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Who should have really won Rat Race? A comprehensive study.

Rat Race is a near-perfect film. Coming out in 2001, the same year as Shrek, it was very much part of the peak of pre-9/11 wacky comedies that embodied the turn of the millennium. It even has Smashmouth in it – literally on stage singing All Star at the end of the film.

It’s one hundred and twelve minutes of pretty much pure nonsense. A crazy squirrel lady, a bus full of Lucille Ball impersonators, a song by the Baha Men, Hitler’s car… the film really has it all.

I remember first seeing the film in 2002 or so. We’d rented the DVD from the local village shop because they had nothing good available, and I was sceptical. The film looked like garbage. Just completely stupid and dumb. The cast were pretty much entirely nobodies to me, expect for Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese, and the fact that Atkinson was being wasted on a bizarrely offensive Italian tourist character put me off.

But do you what happened when the ending credits began to roll? I went back to the DVD menu and watched it again. In full. An entire second time. Something I hadn’t done prior, or since with any other movie. There was something special about this film, something I had to watch again. And I did, again and again. And now this movie lives forever in my dreams and soul.

And because of that, I’m particularly fixated on answering one particular question about it, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, let’s review what the film’s actually about.

1. A brief overview of the plot

Rat Race is primarily a rip-off of the 1963 movie ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ – a film I have never seen and have no interest in seeing. But the plot of that movie, as I understand it, is a bunch of strangers chasing after some money in zany ways. And yep, that’s pretty much Rat Race.

John Cleese plays an eccentric casino owner – Donald Sinclair – who wants to offer his highest rollers a new game to bet on. Instead of betting on cards or horses, he invents a new sort of race – where people chase across the country to win a prize. To do this, he plucks a variety of guests from the hotel and informs them that two million dollars in cash has been placed in a bag in a station locker in New Mexico. The first one there gets to keep it. And they’re off!

That’s it. It’s a very simple premise. Well, there’s at least one layer of dramatic irony going on – the participants in the race don’t know that they’re the subjects of a larger bet. But that doesn’t really play any significant role in the plot. It’s more just a contrivance for the setup to make any sense, and to give Cleese a few more scenes scattered throughout the film. The film could just as well be the same characters chasing the money without that element, and it’d be more or less the same.

So what the film represents is a logistical challenge. All the characters start off in the same spot, and each has to reach the same end point. What they need to do is find the most efficient way to manage that. Things go wrong, hilarity ensues, and that’s basically all you need to know to understand this film.

2. The most efficient way to win

To figure this out we need to determine two things: where the characters start, and where they end up. As Rat Race is a piece of fiction, it makes identifying this an interesting challenge. Thankfully, the first part of this is pretty straightforward: it’s explicitly stated that the characters are in the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas. That weird casino that has a mini-Venice built inside it. To each their own.

The end point is more difficult. They have to get to Silver City, New Mexico – which is a real place. But the train station containing the locker containing the money does not exist. Silver City just doesn’t have a passenger train station. The exterior shots of the station are actually of the Nevada Northern Railway Museum in Ely, Nevada.

So the most obvious approach would be to simply pick a central spot in Silver City and say that’s roughly where they were going. A problem with this is that Atkinson’s character (Enrico Pollini) is clearly seen travelling to the station by rail, and ends up nearly winning as a result. (OH SORRY I DIDN’T GIVE A SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS 17 YEAR OLD COMEDY FILM).

But the stand-in location above isn’t any good either, as the Nevada Northern Railway Museum is 800 miles away from Silver City. And there aren’t any really good rail stops nearby that could act as approximate locations. So let’s just say that Silver City in general is the location they’re heading to.

Let’s plug these coorindates into Google Maps and see what we get.

I’m not buying that ‘7 hour 10 mins’ travel time by plane that Google is giving me there. But I’m not able to find any actual flights that go between the two airports. Instead, as the characters in the film attempt, you’d be best off getting a flight to Albuquerque, taking about 1 hour and 25 minutes. Followed by a drive of just over 4 hours to Silver City. So your total travel time would be about 5 and half hours.

Let’s add in some time for general airport faffing. It’s a domestic flight so no border control, and they probably wouldn’t take any baggage: so about 90 minutes extra seems right. So maybe 7 hours total? And that’s if they could instantly get a flight the moment they reached the airport. Which seems unlikely.

So clearly a plane trip is the most efficient way to do this. Unless they just missed a flight, in which case the direct car ride is the best – at around nine and a half hours door-to-door.

All this is purely academic anyway, as none of the characters end up sticking to any kind of plan or take anything close to an ‘efficient route’. But it gives us an interesting yardstick with which we can measure the film’s correspondence to reality. If seven to nine-and-a-half hours is a realistic time range for getting from Vegas to Silver City under normal conditions, then we should expect at least ten hours and upwards for the wacky routes our heroes take to get there.

So let’s get to it. I’m now going to take each group of characters in turn, analyse the route they took, and attempt a fair approximation of their trip. A lot of guesswork is going to be involved, but I’m approaching this from a disinterested perspective (I don’t really like any of the characters enough to be rooting for them), so I’m not concerned about any impartiality on my part, conscious or otherwise.

3. The Journeys

3.1 – Duane & Blaine

Duane and Blaine are brothers, and they’re basically hustlers. We’re introduced to them as they attempt to commit some ‘personal accident compensation’ fraud. They’re probably the most ruthless of the group in their pursuit of the money, and willing to go to the most immoral lengths to win.

They start by driving to the airport. The Venetian Resort is a ten minute drive from Vegas’ McCarran International Airport. (We’ll use this as a standard for the other characters too).

At the airport they find they’re unable to get a seat on the next flight, as the others have got tickets first. So they decide to, erm, use their truck to destroy the ground radar and prevent anyone from flying. (As a reminder, this film came out in cinemas just 25 days before 9/11). Let’s rewatch that scene, a masterpiece of film-making, combing physical comedy and a classical score.

