Monthly Archives: January 2013

Why Doesn't the Earth's Crust Melt?

The planet Earth is a rocky planet, made up mostly of heavy minerals (including iron, magnesium, aluminum, and calcium) combined with oxygen. Although the Earth’s surface – the crust – is solid and many miles thick, it floats on a much thicker layer of red-hot, liquid rock called the mantle. Compared to the crust, the mantle is like the inside of an apple compared to the apple’s skin. Sometimes the hot liquid rock spurts out through volcanoes on land or deep in the ocean (this is how many islands, including the Hawaiian Islands, were formed).

With such a deep and very hot ocean of liquid magma beneath us, why doesn’t the surface melt?

Part of the answer is that it does – just not all at once. Because the crust floats on the mantle, the continents move around, pushing against each other. There are places where one continent pushes under another and goes down into the mantle, where it melts. One such place is the Mariana Trench between Japan and New Guinea. In other places, for example the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the continental plates are pulled apart and magma comes up, hardening into solid rock as it meets the cold ocean water.

This brings us to the other part of the answer. The inside of the Earth is very hot, but outer space is very cold – about 273 degrees below zero on the Celsius scale (or about -460° Fahrenheit). Earth has a solid crust because the cold of outer space freezes the hot rock, just like the icy ocean water cools the hot magma from undersea volcanoes. When the Earth was newly formed, it was too hot to have a crust, but it has been cooling for about 4.5 billion years now. Good thing, too – otherwise we would have nowhere to live!
In the future, Earth will keep cooling slowly. Mars was once as hot as Earth on the inside, but is no longer volcanically active; someday our volcanoes, too, may stop erupting and our continents freeze in place. One thing is for sure – none of this is going to change anytime soon, so don’t worry!

Why Are There Holes in Swiss Cheese?

I wanted to answer this question because it has kind of a funny answer. Just about everyone knows that cheese is made from milk, but what exactly happens to it?

Cheese was certainly discovered, not invented. The difference is that a discovery is usually accidental – it was there waiting, but nobody had noticed – while an invention is designed and made for a purpose. (Sometimes the design or the purpose changes along the way: the telephone was intended to be a hearing aid, WD-40 was originally made to keep water from accumulating on rocket fuel tanks, and the Internet started out as a way for science labs to share data with each other. But those stories really belong in another post.)

Anyway, cheese was probably discovered in prehistoric times when someone carried milk in a bag made from a cow’s stomach. The main thing that turns milk into cheese is an enzyme called rennet that is found in the stomachs of mammals; carrying milk in a stomach bag would have done the job. You might say that cheese-making is the art of getting milk to spoil under just the right conditions.

Some varieties of Western European cheese, like Swiss Emmentaler and Norwegian Jarlsberg (my personal favorite) are riddled with holes. When I was a little boy, I thought this was because a lucky mouse had eaten tunnels through the cheese. In reality, these cheeses have certain kinds of bacteria added to them during the process, and the bacteria give off gas. As unappetizing as “germ farts” may sound, the bacterial flatulence lends a nutty, sweet flavor to the cheese.

Bon appétit!

Who's Got the Time?

It’s not that we have too many things to do; the problem is that there are too few hours in a day! Or maybe not: if the day were longer, we would just find more tasks to fill it up with.

I usually feel like I need more time. But the fact is, we all have the same amount of time. Nobody gets more than 24 hours in a day; nobody gets less. Yet some of us are always ahead of things, and some are always rushing to catch up. I’ll be honest: I spend time in both of those categories. But long ago when I was young, I spent nearly all my time rushing to catch up; now I am mostly ahead of things.

I used to think that freedom means taking life as it comes, without thinking about anything but enjoying the moment. That philosophy gave me many enjoyable moments, at the expense of several years of misery and a lot more responsibility and hard work than I had originally been trying to avoid. Finally, I just got tired of all the effort it took to fix the problems I created.

My father always said it costs the same to keep your car’s tank full as it does to keep it almost empty. These days, I tell my own sons that it takes the same amount of effort to keep their rooms clean all the time as it does to let them get messier and messier until they have to spend all Saturday cleaning and organizing their living spaces. Actually, neither of these pieces of advice is quite true. It costs less to keep the car’s tank full than almost empty, because you never have to pay for a tow truck or a gas can when you finally go too far and run out of gas. It takes less effort to put everything back in its place when you have finished with it than it does to sort through piles of stuff looking for the thing you want to put away.

It is easier to take ten small steps than to make one giant leap. And the chances of twisting your ankle are less, too.

The trick is constant small effort. One thing I do is to try never to walk from one part of the house to another without doing something on the way that will save me time later. For example, I am sitting at the breakfast table and writing this on my laptop. There is a stack of DVDs on the table that I put there when I was installing the OS on my computer last weekend. Next time I get up, I will bring the DVDs with me and put them away. I won’t start a major house cleaning project, but instead do one tiny task every time I get up and do something. By the time I have finished a normal Saturday writing, making lunch, going for a walk in the park, and watching a movie with my family, I will have done an hour’s (or two hours’) worth of work in between. This way, there is less to do later, and I hardly notice that I am doing any work at all.

Constant small effort is about eliminating wasted time. This does not mean keeping yourself busy – idle time is healthy if balanced, and important for creativity. It does mean not wasting an opportunity to get something done, as long as it does not get in the way of what you were already doing.

