“Not a chief concern” (Plastic bag bans)

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My sweetest-ever trip to the grocery store was last month, as I gathered items for my oft-dreamed-of and now-realized Chiefs Super Bowl party. The cashier loaded the nacho cheese, Chex Mix, and M&Ms into thin plastic bags, which in some locales would be illegal.

Such municipalities take this measure in the belief that a bag ban will reduce waste and litter, and, by extension, benefit the environment. In truth, these bans are detrimental and are a victory for emotion over science.

Paradoxically, manufacturers of disposable plastic profit from bans on carryout bags. That’s because these humble methods of conveyance make the least money of all the company’s products. The bags also have the least environmental impact, owing to their flimsiness. 

Moreover, even with a ban, customers still need something to carry their Lucky Charms home in. This usually leads to plastic bag manufacturers being able to sell some of their more durable bags, which have a more deleterious effect.

There are three primary myths about the flimsy gray carryout receptacles.

First is that they contribute significantly to ocean plastics. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that the disposable plastic bags from the U.S. constitute just .5 percent of the sea plastic. While other nations contribute more waste from the bags, bans in the U.S. don’t impact that. In other words, banning bags in the U.S. results in only a microscopic reduction in such waste.

The second misnomer is that bans decrease the amount of disposable plastic leaving the supermarket. That’s because about a quarter of carryout bags are reused, for such purposes as diaper disposal, tossing dog waste, or lining Lilliputian trash cans.

In places where such bags are no longer available, persons still need to get rid of baby and/or canine excrement and to cover waste basket bottoms. When localities implement these bans, sales of small- and medium-sized plastic trash bags sales skyrocket, with an increase anywhere from 50 to 150 percent. And as Dunning notes, the banned bags are extremely flimsy, whereas trash bags are much heavier and contain substantially more plastic.

The third myth is that plastic bags do more ecological damage than other choices. Besides the tiny plastic bags, there are three other common options: Paper bags; Durable reusable plastic bags of polyethylene or polypropylene; and reusable cotton bags.

Dunning laid out the impact of each of these over the course of their existence. He explained that this includes the sourcing of its material, its manufacture, transportation, logistics, number of uses, how many goods it houses, and its final destiny, be it in a recycled product, a landfill, or incineration.

Despite its continual chastisement, the tiny carryout bag has by far the lowest environmental impact, mostly because it contains little material.

Also, it is plastic, which has a low melting temperature. Further, it requires less energy to manufacture and recycle than most other materials. Put another way, the banned bag actually serves to satisfy environmentalist goals.

The second best alternative is paper bags, which have four times the carbon footprint of single-use plastics. This means if a consumer reuses a paper bag four times before recycling it, the environmental impact will be the same as using the plastic bag once. I myself have never taken the same paper bag back to the grocery for a second use. Shame on me. But more shame on those banning plastic bags.

Next is the durable reusable plastic bag, offered by some food peddlers as a low-price alternative (though not as low price as the free plastic bag). These reusable bags are heavier and have 14 times the carbon footprint.

Again, this means a consumer would need to use this item 14 times to match the efficiency of its single-use counterpart.

By far the worst choice are cotton bags. Dunning wrote, “Growing cotton involves tractors and seeds and irrigation and a whole other level of impact.” A consumer would need to reuse a cotton grocery bag a whopping 173 times to match the carbon footprint of bringing home a single-use plastic bag. What many assume to be an environmentally-friendly option is anything but, except for the optional part.

Don’t blame me for any of this. I took the plastic bags from the nachos and Chex Mix and made them into receptacles for the bottles which had held my celebratory libations following the Chiefs win.

“Back to the wall” (Amber Room)

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Commies, Nazis, and Indiana Jones wannabes all play roles in the long, captivating, dispiriting history of the Amber Room. The room was an extremely opulent portion of the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg  its highly-ornate walls were worth untold millions, as was the artwork which hung on it. It featured bright gilded panels imbued with gold and amber, as well as gold leaf and mirrors and esthetically arranged.

It was the pride of the Romanov Dynasty and then the Soviet Union until invading German soldiers took possession of it. While trying to move the room, the Nazis found it too brittle to be safely disassembled. Anatoly Kuchumov could have told them that. He served as a Soviet curator and he discovered how fragile the pieces were when he tried to move the invaluable collection into hiding. He settled for building false walls to cover the amber panels but the impromptu gamble failed and the German soldiers took apart he walls and packed it into crates. They sent it to Königsberg Castle, which was razed after the arrival of Brits and Soviets, with the latter burning the building completely.

