Climate Change, Popcorn, and the Movies

March 31st, 2008

So, on this past week’s episode of This Week in Media, I mentioned that I was going to blog about popcorn. I haven’t forgotten. I fact it has been buzzing on the edge of my attention until just this moment. I can’t take it no more…

Climate change and petroleum prices have increased the demand for corn. Why’s that? Well, petroleum has started to become inhibitively expensive, and other fuel options are looking better and better each passing minute. Lucky for us, corn can be used to create ethanol, a non-petroleum based fuel source, which is being used to power an offshoot of the automobile family tree.
So, the government started subsidizing farmers to plant corn for ethanol as opposed to corn for other purposes. Therfore, farmers are planting more and more bio-fuel corn because farmers plant whatever they can get subsidies for these days, and now we are looking at price increases for all other un-subsidized corn products (hence the tortilla famine in Mexico (ok, I might be exaggerating… a little)). Admittedly, the price increases are only a few cents per dollar, but the fact that the trickle-down effect has now reached the popcorn in movie theaters is mind-boggling.

The question I have, however, is why do the movie theaters think that they can exponentially increase the price of popcorn considering the actual increase per unit is relatively small?

I dunno. I’ve been sneaking snacks into movies for years. Movie snacks have always been a consumer rip-off, while a theater cash-cow. It just seems like its another opportunity for movie theaters to steal money from their patrons. Meanwhile, the whole ethanol thing in general is losing credibility.

Its not our fault… blame global warming.


March 27th, 2008

I am interested to see how this new mail-order DNA paternity test works out. Technically, mail-order tests provide privacy and convenience. However, the market is not yet monitored by the FDA, and the test referred to in the linked article is not FDA approved. This means that test results, although said to be between 98-99% accurate, could be anything but.

The way it works is this: you buy the kit at your local drug store, you do the cheek-swab yourself, and then you send the swab to the lab. The results are later made available to you.

Until there is an FDA approved paternity test, anyone considering using an over-the-counter paternity test should take the results with a grain of salt. These tests, while not extremely difficult, can be affected by procedural errors, and unless you’re dealing with an accredited lab those procedures could be anything. The possibility that lives could be changed based on erroneous information is just too great.

Now, we know that mail-order testing can and does work for many people. Home HIV tests started becoming available back in the late 90’s,and have been a great service to many people. However, unaccredited testing services rapidly swamped the market and made it very difficult for the average person to know a good test from a bad one.

The only sure-fire way to know that a test will give you the highest quality results is to do your research before you buy. Also, consider getting any results confirmed with a second opinion from a doctor or even a second at home test. False-positives and false-negatives are prevalent in research laboratories. That’s why researchers always replicate their results several times over. There’s no reason why a consumer who is looking for a life-changing result shouldn’t do the same.

Don’t Speak Too Soon

March 18th, 2008

An Australian astronomer has decreed that there is probably no life in outer space with intelligence matching that of humans. From the article, Dr. Lineweaver was quoted as saying:

 “If human-like intelligence were so useful, we should see many independent examples of it in biology and we could cite many creatures who had involved on independent continents to inhabit the intelligence niche.”

“But we can’t. Human-like intelligence seems to be what its name implies – species specific.” 

The crucial point is that he is arguing the rarity of “human-like” intelligence. I can agree that the evolutionary processes that resulted in the human brain here on Earth might not be common in the universe. However, the comment seems short-sighted, especially coming from a society who only just recently found proof of other Earth-like planets, and who is still coming to terms with not being the center of the universe. 

That said, it is true that we haven’t yet found any other life-form on our own planet with a brain like our own. If structure does indeed belie function, is there any other animal that looks at the world in the same way as humans? The mammalian brain shares many commonalities across species. Indeed, individual differences have led to the diversity of vocations and viewpoints found in societies around the world.

What is it that has made humans what we are? And, will it be found outside of our own solar system? Or, will we be learning to speak alien tongues, and to observe alien cultural traditions at some point in the future? 


Uh… And the Robots Inherit the Earth

March 17th, 2008

I am absolutely impressed by this video of a robot named BigDog:   

And, a little frightened. The mobility of this robot is simply beyond amazing. I would fall more readily than the machine. The only thing that could make it any better are electric motors, but I guess we’ll have to wait for the battery technology to catch up to the robots for that to happen.

The Vestibular System

March 13th, 2008

This week on PopSiren I went a completely different direction from the first episode. Yea, sorry. No fire this time around, but we did play with a way for you to make your friends dizzy. Yes, I talked about the inner ear. And, I spun Neha around and around and around and…

The vestibular system is not just your inner ear, but consists of all the proprioceptive organs in the body. Proprioception helps your brain figure out where your body is in space. Normally, all the different organs work together very nicely, but sometimes one or more are disabled. This leads to trouble in spatial perception and balance.

In the show, I demonstrated how simply closing the eyes can remove one of the important markers of body position in space. Think I’m kidding? Just try spinning around with your eyes closed and see where you end up.

There is fluid in the canals of the inner ears called endolymph. When the head is still, so is the endolymph. When the head moves, inertia causes the endolymph to move in the opposite direction. So, if you are turning to the left, your endolymph is moving to the right, and vice versa, up, down, and round and round. In the segment on PopSiren I asked Neha to close her eyes. Then I spun her right round to her left. You can totally see that her eyes are moving to the right when I stop her and have her open her eyes.

