Uncommon common knowledge

Inspired by a Reddit thread, here’s a list of things I’ve learned over the years which I think everyone should know.

  • Canceling or stopping a lost check is expensive, around $20 per check. Also, it doesn’t actually prevent the check from being cashed — if the check is cashed quickly (in under 24 hours), or slowly enough (not cashed for 6 months), it goes through anyway. Therefore, if you lose your checkbook, you are basically screwed. Hence it’s a good idea not to carry your checkbook around with you. Treat checks as if they were cash.
  • In some states, bouncing a check can be a felony. For example, your first bounced check for more than $100 in Mississippi is a felony. Non-citizens can be deported from the USA for bouncing a check, and it happens regularly.

So, now you know why I never carry a checkbook with me.

  • Also, while we’re talking immigration: Immigrant non-citizens can’t vote, and we pay the same taxes as US citizens; and non-resident immigrants can’t claim unemployment, can’t get social security. (Updated — turns out permanent residents can get SS and unemployment.)
  • On the subject of taxes, where you keep your money and where you earn it makes no difference as far as whether you have to pay US tax on it. Keeping your money overseas just means it’s harder for the IRS to catch you cheating on your taxes. In other words: offshore bank accounts basically only exist to help people cheat. People like Mitt Romney who keep their money in offshore accounts should be paying the same taxes as if the money was in the USA. Romney’s spokespeople say he does in fact do so. Believe it?
  • Turning the thermostat down further doesn’t make it get cold quicker. Similarly, turning the thermostat up higher doesn’t make it get hot quicker. Building AC and heating systems heat at a single fixed speed and cool at a single fixed speed. The thermostat simply sets when they start and stop heating or cooling. So if it’s slightly too hot and you set the thermostat to zero to try and make it cool quicker, what actually happens is the system cools at the same speed, but it carries on doing so until it’s unbearably cold, you idiot.
  • A corollary to the above: If the thermostat indicates that the system is cooling already, and the temperature it’s set to cool to looks reasonable, leave it the fuck alone.
  • Most modern microwaves have handy buttons to cook and reheat common dishes, with moisture sensors and other features to make sure they do it properly. If your microwave has an appropriate button, use it. Some guy in Korea spent months making sure that it will do a better job than following the generic directions on the package of the food product. For example, if I follow the directions on microwave popcorn using our microwave, it burns, because the directions assume a lower powered microwave. If I just push the “POPCORN” button, everything works perfectly.
  • On which note, microwave popcorn is nasty stuff and completely unnecessary. Just get regular unpopped popcorn, put it in a microwavable plastic container that has a loose lid, add some olive oil (or butter if you want), and push the POPCORN button. You can get containers specifically designed for popping popcorn.
  • If you have trouble shaving because your face is really bristly, take a shower first and rub some ordinary hair conditioner into the bristles. (I learned this one from Harlan Ellison via Neil Gaiman, and it has changed my life.)
  • Also on the topic of shaving, get a shaving brush and some shave soap. Even if you use multiblade razors, it’ll be much better for your skin and give a much better shave than aerosol foam or gel. Shave oil is also pretty good.
  • Diamonds are only expensive because DeBeers stockpiles them to keep the price up. We can actually make real diamonds cheaper than the artificially inflated price of the ones we dig out of the ground, but the diamond cartel engages in PR to persuade people that it’s not a real diamond unless it has ‘natural imperfections’. As a result, the diamond manufacturers are now researching how to add natural-looking imperfections to the diamonds they make. Also, most natural diamond extraction involves conditions that are practically slave labor, and the money funds bloody conflicts. Also, diamonds don’t last forever — chuck them on a fire and they burn just like coal.
  • Gold isn’t very valuable. It’s useful for various industrial processes, such as gold-plating electrical contacts, but there are much rarer and more valuable metals, such as palladium. The rise of the stock market value of gold is about as sound as the rise of the stock market value of tulips was. Gold is stable and keeps its value because people think it does, just like any other currency.
  • Gas stations don’t set the prices. They also make practically no money on the sale of gasoline. They make all their money on snacks and other items they sell in the convenience store.
  • Social Security Numbers are not really secret. Any business can get hold of your SSN if they’re prepared to pay for the info. They only ask you for it as a pathetic attempt to check that you’re who you claim to be and distinguish you from other people with the same name and/or address. Also, SSNs aren’t unique, two people may have the same SSN.
  • In other words: SSN and name identifies who you claim to be. Any company that accepts that information as proof that you are who you claim, is incompetent.
  • US digital TVs follow the ATSC standards. These mandate the frame rates and resolutions that must be supported. The list contains 12 different combinations, and is a superset of both NTSC and PAL. In non-technical terms, this means that any US HDTV set is technically capable of showing video from DVDs purchased anywhere in the world. This wasn’t true of analog sets.
  • However, DVDs and Blu-ray discs have a region coding system to try and stop you from playing DVDs not sold in your country. You can get around this buy buying a no-name brand DVD player for $40 or so at your local Fry’s. Most of the no-name DVD players are physically the same as a major brand name player, because they’re made in the same factory; they just haven’t had “Sony” or “Panasonic” stamped on the front, and they haven’t had the region coding locks put on them.
  • Many computers can play DVDs from any country by using software such as VLC. However, every DVD drive sold after the year 2000 is required to have region code locks built in at firmware level, so VLC won’t work. This is known as RPC-2 protection. To get around it, you need to flash the firmware on the drive with firmware that has been hacked to remove the protection. Otherwise you only get 5 region changes, then your drive sticks in whatever region it was last in, forever.
  • Baby carrots are just ordinary carrots that have been cut into little carrot shapes by a machine.
  • When overtaking a big truck, wait until you can see both his headlights in your rear-view mirror (not your side mirrors). Only then are you probably far enough in front that it’s safe to pull in ahead of him. Remember that the truck can plow straight through an SUV and turn it into shrapnel in a second.
  • When behind a big truck, if you can’t see his side mirrors, he probably has no idea you’re there because he can’t see you. If you drive into the back of him, it’ll be pretty much the same as driving into a wall.
  • Never stop your car on a railway crossing, even if the lights aren’t flashing. “Train hits car” pretty much looks like “truck hits car”.
  • Bigger vehicles (SUVs) are generally more dangerous than smaller ones (cars). They brake more slowly, accelerate more slowly, steer more slowly, and are more prone to roll over because they have a higher center of gravity, all of which translates into more injuries and fatalities per passenger mile. Also, because they’re so much heavier, they carry a lot more energy when moving at speed; in the event of a crash, that energy has to be dissipated, and it’s a lot harder to engineer the vehicle to absorb all the energy without transferring it to the driver and passengers. Pickups are the most dangerous of all, per passenger-mile.

To illustrate the last one, here’s one of my favorite photo comparisons. It shows a Ford F-150 pickup compared with a Mini Cooper, after both have suffered a 40mph head-on collision.

Mini vs F-150

A SMART car is even safer. Those can withstand a 70mph head-on crash with a concrete wall and the passenger compartment will still be intact. Of course, at that speed you’re dead anyway from the whiplash, but compare it to the F-150 at 40mph. And here are some Prius 40mph crash tests.

Oh, and newer vehicles are safer than older ones. Here’s a new Chevy vs a 1959 Bel Air. The reason why we had 40mph diesel compact cars in the 1970s and 80s but don’t have them today isn’t conspiracy, it’s that they wouldn’t pass today’s safety standards.

“You learn something new every day, unless you’re careful.” — Wilf Lunn.