Ask Tamim


Betty H. asks:

Why is New York City called The Big Apple?   

New York City is called The Big Apple because it sounds so much cooler than Fun City, the dorky nickname used in all the promotional literature put out by the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau prior to the 1970s. In that decade the bureau revamped its publications, in part because the tourist industry seemed to be slumping. Someone spotted the term Fun City in the pamphlets and said, “Hey, there’s our problem right there.” (Fun City sounds exactly like something a publicity department would invent.) A search was launched for a new nickname, and that’s when someone dug up Big Apple. The term was coined in the 1920s by African American musicians who made their living moving from town to town, mostly playing little clubs and dives. Those musicians had a saying: “There are many apples on the tree, but when you pick New York City you picked the Big Apple.” That nickname was largely forgotten until the New York City Convention & Visitors Bureau dug it up and made it popular again. (Incidentally, Sacramento, California, in a moment of self-deprecation, followed suit by promoting for itself the nickname the Big Tomato. No word yet on whether any cities will be nicknaming themselves the Large Cucumber, the Plump Rice Grain, but I’ve heard Seattle is thinking of adopting the nickname the Grande Latte.   


Curious Kelley asks:


I have a friend who believes that Neil Armstrong never walked on the Moon. He says the whole thing was a hoax set up by NASA and produced in a Hollywood studio. He has two main reasons for his opinion. First: The lighting on the Space Craft was too good–every word across the entire space shuttle was perfectly legible, almost as if it was spotlighted. Two, the American flag was blowing in the wind. What wind? There is no wind on the moon. Is my friend right? Have I been gullible all these years?   

Frankly, your friend’s reasons don’t impress me. I would expect light to look different on the Moon than it does on Earth, because the Moon has no atmosphere to soften or diffuse it. With no atmospheric distortion, the letters on the spacecraft would look sharper and clearer than anything filmed on Earth. As for the flag, I assume NASA supplied Armstrong with a flag made of some stiff material that would hold its shape, so that when he stepped onto the Moon, the stars and stripes would show. I mean, let’s face it–those guys were rocket scientists. If the Moon shot were faked, think how many people would have had to have been in on the conspiracy. (Watch the credits next time you see a film that has a lot of special effects.) Think about what a great story this would be for some journalist. Then calculate how many journalists are crawling around out there, looking for a story. Then consider how much the tabloids might pay for such a story. Do you mean to tell me that in all these 30-something years, for that kind of money, no one has spilled the beans? People walking on the Moon I can believe, but this other idea? No way am I that gullible!   


Len M. asks:


If you’re going in and out of a room, is it more cost-efficient to flip the light switch on and off or to leave the light on until you’re done with that room?   

Computing energy efficiency is always a tricky business because you have to take hidden costs into account. Here, you’d have to take into account the fact that a regular light bulb wears out faster if you keep switching it on and off. Even so, according to my power company, it’s more cost-effective to turn a light off when you leave a room if you’re going to be gone any longer than a minute. I don’t know how this computation will change after all our lightbulbs are that LED kind, which use about 2% of the wattage of the old, incandescent kind that will no longer be sold after 2012. I think the minute might be extended to a couple of hours at that point, because the cost of making those light bulbs—depending as they will on precious rare-earth elements—will be so much higher than the cost of running them.   


Brenda R. asks:

How much is a cow worth? I was driving past a meadow one day, I saw thirty cows, and there was no one guarding them. Anyone could have taken one.  How many dollars are thirty cows worth?      

Well, Brenda, the answer to your question depends on the market.  In a bear market, a cow isn’t worth anything, because a cow isn’t a bear.  In a bull market, you can get $2,400 or more for your animal, provided your animal is a bull. In the less well-known cow-market, it’s up to $2,000 for a beef cow but $500 -$800 tops for a dairy cow: go figger.            

This animal sells for $3,000.

This one? A mere $800.


Incidentally, I was talking to a woman in Washington State recently who raises rodeo horses.  How much does one of them sell for, I asked.  “Oh,” she said, “anywhere from 15 to 25 thousand for a good one. ” Think about that next time you driving past a corral with 30 radio horses browsing around, munching on grass!    

Ann L. asks:
Why are bluejays blue? Aren’t they eating the same worms and bugs as sparrows? Also, why do many birds have such bright plumage? Don’t the bright colors make them easier for predators to spot? If that’s so, how come evolution hasn’t weeded out this trait? 

Sparrows don’t look blue because “you look like what you eat” isn’t a reliable rule in nature.   If it were, cows would look green and babies chalk-white. Also, wolves would like sheep and patrons of Carl’s Jr. like messy hamburgers. As for the bright plumage, only the males have those adornments in most species. The females generally have boring feathers that make them blend in with the shrubbery. The thing is, the bottom line in evolution by natural selectionis the passing on of ones genes.  So it’s not just about surviving predators; it’s also about getting more chances to mate. Bright feathers make the males easier for predators to spot, but it also gets them noticed mor easily by the females. And that’s important because in nature, females can get by with cunning and strength, but for males, it’s a jungle out there, and in the long run only the pretty survive.

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