The second demonstration didn’t work as well as I would have liked, but it did work. By having Neha put her head down while she’s spun around, I was isolating the posterior canals in her inner ear. If you look really carefully at her eyes when she comes to a stop, you can see them moving diagonally up and to the right for a moment. All triggered by the semi-circular canals. What do you think would have happened to her eyes had I asked her to put her head on her shoulder?

If I had the time, I would have also shown that Neha’s perception of direction would have been the opposite of her actual direction of movement. You can do this yourselves (those of you who are adventurous enough to give this trick a shot). Make sure you keep absolutely quiet during the spin, and  try to not jar the chair as you spin it. Then have the victim… ahem, volunteer indicate which direction they think they are moving with their thumb (to the right for right, to the left, for left, and straight up for no movement). Because the volunteer’s eyes are closed their sense of movement will come only from their inner ear, which as a result of physics is backwards. You can also play around with stopping the volunteer suddenly versus letting them spin slowly to a stop. See for yourself and let me know what you find.

I mentioned the otolith organs, the saccule and utricle, but never really explained them. While the semi-circular canals detect rotational movement, the otolith organs detect movement in linear planes (i.e. front to back, side to side, up and down). The endolymph of the otolith organs is interesting because it contains little particles called otoconia, which enhance the signal to the brain by making the endolymph in that part of the ear denser. Thus, causing greater shearing force to take place between the layer of endolymph and the layer with all the hair cells adjacent to it.

Now for how all this applies to you. If you are prone to motion sickness, you probably know all sorts of tricks to combat the sick feeling like sitting in the front of the car, being able to see the horizon, or pushing on a pressure point on your wrist. The reason that the tricks work is that you are using the other organs in your vestibular system (namely, the eyes and skin) to help override a mismatch between your inner ears and your actual state of motion.

I hope that everyone learned something new this week. I had a lot of fun with the show (nevermind that I actually got to co-host!!!) and the segment. Next week, I think I’m playing with magnets and explaining the basics about how they work.

Breaking News!

March 10th, 2008

So, I’ve commented off and on and here and there about a new show being produced by Revision3 in which I get to play the mad scientist. Oh, oops… sorry, that’s the RAD Scientist. My segment, called Rad Science, is part of an amazing program called PopSiren that was just released to the public today. It’s first official showing will be today at 12 noon. You can find the show at Revision3‘s website.

PopSiren is hosted by Jessica Corbin and Sarah Lane (both of Tech TV fame), and features cool DIY tips, tricks, and projects for girls and boys. Neha Tiwari is the resident Nerd Bird, and I get to do science. Yay! My favorite. PopSiren is produced and directed by Heather Frank.

The reason that I initially became excited about this project was that I would have the opportunity to work with four amazing women, each with unique strengths and interests. The combination could be nothing more than amazing. And, so far it has. Each week I am absolutely impressed by the abilities these women bring to the table. What a fantastic experience!So, my first week on the job was the craziest experience ever. I was in the process of moving from Davis to SF with way to much stuff on my plate when Heather asked if I could have a segment ready for the following week. Of course, I said yes. I spent the week trying to fit my research for the segment in between packing boxes and cleaning nooks and crannies. The idea I came up with was inspired by watching a few sciencey videos on the internet. However, it was kind of involved and required the building of a fairly large apparatus – a Ruben’s Tube.

Enter my friends: thanks to the help of the amazing people in my life everything came together. Of course, it was all at the 11th hour, but it got done. We moved on a very rainy Saturday, and on Sunday the script was written and the Ruben’s Tube was built. We tested it sometime around midnight the night before the PopSiren shoot. Everything worked beautifully.The next day I hauled everything down to the Revision3 studios (and totally felt like a crazy person with this giant aluminum tube in my arms as I walked down the street) for the shoot. Once I was all set up, I had to deal with the actual recording. OMG! Tele-prompters?!? This was going to be interesting. It is actually quite difficult to read from a tele-prompter and NOT look like you’re reading. I guess you learn something new everyday, and today was the lesson in tele-prompters. We went through the segment a couple of times and then moved on to recording. It all went surprisingly smoothly. What a relief when it was over. I really wanted to do a good job, and I think that I did. My secret was to make sure I had fun. Not terribly hard when I’m playing with fire. 😉

What does a Ruben’s tube have to do with fire? Well, the Ruben’s tube, also known as a flame tube, is named after Heinrich Rubens (1865 – 1922), a German physicist who used to hang out with the likes of Max Planck. While he is better known for his role in working out quantum theory, he used his knowledge of sound and pressure to create the first flame tube. A flame tube consists of a pipe, sealed at one end, with holes drilled along its length. the unsealed end of the pipe houses a speaker. Flammable gas is pumped into the tube. When the gas begins to escape through the little holes, the gas is lit. It looks like lots of little candles. Then sound is transmitted to the tube via the speaker. This is where the fun starts.

Sound is a physical effect of the movement of matter. Some initial force creates waves of pressure that push air particles into and past each other. So, when the speaker is turned on it creates sound waves in the tube. The waves act on the gas in the tube, compressing it, and pushing it out through the little holes. Because of the tube itself, it is possible to visualize the standing waves of sound in the flames on top of the tube. The flame tube demonstrates the physical aspect of sound that is normally invisible to the human eye.Fun, right? I thought so. You can see what my friends and I built on PopSiren’s launch episode.

Check it out!

Food Science Demo Reel

March 5th, 2008

I got Joe Lindsay at Pixelcorps to edit me a demo reel of the work I’ve been doing with them on Food Science. Take a look! Oh, and if you want to see Food Science in full go to for lots of great episodes brought to you by the amazing people at OnNetworks.