Posts Tagged ‘science’

How best to execute low-lifes?

October 3, 2011

The ascendency of Texas governor and execution hobbyist Rick Perry to the top ranks of Republican presidential candidates has re-opened the debate over capital punishment.

Unfortunately, the issue isn’t so much the propriety of a death penalty but how it is to be carried out. The Tea Partiers at a recent GOP debate cheered loudly when Perry’s record of signing 234 death warrants was mentioned, and you get the feeling these merciless supporters quibble only about how painful the execution could be.

In saner circles, the debate centers more on whether current methods used to end the lives of the condemned constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Was it “cruel” to employ now-discarded methods like hanging, beheading, crucifying and throwing-off-a-cliff? Most agree the answer is yes. Is it “unusual” in modern times to administer lethal injections that may cause pain to the executed? Sure, it’s unusual — that’s what makes it so cool.

The thirty-some states that opt to use the ultimate penalty to punish their most unruly citizens are currently wrestling with how to find the right mix of chemicals to effectively end the lives of those on Death Row. The traditional three-part cocktail had to be reconstituted when one ingredient, sodium thiopental, stopped being made by its European manufacturer.

After failed experiments in which tonic water and crushed limes were added to the cocktail, most states now go with the anesthetic pentobarbital. It knocks the patient unconscious, so that when the other drugs paralyze the victim and stop their heart, they’re in no position to complain.

To further add to the prisoner’s distress, Texas has ended the traditional last meal when several killers ruined it for everybody else by ordering huge spreads, then leaving the food untouched. Gone were the elaborate recipes that rendered previous executions almost palatable. In their place, the doomed will now have to order from the standard Department of Corrections menu. No specials, no appetizers, no “have you saved room for dessert?” queries from their server.

I thought about this unfortunate turn away from fine cuisine as I wrestled recently with an execution happening a little closer to home. My wife had discovered a couple of garden slugs near the herbs she grows on our deck railing, and decided to dispatch them with a thick coating of salt.

“You’re no better than those heartless chefs in Texas,” I complained. “The condemned want cilantro and lemongrass and turmeric flavoring their last meal, not sodium. Besides, the salt is going to damage the paint on the rail.”

Which then got me to thinking about why we use salt in the first place to kill slugs. (And the corollary question, could we execute murderers and rapists by pouring a giant box of Morton over them?)

The “slug,” the common name normally applied to any gastropod mollusca that lacks a shell, has a body that is made up mostly of water. They thrive in damp places such as tree bark, fallen logs and South Carolina. Their soft, slimy bodies are prone to desiccation, so dry weather, direct sun and salt are their natural enemies.

But why can’t they be stepped on like other common pests? Why do they require a flavoring be sprinkled on them? And might other saline condiments such as soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce work just as well?

According to my wife, a simple stomping has the unintended effect of getting slime all over the bottom of your shoe. “It’s really hard to get off,” Beth said. “And it stinks.”

Further research confirms that she’s right. Slugs produce two types of mucus, a thin and watery kind that aids in locomotion, and a thicker, stickier variety that coats the animal’s body and helps protect it from predators. When snatched up by a bird, for example, the slug can roll into a ball, toughen its hide, and hope its predator has the ball-handling skills of a Tony Romo and that it will soon be fumbled to the ground.

I also found out some other interesting facts about the slug:

  • Like their relative the snail, many slugs do have a shell but it’s inside their body. Not going to do much good there.
  • Slug breeds that do have an external shell are disappointed to discover it’s only vestigial, and thus too small to retract into for protection. These are known as “semi-slugs.”
  • Slugs undergo a 180-degree twisting of their internal organs during development. This results in an even doneness throughout the meat when cooking.
  • Their optical tentacles serve as rudimentary, light-sensing “eyes.” These can be regrown if lost, a handy alternative to the $600 I’m being asked to pay in vision coverage this year.
  • The slime trail that slugs leave behind serves several purposes: it allows them to cling to a vertical surface, and they can use it to advertise for a mate. (Using slime as a “come-on” exists in only one other species, the Newjersey bachelor).
  • Some slugs secrete slime cords to suspend themselves in mid-air during copulation, a move believed to be the inspiration for the Cirque du Soleil show, “La Magie Gastropodoea.”
  • Slugs are hermaphrodites, having both female and male reproductive organs. (No plans yet to have one of them appear on “Dancing With the Stars.”) Their corkscrewed, entangled penises must be chewed off by their mates during separation, or at least that’s what one claims will happen if the other “really loves” them.
  • Some slugs can self-amputate a portion of their tail to escape predators.
  • As agricultural pests, slugs can be controlled with iron phosphate or copper. Salting of the fields is not recommended, as it will result in decades of barren land.
  • In rural southern Italy, people swallow the garden slug Arion hortensis alive and whole as treatment for gastritis and peptic ulcers. Wikipedia understatedly describes the merit of this homeopathic remedy as “questionable.”

Several days after Beth assaulted the pair she found near her herb garden, both the death-dealing granules and the dried slug corpses had vanished from the railing, probably blown away in an early-autumn windstorm. All that remained was a white salt stain etched into the paint in the shape of a slug, like some chalk outline at a crime scene.

So while salt is now confirmed as a preferred method of execution for the slug, society is left to debate the best way to irretrievably remove our most-reviled members. Let’s kill them if we must, but let’s do it in a humane manner that respects their humanity.

And if they want escargot for their final meal, I say let ’em have it.

The common slug (unsalted)

Speech recognition, I say “go away”

September 14, 2011

My son and his friend Paul were playing video games in the living room as I prepared a late breakfast for myself. While the bacon sizzled, I searched the refrigerator for eggs I knew were in there somewhere.

“Daniel,” I called out to my son. “Have you seen the eggs box? Paul, can I get you something to drink?”

“Hey, what happened?” cried Paul. “My guy just froze up on screen.”

“Dad,” Daniel added. “You messed up our game.”

How did I do that? I’m standing way over here in the kitchen. They’re the ones clutching the Xbox controllers. I’m just trying to find the eggs box.

Ohhhh … I think I know what happened.

While most of my family’s interaction with the television is done via remote control (including the stuff I throw at the screen whenever a Real Housewife appears), Daniel has set up his game console so he can control certain aspects of its operation with voice commands. If he needs to step away from the zombie-killing on “Dead Island” to deal with concerns more pedestrian than the undead, he simply says “Xbox pause” and the game stops.

When I asked “have you seen the eggs box? Paul…”, the voice recognition software heard “Xbox pause” and halted the action.

