Posts categorized “Research Day”.

Research Day: “Night” in the Night Exhibit

To: Woodland Park Zoo
From: Matthew Baldwin
Date: Mon, Nov 16, 2009 at 4:52 PM
Subject: Are the lights on in the nocturnal house at night?

Hi! A friend and I visited your fine zoo recently. Later that night, over beers, we joked about breaking in and revisiting the nocturnal house, because we loved the bushbabies so.

It was just a joke (honest), but it got us to wondering: if we had infiltrated the nocturnal house at, say, midnight, would the lights be on? Would not having a "day" period every 24 hours do to the nocturnal animals what living in a constantly-lighted house would do to you or I?

Bonus question: for nocturnal animals in the wild, what happens during an eclipse? Does that, like, totally mess with their heads?

Matthew Baldwin

* * *

To: Matthew Baldwin
From: Woodland Park Zoo
Date: Tue, Nov 17, 2009 at 7:24 AM
Subject: Re: Are the lights on in the nocturnal house at night?

Dear Matthew,

No need to infiltrate; the lights are indeed on during our nighttime in the Night Exhibit. We simply swap time periods.

The animals would find it difficult to sleep without daytime periods. Behavioral effects of lack of sleep with animals hasn't been greatly studied in non-primates, however you'd probably expect to find situations of decreased appetites and possibly aggressiveness.

An eclipse, whether solar or lunar, probably wouldn't have much of an effect on wild animals. The relatively short periods of time these occur within might cause a minor disruption of their routines but most likely nothing long term.

We hope you bet a beer on this one!

Woodland Park Zoo
Seattle, WA

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Research Day: The LOST Script Style

This post contains a minor spoiler from the first season of LOST. It also contains the word “fuck.” A lot.

Speaking of LOST (as I often am, these days) …

If you are interested in the show, screenwriting in general, or wanton profanity, head over to The Daily Script and check out some of the LOST screenplays. They are written in a style that is, as far as I know, unique within the industry:

And as Jack slowly looks up -- standing right in front of him -- just FIVE FUCKING FEET AWAY --


    Hello, Jack.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Jack looks at him, ragged breath, but EYES BURNING. And he asks the question that hopefully all of America has been asking for the past week --

    Who are you?

And we're LOOKING UP at Ethan. SOAKING WET but seemingly oblivious to the rain. And his EYES. His FUCKING EYES.

That’s from “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues“, season one, episode nine.

J. J. Abrams (the series creator) established this style in the pilot with phrases like “HE SCREAMS BLOODYFUCKINGMURDER” and “this guy is a Class-A prickfuck” (wha-?!). Since then it appears to have become part of the show’s template. Most LOST scripts read as if the writer has just hit his thumb with a hammer.

Of course, most screenwriters put some subtext into the action descriptions. In his book Crafty TV Writing, Alex Epstein (author of the screenwriting blog Complications Ensue) dubs these “subtitles for the nuance-impaired.”

Subtitles for the nuance-impaired are legitimate when the episode, if properly shot and edited, will easily communicate something that the script might not get across. Producers and executives are used to reading dialogue, but editing, for example, doesn't read well ...

[But] be careful writing directly to the reader this way. It's slightly naughty.

The LOST scripts take naughty to the next level, going beyond “subtitles for the nuance-impaired” and into the realm of “before the nuance-impaired can fucking process anything, the writer SMASHES THE PORCELAIN FOOD BOWL RIGHT INTO THE SIDE OF HIS FUCKING HEAD!” (Actual line from Lost 220! Well, sort of.)

I asked Epstein why the LOST staff writes this way. “It gives an ‘energetic read’,” he replied. “Network execs like it. They don’t have to put too much energy into reading it.” He also speculated that it had become part of the LOST culture. “Everybody does it ’cause their boss, JJ Abrams, does it.”

Some do it more than others, though. Search the pilot for “fuck” and you’ll find it 28 times in 96 pages; do the same on “Two For the Road“, and you’ll get 96 hits in 56 pages. My goodness. I wonder if they write emails to their mothers using the same fingers they use to type these screenplays. (Though, as Epstein points out, “Abrams probably rewrites all the scripts, so he may put the f-bombs in himself.”)

So, is this a good style for an aspiring screenwriter to adopt? Epstein again:

I find it annoying. If I got a script like that, I might not keep reading. I find it vulgar and cheap -- and by cheap, I mean you're getting a zap! into your script without actually working for it.

It's imprecise. Use words like bullets, not like a spray of birdshot. Note how the porcelain bowl line does not mention whether the food bowl breaks, or whether his head caroms off the bowl. Is there blood or not? It's loud, but it's not visual. It's abstract.

