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Tuesday: June 14, 2005

Fooling the Gods?

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:45 PM GMT-0500

Language Hat has an interesting post on the etymology of ‘theodolite’, which he treats as some kind of exotic or obsolete scientific instrument. I have used one on the job, though not in the last quarter-century. From 1978 to 1982 I worked for a company that measured air pollution from moving trucks and airplanes, a process my boss invented, and we used theodolites to measure the winds at various altitudes. They were not carried along on the trucks and planes, but set up on the ground to track pink gas-filled balloons. As I recall, a theodolite is just a device to measure the precise direction in three-dimensional space from one’s own location to any object within sight. For instance, it may show that a neighboring hilltop or mountain peak is located at a bearing of 343°, i.e. north by northwest, and 12° above horizontal. It’s basically a small telescope on a tripod, with a plumb bob to level the platform, a compass to line it up north and south, and horizontal and vertical cranks with numbered dials to aim the sight and measure the vertical angle above (or slightly below) the plane of the earth’s surface and the horizontal angle clockwise from due north. One worker would turn the two cranks to keep the balloon in sight of the little telescope as long as she could, while another recorded the azimuth and elevation at set intervals of time. Our primitive computers (7K RAM, 40-character LED display, audio-casette storage — a bargain at $15,000 each) would then calculate the wind direction and (I think) speed at various heights, or perhaps we did that part on graph paper — it’s been a long time. As I recall, plumes emitted from power plants tended to skew clockwise as they went up, and sometimes had more complex shapes. We needed to know where the winds were blowing to decide where to send the truck or airplane.

As for the etymology, I told my fellow-workers at the time (an overeducated bunch) that ‘theo-dol-ite’ should mean ‘an instrument to fool the gods’. We looked it up, and Webster’s or Funk and Wagnall’s or whoever it was said that it means ‘an instrument for seeing clearly’. If so, the inventor messed up two of the vowels, since that should be a ‘theadelite’.

Eating One’s Own Dog Food, II

Filed under: — site admin @ 5:31 PM GMT-0500

Ann Althouse has an interesting post about raising the retirement age for Social Security. The last paragraph is an update:

In the Comments: Responses that show why politicians don’t dare to suggest the obvious, obvious solution! Make this proposal and the practically next words you hear will be “dog food.”

I have known for many years that ‘old folks forced by poverty to eat dog food’ is almost certainly an urban legend. Way back in the late Carter or early Reagan years, one of the regular columnists in The American Spectator (perhaps Tom Bethell or Ben Stein) went to the trouble of testing the basic plausibility of this already-widespread belief. He checked the price of a 2-pound can of Alpo at his local supermarket, and reported that for the same amount of money he could buy a pound of chicken and a pound of potatoes, with two cents left over. In other words, dog food ain’t cheap, and old folks who eat it, if they exist at all, need to be examined for (other) symptoms of senility, insanity, or plain old-fashioned stupidity.

I was about to hit ‘publish’ on the paragraph above when I realized that I ought to get off my butt and see whether this is still true. Perhaps dog food is a better deal than it was twenty-something years ago. I spent a few minutes this morning checking prices at my local Giant, which happens to be next door to the largest old folks’ home in Baltimore County: at 52, I was the 2nd-youngest customer in the store. In what follows, all prices are per pound, not per container or serving. I didn’t worry about the size of the packages at all, but recorded the price per pound displayed on the shelf, and assumed that the impoverished elderly could and would buy whatever portion size (up to 6 or 7 pounds) would save money. Here is what I found in the dog food aisle:

Canned Alpo or Pedigree: 83.2¢.
Giant’s house brand ‘Companion’ (cute name!): 57.5¢ to $1.43, depending on size.
Purina Moist & Meaty burgers: $1.09.
Cesar Select dinners: $3.15.
Beggin’ Strips: $6.38 to $9.04. (Why not just to buy the dog some bacon?)

What about the more standard alternatives? I’ll start with the chicken and then list some of the fruits and vegetables I found that were even cheaper, in order from most to least expensive:

Chicken: 99¢ (Purdue chicken leg quarters on sale) or $1.29 (18 piece fryer pack).
Yellow onions: 83.3¢ ($2.49 for a 3-lb bag).
Turnips: 79¢.
Green (aka ‘spring’) onions: 79¢.
Eggs: around 70¢ ($1.19 per dozen for XL, package marked “1 lb 11 oz”).
Carrots: 69.8¢ ($3.49 for a 5-lb bag).
Green beans: 63.2¢ (Del Monte, in the 6 lb 5 oz can).
Cabbage: 59¢.
Bananas: 49¢.
White potatoes: 44.6¢ ($1.88 for a 5 lb bag).

At some times of the year, apples and tomatoes would probably also drop below 99¢ per pound. Of course, Alpo is 100% edible, whereas all of the alternatives except the canned green beans have bones, shells, skins, or stems to discard, but they’re all at least mostly (80+%) edible, unlike (e.g.) artichokes or pistachio nuts, and I suspect Alpo contains more than its share of unnutricious gristle. Whether baked or boiled, potatoes with skins on are better for you anyway. So far, it looks like dog food could be slightly cheaper, if you stick to the house brand, since a diet of cabbages, bananas, and potatoes would be hard to keep up for long.

I didn’t think to check the prices of bread, rice, or hot dogs, all of which would have included some very inexpensive options, and Giant seems to be all out of 50-packs of tortillas, which I have often bought there for around $3.00, if I’m not mistaken. Nor did I look for day-old baked goods or marked-down damaged canned goods. However, I did take a look at some of the dried foods. These are much harder to evaluate accurately, since a pound of noodles or dried beans will likely turn into roughly two pounds of food when boiled into edibility, and is therefore equivalent to something like two pounds of canned dog food, where the water is already included in the purchase weight. (No, I will not get a scale and weigh a package of noodles or beans before and after boiling. It’s not like I’m getting paid to write this stuff.) Here is what I found:

Ramen noodles: 88¢ (suprisingly high, but unusually dry — perhaps they triple or quadruple in weight when boiled?).
Macaroni: 75¢ to 99¢ (a dozen varieties, some on sale).
Dried beans (half a dozen kinds: black, white, yellow, lima — like a Benetton ad!): 69¢-79¢.
Dried lentils: 55¢.

Cut those prices in half to adjust for the wet-dry comparison, and they’re even cheaper than house brand dog food. If anyone objects that some dog foods are also sold dry, I will point out that they also generally sell for $1.00 per pound or more.

Conclusion: I wouldn’t care to live on a diet including only the (human) foods mentioned, but I could certainly get used to it very quickly if the only alternative were dog food. Many healthy and (relatively) tasty human foods are in fact cheaper than dog food, and eating dog food will not save you money unless you’re too stupid to choose the cheapest non-canine foods.

Update: (half an hour later)

I don’t doubt that people have eaten dog food now and then for non-budgetary reasons, and posted on the topic a few weeks ago in Eating One’s Own Dog Food, I.