Saturday, January 15, 2011

So where does oil really come from?

We were told a lot of things when we were young that actually never make sense, but we believed them no matter what. My favorite is if you are bitten by a rabid animal, you receive vaccine with a giant needle directly into your stomach and it really hurts. And they repeat this treatment over the next 21 days. Actually, you get an injection under the skin of your abdomen, and it hardly hurts. Another example is my mother told me if my fingers are frostbitten, I should rub my hands in snow. This would be analogous to getting a burn, then holding a match under the area to make it feel better. A third, and the most common, “fact” is oil results from billions of years of compressed vegetation, single-cell organisms and, most interesting, dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs, hence Sinclair Oil Co.’s symbol is a dinosaur. Recently I asked a chemist where oil comes from. He looked at me as though I were an idiot and said it comes from dinosaurs, of course.


I now know the first two suppositions are untrue and would like to consider the questions: Where does oil come from? And what might be its real purpose for our planet?

So I am driving down Route K in a 1991 Jeep Grand Wagoneer getting 11 miles per gallon and am grateful we are not running out of oil and, thus, gasoline. On that rare occasion when I am forced to leave the safety of Columbia, I notice thousands of cars and trucks on the highway. I realize this scene is magnified thousands of times, not including the millions of cars soon to be driven in China, and it seems this precious mass of flammable hydrocarbon extracted from squeezed dinosaurs and decayed plants might soon be exhausted. I then remembered that, during my lifetime, there have been yet-unproved predictions that in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years we will run out of oil. So I have begun to question the real origin of this vital energy source. Before we began consuming this fuel in large amounts, it actually seeped to the surface in places like Oklahoma.

Then my bean sprout-stimulated brain focused on the fact that the center of our planet contains a giant ball of molten metal, mostly made of iron, that is believed to be spinning faster than the Earth itself. With a diameter of 1,500 miles, it generates such great forces that unimaginable temperatures and pressures are realized. It provides heat to the Earth and is believed to be responsible for the magnetic fields. So, it appears we are really a giant spaceship, partially fueled by amazing phenomena that most of us have barely noticed.

Recently a small number of scientists have suggested this oil is abiogenic, meaning hydrocarbons of purely inorganic origin exist in the Earth’s interior and are generated from the Earth itself. They often come to the surface where tectonic plates come together. A 2002 article in a prestigious journal described how Russian scientists were able to produce hydrocarbons from elements present in the center of the Earth, including iron and calcium carbonate, under temperatures and pressures believed to be found in the Earth’s mantle. They felt these experiments provided the science for the genesis of hydrocarbons and the origin of petroleum.

As we explore outer space, life in other terrestrial bodies is proving hard to find. Apparently we on Earth have the equivalent of the perfect storm that provides the essential components necessary for diverse life forms. There is the nitrogen cycle, the water vapor cycle and the very convenient plant/animal production of carbon dioxide and oxygen. We need oxygen, which the plants give off, and we give off carbon dioxide, which the plants use for photosynthesis. If oil is generated by the heat and pressure of this spinning mass of liquid iron, then perhaps it, too, serves a greater purpose than propelling my giant car down Route K.

This brings me the classic book written by Theodor Seuss Geisel called “Horton Hears a Who.” In this fairytale story, the large ears of Horton the elephant allow him to hear the calls for help from a tiny planet in danger of being destroyed. Of course, everyone laughs at him, and they even place him in restraints because of his continued warning about the plight of this small planet and the Who citizens of Whoville. He warns them that if they cannot be heard, they might be boiled in Beezelnut oil, an unpleasant experience I hope to avoid.

I would not have written this article — I risk the nickname “Horton” for the rest of my life — if I hadn’t recently met a very smart and respected scientist. I will not mention his name so as not to destroy his long and prominent career. After a brief introduction, I blurted out, “So where does oil come from?” He answered without hesitation: “Of course it does not come from dinosaurs. It is generated from deep within the Earth, and some believe it comes to the surface where the tectonic plates touch. This is well known in Russia, and they always find oil if they drill deep enough.”

He provided for me the scientific article regarding the genesis of hydrocarbons and the origin of petroleum.

This really bright scientist agreed with me until I moved into the next layer of critical thinking. Since this giant ball bearing-like spinning object must interface with something, perhaps the production of oil serves a more useful purpose, such as providing lubrication of the spinning ball bearing. I then actually heard the sound of his eyeballs rolling upward and back, a sound I have often heard when explaining this theory.

