Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Breakfast Machine

O, Technology, I have a crush on you, from the innards of my MacBook to the Large Hadron Collider. I get misty over a good space shuttle launch, or a magnified view of the tiny spinning gears of a pocket watch. Good lord, but I love mankind's machines and contraptions.

I have a special soft spot for a certain invention, a Rube-Goldbergian peculiarity of Western pop culture: the Breakfast Machine. Pee-Wee Herman's got one, Wallace and Gromit have one--my personal touchstone is an earlier model, the breakfast machine from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (pictured above), in which the plates arrive on a wee train while a series of ferris wheels and levers crack eggs and distribute sausages, leaving crackpot widower Dick Van Dyke free to sing to his kids about how much he loves them. And dadgummit, they love him back, even if it does take the man a week to fry a freaking egg.

Maybe that's it. I cannot join the no-fun Luddites, who proclaim that technology will lead us to ruin, who pray for a Great Unplugging, and, like bloodthirsty French Revolutionaries cheering tumbrels on the road to the guillotine, would rejoice at the sight of shredded wiring and shattered motherboards strewn in the streets. But neither can I join with the no-soul techno-drones, who would take a beautiful machine and use it merely as a way to make us go faster and faster until we drop from exhaustion and despair.

But the breakfast machine is the best of both worlds. It is a pure celebration of humanity's hard-earned, intricate understanding of physics and engineering, but it doesn't save any time or pocket any money for the Man at all. If that's not punk rock, I don't know what is. The breakfast machine is a love letter to Newcomen and Thoreau all at once. It is absolutely pointless, but cannot be built without hard work and a brilliant mind. The breakfast machine is a way for the elegant clockwork of the universe, through the eyes of its sentient carbon-based children, to admire itself.

And that's just cracking, Gromit.

Bonus: Remember that classic piece of "machinery" music? C'mon, you know the one I'm talking about: the ubiquitous soundtrack of every cartoon that ever featured a crazy machine or the chugging of an industrial production line in a factory. I'm sure you're humming it in your head right now. It's called "Powerhouse" by Raymond Scott.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Immortality of the Lobster

Nature, as the poet says, is positively scarlet in t. and c., and has thought of many creative, messy, and painful ways of killing her mortal children.

Even if you manage to avoid tsunamis, man-eating tigers, pneumonia, traffic accidents, Patriot missiles, strokes, dirty lettuce, flamethrowers, cancer, roadside bombs, clogged arteries, and the corner of San Pedro and 84th St. in Los Angeles, you still won't make it past about 120 in the very best of scenarios. It's true. No matter how much danger and sickness you dodge, you're still going to die from being plain old, well, old.

A smarty-pants scientist friend of mine told me some interesting things about this recently. The reason we age is connected to a feature of our chromosomes known as the telomere. Put very simply, telomeres are bits of DNA at the ends of your chromosomes, which keep the chromosomes from deteriorating (kind of like how that little plastic aglet thingy keeps the ends of your shoelaces from fraying.) As your cells replicate over your lifetime, these telomeres get shorter and shorter, until they reach something known as the Hayflick Limit, which is when cells stop dividing because the telomeres have gotten too short. This leads to aging and death. So, essentially, even if you don't get sick or injured, your cells are simply programmed to die after a certain number of replications.

However, there is a creature who is immune to this cell death: the lobster.

Yes. This tastiest of crustaceans does not suffer from shortening telomeres, and therefore does not "age" in the sense that we know it. Lobsters show none of the usual signs of decrepitude, such as weakness or loss of reproductive virility; they simply reach sexual maturity and then just keep getting bigger and bigger. The biggest lobster on record weighed 40 pounds, and although there is no certain way to determine its age, based on the usual rate of lobster growth, he was probably around 100 years old.

Of course lobsters can die due to other factors, such as being killed in fights with rival lobsters or other creatures, succumbing to infection or disease, or, the most common cause, being so damned delicious with butter.

This means that lobsters are essentially the Elves from Lord of the Rings. I imagine that Tolkien pictured the lords of heaven bestowing this gift on a slightly more attractive, graceful species. But it just goes to show that Mother Nature has a much more ancient and Greek sense of humor, in that she will bless you with immortality, but make you taste like bacon.