It’s Sep 22, First Day of Spring! Let’s Balance an Egg!

It’s the myth that refuses to die: on or about March 21, the vernal equinox, then–and only then–can an egg be balanced on its end.  This nonsense has been debunked so many times you’d think it would have disappeared into the annals of history.  You’d have thought wrong.  Here’s a YouTube video from spring, 2018:

The most obvious way to debunk this is to just balance an egg on any other day of the year.  Seeking to do it in the most snarky way possible though, I thought to wait until the other first day of spring–September 22. This is the first day of spring in the Southern Hemisphere in 2018.

But that raised yet another problem. It turns out that there are those out there who believe in autumnal equinox magic as well:

Sigh. Undeterred, I decided to start balancing eggs in the days leading up to the equinox, and carry on right on through. (Yes, I agree, I need a social life 🙂 )

Anyway, Here’s a balanced egg, three days before the equinox. I decided to follow the old television crime series hostage trope, including a current newspaper in my photos as proof of the date:

Egg balanced on end, 19 Sep 2018

An egg balanced on end, 19 Sep 2018,  three days before the first day of spring (in the Southern Hemisphere). Newspaper in background verifies the date. (click/enlarge to see paper date)

And here we are again, two days before the equinox. Hey! I thought this was only possible on one (or was it two) special days of the year?

Two days before the first day of spring (in the Southern Hemisphere). An “impossibly” balanced egg. (click/enlarge to read newspaper date.)

And here we go, the first day of spring (south of the equator), and yeah, an egg can be balanced on end… just like any other day of the year.

egg balanced on end

An egg balanced on end on the first day of spring (in the Southern Hemisphere). You can balance an egg on end on ANY day of the year. (click/enlarge)

Now, a true skeptic would point out that I could have saved up a stack of newspapers and snapped all these photos on September 22. So, I’ll make a promise: tomorrow, September 23, I’ll update this article with yet another balanced egg.

Actually, I’ll make a second promise: after September 23, 2018, we will still be debunking this silly myth that you can only balance eggs on the first day of spring 😦

Update: 23 Sep 2018
As promised, here’s yet another balanced egg with backing newspaper, to prove I didn’t stockpile newsprint and shoot all of the previous shots on the autumnal equinox.

egg balanced on September 23

Just to assure the die-hard skeptic I didn’t stockpile newspapers and put all my eggs in one (photo) basket on the equinox, here’s a balanced egg the day after the equinox. (click/enlarge)

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How to (Mostly) Block Donald Trump’s Emergency Text


On October 3, at around 2:00PM Eastern Time (and for up to 30 minutes after), every cell phone in the United States is set to light up with a test “presidential alert” message.1  This intrusion, and the inability to opt out or block it, has upset enough people to kick off a #GoDark920 movement, encouraging Americans to turn off their phones for the entire day.  As I’ll explain shortly, the media is incorrectly calling this message a “text”–but let’s not get into the weeds yet.

If you’re considering turning off your phone, there is an alternative.  Not perfect, but still, I would argue, better than giving up the use of your precious iPhone or Samsung for a day.

You will need WiFi for this to work, but the steps are simple, as shown on my iPhone, below.

  • Put your phone in airplane mode
  • Turn on WiFi
wifi settings for iphone

Setting up an iPhone for WiFi-only text and voice (click/enlarge

Yeah, that’s it.  The steps will be similar on an Android device such as Samsung.  Admittedly, you’re going to lose cellular phone service during this time, but you need not be out of touch with your loved ones, especially in the Apple world.  As long as I’m in range of WiFi, I can both text and call (FaceTime!) other Apple aficionados who are friends and family.

Not into the iPhone?  Not to worry.  There are myriad free texting and calling apps, such as WhatsApp, that are solely internet-based.  No cell phone service required.  In theory, at least, having your phone in Airplane Mode should have cellular service disabled and block the incoming “presidential message.”  If not, we’ve learned something interesting about airplane mode on cell phones.

