Big Ideas – Rocket Science

I hope you view my contributions to the Teen Blog as an invitation to challenge yourself, think hard, and learn new things. This entry marks the start of a new series on the teen blog, Big Ideas. So far, I’ve only introduced major themes and academic concepts obliquely, and as they happen to come up in the course of talking about something else in depth. In these Very Special Episodes, we’re going to tackle them head on, so you can prove to yourself that you can think Big Thoughts fearlessly. Very few things indeed are truly Too Hard or Too Complicated to comprehend the outline of. If you do, though, you’ll understand everything around you in a deeper way. Tragically, you won’t unlock most of these Big Ideas until sometime in college, maybe. I think this is deeply stupid and unfair, so that’s why I’m writing these, to introduce you to as many really Big Ideas as possible, in an approachable way.

To prove to you that you do have the ability to understand Big Ideas, let’s start with the most proverbially Big Idea of all.

This IS Rocket Science

Actually, it’s physics, mostly, and a little bit of chemistry.

Since I’m never one to do anything half-way, let’s make an example, where we can explore some of the math and concepts needed to put a living thing in orbit. That’s right: we’re going to model a solo orbital mission. For this, you’ll need Newton’s laws of motion. (Spoiler Alert: FOR NOW, you need Newton’s laws. I’m planning to cover special and general relativity later.) I’m going to write a summary in modern English, because here’s how Newton put it.

Yeah. So, basically everything academic that was published back then was in Latin, so everyone across Europe with a high level of education could read it. This is also the book in which Newton details calculus (Don’t forget about Liebniz too!), and also there’s universal gravitation in there, and also some extensions of Kepler’s laws… the Principia is kind of a big deal.

Are you ready? Here’s your cheat sheet!

newton's laws, the gravity equation, and the gravitational constant in a cheat sheet.

Tricky. How about we pick a model, where someone’s done something similar before?

Mercury-Atlas 8 summary, comparing the mass of the capsule to the launch vehicle.

Now, let’s chart a path to orbit by thinking through what we have to do to get something to orbit the Earth and come back. The objective is less to do the math than it is to get an intuitive idea of what the math means, and therefore a feel for the physics. It’s all about how much the mass of the rocket escalates as you add more mass it needs to carry.

why a Syrian Hamster is perfect for a space mission.
escalating rocket size.
escalating rockets 2
escalating rockets 3

P. S. A note on just how dang fast these rockets have to get the capsule to. Sigma 7’s orbital period was a little under 89 minutes. Imagine circling the entire Earth in just under an hour and a half. That’s how fast something has to go to stay in orbit. Given that F = ma, you don’t have to do the exact math to figure that even a tiny chunk of space junk slamming into a satellite or something at these velocities would be a Very Bad Thing, especially since this sort of collision would result in even more space junk orbiting at stupidly high speeds.

P. P. S. For a nice illustration of how the need to accelerate to a high enough speed fast enough impacts rocket design, compare the Atlas D series to the Saturn V rockets. “But Katherine,” I hear you whine, “what about the outer solar system probes, like New Horizons, or Voyager? Those rockets were way smaller.” Indeed. Probes can’t suffocate, die of thirst, or starve. Spacefaring humans definitely can. With a probe, you just need to get it out of Earth’s gravity well, and coast to a bigger planet or several to get a boost from their gravity wells to gain more speed. If it takes decades to do it, who cares, because it’s powered by Plutonium pellets. It’ll be fine, probably. With people, they need to breathe air, drink water, and eat. You gotta get ’em to the Moon and back, FAST. The Saturn V is a balancing act between how much fuel you need to accelerate to speeds that will save you on mass in terms of air, water, and food vs more fuel. It weighs 2,970,000 Kg. That’s a gobsmacking 5,940 Thoroughbred race horses. Glorious.

P. P. P. S. (Post-Post-Post Script) It should be self-evidently clear by now that Newton was right about that First Law. There’s precious little to exert a force to slow you down in space. The Earth doesn’t need rocket engines to keep going around the Sun. The Moon doesn’t need rocket engines to keep going around the Earth. I’m sorry if I just ruined several space odyssey movies for you. No stern chases in space. If your ship is already going faster than your pursuers’ top speed, you already got away, past tense. Just NO. Also, no sneaking up on things in space. Don’t even get me started on the consequences of relativistic speeds and Faster-Than-Light-Travel. We’ll get to ruining space movies in devastating detail later, when we do relativity, I’m sure.

Qing Dynasty Photography

I blundered into a bunch of old photographs of China by a Chinese photographer, and I’m geeking out over it so much I’ve just got to share my favorite images from the batch, and some observations about them. Inspect everything carefully and ask questions, and these photos have a lot to teach about history. If you want to play along, look for patterns, think as much about what you don’t see as what you do, and be ready to make inferences. Engage your brain. Everything’s more fun that way.


About the Artist

Lai Afong, a very sober and scholarly-looking photographer in a nice silk shirt.

