Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ground Zero Tolerance

A group of progressive Muslims is interested in developing their property, located two and a half blocks away from the site of the ruined Twin Towers in New York City, into a community center. It is conceived as a cultural center to strengthen ties between Muslims and people of all faiths and backgrounds. According to Imam Feisal, who has made a career of promoting interfaith tolerance and understanding, "we want to push back at the extremists."

It's not a bad idea. Surveys show that The Terrorists believe all Americans are evil people, when at most some of us are just a little annoying.We feel the same way about Muslims and people who look like they might be Muslims. In spite of this obvious common ground, we have failed to come together. So the plan was endorsed by the mayor, the NY Times, the local synagogue, 9/11 victims' families, and many others when it was proposed eight months ago.

Naturally, folks were shocked when it was recently revealed, by conspiracy blogger Pamela Geller (who previously informed us that Malcolm X was Obama's father), that a "monster mosque" was going up at ground zero. Even before she was able to disclose that the mosque was planning to open an exploding underwear concession from a booth constructed from the bones of firemen, the story was picked up and widely disseminated (via hitting the fan) by serial fabulists Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Fox News. People are hugely upset. I'm upset because I had no idea that bloggers were influential. We shouldn't be; we make shit up. And if we is, why amn't I?

The whole project, now universally portrayed as The Monster Mosque At Ground Zero, has become distasteful to a majority of Americans, many of whom identify as Christians. Forgiveness is an important part of being a Christian. Some of them are even able to forgive Jesus for that Sermon on the Mount, assuming he was just having an off day.

The very thought of a Monster Mosque At Ground Zero took many by surprise, especially Imam Feisal, since it wasn't a mosque and wasn't at ground zero. The quickest to rebound from the shock was the Committee for Obama Defamation (COD), which sprang into action with a COD piece for every contingency:

Obama supports mosque, because he's a Muslim.
Obama says nothing about mosque, because he's a Muslim.
Obama decries mosque, because he's a Muslim and sneaky besides.

We the people have always taken being bombed very personally, as well we should, since it was meant personally, which is what makes it different from the bombing we do. We intend to cede zero ground to the terrorists.

I get this stance. There is a huge organization out there with power greater than most entire countries, and it revered its profits so highly that it was able to set the lowest wages on the planet. Then it packed jets in the name of almighty Moolah with all the middle-class manufacturing jobs and rammed them right into the economy. In spite of that, it has managed to erect giant Walmarts all over, usually in the precise areas of devastation. That there hasn't been a greater outcry over this is just another case of failing to connect the dots.

Meanwhile, many of the great Internet typists have undertaken to determine the exact distance away from Ground Zero it would be appropriate to put up a mosque, but that distance varies, because Uranus travels in an elliptical orbit.

The consensus, though, is that there should be a blank space, nothing at all, around Ground Zero. Think of it as a monument to atheism.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Oh, Snap!




On a recent JetBlue flight, a flight attendant was treated rudely by a passenger, not, I suspect, for the first time, and as the plane taxied to the terminal, he grabbed the intercom and screamed obscenities into it, grabbed himself a beer, pulled the cord for the emergency chute and slid on out of there, and wouldn't you love to have been on that flight? I don't know what the passengers did, but I would clapped until my palm-prints were polished off.

It's the whole thing. It's the jerkwad passenger getting her what-for, it's the tedium of airplane travel utterly relieved in one instant, it's the brilliant means of exit. It is the rare soul who hasn't dreamt of going out in a blaze of glory and saying what he really thinks when he couldn't take one more day at work. But with an intercom? And a cushy bouncy sliding board? And a beer? Brilliant.

At the post office, even those of us who were not disgruntled had to be on the lookout for the ones who were likely to snap. The official post office line is that we don't have any more people snapping than in any other workplace, which would be true if it weren't false. We were all seriously nuts. Some arrived nuts on their first day and others had nuttiness thrust upon them. I don't actually understand it, having always thought it was a rather pleasant and straightforward job, but there were an astonishing number of people around who were royally pissed off at everybody:  fellow workers, customers, and definitely the bosses. I believe most of those came pre-packaged with rage and continued to sharpen their own edges as time went on and it became clear that no one ever gets fired. It could be anything that sets them off. "These goddam letters," they'd say, flinging them aside. Honey? Did you think we built space ships here?

