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Wednesday, July 4, 2007Comedy Unfolding
One of my hobbies is trying to blow up planes.
Oh, I'm only kidding. I just try to think of ways that other people could blow up planes, then see if I can get around the security measures, just for kicks. I smuggled a quarter-ton of electronics into the Super Bowl, and I went through airport security with a live vibrator smuggled in my pants.
My latest experiment with TSA security happened by accident. I recently flew to Memphis on business, and while I was there I bought my wife a souvenir bottle of Vidalia onion salad dressing (pictured at left). Vidalia onions are one of the four food groups of the South, the other three being barbecue, fried foods, and gravy.
I purchased this Vidalia onion dressing at a Memphis souvenir shop (couldn't locate the Elvis Gravy), and told the cashier I was on my way out of town, so she wrapped it thoroughly in brown paper. I packed it in my carry-on bag, and forgot about it until I went through TSA screening at the airport, where I got singled out for a bag search.
Ah, yes. The "three ounces or less" rule. According to the TSA Web site, all liquids must be in "three-ounce or smaller containers," placed in a "single, quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag." I had a 12-ounce bottle of salad dressing, wrapped in suspicious brown paper. I felt this was close enough.
The TSA agent thought differently. "Sorry, we can't allow this on," she told me, unwrapping the bottle.
"It's only salad dressing," I told her, hoping to get her sympathy. "For my wife." Chicks love it when you talk about your wife. Unless they're your second wife.
"Sorry," she said. "I'll have to confiscate it."
"I'm pretty sure it doesn't contain explosives," I said, trying to win her over. "Unless we're talking about an explosion of flavor."
"You can take it back to the ticket counter and see if you can get it into your checked luggage," she said, smiling. "Your bag might still be there."
"That's true." I've been flying U.S. Airways a lot, and sometimes they do in fact keep the luggage right there at the counter, often for three or four weeks. Then they thoughtfully ship it to Central America. "My flight is in half an hour," I said, glancing at my watch as I put it back on. "I won't make it."
"We'll need to dispose of it, then," she said. "I'm sorry."
"All right," I sighed, defeated. "You guys can sell my dressing on the black market." I had seen a piece on 60 Minutes about how the government sells our confiscated items on eBay.
"Actually," she said, "we throw liquid items in that barrel right there." She nodded toward a blue trash barrel located next to the moving walkway.
"Okay," I said, putting my shoes back on. "Thanks for telling me that."
took my time packing up my things, watching her wrap the bottle loosely in the paper and drop it into the trash barrel.
I looked around casually. There weren't very many TSA agents servicing the area, and they were joking around, screening oncoming passengers, watching the X-ray monitor. Everyone's attention was focused elsewhere. No one was watching me.
I moseyed over to the walkway and glanced in the barrel. It was filled with half-empty coffee cups and discarded water bottles. There, on top of the trash, wrapped in its protective paper, was my salad dressing.
Now, keep in mind this was a trash barrel full of highly dangerous liquids and gels! More than three ounces of this stuff could take down an entire plane, and I was standing next to gallons of it!
Questions about the deadly liquids flooded my mind: why would these be dropped into an ordinary trash barrel, and not a special explosion-proof containment unit? Why would they combine the hazardous liquids so carelessly? Most importantly, why would they leave a barrel of liquid dynamite right next to innocent American air travelers?
Calmly, I reached down into that unstable barrel of atomic liquid and grabbed my salad dressing. Then I calmly boarded the moving walkway, and stuffed the salad dressing down my pants. The TSA lets you keep things there, apparently.
No one came after me. I have to be honest, it was almost like they wanted me to take it. The hardest part was returning a few minutes later to take these pictures on my cameraphone.
So I made it home with my salad dressing, which I proudly presented to my wife, leaving out the part about the filthy trash barrel and stuffing it down my pants. Risking arrest over salad dressing is romantic, but nestling it next to your yambag is a little weird.
The dressing, by the way, tasted like ass. I don't know why the TSA was so worried. It didn't blow us away at all.
Stage One: Infatuation
I just got e-mail! I can’t believe it! It’s so great! Here’s my handle. Write me! Who said letter writing was dead? Were they ever wrong! I’m writing letters like crazy for the first time in years. I come home and ignore all my loved ones and go straight to the computer to make contact with total strangers. And how great is AOL? It’s so easy. It’s so friendly. It’s a community. Wheeeee! I’ve got mail!