Kuchumov recovered three Florentine stone mosaics, which were the only inflammable portions of the Amber Room. More than three decades later, German citizen Hans Achterman saw a documentary about the room and he recognized the stone mosaics as something identical to an item in his parents’ attic. His father had been one of the soldiers who had dismantled the room and he stole the mosaic and kept it as a souvenir. This find stoked a batch of conspiracy theories and wild claims about other parts of the room still being hidden or otherwise waiting to be found.

Some proponents believe the room’s contents were packed into crates and moved before the Red Army got to Königsberg. Others maintain they were put on a ship which sank. Other ideas are that it is being held in mine shafts or an abandoned warehouse.

Investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy addressed all this and much more in their work, The Amber Room: The Fate of the World’s Greatest Lost Treasure. They interviewed former intelligence officers, government officials, retired military, and curators. They concluded that, “The Soviet Union, while wanting to be seen to search for the Amber Room, was also determined that nothing should be found.”

That’s because the USSR’s leaders knew their soldiers had destroyed the Amber Room but wanted to keep the idea it still existed as a bargaining chip. So when looted German artwork is mentioned, the Soviets retort that Amber Room also went missing.

The Soviet official with the most vested interest in the destruction’s cover-up was Kuchumov. He nervously watched as his former museum colleagues were shipped to Siberia for failing to protect treasures from the Nazis, and none of those valuables were worth what Kuchumov oversaw.

He spent several years in charge of a commission whose ostensible mission was to unearth the Amber Room. But it was all a sham and Kuchumov was an “acting chairman” in the most literal sense. The commission’s actual purpose was for Kuchumov to keep his freedom by maintaining an illusion that Amber Room valuables were still out there waiting to be found. The longer it stays hidden, the more the legend grows.

“Police scanner”(Scientific Content Analysis)

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Scientific Content Analysis, called SCAN, is touted by proponents as a tool to identify deception. Law enforcement has used his method on suspects for decades, even though there’s no reliable science behind it, despite the name.

An article by Ken Armstrong and Christian Sheckler shone a light on this technique which is little-known outside of interrogation rooms. They pair recounted the story of Ricky Joyner, currently incarcerated on a murder conviction.

Police asked Joyner to fill out a questionnaire regarding the disappearance of an Elkhart, Ind., woman, Sandra Hernandez. Remembering what they had learned in SCAN classes, detectives noticed Joyner refrained from using first person pronouns, writing, as one example, “Went home,” instead of, “I went home.” Or that a reference to his love interest was scribbled down as “a girlfriend,” instead of “my girlfriend.”

What would seem to most people to be innocuous was considered signs of guilty by police. Officers also found it suspicious that Joyner’s handwriting was larger and more spread out in the answer’s last two lines than in the previous seven. This can happen when one gets tired from writing nine pages, as Joyner had done, but in SCAN logic, this was indication the author was a murderer. When police asked Joyner why they should believe him, he wrote, “I have nothing to hide.” Detectives thought this was a big deal since he failed to explicitly state, “I didn’t do it.”

Suspects like Joyner fill out a statement that SCAN investigators peruse for signs of deception. They focus on pronouns used, inconsistent vocabulary, what has been omitted, and how much of a suspect’s statement focuses on what happened before, during, and after an event.

Indications of truthfulness are considered to be: Using the past tense; using first-person singular; and direct denials, the best being: “I did not do it.” Signs of deception include lack of memory, spontaneous corrections, and using two different words to convey the same meanings, such as writing “angry” at one point, then “mad” later.

SCAN founder Vinoam Sapir demonstrated on television how the techniques are supposed to work by analyzing some famous examples. He looked at the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign. Sapir told the interviewer: “The report says, ‘whether,’ and not ‘whether or not.’ By the omission of ‘or not’ it seems that the FBI was already concentrating on only one option.” However, the use of “or not” would be redundant, so Sapir is engaging in wild speculation, besides being linguistically mistaken.

He also touched on Anita Hill’s testimony, pouncing on the fact that she said, “I had a normal social life with other men outside of the office.” Sapir arrived at this conclusion: “There is only a certain group in society that can label themselves as normal, and that is people who were labeled abnormal before.” Also a red flag, he continued, was that Hill referred to herself as an “individual” and “a person.” This assertion of her humanity was considered odd by Sapir. “Anita Hill never called herself a woman,” he gleefully noted, and suggested this meant she had issues with her sexual identity.

