Avoiding An “Airplane Cold”

If you travel much, you’ve probably encountered the scenario where you’re seated next to somebody who is obviously sick.  They’re sneezing like crazy, constantly blowing their noses, or coughing like they’re about to eject lung tissue, or you’re sitting there, acutely conscious that you are in an airborne metal tube where the air is recirculated and every tiny droplet ejected by Typhoid Mary is ultimately coming your way.  And you wonder:  will I leave this flight with an “airplane cold”?

1-101A recent study conducted by Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology tried to scientifically analyze the chances of catching an “airplane cold.”  The researchers on the study took transcontinental flights, tested the air and surfaces in the cabin for strains of cold and flu viruses, and carefully tracked the movements of passengers and flight attendants during the flights.  Although the data compiled during the study is limited, and the researchers did not find as many coughing or sneezing people aboard as they had expected — lucky them! — they reached two key conclusions.

First, there is a clear risk of catching a cold from a sick fellow passenger, but the zone of contagion is effectively limited to the people sitting next to the sick passenger or in the adjacent rows to the front and rear.  Those unlucky folks have an 80 percent, or greater, chance of becoming infected, whereas the probability of infection for the rest of the cabin is less than three percent.  And second, if you want to improve your chances of avoiding infection — understanding that you can’t control the identity or wellness of the random stranger who might be seated in your zone of contagion — book a window seat and don’t move during the flight.  By sitting in a window seat, you’re eliminating one of the seats next to you, and by staying put you’re reducing your movement through other contagion zones in the aircraft cabin.

I’m a bit skeptical of strategies to reduce the chance of an “airplane cold,” because so much of airplane travel is pure random chance and you’ve just got to grin and bear it.  I do think the study’s conclusions about the movement patterns of passengers, however, are quite interesting.  The study found that 38 percent of passengers never left their seat, 38 percent left once, 13 percent left twice, and 11 percent left more than twice.  Really?  Eleven percent of passengers left their seats more than twice?  Don’t pea-sized bladder people know you should go to the bathroom before you board the plane?

And by the way:  why do those 11 percenters always seem to be in my row when I’ve got an aisle seat?


3 Reasons Why Clickbait Headlines Use Numbers

You can’t go on the internet without stumbling into “clickbait” — those annoying yet tantalizing articles that you aren’t looking for, but that are designed to entice you to click on a link and see, for example, how “unrecognizable” some ’80s TV star is now.

If you pay attention to clickbait (and of course you shouldn’t, but you can’t really help it, now can you?) you notice that there are definite patterns to it. The headlines for many of the clickbait pieces advertise something that is supposedly “shocking” or “jaw-dropping,” but a lot of them — say, 50 percent — also feature numbers.  As in “6 reasons why your retirement planning is doomed” or “7 signs revealing that your boss actually hates your guts.”  Today’s MSN website page, from which the above photo is taken, includes a bunch of sports-related clickbait, and numbers are prominent.

Obviously, the clickbait brigade thinks numbers are likely to lead to clicks.  Why?

The article “Why We Respond Emotionally to Numbers: 7 Ways to Use the Power of Numbers in Your Designs” — which itself has a clickbait-like title — argues that humans respond viscerally and subconsciously to numbers.  Even numbers, for example, are supposed to reflect feminine qualifies, while odd numbers are purportedly masculine.  Numbers also are associated with luck and with religion.  More basically, many games, especially those where you gamble, involve numbers.  Obviously, numbers must have a deep intuitive appeal for homo sapiens, even those who didn’t like math class.

In the case of clickbait, though, I think it is more than that.  People on the internet are typically in a hurry, and clickbait by definition is something that you’re not actually trying to find.  Numbers in the headlines signal clear limits on the amount of time you’re going to need to spend to check out that provocative clickbait.  Typically the number in the headline is below 10, encouraging you to think that even if the article is a colossal waste of time, at least you’ll figure that out quickly.  The fact that there are only 5 reasons to believe that the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was cursed might just tip the balance and cause you to move that mouse and cursor and click away.


