As we delve deeper into the Christmas season, I’d like to take a moment to look back at the Ghost of Christmas Presents Past.
I’m sure most of you readers in my demographic remember anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Sears catalogue every winter. I would spend my Saturday mornings, in between bowls of heavily sugared cereal and cartoons, scouring the pages for the must-have Christmas present of the year.
Today, the catalogue has gone the way of the dinosaurs as kids rely on the internet and commercials to build their wish lists, but a lot of the great toys of the past remain popular today.
In a recent Forbes Magazine article, there is a list of the most popular toys over the past 100 years. In scrolling through the list, I was amazed at the longevity of some of the items.
In the first part of the century kids didn’t have much to play with but they did have Lionel Train sets, teddy bears and Crayola Crayons. According to the article, the average kid spends 28 minutes a day coloring and wears down 730 crayons a year. That amounts to 2.5 billion colored wax sticks every year.
The next few years saw the start of the Lincoln Log, Tinkertoy and erector set craze, to be followed in a few decades by my favorite…Legos.
I would spend hours creating strange vehicles and buildings with the colorful plastic building blocks. My friend and I could spend an entire day putting things together and never actually playing with them. It saddens me that you really can’t get a basic building set today. Most Legos come pre-packaged in sets that don’t leave much room for imagination.
In the 70’s, my particular toy heyday, the Rubik’s Cube was listed as the most popular toy.
I loved this thing. I still own two of them. One is collecting dust because I am so close to solving it, I am afraid to touch it. I bought a second one a few years ago so I could work on it without disturbing the first one.
There are more than 43,000,000,000,000,000,000 combinations on that infernal cube, and I think I have seen all but one.
Other toys that made their debut in the age of Disco include Nerf Balls, Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars Action Figures, all of which are still around today.
Cabbage Patch Kids dominated the 80’s and I still don’t understand why. I remember news stories of fights starting over the last few dolls on the shelves back then. It’s nice to see how far we have progressed *wink*.
My favorite toys of that decade are on the list as well. The 80’s saw the debt of Trivial Pursuit and the Super Soaker (no more cheap squirt guns and empty Windex bottles for me!)
So this Christmas, as you are shopping for a gift for a child in your life, do them a favor and pass up the expensive video games and trendy toys and look for a classic toy. They might grumble a bit, but I bet they get a lot of use out of it when you’re not looking.
Watching paint dry
As any scientist will tell you, the quality of an experiment is only improved with the addition of lots of data. You can’t make an accurate prediction with only one point of data, so the more information you can gather – the better.
For most experiments, this requires spending a lot of time.
I found one this week that set a world record for being the longest continuously run experiment ever.
The University of Queensland has had one running since 1927.
Now, I have held some long-scale experiments of my own over the years. I once tried to see how long I could stand the smell of my locker after leaving my unwashed gym clothes in it for an entire school year. I don’t know how that ended, because the health department snuck in one night and burned the contents of my locker due to the health risk.
And there was the time my college roommate and I tested each other to see who would be the first to break down and wash the dishes. That ended in a draw after a month when we couldn’t stand watching the fungus grow anymore so we just threw everything out and started fresh.
My longest has been to see how long I can keep a T-shirt alive in my rotation of clothing. I have one dating back to my high school days, nearly mumble mumble cough years ago.
It still holds up after all these years and countless washings, just a little threadbare and it only has a few more holes today than when I first got it.
But the Australians have those grand tests topped.
The experiment is a relatively simple one. There is a funnel filled with pitch suspended over a beaker. The thick fluid, used as waterproofing, has been making its way down the tube for almost 90 years.
In that span, only eight drops have fallen, but no one has managed to see any of them fall.
The last to fall was in 2000, a mere 12 years from the previous drop, so one may be due at any time.
It isn’t a true experiment in the strictest sense of the word. The professor who started it was just curious to see how the seemingly solid-like substance would act. He heated a small amount of pitch, poured it into the beaker, and allowed it to cool for three years before opening up the hole at the bottom.
Plus, the conditions have not remained constant – a major no-no in any experiment. Room temperatures have fluctuated over the years, and air conditioning was installed in the room in 1988, but the fluid continues to flow.
Changing variables disrupt any true experiment, but, in this case – who cares?
If you are very bored, and want to possibly be the first human to see a small blob of black goo drip out of a tube, you can view a live webcam of the experiment at http://smp.uq.edu.au/content/pitch-drop-experiment.
It beats watching paint dry.
