Lateral with Tom Scott

Comedy panel game podcast about weird questions with wonderful answers, hosted by Tom Scott.

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Episode 35: Selfies with number 57

Published 9th June, 2023

Emily the Engineer, Wren Weichman and Kip Heath face questions about benefit bonuses, stationery sales and plummeting platforms.

HOST: Tom Scott. QUESTION PRODUCER: David Bodycombe. RECORDED AT: Podcasts NZ Studios. EDITED BY: Julie Hassett at The Podcast Studios, Dublin. MUSIC: Karl-Ola Kjellholm ('Private Detective'/'Agrumes', courtesy of ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS: Lewis Tough, Jackson S. Kilger, Chris Dickson, Mark Moorhead, Katharine Davis, Sky-guided Vulpine Friend. FORMAT: Pad 26 Limited/Labyrinth Games Ltd. EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: David Bodycombe and Tom Scott.


Transcription by Caption+

Tom:What eventually contains 178 feet, 81 heads, 46 wings, and eight udders? The answer to that at the end of the show. My name's Tom Scott, and this is Lateral. We've got a bright constellation of guests on the show today. Arguably the best all-star lineup since Orion's Belt. So let's see if we're gonna be dazzled by their brilliance. First, we have from her own YouTube channel, it is Emily the Engineer.
Tom:Welcome back to the show. Last time we had some strange questions in there, including one about violating the Geneva Convention. How are you feeling about being back this time?
Emily:Yes. You know, now I think I've got a handle on it a little bit more, so I'm excited.
Tom:Next up, it is from Corridor Crew and from Corridor Digital. This time without the exclamation mark added to his name, we have Wren Weichman.
Wren:Thanks for having me.
Tom:I just love the enthusiasm, and I kind of wish I'd kept it up last time, that I just kept, would've kept referring to you as "Wren!" Every time.
Tom:In the rush of the show, I forgot.
Wren:As long as you just keep it up in real life. Every time I see you, you gotta say it that way every time.
SFX:(both laugh)
Tom:You know I'm gonna do that if we meet up near Vidcon. You know I'm gonna come in and just use that exclamation mark all the time now.
Wren:Oh, I hope so.
Tom:And finally, science communicator Kip Heath.
Tom:Welcome back to the show. How is work going for you at the moment with the science communication job, with the on-stage stuff? How is life now... hopefully, gigs are coming back as a thing?
Kip:I'm really enjoying it. It's... I was glad to do virtual, particularly as in my day job, I work as a scientist in a hospital, but... face-to-face is more fun, and there's something really depressing about talking to 500 students, but mostly at your own face on a computer screen.
Tom:Well, thank you for joining us here as we stare at each other's faces on a computer screen
SFX:(guests laughing)
Tom:spread across, I think... three continents and four different time zones. Thank you for dealing with the inevitable lag as this signal goes around the world. We have some questions for you that have more twists and turns than a Six Flags rollercoaster, but with none of the enjoyment and all of the nausea. Please ensure your seat belts are fully fastened as we head up the lift hill of question one. This is sent in by Mark Moorhead, so thank you, Mark. In 2023, the UK is providing some households with a £900 payment to help with the cost of living. It will arrive as three payments of £301, £300, and £299, respectively. Why? One more time. In 2023, the UK is providing some households with a £900 payment to help with the cost of living. It will arrive as three payments of £301, £300, and £299 respectively. Why?
Wren:In that order?
Wren:The first payment is £301, or the first payment is £299?
Tom:I believe the first payment is £301.
Emily:I feel like it might have something to do... with keeping track of what people have received and what people haven't received or something like that. I don't know.
Tom:Yeah, you're definitely on the right lines there right away. But why wouldn't you do £300, £300, £300?
Emily:Because then if you were paid... Well, I don't know. I guess you could see that you got paid £300 twice or something, but...
Wren:It's like an ID system built into the payment.
Tom:I mean, y'all have got it. That is exactly right straight away.
Kip:I'm awkward.
Tom:You nailed that.
Kip:The Brit didn't get it, but the Americans did.
Tom:Have you ever worked in customer service or something like that before, Emily? Because I feel like that's the sort of thing— That's the sort of answer that comes to mind of someone who is on the phone and has to deal with people who are shouting at them about missed payments.
Emily:Honestly, no. And I'm thankful I haven't had to deal with angry people, 'cause they scare me. So....! (laughs)
Wren:I hear you there.
Tom:You're absolutely right. If someone complains they have missed a payment, and their last payment was £301, it's easy to tell there are two more to go. If you give them out as £300, £300, £300, it's a lot trickier for people at home and for anyone checking up to go at the bank statement and see which payment is which.
Wren:That's actually really clever. I like that.
Kip:That's the first time someone said that about the UK government.
SFX:(group laughing)
Tom:We will go to you, Emily, for the first guest question. We've rattled through that first one. Give us the next one, please.