In another high-profile example from the early 1990s, Sapir recalled how Connie Chung had asked Magic Johnson about whether he was gay or bisexual. Johnson replied, “I’m not gay,” which Sapir interpreted to mean that the Hall of Fame point guard was bisexual. But Johnson had been presented artificially-limited choices. Had Chung added heterosexual to her probing of Johnson’s sexuality, Sapir’s deduction might have had more validity, but even then, wouldn’t be as certain as he is implying.

For all of Sapir’s certainty, there is nothing scientific behind SCAN despite that word appearing in its name. Five studies have shown that the techniques work no better than chance when determining if a statement is true or deceptive.

Psychology professor Aldert Vrij co-authored the most recent of these five papers and has published hundreds of pieces on verbal and nonverbal cues to deception.

He also led a study that included 61 volunteers split into three groups. In this experiment, one group consisted of members who committed a mock theft of a statistics exam from a departmental mailbox, then lied about everything they had done that day in written statements. A second group comprised members who stole the exam but lied only about the paper pilfering, and not about anything else. The third group were subjects who stole nothing and were truthful in all their answers.

Interrogators analyzed the resulting statements using SCAN criteria. Their results failed to show any distinction between the three groups. “In sum, no support for the use of SCAN was found in the experiment,” the authors concluded. Vrij also faulted SCAN for its lack of standardization, noting that the criteria that is considered most relevant varies by interrogator.

I decided be an interrogator myself and use SCAN techniques on a section of Sapir’s home page from what appears to be from Gopher era website.

Sapir gave this synopsis of how SCAN is supposed to work:
1. Give the subject a pen and paper.
2. Ask the subject to write down his/her version of what happened.
3. Analyze the statement and solve the case.

Here is my analysis of Sapir’s analysis:

1. By failing to include ‘a’ or any other qualifier before paper, Sapir shows he is afraid of commitment, never telling us how many sheets are needed.

2. Sapir instructs the person to ‘ask’ the subject something. He should have instead wrote, ‘Have the subject write down…,” since interrogators are not asking questions, but requesting a statement. This indicates Sapir is evasive with regard to his intent.

3. The entire point is to analyze and solve, so this is a superfluous and points to egomaniacal behavior.

“Decreased celery” (Negative calorie foods)

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For all the fad diets that come and go, there really is no secret to weight loss. Reduce the number of calories taken in, increase the number of calories burned. There are tips that can help with this, such as planning workout routines with a partner since one is less likely to blow off a friend than one is to skip a gym solo session. Drinking water to feel full or concentrating on satiating foods also helps, but the basics are still less in, more out.

With that, there is the notion that some foods that will take more energy to digest than what they provide in calories, making for a negative caloric intake. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that the caloric content of food and how much energy the body spends burning calories are both testable claims so let’s test away.

We start by considering the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), which is how much energy a body at rest burns in a day. It’s essentially how many freebies you get. You can consume this amount of calories, remain sedentary, and your weight will hold steady.

A formula called the Revised Harris-Benedict Equation multiplies a person’s height, weight, and age by a separate constant then totals them all up with another constant. Dunning wrote that for a man who is 5-6 and weighs 150 pounds, it would look like this:

BMR = (13.397 × weight in kg) + (4.799 × height in cm) – (5.677 × age in years) + 88.362.

In this scenario, our hypothetical test subject has a BMR of 1,607 calories. Those are his freebies. If he engages in a small amount of activity, such as walking to the post office or wherever people walk to in these days of dwindling post offices, we multiply his BMR by 1.2. Moderate activity such as jumping jacks and chopping wood would necessitate multiplying the BMR by 1.55. Strenuous activity such as sprinting uphill while carrying dumbbells means multiplying the BMR by 1.725. This would boost the number of calories he could take in without gaining weight to nearly 2,800, substantially more than the 1,600 he gets for lying on the couch.

Now we consider the thermic effect of food. This refers to metabolic rise needed to digest victuals. A resting metabolic rate when doing nothing beyond daydreaming is what we get we arrive at the BMR of 1,607 calories. But when someone begins digesting food, that rate rises.

Thermic effects differ based on the food and the person. Fat digests easily, and thus has a low thermic effect and lots of calories. At the opposite end of the spectrum we find high-protein foods. These need to be broken down into amino acids in order to be digested and this requires energy. Similarly, foods containing complex carbohydrates and fiber make the body work harder to reduce them into the needed building blocks. The energy required to perform these processing tasks varies by person, with obesity and insulin resistance the biggest factors.

