Things 55: Cancer, Pentatonics, Handedness and the Police

(Originally sent July 2009)

I saw Moon, which was a very nice bit of old-school sci-fi with a few nice ‘ah-ha!’ moments.

I saw G-Force 3D, and was amazed at how special effects clearly follow some kind of Moore’s law, while good writing remains a nearly insurmountable challenge.

There’s a few sites out there attempting to keep up with what’s referred to as the Daily Mail’s “ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.” I like the way this one is helpfully laid out.

Of course, what would be nicer would be to use the research papers as a basis for such a project rather than the Daily Mail, at which point you’d probably need better risk-assessment functionality.

For example, I read a proposal to break global warming down to an individual scale – so if collective human actions increase the average temperature by 0.5 degrees over several decades, we could create an approximation for the temperature increase due to the production of any given product or action, and even though it would be tiny it would come to have meaning – e.g. this laptop causes a 23 picokelvin rise, but this one caused 573.

In practice, we’ve seen Carbon labelling, which is I suppose somewhat more accurate and tangible.

Unfortunately risk factors are really too complicated to be distilled to a single number for a single food item.

Bobby McFerrin with a nice demonstration about how intuitive the Pentatonic scale is:

Last week’s puzzle
Why is gravity 37% that of Earth’s on Mars, even though Mars only has 11% of the Earth’s mass? Clearly there are Laws Of Physics at work, and we can’t fairly expect to have an intuitive understanding of how strong gravity ‘ought’ to be on planetary scales.

That said, there are two factors clearly at work:

– Density: Mars is slightly less dense than the earth – 3.9g/cm^3 vs 5.5 g/cm^3, or 71%

– Radius: Mars’ radius is 53% that of Earth’s. If you were somehow standing on a platform one earth radius away from the centre of Mars, the gravity you feel would certainly be weaker than the 37% that you would experience on the surface.

(Side note: if earth (or indeed any planet) were hollow, there would be no gravity on the inside, as the gravitational pull due to the outer shell cancels out no matter where you are in the interior!)

This week’s puzzle

Why are about 10% of people left-handed?


The Week
is a weekly summary of “everything you need to know about everything that matters”, expertly editing together coverage of the main stories of the week into coherent, balanced, and concise summaries.

Here’s a cut down version of their concise version of a story from Germany, which as well as cutting all the fluff from a story that could probably be expanded to a movie adaptation I also liked because it’s a wonderful case of reversing the usual fiction trope that ‘Police are Useless’

“Germany’s wealthiest woman, Susanne Klatten hit the headlines last year when her former lover was arrested for trying to extort €49m from her. He told Klatten that he had made a secret video of them having sex and threatened to make it public unless his demands were met. But Klatten went to the police and he was arrested.

“Last month, three men wrote a letter to Klatten in which they claimed to have a copy of the sex video and demanded €800,000 and a BMW car for its return. Once again Klatten called the police and the three were arrested.”

Okay, it probably wouldn’t make a very good movie.


Things 95: Modern Movies, How to be Happy, Mouse Mystery

A beautiful demonstration of physics (or perhaps chemistry):

Scott Rudin, quoted in this GQ article about why movies are all rubbish these days:

Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they’re right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint.

Incidentally, while there’s clearly a huge argument to be had about the relevance of the data to the argument, let’s just contextualise the “things are terrible now” discussion by looking at the breakdown of what proportion of pre-2010 films in the IMDb top 250 come from each decade:

We see a broad trend that is the opposite of the “films used to be better” argument, apart from a post-war spike.

As I said, this is a starting point for huge arguments, and if I was going to start one I would begin with one of the following:
-Any popularity poll will tend to bias more recent candidates
-Demographic bias of IMDb voters and the scoring calculation used for the IMDb Top 250 will skew the result away from the “Objective Truth” (ha ha ha) of the matter
-This data does not speak to the more important issue of ‘typical’ film quality by decade

This week’s question
A mouse can fall any distance and survive. How is this possible?

