Monday, March 25, 2013

The Theoretical Minimum

Kevin Coolidge

Good news--creating microscopic black holes using a particle accelerator requires even less energy than previously thought. With my very own atom smasher, I could create wormholes*, prove the existence of extra dimensions, travel through time and space and explore the multiverse**. I’ve done the math, and according to my calculations these mini black holes would probably be too small to consume any significant amount of matter—New Jersey, plus a Philly suburb or two, tops.

The problem is that I haven’t really used trigonometry since high school. Although that’s not completely true. I did just use it in a sentence, but it’s been sum time. Basically, building a cyclotron*** is a little more difficult than I thought. It does make me wish I had taken physics instead of basket weaving, but there’s still time. I just picked up a copy of The Theoretical Minimum by Leonard Susskind and George Hrabovsky.

I’m not the only one who wants to gaze upon the universe naked. As it happens, lots of people once wanted to study physics, but life got in the way. Most universities don’t allow insane villains or even responsible outsiders into classes, and for most grownups being a full-time student is not a realistic option.

This bothered George Hrabovsky. He felt there ought to be a way for people to develop their interests by interacting with active scientists, and that’s when he found out about Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. This program offers courses for people in the local nonacademic community. He thought it’d be fun to teach a course on modern physics.

Though he did enjoy it, he found that the students were not completely satisfied with a layperson’s knowledge of physics. Several had a bit of background—a little physics, rusty calculus, and experience with solving technical problems. They wanted to learn the real thing—with equations.

The result was a series of courses intended to teach students modern physics and cosmology. He did this by using the theoretical minimum, which he defines as just what you need in order to proceed to the next level. It’s not fat textbooks, but thin books that explain everything important. If you are determined to learn physics for real. The authors get directly to the important points that you are going to need to study more advanced topics. Now let’s begin with classical mechanics…

*in theory, a wormhole is a feature of spacetime that could act as a shortcut between two distant places, much like a bridge. It’d really cut down on commute time. If it didn’t eat the planet first.
**Our universe may not be the only one out there. In fact, it could be just one of an infinite number making up a “multiverse” Imagine, somewhere out there is a timeline in which the dominant mammals are otters…
***A type of particle accelerator in which charged particles accelerate outward from the center along a spiral path, theoretically cramming enough energy together at high velocity to generate a black hole and help me open the door to the multiverse.

Unfortunately, particle accelerators are also rather expensive. Please help a budding mad scientist by sending your contribution to the “Evil League of Evil,” attention Dr. Faustus. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope and I’ll send you a limited edition, foil card featuring me, with my sidekick Hobo, the crazy lab cat…

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Ten Commandments of …Comedy

Kevin Coolidge

Remember when fast food used to be fast? It’d be a whole lot faster if the cashier wouldn’t inspect my $20 so freakin’ hard. If I were talented enough to make my own money, I wouldn’t be eating here….

Surprise is so essential to comedy that if there isn’t a twist or surprise, it isn’t funny. Timing is important. You want to give the audience time to start thinking of a punch line. Drop it too soon, and they won’t be there. Drop it too late, and they’ll be gone. Pull it at the right time—surprise!

There are several techniques for generating this surprise. One device is misdirection. Lead them in one direction and then suddenly flip.

Take my wife…please

This classic one-liner at first leads the audience to believe that the comic is saying “Let’s use my wife as an example.” Then with the final word, he lets his listeners know that he is pleading for someone to actually take his wife.

Shock is another technique for creating surprise. Insults or gross language fall into this category. Some comics use obscenities because listeners are surprised, and it can get laughs, but you need to think of the commandment: “Remember the Audience.”

Every humorist needs an audience. Humor requires laughter. The audience must appreciate the humor. A funny joke is not funny if the audience doesn’t agree. Part of being a good humorist is to give them what they want to hear.

It doesn’t mean pandering to an audience. You shouldn’t change your standards to cater to an audience’s philosophy, but you want to avoid offending by excluding material that isn’t going to get any laughs.

Remember your job as a comic is to get laughs. If your material isn’t producing any, then maybe you need to learn more about your audience. You can gear material to a particular audience when working in a specific locale. Knowing what the people of the town or city are concerned with at the time can boost audience response.

There are fundamentals that control the effectiveness of comedy. Gene Perret has chosen to call them The Ten Commandments of Comedy. It’s gimmicky, but it gets your attention. You can ignore the threat from above and risk Armageddon, or you can read this book, analyze your material, and reap you reward.

Rules, regulations—you may disagree with them. They don’t apply to you, but humor is serious business. You can’t make a career as a comedy writer, performer, or a public speaker just because your friends think you’re funny.

Anything that works does so because it follows principles that make it work and comedy is no different. Comedy is a creative art, but it helps if you know the precepts that govern humor. You can add variation, creativity, and depth to your routine. Break those rules and you can keep your day job; follow Gene’s advice and you can always leave ‘em laughing…

Laugh last? Or laugh best? Email me at and let me know. Miss a past column? Get your stitches on at Need some comedy relief? Cat like grace is for the dogs. Come see Hobo, the cat comedian—specializing in pratfalls, sword swallowing, and chain saw juggling…

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Wolf Takes the Stand

Kevin Coolidge

“Your Honor, I’d like to call Canis lupus to the stand.”

“Oh, that’s me,” said the Big Bad Wolf, loping past the court reporter. “That’s my Latin name. Just call me Wolf. Everybody does.”

“Mr. Wolf. You stand accused of the murder of Grandma, and the violation of Red Riding Hood. How do you plead?”

“I’d like to state for the record that I am not guilty.”

“Mr. Wolf, it is widely known that you are a killer.”

