Cross Examination

Wash U researchers become pony tipsters and we talk to a local producer who wants Josh Hartnett in Flames. Plus, a blogger who cares about cross-contamination and you.

What happens when you mix winter weather and road rage? According to insurance giant Allstate, the answer is: Death. Or so Unreal learned from our copy of the company's recently released "Critical Tips to Fend Off Aggressive Drivers."

Among the tips: "avoid eye contact" and "put your pride aside." Mysteriously omitted, however, is the suggestion that people simply not drive.

Then again, that's no guarantee either, especially in St. Louis. Just ask Loop entrepreneur David Salvato. He walks a lot -- especially from the sandwich shop he owns near the intersection of Delmar and Skinker boulevards to his confectionary a few blocks west. On his treks, Salvato must utilize the marked crosswalk that runs from the Foot Locker on the north side of Delmar to the Tivoli Theater on the south side.

Salvato knows the law -- specifically, that vehicles must yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, and not vice versa -- and he's not afraid to flaunt it. "If I just stand there I'm never going to get across," he reasons. "It's like a game of chicken: They're either gonna hit me or not, but I'm pretty much ready to jump out of the way."

His fearlessness does not always please motorists, however. "So many people have jumped out of their cars and threatened to beat me to a pulp, it's pathetic," says the self-proclaimed World's Greatest Sandwich stacker -- though why he opts to serve his mayo and mustard in little packages continues to elude Unreal. "Somebody tried to have the police arrest me. It was a guy with paint cans in the back of his truck that flew to the front [when he slammed on his brakes]."

Salvato's not the only one to have noted locals' disregard for pedestrian rights. Not long ago the U. City Police Department ran a sting operation at the Tivoli crosswalk in an effort to change motorist behavior.

"We had an officer or two dressed in civilian clothing with an unmarked car parked nearby," reports Sergeant Shawn Whitley of the UCPD. "The officers would proceed to the crosswalk area. If a vehicle did not stop or yield properly, the vehicle was stopped by the unmarked vehicle and given a warning for future reference. We gave warnings the first week. The second week we issued a fair amount of summonses."

Salvato thought highly of Unreal's preferred technique -- feign a dash into traffic, then slyly reverse course as brakes squeal -- but Whitley stops short of endorsing the "jab step" method. "I understand that as a pedestrian you become frustrated," says the sarge. "It's not against the law to do the jab step -- but it wouldn't be smart."

Six to One

Washington University researchers Joshua Brown and Todd Braver recently made headlines when they published the results of a study indicating that a region of the human brain might account for those "gut feelings" folks sometimes get.

This news sent a shiver straight down Unreal's spine. On our way home from Fairmount Park's simulcast room the other day, we asked Jeeves to steer the Caddy over to the brainiacs' lab.

Unreal:Explain in one-syllable terms what you found.

Joshua Brown:We wanted to see if there's a part of the brain that monitors our own behavior, our own actions, to see if we're making a mistake. In the past, some other researchers have found that there's a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. People have talked about this as an area that becomes active when you're faced with a difficult decision.

Our work shows that it's not so much that this part of the brain is detecting that you're conflicted about something, but rather that [the brain is] detecting the likelihood that you may be about to make a mistake, or your behavior is risky, and the course of action is likely to have adverse consequences. In the media, it seems as though people have latched onto this idea of the "sixth sense." But I'd be careful with that, because there was nothing paranormal involved in our study.

Mmm-hmmm. What impact might this have on, oh, the occasional dabbler in parimutuel wagering?

Well, the question is: How sensitive are people at picking up when they're likely to make mistakes? Suppose you have experience betting on horses. If you're betting, what this part of the brain keeps trying to figure out is: What's the risk? What's the likelihood that I'm going to make a mistake, that I'm going to lose if I bet on this horse?

Right!

We think this part of the brain picks up on subtle cues [regarding] the likelihood of making a mistake or some kind of unpleasant consequences. So things slow down, make you a little more careful -- you may get a "gut feeling." If you bet on horses that lose, there may be a subtle pattern. That's what this part of the brain would be looking for: It's something that predicts that if you bet on this horse, you're going to have unpleasant consequences.

And to think -- all this time we've been writing it off as indigestion!

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