Posts categorized “Research Day”.

Marketplace Music And The Next Weekend Debate

Who picks the music on Marketplace? I listen to two radio stations: the independent and kick-ass KEXP, and our local NPR affiliate. Curiously, I often hear the same bands on each: Death Cab For Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, Yo La Tango, Stereophonic. KEXP plays this stuff ’round the clock, but I also here it wedged between stories on NPR’s otherwise staid Marketplace, and I often find myself wondering “who decides to follow up a story about the AARP’s position on social security with a clip from The Get Up Kids?”

I went to the Marketplace Homepage to send them an inquiring email, but discovered that I didn’t have to: they are so proud of their tuneage that “LIKE THE MUSIC ON MARKETPLACE?” is the very first question they tackle in their Special Features section. A link takes you to Jane’s Music Blog, featuring “notes from the show’s director on what gets played and why, who is that band you heard on yesterday’s show, and … the connection between that story on global politics and the Massive Attack song that followed it.”

Though the blog isn’t updated very regularly, the “About Jane” on its side told me that the songs are selected by one Jane Lindholm, Marketplace producer, world traveller, and — apparently — fan of the Sneaker Pimps.

When does “next weekend” start? A friend and I were speaking on a Sunday, and made some vague plans to get together on the next weekend. The following day I wrote him an email and officially proposed that we get together “next weekend.”

“Sorry, ” he replied. “I’ll be out of town next weekend.”

“Wha-?” said I. “We just discussed this yesterday, and you said next weekend worked fine.”

“I said this weekend worked fine.”

“No, I distinctly remember you saying ‘next weekend’.”

“Well, I did say ‘next weekend’, but that was on a Sunday,” he explained. “Now it’s Monday, so yesterday’s ‘next weekend’ is today’s ‘this weekend,’ and ‘next weekend’ is the weekend after. Didn’t you know that’s how it worked?”

I did not know that’s how it worked.

I always thought that “this weekend” referred to the weekend you were either in or chronologically closest to, and “next weekend” referred to the weekend that followed it. So on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday morning, “this weekend” meant the previous weekend (as in, “I had a good time this weekend”) and “next weekend” meant the upcoming weekend; from 12:01 pm Wednesday to 11:59 pm Sunday, “this weekend” meant the upcoming weekend (or the one you were currently in) and “next weekend” meant the one thereafter.

I thought I’d get a majority opinion on this, so I posted the following to an online forum I frequent:

"This" weekend vs. "next" weekend debate

Today is a Friday. If I said "I'm going to eat 350 pickles next weekend," what days would you think I talking about: tomorrow (and the following day) or a week from tomorrow (and the following day)?

What about this. On a Tuesday I say "Let's you and I have sex next weekend." Am I talking about: five days from now (and the following day) or 12 days from now (and the following day)?

Bonus question: at what point in time does "next weekend" become "this weekend"?

As it turned out, there was no debate: every person said “a week from tomorrow” for the first and “12 days” for the second. Answer to the bonus question: A second after midnight on Monday morning.

The best clarification offered was “‘This weekend’ always means ‘this week’s end'; ‘next weekend’ always means ‘next week’s end’.” But it looks like I’m not entirely alone in my confusion. Over on this page, a number of folks say that “this weekend” v. “next weekend” isn’t as cut-and-dried as some people make it seem. And as one person points out, the confusion isn’t limited to time. How many times have you been giving directions to your spouse or partner while on the road, and resorted to the cumbersome locution “not-at-this-light-but-the-next-light” when telling him where to turn, knowing that just saying “next light” might result in a wrong turn and a subsequent argument about semantics?

* * *

Research Day: Hebrew, Yiddish, and Semi-Weekly

Hebrew vs. Yiddish: The Queen and I had a watched a DVD double-header last week: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban followed by Trembling Before G_D. The former film you made have heard of; the latter is, as IMDB puts it, “A cinematic portrait of various gay Orthodox Jews who struggle to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation.” It is also remarkably boring, given the provocative subject matter.

Afterwards, The Queen asked me if the people in the film had been speaking Hebrew or Yiddish, and I confessed to not knowing. “What is the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish,” she asked.

“Well,” said I, “‘Hebrew’ is their language, and ‘Yiddish’ is the sport they play while flying around on broomsticks.

After a few moments of stony silence, I added, in my best (albeit terrible) Hagrid impression, “Yeh mean the Gentiles kept it from yeh for all these years? Yeh don’ even know what yeh are?! Harry — yer a Jew!”

“You are totally going to get hate mail if you put that on your blog,” said The Queen.