I was crossing the Steel Bridge one day on my bicycle when the horns went off indicating the span was going to be raised, and we should all wait behind the pair of closing gates. Another bicyclist got trapped between the gates--it was confusing--and the bridge tender, who had a microphone, bellowed at him. "Dumbass" was the nicest word that spewed out of his mouth for a full minute. Then he opened up the appropriate gate to let him back out, telling him to get the **** off his bridge and don't ever come the **** back. It was loud. It was like the voice of God on the day His team lost the pennant. And I thought:  here this bridge tender had probably raged his way out of thirty jobs a year and finally found one where all he had to do was sit in a little box by himself and make the bridge go up and down, and he couldn't manage it. He could have been a great letter carrier.

They might say otherwise, but there isn't a mail carrier in America who hasn't sketched out a plan for what he's going to do when the shots ring out. There aren't a lot of options. We all sort our mail into big metal cases with enough room underneath to crawl under and possibly hide; but that's the area we keep tubs  of mail for people who are on vacation. One too many vacationing customers, and the whole scheme falls apart. And most people don't take it well when we explain, as their official letter carrier, that they can't go on vacation.

After the employee has flipped out and done what he could with his assortment of firearms, they always interview the survivors and his neighbors. A lot of times anyone could see it coming. But sometimes people say "I just don't understand it. He was always such a quiet fellow, kept to  himself."

Shit. You know how many of those people we have down there?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Plastics!







A TV ad from the mid-1960s is stamped in my memory bank. A woman peeks coyly around the shower curtain and asks her husband for the shampoo. "Here," he says, throwing the bottle at her head, and as it ricochets around the tub, she exclaims: "Hey! It didn't break!" This was the dawning of a new era in plastics and sub-lethal marital violence.

It sticks in my head because it marks the time before which we managed to muddle through life without plastic. It's almost inconceivable now. Plastic, a petroleum product, is ubiquitous and an object lesson in ecology, or the interconnectedness of things. Everything affects everything else. A plastic butterfly barrette snapping open in Omaha leads to a gyre of submerged garbage swirling around in the Pacific. The stuff never goes away, but it does bust up into pieces so small ("nurdles") they are now being ingested by plankton. We don't know just what that will mean for the food chain, but odds are we're not going to like it.

Here in Portland, our mayor, Sam Adams, is looking to ban single-use plastic bags from stores. Some people are incensed. "He's just trying to look green," says one, and that's a valid worry. It sets a nasty precedent. What if the President pulled out of Afghanistan just to look peaceful? What if Sarah Palin corked her cakehole just to look intelligent? Where would we be then?

Other dissenters point out that the plastic bags have handles and are much easier to carry, especially for the disabled and elderly. Perhaps we are being a little too hasty in abandoning our present system before we have developed the technology to make reusable cloth bags with handles.

But the most compelling case of all in favor of plastic bags is their reuse in the field of dog poop removal. My friend Margie not only bags up the voluminous output of two Labrador retrievers every day on her walks but then carries it in her coat pockets. "It keeps my hands warm," she explains, another consequence unforeseen by me. I had to think back. What did we do before we scooped dog poop into plastic bags?

We didn't scoop dog poop into anything. Our dog pooped in the neighbor's yard and their dog pooped in ours. Kids revved up their immune systems by rolling around in quantities of it, and everybody watched their step. It's not feasible in the cell phone age.

So what's it going to be, people? Dog poop, or plastic inhalers for the kids? Cold hands, or a continent-sized wad of garbage in a part of the ocean nobody ever visits anyway? The planet, or Lunchables? Give it another few decades of thought, and be strong. We'll never know if we can live without plankton until we give it a shot.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mysterious Ways





Thank you for visiting mylittlescienceblogspot.blogspot.com. It is my hope that by introducing research from my own backyard, I can help demustify the world of science, making it accessible to the general population; and in so doing, to banish, once and for all, scientific illiteracy, and replace it with a mild form of dyslexia.

Faithful readers may recall how I solved the puzzle of the missing possums around here (the raccoons ate them). You're welcome. It's just a simple matter of applying sound scientific principles to the evidence at hand (possums all gone; raccoons very, very fat). I am pleased to now bring you the results of my latest study.

As you may be aware, our local hummingbirds have all but disappeared. There are a few relics around, but the buzzing hordes of last year have gone away. Also gone are the jewel-like little dragonflies, sparkling in iridescent shades of blue and green. In place of both are alarmingly large and, frankly, unattractive dragonflies with feathered heads and military-style wing bars. They are zooming around here like black helicopters. Obviously, the dragonflies ate the hummingbirds.

