Sunday, September 27, 2015

Side-Splitting Science

Awards?  We’ve got them by the bucketful in America.

After all, this is country that invented the Participation Award in which a 5-year-old gets a trophy the size of the Stanley Cup just for attending T-ball practice.

In Hollywood alone, we have the Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, Peoples' Choice Awards, MTV Movie Awards, Internet Movie Awards, the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild and Producers Guild Awards.  Among others.

There are awards for an entire spectrum of ethnic groups, for gays and lesbians, short subjects, long subjects, horror movies, science fiction movies, political movies, religious movies and porn movies. Even box-office bombs are honored each year with the Golden Raspberry Awards, or Razzies.

Lesser known but just as noteworthy are the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, the Foot in Mouth Awards and the Rotten Sneakers Award.

It’s enough to make you jaded.

That's why it's refreshing to take note from time to time of the unique and exclusive Ig Nobel awards, presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

With tongue firmly in cheek, the Ig Noble folks honor scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect, such as the two California scientists who conducted extensive research on why woodpeckers don't get headaches.

Or the group of researchers who studied why pregnant women don't tip over. Women, it appears, have slight differences in their lumbar vertebrae that helps compensate for their changing center of gravity. So women are different. Who knew?

Or the group that investigated whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio.

Or a group of Swiss scientists who conducted a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight.

This year’s honorees display the kind of curiosity, verve and dash that very well could make scientific research a spectator sport.

Take Michael L. Smith, a neurobiology and behavior PhD candidate at Cornell University, for instance.

It seems Smith was stung on a testicle by a bee. It didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. So, presumably inspired by Isaac Newton who, after being hit on the head by an apple developed the theory of gravity, he wanted to know why some stings hurt worse than others.

So he allowed himself to be stung by honey bees on 25 different parts of his body and then rate the pain on a scale of 1-10. His resulting “sting pain index” ranked the nostril, upper lip and penis as most painful and the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm as least painful.

The practical applications are unclear unless the military sees a use for “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Other winners this year included:

---A group who invented a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg. 

--- A team of Georgia Tech researchers who tested the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds).  One of the researchers got the idea while potty training his toddlers. His team has since moved on to studying the physics of defecation in mammals. Or as he puts it, “We went from number one to number two.”

--- A group that discovered that the word "huh?" (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language—and for not being quite sure why.

---- Researchers who tried to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.

--- Scientists who observed that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.

--- A team that determined that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.

The awards aren’t always bestowed for strict scientific research.

The prize for mathematics was once awarded to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

This year’s prize in Economics went to the Bangkok Metropolitan Police for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes.

A special Peace Prize was once awarded to Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

Then there was the special salute for the Air Force Wright Laboratory of Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon - the so-called "gay bomb" - that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.

It’s science. You can’t make this stuff up.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Fat City

When I was a fresh-faced editor at a downtown metropolitan newspaper some years ago, I decided one day that the readers might like a break from a steady diet of political posturing, senseless homicides and bumbling civic shot-callers.

So I called a grizzled veteran reporter into my office and asked him to do a story on the Los Angeles County Fair. Focus on the happy people, I suggested, those who work there and those who attend.

“That’s not what you want,” he replied. He went on to explain to me --- in a tone usually reserved for a teacher admonishing a misbehaving schoolboy --- that people go the fair to eat.  It’s all about the food.

I suspected he was angling for a free lunch on his expense account but I agreed, leaving my authority in the matter crushed on the newsroom floor.

Of course, Grizzled Reporter was right. Whatever else the fair may offer, the food is the story. And reporters, grizzled and otherwise, cover it like mustard on a corn dog.

Indeed, it seems there must be some unofficial competition among fairs throughout the land to see who can come up with the most cholesterol packed, stroke inducing, heart damaging, stomach stretching delights. It’s enough to horrify Paula Deen.

In an era when even the cereal box is made of whole grains and three
ounces of yogurt in considered lunch, the fair has become a place to
get in touch with your inner Neanderthal.

And the L.A. fair takes a back seat to no one when it comes to feeding hungry hunter/gatherers.

This year, Deep-Fried Guacamole tops the menu. There's also the Cinnamon Fireball Texas Donut, which is a donut covered in caramel, sliced bananas, whipped cream, cinnamon, and Fireball Cinnamon Whisky. Try it with the Deep-Fried Peanut Butter Pickle, which is also battered and glazed with chocolate.

For those watching their waistline, there’s Deep Fried Watermelon. For those who are really calorie conscious, there are Deep Fried Slim Fast bars.