Put all this together and we will see that under specific conditions, negative calorie foods can exist. Someone who is slender and with low insulin resistance might get negative calories from celery consumption. The food is mostly water and the few calories come from fiber, the unraveling and digesting of which produces high thermic effects.

But only a few foods function as negative calorie ones. Further, this only works for the slimmest, healthiest people. For those at normal or above normal weights, celery would likely not be a negative calorie food and, even if it were, a steady intake of the fibrous green veggie would make for a poor diet lacking in nutrients. It is also not very satiating or tasty, to say nothing of how hard it would be to stick to.

“Flop secret” (Rhonda Byrne)

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Want to know a secret? You can have whatever you want just by thinking about it happily enough. However, steer clear of negative or scary thoughts, which can cause things you fear to happen. Actually, this isn’t so much as secret as is THE Secret, a movie and book by Rhonda Byrne.

Her premise entails more than suggesting that positive thinking can be one tool in a kit that helps foster desirable results. Byrne claims that wishing for something in a specific manner (which she sells) will have a causal effect. Do it well enough and stage four cancer patients can have the disease cured on the day they win the lottery.

This is accompanied by evidence-free claims that The Secret has been known and utilized by many great persons. The list reads like a casting call put out for history’s most forward thinkers and accomplished geniuses. We’re talking Buddha, Aristotle, Plato, Sir Isaac Newton, Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell, and Ludwig von Beethoven. Curiously, none of these persons ever made reference to the exponential power of positive thinking. Maybe they were really good at keeping The Secret.

While a positive outlook and the search for silver linings can be of some benefit, the same cannot be said for The Secret’s insistence that people’s thoughts are responsible for bad things that happen to them. Anyone victimized by rape, tornadoes, drunk drivers, or childhood leukemia could have avoided this fate by adjusting their thought patterns.

That’s not the way it’s presented in the book or the movie, but neither is it a strawman. It is taking the idea’s philosophy to its conclusion.

Many persons have a romantic, wistful image about things from ancient days, which is one reason Byrne references Buddha, Aristotle, and Plato. People also like easy answers, even if they come at $179 a pop. They also like to feel in control. Put all this together, and one arrives at The Secret.

While it uses the appeal to antiquity, The Secret also employs that logical fallacy’s opposite number, the appeal to novelty. Byrne claims to be on the cutting edge of science by stating that quantum physics explains The Secret via the Law of Attraction. This can sound reasonable to a lay person, especially one who wants to believe, since attraction sounds like magnetism, which is a genuine phenomenon.

However, Byrne asserts that thoughts have energy and that similar energies are attracted to each other. These feelings are said to flow from the thinker in the form of magnetic energy waves, which force the universe around the thinker to vibrate at the same energy level as their feelings. That is not a genuine phenomenon, but genuine gobbledygook. Further, it has no relevance to quantum physics, which is the attempt to describe what goes on at the atomic and subatomic levels.

Common sense should come into play here. If one has no way to pay the rent that’s due in three weeks, sitting around envisioning money falling into one’s lap is a much worse way to spend precious time than applying for jobs.
There is a grain of truth to the idea that thoughts can influence behavior and actions. But there is no such grain associated with the idea of metaphysical entities existing for our access and manipulation.

“Good Lourdes, No” (River healing)

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The 19th Century featured its allotment of 14-year-olds whose purported visions ignited prominent religious undertakings. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism as a result, while Bernadette Soubirous transformed the River Gave near Lourden, France, into a Catholic holy site after saying that the Virgin Mary had appeared to her many times there.

The Roman Catholic Church credulously and uncritically swallowed this claim and has put its stamp of blessing on 67 specific miracles that supposedly have taken place near the shores. There is no independent verification of these cures, no experiments, no controls, and no winning of the James Randi Challenge.

Furthermore, the miracles have been of the relatively modest variety and are mostly explicable through medicine or human physiology. No one has regained sight, regrown a limb, or risen from the dead.

Curiously, Soubirous claimed only that Mary had appeared to her and made a few announcements. The teen never asserted that she was on the receiving end of a miracle or that the apparition promised future divine interventions on the riverbed.

Still, Catholic believers flock each year to the site. The steady stream of claims that flow from there is as uninterrupted as the river itself. And they are comparable to those made from persons who undertake secular pilgrimages to Loch Ness.

Cognitive dissonance and the desire to believe combine to make the observer impervious to reality. No one wants to admit the traveled all this way for nothing. They saw a beast or received some godly blessing, con sarn it!

