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The Write Way

18 November 2005

That's a Big One!


I don't know about you, but I love all those World's Biggest stories, and last weekend, we wandered down to the end of our street to watch the World's Biggest Passenger Plane (the Airbus 380) heading for Brisbane Airport on its promotional tour Down Under.

While we had a good view of it as it came in across the Bay to land, it was difficult to really appreciate its size. We decided that Qantas should have had one of its 747s flying alongside so we could get a better idea of how big it was. It looked to be moving so slowly we were afraid it was going to fall out of the sky (a sure sign that it was BIG).

You can see some great photos of how all its bits arrived to be assembled. Can you imagine the headaches trying to join A to B at C with this baby?

Watch this video showing how its little brother is built, then imagine the size of the Airbus 380!


Just as I was coming back to ground level, I received an email from Albert in San Diego, telling me about a new resort in the Hualapai Indian Reservation in the Grand Canyon. One attraction will be what the builders are coyly referring to as a Skywalk. This little lovely is a horseshoe-shaped bridge that cantilevers more than 20 metres over the edge of the Canyon and is suspended 1200 metres above the Colorado River.


Eek! My knees go all wobbly just thinking about it! 

And why are they calling it a Skywalk? ... Because, dear reader, not content with dangling us 1200 metres above Mother Earth, these sadists are constructing the sides AND the floor from glass!

Yes ... glass! As in see-through glass ... See-all-the-way-down glass ... 1200 metres down-to-certain-death-mangled-on-jagged-rocks-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff-face glass ... And it makes no difference that the glass is 10 centimetres thick (around 4 inches) ... it's still glass!

This whole thing strikes me as ver-r-r-y unnatural ... I remember reading a study in my Uni days about the survival benefits of a fear of heights. I found this summary of the experiment on google:

  • Gibson and Walk (1960) placed babies between 6 and 14 months of age on a "visual cliff" that consists of a board centered on a glass table top (see figure below). On one side of the board, a checkerboard pattern is attached directly to the underside of the glass; on the other side, the same pattern is placed on the floor three feet below. To adults, it looks like there is a sudden drop off in the center of the table. It appears that a six-month old infant sees things in much the same way. Most of the infants would not crawl to their mothers when the mom was located on the "deep" side of the board.
  • This indicates that the ability to perceive three-dimensional space comes at an early age. Note also that the infants do not crawl over the glass even though (hopefully) they have never fallen such a height before.

See? The moral of the story, boys and girls, is not to walk on glass-bottomed bridges suspended 1200 metres above empty spaces ... 

There's an artist's impression of what the Skywalk will look like here. 

And speaking of bridges, did you know that the Italians are building a bridge between Italy and Sicily? It's going to have a central span of 3,300 metres and is 3,666 metres long. There'll be a navigable space 65 metres high by 600 metres wide when it's finished. Now that's what I call a bridge! Read all about it here 


But what I started to tell you about this week, was the comment I heard on a local radio station shortly before the arrival of the Airbus. Authorities were expecting huge crowds to flock to the airport to watch this great silver bird land, and one excited announcer told his listeners about the "Giant police exercise to free traffic."

Hmmm ... Giant police? What about all those little short police? Can't they participate?

Police exercising to get fit first?

Only free traffic eligible?

This sentence illustrates the importance of engaging brain before opening mouth (or putting pen to paper). The original statement is ambiguous in the extreme, and while we can all work out what is meant in this instance, sometimes it's not so simple.

What did the writer mean in these examples?

John enjoys painting his models nude.

Visiting relatives can be so boring.

Mine exploded.

This site explains how to avoid similar mistakes and has lots of exercises.  

Here are some of those ambiguous headlines supposedly from newspaper headlines:

Crack Found on Governor's Daughter
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
Is There a Ring of Debris around Uranus?
Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
Miners Refuse to Work after Death
Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges
Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Man Struck By Lightning Faces Battery Charge
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Chef Throws His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

And an old story about a man and a bridge ...

A truck driver was driving along on the highway. A sign comes up that reads, "LOW BRIDGE AHEAD". Before he knows it the bridge is right ahead of him and he gets stuck under the bridge. Cars are backed up for miles.

Finally, a police car comes up. The officer gets out of his car and walks around to the truck driver, puts his hands on his hips and says, "Got your truck stuck, huh?"

The truck driver says, "No, I was delivering this bridge and ran out of petrol."

