Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


Dear Dr. Boli: This sausage says it was made from “uncured pork.” What does that mean? —Sincerely, Otto von Bismarck.

Dear Sir: It means that, whatever disease that pig had, that was what it died from.


For many writers, the thing that replaced the trusty typewriter was a dot-matrix printer. Anyone who lived through the 1980s remembers the sound of a dot-matrix printer printing: like a thousand little brats dragging their fingernails across a blackboard at once. Anyone who lived through the 1980s remembers blackboards.

Dot-matrix printers are still made, mostly for specialized applications, but also for cranks who are sick of the monopolistic practices of certain printer manufacturers and remember how cheap the cost per page was for a dot-matrix printer. It occurred to Dr. Boli to see how much these things were selling for and what the modern ones were like. The answer to the first question is that they cost as much as a good laser printer; the answer to the second—well, Dr. Boli looked at the OKI Microline 320 Turbo on a certain dealer’s site:

USB and parallel interfaces let you print from various devices… Good enough: glad to see we can connect a computer made after 1998.

Prints up to 435 pages per minute (ppm) in black.… So it’s speedy. That’s nice.

288 x 144 dpi resolution for increased text clarity.… Well, one might ask “Increased from what?” but still, it’s—

Wait a minute.

Here, if we were making Dot Matrix: The Motion Picture, the sound designer would be instructed to insert the sound of a needle scratching across a record, the universal indication of what used to be known in vaudeville as the double-take. (Anyone who lived through the 1980s remembers records.) How many pages per minute? 435? As in 7¼ pages per second? “Turbo” indeed!

Surely that must be wrong. What are the ratings on the other dot-matrix printers?

We look at the rating for the Epson FX-2190II: “738 pages/min.” This is enough to make us take the name of a certain city in northwestern Ohio in vain.

How about the Epson DFX-9000? “Maximum Print Speed (Monochrome): 1550 pages/min.”

We tried to imagine what such a printer would look like in use, and this was the only image that came to mind:


But the mystery was solved by a look at another site. Here the OKI Microline 320 Turbo is also offered, and in the specifications we read, “Super Speed Draft (cps): 435.”

This is the solution. For ink-jet and laser printers, the speed is measured in pages per minute. The speed of a dot-matrix printer, however, is traditionally measured in characters per second. The twenty-five-year-old who set up the database at our first retailer had never heard of dot-matrix printers, and set up a speed field labeled pages per minute. The other twenty-five-year-old who entered the data for the dot-matrix printer had no idea what “cps” meant, but it was a measurement of speed, so it went in the speed field.

This is a disappointment. The world, for a few minutes, had become wildly romantic when Dr. Boli imagined so prosaic a thing as a dot-matrix printer flinging out pages at the rate of 1,550 per minute. But the scientific mind will not rest until anomalies are accounted for. If this removes a bit of the romance from the world, it has the compensation of allowing us to moderate our expectations a little when we buy dot-matrix printers.



According to the National Weather Service, right now something is falling from the sky, and they don’t know what it is.


Dear Dr. Boli: What is the difference between a “milk shake” and a “thick shake”? —Sincerely, A Woman at the Drive-Through Window of the Burger Yurt with a Bunch of Cars Honking Behind Her.

Dear Madam: In most of the United States, a “milk shake” is a kind of semi-beverage made with milk, ice cream, and flavorings. In New England, it used to be that a “milk shake” was milk and flavorings, shaken, and if you wanted ice cream you would specify a frappe; but New England seems to have gradually conformed to the more general usage.

A “thick shake,” on the other hand, is largely made of thick, with occasional added ingredients such as brown or pink, or in extreme cases green.


Here is an illustration from 1883 designed to demonstrate how easy it is to replace an Edison incandescent lamp (click on it to enlarge it). It is very convincing, especially when one considers the wiring gymnastics required by arc lighting, the chief competing technology at the time. But have you noticed the one little technical detail the engraver got wrong?


Q. I have a loaf of sourdough bread that sat in a paper bag for about a month between the couch cushions, where I finally found it this afternoon, along with a buffalo nickel, the remote control for a TV we never owned, and this kind of box thing with two carrying poles and a couple of carved cherubim on top. The bread had hardened to the point where it was impervious to a bread knife. I thought I might make bread pudding out of it, but, as I might have mentioned earlier, it had hardened to the point where it was impervious to a bread knife. Is there some sort of proper baker’s tool that could easily reduce this hardened loaf to crumbs the proper size for bread pudding?

A. No well-equipped kitchen should be without a proper baker’s mallet, as illustrated below. It should have a head of either wood or rubber, and should be of the type used to induce and subsequently cure amnesia in animated cartoons and silent comedy shorts. This is the only proper tool for the job.

Do not discard the box thing with two carrying poles and a couple of carved cherubim on top. Properly directed (the lid should be opened away from the user), it can be used to melt cheese or chocolate very expeditiously, and will be found useful in many recipes.


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It is a wise disposition of Nature that there are roughly equal numbers of people who desire Extra Pulp orange juice and people who desire No Pulp orange juice.