What To Expect When You’re Expecting…A Polar Vortex

Like any good science journalist, I did some research for this blog which mostly included checking in with the good folks at The Department Of Large Rotating Masses of Frigid Air. They named it that, hoping that most of the people who wanted to know what a Polar Vortex was wouldn’t actually bother calling in because they would figure it out from the name and save themselves some trouble. That strategy didn’t always work:

“Hello, you are reaching on the Department of Large Rotating Masses Frigid Air. Should I be giving you the assistance?”

“Ummmm, yes. Can you tell me what a Polar Vortex is please?”

Yes! Very excellent! Polar Vortex is great name for rock band. Also is name for large rotating mass of frigid airs. Like toilet in sky, above Poles, but flushing air not water.

“Above Poland you mean?”

“No. Above Poles of Earth planet. The Vortex sometimes move down from North Pole or up from South Pole. People blame Trump. Vortex maybe stay put lots of months. This time maybe until 2020 US Presidential election. Or longer. Cause very cold weather: worse than Newfoundland or maybe even Siberia. Or Minnesota. Nobody in Winnipeg notice this. Maybe even cause Fifth Ice Age. Nobody know for sure. Also sometimes vortex is breaking in two pieces.”

“What happens then?”

“Nothing. Except maybe Climate Divorce lawyers make lots money.”

“Hmmmm. Well…Thank you… I guess.”

” Нет проблем .”

As I mentioned, the Vortexes come in a matched set, but you never hear much about the South Polar Vortex these days, or any other days for that matter. This is because the South Polar Vortex (SPV) stays put above Antarctica. Here’s why:

The nearest city, Ushuaia, is 700 miles away, at the bottom of Argentina, but there’s not a lot going on north of Ushuaia for another 1000 miles or so. And it’s a bit of a sea kayak trip from Antarctica to anywhere else: there’s at least three or four thousand miles of ocean to cross to get to either Australia or South Africa.

Australia is overrun with kangaroos these days and the people in South Africa are currently focused on Maye Musk CoverGirl commercials.

And if I missed anybody close to the South Pole they are probably too busy to care about massive atmospheric phenomena because they’re still obsessively watching Bradley Cooper and Stephani Germanotta sing “The Shallow” and posting comments like: “We’re talking about Rocket Raccoon and Lady Gaga here.”

Gagga and Cooper singing

My point is that it’s just not worth the South Polar Vortexe’s time to go walkabout, so it just stays put and sulks.

On the other hand, when the North Polar Vortex misbehaves-as it’s doing right now- half the population of the United States rush out in panic to buy new shovels, long underwear, cases of bottled water, Cuban Lunches, flamethrowers and copies of We Who Survived The Fifth Ice Age.

what happens if it starts snowing and doesn't stop?

The other half of the American population remain calm and find something else to do, such as decide to let their name stand for the 2020 US Presidential Election. NASA is even reporting that they have been receiving deep-space transmissions from alien beings inquiring about the possibility of emigrating to the United States in order to run for President. Trump is apparently talking about building a wall around the Earth to prevent this from happening.

I mentioned sea kayaking earlier. Speaking frankly here, there was a time when you wouldn’t catch me dead in a sea kayak anywhere in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. The Southern Ocean is infested with leopard seals and I was laboring under the misapprehension that they are voracious man-eating predators-on par with Great White Sharks and Komodo Dragons.

I was wrong. Turns out they’re inquisitive, friendly, rather large- OK, OK- huge sea mammals who just happen to look like terrifying prehistoric aquatic reptiles. For the most part, the leopard seals still haven’t figured out that humans are good to eat.

Yes, they will try to eat your camera, if you happen to be an underwater photographer, but so what? They will also try to teach you how to eat penguins if you hang around them long enough. It’s true. I swear on Jacques Cousteau’s favorite regulator that I’m not making this up.

Jacque Cousteau's favorite regulator
Jacques Cousteau, age 187, showing off his favorite regulator

Fearless wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen had this epic experience with a large female leopard seal:

“She started to bring me weak penguins, then dead penguins, then she showed me how to eat penguins. She would offer me partially consumed penguins.
She started to take penguins and actually push them into my camera. I think she thought the camera was my mouth, which is every photographer’s dream. This went on for four days. And then I think she realized that I was this useless predator in her ocean, probably going to starve to death and I think she became quite panicked… So, here I came to Antarctica, to photograph this potentially vicious animal, to have this predator, this top predator in Antarctica, take care of me, and nurture me, and feed me for four days straight.”