Anyway.

Dictionary.com defines Hebrew as “The Semitic language of the ancient Hebrews, [or] any of the various later forms of this language, especially the language of the Israelis.” Plugging the phrase “what is yiddish” into Google, meanwhile, brought me to this page. “Yiddish was the vernacular language of most Jews in Eastern and Central Europe before World War II … The basic grammar and vocabulary of Yiddish, which is written in the Hebrew alphabet, is Germanic. Yiddish, however, is not a dialect of German but a complete language -

* * *

Research Day: Urban Legend Purge

Once upon a time I was known as the go-to guy for urban legend debunking. I’d read all of Jan Harold Brunvands’s books and could spot a foaf-tale at 100 yards. My friends and family were forever calling me up and saying, “my friend Sally said that her aunt bought the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe for $250 — that ain’t true, is it?”

These days, of course, there’s snopes.com, so my bullshit detection services are no longer in high demand. But I still consider myself something of a minor authority in the subject. But let’s face it — even someone who makes an effort to keep abreast of urban legends can occasionally get suckered. So this month, I’ve rummaged around in my mental file cabinet full of “beliefs” and flagged a few that, despite my having quoted them as fact for years, strike me as suspicious.

Bottlers in Washington State are prohibited by law from printing alcohol content on beer labels: This is the belief that prompted this urban legend purge. Some drinking buddies and I were recently in a local tavern, and I noticed that the alcohol content for the microbrews were listed in the menu along with the descriptions. So I asked my friend J., a bartender by trade, how they could do that when they can’t print alcohol content on bottles and cans.

“Why wouldn’t they be able to print it on bottles and cans?” J. replied.

“Oh, it’s some old Washington law,” I informed him. “Apparently when they were worried that brewers would get into an alcoholic arms-race if they were allowed to put the alcoholic content on the cans and bottles — you know, each would try to outdo the others by jacking up the potency and proudly advertising this fact. So they made it illegal, and the law has never been overturned.”

“I don’t think that was ever a law,” said J. “And I’m sure it’s not now.” He pointed to the label of my own bottle of beer, where, in tiny letters, it read “5.1% alcohol by weight.”

Buh-wha?!

The next day I wrote an email to the Washington State Liquor Control Board, and they confirmed that there had never been any such law.

I have no idea how that “fact” came to be lodged in my head, but it had been there since college.

Honey never spoils: I learned this in one of those “10,001 Amazing And Poorly Researched Facts!” books I read as a kid. But given that these are the kind of books that perpetuated the great lemmings myth, re-evaluating those “facts” is probably a good idea. And this one strikes me as particularly bogus.

But it appears to be true all the same. According to Wikipedia: “Honey does not spoil. Because of its high sugar concentration, it kills bacteria by osmotically lysing them. Natural airborne yeasts can not become active in it because the moisture content is too low. Natural, raw, honey varies from 14% to 18% moisture content. As long as the moisture content remains under 18%, virtually no organism can successfully multiply to significant amounts in honey.”

That is amazing! But it’s too bad it’s honey, which I don’t particularly like. Everlasting corned beef, though — that would pretty much rule.

Cher had a pair of ribs removed: Having not thought about Cher for a decade or so, this isn’t one I’ve mentioned recently. But I do recall, at some point, telling someone that this was a for-real fact. Alas, no. Snopes has the goods on this one: “In 1988 the chic magazine Paris Match announced Cher had .. two ribs [removed] … Cher sued the magazine, but the rumor gained even wider acceptance after being picked up from the Paris Match piece and run in other papers. That these stories were later corrected didn’t do much to mitigate the impact of the rumor’s first finding its way into those pages as revealed fact.”

Dude, I came this closed to getting sued by Cher!!!!!

If you’d like to play along, pick one of your own beliefs that you are having second thoughts about, research it on Google, and post your findings in the comments.

* * *

Research Day: How Are Porn Movies Legal?

A friend of mine works in law enforcement. The other day she and I were discussing the recent election, and I mentioned that I voted for a libertarian for the second time ever. (The last time I voted for a libertarian was in 2000, and it was for the same person for the same position. Jocelyn Langlois says that, if elected as Lt. Governor of Washington, she would do one and only one thing: lobby our legislature to abolish the office of Lt. Governor and save the state $40K a year.) From here we segued into a discussion of libertarianism in general and I mentioned that I thought all acts between consenting adults should be legal, including prostitution. “I mean, porn movies are legal,” I said, “and that’s practically the same thing”

“Wait a minute,” I continued, confused. “That’s exactly the same thing. Are all porn movies made in Nevada or The Netherlands or something?”