Daniel also realized what had happened. He turned to the TV and said “Xbox play,” and the automaton slaughter resumed.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, man’s interaction with machinery has come about primarily by pushing buttons and pulling levers. Occasionally, a factory worker was able to halt his equipment by fatally falling into it, though technically that still involved physical contact with the controls.

Using your voice to issue commands is a relatively new development. Like many technological innovations, it was first conceived in the realm of science fiction. I still remember watching “Star Trek” in the 1960s, when Kirk or Spock or whatever Expendoid was cast that week for the specific purpose of being killed by Klingons saying “Computer! Bring me a ham sandwich” or “Computer! Save the universe.” And sure enough, the computer would do it.

Now, like the teleportation device that rockets people instantly through space or whatever innovation made it possible for second-rate sci-fi to promulgate into countless remakes, voice-recognition technology is part of our everyday lives.

Hands-free cellphones make it possible to apply makeup while driving. Cars themselves now respond to imperatives like “change the radio station” or “lower the AC.” You can order fast-food at a drive-through speakerbox, which activates robots inside to sneeze on your hamburger, drop it to the floor, bag it, and pass it through the window.

Like everything else introduced in the last 25 years (with the possible exception of my son), I don’t like it. It just seems fundamentally wrong that we speak to inanimate objects when we already have enough trouble talking to fellow humans. Machines should be controlled by interfaces like keyboards and touchpads. Humans should be controlled by verbal threats and menacing glances.

Chatting up the Xerox WorkCentre 5755 in an attempt to convince it to make 50 two-sided color copies is just too much effort. You have to ask how its family is doing and everything.

I’ve overcome initial reservations about the corollary of voice-recognition — employing keypads to interact with people. Fewer and fewer individuals are using face-to-face conversations or their smartphones to talk to loved ones. Texting, tweeting, instant-messaging and posting pictures of your drunken self on Facebook are now the preferred ways to communicate.

And I’m fine with that. In fact, I prefer it. Concise written messages — even those strewn with emoticons and misspelled into a wireless device — may take longer to key than the spoken word, but they last longer than our ephemeral grunts. “Conversations” held days ago are now fully documented, great news if you have a dispute with your wife about what you were supposed to get at the grocery store, not so great if you’ve been caught conspiring to commit murder-for-hire.

But I suspect my objections to voice-recognition interfaces are based more on what I perceive to be a threat to my livelihood. I make my living as a proofreader and typesetter for a printing company. After over 30 years in this and similar roles, I’ve become very good at my job, especially the typing part. I can key over 100 words per minute with 98% accuracy, according to the man-eating sea creatures at Typer Shark. Even charging hammerheads recoil before my onslaught of ampersands and semicolons.

If voice-detection technology is introduced in my workplace, my typing skills could become useless. Instead of spending the day covering my keyboard with a blur of digits, I’d be reduced to mouthing the words into an input device. Instead of zipping through some of my favorite words to type — “administration,” “facilities,” “constipation,” to name a few — in a matter of nanoseconds, I’d have to say each individual letter. Speaking “m-a-s-t-u-r-b-a-t-o-r-y” into a cone is nowhere near as fun as fingering it into a QWERTY keyboard faster than you can moan orgasmically.

And if there are dozens of fellow workers engaged in the same activity, the collective drone would be enough to knock you flat out. Though sore throats might be easier to treat than chronic carpal tunnel syndrome, you’d end the day vocally exhausted, unable to talk your car into starting.

So today I’m saying “Speech Recognition, Pause.” Take your high-tech audio analysis and consign it to the scrap heap of futuristic-but-ill-conceived ideas, along with jetpacks and rocket cars and Lady Gaga. When I call a customer service help line, I want to press the “O” key, not say “representative,” then say it again, then say it again.

Only when this scourge of needless modernity is eliminated from our lives will I be prepared to again say “Progress, Play.”

Hear me now, purveyors of pointless advancements: "Knock it off"

The magic of Mennen

August 31, 2011

About two months ago, I noticed that my Mennen’s Speed Stick deodorant seemed to be running low.

I use one of those roll-on applicators, the kind with the knob at the bottom. You turn the dial and a waxy amalgam peeks out the top. You roll this stuff into your pit and, in return for the effort, your underarms become largely inoffensive for most of the day.

I bought another one the next time I was at the grocery store, and sat it on the bathroom counter next to the nearly depleted one.

I continued to use the old dispenser, with the anticipation that soon I’d be completely out. But as the days wore on, a startling fact began to emerge along with the green, scented goo.

The old deodorant was not going away. I had stumbled onto the legendary Everlasting Speed Stick.

Prophets for centuries have told of the eventual coming of a deodorant that would never run out. Man — and Woman, and Teens For That Matter — had struggled since time immemorial to suppress the odor that seeped from the tiny sweat glands under their arms.

Once an agrarian economy was in place, the evolutionary adaptation that used perspiration to cool the hollows on either side of our chest had outlived its benefit. (Woolly mammoths and giant sloths were in no position to complain about the smell of the hunter-gatherers who preceded modern humans). Homo sapiens needed inert pits if they were to build an industrial society.

Most historians trace the invention of underarm deodorants to a 9th-century Persian named Ziryab. Little is known about the specifics of his device. Ziryab was a “polymath,” or one who dabbled in many subjects, and served as poet, musician, designer, astronomer and botanist in the court of Cordoba. Considering these interests, it is speculated that the first roll-on was either a collection of herbs, or wads of discarded rubaiyats.

In modern times, the first commercial deodorant came on the market in 1888 under the name “Mum.” By the 1950s, it had evolved into what we know today as Ban Roll-On.

Within ten years, however, the first aerosol antiperspirant was released by Gillette under the name “Right Guard,” which led spray deodorants to an 82% market share by 1970. When scientists discovered that the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols were depleting the ozone layer, the federal government weighed the benefits of smelly citizens versus widespread death from cosmic radiation and banned CFC propellants.

Today, stick deodorants are by far the most popular type of antiperspirant. They are sold in stores around the world, allowing civilized societies everywhere to thrive without people constantly threatening to beat up their fellow citizens for having BO.

Though cheap and readily available, the modern products that prevent attacks of “not-so-freshness” eventually run out and have to be replaced. This happens with both frequency and startling unpredictability. One morning, you’re slathering on product from what feels like a fully loaded bottle, and the next morning, you’re out. Toothpastes, mouthwashes and hair gels are then pressed into emergency action to serve as inadequate substitutes.