I don’t think that every photographer dreams that his or her camera is his or her mouth. I must have misread that sentence. I think Mr. Nicklen meant that every photographer dreams of discovering that animals which look like they could eat your head in one gulp actually just want to feed you penguins. Repeatedly.

Anyway, all that aside, I think that the penguin below is thinking to itself: “Why in the heck did I ever listen to Mom and Dad? I never wanted to be a dentist in the first place. I wanted to be a tap dancer.”

penguin inspecting mouth of leopard seal
Leopard seal patiently enduring annual dental exam

Sorry, I seem to have gotten a little off track here. We were talking about what people rush out to buy during a Polar Vortex shift and I mentioned Cuban Lunches. I know you’re still wondering about that.

The Cuban Lunch is a delicious, calorie-dense chocolate-and-peanut ingot which was invented in Winnipeg almost 100 years ago, and was manufactured and sold in Canada for decades. It became endangered in the 1990’s and was hunted to extinction around the year 2000 but was brought back to life just before Christmas 2018 by a woman named Crystal Regehr-Westergard who found one of the original Cuban Lunches encased in frozen maple syrup while walking her dog in a dense forest. Crystal managed to extract a small sample from it (the frozen Cuban Lunch), and recreated it as a treat for her elderly mother using advance culinary techniques including messing around in her kitchen a lot.

Crystal didn’t stop there, but went on to buy the trademark, find a factory willing to start making the iconic treats once more and start distributing them throughout Western Canada. She is now reputedly also working on a way to recreate the famous Mammoth Burger offered by A&W back in 1650 BCE, on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia.

I swear on Mme “First, spray everything with PAM” Jehane Benoit’s eyewear that I’m not making up more than 79% of what I just told you about Cuban Lunches .

jehane benoit
Mme Jehane Benoit-coauthor of We Who Survived The Fifth Ice Age- and recipient of the Order of Canada for the invention of PAM cooking spray in 1959

Here is a picture of Crystal presenting her Mom with one of the no-longer-extinct Cuban Lunches, and to the left is a box of them in their natural state at the Safeway just a few blocks from my house.

I may keep a couple of thousand boxes of these on hand (twenty to a box) just in case it keeps snowing. You never know. The Fifth Ice Age could be just around the corner.

Those extra calories might come in handy.

What Is This Woman Smiling About?

Lord knows I’m not an art critic, but I thought I would add my own take on why the Mona Lisa is smiling. Not that 80,000 other people throughout history, many of them art critics, haven’t already tried to answer that same question. Personally, I think that the Mona Lisa is smiling because she thinks I’m going to fail utterly at trying to write a blog that somehow includes shoebill cranes, sea cucumbers (Genus: Holothuria), and also a book. Ha, ha! Little does she realize…

Shoebill crane patiently waiting to eat one or possibly both of the other items in this collage although it would probably prefer to eat the sea cucumber
PG-13 version of another book that looks almost identical to this one.
sea cucmber
Sea cucumber resembling orange day-glo mop that is being electrocuted




I’ll start with the book. No sense starting with the shoebill. We’ll get to it in due course. I just realized that the book cover is almost the same color as the sea cucumber! Weird. Anyway, the book is basically about how to lead a better, more examined life. I found it very helpful.

One of the things the author suggests is that instead of striving to be right all the time and to be certain about everything, we should try to just be a little less wrong every day, and to embrace uncertainty. We should try to remain uncertain and hence less judgemental about the motives and actions of others; we should be uncertain about our values and should always attempt to reassess them; we should also be uncertain about whether or not I should have strung this last bit together with colons, or used something else. Commas maybe. Definitely not hyphens.

My point here is that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we do. Take the shoebills for example. Where do they live? Are they friendly? They seem friendly. They look happy. ARE they happy? Are they related to cranes, storks, velociraptors? Something else? Why are they also known as whaleheads? Are they patient? Can they fly?

Received wisdom says that their large beaks or bills resemble large shoes-which is why they’re called shoebills-no suprise there. So whose shoes are we talking about? Paul Bunyan’s? Shaq O’Neal’s? Bozo the Clown’s? Great question.

I have to add Rosa Kleb’s shoes to that list though. She was the SMERSH agent in the movie From Russia With Love; she also tried to kill James Bond with a poison-tipped shoe dagger. By the way, SMERSH stands for Shoebills Mostly Eat Really Slimy Holothurians.

Don’t give me that blank look. I told you already that sea cucumbers belong to the genus Holothuria.