JJ Abrams gets paid a lot more than I do, so he can do as he likes. But just because e. e. cummings wrote free verse in lowercase doesn't means you should write poetry that way.

Duly noted. Indeed, when I write my LOST spec script, I intend to adopt a different style entirely:

Jack is peeved as all get-out! His DANDER is TOTALLY UP!

He draws his gun and points it RIGHT AT JOHN'S GOSH-DARNED HEAD!!!!!

     See you in aitch ee
     double-hockey-sticks, you
     good-for-nothing so-and-so.

Then, when the LOST staff reads it, they’ll be all, “Whoa, check out this FRESH NEW VOICE! This SON OF A BITCH can THINK OUTSIDE THE MOTHERFUCKING BOX!!!

* * *

Research Day: The Difference Between Noir and Hardboiled

In a way, this post doesn’t really fit under the “Research Day” rubric. What typically happens on Research Day is that I identify a question about which I am ignorant, Google up some answers, and then report my findings here.

This, on the other hand, is an instance where I thought I knew something, and was informed otherwise.

I happened as I was interviewing people for my article on Web Noir. My original thesis was that online crime ezines were the modern equivalent of the pulps, though I was toying with the idea of writing the essay on the resurgent of interest in the pulp aesthetic. To that end, I decided to email to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, to see if he had any thoughts on the matter. (Longtime readers will remember that I have previously professed my love for Hard Case Crime novels, and may suspect–perhaps correctly–that this entire project was an elaborate justification for me to send fan mail to Ardai).

After introducing myself, I posed a series of question to Ardai, the first of which was:

What are the hallmarks of hardboiled, noir stories?

His response, began like this:

To begin with, as I'm sure other folks either have told you or will tell you (people in this field love definitional arguments), the terms 'noir' and 'hardboiled' don't refer to the same thing. They describe orthogonal aspects of a story, in the sense that a given story can be either noir or hardboiled or both or neither -- one doesn't entail the other ...

Now, at this point, I was already writing my reply in my head, something along “oh jeeze, of course I know the difference between ‘noir’ and ‘hardboiled,’ I was just lumping the two together in the interest of brevity, etc. etc.”

Still, I know better than to stop reading someone who can nonchalantly work the phrase “orthogonal aspects” into a sentence, so I persevered. By the time I reached the end of his response … well, let’s just say that I was no longer entertaining fantasies of trying to impress Mr. Ardai with my worldweary, know-it-all attitude.

Here’s the kit & caboodle.

"Noir," though originally used to refer to a particular series of French paperbacks and then later to a category of black-and-white crime movie, is generally understood to refer to a story steeped in emotional (and often also literal) darkness. There is a feeling of dread and doom that suffuses the action; the story typically features a protagonist who's in trouble, who often doesn't deserve the trouble he's in (even if he's a bad guy, he often doesn't deserve the *particular* trouble he's in), and whose trouble just gets worse as the narrative grinds inexorably toward an unhappy -- often tragic -- ending. Once in a while, a book that's noir all the way through winds up having a happy or redemptive ending -- think David Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN, which we just reprinted for the first time in ~50 years -- but those happy endings generally feel aberrant and tacked-on and untrue to the spirit of the enterprise. A noir story can be grim and suspenseful or grim and melancholy or grim and paranoid or grim and fatalistic -- but it's pretty much always grim. Its antecedents in literature include Oedipus, King Lear, and the work of Thomas Hardy; 'noir' posits a world in which either there is no god and men are left to make their way in a universe that's indifferent to justice and to their suffering or else a universe that is actively malign ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport"). More modern practitioners in the literary sphere include Camus and the other existentialists; on the genre side, the masters were James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. The best description of noir I've ever read came from Woolrich: "I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you've put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can't, and it can't, and it can't."

"Hardboiled," on the other hand, refers as much to style as to content -- it describes a story in which the characters and the dialogue are tough and colloquial, where there's usually plenty of action (gunfights, fistfights, guys getting knocked unconscious) and plenty of sex (leggy dames in seamed stockings, etc.) and plenty of atmosphere (smoky gin joints, exotic Chinatown opium dens, races across moody nightscapes). The distinction is between this sort of thing and the world of classic detective stories, which tended to take place in drawing rooms and manor houses, gardens and vicarages, and to involve quiet poisonings more often than fists to the adam's apple. After World War II, readers who had been exposed to the bracing realities of the Depression, Auschwitz and Hiroshima lost patience with dainty tales of violence-as-parlor-game and flocked to the work of authors like Chandler and (even more so) Spillane, the men who (in Chandler's words) "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish." Continues Chandler (he was writing about Dashiell Hammett): "He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett's style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."

