Radar Guns and Detectors

Announcer: Go behind the wheel, under the hood, and beyond with Car Stuff from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Scott Benjamin: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the podcast. I'm Scott.

Ben Bowlin: Hey, I'm Ben.

Scott Benjamin: Hey, Ben.

Ben Bowlin: Hey, Scott.

Scott Benjamin: We're going to start things off today with a bit of listener mail. How does that sound?

Ben Bowlin: That sounds great.

Scott Benjamin: All right. Here we go. We got this note from Ariadne. We've had this listener -

Ben Bowlin: Write in before.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. We've had this listener write in before, but I had trouble with the name before. I didn't get a phonetic spelling. I'm going to say Ariadne.

Ben Bowlin: We hope that's right.

Scott Benjamin: I do. "This last Labor Day, I was sailing through western Kansas on my way home to Kansas City," something about the weight of the car. "I got a speeding ticket going 86 in a 70-mile-per-hour zone, and the cops said I have three options. No. 1: Pay the ticket by mail. No. 2: Pay the ticket online. No. 3: Show up on my court date and contest the ticket." I think I can guess which one Ariadne chose here because it says, "In court, what would a person have to say or do to get out of the speeding ticket? I'd love to hear a podcast about how to argue traffic violations, and, "this is very specific, "if that episode could arrive before October 20th, that would be all the better."

Ben Bowlin: That just cracked me up.

Scott Benjamin: I know. Me, too. "I need this right now. Give me your best advice." Unfortunately, I got the bad news here.

Ben Bowlin: Are you going to do the caveat?

Scott Benjamin: Why don't you go ahead?

Ben Bowlin: Unfortunately, we are not legal experts, and we're not really in a position where we can give legal advice.

Scott Benjamin: No.

Ben Bowlin: We can - I think that's a great idea for a podcast. I like the idea of traffic violations, maybe in the future. Ariadne, we got together, and we were thinking, "How can we talk about this?" Naturally, whenever, Scott, whenever you and I are hanging out, we pretty much go on tangents.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: We have tangential conversations.

Scott Benjamin: Sure.

Ben Bowlin: Which is why we ended up doing a podcast about radar guns? Go.

Scott Benjamin: That's exactly what we spun off from this. I wish we could help you out, but we can't. We just can't do it. There are websites devoted to somethin g like this, like "Here's what you may want to do. You may want to go over this checklist and make sure everything is handled by the books." That's about as far as we can go with telling you what to do in this case. Sorry about that, but I wanted to get the message out there that we read the mail. We're thinking about it, but we just can't do it.

Ben Bowlin: We've got tricks up our sleeves, but none of those tricks, unfortunately, are telling people how to get out of tickets.

Scott Benjamin: So we're talking about radar detectors, right? You and I started talking about radar detectors at this point. How the heck do police check our speeds on the roads? There's a variety of different ways.

Ben Bowlin: I was going to say they can make it up - I'm kidding.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: In truth, there are times when people are clearly exceeding the speed limit to the point where they are unsafe drivers. At that point, I don't think a police officer needs a radar gun if they see someone doing 90 in a 35 or something.

Scott Benjamin: Correct. It's not necessary to have a radar gun at that point. Then it's just - you know what? What would it be, reckless driving? What would it be?

Ben Bowlin: It would be reckless driving unsafe for conditions or something like that.

Scott Benjamin: I understand. I don't know what exactly you would be ticketed for, but it's not necessary to have an exact reading in that case, in that type of situation when you're clearly a danger and out of control of the vehicle. What we are talking about is the very precise manner in which they do measure your speed. For that, they use several different things, and some of them are not electronic.

Ben Bowlin: Dun, dun, dun.

Scott Benjamin: Most are, but some aren't.

Ben Bowlin: Wop, wop, wop.

Scott Benjamin: As most people probably heard, radar guns. Then there's I'm going to say LDAR guns. Is that right?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: There's also detection devices which can detect your radar device. They can do something called VASCAR, which we'll talk about later. Just a bunch of different ones. There's pacing.

Ben Bowlin: There's a couple different ways.

