Everyday Mysteries

Milking it for all it's worth: a man squirts milk to a cat while milking a cow (Library of Congress, circa 1898)

Are black-eyed peas really peas? What’s the difference between sweet potatoes and yams? Why do turkeys have white and dark meat? Does your heart stop when you sneeze? What’s the smallest flower in the world? How does sunscreen work? What’s freezer burn? Who invented the TV dinner? Why don’t I fall out when a roller coaster goes upside down? How high can a nine-banded armadillo jump?

The answers to these and many other questions from Agriculture and Astronomy through Biology and Botany to Technology and Zoology can be found at the website Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress. Everyday Mysteries poses interesting questions, then answers them with the best scientific information available.

Published in: on November 19, 2009 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hitching Post 005: Political Polls

Truman savors unanticipated victory.

Truman savors unanticipated victory.

With the dog days of summer drawing toward a close, the political party conventions ramping up to endorse foregone conclusions, and the “traditional” Labor Day onset of the fall campaign season looming les than a dozen days away, it’s time to consider some of the resources available to those who may wish to follow this year’s presidential campaign in the finest possible detail.

One particularly excellent resource is the website RealClearPolitics, a relatively comprehensive and fairly objective online resource with selected daily news, opinion, political analysis, transcripts, speeches, blog links and much more. One of RCP’s most useful features is a voluminous listing of political polling results from a broad range of public opinion monitoring firms across the spectrum, coupled with their own polling average, which has proven to be of significant accuracy and value. RCP also offers a detailed view of state-by-state polls, and summarizes the results in terms of electoral vote outcomes.

For instance, today’s RealClearPolitics average of political polling data gleaned between August 4th and August 18th has Barack Obama over John McCain by 1.3 points, 44.9 to 43.6 nationally. In terms of electoral votes, RCP presently projects Obama at 228, and McCain at 178, with 132 toss-ups. Assigning all toss-ups by current polls, no matter how narrow the margin, they have McCain at 274, Obama at 264, while yesterday they had Obama at 275, McCain at 263. Any way you slice it, going into the political conventions it is an exceedingly close race.

The RCP average comprises a number of polls from Reuters/Zogby (a poll of 1089 “likely voters” conducted from the 14th to the 16th, which has McCain up by 5 points) to Quinnipiac (a poll of 1547 “likely voters” conducted from the 12th to the 17th, which has Obama up by 5 points) and includes Gallup Tracking, Rasmussen Tracking, LA Times/Bloomberg, Battleground, and IBD/TIPP.

For an even more detailed view of the specifics of these polls and others, check out the Haysville Community Library’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Internet directory of political polls, which contains links to more than 20 polling firm websites.

In this same context, another useful comprehensive site with significant commentary on multiple polling efforts is Congressional Quarterly Politics’ PollTracker Today’s PollTracker update reports the implications of the two latest national polls under the rubric New National and State Polls Show A Struggling Obama A detailed discussion of the state-by-state polling results was also updated with the latest information earlier today in Latest State-by-State General Election Match-Ups The summary PollTracker take at the moment:

“Two national polls are out today with different pictures of the race, although neither of them are particularly good news for Barack Obama. There has also been a series of state polls in the last two days which showed the Democrat having difficulty gaining any ground.

“The George Washington University Battleground 2008 survey conducted Aug. 10-14 has John McCain in a dead heat with Obama leading him 47 percent to 46 percent with 2 percent preferring ‘other’ and 19 percent undecided. The poll is conducted jointly by the Republican Tarrance Group and the Democratic firm of Lake Research Partners.

“A Reuters/Zogby poll conducted Aug. 14-17 has McCain moving out front 46 percent to 41 percent with 13 percent undecided. The margin of error is 3 points. Last month, Obama had led by 7 points.

“These two polls come on the heels of yesterday’s Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey that had Obama and McCain in a statistical tie, with Obama ahead 45 percent to 43 percent in a survey conducted Aug. 15-18. The margin of error was 3 points.”

