Some Skeptical Clarity to the Unrottable McDonald’s Burger Videos/Photos

October 18, 2010

I’m sure you’ve seen (or at least heard about) the photo project where a plain McDonald’s hamburger has been left out for a half-year now, and it hasn’t rotted away.  Well, I wanted to point you to an article Dr. Steven Novella wrote over at Skepticblog and Neurologica: The Burger “Experiments”.  His view is that the videos and photos are misleading and very bad science.

The infamous hamburger at 180 days

The takeaways:

I note that McDonald’s hamburgers are thin and thoroughly cooked, and will therefore dry out quickly (especially in a dry environment) – too quickly for mold to form. Thoroughly cooked meat should also be free of bacteria to cause rotting. So in the end you will have a dried hard patty, but it will not become moldy nor will it rot.

I do not think there is anything inherent to the ingredients of the hamburger that will significantly affect whether or not it molds or rots – which is the exact implication of these YouTube videos. In order to conclude that it is the hamburger ingredients that are to blame, experiments that control for thickness, degree of cooking, and environment need to be done so that the property of the burger itself is isolated as a variable.

He also spends some time discussing how taking ONE hamburger from ONE store and subjecting it to ONE test makes for ONE interesting observation, yes, but that it’s not nearly enough to use to make big sweeping conclusions like the McDonald’s alarmists are doing.

A similar article over at Salon interviewed some food experts who discussed how things like cooking temperature and fat content can have an effect on the spoilage of a food product.

“Anything that is high in fat will be low in moisture,” says Barry Swanson, a professor at the Washington State University department of food science. And low moisture means less room for mold to grow.

For better or for worse, McDonald’s is no more a chemical laboratory of secret compounds designed to embalm us from the inside than any other processed food maker. A Happy Meal manages to stay unspoiled because it is fatty, salty and practically empty of nutrients — which, really, are all good reasons to avoid it anyway.

So if you want to avoid McDonald’s, at least do it for the right reasons.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go get a Big Mac…

…Rob T. is lovin’ it.™

(Actually, I prefer the double cheeseburger – it has the right meat-to-bun ratio)

Fantasia Mathematica

May 23, 2010

So… Martin Gardner died Saturday.

Folks far more eloquent than I have expressed their thoughts on his life and legacy, but I want to focus on a magnificent book that — well — everyone should read.  It’s called Fantasia Mathematica, compiled and edited by Clifton Fadiman — in 1958.  Gardner has two short stories in there, and that was one of two places where I first learned his name.

(The other place was Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, where he wrote monthly puzzles — apparently to hurt our brains.)

I first came across this gem of a book when I was around eight or nine years old.  Sometime around 1980, in other words.  My head was full of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr. Who, and things like that.  And this book opened up parts of my brain I didn’t know existed.

It’s made up of three sections – the first section, Odd Numbers, consists of excerpts from larger works by famous authors (Aldous Huxley, H.G. Wells, Plato…) that just happen to include mathematics in them.  The third section, Fractions, is mostly made up of cute math poems and brief tales that don’t take up more than a page or two…

There was a young lady named Bright,

Who traveled much faster than light.

She started one day,

In the relative way,

And returned on the previous night.

But the middle section, Imaginaries, captured my fancy as a child and continues to do so now.  Seventeen short stories, averaging around 12 pages each, that find their basis in mathematics and tell wonderfully entertaining tales.  Some even come with certain names attached to them…  Clarke, Heinlein…

Cover of the Third Edition (1964)

  • There’s the story of the man who built a house in the shape of an unfolded tesseract.  An earthquake in the night folds the tesseract through the fourth dimension into its more natural shape, and once the architect and his companions enter, they find it difficult to leave.
  • There’s the story of the man who challenges Satan to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem.
  • There’s the story of subway that becomes a topological anomaly when a new branch line is opened – and a train disappears.
  • There’s the story of the man who rotates a piece of fourspace into our three-dimensional universe – and captures a cross-section of some fourth-dimensional creature.

…and then there are Martin Gardner’s tales.  Both rely heavily on topology for their mathematics (as do many in this section).

