All Hallows Leaves

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The popular Halloween tradition of trick-or-treating finds its origins in the 17th century American tradition of the "Trinket Tree". Every year at Halloween, folks would pick a tree in their front yard and cover it in candy, toys, and other trinkets for the neighborhood children to take as they walked the streets in their Halloween cloaks (the modern Halloween costume didn't appear until an 1855 marketing push by Sears, Roebuck).

As time passed, and the moral fiber of society progressively frayed, the tradition became a financial and emotional burden on American society. By the year 1700, it was common for juvenile delinquents to leave their houses early on Halloween, stripping the Trinket Trees bare before the other children had set out. Feeling angry and cheated at finding an empty tree in front of a house, the children would bang on the front door shouting "Trinket Tree! Trinket Tree!" until the residents opened it. Often, the youthful mob would steal or destroy everything of value in the home.

Because of the degree of social unrest caused by the tradition, the Trinket Tree was outlawed in 1710. However, the tradition was so beloved that children continued to roam their neighborhoods on Halloween, demanding trinkets. As an attempt to compromise, the Trinket Tree tradition was moved to Christmas, and placed inside the home. But even this could not curb the children's voracious appetite for material goods. Without the physical tree in the yard, the term "Trinket Tree" soon lost its meaning, and today children instead use the corruption "trick or treat".

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It's just downright dishonest

Monday, October 30, 2006

As late as 1934, algebra was seen by the majority of the American public as a sign of witchcraft. In fact, hundreds of our nation's more prominent mathematicians were burned at the stake for their study of the subject. It wasn't until 1933 when Ralph Waldo Emerson, beloved author and mathematics enthusiast, published his essay "Moving Forward" - wherein he advocated tolerance for controversial sciences "just in case" - that the American people began to accept this unholy marriage of letters and numbers.

I, for one, don't think algebra is evil. But it's definitely trickery.

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Undeniable Sunday Comics: Jack-o-lantern

Undeniable Fact: Bread and butter

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ever wonder why penicillin is such an excellent antibiotic? As it turns out, the mold which produces the antibiotic - commonly known as "bread mold" because of its affinity for bread - has developed a complex symbiotic relationship with humans. Since bread does not occur naturally, the bread mold couldn't exist without us. As a result, the mold has adapted to protect its human benefactors with antibacterial chemicals.

(Sorry, comic will go up tomorrow)

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Undeniable Friday: The Cloaking Device

Friday, October 27, 2006

It's Undeniable Friday! Every Friday, in addition to an odd little factoid, gives you a fun puzzle, illusion, or activity to enjoy and share.

As you may have heard, researcher's at Duke University have recently created an "invisibility cloak". So today I'd like to show you some tests conducted at the Foundation for Research Advancing Unexplored Disciplines, where I help out in my spare time.

This is some pretty confidential stuff, and it wasn't easy to get them to even let me take the tape off of the premises. The guys at RAUDFound handpicked the tests shown in the video, and I am limited in what I can disclose about their research.

Needless to say, RAUDFound's cloaking device is leaps and bounds ahead of the "invisibility" technology - which only works on microwaves, not visible light - that the researchers at Duke are working on. The reason for this is that RAUDFound's technique uses a fundamentally different approach. Duke's solution involves specially designed materials. RAUDFound has instead opted to use basic quantum mechanics.

How it works:
For obvious reasons, I can't give the exact details of the device's inner workings, but I'll try to give a basic overview. We must start by covering quantum spin. In short, this is the individual rotation of tiny particles like photons, neutrons, etc. Unlike larger objects, these particles spin at a constant rate which never changes. For photons, this rate is 1. For electrons, protons, and neutrons, it is 1/2.

When a photon collides with a particle with 1/2 spin, it is deflected and its spin changes. If the photon hits our eyes, we perceive this as light. The color of light we perceive is related to the direction of its spin.