Let’s say this whole thing takes 15 minutes.

Somehow avoiding domestic terrorism charges, the pair head over to a car hire place (10 minutes) and hire a new car (10 minutes).

They then drive for an unspecified amount of time. Off-screen they meet the squirrel lady, but I’m not able to determine whereabouts she’s locate; the “Totem Pole Ranch” she references doesn’t seem to be a real place. Let’s just assume they’re doing the normal drive.

At some point along the way they stop to get a second key cut (15 minutes) but it’s stolen by the locksmith. They chase him down the road, into a hot air balloon festival. Again, this could be anywhere. Can we reverse engineer some of the missing times here from what else we see in the rest of the film? Maybe!

Following a 4 minute episode where they fight the locksmith for the key they end up back on the road, with a signpost indicating they’re 28 miles from Silver City. An interrupted drive from from Vegas to to the town of Buckhorn (roughly 30 miles from Silver City) would take 8 hours 40 minutes. So let’s assume that as a base amount of time to add everything else onto.

But they’re not they’re yet! Distracted on the road, they end up driving into a Monster Truck rally. Again, I can’t find a decent contender for this within 30 miles of Silver City. But let’s say they spend at least 20 minutes at the rally, for the both the events in the film and then stealing the truck off-screen. They then drive the rest of the way – about a 30 minute drive. They then run for another 2 minutes from the truck to the station. So..

  • Drive to the airport: 10 mins
  • Airport sabotage: 15 mins
  • Head to car hire: 10 mins
  • Hiring a car: 10 mins
  • Car travel: 8 hours 40 mins
  • Key cutting: 15 mins
  • Locksmith fight: 4 mins
  • Monster truck rally: 20 mins
  • Remaining drive: 30 mins
  • Running: 2 mins
  • Total: 10 hours and 36 minutes.

3.2 – Enrico Pollini

Enrico Pollini is an Italian tourist character, portrayed by Rowan Atkinson. Similar to Mr Bean, he’s a bumbling idiotic character that the others look down upon. He’s also a narcoleptic, which – rather than being used as a chance to highlight the impact this illness has on people’s lives – is basically just used as a punchline a few times to reiterate how useless he is.

He falls asleep pretty much immediately, in the hotel lobby. He then stays asleep for about half of the film before waking up and continuing. Sadly, there’s no accurate way to determine how long he was asleep for. We can see he’s amassed a crowd of children around him, watching him sleep – so he’s been there a while. But not so long that he’s received any medical attention or intervention by hotel staff. (They could of course be under instructions not to intervene by Sinclair, but who knows?).

From what I understand about narcolepsy, sleep attacks are common but not especially lengthy. These microsleep attacks can range from a few seconds to a few minutes. I’m going to give a generous high-end cap of 30 minutes on Pollini’s sleep, as that seems about right for the way the sleep is cut in the film, and the limit of what seems to be medically appropriate.

After his sleep, he leaves the hotel and is almost hit by Zack Mallozzi – an organ transplant driver played by Wayne Knight. Mallozzi is driving to El Paso, which does indeed go close by Silver City. They drive for a while, before stopping after Pollini throws a human heart out of the van window.

Mallozzi attempts to murder Pollini and take his heart (????) and Pollini escapes by jumping onto a nearby moving train (???). Can we figure out where this takes place?

I think so! On the Interstate Route 10, between Steins and Lordburg there’s a stretch of road that has a train track running alongside it. This is along the route they would have taken from Vegas to Silver City/El Paso, and also matches the geography. So it’s a safe bet.

To get here, it’d take an 8 hour 30 minute drive. Pollini escapes onto a train and is on his way to Silver City.

Now, since Silver City doesn’t actually have a train station we’ll have to use some imagination. This spot on the road is 45 miles from Silver City. In the USA, passenger trains are limited to 59mph. So, assuming they were travelling at top speed, the time it would take for a train to cover that distance is about 45 minutes.

Let’s assume him arriving there counts as winning, narcolepsy aside. So..

  • Initial sleep: 30 minutes
  • Car time: 8 hours 30 minutes
  • Train time: 45 minutes
  • Overall time: 9 hours and 45 minutes

By car, the distance covered by the train would have taken about an hour. So we can also give him a ‘realistic’ time of a round 10 hours if it comes to it.

3.3 – Owen Templeton

Owen Templeton is Cuba Gooding Jr’s character in Rat Race. He plays a disgraced football referee, universally despised for making a bad call on a coin flip. His is one of the most pitiful misadventures in the film, and particularly varied.

He also starts by going to get to the airport (10 mins), finds he can’t make the flight (5 mins), and goes to grab a cab. Meeting the same cabbie, he instructs the driver to head to Silver City. After some time,he’s left stranded in the desert by the cab driver, since he’d lost money on the football game Templeton had refereed.

Now, I doubt that the cab driver would drive over an hour to exact his revenge on Templeton. And while there’s no clues as to the exact part of the Nevada desert that Templeton was left in, I think somewhere around Boulder City would be suitable.

It’s surrounded by desert, on the way from Vegas to Silver City, and is only a 30 minute drive. Let’s add another 10 mins for the cab driver’s shortcut, plus another 1 hour for Templeton’s time spent wandering the desert – he’s clearly been out there a long time and is suffering from dehydration.

This also makes sense in terms of what happens next. He reaches a coach stop, where a bus is parked full of Lucille Ball impersonators, on their way to a convention in Santa Fe. If they came from the Vegas direction, it’d make sense they’d pass by Boulder City on the way too. So the facts add up.

After 5 minutes of coaxing the coach driver into giving him all his clothes, Templeton is on his way. The drive from Boulder City to Silver City would take about 8 hours 45 minutes. But since a coach full of Lucys is going to be slower than a car, and Templeton is shown to be an inexperienced coach driver, I think we can add another hour on top of that.

