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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: January 3, 2009

BANKS SEEM SUSPICIOUS to many people. Some folk have never trusted them,  and now it seems that more and more skeptics have been burying their money in the ground for safekeeping. David Latham, a 45-year-old Alabama cattle farmer told Smart Money that even if his bank collapsed and the FDIC paid off, it might be a while before he got his cash, so he put $8000 into a Ziploc bag and a waterproof tube and buried it on his 300-acre property. And a Sarasota builder, Earl Snyder, is advertising his Midnight Gardener — a foot-long watertight pipe with a capacity for $4,000 in gold, silver, or paper money.

THE BANK OF MOM & DAD was the heading of another story in Smart Money describing how so many young people today are borrowing from their parents — but with the proviso that they sign promissory notes and repay the loans on schedule. Virgin Money (owned by Richard Branson, who claims to have started Virgin Records with a loan from his aunt Joyce) is one of the firms through which parental loans can be made, the idea being that a neutral arbiter can make a personal loan feel “a lot less, well, personal.” An unpaid debt, the mag comments, “will wreck a relationship faster than you can say ‘IOU’.”

GLUEING ONESELF TO somebody else or some other target is a growing means of protest in England. “(Glue) is easy to buy and carry,” says one activist teacher. You can’t walk around with chains because they can be construed as an offensive weapon. It’s hard to construe that with glue.” Early protesters thought it unlikely that the police would cause injury to them by ripping their hands away, but now the police have started to carry solvents as well as the traditional bolt cutters.

IN WHAT MAY BE “the driest place on earth,” the Salar de Atacama in Chile, holds more than one-quarter of the world’s reserve of lithium, increasingly in demand for the rechargeable batteries that power cell phones and laptops.

Calling it “the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” Forbes says demand has skyrocketed and this, the lightest of metals, will be increasingly needed for the hundreds of thousands of lithium-ion batteries for hybrid cars of which Nissan, alone, plans to produce 65,000 in the next couple of years. The new Tesla Roadster is equipped with batteries studded with almost 7,000 lithium-ion cells. The magazine quotes William Tahill, a French technology consultant as saying there isn’t enough recoverable lithium on the planet to support the auto industry’s ambitious plans.

STYLISH TOILETS ARE a current Paris fad with brightly colored toilet bowls and seats made of fake china or transparent plastic in which toy fish swim. One store, Pont WC, is cleaning up, so to speak, with the sale of such accompanying ephemera as seat lamps that light up the bowl, and toilet rolls ($6) in the form of dollar bills or euros.

TAPPING INTO PEOPLE’S BRAINWAVES is currently chic in scientific circles with several companies about to peddle their sensor-filled headsets which allow the wearer to instigate action merely by thinking it. The ability to manipulate video games is an obvious early target, but Inc. magazine’s David H. Freedman checked out a device offered by the Emotiv company and found that with a little practice, assisted by the 16 electrodes pressing lightly on his scalp, he could move the image on a computer screen. The eventual aim of the scientists, he reported, is for users to be able to control all electronic devices in a similar manner. The challenge is “figuring out how to present its breakthrough device…in a way that will transform it from a slightly scary gadget to the next must-have consumer technology.”

WHEN WRITING EMAILS, people are more inclined to lie than when sending regular letters, says a recent study, because electronic communication lacks “nonverbal and behavioral clues such as shifty eyes or fidgety body language. “People feel more justified in acting in self-serving ways when typing as opposed to writing on paper,” says Rutgers’ Terri Kurtzberg who conducted the study with two colleagues. Paper, they reported, seemed more permanent than e-mails, “which feel fleeting in nature despite the fact they are actually harder to erase or contain.”

AN AUSTRALIAN TOWN is under siege from a flock of birds. Sounds like a Hitchcock drama although these are no ordinary birds but cassowaries, described by the Smithsonian as resembling giant, prehistoric turkeys. They have sharp beaks and five-inch claws, can charge at 30 mph and leap three feet into the air, and are menacing Mission Beach (pop: 992) where some residents defy the law to feed them and others wish to hell they’d go back into the surrounding forest. Cassowaries can live to 40 and are described by Guinness World Records as the world’s most dangerous bird.

THE WILCOCK WEB: In the age of the ubiquitous cell phone, British Telecom has declared that iconic red phone booth obsolete, and is hoping that villages will buy the remaining 12,700 for “atmosphere”…. “The downside of the Internet” opines Cate Blanchett, “is that speaking — or writing — has become the point in and of itself. I’m of the opinion that it’s okay to be silent, to not speak if you don’t have anything to say”….Specializing in creating oneof-a-kind firearms, the Boblin Co. has constructed a Colt out of 14-carat gold (why?). It’s priced at $75,000…. The roundest knight at King Arthur’s round table was Sir Circumference. He acquired his size from too much pi Peter Raducha….In a letter to the London Times, a reader writes: “When picking and cooking wild mushrooms, always keep one of them uncooked to take with you later to the hospital…. Spectra Watermakers, a California company, has already sold its Solar Cube for use in remote regions of Pakistan, Chile, and Venezuela. Operating on solar and wind power it can transform seawater into 1,500 gallons of fresh water without needing the diesel fuel required by other systems…Why is sentencing so long after conviction?….A neo-fascist party in Italy hoping that Benito Mussolini’s will live on is offering couples $2500 to give their babies the former Fascist leader’s name….. The 35-mile-long tunnels under the Swiss Alps won’t be completed until 2015 but tourists can already take exploratory rides ($100 roundtrip) in half-mile-deep elevators at the two stations en route…. Deft Definition: Hipatitis: Terminal coolness……What the company ( calls a “digital quill”, records what you say, or any other audio when you write. It plays it back whenever the tip retouches those words… A one-person seaplane with folding wings ( so it can be stored in the garage is tested enough to be available for sale in 2010….Australian Wool Innovation has produced a men’s suit that can be washed while worn in the shower and then hung up to quick-dry….“Stupidity is the deliberate cultivation of ignorance.” — William Gaddis (1922-98)