Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



Father Knows Less Or: "Can I Cook My Sister?": One Dad's Quest to Answer His Son's Most Baffling Questions by Wendell Jamieson








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Wendell Jamieson is city editor of The New York Times, and a parent. Unlike many of us parents who evade the multitude of questions that come from our kids, or at best respond with half baked answers or a promise to look it up, or Google it, Jamieson listened to his seven year old son’s questions and went to experts to find the answers. The result of this process is compiled in Jamieson’s new book, Father Knows Less Or: "Can I Cook My Sister?": One Dad's Quest to Answer His Son's Most Baffling Questions. Jamieson used his own son’s question along with those of others. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 74-78:

“Why is red for stop and green for go?"

WYATT HARTE, age three, Brooklyn, New York

Carl Andersen, manager of the Federal Highway Adminis­tration's Arens Photometric and Visibility Lab, Turner­Fairbank Highway Research Center, McLean, Virginia:

"Robert Stevenson, who was very active in the British lighthouse service, was looking for an alternative color to white—most lighthouses had a white beacon—because he was building a lighthouse near to one that already existed, and he was afraid that ships wouldn't be able to tell which lighthouse they were looking at. Of the light sources and colored glasses available at the time, he found that red was the next most intense light—that was the color that would be seen from the greatest distance. So red was adopted in mari­time signaling as an alternative to white lights, and was later adopted by the British Admiralty in 1852 for the port-side running light on steam vessels.

"A vessel observing that red light at night on another ship had to yield right-of -way to that ship. Green was adopted for the starboard-side running light: vessels seeing the green light on other ships had the right-of-way. When railroads were developed, engineers adopted this existing system as meaning stop and go. Then as motor vehicles began to appear, engineers adopted railroad signaling. And in 1914 Cleveland installed the first red and green traffic control light. It had nothing to do with a perceived cultural reason. It just happened to be, with the technology at the time, the light sources at the time, and the glasses, that red provided the next best available light to white."


Children zero in on contradictions. Boys may be attracted to things with wheels, but it took a girl to notice an interesting fact about New York State driving laws: a child must be strapped into a booster seat in the family car until age seven, but not while riding in the back of a yellow school bus.

"How come you don't have to use a car seat in a school bus?"

LUCY BARRY, age six, Purdys, New York

Nancy A. Naples, commissioner, New York State Department of Motor Vehicles:

"Children under four years of age have to use car seats on a school bus. In 1987, the New York State Legislature passed a law that requires companies that build large school buses to install seat belts for each seat. The law says that all of your friends that ride with you on the bus, and your bus driver, too, have to wear seat belts. When you get on the bus, remem­ber to put your seat belt on and wear it until the school bus comes to a full stop."

I appreciate Commissioner Naples taking the time to respond o little Lucy's query, I really do. But like many public officials or employees of major corporations who would only answer via -mail, there is a certain blandness in her reply, as though it ad been created by a committee. Also, I must point out, she didn't answer the question. So I went elsewhere.


Michael Butler, regional president, Automobile Club of New York:

"One-word answer: compartmentalization. The backs of school bus seats are high. The child can only go so far for­ward and backward in an accident. If they go back, the back of the seat will protect their head against whiplash. If they go forward, then they are going to have the same effect because of the seat in front of them. They can't go too far forward. Most buses today have to be equipped with a seat belt lap belt, which protects the pelvic area and keeps their butts to the break of the seat, which is where the bottom of the seat meets the back of the seat. In some instances in special-needs buses, they do have child seats for additional protec­tion, but that's in a specialized situation, where there might be handicapped children. The typical accident in a bus would not involve a rollover; it would be a low-speed crash, and a lap belt is sufficient protection with compartmentalization because everything is soft all around the child. When I was riding a yellow school bus, the seat came up to the middle of your back and that was it."


"How many bullets does a machine gun shoot?"

JOE ROSEN, age five, Montclair, New Jersey

Gunnery Sergeant William E. "Gunny" Bodette, Jr., Second Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina:

"The M240G machine gun, the preferred machine gun for the Marine infantry, can fire 650 to 950 rounds per minute. It's called the cyclic rate. We've got 50-caliber machine guns that can fire 45o to 55o rounds per minute. We also have another machine gun that is called the M249 SAW—squad automatic weapon—and that can fire 725 rounds per minute. Those are the basic machine guns that the Marine infantry uses. The only drawback to carrying a machine gun now is the weight of some of them. The machine guns that we use now are extremely accurate and they really do bad things to bad people. All Marines are cross-trained on how to use a machine gun. The standard issue for most Marines is an M16. That fires a three-round burst. They used to fire fully automatic, but we were wasting too many rounds to kill one enemy."


"Why do clouds make shapes?"

—JIO K.AMATA , age six, while looking out the car window at clouds on the way home from school in Aizumi, Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku, Japan

Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author and founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society, based in London, which has five hun­dred members in thirty-nine countries:

"Meteorologists divide the infinite varieties of cloud forma­tions into ten basic types. Not all of them make shapes—some are just too blurry and indistinct to have any clear edges to them. But the ones that are best at it are the sharp-edged 'cumulus' clouds, which are the fluffy cotton-wool tufts you see on a sunny day. Cumulus often look like elephants. This is because these clouds can develop vertical towers, borne on rising columns of air called thermals. As the cloud reaches the ripe old age of ten minutes or so, its droplets can start to evaporate away at the sides, leaving a central trunk that curls upwards as it is blown along in the wind and looks like the trunk of an elephant. This might be why ancient Hindus and Buddhists believed elephants to be the spiritual cousins of clouds."


`Where does wind come from?"

—STEPHEN DiNISO, age ten, Floral Park, New York, on a windy afternoon


Jeff Warner, meteorologist, Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania:

"The Earth, because it is a globe, heats unevenly; it does not heat the same at the equator as it does at the poles. That leads to the formation of zones of high and low pressure. At the ground, then, that difference in air pressure causes the air to start moving. Air has properties of a fluid, like water, and much like water wants to flow downhill, from high to low, air wants to do the same. So where there are areas of high pressure—meaning lots of air—air wants to flow from that zone of high pressure to a zone of low pressure, where there is less air or less weight of air. That starts the wind flowing. That motion of air at the surface is what you feel as wind. There are other things that happen that cause it to blow in certain directions—like the Coriolis effect, an appar­ent deflection to the right, in the northern hemisphere, of things that are moving above the ground that are not in con­tact with the Earth—but the main reason for the wind is the movement of air from high to low pressure, which is called the Pressure Gradient Force."

After a few pages of Father Knows Less, readers understand the process, and the rest of the book involves getting amused by the questions, and somewhat bored by the serious answers. Honestly, I think some of my made up answers were a lot more fun for everyone. No matter how we answer the questions of children, it’s all about the relationship between parent and child.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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