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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Cat's Vision

     Cats are crepuscular, meaning they are active at dawn and dusk which may be why they need such good night vision. Their eyes have six to eight times more rod cells, which are more sensitive to low light, than humans do. Scientists know a lot about what cats see.
     Unlike humans who can see more vibrant colors during the day, cats have the edge when it comes to peripheral vision and night vision. Cats have a wider field of view, about 200 degrees, compared with humans' 180-degree view. In addition, cats' elliptical eye shape and larger corneas and tapetum, a layer of tissue that may reflect light back to the retina, help gather more light. The tapetum may also shift the wavelengths of light that cats see, making prey or other objects silhouetted against a night sky more prominent. 
     Because the human retina has about 10 times more cones, the light receptors that function best in bright light, give us the edge in the day time and w humans have 10 to 12 times better motion detection in bright light than the cat or dog, since bright-light vision is a cone function. 
     Humans have three types of cones, allowing them to see a broad spectrum of colors, with sensitivity peaks at red, green and blue. While cats may have three types of cones, the number and distribution of each type varies. In behavioral tests, cats don't seem to see the full range of colors that most humans do. 
     Humans also can see with much greater resolution, with a greater range of vibrant colors, thanks to their eyes' many cones. Humans can see objects clearly at 100 to 200 feet away, but cats need to be no more than about 20 feet away to see those same things sharply. 
     Some experts believe cats' color vision is limited to blue and grays, while others believe it is similar to dogs', but with less richness of hues and saturation of the colors. Dogs see the world in fewer hues than humans do and cannot distinguish between red, yellow. 
     Because cats lack the muscles necessary to change the shape of their eye lenses, they can't see things clearly quite as close as humans can and need to be further away. Cats may be better at picking up the darting and scurrying of a mouse, but there are many slow-moving objects that humans can detect that look stationary to cats. How does the world actually look to a cat? See this Popular Science article.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Be a Berean!

     Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. - Acts 17:11 

Real newsmen! Walter Cronkite and Douglas Edwards
     The internet has made it possible for knowledge to be available in ways that once could only have dreamed of, but as Winston Churchill said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on". 
     I am tired of Yahoo and other sites putting out fake news. I expect it on Facebook, but not Yahoo. Undiscerning people read things and never check facts and then act on them. They should be more like the Bereans! 
     These fake news stories cause people to make death threats, bully and commit violent acts and, what's worse, even social and political leaders are getting in on the act. And, the news agencies have little regard for their integrity and sometimes engage in the same tactics. Fake news stories on the recent presidential election abounded and President Obama correctly observed that fake news threatens democracy. 
     Research indicates an increasing number of adults are getting their news from social media and they believe it. There are hundreds of fake news websites which are deliberately made to imitate real newspapers, government sites, and even those who admit in the fine print that their stories are satire and parodies. But...who reads the fine print? 
     The owner of one site that publishes satire and misinformation told BBC Trending, "There are highs that you get from watching traffic spikes and kind of baiting people into the story. I just find it to be a lot of fun." He also added, "Beyond the headline and the first couple of paragraphs people totally stop reading, so as long as the first two or three paragraphs sound like legitimate news then you can do whatever you want at the end of the story and make it ridiculous." 
     One reason these fellows put out this stuff is...money!   These sites host advertising that can generate thousands of dollars from just one made up story. The reason people believe some of this nonsense is conformation bias.  People are being exploited by these fake news stories which reinforce their beliefs and falsely confirm their prejudices. 
     Buzzfeed's Craig Silverman said, "A fake news website might publish a hoax, then because it's getting social attention another site might pick it up, write that story as though it's true and may not link back to the original fake news website...From there it's a chain reaction until at some point a journalist at a largely credible outlet might see it and quickly write something up, because many journalists are trying to write as many stories as possible and write stories that get traffic and social attention. The incentive is towards producing more and checking less." 
     The solution: BE LIKE THE BEREANS

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Fascinating Tesseract

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Hidden Danger of Toothpicks

     The process of making a toothpick usually begins with birch logs which are lifted by grippers into a de-barker which leaves a barkless cylinder. The naked log is then transported into an unraveling machine which strips the log like paper. These billets are then transported to the puncher. The puncher cuts toothpicks at a rate of 8,000 toothpicks per second. From there the toothpicks are hardened in a dryer for 12 hours and then polished using talcum powder and friction for another four hours. The hardened toothpicks then pass through a sifter that removes damaged toothpicks which then go onto a blower and conveyor that counts and packages them at the rate of 747,500 per hour. 
      Some people like to make a fashion statement by walking around with a toothpick dangling out of their mouth, but for most of us they just fulfill their intended purpose. We have all used them at sometime in our life time, but they can be dangerous not to mention disgusting. 
This guy thinks he's cool