Was this the first use of the term "hardboiled" to refer to this sort of writing? No -- but I think Chandler captures perfectly what the term means. A hardboiled novel is a plain-spoken, rough-hewn, unapologetically frank and crude and vibrant one, that tells a two-fisted tale of men and women at their worst -- and at their best. A hardboiled story can be gleeful and funny and entertaining, or it can be dark and tragic and grim. "Hardboiled" describes the comedies of Richard Prather and the lyrical tragedies of Chandler himself. A noir novel can be written in a hardboiled style, but a noir story can also be told in delicate or refined or purple prose. Again, the two qualities are entirely separate.

Which did you find in the pulps -- noir or hardboiled? Well, you found both...but you found hardboiled constantly and noir only some of the time. The crime pulps (as opposed to the science fiction or horror or romance pulps, which are a whole other story) pretty much only published hardboiled fiction -- that's what they existed to do. Some of the stories were rooting-tooting whizbangs just out to please the kiddies (of all ages) among the readership, while others were somber, moving, tortured stories of men swirling down the drain.

So: Not all noir is hardboiled, and not all hardboiled is noir; the old pulps published both, but more hardboiled; the new pulps (if you want to call them that) also publish both, but interestingly more noir than hardboiled. I believe this is because of the relative sophistication of the reading audiences -- or at least the current audience's sense of its own sophistication. A lot of readers today, I believe, feel is it is "cool" to like noir -- like black-outfitted, alienated teens, they relish embracing anything that seems dark and tortured -- while many feel they are "above" reading old-fashioned hardboiled yarns, which often aspired to nothing more than providing an evening's worth of what we'd now call "popcorn entertainment."

At Hard Case Crime, we publish both. Books like Richard Powell's SAY IT WITH BULLETS or Robert Terrall's KILL NOW, PAY LATER are hardboiled comedies; a book like Erle Stanley Gardner's TOP OF THE HEAP is a serious hardboiled novel; but none of them are noir. On the other hand, Woolrich's FRIGHT and Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN are as noir as you can get, as are some of our originals, such as Seymour Shubin's outstanding WITNESS TO MYSELF, or my own SONGS OF INNOCENCE.

* * *

Research Day: Circumsicison and HIV

The following post was inspired by the seventy-first suggestion in No One Cares What You Had for Lunch: 100 Ideas for Your Blog, which was randomly selected by Alison Headley of bluishorange.

I used to work in the field of HIV and AIDS research. So when a friend of mine recently discovered that he was to be the father of a baby boy, he sent me the following email:

What do you know about connection between circumcision and reduced chance of acquiring HIV? We hadn't even considered circumcision until we heard about the study, but now we're wondering about it

To which I responded:

I don't want to discount the HIV transmission thing, but, in your case, I don't know that I'd put a lot of stock in it either. There was a lot of talk about this study back when I was working at the lab, and I don't dispute the findings. But bear in mind that these trials were conducted in areas where HIV was prevalent, and where the participants were engaging in "high risk" behavior (multiple partners, unprotected sex, etc).

If you educate your kid to take precautions against HIV, and he lives in an area where HIV isn't rampant, and he's monogamous (or just-a-fewgamous), his being circumcised might only decrease his overall chance of infection from "pretty low" to "pretty low minus a smidge" (as opposed to, say, a Kenyan trucker who has lots of sex with multiple, concurrent partners, and whose circumcision is his only form of "protection.").

But, before hitting send, it occurred to me that I might not know what I was talking about. I mean, yes, I used to work in the field of HIV and AIDS research, but only as a programmer — not as one of the genius who actually design the clinical trials or analyze the results.

So I sent my friend’s question, and my reply, to M, a statistician I know who still works there. Here’s what she had to say:

Hey Matthew,

To assess individual risk, one would need to account for many characteristics and behaviors on the individual level. In most clinical studies, such as those conducted regarding male circumcision, data is collected on risk factors associated with the outcome (HIV infection in this case) and the exposure (circumcision, say). In stat. analyses, we adjust for these factors so that we can come up with a reasonable estimate for the risk of the exposure accounting for all the other potential "confounding" characteristics/behaviors on a population level.

For the individual, however, his/her risk is highly dependent on his/her individual profile of risk. Circumcision, for example, is only one characteristic of a man that might put him at risk for HIV infection. There exist a plethora of others such as HIV status of his sex partners, numbers of sex partners, alcohol/ drug use, injection drug use, condom use, etc.