The Biblical Prophet Elijah, in 1 Kings 18:22, wrote of a day that would eventually come where “the pits of the many shall be fragranced by the unguents of the few,” in what many interpret as a prediction that deodorant will one day flow freely throughout the land. The mystic Nostradamus wrote obliquely that “humors and ethers that tend to offend/Will one day be cured by a stick without end.”

So is the magical Mennen’s sitting in my bathroom right now the One We Have Waited For, the salvation for a people weary of paying convenience-store prices for emergency odor suppressant?

The packaging reveals few clues. It claims to offer “powerful odor protection that lasts all day,” a “clean masculine scent” and a “patented comfort guard applicator for comfort and control.” It warns “DO NOT APPLY TO BROKEN SKIN” and “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.” Ingredients include the innocuous-sounding propylene glycol and sodium stearate. There is an 800-number so you can call manufacturer Colgate-Palmolive with questions, but I hesitate to ask a call center employee in India if my deodorant might be magical.

I think I should let the people decide. Like those witnesses to miracles who see Jesus in the rust on their back door, or the Virgin Mary in the smeared ink of their Walmart receipt, I should spread word of my finding. If pilgrims come from near and far to see Everlasting Speed Stick, perhaps that will prove its sanctity.

So I invite both my readers, and those who end up hearing only hints about the existence of such a paranormal phenomenon, to come to my home and witness the stick. See if you can figure out how I can continue to use it morning after morning without it ever running out. Examine the vessel for any trickery or tampering. Help me figure out: Could this be grooming breakthrough that we’ve awaited for centuries?

All I ask is that you don’t apply my deodorant to your underarms. That would be gross.

Deodorant surges provocatively from its vessel, prompting questions from the supernatural

Revisited: The sun — a review

July 3, 2011

Ask most people what they think about the sun, and they’ll likely be confused by your question.

They may respond in a meteorological context, thinking that you’re asking how they like the summer heat. Some may answer that the cloudless glare of a typical July day is just what they wanted for their beach vacation, that their tan will soon be a beautiful bronze. Others may be more confused than most, saying that The Son isn’t quite as great as The Father, but He’s certainly preferable to The Holy Ghost in your top three favorites of the Holy Trinity.

If you clarify the issue further to focus on the star at the center of our solar system, the average person may not have much of an opinion at all. The sun is just there, it’s always been a part of our lives, such a routine presence that we barely give it a second thought. It’s like asking if you’d rather have something other than a head at the top of your neck stalk, or if gravity ever gets on your nerves. You’ve never really considered if you’d prefer the sun to be a different color, closer to or further from the earth, shaped like a triangle rather than a circle, or made out of congealed meat rather than mostly hydrogen.

I asked my son (the one with an “o,” not a “u”) what he thought about the sun. Daniel responded “meh,” which the dictionary defines as “an expression of apathy, indifference, or boredom.”

Even no less an authority than the Beatles were hard pressed to care one way or the other.

“Here comes the sun,” they sang on their landmark 1969 album Abbey Road. “It’s alright.”

I wanted to learn more about our closest star, that source and sustainer of all life on our planet. So I’m making the sun the subject of this review.

Sometimes, I devote this space to a critique of websites. Occasionally, I’ve ventured farther afield, reviewing everything from the literary merit of the operating instructions for a box fan, to movies (“Avatar was beamed through a projector”), to decades (absolutely loved The Aughts). I’ve even evaluated the worthiness of entire nations, for example giving England eight ampersands on a scale of one to ten, since the British isle is shaped like an ampersand and I very much enjoyed my 2005 visit there.

This being the height of a summer heat wave throughout much of the East Coast, and considering that we just had a solar eclipse across a narrow band of the Southern Hemisphere, and considering that today is “Sunday,” let me tell you a little about our sun.

Obviously, when you’re talking sun, you’re bound to be talking about extremes. It has a diameter of almost a million miles, it weighs about 330,000 times what the earth weighs and, as you might expect, it’s very hot. While its surface temperature is a toasty 10,000° F, its core approaches 22 million degrees, rivaling even my hometown of Miami in August. Once regarded by astronomers as a relatively insignificant star, it recently got a status upgrade, being called brighter than about 85% of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. (Take that, Luyten 726-8 AB!) By fusing hydrogen into helium, it releases tremendous amounts of energy, with estimates ranging as high as 384.6 yottawatts. That’s a lotta watts.

Though we tend to think of its location as being in “the sky,” it’s technically positioned close to the inner rim of the Milky Way’s Orion Arm, in what’s called the “Local Fluff” or “Gould Belt,” about 28,000 light years from the Galactic Center. Its neighborhood is known by cosmologists as the “Local Bubble,” a space of rarefied hot gas possibly produced as a remnant of the supernova Geminga. If you wanted to go there, you’d travel about 150 million kilometers (hang a hard right at Venus, you can’t miss it). Don’t rely on Yahoo maps to give you reliable directions. When I typed in “The Sun” as my destination, it sent me to Sun, Louisiana, and, even worse, had the nerve to route me through Atlanta.

The sun is a near-perfect sphere, with an oblateness of about 9 millionths, for those of you who care about oblateness. About three-quarters of its mass consists of hydrogen, with the rest being mostly helium. It exists in a plasmatic state rather than being a solid, so you couldn’t walk on its “surface” even if you had really thick soles on your shoes. Its color is white, although from the earth it may appear yellow because of atmospheric scattering.

And check this out: it’s rich in heavy elements, which could most plausibly have been produced by endergonic nuclear reactions during a supernova, or by transmutation through neutron absorption. Is that cool or what?

Looking beyond such dry technical specifications, let’s examine a little of the history of humans’ relationship with the sun. Most ancient cultures regarded it as a deity, as they did with most things they couldn’t understand (imagine what they’d think of Ke$ha or Ron Paul). Their most fundamental understanding of the sun was as a luminous disk in the sky, whose presence above the horizon created day and whose absence caused night. Many civilizations constructed monuments to the sun, from simple stone megaliths to more elaborate floorplans such as Stonehenge and the Aztec pyramids of Mexico.

One of the first people to offer a scientific explanation for the sun was the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras. He reasoned that it was a giant flaming ball of metal even bigger than a chariot. While today’s academia might’ve rewarded him with an endowed chair in the astrophysics department for such a revolutionary theory, he was instead imprisoned by the authorities and sentenced to death. A kind of tenure, you could argue, but probably not what he had in mind.