The key idea behind RAUDFound's cloaking device is to force the photons deflected by the subject to acquire a similar spin to the photons on the other side of the subject. Thus the light which hits the viewer's eyes is the same color as if the object were not there at all. I can't disclose how this is achieved at the moment, but that's the basic concept.

As you may have noticed in the video, the device does not work on fruit. I asked the guys to explain this, and they gave me a bunch of mumbojumbo technobabble. Interestingly the device works flawlessly on tomatoes, which definitively classifies the tomato as a vegetable.

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Undeniable Fact: A Wombat Scorned

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Although hailed as one of the few flying mammals, only the male bat can fly. The female bat - or "wombat" - is much larger and completely incapable of flight. In fact, the wombat's wings are so small that they often go unnoticed by casual observers.

Perhaps one of the most impressive behaviors of bats is their pre-mating ritual: because the process of mating can take up to twelve hours or more, it is necessary for the amorous creatures to seek refuge from the hyenas, raccoons, and large birds which would otherwise certainly take the opportunity to make it dinner for two. As a precaution, the male bat will use his talons to grasp the pelt of his ninety pound companion and take to the skies, searching for a cavern or nook in a nearby mountain. After mating, the male takes off, and it is up to the hapless wombat to make her way down again.

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Undeniable Fact: Something shocking?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Try as they might, scientists have been unable to prove the existence of electricity.

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Undeniable Fact: Tit for tat

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The only known flying rodent is the titmouse.

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Undeniable Fact: Good news for modern brides!

Monday, October 23, 2006

The design of early tools clearly indicates that until about 5,000 years ago, humans only had four fingers on each hand. The last finger to make its appearance? The ring finger!

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Undeniable Sunday Comic: The Perils of Picasso - Part II

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Undeniable Fact: Critical Mastodon

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Most people know that the largest living animal is the blue whale, but have you ever wondered what the largest animal ever to live was? As it turns out, it was the mastodon, weighing in at a mighty 98 tons - over twice the weight of even the largest blue whale.

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Undeniable Friday: Flipping Fish

Friday, October 20, 2006

It's Undeniable Friday! Every Friday, in addition to an odd little factoid, gives you a fun puzzle, illusion, or activity to enjoy and share.

Today: The Amazing Flipping Fish Trick

Here is yet another good one for parties! In fact this particular trick is easier to do if you have more people. Why? Because it exploits an odd idiosyncrasy that goldfish display regarding ringing cellphones, and you need ten of them - cellphones that is.

Flash version

The setup:
All this trick requires is a standard goldfish and ten cellphones. Arrange the cell phones as you see in the video. The next part is a little tricky because you have to act fast: you need to call all of the cellphones within a three second period. In general, you need to have them all ringing simultaneously, although it is possible to achieve the effect by calling them separately (more on the reason for this in "How it works", below). If done correctly, the goldfish will do a flip. (Depending on your timing and the body temperature of the fish, you may get a barrel roll or tight spin instead)

How it works:
When a cellphone receives a call, it communicates with the service provider using an analog encoding scheme known as "Mod-R". Unlike the digital signals which carry sound information to and from cellphones, Mod-R must be a very strong signal which broadcasts on seventeen wide-band radio frequencies. The reason for this is obvious: if you are in an area where you can't get cellphone service due to interference or a bad signal (for example when you are in a tunnel), the cell phone has to let the mobile service provider know that it is currently unavailable. In order to achieve this even in bad signal conditions, Mod-R uses a signal much broader and stronger than the FCC generally allows. An allowance is made however, because the signal is only sent for exactly three seconds (this is why you can call the cellphones separately if you are fast enough). After completing a successful "handshake" with the provider, the cellphone will switch to the low-power digital mode for communication.
Goldfish are rarely exposed to high-power microwave radiation in the wild, and they are ill-adapted to cope with it. When present from many directions, the radiation confuses their sense of ballast and causes them to go into a state known by ichthyologists as "rotation shock". When in this state, the goldfish attempts to correct its orientation by flipping itself over until all of its nerves have been exposed to the radiation. At this point, the goldfish receives consistent information from all of its senses, and can once again discern which way is up.

