Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


Our old friend Father Pitt provides us with this picture of St. Casimir’s on the South Side, now—like many large churches in the neighborhood—converted to luxury apartments. Architecturally, it’s worth discussing—a sort of American Polish Baroque. But what our correspondent found most interesting about the picture is not evident until you enlarge it. Note the two pedestrians on the sidewalk along the side of the building.

They are the same person. All unknowing, old Pa Pitt captured an instance of bilocation on 22nd Street at the intersection with Sarah Street. He has reported this to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, but as the church building has been deconsecrated, the diocese disclaims all responsibility for instances of bilocation on profane ground. Apparently people are bilocating willy-nilly in the vicinity of old churches and nothing can be done about it.


Dear Dr. Boli: I bought a can of German beer, and on the label it says, “500 ml, 0.5 l, 50 cl.” So my question is this: How many deciliters is that? Math is hard. —Sincerely, Just Wondering.

Dear Sir or Madam: 4.71. One of the curious facts about beer as a physical substance is the property known to science as the non-conservation of deciliters. Because this property frequently confuses consumers and causes them to believe they are drinking less beer than is actually in the can, the Reinheitsgebot in Germany specifies that beer must be labeled in milliliters, liters, and centiliters, but not deciliters.


Here is an interesting fact from an article on open-source software in the United Kingdom:

“Researchers found a staggering 97% of the 273 UK businesses surveyed use some form of open source software.”

What does this mean?

Assuming that all 273 businesses are connected to the Web (even the uncompromisingly Victorian James Smith & Sons umbrella shop has a Web site these days), it means that 3% are still using Internet Explorer. All other Web browsers* are based on open-source rendering engines, so if you access the Web at all, you are using some form of open-source software.

Are you still staggered?

*It is technically possible for one or two of these companies to be using an ancient proprietary browser from the Paleolithic era of the Internet, but the possibility is remote.


Dear Dr. Boli: A bunch of people I work with said they were going out to a “gastropub” after work, and they invited me to go along. I said I had to go home and practice the ukulele, because I didn’t know what a gastropub was, and I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of it. What is a gastropub? —Sincerely, A Guy Who Just Wanted a Hamburger, That’s All.

Dear Sir: For a moment Dr. Boli thought of having a little fun at your expense and telling you that a gastropub was an establishment that catered to proctologists, gastroenterologists, and other members of the innards professions. But that would not have been kind, and Dr. Boli regrets even entertaining the idea. Actually, a gastropub is a pub in which gastropods are prepared and served. If you like snails, whelks, slugs, and whatnot, you will probably enjoy it.


Third Series.


Zebra.—Zoologists attempting to answer the age-old question of whether the zebra is a black animal with white stripes or a white animal with black stripes finally announced, after several years of work, the startling finding that the zebra is a green animal entirely covered in black and white stripes.


Dear Dr. Boli: My brother and I were talking about space stuff, and we were wondering: If we got into our limousine in Washington, D.C., and started driving now, how long would it take us to get to Mars? —Sincerely, Jeff Bezos.

Dear Sir: According to Google Maps, it would take 4 hours and 20 minutes to get from Kalorama in Washington to Mars, Pennsylvania, by the fastest route, under usual traffic conditions.

But since you mention space, Dr. Boli wonders whether you meant Mars the planet. Mars is some distance from the earth, and the roads are not kept in good repair. With Mars and the earth in their present positions, it would take you a very long time to get to Mars in your limousine. The best way to bring home the enormous distances involved is to say that you would have time to read À la recherche du temps perdu all the way through, and then read it again, before you got there. This assumes, of course, that your brother is driving. Dr. Boli does not recommend driving under the influence of Proust.


Natural (adjective).—1. Of food, cosmetics, etc.: Packaged in materials made from petroleum by-products and processed into standardized units from ingredients ultimately derived from substances present in the physical universe.

2. Of art, literature, etc.: Conforming to the current clichés that define what is correct in representational art, as opposed to the clichés of the era immediately past, which are designated artificial.


You, the enlightened reader, know what this article will say even before it says it. You know it because you have heard it said a dozen times before, as it has been said for more than a hundred years. The QWERTY keyboard is a pox on our intel­lectual life. This useless and counter­intu­itive system was foisted on us for the mechan­ical con­venience of the very earliest type­writer makers, and it is only by a series of random accidents that it became the world­wide standard for English-language keyboards—and, with minor varia­tions (like AZERTY or QWERTZ), the standard for other Western European languages as well. In a sane world, we would long since have replaced QWERTY with a more scien­tific alter­native, such as the Dvorak keyboard, or the Blickensderfer DHIATENSOR.

Since you know all the arguments against QWERTY already, let us assume them made, and then Dr. Boli will get on with showing you why they are all wrong.

First of all, the only basis on which one keyboard could be said to be better than another is typing speed, and in that regard there is no good evidence at all that any of the proposed alter­natives are better than QWERTY. The most studied alter­native layout is the Dvorak key­board, whose fanatical devo­tees have sponsored many experi­ments to show that typists retrained on a Dvorak keyboard type much faster than they did on a QWERTY keyboard. Of course the training here is the con­founding factor; and indeed, when typists are given similar training on QWERTY keyboards, they show similar improve­ment. We are probably safe in con­cluding that it is not the key­board layout but the training that effects the improvement.

In fact the old story that the QWERTY key­board was designed to slow us down is almost the opposite of the truth, as far as we can make out the truth through the mists of the decades. The layout was designed (according to recol­lec­tions many years after the fact) to prevent type­bars from jamming in speedy typing. In order to do that, letter combina­tions that commonly appear together were placed some distance apart. You will note that the inten­tion here was to speed up typing, not to slow it down. By spreading the keys apart this way, the QWERTY keyboard very often causes the typist to alternate hands while typing, and nothing speeds up typing more effec­tively than alter­nating hands.

Typists have set some aston­ishing speed records on QWERTY keyboards. Typewriter brands like Underwood and Woodstock sponsored speed typists to show that their machines could keep up with any­body. The speed of a fast typist has not signifi­cantly increased in the computer era: by 1900, typewriter technology had already reached such a peak of perfe­ction in the very best machines that the human typist, not the machine, was the limiting factor.

It is not likely, then, that any alter­native arrange­ment of keys will give us much greater speed. If that is true, then there is no good reason for changing the QWERTY layout. But there is every reason to keep it. The biggest advan­tage, in fact, is so obvious we are likely to miss it. The QWERTY keyboard really is uni­versal for English speakers. There are variants in the place­ment of some of the symbols, but the letters are in the same places on every key­board you come across. You can write a letter on your 1880 Remington, and then pick up your smart­phone and send a text, and you are using the same key­board. For once the invisible hand of the market has done its job. It has created a workable universal standard without the inter­vention of any committee or regula­tory body or czar or dictator­ship of the proletariat.

Like English spelling, the QWERTY keyboard survives because it does its job, because all attempts to reform it tie them­selves up in the knots of their own incon­sisten­cies, and because any attempt to replace it would require hundreds of millions of people to retrain themselves for no clear benefit. In the English-speaking world, it is likely that QWERTY will last as long as literacy itself, which should give it another five years at least.