Shallow Thoughts : tags : headlines

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 31 Jul 2010

Bogus statistics on drug use among drivers

The "Roadshow" column in yesterday's Merc had some pretty ... odd ... statistics involving marijuana and driving.

It quotes "an NHTSA report" as saying:

contrary to popular belief, marijuana has been found to play a significant role in car accidents across the United States, with as much as 33 percent of drivers arrested at the scene of the accident being positive for marijuana and another 12 percent testing positive for marijuana and cocaine. Every year, 28 percent of drivers in the U.S. will attempt to drive within two hours after ingesting alcohol or illicit drugs. Marijuana is the drug used most often — 70 percent — by drivers who drove after drug use and is a major factor why crashes are the leading cause of death for American young people.

Whoa. Let's play that back again: 45 percent of all drivers arrested at accident scenes (33 plus another 12) test positive for marijuana? Nearly half?

Mr. Roadshow, you don't really believe that number, do you?

I didn't. So I did some searching, looking for the NTHSA source.

When I searched for large portions of the quoted phrase, I didn't find anything from the NHTSA. The Roadshow quote appears to come from an article on friendsdrivesober.org (I'm sure that's an unbiased source). Here's their MS Word file or Google's cached HTML version). The same article is also available as a PDF at prevnet.org and there are lots of other pages making reference to it.

The friendsdrivesober.org article cites "Brookoff, Cook & Mann, 1994; Sonderstrom, Dischinger, Kerns & Trillis, 1995." for the 33% number. There's no citation offered for the "28% will attempt to drive...". They credit "NHTSA, 2000" for "Marijuana is the drug used most often ... by drivers who drove after drug use", but that one's not important because it says nothing about prevalence in accidents, merely that it's used more often than other drugs (no surprise there).

The NHTSA weighs in

Googling on a more general set of terms, I found my way to a October 2000 NHTSA report, Field Test of On-Site Drug Detection Devices. It's a roundup of many different studies, with drug use numbers all over the map, though none larger than the 33% figure and certainly nothing near 45%. That 33% figure is near the bottom:

Brookoff et al. (1994) used on-site testing devices in a study that found a 58% prevalence rate for drugs in subjects arrested for reckless driving (who were not found to be impaired by alcohol). The Brookoff team found that 33% of their sample tested positive for marijuana, 13% for cocaine, or 12% for both. (Because of sampling flaws in the study, these drug test rates should not be interpreted as drug prevalence rates for reckless drivers.) Interestingly, the on-site device (Microline) used by Brookoff and his colleagues generated a significant false positive rate for marijuana when compared to GC/MS results.

The horse's mouth

So what about the original study? I wasn't able to find Dischinger, Kerns & Trillis, but here's Brookoff et al. at the New England Journal of Medicine: Testing Reckless Drivers for Cocaine and Marijuana (cookies required).

A couple of important notes on the study: the figures represent percentage of drivers arrested for "reckless driving that would constitute probable cause to suspect intoxication by drugs", who were not considered to be under the influence of alcohol, and who were suspected of being under the influence of marijuana or cocaine ("all patrol officers were told that they could summon [the testing van] if they stopped a person suspected of driving recklessly under the influence of cocaine or marijuana"). Morover, not all drivers consented to be tested, and the percentages are only for those who were tested.

Seems like a perfectly valid study, as far as it goes (though there's been some mild criticism of the test they used). It's mostly interesting as a study of how marijuana and cocaine use correlate with visible intoxication and sobriety test results. It's not a study of the prevalence of drugs on the road: the NHTSA report is right about that. The numbers it reports are useless in that context.

So the jump from that study to what friendsdrivesober.org and Roadshow implied -- that 45% of people involved in car accidents test positive for marijuana -- is quite a leap, and attributing that leap to the NHTSA seems especially odd since they explicitly say the study shouldn't be used for those purposes.

What really happened here?

So what happened here? Brookoff, Cook, Williams and Mann publish a study on behavior of reckless drivers under the influence of drugs.

NHTSA makes a brief and dismissive reference to it in a long survey paper.

Then friendsdrivesober.org writes an article that references the study but entirely misinterprets the numbers. This study gets picked up and referenced by other sites, out of context.

Then somehow the paragraph from friendsdrivesober.org shows up in Roadshow, attributed to the NHTSA. How did that happen?