Stage Two: Clarification
O.K., I’m starting to understand — e-mail isn’t letter-writing at all, it’s something else entirely. It was just invented, it was just born and overnight it turns out to have a form and a set of rules and a language all its own. Not since the printing press. Not since television. It’s revolutionary. It’s life-altering. It’s shorthand. Cut to the chase. Get to the point.
And it saves so much time. It takes five seconds to accomplish in an e-mail message something that takes five minutes on the telephone. The phone requires you to converse, to say things like hello and goodbye, to pretend to some semblance of interest in the person on the other end of the line. Worst of all, the phone occasionally forces you to make actual plans with the people you talk to — to suggest lunch or dinner — even if you have no desire whatsoever to see them. No danger of that with e-mail.
E-mail is a whole new way of being friends with people: intimate but not, chatty but not, communicative but not; in short, friends but not. What a breakthrough. How did we ever live without it? I have more to say on this subject, but I have to answer an Instant Message from someone I almost know.
Stage Three: Confusion
I have done nothing to deserve any of this:
Viagra!!!!! Best Web source for Vioxx. Spend a week in Cancún. Have a rich beautiful lawn. Astrid would like to be added as one of your friends. XXXXXXXVideos. Add three inches to the length of your penis. The Democratic National Committee needs you. Virus Alert. FW: This will make you laugh. FW: This is funny. FW: This is hilarious. FW: Grapes and raisins toxic for dogs. FW: Gabriel García Márquez’s Final Farewell. FW: Kurt Vonnegut’s Commencement Address. FW: The Neiman Marcus Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. AOL Member: We value your opinion. A message from Hillary Clinton. Find low mortgage payments, Nora. Nora, it’s your time to shine. Need to fight off bills, Nora? Yvette would like to be added as one of your friends. You have failed to establish a full connection to AOL.
Stage Four: Disenchantment
Help! I’m drowning. I have 112 unanswered e-mail messages. I’m a writer — imagine how many unanswered messages I would have if I had a real job. Imagine how much writing I could do if I didn’t have to answer all this e-mail. My eyes are dim. I have a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome. I have a galloping case of attention deficit disorder because every time I start to write something, the e-mail icon starts bobbing up and down and I’m compelled to check whether anything good or interesting has arrived. It hasn’t. Still, it might, any second now. And yes it’s true — I can do in a few seconds with e-mail what would take much longer on the phone, but most of my messages are from people who don’t have my phone number and would never call me in the first place. In the brief time it took me to write this paragraph, three more messages arrived. Now I have 115 unanswered messages. Strike that: 116.
Stage Five: Accommodation
Yes. No. No :). No :(. Can’t. No way. Maybe. Doubtful. Sorry. So Sorry. Thanks. No thanks. Not my thing. You must be kidding. Out of town. O.O.T. Try me in a month. Try me in the fall. Try me in a year. NoraE@aol.com can now be reached at NoraE81082@gmail.com.
Stage Six: Death
Mike Haeg founded Mt. Holly, his own city-within-a-city, and has declared himself "mayor / chamber of commerce / justice-of-the-peace / town drunk." The other three citizens are his wife and two children.
Mayor Haeg's driver's license lists Mt. Holly as his address, and he publishes an online town newspaper, which is a work of art.
People are not the result of a cosmic accident, but of laws of the universe that grant our lives meaning and purpose, says physicist Paul Davies.
July 3, 2007 | Forget science fiction. If you want to hear some really crazy ideas about the universe, just listen to our leading theoretical physicists. Wish you could travel back in time? You can, according to some interpretations of quantum mechanics. Could there be an infinite number of parallel worlds? Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg considers this a real possibility. Even the big bang, which for decades has been the standard explanation for how the universe started, is getting a second look. Now, many cosmologists speculate that we live in a "multiverse," with big bangs exploding all over the cosmos, each creating its own bubble universe with its own laws of physics. And lucky for us, our bubble turned out to be life-friendly.