“I think most of the are made in California,” my friend said.

“How does that work?” said I. “I can’t legally pay someone to have sex with me, but I can pay someone to have sex with someone else? And film it?”

“You can legally pay someone to have sex with you if you film it,” my friend added. “Because, in that instance, you’re not paying them for the sex, you’re paying them for ‘acting.'”

“Get out.”

“Totally true,” she said. “We even have a prostitute here in Seattle that we can’t prosecute, because whenever we bring her in she steadfastly insists that men don’t pay her for sex, they pay her for her time.”

Thinking that there must be more to it than that, I did a little research. What I found is that that there is no shortage of loopholes to exploit to avoid getting nailed (so to speak) for prostitution. In general, it’s the solicitation that’s criminalized, not the act itself, which means that exchanging sex for money = legal, while proposing to exchange sex for money = busted. (Although it’s probably more accurate to say that the exchange of sex for money isn’t so much “legal” as it is largely unprocecutable — unless the client says “I am now going to compensate you for the carnal acts we are currently committing” and hands over and wad of cash right in the middle of foolin’ around, proving that the sex and the payment are irrefutably part of the same transaction is very tough.) So a creative pimp, prostitute, or john could concoct all sorts of wacky scenarios to evade arrest, like, “what if I started a bar where some of the drinks on the menu cost $200, but I let it be known that, historically, everyone person who has every ordered one has later had sex with the waitress who brought it to him?”

So one hypothesis floating around on the Internet is that porn movies are not legal, per se, and the whole industry is just one of these wacky scenario writ large. Because the participants in the sex acts receive money from the film’s production company (rather than one of them giving it to another), and because at no point is any actor explicitly asked to engage in (just) sex in return for payment, they do an end-run around so-called “pander laws.”

But as this FAQ make clear, there’s usually a little more to it than that — namely, the First Amendment. And there’s a reason why California is the center of the porn movie universe.

In 1988, a California D.A. decided to call the bluff of a pornographer named Freeman, and rang him up on charges of “procurement of persons for the purpose of prostitution.” After Freeman was found guilty in both superior court and on appeal, the decision was reversed by the state’s Supreme Court. They cited two main reasons for their findings. First, the definition of “pandering” in California criminalizes sex-for-money exchanges “for the purpose of sexual arousal or gratification of the customer or of the prostitute;” but actors in a porn movie aren’t in it for fun, they’re just a bunch of working, uh, stiffs.

[Honestly, I'm not trying to make all these innuendos. But every phrase sounds dirty when discussing porn -- there's just no way around it. I've already written and deleted the phrase "tit-for-tat" twice.]

Secondly, the court ruled that the movies were entitled to First Amendment protection, so long as they were not obscene. Since something can only be deemed officially “obscene” if “taken as a whole, [it] lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” — and since even porn movies meet this incredibly low standard — Freeman was adjudged to be in the clear. When the US Supreme Court declined to review the case (thereby letting the lower court’s decision stand), California became the only state to have such a precedent on the books, and soon became a Mecca for the porn industry.

The curious thing about People v. Freeman, to my mind, is that it didn’t actually legalize porn movies, it just declined to declare them illegal. And it didn’t really delineate the distinction between porn and prostitution, either. After all, the First Amendment protections apply to the making of the film, but not to the original solicitation of sex for money. Also, the implication seems to be that if California just removed the phrase “sexual arousal or gratification of the customer” from California’s pandering law, porn films would become verboten.

So here we have an entire industry operating in an enormous legal gray area, with neither side really wanting to press the courts for clarification as to whether the practice is legal or not. It doesn’t make much sense to me. But what do I know? I don’t even understand why we have a Lt. Governor.

Note: All the links in this piece lead to work-safe webpages, although you may not want some of the URLs in your browser’s history.
* * *

Research Day: Pee-Chees, Exploding Soda, and Bad Bad Leroy Brown

Do they still make Pee-Chees?: Last night I told this story to a group of friends:

When I was in elementary school I didn’t really listen to music, but I knew that liking all the cool bands was essential to popularity. So I used to secretly copy the band names other kids had written on their Pee-Chees onto my own.

One day I somehow wound up talking to this girl I liked, and at some point she zeroed in on one of the band names I had on my Pee-Chee. “Oh, do you like INXS?” she asked. Unfortunately, I had no idea who she was talking about, because she pronounced the band name correctly, as “In Excess.” So I tried to bluff. “Yeah, In Excess is okay,” I said, but then tapped the “INXS” on my Pee Chee and added, “But the band I really like is Inks.”