In the first of his that Fadiman included in the collection, called “No-Sided Professor”, Gardner extends on the concept of the one-sided Moebius Strip, and spins a tale where Dr. Stanislaw Slapenarski figures out how to go one step further than Moebius and create a no-sided surface.  What do you suppose that would look like?

The second tale, “The Island of Five Colors”, describes another apparent topological impossibility – an island with five tribes on it where they all share common borders.  Dr. Slapenarski returns to explain how he arranged the tribes after disproving the four-color theorem, and the narrator paints the territories before flying up in a plane to take photographic proof to bring back to civilization.

Cover of the New Edition (1997)

I remember not having a clue about a lot of what I was reading as I read it in 1980, but more so than any other book, it made me want to learn what these stories were talking about.  Plus, many of these stories paint the mathematicians as the heroes – they solve the puzzles, they save the day.

The only rough part to deal with is that these stories are old.  I mean, obviously they are, since the book was published in 1958, but some were even old back then.  The earliest (excluding Plato’s work) is from 1873, and many of the rest are from the early 1900′s.  To that end, well, they’re not particularly progressive.  In the 1929 work “The Captured Cross-Section”, by Miles J. Breuer, M.D., the first paragraph establishes that the protagonist’s fiancée, Sheila, is the “daughter of the Head of the Mathematics Department” who has “published some original papers.”  So she’s quite intelligent.  And yet, on the second page, her fiancé, Heagey…  Well, just read for yourself…

“But there are other quantities here,” Sheila interrupted, studying the paper intently, “that do not belong in equations for the rotation of coordinates.  They look like the integrals in electromagnetic equations.”

“Good for you!” Heagey cried enthusiastically.  ”That pretty little head has something on the inside, too.”

Now, maybe he was just needling her…  Or maybe it was 1929.

But honestly, set that stuff aside, read right past it, and you’ll find some wonderful stories.  I think it’s time for the Little Skeptic Girl to poke around in the Imaginaries section…

And in researching this article, I discovered that a book exists with all of Martin Gardner’s short stories – are there more adventures of Dr. Slapenarski??  I hope so!

So even though Gardner is remembered for much more than his fiction, tonight I’m taking my 3rd edition hardcover to bed with me to visit with Dr. Slapenarski again.

Rest in peace, Martin.  Count me among the many who you reached with your work.

Option Three

April 29, 2010

My boss has a knack for finding a third option when you present him with what you thought were two mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive options.  This third option often involves more work, but a better payoff in the end. This knack has got him to where he is today, president of a successful mid-sized company.

When parenting a disagreeable child, it’s all too easy to fall into the two-option trap — to consider that your only options are YOUR way or your CHILD’S way.

The other night, The Little Skeptic Boy was completely unfocused on getting ready for bed.  This is not atypical, so my frustration was not only due to the events of that night, but also represented the compounded frustration of many nights like this.  His delays meant that now, despite my many warnings that this would happen, we would be unable to read The Lightning Thief once he got into bed — there just wasn’t enough time anymore.  This was not well-received by the LSB.

Soon, we arrived at a standoff: the LSB defiantly laying on the couch, arms crossed, legs locked, saying “I’m not getting ready for bed unless you tell me we’ll get to read Percy Jackson”, and me standing over him, in a similar pose, saying in an annoyed voice, “I’m sorry, there’s no time for that now, you need to just do your chores and get in bed.  At this point, I don’t think there’s time to read anything.”

This standoff continued for a little while, and there was a very real danger of me and the LSB turning into the North-Going Zax and the South-Going Zax (or Arthur Dent and the bulldozer, if you prefer).

Fortunately, somewhere in the back of my head, someone dug into my memory banks and pulled out a couple of tidbits.

The first was an interview we had done on the Podcast Beyond Belief with Dr. Christine Carter, who wrote the book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.  One of the things she talked about on the podcast (Episode 5, by the way) was to just take a moment and breathe.  If you just take a moment and breathe when you’re ready to fly off the handle, you’re already ahead.

So I breathed. And my pose relaxed a little.

And I also remembered what she had said about children feeling small when they are disciplined, and how feeling small can lead to a worse outburst, spiraling out of control.  I looked down at the Little Skeptic Boy, and behind the crossed arms, the locked legs, and the furrowed brow, I saw someone feeling very small.  Getting mad at him would only make him feel smaller and entrench him further.