But if you really want to start an argument, ask a room full of physicists this question: Are the laws of physics fine-tuned to support life? Many scientists hate this idea -- what's often called "the anthropic principle." They suspect it's a trick to argue for a designer God. But more and more physicists point to various laws of nature that have to be calibrated just right for stars and planets to form and for life to appear. For instance, if gravity were just slightly stronger, the universe would have collapsed long before life evolved. But if gravity were a tiny bit weaker, no galaxies or stars could have formed. If the strong nuclear force had been slightly different, red giant stars would never produce the fusion needed to form heavier atoms like carbon, and the universe would be a vast, lifeless desert. Are these just happy coincidences? The late cosmologist Fred Hoyle called the universe "a put-up job." Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson has suggested that the universe, in some sense, "knew we were coming."
British-born cosmologist Paul Davies calls this cosmic fine-tuning the "Goldilocks Enigma." Like the porridge for the three bears, he says the universe is "just right" for life. Davies is an eminent physicist who's received numerous awards, including the Templeton Prize and the Faraday Prize from the Royal Society in London. His 1992 book "The Mind of God" has become a classic of popular science writing. But his new book, "The Cosmic Jackpot," will challenge even the most open-minded readers. Without ever invoking God, Davies argues for a grand cosmic plan. The universe, he believes, is filled with meaning and purpose.
What Davies proposes is truly mind-bending. Drawing on the bizarre principles of quantum mechanics, he suggests that human beings -- through the sheer act of observation -- may have helped shape the laws of physics billions of years ago. What's more, he says the universe seems to work like a giant computer. Indeed, it's possible that's exactly what it is, and we -- like Neo in "The Matrix" -- might just be living in a simulated virtual world.
Davies recently moved from Australia to set up a research institute at Arizona State University. I spoke with him about some of the controversies now raging in physics, and why he's so determined to find meaning in the cosmos.
A lot of scientists get annoyed by talk about the universe being strangely fine-tuned for life. They see this as a sneaky way to bring religion into scientific explanations for how the universe began. Clearly, you have a different perspective. Why are you so interested in the idea that the universe is just right for life?
All my career, I've been fascinated by the fact that the universe looks not just beautiful but in some sense deeply ingenious. It looks like it's been put together in a way that makes it work exceptionally well. I suppose the most striking example is that the laws of physics and the various parameters that go into those laws seem to be just right for life. If they were even slightly different, it's quite likely there would be no life, no observers, and no people like you and me having this conversation.
How many laws of physics have to be just right for life to be possible?
It's a little hard to write down the definitive list, and part of the reason is that we don't yet know what are the truly fundamental set of physical laws. Changing some of those laws by even a tiny amount would wreck the chances for life. Others seem to have a bit more flexibility. Overall, the total number of these coincidences, or special factors, is probably somewhere between a half a dozen and a dozen. I think most scientists would now agree that you couldn't change things very much and still have life.
So for all of these to happen -- for instance, for carbon to be formed, for gravity to have the precise strength that it does -- you're suggesting that it's more than coincidence that they are just right.
That's right. To just shrug this aside and say, well, if it wasn't that way, we wouldn't be here, would we? -- that's no answer to the question. It's just choosing to sweep it under the carpet. And in the case of the carbon resonance, if the strong force that binds the particles together in the nucleus were a little bit stronger or a little bit weaker, that resonance would be at the wrong energy and there would hardly be any carbon in the universe. So the fact that the underlying laws of physics seem to be just right to make abundant carbon, the essential life-giving element, cries out for an explanation.
But most scientists seem to believe it's just a lucky fluke that we're here. They say there's no inherent reason that all of these physical laws happen to have just the right properties so that carbon could form, the Earth could develop, and human beings could evolve.
You're absolutely right. Most scientists would say it's a lucky fluke. And if it hadn't happened, we wouldn't be here, so we won't bother to ask what's going on. Now, that point of view might have been tenable 20 years ago when the laws of physics were simply regarded as just there -- as God-given or existing for no reason -- and the form they had just happens to be the form they had. But with the search for the final unification of physics, there's been more of a thrust towards saying, we won't just accept the laws of physics as given. We'll ask, how did those laws come to be? Are they the ultimate set of laws? Or are they just effective at low energies or in our region of the universe?
In the past, these "why" questions -- why the laws of physics are the way they are, why the universe began, why we are here -- were questions that theologians and philosophers asked. They seemed to be beyond science. But you're saying this is an arena where science can now operate.