So, with the candor of Horton, I ask the question: If we are sucking out this oil at an ever-increasing rate, might this upset the delicate balance of the spinning molten ball, increasing friction and leading to cataclysmic results such as generating more heat, altering Earth’s axis or contributing to unstable tectonic plates (earthquakes)? This experiment has been carried out many times by slowly withdrawing oil from a two-cycle engine. It is not pretty.

There, I have said it. Think about it. When I explained the theory to my daughter, she said, “Perhaps it is time to find the hole to the center of the Earth and start putting the oil back.”

My daughter is never wrong.

Eddie Adelstein is an associate professor of pathology at MU.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

5 Popular Safety Measures That Don't Make You Any Safer

By Robert Evans Oct 05, 2010 1,076,434 views
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It's so hard to think logically about safety. We figure that any time our health or the safety of our children is at stake, it's better safe than sorry. Our safety is too important for logic, damn it!

Unfortunately, this leads to a whole lot of well-publicized and expensive safety measures that are often worthless, or downright dangerous. Like...

Airport Security Measures

After 9/11, we knew that stopping terrorism would take a bold, creative strategy, one flexible enough to adapt quickly to changes in tactics. How about this: let's find every person who's shown even the slightest criminal tendency and bar them from ever getting on a plane!

And America was saved forever.

Thus the no fly list was established. It is estimated to have around 1 million names but nobody knows for sure. Keeping the list secret is a matter of national security, so the only way to find out if you're on it is to be detained in the airport. Or in the air. For instance, in 2005 a 747 flight from Amsterdam to Mexico was turned back before it could reach its destination. The reason? Two of the plane's passengers were on the no fly list and the flight crossed over US airspace. Well, better safe than sorry, right?

But while those two anonymous passengers were terrifying enough to ban from flying over America, they weren't enough of a threat to be worth arresting. There's a reason security expert Bruce Schneier described the No-Fly list as "a list of people so dangerous they cannot be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent we can't arrest them even under the Patriot Act."

Is it weird that we're more afraid of this man's beard than of terrorists?

And that wasn't an isolated incident. Seven international flights have been diverted, at a cost of roughly $6.25 million, and countless flights and passengers have been delayed. Homeland Security Affairs estimates the total cost of the list to our government at $100 million a year. But hey, fighting terror isn't cheap. At least no terrorists are getting on planes!

Well, unless you count those 11 terrorists in England with the sophisticated plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives. You know, the ones who are the reason you can't take a child-sized bottle of shampoo onto the plane any more. None of them managed to stumble onto the no fly list ... even though they'd been under surveillance for more than a year.

This article is dedicated to every person who has been strip-searched
by the TSA for trying to smuggle in the wrong-size bottle of contact lens solution.

It turns out it's even possible to beat the no fly list even if the authorities aren't terribly incompetent. All a potential terrorist would need to do is use a false name and get a fake ID. Security experts have also created boarding pass generators on the Internet to prove how worthless the whole system is. CBS was able to purchase tickets on three airlines and bypass security in five airports using a $150 fake license.

"$150? That's half our monthly weed budget!"

Not that most terror-inclined individuals would even need a fake ID. The no fly list is filled with tons of dead people and foreign politicians along with small children and Marine veterans but is surprisingly light on real terrorists. Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bought a one-way flight from Lagos to Detroit by way of Amsterdam and paid in cash. Umar's own fathercalled US officials several times in the months before the flight, warning them that his son had terrorist-y plans. Umar, who didn't get the plane to crash because the bomb in his pants wouldn't go off, never made it onto the no fly list.

But that's OK, since said underwear bomber has prompted governments around the world to install full-body scanners in their airports. You know, the ones that let the operator see your genitals. In late 2009 the TSA ordered $165 million worth of full body scanners, and countries like Canada have followed suit. But it's worth it, to stop terrorists like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab! Only, they wouldn't have stopped him. Let's quote Rafi Sela, former chief security officer for the Israel Airport Authority:

"I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747,"

Presumably, Mr. Sela has now been added to the no fly list.

These scanners would also have done nothing to detect the failed 2006 liquid bomb plot or the 2005 London train bombing. They can't even detect objects stuffed inside the body. For a visual example, check out this video of a rotund German man besting a full-body scanner. The machine caught his pocket knife, cell phone and microphone...

...but it didn't notice the armload of chemical bomb components he was carrying.

