Strange but True: Housing market trends get smaller

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Q: What's the dramatic contrast in the housing market these days? Are you up on the lingo?

A: Think of ever-bigger houses as the major trend: In 1900, the average U.S. single-family house was 65 square meters (700 square feet), jumping to 154 square meters (1660 sq. ft.) in 1973 and a whopping 234 square meters (2520 sq. ft.) in 2007, says Paul McFedries in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. All of this has led to new words to accommodate the new reality: "monster homes" or "megahomes"; "bigfoot homes" for massive houses crammed into small lots; even "starter castles" for garishly large dwellings.

Yet this sort of conspicuous consumption has fostered a side phenomenon of "conspicuous austerity" with people buying teensy tiny houses called "microhouses" (under 19 square meters, or 200 sq. ft.) and "nanohouses" (under 10 square meters or 110 sq. ft.). Call it the "tiny house" movement advocating "small-footprint living" for those dedicated environmentalists with their "eco homes."

As to the culprit for the gargantuan growth, McFedries suggests it's "likely a version of the 'expenditure cascade,' the increase in spending that results from consumption by the wealthy, which triggers emulative spending by the next lower class, which triggers spending by the class below that and so on." Yet in terms of sustainability, tiny housers may be showing the way that "small is indeed the new big."

Q: How do cockroaches use a type of time-lapse photography to get around?

A: And that's not all they can do: Some species can hold their breath for up to 40 minutes, eat paper and dried glue, or live for weeks without a head, says Rachel Nuwer in "Scientific American" magazine. Another of their superpowers is seeing in the dark by pooling light signals over time "like time-lapse photography." When physicists at Finland's University of Oulu tested 30 American cockroaches under computer simulation of moonless nights, they determined the roach eyes absorb one photon of light every 10 seconds.

That's an amazingly small amount of light, says biophysicist Matti Weckstrom, but the roaches could see just fine, suggesting that "the roach nervous system pools information from its thousands of photoreceptors over time" and uses the summation of those signals to see ("Journal of Experimental Biology"). Only a few other species can do this.

Could we humans figure this one out, we might have much better night-vision technology, Weckstrom concludes.

Q: At Guinness World Records, how bizarre do things get at times — either with the records or their testing?

A: Expert at such questions is Guinness records tester Sam Mason — with a background in physics and IT — who points to a recent testing for the most spears caught from a spear gun in one minute, while underwater, says Catherine deLange in "New Scientist" magazine. The record is held by an Australian famous for his fast reflexes. Of all the thousands of applications, only maybe 5 percent go on to break the record. A type of record impossible to break is being "first" at something, since firsts aren't really breakable.

"In it for the fame" were a group of friends who wanted to make the largest wheelbarrow and ended up building a fully functional one the height of a double-decker bus, pulled by a tractor. And one of Mason's favorites: the record for the highest popping toaster held by 10-year-old Matthew Lucci, who got a high-speed motor to spin a flywheel within the toaster. This ejected the toast to just over 4.5 meters (about 15 feet).

For Mason, one of the best parts of the job is that he's able to explain more about the background of an achievement. "The record is a good storytelling device. People do love the superlative, and it puts Guinness in a good position, being the generally accepted reference for all things superlative."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at sbtcolumn@gmail.com


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