     After a meal you often feel the need to pick up a toothpick and begin flicking, picking, pulling, bending, jamming, grabbing, scratching and scraping. All this is usually accompanied by various sucking sounds. Then, once the offending detritus is removed, the tiny pieces of out recent meal get swallowed. 
     According to an old 1984 report about 8,000 people are injured in the United States each year by toothpicks they swallowed or, worse yet, children under the age of 5 were found to be 20 times more likely than adults to suffer severe injuries because they tend to stick them in eyes and ears. 
     Researchers at the Centers of Disease Control in Atlanta, studied the toothpick problem and found an average of 8,176 toothpick-related injuries occurred in the United States each year from 1979 to 1982. Prior to the study it was believed that toothpicks were most likely to present a danger to adults wearing dentures, to the mentally incompetent, to alcohol users or to people with dulled mouth sensations, but that was not the case. 
     When you think about it, toothpicks are long, slender, hard, sharp and indigestible and as such, are rarely considered objects of potential injury and death. Most toothpicks that are accidentally swallowed pass harmlessly through the digestive tract but not always!  Toothpicks that end up in the gut may not show up on conventional X-rays and often create vague symptoms, making detection difficult.
     In one case a 63- year-old man died after swallowing a toothpick which then punctured his bowel. In another case a 51 year old fellow suffocated after he inhaled a toothpick. In yet another case a man ate stuffed cabbage held together with toothpicks. The toothpick worked its way into his liver and produced symptoms similar to those of AIDS. Fortunately, the cause was discovered and he recovered after surgery.
     In one instance, a woman who accidentally swallowed a toothpick developed gut pain and fever, as well as nausea, vomiting and low blood pressure.. An ultrasound revealed the toothpick had lodged in her liver, causing an abscess and blood poisoning. The woman recovered after treatment with antibiotics and surgical removal of the toothpick.  
     As can be expected, toothpick manufacturers downplay the danger claiming injuries and deaths related to their product ''doesn't deserve the headlines.'' After all they say, use common sense. Used with care they won't damage our teeth, but care must be taken not to damage our gums, poke ourselves in the eye or ear or swallow them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Bottled Water

