Web Ben's Questions and Answers

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Cicada versus Tree Frogs

Someone in Kansas asked me if the noise that they hear just before rain fall is Cicads, Locusts, or Tree Frogs.

Just to clarify, the species of Locusts native to North America, the Rocky Mountain Locust, is thought to have become extinct by 1902, so we know that the noise was not made by Locusts. During the 1880s Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts her experiences in the book "On the Banks of Plum Creek":

...Across the dooryard the grasshoppers were walking shoulder to shoulder and end to end, so crowded that the ground seemed to be moving ...

...Grasshoppers were walking over Carrie. They came pouring in the east window, side-by-side, end-to-end, across the window sill and down the wall and over the floor.

...That whole daylong the grasshoppers walked west. All the next day they went on walking west. And on the third day they walked without stopping.

...They walked steadily over the house. They walked over the stable. They walked over Spot until Pa shut her in the stable. They walked into Plum Creek and drowned, and those behind kept on walking in and drowning until the dead grasshoppers choked the creek and filled the water and live grasshoppers walked across them.

...The fourth day came and the grasshoppers went on walking. The sun shone hotter than ever, with a terribly bright light. It was nearly noon when Pa came from the stable shouting: “Caroline! Caroline! Look out doors! The grasshoppers are flying.”

The male Tree Frog has a single tone call often called the "Rain Call" which it uses when other male Tree Frogs are in close, and thus perceived threatening, proximity. The male tree frog is very terratorial and will generally use a two toned call to ward off potential mating competition and switches to the single toned "Rain Call" when other males get closer or when stimulated by loud noise such as thunder. Various species of Tree Frog are native to Kansas and so it is quite likely that the noise which you hear before rain is indeed that of the Tree Frog's "Rain Call" as a Cicadas' mating calls are not generally stimulated by either rain or external noise sources such as thunder. However, Periodical Cicadas do require rain to soften the ground to allow them to emerge initially and so their calls could indeed be assiciated with rain albeit every 13 or 17 years.

Here is a site with Tree Frog "Rain Call" audio clips:

Here is a site with Cicada audio clips:

Do you hear a chirping noise before rain and if so do you think it's a Cicada or do you think it's a Tree Frog?

I hope that that helps to answer your question about the noises before rain, as an extra bit of trivia, the smell just before rain is called petrichor, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

American Fiscal Policy

Someone asked me why the United States Government, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, seems to advocate Fiscal policy, i.e. reducing taxes, as a means to solve all problems while using legislation rather than Fiscal policy to dissuade consumption of products which are perceived as harmful such as cigarettes, alchol and gasoline/petrol.

Taxes on products which are perceived to be harmful are referred to as "sin taxes". The demand for these products is inelastic, which means that the demand curve is steep. In other words, if you were to draw a graph with price on the vertical axis, quantity on the horizontal axis and the origin in the bottom left hand corner, then a demand curve would be drawn as a line that demonstatres that as the price rises the quantity demanded reduces. An Inelastic demand curve would show that as the price rises the quantity demanaded reduces little, i.e. a steep line. A perfectly inelastic demand curve would be a vertical line since as the price rises the quantity demanded remains constant.

The fact that "sin taxes" are levied on goods with an inelastic demand curve means that significant taxes may be levied, and so significant tax revenue may be gained, without reducing the quantity of the good which is consumed significantly. If a government intends to reduce consumption of certain products, tobacco, alchol, gasoline/petrol etc. then they may do so by increasing taxes on those products.

The advantage of using fiscal policy to reduce consumption of bad products is that the government is able to both reduce consumption and gain revenue for use on other government projects which are perceived as being more beneficial to the public good. The disadvantage of using fiscal policy to reduce consumption is if reduced consumption causes a loss to the economy as a whole. This concept of tax benefit is known as Marginal Excess Burdon of a tax. Unfortunately, many sin taxes are associated with hidden costs, i.e. the cost of pollution on the environment or the cost of sickness on a person's happiness. In countries where healthcare is provided by the government sin taxes tend to attept to dissuade consumers from behaviour which could increase the quantity of government provided healthcare consumed. An example of this is the high taxes imposed upon cigarettes in the UK as a means to reduce the incidence of lung cancer and subsequently reduce the cost to the government for lung cancer treatment and maintain a person at a state of wellness and maximal productivity.