Your points are well made regarding the differences between heterosexual risk in the US and that in high HIV prevalent areas such as sub-Saharan Africa in that in the US, among heterosexual males, the risk of transmission is much lower since the prevalence of HIV among all people is lower. For example,

"In 2004, men who have sex with men (MSM) (47%) and persons exposed through heterosexual contact (33%) accounted for an estimated 80% of all HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed in areas in the U.S. with confidential name-based reporting. Blacks accounted for 49% of cases and Hispanics for 18%. Infection rates in both groups were several-fold higher than that in whites. An overall prevalence of about less than 0.5% was estimated for the general population [15]."

See for more details.

In observational studies in the US, however, the relative risk of HIV infection among non-circumcised men was typically two-fold that of circumcised men. So, whether you are a man in Africa driving a truck and having sex with many women, or you are a man in the US having sex with one woman, if you are having sex with an HIV+ woman and you are not circumcised, you are pretty much at the same level of risk for HIV, with all other characteristics being equal. One issue that has not been determined, though, is whether or not the different clades of HIV strains could have an impact on the susceptibility of acquisition. If there were a difference, the geographic location (i.e. who you were having sex with and thus, what strain of virus they have), could have an impact on acquisition.

In other words, your risk is highly dependent on your own personal behaviors, rather than the population's behaviors. We use the population stats to help us understand, in general, what behaviors on the individual level will put us at higher risk than other behaviors. But, we cannot quantify an individual's risk based on population numbers unless we design a study in such a way to make these calculations possible.

There is, of course, many other considerations regarding male circumcision for babies, such as risk of infection, pain, etc. to go through the operation. This should be weighed with the benefit (as you pointed out to your friend) of other harms (such as HIV, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases such as Human Papillomavirus, Gonorrhea, Herpes, etc.). Also safe sex practices (using a condom!), in general, will most likely outweigh any risk of not being circumcised if this baby boy grows up to be a real swinger (either with men or women)!!

Hope that helps. Also see for another website to consult, and the press release on the trial in Kenya and Uganda.


M also asked that I add the following disclaimer: “This was written by an anonymous, somewhat crazy biostatistician-woman who happens to have some extended experience researching HIV/AIDS, among mostly & ironically, Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Please take her words regarding the male genitalia, and what should be done with it, with a grain of salt!”

Me, I wouldn’t think that circumcision and salt would go together but, like I said, I’m just a code-jockey.

* * *

Research Day: Taco Bell And The Ozone Layer

Why is Taco Bell so named?: When I was nine or ten, I was in the car with my dad when we passed one of the Taco Bells that were springing up all over our suburb. “Why do they call it that?” I asked.

My father, a classical music aficionado, thought for a moment and said “I think it’s a play on the name Pachelbel. You know, the composer who wrote the Canon? And the Hexachordum Apollinis?”

That answer satisfied me for a decade and a half. Recently, though, while driving by another of the ubiquitous fast-food outlets, the question popped back into my head, and it occurred to me that a restaurant boasting a “Cheesy Gordita Crunch Supreme” for 99¢ was probably not named in honor of a seventeenth century Baroque organist. Maybe if they served a “Beef Taccota in C minor,” or their soda machine dispensed “Mountain Fugue.”

So today I headed over to, and pored over their “history” page, looking for clues as to the store’s name. And by “pored over,” I mean I read the first two words in their history, which were as follows:

"Glen Bell ..."

Ah. The founder’s name is Bell. Duh.

And so my fifteen-year investigation comes to a sudden and anti-climatic end. Wow. Honestly, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life. Possibly just reading through the archives of this fansite.

What ever happened to the ozone layer?: In the late 80′s and early 90′s, the environmental crisis du jour was the rapidly depleting ozone layer. I distinctly remember hearing somewhere that the ever-widening hole over Antarctica had reached some critical tipping point, where all our efforts to stop the damage would be in vain. David Brin’s 1991 novel Earth foresaw a future in which no sane person would venture outside without a hat, glasses, and heavy sunscreen. In the 1992 presidential campaign, George Bush dubbed Gore as “ozone man” for his environmental activism.

Now, of course, Gore is a champion for global warning. (although, technically speaking, I think he might be against global warming) and the ozone layer seems to have been all but forgotten. What happened?

What happened, apparently, is that we stopped releasing the compounds that damage the ozone layer, which took the topic off the polical table — even though the hole still exists, and was larger than ever before as recently as 2000. Even so, most people agree that it is healing. “All other things being equal,” says NOAA, “and with adherence to the international agreements, the ozone layer is expected to recover over the next 50 years or so.” The main “international agreements” here are the Vienna Convention (1985) and the Montreal Protocol (1989). The latter, especially, is largely responsible for the worldwide phase-out of ozone damaging chemicals (halogenated hydrocarbons), and it has been hailed by Kofi Annan as “Perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”

So I guess the take-home message here is: if we all work together, as conscientious global citizens, we can collectively confront and even reverse the environmental cataclysms that threaten the future of our species. Or perhaps the moral is: if I, Matthew Baldwin, personally ignore a problem for a decade or so, it will go away. Could be either one, no way to tell.

