QUESTION: Why are the numbers on calculators upside down from those on push-button telephones?

ANSWER: Can't we get some consistency around here? C'mon! This is driving us nuts. Look at your phone. The top three numbers, left to right, are 1, 2 and 3. That makes sense, doesn't it? But now look at your calculator, or the numbers on your computer keyboard or any adding machine. The whole thing is inverted. The top three numbers are 7, 8 and 9.We called Hewlett-Packard. Neither Mr. Hewlett nor Mr. Packard was available, so we talked instead to a public relations person who told us that basically the phone company was at fault. Adding machines go way back, and they have always used that same configuration.

But - this is the legend among the Calculator People - when the phone company created push-button phones, it intentionally inverted the numbers, to slow down the fingers of accountants and other people trained on adding machines.

Hogwash, says the phone company. We spoke to Blake Wattenbarger, who is the human factors psychologist at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. He said that when the phone company first started playing around with push buttons, it simply didn't think about the way calculators are arranged. No one cared!

This whole topic, we are told, is under review by something called the International Standards Organization. Now if only they could find a way to make the Close Door button work on elevators.

QUESTION: Why doesn't space, which is a vacuum, suck all the air off the planet?

ANSWER: Just the other day we thought we had invented the perfect no-moving-parts, no-fuel-required spaceship launcher: A tube 100 miles high and a few yards wide. Okay, so it would be hard to build. That's why they have engineers.

The open-ended top would be above Earth's atmosphere. The bottom would be at ground level, sealed off. If you opened a valve at the bottom, the tube would act like a vacuum cleaner hose as air rushed upward toward the void of space, right? You could put an astronaut at the bottom, throw a switch and VROOSH! - instant satellite.

But that's idiotic. The air in the tube would just sit there, as does the air on the planet. Gravity holds it in place. Now, it's certainly true that a vacuum cleaner is more powerful than gravity, or else the dirt would never come up off your floor. The great genius of the planet, though, is that there is not a point at which space begins. The atmosphere is sort of phased out. This means there is never a place where a vacuum is side-by-side with a pressurized space. So there's no suction.

But now then: What if we pumped out our no-moving-parts spaceship launcher, so that it was a vacuum inside, and then put our vessel at the bottom? What would happen is that the vessel would rise up a little way but then stop, far below the top of the tube. This is because as the column of air rises underneath our little ship, it gradually loses its density and thus its pressure - just like air always does as you get further away from sea level.

Eventually the downward weight of the ship matches the upward pressure. Then the ship stops, and falls back to earth, crushing the experimenters.

QUESTION: Why don't airlines make money?

ANSWER: One of these days we will start an airline. Passengers would be allowed to vote on where they want to go. Sometimes the jet would not actually lift off the runway but instead drive out of the airport and blast down the road at 150 miles an hour, hopping over slower traffic. It would be called Air Ogant.

Oh, yes, to answer the question: Because people weren't meant to fly. Flying requires too much fancy hardware. It costs a fortune to build a plane and keep it running. And such terrible gas mileage! What it all adds up to, says Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Dillon Read, is a fundamental problem: "Costs are higher than revenues." Right!

Neidl says, "Airlines have the worst of all worlds. They're a cyclical business, they're highly unionized, which takes away cost flexibility, they're highly dependent on fuel, which lately has been volatile, they're a service industry, which means that you have to have a lot of employees who are motivated, and on top of that, they're highly capital intensive." Got that?

This is not to say that airlines are blameless. When the government deregulated airlines in 1978 there were bitter fare wars that sapped profits. The red ink only worsened in the 1980s as corporations everywhere decided that the secret to success is to go wildly into debt. Eastern cranked up debts of several billion dollars.

It was like that old joke about selling books:

First person: "It costs me $20 to make a book, and I sell it for only $15."

Second person: "So how do you make money?"

First person: "Volume."

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