Peculiar Science 3

The July/August Popular Science spins further into its orbit of being way, way out with Simon Pegg acting as guide to the spaciness of its first annual insane ideas issue.

Readers are supposed to be getting a lift from learning about Lyft, a fleet of self-driving taxis that will pave the way to Utopia. A Lyft co-founder wonders why people will want to drive their own cars that are only used four percent of the time and have to do all the “work” of parking and washing it. He suggests “Start to imagine all of the idle vehicles disappearing.” Readers are apt to imagine all the idle minds seeking to find ways to steer the public onto the off-ramp of uniformity.

When the pleasure of driving our own automobiles is gone, people will probably head for a Risk Theme Park like the one proposed for Daegu, South Korea. The nine death-defying scenes include simulations of wilderness rescue and being trapped underground. The biggest trap will certainly be at the ticket booth.

Foot fetishists will still get their kicks as the PS crew reports in “Rocket Science Meets Runway” on high heels that absorb shock better and offer extra arch support. When the stilettos are released this year, leg lovers should station themselves near arches or doorways where women will be supporting each other and recovering from the shock of shoes retailing at $925 a pair.

About halfway through the issue readers finally get to play Simple Simon with ideas that are more inane than insane. Worrywarts who keep watching the skies for asteroids and other falling objects headed our way can be comforted by the prospect of comet-crashing rockets being developed. Or maybe they might simply realize that these earth-shattering events occur about every 500,000 years.

Anyone concerned about Air Supply (and not just those still singing “All out of Love”) might be interested in knowing that artificial intelligence (the only kind that seems to intrigue the editors) is now monitoring the quality of air in Beijing, which has some of the worst air pollution in the world. Now high-resolution forecasts give residents of the populous city 72 hours advance warning and planning time. To do what? Take a deep breath and hold it until the worst of the smog dissipates?

Very prominent in the spacey category are the thousands of cracker-sized spacecraft to be launched by a Russian billionaire with the express purpose of searching for extraterrestrial life. It will take 20 to 30 years for the tidbits to reach their targets so about 2045 expect a message from outer space on the order of “Polxyp wants another cracker. This time, with onion dip.”

Although doctors haven’t made house calls for decades, we are expected to believe other health care professionals may soon be on the move. A physician requests a blood draw, the patient then schedules a convenient time, and a phlebotomist arrives to take the sample. All might go well if every abode was a sanitary and safe haven. Just how will the patient know whether the stranger knocking on the door is after just a small sample in a vial or is really a vile character out for blood and anything else that isn’t nailed down?

Never let it be said that the PS staffers aren’t just sitting around for sitting compresses the spine or standing idly by which makes the feet ache. The solution in the Manual section: walk while you work by converting a base-drum carrier into a desk that can be worn. No mention is made of sore tummies and banged knees from bumping into chairs and tables the walker cannot see over the top of a laptop.

In the “Ask Us Why” department readers are asked to consider the question of whether skunks hate the smell of their spray. The short answer is “Not as much as humans do.” One wonders “Do the staffers at PS find their subjects as weird as their readers do?” The short answer probably is “Not as long as they get paid for their weirdness.”


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Believe It Or What?

Although some readers of magazines like Popular Mechanics might be attracted to ads for the EGO lawn mower this summer because of its innovative 56-volt lithium battery technology which allows consumers to cut their lawns with the efficiency of a gas mower, my attention will continue to be drawn to the appealing phrase found beneath the wheels of the silent, silver beauty: “Power Beyond Belief.” Like Neil Diamond, I’m a believer.

Oh, it’s not that I have tried the mower. What I believe in is the power of ballyhoo. That slogan reminded me of the attention-grabbing callouts on the posters for Walt Disney’s own bit of innovation, a 1944 feature film combining live action and animation. The double-barreled come-on for The Three Caballeros was “Thrilling Beyond Words! Amazing Beyond Belief!”

It appears that the advertising world is ready now to go once again one step beyond in descriptions so here are some catchy taglines just waiting to get caught:

Despicable Beyond Yosemite Sam

Puerile Beyond Pee-wee Herman

Saccharine Beyond “Sugar, Sugar”

Dazzling Beyond Off-White

Calamitous Beyond Cleopatra

     Insufferable Beyond Endurance

Bilious Beyond Lawrence Tierney

Derivative Beyond Fast and Furious 12

Loopy Beyond “Little Latin Lupe Lu”

Colossal Beyond Lilliputian

Hackneyed Beyond a Beatles Tribute

Pricey Beyond Tiffany & Co.

Overexposed Beyond J. Lo

Malodorous Beyond Odorama

     Felonious Beyond Ponzi

Abominable Beyond the Frostiest Snowman

Wretched Beyond Beyond Valley of the Dolls 

For those who think I have become holier beyond thou, I will take my ego and do my cutting up somewhere Beyond the Sea.