Wait, there’s more:  Mexican Curly Fries are smothered in beans, jalapenos and cheese. Or try the Krispy Kreme Triple Decker Cheeseburger. That’s right, three patties and toppings squeezed between two doughnuts. Maybe the Bacon-Wrapped Pork Belly on a Stick is more to your liking. Or a Spicy Peanut Butter and Jelly Burger.

Of course, there are vegetarian selections and lots of fish dishes to be had. But even they tend to trend to the exotic (Veggie Dog on a Stick, Cajun Jalapeno Shrimp).

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, the culinary insanity is reaching new heights.

In Minnesota, they're serving up Fried Pig Ears, cut to look like curly fries, with a chipotle glaze. 

Florida fairgoers can sample the Fried Ice Cream Cheeseburger. It’s your standard burger but nestled under the toasted bun and perched atop the pickle, lettuce, tomato, bacon and cheese toppings is a scoop of ice cream coated in cinnamon and cornflakes that has been dipped in the deep fryer for 10 to 15 seconds. Take plenty of napkins.

The know how to fry it up in Texas. Not to be outdone by our Fried Guacamole, they have come up with Fried Salsa and the piece de resistance, Fried Bubblegum which involves bubblegum-flavored marshmallows dipped in batter, fried and decorated with icing and powdered sugar. Dentists will be standing by.

Massachusetts has Fried Jelly Beans while in Wisconsin, they offer up Fat Elvis on a Stick, peanut butter, chocolate and bacon dipped in banana batter and deep fried. Eat one and you’ll be itchin’ like a man on a fuzzy tree.

Illinois has Fried Alligator on a Stick. Exotic, yes, but nothing tops Oregon’s  Roadkill, which, according to one reporter, is “an adorable fried dough man that has been smashed, fried, stitched back together, and covered in a variety of sauces to emulate bodily fluids and fatal injuries.”  Yum.

The last word in deep fried decadence has got to be Deep Fried Butter, invented by Abel Gonzalez Jr. and debuted at the Texas State Fair in 2009 to thunderous applause.
In Texas, they serve it on a stick. In 2011 at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, it was paired with chocolate-covered bacon and dubbed the "coronary combo."

Wash it down with Deep Fried Beer, another Texas concoction.  And, yes, you have to be 21 to order it.

Now, pass me that deep fried Pepto-Bismol on a stick.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I'll Drink to That

Today’s wine tasting notes:

Chateau Barstow Cabernet, ($1.49 at fine truck stops everywhere). This product contains hints of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries, goose berries, cranberries, loganberries, elderberries, ollaliberries and Chuck Berry.

Primary aromas include notes of cigar butts, gym socks, burning rubber and sour milk. A nose clip is thoughtfully included with each bottle.

The finish suggests the recycling containers where the wine is aged, leading to an experience that is, in a word, unimaginable.

Serve it with burritos, chili cheeseburgers and onion rings.

Vanquished Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc ($2 on select street corners). Suggestions of apple and pear mingle with hints of trout and asparagus in a wine that is best consumed in the midst of an anxiety attack.

The extraordinary finish is reminiscent of wet dog.

It’s a wine to serve to friends when you want to be alone.

Que Syrah Syrah ($10 in your local drug store’s Digestive Aid aisle), this full-bodied offering is aged to perfection, just like Sharon Stone. In fact, you could say it suggests a certain mouth-watering sumptuousness.

Called by some a brooding mistress of devilish wonder, others as eroticism in a glass, its finish includes notes of leather thong. It is best served when searching the Ashley Madison web site. 

So I’m having a little fun here. But truth be told, we’ve all read wine notes so complex that they make sipping wine seem like the bar exam.

Take, for example, this actual review.

“Aromas of peach, oatmeal, subtle notes of charred peat, seasoned by complex lees derived characters, with flashes of matchstick. The palate has intense fruit power in the spectrum of nectarine to peach stone fruits is deftly laced with complex seasoned oak that adds a zesty orange rind and ginger component to the wine.”

Then, there’s this:

“Deeply scented black cherries fuse with toasted marshmallow, sweet custard pie and cinnamon sticks. Well seasoned oak supports the floral scent of musky black roses and a savory thorny understory like a briar growing through straw mulch after a recent rain.”

Well, OK then.  Bottoms up.

I bring this all up because I stumbled upon this report about a vial of unmatured malt whisky that was blasted into the cosmos aboard the Space Station.

Leaving aside the issue of why a trillion-dollar space program has become a booze cruise, it seems like zero gravity doesn’t do a lot for spirits.

The BBC reports that taste tests have detected "major differences" between Earth-bound whisky and the vial that flew in the Space Station for some three years, where it matured along with the same charred oak that was aging with whisky on Earth.

