Archive for the 'explanations' Category

Total solar eclipse in Shanghai

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

The days leading up to the eclipse on the 22nd were hot and sunny, with no clouds in the sky, but it was all just a big tease. The clouds started rolling in on the evening of the 21st, and grew thicker and thicker through the night and the next morning until, just as the moon started to cross the disk of the sun, the clouds opened up and it started to rain. Nick and Max had flown out to see the eclipse, so they must have been a little disappointed. I just had to walk to the university track, but I was disappointed. It would have been cool to see the shadow of the moon racing across the earth, and to see the stars come out. There’s always Argentina next year.

It was still interesting to see all the dragonflies gather in the air and to watch as night fell for around five minutes. The building and traffic lights came on and it really looked like midnight.


A guy brought out a huge helium balloon during the darkness and set it free so that it was floating as the light came back. It was a marriage proposal! I thought that was a good idea.


The Chinese word for total eclipse is 日全食, or sun-all-eat. This sounds fairly apocalyptic. The English word eclipse is from Greek ekleipein. I remember this from Herodotus, it means “to leave out” or “forsake”.

I learn to tie my shoelaces

Monday, February 9th, 2009

I don’t want anyone to say I haven’t been making good use of my time off.

I was reading the Economist online and saw a comment in the business section that YouTube was changing people’s lives — for example by teaching them how to tie their shoelaces. I was dubious.

I did a search for “how to tie your shoes” on and found over a thousand relevant tutorials. Many of them demonstrated a method that is at least twice as fast as the (three) methods I already knew.

Let’s say I wasted a second a day for the years I’ve been tying my shoes using the less efficient method. That’s about two wasted weeks, if I don’t account for the years I lived in Japan (during which I wore mainly shoes without laces). That’s two weeks that I could have devoted to watching other “youtubetorials” on how to make my life even more efficient. That could count as life-changing.

What is the difference between…

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

Here are a few questions that keep coming up; they probably give an indication of where I’ve been spending my time. (For the record, I generally opt for the gelateria.) All these explanations are three sentences or less.

What is the difference between ice cream and gelato?

Ice cream is made with cream (no surprise there), while gelato is made with (high fat) milk and has less air whipped in. Ice cream freezers are colder than gelato freezers. All these things contribute to the difference in texture that is the most notable macro-level distinction between ice cream and gelato.

What is the difference between lager/pilsener/pilsner and ale/bitter/porter/stout?

The difference is in the type of yeast used: lagers use “bottom-fermenting” yeast and are fermented at colder temperatures. Top-fermenting yeast and higher temperatures produce ales and the ale subclasses of bitter, porter, stout, etc.

Since yeast is the agent for ester and alcohol production, higher temperatures and ale yeast generally produce more complex flavors and more alcohol by volume.

What is the difference between a cathedral and a minster?

A minster (as in Westminster Abbey) is a kind of cathedral, one that was originally attached to a monastery.