STRANGE BUT TRUE- Trash talk: Why's the can so hot?


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. Puzzled Bakersfield, California, coworkers ask, "In the women's bathroom, there's an enclosed garbage can with a swinging door on front. Mostly, all that's in it are paper towels, and when you push in the swinging door to drop in your paper towel, it's quite warm in there. Why would that be? It's gross! Any theories?"– O. Grouch

A. A good suspicion is the heat's from the hot water for washing hands, which gets transferred from towel to wastecan to the air therein, which rises and builds awaiting (partial) venting by the next user, who may add even more heat, says Oregon State chemist Joseph Nibler. The upper limit is the temperature of the water, most closely attained during heavy traffic. "The readers should make their visit before and after coffee break to test this explanation."

 Or maybe old half-eaten lunches are composting in the can. "What do their noses tell them?"

 If that's not heat enough, swarming bacterial colonies on paper towels may decompose the cellulose, generating lots of heat energy, says McMaster University chemist Christopher Paige. "Think hay barns and spontaneous combustion of the hay and fires therein!"

 And for skeptical theorists, try none of the above: Don't we all feel warmer on a humid day than a dry day of the same temperature? poses University of California-L.A. chemist Robin Garrell. And don't we all feel warmer when there's no breeze than with a breeze? And isn't the inside of the pail humid in spades and breezeless?

 "Actually put a thermometer inside and outside the pail to check, and compare men's and women's restrooms, and I'd bet the temperature reads the same in all four places."

Q. "I before E except after C." What thanks do schoolkids owe the originator of this famous mnemonic device for spelling words like "receive," "deceive," "conceive," "conceit," "ceiling"? – J. Steinberg

A. No thanks at all for this anCIEnt, unsCIEntific, ineffiCIEnt, insuffiCIEnt and defiCIEnt rule! NEIther should kids try to rule-spell "finanCIEr," "soCIEty," "juiCIEr," nor anything in the group of "EIght," "bEIge," "nEIghbor," "codEIne," "protEIn," "rEIgn," "sEIze," "thEIr," "wEIgh" and "wEIrd."

 There are well over 100 such exceptions, says David Crystal in "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language," with IE following C, or EI following just about anything it chooses. The only way to impose a degree of order on this muddle is to relate spellings to grammar and pronunciation, such as exceptions involving affixes (agencies, seeing, absenteeism) or proper names (Einstein, O'Neill, Leicester), or how the IE/EI is sounded, such as in an unstressed syllable of "ancient."

Q. When believers in reincarnation are "hypnotically regressed" to their past lives, who do they usually say they once were? – S. McLean

A. The results can be almost humorous, says Hope College psychologist David G. Myers in The Pursuit of Happiness. Nearly all report being their same race– unless the hypnotist reminds them that different races are common.

"Most report being someone famous, rather than one of the countless peasants of yore, and many contradict one another by claiming to have been the same person, such as Joan of Arc, Henry VIII, or Napoleon."

 They're also ignorant about the time period they supposedly lived in. One subject "time-traveled" back to when he was a Japanese fighter pilot in 1940, but when asked who was emperor of Japan at the time, he had no idea.

 Another thought he had become Julius Caesar but pegged the date as A.D. 50 and said he was emperor of Rome, reports psychologist Carole Tavris. "But Caesar died in 44 B.C. and was never crowned emperor– and besides, identifying years as A.D. or B.C. did not begin until centuries later."

Q. What are a few tricks of the classic skywriter's trade and of the more modern "skytyper"? What letters are hardest for these aeroscribes to make? –O. Wright

A. Meticulous flight-plan details and knowing when to turn the smoke on/off are key, says NewScientist.com. Straight lines are compass-driven, smooth curves come from skillful banking, equi-sized letters show good timing. It's not real white smoke a-hanging heavenly but non-polluting oils vaporized in the heat of the plane's exhaust system.

 Plane flies a couple miles high, at 100-150 mph, taking maybe 20 seconds to draw a near-mile-long letter stroke.

 Most challenging are curved letters, particularly if the curves must be lined up with other strokes that are laid down on different passes, says Massachusetts Institute of

Technology aerospace scientist R. John Hansman. Because the wind distorts letters, it is hard to get things lined up to look right from the ground. Toughest are B, G and S. "Alphabets which are not regular, which have varying curves, or which have many short strokes would be very difficult. Arabic, Japanese, Chinese would be almost impossible."

 Solo skywriters are something of a dying breed; today's skytypers fly with several craft abreast, their smoke generators shooting out sharp puffs assembled like a dot- matrix printer, all radio-synced by the formation leader. This is said to be easy compared to a crisscrossing single craft racing to beat the inevitable dissipating winds aloft.

 Either way, when it all works, it can pop the corks sky high, as when "Janelle" reportedly looked up on a date, espied the stadium skywriter writing her name, then fell into her proposing lover's arms at the sky-borne "Marry Me."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com

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2 comments

You ought to exclude those words where "i" and "e" are parts of different syllables.

I make a point of taking a huge steaming schitt in the trash cans up in da club after I go to the bathroom to smoke a blunt. Ahhh... HA HA to the next sucka to go in there!