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How To Lose An Internal Organ In Ten days (with apologies to Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey)

1) First of all, do not ever lend your children any climbing gear.  You will never see it again.  Furthermore, years later you will find yourself working for a living while they are out climbing rock faces and fending off goats and raccoons .

rock climber feeding goat
Goat fueling up before climbing adventure

 

2)  Try to be born into a family where several first-degree relatives have already lost their gallbladders.

3) If you have been taking betaine hydrochloride  (proven to thin out bile in randomized, placebo-controlled trials) for the last 16 years, stop due to concerns that the betaine may be fueling the growth of intestinal bacteria which produce trimethylamine oxide, which in turn is known to fuel cardiovascular disease, which in turn is known to fuel sudden death.  Also, lose some weight trying out a lectin-free diet even though you don’t have any reason to avoid lectins.

4) Embrace a vague suggestion by your oldest son that you, he and your youngest son should climb Pigeon Spire in Bugaboo Provincial Park, B.C.  Realize that critical details will be withheld from you until it’s too late.  These details will include: 2000-foot elevation gain in order to hike from parking lot to base camp, alpine start from base camp (waking at 3 AM) the next morning in order to safely ascend couloir and also be the first group on the Spire at sunrise, necessity for glacier travel with ropes, crampons and ice axes, and necessity to descend via a different glacier after getting up and down Pigeon Spire. This will all involve losing and then regaining one or two more thousand feet in order to arrive back at base camp after approximately 16-hours.

Tell yourself: no problem.

Pigeon Spire
Unwary climber and youngest son.  Main part of Pigeon Spire in background

5) Fail to pay meticulous attention to hydration and nutrient intake during and after 16-hour jaunt and subsequent descent to parking lot next morning.

6) Resume lectin-free diet.  Ignore pale stool several days after returning home.

7) Experience right upper quadrant pain two hours after lunch several more days later.  Blame this pain on having tweaked something in your thoracic spine (conveniently located in your back) due to recent climbing trip. Go home and work out on your elliptical.  Decide to eat large meal of lamb chops since pain disappears completely during workout.

8) Two hours after eating, experience several episodes of vomiting and more right upper quadrant pain. You will now be fully aware that you very likely have an issue with your gallbladder. Ignore this thought.  Go to bed with dwindling, but tolerable right upper quadrant pain.  Sleep soundly.

diagram of liver, gallbladder, stomach and pancreas

9) Awake next morning completely pain-free.  Decide to completely expunge all details of the previous two days from your memory-banks.

10) Go to skydiving school on the weekend, then make three separate attempts to jump, but get shut out by smoke, wind and rain each time.  Fret. Practice exits from plane in doorway of home office. Replay scenarios in which main chute doesn’t open.  Mentally rehearse cutting away your main chute and deploying reserve chute.  Invent various scenarios in which reserve chute doesn’t open.  These include gliding at 120 mph and somehow landing, unharmed and Scully-like, on the Red Deer River, close to skydiving school.  Laugh nervously.  Fret some more.

11) Continue fretting, eating normally and working out.  On the beautiful Friday morning prior to the long weekend, go back to skydiving school.  Arrive three hours early, ruminate over impending jump, urinate copiously due to anticipation/nerves.  Do not rehydrate.  Drink coffee.

12) Jump out of perfectly good airplane.  Land successfully, debrief, race back to Calgary and then accompany spouse to B.C. in order to get to hotel in Fernie for Saturday morning meeting. Drink coffee!  And wine!  Go to bed.  Eat sausages and eggs for breakfast next morning!  Go to meeting.

13) Experience right upper quadrant pain in the middle of meeting, two hours after breakfast.  After meeting, return to Calgary in passenger seat, as pain is now significant enough to preclude driving.  Ignore Nurse Practitioner spouse’s admonition to seek medical attention for probable cholycystitis (inflamed gallbladder), as pain eventually subsides.

14)  Wake up, eat various things you probably shouldn’t eat, such as beef jerky and peanut butter.  Experience more symptoms but later in day go for a run, as symptoms  go away by lunchtime.  Watch movie although pain returns that evening.  Fight urge to throw up.

15) Go to bed but sit up most of night because pain increases with a vengeance, radiating from your back through to the pit of your stomach.  Regret going to Med School as you now worry that  you may have a pancreas problem in addition to a gallbladder problem.

16) Go to ER at 8 AM next morning.  Medical Student palpates abdomen and finds exquisitely tender lump located under margin of liver.  Student asks if you have ever noticed lump.  Reply in the negative, adding that you don’t routinely palpate your own abdomen. Have bloodwork and ultrasound.  Learn that your pancreas is fine.

17)  Repeat history to senior Surgical Resident who has reviewed ultrasound and advises you that you need to part company with your gallbladder.  He remains intrigued by the lump.

18) See on-call surgeon who reiterates need for surgery.  Ask surgeon if problem was brought on by dehydration, sympathetic nervous system overdrive, exhaustion, negative calorie balance, etc. Ask about literature on dissolving gallstones via ingestion of ox bile plus/minus dandelion root extract.  Allow surgeon to pat you on the shoulder as he shakes his head, eyes skyward.  Agree to surgery.