WhatsApp

WhatsApp is a popular Internet-based application that allows text and voice without a cellular connection. Myriad such applications exist. (click/enlarge)

Note that the concept of “airplane mode” has been evolving, so I cannot guarantee success on October 3.  It used to be that even WiFi wasn’t allowed on flights, but this has changed; the FAA is toying with the idea of allowing cellular calls in the air, so there may well be phones out there that can receive but not transmit.  I’m going to find out on October 3.

messenger to block trump emergency message

Even the much-hated Facebook Messenger app can be used to communicate (over WiFi) until the presidential message passes.

As mentioned in the introduction, the October 3 message is often incorrectly being called a “text” by the press (I intentionally stuck with that name in the title of my article to avoid confusion.)  The alerts sent at the behest of the president use a technology framework known as Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA).  Although WEAs may share some of the infrastructure we’re familiar with (e.g. cell towers, frequencies, our phones), they won’t arrive as standard voice, text, or SMS messages.  Simply put, they blanket all phones known to be in a geographical area with a specially formatted on-screen message accompanied by an audio signal and vibration.

So, to ease your mind, If the blocking hypothesis I describe here does indeed work, you need not fear having a text or voice mail from Donald Trump (OK, FEMA) waiting for you when you take your phone out of airplane mode on the evening of the 3rd.

This makes sense if you think about it.  My wife and I were once fortunate enough to be vacationing in Miami when a major winter storm hit our home state of Kentucky, triggering statewide wireless winter storm alerts.  Not only did we not receive those alerts while in Florida (it would make no sense, both the cellular service and emergency services know how to geo-track users and deliver warnings to the right places), we had no voice mails or texts waiting in our inboxes a week later when we flew back to chilly Kentucky.  In other words, the warning messages aren’t held for you to pick up at a later date.

But, Now That You Can, Should You?
Emergency alert systems exist for a reason–a good reason.  I always leave those for which I can opt-in enabled on my phone.  I would recommend that everyone do so.  A lot of dedicated scientists from myriad fields have worked very hard to put together a system to keep us safe.

So why am I writing about trying to bypass a test, and what the hell does this have to do with debunking bad science (the purpose of my blog?)

This is, in effect, my way of extending a large digital middle finger to Ajit Pai and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for their egregious act of bad science and public policy in rolling back net neutrality, the legal framework that forced Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in this country to treat all internet traffic equally. The Internet is now pay-for-play, meaning ISPs can charge (and receive) large fees to give priority to certain traffic (read: that from large corporations), leaving “unimportant” data (schools, libraries, scientific research, anything coming from your home and mine) to sit in the backwaters of a swamp that was supposed to be cleared.

And, to be honest, looking at what Trump and the FCC have done to botch the internet, I cannot help but have a knot in my stomach when I think of them holding the ability to “brick” every cell phone in the United States, at their whim, in one fell swoop. (WEA messages “brick,” or render your phones useless for communication, during their duration).

So, yes, accepting emergency broadcasts is a good thing.  A superfluous message from a vainglorious, demonstrably scientifically illiterate administration over an arguably redundant notification system, backed in part by an FCC that sold a free and fair internet to the highest bidder?

Yeah, I’m disabling my phone in protest.

Authors Notes
Updated 19 Sep 2018 to include descriptions of, and elaborate upon, the Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) framework, how the data sent is not actually a text message, and propose the hypothesis that whatever’s sent between 2:00pm and 2:30pm won’t somehow show up in an inbox or stored as a “missed text.”

References
(1) Presidential Alert Test Postponed (NBC News)
https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/mobile/fema-s-presidential-alert-test-postponed-some-americans-want-disconnect-n910406
Retrieved 18 Sep 2018

Image Credits
iPhone screen snapshots by the author.

Trump on phone parody by the author, used in strict accordance with provisions of Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of United States copyright law (commonly known as “fair use law”). This material is distributed without profit with the intent to provide commentary, review, education, parody, and increase public health knowledge.

