Monthly Archives: November 2009

Struck By Lightning

"We can't go in now. The lightning attracts the fish."

As a boy, I was fascinated by the stories my parents told me about a friend of theirs who was killed by lightning.  “He was playing football in a storm,” they would say, “when suddenly a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and hit the cleats of his football shoe, killing him instantly.  Now go to sleep.”

That made quite an impression on me back then, but I have since learned that death by lightning is statistically far less likely than being the victim of a drunk in a pickup truck.  According to the National Weather Service website, there have been 33 lightning fatalities so far in 2009.  In the fifty preceding years, there were 3,885, which is about 10% of the total number of people in the U.S. who got hit by lightning.

But here’s something strange about the fatalities:  Popular Science magazine recently reported that roughly four out of five victims have been men.  I looked it up, and sure enough, 27 of this year’s 33 fatalities were males.  That pattern has been consistent for decades.  The experts wondered why there was such a significant disparity.  One hypothesis was that perhaps male bodies contain more iron than female bodies.  Another scientist speculated that since men tend to be slightly taller than women, the bolt would reach them first.

Nope.  It turns out that men get hit by lightning more often than women because we’re, uh… not as smart about some things.  We tend to engage in activities that put us at greater risk.  A woman has enough sense to seek shelter when a storm hits, while a man is determined to finish that round of golf, even if it kills him.  Which occasionally it does.  As John Jensenius of the National Weather Service put it, “Men are less likely to give up what they’re doing just because of a little inclement weather.”

In looking at the statistics, I noticed that about half the lightning deaths over the past several years occurred while the victim was involved in sports or other recreational activities.  Of the fatalities so far in 2009, four were fishing.  Others were golfing, jogging, playing baseball, playing soccer, swimming.  None were listed as “Inside, staying dry”.

Peter Todd, a behavioral scientist at Indiana University, believes that the difference is rooted in the origins of our species.  He says that females have different priorities, such as their reproductive role and caring for offspring.  Men, on the other hand, will risk getting hit by lightning to prove to other men — and potential female mates — that they aren’t afraid of danger.  I suppose that’s the same rationalization some guys use to justify driving ninety miles an hour in a crowded parking lot, or making homemade fireworks in their basement.

Incidentally, if you’re a male and intend to follow your evolutionary instinct to play golf in a lightning storm, try not to do it in Florida;  it has had more than twice as many fatalities as any other state.  And let’s face it — the other guys in your foursome have been a lot luckier than you all day long.  If someone in your group is going to be struck by lightning, who do you think it will be?

Helpful Holiday Hints

You meant well, but in retrospect, maybe giving your uncle a nose-hair trimmer for Christmas wasn’t the best idea you ever had.  I know, I know — it’s not easy coming up with inspired gifts year after year.  As the holidays barrel down on us, it’s tempting to grab any old thing off the shelf and say “This’ll do.”

Before you give up and renew Gene and Edna’s membership in the Cereal-of-the-Month Club, though, here are some suggestions, culled from catalogs and websites.  These are actual items for sale, and as you read on, you just might say, “Gosh, why didn’t I think of that!?”

•  The Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalog offers the His and Hers ICON A5 Sports Aircraft, complete with pilot training for two.  This isn’t a toy; it’s a little plane with an amphibious hull.  It flies to a maximum altitude of 10,000 feet and has a range of 300 nautical miles.  There are a couple of drawbacks:  one is that production of this aircraft isn’t scheduled for completion until late 2011.  The other is that it’s a bit pricey — $250,000 may be more than you hoped to spend.

•  Another unique gift — and far more affordable — comes from a company called  As its home page states, they can “morph your photos into a masterpiece”.  You send them a photo of your loved one, and specify one of several artworks that they can digitally defile.  For instance, you could select the Mona Lisa, and their artists will replace Mona’s face with a skillful reproduction of the person whose photo you supply.  If you have a relative with a heavy beard, wouldn’t he double over with laughter every time he sees himself in that Mona Lisa pose?  That’s a lot of fun for around $50.

•  Brookstone has a new take on an old holiday standby:  a flameless candle.  It’s made of real wax, but instead of a wick, there are three light-emitting diodes inside to create that romantic flicker.  What’s more, it has a built-in timer that can be set for 4, 6, or 8 hours of no-drip illumination.  The four AA batteries it requires are not included, but what do you expect for a mere $34.95?

•  A floral bouquet can be a nice gift, but real flowers don’t last very long.  Uncommon Goods has an ingenious solution:  paper roses made from elephant poo.  The catalog stresses that they are odorless, sanitary and 100% recycled.  Just to add to the fun, though, wait until the recipient of your flowers sniffs them, and then mention that they’re made from dung.  A dozen elephant poo red roses are $48.