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A Civil Matter

One of the unexpected pleasures of listening to vintage radio shows is hearing bits of dialogue that are relevant to life in the 21st century. While reviewing the episodes of Barrie Craig, Confidential Investigator in my collection recently, several exchanges gave me reason to hit pause and reflect on current events.

Craig, played with breezy nonchalance by William Gargan, was a New York detective who frequently took lumps on the head but who also gave as good as he got both with his fists and his tongue. Sometimes, when Barrie was en route to his nondescript office in a building on Madison Avenue, he engaged in snappy patter with elevator operator Jake, a Vermont transplant played by uncredited Parker Fennelly. Jake’s laconic answers suggest he could easily have been kin to Parker’s Titus Moody, resident Yankee in Allen’s Alley.

     However, in the episode of January 9, 1952 that most caught my attention, Fennelly assumed the role of a cagey old salt named Obermeyer who proved evasive when Craig approached him on the docks in hopes of finding a way to “Murder Island.”

Craig: You rent motor boats?

Obermeyer: You can read.

Craig: Sassy at your age and you won’t make out with St. Peter.

Obermeyer: What do you want?

Craig: Civility.

Obermeyer: Ain’t got any. Rent boats.

Right then it hit me like a blackjack delivered to the back of Craig’s cranium, though I didn’t tumble all the way until the seaman admitted he knew Barrie was a detective because of his big feet, bad jokes, and swelled head, and suspicious Craig asked pointedly, “Do you have some reason for being a little slippery?”

Consider the slippery slope of recent months when public discourse in the political arena has consisted of insults, innuendoes, mudslinging, partial truths, pussyfooting, unfounded claims, equivocation, bold-faced lying and deception, name-calling, profanity, backstabbing, and bickering. One wonders what would happen if the candidates with the swelled heads seriously asked the American people what they wanted and were told quite bluntly “Civility!” The unspoken but honest answer would have to be “Ain’t got any. Want votes.”

Despite taking more than his share of blows from all sides, Barrie Craig never became a whiner, which is more than be said about some aspirants vying for the highest office in the land. Before the political conventions begin with discord certain to be on the agenda and then nominees from both parties descend to unprecedented depths of acrimony, keep in mind Barrie’s prescient assessment of an uncivil cabdriver in “Ghost’s Don’t Die in Bed” from September 7, 1954: “Somebody must love him, but it must be uphill work.”










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Peculiar Science 2

     The May/June issue of Popular Science continues the magazine’s pattern of astonishing revelations in the guise of reporting on innovative trends. Rather than allow unsupported statements to go unchallenged, yours truly will comment on each claim that floors cruelly.

A GIF is touted as the future’s most effective communication tool, which comes as a surprise to those who thought it was what particular mothers selected as the best way to get their children to eat peanut butter. Readers are told that in “a busy world, where even tweeting takes too much time, the highlight clip has become our go-to lexicon.” Tweeting “Our team #1–Yea!” and similar bits of nothingness takes too long? Does it distract gamers from the six hours a day they spend chasing blinking lights with their fingers?

The otherworldly opening statement in the Manual section is way, way out: “In the 1980s a talking bear called Teddy Ruxpin took the world by storm.” What planet was the author on during that decade or was he even alive during the Reagan years? One wonders how many of the bears were sold in parts of the world other than North America. Madonna took more countries by storm at that time by telling papa not to preach to her than any automated Ruxy.

“Holy Cow!” might be the reaction to a page devoted to synthesizing substances normally derived from cows by using bovine cells in the lab. So far, attempts to pass off cultured meatballs have two disadvantages: too much chewy, chewy, chewy and more moola. Getting milk from inserting 3D-printed cow DNA into yeast cells, harvesting the resulting protein, and adding potassium and calcium to the concoction seems utterly more involved and expensive than the udder method.

The Invention Award section calls attention to such vitally-needed gadgets as a self-powered camera and a “robot companion you’ll want to hang with.” Hanging should be reserved for the editors who chose to honor such time-wasters as a hoverboard that flies. Taking a clue from the one-to-five maturity scale indicating how soon these gems will be available to the public, readers should feel free to let the editors have it a rating of five stars for immaturity.

Scientists planning their summer vacations need look no farther than North Dakota, now called Drone-Kota, the “Silicon Valley of drones.” Repeated graphics of quadcopters hovering over bison suggest that the thundering herd should have no trouble getting speedy pizza delivery by air.

