A less draconian solution to the large soda ban proposed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be a requirement that establishments at least make it possible to buy a small soda for less money. At Regal Cinemas a small soda is 32 ounces of sugary goo, nearly three times the size of a standard canned soda. And it costs nearly $5. A better way to encourage people to drink less high calorie soft drinks is to require vendors to at least offer for sale a “small” that at least is not gigantic. If the movie theater sold a 12-ounce soda for, oh, $2, then I believe a lot of people would opt for the more reasonable serving size. But if I’ve got that 32-ounce bucket of sugar water sitting in my armrest, I’m going to drink past the point of what I really need or want. And since the wholesale cost of 12 ounces of soda is about a quarter, the theater is still making a killing.

Average Rating: 4.6 out of 5 based on 224 user reviews.

There’s a lot of chatter on the web following James Cameron’s assertion that the aliens in Avatar are “non-placental” and therefore have no biological need for breasts. But he wanted them to have them so they would be more attractive and less-alien-looking. Did I miss some part of Avatar where the Na’vi are shown to be non-mammalian? Why not just say they are mammals so the boobs make sense? Why pretend to make up some intricate alternate reproductive mechanism that is not represented by anything in the movie, and then go to contortions to explain something that is in the movie that would make perfect sense if they were mammalian?

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 172 user reviews.

NBC Nightly News did a lengthy segment tonight on the conspiracy theories about Obama’s citizenship. This all seems to center around a conviction that he was not born in Hawaii. Even though it has been demonstrated that he was born in Hawaii, conspiracy theorists and the gullible continue to insist that he is not an American citizen and therefore not eligible to be President. The Constitution states that one must be a “natural born citizen” to be President. The U.S. Supreme Court has never issued a ruling defining what “natural born citizen” means in this context. However it is generally agreed that it means the individual is a citizen by right of birth, not through a naturalization process. I have not heard anyone dispute that Barack Obama’s mother was an American citizen. And that alone makes him a U.S. citizen by birth, not naturalization. In other words he would be a natural born citizen (a citizen from the moment of birth) even if he hadn’t been born in Hawaii. This is directly from the U.S. Department of State web site:

Birth Abroad to One Citizen and One Alien Parent in Wedlock: A child born abroad to one U.S. citizen parent and one alien parent acquires U.S. citizenship at birth under Section 301(g) INA provided the citizen parent was physically present in the U.S. for the time period required by the law applicable at the time of the child’s birth. (For birth on or after November 14, 1986, a period of five years physical presence, two after the age of fourteen is required. For birth between December 24, 1952 and November 13, 1986, a period of ten years, five after the age of fourteen are required for physical presence in the U.S. to transmit U.S. citizenship to the child.

Obama’s mother spent her entire childhood in the U.S., satisfying the 10 year requirement. Barack Obama was born when his mother was 18, before she could possibly have spent five years after the age of fourteen in the States, but of course she eventually would spend far more than five years after the age of fourteen in the States. And in any event, it is irrelevant because he was born in the U.S. anyway.

Average Rating: 4.5 out of 5 based on 231 user reviews.

With the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 I have heard more than I care about the delusional segment of the public that insists we did not go to the Moon. Only for my peace of mind, I have imagined a conversation with a Moon landing conspiracist where I ask him if he believes people have been to Antarctica. (My satisfaction in this imaginary conversation depends on him saying “yes, ” but the beauty of me imagining this conversation is that I do, in fact, get to decide what the other person says.) So he says “Yes, of course!” to which I reply, “Why?”. Well, you can imagine the responses to this as well as I can, because presumably you also believe people have been to Antarctica, and unless you have personally been there yourself (and I know some of you have), all your reasons for believing people have been to Antarctica are the same as the reasons for believing people have been to the Moon: we have seen pictures of people there; we have talked to people who have been there; we have seen things that were brought back from there; we have seen the machines that take people there. Qualitatively, (unless, again, you have been there yourself), there is no difference in the evidence for people going to the Moon and the evidence for people going to Antarctica. My imaginary debater can then only fall back on the idea that going to the Moon is implausibly hard, to which I wonder if he believes that I can store thousands of books, pictures, songs, and movies on a device the size of a matchbook and why he thinks that is easier that sending a rocket to the Moon. In my imagination, my foe is crushed on the withering force of my logic. In reality, of course, there is just no arguing with some people.

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This has to be seen to be believed:

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Yesterday I attended a short speech given by former Apollo astronaut Dr. Edgar Mitchell at the University of Central Florida. Mitchell presented a scholarship to a UCF Engineering student and then gave a brief description of his career as an astronaut culminating in two 5-hour sojourns on the lunar surface as part of the Apollo 14 mission. Mitchell, with a Sc.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Aeronautics and Astronautics, then expressed his concerns and hopes for the future of humanity: concerns that we will destroy ourselves as our technological capabilities advance faster than our sensibilities, and hopes that we will survive these dangers to continue exploration of the cosmos. They are good and noble sentiments, and I appreciate him expressing them and pointing out that when the Earth is viewed from afar, as only he and a handful of other men have done, national boundaries evaporate and the precarious and unique status of the Earth as home to all life becomes painfully clear.

In response to questions, Dr. Mitchell expressed that aliens have visited the Earth, and while he wasn’t explicit, implied that they are living among us and concealed from us by a vast cover-up. He also affirmed that he had successfully communicated through ESP while on the surface of the Moon and that quantum mechanics now explained how this could happen. And this brings me to the criticism from “Object Reporter” on my post a couple of days ago in which I expressed dismay in a new call for government-funded research into UFOs. Object Reporter says I am uninformed on the topic of UFOs and accuses me of spouting nonsense. I stand by my statement that aliens are the least probable explanation for UFO sightings. While it is physically possible for aliens from another planet to visit Earth, there is no compelling evidence that that has ever happened. And compelling evidence is required for such an extraordinary claim. It is an extraordinary claim because the amount of energy needed for interstellar travel is huge, and a visit to the Earth by aliens would represent a huge investment of resources. For them to make this investment and then hide, but hide poorly, does not make sense. They hide poorly because somehow, while they escape detection by the vast network of aircraft and spacecraft tracking systems as well as the vast majority of the population including people like me who would be thrilled to meet them, they apparently occasionally make themselves plainly visible to some casual observers. Other explanations are more likely because in the vast majority of UFO sightings, ordinary terrestrial explanations for those sightings have already been demonstrated to be the case. If one hundred UFO sightings are demonstrated to be due to weather balloons, military aircraft, meteors, ball lightning, camera flares and other mundane explanations, then it’s likely something like that is the explanation for the one hundred and first. The claim of evidence for extraterrestrials carries the burden of proof. I, happily, do not have the burden to debunk each UFO sighting, anymore than if I claim that there is an underground civilization on the Moon someone else has the burden to prove me wrong. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I would be thrilled by the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, but so far there is no evidence, and the most likely evidence we’ll get would be an extraterrestrial radio signal.

The idea of a vast cover-up is also extraordinary. Forget for the moment that it is difficult to imagine a motive for a cover-up. The power of people in government is always enhanced by engendering fear in the populace, and fear is presumably one consequence of discovering aliens. NASA has as its mission to look for life elsewhere in the universe, and nothing would boost its budget more than the discovery of extraterrestrial life, even microbial in form. In short, lots of people in government have a self-interest in seeing extraterrestrial life proven, not hidden. But the biggest problem I see with the cover-up idea is how consistently miserable people are at keeping secrets. The most powerful person on the planet, the President of the United States, could not even keep a hotel break-in secret or (in a different incarnation) oral sex. The idea that, for decades, hundreds or thousands of people in the military and government could hide the existence of alien visitors defies reason. As for Dr. Mitchell’s demonstration of ESP, James Randi has a million dollars waiting for anyone who can demonstrate ESP or other paranormal phenomena. No one has succeeded, and by the way quantum mechanics, which beautifully describes the behavior of electrons and atoms, offers no explanation for ESP. Finally, in response to the comment on my previous post that “I wasn’t aware that the three doctors, half a dozen ex-military officials and a former state governor were supposed to be taken lightly…”: it is the claims of these people that aliens are on Earth I take lightly because they do not meet the burden of proof. And by the way, George W. Bush is a former state governor, and I take almost everything he says lightly. It’s the only way to avoid depression. Live long and prosper.

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Seizing on a comment by Dennis Kucinich about a UFO sighting, UFO believers have renewed a call for government resources to be wasted on investigating things that people see in the sky and cannot identify. The Reuters story does not identify the members of the “international panel” other than to say they are former pilots and government officials. 9/11 is invoked (of course) as a reason why somehow now we really have to pay attention to UFOs. I’m not exactly sure how that works: are aliens going to crash into our building? Or will we misinterpret an alien spaceship as hijacked airliner or foreign bomber? Our money would be much better spent educating people about the things that are in the sky rather than investigating the least likely explanation (aliens) of all possible explanations. The Air Force sums it up concisely: “Since the termination of Project Blue Book, nothing has occurred that would support a resumption of UFO investigations.”

Average Rating: 5 out of 5 based on 195 user reviews.

I’m at the Cassini Project Science Group meeting in Pasadena this week, so my morning hotel routine involves motel buffet breakfast in the room in front of the morning news. At 7:00 a.m. I started with CBS’s “The Early Show”. In their lead-in to the morning’s news, they made a big deal about a picture of a fire where the shape of the flame bears a zeroth order resemblance to blob with a pointy thing at the top and a pointy thing at the side that some people have decided looks like former Pope John Paul II with a pointy hat and a pointy finger blessing someone. The anchors were quite excited at this amazing occurrence, so I promptly changed the channel to “The Today Show” on NBC where I was treated to the exact same nonsense. This is not only not news, it’s not anything. This was taken from video meaning either 30 frames of footage per second (NTSC) or 25 (Pal/SECAM), so if someone filmed this fire for even only one minute, there are over 1500 pictures of fire to choose from, and probably many more. I’m more surprised they couldn’t come up with a frame that showed a stronger resemblance to something.

I mentioned the upcoming insult to the state of the civilization with NBC’s “Phenomenon” earlier, but Lifetime apparently beat them to the punch. Check out the Skepchick’s hilarious review of their psychic show.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 213 user reviews.

The warm glow I felt after watching the latest episode of my favorite TV show, The Office, was quickly extinguished by an ad for a new TV show on NBC that would, if I were a man of principle, make me boycott the network. Billed as a reality show, “Phenomenon” is co-hosted by charlatan Uri Geller who will judge contestants’ magic tricks. Not having seen the show, I will reserve judgment on just how misleading and misguided the show is. According to tvweek.com, the co-host Criss Angel, a traditional magician “will lend a more skeptical voice to the proceedings.” But also according to tvweek, NBC will both invite viewers to figure out how tricks are accomplished and figure out “whether any of the mentalists might have actual psychic talent.” Groan.

Average Rating: 4.4 out of 5 based on 276 user reviews.

The latest sign of the decline of civilization can be seen in this humorously presented snippet from “The View” where one of the hosts proudly proclaims ignorance about whether the Earth is flat.

Average Rating: 4.9 out of 5 based on 166 user reviews.