•  If someone on your gift list is a barbecue enthusiast, he’d probably love the Meat Mark-It Personalized Steak Branding Iron.  It comes with 52 clip-on aluminum letters and spaces, so he can imprint his name, favorite team — or a rude message — on those burgers.  The Meat Mark-It is only $15.99, and is available through

OK, maybe those aren’t the best Christmas gifts ever, but they aren’t the worst, are they?  So what is the worst present you ever got?  Feel free to use a pseudonym when you comment, just in case the person who gave it to you also reads this blog.

You Must Be Somebody

You may have noticed that this blog is not a rich source of celebrity gossip.  There are a couple of reasons for that:  one is that there are approximately four million other blogs that will update you if your favorite singer is feeling a little gassy.  They all scoop me on that sort of news.  Another is that I no longer understand the rules; I don’t know what one has to have done to achieve celebrity status.  What is the benchmark for fame?

Sold-out concerts around the country used to be a reliable indicator, or a best-selling novel, or political prominence, or a featured role in a hit movie.  Having accomplished something no longer seems to be a requirement, however.  People now become famous just because some other people say they are, apparently.

I’d be willing to bet that if you queried fifty citizens at random, a much higher percentage would recognize the name Paris Hilton than Ban Ki-moon.  That might even be the case if you conducted the survey in the lobby of the United Nations building.  Of course, if the next question was, “And Paris Hilton is famous for — ?”, you’d probably get a lot of blank stares.

I don’t mean to pick on her; for all I know Paris is a lovely person, and I certainly admire the city in France that was named after her.  But you see my point, I hope.  Who are all these “stars” on Dancing With The Stars?  Some once achieved a measure of fame, but many are less well-known than their professional dance partners have become.  Why is every performer in so-called adult films referred to as a porn star — are there no porn character actors?

My skepticism about celebrity standards began when my wife started being mistakenly “recognized”.  I should mention that she does not engage in any typical celebrity behavior:  she has never done drugs, never uttered a racial slur, never tried to punch a cop.  On the other hand, Sally has sung in Carnegie Hall and at a number of weddings.  Her most notable television appearance was as a contestant in the milk-chugging Red Light! Green Light! competition on the Engineer Bill Show when she was ten.  Somehow it seems unlikely that any of those accomplishments merit the attention she gets from strangers.

It has happened on a number of occasions:  in restaurants, airports, and tourist attractions people notice her, pointing her out to each other.  Sometimes they’ll sidle over to have their picture taken with her.  One time a grinning man came up and asked, “Are you who I think you are?”  Sally smiled graciously and replied, “Yes, I am.”  (She kept moving, not giving him the chance to ask for her autograph.)

In Istanbul a number of years ago, we were in an ancient basilica called Hagia Sophia.  A large group of local schoolchildren was on a field trip there, and it didn’t take long before they spotted Sally.  They rushed over, surrounding us and chattering excitedly in Turkish.  One boy shouted something that caused our guide to laugh.  I asked Gönül what the kid had said, and she translated, “I’m your biggest fan!”  A few of the children wanted to have their picture taken with Sally; I obliged them (see photo).

In hindsight, I regret not having our guide ask the kids who they thought Sally was, but then, why spoil their brush with a “star”?  After all, it seems that if enough people want to believe you’re a celebrity — you are.  Perhaps I should contact the casting director at Dancing With The Stars and let them know that Sally is available.

Look Out Below!

View from Prague Castle

At least the view is nice on the way down.

It’s impossible to do, but wouldn’t the word “defenestration” be an awesome play in Scrabble?  Pronounced dee-FEN-eh-STRAY-shun, it means “the act of throwing a person or thing out of a window”.  Historically defenestration was the favored method of assassination in Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic).

Down through the centuries there have been several such acts; scholars debate how many, although not quite to the point of throwing each other out of windows.  There are two about which there is no dispute.  One is the First Defenestration of Prague, which occurred on July 30, 1419.  The grievances that led up to it had been simmering for a number of years.

Church reformer Jan Hus and his followers were at bitter odds with the Catholic hierarchy.  Hus was excommunicated, but eventually was summoned to a council, the goal of which was supposedly some kind of reconciliation.  Hus may have thought, “At last we’re getting somewhere”, but the council resulted in Hus getting burned at the stake (1415).