This time also includes the coach breaking down scene, and Templeton somehow coming into possession of a horse.

Then the 2 minute run from the coach to the station. So…

  • Travel to airport: 10 mins
  • Time in airport: 5 mins
  • Cab to desert, including shortuct: 40 mins
  • Lost in desert: 1 hour
  • Coach stop: 5 mins
  • Drive to Silver City: 8 hours 45 minutes
  • Extra coach time and horse: 1 hour
  • Running to station: 2 minutes
  • Total: 11 hours and 47 minutes

3.4 – Vera and Merrill

This pair are an estranged mother and daughter meeting for the first time, played by Whoopi Goldberg and Lanai Chapman respectively. And they have a pretty wild time.

Like the others, they try the airport. Merrill is a wealthy businesswoman and is able to secure a charter jet. She offers a bonus for the pilots if they can reach their destination in under an hour. Was she heading for Albuquerque airport like the others, or the closer Grant County Airport? We don’t know, but it doesn’t matter as the flights all get cancelled. So let’s just work with the standard 10 mins drive to the airport, with maybe around 15 mins of faffing because they actually make it onto their plane.

Like the brothers, they go to hire a car (10 mins) and are frustrated by the slow car hire worker (let’s say 20 mins). Then they’re off!

Driving for a bit, they get a bit lost trying to locate the interstate. This is brought up several times in the movie and I’m not sure what it means. If they mean Route 10, then it should be clearly signposted after cutting through Phoenix.

Sure, they could be trying to cut onto the interstate early. But that would add extra time onto their journey (checkout Google’s wild suggestion that adds two whole hours onto the journey). So I’m not sure what their route is, or how they’re getting lost. But whatever. Crazy squirrel lady happens.

They take the squirrel lady’s directions and end up driving into a ravine. Let’s say they lose 30 mins for this detour / near-death experience. They then wander the desert for a bit – let’s give them the same hour we gave Templeton for this bit. And they come across the testing area for a high speed rocket car.

Since we can’t say where they start or end up during the rocket car bit, it’s a bit sparse in terms of the calculations we can do. But the scientists state that the girls break Mach 1 during this part, meaning they were travelling at about 767mph. So they definitely winning the ‘fastest moving at any point during the film’ part of the movie. Assuming they were in the car for 5 minutes, they’d cover about 63 miles. A car travelling at 75mph (the speed limit in New Mexico) would take 50 minutes to cover this distance.

So I propose that rather than trying to incorporate the rocket car in as an additional calculation, we simply deduct ’50 minutes’ from what would be otherwise be a standard trip.

They wander the desert a little more. Clearly still dizzy from the rocket car, they can’t have been walking around for more than 15 minutes, before getting bundled into a bus. Since we can’t tell where the bus started, we can’t say how long this would have taken. So let’s think about this.

Nine and a half hours is the average amount of time it’d take a normal car to do the full journey. Let’s deduct the fifty minutes saved by the rocket car, then add another 10 for the extra slowness of travelling by bus. That gives us a total ‘on the road’ time of 8 hours 50 minutes. Are you still following along?

Their bus actually ends up closer to the station than the other racers, so let’s give them 1 minute of running time. So…

  • Airport travel and faff: 25 mins
  • Detour: 30 mins
  • Desert time: 1 hour
  • Second desert time: 15 mins
  • ‘On the road’ (initial car time + bus time – rocket car time): 8 hours 50 mins
  • Running to the station: 1 minute
  • Total: 11 hours and 1 minute

3.5 – The Pear Family

The Pears are a mother, father, son, and daughter enjoying a family holiday to Las Vegas. The father, Randy Pear (Jon Lovitz), is recruited into Sinclair’s race but neglects to tell the rest of the family about it, thinking that his wife wouldn’t approve. The lie he gives instead is that he has a job offer in Silver City (working in “ink, for fountain pens!). His family all believe this lie and they set out for the airport (10 mins journey time, 5 mins faff).

Like the others, they end up grounded so opt to drive to Silver City instead. His daughter needs the toilet soon after, and Randy makes her go out of the window of the moving car. He’s stopped by police as a result, probably being detained for about 10 mins.

They stop off at a ‘Barbie Museum’ on the way – which instead of being a museum about the popular doll, is in fact a museum about the SS officer Klaus Barbie. They spend about 15 minutes at the museum (why did they take the tour) before leaving to find that Duane and Blaine have sabotaged their car. Somehow they are able to steal what in the universe of this film is explicitly actual Hitler’s actual car. Which is apparently roadworthy and contains petrol.

A series of highly-plausible events take place where Randy smears black lipstick on his upper lip, burns both his tongue and middle finger with Hitler’s cigarette lighter, is attacked by bikers, crashes into a WW2 Allied veterans rally, and is shot at. But I can’t imagine this adding more than 30 minutes to the family’s overall journey.

After this, the family are next seen in a truck stop, wanting to quit the journey. Randy refuses to let them give up and illegally drugs them all, before bundling them into the back of a truck. Sleeping pills take about an hour to take effect, so let’s say they were at the stop for 1 hour 15 minutes.

The family then arrive in Silver City and spend the usual 2 minutes or so running to the station. Despite the diversions along the way, the family spent most of their journey on the road (in their car / Hitler’s car / the lorry), so using the standard 9.5 hours as the base time feels fair, with some fuzzy lines around the speed of the lorry and the reliability of Adolf Hitler’s car. So…

  • Airport: 15 mins
  • Police stop: 10 mins
  • Barbie Museum: 15 mins
  • Weird Nazi stuff: 30 mins
  • Road stop: 1 hour 15 mins
  • On-the-road time: 9 hours 30 mins
  • Running to the station: 2 mins
  • Total: 11 hours and 57 minutes

3.6 – Nick & Tracy

Nick and Tracy are unique amongst the racers in that, although they travel together, they didn’t know each other between the film. They agree to travel together (mostly because they happen to be reading the same biography of Charles Lindbergh) and a romantic element develops. But we can count them as one unit because all their timings should be the same.

