Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


In response to the advertisement for Brenneman’s Everything Bagels, our correspondent Arkadiy asks, “Americium? Is it better or worse than polonium?”

“Better” and “worse” are subjective measurements with no scientific value whatsoever, and therefore are right up Dr. Boli’s alley. You have come to the right place.

Polonium has the edge in practicality, owing to its traditional use in the heads of polo mallets, whence, of course, the name of the element.

Americium is more widely found in ordinary households, however, since it goes into smoke detectors. That means that any one of us might have come into contact with it and be carrying around an atom or two of americium even as we speak. Et in Arkadiy ego, to coin a phrase.

Which one is better or worse therefore depends on how you feel about polo, or, contrariwise, smoke detectors.


That truck will stop coming toward me long before I have to open my wings and fly away.

Every little old lady with a bag is my friend.

What this statue needs is more of the old Jackson Pollock touch.

If I follow that attractive hen-pigeon from a distance of six inches for the rest of the day, she is bound to notice my admirable qualities.

Humans operating under divine direction have built this city for me, God’s favored creation.

God favors the stupid and unambitious.

That cigarette butt probably tastes like corn.



We were privileged to find a Microsoft technician who was happy to answer some of the questions users frequently ask about the Windows operating system.

Q. I’ve been getting the Blue Screen of Death more often since I upgraded to Windows 11. Is there any way to make that less likely to happen in the future?

A. No.

Q. Windows updates often break features or functions of important software on my computer. Is there an easy way to prevent Windows from updating itself?

A. No.

Q. Is there a good way to transfer large folders of files from my Windows computer to my Android phone?

A. No.

Q. Sometimes Windows loses track of my desktop wallpaper and substitutes the wallpaper from a different desktop. Is there any way to prevent that from happening?

A. No.

Q. Windows always gets slower and slower over the course of a year or so until eventually it has to be reinstalled. Is there any way to keep Windows running efficiently without bogging down like that?

A. No.

Q. I set my computer to suspend after ten minutes, but Windows often ignores that setting, and, come to think of it, a lot of other settings I set. Am I doing something wrong?

A. No. Here in Redmond, we refer to the “Settings” app as the “Suggestion Box.”

Q. There’s this feature in the current version of Windows that’s really useful to me. Will it still be available after the next Windows update?

A. Is it something you really like a lot?

Q. Yes.

A. Is it something you’ve grown to depend on because it makes your life so much easier?

Q. Yes, that’s it exactly.

A. Then no.


Grandfather clock.
Grandmother clock.
Great-uncle clock.
Maiden-aunt clock.
Second-cousin-once-removed clock.
Great-grandniece clock.
Friend-of-the-family-who-is-respectfully-called-“Uncle”-by-the-children clock.
Great-great-great-grandfather clock.


Dear Mr. the Rabmag: I fell asleep at my desk in the office this afternoon, and I dreamed that I was at my desk in the office. But in the office there was an orchestra playing a waltz by Waldteufel, and there were dozens of identically dressed dancers swirling around, all the men dressed in violet and all the women dressed in a pale peach sort of color, and my desk was right in the middle of it, and as they swirled by the women kept knocking the papers off my desk with their skirts. And then I woke up, and all my papers were on the floor. What does it mean? —Sincerely, Louis, Assistant Lead Designer, Carper, Carter & Carver Agency LLC.

Dear Louis: Dreams have many meanings, often deeply symbolic, and it is important to acknowledge that some of those meanings can be embarrassing. Sometimes the embarrassment arises from the simple fact that the interpretation touches on a delicate matter not ordinarily mentioned in polite conversation; sometimes it arises from something even more direct than that. It is essential, however, to steel oneself and proceed in spite of all potential embarrassment, for otherwise it is impossible to arrive at a correct interpretation. In this case, the embarrassment is acute, but must nevertheless be overcome. So… Sorry about that, Louis. You see, there’s a group of us who really enjoy Waldteufel, and… Well, there was some champagne involved, and… At least you found all the papers, right? Please tell us you didn’t lose any papers.


