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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: January 19, 2008

“If you program robots with all the knowledge of sexual technique, love-making skills that are in the Kama Sutra and every sex guide ever written, they would know everything. And they would be able to do everything that the most proficient human lovers can do”
— from David Levy’s Love + Sex With Robots to be published in May.

RECHARGING BATTERIES may become a thing of the past if the gigantic French Bic company proceeds with its design for portable fuel cells. For a company that fills millions of cartridges each day for butane lighters (not to mention 10 million razors and pens) fuel cells — which create a current via chemical reaction — seem a natural development. “An important strategic initiative” is how it’s described by Bic CEO Mario Guevara whose distribution spreads to three million outlets in 160 countries.

THE SWITCH TO corn-based ethanol has been described as “about as smart as switching from heroin to crystal meth” writes Richard Conniff in a Smithsonian piece amusingly titled Who’s Fueling Whom? Referring to an article in Foreign Affairs he points out that growing corn requires large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, and fuel, as well as making us dependent on a crop vulnerable to drought and disease. It’s already well known that making ethanol from corn requires almost as much energy as it produces, in contrast to sugar which is much more efficient. Almost willfully stupid, the US places a tariff on Brazilian ethanol (made from sugar) thus making it uncompetitive. And already the vast subsidies given to corn-growers has doubled the price of corn — causing riots in Mexico. It’s unlikely that Congress, long weaned on bribes from agribusiness, will take a longer view. Ethanol made from cellulose — such as cornstalks instead of the kernel — makes even more sense both economically and ecologically but, says the University of Minnesota’s C. Ford Runge, “corn and soybean interests haven’t spent 30 years paying campaign bills for national politicians to give the game away to grass.”

THE TRENDY PINKBERRY stores, which already have 34 outlets in Los Angeles and New York, plan to move into Las Vegas and London this year. Fast Company suggests that the yoghurt chain’s success is largely due to its image as a designer brand with its $500 Philippe Starck chairs. ”It ties into the larger consumer trend of wanting to pay a premium for experiences as opposed to products,” fashion editor Orli Sharaby told the magazine.

AN ECHO OF the moonshine days when thousands of illegal stills were operating is the current fad for home-distilling which has been described as “the gourmet-fication of America.” Already, reports the American Distilling Institute, almost 100 craft-sized pot stills are turning out bourbon, gin, and rum and the number is growing. It’s not likely the numbers will approach the thousands that were operating right after Prohibition, nor that their weekly output will approach the output of the big companies (Smirnoff, for example, produces 25 million cases a year) but, says one craftsman, “we are part of the pendulum swing in America to artisan food and drinks.”

CRIME RATES HAVE BEEN declining since the Nineties but the prison population continues to rise with 1.5 million in federal prisons at present and an estimated 190,000 to be added within the next few years. James Austin is president of JFA, a criminal research group whose recent report is critical of prison sentences for trivial offenses. A former British Home Secretary Douglas Hurd says ”Prison is a very expensive way of making bad people worse.”

THE FIRST MODELS of the new Tesla electric car go on sale ($98,000 each) next week just as Tesla Motors chairman, Elon Musk,, 36 is on Inc. magazine’s cover as “Entrepreneur of the year.” The designation is at least partly because, in addition to the automobile company, Musk is also chairman of Solar City (installer of solar panels) and CEO of SpaceX, an aero space firm that by 2011 plans to be ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. South African-born Musk, founder of PayPal which he sold to eBay for $1.5 billion, says: “The U.S. is where great things are possible.”

THE WILCOCK WEB: This month, Washington state will be the first to implant radio-frequency chips in drivers’ licenses in an experimental plan to speed border crossings…. Chinese contemporary art is selling for millions of dollars, propelled by increased collecting by adman Charles Saatchi who’s usually ahead of the pack…. And there’s a growing demand for Iranian art following the $601,000 sale of Farhad Moshiri’s crystal-studded map of the world…. Considering how un-amusing New Yorker cartoons are, you’ve got to have sympathy for University of Michigan students who are apparently being taught a course in humor by the magazine’s cartoon editor,  Bob Mankoff…. Good comedy is never frivolous. It’s based on human experience, on human adventure, on human feelings. So it has to be profound,” observes Mel Brooks…. A letter in The Week suggests that some of Britain’s rural post offices threatened with closure, should rent space in local churches which are usually empty…. Sue Grafton, whose 20th novel T is for Trespass is just out, says her career began when she didn’t have the money to fight a bitter divorce. She’d lie awake at night “and think of ways to kill him. But I knew I’d get caught so I decided to put it in a book and get paid for it….” “There are old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters,” goes the old saw, “but no old, bold mushroom hunters…..” Simple magic tricks such as how to make a quarter disappear and how to bend a spoon are explained along with hundreds of other things at WikiHow…. Contradicting the notion that the 14,000-strong Starbucks chain is putting mom-and-pop coffee houses out of business, Taylor Clark’s book about the company says there were 585 coffee houses in the U.S. 20 years ago and now there are 24,000 (10,000 of them Starbucks)…. Technology is the knack of organizing the world so that we don’t have to experience it. — Max Frisch (1911-91)