So Long, Khufu need some new wonders. The old ones wore out some time ago, as you may have noticed. Of the seven wonders of the ancient world — the Pyramids of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria — only the pyramids are left. The hanging gardens may never have existed.

Well, there are lots of wonderful things in the world. Can’t we just choose a better list? That depends on who does the choosing. In 1994 the American Society of Civil Engineers took a shot at it and proposed these modern replacements:

  1. Empire State Building, New York
  2. Itaipu Dam, Brazil and Paraguay
  3. CN Tower, Toronto, Canada
  4. Panama Canal, Panama
  5. Channel Tunnel, United Kingdom and France
  6. Delta Works, North Sea protection works, Netherlands
  7. Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Not so great. I mean, you can’t compare the Chunnel with Zeus.

Fortunately, now we can all vote on it. In 2001, the Swiss filmmaker, adventurer and explorer Bernard Weber founded the NewOpenWorld Foundation to reach a global consensus on seven new wonders. It hasn’t made a big splash in this country, but it’s been huge in China and in India, which is lobbying hard for the Taj Mahal.

With 17 million votes in, here are the current leaders:

  1. Wall of China (11.01 percent)
  2. Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet (8.52 percent)
  3. Taj Mahal, India (7.70 percent)
  4. Colosseum, Rome (7.00 percent)
  5. Pyramids of Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (6.33 percent)
  6. Statues of Easter Island, Chile (6.03 percent)
  7. Tower of Pisa, Italy (5.98 percent)

So that’s looking pretty good. They’ll announce the final list next January. I figure if we can get 2 million Americans to vote, we can push Wal-Mart to the top of the list.

Sign Here month, Donald Rumsfeld got into a flap when it was revealed that his condolence letters to troops’ families were signed by a machine.

Some critics, like retired Army colonel David Hackworth, compared using a machine to “having it signed by a monkey.” But in the digital age, signing your name on paper is a pretty quaint custom. Was Rumsfeld’s decision really inappropriate?

Legally, your signature shows you’ve deliberated about something and given your informed consent. So if you asked Donald Trump to “autograph” your mortgage, you couldn’t claim he’d agreed to pay it.

But if it’s really the act of consent that’s significant, then how you express it shouldn’t matter, right? When I sign a credit-card receipt, most retail clerks don’t even glance at my signature.

Congress even ratified this view when it passed a new law in 2000, legally recognizing an “electronic sound, symbol, or process” as a signature. That means you can now “sign” an Internet transaction with an e-mail message or even a Touch-Tone beep.

So is Rumsfeld still wrong? Unfortunately, yes. In this case his signature is neither an autograph nor an endorsement, but a sign of his personal attention.

As Hackworth told Stars and Stripes, “Using those machines is pretty common, but it shouldn’t be in cases of those who have died in action. How can [officials] feel the emotional impact of that loss if they’re not even looking at the letters?”

That may be one thing a technocrat can’t understand.

Can We Start Over?

Big Numbers gives real-world examples of various orders of magnitude, from the number of Earths that would fit into the sun (106) to the number of fish in the world (1012).

The only trouble is, once you get past 1042, it’s hard to find things to count. There are 1057 atoms in the sun, and 1066 atoms in our galaxy. An octovigintillion (1087) is a lonely number — outside of pure math, it has almost nothing to do.

Speed Freaks

This spring will see the opening of the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster. New Jersey’s Kingda Ka will accelerate to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds, drop 418 feet into a 270-degree spiral, soar over a 129-foot hill and glide back into its station.

Statistically, roller coasters are actually safer than lawn chairs. But riders are drawn to the illusion of danger, and that’s spawning a new science of fear.

“We always try to make them look and feel more dangerous than they really are,” Michael Boodley of Great Coasters International told Psychology Today.

Good coasters exploit the universal fears of heights and falling. Riders want to feel a loss of control. “The closest thing to compare it to is driving with an idiot,” Boodley says.

Purists like rickety wooden coasters, where there’s a slow buildup and more time to fret about safety. “There’s a lot of self-abuse on that chain lift,” Boodley said. “Your own mind puts you in a state of paralysis.”

“LIMs,” the newer rides driven by linear induction motors, forgo that in favor of raw power, but they do exploit psychology by inverting the cars and suspending riders in space. (At Busch Gardens Tampa you’re actually dangled over a pit of live crocodiles.) And the very violence of a LIM ride — on some you’ll pull up to 4 Gs — is unfamiliar and thus scary.

Whichever your choice, your ride will probably last only a minute. That’s because the ride is accurately named: After the first burst of speed, the rolling cars are literally coasting.

Poetic License

There was a young man from Lahore
Whose limericks stopped at line four.
When asked why this was,
He responded, “Because.”


There was a young man from Iran
Whose poetry just wouldn’t scan.
When they said, “But the thing
Doesn’t go with the swing,”
He replied, “Yes, I’m aware of that, but I like to put as many syllables in the last line as I can.”