The Readers Ask

Why don't school buses have seat belts? Why are barns red? Will 2000 affect my computer? What happened to the SR-71 spy plane? Lightning: up or down?

Q My daughter wants to know "if seatbelts are so important and save lives, why don't we have them on most school buses?" - Prof. Daniel R. Kempton, Sycamore, Ill.

A Instead of seat belts, bus designers use a concept called "compartmentalization." Protection comes from seats that are high-backed, well-cushioned, and placed close together. In 1989, the National Academy of Sciences studied the safety issue at the request of Congress, and concluded that compartmentalization was still more effective than belts. There are several arguments against belts. Belts could become weapons if children become rowdy. In case of accident, only one adult (the driver) is available to make sure all children get out of their belts. And finally, the standard three-point belt system in cars has not been perfected for buses, and old-fashioned lap belts could cause more injuries than they prevent.

Q Why are barns usually painted red? - Jan Mooney, Baltimore, Maryland

A A mix of milk and red ochre, a clay colored by iron oxide, was used on early American farms to coat barns. Milk was plentiful, and when mixed with ochre and dried, it forms a plastic-like coat that prevents weathering. Milk paint came into use in the 1700s and continued until the 1930s. It declined in popularity as farmers phased out dairy herds. Shakers also painted their barns red, but used ox blood in place of ochre. Red barns were mostly found in the North. Southerners either didn't paint barns, or used lampblack that resulted in a grayish color. The trend now is to paint barns white. It keeps them cooler.

Q Why do racing cars have smooth tires? - Josh Caldwell, Dolores, Colo.

A Racing tires are called "slicks." They are smooth because treads are not needed on dry roads. "Slicks" grip dry surfaces better than tires with treads because they put more rubber on the road. A spokesman at Goodyear says that ordinary auto tires have treads that allow cars to drive safely on wet streets. In rain, tires may move more than a gallon of water per second to maintain grip. Zigzag treads allow tires to sponge up and pump out water. Racers use treaded tires when it rains.

Q Is the US military still flying the SR-71 spy plane? Surveillance flights over Iraq are being done with the U-2, which Iraq threatens to shoot down. I think I heard once that the SR-71 could fly faster than a surface-to-air missile. So why not use the SR-71? - Mark Johnson, Hillsboro, Ore.

A US Air Force SR-71 "Blackbirds" - the world's fastest and highest-flying planes - were mothballed in 1990. Two of them were returned to service in 1997. An Air Force spokesman calls the decision to reactivate the planes "political," since satellites now can do the job. The SR-71 broke many speed records (it flies about 2,200 miles per hour) and altitude records (over 85,000 feet). It once went from L.A. to Washington, D.C., in 64 minutes.

Q In the Titanic [the ship, not the movie], were there really only six people who weren't in one of the 20 lifeboats who survived? - June Louks, Palisades, Calif.

A Actually, the number was seven. Fourteen people were pulled out of the water alive after the ship went down, but only half survived, according to Titanic scholar Susan Wels. Around midnight, Capt. E.J. Smith ordered his crew to make 16 lifeboats and four collapsible boats ready to evacuate passengers; but many of the boats were not filled to capacity. Lifeboat Seven could hold 65, but only 28 boarded. Lifeboat One could hold 40, but only 12 boarded. Of 2,228 passengers, only 705 survived.

Q I read much about the computer problems with the year 2000. Will this disturb personal computers that are used at home? - Keith A. Wommack, via e-mail

A Unfortunately, the answer is often yes. Here are some basics. First, if you own an Apple Macintosh computer, you're probably OK. They've been set up to make the change to 2000 from the beginning. Many of the newer PCs are also fine. Companies saw the new millenium coming, and adjusted their software. However, older PCs could be worrisome, particularly if they are used to maintain certain kinds of financial information that rely on dates. Industry officials recommend that you call the manufacturer of your hardware, and ask to speak to a representative about possible year 2000 problems. They will ask you for the model of your computer and will tell you if your computer is 2000 ready or not - and if not, they may be able to tell you what to do to fix the problem. You'll need to repeat the process with the maker of your software. For example, if someone has a Toshiba laptop with Microsoft Office installed, he'll need first to call Toshiba, then call each part of the Microsoft Office, such as Excel, Word, etc. If you have access to the Internet, many computer manufactures have solutions and model numbers posted on their web pages. There are also other Web sites to help guide you through the problems and the progress that has been made. is a good source to turn to for questions and solutions.

Q Does lightning occur from the ground up or the sky down? - John Sherman, Otter Rock, Ore.