So they both head to the airport (10 mins) but faff around for a bit longer. They strike up a conversation over the book, and Nick is excited to hear that Tracy can still fly as she’s a helicopter pilot and only the airplanes are grounded. Let’s call this another 10 mins of chat/plan time.

Now, if they’d just taken the helicopter the entire way they’d have easily won. Assuming the helicopter travelled at 160mph they could cover the 450 miles in about 2 hours 48 minutes – and probably land right near the station. But they don’t.

Instead, Tracy begins by flying the helicopter north – which Nick expresses some concern about. Tracy explains that it’s so they can visit her boyfriend. Where they end up isn’t clear, but it’s presumably a bit far east as well. After Tracy fights her boyfriend, they crash the helicopter and steal his truck.

In the next scene we see them, they’re sitting in a diner where Nick brags: “If everybody else had to drive, we have a three-hour head start.” Nick’s got a map in front of him, so we can take his word on that. So, let’s take our usual 9.5 hour calculation and subtract three hours to get six and a half hours driving time.

Not much else happens to them along the way. They spend a scene arguing with a mechanic who’s trying to rip them off. Call that 30 minutes. And they run out of petrol and stop to siphon some from a police car. But that can’t be more than 5 mins as the policeman drives off pretty sharpish to chase the brothers.

Does that all add up? This scene in the film geotemporally locates Nick, Tracy, Duane, and Blaine in the same spot. We could attempt to reconcile this all into one consistent timeline, but it doesn’t matter too much. We’re interested in how long each group would have taken, independently of each other anyway. Remember that the brothers still have to deal with the Monster Truck bit. We don’t see Nick and Tracy again until the end, with two minutes of running time to the station. So…

  • Airport: 20 mins
  • Driving: 6 hours 30 mins
  • Policeman: 5 mins
  • Mechanic: 30 mins
  • Running to the station: 2 mins
  • Total: 7 hours and 27 minutes

4. The Winners

We have a winner! Here’s the countdown:

Sixth place: The Pear Family (11 hours 57 minutes)

The Pears spent a good deal of time hitting the road, but racked up way too much stoppage time. The lag on the sleeping pills is a particular hard-hitter. And the Nazi Museum was just unnecessary altogether.

Fifth place: Owen Templeton (11 hours 47 minutes)

A surprisingly high ranking for someone left to die in the desert. But even a solid commitment to driving a coach under stressful conditions sees Templeton just missing out on a spot in the top four.

Fourth place: Vera and Merrill (11 hours 1 minute)

The rocket car wasn’t enough to help the girls out and claw back time from two separate sections of them carless in the desert.

Third place: Duane & Blaine (10 hours and 36 minutes)

The brothers ruined everyone’s plans with their airport sabotage and this ruthlessness saw them through to making up good time on the road. But it wasn’t enough in the end.

Second place: Enrico Pollini (9 hours and 45 minutes)

Incredible scenes from the plucky Italian. Despite falling asleep at the starting block, Pollini really ‘hauled ass’ to almost make it into first place. Of course, within the film itself he makes it there first, but we can’t ignore the reality that there is no rail station in Silver City. So he just misses out.

First place: Nick & Tracy (7 hours 27 minutes)

They had a bloody helicopter. Of course they won.

Whether they used it all the way or not, the “three hour” head start is simply too much of an advantage to ignore. We’ve established that travelling by air is the most efficient way to win this race and since they were the only two able to take advantage of it, they were the clear favourites from the outset.

5. Concluding remarks

Rat Race clearly isn’t a film meant to be taken this seriously. The fact that all the characters end up in basically the same place at the same time isn’t the result of careful and deliberate planning by the screenwriters – it’s just a convenience for the sake of the plot.

But I think we can conclude that if an eccentric billionaire offers you the chance to win $2m dollars in a race, you should probably go find a helicopter pilot as soon as possible. And don’t trust women who sell squirrels.

I’ve probably made some basic errors in the above, so please do let me know if you spot anything. Or have a go at doing all the calculations yourself. It’s only taken me five and a  half hours!

Now, let’s all enjoy some Smashmouth.


Further reading:

In my research for this… thing, I really enjoyed this article about the plotholes of Rat Race. It really is a very silly film.

Things You Need In Addition To Love

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time. It’s easy.
All you need is love. All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.

Ok, so this is demonstrably untrue.

There are many things you need in addition to love.

1. Oxygen

This is the big one. The body requires oxygen as a kind of combustion source to break down food into energy. Without oxygen your brain cells start to die off pretty quickly (other cells in the body not so much). So that’s pretty important.

I guess you could also add ‘respiration’ in general to this. The act of breathing is also about removing carbon dioxide from your body. You don’t want that hanging around or I guess you’d just suffocate. So yeah, Beatles, BREATHING is really important. Y’all not gonna mention that?

2. Food

Can’t get energy if you’re not eating! Food is our energy source, and is required to literally fuel our lives. I guess you can technically remain alive without eating (we do it daily between meals), but you’re not gonna last more than a few days if you go entirely without.

People have reported living for up to two months without food. But you do get really, really hungry. So I wouldn’t really even call that living. You need to eat.

3. Water

Ah, water. Now water you can’t go without for more than a few days. The body is constantly using up water for all kinds of things; sweating, respiring, that kind of stuff. They say our bodies are about 50-60% water, but I don’t know where it is. I guess in the feet or something. I dunno. But you need water.

4. Warmth

Get too hot and you’ll burn; too cold and you’ll freeze. I know right, it sucks. You’re only ever a couple of tens of degrees away from certain death.

It gets worse. The human body temperature is a steady 37C. But if that drops to just 35C you’ve got hypothermia and bits of you will start falling off. Upwards, between just 37.5C and 38.3C is considered hyperthermia. You’ll start feeling dizzy, your heart will go nuts, and you’ll generally just have a bad time. Then you die.