Later scientists refined these early ideas, usually at their own peril. Copernicus was the first to offer a mathematical model that put the sun rather than the earth at the center of the solar system. Galileo made the first known telescopic observations of sunspots. The Islamic astronomer Maghribi first estimated the sun’s size, and got it wrong only by half. For their troubles, all were teased mercilessly by their respective cultures.

Today, much of what we know about the sun comes from solar space missions, begun as early as 1959 with NASA’s Pioneer series of spacecrafts. Skylab and the Space Shuttle both delivered equipment into orbit that allowed for surveillance unfiltered by our atmosphere. Former President George W. Bush famously proposed a manned mission to the sun during a late-night party in 2006, when he suggested that the danger of such an attempt could be mitigated “if we go at night.” That plan was later scuttled by budget constraints and sobriety.

Earth-based observations have long been problematic, as looking at the sun with the naked eye for even brief periods can be painful. The refinement of light-concentrating optics like binoculars and telescopes seemed promising at first, though these came with the unfortunate side effect of making you blind. Kids still enjoy makeshift experiments out in the yard, proudly giving ants and other insects a close-up view of earth’s nearest star with a magnifying glass. This attempt to educate rarely turns out well for the bugs.

As for the future, earth’s fate in relationship to the sun is precarious. When it eventually enters its red giant phase (similar to adolescence in its trouble-making capacity), the sun will have a maximum radius beyond earth’s current orbit. This sounds bad but could be offset by the fact that the sun will have lost 30% of its mass due to stellar wind, and all the planets will have moved outward. “If it were only for this, earth would probably be spared,” notes Wikipedia hopefully. However, “new research suggests that earth will be swallowed by the sun owing to tidal interactions” and that, even if the earth could escape incineration in the sun, “still all its water will be boiled away and most of its atmosphere would escape into space.”

Despite these dire predictions, I think we can all agree that we’re much better off for the sun’s existence than we’d be floating in the icy void of interstellar space. Through photosynthesis, the energy of sunlight supports almost all life on this planet, with the only exceptions being creatures sustained by deep-sea volcanic vents, most toenail fungus and the aforementioned former president Bush. Because of these nutrients, because of the light and the warmth it provides, and because we all feel happier on a sunny day than we do on a cloudy one, we should do more to appreciate our local neighborhood furnace.

All hail, mighty Sol! I give thee one star on a scale of zero to one stars, because you’re the only star we need.

I hate to tell you this, but you just went blind

Revisited: Now I lay me down to accessorize

April 17, 2011

I’ve been off the Ambien for a couple of months now and what sleep I get does feel a little less artificial. With the help of a prescription sleeping aid, it did seem as though the nights were restful, or at least those parts that I remembered the next morning. The problem with Ambien is that it’s more of a memory eraser than it is a good crack on the skull, so your unconsciousness might come with the unanticipated side effect of a drive to Maryland.

I’ve watched my cats slip into slumber as effortlessly as they steal my food when I’m not looking, and they make wonderful role models for people trying to get some shut-eye. Taylor in particular can drop on a moment’s notice. He doesn’t have to put on his pajamas, or turn on his sound machine, or have the room temperature and the pillow and the covers just so. He’s rocketing off the walls with a case of the “rips” one minute, and curled into a spherical, comatose mass the next.

Scientists claim to know very little about what makes us sleep, and it’s good to hear a little humility out of those guys for a change. I’ve thought it through myself during many a restless night, and I’ve come up with my own theory. The harder you consciously try to make it happen, the harder it is to achieve. Giving up on the attempt completely can be a very effective strategy in getting to sleep.

It was during a jet-lagged trip to Asia that this revelation first came to me. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning some 35,000 feet above Iran, and as I look around the plane at my fellow passengers, I feel more like a dentist than proofreading trainer headed to South Asia. Mouths are hanging open everywhere as people lose themselves in dreamland. Meanwhile, I’m watching half the remaining subcontinent dance furiously on the tiny TV screen in front of me, stirring futilely as Akshay sings of his undying love for Devi and for frantic, high-pitched violins.

A few days later, I’ve arrived at my destination and am still struggling to get into a pattern that gives me a nightly rest. I call up room service on my third night in Sri Lanka and order a piece of cake to soothe my frustration. If I can’t get to sleep, I figure I may as well have dessert. I lie in bed with the dish on my chest, and the next thing I know it’s about ten hours later and I’m coming out of the best slumber I’ve had in a long time. Sure, I’m covered in frosting, and will have to suffer the suspicious glances of my maid for the next three weeks for what I’ve done to the sheets. But I finally got a good night’s sleep, all because I gave up trying.

Either that, or the Tamil Tigers had poisoned me.

Once back in the U.S., I was ready to try out my new strategy. If I didn’t make such an effort out of the nightly routine, if instead I prepared for bed by preparing to do something else entirely, perhaps I could trick my subconscious into letting me surrender to Morpheus.

The first night of the experiment, I simply left my socks on. Normally, I prefer to sleep barefoot so as to enjoy the sensation of cool sheets wrapped around my ankles (this is what passes for “pleasure” as we sail through middle age). If I tricked my mind into thinking that clothed feet meant no rest was expected, maybe the reverse psychology would kick in and I’d doze off.

It worked pretty well although, not unlike prescription medicines, it required increased doses on subsequent nights for its efficacy to continue. When the effect of the socks wore off after several evenings, I graduated next to placing the TV remote on my belly. Again, I fell quickly asleep, though my wife complained about how I changed the channel every time I rolled over, usually just as she was becoming interested in the merits of buying cubic zirconia for only $49.95 plus shipping and handling, but only if she ordered within the next 15 minutes.

For the next attempt, I put on a pair of heavy-duty work gloves as I climbed into bed. There’d be no snuggling for me this night, of that I was certain. My brain, however, thought I was planning to install a new water heater instead of catching 40 winks, so it quickly shut me down for seven hours of nearly lifeless bliss.

When the gloves wore off, I next tried sunglasses. When the sunglasses wore off, I donned a wool cap. When the hat stopped working, I put on my favorite tie. That was almost too effective, as I awoke gasping desperately for air when the neckwear became tangled in my sheets and I nearly strangled.

Now I was riding a downward spiral that seemed destined to end badly. I pulled out the dark blue suit I got married in some 28 years ago and wore it for several nights. It was a little tight around the waist, and the shoes left some scuff marks on Beth, which she justifiably objected to. This is about the time I gave up on the wardrobe strategy, and graduated to the hard stuff.

I tried carrying a toaster with me. One night I brought a 1996 copy of Hoover’s Handbook of American Companies with me. I dug around in my son’s closet and found an old Darth Vader bank that played the Star Wars theme every time you put in a coin, though now I was concerned I’d be accused of sleeping with a dolly.