Then I remembered my boss, he who magically pulls third options out of a hat.  And I thought If he can find third choices, why can’t I?

It doesn’t always have to be about MY way or HIS way.  This is definitely not about winning and losing.  My goal is to get LSB to bed at a decent hour with a minimum of disruption.  Can that goal still be met without making him feel like a second-class citizen?  Can we find a way where he is willing to do what he needs to do without feeling like he was buffaloed into it?

I unlocked my arms, got down on my knee next to the couch so I wasn’t towering over him anymore.  I put my arm around his shoulder.  Just in that motion, I saw him relax his stance a little.

“I know you’re sad about not reading Percy Jackson tonight,” I said, “but maybe we should read some of that Star Wars book you got from the school library.  It’s due back in a couple days, isn’t it?”

His arms uncrossed.  His legs relaxed and bent.  His forehead was no longer etched with Valles Marineris.

He said, “Or we could read the LEGO book about the Mistlands Tower.”

I smiled.  ”That’s a good one.  Let’s go.”

And just like that, it was over.  We walked down the hall together, and he finished his chores, kissed his mother goodnight, hopped into bed, and we read that book instead.  You’d think that’s where this little story would end, right?


For a few weeks now, he’s been wanting to go to sleep with the main light on in his room.  OK, no problem there (we switch it off after he’s asleep), but lately he’s used that opportunity to get up and read more books or play with toys — everything except go to sleep.  So I’ve been trying to encourage him to go back to having the main light off (there’s plenty of light without it, don’t worry).

So we finish reading, I kiss him goodnight, and suggest that maybe the light should be off.  He protests.  ”It’s just too dark without it.  It’s scary.”

“How about this?” I say.  I switch the light off and head towards the bed.  I climb into bed with him and hug him again.  ”How about I stay in here with you until you’re asleep.  Would that work?”

He smiles.  ”Okay.”

Score two wins for “Option Three”.  We each gave up a little.  He gave up on the Percy Jackson book and on the light, but still got his main needs met: he got to read something, and he got to feel safe while falling asleep.  I gave up on my stance that it was too late to read anything, and I gave a little of my time while he fell asleep, but I still got my needs met: I got my child into bed and asleep without further disruption.

And as a bonus, I got to watch him fall asleep.

You can’t beat that.

…Rob T. knows how much damage this bulldozer would sustain if I just let it roll over you.

Looking up (at) the ISS

March 21, 2010

The International Space Station

I recently posted on Facebook that I had (again) run outside with the kids to watch the ISS fly overhead.  A few of my friends posted some questions that I thought could be answered in a blog post and shared with everyone, because this is something that more people should know about; that more people should do with their kids.

So here is your quick guide to watching the ISS go overhead.

By the way, just so everyone knows what to expect, you’re not going to see the space station’s structure or anything – you’re going to see a bright speck of light.  The ISS flies overhead at an altitude of over 180 miles, so you won’t see anything but that bright speck.

The first thing you need to know is where and when to look.  For that, I wholeheartedly recommend  What this site lacks in looks it makes up for in sheer power.

Heavens-Above Needs To Know Where You Are

When you first enter the site, it won’t know where you are, so you need to tell it, and there are a few different ways – you can zoom into and mark your location on a Google Map, you can use the site’s database to find your location, or if you happen to know your exact longitude and latitude, you can enter it manually.  You can also make an account so that when you come back, you just log in and it remembers who you are.

OK, so now the site knows where you are, and you’re ready to look for satellite passes!  A little lower on the home page is the Satellites section, and the first link is for the next 10 days of passes for the ISS.  Something like this…

Upcoming Satellite Passes

“Woah”, I hear you say.  “That’s a lot of data!  What does it all mean?” Don’t worry.  It’s not as bad as it looks.

On the far left are the date and magnitude of the pass.  Then you’ve got three sections for when the pass starts, peaks, and ends.  So you can see that for the pass on April 7:

  • At 5:15 AM, you would want to be facing west-southwest to see the beginning of the pass.
  • At that time, the satellite will begin to be visible at 20° above the horizon.
  • At its peak (about 2 minutes later), the ISS will be at 58° above the horizon looking northwest.
  • It will set about 3 minutes after peak at 10° above the horizon in the northeast.