Scott Benjamin: Am I missing any there? I think that's it.

Ben Bowlin: That sounds like most of them. The thing is that whenever I see - I'm just going to give one piece of advice to people who are out. If you're out on the interstate or something, and you see the police officer, trooper, or whoever it may be with the gun out measuring for speed, don't slam on your brakes. Think about it. If you're trying to catch someone speeding, and you're seeing this line of cars coming up, and they're all kind of going the same speed, and you want to clock one of them, who are you going to look for? Everybody who's driving like nothing's wrong, or the person who slams on their brakes and makes their hood dip down?

Scott Benjamin: The front end drops to the ground. That's right. I've heard that. I'm sure there's something to that. That's one of the things that when we talk about all this as we get into it, one of the things is if you're in a group of cars, it's much more difficult for them to single you out. If you are alone, you're going to get caught just about no matter what. Some of the methods we talk about, some of the detection devices we're going to talk about, they're effective, but only if you're in a group of people. You're indistinguishable if you're in a group.

Ben Bowlin: Right.

Scott Benjamin: You can't figure out which one is. If you're the only car around and he's got a clocked reading of a vehicle traveling about a certain speed, that's you.

Ben Bowlin: That is you.

Scott Benjamin: We're getting off the subject.

Ben Bowlin: We're getting a little off. I'm sorry.

Scott Benjamin: Where do you want to go? Actually, let's just talk about this really quick. Radar detectors have been around since the 1970s. Is that right?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. That's wild, isn't it?

Scott Benjamin: They've been using radar to clock people since the 1950s, but the detection devices didn't come around until about the 70s. If you recall, I think the original was called a Fuzzbuster. You've probably heard that just in a slang term being used in the past. I know I did. They were called that for a long time, up until at least the early '90s. I've heard them called Fuzzbusters. Then there was one after that called the Super Snooper. I think that was the name of that one. These were giant. They looked like a brick that you put on your dashboard, and they're very, very obvious. Have one big light on them, volume control, and that's about it.

Ben Bowlin: That's fine as long as you're in a state where those devices are legal.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. That's right. I've got a list of places where those are legal and illegal. You want me to segue into that?

Ben Bowlin: Real quick, let's set the scene. What we're talking about is ways that officers catch you speeding are - there's a lot of science behind it, but basically, this is a really weird part, and I just want to get this out now. The same companies that sell those radar detectors sell the radar guns, right?

Scott Benjamin: That's kind of the funny thing. I don't know if it's the exact same or not. I've heard it in the past.

Ben Bowlin: I've heard it too.

Scott Benjamin: The funny thing is that I swear I've heard that, but the way it works is kind of a cat and mouse game.

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: In that one improves just a little bit. The other one, they sidestep it and figure, "We'll up the bandwidth on this," or "We're going to adjust it somehow so that it's undetectable." Then the other one, it's up to them to update in order to be able to catch up with that, whether that's the detection or the device that actually clocks them.

Ben Bowlin: Scott, wait. Hold on a second. I did this kind of backwards. This was my bad. We're talking about these things, but we're not talking about how radar detectors work.

Scott Benjamin: Well, we need to know that.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. I'm sorry, man.

Scott Benjamin: That's all right. You want to do that for us?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. As penance, I will go ahead and just break this down. We got a lot of help from an excellent article, "How Radar Detectors Work."

Scott Benjamin: Isn't that handy?

Ben Bowlin: That is hand y and dandy, my friend. Basically, here's how it works. We live in a modern world. There are invisible waves of radio signals all around us.

Scott Benjamin: You're freaking me out, man.

Ben Bowlin: Sorry. Don't worry. I've got some tinfoil hats. Maybe we can put those on. For any kind of remote - I'm sorry, not remote. Any kind of receiver that picks up radio signals, it has to be tuned to a specific type of signal, a specific frequency. The reason that has to do that is otherwise it will respond every time something transmits something. That's just poor design. The receiver in a radio - we have this example in the article - picks up the AM and FM frequencies, or bands. Bands would be those. The police, however, use a different frequency. Of course, you don't want to be driving around listening to NPR or something, and then hear police chatter, right?

