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Airport Body Scanners Not Safe

I am a pat-down guy, not a scan guy.  The upside of getting irradiated with x-rays, no matter how safe, is 0 – while the downside is potentially disasterous.  It turns out the x-rays aren’t as safe as we are led to believe.  According to a group of experts in radiology at UCSF, the government did the math wrong on calculating the impact of the airport x-ray scanner and the dosage to the skin is actually 100 – 1,000 times higher than what has been communicated.  In any case, it would seem to make sense to test these devices over time to fully understand the impact over time before deploying them on the majority of the population.

You can read the entire letter by clicking on the link here: UCSF Letter.

Google Suggest: I laughed. I cried.

You know what Google Suggest is.  It is that thing that happens when you start typing in Google and suggestions for possible searches appear as you type.  The way it works is that Google’s algorithms predict the search you most likely want to see using “data about the overall popularity of various searches”  (direct quote from Google).  If you think about it, there is something important here.  Google Suggest can tell us what Americans are searching for, what they are seeking.  Every once in a while something comes along that reminds you that you know nothing about what other people are thinking.  Google Suggest is just that thing.

Let’s start with “should I”…

…if you are asking Google, the answer is “probably not”.  “Should I worry” gives the opposite result…

…if you are asking Google, the answer is “definitely”.

The common searches for why things are the way they are…

Mail on Columbus Day.  Honestly, hadn’t crossed my mind.

What are Americans thinking of buying?  Not what I would have expected…

Same goes for a query about where is…

…the GEICO gecko – seriously?  C’mon, pull it together.

Things get interesting for searches on famous figures such as the President…

…other famous people with interesting results include God.

People are invoking God all the time in their searches.  In America, God has wives covered, but apparently not husbands, so we turn to the next best thing – Google…

What do American’s like?  All sorts of things.

I like turtles too.  I had a pet turtle growing up, but it probably would not have been at the top of my list.

What are Americans afraid of?

…Chinese people and pre-pubescent women.  Not my first guesses.

What do people think about ethnic groups in America?

I have to wrap it up, but I thought I would finish up with what Americans are wondering about fat people.

Isn’t that God’s truth?

How Was Avatar Made?

Holy Moly!  I saw Avatar last weekend with my dad and it  completely blew my mind.  Perhaps the plot was pedantic, but watching the embers after an explosion scatter in the movie theater through my 3-D glasses was out of this world.  I am not a sci-fi guy at all and I was enthralled.  So how are all of those visual effects possible?

The 3D effects and Real D glasses are actually not a novelty.  Cameron, the director, used two high-definition digital cameras that created a stereoscopic motion picture (the 3D Fusion Camera system, which they invented, but have used for other films).  Like other films, Avatar uses motion-capture animation technology in order to make the surreal environment real.  In other words, actors acted in front of a green screen and the digital effects were added.  Cameron added an element of realism by inventing a virtual camera that allowed him to view the actors and their digital environment simultaneously…makes the interaction of so many human characters in a virtual world so real.  Or in the words of Cameron…”At the end of the day the audience has no idea which they’re looking at.”

In case you didn’t see it, the trailer is below and does the movie no justice.

Sonic Boom

Who says you never learn anything watching television?  Well, I usually do.  And this week I was proven wrong.  I was watching a documentary on my flight over to Hong Kong yesterday on whips – as in bullwhips.  Apparently, a whip “cracks” not because the leather snaps against itself, but because the end of the whip breaks the sound barrier.

I dug around to see if this was actually, conceivably true.  Indeed, bullwhips are designed so that the handles are heavy and the “cracker” at the end of the whip is very light.  The initial wave of energy sent through the whip by swinging the handle remains constant, while the mass of the whip declines.  The only way to preserve kinetic energy is for the whip to travel faster per the formula E  = mv^2/2.  You don’t actually need the cracker to break the sound barrier; it will just make the sound louder.  You can actually break the sound barrier by  just twisting a wet towel and cracking it against one of your friends.  Now you know why it stings so bad.

For the sake of improving my technical prowess, I embedded of a video with a record-holder in whipping.  I wonder if anyone has ever asked him if he should wear earplugs while whipping.  Or, since he says he is looking for a career change, if he has considered looking into pornography.

