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Born today in 1896: General James Doolittle


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Cereal rescuers and hardcopy acres

Here are some half-baked ideas that have occurred to me, and no doubt to others, from time to time.

Cruise snoozer

This would be a loosely fitting shroud made of a black gauze that would allow you to see out but prevent others from seeing in. When you’re on a plane, train, or bus you would drape this over your head when you want to doze off. Of course since it renders your face invisible you could also use it to pretend to sleep when you want to, say, catch up on some surreptitious ogling or gracefully terminate that tedious and largely one-sided discourse with that stranger next to you. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Cereal rescuer

No one enjoys finishing out a cereal box and having to pour all those powdery dregs into their bowl along with the good stuff. Add milk, and... yuck. But at the same time it would be a shame to give up and throw that entire remainder away. Working much like a pasta colander, the cereal rescuer would consist of a round screened hoop about ten inches wide with a single handle and a mild spout-like dip 90 degrees clockwise from that handle. The screen would be coarse enough to retain only those flakes larger than some acceptable threshold — three-eights of an inch, maybe. You’d just give it a few gentle shakes over the sink or a wastebasket and then tilt what’s left into your bowl.

Who can keep track of all the world’s despots as they rise and fall, play shell games with their ill-gotten lucre among various no-tell foreign banks, revise and re-revise their constitutions to perpetuate their terms, issue their ever loonier decrees, and jail more and more of their opponents? Not I. would be all dictators, all the time. (Note: as of this writing both and are parked, so I suppose you could make their owners an offer.)

New unit: The hardcopy acre or HCA

If you print out data in text form, a standard typing paper-sized page (93.5 square inches) will hold about 44 kilobytes. If we assume an acre measures 43,560 square feet or 6,560,640 square inches, this means that hardcopy plastered across an acre of land would display about 3 gigabytes. If your machine has about 300 gigabytes of hard disc storage available, for example, that would amount to 100 HCAs. All the material* in the Library of Congress? About a million HCAs.

* Assuming 3 petabytes (3 x 1015 bytes) for all its printed text, photographs, maps, movies, and sound recordings. Since that estimate was published a decade ago, you could probably add a bit more.

Newt Gingrich’s secular delights

I have a feeling this entry will be lucky to enjoy the shelf life of a banana, but here goes.

LATE UPDATE (July 18): I stand corrected.

As a bit of background for our non-US visitors and others disinclined to pay much heed to Sunday morning talk shows or political scuttlebutt in general, the following has recently been disclosed: Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, whose career nowadays mainly consists of promoting himself and periodically threatening to run for president, has at one time or another carried an approximate $500,000 balance on his revolving account with the swank jewelry retailer Tiffany & Company. Not to mention, at times, up to $50,000 on his American Express card.

There’s certainly nothing wrong in principle with living large if one is fortunate enough to aspire to such things. Heck, we’d all like to. But the embarrassment for Gingrich in particular is how remarkably these sybaritic hankerings contradict his longstanding diatribes against “the elites” and against all things secular, his general sanctimony about out-of-control spending, and his professed 24/7 dedication to the common workaday folk.

Now if the Gingriches should eventually tire of Tiffany’s offerings — or barring that, should we spontaneously warp into a parallel though still similarly Gingrich-bedeviled universe — here are some attractive alternatives for their half-million-dollar discretionary budget:

Gingrich Champagne
For one thing, maybe he and Callista could use some Champagne. Let’s suggest a Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 1990, Millennium 2000. At roughly $18,000 for a 6-liter Methuselah bottle, $500,000 would buy* 28 of those.

Gingrich Krugerrands
A South African Krugerrand holds one troy ounce of gold. But let’s not settle for those ordinary, scratchy old Krugerrands. The proof editions are individually struck with impeccable mirror-like surfaces and reeding (that set of closely spaced notches around the edge) that’s twice as fine, scrutinized for flaws, and handled only with gloved hands. Darn, they practically glow in the dark. As of this writing, his for around $2000 each; half a million gets him 250.

Gingrich Coffee
As a third choice, no late-night strategy sessions with Ralph Reed and Randy Evans would be complete without the very best coffee. That would be have to be Kopi Luwak — famous for its intimate but most essential pre-roast association with the Asian Palm Civet.

I understand the University of Florida has invented a way to cut the furry helpers out of the process, but nothing can be as good as the real thing. At about $320 per pound for one of the more interestingly named brands of Kopi Luwak, Newt’s $500,000 would stock his pantry with about 1500 of them.

* At least theoretically, since in reality they’re only auctioned off one at a time.

An Ambien®-proof CAPTCHA?

You know those wonky alphanumeric bitmaps that websites challenge you with to assure themselves you’re not an automated email-harvester, spambot, or some other soulless cyber-riffraff?

Well, for certain applications maybe someone could carry this concept a bit further so that you can protect yourself from emailing, twittering, or Facebook-updating anything you might regret later owing to any inhibition-numbing substances you might have consumed. Alcohol and/or cannabis, of course, but far more insidiously that sleep-inducing wonder pill Ambien [Zolpidem].

Go Fish

It’s just amazing what sorts of creative somnambulant misadventures people can get into after a little Ambien if they don’t hit the hay immediately afterwords, and — due to something called retrograde amnesia — how little they remember about it the next day.

Go Fish

These wouldn’t be impossible to solve, just troubling enough to require a touch of reasonably nimble web surfing. Better safe than sorry? I luuuuuv ya, man.

Three unusual afflictions you don’t usually hear about

Empty nose syndrome

Inside our nasal passages on each side there’s a set of three roughly parallel horizontal folds called turbinates. Since the early 1900s people suffering from serious nasal blockages have undergone surgery to cut away some of this tissue.

It turns out that the turbinates induce a necessary turbulence into the airflow through the nose and help slow evaporation, and that overly zealous excision of these structures can paradoxically make the patient’s nose feel even more stuffed up than before. This can be fiendishly distressing and has been referred to as empty nose syndrome. Treatment typically involves restoring the moisture inside with a saline mist.

Zero stroke (or cipher stroke)

Weimar Hyperinflation
This was first identified in patients by their doctors during the German Weimar Republic hyperinflation of the early 1920s. The constant stress of having prices rise so feverishly — at the peak of the crisis they doubled every 90 hours — caused some people to pass into a sort of trance and obsessively write down row upon row of zeros on sheets of paper.

The Weimar hyperinflation hasn’t been the worst, though. That honor belongs to the Hungarian version which maxed out in July 1946 when prices were doubling about every 15 hours.

Situs inversus

It’s exceedingly rare, but some people are born with all their major internal organs flipped horizontally so that their heart is on the right, their liver is on the left, and so on. Normally this doesn’t produce any symptoms and the patient only learns of this state of affairs through a routine x-ray or while being prepped for an organ transplant.

But there are partial versions of situs inversus in which, say, the heart is on the left side as normal (levocardia) with everything else flipped or the heart alone is on the right (dextrocardia) with everything else in the normal location. Either of these invariably give rise to serious circulatory problems.