Here you can find a nice overview of the issue, and a chart showing significant dates, both past and future, in the ozone crisis and response.

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Research Day: Portable Signs and Dem Bones, Dem Bones

What’s the deal with all the people standing on street corners holding “24 Fitness” signs? I don’t know how things are in your hometown but, in the not-to-distant past, the corners of every major intersection of Seattle were populated by people holding cardboard signs signs readings “STUCK IN SEATTLE AND AS IMPROBABLE AS IT SOUNDS I ONLY NEED $1.47 MORE TO BUY A BUS TICKET!!” Apparently all those folks managed to get back to Gerbil Junction, Iowa, though, because many of them are now gone, replace by crowds of people dancing around and waving at cars while wearing both a Walkman and a Sandwich Board reading “CIRCUIT CITY NEXT RIGHT ->” Where did all these people come from? Did someone figure out a loophole in signage laws or something, and now everyone is rushing to exploit it?

Actually, “portable signs” are legal not because of a loophole in the law, but because of the law itself — it’s just that the law wasn’t settled until a a few years ago. Dennis Ballen, the owner of a store called Blazing Bagels in Redmond (a Seattle suburb and home to Microsoft) had been using these “portable signs” for years, while the city had long been trying to ban them. But Redmond was selective in its sign laws, allowing for political and real estate signs while trying to 86 the rest. So Ballen joined forces with the The Institute for Justice and took the city to court.

In January of 2004, the Seattle federal court ruled in favor of Ballen, stating that Redmond’s law “creates content-based exceptions for certain commercial speech that has no material relationship to the safety and aesthetic goals” and declaring it unconstitutional [pdf of ruling]. The finding was upheld later that same year.

With their legality established, guys wearing “Mattress Depot” signs and waving madly at passing cars have begun to appear all over our state. And maybe your state, too. If so, you have us to thank.

What’s the origin of the phrase “no bones about it?” Is it related to the phrase “to pick a bone?”: A couple of Internet sites take a stab at deducing the history of the phrase “make no bones about it,” and they all seem to be in agreement on two points: (a) the term is so ancient that determining its etymology is well nigh impossible, but (b) the best guess is that it comes from Ye Olde Olden Dayes, when soups would occasionally contain tiny bones and the more casual connoisseur would either swallow them down or set them aside without making a fuss. The other hypothesis often mentioned is that the phrase might allude to gambling, where some players make a big deal out of “throwing the bones” while others just quietly go about their business of losing money. (Curiously, every site I encountered while researching his phrase [this one, this one, and this one] all list the same theories in the same order, which means that they are probably all copying one another — just as I am doing now.)

As for “pick a bone” (and the related phrase, “bone of contention”), the consensus is that this too comes from meal bones, and the quarrel that breaks out amongst dogs when one is thrown to them.

From the comments: “I’d like to know what the origin of using ’86′ as a verb is.” According to Merriam-Webster, the term was first used by restaurant workers as a code phrase meaning “we’re out of something,” and was chosen because it rhymed with the word “nix.” A full account of the phrase is available here.

* * *

Research Day: How Much Does An Adult, Male, African Elephant Weight?

It’s not often that I shout “holy shit!” while listening to NPR alone in my car, but that’s what I did a few weeks along when All Things Considered aired the story of Osama the Hippopotamus. “He’s believed to be a male,” the reporter said of the hippo who has been terrorizing villagers on the Congo River, “though no one has really gotten a good look at him. A full-grown male hippopotamus can weigh up to 8,000 pounds …”

What?! That can’t be right, thought I — he must have meant eight hundred pounds. What an embarrassing gaff to broadcast on national radio. Later he said that hippos are considered to be “the most lethal animal in Africa, killing more people each year than lions, crocodiles, and elephants.” That struck me as almost equally improbable. I thought hippos were cuddly. And only attacked marbles.

But I figured I’d doublecheck before sending an email to NPR starting “Dear dumbasses,” and did so as soon as I got home. “How was work?” The Queen asked as I walked in the door; “No time for chit-chat!” I exclaimed, “I gotta go look up hippos in Wikipedia!”

And whatta’ya know? “Hippos average 3.5 metres (11 ft) long, 1.5 metres (5 ft) tall at the shoulder, and weigh from 1,500 kg to 3,200 kg (3,300 to 7,000 lb)

I sat there at my computer for a moment, trying to process this information. Then it occurred to me that the elephant, world’s largest land animal, must somehow be even larger.