Selecting and Selected

My brief effort at internet dating ended in a whimper last month when my promotional subscription ran out.  Perhaps it was my lack of desire to post 80 pictures of myself on the internet along with a 1,000 word description of each thing that I have ever done, or perhaps I am not that desireable after all.  For my official excuse, I think I’ll go with a scientific study that I read recently, which elaborates on the idea that people are bad at thinking about each other in abstractions.  What this means is that the shopping lists that people set out for a desireable mate having nothing to do with what people actually want in a desireable mate.  Women tend to include in their shopping lists the desire for earnings potential and status in a mate (men tend to write down the desire for a good-looking mate, no surprises there).  It turns out women actually just want good-looking mates.

I figured as much.  What was new to me was a nuance in how men and women select their mates.  In most settings, women are reported to be more selective than men.  A group of researchers found this to be true in the common speed-dating setting where men rotate and women stay seated in one place.  When the roles were reversed and the men stayed seated in one place – the men became more selective.  The implications in daily life are intense; I’ll test out a few and see if I learn anything new.

P.S.  The study is by Finkel and Eastwick – well worth the read.

Obama’s Inauguration Speech

In case you missed it, here it is…

How to Jump Start A Car. Without Cables. Even If It Is Automatic.

I actually didn’t know how to jump start a car with jumper-cables until this morning.  Until today I have been unwittingly “jumping” cars without cables.  In this post, I am going to run through the basics (how to jump a car with cables – which was new to me), the junior varsity (how to jump a stick shift car without cables) and the varsity (how to jump an automatic car without cables – yes it can be done).

The Basic – I had never jumped a car with cables because I was always worried that I was going to get electrocuted or the battery would blow up.  The standard steps for this are below:

1)  Get a car that has a working battery and park it near the car that has the dead battery.  Turn the working car off.

2)  Connect the red (positive) jumper-cable to the positive side of the stalled battery.

3)  Connect the red (positive) jumper-cable to the positive side of the good battery.

4)  Connect the black (negative) jumper-cable to the negative side of the good battery.

5)  Connect the black (negative) jumper-cable to a metal surface on the car with the dead battery – the engine block is an OK place for this.

6)  Start the good car and run it for 2-3 minutes.  It actually helps to rev the engine if you feel the battery isn’t charging.  I say this from experience.  I once got a jump from a guy wearing only a pair of jean shorts and a cape (I live in California), who drove a tiny car and we only got mine to start after a few minutes of running the engine of the working car at high RPMs.  If you feel you are getting a weak transfer of power to the dead battery, try changing the location of the black jumper-cable in step #5.  If this cable is connected to the side of the car or a dirty piece of metal, the process won’t work well.

7)  Start the car with the dead battery.

8)  Remove the cables in reverse order.

9)  Keep the car with the battery that was dead running for about 30 minutes.  It helps to run the engine at high RPMs.

Junior Varsity – You can charge a car without jumper-cables.  This is typically done with stick shift cars, but I have done it with automatic cars too.  With a stick shift car, follow the instructions below:

1)  You will need to roll the car, so if it is at the top of a hill, great.  If not, you will have to find someone or a few people to push it, since you will have to be in the car to start it.  Remember, the steering wheel and brakes do rely on electrical systems, so don’t roll down a very steep hill.

2)  Take off the hand-brake, release the foot-break and push down the clutch to get the car rolling.

3)  Once the car gets going to about 5 miles per hour, try starting it by turning the key in the ignition with the clutch down.

4)  If that doesn’t work, while the car is rolling, turn the key in the ignition as you release the clutch into gear and depress the accelerator into gear.  You will want to give it a lot of gas, so it is recommended that you put the car into second gear when you push down on the accelerator.  This has never failed me.

Varsity – Contrary to popular belief, you can jump-start an automatic car without jumper-cables.  It’s been documented and I managed to do it in a McDonald’s parking lot in Vallejo, California.  The principles are the same as with a stick shift car:

1)  Again, you will need to roll the car, so find a place and the right bodies to get the car in motion to about 5 miles per hour.

2)  Release the hand-brake and foot-brake, and put the car in second gear.

3)  Once the car gets up to about 5 miles per hour, try starting the car by turning the ignition.

4)  If that doesn’t work, keep the car in second gear and push down the gas as you turn the ignition.

Let me know if you have any trouble!