The problem with using legislation to reduce consumption of bad products is that there is a net monetary loss for the government in terms of the real monetary costs associated with policing the legislation versus the often imaginary, or intangible, benefits which the reduced consumption brings. For example, the government of George W. Bush is currently legislating that by 2008 cars must be more efficient in terms of fuel economy than they are today. Ignoring the details of the policy the goals are basically to reduce pollution and dependence upon oil while maintaining a low price for gasoline/petrol. This policy will impose a real monetary cost to the US government which must be paid either by levying additional taxes or by borrowing money through the issuing of government bonds. The benefit of this policy has no real monetary benefit, not to say that the goals are not noble, however, the goals cannot be easilly quantified into hard currency. The costs of the policy are clear but the benefits are not.

Clearly there is a disconnection between the use of fiscal policy in the United States for increasing consumption for some goods, through tax cuts, while using costly government legislation and monetary policy to reduce consumption for other goods. Amazon has a great book about Economics by John Sloman available here.

Do you believe that legislation is more effective, in terms of cost and benefits, in dissuading consumption of economic bads, i.e. goods that decrease economic utility, than fiscal policy is?

Have fun pondering the details of government policy, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

World's First Constitution

Someone asked me if the Constitution of the United States of America, framed in 1787 and ratified in 1789, was the first constitution.

The word constitution originates from the Latin word "constitutio" meaning system. The Roman Republic created their constitution in the year 509 B.C. so it certainly predates the U.S. constitution and actually played a significant role in the creation of the U.S. constitution as both are based upon the concept of a Republic.

Although the U.S. was fighting to be free of English rule England actually had a constitution before the United States. England underwent a revolution in the years leading up to King Charles' beheading in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell becomming Lord Protector in 1653. Oliver Cromwell installed a modified constitution which ended up being worse than the original as it was basically a military dictatorship, however, there already was a Monarchical constitution before Cromwell's.

Oliver Cromwell died in 1658 from a reoccurring bout of Malaria and his eldest Son, Richard, succeeded him briefly before fleeing the country as the royalty was reinstated as Charles' son Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 due to wide spread dissatisfaction with the puritanical excesses of the Protectorate and its military backers.

Amazon has many books available on the topics of the constitution and also about The English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell.

Have you ever seen the United States Constitution?

History is a very interesting subject, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Solbury Hill Location

Someone asked me where the Solbury Hill in the Peter Gabriel song is located. First lets clarify the name of the place. Many people incorrectly spell the name of the hill in question "Solbury", however, it's actually Solsbury Hill:

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
[I] just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
"Son," he said "Grab your things,
I've come to take you home."

To keepin' silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
"Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" he said "Grab your things
I've come to take you home."

When illusion spin her net
I'm never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
"Hey" I said "You can keep my things,
they've come to take me home."

Once you have the correct spelling for the name then it's far more simple to figure out where the hill is located since you are now sure that Solsbury Hill is not the same hill as the prehistoric Silbury Hill earthwork near Avebury Wiltshire nor is Solsbury Hill anywhere near Salisbury Wiltshire. Solsbury Hill is near Bath in Somerset where Peter Gabriel would often walk. The song was written just after Peter's split with Genesis and gives you an insight into his thoughts and feelings at the time.

If you want to hear the song it's available on several of Peter Gabriel's albumns, since it's one of his favorite songs, and you can buy both the albums and the single at amazon.

Have you ever climbed up on Solsbury Hill?

Have fun listening to Peter Gabriel, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Cicada Locust Differences

Someone asked me what the difference is between a Cicada and a Locust. I was asked this a few weeks ago and had a very interesting time researching it. Rather than repeating my previous answer I will direct you directly to my previous answer here:

Cicadas versus Locusts

Do you have Cicadas where you live?