I’m pretty certain that shoebills would use that wicked spur on the tip of their beaks to spear the sea cucumbers before the spiky, edible sea creatures could inch away. I’m not certain that shoebills eat sea cucumbers though.

Rosa Kleb's shoe-dagger
You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but don’t try picking your friend’s nose-or your nose for that matter-with this shoe

Sorry, I got a little sidetracked there. Back to the long list of uncertainties surrounding shoebills: What else might shoebills eat besides sea cucumbers? What kind of noises do shoebills make?

So many questions. Thankfully I have answers. Some of them are even true. Most of them are true. Maybe they’re all true. I’m not sure.

Shoebills live in marshes in various African countries. They are NOT friendly. They’re feisty and pugnacious as hell. They will go toe to toe with a crocodile if they have nothing better to do. Or fight with their nestmates if there are no crocodiles around.

As adults they’re pretty solitary. I don’t know if they’re happy creatures, but they always seem to be grinning in the photos and video clips I’ve seen. This could be misleading though. The average shoebill is likely thinking: “Hey buddy, I’m going to put you off guard by appearing to grin at you but secretly I’m just waiting to rip one of your ears off with my fearsome beak if you even THINK about calling me a whalehead.” They’re most closely related to pelicans and herons. Since all birds are descended from dinosaurs, I guess you can also say they’re sort of related to velociraptors.

shoebill that looks like a velociraptor
Do NOT call me a whalehead

Apparently shoebills are super-patient. They will lurk in tall marsh grass for hours on end, waiting to lunge out and rip the ear off a tourist or nab a tasty eel, a lungfish, a snake, a duck or maybe a poodle. (No loss there.)

They make some great noises. For example, their mating call is a series of loud pops that sounds like a machine gun. Some describe it as terrifying. I don’t think it’s particularly terrifying; somehow I don’t think they mate very often though. Not sure why.

They can fly with a series of slow flaps interspersed with gliding. They can grow to be as tall as Danny DeVito. This one kind of reminds me of the Mona Lisa:

shobeill that looks like the Mona Lisa

They also like to do yoga:

shoebill doing yoga
Shoebill trying to get in touch with inner velociraptor

I want one…I think. It would probably clean out the rabbits that are racing all over our neighbourhood this winter. I might check in with Mark Manson first though. He gives pretty good advice.


4th Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide

I got sidetracked on the chinchillas yesterday and realized: “Holy Kadoda!  There are only seven more shopping days until Christmas!  I need to put out the Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide!”  So without further ado, here it is:

Whale Earwax Plug

I swear on Herman Melville’s beard that whale earwax is a real thing.  I’m quoting here from the site that I link out to down below: “a plug can grow up to 10 inches long, and looks like a cross between a goat’s horn and the world’s nastiest candle.” I don’t know where you can buy it but apparently museums all over the world have stashes of whale earwax cones.  Try the Smithsonian to start.  They apparently have pallets and pallets of whale earwax and they’re not going to hang on to it forever.  I know for sure that Amazon doesn’t carry it (yet).  Try again next year.

cone of whale earwax
Glistening plug of whale earwax looking a lot like a cross between a goat’s horn and the World’s nastiest candle.

What is it good for?  It’s a great gift to give to a Clinical Chemist, Medical Biochemist, Whale Researcher, Butcher, Baker or Candlestick Maker.  Seriously, researchers have measured the yearly variation in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in earwax samples from an assortment of whales.  They can correlate these levels to changes in the intensity of whaling over the last 120 years give or take a decade or two.  They can also tell when any given whale goes into puberty.  Maybe you could try that on your kids, if you have any.  Or you could just note when they (the kids) turn into horribly unrecognizeable humanoids.

B Vitamin and Enzyme Supplements For Your Dog

Is your dog gobbling rabbit poop voraciously?  Get him or her some B vitamins and an enzyme supplement instead.

rabbit poops

Rabbit poops are loaded with B vitamins and enzymes.  That might explain why my dog Mickey has gotten into the habit of voraciously gobbling the rabbit poop which is littered everywhere in our neighbourhood since fences were put up to keep out the coyotes, not that I’m bitter.  He must have had a deficiency of some sort.  He seems to be doing fine now, except that his ears grew two inches this past year.


Wine Glass That Holds 27 Ounces aka A Whole Bottle

Hic!  This is a great gift.  I forget where you buy them. Try Amazon.  Urp.  Or Liver Transplants R Us.

full bottle wine glass
Full-bottle wine glass.  Comes with free book of forearm-strengthening exercises.

