Posted in No Politics Friday on March 2nd, 2018 by Ed

(I recently wrote this at the behest of an editor who ended up being overruled from above, and now it has no home. I had enough fun writing this that I am not even mad it didn't run. The theme for the Listicle was ideas that sound laughable or insane but end up working well. I think my flaw was not keeping the examples tech-focused (which the Factoid internet reader tends to prefer strongly) and instead including a broader range of examples.

In any case, here is/was my first foray into Weird Useless Information writing.)

Some ideas are too crazy to work; others aren’t crazy enough. History shows us plenty of examples of bizarre ideas that produced predictably terrible results – early flying contraptions, for example – not every idea that sounds laughable is doomed to failure. Here are just a few examples of ideas or discoveries that sounded insane in theory but turned out surprisingly well in practice. You never know – the next ridiculous idea you hear could win someone a Nobel Prize.

Okay, probably not. But there’s always a chance.

The Turbine Car
A jet turbine in a family sedan sounds insane. But Chrysler engineers obsessively tinkered with the concept for decades, culminating in a 1962 pilot program of 50 turbine-powered cars. Amazingly, they were functional and fairly normal cars (Jay Leno still drives one). Drawbacks included poor fuel economy, a power lag when accelerating, and white-hot exhaust. On the plus side, it could run on literally anything that burned including trials with perfume and tequila as fuels. The project didn’t go anywhere, but a turbine-powered car proved not to be nearly as insane as it sounds.

The Nonsense Novel
Combining the disjointed, independent work of 24 different authors into a single hodgepodge work of fiction does not seem like a recipe for a best-seller. Journalist Mike McGrady hatched this plan in 1968 with the hypothesis that with enough graphic sex scenes it would sell no matter how bad it was. His experimental meta-commentary on the trashy appetites of fiction readers enlisted two dozen writers and resulted in the publication under a pseudonym of the crap-masterpiece, Naked Came the Stranger. It sold briskly, and the nonexistent Penelope Ashe was lauded for her vivid prose. When the authors revealed their hoax the next year, it sold even more copies. Turns out Mom wasn’t reading romance novels for the plot after all.

When Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman announced that he had discovered a new kind of crystal that defied all known laws of matter his colleagues literally laughed him out of his job. Shechtman himself thought that what the electron microscope showed him was impossible. When he dubbed his finding quasicrystals, Linus Pauling retorted with the legendarily sick burn, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” But in the end, Pauling was the one being rushed to the ego Burn Unit. After persisting for a decade Shechtman proved quasicrystals’ existence and described their properties, a feat for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001. I hope Linus Pauling had to hand him the award.

The 27th Amendment
As Amendments go, the 27th is not especially exciting – it prohibits Congressional pay raises from going into effect until after the next election. College student Gregory Watson wrote a paper for his political science class in 1982 in which he suggested that the Amendment, proposed in 1789 but never passed, technically could still be ratified. This thought experiment earned him a C from a teaching assistant who called his idea unrealistic. Watson embarked on a Kill Bill-worthy journey of revenge, pestering elected officials and going public with his idea. Since the public is not thrilled at Congress raising its own salary, the idea gained traction. In 1992 it was ratified and officially became the 27th Amendment to the Constitution.

Reservoir Balls
An enormous population and desert climate ensure that Los Angeles is always anxious about its water supply. Open reservoirs in a hot, dry climate lose millions of gallons of water to evaporation. To stop it, engineers proposed filling LA’s Ivanhoe Reservoir with plastic balls to shield the water from direct sunlight. After everyone got done laughing they realized it was actually brilliant. In 2014, 96 million plastic balls were tossed into the pool. They were effective at reducing water loss and contamination. The Water Balls were retired in 2017 when Ivanhoe was drained into another reservoir.

The decommissioned Dounrey nuclear reactor in Scotland left behind, predictably, a good deal of equipment contaminated by radioactive and toxic wastes. Searching in vain for a way to remove toxic plutonium from hundreds of miles of pipes snaked around the complex, one cleanup employee asked (extremely Scottish accent) “Did we try Cillit Bang?” That’s Scotland’s most popular all-purpose household cleanup spray. Turns out Cillit Bang worked vastly better to safely dislodge the plutonium, which was processed out of the wastewater. Score one for Mr. Clean.

