November 2010

Last night, as a few of us not backing up Ray Davies in Philadelphia gathered for dinner in Hoboken, I spotted this holiday mispostrophe (ssp. dyspostrophe).

It probably wasn’t intentional on Trader Joe’s’s part, but the mispostrophe distracted me from the numbers on the box — especially 24 and 50. But only briefly; the pressing question quickly loomed.

If 24 Milk Chocolates weigh 50 grams altogether, aren’t they too small?

The appropriate comparison was obvious: M&M’s®. Little did I suspect it would be something of a challenge to find out the true weight of one regular M&M.

Disregarding outliers like “I think it is about 15g; 15 grams is perhaps the answer,” answers on the web (to the question of an M&M’s weight) generally fell into two camps. There was a handful of a-bit-less-than-a-gram answers, like “There are about 500 Plain M&M’s per pound,” and there was also a handful of around-2-grams answers, like “After an experiment, of weighing M&M’s, here were the results. 1) 2.208 g 2) 1.882 g 3) 1.904 g 4) 2.438 g.”

After considerable “research,” but no direct measurement, I’m swayed, not by any attestations of milligram precision, but by the preponderance of evidence [and 1] that one regular M&M weighs a bit less than a gram. Which conclusion is consistent with my personal experiences as a candy sorter (when I can find an uncluttered flat surface, which isn’t very often).

From the web’s many M&M Q&A (or should I say Q&“A”?) a few examples:

• Q: What is the weight of one M-and-M candy? [link]
A: I think it is about 15g; 15 grams is perhaps the answer

• Q: How much does an M and M weigh? [link]
A: When we counted the number of M&M’s in a 12.6oz bag, we got 404, which means there are 32.06 M&M’s/oz, which means that each M&M weighs 1.13 grams. [SK: If you divide backwardsly, perhaps. Otherwise, each M&M weighs (on average) about 0.88 grams.]

• Q: How many m&m’s do you reckon are in 7oz? I’m ordering custom m&ms, and they come in 7oz bags. I need about 1000 m&ms, total. how many bags should I order? [link]
A1: [Best Answer] 10 bags, maybe around 75 or 100 in each bag. [SK: Better safe than sorry.]
A2: 2 or 3.

• Q: How much does a single plain m&m weigh? [link]
A: After an experiment, of weighing M&M’s, here were the results. 1) 2.208 g 2) 1.882 g 3) 1.904 g 4) 2.438 g.

As for the pressing question, I’ll cautiously answer it “No” and hope Toby and Theo agree. Two or three M&M’s-worth of chocolate every day for most of a month — for those endless days, those sacred days, believe me — is not so bad. Despite anyone’s opinion that one serving of M&Ms comprises 208 grams (and 1023 calories).

There is still no good answer to the question “Why can’t we walk straight?”, observed Robert Krulwich’s recorded voice at a recent live taping for Radiolab at The Greene Space. Robert’s observation ressounded¹ today on the “NPR sciencey blog” Krulwich Wonders.

For 80 years, scientists have been trying to explain this tendency to turn when you think you are going straight. … Try as they might, and they’re still trying these experiments, nobody has figured out why we can’t go straight.

When I was a kid, Someone thought they’d figured it out. One’s dominant leg took longer strides, They taught me. I also learned, or maybe inferred, that I should find a leftie to walk with me should I ever need to cross a desert in the fog, at night, or while blindfolded.

But hearing Robert talk about this twice in as many weeks, I realized that They’d been wrong, and that crossing a desert in the fog was not a challenge I’d be ready to meet. (Also, I only then realized that a leftie might not be handy when the challenge arose, anyway.)

Ignoring my sudden and deepening nonplus, I focused on the question. Analogy time.² Robert’s headlineworthy version of the question is an oversimplification of the quandary, but I’ll notwithstand that fact for now.