Let’s get physical
I read an interesting article this week describing the world of physics and the role computers play in the science.
As technology continues to advance, and computers become faster and “smarter,” their roles in other scientific fields are becoming more and more prevalent.
But, the study determined that even the most powerful super computer in the world would have trouble keeping up with the complicated equations and ever-changing parameters of a system.
It went on to say that physics is one field where humans have to struggle through a lot of the computations, instead of programming a machine to digest figures and regurgitate an answer.
In conclusion, physics is hard, it stated.
You didn’t have to tell me.
Not many people know this, but when I first went to college, I was a physics major.
I really loved my high school physics class. I had an interesting teacher, and thoroughly enjoyed using what I learned to figure out how things happened.
We would sit and ponder what would happen when a certain force was applied to an object – like placing a ball on a turntable. We were asked to figure out what would happen to the ball when the turntable was switched on: which direction would it travel? How fast? And simply – why?
I thought it was great. So I decided to call it my major, and even received a science scholarship to help pay my way.
I don’t really know what I expected; I blame my guidance counselor for not telling me that there was more to the field than just sitting around in a white lab coat and thinking about stuff.
When I first stepped into the physics class in college, I was just one of 200 students in a large auditorium – a totally strange experience for someone who was used to a classroom of about 20 students.
And I quickly learned that there is more than just theory in physics – there is a lot of complicated math as well. Not only did I have to explain how the ball moved off the turntable – I had to prove it with equations, describing its speed, the angle it traveled, and how much force was exerted on it.
Now I have always been good at math as well, but as a college freshman, taking calculus and physics at the same time, I quickly found myself over my head. It was too much for an 18-year-old kid to handle.
I toughed out the two semesters to make full use of my scholarship, but once that was over I changed majors and got out of that field.
I still enjoy trying to theorize about things around me. I sometimes finding myself staring out the window and watching a leaf blow across the yard and trying to predict where it will travel based on the shape and speed of the wind.
I can still make a pretty good guess, but don’t ask me to write you an equation to prove it.
After all, physics is hard.
For the past few years advertisers have gone beyond the simple jingle or catchphrase to link their products with their target audiences.
Today it seems to be easier to use an existing popular song or musical artist to shill the products than to come up with an original concept.
Instead of “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” or “away goes troubles down the drain,” we now hear “like a rock,” “Start me up,” and even “singing in the rain” over images of everything from automobiles to vacuum cleaners.
I can remember the first time this trend became popular among advertisers.
The Reebok shoe negotiated the right to use the Beatle’s “Revolution” in their ad campaign.
Shortly after you began to see Michael Jackson singing about Pepsi, Alan Jackson crooning about pickup trucks and Madonna was doing just about anything.
What got me thinking about all this is a recent ad I saw. It was for digital photography and featured a song that was hauntingly familiar. I just couldn’t place what the song was or who did it, so it prompted me to do some research.
Unfortunately for the company, I wasn’t interested in their product, but they did at least get me to visit their website. They can now justify their expense for the ad by claiming web hits.
The trend even works in reverse.
Remember that annoying Volkswagen ad? The one that went “Da da da da?” Sure you do. It was played eight times an hour for an entire summer.
The song came from an obscure German pop group that went under the name of Trio. The band was no longer in existence when the commercial became popular. But the public’s reaction was so strong the band actually reformed and released a greatest hits compilation.
But it was too late. The band was horrible, and the song in its full version was painful to listen to.
Another VW add featured a beautiful song entitled “Pink Moon.” This song belonged to a folksy singer-songwriter from the 60’s and 70’s. The commercial featuring the song became so popular, it renewed an interest in the artist’s work. Sadly, Drake died in 1974, but that didn’t stop his old albums from being re-released and selling like hot cakes.
But that one song changed the way musicians viewed their works. No longer were they sacrosanct- now they were fodder to make extra money.
Soon artists started writing songs that could be cross-merchandised. Their agents would actively seek out potential customers to buy the rights to the song.
Before long nothing was sacred. The Beatles, Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith – they all had songs linked to some worthless piece of junk.
But what does this mean to all the jingle writers who used to make their living coming up with novel concepts and catchy tunes to sell their customers goods?
Forget about outsourcing telemarketing and customer support jobs overseas. This is the beginning of the end for an entire industry – and possibly the downfall of original music as we know it today.
OK, in my humble opinion, there has been a dearth of unoriginal music since the late 90’s. Since Hansen, the Spice Girls and N’SYNC arrived on the scene – the music has taken a terrible fall.
But that is a topic for another day.