If you look at the friendsdrivesober.org article, the paragraph cites Brookoff in its first sentence, then goes on to other unrelated claims, citing an NHTSA study at the end of the paragraph. I suppose it's possible (though hard to understand) that one could miss the first reference, and take the NHTSA reference at the end of the paragraph as the reference for the whole paragraph. That's the best guess I can come up with. Just another example of the game of telephone.

Nobody with any sense thinks it's a good idea to drive under the influence of marijuana or other intoxicants. But bogus statistics don't help make your point. They just cast doubt on everything else you say.

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[ 12:33 Jul 31, 2010    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Tue, 29 Dec 2009

Slow news day?

Waves breach sand berm My favorite headline from today's paper:
Waves breach sand berm
What sort of sand berm, you wonder, that merits a headline in the paper? No doubt a critical one, protecting the town from the ravages of the sea? Well, maybe not:
"The situation is not unusual," he added. "It happens every year."

I guess it was a slow news day.

Mmm, melamine



The full-page ad on the back of the main section was good, too.

Mmmmm ... melamine candy!

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[ 11:42 Dec 29, 2009    More humor | permalink to this entry ]

Thu, 05 Jun 2008

Quote of the Week

From a BBC story on the wife of France's president:
She said her husband was so bright he appeared to have "five or even six brains".

Raises all kinds of intriguing followup questions, doesn't it?

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[ 20:46 Jun 05, 2008    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 20 Feb 2008

The mysterious vanishing planes

BBC was full of interesting news today.

Definitely the most interesting story was the one about the F-15 pilots rescued off Florida. It begins:

Two US fighter pilots have been rescued after their jets went missing over the Gulf of Mexico, the Air Force says.

Air Force spokeswoman Shirley Pigott said the pilots were rescued after their F-15C Eagles disappeared on a training mission.

The disappearance had triggered a search involving Coast Guard personnel, helicopters, planes and boats.

The Air Force has not yet determined if the planes collided or otherwise malfunctioned. The weather was clear.

Wow, that's quite a story! Not only do we have fighter planes disappearing in midair, but even after the pilots have been rescued, no one has any idea whether they collided.

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[ 18:15 Feb 20, 2008    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Fri, 28 Oct 2005

A Value of "Close" With Which I was Previously Unfamiliar

A very strange article in today's SF Chronicle describes "Mysterious, bright lights in the night sky Wednesday that alarmed or bemused scores of Bay area residents".

It atributes to Andrew Fraknoi, chairman of the Foothill College astronomy department and media hound (it doesn't say that second part), information that "the lights were probably Mars and Venus, two planets that currently appear close together and will probably remain brilliant for another week or two until their orbits begin moving them away from the Earth again."

Aside from the "probably" (I was under the impression that the basic orbits of the major planets were fairly well understood, and that it's fairly rare that a planet suddenly deviates from its regular orbit in a visible way), I found this curious because Venus is currently in the early evening sky -- since its orbit lies inside that of the Earth, it can never appear to move very far from the Sun -- while Mars, a week before opposition, is rising in the early evening and overhead at roughly midnight.

Just to be sure, I checked with XEphem. The angular distance between Mars and Venus is current 146°. They're almost at opposite ends of the sky. This is a definition of "close" with which I was previously unfamiliar.

I don't know if Fraknoi really said this, or if he was simply misquoted by the reporter, David Perlman, the Chronicle's Science Editor. If so, the misquote is quite pervasive -- he repeats several times throughout the article Fraknoi's assurance that the lights (shown in a photograph accompanying the article, indeed close together though we aren't told anything about the lens used to take the photo) must be Venus and Mars.

Other giggle-inducing quotes from the article:

No one except astronomers could offer an explanation.
Well, gosh, you certainly wouldn't want to listen to those egghead astronomers about a question involving lights in the sky.

(Well, okay, in this case you shouldn't listen to them, because the Mars/Venus explanation obviously doesn't fit the observations.)

According to Fraknoi, Mars now far outshines even the brightest of all the stars in the sky, and when skies are clear, the fourth planet from the sun could look even bigger than normal.
Mars at opposition is certainly brighter than any star (except the Sun, of course). It currently shines with a magnitude of about -2.2 (a smaller number means a brighter object; the brightest star, Sirius, is magnitude -1.4. Venus, at the moment, is much brighter than either one at -4.2, as is usual since it's larger, closer, and more reflective than Mars. That might have been worth mentioning.

