Archive for May, 2011


Posted by on Tuesday, 24 May, 2011


Dear Mister SASB: My brother (who is a complete idiot, by the way) says lightning rods don’t work. Do you agree? Cause our house doesn’t have one and I’m thinking maybe it should. – Annie Blister

Annie: I’m sure you won’t feel that way about your brother when you get a little older. (Both of my sisters happen to think I’M a dope but, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably think they’re being too kind.)


In Colonial America, lightning rods made people nervous. It was considered an affront to the Lord. Lightning was God’s wrath.

During thunderstorms, churches (which had very tall steeples)  liked to send guys that wouldn’t be missed too much up there to ring the bell. It reminded the storm that this was a holy place. But the bell ringers had a much better record of going UP the stairs than coming back DOWN. While they were up there wackin’ away at the bell, lightning would often strike the bell tower, transforming it into steaming charcoal and molten bell. In fact, lightning seemed to FAVOR houses of worship – a clue, actually, that a different process might be at work than celestial vengeance.

The inventor of lightning rods, a guy named Ben Franklin, said lightning’s not a God thing; it is, he said, a natural phenomenon that  burns down  buildings and scares the goats. Even the old ones.  Certain citizens accused Franklin of irreverence. Blasphemy, actually. Back then, you didn’t want to be a blasphemer.

No you did not.

But Franklin was cool.  A coil of wire and and an iron stick are going to stop The Almighty? He (God) can’t  come up with a work-around? Who’s the blasphemer here?, asked Franklin. You callin’ God incompetent? (I think he also said that most lightning bolts strike trees which are, by and large, innocent of all wrong doing.)

This rebuttal was so effective that it took the thunder out of the opposition and, in no time,  lightning rods became almost as common as door knobs. It wasn’t sacrilegious anymore to use one to protect a powder magazine from being blown up in a storm.

This had a good effect, as you can easily imagine. Even churches got lightning rods. And, as a result, they  burned down less frequently. If the lightning rod business hadn’t been so successful, who’s to say what the state of religion would be in modern America?



Now lets climb back into the modern era.

In 1993, the National Fire Protection Association said the science behind lightning protection sucks. (Not their precise words). May as well rescind the national standard for lightning rods that’s been around for almost a century, they said. The standard is called NFPA 780, in case you want to look it up.

Uh oh, lightning rods!

But, according to Cecil Adams (The Straight Dope), after a thorough review of what’s out there plus a heap of common sense, it was decided that the science, though sucky and pretty much out-of-date, is, nonetheless,  compelling. It would be madness to go back to the pre-lightning rod, buildings-burning-down, days merely because lightning protection has been a settled issue for so long that more recent up-to-scientific-standards studies haven’t been done.

So the NFPA 780 standard still stands. And lightning rods work.


Then, how come you can drive for miles, here in New England and see nary a home with a tell tale rod sticking up to the sky ? I’m sure some are disguised as weather vanes and such, but, overall, this region seems to have entered the “right to strike” era.  We do love a roaring fire up here, but do we love fire THAT much?

Maybe this is just a lack of public awareness. I don’t think there’s  been much discussion about lightning rods. Or, could it be that the concern about protecting high technology devices from lightning initiated VOLTAGE SURGES, has diverted attention away from the basics? Maybe the idea’s too “pre-colonial”, too quaint, to be taken seriously by a guy packing an IPhone.

Another thought? Insurance discounts. Used to be, you could get a little knock off on your premium if you stuck a lightning rod up . These days, however, the companies appear to have abandoned that practice. In a region that doesn’t get THAT much thunder and lightning, maybe the occasional smoking ruin is just  a cost of doing business?

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad, as is so OFTEN the case, doesn’t really have an explanation. Do you?

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Posted by on Sunday, 15 May, 2011


My acoustics teacher was kinda famous. I didn’t care as much about that as how hard a grader he was but, I gotta say, Amar Bose was good. Instructors at MIT aren’t necessarily heavy on personality. The selection criteria seemed to be based on how smart you are, not your “presence” which, in my opinion, was a big mistake. But Bose had lots of personality AND lots of brains.

Like me.

Except, maybe, the brains.