19) Spend night in hospital.  Learn that your room-mate and new friend Kevin has a gallstone more than 1″ in diameter.  Do not give in to gallstone-envy, as you only have one small stone lurking in your gallbladder.  Remember what Carrie Fisher said: “Resentment is like drinking dandelion root extract and waiting for the other person to pass a gallstone.”  Or words to that effect.  Suggest to Kevin that he have his stone bronzed after removal and mounted in suitable display trophy.

hole-in-one golf trophy
Tasteful candidate-gallstone trophy.

20) Depart for surgery at noon the next day.  Inform nurse that the only way titanium wedding ring is coming off your hand is if the finger comes off along with the ring.  Ignore her frown.  Laugh as Kevin wishes you good luck with your sex-change operation as you are being wheeled out.

21) Have surgery.  Return to room at 3 PM.  Note that Kevin is missing, along with your tender lump noticed by trained medical professionals, but see that a woman is waiting in his cubicle.  Ask if she is affiliated with Kevin.  She will suspiciously ask you why you want to know.  Relate sex-change operation comment.  She will sigh, rolls her eyes and say, “Yes, that’s my husband.”  Tell her they need to have a long talk when he returns.

22) Ask the nurse when you can go home and you will be told that you will be having a full meal and that you can go home after supper, if all goes well.  Retreat to  bed and work out how soon you can resume skydiving.

23) When Kevin returns ask how things went.  Inform him that you went to the OR bearing both male and female sexual organs and have returned with two sets of male sexual organs.  All within earshot will laugh.  Kevin will laugh too, until his post-surgical pain cuts it short.  Serves him right, you will think to yourself.

24)  You leave the hospital at 7 PM, in the interim having decided that your headstone inscription will read:

“He was a lot smarter than he looked.

Despite having less common sense than a freshly-hatched sea urchin.

And trimethylamine oxide was the last thing he needed to be worrying about.

Just saying.”

RIP_headstone.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rise Of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Trash Pandas

Before we get into this I want to apologize to my loyal followers (all ten of you) for not having posted anything since June.  So here goes:

“I hereby apologize for not having posted anything since June.” Happy now?

People have been studying animals for a long time, trying to find examples of how new species can arise from existing species, and even attempting to make new species through selective breeding.  For example, there has been a program going on in Russia for decades trying to breed silver foxes that exhibit the same friendliness toward humans as do dogs and maybe other species such as Komodo dragons, and hippopotamuses.

Here’s an unretouched photo of a genetically-engineered friendly silver fox.  We can tell it’s friendly because of the drooping ears, curly tail, and unusual coloration.  Also because the man is not holding his nose.  (Wild foxes have a “musky” smell.) But mostly we know this one is friendly because it’s not trying to snack on the man.

person holding silver fox
Friendly silver fox exhibiting a marked absence of biting, scratching, clawing and wiggling

In years gone by there have been other examples of this sort of change in animal behaviour, with cows starting to exhibit a love of water, polar bears starting to hunt Beluga Whale calves, and Grizzlies thinking seriously about mating with Polar Bears.

grizzly bear tussling with polar bear
Grizzly-Polar Bear foreplay
aquatic cows
Cows training for 2020 Olympic  200-metre paddle

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’re also familiar with the concept of teenagers potentially mutating into creatures with huge eyes, long fingers and no mouth, due to texting 23 hours per day instead of interacting like normal human beings.  (My wife, for one, is convinced this is already happening.)  And don’t forget good old Secretariat The Horse, who won the Triple Crown back in 1970.  Secretariat ate the breakfast, lunch and dinner of all the other horses in the Belmont Stakes, when he won  by a freakish 25 lengths.

So clearly, animals aren’t standing still.  They’re probably busy watching all the Mission Impossible movies (starring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt) and they’re learning mad skills.  Even the humble raccoon (Procyon lotor) is in on the game.

In mid-June of this year, the Dow Index fell about 20% for two days because half of the world’s population (well maybe not half) was occupied watching a raccoon free-solo the 20-storey UBS building (whatever that is) after being startled away from minding it’s own business and eating some pigeon eggs near a dumpster in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. (Yes, there ARE 20-storey buildings in Minnesota, in case you were sceptical.  And Scotch Tape® was also invented in Minnesota, FYI.  I think it should have been called Swedish Tape® though.)

Just look at this photo, would you?  See that tiny black blob?  THAT IS A RACCOON.  SCALING A FEATURELESS BLANK WALL.  WITH NO ROPE.  OR SCOTCH TAPE®.  BEING CHEERED ON BY EVERYONE IN MINNESOTA AND MANY OTHER PARTS OF SWEDEN.

raccoon scaling 20-storey building
Tom Cruise’s raccoon love child “Ethan” scaling a featureless wall

It took “Ethan” two days to finish the climb which included an overnight bivouac on a window ledge somewhere along the way.  In case you’ve never tried it, it’s no picnic bivouacking on a one-foot-wide ledge with no supper and no sleeping bag.  Mind you, clinging to the side of a building for hours on end using only your finger- and toenails is no picnic either.

