region of Northern Kenya, including a near complete skeleton known as 'Nariokotome Boy'.

Homo erectus fossils have been found all over Asia, from Zhoukoudien in China to Sangiran on the island of Java, Indonesia.

Now remember, this is a television show that tries to explain complicated science to the same people who (like me) watch the Family Guy, so you know it is at best a simplistic explanation. Now compare that to the description given by, which is more complex but is still geared to teaching the amateur. I won't quote it here as it is fairy long, complicated, and technical, but it uses many disciplines of science to come to a somewhat similar but somewhat different conclusion.

In any case, they have also looked at their physiology and environment and extrapolated their appearance and lifestyle.

Remember, paleoanthropology is a rapidly evolving science. When I was young, we learned that dinosaurs were slow, lumbering beasts related to lizards that died out over millions of years due to long term climatic changes. Just one view of Jurassic Park, and you will see that dinosaurs are now depicted as dynamic, fast and cunning. They are now related to birds and were wiped out by one big blast from a celestial object. This is a field of constantly conflicting theories and great debate. By the time you are my age, when the BBC produces an updated series of walking with cavemen, you will certainly find a lot of what we "know" now has changed.

So, as I re-read this, it looks like I really didn't answer your question and I should have stopped with "This is way over my head", but how much fun would that have been?

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Anonymous writes...

Hey I was wondering if you could answer another question for all our inquisitive minds. How long was the automobile manufacturer AMC in operation, and more specifically what years was the Gremlin made?

First of all, anonymous, you should introduce yourself. There is no reason to stay anonymous with this group, we are a very accepting bunch.

There is the long story and there is the short story. The long story includes the host of mergers and acquisitions that are related to the American Motors Company (AMC). These would include Hudson, Nash, Kelvinator, Willys, Kaiser, Bantam, Renault, Maxwell, Chrysler, Packard, Studebaker, Daimler, and Benz. For those interested in the long story, I will post a timeline in the comments section. Also, anyone interested in the history of mergers and acquisitions in the American auto business should go to the web site "The auto industry's family trees". It is an excellent article that tells of many of the connections between the different auto manufacturers. However, I will try to keep it brief.

AMC (American Motors Corporation) was first formed with the merger of Nash and Hudson in May of 1954. The original plan was to also bring Packard and Studebaker under the umbrella, but the engineer of the deal, George Mason, died before the second phase of the merger could be completed. Hudson was the weaker of the two companies. Nash had most of its' success with their Rambler, the first successful US built the compact car. Both Nash and Hudson dealers kept their own names but most of the cars sold at both dealerships were straight from Nash (the ones sold at the Hudson dealerships were nicknamed "Hashes"). Their specialty was compact cars, which was a niche that the big three didn't tap for many years. Their smallest car was the Metropolitan which was a joint venture between Nash and Austin of Great Britain. Another joint venture with a British company was the very unique sports car, Nash-Healey.

By the 1958 model year the Nash and Hudson names were dropped and were placed under the blanket of American, or AMC. In the late 60's and early 70's AMC had a brief but memorable flirtation with high performance and racing vehicles that produced classics such as the Javelin and AMX.

By the late 60's, AMC started going back to their roots with the compact Hornet. In 1970 they pioneered the first US built subcompact, the Gremlin. The Gremlin has been maligned as one of the ugliest cars ever made only to be rivaled by the later Pacer, however, both cars are truly unique in appearance and both have their ardent fans. They are both becoming more and more valuable as collector cars.

1970 also saw AMC acquiring the Jeep, originally designed by Bantam, built by Willys and acquired by Kaiser. In 1979 the company entered into a joint venture agreement with Renault, the French auto maker, under which AMC would sell Renault cars in the US and later produce a Renault-designed car at its' Kenosha plant. 1980 saw Renault acquire a 46% stake in AMC and assumed virtual control over the company's management. Renault models began rolling out of Kenosha in 1982.

AMC ultimately couldn't cope with the double whammy of foreign competition and Big Three built compacts. Renault sold out to Chrysler in 1987, and the last independent was history.