Yes, there was a separation of powers -- "non-overlapping magisteria," to use Stephen Jay Gould's expression. In the past, the underlying laws of the universe were regarded as simply off-limits as far as scientists were concerned. The job of the scientist was to discover what the laws were and work out their consequences, but not to ask questions like, why those laws rather than some others? But I think we've moved on since then. Are we to suppose that these laws were magically imprinted on the universe at the moment of the big bang for no particular reason and that the form they have has no explanation?
There are different versions of the anthropic principle. Can you briefly lay those out for us?
Nobody can really object to the "weak anthropic principle." It just says that the laws and conditions of the universe must be consistent with life; otherwise, we wouldn't be here. But if we combine it with the multiverse hypothesis, then we're in business. The multiverse hypothesis says that what we've been calling the universe is nothing of the kind. It's just a bubble, a little local region in a much vaster and more elaborate system called the multiverse. And the multiverse consists of lots of universes. There are different ways you can arrange this. One way is to have them scattered throughout space, and each universe would be a gigantic bubble, much bigger than the size of what we can see at the moment, but there would be many, many bubbles. And each of these bubbles would come with its own set of laws.
So the billions of galaxies in our universe still make up just one universe. But in this theory, there would be many such universes.
That's right. Everything as far as our most powerful instruments can penetrate would belong to just one universe -- this universe. I call this a "Hubble bubble." So we're talking about a distance out to nearly 14 billion light years. Everything we see within that one region of space seems to have a common set of physical laws. According to one version of the multiverse hypothesis, if you traveled enough in any direction, you'd reach the edge of that bubble, and there would be a chasm of exceedingly rapidly expanding space, and then you'd come to another bubble. And in that other bubble, maybe all electrons would be a little bit heavier or gravity would be a little bit stronger. There would be some variation. And you would find that in only a tiny, tiny fraction of those bubbles, all the conditions would be right so there can be life. And of course it's no surprise that we find ourselves living in such a life-encouraging bubble because we couldn't live in any of the others.
In 2003 Tawnya Brown was awaiting bowel surgery in a Northern Virginia hospital when she decided to switch beds to be closer to the window. The move ultimately killed her. During surgery, Brown mistakenly received two pints of A-negative blood. She was O-positive. An investigation revealed that a technician had drawn blood from the wrong patient. Within minutes of the procedure, the 31-year-old suffered a fatal hemolytic reaction, which resulted in plunging blood pressure and kidney failure.
Blood mix-ups, though rare, are still one of the most feared mistakes in transfusion medicine. "It's the biggest threat today," says Dr. Kathleen Sazama, a transfusion expert at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Even an ounce of mismatched cells can trigger a potentially lethal immune response, causing blood clots and internal bleeding. But now scientists at a Massachusetts biotech firm may be on the brink of eliminating most transfusion errors and ensuring a steady supply of blood to the nation's hospitals. Their solution is a device that converts all blood into type O, the most coveted of the four major blood types because it can be safely transfused into nearly any patient. "Press 'start,' and the machine does everything else," says Douglas Clibourn, the CEO of ZymeQuest.
The secret to the device, roughly the size of a dishwasher, is a pair of enzymes newly discovered by Henrik Clausen of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark that can cleave sugar molecules from the surface of the red blood cells. These molecules—called antigens—stud the cell membrane and determine whether someone is type A, B, AB or O. If you receive the wrong blood, antigens in your blood plasma elicit antibodies to attack the foreign antigens.
Clausen, who works as a paid consultant to ZymeQuest, sifted through 2,500 bacteria and fungi before pinpointing a gut bacterium, Bacteroides fragilis, which produces an enzyme capable of pruning the B antigen, and a second bug, Elizabethkingia meningosepticum, which yields enzymes that are effective against the A antigen. Human clinical trials on the A enzyme are already under way in the U.S. and Europe.
The ability to turn much of the nation's blood supply into type O could be a boon for hospitals, which use it in trauma cases when there's little time to determine the patient's true blood type. Routine shortages also can put them in a pinch. ZymeQuest's machine churns out eight units of type O every 90 minutes. But the technology is far from perfected. Clinical trials must prove that the enzymes leave blood cells unscathed and that they convert all the cells in a unit of blood to type O. If even a few unconverted cells linger, the blood could provoke an immune reaction. "This is the beginning," says D. Michael Strong, the vice president of the Puget Sound Blood Center in Seattle, one of the country's largest blood banks. "There's still a huge amount of work to be done."