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Undeniable Fact: Quit monkeying around

In the early days of internal combustion engines, it was widely believed that they were far too dangerous to be worked on or maintained by humans. Instead, small monkeys were trained to diagnose and fix problems so that the human engineers could be kept safe. Even though better understanding of how engines work has led humans to fix them without fear of injury, the monkeys' primary tool - the monkey wrench - is still in use today.

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Undeniable Fact: S-wordplay

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In the late 15th century the French military imported a number of exotic weapons from Norway. Among these was the "brädsward" (from the Old Norse "bräd" meaning "fearless woman" and "sward", meaning "sword"). This was the weapon used by the infamous Norse warrior-women, the most notable of which was of course Helga the Stone-hearted, Queen of the Vikings. In English, this name was translated as "broadsword". Many misinterpreted the name as being a simple description of the weapon, and since the broadsword's blade is wider than that of many other swords, the word "broad" meaning "wide" entered the English language.

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Undeniable Fact: Oh Brother!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The shell of a chicken's egg is in fact a sort of deformed, conjoined twin of the egg's inhabitant. The unfortunate sibling nurtures the baby chick until it is ready to hatch. In hatching, the young bird violently kills its benefactor, before waddling off, leaving the shattered corpse behind.

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Undeniable Fact: A fly a day keeps the tadpole away

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Without a steady diet of flies, adult frogs will transform back into tadpoles.

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Milk it for all it's worth

Monday, October 16, 2006

According to a recent study by the Health Expert's Association of America, ostrich milk is over 20 times as nutritious as cow's milk. Unfortunately, due to the ostrich's streamlined body structure, it is notoriously difficult to keep the udders from closing.

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Undeniable Update: Banana Safety

Chemical analysis of the banana that caused my psychosis last Thursday is still ongoing, and so far five different psychoactive compounds have been discovered. It is obvious that there is a real danger here that more people may accidentally fall victim to the effects of this latest instance of a growing phenomenon which scientists have dubbed "altered fruit".

We can prevent more accidental poisonings, but everyone has to do their part. Please print this sign and place it on top of your microwave:

You can download the PDF version here. In addition, you can order a variety of products to help spread the word. I make no profit on these. I'm selling them at cost as a public service.

I will be compiling a gallery of photos of microwaves and bananas which have been properly labeled for safety, so send them in to . If you create your own sign or do something even more creative, all the better!

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Undeniable Sunday Comics: The Perils of Picasso Part I

Sunday, October 15, 2006

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Undeniable Fact: Close but no cigar

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Chemically speaking, ice is just three protons away from being glass.

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Undeniable Friday: Laser Pointer Death-Ray

Friday, October 13, 2006

Today's video is not a good party trick. It is a warning about a danger of laser pointers which is not well known, and which has received little media attention.

Flash version

The problem lies in the difference between the deadly 1914 LASER, and its modern descendent. In order to render the device safe for civilian use, the beam had to be converted from high intensity, narrow band radiation to wider band, low intensity radiation. As light buffs know, this tradeoff can be achieved with a concave lens.

Here's the issue: the conversion can be reversed with a simple convex lens, i.e. a magnifying glass. As you can see in the video, the results are disastrous.

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Undeniable Fact: I was going bananas!

I feel that I should apologize for yesterday's post. While all of the information was technically factual, the manner in which it was presented was entirely unprofessional and inappropriate. Although I am not one to make excuses, there is a logical explanation for my odd behavior: I was having a psychotic episode.

Here's what happened. I had bought some bananas a few days ago, and I had left them in the window to ripen. Before I got around to eating the last banana, it was quite ripe, and knowing the dangers of overripe bananas (strychnine poisoning), I brought it in away from the window. I placed it on top of my microwave, not realizing the peril that lay in such an action, and didn't give it another thought. Yesterday afternoon, I ate that banana, and, well, you know the rest.