Wren:We are that good, yeah! (laughs)
Emily:Okay. The question is: Each summer, people flock to a Californian tourist attraction to have their photo taken next to two numbers. In 2021, a coveted pair of numbers was 57 and 135. What's happening? And I'll read it again. Each summer, people flocked to a Californian tourist attraction to have their photo taken next to two numbers. In 2021, a coveted pair of numbers was 57 and 135. What's happening?
Tom:So the first thing I did was write those down. And I just have 2021, 57, 135, and I started doing all sorts of maths. Are those the prime factors? No, they're not. 135 is not prime. What if you multiply them together? That's not gonna end in a one. So I think all my mathematical things that I went through just did not work there.
Kip:You cannot backsolve this one, Tom.
Wren:What were the two numbers again?
Emily:57 and 135.
Kip:Are we looking at a particular place in California, or are the numbers in different places in California?
Emily:A particular place in California.
Tom:I mean, Wren, you live in California, so we're looking...
Kip:Yeah, so come on, Wren!
Tom:...straight at you here!
Wren:Yeah, about that. So this is, these are put together, these are five digits that could potentially be a zip code, but that's definitely not a zip code here.
Kip:Is it a temperature? What's 135° in... centigrade?
Kip:Because there's Death Valley is in California, isn't it, and that's obscenely hot.
Tom:And 57 might be the record temperature there. Have we just cracked another one really quickly?
Emily:Yeah, oh yeah. (laughs) You got it.
Wren:So wait, but did we, though? Have we actually arrived?
Wren:It's Death Valley then?
Tom:It's gonna be the giant thermometer in Death— Oh no, it— No, the giant thermometer is not in Death Valley. The giant thermometer is in Zzyzx on the road to...
Wren:Oh, to Vegas from LA.
Tom:Las Vegas thru Barstow. So it's not the giant thermometer, 'cause that's just a thermometer. Death Valley has a big sign on the intro— On the intro. God, I've been doing these podcast recordings too long! Death Valley has a big sign on the entrance, right?
Emily:Yeah, yep, you got it. Y'all are spot on. It's people are taking a selfie with the Death Valley temperature sign.
Tom:57 degrees?!
Kip:I'd die.
Kip:You bet you do. Isn't 4— what's— 57° has got to be near death.
Wren:There's a whole valley of it.
Emily:So 135° Fahrenheit, 57° Cel— That's— I don't know if I would wanna live there. (chuckles)
Wren:I've experienced 122° before, Fahrenheit. I dunno what that is in Celsius. And that was unimaginably hot. It's like when you open an oven and you stick your face in it and it... It's like literally that everywhere all the time.
Kip:So I lived in Sierra Leone for a while, and that was 45° Celsius, which is apparently 113° Fahrenheit. And we didn't have air conditioning.
Emily:Oh, oh no.
Emily:Oh no!
Wren:Don't tell me it was humid as well.
Kip:90% humidity.
Emily:(retches faintly)
Tom:I think there's a temperature. It's wet bulb temperature, it's something which is some combination of heat and humidity, at which point the human body literally cannot remove excess heat. I can't remember what that hits, but it feels like you're getting towards that there.
Kip:Yeah, it was hot.
Tom:Man, I was complaining about 41° in the Australian bush a couple weeks ago, and no, I'm fine. Y'all have out-temperatured me.
Tom:That's enough there.
Wren:Yeah, at least I was in the desert, where there was no moisture in the air. (chuckles)
Emily:So, yeah, basically the answer is they're heat tourists, and they're looking to take a selfie with the Death Valley thermometer sign, showing the peak temperatures in the heat waves.
Tom:Let's see if this one can stump our panel then, as we rattle through these. Thank you to Katharine Davis for sending this question in. Anna is a performer. Every few days, she needs to do something with a couple of lengths of dental floss. Why does she do this, and what's her job? So one more time. Anna is a performer. Every few days, she needs to do something with a couple of lengths of dental floss. Why does she do this, and what is her job?
Wren:Only flossing her teeth every few days? Hmm.
Kip:That's very British in your dental hygiene, that is. Let's lean into stereotypes.
Tom:Oi, oi! No, I'm not standing for that. Not standing for that. We've got healthy, we've got healthy teeth. They just aren't straight.
Emily:You said she's a performer, right?
Emily:Okay, okay.
Wren:Dental floss. Why specifically dental floss and not just string or twine or something?
Kip:For the minty freshness?
Wren:Mm. Isn't dental floss also plastic? Rather than cloth or cotton-based or something? I don't know.
Tom:I think it depends which type you're buying. I'm sure there's organic, non-plastic stuff out there.
Kip:There is refillable ones. I assume it's not on her teeth.
Tom:You assume correctly. If she was somehow performing with her teeth... I remember the old Monty Python thing about the dancing teeth. No, this is... not being used on her teeth. I will give you that much this early in the question.
Wren:Couple lengths of dental floss.
Emily:She measuring something? I don't know, but then I guess it could be rope or anything. It doesn't have to be dental floss.