In addition, it has been noted that the penstemons in the garden did not make it through the winter. These were the hummingbirds' favorite flowers, and they are no longer of any use, so, lo, they perished from the earth.

This is the simplest and most elegant solution that takes into account all the facts. That's what makes it science-y. As a science-ist, I must remind you that it is not true that things do not change, or even evolve. They do evolve, if in so doing they are able to become more of service to humans, who, all the data indicate, are the Crown of Creation. Hummingbirds, for instance, have been zipping around here for years like little chicken nuggets, but they're too hard to catch and fry up. They had to go. What we really needed was some sort of drone aircraft that could drop fury on our mortal enemies, and in another few years, our new dragonflies are going to be right there where we need them. I quote no less a science-ist than St. Paul: "And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men...and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle...and their power was to hurt men five months." Locusts? Dragonflies. Five months? Nine years and counting in Afghanistan. Same general idea, and translations are always a little dicey. What doesn't change is the fact that all of these things came into being in a blast of glory about six thousand years ago. There's already been a book written about that, so I won't go into it here.

Every scientific hypothesis takes the form of the statement "if this is true, then that will happen"--in other words, it is essentially a prophesy, and I'm all about the prophesies. The book previously referred to is full of them, which is why it is regarded as the premier science textbook for the ages. For instance, I give you: "The chariots shall rage in the streets, they shall justle one against another in the broad ways: they shall seem like torches, they shall run like the lightnings." And: "...chariots shall be as a whirlwind...Woe unto us! for we are spoiled." All of which, I submit, has come to pass. Ipso factoido, nanner-nanner, and boo-yah. I'm just saithin'.

So check back next post when I explain that climate change is a hoax perpetrated on a gullible public by people who don't want us to have any fun with our chariots. I'll get into the details later, but for now, ask yourselves: is it a coincidence that all the global-warming talk started at the same time the Baby Boom generation hit menopause? I think not.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Hinges Of Hades








It's hot. It's so hot I could accessorize with pepperoni slices. It's a hundred and fifty degrees in Portland, Oregon, give or take, and that's just not fair. That would be like going to Disneyland, the happiest place on earth, and Mickey Mouse up and gives you a wedgie. It should never happen. It makes me cranky and miserable and also reminds me of asparagus beetles.

Asparagus beetles live only on asparagus plants. They don't have a Plan B. Their function is to take divots out of your fresh asparagus spears. There might be something in it for them, too, I don't know. A long time ago, we had what was probably the only asparagus patch in a couple square miles. It stood tall and proud, waving its feathery fronds, until the first asparagus beetle showed up, followed by a squadron. How did they locate our little asparagus patch? They followed a gradient of asparagus-fume molecules. They found one molecule, then happened onto a direction with a few more, and kept moving towards the areas of greater asparagus fumelet concentration until they were smack into Divot City. Same gradient concept applies to flies on poop. Don't ask me why moths find porch lights. I think that's just a lack of personal brightness.

When I was a child, I did the same thing, following a temperature gradient. I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, where Satan sends the people who are acting up. We could only play in the sprinkler for so long, and then we pitched over in the shade until the chiggers drove us out, when we slithered into the house on a slime trail of unevaporated sweat, and ultimately prostrated ourselves on the kitchen linoleum in front of a black oscillating fan, arms and legs positioned as far away from each other as possible. This would be the last time anything I did reminded anyone of Leonardo da Vinci. We lay sullen and miserable, our tissues softening like carrots in a saucepan.

Mrs. Tangerose was the first person we knew who bought an air conditioner. A whole group of the church ladies walked over to her house to see, and I tagged along. The house felt like ours except for one room, and we walked in and suddenly it was January in the Yukon, our sweat iced over, and we had never been happier in our lives. That room air conditioner did a lot to bolster my belief in God, until we had to leave.

Our plan at home was different. The house was closed up with the shades drawn all day, and then in the evening Daddy would obsessively check the thermometers until the moment when the inside temperature was 90 and the outside was only 89, and then the windows were flung open and the creaky window box fan upstairs was turned on, pointing out. Ahh! By morning we were comfortably down to 86 or so and the house was shut up again, while Daddy went off to work in an air-conditioned office.

Mom was not the complaining sort, but somewhere in the mid-sixties she expressed some interest in a new-fangled central air conditioning system. Daddy stoutly maintained that going from an air-conditioned office to an air-conditioned bus to an air-conditioned house was not good for you. At moments like that, I tended to consider mine a miracle birth.

