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London pea-soupers and the "great smog" of 1952 led to the Clean Air Act of 1956.In the 1980s, Mexico City was talked about as the place with the most polluted air.In recent years, Beijing and Delhi have often had terrible air quality.How do the levels of pollution in these different cities at these different times compare? I can usually make sense of my kitchen radio, even if someone else is talking or the phone is ringing.This isolation of a single noise among others is known as the "cocktail party effect".However, just crumpling the bag inside a cereal packet renders any other sound unintelligible. During the recent total solar eclipse in the US, I overlapped my hands, using the gaps between my fingers to form "pinholes".Just before the start of totality, someone noticed that the shadows formed through this "pinhole camera" onto a whiteboard were so sharp that the individual hairs on my arms were visible.

How do these trees benefit from this different approach to deciduousness?An earlier question in The Last Word gave warnings about eating leftover rice.I have seen this advice before, saying it is not safe to keep cooked rice for more than a short time, even in the fridge.Yet supermarkets sell a lot of chilled meals that include rice and these can have "use by" dates up to a week away.What is different about the cooked rice in these meals?In the aftermath of the horrendous Grenfell Tower disaster in London last year, I would like to know why rescuing trapped individuals appears to be beyond our present capabilities.

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