And since you asked, rock climbs are graded via a complicated decimal system.  This climb was graded 5.15r and is off the top of the chart below for difficulty.  It’s off the bottom actually, but the climbs get harder as you go down the chart.  The “r” in 5.15r stands for raccoon, by the way.

grading systems

This next photo shows Ethan crushing the overhanging crux (hardest) move of the climb.  Not bad for a novice.

raccoon executing crux move on north face of UBS building
Ethan the raccoon on-sighting the North Face of UBS
“On-sighting” means strolling up to a rock climb you’ve never seen before and finishing it the first time.  In case you were wondering,
Needless to say, there are mountains(!) of images and tweets out there, posted by office workers on every floor of the UBS building, which document every inch of the journey.  Everyone was crossing their fingers, holding their breath and generally rooting for this animal, including wildlife photographer and lawyer, Paige Donnelly.
Exhibit A:
Below, Ethan was caught on camera performing a stretching routine before continuing the upward voyage, and was also thanking his lucky stars that he never got a mani-pedi before he went foraging for pigeon eggs.
raccoon by window
“As God is my witness, I’ll never eat pigeon eggs again.”
It all ended well though.  Ethan eventually made it to the top, was captured by the Wildlife Management Service folk, ate some soft cat food and was eventually released back into the suburbs somewhere southwest of the Twin Cities, and commenced climbing a 300-foot cell tower.
People went back to work; the Dow rebounded significantly.  Life went back to normal.

 

famous raccoon caged atop UBS building
Ethan atop UBS building, full of cat food and headed for a round of intensive neuroimaging studies before being released back into the wild

Scientists are busily hypothesizing what led the vertically-inclined animal to undertake its hazardous journey.  The leading theory is that it was bitten by a radioactive spider.  Or maybe a radioactive tick. Maybe it was the effect of exposure to environmental toxins or climate change.  Only time will tell.  I’m just saying we could be in for some tough times.  And some pretty tough raccoons.

If you think I’m over-reacting, check out this disturbing link pertaining to attacks perpetrated by a roving gang of raccoons in Abbottsford, B.C. in July 2018.

gang
Gang members caught emerging from sewer manhole in Abbottsford, B.C.

Like I said, Nature just doesn’t stand still.  Dr. Ian Malcolm, of Jurassic Park fame agrees with me, and I quote:

“No. I’m, I’m simply saying that life (raccoons included), uh… finds a way.

 

Next column: How not to repair a fence

IMG_1955

 

 

 

 

Cryptozoology Part II: If You Were Going To Trade Your Dog In For Something Else, What Are Your Options?

When we last met, I was going on about whether or not you should trade your dog in for something else on the basis of your getting tired of toweling it off all the time, especially when it’s wet. Options included another type of dog with or without water-repellent fur, or maybe a member of an entirely different species.

If you are opting to go with a different species, I’m going to give you some suggestions.

Here goes:

1) Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs (or maybe some other kind of smallish pig):

The footage that follows was taken right outside my office window.  I’m almost positive that this video captures a pot-bellied pig dutifully following its owner back to the car.  But it might be a dog.  It’s definitely not a Sasquatch aka Bigfoot even though the video is very reminiscent of your typical Sasquatch aka Bigfoot video: grainy, indistinct, over-before-you-know-it.

I personally think that stubby little tail is almost a dead giveaway.

Be forewarned: by all accounts pot-bellied pigs make for challenging pets.  They’re affectionate, smart, demanding; they get into everything; they’re headstrong; they can make a mess if left untended.  Wait a sec! That sounds an awful lot like a toddler!  Maybe you should grow one of those instead.

It’s probably faster and easier for you to get a pig than to grow a toddler.  But what if you like to surf?  Lots of people do: especially people who live near water. Do you live near water?  If you do, I just this minute realized that your dog is probably wet quite a bit of the time already, so this whole wet dog thing may be a non-issue for you.  You might want to stop reading now.

But if not, rest assured that there’s a good chance that you will be able to take your new pig surfing.  Some pigs love to surf!  They are probably the descendants of wild pigs who learned to surf after migrating to Hawaii from thousands of miles away (with the assistance of Testicle Navigators, of course!)

pigs on beach
Feral Hawaiian surfing pigs patiently awaiting next set
man and small pig on surf board
Hawaiian surfing pig teaching human being to surf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

surfing border collie
Border collie who spontaneously began surfing after observing feral pigs

2) Goats:

Now as we all know, surfing can be a fairly high adrenaline pastime.  So some people might prefer to trade their dog for an animal that is content to engage in a more chill activity, such as yoga.  If you are one of those people, a baby goat is just what you need, as shown by this simple equation:

Wet Dog + Baby Goat + Yoga = Baby Goat Yoga – Wet Dog

Yes, you heard me correctly!  Yoga with baby goats is a thing.  A big, trending thing, actually.  Nobody knows for sure where Goat Yoga started but roughly twenty states are currently fighting over bragging rights for the title of  Goat Yoga State.  (Actually, I’m lying.  Goat Yoga started in New Hampshire.)