So when I say ‘warmth’, I really just mean a nice stable temperature that doesn’t change too much.

5. Sleep

God only knows why we sleep. Something to do with the body needing to recharge, or the mind having to process stuff. Anyway, we gotta do it.

The record for going without sleep is somewhere between 11-18 days. But you’re not really having a good time. Sleep, guys.

6. A functioning immune system

Yeah, there’s lots of bug and microbes out there constantly trying to kill you. So if you’re immune system isn’t up to scratch you won’t last long. This is why auto-immune or immune deficiency diseases are so rough. Even a common cold can wreak havoc.


And that’s about it, I guess. And you don’t even need love. Many people live without love, so we can remove that from the list.

Let’s return to the song.

Nothing you can make that can’t be made.
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time. It’s easy.
All you need is oxygen, food, water, warmth, sleep, and a functioning immune system.
All you need is oxygen, food, water, warmth, sleep, and a functioning immune system.
All you need is oxygen, food, water, warmth, sleep, and a functioning immune system, oxygen, food, water, warmth, sleep, and a functioning immune system.
Oxygen, food, water, warmth, sleep, and a functioning immune system is all you need.

Much better.

What IS the deal with airplane food?

I know this gets brought up a lot. But seriously, what is the deal with airplane food?

It’s always horrible, and tasteless, and features some frankly bizarre choices.

Like the butter you get is always a frozen solid block. Wanna try warming it up by placing it on the cover of the hot section? Congratulations, you now have a a pool of grease over your lap.

And why are there always so many ‘bits?’ Do I really need a starter, main, pudding, AND a bread roll AND fruit juice AND a cup of tea? I’ve been on flights before where this is all followed an hour or two later by a wrap, a bag of crisps, and a Gü yoghurt. Why? Why does that happen? Just gimme a sandwich; I’ll live.

It’s always nice when the airline tries to make an effort and offer something exotic – like a curry. But it still ends up being all bland and horrible. But wait, is there a good reason for this?

SCIENCE

So apparently your taste buds are less, erm, good at tasting things at higher altitudes? And this means that airlines have to adapt their meals. Which is why they taste weird.

But that’s not all! It’s not just the altitude. The dryness of the cabin has an effect too, which makes you feel all thirsty. Your nose also gets all dried out, which has a negative effect on your olfactory senses.

I’ve also read that the noise on planes can have an impact too. Basically, the idea is that it’s so noisy that you enjoy your food less. Cool, huh?

So, to answer the question of what the deal of airplane food is…

  1. Altitude affects your taste buds.
  2. You get all dried out.
  3. It’s noisy.
  4. Airlines try to counteract the above by changing the recipes. And it all ends up kind of weird.

THAT’S THE DEAL WITH AIRPLANE FOOD, GUYS!

Still doesn’t explain the bizarre portion sizes though…

An explanation of everything Insane Clown Posse consider to be miracles

Insane Clown Posse are a fascinating band. They’ve somehow managed to create an entirely unique genre of music: Clown Rap. They describe themselves as hip hop, horror core, rock rap, and other things. But at its heart, it’s just Clown Rap.

Here’s what they look like:

Insane_clown_posse9

But enough background. If you wanna know about ICP there’s plenty of writing already out there listing how weird and wacky they are.

I’d like to talk about a specific ICP song: Miracles. Here’s the vid:

It’s pretty weird, huh? It’s just them listing things they think are miracles. (Probably part of their ‘hidden’ Christian agenda, right?). Most famously, it spawned an entire meme around the “magnets” line.

efaffe9f0ef28f7cb8542acd2928c35f.320x180x1

In this article, I’d like to help Insane Clown Posse by explaining how the things they’re confused about work. I hope they find it a useful introduction to the world of science. So here goes!

If magic is all we’ve ever known
Then it’s easy to miss what really goes on
But I’ve seen miracles in every way
And I see miracles everyday

Ok, that’s just the intro. So far so good. There’s some MIRACLES coming up now though.

Oceans spanning beyond my sight
And a million stars way above em at night
We don’t have to be high to look in the sky
And know that’s a miracle opened wide

So, the oceans and stars are miracles? Nah not really. They’re just parts of the earth and galaxy. They’re pretty much the most bog standard things in our lives. If we didn’t have the oceans and stars you wouldn’t be around to appreciate them. So yeah, nothing special here really. The sky is not a miracle.

Look at the mountains, trees, the seven seas
And everything chilling underwater, please
Hot lava, snow, rain and fog
Long neck giraffes, and pet cats and dogs

Ignoring the fact they added “please” for no reason other than to rhyme with “seas” there’s a lot going on here. Mountains and trees are basically the same as above – natural objects that are utterly unremarkable. “The seven seas” is just the “oceans” from before repeated.

“Everything chilling underwater” – so, fish? Nah. They’re not miracles. They’re just creatures that have evolved to live underwater.

“Hot lava” – as opposed to? Cold lava is basically just rocks. Lava is formed when rock gets hot and becomes molten. A miracle? I don’t think so.

“Snow, rain and fog” – you’re just listing weather here mates.

“Long neck giraffes, and pet cats and dogs” – weird grouping of animals here. Above, they listed ALL underwater creatures but here they choose just two domestic pets and LONG NECK GIRAFFES? Nope, nothing miraculous about those either really.

Pure magic is the birth of my kids
I’ve seen shit that’ll shock your eyelids

Childbirth is often said to be a miracle. “The miracle of creation” they call it. But it’s really not. Reproduction is a very standard natural process. It’s just what all animals do. Was your wife pregnant for nine months? Yes? Then she’s gonna have a baby. Not miraculous. My eyelids remain unshocked.

Just to be clear, the definition of a miracle is a an event not explicable by natural or scientific laws. For some reason, ICP have chosen thus far to focus exclusively on events explicable by scientific laws. Do like UFOs or something instead, not widely understood scientific processes like “fog”.