Very few of these putative miracles are considered as such even by the Church. The Vatican has criteria for what it considers to be miraculous. The gist of it is that a group comprising nearly two dozen medical doctors must acknowledge that an ailment could not have been cured by means known to science. If a treatment or product could have been the reason, no miracle is proclaimed.

But even when no explanations emerge, it is appealing to ignorance to conclude that the Christian deity, working through magic water, was responsible. Indeed, why would an all-powerful, omnipresent force induce someone with a serious illness to undertake arduous travel to another country or continent to receive healing?

Even when a genuine improvement has taken place, it is post hoc reasoning to attribute this to Lourdes, by way of a supernatural conduit. Many illnesses are cyclical, and the improvement may have taken place if one had gone to the Nile or stayed home. There also may have been other medicine or treatments taking place before, during, and after the trip.

The last Lourdes miracle claimed by the Church was 20 years ago, when the Church insisted that a man was freed of his multiple sclerosis after 12 years. Less fortunate was Soubirous. For being the embodiment of miraculous healing, she made out poorly. She suffered from lingering cases of tuberculosis and asthma and died at the not-so-ripe-old age of 35.

“Sticky situation” (Star jelly)

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Since at least the 15th Century, there have been reports of what is generally termed star jelly, either falling from the sky or appearing mysteriously overnight. Descriptions vary, but witnesses usually talk about seeing a sticky, slimy goo, somewhat akin to Jell-O, and usually concentrated in puddle or patch form.

Folklore often attributes the jelly to meteors, but there is no scientific evidence for a connection. And even a shooting star that appears to be directly overhead is likely thousands of miles to the left or right and would leave any deposit far from the viewer. Star jelly has a much shorter shelf life than even the most perishable vegetables and usually evaporates or disintegrates before it can be analyzed.

Many guesses have been made as to what it is, from the scientific to the pseudoscientific to the just plain bizarre. Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning looked at some of these and concludes that star jelly is likely not a single phenomenon but multiple ones that have come to reside under the same mysterious umbrella.

Among the rational, terrestrial explanations are that it star jelly are a form of slime mold, which are neither fungus nor bacteria, and which use spores to reproduce. They prefer dead plant matter, which enables them to feeding on its microorganisms. Slime molds begin as a single cell, can reproduce quickly, and move noticeably. When growing, slime molds are wet and slimy, and appear suddenly, with a gelatinous appearance that morphs into a dusty form. Much wind or rain at all will cause it to evaporate or disintegrate. These distinctions are consistent with many star jelly reports, though not all.

Another possible answer are a cyanobacteria called Nostoc. Nostocs exist everywhere on the planet as minuscule colonies of bacteria. They are so tiny that only a botanist looking for them would be likely to make a sighting. But when wet, Nostocs swell to a much larger size and transform into gooey lumps or puddles. This would create an illusion of sudden appearance, when it was actually a change in appearance.

Another candidate is bryozoan, a phylum which exists in colonies of interdependent individuals. Most of these colonies are about a half a millimeter long and secrete exoskeletons. In some species, these skeletons are somewhat solid, making the colony look like a plant or coral. In other species, this exoskeleton is gelatinous, which turns the colony into a wet, sticky blob. Both of these eventualities could be taken to be star jelly.

Other natural substances that could explain star jelly include unfertilized frog spawn or deer sperm. And in The Book of British Amphibians and Reptiles, authors speculate that star jelly may form from the glands in frog and toad oviducts. Birds and mammals will eat the animals but not the oviducts which, when they come into contact with moisture, swell and distort leaving a vast pile of jellylike substance.

There has been speculation that star jelly being a more revolting substance, specifically chemical waste dumped from the airline toilets. However airplanes have never dumped toilet from the sky. It is possible for airline toilet systems to leak, forming blue ice can fall off when the plane descends. But the results are not gelatinous and have a color inconsistent with star jelly descriptions.

A far less reasonable airliner-related speculation is that star jelly is chemtrail residue. This is an instance of Tooth Fairy Science, where someone attempts to explain something by means of something not yet proven. Since chemtrails remain in the realm evidence-free paranoia, they make for a poor explanation as to what causes star jelly.

Jelly star sightings are sometimes accompanied by reports of widespread sickness enveloping the area. This leads to the most (literally) out there answer, that star jelly houses an alien virus. But there would be no reason to suspect that the jelly is causing a mass sickness. That would be a correlation/causation error. There’s never been a diagnosis of a pathogen tied to star jelly and any town is going to have a virus going around to some degree at any time. You could tie that virus to anything you wanted, be it rutabaga sales, tech stock prices, or the percentage of men wearing fedoras.