I can't figure out whether "even bigger than normal" is supposed to refer to size or brightness. Mars is normally a tiny object as viewed from Earth, too small to see much detail except for a few months around opposition every couple of years. Indeed it is much bigger than normal right now (and a lovely sight in a telescope!), as well as brighter; but "even bigger" seems like an odd phrasing for something normally so small.

But since Mars' size isn't visible except in a telescope, Dave thinks "bigger" here was meant to refer to brightness: the misconception that brighter objects look bigger. I shouldn't make fun of this: the great astronomer Tycho Brahe, in the 1500's, was convinced that stars had angular size instead of being point sources. He thought brighter stars appeared bigger, and based his geocentric solar system model on that. That view wasn't disproved until Galileo invented the telescope. It's a common misconception even today, but I'd hate to think the Chronicle's science editor was encouraging it, so I'll stick to the assumption that he really meant size and that the "even" was just an odd journalistic embellishment.

So what were the mysterious lights? I don't know. I didn't see them, and the article doesn't give enough detail to make a good guess. But the photo looks a lot like airplanes or helicopters; at least one of the lights has a couple of smaller lights to either side, usually a dead giveaway for an aircraft.

Update the following day: I wasn't the only one to complain about this article, and the Chron published a paragraph in the Corrections section this morning clarifying that Venus is nowhere near Mars and could not have been related to the lights people reported.

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[ 10:57 Oct 28, 2005    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Fri, 14 Oct 2005

More On Low Orbits

Wacky Chinese orbital physics are in the BBC again. Today's story tells us how they've corrected yesterday's orbital problems. Quoting from China's "official Xinhua news agency", the BBC tells us:
Xinhua said the craft had deviated from its planned trajectory because of the Earth's gravitational pull.

I can hear them now ... "Darn it! I guess we forgot to take the earth's gravity into account when making our orbital calculations!"

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[ 20:40 Oct 14, 2005    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Thu, 13 Oct 2005

Darn Those Low Orbits

BBC News Science tells us about the orbital problems of China's manned Shenzhou VI spacecraft.

Gravity has drawn Shenzhou VI too close to earth, the agency said.

Shenzhou VI, which has two astronauts on board, is in a low enough orbit to be affected by the Earth's gravitational pull.

Don't you hate those low orbits that are affected by gravity? Maybe next time they should choose an orbit high enough that it isn't subject to gravity.

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[ 19:39 Oct 13, 2005    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Mon, 07 Mar 2005

Mukhtar Mai is a Hero

The acquittals in the Pakistan gang rape case are an outrage. You may have read about the case: a village tribunal in a remote area of Pakistan passed sentence that Mukhtar Mai be gang raped to punish her brother for an offense he allegedly committed (though most news reports indicated that he was not guilty of the offense, which was actually committed by one of the rapists. Not that that has any bearing on whether a wholly innocent woman should be raped for someone else's supposed crimes.)

The case spawned international outrage in a world previously unaware of the brutality of Pakistan's archaic tribunal system. The rapists were convicted and sentenced to death; but last week, their conviction was overturned.

Mukhtar Mai is a hero for standing up to them and continuing to press her case. I can't imagine what it must be like to be in her position. I am in awe of her. Mai's courage will help every woman in Pakistan, and in other countries with similar disregard for women's humanity. And not only that: she's using any financial gains from the case to build schools in her village. She's built two already.

Several of the BBC followup stories have mentioned that most women "sentenced" under this barbaric system, to be raped or otherwise mistreated for the supposed offenses of male members of their clan, accept their fate, "believing that tribal or feudal leaders are too powerful to resist and that the police and judicial systems are stacked against them." If anyone wonders why they might think that, last week's acquittal should answer any such questions rather handily.

None of the stories I've read anywhere goes into detail on the reason for the conviction having been overturned, besides the vague "lack of evidence". This seems odd considering all the reports of the original trial cited eyewitnesses. It's not clear why so few details are being reported. No one mentions the double standard which seems to be in place in Pakistan: where was the opportunity for Mai or her brother to appeal her outrageous punishment for his supposed crime?