Hi, I’m Bud, and welcome to the National Weather Service weather-spotter training for March. Folks, this is a free training class, brought to you by NOAA, an important part of your federal government, so I just have to read you this announcement. Friends, are you tired of puny little folding umbrellas that hardly keep your forehead dry? What you want is a Carey's brand full-size doorman’s umbrella. Your Carey’s is more than an umbrella. It's a complete rain-interdiction system. And with plenty of room for two, a Carey’s doorman’s umbrella is bound to improve your love life, and you probably need some help in that department if you’re the kind of person who goes down to the Federal Building on a Saturday afternoon to take a weather-spotter training class. The next time it rains, carry a Carey’s! Proud sponsors of the National Weather Service for over eight years.

Okay, so we’re here to learn how to spot some weather, am I right? So the first thing we have to know is what weather looks like. And that can be hard, because there’s all kinds of weather. But the easiest thing to do is find a window. Did you all find a window? Here’s a hint: windows are usually on outside walls. Not always, but if they’re in an inside wall, they usually look into another room, and you’re not going to spot any weather, unless the roof caved in or something. So you find an outside window to look out, or you could even go outside, but there’s no need to go overboard with this stuff. Now, we’re lucky in this room, because that whole wall over there is windows that look outside, at least technically. I mean, mostly they look out on the Federal Reserve Bank, but there’s a little space between the buildings, and technically that’s outside.

Now, you might think that, if you spot something going on outside, that’s weather. Like let’s say you see some leaves blowing around, and you think, “Oh, that’s wind,” and wind is weather, right? But then you find out it’s just some guy named Fred with a leaf blower. See, that’s the most important thing about weather spotting: knowing when it’s weather and when it’s not. Like you might see water falling all over the lawn at one of those fancy suburban houses that I can’t afford because I work for the National Weather Service, and you think, “Oh, look, it’s raining,” but it’s just some guy named Fred who’s turned his sprinklers on. Most of what we call pseudo-weather phenomena are actually Fred-related, when you get down to the root of them. Or you might see meteors falling and smashing houses all over town, and you think, “Oh, that’s meteorology,” but it turns out that meteors have nothing to do with meteorology. I wish someone would explain that to me.

But let’s say you see something like weather going on, and you’ve eliminated the possibility of Fred. Like, let’s say it’s raining. Okay, what do you do with it? Well, you spot it. You notice that there’s weather occurring, and what kind of weather it is, and you gather whatever details you can for the next step.

So what’s the next step? Now here’s where you have to get on a streetcar, or a bus if there’s no streetcar line near you, and find a seat next to some other passenger, preferably one who’s reading a book or something so you know they’re not doing anything important. And here’s where all your weather-spotting training gets put to use. So you’re sitting on the streetcar, right, and there’s this woman next to you who’s reading the New York Review of Books, so obviously what she needs is information about the weather. So you turn to her and say, “It sure is raining hard out there.”

At this point she probably says something like, “Yes, it is,” and then turns back to her magazine, thinking you’ve run out of material. But you’re a trained weather spotter. So you can say something like, “It’s coming down at a rate of almost half an inch an hour. If it keeps up at this rate, we might break the twenty-four-hour record for this date set way back in 1927.” Now, how did you know all those figures? Well, one way is to have a good handle on the historical weather data, all of which could theoretically be found on the NOAA Web site if the NOAA Web site weren’t designed by well-meaning eight-year-olds. But the other way is to make them up. That works just as well, and it’s way less trouble, so it’s what most professional weather spotters would do.

So now the passenger next to you says something like “Is that so?” and makes a desperate attempt to get back to her magazine, but you’re prepared for that response. It’s true that the question itself doesn’t leave much opening for any other reply than “Yes, it is so,” or maybe “No, I was just fooling you,” but that’s why you ignore what she said and start to expand the subject. You can say something like, “It’s twenty-three degrees colder than it was this time yesterday. There’s a cold front moving through, and that always means unsettled weather.”