I braced myself and surfed over the the Wikipedia page for Loxodonta africana. “The Savanna Elephant stands on average 13 feet (4 meters) at the shoulder,” it said. “And weighs approximately 15,400 pounds (7,000 kilograms) .” Subsequent research revealed that Wikipedia’s estimate is on the high end of the spectrum — The Columbia Encyclopedia has them down for an average weight of seven tons (14,000 lbs.); Britannica pegs their maximum weight at 16,500 lb; Encarta says they “weigh up to 7,000 kg (15,400 lb).” My guess is the person who did the Wikipedia entry came across that “up to 7,000 kg” figure, mistaken cited 15,400 lb as their average weight, and that 14,000 lbs. is more accurate.

But still: 14,000 lbs! That’s just insane. And I don’t even understand the physics of it. If you hollowed out a male, African elephant, I can’t imagine you could fit seventy 200-pound human beings inside the skin, even if you ground those people into slurry and poured ‘em in through a funnel (free Science Fair project idea right there, if any kid are reading this).

Now, I’m notoriously bad at estimating things: population of cities, miles of a road, number of beers it takes to get myself drunk, etc. But even so, I had a hunch that just about everyone would get this one wrong when asked. So last week I slapped together an poll to see what people say when asked the average weight of a male, African elephant. When I’d amassed a little over 2000 votes, I made some graphs, thereby transmogrifying this exceptionally haphazard experiment into SCIENCE!

And how did you all fare? Oh my goodness, not well at all I’m afraid.

Average guess: 4964.60 lbs. — i.e., close to a third of the actual weight. It probably would have been a lot lower, but there were a few 50,000 lbs. and one 65,000 guesses. The top five most common guesses: 2,000 lbs (1/7 of the actual weight), 4,000 lbs., 3,000 lbs, 5,000 lbs, and 2,500 lbs. Eighty-one people guessed 12,000 (it was the eighth most common guess), eleven guessed 14,000, and another eleven guessed 15,000.

I’d always heard that, on questions of estimation, you could expect to see a bell-shaped curve around the correct response. Obviously that wasn’t the case here. I’ve convinced that it’s because the weight of an elephant is so incredible — by which I mean, it honestly strains credibility. Two thousand pound is a good guess for weight of “animal that is extremely large and yet still real”; 14,000 pounds is a good guess for the weight of, like, “dragon,” or something equally as chimeric.

By the way, the largest elephant ever recorded weighed 12,000 kilograms, or nearly 26,500 lbs. I’m glad they didn’t mention that on NPR, or I probably would have driven off the freakin’ road.

Thanks to Squant and M-J for fancy graph assistance.

* * *

Research Day: Brew’s Clues

The Queen and I are not above gambling when some fact of brobdingnagian importance is in dispute, such as “did Punky Brewster get a breast reduction?” (She did.) Our standard monetary unit in such wagers is One Beer. Unfortunately we are old and betoddlered, so we tend to forget the bet was ever made mere moments after the handshake is concluded.

Today, however, I have dredged up our last three bets from the murky depths of my memory. If my calculations are correct, The Queen will soon be bestowing Hops On Pop.

Is that Tony Danza?! We both asked that question aloud while watching Crash on DVD. I thought the actor looked like Danza, but decided that it wasn’t because he sounded all wrong; The Queen didn’t think the guy look like Danza at all, but was convinced it was based on the sound of his voice. Only one place to go for this answer: IMDB — Crash.

Verdict: Yup, that’s a Danza, all right. Winner: The Queen.

Is corn a grain or a vegetable: This one’s a bit tricky, because it depends on whether you are considering an entire cob, a bunch of fresh, detached kernels, or ground up meal. The latter — corn meal — is a grain, as grain (also called caryposis) is defined as “the seed of a grass. And irrespective of what else it may or may not be, corn is indisputably a grass.

But what of about fresh corn? That’s a vegetable, right? Unfortunately, the word “vegetable” does not have a strict botanical meaning, unlike — just to pluck a random example out of the ether — “fruit,” which means “the ripened ovary or ovaries of a seed-bearing plant.” And guess what: they may as well call ‘em “Kellogg’s Ripened Ovary Flakes,” because corn is all fruit, baby.

Verdict: We were both kind of wrong, but as (a) I was only half wrong and (b) The Queen was all wrong and (c) it’s my goddamned blog, I’m giving myself the point. Plus The Queen is a professional botanist, so I get credit just for holding my own on any subject that involves chlorophyll. Winner: Me.