Electric Nasal Irrigation Device

Three guesses where you can get this thing.  I’m not one for simply parroting the copy from other sources (exception Testicle Navigators) but I couldn’t resist:

“This is the world’s only nasal irrigation system that uses gentle powered suction to relieve sinus congestion without medication. During a typical 20-30 second treatment, the cordless irrigator’s battery-powered motor pulls saline rinse from its upper tank through one nostril, then out the other, after which it (the nostril?) collects in the bottom tank. In the process, the rinse flushes sinus-clogging pollen, chinchilla dust, mucous and small metal parts, instantly clearing nasal passages for easier breathing—it can even help reduce snoring.  Mostly because the person you give it to will immediately run screaming out of the house in a fit of sheer terror.”

sinus decongester
What exactly powers this thing?  Thought?  Americium? Cosmic rays?


Have you ever wondered whether it’s possible to turn sand and urine into building bricks?  Turns out it’s possible.  Egyptologists have finally decoded an ancient recipe developed by the ancient Egyptians, who as we know, were surrounded by sand.  The recipe had nothing to do with bricks.  It was actually a recipe for  Shoebill Stork Fricassee.  The Egyptologists promptly threw up in their mouths and forgot about that recipe entirely.

Meanwhile students at the University of Cape Town figured out another recipe to make building materials from nothing more than urine, sand and bacteria.  Apparently the bacteria ferment the urine and make a sort of glue which sticks the sand together as it cures.

This is actually a terrible gift suggestion because these bricks aren’t currently available.

But speaking of current, some solid materials generate electricity when they are compressed.  This is called piezoelectricity.  If these bricks turn out to be able to make electricity, I guess it will be called peezoelectricity.  Just saying.

bricks made from urine
Peezoelectric bricks?

Dyson Air Multiplier Fan

I included the Dyson Air Multiplier as a grand finale because it was designed using complex airflow simulations which can be graphically displayed.  This one below sort of looks like a jellyfish.  But a really excellent jellyfish, as far as I’m concerned.


And here is a picture of  an actual Dyson Air Multiplier.  It’s so powerful that it is sucking the hands of its inventor, James Dyson, into the vortex ring.

james dyson's hands being sucked into air multiplier

Don’t show this column to anybody who is into fluid mechanics.  (Yes, air is a fluid.)  They will just snort and say: “The guy that wrote this is an idiot.  That is not a vortex ring.” And they would be right.

There is a vortex but it’s in the base.  The air gets sucked into the base and jetted out through a slot in the ring.  At 55 mph.  And the reason that the whole shebang is called an air multiplier is that it shoots out more air than is sucked in the bottom. About 15 times more. Did I mention that it comes out at 55 mph?


The Air Multiplier has two flaws though. Well three, really.  First of all there’s that 55-miles-per-hour wind blasting into your face.  Then there’s the cost: expensive.  And the noise.  Supposedly it sounds like a jet engine taking off.  If you get one for anybody, give them some hearing protection too.

I hear whale earwax works pretty well.






Tips For Excellent Christmas Gift-Giving (How To Avoid Getting Someone A Set Of Socket Wrenches When They Secretly Want A Chinchilla)

Let’s face it: giving really great Christmas presents is a lot of work.  You never want to give someone something they say they want if you can help it.  You want to get them something they don’t even know they want.  Or something they secretly want but never mentioned to anyone. Or something they mentioned but it was so long ago that they forgot they mentioned it to anyone, least of all you.  Something like an Irish goatskin drum or bodhran for example.  (I think bodhran might be Gaelic for goatskin drum.)

So what I’m saying here is that in order to surprise somebody at Christmas, you have to basically hang around them, watch, listen and take notes.  You typically start that process on Boxing Day or no later than January 2nd, so that you have pretty much a full year to get ready. You might even start loitering around the intended recipient or “giftee” two or three years in advance.  I don’t know-it’s up to you.  (I told you there’s a lot of work involved.)

Irish bodhran and tipper
Bodhran and tipper

The other aspect of giving great presents is that you should also think about having the recipient open a premonitory gift first; it’s like a little clue about what their real, excellent gift is going to be.  For example, if you were to give the giftee a bodhran and tipper like the ones pictured above, I suggest handing them the wrapped tipper first.  You could even wrap it in a tartan dish towel or something.  (On second thought, a tartan dishtowel is pretty big for a little stick.  Maybe you want to save the tartan to wrap the bodhran in.  I don’t know.)  However it ends up, at least teach the giftee how to pronounce “bodhran” because I have no clue how.  (I’m lying.  It’s pronounced “bore-ann.”)

