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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: February 2, 2008

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted H.L. Mencken almost a century ago, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned with a moron.”

A REVOLUTIONARY WAY of powering ships via a central electrical system is being tested by Frank Whittle, one of the inventors of the jet engine, and said to be able to save up to 25% of current fuel costs. Electric drives were tried almost a century ago but abandoned because they were large and unwieldy. But modern electronics and smaller, more powerful electric motors are now making them feasible. Boeing is testing electrically-powered light aircraft using batteries and fuel cells as power sources but this is only possible with small planes.

COPYING THE IDEA of playing loud classical music to drive the thugs, muggers, and aggressive teenagers from its troubled downtown area, the city of Seattle achieved unexpected results. “They played that music and people started acting all fancy,” reports Michael Vandelay, who spends most of his time hanging around the Westlake Mall. Gang-bangers have adjusted their attire, pulling up their jeans over their underwear, he says, “and one guy even showed up in Dockers.” But City Councilor Peter Steinbruech told Seattle magazine: “It’s unseemly. We miss the days when thugs were street thugs not Ludwig-loving upstarts. Our city is losing its gritty edge.”

FLIRT WITH SCIENCE was the name of a recent competition set by New Scientist magazine which invited readers to “seduce the person of your dreams with a science-related chat-up line.” Many contestants offered variations of putting I and U together on the periodic table and sometimes the feeble: “Do you know anything about computers?”

Here are some of the winners:

“Would there be any resistance if I asked to take you ohm?”
“I’ve had my ion you.”
“Would kissing you increase global warming and damage the Arctic?”
irreversibility, or is it just enough to break the ice?”
“Hello, I’ve just taken part in the clinical trial of a new drug to help memory loss; could you tell me, do I come here often?”

NOT EVERYBODY IN RUSSIA has caved in to Putin. After a trio of highly-ranked academics published what has been described as “a flowery and obsequious” letter supposedly representing artists and filmmakers without their assent, writer Viktor Erofeyev described the letter as shameful, appearing to be addressed “to a sultan, not a president.”

Art News reports that 1,000 artists and writers signed a rebuttal to the fawning tribute, admonishing Putin: “Unfortunately, in the years you have been in power, there has been a revival of many manifestations of the cult of personality that was so characteristic of Soviet times and was associated with every Kremlin ruler.”

TAKING CALIFORNIA AS its model, European planners are thinking of extending CSP (concentrated solar power) along the desert shores of the Mediterranean and Middle East using hundreds of thousands of mirrors to create steam to drive turbines. The Desertec project, if fully implemented, could produce 100 billion watts of power — about four times what Britain currently uses — most of which would be exported by undersea cables.

MICE SEEM TO BE the great exception to America’s animal-welfare consensus writes Greg Critser in Harper’s after attending a seminar on what he termed state-of-the-art mouse colony management techniques. It seems that America consumes 80 million mice and rats a year for the ostensible purpose of making our lives better. There are “mouse models for every possible variety of human disorder.” Critser visited Maine’s Jackson Laboratory viewing hundreds of thousands of mice in huge, sterile, temperature controlled rooms, practicing anaesthesia, collecting blood from throats and eyes and learning how to break the mouse’s neck. “It’s all in your speed and smoothness,” says lab boss Joe Gile. “You want to absolutely minimize the stress and anxiety on the anima.l” When UC San Diego surveyed its legion of lab workers last year, it found one of the biggest unmet health needs was grief counsel for its staff euthanizers. The newest development in the current “mouse gold rush,” says Critser, is the fast-selling (for $350,000) ultra sound machine which allows researchers “to monitor the metabolic trail” of any drug.

THE WILCOCK WEB: The emblem of the European Union’s Nordic Battlegroup, a crack force of 24,000 troops, was a lion with an oversized penis which has now been amended after complaints from a group of female Swedish soldiers….. Sir Anthony Hopkins, better known as an actor than a pianist, is planning a world concert tour…. The U.S. Treasury made a $4 billion profit from issuing all those special state quarters…. Alex Gibney says his new movie, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter. S. Thompson, shows Hunter “as a tall, gangly but very shy unassuming character, not the fullblown extrovert he became later…” Hegel’s Paradox: Man learns from history that man learns nothing from history…. Reviewing some of the new celebrity brand vodkas (Robert Cavali, Sean Combs, and Jimi Hendrix among them), Fortune claims the Donald Trump one “lacks finesse….” Banned three years ago, British folk hunts still take place following “a scented trail,” and if they accidentally flush out a fox, it’s purely coincidental…..” I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can’t look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine.. I can’t emotionally cope with that kind of volume,” explains Jack Nicholson. “Sunglasses are part of my armor….” Pfizer’s new anti-smoking drug Chantix racked up $800m in sales last year but the drug’s label warns the side effects may include insomnia and nightmares…. To cut pollution, dozens of French towns have replaced cars, trucks, and buses with horse-drawn vehicles to collect garbage and take children to school…” An optimist is someone who thinks the future is uncertain,” declared somebody…. Virtual worlds are now showing up on Japanese cell phones…. Barcelona’s Syriaca Wine Company has launched reds and whites in aluminum cans but advises to pour them into a glass to reduce the metallic taste… Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, but small people,” says Fran Leibowitz, talk about wine”….. In Russia, the first Starbucks has just opened…. India’s Supreme Court has overruled a 92-year-old law that forbid women to work selling drinks in bars…. Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth. — Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)