Now, what about that “magnitude” value.  -3.2“Is that good?” you ask. Yeah, that’s really good.  Apparent magnitude is an odd sort of astronomical measurement of brightness that makes sense if you know where it came from, but I’ll let you follow that link if you’re curious.  What you need to know is this:

Human eye limit roughly +6.5
Faintest objects visible in urban areas roughly +3.5
Polaris (the North Star) +1.97
Sirius (the brightest star) -1.44
Mars (at brightest) -2.9
Faintest visible daytime objects -4.0
Venus (at brightest) -4.4
Full Moon -12.7
Sun -26.7

So you see that this pass will be brighter than even Mars at its brightest, and will be outshined only by Venus, the Moon, and (if it were up) the Sun.  Given that these passes are only listed for times when the sun is down, and it’s possible that both Venus and the Moon will also be down, the ISS could easily be the brightest object in the sky as it passes.

The other thing to realize with a pass as bright as -3.2, don’t be discouraged if it’s a little hazy outside.  Or if you’re in a big city with lots of light pollution.  Step outside, get used to the dark for a while, and if you can see ANY STARS AT ALL, you’ll be able to see the ISS.

“But Rob,” you say, “can I visualize the track, rather than rely on these compass directions?” Absolutely.  Notice that the date of each pass is blue.  Just click on it.  You’ll get lots more details about that pass, including a convenient sky map:

Map of ISS Flyover

If you’ve never looked at a sky map before, the outer circle represents the horizon, and the center of the map is directly overhead.  You’ll also notice that East and West appear backwards.  That’s because you’re supposed to look up at this map, not down on it like other maps.  To make the compass directions work out, just imagine holding it up over your head.  I have actually done this before – print out a sky map and taken it outside with me to make sure I had the right directions.

Here you see this nice arc drawn across the sky showing the path of the ISS as it flies overhead.  It’ll appear near Virgo, fly through Bootes and Draco, then Cepheus and Cassiopeia before setting in the Northeast.

OK, so now you know WHERE to look, and WHEN to look (oh, and by the way, if you’re a night owl, not an early riser, plenty of passes happen at early evening hours – they’re not all pre-dawn times).  So the question becomes – do I need to bring anything else with me?

Well…  Not really!  This isn’t like watching a meteor shower, where you need to bundle up since you’ll be out there for a while.  You can be in and out in 10 minutes.  And a telescope wouldn’t work – the ISS moves too fast.  It’ll take about 6 minutes to completely fly overhead.  You could try binoculars, if you want, but I really recommend – especially for the first few – to just go outside and watch.  And take people with you.  Especially kids.

Take them out there, show them this point of light in the sky, zipping along, and tell them “We built that.  We put it up there.  And there are astronauts living up there right now, flying around the earth at over 17,000 mph.  And 45 minutes from now, they’ll be flying over the other side of the world.”

If that isn’t cool, I don’t want to know what is.

..Rob T. missed tonight’s Magnitude -2.9 flyover because of accursed rain clouds!

Water, water, everywhere, but how much should I drink?

March 6, 2010
Giant Water Mug

Giant Water Mug in its Natural Habitat

Pop quiz: How much water should we drink each day?

You already know the answer, right?  Eight glasses, I hear you say.  Eight eight-ounce glasses, in fact, I hear you say.

I know.  We all know.  It’s been drilled into our heads since…  since…  since time immemorial, right?

So much so that a couple years ago I bought this mug you see to the right.  This really big mug.  The idea was to find a mug for use at work that would hold my daily water requirement – that magic 64 ounces that we all need.  And I even found one at my local Super-Mega-Hyper-Mart™ that fit the bill perfectly.  Trust me, this sucker is big.  I’ll admit, it’s hard to appreciate the mug’s presence and stature without reference objects, but if I had put anything too close to it, said object would be irretrievably trapped in the mug’s gravity well.

But that’s not all — not only is GargantuMug big, it’s informative, too.  It mentions the 64-ounce guideline, tells you what things could go wrong with you if you get dehydrated, tells you to drink this much in a day, and even gets silly now and then.  In upside down text, it reads, “If you can read this, I need more water!”

