In This Episode: I love watching others and recognizing signs of Uncommon Sense. I’m going to tell you about another friend of mine (who has no idea I’m going to talk about this), since it’s a great example of taking something you see with a grain of salt, and calling B.S. when it’s necessary. And then, I take on the universe.
029: 32 Glasses of Water Go Down the Black Hole
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- The original McDonald’s Job Application by Greg Bulmash.
- The several memes (and the video) mentioned are included in place in the transcript below.
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I love watching others and recognizing signs of Uncommon Sense. I’m going to tell you about another friend of mine (who has no idea I’m going to talk about this), since it’s a great example of taking something you see with a grain of salt, and calling B.S. when it’s necessary. And then, I take on the universe.
I’m Randy Cassingham, welcome to Uncommon Sense.
I have a long-time friend who was also a pioneer in online content, and even though he has had a day job for some time now, you may even know his name. He was the author of a very early online viral humor piece, and if you’ve been online for awhile you’ve likely either seen it, or one of the hundreds of adaptations made over the years — usually leaving his name on it. But yes, he’s a real person.
The piece is the McDonald’s Job Application, and I’ll link to the original on the Show Page. Greg Bulmash wrote it in April 1997 so yes, pioneering online content indeed. While he was updating his resume, Greg got the idea to write up a job application with typical dumb questions on it, and provided atypical dumb answers. He included his real name at the top, and posted it online. It has echoed through the Intertubes since.
For example you’ll find:
“Desired Position: Reclining. Ha ha. But seriously, whatever’s available. If I was in a position to be picky, I wouldn’t be applying here in the first place.”
“Desired Salary: $185,000 a year plus stock options and a Michael Ovitz style severance package. If that’s not possible, make an offer and we can haggle.”
“Last Position Held: Target for middle-management hostility.”
Boy, a lot of people could identify with that! It was great stuff, resonated beautifully, and it made the name Greg Bulmash “Internet famous” as people forwarded it around … and around, and around, for many, many years. You get the idea why he’s an old friend of mine; I’ll include his photo on the Show Page too.
Last week Greg reposted a meme: one of those “amazing facts” sorts of things on a medical theme. I’ll include it on the Show Page too, and it’s clear it’s been around: it’s been copied so many times that it’s digitally distorted. It is, as I mentioned in the intro, a great example of Uncommon Sense, but I didn’t ask him if I could talk about it, or even ask if I could use his name, since, well, he made it world-readable! And after all, he’s used to being Internet Famous anyway, so this will be a little surprise for him.
It shows a tiny illustration of a 12-ounce Coke can on the left, overwhelmed by what’s on the right: 32 tall glasses of water that are even larger than the Coke can. The heading of the picture says this:
“It would take 32 Glasses of water to neutralize the acidity of one can of soda.”
Yes, soda pop is acidic; the pH varies. You might remember from high school chemistry that pH ranges from 0 to 14: 7.0 is neutral, less than 7 is acidic, and more than 7 is alkaline. Carbon dioxide — the gas that makes soda bubbly — is a bit acidic by itself, but pop also has acids in it, like phosphoric or citric acids that add tartness and snap. Coke is fairly acidic with a pH of 2.525. You’ll sometimes hear people saying that as far as your health is concerned, it’s “like drinking battery acid” but — as usual — that’s hyperbole: “battery acid” — really sulfuric acid — has a pH as low as 0.3. Obviously no one could drink that, let alone enjoy it. Yet the acid in your stomach, the hydrochloric acid that’s secreted to help break down your food, that has a pH of between 1.5 and 3.5, so what’s the harm with dumping in some Coke at two-and-a-half?
Well, it’s not the acid that’s a problem, it’s the sugar. But let’s get back to Greg: when he saw the meme, he rolled his eyes a bit and posted it with a comment: “This seems like a nice healthy meme to share. But it’s actually dangerous,” he said. “First, cranberry juice (2.3 pH) is more acidic than a Coke (2.5 pH). Your body can handle a little acid.”
