Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cucaracha Cha-Cha

This is a typical morning at MIT, circa 1976. While most students were usually sound asleep until 9 or 10am, the cockroaches were already awake when the sun came up. That's because they were nocturnal.

MIT had roaches for the same reason most urban spaces had roaches: there were plenty of things for a roach to eat. In addition, the roaches bred faster than we could kill them off. They knew how to get into any space, and their adaptability made them indestructible. We did not have medicine cabinets in our dorm rooms, just open shelves, so roaches could get into our toiletries. Fortunately, we had dresser drawers, so we never found roaches in our personal effects, although I did end up squashing one inside my sneaker once (yecch!)

The cockroach is one of those creatures, like the shark, that has been around almost since the beginning of time and will be one of the last creatures remaining on Earth when it gets swallowed up by the supernova-ing Sun. In fact, if Christian potboiler novelist Tim LaHaye wanted to be factually accurate, his end-times milieu would have an Earth inhabited by nothing but sinners - and cockroaches.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Dirty Little Secret

MIT has a Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The Department is home to the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel and the Flight Transportation Lab, and that Lab is home to one of the four university campuses of the National Center for Excellence in Aviation Operations Research, better known as NEXTOR (the other campuses being at the University of California at Berkeley, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland). In addition to that, MIT sits under one of the departure tracks for Boston Logan International Airport, which was and still is one of the busiest airports in the country. Logan Airport is located just east of downtown Boston in a community known as East Boston, separated from Beacon Hill by the Harbor. In our day, 1974-78, there were two parallel tunnels that brought traffic from Boston out to the Airport; thanks to the Big Dig, there is now a third tunnel, named for Ted Williams, that crosses the Harbor. There is also the Blue Line, a creaky old subway not as creaky as the Green Line (nothing could possibly be that creaky), that brings passengers to a depot where they catch a shuttle bus to the airport terminals. And recently, there has commenced a new sort of bus/subway combination that runs between South Boston, Downtown and the Airport.

Logan Airport's location means that airplanes cross to the north, the south and across the MIT campus. In fact, when the wind is from the south, one can look south across the Charles and see the 747's come swooping in a low turn south of the Prudential Building, then thunder north above the Green Building and East Campus on their way to Europe or the West Coast. There may have been louder airplanes (the DC-9 and the 727 were plenty loud), but nothing was quite as menacing.
The toilets on aircraft are not supposed to vent to the outside the way old trains did (in fact, they warn you not to flush the toilets while the train is in the station), but airplane toilets do have vents to the outside that are used by siphon trucks that suck out all that blue liquid in the plane's toilet holding tanks and take it somewhere to get disposed of. Occasionally those vents malfunction, and if the malfunction occurs when the airplane is in the upper atmosphere, the blue goo leaks out and freezes to the outside of the airplane...and sometimes those frozen chunks of goo break off and fall from the airplane; people whose houses lie under the approach to an airport have reported being pelted with "blue ice".

Plane toilets present other hazards, but mostly to the passengers who use them. Some passengers have reported sitting down on the seat, doing their business, then flushing the toilet - and getting sucked in so tightly that they need help being dislodged. New model aircraft toilets have a vacuum boost that enables them to carry away waste products with minimal use of flush water. Buildings that are designed to environmentally responsible standards have a similar toilet hazard; they also come equipped with toilets that reduce water consumption by use of suction. You can tell a vacuum-assisted toilet by its flush, which sounds like the approach of a tornado. Again, anyone who sits too firmly on the seat is at risk of having their posterior sucked in. However, Man is an ingenious animal who has discovered that the suction can be defeated easily by dropping a cellphone in the toilet (this is what is meant by a dropped call)...which must explain why so many people insist on taking cell phone calls in restrooms.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Look What the Cat Dragged In

I introduced Walden to Stickles readers about one semester after I had introduced Cindy, the cat's owner (I say "owner" because I've yet to find anyone who is a cat's master; "owner" defines someone who pours the cat food out of the bag). Walden was modeled after a real cat named Woodstock, and Woodstock had become famous for being a write-in candidate for president of the Class of 1978 in my sophomore year (I wrote about Woodstock in an earlier blog post).

Walden was a male cat, and males of the feline persuasion are known by a particular characteristic.
Veterinarians will tell you that male cats that are not neutered will continue to engage in marking activity even after they have been spayed. It's a sort of an instinctive action that does not turn off once it has been turned on.
Walden was also a curious cat. Curiosity will get a cat into all kinds of trouble...
Nitrous oxide was a hot commodity in our dorm; it was usually dispensed in little canisters called Whippets which were used to discharge whipped cream on top of ice cream sundaes. It could also be procured in balloon quantities. It livened up many a party; people who inhaled it would fall down laughing (or just plain fall down). Helium, by contrast, just made you talk funny.