So clever!  So useful!  And yet…

Maybe not so useful…

An article in Scientific American from last June sheds some light on the story.  Physician Heinz Valtin, MD, from Dartmouth Medical School, found no evidence of any science indicating a reason to drink that much water, and also saw no evidence in the general population of their being chronically dehydrated to the point of needing to drink 3½ gallons of water each week.  He did locate what is believed to be the origin of the “8×8 rule”, and it’s interesting, to say the least (emphasis mine):

Valtin thinks the notion may have started when the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council recommended approximately “1 milliliter of water for each calorie of food,” which would amount to roughly two to two-and-a-half quarts per day (60 to 80 ounces). Although in its next sentence, the Board stated “most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods,” that last sentence may have been missed, so that the recommendation was erroneously interpreted as how much water one should drink each day.

To quote Mr. Spock..  “fascinating”.  A misinterpretation of a recommendation back in 1945 has resulted in the commonly-held belief that we all need roughly a six-pack of water every day.

It goes even further.  Of course, we also all know that the 64 ounces have to be actual water, right?  That soft drinks — especially caffeinated soft drinks — don’t count, right?

Think again.

Finally, strong evidence now indicates that not all of the prescribed fluid need be in the form of water. Careful peer-reviewed experiments have shown that caffeinated drinks should indeed count toward the daily fluid intake in the vast majority of persons. To a lesser extent, the same probably can be said for dilute alcoholic beverages, such as beer, if taken in moderation.

And really, when it comes down to it, the whole “caffeinated drink doesn’t count because it’s a diuretic” idea doesn’t really pass the sniff test.  Think about it.  The idea was that the diuretic effect of the caffeine it made the drink not count.  Would a 12-ounce can of caffeinated Coke really make you urinate an extra 12 ounces?  That seems unlikely (Of course, that’s easy to say now, given that I’ve just quoted the results of experiments backing up that point).

Basically, I see two takeaways from this.

One is about the water – if you’re thirsty, drink something. If you’re not, don’t. If you like water, drink it. If you’d rather drink something else, that’s good too. Just stop stressing about it!

And the other has to do with science in general. I’ve had people say that science is too rigid, and once its mind is made up (science has a mind?), it doesn’t change. But honestly, nothing could be farther from the truth. When supplied with evidence, science changes, and that’s an important point to teach our children. T-Rex models look different now. Pluto is no longer a planet. There’s water on the moon. The coelacanth is not extinct. There’s life on Earth in ridiculously hostile environments. And most people don’t need to drink 64 ounces of water every day.

When science is viewed as a process, not a book of facts, it becomes alive and exciting. Let your kids in on the amazing way our knowledge changes thanks to science.

..Rob T. is going to scratch all the incorrect information off of his GargantuMug – and then only drink about 3 ounces out of it!


I learned it by watching you!

January 26, 2010

You all remember that anti-drug campaign on TV in the 80′s and 90′s where the dad finds his kid’s stash, asks him where he learned about that stuff, and the kid shouts back “I learned it by watching you!”  The dad goes pale, and calm voiceover guy reminds us that “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”  Good times.

Well, this post isn’t about drugs, but it’s the first thing I thought of when I read Laurie T.’s post over at Rational Moms titled New study suggests girls learn math anxiety from their teachers.

She says, in part:

Young girls [of female teachers with math anxiety] develop math anxiety, then grow up to be elementary education majors, then pass on that same math anxiety to other young girls, who then avoid studying science and engineering. This is a vicious cycle!

They learn it from their teachers just as much as they learn it from their parents.

A solid education is a key to an inquiring, skeptical mind – having half of our young population already behind the 8-ball when it comes to basic math skills should not be acceptable. I encourage you to head over to Rational Moms to read Laurie’s article.

..Rob T.

The Skeptic Exchange – Followup

December 23, 2009

A week and a half ago, I told you all about The Skeptic Exchange, the community-based skeptical Q&A site.  I’ve been trying to visit daily to keep up with the questions and answers, and I’ve learned a lot already.  I’ve also had the opportunity to share what I know with other skeptics.