Scott Benjamin: I would. A lot of people would, actually.

Ben Bowlin: I think a lot of people would. Yeah. I would probably be there too.

Scott Benjamin: They sell those too.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. Strike what I said. Insert. It just doesn't happen. Please don't do that.

Scott Benjamin: You can't pick it up on your AM radio.

Ben Bowlin: Right, so a radar detector, then, is built to receive these frequencies. You got a hand up. Question?

Scott Benjamin: No, I'm just thinking it through. You're talking about the guns, right?

Ben Bowlin: No, I was talking about the detectors in the dash.

Scott Benjamin: Okay. Very good.

Ben Bowlin: The detectors in the dash sense these frequencies emitted from these radar guns.

Scott Benjamin: Got it.

Ben Bowlin: The way the radar guns work, which we should segue into, the way they work is they spread out. They're actually transmitters and receivers. It doesn't matter if they shoot out something toward a vehicle, because they'll never know how fast it's going unless they also receive the light bouncing back.

Scott Benjamin: Got it. Okay.

Ben Bowlin: Or not light. Excuse me.

Scott Benjamin: Radio waves.

Ben Bowlin: Radio waves. We'll get into the light too, I think.

Scott Benjamin: We are going to talk about lights. You're jumping ahead.

Ben Bowlin: I'm jumping all over. I'm like a Quentin Tarantino film over here.

Scott Benjamin: That's all right.

Ben Bowlin: Basically, these detectors are tuned to pick up the frequency range used by the police for radar guns. Because radar guns emit - they kind of have a cone or circular dish antennae that concentrates the radio signal, and this wave spreads out over an area. That's why you can get a beep or notice from your radar detector when you cannot see a police officer, which is like the whole point.

Scott Benjamin: So you're catching it early.

Ben Bowlin: You're catching it early in theory.

Scott Benjamin: I see.

Ben Bowlin: Now, these things, of course, aren't going to do any good. Because they're receivers, they're not going to do you any good at all if a police officer is at a speed trap without a gun, or if a police officer comes up behind you and turns one on. It's just not going to work.

Scott Benjamin: You're getting into some of the different ways that they can catch you besides using radar or LDAR, even.

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: All right. I understand. I get it now that it's a transmitter and receiver for the gun. The radar detector you have in your car is just a receiver, and it's tuned to that band that the gun is tuned to.

Ben Bowlin: To their frequencies, Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: If you go down the list of the different types of bands they have, the bands that police radar uses, there are several different types. There's the X band. There's the K band, and there's the KA band. Sometimes they call that the super wide KA band. X band is really one of the easiest to detect. I have notes here that are long gone. they've gone away somehow, but I heard that very few police departments actually use the X band anymore, so if you're buying a radar detector, it may also have X band, but don't buy one with just X band. You'll be sadly mistaken. Unless you're in select states. Again, you can look at these articles and find out which ones are which. K band is probably one of the more frequently used ones at this point. Then there's also the KA band, which is a really wide frequency range, and it exceeds the K band limits. Again, they call it wide band or super wide KA band. This is the one that if you have a detector that can detect K band, it will not detect KA band, so you have to be specific about getting one that detects KA.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: Do you see what I mean about what I mentioned earlier with this cat and mouse. They start out with X. Then they move it to K. Then they moved it to KA. Who knows what it's going to be next.

Ben Bowlin: Super wide.

Scott Benjamin: Here's the thing about all of these.

Ben Bowlin: What's that?

Scott Benjamin: Remember that we said that the radar detectors are receivers, right?

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: Did you know that there are radar detector detectors?

Ben Bowlin: Say that one more time.

Scott Benjamin: Radar detector detectors.

Ben Bowlin: In Tennessee we say "heard tell." I've heard tell of this.

Scott Benjamin: Understood. They're used by the police. If you're in an area where radar detectors are illegal, the police can scan traffic for people that are using a detector, and they'll be able to detect that you have a detector in your car because of the frequency that detector gives off. There's a signature bandwidth that's given off that they receive a signal.