Dolphin Rescue
In 1978 the San Diego Aquarium was facing the death of a dolphin that had swallowed a large piece of indigestible plastic. As a complicated and dangerous surgery was being planned, someone asked “What if we got a man with really long arms…and a LOT of lube?” Enter 6’9” octopus-armed NBA shot blocker Cliff Ray. He safely removed the objects and his example inspired the Chinese, in 2006, to repeat this trick with the world’s tallest man at the time, Bao Xishun. Sometimes the simplest (and craziest) idea is the best idea.

Phantom Bus Stop
Patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s are a constant source of worry for long-term care facilities. In their confusion they tend to wander off and staff often have considerable trouble finding them again. The Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf, Germany came up with a bizarre work-around: they installed a decoy bus stop in front of the facility. Since people actually use public transit in Germany, the confused patients often went no further than the bus stop where they waited for a bus that wasn’t coming before staff gently walked them back inside. It significantly cut down the number of walk-offs who end up in danger.

Turn the Wings Around
The Pentagon is a rich source of insane ideas getting the go-ahead, so when Grumman engineers proposed building a jet with the wings bolted on backwards, “Sure, why not?” was the inevitable answer. The X-29 was so unstable in flight that Grumman had to develop extremely complex technology to keep it airborne – the forerunner of today’s common Fly-by-Wire technologies. It took a truly awful aircraft to push engineers to take the next leap in electronics. The X-29 answered the call (and inspired a totally bad-ass GI Joe version).

The next time you have a crazy idea, don’t reject it too hastily. You might be on the verge of the next big breakthrough. Or you might just be drunk.


Posted in No Politics Friday on January 19th, 2018 by Ed

Recently I took my young niece/nephews to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. Despite being a local Institution, it was my first trip there since the 1990s. Well my first trip inside, anyway. It is one of my favorite end-point destinations for bike rides, so I am on the grounds regularly during good weather. But I haven't seen the interior in ages.

Museums are in a tough spot these days. Kids are so hard to stimulate and interest now given the overwhelming sensory stimuli available to them at all times. The MSI exhibits were starkly divided between the Old School ones I remember clearly from childhood and the New Stuff full of touchscreens, very loud noises, and lots of flashing lasers. You see the new stuff (not to mention the tablets and phones every child has on hand) and you realize the more traditional exhibits simply doesn't stand a chance. The enormous model train that takes up 1/4 of the main level at MSI was surrounded with parents whose kids couldn't have looked more bored if they were in church.

My favorite exhibit from the olden days also has lost to the ravages of time: the "hear yourself on the phone" thing. I remember being five, ten years old in the 1980s and finding that absolutely mind-blowing. And you would have to wait in line with dozens of other kids (AND ADULTS) to use it. You spoke into the phone for a couple seconds, waited, listened, and burst into giggles with OH MY GOD DO I REALLY SOUND LIKE THAT? and a good time was had by all.

Now of course there is nothing novel or thrilling about people hearing their own recorded voices. The idea that it even could be novel is incomprehensible to anyone under 20.

This visit took place as I am in the process of completing the first episode of Mass for Shut-ins: The Gin and Tacos Podcast. That has involved a lot of time spent recording my own voice and nothing else, then listening critically to the results. The way we perceive how we sound is rarely subjected to a lot of self-criticism, but I promise you it starts to get very weird after you do it for hours in this kind of setting.

For lack of ability to explain it better, it's like looking at part of your body under extreme magnification. You just…notice a lot. You notice things that have been there forever but you have never actually seen. And then you start to think, wow this has been here all along. Other people probably see it; why haven't I seen it before? Then you get paranoid. What else am I not noticing?

Reaching that point signals a good time to take a break.

The most interesting part, if you're recording something solo, is not the tone of your voice. You will very quickly get used to the fact that it sounds how it sounds. It's the speech patterns. I've done some light reading on this (there actually is Theory of what makes a Radio Voice sound appealing) and discovered that I'm a Riser – each complete thought ends with a rising inflection on the final word.