When props started failing, I turned to activities. I brought my 401k and IRA statements with me and planned to diversify my investment portfolio, which knocked me out like a left hook from Manny Pacquiao. When that wore off, I started updating my resume, including fictitious stints as a rodeo clown, mayor of Hallandale, Fla., and a former member of the Lovin’ Spoonful (the one who played autoharp). Finally, I plotted an armed insurrection against the state of South Carolina, rallying my armies in a pincer movement just south of Columbia before descending on the Five Points area and kidnapping Gov. Mark Sanford while he dined on the Big Mo platter at Maurice’s Barbecue.

At this point, I realized I had become seriously unhinged and needed professional help, and that’s when I reported to the doctor and picked up my Ambien prescription. I think that eventually I would’ve arrived at a more natural solution to my insomnia, though I feared that would involve imprisonment and mostly feigned sleep to keep my cellmate at bay.

Now I’m off the Ambien and back to the nightly struggle for rest that millions of Americans pursue. I may be dragging my haggard self through the work day, nodding off during meetings and losing focus on assorted tasks at hand. But at least I’m saving a few dollars by not having to accessorize so much.

Celebs may in fact be human

March 3, 2011

A study published this week in the science journal Anthropology Today reveals that celebrities may in fact be human beings and not the ethereal specters of perfection that most of the public had believed them to be.

The investigation, led by Dr. Jonas Hampton and a team from the University of Chicago, revealed that the rich and famous are mostly comprised of the same blood, flesh and entrails that the average person contains, except that theirs is much more physically attractive.

“We had this tendency in our culture to worship these people as gods and demigods,” Hampton said. “Our research shows, however, that most if not all of them have been born of a woman approximately nine months after that woman was impregnated with the seed of a man.”

Hampton said his team’s study was completed only this week but the results were rushed into publication in an attempt to explain some of the bizarre behavior recently exhibited by television and movie stars. He said the ravings of an individual like actor Charlie Sheen may seem out of character for a superhuman, omniscient and totally hot individual with tons of money. However, this behavior may be more logical when viewed with the understanding that Sheen is a corporeal creature functioning with the same biological characteristics as most other people.

“The breakthrough finally came when we were able to gain access to Christina Aguilera following her arrest for public drunkenness,” Hampton said. “While she was unconscious, we were able to take blood and other samples that confirmed our theory that she was a member of the Homo Sapiens species, and not a goddess with the voice of an angel that had descended from heaven to entertain us.”

“It was kind of weird to touch her,” added Hampton’s assistant, graduate student Allen Hayes. “Her skin was so fair as to be almost luminescent, and I expected my hand to pass right through it. But, surprisingly, it was a solid. She’s a little hairier in some parts than I might’ve expected, but other than that, she exhibited all the traits of a person just like you or me.”

The team fitted Aguilera with a radio collar prior to her release from a Beverly Hills drunk tank, and was able to further confirm her humanity when it was noted that she stopped on the way home to pick up her dry cleaning, then drove through a fast-food restaurant for a Arby’s Junior roast beef sandwich.

“We plan a follow-up study in the next few months, and we think we have Lindsay Lohan lined up to participate,” Hampton said. “We’re still working out details of a contract with her agent, but he said she didn’t really have any movies or TV productions in the works, and he thought we’d be able to get her for a reasonable fee, perhaps as little as the cost of a six-pack.”

Even sports heroes may in fact be less the gargantuan supermen than is commonly believed. Hampton said DNA tests the group ran on NFL quarterback Brett Favre showed a chromosome count not unlike what he’d expect to see from the average individual “though there was one gene we saw that showed a predisposition toward throwing interceptions, especially on third and long.”

“However, the whole texting-his-junk thing is not otherwise inconsistent with his physical and mental make-up,” Hampton said. “It might seem a hyper-naturally stupid thing to do, though it’s not out of line with most other typical male behavior.”

The real story behind Groundhog’s Day

February 2, 2011

Today, we honor the humble groundhog. With fewer and fewer businesses celebrating it as a paid holiday, most of us trudged off to work this morning barely aware there was any cause for commemoration. It’s not until later today, when we scan the news headlines and see poor Punxsutawney Phil being thrust skyward by some doofus Pennsylvanian in top hat and tails, that we realize we forgot to buy our loved ones an appropriate gift.

And once again, the groundhog goes unappreciated.

Most of us know the story of how the First Groundhog was born in a manger on a February morn thousands of years ago. Most of us remember learning how he was granted supernatural prognostication powers not equaled until Al Roker predicted he’d be blown off a balcony if he stepped outside during a hurricane. Most of us know he’s a plain, homely rodent — not dissimilar in appearance to The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams — forgotten for 364 days a year.

But on this one special day, in the middle of winter, he steps front and center to claim the spotlight. Routed from his burrow, he looks at the frozen ground around him, trying to figure what season it is. If he sees his shadow, he notices he’s put on a few pounds over the holidays and will have to do some serious springtime dieting to be ready for swimsuit season. If he doesn’t see his shadow, it’s probably because, as a relative of the mole, he’s practically blind. Local news crews then interpret the event to mean we’ll either have six more weeks of winter, or that a savior has been born who is Christ the Lord.

What, though, do we really know about the groundhog? Allow me to tell you a little bit of his story.

The groundhog (Latin name Marmota monax, though most refer to each other with a guttural grunt) is also known as a woodchuck or a land-beaver. He’s part of a family of large ground squirrels that also includes the yellow-bellied marmot and the hoary (or slutty) marmot. He is strictly a North American creature, which is why primitive Europeans and Asians use things like satellite imagery and sophisticated radar instead of chubby groundlings to “predict” the weather.

The groundhog roams the continent from Alaska to Alabama, though scientists have yet to figure out how he journeys so widely. Some speculate that their elaborate system of burrows includes high-speed rail. Others figure that since they all look pretty much alike, they only offer the illusion of being well-travelled.

The animals are well-adapted for digging, with short but powerful limbs and curved, thick claws. Their spine is curved and their tail is relatively short. They are covered with two coats of fur: a dense grey undercoat and a longer coat of banded hairs that give the groundhog’s coif its distinctive “frosted” appearance. Again, not unlike Stephanie Abrams.

Groundhogs usually live only two to three years in the wild, or considerably less if nearby wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and bears have any say in the matter. They themselves are mostly herbivorous, feasting on wild grasses, berries and nuts, with the occasional grub or snail thrown in for a protein boost.