Back then, he was all pissed off about the way Consumer Reports had treated his baby.  Although he discussed transmission losses and reverberation and fourier transforms dispassionately, there was a homicidal glitter in his otherwise civilized eyes when he discussed Consumer Reports which, with misbegotten evil,  had failed to grasp the breakthrough principals of his, then new, Bose 901 system. The sound “tended to wander around the room.” He was trying to bust them with a libel lawsuit and I’m glad I wasn’t still in his classroom when, eventually, the Supreme Court decided that Consumers Reports could say what it liked as long as there was no actual malice involved. I bet THAT was a shitty day!

Since I was in a Phd program, a thesis topic was supposed to choose me and, so far, it hadn’t. One idea I had was  kinda crazy so I asked Bose about it.

I was thinking about noise cancelling earphones. Sound is complicated. Otherwise you wouldn’t have to pay people to learn about it. Waves and things. Some of those waves reinforce and some of them cancel. Would it be possible to jigger things to subtract annoying sounds and let you concentrate on the sounds you want to hear?

Just a question. Maybe a little naive, I said.

Dr. Bose was nice about it. I don’t remember his exact words. I do remember he brought up Green’s theorem just to help me understand what I would be getting into. Could it be done? Well, he couldn’t be too encouraging. It might be unrealistic.

I chose something else.

Bose went on to create sound canceling headphones, and I went on to create the LectricLifter (TM). You probably haven’t even heard of the LectricLifter (so far, at least) unless you read my blog constantly.

Which I hope you do.

The sound canceling earphones, you’ve seen at the mall or you’ve read about in SkyMall Airline Magazine. You may own a pair.

I love this story because it shows how smart I was. And how my idea got misappropriated by a guy who went on to make BILLIONS with it..

Except that’s BS.

At the time we talked, Dr. Bose knew more about sound cancellation then I will ever know. I didn’t teach him a thing. If he remembered the discussion, a few weeks later, it shows he has an uncanny  ability to remember trivia.

IF anything I said, later, turned out to be useful, would he have credited me? Actually, I think he would have. He’s a good guy and very ethical. At the time we had our discussion, computers were big, expensive, and slow. Practical solutions for noise cancellation were iffy. Why would Amar Bose encourage a topic that’s an intellectual cul de sac? His advice was right. And Greene’s theorem (as I remember it now) didn’t mean it couldn’t be done, just that there are realistic constraints.

My point?

Look how smart I am.

But there’s another thing. Sometimes it’s hard not to make a personal history “all about me”.


There is a way to think about this exchange and convince yourself – myself, actually – how unfair life is. Nasty  Amar Bose, taking my idea and building a whole industry out of it. But – honestly? – it didn’t happen that way at all. And I know that. He left me with more than I left him with.

I learned something.

He had an extra student he didn’t much need.

And later, based ENTIRELY on his own work, he did go on to create an entirely new product category. A good one which adds to his legacy.

MISTER ScienceAintSoBad rates Amar Bose’s contributions to the science of acoustics very highly.

And Mister ScienceAintSoBad rates his own personal maturity right up there too though there is some room for improvement.

Inventors Talk To An Old Guy

Posted by on Saturday, 7 May, 2011


Inside Starbucks. But SO Outside-Of-The-Box

I was summoned to a meeting with a local inventor.

At Starbucks.

I forgot to ask. Eirik, the President of CustomBuds what he looks like. But Starbucks isn’t large. And my face is on LinkedIn. I figured we’d find each other easy enough.

When I arrived, I bought a cup of tea (who drinks coffee at night?) and looked around for a corporate leader. Nothing obvious. No one with a loosened tie or folded suit coat. Just teenagers and young women with kids. Too early? Wrong Starbucks?

One of the teenagers came over. Was I MISTER ScienceAintSoBad? He was Eirik Somerville. The guy with him was Sam, he said, his CFO.

Sam had that youth look down too.

Their Macbooks were open. And, on the table were containers of disassembled parts. Custom ear buds, it turns out.

I asked Eirik if he’s as young as he looks or if it’s a genetic curse that runs in his family.

“I’m seventeen,” he said.


“And you’re running a company?”

All business (and, apparently, having heard this crap often enough to ignore it), Eirik plunged in.