In case you haven’t made it over there to see what you can learn, or how you can help, I thought I’d run down the questions that are on there so far (click on any of them to go straight to that question on The Skeptic Exchange):

  1. Parents, do you uphold the santa myth?
  2. Are daily multivitamins useful?
  3. cycle helmets…
  4. Arguing against personal anecdotes.
  5. Is it reasonable to be both a skeptic and a theist?
  6. Is it possible to overdose on Homeopathic medicines?
  7. Is economical skepticism possible?
  8. What is the Placebo Effect?
  9. What skeptical and/or atheist TV is out there?
  10. Can data show if H1N1 vaccine was truly effective?
  11. Is organic produce safer?
  12. What are the best sources (blogs?) for up to the moment atheist thought and news?
  13. What is the best general skeptical blog?
  14. “Masking” symptons in alternative medicine
  15. What do you think is CHI ?
  16. Taking ‘ad hominem’ too far…
  17. Do the Holmes Family Have Psychic Abilities?
  18. Hours of sleep a day ?
  19. What exactly did the ‘Climate-gate’ e-mails contain?
  20. Is man made global warming worthy of concern?
  21. Does this logical fallacy have a name?
  22. What are the best (worst) True Believer podcasts?
  23. What are the best Skeptic podcasts?
  24. Should you be scared or overjoyed by UK Nuclear power?
  25. What Is Cold-Reading?
  26. Mediums, Clairvoyants and Fortune Tellers
  27. skepticism and cold calling
  28. Is “Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation” (TeNS) Effective?
  29. What are the Moon Landing Hoax points and counterpoints?
  30. What is the most eggregious snake-oil/medical scam?
  31. Is there any evidence to support ancient astronaut theories?
  32. Are vaccinations in line with evolutionary medicine?
  33. Is “House of Numbers” an AIDS denialist film?
  34. Quick answer to Creator question
  35. Debunking the Michael Jackson Ghost Video
  36. Why are there still theists?
  37. Is Hallowe’en a satanic celebration?
  38. Good arguments for Swine flu jab
  39. Reflexology- is there ANY science involved at all?
  40. British Anti-Vaccination Celebrities
  41. UK Anti-Vaccination Body Count
  42. Special pleading Logical Fallacy
  43. Straw Man Logical Fallacy
  44. Non-Sequitur Logical Fallacy
  45. False Dichotomy Logical Fallacy
  46. False Continuum Logical Fallacy
  47. Argument from final Consequences Logical Fallacy
  48. Argument from authority Logical Fallacy
  49. Ad ignorantiam Logical Fallacy
  50. Ad hominem Logical Fallacy

Do you have some knowledge about these questions that you could share with everyone else?  Then head on over!

Are you curious about the answers to some of these questions?  Then head on over!

Got a question you’ve been dying to ask someone that’s not on the list?  Then head on over!

The more people visit and use the site, the more useful and powerful it becomes.  Though, admittedly, no one has put down an estimate yet on when it might become self-aware…

..Rob T. does not promise that this is the last time he bugs you about The Skeptic Exchange.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety turns 50

December 18, 2009

At the most recent meeting of the Louisville Area Skeptics, Dr. David Porta discussed how his research involves using cadavers to study how the human body reacts to different kinds of trauma.  The focus of the discussion was mostly on human vs. automobile collisions, and he discussed many of the different tests he and his team has performed.  It was an informative and exciting presentation.

He ended with a question.  He showed us a picture of a 2009 Chevy Malibu, and a 1959 Chevy Bel Air:

2009 Chevy Malibu

1959 Chevrolet Bel Air

He asked us our opinion of which car would “win” in a collision.  Specifically, an offset collision (head-to-head, but not perfectly in line with one another) where each car is going 40 mph (65 kph).  So what’s your opinion?  Think about it for a second.  I’ll wait…Got a guess?

Well, after we had talked about it for a bit, and the crowd was not unanimous about it, Dr. Porta mentioned that the two cars have roughly the same mass, so let any thoughts of “giant hunk of heavy 1950′s steel” go out of your head.

Turns out we don’t have to guess.  For their 50th anniversary, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) performed this test, to show how far we’ve come.