With excellent burrowing skills that largely offset deficiencies in just about every other aptitude, the groundhog will literally hog the ground, taking over huge swathes of the subterranean world to sleep, rear its young and hibernate. It is the most solitary of marmots, though several individuals may occupy the same burrow as long as the others keep it down and promise to pay their portion of the utility bill.

Perhaps the only talent that rivals their ability to move huge amounts of dirt is their ability to enter into a true hibernation for up to six months at a time. From October until as late as April, they inter themselves deep beneath the frost line, allowing them to maintain a temperature well above freezing during the winter. Their metabolism slows dramatically as they live off body fat accumulated during the previous autumn. Only once during this long six-month night do they have to emerge to go to the bathroom and, unfortunately, it’s usually in the first few days of February.

Groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and will often climb trees to escape predators, survey their surroundings, or just hang out. When threatened, their primary defense is to “go underground,” crashing with an old college roommate, not using credit cards or email accounts, and going completely off the grid. If they find themselves under an imminent threat, they may offer a tenacious defense using their two large incisors and front claws. Or they may simply allow themselves to be eaten, exacting a post-mortem revenge on their enemy that you do not want to smell.

Most groundhogs breed in their second year of life, though a precocious few get it on before their first birthday. A mated pair will stay together in the same den throughout the 31-day gestation period, but as the birth of the young approaches, the male remembers an urgent meeting with his accountant and vacates the den. One litter is produced annually, numbering from two to six blind, hairless and helpless babies. Within six weeks, however, they’re ready to move out and live on their own (teenagers, take note).

Their interaction with humans is mostly involuntary, as the desperately wiggling Phil will happily demonstrate on national TV this morning. If raised in captivity, they can be socialized with relative ease, especially if you have a few fingers to spare. Doug Schwartz, employed as the groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo (and New Yorkers wonder why their state is facing a $10 billion deficit), says the animal “is known for their aggression … they’re natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly.”

Other unwilling contributions to humanity include medical research, where they’re dosed with a strain of Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus that mutates into liver cancer, and, surprisingly, in archeology. At the Ufferman Site in Ohio, they’ve excavated numerous artifacts from the loose soil, including significant numbers of ancient human bones, pottery and tools, while human archeologists sit around on lawn chairs admiring their effort.

And then there’s the whole Groundhog Day routine that we’ve come to know and tolerate. With what’s being called a monster snowstorm bearing down on the Midwest and Northeast for the next few days, we’ll watch as not only Punxsutawney Phil but also Wiarton Willie, Balzac Billie, Buckeye Chuck, Shubenacadie Sam and Dunkirk Dave are yanked from their lairs. They might look for their shadows but the blizzard of the century will keep them from seeing beyond the snoots on their face, and they’ll declare that winter is not yet over. Duh.

Punxsutawney Phil

South Florida Stephanie

Jobs not the only one out sick

January 18, 2011

Shares of H.H. Haggerty fell dramatically in overseas trading last night, following news that one of its key employees — me — would be out sick today and possibly tomorrow unless I’m feeling a lot better by then.

Haggerty announced Monday that I would be taking this short-term leave of absence “so I can focus on my health.” I’ve appeared gaunt at several recent company events, and had taken extended medical absences twice in the recent past. In 2007, I was out for three days straight with what I claimed was “a little stomach virus, or maybe a bit of food poisoning,” and in early 2010, I stubbed my toe really bad after tripping over my cat and missed two days.

“I love Haggerty so much and hope to be back as soon as I can,” I told the third-shift supervisor who answered the phone when I called in. “I’ll use a vacation day for today but if I’m out tomorrow, I’ll probably take it without pay.”

Few details were released by Haggerty about my health, fueling speculation in stock markets that I might even be out the rest of the week. Share prices of company stock in both Asian and European markets tumbled as much as 20% with the news that a mid-level employee such as myself would be absent from the office.

“He may be the most vital assistant manager for customer service of our era,” said Michael Useem, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and director of its Center for Leadership and Change Management.

Haggerty said in a press release that Timothy D. Martin, a temp working on a 12-week contract who takes care of filing and emptying the recycling bins, would be answering my phone while I’m out and occasionally checking my email, giving me a call at home if he had any questions.

“I have great confidence that Tim will do a terrific job executing the exciting plans I had in place for Tuesday and possibly Wednesday,” I wrote in a letter released to the press. “I just have to remember to change my email password when I get back, because I’m not sure I trust that guy. He has a tattoo, and I may have seen a hole in his tongue that might represent a piercing.”

In other business news, Steve Jobs, the co-founder and chief executive at Apple, is also taking a leave of absence, a year and a half after his return from a liver transplant. The announcement raised questions about both his long-term prognosis and the future of the world’s most valuable technology company.

“Omigod, omigod, omigod!” said Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. “Will my iPad still work? What about my iPhone — is it going to malfunction and send streams of deadly radiation into my skull? And how about those music downloads I did last night? Am I still going to be able to listen to Britney’s new song ‘Hold It Against Me’?”

“Uh, I bought the song for my teenage daughter,” he added.

Some observers feared the Jobs absence could have an even wider impact beyond the technology market.

In Washington state, growers assured the public that both table and cooking apples would continue to be distributed to supermarkets across the country. The record company founded by the Beatles said it would still release their music under the Apple label, and might possibly dub the line “we hope Steve Jobs is feeling better” into the Sgt. Pepper classic “Getting Better”. The kids TV network Nickelodeon said broadcasts of its popular sitcom “iCarly” would be unaffected by the news, since this season’s episodes have already been filmed and most of its viewers are only eight years old and, though big fans of the iPod, could care less about the ailing Apple executive.

Even the White House chimed in with reaction to the Jobs report.

“We continue to be disappointed with figures showing the unemployment rate is still unacceptably high,” said press secretary Robert Gibbs. “Creating new jobs and getting America back to work remains the number-one priority of this administration.”

Some technology analysts suggested the Apple announcement could simply be a cover for development of yet another must-have product from the premier tech company of the twenty-first century. One industry insider, speaking confidentially to reporters, speculated the company is working on an “iLiver,” an artificial organ that could assume detoxification, protein synthesis and biochemical production duties if a user’s natural liver fails.

“I’ve seen a prototype and it’s really cool,” the source claimed. “It’s got a responsive touch screen that gives users a lot more options in their digestion functions. So it not only filters toxins from your blood, but you can put up to 10,000 songs on it. The earbuds are a little uncomfortable but the skin on your stomach eventually grows over the cord and after that it doesn’t hurt at all.”