Here's the thing about when you discover something about a speech pattern you have – it's really, really goddamn hard to alter it. In my case I've been talking this way for 39 years. Undoing it is like trying to learn how to write with my left hand at this point.

We get used to seeing ourselves in mirrors at an early age. Those of us who are a bit older, presuming we're not entertainment industry professionals, haven't totally gotten used to hearing ourselves though. It has been an enlightening experience to say the least. I wouldn't describe it as life changing, but I didn't begin the process of learning how to podcast expecting that I'd end up subjecting such a basic part of my existence to under-microscope scrutiny.


Posted in No Politics Friday on January 5th, 2018 by Ed

After suffering a string of injuries to their goaltending position, the Chicago Blackhawks recently called up a man named Jeff Glass to make his NHL debut. The team hasn't done bad at all with him in the net, especially for a guy with no NHL experience.

It's a pretty unremarkable story – guy gets hurt, second guy comes in to play in his stead. The interesting thing, though, is that Glass is about to turn 33. All sports are a young person's game, and you don't see many 33 year old rookies. The more I thought about this while watching him play, the more it struck me as one of those "OK this is what people find compelling about sports" moments.

He has more than 15 years and 600 games of experience playing professional hockey, all at various minor or not-quite-NHL levels. He has, in the old saying, Modeled a Few Uniforms in his day. Presumably waiting his turn to get a crack at the NHL he has played for, among other remote islands of the hockey world, the Kootenay Ice, Rockford Icehogs, Binghamton Senators, and six different teams in the Russian KHL including Astana Barys and Lada Tolyatti. Those are cities that, even by Russian standards, are out of the way.

Nobody feels a ton of sympathy for a guy who made not-bad money (minor league hockey at the AHL and KHL level pays high five to low six figures) to play a game for a living. But what a strange, frustrating journey that must have been. Imagine how many nights he must have sat in motel rooms in Chelyabinsk, Russia feeling like he was on another planet and asking, "What the fuck am I doing?"

Anyone who has ever had a goal must be able to imagine how many times he delivered his "I quit" speech into bathroom mirrors or how many times he saw some random dude promoted to the NHL and thought, why him and not me? How many times did he have to talk himself into giving it one more try, one more month, one more game, one more season? When a minor league prospect gets past the age of about 27, it is universally understood that if he has not yet Made It he is never going to Make It. Did Glass convince himself that he would beat those odds? Or did he simply give up on his NHL dream and content himself with being a bush leaguer for as long as someone would pay him?

Either scenario must have made it feel bizarre to finally get that call a week ago, "Here's a plane ticket to Edmonton, you're starting tonight for the Blackhawks." He won that game, by the way. I don't suppose any of that night registered on him, and it must have felt like it was over in a blur – when you wait fifteen years for something to happen, it has to feel like you're underwater and in shock when it actually happens.

It's not exactly an important story, but in its own way a universal one. Achieving goals is about a lot more than our own talent; there are a hundred other "Just get me anyone who knows which end of the goalie stick to hold" guys that Chicago could have signed and played. In the past, Glass got passed over for a lot of them. This time, a lot of them got passed over in favor of him. That's life. The element of randomness tends to drive me crazy. I wonder how he convinced himself it was worth it to keep going, and how it must feel when it paid off.


Posted in No Politics Friday on December 8th, 2017 by Ed

One of the 20th Century's most famous photos depicts Lyndon Johnson taking the Oath of Office on Air Force One after the assassination of JFK. The (now-former) First Lady is at his side, with blood on her clothes.

Most people don't notice that the person swearing him in is a woman. She remains the only woman to swear in a president. Her name is Sarah Hughes, and she was just the third woman ever appointed to the Federal courts when JFK appointed her in 1961. She began her career on the bench as a state district court judge in Texas in 1936 – 18 years before women were even allowed to sit on juries in Texas.

Also, note that anyone over 65 was alive at a time when some states didn't allow women on juries. Is America great again yet?


Posted in No Politics Friday on November 3rd, 2017 by Ed

Three new pieces of writing up in the past week or so. I humbly submit them for your Friday afternoon reads.

