Category Archives: Logic and Reasoning

#51: In Memoriam on Groundhog Day

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #51, on the subject of In Memoriam on Groundhog Day.

My father died a few days ago, at noon on January 27th, 2016.  There will be memorial visitation on Saturday, February 13th, from one to four in the afternoon at the Van Emburgh-Sneider-Pernice Funeral Home on Darlington Ave in Ramsey (New Jersey) near the home he has shared with my mother since I was twelve.  Before that we lived in Scotch Plains, and in Freeport, Long Island.  He came from Sardis, Mississippi, by way of an Electrical Engineering degree from Georgia Tech.  I will always remember him working decades for Western Union, but it had been decades since he was there and he had held a number of other jobs since.  He did not speak much of his education or his work, but I gather he had completed a masters at Stevens Institute of Technology, and worked sporadically toward a doctorate.  He held patents in focusing microwaves, and headed engineering in Western Union’s Data Services offshoot in the late 60’s.  He was the only person I knew who had worked in assembly language.

He was Cornelius Bryant Young, Jr.  Technically, he was the third, but his grandfather had died while his father was still young, and his father married old, so my granddad took “senior” and made him “junior” (although they never, as far as I know, called him that).  Since his grandfather was “Cornelius” his father was always “Bryant”, and he wound up with “C.B.”, although it was often reduced to “Seeb”, which is what my mother generally called him.  He hated nicknames–I never understood why, and as “Mark” always wished that there was a more familiar form distinguished as “my friends call me”.  (I might then have felt that I had friends.)  My mother wanted to name one of us Cornelius Bryant Young IV and call him Neil, and my father always said, “If you want to call him Neil, name him Neil.”  My little brother is Neil Bryant Young.  My wife also wanted to name a child Cornelius Bryant Young IV and call him Cory, but my father said–well, you know what he said.  My second son is Kyler Cornelius Bryant Young, and my third has Cory as a middle name.

I will remember many of the wonderful things he said over the years.  They come to mind particularly because he often quipped about today–Groundhog Day–saying “If the groundhog sees his shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter, but if he doesn’t, it will be a month and a half.”

Cornelius B. Young, Jr., in 2015 at his brother-in-law's birthday party.
Cornelius B. Young, Jr., in 2015 at his brother-in-law’s birthday party.

He gave the name Young’s Theorem to a quip he created and put on signs in a working lab he headed before I was born.  People working on various projects would find that they did not have the particular piece of equipment they needed, so would substitute something similar–“not the same, but not really different”–and then be surprised at the results.  My father’s sign read, “Things that are not the same are different.”

It was from him that I first heard Murphy’s Law, and he delighted in collecting such witicisms.  He gave me (appropriately, given the recent reaction to my article a few days ago on the X-Files sexism flap), “I know that you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I am not certain you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  I was still in Cub Scouts, having trouble working on a Pinewood Derby model car, when he said, with a wonderfully instructive facetiousness, “If you cut it too short you can always stretch it, but what can you do if you cut it too long?”

He was the most patient man I ever knew (although once when I said that to my mother, she told me to remember that he lost his temper at me more than once).  I only heard him swear once in my life, in a famous story of our effort to navigate Skinner’s Falls on the Delaware River when it was several feet above flood stage.  He remained constantly calmly rational–my model of unemotive rationality long before Spock appeared.  It has impacted me significantly, as I, too, am generally not effusive in my expressions of emotion, regard foul language as an indication of a poor intellect, and choose rational response over impatient reaction.  Yet it had its negative side.  He would often praise my efforts after a success in my school days, such as a band or choral concert, but because he knew that his cool rationalism would not sound sincere he forced an enthusiasm that always sounded less sincere in my ears, and so I never received praise well from him–and in turn I made a point with my own sons not to attempt to sound enthusiastic in my praise.  I can only hope they understood that I was sincere.

He was always there for us when we were in trouble.  I think perhaps we relied too much on him.  I wonder, often, whether his available support caused me to rely less on God in times of trouble, or whether it taught me that a father is always there for you.  I probably called him for help about a tenth as many times as my wife suggested.  I knew I was a disappointment to him in that area, and that that was important to him.  I shall need more help from others in the years ahead, I expect, as he is no longer there.

He was, and in a sense continues to be, the reason for much that is in this web log.  Because of my law school degree (for which he paid a significant portion, and for which he never received an adequate return on his investment) he regaled me with articles, clippings in envelopes and links online, claiming that President Obama was not legitimately elected because he was not a “natural born Citizen” as required by the Constitution.  That led to the composition of my series on The Birther Issue and the addenda on The Birth Certificate, and my title as Newark Political Buzz Examiner.  The law and politics section of my website has been expanded to many times its previous size by those articles, and I still keep an eye on the political news and write about it here sporadically.  One of the last clippings he sent me before he died was an insightful piece on whether Ted Cruz was a “natural born Citizen”, although I had already addressed that.  I have not checked my e-mail since before his final hospitalization, but expect that I will find something there from him that might require me to respond here.