He said current plans call for the iLiver to be unveiled at an electronics expo this summer, with sales to the public beginning in November, just in time for the Christmas gift-giving season.

“If I know Steve Jobs, he’ll want to be back for this one,” the insider said. “He’s got a flair for the dramatic at these types of events, and I can already imagine him lifting up his black turtleneck and proudly announcing ‘Today, I bring you the iLiver. As with all our products, you will be buying it whether you need it or not.'”

The ultimate synergy: Liver function plus live video streaming

Zodiac changes provoke new ideas

January 17, 2011

Here’s a fun way to impress your friends and deeply trouble your acquaintances.

Next time you hear a news report on TV or radio that the world’s oldest person has died, make the following statement: “I bet they were 113 years old.”

Inevitably, you will be right. For some reason, the world’s oldest person is always dying at age 113. Maybe that’s truly the extreme that human life can endure. Maybe it’s because “13” is an unlucky number. Maybe they become careless when they finally achieve the “world’s-oldest” status, and neglect to use a helmet while riding their motorcycles.

In any case, it’s very rare that anyone celebrates their 114th birthday.

+++

The world of astrology was rocked last week with news that the zodiac has shifted. A Minnesota astronomer has determined that wobbling of the Earth’s orbit meant that it was no longer aligned to the stars in the same way as when the zodiac was first conceived about 5,000 years ago. That means that when astrologers say the sun is in Pisces, for example, it’s really in Aquarius.

Stupid me. I thought the sun was in the sky.

In addition to shifting almost everybody up by one class, a new thirteenth constellation is joining the standard 12. Ophiuchus, the “serpent bearer,” was a mythical healer who killed a snake, then watched as another snake showed up with an herb in its mouth that revived the dead snake. Not much of a myth, if you ask me, especially compared to grand fables of dragon-slaying and water-bearing.

Still, we now need to be prepared to encounter someone at a party or bar who claims “I’m an ‘Ophiuchus,'” and not immediately presume they’re a citizen of some obscure former Soviet republic.

Many believers in astrology were not pleased with the news.

“I think it’s a scam,” said Jose Arce of New Jersey, speaking of the change, not the idea that our persona is determined by balls of fiery gas located millions of light years from Earth. “I’ve known myself to be a Pisces since I was born. So to come up now with some new sign? It’s unacceptable!”

“I’d just like to know what I’m supposed to be like now,” said Mary-Iris Taylor of St. Louis. “As a Sagittarius, I was supposed to be the life of the party.”

Taylor was one of the unfortunates born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 17, and would now become an Ophiuchus. She’s going to have abandon a personality she’s felt comfortable with for years, and wait quietly in a dark corner until astrologers figures out what her new traits will be.

News that the announcement was made by an astronomer stoked a long-simmering resentment in the astrology community toward those who use scientific methods to study the universe rather than mystical charts devised by the ancient Babylonians.

“This is an attempt to show ignorance on the part of astrologers,” said one California star-follower. Another one doubted the astrology community would “accept what an astronomer is trying to put on them.”

Whether you want your view of the cosmos informed by scientists using telescopes or by earth-mothers using dreamcatchers, it does make us feel like part of a larger community to think we share traits with others born at the same time we were. I’ve made it a birthday tradition each year to check the “born on this day” feature in the newspaper every Nov. 6 to see which celebrities share not just my zodiac sign but my actual birthday. Then I ponder which of them I could beat up, and use the assessment as a gauge to determine whether I’m getting too old.

Last November, I felt pretty spry after this exercise, despite celebrating my 57th birthday. Among the well-known listed on that day were actress Sally Field (could take her), California first lady Maria Shriver (could take her), and screenwriter Mike Nichols (could whip his 79-year-old butt with one hand tied behind my back). I’d probably fall to actors Ethan Hawke (age 40) and Emma Stone (the 22-year-old Lindsay Lohan lookalike with a mean left hook) and might manage a draw with Eagle Glenn Frey (age 62). But certain victories over basketball inventor James Naismith and march composer John Phillip Sousa (both dead for about 100 years and, therefore, easily whup-able) meant I could still defeat over half the population were we to come to blows.

Now, I believe I might be ready to expand the concept to reality TV. I’m thinking of approaching executives in the entertainment industry with the following treatment — a round-robin boxing tournament in which famous people who share the same birthday battle each other in a single-elimination format to determine who is the mightiest person born on that day. That’s 366 shows worth of material, enough to run for years and years during prime time.

Just ponder the intrigue of some of the potential birthday matchups.

From Jan. 1, we could watch actor Frank Langella take on the diminutive-but-dynamic Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer. Langella might struggle to overcome a 30-year age difference versus the 42-year-old Troyer, but with a reach of some 67 inches compared to his opponent’s wingspan of about a foot, the elderly Langella just might prevail.

From Jan. 2, stay tuned for what’s likely to be a vicious battle between former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the beautiful actress Kate Bosworth. The 28-year-old Bosworth, despite a willowy physique, would likely hold her own against the aging Republican. But the blonde star of such films as “Blue Crush” and “The Horse Whisperer” shouldn’t take the former high school wrestler lightly. His background in parliamentary maneuvering could be enough to surprise a much-younger opponent.

From Jan. 3, a busy day for mothers of future A-listers, maybe we could mix things up with a tag-team match, or perhaps an all-out rumble. Imagine the entertainment of watching Beatles producer George Martin, actor Dabney Coleman, hockey great Bobby Hull, rocker Stephen Stills, actresses Victoria Principal and Joan Chen, the controversial Mel Gibson and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning squaring off in a crowded ring. My money would probably be on Hull, despite his age (72), though you can’t count out the always-combative Gibson and the clutch-performing Manning from triumphing over this melee. On the undercard, fighting in the “passed-on” division, a battle between comedy pianist Victor Borge and author J.R.R. Tolkien would tap into an older audience.

These are the stars that I look to for predictions of a rollicking, entertaining future.

Revisited: RefineInstitute.com website review

December 29, 2010

The billboard rising up in the distance along the interstate looks enticing at first. Hard to tell exactly what it’s advertising, but you can make out a great swath of bikini-clad flesh from a mile away. Your attention perks up in anticipation of some provocative treat amidst all the signs showing fast-food options and diesel prices at Truckland Truckstop ($2.93 a gallon; up a little from last week).

Soon you can see more detail on the billboard and there are actually two scantily clad torsos, the first trim and sexy and the second — whoa! — it’s got a huge sagging appendage where the abs should be. I’m repulsed, and that’s apparently the proper reaction, because it’s an ad for The Refine Institute, a Charlotte-area plastic surgery practice, trolling for patients along I-77.

