Hogwash probably caused by cosmic rays

Once again, I’ve come away from listening to an episode of RadioLab convinced that they sometimes play dumb for effect. In this episode, “Bit Flip”, they went on for some minutes about how none of them had any idea what the significance of the number 4,096 might be, even as someone started going through the powers of two for them. The rest of the episode was devoted to detailing how not one of them had ever heard of the rare but real effect cosmic ray hits can sometimes have on electronic equipment – a good amount less rare at very high altitude and in space. They seem to have never heard of cloud chambers, either, and, after building one and seeing the effect for themselves, announced that yes, it seems those cosmic ray dealy-bobs really do exist. Pardon me?

I do like RadioLab, but my bullshit detector has clanged loudly more than once in the past as I listened, in maybe eight or ten episodes over the years. Their ubiquitous and multiple exclamations of “What?! I can’t believe it! But how?” have long fallen flat on my ears – not just because they always go over the top with their supposed disbelief/shock/surprise in this scripted show, but often because I know the topic at hand actually came up at some length in mainstream science news stories years ago. When this happens, I say to myself, in Ray Goulding’s voice, “Wattaya, dumb? Don’t you know anything, you people?” (I’m quoting from the Bob & Ray sketch below – Ray’s on the left.)

But I don’t think that; I think they’re well aware and perhaps hope and trust that everyone has forgotten about them by now. Some of those news stories have occurred within the lifetime of RadioLab itself, but even for the older ones, Robert Krulwich especially, co-host of the show and also science correspondent for National Public Radio, is of an age that surely he remembers most of them. He’s the one I most suspect of putting on an act in such episodes. I can imagine him saying, “Yes, of course I heard of that back in the ’90s, but look, we gotta stick with the show’s M.O.: Salient facts are scripted as surprises known by none of us.”

Also galling about this episode is that they seemed to conclude that all the cases they talked about must have been the result of cosmic ray hits, something which is certainly if minutely possible but, since there is no evidence after the fact, it’s certainly impossible to prove or even say with any level of confidence unless you’re experimentally set up to detect the particles as they hit. Particularly egregious was their strong implication that an Australian Airbus in-flight upset was likely caused by a cosmic ray hit. (See? Can’t even trust airplanes!) Mushrooms would thrive in this steaming pile of horse potatoes. The Australian Transport Safety Board’s entirely opposite conclusion, after exhaustive study, was that Single Event Effects, the catchall name for such cosmic ray hits, were “very unlikely” to have been the cause of the malfunction.

“Yes, even I am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is.”
– Mark Twain in a letter to Joseph Twichell, 15 March 1905

“13 Minutes to the Moon” podcast

After listening to the first episode, which was well done, I can recommend the new “13 Minutes to the Moon” BBC World Service podcast, promoted as “The full story of the people who made Apollo 11 happen and prevented it from going badly wrong.”

It will run for twelve episodes – if they’re all 45 minutes like the first one, that will be nine hours total.

Background on the series: Apollo Moon landing: The 13 minutes that defined a century

Programme site: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2

Podcast page (RSS link at upper right): https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w13xttx2

 

My 15 seconds

So there I was, recording today’s Quote…Unquote S53E02 off iPlayer after grabbing The Unbelievable Truth S19E02 earlier. One minute in, my eyebrows like to shoot off my head as host Nigel Rees and Charlotte Green open the show with…well, me and a quotation I sent him last year. Pretty cool.

I wrote five years ago of the strange enmity UK comics seem to have for the show. I still hear it derided a few times a year and I still don’t understand. This is a 53-series programme panelled by the likes of Douglas Adams, Graham Linehan, Peter Cook, and John Lloyd. Sheesh.

Once every several weeks, I hear some comedian or other on a Radio 4 show or TV panel show slag off “Quote…Unquote”, a panel show also on Radio 4. Most make dismissive comments, but some seem to despise the programme with a passion, which puzzles me because I like it. It’s not my favourite Radio 4 programme (that’d be “The News Quiz”, which itself slags off “Quote…Unquote” approximately every fourth programme), but I always listen to QU and can usually identify about half the quotations before they’re through reciting them. There’s good humour and good stories in most episodes.

Why do all those comedians hate it so, and with such bizarre frequency? It’s a minor show that airs only very infrequently – six episodes a year in recent years – yet I hear more negative mentions of it in any given year than the number of QU episodes that aired that year. Is it simply because they know none of the quotations and are perhaps made to feel small, or did presenter Nigel Rees line up all their dogs in a row and run them over with a steamroller years ago?

Podcasts I like

This is my current BeyondPod subscription list. I listen – mostly in the car over Bluetooth – to every episode from about two-thirds of these and selected episodes from the rest.

99% Invisible

Food Programme

Fresh Air

From Our Own Correspondent

Futility Closet

Invisibilia

Kitchen Cabinet

More or Less: Behind the Stats

NPR: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

NPR: Car Talk

NPR: Planet Money

NPR: Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

Radio Diaries

Radiolab

Reply All

Science Weekly

The Allusionist

The Bugle

The Gist

The Infinite Monkey Cage

the memory palace

The Mountain Stage

The News Quiz Extra There is no podcast for the Extra version, so I record this from iPlayer with Cool Edit when it’s published Mondays at about 8pm ET.

This American Life

Witness

You folks must know some great ones I’m not aware of, so feel free to note them in the comments.

Non impediti ratione cogitatonis

100505E-MAGLIOZZITom Magliozzi, co-host of NPR’s “Car Talk” along with his brother Ray until 2012, has, alas, left us. There was never a purveyor of cornier jokes, nor an equal to his infectious laugh that never failed to get me chortling along.

There aren’t many people whose mere mention so easily brings a smile to so many, but Tom and Ray have been on that list for decades – read some of the comments on that NPR article for the proof. A lot of listeners didn’t have cars or even care one whit about cars, but tuned in because the show was more about people and relationships than it was about spanners and tappets. A large part of it, too, were cheesy jokes and the brothers’ good-natured rivalry.

I still listen to the show in repeats because I love unrepentant wise-arses. I happen to be one myself.

tom-magliozziThe title? Tom’s motto: Unencumbered by the thought process.

“I came to this country in 1979 and got hooked to the Car Talk ever since. Tom and Ray made America better than what I had imagined it to be. Thank you.”