“Second,” he says, “this is like the math of getting half the distance to a goal every 5 minutes, but never reaching it. Water *is* neutral pH. So 5 glasses would neutralize 90% of the acid, and the other 27 would be trying to dilute that last 10% to a number close enough to 0 to make the claim work.”
“But,” he continues, “it would be pointless because it would be unhealthy to drink more than 2 of those glasses on top of it before your body processed the soda.”
And then he goes into why:
“Your kidneys can process about 1 liter (give or take) in an hour. If those 32 glasses were the same size as the soda, that would be 3 gallons of water.
“If you drink more than a liter an hour, the excess water dilutes your blood and reduces its ability to carry all the stuff your body parts need to function… to the point that drinking a couple of gallons in a couple of hours has been known to kill people.”
And that’s absolutely true. It’s called water intoxication, and, for instance, fraternity pledges have been killed by hazing by their seniors who, for instance, force them to drink a lot of water without taking a break to pee.
And Greg sums up his comments very clearly: “This meme is dangerous.” And indeed it is.
This really isn’t about how dangerous it is to drink soda pop. We see kids drinking it at fast food restaurants every day, and they not only don’t drop dead on the spot, they typically leave the place on their own power. They may be overweight from the long-term ingestion of the sugar, but they don’t seem to be too badly damaged by the acid.
No, this is more about not taking everything at face value just because someone illustrated a supposed health suggestion into graphical format. But we see that all the time.
A meme I saw myself last week that made me roll my eyes was one about the recent photograph of a black hole. It was put up by a group that calls itself “Occupy Democrats” and the headline said, “Today, everyone is sharing the first ever image of a black hole, but no one is sharing stuff about Katie Bouman, the young lady who is single-handedly responsible for it.”
I call B.S.: I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt. You may know I’m a science geek and that I used to be on the Technical Staff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so I’m pretty clued in on this stuff. I knew days before they released that photo that it was coming, and what it was going to show. A week before that, I got wind that “something” was coming. And I heard about Katie Bouman’s part in it before I even saw the photograph.
In other words, she absolutely was not overlooked, but the “Occupy Democrats” group didn’t do her any favor with this meme: in fact, it helped lead to a horribly sexist backlash against her. Thanks to at least one well-followed organization saying she was “single-handedly responsible” for the picture, opposing posts popped up, for instance saying that her contribution was minor, and in fact Andrew Chael, a “straight white man,” had written the vast majority of the computer code but wasn’t given credit in favor of this uppity woman. It got worse from there.
Chael immediately jumped in to publicly say no, the truth is that there was nowhere near that many lines of programming code in the project, he had no idea what portion of it he had written, and by the way, he’s gay. Presumably he really is white.
Meanwhile, Bouman never claimed to be the lead on the project. In fact, what she said the day the image was released was, “I’m so excited that we finally get to share what we have been working on for the past year! The image shown today is the combination of images produced by multiple methods. No one algorithm or person made this image, it required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat. It has been truly an honor, and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with you all.”
And then she tags a bunch of other people. I screen-capped it so you can see: it’s on the Show Page. Her message is accompanied by a photo of more than 30 people, and those are just the people who were there in the room working on this, not the hundreds of others from “around the world.”
And it actually goes way back. The first time I heard the name Katie Bauman was in her 2016 TEDx talk, which I’ll also embed on the Show Page. Way back then, she said, and I’ll again quote: “Getting this first picture will come down to an international team of scientists, an Earth-sized telescope, and an algorithm that puts together the final picture.” Note she did not say “Getting this first picture will come down to me,” because every scientist knows what kind of interdisciplinary team it takes to get the results they’re going after.
She didn’t take credit: someone else who had no idea of who she really was, or what her qualifications were, said that she was “single-handedly responsible” for the picture. And what a disservice, because a bunch of sexist pukeballs that can’t stand the idea of a woman being held up as anything more than a secretary for a major scientific effort tried to take her down. The online trolling was vicious, yet Bouman didn’t cower: she had made it clear from the start that she was simply one of the team, and she really was, in a meaningful way.
Oh, and about her qualifications? Yes, she studied at MIT. She’s now a Ph.D, and starting work at one of the top science schools in the world, Caltech — the California Institute of Technology — which, by the way, is the organization that operates NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the federal government. Yet “Occupy Democrats” actually ignored all of those amazing qualifications and dissed her by calling her a “young lady” who was a “grad student” and said “good job, Katie” rather than think to use her hard-won real-world title, Dr. Katherine Bouman, Visiting Associate Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences at Caltech.
By the way, I love the top comment on that political post, which rose to the top because of the hundreds of “Likes”. It was posted by Kathryn Lewis-Peacock, and she responds to the all-credit-goes-to-Katie meme with: “Dr. Bouman. Not Katie. She is not your BFF. Dr. Bouman is leading a team working on cutting edge scientific inquiry. Do better — and do not add to the minimization of women and their roles and achievements in science and academia. Language is important. It is not just semantics. She is credentialed and obviously highly successful. Use her professional name.” I love it. And leading the team, by the way, doesn’t mean she led the entire effort: it means her team of computer imaging specialists, one part of the whole.
People who have sense look at the claims in memes as entertainment, not the throw-down of a gauntlet. We don’t take it as gospel that some random “young lady” did this amazing scientific achievement all by herself, and I for one sure didn’t buy in to the attempted propaganda of a ham-handed political organization trying to glorify the place of women in science by …well… treating her like a little girl deserving a pat on the head.
So maybe you see the difference here between those with Uncommon Sense and obliviots, and shake your head at yet another example of the latter making life harder for the former.
You have to be suspicious of memes that make specific gee-whiz claims, especially when you agree with them. Not just health claims and scientific discoveries, but all of them pushing a specific point. Posting or even sharing a meme that lies undermines your beliefs or position, because people with any kind of sense, not even Uncommon Sense, notice when those memes are wrong, either because they already know the story and see the discrepancy, or because they take the time to look for the real story for themselves, rather than trust that some anonymous partisan propagandist got it right. I didn’t share any of them because this all happened on my birthday, and I didn’t have time that day to research the actual facts before posting or sharing. But I sure appreciated the birthday present of a first-ever picture of a black hole!
To me, the real, and fairly amusing, irony is the misogynistic miscreants with vanishingly small penises that slammed the computer scientist who made sure to credit her colleagues right from the start believed the propaganda put out by …the “Democratic Underground”! Now there’s a real special kind of obliviocy!
I also chuckled about the Anglican priest in Toronto who took that political organization’s ill-worded meme, crossed out the misinformation, inserted the real facts, then re-posted it with the comment, “Fixed it”! That pastor’s name: Dawn Leger. Pastor Dawn is working on her Ph.D too.
The bottom line is thinking about what such memes are trying to get you to do: react! Remember what the opposite of reacting is in the This is True world: thinking. But we’re so good at reacting to junk like this that foreign powers are using this tendency to get Americans to fight each other, and to sway our elections. And it’s working: just look at us fight! We’re being played as puppets by foreign operatives who are not our friends, and whether you’re on the left or the right, you should be very concerned about this. In a very real sense, this is a 21st century Cold War, and we’re currently losing.
So again, this isn’t about whether soda pop is unhealthy or bad, or even about partisan political propaganda; the right does it just as much as the left. Rather, it’s about having the Uncommon Sense to look at these memes and not just wonder whether they’re accurate, but also thinking about whether someone is trying to push a one-sided agenda, or working to manipulate you to make you react. And we all have to do that before we help to spread such messages and serve someone else’s agenda. All it takes is a grain of salt — which by the way takes 8 glasses of water to dilute it so it’s not toxic to your body.
You can find the photos, memes, links, and a place to Comment on this episode on its Show Page at thisistrue.com/podcast29
I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.
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