The sun and the moon, and even Mars
The Milky Way and fucking shooting stars
UFOs, a river flows
Plant a little seed and nature grows

That’s more like it! The first two things we can skip, they just fall under ‘space stuff’ which is pretty unremarkable. “UFOs” is more interesting. By their very nature, they cannot be explained (otherwise they’d be FOs). But are UFOs miracles? I don’t think so. In most cases they can be explained away in some sense – people seeing things wrong, secret military tests, weather balloons, weird weather, whatever. These are all perfectly rational explanations.

Consider Bayes’ Theorem. It’s a scientific/philosophical theorem about the probability of events given other events. To steal directly from wikipedia:

P(A|B) = \frac{P(A)\, P(B | A)}{P(B)},

where A and B are events.

  • P(A) and P(B) are the probabilities of A and B without regard to each other.
  • P(A | B), a conditional probability, is the probability of observing event A given that B is true.
  • P(B | A), is the probability of observing event B given that A is true.

So in practice, this can be things like ‘if a disease testing machine is 95% accurate and you’re testing for a disease that affects 1% of people, how likely is it you have the disease if you get a positive result?’ The result always freaks people out, because it’s much lower than you’d expect [16% in this case!].

What does this have to do with miracles? Well, people aren’t all too accurate at determining things. We’re well below perfect miracle detectors. We’re fooled easily, basically. So our detection rate (for pretty much anything!) should be well below 95%. Say, 50%.

And then consider nature, the odds of a miracle actually happening in nature should be very low indeed. Ruling out quantum events, the possibility of an event occurring that violates the laws of nature should in fact be absolutely zero. It shouldn’t happen. But let’s be generous and say there’s a 0.000000001% chance that an event could occur outside of the laws of physics.

With our detection rate of 50%, and the minute chance of a miracle actually occurring – what’s the outcome according to Bayes? Well, I’m past my prime in terms of actually running the numbers, but it aint’ good. In short: we’re far far far far more likely to be wrong about what we think is happening than it’s the case that the laws of nature have been violated (like the test for the uncommon disease – it’s more likely the test is faulty when it gives out a seemingly positive result).

Thus, armed with Bayes’ Theorem, Occam’s Razor, and a decent helping of Cartestian scepticism we can pretty much say that UFOs aren’t miracles. They’re just weird clouds or big owls or something.

“A river flows” – not a miracle.

“Plant a little seed and nature grows” – THIS IS LITERALLY JUST HOW PLANTS GROW OMG.

Niagara falls and the pyramids
Everything you believed in as kids
Fucking rainbows after it rains
There’s enough miracles here to blow your brains

Niagara falls is a natural object formed by river processes and different rock types. The Pyramids were built by people. I believed all kinds of dumb things when I was a kid, but I don’t think we can just include stuff kids think in our inventory of miracles. That seems like cheating.

“Fucking rainbows after it rains” – from Wikipedia: A rainbow is a meteorological phenomenon that is caused by reflection, refraction and dispersion of light in water droplets resulting in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky.

“There’s enough miracles here to blow your brains” – no there isn’t. We have exactly zero miracles here so far.

I fed a fish to a pelican at Frisco bay
It tried to eat my cell phone, he ran away
And music is magic, pure and clean
You can feel it and hear it but it can’t be seen

What’s the story with the pelican all about then? It’s clearly not to be another of ICP’s supposed miracles. It seems to just be an amusing anecdote that ICP felt like including in the song… for some reason? I guess they couldn’t find anything else to go in those two lines.

“Music” – not magic. Vibrations of an object cause variations in air pressure around it, which is picked up by us and interpreted as audio. It can sort of be seen, just look at a vibrating guitar string or bass speaker.

Music is all magic
(Are you a firm believer in miracles)
You can’t even hold it
(Do you notice and recognize miracles)
It’s just there in the air
(Are you a firm believer in miracles)
Pure motherfucking magic

I am not a firm believer in miracles. They have failed to prove this point.

Music is a lot like love, it’s all a feeling
And it fills the room, from the floor to the ceiling
I see miracles all around me
Stop and look around, it’s all astounding

They’re really pushing this ‘music = miracles” line. But don’t buy it. It really isn’t. ESPECIALLY not their music.

Water, fire, air and dirt
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed

First four there are just the natural elements as identified by the original Greek philosophers. That reality is combined of these as constituent parts has long since been debunked. They’re not miracles.

MAGNETS. Hahahaha. Here’s how magnets work –

Ferromagnetic metals have large amounts of unpaired electrons in their outermost shell. These electrons produce a gravitational effect, which tends to be in one direction or another. Line up these electrons in the same direction (towards a  ‘pole’) and you can produce a magnetic field. Basically like this:

magdom4

The magnet can then push/pull (repel, attract) other ferromagnetic objects within its magnetic field. So like a needle can be made magnetic, but a tree branch can’t.

All sorted? Good. Magnets ain’t miracles.

“And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist, y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed” – it’s frustrating that they so vehemently reject the advice of scientists. I have no doubt that they’d find their guidance really useful. Maybe they have consulted one in the past but they didn’t get the answers they were looking for. It’s still weird though that you’d attempt to catalogue miracles without at least hearing out a scientist. Oh well. Next!

Solar eclipse, and vicious weather
Fifteen thousand Juggalos together

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the earth. It happens somewhat regularly, depending on the part of the planet you’re on. I’m not even sure what “vicious weather” is meant to refer to here – like storms and stuff? Not miracles.

The gathering of 15,000 ICP fans is a miracle in the figurative sense – how can they stand each other? – but not actual in the sense we’re interested in.

I seen a caterpillar turn into a butterfly
Miracles ain’t nothing to lie

It’s called metamorphosis. Lots of animals do it. We have a pretty solid understanding of how it works.