I miss him.  We rarely talked, and always when we did I felt that I had failed in the ways he had most hoped I would succeed, but I knew he loved me despite his cool exterior, and I know that my life will be a lot harder and a little lonelier without him.

He was a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, but had settled into the (calmer and less conservative) American Baptist Convention churches by the time I was born.  He often expressed doubts and raised questions about Christian faith, and I wanted him to read the draft of my hopefully forthcoming book Why I Believe (tentative title).  I don’t know whether he expressed those to me because of my degrees in Biblical Studies, and I never could be certain exactly about his faith in Christ, but I have good reason to hope that he has had those doubts resolved and is in the presence of our Lord even now.

Dad, if you get this message, my long-remembered college friend Steve Freed established the rendezvous location for us and I promised to meet him there, along with everyone else:  East Side, Center Gate.  I hope to see you there in a few short years.

With tears on my face,

    I love you, Dad.

[contact-form subject='[mark Joseph %26quot;young%26quot;’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment: Note that this form will contact the author by e-mail; to post comments to the article, see below.’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

#46: Blizzard Panic

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #46, on the subject of Blizzard Panic.

I am going to blame, or credit, Isaiah Richardson for the push that moved this from annoying musings to an article.  I do not know him well, but he is connected to me through Facebook, and more particularly through being one of my sons’ peers.  He posted to his Facebook to the effect that those who do not live around here must be quite confused that the impending blizzard caused us all to need to make so much French Toast.  Think about it.

I have never understood the panic over a bit of snow.  People seem to lose all sense when the snow is threatened, and don’t know how to live when it arrives.  I live in Cumberland County, in New Jersey, which is almost as far south as you can live and still be considered in the Northeast Corridor–we are south of the Mason-Dixon Line, south of Elkton, Maryland.  I grew up much farther north, and I learned to drive in the snows of Massachusetts–I was there for the Blizzard of ’78 (which as you can see in the picture closed highways pretty completely).  Down here, within a couple days the snow is mostly melted.

New England's Blizzard of '78
New England’s Blizzard of ’78

That’s part of the problem, of course, is that people down here have rarely experienced the kind of snow we had, even at the northern end of the same state.  My parents do get snow that would make me nervous about driving, and they’re just south of the New York Thruway off Route 17.  I drive in weather like that–weather like this–but people around here don’t, and those who do usually are too frightened to drive well.  They become the worst part of driving in this weather.  For one thing, too many of them drive so slowly that one mistake, one change in road surface, and they’ll be stuck, without any momentum to carry them forward.  I know, they’re afraid that if they have momentum they won’t be able to stop if they lose control and something is in front of them, but controlling a car out of a skid is not that big a deal as long as you are familiar enough with the experience that you respond correctly and smoothly.  It’s just a bit nerve-wracking at that moment.

That aspect of having the experience, though, is a significant part of it all.  My father spent his childhood in central Mississippi (I don’t know whether that’s why I can spell that, or whether it’s because of that song).  He commented once that in central New Jersey, where we then were living, if it snowed a few inches they had plows and other equipment out on the roads to make it possible for everyone to get where we needed to be.  I walked to school in snow like that–snow like this–many times.  Back home, he noted, if there was a layer of white dust on the road, everything closed, because no one was equipped for it.  By contrast, years later when I was in Rockport for the aforementioned famed blizzard within hours the town was clearing roads as front end loaders filled dump trucks which emptied snow off the stone pier into the ocean, jackhammers chipped away the underlying ice, and small caterpillar-driven plows rode down sidewalks to carve paths for pedestrians.  They knew what to do when it snowed a bit.

The worst fear here is a power outage.  We are fairly resourceful.  It is a design flaw that most gas appliances operate electronically, but the stovetop can be lit to keep a fire going in the kitchen, which will prevent the house from freezing.  The problem is the water–pumped electrically from a well beneath the house, the pressure is generally gone within the first half hour even if we’re mindful of it.  In summer blackouts, pool water can be used for washing and other sanitary needs, but melting snow is not the best choice for such problems–the amount of air in snow makes it very difficult to thaw over a fire without burning the pot. We keep a dozen two-liter bottles of water in the freezer, but they take time to thaw and we go through them fast if we’re not careful with them.  Mercifully, the power company is pretty good, and only once in memory was there a blackout that lasted more than a couple days.  We had a scare this morning when a breaker blew, but it was quickly resolved.