First, a longer piece at Jacobin on the Anti-Rent War of 1840. This is the kind of stuff I really love doing: bringing attention to a relatively obscure part of history and making it relevant to today. I know the audience for this kind of stuff is always going to be limited – long reads and historical arcana being niche markets – but I'm glad there are outlets that still do it.

On Thursday, Rolling Stone ran a look at the new tax proposal that considers the unfathomable possibility that the Republican Party may be in such disarray that it can't pass tax cuts. Tax cuts are supposed to be the one thing they all agree on, an absolute slam-dunk of an issue for them. And yet…

Today The Week ran a piece aimed at bringing attention to an important new piece of political science research that studies what people mean when they express support for fake news and baseless rumors. Do people who say "I agree" to the statement, "Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim" believe it is literally true, or does expressing agreement simply reflect that they do not like Obama? Well, let's just say the results are not encouraging.



Posted in No Politics Friday on August 12th, 2017 by Ed

The posting frequency over the past 10 days reinforces that I am on vacation. Whenever I go to a foreign country, I encounter (surprisingly!) a lot of people from countries other than the US. Casual vacation conversation, of the type you have with people you end up seated next to on a tour, is one of my favorite things.

Yesterday two European mother-and-daughter combos sat for lunch on a tour boat with us. Holland and Spain. Their English was workable and, combined with half-passable Spanish on my part, we covered the basics: Where else are you going on this trip, what have you enjoyed seeing, and so on. As is almost always the case, the Europeans were on trips of six or more weeks duration. When we said 13 days, they gave us a look I've gotten used to from a limited amount of foreign travel. It's the "God, you Americans are so sad" look. The older Dutch woman said, "That is nice, most Americans only do one week." By way of commending us, I think.

Mind you, taking a 13 day vacation is only possible because of extraordinary circumstances aligning. I work the academic schedule, which means that I have (as most people understand it) "summers off." I don't really, of course, but it is true that I do not have to show up to an office daily from mid-May until late August. Cathy has the good fortune to work at an enlightened (by American standards) workplace that gives the now-rare two full weeks of paid vacation annually. How sad is it to look at a person who gets TEN WHOLE DAYS each year that they don't have to work and think, golly, what a lucky person. She must be one of the Rockefellers or something.

We've all seen the charts a million times about how much more Americans work, how much less we earn per hour, how many fewer days of sick and personal leave we get, and how many more public holidays there are elsewhere. What's confusing is why nobody in the world of politics even mentions this as an issue. Like, it isn't even on the radar. It simply doesn't come up. Although the blowback from the hard right would be predictable, part of me thinks a candidate for higher office could get some real traction pushing "How about we double the number of Federal holidays and legally guarantee every full time employee 2 weeks of paid vacation to be pro-rated for part time employees."

The biggest obstacle would not be the obvious pushback from the Chamber of Commerce types but the fact that I really think there are a ton of people in the suburbs who are terrified by the prospect of having time off. They don't enjoy any aspect of their lives except shopping so I think there's a non-trivial part of our population who wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they didn't have their daily work routine to rely on. But hey, no one's saying you would be forced to take the vacation days. If you want to keep wasting away in a cubicle every single day, knock yourself out. The rest of us would like to attempt to enjoy some part of being alive while you hold down the fort.


Posted in No Politics Friday on August 7th, 2017 by Ed

For someone who likes travel as much as I do, it is difficult for me to convey how much I hate talking to other travelers.

They end up falling into one of two categories: the people who have unlimited money and want you to know how many Exotic Trips they've made and the people who want you to know that they may or may not have lots of money but they do all their travel out of a backpack without a dollar in their pocket.

When I get roped into conversations or find myself in enclosed spaces in which I have to overhear them I always choke back the urge to yell questions at people when they're regaling their audience with tales of the absolute BEST time to go to Montserrat or how this may be nice but you just HAVE to see Angkor Wat or the time they were backpacking through Uzbekistan and a roving band of nomads gave them a lift on horseback.

What was it that you liked about it? Why did you pick that place to travel to? What did you do there that you couldn't have done somewhere else?