“Can Your Genes Make You Kill?” will likely be required reading by all defense attorneys searching for excuses for the violent behavior of their clients. Four pages are devoted to contradictory arguments about genetic disorders with no definite conclusions. The question “Would genetic testing have stopped killers Ted Bundy…and Adam Lanza?” is answered in the negative and reinforced with “And researchers are skeptical that it ever could.” The concluding paragraph quotes a neuroscientist: “Everyone’s genome has a different level of risk for different disorders. Everyone’s got something.” Memo to those defense attorneys: Just use the headline in court. Don’t let the jurors or the judge read the fine print.

The Rube Goldberg Award goes to the way to reinvent breakfast with a helmet-mounted crane for pouring milk on and scooping up cereal illustrated on page 82. That is topped by a bizarre mixture of old and new titled “Pipe Up the Volume” which tells readers how to improve the intensity of sound on their Smartphone by cutting a hunk of PVC to act as el cheapo speakers. In a coming issue we can no doubt expect a piece of steampunk detailing how to modify ear trumpets to improve moshing at rock concerts.

“Ask Us Anything” provides a short copout to the query “Why hasn’t the U.S. adopted the metric system?” in the form of “It’s complicated.” The president of the U.S. Metric Association claims that “It’s going to happen, but at the rate we’re going, it will take a while.” Considering that the USMA has been around since 1916 and has shown little progress in its mission, expect any action to peter out before getting the meter out.

The final page, titled Terminus, should be called “The Last Straw” with a painting of a laid-back traveler waiting for a train powered by the tides. The tidal forces should cause any gentle reader to pronounce this “rich, technologically plausible universe” as very implausible. Like most of the magazine, the far-fetched concept is all wet.






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Call Them the Way I Seize Them

At this time of the year when basketball keeps dragging on through prolonged playoffs and baseball is just stretching out for the long hot summer, it might be instructive to call out the shouters who describe for listeners and viewers those high points of each sport, field goals and home runs.

The sportscasters looking down on the floor really do fall into a rut. Their standard response for a score, be it jumper or layup, is “Good!” That’s not so good. To be fair, I suggest calling a missed shot “Bad” or “Awful.” If the screamers are going to be fixated on “Good,” they should also toss in “Better Than Ezra” now and then.

“Downtown!” is pretty run down. Try “Up the Next Block!” A catchy way to capture the uptempo nature of the game is “Round Every Corner!” accompanied by a clip from Petula Clark’s hit as the teams head down the court.

To everything there is a season so mix in ringers with stingers. “Nothing but net!” should be balanced by “Nothing but air!” or “Less than nothing!” “Hit the trey!” aptly salutes the sharpshooter, but the trigger-happy tosser who constantly rattles rims should be called out with “Get the eye chart!” Similarly, “Trifecta!” for the aimer, “Try passing!” for the slinger. A swish shot merits “Bingo!” and a wish fling deserves “Stinko!”

It is probably unrealistic to expect baseball announcers to describe drives that go over walls and into the seats in an unemotional fashion such as “That ball is hit very well. It is a…home run.” But some of the calls are more fitting for settings far removed from any stadium. One famous goodbye note seemed more suited for a stable as if telling a horse to retreat and start eating: “Back, back , back…Hey, Hey!” Sleepy vagrants would almost certainly cringe and vacate the property if they heard this coming from a radio: “Get up! Get outta here! Gone!”

Some broadcasters apparently have missed their calling (in more ways than one) for they really belong more on the stage hosting game shows than in the booth with catch phrases like “It could be—it might be— it is,” “It’s got a chance…gone,” and “You can put it on the board, Yesss!”

At one time announcers could make definite statements about a home run such as “That ball is gone and it ain’t coming back” and “That ball’s history.” Now that some hometown fans toss enemy homers back on the field, the wording has to be modified a bit to “That ball left the premises, but now it’s on the warning track” and “That ball’s current events.”

But as long as the umpires agree that the batter is entitled to a round trip around the bases, he can touch them all, providing he keeps his hands to himself.

With long shots in both basketball and baseball, “He got all of that one!” might be welcome anywhere except in my domicile. When Casey on the court or at the bat fails miserably, I make the call that brings joy into at least one heart in Thudville: “He got none of that one!”













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Don’t You Think This Legend Bit Done Got Out of Hand?

The most-quoted lines from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Today the line should be adapted to “When in doubt about someone, call that person a legend.”

Recently, when I opened a CD case holding a collection of the greatest hits of Waylon Jennings, a leaflet fell out promoting other CDs by the country “outlaw.” On the cover is a photo of the black-garbed singer, cigarette in hand, slyly smirking next to the words “He didn’t become a legend by following the rules.”

The spring issue of On Wisconsin, a periodical sent to alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, features a full-page tribute to a prankster which begins “When former student Leon Varjian passed away last September, UW-Madison lost one its true legends.” Leon’s claim to fame? He was a leader of the Pail and Shovel Party, a group that stuck a flock of plastic pink flamingoes on campus one day and also planted a torch and head resembling a partially-submerged Statue of Liberty in frozen Lake Mendota. The Party’s mission was simple: to waste as much time and money as possible. The large photo accompanying the encomium shows a grimacing Varjian in 1983, strutting down State Street at the head of a boom box parade. The author of the tribute does include one salient point: though elected to the Wisconsin Student Association for two years, Leon never earned a degree and “in fact, he appears to have earned only one academic credit.”