Shopping For Tea in China

After crossing Asia, I discovered that the word for “tea” was the only universally common word across all the major language groups and local dialects on the continent – cha(i).  All tea is actually made from the leaves of one plant – Camellia sinensis, but each ethnic group has its own preparation methods and China is no different.  So within China, which is a few square miles short of the United States in land area, there are many variations.  As a result, buying tea in China can be somewhat of a bewildering experience – but a cultural experience that a visitor must have!  Some shops have sales people thrusting Dixie cups filled with tea at you, while other shops are tucked away in anonymous alleys with miscellaneous drums of tea stacked silently along a wall.  If you are wary of getting a bad deal, you can head to a Wuyutai ( – a tea shop chain of sorts that is a well-respected brand in China.  It is not just for foreigners; Chinese people definitely shop there too.  You won’t find the best prices at Wuyutai, but you will get good service and top-quality product.

If I could give a foreigner three pieces of advice before going tea shopping in China, they would be:

Know the Different Kinds of Teas – People in tea shops don’t speak English (not even at Wuyutai) and I would be wary of those that do have staff who speak English.  So it is important to at least know the variety of tea that you are interested in as a starting point.  In China, there are seven different varieties of tea – they are:

Lù chá (lue-chah – lue is pronounced like ‘lieu’tenant):  Green tea.  If you can’t think of what kind of tea you want or want to buy tea as a gift, a safe bet is to ask for xī hú lóng jĭng (shee-hoo-lohng-jean).  This was the Dowager Empress’s favorite tea and is a favorite throughout China.  The best way to prepare it is to pour water at just-sub-boiling temperatures over the leaves in an uncovered cup.  The leaves will unfurl and when they sink to the bottom, the tea is ready to drink.  Most Chinese teas and all green teas come in two different forms:  míngqían chá (ming-chien-chah) and yŭqían chá (yu-chien-chah).  Míngqían chá is the most expensive and is the first picking of the season.  Yŭqían chá is less expensive and is from “after the rains” or later in the season.  A reasonable price for good quality green tea of the former is about 150 yuan for 50 grams and a reasonable price of the latter is about 40 yuan for 50 grams.  Although truth be told, yŭqían chá can have such low prices that it is basically free.  If you are going to go for it and buy some míngqían chá, make sure that it is refrigerated or otherwise temperature controlled.

Gōngfu chá (Gong-foo-chah):  Ceremonial tea.  This type of tea is used for ceremonial purposes (and also casual drinking) in China and Japan.  Oolong tea, which is known in China by that name, is the most common kind of tea of this variety.

Heī chá (hey-chah):  Black tea.  The most common kind is pu-er and in China, it is also known by that name.  Objectively speaking, pu-er kind of tastes like subtley-flavored dirty water.  So it is an acquired taste and this is coming from someone who likes it.

Hóng chá (hong-chah):  Red tea.  This tea is found throughout the Middle East.  In most places outside of China and Japan, if you are served tea – it is either black or red.  Within China and Japan, it is available, but not commonly served.

Baí chá (buy-chah):  White tea.  Recently popular in the United States, this tea is not very popular in China.  You can find it in some stores, but not all.  White tea is very subtle.  If you aren’t a tea drinker, this tea will always taste like you didn’t put enough leaves in the strainer.

Huáng chá (hwang-chah):  Yellow tea.  Like white tea, you can find it in China, but it isn’t very popular.  The yellow tea that I have tried has been pretty plain, but I do not want to give it a bad reputation.  If you have had a yellow tea that you particularly like, please leave me the name in the comments below.

Huā chá (Hwaah-chah):  Flower tea.  This is the only tea variety that does not come from a tea plant.  This variety consists of flowers that are added to water to give flavor.  The most common types of flowers are rosebuds (they make for a somewhat bitter tea) and chrysanthemums.  While attractive, flower tea is some of the cheapest tea that you can buy, so if you are being quoted a price that seems expensive or along the lines of the average tea – you are being taken.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask to Try The Teas – Trying the teas is often central to the shopping experience.  Shop-keepers will not begrudge you the opportunity to try different teas and indeed, will welcome the opportunity to push you into more expensive categories once they reveal to you the merits of trading up.  If you are in a store that seems to have the infrastructure to allow you to sample teas (i.e. not at a counter in a shopping mall) – such as oddly shaped wooden tables that allow water to runoff into one place – ask to try certain teas.  The way to ask to try a tea is to say – cháng yī cháng (chahng-ee-chahng) or more properly wŏ kĕyĭ cháng yī cháng (woe kuh-yee chahng-ee-chahng).  This question may lead you to be escorted to a seat to try the teas or the response may be – nĭ kĕyĭ kàn yī kàn – which means you can’t try the teas, but you can look at them.  If you aren’t permitted to try a tea, don’t be afraid to get up close to the tea and smell it.  If you do get a chance to taste the teas, the process will allow you to note the differences between the varieties and to determine whether you can tell the difference between a good tea and a bad tea before you spend $1 per gram on a first-class xī hú lóng jĭng tea.  I am always amazed by how much tea is spilled while sampling; it is a sight to see.