This story got plenty of laughs, but at all the wrong moments. It was supposed to be a charming illustration of what a dope I was as a kid, but judging from the way everyone burst into guffaws every time I said “Pee-Chee,” it was taken more as an illustration of what a dope I am now. Afterwards, everyone was all, like, “what the hell were you talking about?”

Here’s the thing: mention “Pee-Chee” to people of my generation who grew up in Seattle, and they immediately know what you’re referring to: those goldenrod folders with all the sports figures on them. In fact, at my school, we said “Pee-Chee” to mean any folder, in the same way that people say “Q-tip” or “Kleenex.” The Pee-Chee brand was so popular that it was even able to stave off encroachment of the cooler-than-cool “Trapper Keeper” for a while.

Anyhow, that got me to wondering if kids today still use Pee-Chees. And the answer appeared to be “no.” “The folders are no longer made today,” according to this article.

But I had a hunch this wasn’t true — after all, I imagine the entire Washington State education system would implode in a abscence of Pee-Chees. So I did some actual non-sitting-on-my-ass-using-Google research: I went to my local drug store and perused the stationary aisle. And sure enough, there were the Pee-Chee folders I remember from my childhood, shelved with all the other “essential school supplies.”

Incidentally, I took a very informal poll, and it seems that everyone who grew up on the West Coast knew what a “Pee-Chee” was, while those who grew up elsewhere did not. So although my friends were snickering at my usage of “Pee-Chee,” in truth I should have been laughing at them, because their unfamiliarity with the term was outing them as a bunch of non-natives, Pacific Northwest poseurs.

Why do bottles of carbonated drinks explode after you’ve shaken them: This is one of these things I’ve always taken as a given, without ever reflecting on it: you shake a Sprite, it blows all over your kitchen when you open the can. But only recently, after I had a two-liter bottle of Talking Rain go all a-bomb on me after it had rolled around in my trunk on the way home from the store, did it ever occur to me to wonder why. Obviously the contents are under pressure, but does agitating them somehow increase the pressure? I though the only way to could increase the pressure of something was to reduce its volume or raise its temperature.

According to Ask Science Theatre, the pressure in the bottle does not increase when you shake it, but is still to blame for the phenomonon. In an unshaken bottle, soda occupies the bottom nine-tenths of the container, with a pocket of gas siting on top; this gas escapes with a pfffffft when you open the bottle, leaving the soda undisturbed. When you shake up the bottle, though, some of that carbon dioxide is mixed into the liquid and forms tiny bubbles. The gas still wants to escape when you open the bottle, though, but now has to muscle its way up through the soda toward the spout. In doing so, it pushes the liquid upwards, causing it to gush out of the bottle. The more you shake the bottle, the more thoroughly the carbon dioxide mixes with the soda, the greater the subsequent explosion.

Update: A couple of readers are callin’ bullshit on this explanation. I did a little more research and came across this page which provides three answers to the question, all of which are different from the one cited above and, exasperatingly, subtly different from each other as well.

But Richard Shaffstall sent what I find to be the most believable of all the theories. “Soda is carbonated; it has dissolved gasses in the liquid. The bubbles in the liquid that get put there by shaking allow the dissolved carbonation to separate from the liquid [by virtue of being "nucleation sites"] and become a gas. Gasses take up more space then liquids, so suddenly, explosively, the soda/gas mixture takes up more room then the container can hold and boom …

“This is the same explanation for how gunpowder works. Burning the gunpowder causes gasses to form. The gasses take up more space then the gunpowder un-burnt takes up, pressure goes up, and if it doesn’t have anyplace to go (as in a bullet cartridge) it builds up until the container cannot hold it and boom.”

What was Encyclopedia Brown’s first name: Considering the sheer number of Encyclopedia Brown books I read as I kid, you’d think I’d know this off the top of my head. But when I tried to remember Encyclopedia’s real name the other day, all I could come up with was “Leroy Brown” — and I knew I was just confusing the pint-sized sleuth with Jim Croce’s classic song Bad Bad Leroy Brown. So I plugged “encyclopedia brown” into Google to see if I could find out.

Ironically, it was “Wikipedia,” the 21st century’s answer to the Encyclopedia that had my answer, and I’ll be pickled if I didn’t have it right the first time. “Leroy ‘Encyclopedia’ Brown lives in the fictional Idaville, Florida, where his father is chief of police. Whenever a case arises (often one that is stumping his father), Encyclopedia Brown swings into action, assisted in his investigations by his friend (and “muscle”) Sally Kimball.”