I've owned many cats in my life. I've only owned one dog, and he tends to drive my current cat nuts.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rush Limbo

In Boston, there is a ritual that is as old as time and as regular as clockwork. Just as the swallows return annually to Capistrano and the buzzards return to Hinckley, Ohio, the college students return to their various campuses in the Boston area. It is a congregation that can be detected in the increased traffic on I-95 and the larger than usual clusters of backpacked, unruly ragamuffins clustered around the bag claim at Logan Airport. 
The freshman arrive at MIT, usually in the last week of August (Stanford, being on a more relaxed, California-style timetable, usually doesn't see its first students until the third week of September). They begin the unusual mating process known as Rush Week, at which time they will decide their living arrangement for the next four years. The frats choose first, rushing their picks of the young, peach-fuzzed frosh who wander by looking for a good time and a warm place to sleep for the night. The leftovers stumble their bewildered way into the dorm system, and the dregs drift into Bexley to plot their careers as MoveOn organizers (okay, we didn't have MoveOn in my day, but there were any number of radical causes about, including thursday).

You'll notice I haven't mentioned the co-eds (ladies, if you will); in the '70s, MIT did not have sororities, so the fairer sex was doomed to end up in McCormick, although there were options - Baker, East Campus, Senior House, WILG, Burton, No. 6, and so on. One of the fraternities, Sigma Nu, actually decided to admit women - and was promptly drummed out of the national fraternity by its incensed elders, whereafter it became known as Epsilon Theta. No other frat followed in their footsteps, formally, although some informal living arrangements were arrived at by consenting couples in both the fraternities and the dorms. One dorm acquired a Combat Zone hooker that way.

Bag claim is always an interesting place; it is the only time you will see your fellow passengers in an upright position. It's always entertaining to play Match the Passenger With the Bag. Airport adminstrators are no fun at all, though; they warn you politely that some bags may look alike, so be sure to check the claim tag first before grabbing your suitcase. Except in Philadelphia, where in true Brotherly Love fashion, there is a rather stern warning that "This Is Not Your Bag!" affixed to the ugliest green Samsonite ever manufactured.

Two end notes: as I mentioned before, I have a terrible time drawing dark faces in a comic strip, which explains why Stickles had no African American characters. This strip has one, and as my father hastened to point out in politically-correct tones, it is one of the baggage porters. I corrected that injustice by casting a dark-faced Harvard student in a later 8-panel strip - also set at an airport. The second has to do with the intro; it never happened to me, but one of my colleagues from my early consulting days told me that It Actually Happened to Him that a flight attendant mixed white wine and red wine together to produce rosé. He also told me a story, about a young man with a severe lisp who wanted to become a Fuller Brush salesman, that I shall not relate here, but I will tell it to you sometime in a bar somewhere after a half-dozen beers.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Dismal Science

To show you how little things change over the years, here is one of the earliest "Stickles" cartoons to ever be printed in the MIT student newspaper.

According to the notation, the date is March 17, 1975. The economy is in recession (sound familiar?). We have a president who is coming up for re-election. And gas prices are high ("high" in those days meant over a dollar a gallon). Because the price of oil is on the increase, inflation is a concern.

On the other hand, America in the '70s had not experienced the kind of mortgage meltdown that was to occur in 2008. In fact, the first time American banks got into trouble was in the '80s, when a rogue office of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC for short) decided to practice extreme laissez-faire regulation, cozied up to the Texas banking industry and allowed them to engage in acts of finance you can't show on television or print in a family newspaper. However, instead of home mortgages, the catastrophe was precipitated by commercial lending. Billions of dollars were lent to build office buildings, subdivisions and shopping malls with money presumably set aside to finance homes, to the point where there were not enough tenants to fill all the spaces. When the price of oil suddenly and precipitously dropped in 1986, the real estate brokers ran out of tenants to fill their properties and went bust, and their problems became the problems of the Texas banks and savings and loans. In the end, the taxpayers were called in to bail out the lenders (to the tune of about $500 billion), a new agency called the Office of Thrift Supervision was created to clear up the muck, and the FSLIC was no more. The taxpayers were probably still paying to untangle the mess when 2008 came along and with it a new set of problems. It seems we never learn from our mistakes.

But that was not the proximate cause of our miseries in 1975. Instead we had runaway inflation - nothing like what we would experience in 1980, but bad enough, and triggered by gasoline getting expensive. In those days, we did not have solar and wind power, and we didn't have hybrid cars; the average Chevy got about 15 miles to the gallon, which is about what the average Hummer gets today. Our leaders vowed to Whip Inflation Now and our Fed raised interest rates, which led to a sharp, nasty recession in 1974 that spilled over into 1975. The cycle would repeat itself in 1980, which is when we experienced interest rates that briefly touched 20% (try getting a home mortgage at those rates!)

Today, of course, inflation is under 3% and interest rates, which were sky-high all throughout the '80s, are so low that you can get a 30-year mortgage for less than 4% fixed. But the bankers give you the stink-eye when you come in looking to borrow for a home. They ask you for everything but a blood test and your next of kin. Hence demand for homes continues to drag along. And people who depend on homebuilding for a living can't find work. But if you want to borrow $20 billion for a leveraged buyout, bankers can't do enough for you. After all, debt is therapeutic.

Gerald Ford lost the election in 1976; the electorate remembered how bad things were a year earlier and gave the Republicans a thrashing. Barack Obama stands for president again in 2012, having only a marginal amount to show for all his efforts since 2009 to revive the economy. That he stands any chance at all of re-election is testament to the quality of his opposition.