Why can’t we fly? (Some animals can.) Because we don’t have small bodies, hollow bones, and wings (like some flying-capable animals do); nor do we have really tiny invertebrate bodies and wings (like some other flying-capable animals do).

Why can’t we hear high-pitched sounds? (Some animals can.) Because human ears (unlike the ears of the animals that can) aren’t physically able to convert high-pitched sounds into nerve impulses.

So why can’t we maintain our direction over long distances without a visual point of reference? (Some animals, especially flying-capable ones, can.) Because (unlike those animals) humans never underwent any evolutionary pressure to develop a mechanism to do so?

Robert mentioned one of the trying scientists by name: Jan Sousman. Jan’s article, Walking Straight into Circles, recently appeared in the journal Current Biology (a cornucopia of articles at the titles of which biologists surely titter: Olfaction: When Nostrils Compete; Metastasis: Alone or Together?; Addiction: Flies Hit the Skids; Flagella and Cilia: The Long and the Short of It; and Melanocyte Production: Dark Side of the Schwann Cell).

Jan and his coauthors wrote a wonderful paper. Among many beautiful sentences and figures, they report that their subjects’ “walking trajectories show exactly the kind of behavior that would be expected if the subjective sense of straight ahead were to follow a correlated random walk.” They also mention J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to point out that the belief “that people who get lost end up walking in circles is widespread.”

So “because we can’t” isn’t really such a good answer. Our proprioception (that sixth sense that allows us to touch our noses in the dark when we haven’t had too much to drink) does provide a subjective sense of straight ahead. However, it isn’t very reliable for very far or for very long.`

¹ I initially wrote reappeared, which on rereading, sounded (or more sensibly, looked) wrong, because Robert’s voice never appeared (as in became visible to the eye) in the first place. Unable to solve the Miller Analogy SEE : REAPPEAR :: HEAR: with an existing word, I had to invent the perfect answer: res̈ound (which should appear as the word resound with an umlaut/trema/diaeresis over the s). This answer is in fact all the more perfect (not to mention very unique) for having been invented by a “greater New Yorker.” Unfortunately, as much as I like the idea of using ¨ to estop a preceding prefix from losing its strict meaning, it fails in practical terms. Very few consonants appear in Unicode preëquipped with the dots, and Unicode’s zero-width combining diaeresis, the solution in theory, is unworkably fussy.

² Yay!

Today’s word of the day is surmisery.

sur·mis·er·y / ˈsɚːˈmɪzăɹi/

noun

Misery (the surmiser’s) arising from a surmisal.

Origin
2010: intentional coinage by Steve Kass (http://www.stevekass.com), portmanteau of surmise and misery.

† I (†) am a dagger (pl. daggers, Fr., obèle). I am a good friend of the asterisk; in fact, my alternate English name, obelisk, rhymes with asterisk. Respect my friend. My homograph is a weapon used for hitting, stabbing or thrusting.

* I (*) am an asterisk (pl. asterisks, Fr., astérisque). I rhyme with obelisk, not Vercingetorix or candlestick. I am not an asterick. Please, folks. This is who I am. Respect me.

“Screaming performance” is a label journalists seem to apply judiciously. The vast Google News Archives records only 28 outbursts having met the high bar. However, a trend is clear. Did Howard Dean kill screaming? Is technological singularity just around the corner?

