Nov 162009

Last June I posted a video to YouTube showing how to use carbon fiber to create “ball lightning” or plasma in the microwave oven. I fully recognize this is an esoteric thing, and as with most esoteric things there is some sort of convoluted history that leads up to it. As they say about movies and video games these days, there is a “backstory”.

When I was growing up, my mother was quite fascinated with UFOs, Bigfoot, and ESP. We would often have issues of Fate magazine around the house, books on UFOs, and I think at least one of Charles Fort’s books.

Sometime when I was in high school, I encountered one of the first skeptical books I ever read. This was famed UFO skeptic Philip Klass’ first book on the subject: UFOs-Identified.

Klass Book

It was interesting not only because it exposed me to the process of critical thinking, but also because I’d never heard of something so exotic as “ball lightning” before. As I understand it, as time went on Klass placed less and less emphasis on ball lightning as a prosaic explanation for UFO sightings. But I never followed the UFO subculture very much; I was always more fascinated with Bigfoot. But the concept of ball lightning always stuck with me, and eventually led to my own experiments and discovery that carbon fiber makes an excellent material with which to initiate a plasma.

By a strange twist of fate, later in life I actually met Philip Klass! Back when I was a sideshow performer, I would often room with Tim Cridland, AKA Zamora the Torture King. I was always impressed at his extensive contacts with people doing and investigating all sorts of odd and esoteric things. Remember, this was 1992 and 1993, before the World Wide Web, which made Tim something of a master of the old school technique of writing letters and doing research by “snail mail”.

And so it was that the sideshow was performing in Washington D.C. Tim rather casually tells me he is going to go interview Philip Klass. I’m impressed! I grovel and genuflect and ask if I can tag along. Everything seems casual, so indeed I’m allowed to come along. We arrive at Klass’ rather modest brownstone and are let inside. Tim was doing an interview for his fanzine called Off the Deep End. I took photographs, but sadly they didn’t come out. I seem to remember requesting that Philip pose with my Leatherman tool!

Soon it came time for Klass to walk his dog. Tim and I join him. Frankly I don’t remember much of the entire event, but I do remember the following two situations. One was Philip pointing at an airplane that was taking off from a nearby airport, which I believe was Ronald Reagan Washington National. Klass made the point that aircraft are the shape they are for a good reason; disk shaped aircraft are intrinsically unstable in flight. The classic disk shaped UFO is not aerodynamic.

The second event was genuinely memorable. Philip Klass was the first human I ever witnessed who picked up his dog’s “solids” with a plastic bag over his hand, everted the bag, then discarded it in the trash. I was simultaneously fascinated, repulsed, intrigued, and “weirded out”. Growing up as I did in Montana in the 60’s and 70’s meant stepping in dog feces all the time. It was a real bummer if you happened to be wearing shoes with a tread pattern which required an improvised tool, usually a stick, with which to pick out the offending matter. When I was a kid, no one ever picked up after their dogs. Consequently, I believed that life inevitably entailed stepping in dog shit from time to time, much like how life entails catching colds from time to time. We used to let our dog Lancer run free just like many people did back then. When Lancer was younger he would occasionally drag home a large bone or chunk of animal carcass during the fall hunting season. He must have grabbed them from dumpsters or hunter’s garages. We euphemistically called them “trophies”.

Sometimes when things change you simply don’t notice the change. When I moved to Seattle in 1987, I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t stepping in dog shit anymore. Nowadays there are laws enacted whereby dog owners must pick up after their dogs. I remember a time back in the 1980’s where there was a little broom and dust pan combination called a “Pooper Scooper”. I would see them advertised, but I never saw anyone actually use one. It surely would have been weird and inconvenient to carry a “Pooper Scooper” around with you when you walked your dog. Now everyone seems to use the everted plastic bag.

I have to wonder if this progressive social behavior is not tied directly or indirectly to the proliferation of polyethylene shopping bags. If my memory serves me, the whole “paper or plastic” thing became popular in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

I’ll bet that if plastic bags didn’t become so popular that we would all be stepping in dog shit on a regular basis.

Again, one more reason to venerate plastic! Hail polyethylene!

 Posted by on 11/16/2009 Personal History

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