“So. Some time ago, I noticed how Steve Jobs, at Apple, leveraged the look of his products to improve sales. I love Steve, because he understands the power of aesthetics. And I wondered,” (said this child,) “if I couldn’t find a way to launch a company that does nothing but customize common products for other people.”

“The first thing that came to mind were the earphones that’re worn by kids with iPods. So I looked into offering custom colors for ear buds.”

“That’ll never work,” I said.

“We’re selling thousands,” he said. “With just word of mouth.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Here’s the thing,” Eirik said, “I know it may sound crazy, but people want things to reflect their own personality. With something as minimal as earbuds, the color’s the only thing you can really make your own. And we make a really quality product. Take a look.”

He pushed the box at me. Machined anodized aluminum ear pieces that made me want to take one home. Lots higher quality and more durable (it seemed) than the plastic version you usually see.

I let Sam and Eirik wind down. Then I got off some questions. How do you test? Who does the assembly? Marketing? (word-of-mouth will only stretch so far).  Financing?

Jeez! They had thought this thing through. Their answers were believable. They have a solid business plan and they know what they’re doing. Not perfect. But I’ve talked to plenty of entrepreneurs with less savvy. Older isn’t always better.

(Except in my case.)

CustomBud’s stock in trade is efficiency. Eirik says he’s developed a nifty way of spinning out high quality, solid metal ear buds on a per order basis at prices that compete with the mass produced stuff.

How does he do it?

I dunno, exactly. It can’t be slave labor since they employ US vets as workers. Probably, they don’t want to share the ingredients of the secret sauce. I can’t say I blame them.

CustomBud's very pro website in action

Quality control and testing? Very serious about it. Nevertheless, they were intent on learning how to improve. They asked good questions. I hope I gave good answers. New product lines? We booted that around too.

By 6:30, the lady behind the counter was giving us the you-gonna-order-more-or-give-up-the-table look. Since my lungs were already floating, I suggested we wrap it up.

Maybe I helped them. Maybe they were being polite. But, look at it this way, I got an article out of it. And tea.


Eirik Somerville. Remember that name. You may hear it again.


Posted by on Monday, 2 May, 2011


My Dear Mister Scienceaintsobad: I’m a pacifist and a vegetarian. I’m also an environmentalist and I hate, hate, hate the big gas guzzling monsters that you typical Americans drive . (Well, not YOU, MR SASB, since I’m sure YOU have a refined social conscience.) I’m trying to decided between a Toyota Prius hybrid which gets 51 mpg and a Ford Fusion which only gets 36 mpg. The problem is that I so want to “buy American” and yet, I want to get the most green, green, green car I can. Do you have any suggestions, kind sir? -Goody2shoes.

You already HAVE a life, right?

OK.Then let’s talk about hybrid cars. They’re great. No question about that. You get TWO engines for the price of one (and a half, actually).

And what is environmentalism, really,  if it can’t give you that “I’m so in love with  myself” moment?

But if you’re SERIOUSLY trying to figure out how to reduce the carbon footprint of your transportation, skip the hybrid  says the  Dust to Dust Energy Report – Automotive (CNW).

Why? Because we stupes who thought we were gonna save energy fergot to take into account the “lifecycle” cost of a vehicle. It takes ENERGY to MANUFACTURE a car and its parts. And, when you total up all that ENERGY, you haven’t SAVED anything.

CNW says.

In FACT, with a hybrid, you’re in the hole so bad (energywise)  that a hummer –  a big ol galumphing HUMMER –  is more efficient than a Prius.  Aren’t you glad you checked?

Except CNW’s pants are on fire. Its argument is flamed by Bengt Halvorson ( .

Bengt says there’s nothing new here. Lifecycle analysis is old stuff. Been around a long time.  Besides.  CNW’s “facts” don’t match up with other studies.  It should explain its methodology since most research goes the other way, affirming the benefit of hybrids.  One thing that’s kinda obvious about the CNW study is that it seems to jigger the lifetime of the some hybrids. For example, it gives the Prius only 109,000 miles while the Hummer H1 keeps humming for 379,000 miles. Is THAT fair??? And it “writes off” R&D for hybrid development over about 11 seconds.


MISTER SCIENCEAINTSOBAD can’t advise you about buying American, Goody. That’s not my department.

But you’re good to go with hybrids.

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