Anti-Lock Brakes and Bike Helmets

Safety equipment on vehicles creates a kind of weird Catch-22. On one hand, you can show in the laboratory that anti-lock brakes do make cars stop faster. Bicycle helmets do protect a skull when it hits the pavement. But then you factor in the element of human behavior -- namely, the fact that most of us are insane -- and much of that goes out the window.

It starts with something called the Peltzman effect which Almighty Wikipedia defines as "the hypothesized tendency of people to react to a safety regulation by increasing other risky behavior, offsetting some or all of the benefit of the regulation."

"I'm wearing a bright vest and eye protection. What's the harm in dropping a few grams of mescaline?"

This fits in with what the Highway Loss Data Institute learned about anti-lock brakes. A 10 year study showed no reduction in the frequency or severity of crashes due to anti-lock brakes. A person in an ABS vehicle actually has a 45 percent greater chance of dying in a single-vehicle crash than someone without ABS. Science's explanation? Unskilled drivers driving more aggressively thanks to their false sense of security.


Likewise, there are multiple studies showing that bicycle helmets, in the long run, don't actually reduce the number of injuries. In 2006 a researcher in Bath, England posted up the results of a study showing that when bicyclists wear safety equipment like helmets, people in cars are more likely to hit them. A scientist/test subject found that motorists came an average of 3.35 inches closer to his bike when he rode protected. The sight of the safety gear turned off the common sense part of their brain.

Still, you'd think that in the long run, there'd have to be health benefits to head protection. After all, some countries, like Australia, have made helmets mandatory for all cyclists. A bunch of states in the U.S. have bike helmet laws, and the fight for helmet laws in other states rages on. Some people think it's weird that the government can tell you what kind of hat to wear during a certain activity, but at least bike fatalities have gone down. They have gone down, right?


Not according to science. Recent studies from Australia suggest that mandatory helmet laws have the opposite effect. Between 1982 and 1989 -- prior to the helmet laws -- the country saw its number of cyclists double (bicycles actually give pedestrians a decent chance of outrunning the crocodiles and flying jellyfish). You'd expect bike-related injuries and fatalities to have shot up during the same period.

Instead, they dropped -- deaths plummeted by 48 percent, while injuries fell 33 percent. This seems a little counter-intuitive until you account for human behavior. More people riding bikes leads to motorists who get used to sharing the road with them. But then, in 1992, they passed the laws making bike helmets mandatory. It was a disaster. 1995 and 1996 saw higher numbers of cyclist head injuries than any year prior to the law's passage.

How is that possible? Well, the fashion consequences of mandatory helmets caused the women of Australia to stop cycling. Apparently they valued the hair on their head more than the brain inside it. Since there weren't any girls to impress, the boys stopped cycling too.

Possibly because of the shorts.

Cyclists are rarer, motorists are less likely to be on the lookout for them, so there are more accidents. And -- to make it even worse -- you lose the health benefits you were getting from cycling. In total, Macquarie University found that Australia's helmet laws cause as much as half a billion dollars in health-related costs every year. It doesn't matter what kind of data you get from a helmeted crash test dummy; a real human just doesn't want to look like a dork.

Toe tags, on the other hand, are fucking stylin'.


Quack snake oil peddlers may have gotten away with some ridiculous things when our grandparents were in diapers, but people today are much more discerning. At least until someone in a lab coat says the word "cancer."

Good for 30 IQ points and eight years of college.

Don't get us wrong; last year 8,650 people in the United States died of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Summertime PSAs and middle school health teachers lead us to believe that we could avoid the same grisly fate by slathering on enough high SPF sunscreen to make us look like we fell into the mayonnaise vat they keep behind every Burger King.

Well, while it's true that tanning is about as retarded as drinking radium, the idea that sunscreen will protect you from skin cancer is wishful thinking. A study released in May 2010 showed that 92 percent of sunscreen lotions on the market are completely ineffective.

Worse, one common sunscreen additive, retinyl palmitate, has been found by the FDA to speed up skin lesions and act as a photocarcinogenic. Oxybenzone, a chemical you'll find in Coppertone and a ton of other big-name sunblocks, has been linked to contact eczema and breast cancer. But hey, at least you'll be safe from melanoma!

And the dreaded specter of ass cancer.

Unless you aren't. If you listened in health class, you know to look for a sunscreen with an SPF above 30. Unfortunately, SPF only measures the sunscreen's ability to block UVB radiation, not UVA radiation. This is a problem because it's actually UVA radiation that causes skin cancer. This is where the confusion sets in over whether you're using sunscreen to prevent cancer, or sunburn. Most people are worried about the latter, even though all the warnings we hear are about the former.

