School, Murder and Pride

What do school, murder and pride have in common? The answer is that they are all names for groups of animals.

As the Childlike Empress taught us, a new name can hold incredible power. An opportunity to name something new provides the person ascribing the name with the opportunity to achieve immortality. This is one of the reasons why product names are so inconsistent, and perhaps this is also the reason why scientists exercise such extreme creativity when it comes to classifying and categorizing things in nature. Scientists are vain, selfish creatures, viewing discovery as merely a path to greatness.

While it’s clear why each species of creature requires its own name, the reason for each having a unique term to describe a group is not as obvious. Likewise, it’s unclear why different animals have been given distinct names for their young as well as their male and female incarnations.

Here’s a table listing just a few examples of the frivolous, ridiculous terms associated with various species:

Animal Young Female Male Group
Alligator Hatchling Cow Bull Congregation
Ant Larva Queen, Soldier Drone Army
Cat Kitten Molly Tom Cluster, Kindle
Chicken Chick Hen Cock Flock, Peep
Chimpanzee Infant Empress Blackback Troop
Crab Larva Jenny Jimmy Cast, Dose
Crow Chick Hen Cock Murder
Deer Fawn Doe Buck, Stag Herd
Donkey Foal Jenny Jack Herd
Dragonfly Nymph Queen King Cluster
Duck Duckling Hen Drake Flock, Raft
Fox Kit Vixen Tod Leash, Skulk
Goat Kid Nanny Billy Herd
Goose Gosling Goose Gander Gaggle
Hawk Eyas Hen Tiercel Cast, Aerie
Horse Colt, Foal Mare Stallion Band
Jellyfish Planula, Polyp Sow Boar Bloom, Fluther
Kangaroo Joey Flyer, Jill Boomer, Jack Court, Troop
Lion Cub Lioness Lion Pride
Pig Piglet Sow Boar Drove
Salmon Fry Hen Buck School
Seahorse Seafoal Seamare Seastallion Shoal
Sheep Lamb Ewe Ram Flock
Swan Cygnet Pen Cob Flock
Turkey Poult Hen Tom Rafter
Whale Calf Cow Bull Pod
Wolf Pup Bitch Dog Pack
Wolverine Whelp Angeline Wolverine Pack

There are many more ridiculous and useless terms not mentioned here – enough to ensure that a general naming strategy can never be constructed.

Now some of these terms are actually useful. After all, it would be helpful to use different words to distinguish male animals from female, mature from young. We also need a term, a single term, to describe a collection of animals. In addition, some of these words actually describe form or function. A larva, for example, isn’t just a newborn insect or crustacean, but a stage of development with unique characteristics. Likewise, describing a group of bees as a colony says a great deal about the behavior and organization of the organisms.

But a vast majority of these names just cause confusion and misunderstanding, for we all know that a cow is a bovine, not an alligator, and that a hen is a chicken, not a salmon. And what comedian chose the terms belonging to seahorses?

Trying to create and remember unique terms for each species or genus is incredibly impractical, and many of these terms have alternate meaning, like school, murder and pride. Also, everyone can understand what the phrase a herd of horses implies, just as we can clearly comprehend what is meant by the phrase a baby goat – we don’t need to use band or kid.

In addition to naming groups of animals, there are also names for groups of people based on their vocation: a faculty of academics, a team of athletes, a slate of candidates or a college of cardinals. As with animals, this is useful when it describes something practical, but this is rarely the case.

We should just stick to using terms that we all understand: baby and herd, man and woman.

Low Flying Aircraft

Most advertisements are irritating, fraudulent and meaningless. This includes sales promotions, public advisories and road signs. Behold the most useless notification ever presented:

Signs like this are often posted on the side of the road near airports in order to notify drivers that planes may be landing nearby. But what, exactly, is the purpose of doing this? What are drivers expected to do? Stop and wait for planes to land? Some say that the purpose of the sign is simply to inform drivers so that they are not startled when they see an aircraft approaching, but there are a few problems with this interpretation.