Just to give you a more realistic example of how this whole excellent gift-giving process might unfold, let’s say my wife Jeanette secretly wants a chinchilla for Christmas but she didn’t put it on her list.  She wrote: socket set, new bunny slippers and shoebill crane.  I have no idea why she wrote “shoebill crane” and omitted “chinchilla”.

socket set
Pretty righteous socket set

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing like a pretty righteous socket set when you need one.  Or bunny slippers.  Or even a shoebill crane or two.  These are side issues.  The real issue is that since Jeanette wrote “socket set” on her list, it’s going to be hard for her to fake being surprised when the time comes, if I cave/get lazy/become apathetic and just get her the socket set.  Unless…

Unless I get her a socket set but I also somehow combine it with a premonitory chinchilla- related gift.  This is where things get interesting.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking: (a) How in blazes is he going to pull that off? (b) How did he know that she secretly wants a chinchilla anyway?

So to answer part (a) of your question, I simply find a chinchilla bath house big enough to hold the socket set.  And then I put the socket set inside the chinchilla bath house.  Voila!  Diversionary socket set gift AND premonitory chinchilla-related gift!

empty chinchilla dust bath house
I swear on James Dyson’s wind tunnel that this is a chinchilla bath house

I know. I know.  Now you’re thinking: “What in tarnation is a chinchilla bath house?”

A chinchilla bath house is a small hut into which you put some dust-after you take out the socket set.  Then one or more chinchillas can furtively scuttle into the hut and proceed to wallow leisurely in the dust.  In case you didn’t know, chinchillas love to take dust baths to keep their coats clean and soft, and to relieve their stress.

OK, I’m lying.  There is nothing leisurely about their dust baths.  Not one thing.  Stop right here and watch this epic clip if you don’t believe me.


OK.  Now that you’ve cleared all the mucous out of your lungs from laughing so much, I know you’re puzzling over how in the heck rolling in dust is good for anything with fur.  Turns out that when it comes to chinchilla dust we’re not talking about just any dust.  We’re talking about a mixture of Andean volcanic ash and clay.  Surprisingly, it’s only a couple of bucks a pound.  Heck you pay more than that for butter.  Not that you would make a chinchilla roll around in butter.  My point here is that these critters like to roll around in dust from their home territory, which is high up in the Andes mountains.

And since I already know you’re thinking hell I’ll just use some house dust, you need to know up front that house dust contains about 20% insect parts, tracked-in soil, soot particles from cooking, burning candles, small house fires, etc.  And the remaining 80%-follow me closely here- consists of sloughed bits of human skin.

I know. I know. You just threw up in your mouth.  I don’t blame you.  But I don’t blame the chinchilla for not wanting to roll in someone’s discarded skin either.  Just saying.

Now we’re on the same page about the dust bathing.  And you also know why there is such a thing as a chinchilla bath house.  But I also know you’re in a quandary about how exactly dust bathing might relieve chinchilla stress.  Not bragging here or anything, but I’m out ahead of you on this too.   The Andean Volcanic Chinchilla Dust gets in the chinchilla noses and triggers long chains of adorable little endorphin-releasing chinchilla sneezes.

We all know that uncorking a half-dozen or so volcanic (!) sneezes feels wonderful, regardless of what rung of the evolutionary ladder you happen to be perching on currently.  By the way, now that I’m thinking about it, I might add The Volcanic Sneezes to my growing list of potentially excellent names for bands.

Godzilla about to cut loose with a volcanic sneeze.

Now we’re going to fast forward a bit here to the point where Jeanette puts down the socket set-laden chinchilla dust bathing enclosure and has just unwrapped the actual chinchilla.

Jeanette: “Oh my goodness! A chinchilla!  Thank you so much honey!  How ever on this Earth did you know that I have always wanted a chinchilla?”

Me (shrugging with eyes looking up to my right):  “I honestly don’t know.  Just a wild guess.”

Jeanette: “Your eyes looked up to your right when you said that.  And you’re right-handed.  That means you are totally lying through your teeth!  How did you know???”

girl gazing up and to her right
Woman wondering if she will get a chinchilla for Christmas.  Or maybe lying through her teeth.  We don’t know because we can’t see her teeth.  And this is a still photo anyway.

Actually, the woman in the photo is innocent although she might not be thinking about chinchillas. I’m the one lying through my teeth here about how to tell if someone is lying through their teeth.  The whole gazing-up-to-the-right-if-you’re-righthanded-and-also-lying-through-your-teeth thing turns out to be a myth.  But we can talk about that another time.