Mr. Sun is just six kinds of Asshole, isn't he?

It gets worse. The FDA has yet to create any regulations for how sunscreens are allowed to indicate their UVA protection. As a result, tons of sunscreen manufacturers have started marketing their products as having "broadspectrum" protection. This would seem to indicate that the sunscreen protects you against both types of ray, but it is actually a completely meaningless marketing term.

Maybe we should apologize to the spray-on tan crowd after all.

Maybe not.

Breast Cancer Self-Examination

The most frequent cancer warning, just behind "always wear sunscreen," has to be the constant reminder for women to check their breasts for lumps. Until recently, doctors everywhere advised women to regularly rifle around their funbags (we held an office contest, and that won out as the "least mature phrasing possible") in search of cancer. This falls right into our readers' widely held belief that most human problems can be solved by the application of sufficient hands to boobs.

Our plan for peace in the Middle East.

Young women don't routinely receive mammograms, and the thinking was that the early notice provided by self-exams would save lives (and breasts). Then some scientists decided to actually test the benefits of medical boob-fondling (our No. 2 pick). In 2008, they published the results of two massive mammary studies encompassing a staggering 388,500 Russian and Chinese women between 30 and 66.

One group of women was not taught or urged to perform examinations. The other women received detailed training and regular refresher classes, which we're guessing were hosted in some sort of large sexodrome filled with pillows and dotted with open bars.

Wait, seriously? There's such a thing as a Sexodrome?

After 10 years of intensive, slightly creepy research the scientists found ... no difference in cancer survival rates between the two groups. We know what you're thinking: Sure, self-exams don't make anyone safer, but they sure as hell can't hurt! They're probably good for your blood pressure or ... something.

You might think that, but you would be wrong. It turns out that the women who do self-examinations are almost twice as likely to get unnecessary biopsies. So basically, you're no less likely to die from cancer, but you're way more likely to have someone stick a knife in your chest. Up to you, ladies.

Most people try to avoid this.

Gated Communities

Let's face it, cities can be terrifying. They are, after all, filled with people like us. The modern metropolis is a teeming hive of strung-out dope heads, rapists, home invaders and fine regional cuisine. There's only one solution to this problem that doesn't involve switching ZIP codes. If you've got the money, a gated community promises security and isolation from the skeeviest of your fellow Americans.

This is the closest that some wealthy folks will ever come to seeing a hobo.

About 11 percent of Americans in the West and 6.8 percent in the South live in gated developments. High membership dues and expensive housing keep the "riff-raff" from moving in next door, while high walls and a security guard keep them from wandering in off the street, drinking the wrong types of alcohol and leering at women joggers. Sure, it's a little paranoid. But at least people in gated communities gain comfort and tangible safety benefits without hurting anyone else. It's like a guard dog you don't have to feed or replace every 10 years.

Off to the rendering plant with you, Fido!

Unfortunately, science is finding that the chief benefits of gated-community living are illusory at best.Preliminary research finds that "crimes such as burglary drop in the first year or so of gating, but then rise back to the level of the areas outside." The president of research for the National Association of Home Builders found studies indicating "no differences" in crime between gated and non-gated communities. The City of Miami noted that "the long-term crime rate is at best only marginally altered."

The key is to realize how minimal the security actually is. You're not living behind a Simpsons movie-style dome, protected by your own personal military. You've got a gate, maybe with an electronic code, or maybe with a security guard making barely over minimum wage. In both cases, you can't keep everyone out -- friends, family members, landscaping crews, pizza delivery drivers, all have to be able to pass in and out. The system will always have to allow a certain number of strangers in. Meanwhile, the burglars in the area know that those houses behind the gates have all the nicest stuff -- you're announcing that just by living there -- and that it's not exactly freaking Fort Knox.

That security guard will answer your call as soon as he finishes his joint.

And if something bad does happen in your gated paradise? Rescue workers often have issues getting past unmanned security gates and maneuvering bulky emergency vehicles through them. This increases ambulance response time, which can kill you just as dead as the PCP-raging vandals lying in wait outside your fancy walls.

"...and that's why we have to make sure all the mail boxes are the same color."

As it turns out, gated communities aren't even good for the illusion of security. Multiple studies in the U.S. and the U.K. show that "residents do not necessarily experience a reduced sense of fear after moving to a gated development. In fact, people can become more fearful and anxious about leaving the safety of their community." Fences have that effect. First you like them, then you feel naked without them.

Yeah, we're thinking you'd be better off with a big dog.

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