The photographer himself, around 1870. Although it’s getting rickety after two Opium Wars, a civil war on the scale of WW I in terms of death toll, and a bunch of really unfair trade concessions, that’s still a solid 30 years or so before the Qing Dynasty finally collapses like a late-game Jenga tower.

This is the only photograph I know of of the photographer himself, known to us here and now as Lai Afong. Very very few Chinese family names have two syllables, and when you look at the card, the first character on the left is Fāng, which is his real surname. “Ah” in this case is a familiar-toned prefix. Here’s a biography from the History of the Three Kingdoms to show you how this works (scroll down and expand the first note if you don’t want to read the whole thing although you’ll be sorry you didn’t – history is awesome). I ♥ Lü Meng, and you should too. Back to the photography! In any case, Fāng was active from the 1860s through the 1880s, until his death in 1890. I like these images so much because most of the other photographs we have of China at this time are taken by people who aren’t Chinese, and this means that in their photos we see the Qing Dynasty through literally foreign eyes. Fāng, however, can show us much more than that, and his subjects seem a lot more at ease. He also gets photographs of people that foreign photographers can’t, and, as everybody twigs to what the new technology can do for them, and the portfolio develops around demand, there’s suddenly lots of insight to be had by historians about just how fast people will adopt new technology, how they want to be seen, and what Fāng’s marketing strategy was like for the successful studio.


Portraits and Landscapes


Beardy brit soldier and his wife, presumably, on an old card-style photograph.

Based on the photography tech, the man’s uniform and beard, and the woman’s updo and the profile of her dress, I’d guess this was made around 1867. Not quite a full-on 1870s bustle, yet, but we’ve passed the low bun hairdos of the first half of the 1860s.

This one’s a stand-in for all of the other visiting-card portraits and landscapes from the studio. There are lots of these, especially early on. Fāng seemed to market his skills toward the foreign market, and take portraits and landscapes that people might want to send home. Since a photography studio exists to create photos people want to buy, Fāng’s output always existed in tension between pandering to whatever foreigners wanted to see in China (literally and metaphorically), and what his rapidly expanding Chinese clientele wanted to see in themselves.


The Hairdresser

A barber (or photographer's assistant playing a barber) in the studio with props, shaving another man's head.

I picked the barber example for a reason. Pay attention: this is all going to be very, very, important.

Of the photos that seem to be aimed at foreigners, there’s ones like this, showing everyday events or occupations. In the context of a book written by outsiders looking in, who don’t know and don’t care what the haircut is about, the meaning might boil down to something like: Their hair is different. Look how different their hair is. (Different is bad and inferior.)

Let’s try to rectify that a little, and talk more about the context of the hair in a big-picture kind of way. I can’t know how much of this was wrapped up in this photograph, because I’m not Fāng, but I can give you a broad historical overview. Hairdos are about identity. This is true for the people who used the queue to caricature and segregate the Chinese outside of China, and hairdo-as-identity is certainly true inside China. Traditionally, Han Chinese culture looked on the human body as a gift from one’s parents. To harm any part of it was a violent act against the parent-child bond. Before the Qing Dynasty, cutting or shaving hair was simply not done. To have your hair cut was an assault on your ties to family and society. Similarly, tattoos or body modification were out. The Qing Dynasty was ruled by the Manchu, and when they conquered the Ming Dynasty, they imposed the queue haircut on the Han ethnic population, forcing the men to shave the front half of their head to the crown, and braid the rest as a test of loyalty. If you were a man, having a full head of hair was a flagrant statement of Ming loyalist intentions and therefore high treason and a capital offence.  So, hair-cutting during the Qing Dynasty carried a heavy cultural and historical burden.

….Aaaaand you just read this from a modern American who’s so white I’m having completely un-ironic and un-exotic bratwurst and noodles for dinner tonight (11/17/2018), although I do have a very solid college background in East Asian history. I hand-picked all these pictures, so they’ve been pre-filtered. BY ME. PRANK’D!! Everything has a source, everything is a source, and everything has a point of view. Your teachers do, your movies, video games, and books do, your parents do, bus drivers do, I do, you do, there’s no avoiding it, so be aware of it. Again: engage your brain.

The only Han Chinese people involved here are Fāng and his studio, and a large number of his clients. They decide how we look at what we’re looking at in any given photo, even if the subject matter was picked by someone else. Even if we can’t know everything about these photos completely, we can still see the world through his lens. Speaking of which…


A Street in Canton

A deep, narrow street lined with tall signs, and people walking in the road.

I love street scenes. Trying to get the film exposure times right for this picture must have been tricky.

You awake and alert yet? Good. We’re just warming up. The historian in me loves all these photos, but the artsy side loves this one the most. Composition, motion blur, light levels, all of it just comes together perfectly. Fāng had an incredible eye. Back to the history, though. Look carefully, and you’ll probably be most struck by what you don’t see. There are no women at all in this picture. Maybe they’re hiding, out of sight, or maybe they just wouldn’t be out on the street in the business district. Either way, we’ve learned something about this time and place and culture – public life is an all-male social universe. Protip: you might be drawing on your own cultural framework right now to try to interpret what this means, or even make some inferences about how the rest of Qing Dynasty society operates. Resist the temptation, and be patient. If you draw on your own experience while trying to understand a different place, time, and culture, you’re literally looking at the wrong evidence. Gather as much as you can of the history you’re actually trying to learn about, and do your best to meet it on its own terms.