So anyway, back to the answer to part (b) of that question I listed up above here somewhere.  How would I have known that Jeanette might have wanted a chinchilla?  That’s the easy part.  We happened to go to Petsmart one day a couple of years ago, and I noticed her gazing longingly at the Andean mountain cavy enclosure and muttering: “Dang, these cavys are OK but I sure wish I had a chinchilla.”  (The store happened to be out of chinchillas that day.)

andean mountain cavy
Andean mountain cavy (Microcavia niata) anxiously hoping for arrival of dust storm

I immediately whipped out my phone, typed “chinchilla” into my list of gift ideas, right next to “shoebill crane” and under the “Jeanette” heading and tried not to look furtive.

Jeanette said, “You look furtive.  What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I quickly blurted.

My eyes might have looked up to the right.  But only for a titch.  I was thinking about the chinchilla.


Next column: 4th Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide

shoebill crane
Shoebill crane smiling and wondering if someone will give it to someone else for Christmas.


The Worst Sounds In The World: Part II

The man up top here might be hearing one of the worst sounds in the world.  I think maybe a bee flew into his ear. Anyway, whatever is going on, he doesn’t seem too stoked about it.  But the question is: are we talking about a Type I or a Type II sound here?  A bee buzzing in your ear may very well be a Type I sound.

Remember how in Part I  I talked about how I think the worst sounds in the world can be categorized into Type I (Neurological/Hardwired) and Type II (Situational/Generally Ominous)?  And remember when I told you that Type I sounds fall somewhere in a specific range of frequencies?  You don’t remember, do you?  You didn’t even read Part I, did you?  OK whatever.  Go read Part I.  I’ll wait here…

Type I sounds have frequency components ranging between 2000 and 5000 Hz.  Right?  And while you were refreshing your memory I found out that bee buzzing doesn’t go higher than about 1000 Hz.  That’s 1000 wingbeats per seconds, which is a lot of wingbeats, even for a bee.  So bee-buzzing can’t go on the list of Type I sounds.  But I agree that hearing an angry bee buzz inside your ear canal isn’t all that great, so I’m putting it on the list of the worst Type II sounds.  Meanwhile, here are the rest of my worst Type II sounds:

Driveway Crunch:  This is not the name of a new kind of chocolate bar.  It’s the hideous crunch you hear when you’re in a hurry and you back your new car out of the garage into another vehicle. Trust me, I know.  I backed straight into the the driver’s side front bumper of my ancient Honda Civic, now being driven by a teenager who wasn’t supposed to be parked on the driveway in the first place, not that I’m bitter.

’99 Civic now referred to as “Hubert” by its current driver.

You can tell by the expert repair job just where my rear bumper impacted Hubert’s front bumper. (That tape used to be red, by the way.)  The tape doesn’t seem to detract from the cred that the driver -whom I’ll call Andrew for the sake of argument-earns with his friends.  Apparently it’s way cool to be able to drive stick these days.  Anyway, like I said, Andrew wasn’t supposed to be parked on the driveway but in my defense, I think a bee or something flew into my ear just as I was backing out.  Either way, I will never forget the sound of  that crunch.

Cap’n Dave Swears Up A Blue Streak: This is the sound of a man I’ll call Dave swearing his head off as he hops around his back yard on one foot.   This sound happens to have been triggered by another sound, which was the sound of a nail being driven laterally into Dave’s right pinkie toe, when he stepped on the air-nailer lying in the grass.



air nail protruding from pinkie toe
See that little thing sticking out of the side of “Dave’s” pinkie toe?  I’m talking about the thing that looks like it could be the head of a nail.

Now I’m sure that there are a host of questions buzzing (!) around inside your head at this point.  What’s an air-nailer?  How in the heck did this happen?  Is it in any way remotely possible, I mean just even a teensy little bit possible that this man is wearing a flip-flop?  If so, why in heaven’s name would a man wear a flip-flop when he’s working with an air-nailer?  Especially if he’s had about 40 years experience in the construction industry.  Hypothetically.

Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you.

Actually, I do know what to tell you.  This is a perfect segue into the next sound on my list.

The Next Sound On My List:  This is the sound of a person you might be married to saying, “I told you to put on your work boots!  Why in heaven’s name were you rushing around the back yard in your flip-flops, trying to nail those boards back on the fence before it rains?”  This sound is also called: “I told you so.”

I hate that sound.

The “You’re an idiot” Sound:

Note: if you’re not from Ontario you can skip this sound.  No one from outside of Ontario seems to know how to play Euchre.

