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.

Heinrich_Rudolf_Hertz
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.

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.

cousins
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

References

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.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Testicle Navigators

Many times over the years I have asked myself the following question and I’ll bet you have too:

“How in the heck did the ancient Polynesians manage to leave their idyllic villages and navigate their rafts thousands of miles over the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii without the benefit of modern conveniences such as Waze, Google Maps and so forth?”

You don’t have to answer, but I can assure you that you’re not alone in your puzzlement.  Thousands of scholars have devoted their entire careers to researching that exact same question!  And thousands of other scholars have devoted their entire careers to researching what exactly the ancient Polynesians did when they got to Hawaii.  (Well maybe not thousands of scholars in each case, but quite a few, for sure.)

One popular theory maintains that they had to leave their idyllic villages and sail thousands of miles to Hawaii in order to get flu shots.

p1020524
Primitive Hawaiian flu vaccination clinic

 

This seems highly unlikely.

But we do have a much better grip on how these people got around their neighborhood, large as it was.  To navigate, they used all their senses, observing the wind, the birds, the driftwood, smelling and tasting the ocean, touching it to gauge its temperature, watching the stars and clouds, noting the interference patterns on the ocean surface.  And finally, employing their senses of proprioception AND touch, they also used their testicles.

I swear on the PhD thesis of prominent testicle researcher Timothy Ratliff that I am not making this up.

Tim_Ratliff

I also happen to think that The Testicle Navigators would make a pretty righteous name for a band.  Maybe even more righteous than The Gravity Waves which is my other idea for a righteous band name.

Anywaze, don’t take my word for it.  A chap by the name of David Barrie wrote a book on navigation entitled Sextant and on page 264 in Sextant he says:

sextant.jpg

“The traditional navigators of Oceania made up for their inability to measure longitude by taking advantage of the distinctive patterns of waves and swells, which revealed to them the presence and the direction of land long before it was visible.  When the horizon was obscured and its changing slant could not tell them how their boat was responding to the waves, they apparently stood with their legs apart, using the inertia of their testicles as a guide.”

pose
This may be a photo depicting the traditional stance of a testicle navigator.  Or it just may a picture of an older dude in a yoga pose.

I know that your minds are literally whirring at this point, but I want to stop you and point out that as far as I know, David Barrie is NOT related to humorist Dave Barry.  But he (David Barrie) IS the great great nephew of Sir James Matthew Barrie, the author of Peter Pan.

If you don’t believe David Barrie, you can turn to his source David Lewis, who wrote a book called “Those Twins Were Made For Swingin’ .”

Actually, I’m lying.  The title of his book is actually “We, the Navigators The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific.”

David Lewis

If you don’t believe Barrie or Lewis you can also turn to Harriet Witt, writing for The Whole Earth Review Fall 1991 in an article entitled “The Soft, Warm, Wet Technology of Native Oceania.”

Witt says this:

“To get a feeling for what the wayfinder is doing all this time with his testicles (ed. note: besides scratching them), it helps to understand ocean swells. These enormous formations are powered by distant storms and steady trade winds and shouldn’t be confused with surface waves which change direction as the local wind shifts. Swells march in consistent ranks across thousands of miles. The swell entertaining surfers in Honolulu is generated by winds south of New Zealand. If you can read the shape of a swell you can tell the direction and strength of the current beneath it, and this is critical because if you don’t know what the current is doing you can steer a perfect course and still get lost. The wayfinder reads the swell by sitting cross-legged and nearly naked on the bottom of his all-vegetable-matter canoe and feeling it in his testicles.”

No matter what, one thing is clear.  Whether their owners sat or stood, the testicles have been playing a key role in ocean navigation for a long time-at least until the invention of Saxx.

saxxBut what about sharks?  Did these well-hung navigators have any means of protecting their most personal private areas from shark attacks in the event of misreading a swell, losing their balance and tumbling overboard?

sharksuit

 

 

Yes they did!

Once again, Hammacher Schlemmer comes to the rescue. (Motto: Protecting Testicle Navigators From Shark Attacks For Quite A Long Time)

I quote:

“Only available from Hammacher Schlemmer, this is the sharkproof stainless steel chainmail suit that has protected testicle navigators head-to-toe since approximately 100 AD. The suit’s sleeves are worn beneath the tunic to provide two layers of armor from the elbow to the upper torso while the crotch incorporates a “trap door” design that allows freedom of movement for any or all navigational aids. The tunic’s extended length and front-split bottom is worn under the pants to provide double coverage from the knees to the waist. The pants’ built-in stainless steel belt sleeve extends the entire circumference of the waist for evenly distributed weight support, allowing one to wear the suit with or without the included military-grade jockstrap. Worn under the pants, the booties secure the feet with hook-and-loop fasteners that enable quick removal for secure footing even in the thickest bed of vegetable matter including coconut husks. The hood provides protection from frigate bird droppings for the head and neck.”