As it turns out, placing a banana on top of your microwave and then running the microwave for around 40 minutes (total), apparently causes powerful psychoactives to be produced within the fruit. I brought the unfinished banana into the lab at the Foundation for Research Advancing Unexplored Disciplines, where I help out in my spare time (you can thank RAUDFound for some of the more impressive Undeniable Fridays ... including today's!), where the good people in the Spectral Analysis Department are working on solving the mystery. I've seen their initial results, and let me tell you: it looks pretty bleak.

While the effects of the compromised banana are completely harmless, and almost unimaginably pleasant (the word euphoria comes to mind), I feel obligated to warn my readers away from trying this themselves. This is a drug, and as everyone knows, drugs are bad.

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Undeniable Fact: Rub this on his flippers

Thursday, October 12, 2006

It's sweat... sweat... that's why! All those woolen clothes, yes. I can see the sweat dripping down his forehead between his square little glasses and down his fat face. A wig would soak some of it up. But no wigs for him! Salty, wet. Sal-et... sawet... sweat. The summer of 1776 was hot, that's why! That's why... That's whyyyyyyyyy..... So brazen the way he always forced his inventions on the people. All because of sweat! A sweat monster! A sweat golem! On the grassy knoll there is a stenographer! He will tell you something about sweat, oh hoh, yes I assure you.

And then we'll be on the same page. Why does my thumbnail itch? I know the answer yet I look closer. And there is his fat bespectacled face. Right on my thumbnail. A prison for the scoundrel of scoundrels... but why on my very thumb?! How did I earn this two edged sword of honor and disgrace? Was I born into it? Or is the answer simpler, more elegant, more ... sinister.

Sweat. That's why. The bastard bathed in it his whole life, and now, thrown from his word-ties, he is sweat! He breathes it, eats it, drinks it, and kneads it with his toes. But the mother's milk-well has run dry. Salt on the lips. Need the elixir. But where to find it?

On my thumbnail! It is not that he cannot leave that prison, but that he dares not! That cuticle, that source of the tincture he craves. A suckling, greedy little pig, practically gnawing at my cuticle, all for a little sweat. How far the mighty have fallen!

He comes in his chariot, pulled by a thousand sasquatch, streaking across the sky. He has come to reclaim it. But my brow will be dry ... as a kite by then. I will construct a gossamer barrier out of my toenails! He will not see me, but the sasquatch know my scent. Where to hide? Where to hide? Wheeeeeeeeeeeere tooooooooooooo hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiddddde?

Burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble, burble.

Freezer burned. Damned hot pockets should come with a warrantee against freezer burn. What is this? Some secretion of the penguin? That explains why there are feathers everywhere! And who brought me this lemonade?

Got to swim! No time to rest. Swim to shore! Shore. Sure. Shawl. Shark. Shark? SHARK! Got to swim! Everybody out of the pool! Where did the water go?

Sweat! That's why! Always back to sweat.

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Undeniable Fact: I'm all eyes!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The fossil record tells us that our distant ancestors had two sets of eyes and no ears. Over time, two of the eyes migrated to the sides of the head and became ears through evolution. This is of course even further evidence of our relationship to bats.

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Undeniable Fact: Anti up

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Everyone knows about the periodic table of elements, but what's less well-known is the periodic table of antielements.

That's right: for every element, there's a corresponding antimatter equivalent.

Here is a pdf of the periodic table of antielements.

For the sake of convenience, you can order a poster online:
11x17 inches
16x20 inches

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Undeniable Fact: A Nutty Tail

Monday, October 09, 2006

Ever wonder why squirrels have those bushy tails? Oddly enough, those tails are specially designed to carry pollen to the oak tree. In early spring the squirrels, knowing that the coming acorn harvest depends on it, climb from oak tree to oak tree, carefully gathering and depositing pollen as they go. Squirrels who refuse to carry out this important ritual are often attacked and sometimes eaten by other squirrels.