The case will be appealed to a higher court, following international outrage at the current verdict. It is not yet clear whether the rapists will remain in prison until then.

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[ 20:37 Mar 07, 2005    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Thu, 03 Mar 2005

Boondocks Pulled for Criticising Bush

Slate and Editor and Publisher report that several major newspapers have dropped Monday's Boondocks comic strip.

In the strip, one character reads from a newspaper, "Bush got recorded admitting that he smoked weed." Another character quips, "Maybe he smoked it to take the edge off the coke."

The best part of the story: the Chicago Tribune's given reason for censoring the comic was that it "presents inaccurate information as fact."

It's not clear which part of the comic was the inaccurate information presented as fact. The news about the tape recording in question, which was widely printed and has not been disputed by the White House? Or the quip in response, the one that starts with "maybe"?

If the Chicago Tribune is so worried about inaccurate information presented as fact ... does that mean that they will no longer be reporting on Bush's speeches and press releases?

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[ 08:54 Mar 03, 2005    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 16 Feb 2005

"The Leak": Why Not Subpoena Robert Novak?

I am just utterly not understanding this story on "The Leak".

The news yesterday: Matthew Cooper (Time magazine) and Judith Miller (the New York Times) are to be subpoenaed in the ongoing "Leak" case. (LA Times, or via Yahoo)

You remember "The Leak". Joseph Wilson, the CIA investigator sent to Niger to trace rumours that Saddam Hussein had tried to purchase "yellowcake" uranium, wrote an opinion column in the New York Times accusing President Bush of "misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was fundamental justification for going to war." Wilson's published report had stated the rumours were false, but Bush ignored the report and quoted the rumours as fact in his 2003 State of the Union address.

Roughly a week later, Washington Post columnist Robert Novak wrote that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA operative, citing information from a "senior administration official".

It being a crime to reveal the identity of an undercover CIA operative, Bush at the time vowed to "find the leak". The current update in the case means two other reporters, Cooper and Miller, who supposedly were also contacted by the same "senior administration official", will be called to testify as to the identity of the person who contacted them. If they refuse, they face imprisonment for contempt of court.

The papers are full of outraged articles arguing that reporters should never be forced to reveal sources, and waving their "First Amendment" flags. And that's fine -- I have no problem with journalists protecting sources.

What I completely don't understand is: Why are Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller, who never wrote anything about the case, being subpoenaed and threatened with improsonment, while Robert Novak, who wrote the article which started all this, is not?

Why, in all the journalistic breast-beating which has accompanied this case, does no one ever suggest concentrating on Novak to find The Leak's identity?

Novak is the reporter who published the article outing Plame. Novak is the reporter who clearly had a source. Sure, question other sources, but why isn't Novak the prime, number-one source in this investigation?

A cynical friend says it's because Novak is a Bush administration mouthpiece, who did the administration's bidding in publishing the article, while Cooper and Miller did not.

Perhaps. But if that's the case, shouldn't that itself be news?

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[ 11:12 Feb 16, 2005    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Fri, 31 Dec 2004

Tsunami Relief Charity List

I don't have anything enlightening to say about the terrible disaster in south Asia. But I did see a link to a useful page ranking some charities in terms of efficiency and transparency. It's one place to start, anyway, for anyone looking for a way to help.

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[ 12:12 Dec 31, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Mon, 27 Sep 2004

Clueless Cellphone Users

"Funniest headline of the week" award goes to The Register:

HELLO... I'M ON A PLANE...YES...A PLANE!!
Bad news for regular fliers

Okay, maybe it's only funny if you've heard someone doing this. For me, it was being at a spectacular scenic vista at the Grand Canyon and seeing someone get out of his car, pull out a cellphone, exclaim to his companion "Hey, I'm getting reception here", poke at it, and proceed to spend the next five minutes shouting inanities like:

I'M AT THE GRAND CANYON!

THE G R A N D C A N Y O N!

THE CANYON! YOU KNOW, THE BIG HOLE IN THE GROUND!
YES!

I guess The Register has encountered people like that, too.

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[ 22:21 Sep 27, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

CBS explodes "liberal bias" myth

Nice editorial by Ethan Rarick in today's SF Chron: CBS explodes liberal media bias myth.

