STRANGE BUT TRUE- 404: The look that mimics a message


Q. Make no mistake about it, we're not sitting around with a "404 look" on our faces, though the world might be full of "404 headcases" and we've all made our share of "four-oh-four" errors while surfing the Internet. But please don't worry if you're "404-ing" on this question. Translation, if you can. –A. Gore

A. The "404 error" message tells you your browser has made a faulty request to a server, typically because a page or site no longer exists, says David Crystal in Words, Words, Words. Why 404? This derived from the "file not found" message sent out in response to a faulty enquiry by staff at CERN, in Switzerland, where the World Wide Web was devised. Staff members worked out of Room 404. Metaphoric extensions of the 404-word soon followed, especially among the computer fraternity. As an adjective applied to humans, it came to mean "confused, blank, uncertain": a 404 look was "stupid, uninformed, clueless"; a 404 headcase signified "unavailable, not around." And as a verb (404-ing), it began to mean "make no progress." 

More uses will likely follow, along with dictionary appearances: the term has already been logged for inclusion by the Oxford English Dictionary.

Q. What was the point of the Colorado Rockies baseball team placing balls in a high-humidity chamber for several months before games? Were they trying to cheat? –M. Holladay 

A. It was actually done in the name of fair play, says New Scientist magazine. The Rockies play in high-altitude Denver, where the thin air means batted baseballs travel up to 6 meters (20 feet) farther than at sea level. So the humidity chambers were an attempt to tame down the over-exuberant orbs. 

Then a team of University of Colorado-Boulder researchers reported that the Rockies may have gotten things backward: Moisture may make the balls fly even farther. They found that two months in humidity of 30-50 percent increased the diameter of the balls by 0.24 percent and their mass by 1.6 percent. While it's true the bigger, heavier, "squishier" balls come off the bat slightly more slowly and experience more drag, the extra mass more than compensates for these effects as the balls "take longer to decelerate," and so carry farther. Moreover, the moist balls are harder for pitchers to curve and thus easier for sluggers to hit.

Q. How spooky can it get when strange lights start dancing about the gravestones of a dark old cemetery at night? –E.A. Poe

A. Not spooky at all if you go there with a physicist armed with the rational explanation: this phenomenon actually occurred in a graveyard in the tiny Colorado town of Silver City, where visitors would gather to glimpse the curious sights, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. The site is far from the town and usually dark. Nearby areas are nearly deserted. The lights seen are typically white points but sometimes seem larger and are tinted blue. 

Apparently the marble of the gravestones can act like a mirror when light rays hit the stone surfaces obliquely, but they're absorbed when the angle to the surface is larger. If you walk through a dark graveyard, some broad or side surfaces of the stones will be oriented properly to reflect light to you from the town or stars. 

"As you move, the reflected images will seem to move, or come and go in a perplexing way, giving them life-like behavior. They can also be animated by temperature fluctuations that can incessantly vary the paths taken by the light rays. You have probably seen similar animation, called 'shimmy,' in light that passes over fires or hot roadways," Walker says.

Q. Lots of people go around talking to themselves. Who are these people? Are they dangerous? –E.P. Dowd

A. They're children and possibly many adults, maybe even you. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky suggested that this "private speech" is a stand-in for the helpful guiding speech that children often receive from parents and caregivers, says Washington State University psychologist Andrew Lotto. 

This self-directed speech is a way to guide activities and structure thought. Researchers have demonstrated that self-talk in children increases when task difficulty increases, and children who use private speech in tasks often show the greatest increase in performance.

Naturally, as one grows older there are social constraints on talking out loud to yourself, and as children age, they start to whisper or just mouth their self-guiding thoughts. 

"Perhaps as adults, when no one is around, we use this same process," Vygotsky wrote. "Since the speech is usually private, it may be up to the individual to decide if this prediction is generally true."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at [email protected].