I hope that that helps to clear up any confusion beween the two species of insect, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Logo Programming Language

Someone asked me what the Logo Programming Language is. Many many many years ago, in the early 1980s, I was taught Logo at school. It's an ideal programming language for children because it's very simple and instantly rewarding. The reason why it's instantly rewarding is because it's generally taught using a Turtle.

If you're not familiar with Logo you probably think that I just went insane based upon the previous paragraph, but Logo really is taught with a Turtle. A Logo Turtle is a device approximately the size of a 25 pack of CDs, that's the best comparison that I can come up with at the moment, that has wheels and controls the movement of a pen which draws a line on the floor beneath the Turle as it moves around the room.

"Logo is the name for a philosophy of education and a continually evolving family of programming languages that aid in its realization."
- Harold Abelson
Apple Logo, 1982

There's a great summary of the history of Logo at the MIT web site:

In the mid 1960s Seymour Papert, a mathematician who had been working with Piaget in Geneva, came to the United States where he co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Marvin Minsky. Papert worked with the team from Bolt, Beranek and Newman, led by Wallace Feurzeig, that created the first version of Logo in 1967.

Throughout the 1970s Logo was incubating at MIT and a few other research sites: Edinburgh, Scotland and Tasmania, Australia. There were small research activities conducted in local schools, including the Brookline Public Schools, just up the Charles River from MIT. Dan Watt and other MIT researchers documented their work with a small number of elementary school students using Logo. Their reports are among the several dozen Logo Memos published by MIT during this period.

The Logo Programming Language, a dialect of Lisp, was designed as a tool for learning. Its features - modularity, extensibility, interactivity, and flexibility -follow from this goal.

For most people, learning Logo is not an end in itself, and programming is always about something. Logo programming activities are in mathematics, language, music, robotics, telecommunications, and science. It is used to develop simulations, and to create multimedia presentations. Logo is designed to have a "low threshold and no ceiling": It is accessible to novices, including young children, and also supports complex explorations and sophisticated projects by experienced users.

The most popular Logo environments have involved the Turtle, originally a robotic creature that sat on the floor and could be directed to move around by typing commands at the computer. Soon the Turtle migrated to the computer graphics screen where it is used to draw shapes, designs, and pictures.

Some turtle species can change shape to be birds, cars, planes, or whatever the designer chooses to make them. In Logo environments with many such turtles, or "sprites" as they are sometimes called, elaborate animations and games are created.

Logo is a great language to teach children, it's very simple and you get almost instant feedback on the program which you have written. Amazon has some books about the Logo Programming Language available here.

Have fun teching your children, or indeed yourself, Logo, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Friday, August 12, 2005

Ruby Programming Language

Someone asked how they could learn the Ruby Programming Language. It's always best to learn through practical experience and, fortunately, that is easy because Ruby is free. Not only is it financially free but since it is distributed under the GPL license it also provides you the freedom to examine its source code and, if you desire, modify it in accordance with the GPL license.

Once you have installed a copy of the Ruby language, provides information how to do so, you will need to learn how to use it. There are many online resources, however, if you prefer a hard copy Amazon has several books on Ruby available. One of the best is "Programming Ruby", now available in its even better second edition. Once you learn Ruby I am sure that you will want to try Ruby on Rails to see what all the fuss is about, the best book is "Agile Web Development with Rails"

Have fun learning Ruby, remember that fun was one of the foundations of the Ruby language, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Learning C

Someone asked if I could recommend a good book for learning how to program in the C language. The definitive C book is "The C Programming Language" by the legendary K & R.

What is your favorite C book?

Once you have the basics under control I would recommend that you take a look at "Expert C Programming". I read this book in 1995 and it is full of useful C information.

Have fun learning C, the syntax is a little more complicated than Java or Visual Basic, however, knowing C will stand you in good stead when it comes time to learn C++ or indeed any of the various languages who owe their syntax structures to C including Java and C#, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Monday, August 08, 2005

Tarantula Hawk Wasp

Someone asked if I could help to identify a wasp which they found in their garden. The coloring was interesting in that it was completely black except for the wings, which were red. The wasp was approximately an inch and a half long and the wasp body was approximately half an inch wide.