Wow, crazy. And check out the dates. The first Encyclopedia Brown book (“Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective”) was published in 1963, with “America’s Sherlock in sneakers” aged about 10 or so; “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” meanwhile, was released in 1974. So, conceivably, they could be about the same person. At some point in Encyclopedia’s teens, Bugs Meany might have convinced him to join The Tigers, and after that it would have he abandoned his career of do-gooding for the rough-and-tumble life on the streets. Maybe by the age of 21 he was six foot four, had moved to the ‘ole south side Chicago, carried a .32 gun in his pocket for fun, and was called “Treetop Lover” by all those downtown ladies.

It’s certainly possible. I mean, look at what happen to those kid actors from “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Was Encyclopedia Brown the basis for Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”? For the answer, turn to page 113.

* * *

Research Day: I Get Questions

I do not typically take requests for Research Day, but I’ve recently been asked an assortment of interest-piquing questions in a variety of situations, and I might as well get them all with one fell swoop.

Question asked by The Queen during a commute: Why does this minivan in front of us have a spoiler? This question was already tackled over at Answer bag, a pretty neat website I just-this-second discovered. In short, the function of a spoiler on the back of a race car is the same as it is on an airplane wing: air exerts pressure upon it, thereby creating a downward force on the vehicle. For a racecar this is good, because it presses the back tires onto the pavement and provides more traction, but given that most street vehicles (a) weigh considerably more than a racecar, (b) go considerably slower than a racecar, and (c) have front-wheel drive, the spoilers you see on the freeway are strictly for show.

Question posed by my mother over dinner: I was once on a plane that got delayed, and the captain said it was ‘because the tarmac is too hot for takeoff’. Was he just making that up? Research Day typically falls on the 15th of the month, but this one got pushed back two weeks while I tried to track down any evidence of truth to the “too hot to take off” claim. When I came up empty, I tossed the query over to the Seattle Public Library Ask A Librarian service. They responded three days later saying, essentially, they had found nothing. All of which makes me think that this particular pilot was full of what my dear departed grandfather would have called “baloney slices.” But if any readers know otherwise, leave a comment.

Update: Several readers suggested that the pilot wasn’t saying the hot tarmac itself prevented take-off, but that the hot weather necessitated more tarmac that the airport had available. In the words of Allan: “As temperature goes up air becomes less dense, so wings generate less lift and thus airplanes require more runway to take off.” Two articles on the subject can be found at Salon.com’s Ask The Pilot column and Why airplanes like cool days better. Thanks, y’all.

Coworker’s musing during Seattle’s recent heat wave: When we have a hot day in Seattle, I wonder why it stays warm until, like, 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, whereas, in D.C. for instance, it starts to cool down right after the sun sets?: To get an answer, I wrote my local TV station’s meteorology department. Here’s what Scott Sistek, the KOMO Weather Producer had to say:

When it’s 90 or more during the day, it’s because we have an offshore wind blowing from the east. As the air comes down the western slopes of the Cascades, it sinks and warms. Overnight, that constant breeze sinking and warming has been known to hold up our overnight temperatures, whereas in the flat east, they don’t have that problem (Although on warm humid days there, the humidity seems to make it feel a lot warmer at night than here).

Thanks, Scott. Wow, I thought you guys just reported the weather — I never realized you actually produced it.

Question left on my answering machine by a friend I’ve had since the third grade: Is there a word that means ‘to be buried alive’?: I posted this query to the discuss forum of http://www.file- ummmm I mean a website I heard might maybe exist. Anyway, within moments someone replied with with the word vivisepulture which was also the winning word in the 1996 National Spelling Bee. (Actually, the word itself didn’t win, some freakishly intelligent kid did.) Thanks guy from, um, some website!

Random email from some guy: Saw your website with the “I don’t want to grow up…Toys R Us” words. Do you have the soundclip of that or any suggestion as to where to find it? Here you go, Squirt.

* * *

Research Day: The Pioneer 10 Plaque

Last week I went to Seattle’s new Science Fiction Museum because, you know, paying thirteen bucks to see Paul Allen’s dogeared copy of Starship Troopers seemed like a good idea at the time.

Honestly, the Museum was better than I expected (and I’ll write about it soon, either here or at The Morning News). Most of the exhibits were devoted to the various subgenres in the field — time travel, mars, robotics, etc. — along with prominent books on the subject and props from corresponding movies. They even had a few real (as opposed to fictional) artifacts on display. Tucked away in a display about communication, for instance, was a copy of the plaque that was affixed to the Pioneer 10 probe.