Sweet Euchre hand. If spades are trump.
If spades are trump, and this is your Euchre hand, you are laughing my friend.

Picture this: You’re playing Euchre (like watered down bridge but with fewer cards).  You and your partner are down nine points to six.  (The game goes to ten.)  You’re dealing and the nine of spades is up.  You hold the ten of spades and in desperation you pick up the nine, hoping that your partner has a hand something like the hand in the picture above.  Why did you make it spades?  With the nine and ten.  You should never do that! Even a baby chimpanzee knows you should never do that.  Anyway, spades are now trump.  You say, “I’m going alone.”  That’s even worse.

You’re probably an idiot.

Your partner Tim has no spades so when he hears your declaration, he immediately makes a distinct choking sound, indicating that you just blew the game.  For the third time in a row.  That choking sound is the “You are definitely an idiot” sound.

Ominous Mechanical Sound:

This sound can also be called the “You’re an even bigger idiot than I thought” sound.  This sound is the sound that the motor in your treadmill desk makes when its bearings are giving out.  Again.  You heard this sound two years ago before you had to replace the original motor.  It’s an ominous grating/rumbling sound, in case anyone asks.

It’s also the sound that makes you realize that you ignored the fact that after you replaced the original motor, your treadmill was still generating massive amounts of static electricity because you had been neglecting to keep the deck underneath the belt you walk on for 6-8 hours/day properly lubricated-which wrecked the bearings of the second motor.  That was definitely a run-on sentence, but who cares at this point? In your defense, the people who sold you the treadmill in the first place neglected to mention that little detail about lubrication.

Still and all, you are at least a Class A Dunderhead.

diagnosing a bearing problem with a stethoscope
Never throw away your stethoscope.  Even if you’re a dunderhead.

Penultimate Bad Sound (#5 if you don’t count the bee):

This is the absolute worst sound in the world.  I mean it.  It’s the sound that your dog Mickey makes at 3 A.M. when he has what I’ll call a: “G.I. Event” beside your bed.  In other words, he’s pooping on the carpet.  Again.  For about the fourth time.  Why did you feed him those old Shitake mushrooms for supper?  He nosed them suspiciously.  That should have been your first clue.

I tried to tell you I didn’t like those mushrooms

Anyway, that sound means that you will spend the next three days applying every detergent/enzyme/powerful oxidant concoction in the known Universe to the stain in an attempt to remove it.  If your carpet could talk, you know what it would be saying.

You should just get a new dog.  Or a new carpet.  Or both.

And earplugs.  Because…

“Is there an echo in here?”




The Worst Sounds In The World: Part I

Things have been pretty crazy here at The Department of Any Second Now I Expect Flaming Remnants Of A Rocket Engine To Come Screaming Down Out Of The Stratosphere And Land On My Head Or Worse Yet, My Tesla.  Not surprisingly then, like everything else in my life these days, this column is late.  Flaming rocket engine debris aside however, I’ve been feeling the need to fill you in on the worst sounds in the world, because I think I’ve heard a pretty fair number of them.

I came up with my own classification for these sounds and drawing from a pretty much bottomless wellspring of creativity, here is my classification: Type I and Type II.

I decided a long time ago that there are certain types of sounds that just don’t sit well with the human nervous system, or probably any kind of nervous system, for that matter.  These would be my Type I sounds.  My prototype for Type I is the sound of a metal lawn rake scraping across a stone patio.

When I was a kid, we had two gigantic chestnut trees flanking a large flagstone patio, and I had to rake the chestnut leaves off that patio.  And that was just the beginning, or the ending depending on how you want to look at it. I also had to rake the little blossoms in the spring, followed by the little green chestnuts that were jettisoned later in the spring, followed by the big chestnuts early in the fall (and their stems!), followed by the leaves in late fall.  Not that I’m bitter.

Anyway, for some reason, the sound of that rake scraping on the stone would go right into my brain, down my spinal cord and turn me into a quivering mass of jelly.

It's Too Loud
A Mom listening to her 10-year old ask her for the 1800th time if he has to rake the patio

Turns out that in 2012, neuroscientists at the University of Newcastle came to a scientific conclusion about what I call Type I sounds.  They found that there was a direct correlation between the degree of  unpleasantness of various sounds heard by test subjects-most of them human- and the extent of the reaction of the amygdalas and auditory cortexes of the test subjects.  These amygdalas and cortexes were conveniently located in the brains of the subjects.   (I was going to use amygdalae and cortices but I thought that would sound too pompous.) The amygdala has something to do with emotion.  For example, you feel sheepish or maybe depressed if you mispronounce “amygdala” in a job interview.