I had no idea.

Well, this column is winding to a close and and so is winter (hopefully).  I could finish with a string of really great testicle puns here but a guy by the name of Jesse Bering already did that in a Scientific American blog: Why do human testicles hang like that?

But listen.  it’s still not too late to get your flu shot.  I hear flights to Hawaii are on sale this week but even if they all sell out you could always take the raft.

1200px-Kon-Tiki
Thor Heyerdahl aboard Kon-Tiki, seeking a “destination vaccination”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Third Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide

Well Christmas has come and gone.  Again.  One minute it’s like, July 16th and the next thing you know it’s January 4th.  (Obviously that would be January 4th of the next calendar year since as far as most of us know, time travel hasn’t been invented yet.)

But anyway, January  proceeds to drag on for what seems like 83 days, followed by February coming in with what seems like 56 days, March at 41 days and so on until July 16th comes around again.  Then the rest of the year suddenly seems to vanish with a blinding flash of light, leaving behind an unidentified foul odor, and it’s December 23rd.  You still haven’t done any shopping.

So this year I decided to help you out and be proactive with this Christmas Gift Guide.

By the way, I was exaggerating about it seeming like January 83rd.  Everyone knows that January only has 31 days.  But remember that January is tied with March, May, July, August, October and December in that regard.

Speaking of the months of March, May, July, August, October and December, I decided to rearrange them to spell Charmer, Mabel, Stu, Tobey, Margey, Cud and Cujo, since I didn’t have anything better to do while I was waiting for this column to pick up some momentum.

By an astounding coincidence, Charmer, Mabel, Stu, Tobey, Margey, Cud and Cujo also happen to be the names of the co-stars in the upcoming Tyler Perry remake of Snow White, entitled: “Madea Takes A Job Cooking And Cleaning For Six Other Much Smaller People And Their Dog Cujo, Before Lapsing Into A Coma.”

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Madea pondering what to feed her dog Cujo (not shown)

I fully intend to get to the Gift Guide but meanwhile, if you’re looking for something else to amuse you, try Dave Barry’s 2017 Year in Review: Did that really happen?  Dave is much funnier than I am and he also won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1988.  I didn’t win anything in 1988 but in 1980 I won a silver tray for the highest marks in 4th year Undergrad Chemistry.  Zzzzzzz….

But on that note, as promised, here’s my 3rd Annual Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide for 2018:

Official Lateral Thinking Department Christmas Gift Guide

1) Digital copies of movies. (Legal copies, of course!)

Everyone likes movies.  Here are what I feel are several great suggestions:

-Digital copy of the as-yet-to-be-released Tyler Perry movie: “Madea Takes A Job Cooking And Cleaning For Six Other Much Smaller People And Their Dog Cujo, Before Lapsing Into A Coma”

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Six Small People Exhibiting Various Reactions Upon Hearing The News That Cujo Is Missing

-Digital copy of the1967 Peter Brook film: “Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade”

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This sounds like a fairly weird movie if you ask me.  The only reason I chose it is that when I found a list of movies with the longest titles I liked it better than the first-place finisher.

First place went to: “Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil, Mutant, Hellbound, Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead, Part 2”

I didn’t put that movie in the Guide because it sounded kind of lacklustre.

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2) Starbucksology Coffee Mug

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Starbucksology might just be a fancy word for Hipsterism, but it is actually the science of predicting someone’s personality traits, favorite animal, political preference, shoe size, etc, based on what they like to order at Starbucks.  It’s sort of like Astrology only with more options.

For example, someone who likes venti peppermint with chocolate mocha will probably prefer to work in a medical laboratory whereas someone who orders a tall, skinny vanilla latte most likely works in the accounting department of a medical laboratory.  Someone who routinely buys oat fudge bars from Starbucks definitely should NOT work in any accounting department because they are willingly paying about 4.26 times as much as a similar bar sold elsewhere.

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3) Argon Plasma Coagulator

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Argon plasma coagulator power supply
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Business end of argon plasma coagulator busily coagulating the surface of someone’s liver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Argon Plasma Coagulator (APC) is a handy gadget which can spray a focused beam of highly energetic argon ions pretty much anywhere you’d want to spray them.  (Man, I wish I had had one of those when I was a kid.) APC’s are commonly used to stop bleeding during surgery, so this is a great gift if you happen to be friends with a surgeon.  Especially if that surgeon has a propensity for leaving calling cards.