Two Officials in Summer Uniform

Two gentlemen sit for a portrait.

A couple of officials, in summer uniform. Infuriatingly, I can’t quite make out what’s on the embroidered badge on the front of their robes. If I could, I’d know what rank they were. If it were in color, you’d be able to tell from the round ball on the hat. I’d guess they’re relatively high ranking, though, because of the peacock feather dangling from the hat bobble – those could only be worn as a decoration granted by the Emperor.

Pretty soon, people started to sit for portraits. Although there’s still plenty of pictures of Fāng’s studio having staged meals, pretending to gamble, or cosplaying accountants, the pace of portraiture of local people really picks up. This particular set – two chairs, and the stack of books on an end table – is particularly popular. You’ll see it later.

In the meantime, let’s talk briefly about what these gentlemen do for a living, and how they got there. In order to be an official, you had to pass a grueling entrance exam. Basically, they locked you in a guarded cubicle and expected you to produce an essay. Then the essays would be ranked, and the people who had written the best ones got slotted into openings in the bureaucracy. In order to get where they are, they had to pass this bonus-boss-level essay exam. Aside from the uniforms, though, the books, writing on the hand fan, and even the long fingernails (if you work a nice cushy desk job, you don’t wear down or break your nails), imply that these are gentlemen and scholars. It’s a studio photograph: everything in front of the camera was placed there by someone who wanted you to see it.



Six women sitting for a portrait. They're probably singing women.

Advertising FTW! Given her more matronly hairdo, I’d guess the woman seated on the right is in charge, and the group portrait is her idea. Also, note that they wear both pants and skirts, either/or, and sometimes at once.

The caption on Wikimedia commons says “courtesans,” but that’s not a very precise term, and, unfortunately, the English language – for abundant historical and cultural reasons – doesn’t have a lot of nuance in this particular area. Meanwhile, across East and Southeast Asia – for equally abundant historical and cultural reasons – there are a massive diversity of female (and frequently male, and also third-sex) entertaining jobs that English-speakers struggle to define. All of our words that even vaguely approach the idea seem to imply prostitute, on some kind of spectrum between least-fancy to most-fancy, when this isn’t really the same.

Clearly, just one word – courtesans – isn’t going to cut it. Given the caption, the haircuts, how nice their clothes and jewelry are, the very tiny bound feet of two of the women, and the savvy studio portrait, I’d guess that these are a troupe of high-class singing-women, and they planned to use the picture to advertise. Singing-women were entertainers, prized for their beauty, artistic accomplishments, and refinement. There might be sex-for-pay involved, there might not, depending on the class of singing-woman and her relationship with the client. Ideally, a singing-woman might be able to catch the long-term patronage of a wealthy man, and even enter his household as a concubine.

“Concubine.” Guess we’d better cover that, too. Okay. So. Marriages between men and women (note qualifier, *hint hint*) in China at this time were (at least potentially) polygynous. One man could marry several women, as long as he could afford to pay the bride price for them, and for their upkeep. There wasn’t the same idea of legitimate vs illegitimate birth as there was in Europe, because women were ranked by seniority in the household, and children inherited the relative status of their mothers in addition to their place by birth order. The highest-ranked son, usually the firstborn son and/or the firstborn son of the primary wife, succeeded to lead the family when his father died. (In the case that the firstborn son wasn’t the primary wife’s, she often adopted and raised him as her own.) Most men could only afford to marry one woman, though, and some men couldn’t afford to marry any women at all, usually those who were extra sons from poorer families. Men also generally married women later in life than women married men, providing a little demographic padding for the sex imbalance to sort itself out. Here’s an example of a couple of paragraphs from the Liji (The Book of Rites), in the book Nei Ze (the Pattern of the Family), that lays out the customary ages of marriage for men and women (paragraphs 80 and 82, respectively). The Chinese Text Project strikes again! Also, note that men are expected to marry at thirty, and women at twenty or twenty-three. The Liji is from the Warring States Period, contemporaneous with Ancient Greece (although it was still very much regarded as an important morality guide a couple of millennia later), and so don’t believe a word of that “people always married way young in the past” nonsense. Blanket statements Just Won’t Do.


Upper-Crust Ladies

Four women, one of them probably a maid or other attendant, sitting for a photo, all holding books.

Finally! I think I can make out cranes on the woman on the left’s robes’ embroidered border.