Do peanuts grow above ground or below: The nice thing about betting for beer is that you’ll wager even when you’re not entirely sure you’re correct. For instance, I was unsurprised to discover that the Mystery Actor was Danza, and The Queen wasn’t adamant that corn was a vegetable.

But we were both suffused with certainly on the question of whether peanuts grew above ground or below. Though peanuts are outside of The Queen’s professional bailiwick (she’s an expert on native plants, and peanuts hail from South America), she was sure that they grew underground. I insisted otherwise. After all, I reasoned to myself, peanuts are actually legumes, and legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and peas) grow on stalks. I don’t need no fancy bow-TAN-ikle degree to know that growing on a stalk = above ground.

Except …

Except, apparently, when the stalk grows above ground … and then, in a shocking surprise twist sure to have you on the edge of your seat, bends over and burrows into the soil before producing fruit. WTF PEANUTS?!!

That was totally unfair — there was no way I could have known that those legumes were going to go all psycho on me. Verdict: Peanuts grow below ground. Winner: The Queen, but only on a technicality. The technicality being that I was completely wrong.

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Research Day: Red Lights, Brown Crayons, And The Disputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World

If I’m stuck behind a stale red light, is there anything I can do to change it? I used to live in Seattle’s U-district, and, for a period of about six months, I had to drive downtown at 4:45 in the morning every weekday. My commute was between seven and fifteen minutes long, and the five minute discrepancy was completely dependant on the state of the traffic light at the junction of Montlake and 25th. If it was green when I arrived, I would sail through and arrive at the office in no time; if it was red, I could get stuck sitting there for freakin’ ever, despite the complete lack of competing traffic.

I’ve heard two hypothesis about actions drivers can take to actually force (or at least hasten) a stale red light’s change to green. The first says that you can simulating the strobe effect of ambulance and police car sirens by quickly flash your headlights, and trick traffic light sensors that are programmed to automatically turn green when such a vehicle approaches. The second says that, if you are alone at a light, you can roll your car forwards and backwards, repeatedly triggering a pressure plate in the road and tricking the light into thinking that more and more cars are waiting for it to turn green.

To see if either of these were true, I called up the superintendent at Seattle’s Traffic Maintenance Office. She sounded as if she had never heard the headlight-flashing one (which is odd, because pretty much everyone I know if familiar with the ol’ “flash your lights” trick, and, to the best of my knowledge, nary a one of them works for the Traffic Maintenance Office). “That would never work,” she told me. “They would need the code.” She later clarified that “the code” was a signal sent by transmitters in ambulances, which traffic lights are programmed to recognize and turn green when an emergency vehicle approaches. “They don’t respond to flashing lights at all,” she said.

So is there any way to change a stale red light, I asked. The short answer: no. “If you’re the only one at the light it’s possible that you didn’t trigger the coil in the road, so you can try rolling back and forth,” she said. “But in most cases, you’re just going to have to wait it out.”

The coil, by the way, is part of the inductive loop that traffic lights use to detect when cars are present. The “pressure plates in the road” hypothesis is completely wrong, at least in Seattle.

What is brown? When The Squirrelly is coloring, I take the opportunity to teach him basic color theory. “This is purple,” I’ll tell him. “Purple is red and blue. This is green. Green is blue and yellow. This is brown. Brown is … orange and, uh, black? Except black isn’t a color. What the hell is brown?”

Holy smokes, did this ever turn out to be a not-easy question (see this contentious Google Answers thread, for instance). The first place I looked was in the “Ask a Scientist” archives, where I found this answer: “brown color is a color combination of red, orange and green — those colors are not adjacent in the visible colors of a rainbow so they do not combine to form a visible brown. The colors which normally make up the BROWN color, however, ARE ALL PRESENT in a rainbow, but are not present in the color combination we call brown.” Um, okay: I get the “red, orange and green” part, but the rest doesn’t make a goddamned bit of sense to me, dude.

After further research, I think I figured out what he was trying to say: colors only appear on the rainbow if they are a primary color (red, blue, yellow) or if they are a color made up of two colors that are adjacent (i.e., a secondary color). So orange appears between red and yellow, for instance — though I’m still unclear on how “violet” winds after blue, when its other primary color, red, is all the way on the other end of the spectrum. Brown, however, is made up of colors that are not adjacent, which is why it’s not on the rainbow.

In fact, it appears that brown is the result when you mix a color with its compliment, which is the color found across from it on the color wheel. So you could make brown by mixing purple with yellow, blue with orange, or red with green. This is short of a shorthand way of saying that brown is made up of all three primary colors, but in different proportions. All his I learn from a page on how to mix hair dye.