Yeah, I know, we all have the Tourist Gaze and there's nothing you can do to avoid being a traveler while you're being a traveler. It's amazing, though, how predictable are the lists of destinations people rattle off when they start playing this game of tourism oneupsmanship. Tell me about someplace you've been that isn't straight out of the condensed list of Vacation Bucket Lists by Conde Nast and I promise I'll be a rapt audience for as long as you want. Yeah, we all know that Prague is awesome, that's why everybody and their goddamn brother has been to Prague a dozen times because they Google "hip vacation destinations" and Prague comes up on every list (full disclosure: Some day I would like to go to Prague).

But I really like interacting with people and their experiences more if they're telling me something I can't find in every magazine on the rack and can say something more interesting than "Man, it's SO awesome" to describe the experience. Tell me about the Museum of Bunions, if for no reason other than to prove that you have some interests and aren't simply trying to check a bunch of popular Travel Things off a list without any real motivation beyond being able to afford it and wanting to tell people you did it.

tl;dr: people are boring and an old man is cranky.


Posted in No Politics Friday on July 28th, 2017 by Ed

I was into capybaras way before it was cool. You could say I'm a capyhipster.

The first anyone on the internet, myself included, knew that the giant South American rodents I love so much could be kept as pets in the United States was thanks to Caplin Rous, the original internet capybara. His owner Melanie Typaldos maintained (and still does) the blog Capybara Madness. Aside from having cute animal pictures aplenty, it told some really interesting stories about a day in the life with such a large, unusual pet. After Caplin's passing, Melanie has since acquired successor capybaras Garibaldi and, now, Mudskipper. Here is a picture of me and Muddy. This counts as one of the greatest days of my life.

Due to some health problems (which she has talked about on the blog, so I'm not revealing anything here) Melanie had a pretty long involuntary blogging hiatus. It happened to coincide with the rise to internet stardom of two new pet capys, JoeJoe the Capybara and Sweetie the Capy. These pets' owners are young Millennial types and understood (correctly) that a barrage of cute pictures on Instagram, Twitter, Vine, and other no-text formats would attract a lot of attention. Both have substantial social media presence now.

Melanie is trying to relaunch her blog and has expressed some frustration with the lack of success. The sad fact is, blogging is already "old fashioned." People are succumbing more and more to the lure of cheap, instant gratification without all that troublesome reading involved. Memes, short vids, pictures, and more pictures. That's what people under 30 today are conditioned to consume. Long-form blogging is probably…not dying, but definitely undergoing a contraction. There just aren't many people doing this anymore, not compared to Peak Blog in the early to mid Aughts.

An additional difficulty, as some commenters pointed out while discussing this on Facebook (tellingly, not on a blog), is the switch to consuming the internet on mobile devices instead of laptops and desktop computers. Most blogs just aren't very easy to read on a phone. Social media are optimized to the size of a phone screen and that means…pictures. Lots of pictures. Videos. Animated gifs. Certainly not strings of compound sentences.

I'm never going to stop doing this for the simple reason that I do it for no reason other than I enjoy it. But the internet is definitely going to see a lot of blogging disappear as people who do it strictly in the hopes of getting attention move to more suitable formats like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. There's nothing wrong with that, and I'm not insulting people who choose that. It's just a very different approach, and one that I think trades substance for instant gratification. That's the way of the world, though. Formats are forever evolving and information is forever being condensed. It can't be stopped, but that doesn't mean it's a positive development.


Posted in No Politics Friday on July 6th, 2017 by Ed

The Telegraph recently ran an update of a story that works its way through the auto journalism community once or twice per year: the "endangered cars of the UK" report. Don't stop reading if you don't care about UK family sedans. There is a larger point here.

Long story short: nationwide auto registration databases are used to track how many of a particular year and model of car are still on the road. And some of the numbers are pretty astonishing. Cars that used to be so common that it seemed like everyone owned one are often down to just a few remaining examples. The once ubiquitous Austin Metro, for example, saw 643,000 built between 1973 and 1981. Today 186 are still on the road – a survival rate of 0.03%.

