Monday, November 26, 2012

Apple #612: Power Symbol

Welcome back from Thanksgiving, everyone.  I hope you all had a delicious holiday.  In the meantime, I've had a request!  Regular Daily Apple reader Johansen asks:

This may be tiny and not interesting but I'd like to know who invented
the little power symbol that's pretty common on computers. You know
the circle with the line sticking out of the top? I think I've seen it
on multiple devices so it seems like it's not patent protected.

Since tomorrow is Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving when everybody apparently starts doing their online shopping for Christmas, this does seem to be an appropriate topic.

The universally used and recognized Power button. But what does it really mean?
(Image by Vova Devyatkin at Freebiesbug)

  • Johansen, I think you wanted a nice easy answer, like "Joe-Bob Computer came up with the insignia when he was 12 and playing games on his Atari."  But no.  It didn't happen like that. 
  • Or at least, if one person did have the idea to use that symbol, his or her name has been lost to the sands of time or else buried under the paperwork of international technical standards.


The International Electrochemical Commission

  • When people talk about this Power symbol, they refer to a technical standards committee called the IEC as the body that first officially registered the symbol. 
  • The IEC is the International Electrochemical Commission. It's made up of tens of thousands of individuals, companies, and academics from around the world who know all sorts of stuff about electric and electronic products and services.  They work together to decide how products in this industry should be standardized.  
  • This group makes sure that our electric and computer products will work the same from country to country, and that parts made in one country will work with equipment made in another country. So they set standards and codes and establish symbols that everybody will use so that everybody in the industry is speaking the same language.
  • So, once upon a time, back in 1973, somebody or some group of people in the IEC decided what the Power symbol should look like. 
  • Their decision was probably based on products that had already been made or were being used at the time.  So most likely, somebody else came up with the symbol before the IEC did, and the IEC only codified it.  But the only record we have now is the IEC's codification.

The Symbol
  • The IEC actually codified a bunch of symbols related to On and Off at the same time. But which symbols people have used have changed as the technology has changed.  I'll take you through a chronology of On/Off switches to show you what I mean.
  • First there was Power Off/Power On, where you slid a switch from Off to On.

(Photo from Commonsense Design)

  • Then there were what's called rocker switches, where one switch toggles between off and on, but instead of using the words, they used the symbols. In the binary world of computers where everything is either a 1 or a 0, the IEC decided that 1 is On and 0 is Off.  Except they used a sans serif 1, which looks like a straight line.

(Photo from Commonsense Design)

  • When the button was changed from a rocker switch, computer manufacturers were more sophisticated in how they were making their equipment in other ways, too, so that when you powered the thing down, you weren't necessarily completely cutting the thing off from the main power supply.  So the power switches started to use the On / Standby symbols, where Standby is a circle with the straight line through it: a combination of Off and On.

(Photo from Commonsense Design)

  • But then the power switch went to just plain Standby. Which we then interpreted to mean On.  Or Off.

The current, ubiquitous Power symbol on an iPhone case.
(Photo and iPhone case from Zazzle)

  • What's weird is, we general public folks universally interpret this symbol to mean On/Off.  But what it technically means is Standby only.  

People love the Power button so much, you can buy everything from T-shirts to cufflinks labeled with the symbol.
(Photo and T-shirt for $10-$19 from Think Geek)

  • A true single-push On/Off button would be a straight line in the middle of the circle.

The true On/Off symbol
(Image from Designosophy, which misunderstands the symbols)

A true On/Off button.
(Photo from

  • But our current favorite Power Symbol (which is really the symbol for Standby) has actually become a bit of a hot topic in the industry.  Since we have started to interpret the old Standby symbol as On/Off, and since the industry is becoming increasingly interested in finding ways for these gizmos to conserve power, there is a renewed interest in putting these devices into a true Standby mode.  So they've recently come up with a new symbol, the crescent moon, which will now be used as the new Standby (a.k.a. Sleep) symbol.

A lot of Sleep buttons have the word Sleep written beneath them. So it seems the crescent-shaped Sleep symbol hasn't quite caught on. 
(Photo from Sharky Extreme)

  • Unlike our favorite On/Off (actually Standby) symbol, the Sleep symbol doesn't really have the streamlined, to-the-point, high-tech feel about it, though. It's also too easy for different manufacturers to make the Sleep symbol look different from each other. Maybe the IEC and other technical people should have consulted with some designers before they came up with the crescent.

You can even get a ring that looks like a Power symbol (which is really a Standby symbol).  That's just not happening with Sleep.
(Photo of ring and more Power symbol stuff from Mashable Tech)

DOE Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, The Power Control User Interface Standard, December 2002, The Meaning and Design Behind "On" and "Off"
Commonsense Design, The evolution of the On/Off power switch symbol, May 7, 2008
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, ISO/IEC/JTC1 Graphical Symbols for Office Equipment
IEEE 1621 Power Control User Interface Standard Appendix V - Standards Related to Power Controls, December 2002

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Apple #611: Grateful vs Thankful

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, we'll all soon be giving thanks for the many good things in our lives.  Some of us have already started doing that.  I've noticed that sometimes people say they're "grateful" and sometimes they say they're "thankful."  Which got me wondering, what's the difference between the two words?  There must be some difference; they're two different words.

So what is the difference between "grateful" and "thankful"?

At Thanksgiving dinner, we are grateful.
(Photo from DIY)

  • I did a lot of looking online, and various sources disagree on this.  Some say there is no difference, some say there is a difference, but they disagree with each other about which one means what thing. Some dictionaries even use one word to define the other and vice versa.  
  • I'm basing my answer on the most authoritative sources out there, and the ones that can explain why they use the definitions they do.  This, of course, means the Oxford English Dictionary (my favorite reference book of all time), as well as a few other sources.
  • I know, I know, you don't want all the background mishmash, you just want the answer.  OK, here it is.  Then I'll get into the details.
  • Grateful = the feeling is directed to a person
  • Thankful = feeling of gratitude in general, or to God or luck or good fortune or some intangible force
  • Don't believe me, or need help remembering the difference?  I'll break it down for you. 

This is a good depiction of grateful.  An exchange between two people.
(Photo from Whispy lifestyle)

  • Grateful, says the 1828 edition of Webster's, is "kindly disposed towards one from whom a favor has been received."
  • That same dictionary uses almost exactly the same definition for thankful, except it leaves out the "towards one from whom" part.
  • My OED's definition of grateful begins "Of persons, their actions and attributes."
  • You can say, "I'm grateful to Mr. Rogers for making my childhood more enjoyable."  But you can't say "I'm thankful to Mr. Rogers," etc.  That just sounds weird.
  •  That's because you can be grateful to a person, but you can't be thankful to a person.

Here's a question.  Can you be grateful to animals?  I'm going to say yes.
(Photo from Wikimedia)

  • The words are very close in meaning, and the reason it gets confusing is when the words change grammatical form, the meanings change.  You do say, "Thank you, Mr. Rogers" but you don't say, "Grate you, Mr. Rogers."
  • Because we often thank people it seems like we should be able to be thankful to people.  But, nope.  We are grateful to people and thankful to God (or good luck, or fortune, or unseen forces).

This is being thankful.  Thanking the universe.
(Photo from

  • If it's a general situation that has affected you positively, then you say you're thankful: "I'm thankful that the traffic on the way to Sesame Street was not bad" or "I'm thankful that my ice cream cone did not fall to the floor."
  • But if you can identify a person as being somehow responsible for the favorable situation, then you use grateful: "I'm grateful that those semi trucks turned off on another road while I was on my way to Sesame Street," or "I'm grateful to my brother for not knocking my ice cream cone to the floor." 

When we have Thanksgiving, we are giving thanks to God (or to good fortune or the universe) for our family.
(Photo from Dan Arnold's page)

  • All this said, if you mix up the two words, the grammar police will not come to arrest you. And for that, you can be grateful.*
  • (*This is assuming that the grammar police exist.)

1828 Noah Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, grateful and thankful
Online Etymology Dictionary, grateful and thank
My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary
OneLook, grateful and thankful

Monday, November 12, 2012

Apple #610: Carrier and Homing Pigeons

Today is Veterans' Day.  Since we've all been through a pretty rough-and-tumble election with insults being flung literally left and right, I thought it would be nice to talk about a calmer, more soothing topic.  Like pigeons.  And as it turns out, some pigeons are also veterans.

Pigeons can be veterans too. These are homing pigeons in a mobile pigeon loft in Okinawa in 1945.
(Photo from WWII in Color)

What's prompting this Daily Apple is a news story that ran a couple of weeks ago, about a carrier pigeon.  A man in England decided to restore his home's original fireplace and when he had the wall knocked down, he discovered the skeleton of a bird. On closer inspection, he realized it was a pigeon, and it had a little red canister still attached to its leg. Inside the canister, on a piece of paper as thin as a cigarette rolling paper was a series of handwritten letters that were clearly a message in code.