The first issue is the fact that these signs are usually posted near airports, and airports are far more visible than the signs themselves. Second, some versions of the sign include “CAUTION”, “WARNING” or “DANGER” or even an image of an airplane bouncing off the roof of a car, which implies that the purpose of the sign is to inform drivers of a threat. The final problem is that it is not common practice to use signs to notify drivers of things they can do nothing about. Drivers are constantly distracted by the beauty of nature, the peculiarity of pedestrians and the hideousness of modern exterior home design, but we don’t put up signs with “CAUTION BEAUTIFUL FOREST”, “DANGER WEIRD PEOPLE” or “WARNING UGLY HOUSE” on them.

We don’t need to know what’s above us when we’re driving, especially when we can’t do anything about it.

No Check, Please

What is this?

This is a check, and it used to be a perfectly reasonable way to pay for things. Now it’s just a pain in the neck.

Before direct deposit, online banking and debit cards, the only way to get money in or out of a bank account was to go to the bank or an ATM. And if you wanted to transform a check into money, then you had to go into the bank and wait in line to speak with a teller.

Money can be used to buy things because money is a representation of wealth – a medium used to exchange goods and services. Money allows us to turn bacon into blueberries and garments into gold. Without money, you’d have to find someone who had what you wanted and wanted what you had.

A check isn’t a representation of wealth, it’s a representation of money. It’s a certified IOU – a piece of paper that promises the future exchange of money. You can’t spend a check or trade it for something you want. The only thing you can do with a check is take it to the bank. And this is real problem with checks: if you give one to someone, it means they have to go to the bank.

Thanks to the technologies mentioned earlier, we rarely have to go to the bank anymore. This is great news because going to the bank costs time and is really boring. But when someone writes us a check, they make us go to the bank, waste our time and make us bored.

So why do we write checks? The answer is what we just mentioned: going to the bank sucks. We don’t want to go to the bank and withdraw the money to pay someone, so we write them a check and make them go to the bank. So when you write someone a check, what you’re really doing is sending them on an errand to the bank. You’re telling them, “I didn’t want to go to the bank, so now you have to go.”

Until the person goes to the bank, they can’t get the money they’re owed. They can only have it on the condition that they go waste a bunch of time doing something that you don’t want to do. So when you’re sitting there writing their name on that little rectangular piece of paper, you’re actually subjecting them to a twisted treasure hunt.

A check is a treasure map – a treasure map that leads to the bank.


When you move the little virtual slider on your music player to adjust the volume, do you know what you’re changing? Obviously you’re adjusting the volume, but what characteristics are you manipulating in order to modify the sound that comes out of the device? And why is sound still clearly audible when the volume control is set to 5 percent? It turns out that sound is actually really complicated, and there’s probably no chance of understanding the science behind it without a great deal of studying. But studying is boring and hard, and it’s way more fun and way easier to read an article that simplifies a concept so that we can pretend to understand it and feel smart. Here we go.

Before we try to understand something like a volume control, we first need to know how sound actually works and how we interpret and measure it. Sound is air vibrating. That’s right, sound is the vibration of air pressure. The frequency of the sound is determined by the wavelength, which is the number of oscillations per second (hz). Frequency doesn’t determine loudness, but the pitch of the sound.

The amplitude of the sound wave is the distance between the wave’s peaks and troughs, and it indicates sound pressure. It is the pressure of the wave as it enters our ear which determines the loudness of a sound. But the perceived loudness of a sound is also influenced by frequency, distance, duration, interference, atmospheric pressure and particle velocity.

Loudness is the ear’s subjective measurement of sound, similar to how our skin senses the temperature of a surface. As with temperature, our body doesn’t say anything concrete about the sound in our ears, it just tells us how loud it is and what it sounds like. The intensity of a sound is probably the closest measurement to objective loudness, and it’s an expression of the sound power per unit area (power is equal to amplitude squared).

Interestingly, our ears interpret sound on a logarithmic scale, so a sound with twice the intensity of another does not seem twice as loud to us. Similarly, a tone with twice the frequency of another doesn’t seem twice as high. This means that it’s more difficult to differentiate between sounds at higher frequencies and amplitudes.

Our logarithmic hearing also causes a problem when attempting to plot sound intensity. The minimum intensity detectable by humans is somewhere around 10-12 watts/m2, and an intensity that can begin to cause pain is about  10 watts/m2. This means our maximum intensity level is one trillion times as intense as our minimum. Working with such huge values make plotting extremely difficult, and it doesn’t convey our perception of sound very well.

