Sign Here

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:John_Hancock_Signature_DOI.jpgLast 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.”

Also:

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.”

A Plate Worse Than Death

Here’s a masochist’s lunch menu, courtesy of various bad-food gourmands:

  • Basil Seed Drink. “Forcefully overrides the throat’s core instinct not to swallow tadpoles or chilled vomit.”
  • Squid Ink Pizza. “Looks terrible & stains your mouth black, so I have never found a reason to eat more than a spoonful of the stuff.”
  • Happy Plum Candy. “There is no way to describe the horror of the sweet/sour spicy coating as it smothers you physically and emotionally and drags you, screaming and kicking, into a hellish, fiery pit of excruciating pain and agony, where it slowly flogs and tortures you in the sulphurus recess of your darkest fears for hours on end, before finally leaving you, mangled beyond recognition, to die. And that’s not the worst part.”

You can wash everything down with Boo Koo Energy Drink, “the giant bastard son of Mountain Dew and 7UP, with a bit of mineral water thrown in to add just a hint of inbreeding.”

Bon appetit!

Doc Holiday

Doctor Zebra’s Medical History of American Presidents gives the lowdown on all 43 commanders-in-chief. Excerpts:

  • George Washington really did wear dentures, made of hippopotamus ivory, seahorse ivory, and lead. “Other sets used the teeth of pigs, cows, elks, and humans.”
  • A dentist once broke off part of Lincoln’s jawbone while pulling a tooth — without anesthesia.
  • JFK was diagnosed with Addison’s disease in 1947 and given less than a year to live. In October he was actually given last rites.
  • Reagan quit smoking easily, which can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • George W. Bush has creases in his earlobes, which may be a marker for increased cardiovascular risk. No one knows why.

The Constitution explains what to do if the president dies, but not if he’s incapacitated by illness. “Note the heavy burden of disease that has afflicted our presidents,” writes the anonymous doctor. “We have been very lucky indeed.”