Incidentally, Goat Yoga State can be rearranged to spell: A Saggy Teat, Too.  (Ed. Note: Dave Barry totally pioneered the technique of rearranging phrases to spell other phrases which more-or-less make sense.  I shamelessly adopted his literary device.)

I also threw in a comma that wasn’t in Goat Yoga State.  Just saying.

The baby goats don’t actually do the yoga.  They basically mill around in adorable baby-goat fashion amongst the people.  The people do the yoga.  There is a lot of goat-cuddling involved.  And nibbling.  The goats nibble on various body parts within range as well as any clothing they can manage to sink their teeth into, including  Lululemon™ activewear.

The absolute best thing about Goat Yoga though, is the comments that people are posting alongside the Goat Yoga video clips.  Especially the following comment (and its reply) found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvj6voiH5S0

Arielle Masters, who clearly has an inquiring mind, asked this question:

This isn’t an April Fool’s joke? It’s very cute – but do they ever pee on the people doing yoga?

Ethan Moreau, who is clearly your basic smart-ass guy, shot back:

Arielle Masters yes they do but they don’t mind. They also poop on them too. However the smell of the poop is very therapeutic for them. So they just leave it. Sometimes the guests poop on the floor with the goats.

This just goes to show you the trouble that can arise when you use pronouns in a way that leaves thing open to interpretation.  Who doesn’t mind?  The goats or the people? Do the goats poop on the people or do the people poop on the goats?  It’s unclear.  Exactly who is deriving therapeutic benefit from the smell of the poop?  Again, unclear.

By the way, a big plus if you’re considering swapping out your dog for a goat is that once again, if you like to surf, chances are that your goat will too!

goat standing on surf board
Surfing goat sporting stolen organic Lululemon™ PFD

That brings our tally of creatures who like to surf up to three.  I’m sure there are more. So I’m going to do an experiment right now.  I’m going to bet that somewhere out there is a photo of some kind of Cryptid on a surfboard.  Then I’m going to see if I can find that photo.

Five minutes later…

I’m back!  Sure as Jack’s your uncle, there IS such a photo.  Like all Cryptid images, it’s kind of grainy and indistinct.  We’re not really sure what we’re seeing.

surfing crow
Grainy, indistinct photo of what might be Bigfoot catching a wave and silently mocking a kayaking Cryptozoologist in front of him

3) Cryptids:

There are probably dozens of Cryptids that would make great pets.  Assuming you could catch one.  Like this thing in the gutter right outside my office window.  I don’t have the first clue what it is.  Large Guinea Pig? Rabbit? Hell, it might even be a sandbag, for all I know.  It’s hard to say because the image is kind of grainy and indistinct.  Can it surf?  I don’t know.

rabbit on sidewalk
Possible Cryptid taking five in the gutter outside my office

 

I could go on about Cryptids but I won’t because then we might get sidetracked into other unsolved mysteries/possible conspiracies such as: Area 51, 9-11, why so many US state names start with the letter “M” and how more than twenty-five washable breast pads (also called nursing pads) could simply vanish out of a washing machine into thin air, leaving the other laundry items unscathed.

A lot of these mysteries are completely ridiculous, yet some of them are strangely compelling.  When I googled “breast pads vanishing from washing machine” I found a UK site with inputs from other people with the same issue! There’s just nothing new under the sun, apparently.

Meanwhile, keep your dog.  Just go buy some more towels.  And pick up some more breast pads while you’re at it, in case you followed my suggestion to grow a toddler.  I found some excellent ones.  They’re made from organic materials including bamboo.  Guess what?  They’re called Bamboobies!  And the company that makes them is called Bamboobies!

This world truly is a weird and wonderful place.  And the Bamboobies logo is equally wonderful:

logo

this a picture of two bamboobies breast pads

Bamboobies also make yoga nursing bras.  I’m not kidding. They do.

I’ll bet the goats will love them.

Next column: The Worst Sound In The World.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cryptozoology Part I: Should You Trade In Your Dog For Something Else?

Here in Calgary it’s June, as is the case in many other parts of North America.  Calgary gets most of its rain in May and June, and consequently these are the months when I confront my annual issue, which is:  wet fur.  My dog Mickey has long fur and every time we go out in the rain, it gets wet.  No surprise there.  But it takes awhile to towel him off when we come back. Time is a precious commodity, so every June I always have to revisit my whole approach to wet dogs in general, and Mickey in particular.

From where Mickey sits, the toweling-off ritual is a great thing, because I take the towel in both hands and quickly swaddle his head in it so he can’t see anything.  (Except towel.)  He pretends to get all ferocious and will chew on the towel, growl at it menacingly and occasionally start barking enthusiastically until my wife says: “What the heck are you doing to that dog?  Whatever it is, cut it out!”

I guess I could just stop getting him all worked up when I dry him off, but he really likes the routine: it’s the highlight of my day.  Oops!  I meant his day.

I’ve been down the raincoat and booties road as well.  Mickey doesn’t mind it and the cats are OK with it too.  One or maybe both of them (the cats) will usually come to inspect the proceedings before we set off.

border collie cross wearing coat and booties
Patches, giving Mickey a pre-walk inspection, paying special attention to his nether regions for reasons known only to her.