In the same issue of On Wisconsin a four-page salute is given to “the man who saved pinball.” Maybe the word legend is not used in that article because the man is still alive. There will be plenty of time for that later. We have enough living legends already. Just listen to announcers describing any sporting event.

Now I know what I have been doing wrong with my life. By obeying regulations, attending classes faithfully to earn degrees, engaging in meaningful occupations, and by becoming a productive member of society, I have doomed myself to a life of obscurity. No more of that. There still may be time for me to become a legend before, during, or after my time.

So far, claiming to be D.B. Cooper has proven to be a poor gambit. Everyone keeps saying, “Show me the money.” I also have no answer for “What color was your parachute?” Maybe I should claim to be Gambit and tell them to look for me in the funny pages.

Sometime this year I intend to take my Gene Autry Silvertone guitar to the Autry Museum of the American West where I hope to get thrown out for not following the rules by singing “Are You Sure Gene Done Back in the Saddle This Way?” at the top of my lungs.

In my basement I am building a replica of the prow of the Edmund Fitzgerald which I will drive into the ground near the harbor in Duluth before publicly declaring that portion of the city a haven for sluggards.

This spring I plan to spend considerable time marching around the campus of defunct Milton College with a drum major baton and battery–powered cassette player booming out the strains of “Hey, look me over before you book me downtown.”

I have to get started right away on my scheme to force-feed indigestible pellets to chickens on a farm outside of town if I want to gain the title of Pinball Gizzard.

If all else fails in my inglorious quest, I am going to do something that is really hair-raising. For now it is a secret. Just don’t shoot at any gangling creature you might see shuffling through the woods in the coming months. If you don’t think I would stoop that low to find out what becomes a legend least, you don’t know Sasquatch.




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Peculiar Science

There was a time when the articles in Popular Science succinctly explained new technical advances and inventions to the general public. Quite a few readers of the March/April 2016 issue are apt to be more bewildered than enlightened by some of the subjects covered.

The head scratching might begin on page 14 with the Hit List, “10 Great Ideas in Gear.” Apparently, “there’s nothing more to say” about the hydro boosters for the feet except to wonder who would pay $6,000 for objects that work only on water except maybe a desperate bathtub surfer. Then the author does some improbable wondering by asking “Why doesn’t someone make a vertical turntable?” before providing a $400 answer, claiming “It’s the coolest vinyl player around.” Just try selling that idea to a generation thriving on smartphones and smartwatches whose only experience with vinyl is grabbing that raincoat in the back of a closet.

An interview with the CEO of a $1 billion video game company carries the headline “Everyone Will Be a Gamer in the Future.” Not now, not ever. The only proof for this fantastic assertion is the executive’s unsubstantiated claim that there are “anywhere from 2 billion to 3 billion gamers out there.” They must be way, way out there in a galaxy far away from a planet with over 7 billion people.

A simple answer can be provided for the banner question to a piece on editing genomes of human embryos: “Are We Ready for Designer Babies?” No. Not now, not ever.

A full ten pages are devoted to the topic of longevity with the provocative general teaser of “Live Forever.” Nowhere among the topics of slowing aging by staving off diseases is there a mention of what the quality of life will be like for all the centenarians who will likely spend decades nodding mindlessly in wheelchairs.

Unlike the other portions of the magazine that look forward, the Manual section seems decidedly retro or, at the very least, quirky. Those who wish to emulate Colin Clive’s wild-eyed mad scientist pyrotechnics in Frankenstein can follow the step-by-step instructions for constructing a tabletop Jacob’s ladder. (Sorry–No tips for building your own monster.) For those who prefer the offbeat outdoors, readers are introduced to a weather maestro who has constructed a synthesizer controlled by the weather. “You need an applause machine” we are told so our hands do not get tired at a concert, and the woman who built such a ridiculous contraption can stop right after inventing a device that records the sound of no hands clapping. But the topper is the page devoted to listening to records with our teeth which involves everyday objects like a pencil, cardboard, shish-kebab stick, and a needle. The ideal record for this project is Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wherefore and Why.” The editors also provide tips on growing a bacterial zoo and making a mask that allows a person to smell the rainbow. And people thought Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein was mad!

And that’s not all, folks. The “Ask Us Anything” department provides answers to such burning questions as “Why do shower curtains billow inward?” and “Do beards keep men warm?” The question this reader asks is “If this type of science really popular or just the latest version of Weird Tales?”







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