Hurricane Florence Blows Mind of Conservative Talk Show Host

Hurricane Florence image

Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast of the USA.  Image by the author, produced via RadarScope software.

Longtime readers of this blog know the practice here is to avoid politics and religion unless members of those institutions cross the line by bringing science into the fray. At that point the gloves come off.  Listening to a few hours of conservative radio talk show coverage of Hurricane Florence yesterday on the Sirius XM Radio “Patriot” channel, climate science was discussed with all the accuracy of two auto mechanics preparing for delicate brain surgery on a newborn infant.  I feel compelled to respond.

The Wilkow Majority
Let’s look at a quote from Andrew Wilkow of the Wilkow Majority, “explaining” why climate change doesn’t exist:1

“[…] weather patterns are cyclical. […] our earth rotation is not perfectly circular, […] we come and go from different distances in relationship to the to the sun. […] tides, everything is affected by that.” 1

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Wilkow confused rotation with orbit, but I’ll cut him some slack.  Rotation occurs in place (think of a spinning top that doesn’t travel), which doesn’t alter our distance from the sun.  He’s clearly talking about our orbit, so that’s what we’ll concentrate on.  Out of kindness, I can say that this is by far the least of his mistakes.

The Earth does indeed orbit the sun in an elliptical, not circular, orbit.  Unfortunately, that’s the only thing Wilkow got right.  The implication that our distance from the sun affects our weather, our climate, and, risibly, our tides, is so wrong a that fifth grader could debunk it.  Not having a fifth grader on hand, I’ll do it myself, and start with the low hanging fruit: tides.

The Moon is responsible for our tides.2  As it orbits the planet, its gravitational tug on our home–and its oceans–causes a bulge that results in tides. Remember being taught this in grade school? Apparently Andrew Wilkow doesn’t.

andrew wilkow climate change

Andrew Wilkow. See Image Credits for photo copyright/use information

But the most scientifically inaccurate claim in Wilkow’s polemic is that the distance of our planet from the sun has anything to do with weather and climate.  In fact, the separation of Earth and our host star has nothing at all to do with  climate, weather, or even our seasons.

For starters, the seasons are caused by the Earth being tilted 23½ degrees on its axis with respect to the plane in which it orbits the Sun.  During the Northern Hemisphere winter, it’s colder because that part of the planet is tilted away from the Sun, receiving less direct sunlight.  A fun science fact is that during this time of year, the Earth is actually closer to the Sun than in the northern summer. Yes, we’re closer to the Sun in January than in June.  Distance doesn’t matter.  Conversely, it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere in January because that part of the planet is tilted more directly toward the Sun, receiving more direct sunlight.

In Phil Plait’s excellent book, Bad Astronomy,5 Mr. Plait points out that very simple math shows that our non-circular orbit counts for at most a 7°F (4°C) difference, summer or winter. That’s right: statistically, the elliptical shape of our orbit contributes nothing to weather or climate change.  Every year, we swing through a cycle where distance contributes no more than 7°F (4°C), plus or minus, and, a reminder to Mr. Wilkow… we’re  talking weather, not climate.

earth orbit illustration

The Earth’s orbit is indeed elliptical, but it has nothing to do with climate. NASA/NOAA image. (click/enlarge)

This is a perfect segue into Andrew Wilkow’s cringe-worthy statement, “weather patterns are cyclical.”  As all who paid attention in science class know, weather isn’t climate.3   Weather concerns itself with immediate, short-term conditions; climate is the measure and average of weather over long periods of time.  For an example of someone who doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate, look no further than a senator who brings a snowball (a weather event) to the floor of the senate to “prove” climate change doesn’t exist.4  Ach du lieber gott in himmel.

Full disclosure:  there are some possible considerations due to a phenomenon called precession (the Earth’s wobble on its axis), our orbit of the Sun, and the fact that the tilt of our axis will cause seasons in the hemispheres to eventually reverse.  But this happens on scales of tens of thousands of years.  You could start making climate change arguments for Sarasota and Sydney if you stuck around for 20,000 years, but that’s outside Wilkow’s bailiwick and lifespan.