But truth be told, it takes as long to get Mickey dressed in foul weather gear as it does to towel him off if he goes out au natural.  So realistically I only have a few options for dealing with this wet fur conundrum:

1) Scotchgard™

2) Trade Mickey for a dog with shorter, water-repellent fur.

3) Trade Mickey for a completely different species of animal.

Right away Scotchgard™ is off the table.  Everyone knows that it contains perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS).  Thank goodness the half-life of PFBS is just a little over a month.  Until 2003, Scotchgard™ contained perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) which has a half-life of 5.4 years.  So you only grow one extra eye with chronic PFBS exposure whereas with PFOS on board you will for sure grow an extra eye, plus a tail.  Last time I checked, Mickey had a full complement of eyes, and a tail.  So no PFBS for him.  Or PFOS for that matter.

Options 2 and 3 are not up for discussion either. I would never, ever give Mickey away, and this is why:

When we’re out walking, we occasionally encounter a three-year-old, so we stop to visit.  Three-year-olds are great because they will believe almost everything you tell them.  So I gravely tell them that at any given time there can only be seven Best Dogs In The Whole World, and that Mickey is one of those seven.  Their eyes usually go wide and they say: “Really?”  And every time I say that, my eyes go wide too.  Mickey totally is one of the seven Best Dogs In The Whole World, and I love him to pieces, even if he does mercilessly eviscerate every new toy that comes his way, to get at the squeaker.

dog proudly guarding a squeaker from a squeaky toy
Newly-extracted squeaker being guarded by one of the Seven Best Dogs In The Whole World

But Squeakers aside, I just realized that I haven’t actually addressed the question comprising part of the header for this blog: Should you trade in your dog for something else?  As far as I’m concerned you absolutely should, if you’re so inclined.  After all, it’s your dog, not mine.  My dog is staying put, wet fur, eviscerated squeaky toys and all.

eviscerated dog toys
You know who you are and you know what you did.

If you have your heart set on a trade though, I have some candidate animals in mind.  So this brings us to the other part of the header for this blog: Cryptozoology Part I.

Cryptozoology is “the scientific study of unknown animals about which only circumstantial, or at best insufficient, material evidence is available” according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

These unknown animals aren’t completely unknown though.  If they were completely unknown, we wouldn’t be studying them because we wouldn’t know about them.  Right?  So let’s just say that cryptozoology  is the study of “Cryptids” or critters that might exist, but we don’t yet have sufficient proof.

So maybe you should put Cryptids on your list of candidate animals.

Cryptids include things like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, The Toronto Tunnel Monster, The Mongolian Death Worm and any elected official appearing three days in succession within a 500-metre radius of the House of Commons.

20130204tunnelmonster

Unfortunately, most of the evidence for the existence of Cryptids consists of eyewitness testimonials, tufts of hair, toenail clippings, pocket fluff, grainy/blurry still photos, and short, grainy, blurry video clips.  But if you succeed in nabbing one, and take it home for a pet, you will likely become very famous.  (Keep your day job though.)

Below is a classic example of a Cryptid photo, capturing the mysterious Floating Red Oval of Mischief which has been spotted throughout the swamplands of Florida pretty much since Walt Disney was in diapers.

supposed cryptid photo

Actually, I lied.  That red oval is actually a red herring (!) and is just there to highlight the indistinct blob in the background.  The indistinct blob could be anything including tree stumps, a large man wearing a deep-sea diving helmet talking to a shorter man with his back to the camera wearing an ill-fitting grey jacket, and a fossilized Member of Parliament.

Clearly, the life of a Cryptozoologist is full of uncertainty.  And frustration.  And bad photographs.

I’m no Cryptozoologist but I do have some very interesting photos and video of my own to show you. They’re going to have to wait though.  It’s getting dark and I need to take Mickey for a walk.  I hear that the Long-Snouted Nocturnal Sloth Badger of Royal Oak may be on the prowl tonight.

Next column: If You Were Going To Trade Your Dog In For Something Else, What Are Your Options?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robots vs Sweden

An article ran in the New York Times a few weeks ago about some researchers in Singapore who set out to build a robot that could conquer “one of the hardest human tasks”.  Part of the article headline won’t be a surprise to you since I already told you the general idea.  But the other part of the headline was a surprise to me.  Maybe I should just quit dissembling though and reveal the headline:

Robot Conquers One of the Hardest Human Tasks: Assembling IKEA Furniture

I wasn’t too sure who thought that assembling IKEA furniture was one of humanities hardest tasks: the New York Times, or the researchers in Singapore.  I know there are lots of people who aren’t crazy about assembling IKEA furniture, but I don’t think it’s very high on the list of challenging tasks for humans, so I forged ahead and did my own survey of ten people chosen at random, asking them what they thought the hardest human task was.  These are the answers I got:

1) Building a  stargate

painting of a stargate

2) Repairing a space telescope

astronauts repairing the Hubble telescope

3) Underwater welding

two divers welding a pipe underwater
Divers on another planet, welding a submerged stargate on a May 24th long weekend and earning serious overtime pay

4) Climbing a mountain in the nude.

naked man standing on snow-covered mountain

5) Unicycling down a mountain: maybe the same one you just climbed in the nude.