The experiment was conducted by Ardberg Distillery in, where else, Scotland.
"Its intense aroma had hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish, along with a curious, perfumed note, like violet or cassis, and powerful woody tones, leading to a meaty aroma," the Ardbeg tasting notes state.

 "The taste was very focused, with smoked fruits such as prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries, earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke."

I’m not sure what it tasted like before the launch, but if they’re going to be selling a product that tastes like rubber, throat lozenges and smoked prunes, I think I’ll pass.

Actually, if we’re going to have cocktail hour in space, there’s no need to deliver it via rocket.

It seems scientists have discovered massive cloud of alcohol called Sagittarius B2.  Located near the constellation Aquila, the cloud is 1000 times larger than the diameter of our solar system. It contains enough ethyl alcohol to fill 400 trillion trillion pints of beer.

 One wag called in God’s Liquor Cabinet.

It’s 58 quadrillion miles away so getting there would be a bit of a chore. But think of the party they’re going to have when they get there.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

A Blast From the Past

It’s funny how a name from the past will pop up in the news from time to time.

Take William McKinley, for example.

I hadn’t thought of him in years. In fact, I haven’t thought of him at all.

But there he was this past week, grabbing headlines from coast to coast.
It seems our 25th President has had his name stripped from the tallest mountain in the U.S., located in Alaska. It will now be known as Denali, which it was called for thousands of years before a prospector attached McKinley’s name to it in 1896.

The prospector was a gold miner and McKinley was a staunch supporter of the Gold Standard. You can draw your own conclusions.

The change came with the blessings of President Obama who just so happened to visiting Alaska at the time. That's a good way to draw an appreciative crowd.

It seems the natives have been restless for years about having their 20,237 foot peak named after a man who never laid eyes on it or set foot in Alaska.

Indeed, Alaskans has been seeking the name change since 1975, but Ohio politicians who count McKinley as a native son and kindred spirit blocked every attempt.

So Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that the mountain would be renamed under authority of federal law which permits her to name geographic features if the Board of Geographic Names does not act within a "reasonable" period of time.

 Jewell cited the board's failure to act on the state's four-decade-old request, saying "I think any of us would think that 40 years is an unreasonable amount of time.”

Ohioans were outraged. To hear tell, they rank McKinley up there with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Moses, Caesar and Hammurabi as great leaders.

They found voice in House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio whose primary job seems to be uttering knee-jerk criticisms of President Obama.

Boehner said he was "disappointed" in the decision. "There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy," he said in a statement.

Not to be outdone, Donald Trump tweeted, “President Obama wants to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali after more than 100 years. Great insult to Ohio. I will change back!"

He apparently failed to check in with his close personal friend Sarah Palin who, as governor of Alaska, referred to the mountain as Denali.

Putting all the political rhetoric aside, what about McKinley’s legacy?  If we remember him at all, it was because he was assassinated by a crazed anarchist and replaced with the truly memorable Teddy Roosevelt.

Check the rankings of American presidents by historians or political scientists and he comes out above average, even underrated, but not top tier. A composite of recent presidential rankings found that McKinley came in at 19th among the 43 men who have held the office, according to the Washington Post.

"He tends to be stuck in the middle—not great but not terrible," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who did his own ranking last year.

"The problem is this is where presidential legacies go to be forgotten," he said. The ones whose tenures were lukewarm are taught less often in schools and chronicled by fewer historians. "He's kind of victim to this sort of zone of forgotten presidents."

Interestingly enough, McKinley broke with many precedents, according to the Post article.  In the past, presidents didn't speak directly with the public on policy issues and didn't campaign on behalf of their fellow party members or themselves.

McKinley did both. He was talking about leaving the continental United States to visit Hawaii and Puerto Rico before his death, something no president had done in office before. And he held press briefings, leaked news to reporters, and used mailings and printed propaganda.

So it seems right and proper that he should have something named after him. It has been pointed out that there is no city in Ohio named McKinley. Given that fact, renaming Cleveland might be as good idea. It’s a bit of a comedown from a massive mountain but if there was ever a city that could use an image upgrade….

McKinley is not forgotten, however. There is a memorial library and museum in Niles, Ohio, that would do Washington, D.C. proud.

He is even remembered in Southern California. He was beloved in Redlands because he kept foreign oranges out of America and made the city wealthy.

In 1903, President Roosevelt, came to town to unveil a memorial bust of McKinley atop a granite pedestal, engraved "Patriot, Statesman, Martyr." The head was sheltered beneath a fancy stone canopy supported by columns.

The canopy and columns have since disappeared -- as has Redlands' orange supremacy -- but McKinley's head remains.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector 1.