Shaggy’s little boys look just like Shaggy
And my little boy looks just like daddy

Info: Shaggy 2 Dope is one of the ICP rappers. The other is Violent J. Here they remark that Shaggy 2 Dope’s son looks just like Shaggy 2 Dope. (Without the clown makeup, one assumes). Well mate, that’s just genetics. Physical characteristics are coded into your DNA – to a large extent – and are passed onto your offspring as part of the reproductive process. It would be much stranger if your genetic offspring didn’t resemble you at all. Family resemblance is not a miracle; in fact it’s not at all surprising whatsoever.

Crows, ghosts, the midnight coast
The wonders of the world, mysteries the most

Crows? Haha. But “ghosts” is curious. Like “UFOs” they’re going for the supernatural, which I really do think is their best strategy here. But again, I’m gonna go with Bayes and suggest that most people that think they’re seeing ghosts are just mistaken. Ever notice how we only have really shaky footage or grainy photos of ghosts? You think we’d be able to get at least ONE caught and studied under scientific conditions. Maybe then they’d say “nope, we can’t explain this!” and we’d have a proper miracle on our hands. Until then, I’m not allowing “ghosts.”

“The midnight coast” – well, that’s infuriatingly unspecific. Which coast? All coasts? They’re not that great. More info needed, please. Likewise with “wonders of the world, mysteries the most” – that feels like a lazy copout by a lyricist that has run out of things to list (he’s already done long neck giraffes and crows, after all). So no, you don’t get these either, ICP.

After this, they just sing about miracles a load more without giving any further specific examples.

Total miracle count: 0

Well, that’s disappointing. But I hope we’ve all learnt something today.

I’ll leave you with the incredible trailer for the direct-to-video Insane Clown Posse MOVIE, ‘Big Money Rustlas’ (sequel to ‘Big Money Hustlas’)

Why I don’t like TED talks

I’ve only ever seen two TED talks that I liked. Here’s the first:

That’s one of my comedy heroes, Ryan North. He’s talking about what it’d be helpful to know if you ever got sent back in time for some reason. So it’s useless information, practically, but it’s an entertaining little talk. That said, I pretty much just adore everything North does without hesitation, so I’m not really being fair.

Second is this one:

I like this one because he’s literally just mocking all TED speakers. I don’t really know how they let him do that, but it’s pretty great. And when I watched this I realised something, I don’t really like TED at all.

It’s hard to place my finger on exactly why though. In theory I should be all for it. Bringing science to the masses in an engaging way can only be a good thing, right? As a pseudo-academic, I should be celebrating such a lively festival of ideas and discussion. But it just never quite sits right with me. Whenever I try to watch a TED talk, I usually switch off pretty quickly.

Maybe science is just too boring for me to get into? But how can that be the case when you’ve got Neil Degrasse Tyson on a stage showering you with wonders of our incredible universe? What’s the source of my disconnect?

But now, I think I’ve figured it out – and I’ll do my best to articulate it. Basically, I’m uncomfortable with a quasi-demagogic delivery of scientific ideas. Yes, that is a super pretentious sentence – so let’s break it down.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 09.55.25

TED is full of people like this. Individuals who are experts in their field coming along to tell you how EVERYTHING IS GOING TO CHANGE soon or EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ISN’T ACTUALLY LIKE YOU THINK IT IS. TED talks are on hefty subjects like the future of the human race, or even the entire universe.

So you sit there, enticed by a video with a title such as “the wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn” and then sit through about 20 minutes of lecture. Note the principle at work here, it’s pretty similar to clickbait article like Buzzfeed. The promise of something earth-shattering that draws you in to engage. But then the actual video itself is devoid of much real content. What you actually get is something along the lines of:

  1. A long-winded introduction of who the speaker is
  2. A long-winded explanation of what the speaker’s relation to the question at hand is
  3. A long-winded anecdote of a personal experience of the question at hand
  4. Some slides with some graphs on them
  5. A short history of what the subject and why this changes everything
  6. Some cursory remarks actually related to the question
  7. Lots of unsubstantiated conjecture
  8. Heavy use of rhetorical questions to imply depth
  9. LONG PAUSES AFTER EVERY SENTENCE SO YOU CAN DRINK IN THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WHAT WAS JUST SAID

Basically, it’s a bad way of taking in information. The emphasis at TED is on entertainment over real science, no matter how it tries to convey itself. The speakers are there to amaze and dazzle you, which real science actually makes very hard to do.

Here’s a tweet I just saw, which is sort of relevant to the point I’m trying to make here-

This is something I touched on in my Big Bang Theory post recently. I’m against the ‘popularisation’ of science insofar at that means it being dumbed down (in principle, I’m all for more people getting into science of course). As this tweet says, it’s become cool to be ‘into science’ (thanks, TBBT!) but the ‘science’ that people are getting into is just this weird meme-tastic thing that is like science’s odd cousin. Sure, the basis of the stuff is science but it’s not actual science.

Basically I’m highly sceptical of the possibility of a single individual to deliver a meaningful explanation of any scientific topic within twenty minutes. To even reach an elementary understanding of many scientific principles requires years of study. I didn’t do any science subjects beyond GCSE, so even A-Level knowledge is technically beyond me. Could someone explain these principles to me? Sure. Could they cover a single subject in twenty minutes whilst also being entertaining? I doubt it.

Plus some of the speakers just come across as highly arrogant and patronising. Like shut up already, Bill Gates.

I’m not writing off all TED talks though. I’m sure there are some great ones out there that cover very specific topics. But I don’t feel they’ll ever be able to do justice to real scientific work. The work that takes years of experimentation, research and peer review. The real changes in science come gradually, only a few breakthroughs are ever made overnight.

A twenty minute talk can’t change the world. Twenty years of hard, highly specialised work can.

I couldn’t end, though, without sharing this. It’s a talk by Matt Inman (of The Oatmeal fame). It’s the kind of talk I like. It’s very funny, doesn’t take itself at all seriously, and manages to even smuggle in a few thought-provoking points without ever being grandiose. (Note that this isn’t a TED talk).