6) Teaching a cat to read music AND play piano

cat playing piano
Cat attempting to learn the song “Memory” from “Cats” Broadway musical

7) Toilet training a cat

cat perched on toilet seat

8) Training two cats to use the toilet simultaneously

two cats using the toilet simultaneously

9) Training a cat to plunge a toilet

cat holding a toilet plunger
Apprentice toilet-plunging cat

10) Trying to understand what would possess a cat to insert itself into a paper tube

cat wrapped in a paper tube
Cat trying to be inconspicuous until its owners go to bed so it can pilfer sausages accidentally left out on the counter

I don’t know what’s up with all these cat responses.  Somehow I guess I just randomly encountered an inordinate number of people who happen to like cats.  I don’t blame these people one iota.  Cats are hilarious.  Maybe I asked the wrong people.  I dunno.  In my defense, I was in a pet store at the time.  But I also want to point out the distinct lack of people in my survey who said anything about IKEA furniture.

Anyway, for whatever reason, these researchers over in Singapore decided to build a robot that could assemble a piece of IKEA furniture, specifically the STEFAN chair, reasoning that this would use many human skills such as: planning, reading instructions, ignoring instructions, subsequently messing around for thirty minutes until your wife says “Just read the damned instructions would you?”, overdriving the fasteners and damaging the furniture pieces, swearing, and throwing the pieces around or possibly throwing something else such as a unicycle.

Actually, the group in Singapore are not the first group to construct a robot that can assemble IKEA furniture.  Back in 2013, a team at MIT built an “IKEAbot” that was able to assemble the LACK table.  Note that the LACK table is so-named because it lacks complexity: it has only five pieces.  Four of them are screw-in legs.  A baby hamster could assemble a LACK table.  Or maybe a baby octopus.

This reminds me.  Did you ever wonder how they name IKEA furniture?  I did.  I even wrote about it back in 1989, in my first year of Med School.  It was in the class newspaper: The Chronic Enquirer.  I think it was one of the first humor columns I ever wrote.  (I use the archaic term “humor column” because blogs hadn’t been invented yet.  Remember that the World Wide Web had just come out of Labour and Delivery in 1989.)

I probably should have quit while I was ahead.  But I didn’t.

Therefore, here’s that column, inside jokes and all:

secrets of the swedish furniture industry

secrets of the swedish furniture industry Part II

secrets of the swedish furniture industry Part III

Star Wars characters holding IKEA moose at gunpoint
Typical good, clean, Swedish shenanigans at IKEA furniture-naming fest: October 28, 1988

 

Grand Unified Theory of Dance Competition Medals

Shortly after they colonized Earth and devised the Theory Of How To Sort Laundry Without Anyone You Happen To Be Married To Getting On Your Case, Quantum Physicists busily set about trying to devise a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) which would merge the electromagnetic, weak and strong interactions into one single force.  The notion behind this was that if the GUT could then be coupled with the gravitational interaction (aka gravity), this would  produce a Theory Of Everything or TOE for short.  These two acronyms could then be rearranged into another acronym: GET OUT, as in: “Get Outta this galaxy!  That is one badass theory.”

richard feynman standing in front of a blackboard
Quantum Physicist Richard Feynman with a somewhat different haircut than the one he had in the photo on his Los Alamos ID card

But decades later, the TOE still eludes them.

What happened?  Well unfortunately, along with a large number of regular human beings, the Quantum Physicists got sidetracked once their kids started taking dance classes.

Anybody whose has kids in dance knows that it’s a cutthroat and hectic business come competition season.  Your kid might be in as many as six different dance competitions throughout the months of April, May and possibly part of June.  And if you have more than one kid in dance, the complexity of driving them all over the place and watching all the various dance numbers rapidly becomes overwhelming.  Even to Quantum Physicists.

densely packed handwritten quantum physics equations
Typical logistics planning for dance competition season

Then there are the awards.  Each competition seems to have a different hierarchy of medals that are handed out.  To save time, I’m just going to focus on the medals for the highest awards.  In one competition, first place would be a Gold medal.  Makes sense, right?  Gold was probably good enough for the Greeks when the Olympic Games started 2,784 years ago.  And it’s still used for first place in today’s Olympics.

picture of a gold medal for a dance competition award hanging on a ribbon

But in another competition, the highest award might be Platinum.  And in yet another one, Titanium is the highest award.  It’s so confusing, especially when you start looking  at the Periodic Table.

colorful periodic table

Recall that the Periodic Table organizes the elements into rows and columns according to the structure and size of the atoms.  The atomic number reflects the size of the nucleus: bigger atomic number, bigger nucleus.  Simple, right?  So there’s no way that Titanium, coming in way down at atomic number 22,  should take precedence over Platinum (atomic number 78) or Gold (atomic number 79).

That’s my point.  See how easily I got sucked in?  The same thing happened to the Quantum Physicists!  They spent too much time trying to figure out the transportation schedules for dance competition season.  And when they got done with that, they started trying to devise a Grand Unified Theory of Hierarchification of Dance Medals.  So they forgot all about the TOE.