After searching various wasp sources I had come to the conclusion that this was probably a member of the Scoliid Wasp family, as they are found in numerous colorings, including a similar color to this wasp in question.

Having just reached this conclusion I just happened to read an article about the official State Insect of New Mexico, where the question was sent from, and realised that the State Insect matched the description perfectly. The New Mexico State Insect is the Tarantula Hawk Wasp and, as its name implies, it does actually prey on Tarantula spiders.

Here are some images from Google that show what a Tarantula Hawk Wasp looks like:

Google Images

Many people have stated that they believe that the Tarantula Hawk Wasp has the most painful sting of any insect in north America, so if you see one it's best to keep your distance. The males are fiercely territorial and will defend areas which provide a good view of the surrounding area as they use these high vantage points for spotting females during mating time.

Similar to the Cicada Kller Wasp, the Tarantula Hawk stings its prey in order to paralize it and then either feeds on it immediately or carries the Tarantula back to a burrow where it lays a single egg upon the spider before sealing the incubation chamber. When the egg hatches the grub will feed off the Tarantula as its first meal.

Have you ever seen a Tarantula Hawk Wasp?

What a fascinating creature, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Online book publishing

Someone asked me if there is a web site which allows you to print and sell books which you have written yourself. There are actually several online book publishers, or online self publishers, which you can upload your manuscript to who will handle the printing and the online bookstore sales for you.

The online publishing house that I prefer is called LuLu (, however, all of the varios online publishers tend to provide very similar features. Lulu will accept your manuscript in various formats including Microsoft Word and PDF. I would recommend using PDF since you will be able to be sure that the typesetting of the document will be identical on both your home PC and on lulu's printing computer. Lulu also provides an option to have your book become available to traditional "brick and mortar" book retailers.

You may be interested in using TeX, or LaTeX, to typeset your manuscript. TeX is a very powerful document layout language/specification which is very popular in academia and will produce PDF formatted files using a tool called pdflatex. The advantage of using TeX is that it performs the typesetting on your behalf so that you are able to focus your energy on writing content.

I have some additional information about LaTeX in Ben's Information Station here:

LaTeX Embedded in HTML

and here:

Presentations With LaTeX Beamer

Have you ever written a book and had it published?

Good luck publishing your book, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Friday, August 05, 2005

Blanket versus Duvet

Someone asked me why I prefer a duvet rather than a blanket when it comes to bed linens. The reason is partly because, being English, that is what my family and I have always used, and partly because it just makes more sense to me.

If you use a blanket then you always have a problem when the time comes to wash the blanket. Generally, you can either have one thick blanket which is too large for the home washing machine to wash and requires professional cleaning or you can have multiple thin blankets which you can fit in the home washing machine but only one or two at a time. Consequently, it seems that there's a strong disincentive to wash blankets and you end up sleeping in quite filthy conditions.

If you use a duvet then you simply remove the duvet cover once a week, or more often if desired, and wash it along with all the fitted bed sheets and pillow cases in one single washing machine load. You may take the duvet itself to be dry cleaned once or twice a year, however, the duvet generally remains clean as it has a duvet cover that keeps the dirt away from it. Consequently, as it is very convenient to clean a duvet cover along with the rest of the bed sheets and pillow cases, your bed is kept reasonably clean.

Unfortunately, duvets are very expensive in the US. I would say that this is probaly due to a lack of supply, since they are a European phenomenon, however, there is also a lack of demand for some reason despite apparent advantages that a duvet has over a blanket.

Do you use a duvet or do you use a blanket?

There's nothing I like more than wrapping up in a crisp clean duvet on a cold night, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Cheap Micro Mini DV camera

In the midst of the CVS pharmacy disposable digital video camera being hacked someone asked me if there are any other reasonably priced small digital video cameras.

Just the other day I was mentioning the Philips GoGear and that really is about as small as they come. The only problem with the GoGear is that it only has 128MB RAM and no way to increase it. Consequently you're limited to only being able to record for 30 minutes.

A couple of alternatives are available from Aiptek, namely the DV3100 and their other more powerful cameras in the same line, particularly the DV4500.