Wilkow’s broadcast eventually segues from demonstrable scientific illiteracy to hurricane and other emergency preparedness and, wait for it: shilling for emergency food supplies. Yes, the conservative broadcaster just so happens to run an online emergency food store, and there’s nothing like a good natural disaster to drum up business.6

wilkow uses natural disaster to sell overpriced goods

Why stop at using bad science to refute a natural disaster when you can make a little money at the same time? Fear sells, and Wilkow is a master of the art. (click/enlarge)

It has become all too typical in today’ environment to deny science and back up rhetoric with nonsense such as Wilkow’s (e.g., the oceans aren’t really warming, providing more fuel to make hurricanes more devastating.)  Unfortunately, listeners calling into his show readily agreed with him, despite the annoying reality that the facts don’t.  For example, as we’ve circled the sun time again, century after century, our planet has been warming by 1.3° to 1.6° Fahrenheit, on average, but with the rate nearly doubling since 1975.7,8

Here’s what the climate has been doing as we elliptically orbit the sun these last few hundred years:

global temperatures chart

History of global surface temperatures since 1880, courtesy NOAA.8 (click/enlarge)

There you have it graphically:  climate change is a long-term affair.  After listening to conservative talk radio for several hours on Wednesday, I hope that the love affair with scientific illiteracy, as demonstrated by Andrew Wilkow and those calling into his show, doesn’t also prove to be a long term affair.

The planet just can’t afford it.

Authors note (16 Sep 2018):  this article originally reversed units of temperature regarding the earth-sun distance effect.  The correct values are 4 degrees Celsius (7 degrees Fahrenheit).  Thanks to astute readers for pointing out the error.

References
(1) The Wilkow Majority (Sirius XM Radio, Patriot Channel)
Excerpt beginning at 6:24 mark, climate change denial
Live Broadcast, 12 Sep 2018, also available via Sirius XM replay

(2) NOAA SciJLinks: What Causes Tides
https://scijinks.gov/tides/
Retrieved 12 Sep 2018

(3) NASA: What’s the Difference Between Weather and Climate?
https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/noaa-n/climate/climate_weather.html
Retrieved 12 Sep 2018

(4) Senator James Inhofe (Republican) Brings Snowball to Floor (YouTube)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3E0a_60PMR8
Retrieved 12 Sep 2018

(5) Bad Astronomy, by Phil Plait
https://www.amazon.com/Bad-Astronomy-Misconceptions-Revealed-Astrology/dp/0471409766/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536935776&sr=8-1&keywords=bad+astronomy+-+philip+plait
Retrieved 12 Sep 2018
Disclaimer:  I am not an Amazon affiliate marketer.  I receive no proceeds from the sales of Amazon products and have no association with the author of the linked book.

(6) Prepare With Wilkow (PreparedWith.com)
https://preparewith.com/wilkow
Warning: Not a reputable/scientifically accurate site
Retrieved 12 Sep 2018

(7) NOAA:  Climate Change: Global Temperature
Authors: Rebecca Lindsey and LuAnn Dahlman
https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature
Retrieved 12 Sep 2018

(8) American Meteorological Society, State of the Climate Report
https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/
Retrieved 12

 

Image Credits
Hurricane Florence cover image ©2018 Mark Alsip, all rights reserved.
Produced with the RadarScope app.

Andrew Wilkow image may be subject to copyright.  Used here in strict accordance with provisions of Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of United States copyright law (commonly known as “fair use law”). This material is distributed without profit with the intent to provide commentary, review, education, parody, and increase public health knowledge.

Earth/Sun orbit image courtesy NASA/NOAA. Used with kind permission and under provisions that image is in public domain because it was produced by a government agency.

NOAA climate change courtesy NASA/NOOA.  Used with kind permission and under provisions that image is in public domain because it was produced by a government agency.