Given the embroidered clothes, brocade silk, and probably motifs that were restricted in use to the wives or daughters of officials, these are definitely ladies. Each of them has a book – they want you to know that they’re literate and literary, too. Given the bound feet, and the hairdos, they’re not Manchu, but probably Han. Again, everything in front of the camera was put there. You’ll also note that there are no men. All of the pictures show only men, or only women. It just wouldn’t be proper, otherwise. I don’t mean improper for the ladies only, either. It would be definitely weird for men to be seen in the company of women in public. My guess is that Fāng’s services were so valuable and in-demand in households like this that he was given special permission (with male family members no doubt present off-camera) to photograph the ladies, OR, maybe Fāng’s studio had female members – a wife or sister, perhaps – who could photograph women, since women could go where men could not. Maybe men and women saw each other in public social spheres more than these photos suggest – again, it’s what people are choosing to show us.


Two Women

Two ladies sit for a portrait. One of them has bound feet, and the other doesn't.

Another portrait of women. Note the same table with books on it as a prop. This is the same setup as the two officials, earlier.

These women seem to be roughly comparable in status, though. Nice silk clothes, pants, some jewelry. This is also taken in the studio, and it’s the exact same setup as with the officials, much earlier in this post. Note that the one on the left has bound feet, while the one on the right does not. Even at this point in time, the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, foot binding wasn’t universal. The Manchu never bound feet, and even among Han women, it wasn’t a given that every woman’s foot was bound. The extensive record of foot binding found in these photographs among high-status women might seem to contradict the earlier information that body modification was taboo. There’s a loophole, though: since your body came from your parents, it’s okay if your body is modified by your parents. Given how nice her clothes are, I’d love to know why the woman on the right has natural feet. Did she see an unexpected and meteoric rise in fortunes over her lifetime? If so, how? (Especially since foot binding was practiced in the first place as a means to aid daughters in marrying up.) Was she born into wealth, and her family just didn’t practice foot binding? There’s a story here, a very interesting one, that over-generalizations and stereotypes would erase completely.


It’s the Book Table Again

two more women sitting for a portrait at that book table. One of them is dressed as a man.

If men and women are never seen in public together, and taking a portrait together would be unheard of, who is that rather scholarly-looking gentleman?

I told you at the very beginning that this would be on the test. Men’s clothes and hat. Male posture with knees wide apart. Unbound feet. Look very closely at the hairdos, though, and you’ll find the first big clue. The person on the right has hair visible at the temple, forward of the ears. He is not biologically male. Given the feet, however, he was almost certainly raised to be male, though, from at least toddler-hood, since foot binding generally started very young, before the bones could completely calcify.

Theater actors, maybe? An example I know of from modern China is the opera actor Wang Peiyu, who specializes in wise old minister roles (laosheng roles). Here’s a nice interview, where you can see lots of examples of the roles and other biological women who have been male-role opera stars, and all the training behind Wang Peiyu’s current expertise. All 20 minutes or so are well worth it, even if you won’t understand a word. It’s also somewhat common for these actors to be male-gender off-stage too, like Wang Peiyu. Honorary men aren’t exactly unheard-of, in historical China.

In Qing Dynasty China, sex and gender aren’t invariably connected to someone’s physical attributes, but exist in interplay with social roles. Given foot binding and the existence of a rare but vitally important artificial third sex, eunuchs, the idea was to mold the body to fit the role, rather than the other way around. Virtually all of the rules we have in our culture for how sex and gender work, or even the definitions of the concepts themselves are different than what you see in historical sources. If you assume things work the same, across all places and times, you’ll be mislead.

History is fearsomely complicated and nuanced, and that’s how I like it. Don’t take my word for it, though, here’s the entire category on Wikimedia Commons, so you can look at all the pictures for yourself. There’s lots of cool stuff there that I didn’t have the time to get into.

Accountant cosplay! A wildly unenthusiastic Japanese picture bride (probably)! Blatantly inaccurate book captions! (“Each instrument has one string only,” my foot. You can clearly see at least two in the actual picture, let alone counting pegs. Yeesh, C. J. Cornish, get it together.) Go explore!

Minnie the Moocher

Have eight minutes? Watch Minnie the Moocher and learn a truckload of awesome stuff!

There’s so much going on with this film, I hardly know where to begin. So, let’s just start with the basics, and technical stuff, and go from there. First, this is a traditional hand-drawn animated film by Fleischer Studios, released in 1932. If you’ve ever made a sticky-pad flip book, you know how this works. In this case, though, the animation is done on “cells” or sheets of clear plastic, and photographed over painted backgrounds that show through, with each photograph exposing one frame of the film.

A neat thing to notice (and it’s easier if you re-watch it with the sound muted) is that the studio uses cycles of repeated cell sequences to make some parts cheaper to animate. Look for repeated motions in the animation – either the animation is reused outright, or short bits of repeated motions that can be traced are simply copied to new cells. Examples include Betty and Bimbo running out of town (in the case of just reusing the same sequence of cells), and the cork in the jar on the table hopping onto the table and back in the very beginning (for just a part of the animation being traced to new cells). Once you know that animation frequently does this, you’ll know what to look for, and you’ll be able to spot this technique in lots of other animated movies and series. Used with finesse, it adds a sense of rhythm and pacing.