Wren:Is she starting a fire by wrapping around a stick and moving a stick or something like that?
Kip:I mean, you could do that with just a stick. You don't need rope.
Wren:You have stumped me. That's a good point.
Kip:I mean, I dunno if you can have minty fresh fire, but still.
Tom:I feel like that's an advertising slogan for something, and I don't know what. Like minty fresh fire? I feel like there's just a yule log with a load of mint in it that you just throw into your fireplace and just...
Kip:Alright, it'll be for the time that I had managed to set fire to my mouthwash at some point.
Tom:Okay, wait, did that actually happen? 'Cause I feel like that actually happened.
Kip:No, I've set fire to a lot of things, but not actually the mouthwash. Most recently the hob and part of the kitchen. Minor point.
Wren:So what I— So specifically a couple lengths of floss.
Wren:Not three, not one.
Tom:A couple, it's two.
Kip:Are they a musician? Is this to do with an instrument? A musical instrument?
Tom:No, I'll rule out musical instrument. It is some equipment being used for the performance. (laughs) Sorry. You look like you had it there for a moment, Wren, and then, you shut your mouth again. "No, it's not that."
Wren:I dunno.
Tom:It might be handy to— So I'm gonna encourage you all to talk amongst yourselves. Talk through what kind of performances there might be. What might someone use?
Wren:So, my mind goes to magic tricks, you know, where someone has a rubber band, and they put it around your hand, and then they do the thing, all of a sudden it's on the other side. Magic, magic floss. So—
Kip:Tom's looking not convinced.
Kip:So it's not a musical in— I mean, there's dancing... And you use them with the weirdest things. Like, I used to put sheep's wool into my ballet shoes. Supposedly it stopped the pointe shoes hurting. It's a lie, it doesn't.
Wren:She tying stuff together?
Kip:Is it something about dancing?
Tom:Oddly Kip, you are a lot closer than you might think there. I didn't know you had a ballet background.
Kip:I mean, not a successful one. I was on the 97th percentile for height, just not the traditional ballerina height.
Tom:Oh, yeah, that's fair. (chuckles)
Kip:And then I outgrew all the ballet shoes, which also didn't help. But no, I still have my pointe shoes somewhere.
Wren:Was it to tie off the circulation to a finger or a limb or something like that? I don't know why, I'm just speaking out loud. It doesn't make any sense now that I've said it out loud, but...
Tom:It was being tied up. Weirdly, you've got all the elements of this already.
Wren:Is it makeshift shoelaces?
Kip:Well, you have ribbons. Is it something to do with tying the ribbons? 'Cause ballet shoes, you do ribbons, and then you tie a knot in them and tuck 'em in.
Tom:Yep, so why might you use dental floss for something like that?
Wren:Is dental floss strong but thin? Hard to see? So is fishing line. Why didn't she use fishing line?
Kip:Or is it to hold it in place in case the ribbon pops up?
Tom:Yeah, you've got it. Like you said, Kip, ballet dancers put elastics and ribbons onto their shoes and sew them up. Dental floss is much, much stronger than just one strand of thread. And pointe shoes take so much strain that sometimes, dental floss is preferred for tying those together.
Kip:Look, mum, it wasn't a waste of 10 years of ballet.
Tom:(chuckles) Ohh! Oh wow, okay.
Wren:(laughs) That's fascinating though, because it's like, you need something that's convenient and easy to use and strong. And so there might be better materials out there, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best material to use. So dental floss, interesting.
Tom:There is one bit we haven't covered in this question though, which is why is that every few days? And I suspect Kip you'll know this. But why would she have to do that every few days? Why doesn't she just sew 'em in once and be done for the season?
Kip:Is it gonna snap because it's not that strong?
Wren:They wear out?
Tom:Weirdly, Wren is the one who got that one right. Yeah, pointe shoes take so much strain. And I know people are gonna complain that I'm using the English pronunciation there. I'm not gonna try and drop one French word in, but pointe shoes take so much strain and wear out so quickly that professional ballet dancers replace them every few days. And every single time you'll need to sew new stuff in there. So yes, there are ballet dancers who use dental floss to sew up their pointe shoes. We're gonna go to Wren for the next guest question. Take it away.
Wren:The next question is from a listener, sent in by Jackson S. Kilger and it goes as: In 1854, a man was on a raised platform in front of a crowd. He ordered an axeman to cut the only rope holding him up. Not only did he survive, but he became a leading figure in his industry. Which industry is that? And I'll say that one more time. In 1854, a man was on a raised platform in front of a crowd, and he ordered an axeman to cut the only rope holding him up. And not only did he survive, but he became a leading figure in his industry, which is which industry?
Tom:I'm stepping back 'cause I can tell you the industry and the name. And I'll just keep outta this one.
Wren:You would, you would know this one!
Tom:Yeah, if there's— (chuckles) I'm gonna say no more, 'cause if anyone here was gonna get it, it was gonna be me on this one.