Freedom is being in control of your life, and having time to enjoy yourself. You have the time for whatever you choose – so take it!

Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks!

I am pretty excited this week because of what I was able to do last weekend. If you are the technologically savvy type – a “techie” – this will not seem like much to you. You might be tempted to sneer scornfully at my pride in such a small victory. Please realize, I am a 41-year-old guy who still does not own a smartphone. I have no desire to own a smartphone. I hate the absence of buttons on a phone.  Going on Facebook gives me agoraphobia.

I’m not all that bad. In fact, when I asked my 15-year-old son to think of some things about me that are old-fashioned and behind the times, he said, “You really aren’t that bad.” This made my day! If a teenager thinks I’m not really that bad, there may be hope.

Anyway, I spent last weekend switching my computer’s operating system from Windows Vista to Ubuntu. It took me three full days and I made many mistakes, but it’s done – and it works! I learned a lot about how computers work, and about how ignorant I am about programming.

I decided to install a new operating system because my laptop was getting really slow, and I had already done all the things that are supposed to help: cleaning the registry, getting rid of unused files, running good security software to avoid viruses and such. It wasn’t working. Now, my computer is five years old, but I keep my things in good condition and I expect them to keep working as long as I treat them with the proper care. Another issue was Vista: I have had problems with it ever since the laptop was new. Windows kept sending service packs and patches to fix all the bugs, but every now and then the computer would just shut down for no apparent reason; Vista would crash fairly regularly; I was tired of paying for security software every year that would slow down the whole system. So I started looking for alternatives. I hear Windows 7 is really good. It is also really expensive. I had heard about Linux – it’s an open source operating system, which means it is available for free and you can go in and mess with the program whenever you like without getting sued by a corporation. Now remember, I’m the guy that has no desire to own a smartphone because without buttons it seems excessively hard to pick up or hang up. I had no wish at all to go in and mess with any programs; my impression was that Linux was for geeks who speak machine language more fluently than English. But I was really getting frustrated with Windows, so I did some research. Here’s what I found out.

Ubuntu is an operating system based on Linux, or using Linux code; I’m not sure if there is a difference or even if I am using the right words. If you are still reading, you probably know about as much as I do. (Either that, or you are amused; either way, I hope you enjoy the post.) You don’t have to be a Ph.D in computer science to use it, nor do you have to join some bunch of guys who tried out for parts in “The Big Bang Theory” and try to keep up with their techie-talk while they sneer scornfully at your ignorance. It’s really simple. You just download the program and follow the directions, and voila! you have a new operating system.

Well, you may retort, if it’s that simple, why did it take me all weekend? There are a few reasons. First, I started out with serious doubts about what I was doing. So I downloaded a trial version that installed inside Windows on my computer, so I could get used to the different controls and menus, and gain some idea of what it would be like to have Ubuntu. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I liked it. It looks nice and works well, and in my opinion is better organized than Windows. Now, in case you haven’t got it by now, I am pretty hesitant about adopting new technology. So (the next day) I did what is called a “dual install” – installed Ubuntu onto my computer, but outside Windows this time. I felt reluctant to abandon Windows – I have always worked with Windows; it was familiar and safe. What if I should change my mind? So I kept Vista and added Ubuntu.

There are many nice things about Ubuntu, but the three nicest ones are: 1. It’s free; 2. It’s safe (there is very little risk of virus or malware, so you no longer need to buy security suites); 3. There is more support than I ever imagined. Any problem you have will be thoroughly documented, and solutions are clearly explained by experts. Friendly, polite experts. It was fantastic! I soon found myself opening up the “terminal” – access to the system’s code – and writing in pieces of code I got from the support pages. It worked! I felt like a hacker, even though I was just customizing my own operating system. Day three, I deleted Windows from my computer and reconfigured my own hard drive. Six months ago, I would have considered this to be madness on the scale of bungee jumping with a home-made bungee cord made of rubber bands. But after a week, I’m loving life with Ubuntu. It’s faster, smarter, better. I feel free.

A few tips: 1) Get an external hard drive and back up everything you wouldn’t want to lose. I got a 1-terabyte unit at Fry’s Electronics for $70. It’s smaller than a slice of bread, and after uploading every file in my computer, it is still almost empty! 2) If your main reason for having a computer is gaming, you may be better off with Windows; I understand that many games aren’t compatible with Linux. I don’t game much, so I don’t care. My boys have an XBox anyway. 3) If you want to install from a CD or DVD, make sure to burn it at low speed; it may not work if you burn it at high speed, probably for the same reason it is harder to read someone’s handwriting who writes in a hurry, like doctors filling out prescriptions. 4) Most of the programs you use have free, open source equivalents that are easy to get and install on your Linux system. But there are a few, like my Zune mp3 player software, that will not work except with Windows. Go figure – Zune is made by Microsoft. But instead of keeping me from switching, this only makes me more eager to get rid of Microsoft. They seem like they want to own and control everything, while Linux – and Ubuntu in particular – operates in a spirit of sharing, cooperation, and a belief that if everybody benefits, then individual organizations benefit too. This makes me like and trust them.

What do I take away from my experience? A new and improved computer; saving money on software and security programs; and a reminder that old dogs really can learn new tricks. It is never too late to become something better than we are at present! All is takes is the will to risk a little and believe in yourself. Of course, all this is possible because people like those at Ubuntu make it possible. In a world where helping and sharing are important values, we can all be OK.