Long story short, the neuroscientists determined that these sounds were in the range of 2000 to 5000 Hz.  Hz stands for Hertz in honor of Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, the founder of Hertz Car Rental, since you asked.

Former bicyclist-turned-internal combustion engine afficionado Heinrich Hertz

Actually, I’m lying.  Heinrich Rudolph Hertz proved that electromagnetic waves exist.  He also invented dry cleaning.  But note that Hz is synonymous with CPS or cycles per second, a unit of frequency also used to measure how many bicycles were sold after the invention of two-wheeled bicycles by German inventor Karl von Drais, in 1817.  CPS could also stand for Clogged Pore Society but this is unlikely.

Karl von Drais
A feisty-looking Baron Karl taking his new contraption for a walk, before the invention of trekking poles

Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah.  These neuroscientists aren’t actually sure what’s so special about that range of frequencies.  Dr. Kumar, who was one of the researchers, explains: “This is the frequency range where our ears are most sensitive. Although there’s still much debate as to why our ears are most sensitive in this range, it does include sounds of screams which we find intrinsically unpleasant.”

Here is the list of their top ten Type I sounds (out of a total of 74 sounds):

  1. Knife on a bottle
  2. Fork on a glass
  3. Chalk on a blackboard
  4. Ruler on a bottle
  5. Nails on a blackboard
  6. Female scream
  7. Anglegrinder
  8. Brakes on a cycle squealing
  9. Baby crying
  10. Electric drill

I don’t know if they checked out my “rake on flagstones” sound.  They definitely should’ve.  I also wonder what kind of baby was crying.  A baby velociraptor maybe?  Sadly though, I don’t have any other Type I sounds of my own to add to their list.

Wait! Wait! Wait!  Yes I do.  The Vuvuzela.


Any of you who hail from South Africa know that the Vuvuzela is also known by its Twsana name Lepatala, which means “extremely annoying plastic horn which makes a noise like a goose honking into a megaphone while it is being strangled”.

The Vuvuzela is so annoying that it has been banned by almost every civilization in the Galaxy, along with that music tape-loop played by ice cream trucks that frequent the streets of Calgary.  That tape-loop caused me to seriously consider buying a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher.  Instead I bought a Vuvuzela and began blowing it in the ear of the driver of the truck when it came through our neighborhood every day of summer, ten times a day.  Not that I’m any more bitter about this than I am about the leaves.  Note: I might be lying about some of this.  But not all of it.  Also note: summer only lasts about three days in Calgary, on average.

Enough about Type I sounds!  What about Type II sounds?

Type II sounds are the type of sounds that immediately signal that something really bad is happening, or just happened.  A typical example would be when you and your cousin (let’s call him Alec Robertson for the sake of argument) are scuffling vigorously in his bedroom long after the two of you are supposed to be sound asleep.  A container of baby powder might be involved.  Suddenly a thunderous crash erupts, caused by one of you kicking the dresser.  To your uncle (let’s call him Uncle Jim for the sake of argument), that thunderous crash is definitely a Type II sound.  “Uncle Jim” comes barrelling upstairs, throws open the door and bellows, “What in hell was that noise?”

One of you meekly asks, “What noise?”

The other postulates: “Mice?”

“Uncle Jim” tells you to go to bed, enumerating what will happen if he hears that noise again.  This might include being skinned alive and boiled in oil, or worse yet, having to sleep in separate bedrooms. He stomps downstairs where muffled laughter ensues from all the adults.

A boy scanning the horizon for flaming rocket engine debris while his cousin looks on with interest

So I think we’re clear on the difference between Type I and Type II sounds.  Type I sounds are Neurological/Hardwired and Type II sounds are Situational/Generally Ominous.

But this column is starting to run a little long, so go eat some of your kids Hallowe’en candy and stay tuned for Part II.

Why are you still reading?  Go!   And don’t even think about getting into the baby powder the next time you sleep over at Alec’s house.  Uncle Jim (or maybe Aunt Connie) hid it (the baby powder) already.  Along with the knives, the forks, both anglegrinders and the chalkboard.

angle grinder
This is not an angle grinder.

Next column: The Worst Sounds In The World: Part II


J Acoust Soc Am. 2008 Dec;124(6):3810-7.doi:10.1121/1.3006380.  Mapping unpleasantness of sounds to their auditory representation. Kumar S, Forster HM, Bailey P, Griffiths TD.




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.”