Ben Bowlin: Are these just ordinary police officers, or are these special radar detector detector detectives?

Scott Benjamin: Very good. Radar detector detector detectives.

Ben Bowlin: I'm just being a jerk. Okay, but the point - and there actually is a small one - any police officer can use these.

Scott Benjamin: Any police officer can use those, but it's of course more prevalent in the states and communities in the world that the use of detectors are illegal. This is another case where if they're broadcasting the signal, these RDD signals, at a big group of vehicles, they can't tell which one has the radar detector. They have to be able to single you out. If you're the only vehicle around, of course they've got you. They know you're the one. Remember, they do have the right to search your car, so you'll be caught with it. Just be careful.

Ben Bowlin: Do not pass go.

Scott Benjamin: Let's talk about a different type of radar, but it's not really radar. It's using light, like you mentioned earlier.

Ben Bowlin: Some sort of light radar?

Scott Benjamin: I say radar because it gives you an idea of what we're talking about here. It's the same type of thing. This is a laser system. It's called LDAR. It's an acronym for Light Detection And Ranging.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: It's very similar but uses concentrated pulses of light, and it reads them much in the same way that the radar detector works with radio waves. This works with light waves. It analyzes them the same way to determine vehicle speeds. The light beams are a lot faster, and they're a lot more concentrated. They've very, very centralized. You can focus this much greater than you can a radar gun.

Ben Bowlin: Which, as we said, quickly spreads?

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. And these are the type of that if you drive by a police officer, and they've got the gun up to their eyeball, and they're looking through the device at your vehicle, that's a LDAR gun they're using a laser.

Ben Bowlin: Now, let's also point out that these are not visible light.

Scott Benjamin: No. These are beyond visible light. You're not going to see the beam of light, of course. You may wonder how you're going to mask this, or how you're going to be caught. There are detectors that detect this. They detect if there's a specific target. They'll be able to read. It's quick. It's on/off. They call it - I think it's "popping" is what they call it, because they just turn on and off real quick. It doesn't remain on like a radar would remain on. You don't get a constant signal. Even more difficult to -

Ben Bowlin: To try to circumvent.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. One of the things you can do for protection, in your case, I guess, if you're a speeder, is that you can buy a stealth coder for reflective surfaces on your car, which include your headlights, your license plate, your fog lights, something like that on the front of the vehicle. This stuff is expensive though.

Ben Bowlin: Really?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. Real expensive!

Ben Bowlin: How much is it?

Scott Benjamin: Five and a half ounces that's called stealth coding, or something like that. You can find versions of this online. It's $90, and you brush it on with a brush. You brush it on all the reflective surfaces of your car on the front.

Ben Bowlin: I guess the next question is how much is the ticket?

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. They have jammers. That's the other thing. There are jammer systems. That's effective with laser systems.

Ben Bowlin: Yes. Scott, what I think you're talking about - and tell me if I'm on base here - is you're talking about the - I guess they came along later, more recently, the newer types of non-passive radar detectors.

Scott Benjamin: Yes.

Ben Bowlin: Because they jam it, right?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. They send out confusing signals that disturb the signal the gun is sending and receiving. It's just enough to allow you to adjust your speed. What this does is gives you a little bit extra time to back yourself down, get yourself within the limit as you see it or hear it, whatever happens with this type of device. They have radar jammers, and they also have laser jammers. It just masks your car's signal that they're receiving. It does that via radio noise on the radar signal. On a laser system, it has its own LEDs that are built in that produce a shield almost, I guess.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: Like a light beam shield around your car. I know it sounds cool.

Ben Bowlin: It kind of scrambles the information.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. It doesn't receive the light in the way that it normally would, and it confuses it just enough so that you can bring it down to the right speed. Then when they check, you're hopefully in the range.

Ben Bowlin: I've never had any of this stuff.

Scott Benjamin: I know it. And you know what? There are videos online of people using these jammers, and how they work and everything, and testing them and everything. I don't know. There's another thing you can use.

Ben Bowlin: What's that?