Click here to see a gi-normous version of the plaque. I’m not kidding, it’s huge.

The text accompanying the plaque said the densely illustrated message was designed to communicate to any aliens that might encounter the probe. What it failed to explain was how a venusian cephalopod was going to make sense of all the information presented when an average homo sapiens like me couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

So I decided to look it up. And the key to success, my research has uncovered, is for the aliens to be way, way smarter than I’ll ever be.

Here are the individual components on the plaque, and what they mean:

At the top of the plaque we have two hydrogen atoms, engaged in some activity called “hyperfine transition.” Why the word “hyperfine” never caught on as a superlative amongst teens is beyond me. As near as I can tell, this refers to the fact that hydrogen have two hyperfine states: either the magnetic field of the outermost electron points in the same direction as the magnetic field of the nucleus (i.e., they are “parallel”), or it points in the opposite direction (“antiparallel”). When a hydrogen atom flips from one state to another it is called the hyperfine transition, and the phenomenon releases a photon with a wavelength of 21 centimeters and a frequency of 1420 MHz.

Notice that, in the diagram, the hydrogen atom on the left has the electron (on the line bisecting top of the circle) pointing towards the nucleus (i.e, antiparallel), while the one on the right has the electron pointing away from the nucleus (parallel). The line between the two represents the transition, and the hash mark below symbolizes the change, both in terms of distance (21 centimeters) and time (1420 MHz). This hash mark is the standard unit of measurement — both for distance and time — used for the other elements on the plaque.

This is not an explosion, and we can only hope that our alien brethren do not interpret it as meaning “we’re gonna find you and blow you up real good.” This is, in fact, a map of 14 pulsars, with the length of each line showing the relative distance of each pulsar to our sun in the middle.

Now pulsars, you no doubt recall from 8th grade shop class, are “rapidly rotating neutron stars, whose electromagnetic radiation is observed in regularly spaced interval.” These regularly spaced intervals (a.k.a. “periods”) vary from pulsar to pulsar, giving each a distinct fingerprint. And the periods of the fourteen pulsars are therefore encoded on the map as binary numbers (which is why the rays emanating from the sun look like this: “–||-|—-|-|-|||–” — that’s binary, dude!). The alien need only figure out the binary number and then times it by 1420 MHz (the hyperfine whatever frequency, remember?) to calculate the period of each pulsars. Between the unique fingerprints of the pulsars and their relative distances from us, the critters should be able to triangulate the position of our sun. Could it be any more obvious? The only thing it’s missing is the phrase “Wish you were here!” emblazoned across it.

But once they get here, how will they know which planet to visit? That brings us to:

Hey, I know this one! It’s, like, the social system, right? With Saturn and Pluto and Dagobah and all the rest?

Yes. And what are those crazy “-||-|” things above each planet? Right again: binary numbers. Now the aliens can figure out how far each world is from the sun, by multiplying the binary number by the aforementioned 21 cm. So, for instance, Earth is ||-|- = 11010 = 26 * 21 cm = 546 cm. from the sun. Jesus, no wonder it’s been so freakin’ hot this summer.

No, no. Actually, the unit to multiply by is not 21 cm., but rather 1/10 of Mercury’s orbit. How they are going to know that is beyond me, but, remember: we are presupposing sooper dooper smart aliens. In any case, even without knowing the secret unit, they will at least know the distances of the planets to the sun relative to each other. They will also, from the depiction of the Pioneer probe fligh path, know on which planet we reside, so they can stop by for XBox and crumpets.

Okay, here we go: porn. Finally something I can comprehend.

In the background is a silhouette of the pioneer probe: in the foreground are some streakers. You’ll notice that there are height ticks at the top and the bottom of the woman, along with the (vertical) binary number |—. |— equals 8, which, when the aliens multiply it by 21 cm., will tell them that the woman is roughly 168 cm. (about 5 ft. 6 in.) in height. Either that or they’ll multiply 8 by 1/10 of Mercury’s orbit, conclude that we’re 4,632,8000 km tall, and decide to stay the fuck out of our neck of the woods.

Notice also that the man is making the universal sign for “stop by for some nude high-fiving.”

I was kinda of surprised to see how average the man and woman looked on the plaque. What, were Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch unavailable for modelling that week? As it turns out, the figures on the plaque are literally average: or, at least, as near as the human average that computer simulations could determine.

And frankly, I kinda like the fact that the guy on the plaque looks a little, you know, flabby. As I age and get more and more out of shape, it’s nice to know I can always say “hey, at least I don’t look any worse than the guy in the Pioneer 10 Plaque!”