Now your passenger will probably say something like “Mm,” or maybe “Uh,” which means you should continue. Or she might say something like “Do you mind if I go back to my reading?”—which also means you should continue. So you go on to mention that the cold front is headed for a low-pressure system off the New Jersey coast, and so on, and you keep doing that until the passenger announces that she has to get off at the employee stop at the South Hills Junction maintenance shops and gets up to have an argument with the driver. That means you win.

Okay, so that’s it for the lecture part of today’s lesson. Now I want you all to go over to the windows and spot some weather, and then we’re going to do a role-playing exercise. We’ll split into pairs, and each pair will take turns being spotter and passenger. And don’t forget, this is all made possible by Carey’s brand full-size doorman’s umbrellas. If you can mention the sponsor when you’re talking to your passenger, you’ll get a couple of bonus points, so let’s get started.


With a program of alternating moderate praise and extreme displays of disapproval, researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have succeeded in training white rats to post only bland platitudes on Twitter. “These are important results that merit further research,” said an unsigned tweet from the lab.


Google spent more than six billion dollars on its first quantum computer, but the prototype was lost between the cushions in Larry Page’s couch.

The Chinese philosopher Lu Hsing created a mechanical device to simulate the laughter of a live audience at theatrical performances, and was executed in 839 a.d.

Thomas Edison succeeded in creating a machine to communicate with the world beyond, but the spirits had nothing to talk about except the price of gauze these days, and the canny Edison concluded that the device would never make a profit on the open market.

Mark Zuckerberg conceived of Facebook as a tool to bring humanity together in peace and friendship.

The Sea Daisy Frozen Seafood Corp. spent millions developing a machine to straighten the tails of shrimp, but the introduction of the “Lobsterette” product line was a disappointing failure.

Henry Ford’s first assembly line was a long conveyor belt that carried, at regular intervals, a meticulous craftsman and the automobile he was assembling. It was not until Ford thought of separating the workers from the conveyer belt that the true potential of mass production was realized.

Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, while useful for certain rudimentary calculations, proved unable to produce a single cat meme.


Imagine a world in which every knife has been replaced with a Swiss army knife. Think of all the things you can do with a good Swiss army knife! You can cut rope. You can open a bottle of wine. You can screw two boards together. You can cut your fingernails.

The only problem is that you cannot do any of these things very well. In particular, a Swiss army knife—in spite of its name—is not a very good knife. It is useful for opening a box, but you will reach for something else if you want to cut a steak. You will reach for a thing that is dedicated to the business of cutting, and does the job well.

In a world where all our knives had suddenly become Swiss army knives, you would get your steak cut eventually, but it would be a frustrating experience. It might be frustrating enough that eventually you would give up on steak and find something else to eat. The giving up would probably not happen all at once; you would never explicitly decide to give up on steak; but every time you thought of eating steak, you would think of the trouble and effort it would cost you, and you would be more and more likely to try hamburger instead. You might not like hamburger as much, but you can hold it in a bun and leave your Swiss army knife in your pocket.

In the end, in this hypothetical world of Swiss army knives, you would probably be reduced to consuming only things that you could eat with your hands, or things that could be effectively handled with a Swiss army knife. Bit by bit, your habits would adapt to the tool you had available. If the corkscrew was fun to play with, you might develop a drinking problem.

In our world, we have not replaced all our knives with Swiss army knives. But we have replaced our telephones with smartphones, and our little thought experiment will help us understand the effects of that change.

