The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 4, Issue 7 September, 1998

 
 
 

September Meeting

Impact at 65 million BC: A bad afternoon!

The summer of 1998 saw the release of not one but two movies about comets and asteroids colliding with the earth. Those movies represent the Hollywood version of the event. But, 65 million years ago, give or take, a small asteroid did collide with the earth off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. It is now widely believed that if this didn't kill off the dinosaurs, it made a significant contribution. What evidence do we have for the impact and the effect it had on the earth? Join us September 2nd, when Dr. John Delano, Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at SUNY Albany, will review the data that lead to this most fascinating closing chapter to the story of dinosaurs.

This month's meeting is being held 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. Meetings are free and open to the public. We always attempt to schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month, but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will be available. Please check this web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict.

June Meeting

Science Education

Vice President Anne Reuter filled in bravely so the meeting could begin in a timely fashion. Secretary Dorothy Sager introduced the panel for the evening's discussion regarding how children become interested in science and why they lose interest later in life.

Our panel consisted of Diana Harding, Associate in Science Education for the NYS State Education Department; Dale Westcott, math and science supervisor for Guilderland High School; and Allen Fiero, seventh-grade science teacher at the Farnsworth Middle School in the Guilderland School District.

The panelists had considerable agreement about the first part of the topic. Younger children have a great natural curiosity about the world around them and are eager to absorb information about that world, even if, or perhaps especially if, the study involves ``icky'' things like worms and insects. Therefore, it is very important to include science studies in elementary school classrooms; however, the panelists agreed that many, if not most, elementary school teachers do not feel prepared to present science topics and therefore may not include them or cover them to the extent appropriate. Resources that could remedy this would be things such as training seminars for the teachers on science modules, pre-planned topic packets, outside experts who can cover a topic thoroughly. The panelists thought it was very important to take advantage of children's natural sense of wonder at these early ages because when they become teenagers....

Which brings us to the second part of the topic. Our culture provides many distractions. Many boys get diverted to sports interests, and girls seem to decide that learning about math and science is not ``cool.'' Also the science that students encounter in middle school and high school, especially subjects like physics and chemistry, are more structured and less easily connected with their daily lives (considering how their lives have changed as they've grown up). It's harder work and less ``fun'' to take these courses so students may avoid them. Guilderland School District tries to have an integrated curriculum that takes students through the grades and builds on earlier topics as students' level of maturity grows so that more complex areas can be based on a sound foundation in earlier grades.

The panelists agreed that it was more important than ever to ensure that students developed science literacy as science was involved in virtually any issue discussed, in fact, science may be the most important thing for them to learn. Also, learning science can help students to learn to look skeptically at the news and other information that media presents to them.

-Dorothy Sager

Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at carlsager@worldnet.att.net.

The Second Annual ISUNY Picnic

A congenial group of members (you know who you are) arrived around the unappointed hour (a designated time had been omitted from the notice in the June Why-Files). Sorry the rest of you congenial people couldn't make it; you were missed, every so often. Anyway, the weather was beautiful, and the food yummy. A brave group slogged it out at horseshoes, and some of them even had enough stamina left to take part in a cutthroat game of croquet (we did NOT make up rules as we went along!)! The game also had a few hilarious moments; that is, they were hilarious at that moment, such as when Ken gave DH advice on ``sending'' an opponent while simultaneously making it through the wicket herself. DH gave a mighty swing, popping her ball over the opponent's (without touching it), hooking the wicket and sending it flying about five feet away. It took a while for all participants to regain their composure as well as erect posture (i.e. doubled-over with laughter).1 There were other moments which will not be recorded in this periodical to protect the guilty.

Now, doesn't that make you want to come to the NEXT picnic? Watch for details in the May 1999 Why-Files.

Albacon '98

The Albany area science fiction convention, know conventionally as ``Albacon'' will be holding their 1998 meeting the weekend of October 9--11 at the Ramada Inn, Schenectady. ISUNY has volunteered to help person some tables, in return for promotional consideration. If you are interested in helping, please see Peter Huston for details. We have it on good authority that this year's meeting will include a panel on the role Science Fiction has had in promoting pseudoscience. More about Albacon can be found on their web page, http://www.sff.net/people/rothman/albacon.htp.

Newsletter Articles

If you attend local meetings, view programs of interest to ISUNY members, or have a skeptical topic you wish to discuss, consider writing an article for The Why-Files. Membership articles contribute greatly to the quality of The Why-Files. Articles and letters can be emailed to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or by U.S. mail to Michael Sofka, 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Disks and hardcopy will be returned at the next ISUNY meeting. The deadline for articles in the October, 1998 issue is September 15th, 1998.

Membership Renewals

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on your mailing label. Dues can be mailed to the treasurer at the address on the back page of this newsletter, or paid at our monthly meeting (make checks out to ISUNY). Your dues cover newsletter and speaker expenses. If the date on the mailing label is circled, it means our records show your membership has expired, and you may be dropped from the mailing list. If your renewal date is incorrect, please bring the error to our attention. Despite our efforts to keep the mailing list up-to-date, we do make mistakes.

Ask the Skeptic

Chinese Cat Eating, Private Vice or Public Menace?

I am not like other men. I say this for I have, curiously, eaten a cat. I have no idea whose cat it was, nor do I have any idea of the exact breed. Yet it was rather good. In fact, and I really do hate to say this, it tasted a bit like chicken.

The setting was Canton, China, always a good place for an exotic story. I was sampling that city's many fine restaurants, and spent an evening at an establishment world-renowned for dishes rich in snakes. As I perused the menu, there it was. ``The Dragon and the Tiger,'' a dish made with snake and cat meat. Now, I can't say that the opportunity to eat cats and snakes stir-fried together would have exactly made me the envy of all my friends; nevertheless, seizing the moment, I ordered.

Wiping my chin and setting down the chopsticks, I felt as if I were unique among the denizens of Schenectady, New York. I had gone to a Chinese restaurant and eaten a cat. Or was I?

Serving Unusual Animals

Throughout the United States and Canada there are constant rumors of strange happenings in the meat acquisition departments of Chinese restaurants. Often it seems that the moment a Chinese restaurant is closed, no matter what the reason, rumors will immediately crop up throughout the surrounding area claiming that they were ``serving cats!'' It seems the issue of feline-feasts, meow-munchies and kitty-cuisine must be addressed.

The Chinese have been faced with periodic outbreaks of famine from time to time for centuries. They have been forced by circumstances to make periodic experiments with new food sources. To some extent this necessity has been turned into a virtue. It is safe to say that often a Chinese gourmet has experimented with a greater variety of different kinds of meats and vegetables than a Western one. The Cantonese from the southern region of China are particularly fond of trying new foods. It is a Chinese saying that ``The people in Canton province will eat anything with four legs except a table and anything with wings except an airplane.''

But is it common to do so? Certain kinds of meats cost more than others, both in monetary and in ecological terms. The common, easily available sources of meats, such as pigs, cows, chickens, sheep, goats and so forth, are normally the simplest and most economical to feed. All are relatively low on the food chain due to their primarily herbivorous habits. Cats and dogs on the other hand, are naturally carnivorous and are more expensive to feed. For this reason herbivorous domestic animals make up the bulk of the meat in the diet of urban peoples.

Still, this does not preclude the idea of Chinese cat dishes entirely. It only complicates it. In fact, to serve a cat dish all a cook really needs is a cat and an attitude. But where to get the cat? If one desired to purchase a cat from the supermarket butcher, then it would be virtually impossible to do so. Simply catching cats and butchering them for meat would inevitably lead to several problems. The owners would miss them. They'd squawk and post rewards for the return of the animals. Heavens! They might even call the authorities. If you were to purchase them from pet shops the price would be outrageous. (Pets are not normally sold by the pound anywhere, to the best of my knowledge.) Even the most dull-witted public animal shelter employee would be likely to question a request to provide ``twenty cats a month for the Mystery Wok Restaurant.'' Making frequent stops at all of the various ``Free Kitten'' signs that dot the streets and back roads of America, a group of foreign people announcing that they wanted the entire box of six or more baby cats would soon attract attention. Stereotypes being what they are, suspicions and rumors would arise even faster if one were racially Asian and spoke a foreign language. If it happened more than once in the same town, widespread rumor mongering would be almost guaranteed. (This might be a fun thing to start though.)

Besides, having somehow acquired twenty or so kittens, someone would have to raise them, making sure that they are fed and grow to a nice plump size. Kittens eat quite a lot of food, most of it meat, fish and other expensive things. Kittens cannot grow well on leftover rice. Ultimately, by the time the cats were fully grown, it is highly unlikely that you would save any money over simply purchasing chicken from a large grocery store. Why feed a cat fish or chicken or other meat, if you can simply eat the fish or the chicken in the first place?

Furthermore, there's just not much meat on a cat. Once, in a biology class, I dissected a cat to learn about its anatomy. There simply is not much meat on a wiry, stray cat that's been surviving on its own for any length of time. Although such meat could be eaten, of course, it's simply much more efficient to raise rabbits or catch deer.

Although Chinese do eat cats, this is a very rare practice. As stated the Chinese will on occasion eat cats, but they are an expensive delicacy and most of the Chinese I know have never eaten any in their entire lives nor do they really wish to. To slip cat meat into a pork dish is a little bit like slipping caviar into a hamburger under such circumstances. If a good quality Chinese restaurant were to ever serve a cat, it is much more likely that it would be done after hours to a special clientele consisting of Chinese. Most Chinese restaurant owners are fully aware that most Americans (rather ignorantly, I feel) become more excited over the mistreatment of cats than they do over the mistreatment of Chinese waiters and waitresses (a much more common and ugly practice in Chinese restaurants). Therefore, proprietors would take special care to hide such a meal from their neighbors and regular customers. In fact, just recently I offended a Chinese restauranteur by misusing my Mandarin Chinese abilities to attempt to order a bowl of dog soup in his establishment. He informed me, in no uncertain terms, that not only would he never serve dogs, as he would be closed instantly, but it was very unlucky to even speak of such things in his place!

Yet such rumors crop up continuously. Jan Harald Brunvand, an expert in modern American folklore and ``urban legends,'' has made an attempt to track down many such rumors of cat serving and found them all to be without foundation. Similarly local newspaper reporters throughout the country have attempted to track down the truth of stories involving Asian cat and dog serving. They universally found themselves unable to find evidence of such practices.

I, myself, being nosy and having little of importance to do, have attempted on occasion to track down stories of cat serving. Normally such stories came from a ``friend of a friend,'' a common source for groundless, unusual urban legends (or ``FOAF stories''). On one occasion, someone actually told me that his father, a police officer, had seen cats hung in the freezer of a Chinese restaurant and their hides staked out in the sun, out back, to dry. Excited at the chance of finding success on my quixotic grail-like quest to find proof of the fascinating phenomenon of feasting on felines, I told him that I would love to talk to his father sometime. I was then told that would prove impossible as his father had passed away a few years previously. I was left back where I had started.

Many cite the occasional presence of strange tasting meat in a Chinese restaurant as evidence of cats being served. Grisly as it is, it is often much simpler to blame such circumstances on things such as under-cooked, low quality, rancid or worm-infested food. It is not particularly uncommon for such poor quality meats to have their bad taste or odor masked by being heavily covered in barbecue sauces and then used in dishes where the meat is used more or less like a condiment to other foods. (To complicate things further, there's a special product, ``Rou Cong'' or ``Meat Flakes,'' made from dried and shredded pieces of processed pork. The ``meat flakes'' often appear as peculiar small, red, fuzzy pieces of pork and is a very common ingredient in egg rolls as well as a variety of other, more authentic, Chinese foods.)

Similar considerations center around other exotic animals that might be used as food stuffs. On occasion the Chinese eat almost anything, but generally speaking they prefer relatively ordinary foods such as pork, beef, chicken and fish. The only truly exotic food that they eat with any great frequency is squid, and this is really not particularly exotic in many European countries, such as Italy and France. Duck is also eaten frequently, but this is economical, particularly when one realizes that in China there is a large demand for down coats stuffed with duck down.

When the Chinese eat what they consider to be exotic foods, this is normally done by gourmets and is made out as quite an expensive and special occasion. Not all Chinese even wish to participate in such things. A loose analogy, one that should not be over-stretched, is to compare the eating of unusual animals to a wine tasting party. Although on occasion, this may be illegal and violate health codes, restaurant codes, and conservation laws, just so long as the species is not endangered (and sometimes they are) there is really nothing wrong with it. Unfortunately, it is not at all uncommon for the species in question to have been poached and purchased on the black market, in which case the eating of such an animal might pose an environmental threat. On occasion, after hours in major American urban centers small groups of well-to-do Chinese meet semi-secretly to sample exotic dishes. Such meals have been known to feature such products as armadillos, rattlesnakes, bear meat, alligators, insects, and even more. Often there are various folk traditions surrounding these animals and it is believed that parts of some of them, if eaten under the right circumstances, will help with one's health, if taken in the right amounts.

-Peter Huston

Peter Huston's work appears regularly in the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. He is the author of two books, most recently Scams from the Great Beyond by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO. Peter's current writing projects includes a sequel to Scams.

Ask the Psychic

Question: Mr Quinne, I am a skeptic and a science fiction fan, and as a both a good skeptic and SF fan I deplore movies that are not accurate in their portrayal of science. For example, the movie Deep Impact had white snow on a comet. Everybody knows that comet ash would be dark. When seen against the blackness of space and the dark body of the comet what the viewer should see is pure blackness with dialog, about 22 minutes of it by my reckoning. Yet the producers of Deep Impact had the nerve to release a movie that showed something!

How can I combat this rampant disregard for reality in fictional programs? My girl friend thinks I'm just being picky, but I want my fiction to be realistic. Is it me, or is it those scientifically illiterate pinheads in Hollywood.

-Realist in Reading

Answer: Dear Mr. Realist, As an amateur actor of some standing, and the scribe of a few screen plays (``Rampo from Beyond Global Warming'' is still under option) I can say without a moment's hesitation that you are a disturbed individual. At one time it would have been common to diagnose you as mentally ill, or to assume that you were a negative naysayer, a party pooper or even a godless atheist for your rejection of what we in the profession call ``artistic license.''

The times have changed, however, and much progress has been made in understanding the skeptical mind. Due largely to my extensive research published in the Winter 1998 issue of the Australian Skeptic, we know that you are suffering from Imagination Deficient Personality Syndrome.2 The Imagination Deficient, such as yourself, suffer from a number of symptoms including Curmudgeonality, Transcendental Substitution, and, as can be seen in your case, Hyper-realistic Representation or the expectation that all aspects of life should be realistic, including those that are fiction.

Sadly, there is no cure for IDPS, nor do the IDP have a celebrity patron to help raise money. David Duchovny was going to take up the cause, until he read CSICOP's review of The X-Files movie. All I can suggest is that you make a hat out of aluminum foil and a wet towel. It won't help IDP, but it will block the psychomagnetic waves and prevent me from reading your mind.

Questions and Comments? dquinne@forrestresearch.com.

-David Quinne, CPP

David Quinne, ISUNY's psychic in residence, is an internationally published author whose work has been translated into at least two languages, one of which is most likely Hungarian. He is a graduate of Maharishi International University where he studied quantum metaphysics with a minor in political science. Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor.

Future ISUNY Meetings

Claims of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas.

Did the Romans, Vikings, Saint Brandon, African or Chinese sailors reached the Americas before Columbus? If they did, then what kind of evidence would we expect to find? On October 7th, Kenny Feder, the author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology3 will take us through the claims and counter claims. In the process he will discuss how archaeology is done, and what constitutes evidence of discovery and exploration.

The program committee is working on topics for meetings this fall. If you have a topic idea, please bring it to the attention of an officer at any ISUNY meeting.

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. We usually meet 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will always be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.

Local Meetings

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers meet the third Tuesday of each month at the Schenectady Museum. Meetings begin at 7:30 pm. For more information, contact Alan French at (518) 374-8460.

The Capital District Humanist Society meets the second Sunday of each month at the Sage Colleges Albany Campus on New Scotland Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information, contact Paul DeFrancisco at (518) 272-4772.

Membership and Publicity

Peter Huston is chairing the membership and publicity committee charged with publicizing meetings and proposals for finding new members. If you would like to help with this and related tasks, see Peter at any ISUNY meeting.

ISUNY Lending Library

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York maintains a library of books, newsletters, magazines, video and audio tapes addressing various paranormal topics. ISUNY members may borrow material from this library on a month-by-month basis. If you would like to borrow a book, newsletter or tape, see our librarian, Lewis Treadway, before or after any ISUNY meeting. All material is lent free to members except for tapes for which we ask a $1.00 donation that will be used to purchase further library material.

Thank You

Thank you to Peter Huston, David ``the Mighty'' Quinne, and Dorothy Sager for their contributions to this newsletter. Thanks also go to Peter Huston, Robert Mulford, Anne Royter, and Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt and especially Dot Sager for their help planning and publicizing ISUNY meetings, and to Herb Jones for publicity and room arrangements with the Guilderland Library. A additional special thank you to Dorothy Sager for copy-editing. Dot does an excellent job removing typos and errors from our newsletter. Any remaining errors were overlooked in peer-review.

ISUNY thanks all of its members for their support. We would especially like to thank our Patron members: Jordan Coleman, Charles Davies, Larry Jones & Barbara Eisenstadt, Alan & Susan French, Dr. Richard H. Lange, Christopher Masto, Hugh A. McGlinchey, Bob & Dee Mulford, Dorothy and Carl Sager, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells, William White, Guier Scott Wright.

About the Newsletter

The WHY-Files is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York.

Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or to 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will be returned only if accompanied by a self-addressed and stamped envelope, or at regular club meetings.

The newsletter was typeset using the document preparation system written and placed in the public domain by Donald Knuth of Stanford University. Macros for this newsletter are available at http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/tex.html. The Why-Files are available at: http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/.

Unless otherwise stated, permission is granted to other skeptical organizations to reprint articles from The Why-Files as long as proper credit is given. The Why-Files also requests that you send copies of your newsletters that reprint our articles. All articles printed in The Why-Files remain the copyrighted property of their author.

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in The WHY-Files represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York or its members unless so stated.


1 Guess you had to be there.

2 The Skeptic, Volume 18(2), Winter, 1998, pp. 56--57.

3 Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View CA, 1996