This enflamed Hus’s followers, you might say, and skirmishes with various kings and popes and cardinals ensued.  Some Hussites were rounded up and imprisoned.  Trying to free their comrades, other Hussites burst into the New Town Hall in Prague, laid hands on seven council members and flung them out the nearest window.  An angry mob happened to be below that window, so most of the councilors had their descent abruptly stopped by pikes.  Those who missed the pikes and landed on the pavement were beaten to death, in a rather free interpretation of Jesus’ command to “love your enemies”.  The king of Bohemia, Wenceslas IV, was so enraged that he had an apoplectic fit and died.  It should be noted that this was not the Good King Wenceslas of Christmas-carol fame.

The so-called Second Defenestration of Prague (which may have actually been the third or fourth) happened a couple of hundred years later, on May 23, 1618.  The underlying provocation was the closing of Protestant chapels and churches in Bohemia; this, it was felt by some, violated guarantees of religious liberty that had been spelled out in a document grandly known as the Letter of Majesty.

Bohemian nobles (Protestants) held an assembly; a couple of imperial regents were tried and, after several seconds of deliberation, found guilty of violating the Letter of Majesty.  The regents, Martinic and Slawata, along with their secretary Fabricius, were launched out a window of Prazský hrad (Prague Castle).  I have stood at that very window, and would estimate that the regents and Fabricius had a fifty-foot fall.

Remarkably, they didn’t die.  The Jesuits attributed their miraculous survival to the mercy of benevolent angels; the Protestants pointed out that the three men had landed in a ditch that was full of manure.  In any case, Martinic, Slawata, and Fabricius escaped with their lives.

As mentioned before, there have been other defenestrations as well, although that colorful tradition hasn’t been practiced for some decades now.  Prague is a beautiful city to visit, and I’d encourage you to do so.  But if you do go, try to book a hotel room on the ground floor.  Just in case.

What Will They Think Of Next?

Copy of Don Strauss -- 1989

Donald A. Strauss

In every generation, there are people who are convinced that when they go, civilization will die with them.  This is based on the belief that the following generation is so sluggish and depraved that they won’t be capable of shouldering responsibility when their turn comes.  That viewpoint has been around for several thousand years now; you’ll recall that Socrates was charged with “corruption of the young” (for his unorthodox teachings) and compelled to drink that hemlock smoothie.

Fortunately, there are also people in every generation who believe that youths aren’t all just a bunch of hopeless slackers.  These people — optimists, I suppose you could call them — view the next generation as a source of good ideas, with the energy to implement them.  Don Strauss was one of those people.

A business executive, he was… what’s the euphemism, “well-compensated”?  That is to say, he had considerable principal — and high principles as well.  Passionate about the importance of education, Don and his wife Dorothy disposed of a substantial part of their disposable income through scholarships.  For decades, they paid the tuition for students at several universities; these were young people for whom the expense would have made a college education impossible otherwise.  Those scholarships continue to this day.

Then, after his death in 1995, Dorothy established the Donald A. Strauss Foundation.  It funds public service projects that are dreamed up, and fulfilled, by students at various universities in California.  Every year since 1997, ten to fifteen students have received awards of $10,000 each to put their plans into action.  The diversity and creativity of these youthful enterprises is impressive.  Here is a tiny sample of what Strauss Scholars have taken on:

•  Mark Michalski (UCLA) went to the Himalayas to set up an ethernet connection for small villages in Nepal, providing them with computer access to the outside world.  The objective was to increase opportunities for learning in the schools of that remote area.

•  Jenna Harvey (UC Davis) established a program that supplied musical instruments and instruction to middle-school students who would otherwise not have access to music programs.

•  Alex Quick (UC San Diego) founded Donor Dudes, a student organization with the goal of increasing not only blood donation, but pledges of organ and tissue donation.  Donor Dudes has grown to include chapters on several other campuses.

•  Tess Bridgeman (Stanford) worked with women in small communities in Oaxaca, Mexico, to improve health standards.  She learned that a locally-grown plant not only had dietary benefits, but could be grown in sufficient quantities that the surplus could be sold, increasing the villages’ resources.

•  Thomas Oliver (Caltech) devised a way to convert old mountain bikes into wheelchairs that could handle the rough terrain in underdeveloped countries.

Over the years, other projects have tackled social, educational, and health issues of all kinds.  Most of the projects continue, even though their originators have graduated.  I’ve posted a link to the Strauss Foundation website, so if you’re inclined to think that the next generation is no damn good and headed straight to oblivion, here’s my recommendation:

Go to the Strauss site.  Click on “Projects We Have Funded”.  Browse.  It will change your mind.  Repeat as often as necessary.