Another cool animation technique on display is rotoscoping. You don’t have to re-use or trace other animation cells, you can actually trace live action footage, too. This is especially useful for capturing complex movements that maybe your artists don’t have a mental reference for already. The famous dancing walrus ghost (what, surprised? watch the film, seriously, it’s worth it) is actually traced over live-action footage of Cab Calloway dancing. So, not only did Cab Calloway provide the walrus ghost vocals, he’s also the reference for the walrus ghost’s slick dance moves. Kind of like modern motion capture, but without the aid of computers, and entirely by hand.

About that walrus ghost. Did I mention the style of the film? It’s seriously creepy and weird. Since everything in an animated film is drawn by hand, if you can draw it, you can animate it, limited only by your skill and your imagination. Scary, grim, and with a tacked-on last-minute wholesome ending, Minnie the Moocher was for general audiences, not just kids. The song’s about Minnie, who gets drawn into a life of poverty, crime, and drug use because she falls in love with an addict. Ghosts get electrocuted, and skeletons drink themselves to death. The implication, of course, is that this is where teen runaway Betty’s life is headed, if she doesn’t go back home to her first-gen immigrant parents who have a hard time relating to their Americanized daughter and insist she eat her hasenpfeffer.

Content-wise this short film doesn’t pull any punches, despite the superficially cartoony style. Even the idea that a cartoon would be kid stuff is very recent. There’s a huge difference between early Betty Boop – where she’s a rebellious teen flapper – and later Betty Boop – where she becomes a much more demure housewife type. The reason for this is the Hays Code. Movies didn’t have ratings for different audiences based on content. Instead, the Hays Code dictated what was allowed to be in Hollywood movies and what wasn’t. This kind of industry-run censorship is actually pretty common, historically. (Note that although the Hays Code came out in 1930, it wasn’t really enforced until later. So, Minnie the Moocher gleefully ignores the code, even though it was technically produced under it in 1932.) Compare the slightly-later Comics Code, for another example.

That’s a lot of technical, heavy, historical stuff for a film that’s less than ten minutes long, and we’ve barely scratched the surface, too.

Random Fandom is this Saturday, October 6th!

Join us from 1 to 3 pm this Saturday, October 6th at Southwest Regional Library for the Teen Session of Random Fandom! The first hour, we’ll test our knowledge of Riverdale with a Trivia Contest (individuals or teams), and for the second hour, come dressed in your best for our Teen Cosplay Costume Contest! Costumed characters will be available for photo ops and you can see some local vendors. It will be an afternoon of fun. 1-2 pm Riverdale Trivia; 2-3pm Teen Cosplay Costume Contest. Ages 12+

Cosplay Contest Rules

  • Random Fandom is a family-friendly event. All costumes must be suitable for public display. If costumes are deemed inappropriate or indecent, Southwest library staff have the right to disqualify contestants or insist on costume modifications.
  • Contestants must be fully-dressed in their costumes before coming to the library. No dressing rooms will be provided.
  • All kinds of costume props must be handled with care and must not have the potential for harm to fellow cosplayers, library staff, event attendees, or library property. Working firearms or any kind of sharp and/or bladed objects are strictly prohibited. Props must be made of plastic or flexible material.

Last Call for Film Festival Entries!

High school students, grades 9–12, are invited to submit their original films on any topic in one of the following categories:

  • Short Film (3-5 minutes in length)
  • Public Service Announcement or Commercial (60 seconds in length)
  • Documentary (5-8 minutes in length)
  • Cell Phone Film (1-2 minutes in length, filmed entirely with a cell phone)

Original films on any topic or genre are accepted. Films should be G- or PG- rated and suitable for a teen audience. Filmmakers must be Kentucky residents in grades 9–12.

To enter, fill out the forms linked below and email them to,then upload your original film by clicking on the button below and following the directions. All entries must be received by September 15, 2018.

Click Here to Submit!

The Surgeon General of Bacotania

I find that news releases on health research often do a lousy job of communicating what the findings actually are, and how they might inform people’s decisions. Often, in order to make sense of them at all, you have to know some statistics, read between the lines, and cut through the hype. The problem seems to be especially severe in the case of a study on the scale of something impacting populations, but hyped for the public because the authors don’t trust the reader to care unless they’re scared. There’s a difference between public health and personal health, and although the two are connected, statistically, the conclusions can be wildly different depending on your point of view – managing populations, or managing your own choices. Also, when people make decisions about their own health and safety, they fall prey to some particularly nasty logical fallacies (all natural means harmless, or it’s not cancer, so it’s fine – or, “not likely to be me” means that “it won’t happen to me”). Even nastier, research on sensational subjects – like all scientific research – often turns up complicated or ambiguous results that get distilled into inaccurate clickbait. Never fear, though, let’s play pretend, and sort through, now and forever, how to think about statistics and clickbait-y health headlines. (I sourced the images in this article from Wikimedia Commons, as usual, and the attributions are at the bottom of this page, to help maintain the suspension of disbelief.)


About Bacotania

Vintage photo of a woman wearing bacon slabs on her feet, standing in a giant skillet.