For example, let’s imagine that we’re at a rock concert with the sound blasting at 10 watts/m2. Our friend leans over and says something in a normal speaking voice of 10-6 watts/m2. Would we say that the rock concert is a million times louder than our friend? Probably not (at least not literally).

In order to correct this issue, we use a logarithmic scale to measure sound. The most common unit of measure used to represent the loudness of a sound is the decibel. However, the decibel isn’t really a unit, but a logarithmic relationship between two quantities of the same unit (usually some form of power). When used in the realm of sound measurement, decibels often represent sound intensity (dB IL) or sound pressure level (dB SPL). Intensity is equal to pressure squared, so the conversion between intensity level and sound pressure level is simple. The intensity decibel ratio is defined as

IdB = 10 log10(I1/I0)

where I1 is the sound intensity and I0 is the reference level (the threshold for human hearing). Plotting intensity using the decibel gives us a logarithmic graph that more closely represents the ear’s perception of sound.

So instead of measuring a massive range of values of sound intensity in watts/m2, we can simply present the same range of values as a scale between 0 dB and 120 dB. This is similar to another logarithmic scale, the Richter scale, which was created by American writer, actor and comedian, Andy Richter, and it measures the magnitude of an earthquake.

While the decibel allows us to more easily understand and convey the range of human hearing, it doesn’t really solve the problem of comparing loudness using numbers. A 10 dB increase will approximately double the perceived loudness of a sound. This means that the 120 dB rock concert is roughly 32 times louder than our friend speaking at 70 dB. But if the rock concert isn’t a million times louder than our friend, and it isn’t 32 times louder, how much louder is it? Andy Richter understood the dangers of using scales like the decibel, even stating that, “…logarithmic plots are a device of the devil.”

Since hearing is subjective, there isn’t really a precise formula for comparing loudness. However, we should at least use a scale that intuitively makes sense to us. To accomplish this, we can use weighting techniques to apply curves to the decibel scale. This produces measurements that are correspond more closely to the way we perceive loudness. In addition to correcting the scale, we must also deal with other factors like duration and frequency, because humans interpret loudness differently over time and at different frequencies. Weighting isn’t perfect, but it makes relating sound levels much easier to understand.

Okay, so now that we know a little bit about sound, let’s try to solve our original problem: what is our media player volume control actually controlling? Is it manipulating the power, pressure, intensity, a logarithmic ratio or an entire equalizer full of values? The answer is that it depends on the software.

Most media player volume controls are represented by a little slider, and they come in a variety of shapes and colors. Almost all of these controls are graphically linear, which means that they appear to adjust volume in a linear way. Many of them even display a percent symbol, which clearly indicates that we are setting the volume to a portion of the maximum corresponding to the distance from the left side of the slider.

Some controls implement another dimension, such as color, giving the perception of a logarithmic control. These are usually semi-linear in actuality because the slider contradicts the logarithmic dimension by indicating linearity in another way (like a percent symbol). A logarithmic control is one that represents the change in perceived loudness, and these are rare.

The problem here isn’t that everyone’s using linear controls. On the contrary, a linear control is precisely what a user should expect. After all, users don’t really care about what’s going on behind the scenes – the implementation – they care about the interface, and the interface should be simple and easy to use. Users don’t need or want to know about decibels and sound intensity, they just want to set the volume level to a desired level based on what their intuition tells them about how the control should work. In this matter, right and wrong are a matter of preference. If the control behaves the way users expect, then it is designed correctly.

Simple volume controls adjust loudness two basic ways: by using a decibel scale, and by using a weighted scale. With the first method, we’re controlling a logarithmic scale using a linear control. This means that the perceived loudness increases at a greater rate as the level approaches its maximum, and it also means that the sound is still audible at very low settings (often under 5 percent).

The second method uses weighting to give a more authentic feel. If the maximum setting is a reasonable listening volume (70 to 80 dB), then we should 50 percent of that to be half as loud, not half of the sound intensity or half of the decibels. We should also expect very low settings to be barely, if at all, audible. And this is roughly what we get with this type of control.

Of course, there are many other volume controls – both internal and external – manipulating the loudness of the sound, and each one does it differently.

Next time you’re listening to music or watching a video, check what type of volume control the software uses.