Scott Benjamin: I just thought about this. The original detector detector was called the VG, and I think there was a VG2. The VG2 then was moved on to - then they went to something called the Specter. There's a 1, 2 and 3 Specter. Again, this cat and mouse thing back and forth. You can get a radar detector with VG2 invisibility. That's what I'm saying. This is so back and forth. They've got a radar gun. They shoot it at your car. You have a radar detector, so you know they're shooting at your car. They've also got a radar detector detector, and they've know you've got a radar detector. Now you've got a VG2 invisibility device on your detector to shield yourself from that. Then they say, "I can't really tell what you're doing there, so I'm going to shoot them again," and you've got this jammer system on there too. It's just this maddening back and forth that happens. The problem is that now we're starting to talk about radar detectors that are in the $500, $600 range, and maybe even more. Every time they upgrade this, you've got to upgrade your equipment as well. It's getting expensive.

Ben Bowlin: Just like any other form of electronic device, these devices do have a shelf life. What is it, planned obsolescence, or whatever it's called?

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. They know when it's done.

Ben Bowlin: If you're somebody who is used to having one of these things around, you'll probably end up buying one.

Scott Benjamin: Probably. I have never owned one. I've never owned a radar detector.

Ben Bowlin: I never had one just because growing up, I think I was never really clear. I thought - and this is a concern I've heard from other people - I thought if you get pulled over for anything, police officers will rightly make certain assumptions about you.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. They make notice of that.

Ben Bowlin: They'll know. They know what those look like. At best, it's going to be a funny conversation between you and the cop where they say, "Yeah, your brake light is out. Just go get that fixed." Then they go, "Is that the new VG2 with invisibility?" You have to be like, "Yeah, kind of."

Scott Benjamin: "Do a lot of speeding, do you, son?"

Ben Bowlin: "I just am into detection."

Scott Benjamin: "I see. I see. I'll be right back. License and registration, please." That's the way it goes, right?

Ben Bowlin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Do you want to hear about just a couple of low-tech ways as well?

Ben Bowlin: Yes. These are the non-electronic ones.

Scott Benjamin: There's one that's electronic that I'm going to mention, and that's pacing. It can be done both ways. Pacing can be done with a radar gun. The police vehicles are calibrated from the factor with the exact speed. So are the guns. They're matched to the speed. They know exactly. They're electronically calibrated, so in traffic, they will know if a vehicle is - the device itself knows if you're in traffic going 40 miles an hour, and you see a car pass you, and it's going according to the device 30 miles an hour away from the car, it knows it's going 70 miles, etc.

Ben Bowlin: I see.

Scott Benjamin: That's the electronic version of this. Pacing is just when they pull up next to you and match your speed in traffic. You don't recognize that they're there next to you. They're coming up behind you, and they stay with you. I think there's a time limit. It has to be an eighth of a mile or something like that. There has to be a measured distance. And I wouldn't quote that. It's something like that where they have to match you for an eighth of a mile to get an honest reading.

Ben Bowlin: Like to eliminate the margin of error as much as possible.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. "I paced him for half a mile at 75 miles per hour. That's why I gave you a ticket for 15 over," or whatever it was. Maybe one of the lowest tech ways to do this is just timing a vehicle between two known points.

Ben Bowlin: The way that we still do the world's fastest - like the land speed record.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly. And the way drag races are measured. It's just timing between known distances, point A, and point B. They do this either from a vehicle, and they can do it with a camera. It doesn't even have to be a manned device. They can do it with a camera. Like a lot of these sites have said, it's difficult to argue with videotape in court.

Ben Bowlin: It is tough.

Scott Benjamin: I would think so. So they either tape this happening. It can go as low tech as having a stopwatch in hand, or it can be as high tech as having a timing device, like what you find at the race track. Have you ever driven by the signs that say the speed is monitored from the air?

Ben Bowlin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: That is how they do it from the air also. They have large marks on the ground that are marked off at quarter mile, half mile, mile. Big marks that would be visible from the air! You don't necessarily see them. They're on the side of the road. They're wide, big markings.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah, but they're not for you. They're for the helicopter.