Are there Disputed Heavyweight Champions Of The World? I know nothing about boxing, except that the best thing to be is the Undisputed Heavyweight Champion Of The World. But does the word “undisputed” really mean anything, or is it just a rhetorical flourish on an already overlong title?

According to the Wikipedia entry on boxing, there are no less than three international boxing associations: the World Boxing Association, the World Boxing Council, and the International Boxing Federation. If all three agreed that a certain boxer was the “world champion” then he was “undisputed;” but if any of the organizations object, a boxer “world champion” title is considered disputed.

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Research Day: Butt Muscles, Tractor Beams, And STUFF IN ALL-CAPS

Is your ass one muscle or two? A female coworker of mine recently signed up for a course in bellydancing. Here’s the conversation we had after her first class:

Me: Is it fun?

Her: No, I hate it. It’s way too hard. You have to, like, move the left side off your butt up and the right side down at the same time. I don’t even think that’s possible, since your butt is just one muscle.

M: Is it? I always kind of though it was two.

H: It’s called the “gluteus maximus,” so I think it’s just one.

M: Well, even so, it can’t be impossible to do that. I mean, your tongue is a single muscle, and you can move different parts of it in different direction.

H: No you can’t.

M: Sure you can. If you stick out your tongue you can move the tip of it up and down without moving the back of it.

H: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Like, the front of your tongue is the right side of my butt and the back part of your tongue is the left side of my butt?


M: I’m sorry, but as a married man I can no longer participate in this conversation.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time searching the Internet for an answer to this question. My operating assumption was that the human body only contains one gluteus maximus muscle, but I kept coming across illustrations such as the one found here which make it look like there is one gluteus maximus per leg.

Finally I dusted off my old MeFi account and Asked Metafilter. A few minutes after I posted ther query, ikkyu2 weighed in with this: “Two. Definitely, incontrovertibly two, innervated each by the inferior gluteal nerve (right and left)” and cited this page as evidence. Based on the fact that his Mefi profile page lists his occupation as “neurologist,” and that he knows how to use words like “innervated,” I’m going to believe him.

Update: Although I didn’t mention bellydancing in my Ask Metafilter post, that must be the vocation where butt muscle inventory most frequently occurs because equipoise chimed in with this: “I’m guessing [that a previous responder who said that you can't move each side of your butt independently] is not a bellydancer. In Middle Eastern dance,, you can shake your hips by squeezing the right glute, then the left, then the right, etc. … From experience, you definitely have a separate muscle in each buttock.”

What’s the origin of the phrase “tractor beam”? “We’re caught in a tractor beam! It’s pulling us in!” So says Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope. This may not be the first time I heard the phrase “tractor beam,” but it’s certainly the first I remember. But how one earth did a piece of farm equipment come to be associated with staple of science-fiction?

Surprisingly, there’s a website devoted to questions just like this one. Science Fiction Citations describes its mission as “hunting for the earliest citations of sf words,” and “tractor beam” is one of its many entries. It traces the phrase back to the 1931 story by E. E. Smith entitled “Spacehounds of IPC,” which includes the line “Brandon swung mighty tractor beams upon the severed halves of the Jovian vessel, then extended a couple of smaller rays to meet the two little figures …”

I found a few other pages that corroborated this, but all just attributed it the phrase to Smith without speculating as to why he chose the word “tractor.” But in this discussion thread (Google cache), someone posits a fairly plausible hypothesis: that “tractor” is just short for “attractor.” And someone else points out that there is no need to look beyond the dictionary for an explanation: the word “tractor” has, as one of its definitions, “something that pulls or draws.”

Bonus fact: accorording to this essay, E. E. Smith also gave us the words “forcefield,” “mothership,” and “hyperspace.”

Why, in legal contracts, are some line written in all capitals? I recently had to sign a lengthy indemnity waiver for an event I will soon be participating in, and while most of it was written using the standard rules of capitalization, there were many passages which were written in all-caps. That got me to wondering if the passages in all capitals shared some property, and were capitalized out of legal necessity or tradition.

I asked local blogger and legal mind Snarky, and here’s what he wrote:

Items in contracts that are in BOLD AND ALL CAPITALS are usually those areas in which (1) they are asking for an explicit waiver of an important right (and thus can claim that a reasonable person would not have overlooked the item); (2) are contractual terms that vary greatly from what a common law presumption of the terms would be, were that item not present; or (3) for mere decoration (such as “BUYER” and “SELLER” in a buy/sell contract).

Doing a little legwork on my own, I found what probably explains the presence of all-cap statements in contracts. The General Definitions section, and one thing you can do to automatically render a portion of text “conspicuous” is to put it “in capitals equal to or greater in size than the surrounding text.”

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