Kip:I mean, it feels like an incredible lack of self-preservation, but... It's gonna be Houdini-esque magic of some description?
Emily:Is it a raised pla— Is he hanging off the platform? Is that what's going on, or what...
Kip:So... it's not an illusionist or anything like that. Like he's actually having it. The rope is actually being cut, 'cause you say that you're... He tells the person to cut the rope.
Wren:The rope is actually being cut.
Kip:How raised is it? I mean, are we talking about, you know, a couple of inches off the floor, which isn't particularly impressive, or several feet off the floor? You know.
Wren:That is a good question, and I'm not sure.
Kip:Tom probably knows, but is now not saying.
Tom:Yeah, I'm shutting up.
Emily:It's probably a decent height above the ground. I don't—
Wren:I think it's safe to say it's dangerously high.
Emily:Okay, okay.
Wren:I'm presuming that.
Emily:Could it just be something as simple as a net to catch him or something like a...
Tom:It is not, but have you seen any footage of the SCAD drop rides? Self-Contained... I can't remember what the acronym stands for. But there's a couple of rides out there. There's one in a cooling tower somewhere in South Africa. There's one in the Netherlands, which is... You know how you do bungee jumps? It's that, only... You're just dropped. There's no rope. There's just a big old net and deceleration thing to catch you at the bottom. And you are genuinely free falling attached to nothing, just kind of in a ball with a thing to keep you upright.
Wren:(gasp) Oh...
Emily:I like that.
Kip:No, just no.
Wren:Sign me up.
Kip:No, I've got—
Tom:All the different reactions to that! I think it's one of the Tivoli parks in the Netherlands. I think it's the one in Aarhus, will let you do that. And there's somewhere in South Africa and it's just... It's like a bungee jump, or one of those things where they put you out over a drop and then you step off... Except you're just bundled up. And at some point, much like this, I guess someone pushes the button, and the harness just disconnects, and down you go, 9.8 metres per second per second. And there's just a big old net at the bottom to catch you.
Kip:See, I just attract accidents. So I did the longest zipline in Latin America, and I had to be rescued 'cause I got stuck halfway across.
Wren:Oh no!
Emily:Oh no!
Wren:You got bonus time on it? Man!
Kip:Yes, screaming over a canopy. And for the British listeners, I did a Boris Johnson, which is traumatising for myself.
Tom:I've seen someone do a Boris Johnson. This is... for an episode from a few weeks back, the same guy who took a paintball firing squad at his bachelor party, stag party. The same guy got stuck on a zipline by just not sticking the landing. It was one of those, you just need enough momentum to get across.
Kip:You do.
Tom:And he just missed the landing platform, bounced off the tree, and just kind of sat there, bobbing up and down for a little while until someone comes along from the ropes course with a big stick. And puts the stick up.
SFX:(guests laughing)
Tom:"Grab onto the stick. Over you come."
Kip:So, I was 800 yards from the end.
Tom:Oh, so how did they rescue you?
Kip:So they come out, and... the guys who run it, who were very good and very tolerant of my complete meltdown and screaming at this point. There was no sort of sense and elegance left. They climb along it, and then they grab you, and then they calm me down, and then they take you to the other end, and they tell you that really you're just a bit too light to get the whole way across, which was very nice of them.
Emily:They just climb along it with nothing on 'em? Or they have a—
Kip:Yeah, so hands, legs up, and scurry along it. It's very impressive. If I'm, you know, not worried about falling to my death.
Tom:I remember seeing a post somewhere on the internet about someone who built a homemade zipline. And they hadn't done the maths. And it was for some summer camp somewhere, and it's like, "Yeah, it'll work. That looks about right. We'll rig this up." And then they realised that the test dummies they were sending down were hitting the end at about 50 miles an hour. And they're like, how do we fix this? And it was like, there is no way you can safely fix this. You cannot send children down that line. Take it down.
Kip:It's a little bit like the first man to try a parachute who forgot to take into account the weight of the parachute. And went splat.
Wren:Oh no!
Kip:Mass is important. There we go.
Tom:I will say that knowing the answer to this, none of this is even vaguely relevant!
Wren:Yeah, I was about to say, I was like, how do I segue this back to the relevance of the question here?
Tom:Oh, I don't bother with that. I just kinda jam it straight back in.
Kip:You mean my trauma of a Central American zipline has nothing to do with a raised platform in 1854? Shocking.
Emily:Yeah, now I've got rollercoasters and stuff like that in my head.
Wren:So I will give you this hint. The rope that was holding this man up was not actually attached to him.
Emily:Was it a rollercoaster or something like that? He's sitting in something or...
Kip:So it says holding him up, so I assume it's attached to the raised platform.
Wren:Additionally... this demonstration actually resulted in changes to the New York building code.
Kip:Is this the person who tightrope walked?
Wren:It sucked to cut that rope.