How I learned to start worrying and hate my genes

Genes! We’ve all got them. But what do they actually do? And can they predict the future?

Earlier this year I was reading a news story about how such-and-such genes can increase your risk of such-and-such. And I couldn’t help but find that terrifying. I mean, having it hard-coded into your DNA (literally speaking, not the horrible way this is used everywhere now) that you’re susceptible to things more than other people, and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it, is pretty terrifying. A real life fatalist nightmare.

And worse still, unless you get tested there’s no way of knowing what your genes are. You could be sitting on a ticking time bomb of cancer risk genes right now and not even know it. Hell, you could wake up one day and have your head just suddenly explode! With genes, anything could happen.

As such, I couldn’t help but take interest when I noticed people talking about online gene analysis sites. Specifically, I saw some buzz around the site 23andMe – an online genetics report site, so called for the 23 pairs of chromosomes we have. With far too much time on my hands, I decided to give it a go.

Ordering the kit was a bit fiddly, since it was coming from America. The $99 for the kit wasn’t so bad, but I had to basically pay that again in shipping fees. But the kit arrived promptly within a few days.

I then had had the tricky task of using the kit. This involved snapping a load of tags and flasks and beakers and fluids and things, and spitting into a test tube. Not just a little spit either, like enough to fill a large dish. Seriously, it took me like 20 minutes and was pretty disgusting.

Next up, I had to return the thing. This took a few days as I had to schedule a DHL Express pickup and fill out a load of customs forms. I also had to answer the difficult question of what was in the package a few times, to which I just replied “er.. genetics..stuff?” The package itself had this written on it, which made it look even more suspicious:

2014-08-20 19.43.16-1

In any case, it seemed to arrive back at the lab without any trouble.

Now, I was in this for the whole health information aspect – I wanna know how I’m gonna die. But 23andMe has a strong focus on genealogy and all that, using the markers in your DNA to tell you where your ancestors came from. That’s all pretty interesting I guess, but it’s not that big of a deal for me. However, it quickly turned out that I should have done a bit more research, as the FDA shut down all other aspects of 23andme’s service. This meant they could only offer the genealogy stuff, and not the health stuff. Oops!

So anyway, the latest is that they’ve received my…sample and analysis has begun. Surprise surprise my genetic history is from Europe/Middle East, much like most people in Europe. Well, that’s kind of a letdown.

But it doesn’t end there. Turns out you can export the raw genetic data from 23andMe to other sites. Take THAT, FDA! Yay! So for a small £5 fee I sent my genetic code off to the good people at Promethease. 20 minutes later, I had my results.

And this is where it gets interesting.

The data is a bit hard to work through, as it’s all very technical and cross-referenced with actual genetic research sites. But Promethease do a pretty ok job of allowing you to navigate your results to find what you want. A lot of it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 20.28.38

I don’t know what this means but it has a “Repute” value of bad. And that’s bad. And filtering by “Good”, “Bad” and neutral, I was able to get a good idea of what’s going on with my genome. Here are some highlights.

Starting with the Neither Good nor Bad:

  • GS144 – Male. Great! So at least we know this thing’s accurate.
  • GS114 – Western Europe Haplogroup Y. Again, yup! Pretty cool you can figure out where I’m from based on DNA.
  • RS1426654 – probably light-skinned. Bingo!
  • GS157 – more stimulated by coffee. Yeah, ok! I suppose. Maybe..
  • GS256 – blue eyes. Er, no? Apparently though “there seems to be a distinction between the dark brown eyes typical for asian and african ancestry, and ‘blue’ for lighter eyes found in europeans” so they get this one.
  • GS285 – you will lose 2.5x as much weight on a low fat diet. Cool, diet advice!
  • RS3124314 – straighter hair. Nice.
  • RS4570625 – higher scores on anxiety-related personality traits. It’s like they’re reading my mind!

And so on. These were all spookily accurate, giving me confidence in the other results too.

Next, the “Good”:

  • GS273 – Lowest risk (13% of white women) of Atrial Fibrillation reported by 23andMe. Yay!
  • RS9536314 – intelligence; longevity. Woo!
  • RS1815739 – Mix of muscle types. Likely sprinter. Erm, well I probably have done a sprint in my life at some point?
  • GS101 – probably able to digest milk. Uh, yeah, probably.
  • RS1042725 – ~0.4cm taller. Ladies.
  • RS671 – Alcohol Flush: Normal, doesn’t flush. Normal hangovers. Normal risk of Alcoholism. Normal risk of Esophageal Cancer. Disulfiram is effective for alcoholism. Cool.

And so on. Some less accurate stuff there, but pretty radical nonetheless.

Now the, er, “Bad”:

  • RS1333049 – 1.9x increased risk for CAD (Coronary Artery Disease). Well that sucks. Nothing I can do about it, looks like I’m gonna die of some huge heart attack 🙁
  • RS738409 – higher odds of alcoholic liver disease, increased liver fat. Combined with the whole “you’re good at alcohol” thing above, this kinda sucks too.
  • RS1021737 – significantly higher plasma total homocysteine concentration. GODDAMIT (?!)
  • RS1801282 – watch out for high fat in diet. Shut up, genes!
  • RS1042522 – Slightly shorter lifespan ;(
  • RS2180439 – Increased risk of Male Pattern Baldness. At this point, I stopped reading. My hair is my life.

There were a lot more scary ones too, which I didn’t like so much.

Can you genes tell you how you’re going to die? Well…. probably not. The results above are really just “x amount of people in this survey with this gene showed a tendency for y”. And lots of these are super common anyway (I think pretty much everyone is going to die of heart disease it seems).

So it’s kinda scary, but not really the worst thing ever. I’ll live!

Still kinda miffed about my homocysteine concentration though. Really thought I had that nailed down.