Usually we have enough food in the house to last a few days, if only because I don’t want to have to shop every day.  That has become less so of late–financial pressures have meant less long-term shopping and more focus on immediate expenses–but if pushed to it there is enough pasta to keep us fed for a few weeks, as long as we can light the stove and put water in a pot.  So I’m not one of those who suddenly has to fill the larder because I might not be able to get to the store for a few days.  That seems crazy to me.

Which brings us back to French Toast.  I’m hoping you got it.  It’s about the products that fly off the shelves during blizzard panic.  Everyone talks about how very quickly the three perishable staples vanish.  Those would be milk, eggs, and bread.  Those are the primary ingredients of French Toast.  The odd question is, what else would you make with these three ingredients?  Bread pudding, perhaps?  So it is a strange combination for people to be stocking in anticipation of being trapped at home, but those are the products most noticeable in their absence from the shelves, so that’s probably what people plan to make.  After all, you only need to light the stovetop and put a bit of oil in a pan….

[contact-form subject='[mark Joseph %26quot;young%26quot;’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment: Note that this form will contact the author by e-mail; to post comments to the article, see below.’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

#45: The Math of Charging Your Phone

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #45, on the subject of The Math of Charging Your Phone.

I once had a charger for my phone that I could plug into the cigarette lighter outlet (now called “power outlet”) of a car.  I used it sometimes when I would leave the house and then discover my phone was dying, or when I was headed to a convention and knew I was not going to be in the hotel room long enough or frequently enough to support the battery, or when the wires on the one in the house came loose and I couldn’t justify buying another house charger right away.  I don’t use it now because the lighter outlet in the one car we still have on the road broke.  However, I’m given to understand that newer cars are more and more coming equipped with USB ports for the specific purpose of charging cell phones or powering similar equipment, and people are doing this far more.

So of course now someone has come along and said that we shouldn’t do that because it’s contributing to an environmental disaster.


He’s not a nutcase.  He’s an automotive electronics engineer, retired.  In general, he makes a good point; but in making it, he does a few things that create a misleading result.  We will get to the good point eventually here.

He begins his calculation by estimating that a smartphone requires 4.8W (four and eight-tenths watts) to recharge.  That’s fascinating, because Universal Serial Buss (USB) ports don’t deliver that much.  All USB ports deliver five volts (5V).  The common USB 1.0 and USB 2.0 ports are limited to a maximum of five hundred milliamps (500mA), or half an amp.  That means maximum output is two and a half watts (2.5W).  The newer USB 3.0 ports can deliver nine hundred milliamps (900mA), nine tenths of an amp, which comes to a maximum output of four and a half watts (4.5W).  You can’t get as much as he says the phone draws from a USB port.  We might presume that the ports in a car, not being directly tied to a computer, might have higher current capabilities, but the way USB works, the connected device controls the current flow (amperage) and thus the total power (wattage), and the smartphone is not going to assume the port can provide more than specifications dictate.

Our author gets his number not from what USB ports provide but from the amount required to charge the phone from completely dead to fully charged.  It might take a long time to do that on a trickle charge, but he’s right to the degree that if you are completely charging your phone from nothing, you’re going to use that much power to do it.  But then he assumes that you get that 4.8W in one hour, from which he calculates that this will cost you 0.03 (zero-point-zero-three, or three one hundreds) of a mile per gallon.  That’s not negligible–it’s about half a football field per gallon, a bit more than the distance around the high school track on a ten gallon tank–but if you’re getting thirty miles per gallon, it’s point one percent (0.1%), one part in one thousand.  He then multiplies that by the three trillion road miles traveled by all United States drivers in a year assuming an average velocity of thirty miles per hour, and comes up with one hundred million gallons of gasoline spent to charge phones.  That’s two hundred million dollars.  It also produces as much greenhouse gas as burning nine hundred forty-five million pounds of coal.

The article does make one excellent point:  It will cost you thirty times as much to charge your phone on your car’s engine as it will to charge it on your house current.  That’s because electric companies don’t use gasoline engines to generate electricity, but go for the least expensive options at all times, and automobiles are designed to be efficient transportation, not efficient electrical generators.  It will cost you about two cents an hour to charge your phone in your car, about six one-hundreds of a cent for the same hour of charging at home.  It will cost you, personally, even less to charge it in your hotel room if you’re on the road.  Car chargers should be the backup option, not the primary choice.