Tom:You're, yeah. Are you thinking— I think you're either thinking too early or too late. There was Charles Blondin, who did a load of tightrope stuff, and there was Philippe Petit who walked between the Twin Towers. I think that's the right name. That was just me dropping in facts. Sorry, none of that's been vaguely relevant.
Kip:It's relevant to my random guess, which is apparently not relevant, so...
Wren:Well, he was on a platform. He wasn't on the string. Or the rope rather.
Kip:So was he attempting to make a point?
Emily:Was it, I don't know, something to have to do with... In my head, I have something to do with building a building or... scaffolding or something like that, maybe— Or a harness? I don't know. No, you said that he cut the rope. No, yeah, maybe scaffolding or something
Wren:He didn't cut the rope. An axeman cut the rope for him.
Kip:I'm enjoying that it's an axeman in particular.
Wren:Yeah, right?
Kip:It's got very executioner kind of vibes.
Emily:Like lumber, could it be a lumberjack guy up on a tree with a harness around them? Or around the tree and they cut the rope attached to the— I don't know. I'm spitting stuff out here.
Wren:Well, what could been— What kind of industry would that have led to?
Wren:Not quite. I will say his surname and his company are apparently household names. 'Cause I wasn't that familiar with it.
SFX:(guests laughing)
Tom:Oh, no, I... Okay, this nerd's familiar with it.
Wren:I know you are! How many videos have you made about this?
Tom:I've made several videos on various versions of this. Just get a big old raised platform, rope holding it up, rope gets cut.
Kip:Does the platform drop?
Wren:The platform does not drop.
Tom:Maybe a little, maybe a little.
Wren:Eh, sure.
Kip:So is the platform attached to a tree, if we are going lumberjacks, and that not being weird?
Wren:Don't think about the lumberjacks.
Emily:He said it had to do with something with the building code, so...
Tom:Lateral: Don't think about the lumberjacks.
Wren:(laughs uproariously)
Kip:But we must always think about the lumberjacks, right? I'm sure there's a song. Which I'm not singing. It's too early in the morning.
Wren:He was demonstrating a safety mechanism, you know? He was, you know, he was putting himself in what seemed to be a very obviously dangerous situation. But he was proving a point that this was safe. That this raised platform that he was on... held up by a string... that when the string breaks, you're not gonna die. Is he in construction? We use 'em all the time today, I'll tell you that.
Kip:They get to know.
Tom:I used one of these platforms to get to the studio.
Kip:Was it a lift? Elevator.
Wren:Elevators! Elevators!
Wren:But who was the man?
Tom:I think his name was Otis.
Wren:You are correct. Otis.
Wren:Elisha Otis.
Tom:I have seen a version of that demonstration in the modern day, and it's just big old raised platform, single rope, and he's demonstrating the emergency braking of the Otis elevator, which made it safe to use. I think that's right, am I?
Wren:Yeah, no, that's exactly it. It was at the World's Fair. And he was making a point that his elevator that he had designed here could carry people. They would be safe for people, 'cause up until this point, elevators had only really been used for cargo. They were too risky for people. And so he was like, "No, no, no, we can make these things safe."
Wren:Big thing about the engineering term factor of safety. You know, like you overdesigned something to not break, and so elevators famously have a very, very high factor of safety. If it's gonna break at— If they say it can only take 10,000 pounds, it'll actually break at 100,000 pounds.
Tom:But maybe don't test that.
Wren:Yeah, perhaps. So, the answer is that 1954, a man named Otis was demonstrating an elevator, a platform that can carry people and not cargo. Not just cargo.
Tom:This next one's a listener question. Thank you to Sky-guided Vulpine Friend. In the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, there were dozens of hugely expensive, state-of-the-art US satellites that ceased operation after no more than a few weeks in orbit. Even though there were still fully controllable and spaceworthy at the time, they quickly became useless junk. Why? One more time. In the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, there were dozens of hugely expensive, state-of-the-art US satellites that ceased operation after no more than a few weeks in orbit. Even though they were still fully controllable and spaceworthy at the time, they quickly became useless junk. Why?
Kip:Was this intended?
Tom:It was part of the design.
Wren:I'm gonna sit out on this one, 'cause I think I know the answer.
Tom:Alright. Kip and Emily, then, this one's for you.
Kip:So '60s, '70s, and '80s. So we are looking post successful lunar travel.
Kip:In fact, I think that goes the whole way through, doesn't it?
Tom:Yeah, the years are kind of important there. You're talking from Apollo era through to mid-Space Shuttle.
Kip:Do they line up with people landing on the moon?
Tom:No, not here.
Emily:Did they run out of... This is stupid. Did they run out of storage of whatever they were detecting or...
Tom:(hesitant groan) See, the funny thing is, Emily, that's one of the first things you've said, and you are... already circling around the right answer. So...
SFX:(guests laughing)
Tom:It is a technological limitation. You're right there.
Emily:Okay, okay.
Tom:There is... The reason that they are non-functional is because of a limit that isn't the case anymore.