Here’s the thing – we have that vision in our heads that the older cars were somehow safer because they were heavier, or they were more steel, or whatever…  But when you collide them…  What’s that?  You want to see video???  Well, OK…  If you insist…

What you’re seeing in there is the result of 50 years of advancement in car building technology.

Based on the data recorded by the dummies, the driver of the Bel Air was dead on impact.

Bel Air Post-Crash

“This car had no seat belts or air bags. Dummy movement wasn’t well controlled, and there was far too much upward and rearward movement of the steering wheel. The dummy’s head struck the steering wheel rim and hub and then the roof and unpadded metal instrument panel to the left of the steering wheel.

“During rebound, the dummy’s head remained in contact with the roof and slid rearward and somewhat inward. The windshield was completely dislodged from the car and the driver door opened during the crash, both presenting a risk of ejection. In addition, the front bench seat was torn away from the floor on the driver side.”

Meanwhile, the total of potential injuries to the Malibu driver were fully described in one sentence:

Malibu Post-Crash

“A high acceleration was recorded on the left foot, indicating that foot injuries would be possible.”

The driver in the Malibu looks like he’s waiting for the light to change.  Sure, the front of the car has seen better days, but where the people are?  It didn’t collapse at all.

What makes the Malibu survive this crash so much better than the Bel Air?  Science and engineering.  And really smart and creative people making our lives better.  Imagine this — 50 years from now, will the 2059 Chevy Oxnard* be this superior to the Malibu?  Will the Malibu be the one that we’re looking at with mouth agape, thinking how horrible the crash was for that vehicle?  I think it’s possble.  (The Oxnard also better be a flying car – we’ve been waiting long enough!!!  But that’s a story for another day…)

As long as there are cars, there will be accidents**, so we need to go find a scientist, an engineer, someone like that, and say “Thanks.  You make our world a better place.”

..Rob T. hopes he fares better than the Bel Air at age 50.

* – “Oxnard” only because if you start at Bel Air, CA, drive to Malibu, then keep going that same distance again (turning a little bit north so as not to drive into the Pacific), you wind up in Oxnard.  Chevy seems to like the California city theme, and I thought the Oxnard would be better than the “Chevy Thousand Oaks”.

** – Even once we have cars that drive themselves — and cars that fly themselves — someone’s gonna flip that puppy into manual at the wrong moment, or the computer will go a little berzerk, or something, and there’ll still be crashes.  Wasn’t that Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion – “Bodies in motion tend to collide at the most inopportune moments”???


The Skeptic Exchange

December 12, 2009

Do you have a question that requires a science-based viewpoint?  Or are you knowledgeable about certain areas of interest to skeptics, and you’re looking for a place to dispense your wisdom?

Or both???

Well, The Skeptic Exchange might be just the place you’ve been looking for.

I first heard about it on Skeptically Speaking, the Canadian radio show hosted by Desiree Schell.  At the beginning of Episode 36 (which was, by the way, an excellent episode with Martin Bridgstock and Kylie Sturgess), Richard Stelling was on the Speaking Up segment to promote The Skeptic Exchange.

Richard and the Bristol Skeptics have created The Skeptic Exchange to be a place where anyone can ask questions, anyone can answer questions, and those who post the best answers get voted up by the community and subsequently earn a reputation on the site.  According to their FAQ, a user’s reputation is

a (very) rough measurement of how much the Skeptic Exchange community trusts you. Reputation is never given, it is earned by convincing other users that you know what you’re talking about.

In other words, it’s a self-correcting community: those who are knowledgeable and competent are displayed as such on the site; those who spout drivel are also displayed as such.  The users then know who to trust and who to ignore.

More from their FAQ on what they’ll cover:

The Skeptic Exchange is designed to help answer question on a wide range of topics, including but not limited to:

  • pseudoscience
  • the supernatural
  • faith healing
  • ghosts and orbs
  • alternative medicine
  • urban legends
  • critical thinking

No question is too trivial or too “newbie”.

The Exchange launched less than two months ago, so it’s still growing, but I recommend that anyone with questions and/or answers head over there and become a part of this growing community.

Even better, if you get in now, from now until Christmas, Skeptic Exchange will be giving away FREE copies of The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas (compiled by Ariane Sherine) to the first 5 users over 1000 reputation.  Even Richard himself only has a reputation of 119 as of this writing, so there’s still time to get in, make a difference, and see if you can score a free book!