On the other hand, he’s using the phantom of big numbers to frighten us.  It is reminiscent of the famous “National Geographics Disaster” covered thoroughly (and facetiously) in The Journal of Irreproducible Results, in which scientists jokingly calculated the long-term consequences of the fact that the relatively heavy National Geographic Magazine is never scrapped but rather stored in growing piles in basements and garages, such that in millions of years the accumulated weight would cause continents to buckle and sink.  Because we’re multiplying that tiny two cents an hour by three trillion miles of driving, of course we get a huge number.  If all of that charging was shifted to wall outlets, the cost would still be over six million dollars–a lot less than two hundred million, but still one of those huge frightening numbers.  The amount of power we’re talking about for one phone is still a very small amount.  Your car stereo probably draws several times that.  If you don’t have the new light-emitting diode (LED) or similar high-technology low-power headlights, they almost certainly do.  Besides, even were you to leave your phone connected to the charger for every minute that you drive, one of the functions of USB charging systems is that when the device is fully charged it stops drawing power.  So if in that first hour of driving your phone is fully charged, it doesn’t charge more until you’ve used it.  It’s absolutely foolish to imagine that we are, or ever will be, charging our cell phones every mile that we drive.  We charge them until they tell us they’re charged, then we put them away until we notice that they’re getting low again.  The scary numbers are inflated by this critically unreal assumption.

So do the reasonable thing and charge your phone from less expensive more environmentally sound wall current instead of the power system of a gasoline engine, but don’t obsess over the number of charging ports in new vehicles.  Driving is already an expensive environmentally unsound convenience.  Using the charging ports in the car is another one, a far less one on the grand scale of things and one which can more easily be replaced by something better.  Do so when you can.

[contact-form subject='[mark Joseph %26quot;young%26quot;’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment: Note that this form will contact the author by e-mail; to post comments to the article, see below.’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

#34: Happy Old Year

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #34, on the subject of Happy Old Year.

At this time of year, readers are bombarded with “year in review” pieces, part of the media’s need to have news even when there is no news, to make news out of nonsense and trivia–the reason Time Magazine first created its “Man of the Year” issue (the first was Adolph Hitler).  When I was at The Examiner, I began doing something of the same thing, creating indices of articles from the year for readers who missed something or who vaguely remember something.  Quite a bit has been published this year, and it might help to have a bit of a review of it all, as some of you might have missed some of it.  We have articles in quite a few categories.

The web log is of course self-sorting, and you can find articles in its various categories by following the category links, or in subjects by following tag links; still, it will be worth touching on those pieces here, and there are also quite a few “static pages”, that is, regular web pages added to the site, that you might have missed.

At the beginning of the year we were still writing for The Examiner; all of that has been republished here, much of it which was originally done in serialized format consolidated into larger articles.  My reasons for that are explained here on the blog in #8:  Open Letter to the Editors of The Examiner, if you missed them.  It is still hoped that the Patreon campaign will pick up the slack and pay the bills needed to support continuing the efforts here at M. J. Young Net.


Let’s start with the law and politics pieces.  This is a good place to start, because when at the beginning of the year we moved everything from The Examiner, we included a final New Jersey Political Buzz Index Early 2015, with articles on Coalition Government, Broadcasting, Marriage Law Articles, Judiciary, Internet Law, Congress, Discrimination, Election Law, Search and Seizure, Presidential, Health Care, and Insurrection, most subjects covering several articles consolidated with other articles, along with links to earlier indices.  There was also a new main law/politics index page, appropriately Articles on Law and Politics, covering the old and the new, and we added a static page to that, continuing a series on tax we had begun previously, What’s Wrong with the Flat Tax?.

We’ve also had a number of law and politics posts on this blog, including

We also covered New Jersey’s 2015 off-year election with a couple posts, #12:  The 2015 Election, and #15:  The 2015 Election Results.

There were a few web log posts that were on Bible/theology subjects, particularly last week’s #32:  Celebrating Christmas, about why we celebrate, and why this particular day; plus some that were both political and theological, including #3:  Reality versus Experience, #23:  Armageddon and Presidential Politics, and #24:  Religious Liberty and Gay Rights:  A Definitive Problem.

Then there was the time travel material.  This also included some that were originally published at The Examiner and moved here, sometimes consolidated into single pieces.  We started the year with a serialized (and now consolidated) analysis of Predestination, followed by one of Project Almanac.  We also gave a nod to (Some of) The Best Time Travel Comedies and (Some of) The Best Time Travel Thrillers, before moving here.

Once here, we began our temporal insights with a couple of web log posts, the first #6:  Terminator Genisys Quick Temporal Survey, and then #17:  Interstellar Quick Temporal Survey, both thanks to the generosity of readers who provided for us to see these films.  We eventually managed to add a new analysis to the web site, Terminator Genisys, one of the longest and most complicated analyses we have yet done–but we were not done.  Remembering that our original analysis of the first two films in the franchise made some suggestions concerning a future direction for the series, and having commented on the problems with continuing it after the latest installment, we wrote #28:  A Terminator Vision, giving some ideas for a next film.  Then in response to a reply to the analysis, we added #31:  A Genisys Multiverse, explaining why we don’t think a multiverse-type solution resolves the problems of the film.