1. Skillet Skating is a Bacotanian folk dance, recently nominated for inclusion in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists in which the dancer wears slabs of bacon on their feet and skates around a giant skillet with a giant spatula. A good performance is said to prevent the sticking of eggs in the coming year.

Bacotania is an imaginary country with a rich cultural history deeply intertwined with the consumption of cured pork. The total population is about 12 million, and national holidays include February 4th, Remembrance Sausage Day, and October 16th, Bacotanian Liberation Day. The festivities of Liberation Day culminate in a Liberation Day Bonfire Feast in which chunks of pork belly are roasted on sticks over Liberation Day Bonfires in honor of the heroic air drop of canned bacon into the besieged capital city of Schlachteplatte.

A giant can of bacon, 70 years old, WWII rations from the UK.

2. One of the historic bacon cans in the National Museum of Bacotania.

A fire pit with two long forks full of fresh raw bacon held over the flames.

3. Bacontanian Liberation Day Bonfire with skewers of bacon sizzling over the open flames.

Needless to say, bacon is very important to the people of Bacotania, and the loss of cured pork products would cause immense damage to the economy and culture of the country. The 2015 decision by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer to classify processed meat consumption as a Group 1 Carcinogen was met with increasing public unrest, including mass demonstrations outside the Surgeon General’s office in Schlachteplatte, which led to the Surgeon General stepping down from their post.

Congratulations! YOU have just been appointed Surgeon General of Bacotania.

What is your advice, concerning the consumption of cured pork products?

You’ll need some further information:

What is a Class 1 Carcinogen? In a masterpiece of shoddy journalism, a lot of press outlets didn’t discuss what the classes even meant. The IARC classifies substances based on how conclusive the evidence is that they cause cancer at all, NOT even remotely based on how dangerous they are. There’s only one item in Group 4, the Probably Does NOT Cause Cancer group, and that’s Caprolactam. I’d never heard of caprolactam before doing the research for this post. It’s used in nylon manufacture, and it’s definitely not harmless, but we’re pretty sure it doesn’t cause cancer. Nobody seems to have studied whether, say, pure water causes cancer.

What is an individual’s chances of getting cancer from bacon? The average lifetime chance of getting colon cancer is about 4%. According to the World Health Organization, the chance of getting colon cancer rises by 18% for every 50 grams of processed meat consumed per day. Now, we need one more bit of information, and that is the average consumption of processed meats. According to this study, average daily consumption of meat (all types) was 128 grams per day, and 22% of that was processed meat. So (22% of 128 grams gives you how many grams are processed meat) that means that the average person eats 28.16 grams of processed meat per day. So, if you start at 4% with 28.16 grams, and add 18% of 4% for every 50 grams eaten over the 28.16 gram starting point, you end up with an average Bacotanian’s cancer risk.

How much bacon does the average Bacotanian citizen eat? Bacotanians are very fond of processed meat, and a traditional Bacotanian Breakfast involves lots of sausage, so they eat twice the processed meat that Americans do, at 56.32 grams per day.

What is the average Bacotanian’s cancer risk then? Well, we need to figure out how much more processed meat than the American average an average Bacotanian eats, and then figure out what proportion of 50 grams it is, and then add that proportion of the 18% of 4% to the average 4%. Got it? Let’s go!

56.32 – 28.16 = 28.16, because it’s twice, remember? Easy!

28.16 extra grams eaten divided by 50 (grams to raise risk by 18% of 4%) = 0.5632 (amount of the 18% excess risk we should add)

0.5632 of 18% = 10.1376% Cool. Now we’re getting somewhere.

10.1376% of 4% = about 0.004, which is 0.4%

So, the average Bacotanian faces an elevated lifetime colorectal cancer risk of 4.4% on account of their huge processed meat habit. This means that for the average bacotanian, their MORTALITY ROULETTE WHEEL lands on DEATH BY BACON not much more often at all compared to the American population. (Bacotanian healthcare and mortality from colorectal cancer are comparable to ours.)

How many excess colorectal cancer cases are likely to occur in Bacotania if people continue to eat processed meat at this pace? Well, 0.4% of the total population are going to lose that roulette round, so…

0.04% of 12 million is… 48,000. YIKES! That means that Forty-eight THOUSAND Bacotanians are going to get cancer from bacon, above and beyond even the background colorectal cancer rates. If you factor that in, it’s a staggering 528,000 cancer cases. The cost to society, and the personal emotional toll on all those families is absolutely astronomical. And, clearly, partially preventable.

So, that’s how the same decision – eat the bacon, tell people not to eat bacon – ends up looking very different from the perspectives of an individual Bacotanian and the Surgeon General of Bacotania. The Bacotanian might well accept the risk, shrug, and tuck into a full Bacotanian breakfast of smoked sausages anyway. Note that although it’s a Class 1 Carcinogen, processed meat has a much smaller chance to cause cancer, compared to other Class 1 Carcinogens, like Asbestos, which (depending on your own exposure) can have lifetime risk rates as high as a 25% if you were a construction carpenter in the United Kingdom for a couple decades before 1980. Also, note that this only concerns cancer risk, not whether the cancer has a high mortality rate, and not concerning other health risks associated with the substance. (Remember that although Caprolactam is the sole occupant of Probably Does Not Cause Cancer Group 4, it’ll still cause your skin to slough off. Nice.)