The real short answer is AMC was in business for 33 years from 1954 to 1987 and the Gremlin was produce from 1970 to 1978. Total Gremlin production exceeded 700,000 units, making it AMC's most popular single model.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Eric the dismissed said...

Jim- I just got finished watching Jurassic Park and I came up with a question that you might be able to answer: If we don't find frozen specimens, how can we tell from fossilized bones whether an extinct animal had hair or not? Could a dinosaur have had hair?

Well, Eric, amazingly enough, fossils of dinosaur skin have been found. Apparently, not many, but enough that we can be pretty sure they didn't have hair. Although we may never know the color of dinosaurs, the texture of dinosaur skin is another matter. Natural cast fossils of dinosaur skin have been discovered that show clearly what the skin of various dinosaurs looked and felt like. The debate amongst paleontologists was whether dinosaurs had scales or not. Fossils show there were both. Most skin fossils show bumpy skin, not scaly skin; only the huge plant-eaters seem to have had scaly skin. Some of the birdlike dinosaurs had protofeathers (a type of modified scale).


Amy Writes...

So Jim, when was the first automatic transmission car produced? Who made it? Do you prefer manual or automatic transmission on a car? Why do assholes always ride up on my ass on steep hills?

Like most things in the automotive industry, the automatic transmission is an evolutionary thing. It would be hard to pin point the exact first. For years, the auto manufacturers worked on versions of the automatic transmission. The first attempts could be more accurately called automatic clutches. They involved methods of shifting without having to clutch or would automatically shift into the some gears but not others. By most accounts though, the very first fully automatic transmission would the Hydra-matic transmission built by Oldsmobile in 1939 and offered in production cars in 1940. Oldsmobile’s website has this to say about their product:

Oldsmobile's 1940 models featured Hydra-Matic drive, making this lineup the first vehicles with fully automatic transmission.
Hydra-Matic appeared as an Olds exclusive. It provided true clutchless driving with four forward speeds. Its fluid coupling between engine and transmission eliminated the clutch and its associated foot work. Olds made the breakthrough Hydra-Matic available on all models for only an extra $57. In the early 50s, Olds produced its millionth Oldsmobile with automatic transmission, demonstrating Hydra-Matic's rapid rise in popularity.

As far as my own personal preference, it depends on the car. For small cars, such as the Ford Escort that I drive, I prefer a manual transmission. The reason for that is you have more control over the ride of the vehicle. Those small cars usually have small, under-powered engines. With the extra control of the manual transmission, you can down shift at will to get the extra torque you may need getting in and out of traffic. Those same cars, with an automatic transmission seem a bit sluggish to me at times. Also, sports cars should always have manual transmissions. Not because they are underpowered, but for the extra control you can exercise over the car. I was quite surprised to find out the new retro designed Ford Thunderbird does not offer a manual transmission. I thought it was an attempt at a sports car, but without a manual, I guess it would be better described as a touring car (or rich geezer car).

On larger cars, I prefer to have an automatic. The obvious advantage is the ease of operation. Of course, I then also prefer a larger engine. If your car hesitates while accelerating, it can be a problem.

There are two reasons why people sit so close to you while you're parked uphill. First is that a majority of people have never driven a stick and don’t even know that it can be a problem. The second is, even if they know it is a problem, they just don’t care. Today’s drivers apparently believe the road is their own personal property. They want to get to where they are going and everyone else is in their way. The concept that the road belongs to all of us and we all have to get somewhere and, let’s work together so everyone can get to where they are going safely, has gone by the wayside years ago. I’m afraid there is nothing you an do about that. (The preceding salty old rant is brought to you by The leading purveyor of rants starting with “In my day....”, “When I was your age...”, and the classic “Kids today...” Sold at T. Hargrove’s and other fine fly fishing shops throughout America.)

I assume you already know the trick of using the hand brake to keep the car from rolling back while you are engaging the clutch. Some cars have that feature built in. My fishing buddy has a car that will do that automatically. If you stop on a hill, the brake will engage itself so you don’t roll backwards. It will then disengage when you move forward. Interestingly, this was a feature that was introduced to cars back in the 30’s. I’m not sure why it didn’t last, but it does show us that there is very little new under the sun in the automotive industry.