     This stuff is amazingly (to me, anyway) popular today. Although "bottled" water was known since early civilizations, bottling water began in the United Kingdom with the first water bottling at the Holy Well in 1622.The demand for bottled water was fueled in large part by the resurgence in spa-going and water therapy among Europeans and American colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries.The first commercially distributed water in America was bottled and sold by Jackson’s Spa in Boston in 1767. Early drinkers of bottled spa waters believed that the water at these mineral springs had therapeutic properties and that bathing in or drinking the water could help treat many common ailments. 
     The popularity of bottled mineral waters quickly led to a market for imitation products. Carbonated waters developed as means for approximating the natural effervescence of spring-bottled water, and in 1809 Joseph Hawkins was issued the first U.S. patent for “imitation” mineral water. As technological innovation in nineteenth century lowered the cost of making glass and improved production speed for bottling, bottled water was able to be produced on a larger scale and the beverage grew in popularity. Bottled water was seen by many as a safer alternative to 19th century municipal water supplies that could be contaminated with pathogens like cholera and typhoid. By the middle of the century, one of America’s most popular bottlers, Saratoga Springs, was producing more than 7 million bottles of water annually. 
     In the United States, the popularity of bottled water declined in the early 1900s, when the advent of water chlorination reduced public concerns about water-borne diseases in municipal water supplies. However, it remained popular in Europe, where it spread to cafes and grocery stores in the second half of the century. In 1977, Perrier launched a successful advertisement campaign in the United States, heralding a rebirth in popularity for bottled water. Today, bottled water is the second most popular commercial beverage in the United States, with about half the domestic consumption as soft drinks. 
     Of course bottled water has its place even today and there are some places where you had better not drink anything but water, or perhaps, alcoholic beverages! But, why spend money on it when safe tap water is available? 
     Bottled water is not safer than tap water. In fact, more than half of all bottled water comes from the tap. Bottled water costs from $0.89 per gallon to $8.26 per gallon, compared to fractions of a penny for water from the tap. That makes bottled water thousands of times more expensive than tap water! Besides, when it comes to the environment water bottle garbage is a major source of pollution. Not only are millions of tons of plastic bottles clogging landfills, but it takes 1.63 liters of water to make every liter of Dasani and the company is doing it in drought-plagued California. See the map of bottled water locations HERE and HERE.
     With the help of environmentalist and advertisers, there have been public concerns about tap-water quality that have caused bottled water sales to soar over the past couple of decades. Advertisers drive home "facts" about its purity with images of pristine glaciers and crystal-clear mountain springs.
    Even so, public concerns about tap-water quality and marketing have caused bottled water sales to soar over the past couple of decades. Advertisers drive home "facts" about its purity with images of pristine glaciers and crystal-clear mountain springs.  It can take as long as 450 years for a plastic bottle to degrade.  But, that's better than the million years it takes a soft drink or beer bottle to degrade.  If you want to know how long it takes some typical household garbage to degrade check out this site from the US National Park Service.
     Did you know that tap water is tested more frequently than bottled water? In the United States, our drinking water is continuously monitored and treated according to federal standards. If local tap water is unsafe then water companies are obligated, under federal law, to notify the public. For example, a while back the water company was working on the water line several houses down the street and they sent a worker door to door advising us that the water needed to be boiled before use for the next 24 hours. If nobody was home, they left a leaflet. 
     The US Environmental Protection Agency oversees the quality of tap water while the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety and truthful labeling of bottled water. However, federal law does not require bottled water to be safer than tap. In fact, just the opposite is true in many cases. 
     Tap water in most big cities must be disinfected, filtered to remove pathogens, and tested for cryptosporidium and giardia viruses. Bottled water does not have to be. Bottled-water plants must test for coliform bacteria just once a week; tap water needs to be tested 100 or more times a month. 
     In 1999, after a four-year review of the bottled-water industry and its safety standards, it was concluded that there is no assurance that bottled water is cleaner or safer than tap. In fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water that may or may not be further treated. About 22 percent of the brands tested contained chemicals at levels above state health limits in at least one sample. If consumed over a long period of time, some of those contaminants could cause cancer or other health problems for people with weakened immune systems. 
     Of course, not all tap water is safe. In some rural communities there is a higher likelihood of pesticide runoff contamination and some rural people get their water from a private unregulated wells. 
     For those that do buy bottled water, how do they know what they are actually getting? Do most even care? The federal government and most states have bottled-water safety programs, but there is no requirement to list the source except in a few states. 
     Somewhere on the bottle though it should tell you the source. If it says "from a municipal source" or "from a community water system," that means it comes from plain old tap water.
     Understandably, most bottled water distributors are  cagey about their water sources because they don’t like to advertise where it actually comes from and the fact that there’s no legal requirement that they do so. 
     In order to be called “spring water,” according to the EPA, a product has to be either “collected at the point where water flows naturally to the earth’s surface or from a borehole that taps into the underground source.” Other terms like “glacier water” or “mountain water” don't mean a thing. Only about 55 percent of bottled waters are actual spring water while the remaining is just treated tap water. 
     Recent research suggests there might be cause for concern over the bottles themselves, especially if you are a man! Chemicals called phthalates are known to disrupt testosterone and other hormones can leach into the water over time. One study found that water that had been stored for 10 weeks in plastic had phthalates. Now, get this...there are regulatory standards limiting phthalates in tap water, there are no legal limits in bottled water. Also, the nice folks representing the bottled-water industry waged a successful campaign opposing the FDA proposal to set a legal limit for these chemicals. 
     Where I live the water comes from Lake Erie and sometimes in hot weather there is an algae growth in the lake.  The oils from the algae get into the water and can't be filtered out. The result is a foul, musty taste, but the water is safe to drink. The same thing can happen with any water source. Bottled water is handy during those times...if you want to spend the money and take the risk of drinking something you aren't really sure about.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Lie Detectors

