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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: August 4, 2007


EMPLOYEES OF STAPLES in Chambersburg, PA. used to spend hours running around the warehouse picking up, from different racks, the nonstop flood of customer orders. Now 150 little orange robots, 2ft high by 3ft long, trek laser-directed along a blue beam to lift the racks, cart them to a central point, and then return them. Overall average daily output is up 60% — from 13,000 orders to 18,000. ”The robots pretty much take care of themselves” says Fast Company magazine. “When they run low on power, they head to battery-charging terminals or, as warehouse personnel say, ‘They get themselves a drink of water.’” Staples is custom-designing a new warehouse for robots in Denver.

FOR HOW MANY YEARS have we been reading about the personal jetpack that will enable us to fly around without needing a plane? Actually, it was in 1953 that Bell Lab built the first rocket belt, but the problem now is the same as it was then — the need for a device weighing 100lbs which even then would only stay aloft for less than a minute. Now Colorado-based Jetpack International claims to be almost ready with the T73 Turbine which runs on jet fuel, costs $200,000 and can stay aloft for as much as 19 minutes. JI’s founder Troy Widgery promises: “With 19 minutes you can take things slower. You aren’t spending the whole flight thinking about where to land.”

DON’T BE FOOLED BY what appears to be an attractive offer from the Folio Society for two books for $9.95 (one of them the magnificent Audubon Birds) as long as you buy three other books. The initial package is so heavy it would cost you at least $20 to mail it back and the other books on offer are so exorbitantly priced that your ‘bargain’ offer will end up costing you more than $150. For example, Folio’s cheapest book, The Devil’s Dictionary, is priced at $34.95 but is available on Amazon for $13.75 new, or $4.75 used; Folio asks $54.95 for John Keay’s The Spice Route (Amazon: $21 new, $11.70 used); and Folio’s most expensive, Hans Andersen’s Complete Tales for $129.95 (Amazon $20).

“The simple truth is that the World Bank is not the ‘World ‘ Bank at all but an instrument by which the western countries seek to exert even greater control over the world economy than they can do through the so-called international free market…. The US. is now a debtor to China. Let the power to appoint the head of the World Bank therefore be wrested from the debtor and given to the debtor’s creditor” — Cameron Duodo in the Weekly Guardian

SOMEWHERE AT THE BOTTOM of the ocean, 11 miles off the Irish coast are millions of dollars worth of paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and Monet—all hopefully preserved in lead cylinders. They went down with the liner Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat during WW1 along with their guardian, Sir Hugh Lane, director of the National Gallery of Ireland. (along with 11 other victims) and if the cylinders are watertight maybe the Old Masters can be retrieved when the ship is fully explored next year.

HENRY HARRISON WENT ON TRIAL at London’s Old Bailey on April 6, 1692 for what the prosecution termed “as barbarous a murder as any that has been committed in this age.” He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged a few days later. The entire proceedings of his trial, have been digitized along with those of 100,000 others, and all offer fascinating reading at A total of $1.6million in various grants produced what the (April) Smithsonian magazine describes as “an epic chronicle of crime and vice in early London” in the years 1674-1834, a 52-million word archive as enthralling as any lawless behavior you have ever read about.

DESPITE HAVING BUILT two million homes in the past 13 years, South Africa’s government, the ANC, has been accused of losing touch with the mass of its voters, creating “a class of super rich blacks, many of whom have links to the ruling party.”  Some in the African National Congress, writes Chris McGreal in the Weekly Guardian “are warning that the wealth gap is a time bomb for the country and the party… betraying the national democratic revolution with too much focus on creating a liberal business climate.”

THE GROWING NUMBER of wealthy American and Russian entrepreneurs who seek to buy British soccer clubs — Manchester United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Arsenal, and Chelsea have already succumbed — has gotten British fans worried. “This has the potential to get ugly” says Gareth Moore, a sports marketing consultant, “if the money goes to paying down debt rather than to players on the pitch.” Critics cite the case of Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer who, in 2002, bought Manchester United, but who in the past year has faced paying $167 million — about half its annual revenue — on the $1.17billion borrowed to finance his acquisition.

THE WILCOCK WEB: As awareness grows about the environmental damage engendered by the processing and transport of billions of plastic bottles of water, you can bet the bottlers are about to give us a million reasons why you should keep buying the gelded stuff (added herbs, flavors, vitamins etc)…. Did you know that the Wall Street Journal has a “classroom edition” that goes to 5,000 schools?…. London columnist Charles Moore writes that in the 19th century smoking was only permitted in certain places but once people started to smoke absolutely everywhere, “resentment at this rudeness grew. (Today’s) ban is revenge — misguided but understandable”…. LATimes subscribers are leaving in such numbers that they’re offering $1.90 a week deals to win them back…. If you type (_8^(I) and turn it sideways, you’re looking at Homer Simpson…. Who decides what the statute of limitations is, and why?…. Liverpool police are testing a 3-ft wide chopper which can be controlled from 550 yards away to hover for 20 minutes sending back surveillance pictures…. Bumper Sticker: THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT IS NEITHER…. Leopards menacing villagers in the Indian state of Gujarat are enticed (then captured and transported elsewhere) by the voices of goats and cows emanating from telephone ring tones…. NYTimes columnist Gail Collins say the best way to thin out the pack of would-be presidents is to have viewers vote one off the island after every debate…. Major pharmaceutical companies are researching the cannabis plant, seeking pain-killing and anti-nausea compounds that can be patented. Simultaneously they are spending millions on PR hoping to keep the plant illegal — To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it. — Confucius (d.479BC)

John Wilcock is currently visiting Mexico.