After watching the Bush/Gore campaign, I have a hard time believing that anyone really believes the news media have a liberal bias. (Hint: count the number of pages of free coverage each candidate got each day.)

Perhaps no one actually does believe it, and conservatives just say it to try to persuade the credulous.

But for anyone who wasn't paying attention during the campaign four years ago, Ethan Rarick's editorial gives a nice, and contemporary, example, comparing the flap over Dan Rather's documents on Dubya's military service, which turned out to be false (the documents, that is; the military service is probably false too, but that remains to be proven), with the non-flap over the similar but more serious (in that it led to declaring war on another nation, and to the deaths of many US soldiers) NY Times admission that they had been "taken in" by the president's misleading statements regarding WMD and the Saddam threat.

Reporters do seem inclined to be liberal. But publishers -- the people who actually control what gets printed and where -- are inclined to be conservative. It's not surprising: newspaper publishing is Big Business, especially in these days when most venues are served by one monopoly newspaper owned by a conglomerate publishing house.

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[ 22:05 Sep 27, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 22 Sep 2004

Spurious SUV Mileage Quotes

In my last entry I mentioned some SUVs getting under 4 miles per gallon, and someone called me on that, saying (quite reasonably) "The truth is bad enough, no need to exaggerate".

I was blindly quoting a phrase someone had quoted in email:

"A Harper's Magazine writer took the massive Ford Excursion, the biggest of all SUVs for a test drive. During a drive around a city, the mighty Excursion was only getting 3.7 miles per gallon."

I googled for that parts of that phrase, and found it quoted on three different web sites, all anti-SUV or environmental web sites. Google didn't find the source of the quote. So I tried a search on Harpers itself for Ford Excursion, and came up blank. If this Harper's writer did get 3.7mpg in a test drive, he or she didn't write about it, or else Harper's isn't making the content accessible so we can get the details and find out if it's spurious.

Looks like yet another "fox terrier", everybody quoting a juicy line that might not have been accurate in the first place. I stand corrected. Big SUVs do get abysmal mileage and I still think they're responsible for a lot of our smog and CO2 problems, and should be regulated the same as cars since they're used in the same way; but that unsupported 3.7 mpg figure for the Ford Excursion is probably bogus and should not be part of the argument. Thanks for keeping me honest, Bill!

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[ 11:58 Sep 22, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Sat, 18 Sep 2004

How to pretend to pass laws without actually doing so

(Write laws that don't apply for ten years, then revoke them.)

The news everyone in California seems to be talking about today is SB42, the bill to end the "rolling 30-year exemption" which never actually rolled. For instance, here's today's Chron Article on the subject.

What does this all mean? None of the newspaper stories actually tell you much about the law or its history.

There's a little information at a CA Senate site. Basically, cars older than 1973 are exempted from California's bi-annual smog checks. In 1997 or 1998, a "rolling 30-year window" was added, meaning that in 2004, 1974 cars would become exempt, in 2005, 1975 cars would, etc. (Note: I remember the rolling window being legislated much earlier than 1998, perhaps even a decade earlier. But I haven't yet been able to find anything on the web discussing legislation prior to 1997.)

Notice that the 30-year window never happened. It's been promised for quite some time (at least seven years, but maybe more than ten if I'm remembering correctly) but, frankly, anybody who believed it was really going to happen was dreaming. All the car buffs I know (including myself) had every expectation that the window would disappear before it ever came into effect.

And indeed, that's what's happening. Current bill SB42, from Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), which is on the governor's desk for signature or veto, would repeal the 30-year rolling window completely, and give the exemption to all cars through 1976 but no later cars, ever. (None of the stories discusses when this goes into effect: do the 1974 through 1976 cars immediately become exempt, or does this wait until 2006 when the 30-year window would have exempted them?)

Everybody is up in arms. Classic car buffs, who have been fondling their modified 1975 cars in gleeful anticipation of anticipated legality, are furious at the take-back. The Sierra Club is dancing for joy at getting sports cars off the road to make way for more gas-guzzling SUVs. Everybody is organizing letter-writing campaigns. Nobody, naturally, is providing any data.

