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Outside magazine, January 1998

By Elizabeth Royte

How do penguins keep their feet from freezing?
— Mitch Schieffer, Austin, Texas

Although Antarctic penguins routinely stand around in 30-below weather, their vulnerable-looking feet are in fact padded with fatty tissue and protected by thick, leathery skin that — on the chilliest of days — keeps them a relatively toasty 33 degrees. That's still pretty cold, but it's not a problem for penguins, partly because some of the muscles that actually operate the feet are located up inside their warm, blubbery bodies. One other neat trick: By rocking back on their heels and tails, they reduce the pedal surface area that comes in direct contact with the ice. A klutzy-looking survival strategy, to be sure, but hey — whatever works.

How come they don't stamp passports anymore?
— Luke Kania, Wallkill, New York

Well, "they" still do, depending on your destination, but generally speaking the practice is being phased out. And someday, alas, the officious bureaucrat pounding passports with busybodyish glee may be a thing of the past, the Bartleby the Scrivener of international travel. While there seems to be no hard and fast rule about stamping passports, the trend is definitely away from the time-consuming flourish — thanks largely to the sheer volume of international travel, the end of the Cold War, and innovations on the intelligence front. Border checks in European Union countries are becoming increasingly rare; advanced technology identifies airline passengers long before their flights land. In the United States, machine-readable bar codes do most of the heavy lifting, leaving customs officials merely to mark visitor passports with an uninspired date — and ignore returning residents' stamp pleas altogether. Which may be all for the better. "Frankly," concedes U.S. Immigration Service spokesperson Eyleen Schmidt, "we never had a pretty stamp anyway."

How long does it take a skunk to reload?
— David Stanley, Flint, Michigan

Not long enough. Skunks store their noxious spray in two glands the size of Ping-Pong balls. They can squirt the stuff over and over again in rapid-fire sequence, letting fly with as little as a teaspoon or as much as half a cup. "Skunks can form a sort of U and 'look' at you, so to speak, with both ends at once, firing with bull's-eye accuracy," notes University of New Mexico mammalogist Jerry Dragoo. Theoretically, Pepe LePew will eventually run out of spray if he gets mad enough, but in practice it just never seems to happen. Dragoo, who was once sprayed by a single skunk eight times in one torturous minute, puts it this way: "I've yet to encounter an empty gland."

The watch I got for Christmas has something called a "tachymeter." What's it for?
— John Heisler, Silver Spring, Maryland

Sport watches nowadays come with any number of arcane features that require an advanced degree to use. Such is the case with the logarithmic slide rule (for vital tasks like calculating airplane fuel consumption), the telemeter (for measuring distance by the speed of sound), and yes, the mysterious tachymeter. This nifty function measures work rate or speed in units per hour. How's that? Say you want to know how many logs you can split in a 60-minute session. Press the start button on the stopwatch, chop one log, and then press stop. The second hand will point to a bezel number, ranging from 60 to 400, and presto! There's your answer — for whatever it's worth. "The tachymeter looks cool," says Gary George of International Wristwatch Magazine. "But how many people use it? Not many."

The first two weeks of the new year will offer the last chance to see Venus in the early evening sky for many months; by the beginning of the third week, it will reappear as a morning star — a position it will hold more or less until late summer. Mars and Saturn will be visible in the evening sky for much of the winter, as will several major constellations, including Orion — with the massive red star Betelgeuse, whose mass is 20 times that of our Sun, on its shoulder — and the Big Dipper. Invisible to the naked eye, Neptune will be four degrees south of Venus on the ninth, making it an easy target through a small telescope. January's full Moon occurs three days later, on the 12th. — David N. Schramm

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