The site was expanded on another long-neglected front, the Stories from the Verse section:  the directors of Valdron Inc gave me permission to serialize Verse Three, Chapter One:  The First Multiverser Novel; as of today, the first forty-seven of one hundred twenty-six chapters (they’re mostly short chapters) have been published; there is an index which conveniently lists all the chapters from the first to the most recent published in the left column and from the most recent to the first in the right, so that you can begin at the beginning if you have not read it at all, or find where you left off going backwards if you’ve read most of it.  The chapters also link to each other for convenient page turning.

I don’t know whether it makes it more interesting or takes away some of the magic, but I also began running a set of “behind the writings” blog posts to accompany the novel.  These are my recollections of the process that brought the pages to life–where I got some of the ideas, my interactions with the editor and other pre-publication readers,, changes that were made, and how it all came to be.  There are now seven of them in print–

  1. #18:  A Novel Comic Milestone,

  2. #20:  Becoming Novel,
  3. #22:  Getting Into Characters,
  4. #25:  Novel Changes,
  5. #27:  A Novel Continuation,
  6. #30:  Novel Directions,
  7. #33:  Novel Struggles,

–and I expect to publish another tomorrow for the next six chapters.

Looking at the few posts that have not yet fit in one of these categories, whether logic or trivia or something else, one, #29:  Saving the Elite, was really advice for writing a certain kind of story.  Our first post in the blog, #1:  Probabilities and Solitaire, was a bit of a lesson in probabilities in card games, and #26:  The Cream in My Coffee applied physics to how you lighten and sweeten your hot beverages.

So that’s what we’ve been doing this year, or at least, that’s the part that sticks above the water.  We’ve answered questions by e-mail, posted to Facebook (and PInterest and Twitter and LinkedIn and MySpace and Google+ and IMDB and GoodReads and who knows where else), kept the Bible study going, worked on the novels, and tried to keep the home fires burning at the same time.  That’s all important, but somewhat ephemeral–it passes with time faster than that which is published.  Here’s hoping that you’ve benefited in some way from something I wrote this year, and that you’ll continue encouraging me in the year ahead.

Happy old year.

Happy new year.

[contact-form subject='[mark Joseph %26quot;young%26quot;’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment: Note that this form will contact the author by e-mail; to post comments to the article, see below.’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

#29: Saving the Elite

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #29, on the subject of Saving the Elite.

It is a story as old as Noah, and in many cases his “Ark” (a Hebrew word for “box”) gives its name to the story:  a catastrophe looms, and a select few will be chosen to board the spaceship, or enter the bomb shelter, or hide in the caves, or go into suspended animation, so that after everyone else has been killed these can emerge and repopulate the world.  It’s a compelling story.  However, there’s frequently a problem with the way it is told.


I was reminded of the storyline watching an episode of Leverage from an early season.  In order to discredit a ruthless reporter who had destroyed a client’s reputation with a biased scathing sensationalist story, the team is selling her a scare story in which the government is secretly building bunkers to house the elite while the rest of the nation dies from a self-replicating poison that has infected the water.  All the common people of the world are to be kept ignorant until they begin dying, and the rich and powerful will be saved.

Therein lies the problem.

I once heard a respected university professor explain that he knew nothing at all about fixing a car, and had no talent at household repairs, but that he had long been aware of these things and had taken an intelligent approach to them:  he prepared himself for a career that would pay him well enough that he could afford to hire other people for those problems.  That ultimately is the key problem with a system that preserves the elite:  from time immemorial, leaders and scholars and magnates have all been, to at least some degree, dependent people.  They cannot do the essentials for themselves, no matter how good they are at what they do.

Certainly in our complicated time everyone is a dependent person.  None of us are good enough at enough of the essentials that we never have to rely on the work of someone else, whether it’s to provide our tools or our food or our clothes or our shelter.  We also need the elite–we need people who know how to organize the rest of us for maximum efficiency.  However, that is what the elite do.  Among them there are many architects but few construction workers, many clothing designers but few weavers and seamstresses, many food industrialists but not many farmers.  What we wind up is too many chiefs and not enough indians (I apologize if anyone thinks that old expression is a racial slur), too many admirals and not enough midshipmen, too many generals and not enough privates, too many managers and not enough workers.  And the elite are not particularly good at becoming the workers.

