Strange Things Are Happening

by Steve Mason

We make some of our greatest gains
when we see old things in new ways

Many years ago, a popular comedian of the day (Red Buttons) recorded an equally popular song that listed a bunch of incongruities gleaned from daily life - things that people accept but that, if you think about them, make little sense. The song was called Strange Things Are Happening. George Carlin follows much the same line when he asks why we park in driveways and drive on parkways? So I started making a list of 21st Century conventions that, in truth, would be hard to explain to anyone from another culture.

For example, why doesn't the United States get on the ball and adopt the metric system? There was an attempt thirty or so years ago when, I suspect, some government official's brother-in-law was in the highway sign business because I recall not being able to drive ten feet without seeing a posting for the next town in both miles and kilometers. Said brother-in-law must have either gone out of business or - more likely - retired on all the federal funding he received because one day all the signs were gone.

The nation didn't go metric except for one exception. Because liters are smaller than quarts, all the wineries converted to the less product for the same price packaging. Soft drink companies have since followed suit but that's about it. Say Good-bye to a system of weights and measures that makes sense and can be taught even to dummies in about half an hour.

Which brings me to my next anomaly. How many times have you seen a row of clocks in a travel agency or at a currency exchange set for New York, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong? So what good are they? As it happens, I just got back from Australia, and my watch is still on Sydney time - but I don't know if it's AM or PM. I once phoned a guy at what I erroneously thought was 3:00 PM, and he hasn't spoken to me since. So how difficult would it be to design a true 24-hour clock - and I don't mean one with the same twelve hours but an extra set of numbers added?

And while we're on the topic, what's with Daylight Saving? Despite all the talk about its being good for farmers, it isn't. They operate according to the sun and couldn't care less what you say the time is. Ditto for just about every other group that's supposed to gain some benefit from making believe it's an hour later. This is almost as archaic a notion as when the Pope - who's infallible in case you didn't know - insisted that the Sun goes around the Earth and not vice versa. I read the other day about how it was possible to go through eight time changes driving through certain towns between the western boarder of Illinois and Ohio's eastern edge.

But now for the biggest mystery of all when it comes to clocks: How many minutes will I spend on a plane if I fly from 3:55 in the afternoon until 10:30 at night? The reason that the answer isn't readily apparent is because somebody somewhere decided that time should be divided into units of twelve.

Why, when we have ten fingers and ten toes and have spent tens of thousands of years thinking in terms of tens, should this be? Why not simply take one complete rotation of the Earth and divide it into a thousand units with a hundred of those hours and a hundred of those minutes and a hundred of those seconds?

How do you think we wound up with the length of the meter? The distance from the equator to the pole was put down and then divided by ten into so many smaller units and each of those was then again divided by ten into even smaller units and so forth. This would, in one fell swoop, eliminate the need for AM/PM and make computing the number of minutes you're going to have to spend on a plane as simple as making change for a dollar.

Speaking of planes, why oh why do we have to make cabin crews look foolish by insisting that they show people how to use a seat belt? Can't we merely assume that everyone on the plane has also been in a car at some point during the last forty-five years? And in case of emergency, do you really think I'm going to want to bet my life on someone who previously made a major production of slipping tab A into slot B? If they have to demonstrate 50's technology, why not also dress them as clowns to suggest it's going to be a fun flight? Hey, let's all follow the fright wig and floppy shoes to the nearest exit.

Along the same lines, why are both pilots and attendants dressed in uniforms so inappropriate to the task? Do you really want a guy flying fifteen hours in lace up cordovans, dress pants plus belt and a suit jacket all topped off with a big hat? Now I know this is going to sound really weird, but why not put a pilot in a flight suit? Can you imagine a guy taking off from an aircraft carrier wearing a dark blue, double-breasted from Brooks Brothers with a big hat? And do you really want someone in a tight skirt and heels trying to wrestle a lady with a baby out of a burning wreck?

I know it's all an illusion to convince customers that traveling through a 60 below-zero-near-vacuum at 600 mph is a lot like Dancing with the Stars but to me such absurd costuming borders on the criminal when lives (especially mine) are at stake. Personally, I'd have no problem with crews dressed specifically for hours of comfort - and just maybe a few seconds of sheer terror.

A while back, I read an article about how the rocket that took Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon could be directly related to the chariots that carried wheat to Rome. It sounds silly but the axle widths were standardized to match the roads that later determined the gauge of railroad tracks. As it happens, the diameter of the Saturn V had to be specifically designed to fit through the tunnels that were between the factory and the launch pad.

Interestingly enough, you're probably tied to just such an anachronism - one that impedes your work and play on a daily basis. You may not be aware of it but when typewriters were first invented they were complicated mechanical devices with keys that became tangled if you typed too fast.

The solution was to invent the QWERTY keyboard that you now use. The letters of the alphabet, believe it or not, were arranged purposely to slow you down. Since then, we've progressed to high-speed computers with no moving parts, but that hopelessly antiquated keyboard remains. Of course, there have been newer designs where the letters are arranged in such a way as to allow even the slowest typist to whiz along. The problem is that the QWERTY layout is so firmly established worldwide that manufacturers are reluctant to produce a more efficient pattern.

As with the metric system, people tend to resist learning a new way of doing things, even when it's clearly to their benefit. So here's my idea, create a keyboard with a switch that allows different users to go back and forth between the old and new layouts. Kids will master the new moves while fossils will stick with the old and, since we're talking digital technology, I'm sure that such a keyboard can be wired up in a matter of minutes by any geek within range of a Radio Shack. Incidentally, should any royalties be involved, remember where you read this.

Look At It This Way

Just yesterday, I was at the bank trying to deposit a few checks. I say "trying" because one of them was made out to both my wife and me and I was the only one there to sign the back. My wife and I frequently sign each other's names so this would have presented no problem if only I'd caught the need for two signatures before the teller did. But now she knew, and there was no way I'd be allowed to make life simpler and the world turn more smoothly for all concerned. It was her watch and she was watching.

The exasperating part of all this was the wildly absurd assumption that somebody somewhere was actually going to check, and would then be able to tell that both signatures were made by the same felonious hand. What a crock! I can't always tell if it was me that signed something, and I certainly don't find it surprising that both sides in forgery cases regularly produce handwriting experts who swear that it is/isn't really Hitler's signature.

In an age when fingerprints, eye scans, DNA chips and all sorts of foolproof identification are available, why does the illiterate guy still have to make an X on a piece of paper to make it legal? And that's my point. Isn't it strange that such glaring examples of nonsense are destined to exist in perpetuity only because they exist?

Surely there can't be any other reason for the @ in each and every email address. There I am, holding a business card in one hand, and pecking out a bunch of lower case numbers and letters with the other, when suddenly, right in the middle, UT-OH I have to use two hands for the upper case @. If Al Gore is so smart that he invented the Internet, how come he didn't see that one coming? And if Bill Gates is so rich and so keen on doing good, why doesn't he fund an effort to change the @ to a = or a / or some other one-handed symbol? He'd save countless yet unborn generations from having to put the card down and then pick it up again.

And the really funny thing is, whoever wrote Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door, probably typed it on a QWERTY keyboard. Go figure.

Email the author at DrSBMason at

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