     People tell lies and practice deception for a lot of reasons. Psychologists say lying is a defense mechanism used to avoid trouble. Sometimes, you can tell when someone's lying, sometimes not. 
     From personal experience I can tell you that lie detector tests are useless. Years ago my employer hired a former police officer who was an "expert" lie detector operator and we all had to take a "sample" test just so we would know what they were like. After taking mine, the examiner told me I was deceptive in my answers about my alcohol and drug use. I use neither, but after the test he told me, "Everybody drinks and we've all smoked a little pot." He was influenced by his own beliefs. On one occasion I had to escort an employee to a test and the examiner privately asked me if I thought the subject was guilty. I believed the employee was guilty of stealing, but refused to tell the examiner simply because I did not want to influence his decision. 
     Polygraphs (lie detectors) are incapable of telling if a person is lying. They measure physiological reactions, nothing more. When a person is questioned about an incident the examiner looks to see how the person's heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and sweatiness of their fingers change in comparison to normal levels. Fluctuations may indicate that person is being deceptive, but exam results are open to interpretation by the examiner.
     Polygraph examiners look for involuntary responses when a person is subjected to stress, but the whole idea is more myth than reality. 
     First of all, questions asked by the examiner are not standardized and the type and manner in which the examiner asks the questions can, in many cases, can cause stress that can be interpreted as lying. 
     The recording instrument and questioning techniques are only used during part of the examination. There is usually a pretest where the technique is explained and each test question reviewed. The pretest interview is designed to ensure that subjects understand the questions and to get the subject to thinking about the questions. 

     Sometimes, in order to "prove" the point that you can't beat the machine, examiners administer what is known as a "stimulation test." In our case on the job, it involved the examiner doing a card trick where we were told to answer "No" every time he asked "Is this your card?" He showed us the wrong card a couple of times so a "No" answer was truthful. Then he shouted, "It's this card isn't it?"and slammed down the right one. Proud as a peacock, he pointed out that everybody's heart rate, breathing and sweating increased with the "No." response. This was supposed to "prove" the machine couldn't be beaten. I'm not sure if it was the result of our lying or if it was because of the startling effect of his yelling and slamming the card down. Another wrong card may have resulted in the same response!
     Several questioning techniques are commonly used. The most widely used compares responses to relevant questions to those of "control" questions. Control questions are about misdeeds that are similar to those being investigated, but not the actual misdeed under consideration. A relevant question concerns the misdeed itself. 
     A person who is telling the truth is assumed to be more fearful of the control questions than the relevant questions because the control questions are designed to arouse a subject's anxiety about how they will answer a question that is related to their misdeed. 
     Examiners look for a pattern. A greater physiological response to relevant questions will result in the conclusion that the subject is lying. A greater response to control questions leads to a judgment that the person is being truthful. If the examiner can't see any difference in response to relevant and control questions, the test result result will be deemed inconclusive. 
     There is also an alternative procedure that involves a multiple-choice test with items concerning knowledge that only a guilty subject could have. Because the guilty suspect knows the correct answer a larger physiological reaction to a correct choice would indicate deception. This test can only be used when investigators have information that only a guilty subject would know. Another limitation is "not deceptive" verdict may indicate nothing more than the subject's lack of knowledge, not their innocence. 
     The accuracy of the lie detector has long been controversial because there is no evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may just be a pathological liar. Another thing that will affect the test is whether or not the subject actually believes the test works. A subject who believes in the test may be very anxious when questioned. 
    There is also evidence that strategies exist that will beat the test. As a result, examiners may resort to countermeasures, including physical movements, trying to manipulating the subject's belief about the effectiveness of the and the use of drugs. 
     Polygraph testing has generated considerable controversy. Most psychologists and other scientists agree that there is little basis for the validity of polygraph tests. Courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have repeatedly rejected the use of polygraph evidence because it is unreliable. Nevertheless, sometimes it's still used. For example, the US Border Patrol uses lie detectors to screen applicants. And, they do this even though the US Supreme Court has rejected their validity. Typical government inconsistency. Polygraph testing continues to be used in non-judicial settings, often to screen personnel, but sometimes to try to assess the truth of suspects and witnesses or to monitor people on probation. Some people will voluntarily agree to take one just to convince others of their innocence. 
     The machine and examiner can be tricked though. One trick is to think exciting or scary thoughts when you recognize a control question (one similar to, but not relevant to the actual misdeed under consideration) or make yourself sweat. You can do that, for example, by trying to do a difficult math problem in your head. You can also bite you tongue because pain induces a similar physiological response as lying. Because these are control questions, you are messing up you response which in turn messes up the usual response. When answering a question that is relevant to whatever the real purpose of the test is stay calm.
     Why this works is because even if you produce a slight response when asked an accusatory relevant question, you have artificially produced a stronger response when answering a control question. 
     So called "testing" using lie detectors is not standardize and is dependent on trickery and perceptions of the examiner so has absolutely no validity.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Turkey Behavior

Turkey fight!
     There are a lot of wild turkeys in our area. They are fascinating birds. Adult male turkeys are called toms and females are called hens. Very young birds are poults and adolescents are called jakes. A group of turkeys have many different names: crop, dole, gang, posse, and raffle. 