Scott Benjamin: Exactly, and they time the time it travels for you to go from point A to point B. T hen there's a formula they plug those numbers into, and that determines your speed. From there, it's just a matter of radioing ahead and having the police pull you over.

Ben Bowlin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: It's a lot more simple than you might think. You'd never, ever see a helicopter coming up from behind, or a small airplane. It can be done from a small airplane, flying car, whatever.

Ben Bowlin: Thank you. That's nice. A little olive branch there! Thanks, buddy.

Scott Benjamin: You're welcome.

Ben Bowlin: We're going to reveal - and of course this is the part where some other podcasts might make it sound like a joke and like they're being clever or whatever, but I think it's already clear that the best way to avoid a speeding ticket is -

Scott Benjamin: Don't speed. That's it. That's the only way to avoid a ticket is to just not do it, not speed.

Ben Bowlin: A lot of that kind of stuff is the officer's discretion, too.

Scott Benjamin: Have you ever received a warning ticket?

Ben Bowlin: Just a citation? Yeah, I've received citations.

Scott Benjamin: I mean just a warning ticket that says, "Hey, slow down. Next time I'll give you a real ticket."

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. I've got one of those before. I love that you mentioned the camera thing. Real quick, I know some of our listeners are around intersections that have the cameras watching you. They're prevalent in Atlanta.

Scott Benjamin: Yes. Every corner.

Ben Bowlin: Sometimes when you and I are off the air, we're talking about different tricks we see people try to pull, like hiding your license plate and stuff. A buddy of mine actually got caught at an intersection by a camera running the red light. She tried to argue about it.

Scott Benjamin: Good luck.

Ben Bowlin: From what I understand - I don't know if this is true, bro - but from what I understand, when she went to court to argue about it, the hat she was wearing was the same hat she was wearing on the tape.

Scott Benjamin: Oh no. She was saying, "That's not me."

Ben Bowlin: I don't know what she was saying.

Scott Benjamin: Tattoo on the forearm. "Sorry, that wasn't me."

Ben Bowlin: And Social Security number on the side of the car. In my opinion, it's just so much easier to not have to participate in this crazy laser radar arms race. That's essentially what it is.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah.

Ben Bowlin: A lot of people, though, tell me, "Thank God for my radar detector." I've only heard people say that about radar detectors. I don't know anybody who has shown up at my house and said, "Thank goodness for my jammer."

Scott Benjamin: I've never known anybody with a jammer, I don't think.

Ben Bowlin: I don't know. Maybe they just don't talk about it.

Scott Benjamin: Maybe.

Ben Bowlin: You don't want a lot of people to know.

Scott Benjamin: Maybe. It's got to be an expensive feature on some of the newer models though, I would think.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. I don't know if it's factory on any cars. That's for sure.

Scott Benjamin: I don't think so. It should be on some cars.

Ben Bowlin: It should be. They should just let people be honest. If you buy a Bugatti, it should just come with some radar equipment.

Scott Benjamin: That's right. Complete stealth covering. Every surface.

Ben Bowlin: I'm going to look into it. I love this idea of James Bond fantasy Monte Carlo I'm building in my head.

Scott Benjamin: It's not invisibility paint. You know that.

Ben Bowlin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: Long pause. I think you maybe thought. Never mind.

Ben Bowlin: I'm going through here. I'll figure it out. Just let the inspiration strike. While I go away to wait for that stroke of revelation that will let me know how to make my car possibly invisible, we're going to have to let these folks go, Scott. It's time to head out.

Scott Benjamin: It's been long enough.

Ben Bowlin: What do you think about Facebook, Twitter?

Scott Benjamin: I think we've got them.

Ben Bowlin: Yeah. We're CarStuff on there.

Scott Benjamin: CarStuffHSW, I think, on Twitter. And we've got the blog.

Ben Bowlin: A great blog.

Scott Benjamin: Got the website, which has a million articles. I'm going to say it has a billion articles, a billion auto articles and just about anything you want anything under the sun. And if you don't find it on our website, you can send us an email at -

Ben Bowlin: CarStuff@HowStuffWorks.com.

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