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Dec 5, 2006
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Saturday, September 29, 2007Love For Cat
We’ve all had trouble with our animals, but I don’t think anyone can top this one:
Calling in sick to work makes me uncomfortable. No matter how legitimate my excuse, I always get the feeling that my boss thinks I’m lying. On one recent occasion, I had a valid reason but lied anyway, because the truth was just too darned humiliating. I simply mentioned that I had sustained a head injury, and I hoped I would feel up to coming in the next day. By then, I reasoned, I could think up a doozy to explain the bandage on the top of my head. The accident occurred mainly because I had given in to my wife’s wishes to adopt a cute little kitty.
Initially, the new acquisition was no problem.
Then one morning, I was taking my shower after breakfast when I heard my wife, Deb, call out to me from the kitchen.
“Honey! The garbage disposal is dead again. Please come reset it.”
“You know where the button is,” I protested through the shower pitter-patter and steam. “Reset it yourself!”
“But I’m scared!” she persisted. “What if it starts going and sucks me in?” There was a meaningful pause and then, “C’mon, it’ll only take you a second.”
So out I came, dripping wet and butt naked, hoping that my silent outraged nudity would make a statement about how I perceived her behavior as extremely cowardly.
Sighing loudly, I squatted down and stuck my head under the sink to find the button. It is the last action I remember performing.
It struck without warning, and without any respect to my circumstances. No, it wasn’t the hexed disposal, drawing me into its gnashing metal teeth.. It was our new kitty, who discovered the fascinating dangling objects she spied hanging between my legs She had been poised around the corner and stalked me as I reached under the sink. And, at the precise moment when I was most vulnerable, she leapt at the toys I unwittingly offered and snagged them with her needle-like claws. I lost all rational thought to control orderly bodily movements, blindly rising at a violent rate of speed, with the full weight of a kitten hanging from my masculine region. Wild animals are sometimes faced with a “fight or flight” syndrome. Men, in this predicament, choose only the “flight” option. I know this from experience. I was fleeing straight up into the air when the sink and cabinet bluntly and forcefully impeded my ascent. The impact knocked me out cold.
When I awoke, my wife and the paramedics stood over me. Now there are not many things in this life worse than finding oneself lying on the kitchen floor butt naked in front of a group of “been-there, done-that” paramedics. Even worse, having been fully briefed by my wife, the paramedics were all snorting loudly as they tried to conduct their work, all the while trying to suppress their hysterical laughter… and not succeeding.
Somehow I lived through it all. A few days later I finally made it back in to the office, where colleagues tried to coax an explanation out of me about my head injury. I kept silent, claiming it was too painful to talk about, which it was. “What’s the matter?” They all asked, “Cat got your tongue?”
If they only knew!
Transport: The untold story of a failed attempt to introduce electric buses in London a century ago offers a cautionary technological tale
ON MONDAY July 15th 1907 an unusual bus picked up its first passengers at London's Victoria Station before gliding smoothly off to Liverpool Street. It was the beginning of what was then the world's biggest trial of battery-powered buses. The London Electrobus Company had high hopes that this quiet and fume-free form of transport would replace the horse. At its peak, the firm had a fleet of 20 buses. But despite being popular with passengers the service collapsed in 1909. The history books imply that the collapse was caused by technical drawbacks and a price war. It was not. The untold story is that the collapse was caused by systematic fraud that set back the cause of battery buses by a hundred years.
Indeed, the London electrobus trial remained the largest for the rest of the 20th century. Only recently has American interest in keeping city air clean encouraged trials on anything approaching the same scale. For the past 15 years Chattanooga has had a dozen battery buses. Today the world's biggest fleet, excluding minibuses, is in Santa Barbara, California. The city has 20 buses and is buying five more.
The replacement of horses by internal-combustion engines may now look to have been inevitable, but it certainly did not seem so at the time. At the beginning of 1906 there were only 230 motor buses in London. They were widely reviled for their evil smells and noise. At any one time a quarter of them were off the road for repairs. In 1907 The Economist predicted “the triumph of the horse”. The future of public-transport technology was up for grabs.
The paradox at the heart of the electrobus story is that the electrobuses themselves were well engineered and well managed. All battery buses have a limited range because of the weight of their batteries. The electrobus needed 1.5 tonnes of lead-acid batteries to carry its 34 passengers. It could travel 60km (38 miles) on one charge. So at lunchtime the buses went to a garage in Victoria and drove up a ramp. The batteries, slung under the electrobus, were lowered onto a trolley and replaced with fresh ones. It all took three minutes. “It just goes to show there's nothing new under the sun,” says Mark Hairr, of the Advanced Transportation Technology Institute. “That's almost exactly what we do here in Chattanooga. And we knew nothing about this.”
In April 1906 the London Electrobus Company floated on the stockmarket. It wanted £300,000 to put 300 buses on the streets of the capital. On the first day the flotation raised £120,000 and the share offer was on course to be fully subscribed. But the next day some awkward questions surfaced. The firm was buying rights to a patent for £20,000 (£7.5m, or $15m, in today's money) from the Baron de Martigny. But the patent was old and had nothing to do with battery buses. It was a scam. Investors asked for their money back, and the firm had to return £80,000. The investors would have been even less impressed had they known the true identity of the “Baron”, who was a Canadian music-hall artist.
Martigny was only the front man. The mastermind behind this and a clutch of subsequent scams was Edward Lehwess, a German lawyer and serial con-artist with a taste for fast cars and expensive champagne. After this initial fiasco the London Electrobus Company struggled to raise money. But Lehwess had set up a network of front companies to siphon off its funds. Chief among these was the Electric Vehicle Company of West Norwood, which built the buses.
The London Electrobus Company paid the Electric Vehicle Company over £31,000 in advance for 50 buses. Only 20 were ever delivered. The buses were hugely overpriced. Eventually the London Electrobus Company went into liquidation. Even then the scams continued. Lehwess bought eight buses for £800 from the liquidators and sold them to Brighton for £3,500—a mark-up of 340%—where they ran for another six years. At the time, the life of a motor bus was measured in months.
Whether the fraud was truly a tipping point for electric vehicles is, of course, impossible to say. But it is a commonplace of innovation—from railway gauges to semiconductors to software—that the “best” technology is not always the most successful. Once an industry standard has been established, it is hard to displace. If Lehwess and Martigny had not pulled their scam when they did, modern cities might be an awful lot cleaner.