Women's lib came along and dropped some ideas in Mom's head and one day she took her flawless grammar and spelling and 135 wpm typing skills and got herself a part-time job, and just like that we had central air, just in time for me to leave home. I grew up and headed north, then west, following a temperature gradient, and that's how I ended up in mossy Oregon with the asparagus beetles. Where global warming is fixing to give us a giant wedgie.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I'm Networking, Baby







A year and a half ago, my neighbor Beth helped me set up my Facebook page late at night. "I'll friend you in the morning," she said, and I gratituded her for her help. The next morning, I had a message from someone I'd known since I was two, and hadn't heard from in forty years. It was extraordinary, delightful, and thoroughly spooky. I was trolling the ocean floor with a freshly wormed hook and I'd snagged a nice shiny fish, but what else was lurking in the depths?

Fortunately, due to an acute erosion of memory, I don't worry about anything for long. I reviewed my life and found it exemplary, my every human interaction at every age marked with virtue, and I rested easy. I was ready to embrace Facebook, social networking site and the world's foremost cat-video delivery system.

I wasn't alone. In late 2008 and early 2009 all the baby boomers in the world jumped onto Facebook at the same time, causing real news sources to leap off the web in order to keep everything spinning. They stormed the site like it was a free glucosamine dispensary. Saggy gray boomer mamas dreamed of old boyfriends whose last memories of them featured bandanna halter-tops in invitingly spacious overalls; they brushed up their photo-editing skills and took the leap. I did too.

Friends showed up. Real ones, ones I had missed. You lose track of friends over the years, and it was remarkable to be able to catch up all at once. For instance, it turned out a third of my old friends were now in the Mafia, which didn't surprise me, and another third were farmers, which did. By the time I had reached sixty friends, I had already traveled cross-country to meet long-lost high school pals. I was delighted with my collection.

Then new friend-requests started popping up. Who is this person? Why does he want to be my friend? My friend collection grew in accretions, certain key components barnacling up. I had an island of show-business people, an outcrop of writer types, and a whole reef of birders. The birder reef developed side protrusions of insect experts and one dinosaur guy. Eventually I met some of my virtual friends, and then my Facebook page settled out into people I actually know, people who know people I actually know, people who don't actually know people I don't actually know, and people who I don't know who the hell they are. And one French guy who probably mistook me for a cheese.

Sometimes I see a clever comment on my page, and I'll think: how do I not know this person? Is this one an actor, a writer, or a birder? One day I got an email from someone I knew I'd never heard of. She was sorry to inform me that a mutual friend had passed away, and that there would be a celebration of life I was welcome to attend. I looked him up, found him indeed among my friends, and mourned. He was so young, so handsome in his profile pic. What a loss it was, and I had only not known him for such a short time.

Baby boomers are particularly fond of Facebook because it helps us keep our focus. Now, instead of the scattered thoughts like "I should send money to Haiti" or "where did I put my coffee cup" or "when did that crap replace real music," we are focused like a laser on "I wonder if anyone put anything interesting on Facebook in the last fifteen minutes." It settles the mind.

That's one benefit. But I also now have ready access to people who can answer all my most vexing questions. What can their skeletal morphology tell us about the relationship of velociraptors to ostriches? Or, What is that thing crawling up my leg? You'd be surprised how often those questions come up.


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bear Awareness






There's a GI Rights Hotline that soldiers can call if they suddenly discover that they are conscientious objectors and want out. These days the hotline is taking more and more calls from personnel who do not want to serve alongside (or beneath) gay soldiers. That is, the kind they know about. The threat level of becoming aware of fellow soldiers' sexuality is now surging into the orange zone since Congress has paved the way to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." As a recent worried hotline caller remarked, "If homosexuality is actually allowed, I will be housed with somebody who's sexually attracted to me." You can't buy that kind of self-esteem.

As everything does, this reminds me of working in the post office. It was a staple of workroom comedy to report on the perils of delivering mail to certain taverns in certain areas of town. In a typical monologue, a carrier would cop to a case of the willies when he would go into one of these establishments and be greeted in what he deemed an excessively friendly manner. "Whatever you do, if you're in C. C. Slaughters and drop a letter, don't bend over to pick it up!" Ha ha! The classics never fail. The comedian would bask in the roars of laughter, scratching his butt through his stained, baggy trousers, his beer-belly in full gestation and quivering with mirth.