My Doctor’s Questionnaire

My doctor is one of those incredibly capable health care professionals who is always acquiring information in order to provide the best possible medical advice.  He uses the information obtained from a questionnaire as deftly as surgeons use a scalpel or GPs use a rubber tomahawk on your knee to test reflexes.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed a change in the tenor of the questionnaires I’m getting from my doctor.  No longer are they just focused on allergies, or muscle strains, or my diet, or how much exercise I’m getting.  Now the questions seem a lot more, uh, pointed.  In my most recent visit, the very first page of the questionnaire I was given to complete was the “Duke Activity Status Index.”

img_5859“Can you take care of yourself (eating, dressing, bathing or using the toilet)?”

“Can you walk indoors such as around your house?”

“Can you walk a block or two on level ground?”

Can you climb a flight of stairs or walk up a hill?”

Hey, wait a second!  Exactly what kind of questionnaire is this, anyway?  Why are the busybody nerds at Duke wondering about whether I can walk a single block on level ground, or eat without assistance?

I’m guessing the “Duke Activity Status Index” is not given to 25-year-old patients.

And then the very next page in the questionnaire packet is the “Burns Depression Checklist,” and one of its questions is:  “Poor self-image:  Do you think you’re looking old or unattractive?”

Well, to be honest with you, I really wasn’t focused on the subject until I started to read this questionnaire!

Testing Your Limits

Some people, at least, regularly test their physical and mental limits.  They may have a job, like soldiering, where the training involves dealing with bodily stresses that would overwhelm normal humans, or serving as a test pilot, where the ability to think clearly and analytically in moments of enormous emotional and psychological pressure is essential.  Such people work at pushing the envelope of what they can tolerate because it is a key aspect of surviving and succeeding in their jobs.

eh3vj3c2r36jslu3rdf7Then there are people who test their limits voluntarily, because they find it intriguing and personally challenging.  Athletes, whether professional or not, often set goals and work like crazy until they exceed them, whether it is trying to surpass a weight limit on the dead life or running a faster marathon.  They endure lots of physical pain and fatigue and make great sacrifices because they need to do so to reach their objective, and when they reach the objective they feel a sense of real accomplishment.

But would you ever hold your breath underwater to the point where your body is wracked with spasms, called involuntarily breathing movements, and your brain and every instinct in your body is urgently telling you that you need to breathe — just to see how long you can go, to the point where your body is saturated with internal carbon dioxide?  The New Yorker published an article about the competition in extreme breath-holding, and recounted the experience of one American diver who stayed underwater, holding his breath, for 8 minutes and 35 seconds — which isn’t even a world record.  He became hypoxic and experienced tunnel vision, but seemed satisfied with his experience in pushing his body well past its normal limits.

I read the article and concede, as someone who as a kid enjoyed sitting on the bottom of the swimming pool at Portage Country Club, blowing bubbles, that being able to hold your breath for more than eight and a half minutes is impressive — but I still wonder, why do it?  Why risk some kind of serious physical or mental injury just to hold your breath, or climb a sheer rock wall, or engage in some other daredevil stunt?  There’s an impulse at work in such people that exists nowhere in my psyche.

Me?  I’m perfectly happy to stay well within my limits, and I will promptly obey the signals I get from my brain to draw a breath, or step away from the edge of a precipice, or steer clear of danger.  So far, at least, my brain has done a pretty good job of keeping me toes up.

Curdling The Cheese

Last night I had a plate of cheese and some summer sausage for dinner.  A little Jarlsberg, some Amish Swiss, some Parmesan curls carefully knifed off of the big, hard Parmesan lump, and I was a happy camper.

cheese-1-1123-dcgjpg-086066ee270c3c55I’d say I have cheese for dinner approximately once a week.  I try different kinds of cheeses, filling the spectrum from hard to soft and from mild to the smelliest cheese you can imagine.  I like it all.  About the only cheese I won’t try is “flavored” cheese.  I prefer mine au naturel.  Sometimes I’ll combine it with nuts, or different kinds of olives, or pieces of fruit.  Grandma Webner would look at this kind of meal disdainfully and call it “piecing,” but it’s a nice, light repast when I’m just not in the mood for something heavier.

Now I learn that researchers from the University of Michigan, of all places, have concluded that cheese has casein, a chemical that can trigger the brain’s opioid receptors and produce the same kind of feeling of euphoria that users of hard drugs experience.   Their research is focused on trying to identify foods that may have addictive qualities and then use that information to combat obesity, issue new nutrition guidelines, restrict the marketing of such foods to children, and do all of the other things that “researchers” propose to do in the modern nanny state.