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You think I’m kidding but I’m not.  British liver surgeon Simon Bramhall is currently facing charges of “assault occasioning actual bodily harm” for marking his initials on the livers of two patients during their transplant surgeries.  He also faces the lesser charge of wearing a busy pink and purple tie to the ofifice on occasion.

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Dr. Bramhall will be sentenced sometime later this month.  I think that at a minimum, he should be ordered to perform 100 hours of community services such as erasing graffiti.

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Maintenance worker using argon plasma beam to remove graffiti

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4) Wenger 16999 knife

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This is a great gift.  The reason it’s so great is that it has 187 different implements, but the main reason you should get one for somebody is so that they can add their own review to the long list of hilarious bogus reviews on Amazon.  Here are a few examples:

-Excellent product. I found the Large Hadron Collider to be particularly useful on long hikes.

The knife has become self-aware, and is staring at me from the corner of the room.

-As soon as I found out how much my husband spent on this, I left him. Bad move. It represented him at the divorce hearing. I now pay $10,000 a month in alimony.

-This knife actually birthed Richard Dean Anderson for the sole purpose of starring in MacGyver, then it wrote, directed, produced and filmed the entire series on its own without a crew.

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5) Fulgurite specimen

A fulgurite would be a great gift for almost anyone whose desk at work isn’t already festooned with random crap like a sandstone sculpture, a Stirling Engine, small ceramic owls and plants.

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Not a picture of a fulgurite

I turned to noted fulgurite blogger and all-around highly-educated person Anne Marie Helmenstine PhD to explain fulgurites.  She says the following: “The word fulgurite comes from the Latin word fulgur, which means thunderbolt. A fulgurite  or “petrified lightning” is a glass tube formed when electricity strikes sand. Usually fulgurites are hollow, with a rough exterior and smooth interior. Lightning from thunderstorms makes most fulgurites, but they also form from atomic blasts, meteor strikes and from man-made high voltage devices falling onto the ground.”

I haven’t been around any atomic blasts or meteor strikes lately but still, I wanted a fulgurite, so my wife got one for me for Christmas from somewhere on line.  Some fulgurites look like coral, or a tree root, or a section of someone’s small intestine that has been worked over with an APC.  I think mine looks like a piece of dinosaur poop.

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Small ceramic owl feeling a bit sheepish because it is posing with a fulgurite that looks like a piece of  dinosaur poop
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This is just wrong somehow

The best way to display your fulgurite is to place it in some other natural formation such as a sandstone sculpture.  I happen to have a sandstone sculpture so I tried placing my fulgurite in it, but I don’t know.  It just didn’t work out like I thought it would.

The fulgurite looks more like that thing that I thought was Moby Dick in the snow globe featured in my last column.  That thing  turned out to be an Exogorth Space Slug.

Art is like that sometimes.

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6) Dress-up Bigfoot

I bought one of these to give to my son-in-law, at the same time proclaiming loudly to anyone who would listen, that I too would like one.  Who wouldn’t? And here it is!

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Dress-up Bigfoot  caught in wild state
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Dress-up Bigfoot sure as hell NOT posing for cover of GQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m particularly impressed by the fact that his basketball shoes are the same colour.

I’m sure you can think of hundreds of different uses for this thing.  If you can, let me know because I can only think of one use for it: put it in my office alongside all the other junk including a Lego Ghostbusters car, which made my boss peer at me dubiously the first time he saw it.

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7) Stirling Engine (since you asked)

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The thing sitting on top of the cup is a Stirling Engine, which is a closed-cycle regenerative heat engine with a permanently gaseous working fluid.  In other words, this is a bitchin’ little gadget you can set on top of a cup of hot coffee and watch for the next three hours until the wheel stops spinning. Note: your coffee will be cold at this point.

You can get it as a kit from Lee Valley.  It’s the perfect gift for a mechanically-minded person.  Especially if they already own a Starbucksology mug.  Or you could get them the Stirling Engine AND a Starbucksology mug.  And an oat fudge bar.

Look it’s only January 6th.  You have lots of time to consider your options.  There are still 353 days until Christmas.  Unless you own a time machine.

Rod Taylor In 'The Time Machine'
Time Machine offered for sale by Hammacher Schlemmer circa 1849 but hastily withdrawn after almost all the machines in stock vanished simultaneously with a blinding flash of light, leaving behind an unidentified foul odor