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A bit about everything you wanted to know
Sep 07, 2012

 

Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about everything. Uh, well, that might be a slight exaggeration. We may not cover everything  in this column, but we can get started.
The flying-V — What is it with geese and ducks?  Why do they fly in that “V” formation? Other birds do that, too, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive explanation as to why. The most common guess seems to relate to aerodynamics.  The movement of each bird in the “V” creates an air wave that helps the other birds remain in formation with less effort. Then the birds change formation in the “V” and take turns flying in the harder lead position. Pretty clever, eh?  
I’ve also heard the theory that in the fall a long “V” means a cold winter and a broken “V” means a mild winter. The logic of that escapes me.  Anyway, I think the birds are missing a great merchandising opportunity. Why don’t they work out a contract with McDonald’s to fly in the shape of the “M” logo and make a little money on their travels?
Buttons — It might surprise you to know that buttons were once considered sinful by certain religious fundamentalists. Sounds pretty strange, but I guess every age has its own logic. Anyway, in the old days, buttons other than the cloth variety were quite expensive and people of wealth had these “pricey” buttons sewn everywhere on their garments; thus, flaunting their affluence.  So, the button came to be looked upon as a sign of vanity, idleness and the misuse of money.
Zippers — Who came up with that invention that we take for granted day after day? We forget that way back in the depths of time someone had to invent that clever device, lest the button end up with the fastening market all to itself. 
It was American inventor Whitcomb Judson who developed an early version of the zipper at the Universal Fastener Company in 1891. Unfortunately, his early attempts resulted in a product that was unreliable, and in stepped an engineer named Gideon Sundback, who made improvements that resulted in profits — none of which ended up in the pocket of the earlier  Judson.  
However, Sundback and others made big zipper money. Ironically, some of their experimental work was done at the Lightning Fastener plant in St. Catherines, Ontario, of which Sundback was the president, although he lived year-round in Pennsylvania. Sundback died a millionaire in 1954.
On the left, please — Why do the British drive on the left side of the road?  Independent? Stubborn? Spacially dyslexic?  Smarter than us?  All of these?  None of these?   
The custom dates back to the days of yore. I guess that’s like the “old days.”    Back then, travel was on horseback.  Riders were wary of robbers along the way and always kept to the left when passing each other in order to keep their sword or pistol arm on the right — the same side as any possible assailant. This made good sense in those old days. Then I suppose they decided to stick with the “left” tradition.
So later, here in the colonies, why didn’t we follow this tradition? We didn’t have a crime problem? Didn’t like the idea? Too independent? Stubborn? Go figure.
Lightning — Here's one I never knew. The difference between fork lightning and sheet lightning. Well, there isn’t any; except in the sense that sheet lightning is so far away, you can’t see the forks. And I don’t mean the junction of the rivers.  
Sheet lightning is also called “heat” lightning. It certainly looks different, but that’s because its great distance gives you only a diluted image of the fork of lightning.  And while we're on this subject ...
Don’t you find it hard to believe that the lightning bolt travels first  from the ground to the sky and then back down? It does’'t look that way, does it?  
The experts — that would be “Lightning Canada,” I guess — say that by the time the lightning catches our attention, we only see the sky to ground lightning stroke.  
Red tape — Did you ever wonder where that familiar term came from? Although the term dates before his time and referred to official documents tied with a red ribbon, Charles Dickens was the first person to apply this phrase in writing to imply the slow handling of business matters.
Sideburns — Did you know that sideburns were originally called “burnsides?” It seems they were named after American Union General Ambroise Burnside, who wore them during the U.S. Civil War. Later, the word order of burnsides was reversed to become the more familiar term, sideburns.