The smartphone is a tool that fits in your pocket and does everything, but the corollary is that it does not do anything very well. It has a Web browser; you are limited to what will fit on a small screen, but that is enough for Wikipedia to settle an argument about the exact dimensions of Jennifer Lopez or whether tiger swallowtails are man-eaters. You can send text messages and emails; the little virtual keyboard is cramped and inefficient, but it does the job. If you are persistent and something of a masochist, you can even get some writing done with a simple word processor. You can take pretty good pictures with the built-in camera. You can listen to music. You can watch a movie. None of these things can be done as well with a smartphone as they can be done with dedicated tools, but the dedicated tools do not fit in your pocket.

Finally, you can even talk on a smartphone. But you cannot do it very well. Dr. Boli has mentioned this before, but it is worth dwelling on: if what you want to do is talk, the 19th-century technology that runs our few remaining wired phones does a better job than our 21st-century cell phones do.

Dr. Boli estimates, and he is backed up here by extrapolation and imagination, that our economy loses tens of billions of dollars a year to cell-phone misunderstandings. Comedians reach for the voice-breaking-up joke in every routine, because it is a universal experience. You may recall, if you are old enough, that twentieth-century comedians loved the phone as a prop, but bad-connection jokes were few. Too many would have been implausible; it was simply too rare an experience to have an inadequate connection.

And yet the 19th- and 20th-century telephone was a poor tool for its job. The limited range of sound made it impossible to distinguish S from F, or K from T. The fact that we have settled for worse sound and less reliable performance for the sake of convenience tells us something about our culture.

And bit by bit we are adapting to that decision we made. The telephone is being retired as a telephone. Voice calls are becoming rarer, because they do not work very well for most of us. Oddly, we can do effective videoconferencing with these smartphones of ours, but we have a hard time making simple voice calls work.

One of the unforeseen effects of the smartphone revolution has been an extension of the domination of the written word. In the late 20th century, it was not hard to find pundits who would predict the imminent end of writing as a tool of communication, except for specialized uses. What happened instead was that everybody became a writer. Most of us did not become good writers, but we all began sending text messages hither and thither through the ether, many of us accumulating thousands of words a day in written communication. Text messaging was attractive because it is much more reliable than voice calls. If you send a text message, you know that it arrived at the recipient's phone in exactly the same state as when you sent it. There are mechanisms to make sure of that. Your voice may sound very different at the other end of the call, but if your text message is misunderstood, you have no one to blame but yourself. (Or, of course, the recipient, for being too stupid to understand a simple dancing-rat emoticon.)

Another obvious effect has been to make us a culture of one-liners. Text messages, Twitter, and Facebook all discourage reasoned argument. If you cannot say what you have to say in the number of words that will fit in a little talk bubble on a phone screen, then what you have to say simply will not be heard. Dr. Boli is not misty-eyed with nostalgia for the good old days when ordinary Americans settled their differences with reasoned discussion and carefully marshaled arguments, because those good old days never existed. Ordinary Americans have always settled their differences by hurling insults, and, when those failed, brickbats. But it is true that now even our pet intellectuals are forced to speak mostly in one-liners. If they do not, they are no longer our pets. Our universe is a New Yorker cartoon.

What are we to do about all this? Nothing, obviously: market forces have taken command, and they will lead us whither they please. It makes one nostalgic for the lovely old Soviet Union, where technology that worked continued in use for decades, because there was no market incentive to make superficial improvements to what was already quite adequate. But the Soviet Union had its own little cultural difficulties.

So if you, like every patriotic American, are the proud keeper of a smartphone, you might consider how to make the best use of it. Do you rule the phone, or does the phone rule you? How much of what you are—your actions, your conversation, your thinking—is dictated by the little black slab in your pocket? And what can you do to get out from under its thumb?

Dr. Boli has a suggestion, but it may be subversive, so look both ways and lean close. This will alert Homeland Security that you are up to something subversive. Now here is the suggestion: Go for a walk without the phone. Start easy—perhaps just fifteen minutes. Work up to half an hour or even an hour.

You may discover after a while that your phone does not need you as much as you thought it did.