The tagline reads “Changing the shape of Charlotte one person at a time,” which sounds like it’s going to take a while, if you’ve ever seen the line for biscuits at Bojangles. The “REFINE” logo is graphically intriguing too; the “R” is extra bold, the “E” a semibold, the “F” merely bold, the “I” roman, the “N” light and the “E” extra light, a progression from fat to thin type suggesting how you too could stand a little font change after all that cake you ate.

All of which makes me want to learn more about plastic surgery and leads me to the subject of today’s Website Review, RefineInstitute.com.

The home page is a simple affair, a black center square containing the company name and four shaded squares surrounding it, suggesting perhaps how the surgically improved will be the center of attention among her fading friends.

The box on the left tells about “Technical Expertise,” how the surgeons of the practice bring a “sharp” eye to their craft, using “cutting-edge” technologies, subconsciously setting you up for the scalpels that will inevitably follow. The bottom box, conversely, promotes the “High Tech/Less Invasive” nature of the work, including laser-assisted liposuction and something called “fractionated CO2 skin resurfacing,” in which I’m guessing they remove some fraction of your skin, probably using a carbonated beverage. The right box is “Core Consultation,” about holistic wellness and treating the “whole person,” not just the sagging parts.

It’s the top box that has the pulldowns going into more scintillating detail: body contouring, facial sculpting and “breast aesthetics” (hubba-hubba.)

But first, of course, we want to hear about the institute’s philosophy before we learn about the expensive fees, the pain and, ultimately, the slight enhancement of your frankly disgusting eyelids. Refine believes that cosmetic surgery is “rooted in gentle precision and polished elegance.” They offer a “unique 360° approach to restoring your image,” so much better than that earlier business model where only 180° of you was fixed, and you constantly had to triangulate and shift positions so people would only see your front.

We read about surgeon Dr. Ralph Cozart, who did much of his residency in Minnesota, where it seems the extreme cold would give any tightening efforts a nice boost. In his current practice, Dr. Cozart uses Vectra 3-D technology to take “before pictures” of your troublesome body part, then he does NOT — I repeat, NOT — put these on Flikr, then he creates a three-dimensional image of your projected outcome. It’s not mentioned whether your husband will have to wear Avatar glasses after your procedure, though you’ll probably have to go to an IMAX theatre to be fully appreciated.

This is also the area of the website that features “summer specials.” I was fully prepared to make a joke about buy-one-get-one-free, but Refine beat me to it with their SmartLipo offer for “50% of an additional area after first at regular price.” It really does say “of,” not “off.” I hope that’s just a typo and not a special to fix all of one breast and half of another.

Under the “Body Contouring” section, we learn about the various liposuction techniques. “LipoSculpture” is good for small stubborn areas of fat that resist exercise and diet. It’s laser-assisted and only requires “tumescent anesthesia,” which I hope isn’t what it sounds like. “SmartLipo” uses twenty-first century technology to remove fat and tighten skin, so much better than the eighteenth-century technique some surgeons use that involves lopping off as much as a flank. There’s also the “tummy tuck,” requiring your navel to be moved (can you put it on your forehead?) and the “minituck,” wherein your navel stays put.

Special mention is worthwhile here for the “Brazilian Butt Lift.” Developed deep in the Amazon and expected to be an exhibition sport in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Brazilian Butt Lift takes fat from a part of your body where you don’t want it and transfers it to your bottom. The fat can be harvested “from any place” — I’d choose the Food Lion meat department — and can create a very natural look and feel. You can’t sit down for a week, not all the fat will “take” and it could require more than one visit, but an increase in gluteal volume is virtually assured.

Under “Facial Sculpting,” you can get a “blepharoplasty” to fix your eyelids, the “SmartXide DOT Laser” to resurface your skin with the help of the Department of Transportation, or the “FineLift,” using “fillers to restore lost facial volume.” There are also fat transfer options for the face. You can use that saggy neck to enhance your lips, or you could simply run into a door. Aesthetic services are mostly facials, massages and relaxing acid peels.

Obviously, it’s the “Breast Aesthetics” pulldown (ouch) that you’ve all been waiting to hear about. Augmentation uses silicone or saline implants that can be shaped, much like balloon animals, into any style you like. These are somehow “adjustable” and I’d be glad to volunteer for that. The Breast Lift doesn’t involve any insertion of foreign objects and instead focuses on tightening to create a youthful profile. The website’s use of terms like “droop,” “sagging” and “pendulous” struck me as a little insensitive but I guess it does get the point across (ha-ha). Breast Reduction services are also offered, including a special procedure for men suffering from what Dr. Cozart describes as an ”emotionally devastating” condition I’ve rarely thought about, though now that he mentions it, maybe I’m a candidate for “complete removal of the breasts.” On second thought, no.

The final section is “Patient Information” and contains some handy Q&A. You’re told to look for board certification in any doctor you choose, so as to avoid those amateurs in the mall kiosks. “Does this surgeon care about the rest of me or are they just selling a procedure?” you should ask, and if they don’t care, avoid them too. A forum writer asks if saline implants are subject to evaporation and it turns out they are, but usually not condensation or precipitation.

This is also the area that offers online consultation, in which you can chat with Dr. Cozart and send him your picture. Though he maintains a strict “no fatties” policy, the doctor will give you a free initial estimate of how much work you might need. Financing is also discussed in this part, including a gentle reminder that it’s standard to require payment up-front, and that you’d be better off turning to a firm called SurgeryLoans.com rather than waiting for Obamacare.

There’s also a list of products the practice sells that must be effective, or they wouldn’t have names like Skinceuticals and Glominerals. One of these is a skin lightener with the following explanation: “The enzyme tyrosinase converts the amino acid tyrosine into melanin. Hyperpigmentation can result. Ingredients such as arbutin, kojic acid and thymol can suppress tyrosinase.” The only part of that I understand is the “kojic acid,” which I believe Telly Savalas used in his TV cop show of the 1970s to maintain his smooth baldness, and is now available for home use to remove unwanted hair.

All kidding aside, RefineInstitute.com is a well-constructed website providing valuable information about a service for which there’s a legitimate need. It would be easy to make fun of plastic surgery and tummy tucks and boobies, and forget how many women and men are helped by these practices. I hate to be shallow or superficial and think of beauty as only skin deep.

But I did it anyway.

Kojak: “You mean I don’t have to look like this?”