Monday, January 23, 2012

An Arm and a Leg

These days, everyone's broke. Well...nearly everyone, but for the most part the money's tight and sometimes that means making changes to one's lifestyle. For instance, before the crash, I'd frivolously purchase six dollar shirts. Now I refuse to get anything above two bucks. It's simply not in my budget.

Sometimes, however, people have made drastic modifications. Desperate times call for desperate measures (as the cliché goes) and during the recession of 1953 things were bleak in the small redneck town of Vernon, Florida. With no jobs and no future, several middle-aged men filed claims with their insurance company.

After, of course, removing off their limbs.

Ghoulishly referred to as the "Nub Club," these men had all lost hands and feet in various "accidents" and defrauded thousands of dollars from their insurers. Most of these incidents involved firearms, but some men reported axe injuries. Maybe they were old-fashioned. Regardless, it remains a mystery as to who exactly was the first, but the strategy proved alarmingly popular. More than fifty men took to amputation to make ends meet, and this was especially noticeable in a town with only five hundred people. Eventually, an army of insurance investigators was dispatched to Vernon to examine the improbable quantity of dismemberment and the story reached the papers. The reports referred to Vernon as "Nub City" and the name endured.

In 1981, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris learned about Vernon and decided to make a movie about the town. Not surprisingly, the taciturn members of the Nub Club were not keen on being interviewed, and so Morris was forced to broaden his focus to the other eccentrics that Vernon had offer.

It seems there were plenty to choose from.
Would you like to know more?
-Read this article from the Tampa Bay Times
-Read this excerpt from Accidentally, on Purpose: the Making of a Personal Injury Underworld in America
-Buy the Vernon, Florida documentary here for $2.75. Now that's a bargain.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Plastic Problem of the Pacific

The processes of human civilization are changing the planet into something quite inhospitable. Evidence of the transformation can be seen everywhere, but there's one prominent example in the North Pacific Ocean. It stretches across 270,000 square miles (exceeding the size of Texas) and is calculated to weigh in at 100,000,000 tons.  If the work of numerous devoted oceanographers and engineers is unsuccessful, then it promises to become of the first continent of a new world we unknowingly built. It's a loosely organized island of garbage, undulating in the waves. They call it the Pacific Trash Vortex.

Like so many environmental problems, the Trash Vortex didn't arrive without  warning. In 1988, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined the convergence of several ocean currents and predicted that plastic debris from America, Canada, and Japan (along with discarded fishing nets and the nautical liter produced by international shipping) would begin to accumulate in specific areas. Nothing was done and the bigger-than-Texas problem is the result. First observed in 1997, the Trash Vortex is only one of several, with others floating in the North Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

The masses of plastic are weathered by the surf and sun, but do not biograde. Some of the innermost garbage has been there for decades. Marine life and sea-birds become entangled in the Vortex and often die trapped or suffocated. Some are even poisoned after swallowing bottle-caps and bits of ballpoint pens. Still worse, toxins produced by the garbage patch (like those old classic PCBs and DDT) seep down into the ocean to harm those creatures beneath the waves.

Currently a handful of nonprofits groups and research organizations periodically head into the Trash Vortex to perform tests and raise awareness. But its has yet to be contained. As of now, the Vortex grows ever larger.

For god's sake, recycle, okay?

Would you like to know more?
-Read this article from the New York Times
-Read this article from Greenpeace

We Now Return to the Regularly Scheduled Program

The Black-Out's over. Time to get back to work.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Cruising Radioactive

Most experts agree: the future is here, but how do we make it go? The quest for fuel is one of the central problems of our era, and as we scramble for solar cells and try to turn algae into gasoline, we can't help but wonder why people didn't bother to work this out decades ago.

Well, while most of the world was content to drill for oil and forget about tomorrow, there were some rudimentary efforts towards alternative power sources. But sometimes the best of intentions can't make up for dismally bad ideas. Imagine a miniature nuclear reactor colliding with a guard-rail at fifty miles-per-hour. Now you understand the major flaw of the Ford Nucleon.

Resembling a hybrid between a speed-boat and George Jetson's flying saucer, the Nucleon was a design concept unveiled by the Ford Motor Company in 1958. Atomania was huge, and the Nucleon was intended to be the world's fist atomic car. While the specifics of the Nucleon engine had not been finalized, the idea was that the Nucleon would have hot hunk of uranium in the back, boiling water into steam which would then drive the engine. While the water tank would need to be regularly replenished, the radioactive fuel could last up to five thousand miles before being replaced. The Nucleon was also designed to have multiple engine settings (depending on the owner's driving habits) to ensure optimum fuel efficiency. All that and no harmful carbon monoxide fumes. What a deal.

Given the problems that we've had with stationary nuclear reactors (staffed with ostensibly well-trained employees) the notion of clueless drivers speeding around with a engine full of uranium is more than a little horrifying. Engine tune-ups would necessitate hazmat suits and the highway exits would be littered with depressing sales stations dealing in fuel-rods and blue raspberry slushies. Thankfully, the Nucleon never made it out of the design stage. There's one less thing to worry about.

Would you like to know more?
-Read this explanation from Ford's official website
-Read this article from Hemmings Motor News