That’s not to say that the ark should be filled with commoners and the elite should be left to drown.  The elite are not without skills.  The Russian Revolution attempted to eradicate all the people who were leaders, thinking that leaders were an unnecessary drain on the resources.  They wound up raising a new generation of leaders who lacked the efficiency and effectiveness of their predecessors because they had never been taught how to do what needed to be done.  Destroying all the leaders, all the wealthy, all the powerful, is a bad idea precisely because they have the training–the talent; the knowledge and the skills–to lead the rest of us.  We do need to preserve some of the elite.  However, destroying everyone other than the elite is even worse, because the talent to organize is useless without effective workers to organize.  The good life is created by the joint efforts of all.

Noah’s ark had to contain a pair of every land animal, so that when the floods receded every land animal would have survived.  Our space ark, or bomb shelter, or bunker, or whatever we have in which we preserve that portion of humanity that will survive the disaster, must have a cross-section of humanity, a mix particularly of skills, of persons who can lead and who can do the work.  The elite are not unnecessary; we cannot thrive without them–but without the rest of us they cannot survive.

So if you’re creating such a story, keep that in mind.  A shelter that saves only the elite dooms even them.  We are all dependent on each other in ways we usually fail to recognize.  That’s what such a story ought to teach us.

[contact-form subject='[mark Joseph %26quot;young%26quot;’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment: Note that this form will contact the author by e-mail; to post comments to the article, see below.’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

#26: The Cream in My Coffee

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #26, on the subject of The Cream in My Coffee.

This mark Joseph “young” web log began with a bit of nonsense, a discussion of the odds of winning a game of solitaire and how to improve them (#1:  Probabilities and Solitaire), and we’ve addressed some pretty serious subjects since then–abortion, civil rights, presidential politics, homosexual marriage, copyright infringement, well, you can probably browse the archives–plus a couple of time travel posts.  This one is back to something that is almost nonsense:  How do you add cream and/or sugar to your coffee or tea for the best outcome?


Yes, it seems silly for intelligent people to waste mental effort on nonsense like fixing coffee–something ordinary people do without thinking every day–but in my defense, at least some of this is not my own conclusions but information gleaned from scientific studies funded by governments, universities, and corporations.  (I expect that in Great Britain how to make the perfect cup of tea is still high on the list of national security issues.)  I’m just taking a bit of a break from other matters to share a few secrets about cream and sugar and hot beverages that I’ve picked up over the years; I’m not nearly in the class of those who engaged in a funded study, and the part of this that took the most dedicated time was probably getting the photo of my coffee mug.

If you drink your coffee black, this is not more than a curiosity–information you can use to annoy people whose introduction of lighteners and sweeteners to their hot beverages is less than fully efficient.  However, “black” is not the first choice in the consumption of either beverage, and indeed for coffee, “regular” means one dose of sugar (about a teaspoon) and one dose of cream (about a tablespoon) per six- to ten-ounce cup.  So most coffee drinkers, and probably most tea drinkers, can learn something, or at least confirm something they knew or suspected, from this discussion.

I drink my coffee “light and sweet”–that’s technical talk for double cream, double sugar–and blame my mother and the Baptist church.  There was a coffee hour after the service (not an hour, certainly, but that’s what it was usually called) at which there was always coffee, sometimes cookies or something.  I don’t know whether they also had tea, but what they did not have was a beverage for the mass of children of that baby-boom generation.  I don’t remember other children hanging around there, though, so maybe their parents felt it was better to make an escape with the children than risk some kind of parental embarrassment, and mine thought it was better to socialize with other church members during that time.  In any case, my mother’s solution to the beverage problem was to take four of the styrofoam cups, shovel a few spoonfuls of sugar into each, barely cover the sugar with coffee, and then fill the cups with milk, and pass these out to the four of us.  I once worked with a girl who took eight creams and twelve sugars in a standard six-ounce styrofoam cup of coffee, and really, I’m surprised that with my introduction to the beverage that’s not how I drink it.


I have never used artificial sweeteners.  Apart from the fact that they never tasted right, I have always thought that there was something seriously wrong with anything that tastes sweet but contains no sugar–and apparently my instincts were correct, because it has more recently been determined that at least the most common artificial sweeteners stimulate something in the brain that causes shifts in your metabolism stimulating weight gain.  I’ve gained enough weight since I hit “middle age” (that’s when you stop growing up and start growing in the middle), but replacing sugar with something that tries to trick me into thinking it’s sugar is not my idea of a good solution to that.  However, most artificial sweeteners come in soluble powders or crystals, so what is said of sugar is true of them as well.  There are some liquid sweeteners–honey in tea the most common–which pose different problems, so we’ll start with sugar and powdered sweeteners.