Prices Are Not Quoted In The Metric System – The prices quoted on the tea drums will be per 500 grams in the metric system not per kilo.  The standard Chinese weight (jīn) is half a kilo.  So if you are buying a good tea that costs a 1,000 yuan per the quoted price on the drum – this price corresponds to one jīn.  So if you ask for 100 grams (kè), you are actually asking for 20% of a jīn, rather than 10% of a kilo.  In other words, you will be buying 200 yuan worth of tea rather than 100 yuan worth.  To make things more confusing, the scales used throughout China are on the metric system, so it will show that you are buying 100 grams, but you will be quoted a price that is double what you thought it would be.  This is the case from Xinjiang to Shanghai whether you are buying fruit, fish or anything by weight.  Understand that this is the case – you aren’t being screwed because you are a foreigner.

While I am usually a voracious bargainer, tea is one area where I usually restrain myself from bargaining.  This is particularly the case if I have tried many teas in the shopping process.  At places such as Wuyutai, negotiating is not an option and the prices are clearly posted.  At a more humble store, where there may be no prices clearly posted, a subtle way of negotiating would be to ask for prices of teas you don’t really want and be silent or look somewhat displeased.  And then ask for prices on the teas that you do want.  If the prices seem outrageous in comparison to some of those discussed above, you should feel free to walk away.

Good luck!

My Yogurt Is Triangular


There are many differences between China and the rest of the world.  One of them is the packaging used for yogurt.  You wouldn’t expect a nation of lactose intolerant people to be at the cutting edge of yogurt packaging design, but China may have achieved a breakthrough.

In China, yogurt comes in a container that is triangular with rounded edges.  The rounded edges are just the right width so that you can scrape them out with a spoon.  I marinated on this for a while.  Why would yogurt come in a triangular package?  They certainly are not as easy to hold as a round container.  I can’t really think of anything else that comes in a triangular package in the US or China.  Ice cream – round or rectangular packaging.  Butter – round or rectangular packaging.  Cheese – rectangular packaging.  After a few days, I think I finally figured it out.  A triangular package (with rounded edges) is the best way to expose the maximum surface area of the product to someone eating while minimizing the amount of space required by the package for shipping.  If you think about it, rectangular packaging is great because you can load a crate of rectangular packages onto a truck or ship without any gaps.  Unfortunately, it is hard to dig into the corners of a square package with a spoon.  On the other hand, a circular package has no corners, so it is easy to scrape around in, but if you want to ship a bunch of circular containers, there will be gaps between the packages.  Since a triangle can have rounded edges without reducing the internal volume of the package and two triangles put together make a square, a triangle with rounded corners takes advantage of both of the benefits of a rectangle and a square!

Perhaps an even more genius development in consumer products is that in China, yogurt comes in 12 ounce containers.  So you can actually satisfy your hunger for yogurt rather than poke around with a spoon in those little 4-5 ounce containers we have in the US.

My New Caffeine

Ginger Tea isn’t just tea.  It’s the caffeine-free coffee replacement.  The flavor will clear your sinuses and wake you up guaranteed.  I discovered ginger tea tucked away in a Beijing coffee shop pointing randomly at a menu in Chinese characters.  Now I drink about two pots a day.  I am not talking about Celestial Seasonings tea here – this is tea made directly from the ginger root.  After asking around, I have found that ginger tea is surprisingly easy to make.  Give it a try tomorrow morning, the recipe below is easy to follow.  Preparation time is roughly equivalent to making coffee.  There is no need to peel the ginger root, just wash into before using it.  The recipe below is what I use to make one cup.

Take 10 thin slices of ginger root (the thinner the better since it gives it more surface area) boil in two coffee cups of water for 10 minutes (for lighter flavor) or 20 minutes for (intense flavor).  You can add lemon or honey to taste and play around with the amount of ginger you use and the length of boil.  The final concoction should be a very dark brown when poured into a cup – almost the color of coffee.