So, maybe suggest that Bacotanians cut back on processed meats, but that the Bacotanian Liberation Day Bonfires likely won’t do you any harm.

Probably want to suggest the closure of Ye Wooly Salamander Particle Board Mill, though…


  1. Vintage Photo, United States of America. No, I have no idea what’s going on here. By UW Digital Collections [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
  2. British Ration Can of Bacon from WW II. Seriously, my heaviest of two cats weighs 12 lbs. That’s a LOT of 70 year old bacon. By KingaNBM [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
  3. Hungarian Szalonnasütés By Christo [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

I Don’t Know

Is the most exciting phrase I know of. Any time I don’t know something, it means that I could find out, or maybe (even more exciting!) nobody knows the answer. For everything we do know, a huge mountain of other questions exists, and there’s no end of cool stuff to explore.

Do you know anything about beaked whales? Did you know beaked whales exist? You don’t? Good. Beaked whales are toothed whales, and generally they have just two big teeth on their lower jaw. They usually live in deep water in the middle of the ocean, and mostly they eat squid. Because of their lifestyle so far away from human activity, several beaked whales aren’t very well known at all. 

Andrews’ Beaked Whale Mesoplodon bodoini

A skeleton of an Andrews' Beaked Whale, mounted in a museum.

By Notafly [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

One of the most obscure of the already pretty obscure beaked whales is this, the Andrews’ Beaked Whale. This skeleton represents about 1/35th of our total knowledge of this animal, because everything we know is based on about thirty-five specimens. Click through to this species profile, and you’ll pick up a few more pictures of specimens. We’ve got some information about what they look like, and how their bodies are put together. But that’s just about it. The only way we know anything at all about them is that sometimes (very rarely), they’ve washed up dead on beaches.

How big are they? 15 feet or so long, 4.5 meters, we think. Thirty-five specimens isn’t much to work with.

Where do they live? In the circumpolar seas around Antarctica, probably.

What do they look like? Gray, with a bit of white. Males seem to have white on their rostrum, females a little less white, and juveniles more gray all over. Probably.

How long do they live? No idea.

What do they eat? Squid or something? Probably?

What do they do with their time? We don’t know.

How big are the babies? We don’t know.

How many of them are there? We have no idea.

How do they communicate? *shrug*

Do they live in groups? No clue.

Do they migrate? We don’t know.

Are they active during the day or night? No idea at all.

Here’s something we do know (again, anatomy) – those weird teeth are generally all below the gumline and never erupt in females it seems. In males, the very points might peek out of the gums, but that’s it. (Again, small sample size means that this is pretty shaky knowledge.) Weird.

Nobody has ever seen this animal alive.


Here’s an Andrews’ Beaked Whale Bibliography (APA format, because this is science):

Andrews, R. C. (1908). Description of a new species of Mesoplodon from Canterbury Province, New Zealand (Vol. 24). order of the Trustees, American Museum of Natural History.

Baker, A. N. (2001). Status, relationships, and distribution of Mesoplodon bowdoini Andrews, 1908 (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Marine mammal science17(3), 473-493.

Dalebout, M. L., Van Helden, A., Van Waerebeek, K., & Baker, C. S. (1998). Molecular genetic identification of southern hemisphere beaked whales (Cetacea: Ziphiidae). Molecular Ecology7(6), 687-694.

Dixon, J. M. (1970). Two new whale records from Victoria, Mesoplodon bowdoini Andrews (Ziphiidae) and Balaenoptera edeni Anderson (Balaenopteridae). The Victorian Naturalist87(4), 88-93.

Hubbs, C. L. (1946). First records of two beaked whales, Mesoplodon bowdoini and Ziphius cavirostris, from the Pacific Coast of the United States. Journal of mammalogy27(3), 242-255.

Laporta, P., Praderi, R., Little, V., & Le Bas, A. (2005). An Andrew’s beaked whale Mesoplodon bowdoini (Cetacea, Ziphiidae) stranded on the Atlantic Coast of Uruguay. Latin American Journal of aquatic mammals4(2), 101-111.

Nishiwaki, M. (1962). Mesoplodon bowdoini stranded at Akita beach. Sea of Japan11.


I’ve scoured through several scholarly journal databases, and these seven publications compose pretty much literally all we know about the Andrews’ Beaked Whale (note that the Andrews, 1908 citation above is actually the species description). If you hunt down and read all those articles (maybe with the help of a library – hint hint), then congratulations, you’re now a world expert in the Andrews’ Beaked Whale. It’s not often you have the chance to learn everything humanity knows about a subject in a single weekend, yet here it is. Maybe you’ll be the one to finally see one in the wild, or, better yet, take video of one.