Leave it to the killjoys from That State Up North to raise concerns about the simple enjoyment of a few pieces of cheese!  And whatever the “research” might find, are we really going to conclude, after centuries of careful creation and cheerful consumption, from medieval monks on down to the modern day, that a few pieces of cheese are a bad thing?

Watching The Launch

When I was a kid back in the ’60s, we used to be trooped into the school auditorium at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio to watch every launch of every rocket that was taking an American astronaut into space.  Between the countdowns, and the holds, and the cryptic communications of “launch control,” and the possibility of a disaster, and Walter Cronkite urging “go, baby, go!,” rocket launches were almost unbearably exciting.  And when NASA started launched the enormous Saturn V rockets that were used to propel the Apollo missions to the Moon, which were among the loudest devices ever made by humanity, the spectacle became even more intense.

So I watched the video of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday, beginning with the rocket on the familiar Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy launchpad, heard the countdown, saw the smoke and the flames and the rocket pushing slowly and inexorably against the titanic forces of gravity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and go soaring into space, and it brought those memories all back, and produced the same kind of tingle and hairs-standing-on-end feeling that I got in those long ago days in the school auditorium.

I’m glad the launch was a success and that SpaceX was able to successfully land two of the side boosters back on Earth, although the main booster was not successfully retrieved.  It’s a huge achievement and step forward for a company that is one of the leaders of the movement toward getting us back into space.  And I’m glad that, thanks to the efforts of the Falcon Heavy thrusters, Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster and a “Starman” wearing a SpaceX uniform have been successfully thrown out past Mars, where they will orbit around the Sun forever.

But mostly, I’m just glad that I got to see a huge rocket launch again.  Deep down, I’d still love to be an astronaut.

Investing In Space

Let’s say your modest portfolio in the stock market has had a good run over the past year or so, and you’re looking for a new investment opportunity.  Let’s posit, further, that you think Bitcoin is a curious bubble that’s going to burst someday, and that you’d rather put your money into a company that produces something more tangible and more futuristic.

Well, what about space?

fh-onpadSpaceX is racking up a number of impressive accomplishments.  Last month SpaceX successfully tested its Falcon Heavy Rocket, and it is moving forward on launching what it calls the most powerful operational rocket in the world.  The Falcon Heavy launch is set for next week, on February 6, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy would join other stellar (pun intended) SpaceX accomplishments, like being the first company to launch a rocket with payload into space and then land the rocket back on Earth, and being the first company to relaunch an already used rocket.  SpaceX also built the first private spacecraft to dock with the international space station, and it’s shown it can reuse the spacecraft, too.  If you’re trying to make space a commercially viable enterprise, developing reusable rocket technology and reusable spacecraft technology, to hold down the cost, is a crucial first step — and SpaceX looks like the leader in taking that step.

But here’s the thing:  you can’t invest directly in SpaceX.  It’s a private company, and its founder Elon Musk has said he won’t take it public until the company has started to make flights to Mars.  Why?  Because Musk is afraid that if the company goes public before then, there’s a chance that the stockholders will pressure the board to focus on things other than colonizing Mars — which is Musk’s goal and is bound to be more expensive and difficult than, say, establishing Moon exploration bases or mining asteroids for precious metals.  It’s not an unreasonable fear on Musk’s part.  So if you want to own a piece of SpaceX, you can only do so indirectly, by investing in Alphabet, which owns a piece of SpaceX as well as parts of Google, YouTube, and other things.

Okay, so SpaceX isn’t currently available for the intrepid investor who wants to get into the space exploration game.  Are there other options?  It’s not easy to determine, because a lot of the companies that are touching upon space issues — like Boeing, for example — are better known for producing other objects.  But you can start to get a sense of what’s out there by looking for lists like this one, on potential investment opportunities involving space, or looking for articles about company announcements related to space activities and then figuring out whether they are publicly traded.

It’s not easy for the casual investor.  What we really need is for one of the stock exchanges to create a “space index,” just like there’s a Dow Jones “transportation index.”  The index would identify the space-related public companies, mutual funds would be established to invest in each of the space index companies, and those of us who’d like to put our money in the heavens could buy into the mutual funds.

Hey stockbrokers!  How about giving investors interested in space some help here?