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How Far Can You Drive on Empty?

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Gas lines are currently stretched across New Jersey and other states hit by Hurricane Sandy. If you're struggling to find a place to fill up, you might be asking yourself this very question, which we originally posted last year.

It’s a question that plagues every driver: Just how far can you drive with your car’s “fuel empty” light illuminated? The detailed answer depends on all sorts of variables like the age and model of your car, how much weight you’re carrying, and what kind of driving you’re doing.

The more fun answer is “Find out the hard way!” Justin Davis runs a site called TankOnEmpty.com that lets drivers record just how far they’ve driven certain types of cars after their empty lights came on. You can poke around and see how your car has fared. The results are a little less than scientific, though. Even for a car with a large number of data points, the estimates aren’t super-precise. The Honda Civic, for example, has 248 entries and an average range of 44.38 miles after the light comes on, but the standard deviation of the data is almost 24 miles.

Of course, the major question in play asks when the car’s fuel light comes on in the first place. Sure, driving conditions and number of passengers will affect your car’s range after the light comes on, but if you can pinpoint how much gas is left in the tank when the warning appears, you can at least ballpark what sort of range you’ve got left.

Click and Clack of Car Talk fame have estimated that most cars’ “empty” lights come on once the gas level dips below an eighth of a tank or so, but they have also advocated driving until the light comes on, then immediately stopping to fill all the way up, and then comparing how much fuel your car took with the tank’s capacity published in your owner’s manual. Once you repeat this process a few times, you should have a pretty good estimate of how much gas is left.

If you’re a bit more daring, you can always try the tactic consumer reporter John Stossel employed for a 2008 piece for ABC’s 20/20. Stossel got behind the wheel of his minivan and drove until he ran out of gas. He ended up making it 65 miles after his gas dial claimed the car was empty, including 40 miles after his van’s computerized estimate of its remaining fuel range hit zero.

What about you? Have you ever pushed the limits of your car’s tank, like Cosmo Kramer did on that Seinfeld episode?

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

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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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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