Finally, the one most important think that the informed consumer of political polling information should always keep foremost in mind: a very healthy sense of skepticism. Two websites offer especially useful tools to aid you in doing so. The Roper Center, a pollster attached to the University of Connecticut, offers an introduction to the art and craft of political polling in Fundamentals of Polling – Polling 101 and a follow-up Polling 201 in Analyzing Polls: Interpretive Analysis Both are well worth your time. Equally useful is 20 Questions a Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results from the National Council on Public Polling. While designed specifically for working journalists, it raises precisely the kinds of questions the well-informed consumer of news and information should ask before granting credibility to any reported polling results.

That’s enough in the way of basics for today. In subsequent posts we’ll consider a completely different alternative for predicting election results, a variety of websites analyzing electoral votes, and other questions of interest to observers of and participants in American politics.

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 4:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Hitching Post 004


At their annual conference on rural safety yesterday, researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety released the prototype of an interesting and useful new website, Safe Road Maps. As they characterize it, the system is “a ground-breaking tool that combines information from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System with Google Maps to give you a visual representation of traffic safety across the entire nation.”

The results promise to be quite extraordinary. “With this system, you can enter an address and view the roads that have the highest number of traffic fatalities in a specified area. You can also view dynamically generated maps that show how public policy has been implemented to improve transportation safety by region. Our hope is that this site brings both increased safety and awareness to transportation policy makers and private citizens.”

The website is based on information gleaned by the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As NHTS describes this resource, “the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) contains data on a census of fatal traffic crashes within the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. To be included in FARS, a crash must involve a motor vehicle travelling on a trafficway customarily open to the public and result in the death of a person (occupant of a vehicle or a non-occupant) within 30 days of the crash. FARS has been operational since 1975 and has collected information on over 989,451 motor vehicle fatalities and collects information on over 100 different coded data elements that characterizes [sic] the crash, the vehicle, and the people involved.”

One limitation of the prototype system now being released is that only a single year of data is available for analysis. At present the system uses FARS data from 2006, which is the most recent data currently available from NHTSA. This 2006 dataset contains 38,588 accidents resulting in 42,642 fatalities, and involving 57,943 vehicles and 98,040 people.

Despite this limitation, the tool is already clearly useful. To test its capabilities, I input my own local address and requested a search radius of 2 miles. This produced a report of a single fatal accident at a distance of 1.4 miles from my residence, in the form of a symbol superimposed on a Google satellite map of the site, along with the rudimentary details of the case (state case number and number of fatalities). The satellite image could be changed into a map, a terrain map, or a hybrid map/satellite image. Clicking on the site symbol produced a Visual Earth satellite map of the location side-by-side with a Google map of the site, along with more extensive details, including the date and time of the accident, road type, whether or not the death(s) were “alcohol-related”, restraint type, “person type” (i.e., driver, passenger, pedestrian), age, sex, and whether or not a given involved party were deceased.

Expanding upon this initial search I then sought fatal accidents within a 5 mile radius, and discovered eight such accidents along with similar levels of detail.

You might use a similar exercise to check out your commuter route to work, to discover possible traffic safety problems in your neighborhood or community, or to document a case for a traffic signal.

The Safe Roads Map website includes links to such other useful resources as the FARS Encyclopedia of traffic fatality statistics (1994-2006), reports and publications, along with links to certain advocacy organizations.

Published in: on July 29, 2008 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hitching Post 003

Everyday Science Every Day

Could your air freshener or fabric softener be toxic?

Can what you eat make a difference, having a major impact on energy consumption and global warming?

Why do the poor spend a disproportionately high percentage of their income on the lottery despite the overwhelming evidence that it’s a very bad investment?

What can venerable magic tricks teach scientists about human perception and cognition?

Aside from making your food taste much better, did you know that such spices as oregano, thyme, cinnamon and clove pack a powerful punch that can help fight foodborne pathogens?

Is it an open and shut case that exposure to sunlight is a major cause of deadly melanoma?

Do cows have a role to play in combating global warming?

These are but a few of the intriguing questions asked and answered in a single day by Science Daily, “your source for the latest research news.”