The hazard of powerdered and crystal sweeteners is their tendency to coat the bottom of the cup–you pour the sugar into the coffee, and it goes to the bottom.  You stir it with one of those ineffective stir sticks or straws, but somehow often when you have downed the coffee, there’s the sugar.  This means your coffee has not been as sweet as you intended, and you wind up with at least one swig of almost pure sweetener as you down the dregs.  This is what you want to prevent.

Your primary ally in this is that coffee is hot, and if you connect that with the fact that it is moving rapidly when you pour it into the cup you can see the obvious answer:  put the sugar in the bottom of the empty cup, and then add the hot liquid.  The swirling motion of the coffee will lift the sugar, and combined with the heat it will rapidly dissolve it into the liquid.

Note that the moment you pour coffee into your cup it starts cooling rapidly–first because the cup itself is considerably cooler than the coffee, second because it is now out of the carafe or thermos and has a lot more surface area per unit volume exposed to the air.  I’m digressing here, but if you ever wondered why those professional coffeemakers (like Bunn) use nearly spherical carafes instead of seemingly more practical cylindrical pots, this is the answer.  A cylinder takes up less table space per unit volume, but what matters particularly with coffee is preserving its temperature.  Leaving it on the heat (or leaving the heat on it) gradually overcooks it, so you want to maintain its temperature with the lowest possible addition of heat.  The coefficient of cooling of any body is dependent on the ratio of surface area over volume–the reason children are more susceptible to the cold than adults, they have a greater ratio of exposed skin per unit of internal mass.  The sphere is the geometric shape that has the lowest such ratio; it contains the maximum volume for the same surface area.  Thus coffee in a spherical carafe stays hotter longer than coffee in a cylindrical pot of the same volume–and considerably longer than coffee in your cup.

Because the coffee is cooling rapidly, and in fact is cooling most rapidly in the first few seconds after it leaves the pot, you take maximum advantage of the heat of the coffee for dissolving the sugar by having the sugar ready for the coffee at the instant the coffee hits the cup.

This probably also applies to honey, used more commonly in tea than in coffee.  Because of its viscosity, the heat of the liquid is critical to the dissolution of the sweetener.  Artificial liquid sweeteners might be different, depending on their viscosity, their solubility, their storage temperature, and the quantity used.  A few drops of a room temperature liquid is not going to make much difference to the process; a tablespoon of a refrigerated liquid might be significant.


Powdered creamers have a distinct problem:  they tend to clump.  They do so considerably less in hotter liquids–part of their dissolution process involves something akin to melting, as they are chemically similar to plastics (sorry, you didn’t want to know that).  You again want the coffee to hit the creamer while it is at maximum heat–but because of the texture of most powdered creamers, they form skins that keep some of the powder sealed away from the liquid, and hence the clumps.

If you are using a sugar or a granulated or powdered sweetener with characteristics similar to sugar, there is a simple fix:  mix the creamer with the sugar.  If the bottom of the cup is wet (e.g., if this is your second cup of coffee) put the sugar in first and swish it so it keeps the creamer from the residual liquid, then add the creamer atop the sugar and shake the cup gently so that the two mix.  The granulated sweetener will disrupt the powdered creamer, and the two will dissolve evenly into the hot liquid when it hits the cup.

Unfortunately, if you drink “cream only” or “light no sugar”, this does not help.  It’s still important to make sure that the creamer is not clumped–if it is, use the stir stick to break the lumps, because otherwise these become natural protective balls enclosing undissolved powder.  And again, the hotter the liquid is when it hits the powder, the more thoroughly and swiftly the powder will dissolve.

Milk or Cream

This is the hardest part of the process to answer definitively, because there are factors pulling in opposite directions.

To the one side, the moment the liquid cream hits the coffee, even if it is room temperature, the coffee begins to cool.  This means if you are using sugar–or indeed, honey or most other sweeteners–you want the sweetener to dissolve before you add the milk, because you need the heat of the liquid to facilitate the process.  Thus it makes sense to put the sugar into the cup, add the coffee, and then add the cream.

It has also been noted that if you like your coffee hotter rather than cooler, and you have just poured the coffee and are about to add the cream when the phone rings, you should add the cream before you answer the phone.  Because of that coefficient of cooling, the greater the temperature difference between an object and the surrounding air the faster it cools, and thus if you add the cooling cream sooner the rate of cooling due to the surrounding air lessens drastically immediately, whereas if you delay adding the cream the coffee is cooling rapidly and then cools additionally when you return to add the cream.

However, recent studies have determined that adding cream to tea (I told you the matter was of national importance in Great Britain) is very different from adding tea to cream.  That is, because cream (or milk) is in essence an emulsified fat, heat causes it to separate.  If you add hot liquid to an ounce of cream, of course the liquid cools as it hits the cream and the cream is heated relatively gradually.  If, though, you pour an ounce of cream into hot liquid, the cream is rapidly heated as it strikes the surface of the liquid and begins to separate from that heating.  Your beverage is less “creamy”, not as smooth, because it is not as well blended.  Thus for a smoother, creamier, beverage, you want to put the cream in the cup and then add the coffee.