The DV3100 has a mere 16MB of RAM but you can increase that by plugging in a Compact Flash memory card. The DV4500 records higher resolution at greater frames per second and utilises SD/MMC instead of CF for storage. Both cameras function as USB mass storage devices and so will work on Linux.

Both the DV3100 and the DV4500 are available from amazon, the DV3100 for less than 100 USD and the DV4500 is available for just over 100 USD.

Have you tried any other low cost DV cameras?

Have fun making your own home movies, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Veruca or Verruca

Someone asked me if "Verruca" has one "R" or two. The answer is two.

As I mentioned before in my post "Plantar Wart or Verruca", Amazon has several treatments available for Verrucas, or Plantar Warts, here.

The condition is very easy to treat, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Plantar Wart or Verruca

Someone asked me what the difference is between a Plantar Wart and a Verruca. There is no difference, they are the same. Basically it's an area of skin on the foot which grows faster than the surrounding skin and is caused by the Papilloma virus. The infection is usually contracted by walking barefoot on ground that has been exposed to the virus previously.

Amazon has several treatments available here.

The treatment is very simple, easy, and effective, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

BitTorrent Easter Eggs

Someone asked me if the use of BitTorrent would have any effect on his ability to create Easter Eggs in video. The Easter Eggs which we are talking about have nothing to do with BitTorrent. Easter Eggs refer to anything that's hidden within something else, for example, MS Excel has an Easter Egg Flight Simulator game. BitTorrent is a means of transmitting data over the internet using a swarm of computers to share the work.

The Strongbad Flash animation can have Easter Eggs because it's interactive. I hadn't heard about the Strongbad easter eggs before, but I'm guessing that you move the mouse over some part of the animation or click and something unexpected happens. Unfortunately, video is not generally interactive, except in the case of a DVD menu screen. If you were to create an entire DVD then you could have Easter Eggs hidden in the DVD menu. If you want to know which DVDs have Easter Eggs Amazon has a great book about them called DVD Confidential.

Bittorrent has nothing to do with Easter Eggs, Bittorrent is just a means of transmitting data. For example, if you wanted to transmit some data you could copy it to a CD and stick it in the mail, you could transmit it through the internet as a straight one client to one server connection, or you could transmit it through the internet using a Bittorrent swarm. The data, where the easter eggs are hidden, is not affected by the method which you choose to distribute the data.

So the answer is that the use of BitTorrent will not cause any problems with Easter Eggs.

Have you seen any interesting Easter Eggs recently?

Have fun with any Easter Eggs which you find, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Saudi Royal Line

Someone asked me who was next in line to the Saudi Arabian Throne now that King Fahd, Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud, has died.

The next in line to the throne was Crown Prince Abdullah, now King Abdullah or Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman Al Saud. Prince Sultan has now become Crown Prince Sultan. If you would like more details of the Saudi Royal line I found this site which has a lot of information:

It's interesting, to me, that the Saudi Royal line passes between Brothers before Sons, do you know of any other Royal Families which pass their dynasty on through the fraternal line?

There are lots of interesting books about both current events and Saudi history available here at Amazon.

Saudi Arabia is certainly an interesting country, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Monday, August 01, 2005

Natasha and Daniel Bedingfield

Someone asked me if Natasha and Daniel Bedingfield are related.

The answer is; "Yes". He is her brother.

Amazon has several of Natasha Bedingfield's CDs here and several of Daniel Bedingfield's CDs here.

Do you know of any other music siblings new to the scene?

There must be a lot of competition in a family where several siblings are in the same business, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at

Natasha Bedingfield Video Meaning

Someone asked me what all those cartoon stereos were about in Natasha Bedingfield's "These Words" USA video. It seems that someone thought that it was a cool idea although the general consensus is that the US music video is much worse than the original UK video, at least the lyrics to the song are the same. Amazon has several of Natasha's CDs here.

Take a look at the UK video for yourself:

Do you like the UK version of the video more than the US version?

It's funny how many bands find their way over to the states, if you have any comments please let me know and if you have any other questions which you'd like me to answer for free please send them to Ben Dash at