I’ve had this obvious-but-actually-important thought myself, and this is a pretty great way of expressing it:

Answer to the previous question
In Things 94, I asked why ovens didn’t come with a built-in thermomenter.

Uncharacteristically, the Things community was unable to answer – or perhaps you weren’t interested. So I asked the internet using my secret research alter-ego* on Yahoo Answers, and also on Quora just to try that out.

You can see the range of responses I received on Yahoo answers, some of which are quite useful. The question on Quora has yet to draw a response, so I’m guessing the community there is still too niche to cover this kind of thing.

Putting together the suggestions from YA and my own thoughts, this is my conclusion:

1) It’s difficult (and therefore expensive) to make an oven thermometer that will remain accurate for the device’s lifetime. If it wasn’t, I suspect ovens would be thermostat-based, and we wouldn’t have the problem to begin with. (As I said, baking books insist there is a problem, and anecdotally I can report my gas oven is almost two gas marks cooler than it should be, and adjusting for this significantly improved my baking results).

2) It also must be difficult (and therefore expensive) to design and calibrate an oven such that it accurately produces the intended temperatures throughout its lifetime, because (once again) if this wasn’t true the problem wouldn’t arise.

3) The solution to the problem is to have a separate thermometer and use it from time to time to calibrate your oven. That thermometer then doesn’t need to maintain integrity for every use of your oven, and even if it does break it’s much easier to replace than an integrated one would be.

4) Admitting there is even a problem looks bad, so any oven manufacturer supplying such a thermometer unit with its devices would be perceived as worse than those that pretend there isn’t a problem.

5) Even if a manufacturer did include a built-in thermometer, people unaware of the oven temperature problem would again presume the oven must be sub-standard to need one, and people that know enough to worry would realise an integral thermometer couldn’t be trusted for long.

I suspect similar principles apply to protective cases and screen protectors for mobile devices.

*A long time ago I thought it might be prudent to separate my question-asking online identity from my confident-and-opinionated online identity. This doesn’t seem quite as important any more, and now that Things is a blog it’s very easy for someone to connect the two anyway, so now I don’t worry about linking from one to the other. But I’ll still use it anyway.


Things 28: Shampoo Theories, Cat Heaven, Large Hadron Collider,

(Originally sent September 2008)

If I have time, I may watch Pineapple Express, because a collision between a stoner flick and an action adventure movie sounds very silly.


IMDb: 7.8/10
RT: 70%

Last week’s puzzle
Why does shampoo become less effective with use?

I received some answers to this, and it seems there are two main theories.

1) The hair/scalp adapts to the chemicals and starts to resist them

2) Shampoo residue builds up over time

I then put these questions to the yahoo answers community through my secret research alter-ego.

The fact that hair is ‘dead’ would seem to deny theory 1) to me. In The Week I read that the biggest mistake made by people washing their hair is that they don’t rinse it enough, and you should rinse it for about twice as long as you expect. This would seem to endorse 2), but having tried this myself for the past 2 months I found the problem persists.

Mystery status: unsolved
This week’s puzzle
Why are some people photogenic and some not? In other words, why do people look different in photos to real life?

A video:
Cat heaven, including peaceful co-existence with dogs:
Cats on the kings:


A link or 3
There has been much talk about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and whether or not it will end the world. Someone has helpfully created this page:
View the source code to see how the site works.

However, there is an interesting development – it seems the site does not really work:

Meanwhile everyone can keep an eye on the experiment for themselves from these webcams:

A quote
A wonderfully true and melancholic song title from the Future Sound of London:
“Everyone in the world is doing something without me”

A picture
The big challenge when designing shop window advertising is to somehow get people to stop walking by and actually come into your shop and buy something. See a copywriter’s innovative answer to this problem in the image attached. (Photo taken between WWAV and Hammersmith tube)