Remains of the carrier pigeon and the red canister it was carrying still attached to its leg.
(Photo from The History Blog)

Based on the style of the canister and the form of the message and various other indicators, it's believed that this pigeon was sent at some point during World War II.  The band on the pigeon's leg says it was born in 1940.  They think that perhaps the pigeon stopped to rest in Surrey, on this man's chimney, but something went wrong and the pigeon died and fell down the chimney.

The message it was carrying was written by a Sergeant W. Stott and it was addressed to "X02," which was England's Bomber Command.  Several pigeons were released on D-Day, meant to carry messages back to England's home command.  So it's possible that this pigeon was sent on D-Day by some British Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot, perhaps requesting a bombing raid.

The coded message that the carrier pigeon was, well, carrying.
(Photo from The History Blog)

Bletchley Park, which was Britain's intelligence and decoding headquarters during the war and is now a museum, has several messages sent by carrier pigeon, but none of them are in code.  Bletchley Park's modern-day decoding counterpart now has the message and they are trying to crack the code.

I wonder if we'll ever learn what it says, or if it will be judged to be too sensitive, even this many years later.

Now for more facts behind the news story.

  • First, a lot of newspaper articles use the phrase "carrier pigeon" pretty indiscriminately.   Usually when they say "carrier pigeon" it turns out it was really a homing pigeon that was also carrying a message.
  • Carrier pigeons and homing pigeons are both of the same species (Columba livia or Rock pigeons), but they're slightly different breeds.  A true carrier pigeon is pretty ugly.  It has a big warty blob on top of its beak and as the bird ages, the warty blob gets bigger and another one grows on the underside of its beak.  It also has a fleshy ring around its eye that gives it a staring, almost vulture-like expression.

This image is pretty small, but you can kind of make out the warty blob on top of this carrier pigeon's beak and the fleshy ring around its eye. All the larger pictures I found have copyright insignias all over them. But you might not want to see those images up close, anyway.
(Photo from thelongestlistofthelongeststuff etc.)

  • Today, carrier pigeons are bred primarily as show birds for their fancy and strange facial features and their ornamental plumage.
  • Homing pigeons look more like the regular pigeons you see hanging around city streets and telephone wires. These pigeons have slightly more muscular breasts, but the bigger difference is that they have been bred for centuries and also trained so that, no matter how far they fly, they'll always find home.  Which, to them, means finding their most reliable source of food.
  • Homing pigeons also almost always have an identification band on one leg so that in the rare case when they get lost, the person who finds the bird can contact its owner.
  • (Recently, one homing pigeon named Henry got lost on the way from France to England and wound up in the Bahamas. His owner doesn't believe he actually flew across the entire Atlantic but probably hitched a ride on some cruise ship. His owner has agreed that Henry can stay there rather than risk the flight back. So now the Bahamas are now his new home. I say, smart bird.)

Henry the pigeon from Leeds in his new home in the Bahamas.
(Photo from Look at this . . .)

  • I don't know enough about pigeon skeleton anatomy to say for sure whether the skeleton that was found in the man's chimney was a carrier or a homing pigeon, but I have a feeling that it may have been a homing pigeon.
  • The catch with homing pigeons is you can't have them fly off and deliver a message to someone else. They'll just come back home.  You have to take them away from their home base and then release them and they'll fly home.  So, for military intelligence purposes, you have to have a person in the enemy territory who can take the bird into the fray with them and then release it to go back home.
  • During World War II, RAF pilots routinely took pigeons with them on their missions.  (Again, most articles refer to them as carrier pigeons, but I think they were really homing pigeons who were carrying messages.)  If the pilot's plane was shot down and they had no way to communicate their whereabouts, the pigeon would be released to fly back home and "tell" the base where the plane had landed.

A Canadian airman carrying homing pigeons in a box -- WWII's version of the black box.
(Photo from War 44 Forums)

  • This actually happened, and successfully, in one instance. On February 23, 1942, an RAF bomber was pretty much in flames and its crew bailed out into the North Sea.  Yeah, February, in the sea off the coast of Norway, not exactly bathwater.
  • Just before they bailed out, the crew released the pigeon they had on board -- a blue checkered hen named Winkie.  They hoped that Winkie would fly home to her perch in Dundee and thus alert the air base that the plane she'd flown out in had gone down.
  • She flew 120 miles and was discovered "exhausted and covered in oil" by her owner, who then alerted the nearby RAF base.
  • She wasn't carrying any message, but they were able to calculate how far she must have flown, based on their last communications with the plane, and taking into account windspeeds and the fact that her feathers were coated in oil.
  • The rescue mission found the pilot and crew within 15 minutes.
  • A dinner was later given in her honor, and she was awarded the first Dickin Medal, which is an award given to an animal for delivering a message under exceptional difficulties.