The Chron article quotes the "staff researchers" for Lieber's office on projected numbers for the percentage of pollutants expected to be contributed by cars built before 1982. Curiously, when I look at the Sierra Club's "call to action" on this bill, I see almost the identical phrase quoted by the Chron. Nobody mentions who did this study, who calculated the numbers or what they're based on. Did Lieber's "staff researchers" merely lift propaganda from the Sierra Club? Or did they do actual research, which the Sierra club is now quoting but which no one seems to reference in any detail? Of course, the car enthusiast sites quote numbers which tell a very different story, also without attribution, so they're no more trustworthy.

I'd love to see a chart of total estimated pollutants by year, with the total number of cars of that year still on the road, from 1973 up through today. I'd also like to see a breakdown for the older cars into carburated and fuel injected, and a breakdown for recent cars into cars and SUVs/trucks. A breakdown by engine size might also be interesting.

I suspect it really is true that some subset of older cars is causing a disproportionate amount of pollution, and addressing that would be a good thing. Let's find out who the real offenders are, and address the real problem.

It's funny how laws involving cars or gasoline so often seem to be passed in this time-delayed way ... and then never actually take effect. A law is passed that will take effect seven or ten or fifteen years later, and nobody (except a few trusting individuals) pays it any attention because everyone knows perfectly well that such laws don't really mean anything.

Consider MTBE, the health-endangering gas additive. It's still in California gas, despite a law passed some five years ago supposedly banning it (with a time delay). Union 76 sells non-MTBE gas (and I buy their gas almost exclusively, for that reason) but no one else does, as far as I've been able to tell.

Consider the SUV exemption. SUVs and trucks don't have to meet the fleet economy standards that cars have to meet, or the emissions laws, or the safety requirements. Let me say that again: the biggest, gas-guzzlingest vehicles on the road, some of which get under 4 miles per gallon, don't have to meet the same emissions requirements as a Honda Civic. That, too, is covered by a current time-delayed law; and as with the MTBE law, I wish you good luck in finding out anything about the status of it. The automakers certainly aren't paying any attention; they know perfectly well that it will be thrown out before they actually have to redesign SUVs to comply.

Delayed-action laws are merely a convenient way of getting good press (or votes, or campaign contributions) without having to risk changing anything.

When you see a law with a delayed effect, be very suspicious.

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[ 23:24 Sep 18, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 05 Sep 2004

LAX Shut Down by Exploding Flashlight

We've been reading for two days now the story of how LAX (one of the nation's busiest airports) was closed down for several hours after a flashlight exploded while it was being examined by a security screener.

I'm still waiting for details. Doesn't this story seem a bit odd? Isn't it fairly unusual for flashlights to explode? Wouldn't you think some reporter, while writing up this story, might think that readers might wonder whether their flashlights were at risk of blowing up, and might want to report on what specific circumstances caused this incident and how to avoid it?

The SF Chron story has the most detail I've seen so far, which still isn't much:

The Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad examined the flashlight and determined the explosion occurred because the batteries inside had eroded.
That still leaves me wondering: what sort of battery, and how big? How badly eroded? Is this something we should be checking for in our flashlights? What was the screener doing with the flashlight which caused it to explode right then?

A web search on "flashlight batteries explosion" doesn't turn up much more information. There are lots of pages warning against trying to recharge regular (non-rechargeable) alkaline batteries since they explode. We know lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries can explode, but I've never seen a flashlight which uses them.

I did find one NIOSH Fact Sheet called "EXPLODING FLASHLIGHTS: ARE THEY A SERIOUS THREAT TO WORKER SAFETY?", which mentions hydrogen gas being produced in zinc/carbon batteries and alkaline batteries as the zinc electrode corrodes in the aqueous electrolyte, and that it's more likely to happen if batteries of different types, brands, or ages are mixed.

Googling for "flashlight batteries exploding" gets a bit more, mostly recall notices for specific flashlights shipped with batteries which might explode.

Still seems strange that it doesn't seem to have occurred to any of the reporters covering the LAX incident to ask about this and find out what happened in this particular case. I wonder -- is this another "fox terrier", where someone writes an initial story and everyone else just paraphrases it without adding anything? Certainly the new stories coming out don't seem to add anything to the initial report yesterday morning. Do reporters not ask questions any more, and journalism schools merely instruct on different ways of re-wording a press release?