Kip:Oh, is it battery power?
Tom:Not this case. That is a lovely guess, and it's along the right sort of vague lines, but... Between the solar panels that they can put up there, and I think occasionally the radioactive sources they use for power, powering satellites is not the problem.
Wren:They ran out of their data cap on their 4G stream.
SFX:(others laughing)
Tom:Somewhere down on Earth, there's just an increasing number of 4G cell towers these days, that just get, just have brief connections as one satellite kind of works the wrong way.
Tom:Have you read the Jumper series by Steven Gould?
Kip:I have, I really like them. I know that the film was naff, but I really enjoyed it.
Tom:Oh yeah.
Wren:The teleporting?
Tom:Yeah. So the first one is, guy learns he can teleport. The second one is, guy's wife learns that she can teleport. Third and fourth are guy's kid learns that she can teleport. And by the time you get to the fourth book, it is less a plot-based book, and more of an excuse for an author who wants to see just how far you can break a universe with a superpower. And it's lovely because the kid wants her own space program.
Wren:Sign me up.
Tom:She can teleport to space. At which point, "Right, okay, we're gonna need a space suit. We're gonna need communications."
Wren:I love this.
Tom:Minor spoilers, the reason she gets found out in part is because she's got a satellite phone and it keeps connecting in a way that the satellite company goes, "I'm sorry, are you launching things here?" Whereas actually, it's a kid who can teleport going to space. It's a lovely series, and I recommend it.
Wren:I literally just noted it down, 'cause I need a new book series.
Tom:So it's not communications. But in the same way, it's something that you wouldn't need to do now.
Kip:Is it storage space? Are they taking photos?
Tom:Yes, storage space is not the right term for this. And Wren, you've got a grin on your face. I think you got this a little earlier as well.
Emily:Is it how much data it's able to send at once or how much it's able to... Or how quickly it's able to send it? I don't know, 'cause now... as things evolve, I'm sure that's getting faster and faster. I don't know.
Wren:It is interesting that it ended in the '80s.
Tom:Yeah, Voyager 2 of course is still sending things back occasionally. The long distant space probes are still communicating, so it's... Oh, you're nearly there with storage space. It's just not quite the right word. There's one thing you're jumping past here.
Kip:Memory? RAM? This is where my complete lack of technical knowledge is gonna be hugely obvious.
Tom:You actually don't need much technical knowledge for this. You could answer this question in the '80s or '90s. Okay, Wren, you're nodding here. Go for it.
Wren:I know the answer. It has to be this. I'll just mime a hint. (imitates spinning reel, camera clicking)
Kip:Oh, is it film?
Emily:Oh, photo quality.
Kip:So it is, ugh... I was not old enough to go back to film cameras.
Wren:Okay, so I think I've heard about this one before. So basically... Yes, there were digital cameras at the time. But they were not very good. And these were spy satellites that needed incredibly high fidelity photos. And so the only way to get high enough quality photos was with film, probably high form— large format film. And the only way to get frickin' film from outer space is to land it. And so they would... This is the part where I'm not exactly sure how it plays out. They probably de-orbited these satellites and then retrieved the film canisters that survived the fall, or the re-entry into the atmosphere.
Tom:They dropped the film canisters by parachute. So they de-orbited them by putting a heat shield and a parachute on them, and sent them down when they were over friendly territory. And eventually, yeah, the satellite would run out of film. So, there's nothing else they can do except instruct it to burn up. They can't send a new roll of film up there without sending up a new satellite anyway, so... they just instruct it to burn up.
Wren:I have a lot of friends who are really into analog photography, and so it's freshly on my mind. I spent all weekend with a dude who had a film camera out the entire time.
Tom:You're right. This was the US spy satellite programs CORONA, GAMBIT, and HEXAGON. GAMBIT missions lasted a few days. HEXAGON and CORONA lasted a few weeks. They de-orbited the rolls of film, and then with nothing else to do, let the satellites burn up. Last guest question of the show then. Kip, it's over to you.
Kip:Okay. Many of the oldest houses on the small Greek island of Ikaria have no chimneys and low ceilings. Many of them are also built under rocks. Why is this? I'll say it again. Many of the oldest houses on the small Greek island of Ikaria have no chimneys and low ceilings. Many of them are also built under rocks. Why is this?
Tom:Alright, I'm gonna immediately ask Emily the Engineer. This feels like an engineering question.
Emily:(nervous chuckle) Oh no. Don't put that pressure on me like that. We can't...
SFX:(Tom and Wren laugh)
Emily:I'm going back to school. (shivers)
Emily:Flashbacks. Ohh.
Wren:So I mean, a structural thing, right? So, if there's no chimney and it's low ceilings...
Emily:So it's an island.
Wren:Are these like yurts? Are these like dome houses type thing? In Greece?
Tom:Yeah, so a lot of small Greek islands, which are just rocks in the middle of the ocean— well, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with a few houses on them. But I don't know why you'd build them low-ceilinged and no chimneys.