Science Daily is one of the internet’s leading online magazines dedicated to news about science, technology, and medicine. It is a free, advertising-supported service that “brings you breaking news about the latest discoveries and hottest research projects in everything from astrophysics to zoology.”

Here’s how the editors of Science Daily explain what they do:

Science Daily is unique in that the magazine’s articles are selected from news releases submitted by leading universities and other research organizations around the world. Each news release is posted in its original form, with a link to the organization’s home page . . . delivering science news in its original, unedited format directly from the source (in this case, the news bureaus and public affairs offices of major universities and research institutions).”

There are dozens upon dozens of excellent science websites. But if you have time to read just one, Science Daily is an excellent way to keep your finger on the pulse of current developments in science and technology.

Published in: on July 25, 2008 at 10:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Hitching Post 002

Seven Popular Research Databases Available Free

Beginning in August, the Haysville Community Library will make available to any patron who has (or signs up for) a Kansas State Library card, seven expensive and subscription-only reference and research databases absolutely free of charge.

The seven databases are:

• Worldbook Encyclopedia;
• Worldbook Advanced;
• ProQuest Nursing Journals;
• Heritage Quest;
• WorldCat;
• The Gale/Cengage package which includes Academic OneFile, General OneFile, Literature Resource Center, Chilton’s Auto Repair, Health & Wellness Resource Center, Alternative Health Module, Business & Company Resource Center and Profiles ASAP, Customer Newspapers, Gale Virtual Reference Library, Military & Intelligence, Nursing & Allied Health, Legal Trac, Religion & Philosophy, Professional Collection, Computer Database, and Informé; and
• The Ebsco package which includes Novelist, Ultra Online Package (UOP), Middle Online Package (MOP), Primary Online Package (POP) and includes K-12 specific products such as: Encyclopedia of Animals, ERIC, Health Source: Consumer Edition, MAS Ultra School Edition, Middle Search Plus, Newspaper Source, Primary Search, Professional Development Collection, and TOPICsearch.

These databases will be provided via Kan-ed, a statewide information network administered by the Kansas Board of Regents, and the State Library of Kansas. We’ll let you know just as soon as they’re up and running, and intend to feature several of them in future hitching posts.

Published in: on July 15, 2008 at 2:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hitching Post 001

At least a few locals and residents with a bit of history behind them may recall Sam Shustorman’s shoe shop on the north side of Douglas in Wichita, near the train station, in what is now called ‘old town’ – and the fact that it appeared in an edition of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not several decades ago.

So today, in honor of Sam Shustorman, we’re introducing our “Hitching Post” series with a featured website that encapsulates the same essential mix of bland and weirdness that Ripley’s saluted.

What’s “Hitching Post”? It’s a periodic – maybe even frequent – feature thumbing through the Hitchhiker’s Guide to some byway on the web that’s worthy of mention for any one of a variety of reasons – because it’s extraordinarily useful, humorously peculiar, uniquely topical – or perhaps simply as a capricious whim.

Today, as you may have guessed from the first two paragraphs of this post, is a day of whimsy. A little later on we’ll be releasing another page in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, a directory of online Web Museums. If you’ve never explored the phenomenon before, that directory is a good departure point.

Online museums are no less diverse than the human panoply. Certainly, they encompass such repositories of culture and knowledge as the Eisner Museum of Advertising & Design or the Museum of Modern Art. But they also range beyond the predictable to the Burnt Food Museum, the Squished Penny Museum and the Museum of Hoaxes, complete with a museum store featuring “Save the Jackalope” mugs and t-shirts. There’s even a Museum of Online Museums for the terminally addicted.

So, in honor of Sam Shustorman and the vast array of web museums, today we feature Roadside Art Online, which asks, rhetorically, “is it any surprise that so much of America’s great art can be seen from the window of a passing car, in the melange of shop signs, billboards and cheesy buildings, in the personal monuments people make in their gardens and empty lots, on the makeshift, lean-to margins where artistic preconceptions and ambitions don’t exist?” Check it out, and see if you don’t agree. It’s worth a smile.

Oh, and for those of you with a little longer recollection of the area, here’s another roadside memory jogger:


Published in: on June 25, 2008 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment