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How Secure Are Electronic Voting Machines?

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It’s not that the machines have slight security glitches. It’s more that they’re almost comically hacker-friendly. Take the touchscreen Diebold Accuvote system. In 2012, nearly one-quarter of Americans are expected to use them to cast ballots. But the machines have been under fire for security errors for nearly a decade.

Just how insecure are they? In 2006, a Princeton computer science professor and his students were testing the system’s security when they discovered a decidedly low-tech way to crack the Accuvote. Each machine logs its votes on a memory card housed behind a locked panel, but the lock is the same type used on hotel minibars and jukeboxes. The universal key that opens it is widely available. Whoops!

In September 2011, even more terrifying news emerged from the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. A team of computer scientists on the lab’s Vulnerability Assessment team built a little gizmo that could latch onto an Accuvote’s circuitry and automatically change voters’ ballots. The kicker? The parts needed to build the “alien electronics” for hacking the machine cost only $10.50. For another $15, hackers can incorporate a remote control that lets them overwrite ballots from up to half a mile away. That means that while candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns, it takes just $26 and the equivalent of an eighth-grade science education to put the screws to democracy.

This article originally appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine—"The Most Important Questions of 2012."

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Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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