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The Straight Dope 

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Do you think it's possible to write a love letter with the word "telecommunications" in it? --Modern Man, Chicago

It's a warm, sunny day and here I am, stuck inside, slitting open envelopes and finding letters like this. Not that I don't appreciate your sense of humor. I know you probably need an outlet and that writing letters like this to guys like me is probably all that keeps you from becoming a serial killer. Still, one is left rather adrift in terms of how to respond. Then again, my alternative is to keep going through the stack, possibly finding even dumber letters (here's a candidate: "This summer I'm taking the family on vacation to Rwanda and Uganda. There's just one thing that's bothering me--what happens when I leave Rwanda, where they drive on the right, and enter Uganda, where they drive on the left?"), or worse, a letter that will actually require me to get on the horn and do some work. So let's take a crack at your question.

Telecommunications, telecommunications. I know. Go to the White House Office of Telecommunications. Tell them Cecil sent you. While they're trying to figure out the significance of this (for all they know, you mean Cecil from Senator Hatch's office), scam a piece of stationery. Write the following note: "Dear (blank): I love your curves. Bill." Bingo, a love letter.

Two objections may be raised against this. One, it is more a lust letter than a love letter. However, we're applying Arkansas standards here: if the word "love" (or even "luv") appears in it, it's a love letter. Two, the appearance of the word "telecommunications" in the letterhead is incidental to the romantic/carnal/bozotic message being conveyed. This objection is also fallacious. Half the women in D.C. and two-thirds of the men would drop their drawers--sorry--would swoon if they got a letter on White House stationery. Ask Henry Kissinger. Next case.

What does a house ground fault interrupter look like, as opposed to the 3x5 inch GFCI box on an individual electrical outlet? --J. Smith, Chicago

Back to the dull world of facts. I suppose you're talking about a GFCI circuit breaker, which looks like an ordinary circuit breaker except that it's got a white test button on it. (Mine does anyway.) Works the same as a GFCI outlet. You say what you really crave is to know how a ground fault interrupt device works? Whoa, you say what you actually crave is not to know? So sad that in the twilight of the 20th century we have lost our curiosity about the world around us. I'm going to tell you for your own good. Your conventional fuses and circuit breakers work on the assumption that if something is going to short out, it's going to short big--an anomalous terminological juxtaposition, but you know what I mean: the flow of current to ground will be more massive than any possible legitimate load and will be enough to melt the fuse or trip the breaker. Modern science, however, has discovered that there are times when a relatively small diversion of volts can be enough to put you in some serious hurt, even though it's not enough to trip a conventional protective device. I note from an impeccable source, namely myself (to be exact, The Straight Dope, page 357), that only 100 milliamps is enough to cause ventricular fibrillation. If you were drying your hair while lounging in the bathtub (a bathtub filled with water, I feel compelled to clarify), and your hand were to contact a live wire, the fuse might not blow, because the relatively high resistance of the water would keep down the current flow. But you might still fry. The ground fault interrupter prevents this by comparing the amount of juice in the hot wire to that in the neutral wire--the black wire and the white wire, to put it in practical terms. If volts in exceed volts out (amps out, coulombs out, what's the difference?) by more than a certain percentage, that means some of the current is taking a detour, possibly by way of your trembling body. So the GFCI outlet trips. Unless it's broken. Which, Cecil can attest, it often is. Go test that thing now. We print folk have lost enough readers to the electronic age as it is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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