To me, this seems like the perfect way to get the free-flowing ideas of a forum, with the reputation system to promote the best contributors, all in a skeptical, science-based series of topics.  I encourage you to go check it out.  I’m going to go answer a question or two right now!

For more information, read Bristol Skeptics’ writeup of their Skeptic Exchange at their blog, or just head straight to the site itself:

..Rob T. has a reputation that precedes him — unfortunately!

Nintendo turned me into an evil, occult Pokémon character!

December 6, 2009

(Note: This is all 10-year-old news, but it’s new to me, and I think it’s hilarious.)

If you keep your eyes open, pseudoscience can crop up in the strangest places…

So, I’m reading a Pokémon book to the Little Skeptic Boy, age 6.

Pokémon - Night in the Haunted Tower

Aside: Hey! Don’t judge me! We’ve actually been reading The Hobbit together, but Friday he came home from kindergarten with this Pokémon book.  We’ve now finished this book, so tomorrow night it’s back to Middle Earth for the Battle of Five Armies…

Anyhow, the hero, Ash, and his lovable little electric Pokémon, Pikachu, are trying to defeat Sabrina and her evolved psychic Pokémon called Kadabra (evolved from Abra – get it?  Abra…  Kadabra… after that comes Alkazam…  They are clever down there at Nintendo).  Ash needs the victory to earn his Marsh Badge. Once he has all of his badges (as you all know), he becomes eligible to enter the Pokémon League Tournament, where he could become a new champion Pokémon trainer! So clearly this is important stuff, and I won’t spoil the ending for you.

As I’m reading this, I’m getting a good look at some drawings of this psychic Pokémon…

Kadabra, I choose you!

And I notice that ol’ Kadabra’s got a spoon in his hand.  Did he forget to do the dishes after eating his pudding cup?  Just a big fan of The Tick?  Proud to be a friend of Meryl Dorey?  And then it dawns on me…

Psychic Pokémon…  Spoon…  O-M-G…  It’s a Uri Geller Pokémon!

So after reading the story, I go looking for more information on it.  And it turns out that it’s not just a spoon, but it’s actually a bent spoon!!! Apparently Kadabra’s attacks are doubled when he holds the bent spoon, and are even more powerful when he closes his eyes! Can this get any better?

If you close your eyes, you're even more powerful...

The Japanese name for the Pokémon is Un-Geller (in some references, Yungerer).  Back in 1998, Geller sued Nintendo for about US$100,000,000 over the character, but the suit was thrown out of court.  In addition to the bent spoon, Geller claimed that Un-Geller‘s forehead star and lightning bolt stomach lines were intended to allude to the Nazi Waffen SS from WWII.  Even the character’s name in Japanese katakana is very similar to Geller’s:  ユンゲラー vs. ユリゲラー.  Only the second character is changed.  Clearly this is either a parody of Geller or an homage to him (or perhaps both — apparently you can get “good” and “evil” versions of Kadabra/Un-Geller).

Kadabra Card

Geller even had the following quote:

Nintendo turned me into an evil, occult Pokémon character.

…which I suppose is at least partially right.

Is he trying to bend the card?

So the question then becomes, as a skeptical parent, how can I leverage this?  Can I use this moment to help Little Skeptic Boy understand that things like bending spoons are parlor tricks, not psychic abilities?  As we finish this book off, will rationality defeat pseudoscience?  Will Ash and Pikachu be immune to the psychic attacks because they’ve got a shield of scientific studies showing no proof for psychic abilities?  Or will a ghost Pokémon come in, lick the face of Kadabra’s trainer, and cause her (and Kadabra) to break down into a giggle fit, ending the battle?

I promised I wouldn’t spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say that if you were looking for rationality in a book based on a trading card game about pocket monsters with supernatural abilities that are captured inside little balls and called forth to do their trainer’s bidding in battles against other monsters, well, maybe you’re expecting too much out of the book.

This much I know.  If I’m ever playing the trading card game, and my opponent chooses Kadabra, I’ve got to lay down this card:

The Amazing Randi, I choose you!

You’ll never lose when Randi’s in your deck.

..Rob T. wants a bent spork