Kip:So these are old houses.
Wren:How do you build something under rocks? Do you just dig a hole and just say that there's rocks above you? Do you just make a house, and then put some rocks on top of it like sprinkles? Do you find a boulder and kinda sit up next to it like this and be like, "I'm under a rock"? Wait... unless you've been living under a rock.
Tom:I mean, there's plenty of rock houses in the world that have been carved into the side of cliffs or things like that. But it feels like this is underneath?
Kip:Yeah. I mean, there's a beautiful castle in Slovenia that's built into the side of a rock, but this is underneath.
Emily:Were they all just tiny, short people with low ceilings? (laughs) I dunno.
Wren:I wonder if there's an environmental concern that was sparking this. Were they in fear of... Was there a tsunami risk or anything like that? Volcanoes exploding? Rising tides?
Tom:I was actually thinking, Emily, that that wasn't a bad answer. They're all— It happens to be a population that's really short, but that doesn't explain no chimneys.
Emily:Is it, is there a lot of wind being an island or something? A lot of wind. You don't want it to knock anything over. So you go under a rock or...
Tom:There's a thing in desert climates where you can get a sort of makeshift air conditioning by building a tunnel that goes into your house. And the air goes through underground enough that the ground is cold, and so it kind of chills the air as it comes in. But I don't know what that would do on a Greek island.
Kip:I mean, Greek islands are very hot, but it's nothing to do with the answer for the question.
Tom:Okay. I was thinking it might be some ventilation thing or something like that. It might be a... But then, you'd want a chimney to let the air escape, so...
Kip:Wren was towards the right way of thinking, but not really towards the right answer.
Wren:With the environmental aspect? So, these houses developed because of the location?
Tom:So why do you need a low-ceilinged house? Why do you need a house that's flat to the floor or underground... and doesn't let anything down a chimney? I mean, I'm assuming it's not letting anything down a chimney.
Wren:I wonder if it's 'cause they were able to plant more grass on top of it, and there wasn't much space on this island. And so they're utilizing the rooftops as extra land.
Tom:Or it's camouflage— No, you said these are old houses. I was thinking wartime camouflage or something like that.
Kip:Go more down that route.
Tom:Oh, okay!
Wren:So, they didn't want to be detected. So they built stealthy houses that are low.
Kip:And where were they?
Wren:They were on a Greek island, near Crete?
Tom:Oh, I... Does anyone know their history? 'Cause apparently this is where my history knowledge runs out.
Wren:Okay, so... Sparta was nearby. They didn't want to attract... invaders.
Wren:They wanted to look like just a rock. And so... Who invaded? Would that be the Persians? Persian Empire?
Kip:I wouldn't get too worried about Greek history.
Emily:But yet, it's a camouflage. We wanna go down the camouflage route.
Tom:Okay. No, you said old houses, so it makes— This isn't hiding from aerial bombardment in World War II or something like that?
Kip:No, so you can see these houses from the air.
Tom:But not from the sea.
Tom:So who's invading a Greek island... from the sea?
Wren:How old are these houses? Are we talking... dozens of years, or hundreds of years, or thousands of years?
Kip:So it doesn't say in the question. From my own history, you're probably looking at at least a hundred years.
Emily:Veering away from the hiding from people... Could it have to do with... a dangerous animal or something that they're trying to...
Kip:I'd slide...
Kip:more back to people.
Emily:Back to people? Okay.
Tom:Oh, that's a shame, 'cause in my head, there was some leviathan whale out there that really hated this island.
Emily:I'm thinking, maybe they don't want a chimney, 'cause they don't want dangerous animals coming down the chimney. I don't know. (laughs)
Kip:And that would be a lot of fun, apart from, you know, for the people being attacked by the dangerous animals, but...
Kip:So, we discussed that they couldn't see them from the air. And you look, but you can't see them from the sea.
Kip:And they were built to protect the occupants from something that is not an issue in that area nowadays.
Emily:Pirates or something, I don't know. Like what?
Kip:They were built to deter pirates.
Tom:Emily, where'd that come from? That's brilliant!
Emily:Cool! (laughs)
SFX:(group laughing)
Kip:It's one of the shortest answers I've ever seen on this. It just says they were built to deter pirates.
Tom:Oh, I've thought for a minute, the answer was just 'PIRATES' in big letters.
Kip:So these houses were glad in stones or slabs and nestled into the landscape so that they looked as much as possible like large rocks. Also, a low ceiling meant the house wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb when seen from the sea. The houses also had no chimneys, so that their location wasn't given away by smoke trails.
Tom:We've got a little bit of spare time for one more from me. So, here's a bonus question. Why are places where you can buy books, pens, and paper called stationery shops? One more time. Why are places where you can buy books, pens, and paper called stationery shops? Lovely short question there. Good luck.