“I’m a apex predator, the very top of my trophic level. That refers to my position in the food chain.

“So, you are not a herbivore, Mr. Wolf?”

“No, I don’t eat plants. I’m a meat eater, a carnivore.”

“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, as I stated, the wolf is designed to kill. I refer to exhibit A, the canine teeth--sharp and pointed; adapted to puncturing, slashing, and clinging. The teeth even “interlock” to grip and hang on to struggling prey. Also, Exhibit B, the back teeth, or carnassial molars, are designed to crush bones and shear meat.”

“It may sound violent,” yelped Wolf, “but I’m actually pretty docile and have an aversion to fighting. Predation is not an act of violence. It is the act of obtaining food for survival. I did state for the record that I eat meat. I prefer moose or caribou, but without a pack, these large game animals are too difficult.”

“I’ll also eat mice, rabbits, hare, squirrels, and chipmunks. I do prey on the weak, sick and young---which keeps herds healthy and strong. You humans, on the other hand, kill indiscriminately, often taking bucks and breeding females.”

“Humanity is not on trial here,” snarls the attorney. “Are there not cases of wolves killing humans?”

“No documented cases. My cousin the Gray Wolf did do time for an aggravated assault, and he wasn’t himself. He was a sick wolf. He had rabies.”

“Ha, so you admit that wolves will attack people!”

“He was cornered. Biting the hand of a shepherd is not mutton one. I mean, murder one.”

“So, wolves do kill livestock!”

“Wolves have been known to kill sheep or cattle. We can go days without eating, but we need meat. It’s not usually a pack, but one or two wolves. We have a bad rap sheet. Even though livestock are more often killed by feral dogs, we get framed for the carcass if a canine print is found nearby. You humans stink of death, but you can’t smell to save your life.”

“Where were you on the night that Grandma was brutally murdered?” howls the lawyer.

“I was traveling with my pack. Our territories can be hundreds of square miles. I wasn’t anywhere near there.”

“I suppose you have an alibi?” growls the lawyer.

“I was with my mate and pack. There are seven of us. Actually if the pack is too large, it is less efficient and there is less food per wolf.”

“It’s mankind that is harassing my kind. Pushing us into remote areas. Killing, blaming and pressuring--I’d like to submit a document in my defense. It is titled Of Wolves and Men written by Barry Holstun Lopez. It’s a wealth of observation, as well as mythology and mysticism, that surrounds our lives and shows an effort to understand the trials wolves have faced.”

“Someone must pay for this slaughter!” yowls the prosecutor, as he wildly gestures to the court room. “Are not wolves associated with danger and destruction? Does death not follow in his wake?!”

“Is it just me or is it hot in here?” the prosecutor then exclaims, ripping open his shirt, exposing a heaving chest dark with coarse hair. “Your Honor, I respectively request a recess so that I may devour the jury…”

The strength of the wolf is the pack? Or the strength of the pack is the wolf? Email me at and give me your verdict. Ravenous for past columns? Follow my lead and go to http://frommyshelf,blogspot,com Hobo is actually a wolf in cat’s clothing. Stop by and I’ll show you his zipper…

Monday, March 4, 2013

Grow Your Own Drugs

Kevin Coolidge

I’m hot, achy, and my head hurts—I’m not sure if it’s a cold, flu, or that those leftovers in the back of the fridge. I do know I need drugs. Lots of drugs. Drugs that I wished I could grow myself, because it’s not like I can go into a drugstore and have someone give them to me for free.

It’s a been a long winter and a tough flu season, but spring is coming. Now is a great time to prepare to grow the drugs I need myself. This is why I chose to read Grow Your Own Drugs by James Wong. It’s a provocative title, but it’s a guide to growing home remedies—legitimate remedies for a variety of ailments, ranging from sore throats, cold sores and hot flashes to hangovers, immune boosters, and beauty products.

James Wong is a trained ethnobotanist* He sees plants as more than a frivolous decoration, but rather as a living pharmacy. Traditional plant-based remedies have provided modern medicine with many of its most important drugs.

In the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in using herbs to treat common ailments. Plant based remedies can be cheaper and less harmful than pharmaceutical drugs. This book can be a guide to help you get the most out of plants and their various properties.

It starts off explaining how to grow and harvest suitable plants in your backyard and then make them into simple, effective remedies to treat common ailments. There are over sixty recipes for teas, creams, lotions, balms, and cough syrups—all pretty easy and inexpensive.

In the second half of this book, the author gives us a wealth of information on the top 100 medicinal plants offering first-class horticultural information as well distilling the knowledge of herbal practitioners with the latest scientific findings to bring us practical and reliable information.

Most of these plants can be grown in your backyard, or windowsill, but he’s included a few exotic plants, because of their effectiveness. You might not be able to grow these yourself, but he includes where you can find these dried or in extracts.

Some home remedies can give over-the-counter medicines solid competition, but it’s important to be safe and not medicate or diagnose without seeking medical advice. This is especially important of you have an existing medical condition.

It’s always a good idea to check with a professional. It’s just as important to make sure you have identified a species correctly if you are harvesting the plants yourself. Certain plants can be quite poisonous and deadly.

Modern medicine is effective for serious conditions, but plant-based remedies can give us gentle ways to manage everyday ailments and take charge of our health and get in touch with nature. After reading this book, you’ll never look at your backyard the same way again...

*Ethnobotany: A branch of botany that studies the lore and uses of plants in folklore, religion, and healing customs of a people

Feed a fever? Or Starve a cold? Email me and let me know. Miss a column? Catch up on your sick days at and feel better. Be sure to catch Hobo’s new book on home remedies, coming soon. He prefers chicken to fish. So you know there’s going to be some great chicken soup recipes…