Research Day Bonus: By the way, guess who designed the plaque. That’s right: world famous cosmologist and legendary pothead Carl Sagan, which no doubt explains why the first draft of the plaque also included the Grateful Dead “Dancing Bears.”

* * *

Research Day: The “Teeth Falling Out” Dream

What’s the deal with the “teeth falling out” dream?: A few times a year I have a dream in which my teeth are either loose or falling out. I’d always assumed that these dreams were unique to me, until a few years ago at a party when I overheard a girl describing just such a dream to a friend, who responded with “Oh yeah, ‘the teeth falling out’ dream. Everyone gets those.” I’ve since discover that this is not strictly true: not everyone gets them — The Queen doesn’t, for example. But they are certainly not rare. In fact, in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud named it as one of the four “typical dreams,” along with “falling from a height, … flying, and embarrassment because one is naked or scantily clad.”

This was a tough one to research, not due to dearth of information on the subject, but rather because of abundance. There are a bajillion websites that purport to interpret dreams, but most of them appear to utilize the scientific method commonly referred to as “guessing.” A good example is this one which says that the “teeth falling out dream” must have to do with anxiety over children, because “animals carry their young around with their teeth.”

The most common explanation on these sites is that the “teeth falling out” dream reflects anxiety about appearance. I can see that, I guess, but it seems like that when I have this dream, I am much more concerned about the actual loss of my teeth rather than about my resultant appearance. Another common interpretation is that this results from the dreamer’s fears about “losing power”. That hits closer to home for me — in the dreams I always find myself wondering how I’m going to eat with no teeth — but I haven’t made a conscience effort to note when these dreams take place and see if they correspond with feelings of “power loss” in my waking life (like, when I’m in close proximity to Kryptonite).

Perhaps it’s the skeptic in me, but I find the most plausible explanation to be the most boring: that the dreams are a manifestation of bruxism (“the habitual, involuntary grinding or clenching of the teeth, usually during sleep”) which, according to my dentist, I show symptoms of. I guess I better get that Night Guard after all.

Bonus! Who was in The Wiz?: Dorothy: Diana Ross; The Scarecrow: Michael Jackson; The Tinman: Nipsey Russell; The Lion: Ted Ross; The Wiz: Richard Prior.

* * *

Emergency Research Day: What The Hell Are Those Squirrels Doing?!

Regular readers of dy know that Research Day falls on the 15th of each month. But this one simply couldn’t wait.

This very curious photograph was recently brought to my attention (warning: possibly not safe for work, especially if your boss is a furry or a golden retriever), which appears to show underage squirrels engaged in oral sex. (That pretty much ensures that my referral logs will be filled with “http://www.google.com/search?q=underage+squirrels+engaged+in+oral+sex” for the foreseeable future…) Needless to say, encountering this scant months after seeing Janet Jackson’s nipple left me wondering what kind of cesspool of depravity the world has become.

The picture was posted on a discussion site I frequent. No one seemed to know what it was, beyond a great inspiration for jokes about “nuts”. The only speculation came from a poster who said that male squirrels will bite one another in the testicles as a show of dominance, but offered neither citation nor corroborations.

Enter Research Day.

Searching Google I could find no reliable evidence supporting the “testicle biting” hypothesis, except for a mention of the practice on deadsquirrel.com, the “Official homepage of the Squirrel Defamation League” (not making this up). Seeking a slightly less biased opinion, I forwarded the photo to Andrew B Carey, Ph.D of the Pacific Northwest Research Station. I asked if the rumors of wanton genital mastication were true, or, if not, if he could explain what in the hell was going on in this photo.

To my amazement, Dr. Carey did not forward my email to the authorities, despite the presence of the words “squirrels” and “oral sex” in a single sentence. Instead, he sent me back a very thorough reply. Here it is:

Rural lore in the Appalachian states has it that red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) castrate their competitors, the larger eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis); no reliable observations of that have been documented and one scientist proffered the explanation that wounds caused by warble fly larvae in the inguinal region may have prompted speculation about castration. I don't know of any other reports of attempted castration.

What it looks like to me in the picture is that there are some young squirrels in captivity and one is exhibiting an innate suckling behavior and just happened to find another's genitals.

Some further light can be shed on this by realizing that many mammals have scent glands in the vicinity of the genitals and that sniffing and licking of these areas is common social behavior that may or may not be sexual in nature, depending on the circumstance. But such behavior is typically quite active, with both individuals alert and showing physiological arousal or tension, while the squirrels in this picture seem asleep.

