Monday, July 11, 2005

Don't say it if you haven't verified it

One of the worst of my old bad habits that I've been trying to rid myself of over the years is repeating unverified bits of trivia that sound interesting because they come from sources I thought were reputable. Often verifying them proves them urban legend or just a misunderstanding.

There were some good ones from my old high-school chemistry teacher, Ed Shay, for example:

- It takes more energy to produce a solar cell than the cell will ever return as electricity.

- The thick plastic cups on the bottoms of two-liter bottles are there (were there) because the bottles are too flimsy normally and would otherwise collapse under their own weight.

As a high-school kid, my chemistry teacher sounded intelligent and well-informed, and his confidence led me to believe the above nonsense. The latter was easy to test, which I did out of curiosity some time ago. With the bottom cup removed, the bottle, while certainly more unbalanced than the modern redesign, was not in danger of collapse whether the bottle was open or closed.

The solar cell issue, however, is hotly debated, and I don't trust any of the opinions or numbers I've seen so far. It was probably true when solar technology was younger, and if it is still true today, which I feel is doubtful, it will not be true for long. Whether true or not, the fact is that I was happy to repeat it without having ever tried to check my story.

I tried to stop doing this once I heard some ridiculous notions like "if you tap your breaks right when the cop hits you with the radar beam, your headlights confuse the radar gun, and it can't get a reading" passed off as fact by some work acquaintances. "Yeh," I retorted, "and I hear that you can't get pregnant if you do it standing up." It's amazing how sour people get when you tell them they're full of crap.

A pair of myths I've repeated often that I've looked up recently are "Newt is dead" and "QWERTY was a marketing gimmick", neither of which are true.

"Newt" refers to one-time actress Carolyn Henn, who played the character Newt in Aliens. Alien 3 brings us the shocking realization that Newt died in her hypersleep chamber when the ship crash landed, making all the hubub at the end of Aliens very moot. The word on the street was that the actress had herself died in a car wreck shortly after the release of Aliens, and was hence unavailable, and the producers decided to re-write the script to cut her character out.

In actuality, Ms. Henn decided (mistakenly, in the mind of many fans) that acting wasn't her bag, and went on to get a teaching degree and now teaches primary school, and has grown into an attractive, wholesome looking woman.

"QWERTY was a marketing gimmick" refers to the fact that all the letters that spell the word "typewriter" appear on the upper row of letters on a QWERTY keyboard. The myth is that this was done deliberately so that traveling salesmen could demonstrate how to operate the machine by quickly keying out "typewriter" without having to learn how to type for real.

I've heard variations on this, too, like typewriters were configured with a clumsy key layout to make it harder for people to type fast, so that the arms wouldn't jam. This has a grain of truth, but the real story is that the layout helped increase speed, but for reasons that are not apparent based only on key placement.

The first typewriter was two rows laid out alhpabetically, and was very prone to jamming. Changing the layout to three rows helped some, but jamming still occured frequently when common letter combinations that occurred on the same inner wheel were struck. To correct for this, the layout was changed so that the internal mechanisms were in better position, and common combinations occurred on separate inner wheels. The net effect is that typing speed increased. Or at least, that is my current understanding based on some lite research.

But don't take my word for any of this, and don't repeat it until you go look it up.

No comments:

Post a Comment