Monday, October 26, 2015


     Too many years ago, Larry Cotton, then a fellow employee at a large company, and I became friends.  He was a design engineer and I was a draftsman, so we were somewhat like-minded.  We began writing magazine articles together on the side.  For example, one of us spotted a news item that the U.S. Postal Service was considering selling ads on postage stamps, so we made up a series of wacky stamp ads, doing all the artwork ourselves, and sold it to Harper’s  magazine.  We designed and built some kids’ furniture for Popular Science,  employing his children as photo models.

     Our paths diverged when I left the company to start a business.  I continued writing sideline magazine articles on all kinds of subjects from a World Land Speed Record attempt, to sailing on the Great Salt Lake, to environmental issues, to marlin fishing on the Gulf Stream, and he wrote a popular column for an electronics magazine.

     When we both semi-retired a few years back, we got together again and we’ve been co-inventing things primarily for MAKE  magazine since.  Naomi suggested we come up with a scratching post, for example, that would deposit a treat every time a cat uses it, thus training the beast to claw the post rather than its owner’s shins.  Intrigued by laminar flow water, which is turbulence-free and exhibits startling behavior, we drove 600 miles one way to Orlando to see how the Disney wizards had used laminar flow to build a fountain, and then we designed our own.  We’ve invented and built a levitation device for a military sub-contractor, and recently made two complex pendulums for NC State U that will help teach chaos theory to students.

     Because we’re really quite different people, ideologically, politically, and philosophically, we tend to argue a lot as we’re working.

     But precisely because  we’re different, we approach a challenge from different viewpoints, which often results in a compromise that works quite well and that neither one of us would have thought up alone.

     There are examples of successful collaborations throughout business, medicine, law, and the arts.  In music there are Rogers and Hammerstein, Waylon and Jessi, The Beatles.  There are more examples in academia, where many textbooks are written by partners.

     Fiction writers have teamed up to good effect.  The prolific John Sanford, author of the popular Prey  series, has concocted tales with the imaginative help of his good golfing buddy David Cronk.  The even more prolific Stephen King and fellow noir scribe Peter Straub have written some pretty horrific stuff together.

     The fiction author P.J. Parrish is actually Kristy and Kelly, sisters who have won a bucketful of awards and continue to make the NY Times  list consistently.  Asked why they’ve been so successful, their answer was, “. . . the double insight you get into your characters . . . to say nothing of the double dose of energy and imagination . . . we each have special qualities that seem to blend effectively.”

     Just like Sherlock and Watson.  Or Penn and Teller.  Or Wilbur and Orville. 

     Or Larry and Phil.


Monday, October 5, 2015

How many have to die?
     An eighteen-year-old girl in my area was texting a friend while driving.  Whatever that message was, it was expensive.  It cost her everything—all her dreams and plans and ambitions, her friendships, her happiness, her whole bright future—when she ran into the back end of a log truck at lethal velocity.

     The world-wide addiction to cell phones is such that people simply will not stop texting and talking and surfing while simultaneously trying to control a two-ton vehicle at highway speeds.  These people would probably agree that trying to brush your teeth or trim your bangs or apply makeup or watch TV or clip your fingernails while driving would be absurd and suicidal.  Yet they think nothing of risking their own lives and, much worse, the lives of all those around them in order to conduct such conversations as:

     “Hi, where are you?”
     “On the beltway, headed home.  Traffic is an absolute frenzy.”
     “Tell me about it.  Some idiot just cut me off.  I’ll be home in half an hour, though.”
     “Okay.  You want me to stop for milk?”
     “No, I’ll do it.  See you there.  Love you, Snookums.”
     “Back at you, Sweet Cheeks.”

     For such conversations, people are dying gruesome deaths.

     The National Safety Council said 3,328 people died and 421,000 suffered injuries during 2012 alone in crashes related to distraction.  That’s nine deaths and 1,150 injuries per day.  AAA has since upped the current annual death toll to 5,000, or more than 13 daily deaths.  That’s two more deaths per day than the American military suffered on average throughout the entire Vietnam War. 

     Why don’t lawmakers seem at all concerned about these statistics? 

     The evidence is abundant and clear that cell phone use is killing and disabling drivers everywhere.  We don’t need any further studies to know we simply cannot devote sufficient safe attention to driving while engaged in cell phoning.

     The average time to answer a text is five seconds, in which time, at 55 miles per hour, a car travels the length of a football field, ample time and distance for all kinds of bloody mayhem to happen to drivers, passengers, and those around them.

     A number of states have taken timid steps to slow the slaughter. 

     Recently in California, where texting while driving, at least, is illegal, the cops have tried to crack down.  Drivers are often either astonished or angry when pulled over for what they consider to be only normal, innocent behavior.  But at least they’re not yet dead or maimed for life when they accept a ticket.

     When asked, 74 percent of drivers say that all hand-held cell phone use by drivers should be outlawed.
     Yet in surveys a majority of drivers admit to using their phones routinely.

     There’s a simple solution.  Cell phones have built-in GPS.  From now on by law they could all be configured from the factory so that when the phone senses any velocity greater than brisk walking speed, it will simply cease to work until velocity is reduced below the limit.  The 911 number would still operate for emergencies.  If you must talk or text, you’d have to pull over to do so—a minor inconvenience when weighed against so many thousands of lives.  Old phones would gradually phase out as they’re retired.

     Ask the parents and friends of the girl who crashed into that log truck if something like this might be a good idea.