Ah yes, the old “it’s innate suckling behavior” defense. I’m sure we’ve all used that one from time to time.

Well, I’m going to believe it, because the whole “biting testicles to assert dominance” thing gives me THE SHIVERS. Thank goodness we human males have the good sense to assert dominance through drunken fistfights at keggers and the purchase of Humvees.

Research Day Bonus!: “Inguinal” means “ Of, relating to, or located in the groin.” Twenty points if you can work that into a casual conversation today.

A big thanks to Dr. Carey for deigning to answer my panicky and admittedly bizarre query.

Update: Mystery solved! Junior sleuth Adam Forbes managed to trace the photo back it’s source at the Squirrel Rescue webpage. He even contacted the staff of the organization and got the straight dope from one Mary Cummins:

That is a photo of two orphaned baby squirrels exhibiting suckling behavior. Orphaned baby squirrels frequently will suckle on the nose, ears, elbows, thumb nub, genitals, stomach of other babies or even themselves. They will also suckle on stuffed animals, a towel, just about anything. I tried to make a pacifier for them so they wouldn't suckle each other but nothing's like the real thing I suppose. They can sometimes suckle so much that they give each other hickeys and get themselves very raw.

Attached is a pic of some diapers that another rehabber made in order to stop suckling.

Great work, Adam!

* * *

Research Day: Carpool Lanes and Outdoor Survival

Do infants count toward the carpool lane? Driving on 520 the other day, The Queen urged me to use the HOV lane. “The carpool on this freeway is for three or more people,” I told her. “We are three people,” she rejoined. “You, me, and baby.”

I said that I was sure the baby doesn’t count. “The whole point of an carpool lane,” lectured I, “is to reduce the number of drivers on the road.” The Queen reiterated her belief that I was wrong; I challenged her to our standard bet (“one beer”) and then moved over to the HOV lane all the same, since. As with many husbands, I have long since learned that the key strategy for harmonic spousal relationsis is “make your point and capitulate.”

But I still wanted my brewski, so I looked it up on the Washington State Department of Transportation webpage. What do thay have to say about the issue?

Damn it!

From the FAQ:

Why are parents with kids younger than driving age allowed to use HOV lanes?

HOV lanes have simple objectives: to maximize the number of people that can be carried on the highway and to provide a reliable trip to as many people as possible. Developing and enforcing a more complicated definition of who is eligible to use HOV lanes would be difficult to explain and enforce and would reduce the number of people who benefit from the reliability that HOV lanes offer. Allowing adults with children to use the lanes enhances enforcement, simplicity, and efficiency.

Fah! Allow me to translate: “People are too dumb to understand rules, so we accommodate them by making rules dumb.”

Wouldn’t you know it: the one time government opts to eschew bureaucracy and it costs me a beer.

What’s the story behind Outdoor Survival? In gaming circles, Outdoor Survival has an almost mythical reputation as one of the worst games ever, a kind of Plan Nine From Outer Space of boardgames.

The game has the players lost in the wilderness, relying on their wits (and a bevy of favorable die rolls) to survive. As they struggle to make their way to the edge of the map, they must find food and water to stay alive; typically they do not, and the whole game becomes one of slowing starving to death. In a USENET discussion entitled “Worst Game“, one poster described Outdoor Survival as “sad, depressing, and frustrating.” As another fondly recalled, “we always referred to it as ‘that one where you die’.” It’s like Hi-Ho Cherry-O, except, in the end, raccoons eat your desiccated corpse

According to rumor, the game was literally invented on a dare and designed in a week. It’s a fun story, but it sounds too good to be true. So I wrote the designer, James Dunnigan to get the scoop. To my surprise, he told me the the legend is essentially correct, writing:

I told [then head of Avalon Hill] Tom Shaw I could design a game on any situation and he challenged me to do one on "getting lost in the woods." He said if I designed it, he would publish it.

It took several weeks, but I only spent a few hours a day even thinking about it ... Considering how busy I was at the time, I believe there was assurance of publication, otherwise I would not have wasted my time.

Curiously, Outdoor Survival went on to become one of Avalon Hill’s bestselling games, not only because many people genuinely enjoyed playing it (as with most “worst evers,” its reputation for awfulness is largely exaggerated), but also because the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons specifically mentioned the enclosed map as a good player aide for outdoor scenarios. Adds Dunnigan, “It also became popular with hikers and campers. D&D made it a best seller, otherwise it would have simply been a success (made a profit).”

* * *