But back to Titanium et al.  You can barely give Titanium away.  It sells for like $12/kg whereas you are going to fork over almost $30,000 for a kilo of Platinum and over $40,000 for a kilo of Gold.  So again, Titanium loses on atomic number AND price.  The only thing it really has going for it is corrosion resistance and a high strength-to-density ratio.  Big deal.

I feel like Titanium should be banished from the podium.  There are lots of other elements that could take its place, like Osmium (atomic number 76) and Iridium (atomic number 77).  They’re not making as much Osmium and Iridium as they used to, so as is the case for Platinum and Gold, you and your bank account will be parting ways to the tune of $35,000 to $45,000/kg if you want to score some Osmium and Iridium.  And don’t even get me started on Rhodium. Its price can spike up to several hundred thousand dollars per kilogram.  I swear on Warren Buffet’s money clip that I’m not making that up.

And there’s always good old Ununennium (aka Eka-Francium).  Ununennium, at atomic number 119, hangs out way, way up there in the Periodic Table, on the Island of Stability, where all the Chartered Accountants first settled when they came to Earth.  (The Quantum Physicists settled in LA.)  Trouble is, it costs several billion dollars per atom, so that would make for some pretty small medals.  Plus who can pronounce it?

Dance Competition Judge: “And the High Unending Award goes to…Sorry I mean High Unununennui Award…Whoops! There I go again!  The High Underwearennium Award…Crap!  One more time.  The High Ununennium Award for Lyrical Dance goes to entry number 187 for: Badass Theory!

Audience: Wild applause and odd biphasic hooting sounds.

Really, at the end of the day, most metals (including Silver!) look similar: silvery, greyish or greyish-blue.

stack of titanium rods
Titanium rods

 

crystals of platinum metal
Platinum crystals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

beautiful osmium crystal formation
Weird-looking thing made of pure osmium

Even Theodore Gray, author of the best-selling book The Elements would admit that most of the metallic elements look alike.  I think he even says that somewhere, maybe page 123, but don’t quote me.

photo of the cover of Theodore Gray's book: THe Elements
Don’t get me wrong.  This is an excellent book.  If you’re into Chemistry.  Not that I’m biased

So maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.  Maybe no one besides me cares how the blazes a dance competition chooses to name its medals.  The kids in dance work darned hard.  They deserve those awards no matter what they’re called.

The Quantum Physicists need to get back to work devising a TOE.  I obviously need to get a life. And I will, as soon as I check whether hierarchification is even a word.  I feel like it should be.

Next column: Robot successfully performs one of the hardest human tasks

 

 

 

Bird Brains

In the last few years I’ve noticed that there is no originality in journalism any more.  At least in the magazines that I poke my nose into.  Yes, I still read words printed on paper, bound into booklets called magazines.  These magazines are mailed to me every month or so. Unless someone scoffs them before they make their way into my mailbox.  Which happens occasionally.  A lack of integrity among mail carriers has developed in parallel with a lack of journalistic originality.  We live in a troublesome age.

I read Popular Science, Scientific American and National Geographic.  Back in the 80’s I would dread the arrival of Scientific American, because it was approximately an inch thick and it would take me about two weeks to read one issue. Now most of the articles are no longer than three or four pages, and many of them have a distinct political slant.

I’m trying to figure out why National Geographic is still called National Geographic.  It used to be about an inch thick and had lots of maps in it.  And pictures of people, roads, buildings, animals, fish and birds.  Now it’s a lot harder to see the connection to Geography in some of the articles, and many of them have a distinct political slant.

I guess you could say I’m disillusioned with both Scientific American and National Geographic.  Or maybe disappointed.

On the other hand,  I’m not disillusioned or disappointed with Popular Science.  So I’m stopping here briefly to wonder if instead I could say that I’m illusioned or appointed with Popular Science.  Probably not.  English can be tricky that way.

I think I’ll just say I’m pretty stoked on Popular Science.  For starters, it was never an inch thick.  And many of the articles have to do with things that a) go really fast b) look super-complicated c) might involve serious amounts of electricity or d) are just generally dangerous to play with.

Anyway, getting back to the lack of originality in journalism, I’ve noticed that if one of the three magazines I just mentioned, such as National Geographic, was to run an article about a topic such as why the hierarchy of medals handed out in dance competitions doesn’t make any sense from a Chemistry standpoint, then sure as shootin’ that same topic will be covered a month or two later in one or both of the other two magazines I just mentioned.

picture of a gold medal for a dance competition award hanging on a ribbon
Dance competition medal

I don’t have the space here to get into this whole dance medal hierarchy/Chemistry thing because I really want to talk about Ornithology, and in particular I want to talk about the intelligence of birds.

giggling man with large parrot perched on his shoulder
Ornithologist (left) looking quite pleased with career choice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birds are smart.

Take your basic pigeons for example.  If a pigeon runs across one of those fake plastic owls it will figure out in pretty short order that that owl is bogus.  Meanwhile you shelled out how much for thing. $29.95?  No bird would pay $29.95 for a sham owl. That’s for sure.