A Both. Meteorologist Todd Gross at WHDH, Channel 7, Boston, says that lightning starts from the ground up. But the flash that we see meets between the clouds and the ground. There are many different types of lightning including forked lightning, the most common. People who have been struck by lightning, and survive, say that they can feel a tingling in their feet just before being struck. So remember, if you are out in a thunderstorm and you feel a tingling in your toes, take cover immediately.

Q How much caffeine is in coffee yogurts and ice creams?

A If you are trying to cut the caffeine, then beware. Many of the newest flavors of ice cream, yogurt, pudding, and chocolate milk contain caffeine. As a reference point, here is the caffeine content (in milligrams per serving) of some popular drinks and candies:

Coffee, brewed, 166; tea, brewed, 50; Jolt Cola, 71; Mountain Dew, 55; Coca-Cola Classic, 47; Diet Coke, 47; Dr. Pepper, 40; Pepsi Cola, 37; RC Cola, 36; Hershey's Special Dark, 21; Hershey's Kisses, 7; M&Ms (plain), 4; Milky Way, 1; Baby Ruth, 1.

Some yogurts and ice creams also have caffeine. Our findings (milligrams per serving): Dannon coffee yogurt, 44.5; Columbo light cappuccino yogurt, 25; Columbo frozen chocolate cappuccino yogurt, 10; Yoplait yogurt, cafe au lait, 0; Stoneyfield Farms yogurt, cappuccino, 0; Snack Wells yogurt, double chocolate, 8; Snack Wells yogurt, milk chocolate almond, 6; Edy's frozen yogurt, fat-free chocolate fudge, less than 1; Starbucks ice cream, roast coffee, 30; Starbucks dark roast espresso swirl ice cream, 45; Jell-O pudding, chocolate, 2; Jell-O pudding, chocolate fudge mousse, 12; Swiss Miss drink, several flavors, 8 to 9; Nestl chocolate powder mix, 10; Hershey fat-free chocolate milk, 2.

Some products aimed at kids, such as orange soda, add caffeine to increase their appeal. Sunkist orange already has it (41 milligrams). Pepsi-Cola, the maker of Slice, plans to add caffeine into its orange-flavored version, according to recent news reports.

Q Why do men's and women's shirts button on opposite sides?

A Two theories. One says that affluent women had maids who would do up their buttons. It was easier for the buttons to be on the maid's right side as she faced her mistress. The other suggests that men's buttons were placed on the right-hand side because men needed to be battle ready and thus kept their right hand (the weapon-wielding hand) in their pocket to keep it warm. Any buttoning needed to be done easily with the left hand.

Q Where is the driest place on earth? - John Sherman, Otter Rock, Ore.

A Apparently it is the Atacama Desert in South America. It's a virtually rainless and lifeless plateau in northern Chile between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. Annual rainfall: 0.0004 inches, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. Atacama also holds the record for the longest drought. But no one is sure how long the longest drought is - since it is still going on.

The Reader's Respond

In "The Readers Ask" [World Edition, March 6-12] you have two "Titanic" questions. I found your answer to "How historically accurate is it?" woefully inadequate. You only mention two inaccuracies - the London Daily Mail ran a series for five days examining inaccuracies....

In particular, there have been several depictions of characters that have deeply distressed their families in the United Kingdom. Two examples: In the film, First Officer William Murdoch is depicted shooting a passenger, then himself. There is no evidence that this was Murdoch. Charles Herbert Lightoller, the most senior officer to survive the sinking, wrote to Murdoch's widow Ada saying when he last saw him "he was working hard, personally assisting, overhauling the forward boat's fall. At this moment the ship dived and we were all in the water. Murdoch died like a man...."

Lightoller is depicted as barely managing to keep control and as leaving in a lifeboat - in fact his experience was very different. In his testimony in the Christian Science Journal [October 1912] he writes "... the very conditions which existed on the port side were in themselves a demonstration of the working of Truth, for not the slightest hitch occurred.... Looking down I could see that all material work was finished, so from where I was at the top of the bridge, I faced forward and walked into the water."

There then followed a remarkable experience in which he was sucked under twice, but thrown up each time. Then the ship sank, the forward funnel fell, throwing Lightoller and others about 20 feet clear of the ship. Thirty of them spent the night standing back to back on [an] overturned boat, praying. The factually correct film was made in 1958, "A Night to Remember."

Judy Macpherson

Ascot, Berkshire, England

Let Us Hear From You

Readers are invited to submit questions to: The Readers Ask, TCSM, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115. Or e-mail queries to: Research for this page was provided by Karen Gates, Kristina Lanier, John Hoyle, and Kerry Flatley, Monitor staff interns. Questions without a source were submitted by members of the Monitor staff.

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