One culprit, of course, is the legendarily terrible quality of the British Leyland years, which is a story for another time. Many of these cars were not only small, cheap, and spartan, but also put together with extreme indifference or even malice (labor strife led to stories of assembly workers welding glass soda bottles inside doors for shits and giggles). So, many of these cars that ended up at the crusher earned the trip there. At the same time, though, the "classic car" industry proves that people are willing to spend large amounts of money to keep shoddily built crap from the 1970s running. The compact sedans of the "malaise" era simply aren't sexy enough or remembered with enough sentimentality to earn that special treatment, though.

This is a phenomenon I notice a lot in architecture. There is always an outcry to protect "old" buildings (generally anything made before 1970 in the U.S. context). Meanwhile, when the concrete brutalism of the late 1970s and 1980s is slated for the wrecking ball, nobody cares. It isn't old enough to be Historic, new enough to be Modern, or far enough removed from our consciousness to be Nostalgic or Retro. There is a bubble, then between being too new to destroy and not old enough to save. And that's where we lose a lot of history, I suppose. In 30 years collectors will probably pay big bucks for those bland econo-cars now numbering only a few dozen, and architecture fans will be admiring the surviving architecture of the Carter years will be subject to some kind of revival and update.

The cycle moves more quickly with some things – music, for example. Take what is popular today and in five years nobody will have any interest in listening to it. In 20 years it will be Classic and ready to be enjoyed again. Fashion is much the same. You'd instantly recognize a Vintage item from the 50s as valuable while throwing something from the early 00s in the donation bin. If any of us are still alive in 2050, people will be clamoring for those ultra-rare original vintage Jorts or whatever nightmare costuming you thought was a good idea in 2002.

No real resolution here; it's just an interesting pattern I have noticed a lot lately. Things become rare in that interval between being New and being venerable. Why do we value the more distant past so much more than the medium term?


Posted in No Politics Friday on June 8th, 2017 by Ed

When America's economic and military power were peaking in the late 1950s, our government and military were willing to pour money into some pretty dubious ideas. Why? We could afford it. Everything gets the green light when not only is the national mood one in which the threat of the Soviet Union is the dominant concern but economic growth is averaging double-digit percentages annually. Sometimes in hindsight it appears as though we did things that had no real point just…because we could. Because why not. Because rockets and jet planes and big bombs are cool and hey we heard rumors that the Soviets are working on it and by the way did we mention the 12% GDP growth last year?

It is important to preface the following story with the context that in 1959 the U.S. was losing the Space Race and lagged behind the Soviet Union, albeit temporarily, in the development of large missiles. This was considered of extreme importance because of course every missile used to loft something heavy into space was also a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead or ten halfway around the world.

Perhaps eager to have a "Look! A success!" headline or perhaps simply for the sheer hell of it by the permissive logic of the Pentagon in those days, on today's date in 1959 the submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile at Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the many arguments in favor of doing so, the missile was not intended to destroy Jacksonville. Its warheads had been replaced with two mail containers filled with commemorative US Postal Service items to celebrate the first delivery of "Missile Mail." So, in case any part of this is unclear, the Navy collaborated with the Post Office to see if mail could be delivered by cruise missile.

Why? I mean. Why the hell not, right?

The Postmaster General enthused – with a straight face, apparently – that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." The Pentagon, however, admitted candidly that there was no possible way to make rocket delivery of mail cost effective, with each cruise missile costing the 2017 equivalent of over a million dollars. The stamps carried by the Regulus mail had a value of four cents each. It didn't take a UNIVAC to figure out that this wasn't actually about delivering mail. A more reasonable interpretation would be that, with Sputnik and the American failure(s) to imitate its launch, the US wanted to show off that it could fire a cruise missile 1) from a submarine, and 2) with comparative accuracy over a long distance. No doubt the Post Office enjoyed the publicity and all involved, in that wholesome gee-whiz 1950s way, considered the stunt Neat-o, but other than to stimulate the American imagination and send Russian surveillance personnel to bang off a dispatch to Moscow about a cruise missile there was no real reason for doing this.

Wasteful? Sure. At the same time, it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners.