How do you beat that stupid game at Cracker Barrel?

You know the one of which I speak. It looks extremely easy, is actually rather difficult, and it makes fun of you if you can’t beat it. Cracker Barrel calls it the “peg game,” but it’s really just a variation on “peg solitaire,” a game dating back to at least the 1697.

Cracker Barrel Game

“Leave four or more’n you’re just plain ‘eg-no-ra-moose.'”

So, how do you beat it? Well, plenty of people on YouTube have given demonstrations. Here’s one of them…

But, as you may have already learned, we like to analyze games to death around here. Thankfully, in this case, others have already done the work for us. For example, some guy named Keith Wannamaker (a bored software engineer) modeled the game from every starting point, concluding that a player had the best chance of winning the game by starting with the missing peg in the middle of one of the sides of the triangle. His statistics also show that, from the best starting position, your chances of winning are only about 7%. They’re as low as 1% if you start from the worst position. So, don’t feel too bad if you’ve never been able to beat the game. It’s a statistically challenging feat.

You also shouldn’t feel too bad about Cracker Barrel making fun of your intelligence. On a recent trip, I observed “fixin’s” spelled “fixin’s,” “fixins,” and “fixins'”. Admittedly, whether or not it’s appropriate to put an apostrophe in “fixin’s” (hint: it is – it shows the removed “g”) is a question that seems to cause a lot of pain and sorrow. Still, you’d think a $2.5 billion company that makes its money servin’ up fixin’s could at least come up with a consistent spelling…

Why does the big globe in Raleigh have silver oceans?

Several years ago, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh added a beautiful new wing, complete with a four-story tall globe. If you haven’t visited yet, it’s pretty awesome. The inside of the globe is a huge circular theater, with seating on each floor of the museum. And the outside of the globe is, well… mostly gray.

SECU Daily Planet

In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the oceans… gray.
(Image Credit: Radiofan)

So what’s going on here? Why didn’t they bother to paint in the oceans? I got in touch with Roy Campbell, Director of Exhibits and Digital Media at the Natural Science Museum to find out. Here’s what he said…

The decision to leave the ocean blank on the Daily Planet was a combination of factors. If we had depicted them we more than likely would have portrayed the ocean floors. We would have put a blue cast to that so as not to cheat the sea in favor of the geologic surface. But then again the oceans are dynamic. They show currents and sediment influx, algal blooms, storms and calm. All according to season.

But we never got to argue over all of that because cost was a very major consideration. It cost roughly a quarter million dollars to place simply the continents and the ocean because it is larger than that would have ramped up costs dramatically.

We also were expecting to use the Pacific Ocean as a projection space for all sorts of content but ran short of money and planning time for that as well.

The good news is that we are hopefully back on track to re-install the night lighting effect we had for just three days at the opening. This casts a blue flood light on all the oceanic areas but a white light on the continents to show them in real color. So hopefully within the year you will be able to walk by at night and see the blue planet as it should be.

This leaves us with several fun facts:

  • It cost a cool $250,000 to paint the continents. (Good thing the whole globe was donated by the SECU!)
  • Museum curators have arguments about how to paint oceans.
  • The globe in Raleigh can be lighted up with blue lights to make it look more “realistic.”
The globe can glow blue at night!

The globe can glow blue at night!
(Image Credit: NC Museum of Natural Sciences)

Let’s hope they get that blue lighting back in place soon!

Does sleeping on my back give me nightmares?

I’m not really the type of person who has nightmares… but on the occasions that I do, they have one thing in common: I struggle to wake up, I’m gasping for breath, and I’m lying on my back. So I started to wonder – am I imagining things, or is this a real thing?



It didn’t take much research to find that, yes, this is a real thing. The phenomenon in question is called sleep paralysis, which is a terrifying night-time state in which the brain begins to wake up before the body. The science behind sleep paralysis posits that, while asleep, the body both shuts down the active mind and paralyzes the muscles so that the person doesn’t move around while sleeping. Of course, sometimes this goes awry. If the muscles start moving around without the brain waking up, you get sleepwalking. If the brain wakes up without the muscles, you get sleep paralysis.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Sleep paralysis is commonly associated with terrifying visions or the feeling that there is a person or being in the room. Throughout history and all around the globe, human cultures are replete with references to this feeling of being paralyzed while attacked by some sort of intruder. In many English-speaking countries, it’s called “being ridden by the witch” or “ridden by the hag.” In Fiji, it’s getting “eaten by a demon.” You get the idea. In fact, sleep paralysis is actually where our word “nightmare” comes from! “Mare” was an Old English word for an incubus, a specific type of demon believed to sit on the chest of its victim during sleep. Putting “night” and “mare” together in reference to these unwanted visitors gives us the term we use today.


“The Nightmare” – A 1781 painting by Henry Fuseli depicts an incubus sitting on the chest of his sleeping victim.

But, getting back to the original question… Sleep paralysis is associated with all sorts of nasty sleeping disorders (including sleep apnea). Moreover, research has shown that both sleep apnea and snoring can be triggered by lying on the back. So, it’s at least possible that, in my case, lying on my back is contributing to my experience with this phenomenon. It’s also possible that I experience sleep apnea on my back. But, given that I usually sleep on my side and stomach, I’m not too worried about it.

Thankfully, sleep paralysis is a pretty rare thing for me. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Where does turkey come from?

The United States of America is by far the world's leading producer and consumer of turkey meat (although, on a per-capita basis, we're beat out by several other nations). In 2014, Americans will eat about 5 billion pounds of turkey and turkey farms will produce over 200 million birds for consumption both in the United States and around the world. So where does all that turkey come from?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic's QCEW program, there are 317 business establishments involved in the production of turkey in the United States. They employ nearly 5,000 individuals in 26 states. If you map out the location of all those turkey farms, you get something that looks a little like this:

As the map above suggests, US turkey production is dominated by just a small handful of states. In fact, Minnesota, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Indiana account for about 50% of all US turkey production. And it should come as no surprise - states with the highest production are also home to some of America's biggest turkey-producing companies. In Minnesota, it's Jennie-O. In North Carolina, Butterball. These top-producing states churn out millions of live birds every year.

And, if you're more of a table person...

Continue reading

Are stores really decorating for Christmas earlier than they used to?

Thanksgiving comes with many traditions… turkey, stuffing, family, football, black Friday shopping, and (of course!) whining about how the stores are decorating for Christmas too early! We’ve all heard complaints that Christmas is coming earlier and earlier each year, but is that really true? Let’s find out.

Of course, there’s not really any available data on when stores around the country start decorating for Christmas (at least to my knowledge). So answering the question required some creativity. I started thinking – if there was one thing that represented corporate America’s Christmas decorating traditions, what would it be? The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, of course!

Rockefeller Tree


First erected in 1933, the Rockefeller Center tree has been set up every year since and has become an unofficial start of the Christmas season for New Yorkers. And, since Rockefeller Center is without a doubt a bastion of American corporatism, the tree gives us a relatively good proxy for measuring the start of the corporate Christmas decorating season. If the tree at Rockefeller Center has been going up earlier every year, there’s a good chance that’s indicative of a larger national trend.

So, I decided to see when the Rockefeller tree went up over time. At great personal expense (OK, it was $.99), I purchased a 4-week subscription to the New York Times, which gave me access to their article archive going all the way back to the mid-1800s. Then, starting in 1933, I searched the archives for articles related to the Rockefeller tree between the dates of November 1 and December 31 each year. To keep things consistent, I located the specific date on which the tree was installed in its stand each year, since traditions surrounding decorating and lighting ceremonies have changed over time. Surprisingly, I was able to find an exact date the tree was dropped into place in 40 out of 82 years – not too shabby, and plenty of data for some basic statistics.

To graph the results, I calculated the number of days before Christmas that the tree was installed each year – a measure I’ve affectionately dubbed the “Little Saint Nick index,” since the only thing worse than decorating for Christmas in October is having the Beach Boys put out a holiday album. I graphed this measure over time, and the results are pretty striking.

Rockefeller Tree Graph


In the late thirties and early forties, the Rockefeller Center tree was installed around the first or second week of December. By the seventies, Center staff were flirting with putting up the tree before Thanksgiving. And, in the noughties, the tree was going up in early November. All told, the installation date for the tree has moved back nearly a full month over time, at an average rate of just under half a day per year. (And, yes, the results are statistically significant.)

So, there you have it folks. If the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is any guide, corporate America has definitely been getting out the decorations earlier every year.

Why does turkey make you sleepy?

I know what you’re thinking… “Oooh! Pick me, pick me! I know this one! It’s ’cause turkey contains tryptophan!”



Sorry there, champ. It’s not the tryptophan in turkey. While tryptophan is an amino acid that is linked to sleepiness, there are plenty of food items that contain just as much if not more tryptophan than turkey, and none of them have a reputation for making you tired. In fact, chicken, beef, and pork all have the same amount of tryptophan as turkey. Egg whites have as much as four times the amount. Have you ever heard people talking about how they need to take a huge nap every time they eat an egg white omelette for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, or a nice pork chop for dinner? Me neither.

In fact, the real answer has nothing to do with turkey, but it does have something to do with tryptophan. While turkey doesn’t make us especially drowsy, we tend to consume turkey as part of a large feast involving lots of complex carbohydrates (mashed potatoes, stuffing, rolls) and big portion sizes. Studies have shown that carb-rich meals start a chain of biological effects that eventually results in higher levels of tryptophan uptake, leading to increased production of serotonin and eventually melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep in humans. So, most likely, it’s not the turkey that’s making you drowsy… it’s all the other stuff you eat at Thanksgiving that pushes you over the edge.

If you’re sad to learn that one of your favorite holiday myths is just that (a myth), take heart! There’s plenty of things to be happy about. Like the fact that the Wikipedia article on tryptophan says that it is “an essential amino acid in the human diet, as demonstrated by its growth effects on rats.” (Non sequitur anyone?) Or like this YouTube video of a guy gobbling at turkeys…

Is Newton’s Folly hard cider just Woodchuck with a different label?

I’m a huge fan of Woodchuck, but at a usual $9 for a six-pack it can get a little bit pricey. So, when I discovered that Trader Joe’s sold a cider called “Newton’s Folly” that was made in the same place (Middlebury, Vermont), was sold in the exact same bottles, had the same ingredient list, but cost $2 less, I got pretty excited. Could it really be true? Was Newton’s Folly just a bottle of Woodchuck with a different label? Could I be saving $2 every time I purchased cider? I set out to find out.

Woodchuck vs. Newton's Folly

It’s not totally obvious from the picture, but the bottles are exactly the same. They even have the same numbers stamped into the glass.

My initial sampling of Newton’s Folly led me to believe that it tasted a lot like Woodchuck, except that it was weaker – almost like it had been watered down somehow. However, I don’t have a particularly refined palate, and as Penn and Teller have illustrated in hilarious fashion, humans are notorious for thinking they can taste subtle differences in food and drink even when they can’t. If I was going to be sure, I was going to need to dig a little deeper.

Continue reading

What’s the pink stuff in my shower / tub / toilet / sink?

I’m not even going to bother with an introduction on this one. That pink stuff is bacteria. If your toilet bowl (or sink, or whatever) has stains like the photo below, it’s ready for a cleaning. Now.

Pink Stain

Credit: North Dakota State University Agricultural Extension

More specifically, the bacteria in question is Serratia marcescens, a species which thrives in damp environments (like bathrooms) and feeds on phosphates (like those contained in shampoo and soap). It’s a human pathogen that can cause a nasty list of conditions including urinary tract infections, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, and meningitis. It’s a frequent cause of hospital-acquired-infections, which is a pretty good indication that it’s a frequent cause of non-hospital-acquired-infections too (unless you keep your home more sterile than a hospital…).

Serratia marcescens can be eradicated fairly easily with the application of a bleach-based cleaning solution. Scrubbing surfaces regularly with a household cleaner should be enough to do the job. So, if you weren’t motivated to scrub down your bathrooms before, here’s some extra motivation. You’re welcome.

Incidentally, serratia marcescens has also been involved in a fascinating variety of events in human history. Before it was discovered to cause illness, it was used in “harmless” human experiments involving the transmission of disease and the effectiveness of biological warfare. Oops! Before that, it was discovered in the 19th century when it turned a bunch of Italian porridge pink. And, hundreds of years earlier, it’s possible that it was involved in a supposed medieval miracle involving blood appearing on the bread in Holy Communion. If you’re interested in those stories, the Wikipedia article is a great read.

Why do soda can tabs have special monetary value?

In preschool, one of my classmates was collecting the pull tabs from soda cans for some sort of medical charity. I can remember thinking this was odd at the time – I couldn’t understand why what was essentially trash could have so much value. Yet, even today, people are constantly collecting soda can tabs “for charity” or “for medical research.” And I’m still just as confused… Why not collect the whole can so you have extra metal to recycle? What’s so special about soda can tabs that makes them precious nuggets of economic value? So, after years of wondering about these things, I decided to find out the answer to my questions.

Soda Tab

Credit: Marcos André

The short answer is that there’s absolutely nothing about soda can tabs that makes them especially valuable. Read on to find out the long answer…

Continue reading

What’s with the hula-hooper crossings?

Many years ago, my family took a trip to Bar Harbor, Maine. I remember many things about the trip, but one thing is particularly vivid – near a science laboratory just outside of town, there were road signs that appeared to indicate hula hoopers crossing the road ahead. Eleven or twelve-year-old me thought this was hilarious, and I’ve never forgotten. Well, just a few months ago, I went back to Maine and saw the same signs all over again. This got me thinking – what do the signs actually mean?

hula hooper crossing

Hula hoopers live in a wide range of habitats.

Apparently, the signs don’t mean anything. In fact, they’re just regular pedestrian crossing signs that people have vandalized with stickers that make the pedestrian look like he’s hula-hooping. I suppose that this should have been obvious to me, but maybe I just really wanted to believe.

Though I didn’t find a definitive explanation for the origins of the stickers, there is at least one highly-plausible theory circulating. A Colorado band by the name of “The String Cheese Incident” adopted the sign as a mascot (as seen on the logo for their 2012 tour), leading to some speculation that the vandalism was a guerrilla marketing campaign for the group. While that may or may not be true, it’s pretty clear that fans of the group were involved in the spread of the decals.

Which leaves me with only one question remaining… where do I get one? I promise I’ll use it for strictly legal purposes…