October 8, 1999
After several years of slogging along in this job, I have finally made an important decision. I’ve decided what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a movie critic. After reviewing all the possible options, and after reading a rant in which a movie critic complained that the movie critic field is overstuffed with no-talent hacks, I realized it’s the perfect job for me. Since, according to the collective wisdom of movie critics, 99% of the planet’s population is composed of no-talent hacks, and since the critics can’t agree which hacks are really talented, I figure I’m either a no-talent hack myself (which would make me perfect for the job) or I’m a moving target (which is a good thing for a movie critic to be, since all the stars of explosive action films are, in real life, completely incapable of hitting moving targets).
Other qualifications include the fact that I can use words like "insouciant", I’ve seen a few movies in my life, and I was frequently beaten up on the playground as a child. I also have perfect vision, although even if I didn’t, I could still be a film critic. Many film critics, you may have noticed, wear glasses, and they use their thumbs to rate movies because those little stars are just too darn hard to see. The advantages of being a film critic include free popcorn, being able to write for a newspaper but never having to dig deeply into complex issues (actually this is an advantage of working for most newspapers), and being part of show business without ever having to worry about being caught in the back of a corvette with a large halibut wrapped in leather. In fact, movie critics are involved in bizarre scandals all the time, but you never hear about them because, well, no one cares.
Enjoy this week’s offerings.
An Engineering Tribute
The US Standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number.
Why was that gauge used?
Because that’s the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.
Why did the English people build them like that?
Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.
Why did "they" use that gauge then?
Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.
Okay! Why did the wagons use that odd wheel spacing?
Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagons would break on some of the old, long distance roads, because that’s the spacing of the old wheel ruts.
So who built these old rutted roads?
The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of their legions. The roads have been used ever since.
And the ruts?
The initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons, were first made by Roman war chariots. Since the chariots were made for or by Imperial Rome they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.
Thus, we have the answer to the original question.
The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman army war chariot.
Specs and Bureaucracies live forever.
So, the next time you are handed a specification and wonder what "Horse’s Rear"came up with it, you may be exactly right. Because the Imperial Roman chariots were made to be just wide enough to accommodate the backends of two war horses.
Now, there’s even more…
There’s an interesting extension of the story about railroad gauge and horses’ behinds.
When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on the launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are the solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at a factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line to the factory runs through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than a railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.
So a major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined by the width of a horse’s rear!
Now you know what’s "behind" it all
Many of you have heard Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others speak of the "Homosexual Agenda," but no one has ever seen a copy of it. Here is a copy obtained directly from the Homosexual Headquarters. It reads as follows:
The Homosexual Agenda
6:00 am Gym
8:00 am Breakfast (oatmeal and egg whites)
9:00 am Hair appointment
10:00 am Shopping (preferably at Neiman Marcus or Nordstom)
12:00 PM Brunch
2:00 PM 1) Assume complete control of the US Federal, State, and Local Government, as well as all other national governments, 2) Destroy all healthy marriages, 3) Replace all school counselors in grades K-12 with militant homosexuals who seek to recruit children for the homosexual lifestyle, 4) Bulldoze all houses of worship, 5) Secure total control of the INTERNET and all mass media, and, 6) Be utterly fabulous
2:30 PM Get forty winks of beauty rest to prevent facial wrinkles from the stress of world conquest; aroma therapy
4:00 PM Cocktails
6:00 PM Light Dinner (soup, salad [arugula & balsamic vinegar dressing], Chardonnay.
8:00 PM Theater
10:30 PM Cocktails in a charming neighborhood bistro.
12:00 am Bed (dujour)