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Undeniable Sunday Comics

Sunday, October 08, 2006


Undeniable Fact: Truly Shocking!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Perhaps the most misunderstood form of energy production is the hydroelectric dam. Many people assume erroneously that energy is harnessed through electromechanical means, such as turbines and generators. Nope! The key to hydroelectric power lies instead in the thriving population of electric eels in all hydroelectric reservoirs. That's why you're not allowed to swim in them. So why the turbines? To aerate the water so that the eels can survive.

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Undeniable Friday: The Teleporting Cat Trick

Friday, October 06, 2006

It's Undeniable Friday! Every Friday, in addition to an odd little factoid, gives you a fun puzzle, illusion, or activity to enjoy and share.

Today: The Teleporting Cat Trick

This is a truly astounding illusion which you can use to bewilder your friends. To be honest, you can use any small animal or object for the trick, but I think a cat gives it an air of mystique. The video below shows the illusion performed by my cat Benjamin Franklin. (I was reluctant to name him after such a scoundrel, but I already had Crenshaw and Spartacus, and I had to complete the set).

This trick uses a technique first used by the ninjas of Japan, over a thousand years ago. The idea behind the trick is simply a matter of bending light around the cat. To achieve this you will need two concave mirrors, a convex mirror, and a normal mirror. The diagram below shows exactly what kind of mirrors you need, and how to position them.

Because I like to keep it scientific, I used plain wooden "teleportation gates", but you may want to decorate your setup to look more elaborate and "technological". A word of warning however: don't place any light sources too close to the mirror arrangement. Doing so may cause light echoes, which can be dangerous.

After setting the mirrors up as in the diagram, get your cat to walk through it. The cat will "disappear" for a moment, as if it were teleporting from one side to the other. Pretty neat!

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Undeniable Fact: A twist of fate

The year was 1914. The location: Albuquerque, New Mexico. The World's Fair had just begun and Daniel Pretzel, the dyslexic 14-year-old son of a veteran carny was eager to impress. Sneaking out in the dead of night, he attempted, unsupervised, to create a corn dog, as he had seen food vendors do thousands of times before. Unfortunately, he botched the process horribly, resulting in a batch of oddly twisted wads of dough. Unaware of his failure, he proudly presented his creations to his father the next morning. A kindly gentlemen, the old carny was unwilling to crush his son's enthusiasm, and lavished the boy with praise, placing the abominations prominently in the public view. Imagine his surprise when they sold like hot-cakes!

He asked the boy to make another batch immediately. Little Danny complied and the "pretzel" quickly became a fan favorite among young and old alike.

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Undeniable Fact: Antler Farm

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ever wonder what a moose's antlers are made of? Turns out it's a living oak tree! Every young moose has a small cavity on its head called a "cultivation pit". When the moose is about three months of age, its mother finds an acorn and carefully places it over this cavity. She then brings her hoof crashing down on the little tyke's head. Unfortunately, this results in the death of the young moose in 70% of cases. Assuming the moose survives, one of two things will happen: either the acorn will take root in the cavity, stimulating the release of hormones and preparing the cultivation pit for the small tree, where it will be coaxed much like a bonsai into a mighty pair of antlers, or the acorn will be destroyed. Up until this point, the moose has no gender. Depending on whether or not the acorn enters the cultivation pit, the moose will develop into a male or female.

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Undeniable Fact: From tiny to spiny to briny

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The saguaro cactus is not actually a plant, but an animal, much like the sea sponge. While stationary for most of its life, after about 300 years, the mighty saguaro runs to the sea, at speeds estimated around 90 miles per hour, to lay its eggs. After burying the seeds of the next generation, it hurls its body into the surf, drowning instantly. The eggs remain dormant for ten years before hatching and moving to drier ground.

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Undeniable Fact: This may sound fishy...

Monday, October 02, 2006

In recorded history, only four people have been born with functional gills. Ironically none of them ever learned to swim, and three of the four died by drowning.

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Undeniable Sunday Comic

Sunday, October 01, 2006

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