Turkey facts:

1) The wild turkey’s bald head can change color in seconds with excitement or emotion. The birds’ heads can be red, (pink) white or blue. 
2) gobbles can be heard a mile or more away 
3) they are fast on their feet with a top running speed of about 25 miles per hour or about the same as a human track star. 
4) turkeys have been known to lay as many as 18 eggs 
5) poults are up, out of the nest and walking around searching for food within 24 hours after hatching 
6) wild turkeys sleep in trees. 
7) they are usually seen walking so many people are surprised they even fly. 
8) they only fly for short distances and hit about 55 miles per hour when going full tilt. 
9) tom turkeys show courting behaviors much like the peacock with displays of their tails. Males also use other of their birdlike “junk” to attract hens including a bright snood on top of their beaks and a wiggling wattle under their beaks. 
10) in 1947 President Harry Truman in 1947 pardoned a turkey. Now an annual tradition, two turkeys (one for the President and one for the Vice President) are spared each Thanksgiving. In looking into where these spared birds end up, it turns out that some have been taken to Frying Pan Farm Park in northern Virginia and more recently they have gone to Washington’s Mount Vernon. The domesticated birds are not in terrific health so the spared birds usually die of natural causes in a year or so. It seems turkeys have particularly weak hearts. 
11) a turkey’s gender can be determined from its droppings–males produce spiral-shaped poop and females’ poop is shaped like the letter J. 

     Tom turkey fights, which usually happen just before breeding season, are violent. The fight for Alpha status between them is a brutal winner take all contest. The challenge begins with two males twittering, their version of snarling, at each other, their faces turn red, their heads lowered and wings flexed. Then begins the wing punching where they punch each other with the forward edge of their wings. This escalates into grappling like two Sumo wrestlers and they use their beaks to grab their any fleshy part of their opponent's face while shoving, chest pushing and twisting their opponent's head. The fight can go on for days with the exhausted birds only ceasing the fight at sundown and they move into a tree for the night, the battle resumes at dawn and lasts until one of the combatants finally gives up. Both male and female turkeys get aggressive towards new turkeys introduced to the flock, but once the pecking order is established they always adjust. 
     Turkeys will also defend their territory from wild birds, raccoons, cats and small dogs and even strange people. Like teenage humans, "teenage" turkeys sometimes cause problems with unruly behavior, including attacks. On rare occasions and for unknown reasons a male turkey may defend his harem against people. They attack with their wings and kick with their feet. 
     Like most wild animals, it's not a good idea to feed wild turkeys. Turkeys survive very well on natural foods and if they become accustomed to humans and human-associated foods are likely to lose their fear of people and cause problems. 
     They can be attracted to seeds spilled from bird feeders which has the same effect as deliberately feeding them. Clean up spilled bird seed if wild turkeys are around. If wild turkeys will become conditioned to human foods and people, they are likely to cause damage or to attempt to dominate people. 
     Remember, if wild turkeys show up, don't be a sissy, act bold or they will try to dominate you! Turkeys are not territorial and don't defend an area against other turkeys of the same sex. Territorial birds cannot discern individuals, but respond to certain visual cues. On the other hand, birds with a pecking order actually recognize and remember specific individuals to know their place, and that of others, in the hierarchy. 
     Domestic turkeys which have formed a social and mental bond with humans upon birth recognize and respond to people by both voice and appearance. They will also assign a sex to people, based upon the bird's perception of the human's behavior rather than their actual sex and behave towards that person accordingly. The same thing can happen with wild turkeys that have become used to people. They will incorporate familiar individuals into their pecking order and treat them accordingly. What that means is if they view an individual person as dominant the turkeys will be deferential or fearful, but if they see the human as subordinate, they won't hesitate to adapt bullying tactics. If the human is perceived as a male, then the adult gobblers may decide to pick a fight just as they would against another male turkey. The best defense against aggressive turkeys is to prevent the birds from becoming used to people in the first place. 
     Turkeys do not recognize their own image so respond to a reflection the same as they would an intruding turkey. They will fight anything in which they can see their own reflection and will often remember what the perceive as an intruder and return to the same spot and continue the behavior even if repeatedly chased off. 
     For some unknown reason, some wild turkeys, especially in spring and early summer, choose to stand, walk, or pace back-and-forth in the center of highway. They are usually juvenile males that are not easily dispersed; they may have to be forcibly removed.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Great Molasses Flood

     On 19 January 1915, a large molasses storage tank in Boston’s North End ruptured and a wave of molasses more than 24 feet tall swept through the streets at an estimated 35 mph flattening buildings, injuring 150 people, killing 21 people plus several horses and a number of dogs. People and animals were crushed and drowned by the molasses. Many of the dead were so glazed over in molasses they were hard to recognize. Coughing fits became one of the most common ailments after the initial blast. 
     By comparison to the 35 mph speed of the molasses, when Usain Bolt ran the 100-meter dash in 2009, his average speed was a little over 27 miles per hour. A "fast" ordinary person can sprint, maybe, 15 mph which is actually pretty slow. A bear can run up to approximately 37 mph and on land a hippopotamus can hit 19 mph. 
     At about 12:30 in the afternoon a molasses tank 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, and containing as much as 2.3 million gallons collapsed. Witnesses felt the ground shake and heard a roar, a long rumble, a tremendous crashing, a deep growling, or a thunderclap-like bang.  Rivets, sounding like a machine gun, shot out of the tank. 
     The wave of molasses damaged the girders of the Boston Elevated Railway and momentarily tipped a railroad car off the tracks. As it went, buildings were swept off their foundations and crushed and for several blocks the molasses flooded the streets to a depth of 2 to 3 feet. 
     A Boston Post report read: Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage ... Here and there struggled a form‍—‌whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was ... Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings‍—‌men and women‍—‌suffered likewise...People were picked up by a rush of air and hurled many feet while others had debris hurled. 
     One schoolboy walking homeward with his sisters was picked up and carried, tumbling on its crest, almost as though he were surfing. When he hit the ground the molasses rolled him like a pebble as the wave diminished. He heard his mother call his name and couldn't answer, his throat was so clogged and then he passed out. 
     First to the scene were 116 cadets from USS Nantucket, a training ship of the Massachusetts Nautical School that was docked nearby. Soon, the Boston Police, Red Cross, Army, and other Navy personnel arrived. Some nurses from the Red Cross waded into the molasses, while others tended to the injured, keeping them warm and keeping the exhausted workers fed. Many worked through the night. 
     The injured were so numerous that doctors set up a makeshift hospital in a nearby building. Rescuers found it difficult to make their way through the syrup to help the victims and it was four days before they stopped searching for victims. 
     In the aftermath local residents brought a class-action lawsuit against the company that owned the tank, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. In spite of the company's attempts to claim that the tank had been blown up by anarchists (some of the alcohol produced was to be used in making munitions), a court-appointed auditor found the company responsible after three years of hearings and they ultimately paid $600,000 (over 14 million today) in out-of-court settlements. Survivors of the fatal victims reportedly received around $7,000 ($160,000 today). 
     Cleanup crews used salt water from a fire boat to wash the molasses away and used sand to try to absorb it. The harbor was brown with molasses until summer. All of Boston was affected because people tracked molasses through the streets and onto subway platforms, seats inside trains and streetcars, pay telephone and homes. 
     We've all heard the expression, “slow as molasses in January” so how could such a slow-moving fluid cause so much damage? 
     Molasses is what’s known as a non-Newtonian fluid. Normally when we think of liquid we think of something that takes on the shape of the container it's poured into. Those are Newtonian fluids. But some fluids don’t follow this rule; they are non-Newtonian fluids.
     Non-Newtonian fluids change their viscosity or flow behavior under stress. If you apply a force, the sudden application of stress can cause them to get thicker and act like a solid, or in some cases it results in the opposite behavior and they may get runnier than they were before. Remove the stress and they will return to their earlier state. 
     You have probably seen this without knowing what it is. You want to get some ketchup out of the bottle, but when you turn the bottle upside down it won't come out. So what do you do? You smack the bottom of the bottle which causes the ketchup to become more liquid and it comes out. In this case, the ketchup's viscosity decreases and it gets runnier with stress. But, not all non-Newtonian fluids behave the same way when stress is applied. Some become more solid, others more fluid. Some react as a result of the amount of stress applied and others react as a result of the length of time that stress is applied. That's probably all you want to know about non-Newtonian fluids. 
     Fluid dynamics also comes into play. When a dense fluid (like molasses) spreads horizontally into a less dense fluid (in this case, into air) it's similar to how dense cold air flows through an open door into a warm room, even if there is no wind to drive it. The density of the molasses accounts for the speed of its initial spread and people, animals and things simply got bowled over by a tidal wave of molasses which is 1.5 times as dense and several thousand times more viscous than water. 
     Temperature also played a critical role. The molasses was slightly warmer than the surrounding air, but when the tank ruptured and the molasses spread, it cooled quickly, making it even more viscous and much more dangerous. As people were caught in the tidal wave, the molasses acted much like quicksand and the more people struggled, the more deeply sank into it. 
     Recent research has determined that the disaster was more fatal in the winter than it would have been during a warmer season. The syrup moved quickly enough to cover several blocks within seconds and thickened into a harder goo as it cooled, slowing down the wave but also hindering rescue efforts. If the tank had burst in warmer weather, it would have flowed farther but it would also have been thinner and less deadly. 
     When the molasses arrived in the tank, it was warmer by just a few degrees which made it less viscous and easier to transport to the storage tank. When the tank burst two days later, the molasses was still probably about 7-10 degrees warmer than the surrounding air which raised the viscosity of the molasses, trapping people who got caught in it. 
     In the recent study, a structural engineer calculated that the tank’s walls were at least 50 percent too thin and were made of a type of steel that was too brittle which probably contributed to the disaster.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What's Lurking in Your Bathroom?