Wren:So, stationery. Pens and paper, stuff like that, right? I don't actually know the linguistic history behind that term. It never really made sense to me, 'cause... You would buy at a stationery shop, 'cause you don't wanna buy it from a moving shop. Can't find it.
Emily:He's not wrong. (giggles)
Wren:That's about all I got.
Kip:I mean... I do buy most of mine in train stations, but still. So... I'm trying to think of what 'stationery' would be in other languages.
Tom:Wren, you're actually fairly close right away there. You are linguistically along the right lines there.
Kip:So the fact it wasn't moving?
Tom:We're gonna need a bit of the more reason why there.
Kip:Were they originally sold by sort of people on carts and things or in markets? And so it was the first time they went into sort of shops that didn't move?
Tom:If that was the case, that wouldn't be where the word would come from. They'd been given 'bookshop' or 'pen shop' or something like that. There is something special about that type of shop.
Wren:The stationery shop.
Wren:Would they also... Did it also act like a post sort of thing, where they would send letters for you as well? I'm trying to think of what additional things you might find at a stationery shop in addition to pen, paper, and ink.
Kip:Ooh, is it something— Is it sort of in contrast with the news agents? Or post office? If we're going back to it not moving, the paper is not moving, if you're posting it. I'm really running off.
Tom:You're dancing around the right answer that they— Why wouldn't a shop like this move in a time when almost all traders were moving around for markets and things like that? Why would the word come from... according to this, statiōnārius in Latin? I'm so mispronouncing that.
Kip:Is it something to do with the paper mills, and were they attached? Although you could move it. I don't really understand why you wouldn't...
Emily:Could it double as a... This is stupid, but could it double as a... a post office or something, where people have to send stuff in, so it has to stay there?
Tom:It's much simpler than that.
Emily:Much simpler.
Tom:I mean, remember that this would be like, bookshop carrying a lot of just... books, papers, anything like that. As opposed to something like flowers or vegetables.
Kip:Is it because unlike— So the books go to one person, and a library, they'd come back again? Is it about the books?
Tom:It is about the books. It's one specific thing about books compared to a lot of other products that you might buy in medieval times.
Kip:I mean, in medieval times, there were monks. They were written by monks? There weren't many books in medieval times.
Wren:Yeah, well, wasn't it only the church that really was into writing, and so if you're not part of the church and you wanted to write, you had to go to the specific writing store?
Tom:Not... There's a couple of jumps here. So the— There is a Medieval Latin word, statiōnārius. Which means a shopkeeper or tradesman who had a regular place, who didn't travel 'round. Why might that have been associated with bookshops in particular?
Wren:Books are heavy.
Tom:And there's your answer, Wren!
Emily:Oh shoot.
Tom:It's as simple as that. Books are really heavy!
Kip:Potatoes are not, apparently.
Tom:Potatoes are still heavy, but you've still gotta pull 'em in from the farm anyway. The trader's gotta go 'round with them. A stationer, someone who sold books or papers or something like that, would be much more likely to stay in one place and not have to lug their stuff around. So they became known as stationery shops.
Wren:Wow! I feel like I just learned something incredible about stationery.
SFX:(others chuckling)
Wren:I did not know that at all.
Tom:One final thing then: a listener question that I asked at the start of the show. Thank you to Chris Dickson for sending this in. What eventually contains 178 feet, 81 heads, 46 wings, and eight udders?
Wren:Eight udders?
Emily:(chuckles) Udders?
Tom:Eight udders is probably your best clue in there.
Kip:So that's something with a lot number of cows. Could be the cast of something.
Tom:Yeah, you're getting there.
Kip:Did you say there were wings as well?
Tom:Yeah, 178 feet, 81 heads, 46 wings, and eight udders.
Wren:Costume shop for... the Christmas play.
Tom:Oh, well, you know, you're nearly... bleh, Wren.
Kip:Is it A Christmas Carol?
Tom:It's a Christmas carol.
Kip:12 Days of Christmas.
Tom:Yes, the song The Twelve Days of Christmas eventually contains 178 feet, 81 heads, 46 wings, and eight udders. And if anyone wants to check the maths on that, please don't tell me about it. Thank you to all our players for getting through our questions there. What's going on in your lives? Where can people find you? We're gonna start with Emily.
Emily:Yeah, you can find me on YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok at @EmilyTheEngineer.
Wren:Yeah, you can find me on all the socials. It's— I have to spell it out 'cause it's @SirWrender, but it's S-I-R-W-R-E-N-D-E-R.
Tom:It's a really good pun. It's one of those puns that is too clever for its own good, 'cause you have to explain it every time. And Kip.
Kip:Assuming it's still there, you can find me on Twitter at @miceheath.
Tom:Thank you very much to all our players. You can find out more about this show and send in your own question at We have video highlights at, and we are @lateralcast pretty much everywhere. Thank you very much. It's good bye from Emily.
Emily:See ya.
Tom:From Wren.
Tom:From Kip.
Kip:Good bye.
Tom:I've been Tom Scott, and that's been Lateral.
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