This is Winkie, the bird who saved the lives of several men on an RAF bomber in World War II.
(Photo from BBC News)

  • One of the reasons the British had all those carrier/homing pigeons was because they'd heard that the Germans had a regular crew of them.  Carrier/homing pigeons were used fairly extensively on all sides during World War I, but after that war, most armies had let their pigeon crews lapse.  Not Germany.
  • (Actually, armies have been using pigeons to carry messages going all the way back to King Cyrus of Persia.) 

A mobile pigeon roost used by the US Army during World War I.
(Photo from Suite 101)

  • When World War II broke out, the Germans had some 50,000 pigeons trained and ready for use. Well, they commandeered the pigeon lofts of civilians and claimed them for the military's use.
  • In fact, the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, was in charge of Germany's National Pigeon Society. Which meant he could use the pigeons for intelligence purposes.
  • The French and the British didn't know about the pigeon corps at first, but they began to suspect something was up in 1942, when they noticed lots of pigeons flying around England toward France.
  • The British suspected -- and their suspicions were confirmed by captured German soldiers -- that the pigeons were dropped off by the German troops either by parachute or by boat along the British coastline.  The pigeons carried messages about troop strength, fortifications, gun positions. Sometimes they even carried maps or photos.

German WWII soldier carrying carrier pigeons.
(Photo from the Daily Gun

  • The British decided to counteract the German pigeon intelligence in two ways. First, they copied the idea and gathered trained pigeons for their own purposes. Second, they also developed and trained a corps of birds of another kind -- peregrine falcons.  
  • The peregrine falcons were trained to go after the pigeons.  In most cases, they probably simply attacked the pigeons, but they actually brought back two of the German pigeons who became, technically speaking, prisoners of war.

And, what do you know, our military is still using pigeons to this day.
(Photo from The Duffel Blog)

  • After the Department of the Army blew its entire communications budget on a $15 billion-with-a-b radio system that essentially didn't work, they had to find other means of communication. The Army Chief of Staff asked his big thinkers to come up with some other low-cost method that couldn't be hacked or interrupted.  They came up with KITDFOHS (Kinetic Internal Directly Functional Operational Homing Science).
  • Translated, that means carrier pigeons, hand and arm signals, smoke signals, and yelling.
  • Here's what one soldier in Afghanistan has to say about this communications program (please excuse the, um, military language):
“Hand and arm signals, OK. Yelling, OK. But fuck, carrier pigeons and smoke signals? Now on patrol one of my guys has to carry a cage on his back with pigeons in it. Another troop is stuck carrying kindling and flint everywhere we go. Have you ever tried to build a fire while taking fire? It ain’t easy.”

He continued, “These pigeons are the nastiest creatures I’ve ever seen. Not to mention anytime we go through a market all the Afghans ask ‘how much, how much?’”

“While it’s pretty tough to have to carry this stuff, it makes for a good punishment technique. Whoever pisses me off is getting pigeon shit all over their gear by the end of the patrol.”

Who'd have thought that a bunch of pigeons could actually be that important?  In fact it's against the law in New Jersey to delay or detain a homing pigeon.
(Photo from NJ Kegstand)

David Wilkes, Skeleton of hero World War II carrier pigeon found in chimney with a secret message still attached to its leg, Daily Mail, November 1, 2012
Raven Idiot, Big Sky Birding Column from the Montana Best Times, part 2, The Complex World of Pigeons
Racing vs carrier homer, Pigeon Talk
World of Wings, Military Pigeons, The Birds That Save Lives
Chris Brooke, Not so bird-brained after all! Racing pigeon that went missing en route to Leeds finally turns up 4,500 miles away in the Bahamas, Daily Mail, July 20, 2012
The pigeon that saved a World War II bomber crew, BBC News, February 23, 2012
Rockville man raises, races carrier pigeons, The Washington Post, July 14, 2011
American in WWII, Pigeons of War
Nazis & Their Pigeons
Army Replaces Defective Radios with Carrier Pigeons, Smoke Signals, The Duffel Blog, October 9, 2012

Monday, November 5, 2012

Apple #609: Presidential Facts

So the Presidential election is only two days away.  Most news articles are quoting polls that show it's very close.  I have no idea who will win that race.  So I thought it might be interesting to try to predict the outcome on factors that no one else takes into account.  Factors that are of the utmost importance to the future of this country.  Characteristics completely crucial to determine the future and well-being of every man, woman, and child on the entire globe.

