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See Inside October 2007

Carrots, Sticks and Robot Picks

Some strange science stories of recent vintage

Ahhh, midsummer, when space travelers fail their sobriety tests. Of course, NASA’s inebriated astronauts debacle was well covered. Here are some perhaps lesser-known tales of whoa. For instance, in late July, the Times of London published its list of the 50 best movie robots ever, in conjunction with the release of the movie Transformers. Little did I know that I owned a transformer—I left the car lights on all night twice last week, and my vehicle turned into a really big paperweight. Anyway, the Times picks the Terminator as its best robot, with the HAL 9000 coming second (an insane computer is not really a robot, to my human mind) and KITT, the talking car from Knight Rider, finishing third (again, not really a robot, although having William Daniels’s voice remind me to shut the lights off would really come in handy). These choices can only be considered absurd in a fiction-filled universe that includes R2D2 (the Times’s #11), the Fembots (#22) from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Gort (#13) from The Day the Earth Stood Still, also starring Sam Jaffe’s hair as Albert Einstein’s hair.

Speaking of lists, researchers publishing in the August issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior delineated the results of their survey of more than 2,000 people and announced their exhaustive compilation of the 237 reasons that people have sex. Justifications ranged from “to show my affection” to  “it feels good” to “it seemed like good exercise.” That’s right, somebody’s friend with benefits ranks just a bit higher than an elliptical trainer. Oddly, one of the most famous reasons in history fails to make the list: “I was fulfilling prophecy, having already killed my father and married my mother.” As Homer (Simpson) famously asked of the Oedipus account, “Who pays for that wedding?”

Speaking of parents and problem children, here’s an excellent experiment to perform on any three-year-old whose parents are constantly telling you how smart the kid is. Take a food item—a couple of carrots, for example—and put one in an unmarked bag. Put the other one in a McDonald’s bag. Then have the little genius taste both and ask which carrot was better. Or save yourself all this trouble by reading the August issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, in which researchers found that the $10 billion dished out every year in the U.S. by food and beverage companies to market to small children is money well spent. Because 54 percent of preschool kids surveyed preferred the alleged McDonald’s carrot, whereas only 23 percent liked the carrot in plain wrapping better. The effect was magnified when the test food was french fries: 77 percent said McDonald’s-looking potatoes, only 13 percent said the other potatoes, and 10 percent said let’s call the whole thing off.

Well, at least the kids aren’t chewing on Developmentally Delayed Elmo, In­tensive Care Bears, the Big Bag o’ Paint Chips or any of the millions of toys recalled over the summer because they contained unsafe levels of lead. The toys were manufactured in China, which had already endeared itself to international consumers with recent exports of tainted toothpaste, contaminated pet food, phony and dangerous medications, and enough other shoddy products to cause the actual state execution of the director of that country’s Food and Drug Administration. The method was not revealed, but chances are that Zheng Xiaoyu died from an injection of some seriously unsafe drugs or from exceptionally rapid lead ­poisoning.

In a distantly related story, on August 6 the Reuters wire service published an article with the tantalizing headline “German has pencil in head removed after 55 years.” According to the report, Margret Wegner fell while carrying the pencil when she was four years old. “The pencil went right through my skin—and disappeared into my head,” she remembered. With the damage miraculously minimal, doctors at the time feared that getting the lead out would do more harm than good. But medical technology finally reached the point where surgeons could reach the point. 

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