And what about this? Just recently I was musing out loud about Normal versus Lognormal statistical distributions and my parrot suddenly chimed in:

Parrot: “No. Remember that the standard deviation is MULTIPLICATIVE in Lognormal distributions and ADDITIVE in Normal distributions.”

Me: “Shit!  You’re right.  What was I thinking?”

Parrot: “I dunno.  May I have another cracker?”

Me: “Yes, if you can answer this riddle:  What did the mathematician say when he lost his parrot?”

Parrot: “Polygon.”

See what I mean?  That is one smart bird.

I probably made that whole conversation up.  I don’t actually have a parrot, but I do have a dog and two cats.  None of them can talk.  And at this point, if I got a parrot to talk to, the thing would likely outlive me. But I’m getting off topic here.

My point is that bird brains are getting lots of air time lately.  Earlier this year, both National Geographic AND Popular Science ran articles discussing the intelligence of birds.  Coincidence?  I think not.  This is a perfect example of the current lack of originality in journalism.  You thought I was kidding.  And bloggers are even worse because they just pick up the stuff that the magazines are copying from each other and replay that to their followers.  All fifty-six of them.

The February 2018 National Geographic article entitled: “Think ‘Birdbrain’ Is an Insult? Think Again”  had all kinds of great stuff in it though, including a tool-making cockatoo named Figaro and another expert puzzle-solving cockatoo named Muppet, who was described as ” a little, focused engineer”.  (If I ever get another pet I think I will name it Muppet.  Even if it’s an iguana or worse yet, a Komodo Dragon.)

There was also mention of some crows in Seattle who began bringing dozens of trinkets to an 8-year old girl and her brother after they started laying out crow snacks (in the form of dog kibble) in their back yard.  The trinkets included Lego pieces, tiny gears, lightbulbs, a tiny Waldo (maybe he’s in the photo below, maybe not), a tube of Crazy Glue, the rubbery insert that I lost from one of my earbuds last year, a discarded intracardiac pacemaker electrode,  a small plastic squid (not shown) and a Wenger 16999 knife (also not shown).  Note that the crows had to team up to bestow the Wenger, as it weighs approximately seven pounds.

cockatoo nibbling on a piece of cardboard in order to make a tool
Cockatoo constructing primitive slide rule
trinkets brought as gifts by crows
Trinkets bestowed on two children in Seattle by a bunch of crows who are partial to dog kibble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As if that wasn’t enough, Popular Science followed suit by devoting their entire Spring 2018 issue to intelligence of all sorts: human, animal, robot, car and sentient public washrooms.  The cover featured a crow that was reputed to be smarter than your 5th grader. On page 104 of that issue, I also learned that crows and maybe corvids in general  hold funerals for their departed.

With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe: Quoth the raven:”Nevermore” !

picture of a crow hoilding a pencil in its beak
Crow gloating after finishing the SAT in three hours and twenty-seven minutes

This is really great and all, but the best thing I ran across pertaining to birds is some recent research that has determined that birds can see the magnetic field of the Earth.  This may be due to special proteins in their retina called cryptochromes.  Cryptochrome comes from the Greek meaning “special protein in the retina”.

With the help of cryptochromes, magnetic fields are visible to the birds in the presence of certain wavelengths of blue light.  This is due to Quantum Coherence, which may occur whenever a quantum physicist utters a coherent sentence understandable by normal human beings including, but not limited to, Ornithologists.  But Quantum Coherence also occurs whenever wave functions “cohere” or have the same phase.

Here is what some theoretical and computational biophysicists think the sky might look like to migrating birds, thanks to Quantum Coherence:

road sign pointing to Reykjavik

I’m kidding.  This is actually what the biophysicists think the sky might look like to migrating birds, especially owls:

 

hooters written in skywriting

No. I’m kidding again.

Seriously, I am really and for true about to show you a picture of what the biophysicists think that birds might see.  But first I have to swear on this real picture from the Los Alamos ID badge of iconic quantum physicist and super-genius Richard “Dick” Feynman, that I’m not going to show you another fake picture.

picture of the Los Alamos ID badge of quantum physicist Richard "Dick" Feynman
Richard Feynman as a youth, smirking after he finished the SAT in 23 minutes and 12 seconds

Here we go with the real picture.  The top series of images somehow represent magnetic fields and the bottom series is the superposition of the magnetic fields onto the bird’s field of vision:

magnetic fields superimposed on blue sky

All the bird has to do is keep itself oriented to the desired pattern of brightness.  Pretty amazing huh? What is even more amazing is that other creatures besides birds can detect magnetic fields.  Alert readers will recall that dogs exhibit a preference for facing north when they poop.  And some birds will also help dogs get their “bathroom bearings”:

parakeet sitting on nose of golden Labrador Retriever
Parakeet whispering to dog: “The bathroom is over there to your right.”

We may not understand them, but we should take our hats off to all the Quantum Physicists of this world, and also to the ones on the Home World of Quantum Physicists.

Better living through Quantum Coherence!

Next column: Robot successfully performs one of the hardest human tasks