I am speaking, of course, about eye color.

That's right.  Eye color, height, weight, astrological sign -- these are all extremely important facts that combine to create the character of the man who will be our next President.

Who will be the winner, the man on the left in the blue tie, or the man on the right in the red tie?
(Photo from Just Jared)

(You know I'm kidding, don't you?  Some people take these things so seriously, I just wanted to make sure you were aware.)

So let's get down to brass tacks.  Who has the eye color that will win this election?


Barack Obama: brown
Mitt Romney: brown.

OK, so in this case, eye color will not be the deciding factor.  But!  Maybe this is why the race is so close!

In case you're interested, the majority of US Presidents have had blue eyes:
  • blue or blue-gray: 27
  • gray: 4
  • brown: 5
  • hazel: 4
  • black: 3

(That adds up to only 43 because I didn't count Grover Cleveland twice.)

Lyndon Johnson was the most recent President before Obama who had brown eyes.
(Photo from Wikipedia)


Barack Obama: 6'1"
Mitt Romney: 6'2"

Now, lest you think that the shorter candidate might prevail, actually, 58% percent of the time, the taller candidate has won.  67% of the time, the taller candidate has won the popular vote.

On this crucial trait, Romney is the winner.

Tallest President:  Abraham Lincoln, 6'4"
Shortest President: James Madison, 5'4"

6'2" Presidents: George Washington, Chester Arthur, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton
Other 6'1" Presidents: Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan

(Image from MunFitnessBlog)


Barack Obama: 176 lbs
Mitt Romney: 197 lbs

You might think the leaner candidate would have the edge, but historically speaking, it's actually the heavier candidate who has won.  Going back to 1900, in elections where the candidates were not tied in how much they weighed, the heavier President won 18 times out of 26. That's 69% of the time, for those of you doing the math.

Winner on weight: Romney

Heaviest President: William H. Taft, 332 lbs.
Lightest President: Jimmy Carter, 160 lbs.

Past President weighing ~176 lbs: John F. Kennedy
Past President weighing ~ 197 lbs: George H.W. Bush

Taft was also Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Maybe holding two such enormous roles explains why his girth was also enormous.  
(Photo from The Anti-Yale)


Barack Obama: 7
Mitt Romney: 4

Mitt Romney's real first name is Willard, but he doesn't go by that.  His name on the ballot is Mitt, so I'm going to by that.  Several Presidents went by less formal versions of their names, and that's how we know them (Jimmy Carter, for example, or Bill Clinton).  So the name Mittt prefers is the name I'll use.

The vast majority of the time, the candidate with more letters in his first name has won the election.  This one goes to Obama.

Going back to 1856, in elections where the number of letters in the candidates' first names was not the same, the candidate with more letters in his first name won 25 times out of 32. That's 78%.

President with the longest first name: Rutherford B. Hayes (10)
President with the shortest first name: Bill Clinton (4)

Rutherford B. Hayes. Frowning because his first name was twice as long as his last name?
(Photo from the White House)


Barack Obama: August 4 -- Leo
Mitt Romney: March 12 -- Pisces

Number of Leo Presidents: 4
Number of Pisces Presidents: 4

Number of elections Leos have won: 5
Number of elections Pisces have won: 8

Again, the edge goes to Romney.

Other Leo Presidents: William Henry Harrison, Herbert Hoover, Bill Clinton
Pisces Presidents: George Washington, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland

I suppose you could make the argument that since no one has elected a Pisces since the 19th century, that sign seems to have fallen out of public favor.

George Washington: blue-eyed, red-haired (yes, it's true) Pisces
(Image from the White House)


OK, I'll stop myself right here.  I mention this only to point out that the future doesn't always mimic patterns from the past.

And that's a good thing.

By a number of criteria, Kennedy should not have won. He was skinnier than his opponent, his first name was shorter, he was a Gemini and there hadn't been any Gemini Presidents before, and he was Catholic.  But he won anyway.
(Photo from

Yes, I realize I just undercut any argument this entry might have been making.  But you knew this was all in fun, didn't you?

The White House, The Presidents
Bob Greene, "History Shows That The Eyes Have It," Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1988
US Election 2012 guide: Mitt Romney profile, The Telegraph, August 17, 2012
NewsOne, How Tall Is Mitt Romney? May 16, 2012
The Height Site, Presidential Height Index
The Measure of a President, The New York Times, October 6, 2008
Wikipedia, US presidential candidates since 1856
Eric Ostermeier, Presidents Day Special: The Astrological Signs of the Presidents, UMN Humphrey School of Public Affairs, February 15, 2010