"What exactly is it about you that you think homosexual men find so irresistible?" I always ask, causing the gentleman to stare uncertainly, mouth ajar, a tiny trickle of tobacco juice following the crusty trail to his chin. Well. He can't point to a particular thing, exactly, but he's quite confident of his magnetic qualities.

I don't blame him. Without having tested it in the wild, I'm confident I am immensely attractive to bears. If Dave and I are walking in the woods, and we come upon a grizzly bear, I know I'm going to get the worst of it. Dave will be tough and stringy, even after being tenderized by mosquitoes. I, on the other hand, look yummy. I am the original Slow Food, undoubtedly delectable with the right sauce, and as a bonus, I am likely to produce the sauce myself. Some things you just know.

So I understand that when my coworkers, or our military's finest, rattle off fag jokes at a steady clip, they are essentially carrying bear bells. They are warning the bears of their presence so as to be less vulnerable to attack. Let's review what to do if you are in danger of being attacked by a bear:

Grab hold of your bells and jingle, jangle, jingle.

Look big. Hold your hands up high above your head. (Review The Village People's "Y-M-C-A" for an example. We are looking for "Y.")

If attacked, immediately drop to a fetal position ("C"). Some sources report that a better outcome can be achieved by lying prone and straight, legs together, vital parts protected by the ground. It's up to you to decide which are your vital or most vulnerable parts, but rolling over and over while you think about it is not recommended.

Anything that you are carrying that might attract a bear should be placed up high in a tree or a bear pole. Determine your most attractive assets, sling them over that pole and rest easy.

If assaulted, play dead. (This will probably work in any scenario.)

Remember, although these steps may gain you some advantage, there are no guarantees when it comes to bears. Face it, you're a hopelessly attractive dude. It's the mullet, you big redwood, you.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lee's Eel




It was recently reported that a 59-year-old Chinese man--let's call him Mr. Lee--died after having an eel inserted into his rectum. Naturally, I found this deeply disturbing. But upon further research, I was reassured that the variety of eel in question is not an endangered species. The Asian Swamp Eel, in fact, is an invasive species here in America, as it was in our Chinese friend. In a further parallel, it is beginning to dominate habitat in the southern states. Its method of introduction into this country is unknown. We do know the method of introduction into Mr. Lee.

The approved method of introducing an eel into the rectum is from the top end, breaded and fried, but unfortunately for Mr. Lee, the eel took a more direct route. It would not seem to be an easy trick, but my research shows that eels naturally hide in holes in the bottom of the ocean, so the hole in the bottom of Mr. Lee may not have been such a stretch. Insertion was also aided by the addition of alcohol, both into Mr. Lee (in sufficient quantities as to render him past objecting) and into several of his friends, who came up with the eel idea in a fit of hilarity. Doctors attending the suffering Mr. Lee days later discovered the eel, now deceased, had chewed up a considerable portion of bowel, and Mr. Lee died ten days later.

One wonders where people come up with these notions, but no matter how dumb an idea is, once it's introduced it's capable of spreading like wildfire. That's why there are so many young people shambling around with their pants under their butts, and also Birthers. And in the area of the world Mr. Lee inhabited, there is an abundance of swamp eels, and there had already been a well-publicized incident of a man inserting an eel into his own rectum in a bid to cure a bout of constipation. He was not only not relieved, but checked himself into a hospital with abdominal pains several days later. There the doctor, after consulting an x-ray, pointed out that he had an eel up his butt. "Oh that," the man said, admitting he had put it there, and apparently surprised that it might be the source of his problem. The eel was removed along with the constipation and the man continued on his merry way, sadly retaining the ability to procreate.

One can only guess that the intent was to use the eel as a sort of plumbing-snake to scour the intestinal tract clean, but unfortunately eels do not care for the contents of intestines, preferring to munch on the organ itself. Any of a number of other animals are known for eating feces, but for various reasons are not suitable candidates for rectal insertion (dung beetles: too creepy; Labrador Retrievers: too noisy). Rabbits are known to eat their own feces in case they missed anything the first time through, but they're notoriously jumpy. And rectal gerbiling, no matter what you may have heard, is a myth, so my research has met a dead end. However, two things can be concluded. One, the world has presented us with a rare opportunity to combat alcoholism and invasive Asian swamp eels at the same time. Two, we could all use more dietary fiber.