This week's quiz:

Since we've been tinkering with planes and bridges this week, run and get your old Meccano set and try matching up these building/engineering words:

adsorption, torsion, bascule, truss, abutment, pendentive, buttress, caisson, tensegrity, catenary

1. rigid framework, as of wooden beams or metal bars, designed to support a structure, such as a roof 

2. large watertight chamber used for construction under water 

3. a triangular shape that adapts the circular ring of a dome to fit onto a flat supporting wall; the portion of a vault by means of which the square space in the middle of a building is brought to an octagon or circle to receive a cupola

4. a support that transmits a force from a roof or wall to another supporting structure 

5. a structure in which one end is counterbalanced by the other 

6. the curve formed by a cable hanging freely between two supports; curved cable of a suspension bridge 

7. the stress or deformation caused when one end of an object is twisted in one direction and the other end is held motionless or twisted in the opposite direction 

8. surface phenomena in which a soluble material concentrates or collects at a surface 

9. a masonry support that touches and directly receives thrust or pressure of an arch or bridge 

10. a property of objects with components that use tension and compression in a combination that yields strength and resilience beyond the sum of their components; an array of tension cables and compression rods that supports a structure

I heard the following slogan from a comedian taking part in the International Comedy Festival, and I can't think why Colonel Sanders didn't think of it ... I guarantee you'll be like me and never be able to see this particular fast food chain again without thinking of this ...

"KFC ... the only thing missing is U"

Ah ... love it ...

Last week's quiz:

Match up these words:

apocryphal, putative, polemic, spurious, tendentious, egregious, rebarbative, risible, potable, dissimulate

1. lacking authenticity or validity in essence or origin; not genuine; false - SPURIOUS (from the Latin spurius - illegitimate)

2. conspicuously bad or offensive - EGREGIOUS (This great word comes from the Latin ex - out of and greg - herd and describes anything that is so bad it really, really stands out from the rest.

3. tending to irritate; repellent - REBARBATIVE (Another word you'll be itching to use ... it comes from Old French rebarber - to confront, that originally made its way from the Latin barba - a beard. You work it out ...)  

4. of questionable authorship or authenticity; erroneous; fictitious - APOCRYPHAL (We take this from the Greek apokruphos - hidden. This word is also used to describe various early Christian writings that have been proposed as additions to the New Testament but rejected by the major canons - these are known as the Apocrypha.)

5. fit to drink - POTABLE (From the Latin potare - to drink)

6. eliciting laughter; ludicrous - RISIBLE (From the Latin ridere - to laugh)

7. to disguise (one's intentions, for example) under a feigned appearance; to conceal one's true feelings or intentions - DISSIMULATE (From the Latin dis - negative and simulare - simulate)

8. generally regarded as such; supposed - PUTATIVE (This comes from the Latin putare - to think, which has also given us computer!)

9. marked by a strong implicit point of view; partisan - TENDENTIOUS (From the Latin tendentia - a cause)

10. controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine - POLEMIC (From the Greek polemos - war)

What's that? 

You don't get the KFC thing? ... Think about it ...

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A Little Something Extra

We can't build bridges without a nod to those Bridge Builders par excellence ... the Romans. So here's how to build your own aqueduct! 

No ... shucks ... don't thank me ... Just send money!

Word of the week: Cantilever (n) projecting structure, such as a beam, that is supported at one end and carries a load at the other end or along its length; bracket or block supporting a balcony; (a diving board is an example) This can also be a verb as used in our discussion of the Skywalk.

You can see from my earlier reference that I didn't use it strictly correctly, since the Skywalk will be anchored at two ends ... but I think you get the picture!

The word is possibly a combination of cant - 'two surfaces meeting at an angle different from 90 degrees' and lever.

Cant is from the Latin cantus 'the iron rim of a wheel'

Mike Duhacek suggested a pronunciation guide might be useful for the Word of the Week ...[KAN-ti-LEE-vuh]

Oxymoron of the week: Fast food restaurant

You still don't get it? Rearrange the letters in KFC then ...

Ah! Now you've got it! 

And this week's Latin phrase is apt for ... well ... just about anyone really!

Semper in excretia sumus; solum profundum variat.

[SEM-pur IN ex-KRAY-tee-ah SOOM-oos SOH-luhm proh-FOON-doom WAY-ree-at]

(Thanks to Dianne Nielson for directing my attention to this classic!)

We are always in the manure; only the depth varies.

Kind regards,


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