     Household cleaner ads on TV depict bathrooms as being invaded by bacteria, mold and fungus in alarming amounts. They're covering your tub, toilet, and shower. They also find a great home on your toothbrush, so every time you brush your teeth you are shoving a huge amount of stuff, especially fecal coliform, into your mouth. Actually, there are ten times more germs than body cells on the human body. Fortunately, most germs are perfectly harmless to us. Most, but not all. So what harmful germs live in your bathroom? 
     Every time you flush a toilet an aerosol spray of tiny tainted water droplets is created. So if you leave your toothbrush in the vicinity of a toilet, does that mean it's regularly bathed in bits of fecal matter? 
     The television program MythBusters covered a bathroom with 24 toothbrushes, two of which they brushed with each morning while the others were simply rinsed every day for a month. As a control they also kept two untainted toothbrushes in an office away from the bathroom. After one month all the toothbrushes were sent to a microbiologist for bacterial testing. 
     The results? ALL the toothbrushes were covered with microscopic fecal matter, including the ones that had never seen the inside of a bathroom. It seems fecal bacteria is everywhere.
     In one study four public restrooms were checked out. Despite regular cleaning the facilities were loaded with bacteria and viruses. It didn't matter much. Within one hour the bathrooms were completely recolonized with microbes with fecal bacteria dominating. Surprisingly, the fecal bacteria wasn't just on the toilet seats...it was also found on...soap dispensers! 
     There was one set of live bacteria in overwhelming abundance: Staphylococcus. Staph's persistence in these studies points to its power as a potential pathogen. Various versions are common on human skin and inside the nose and other orifices and they generally cause no problems, or trigger only minor skin infections. But staph infections can be serious, or even kill, if the bacteria get into bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. And one version, MRSA, is resistant to common antibiotics and can be very dangerous. 
     Fortunately, in the public toilets the researchers found the Staph showed no signs of being antibiotic resistant, but were relatively harmless. They did find genes from MRSA lurking on the floor, as well as traces of some viruses like herpes. There is little cause for alarm because all our environment contains pathogens-everything. 
    Gastrointestinal viruses that cause stomach ailments in humans. These include the norovirus, which you may have heard of in connection with cruise ship outbreaks. These viruses aren't just on cruise ships; they can live on your toilet seat and can remain there for as much as long as a week. 
     Then there are enteric pathogens, which are organisms spread by contaminated foods and can be carried in feces. These include things like E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and campylobacter. E. coli is particularly nasty, causing severe diarrhea with bloody stools. 
     Skin and respiratory organisms, such as staph bacteria, including the antibiotic resistant MRSA strain, and Group A Strep, known as the "flesh-eating" bacteria can be in there, too. Then there's dermatophitic fungi, like athlete's foot. Fungi (mold and mildew) don't cause infection, but they can exacerbate asthma and allergies.  
     As bad as this sounds if you clean regularly and practice basic hygiene there's very little risk from bathroom germs. By following good personal, household, and food hygiene, you're at pretty low risk. 
     Regular cleaning of bathroom floors and solid surfaces with a disinfectant cleanser on a weekly basis plus a thorough scrubbing about once a month will keep risk at a minimum. But if someone has the flu or diarrhea it's good idea to clean more often. When choosing a cleaner choose one with bleach. 
     Pay special attention to the toilet bowl because a biofilm grows after just a few hours with any germ, even normal flora, which can allow household pathogens to survive even with chlorine in the water. So scrub that bowl with soap, disinfectant, and a brush once a week. Let the bleach sit on the bowl and seat surface for a good 10 minutes before rinsing with soapy water. 
     Keep shower walls and floors free of mold and mildew. Shower curtains should have a liner and it should be changed every three to six months. 
     Don't reuse sponges that have been used for cleaning. Used sponges can be nasty...they can harbor bacteria and leave surfaces with more germs than when you started.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Chili Wars