This is, of course, problematic if you are also using sugar, because you want the hot coffee to dissolve the sugar before it begins cooling, and the cream is going to protect the sugar from that heat.

I have not found a resolution to this problem, apart from the possibility of putting sugar in one cup, adding coffee, putting cream in another cup, and pouring the sweetened coffee from the one cup to the other.  That is more trouble than it’s worth, I think, so when I am not using powdered creamer I generally add the cream to the sweetened coffee, rather than the other way around.

So now you know some of the physics and chemistry behind lightening and sweetening your coffee or your tea.  Perhaps it will help you make the perfect cup for your own tastes.

[contact-form subject='[mark Joseph %26quot;young%26quot;’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment: Note that this form will contact the author by e-mail; to post comments to the article, see below.’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

#10: The Unimportance of Facts

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #10, on the subject of The Unimportance of Facts.


In connection with the recent Presidential debates, one columnist bemoaned the issue that candidates often would make statements which in the aftermath of the debate political junkies who read sites such as Politifact would learn were inaccurate, misleading, or simply untrue.  He speculated that voters did not care about facts “because they don’t encounter enough of them.”  I considered that, but immediately thought that there might be another reason.

Of course, we have all heard the quip, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts,” and while no one ever says that of himself (and many attribute it to those with whom they disagree), it is a true description of the attitude some people have.  I prefer, however, to think a bit more highly of people.  It is a failing of those of us who are intelligent that we tend to assume others are also intelligent, and sometimes become frustrated when they demonstrate otherwise, yet I find that if you treat others as if they were reasonably intelligent, and if you assume they have some intellectual integrity, they frequently rise to your expectations.  That is to say, most people base opinions on what they believe to be the truth.  I think the problem lies elsewhere.

In discussing freedom of expression we mentioned the popular axiom History is written by the winners.  We noted then that it was not outside the realm of possibility that Holocaust deniers could so shift public belief that the Holocaust itself might become one of those bits of history no one believes ever really happened.  That attitude, though, has come to permeate all of culture, all of education.  We are on some level taught that there are no facts, or at least no reliable facts.  One cannot know anything with certainty.  Eyewitness testimony is unreliable.  Media is biased.  People who want to tell you something have an agenda, an objective they wish to achieve by the telling, and scientists are not above this.  Evolution might be an atheistic deception, global warming might be an environmentalist scare tactic, intelligent design might be an effort to infect pure science with religious nonsense, the Bible might have been written by the church centuries after the time it purports to report, or edited to tell the version of events the priesthood wanted told, and the list is endless.  When I was young the world still had facts, and still respected them, and even when you did not know what the facts were you knew that facts existed and believed that they were ultimately discoverable.  It was said, The Truth Will Out, meaning that facts could not be kept secret forever.  Now we have conspiracies and conspiracy theories, spin doctors and media manipulators, textbook editors and politically correct speech enforcers–thought police of all types working to ensure that what you believe to be the truth fits their agenda.  Further, we are fully aware of this aspect of our reality.  As a result, we do not really believe what we believe, not in the sense that we think it might be true.  We believe it because it is useful and connects us to people who believe as we believe.  We are taught to believe concepts that have no basis in facts, and to be suspicious of any data claiming to be factual that is contrary to those concepts.  Whether it is the lie that there is no correlation between the number of guns in an area and the amount of gun violence, or the lie that gun free zones are safer places that would never be targeted by mass murderers, we accept the statements that fit our conceptions and reject the facts that are awkward, and never worry about whether any supposed fact is true, because facts are not about being true but about supporting already established convictions.

Voters are not interested in the facts because the facts are irrelevant, and whether any alleged fact will be regarded true depends on who you ask.  It not being possible to know the truth of such matters, seeking the truth on them becomes foolish.  For the voter, what matters is whether the candidate believes what the voter believes, not whether any of it is factually true.  The only truth that matters in today’s world is the subjective truth, the opinion of the one who believes it.  Reality is irrelevant.  We, as a society, have been taught and have embraced the lie that there is no truth, or if there is, it is completely undiscoverable.

That, sadly, is why facts are not important in the debates.

Many of the issues brushed in this discussion are discussed in more detail on pages in the law and politics section of this website; see Articles on Law and Politics for a list.

[contact-form subject='[mark Joseph %26quot;young%26quot;’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment: Note that this form will contact the author by e-mail; to post comments to the article, see below.’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]