 Year Screaming Performer(s) 1964 Girls who mobbed the Beatles in 1964 (described in 2009) 1972 McGovern supporters 1986 Brian De Palma 1993 Dell’s computers designed specifically for “techno-wizards” 1994 Nine Inch Nails 1994 The latest 32-bit and 64-bit printer and switch controllers 1997 The 1997 Plymouth Prowler’s V6 engine 1998 Jerry Stiller 2001 Early 1990s Japanese sports cars 2001 Edward Petherbridge (actor, playing a homosexual matchmaker) 2002 Dell’s Latitude C610 laptop 2003 Dell’s Inspiron 8500 series laptop 2003 A refurbished HP Pavilion ze5185 notebook PC 2004 Howard Dean 2004 NVIDIA’s GeForce 6800 2004 Sun Microsystems’ Linux computers 2005 The Altix 1330 server cluster 2005 IBM’s eServer p5 Unix machines 2006 NIVIDA’s GeForce 7950 GT 2006 MSI’s PCX5750-TD128 graphics adapter 2007 Dell’s Workstation configurations with 1600 MHz front-side bus 2007 Kingmax’s 4GB microSDHC card 2008 Alienware’s Area-51 ALX (with Radeon’s HD 4870 X2 CrossFireX) 2008 Gateway’s Core i7 Gaming PC 2008 The “Next Generation Intel Core Microarchitecture Family of Processors” 2009 NVIDIA’s GeForce 9600M GT 2009 Intel’s X25-E solid state drive 2009 LaCie’s SATA II ExpressCard 34 storage controller

Science overload — always a welcome thing — happened at The Greene Space last night. On the menu? Radiolab Live: Symmetry, with guest artist John Cameron Mitchell singing Origin of Love from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Hosts Jad and Robert dwove¹ expertly, pointing out many wonderful (mostly asymmetric) sights left and right. Looking-Glass milk, carvone, tartaric acid, and Jimmy Carter, to name a few.

I pulled out my notebook twice during the show: first, to jot down a hairy pun, and second, to sketch a schematic of the cloud chamber I owned as a kid. I’ve retired the pun and won’t divulge it here; it served its intended purpose. (Andy responded, “Ow. Even I’m offended.”) But I have a bit more to say about the cloud chamber.

In my hasty schematic, I labeled the head of the pin AMERICIUM, but subsequent research suggests that it was radium, not americium, on the head of the pin. Fortunately, I never suffered from pica. The kit also contained a chunk of uranium ore.

I didn’t play with the cloud chamber quite as much as I did with some of my other dangerous toys like the Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker (my favorite childhood toy of all, no contest), the Wham-O Air Blaster (which became increasingly dangerous each time my brother thought of something new, like pencils, to fire from it), the Vac-U-Form, the chemistry set — mercury (I especially enjoyed freezing bits of it with dry ice), carbon tetrachloride, ammonium dichromate, and potassium permanganate were among my favorite chemicals — the Slip-’n-Slide, the lawn darts, or the Clackers.

Nor was the Atomic Energy Lab the radium-containing possession I carried with me most often as a child. That distinction goes to the radium-dial watch Dad gave me in junior high school. The watch was stolen from my gym locker one morning in 1970, unfortunately — but perhaps unfortunately for the thief more than for me.

The only radium I know I own any more is in the painted dial of the Jefferson Electric Golden Hour clock in my bedroom. The radium is no doubt decaying apace and will continue to do so for centuries to come. But alas, the zinc sulfide phospor has broken down, and the dial no longer glows.

¹ The verb dweave (past tense dwove) and the noun dwive will be coined in a future installment of “Word of the Day.”

A  is for  amazon.com
B  is for  bit.ly
C  is for  chase.com
D  is for  dessoff.org
E  is for  ebay.com
F  is for  facebook.com
G  is for  gmail.google.com
H  is for  homedepot.com
I  is for  i.imgur.com/bPOxq.jpg
J  is for  jsomers.net
K  is for  nothing
L  is for  loweringthebar.net
M  is for  mathoverflow.net
N  is for  nytimes.com
O  is for  okcupid.com
P  is for  paladinoforthepeople.com/issuedetail.php?id=1
Q  is for  nothing
R  is for  retractionwatch.wordpress.com
S  is for  stevekass.com
T  is for  twitter.com
U  is for  nothing
V  is for  volokh.com
W  is for  wunderground.com
X  is for  xkcd.com
Y  is for  youtube.com
Z  is for  zillow.com