     What are the ingredients in chili? I've seen everything, even pineapple! Most food historians agree that chili con carne is an American dish with Mexican roots, but Mexicans are said to deny any association with the stuff we call chili! In one amusing incident at Niagara Falls in Canada, my wife and I ordered "chili con carne" at a restaurant and when it arrived there was no meat in it! Asking the waitress about the absence of meat we were told, "That's the way we make our chili." Doesn't "con carne" mean "with meat"?! 
     Chili historians say one possible origin is Sister Mary of Agreda, a Spanish nun in the early 1600s who never left her convent yet had out-of-body experiences in which her spirit was transported across the Atlantic to preach Christianity to the Indians. After one of the return trips, her spirit wrote down the first recipe for chili con carne: chili peppers, venison, onions, and tomatoes. Another source says Canary Islanders who made their way to San Antonio, Texas as early as 1723, used local peppers and wild onions combined with various meats to create chili dishes. 
     Most food historians agree that the earliest written description of chili came from J.C. Clopper, who lived near Houston, Texas. He never mentioned the word chili, but when he visited San Antonio in 1828 that poor families cut what little meat they had into hash with a lot of peppers which was then stewed. By the 1880s, a market in San Antonio started setting up chili stands from which chili or bowls o'red, as it was called, were sold by women who were called "chili queens." A bowl cost ten cents and included bread and a glass of water.
     Chili con carne thus became a tourist attraction and it was featured at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 at the San Antonio Chili Stand. By the 20th century chili joints spread all across Texas and became familiar all over the west by the 1920s. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson was a big chili lover. His favorite recipe became known as Pedernales River chili after the location of his Texas ranch. Johnson preferred venison, which is leaner to beef. Johnson is quoted as saying. “One of the first things I do when I get home to Texas is to have a bowl of red. There is simply nothing better.” Lady Bird Johnson, the First lady, had the recipe printed on cards to be mailed out because of the many thousands of requests the White House received for it. 
     Texas chili snobs claim that chili made outside of Texas is usually a weak imitation of the real thing and in 1977, chili manufacturers in Texas successfully lobbied the state legislature to have chili proclaimed the official state food thanks to the claim that the only real "bowl of red" that prepared by Texans. 
     New York author H. Allen Smith, in a 1967 essay for Holiday magazine article titled Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do denounced Texas and its claims about chili. Smith claimed chili without beans, either added or served on the side was against one of the basic laws of nature. Texas chili doesn't have beans. 
     Texans retaliated by claiming what Smith called chili was nothing more than vegetable stew. The claim was everybody knows that chili has no beans. The result was the Great Chili Confrontation held in Terlingua, a former mining outpost near the Mexican border, on October 21, 1967. Three judges would decide the outcome: the mayor of Terlingua, a San Antonio brewmaster and a judge from Alpine, Texas who just happened to be a cousin of Allen Smith. No winner was declared. And, that's how the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cookoff came about and one of the rules is, no beans allowed. 
     If you don't live in Texas, chili has beans...and beef (no turkey or chicken!)...and tomatoes and lots of spices, but no pineapple. How to Make the Best Chili from one of my favorite TV cooking shows, Cooks Country.