As for the Andrews’ Beaked Whale itself, just think:

They’re out there, right now, doing whatever it is that they do. 

Cover of "A Raisin in the Sun"

Guest Book Review: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

M.C., the reviewer, is a Junior in high school.

Book stats:

Number of pages: 151

Genre: Realistic fiction

Included in a series:  No

Estimated reading level: grades 8-high school


This play, whose title is derived from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, depicts the lives of the Younger family who live in Southside Chicago. Set in the 1950s, the family of five—Mama (Lena) Younger, Walter Lee Younger, Beneatha Younger, Ruth Younger, and Travis Younger—face a family crisis as a life insurance check of $10,000  is placed in the family’s possession from the deceased Walter Senior. Walter—son of Mama and Walter Senior, father of Travis, husband of Ruth and brother to Beneatha—works as a chauffeur for white men and wants to use the money to invest in a liquor store. Beneatha attends college and wants to become a doctor; to her, the money would be best spent paying for school, however she isn’t as forceful with the check as Walter is. Mama works as a housemaid for rich white families and would like to spend the money on moving out of their less-than ideal home into a bigger home. Ruth is a housewife and would also like to spend the insurance check on a bigger home.

With this crisis at hand, the family must decide how the money should be spent to benefit the family as a whole; along the way, many obstacles arise which need to be overcome by the family in order to thrive.

Personal opinions:  

I felt that many obstacles in this play were quite realistic and relatable; the issue of an undesirable financial status—an underlying theme in this play—is experienced by many across the world, while the desire to fulfill one’s dreams is the ultimate wish of many. All in all, this play was a short, light, and easy read which is always well-appreciated. Try it, who knows? You might like it!

Rating:  4 – better than most

Bicycle Built For Two

A tandem bicycle with a lady and a gent on it. Actual old photo.

Tandem bike, CA 1896

I frequently tell people that everything is interesting and cool, and only gets more awesome the closer you look. Here’s a relentlessly deep dive into a corny song that’s over 120 years old.

CAUTION: Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) is an earworm, and the insidious metaphorical kind, not the literal ones who are just trying to make a living that I like to cover on this blog. What’s that? You read the medical paper in that link and now your ears itch just thinking about it? Why watch horror movies at all when there’s all of nature’s untrammeled majesty just waiting to be discovered? Why, you’re welcome.

These are the lyrics for the version I know:


Daisy Bell

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true.

I’m half crazy all for the love of you.

It won’t be a stylish marriage;

I can’t afford a carriage.

But you’ll look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.


Henry, Henry, I’ll give you my answer true.

I’m not crazy all for the love of you.

There won’t be any marriage

If you can’t afford a carriage.

I won’t look sweet

Upon the seat

Of a bicycle built for two.


Heh. Read it really carefully. What’s this song about, and what’s going on? What happens in it? Don’t overthink it. I find, when teaching people to close read, they think there’s some kind of secret, super-hard trick answer to questions like this, when really, all I want is the obvious, basic stuff. Got an idea of what the song’s about? Click and drag over the following text for an overview, to check your answer: Henry proposes marriage to to Daisy, who rejects him. 

On the same page now, regarding the text? Good. Now, the interesting thing is, this isn’t the original version of the song at all. Turns out, the original version is this one, and it was written in 1892. Here’s a more listenable recording, from not much later. The complete soppiness of the original song drew parody second-verse replies almost instantly, and one of these became the version I know. I learned it from my mom, who learned it from her parents, who learned it from their parents, who learned it from their parents. Whoa. That brings us to official Interesting Point #1 – songs can be transmitted from generation to generation for over a century. It clearly mutated a bit along the way too. Fascinating.

So, bicycle built for two, huh? Bring on Interesting Point #2 – There was a full-on bicycle fad, at the end of the 19th Century. Daisy Bell was written to cash in on it while these newfangled velocipedes were all the rage. Tandem bicycles were also popular, with (according to pictures) lots of variants.

You’ve seen bicycles built for two, but how about three?

Old picture of three women on a bike in matching skirt uniforms. I guess this was a sport...

Three people on a bike.


Old timey picture of four gentleman athletes on a bicycle built for four.

Four on a bike. These seem to have come from the same album, so I’m guessing there were competitive sports for entire teams of people on tandem bicycles.

A legendary five-bike?

Five dapper gents on a five-bike.

My favorite thing about this picture is that enough time has passed that (in 2018) the haircuts are all back in fashion. Give these gents some skinny jeans and a plaid shirt and a smartphone, and you wouldn’t even look at them if you passed them on the street.

Anyway, bicycle craze over, the other Interesting Point about Daisy Bell is #3 this is the song that computers sing. If you know this song at all, it’s probably from 2001: A Space Odyssey and it was HAL 9000. Chances are really good that if you ask your voice activated digital assistant to sing their favorite song, they’ll sing this one. The reason is that the first speech synthesis program sang this as a demo on the IBM 704. Everything from the weather alert voice to Hatsune Miku and your digital assistant comes back to Daisy Bell.