(Stephen Gould wrote about wondering why so many books mentioned that Eophippus, the "dawn horse", was the size of a fox terrier. Why that specific breed? Upon investigation, he was able to trace the origins of the comparison, and show that successive authors merely repeated the assertion verbatim. Unfortunately, the syndrome works just as effectively in cases of missing or incorrect information, as long as authors are willing to repeat stories without checking them.)

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[ 11:53 Sep 05, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 01 Sep 2004

Three die in Saudi shop stampede

The BBC reports: Three die in Saudi shop stampede

Three people crushed to death and sixteen people injured.

The incident occurred after shoppers rushed into a branch of Ikea to claim a limited number of credit vouchers being offered to the public.

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[ 20:36 Sep 01, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 25 Aug 2004

Ford protests bill for hybrids that excludes its SUV

An article in today's SF Chronicle (no link, they don't seem to have the article online) says Ford is protesting California legislation that would open carpool lanes for hybrid cars that get at least 45 miles per gallon. Ford says this is favoritism toward Toyota, since it excludes Ford's Escape hybrid SUV, rated at 31 mpg.

Let me get this straight. Ford thinks the Escape hybrid should be allowed in carpool lanes (with only one driver), while getting worse mileage than most conventional engine Hondas have managed since the eighties ... why? Is having a bigger battery (lead-acid, mind you) somehow easier on the environment than a smaller battery? Or is it that Ford is somehow compelled to produce only humungous inefficient vehicles, and wants to be rewarded for finally making something halfway reasonable even though it's still no better than conventional Japanese cars?

Now, I'm no fan of carpool lanes (I think they cause more problems than they solve, even though I mostly benefit from them), but if the environment is part of the argument for them, then base access to them by mileage. The 45 mpg cutoff sounds reasonable, though it should apply regardless of technology used. Honda has made several non-hybrid cars that get better mileage than a Prius. If it can be shown that hybrids are cleaner than conventional cars of similar mpg, that's a different story, but I haven't seen that claim made; most people don't even seem aware of Honda's high-mileage models.

And if Ford wants access to carpool lanes, it should drag itself into this millenium and start making efficient cars instead of huge hulking gas guzzlers.

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[ 22:54 Aug 25, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 15 Aug 2004

Mystery pain 'is all in the mind'

Another great BBC headline: Mystery pain 'is all in the mind'.

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[ 21:20 Aug 15, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Arcata Police Blotter

Fun review in today's Chron about a new book by the writer of the Arcata Police Blotter. I'd read about the blotter once before, in Jon Carroll, I'm fairly sure, though I can't seem to find that article. Sounds like a fun book.

Turns out the Arcata Eye, complete with police blotter, is online. Cool!

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[ 19:50 Aug 15, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 08 Aug 2004

"Solar System could be 'unique'"

A new silly story has been making the rounds (meaning someone sent a press release to AP or somewhere, and everyone is reprinting it). Dave spotted it first, in BBC Science:
Solar System could be 'unique'
[ ... ]
In the past 10 years, over 100 extrasolar systems (planetary systems orbiting stars other than the Sun) have been discovered from the wobble in their host stars, caused by the motion of the planets themselves.

But none of them seem to resemble our Solar System very much. In fact, these exoplanets have several important attributes that are entirely at odds with the Solar System as we know it.
[ ... ]
Planetary size is one puzzle; most exoplanets are gargantuan, gaseous masses like Jupiter.

Smaller planets similar to the Earth's relatively humble proportions - and rocky composition - are noticeably absent, although the researchers admit that this may be because smaller planets are more difficult to spot. Also, the large exoplanets are significantly closer to their stars than those in our own system are to the Sun.
[ ... ]

Well, duh. We're detecting planets by their gravitational influence on their star, and, what a shock, most of the planets we've detected that way have been massive and close. What a shock! I guess there must not be any small planets out there, huh?

The New Scientist article is a bit better written, and mentions that the exoplanets' highly elliptical orbits relates to the theory of how that particular system evolved.

So I'm guessing that's what the real article is about: that the eccentricity we're seeing in these big super-Jupiters' orbits is really the basis for the paper, and not the fact that, duh, they're large. It's probably a perfectly worthwhile paper that's just being butchered by the accounts in the popular press.

Strangely, the publication where it supposedly appeared, the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, does not seem to list this article or anything similar to it in either of the August issues so far.

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[ 13:09 Aug 08, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]